After yesterday’s recording session, we killed someone. The delayed 13:38 Budapest to Prague Express (which I picked up at Brno and which was already running an hour late), sounded its horn just beyond the town of Pardubice and braked. Two things occurred to me at that point. Firstly, whatever had happened was almost certainly going to add to the current delay and I, as a First Class passenger, was entitled to feel this especially keenly. Secondly, the smell of burning brakes which now filled the carriage probably presented some sort of health hazard and Slovakrail was surely negligent for not providing windows that could be opened.
As it happened, the train doors themselves could be opened and this was handy because it meant that not only could the carriage be aired but, when night eventually fell and the lights of the ambulances and fire engines gathered around the front end of the train (we were in the carriage immediately behind the engine), a fellow passenger was able to shout out to one of the paramedics and establish that a man had been hit and killed by our train.
Railway workers with head torches walked along the side of the train, past our carriage and towards Standard Class, tapping the rails, by the sound of it, as they went. I wondered at first if the impact had damaged the tracks. Maybe the train would be derailed if it carried on. How would they evacuate all the passengers from what appeared to be the side of a turnip field? But they weren’t checking rails. The train, having killed the man on impact and having been carried forward by its own inertia, was unable to stop immediately and so he had passed under the engine and now lay somewhere beneath one of the other carriages further down the track. They were looking for his body.
Hours later, when the train set off again, the prerecorded apology over the tannoy informed us that the delay had been caused by a collision with a car, a gutless lie which substituted inanimate for animate and which left open the tantalising possibility that the occupants of that fictitious automobile had somehow survived the impact of our high-speed international express train.
Earlier in the day, I had been recording the Second and Third Movements of Richard Stanbrook’s Concertino for Oboe and Strings with the Brno Philharmonic and their principal oboe Marcela Tománková. This was Richard’s third visit to Brno. A former composer and arranger with the Royal Military Academy Band Corps at Sandhurst, Richard has an aversion to aeroplanes and so each time he records with us travels from his home in the Scottish Borders to the wilds of South Moravia by coach, usually via his mother’s house in Dorset. The long and uncomfortable journey is compounded for him by encroaching arthritis which he tells me about when we meet. Richard ascribes his pain to years of fell walking in his beloved Scottish Borders and he insists he wouldn’t have given up the hiking even if he had known the problems it would cause further down the line. All the same, I can’t help feeling next to useless as he walks with difficulty, up and down the steps to the recording studio and then up and down the stairs to the control room.
The journey of the unnamed man who stepped into the path of our train was shorter and simpler than Richard’s and, correspondingly, nobody much cared about him.
The weather was fairly arctic and so I was wearing an orange waterproof jacket of which, until yesterday, I had been rather fond. I’m confident that the time a customer in Sainsbury’s asked me what they needed (in addition to a sandwich and a bottle of water) to complete a Meal Deal (“packet of crisps, maybe?”) had nothing to do with the resemblance of my jacket to a Sainsbury’s store assistant uniform. Similarly, the unsolicited high-five from a passing postman was just high spirits and joie de vivre and almost certainly unrelated to our identical outerware. Now, though, as I walked down the train carriage, two hours after the accident, towards the buffet car, I was aware that I looked uncomfortably similar to the orange-jacketed Czech Rail workers who were making their way up and down the stationary train. The passengers, who had met the news of the man’s death with respectful contemplation now glared. Why had I not cleared the track yet? Why had I crashed the train in the first place? Did I not see him?
I couldn’t get into the buffet car. It was packed full of loud men drinking and laughing. They were having a high old time.
Back at my seat and having divested myself of my jacket, my neighbours’ tempers were beginning to fray. They wanted two things. They wanted to get to their destination and they wanted the buffet car not to be running out of food and drink.
The waitress from the buffet car was attempting to quell the table next to me.
“What do you have, then?”
“We have only duck. And beer.”
“In that case…we’ll have duck. And beer,” and the First Class passenger howled with laughter. Then he repeated his joke to the others at the table who had all heard it the first time. “We have only duck and beer. In that case, we’ll have duck. And beer!” Now they all howled. This delay wasn’t so bad after all. Who cared that bits of the mown-down man must be spattered all along the underside of our carriage?
A different unknown person had made an appearance earlier in the day. The score of Richard’s Concertino is dedicated in part to “the anonymous mystery Czech lady who I met at the Europa Hotel, Chodov, Prague on the morning of Monday 9th June 2014.” I emailed Richard about her.
“We met in a lift as, after breakfast and en-route to Prague City Centre, I was descending from my room on the eighth floor. She joined me on the seventh floor stop and engaged in conversation before I even had a chance to say “Good Morning.” As the lift was very slow, the chat was quite lengthy. The lady asked me who I was, where I lived and, if I recall correctly, what my interests were. We ended up talking about walking and she said I should visit the Czech Republic’s northern hills for the best scenery and I mentioned Scotland’s Southern Uplands as being some of the finest countryside Britain has to offer.
I realise this sounds like a potential script for Dr. Who, but, whilst terrible for remembering names, I never forget a face and will stake my reputation that we had met before either in a previous life or a parallel world. It was as if she and I knew each other but couldn’t quite remember how and why.”
Richard’s music can seem to hover between parallel worlds too. It’s modernist but tonal. It’s harsh but melodic. It’s new, it’s old. “His music, considered anachronistic by some, eschews modernity for its own sake. However, there are listeners who have found it disturbing and, at times, macabre”1 … sums it up beautifully.
Our train arrived in Prague five hours late. The journey took seven and a half hours in total. By the time we arrived, I too was defeated. I had forgotten about the unknown man whose remains we had mainly left behind in Pardubice. I sent texts to my partner bemoaning the fact that, as a result of the delay, I would no longer be able fully to enjoy the room I had booked in a lovely hotel at Prague Airport and that, instead, I would only have time to arrive, eat and sleep. Sympathy was proffered for my loss.
Richard wears a badge on his lapel, the flag of the European Union and is profoundly sad about what has become of the country of his birth.
The Concertino is “my farewell to the England I once knew and revered”.
He is right. We are horrible.
- Richard Stanbrook’s profile at the Scottish Music Centre: http://www.scottishmusiccentre.com/richard-stanbrook-2/
- Newspaper article (in Czech) about the accident: https://www.idnes.cz/pardubice/zpravy/nestesti-srazka-vlak-clovek-prelouc-pardubice-zeleznice.A181116_173223_pardubice-zpravy_klu