12. Escape

Jens was sat up on the edge of the makeshift bed in Egan’s spare room, familiarising himself with the surroundings. There was a faded painting of a beach scene with dunes and a grey featureless sea, on the wall near the door. The upper top corner had a stain over it as if water had soaked into the paper. Looking further up the wall, the wallpaper had patches of brown and near the ceiling it looked as if there had indeed been a water leak. A small corner had peeled back revealing some rose patterned pink wallpaper.
The painting made him think of back home in East Germany and holiday days out to the coast. The Ostseestrand north of Rostock was just like that, wild, windswept, featureless and invariably grey.

He reflected on his escape, how lucky he was but also how ill planned and dangerous it was. It wasn’t even a plan when it boiled down to it. It was a mad and desperate lunge for perceived freedom, a reckless escape from a life in which he wasn’t happy. He was being hounded by the Stasi for what he thought was a minor indescretion. He thought it was a miracle that he wasn’t followed on his day trip to Rostock. Or maybe he was and didn’t know.

The day trip from Berlin, the stroll along the beach, the casual wander over the docks at Rostock then at dusk find a ship with green lights on, hopefully according to his source, this meant the ship was ready to sail. He’d hide in the lifeboats like all good stowaways and wait for an opportune moment to jump ship at a western port. Easy.

As the clouds gathered for the evening, dusk arrived quicker than normal and Jens slipped out from the dirty cafe where he’d been sitting staring at the inactivity on the dockside. He’d always imagined docks to be a hive of activity, lots of men running around carrying things, trucks and side loaders unloading crane loads of pallets. The opposite was true, once the ships were unloaded or loaded, hardly anything happened for several hours due to waiting for tides, waiting for harbour masters, waiting for border security to check for anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Like Jens.

He had made his way alongside the docks but there was a 3 metre wire fence between him and the dockside. He carried on walking, half dreaming about a chance to jump a ship and escape. As he stood next to a steel panelled hut, a door opened, a man in a faded blue fisherman’s smock came crashing out, fell into the road and stayed there, in the gutter.

Jens had a quick glance up and down the road, then at the wasteland behind the wire fence on the other side, around then looked into the steel hut. It was empty. The man lay totally still in the gutter. He was in the dark shadow of the hut. Jens had another look around, there was nobody to be seen anywhere. He rolled the man over and he made a groaning noise, he stank of alcohol, his head just lolled sideways and he went into unconsciousness. He would have a stinking hangover when he woke up, thought Jens.

He took the man’s smock off, it smelled a bit of fish but it looked clean on apart from that. He put it on and although it was bit too big, it would give him a kind of camouflage, he wouldn’t look so much the city boy anymore if anyone stopped to talk to him.

He had another look inside the steel hut, looked up and down the road one more time for any sign of movement and sneaked in. There was a steel table and a wooden stool. An ashtray was overflowing with spent cigarette butts and the table had half a dozen empty bottles of vodka lying on their sides. There was another door on the opposite side of the hut, again looking all around him, he tried the handle and the door opened. This was too easy, he thought.

His daydreaming came to an abrupt end when he was suddenly shaken by a loud blast of a ship’s horn. It took a while for him to realise the seriousness of his situation now. He could of course go back the way he came but he made a game changing decision to exit the hut and have a reconoitre of the area.

He was actually at the docks, wandering about in the twilight skipping between shadows. It was surreal and dangerous. If he got caught in these circumstances, at the very least he’d be thrown into prison, most likely tortured and there would be the real possibility he’d be shot and added to the “missing” persons list.

About 40 metres away, moored up, was a medium sized freighter. He skipped through the shadows in the same stealthy way he used to flit between shadows in Prenzlauer Berg to avoid his Stasi tails when he had been to an illegal meeting. Within a few seconds, he found himself right next to a ship called SS Osterburg. He didn’t anticipate finding such a ship as soon as this never mind one with a green light on.

He wasn’t ready. He thought he would be but he wasn’t, so many things needed doing but he was leaving them all behind by this selfish and dangerous action. There was hardly anyone about. He couldn’t believe it. In the far distance he could see some tiny figures doing some loading or something, he couldn’t tell but he felt eerily safe in his shadowy environment. He had a strange feeling of security, in that, he knew he was there but nobody else did. He moved towards the huge black bollard and decided this was it, no turning back now. Assessing the situation, he decided he would have to make a quick decision, do something now or regret it forever.

He clambered down some steps to a position where he could grab the huge rope, it was surprisingly dry, not at all slippery like he imagined it would be. He wrapped his arms and legs wrapped tightly round it until it almost crossed with the anchor chain. It was only a short distance to the anchor chain but there was a long drop into the freezing water if he made a mistake. He needed to get on the chain, which meant hanging upside down on the rope with his arms and legs then and make a grab for the freezing cold metal of the chain and hang on. He counted to five then on five he eased himself himself across to the anchor chain.

He painstakingly climbed up the slippery anchor chain one link at a time until he reached the huge hawsehole. He could see most of the deck through it. There was a steel box right next to the hole so he eased through it and crouched down alongside the box. He was out of breath, yet it was his breath vapour that could give him away, but the deck appeared to be deserted. He needed to rest and try to regain some composure. There was a momentary silence apart from his heaving chest.

After a quarter of an hour or so, a motor started up and the huge chain moved with a heavy jolt. In the darkness, the ship manoeuvred away from the dock and edged it’s way slowly down the Unterwarnow towards the Ostsee.

With slow painful movements, stiff from the cold, he eased his way alongside a grey steel container and decided familiarise himself with his new environment. Almost at the last second he saw two uniformed men stood only a few metres away, smoking and talking in hardly audible tones. He was on full alert now, he didn’t anticipate the ship to have any uniformed men aboard.

After what seemed an eternity, the two men moved away out of sight. The nearest lifeboat was at the stern about 60 yards away and Jens considered when and how to make his move. There was one single lamp hanging over the front of the wheelhouse. But the uniforms, where were they? More to the point, who were they, what were they?

The ship made it’s way from the estuary out to the open sea and rolled slightly as it changed direction. Through the misty haze created by the lamp, he saw the two uniformed men enter a steel door and close it behind them with a loud clang. He could see a silhouette in the wheelhouse but guessed whoever it was wouldn’t be able to see him. There was no light towards the stern of the ship but what if someone was behind the wheelhouse? He told himself to get a grip, why would anyone be stood alone anywhere on a ship once it was underway?

Slowly he edged out from behind the container and slipped quickly along the side of the ship towards the lifeboats. There was one on either side of the ship. He chose starboard for no other reason it was closest and he wouldn’t have to walk across an exposed area of deck unnecessarily.

The release mechanism for the lifeboat looked like it was brand new. This was a good sign. He thought all he had to do was slide under the canvas canopy and sit it out until he felt the ship slowing down, but the canvas was tight and he couldn’t move it at all.
He was exposed now, out in the open, if anyone came down the ladder from the wheelhouse, they’d see him before they were half way down unless he ran under the front of the wheelhouse in which case he’d have no cover at all if they walked towards the bow. He climbed on top of the canvas to look for some sort of fastener. As the ship rolled he nearly fell over the other side, just grabbing onto one of the rowlocks to stop sliding into the black heaving sea below. He let out an involuntary albeit slightly muted cry of panic.

As he grabbed it, his leg caught on a rope and the canvas loosened. He looked into the black emptyness inside the lifeboat and suddenly realised he’d done it. It took him a few seconds to realise what to do next but he was soon inside the boat and managed to reseat the loose rowlock by tugging at a cord attached to the underside of the canvas and the rowlock clanked back into place leaving the surface of the canvas as tight as it was when he first saw it. He waited for the noise of boots, of voices but there were none.

He rewarded himself with a little muted sigh. He had no water but he had a bread roll with a slice of salami in his jacket pocket. He had a feel in the pockets of the drunkards smock, finding only a damp box of matches, resigned himself to the fact that his sole possessions in life now, was infact a salami bread roll. He had no idea how long he’d have to live without water and thought the salami might make him thirsty, so he took it from his pocket and placed it on the seat. And waited.