Saturday, 1 November 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 8 Images of disillusion (2)

Nothing in my experience or education had taught me how to cope with the one-legged man who swung himself into a chair opposite George and me, propped his crutches against the vacant chair next to him, smiled broadly and told me he recognised the beret I was wearing. (This was a Royal Air Force beret: in place of the usual brass cap-badge I'd stuck a small Union Jack.) I smiled warily, wondering why this coarse, thick-set man, middle-aged and unclean, should choose ours when there were plenty of other unoccupied tables. He reached across and laid his hand on mine for a moment, before I had time to recoil. I remember grossly filthy and broken fingernails, but I suppose mine at this stage were no less revolting. He spoke a sort of pidgin-German, larded with a few English words: Trink, yes? He swivelled round, snapped his fingers and called zwei Schnapps, bitte to the woman behind the counter. There was no room for refusal.

At this remove it's impossible to give more than the gist of what he said and how he expressed himself. He said he'd lost his leg fighting the Russians in Poland. His comrades had left him behind with a broken leg. He'd been captured by the Russians. They'd taken him to a field hospital. They'd amputated his shattered leg. The Russians were good doctors. The Russians were his friends. He loved his Russian friends. Germans were no good. Every statement was followed by a broad smile.

See, he said, shifting back in his chair and undoing greasy strings and safety pins that held the vacant trouser leg against his thigh, preliminary to showing us a puckered and repellent mess of scarred and knitted skin covering the end of his femur.

- Come, you touch.

Incapable of resistance, I got up and laid an unwilling finger on a patch of skin that still retained a rough pelt of hair: other patches were pale pink and hairless, like newborn rats. George, arms tightly folded across his chest, didn't move.

As he put his trouser leg together again the schnapps arrived. It must be downed in one go, the German said, miming the action. I looked at George: in for a penny, in for a pound, even at 8.30 in the morning. Neither of us had drunk schnapps before. It didn't taste of anything much, but left a searing, cauterizing wake down the throat and oesophagus.

Good, good, the German said. Your friends bomb my house. Cigarette?

I took one from a packet of a brand called Ernte 3 and said Danke schön while he lit it for me, leaning across the table. (George didn't smoke.) This was my first taste of continental tobacco. Whatever taste it may have had was nullified by the effect of the schnapps. The man smiled continually.

- House kaput. All dead. My father, my woman, my dogs. Royal Air Force. Many bombs. All burning.

And still he smiled. I was beginning to feel very awkward.

- Royal Air Force hat. Give, please. I wear it, yes.

He reached forward. Powerless to resist, I took my beret off, cursing myself for ever thinking it would be a sensible thing to wear, and passed it to him.

- I show my friends now. Moment, please.

He laid it on his head, struggled to his crutches and shambled out, smiling still.

- Quick! George said. Let's bugger off before he comes back. Now. Come on.
- What? And lose my beret?
- So what? That bloke's trouble. Come on, never mind hanging about.

George left, I stayed, saying I would catch him up when I'd retrieved my beret. I was stubbing out my Ernte 3 when the German came back in with one of his friends, a small, weaselly, shifty man who called him as 'Hink' or 'Hinki'. Hink returned my beret saying you think I steal your hat, no? - or words to that effect - and asked where my friend was.

- Er musste gehen. Ich auch. Very bad German for 'He had to go. Me too.'
- No, no you stay. Drink, smoke, party, ha-ha-ha.

So the jaws closed. More schnapps arrived. I felt alone, a lamb to the slaughter, exposed, impotent to exercise my will in any way. Hink and his weasel friend, whom he introduced to me formally as Herr Schniedelwutz (a name which I reconstructed conjecturally after deep conversations with German friends many years later: Schniedelwutz means, and has the same infantile overtones as, 'willy' or 'John Thomas') plied me with drink, smiles and assurances that the English were everyone's friends now. Eventually they asked if I had a girlfriend.

There were various documents in my rucksack. I kept my passport out of harms' way at the very bottom, just above The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse - and what bloody use was that now? - but at the top, just beneath the fastening, there was a thick octavo notebook in which I kept a journal, which accounts for much of the detail in this narrative. Between the pages there were my return ferry ticket, a letter of introduction to an address in Vienna, my photo of Adèle and banknotes totalling about 40 Deutschmarks, which was all the money I had apart from some change in my pocket.

There was no easier meat in Cologne that Sunday morning. I flipped through the pages looking for Adèle, exposing as I did so my modest wad of banknotes. I found her: Hinki took the entire book; said she was beautiful; very beautiful; so very beautiful that he had to show his friends; shambled off, leaving me with Herr Schniedelwutz.

This stoat-like little man said nothing but drummed his fingers on the table. I offered him a cigarette, which he took gracelessly, without thanks. Presently, after four or five minutes, I ventured to ask what had happened to Hinki. Herr Schiedelwutz said komm, gehen wir ihn zu finden (come, let us go and find him). I shouldered my rucksack and followed him. He led me across the concourse. I looked about for George, but I couldn't see him anywhere. Steps led down to the toilets. No one was about. Were Hinki and his friends really down here? Herr Schniedelwutz led me towards the cubicles.

- We buy you drinks, he said. Now you pay.

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