Hauptbahnhof: A Story by Joanna Walsh

An excerpt from a story about waiting, watching, and remembering in Berlin’s central station…

The Hauptbahnhof is open 24/7. Coincidences arrive at any time of day or night. I have become used to the sound of trains. There are two noises: the solid hum of the wheels on the track, and the lighter rattle of the upper parts of the rolling stock. Sometimes it seems laughable that they coincide.

Naturally I was disappointed you did not meet me. When I arrived I searched for you on the platform, thinking you had missed me in the crowd, had got the wrong Level. After a while I realised this was unlikely: the Signs mean that it is impossible to miss a train. If you know how to read the Signs, that is.

That night, I had trouble with the Signs. When didn’t see you I decided you must be waiting at your apartment. Perhaps there had been a confusion, or an engagement you had failed to mention.

You had not sent your address but, knowing the name of your U-bahn stop, I went to the stationer’s on Level 0. At the stand with tourist books I dismissed the maps showing Berlin page by page. I needed to know where you were and where I was at the same time. I needed to see the whole city.

I slipped a map from its plastic compartment at the back of a city guide. Berlin was bigger than I expected.

The map unfolded and unfolded until, under its own weight, it collapsed against itself, a long tear snaking across its centre.

The sound was deafening.

I had intended to steal the map having, surely, more need of it than anyone else. But the noise embarrassed me so much that I quickly refolded and stuffed it back into its plastic envelope.

I walked from the station a short distance across Europaplatz to steps leading down into the mouth of what looked like the underground. At the end of a white tunnel, I came upon two platforms, both empty, their Signs describing stops I did not recognise from the U-Bahn map. I took an up escalator, hoping for further platforms, but found myself back under the crystal dome of the station.

It was only later that I discovered the U-bahn is not yet connected to the Hauptbahnhof.

Of course I did not then speak German.

But I have improved (you would be proud).

The level 1 branch of Relay contains magazines from fifteen different countries. There are also phrase books, dictionaries and newspapers. It is possible, with time on your hands, to learn a language.

That first night I called you a couple of times but you didn’t answer. It’s possible I got your number wrong. I emailed you regarding this but you did not reply. I thought perhaps you were playing games, that you would relent or that, when we met, you would provide some good reason. Maybe it was a joke. I thought your phone was out of charge, that you had no connection. I thought you had lost it, that it had been stolen. I thought you were busy, were unavoidably detained, would answer later. I thought you had been arrested or were in hospital. I thought you were dead. There were so many possible explanations: I saw no reason not to hope…”

You can purchase the full Hauptbahnhof story in chapbook form at the Galley Beggar Bookstore.

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