Black and White. Part 2
The smoke is a thick black column lifting into the light grey sky. Staring out of a window at a signal at danger is part of a railwayman’s life. Same the world over, innit? There’s a light drizzle wot no noise as it hits the dirty black metal of the runningboards that stretch out along the side of the boiler. It’s been so long since we stopped they’ve made puddles, black with white reflections. Drippin off of the sides now.
This time it’s been two bloody hours. I’ve known longer, but two hours is a very long time to wait what wiv not knowin’ when the signal’s goin ter move.
It’s one thing to couple up to a train and know from the timetable wot yer given that you’ve gotta wait an hour or so. Yer fire’s not strong anyway so there’s less work fer yer mate the fireman.
But keepin’ the fire goin at full pace coz a the weight we’s pullin today, that can start a worryin’ too. We’re close by and we’ve got coal enough. Theres enough to gettus there.
Turn inside ter look at me mate the fireman. He’s a starin’ at the dials, as still as a wooden dummy.
“Whassa pressure, mate?”
“Top” is all he says. It’s all he needs to say. I can hear the damper’s up.
Looking outside the loco cab, it’s just plain noisy everywhere you go. You gets used to it, but when yer standin and waitin. Stopped. When yer wants ter go, like? Drop the waggons, pick up the empties and get back. Or whatever needs sending back. Depends on the drop. But this train’s full. Never been ‘ere before though, it’s a new one on me. Says it’s fifteen kilometers from this junction. Take us an hour? Are the crew there any good, the signalman kind on his enginemen, or does he mess ’em around? There’s enough of that.
I guess it’s the same anywhere, you get these little Hitlers. Think cos they control the signals they control the world.
It’s started raining. Coming down my side too. It patters on the leather top to my driver’s cap. There’s a spitting noise and the air pump starts slowly bashing up. A little steam hisses out the side.
Hiss. Down. Clank.
“Ere” comes a shout from behind me. It’s our train conductor, the guy who really makes sure everything’s running. ‘Es standin there in the rain. As if it weren’t rainin! Oh, and he’s the one who tells us ter stop or start, he’s got flags for that. Or he just shouts to me and catches his brake van as it slides by. Goods trains doen’t ever go fast.
I look down at the brown whiskers and thick spectacles. Ernst is a tubby man, still proud of ‘is looks though. Mind you, ‘es not in the cab, is’e? It’s a black hell in ‘ere.
Hiss. Down. Clank.
“Wojjer want, Ernst? Ain’t yer happy in yer cosy cabin any more?”
“I was an offerin’ you boys some coffee, so I was” he knows better than to counter an engineman who’s been waitin an hour for a signal.
“Yer means burned dandelion crap coffee, so yer do” I say adding a little mockery to my voice. If I don’t take it out on him, I’ll take it out on mesself. He knows the score, we’s been ‘ere beffore. There’s a war on.
Hiss. Down. Clank.
Now though, it’s like gettin worse. It’s happenin’ five times a week sometimes, this stoppin. Drivin trains is abaht gettin’ em there, not waitin’ around. It’s the war. Too many trains goin’ east. Which we are too.
“I means I’s got what I’s got and its warm from me little stove, so if yer’d like some, pass down yer mugs.” I looks across to Bernd, shout “coffee” attim across ther din. E jus’ looks at me, blank like. Starin’ now coz ‘es so bored, numb like. This job can get ter yer, it’s all stop or its all go.
I turns back to Ernst.
“Weres yer mugs then?” Well, I’ll ave ter dig in the cubby hole in the tender to gettem out. I was hopin for a china mug from the van, posh like. Feel like a king in an hotel. I hand ’em down to im, it’s a fair drop coz ‘es not a tall man. I’m almost on me knees. In the dust grit and grease of the footplate.
And it were clean this mornin. They always is. War or no war. This is the Reichsbahn, and the Reichsbahn is proud that it is clean and that it is on time.
Are yer listenin, you in the signal box? Are yer?
As fer Ernst, sittin there in ‘is nice warmed guard’s van. Mind you, he needs it coz he’s gotter sit down and do all ’em papers. His little table and a lamp bright in the gloom. All them waggens as ter be noted, their number and their weight in tons and kiloes. Any damage, like. Each one, every time ther same like. Can’t be interestin, cannit? Too repetitive for me, that kinda work. Least I’s got levers and the scenery a changin’ around me. Well shouddave.
“Oi!” I looks down. Ernst is there in the rain, wiv two mugs. By the steps I stretches down to grab one, raindrops patterin on me cap. I puts it just inside ther cab. And ther next one.
“Thanks” I says ter im.
“Sorry they’s black, mate. No milk.”
“It’s the war, innit”
“Yer. I’s goin back in. I’s still got thirty waggons to go through.”
“Bernd!” I shout “coffee”
“Ta” he says as I bring it to ’em.
The coffee’s like some kind of bitter soup. Sort of coffee diluted with sumfink else.
“Were is we terday?” Bernd never knows where ‘e is. Never needs ter, does ‘e? E’s there ter keep the loco fired up, and that’s what he does if it’s Stettin, Posen, Hannover or Berlin. Don’t matter, the rails look ther same, don’t em? The dials is in front of ‘is face wherever ‘e is.
It’s like me. I dunno wats out back, I’s looking forward, in’t I? Fertilizer, coal or wottever. It’s the weight that counts. Unless it’s oil, that sloshes around. Yer feels that if yer stops, yer do. That all goes east too.
“We’s was in Kattowitz last night, dontcher remember the cathedral, like? All them golden roofs?”
“Yer, and everyfin’ else woz black! Black waggons black ouses and black everfin.”
“But the hotel was clean” yer can’t go wrong wiv a proper German ‘otel. They does yer proud. Hot showers and clean sheets too. Good sausages too.
I slurps down the last of that drink. I doesn’t feel any better, but it did while away a minute or two. Bernd hands me his mug.
“You do ’em” I shouts ter im over the hissing and spitting of the loco. “I’s got enough ter do. Anyways the steam’s ‘is side to wash ’em out.”
Heaving a huge sigh of boredom, cross my arms on the windowledge and look at the signal. Flat horizontal it is. Another sigh. My head hurts, this ain’t fair. I needs ter get movin.
Oh, the rain’s stopped. There’s that bang that sounds like a dustbin lid only made short, like. I knows that sound anywhere, even above the din of the loco. Lookin up, there’s two arms stuck to the sky. Slow ahead.
Thank goodness fer that. I takes the handle of ther whistle and pulls it ter say we’s seen ther signal change. They’ll here us, they’s never that far away.
Bernd is shovelling coal to make up the fire. ‘Es as lean as a wippet but can ‘e shift that coal. He’ll ‘ave shifted six ton terday. What a life, lookin’ at the back of a boiler.
I winds the loco down into full forward, the handle’s stiff on this old girl. By the feel of ‘er, she needs puttin through the shops. Pull the regulator open a touch to let ther wheels bite.
There’s a jerk and a frantic puffing. Damn the wheels slipped. Bang the regulator closed.
This time the wheels pick up the load and we inch away. Thank Christ that we’re on the move again. I get to feel normal again. I needs to move ter feel normal, I do. Feel them wheels on ther rails, the tack as they goes over the joints. Thas’ normality for me.
There’s a wood to one side and we turn to what must be the factory gates.
“Whass this?” shouts Bernd to me as he looks out the window at the unfamiliar sight.
“Arbeit… macht” ‘es never been good at readin, has Bernd. “Frei. Funny thing ter say, innit?”
You don’t say annyfin about them Nazis or you’s forrit. Yer join, yer does what you’s told ter do, and keep yer mouth shut.
Bit like dealin with a railway boss really. Strange that.
“Where is this?” he shouts to me.
“I dunno” I says, pulling down me clipboard that hangs over the boiler. The grey light from the window makes ’em white. It’s all written down what we has ter do like, where we’s a goin and all that. I shout across to im “It’s called Auschwitz”
“Nevver ‘eard of it”
“Nor me, neither” I shout back.