Murder on the Kolkata express by Liz Cleere. Shortlist. First WTF? travel story in Leap Local magazine.
In New Jalpaiguri station, on a sticky pre-monsoon night, I drink sweet masala chai, while fat mosquitoes stab my ankles. My woollen shawl, useful for keeping out the chilly Himalayan air earlier in the day, has morphed into a cushion, softening the concrete slab that supports me and my churning tummy.
“Jamie, I think the ginger’s working, I don’t feel so sick.”
My partner slows his pacing for a moment and throws me a half smile. We wait in silence, while around us the station buzzes. My mobile pings. All our Indian friends have assured us the wait-list system for booking seats is the only way to get tickets here. I check my message. Seats have been allocated, but we’re not on the list.
“Bugger,” says Jamie, “what do we do now?”
As the designated tour guide in our relationship I am the one with the knowledge, but with 90% of my energy directed at keeping the lid on my guts, he must sort this one out. I tell him that without a ticket we won’t be allowed on the train, but once we’re on we’ll be able to negotiate. It takes him thirty-five minutes to make his way through the simmering crowd to the ticket office to buy two tickets for sardine class.
Now running late, we race over the bridge to where a kilometre of parked train is about to depart. Locating the conductor, Jamie begins to recite the saga of our tickets. Bored by his explanation the conductor, resplendent in navy blue suit and hat, cuts Jamie off and languidly waves us into first class. He’s heard it all before.
“Wait in the corridor by the attendants’ cabin.”
We stake our claim on a patch of floor and for once I am grateful to be next to the lavatory.
As the train pulls out a man jumps through the open door, and takes up residence opposite us. Sporting sunglasses balanced on top of a sharp new haircut, tight jeans and a smart shirt, he radiates style and bonhomie. We smile. He lurches towards us and we recoil as the sour alcohol oozing from his pores hits us. He leers at me and ineffectually grabs at Jamie’s phone, trying to swap telephone numbers. Jamie politely deflects his attentions, while I turn away from the full force of his breath in an effort to restrain the bug in my tummy from waking up.
With a sideways glance at the drunk, the smaller of the two coach attendants ushers me into a tiny dark space, offering his narrow bed as a seat, while we wait for the conductor. Our alcohol-ridden friend speaks no English, and as we don’t understand Hindi he gives up trying to talk to us. He turns his attention to every passer-by, until they sniff the alcohol and quickly move away.
After twenty minutes the train has built up some speed, and the warm night air is providing a refreshing breeze. Ignoring a running commentary by the intoxicated loiterer, the silent attendants go about their business of cosseting the first-class passengers with blankets, towels and sheets. Jamie is deeply involved in a tricky game of backgammon on his phone. My tummy has settled down and I’m feeling well enough to stick my head in a book. Just as I’m wondering if the conductor will manage to find us a bed, a scream shatters the peace. The stockier of the two attendants has grabbed our inebriated commentator round the neck and is throttling him. I’m not sure if the scream has come from the attendant – whose teeth are bared and eyes are popping out of his red angry face – or the struggling drunk. I watch, horrified, as the attendant opens the carriage door. The shrieking night air whistles in. Oh my God, he’s going to throw him out.
Time slows as I run through the options in my head: do I scream, just watch or try to stop it happening? Jamie raises his head and the look of incomprehension on his face echoes my thoughts. Before either of us has time to react the attendant’s smaller partner springs into action. He locks onto both men and all three of them wrestle in the doorway until our wiry hero manages to slam the door closed.
Now the immediate threat of murder is over all hell lets loose: the drunk screams at the attendants; the attendants shout at the drunk, breaking off to shout at each other; more scuffles break out; bleary-eyed passengers emerge from their compartments to watch the proceedings, and take photos of Jamie and me; everyone has an opinion and is happy to express it. Then the conductor appears. Within seconds the drunk is whisked away and we never see him again.
In a flurry of apologies and solicitations, the gaggle of first class passengers stares at us. They are full of concern.
“He behaved disgracefully.”
“He was drunk, I think.”
“He shouldn’t have said such things.”
Jamie and I are baffled. Was this attack something to do with us? The behaviour of our talkative friend hadn’t struck us as particularly rude, just irritating. Was the attendant defending my honour? Was he furious at foreign guests being harassed by a drunk? Did he simply disapprove of alcohol? We ask the other passengers if they have any ideas, but our conversation is interrupted.
“I am very sorry for the rudeness of this man,” says the conductor, making it clear he wants the subject to be dropped.
We assume he means the drunk, but could he mean the attendant? It’s all very puzzling and no-one wants to volunteer an explanation. Further attempts to get an answer from the passengers are neatly side-stepped. Well-to-do first class Indians, with hitherto flawless English, suddenly fail to understand our questions. They smile, feigning deafness, and change the subject.
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you heading?”
“How long have you been in India?”
And then, magically, the conductor discovers the perfect way to divert our attention, two first class seats have become available. Even more remarkably he only wants £12 for them. Delighted at the news, and overcome with exhaustion, we are happy to be ushered to our cloistered compartment. Still puzzled, we pick through the events of the past hour, and decide it is probably for the best that we don’t understand Hindi. The combination of a flashy drunk and a short-fused attendant is most likely what led to the inevitable altercation.
An hour later Jamie is asleep, while I lie awake in my comfortable bunk, wondering how I’m going to tell him our ticket from Kolkata to Delhi is also wait-listed.