Midnight trains to foreign lands mix nostalgia with expectation, and departing communist Prague was its historical embodiment, the woman before me – green eyes, blonde hair, apple cheeks, wide shoulders, face tense – its human manifestation.
A sweating man, clutching supermarket bags, burst in and said: “I caught the wrong train. It stopped at small villages. They sent a train back here just for me. Amazing, hey?”
Unexpectedly, the woman’s face got washed by glee.
“And it’s imperative,” the sweating man continued, “to get three hours sleep. Three enables one to function.”
His supermarket bags were backpack substitutes.
He entered a sleeping bag he had removed from a bag and said: “Good night.”
Passing platforms lights were distorted by mist.
Prague had caused felicitous optimism, the first time I had witnessed political repression so comparisons had been nice.
The train rumbled for three hours; then the man left his sleeping bag and sat next to the woman; he was black, erudite; gilded glasses; he extended a hand and said: “Lyndon Sheppard, travelling on a British passport.”
“Ray Duval: possessed of Australian.”
Lyndon encouraged new forms of expression.
“And you?” he asked.
“Ich bin aus der Tschechoslovakei.”
Lyndon looked at her passport: visas for Poland, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Hungary, her photograph revealing a sweetness not obvious in her current detachment, intensity due to the visa: “Eight days of freedom” in Vienna.
A friend was living there.
“Someone you know well?” I asked.
She nodded, her olive eyes moist.
Her name was Jana. No, she hadn’t been to the West before. Yes, her friend had sent her the currency to get her out. Expectations? Real food, entrepreneurs.
A border guard observed us as if we were meat, fast glances fired between passports and faces. Surprise coloured the guard’s impersonal expression when he saw the supermarket bags and he realised their purpose.
“I’m free from stereotyped views on how travelling materials should be transported,” Lyndon explained.
Then the forever-beautiful thud of the stamp.
Steel being thumped against steel got louder and louder, the train’s underside being smashed with a bar, the pretentious idealism of the armed, uniformed men on the platform making them look unnecessarily dour.
Jana’s tears rolled as Czechoslovakia disappeared in mist.
She wiped her eyes, bureaucracy hurdled.
“Any problems,” I asked, “for your family?”
“They said,” she exhaled, “that their lives were finished, that one of us had to live.”
“You can’t see any changes?”
“Not here,” she said. “You can’t know how much those border guards want to be on this train. To walk down this track – ins Österreich. Du kannst wissen nicht.”
She stared as if I had arrived from another world. And she was right.
“You can hope,” she added, “but for what? You must act.”
Mist hung, like dull uncertainty, over shortened distances.
I felt grateful; it was rare to appreciate fully my place of birth.
The border fence! Barbed wire on concrete walls; a skeletal ghost village of a once thriving society, smashed windows, hanging plaster emphasising death and decay, exposed brick, lifeless pathways of silence, the village like a disregarded grave. I wondered who had lived there and what they had seen: three parallel fences, ten metres apart, lined the world’s face, like cold lips disappearing in mist.
Jana’s fracturing face spilled tears.
Lyndon had joined an enthusiastic woman in the corridor, the compartment’s glass door reducing their conversation to a dull rumble, the woman’s laughter increasing as Czech mist became Austrian clarity.
Officials in another uniform boarded. Luminosity, in dark night, exposed joking railway employees, the pretence of abiding by an ideology gone.
Lyndon invited the woman into our compartment. Jana was looking out the window; her face, now relaxed, resembled a clearing sky. Andrea: From East Berlin, big, blue eyes, bouncing as if she had regained sight after years of blindness. Be careful, I thought, with the seedier dimensions with this one, her black shirt patterned with geometric patterns. She was small; in her ebullience to see out the windows, she sat on the edge of her seat like a little girl, her feet just managing to touch the floor; she was travelling to meet up with her husband in Vienna.
Overcome with success, truth sprang.
“Does your husband also think,” I asked, “that it’s a marriage of convenience?”
“No,” she said, looking away.
“Is your husband meeting you at the station in Vienna?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I can’t believe it. It’s a dream. The West! I can’t believe it!”
Morning’s orange coloured green hills.
“Colour,” Andrea continued, “design, creativity, the West!”
She believed constant joy meant satisfying the senses.
“What are you going to do,” I asked, “for a living?”
Another medieval skyline made her smile, introspective Jana beside her.
“Why didn’t you go to Hungary,” I asked Andrea, “and walk across the border?”
“They stop people. This way I’m certain of being able to stay.”
“Those who fail at first eventually get over.”
“It doesn’t matter now. I’m free!”
“Did you hear much about Hungary,” Lyndon asked, “in your media?”
“No. But people knew from watching West German television.”
“There are now about two hundred thousand East Germans in Hungary,” I said.
The changing expression in her eyes resembled the shadow of a bird of prey flashing across the blue seas of her irises.
“Two hundred thousand?”
“They’ll shut the Czech border,” she said; “then there’ll only be four countries East Germans’ll be able to go to. Four! Hah!”
“Why don’t you get a West German passport?” I asked. “It’s more useful than an Austrian. You could work in London or Paris, anywhere in the EEC.”
She was surprised. I was surprised I had to explain it.
“But I can’t get a West Germany passport,” she said.
“Yes, you can.”
Her eyes expressed calculating consideration; I had incorrectly assumed that she’d had access to the same information as Lyndon and I.
“You could go to the West German embassy in Vienna,” I said.
“I might do that,” she replied.
Another alternative, without pitfalls, stimulated her protected mind; another spire-pronged village made her bounce.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “The West! Grey becomes red, blue and white,” the wisps in blue above, revealed by clearing mist, like pleasant beliefs above tractors churning up fields.
“The West! The West!”
I managed a smile. At her age, I also thought that angels sprinkled powders on distant lands, but the powder was never that thick. But I hadn’t grown up in East Berlin. I had learnt that setbacks exist.
“Have you got much family?” I asked.
Her smile evaporated instantaneously.
“No,” she said, looking away.
“Just my mother. I can get an Austrian passport after two years. I’ll then be able to get her out, I hope. If not, I can visit her.”
Her eye flames burnt wildly, unconscious destruction preceding regeneration.
“Your wedding,” I smiled, “must’ve been an emotional affair.”
She was insensitive to my insensitive remark, her top lip twitching dismissively.
“I only got three of his last five letters,” she replied.
“The authorities,” Lyndon began, “open letters?”
“Yes. If someone sends you a parcel, it might not arrive. And if it does, you can tell it’s been opened. It’s terrible.”
She looked straight at me.
“I,” I replied, “wouldn’t send a parcel by normal mail in Britain. You may as well just give it away if you do that.”
Our silent, mutual staring got terminated by Vienna Central.
Haste prevented Andrea from saying goodbye. A man was running towards her, their arms wide. They clutched, swirling, staring into each other’s eyes, breaking apart, flying into each other’s arms, twirling, staring into each other’s eyes, mouths clashing, her head still, breaking apart, staring into each other’s eyes, long kisses planted upon her still mouth, her face smiling, her eyes not.
“Problems there,” I said.
“Especially,” Lyndon smiled, “when that work alarm clock begins its infantile howling.”
“I doubt,” Jana said, “that her mother knows.”
Jana caught a bus to the flat where the man she loved was living – he was working – her crying over.
Andrea leapt around, with child-like enthusiasm, outside the station at a tram stop, her sweet ruthlessness perfect for this Western paradise, like joy frothing on breaking waves, the froth haphazardly covering the depths.
I remembered when the future wasn’t the complex mix of possibilities that it now was, when inspired visions had reduced rationality.
A month later, Andrea sent me a letter announcing that she’d divorced her husband; she asked: “Do you know how I can get an Australian passport?”
I didn’t reply.
I ran into Lyndon in London after receiving Andrea’s letter.
“She’s left her husband,” he said.
“What a woman,” he said. “With beauty like that, who’s going to refuse to help her?”
“Help,” I said, “is pricey.”
He looked at me slowly.
“Turning imagination into reality isn’t cheap,” I said. “She still thinks it is.”
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. 60 of his stories have been accepted by 54 different magazines. He likes bullfighting, fine wine, food and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid.
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