Off the Rails
After a career in journalism, notably with The Economist and The Independent, Roy Eales has developed the practice of multilingual writing. He is most renowned for his poetry in English, French, German, and Breton, which has been studied by Didier Bottineau from the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and the École Nationale Supérieure de Lyon. In this fictional short-story Michael, an insurance agent, is the model of conformity. That is, only until the day he seeks to rekindle a long lost love…
He took his leave of an affair with a local German woman with just a terse note.
“Monika, we got the news today that we shall return to Britain in a day or two. I don’t know when I will see you again, but I will write soon. Much love. Michael.” He did not write or see her again.
Even so, as the years passed after the war, Monika was never completely gone from his mind. Her image came back often to him. Always he tried to hide from his thoughts the reality of it all, perhaps conveniently as if she had been merely a passing episode that ended when the war ended. Michael was a British soldier sent to Germany after the end of the Second World War. His affair with Monika had been much more than a mere episode or just a fling of a young man then in his early twenties. Its abrupt end with his promise to write to her stayed stubbornly within him like a framed, dark shadow of guilt hovering in a corner of his mind, refusing not to reappear.
During those years, Michael followed his chosen pre-war trade in insurance. To succeed, he kept a safe image of himself, more or less as a caricature of the insurance business. He adopted the required manner in keeping with his masters’ submissive façade toward the industry’s self-created aura of respectability and solidness designed to assure appearances and expectations of unsuspecting clients.
He adopted the required manner in keeping with his masters’ submissive façade toward the industry’s self-created aura of respectability and solidness designed to assure appearances and expectations of unsuspecting clients.
True to the image, he wore the dark suits and respectable shirts and modest ties of his trade, spoke carefully its policy-schedule jargon common to this work and to the post-war way of life. He arrived on time at the office every day by train from suburban Surrey, and read The Times newspaper en route every day.
Succeed he did, rising to become a senior partner of the firm in the City of London at 38 years old. He had married. There were no children. His wife had died in 1960 after a long illness.
One morning about three years after his wife’s death and some seventeen years after Michael’s note to Monika, an article in The Times about post-war Germany reawakens Monika to him. As he sits in the usual seat of the usual carriage on the usual train from Surrey to London, the article inspires a dramatic thought, in itself a rare event in Michael’s mind. He stares out of the window and ponders: Perhaps there is now no reason not to find out about his former German lover? He could easily take a little time off from work, make the trip, round the circle, lose the Monika image, renew the image, whatever? Turning on the insurance slot in his brain, he thinks about the risks and decides they are very limited. He would not be announced, nobody would know him, and, anyway, he could just go there and look around a bit in a sort of secret way, without any preordained reason? Yes, he thought. He more or less decides to go.
A few weeks later, Michael sits in a train carriage, this time en route to Germany. His thoughts about her race the train. Would she still be alive? Would she still be there, or gone somewhere else? She would be in her mid-late forties, a bit more than his age. What would she look like now? Was she still married, married again, with more children?
He looks out of the window and muses… isn’t this trip a futile venture? Wasn’t it, always, pointless for him to think about her? Weren’t their brief lives together before destined to be a temporary thing, anyway, even if they did become lovers? The war saw to that.
He turns to read The Times. There is only one other person in the carriage, a young man who sits opposite him, reading a book. Michael puts down his newspaper, decides he should engage in polite conversation.
There is only one other person in the carriage, a young man who sits opposite him, reading a book.
“What are you reading?”
“It’s one of my textbooks. I am a student of law at the university,” he says. “We have a break and I am going to my small hometown where my parents live. It’s the last stop.”
“Ah, that’s where I am going,” says Michael. “When does the train arrive?”
“Oh, it should be there in an hour or so,” the student says.
The student closes his book, puts it by his side and, with studious curiosity, asks Michael why he should be going to such a small town. At first, Michael isn’t sure what to say. He judges this will be just a conversation that will be forgotten when they leave the carriage.
Indeed, he feels strangely relieved at the chance to talk freely after years of just thinking about it all in his head.
“Oh, I was there some years ago, as a soldier in fact. I left after the war. I want to go back and see if somebody I met then is still there, a girl I knew then who was very kind.”
The student asks him where this was. Michael tells him and names the street.
“You know that little town?” Michael asks.
“Oh, yes, my parents live there,” the student says.
He doesn’t show it, but the student is now internally, intensely interested.
“She was German, of course?”
“Monika, oh, yes,” says Michael quietly.
The young man hears the woman’s name, pauses, then asks, “Did you know her well?”
“Well, yes, I suppose you could say she was a very good friend,” says Michael, “I would like to see if she is still there.”
The student continues his questions in the same gentle manner.
“That is rather a long time now. It is 1963 now, that’s 17 years or so ago?”
“Well, yes, I thought of that, of course,” says Michael, “but I would like to know, and, maybe, even see her again, she might be gone somewhere else and…” he coughs, “I suppose it might even be a bit different to go there again.”
This word “different”, by which he means “mistake”, awakens the thoughts of risk kept at the back of his mind which now leap to the front of it. Michael feels now more like the man of the daily train from Surrey to London.
Risk, and his office mind is back in charge. He searches for some reassurance, and finds a counter proposal within that mutters “What harm could there be in just looking around?”
He is still anxious. His eyes search aimlessly around the carriage, then up to the compartment with his bag, then at the student who wants to carry on the conversation.
“What was the girl like?” he says. “I suppose she might have been a very pretty girl?”
“Oh yes,” Michael says, rather hurriedly.
He has become disturbed by the student’s questions. He wants to move away from the subject. He looks uncertain and again looks around the carriage, as if to calm himself. He looks at the student and asks what the small town is like now.
“As I said, it’s where my parents live and have done for many years, the same place as you are going to. I was born there, my parents and me have always lived there. Much has changed, but I know many of the same families are still there.”
Michael looks to the window, away from the student, cringes, and then looks up at his bag.
“You know, I think I will get off at the next stop and look around a bit,” he says. “Good luck with your studies.”
“Thank you. The next stop is quite near, it’s the one before the last one where I will get off. Goodbye then.” the student says.
Michael takes down his bag, waves to the boy, and wanders off down the corridor.
As the train moves slowly out of the station, the boy muses on the conversation passed between them. He felt sure he knew who this Monika was. She lived in the house close by for many years. He thinks this Monika was about the same age as his mother. And was it not her son with whom he played? This boy, was he not the son of a British soldier? He was about seven years old like him.
He thinks again, back to his parent’s stories and his own memories of those past days when British forces occupied this part of Germany. He recalls that some in the surviving local population said they had good reason to like the British soldiers: they gave children sweets and chocolates, cigarettes to older men, and lonesome soldiers found lonesome wives and widows. He recalls that his nearby friend showed off the chocolates his mother got from a British soldier.
And he knew other children who somehow had received chocolate, but not him, and he was always bewildered how they got it, until one day his mother said the British soldiers gave some girls chocolate which they passed onto their brothers or their children. And one thing remained very clear — his own mother was not pleased when the student asked why she too did not know a British soldier, that threatened by the threatening hand of his mother, he had to run out of the room quickly.
Although he was not so old then, he still remembers the return of Monika’s husband in 1949, he thinks, and what his mother and her neighbours said about Monika’s behaviour and how there was much outrage.
All this he knew while talking to Michael. He wonders whether he should have said more to the man. Again, he relives the conversation with Michael. I am, perhaps, a little bit naive, but I could not imagine how someone could believe in a “Wiedersehen” without troubles, and I could not speak about it to this man.
Just then, the carriage door opens, and the student’s thoughts are interrupted and ended with shock and surprise. Michael reappears with his bag.
“Hello again,” says Michael, hesitantly, “I changed my mind and thought I’d get off at the next stop, as planned. I think it might, er it might be, more interesting. I thought about it and had a coffee in the bar.”
The student looks up, trying hard not to show his astonishment, he can manage only a murmured, “Hello.”
The train now pulls into the station.
It stops. The student sees his mother is waiting on the platform. He and Michael gather their bags. They leave the carriage and bid each other goodbye. The boy goes down the platform. Michael waits until the student is out of view, then slowly leaves the train, waits a bit then moves off in the same direction.
The student and his mother have gone further down the platform. In the mother’s car on their way back to his parent’s home the student asks his mother to tell him something more about the past and this Monika who lived nearby.
She does not answer, looks at him, grimaces, and shrugs. He decides he will not say or ask anything else.
“Now, tell me about your work at the university,” she says.