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Incident at Sofia

In November 1973, with two friends, I embarked on a round-the-world trip in an old Ford Transit van. In early 1974, we split up (perfectly amicably) in Istanbul, and I went on alone to Tehran by train, intending to get a job there teaching English, hoping that my friends would join me after they had driven the van across Turkey.

The train ride across Asian Turkey in the depths of winter was spectacular. I had never seen snow on this scale: huge frozen wastes and great white mountainsides beneath a vivid blue sky by day, gleaming in the light of thousands of stars by night. At every station, a fresh team of snow diggers climbed aboard. When the drifts stopped the train, they got out with their shovels and cleared the blockage. Sometimes this took hours. I could hear them shouting up ahead. At the next station, they disembarked and another team took over. The journey lasted four days.

In my compartment, Turkish families came and went, doing short trips of a station or two. All of them brought food with them, and all of them invited me to share what they had. I did, with gratitude. It may have been nothing to do with what I ate then, but by the time we crossed the border into Iran, I was feeling ill. When I arrived in Tehran, I sought a cheap hotel. I took a tower room in the first place I found. It was heated only by paraffin stove. The temperature outside was well below zero. I became feverish. I lay in bed, reading Jane Eyre, hoping I would get better. But the illness and weakness persisted, and eventually I decided that I’d better be sensible and get some proper medical advice. I went to an American clinic, and paid most of the money I had for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medication. I had contracted gastro-enteritis. The drugs did their work and I began to recover. I remember the street stalls selling the huge sturgeon which had been fished in the Caspian Sea. I remember going to the main post office to see whether there was any mail for me at Poste Restante (there was), and agreeing to write a love letter for an Iranian woman to an American soldier who had gone home. I remember a kind family who invited me to dinner in their house in the prosperous northern district of the city, and who played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on their record player as we ate. This was five years before the Islamic revolution. The Shah’s portrait was everywhere.

I did try to get work teaching English, but the pay offered was small, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful I would be destitute. I had no interest in being a penniless hippy on the street. So one evening I boarded a bus to take me back to Istanbul. We travelled all night and most of the next day, and were in Istanbul by evening: a return journey of only one day this time. I found another cheap hotel. I was feeling good by now; my appetite had returned. But I was aware that, to put it mildly, I had neglected personal hygiene during my stay in Tehran. In fact, I was filthy. Solution: go to the Old Turkish Baths and get clean.

The next morning I presented myself. My intention was to take the cheapest of the various options available: buy a bar of soap and rent a towel, and bathe unaccompanied. But Ahmed, one of the masseurs, had other ideas. He soon persuaded me that I needed his full attention. He took me into a cubicle, ran a hot bath, told me to step in once I was happy with the temperature of the water, and briefly disappeared. He returned with a huge bar of yellow soap and an enormous loofah. He then scrubbed every inch of my body, out of which great rolls of black dirt emerged, to my astonishment and his evident delight. Once I was to his satisfaction clean, he dried me and led me out of the cubicle to a central space in the building, where there were marble slabs on which customers were lying in various states of undress.

I should say a word about Ahmed, physically. He seemed to me no more than five feet tall. He was also, according to my memory, five feet wide. In fact, he was cubic. He picked me up and laid me (six feet three and skinny as a rake after weeks of illness and a less than ideal diet) carefully face downwards on the slab, and then — to my initial alarm — he climbed up next to me and said, ‘Now I ease your spine.’ He did this by walking back and forth on me, from my coccyx to the nape of my neck. Now, 46 years after the event, I can hardly believe that this happened, that this isn’t one of those travellers’ tales that gets ‘improved’ in the telling. But I’m sure of it. And once he’d finished, and he led me back to the cubicle so I could recover my clothes, I felt terrific. Clean, cured, a new man. The only disappointment was that I had no change of linen, so had to put sweaty old clothes back on my newly purified limbs.

Two or three days later, I boarded a train called the Orient Express, though it bore no similarity to the luxury accommodation made famous by Agatha Christie. It was just a long string of carriages pulled by two diesel engines. We soon crossed the border into Bulgaria. I was in a compartment with a group of charming Americans, several of whom had avoided going to Vietnam. They had experimented with mind-changing substances in a way that I had not, and discussed their experiences openly. The Bulgarian countryside passed by, hour after hour, and perhaps (I forget now) day became night and night became day again. What I am certain of is that by the time the train drew in to the main station at Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, it was morning, and I was desperately thirsty. My water bottle — a small one bought in Istanbul — had been emptied long ago. There was something about the water dribbling out of the tap in the toilet which didn’t encourage me to trust it, recovering as I was from a condition probably brought about by eating or drinking the wrong kind of thing. So as the train stopped, and I looked out to see that it had arrived at buffers, so that when it would eventually depart it would do so by the way it had come, I was sure that there would be enough time for me to leap out and purchase water. In order not to be encumbered, I left all my belongings in the safe keeping of my American friends, and ran down the platform with only a few dollars in my hand. I found a kiosk, bought two or three bottles of water from a seller who was delighted to be offered hard currency, and turned back toward the train. It was leaving the station.

I’m a pretty good runner, although my shape and build means that I’m better at cross-country than at sprints. I sprinted. I was perhaps ten feet from the door of the last departing carriage, but it accelerated away from me and I stopped, mid-platform. The extremity of my plight was immediately apparent. My passport, all my remaining money apart from the dollar or two still in my hand, plus my precious notebooks with my writings from the trip (this was the worst), were leaving me. Would I, somehow, without a word of Bulgarian, find my way to the British embassy and throw myself on its mercy, no doubt to be sneered at by a well dressed young man who’d had the same kind of education as I but had made different career choices, who could speak Bulgarian and was beginning to ascend the Foreign Office’s promotion ladder? As I was considering this prospect, I looked out into the distance to see the departing train stop amid the tangle of rails beyond the ends of the platforms. And then it began to shunt back towards the station. Hope leapt up in me. Sure enough, the train I had thought lost for ever slowly re-arrived at a platform two or three away from that from which I had alighted. Overjoyed (and a dear friend has rightly told me since that relief is the sincerest of human emotions), I ran round with my bottles of water and — to make sure that the nightmare could not reoccur — I climbed aboard at the very back of the train, intending to walk all the way through until I reached my compartment.

But the nightmare did reoccur. When I arrived at the front of, I don’t know, the tenth or twelfth carriage, still not having found my compartment and my American friends, I saw through the window at the end of that carriage that the portion I had been walking through had, during my walk, been decoupled from the portion in front of it, which was once again departing down the platform. I opened the door next to me, jumped out, and for the second time sprinted after the conveyance which contained almost all my worldly goods. The result was the same, although I tell myself now that on this occasion I touched the last door of the accelerating part-train, but wasn’t able to turn the handle. It left me.

The despair this time was deeper. Life had given me one chance, and if I had only remembered the number of my carriage, and had run along beside the stationary train until I found it, I could have been aboard by now. A drowning man, they say, comes up twice before he goes down the third time. I had had my two chances.

But then — how to describe a feeling which trumps ‘overjoyed’? — the manoeuvre was repeated. The unhooked portion of the train stopped in the remote distance, and began to reverse again towards the station. Of course: this was a train carrying passengers to different destinations across our great continent, and it needed to break into sections in Sofia. The shorter line of carriages once more backed into a platform two or three from that where I was standing, and this time I made no mistake. I would not go down the third time. I ran alongside the carriages as they were coming to a halt until I saw the companions I recognised, jumped aboard by the nearest door, and collapsed in a heap in my place. ‘Dude, we were a little worried about you,’ they said.

There isn’t much more to tell. The train made its way uneventfully through the rest of Bulgaria, into what was then Yugoslavia, and Italy. We stopped at Trieste and arrived at Venice in pouring rain. I didn’t leave the train until I was sure it wasn’t going anywhere further. After a few hours, I boarded another train, slept, woke, slept, crossed from Calais to Dover by ferry, boarded a Southern Region electric train of the sort whose numbers I had diligently collected a decade before, and arrived at Victoria station to be greeted by the girlfriend I had left in London only four months previously. The round-the-world trip had been severely abbreviated. No money, no clear idea of the future. What was I to do? Obvious: become a teacher.