Harry hated flying. He always travelled across continental Europe by train just to avoid flying. He looked around the waiting lounge in Rome's central rail station. It was busier than he expected. He'd never known a sleeper service this busy. The conductor called for holders of first-class ticket with priority boarding on the overnight service to Paris. Harry stood and walked over to him, dragging his luggage trolley in his wake, and handed over his ticket.
"Busy service tonight," he said in confident Italian.
"Sì, signore. The airport in Paris is closed. We have taken many last minute bookings."
"Then I'm glad I booked in advance. I'd hate sharing with a stranger."
"Sì, signore." The porter handed back the ticket and signalled someone to show Harry to his compartment and carry his bags.
The cabin was like every other first class sleeper cabin he'd travelled in. Two bunk beds folded into one wall. Against the opposite wall were two chairs with a cabinet between them that the mini-bar. Harry watched the porter haul his bags into the luggage rack, then handed him a ten-Euro note and closed the door. He sat in the chair closest to the window and stared out over the platform. It was still crowded. Most of the passengers would be sharing cabins with up to five others. Once more Harry was thankful for having booked his ticket weeks ago.
He'd been at the company's Rome office for three years. Under his stewardship, the office had seen significant growth. The bigwigs in London called him their "steady hand". When they offered him the position in Paris, they'd made it clear that, while he was free to turn the job down, he'd have to find work in another company if he did. He was good, but replaceable. The operation in Paris was bigger than in Rome, but he'd only be second in command, not the boss. Was it a step down? He couldn't make up his mind. At least his pay hadn't fallen—quite the opposite, in fact.
He looked at his watch. It was just after six. The train was due to leave at six-thirty, but Harry suspected they'd be late. He really should do some work—he had some reading to do before he took up his new position. He could probably get it all done before dinner, after which he'd turn in for the night. The train was due to arrive in Paris at nine the next morning and he'd be expected at the office by the afternoon. His laptop bag was on the luggage rack. He stood to retrieve it when there was a knock at the door.
"Yes?" Harry wasn't happy with an interruption before they'd even set off.
A senior conductor pushed the door open and entered the cabin. When he spoke in heavily accented English instead of Italian, Harry knew it couldn't be good news. "I'm a-sorry, signore."
"Sorry for what, exactly?"
"It's-a like this, signore. The people who sell-a the tickets, they did-a not realise that you-a specifically requested a cabin to your a-self and..."
"Don't even think it, let alone say it. I've paid good money for this cabin. Top whack! If you're planning to lump someone else in here, you can think again. Find him another cabin!"
"I'm a-sorry, signore. There is-a no other cabin. I shall-a see to it that you are-a compensated by our people in Paris."
Harry grunted. Money wasn't the issue. After all, the company was paying. It was the principle. He'd booked early to ensure a cabin to himself so that he could work. That would be impossible with a stranger in the cabin. He'd be writing to the train company as soon as he was behind his desk. He watched in dismay as the conductor stepped from the cabin and a young porter hauled his new travelling companion's luggage into the rack. As soon as his work was done, the porter ran from the room so fast that Harry was sure the boy must be terrified of his reaction. Harry shrugged and turned to face the window. He stared at the platform once more. It appeared to be clear apart from the well-wishers there to wave their friends goodbye.
"Oh, mon Dieu. Un homme. Ce n'est pas vrai." The voice was female. Soft and sensual, it had a rich, warm, chocolaty tone.
Harry turned to view his companion. She was every bit as beautiful as her voice had promised. She had a distinctly Parisian look—elegant and effortlessly chic despite her expression of extreme annoyance. Her nose was wrinkled and her eyes half-closed. She looked as if she'd just stepped in something nasty.
"Monsieur, you are Anglais, non? I 'eard ze conductor speaking anglais." She sounded like every stereotypical Frenchwoman Harry had ever heard. The accent was so strong it sounded fake—or at the very least, exaggerated.
He stepped forward and offered his hand. "Harry Whitehead. Pleasure."
She quickly shook his hand with undisguised disdain. "C'est dégueulasse, non? I am expecting to be sharing with une femme, pas un homme."
"I'm sure there has been a mistake," said Harry. "I'll call the conductor back."
"Don't bother." She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. Her whole demeanour softened. She sounded almost sad—as if the whole world's problems were encapsulated in her predicament. "'E said that this was ze only cabin with any place. It looks like we are going to be putting up with each other?"
She pulled her hair free of the clip that held it place, and loose blonde curls cascaded down over her left shoulder. She loosened them further with her fingers and shook her head. Harry stared. He'd never quite taken to Italian women—there was something about their manner and their awareness of their own beauty that put him off. But here was a woman as good-looking as any he'd encountered in Rome, and she was happy to let her guard down in front of a complete stranger. If she was indicative of the French, Harry suspected he'd be having a much happier time in Paris. She collapsed into the closest seat and eased off her shoes. "Ahhhh, c'est du bien. J'ai mal à mes pieds parce que les chaussures sont merde."
Harry sat back in the window seat. The train jerked into life and slowly pulled away from the platform. The Frenchwoman closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the seat. Harry thought she might be falling asleep. Perhaps he could get some work done after all. Just as he was about to stand and retrieve his laptop, the woman opened her eyes and turned her head slightly to address him. "You said you were named 'Arry, non?"
"That's right. Harry Whitehead."
"Blanc tête," she said absently-mindedly. She giggled. "Well, 'Arry. We 'ave a long journey. We should get to know each other a little bit, non? I cannot believe I 'ave to take ze train. Ze airport workers are cons, non? C'est typique de cons."
"I'm sorry," said Harry. "What's typical?"
"Ze airport workers! They are striking, non? That is why we are 'aving to take ze train. They are saying that one of them is putting ze bags on ze wrong aeroplane, and when ze airport try to ... er ... bag 'im?" She looked at Harry for confirmation.
"You mean 'sack him'?"
"Oui. C'est ça. Sack 'im. They are trying to sack him, and all the people in 'is club are stopping work too."
"You know. 'Is club of workers."
"Oh. You mean his union?"
"Oui. Oui. C'est ça." She sighed once more. "'Arry, I would like a drink. Would you like one?"
"I may as well. I'll pop to the dining car and get it. What would you like ... Erm ... I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"Oh, mon Dieu. Je suis désolé. This is so rude of me. My name is Céline. Céline de Montagne."
"Pleased to meet you, Céline. Now, what can I get you?"
Harry fetched drinks and retook his seat by the window. Céline sipped her dry white wine, stretched out her legs and relaxed into the chair. Harry savoured his cold beer. The ice between them was broken and he felt surprisingly comfortable in the company of a woman he'd known for less than half an hour.
She rolled her head to the side to look at him. "So, 'Arry. Tell me about yourself."
"Tell you... ?"
"Oui. It is what, quinze heures à Paris? I cannot be sitting in silence for this many hours. So tell me about yourself."
"There's not much to tell really. I'm thirty-eight, never married—"
"Why not? You are good-looking, non? Are all Englishwomen blind?"
Harry was flattered that she though him good-looking. "Actually, I've travelled around a lot. The company I work for has offices across the globe, and I've worked in most of them. I've been in Rome for the past three years."
"This is a shame, non? Perhaps one day you will be meeting someone and choosing to stay in one place?"
"I think they'll have to be prepared to move with me."
"Then you may always be alone."
"Not alone. I've had my share of girlfriends." He leaned across the cabinet. "There's this American girl called Ruth. She was working for me in the Rome office. I swear..." He sucked in a breath through his teeth and shook his head.
"I shouldn't. It wouldn't be very discreet."
"Ah, oui, discrétion. But will I ever be meeting this American woman? Je ne sais pas, but I am thinking 'Non'. There is no need for discrétion. Tell me."
"I don't think so."
"Ah, tant pis. So, what is taking you to Paris?"
"I'm starting a new job."
.... There is more of this story ...