It’s hard to say exactly how I ended up in this dreadful situation, although I could easily put all the blame on the Thomas-Cook train schedule. If they had made their timetables a little easier to read, and their columns more evenly aligned, I may have never ended up on this midnight train to Athens. Yet there I was, sandwiched in among all the dissolute of Southern Europe in a third-class train compartment, trying to figure out how I was going to get some sleep.
It was bench seating only, benches that faced one another with such little space between them that one had to sit straddling the knees of the person opposite you. There were smells of human body odor and of middle-eastern cooking, zeera and black cumin, the mixture of which was not a pleasant thing. I couldn’t imagine someone cooking in such confined quarters. I looked around but couldn’t make out where the smell was coming from.
Across from me was a sinister-looking character, a man in his mid-thirties with narrow eyes and high cheekbones. I assumed he was from North Africa, although one could never really be sure about this kind of thing when traveling along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. He had dark skin and an angular face and he was carrying a canvas satchel with Nubian markings. He was a man of mixed races, and a man who could not be trusted, that much I knew. Call it experience or traveler’s intuition, after logging many miles through third-world countries one acquires an instinct for this kind of thing. I had encountered this type before; trouble, not in size, but in opportunist nature. In his eyes I saw the furtiveness and cleverness of an accomplished thief. He was filthy and unshaven. His clothes were soiled. Among the many odors in the train compartment one was particularly strong, and undoubtedly it came from him.
And in the instant I was thinking this, I caught his dark eyes studying my carry-bag. The satchel, which I kept on my lap, had a shoulder strap securely over my neck. In it were my most valued items: my passport and credit cards, what few euros I had left, and some souvenirs I picked up along the way. His eyes went from the bag to the attachment latch, and followed up the strap to where it disappeared around my shoulder. When he realized I was watching him, he quickly turned his eyes away. He had a satchel, too, and when he saw me looking at it, he pulled it closely to his side.
I brought my hand thoughtfully up to my chin. It was only then that I realized I was likewise filthy and unshaven. Perhaps I was the one who smelled of body odor? I discreetly took a sniff of my underarm, but could not tell if the odor was coming from me or not.
It had been nearly three days since I had taken a bath. Having crossed by ferry from Brindisi the night before, arriving in Corfu in the early morning hours, there was no time to shower or shave. By the time I reached Patras, sleepless and exhausted, I was desperate to find a sink or washbasin. But the train station had only the old, European-style bathrooms with a launching platform, no running water, and a bucket for a flush.
It was an uncomfortable arrangement no matter how you look at it. And despite the lack of accommodations and the desperate guy across from me, sleep, I knew, was what I needed most. I looked around the car. It was completely full. A group of young Europass students had already commandeered the one small piece of floor space and were sleeping there, piled on top of one another.
I pulled my carry-bag close to me, keeping an eye on the man across from me, and I tried to get comfortable. In shifting my body weight I accidentally bumped his leg.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He did not reply.
He was sleepy too, I could tell, and as tired as I. His eyes were bloodshot and his eyelids looked heavy and like they wanted to drop. He also shifted uncomfortably and likewise pulled his satchel in close to his side. Then he curled his hand around it and held on to it like it was filled with gold. It made me wonder what he had in it. Maybe he’s a gem trader, I thought, or the thief of a gem trader.
If only he would fall asleep. If he would sleep, then I could do the same. And almost exactly when I thought of it, I saw his lids begin to drop. Go down, I thought. Yes. Let them go down. Let them drop. But then the thought crossed my mind: What if he’s faking? Lulling me into a false sense of security so that I would sleep, only to wake up hours later and find my carry-bag gone, cut from my shoulder with a knife.
We exchanged hard, guarded looks, and bouts of drowsiness. His eyes would close, and his head would bob, and then he’d snap himself back awake. And I, in one instant, lost all consciousness, although just for a few seconds, awaking to see him glancing at me with a little smirk on his face.
Not so easy, I thought.
I caught him pinching himself, and then shaking his head, trying to shake out the drowsiness.
You’re going down, I thought. I can outlast you. But each time I saw him struggling, I found myself struggling too; fighting off the inevitable sleep that I knew would eventually win over my body.
The night wore on. The vintage train rattled over the tracks. The noise and motion helped keep us both awake. Still, as the hours passed it became nearly impossible. The accumulation of three bad nights had caught up with me. My eyelids were feeling like lead shutters, ready to close for a long winter. I did everything I could to fight it. I tilted my head back, and then sideways. I scratched my side though I didn’t have an itch. The good news was that he was not doing much better. I watched his head bobbing. I watched him fighting it, and clinging to his pouch more protectively.
And finally I saw him unclasp the middle button of his shirt and reach his hand deep down into it; down along his side. His eyes gleamed at me. He gave me a little grin, and a head-nod, letting me know that he had something, a knife or a gun perhaps? It didn’t matter what, I realized. He had a weapon of some sort, down there in his shirt, and whatever it was, it brought him fresh confidence, confidence enough to sleep.
And now his eyes began to close and his expression was sure. I watched him with one eye still open, watching me.
And he’s probably a light sleeper, I thought, with a hair-trigger finger that’s equally light and fast.
It is unfair, I thought, as my eyes, too tired and too heavy to fight it any longer, began to close. There is no justice. This scoundrel would have a peaceful night while I would suffer from frequent awakenings and sleep apnea.
Then it dawned on me that I had a similar option. The idea seemed too obvious, yet likely to work. I unbuttoned an opening in my shirt and reached down with my hand, down along the side of my chest to where I kept nothing. I left my hand there, warm against my side, and I watched him, his one eye still open, watching me, but fluttering closed.
Okay, I thought, détente. And I smiled at him; a little smile; a warning smile, and I closed my eyes and slept.