Let’s call him Karsten: it’s one of those stupid, unreal sounding names. The two bully-boys or hand rubbers, who circled around Karsten, rubbing their hands, as if itching to have a go, they were not interesting. They were just two mad Frankensteins anticipating the pleasure of what they were about to create with their own hands. That’s how they referred to him, too – as if he wasn’t there yet, as if their intervention was needed to bring him to life. Karsten expected one of them to be the goodie, the other the baddie, but both of them looked like baddies. Although it wasn’t really
their fault that they were not interesting. There was nothing Karsten would have found interesting at this stage. The only thing that was left was a subconscious, mechanical curiosity of the senses, registering how scuffed and battered the big yellow desk was, and the leak patches on the wall. But that, too, he just saw rather than thought.
He wanted them to start beating him. Not because he could not stand the waiting; he actually liked the idea. That was the kind of state he was in. It was the freedom of pure desperation, a black freedom, and all that was needed to make it complete was the drubbing. He was ready to be sick all over himself after the first blow, and the thought made him smile. After all, nothing was at stake. He was not worried that he might give away anything they did not already know. If they had managed to lure him out of a quiet, remote, village in Austria into Vienna’s Russian zone, and had had no trouble spiriting him across the border, they already knew much more than he did. And by this he meant not just assorted conspiratorial nonsense. How much could those primitive thugs know about the world? But obviously they did know more, since they possessed the ultimate knowledge and made Karsten realize what the world really was about: the world was God’s unthoughtof spit.
At this point the third man entered and as soon as he did so, Karsten knew he was the goodie. The dangerous one. He was prepared for him, but what use was that when he was not prepared for himself.
He did not know or notice if the man gave the two thugs some sort of signal, but in a second they vanished without a word. He did not notice until he heard the door slam, and he suddenly felt mindlessly grateful to the man. As if your coat got smudged with distemper and a stranger dusted it off for you.
The man stopped in the middle of the room, right beneath the lamp. The light picked out a thin face with two long crevices along the cheeks and made his nose cast a long shadow, as if a second mouth had opened up in his skull.
“Well, then, welcome home,“ he said. Another shadow, this time a smile, appeared on his face. He reached into his jacket pocket – he was wearing a creased grey suit with an open collar shirt – and took out a box of cigarettes. Now he’s going to offer me one, thought Karsten, and indeed, without saying a word, the man thrust the box towards him across the desk. Karsten, the defiant and incorruptible, was determined to turn down the cigarette. But that was his head talking; his hand reached for it.
The man planted one side of his rear on the corner of the desk; he was standing on one leg, which was extended, and sitting on the other, which was bent at the knee. This is the way young gym teachers sometimes sit at school when it’s their turn to take a history class. “To be honest,“ he said and Karsten could not resist an inward smile: to be honest! “you yourself, as an individual, are of no interest to us at all. The idea was to give a signal,“ he glanced at Karsten, adding, just to be sure, “a signal showing that we will do what we’ve planned to do, in Austria or anywhere else. You yourself are not important, just a random character, you have simply, let’s put it this way, happened to draw the short straw.“ The room smelled of stale sweat, as if it had not changed its underwear for a long time; or maybe it was Karsten who smelled of stale sweat, only he hadn’t been aware of it until now. “That is why we won’t bother debriefing you. There’s no point. A man who lets himself be snatched, like a baby from a pram...“ He smiled at Karsten, as if trying to kiss these words better for him. “Well, but now that you’re here – what are we to do with you? How about some coffee?“ he asked suddenly, jumping off the desk and shouting through the door that had been left ajar: “Two coffees!“
Yes, quite, what is to be done with me, Karsten thought. First of all, I have to stop giving off this smell. I will count to three: one – two – three! The smell of sweat did subside, but only because at the count of “three“ Karsten subconsciously held his breath.
“In the long run,“ said the man as he came back, “ – are you unwell, you’ve gone all red? ...in the long run we have some plans, of course, in six months or in a year, when the dust has settled a bit over the whole affair, a press conference will be organized and you will say you were sent here to carry out sabotage activities but have come to realize the advantages of socialism and decided to contribute to its construction, something along those lines. That you cannot go against the people, you always have to take the side of the people. I’m sure you’ll find the right form of words. And after
that you’ll be put in charge of a publishing house or perhaps given a higher-ranking job at the Ministry of Information, in the National Front, something like that. I’m just giving you a rough outline, because ultimately it will be a political decision. And after that,“ he smiled, wiping his mouth with his smile as if it were a napkin, “everything will be like in a fairytale, and you’ll live happily ever after.“
Karsten was a little irritated by the fact that the man was presenting everything as a done deal although, in fact, he ought to have been pleased. He knew the man was lying, and if it was not he who was doing the lying, then it was one of his superiors, who, in turn was being lied to, and so on. What is the point of messing with a pyramid of lies if the one telling them right at the top is God.
Meanwhile one of the thugs must have come in, as the coffee was on the table. He smelled it first and only afterwards did he realize it was there. “Have a drink“, the man encouraged him, “coffee is good for a hangover.“ He looked at Karsten with a benign interest, as if expecting him to burn his lips, and casually rocked back on the chair’s hind legs. Karsten could not see but guessed that he had rested his feet on a pulled-out drawer. It was proper coffee, made with real coffee beans.
“Anyway, as I was saying,“ said the man after Karsten had removed the cup from his lips, “all that is still a long way off and meanwhile it would be a shame to have you idling all this time away. Idleness,“ he said giving him a wink and a smile that was half ironic and half conspiratorial, “idleness is not good for the morale. So I’ve been saying to myself, after all you’ve got lots of friends here, why not have you carry out a little bit of research among them.“
Here we go, Karsten thought. He had his own plan, one that would cross the man’s and probably God’s as well; actually it wasn’t really a plan as yet, just an intention, but he believed he would be able to pull it off. After all, this was what his black freedom was about. Nevertheless, quite absurdly, he felt sorry at first to have to disappoint the man, this nice one at that, just when he seemed so happy rocking in his chair. Immediately afterwards, even more absurdly, he became anxious for a moment that they might not let him finish off his coffee. Slyly, like a child, he decided he would let the man say what he had to say, and quickly grabbed the cup with both hands.
“It will take some time until your escape“ - uttering this word elicited another half ironic and half conspiratorial smile -- “is discovered; our colleagues on the other side will be in no rush to boast about it. And anyway, initially they won’t even know what’s happened. So we can be quite sure we have about a month and that will be plenty. Now, about the thing I want you to do. Don’t worry, it won’t be anything difficult.“
Listening to him Karsten was surprised, not by the words but by the fact that the man who was leaning back on his chair was actually so small, that there was so little of him and of his body and that there was this deep voice that went with this slight body. It gave him additional substance, weight, as if a heavy brass bell lay hidden inside his belly. The man was evidently happy inside his body; it was the right size for him. He moved about in it quite freely and confidently, apparently not concerned about facing a man of Karsten’s bulk. He’s got it all tried and tested, Karsten thought, although what he really should have been thinking was how easy would it be to kick him off his chair. To be honest, a thought along these lines did flash through his mind but Karsten knew that this wasn’t his sort of thing and anyway, his freedom wasn’t quite as black either. It may have been more black, but in a different way.
“You’ll make the rounds of your friends pretending you’ve come back illegally to organize resistance; you won’t have to go into any detail, just drop a few vague hints to find out if they might be interested in joining. That’s all.“
He spoke in a low and somewhat lazy voice, with long pauses between sentences, as if everything important had been settled a long time ago and now they were just biding their time with this casual conversation.
“I don’t want you to set up any organizations, plan any activities, collect any incriminating evidence, nothing of the sort. We know what your friends are like, we know their attitude to our regime and sooner or later we’ll pick them up, all at once or one by one, depending on the situation. These people have already been proved guilty by their entire past, so to speak, and if by chance we are missing any evidence they will supply it themselves; we don’t need you for that. So you don’t have to have any scruples.” He smiled as if he were referring to a birthmark on his rear; something intimate and hidden but endearing. “Personally – regard the whole thing as my personal affair – I am only interested in their reaction. The expression on their face, what they say, that sort of thing. Totally insignificant from the point of view of criminal law. And that’s what you will report to me.”
Or perhaps you’re only interested in my reaction, thought Karsten. He had come to a decision now that his coffee was finished, the grounds from the last sip still between his teeth, and consciously did not pay too much attention to the man’s words although somewhere in the left corner of his head he was almost physically aware that the activated strip of his cerebral cortex was registering these words, assessing them and seeing them off again with a backpack full of questions. How does the fellow think this would work? Does he intend to walk with him around town, escorting him from house to house? How can he be sure he won’t just run off somewhere in the street? That he won’t take advantage of the right moment? Or will he drop him at each house door in his car? Securing him with handcuffs while they walk up the stairs? And how can he make sure Karsten won’t alert his partners? Will he be silently present during all these conversations? But in that case, what will there be for Karsten to report? And to whom? This stream of questions ran parallel in a little trickle in his brain.
“I don’t understand,” he said eventually, feeling that too much time had passed. “I don’t understand what you’re aiming at or how you intend to carry it out in practice. Do you want a couple of your policemen to escort me around these people, waiting in the hallway while I talk to these people?” Karsten hoped the irony in his voice was clearly audible despite his tiredness. “But none of this matters anyway, because I won’t squeal. That’s out of the question. You might as well shoot me right away.”
The man smiled patiently, almost affectionately. “Don’t be so gung-ho. If we’d wanted to shoot you we would have done so straight away and would not have had to haul you across the border. It would not have broken our hearts, believe you me.” He lowered his feet to the ground and stood up. Even when he
was standing up there wasn’t much more of him. Unwittingly, subconsciously, Karsten noticed that the folds in his jacket sleeves did not straighten out even after the man stretched his arms and he thought: what a klutz. Can’t they kit their people out in something decent?
“If you had been paying attention,” the man said, sinking his hands into his pockets and starting to walk up and down the room, “you’d have noticed that nobody said anything about squealing. They will squeal on themselves if we want them to. I’m interested in your observations because you know these people, that’s all. And don’t you worry about the logistics.” Suddenly he turned around and confronted Karsten. “Ok, I’ll give you time to think about it. Let me now ask you a different question. Do you know where your wife and sons are at this precise moment?”
Karsten came to, as if someone had slapped him on the neck with the flat of a hand: out of a slumber and into a daze. How much time might they need to let him know… Before his abduction he had been expecting to hear from them at any moment. For the last time… But even if they were still here, surely Helebrant would have hidden them so well that they could not, would not be found. No, he must not fall for this one.
“No,” he replied honestly. “You’re wasting your time.”“Somewhere across the border, is that what you think?” The man turned his gaze away and started walking up and down again. “That’s what they think too. But they’re not.” He took his right hand out of his pocket, first spreading his fingers wide apart then making a fist slowly, with a smile. It was a perfect smile, jolly, almost playful but its effect, combined with the gesture, was toxic. “Like this,” he said. “This is how we’ve got them, only they don’t know it yet. We haven’t squeezed them tight yet.”
“You’re wasting your time, ” Karsten said again.“You don’t believe me?”“No.” Karsten raised his head looking the man in the eye. “Why should I believe you? You’ve already lied to me me once; that’s why I’m here. That was enough.”
The man nodded with satisfaction, taking two steps, then another two. “It’s not the done thing to lie, is it? Lying is a sin? By the way, it wasn’t us who lied, it was the Austrian policeman who lied to you, and he’ll go to confession. Ten Hail Marys and he’ll be as pure as driven snow again. Isn’t that how it works? For you, religious people?”
Karsten felt that the man had stopped and was watching him but he refused to raise his eyes from the desk. It was his form of defiance, he could think of no other way. “Ok,” the man started moving again, “you can believe me or not, that’s your business. Just listen to me carefully. Your wife and sons were planning to cross the border, isn’t that what you had arranged? I cannot reveal any details but at this very moment they believe they are in a reception camp on the other side of the border, being interrogated by an American officer. And at our command, he can let them continue on their way, this time really to Bavaria, or we will nab them like all the others and throw them into jail. It all depends on you.”
Karsten waited for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders in the continuing silence.
“Well, if you don’t, I certainly won’t be shedding any tears for them. Between you and me, that wife of yours…” This time Karsten had to look at him since the man sat down at the desk right across from him and picked up a piece of paper. “What a talker…” He shook his head. “All that empty chatter. I couldn’t stand having that sort of wife around.” He tossed the piece of paper away carelessly and as it was flying Karsten thought he could see against the light that it was blank, with no writing on it. “But the little ladies and their maids have nothing better to do. Cilka, isn’t that right? That was your maid’s name?”
Karsten gave a start. Cilka! Oh, but Cilka had left them two years ago, they could easily have got her name from another source. They could have found out by accident, from some of their acquaintances, during an interrogation for instance. They could have…. where was it she got a job? At Cvernovka, the yarn factory? She might have mentioned her previous employer in an application form. But how would they know they used to call her Cilka?
“To be honest with you, and don’t take it personally, we are not interested in layabouts like your wife. Let her go and take the boys if she thinks she’ll be better off there. At least they won’t be poisoning the atmosphere around here any longer. On the other hand, they broke the law, so why should we be lenient? The stuff your wife has blathered out amounts almost to high treason, and as for the boys … the boys could be sent for re-education, and they might turn out all right one day. Of course, they won’t want to have anything to do with their mother and father after that.” All this in a measured tone, almost a monotone, but now the man suddenly leaned back in his chair again and laughed out loud. “Do you know what your sons took with them? For the journey?” He gave Karsten a curious look, still smiling. “Tennis racquets! Would you believe that?”
Karsten swallowed, that was all he could manage. Was that possible? The boys did have racquets and they were at that silly age… Could Irena have gone completely mad? He wanted to shake his head at least, but he couldn’t manage even that.
“Except you don’t believe me, do you? What a pity, because if you were more cooperative, we might turn a blind eye and be more helpful to your family. It depends only on you. But you’d have to decide quite fast, we can’t keep them in that reception centre forever. Sleep on it, and then…”
“Guarantee?” Karsten tried to come out with the word but it stuck to his palate and he had to clear his throat before repeating it, in a full sentence:
“What’s the guarantee?”“That we’ll let them go?“ The man continued rocking on his chair with his hands clasped behind his head; now he stopped mid-movement and leaned back. “None. I could give you my word but then you won’t believe it.“ Slowly he lowered the chair onto its four legs. “If you like, I can give it to you on paper with a stamp and a signature, but who would you show it to? I mean, if we don’t keep to our side of the bargain... who would you complain to? Just think about it!“
Karsten felt the man was mocking him, but when he looked up his face was serious. That is, it still had the shadows from the lamp underneath his nose and on his cheeks but otherwise it was expressionless. Indifferent.
“A guarantee that you are really holding them,” he said.“You mean tangible proof? Well, I can’t show them to you,
they’re too far away for that. Another cigarette?” He picked up the box and thrust it towards Karsten but he just shook his head in silence. He felt that accepting this gift would weaken his negotiating position. “And the place has to stay secret in any case.” The man gently squeezed the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, licked one end and put it in his mouth. “You just have to take my word for it,” he mumbled with the cigarette between his lips and then, after lighting up and exhaling some smoke, he added more distinctly: “Or don’t have to. That’s entirely up to you. All this is unofficial, just between you and me.”
“Could I…” Karsten started and had to clear his throat again, “I need to go to the toilet.” He felt he could not listen to this man any more; he no longer understood him properly; it seemed as if he were speaking in a foreign language, one that Karsten had once studied at school but had long since forgotten.
“You will be taken to your cell in a minute,” said the man, getting up. “There will be a toilet there. Get some sleep to clear your head and we’ll talk again in the morning.” He opened the door to the adjoining room slightly and shouted, without looking in: “Send in the guard!” Then he returned to the desk and after taking a last drag, extinguished his cigarette in a tin ashtray that reminded Karsten of a preserve jar top.
Another door opened behind Karsten’s. He turned around and saw a uniformed figure in the corridor. The man went around the desk, took Karsten by the elbow and led him outside.
“I hope she had a big dowry at least,” he said out of the blue. “Or perhaps she’s really good in bed?” He laughed and closed the door before Karsten could figure out what he was talking about.
Julia and Peter Sherwood