I heaved out of bed and ambled half-asleep into the water closet. The stench of grime stunned my nostrils and shot me awake, like the thick tang of a strong coffee. We hadn’t cleaned the place in weeks, we saw no reason in doing so. Porcelain-white tiles greened with the advance of a furry mould, and we refused to raise the toilet seat in all but the most urgent of occasions for fear of what terror we might release upon the world. The basin was grassed in a layer of shaven stubble, though I had not shaved in weeks. The more mundane barbs of the conquest of the Fatherland had begun to impinge upon daily life, manifest in an acute shortage of razors. My old blade, all but blunt and encrusted with rust along its edge, wrought bloody caverns across my face, which would often themselves fill with grime and become infected, hideous and pungent. I pinched the blade firmly between the nails of my thumb and index finger, running it back and forth through my digits in an attempt to detach some of the muck that threatened to do to my face what allied and Soviet forces would soon wreak upon Germany.
‘You know, darling, it’ll be bitterly cold in Danzig. You’d do best to keep it’. The emaciated arm of my beloved Christa arched around my torso and grasped at my unkempt beard. At 5’11, she found no difficulty in doing so. One delicate arm became two, and quickly turned into an embrace. Her head sat against my left shoulder. I felt short breaths, stunted with anxiety, against the nape of my neck. I stared absently, beyond the grime of the mirror above the sink, at the pure-blonde of her reflected hair. It was cut far shorter than she was used to or comfortable with, but the style carried with it the advantage of being considerably easier to maintain. She was, in every sense, prepared for the coming misery.
‘Is everything together?’, I interrupted, choosing at once to take her advice and retain my awful facial hair. ‘You’re certain that we have all we will need?’.
Christa replied curtly, laying bare the extent of her dejection that we were soon to leave our home for the last time. ‘Our trunk is bursting at the seams. We have little of what we need, but all that we can’. She raised her head and met my eyes through the mirror. That she’d been weeping was apparent.
‘The little one?’.
‘Blissfully unaware’, her voice lifted, airily. ‘You know, I would sooner endure these times as either a child or an idiot’. The corner of her mouth lifted into a weak half-smile.
The advance of the morning sun was hindered by rising smoke, billowing from buildings wrecked by bombs overnight. It had become perilous to walk the streets. Fire engines bolted from crater to crater across the city, unaccompanied by the cautioning clang of their bells – by this point the streets were so sparse and the terrors so many that bell-ringing had seemingly fallen out of habit amongst the firemen.
I sat atop the trunk at the stoop of our house, vigilant for the omnibus. It was 10-past the hour and 10-past its anticipated time of arrival. I was crushed with the certainty that we were abandoned. More likely, I reasoned to myself, oil requisitioning had rendered the vehicle immobile. That, or its burnt-out skeleton sat smouldering, mangled with the metal of the rest of the fleet at the depot. I brought out from my back pocket a tattered old map of the city and attempted to affirm my doubt by measuring whether one of the distant infernos was indeed emanating from a flaming terminal.
Three clangs of a hand drumming against glass sounded behind me. I pivoted on the trunk and discerned the figure of Christa at the ground floor window. Beside her, little Peter grasped at her free hand. I abandoned my dejection immediately and waved with an unnatural smile at my boy, who’s little wrist quickly flapped back in kind in the company of a toothy grin. To Christa, though, my false-optimism was apparent. Her expression had sunken appreciably, conjuring images of the exasperated faces of many board members when Herr. Sauer had abruptly closed The Berliner and ordered us to flee the city five days ago. She peered back into the house towards the clock which sat alone on our mantelpiece. Twisting back to the window, we locked eyes. She mouthed slowly, emphasising each syllable, ‘what are we going to do?’. I continued my asinine wave, still grinning like a damned fool, refusing to compromise my son’s innocence, despite everything. By now it was half past the hour.
The unmistakable spluttering chug of a struggling engine caught my ear and broke my attention. I bolted from the trunk and glared towards the street corner. The omnibus rolled slowly up the road, taking care to avoid the craters, pot-holes and mounds of debris that littered much of the street. I revived my foolish grin and waved with renewed vigour at the green mass of metal that trundled towards me. A sharp wail pierced the window behind me. It was Christa. She had taken Peter into her arms and was beaming elatedly.
The bus drew nearer, passing the linens which had been deployed as white flags all along the street, demarcating those houses which had been abandoned and those that would remain occupied, at the mercy of the advancing Soviets. Christa soon emerged from the house with Peter. Without sense to shut the door behind her, the pair sprung down the steps and into my embrace. We remained for a moment, tangled in each other’s arms, completely enveloped in the evaporation of our apprehension, almost unaware that the omnibus had pulled to a stop beside us. With a groan, the vehicle’s green door ached open. Beyond, with a hand gripping tightly at a long lever, sat the driver. He was the most uniformed and well-kept government operative I had seen in weeks. His boots shone with a freshly-polished gleam matched only by the sheen of the pistol holstered at his side.
‘Papers’, the driver flatly demanded.
‘Of course, of course, one moment please’. My voice was punctuated with an uncontrollable chortling. I had been granted an exit. It was as though Saint Peter himself stood before me.
‘We are late. You will present your papers and identification documents immediately or you will be left to the Bolshie dogs’. I regained immediate control over my chortling. ‘The ship will soon depart Danzig. I will be aboard when she does’.
My attention was roused by a commotion some way down the road. An elderly gentleman fumbled to from his house behind a wheelchair, in which was slumped a lifeless old woman.
‘Darling!’. Christa interjected. She pushed me aside and handed the driver our papers. With an affirmative grunt we were nodded aboard. We made our way towards the back of the vehicle. I knew many of the faces on-board. Some were old colleagues, others I had interviewed during my tenure at the Berlin desk – local government officials, prominent business owners and experts in various scientific fields. I took my seat beside the window, Christa cradled Peter in her lap. It appeared that we were to be the last stop.
The din outside grew louder. ‘Stop! You can’t leave us’. An entirely bald, wrinkled head bobbed outside the window, drawing-up the side of the bus towards the door. ‘My wife is very sick. Please’. The old man’s voice cracked. The driver pulled back on the lever beside his seat, but the old man shot an arm out, obstructing the door before it could swing shut.
‘Papers’. The driver muttered, seemingly unperturbed.
‘Yes, yes’. The old man fumbled about in his pockets as I had some minutes earlier before presenting two identification cards with his free arm. The other, still wedged firmly against the door, began to shake. The driver did not care to retract the lever.
‘You are not on the list for this transportation. Remove yourself immediately’. The driver’s tone remained flat.
‘No…no. You, you must be mistaken. I have worked for the Reich Education Ministry for the last decade! My, my wife too, before the illness’. His voice cracked more with every word, before breaking into a cry. The wife to his side was unmoved. Her mouth agape, she glared vacantly and not at all consciously at the driver. Drool had accumulated in a patch on the tattered, azure blanket in which she was ensconced.
The old man burst into a frenzy. He reached behind himself, beneath the arch of his door- anchored arm and, clasping at the seat of his wife’s wheelchair, ventured to heave the thing through the doorway. ‘No, no, no’, he repeated softly. ‘Darling, we’re going, we’re going’. Hardly audible above the clash of the wheelchair against the doorway, he spoke in almost a whisper, as if wary of waking his vacant wife.
Meanwhile, the bus had erupted into anxious murmuring. Fully-grown adults moved to sit atop their partners, signalling to the driver that room enough could be made for the husband, at least.
‘Don’t worry darling, we’re going’, the old man continued.
A bang. The rattling of wheelchair against doorway, metal against metal, ceased. The high-pitched scream of a woman somewhere towards the front of the bus echoed backwards, followed by a succession of offended shouts which moved like an incoming wave through the length of the bus. A few stood to their feet in fright. Down the aisle, I discerned the driver’s outstretched and impeccably uniformed arm, within its sausage-like fingers was clasped the shiny pistol. A thin trail of smoke snaked its way skyward from the barrel. The old man collapsed against his wife, silently – it had been a clean head-shot. The weight of his porcine corpse pushed his wife’s wheelchair further into the road. The driver, equally silent, pocketed the gun and slid back on the lever. As the omnibus pulled away, people stared through its windows at the wife’s face, her unstirred gaze still haunting the very spot we had left.