The terminal for going Eastwards lay closer to the old centre than the one where I came in from Vienna. The brilliant sunlight of Prague had broken into heavy rain, as if gates closing down, saying enough had been revealed to me at the moment, in promise, mystery or menace. The early afternoon turned dark enough for night: a kind of long tunnel to go into for a destination with that heavy name of Cracow.
Compartment seats were reserved, mine opposite a thin, dark-haired lady with deep, troubled eyes staring: no reply to my greeting. Two middle-aged men in dark suits came aboard, each bearing an enormous suitcase, more like ship cabin trunks than average luggage: possibly instrument cases of musicians, though only drums, tuba or sousaphone, could need such space. The load more suited to the baggage and freight car, the owners seemed determined to heave it onto the compartment rack. I stood up to give a hand; taller, maybe stronger than they. Voicing no thanks, they asked if I was going all the way. Bound for Cracow, I promised to help unload on arrival, and not charge a cent for acting porter. They did not laugh. Stern customers. Maybe to find out my destination meant more to them than ensuring help with the baggage.
I sank into the soft leather seat. Second class in Europe equals top luxury travel in most of Asia and Africa. Any train journey steps up to easy living in my case. Years I had been on the thumb on the road, meeting basic experiences and characters. Even now, these soft, comfortable journeys can prove similar. Mingling among travellers at suit and suitcase level can bring intriguing, colourful and risky situations.
The Carpetbaggers, as I mentally called them, held window seats facing each other. At the corridor side, I sat facing the gaunt lady, who now asked something unclear.
"Toilets are that way," I said in English, pointing, trying to guess her requirement.
She looked startled, then hurried off that way, as if I had ordered her there, out of this compartment for a while, for the men to talk. Exclusion and obedience expected here.
"Women like that! All over the place now," one Carpetbagger remarked in English.
"That's the European Union, lets in all kinds of people. The mad. The bad, The sad. The impossible. Bet she is from East Europe, on her way back there, not fitting in here, or not allowed in. A liability dependent on the people over this side."
"It brings problems, but it keeps deeper conflicts out of Europe. We had enough of that. Are we not in the world to help each other, if we can?" I countered his doubts.
"Are you religious?" Carpetbagger One asked. "Which country are you from?"
I said I was English, and not at all religious Most from my country are not, I added.
"No deep conflicts in Europe now? Heard of Bosnia, Gdansk, Georgia? What about Northern Ireland, on your doorstep not long ago?" CB One argued. So I replied:
"Those troubles took place before the EU grew, to include, and to stabilise them."
"You hope so, mister, until it falls apart and blows up. All kinds of elements operate inside it, especially around here: Central Europe, which you English never know," Carpetbagger Two added.
Which area could my fellow travellers be from? They gave nothing away. But EU scepticism is widespread, and often thought normal and wise. Ironic English newspapers once had a headline "Fog in The Channel: The Continent Isolated," prized as a proud joke ever since.
"Your cases are impressive. Men don't usually need so many clothes on travels, as ladies do. Forgive my rudeness in prying," I added, really probing for clues.
"Forget it," they said. "To insult us guys, you have to do better than that." But still they admitted nothing. Speaking to me and to each other in English, they had no obvious accents: not American, or anything discernable.
"I know musicians with cases like that. I just met a percussionist in Prague, who needs such great containers for carrying his drums," I said, thinking of Piotr, there.
"We are not musicians, certainly no drummers," CB One commented dryly. I said: "In America, a drummer used to be a name for a travelling salesman. Maybe it comes from drumming up trade. Maybe had a real drum to stir up crowds for street selling." "Fascinating!" CB One rasped. "If you are right. We are no history professors either."
The CBs might be hard to insult, but even harder to figure out. Three possible avenues I had eliminated. Dozens remained. Interrogation was not working. Why were they in my compartment? Nikela knew I took this train. Did they work for her, or Waldemar?
I opened my indispensable book on Opera, letting the CBs notice my reading matter.
"Not a lot of Opera in Cracow," I said, when they ignored my activities.
"We will get over that, friend. Even you might find other diversions there," CB One said. Then the gaunt lady returned. He raised eyebrows ironically towards me.
The lady in question now spoke indistinctly, except for the word 'Auschwitz': one sound always sure to cause dramatic, menacing effect. That place lay somewhere close along this route. Sightseeing trips to the museum at that concentration camp, historically vital in book and film, did not draw me to the grim place itself. Now I took out the relevant leaflet and train timetable, but saw no mention of a stop at Auschwitz. If the lady wanted to go there, it might have to be back from Cracow.
"Gallitzvar," she said, while I was advising her. This could be a place near that notorious camp location, where she might have contacts. I asked the CBs, but they knew nothing about a stop at Auschwitz. Who in their right mind would want to?
"Of course we stop at Auschwitz," said the stewardess in the dining car, when I asked. "But only one minute. You must be quick with your baggage." I had little, and was not leaving, nor were The CBs, whose gear would be hard to unload quickly.
"There are no buses at the station. Taxis, maybe," the stewardess added.
"Maybe cattle trucks or armoured cars still cart people off there," I quipped.
"Bitte? Do you speak no German or Polish? Your English makes no sense," she snapped. That was fortunate, or I could be arrested or expelled for my impudence "Danken. Mein liebchen, Lili Marlene," I chanted softly, hurrying off. I have a way with females; disastrous mostly, especially those in authority.
At the compartment, train speakers crackled just as I began conveying information to the lady. "Auschwitz comes in five minutes," they boomed, taking the words out of my mouth, in more deadly tones. The gaunt lady nervously gripped her meagre belongings, as I opened the compartment door; then the outside door, as the train halted. Only we got out to the night platform. Its sign said AUSCHWITZ, in the local spelling: more chilling than the wintry evening, in any language. A porter loomed from the mist. I mentioned Gallitzvar, put Euros in his hand, saying:
"Taxi fur mein frau, bitte, okay?"
The gaunt lady took my hand in her own, a thin, bony clutch: ice cold and shaking. "Danken, mein herr, danken," she said, following the porter into darkness and rain.
I helped the Carpetbaggers off with their baggage at Cracow; still knowing nothing of the contents, fit to provision army platoons on a Balkans campaign. Small wheels underneath helped them be trundled down platforms into rainy night, which swallowed the Carpetbaggers. Would I see them again?
The night terminal had no accommodation centre open, only a signboard advertising the AfterLenin Hostel: a free phone affixed. A voice said beds were available and gave directions. Sole passenger on a tramcar; guessing my stop, turned out wrong. This area seemed out in country again; back near Auschwitz: in blackness of the unknown. My steps reached rough suburbs of grim houses and shuttered shops, and a hostel sign. Was it called AfterLenin, I asked reception. I had a bed booked.
They said, "After Lenin. Who would call a place that?" unaware of the implied irony. But they had a room here, and were called Alberich: another grim figure, but safely fictional.
Next morning, I found here was at the centre of Cracow, back near the station. Last night, my roundabout trip went nowhere, but turned all right in the end. AfterLenin never materialised. Everyone needs move on from that impasse in their own way. A tourist bureau sold me tickets to two concerts, tonight and tomorrow: for chamber music, no Opera playing. Did this mean no more contact from Waldemar, my role ended? Get on with my own musical trip? Was I disappointed or relieved?
The old walled city, in its Renaissance Art Museum, contained Breughel, Bosch, Van Eyck, Durer: the usual grim subjects lined up in their timeless glory. This prompted a guilty reminder of Varsovia's fate in Prague, out of desperate zeal to find meaning in Icons. I evaded trouble because of commitments to Waldemar, or was it cowardice?
The great Market Square is reputed the largest in the world, but maybe only in Europe. Tianneman in Beijing, or Zocalo in Mexico City, seem vaster. Here, every hour, a trumpet plays from the topmost windows of the Mariacki church. I arrived on time to catch one such occasion. Then I visited several churches and halls in the square. Where streets wound southwards, a signboard showed the map of the city.
"Getting lost, my friend?" a deep voice boomed behind me as I checked on the route. It was a Carpetbagger, plus comrade, who spoke; both minus their enormous baggage.
"Often the best way to find anything, to work out the next move," I said.
"Let's hope you are right," he said, heavily. I mentioned how the main square up there is rated biggest in the world. But I had seen bigger, at the Zocalo, Mexico City. "We already saw this one, and seen the Zocalo, which we know is bigger," he said.
"I heard and saw the trumpet played on the hour. Thrilling moment," I said.
"We caught it earlier. Been up for hours, Anyway, it is a bugle that plays," he said. Their music knowledge never sounded great. I knew it was a trumpet, but kept quiet.
"The Jewish quarter is down that way," I said, pointing at the map. "I am off there."
"We're staying right in it," One said. The Carpetbaggers cannot be told anything. I mentioned the hostel near the station, when they asked where I stayed; but did not reveal their own address. The Carpetbaggers know everything and tell nothing. But in a leaflet among several one man held gripped in his hand, I read Royal David Hotel. If they played the mystery men, I could be the detective. Was this wise? We would see.
In the Jewish quarter, I spotted that hotel. Outside, bargain prices were quoted for a lunch menu. It was that hour, so I sampled traditional Polish Jewish cuisine. Would The Carpetbaggers return for a meal and be astonished or annoyed finding me here? Did they even stay here? Having seen the name Larsen on their train baggage, I asked the desk clerk if my friend Mr. Larsen was in, guessing the room number as Two-O-Seven. He looked up the register. It was Three-0-Two, he smugly corrected. This is a good way to make people spill secrets. He glanced at the key hooks; glad to say my men were out. It was all I wanted to know, but why? Were the CBs of any account?
That afternoon a tram took me to the eastern edge of the city. The Modern Art Museum held another great collection of Russian and East Europe painters: Kandinsky, Klee, Schiele, Klimt. Jawlensky.Ernst. Faces of change, through politics, psychology, character, intrigue. Varsovia would be electrified. Where was she now?
That evening's chamber concert played in a small church south of Market Square, early, at six pm, as if a chapel service, a small audience on bare wooden pews, myself on the front row. Two young girl violinists in an ensemble of seven players superbly played Bach's Double Violin Concerto A problem arose at the end of the First Movement, someone started to clap, thinking the piece over. I held up my hand like a traffic cop, or a stern conductor rehearsing, cutting off applause.
Afterwards, a man thanked me for halting his untimely clapping: another Englishman."I must look a right ignoramus," he said. I thought that no harm was done."Will you come for a drink?" he asked. "This is my wife". We found an outside terrace bar in the great Market Square. The long day's rain ended. The trumpet blew. "This is beautiful," the lady said. "Eastern Europe always sounded grim. If it was so bad, this change is welcome, for all." They asked what I thought of EU problems.
I was not the ideal person to question, deep into secret troubles, across Central Europe. I said strong controls over borders, trade and finance were essential, but so was to continue cooperation, and for the UK to stay inside, and press its own interests.
"You think it could be dangerous here, even now, when all that curtain and wall and disappearances should be over, now Russia has retreated," they asked. I thought of Varsovia arrested, my hold-up in Vienna; all the other sinister contacts since then, not easy to tell such nice people. Luckily, knowing nothing certain yet, I could leave them in peace, in the dark, in fact, my own position. Waldemar's contacts never came to the Bach evening. Tomorrow Chopin would be performed. Would their scheme resume?
The Bonerowski Palace, once a royal residence, now one of the city's best hotels, had its entrance in a side street north of Market Square, but the music room overlooked that vista itself from the first floor windows of an elegant interior. Within these walls, young Frederick himself would have played for a princely family. The pianist performing now seemed around his late thirties, a point when Chopin's life ended. The musician spoke introductions in English, the universal language.
Individual, brocaded chairs gave each audience member a sense of sitting on a throne. At the brief interval, a lady next to me passed her programme, pen-marked in crosses.
"They are the key ones for me," she murmured. At the foot of the page was written: 'Meet at the Concord Café, Stolarska Street, behind The Square at 9 pm."
On my knee I held the Opera book, a kind of credential, which she must have seen. "You have picked the essential pieces," I muttered, returning the programme. On it my added scrawl, no musical expertise involved, said: "Larsen and friend, Room 302 Royal David Hotel. Heavy baggage suspects on train from Prague."
The fine concert ended in early evening. Time to stroll around the square, ponder developments and locate that sideeet rendezvous. The trumpet sounding, announced the stroke of nine, catching me still in the square, keen to hear a few thrilling notes. I hurried back to that café, to meet this new lady contact.
A couple of minutes late, I found no one else in the place. Had she departed, tiring of unpunctuality? In this elegant coffee house, I took beer, sat at a table. A voice spoke: "You find the best seats where ever you land up." The Bonerowski lady had slid in as if by magic, her cappuccino now placed on my table. Would she make matters more uncomfortable, as females can, when working for secret networks, or not? Had noting the key Chopin pieces, at the Bonerowski, to gain my attention, been from sheer attraction? Dream on. This must be hard business.
"May I call you Georgina" I asked. "I have to call you something and you are not going to tell me your real name. Why pick that one? Well, Baronne Dudevant had become the author George Sand, and the lover of Chopin. So are we, in a sense." "Call me what you like. You do not need my name, nor need worry about those men at the Royal David Hotel, who have been dealt with. Your help will be remembered," she announced. My hand shook as I drank beer. How remembered? The Network forgets nothing, especially moves against its plans. I inquired who were those fellow passengers. What were in those huge cases? Georgina said they were up to no good. "All you need know. Your train leaves for Budapest at midnight, remember?"
I had no idea how they knew my next move, but they usually did so.
"Tosca is playing at the Opera in Budapest this week. Book a ticket. You know what to do next," she remarked. "So was I still Victor," I wondered, aloud. "Better be. Too late to change your part in it now. You play it our way, as we direct," she said. "So when did the Finale come?" I inquired, boldly.
"Only we know that. Afterwards, you might find out more," Georgina said. Then she was gone, swiftly as appearing, as if cast in a fantastic drama. So was I, perhaps.
Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by Big City Lit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.