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A Bunch of Fives - Stories by James Roderick Burns (14)
He thought it might be a couple of hundred miles, three or four hours at most. Over a breakfast of cheese and rye-bread she traced it out with her fingers, thumb and index finger creeping across the stiff plastic map, and grudgingly agreed. They left at ten, all the luggage piled in the back seat of the rental car, and inched through the brownish-grey Berlin suburbs towards the autobahn. As they left the city behind, the little silver Ford soon picked up speed, and they rushed through a hundred miles of trees in no time at all. At the Polish border a heavy-set guard, his woody fingers curled around the butt of a pistol, leaned in and scrutinised the interior of the car – she sat back stiffly, thinking of the worry lines cut permanently into her grandmother’s face – but the moment passed, and they were waved on into the Polish countryside.
A few kilometres beyond the border the smooth tarmac petered out. Between crumbling post-war hamlets, dotted about like coastal bunkers in the fields, the road ran haphazardly mile after mile, its concrete verges crinkled and stained, the surface strewn with potholes like the bed of a pinball table. Every few seconds the car was squeezed to the side by a lorry. Other cars were infrequent; when they came up behind he could see their drivers in the mirror, hunched over the wheel, smoking and peering at the traffic as though seated in an optician’s consulting room. Now and again a juggernaut would sound its horn, the deep note interrupting the road’s endless dull rush-and-thud. Every hour or so they pulled off onto the grass verge to consult the map.
‘Are we even halfway there yet?’ he asked, a whine building in his voice. The kilometre dial had clicked over hundreds of times, more, but he didn’t believe it. It was like drinking litres of beer – untrustworthy, somehow. He could feel the rising heat of the engine under his feet. ‘We must have gone that far, at least.’
‘Just hold on.’
She folded one portion of the map back on itself and turned on the interior light, angled the surface so it sparkled like quartz. ‘No, we haven’t. About a third of the way, I think – look.’ Instead he looked out of the side window and cursed, punching the horn and revving the engine.
By two o’clock they were half-way there, then eventually tipping past two-thirds. While he drove in silence she turned on the radio and flipped from station to station. A babble of strange throaty Polish alternated with pop songs from the eighties, an extended tribute to Princess Diana – English words and names buried in its flow like eggs in a pie – which seemed to migrate the whole way across the dial. They passed a McDonalds, bright and shiny against the darkening plain, then pressed on to Warsaw, rounding the outskirts of the city in flat brown light. An hour beyond, dusk fell and they came to a railway crossing. There was no traffic so he parked in the road while they looked at the map once more. They were about ten miles from their destination, it seemed, and he felt able to relax. He sat up and peeled the backs of his trousers away from the seat, yawned as he stretched out his locked arms and cracked his knuckles. She peered through the twilight to the other side of the road.
‘Look over there.’
She nudged him and he looked. On a crooked road sign hanging from a post were two arrows. The left hand arrow pointed north east, the direction they needed to go, and listed two or three small towns along the road, one of which was theirs. The right hand arrow was rusty and said simply, Treblinka. ‘Come on, let’s go,’ she said, sniffing and snapping off the interior light. He put the car in gear and took the left hand road.
The village was low-slung and gloomy, its rows of slope-roofed houses hugging the ground in pools of darkness between irregularly placed street lights. At the far end, the mansion house rose above it in tiers of pastel stone, windows white and sharp as icing, gates lit up like spiny winter ribs by the headlights as they swung into the driveway. They appeared to be just in time. A man in a green jerkin was coming through the heavy oak door, a fat bunch of keys in his hand.
‘Hello,’ the husband said, getting out and crunching over the gravel. ‘We’re here for the hotel?’
The man shook his head, then smiled thinly. He raised his hands in front of him, fingers turned outwards in a gesture of apology. The keys shifted beneath his fingers with a rattle.
‘Hotel?’ he repeated, pantomiming sleep and yawning extravagantly. Then the man smiled and nodded, beckoning them to the door. Inside the couple creaked after him across a polished floor to the reception desk. A young woman with ropes of dark hair bunched on her shoulders was tidying papers by the light of a desk lamp. Mounted animals ranged behind her on boards; smoke-blackened pictures peered down from the surrounding dark. The man in green handed them over and disappeared through a side door. She looked up and slipped the documents she’d been examining into a binder.
‘Hal-lo,’ she said.
The husband smiled. He touched his wife on the arm. ‘Hello. We’d like to stay in the hotel, if that’s possible. Just a couple of nights. The guide book said you had rooms attached to the rear of the place?’
The woman smiled crookedly and shook her head. ‘No English. Sprechen-ze deutsche?’
His smile faded. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t speak German’ – a shrug – ‘or Polish.’ He took out a pocket phrase book and gestured sheepishly at the introductory phrases: I am very sorry, I cannot speak Polish. She read the words and laughed, then shrugged her shoulders and looked at him. A grandfather clock chimed somewhere. He desperately tried to dredge up something useful from their week in Berlin – an overhead snatch of conversation, perhaps, or words gleaned from a poster – but nothing came. He remembered some character in a novel saying Ja, bestimmt, emphatically, but that was no use. His wife held up two fingers and gestured around at the hallway, but the young woman just looked at her. Then it struck him: zwei nacht! The first word sprang from films he’d seen about the war, people being counted on the parade ground or herded into streams, the second from some dusty memory of ‘Silent Night’ printed on a hymn sheet in the original. It made him think of holly, and berries.
‘Er - zwei nacht?’ he said. The woman nodded. She turned round the registration book and slid it across the desk, pointing out the boxes in which they were to list their details. While he put down their names, London address and passport numbers in what he hoped were the right places, the receptionist handed a bundle of brochures and a price sheet to his wife. She saw their stay would cost 89 zlotys, for both nights, and that a tour of the attached agricultural museum was thrown in for free. She showed her husband the cartoon tractor under the total and he nodded stupidly. The woman behind the desk rapidly locked up her files and turned out the lamp. They moved outside into dwindling twilight.
She led them around the west wing of the mansion to a door fitted into the stone archway. Unlocking it, she gestured for them to follow. Along a short stone hall, single-stepped down into the sleeping quarters, were five or six beds set on platforms, a staircase leading up to the bathroom and a ground-floor annexe containing an ancient woodstove. The woman pointed to a small fridge and a table covered with oil-cloth, then bent to start a fire in the stove. The logs inside began to spit and crackle, and she pointed at the hot water tap then back again to the stove, lifting her eyebrows to see if they were making the appropriate connection. The couple nodded and smiled again. Then with a short bow and a jingle of her keys she left them alone. They collapsed onto the nearest bed.
‘Settled at last!’ she said.
‘I thought we’d never get here. Honestly, I did. I’ll go out and get the bags in a sec.’
The whine had disappeared from his voice. He gazed up at the wood-panelled walls, the tall windows curtained with white filmy gauze drifting like mist about Castle Dracula. They gave onto the gravel drive and surrounding railings, and beyond that, the blue-black sky, a distant row of dense silhouetted trees. ‘Glad I remembered a few things, you know.’ He smiled, and lowering himself down crossed his arms contentedly on his stomach.
‘What? Oh, that,’ she said. ‘Zwei nacht indeed! D’you want to go out and get something to eat, or should we just have what we brought and turn in early?’
He laid back like a sultan against the pillow and domed his fingers.
‘Ja, bestimmt,’ he said.
The next morning, before they’d had a chance to roll back the covers, there was a loud knock at the door.
‘Who’s that?’ She hastily pulled on a dressing gown, knotting it tightly at the waist, and padded over the stone flags to the doorway. She opened it a few inches then leant back into the hall. ‘It’s the man from last night. He – what?’ She disappeared outside for a moment then came back in, pulling the door behind her. ‘He said we have to go and take the tour while the lady makes up a fire for our baths.’
‘What, now?’ He peered at his watch and groaned. ‘How d’you know that’s what he said, anyway?’
‘He showed me on a piece of paper. He’d clipped the words out of a phrase book and stuck them down. With glue.’
‘Oh well – that’s better than we managed. Give me a minute and I’ll get some clothes on.’
On their way out they passed the man gathering wood from a lean-to behind the house. Today he had on a coat the colour of tobacco, and a small dog with a salt-and-pepper coat was dancing round his heels, disappointed it seemed at the lack of sticks. The man’s face looked pale and kind in the early morning sun.
The young woman was determined to show them the whole of the exhibition, though they had no common language, and only a smattering of shared words washed up like jetsam from TV and magazines. Talking in a high-pitched, enthusiastic voice she whisked them around a splendid collection of soviet-era tractors and farm implements, a wall-mounted agricultural history formed from scythes and smocks dating back to the seventeenth century, then an avenue of reconstructed peasant dwellings, each gaining in space as they progressed from medieval grimness to early twentieth century relative comfort. In each was original furniture and clothes, implements, cooking pots and string nets, odd forked household objects with prongs and hinges, hand-bellows laid out on the hearth as though ready to take a breath. By the end of the tour they were charmed and exhausted. She escorted them back to the room, where someone had made up the beds and lit a fire for hot water. Steam wafted from the upstairs bathroom. They both thanked her effusively and as she left, looked sheepishly at one another, then went upstairs for a bath.
Once they were dressed they went straight out to catch the rest of the day. On the main road they noticed a one-story hut sitting in the trees beyond the wall of the estate. It was built out of thick wooden planks, the bark still evident in swirls and knots on the outside walls; the only hint of modernity was a bleary neon sign, BAR, lashed to the roof, its cables snaking away under the eaves. Along with sklep, seemingly a generic word for shop, and the tangle of consonants which meant thank you, it was the only Polish word they could understand, in their ignorance. Along the highway, bars cropped up every few miles, the gravelly car parks half-full of tiny eastern European cars waiting for their owners to finish buying groceries, or presumably take a rejuvenating nip at the counter. As they drove out of the village on the curves of the Treblinka road, it seemed this was the main place for locals to drink.
The sun had come out through the spindly branches of the trees, and lit up a yellow plain as they passed. Nothing much grew in the plots of farmland, thin and sloping and separated by long trails of wire. They passed piles of rusted agricultural machinery nestling up against the fence on both sides of the road. The landscape gradually fell away to a spur of forest in the middle distance, then tiny red points and the accompanying lines of a railway crossing. As their tyres bumped over the rails he turned his head.
‘Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, we can go another day, or just take off back towards the village and up to Bialystock. You wanted to see that big church, remember?’
She shook her head, placed a hand firmly on his arm.
‘No, I want to go. Let’s just get there, okay?’
He nodded and cranked down the window. The smell of wild grass and wood smoke filled the car. She turned on the radio and suddenly Katrina and the Waves was bouncing happily from the speakers. The car coasted down a long hill to another junction, where a sign pointed them across a bridge and up onto a railway track. He nudged the wheels over the bridge and stopped as close to the sign as possible.
‘Does that really mean we have to hop onto the tracks to get to the other side?’
‘I think so.’
She wound down her window and stretched out her neck to get a better look. In blocky navy-blue characters the sign depicted a car travelling along the railway ties, with a reassuringly small train on the far side waiting politely for it to finish its journey. ‘Looks like we take this way up and over to that track, over there.’
Her husband peered at the sign for a few more seconds then swallowed and put the car in gear. Up on the trestle he gunned the engine as hard as he dared. The tracks hammered by underneath them and he grinned.
‘We’re going to make it!’ She gripped the door handle.
They were almost across when she heard a heavy noise behind them, and something like a whistle. ‘Go, go!’ He pressed down harder on the accelerator and they shot down the ramp on the far end, barrelling into the mouth of the turn and skidding to a halt on a dirt track. They both span round in their seats, breathing heavily, but there was nothing behind them. Pale blue sky, a black bird landing on the railway sign. They laughed.
‘Oh well,’ he said. ‘We made it this far.’
The track wound up through the forest in loose, sweeping bends. They passed a working saw-mill, clouds of yellow particles puffing up beyond the front office, a garage housing long green trucks with trees painted on the sides. Someone was hammering behind the largest truck, and they could hear the drilling whine of a power tool cycling up and down. The road flattened out for a while then stopped at a low barrier with a sign in Polish. As he got out to move it to one side, a plane flew overhead. Down a final section of track, now surfaced and painted with a broken white line, and they were there. He pulled up in front of a pebble-dashed toilet block. Marked spaces stretched away from the toilets like soldiers on parade. There was another car four or five slots down, and he swung around to pull in beside it, killing the engine.
‘Well, here we are.’
She got out of the car and stretched, then wandered over to a sign at the edge of a clearing in the trees, leaving him to lock up the car. It had the same text in Polish, German and what looked like Russian, in smaller letters relegated to the bottom. Down one side was a map with numbered circles pegged to bullet points in the text. From the starting arrow she recognised the toilets, traced a finger up through green ink trees to the top of the hill.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s follow the map. Looks like we need to start over there.’
They walked across the clearing and down a shallow incline to a bowl-shaped depression in the grass. The first of hundreds of concrete sleepers straddled the depression, with a stone marker and flat raised bed erected alongside it, almost like a platform. The sleepers marched up the hill away from the marker, and the couple followed the route through an overhanging tunnel of branches pockmarked with sunlight, round a bend and up the slope of a broad hill. The trees fell away from them as they climbed, until near the top they were walking over bald grass and concrete slabs. The sleepers stopped abruptly on the crown of the hill. A path trailed down the far side towards a circle with some kind of monument at its centre, and a second circle formed from ragged stones set jaggedly in concrete, the points of the circles overlapping slightly like a Venn diagram or a magician’s trusty rings. They stood for a moment on the crest of the rise and looked around. The sky was a cold blue, intersected by strands of returning cloud. The bank of trees below clung to the smooth hillside like fur trim on a uniform. Then they looked at one another and started down the scrappy, foot-worn trail to the monument.
Up close it was a fearsome sight. Plain and square at the base, it rose up fifteen or twenty feet into an agony of rough carved shapes, stone arms flailing at the sky, thrashing against one another, and yet completely still. The blunt tips of the fingers formed a rough arc below the clouds.
‘Look at the shape of it,’ he said, pointing up. ‘The fingers rounding, making it seem whole. Is that supposed to mean what I think, do you suppose?’
‘Wholeness out of fragmentation, order from chaos, that sort of thing?’
They hadn’t spoken on the way through the trees and her voice was surprisingly sharp, almost scathing, in the silence. He stood back and looked at her.
‘What? I just thought – ’
‘Don’t you do enough of that at home? You can’t read this place. Just look at it.’ She took his arm and dragged him over to a corner of the monument. Hundreds of candles in crumpled tin holders had been jammed into the fissures of the rock. Waxy streams and patters marked its face; more candles clustered round the base. One was still alight, its small flame burning evenly. She walked across to the overlapping circle. Each crude stone bore the name of a village, a town whose people had been uprooted then erased. ‘And why is it so damn quiet?’
She stood for a moment. Through miles of trees and the overhanging sky no sounds whatsoever came. The sawmill was gone, so too the hammering and the quick high-pitched bursts of the electric drill. Even the wind seemed to have died in the trees. She felt like an insect under a bell jar, and began to weep.
‘Hey, hey – come on. It’s alright.’ He ran across to her and took her into his arms. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just a habit, you know, like putting on my glasses. I didn’t think. I didn’t think it would hurt you.’
She could smell wood-smoke in his jacket, the musty scent of wool. ‘I just don’t want to think about it, not like that. It’s not something I want twisting around inside me.’ He folded himself around her, stroked her hair, whispered sorry over and again in her ear. By the monument the candle drank the last of its wax, guttered and went out. A bird flew silently past.
The mansion house was quiet and dark. In the woodstove, the last embers had cooled and turned to ash. Light from a single bulb on the gable-end fell in slats over the oilcloth table, the teacups and crumbs scattered on their plates. A mouse skittered across the stone floor, or so he thought.
In the bedroom, the white gauze curtains bulged and relaxed in draughts from the half-open window. He sat up in bed, hearing another noise somewhere. She stirred then turned over in her sleep. For a moment he watched the faint white billow of the curtains, listening, then got out of bed. There it was again: a high keening from outside, like panic or grief in a woman’s voice. He pulled aside the curtain and climbed up onto the broad windowsill to listen. The trees were black and motionless beyond the iron railings. Nothing moved, and he dismissed the noise as just his imagination. He got back down, tiptoeing across the room to bed. He watched the curtains fill and empty, then tried to sleep.
He was almost out when it came again, this time louder and sharper, like someone crying out in fear. He shook her urgently awake.
‘Hey, listen! Can you hear it?’
She sat up groggily as he pointed at the window.
‘Listen.’ The sound came in again through the curtains and she woke to it.
‘What’s that?’ They went to the window and pulled the gauzy material aside, bunched it up on the sill. She pushed at the window till it swung open. ‘What is it?’
‘Do you think it could be an animal? Remember that time in college, the scrubland behind the dorm? You called me halfway across town because you were terrified? Some woman was being killed in the woods, you said, only it turned out to be a polecat yowling for its mate.’
She listened again and shook her head. ‘No. It’s not that. Go out and see.’
He looked at her and started to shake his head. Then he remembered the silence on the hill, and slowly got himself up and over, let himself down onto the gravel. It was cold and hard under the soles of his bare feet. He walked slowly away from the mansion house, taking tiny paces, listening intently. The treetops began to thresh in the wind, and he looked back at her small face distraught in the window. Then, inexplicably, he began to laugh.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said. ‘What! Are you all alright?’
But he laughed again, beckoning her out out of the window to the driveway. Beyond the railings the bar door opened roughly in a burst of light; a customer lurched away, unzipping, into the dark woods. A brief snatch of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ followed him out into the night.
First published in The Raw Art Review (Summer 2020)
Next: The Seven Ages of Mann