The Great Railway Bazaar

“He’s got a knife!” cried Andre.
Alec had indeed pulled a knife on us, but he was way too drunk to use it. The train lurched across some points. The door to the concertina coupling between the carriages slid open. The train lurched back again. Alec stumbled around drunkenly and fell into the coupling. The heavy door slammed shut. Divine intervention? We could see Alec’s angry face through the porthole window. Thrown around by the motion of the train, he was too confused to open the door.

We were on the Trans-Siberian Railway, east of the Urals, travelling on the Rossiya, the train that goes all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, on the Pacific coast. At 5772 miles, it’s the longest train ride in the world, taking seven days and passing through ten time zones. Andre and I weren’t going to Vladivostok, we were on our way to China and would leave the Trans-Siberian Railway at Irkutsk, 3220 miles down the line from Moscow. From Irkutsk we were booked on the Trans-Mongolian Railway down to Beijing, a distance of 1510 miles. Yup, the mother of all train rides.

We’d broken our Trans-Siberian journey in Novosibirsk, which, after crossing the Ural Mountains, is the first big place you hit in Siberia. Novosibirsk is 44 hours from Moscow by rail and is Russia’s third largest city. Andre and I spent two days there. We were on a slow train to China, stopping off at Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow and so on. From Warsaw onwards we travelled entirely 1st class. Now we were on the way from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, a 30 hour rail journey.

Long distance trains are little worlds of their own. What do you do for two days on a train? Well, you watch the ever changing vistas outside the window. You meet lots of interesting people. You eat – we had a suitcase full of provisions that were bought in Berlin. You drink. You smoke, but not in your compartment, where smoking is forbidden. The addicted had to go to one end of the carriage, where the toilet lurked and where a metal container hung from the carriage door window bar and served as an ash tray. That’s where I first got talking to Alec and Smin, two young men who held hands as they smoked. Alec was stout and spoke a bit of English. Smin was short and spoke no English. They had just finished their military service in the Red Army and were on the way home to some godforsaken place in the Siberian outback. They seemed friendly enough and could afford to travel 1st class.

Alec and Smin looked at the metal mug I was holding. It contained vodka. We obtained the vodka from vendors during station stops. It cost a dollar a bottle and had probably been distilled in someone’s bath. As is the custom, I offered my two new friends a drink, which they eagerly accepted. I made my way back to our compartment to get the bottle. During the day most people left their compartment door open. As I walked down the corridor I got a better look at the neighbours. The compartment right next to the smoking area contained a young couple, the guy tall and wiry with a flowing black moustache, the girl a pretty blonde. Next along was Alec and Smin’s compartment. Then a grey-haired man expensively dressed and travelling alone. Then a middle-aged couple. Then our compartment, which was about half way along the carriage. We hadn’t yet ventured up to the other end of the carriage, where there were toilets, a samnovar which released scalding water, a small stove and the compartment where the attendants slept. Every carriage had two attendants who worked in shifts so that one of them was always on duty.

1st class is known as ‘soft class’on the Trans-Siberian. Our compartment had two long seats which were made-up into beds at night. Next down the scale came four berth soft class, where you could find yourself billeted with total strangers. Lastly, for the poorest travellers there was ‘hard class’, open carriages with wooden platforms stacked three high where people could sit, sleep or sometimes die. Comparatively speaking it was quite cheap to travel soft class on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s a bit more expensive thesedays, but if you don’t mind roughing it in hard class you can go all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok for about £170, which is around $270. Incredible value.

Clutching a vodka bottle I walked back down to the smoking area. Andre followed. He didn’t smoke but wanted to have a drink with Alec and Smin. I charged our glasses. Dashkova, one of the attendants, came by. She was a small women with short, dark hair and stainless steel teeth.
“No, no, you must not let anyone see the vodka,” she said, “always keep the bottles hidden under your bunk.” With that she hurried off. Hmm, alcohol is freely available on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We figured that Dashkova didn’t want her carriage looking like a salon bar. But alas… our social intercourse consisted of an endless succession of toasts and offerings of cigarettes.

After about an hour the tall, wiry young man with the moustache came out of his compartment. He looked a bit drunk. He greeted us and lit-up a cigarette.
“My name was Oleg. I speak the English. I am from Tbillsi, in Georgia, like the American one, yes?” He gave a short laugh before choking on his cigarette smoke. “We will dlink together. Georgians are strong men, they like to drink.” I offered Oleg the remains of the vodka bottle. He brushed it away. “Votka is sheeit. Only little boys take it. We must dlink a man’s dlink. Georgian brandy, this is what real men dlink. Come with me…”
We stood outside his compartment as he rummaged through some baggage. The curvy blonde lay curled-up in the corner of her bunk, reading a book. She eyed the proceedings with distaste. She started having a go at Oleg. Oleg ignored her and produced a bottle of dark liquid. He gestured for us to come in. The curvy blonde would have none of it. We all went back to the smoking area.

The Georgian brandy tasted like an industrial accident. We drank it like real men do, trying not to gag. We spoke mostly English. Smin felt left out of it and after half an hour he kissed Alec on the cheek and went back to his compartment. The brandy went down fast. Very soon we were all legless. Dashkova passed by and tutted at us. Oleg staggered into his compartment. We heard him being sick. The curvy blonde went into one. The compartment door slammed shut. Alec and I started having a lively debate about Stalin. Alec was pro, I was con. It turned into a very heated argument. That’s when Alec pulled a knife on us, and that’s when he became trapped in the concertina coupling between the carriages. We left him to it.

The next morning I went down for a smoke. Alec and Oleg were standing at the end of the carriage. They both looked dreadful, as though they should be in hospital. Ashen-faced hangovers. I greeted them and lit-up a cigarette. Alec couldn’t even remember the knife incident from the previous day.

******************************

The Californian Western Railroad depot was a timber barn-like structure with gables and wooden sidewalks. Cliché Wild West. I half expected to see Jesse James lurking in the shadows. Andre and I unrolled our sleeping bags and crashed out on the benches. Dawn was breaking and our train was due to leave the station at 10am.

The small town of Willits is in northern California. We’d been deposited there by a Greyhound bus in the early hours of the morning. One of Willits few points of interest is that it is the terminus of the Californian Western Railroad. Despite its grand sounding name, the CWRR is just a forty mile stretch of single track that begins in the middle of nowhere and ends in the middle of nowhere. It’s an old logging line, referred to as the ‘Skunk Train’ because of the smell given out by the steam engines that used to work it. Nowadays the line earns its living as a tourist attraction. It takes 4½ hours for the Skunk Train to stagger down that forty miles of line. On the way it passes through wooded hills, steep gorges, meadows blanketed with wild flowers and a river valley with enormous fir trees. The pace is gentle, the scenary beautiful, and if you’re ever in this part of the world it’s well worth the trip.

Andre and I were woken by the sound of diesel engines. I stuck my head out of my sleeping bag and saw a coach beside the depot. The door hissed open and it began to disgorge tourists. The tourists were all middle-aged and were full of the holiday spirit. Most of them wore shorts and tent-like short sleeved shirts. Some had long socks pulled up to their knees. Some wore jungle or cowboy hats. The wooden railway platform creaked as the tourists ambled along it, for nearly all of them were overweight.

We rolled up our sleeping bags as the Skunk Train came to a halt beside the platform. The train consisted of a battered little diesel engine, which had been painted a bright yellow in an attempt to cheer it up, there were two carriages and at the end an observation car, which was really just an open coal wagon that had been tarted-up for the occasion. The train would take us, with much hesitation, down that forty miles of track to the end of the line, which was the Pacific Ocean and a town called Fort Bragg. We planned to find work in Fort Bragg and hang out there for a while. Why this particular destination..? Well, I was trying to lose myself in California and Fort Bragg is about as lost as you can get. Poor old Andre got dragged along for the ride.

The tourists climbed aboard the Skunk Train. Its springs groaned. Andre and I took up position in the observation car. Then, with a sad whistle from the diesel engine, we began to judder away from the depot. Despite a cold start, the sun now shone in a clear blue sky and it felt quite warm. We were slowly on our way to a little town on a remote part of the coast. The method of transportation seemed quite appropriate.

Gee honey, look at that pile of lumber.
Oh my, did you see that squirrel?
Hey look, there’s a ditch by the railroad tracks!
Initially, the tourists had been concerned about whether there was a toilet on the train. They soon settled down though and began enjoying the ride. Cameras clicked incessantly as the train passed through rolling green meadows that were speckled with wild flowers. Apart from the rattling of the rolling stock everything was still and silent. Not a car, not a road, not a house in sight. This was real wilderness, penetrated only by thin slivers of steel that twisted and turned, bowing to the contours of the land. The beautiful landscape beckoned. The train moved so slowly that it would have been easy to step off, to walk away from civilisation; but no, I didn’t want to get quite that lost.

After an hour or so we started passing through thickly wooded hills. The air held the scent of pine and the ground was speckled by shafts of sunlight that beat a way through the thick green canopy. A blanket-like silence enveloped the forest, broken only by an exhausted chug from the diesel and the cries of the tourists. We reached Northspur, the halfway point of the journey; a single shack in the middle of nowhere. Here, the train had to reverse out of a siding to beat the ever increasing gradients. Here, picnic tables had been laid out that were groaning with food. The carriages rose four inches as the tourists descended from the train and crowded round the picnic tables.

Obesity is a national pastime in America. From the moment they’re born until the moment their hearts finally give up the struggle they are continuously stuffing food down their throats. The quantities are enormous, from sack-like bags of potato chips and landing block wedges of cake, to cuts of meat like bath mats and pizzas that would keep a family of six in Bangladesh going for a week. In fact, it’s just about impossible in an American restaurant to clear everything on your plate. The amounts are just too overwhelming. You end up taking most of the meal home with you in a doggy bag. Needless to say, many pets in America are overweight.

Satiated, the tourists’ attention then turned towards their bowels. A row of ten Portaloos stood incongruously beside the railway line. Grunts, groans, farts and the rustling of toilet paper echoed around the forest. Then we were on our way again, leaving the chemical toilets to fight the effluence. For another hour or so the little diesel engine pulled its load through the forest, its speed dropping somewhat since the picnic halt. Their stomochs full, the tourists were in good heart and began a sing-song.

Here we go again
Happy as can be
All good pals and jolly good company

The Skunk Train now ran along the side of steep river valley. You could smell salt in the air. The tourists rushed over to the right hand side of the observation car, to get a look at the river. The car tilted over at twenty degrees. Andre and I hung on nervously.

San Francisco open your golden gate
You’ll make those strangers wait
Outside your door

Ahead we could see the sea. The train began to struggle up to a low cliff. Signs of civilisation: roads, houses and a cemetry beside the railroad track. A group of mourners were gathered around a grave.

When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling
The whole world smiles with you
When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through

We continued on past the backs of untidy houses. There were abandoned cars. Heaps of rubbish. The cry of seagulls. Then we came to a juddering halt in front of a dilapidated station building. A wonky wooden sign proclaimed it to be Fort Bragg. Ever since having my heart broken in Canada the previous winter, I had been running away. Fort Bragg was the end of the line.

******************************

Charles must have been somewhere in his late sixties. Small, unshaven with thick pebble glasses, he wore a blue beret and an ancient checkered suit with leather patches on the elbows. He carried a mauve umbrella. Charles had an Irish-American accent. He smiled a lot and when he talked, spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. At 10 o’clock in the morning, Charles was quite drunk and looked like he hadn’t been to bed for sometime.

Gare Austerlitz, Paris. Charles sat with us on the terrace outside the station buffet. We bathed in late summer sunshine. Mark and I had a train to catch at 11am. We were heading down to the Dordogne to hike along the river. Somehow we got tangled-up with Charles. We were on coffee. He was on whisky, and despite the fact that he was drunk he proved to be amusing company. Charles began every sentence with ‘hey’ and would give a friendly punch on the arm. He told us that he worked for the Americans in Nuremburg. We didn’t get an explanation of what he was doing in Paris. He looked like he’d been crawling around the sewars all night. I put this to him.
“Hey, you crazy son.” I received another playful punch.
Despite his appearance, Charles seemed to be carrying pots of money. It was a miracle that he hadn’t been mugged. When we told him we were going to the Dordogne he said he’d come along ‘for the ride’. I tactfully suggested that it might be better if he went back to his hotel and had a lie down.
“Hey, son, you putting me on?!” Charles got up and began pirouetting around his mauve umbrella, to show that he was still compos mentis.
Oh what the hell… Charles followed us on to the train.

It’s a five hour rail journey down to Souillac, in the Dordogne. The train was quite crowded, and of course we had Charles in tow. One handy feature about French trains is that some carriages have a large open space, separate from the main seating. This is for handicapped people, and it’s where we crashed out on the floor. Mark went down to the buffet car to get some cans of beer. I played music on our portable cassette player. Charles supped on a bottle of vin rouge that he’d bought at the station shop.
“Hey, son, the Velvet Underground.”

Two stops out of Paris a wheelchair occupant was placed on the train. A young Frenchman called Roger. Roger climbed out of his chair and hauled himself over to us, asking for a beer. He liked the music we were playing. He told us he was on the way to Toulouse to receive therapy for bone disease. Roger was a nice guy who liked his beer. He also had a weak bladder and I had to keep helping him to the toilet. The beer was also begining to effect Mark and he began singing Wehrmacht marching songs. Some years earlier, Mark had joined the Territorial Army. When the squaddies were on exercises in Germany they sang these marching songs; don’t ask me why. Whenever Mark had a bit to drink we’d be treated to the likes of Erika…

In der Heimat wohnt ein blondes Mägdelein und das heißt: Erika.
Dieses Mädel ist mein treues Schätzelein und mein Glück, Erika.

Charles knew the song and sang along with Mark. Roger could speak German and the other two taught him the song lyrics. All three of them started up on a rousing chorus as the French countryside went by.

I got to my feet, walked over to the window and lit-up a cigarette. It was going to be a long journey.

******************************

Andre, on a trip to the toilet, saw the girl first. She sat alone on her rucksack in the corridor and looked quite frightened. Some guys had been hassling her. Andre told the girl that she could sit in our couchette if she wanted to. She refused the offer. It had gone midnight and we were travelling on the Media Luna, which was one of the most dangerous trains in Europe. The Media Luna goes from Algeciras on the southern tip of Spain to Paris via Madrid and San Sebastian. The journey takes 30 hours. The train was heavily used by North African migrant workers going to and from Madrid and Paris. On Fridays and Saturdays, the busiest times, the train conductors were accompanied by armed guards. A young girl on her own with only a seat ticket was asking for trouble.

The Media Luna leaves Algeciras at 11pm. Andre and I were going to San Sebastian, on the northern coast of Spain. After a journey of 21 hours and 850 miles we would arrive there at 7.45pm the following evening. We were in a 2nd class couchette, which has six padded bunks, three down each side of the compartment. On such a busy train we did not expect to have the space all to ourselves. We shared with a couple of Canadians who were bound for Paris. We still had plenty of room in couchette 16b for a damsel in distress.

I walked down to the end of the carriage. The offer of a place in our couchette was again refused. She told me she was going to Paris. I told her that the train wouldn’t get there for another 28 hours, and paused to let it sink in. She said that she didn’t have enough money for a couchette. I offered to pay the supplement. I said there was another woman in the couchette with us. Still unsure, the girl followed me down the carriage corridor. My companions immediately welcomed her and she agreed to became part of our story.

The next morning we all got better acquainted, as you do in a small compartment. The Canadians were called Crane and Tracy, from Vancouver. Crane was a tall, lanky 24 year old with short brown hair and blue eyes. Tracy was 28, small and had black, shoulder length hair. Tracy had been working as a teacher in southern Spain. She didn’t like the experience. The kids were now on their Easter hols, so Crane had flown over from Vancouver and the two of them were taking the opportunity to make their first visit to Paris. Thirty hours on a train seemed a hell of a way to do it.

The damsel in distress was a typical Australian bronzed beauty called Winneta. 19-years-old, Winneta had been visiting her sister, who was married to a British soldier stationed in Gibralter. Winneta had spent two weeks in Gibralter. The final two weeks of her holiday were going to to be spent Euro-railing. Brave girl. She told us that the previous night it hadn’t been the Arabs who were giving her the most grief, but the Spanish guy who ran the buffet car.

We shared our provisions and began making breakfast. Andre set up the small camp stove and made a brew of tea. The Spanish countryside went by the window bathed in spring sunshine. The five of us were young travellers. We all had experiences to share, stories to tell. Later that morning, cards were brought out. I’d long ago tired of playing card games on long distance trains and went out to the corridor for a smoke. The train passed through Madrid and its environs.

By mid afternoon my four companions were sick of playing cards. Tracy produced a book of short stories by a Canadian author whose name I can’t recall. They were gentle tales, suitable for both children and adults. We took turns reading out the stories. When it came to Crane’s turn he was a bit reluctant. Tracy spoke to him in her soft, deliberate way.
“Oh come on Crane, don’t be a spoilsport.”
“Oh, er… alright then Tracy.” Crane spoke in the same deliberate manner and his eyes blinked often. He looked a bit like a Thunderbirds puppet.
The story I had to read out was about a girl and a rabbit. Bored with the chintzy niceness of the tales, I changed the ending and said that the girl got run-over by a truck and the rabbit died of myxomatosis. Tracy and Winneta were most upset.

As afternoon melted into evening, Tracy brought out her camera. Happy memories to show the folks back home. Winneta started taking pictures as well. The Australian contingent of family and friends were not going to escape the mind numbing holiday snaps, either. After the photo sessions we played charades, all five of us making complete fools of ourselves.

Right on schedule, at quarter to eight the train pulled into San Sebastian station. Lots of people got on board. Andre and I spent some time making our farewells. As we went out into the corridor a French couple were waiting to take our berths in the couchette. We nodded at them and then battled our way down to the end of the carriage. By the time we got the door open the train was starting to leave the station; faster and faster. Andre and I looked at each other: in for a penny in for a pound.

I went first. I threw my rucksack out of the doorway and jumped after it. Landing on the platform, I was still in the grip of the train’s momentum and staggered along for a number of yards before falling to my knees. Tracy, Crane and Winneta were hanging out of the couchette window. They cheered and shouted encouragement. Andre hesitated for only a moment before following me. By this time the train was doing about 25 miles an hour. Andre rolled over and over before coming to rest against a signal at the end of the platform. There were claps and cheers from the couchette window. Andre, still dazed from his rough landing, stood up and bowed.

The train disapeared into the distance. The two new occupants of couchette 16b settled down for the intimate overnight journey to Paris.

******************************

The clock struck midnight and everyone began singing Auld Lang Syne, led by a young guy playing guitar. We sang the chorus three times. News Year’s Day hadn’t just arrived, we were heralding in Christmas Day. Not that it made much difference. The sea of alcohol saw to that. Party streamers and kisses and tears accompanied the sing-song. Most of us were complete strangers to each other, now united in boozy bonhomie.

The bar at Cologne station stayed open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There were no tables and chairs and on that Christmas night many people sat on the floor. The place was packed. Didn’t these people have homes to go to? One guy, a businessman, had bank notes sticking out of his pockets. He wore spectacles. One of the lenses had got cracked. Another guy sat in a wheelchair. He was legless in both senses of the word. He had a thick, bushy beard and wore a military trench coat. He threw back cognacs and whizzed from one end of the bar to the other, laughing loudly. A small, elderly woman with an eye patch tutted as the wheelchair narrowly missed her drunk chihuahua.

The great railway bazaar. It was also the night I fell in love. Mark and I stood up at the bar. We were chatting to two women. Lesbians dressed in black leather. The older one looked to be about fifty; plump and heavily made-up to disguise the lines of age. A dominatrix. The younger one looked about sixteen and did not need make-up, for she was a classic beauty, the kind that one sees very rarely. Both lesbians had close cropped hair, bleached peroxide blonde. The young one wore a studded collar around her sculptured neck. A lead was attached to it which the elder lesbian held on to tightly.

After Auld Lang Syne had finished I smothered the young lesbian in kisses. She giggled. The leash strained. My futile attempts to change the girl’s sexuality were interrupted when the wheelchair guy crashed into us. I got to hold the lead! The dominatrix wheeled the guy to the bar doorway. Then she gave his chair a hard shove out into the station concourse. Legless rolled for about twenty feet before coming to a stop, still laughing loudly.

******************************

There are many adjectives you could apply to Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, beautiful and uplifting would not be among them. Due to various wars, Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than its inhabitants care to remember. The result is a dirty, depressing, ad-hoc kind of city. Perhaps this is why we decided to press on with our journey and take an overnight train to Italy.

Andre and I had been travelling all through the previous night. We were knackered. The plan had been to spend a couple of nights in Belgrade. I consulted our copy of Cook’s European Timetable. The Venice Express left Centar Station at 6.25pm, arriving in Venice the next morning. Way too tempting to resist. After a restaurant meal we boarded the train three quarters of an hour before it was due to leave. The idea being to get a seat. We both knew how crowded trains were in southern and eastern Europe. The Belgrade-Athens run was probably the worst. The Belgrade-Venice train came a close second. Every seat was already taken and people were standing in the corridors.

Miraculously for a train in Yugoslavia, the Venice Express left Centar Station on time and wound through the bleak architecture of Belgrade. Dusk fell as we left the city behind and lights were begining to blink on. The first part of the journey was almost bearable. Despite the crowds we were able to sit on our rucksacks in the corridor and have a doze. When we arrived in Zagreb at just after midnight hoardes of people got on the train. Now it was standing room only in the corridor, a bit like a subway train in the rush hour. By this time I was feeling very, very tired, the sort of tiredness where you have to make a conscious effort to keep your eyes open, when your brain becomes cotton wool, when you’d do anything just to be able to lay your head down and sleep.

It is possible to sleep while standing up and wedged within a crowd. However, the Venice Express made many stops throughout the night and at each there was a scrum of humanity trying to get on or get off the train. Many of them had impossible amounts of luggage. Some had young children or animals or both. Lots of chickens. One person even brought a goat on to the train. Passengers kept moving up and down the carriage corridor, struggling with their luggage and their children and their animals. We were constantly pushed and jostled, bringing us out of our vertical slumber. Well, they say that sleep deprivation is one of the worst forms of torture.

We were suffering near the end of the carriage, where the toilet lurked. The toilet had long ago succumbed to the tide of people and overflowed. By 3am I was at the point of collapse and just didn’t care. Because of the overflow, people were avoiding the section of corridor outside the toilet. I unrolled my sleeping bag and laid it on the wet, sticky floor. Come, sweet slumber, enshroud me in thy greeny cloak.

******************************

Cologne is a major railway hub. From Cologne station you can go just about anywhere. We were in the station bar talking to a Swiss guy. Johan had a wife, two children and stomoch ulcers caused by excessive drinking. He hated Switzerland and said he would rather live in Germany. It was lunchtime and Johan was already a bit drunk. He worked for the railway company as a train driver. Later that afternoon he had to drive a train to Zurich. When he saw our alarm, Johan gave a knowing wink and told us not to worry: “all the drivers do it.” He even confessed to keeping a bottle hidden in his locomotive cab: “do you know how boring it is to drive a train all the time?” Oh well, modern safety features, and all that.

By the time we got on our train, Mark and I were also a bit drunk. On a cold winter’s day we managed to get a compartment to ourselves. We turned up the heat. Mark drank cans of beer. I went to the toilet at the end of the carriage. A sign above the sink said in four languages: ‘not drinking water’. I half filled my tin mug. Back in the compartment, I filled the other half of the mug with gin. Gin and train water, my favourite tipple. A winter wonderland marched past the window. We played music tapes and sang along …

Hey Jude don’t let me down
You have found her now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

The compartment door slammed open. “Fahrkarte, bitte!” A severe Fahrkartenkontrolleur stood in the doorway and eyed us and the cans of Dortmund beer with distaste. I handed over my ticket. The Fahrkartenkontrolleur assaulted it with his stamping machine and then gave it back to me. He turned to Mark. “Fahrkarte!”. Mark was desperately searching for his ticket. He pulled everything out of his rucksack. After some moments, accompanied by tuts from the Fahrkartenkontrolleur, it became obvious that Mark wasn’t going to find the ticket. Being a bit drunk, he had either lost it, given it away, eaten it, or whatever. We didn’t have the funds to buy another ticket.

I began pulling things out of my rucksack, just in case the ticket had somehow found its way in there. Emptying rucksacks in search of elusive travel documents was an old trick we used to pull when travelling without a ticket. With any luck the inspector would become fed-up with the tedious business of going through everything, much of it unwashed clothing, and move off further down the carriage, hopefully to forget about us. On this occasion though we had purchased tickets.

The Fahrkartenkontrolleur left us to it. It looked like the old trick had inadvertently saved Mark’s bacon. I stuck my head out of the compartment doorway. The Fahrkartenkontrolleur could be seen using the intercom at the end of the carriage. The train began to slow down. It looked like Mark was going to be slung off the train. Most unusual, as standard practice was to wait until the next station stop before giving the ticketless the boot. This guy had obviously had a bad day. Maybe he didn’t like the Beatles.

Mark was not even given time to repack his rucksack. He had to gather up his belongings in his arms, then the burly ticket man hustled him off the train. I couldn’t leave my friend and jumped down on to the trackbed beside him. The door slammed shut and the train moved off into the distance. Mark and I looked at our surroundings. We were in the middle of a forest, somewhere between Cologne and Aachen. Snow fell from the sky. The only sign of civilisation was the railway line.

Snow began to settle on us as Mark stuffed his belongings back into the rucksack. I went to light-up a cigarette and realised that I’d left my lighter on the train. One of the best ways of sobering-up is to be taken from a warm, comfortable railway compartment and deposited in a freezing forest. We trudged along the tracks for an hour before coming upon a small wayside halt. It had a small hut-like shelter with a seat. We sat and drank the last of the Dortmund beer cans, wondering what we were going to do now.

While pondering, Mark found his train ticket. It was in the breast pocket of his shirt, the one place he hadn’t looked. I consulted the station timetable and looked at my watch: three hours until a train stopped there, and all the while express trains thundered past. The snow was very pretty, though.

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwordsnote: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.

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