Bad Things Do Come in Threes: Death, Mechanical Failure and Cuckoldry on the Night Train to Lisbon

At first I didn’t think much of it when the conductor turned up the dimmed lights of our coach and asked if there was a doctor on board. Apparently there was a “medical situation” which required the expertise of a trained physician; no one spoke up, and he continued briskly down the hall to the next car. A long time ago I had once been on a flight to Panama when someone six or seven rows ahead of me started having a seizure. I remember a stewardess and an older gentleman stabilizing the person, and they must have succeeded because we didn’t make an emergency landing to offload the stricken passenger.

So I figured whatever was happening on board probably wouldn’t be that big a deal, or if it was then there would be an ambulance waiting for us at the next train station and our trip to Lisbon would continue more or less uninterrupted. I was so laughably wrong.

Our train halted at a quiet station called Fuente de San Esteban-Boadilla, smack in the middle of nowhere. It was about 2 AM when we pulled in, and the surrounding countryside was a pitch-black quilt dotted with the occasional light from a passing car. Rain had started falling when I boarded the train an hour before in Salamanca, where I had spent the last day and a half, and over here it had dissipated into a light but steady mist.

I was on the verge of going to sleep when all of a sudden a woman’s disembodied voice began yelling profanity in Portuguese. Her word of choice was puta, which means “whore” in both Iberian tongues, and she also preferred to use the word mierda, which is a not so nice way of referring to excrement. I pitied whoever she was yelling at, though it began to sound like this woman had been betrayed—why else would she be bellowing curse words in a cramped train bathroom for everyone in the car to hear? However, my pity was misguided, because whatever issues this woman had took about 90 minutes—the same duration as a football match, for crying out loud!—to air out.

After a while, we noticed that the train had yet to leave the station, so several of us stepped outside to take a look and see what was going on. Three or four cars ahead of us stood a cluster of train workers, huddled around each other in the mist and looking melancholic. One of my fellow passengers asked what was going on, to which the conductor replied that we were having some mechanical issues—and, oh yeah, the mechanic had died, so we were also waiting somewhere between East and West Bumfuck for a coroner to come pick up the body.

I plugged in my iPod and tried listening to some music by Olafur Arnalds, but unfortunately the soothing sounds of Icelandic piano were overpowered by the roar of the scorned Portuguese woman in the bathroom just ten feet from my seat. No one recalled seeing her enter the bathroom, so we began guessing what she looked like or if this wasn’t just some macabre reality television show we were unwittingly starring in. A pretty girl sitting across from me was looking dreamily out the window, a tinny halo of noise emanating from the earbuds she had plugged in to drown out the wounded she-beast in the bathroom.

A few courageous people had gotten up over the course of the hour and a half the woman had locked herself in and tried knocking to see if she was OK, but she completely ignored them and continued screaming her lungs off. Eventually the screaming stopped, and it was replaced by chillingly girlish laughter; great, our train was stuck in the middle of nowhere and there was a psychopath on board! Soon enough, the laughter switched back to face-melting shrieks and normalcy was restored. It wasn’t even funny anymore, just disturbing and incredibly annoying. At around 3:45 AM—now almost two hours since we had stopped—the door to the bathroom opened slowly. A hush fell over our train car; everyone was curious and frightened at the same time by who was about to appear.

Out stepped one of the fattest women I have seen in my six months around Europe; she was wearing a huge pair of jeans and had surprisingly neat wavy brown hair. She squeezed through the door in a huff, carrying a massive handbag across her enormous chest, and waddled down the aisle. When she passed by me—I was staring out the window and intent on avoiding eye contact—a strong scent of hand lotion bobbed in her wake. The woman sat down huffily a few rows behind me, and I heard her ask why we were still stopped. A man sitting nearby whispered gently to her in the same way you might break the bad news about Santa Claus to a hyperventilating child that the train mechanic had died.

“Oh,” she uttered, and then she fell—thankfully—into silence. I went outside once more and noticed a van pulled up next to the front of the train. Two men in black jackets with the words “Forensic Unit” stenciled on the back were hauling a stretcher out of the back of the van; attached to the stretcher was a zip-up black bag. For the corpse. A brief shudder ran up my back, and it had nothing to do with the cold. I walked back into my train car—mercifully quiet now—and plugged back into my iPod, willing sleep to come.

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