Archivakte - First Chapter
To drown or to endure?
To allow the excruciating physical pain to draw him across the threshold from unbearable agony into unconsciousness?
Un-grit his teeth and let his head loll submissively forward into the bucket of cold water. Exhale until his lungs overflowed, with the knowledge that to release his soul to the murky contents of the pail would be preferable to the horrors that hovered above the water's surface?
Or to endure?
To resurface in a spluttering revival, and return to the single dull lightbulb suspended from a black ceiling supported by black walls supported by a black floor. Return to the wooden medievil-style yoke that cruelly bent his body double and clasped his head and hands like a fairground attraction with wet sponges.
Return to the claustrophobic hot stench of damp, of vomit and something unmistakably worse.
And return to the pain.
It barely seemed possible that the fairly blunt rubber ridges that lined the floor and bit incessantly into his bare feet, could drive him to such physical distraction.
But that was the purpose behind the design of this dank chamber. There was nothing instant and sharp about what was dealt here. It was a pain ruthlessly constructed rather than recklessly inflicted, and targeted as much at the state of mind as it was at the physical body.
The ridges would gnaw away at him, pressing resolutely against the soles of his feet, ever more insistently. Until the rest of his body felt numbed and non-existent and all of his senses focussed centrifugally on the ridges, and the tender defenceless flesh they now seemed to be burrowing into.
Only dimly aware was he at first of the constant droplets of water falling from above. They dripped relentlessly onto the back of his head and exposed neck, before mingling with a thick layer of sweat and sliding down into the bucket of water that was suspended inches below his face. But in tandem with the increasing physical pain, one drip after another began to niggle away at him mentally until each drop of moisture felt as if it were battering his skull a little more forcefully than the last. This was a finishing touch created not with discomfort in mind, but as a final nudge into the hazy environs of insanity.
It was insanity he was flirting with now, both physically and mentally.
A wetness had gathered around his feet.
Blood, for sure.
The first involuntary shudders rippled through him, brought on by the raw torment. Spasms of the most unpleasant, masochistic kind.
Such maddening, relentless pain. He tried not to picture how the ridges had probably carved their way through a couple of layers of skin, and were now cutting deeper into the more sensitive layers beneath.
He growled defiance through his teeth.
As throughout, the reaction of the two guards present was to remain motionless and speechless. Any conscience that did lurk at all in their minds remained just that - recessed in their minds. Perhaps the younger of the two, fresh-faced and clean-cut, had betrayed the slightest discomfort at what he was witnessing. The older man however, was obviously far more experienced with such a scenario, and as a result entirely unmoved by it. He was the senior officer who had interrogated the prisoner under a penetrating spot-lamp for hours that seemed to run into days, and had grown increasingly frustrated by his refusal to inform.
There was no interrogation now. Just a diligent silence. This was no longer a means to an end, no longer a torture to coax answers. It was punishment, devised to run its course and scar in more ways than one.
There was more blood now, he could feel it soaking his heels and trickling between his toes.
With eyes closed, he could picture the faces of those he'd helped to the other side, across the forbidden line into the 'free' world. Or as his interrogators would have him believe, the land of 'parasites'.
As the "Black Channel" on his television set would tell him, the land of greed and war-mongering.
He wondered where those apprehensive but excited faces were now. Had they made it undetected? Were they happy and smiling? Perhaps they were lying in a park somewhere in their new world, soaking up the summer sunshine and picnicking on food they had previously not had access to, swigging Western brands of beer.
A new life.
He hoped defiantly that they were. They would not know that he'd ended up here in this approximation of hell, they would not be aware of the price he was paying for this new-found freedom of theirs, and of so many others. It didn't matter, so long as they had made it.
With his eyes still clamped shut by the pain slicing through him, he could see the faces smiling gratefully at him, waving to him.
He laughed aloud, directing it at the guards present. Laughed because of the irony of this whole madness. The irony that, were his hopes to be correct, he had won. Whatever they were subjecting him to now, their system of repression had failed, and would continue to fail. He had still won.... he and the others.
Still the guards refused to react.
And then he vomited violently into the bucket of water, watching it settling mockingly across the surface. To add more shame to his predicament, he could now smell his own fear and indignity as it floated and waited to smear his face the next time he briefly passed out.
His earlier growls of resistance were now a series of short, teeth-gritted screams. His head convulsed, and then plunged into the soiled water in a final surrender. This time his will to resurface was broken.
There had been countless others before him, subjected to the same torture, some of whom had been left to voluntarily drown themselves. For some reason, he wasn't.
He returned to a spluttering, choking consciousness, and found himself being dragged back to the cell, the young guard and the officer either side of him with an arm locked under each of his.
He wouldn't have been able to walk it anyway, his feet by now were a mess, a throbbing mush of skin tissue caked in drying blood.
When the door slammed shut, and he was left submerged in the oppressive heat and darkness of his own cell, the tears began to stream from his eyes.
Tears of pain, self-pity and fear. But most of all, and to his mild surprise, wet blurry wells of anger.
And then the anger made way for an even deeper fury as his fists thudded weakly against the stone walls.
The knowledge that they had temporarily broken him, was tempered by a determined resolve.
Oskar Schulze was roused from a light doze by the train's jolting decrease of speed.
" Wittenberg. " The voice on the tannoy system was toneless and abrupt as it announced the latest stop.
It was clearly a quiet time of day on this line, something that Oskar noted with gladness as he eyed the small scattering of commuters who had isolated themselves at even intervals along the platform.
So he was mildly irritated at the elderly gentleman who took a seat opposite him. He viewed it as an un-necessary proximity when the rest of the carriage was largely empty. Oskar needed solitude right now. Time to take stock, and to think about the days ahead. He knew there would be no better opportunity for this than during the train journey.
One of the advantages of rail travel is that the present is temporarily taken out of your hands, and your brain is left with no decision to make as you are obediently carried to your chosen destination.
It's a limbo period, a tract of non-time where your mind can wander in whatever direction it wants to.
No distractions. Unless an elderly stranger plants himself opposite and starts talking at you.
Dozing off hadn't been part of the plan for Oskar, but he wasn't surprised it had happened considering the sudden and hectic turn of events that morning had taken.
The phone call had been the catalyst, and his girlfriend Kathrin had been far from impressed by its consequences.
" I told you when and when not to call me, " he said quietly into the mouth-piece, carefully watching Kathrin's movements in the kitchen. He'd moved to the safe distance of the hallway. " This is not a good time. "
" I know, " replied a female voice at the other end of the line, " But I have something for you that I thought you might consider an exception to the rule. "
Oskar moved further away from the kitchen, barely daring to breathe.
" Okay, what are you saying here? You have found him? " Maybe I don't want you to say yes. Maybe a part of me would rather he was dead. Then that could be the end of it, there and then.
" Found him? " The woman released a humourless laugh. " It turns out that I've been working for him for the past two weeks. "
When the brief phone call ended, he had braced himself for the headache of explaining to Kathrin his sudden departure.
" This is crazy, you have to leave right now? Just like that? "
" I'm sorry Kathrin. This is a matter of great urgency to me. " He bundled a random selection of clothes into an old brown leather suitcase.
" How it can be, I do not know. " She then repeated his glib explanation back to herself. " A person whom you met once before, who you need to know everything about. "
" Yes. "
" And you only ever met them the once? "
" Yes. Please don't ask me to explain any further. "
She circled him, throwing her arms in the air.
" That has to be the dumbest explanation for anything that I've ever heard! "
Oskar tried to ignore her, retrieving soap and a toothbrush from the bathroom.
" You do realise how that comes across to me, don't you Oskar? "
" Not really.... but I'm sure you're going to tell me anyway. "
" It says to me that you're seeing somebody else. "
" Kathrin, the person in question is a he. "
" Oh it gets even better, " she spat, bursting into a fiery bloom that he normally enjoyed. " So it's a gay affair is it? "
Normally enjoyed, but not this morning.
" Please Kathrin, it's a private matter for me, and not one I can even discuss with you. Just show me a little trust on this one, and I promise I"ll be back within the week. "
Well, he thought, promises are made to be broken after all. And he knew it was highly unlikely he'd return in a week.
She folded her arms tightly and turned her head away as he attempted a consolation peck on the cheek.
A little later, when he hauled his case into the kitchen in preparation to leave, he caught her grabbing a couple of his cans of beer from the fridge before pouring them calmly into the sink.
Oskar could only smile knowingly. This was a regular act of hers, a quirky and silent display of her displeasure towards him. Still wearing the smile, he leaned against the door-frame and watched.
' Perhaps I will miss you, ' he thought. ' But the problem is, I don't think I have ever loved you. '
Now , as the flat grey and green expanse rolled endlessly towards and past his line of vision, Kathrin was already fast becoming a distant memory. Left fuming no doubt, somewhere back in Leipzig.
He had a picture etched in his mind of her throwing a solitary tantrum in their apartment, but with no audience present to witness the plates shattering against the wall. He smiled again as he pondered how much crockery they'd got through in their two year relationship. Enough to single-handedly keep a department store in business?
A cliched act to resort to it may have been, but even when dodging the plates and cutlery lobbed in his direction, he'd still found her at her most exciting and attractive. Of course, plate-lobbing had always been the next stage on from pouring beer quietly and ominously down the sink.
He had never loved her.
It was more a reflection of him than it was of Kathrin, he was well aware of that. He wasn't too sure whether he could love anybody anymore. And that was why he knew, regardless of what happened over the next week or more, his return to their apartment would only be to collect the rest of his possessions.
Certainly at this moment in time, she mattered about as much to him as the elderly man sat opposite on the train.
An elderly man who, it had not escaped Oskar's notice, had twice now peered at him over the top of his spectacles before shifting his eyes back to his newspaper.
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