Friday, 14 October 2011

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

I first read this around ten years ago, finishing it in a single sitting. I was captivated by the sense of Kafkaesque menace that pervades the story, despite the fact that very little happens for most of the book.

Ostensibly the tale of a holidaymaker who gets trapped in a small village in the Lake District after procrastinating whether to go on his travels to India by motorbike, Mills imbues the book with an increasing feeling of menace. By the time winter has arrived and the unnamed narrator has found himself taking on numerous odd jobs including the local milk round, an ice cream franchise and painting a set of rowing boats in a hideous shade of green, the claustrophobia is unbearable.

It all starts off innocently enough; the narrator decides to stay on a week at the end of the holiday season. As the rest of the campers disappear home, Mr Parker, the farmer who runs the site, asks him to paint a gate in return for the next week’s rent for his pitch. It seems a reasonable deal, and it saves him a few bob which he can spend on beer:

After that there was nothing to do except go down the pub. I had a choice between walking and going on the bike. If I took the bike it meant I would have to drink less, maximum three pints. Or I could walk and have five. I thought of the money I’d saved by painting Mr Parker’s gate, and decided to walk.

Pretty soon, he is invited to join the darts team at the Packhorse, the livelier of the two pubs in the village. There’s a new barrel of bitter on tap, just for him, and he’s allowed to run up a sizeable slate:

My opponent from the Golden Lion was a portly bloke called Phil who didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered when I beat him, and instantly rushed off to buy me a pint of lager. When I asked if it would be alright if I had Topham’s Excelsior instead he looked slightly sorry for me, as though I hadn’t been properly weaned or something.

Well, it’s not as if he’s staying for long, just until he finishes the painting for Mr Parker:

When I walked to the pub at night I could hear seabirds out in the middle of the lake, squawking and arguing. It sounded as though there were thousands of them. I had no idea where they’d come from, but they seemed to have settled in for the winter. I thought about the seven boats waiting to be painted, the darts fixtures and the endless points of Topham’s Excelsior Bitter, and realized that I’d settled in for the winter as well.

But disaster strikes. He doesn’t realise that away matches take place on Tuesdays... When he gets to the Packhorse too late to make the game in the nearby village, he gets a distinctly frosty reception. It’s hinted that he ought to keep his head down at the other pub for a couple of weeks until it all blows over. Sadly, the Ring of Bells is a purgatorial dump of a public house:

That night I began my two-week sentence at the Ring of Bells. Two weeks of sitting in a pub with no women, no darts and no Topham’s Excelsior Bitter wasn’t very appealing, so I put it off until about quarter to ten... The same people sat in the same places and stared at their drinks, while the landlord (whose name, apparently, was Cyril) stood behind the counter and polished glasses. The conversation was at best desultory.

After a while of this, he begins to question if it’s worth going to the pub at all. He’s saved from this terrible fate when speaking to the captain of the Packhorse darts team while on the new milk round he has somehow acquired:

Tomorrow being Thursday evening I assumed he was referring to the next darts fixture in the Packhorse. I took his remark as meaning that my period of exile was over and I could begin drinking there again. My resolution of the previous evening about ‘not drinking anywhere for the time being’ had seemed very bleak in the cold light of day. After all, what was the point of working if I couldn’t go to the pub at night?

What point indeed? But by the time he finds that there is only one way to leave the village, it’s a bit late to be thinking about beer...

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