Читать онлайн "Last Man To Die" автора Dobbs Michael - RuLit - Страница 2


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The bus lurched to the right and the Gate was no longer in sight. An overweight American in the next seat who had been sleeping off lunch gave a belch as he came to life and muttered something in the ear of his equally substantial wife. She ignored him, burrowing into her guide book, double checking everything they were told by the courier with an air of unremitting scepticism as if anxious to ensure they were getting their money’s worth. She saw Cazolet staring. ‘Yeah?’ she said aggressively as if welcoming the opportunity to engage in combat with someone new, before being distracted once again by the voice over the loudspeaker.

‘The low grassy mound you are seeing in front of you is all that is left of Hitler’s infamous Bunker, which was blown up by the Russians after the war. It was from this point that Hitler and his generals directed the campaign in its last few months, and it was here that he and his mistress Eva Braun committed suicide in the closing days of the war, she by poison, he by shooting himself …’

Up to this point the fat American had been far more engrossed in her guide book than the real-life sights of Berlin, but now she stared out of the window, leaning across the girth of her husband to get as close as possible. ‘’S no bigger than a Little League pitcher’s mound, Leo,’ she snorted in contempt, digging her husband in the ribs before snapping her guide book shut and burying her nose in a slimming magazine. Leo, grateful for the respite, went back to sleep.

Neither of them noticed Cazolet’s reaction. He was sitting to attention in his seat as though reprimanded, his head swivelling on its scrawny neck to ensure that his eyes stayed fixed upon the grassy knoll for as long as possible. When at last it vanished from sight the old man slumped back in his seat, a puppet with all its wires cut. His face, already pale, had become chalky white beneath the parchment skin, the only sign of colour being the blue veins throbbing at the temples. His breathing was anguished, the air forced through thin, downcast lips. There was sweat on his brow and the dim eyes stared straight ahead, taking in nothing, lost in a distant world of their own. He took no further interest in the tour and showed no sign of leaving the bus when it reached its final stop. The courier had to shake him by the shoulder to rouse him. ‘Must have had a turn,’ the courier muttered to the driver, relieved that the old man was able, albeit with difficulty, to disembark and so release him and the tour company from any further responsibility.

It was not until the following day that Cazolet seemed to have recovered the grim determination which had brought him to the city. There was more to be seen, but he forsook the formal guided tours and instead commandeered a taxi. ‘Take me to old Berlin,’ he instructed. ‘I want to see the city as it was, before the war.’

‘What’s left to see? Try a picture library,’ the driver muttered.

But Cazolet had insisted, so the driver, encouraged by a substantial tip paid up front, had driven east and north, across the line where the old Wall had only recently divided the city before being chipped to fragments by a thousand hammers, into the working-class district of Niederschoenhausen. As the sights of the tourist brochures slipped away behind them the shrunken figure in the back seat seemed gradually to come to life. This was more as he had imagined it, sad, grey, like British Pathé. ‘Slow down,’ he ordered, peering intently out of the window as they came off the highway and began to bounce along streets of bare cobblestone.

For some while they crawled between the rows of austere, gloomy tenements that huddled along either side of the road. There was little life to be seen. The only greenery grew out of the cracks in the cornicing that hung, often precariously, along the frontages, and the few people he saw on the streets had expressions which perfectly matched their dismal surroundings. Many of the buildings were in need of substantial repair, with dripping algae-covered water outlets and cracked window panes, or bits of board and cellophane where windows ought to have been. The ancient ravages of war could still be seen in the pockmarks which were spattered across the façades. There were gaps between houses where buildings had once stood but where now there was nothing but a wilderness of weeds doubling as a burial ground for old cars. Everything seemed worn out, of a past age, just waiting to die. At last, Cazolet told himself grimly, he had found a place where he belonged.

He stopped outside the shop for no better reason than that it appeared to be the only place open. It loosely described itself as an antique shop but the goods were more second-hand than aged. As he opened the door, a bell jangled overhead producing not a bright song of welcome but a choking sound, a stiff rattle of discontent as if complaining at being disturbed. Cazolet guessed it had been that way for a long, long time. The shop was cramped and narrow, like a railway carriage, with a thin corridor down the middle between bric-à-brac and dusty oddments which were piled with little apparent logic or order along the shelves and on top of the collection of dark tables and bureaux that had been pushed against the walls. The best of what there was seemed to be in the front window, a large blue-and-white Nanking temple vase which was a modern reproduction, he guessed, and a nineteenth-century mahogany upright clock with an intricate brass face but no back panel. It had been disembowelled and the movement lay on the floor beside it. Both vase and clock bore a substantial layer of dust, as did the owner, who appeared from behind a curtain at the back of the shop wiping his hands on a tea towel. He had a stomach which his grimy undervest and leather belt had difficulty in containing, and from his scowl and the grease that had dribbled on to his chin it appeared as though he had been disturbed in the middle of eating. He was somewhere in his mid-sixties, Cazolet estimated. As always when he met a German of his own age, Cazolet wondered what the other had done during the war and what secrets and torments hid behind the watery, suspicious eyes. He would have been about fifteen by the end of the fighting. In Berlin that was old enough to have been conscripted, to have been sent out with nothing more than a couple of grenades and a busted rifle to face the Soviet tanks and the peasant-conscripts who swarmed behind, to have fought for Berlin street by street and sewer by bloody sewer, to have killed and been killed. Many much younger had known that. In those days, death in Berlin had recognized no distinction between the innocence of childhood and culpability for having been born a German, yet this German had survived to become old and fat, and that alone was enough to ensure he should never be taken for granted.

The shopkeeper said nothing, standing silently in the back of the premises smacking his greasy lips and staring, as if he reckoned Cazolet might be on the point of running off with his precious stock. Cazolet refused to be intimidated. He liked this place, its jumble of artifacts, its mustiness, its uselessness. He moved stiffly through the shop, pulling out drawers, inspecting battered brassware, smudging the dust off prints before settling into an oak dining chair, testing it for comfort, easing his aching limbs. Had it been one of six the chair might have fetched a reasonable price but on its own it was simply old – a survivor, Cazolet reflected, which made it something special in Berlin. He was astonished to discover himself feeling a sharp twinge of envy. Of a chair. Bloody fool! he scolded himself, once again rehearsing the arguments as to why he had nothing to fear about tomorrow, whatever it might bring.

It was as he was sitting in reflection that he saw the photo frame. It was blackened with age and dirt, and from behind the smeared glass stared the image of a young German military recruit from the last war, his brave smile and crisp Wehrmacht uniform typical of countless thousands of photographs that had adorned mantelpieces and bedside tables in bygone days. The photo itself held no fascination for Cazolet; it was the battered frame that grabbed his attention. He reached out unsteadily and took it between both hands, his thumbs rubbing at the tarnished metal, trying to reveal the gleam of silver which he guessed lay beneath the oxide. Up the sides and along the bottom of the frame he found small decorative filigree executed in a different metal which beneath the dirt and soot looked like dull brass; directly in the centre at the top of the frame was a small, slightly jagged hole, as if some further piece of decoration had been pulled away none too carefully. It was staring at the hole that brought it back. A memory, vague with distance and time but which battled through to flood his fingers with tension and anticipation. Surely it couldn’t be … With a thumbnail he scratched gently at the filigree, but already he knew what he would find. Not worthless brass, instead the yellow lustre of gold. Now he knew for certain what was missing. He turned the frame over and with some difficulty began releasing the clips that secured the photograph inside the frame. His hands were trembling, and not solely with age.



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