The Border

An autobiographical piece about my visit to Prague when Inter-Railing in 1991

Maudlin-drunk in a hotel in a strange town, he dreamt of her thighs that night. Why her thighs, as opposed to any other part of her anatomy? Who knows. It was a dream, and unless you’re Freud, unknowable (though who’s to say the Freuds of the world have a monopoly?) Her thighs, white and plump (not fat), thighs he had never seen, except in some photo of her in shorts years ago. Plump and pale, unmarked, fleshy, lightly covered in downy hair. Nice to feel? The dream thought so. The thighs next to his on the strange bed, the warmth of her, and the feel of her breasts against him were a comfort. In the anaemic light of morning, he felt mildly sick. Maybe hungover; not that her thighs sickened him, just the way they had appeared, unbidden, and how he had called out to her in the darkness, and she’d ignored him. The thighs ensured that he woke with an erection, but he didn’t do anything about it. He swung his legs out of bed, and stood slowly, blinking at the mild dizziness. He splashed cold water on his face, and looked out at the sunless, grey Bratislava morning. The icy slap of the water revived him a little, and he dressed. There was a westbound train at eleven and he thought he might as well get it, though how far he hadn’t decided.

As he breathed in the coffee fumes and greedily drank down the bitter black liquid, he began to feel more awake. The dream faded from nauseating immediacy and became a bad memory, not yet quite forgotten. He thought about it as he chewed his toast. He hadn’t seen her for a few weeks, and seldom thought of her anymore. That made it more surprising. Or did it? He had felt a creeping loneliness in the travels of the last few days, and it seemed to come to a point yesterday. Alighting from the train, he was soon helplessly lost in the city streets. Several local people had tried to help, but their scanty English, and his non-existent knowledge of their language had rendered it useless. He had finally found his way to the accommodation office, then he bravely (or stupidly?) opted to walk to the hotel they had arranged. It was at least two miles, and needless to say, he was soon lost again. Eventually, he got there, thanks to a rather matronly woman at a bus stop who had pointed him in the right direction, over three hours after he had got off the train.

After a meal, he drank several bottles of beer, but instead of lightening his mood as he’d hoped, it had the opposite effect. So perhaps it wasn’t that surprising: she was something familiar, reassuring to think of, and the flight into lust had provided an escape. Not that he had ever seen her body in reality, though now he didn’t see her any longer, he didn’t feel as guilty about it. He’d been curious about her body when they were friends, and had enjoyed any chance glimpses of it: down her cleavage, or up her skirt, but he always felt bad about it. When they had parted on such unpleasant terms – he hadn’t taken the news that she was getting married very well, and a lot of hurtful things were said – he found that sexual fantasies were a way of erasing the hurt, though he still felt residual guilt. Even so, it had been a while since he had last thought about her, even as an object of lust, and he regretted his lapse, his weakness in calling out. He thought he’d been granted an exit visa from that state some time ago.

His spirits lifted a little as he shouldered his pack and set off down the long hill towards the railway station. Could this really be the same town as yesterday? His hangover had withered to a faint, occasional throb in his head, and the cool breeze was pleasant on his face. He had over an hour to wait, but it didn’t seem to matter. He sat and read the Kerouac paperback he’d brought. Very soon, he was absorbed in its story of hitching and hoboing across America, or living in a hut on top of a mountain for months as a fire warden. Every now and again, he looked up, but the station was quiet, and there weren’t many people about. After a couple of chapters, it was near eleven, so he put the book away, and stood expectantly. Shortly, the train snaked its way slowly into the station. He found an empty compartment near the front, and settled himself down for the five hour trip to Prague. One thing he had enjoyed about the past days travels was the consistent punctuality of the trains: it made a change from home.

The train set off, and he was content to merely sit back and stare out of the window. For the first couple of hours, the landscape was mainly rolling and agricultural, with plenty of trees. The train was an express, but ambled along at under 60mph most of the time, and ignored the numerous small stations. Gradually, it became more wooded and hilly, and the speed fell to a leisurely 40-45mph as the train crossed into Bohemia. Time was passing quickly, and he was enjoying the scenery and the solitude of the compartment. He seemed to become more anonymous; just sitting on a train somewhere, it didn’t matter where, and forgetful of everything else.

Along the more level ground of Bohemia, it began to rain. Perversely, this cheered him, and reminded him of home. During a station stop, he watched it flood out of the sky, pouring down the glass, and hammering onto a line of coaches parked in an adjacent siding. It bounced off the roofs with such violence it formed a cloud of mist above them. He wound down the window slightly, enjoying the crisp smell of the damp air. It was a relief after the heat of the previous days.

Just after four in the afternoon, the train reached the city. The grey sky and lingering drizzle gave it an unwelcoming look. After he had got an address from the accommodation office, he took a tram out into the suburbs. The room was only a few minutes walk from a tram stop, and after he’d settled in, he bought some food and beer. He lounged on the bed and watched some local TV, where he was amused to see an episode of Taggart overdubbed in Czech! Tonight, at least, he felt more cheerful, and the beer had a more positive effect.

He spent the next few days exploring the city, taking a tram from the post-war suburbs into the centre, with its miles of narrow eighteenth century streets and baroque architecture for which it is famous. A lot of the buildings were covered in scaffolding, and a number closed for restoration. Were it not for the noise and fumes of traffic, this place could almost be timeless. He found a path that wound its way to the top of Petr¡n hill, then he climbed the imitation Eiffel Tower that graced the summit. As he reached the observation platform at the top, briefly disorientated by the spiral staircase, he gasped at the view. There, several hundred feet below the city lay, basking in the sun under a blue sky, the river Vltava snaking its way lazily through the middle. The red tile roofs of the older buildings positively gleamed in the sunlight, and the breeze was pleasantly cool. He took a number of photos, then simply stood and stared in awe, scarcely believing that he was really here, in Prague. A city he’d read of, and seen in numerous documentary programmes and archive films. Here was a place where great historical events had happened: people had been flung from windows in the castle, sparking off wars, great composers had stayed here, the Nazi, Heydrich was assassinated here, revolutions had been declared, Russian tanks had gone onto the streets. Doubtless, great events had happened at home too, but he had never felt so close to them before.

There was so much to see, that even after three days he felt he had hardly started: he had seen the Little Quarter, the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, and Wenceslas Square. The sense of history had continually assailed him, despite the mass of tourists, and new trappings of capitalism, the burger joints and adverts for Coke. But he couldn’t stay any longer, to his disappointment: his ticket expired in a few days, and he didn’t want to get caught out. As he packed that night, he felt sad: the prospect of returning home wasn’t an appealing one: his poky little room in a depressing grey town where it seemed to rain nine days out of ten. A town that reminded him of her. It all seemed so banal and ordinary after all the places he had seen. There was a through train to Paris every lunchtime, taking eighteen hours, from where it was a straightforward run to the Channel ports, a ferry, then a series of rattletrap trains to his home town.

He drank a few bottles of the excellent local beer – that’s one thing he’d miss, and it was so cheap – and fell tipsily onto the bed. He didn’t feel too bad, though he was aware of the darkness of the other night drifting somewhere close. In an attempt to keep it away, he deliberately called her plump, white body to mind. She was wearing a thin summer dress, and her legs were bare. He drifted into sleep with her undressed and getting into bed, his moving over her, and making love to her almost desperately, as if he wouldn’t see her again.

He woke, hungover, at about nine in the morning. He’d slept soundly, and no dreams had troubled him. Even so, he again woke with an erection, thought this time he satisfied it to try and get the lingering thought of her out of mind. He breakfasted on coffee and the stale remains of a loaf he had bought the day he’d arrived. The tram was near full, so he sat with his pack on his lap and savoured the journey, even though the seats were only slightly more comfortable than concrete. On the short walk from the Main Square to the station, he had a last glimpse down Wenceslas Square, and he briefly recalled a newspaper photograph of a crowd of demonstrators facing a phalanx of helmeted riot police. He passed into the cool shade of the station by a side gate, pleased to find the Paris train standing at the nearest platform. He found an empty compartment, and waited. There was about half-an-hour before departure, so he resumed reading the paperback.

Eventually, the train set off. It, too, was an express, but like the others he’d been on, it also maintained a leisurely pace through the woods and fields of Bohemia. The passing scene made him regret he was leaving, he felt he’d like to walk through some of the woods and beside the streams. He’d read that a lot of the country’s rivers were so badly polluted they were sterile, and the forests were suffering from the effects of acid rain, though looking at them, it seemed hard to believe.

He had lunch in the restaurant car, which was a novel experience for him: at home, they had become the exclusive preserve of first class passengers. It was very pleasant to sit there eating his Prague ham, and sipping beer, watching the passing scenery. The low speed of the train added to the effect. Three hours after the train had set off, the customs passed through the train, even though the border was still forty minutes away. The Iron Curtain was supposed to have fallen, yet it seemed no-one had told them yet. They strutted about arrogantly, pistols strapped to their waists, peering suspiciously at everyone’s passports. There were three in all, and each demanded his passport. And it wasn’t just the quick glance it got in Western Europe, it was closely scrutinised, looking at the photograph, then at him, then at the photograph, then at him again, before returning the passport with what seemed to him to be thinly disguised reluctance. Are they doing it deliberately, he wondered, to make people nervous? He stepped out into the corridor to go to the lavatory. Immediately, one of the customs demanded his passport again. He sighed.

“You’ve just seen it,” he said in English, but to no avail. The man held out his hand with obvious impatience, and he handed the passport over once again. Oh, he thought, I obviously haven’t been granted a Toilet Visa, now be sure to stamp it correctly now, and when I come back, to make sure I don’t overstay. Unless there’s a shortage of loo paper, and they think I’m going to illegally take some out of the country, or use some of their currency notes. I mean, you’re not allowed to take them out of the country either, so you might as well put them to some use.

After examining the passport with the same suspiciousness, he handed it back with equal reluctance. Thank you, perhaps I can go now. At length, the border was reached at Cheb, where the train sat for thirty minutes doing nothing. It finally set off again and passed into Germany, where it stopped again for a further half-hour. An unsmiling German policeman in mirror sunglasses, hand resting on his pistol, breezed through the train, checking, yes, you guessed it, passports. He had the same suspicious demeanour as the Czechs had, though it was nothing compared to the Hungarians he’d seen a few days ago. They had the same Cold War attitudes, but they went further, armed with machine guns and sniffer dogs. They even opened the roof cavities of the train and peered in with torches, as if they were searching for any potential defectors. Frontiers seem to be more than a mere demarcation between this and that country, they’re places of barriers and seemingly mindless bureaucratic procedures, suspicious men with guns and sunglasses. They give small time officials their own little empires, the power over someone else, whether to let them in or out, or to refuse and turn them back. He remembered the old phrase about giving someone a uniform…

When the train finally did set off again, it went on a lot faster than before, though there were still over twelve hours before it reached Paris. He used the last of his Czech money in the restaurant car, and settled down for the boring part of the journey. He suddenly felt weary of it, and wanted the journey to be over, though there was still a long way to go yet. As the train headed north from Nuremberg, he watched a spectacular sunset fade into darkness. The prospect of seeing his home town again was not a particularly inviting one, yet it was familiar, and he had friends there. He’d probably feel relieved, maybe even faintly glad, when he finally reached home, though how long that feeling would last was uncertain. Once the old routine had reasserted itself, he’d doubtless hate it once again. There’d be reminders of her too, though he felt strangely confident that he could excise them. It suddenly didn’t seem too difficult, and he could see himself finally escaping, the border guard handing back his papers, opening the barrier, and him walking on down the road into the new country.

Twenty-four hours or so later, he finally reached home. He knew he was home, really home: all the trains were late and overcrowded, and the town greeted him with a downpour. He walked wearily through the ticket barrier and grinned at the weather. I could have gone to Mars and back, he thought, but the trains would still be late and it would still be raining. He sighed, relieved, and started the mile-and-a-half walk to the house.

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