Short Stories



The Night Train



A few years ago, I went to a concert in Germany. I went with a friend and my daughter, Jodie, and it was great. The thing is, we had already decided before we left that Jodie and I would come back to Rotterdam the same night. The friend wanted to spend the weekend in Germany, so when we arrived in Oberhausen that evening, we went with her to check in at the youth hostel where she was staying. It looked very nice - friendly, welcoming and cosy. Jodie and I looked, considered, doubted for a moment but then decided that we still needed to get back to Rotterdam. Why it was important, I cannot recall, but it was. Otherwise I'm guessing we'd never have embarked on quite such an odd adventure.

The concert finished at around eleven p.m. and we all trooped out of the arena. Jo and I had promised the friend we would go back to the hostel with her to make sure she got there safely, but we needed a lift. The bus station seemed like a good idea, so we found our way there, and asked around.  But nobody spoke any of our collective languages except a taxi driver. He managed a few words of garbled Dutch and English, so we were at least in communicado rather than being completely incommunicado. Given both the linguistic challenge and the late hour, we took the line of least resistance and allowed the taxi driver to first take the friend to the hostel and then Jo and I back to the station to catch the train to Dusseldorf.

I should say at this point that we knew it was going to take us a while to get home - roughly seven hours in fact - but we hadn't filled the time lapse movie in our minds with any of the strange happenings that made our night train escapade so interesting.

Dusseldorf station is one of those places you really don't want to be late on a Friday night, but that's where we were at sometime around one o'clock. It was dark and dingy, cold and draughty. Naked bulbs they didn't have, but the blue-tinged TL tubes that flickered weirdly didn't improve the atmosphere. In fact, it was pretty scary. As we stood huddled against the peeling posters on the graffiti plastered walls of the station platform, we were somewhat perturbed to note the arrival of a gang of punk style skinheads sporting an array of chains, studs and mohecan hairdos the like of which I hadn't seen since the late seventies. I wondered where these characters hid themselves during the day because, as I pointed out to a bemused looking Jo, you never saw them in daylight hours. We edged further up the dank smelling platform the better to keep out of the way. Their raucous behaviour was somehow the more threatening because we couldn't understand them - not that it would have made any difference if we could - but their place on the 'alarming' scale was definitely pretty high.

Some minutes later, this alarming scale shot through the roof and the temperature on the platform heated up. A group of young Asians arrived. The skinheads started squaring up to them; the Asian youngsters lifted their chins in defiance. Conflict seemed inevitable. Jo and I shrank further into the shadows of the decaying station.  But then, thankfully, blessedly,  the police and the train arrived simultaneously. Saved by the ding of opening carriage doors, we dived in. We left the fear and the gangs to the police. Jo and I found a seat in the corner of the carriage and heaved a sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, this was, as I said, the night train and we weren't to be let off quite that easily. The array of characters in our carriage was like something out of that old TV show, 'Night court'. There looked to be all the inhabitants of Dusseldorf's underworld - from prostitutes to drunks, from gangsters to drug addicts. At least that's how it appeared. They were probably all perfectly innocent, but at that time, on that track, with all the passengers rocking in silence to the rhythm of the train as it pounded the rails to Mönchengladbach, we felt as if we had entered the twilight zone. Jo and I watched their vacant, socially assorted stares from our corner in awed and awful fascination.

We finally arrived at  Mönchengladbach at three thirty in the morning and heaved ourselves onto the deserted platform. This was to be the next challenge. Our train to Heerlen across the Dutch border was only at five thirty. Somehow, we would need to survive the next two hours in the bone chilling cold of a massive and bleak station in the heart of Germany's Ruhr area.


^^^^^^^^^^

The station hall at Mönchengladbach was in a time warp. It had got stuck somewhere in the nineteen seventies when architectural taste was at its worst. It was a study in depressing, functional brown panelling and dirty beige linoleum flooring, all only slightly relieved by the presence of a kiosk shop in the middle of the concourse. The shop was closed, and the heating was off. The cold was unremitting and we watched our own vapour trails as we circled the hall looking for a place to sit out of the draught that seemed to come from everywhere. There was nothing and no one. No one, that is, except a strange looking man who leaned against the brown panels and stared at us.

Jo tugged at my sleeve and gestured that we should go onto the platforms. She didn't like the man's unblinking regard any more than I did. He didn't seem to be waiting for a train. He didn't look at his watch or gaze hopefully at the departures board high above the main doors. Not the way we did. In fact, every time we moved into his view, he just watched us, unnervingly, without expression. What was he waiting for then?

We hurried towards the doors that led onto the platforms and gasped as the frigid night air hit us. The roof of the station disappeared into the lofty darkness above and all we could see in the gloom were the silent trains and the bare platforms.

"Ma, there's no one here. No one at all!" Jo whispered.  "What if..."

"Don't say it, Jo...there's two of us. Only one of him. We'll be alright."

"Well, don't go to sleep, Ma, please?"

"No, pet, I won't...and you too, okay?"

"Okay. We'll just pinch each other, right?"

"Right."

Looking back through the doors of the hall, I saw the man still watching. Still waiting. But for what?  We found our way to a bench on one of the platforms and sat down. There was a light close by - a bit dim, but a light all the same. We got books out and tried to read, but it didn't work. I looked up again and my heart stopped. The man was at the beginning of our platform, standing, staring at us. Oh my....

"Jo, don't look, but he's there, blocking the end of the platform."

"What do you think he wants?" She shivered.

"I don't know, but I'm going to ask him. I can't stand this!"

"Ma, don't! We can just go for a walk...come on! We'll just walk past him."

We made a show of getting up, stretching, putting our backpacks on and sauntering slowly back up the platform. The man didn't move.

As we got close, my heart was thumping so hard, I was sure it was audible. It was then I noticed he was holding something in his hand, something long, thin....and white. I realised what it was and breathed a huge sigh, relief relaxing my tensed muscles. The man was looking at me hopefully.

"Are you looking for a cigarette lighter, sir?" I ventured.

"Jawohl," he smiled apologetically. "You are English, yes?"

"Yes, and I'm sorry, but I don't smoke, but maybe..?"  I turned to Jo who was already digging in her bag for a lighter.

"Here you are." She held it out to him.

"We thought you were following us," I said, slowly.

"Ja" he chuckled, "I think so, too. I mean I think that you follow me!"

"Us? Follow you? Why?" I was shocked. Jo gaped.

He laughed again, embarrassed.

"Ja, well, it happens not often that I see two women here alone at this time. I think," he grinned ruefully. "I think that you maybe are, you know, hookers?" He lit his cigarette and handed the lighter back to Jo.

"Hookers? Us?" Jo and I looked at each other again. And then we both laughed. Did we honestly look like hookers? Hardly, but then we weren't often out at this time of night in the middle of a strange, cold station in Germany. Indeed, maybe hookers in these parts also sported jeans, woolly hats and backpacks. Who could tell?

"Jawohl," he said again. "But now I think you are not. Just friends, yes? Why are you here?" He asked the question with sudden directness.

So we explained about being mother and daughter, about the concert and the night train, and about why we were there in this isolated remote place in the middle of his city.

The man listened. And then he looked at me, a question in his eyes.


"You are her mother?" He pointed to Jo with his cigarette. 

I just nodded. My jeans, woolly hat and voluminous scarf were generic. Jodie wore them too. He couldn't see my grey hair and wrinkles. And then again, perhaps it was beyond belief that  a mother and her daughter would be lurking without intent on a bleak railway station at this time of the night.

He raised an eyebrow. It seemed to be enough. Then he told us to watch out, to take care. He wished us good night and walked away.

Jo shook her head as if to clear her mind.

"Ma, who was he? We told him who we were, but he never said why he was here."

"I think I know, Jo."

"Well?"

"Well, did you notice the cuff of his jacket beneath his coat? It was a sort of slatey blue?"

"Yes? So?"

"Well, that's the colour of the police uniforms here, or at least I think it is."


"Aaah, you could be right." Then she shoved her hands deep in her pockets. "I suppose that could explain why he was watching us, yes." She shook her head again. "But Ma, come on! That has to be a first! I've never had anyone think I was a pro before, let alone a pro in cahoots with my mother!"

"Yes, pet. Dreadful isn't it? I don't know whether to be horrified or flattered!" 


Jo just grinned.

We watched the man disappear out of sight. 
Maybe he was police, but maybe not. It seemed the least sinister explanation, but I didn't really know. Never would.  

We turned back to our bench and our books, but any risk of sleep was out of the question now. 

Luckily, about half an hour later, the rumblings of an incoming locomotive broke the dark spell of the silent station. This at last was ours. We got gratefully into the warmth of the empty carriages and found seats by the window. We peered out through the grime.

It was then that we noticed shapes emerging out of the gloom. People were approaching the train from all sorts of hidden corners of the station. They walked with slow, tired steps. Had they been there all the time? Why hadn't we seen anyone?  Were they real? It was all both creepy and more than a bit spooky. 

The train started to fill up and into our carriage came a new and even more motley selection of passengers than we'd seen on the earlier train. The night world seemed to be populated with zombies - strange, furtive creatures with glazed eyes and pallid complexions. Jo and I pulled our bags and coats closer. 


We were very glad when a woman came and sat down opposite us. She looked positively normal. And she was disposed to be friendly as well.

In true German tradition, we pulled out of Mönchengladbach at five thirty exactly. Relieved as I was to be on our way again, I smiled across at the woman. Not surprisingly, she took it as an invitation and started talking to us. We managed to communicate the fact that we were not German, not Italian and not Spanish. Nor, we convinced her, were we Portuguese or French. These were apparently all languages she could speak, but since English and Dutch were not on her list, we lucked out there. Nevertheless, we, or rather Jo, persevered and by the time we had reached Heerlen, the two of them were chatting brokenly but effectively in a mixture of German and Dutch. The rest of the carriage resounded with the collective snores of the passengers, and soothed, I admit I joined them for a while. I think the stress of our adventures since we had left Oberhausen must have caught up with me and despite my vow to remain awake, sleep overtook me.

I woke to see the lights of small towns flashing past, and realised we must be close to, or over, the border. Sure enough, within half an hour, we'd arrived in Heerlen, the first Dutch town on the railway system. Pulling into the station, I knew our adventure was effectively over. The sky was beginning to turn pink in the distance and daytime was approaching. We had to change trains again here and the next one would not be a night train. More than that, the kiosk would be open and we could buy coffee from a real, live, down to earth and friendly Dutch shop assistant.

All of a sudden, the night train and our strange experiences seemed to recede into one of those events we would reminisce about in years to come. Dusseldorff and its skinheads, Mönchengladbach and its strange ghostly station and spooky policeman, they all started to assume a dreamlike quality. 


All of a sudden, life seemed normal again.




2 comments:

  1. Just like I remember it... give or take a few details ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. :)) you'll have to forgive my advancing years :)

    ReplyDelete

Apologies for switching on comment moderation, but this is to make sure everyone can comment without jumping through captcha hoops!