End of story

I FINALLY arrived at the hotel on the outskirts of Krakow in Poland around midnight. I was very tired. At Krakow airport it had taken almost as long to get through the formalities and change money as it had to fly there from Gatwick. During a strange taxi-ride along the pitch-black country lanes between Krakow airport and the hotel I fell asleep on the back seat and dreamed epic dreams.

The hotel was your classic early-Sixties, Eastern-bloc, pre-cast concrete nightmare. The receptionist didn't like me at all, and glared sullenly at me as I filled in the form. The room key that she pushed across the counter was attached to a lump of varnished wood. I carried this and my bag upstairs.

The room was the smallest hotel room I had ever been in. One pace in any direction was the absolute limit. If I stood on tip-toe, I could press my head against the ceiling. The sash window was nailed shut. Peering through the grimy pane I could see nothing whatsoever. I drew the curtains and lay down on the single bed. It was too small. It sagged in the middle. The sheet was dirty. But I was far too tired for any of this to matter much. And the room was well heated, so that was a blessing. I unpacked some things, took off my shoes, had a wash, then got into the bed. I had to be up early the next day; I was going on a guided tour of the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Tired as I was, though, I couldn't get off to sleep. Next door I could hear a television. Whoever was in there was considerate in keeping the sound low, but it came through the paper-thin dividing wall so completely unhindered that I could do nothing else but lie and listen to the programme. It was, as far as I could guess, the Polish equivalent of Any Questions?. I could tell that the topics under discussion were highly controversial, because the speakers spoke passionately, and interrupted one another constantly, and the studio audience was in a continual uproar.

As soon as the programme finished, the television was extinguished with a loud click. Silence. Gratefully, I turned over and nuzzled into the pillow. Then my neighbour began shaving with a very powerful electric razor. I listened to him shaving. He shaved for approximately 10 minutes. In my book, shaving for 10 minutes is verging on the obsessional. Then silence again. Then a steady rhythmic thumping, increasing in tempo, as if he were performing some late-night exercises with the aid of a skipping rope or something. Then silence again. I held my watch up to my face and pressed the illuminator button. Two fifteen. I turned over.

They began loading scaffolding poles onto the lorry around three o'clock. Clanging discordantly, the steel poles were thrown, from a great height it seemed to me, on to the back of a lorry parked directly beneath my window. This took about an hour and a half. After scaffolding poles, wooden planks. After wooden planks, an extraordinary miscellany of sheet metal, pebbles, household cutlery and empty bottles was chucked on, and finally a loose consignment of cymbals.

Five men, I'd guess, were loading the lorry. They shouted to one another continuously throughout the operation. I think one of them may have been crushed to death, though: for at one point I heard terrible, uncontrolled screaming, followed by urgent shouting, followed by the sound of men straining to remove something very heavy and being horrified at what they find underneath it.

About five o'clock the survivors jumped in the cab and the engine coughed into life. Judging from the horrible noise coming from the engine, the lorry was an old one and fearfully overloaded. As the lorry pulled away, I sat up in the dark and listened for the gear changes. I heard the driver double declutching and changing from first gear to second when it was about half a mile away. There was a long uphill gradient after that, because the driver changed back down to first again and left it there. I was still listening to it labouring up the hill when, thump, thump, thump, the bloke in the room next door was awake and skipping again. I couldn't believe it. I was so tired I felt ill. And then the telly came on in the room on the other side of me. Good Morning Poland! I suppose it was. And then I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew it was daylight and I was late for the concentration camps.

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