For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.
Whilst I have always had a fascination with what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.
And, so, it continues…
Mayer was woken by the abrupt jolting of the guard van, and for a few moments was disorientated. It was no longer dark, and the light was coming in through the cracks of the windows, and he could see now the van was quite old and battered.
And that odd smell was the residue of many fires in the potbelly stove, that presumably kept the guard warm in winter. There were a few scattered coals on the floor.
Then he remembered he was in the van and it felt like it was being connected to a shunting loco.
That, and the sound of voices outside the van.
“How long has this lot been sitting here?”
“Three weeks, the shunting crew seem to have just forgotten about these wagons. They were supposed to be sent back south months ago.”
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps on the stones outside.
Mayer slipped down off the bunk, taking the blanket with him, and looked for somewhere to hide. There was a door in the panel under the bed; he opened it and saw an empty space.
It was not very big, and in places, daylight could be seen through cracks in the outside wall. It was smelly but manageable, and he wriggled into the space and jammed the door closed so if they tried to open it, it would not, and they would assume it had not been used in a long time. Or he was hoping that’s what they’d think.
Just in time, steps on the ladder, and the door bang open.
“Ghastly, it’s ready for the scrap heap.”
“It’s for the war effort, even scrap is good. You staying?”
“Until they hook it up, but outside. This place feels like someone died in it.”
Mayer squirmed until he was in a more comfortable position, thankful that the space was large enough to stretch out, though cold.
He could see through the cracks, back up the track where another train was waiting.
His watch said it was near seven in the morning, and that mean he had slept for about four hours. He had intended to get off before anyone would notice, but it was too late for that now.
At least he would be going in the right direction, it was just a matter of where the wagons would end up. Maybe he would get lucky, and that would be Florence.
But, the chances were he would be discovered before then because if the man who had boarded before was going to stay with the train, the chances were he’d come back to the van, it would very likely he’d explore out of sheer boredom, and that would include that space behind the door.
For now, though, the two men were still outside beside the van, waiting for the signal to get aboard.
Another hour passed before there was more clanking and jolting as another engine connected to the wagons. It was only a matter of time before the men came back.
A minute passed, two, five, ten, then the shrill sound of the whistle of a steam engine, followed by the stretching of wagon joiners and the slow movement forward. The men had not returned, but, Mayer knew, they were aboard the train somewhere.
For the moment, it didn’t matter. With each passing minute, he was closer to his objective, Florence.
It was slow progress, with a stop nearly once an hour, shunted aside while a more important train raced by. People going about their business as if there was no war. Mayer had time to lament his foolishness of being swept up in the fervor of restoring the Reich to its rightful place in the world.
It had also sounded legitimate, but, as it wore on, the news that they were winning the war and it would all be over soon, turned to disenchantment. They could not have so many victories and not have won already.
Several of his friends had private said they believed the war was going badly, hence the pressure on his group to create better weapons so they could turn the tide. Of course, no one would openly say things were going bad, that would invite the Gestapo on your doorstep, but people were beginning to suspect.
Mayer was not the first to consider turning himself over to the other side before it was too late.
The sporadic stop-start motion of the train went on all day, and into the night, after passing through several large rail yards, and cities. He couldn’t be sure, but he believed they had passed through Verona, and then hours later, Bologna.
At Bologna, the stay was protracted, and once again the men came to the wagon, and this time, as he feared, they had a look around, rattled the door that he had barricaded, and at least they didn’t stay, one of them saying it had probably rusted with age.
Still, he didn’t breathe again until they left.
Nighttime, and very cold, he tried to get comfortable, and finally fell into a fitful sleep.
© Charles Heath 2020-2022