by Gordon Robertson
The flags were up by half past one in the afternoon, even though Lutz wasn’t due in at the station till well after nine. The train from Dieppe was the regularly scheduled one – the army placed no special importance on returning veterans – so despite their hopes to the contrary it was unlikely the residents of Munz would be welcoming home their favourite son before dark.
Lutz’s mother, Gabriella, had spent the morning in the attic, hunting for the flag her grandmother had hung out for Gabriella’s father after the last war. Two hours of hot, dusty searching had found it stuffed inside a ration box behind a cracked photo frame, its distinctive blue, red, and yellow colours muffled by a thick layer of grey. Dust ruled the attic like the all-too-recent occupation, and Gabriella was glad to escape it for the comparative coolness of the kitchen and a glass of cold vash.
As she sipped her drink at the table, her narrow ankles crossed one over the other, Gabriella again marvelled at the quiet. Four year ago, the notion that the kitchen, far less the house, could have been anything less than a riotous hub of noise and colour, would have struck Gabriella as the purest of fictions. Back then she had Lutz, Denir, Ana, and of course her husband, Wolff, himself just as loud and unashamed as his three children. Now only Lutz was left, the only one – other than herself – not touched by death. At least not directly. Gabriella sipped a little more vash, snapped a biscuit in half one-handedly, and imagined she could hear the shrill whistling of the Dieppe train draw ever nearer.
Less than a mile away, standing on tip-toes on a small wooden stool outside the rounded window of her front room, Pernilla Beck hung up her own flag. She could feel the early afternoon sun on her back, warming the wide rectangle of flesh between the straps of her freshly-washed red dress; the same red dress she’d worn the night she’d seduced Lutz, on the one and only time he’d managed to secure leave. Pernilla smiled nervously. It had been an unimaginably hard two years, filled with the raw pain of separation and the burden of living a lie. But all that was about to change. After tonight, life would be different. Life would be better. She was sure of it.
From inside, Pernilla could hear Philippe shouting for the toilet. She imagined his little strained face, his crossed legs, his eyes as blue as his father’s, who he would meet for the first time in the morning – a happy surprise for them both – should that damned Dieppe train ever get here.
It was around six that evening when the bells first sounded. Joseph Zeigler heard them as he ploughed forkful after forkful of soured cribbach into his ever-expanding mouth. The bells reminded him of his wedding day, and of happier times with Maria. Hearing them now just made him shovel the cribbach down his throat all the faster. Maria was long gone, warming the bed of a Dutch insurance agent with his own car. Not for the first time, Joseph Zeigler cursed his lack of intelligence. Or ‘feeble-mindedness’, as the army recruitment board had called it. Had he stuck it out at school more, or had his heavily-pregnant mother not fallen off the kitchen table trying to install a new tungsten light-bulb while Joseph’s father was off celebrating prematurely in Gruyen’s Tavern, then perhaps Joseph would have had a better job than night-watchman at the brick factory with which to keep Maria impressed. Christ, they wouldn’t even take him into the army! He’d gone along with Lutz, his best friend since childhood, to enlist, both of them laughing like the youths they were as they entered the hastily-converted caravan in Munz town square. It took the recruiting sergeant only three questions (with no corresponding answers) to place his rough hands on Joseph’s shoulders, turn him around, and direct him back the way he’d come.
Joseph’s life had deteriorated significantly since that humiliation. The town’s opinion of him now swung between idiot and coward, with little distinction made between the two. Maria had quickly left him, forcing him to sell the modest two-bedroom home they’d shared for less than a year and move into what was little more than a thrown-up hut in the grounds of the church (from where the sound of the bells were a constant reminder of Joseph’s ever-growing failure). He’d also put on weight, the heavy ingestion of food, a substitute for anything even remotely resembling happiness or respect. Life had become stark, uncomfortable, and brutish. And now here was Lutz, the friend he loved most in the world, returning home, the all-conquering hero, and once again Joseph would be made to look the embarrassing fool. Joseph gulped down the last forkful of soured cribbach, wiped his mouth with the back of a flabby white hand, and willed the Dieppe train to fall into the Brandenburg Ravine.
Munz Station had never felt so many feet shuffle along the bare boards of its single platform. The noise reminded some of the recent occupation, when their fellow townsfolk had been rounded up in groups and marched off to God knows where in the night. Those who remembered shivered a little, but not for long. That particular horror was a thing of the past. This was a different kind of night. This was a night not just of hope, but of vindication. The people of Munz had been to hell and back these past four years, enduring everything the war had thrown at them, from collaborationist propaganda to rain-soaked funerals for body parts. And yet not once had they wavered. Not once had they abandoned their principles. Not once had they ever thought of defeat. They would overcome, they were convinced of it. They would triumph. They would win. And nothing symbolised that sense of victory more than the return of Lutz, a genuine hero. Lutz, who’d left Munz a gangly, awkward, 17 year-old child, was now returning a swaggering, 21 year-old man, weighed down with well-deserved medals. Lutz, who’d barely pulled himself across the station platform in his over-sized dark brown army boots four years ago, would soon step out onto that same platform and walk proudly, stomach in, chest out, head held high, into the arms and hearts of everyone in Munz.
The train from Dieppe pulled into Munz Station a little after 9.20pm, twelve minutes behind schedule. As the driver slowed his approach to Munz, Lutz caught glimpses of the townsfolk lined up along the platform. Faces he remembered, faces he half remembered, and faces he’d never seen before quickly merged into one, barely discernible from those he’d confronted on the battlefield, or close-up on the hard-fought-for stairs of ruined, crumbling buildings. A screech of brakes, a plume of steam, and the train quietly eased to a halt. Lutz closed his eyes. He hadn’t wanted this journey to end, but end it now had. He was home. Whatever that meant.
When he opened his eyes again, Lutz found himself gazing into the face of the young girl opposite, unselfconsciously propping up her sleeping mother. She looked about eight, with long, braided, Heidi-like blonde hair. Just as he’d caught her many times before during the journey, she was staring at the space where Lutz’s left arm used to be. Maybe she was willing it back into existence. God knows, he’d tried that a thousand times himself these past six weeks. He looked at the girl closely. He’d killed many like her during the war that had just ended. Innocents who would still be alive today were it not for the blind obedience of orders. Women too, of all ages. With child, without child; his superiors held no particular bias one way or the other. It was win at any cost.
Lutz looked out at the flag-waving idiots on the platform and resisted the temptation to punch his way through the glass and throttle a few of them. Bile, acrid and stinging, rose up in him and it was all he could do not to throw up over the sleeping mother opposite. The young girl, picking up on the change in her travel companion’s mood, reached over and grabbed Lutz’s right hand. Lutz sat a moment, a mute, before violently throwing the girl’s hand away and jumping to his feet. He knew if he sat there a moment longer he would kill her, and it wouldn’t mean a damn thing to him anymore.
Lutz pushed his way along the corridor, flattening himself against the window here and there to let other departing passengers past, and was still moving – heading where, he no longer knew – when the train pulled back out of the station.
It was close to two in the morning, yet three silhouettes still trod the bare boards of Munz Station, gazing down the track into moonlit nothingness. Maybe, like the girl on the train, they were willing something back into existence. Something they’d all once believed in. But there was no longer any point. Like the train from Dieppe, it was long gone.
Gordon Robertson is a Scottish writer and filmmaker whose work has featured in Octavius Magazine, Dark Assets Zine, SHIFT Lit, Flash Fiction Magazine, Short Fiction Break. His latest short film, The Chair, won Best Super Short at the 2016 UK Screen One International Film Festival.