A bike and a car travelling together have the worst of both worlds: the car's inability to get past slow-moving traffic and the motorcyclist's frequent need to stop and have a stretch. We're sticking to the motorways to make good time; the others were hoping for a more enjoyable route and leisurely lunch, but the fact that we keep running into them at service stations suggests they're struggling to get the miles under their belts too.
The journey is also interrupted by increasingly urgent calls to the breakdown service, as hire companies don't like their cars to cross the Channel and Howard still doesn't know how he's going to get home from Portsmouth.
We take the nightmare périphérique round Paris, where cars change lanes by brute force and bikes zip through the gaps at hairy speeds with their hazard lights flashing. Then we spend a while circling the port at Ouistreham, aiming to hit the Gare Maritime without either accidentally boarding a ferry or getting spat back out onto the one-way system.
There's no sign of a hire car terminal, so I dash in and make an inquiry at the Information desk. Hire car terminal is at a nearby hotel, not signposted or in any way marked with the Europcar logo. The car is returned, with no questions asked about the large dent made in the back bumper by a German motorcyclist, and while I join the queue for the ferry Howard boards as a foot passenger with the bike's luggage piled on a trolley.
I'm waved to the front of the queue, ride carefully up and down the metal ramp and park between two iron pillars on level C. I love the paint-and-oil smell of the rumbling car deck - I'm sorry the holiday's over, but excited to be going home.
The first person I meet on the ferry is Roy, reserving a cluster of seats for us. I find the foot passenger entrance and soon spot Howard struggling up the gangplank with his trolley. A kind steward helps us stow everything in the luggage room; it turns out he's a biker.
Everyone is thoroughly flaked out and we flop in our chairs for most of the voyage, toying with crosswords and watching the sea go by. It's my favourite time of day to make a ferry crossing; starting in the late afternoon when it's still warm enough to stand on deck watching France recede at the end of the broad white wake, seeing the sun set over the water, then arriving in the dark to welcoming harbour lights.
After passport control I ride round to the terminal building, where Howard is still attempting to contact someone with a clue. The UK number he's been told to ring on arrival doesn't work, so he has to phone back to the call centre in France. France denies all knowledge, demands we ring Switzerland and get them to fax France the details, offers transport by breakdown lorry to collect a car from Stockport, and finally concedes a taxi to a hire firm in the city centre. By this time the terminal is deserted except for a sympathetic cleaner and a dutiful night manager who considers our safe onward journey to be his personal responsibility. More than an hour after disembarking, I see Howard into his taxi and set off for home.
I arrive shortly after two in the morning and get up six hours later to go to work. But it's been a fantastic fortnight.
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