by Alexis Waitman

The platform at Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof was full of people waiting for the train to Bayreuth:  there was to be a special New Year’s Eve concert of Wagner overtures, plus a surprise piece.  The conductor had been specially invited from Prague for the occasion, and the orchestra was unique in that it had been put together by the conductor, selecting specialist Wagner musicians from all over the world.  Tickets had been hard to get, but Sam had been lucky: a tip-off from a friend in Dresden had ensured the purchase of two really good seats.  Sam knew that Urmhilde would be delighted, both with the concert, and with Sam for having been so clever and thoughtful.

Sam was pleased to be on the platform early, to secure a good position from which to board the train – on time, of course!  ‘How do German trains and trams manage to run on time when our own are so hopeless, even in good weather, never mind minus 12˚C! ‘  As these thoughts occurred, so did a sign indicating that the train was delayed by 20 minutes. ‘No problem: I have more than enough time to get there. Urmhilde will wait for me and there’s bound to be a message at the other end about the delay.  I’ll phone a little nearer the time, too.’  Sam suddenly felt a surge of pleasure and anticipation at the prospect of seeing Urmhilde again: they had not met for nearly a year since that first meeting at the conference in Zurich.  Urmhilde was not given to quick responses to telephone calls or emails, so communication between them had   been at best sparse, and at worst worryingly remiss.  Nonetheless, Sam knew that all would be well and a lover’s embrace would be the sweeter for that.

Sam Gershon was tall, slim, had a penchant for good clothes, and was more than usually good-looking.   An oval face, with the sort of cheek-bones that could easily have been of Eastern European origin, lent a mysterious, unusually interesting presence.  Longish dark hair, with a lustrous shine, peeked out from under the fur hat with ear flaps (so sensible in this temperature).  A fur collar sat below, surrounding the heavy waxed coat with the deep pockets in which Sam liked to feel the coins always left there for emergencies.

Sam had had to go to Washington DC to work on a very secret contract with an international NGO.  It had not been possible to talk about it in any detail: only to say that it would last for 9 months, was to do with world health, and could make, if allowed to go through all its many committees and bureaucratic procedures, a real difference in the developing world.  Sam was a health psychologist, working in population control and child health.  The field was highly specialised and demanded a level of dedication and training that not many professionals were able to provide.  Sam had quickly become someone who was not only trusted to perform to an exceptional standard, but was also someone who could be relied upon to work in any context, with any group of people, in virtually any country, and become highly regarded very quickly.  This trip was in celebration of yet another successful outcome, and was to be a particularly meaningful re-connection with Urmhilde, who was a paediatrician. They had much to talk about.

At last, the train arrived.  Its  undercarriages were covered with frozen snow: melting stalactites were dropping off as the heat from the locomotive travelled under the train.  The carriages were already full, but, because of the clever positioning, Sam was able to quickly board, place the suitcase in the rack, and settle into a four-seater with a table, by the window.  Other passengers soon joined Sam: a couple who looked very young and very cold; and an elderly woman who was so well-covered in warm clothing that her face was barely visible.  Only when she finally sat down was Sam able to see that she was small, frail, but must have at one time been beautiful.  The four of them sat in silence, waiting for the train to depart.

The 4-hour journey to Bayreuth began.  Out of the window, the landscape was white: everything was covered in virgin snow – nothing was visible and the horizon too, had disappeared.  Everything was covered in a coating of white, so white that it appeared to be pale blue and was almost painful to the eye.

‘How strange this is: I am on a journey through a country I hardly know, on a train that is dripping with ice, that is full of people I have never seen before, to a destination that is miles away, on a train that could become stuck at any juncture.  This is exciting but also a bit scary: I don’t speak good German.  But it’ll all be fine – I’m just naturally a little nervous.  Anyway, most Germans speak some English, and many are nearly fluent.  Relax. Enjoy!’

The train rattled through white, unknown, unseen territory.  Birds attempted to sit on frozen electricity cables, but quickly flew off, disappointed.

Gingerbread houses appeared and disappeared, icicles hanging from pipes that looked as though they might break under the strain. No boundary-markers; no frame of reference.  ‘I could be anywhere.  Even the platform signs are obscured by snow and ice.  They could abduct me and I wouldn’t even know.’  Two stops, then the LED display stopped working.  The Inspector had already been to look at tickets, and the refreshment trolley had also been and gone.  Now only the elderly lady remained: the other three seats were vacant.  Sam looked at his companion and ventured an introduction.

‘Do you speak English?  Sam felt that this had to be the overture, as the response would determine the shape and duration of the conversation.  ‘A little, but I do speak French if that helps.  My English is a little, how you say, rusty?’  My husband was half English, but he died nearly 30 years ago, and I do not have now any English friends.’

Sam was delighted at this fluent and encouraging response.  The woman’s features were now clearer: a high forehead, small, straight nose, large blue eyes with long lashes, and a still full mouth, the lipstick applied somewhat haphazardly.  The overall impression was of a music-hall artiste, or maybe a dancer, whose professional life had long since ended.   The face was remarkably un-lined, the cheek-bones masked by rouge (not blusher, Sam noted: the old-fashioned cosmetic suited the elderly woman perfectly and added to the theatrical appearance), skin still stretched evenly over the delicate bones.  Only a slightly sallow colour and drawstring effect around the mouth were indicative of advanced years.  The woman’s hair was obviously silvery, but was swathed in a rather fetching turban-style hat, made from a silky material that brought out the lustre of the still-startlingly blue eyes.  Sam hesitated before venturing to ask: ‘Where are you travelling to?’

‘I go to Bayreuth – my son is conductor of a concert on New Year’s Eve.  Wagner music – do you know it?’

This startling news made Sam sit back with what must have looked like a shocked expression, for the elderly woman said: ‘Are you alright – you look a little startled?’  Sam smiled and said ‘I am fine.  I am going to that concert with a friend – that’s why I’m on this train.  How lovely to meet you.  What is your name please: I feel we should at least know each other’s names!’  The woman also smiled, sat back in her seat, unwrapped her scarf, displaying a beautiful brooch pinned to her jacket, and said: ‘I am Claudia Schroffner.  My husband was the mathematician Gustav Schroffner, and my son is Martin Schroffner, the conductor.  I myself was a concert pianist, and a teacher, but that was long ago.  Now, my pleasure is in following my son around the world to hear him conduct.  What is your interest in music?’

There followed a conversation about music.  Sam said that music had always been important, ever since childhood and being taken to a concert at a local theatre.  Music lessons had been provided, but no particular talent had emerged.  A love of classical guitar and piano music, as well as a strong preference for modern jazz had also developed.  The conversation flowed like a melody for what seemed like hours, each participating with obvious delight.  Then, as if a switch had been thrown, Frau Schroffner’s eyes began to close, and, before much longer, she had fallen fast asleep.  Sam watched her as she fell into a deep, untroubled slumber.

‘I wonder what her life has been like: where has she visited?  What was her husband like?  Did he stop her career from developing because of his own?  Did she mind?  Was she pleased that her son had inherited musical genes and was using them to such effect?  Why do I find this woman so fascinating?

Sam noticed that the sleeping woman’s face had changed during the interval.  She was no longer a once-beautiful person with perfect features.  Now, she was an ugly, mis-shapen, hag-like old woman, whose lined visage represented something reptilian.  Her painted-on eyebrows were crooked and smudged; the mouth resembled a zig-zag pattern made by a sewing machine, and her head had dropped forward, rendering her image like that of a rag doll.  Sam was shocked at the degree of disgust that descended.  Why?  Why do I feel like this?  I was so admiring of her a few minutes ago.  How strange.  Sam looked around the carriage, which was now nearly empty.  The only other passengers were a group of young men that Sam decided had to be students because of the noise reaching a crescendo.  Their enjoyment in their own company, and the total disregard for anyone else, as well as the several crates of beer they had managed to stow (and consume) were all give-aways.  One of them called over: ‘Want a beer – we’re giving them away! You’re welcome.  My name’s Max, and I am from Moscow.’  Not wanting to appear unfriendly, Sam took the proffered bottle. ‘Thank you – that’s very kind.’

Max spoke:  ‘I speak fluent English because I’m a geek working for Siemens in Denmark and we all speak English.  What do you do? ‘

Sam noticed that Max was enormous – even imagining him without his huge fur hat and heavy Pirelli-type coat, his frame was big and ungainly, yet his face was soft and kind.  He spoke with a warmth that was inviting, and Sam was glad of the company, especially since Frau Schroffner had nodded off, and become something grotesque.   ‘I work for a non-governmental organisation, in public health.’

Sam chatted happily, giving away only as much information as felt comfortable.  The train journeyed on, no-one paying very much attention to details like where they were, or even the time.  Nothing seemed to matter.  Another beer.  More conversation.  A game of cards.  Another beer.

‘This is becoming a bit of a beer-fest, Sam thought.  I don’t even like beer particularly, but this tastes good, the students are good fun, and I’m on holiday.’  Sam then realised that their route had changed and there were no announcements.  There was no way of knowing where they were: all the small stations they passed through had their name signs covered in snow and ice.  Slowly, a sense of foreboding crept over Sam.  An anxiety that could not be quelled, even with the beer.  Something was not right here.  It felt cold, icy, frightening.  Sam’s heart started to thump: the pain was palpable underneath the layers of clothing.  ‘Why are there no announcements?  Where did all those other people get off?’  Sam felt as though this was the only carriage left.  Fear began to take hold, yet no rational explanation came to mind.

‘Have another beer – it’ll help you relax.’  It was at this point that Sam noticed that Max had an ipad on his lap, and was tapping away, but Sam could not see what he was doing.  The writing looked like Russian and Sam was feeling really anxious.  Max and his companions were becoming very drunk, although they seemed to be able to converse easily enough: completely untroubled by anything. Then Max spoke:  ‘You will come with us.  We like you, Willi and Ernst and I.  We are going to Dresden, to stay with friends and go to a gig later.  We will look after you.  You can continue your journey tomorrow.  We will not allow you to refuse.’

To Sam’s horror, they had taken the suitcase down from the rack and stacked it with their own, ready for disembarkation.

‘Where are we now?  How do you know where we are?  Or where we’re going?  I need to get off now.  ‘ Sam was beginning to feel real panic setting in, but was equally determined it would not be obvious, although realised that fear must be evident in some form.  Psychology took over:

‘I will not go with you.  I am going to Bayreuth.  I will find out where I am, and I will make my own plans.  I do not like your behaviour.’  At that point, Frau Schroffner awoke and spoke, in a voice that Sam had not registered previously, and she spoke in what appeared to be fluent English: ‘What are you doing!  Leave that person alone at once.  Who do you think you are!’  She then rose, appearing taller than Sam recalled, and pulled the communication chord with such vigour that Sam was shocked at her strength.  Within minutes a guard appeared.  Frau Schroffner spoke in rapid German.  The guard immediately called the train to a halt, which it did with German accuracy and determination, at the next station (which had obviously been closer than anyone realised).  The guard told the group of young men to disembark quickly and take all their belongings, including the four beer-crates, with them.   Max, who had suddenly shrunk in size, to a small boy who had displeased his parent, struggled with the luggage and with the jeering comments of his now disenchanted allies, before disembarking onto the slippery platform, where, because of the weight of the baggage, he fell ingloriously onto the ice.  Everyone laughed, except Max, who, now bedraggled and humiliated, got up and slowly moved towards the exit.

‘Frau Schroffner – you were marvellous!’  Sam, now fully recovered, and looking forward to the end of the journey, for they were close to Bayreuth now, spoke with genuine regard for this woman, who had regained her composure and her beauty.  Sam wondered how her appearance had seemed so gross just moments ago, when she was clearly glorious! How anxiety and pressure of events can distort reality.  How interesting the human brain is! Now, Sam could again enjoy the idea and reality of being in tune with this interesting woman, and engage in harmonious relations until the end of the journey, when Sam would thank her for her company, her composure and her leadership qualities.  Sam would then be in rhapsodic mood ready to meet Urmhilde.

Then, the dénouement:  Urmhilde was indeed waiting on the platform at Beyreuth, snuggled deep in furs, her lovely face appearing in oval form from under an enormous furry covering.  ‘Urmhilde – this is Frau Schroffner, whose son is the conductor at tonight’s concert. We have had a very interesting journey together.  Please say hello  to her.’  After the introductions, Sam invited Frau Schroffner, and her son, if they were free, to join them for dinner after the concert that evening.   After exchanging telephone numbers, Frau Schroffner made her farewell, and Sam was able to continue this re-connection with Urmhilde.  ‘Darling – how wonderful you look.  I’ve  thought about you every day for ages, and now I can hardly believe we are together again, at last.’

‘Me too.  How lovely you are.  We girls must stay together now, and not be parted for such long periods.  My darling Sam – let’s go home and prepare for tonight’s treat.’

Alexis Waitman

(c) alexis waitman 2012

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