Trans-Europe express: part three

LYING IN MY TINY BUNK in the carriage of the train that was carrying me from Nice to Rotterdam in the summer of 1994, I tried not to think about just how exposed I was.

Not literally: I had enough trouble in these circumstances trying not to let my guard down, never mind anything else.

It was more the wider context that threatened to disturb me, and which I endeavoured to put to the back of my mind.

Apart from my three fellow travellers, I was a stranger in a strange land with absolutely no means of contacting anyone I knew if something went wrong.

I don’t think I’d ever placed myself in such a situation before, and for good or ill I’ve never quite done so again.

However I must have done enough to cram such thoughts into a hastily-sealed bit of my brain, for I ended up getting a fair few hours of sleep. This was much to my surprise, and to those of my companions, who it later transpired had barely slept a wink and were bemused, and not a little envious, that I’d somehow stayed comatose for so long.

I was in one of the three top bunks in our couchette. I had a view of the carriage ceiling a few centimetres above my head, and nothing else.

I had to lie on my back the whole while. If I tried turning on to my left hand side I hit the wall, and if I tried turning to the right I would fall on to the floor.

This lack of movement, combined with the scorching heat, turned my “bed” into a coffin of foam rubber, to which I stuck with sweat.

The conditions were intolerable. The whole journey seemed to have been intolerable.

Yet somehow, somehow, I fell asleep.

After a couple more stops were out of the way, it was around 1am that it happened. The steady pulsing of the train’s engine, the regular rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, and the unchanging hum of the carriage machinery all conspired to lull me into a sort of reassured, becalmed stupor.

The next thing I knew it was 7am and I was awake.

I’d made it through the night, unscathed and uncompromised.

I felt absolutely awful, of course, and I knew I looked terrible: shabby, smelly and utterly out-of-sorts.

But it was the morning. And it was cooler. And I was somewhere different.

I went into the corridor and stood, watching the countryside race past.

Outside was northern Europe: plains of uniform fields and acres of monochrome woods with no rocky hills or tropical groves to be seen. Flat moorland stretched for miles.

There were rivers. There were bridges over the rivers. There were ducks nestling under the bridges over the rivers.

And then there was industry. Factories! Power stations! Warehouses! All drab, all functional, all standing magnificent against a soft, sombre sky.

An enormous sense of familiarity, and at the same time desperate longing, crashed over me. These places looked like home!

Though I was now geographically a lot closer to the UK than I had been for quite a few days, emotionally I felt further away than ever.

I hadn’t thought much about home since starting the trip almost two weeks earlier. We were always moving forward, looking ahead, preparing for the next leg of the journey and anticipating the next obstacle.

Now there was nothing left to do but to complete the circle and head back to Britain. With this realisation, everything and everyone associated with home charged back into my consciousness from wherever I’d hitherto quelled them.

I wanted to be back among them as soon as possible, yet I knew it would be a further 24 hours before I set foot on UK soil.

I cursed our stupid timetable – why weren’t we due to sail today? Whose idiotic idea had it been to eke out this adventure so as to include a Sunday afternoon in Rotterdam? Worse, a Sunday evening at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal?

“Well, we are where we are,” someone said – quite possibly me inside my own head.

I now did something rather embarrassing.

I started humming the signature tune of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days.

"Cairo? Cairo? One. One! One way! Yes, just one. One way!"

I’d watched the whole series on video just before we left. I suppose that by evoking the programme at this moment, I thought rather fancifully I could imbue my journey with a similar sense of the epic and the significant.

In reality, all I got was funny looks from the other passengers, some of whom I recognised – with a shudder – from the previous night’s antics.

Pretty soon we’d reached Rotterdam and were threading our way through a day of deep anti-climax.

I was elated that I’d both got through and ended up rather enjoying our marathon train ride. But I was also maddened by the way were now inching our way towards home rather than hurtling, as had been the case for the previous 15 hours.

Plus it turned out there was a final ordeal to endure.

At the Hook of Holland, the ferry we intended to catch had a hydraulic ramp that wasn’t working. It needed to be welded into place.

I remember standing on deck at about 11pm, looking down through the darkness and watching some of the crew trying to bang the ferry doors shut. It was as if some malevolent travel god, determined to hold up my departure from the continent for just a little longer, was taunting me one last time.

But the ship sailed, and I slept in an uncomfortable seat for a few hours, before waking and stumbling back out on to deck.

Harwich was on the horizon, twinkling in the cool sunlight.

I had never felt such deep love for a container port.

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