We live near a railway station. Nearly everybody uses the railway, not many people own a car at that time. Most people travel in third class. The carriages are fitted with wooden benches. The small windows can be lowered with a leather strap. Every compartment carries white enamel signs written in bold black letters in three languages, not to spit onto the floor and not to lean out of the window. When I travel in the train I watch the people and try to guess which one will be the most likely to spit onto the floor. I like to lean far out of the window despite the warning. It is exhilarating to have the wind blow through my hair and I can barley catch my breath. The carriages smell of stale smoke and things I cannot identify. The wooden seats are shiny from all the people steadily polishing them with their backsides. At the front and back of the compartments above the seats hang always photos of trains that just entered a tunnel or travelled over a bridge high above a ravine.
At my railway station are many trains passing fast and without stop. Those are the luxury express trains with first and second-class carriages only. They transport people to the famous holiday resorts in the mountains. Their blurred faces behind the windows of the fast moving train are all identical.
As I live near the railway station I spend a lot of my free time there. I read my library books on a hard wooden bench that is provided for the passengers. The bench is placed outside in summertime beside the door of the waiting room that is mainly used in wintertime. The bench remains mostly empty of passengers because they travel in the morning to go to work, lunchtime and evening when they return and hurry home and don’t need a bench to rest.
Some times I help old mister Ernie, he is always there to help the stationmaster with the loading and unloading of boxes and whatever arrives by train and is stored in the warehouse until people come and pick it up. I stuff carbide into lanterns and wrinkle my nose at its foul smell. He warns me my nose will be a wrinkled little stub forever and that I will never find a husband. I don’t believe him and I don’t want a husband, but he says every girl wants a husband; I don’t argue and leave it at that. I water the red geraniums that flower from spring until late autumn in window boxes and big tubs in front of the station. They are the stationmasters pride and joy. He warns me not to over water as they like a rather dry soil. Generally the stationmaster is a taciturn man. He only talks to me when I ask him a question, which I do a lot, and not even then he answers, he makes a kind a noise in his throat that can mean anything yes or no, I don’t know, go away I haven’t time. It is difficult to decipher his murmurs but I am used to his ways.
Once I had a fall and I hit my head rather badly on the cobblestones. Old mister Ernie took out of his pocket a big silver five-franc piece and I thought he was giving it to me because I was hurt. However he only pressed it hard onto the bump that had grown from my forehead and after a minute he took it away and inspected the bump and said that will do and the big silver piece disappeared into his pocket again.
On the station grounds stands a heavy, wooden loading platform. It can be pushed on two wheels towards the train to load and unload livestock. I am always tempted to run on it to and fro like on a big seesaw.
It fell heavily and loudly on its ends, as I ran faster and faster it was a real racket to my delight. The stationmaster, very annoyed, came out of his office. His face angry, red, he told me in a stern voice to leave the ramp alone and to go home. I stood there and looked at him and I didn’t know what came over me as I stuck out my tongue as far as I could and I cocked a snook at him as well. He stood there amazed, like I had physically struck him. He was appalled by my bad behaviour; this had never happened I had always been courteous towards him. When he had collected himself he said, that I was rude and he didn’t want to see me around again and I should stay at home and as a final thought he added I tell your mother. I didn’t feel to good as my
conscience was burdened more by telling my mother than my deed. On this day my mother went over to the railway station to pick up her weekly train ticket she used to go to work. Anxiously I waited and prepared myself to be scolded and perhaps even slapped when she returned from her errand. My mother returned and talked about everyday things, how my school day was, had I finished my homework, she hoped it would be a sunny day tomorrow as she had her washday, she looked at me curiously and said your are very quiet has cat got your tongue or was it to busy all day long. I didn’t respond but I carried out my little chores with so much eagerness that my mother scrutinized me once more but left me alone as I didn’t respond.
The next morning, before I went to school, I went to the railway station to see the stationmaster and apologized for my bad behaviour. I said, that I didn’t know how it happened that my tongue had a will of its own. Bemused he looked at me, shook his head mumbled in his throat, dismissed me with a gesture of his hand and my misdemeanour was more or less forgotten.
Occasionally I was invited into his office. The desk in the office was not the usual one to sit at with a chair. It was very high and the stationmaster had to stand at it to write his reports. He usually handed me some crayons and paper to draw and I was allowed to take a chair and stand on it to reach the desk. On each side of a small table stood a chair. I took one of the chairs and placed it to reach the desk. The stationmaster came back into his office for his coffee break. Coffee cup in his hand and without a glance backwards he lounged himself in his customary chair that wasn’t there. There was a mighty crash, he was a big man, and the stationmaster sat on the floor the hot coffee spilled over him. It looked so comical and I was tempted to laugh but his stare, which followed the chair I was standing on, forbade it. He didn’t scold me but for a long time I was not invited back into his office.
Then something out of the ordinary happened. A luxury express train arrived like they always did. Yet it didn’t pass by as customary with flashing red carriages it came to a shuddering halt with grinding wheels seeming unwilling to stop in such an unsophisticated place. The stationmaster rubbed his hands and went towards the engine where the locomotive driver looked out of his window. Curiously my eyes wandered along the carriages and I wondered what happened? On the third carriage the door opened slowly. To my amazement I saw a snow-white polar bear around his neck a silken pink ribbon. Clumsily, on his hind legs he tried to descend the couple of high steps, swayed and collapsed onto the platform. My imagination didn’t let me see a lady dressed in a brilliant white fur. The white furry body was utterly still. People’s faces looked with inquiring expressions out of the windows. I was the first kneeling beside her and hold her head covered with a hood of the same white fur; it was downy, soft like a baby chicken. People from the train, the train driver, the train guard and the stationmaster made soon a ring around the prostrate lady who slowly opened her eyes, big pools black and liquid. The train driver sucking his pipe and throwing his hands up was distressed. The stationmaster went back to his office and returned with a bottle of schnapps and a tiny glass, strictly for emergencies he said, and he smiled with his eyes. Very gently he gave her a little of the fiery liquid, she swallowed, hiccupped and her mouth quivered. He gave her a few more sips and she said in French what am I doing here why am I not in my carriage and tried to stand up. The men helped her up the steps and then awkwardly she turned towards me and said merci, ma petite, before she turned I said I actually thought she was a polar bear when I saw her emerging in her white fur, She looked at me and smiled and said:” I will never forget that, and actually I am a polar bear.
Then the train guard helped her up into the carriage and into her first class compartment. Windows and doors were shut the train driver went to his engine and soon it was just like it never had happened, I was left with my thoughts looking at the empty platform.
After that incident it was rare that something exiting happened. The trains that carried the American soldiers through Europe had ceased to run. As long as those trains passed I was well supplied with chewing gum. When a train full of soldiers stopped they threw handfuls of “chiclet.”
I had never had it before and had become quite partial to my little store of chewing gum. First the flavour was sweet and minty than slowly the taste became bland and the chiclet looked like a chewed up rubber band. It usually ended up hidden in a corner in the pocket of my apron. Usually I forgot to remove the small grey ball before the apron was washed and it and remained as a sticky substance in my pocket. Long afterwards I still found rests that I scratched away with my fingernails that didn’t taste of anything anymore.