The Train Journey

 “Life is a train ride, and at the many stations along the route, people important to us debark, never to get aboard again, until by the end of the journey, we sit in a passenger car where most of the seats are empty.” Dean Koontz

I didn’t hear the alarm at all. I guess it was due to too much whisky last night, as it was my birthday. Luckily Sandra was more alert and I woke to her soft voice, gently cajoling me towards consciousness. As I began to open my eyes, and glanced into her sleepy face, she read my mind and briefly looked cheekily under the bedclothes. With a wry smile she threw the covers back, “not now, Mr Wiggly will have to wait. You will miss your train.” She rolled over and turned her back to me, mumbling something about wanting to sleep further.

I glanced at the clock, 5am. My train was due to leave at 6.45 and I just had time to take the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnhof, grabbing a couple of ‘Belegte Brötchen’  at the station, and boarding the early train from Berlin to Budapest, changing only once in Vienna. I hated early business trips. I am rarely able to sleep on the train, which normally leaves me tired and irritable at the other end. Especially today, it would be impossible to sleep, as I was travelling with a colleague and we had to prepare the presentation together. This was the main reason that we decided to make the eleven hour train journey, to give us time to work out the details.

At 6.40 precisely, I was sitting in our pre-booked compartment, waiting for Jürgen to arrive. “He is leaving it very tight,” I thought, as I looked nervously at my watch. The whistle sounded. The doors closed and we began to move away from the platform. I felt the panic rise in my stomach. There was no way that I would be able to prepare the presentation on my own. Jürgen had most of the statistics and recommendations to hand. All I had was my presentation technique and selling abilities. He was the brain and I the salesman. I began to feel nauseous. I called his number immediately to find out what the hell was going on.

“Jürgen, where are you? What is going on? You have missed the train.”

A groan came back. A voice, barely audible said that he was very sorry, but had been up all night with terrible stomach cramps. Only an hour earlier he had finally fallen asleep. I had woken him with my call.

“What am I going to do now?” I hissed.

“Bob, don’t worry. I will get a couple of the guys to come round and we will prepare everything for you. I promise, we will have the presentation ready to email to you as soon as you arrive in your hotel tonight. We can discuss it this evening, ready for tomorrow’s meeting.”

This is how I came to be sitting alone in a six seater compartment for eleven hours, without any prospect of sleeping. I hadn’t even a good book to read, as I had expected to be working the whole time. The trees and fields began to roll by as we left the city, and I braced myself for a long and monotonous journey.

*****

One day, just a few years ago, when my parents were in their late eighties, I called them for a chat. I always had a good conversation with my father, who came to the phone as soon as I called. After some time he called my mother to come to the phone to speak with me. I had been badgering them for years to buy a new cordless one, so that they didn’t have to stand in the hall every time the phone rang, but they weren’t interested in new-fangled gadgets. I even bought them one as a Christmas present, but they politely said that they would use it but only when the old one gave up the ghost. This was ten years earlier. My mother eventually arrived in the hall.

“Hello Robert. How are you? Is Sandra well?”

“Fine thanks. We are both fine. How is the weather?”

“What? I can’t hear you? What did you say?” She then handed the phone back to my Dad because she couldn’t hear me.

“I’m sorry son,” my Dad said. “Your Mum can’t hear very well and hates to use the phone. You know how it is.”

So I had decided to write her a long letter. I knew that she would prefer this, as she could show it to her friends and read it over again if she wished. I could also put some photographs in to show her where we live and what we were up to. Naturally, I preferred to use a handwritten format, rather than the computer, as it is more personal, especially for my mother. I started to write, only to find that my handwriting was almost illegible and my fingers cramped after every couple of sentences. I realised that I hadn’t written anything more than a couple of scribbled notes for many years. I’d lost the ability to write nicely, something I had used to pride myself on. After fighting my way through the letter I resolved to write more often in future, and try to recover my writing ability. I decided to start by writing a daily diary, and have been doing so for a few years.

Now, the reader may well be forgiven for wondering what on Earth this has to do with my train journey to Budapest. It is simply that I did have my diary in my briefcase and a new gold Waterman ballpoint pen that Sandra had given me last night for my birthday. I began to use the time to write a few entries from the previous days, when a knock came on the compartment door and a thickset middle aged man poked his head around.

“Excuse me, would you mind if I shared this compartment with you? Mine is full and to be honest two of the young men sharing it are both rather drunk. I would prefer to sit quietly and get some sleep during this long journey,” he said.

“No, no of course. Make yourself comfortable. I am alone here.”

He was a strange man. He spoke with a very polite English manner, but was clearly eastern European. I assumed Hungarian from his accent and appearance. I settled down to my diary and he sat opposite, closed his eyes and gradually relaxed his breathing as he dozed off.

*****

Armand Kardos boarded the train in Berlin, with three policemen hot on his tail. He had managed to lose them somewhere around Friedrichstrasse and had made it to the Hauptbahnhof. He had jumped into the train at the last second and had no ticket. He needed funds and fast.

Two days earlier Kardos arrived in Berlin to visit his brother. He had asked, demanded and finally begged him to lend him 5000Euros. He had explained that if he didn’t pay the debt by the end of the week his life wouldn’t be worth living.

“I don’t have that kind of money, Armand. I can’t help you. If it is so dangerous for you to return without the money, why not stay here a while until it blows over?” said Eric, his brother.

“I can’t. They will visit our mother, if I’m not there. You don’t know these people. She will not be safe.”

After he left, Armand, in his desperation tried to rob a café. It was an amateurish attempt and he was thrown out by two German guys and the police were called.

He now sat in the compartment, closing his eyes enough to appear to be asleep, but in reality he was observing the well dressed, wealthy looking businessman opposite, wondering if he could be the answer to his financial problems.

*****

I put my diary down to rest my eyes for a few moments and looked at the engraving on the pen in my hand. ‘To Bob, with all my love, your Sandra’.

I watched the natural beauty of the fields, the trees and the various animals grazing. The sky was blue and I could pick out a bird of prey, possibly a buzzard, circling above, with its eyes firmly fixed on something. I was fascinated by the way it then remained absolutely stationary in the air, balancing the wind and gravitational forces perfectly, before swooping down in a flash. My eyes gradually closed and, despite my earlier doubts,  I drifted off into a deep unconscious sleep.

At some point I began to dream. I dreamt of being chased by an eagle. An eagle with talons the size of carving knives. Its beak was made of razor edged steel. It swooped down towards me. I panicked and thrust the only thing I had available, my ballpoint pen, directly at it. The sharp end of the pen caught the eagle on the side of his head. It shrieked and turned away. Even though I was asleep, I was somehow aware that it was only a dream, and I felt calm again. I slept on.

After a while, which may have been only seconds or some hours, I began to dream again. Have you ever had a dream, whereby you knew all of the time that you were only dreaming? I had often had this experience and imagined I could encourage myself to remain in the dream if it was pleasant, but force myself to wake up if it turned into a nightmare.

In this particular case, I found myself trying to wake up, before it went too far. I dreamt that I was fast asleep in the train compartment but suddenly became aware of a shadow of something towering over me. I felt a rustle under my jacket, as though a hand was reaching for my wallet. In my dream I opened my eyes to see the Hungarian standing over me, trying to get at my wallet while I was sleeping. In my terror I could see that he had a knife in his left hand. I tried and tried to force myself to wake up before he stabbed me, but this time I could not.

My dream continued. We struggled and I felt the pain of his knife driving into my left shoulder, as if it was really happening. I was shouting to myself, “wake up, wake up you fool”, but the pain felt real and the blood was quickly soaking my shirt. I thrust and fought as hard as I could and finally, at the crucial moment before the Hungarian could stab me again, my dream stopped and I felt comfortable and safe again. I slept on, in a deep tranquil sleep. My breathing settled down, and I lay down on the bench seat in the steadily rolling train, heading for Vienna, where I would change trains for Budapest.

*****

I gradually woke, expecting to hear the screeching of metal wheels on metal tracks, or the continuous chugga chugga sound, but all I could make out was a regular beep…beep…beep. I slowly opened my eyes. I saw a white unmarked ceiling. I could sense other people in the room, bustling to and fro. I turned my head slowly. With a very blurred vision I thought that I saw Sandra, sitting by me, reading a book. I realised that I must still be asleep and dreaming again. I squeezed my eyes together to clear my vision and looked again.

“Sandra?” I whispered.

She looked up and smiled. “Ah, you are awake.”

“Where am I,” I stuttered, confused and a little frightened.

“Darling, you were found in your compartment yesterday, when the train arrived in Vienna. You were unconscious and had lost a lot of blood. You have been asleep for over 24 hours.”

My mind was racing. It had only been a dream. What was happening?

“Where is the Hungarian guy, who was with me”, I asked. “He can explain everything.”

“No-one else was with you Bob. You were the only person in the compartment when the police arrived on the scene. They are waiting outside, wanting to speak with you.”

I was left alone for another hour to recover slightly before signalling that I was now ready to speak with the police. I wanted to understand what had happened just as much as they did.

I explained everything that I could remember. The description of the Hungarian man, how he asked to share my compartment. I explained about my dream, which was unhelpful, because it made no sense. I even told them about the Eagle and me fending it off with my gold pen, at which they just looked at the floor, as though I was crazy. Perhaps I was crazy.

“Just a moment sir,” one of the police said. “Did you say you had a gold pen? None was found at the scene.”

They both signalled for me to remain there in my bed, jumped up and called one of the nurses. I could hear loud murmurs outside the door, but not make out what they were saying. Then they dashed off down the corridor.

They returned only minutes later. One of them had his phone in his hand, and turned it towards me.

“Do you recognise this man?”

I looked. His eyes were closed as though he was sleeping. “Yes, that is the guy I was telling you about. He can explain everything for sure.”

They looked at each other for a moment. “I’m afraid he will not be explaining anything. He died this afternoon. They tried to remove the weapon from his chest, but too much damage had been done to his heart. He died on the operating table.”

My mind was racing again. How could this be?

One of the policemen then looked at me, took a deep breath and said,” Mr Johnson, we will be needing you to make a full statement tomorrow, but for now, take a rest and don’t worry about anything. You have no need to worry.”

“What are you saying,” I blurted out angrily. “No need to worry! I have a stab wound in my shoulder, am barely conscious and have no idea what on Earth is going on, and you tell me not to worry.”

“Sir, the man in the picture was Armand Kardos. He is a known petty criminal. In his pocket we found your wallet. It was him that robbed you. It was not a dream.”

“But, then what happened? Who killed him?”

The policeman hesitated before he spoke. He fired a questioning glance at his colleague, who nodded solemnly. “The weapon which was removed from his chest was a Waterman gold ballpoint pen, with an engraving which read ‘To Bob, with all my love, your Sandra’. I assume this is your pen, and that it was you who killed Armand Kardos in self-defence while he was trying to rob you. It was no dream.”

They left. Sandra returned, took my hand and I fell into another deep sleep.

*****

The following morning I felt much better. The knife had missed anything vital, and I was quickly recovering from the blood loss with the help of various drips. I could even sit up in bed to eat my breakfast, when a familiar bearded smiling face appeared around the door. It was Jürgen.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Bob, I couldn’t go to Budapest without stopping here in Vienna to check up on you. I do feel partly responsible for what has happened, as I left you alone on the train. This morning I took the early flight and will go to Budapest by train in a couple of hours. The meeting was postponed and is set for this afternoon. Don’t worry, all is well prepared.”

“Well, thanks for stopping by. Good luck for this afternoon. We really do need that contract.”

“In two days I will return here to help Sandra take you home. The doctor says you should be ready.”

After he left I finished my breakfast and settled down to another long deep sleep, but this time without any dreams or nightmares.

The End