On the run
By Wilfried N'Sondé
It must have been a Tuesday at the central bus station in Berlin-Charlottenburg; I had chosen a day with little rush so as to travel to Paris as comfortably as possible. Twelve hours driving time, sometimes more, rarely less. So that the route didn’t become a real ordeal, you had to plan accordingly.
I was relieved and a little proud to note that just under twenty people, politely lined up in a queue, waited patiently outside the bus door. So buoyantly I entered the station concourse, into which a gusty, icy east wind drove me. Since the beginning of February, the thermometer had not climbed above zero, but the bitterly cold air that bit my face and all unprotected areas of the skin was the herald of a particularly unpleasant night.
After checking in, I made myself comfortable on the back seat, which fortunately I had all to myself. I was looking forward to stretching myself out; I could sleep in peace, maybe even until our destination. So the departure for Paris stood under a very good sign; a pleasure trip on which I could let the silence of the frosted landscape gently envelop me in a nocturnal cloak. The idea was particularly pleasing because passengers have no longer been automatically disturbed by the passport controls since the borders between Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were opened. As an adolescent, I had been amazed by the mishap of the great French poet Gérard de Nerval, who wanted to travel from his home in Paris to the palace of Fontainebleau and was arrested and detained in Melun, fifty kilometres from Paris, because he wasn’t able to produce his passport for the police. I take the last bite of my sandwich and the chips and remember my first visit to Berlin: the train left around 8 pm from the Gare du Nord in Paris and should have arrived the next day at 10 o’clock at Berlin Zoo Station. During those long fourteen hours I had been checked five times, three times alone in divided Germany.
I was half asleep when Julie boarded the bus at the first stop in Hannover late in the evening. She had difficulty getting in with the rather bulky bag on her back, holding her two daughters by the hand as the three moved forward through the narrow centre aisle, one ahead, the other behind. The adorable four-year-old twins Noëlle and Joëlle had the touching childlike enthusiasm of still unclouded happiness written in their faces, especially right before departure, intoxicated by the upcoming long journey. So that the three could stay together, I offered them my five seats in the back of the bus. The little girls drummed their feet against the seat, pressed noses to the window, their lustrous eyes wide open, in the expectation of everything there was to discover beyond the glass. Their short legs dangled back and forth; they clapped their hands in delight as the engine stuttered before starting.
Julie’s worried or suspicious look was mainly directed to the floor, as if she feared her eyes would betray her thoughts. Secrets? At first I thought it was shyness or fatigue, especially as the young mother reminded her children to be quieter, in a subdued, extremely gentle voice, immensely tender and patient. Still, the children whispered loudly, playing, squabbling, trying to sneak from one end of the bus to the other. In spite of the late hour, their droll games, their irrepressible exultation, their barely concealed conspiratorial chuckles, and simply the good humour that conveyed their innocence and the lust for life sparkling in their eyes amused the other passengers, who slowly slipped into impervious sleep.
When the girls were exhausted, peace returned to the bus, which in the meantime was driving through the Netherlands. A quick look outside: here and there streets were lit by lanterns, a house. In the cone of light, I perceived how violent the icy wind was, which was making the leaves, covered with a thin layer of ice, shiver. The girls came back to their mother; with heavy eyelids, their eyes already dreamwards; they cuddled at her side, asked for a kiss, a caress; then their bodies went limp. As they fell asleep, Julie attentively covered them with their coats. With her daughters snuggled in the embryo position, Julie raised her head. She examined the wandering horizon with a piercing look, peering as if seeking an answer that would emerge from the deepest nocturnal blue. The urgency with which she explored the darkness made me curious; she was serious, not a blink, her arms protectively wrapped around the waists of the two angels, now fitfully sucking on their thumbs. Perhaps she sensed something bad; she remained tense, alarmed, watchful.
We were speeding on without hindrance, making our way through a Western Europe plunged into darkness, when Julie put her hand on my shoulder and shook me gently, asking if I could keep an eye on Noëlle and Joëlle while she was gone for a moment. It was on this occasion that she gave me her first name. I agreed, smiled back, and was touched by her children sleeping behind me. The pink ribbons in the rumpled hair described lines and circles above their heads every time they moved in their sleep.
Julie had just closed the loo door behind her when suddenly a light emerged that tore sleepers from their dreams and blinded them. The girls straightened up, pouting and rubbing their eyes with their fists. The driver slowed down and, as soon as he asked us to get ready for inspection by the Dutch border police, I heard Julie come back up the stairs and run towards her children. She was very scared. The fear left on her face the expression of a hunted animal that has no refuge. Led by a police car, the bus drove off the highway and came to a halt in the parking area of a petrol station. Two customs officers boarded, wearing uniforms with the flags of the Netherlands and the European Union and weapons on their belts. The first greeted us briefly in a loud, authoritarian tone and announced a passport inspection; we would have to get our travel documents out. Julie’s face remained uncommunicative; behind her temples was the frantic up and down of the jaw; fear paralyzed her, and she no longer answered the questions of Joëlle, who doggedly wanted to know from her why they had stopped. They wanted to drive on, like all the other cars they saw passing in the distance.
The officials began the inspection in good humor; routine, a smile, the usual decorous and polite phrases. I saw that Julie had a problem. The more the distance between the customs officers and her shrank, the more she tensed up. They were almost at the end of the bus. The driver started the engine to re-continue driving. I don’t know what my expression told them, but theirs were suddenly different, suspicious. The policeman who took my passport frowned and asked me where I was going. The words stuck in my throat; I stuttered “Paris”; something strangled my breath. Then that was that; they kept going. Julie lowered her eyes, stammering futile explanations. No papers, no residence permit, migrants; she searched for something in her bag, pulled out a file, but there was nothing to be done; they shook their heads, she kept talking and started to cry. It didn’t help. One of the officers asked the driver to stop the engine and open the luggage compartment door. Humiliated and desperate, Julie took her coat, as did Joëlle and Noëlle, who noisily raised their noses, gathered their things together, and followed the guardians of the law without a word. The other passengers on the bus, me included, remained silent. The deep discomfort found no words, but it brought on nausea. Only shy, disapproving, powerless looks. What had she done wrong that she should be forbidden to continue her journey?
From my window, the three of them looked tiny between the two nearly six-foot-three officials. One ran a hand over his face, from forehead to chin, turned his eyes away from the girls and smoothed his moustache. The other man kept talking on the phone, trying to get an answer, without success, and became angry. One of the girls sobbed on his mum’s leg, her small breast heaving her winter coat irregularly. Her sister waved a tiny hand in my direction; I was appalled by the sadness in her face and ashamed that I was allowed go on while she had to stay there. Dead in the middle of winter, held in the icy February cold, forced to stop, thwarted.
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