The train clicked along the rainy countryside, its passengers still reveling in final moments of their liberty pass. Kurt sipped coffee from a cheap and ugly brown mug while his crew sprawled out across the car.
“You pig! It’s definitely a rash!” Heinrich yelled followed by a bout of laughter from the others as Thomas pushed him away, trying to hide his insecurity about the possible souvenir he acquired from the lower wharf whorehouse. The submariners, in fresh clothes, washed and clean shaven only looked respectable from a distance. To look at them for more than a moment was to see them for the loud and crass brothers they were. The smell of diesel fuel that never seemed to go away or the grease that rested in the corners of their fingernails were the true uniforms of their trade.
“Herr Kaleun! How were the girls in the officer’s ball?” Willie called out, waving a half-empty stein of beer. Kurt gave him a look that was equal parts officer and friend.
“Better than you’ll ever see, Matrose.” He answered with a look that quietly told Willie to check himself. The burly Saxon sheepishly nodded before guzzling down the second half of his beer. The men continued to talk and revel amongst themselves, still lost in the nightclubs and brothels they had squandered their wages on. A few of the lads, the machinists from Bavaria, had kept themselves in good order, sending letters to mothers or sweethearts down South. Whether in letter or twenty minute intervals, they had all reached out for something, a comfort to remind them they weren’t at sea.
Kurt closed his eyes, trying to fold away his memories like photographs.
You have to focus on the little details, she had whispered to him in the morning. He smiled at her words tickling his ear with her cute Swedish accent. The scent of jasmine that always followed her or the way her cinnamon brunette hair refused to ever cooperate with her designs come the morning. Even with all her style and makeup, she never looked more perfect than when she rose from the bed, its covers and sheets scattered from amorous friction. Even the overcast grey of morning seemed to brighten and she wrapped the crème colored sheet around herself.
There she was.
Minerva given life.
One of the navy attendants entered the car and the band of hooligans reined themselves in.
“We’ll be in Wilhelmshaven in about half an hour,” he paused, “You are to report to your boat immediately and be prepared to get underway before dark.”
The mood darkened instantly.
Wilhelmshaven. The name made every man’s skin bristle. It was the gateway to their hell on earth. Once they passed through the checkpoint, it was back to sweat, salt and exhaust. Each man knew he was just a quick review by the Kaiser’s favorite admiral of the week away from being thrust back into the terror of the North Atlantic.
Doing the best they could to keep bright their spirits before the seawater extinguished them, the men chatted far quieter now even after the attendant in his heavily-starched uniform left.
“Will you be here when I come back?” He had asked her, admiring her as she made no attempt to dress herself in anything more than the sheet.
“That depends. Will you come back?” she replied.
“For you? Always.” He said, giving her a cheeky smile. She had glided over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could still see the flicker of fear behind her bright green eyes.
“You’re incredibly selfish, you know that?” she said, the echo of tenderness dampening the impact of it.
“That seems a little unfair, no?” He said, smiling coyly. She let the sheet fall off her body.
“You know what I mean.” Kurt shifted, reaching for a cigarette from the silver case on the nightstand.
“That’s what your other lovers are for.” He said, perhaps a touch too pointedly as he struck a match. Before he could even move the flame she reached out and pinched it dead before clasping his chin in her hand.
“I don’t miss any of the others,” her face hanging mere millimeters from his, “I miss you.”
“I love you too” he said, his smile naked on his still bearded face. She frowned at him and pressed off of his chest. He sprang into action and delicately wrapped her in his arms, kissing her neck as he did. He smiled as he remembered how her skin felt on his lips.
The train rolled along, bringing Kurt mile by mile back to the war. From the arms of his Minerva back to the cold gaze of the angel of death. But still, Kurt smiled to himself.
The men glanced at their captain, sitting quietly in his seat, his face locked in a half-smile as his closed eyes pointed out the window.
“Bloody officers. Probably nothing but caviar and dancing girls in those parties.” Willie grumbled.
“Oh come off it. The Kaleun’s not the white glove type.” Heinrich said, to the chuckle of the men listening.
They amused themselves by painting cartoons in whispered voices of their oil-stained and rough-hewn captain breaking glasses to the horror of prim and proper surface fleet officers.