His name was Atel.

Forearms like wizened sausages, tendons standing out like ropes, he made the overnight train journey from Budapest to Belgrade both bearable and unbearable by turns, smoking marujuana a few times; wired and talkative.

The first issue came when the conductor wanted us all to squeeze in to the tiny six-bedded cabin and lock the door as we were approaching the border between Hungary and Serbia. Atel wouldn’t have it. He needed to smoke, he said. He needed air, he said (a very reasonable complaint: it was over 40 degrees in the cabin, and nearly as airless as space). We would remain thankful to him for this for the rest of the journey despite later ‘interesting’ times.

But Atel also needed to talk. To us, to the conductor, to anybody passing. It was a long and sleepless ten hours.

The second issue came at around eleven o’clock, when our sixth cabin occupant boarded the train. The only bed left appeared broken, slanting down at an angle into goodness knows what murky depths. The only problem was that this was actually supposed to be Atel’s bunk. He refused to budge, muttering obscenities under his breath and c ursing the conductor, whom he blamed for this unendurable situation. Then he moved all his stuff onto the Norwegian girl’s bunk, putting hers on the floor while she was visiting the loo. He wouldn’t listen to reason or protests.

Enter Mr. Conductor, who was tired, and who didn’t want to do [anything] and who couldn’t and who wouldn’t, and who sighed a lot and shouted at Atel, who shouted back. And who, with frequent voiceless mumbles fixed the bottom bunk and moved all Atel’s stuff (bags and bags of it) on to that sleeping platform, ignoring the grumbles and swearing directed at him.

And this grumbling, smoking marajuana out of the window and muttering by turns continued all night, with Atel refusing to close the door (phew), refusing to produce his passport when needed, philosophising and thinking out loud in a steady stream of musings.

Then we got to Belgrade.

I saw Atel twice in that city, and escaped after only five minutes each time. He was a true character; one of those ‘you spoilt my night’s sleep and you exasperate me so, so much – but I love you’ people.


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