13:08 to Cluj Napoca / by Joshua Cunningham

13:08, Budapest Kelenfold station. A concrete platform gently curves away from our feet in either direction, disappearing on both sides into a tangle of tracks, abandoned rusting freight carriages, overgrown shrubbery and forgotten activity. The midday sun burns strong, and despite summer not yet having fully arrived in Central Europe, the air is already thick with lethargy. Some soon-to-be fellow passengers try to escape it in the few slivers of shade on offer between advertisement boards, and we join the gaggle of bowed, patient heads. The faint din of machinery can be heard close by in the sprawl of surrounding industrial ‘burbs. Otherwise, silence.


Once on the train and moving down the aisle, pulling our backpacks behind us through the chairs like plugs from a series of sinkholes, the train begins to pull away, and we arrive at our seats to discover they are occupied. The guilty party (a couple in their early twenties) look at us, and in a quintessential display of Britishness, I purposely switch my gaze between my ticket, the seat, and the number above it, with a confused look on my face; an action which back on home shores would probably be considered a bit aggressive. On the 13:32 to Cluj Napoca it garners no response though, and we're left with no option but to cause a scene and show the couple our tickets. They smile, get up, and we sit down, mopping our sweaty palms on the worn, carpet-like seats beneath us.

Within a few minutes of leaving the city limits, the vast expanses of the Great Hungarian Plain open up from beyond the window. Covering almost all of modern day Hungary, as well as the borderlands of neighbouring countries, this realm of grass is old enough to remember both Mongol hooves and Ottoman swords, and resilient enough to have provided a wall through which neither could break.


Expanses of loosely tended pasture gape beyond the window, and we slowly trundle through it eastwards towards Romania. Small villages pass by in flutters of tiled roofs, and level crossings provide quick snapshots of local faces from the cars that back up behind them. Dandelion buzz through the sky on a thousand different breezes, lit up by the late afternoon sun like swarms of fireflies. The patient pace of life that seems to emanate from the villages is reflected in that of the train, which switches between a tired rumble and a half-interested canter. Empty platforms appear momentarily below the glass, and the man next to us cross-references their names with that of a timetable he's printed off. How it's possible to keep a schedule on a train that seems as disinterested in making progress as ours, however, is beyond me.

As well as Mr. Punctual, we have an older woman and younger girl next to us, Romanian from what I can tell, who make quiet, upbeat remarks between themselves. A man in the next bank of chairs reads a thriller. A girl watches a movie on her phone. A little old Hungarian lady with a broken arm can be heard muttering to herself. She seems a bit of a character, and makes the other passengers laugh with her outbursts, the tone of which imply some sort of complaint. Every time she goes to the toilet, which is often, she lugs three enormous, bulky suitcases up the aisle and into the cubicle with her. I hold the door open for her, which almost makes her jump with surprise, but after a second of perplexity her face beams back a smile. 'Koszonom,' she says; thank you.


The evening sun, which cuts through the carriage almost horizontally, and paints the opposite wall a deep gold, is accompanied by the sound of plastic bags being ruffled, and some whispered chatter, as passengers take out their packed dinners. We join them, and demolish two slices of cold pre-cooked pizza, relishing the activity as much as the taste, before returning to our prior engagements of sitting, watching, digesting, as we roll to a halt at the border, and watch as the customs officers climb aboard in the last of the Hungarian light.