Sunday, 5 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (2)



. . . George told me sharply to put the bloody thing away and not to be such a cretin. Was I mad? A titch like you? You get out of this kind of jam with your wits, not with a bloody great carving knife that'll end up between your ribs. Put it away this instant, son. And so on.

And of course I did. It was too dark for the whiteshirts to have seen, anyway. I think George was surprised by this display of aggression, a most regrettable streak in my character that used to bubble up from the murky depths now and again. I was often in trouble in my teens and well into my twenties for fighting, although not with knives. I seldom won. Fights I got myself into tended to develop in the manner of The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who continues to bawl defiance even though his arms and his legs have been lopped off one after the other in combat and he's been pruned down to a squirming, cursing trunk threatening to head-butt his opponent. (I had my nose broken in a fight at 22 and lost my front teeth at 25, leaving a terminally weakened canine. This tooth finally fell apart one morning during playground duty in a Southampton school, given its quietus by a piece of Victoria sponge that a Mrs Moss had sent me via her daughter Linda because she thought I looked pale.)

The whiteshirts turned out to be perfectly peaceable, polite and pleasant. Through a series of minor miscalculations that we didn't follow they'd found themselves without any means of making fire. They'd heard us shouting from their fireless, lightless encampment and had run down to the road to see if by any chance these people unexpectedly walking by happened to have a light. Haben Sie Feuer, bitte? - and I was able to answer Feuer? Jawohl! Kein Problem! shaking my box of matches and anxious to lay the shameful ghost of my aggression. (But we couldn't know, could we?) They seemed pathetically grateful: if we would consent to go back with them - it wasn't far - could we light a lamp for them? From that flame they could light others, they could prepare their Abendmahl. They would be honoured if we would agree to share it with them.

Translating Abendmahl as evening meal, I asked George what he thought. Great, he said, he was famished. So was I: the last square meal we'd eaten had been with Josef Kula and his wife in Liège, and we'd only had an apple and some biscuits since breakfast in Aachen that morning. There came into my mind unbidden the Wind in the Willows episode of Toad newly escaped from jail and grossly excited by the irresistible scents of gipsy stew. Were these people gipsies? Could we too expect a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgling on to our plates? Or, less appealing, would we be served drabbed bawlor, which I understood was the Romany for hedgehog baked en croûte? We accepted eagerly.

We trudged through pasture in the semi-darkness while they asked us questions. Where had we come from? Last night we were in Aachen, we said, but we came from Kent, in England. Where we we going? Vienna, eventually, we said, but we had hoped to be in Cologne that night. It wasn't far to Cologne, a whiteshirt said. That's where their pastor came from.

I didn't pick up the inference of this, either. We reached an encampment of half a dozen vans and trailers arranged in a circle, a sort of laager. No light shone anywhere. A whiteshirt brought a paraffin lamp with a wire-protected glass flue, took my precious box of matches and lit it. He lit some candles as well, returned the matches to me, poured little pools of molten wax on a nearby table top and stood lit candles in them. People moved about lighting more candles and lamps from these, in a sort of arithmetical progression, and presently the laager was suffused with a soft pale light, reflected in van windows and chrome-work. There were a good twenty people there, women and children among the whiteshirts, dark eyes sparkling in lamplight, gold and silver threads twinkling in shawl-weaves, pale flashes from earrings and buckles, and everybody seemed to be smiling. And well dressed. But no one spoke. A whiteshirt brought a blanket smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, spread it on the grass and invited George and me to sit down like everyone else. Two or three children came and sat by us, staring at us silently and turning away quickly when we looked at them.

There was no sign or scent of anything to eat.

No comments: