The Waiting Time
He opened the door and carried the thin plastic rubbish bag to the front gate. The cat followed him and he heard, carried by the wind from the north, the first shot.
The aircraft had been over a minute or so earlier and he had seen its navigation lights and flamed exhausts through the window – the house had shaken below the flight path.
He dumped the plastic bag on the far side of the gate, on the paving. The cat howled because it could not scratch a hole in the frozen ground, and he heard the burst of automatic firing, sharp but distant in the night air.
The pastor shivered. He should have put on a coat because the bitter wind brought a chill to his shoulders and the small of his back. He heard more shots from behind the house, and the singing of the wind in the wires, against the roof of the house and around the squat brick tower of the church across the road. She called to him from inside. Why had he left the door open? Why did he let the cold into the house? The cat bolted for the open door. He heard more shots and saw, above the sharp-angled roof of the house, a flare merge with the low cloud. He went inside, pushed the door shut and banged his hands across his arms and chest to warm himself. Far away, in the long distance, a siren shrieked. He went into the living room, off the hallway. The cat was already on her lap, and he told her that there was shooting at the base, there must be a night exercise. She did not look up from her knitting: she was making a small cardigan for the newest grandchild and her forehead was furrowed with concentration. She murmured with concern that it was a bad night for the young soldiers to be out.
The pastor sat at the table in the living room and worked at his address for the coming Sunday. He wrote his notes, turned the pages of his Bible. She put her knitting under the chair, and said she was going to bed. The cat lay on the threadbare carpet in front of the low, open fire. The radio played Beethoven softly, a concert performed by an orchestra from Prague. He heard her go up the creaking stairs. Where he came from, south of Leipzig and east of Erfurt, a bishop had said that it was more important to obey God than human beings. Simple for a man of his status to make such a statement, hard for a humble pastor. The quiet was around him. He had been thirty-six years a pastor in the Evangelist Church and censorship came easy to him: he had nothing bold to say, he lived within the walls of the system, and it was his delight every November to come with his wife from the small industrial town between Leipzig and Erfurt to the wild winds and storms of the Baltic coast. He came for three weeks to free the resident pastor for conferences and seminars, and he intended to move here when he reached the retirement age, to live his last years beside the seashore, if permission was given. He made the notes for his Sunday address. He would do nothing, in his preaching and in his conduct, to threaten the granting of that permission. He knew exactly when his retirement was due: in three days he would have twenty more months to serve.
That night of the week, whatever the weather conditions, the aircraft came low and thundering over the base and then over the pastor’s house, but he had never before heard shots at night. He listened for more shooting and heard nothing. He switched off the radio, crouched in front of the fire and stroked the cat fondly. He drained the last of the coffee from the cup and took it to the kitchen at the back of the house. He stood at the sink and rinsed the cup, the water icy on his hands. He heard the clatter of a machine gun, then the siren again, and more single shots.
Slowly the pastor climbed the stairs. His wife grunted in her sleep. The bedroom was in darkness. He went to the bathroom to wash his face and under his armpits, and to brush his teeth. The tap water ran and he undid the buttons of his shirt.
No curtains hung over the bathroom window at the back of the house, and in daylight there was a fine view from here, the best view from the house. From the bathroom window he could see the dull-lit and empty square, around which were built two storey concrete apartments. He could see the narrow road that sloped down to the shoreline and the older homes that fronted onto the road. He could see the wind-stripped trees that formed a wall between the community and the beach, and the old piers. The water beyond was white-flecked and the foam of a boat’s wake cut at the water. The local people called the water the Salzhaff, and he gazed across it to the dark shape of the peninsula. He had never been there: it was closed to the local people. The peninsula was a military camp.
A wavering light climbed. It was engulfed by the cloud. A flare burst, was muffled by the cloud, then fell in brilliance over the water. Before it splashed down, another had soared, burst, and another. No longer the darkness over the Salzhaff. It was a panorama laid out for his entertainment. The tap water gurgled down the drain, ignored.
He saw the small fishing boat bucking across the water, He saw the cascade of the flares. He saw the ripple lines of the tracer bullets as they swept out from the shoreline, red tracks dying in the water, seeming to hunt and probe for a target.
Then he should have turned off the tap, forgotten about washing his face and his armpits and about brushing his teeth. He should have gone out of the bathroom, crossed the landing and closed the door of the bedroom behind him. He should have turned his back on the brilliance of the flares over the water of the Salzhaff, and the lines of the tracers, and the wake of the fishing boat closing on that place in the water where the bullets died. He should have gone to the bedroom where his wife slept and buried his eyes and his ears in the hardness of the pillows.
The water ran into the basin. He leaned over it and opened the window that he might see better. The cold of the night was as nothing to him. He understood. It was no exercise. It was not training for the young soldiers of the base. He watched.
The tracer lines lazily converged from four, five points on the peninsula. They locked together where they died. The fishing boat veered towards that point. An amplified shout, tin-toned through a microphone, was brought to him on the wind gust from the peninsula. The tracer lines were cut, as if in response, their life gone. A small spotlight beamed from the fishing boat onto the Salzhaff.
His eyes were old and wearied. He dragged his spectacles from his nose and wiped them hard on his shirt- tail. Now he could see more clearly. The cone from the searchlight caught, held, lost, caught again and held again at a bobbing shape in the water. He saw the fishing boat circle the shape and then stop, riding idly in the water. He saw the shape pulled on board. The boat swung and headed back towards the piers. They were on the edge of the town, distanced by the water of the Salzhaff from the peninsula and the military base… It was another moment at which the pastor could have closed the window, turned off the tap, gone to the bedroom and settled beside his wife. He would have seen nothing and known nothing… The fishing boat came fast towards the shore, streaming a wake behind it, its engine churning.
He saw a man jump from the boat onto the planking of the central pier, take a rope that was thrown to him and make it secure against the pier’s piles. Five men were standing forward of the wheelhouse and they looked down from their circle, fishermen who had made a trophy catch, and he heard a faint ripple, when the wind surged, as if they laughed. They stood in front of the white light of the wheelhouse lamp and their shadows were thrown across the pier and the beach.
The pastor watched.
They bent, all together. They lifted up their trophy catch. They gripped a young man by his clothes and by his hair. His body was slight, and he seemed to shudder as if a great pain ran in him. They dragged him over the pier towards the shoreline where the beach was piled with dried-out seaweed left behind by the last storm. The clock on the church tower struck the hour. There were two cars on the road at the end of the pier. Their interior lights were on and their doors sagged open. The clock on the church tower chimed shrill in the night. The four men pulled the young man towards the cars, and a fifth, who was tall and walked with authority, came behind and gestured instructions. The young man seemed hurt, or maybe it was exhaustion from the time he had spent in the water, but his feet flapped on the planks, and if they had not held him it seemed that he would have fallen. The clock on the church tower was silent, past ten. They were at the end of the pier, they were near to the cars.
The pastor saw it clearly… So much better if he had seen nothing, known nothing…