“This is the last time I’ll be on this route,” said Uncle Vanya. “I’m retiring tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Sasha, the trainee driver. “I heard.”
“Not that I’ll be sorry to leave.” Vanya stroked his beard and watched the locomotive’s headlight slash a path through the darkness. A flurry of snow glittered, caught in the beam, but inside the cabin it was warm and well-lit. “I’ve been driving trains forty years, and I’ve been on many routes, but this one’s the worst.”
“Why?” Sasha steadied himself as the train swayed round the long curve before the bridge over the river. In the distance, the lights over the bridge’s girders could already be seen. “I’ve thought it’s a pretty good route, each time I’ve been over it, myself.”
“Ah, so did I.” Uncle Vanya increased power as the train straightened up after the bend, in order to compensate for the gradient before the bridge. “Once, little fish, when I was your age, I used to love this route too.”
Sasha, who was tall and lanky, hated being called “little fish” even more than he detested being called “radish.” He took it from Vanya without a word of protest, though. Everyone took whatever Vanya said without protest. He had a tongue like a red-hot knife and a brain even sharper behind it, for all that his skin was mottled with age and his beard was white as the snow that lay on either side of the track. He reduced power as the long train rattled over the great bridge. The girders sang in sympathy to the iron monster. On either side of the train, the walls of iron girders vanished overhead. The rattling, muffled through the windows, had a strangely soothing effect.
“Something happened so you didn’t like it anymore?” asked Sasha, over the rumbling.
A railway official emerged from the gatehouse at the far end of the bridge, with a green lantern. He wore a heavy cap and overcoat, so he was only a bundled-up silhouette behind his green light. The train rattled past and left him behind.
“I wouldn’t have his job in a million years!” Vanya said suddenly. Then he glanced at the trainee from the corner of his eye and grinned crookedly. His teeth were stained and yellow from cigarettes and worn with age. “Fishlet, you really want to hear this old tale?”
Vanya said nothing for a long time. The train moved past the bridge and picked up speed again, moving between hills covered with pine forests. The snow came down.
“I’m telling you this,” Vanya said eventually, “in full confidence that, even if you chose to pass it on, nobody would believe you. They’d think you’re making it up. I’m not warning you, just telling you. So don’t waste your breath prattling about it to your friends.”
“Why are you telling me that?”
“Because,” Uncle Vanya said, “I’ve never spoken about it before, except to one person, and that man is dead. Once I’d thought I was never going to speak of it again. But since you asked, you ought to know why I don’t like this route, never have, and I’ll be happy if I never travel over it again.”
It was during the war (old Uncle Vanya said) – yes, that war. A very long time ago, and I was young then; younger than you are now, my little fish.
You know the official history of those days, I’ll warrant. You’ve been told how the Nazis attacked us and destroyed everything they could find, and how we were forced back, fighting heroically all the way until we beat them back at Moscow and held them outside Leningrad, and how in the end we saved Mother Russia from the German jackboots. Nowadays the history books make it sound very pretty, but it wasn’t.
In 1941 I was a fireman in one of the old steam engines, barely out of apprenticeship, really. I’d finished my military service but was still in the reserves, but they needed railwaymen, so they let me continue in my job as the war clouds gathered.
I still remember the moment we knew war had been declared. I was helping load coal at one of the Ukrainian railway stations when the air raid sirens went and we heard explosions. Everyone hit the ground. I crawled under the engine, right between the tracks, which was something so stupid that I can’t believe to this day I did it, because obviously the engine would be a prime target. Anyway, nothing happened; the bombs hadn’t been aimed at the railway engine, but at the airport outside town.
Those first few days were filled with such utter and absolute confusion that it’s a wonder that anything got done at all. We in the railways were on the move constantly. We’d pull loaded trains up to stations, hitch to lines of empty wagons, and drive at top speed back again. At least once or twice a day we’d be held up by tracks damaged by bombing. When we found any time at all, we’d have to clean out the firebox and fill up with water and coal. We ate where we stood, right there on the footplate, and kept going with vodka. We’d take turns to sleep, two of us lying on the coal tender while two others drove the engine and fed the fire. We never had any idea what was going on. All we knew was that we literally hadn’t a moment to lose.
It got so bad that sometimes, to save time, we’d be ordered to not bother picking up the empty rolling stock, but to go right back for another loaded train, driving as fast as we could. And the Germans, of course, kept bombing. At least twice my own train was hit by Stukas, but the engine was spared both times. And as we went we’d pass through stations so crowded with refugees they would accidentally push each other off the platforms in the way of the locomotive. It was terrible.
Then one day we pulled a goods train into a little station which we’d been told was the headquarters of one of our armies. We stopped at the platform, amazed because there weren’t any refugees. In fact there wasn’t anyone at all, not even any Red Army soldiers. In the distance we could hear shooting.
“I don’t like this,” Dima, the driver, said. He got off the footplate and went to look for someone – anyone. The rest of us waited, not knowing what to do. In those days initiative was never encouraged in our nation, without orders from above, so we could only wait so long as we had no orders.
A little while later we saw Dima coming back, with his arms held above his head. A squad of German soldiers followed behind him. The town we’d driven to so confidently had fallen in the meantime to troops of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South. We were all taken prisoners of war.
Although we were prisoners, we were, of course, civilians still, and the Germans had need of us. They had captured so much of our rolling stock and they’d advanced so far and so fast that they had no option but to use our captured trains to move their equipment and supplies. And since – of course – our own railwaymen could handle our trains better than theirs could, they conscripted us to keep running the engines, for them.
All through that autumn, as the days became cooler and shorter and the dry earth on either side of the tracks gave way to mud, we hauled Nazi military supplies up to the front and pulled the trains back again. Sometimes the trains we pulled back would be hospital trains full of German wounded. Sometimes they would be goods trains filled with our grain and our steel looted by the Germans. Sometimes the return journey would be pulling an empty train. It hardly mattered to us. It would be nice to be able to say that we were only biding our time to escape, but, really, we weren’t. In our innermost hearts we were convinced the Nazis would win in the end. They simply seemed too strong to resist.
Then one winter evening we were ordered to pull a train from a station on this line – the name won’t mean a thing to you; it was renamed after a war hero many years ago – back to the Polish frontier. We had just delivered another supply train and were looking forward to some rest, but it wasn’t to be. Only Dima and I were on the footplate, and we had to go on the turnstile, turn the engine back round, and drive to the other side of the marshalling yard where that train waited for us. We backed into it and coupled the engine to the lead wagon, which was a passenger wagon loaded with German soldiers. Just behind that was a flatbed piled with sandbags and carrying an anti-aircraft gun. By that time our air force had begun hitting back, and the Nazis were getting more careful and a little less overconfident. Behind that there were many other wagons, but the evening was cold and getting dark; it had begun snowing and we were eager to get moving, and it wasn’t any of our business what the Nazis were pulling back to Poland. In fact, if we’d shown an unhealthy curiosity, we might have got our heads shot off, anyway.
So we drove out of that town and back along this line towards the Polish border. It had been snowing heavily, although the blizzard had stopped. The sky had cleared and a bitter cold had begun to make the snow freeze.
Here, in this warm cabin, you can’t even begin to imagine what a winter night was like back on the footplate of those old coal locomotives. The cabin was, of course, open to the elements at the sides and at the back, and the protection from front wasn’t all that great either. The wind of the train’s passage increased the cold by a hundredfold; and the only warm place was near the firebox, which was so hot that it literally glowed. Every time the fireman, I in this case, opened it, sparks would fly out and singe our clothes because we’d crowd in to it as close as we could. And my fingers in their heavy mittens could scarcely hold the shovel properly; each loading of the box was a torment.
We couldn’t see much up ahead. The coal we were using was bad, and produced dense clouds of black smoke that blew everywhere. If we stuck our heads out of the cabin to see, the wind and the cinders would blind us. Through the front windows all we could see was snow beside the track. That, and the snow and the wind, meant we couldn’t drive as fast as we wanted to, and not as fast as our Nazi masters thought we should have.
So, half-frozen and half-burnt, unable to see ahead, we rolled on toward the frontier. We were driving right along this route, though, naturally, the old tracks have been relaid since then.
I remember Dima very well. He was bald and strong, a nice man in most ways but almost illiterate and highly superstitious. He shivered suddenly, and it wasn’t the chill of the winter. It wasn’t that kind of shiver.
“I feel Death,” he said. “Death is following us. Death sits on this train, with his scythe over his shoulder.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. We slowed down almost to a stop because of signals. “You mean the partisans?” of course by that time the partisans had begun their guerrilla war against the Nazis. “Or do you mean something else?”
Dima pointed out of the side window. “Look,” he said. I followed the line of his finger. Dimly, against the snow, I saw something moving, and beyond it, something else. There were many of the things, running easily through the thick snow, keeping pace with the train. I saw one of the shapes raise its head, and even above the sound of the train I heard a howl.
“Wolves!” I said. “Why are wolves following us?”
“They know Death rides this train,” Dima said. We passed the signals and picked up speed. The wolf pack fell behind.
Then the partisans attacked.
The train wasn’t going at high speed yet, or none of us would have survived. There was a terrific bang and a series of lesser explosions and all of a sudden we were losing way. The train began to roll to a stop. Dima and I jumped off the footplate an instant before someone began to rake the locomotive with machine gun fire. Stumbling in the snow, we tried to hide ourselves in the darkness.
The battle of the train did not take long. The partisan group was strong and the few German guards were speedily destroyed. The partisans walked up to the train, shining torches on the wagons. We heard them exclaiming in horror. Something impelled me to get up and come closer to the partisans, to see what they were seeing, though of course neither Dima nor I made ourselves known to them. We’d have been shot on sight.
That train was a prisoner train. It was loaded with Soviet prisoners, thousands of them, on flatbeds open to the elements. In the middle of winter, they had been put on the flatbeds, most of them still in the summer uniforms they had been wearing when they had been captured. So many of them had frozen to death that the rest had made walls of the bodies of the dead to stave off the wind. Many undoubtedly had fallen off the train, frozen to the point where they could no longer hold on. I can still see the bearded faces of the few survivors, helped off the train by the partisans. They could only kiss their rescuers’ hands in gratitude.
“Now we know why the wolves were following us,” Dima mumbled.
We made off through the snow, and, a few days later, we joined a partisan band, passing ourselves off as marshalling yard labourers who had escaped the Nazis. Dima and I fought with the band until he was killed in 1943, and the Red Army reached us the next year. After that I returned to my old job in the railways. By then the government needed railwaymen as badly as the Nazis had done and nobody ever asked what had happened to me in the interim period.
I’ve seen a lot in my life, little fish, and although the moon is pretty on the snow and the cabin is warm and dry, I have only to look outside this window by my side, and I see those frozen corpses on their flatbeds, and I see those wolves beside the track; and this is why I never want to go over this line again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12