“That is very beautiful, gut gemacht!”
Lauren looked up from her sketchbook and squinted in the sun. In the glare, she could just make out a man smiling down at her. He gestured to her sketchbook.
“Oh.” Lauren said with a nervous laugh, “Thank you.” She began to close the book, hiding her drawing of the Berlin Cathedral from further scrutiny.
“Please don’t.” The man said. He knelt down on the grass beside Lauren and gently placed his hand on her arm, “I have embarrassed you. I am sorry.”
Lauren let out another nervous laugh and tucked her hair behind her ear, “No, no, you haven’t.” But the truth was he had, and not just with his praise. Now that he wasn’t standing directly in front of the sun, Lauren could see his handsome tanned face and icy blue eyes and she was suddenly very aware of how close he was to her.
“Do you have any more in there?” he asked.
“Em . . .” Lauren looked down at her sketchbook, “Yeah . . . a few others.”
“May I?” he asked as he gently lifted the book off her lap. Lauren nodded and watched anxiously as the handsome stranger looked through her book.
As he turned the pages, each one covered in a pencil sketch of various landmarks Lauren had visited on her travels, such as Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, and Charles Bridge in Prague, he muttered words of admiration in German.
“Wunderbar!” he exclaimed handing Lauren back her book and flashing her a wide smile full of straight white teeth, “You are very talented.”
He extended his hand, “My name is Nicolaus.”
“Lauren.” Lauren said taking his hand, but instead of shaking it he gave her hand a soft squeeze.
“Very pleased to meet you, Lauren.” Nicolaus said, flashing that sparkling smile again, “So, I see you have been travelling. Have you been enjoying it?”
Lauren nodded, “Yes . . . yes, it’s been amazing.”
“Where has been your favourite place, so far?”
“Well, Vienna is stunning, but I love it here, in Berlin”
Nicolaus’ smile grew wider, “I am glad to hear that.”
Lauren giggled and allowed herself to relax a little. Travelling alone had come with its fair share of pros and cons and she had never fully let her guard down when talking to strangers, especially men. But over the course of her travels everyone she had met had been friendly and nothing untoward had happened to her. Nicolaus seemed as friendly and genuine as the rest and he was particularly pleasing on the eye, which helped. She decided that he wasn’t a threat and, as she was nearing the end of her holiday, it would be nice to fully engage with someone.
“I . . . have a connection to this place,” she said meaning Berlin and not the Lustgarten where they currently lounged on the grass, “My mum and dad brought me here when I was a wee girl . . . we didn’t have much money and it was our only holiday. It was fantastic.”
Nicolaus nodded along in understanding, “You have fond memories from your childhood. Ja. I have fond memories of a holiday in Portugal with my family.” He made a show of looking around, “No mum and dad with you this time?”
Lauren stiffened, but only slightly, and if Nicolaus noticed he didn’t show it, “No . . . they, uh, couldn’t make it.”
“I see. That is a shame. So, when do you go back to . . .”
Lauren smiled, glad of the change of subject, “Scotland. I’m from Scotland. In two days. Gives me a chance to draw the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag, depending on which I like best.”
Nicolaus rubbed his chin and looked off into the distance, “Ja, those buildings are wunderschön . . . very beautiful, but, you know, these . . . landmarks, ja, are not all Germany has to offer. There is some beautiful countryside just outside of the city with very old houses and shops that I think would be very interesting to draw.”
Lauren twisted her mouth as she contemplated, “I’m quite settled here, now. And the architecture here is interesting enough to draw.”
“That must be why all the other artists who come here draw these same buildings,” Nicolaus said thoughtfully, and Lauren felt as though she’d just been jabbed in the stomach. All the other artists? Was that what she was? Unoriginal and boring? That wasn’t what art was. And wouldn’t her parents want her to add to her memories of Berlin? Even though she’d toured around Vienna, Budapest and Prague, Berlin had been her main goal, the real reason for her trip, and now she had the chance to experience more of it.
“Is there anywhere in particular you’d recommend?” she asked.
“There is a little village called Nirgends,” Nicolaus explained, “It’s small and quaint. You would enjoy drawing it.”
“How would I get there?”
“By train. However, only two trains pass through a day. One to Nirgends and one back. It leaves early.”
“7o’clock in the morning and leaves Nirgends at 7o’clock in the evening.”
For the past ten days Lauren had been getting up early to catch trains and coaches so the 7am departure didn’t faze her. A day in a small country village sounded rather pleasant.
“Okay . . . I think I’ll go.”
Nicolaus’ face lit up, “Wunderbar! You will not regret it.”
Lauren smiled, “So can I just get a ticket as the train station?”
Nicolaus shook his head, “Sadly, no. You need a travel card to get to Nirgends.”
“Why’s that?” Lauren asked, furrowing her eyebrows.
“It is the same with all the small villages outside the city. They are less frequented by tourists, and they like it that way. Only citizens can buy a card.” Nicolaus explained.
“Well, how am I supposed to get there?”
Nicolaus fished in the back pocket of his jeans, “You can borrow mine.”
“Oh, no no no,” Lauren said, holding up her hands, “I couldn’t. What if I lost it?”
Nicolaus chuckled, deep and rolling and Lauren felt her skin prickle delightfully.
“I don’t believe you will,” he said. He held out to her a small blue leather wallet that contained his travel pass. He gave it a little wiggle, “Take it. Please. I want you to see Nirgends . . . and then you can return the card to me and show me what you draw.”
He looked Lauren dead in the eye, looking hopeful that she would accept his invitation. Was it for a date? Obviously, she would have to meet him to give him back his travel card, but the way he said that last part and the way he was looking at her . . .
Lauren blushed and took the wallet, “Thank you. And, yeah, I’d like that.”
Smiling his wide white smile, Nicolaus produced his mobile phone, “We should swap numbers, for when you get back.”
Lauren told him her number then entered his into her phone.
“I have to go now,” Nicolaus said, getting up, “Lunch break is over,” he took hold of Laurens hand and gave it another gentle squeeze, “I will see you tomorrow night.”
Lauren felt herself blush again as she nodded. She watched him as he walked away, passed the fountain and mingled in with the crowd. She looked down at the small leather wallet and tucked it into her sketchbook which she then put into her backpack. Lunch, she hadn’t had hers yet and she was suddenly very hungry.
* * *
The train station was busy even though it was 6:45am. There were many tourists pulling suitcases behind them or adjusting large rucksacks on their backs, as well as people dressed in suits commuting for work. There were several trains waiting to be boarded, including Laurens, but they hadn’t been called yet.
Sipping the takeaway coffee she had purchased from a stall, Lauren let her thoughts drift to Nicolaus. Nicolaus and his winning smile. She was looking forward to visiting the village that he had gushed about, but she was looking forward to seeing him later that night even more.
She pictured them both, sitting on a terrace eating fine food and drinking red wine as they looked through Lauren’s sketches of the village. Nicolaus would point to each drawing and excitedly exclaim that he had been there. Then they’d laugh, clink their glasses and share a kiss.
Lauren jumped at the sound of the intercom. A polite female voice spoke first in German and then in English, announcing the trains ready for boarding. Lauren gathered up her things. It was nearly 7am, her train would be one of the ones ready to depart.
A loud crackling sounded over the intercom causing Lauren to wince. It grew louder then there was the sound of feedback. A man’s voice, deep and drawling, began to speak, dragging out each word he said.
“Train to Nirgends boarding now on platform two.”
His low lazy voice caused Lauren’s arms to breakout in goosebumps and she stared up at the nearest speaker, wondering why the announcer had changed so suddenly from a woman to a man.
“Train to Nirgends is boarding . . . now.”
Why did Lauren feel as though that second announcement was directed at her? Apart from the fact she was going to Nirgends, something seemed personal to Lauren. As she moved to platform two, realising she was the only one heading for the train to Nirgends, it felt even more distinctive.
As she approached the ticket barrier, Lauren pulled out the small leather wallet from her back pocket and folded it open. The travel card inside was more like an old-fashioned train ticket than a modern trans card. Yellowish in colour with Nirgends and Berlin, along with the expiration date, printed in fancy swirling script across the centre. There was no photograph of Nicolaus, not even a signature. No way to suggest that this wasn’t Lauren’s own ticket.
She took the ticket out of the wallet and slid it into the slot beside the barrier swing gate. The card was sucked in and then nothing happened. Lauren’s hand hovered over the exit slot were the card should have popped up from a matter of seconds later, but it didn’t appear.
Suddenly that loud crackling sounded from the intercom again, causing Lauren to spin around and stare up at the speaker again. Her heart beat faster as she waited for the voice.
“Train to Nirgends now boarding.”
The ticket machine began to whir and buzz. Lauren’s head snapped back round to look at it in confusion.
“Train to Nirgends will depart soon.”
Lauren looked around desperately for someone to help. The machine couldn’t eat up the ticket. It wasn’t even her ticket!
The whirring increased, sounding as though there were over 100 angry wasps inside. Lauren began to sweat. She had this overwhelming feeling of dread and part of her was willing her to just abandon the ticket and get the hell out of the train station. Forget Nirgends and go back to her original plan of sketching the Reichstag.
“Last call for the train to Nirgends . . . go . . . now.”
The whirring stopped, the ticket popped up and the gates swung open. After a moment of hesitation, Lauren plucked out the card and stepped through the gates onto the platform.
Obviously, some kind of malfunction, she told herself as she tucked the card back into the wallet. She began to feel at ease and soon all thoughts of the creepy announcer and broken ticket machine were lost in her mind as she moved along the platform to the front of the train. The doors to all the other carriages were closed and as she passed them she looked in the windows. They were all empty, just rows and rows of vacant seats with the occasional table. How weird it would be for Lauren to have the whole train to herself? This was obviously why only the front carriage was accessible. What a waste.
She reached the front and stepped on board. With her choice of seats, she sat at a window seat with a table so that she could work on her sketch of Nicolaus that she’s started the night before from memory.
No sooner had she sat down than the doors slid shut and the train began to slowly pull away from the station. Lauren felt excited, all feelings of foreboding gone.
* * *
About 20 minutes into the journey Lauren put on her headphones and listened to some music. With nothing but the rhythmical chug of the train for company, she grew tired of it and selected her favourite 90s playlist on her phone as she drew.
She was glad there was no-one around to see her picture. How embarrassing would it be if someone recognised Nicolaus from her sketch and told him about it? She would look like a stalker and an oddball.
She felt a gentle tug on her hair and reached back, flicking her ponytail, thinking it was caught on the back of the seat. But then she felt it again and she spun around.
Of course, there was no-one there. She was alone on the train. She ran her fingers though her ponytail again as her eyes searched the carriage for any sign of movement, for anyone hiding behind a seat. There was no-one there.
She turned back to her drawing, confused, but suppossed there must be a draught coming from somewhere. She busied herself shading in Nicolaus’ dark locks when her hair was yanked so hard her head snapped back. She cried out and jumped out of the seat, spinning around. There, crouched on the seat behind her, was a blonde girl of around eight.
She giggled as Lauren gawked at her.
“Was . . . was that you?” Lauren asked, heart hammering in her chest.
Still giggling, the little girl nodded.
Lauren took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Obviously, she wasn’t alone on the train. No way would it take just one passenger all the way to Nirgends. That was ludicrous. She tightened her ponytail, tucking in the strands that had come loose.
“You on your own?”
The little girl shook her head, still grinning.
“Where are your mum and dad?”
The girl pointed to the door at the far end that led to the next carriage.
“Maybe you should go and get them.” Lauren said, “They’ll be wondering where you are.”
The girl jumped off the seat and stood in the middle of the aisle. She was wearing a pale pink jumper, light blue jeans and white trainers. She held a hand out to Lauren.
“You want me to come?” Lauren asked, horrified. She was an only child, no cousins, no other children in the family. She’d never been around kids, never had any reason to, and now here was one wanting Lauren to take her back to her parents, “You got here on your own . . . you sure you can’t just . . . find your way back?”
The little girl simply wiggled her fingers, beckoning Lauren to come with her.
Sighing, Lauren said, “Okay, I’ll come.”
The girl giggled and skipped along to the door, looking back over her should to ensure Lauren was following.
Lauren looked back at her seat where her sketchbook and bag were. She was sure they’d be fine where they were. She wouldn’t be long. When she turned back the girl was already disappearing through the door.
Lauren briefly considered leaving the girl and returning to her seat, but she knew that would be mean, so she pushed through the door to the next carriage.
* * *
The door swung shut behind her with a heavy thud and Lauren stopped in her tracks. The little girl was nowhere to be seen and neither were the seats and décor of a modern train carriage. Instead Lauren had stepped into what appeared to be an old-fashioned caboose. Lanterns hung from the walls, casting a dull yellow glow on the hundreds of marionettes crammed in the caboose.
This isn’t right, Lauren thought, her chest restricting in agitation. She remembered looking in the windows of each carriage of the train as she walked to the front one at the station. They had all looked the same. And as she stared around this one, there didn’t seem to be any windows at all, just those hanging lanterns.
She turned and pulled on the door handle. She didn’t want to be here. Something wasn’t right. She’d go back to her carriage, maybe talk to the driver. This was wrong.
But the door wouldn’t budge.
Desperately, she rattled the handle and pulled and pulled, but it would not open.
Grunting in frustration, she turned to face the room again. Through the crowd of marionettes, with their leering grins and large noses, Lauren spied a door at the far side of the caboose. It would lead to the next carriage and Lauren’s only choice was to go there.
The puppets were all different shapes and sizes, some dressed in modern clothing such as graphic t-shirts and jeans, and others donned Victorian garb, worn and tatty. There were children, jesters, queens, dogs, cats, soldiers, all sorts, hanging from the ceiling, sitting on shelves or slumped in baskets on the floor. Lauren eased her way through them, careful not to kick any on the ground or bump into any of the hanging ones. She didn’t want to touch them. They were creepy and this whole situation had her feeling uneasy. She just wanted out of this caboose.
Little did she know that the marionettes were watching her. As she walked by, they turned their heads to follow her, some of the smaller ones climbing out of baskets to get a better look, their strings trailing behind them. Lauren didn’t see or hear them; her attention was fixed on the door. The little girl must have run straight through here. Lauren supposed she could sit with the girl and her parents until they got to Nirgends. She’d be able to retrieve her belongings once the train had stopped.
The hanging puppets seemed to become denser and she was finding it difficult to navigate through them. She reached out and pushed some aside, but more swung into their place, seeming to hang closer to Lauren so that they completely blocked her view of the door.
She pushed and pulled at the marionettes, but there were too many surrounding her, their ugly crooked faces staring manically at her. Her breathing came out faster and she frantically yanked at the closest puppets, pulling them from their strings and letting them fall to the floor, but no sooner had she done that than another one appeared, dropping an eyelid in a lurid wink.
Feeling a tug at her jeans, Lauren looked down and screamed. Three marionettes, reaching up to her knee and dressed as clowns, were wrapping their strings around her ankles. They looked up at her, each one with an expression of sadness, anger, and glee, respectively, frozen on their wooden faces, as they pulled tight on their strings, forcing Lauren’s legs together and sending her crashing to the floor.
Marionettes fell on top of her, scratching at her back and pulling at her hair. Screaming, Lauren thrashed her arms around and kicked with her bound legs. The puppets retreated, allowing Lauren to prop herself up on her elbows.
Through tears, she could see the marionettes pressed up against the walls of the caboose, but they weren’t looking at her. Each one faced the far end of the carriage. Lauren looked, too, peering through the gloom.
To the right of the door, crouched in the corner, was a large marionette, the largest on the train. It slowly rose to its feet, reaching nearly to the ceiling. It was dressed in a frilly white shirt and dark velvet trousers. Its face was different from the rest of the marionettes, with a small nose and dull fleshy complexion – not like the shiny wooden finishes of the others – it looked almost human. It ambled forward with jerky movements, it’s strings working by an invisible force.
As it got closer, Lauren noticed two things; it’s arms were outstretched with one hand on top of the other, as though it was concealing something, and there were two black holes were its eyes should have been.
Lauren sat up and frantically tore at the strings around her ankles. The large marionette approached her then stopped, leaning over her with its hands near her face. Her breathing coming fast and shallow, Lauren watched as the marionette lifted its top hand, exposing two tiny puppets, four inches high, standing on its other hand.
Lauren let out a small mew of despair as she recognised who the two tiny dolls were supposed to represent. One was a man with tight black curls on top of his head and a bushy beard flecked with grey. The other was a woman with a short red bob and a sprinkle of freckles on her nose and cheeks.
Sobbing, Lauren reached out to touch them. Her parents. They’d been gone 18 months now and Lauren missed them terribly. If she could take the puppets, hold them, then maybe this nightmare would be worth it.
Just as her fingertips were about to touch them, the replicas of her mum and dad burst into flames.
“No!” Lauren screamed.
The tiny marionettes melted on the larger one’s hand. Their faces drooped grotesquely, clothing curled and smouldered until it had completely burned away. Lauren jumped to her feet and dashed for the door, shoving past the large marionette while all the others shook and rattled on their strings. Lauren yanked open the door and lunged into the next carriage, leaving the maniacal marionettes and the burning effigies of her parents behind.
* * *
She fell on the floor of the next carriage. It was covered in dirty hay and the offending stench of animal faeces mixed with filthy pelt attacked her nostrils.
She ignored it at first as she knelt on the floor, crying. Images of the burning marionettes where replaced by the memories of her real parents burning alive. She clutched her head, strands of hay sticking to her hair, and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the memories.
I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t help them. She thought, rocking back and forth.
The fluttering of wings caused her to look up. A hawk stood on the floor before Lauren, its head cocked. Its beak was cracked, and tiny insects crawled all over its body. Lauren covered her mouth with the back of her hand and sat back against the door. The sight of the filthy bird and the overpowering stench of waste caused her stomach to lurch.
The bird let out a screech and took off, flying up to a high perch. Bare lightbulbs swung from the ceiling, illuminating the cages full of animals in this other nightmarish caboose Lauren found herself in.
To her left was a huge cage containing a big brown bear. It pressed its face up against the cage, its snout poking through the bars. It snarled at Lauren, thick saliva dripping to the floor, beady black eyes glaring at her. Its fur was patchy and matted and, like the hawk, teeming with creepy crawlies.
Above the bear cage was another cage atop a platform. A growling tiger with only one eye and clearly suffering from mange, paced around the small cage. There was a large tank on the floor to Lauren’s right and, although it was smeared with filth, Lauren was certain she could see a large snake slithering around inside.
More birds roosted around the caboose, some practically featherless, others unable to lift their dirty matted wings, but perhaps most frightening of all was the chimpanzee with only half a face, squatting in a cage that hung from the ceiling.
Lauren stared in horror at the disgusting animals, her hand covering her mouth and nose to keep out as much of the stench as she could. Movement as the far end of the caboose caught her eye and she was surprised to see a man down there.
Dressed in dirty overalls and with a flat cap on his head, he shovelled up some of the hay and dumped it into a black bin bag. He didn’t seem to notice Lauren.
“Excuse me.” Lauren called, moving her hand from her mouth, but keeping her nose pinched.
The man carried on shovelling.
Slowly, Lauren slid up against the door. The bear continued to watch her, fangs bared.
“Excuse me, please!” Lauren called again, “Can . . . can you help me?”
The man had finished shovelling and now tied up the bin bag.
Keeping an eye on the bear, Lauren dared to take a step forward. The bear dragged its claws along the already scratched surface of the floor, growling. Up above, the tiger roared. Despite the cages, Lauren was terrified that the monstrous creatures would kill her, so she stopped and stayed were she was.
“Please, I want to get off the train.” Lauren called out to the man.
The man tossed the bin bag into a wheelbarrow and turned to face Lauren. He looked around 60, his lined face covered in grime. Without a word, he shuffled down the aisle towards Lauren. The animals grew restless. The birds that could fly circled overhead, the tiger swiped at the air through the bars, the bear roared and continued to claw at the floor. To Lauren’s right, the chimpanzee chattered and swung its cage, the chain creaked and shuddered.
Lauren shrank back against the door, terrified that the cage would fall, freeing the chimp with its exposed skull and flaps of rotten skin.
“Please, please let me off.” Lauren begged the man as he drew closer.
To her relief he pulled a set of keys from his overalls.
He’s going to unlock the door and let me back to the front carriage. She thought, with a sigh. She didn’t much fancy going back through the marionette caboose, but if it got her away from these dreadful creatures then she would.
“Oh, thank you,” Lauren said, “I’m so sorry I came through here. I was just . . .”
She trailed off as the man stuck the key in the lock of the bear cage.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?” she said.
The bear turned when it heard the lock click open. The man pulled open the cage gate.
“No!” Lauren screamed and lunged forward, slamming the gate closed again.
The man violently shoved Lauren away, sending her crashing into the snake tank, causing the lid to slide off. All around her the animals went berserk as the man opened the cage again and the huge bear lumbered out.
Lauren scrambled to her feet and ran for the door leading to the next carriage, feet slipping and sliding on the filth underfoot. From its perch, the hawk let out a shriek before flying straight into Lauren’s head.
Screaming, she waved her hands in the air, trying to fight it off, but more birds joined in, pecking at Laurens hands and arms.
Behind her the man was slowly climbing up to the tiger’s cage as the chimpanzee clutched onto the bars of its cage, jumping and screeching in anticipation of being released. The bear rose on its hind legs, its massive bulk practically filling the caboose. It roared, sending the birds back to their roosting spots.
Lauren wasted no time in moving again, but tripped over the green anaconda that had escaped from the tank. The snake slithered after Lauren as she scrambled backwards along the floor. Her eyes, open wide in fear, switched between the snake, the bear, and the man as he opened the tiger’s cage. Why had her let them out? They’ll kill them both.
But the animals paid the man no heed, the were focused only on Lauren. And now the tiger’s cage was open and the man was making his way back down the bear cage to free the chimpanzee and Lauren would be dinner for four deadly beasts, her remans a snack for the birds.
The snake reared up, exposing pus-filled blisters on its belly. It opened its swollen mouth, a thick cottage cheese like substance oozed from it gums, and hissed at Lauren. The tiger had made its way down to the floor now and swiped at the bear. The bear snarled and lashed out at the tiger, causing the tiger to take a step back and stand on the snake. The snake snapped its head around and Lauren scrambled to her feet.
As she raced to the door she heard the chattering chimpanzee land with a thud on the floor. She didn’t turn around, though. She pulled open the door and disappeared through it.
* * *
It was dark. She couldn’t see a thing. Her arms stung from all the pecking and scratching from the birds and she held them close to her breast. She shivered all over, not from the cold, but from unadulterated fear.
What was going on? What was this train? Where was it going? Had she got on the wrong train? Was there really a place called Nirgends? Had she fallen asleep on the journey? The pain on her arms told her she hadn’t, but she’d read somewhere that one could feel pain in one’s dreams. It just disappeared when they woke up.
If this was a dream, then she wanted to wake up right now. She didn’t know how much more she could take.
Gradually a soft glow illuminated the room curtesy of sphere shaped lamps running along the walls. Five figures, all dressed in black, stood at various intervals in the caboose. Their hands, encased in white gloves, covering their faces.
“No.” Lauren sobbed quietly, “No more.”
The figure closest to her slowly lowered its hands, revealing its painted face.
Cracked white face paint flaked and peeled of his face. Black paint circled his eyes making it seem as though he had none, and red paint covered his lips, running down his chin and throat, like blood. He looked shocked when he seen Lauren, holding his hands up at the sides of his face in mock surprise. He then held out his hand for Lauren to shake, but she shied away from it and the man gripped it with his other hand and pumped it, shaking hands with himself.
Behind him and slightly to his left, the next figure was lowering her hands. She was smothered in the same cakey white paint, but her black eye makeup ran down her cheeks like tears and her red lips had black lines painted over them resembling stitches. She also feigned surprised upon seeing Lauren, her hands pressed against her breast, her mouth remaining firmly closed. The two other figures nearest the back removed their hands from their face. Both were made up like the other two, but one had black diamonds painted around his eyes and a messy red grin painted from ear to ear, the other one’s black eye makeup was almost entirely rubbed off, a smeared black love heart on one cheek, and an upside-down smile painted in red to give a cartoonish sad face.
They were mime artists Lauren realised as they moved gracefully around the caboose, one pretending to be pulling a rope and another enacting climbing a ladder.
The one closest to Lauren, with the bloody mouth, moved his hands around in front of him, as though pressing them up against a wall. He walked sideways until he was directly in front of Lauren. He closed his fist and knocked on the air, making Lauren flinch. He took hold of a make-believe doorknob and pulled open a make-believe door, smiling grotesquely at Lauren.
Before she could react, he grabbed her hand and pulled her close. Together they waltzed around the caboose, twirling and spinning to non-existent music. The other mimes danced, too, holding onto imaginary partners.
Lauren squirmed in the mime’s grasp, “Let me go!”
He continued to dance with her, gripping onto her hand and waist, spinning her, dipping her, holding her close so that she could see every crease the makeup had sunken into on his face. Then, as abruptly as he had begun dancing with her, he stopped, in perfect sequence with the others.
Panting, Lauren moved away from the mimes. The one she had danced with and the female sat side by side on the floor while the other two stood at opposite ends of the caboose. The mimes on the floor slumped over, eyes closed, as though sleeping.
Suddenly, they threw their hands in the air, eyes wide with fear, the males mouth open in a silent scream. They turned to Lauren, hands reaching out to her, eyes pleading.
Help us! The male mouthed.
It was growing uncomfortably hot in the caboose. Laurens attention was fixed on the mimes, but she reached up and undid the top button of her shirt, tugging on the collar to cool down. On the floor the mimes continued to stare at Lauren as they pretended to bang on glass and throw their shoulder against invisible car doors. For that’s what they were re-enacting; two people trapped in a car, slowly burning to death.
Lauren’s parents had behaved just like this. When her father had lost control of their old Pinto after clipping a grouse on a country road, heading back to Glasgow from Aberfeldy, the car had rolled twice before crashing into a tree. The engine had immediately gone up in flames. Lauren had been able to escape and desperately tried to open the driver’s door. It was jammed, and her parents were trapped inside, her father crushed against the steering wheel and her mother’s seatbelt locked. Within seconds the flames had forced her back, preventing her from even trying her mother’s door.
She’d watched as the flames devoured her parents, as a passer-by dragged her away from the scene. She’d watched her parents die.
The heat in the caboose intensified. The mimes’ makeup melted off their faces and the females mouth ripped open, the makeup stitches becoming real and causing her lips to tear. Their bodies began to smoke and, as they writhed around in pain, their skin blistered and blackened.
Lauren edged towards the door, but couldn’t take her eyes off the mimes. Invisible flames scorched their skin and the phantom smell of cooked flesh invaded Lauren’s nostrils. They fixed their terrified eyes on Lauren until they popped with the heat.
Lauren hurried through the door.
* * *
Unlike the others, the next caboose was full of bright colours and light. Strips of sheer red curtain hung from the ceiling and a blonde woman dressed in a leopard print leotard was entangled in one, up high, back arched, watching Lauren from upside down. A man dressed in a rainbow coloured suit moved amongst the curtains, juggling rainbow coloured balls.
The woman rolled down the curtain, the thin material unravelling from around her waist. Before she hit the floor, the curtain wrapped around her leg, stopping her. She climbed up the curtain backwards, all the time keeping her eyes on Lauren.
Suddenly, one of the other strips of curtain shot out and entwined around her wrist. It dragged her from the curtain she was on. From this new curtain, she returned to her upside-down position as the curtain wrapped itself around her waist.
Lauren watched all of this without really seeing it. She felt fuzzy and numb, her experiences in the first three cabooses had broken her, but the most horrific of all was having to relive the most awful thing that had happened to her; watching her parents die.
The juggler continued to juggle and walk between the curtains. Behind him, someone was doing backflips along the caboose, heading for Lauren. It was the little girl from the first carriage, the one who had wanted Lauren to follow her.
“You.” Lauren breathed when the girl had stopped. She wanted to hit the girl, hurt her for bringing Lauren into this madness, but she didn’t have the strength.
The girl, who was now wearing a blue leotard decorated with silver stars, smiled at Lauren and, just as she did before, held a hand out to Lauren and beckoned her to follow.
Although she knew she couldn’t escape the train, Lauren still shook her head, “No.”
From either side of her, strips of curtains lashed out and latched onto her wrists. They dragged her along the caboose, each curtain releasing only to be replaced by another one. The girl led the way, every so often performing a cartwheel or a forward flip. She opened the far door when they reached it and the curtains tossed Lauren through.
The next caboose was cluttered with desks of all sizes which were covered in piles of paper, bottles of paint, cups containing paintbrushes and pencils, and buckets filled with chalk pastels and charcoal. Candlelight lit the caboose, white candles on every free surface, smears of thick wax on the floor. In the middle of the carriage was a stool and an easel.
The girl took Laurens hand and pulled her over to it. There was Lauren’s sketchbook propped up on the easel, her pencils lying on a table beside it and her bag on the ground beside the stool.
Looking around, Lauren noticed her sketches of all the different landmarks she’d visited on her trip, had been stuck on the walls of the caboose. The paper was torn and curled at the edges, but the drawings were perfectly clear. There was also a sketch of her parents. They were young in the picture, she’d copied it from a photograph of them on their first trip to Berlin, when Lauren had fell in love with the city and associated it with her parents whenever she thought of it.
This trip had been for them. To keep their memory alive, but Lauren had also hoped it would ease her guilt. Her guilt of surviving.
Instead, her emotional turmoil had sent her down the rabbit hole to the very mouth of madness.
She felt a tug on her sleeve. She looked down to see the little girl holding a pencil up to Lauren. Lauren took it and the little girl sat on the floor, back straight, smile plastered on her face, waiting for Lauren to draw her.
Lauren sat on the stool and opened her sketch pad at a blank page. She studied the girl carefully then bowed her head and got to work.
* * *
The busker put down his guitar and thanked his applauding audience.
“Please, if you can, spare some change, I would be more than grateful.” He gestured to his guitar case which contained a mere scattering of euros and cents. There was a sign that said Evicted and Unemployed. Please help.
Nicolaus, who had been watching the busker for days now, dropped some one-euro coins into the case.
“Thankyou.” The man said, his Polish accent strong, but his English impeccable.
“You play beautifully, mein Freund.” Nicolaus said, “Probably the best busker in Berlin.”
The man smiled, but wanly, “That is very kind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay very well.” He gestured to the measly amount of coins in the guitar case, “I’ll be able to get some dinner tonight, but I really need a place to stay.”
“I see. So that sign isn’t just for the . . . pity vote?” Nicolaus said.
The man could have been offended by Nicolaus’ suggestion that he would lie to get money, but he’d seen it with his own eyes. Buskers and beggars telling the public they had kids to feed and pregnant wives to look after, when it was really a nasty drug habit they had to satisfy. But that wasn’t him. No, he prided himself in being one of the honest ones.
“I was laid off then couldn’t pay my rent,” the man explained, “It’s hard to get a job, but even harder to find a safe place to sleep at night.”
Nicolaus twisted his mouth, appearing thoughtful, “You know, I know a place that adores musicians . . . especially street musicians.”
The man’s eyes brightened, “Really?”
Nicolaus nodded, “Ja. It’s a very old village with traditional values. None of this modern music for them. No iPads or even CDs. Live and outside it how they like their entertainment.”
“Where is it?” the man asked eagerly, “Would I be welcome?”
“Oh, for sure.” Nicolaus said, solemnly, “They would pay handsomely, too. Not just pitiful change.”
The man looked down at the small amount of money in the case. He could eat tonight with that, but what if he had to travel far to this village?
“How would I get there?”
“By train. There’s one leaving early tomorrow morning.” Nicolaus explained, “There’s only two a day; one there and one back, so you would need to be early.”
“I can’t afford a train ticket just now.” The man said, looking sheepish.
“You can borrow my travel pass!” Nicolaus exclaimed, and when the man looked sceptical, added, “I have been in your shoes, mein Freund. I only want to help, but if you would rather I didn’t, I’ll be on my way.”
Nicolaus went to walk away, but the man grabbed his arm, “Wait. That would be very kind. Danke.”
“No problem.” Nicolaus said with a smile. He fished in his pocket and brought out a small blue leather wallet, the travel card inside.
The man took the card, “This is so very kind . . .”
“Nicolaus. I am Jakub. Again, many thanks,” Jakub said putting the card in his pocket, “Oh, what is the village called?”
“Nirgends,” Nicolaus said, flashing straight white teeth, “The village is Nirgends.”