The Kevin Haggith Series: Once Upon A Train (2)

The Guest Photographer & Short Story Series is back!
For this project, the guests were asked to submit three sets of photographs, the choice was entirely theirs and were not necessarily confined to a particular genre or theme. The short stories that ensue are based on the set of photos submitted, and the title of the photograph is imbedded in the story. The project has been dormant for a while but it is back with the Class of 2020, as a tribute to the outstanding work of the photographers and a celebration of enduring friendship! The stories will rotate according to photographer, some linked and others as stand-alones.

The photographer: Kevin Haggith is a Toronto-based photographer whose soulful images combine geometry and artistry, showcasing the strength of architecture or magnificence of a city, but always crowned with a gentle sensitivity and imprints of human presence.
For more of his work visit his Instagram pages:
Black & White or Coloured

The train compartment fell silent as everyone retreated into their own thoughts for the time being. Thilo was feeling the strain of the excitement of the past hours and the painkillers were wearing off. His right shoulder ached the most at the moment, with an incessant throbbing pain that radiated from the base of the neck all the way down the right side of his body to his heel. There was a time he could outrun Frank and Jan, even if they were all naked, barefoot and stone drunk after having partied through the night. None of them would deny that he could also out-swim them in open waters. All three of them were certified open-water lifeguards long before Thilo chose his career path as a paramedic, and done the Iron Man challenge three years in a row. Yet, here he was, in excruciating pain and feeling the desolation of his life coming to an end decades too early. 

It is not that he regretted missing out the best things life still had to offer – true love, family, financial stability, a successful career, adventures, travels – but he worried about his two best friends, his soul brothers. How would they survive without him? Theirs was a bond that transcended blood relations and social discrepancies. They were closer than blood siblings ever could be, knowing one another inside out, understanding each minute nuance in the body language without the need for words. The disappearance of one from the triumvirate would be tantamount to an amputation of a limb in a healthy body. It felt like a betrayal to Thilo, and the guilt was killing him faster than the cancer was. 

Jan watched Thilo like a hawk, keenly aware that his brother-from-another-mother was suffering, and trying with every fibre of his being to put up a brave front. He had refused to show weakness and fear since Day 1, preferring to fight back and emerge triumphant by hook or by crook. Sadly, this was one battle Thilo would never win thought Jan, as his fingers subconsciously stroked the kangaroo pouch resting on his abdomen which contained emergency shots of morphine. But this was not the time to dwell on death, that would come soon enough. 

So, Herman, tell us a bit more about your tours of duty. Where were you assigned? Asked Jan as cheerfully as he possibly dared without sounding too artificial. You must have witnessed your fair share of human tragedy

Horsing Around ©Kevin Haggith

Herman didn’t answer right away. Instead, he inhaled sharply and looked out the window in stoney silence. After a while, without turning to look at the boys, he spoke up. I was only a child during during World War II, far too young to be drafted, but I remember watching all the young men in the village leave one after the other, their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters all howling like injured wolves at the doorway. All the other children got left behind to work in the fields with the women, helping out with the farm animals from sunrise to sunset. There was no time for Horsing Around, we were small adults, not children, and treated as farmhands not sons. And I hated it every blasted moment of it, cursing my fate with every potato I dug up, or carrot I pulled out of the ground. I wanted to be with the men, doing the brave stuff, fighting for the Vaterland. So the rage grew day by day, and I got into more and more trouble in school, questioned the church, found no joy in family ties, and hated my mother and grandmother more than anyone else in the world

Why? Asked Frank softy. 

Windswept ©Kevin Haggith

Herman tightened his grip around the handkerchief and leaned his head against the window, squeezing his eyes shut. They were whores to the French and American soldiers that rolled in. While my father and uncles were getting shot or became prisoners of war of the British or Russians, my mother and her sisters sewed pretty dresses, painted their faces with contraband makeup, and painted their lips red with flower dye. They opened our house to all sorts of strangers who spoke languages I never understood, and quite frankly neither did they. While they grunted and groaned like animals on the bed, sofa, or even the kitchen table, I was locked in the closet until it was all over. It was dark, damp, stuffy, there was no air, and I could hear everything that was going on, even the screams of pain when four or more men took one woman. They showed no mercy even to the older women, and spat on them when they were finished, sometimes kicking their stomachs just for fun. Mother always looked Windswept, broken, and so empty afterwards, as if a piece of her soul disappeared with each man who used and abused her. Sure, we always had chocolates, milk, butter, and flour after that, but my hunger for revenge was greater than the one in my stomach.

Jan watched Herman’s hands form clenched fists on the arm rests, the knuckles turning whiter and the old wrinkled skin on his stubby fingers suddenly smoothening out. 

It sounds to me as though your mother and the other women found a way to survive Herman. Desperate times will drive a strong woman to do things she despises, but if it means being able to live another day and feed her children, she will do anything, said Frank. Those were times when morality took a backseat to survival instinct

Herman fell silent again, and the boys did not push or rush him. The landscape began to change, and the Brandenburger flatlands faded into the distance, Berlin suddenly insignificantly far, and Dresden looming before them. 

The (not so) Simple Life ©Kevin Haggith

The turning point came in 1960, with John F. Kennedy as the new US President, and Nikita Khrushchev ruling the Soviet Union. The world was tense, The (not so) Simple Life had become a living nightmare, and I was an angry young man eager to leave home and exact my revenge on the world that had wronged me. So I made my way to Berlin to start my university studies at the Humboldt University. I wanted to fit in right away, find like-minded angry young men who hated women, the war, and the government. Berlin was perfect for such hotheads like me, and I was soon running with the radicals, getting deeper into a world I knew nothing about. Until I sold my soul to them, said Herman quietly. 

Both Frank and Thilo felt a chill run down their back at Herman’s last words, unsure whether they wanted to hear more or not. Jan sat in silence, his body tensing and in full alert. Thilo glanced at him and then back to Frank, softly tapping the index and middle fingers on his knee almost imperceptibly. Frank tilted his head to the left, rubbing his right earlobe as if it were itchy. This was a code they had developed in Primary School, to signal one another that trouble was brewing and they all had to be careful. 

Before they had a chance to do anything however, the conductor’s voice exploded over the speaker, announcing their arrival in Dresden. Jan and Frank jumped to their feet to retrieve their duffel bags. Herman remained seated but finally turned to face them. Is that offer still open to travel with you? My medical training could come in handy with Thilo, and I tell you some really scary bedtime stories over a bottle of beer and a campfire

Hay ©Kevin Haggith

Frank hesitated only for the briefest of moments, before smiling and stretching out his hand. Of course Herman, of course. We are headed to a small farm about 30 min away from the city. Since we will be surrounded by Hay, I am afraid we will have those beers without the fire. Here, let me get your case for you.   

No! Said Herman in an agitated voice. I will carry my own case. Nobody touches my case. Ever. Thilo thought this sounded more like a Rottweiler’s growl than human expression, but he was too tired to make a comment. 

An hour later, the four men were unpacking their bags. Herman was given his own quarters, while Thilo, Jan and Frank shared the big room close to the bathroom. Jan scrounged around the kitchen and began preparing dinner, while Frank helped Thilo change into this pyjamas. Their two other friends would come and visit over breakfast, they had explained. The truth is, said Frank, Thilo requested a living funeral, wishing for the privilege to say goodbye to our closest friends and close the chapters of his life together. He has seen so much death in his line of work, and understands just how important closure is for the ones left behind. Everyone we will be visiting over the next four days has touched our lives in one way or another, and Thilo wants to hear what they have to say while he is still alive. How many times do we sit through eulogies and wish the dearly departed could hear all the lovely things being said about them

Once he was back in his room, Herman unzipped his suitcase, placed the toiletry bag on the bedside table, unopened, removed the picture frame from the wrapping and propped it up against the candlestick on the desk by the window, and switched on his mobile phone.
No signal.

He turned back to the toiletry bag, unfolded it carefully, extracted a scalpel, surgical gloves, clamps, scissors, and forceps. Walking over to the desk, he traced the frame with the tips of his fingers until he found the groove he was looking for. Pressing down with his fingernail, the frame unlatched and each side was an individual vial, one containing needles, and the three others hosted liquid venom from the golden frog. 

To be continued…

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