"She's going, fast," said a man near me. He looked kindly enough and must have seen the distress in my eyes because he took Mum from me and tried to keep her going. His compressions might have hurt her more than anything else but it kept her heart going for long enough that I could say goodbye.
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I should have done more. I should have kept you alive for longer." And she could say goodbye, too.
"Then I am glad that you did not," she told me weakly. "Because if you did, you would have been a cruel man, young Michael. If one does not want to live you should not force them. Let me go in peace, so that I am no longer hurting. Do not keep me here longer than you have to!"
And I was obliged to let go of her hands, hiding my tears behind a palm that was lifted to hide my whole face. I did not want everybody to see me cry for my mother. I was sixteen, after all. The man next to me, the one who had helped, was very nice about it.
"Poor lad. It's not easy, the first time you lose someone. You'll be alone now, won't you? You won't have anyone to look after you?"
"I don't need looking after," I told him crossly. I knew he was only trying to help but he was treating me like a ten-year-old. "I just need to be left alone."
"Everybody needs looking after in that place," he said, jerking his thumb towards the courtyard between the many brick barracks'. "Everybody needs help." He didn't seem to be offended by my grumpy demeanour. in fact, he seemed more to be pleased. I wondered what he knew about this place. Could he tell me what was going to happen? Could he tell me whether I was going to survive? After a moment I spoke.
"Do you think we'll live through this?" I asked him. He didn’t' look too young. About seventy, I'd say, and I wasn’t' convinced he was up to this. He'd be gone in a week, I was sure. He didn't have the youth and the immunity to get him past the diseases and the hard work; early morning roll call - for I'd heard all about it - would surely be a nightmare for somebody who would doubtless have difficulties in standing up straight.
"You might," he told me, echoing my thoughts. "But I've had my time, lad. I've had what I deserve and more. It’s my time to go and if it's in here that I die then it's in here that I die. There's nothing I can do about it." With a sigh he turned his face to the sky. "Besides, it's not up to us, is it? And what does my life matter, anyway?"
I didn't answer that. I didn't know what to say. I wasn't the religious type and I wasn't sure how to react when people who were tried to talk to me, since I was wary of offending them but didn't agree. Then the truck grinded to a halt and one of the guards came over, pulling down the heavy wooden door from the back. My mother still lay across my lap.
"What's up with her?" he asked me in German, his voice guttural and rough. I was grateful then for my schooling, for I could reply in the same language.