Second Prize 2019 – Is this the Fussen train by Richard Hughes


Is this the Fussen train?

As soon as I saw him I knew he’d sit next to me on the train.

The square leather suitcase he carried was reinforced at the corners by some kind of tape and two belts wrapped around the bulging middle. His grip was loose; it swung as he walked. Either he was accustomed to lugging it about or, despite the apparent bulge, it wasn’t heavy.

He was well under middle height but a stoop made him seem shorter. The elbows and knees of his dark suit were glossy with wear and faint lines remained from the original pinstripe; he had deep set eyes in a gaunt face topped by white hair in what was known then as a crew cut.

A salesman. A shabby, desperate little salesman on his travels. What a job: scrabbling, willing to sacrifice dignity for a sale. Would he open the case shortly, exhibit unsaleable junk and set off on a sales patter?

Already, as you can see, I’m forming ideas about him. Jump to conclusions? Give me the details and I’ll pole vault. Well, don’t we all? Anyway I was in a resentful frame of mind.

You unfold the map, smooth it over the little table, a table for one, in your bedsit. You trace the route, following the Rhine. Your finger flows past steep sided, terraced hills topped by little towers, ruins, turreted castles; you pass the Lorelei rock; barges push heavily against eddies; currents ripple on the old river. You find another map. It has a different scale. For a child. The forest is dense in the Necker valley, opposite an illustration of Heidelberg castle. You dive into this world.

You plan. A schedule. An itinerary. Orderliness. Ideas are jotted down in your new notepad: early train to London; a gallery, a film; time probably for more than one film; a walk in Regent’s or Hyde Park; a pint; time probably for more than one pint; a curry; Victoria for the late train; night ferry to Dieppe; you think of how it will be on deck, inhaling sea air, poised to smell the continent; its garlic, herbs, petrol fumes. You think of Bavaria.

Apart from myself and the salesman, four people were waiting, locked in their private worlds. One read a newspaper, another looked over the chaos of roofs of the city’s old quarter. But my salesman was on the move. He strode up to a woman who was pacing slowly up and down. The suitcase swung. He bowed slightly, head turned to the side and seemed to ask a question. Fawning. The woman pointed to the floor, kept on walking. He stretched a quick smile and turned away to a young man. Swing, swing. The same routine was played out with him and the two remaining people. Heads nodded, curt affirmatives were expressed but not one met the man’s eye. I sensed their impatience at the intrusion or at the manner of the intrusion. He appeared to be asking if he was on the right platform. Didn’t he trust the timetable which was on clear display? Or the word of the first person he asked?

On the ferry the wind blows strong and cold, to keep you confined to the brightly lit noisy lounge. In Dieppe at dawn you fight off tiredness. The battle develops into a nodding game as the train reaches the Rhine. You struggle to stay awake. At Heidelberg you walk a mile further than expected to the campsite. The ground is too hard to press in the tent pegs so you tour the field to find someone to lend you a hammer. Thanks to your non-existent knowledge of German for the three days you spend in Heidelberg you communicate only with the campsite warden, persons who serve you in cafes and bars and a shopkeeper who sold you what you assumed was milk but was in fact sour yoghurt. On the last day there you sit sulking in your tent, looking out at drizzle wavering over the river. From construction work at the bridge the thump of a pile driver counts out the seconds. And here you are on a railway platform, heading for lakes and castles. Without knowing it, you’ve learned about loneliness; how much you rely for happiness on routine and familiar surroundings. Beside you, tent and rucksack stand and wait like faithful dogs.

The salesman had me in his sights but our approaching train distracted him. He scrutinized it with narrowed eyes, as if it were person whose intentions he couldn’t trust. I aimed all my frustrations at him, feeling a complicity with the others on the platform, those strangers who were offhand, abrupt with him. My scorn was an outlet for disappointment, a compensation for the failures of the holiday. The people he’d addressed had stiffened at his approach; one took a step back. I shared a bristling sense of superiority with them and this made me feel less lonely and out of place. I felt in place.

Does anyone love their former selves? I suppose we all do. We look down on them as if they were younger siblings gone to live somewhere far away. From the summit of maturity, amused, we shake the head at youthful misdemeanors and misjudgments, as we advance steadily towards serene self-knowledge. There again, no one looks forward to hindsight.

Sure enough, as the train crawled through the outskirts of the city, my salesman bustled towards me, slung his suitcase onto the hammock hold for luggage above and settled into the seat opposite. I suddenly developed an interest in the architecture of the out of town warehouses.

“ Oh boy,” he wheezed, rubbing his face. “Speak English?” His German accent had an American cadence. I nodded.

“ Good. Good. Is this the Fussen train?” Another nod.

“ Boy, oh boy. Last leg, last leg.” He unbuttoned his suit jacket, rested back in the seat. More wheezing and face rubbing.

A sliding door opened and closed behind me. The guard walked past. At once the salesman was alert.

“ Is this the Fussen train?” The guard gave an unsmiling confirmation, moved on.

“Oh boy. Fussen, Fussen. That where you’re heading?”

I turned from the window. “Yes. Base for the castles.”

“Neuschwanstein?”

I nodded again. Forced a smile.

“ Long time since I was there.” He paused. The train gained speed. We’d left the city behind. “I’m coming home. Been away some time.”

His voice. I haven’t mentioned his voice. How might one describe a voice? As a rasp, a twang, a lilt? His was steel. Like steel. Steel to cut through steel. I thought of Brecht singing Mac The Knife. Steel. With whirring rhoticism.

He became thoughtful and settled into silence but travellers boarding from early stops roused his interest. Frowning and whispering to himself, he would slide across the seat to examine them but, mercifully, he didn’t inquire about Fussen. Despite his years he had a lean strength, a survivor’s wiriness. And his shoes. How could I not have spotted them earlier? Ankle high, they were old and much patched up, sensibly repaired and highly polished. He looked after them.

By now we were deep in the countryside, passing through rich farmland, vivid green fields interrupted by villages grouped around church towers with small onion domes. The haze in the distance promised mountains.

The journey had lasted an hour when he came to life again.

“See that wood?” He pointed to a sprawl of trees on a hillock. “In the war an armaments factory was there. Not big. Right in the wood. Bang in the middle.” He chuckled. “Bang in the middle.” I stared at the wood.

“Small arms, Shells, bullets. My brother and I worked there. Boys. Iron filings in the air. Bad. Unhealthy. A lot of coughing. Cycled every day. One hour it took.”

Avenues of poplars, dry lanes bordering cornfields led to the wood; I saw the brothers, two abreast on a long farm track, wrapped in thick clothing, their cycles ticking away through early frost, their breath adding to the mist. Or in summer, homeward bound, accelerating with happy shouts through the dusty evening, doffing their caps to passing nuns.

We passed gable ended farm buildings circling a small lake.

“Next stop Bachendorf. My home. Nearly there.” He seemed calmer. For the first time he was enjoying the journey.

But what lay in wait at Bachendorf for a struggling old salesman? Obscurity, probably. A loneliness to match mine. He’d tramp down a narrow street in the drab little village, suitcase swinging. Well dressed burghers would either barely give him a glance or disdain the presence of such an oddity on their home patch. He’d find a cheap boarding house with a dragon landlady. In a squalid cupboard-sized room he’d unload the trashy contents of his suitcase onto the narrow bed, polish his shoes and puzzle out why he left it so late in returning to a home that had no place for him.

“After the war I left for the US. Chicago.”

Chicago. Post-war. Gangsters.

You feel a sense of sharpened focus, as when the teacher’s explanation opens a pathway; a sense of release, a vice tight knot suddenly loosening.

I leaned forward.

“Where did you work?”

“ Stockyards. Factories. Had to change my name.” He gave a proud smile. “Franz Zeeler became Frank Taylor. How about that?” He chuckled again. “Made a little money.”

I was gripped. What had happened? I wanted to ask why he chose Chicago, if there was a choice; where he worked; how a former enemy was received by the locals. But he’d lapsed into silence again and didn’t seem to invite conversation. When the train’s rhythm shifted he snapped awake and glanced out of the window.

“This is it. Goodbye my friend.” In a fluent single movement he stood, grabbed his suitcase and stretched out his hand to me. His grip, like his voice, was steely.

As the train lost speed, I could hear music; faint but getting louder as we slowed down. A brass band. Trumpets on the point of squealing, a deeper tuba oompah back up. By now Frank was out of sight at the door. The music became more elaborate: accordions, fiddles, wind instruments contributed to the jolly impact of the tunes. Passengers moved to my side to see what was happening.

The platform eased into sight. Bunting, pennants and flags were arrayed on the houses behind the station, on the station itself, on the various surrounding poles and trees. Colour everywhere. And the place was full of people: old, young, those in-between, all dressed in festive clothes. Children were singing. Many men wore lederhosen and alpine hats, others wore suits with flowers in the lapels. Was this a wedding party waiting for the happy couple? A carnival, a pageant, a folk festival to commemorate a past event? A seasonal crop thanksgiving? The sun hit the scene in its full radiance, glinting off musical instruments, the golden braided hair of girls holding bouquets of flowers. Everyone was smiling, expectant, attention fixed on the train. Many waved banners with rainbow colours. One banner stood out. And, yes. Of course. In large letters, the greeting read “Wilkommen Franz.”

The train stopped. There was a delighted roar: all the voices, treble to bass, like a choir in disarray. A door opened and Frank stepped out. The roar increased and Frank was engulfed. For this was no carnival or festival. They were here for Frank, who like a down at heel Pied Piper had emptied the village and brought it here. Frank was swept up, carried away, no doubt to civic speeches and more celebration. The music played on, louder, and now the children were not the only ones singing.

As we pulled out I caught a last glimpse of Frank. He was smiling, still clinging to his suitcase and desperate to speak at once to all the villagers crowded in love around him.

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014