It was considered the most glamourous, fashionable and decadent way to travel; the favourite of kings, nobles, courtesans and spies. It was the Orient Express: celebrated in the works of Greene and Christie, it was a lush blue and gold, with wood-panelled interiors and gleaming brass and silk and velvet and lace, and quite frankly I couldn't really afford it.
At least, not until the commission from the scruffy, egotistical Austrian composer, whom I'd met by chance one drunken evening in the bar of the Russell Square Hotel, near my rooms in London. He'd been loud and obnoxious, and I'd gone over to ask him politely to shut up. By the time the evening was done, however, I'd secured a lucrative portrait commission from him; had spent the next two months living rather luxuriously on his money in Vienna, painting when I felt like it, drinking when I didn't; and when the commission was complete I'd decided to hell with it, and blown the rest of his generous payment on a luxury rail trip to Paris. I should have returned all the way to London, but I had debtors awaiting my return, a landlady I couldn't bear, and a woman unreasonably bent on matrimony - Paris seemed the safest bet and, more to the point, the Place To Be.
It was 1935, and I was 35 years old: born on the first hour of the first day of the first month of the century. The events of 1939 would change everything - for me, for those I loved, for the world; but four years earlier, for an artist with plenty of talent and precious little money, art and pleasure ruled my life - and art, style, fashion and (of course) pleasure all came together, heaving and gasping in a veritable orgasm of delicious, intoxicating, hedonistic culture, in beautiful, romantic Paris.
I knew I had to be there.
And so I mingled in the buffet car of the Orient Express, heading for my destination at la Gare de l'Est in Paris, glancing at my fellow passengers as I dined alone on cinnamon toast and a pot of Earl Grey, wondering to myself which of them were the kings, which the nobles, which the courtesans, and which the spies. Would the train become stranded in snow? Would we have to do what rumours had suggested six years earlier, and chase and eat rabid wolves to survive? It seemed unlikely - we were already long past Munich, and it looked pretty damn sunny out there.
So I watched my fellow passengers, studying them in my own fashion, whiling away my time writing my diary, and had little inkling of the intense pleasures that lay mere hours ahead...
(to be continued...)