NEW FICTION: The Marmots of Montreux by Stephen Claughton
“This isn’t how I imagined a Train de la Belle Epoque,” Bella said to her husband, as they watched the narrow-gauge steam locomotive hauling its line of period carriages out of the sheds at Montreux Station. “I was expecting something more like the Orient Express or a Pullman at least.”
“It’s only a cog-railway,” said Bob. He began following the train as it pulled in slowly alongside the barely-raised platform. He liked anything mechanical, especially steam, but he hadn’t seen an engine quite like this before. The little green cab and black boiler were raked forward so that they would lean back horizontally once the train started up the steep incline, winding its way up to the Rochers-de-Naye, high above the town.
It was the last full day of their holiday. Bella had picked Montreux from the brochure because of its “Mediterranean micro-climate”. In their forties now, they had tired of beach holidays, but still wanted somewhere warm. The visits they had made so far, though interesting, had been Bella’s choice. For example, she had taken them to Byron’s Castle of Chillon, on a rocky island next to the shore of Lake Geneva on one side of the town, and to Vevey on the other side, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau had lived and Charlie Chaplin was buried. So many cultural connections! Even Ernest Hemingway had once changed trains here.
Bob had suggested they should take the rack-railway up to the Rochers-de-Naye. “I’ve been reading a leaflet about it,” he said. “They have marmots there and an Alpine garden, a restaurant too. There’s even a Train de la Belle Epoque to take you up.” Bella wasn’t keen – the great outdoors held no attraction for her – but she was won over by the idea of the historic train ride.
She had already put Bob right about la Belle Epoque. If they could have afforded it, she would have liked to have stayed at the Montreux Palace Hotel, where Vladimir Nabokov had lived. It was an imposing building in the centre of town like a giant, iced cake – white with yellow awnings. Bob had called it Edwardian. “It’s Belle Epoque,” she had told him. It could hardly be Edwardian on the Continent. However, the excellent view they had from their own, modern hotel on the lake shore and the fact that Tchaikovsky had composed part of his violin concerto while staying in a villa on the site had been enough to mollify Bella.
Having got his way about the train ride, Bob realised that there was just one problem with his plan: their luggage. In Switzerland, it was transferred directly from the plane to your hotel and back. Having checked in at Heathrow, they had been able to forget about their cases until they were delivered to their room the following day. Bella had loved it, the next best thing to having servants. In Bob’s case, however, forgetting about the luggage had been purely a figure of speech. He had spent most of the journey fretting about whether their cases would arrive. Now that the process was to be reversed, he insisted on being present when their luggage was collected the day before their departure, so that he could be sure it had got off safely. As their trip would be on the same day, it meant they could spend only a short time on the mountain. Having dithered about it for a while, Bob had convinced himself it was manageable, provided they set off in good time.
After smiling appreciatively at the engine driver and taking some photographs of his engine, Bob wandered back to Bella.
“You took your time,” she said. “You even look the part with that anorak you’re wearing.” They climbed up into one of the carriages. It wasn’t long before they had begun a debate about which side to sit on for the best view of the lake. Neither of them was entirely sure what route the train would take. Their argument was cut short by a railway official, who came striding down the platform, demanding that everyone get off. The train wasn’t due to leave for another hour, he said, and in any case, having examined their tickets, he declared that Bob and Bella hadn’t paid the right fare for the Train de la Belle Epoque.
They could have paid a supplement, no doubt, but the train would leave too late for them to get back to their hotel in time to deal with the luggage. The regular service, which they boarded from the other side of the platform, wasn’t a steam train, but more like a miniature tram, driven by an overhead, electric cable. They got on without speaking and sat on opposite sides.
As the train began its climb, the track looped back on itself so that Bella’s side of the carriage had the view out over Lake Geneva, while Bob’s window looked out on a grass bank. They made a few stops at hotels on the lower slopes, where luggage, including several mountain bikes, was unloaded from a little goods wagon coupled to the back of the tram.
It was a single-track railway and from time to time, they stopped at passing places, while the driver got out to change the points by hand. Bob found himself staring at wild flowers. Some of them looked familiar, probably the same as in the Alpines section of the local garden centre. Were any of them edelweiss, he wondered, or did that grow only in inaccessible places? Bella would know, but Bob didn’t feel like asking her just at the moment.
As they proceeded further up the mountain, they passed by farms with steep, chalet roofs. In the fields, there were cows with cowbells, also some goats. Higher up, the train went through a series of wooden snow sheds as it climbed towards the summit.
“We’ve reached a watershed,” said Bella, suddenly leaning over towards him, as the train levelled out a bit.
“What?” asked Bob, startled. It sounded like an ultimatum. Surely, this hadn’t been worse than any of their other quarrels, hardly a quarrel at all, in fact. Then he saw she was smiling.
“It says so on a notice beside the track,” she explained. “We’re at the watershed between the Rhine and the Rhône. Look!”
At the Rochers-de-Naye, Bella climbed out with some difficulty. Though Bob thought she was exaggerating, her unsuitable shoes were clearly going to be a hazard up here. They made their way, Bella half-stumbling, along a rocky path towards the visitor centre, perched up on the ridge above the Lake. In front of it was what looked like a bunker with a turf roof and glass windows.
“The marmots,” Bob said, catching sight of a large, beaver-like creature, eyeing them with disdain from the other side of the glass. It had a greyish coat with a creamy underside. Its large muzzle, held horizontally, gave it a supercilious air. Bob was ashamed that a rodent the size of a small dog could make him feel inferior. The marmot might have been caged, but it was on home ground. Bob, as usual, felt like an outsider.
“Sod the marmots!” shouted Bella, whose moods changed as quickly as the mountain weather. She had a stone in her shoe and was trying to knock it out, standing on one leg with a hand on the balustrade in front of the marmot bunker. She had yelled not simply out of frustration, but because a strong wind had started whipping fiercely across the top of the mountain, threatening to drown her out. Bob looked at her and then across at the mist tumbling up over the edge of the ridge towards them. The wind seemed to blow straight through him. “I think we might give the Alpine garden a miss,” he said, seeing a straggling group in hiking gear struggling along the top of the ridge in the direction of the garden, which was indicated by a finger post.
Bob walked round the side of the marmots’ enclosure and in through a door that gave access to a view of their sleeping quarters. Bella would have hung back but for the gale outside. Inside it was dry and earthy. On either side of a tunnel were glass panes, through which they were meant to observe the marmots at rest. However, all they could see were heaps of straw which might or might not have held life. Another disappointment. “Big deal,” Bella said. “Can we go? I need somewhere warm and I want a drink.”
At the entrance to the visitor centre, they had the choice of either carrying on into the café, or going down a tunnel cut through the rock to a panoramic restaurant built into the cliff face.
“Let’s go to the restaurant,” said Bella. “At least we can have a decent meal and watch the weather on the other side of the glass. We’ll be like the marmots.”
“But we don’t have time,” said Bob. “They’ll take ages serving us and we have to be back in time for our cases to be collected.”
“We had time for those rats,” protested Bella. “Why can we spend some time on ourselves? Who cares if we get back late? We can always carry the luggage with us tomorrow.” She’d hardly dropped her voice since she had been outside and without the wind to muffle it, it was carrying loudly across the visitor shop and – judging by the number of heads being turned – into the adjoining café.
Bob suddenly saw how they must look to other people: a balding, paunchy man and a short, thin woman with dark hair, having an argument. He hoped that they wouldn’t understand English, but even if they didn’t, Bella’s anger was obvious. They were a couple having a row. As far as he could see, Bella had managed this perfectly well on her own without any assistance from him. It seemed unfair that he should be implicated. He was about to change his mind and agree to eat in the restaurant, where at least their fellow diners would not have overheard them. But, as if sensing that this was now the less comfortable option for him, Bella suddenly led the way into the self-service cafeteria, where she picked out to a small tuna salad and a demi-litre of white wine. Bob chose mineral water and a sandwich. They ate in silence, Bob studying the cog-railway timetable.
The alcohol appeared to lift Bella’s mood. When they had finished, she suggested they walk along the part of the ridge which overlooked Montreux. The weather seemed to be clearing up: the wind had dropped a bit and the mist had retreated up the mountainsides. Bob was about to raise an objection, but checked himself – there wouldn’t be another train for three-quarters of an hour, so he thought they’d be safe.
Bella realised she should have visited the ladies’ after all that wine, but she didn’t want to lose the momentum. She would go on the way back. She led on, even more unsteadily now, until she reached the top of the ridge, where she proceeded to walk along a kind of natural parapet. Bob lagged behind, irritated by the unpredictability of her moods and the way she was trying to provoke him. She had enthusiasms; he had obsessions. That was how she had put it. He needed more imagination. He was sure that everyone who met them thought they were ill matched, although on the whole they managed to get along in a complementary kind of way. He provided a steadying hand. And without Bella, his life would have seemed boring even to him.
There was a whistle. Down below he could see the Train de la Belle Epoque puffing out of the last of the snow sheds and starting to curve its way up to the station. They had been on the mountain for not much more than an hour – it had seemed a lot longer. As he was watching the train, a gust of wind blew into his face, almost knocking him off his feet and temporarily blurring his vision. He turned away and rubbed his eyes. Once he could see properly again, he wanted to rub them again, this time in disbelief. Bella, whom he had been following only a short distance behind, had disappeared.
Bob immediately began to panic. It was obvious to him what had happened: Bella, in a stupid attempt to show off, had walked too close to the edge and been blown over. His instinct should have been to run up to the ridge and look over the edge, but something was holding him back. Perhaps it was the thought of seeing her lying face down on a rock hundreds of metres below in a spot accessible only to the goats they had seen. Almost against his will, he found himself worrying not about Bella’s fate or the prospect of having to live without her, but about matters of practical detail.
What were the procedures in Switzerland? He imagined a complicated bureaucracy. Whom would he need to notify? Would the hotel extend his stay, and what about his tickets home and the vital luggage? Come to that, how did you get a body home? Was it the same as for luggage?
Then a worse thought struck him. The people at the visitor centre had seen them arguing. What if the police concluded that he had pushed Bella over the cliff? No one had seen it happen – the train had been a long way off and had barely left the snow-shed. Who would believe that Bella could be so stupid as to balance so close to the edge or that a gust of wind could blow her over? He would be condemned as a murderer and spend the rest of his life in a Swiss gaol. They had euthanasia here; did they also have the death penalty? Surely not, Switzerland was a neutral country, but he didn’t know for sure.
Almost furtively, he looked round and saw a group of people making their way up from the visitor centre. He would have to say something, when they reached him, otherwise he really would seem guilty. But what? His hesitation must already seem suspicious. In his panic, it seemed there was only one way out.
He looked back at the people coming up. As yet, they were blissfully unaware of what they were about to see: Bob – poor, fat, balding Bob – running to the edge of the cliff and stepping up onto the natural rampart, then with the wind is still gusting strongly spreading his arms out wide in the manner of Christ the Redeemer or the Angel of the North and standing there in a gesture of martyrdom or surrender, waiting for the wind to re-enact Bella’s fate. His scream as his plunged towards Bella on the rocks below would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
So convinced had Bob been by this scenario that when he saw Bella walking back towards him, he was dumbstruck.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “You look like a ghost, or as if you’ve seen one.” She turned to nod and smile at the group of Japanese hikers who were just passing.
Bob didn’t reply at first. The whole thing now seemed so absurd that he was too embarrassed to explain. He couldn’t even bring himself to ask where she had been. Perhaps she had slipped out of sight, having fallen over, or stepped behind the rampart, which might not after all conceal a sheer drop. It seemed to him that he did, after all, have an imagination, an extremely vivid one, or was this just a matter of jumping to conclusions, more flawed logic than active imagination?
“I thought you’d gone,” was all he could say.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” said Bella, “Where would I go to?” She wasn’t going to admit to anything, even if Bob had guessed.
“There’s a magnificent view of Montreux and the Lake,” she said, “but if you’re not interested, we might be in time to have another look at the marmots.” For Bob, though, the excursion was over. He had started worrying about the luggage again.
Copyright © Stephen Claughton, 2015.
Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared in Agenda, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, Iota, London Grip, Other Poetry, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Poetry Shed and The Warwick Review. This is his first short story.