The food was as thin and meagre as the work was heavy and full. Breakfast was a rock-like bun of black bread and tepid water that passed for tea. Their twenty-minute mid-day meal was something vaguely oceany that bore only the suggestion of fish, but the taste of paper. Supper was the chunks of black bread that had been inedible in the morning.
And always, there were the bombs. The Americans had taken to flying at high altitudes with Boeing aircraft, dotting the air with bombs that seemed to appear out of nowhere. As they struck ground and touched off a forest of flame and explosions, the streets would empty in seconds. To Roman and his fellow Polish labourers, however, it was all just an old song played to a different orchestra. They'd casually sit down on the curb or at the foot of the nearest wall and wait for the latest round of mayhem to end. Then they'd plod back into the street to clear the newest rubble.
On a cool, misty October morning, Roman's group was working a bombed-out sugar refinery, hauling jute bags laden with soaked sugar to a wagon parked outside. The familar vibrations of bombs began, and intensified quickly. Roman put down the jute bag he was hauling and climbed into a hollow among the mountains of sugar bags, most of which were split and spilling their brown crystals in sweet, sticky torrents. He dozed in the dizzying fragrance of sugar and fire and stone dust and something else until the earth stopped trembling, and then used a forearm to push himself out of his cubby-hole. His hand met bone, and released an overpowering blast of stench from the decaying corpse to which he'd almost been snuggled up. Roman gagged and retched at the sight of the charred face and bubbled eyes, but his empty stomach held nothing to void.
Only hours later, his group was sent to help rescue workers at a long row of low buildings that had been flattened in the latest attack. The fire brigades had extinguished the fires and were now hauling bodies from between charred timbers and hissing geysers of dark smoke. Roman and a work-mate lifted a large filing cabinet that was still hot to the touch, and paused to stare at the body they uncovered. She was their age, lovely, and perfectly undamaged in the sudden death from the bomb's blast. Her stark blonde hair was pulled back in a pony tail, and her wide blue eyes stared unseeingly at them. Her ruffled dress had been raised by the bomb's force, and the purple panties that peeked out held black garters clipped to her stockings.
This time, Roman vomited, spilling hot splashes of liquid emptiness into the charred debris.
Despite his immense weariness, he slept fitfully on his hard bunk bed that night. After the morning's bare breakfast, as his group sidled back to the row of flattened buildings, Roman wandered away from his workmates, ambling down a narrow alley and finding himself at the railroad station. As he stood staring listlessly at the ribbons of rail that ran deliciously to the horizon, a crowded three-coach train chugged up to the platform where he stood. Dreamily, Roman fell into the small crowd and rode its jostling current onto the train.
There were neither conductors nor ticket-takers on the train; only a loud, sour-smelling mix of German soldiers and shabbily-dressed civilians. He found an unoccupied corner of floor, and fell asleep sitting up with his back to the swaying coach wall. A stab of confusion awakened him, and he almost panicked at his own recklessness, crouched with neither a penny in his pocket, idea in his head, nor travel documents on a train rolling to an unknown destination. He listened to a trio of teens talking excitedly about their destination, the truck-driver training school in Berlin.