I boarded the Calais/marseille overnight sleeper, walked the corridor checking on berth numbers and found mine. Inside were two bunks and sitting on the lower, a little old lady.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, “I’ve taken the bottom one.” She didn’t look like an expert ladder climber. “Not to worry. That’s fine.”
As she turned her head, I saw that she had severe bruising to the face. “Been in a fight, luv?,” I asked. She laughed. “No. Recent holiday in New Zealand, coach trip, driver suddenly braked. I was in the front seat and tipped over the rail. Broken cheek bone.”
There was nowhere else to sit so I joined her on the bunk. We began chatting and in spite of the difference in our ages bonded instantly. Ruth was on her way to visit a friend in Menton, a town near the Italian border. She learned that I was Ronnie, my destination Corsica and a wild camping trek across the maquis.
Over the miles the train gradually picked up to full speed and Abbeville station was a mere blur as we raced through. At that point she suddenly said: “They almost caught us here”. “Who?” “The Germans. They would have shot us.” “The war?” “We were a Jewish family, born and living in Belgium. After the Nazi invasion we were running for our lives.” “Obviously you made it.” “As far as East London. We’ve lived there ever since.”
Silence for a while as I considered all this. Then she said: “Can I show you something?” She reached down, took an object from her bag and handed it to me. “It’s a camera. My son works for Kodak. Before I went to New Zealand he gave it to me. Asked me to try it out. See what I thought.”
I examined what I had been given. “Looks different.” “Yes, apparently it’s something completely new.”
And indeed it was. I was holding in my hands the world’s very first digital camera, a moment in history, and I missed it completely. I was like a monkey looking at a spaceship, not a clue, with full understanding coming much much later.
(In the end, Kodak hesitated far too long, worried about their roll film sales, and were beaten into the market place by the Japanese – the first digital single-lens reflex camera was a Nikon. And Kodak went into financial crisis.)
After that we talked a little more, finally falling into bed, sleep coming quickly. We said our goodbyes at Marseille’s St-charles station, Ruth to catch a local for Menton further along the coast, me to board Le Napoleon ferry to Ajaccio.
Just before we parted she handed me a small package. “What’s this?” “Tea bags. You won’t find those in Corsica.” Ronnie Mcgowan
The author of this month’s star letter WINS a bottle of Domaine La Gemière Sancerre blanc, 2015 (Amandaswines.co.uk)