Novel set in New York State
‘October, 1940’ by Vicky Grut – first prize winner in our ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition 2021
18th December 2021
Vicky Grut’s short story collection ‘Live Show, Drink Included’ was published by Holland Park Press in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize in 2019. One of her stories was included in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2019. She is working on a creative nonfiction book about the changing fortunes of her father’s Swedish family in the early 20th century. This story, ‘October, 1940’, is inspired by events in her grandmother’s life. She lives in London.
October,1940, set on the Trans Siberian Express
One afternoon in early October, after nearly three weeks of waiting for her Soviet visa to come through, Lise clambers aboard the Trans-Siberian express that will take her from Manchuria to Leningrad. Three of the four seats in her compartment are already occupied. There’s an older Russian couple who eye her suspiciously, and a blond man in his thirties who gets up and introduces himself in German as Dieter Schulz. He is returning home from Shanghai via Moscow, he says. The other two are heading for Perm, a five-day journey.
Lise settles into her seat and tells him, also in German, that she has been living in Siam and is going back to re-join her family in Sweden. For once she is grateful to her mother for employing all those horrible German governesses when she was a child. She doesn’t mention her pregnancy; her morning sickness has passed by now. And she doesn’t mention that on the other side of the world her Danish husband Torsten is on his way, via Canada, to join the British army.
‘So we’re both from neutral countries!’ Dieter smiles. ‘I am Swiss.’ To the Russians he explains, ‘Shvedskiy. Neytral’nyy’, which seems to improve the atmosphere.
The train begins to move.
Lise goes out into the corridor to watch the last of Harbin disappear. It’s a strange place, a Russian concession in the middle of China – ‘the Paris of the East’ – but these days it’s under Japanese occupation, seething with spies and displaced persons. As they reach the outskirts it becomes more Chinese: people in traditional dress walk along dirt roads, men drive bullock carts. Then they are out in open country and there isn’t much to see apart from endless swathes of grassland, dipping and rippling like muscle under the skin. Like waves, Lise thinks. Torsten will still be crossing the ocean now. Almost a month ago now they said their goodbyes in Tokyo. ‘You are strong, Lise,’ he told her. ‘You are resourceful. You will get home. I know it.’ Her eyes sting when she thinks of him. Perversely, she is comforted by her pregnancy, although the timing is truly terrible. She believes that a child will bring him back to her at the end of whatever lies ahead. She thinks in terms of when, not if. She is a hopeful person.
She sleeps like a stone on her first night on the train until the guard wakes them at 6am for the border crossing from Manchuria into the USSR. There are checks from the Japanese and then, a few metres further along, from the Soviets. They hear shouting two carriages away. A man is taken off. Lise shivers. This war. The train wheels scream and grind and they’re on their way again. Yuri waves a hand at the landscape which is indistinguishable from the one they’ve just left behind. ‘Sovetskiy soyuz!’ he says proudly. A patriot. Lise nods politely.
It’s still dark when they stop at Ulan-Ude on the third day. By dawn they are skimming along the edge of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, an endless expanse of silvery water that laps restlessly at the shore. Then the train peels away inland and there are more signs of habitation. Whenever the train-tracks curve, the sound of raucous singing floats across to them from further down the train. Dieter explains that several of the third-class carriages are filled with young ethnic Germans from Brazil, volunteers travelling ‘home’ to fight for the Fatherland. ‘Best not go down there on your own.’ She nods. She knows by now – after careful questioning on both their parts – that Dieter is no supporter of Hitler.
Early on the evening of the fourth day they stop in Novosibirsk, a city on the lip of the west Siberian plain and Dieter announces that he’s going to stretch his legs on the platform. ‘I’ll come with you.’ Lise says, reaching up for her coat.
Two months ago she was wilting in the heat of Bangkok, but here the air has a bite to it and everything is covered in a light dusting of snow. Music and light spills out from the station café. Burly engineers are busy checking the links between every carriage and tapping every wheel. Fuelwood is being loaded onto each of the carriages for the boilers. The dining car is taking on supplies. Vendors reach up to sell things to passengers leaning out of train windows.
‘So many of the engineers are women,’ she observes to Dieter. ‘Even the wheeltappers.’
The young men have been conscripted into the army, he tells her. They have to serve three years now.
‘But the Soviet Union isn’t at war, is it?’
Dieter pulls a face. ‘They’re busy enough in Poland and Finland and the Baltic countries. Because of their pact, Hitler will turn a blind eye to whatever the Soviets want to get up to in the East.’
He buys cigarettes from a kiosk on the platform and Lise buys a small bar of dark chocolate. She breaks off a small piece immediately, stashes the rest in her bag to later. She closes her eyes, savouring the sweetness.
‘So how does a Swedish woman end up living in Siam?’ Dieter asks.
She tells him about Torsten’s uncle who started an electricity company in Bangkok around the turn of the century and how Torsten went out in 1924 to work there. ‘Our families knew each other. He is Danish but his mother grew up on a farm near my father’s family in Sweden. We first met when we were children. We got engaged when he was back in Scandinavia on home leave.’
Sixteen years in Bangkok for Torsten, twelve for her; now they are homeless. She is heading back to her parents’ place near Gothenburg.
Dieter lights one of his Russian cigarettes. He gives her a sideways glance. ‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ he says. ‘I noticed this evening as you were reaching up for your coat.’
What does it matter if people know now? She’s beyond the three-month mark. She nods. ‘Four and a half months. I found out just before we left Bangkok. We’ve been trying for a baby for years, and now it happens!’ She laughs. ‘What timing.’
‘And how – if you don’t my asking – how is it that you’re travelling alone?’ His tone is careful.
She explains how, as soon as Denmark was occupied back in April, Torsten decided to volunteer for the British army. ‘He believes that Hitler can be stopped if enough people stand up to him.’
Dieter nods. ‘Let’s hope,’ he murmurs. But she can see he isn’t entirely convinced. Or perhaps she is the one with doubts. How could he abandon me at a time like this? How could he leave me to do all this alone? Doesn’t he care? The sweetness of the chocolate has left her tongue. ‘Let’s go back to the train.’
It’s still dark when she is woken by the sudden stillness. The train has stopped. At first she thinks this means they have reached Omsk, but there is none of the normal bustle and clamour of a station stop. It’s eerily still. She hears a compartment door opening a little way down the corridor. Voices. Footsteps. She slips out of her bunk and opens their door. Passengers are heading down towards the guard’s station at the end of their carriage. Behind her in the compartment, Dieter climbs down from the top bunk, puts on his shoes and coat squeezes past her. ‘This isn’t a scheduled stop. We’re at least an hour away from Omsk. I’ll go and see what’s going on.’
The guard hasn’t a clue, so they climb back into their bunks and lie there, wakeful, anxious, hardly breathing until at last, with a screech of metal on metal, the train starts to move again. ‘Gott sei dank,’ Lise murmurs. ‘Ja, ja,’ Dieter replies from the bunk above.
But the train doesn’t pick up speed. It crawls along for about a mile and then it stops, and when she lifts a corner of the window blind there is nothing to see but blackness. The wind howls and whines. In the morning, she lifts the blind again and sees that the train has stopped on a siding in the middle of a vast gasp of grassland. Dieter is out in the corridor already.
‘The authorities say there’s an epidemic in Manchuria. They’ve put the whole train in quarantine. We’re here until further notice.’
‘That’s crazy. I saw no signs of an epidemic when I was in Harbin. What kind of epidemic?’
He shrugs. ‘Who knows. But what can we do?’
Yulia sits with her head in her hands. Her mother is ill, Yuri explains. Yulia wants to get home before it’s too late.
Later, they see the dust of the trucks heading towards them. People in uniform slide out of the vehicles and don surgical masks. They work their way along the train, calling out orders, wrenching back the door of each compartment.
‘They say we must give them all our clothes to be fumigated,’ Dieter tells her. ‘They are confiscating our luggage. My god, this is a nightmare. Let me try and talk to them.’ But he is quickly shouted down.
They are given stacks of rough cotton clothing, like hospital gowns. The men step out into the corridor while Lise and Yulia strip and change. Then she and Yulia do the same for Dieter and Yuri. Then everything is taken away.
In her dream she is back to the heat of Siam again, sitting in a boat that slides along one of the many of the klongs, the waterways that cross-cross the city. From the banks come the sounds of temple bells clinking in the breeze and the lowing of the water buffalo. She sees herself as if from above: a woman in a boat, and inside her another tiny body, rocking in amniotic fluid. I am on the river and the river is in me. I am both the river and the boat, she thinks. When she wakes, she feels the baby move for the first time, a knock against the wall of her belly, like reflex, like a muscle flexing. She puts down a hand to greet it.
Food comes twice a day now. From some village that they cannot see, women in shawls and headscarves come trudging across the tundra carrying cauldrons of stew which is doled out to the passengers in wooden bowls. Lise’s pregnancy is obvious by now and either Dieter or Yulia fetch her food so that she doesn’t have to go out into the cold. Dieter lends her his coat, which he managed to hide from the officials.
Eventually their belongings are returned to them, untouched. If anyone believed the story of the epidemic, they don’t anymore. The Russo-German alliance is strained. The Germans have not delivered the weapons they promised, and the Russians are angry. There are high-ranking Nazi officers on this train, as well as all the Brazilian volunteers. Perhaps they are being used as a bargaining chip in the trade negotiations currently underway. It’s impossible to know.
Somewhere into the second week Lise starts to bleed. At first, it’s just a few pinkish spots that she notices when she goes to use the increasingly disgusting toilet, then it becomes heavier, more like an intermittent period. She tears up some of her petticoats for rags. Lying down lessens the bleeding so they keep her bed made up during the day. Dieter stands in the corridor, or he perches on the end of the bunk the way a brother might, coming to tell her about a dance she’s missed.
‘I lost a baby before,’ she tells him, ‘in 1929, when I was first married.’
‘Don’t think like that,’ Dieter mutters. ‘Once the train starts to move, we’ll get you to a hospital.’ But he doesn’t meet her eye. He still fetches her food and helps her in a thousand small practical ways, but she feels him retreating, as if he is protecting himself from something in the future. She realises what it is: he thinks she’s going to die. No, this can’t be how it ends, not out here in the middle of this whirling emptiness where Torsten will never find her.
She pulls herself up on one elbow and looks across at Yuri and Yulia on the other side of the compartment. ‘I am going to get through this,’ she tells them in her own language. ‘I will see my husband again.’ They nod. They can’t possibly understand her words, but they know what she means.
In the end, some of the Germans will be taken away in trucks and their train will resumes its journey. By the time they reach Moscow, Lise will be delirious, out of her mind with pain. Dieter will get her and all her things, from the train to a car, and then to a hospital. Then he will be gone before she can say goodbye. She will lose her baby in a cold, high-ceilinged room so desperately ill-equipped that they have nothing but newspaper to staunch the glistening red torrent that rushes from between her legs, this viscous sticky river. They will show her the child before they take it away. A little girl.
She will lie in a general ward for days, feverish, while burly Russian women she can’t understand come and examine her and write on her chart. There is no medicine and very little food. But she will recover because, as Torsten said, she is strong. And when she’s discharged into the snow-covered city, she will sell her clothes to get enough money for her ticket home because, as Torsten said, she is resourceful. And he, too, will survive the war and will return to her and they will make a new home, in a new place. But this time will be like a scar, a permanent break in the middle of their lives. Nothing will ever be the same again.