“If there’s a murder,” I whispered to my partner as we boarded the cream-and-brown British Pullman in Victoria Station, “you can be my sidekick while I find the culprit.”
“Or you can be my sidekick,” she said.
“That wouldn’t work,” I told her. “You’re too nice. You’d be too embarrassed to accuse anyone of being a murderer. Plus, you don’t have a moustache. Detectives should have moustaches.”
“Have you considered,” she asked, “that if there’s a murder you wouldn’t be the detective, you’d be the victim?”
When Agatha Christie used to catch the Orient Express to Istanbul each winter to accompany her husband on archeological digs in Mesopotamia, the journey took three days and she sat patiently for hours on end, pretending to knit, studying the other passengers. Travel happened on a more human scale then: you had time to watch the landscape change, time to see people’s personalities emerge, their flirtations and irritations. You became a community and when you disembarked it was with the same sorrow and relief that you feel after a family gathering. Today the regular service of the Orient Express only runs as far as Venice and only takes 24 hours, but in this modern world 24 hours is purest luxury.
I eyed the other passengers in the saloon car. There was a pair of white-haired English fellows with expensive matching coats. There was a family of Italians – mama and papa and eleven-year-old twins – dressed in linen jackets and pocket squares, all so beautiful and elegant you’d go blind if you looked at them too long. But there was also another couple, a young chap and his new wife, sitting in a silence like a scowl. I’ve had enough quarrels while traveling to recognize the signs: they sat facing each other but with their heads angled away, staring unseeing through different windows, as miserable as you can be without actually throwing yourself under the locomotive.
The oldest carriage on the Pullman train dates back to 1925 but we were on Perseus, built in 1957 and part of the train that carried Winston Churchill’s body around England after his death in 1965.
“Have you seen the toilet?” I hissed at my partner. “There’s a mosaic of Perseus’ head on the floor!”
But she wasn’t listening, she was too busy hoovering down scrambled eggs and salmon. Outside southern England clicked past, a thousand grim faces dragging themselves to work while we sipped Bellinis and hurtled smugly toward romance. Well, most of us, anyway. I watched the honeymooners through my Bellini glass. She was too angry to eat and glared at him as he tucked into his croissant saying “Mmmm”. The food was tremendous, but I’ve been in quarrels like that: he was only eating to annoy her.
At Folkestone the Pullman went no further. We transferred to luxury motor-coaches to zip under the channel and pop up again in Calais to board the blue-and-gold Continental train, the Orient Express proper, a grand 16-coach procession of restored 1920s carriages that would sweep us across France and Switzerland and Austria and into Italy.
The sleeping compartments are lovingly restored originals – small but perfectly arranged, as though Marie Kondo was designing trains in 1929. Open an inlaid walnut cabinet and there’s your sparkling washstand; return from dinner to find your sofa seat vanished and the carriage now a tasteful sleep chamber. Still, though, back in the golden age of rail travel they were less pampered for space than we are, or maybe they were just slimmer. Two full-grown South Africans cannot dress for dinner at the same time without coming to blows, so while my partner dressed I strolled the corridors, peering nosily into other people’s compartments.
The original Orient Express stopped in 1977 but in fact there was never a train called the Orient Express – the name signified a service linking Paris with the Near East, and the train would lengthen and shrink along its journey as cars were added and subtracted according to need. It was more functional than we imagine nowadays – it was the most efficient mode of commuting, rather than a luxury excursion taken for its own sake. There were no bar carriages or lounges or saloon cars back then; there are still no showers or toilets in your compartment, and I don’t mind that one little bit.
I love trains. I love the sense that you’re traveling as much through time as you are through space. I love the rattle and the glamour and the ka-chuck, ka-chuk of the wheels on the rails at the rhythm of an excited heartbeat. I love looking out at night seeing a yellow light burning in a window and wondering who lives there and what their lives are like and imagining a small child looking back at this string of bright jewels rushing by, wondering where we’re going and what elsewhere is like.
My favourite walk in all the world is that walk from your compartment down a swaying corridor, all gussied up in your suit for a cocktail before dinner, seeing yourself reflected in the window glass like the happy transparent ghost of a more sophisticated version of you. We’re all better looking on a train.
In the piano bar a lean silvery fellow tinkled Cole Porter, and the honeymooning couple were nowhere to be seen. I imagined him at one end of the train, glaring furiously into the French night and wanting to take up smoking, her at the other end, composing bitter Facebook updates in her head. I watched the Italian family sipping their champagne. Even the eleven-year-old twins were sipping champagne, and somehow they looked more adult than I did.
In the Riviera dining car with its Lalique glass panels and silver cutlery that tinkles against the crystal wine glasses, I swirled my spoon through a silky lobster bisque and surveilled the honeymooners. They were finally talking, but in low voices, making jabbing gestures with their cutlery as they ate their venison. Some cranberry sauce flew off his fork and landed on her dress. Surely, someone was going to be murdered tonight.
After dinner we drank cognac with the white-haired English gents and discussed our mutual infatuation with the Italian family, and gossiped about the Asian family who brought a hired photographer with them to take their holiday snaps. During the night we crossed into Switzerland. I woke in the early hours from a dream, swaying warmly in my bed, and listened happily to the creak of the compartment. My partner said sleepily, “I’ll be your sidekick if you like”, and we held hands in the dark and it felt even better than a dream.
I lay half-awake the next morning as we approached Zurich, remembering the scene in From Russia With Love when Rosa Klebb attacks James Bond on the Orient Express with poison-tipped shoes. I dozed again and woke for coffee and croissants in our compartment. Outside were ice-blue lakes and sheer snow-capped stone mountains and a faded denim blue sky rubbed with the fading white traces of dreams.
We crossed the Gotthard Pass toward Milan and enjoyed a three-course lunch outside of Verona. I couldn’t remember a time when we weren’t on the train. It felt like we had been on board for a year that had passed in ten minutes. I stared out at terraced vineyards and hilltop towns, my mind a perfect, contented blank.
I wanted to find that young couple and tell them to stop wasting their time not being happy, that a trip like this won’t happen very often, that all of our days are precious but that the point of an experience like this is to make the preciousness unmistakeable.
I’ve never been so unhappy to arrive in Venice. We were the last ones off, unwilling to leave, watching the others bustle along the platform in Santa Lucia.
“I want another cup of tea,” said my partner.
“It’s too late,” I said.
“I want to see the Italians one last time,” she said.
“You’ll have to make do with me.”
“Will we ever be this happy again?” she said.
I watched through the window as the honeymooning couple walked by, pulling their bags. As they walked she pulled herself closer to him and nuzzled her cheek against his shoulder.
“We’ll be all right,” I said.
Financial Mail, June 2019