My favourite walk in all the world is the one from your compartment on a swanky train down a swaying corridor, all gussied up in your suit and clean shirt, to the saloon car for a drink before dinner. Outside the dark world rushes by and you’re reflected in the window glass like the happy, transparent ghost of a more sophisticated version of you.
I was on the Eastern & Oriental Express , thundering down from Bangkok to Singapore. It felt a little strange to be there because I had been there before, a decade and a half earlier, with my girlfriend at the time whom I loved very much. It’s always strange to retrace the steps of a memorable journey with someone new. The past, too, eerily overlays the present ‒ you keep encountering shadows of your younger self and feeling the echoes of things you felt and forgot a long time ago. It’s an odd, doubled experience, a journey in two opposite directions through time and I usually avoid it because it’s so unfair to the person I’m with.
On that first occasion I wandered into the lounge car and found a fortune teller. His name was Mr Tay Thong and he wore a suit of splendid yellow silk and he was sitting thoughtfully, waiting for a customer. I was just looking for somewhere to read my book, so we sat in companionable silence for a while.
‘Would you like to hear your fortune?’ he said after a while.
‘No thanks,’ I said. I don’t believe in fortune tellers. Fortune tellers are hucksters and shysters who say things that no one could possibly disagree with, like, ‘You’re very easy-going except when people push you too far,’ or ‘You have an interest in the world around you,’ which is a particularly effective line to someone on a train in a distant country. But Mr Tay Thong didn’t say any of that.
He started idly telling me things. ‘You’re a writer,’ he said. This was true.
‘And you are often late for appointments so you drive too fast and you have been in two car crashes.’ This too was true.
‘And you will be in another one, but it won’t be your fault.’ This has subsequently proven true.
All these true things made me uneasy.
He said: ‘You are travelling with someone who you think is the one you’ll always be with. But she isn’t. There will be four others before you find the one.’
I didn’t like hearing that so I went off to the saloon car for a drink, which is probably why fortune tellers don’t often tell you things you don’t want to hear, but I have never forgotten it, especially when that relationship ended, and then the next four relationships after it.
And so when I boarded the train last year, I went off in search of Mr Tay Thong. I found the lounge car, but he wasn’t there. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had been fourteen years and he was already an old man when I met him. Everything changes. There was a younger woman at his table, shuffling a deck of cards. I didn’t want to pick a card, I just wanted her to tell me about my partner. She studied my palm and pursed her lips. Then she said, ‘You’re a person with an enquiring mind who takes an interest in the world around you.’ I looked at her with a sinking heart.
As I stood and said goodbye, I realised how foolish I was being. However many times you ride the same tracks, it’s different each time. You’re different. Your future is different. Everything changes.
I went swaying back to my carriage and found my wife reading a book. She looked up and smiled and she was very beautiful.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Everything’s perfect.’