The second we got on the train my seven-year-old son wanted to change into his fancy dinner jacket. The second.
Mind you, I don’t blame him. It was quite the fancy dinner jacket.
But in that moment I realised that not only did my boy potentially have ideas above his station, but that I may have panicked and bought him something ridiculous.
Two days before, at home, I’d studied the paperwork.
T-shirts, jeans and trainers may not be worn at any time! it said. There is no such thing as overdressed!
I’d looked at my son. He was wearing a T-shirt, jeans and trainers.
I looked at myself. I was wearing a T-shirt, jeans and trainers.
So I dug out a tie and panic-ordered something for him online. It turned out to be much more purple and a little more velvet than I’d anticipated.
Which meant that now I was sitting in a beautiful wood-lined cabin on the Orient Express with what appeared to be a miniature version of Hugh Hefner.
And yes: the Orient Express.
The name that suggests luxury! Adventure! Intrigue! Occasional murder!
The name that suggests oysters and champagne and spies in Strasbourg, and late-night Constantinople-bound dalliances in the on-board piano car over cocktails and roulette! And very occasional murder!
The name that suggests dinner with nobles, opera singers and stiff-necked diplomats in a restaurant car packed with military medals and waxed moustaches… and sure, of course, occasional murder.
I would be enjoying all of that grown-up stuff… but instead of enjoying it with a 1920s flapper girl or a Wren on the run, I would be enjoying it all with a seven-year-old boy in a smoking jacket.
I’d had slight misgivings about whether this would work.
I’d been looking for something for us to do together; to thank him for being a brilliant big brother to his brilliant little siblings and never complaining that the attention he gets has diluted with the years. I wanted him to have memories of something amazing and timeless we did – just the two of us – as the trip that took us from London Victoria to Calais now pointed us towards France and the mountains and lakes of Switzerland and our final destination: Venice.
And as the train heaved itself away, and the cameras came out to glint in the golden-hour sun, the adventure had begun!
Which meant my son immediately got the iPad out.
‘No no!’ I said, swiping it away and popping open a chilled bottle of Woogie Party Non-Alcoholic Sparkling Apple Juice drink – which if I squinted so hard I could no longer see (and also didn’t taste it) could just about pass for a 1930 Bollinger La Grande Année Brut Champagne. ‘Now we toast the journey!’
My son immediately got it.
He knew he was so lucky to be here. He knew this mainly because people kept coming up to him and saying ‘You’re so lucky to be here!’. But he was the only kid on board, and while these days it’s less likely to be gunrunners or diplomats in the restaurant cars and more likely to be Ken and Amanda from Shepshed celebrating 15 years of marital bliss, the Orient Express – now the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – feels undeniably, ridiculously special.
There’s the grace of the 1920s cabins, sure; and the thick colours and rich shades from a royal palette: black mahogany, naval blues, British racing greens. But more importantly, there are also the carriage masters, dressed in their gold-piped finery and acting as host, advisor, butler – and often found stoking 100-year-old coal fireplaces at each carriage end to keep the cabins warm and the water hot.
And I think they do the job not because they need to or they just like trains, but because they just like this train.
Like Rory, whose dad worked on the Orient Express before him, and who grew up hearing about the glamour and the mountain air and the unusual characters on board.
Or Rupert, from the Caribbean, who spends 150 days of the year dressed in blue, and 150 nights sleeping under thick beige woollen blankets in a small room at the end of the carriage, getting up whenever necessary to tend to that fire.
Or like Marco, who met the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with on board the train he’s given his life to, and who asked her to marry him just as they slowed into Venice.
‘Is this right?’ says my son, adjusting his collar.
It’s dinner time. He looks amazing. A passing steward leans down and teaches him how to walk on the train without falling over – a kind of duck waddle, which while practical does take away from the glamour of the night a little, as I honestly believe waddles tend to – and we pass cabin after cabin, seeing moments of stories. A birthday, a treat, a bucket-list tick.
The largely French chefs and Italian waiters – who dash outside as the train makes brief stops in towns across Europe to pick up fresh fish, or just-baked bread, and pull it all on board – welcome my son, and agree that while tonight’s menu is delicious and the result of many years of refinement, they’ll channel their decades of culinary experience into making him a plate of pasta in tomato sauce.
I go for the lamb chops. The last time I ate on a train it was a Ginsters pasty and a cheese-and-onion sandwich. After these lamb chops, I am willing to be the face of a national campaign to stop cheese-and-onion sandwiches being sold on trains.
Then we explore, and make it to the bar carriage, and take a seat on an ink-blue sofa near the piano. A woman in a tiara and a man in a white military jacket – complete with a line of medals – fuss over my son.
I cast a glance around, waiting for a murder.
There isn’t one. Which I have to admit is disappointing.
The party is just starting, but we’ve got mountains to see in the morning and so head to bed. A passing steward winks at my son and surreptitiously hands him something as he goes.
My son gasps.
A silver pen.
THE ORIENT EXPRESS, it says.
He sleeps well that night. He sleeps for 10 hours, rocked and lulled by the carriage, his pen tucked safely away, and as we pull up the blinds the next morning the window slowly fills with snow-capped mountains as daybreak brightens our cabin.
We eat breakfast, and read, and wait for lunch – which are nine of the best words I’ve ever written – and my son puts on his velvet jacket again – which are nine words I never really expected to write.
The voice on the tannoy says ‘the dress code is casual’, but my boy’s made his decision. He’s here. He’s found his look. And that look is ‘Child of Wes Anderson’.
As we waddle down the carriage, I overhear a semi-famous passenger ask a steward for ‘a vegan salmon’ – which seems like something you’d have to already have on board, rather than be able to just knock up – and he rushes off to work out how on earth they’re going to get that done.
Another sees my son and smiles.
He reaches into his jacket for something.
He pulls something from his pocket and hands it to him.
A silver pen.
THE ORIENT EXPRESS, it says.
My boy smiles and takes it but looks at me, smile frozen. He wonders: am I going to say anything? Am I going to make him give it back because he’s already got one?
But I know what he wants this for. He wants this for his sister.
So I just say ‘That’s amazing, thank you!’ and my son smiles in relief, and in that moment I realise that now we have a secret to share that we didn’t have before this trip. An extra, tiny bond. We’re not just dad and son any more.
We are train robbers.
It may not have been a murder. But Pen Theft on the Orient Express will do for now.
Six hours later, at sunset, we arrive in Venice.
Soon we’ll be on a water taxi, bouncing towards a hotel and the next part of our adventure.
But my son says two important things to me before we leave this train.
He says that one day he wants to work on the Orient Express, just like the guys he met, just like the guys who gave him the silver pens.
And he says that one day, when he’s got a son, and when that son is seven years old, he wants to take him on the Orient Express, and he wants to stay in the same cabin we did.
So yes. I had my misgivings.
But yes. I guess you could say this worked.
Prices for a journey from London to Venice aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express owned by Belmond start from £2,129 per person, based on two sharing a twin cabin, during 2018 season (beginning 21 March 2018). For more information or to book, contact belmond.com; 0845 077 2222
Danny Wallace on… The art of solo travel