Me and Kaminski


I AWOKE as the conductor knocked on the door of the compartment. It was a little after 6 a.m., we’d be there in half an hour, had I heard him? Yes, I muttered, yes, and dragged myself up into a sitting position. I had been lying across three seats, alone in the compartment, my back hurt and I had a stiff neck. My dreams had been shot through with the persistent racket that comes with any journey, voices in the corridor, announcements about platforms; they were unpleasant dreams, and I was jolted out of them repeatedly; once someone had yanked open the compartment door from outside in the corridor and coughed, and I had to get up to shut it. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window: raining. I put on my shoes, took my old shaving kit out of my suitcase, yawned, and went outside.

The mirror in the toilet showed me a pale face, a mess of hair, and a cheek still imprinted with the pattern of the seat upholstery. I plugged in the shaver, nothing happened. I opened the door, saw the conductor still down at the other end of the car, and called out that I needed help.

He came and gave me a look and a thin smile. The shaver, I said, wasn’t working, clearly there was no current. Of course there’s current, he replied. No, I said. Yes, he said. No! He shrugged, perhaps it’s the wiring, but in any case there’s nothing he can do. But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor, he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway. He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out, he might just bust me in the chops. He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more, I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned around and went away cursing.

I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that? I washed my face, went back to the compartment, and put on my jacket. Outside the window railroad tracks, electricity poles, and wires began to form a tightening grid, the train was slowing down, and the platform was already in sight: billboards, telephone booths, people with luggage carts. The train braked and came to a halt.

I pushed my way along the corridor toward the door. A man jostled me, and I pushed him aside. The conductor was standing on the platform. I handed down my suitcase. He took it, looked at me, smiled, and let it fall smack onto the asphalt. “Sorry,” he said, and grinned. I climbed down, picked up the suitcase, and walked away.

I asked a man in uniform about my connecting train. He gave me a long look, then fished out a crumpled little book, tapped his forefinger thoughtfully against his tongue, and began to thumb the pages.

“Don’t you have a computer?”

He gave me a questioning look.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Keep going.”

He thumbed, sighed, thumbed again. “Intercity 6:35. Track 8. Then change . . .”

I moved on quickly, I had no time for his chatter. Walking wasn’t easy, I wasn’t used to being awake at such an early hour. My train was standing at track 8. I boarded it, entered the carriage, pushed a fat lady aside, worked my way to the last free window seat, and let myself fall into it. A few minutes later we were on our way.

Straight opposite me was a bony man wearing a tie. I nodded to him, he returned the greeting and then turned his eyes away. I opened my suitcase, took out my notepad, and laid it on the narrow table between us. I almost knocked his book off, but he was able to grab onto it in time. I had no time to lose, my article was already three days overdue.

Hans Bahring, I wrote, who has made many . . . no! . . . numerous attempts to bore us to death . . . yes, that’s it .