Journey into horror that derailed my faith in God: A top author reveals horrific train experience

When the Army and I realised we were incompatible it was 1973, and I was honourably discharged from officer training at Sandhurst after just four months.

It had been intended that I should go into my father’s regiment, the Queen‘s Dragoon Guards, and my parents were left bitterly disappointed.

My father told me that I would be a failure all my life, but in the event I was only a failure until I was about 40.

After leaving the service I went home and worked as a landscape gardener for a few months; it was this occupation that got me through university, and to which I always resorted whenever I was unemployed.

Eventually, the bad atmosphere at home became intolerable, and I got a job teaching on a ranch in rural Colombia, a country of which I had never previously heard. My boss was a white rancher, who gave jobs on the ranch to my pupils when they grew up.

I went to Colombia at exactly the right time in my life. It meant that I never followed the path laid out for me (public school, cavalry, Oxford, well-paid cushy job), but miraculously ended up doing what I had always known I would do since the age of 12 — writing.

Eventually, the bad atmosphere at home became intolerable, and I got a job teaching on a ranch in rural Colombia, a country of which I had never previously heard, writes author Louis de Bernieres (pictured)

Eventually, the bad atmosphere at home became intolerable, and I got a job teaching on a ranch in rural Colombia, a country of which I had never previously heard, writes author Louis de Bernieres (pictured)

Eventually, the bad atmosphere at home became intolerable, and I got a job teaching on a ranch in rural Colombia, a country of which I had never previously heard, writes author Louis de Bernieres (pictured)

Colombia is a mixed-race country par excellence. The coastal people are mainly descended from freed African slaves. The mountains are home to the indigenous groups, who are of eastern-Asiatic appearance.

The white people are not conspicuously white. It was quite common to see light-skinned black people with freckles and ginger hair. I was quite an exotic creature in such a country, and people would hail me with a very friendly ‘Ay Gringoncho!’ (Hey, big fat Yank), as I rode by on my horse.

After a year I came home, went to Manchester University, and realised that I would never feel truly British again.

I had been living among a rural people of godlike physique who had almost nothing to eat but what grew everywhere on trees or that they had managed to kill for themselves.

People whose children were brought up by entire villages, who seemed to swap partners every three years, and went crazy with violence when drunk on Friday nights. People whose men dressed like peacocks and whose women smoked cigars and curled their hair with cardboard lavatory roll tubes.

After that, Manchester in the 1970s was the very quintessence of drabness and I felt utterly demoralised. I had never lived in a city before, and felt completely lost and confused.

I fell in love with a chain-smoking French blonde, who treated me appallingly, left me for a gay bus conductor, and eventually realised she was lesbian.

I dealt with all this by remaining in Colombia in spirit, reading nothing but Latin American literature for about 15 years.

Colombia changed me in another way, permanent and profound. My father was a High Anglican, and my mother somewhat more Protestant.

At my prep school we had Chapel twice a day because the headmaster liked to dress up as a priest and parade his piety, in between bursts of his fondling and thrashing.

At my public school we had Chapel every day, and House prayers, but there was something curiously tokenistic about it all, as if one were simply reverencing the quaint customs of the past.

Even so, Jesus Christ seemed like somebody I knew as intimately as I knew my friends. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians feel this way about Mary, mother of Jesus, and Muslims feel the same about the Prophet Muhammad.

This personal intimacy is what makes faith seem so easy and natural. However, I did Divinity for A-level, and that’s where the rot set in. There’s nothing like studying the Bible in a critical and scholarly manner for sowing the seeds of doubt.

Every time the train jolted, you were flung up into the air. It was fantastically good fun, and all the passengers loved it. You would exclaim 'Whooba!' as you flew (file image)

Every time the train jolted, you were flung up into the air. It was fantastically good fun, and all the passengers loved it. You would exclaim 'Whooba!' as you flew (file image)

Every time the train jolted, you were flung up into the air. It was fantastically good fun, and all the passengers loved it. You would exclaim ‘Whooba!’ as you flew (file image)

Halfway through my time in Colombia, I was allowed a holiday and decided I was going to neighbouring Ecuador to blow my wages. These were the equivalent of about two pounds a week, so I would first travel to Colombian capital Bogota on the train before taking a plane.

The train was always several hours late, and often never arrived at all, so passengers would have a kind of impromptu party on the platform while they waited.

The tracks were very badly laid and maintained, and rather than re-lay them a much cheaper option was adopted; the seats were prodigiously well sprung.

Every time the train jolted, you were flung up into the air. It was fantastically good fun, and all the passengers loved it. You would exclaim ‘Whooba!’ as you flew.

Bogota was cold and rainy, compared to the tropical lowlands where I had been living.

I made my way to the airport, only to find that I could not leave without a document called a Paz y Salvo, which was a certificate to show that I had paid my taxes.

The Minister of the Interior was passing through, but was in too much of a hurry to help me, so I decided to spend my time in Bogota instead of Ecuadorean capital Quito.

My strongest memory is of going to the Gold Museum to see the looted pre-Colombian gold, and finding the steps of the museum covered with lepers. It was truly shocking.

Those livid rotting stumps, the rags, the imploring brown eyes — the memory of them still makes my eyes prickle with tears.

I gave up on Bogota and decided to go back home again. On the train I sat opposite a young woman of about 17 years of age, who introduced herself as Maria.

She was like so many Colombians, with light dark skin and brown freckles on her cheekbones.

Her clothes were skimpy and colourful, her face was jauntily made up, and her glossy lipstick was the same bright red that my mother used.

She was pleased with her body, very much at home in it, and took care that others could admire it.

On her feet she wore those absurdly high-stacked platform shoes that never seem to go entirely out of fashion. She had all the prettiness and charm of a girl of her age, who has not a care in the world.

Maria was a natural flirt. I was somewhat better looking when I was 19, and I imagine that to her I must have seemed very exotic. Her English was as poor as my Castilian Spanish, but we got on very well, enjoyed our misunderstandings and confusions, and seemed to be drawn across the gap between our seats.

What I remember most about her was her smiling warmth.

I was slightly embarrassed. I was not at all experienced in flirtation with women from other cultures, and not remotely adept in it even with women from my own.

Maria didn’t mind. She liked me, it was fun flirting with me, and for her that was enough.

The train from Bogota has to wind its way slowly between mountains before reaching the plains. The views are spectacular. At some point Maria asked me if I would like a beer.

I knew how poor most people were, and I was reluctant to put her even to such a small expense, but she insisted. She said she wanted one herself, and no, she wasn’t going to let me go and buy it. So she stood up and tottered towards the carriage door on her stacked heels.

Those trains had no concertinas between the coaches, and passengers had to make a small but decisive step in order to get from one to another. The train lurched just as she was stepping across, and she fell out sideways.

It took a while for the train to stop, and then it slowly went into reverse.

Maria was still alive and conscious, but all the flesh had been shredded from the left side of her body. Her eyes were brimming with tears.

Freshly exposed living bone has a curious blue tint to it. I wasn’t allowed to help carry her in. I was an outsider, and looking after Maria was a job for proper Colombians.

I sat alone in my seat, looking across at the space that was vibrating with her absence.

There was no hospital anywhere near, and no place to stop. If she had been an animal she would have been shot straight away, but instead she had to suffer for two long hours.

As the news of Maria’s death spread, all the women in the train, one after another, broke into a deafening lament, a mad, inconsolable keening and wailing. ‘Ay! Ay! Ay! Ay!’ It was deafening, it was the exact opposite of what would have happened on a British train.

It carried me up and terrified me. I did not cry or wail. I sat there very still amid that overwhelming bedlam of hysterical grief and, very loudly and clearly, a voice in the middle of my head said ‘There is no moral order.’

When I returned to the ranch I stopped doing RE lessons with the children. I had had a Damascene conversion in reverse.

All I could think was that if God did exist he either cared about nothing or was a sadist. I have always wanted to meet God on a dusty highway somewhere, and challenge him to justify Himself.

In a perverse sense I need God, so that there is someone to blame. I told God to leave, and He did, like someone walking down the garden path to the gate, opening it and striding away without a backward glance.

Of course, your abandoned religion always remains an indelible part of your psyche. It leaves a hole behind that only it can fill.

Jesus is still a companion of sorts, but he is not the Christus Rex, crowned in triumph at the right hand of God; he has become a Jesus in rags, beaten, betrayed, abandoned and forsaken.

I miss being religious. Religion makes you feel at home in the world and gives you the reassurance that there is some point to your life.

Without religion you must wander about, looking behind dustbins and in the faces of others for what you have lost.

Your soul is sent back to your body and imprisoned there until some great love, such as the love of your children, sets it free.

I find modern church services hard to stomach because I miss the overpowering poetry of the King James Bible and the Book Of Common Prayer.

When the Church of England gave them up, it gave me another reason to leave. With the poetry, went the enchantment.

The odd thing about loss of faith, though, is that it is as personal as faith itself.

During World War II my father had to watch as his regiment lost 25 tanks in five minutes at a tiny village called Monte Cieco, on the Gothic line near Rimini.

They had been ordered to charge over a ridge and down into a valley overlooked by anti-tank guns. It was even more deplorable than the Charge of the Light Brigade, because it wasn’t an accident or a mistake.

The next morning my father took charge of the burial party and among all the rest, buried his best friend, who, like him, was an aspiring poet.

He was very closed off when we were little and I do not think he ever achieved more than a few moments of great happiness or inner peace.

He did have invisible support, however. I was bewildered by his absolute faith, and asked him how it had survived the war intact. He replied ‘Well, it was faith that carried me through.’

He died last year at the age of 96, as matter-of-factly as if he were going out for a walk.

I sometimes imagine meeting God on some dusty, deserted road through a wilderness, and have the opportunity to ask Him where He was when Maria fell from the train.



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