How I love an overnight train journey. I normally succumb to the soporific rocking within minutes of clambering into my bunk; out like a light until the first morning rays spill in through the window, heralding dawn in a new location. I’m just sorry I don’t live in a country which warrants taking them.
Travelling around Australia, however, I came across the perfect route; Sydney to Melbourne.
I typically arrive at the station an hour early to get in the mood with a sweet sherry in the railway bar, changing my order to a pint of lager when I remember I’m not the heroine in a 1940s Hitchcock film noir. Totally over-excited by the time the gates open, I rely on a well honed nonchalant walk to disguise my determination to be the first to board.
Heading to the far end of the platform I could hardly wait to reach the carriage and do my impersonation of a rescue puppy exploring its first home. The couchette, the door, the lock on the door, my neighbours, my neighbours’ couchette, the loo – my nose would be in everything (maybe not the loo).
Special mention must, of course, be given to the carriage where dreams are either made or dashed. The romance of the overnight train undoubtedly lies in the dining car. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed to be haute cuisine (or even necessarily edible) but the anticipation of its potential is, in itself, quite delicious.
Images of being invited to join a table of witty, wordly and likeminded people dance playfully through my mind. Entertaining, intelligent repartee over a bottle or two of a fine vintage with newfound friends-for-life while chugging through the countryside – the perfect evening. I could almost taste it.
And then there’s the final frontier; the person with whom one shares this wonderful experience and, indeed, the couchette for the whole night.
As a solo traveller, I’m used to bunking up with at least one stranger and for me this too is a source of intoxicating promise. Who will it be? What will we talk about? How long before I pull out my hip flask to share a night cap as we giggle uncontrollably into the wee hours?
Bingo, here was my carriage.
I negotiated my way down the aisle with my backpack, impressed at how pristine the empty cabins appeared. The waft of hot food drifted tantalisingly from the dining car, although I couldn’t quite identify what it was. All the more intriguing.
As I approached the cabin I checked my ticket for the 100th time and yes, this was definitely me. Giddy with the promise of what lay ahead, I took a deep breath and stepped in.
I froze on the spot in the doorway.
Inside my cabin was an elderly woman, 90 if she was a day, wearing a floor length winceyette nightdress; her hair in rollers and a net.
‘Oh, you’re in here too are ya? I’ll tell you now mate, if you think I’m going up on the bladdy top bunk you’ve having a laugh. I know it’s supposed to be yours but sod that, I’m taking the bottom bunk, your skinny arse will have to climb up there.’
Her two giant suitcases were splayed open and her night-time essentials (mostly pill bottles but also bed socks and a lavender-scented hot water bottle) were strewn across the floor, as was a variety of large ‘Bridget Jones’ underwear. She made no attempt to clear a path for me.
‘Hi, I’m Debbie. I guess we’re, um, sharing.’
‘Listen Gabby, I’ve had dicky tum all day and I’m so hungry now I could eat the arse off a low-flying duck. I’m going to have my dinner and then as soon as I’ve had a bowel movement I’m hitting the sack. If I have a full evacuation hopefully I won’t be up and down like a bride’s nightie the whole evening. Strewth, don’t you ever eat? Look at ya, you’re like a dog, no arse on ya.’
With it now right under my nose, the smell I’d failed to recognise was undeniably a medley of wind-inducing, over-cooked vegetables (‘I can’t digest meat at my age’).
This was going to be a long night and not quite the one I had pictured.
‘G’day Ladies. Here’s your linen – need any help pulling down your beds?’
‘Nah mate, she can do it, she’s young enough.’
Australia’s answer to Catherine Tate’s foul-mouthed Nan informed me that it would be lights out no later than 30 minutes after departure and that I was to be on call should she need anything during the night. ‘I hope you’re not as useless as my f*@king kids, they couldn’t give a $*_t.’
As it turned out I couldn’t work the beds and went in search of the guard to take him up on his earlier offer.
‘He says he’ll be along in a minute to help us.’
‘Good, get him to fix the dunny as well will ya, I’ve just blocked it up. It’s not going down and now there’s a flammin’ flood.’
A long night ahead indeed. Had I gone by plane it would have taken 1.5 hours to reach Melbourne.
This journey was going to take up 11 long hours of my life that I would never get back.