David Mitchell is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. He is author of Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2016) and co-author of Ex-combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). He speaks regularly at home and abroad on conflict and peacemaking in Northern Ireland.
David has been writing creatively for many years, and is an occasional performance poet and Johnny Cash act. In 2013, he was longlisted for the Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. A novel is languishing on his laptop. He lives in Belfast with his wife and two young children.
A Man on a Train in Berlin
He flicked his eyes away, out the window and towards the dark, scrolling city and said, ‘Someone’s following me.’
The old woman smiled. She moved to look.
‘No, no, don’t. Please,’ he said.
‘Following you? What do you mean?’ said the old woman.
‘Some guy. He’s at the end of the carriage. I saw him at the airport. Then this morning in a café.’
‘Oh, it is chance!’ said the woman. ‘He is another tourist and you are going to the same places.’
‘He doesn’t look like a tourist.’
‘What does he look like?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t see his face.’
He had met the woman fifteen minutes ago, at Alexanderplatz station. She had spoken to him on the platform.
‘Are you alright?’
He turned to the voice. A pair of eyes, red-rimmed and squeezed with wrinkles, looked up at him.
‘You are sick?’ said the old woman.
‘No,’ he said. He touched his wet temple.
The train was sliding into place. He watched the woman’s white head move through the crowd to the edge of the platform. He looked at the red and yellow carriages, endless on either side. The people flooding into them. He did feel sick. He felt like he wanted to be dead. He boarded last.
The woman was sitting just inside the carriage, facing backwards by a window. He sat down opposite. He held his guidebook open, rubbed his face with his sleeve now and then. After three stops the people across the aisle left. The woman said, ‘You are American?’
‘You live in Berlin?’
‘OK. You like?’
‘I’m with my brother. He’s at a conference so I’m – seeing the sights.’
‘Sights. What sights you see in Berlin?’
He pocketed the guidebook. ‘The zoo. The museums. The tourist ones.’
‘Where going now?’
‘I’m going to Potsdamer Platz,’ he said. ‘The book says about it.’
The woman nodded. ‘Be careful you don’t disappear.’
‘Do not get lost. There is too much… space in Berlin. The buildings are too big, the squares are too wide, the streets are too long. Before, you are you. Now, you are just a man on a train in Berlin. Hold on to your little map!’
‘I’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘It’s easy to get around.’
‘Ja, the trains are good. Without the trains – just space.’
They both looked out the window. Pavements spread with wet light, blazing brand names, dark figures at crossings.
Then he told her he was being followed.
‘Can I look?’ said the old woman. ‘Is he scary? Maybe the Stasi are watching you!’
‘No, don’t, it’s OK,’ he said. The man was holding the rail so that his arm blocked his face from view. The train was slowing. Die nächste Station ist der Bahnhof Friedrichstraße. ‘I’m going to get off here.’
‘But this is not Potsdamer,’ she said. ‘You said you are going to – ’
‘I know but, I’ll get another train.’
‘You are too hot. You are sick – ’
He got up. There was a clot of passengers at the exit so he pushed through the crush to the next carriage. He hit the green button on the doors and stepped out.
Striding towards the escalators, he pulled on his hat and gloves and checked to see that the man was still on the train. But the man was gone. He ran.
When he had arrived at Alexanderplatz from his hotel, the information screen above the platform had said there would be an S9 towards Potsdamer Platz in two minutes. Two minutes was plenty, so he rang his girlfriend.
‘I couldn’t get you today,’ she said.
‘I forgot to turn my phone on for a while this morning,’ he said, sifting through faces.
‘There’s a big envelope for you from Canada. Do you want me to open it?’
‘No, it’s fine,’ he said. ‘The company told me there’s some stuff I have to sign before I start work over there. It’ll wait.’
‘OK. Maybe it’s important?’
‘How’s the foetus?’
She hesitated. ‘Can you not talk like that?’
‘I’m just being funny. Keeps me calm. Nothing from the hospital?’
‘No results about… him or her, no? No. We just wait for the appointment on Friday.’
‘You know we’re just waiting.’
At that moment he glimpsed the man, far off by a ticket machine. His lungs shrank. ‘You told me I should go to Berlin,’ he said.
‘I thought it’d do you good,’ said his girlfriend, ‘to have a break before we move away. But I wish you were home.’
‘Wherever that is.’
His girlfriend’s breath crackled. ‘I’m too tired for this. I’m going.’
He looked around him. The man had vanished. The information screen said one minute, one minute until the train. ‘And I thought you wanted me back,’ he said.
She hung up.
He checked again – he couldn’t find the man. Where was this train? He felt for his wallet and passport. His heart was slamming, his neck burned beneath his scarf. He thought he should go back to the hotel. Then an old woman was standing beside him with sore eyes and a thin voice.
‘Are you alright?’ she said.
He pushed his way down the escalators and into the busy shopping mall at the base of Friedrichstraße station. Outside, he ran through the traffic and stopped on the bridge over the Spree. He looked back at the station, panting the icy air.
It was so dark. He should have stayed inside, stayed around people. Why hadn’t he stayed inside? Or on the train? He could have kept an eye on the man. He could have made sure he wasn’t following him, seen who he was.
He looked east along the black river, at the Cathedral and the TV tower with its flashing light on top, bright as blood.
The hotel, he needed to get back there.
He returned across the road and into the station, trying not to look at anyone. He ran up to the platforms; a train was there – he boarded just as the doors were closing. Standing, he gripped the handrail with his head down. Then he started walking.
Now he checked every face, the rows and bunches of them, seated and standing, young and old, with scarves and hats and make-up and glasses. At the end of the carriage, he moved into the next, then the next. In the last one there was just a young couple and a woman with a book. He stood, weakly, by the outer door with his back to where the driver was, facing the way he had come.
He reached into his pocket for his phone. His trousers were damp with a warm liquid.
That morning he had met his brother during a break in the conference. They sat outside in Hackescher Markt, in one of the cafés by the old arches of the train overpass. It was just above freezing but he wanted to smoke.
‘Isn’t this an odd place for a conference of missionaries?’ he said, after long silence.
‘Germany?’ said his brother.
‘Berlin. It seems kind of… godless. The whole atmosphere. I don’t know what it is.’
‘Well half this city tried to get rid of God for forty years.’
‘Maybe it’s just the buildings.’
‘No, I know what you mean. But I’m interested you noticed.’
‘Are you? Because I’m godless?’ he said.
‘I see you’re backsliding with the smoking too.’
He was looking up at the TV tower, bleached against the cold sky.
‘You should go up there, if you’ve time,’ said his brother. ‘It’s three hundred metres up. The views must be amazing. Someone at the conference was saying that they built it as a monument to socialism, to lord it over the West. Now there’s a Starbucks in it.’
One of his hands was squeezing his coffee cup, the other held his cigarette. ‘I wonder if it ever feels like ending it all. Just falling over and taking a load of us capitalists with it.’
His brother smiled, examining him. ‘Why don’t I take tomorrow morning off? We can get a big breakfast somewhere and both go up there.’
He folded his arms tightly. His mouth hung open for a moment before he spoke: ‘The week we found out Andrea was pregnant, I was planning to leave her.’
A train rattled the overpass.
He looked at his silent brother. ‘Remember back in September, her cousin in Toronto told me he had the job for me?’
‘We fought about it for weeks. She was dying to go but I just… Ever since Mum died me and Andrea had been all over the place. I couldn’t go through with it. I could hardly go through with anything. I picked the Wednesday to tell her we were finished. On the Tuesday she told me she was pregnant. Now there’s all this stuff with the baby and – ’
His brother leaned forward, cupping his hands over his mouth and nose. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
He exhaled. ‘All in the Divine plan – that’s your script, right?’
‘I don’t know. I know we can’t plan everything. Things happen. Things we can’t predict. But you deal with them.’
‘Or you don’t,’ he said.
‘But you are dealing with them. You’ve decided to make it work and that’s what’ll happen.’
He shook his head, watching something. ‘When you’re a kid, you’re so free. You’re weightless. But years go by and it’s like you get heavier and heavier and heavier, all these bits and pieces get stuck to you. The suddenly you can’t move anymore.’
A waiter removed an empty plate. His brother sat up, smiled politely. ‘Are you still going to check out Potsdamer Platz later?’
‘I’ll be finished around nine-thirty tonight. If you’re back at the hotel for then we’ll get a drink in that bar around the corner, OK?’
‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘There’s a guy over there, in the next café. His back’s turned but I’m nearly sure he was at the airport, where everyone stands waiting for the people coming out of the baggage area.’
‘OK. Did you hear what I said? Nine-thirty?’
‘What are the chances?’
‘He’s getting up,’ he said. ‘Maybe he saw me looking. Seriously, I think – ’
‘Who are you talking about?’ said his brother, turning around.
His brother looked at him, bringing coins out of his pocket. ‘Nobody’s after you. This is a fascinating city, do something fun this afternoon. I need to run, my next session starts at quarter past, but I’ll see you at the hotel at nine-thirty, right?’
He stood abruptly. ‘Yeah, I’ll be there. I don’t think I’ll bother with Potsdamer. I’ll just get dinner in the room.’
His girlfriend wasn’t picking up. As he listened for her voice he saw a security camera above the sliding doors at the end of the carriage. He imagined the grainy footage of him, maybe black and white with numbers in the corner, playing on the news. Last seen taking the S-Bahn…
‘Hey, it’s me. Ring me if you get this. As soon as you get this. Look I’m sorry about that last call. I’m just having a strange few days. I’m going to try and get back tomorrow if I can get a flight. Whatever we find out on Friday, we’ll deal with it, OK? I’m sorry.’
At Alexanderplatz station he stepped onto the platform, trying to keep bodies around him. He looked behind him, thought he saw the man, ran a few steps. It wasn’t him. On the escalator he kept watch behind then jogged through the arcade and outside.
The tram stops were there. He skipped over the lines and started across the square. His hotel was right on Alexanderplatz but the square was so vast it would take at least ten minutes to get there. Ten minutes of open darkness.
Space. That woman was right. Nothing but space and sky.
He kept on the south side of the TV tower, slow then fast, sometimes nearly tripping. There was a soft rain. Every part of him felt moist and old.
Then he saw the lit-up name of his hotel. A few minutes and I’ll be inside. I’ll be in that warmth and safety, and I’ll turn on CNN and get room service and lie in the bed until the morning. Then I’ll get a taxi to the airport and get out of this flat, endless city, I’ll forget about Canada and stay in my town by the sea where I belong.
But he looked over his shoulder.
The man – he was back at the tram stops beside the station.
And as he stood staring and shaking in the cold, he knew what was real and what was not. The hotel, the plane, the sea – they were just a dream. There was nothing except that man and now there was only one thing left to do.
He was walking.
Then running, running, running across the wet light until he leapt over the tramlines and gripped the man by the neck.
‘What do you want?’ he screamed. ‘Why are you following me? Why are you here?’ He had the man up against a sign and was bashing his head into it. They were in shadow from the lighting. He still couldn’t see the man’s face. His phone was ringing. ‘Who are you? Tell me who you are?’
‘You were following me,’ whispered a voice.
He let go. He heard a scraping sound and light appeared. It came over the man and his face became visible. He looked at him in horror, stepping backwards onto the tramline.