A Night on Earth

It was Easter 1986. In fact it was Tuesday 25th March. I know because I was 18 and keeping a diary of my experiences, wise thoughts and bad poetry. I have it open in front of me now. The diary even features in this story. I just hope that re-opening it, I wonÂ’t bring the curse crushing down on me once again. I mean that. I donÂ’t want you to think I am mocking the curse. I am quite scared by it. YouÂ’ve got to respect the curse.
It was my year off before University. Me and my friend Geoff Quigley were Inter-Railing around Europe for six weeks. It was cheap and cheerful: staying in camp sites and youth hostels, mainly eating mashed potato and cheese that we mixed together on a Calor Gas stove. We were in hindsight, hopelessly naïve and stupid, though naturally we didn’t think that at the time. Now I think our parents should be sent to prison for allowing us to so much freedom. We were children! You shouldn’t have listened to our cocky assurances otherwise.
I was missing my first girlfriend, Sian, who I had cynically just split up with, so that I would be free to pull saucy, European birds, but had discovered that no birds (saucy, European or otherwise) wanted to be pulled by me. Naturally I performed an amazing volte face and decided I was in love with Sian after all. This extract from my diary pretty much sums up my stupidity:
“Also I have just heard that the US have had some sort of confrontation with Libya which is somewhat depressing and if Nostradamus is to be believed it could be the start of the end of it all. Christ I’m depressed and want to be home with my little Siany before we’re all blown to bits and before she meets someone else.”
What an unbelievable twat in so many ways. If only that last bit was meant to be a joke.
On this day we had just left Rome and were heading for Venice. Of course we hadn’t thought to book ahead and not even realised that it was Easter, so there was nowhere to stay. We wandered aimlessly round Venice (which I described as “a bit disappointing”) and then decided to head to Padua to try and get in a hostel there. We found one of those old fashioned 6 seater carriages all to ourselves and I settled in to write my diary. Geoff popped out to use the loo.
Moments later (possibly as I was writing those very words above) a wizened old woman in gypsy style clothing and a similarly attired girl of about 12 came into the carriage. The old woman sat in GeoffÂ’s seat and although this seems unlikely, (but IÂ’m pretty sure IÂ’ve got this right) they were both laughing, like mad people do in films. I tried to sign to the cackling crone that someone was already sitting in the seat she had chosen, but she just kept looking at me and laughing.
Then without provocation or warning the woman suddenly got up and the harpies left and went on their way. It was like something out of a dream. Had it really happened? When I looked down at my diary there was a film of strange brown dust covering the page. I promise you this is true. I am looking at the margin of the diary now half hoping and half fearing that some of the enchanted powder is still there. ThereÂ’s something. It might just be dirt.
I thought all this was a bit freaky and told Geoff on his return, but we didnÂ’t worry about it too much. I think he thought I was probably lying.
Not thinking to ring ahead we traipsed round Padua to find all the hostels were either full or closed. We laughed off our bad luck (which looking back was just bad preparation) and decided to cut our losses and take the overnight train to Vienna instead. Then we could sleep on the train and save ourselves some money. We celebrated this decision by eschewing mashed potato for a night and buying a scrummy looking continental salad from the supermarket. It was all kinds of vegetable mixed together and so although there were some beans, we figured they had to have been cooked. Or youÂ’d have to take the salad apart and cook them yourselves. The beans were pretty hard, but Geoff discovered if you crunched down on them they were still edible and they tasted pretty good.
We got on the packed train to Vienna and luck seemed to be on our side as found two empty seats. The people who had reserved them hadn’t turned up. Geoff wanted the toilet (again) but found to his consternation that all of them were locked – something that I have never witnessed on a train before or since.
It was then that I started to feel queasy. I began to suspect weÂ’d made a mistake with the beans. This was confirmed when I started dry-retching. The toilets were locked, there was nothing I could do to prevent the inevitable. One of the passengers crammed into the carriage with us managed to find a plastic bag. As I filled it, Geoff started asking around for another and he joined me in a chundering duet.
There was nowhere to put the bags of sick, so there were passed along to the people by the window who threw them out, memorably dripping their contents a little on our fellows. Hopefully they didnÂ’t land on any astonished Austro-Italians.
It was a long ten hour train journey for us all.
We got to Vienna with throats aching from vomiting, empty stomachs and no sleep. I went to a phone box to ring up a hostel for us to recover in. Cleverly I left my wallet in the phone booth. I realised quickly and rushed back, but in the intervening seconds it had disappeared. I lost about £20’s worth of Schillings, but worse than that, all my cash cards. This was my only way of getting any money out whilst on our travels. We still had three weeks left. I was going to have to rely on my parents to wire money through.
To our youthful brains this seemed like an impossible run of ill fortune, which could only have been down to the curse of the strange dust wielding, guffawing gypsy, who wanted to sit where she chose or who was perhaps angry with me because she knew how cynical I was being as regards my lovely little Sian (it didnÂ’t work out in case you were wondering). Though why the innocent Geoff Quigley got entangled in all of this was never explained.
You might say that all of these incidents were pretty much down to our own lack of intelligence and maybe you’d be right – though you’d have to admit that the locked toilets are an oddity. And the dust is just fucking weird!
And even though these days I am logical and pragmatic atheist who poo poos the convoluted predictions of Nostradamus that so scared me when I was young, I still feel a slight dread about this whole affair. And I want to re-iterate I am not mocking the curse. The mild gypsy curse of inconvenience.