I love old European sleeper trains, the clickety-clack of metal against metal, the whirr and screech of brakes in darkness, the deceleration and acceleration as old wooden stations approach and depart, the blur of lights and buildings, and the invisible rustle of people on a voyage. Night trains seem to simultaneously condense and expand time and space, stimulate layered and unrelated memories in a pseudo dream-world of jostling images adjacent to reality, and the wild introduction of the random events.
The trip from Prague to Budapest is about eight hours on a second-class night-train. Praha Hlavni Nadrazi Main Station smells like old trains and grease. Engine oil and decades of dirt stick to once shiny surfaces in a building that was once an architectural highlight. Art Nouveau figures, a vast window arc, and a vaulted latticework ceiling float above multiple tracks, trains, and two opposing arcade corridors. The building’s grandeur has decayed under forty years of
communism, and although change is coming with Vaclav Havel just elected president, the regal station is in severe disrepair. I queue for a four-dollar ticket between architectural symmetry and human chaos.
It’s before midnight when I board carriage twelve; I mount several rusty stairs and turn left down the passageway towards compartment eight. Its sliding glass doors suction together, and as I tug at dual handles, the layers of rubber won’t separate. Suddenly, the doors slide open and a thin gentleman in a beige felt hat, matching tie and burly sweater, beckons me in. Under dim light, I make out that three of six pale and punctured plastic seats are still empty. I side-step into my window seat, nudge my black knapsack under the bench, remove scuffed Doc Martens, and roll the cuffs of my baggy khakis. The elderly man raises his arms in a pushing up motion, palms parallel to the ceiling, an offer to stow my pack on the overhead rack. I shake my head, smile, and extricate a book: Rousseau’s Confessions. I travel light but prefer heavy reading.
In the seat opposite, a man about my age, in his mid-twenties, and not at all my type, stares through the aluminum window at the last boarding passengers. He has short-cropped blond hair, porcelain skin, and an aloof demeanor. He wears a pressed collared shirt, neatly buttoned brown canvas coat, and polished leather shoes. His legs are crossed and he strums long pale fingers against his thighs. I wonder if he is perhaps a pianist or surgeon. A booming announcement resounds in the station and a shrill whistle initiates the train’s slow departure. The young man and I observe the passing scenery from opposite perspectives, mine forwards, his backwards: small roadside shacks, broken fences, crooked street lights, cows, sheep, tractors. Clickety-clack.
The glass doors rattle and someone knocks imperatively. Two female faces with scarves tied under their chins peer through the glass. The elderly man whose plump wife sits opposite, pries open the sticky doors for our last two companions who ease their ample bottoms into the middle seats as the train chugs onward into the night. The elderly man hoists their bags onto the overhead racks and draws the orange curtains to signal the compartment is full. After some time, we each slide our seat-backs downward so that the entire compartment becomes a single wall-to-wall, six-person bed. A ticket collector arrives, followed by his young attendant who distributes brown pillows and blankets. The six of us huddle in as strangers. Clickety-clack.
Together, we form a human backgammon board, a triangular head-to-toe shape. The elderly man snores while his wife whistles through her teeth. The women in the middle chatter quietly in Czech for an hour or so and eventually the compartment is quiet. I slip into the comforting rhythm of train wheels over tracks. Just as I lull into a lucid dream-state, I feel a warm hand on my left foot. I curl my toes away. The fingers return. I shift slightly out of range. The fingers cup my toes. I pretend I don’t notice. For a long time, there’s no movement. Clickety-clack.
I squint my eyes at the young man’s face. He wears an expressionless stare; he appears to be focused on the dark swaths of night beyond the rectangular window. A small-town station illuminates suddenly and disappears just as quickly. I feel his thumb press gently into my arch, then push firmly upward into the ball of my foot, a slow, deliberate and confident motion, up and down. I feign sleep. His skilled fingers knead out knots from months of walking travel. He bends my foot at the ball, slides firm fingers between each sock-clad toe with an arc and sweep, then rolls each toe between thumb and forefinger, a delicate dance of digits.
The train pulls into Brno with a squeal of metal brakes, rustles and thumps in the corridor, and a final jolt as the train comes to a halt. There is no apparent movement in our compartment except for the slip and slide of a man’s hand against a woman’s foot, all under wraps, a secret. Is this my guilty pleasure or his? Or both? His fingers work into the ridges on either side of my foot, stretching each sinew until relaxed. He draws circles around my ankles, palpates the notches on either side, then deftly slides his thumb under the band of my sock, and continues downward, stroking the grooves of my achilles.
I breathe quietly, hesitant to make any movements that might stop the massage, and open my eyes just enough to espy the faintest intimation of a smile. As his hands explore my soft skin, I marvel at what is happening with this stranger under a train blanket. He slips his hand out of my sock and, as if by accident, his fingers trace a line up the back of my calf to the hollow in my knee. The ticklish moment takes me by surprise. I stifle a laugh and his hand retreats instantly to the safety of my ankle. Clickety-clack.
His fingers make a seamless transition to my right foot and, for the rest of the night, he works a similar sequence but does not venture to my knee. I slide in and out of dreams – cloaked people huddle in an underground wine cellar, strange faces appear and disappear, the room transforms into a cave with stalactites and stalagmites, a horse drawn carriage pulls up as a woman peers through a laced curtain – and all the while, his hands slide over my feet. The vibration of the train, the rhythmic slowing down and speeding up of the clickety clack, and the snoring and snuffling of fellow passengers, seep into my inner world. I am at once observing and experiencing the continuous sensual exploration of a strange man’s hands. It is an exchange of giving and receiving, a non-verbal agreement with mutual consent, a shared secret and story between two travellers who know nothing about each other and will never meet again.
As dawn breaks, he holds my feet still, like a prayer. When our fellow passengers stir and pull back blankets in preparation for arrival, his hands return to his thighs and tap a much slower rhythm. I try to catch his eyes but they hold tightly to a vision beyond the window frame. The older man assists with the overhead bags, offers a hand to his wife and the middle bench ladies, and sends me a smile and a wave as he exits. I re-lace my boots, toss my pack over one shoulder, descend the steep metal stairs to the busy platform, and marvel at the vast domed ceiling and pillared portals of Budapest’s grand Keleti Station.
Sunshine filters through dirty glass and double-high arcades, my feet feel light and pampered, and before heading to the street, I pause to watch two old men play chess at a small metal-legged table. Some instinct makes me pivot; I turn just in time to make eye contact with my elusive train companion. I wink and smile, then stride with confidence and pliant feet, out into the sunlit morning.
About the Author
Fiona Brown holds a Fine Arts Diploma with a ceramics concentration from the Kootenay School of the Arts, a BA in English Literature and a BEd in Elementary Education from the University of British Columbia, a TESL Diploma from UBC, and a BC Teacher’s Certificate. She has worked as an English teacher in Spain, France, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic, and more recently as an art and language teacher in local BC schools and her home studio. Immersion in nature, local and international travel, and deep human relationships inform her writing, clay work, mixed-media book-making and teaching. She lives in Nelson with her wonderful teenage son.