"IS THERE a hold-up?" I inquired of the most resplendently uniformed railway official. He aimed an aquiline nose at me, twirled one end of a handlebar moustache and replied: "A truck is stopping on the permanent way." He pointed at a van on the single track. "It will take a little time, as the people are disputing."
With a small bow to Verne, my wife, he said: "I am Inspector Ramgoolam. Would you care to see our Railway Museum while we are waiting?" He waved towards a display of railway hardware; lamps, signals and other memorabilia made in Glasgow, Birmingham or Manchester that would have delighted train devotees.
"Somerset Maugham would've chosen this train," said Verne. It was the Malaysian "Express" from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (everyone calls it KL), Butterworth and Bangkok in 48 hours. Legacies of the British Empire are roads, a public service, laws somewhat altered and the language mutating quaintly. Railways, I think, are emblematic of them all.
"You are interested, I see," said Ramgoolam. "Would you like to see our Puffing Billy?"
Deferential railwaymen watched while I made the necessary obeisance to a shining black monster, hissing quietly in a siding, brasses gleaming, coals glowing and the ubiquitous oil rag of her driver, rubbing here and wiping there. A golden statuette of the Buddha perched on a steam gauge.
Ramgoolam held open our door. "I have been working on the railways for 50 years."
"Are you Malaysian?" I asked. "No. I am Anglo-Indian. From Bangalore." He caught my eye, paused and said: "The Raj."
In that moment I heard the trumpets, saw the scarlet uniforms and white plumes of Empire strutting on Ramgoolam's platforms of the past. We had a shared history. On board, our conductor grinned: "Oh, you will be missing all your connections, don't worry".
"And our train in KL?"
"Maybe you will be arriving 20 minutes late," he said.
At the next stop, I jumped down on to the track and ran to the engine.
"What are you wanting?" yelled the driver.
"Please can you get to KL by 10.15?" I smiled up at him. "We have to catch the Penang-Bangkok Express."
"Don't worry," he grinned, tapping his radiophone. "My wife is telling me we are having a new daughter. Get back on quickly."
Well, he went lickety-spit without stopping past two or three stations lined with indignant faces. We clanked into KL's famous station, a marvellous confection of Muslim and European architecture, its beauty unexpected. The driver hit the platform running.
We swayed down to the galley and watched entranced. A "giggle" - no other collective noun will do - of young Thai "boy" waiters prepared our breakfasts. It was as I imagine a ballet troupe's dressing room before curtain up. Everything chaotic but choreographed. As they waltzed down the corridors, white jackets aflutter, I imagined Swan Lake.
Bangkok's Hualamphong station was a colourful, noisy place as all railway stations should be, with the departure of hopes and arrivals of expectations. Our waiters lined up and waved. As we waved back, I was tempted to shout, "Encore!"