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  • Simon Howard

LAST TRAIN TO BERLIN

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Three dark carriages slide towards Tom out of the morning sun. That ain’t no Berlin Express, he thinks, adjusting the sling holding the plaster over his broken wrist. There’s a rush of activity on both platforms, and some Alsatians whelp inside their muzzles.

He’s in Karlovy Vary, where people speak only Czech and German. Tom speaks no Czech and virtually no German, and has no way of knowing which platform the train will arrive at. For him language, like his broken wrist beneath its vivid white plaster, is trapped within. He often travels without language, and frequently without maps.

The train screeches as it halts in front of the passengers scurrying back across the tracks from the other platform. The Alsatians, straining on their leads, whelp more loudly. People rush at the train doors, thrusting in their children and their suitcases, their boxes and their crates of bottled beer.

Tom feels a surge of admiration for a stupid-looking man who had told him with gestures to remain on this platform – even if the train looks nothing like a Berlin Express. He slings the strap of his bag over the plaster and onto his left shoulder. With his strong right arm he picks up his suitcase and goes in search of his carriage.

Finding the compartment empty, Tom ignores his reserved seat next to the door and sits by the window, leaving the heavy suitcase on the floor. As the train pulls out he looks at the dark disenchanted faces of gypsy children who are squatting in the sun, near some Bohemian punks. The landscape drifts past slowly. (Tom always feels it is the landscape that moves, rather than him.)

Trees, fields, pigs. He longs to see a sheep again. He longs to eat one. For weeks he has lived off pork. And he craves green vegetables – especially dark green spinach. He wants to see a field of it. He wants to mend: he’d even stop writing with his right hand if it would help the left one to heal. He studies the decomposing skin on his fingers and feels tired. Just as he starts to doze off, a bird of prey swoops from the sky into a ploughed field.


***


Waking, Tom sees the train is pulling into a station. He hears the laughter of children and sees two little girls running alongside the carriage and almost colliding with a colossal woman in her forties.

Moments later she is squeezing through the compartment door, blocking out the light. Hidden in her shade are a slim suntanned husband in glasses and a little girl who will obviously be big one day like her mother, clutching a blonde doll with Brünnhilde plaits. The huge mother studies the seating plan, looks at the three tickets in her chubby fingers and booms incomprehensible German in a foghorn voice before turning an iron gaze on Tom. Mercifully, the slim man slides past her, beaming at Tom, the reflection in his glasses seeming to flash friendliness. In sign language he asks permission to lift Tom’s case onto the luggage rack, and his wife collapses onto the seat opposite Tom, fixing him with a stern, accusing look.

The train lurches forward and the slim man, having secured all the luggage in the racks above, opens a bottle of beer and sits down beside his enormous wife, whose look says You have stolen my daughter’s seat, Tom Lindow, before she starts knitting, the needles mostly hidden by her enormous fingers. Tom closes his eyes to avoid her glare.

This is his last opportunity to visit East Germany before Reunification in five weeks’ time. He has no idea what to expect or whether, post-October 3rd, the East will become less foreign or more familiar: if it’ll be happier or sadder, safer or more dangerous. By mid-1990 he has learned that only fools make predictions. He knows that he’ll be catching the end of a régime instead of its uncertain beginning, such as he’s just witnessed in Czechoslovakia.

He starts to read a Séan O’Faolain story and thinks about divided Ireland. Contemplating the divisions of the world always makes him tired.

‘Haben zie Czechische Krowns, bitte?’ asks a smiling Czech official who has appeared in the doorway.

‘Ja,’ answers Tom.

This is the new smiling face of Czech officialdom. Somehow, Tom understands that he must meet the official at the next station.

Clackety-click go the colossal woman’s needles. You have stolen my daughter’s seat, Tom Lindow, they seem to be saying.


***


At Vojtanov Tom looks for the smiling official, who leads him across the track to a building on the main platform. They pass a tabby kitten in the doorway and walk down a long passage into a dark room where Tom sits down. The official takes a form from his desk drawer and starts to fill it in.

Crisp military footsteps sound outside. Click, scrape, slide, click. Another official appears in the doorway. Neat moustache and highly polished shoes whose sound echoes around the room. Click, click, scrape, scrape, slide. Keys clatter into a metal drawer. The sliding noise of an about turn. Smile. (The smile of the new régime.) Click, scrape, click, slide. Click, click, scrape, click, click down the corridor, past the kitten which squeaks back.

The first smiling official hands the completed form to Tom and asks him to sign it. Smiling, he relieves Tom of his remaining nine hundred Krowns, which are not allowed to leave the country.

Luckily, Tom had persuaded the hotel in Karlovy Vary to take Krowns when they’d insisted on hard currency dollars. Tom protested that nowhere in the world had he found a state-owned business that refused to take the currency of its own government.

‘It is quite immoral!’ he shouted. ‘Das ist… Das ist kein morale!’

‘Danke,’ he says, taking a receipt from the smiling official.

‘Bitte schoen.’

Smile.

At the end of the corridor Tom strokes the kitten, and heads backs towards the train. The slim man’s head pops out of the window to let him know he has reached their compartment.

‘Danke, danke,’ says Tom, climbing onto the train.

Inside the compartment, the little girl brushes Brünnhilde’s hair, her vast mum yawns episodically and an unsmiling GDR official stamps Tom’s passport. (It’s a disappointingly small stamp, thinks Tom, who has always enjoyed watching his passport fill up.) The train pulls away from Vojtanov.

Soon they draw into Bad Brambach on the East German side of the border, and Tom places his foot in the GDR by stepping down from the train. A little girl passes him, carrying a black baby doll with a bright red dummy in its mouth. Tom looks at the village nearby and supposes this was the sort of place where Jewish families were unloaded, or the train just stopped at – and that there must have been so many places like it.

Several carriages are shunted up another track and added to the train. Now it looks more like the Berlin Express, he thinks, excited about the thought of going there. The slim dad jovially downs beer from a bottle and wanders about the platform, happy to be back in the homeland.

Tom looks at the platform clock and sees that it has no hands.


***


It’s time to leave. Pigs forage in a wood as sunlight from behind the retreating trees creates a stroboscopic effect in the compartment. Dad glugs beer happily. Refusing food, the child nods her head. Brünnhilde nods her head and plaits. The mother stuffs bread and chocolate into her huge circle of a mouth, which continues to produce foghorn sounds at the same time, no doubt complaining about Tom stealing her daughter’s seat. Tom decides to go in search of the dining car and is surprised when the little girl opens the door for him with a smile.

Protecting his injured wrist as he bounces against the sides of the corridor, Tom opens all the sliding double-doors with his good arm. At last he is standing in the dining car which would have seemed modern in the East decades after it did in the West, so he has no idea whether it was created in the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies. But the mirrors look like Dali pictures, melting at the edges.

A jolly waiter explains the currency to him. Bundesbank notes have already replaced the GDR ones, but a few of the old coins remain. Seeing the prices on the menu and comparing the currencies, Tom can’t understand how people from the East can afford to buy anything. By way of redress, the jolly GDR waiter overcharges him for his coffee.

In the swaying lavatory, trying to undo his flies with one hand while steadying himself, Tom stares through the bowl at the East German gravel racing beneath him. When he exits, he is shouted at by two angry hausfraus in the corridor. Waving his plaster seems to make them even angrier and they hurl abuse at him. Strange country, he thinks.

Back in the compartment, the enormous woman is stuffing a large sausage into her mouth and reading a magazine full of pictures of naked models. Perfect breasts and perfect buttocks burst off the page at Tom. Another sausage, biscuits, more chocolate are shoved into the enormous mouth. A naked man lies on top of a naked woman. A pair of girls compare their perfect breasts. Beer is slurped and glugged. The food is devoured, the pages turned with the inevitability of the deaths this railway line brought fifty years ago. Outside, a lone sheep stands in the retreating landscape.

In the corridor window Tom the sees the reflection of a man in the next compartment. Reflection. He thinks about the word. Reflection. He’s at that familiar stage of a journey when English words start to sound foreign to him. Or to desert him altogether, leaving little blanks in his thoughts. Reflection. Tom reflects. Do I think my broken wrist is an experience I couldn’t have missed, or do I wish it hadn’t happened? Do I know anything about the people in this carriage? Does this kind of travel make us all into stereotypes? Is it true the fat woman hates me for stealing her daughter’s seat? Is it her daughter’s seat? Is it her daughter? It’s so easy to come to the wrong conclusions, to completely misread situations, when you travel. When you don’t have the language. When you don’t have the map.

The train stops. Three little boys are sitting on a fence, staring at the train. One of them spits, accidentally hitting the shoe of another, bespectacled boy. The first boy laughs as the bespectacled one wipes off the spit with a stick.

Tom dozes off and in his half-sleep sees himself travelling past Arab cities in a dusty landscape. When he opens his eyes next, the train has reached the outskirts of Leipzig, where a lone motorcyclist rides along a dual-carriageway in the one o’clock sun, and huge pipes twist around the outside of an enormous factory. Tom has no idea whether they are carrying away effluents, or bringing some purity in.


***


All the words on the menu are long and end with ‘schwein’. All except one, which Tom orders. As luck would have it, this is the only dish they actually have in the dining car today. It’s pork and liver goulasch, and Tom tucks in while a pony-tailed man with a bland face and an earring yells into his mobile phone at the next table.

‘Allo! Allo!’ he shouts.

It’s very hot now, and Tom is sweating as he examines the rotting skin on his fingers. Isn’t it amazing, he thinks, how we’re sitting on the edge of own disintegration? He looks up and sees the man’s bland face transformed into a hideous, silent laugh of Death, amused by something someone has said somewhere.

The train lurches violently. A middle-aged woman carrying a thermos of coffee has to stop and grip a seat for a few moments. A lonely Vietnamese man gazes at Tom’s plaster, at the word ‘Pozor!’, Czech for ‘Watch out!’ written on it by a friend of Mirek’s in Prague.

On his journey along the corridor he looks into the compartments and sees a couple clasping one another for dear life, a young woman putting on her lipstick, the middle-aged woman drinking the coffee from her thermos, a drunk with his lonely can of beer, the stupid-looking man who made him stay on the right platform, and the excited child gripping her black doll with the red dummy in its lips. Mostly he sees ugly faces, but occasionally spots a beautiful one, just as sometimes he sees a lovely church out of the window.

Houses rush by. He imagines the lives of their occupants, observing tiny bits of people’s actions: a hand starting to replace a cup in its saucer, a man getting up from his chair, a leg about to pass an open window. Are murders any less important for being glimpsed at a hundred miles an hour, he wonders? His arm bangs against the corridor wall, and he winces from pain.

Back in the compartment, the little girl taps her enormous mother’s leg to make her move it so that Tom can get to his seat. He sits down opposite a pair of slim bronzed nude girls kissing one another. Then they are pressed into her enormous chest as she wedges more chocolate into her enormous mouth.

They thunder towards Berlin, passing an oil tanker train thundering away from it. Mum stabs into the page behind the kissing girls as she fills in a crossword. Dad drinks his beer contentedly, and the child brushes Brünnhilde’s plaits. A weepy-eyed man, who is now seated in the corner opposite her, looks into the corridor with deep Teutonic sadness.

Suddenly the train screeches to a halt and Mum’s biro digs through several pages as she is thrust forward. The magazine drops to the floor. When Tom picks it up, she grunts her thanks and lays it down beside her. On the open page a middle-aged man kisses a teenage breast. Dad spills his beer and looks out of the window at a bleak sandy landscape, which seems to be a military zone.

‘Ivan,’ he says. ‘Ivan Ivanovich.’

Slowly the train moves off again, and everyone cheers up. Soon they see the beginnings of the Berlin suburbs, an airport, litter in the sidings, trams turning in a circle. Yawns all round. Young Russian soldiers sitting on a platform. Tits and arses as the pages turn again. More yawns. Watery eyes. Teutonic sadness and smiles. A row of parked lorries. Little houses, little gardens. Breasts. A child shouting in the next compartment. The tinkling of a bell. A reservoir with bare-breasted Berliners bathing. The whelping of muzzled Alsatians. A yawn. A burp. A foghorn laugh. The screech of brakes. The train’s shudder. A growl.

Welcome to Berlin, and fond farewells. Smiling. Getting down the cases. Opening the doors. Handshakes. Foghorn farewell. ‘Good luck.’ ‘Auf wiedersein.’ ‘Gootbye und cheerio.’ More handshakes. ‘October the third.’ ‘Happy birthday.’ ‘Good, good luck.’ The future. The past. A new frontier. Saddam Hussein, Gorbachev, Mrs Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Václav Havel, The Rolling Stones in Prague, Berlin, Germany calling. Four weeks, six days and a few hours to go…


*****




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