It was a chilly Sunday night. The temperature had dipped below zero and the first flurry of snow had drifted down from the painted black sky, sending a ripple of excitement through the market-goers. The smell of candied orange and hot cloves from the mulled wine spiced the air; the sweet, nostalgic smell of yuletide. It was hard not to feel a little romantic.
It was the last night of our trip to Budapest. For three days, my boyfriend and I had wandered dizzily around the Hungarian capital, falling deeply for its charm as the city lit up at night, the lights of the parliament building glittering across the Danube, or as we bathed in the historic Szeycheni baths, our breath rising in steamy plumes against the bitter Winter air. Our time had felt painfully fleeting, and for a first trip away together had gone remarkably smooth. Not a hitch to be had. But one should never speak too soon…
The scene was as pretty as a snow globe, but reluctantly, we had tracks to make. It was late. The stalls had begun to close, and it wouldn’t be long until the last metro came to ferry us back to the warmth of our hotel. Bed was a comforting thought.
Taking the steps down to Vorosmarty Ter, I couldn’t help but find myself distracted by the characterful station; the colourful tiled walls, the wrought iron handrails, the traditional gas lanterns…It felt like we had stepped into the framework of a 1920’s filmset. I gazed up at the station list.
Bajza Utca > Kodly Korond > Vorosmarty Utca > Oktogon > Opera > Bajesy-Zsilinszky > Deak Ferenc
If my calculations were correct, we only had one stop to travel. It should have been an easy hop, skip and jump home. And then came a thought;
Yes we’re at the right station, but how do we know we’re standing on the right platform? How do we know which direction the train will be going?
It was only a flicker of a thought, a mere whisper which passed through the recesses of my mind. A mind which was, admittedly, a little foggy with tiredness and cheap Hungarian wine. Before I’d had time to dwell, the sound of clacking came crawling towards us from the darkness of the tunnel. The sound of wheels on steel. A train was coming in to view.
Bajza Utca, it read. That was the end point for the line we were looking for. Relief. This must be for us.
The doors opened and a tide of travelers stepped on to the platform, drawing their scarves in tight against their necks as the cold air met warm skin. With the torrent of movement subsiding, I stepped forward on to the train. The space behind my shoulder, once occupied by Fraser, grew empty and I heard his voice from the step below;
“Hang on, I’m not sure if…”
And then it happened. I turned around, suddenly aware that I was the only one on the carriage. Looking further, I was the only one on the train, the only one to step on at all. Fraser had hesitated, only for a second, but that was all it had taken.
The doors closed. A wall of glass and metal stood between us. The expression on his face changed from bewilderment to horror. I can only imagine that mine was the same, for the same realization had come over us both;
This is not the right train.
I grappled for the handle. It wouldn’t turn. I banged on the glass as Fraser tried to wrench the door open from the outside.
Where’s the emergency button?! I looked around. Of course, there was none.
Our eyes locked as the dawning knowledge seeped in.
For a moment, all I could do was laugh. There was something so comical about the panic on Fraser’s face. I couldn’t help but think that we must look like a pair of Loony Tunes characters, caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
And then came the unmistakable rumbling as the engine kicked into action. The train shook and shuddered and spluttered into life. We both stepped back from the door. All smiles were lost.
One final hopeless look, and the train departed.
I stared, defeated and incredulous, as the platform rolled by. The tiled walls, the handrails, the lanterns, gone. Fraser, gone.
I was swallowed up into the darkness of a tunnel, and then, as quick as the train had come into life, it stopped, letting out a slow and haunting sigh as it ground to a halt. We had probably only travelled a few hundred metres, though nothing could be seen.
For a moment, I wondered whether the driver had realised his mistake. And then, the lights went out.
In the darkness, I let out a shaky laugh.
How had this happened? How had I ended up alone on the Hungarian underground?
This was just the sort of thing that could only happen to me. I could just hear my parents guffawing about it now, as I relayed the story to them. “Only you!” They’d chuckle.
Only it wasn’t funny.
What if I was genuinely stuck? What if nobody knew I was here? Where the hell even was I?
Suddenly I felt all too aware of the fact that I was beneath ground level. The claustrophobia began to set in, and the walls of the carriage seemed to have reduced by a good couple of feet. The initial heat of the panic had begun to wear off too, and a menacing wave of cold washed over me. I fumbled about in my bag until I found my phone. No signal.
My mind was whirring. I tried to slow down my thoughts and clutch at anything close to rational. Every thought was interrupted by a screaming madwoman.
Okay, calm down.
Calm?! How can I stay bloody calm?! I’m stuck on a metro!
You’re going to be fine. This time tomorrow you’ll be safely back in Scotland, in your own bed.
Oh God. The flight is first thing in the morning! If I’m stuck on this thing all night I’m going to miss the flight!
You won’t be stuck all night. Someone will come and rescue you.
No one knows I’m here!
Fraser does. He’ll get help.
Fraser doesn’t speak Hungarian! How do you explain to someone that doesn’t speak English that you’ve lost your girlfriend on the underground?!
As I was having this epic debate with my panic-stricken Inner Me, a blur of movement caught my eye at the window. A man! A man was walking past the window, down the tracks. A guard.
I ran to the window and thumped on the glass.
“Hey! HEY! Help! I’m stuck!”
He had heard. He stopped and turned to face me. I’m not sure what I had expected to see in his expression; shock? Pity? Kindness? I certainly hadn’t expected it to be rage, and yet rage was what I got.
The guard banged back on the glass, his eyes black with venom.
“You should not be on the train!”
No shit, Sherlock.
“That was the last stop!”
“I know,” I called back, pleadingly. “I got on by mistake. The train…it just took off with me.”
He muttered something in Hungarian. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t pleasant.
“You should not be on the train!” He hissed again, as if I hadn’t got the point the first time. And with that, he turned on his heel, carried on down the tracks and disappeared into the darkness like a ghost in the night.
“No! Wait! Come back!” I cried, tears hot in my eyes. “You have to help me. You can’t just leave me!”
But he did. I screamed, and I shouted, and I pounded on the glass. I felt like a fish trapped in a net. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Fraser shouting too, possibly at the guard, perhaps to me. We were both calling out, and yet neither could really hear. It was as though we were screaming under water, and every time the currents would take us further and further apart.
I tried every door of the carriage but each time, the handle was stuck solid. Even if I wanted to, I could not escape the train. I looked around for anything that might help. There was no panic button, no emergency phone, no axe to break the glass. All I had to hand was a crumpled copy of the Budapest Times and an empty McDonalds Happy Meal box. If I’d been Bear Grylls, perhaps that would have sufficed. Sadly, my resourcefulness skills did not extend that far. I was well and truly buggered.
I sat down, defeated, and pulled my knees to my chest. The sub-thermal conditions had well and truly set in, and I could feel my teeth chattering in a way that had only happened once or twice in my life – perhaps as a child, after jumping into the sea, or after hours spent building snowmen on the rare occasion that we saw a Scottish white Christmas. I berated myself for wearing such a thin coat. I longed for a cup of mulled wine.
I closed my eyes and tried not to cry as the ridiculousness of the situation sunk in. Why had I stepped on to the train? Why didn’t I wait until we were sure? Why hadn’t I noticed that I was the only one?
I’d always envisioned that I’d have somewhat of a ridiculous death, or that I’d make it into a foreign paper one day for my travelling mishaps.
“Scottish girl lost in the Thai jungle” had been a close call.
“Tourist cursed by elderly Greek lady” had been another.
But being stuck alone on a blackened metro in the middle of Hungarian winter really took the biscuit.
As I ruminated on potential headlines – and tried to imagine which was the least embarrassing profile picture The Sun might source from Facebook – I was almost oblivious to the fact that the lights had flickered back on.
The train shook like a dog waking itself up from a nap.
Oh God…where are we going now?! I wondered, as visions of having to explain myself to Czech police in the morning came to mind. And then, miraculously, I noticed that we were going back in the direction of Vorosmarty station. Happiness soared as the platform, and Fraser, came back into view. The doors sprang open and I leapt out like a caged gazelle let loose in the savanna.
I could have cried with relief as the train deposited me and then crept back into the tunnel for the night. I didn’t even mind that the furious guard glared at me from the ticket booth, shaking his head in contempt.
I turned to face Fraser, and quickly realized that only one barrier stood in our way; the train tracks. You see, when the train had returned, it had come to the other side of the platform. The side we should have been standing on, had we got the correct train. This seemed irrelevant however, as we waved at each other in sheer elation. I was just so happy to see him, and to know that I wasn’t going to spend the night below ground by myself.
“I’ll see you upstairs” I mouthed to him, pointing to the street above. We nodded in agreement, and laughed in relief as we rushed towards the stairs. The daylight had gone, but I was more than happy to see the distant glow from the streetlamps as I raced up the steps, two at a time. Only one thought gave my legs the strength to keep moving, and that thought was seeing him. Just two more steps…I had made it on to the street and…
Where the bloody Hell is he?!
For you see, what we had failed to take in to account, what we should have noticed in the first place upon entering the station, is that there were two different entrances. On two different streets. In one last epic piece of fuck-up-ery, we had emerged onto said different streets, and once again, lost each other in a foreign city, in the freezing cold, with no phone signal and what seemed to be very little common sense.
Now I’m not quite sure what the moral of this story is. Perhaps it’s that one should pay better attention to signposts before stepping onto foreign trains, or that if one is in doubt, one should always pay for a taxi. Perhaps it’s that couples should always, always, hold hands when embarking public transport, lest they should get separated. Perhaps it’s that no matter how seasoned a traveller you think you are, things can always go tits up, and that it pays to be prepared. Or perhaps it’s just that I am a liability, and that my advice should be avoided at all costs. I suspect it’s the latter. Either way, if you’re taking the last train home in Budapest, take care. Or at the very least, take a good coat.