I had just settled myself illegally in an empty First Class compartment when his body loomed at the door. I had seen him pass along the corridor carrying a huge baggage on his back and had resisted a great urge to talk to him. Now I stared at his large cheeks and protruding eyes that made him look like a frog.
"Are you supposed to be here?" he croaked, a childlike smile hovering on his large lips.
I assumed it was his way of greeting me. I raised my shoulders to suggest I wasn't bothered. "I suppose I am not." I said.
His smile became broad.
"We have been going up and down the train, you know, looking for a place to sit, but we couldn't find any. The train is so full!"
'Why don't you take a seat next to me?" I suggested, waving my arm to indicate the entire empty compartment.
"No," he said, "we are sitting further down, right at the back."
He examined the green comfortable chairs and for a moment I thought he was going to accept my suggestion. But he continued standing, leaning against the two frames of the door such that he blocked it.
"I don't want to get into trouble," he continued. He creased his face. "You see we have paid for the tickets. We are students from Moscow."
"And where are you travelling to?"
"London," he said.
My heart warmed towards him. Now I had a companion. I wasn't going to travel all the way to London alone. And besides, I, like him, was a student from Africa in Europe.
"We came through Poland and Germany and we had to break our journey for a while in Berlin. We had to do some shopping." He grinned, a grin that made him terribly ugly. "Eh, eh," he laughed drily. "Everything is very expensive there. I was there a few years ago and you could buy a good pair of trousers for a few Marks. But now, you bring your miserable Rubbles and they are swallowed up by the Mark."
Just when I was wondering what to say, a long narrow face over which was long hair made in Afro-style forced its way over the man's shoulder. The two men talked for a while in a language I assumed was Russian before the man with fat cheeks said, "He's my friend from South America. From Venezuela. He speaks only Russian and Spanish. He's asking where you come from."
"I come from Kenya. I am a student in Berlin. I am travelling to London," I answered like a student answering a teacher's question.
"So we're both going to London," the man with fat cheeks said. "I am from Sierra Leone. My name is Sommer and my friend here, Fernando, is travelling to Brussels."
"Brussels?" I said, "I heard them say the train is going directly to Holland?"
"It will pass through Cologne," Sommer said. "I've travelled this way many times." They both sat down opposite me. "You know I always travel though Belgium."
Suddenly a fat short woman in navy blue uniform burst into the compartment. "Why you are zitting here? Have you first Class?" she yelled authoritatively. Fernando's eyes went to Sommer who was obviously frightened. The trouble he had been avoiding had at last caught up with him.
"He was just sitting here and…" Sommer tried to explain, referring to the fact that he and Fernando found me sitting there.
"We were taking a short rest before moving on," I told the woman.
"Tickets!" she thundered, with all her German officialdom, "If you're not zupposed to zit here, you go out - quick!"
The woman studied my ticket for a while. "You're travelling from Berlin to…?"
"London," I said adding in German, "I am travelling to London."
"You speak very good German," she said in German also, putting on a friendly smile. It was as if I had relieved her of a heavy burden.
"And your friends... where are they going to?"
"One is going to Brussels, the other to London."
We had now crossed the border to Holland leaving behind the trim mechanical orderliness of the German countryside. There were large open fields on either side of the railway line where herds of stripped cattle, referred to in Kenya as "grade cows", mauled the grass with admirable ease and elegance. It was so much like the highlands of Kenya that for a moment I allowed myself to wallow in the deep sea of homesickness. Just below me, looking out through the train window, were tufts of grass growing scattered to expose brown earth. Short acacia-like trees fell unheeded by the cows that mauled the grass in the field.
I was woken from my daydreaming by a tall thin uniformed man. "Passport please!" he said. Only then I realized that I had not taken transit visa through Holland. I had actually not remembered to do it. Being bored with life in Berlin, I had paid my fair and boarded the next train. I hesitantly took out my passport, huge and elegant, I always was proud of it. I handed it to the policeman. He examined it carefully from one end to the other, turning and studying page after page. He examined my face against the photograph in the passport. "You haven't got a visa to pass through Holland," he said.
"Yes, I forgot to get it," I said honestly.
Rather ridiculously, I had formed a habit of saying the truth, whatever problems beset me. I had promised myself never to lie - the truth should see me through. It was after I found myself stuck in Stockholm on a return trip from Kenya. I had forgotten to exchange the local money to international currency. I was stuck at the airport, not knowing what to do. Then it occurred to me that I could walk into the airport bank, explain my case and ask them for money I could repay when I got back to Berlin. The Bank Manager, a friendly but no-smile man, listened to my story without interrupting. Then he asked me if I had a bank account in Berlin. I gave him the account details and after a few minutes, I picked the amount of money I had requested. I was thankful. So thankful I decided to always tell the truth as my way of thanking God. This was the second test of my new principle of life. But would it really work in so sensitive an issue as entering a country without proper papers, especially remembering that all Western Europe was under the grip of a terrorist scare?
"Actually I didn't know I needed it," I added.
"Why did you think you wouldn't need it?" the policeman said.
"I have a return ticket. And I'm not stopping in Holland?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to get out and go back for a visa!"
"He's just a student, you know. A poor student who hasn't travelled this way before," Sommer croaked.
"There's no alternative?" I asked the policeman feeling irritated with Sommer for calling me "a poor student". It wasn't a question of poverty but of omission.
"No!" the policeman said. I smiled ironically. Yes, I would return to Berlin and tell my friends I'd been turned back on the way. Not bad, I thought. They would just think me an idiot for having started on a journey without asking those who had the experience. And what about the money I had paid? Would I be able to use the same ticket?
I was about to open my mouth to ask that question, when the policeman who had been still examining my passport said, "Give me your ticket." He looked at it, handed it back to me, and taking my passport with him he said, "Wait a minute." Could it be that the truth would work? I waited, more interested in seeing the power of truth than anything else.
Soon the policeman was back. He handed me back my passport. Sure I had got a transit visa!
"You don't have a transit visa for Holland," the policeman said to Fernando who made vigorous signs with both his hands before pointing to his pocket.
"He doesn't understand English," Sommer said. He translated what Fernando had said to the policeman.
"He's only a poor student. He hasn't passed here before. He's going to see his brother in Brussels."
"Brussels!" the policeman said in disbelief. "And where's he going through Holland? Your ticket, please?" We waited, nervous but patient as we sensed more trouble for Fernando than we had reckoned with.
"You must pay forty dollars for the train journey and the visa! You're in the wrong train!" Fernando made more signs with hands.
"He hasn't got even half of a dollar!" Sommer laughed drily. "He's just a poor student. He doesn't understand the language, you know, that's why he got into the wrong train. Take pity on him, please."
The policeman took the ticket and the passport and strode away. Soon he came back with a colleague, apparently his boss. We went through the same explanations again at the end of which, the policemen beckoned to Fernando to follow them.
"Let me go to talk for him!" Sommer said and waddled behind.
It took them a long time before they came back. And when they at last did, I could see that they weren't happy with each other. Sommer seemed to be persuading Fernando to do something but Fernando appeared as unhappy as a sick child forced to take a bitter pill. At last Sommer shrugged his shoulders and said in English "I'm telling him he's lucky they've allowed him to get out without payment. They told him they would leave him alone but he should get out at the next station. If he explains his problem well to the ticket examiners in the train he gets, he might not have to pay anything." I looked at my watch. It was already half-past ten. Outside, it was all dark, pitch dark.
"And when can he get the train?" I wondered aloud.
"That's the problem. They told us there are no more trains. He will have to look for a place to sleep until tomorrow," I imagined being dropped without anywhere to go, with no language that could be understood in this remote part of Holland and I could understand Fernando's anxiety.
The train came to a stop in a dimly lit, one building station and Fernando put his camping bag on his back, like a carefree, hippy tourist. He shook my hand vigorously and murmured something. I said "Good luck!" in English, but he didn't hear it. He was already outside, walking miserably but determinedly along the platform.
"I told him to watch for the trains, but he just kept hanging about around me!" Sommer said, "I wanted to help him but I couldn't. He should have watched out for the trains going to Cologne!"
"But you said you knew this train was passing through Cologne?" I challenged.
"You know I haven't travelled this way before," he said, then noticing the contradiction he added," "at least it's a long time ago." Soon he dropped the topic as he noticed a man selling food on the corridor. "How much is this?" He said pointing at everything on the cart.
"What do you want?" "How much is this?" He asked his lips pulled out scornfully.
"Cheese bread, Salami bread, cakes... there are many things. What do you want?"
"Bread and Coca-Cola," Sommer said cautiously.
"One pound, fifty."
"One pound fifty! Only for bread?"
"That's how we sell. Do you want it or not?" Sommer fussed from one thing to another. At last feeling ashamed for him, I bought cheese bread and Coca-Cola.
"How much did you pay for that?" he asked me.
"One pound fifty!"
"You're wasting my time!" the seller said at last, getting impatient.
Sommer took Salami bread and Coca-Cola. He reluctantly paid and sat down to eat hungrily. "One pound fifty! I can't believe it...one pound fifty for miserable bread," he complained, his mouth full of bread.
"Things are expensive!" I said for lack of anything else to say.
"Look at these shoes," he said pointing at brown pair of shoes that he was wearing. "I bought them five years ago in Berlin for fifteen Marks. They are still very good. Now I can't afford them!"
I smiled feeling already bored with his cost-balance talk. "In Berlin you can buy good cheap shoes," Sommer continued.
"I just buy what I want to buy if I have the money," I said. "When I don't have the money I just leave it," I said, trying to camouflage my irritation..
"Maybe you don't have responsibilities."
"I've got to support my mother. I pay school fees for my sister..."
"Cut your coat according to your dress," I cut him short. "For example, you needn't travel if you can't afford it."
We were silent the rest of the journey until we were in the ship going to London. Everything in the ship was stuffy. People were packed up like dry logs of wood on a wagon. I persuaded Sommer to come up with me and we stood on the deck watching nocturnal birds sailing elegantly over the sea. It was good to breathe fresh air, to feel the cool breeze on my body. I was raking my mind for poetic imagery when Sommer said, "It's so cold I want to go down. For me there's nothing new to see here. I have passed here so often."
Reluctantly I followed him down the noisy stairs and into the smoke-filled bar. He bought himself a beer, settled on a wooden form and soon he was snoring like a pig. His head was pushed back to lie on top of the back of the seat form and I watched his flattened throat go up and down and flat again and I thought how ugly he was thus asleep.
We woke up in the morning when the train pulled at the Liverpool Station. As soon as we touched the ground, Sommer ran like mad, digging his way through the huge crowd of passengers. I didn't know whether to wait for him or just simply to plough through the crowds and go my own way. But one thing I knew for sure - I would definitely appreciate his company, however unlikeable he was. It was my first time in London. Sommer would be a welcome companion despite his imperfections. Alone, I was bewildered as I took small hesitant steps towards where I thought the way out must be. I was truly relieved when I suddenly saw Sommer's frog-face smiling at me from among the crowd.
"My box!" he said "people can easily steal your box if you aren't careful." I smiled idiotically and followed.
"To change money!" he said as he stood before a cashier at an exchange bank "We have to buy tickets for the underground train. He pushed a five-pound note over the counter. The cashier silently pointed to a notice on the glass-partition which read: We do not give coins for the train. Sommer picked his bag and stormed out of the bank. I followed and we stood on a queue. Soon we were at a small window with the sign: Tickets. Sommer talked to a man through the window, picked his box and again we were hurrying back the way we came.
I looked at my watch as we stood at a newspaper stand. It was more than a half an hour, since we arrived and we were still moving here and there like caged rats inside the train station.
"I think I better go," I said to Sommer, calmly.
"How?" Sommer mocked. "You want a taxi? It is five pounds to the nearest point in London. Taxis are expensive," he laughed again, his weird laughter that was devoid of mirth. "At least I can't afford it."
It was perhaps his laughter that made me boil over.
"It's now nearly an hour since we arrived and we are still moving about in the same place!"
Sommer shrugged and spread his hands. "If you've got the money, you can go," he said disheartened. "But you can see I'm trying. I want us to get the cheapest means to go to a cheap hostel I know. But it's five years since I was in London. I've forgotten many things."
I could see he was as much interested in hanging up with me as I was with him. That somehow he was as afraid of being alone as I was.
"First get your money changed - get a few pence and we go."
A few minutes later, we got out of the underground train station. "Excuse me," Sommer said to a man when we were outside. "I paid fifty pence from Liverpool Station to here. Do I use the same ticket when I'm going back?"
The man examined the ticket.
"No," he announced. "It's a single trip."
"Things have become very expensive" Sommer said." I was here five years ago and I used to pay ten pence the same distance!"
"Yes, prices have increased a lot," the man agreed in his high pitched Cockney English.
"He wants to travel in taxis," Sommer pointed at me with his ugly fat head, "but I was telling him they are very expensive"
A small crowd had had now gathered to listen. I smiled to cover my embarrassment.
"Where do you come," the man asked with a new kind of interest.
"From the continentals," Sommer said. "We're students. We are looking for a hostel - the Royal Hostel. I used to live in it five years ago and it was very cheap. We can't afford expensive hostels," he laughed his weird laughter. "At least I can't afford. Five pounds a night..."
"Where's this hostel?" I asked him impatiently. I was anxious to get away from the gathering crowd. Obviously they were anxious to hear the stupid story of the poor Africans who come to Europe fleeing hunger, ignorance and disease to "überlasten" their social services and welfare systems as the Germans always complained.
For hours we went up and down lonely streets with old buildings, and there was no Royal Hostel to be found. I was also beginning to wonder whether Sommer wasn't one of those African crooks who pretend to be friendly to ignorant Africans arriving in Europe and who eventually end up picking their pockets.
"There's a window cleaner. Ask him," I said.
Without a word, Sommer turned and I watched him walk with uncertain steps towards the window cleaner.
"We're looking for Royal Hostel - do you know where it is?"
"Royal Hostel?" the cleaner pondered, "No. Never heard of it. Afraid not."
"It's number 132 on this street. I know it. I used to stay there five years ago."
"This is number 124. Should be same side of this street further down. But never heard of it. No. Never heard of it!"
A few blocks away, we stopped before a dirty looking structure. "They changed the name", Sommer cried out miserably. "It's a hotel now. It is no longer a hostel!"
Without waiting for my comment, he pushed the bell button. There was no reply. He pushed again, this time giving it a prolonged push.
"We're looking for a room," he said to a disinterested figure that materialized from underground next to us. "This used to be a hostel."
"Am afraid it no longer is," the youngish looking woman said "It's a hotel."
"I used to live here five years ago. It was very cheap. We're students from the continentals," Sommer continued. The woman stared at him blankly. "My friend here has finished his postgraduate studies..."
"But we haven't got a room!" the woman said firmly. She obviously didn't know what university degrees and continentals meant and she didn't care to know. "It's all booked up," she said with finality.
"I must look for a place to eat," I told Sommer as we walked up a steep narrow road.
"I'm looking for a cheap hotel," he said.
I didn't comment, but when I next saw a hotel, I simply went in and Sommer followed me. The hotel was a small, neat place, pompous in its antiquated, English décor style. It's heavy closed curtains made it still relatively dark although it was nearly 11 o'clock in the morning. Many small lights dangled above every table, with red impressive table clothes upon which were napkins made into the shape of small birds. I sat down at a table and took the menu. The cheapest dish they offered was one and a half pounds.
When the waitress came, Sommer tried to whisper something to her, but 1 guess she was too busy setting tables and making the place even neater for her to hear.
"Chips", Sommer at last said, aloud.
"We don't sell chips alone," the waitress said.
Sommer studied the menu. "Everything has become very expensive these days," he said. The waitress looked disturbed. I buried myself in the menu. "I used to live here five years ago at the Garden Hotel. It used to be the Royal Hostels."
"They've converted it to a hotel" the waitress said.
"That's what we found out. It used to be very cheap but everything now..." he laughed his weird laughter that was devoid of mirth.
"What do you want to eat?" the waitress said with polite British impatience.
"We can't afford, at least not me!"
"Now you get out!" the waitress thundered." I need this table for my customers!"
I took my bag and vanished, my hunger completely gone. I didn't care whether I found my way out or not. I fled never to see Sommer again.