We met a man in Vienna.
It was late and we had a long journey back to Poznan. The train arrived at the station at around half 10 at night, and we lugged our suitcases on board and shuffled along to find our compartment.
Waiting for us inside was a handsome though dishevelled gentlemen, in cleanish clothes, sprawled half seated, half lying and entirely unconscious across one of the lower bunk beds. Since the bed in question was mine, Lucy made a good effort to wake the gentlemen, speaking in increasingly loud Polish until he eventually stirred.
Lifting his face, we could see his lip was split and there was a stitched up wound above his left eye. He stared, blinking stupidly, grasping loosely at his faculties. He seemed rather pleased to have been shaken from his drunken stupor by an attractive blonde lady, and introduced himself to us as Christoph.
When I answered in English he was amused, and proved himself a competent linguist, although confusion overcome him a few words into each sentence and he always reverted back to Polish. With Lucy’s translation, I gathered that he’d recently been in a fight, but couldn’t remember how recently, and was on his way to Katowice, where we’d also be changing trains.
With amusement and alarm we watched as Christoph politely removed himself from my bed, and attempted to elevate himself to the top bunk. This was clearly destined to be a spectacular failure, so he compromised with the middle bunk, and settled in with wobbly comfort.
Proudly he declared himself to be a writer, and passed Lucy a tidy notebook full of neat handwriting. The opening story was a thriller, the narrative in Polish but much of the dialogue in English. With Christoph’s fervent encouragement Lucy was just beginning to translate the story for me, when the conductor arrived.
Short, thin and severe, he checked Lucy and my tickets, and then moved onto Christoph. In slurred English, Christoph declared “I have no ticket.”
“You don’t have a ticket?”
“No.” He smiled, proudly.
“Then you will have to leave the train.”
“I will not leave the train.”
“Please. I’ve had a long day. Leave the train.” “I will not leave the train.”
A stare off ensued. Christoph won. The guard scurried off the get help, whilst Lucy and I sat awkwardly around. Soon a second, identical guard arrived, and asked Lucy and I to leave our carriage and join the dead eyed masses in the seating compartments. We agreed reluctantly, shaking Christoph by the hand and bidding him polite farewell.
I reminded Lucy to hand him back his notebook.
Sitting in the carriage beside another, sleepy couple we chatted about Christoph.
“Finally, an adventure.” “Yes, the rest of the trip was a bit too perfect. Would’ve been a shame if something weird hadn’t happened.”
“He’s just like…”
“Yes, exactly.” “Paul in 30 years time.” “Maybe 30 days.”
For some reason I remember that the young man next to me was on his laptop, reading reviews of cancer treatments. I hope he found something that worked.
The folks in the neighbouring cabin were loud, screaming football chants of various regions, banging on the doors with abandon and swearing loudly and precisely. Through reflections in the windows we could see a room full of energetic young men, with rather fewer shirts than bodies.
Another voice soon joined the chants, and we saw the stumbling figure of our Christoph attempting to join the melee. The drunks rejected this older, more battle scared version of themselves, and he stumbled dejectedly on. Gathering up our luggage we bade farewell to our cabin mates, and returned to our sleeping carriage.
When we arrived, we found muddy footprints on my bedsheets, and Christoph’s notebook waiting for us on the middle bed.
I set off to find booze, and Lucy opened Christoph’s book and began to read. It was too risky, we rationalised, to attempt to find Christoph himself, and the offended, sullen guards would certainly not treat the writer’s creative outpourings with the respect it deserved.
The first guard (or possibly the second, they were as I say, identical), grumpily pointed me in the direction of the bar. He seemed to blame me for the whole affair, and his directions lead me to a dead end. I asked another guard (I think it was a different guard), who pointed me in the opposite direction.
Another dead end. Another lap of the train, and I found a small cupboard with a row of soft drinks guarded by a uniformed moustache. “No wine. No beer. You must go to German half of train” he said, pointing back where I’d come from. This time however I succeeded, and came back to our carriage proudly carrying two small bottles of wine.
Lucy had finished the notebook, and described it’s contents. There was the start of the novel, the thriller. There were poems in, apparently, clumsy Polish. There were reminders, a note to pay child support. And there was a phone number. We vowed to call the number as soon as we were home, and somehow give Christoph back his book.
The book still lies on our shelf. Christoph, well who knows what happened to him.