The Last Stop - Chapter 1

The Last Stop – Chapter 1

Retired tax inspector Jack goes on holiday to Berlin, leaving his wife to go away with her sister – so he thinks. His wife uses his absence to start an affair. Leaving the airport, Jack sees twenty-something Polish woman Maria, standing at the station, destitute and crying. He stops to help and becomes her mentor by preventing her making a fatal journey.

‘The bus or train?’

Jack Precious was not ashamed of talking to himself. After all, a simple decision can change a life, and discussing it, even as a monologue, often clarified things. He wanted nothing but a speedy transfer to his hotel.

Jack was the wrong side of sixty, comfortably plump round the middle, thinly thatched on top, spot on the median height for a north-European white male and uninteresting to members of the opposite sex, unless they were widowed or divorced, in which case his more than useful pension as a retired tax inspector would make up for physical shortcomings.

He knew the bus would be quicker, but it was also riskier. Buses always are. They get held up in traffic, are subject to unknown deviations and, as a stranger in town, he hated the pressure of wondering where the next bus stop would be. Furthermore, this particular bus journey would involve a change. Always tricky in a new city. So he did the steady-Eddie routine and headed off, under the sign of a train, towards the station. At heart, that’s what he was – a steady Eddie.

Jack still doubted the wisdom of this move. The bus stood panting and hissing right outside the airport exit – the station was a full five-minute drag of a heavy case, followed by stairs down and up, to get to the trains. He could take the ramps, but they seemed endless. However, the weather was bright, cool and fresh so the walk seemed okay

Had he chosen the bus – he later reflected – the following months of his life would have been so different? No! That was wrong. The rest of his life altered the moment he rejected the bus. That decision hurled him from his predestined orbit like a meteor that had come too close to a star. The star was a woman. He would have missed Maria, twenty-something, high cheek bones showing an eastern European origin, medium height, dark blue, darting, observant eyes. She was wearing a tatty overcoat, despite the fine weather, and sitting on an even tattier suitcase in the shadows of the entrance to the station, looking with imploring eyes at passers-by.

If a girl stands in the shadows, then the imploring looks do not attract much attention. He would have overlooked her, too, but Jack was a face person and noticed Maria’s face. Although not pretty, it was interesting. It looked puffy from old tears, and the eyes were reddening in preparation for new ones.

Jack knew life’s realities. He knew that an interesting-looking woman in her late teens or early twenties only looks at a sexagenarian if she wants something and so he would have been justified in calling over, ‘I still fancy you, but you wouldn’t normally give me the time of day, so on your bike!’

But he didn’t. He knew that he was a member of the content generation – born post war into a world of full employment, penicillin with no resistant bacterial strains, anaesthetics, effective contraception and no wars in which he was the right age to fight. That meant he, along with many other men and women in their sixties, had enough money, was in good health and had filled his boots in his youth. This young woman’s generation, he once surmised, would never have it that good. As a rule, one should help. He hoped that if his daughters or granddaughters ever stood at a railway station, with tears in their eyes, someone would stop and make an effort on their behalf.

Jack knew about Berlin’s history and its position very close to the old communist bloc. The girl looked Polish and was possibly in real trouble, possibly had nothing except the tatty-looking clothes she stood in or were in her suitcase. Had she entered Germany looking for work only to find no shortage of destitute young women from the East, desperately seeking work? She possibly didn’t speak German. Jack became tired of the ‘possibly,’ options. They were manifold and all sad.

‘There is nothing else for it,’ he thought. ‘I’ve got mug stamped right across my forehead . . . but . . . a crying woman is a worthy cause.’

He drew breath. ‘Brauchen Sie Hilfe?’ he slowed his step to receive a reply.

‘Do you speak English?’ She whispered across the gap. Jack struggled to hear her.

‘Of course,’ he replied.

‘Please, give me three euros for a ticket.’

Jack knew his instinct had been correct. No streetwise kid gets tearful over a three Euro train fare; they would travel without a ticket and chance getting caught. She was green. And the question flew through his mind. ‘How do you end up outside an international airport, in a land where you don’t speak the language, with less than three euros in your pocket? The ticket machine takes credit cards, so she has no credit. If it were a sting,’ he reasoned, ‘she’d go for more than three euros. No! She is in trouble, and I will have to help.’

He wanted to swear at her – loudly. Why did he always get stung by penniless no-hopers? How many burgers had he bought old men down on their luck, but with grumbling stomachs? He knew not. And he didn’t swear.

‘I don’t have three euros in change,’ he replied, knowing all his small change was in the recesses of his suitcase, and he had large notes in his wallet. ‘But I can help. Just walk this way with me,’ and he pointed toward the tunnel leading to the trains. He was proud of this security measure and once certain they weren’t being followed by a wallet snatcher, he stopped and took out his wallet. He handed her an unused ticket.

She looked at it and said, ‘But it is for zones B and C.’

Jack was impressed that she knew the system so well – not so green after all.

‘Where do you need to get to?’

‘Ostbahnhof.’

He thought, ‘I’m getting good at this. Ostbahnhof. It’s the old station with connections to the east and, of course, to Poland. She’s trying to get home.’

His anger rose, as did his hatred of the system, which allowed young women to be exploited, for no other reason than the economic differences between east and west.

Yes! He would help. Perhaps she was a down-on-her-luck prostitute trying to get back home. He was not a man given to violence, but he felt sure that a gun at the head of everyone involved in that form of slavery would be a way forward. However, such thoughts were unworthy of a dyed in the wool Guardian reader. He suppressed the idea that maybe there is a bit of a violent anarchist inside him.

‘That’s the right ticket,’ he assured her. ‘The stations on the ring are still in zone B. You’ll be alright.’

He would have needed the complete underground map in his head to be certain of that information. He hadn’t a clue and was wrong, but had already made up his mind that the gift of an unused ticket was as good as it was going get. It was the last stop he would subsidise. The ticket was his spare for emergencies, such as when the ticket machine won’t be goaded into action and the last train for hours approaches.

‘OK. Thank you,’ came the hesitant reply of someone who is thinking, ‘so near yet so far.’

Jack knew the look from down-and-out faces, who’d begged a euro for a loaf of bread and he could only find seventy cents in change. They were so hungry and still thirty cents short of that loaf. Their faces would contort, and their shoulders droop. He would walk with the hapless fellow to the chip stand and buy a sausage and chips for three euros. ‘It always ends up as three euros,’ he thought, ‘but, this time, I’m off before it gets more expensive.’

It wasn’t about the money, but rather about the inconvenience of sorting out the lives of no-hopers. That’s what made him tetchy.

‘OK? Mind how you go and good luck,’ he called as he prepared to charge at the two flights of stairs between him and the platform as if his speed at the first step would somehow give him momentum for the following twenty. In the corner of his eye, he spotted the ramp and set off to pull his suitcase the longer, but the gentler route. He noticed she wasn’t looking at either the stairs or the ramp, or at her benefactor in wide-eyed gratitude. Perhaps she knew the ticket was wrong, and he had left her a few cents short of her loaf of bread. He saw her turn her face to view the tunnel she and Jack had just come through, and then glance up the stairs to the platform, before looking back the way she had come.

As usual in this city of reconstruction, the promised direct connection to his destination wasn’t running, so he crossed to the neighbouring platform and took the train to Pankow, which he didn’t realise was the one that connected to the Ostbahnhof. Despite having spent most of the day sitting in airport lounges and on an overcrowded plane, he was glad to sit down again. The sliding door was still open, and as he settled into a seat, he saw the girl struggle to the top of the stairs with her suitcase.

‘I could have waited and pointed the ramp out to her,’ he thought.

He watched her devalue her ticket and head towards his carriage, pretending not to see him, but checking the carriage, and then without getting in, moving off down the platform to another car. Jack assumed she had seen him and didn’t want to risk becoming too friendly.

‘Understandable,’ he decided. ‘Who knows what some men think a three Euro ticket entitles them to?’

Jack enjoyed imagining what people were getting up to, and what motivated them. His passion was sitting in airports or parks, theorising on what he or she did, where they were going, and how many children they had, trying to pick out the body language that betrayed a certain foible. He thought he was a loss to the world of detectives, but he knew that imagination is only part of their game. ‘There has to be reason and the right answer,’ he mused, ‘things I never consider in my world of daydreaming and make believe in other people’s lives.’

His attention returned to the woman with his ticket.

‘The suitcase looked heavy for a girl with nothing,’ he thought, ‘and she is one worried young woman. Is she She afraid of meeting someone who knows her, or she is running from something or someone? Or she may have stolen something – an au pair who has just emptied Madam’s silver cabinet perhaps? Even worse she has stolen her pimp’s drug stash. But that is unlikely to weigh so much.’ Then he would reflect, ‘When did I handle anyone’s drug stash, so how would I know how much it would weigh? But, as I’ll never see her again I can dream to my heart’s content,’ he concluded and snuggled into his seat and shut his eyes.

He heard the doors shut and felt the motion of the train. He had a nice hotel booked in one of the less fashionable quarters – ‘an inverted snobbery,’ his wife Felicity said.

‘The fascination of a cityscape is not governed by its snob value,’ he had replied, but she had laughed and explained, ‘The day my dad saddled me with Felicity, I was condemned to cherish the smarter hotels. It’s what people expect of a woman called Felicity. You should have realised that before we married.’

He imagined his destination. ‘Neukölln. A Turkish community. Non-stop action, junk shops, restaurants that were rooms with plastic tables and incredible menus, pubs still advertising a dance floor. When was the last time anyone danced in a pub in Britain? The Gander in Sutton Common Road!’ He’d erred in there one Friday lunchtime in his student days to find the sixty-plus pensioners having a knees-up. Singing, dancing, one-arm bandits and not much of their pension left by tea time.

He opened his eyes at each stop. He wasn’t so certain of the line that he dared doze off. He looked out the window as the train drew into Adlershof.

‘Once we knew a family from Adlershof. Nice people, but had climbed the greasy pole under the communists. People refused contact with them, in protest at their profit taking from a nasty bunch. ‘Hypocrites!’ he had told his wife. ‘We arrange ourselves to profit from the system in which we live. Africans are not impressed by the proportion of oil and mineral wealth that flows into the pockets of the multinational companies, compared to the amount that is spent on infrastructure in their own land, but we live with that. In what way are we better than the communist robbers?’

His reminiscence about bedtime chats with his wife was interrupted. There, a few seats away – the girl with his ticket. The train was a series of connecting coaches, so she had got on further down and worked her way back. She seemed unaware of him, glancing in every direction, anxiety sweat covering her forehead.

‘If she wants to blend in,’ Jack thought, ‘that is the wrong way to do it. It has nothing to do with me,’ he repeated in his mind, but his interest grew, and he began observing the young woman, or as he thought of her, the girl.

The next stops showed on the display panel. Treptower Park and then Ostkreuz. Not Ostbahnhof! He had mixed the names. She was right and had the wrong ticket.

He needed to change at Treptower Park, and as he stood up to prepare to go to the door with his luggage, the girl looked at him. She didn’t acknowledge him with a smile or even with her eyes. Jack noticed she was crying again and sweating, now on her upper lip.

‘It isn’t hot on the train. Is it fear?’ He tried to look past her, but his eyes returned to her face. ‘If she is Polish and running from someone or something,’ he surmised, ‘then the Ostbahnhof, the old East Berlin station, linking to Poland, Russia and the Baltic states would be the first place I would look for her if I were the enemy. Perhaps she realises that, but has run out of ideas.’

He looked at the ceiling and then the floor, and then out the window.

‘Mind your own business, Jack!’

He inhaled. He knew he wouldn’t. No one could ignore the danger she was in, but he had no plan. If he ignored her plight, she would try to do the impossible!

The train slowed and stopped, and someone pressed the door opener. Jack grabbed his suitcase and propelled it through the door, turned, took hers and ordered, ‘Get off with me here,’ and, without waiting to see if she would follow, headed out the door. He heard the doors shut behind him, and the S9 moved off with an electric whine. ‘What if I’ve just stolen her suitcase on a whim?’

But there she was, behind him and looking better, now that someone was coming up with ideas.

‘Follow me!’ He headed off to the neighbouring platform to get the Circle line, number 41, to the Herman Strasse.

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