Authors: Peter Kocan
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2004 by Peter Kocan
First publication 2007 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Community, kinship, roots?
It was the essence of your situation
that you had no such connections.
You were, if you could bear it, ideally free
. . . those who knew the old order only as a broken promise,
yet who took the promise more seriously
than those who merely took it for granted.
There were three of them. They had just got off the night train from interstate and were walking along the platform to the ticket barrier. The woman was in her mid-thirties and she held by the hand a boy of seven. Following them with the two suitcases was a fourteen-year-old youth. He kept several paces behind, as though to distance himself from whatever was happening.
“Will Dad come after us?” the boy was asking worriedly.
“No,” the woman said. “I've told you.”
“Why won't he?”
“Because he doesn't know where we are.”
“What if someone tells him?”
“Nobody knows where we are except us.”
The boy did not look convinced. The youth did not feel convinced either. All night on the train, sitting upright on the hard seat, he had been going over it and over it in his mind. They'd left quickly with only what would fit into the two suitcases, and it would have been two or three hours before Vladimir got home from work. By the time he'd found them gone they would already have been miles and miles away on the train. But what if they'd accidentally left some clue? The youth had racked his brains, trying to think what clue they might've overlooked. Or what if Vladimir had come home early? What if he'd seen them pull away in the taxi with the two suitcases? What if he was on the next train right behind them? The youth had a continuous urge to look over his shoulder. From behind came a shout, but it was just a railway porter skylarking.
They went through the ticket barrier and came out in a huge echoing hall. There were signboards and kiosks and trolleys loaded with luggage. The woman led the boy to the middle of the hall and stopped. The youth followed and stopped a few paces away and put the suitcases down and stood beside them.
“Are you hungry?” the woman asked, coming across to him. “We could get some sandwiches.”
“I don't care,” said the youth.
“We should have a bit of something.”
“I don't care,” said the youth again. He was looking at the ticket barrier they'd just come through. They were standing in plain sight of it. He wanted to move away from the exposed position, but to suggest this might sound as though he was taking an interest.
“What kind of sandwiches would you like?” the woman asked him.
“I don't care,” he replied without looking at her.
“I won't be a minute then,” the woman said. “Mind your brother while I'm gone. Explain to him that we're safe now. Can you do that?”
The youth shrugged.
“I wish you'd try to be a bit helpful,” the woman said and went off towards a kiosk.
The youth stood beside the suitcases and watched the ticket barrier. The boy watched a string of trolleys being pulled along by a little tractor.
“I got cheese and ham,” the woman said when she came back. “Look, there's a seat.” She led the boy to the other side of the hall and sat down with him and began unwrapping the sandwiches on her knee.
The youth followed with the suitcases and sat down a little apart from them. The woman leant across and offered him a sandwich. He shook his head. She put the sandwich down in his lap anyway. He was actually very hungry, but was getting more and more tense. They were still in plain view of the ticket barrier and every time a heavily built man came through the youth felt a clutch of apprehension. Why didn't they go from here? Why didn't they get out of sight? The phrase “criminal stupidity” came into his head. The woman's behaviour was “criminal stupidity” and the sandwich poised ridiculously in his lap seemed to sum it all up.
He felt suddenly enraged. He wanted to shriek at her: “You stupid bitch! Don't you care if Vladimir comes raging through the ticket barrier any moment? Don't you care if he starts bashing you up?” It was alright for her, he thought bitterly. If Vladimir appeared and started bashing her up she could cower and scream and everybody would feel sorry for her. And it was alright for the boy. He was just a little kid and no-one would expect him to do anything. But the youth was fourteen, almost a man, and a man is supposed to be able to stick up for his mother. But the youth knew he could not do anything. He'd never been able to. The very thought of trying to fight Vladimir drained his strength away and made him feel sick.
“The first thing,” the woman was saying, “is to find somewhere to stay for a night or two. In the morning we'll get the paper and look for a proper place to live. And then I'll look for a job.”
“Will I have to go to school?” the boy asked.
“What if Dad comes to the school?”
The woman stood up and crumpled the sandwich papers into a bin.
“There's a Travellers' Aid booth over there,” she said. “They can advise us about accommodation.” She led the way across and went into the booth. The youth threw his untouched sandwich into the bin and followed with the suitcases and stood near the door. He heard the woman telling someone that they hadn't much money and needed somewhere cheap for a night or two. This would normally have made the youth cringe with embarrassment, but now he just stared blankly away and told himself that he didn't care, that he wasn't involved.
The woman emerged with a piece of paper and said she'd been given an address and that it wasn't far. They crossed the big hall again and went through an archway and came out into the sun. They stood gazing at the tall buildings of the city, and at the traffic, and at the unfamiliar-seeming people in the streets.
“Look!” said the woman in a moment of sudden gaiety, holding her arms up in a gesture that seemed to take in the whole city and great distances beyond it: “These are fresh fields for us!
Private Hotel was a doorway between two shops. They booked a room for the night. The room had a double and a single bed, and the window looked out on an alley and the backyards of the two shops. The woman said she wanted a couple of hours rest and lay down on the double bed. The boy cuddled down beside her. The youth sat on the edge of the other bed and looked at them and at the room and at the two suitcases. He was too tense to rest. If he'd been alone he might've had a cry to let some of the tension out. Instead he got up and went to the door. As he went out he heard the woman murmur that they'd go for a nice meal later.
It was about midday then and the traffic was heavy in the street and the footpath was crowded. The youth turned left out of the doorway of the Shangri-La and walked along, staying close to the shopfronts. He held his elbows tucked in and took care not to meet anyone's eyes. Looking anyone in the eyes always made him feel uncomfortable. He didn't see the need for it anyway. Keeping your eyes to yourself was just part of minding your own business. The youth kept along the one street so as to be able to find his way back easily. He was hoping to come to a park or open space where he could sit apart and think. He couldn't think properly with other people near, couldn't lose himself in reflection the way he needed to. The youth liked to mutter his thoughts to himself to hear what they sounded like in words. Whenever he went too long without some private thinking-space he became off-balanced and anxious, as though all sorts of dangerous complications might be building up unnoticed. Only by continually thinking could he keep things under control.
He was pondering this when he stepped off the footpath at an intersection and a bus swerved round and nearly hit him. The driver bawled abuse. The youth retreated to the kerb and stood there shaking. He heard girls giggling and thought it must be because of him. He dared not look around.
He managed to get across the intersection and hurried on through the crowd. He was afraid the girls were still behind him, so when he saw a shop doorway set back from the footpath he stepped into it to let them go by.
It was a gun shop. There were racks of rifles in the window and on the wall behind were medals and flags and badges and some Nazi armbands and a German steel helmet. The youth looked at the helmet and began to feel calmer, for it had reminded him of Diestl. Diestl was a character in a war movie he'd seen. There were many other characters in the film, American and French and Yugoslav, but only Diestl had struck him deeply.
In the film the war is lost for the Germans. Diestl's unit has been smashed up too many times to be put together again, and no-one is taking proper charge anymore. So Diestl is making his own way through the French countryside, his wounded arm held stiffly at his side, his tunic ripped and dirty, his Schmeisser sub-machine gun slung from his good shoulder. Diestl knows very well that the war is hopeless, but he will never surrender. It isn't Nazi beliefs that keep him going. He has no beliefs anymore. And he hasn't any personal ties either, for all his friends are dead in the fighting and all his family in the bombing. Diestl has had every feeling burnt out of him except for a sort of grim pride that will make him determined and dangerous until the moment he goes down. Maybe “pride” was the wrong word. The youth didn't know what the right word was. All he knew was that the scenes of Diestl limping like a wolf or an outlaw along the roads of a ruined and hostile world answered something deep in him.
The youth left the doorway of the gun shop and went on. But now he didn't care about keeping his elbows tucked in or avoiding people's eyes. He stared straight ahead with a blank hard expression. He let his left arm hang stiffly and he imagined the solid weight of the Schmeisser slung from his other shoulder.
There was a big ornate church on a corner. It had open space around it and benches set under trees. The youth limped to one of the benches and slumped down and made a motion as if unslinging the Schmeisser and laying it beside him. He stared at the traffic and the people, a grimace of contempt on his lips. After a while he let the Diestl mood slip off. It wasn't good to stay in it too long. It would start to break into fragments and lose its effect.
The day was turning cool and cloudy and a breeze sprang up and rustled the leaves of the trees. That cheered the youth. Coolness and clouds and rain and wind always suited him better than broad sunlight. He thought of walking on to see more of the city, but realised that he was very tired and hungry. He decided to head back. He crossed to the opposite side of the street and began walking in the direction of the hotel. Drops of rain fell.
There were cinemas on that side of the street and the youth paused outside each one to look at the posters and the advertisements for coming attractions. One of the cinemas had what looked like a rude film showing. The photos outside were of girls wearing nighties, or romping on beds, or taking showers with their bodies vaguely visible through wet shower curtains. As the youth was looking at these he noticed an usherette watching him through the glass doors of the foyer. She probably thought he was perving at the rude photos. He hurried away and would have worked himself into a rage, except that the rain was falling nicely now. He let the rage drift away. When he passed the gun shop again and thought of Diestl he knew the usherette didn't matter. He grinned as he thought how Diestl would make the bitch smirk on the other side of her face.