We board a train. Harriet boards first and finds the car. Jefferson and Jean-Pierre get log-jammed at the door, staring at one another, until Harriet invites Jean-Pierre in. They recognise each other after working together at the war, and catch up.
A French porter comes and asks if we’d like a paper. Harriet asks for a London times, gets a Paris Times instead. The Porter mentions that the buffet cart will be open for the next hour and a half, after which it will close. Jean-Pierre is snippy about the quality of the food on the train.
We go to the dining car. It’s a full carriage, but there’s not a lot of options. We order coffee and scan the limited the menus, find very little that we actually want to eat. A few people reading the paper talk about the state of rationing. We discuss what we’re going to Berlin for – no-one has any real details beyond being asked to report to the BASC, but we can’t really understand why two medical personnel and an ex-black-marketeer whose contacts are out-of-date are being asked to report there.
No-one has been to Berlin since the war. Jefferson Lime had hoped never to return.
We notice a woman travelling alone who goes to leave the carriage after we arrive. She’s mid-forties, slim and attractive, brown-haired and fashionable, wearing the kind of clothes that are hard to come by these days. We watch her leave (Jean-Pierre would recognise her legs again anywhere). The dining room grows cold, so we choose to retire.
Jefferson waits behind to hustle the waiter and get some supplies – it’s a long train ride and there’s no dinner being served. He secures a basket full of supplies – cheese, crusty bread, slices of ham. Jean-Paul and Harriet catch up on their back to the carraige – Harriet’s brother has been asleep for a very long time.
They discover that someone’s in the carriage – the woman from the dining cart. Her cigarette smoke fills the cabin as she reads the paper. The doctor poses dramatically, and Harriet has to poke him in the back to get him into the cabin. The woman stares at them, then smiles as the train emerges from a tunnel.
“You are perhaps lost?” Jean-Paul asks.
“No, not at all. I believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Her cigarette goes out and Jean-Paul re-lights it for her. He feels like he’s being played, but he doesn’t particularly care. He introduces Miss Daleman, the woman introduces herself as Mrs. Margaret Chiswell. She’s going to Berlin in order to do her duty to King and Country.
The flirting begins, and Miss Daleman opens her paper and ignores them. Jean-Paul notices that Chiswell doesn’t have any luggage. He sits opposite her and watches her, she stares out of the window. She confides that she finds train rides terribly adventurous, and that it feels like anything could happen when you’re rushing through the countryside.
The flirting gets a little more intense. Jean-Paul claims to be going to Berlin for a medical conference.
Chiswell finally asks “and what are you doing Miss Daleman?”
“I’m travelling with my fiancée here.”
This doesn’t bother Chiswell at all.
The door opens and Jefferson Lime. He introduces himself and blunders into the conversation, immediately attracting Chiswell’s attention when he says he’s been to Berlin before. She’s obviously playing, toying with Jean-Pierre, and he refuses to play.
She orders coffee from a porter, out-hustling Lime in the way she handles the young man. Lime immediately spends the next couple of hours engaging in conversation, trying to figure out the exact limits of how she gets what she wants.
We eat dinner – bread, cheese, ham – and about an hour after that the train drags itself into Berlin. We’ve had a long day and a long journey – improved a little by the company and the coffee – but we’ve still not found out why we’re travelling to Berlin. As the train pulls in, we realise that we won’t be able to report to the Berlin Air Safety Centre until the morning, nor are we required to.
We step off the train into the night. The station is black and deserted at this time of night; a few flickering lights on. The train steams down and people disappear into the night quickly after disembarking. We huddle in a group of four with Chiswell, next to a small pile of luggage.
A squat, round man emerges from the darkness. About 5’ 5", round-faced, with a mop of dark black hair. He walks right at us, umbrella in hair, his overcoat and scarf fastened tightly around him. He smiles widely as he approaches and shouts, “Francis Cummings,” in a British accent. He pushes his hand out, awaiting someone who’ll shake.
Harriet shakes his hand. Jean-Pierre shakes his hand. He smiles at the others. “Francis Cummings. RPA. It’s wonderful to meet you.” He looks nervous about admitting that. “Sorry, still getting used to it. Come with me.”
He turns and walks away, almost disappearing into the darkness. When he looks back, any trace of a smile gone.
Cummings puts his umbrella up and walks towards a car. “This way, this way, we’ll have you dry in moments.”
“I think we should get a cab,” Lime says.
“Yes, I think we should,” Jean-Paul says.
Cummings identifies us all by name. He says he’s here to make sure we’re safe and looked after. “Well looked after. We have a room for you at the Hotel Berlin.”
We climb into the car and Cummings says nothing as we drive through Berlin, heading through empty and rain-soaked streets. One of the most noticeable things about Berlin is the ruined landscape, as if it were still a war-zone and all the soldiers had simply become ghosts. There are occasional signs of civilization – churches with lights out the front, market squares that see obvious use during the day, occasionally buildings being repaired.
We stop out the front of the Hotel Berlin. “We’ll have the porter bring in your luggage,” Cummings says.
It’s an older building, one that escaped the war unscathed beyond a few gunshot marks. A couple of porters emerge and start collecting our bags. We go inside, and it’s as if we pass from a cold November night into the warm, glowing heart of a hotel (probably because we do). There’s an elderly gentlemen behind the counter in the foyer.
“Welcome to ze Hotel Berlin,” he says. He looks at Cummings with suspicion, then at us. “Please, welcome, come in.”
In the background – in what might be a ballroom – we hear music and the clink of glass and the pop of a cork. Mrs. Chiswell has already disappeared.
We sign the guest room and collect keys. We’ve all been booked on floor six, and we have our room. “Of course,” the clerk says, “we haz the dance tonight, you are welcome to partake.”
When he smiles we notice that all his teeth are false.
“Here at the Hotel Berlin, we wish a you stay that iz most welcoming. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to call. We thank you very much for the custom.”
Cummings calls it a night, says he’ll be back to pick us up at 9 AM sharp.