Checking out of our Zagreb hostel, my best friend and I chatted with the owners about the next stage of the journey we had been planning for much of our twenty-year friendship. On hearing that we were travelling on the overnight train to Split, they exchanged a glance.
‘You do know there’s a Zagreb v Split football game today? The Split fans will be going home on the same train.’
We brushed this off, smiling. On our first journey of this rail tour of Europe, gas had been pumped into our compartment and our valuables stolen while we were insensible. By comparison, a few boisterous football fans would be a reassuringly familiar experience.
We had met an Irish girl and a Finnish boy in the hostel and we all found a compartment together in plenty of time. The moon was already high over lovely Zagreb as we got comfortable, my three travel companions sitting across from me, I by the window. I read a little, distracting myself with daydreams of the Adriatic islands we would soon explore.
Five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the Split fans arrived. Zagreb had won; it appeared we would be journeying south with the losers. Still, spirits didn’t seem in the least dampened; soon the platform and carriages were overwhelmed with red and white checked flags and strips, the air thick with shouts, song and the unmistakable odours of beer and sweat.
The door to our compartment was yanked open and the two seats next to me quickly filled. All thoughts of pine-littered beaches were driven swiftly from my mind by the smell of my new immediate neighbour. Two weeks into our shoestring-financed trip and never one to prioritise hygiene over comfort, I had enjoyed a few shower-free days myself. But his was a stench that spoke of dedicated consumption of beer and garlic-infused meat products, with a hint of lucky-and-therefore-unwashable football kit and socks.
I watched wonderingly as the compartment’s five other occupants settled down to sleep, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps knocked out – by the stink. Curling my legs under me and leaning as far from my neighbour as possible, I pulled a scarf over my nose and closed my eyes.
As I focused on the rhythms of the train rattling towards the coast, I became aware of shuffling and grumbling beside me, followed a sudden pressure along the side of my body. Looking up, I discovered that my neighbour was now using my bottom as a pillow, his cheek resting against mine, arms draped over my lower back.
My exclamations of outrage went unheeded. He continued to snore gently. Attempts to shift him were in vain; unconsciousness had rendered his skinny body a dead weight. I had to content myself with scrunching even smaller, allowing his head to crash towards the cracked faux-leather of the seat.
As he snorted awake, I tried again to make myself comfortable. But moments later, the sequence of events was repeated. By the fourth time, my indignant protestations were reduced to bleats of despair.
The train was passing through black countryside by now, the compartment dark. Through the gloom I detected the Finnish boy opposite signalling to me. He mimed giving the offender a shove and pulling down the armrest between us. Of course! Sleep-deprivation and the fumes had addled my brain. There was a simple solution.
Clearly, subtlety wasn’t an option. I took a deep breath and heaved my reeking neighbour with all my strength. As he careened towards the drooling man to his left, I slammed the armrest down, threw myself against the window and feigned obliviousness to his splutterings. My personal space regained, the smell now seemed a minor concern. At last I felt sleep approach.
When the squeak of the armrest woke me minutes later, I felt no surprise. Sighing, I budged up to accommodate the weight of my bedfellow’s head, as it settled once more against me.
While the wheezes and mumbles of the other travellers filled the compartment, my eyes found the peaceful reflection of my oldest friend in the window. I watched her familiar face until the lights at last grew closer together, and then began to fade entirely when dawn touched the cream and ochre buildings of Split.
As the train slowed, my neighbour suddenly lurched to his feet and staggered from the compartment, without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement of the intimate night we had shared.
Only now did my best friend – who had warned me at the start of the trip that she could never sleep on public transport – begin to stir.
‘It’s so cold in here! I barely slept at all!’
I smiled fondly at her, serene in the knowledge that the first coffee of the day was on her.