The TrenItalia woman averted my penetrating gaze, shrugged and made a seesaw movement with her hand.
Guess not. Gulp.
I didn’t say much about it for the rest of the day, but I thought about it considerably more. I’d read so many stories about the Italian night trains. How gangs get onto the train in the middle of the night, threaten passengers with knives and rob them. How lowlifes wander the carriages looking for loot, like disembodied malevolent souls….Most of those stories featured spilt tears and blood. I just so hoped they wouldn’t be mine, or my Englishman’s.
I’d always thought we’d take the train from Venice to Rome, I just expected we would take the express train that takes all of three hours (quicker than a flight and airport checkin) in broad daylight. I hadn’t counted on taking the slow regional train service that leaves Mestre (Venice) at midnight and slinks into Roma Termini at 6am.
But, we were running short of time, and we wanted to see so much of Rome, to really make the most of the brilliant opportunity we had been given by our lovely sponsors*, so the night train it was. At 2330 we jumped on a crammed train to Mestre from the Piazzale Roma and then waited – like Antoinette before the gallows – on the dark shadowy platform for our train driven by Chairon.
We paid the ferry man about €40 each for the privilege of descending into the black heart of Italian life.
Was it worth the money?
The filthy aged clutch of carriages of the night train shrugged into the station, without fanfare. The green paint as worn and faded as the glamour days of train travel. This was no Orient Express. Inside the carriage were compartments with a sliding door framed by a plastic wood veneer that also featured in the two tray tables by the window. There wasn’t a lock! Six upright seats, less comfortable than the seats on a rollercoaster attraction ride, faced each other affording no privacy at all, and there was no personal reading light, entertainment console or pillowed headrests with wings to snuggle your cheek into.
The 6 million euro question was; “Who would share our carriage with us?”
Thieves, murderers, prostitutes, gangs of illegal immigrants who would slit your throat for your camera, as soon as look at you?
We slid our backpacks under our feet and positioned our hands on our valuables, where they would stay glued for the rest for the rest of the trip. Fear of robbery is a remarkable superglue. As for me, I placed my wallet/phone/passport bundle inbetween my legs and rested my sweatshirt over the top. If they were going to get that personal they may as well take all my money and my passport.
For a brief moment there we held our breath as our fellow carriage companions shuffled in. First, an Italian woman with overpouring perfume she’d been marinating in for the past five days, with only a small handbag. Then came a solid masculine looking older woman with cropped hair and a strong jawline many men would kill for. She eased her huge suitcase, bound in cling film to its final resting place between her legs. My Englishman gallantly offered to put it above her head on the luggage rack, and I beamed him an encouraging smile.
Only two more seats to go. Who would fill them?
We breathed a sigh of relief when two French backpackers, each slighter than their large backpacks, eased into the cabin and proceeded to curl into elegant little sleeping balls. How is it the French are always so damn elegant? Even backpacking?
Well. That was it. Our little group of travellers heading for Rome on the night train. All women, except my Englishman. With tremendous relief we closed the curtains on the cabin door, and firmly closed it. I relaxed a little and closed my eyes to snatch some sleep as the train pulled out of Mestre under the cover of darkness.
Outside our cabin door a skinny white guy with sallow grey skin and shifty eyes, loitered. He stood in the aisle of the carriage for six hours, disappearing only when the guard came to check our tickets. Next to him a tiny girl with big brown eyes and a shroud of sadness sat on her suitcase. I assume she was going to Rome to work on a corner. Another nameless, untraceable stray whose body would one day complete its life in a city ditch – a burnt out, used up, fag end.
Throughout the carriage, the flotsam and jetsam of life stood, or crouched. Immigrants I suspect. Illega,l perhaps? Some African, some Eastern European…. Central European girls looking for work, for a life, for love they will never find. We closed our blind to them all, and drew an impenetrable unseen screen of protection over our little select cabin of travellers and tried again to sleep.
I dreamt I was in a horsedrawn carriage on a long journey through the countryside, which was interrupted by ruthless highway men.
I dreamt I was on a plane in a hijack, or even an extra in the Milky Bar kid ad – the one travelling on a train across the Wild West. Disturbed by my dreams, I didn’t sleep for long. I sat quietly, alone with my thoughts as the others slept, until 3am when all four other travellers left the train and disappeared into the darkness.
And then the hulking menacing darkness came right into our cabin.
I felt the danger, I didn’t actually see it. I saw it with my mind’s eye. Three African men and a woman slid into our cabin. Two of the blokes were dressed smartly, as if they were businessmen. Except, they didn’t have luggage and they were on the super cheap night train. I suspect they didn’t have a ticket. Or a home, or anyone waiting for them in Rome. They had that air about them that suggested they belonged to a gang of some kind, some nefarious criminal element – I don’t know what it was. Members of a boiler room scam gang, perhaps?
The other two, a huge guy with thighs each the size of a small child, and a girl with dead eyes had some kind of relationship – working not loving, surely. There was an air of desperation about them, a smell that suggested the girl and guy had been living rough or were just off the boat….
Their eyes never met mine, but I kept mine open, wide open, all night.
I left the cabin once to squeeze through the crowded aisles to use the loo. The guard was counting money at the end of the carriage, standing outside the loo, flicking the notes with fat fingers and dirty nails. I have no idea what the money was for, I just didn’t want to ask. I looked away and double checked the lock on the loo cublicle door.
At 5am I watched the dawn break shards of light and clarity through the cabin window, and I willed the train onwards towards Rome and the relative security of the Roma Termini. We pushed through tunnel after tunnel, until finally joining the outskirts of civilisation and motorways starting to fill with early morning commuters. My fellow travellers, my Englishman included, were all fast asleep, but I was ever vigilant – that old imagination and Spidey sense for danger on full alert.
And then, it was over. We pulled into the station late, and everyone rushed for the exit, as determined as rats off a ship. I gently woke my Englishman, dabbed the sleep out of my eyes and tried to shake off the night’s terror.
I once studied The Heart of Darkness by Conrad at University, but I never really did get it then, all youthful innocence and middle class comfort, I was then.
I do now.
I know what the Heart of Darkness is. It’s not sin, as Conrad wanted us to believe.
And that night train had been a sobering journey into that heart. That train reeked of it.
That very ‘horror. The horror.’
Disclaimer: We travelled to Italy sponsored by Wimdu and Groupon Getaways. Between them they provided flights and five nights of luxurious accommodation, and we had a marvellous time thanks to our sponsors! All opinions above are my own.
The decision to take the night train from Venice was also our own. Numpties that we are!