EPISODE TWO: THE SOUND OF SCREAMING
We came upon the station soon enough; a small, unimpressive affair with just one short platform. There was a ticket office, a compact waiting room and a large clock hanging over the platform but no sign of any staff at all; no booking clerks, no porters, no guards with shiny whistles. What was more, there were no signs or timetables displayed anywhere. In fact, but for the railway tracks themselves which glistened brightly in the sunshine, there was nothing to suggest that a train had ever or would ever pass through.
I was just about to suggest that maybe we ought to retrace our steps and check with Edward whether it was actually worth our while waiting for a train when I became aware of a distant chugging sound somewhere beyond the trees. In unison Michael and I turned and gazed up the tracks in the direction of the noise. We saw the steam first of all, puffing up above the tree line before the engine itself came into view. It glided smoothly into the station, pulling up with a loud hiss of steam.
We both peered curiously at the carriages. “Mmmm, nothing to say where it’s going,” murmured Michael thoughtfully.
“Never mind where it’s going. It’s where it’s come from that bothers me,” I complained. “Straight out of the 1930s by the looks of things.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” replied Michael, just a touch huffily. He opened the door of the carriage that had pulled up directly before us. There was no-one inside. “Shall we?”
I hesitated for a moment but, sensing a lack of alternatives and not particularly fancying a return to trudging along the gravel path, I reluctantly nodded and followed him aboard.
We had barely laid down our provisions and sat ourselves down before the engine had started up again and we were steaming off through the trees. I relaxed back into the plushly upholstered seat and gazed around me. Perhaps it was not such a bad way to travel after all.
The compartment door swished open and suddenly we were confronted by our first specimen of railway officialdom, a smartly uniformed conductor. “Tickets please,” he requested cheerfully.
“Oh, er…” I floundered.
“I’m terribly sorry. We don’t actually have tickets,” Michael explained as contritely as he could.
“The ticket office was empty, you see…”
“Not to worry Miss, Sir,” the conductor nodded reassuringly at each of us in turn. “I can sort you out. What’s your destination?”
“That rather depends on where you’re going,” replied Michael, a touch sheepishly.
“Like that, is it? Well, our next major stop is Salzburg.”
“Salzburg? Are we in Austria?” I asked in surprise.
“We will be when we get to Salzburg.”
Michael and I exchanged a glance. “I guess that’s two for Salzburg then please,” he said.
The conductor gave a practised twist to the handle of his ticket machine. “That’ll be four and six please,” he demanded politely, holding out the tickets.
“Four and six?” I repeated blankly.
“I’ve got £3.47. Is that equivalent enough?”
The conductor drew a sharp breath. “I’m afraid we don’t really hold with that new-fangled money here.”
“But that’s all I’ve got,” I protested, seeing my comfortable train journey disappearing before my eyes. I held open my purse to him. “Look, that’s my lot – £3.47, one half price voucher for pizza and three first class stamps.”
“Stamps you say?” The conductor peered a little closer.
“They’re just regular first class stamps,” I confessed, holding them up for him.
The conductor eyed them greedily. “My, that’s a fine looking woman. What a handsome profile.”
“What, the queen?” I said doubtfully.
“Oh yes, very handsome I’d say,” insisted the conductor, licking his lips for good measure. “I tell you what. I’ll let you have the tickets for those stamps.”
“Two tickets to Salzburg for three first class stamps?” I asked disbelievingly.
“Alright, alright. A ticket a stamp then. I can’t say fairer than that.”
“No, I suppose you can’t,” I agreed, accepting the tickets with relief.
“We’ll be arriving in Salzburg in about an hour.” And, with that, the conductor turned to leave, cradling his stamps carefully in his hand. As the compartment door swished shut behind him he could still be heard murmuring to himself, “Ah, yes, a fine looking woman… very fine indeed.”
“So, Salzburg it is then,” said Michael, leaning back contentedly in his seat.
“Salzburg… on a 1930s train,” I said knowingly. “You know what this is, don’t you?”
“We’re heading straight for The Sound of Music.”
Michael looked unconvinced. “Possibly.”
“What else could it be?”
“I think there are rather more cultural reference points to Salzburg than just The Sound of Music,” insisted Michael, a mite sniffily.
“Name one,” I challenged.
“Well, er…” Michael was momentarily baffled. “There’s bound to be theatre, concerts, opera… It’s a great place for music of all kinds.”
“Particularly singing nuns.”
“Well, we’ll see, shall we,” he replied noncommittally.
“I’m sure we shall.”
I settled back in my seat and as I looked out of the window the forest suddenly opened out and we found ourselves steaming through a lush, open landscape. Perhaps this trip wasn’t going to be such a dead loss after all.
My watch seemed to have unaccountably stopped so I was unable to measure precisely how long it was before the engine began to slow down again but it felt like no time at all before the voice of the conductor could be heard cheerfully bellowing up and down the corridor, “Salzburg! This stop is Salzburg!” As the train pulled up with an exuberant hiss Michael and I gathered up our meagre belongings and poked our heads out of the carriage window.
Our carriage was pulled up directly opposite a brightly painted sign announcing ‘Salzburg Hauptbahnhof’. We clambered eagerly down from the train and looked around.
Salzburg station was undoubtedly larger and rather more ornate than the one from which we had departed but it didn’t seem to be any more populous. Not only did it appear that nobody else was getting off the train with us but neither was there anyone waiting at the station. The place was entirely empty. Michael shut the carriage door behind us and almost immediately the engine began to steadily puff its way off down the line, leaving us entirely alone.
“Where is everyone?” I asked with a baffled shake of my head.
“I don’t know,” began Michael. “It’s all a bit…”
We both saw him at the same time. About twenty feet up the platform to our right a small, hunched figure in a peaked cap emerged from a waiting room. Without noticing us the figure began shuffling away up the station.
“There we are, a porter,” announced Michael with some relief. “Hello!” he called out.
The figure didn’t respond. “Oy!” I bellowed as loudly as I could. “’Scuse me!”
The response was not quite what I had anticipated. The porter gave a startled yell and, without looking behind, hurried on up the platform. Michael and I paused to exchange baffled glances and then set off after him.
“Wait, just a moment!” called out Michael. But before we could reach him the porter dived into a small office at the end of the platform. As we came to a halt outside the door we could hear a key being turned in the lock, followed by bolts being pulled across at both the top and the bottom of the door.
“He would appear to have locked himself in,” I said in bewilderment to Michael.
Michael looked around in confusion for a moment then knocked loudly on the door. “Hello! We know you’re in there!”
“Go away,” came back a small, muffled voice.
“Do you mind if we just ask you a few questions?” I called out.
“I don’t know anything,” insisted the voice.
“This is Salzburg, isn’t it?” tried Michael.
“Yes but there’s nothing to see here,” replied the voice quickly. “Best move along now.”
“But that’s just what we want to do,” I protested. “When’s the next train?”
“There are no more trains. That was the last train.”
I looked to Michael but he could only shrug his shoulders, as confused as me.
“So how do we get out of Salzburg then?” I asked the door. “We can’t stay here all day.”
There was a thoughtful pause then the sound of the bolts being slowly drawn back, the key turned in the lock and the door opened just a few inches. The porter poked his head out through the gap, pale-faced and anxious. “There is a bus station on the Gabelsbergerstrasse. You could try there.” He didn’t look at either of us as he spoke, his eyes instead flicking left and right, up and down the platform.
“Thank-you,” said Michael. “But how do we get to the Gabelsbergerstrasse?”
The porter kept his voice low. “Follow the road down into the old town, it’s just west of the Mirabellgarten, beneath the shadow of the Monchsberg.”
“You wouldn’t care to show us the way, would you?” I asked, encouraged by this show of helpfulness.
The porter regarded us intently for a second. “No,” he said abruptly and his head disappeared and the door slammed shut. Immediately the key was turned and the bolts were re-fastened.
“But which way do we go to get out of the station?” I called out in exasperation.
“Take the exit to the left beneath the station clock,” came the muffled reply. “Now move along please.”
“Not the warmest of welcomes, is it?” Michael eventually said to me, once it became clear we were not going to get anything more out of our amiable friend.
“He’s probably just afraid of the Nazis,” I replied with a shrug.
“We don’t actually know that this is the Salzburg of The Sound of Music. There may not be any Nazis.”
“Come on, what else is there to be afraid of in Salzburg?”
Unable to come up with an answer to that particular conundrum, Michael turned away and together we headed for the station clock and the exit that lay beneath.
The first part of the directions seemed to go smoothly enough and it didn’t take us long to find what, judging by the vintage of the buildings, had to be the old town. But that was where things got a little tricky. The tall, uniform houses and narrow streets here rapidly began to resemble a maze and we soon seemed to lose all sense of direction.
“Can we finally admit that we’re lost now?” I asked after about fifteen minutes of tramping aimlessly up and down.
“Not necessarily,” countered Michael, taking the standard male view on getting lost. He was still doing his best to stride about purposefully even though it was perfectly clear that he had no more idea of where we should be headed than I did.
“We’re going round in circles,” I insisted.
“No, we’re not.”
“Well if we’re not then the sculptors of Salzburg have displayed a startling lack of imagination. That’s the third time we’ve passed that statue of the bloke in the floppy hat,” I pointed out. “We should stop and ask someone the way.”
Michael sighed. “I’d be happy to if there were anyone about.”
I glanced around the deserted streets suspiciously. It was true that in the entire journey down from the station we had not come across a single soul. “Don’t you think it’s a little bit strange that a city like this should be completely deserted in the middle of the afternoon?” I asked warily.
“I thought you’d already decided everyone is hiding from the Nazis.”
“Maybe they are. But then who are the Nazis hiding from?”
Choosing not to consider my question in any depth, Michael continued on for a few steps. “We should just knock on a door,” he announced decisively.
“But which one? I don’t want to bring out the Gestapo after us.”
“I don’t know. Pot luck, I guess.”
Michael looked round about in a rather furtive manner and then stepped up to a dark blue doorway in the middle of a row of houses. But just as he raised his hand up to grasp the brass door-knocker in the centre of the door, I caught a glimpse of something at the end of the street.
“Wait a minute,” I called, causing him to freeze in mid-action. “We don’t need to knock on a door. We should be ringing a bell instead.”
With a bemused shake of his head Michael gently lowered the door-knocker and followed me down the street. I stopped and pointed to the brightly polished plaque that had caught my attention next to a pair of tall, wrought iron gates. “See? The gates of the Abbey,” I explained smugly. “Where is the one place in Salzburg you can guarantee will be Nazi-free? The Abbey.”
Michael peered though the gates rather dubiously. “On the other hand it will be full of nuns,” he protested. “What if they’re at prayer or something?”
“Oh come on, they’re nuns – they’re practically contractually obliged to help us.” Just to prove my point I burst into a couple of lines of what was admittedly a probably less than tuneful rendition of Climb Every Mountain.
“Good God, please don’t do that.”
Ignoring Michael’s musical critique I reached over and pulled the cord that hung by the side of the gates. Across the courtyard came the melancholy tolling of a solitary bell. It gradually faded away into silence.
“By the looks of things this place is about as lively as the rest of Salzburg,” complained Michael.
“It’s not meant to be lively – it’s an Abbey.” I was just about to reach out and give the cord another tug when the sound of a lonely pair of footsteps came echoing across the courtyard. We held our breath as a dark, slender figure slowly emerged from the shadows of the distant corner and paced it’s way deliberately across the cobbles towards us. It wasn’t until the figure had almost reached the gates that we could be certain that the long dark costume was actually a nun’s habit and not anything more sinister.
“Good afternoon. Can I help?” the voice was deep and slightly cracked, rendering it not immediately clear whether the owner was actually male or female. The head remained bowed.
“Hello, yes, sorry to disturb and everything,” I began, somewhat disconcerted at finding myself addressing the top of a wimple. “But we seem to have got a bit lost.”
At this she finally looked up and examined us carefully. It was a middle aged face, undoubtedly female but with a pale, vaguely haunted look that I imagined could only have been brought about by a lifetime of charity and sexual abstinence. “You are strangers to Salzburg?” she asked cautiously.
“We’re just passing through really,” I replied.
“We’re looking for the bus station on the Gabelsbergerstrasse,” interjected Michael.
The nun continued to examine us suspiciously. “You wish to leave Salzburg?”
“Like I said, we’re just passing through.”
“Are you alone?”
“Just the two of us,” I replied, a touch abruptly. This twenty questions routine was not quite the warm welcome I had been led to expect from repeated bank holiday viewings of The Sound of Music.
“So, er, the Gabelsbergerstrasse,” Michael tried again. “Could you tell us how to reach it from here?”
“I could…” began the nun slowly. “But you must be weary from your travels…”
“Not especially,” I muttered.
“…You should come inside and rest for a-while.”
The offer was made with all the warmth and good nature of an invitation to a funeral, or a twelve day detox. “I don’t think so,” I replied with a shake of the head.
“We wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble,” agreed Michael hastily.
The nun regarded us with a rather sour expression.
“We have to keep moving, that’s all,” I felt compelled to explain.
“There’s someone we have to find, you see,” added Michael.
“Or perhaps you would like a hot meal,” continued the nun, undeterred. “You both look in need of some nourishment.”
This was undoubtedly an approach more guaranteed to pique my interest. After all, the provisions we had acquired from Edward were all well and good but the notion of a properly cooked meal was far more appealing. “A hot meal?” I responded.
A glance at my colleague indicated he was feeling the same way. “Well, perhaps just a brief stop…” he said with a hopeful look in my direction.
“If you’re sure it would be alright,” I said.
Our hostess gave a sharp, crackling laugh that rather disturbed the effect of her hospitality. “I’m the Reverend Mother,” she announced grandly. “If I say it’s alright, it’s alright. In fact, I insist.” She swung the gates open and beckoned us inside.
Not without a certain degree of trepidation, Michael and I stepped into the Abbey.