As we hurtled our way towards the northern French seabord, I glanced left just as the autoroute climbed higher ground and suddenly revealed a beautiful red orb eaten into on its lower circumference by the silhouetted skyline of Rennes. The Eagles were filling the car with a live version of 'Tequila Sunrise' (not literally, of course - would be a bit cramped) and though it was the end of the day, not the beginning, the conjunction of image, mood and music was sublime.
We had left the house far too late, as usual (just trying to finish off those last jobs and close things up for the next few months), and endured a nail-bitingly slow journey up the western edge of France as everyone returned home, like us, from their holidays, cars stuffed to the gunnels with suitcases, pushchairs, surfboards, bodyboards, spare loo rolls and nappies: long queues at the peage, smoke drifting listlessly out of open windows. 25 degrees, blue skies, a few puffy clouds - a perfect day for basking on a beach - but here we all were, heading home on hot tarmac.
We finally cleared Paris traffic at Niort and were able to really put our foot down - and put our foot down we really had to do. We had three and a half hours until the end of ferry check-in time and about 350 miles to travel, with two cities, Nantes and Rennes, still to get round. You can do the maths. Forget pleasing notions of 'the last supper in France' - it was a hastily purchased ham and cheese sandwich for the second time that day, crisps and some mini saucisson (surprisingly good).
Still, this was an improvement on last year when we congratulated ourselves on reaching St Malo just in time for supper before tipping onto the ferry - only to discover, replete with good food and wine, at a completely vehicle-free check-in, that we were in the wrong port. Divorce was on the cards when we burst an expensive tyre at 1 o'clock in the morning on a ridiculous piece of high pavement jutting unexpectedly out into the middle of the road as we drove round in circles trying to find the hotel that we'd hastily had to book in Caen before trying to get a place on the first ferry out the next morning. N and I were screaming at eachother, the children were crying, my bladder was about to burst and in the end I had to relieve it, sobbing and exhausted, by the side of the road while N changed the tyre (which necessitated unpacking and re-packing the entire contents of a hugely loaded boot to access the spare). A costly supper indeed, and the car still bears the scars of the impact with a now permanently bent wheel rim which judders irritatingly around 70mph.
Meanwhile, the year before that, we got the time wrong of the ferry and had to book hotels and change ferry bookings in the car on the way up - so you can see, our record is not good. Even this year N thought we were returning home on the Sunday not the Saturday - at least I'd double-checked that one. I'm learning.
The sunset stayed on our western flank all the way up to the approaches to Caen, bleeding rouge into the darkening sky, and the Eagles stayed with us too. Unfortunately (though not entirely unpredictably), as they sang out 'Down a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair' our own dark highway was suddenly lit up by a blue flashing light which kindly accompanied us to a side road with a helpful message in glowing red lights saying 'Suivez-Moi'. As we finally pulled up in some back lane off the autoroute I grabbed the small green bottle residing in the drinks holder on the dashboard hissing 'God, hide the beer bottle!' An open window, 'Bonsoir Monsieur', and the happy knowledge that we had been clocked doing 183kmph ensued. N was naturally accused of being either drunk or on drugs but the breathalizer mercifully showed 0 (I'd shared the beer with N and he'd drunk half a litre of water too).
Feeling the situation rather desperately required a context, I chipped in helpfully with 'Non, non, Monsieur, it's just that we're in a hurry because we have to catch the ferry at 10.30' (voice pitch rising slightly to suggest urgency).
'Ah, ok' replied one of the officers, adding with surprising accommodation: 'Then I shall be as quick as I can!'
There followed the inevitable filling in of forms and a request for 90 euros. We only had 100 and they had no change, so they got a beer on us. Annoying, but possibly fair in the circumstances. We were advised that just 5kmph more and the driver's licence would have been removed. Good to know.
So we were cut free from the restraints of a 'fair cop' at 10pm which left us half an hour to get to the ferry. By now the warm red glow in the sky had turned to cool silvery-gold, as a waning full moon had taken over the choreography of the skies and was dramatically backlighting a large cumulo-nimbus cloud directly ahead of us. N was still fretting and I kept having to repeat, soothingly, 'Don't worry, we're going to make it' and (slightly less soothingly), 'But for God's sake stick to the limit!'
It was notable that we saw not one other British car on the approaches to Caen and on the way to the port at Ouisterham, presumably because they'd all got there in marvellously good time and had enjoyed a splendid 'last supper' at a leisurely and digestable pace.
We finally drew up to the ferry check-in at 10.20pm on the dot. Seven hours and 20 minutes of somewhat stressful driving from the bottom left-hand corner of France on one of the busiest travelling days of the year - and we get there right to the minute! This was particularly pleasing for me, the navigator, as it was the EXACT time that check-in began and validated all my original calculations as to the rather 'juste' nature of the task ahead of us - and N's endless questions about how many kilometres we had still to go, so he could work out what average speed had to be achieved on any given section of the journey. But that's the trouble with us Bodens - every minute really does count.
The icing on the cake, however, was when we drove onto the ferry and were directed onto the ramp. We were just catching our breath and sorting out the chaos within the car when one of the crew started banging on our window rather tetchily and asked us to 'Hurry up!' We had done nothing but 'hurry up' for the last seven and a half hours, for God's sake, and here we were being told to again! It seemed they needed to get the ramp pulled up presto so that they could get the rest of the cars loaded underneath. So with that, swearing mightily, I had to scramble about clutching and dropping passports, handbag, overnight bags, cabin tickets, coats, rubbish and all, and get the hell out of Dodge so they could pull the wretched ramp up. Absolument Typique.
With cabin eventually located (5 of us in a 4-bunker - joy), we were quick to deposit our stuff and scuttle out again in search of a well-needed drink. In fact we felt we had perhaps earned that good supper after all and were pleased to find the secluded 'Comptoir des Plaisirs' area, away from the hordes hanging out noisily at the bar and the canteen, where we shared gin and tonics and a bottle of Loire red and enjoyed a surprisingly good one-course meal with a plate of cheese and coffee to follow. The girls explored the ship a bit and then settled down to a game of cards nearby (they were taught a new game rather charmingly called 'shit-head' by friends early in the holiday and had become complete card sharks playing it at every opportunity whether that be on the beach, in the car, in their beds - and every time I saw them at it I imagined the green baize table-top, the yellow pool of light and the shiny green visors like a scene out of The Cincinnati Kid or something).
In due course, tired but replete, we took a brief stroll out onto the deck before heading to our quarters. The moon was leaving its own silver wake on the inky water below and in the distance colourful fireworks were exploding silently into the night sky. The holidays were over; we were on our way home.
PS: have tried in vain to publish a really boring video with this post. For the moment you have been spared, but if I ever crack it I will come back and torture you with it!