Floating about on the edges of my life is a topic I don’t normally like to discuss – mostly, because it sounds insane. There are plenty of people in the world trying to live weird lives, after all, and I’m not trying to disparage it. I’m just not one of them. I don’t go fishing for strangeness. In fact, I’ll generally go to absurd lengths to avoid any so-called ‘untoward situations’, though it has always been futile. The stubborn truth of my life is that I can’t seem to be anywhere for long without matters getting a bit weird. What’s more – and this is the crux of the mystery – it’s never my fault.
It’s always been like this, though I didn’t pay much attention until roughly 1999. It was late January, I think; I wanted to take a train up to Gosford to see my mother, who had come down from Queensland to stay with my aunt. Actually, before I left some friends warned me to brace myself, because:
“Something weird is going to happen to you, Kris.”
“Rubbish,” I responded. Because in those days I was living in denial.
Now to be fair, the train ride from Melbourne to Sydney was relatively normal – in the spectrum that is my life, I mean. Seated beside me was a diminutive lady of approximately four feet and zero inches in height. She had vibrant red hair and looked like she was married to a Leprechaun. She was in her early sixties, I remember, and – as she delightedly informed me – had just fled her daughter’s house after being caught having an affair with her son-in-law. She was quite friendly to me for some reason, and even offered to give me a shoulder massage (I politely declined). But as diverting as her conversation was, I was fairly relieved when she fell asleep because I wanted to read my book. She slept half the way to Melbourne with her bare feet across my lap, actually. Let nobody say I’m not a good sport.
I changed trains in Sydney. So far, so good. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary had happened. And you know something? I’ll get it out of the way now; an hour or so after boarding my next train, the carriage caught fire. Not that I noticed. I was finally reading War and Peace, which is a hugely diverting novel. Though it does take a little while to get going, I suppose – much like the story you’re reading now. The novel starts slow and then, after a while, hits you like – I don’t know – a passenger train on fire. Or something.
So there I was, reading away, and the plot was thickening around poor Pierre Bezukhov, so real life didn’t matter as far as I was concerned. An announcement urged me to calmly exit the train. I was aware of it, but I ignored it, because a good book is a good book. Well, I did notice we had pulled into a station. I looked up, noted the town wasn’t Woy Woy (where my aunt lives) so carried on reading. It was one of those ‘I am a page-and-a-half from the end of the chapter’ situations, and it’s not my fault that Tolstoy knew how to spin a compelling narrative. Meanwhile, odd bits of dust were settling on the pages of the book. Later, I would realize they were ashes but for now I merely wiped them away with my hand, irritated by the dusty state of New South Wales trains. And then at last, with my mind swirling with visions of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, I closed the book, yawned, checked the time, hoisted my bag and set off toward the front of the carriage.
When I stepped down onto the platform I found myself between two rather startled-looking firemen. But in front of me was a public phone – remember those? I remembered then my friends' prediction that my journey would be marred by insanity, so I went over, inserted some coins and dialed.
“Ha,” I said, when they answered. “I’m nearly at Woy Woy and nothing weird has happened at all, so … hmm … why is the top of the train carriage on fire?”
Here’s my point. If I made a list of the Top Five Strangest Things That Have Happened to Kris St Gabriel Whilst He was Aboard a Train, then the story I just told you probably wouldn’t rate a mention. I’m only telling it here because it happened in 1999, which – as I mentioned above – was the year I started paying closer attention. Also, the fact I was aboard a train carriage that caught fire and did not notice was not the strangest experience I had on a train that year.
There were a few others. My favourite occurred a few months later in May. I was traveling from Germany to Poland with my mate Byron and then-girlfried Zoya. There were some guards at the Polish border, at this little town named Szczecin and … Look, it was a perfectly reasonable mistake to make. It might have happened to anyone. It’s just that – even if I was wholeheartedly innocent – it still happened, and it is my innocence, I think, that is the common denominator in these stories. Still, if you’ll permit me to continue, I was just now mentioning how the train had stopped at a Polish border town. I looked up and there, suddenly, were two imposing figures — the Polish border guards I mentioned – towering over me.
Now, as I believe I mentioned earlier, some people go to great lengths to have strange adventures. They take themselves to beaches in third world countries, and then take a lot of illicit drugs. Then they get all disoriented, lose a shoe or something, then return to civilization, happy and delighted with themselves. To repeat, I am not like this. I was just trying to get to Gdansk, Poland. And if I’m remembering correctly, it was because we wanted to see a garden with some rhododendrons. Or a castle, or something. And if these goals sound quintessentially dull, then you might not be fully appreciating the frequency in which weird things had been happening to me! All I can say is that I was trying to keep my objectives modest.
Anyway, with two menacing border guards looming over me, all I had to do was repeat the following words: ‘Ile będzie kosztować wiza?’ In short, How much is the visa? Or, as I then added, in English, “How much will a visa cost me – an Australian – traveling today with my two friends who are Americans, and therefore not requiring visas. Because, Sir, I would like to your wonderful country, the great land that gave us Chopin and Joseph Conrad and –”
“Passport!” repeated the Polish guard.
“Right, right, here it is … but so you know, this guidebook here in my hand informs me that an Australian like myself can buy a visa at all major border crossings. And if Szczecin – laying rather precisely between Berlin and Gdansk – isn’t a major border crossing, then I don’t know what is! No, I’m not nervous about your rifles – but, I’ll say it again in that delightful language of yours:
‘Ile mnie to będzie kosztować?’ How much is this going to cost me?
That’s when they grabbed me. A mild scuffle ensues because, frankly, I have just been grabbed by some border guards who are dressed quite a lot like soldiers, and – I don’t know! Don’t pretend you would do better than me in such circumstances! Like me, you wouldn’t have had the time to think matters through. But as I was saying – a mild scuffle ensues, and I have just enough time to grab my bag before I am hauled away by (what is now) four Polish border guards carrying rifles.
Before you can say ‘what the actual–’, I am dragged off the train and onto the platform. And not long after, I am literally, not figuratively thrown into a holding cell. Here it will take approximately thirty minutes for me to fully determine my mistake. Which, by the way, was this: instead of saying in Polish, ‘how much will the visa cost?’ I had said, ‘how much will this cost me?’
But that nasty little realization is still in my future, for right now it is not at all clear to me that I’ve accidentally attempted to bribe some people carrying guns. The odd thing – well, another odd thing, I should say – is that, thanks to a Polish friend, I actually knew how to pronounce those words quite well. In other words, not only had I inadvertently attempted to bribe a border guard, I had done so in a remarkably well-enunciated way. Which, by the way, is precisely how one should not inadvertently attempt to bribe a border guard.
Now … the cell into which I have been thrown has those floor-to-ceiling bars that you’ll often see in American westerns. I was now afforded a perfect view of some eight or nine, or perhaps it was ten border guards, gathered together now around a small table and joyously ransacking my luggage in search of contraband. Picture a cluster of stern faces. Knee-length coats, fur caps, rifles and mustaches. And maybe even a bandolier of ammunition or two, because that’s how it all seemed to me at the time. They’re all rummaging away in my bag like angry warthogs until they give an abrupt start and then look at each other in dismay.
Here’s the thing. Byron, Zoya and I had only been going away for a few days. And seasoned traveler that I am, I’m not carrying all that much. Which explains why Zoya had asked me if she could put some of her things in my bag. To be clear, by ‘things’, I mean approximately nine hundred million bras and panties.
Please excuse my changes of tenses here but it was – and perhaps still is – a somewhat difficult moment in my life. One of the guards – trembling, for some reason — pokes a stick into my bag and raises aloft a bra. Now, picture him and his grave colleagues turning toward me with painful slowness, jaws wide, eyes fastening on me with fearful indignation.
Picture me desperately trying to defuse the situation, using my meager high school German to assure everybody present that I do not actually wear women’s panties. Because – I don’t know! – Poland was notoriously conservative! It’s the Nineties, remember, and they have rifles, and they’re up to their necks in Catholic repression, or so at least I had been led to understand. What I’m trying to get across to you just now is that I had been dragged off a train for reasons I was still piecing together, and in that precise moment, to the best of my knowledge, I was being detained – indefinitely and without trial – on suspicion of wearing women’s panties.
I will be locked in this cell for approximately six hours. By dawn, the guards will be thoroughly sick of me and let me go. But I suppose I should continue the rest of this tale in my next newsletter. Suffice to say, the incident I have just described is neither the strangest nor most worrisome thing to happen to me that weekend!. I usually don’t even bother telling my closest friends about the odd things that happen to me because everyone gets all exasperated at me, and start acting as if my very nature is to blame.
Fact is, I don’t even like going on vacation anymore. A man gets sick of the general weirdness, I suppose. Look, I was out walking my dog one evening in Massachusetts when a man in a wheel chair rolled up and attacked me. Actually, first he started punching my dog. We were just walking along! And no, I don’t look defenseless; I’m six-foot tall and have good shoulders, thank-you-very-much, and also this sort of habitual glower – a consequence of being forced to endure dumb things happening to me all the time, I think. But so you understand, when I later told my friends that a man in a wheelchair had attacked me, they – Zola and Byron, specifically – showed not a shred of surprise. From that first moment as they sat watching from a train window as I was dragged away by Polish border guards, well … it’s become hard to surprise them, let me put it that way.
Sometimes, I get a strong inclination to stay indoors. In fact, the first time I was supposed to meet my fiancée’s family, I became so afflicted by feelings of dread and superstition that I had to cancel the trip. I was strangely convinced, you see, that there was going to be an accident along the way – and all I wanted to do was lock myself up in a house and not go anywhere. My fiancée was understood, of course; she canceled my bus ticket and instead bought me a flight to visit her in Washington DC the following week. And, just so you understand what I’m dealing with here, the date on that ticket was – yes, you know what I’m about to say – September 11, 2001. And yes! Of course I spent the week leading up to that flight feeling even greater agitation and fretfulness than ever before! My brother, back in Australia, received worried email from me that week. In fact, I might as well reveal that, in consequence to that email, I have almost complete power over him. I can make him barricade himself inside his home for months if I choose, merely by calling him up on the phone and mentioning ‘a vague feeling of impending apocalypse’.
So obviously when the FBI lost my fingerprints late last year, the matter felt mildly routine. I have simply accustomed myself to a heightened degree of weirdness. I have had no other choice. And so you understand, one of these days I’m going to wander into a grocery store here in Australia and find myself face to face with a large North American Timber Wolf. And when that day arrives, I assure you I shall point my finger at the creature accusingly, and shout, “Ah ha! You’re late!”
In the meantime, I have a novel to finish. I’m pretty damned close to the end, actually; I’m up to the part where the protagonist picks a fist fight with an alien (shenanigans ensue, obviously). But obviously in my next newsletter, I’ll explain how I escaped from my holding cell in Szczecin and hopefully tell you about the next evening, when I was menaced by what might (or might not have been!) a ghost haunting a tree. Not that I believe in ghosts, exactly. I’ve only crossed paths with three possible ghosts and, such is my skepticism, I remain undecided. Still, I’ll do my best to explain what happened and let you decide.
Until next time, I remain yours – in frankly mild exasperation, etc,
Kris St Gabriel