Click – click – click – ping… marked the short sharp micro-seconds between the thing working and the thing breaking. I held in my hands a small piece of snapped metal no bigger than a matchbox – just one of those little padlock keys everyone has in a drawer somewhere. They probably punch these things out a billion at a time inside huge and likely terrifying machines onto well greased conveyor belts before raining down into bottomless skips full of identically glinting little keys that all fit the same travel sized padlock. Looking at it in that moment, it really was a slight little thing. I bought it for the grand sum of two euros from the reception of the hostel in Frankfurt just this afternoon. Without a great deal of force being applied, it had twisted and snapped in the middle, leaving the thick end still between my finger and thumb while the naughty end remained decidedly in the choppers of the lock. The break was flush to the metal of its captor and there was no way the thing was wiggling or shaking out. It was just my luck that the lock, now stuck in its locked position, separated me from all the possessions, clothes and money that I’d been travelling with for the last three weeks, not to mention my passport and ticket home. That was, I remember thinking, until some typically ruggedly handsome member of the hostel staff joins the morning shift with short-dreads and a hacksaw and undoubtedly well versed in cutting free the odd failed lock.
I’d only been in Frankfurt a day. I’d swooped in for the night to meet up with a couple of friends and was due for take off again in the morning – early in the morning. I was going native and using the German ride-sharing scheme which had so far worked a treat for getting around cheaply and easily. My ride was booked in and due to leave from out front of the main station at 6.00 am and, as you’d expect for the region, sharply. I was going back to Aachen and finally homeward bound – as detailed meticulously on stapled paper now lying redundant inside a metal locker under my bunk bed.
It was 2.00 am when I shuffled into my hostel bedroom after a meander around a flea-market in the afternoon (I’ll live to regret not buying that Mallard telephone), and ending the night at a Paper Aeroplanes show. By torchlight I had padded into my dorm room – quiet as a mouse – where I kneeled low on the floor underneath the snores and murmurs of sleep in the small space. For ten minutes I stared at the shrapnel in my hand as the cogs crunched slowly and silently, formulating the next few moves. It was tempting to just climb up into my top bunk and forget about the whole thing. The hunk with the hacksaw would free the lock in the morning. I’d miss my connections but I’d get home eventually – though at a cost. This would certainly be the route of least embarrassment.
Well bugger that! I have a plan – an itinerary, I thought. And I thought of the afternoon I spent putting it together – down to the most appropriate typeface, copying spares and stapling in the top left. I needed to get moving. Should I just go and get help now? I didn’t know any of the people in the room and I knew I’d probably never even see them again. So it would wake them up and they’d each hold me for eternity in memory as the twit who locked her bag under her bunk – but they’d surely get over it? Who even cares what they think, I thought.
But wait. What’s longer than 85cm and won’t fit into the overhead space above a Eurostar train seat and forces its owner to rattle around in the luggage compartment of the train with the curious looks of those who pass through as well as a biting draught? Cool points scored for the cumbersome tool of my trade, my guitar – the longitudes and latitudes of which prevented it from fitting, and also, rather crucially, into the locker under my bunk.
I was wincing – hoping to the eyeballs that nobody stirred awake to see me do this, as I carefully flicked open the four catches on the case. Looking only out of the eye-corners in the already low light, I gently lifted up the neck of the instrument to feel about for the velour fabric encased square of ply which gates a storage pocket useful for keeping things (plectrums, capos, you name it). Left to right, and right to left, my fingers crabbed around until they found it. And there they stopped. Cold and hard and weighty in my grip – I curled my fingers around the ingot and promised to myself I’d never ever let go again. I love you… Swiss Army knife – you marvel – you wonderful thing – you Leo to my Kate – you jump – I jump… you, with all the tools necessary for a speedy string change, for trimming a rogue finger nail, for cutting up oranges in the park in the sun… and now for tweezing out a broken key and picking the mechanism of the world’s worst padlock.
Scratch – scratch – ping… the shard of metal flew out with a little Swiss persuasion. Click – Click – Click – clunk… we were in. Swiss Bliss – if only for a moment. I climbed up into my top bunk, face burning hot and with that acidic ‘what if’ feeling crawling all over me. What if I’d forgotten to pack that little red knife that had saved my bacon in the twilight of that heady little space? Or what if I’d deliberately left it at home – the thought had indeed crossed my mind that Customs officials might whip it away from me at the airport quicker than you can say ‘stupid bloody crap padlock’… Furthermore, what if I’d not got the deluxe model? Supposing I’d listened to my instincts that questioned whether I would ever have any great reason to need to sew any leather or pluck a barbie doll’s, or perhaps a mouse’s, eyebrows… the posh knife was a heavy bit of kit and some would say stupidly complicated – and how uncharacteristic it had been that I would have owned that one instead of its simpler, cheaper brother, with fewer tool and skin-saving options.
The facts remained however, that the overly swanky Swiss blade had in the end defeated the cheap padlock, and for all my budgeteering in booking the cheap hostel room in the heart of Frankfurt’s red-lit neighbourhood – no sleep was had whatsoever. The economy of touring is a curious thing… somebody get me a bloody croissant!
NB: I took this picture last November in Berlin… but I though it suited the story ;-)