If this confessional could talk, Ritter thinks, the secrets it might divulge. It would be more than the usual sins that fuel the gossip of the people; stealing, coveting, and adultery. Shameful sexual acts whispered with embarrassment and fear in an attempt to save souls from damnation.
No, this timber frame would reveal more than those petty misgivings. If the wrong people heard the secrets told here then many lives would be endangered. Dozens would be imprisoned, questioned, tortured and killed regardless of age or gender. He himself would be made an example of. He would become a tool for fear mongering. They would use him to illustrate the horrific punishments that befall the people who turn their backs on their country. They’ll call him a fascist, grind him through the propaganda machine until his fellow countrymen hate him and then they’ll execute him. They and Them; words used to describe some invisible, political, magical creature with the power to turn good into evil and evil into death. Silence is the only thing that can keep them safe from this monster.
He tries not to think about that now but distraction requires great effort these days. He keeps reminding himself of the importance of remaining focused on the task. This helps, but as each hour passes the closer he gets to his goal, and the closer he gets to his goal, the more anxious he becomes.
He coughs and wheezes into a gnarled, dirty hand as his lungs try to clear the dust and dirt that rattle around inside him. He leans into his coughing, struggling to breath between each rhythmic chug of air.
He knew from the beginning the danger he was putting himself in. He knew all of the potential outcomes. The priest had outlined them for him too and both of them concluded that there would be no reward without risk. He knew it was the right thing to do.
The priest enters the other side of the confessional and sits. Ritter greets him,
‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been twenty four hours since my last confession.’
The humour is lost. It was funny a month ago to begin their meetings like that but now the joke has faded into routine as the stress that they both have accumulated makes it difficult to indulge laughter.
‘And how has your progress been in the last twenty four hours?’ comes the frail voice of the priest through the tiny holes in the screen that would normally offer an element of anonymity.
‘Very well Father. We should be finished by tonight, provided there are no mishaps.’
The priest lets out a calm sigh, relieved by the positive news, slightly alleviating some of the stress.
‘You are a good man and you will find your reward in heaven.’ the priest’s words failing to capture the full extent of the love and appreciation he wishes to extend.
‘I don’t do it for rewards Father. I do it because it is right.’ his certainty and resolve still strong at this late stage of their mission.
‘But the satisfaction of knowing that it is right is a reward in itself.’
Ritter manages to smile at the wit of the old man but it gets lost in the dark.
‘We will not be ready to take people tonight, but the following night is when we will begin extracting. You can start alerting and organising the first few families. We should get moving as soon and as quickly as possible.’ Ritter says, keeping in line with the professional manner in which he has approached this project from the start.
‘I will do this tonight.’ the old priest replies. ‘How many can you take?’
Ritter takes a moment to estimate. He cannot bring so many each time that they will be easily spotted by Volkspolizei or Stasi or anyone for that matter. He needs small, easy to control groups, but not too small. Bringing smaller groups will mean having to make more journeys, which will take longer, and the longer it takes them, the greater the possibility of being discovered.
He uses this careful, meticulous approach to making decisions, considering the various scenarios, weighing the pros and the cons, calculating the risk. He knows that it is not an exact science. He wishes that it could be. His answer is as measured as possible.
‘Between four and six at a time, I think. I cannot tell you yet how long it will take to get a group through, so I don’t know how many we can move altogether in a night. Anyone that we don’t get through will just have to wait until the next night.’
Ritter can hear the priests breathing get quicker as panic creeps in and he realises how close they are now. It was four months ago that they had first met to discuss this. The priest had crept up behind him after mass and gripped his elbow tight, whispering in his ear.
‘I haven’t seen you at confession in a long time. You should come to me and take one when it suits.’
This uncharacteristically strange behaviour from the old priest was an attempt to remain as discreet as possible. When Ritter met with him, he revealed the plan to him in the longest ‘confession’ he ever took.
The frail old priest divulged his brainchild, although he wasn’t frail then. The stress of the last four months had taken its toll on him and aged him. He tells Ritter of how God has spoken to him and has provided him with a plan that they must execute to help his followers escape from the suppression of East Berlin, by burying under the wall to West Berlin and freedom.
The priest had a vague outline of how everything should be done, how they would communicate and who would be selected to be involved. Discretion was paramount, so extreme caution had to be taken when selecting whom to include in this plot. Ritter protested when the priest excluded his friend, Ubel. They argued over it in loud whispers in the confessional. Ritter vouched for his character and guaranteed his silence but the priest would not have it.
‘He is Volkspolizei.’ he said. ‘It is not a question of character or trust but of his profession and the resulting proximity to the state. It is too dangerous.’
Ritter resigned to this argument and excluded his friend.
God’s will shall be done in whatever way the priest decides and the priest decided that Ritter should lead a band of two others to go and excavate under the death strip, none of whom, including himself, had any experience of mining.
It is hard to believe that they have come this far, from that first meeting when the priest released his dream, to now, with the tunnel nearly finished and the rest of the plan nearly ready for execution. They are excited and frightened.
Freedom is hours away for dozens of them, maybe even hundreds depending on their success. Freedom for families, for friends, for the old and the young. Freedom for himself too. He longs for that. He regrets not going when the border closed. He didn’t predict back then that it would get this bad, with children hungry, roofs falling in on families and the autumn rain pouring in on their overcrowded homes. He never thought that it would get to this stage, where people would risk their lives to escape. He didn’t have the same foresight as hundreds of thousands of others that fled in droves before the wall was built. Maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe God had planned to keep him here so he could help others escape. Hopefully, he would join them soon. He would see faces that he hasn’t seen in years and shake their hands and rejoice in their communal freedom. He dreams of it constantly. It’s what drives him.
‘The people must bring as little as possible, nothing if they can, but if they must bring necessities tell them to try and keep them to a minimum. Any extra bulk will slow us down.’
‘I will say this to them but I wouldn’t worry much about it. Most of them don’t have belongings to bring. I will gather as many as I can here at the church and we will take them in groups from here to the tunnel as we planned.’
Ritter tries to think if there’s anything else that he needs to say, His mind, he felt, was growing tired and sluggish. Four months of sleeping by day and mining by night had done that to him. He hasn’t taken a night off either. A night off could mean a day’s less evacuating, so they work on.
He is tired though. All of them are. Him and his two co-miners.
‘Go home Ritter. Sleep. You will need to rest now more than ever.’ The priest tells him.
Would you like to read more? Chapter 2 is here.
If you liked this why not download a sample 15% and let me know what you think.
It’s available on Kindle here.