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Donkin's World: A Game For Losers

Richard Donkin tells of HardJet, a frustrating, nerve-twanging travel game which tests stamina, resolve and determination to the limit.

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I remember playing a travel game called Go when I was younger. It made travelling seem so exciting as you collected your destination cards with pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower and Sugar Loaf Mountain.

But it really needs to be re-invented for modern travel. So, having perfected the rules, let me introduce you to HardJet, beta tested only this morning in the South of France. My flight details said EasyJet but this must have been a misprint. HardJet is designed to test your stamina, resolve and determination to the limit. It should be avoided by those with heart problems or a nervous disposition.

Today’s game began in Hyeres at 5 am when I rose early to catch a 6:17 am train for Nice, changing at Toulon. I had left nothing to chance. The train ticket was pre-booked and a taxi had been ordered for 5.50 am. “The station is just a kilometre away,” said the hotel receptionist the previous evening.

She is a thoughtful lady and brings me coffee, orange juice and a pan au chocolat (forward two spaces). At 5:50 I am beginning to pace about looking at my watch. “No problem, it’s just five minutes by car,” says the woman in French. Five minutes later she is calling the taxi company. “There isn’t going to be a taxi,” she says with that special shrug accompanied by the jutting lower lip that the French have made all their own for just these occasions. They get plenty of practice (miss a turn).

She gives me directions in French which I misunderstand. I begin sprinting in the wrong direction, my trolley bag in tow (back one space). A signpost saying La Gare points the other way. Reverse sprint, trolley bag in flight. I make the station with five minutes to spare. The counter is closed. There’s a sassy looking yellow machine with its computer screen positively challenging me to its own game of get-the-ticket-if-you-can but in French with all the rules loaded in its favour.

“All you need do is put your credit card in the slot and key in the booking number,” said the PR woman when she booked it. Why did I believe her? The EasyTicketmachine has yet to be invented and if it ever is, it sure as Hell isn’t going to happen in France, the land of complex instructions framed as retribution on the rest-of-the-world for refusing to be French.

The minutes are ticking by, the train is at the platform and the machine is mocking me. “Beat me if you can,” it's saying. I press a few boxes. "Computer says no," says the screen. I grab a random Frenchman by the arm. Up to that moment he thought he was boarding the train, with not a care in the world. But now he is embroiled in the game since he realises I am not about to loosen my grip easily.

We must beat this machine together. Yes he is French (an advantage) but he doesn't understand machine. In fact I think I understand it better but he remains my hostage. Cough up the ticket, or the French guy gets it,” I tell the machine. It won’t take my number but reluctantly recharges my credit card and, as the Frenchman weeps, the guard whistles, and all hope seems lost, it discharges a complicated ticket in pure Sanskrit.

"Batard," it hisses. "Up yours," I scowl. "Pleaeeeese," says the Frenchman. We board, the doors close, the sweat is soaking my shirt. I thank him. He curses me and we go our separate ways. I have to catch a 10.30 am flight to Nice and there is simply no slack in the schedule (PRs don’t do slack). Still, I feel as if I have advanced to Go and my heart rate drops from the purple zone (imminent seizure) to red (critical).

At Toulon, the information board says that my train is running 25 minutes late. Bad news (shake again). But the previous train is running 20 minutes late so I can catch the least late train and actually gain five minutes. “No you can’t, you booked on the other one.” says the lady in the SNCF uniform that I have consulted unwisely. Tip: never consult anyone in a uniform.

I extend my arms like wings. “I have to catch a flight,” I say. “You must speak to the guard,” she says. The train arrives. I board. Damn, they’re couchettes. The seats are all up at the front says the guard, better be quick. For the second time today I (Usain) bolt the 100 yards to the front carriage, collapsing in a seat with a broken recliner that seems to understand and feel sympathy for my nervous state. “There, there,” it says. “This is France. It’s always like this.” No-one checks the ticket as no-one in the French railway system has mastered Sanskrit. Why did I bother?

Amazingly I arrive in Nice ahead of schedule and shake two sixes to find an amenable taxi driver who tells me it will take just 20 minutes to reach the airport. We chat, he in his pigeon English, me in my pigeon French. By the time we reach the airport we are comfortably cooing away in plain pigeon, agreeing that we both like Italy but neither of us can speak the language.

There's one and a quarter hours before the flight but, because this is HardJet, the signs say we should get here two hours before we fly just in case we are not stressed enough. I join the pre-queue queue, which progresses disarmingly steadily until we reach the real queues. You can take your pick. An English family of three opt for tactical queuing as mum, dad and son occupy three separate queues. If everyone did this the queues would be out of the door. My queue looks satisfyingly short (forward a square), but I'm told after standing there five minutes that it has closed behind the people in front of me (back two).

The next queue is going nowhere and neither, it seems, are the rest. The baggage conveyor has broken down. Sometimes in any game you have to seize the moment. With no baggage to check I execute a slick passing move, slide up to the check-in desk and ask if I can be processed. No problem. The three queue strategy family are horrified. The mother looks as if her rabbit has just died and she can't sell its hutch. I lick my finger and stroke the air (forward six spaces).

Security isn't too bad. There is the usual long walk up and down an empty zig-zagging cordon (while the security staff watch us, belly-laughing behind two-way mirrors). I produce my lap top then the security man says: "What's that in your pocket?"

"Tic Tacs."

"In the tray."

Retrieving my suspicious Tic Tacs from the x-ray machine I feel a surge of triumph.

Little do they know that each triangular white mint contains a lethal exploding cocktail of chemicals. Fortunately I have never been forced to use one in anger.But I like to have them with me just in case.

The game is reaching its climax but there a are still one or two more throws of the dice and, this being HardJet, there are a some crucial tactical manoeuvres before gaining your seat.

There are no numbered seats but there is a pecking order. All the cheats have paid extra for A tickets (best people) and AS tickets (better people with children). The rest have B tickets apart from me who has the letters LCS on his ticket (last chance saloon). I jest. I'm a B with the rest of the subhumans.

Some Bs try to sneak through when the As are called and are sent back, red-faced, to sit on the naughty step.

Most of the Bs are circling and jostling like horses and riders under starters' orders. And they're off. The quest for everyone is to position themselves with that vital empty middle seat. Alliances are made, defences erected, tactics deployed. A common one is to spend an inordinate time scrabbling in your bag before putting it in the overhead locker (fraught with hazards since, in doing so, you are risking the loss of a locker space).

Coming late to the cabin my game plan has changed. I eye up my fellow passengers. Now who's flight could I spoil by taking the middle seat? I dally a while by each row looking in to those pleading eyes, praying for me to pass by (this game must be even more fun if you are fat). You would think I was the Angel of Death about to take their first born.

In fact the flight isn't full and there is plenty of room. That really should be in capitals for emphasis. THERE IS PLENTY OF ROOM. Is this a win? Too soon, too soon. I had forgotten the baggage hold up. You can hear the joy in the voice that tells us the flight is delayed. In HardJet no-one ever wins. They hold all the trump cards. The best you can hope for is to lose a little less painfully. I leave the airport and join the M25, bumper to bumper. Car travel is so much fun. Someone ought to make a game of it.


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