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Caught in the Act

 It was late afternoon when the Prague to East Berlin train stopped on the Czechoslovakian side of the frontier. A squad of Czech border police boarded to check passports and search for smuggled goods. I was sharing a compartment with an ancient, silent peasant woman and a happy young couple who were returning to East Berlin from their honeymoon on the Black Sea and I had struck up a conversation with them. They had never met any one from England before and piled me with question on life in the west. I in turn was able to enquire about their life in the DDR and they had been interesting and convivial company.

 I smiled to myself as we heard the compartment doors opening and closing as the police got closer to our section of the train. For once I had nothing to worry about from the authorities. My papers were in order and I had with me the invitation from the KGB sponsored, International Journalist Organization – IOJ, to visit their head office in Prague.

 It had been an interesting few days, developing contacts in the IOJ, attending meetings and touring Prague during the day followed by drinks with IOJ colleagues in the evening. One of their favourite haunts was the bar in which Javoslar Hašek wrote his satirical masterpiece, ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’.  Once again I had been fascinated to observe the barrier between the Communist Party’s favoured journalists and the local folk in the bars. They - the privileged few – being as loud and demanding as they wished; whereas the unprivileged citizens would seat themselves as far away from them as possible and converse in subdued voices; their aversion to the Party’s favourites showed on their faces.

 A young lieutenant, stuffed full of his own self importance and temporary power arrived at the door of our compartment. He demanded our papers and asked if we had anything to declare – none of us had - before ordering us into the corridor but allowing the old woman to stay.  After checking her papers he called out my name and ordered me back inside. Examining minutely my British passport, visa and expired IOJ invitation, he again asked if I had anything to declare. I repeated that I had nothing but nevertheless he motioned me to take my case from the overhead rack and open it. I stepped back and watched him rummage through my neatly folded clothes. Outside in the corridor I could see soldiers screwing open the panelling in their search for smuggled goods. He scrutinised a bottle of Slivovitz I had bought to assist me through the journey and rifled the contents of my toilet bag before holding up a red velvet oblong gift box.
 “And what’s this?” He demanded. Bring me back to earth.

“Oh that?” I replied, playing the naive tourist; still secure in my foreign visitor status. “Just a little something I bought for my wife.”

 “How much did it cost?” He demanded without opening it.

 “Not  much.” I replied brightly, adding “I believe about so much.” Giving him a low price in Czech Crowns

 “I look.” He stated flatly. For the first time a smile appeared on his face; albeit not a friendly one, as he snapped open the jewellery case and extracted a garnet necklace and a matching pair of earrings, followed to my sudden horror by a folded piece of paper.

 It had been during the previous day, while window shopping, that the necklace and earrings had caught my eye. An ideal present for my wife, especially as garnet is a semi-precious stone particular to Czechoslovakia. I had changed a considerable amount of US dollars on the black market with a friendly taxi driver – they were all friendly if you had dollars. Stupidly I had not paid attention while the shop assistant packed the jewellery in the box but I had later explained to her that a receipt was unnecessary - and now?  What was this officious, unfriendly bureaucrat waving in front of my face - a bloody receipt?

 “Not very much in your country is very much in ours mister Englishman.” He proclaimed with a smirk on his unfriendly face. After checking the visa document attached to my passport for the amount of money I had officially changed and pointing the box accusingly at me, continued. “I see you were in Prague for five days but you only changed fifty dollars and this cost you quite a lot more I notice.” Then, nodding his head knowingly, added. “In our country changing money on the black market is punishable by a minimum of five years imprisonment.”

 My complacency was disappearing fast; giving way to visions of labour camps and possible interrogations which would reveal the true purpose of my visit – my part in an on-going, CIA  operation to  infiltrate the IOJ. He ordered me to wait outside and called in the East German couple, closing the door firmly behind them. From my position in the corridor I could observe but not hear through the dirty carriage window the apparent grilling they were undergoing. The girl was soon in tears and I became even more concerned about my present position when I saw her hand the officer a copy of the Time magazine I had innocently given them earlier in the journey. This was becoming serious. First racketeering and now distribution of prohibited material. I could see a further five years if not more, in front of me.

 “You! Englishman! Inside and wait.” He ordered, as he emerged from the compartment. The couple eased past me into the narrow corridor with down cast eyes, as though I was now the carrier of some plague.

  “I call my superior and he take you back to Prague for further investigation.” He sneered, closing the sliding door tightly and leaving me alone with the old woman I would have gladly given anything to change places with.

 During all this time the train remained in the station and the passengers in the crowded corridor were getting agitated. They had also picked up courage in the lieutenant’s absence to take turns to peer into the carriage at me - a black-marketer or maybe even a spy?

 After five minutes, which seemed more like five hours, junior  returned with his superior. An undersized, overweight and tired middle-aged major, whose badly fitting jacket, stretched over an ample stomach brought to mind my image of the Good Soldier Schweik.

 Taking my passport he examined it half-heartedly and much to the lieutenant’s obvious chagrin ordered him to continue controlling the other passengers. He beckoned me to sit opposite him and began uninterestedly to question me at the same time complimenting me on my choice of gift. Meanwhile my bag was still open on the seat and the Slivovitz lay on top of my shirts. I took it and unscrewed the top, made as if to take a drink from it, paused – and offered him the first drink which he gratefully, even eagerly accepted. It took no more than a couple of swigs – half of the bottle nonetheless – for us to become colleagues. He was soon complaining about the poor quality and lack of intelligence of the new recruits – too much attention to unimportant detail when this very train we were sitting in was probably stacked with real contraband. I began to feel more sorry for him than I did for myself.

 I was tempted to donate a few dollars towards his retirement pension but common sense prevailed. Should he refuse; that would be attempted bribery – a third charge against me. But it was unnecessary. He politely returned my papers and wishing me a pleasant journey he left. The lieutenant’s return put an end to any jubilation. He began by giving me a lecture on my lack of ethical values and my capitalistic chicanery and - just to show he was still the man in charge - ordered the still petrified couple not to speak to me and that their short relationship with me would be reported to the appropriate East German authorities. The next three hours of the journey to East Berlin were indeed silent ones. The peasant woman remained mute and the terrified pair would not even look in my direction, let alone speak. Personally I no longer cared; being only too relieved and thankful for my good fortune and the remaining half full bottle of Slivovitz.


    Tags - Fly at a Smile-Price