Death on the tracks

This is a true story told to me by the man who took the upper berth on a train in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.

Our friend, who related this story, was boarding a sleeper car. He had reserved the lower berth in a compartment, but when he reached it, he found it occupied by a man who had not made a reservation. The man aggressively refused to budge from our friend’s berth. Our friend called the conductor. After a considerable and unpleasant argument, the miscreant relinquished the berth, which our friend then occupied.

Shortly after this, an old man, who had been given a reservation in the upper berth, entered the compartment. He was unable to climb into the upper berth. Out of kindness, our friend took the old man’s upper berth and gave him the lower one.

Next morning, our friend woke up. He climbed down from his upper bunk and was horrified to discover that the old man had been stabbed to death during the night. No doubt, the man who had been evicted by the conductor had exacted his revenge.

A narrow escape

Ladbroke monument

 

My first job as a dentist was in a lovely practice in the Medway Towns. After having worked there for eleven years, I married and then lived in London. As it became tiring commuting by car between Kensington and north-east Kent, I changed practices. I worked for about nine months in north-west London in a practice where I was not happy. Then, I moved to another practice near Portobello Road. After about four years, the owner of that practice decided to open another branch in Maidenhead, Berkshire. I thought it would be interesting to work in a brand-new practice, and as Maidenhead was served by a good rail connection from Paddington, which is near my home, I decided to move to the new practice, where I treated its very first patient.

Usually, I boarded a local train that left Paddington a few minutes past eight in the morning. Just over half an hour later, I used to disembark at Maidenhead station, which was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the practice. Of the patients whom I treated there, the less said the better. My best memory of the place was that it was near a wonderful sandwich shop. The people who worked there had no idea about portion size control. So when I ordered my favourite sandwich, filled with prawn mayonnaise, it contained so much filling that I could hardly get my mouth around it.

One Monday evening, I returned to Paddington a little earlier than usual. Not being in a great hurry, I bought a ticket for the following Monday’s journey to Maidenhead.

On the following day, Tuesday the 5th of October 1999, I arrived at Paddington early as usual. Having already bought my ticket the evening before, I was able to take the train that left a few minutes earlier than the one I usually boarded. It left just before 8 am. The train I normally travelled on left a few minutes after 8 am.

I arrived at Maidenhead and began working. In those days, I used to have a radio running in my surgery. I heard a news bulletin that mentioned that there had been a terrible rail crash. I thought nothing of it until I returned to Maidenhead station that afternoon. I discovered, to my annoyance, that no trains were running as far as Paddington. They were all terminating west of Paddington at Ealing Broadway, where, fortunately, there is an Underground line which allowed me to continue my homeward bound journey.

It was only when I reached London that I learned more details about the crash. The train that I normally boarded every morning, the one which left a few minutes past 8 am, had collided head-on with a high-speed express train coming in the opposite direction on the same set of rails. Later, it was reported that 31 people had died and over 500 were injured. Most of the victims, killed and injured, were on board the train that I missed taking because I had bought my tickets on the night before.

There is a monument to those who died in the crash. It is near the large Sainsbury supermarket on Ladbroke Grove. Whenever I see this simple stone monument or think about the incident, I shudder. One of the names on that memorial could have easily been mine.

Ticket to Sofia

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A church in Sofia, 1983

I decided to travel to Bulgaria in Easter 1983; it was close to Yugoslavia and I had not been there before. I wanted to travel by train rather than air, and to visit friends on the way. I planned to start my journey from Rainham, the village in Kent where I had been practising dentistry for just over a year.

 

I went to the local station and asked about buying a return ticket from Rainham to Sofia. I was told that as this was not a commonly made journey I needed to go to a special office at London’s Victoria Station to get this prepared. I did as I was instructed, paid the fare, and was informed that my ticket would be ready for collection a week later. Armed with this bespoke ticket and a Bulgarian visa, I left Rainham for Dover, crossed the English Channel by steamer, and then boarded a train bound for Milan.

BULG 4 Sofia outskirts

A factory on the outskirts of Sofia, 1983

My future wife, Lopa, was living in Milan, where the company for whom she worked as a management consultant was based. During the few days that I stayed with her, I met Dijana (from Belgrade) and her then boyfriend quite by chance in the Piazza del Duomo, the huge square in front of the cathedral. They came to eat with us at Lopa’s flat, where her mother was also staying during a long visit from India. Dijana, whose interests in feminism were developing rapidly at the time, was impressed that Lopa’s mother was a doctor, a gynaecologist. She held female professionals in much higher regard than male ones.

After dinner, Dijana and her friend washed the dishes. I remember that when her unshaven boyfriend, who was desperately attempting to empathise with her burgeoning feminism, was washing a pan, he pointed out that he was washing the outside of the pan as well as the inside. He claimed vociferously and self-righteously that most men ignored the outsides of cooking pans, whereas women always washed them. I believe that his close relationship with Dijana was short-lived.

BULG 3 Sofia univ

University of Sofia, 1983

I continued my rail journey to Belgrade, where I stayed, as usual, with Raša. I learned that disaster had struck: there was a grave shortage of coffee in the city. This was truly a tragedy amongst its citizens, most of whom drank vast quantities of the stuff. I promised Raša that if I saw coffee for sale in Bulgaria, I would bring him some on my return. A few days later, I met my friend Shabnam at Belgrade’s railway station. She had arrived from London, and was joining me on the trip toBulgaria.

When our train had crossed the border and entered Bulgarian territory, a Bulgarian immigration official came into our compartment and examined our passports. After handing them back to us, he sat down and asked us where we were going. When we said that we were visiting Bulgaria and going no further, he smiled. It was, I felt, an expression of genuine joy. He was so pleased that we were taking the trouble to visit his country rather than simply using it as a corridor, as most travellers did on their way to Turkey.

BULG 1a Sofia Station

A railway station in Sofia, 1983

At the main railway station in Sofia we exchanged some of our Sterling for Bulgarian Lev at an official bureau-de-change. I had read that it was best to avoid black market currency exchanges because, even though a highly favourable rate of exchange could be expected, there were serious penalties for foreigners who used unofficial money-changers. Even at the official rate of exchange, we found everything in Bulgaria to be ridiculously cheap by our standards.

The station was quite far from the city centre. We hired a taxi to take us there. When we reached the destination, I asked how much we needed to pay. I spoke in my primitive Serbo-Croatian which was useful for making me understood in Bulgaria. This was not surprising as Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian are quite closely related on the family tree of languages. The driver replied,“One Pound, one Dollar, one Deutschmark, one Swiss Franc…” “But we have Lev,” I interrupted, waving some Bulgarian currency notes at him. The driver stuck his nose into the air contemptuously, and said, “Two.” I pointed at the meter, which indicated a fare of one Lev, and said, “It says ‘one’.” He turned around and pointed at the two of us, and said, “Two, you are two people.” I gave up and paid. After all, 2 Lev was worth about 3 pence in those days.

BULG 5 Sofia dimitrov

Mausoleum of Bulgarian Communist politician Georgi Dimitrov[1882-1949] in Sofia, 1983

A lady at the tourist office arranged for us to stay in some private accommodation, and then explained how we should reach the place. I asked her to repeat the information as I had not heard it properly. She looked at me sternly, and said in English, “You need to concentrate better.”

 

This is an excerpt from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

BULG 0 Scrabble