Had Kathrin ever really mattered that much to him?
Or had she merely been a sideshow?
But then, it had all been a sideshow hadn't it? The intervening years, all twenty-two of them. Between then and now.
Between that moment of realisation so long ago when he'd told himself it would never be over, and this train journey today.
An empty shell, that's what he'd been. Even at the heighth of any passions or happy moments he'd shared with Kathrin, he had known in his heart that everything was incomplete. Not that this is a particularly unusual feeling for any person to experience, but for Olaf there was a good deal more substance and history behind it.
The passing scenery did little to inspire optimism in him.
A world away from the Bavarian dreamscapes that lay some two-hundred miles southward, all he had to rest his gaze upon were the low grey clouds stacked across the horizon, suffocating the unspectacular countryside and threatening the timeless urban sprawls.
This may have been the dawn of an age of greater freedoms, but it had still passed through these parts virtually unnoticed.
Watching it all float smoothly by, he caught the reflection in the window of the elderly man once more studying him curiously.
" Tell me, " Olaf said, turning to him suddenly, " What is of more interest to you at the moment, that newspaper?...Or me? "
The man broke into a friendly grin, not nearly as startled by the question as Olaf had expected.
" Please forgive me, " he replied, his voice weakened by age. " I mean no intrusion. "
Olaf shrugged indifference, a pang of guilt struck him at his own outburst.
" Don't apologise, " he said.
" Unfortunately, the routine of doing this same train journey every day has taken its toll. I have become a dreadful one for people-watching I'm afraid. "
" Well, be my guest. But I think you'll find little excitement in watching me. "
" No, on the contrary, " said the old man, running a frail hand through his thick swathe of white hair. " I can often tell for whom this journey is regular, and for whom it is not. And for you I'm guessing it is not. Are you going to Berlin by any chance? "
" That's right professor. " The sarcasm was intended with no malice attached.
" Where have you come from? "
" Leipzig. "
" Ah, where it all began of course. "
" Where what began? " Olaf was already beginning to feel uneasy. Like a pig to an abattoir, he was being led into a conversation that might not be good for his state of mind.
" Well, the uprising of course. October eighty-nine. ' The city of heroes ' was it not? "
" I wouldn't know anything about that. "
" Oh...I assumed... " the man was surprised. " Forgive me again. Naturally I thought you were going to the city for the celebrations, with it being the fifth anniversary. "
Olaf maintained a blank exterior.
" Tomorrow is the ninth of November. The fall of the wall. "
" Right. Yes, so it is. "
He could sense himself being scrutinised as he returned his attention to the world outside.
" Your apathy intrigues me. Were you not in Berlin on that extraordinary night? "
" I had no wish to be there. I've not been back there for seventeen years. "
" A momentous night! " The man gestured extravagantly as if to suggest that missing such an occasion was comparable to starving yourself. " I was at Bornholmer Bridge. I was one of the first few hundred that forced our way across. "
Olaf didn't bother to respond. His 'seventeen years' statement seemed to have barely registered with his travelling companion, who clearly had his little story to tell and nothing was going to stand in its way.
" I remember the guards throwing their arms up in exasperation. But they were resigned to it by then, I think they knew it was all over. Perhaps some of them were glad it was all over. "
" Did you like what you found? "
" We couldn't fail to really. Some were totally overwhelmed, completely over-emotional and melodramatic, you know. The men were the worst, I saw one of them close to me buckling to his knees and weeping. As for me, I just found myself a quiet little restaurant in a side street and ordered a Western meal. "
Olaf chuckled at the term. " A western meal? "
" It seemed like a symbolic thing to do, a way of sticking two fingers up at the past and heralding in the future. I ordered a pizza and a coca-cola. " The old man laughed as he reminisced, " It tasted very nice, and I was happy. "
" Juterbog, " the tannoy announced as they slowed toward the next station.
" I was only there for an hour. We were worried the guards wouldn't allow us back into the East again. Daft is it not? We'd spent decades dreaming of the West, and when we finally had our first taste, we became scared of it. "
The man leaned forward in his seat, clasping his walking stick between his legs. Olaf could smell a trace of vodka in his uneven breath. " And do you know what, I've never been back since. Five years on and never gone back! It's as if we only want those things that we can't have. "
" Five years, " Olaf muttered, more to himself than to the old man. " There is an odd coincidence about this. That my first visit in such a long time should clash with such an anniversary. "
The train began to gather speed once more.
" Coincidence.... is impossible. "
" Pardon me? "
" Nothing can happen that is not in some way pre-determined. Whether it is a date on which you choose to visit somewhere, or a chance meeting between strangers like ourselves. "
Olaf stared at him, both flummoxed and amazed.
" Not a one for the small talk are you?
" Forgive me. I do tend to ramble sometimes. My name is Erwald. " The old man held out a fragile looking hand, bony with skin stretched taut across it as if it were flesh-coloured cling film.
" I'm Olaf. And you say 'forgive me' far too often. " Olaf shook the hand with a smile, finding it surprisingly stronger than it appeared. " You are a strange person. Entertaining, but strange. "
" Thank you Olaf, I will take that as a compliment. People-watching and rambling on at strangers on trains are my two weaknesses. "
" It passes the time. "
" Indeed. But you shall have peace at least for the last part of your journey. I am not going all the way to the city. "
Olaf was discreetly relieved to be told this. Eccentric and mildly entertaining Erwald may have been, but there was also something vaguely un-nerving about him. No more so than when he had first been studying Olaf from behind his newspaper, it had been intense enough to make him feel more like a university text book than a human being.
" So what brings you to Berlin after such a long time away? "
" Personal business. " It was a question that needed a dead end answer.
" Quite. I can tell from your manner that it is personal, and I must not ask any more nosy questions. "
" Don't ask me to forgive you again, " said Olaf with a wry grin.
" But you are quite right to be wary. I think people sometimes know far too much about each other. "
' Oh, the irony within that statement ' thought Olaf.
" Never trust a soul my young friend. Nobody is ever quite what they seem these days. " Erwald leaned forward on his stick once more. " Never underestimate how much people can know about you, and the damage it can do. "
" How right you are on that, " said Olaf. For the first time he noticed the cold November air rushing through a narrowly opened window further along the carriage.
" Luckenwalde. "
" My stop. " Erwald climbed unsteadily to his feet, as the train rocked slightly from side to side. Olaf was taken aback by the elderly man's height. Towering above him with that bony hand once more outstretched, he must have been no shorter than six-foot six.
" It was nice chatting with you Olaf. Usually people flee to the other end of the train. "
" Strange but entertaining, " Olaf replied, grasping the hand.
Erwald laughed. " Good luck in Berlin with your ' personal business '. "
The train pulled off once more, and Olaf watched as Luckenwalde station swung away, veering off to the right before disappearing from view.
He took out a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket pocket, and reminded himself one more time of the details he'd hurriedly scrawled on it that morning.
There were many passers by, and none of them really knew how to react or what to do.
Inevitably, the vast majority chose the soft option. They simply hadn't noticed him.
' Yes, that was it, ' they had thought to themselves. ' They were in a rush. An important train to catch was occupying their minds. '
And whilst pushing through the crowds that seemed to throng the vast atrium of Alexanderplatz S-Bahn at all times of the day, one man's uncomfortable disposition had completely passed them by.
A city of bad samaritans in a world of bad samaritans.
A few exceptions amongst the mass of commuters tried to assist Ulrich Lichtmann as he paced repititive circles, sweating and muttering to himself.
Verbal assistance was ignored, as if he was existing in a parallel universe and unable to hear their offers of help.
Physical assistance was vigorously shaken off with a panicked exclamation, until eventually the concern from the outside world passed and people left him alone. Even the station staff purposely sought work distractions elsewhere.
Only one person, having just disembarked an arriving train, was still keen enough to help him.
Blackened holes...sharpened claws....
' Where is she? '
We the victims are re-opening doors....
' What was Maria doing? Where had she disappeared to? '
Blackened holes...sharpened claws....
It was not like her to leave him unattended like this for longer than a few minutes.
Ulrich was not a well man. In body, this had been the case for two or three years, and now he feared his mind was going the same way.
Recently he'd been plagued by visions. They would appear at any time in any place. Sometimes when he lay alone in bed and sometimes such as now, in crammed public places like Alexanderplatz.
Smooth faces would hang suspended in the air, featureless apart from small apertures for mouths that spoke inaudibly at him. At regular intervals, the faces seemed to duck forward in elongated nodding motions.
And they were staring at him. How could these eye-less heads still manage to stare at him like that?
Far worse however, was the message he'd discovered on his answering machine the week before.
He'd stood listening, frozen to the bone and haunted by an automated voice like that of a computer reciting a poem to him. The lines of the poem meant nothing to him, the electronic voice meant nothing to him. But what were the reasons and intentions behind such a message?
In a way, he could handle the visions. He could put those down to illness, but the message on his answering machine was raw in it's undeniable existence. His home-help and nurse Maria had listened to it also, and there had been no question of him hallucinating it.
And where was Maria anyway?
Ulrich paced in ever more frenetic circles, both his hands clasping his head in a vain attempt to shake away those faceless apparitions.
Finally he stopped, sensing simultaneously his legs giving up the fight to keep him upright combined with a forty-something man standing close up to him and poised to catch his fall.
For a brief second he was able to take in the tight golden curls and the moustache and the large, pure Arian-esque blue eyes. Those large eyes watched him intently, and Ulrich collapsed almost gratefully into his arms.
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