Two strangers meet on a train on a cold, dark night.
The train chugged into the station, looming and steaming like a breathless black stallion, all sweat and power. The soldier stood watching the dark carriages roll past as curtains of smoke tumbled over him; a memory of warmth. It was bitter-cold on the platform, and beyond its little pool of feeble lamp-light there was only a huddled village and grey waste blanketed in ice and snow. Not a place to be standing on a dark night. Sleet was starting to fall. He tapped a cigarette out of the flimsy pack he took from his breast pocket, searched idly for a match. The train drew to a halt just as he found it.
There was only one occupied compartment. As she watched the unshaven man step onto the train, she knew he’d find his way to it. Her eyes followed him even after he’d stepped aboard, tracing his journey through panelled walls, until she saw him standing at the door. He opened it, moving from darkness into light, though it was just a dull yellow pool spilling from an old-fashioned paraffin lamp. “Do you mind?” he asked in a voice like stones scraping against a quarryman’s boots. The midwife nodded.
She was pretty. Closer to middle-aged than young, but with a round, flushed face. Good dimples. After he slung his bag onto the shelf and sat down on the bench across from her, he finally got around to putting his cigarette in his mouth. He struck a match and let the sudden bright spark of flame fill his vision. He let it catch, then extinguished it with a deft shake. The paper crinkled and browned as he inhaled, letting the warm smoke fill him. He closed his eyes, wallowing in unaccustomed security. When he opened them again, she was looking at him, and he remembered his manners. “Sorry,” he mumbled through the cigarette and the curling blue-grey veil that now surrounded him. He pulled the pack out again and leant forward, offering her one.
“No, thank you,” she told him. He looked rough. Not in the sense of being dangerous, though he was certainly that, but tired, and older than his years. His pale eyes were sad. “I’ve seen what it does,” she added in reply to his questioning look.
She frowned, sensing they weren’t quite talking about the same thing. The train was moving again, and her gaze travelled to the grimy window. The dark shapes of the village, and the little oasis of light that was the silent station, were disappearing. Out there now was nothing – or as close to nothing as was possible in the modern world. A clear sky hanging over empty lands for a hundred miles or more in every direction.
“You’re a nurse?” the man asked.
She started, then realised he’d seen her bag and the symbol it bore. “No. Well yes. Sort of. A midwife.”
“You’re a soldier,” she guessed.
He smiled, very slightly. How had she known that? He wasn’t in any sort of uniform. But then, he never had been really. Uniforms, like guns, like food, like blankets, had been in short supply where he’d fought. “Everyone’s a soldier,” he said.
“Yes and no.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just that: yes and no.” She looked out of the window again. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted some light.”
Her turn to smile. “Not this compartment. I mean the train. Are you leaving or coming back?”
“Has to be one or the other.” Her voice was gently chiding.
“I can’t leave the places I’ve been, and I’ve got nowhere to come back to. So where does that put me?”
She thought about that. “On this train, I suppose.” That seemed to amuse him.
“What about you, sister?”
“Walking briskly, perhaps.”
“Ah. A man?”
“I see.” The cryptic answer seemed to satisfy him. He blew out another cloud of smoke. “I’m so tired of cities.”
“You know…I was thirteen when I first saw a man who’d been killed. You never look at a person the same way after that.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
“And it’s the same with cities,” he continued, as if she’d said nothing, “once you see them in ruins, their towers thrown down, streets packed with rubble and bodies, tanks grinding through what was once a real place filled with real people, you can’t imagine them any other way.”
“Where were you?” she asked.
He nodded, took another drag, kept staring out of the window. “It hollows you out, seeing all that. I went to Moscow after. They gave me a medal. All I could do was stare at the buildings, imagining them turned inside out.”
They were both silent for a while as the dark, blank country outside rolled by. “The first time I helped birth a baby,” the midwife said suddenly, “I didn’t sleep properly for a week afterwards.”
“It was bad?”
“I was fifteen. It scared the hell out of me. They don’t tell you about the blood, and the piss and the shit.”
He actually winced at her language. “I suppose not.” He wasn’t comfortable talking about this sort of thing for some reason. Never had been. Women didn’t interest him much.
“The mother, she was two weeks past her date, and the baby was big to start with. I’ll never forget the sound it made as it tore its way free.”
“She died,” the midwife sighed. “Too much blood lost. Or maybe it was the shock. Either way.”
“What about the baby?”
“A happy, healthy little boy, screaming his lungs out like all the rest. He was the last of twelve. I felt guilty giving that child to its father. I was fifteen, and already I was thinking that it would have been better if he’d died with his mother.”
“That’s a harsh truth,” the soldier acknowledged, “but truth it is. In Stalingrad I saw a man with his whole lower half torn to pieces by a German tank shell. He was alive, screaming.”
“No. Not exactly.”
She nodded, understanding. “A harsh truth.”
“All I did was kill.” He took his cigarette from between his lips and cupped it in his hand, hiding the flame. “You know the old story, about snipers?”
“They look for the light?”
“That’s it. An old habit of mine. Trying to shake it. Trying to relax, stop fighting the same war.”
“I know how you feel.”
“Your war’s different.”
“You bring life and joy. It’s bloody and its painful, but at least at the end of it you have something to hold. Something to love.”
“We won the war, didn’t we?”
“Maybe the boss men in the Kremlin did. Victory didn’t make much difference to my life. I just wanted to go home.”
“I thought you had nowhere to go back to?”
“I don’t. That’s what makes it so hard. I want what I can’t have.”
“We all do.”
He finished the cigarette and flicked it callously onto the wooden floor, then stubbed it out with his boot. The glowing ashes died and faded to grey-black dust. “So you’re tired of the blood too?”
“Tired of everything.”
“You don’t have any children of your own?”
She shook her head. “Never married. You?”
“It’s like what you said about cities. I can’t look at the human body the same now. The idea of being touched…”
He slowly took out another cigarette. He offered her one too, out of politeness. “They told me the war would be beautiful.”
“They told me the same thing about childbirth.”
“Maybe every profession is the same,” he said with a slight chuckle, “I suppose bureaucrats must have nightmares about ink and forms.”
“Do you think carpenters feel strange when they look at trees?”
“I suppose they must. This is what I meant when I said everyone was a soldier. Life has a way of destroying your illusions.”
“Some people might call that growing up.”
“Or getting old,” he countered.
“We’re not old yet.”
“Maybe not on the outside.” A silky, smoky halo wafted around him again as he breathed out. “Would you go back?”
“Before. Not along the rails, I mean. But in your life. If you had another try, would you do it differently?”
“Maybe. I always wanted to be a soldier.”
“Funny: I always wanted to help people.”
“You helped your friend who was hit by the shell,” she pointed out.
“He wasn’t a friend: he was a German.”
“Did it matter?”
“Not by the end, no. Did you ever feel different after a while?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, that first time…with the mother who died. You said you wished the baby had gone with her. Did it ever get better?”
“It got easier. But it never went away.”
“You always felt that?”
“You see that amount of pain, that amount of blood, it’s hard to look past it.”
“I take back what I said.”
“About your war being different.” They lapsed into silence again.
“Do you know where this train goes?” the midwife asked after a few minutes had passed.
“No. I didn’t even expect it to show up, but I saw the lights from a long way off and came out onto the platform. Seemed I ought to get on.”
“The same thing happened to me. Funny.”
“Funny,” the soldier agreed, and took another drag of his cigarette. Outside, the black world rumbled on.