Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

Many years ago I met a woman in a train on the Mombasa to Nairobi 'Lunatic Express' line. She was seated opposite me in the compartment, next to her husband. The three of us had the compartment to ourselves. It was early in the morning. I've forgotten what the sleeping arrangements had been the night before. I think perhaps the husband and I had bedded down together and she'd rejoined him in the morning. Her husband had then left the compartment to go to the lavatory or dining car, and she and I had begun to talk.

She'd met and married the husband after a whirlwind romance a year before, she told me, and they'd opened and run a small restaurant together up the coast at Lamu. All very idyllic and romantic, perhaps, but the business had failed, then the marriage. They had sold up and were returning to Nairobi where they had agreed to part for three months to think things over independently. She intended honouring that agreement by trying to re-imagine a future with her husband, she said, but she already knew that it was no longer what she wanted. Through the window, brilliantly lit by early morning sunlight, was heavenly acacia savannah populated with zebra and Grant's and Thomson's gazelle.

Then I told her about myself and my recent past, a relatively uninteresting tale, and then the train came off the rails. I don't suppose we were going very fast because neither of us noticed the derailment at the time, so engrossed were we in each other's life stories. All I can remember of it is looking out of the window and suddenly realising that we were stationary and hadn't moved for a long while. Then her husband returned and told us the train was badly derailed, then he went off again to find out more, and his wife and I resumed our exchange of confidences.

She and I talked for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, unconscious of time passing, while outside the window zebra and gazelle cropped the grass. The husband reappeared and disappeared at intervals. He thought that in all probability we would be stranded there for a couple of days. He was a pleasant, intelligent, polite man and I liked him. And I liked his wife, too, very much. I can't tell you what she looked like. I don't think her appearance registered with me much because it was immaterial. …

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