by Herbert De Paepe
It makes no difference whether Marcel’s eyes are open or closed, since it’s pitch black in the barracks. He unleashes a gargantuan yawn, sits up on his cot, and searches for his slippers with his bare feet. He shivers. His head feels like an anvil. Marcel has been working in the bunker for years, but his biorhythms still haven’t adjusted. He presses the button to illuminate his wrist watch. Almost midnight. He gets to his feet, the afterglow from the watch a spooky green on his retinas. He reaches for the light switch. A bare bulb casts a weak light across six identical cots, three along each of the curved walls.
Marcel gets into his uniform and leaves the barracks. He finds himself in a narrow corridor clad in caramel-colored wallpaper. The dropped ceiling is spotted with patches of mold. The linoleum floor is badly scarred. A door to his right opens into a kitchenette, where dirty dishes and glasses await washing. To the left is a cramped bathroom equipped with a toilet, a sink, and, behind a shabby curtain in the corner, a shower with a calcified faucet that the men who work in the bunker use only if they’re truly filthy. The Civil Defense Service’s operational budget is inversely proportional to the temperature of the Cold War, Marcel thinks, emptying his bladder. He inspects his unshaven face in the mirror over the sink, brushes his teeth, combs his receding hair . . . and considers himself ready to report for duty.
* * *
Eric strokes his moustache. He chalks an X in one of the columns on the board. He glances at the clock hanging on the wall. Midnight. He tears a page from the daily calendar, reads the joke printed on the back, grins, and wads the paper square into a ball. Goodbye July 8, 1988.
Marcel comes into the control room. “Good morning,” he says, “or should I say good evening?” He’s made the same unfunny entrance at the beginning of his shift for years.
“Marcel.” Eric rumbles the greeting. He is less chatty than his colleague. Eric’s house was recently broken into, and the theft still plagues him. His wife is even more upset, since all of the jewelry kept in a box on her dresser was stolen.
Eric has worked for Civil Defense for thirty years, eighteen of them in this bunker beneath Ghent’s Citadel Park. The bunker was built before World War II as an underground command post for the Belgian Army. Before it could be used, though, the Germans invaded Belgium and occupied the bunker. It’s located under one of the park’s manmade hills, a network of corridors stretching for ninety meters. The engineers who constructed it stumbled across a nineteenth-century casement, a remnant of the old Dutch citadel, which added a full twenty-five percent to the bunker’s area.
Marcel stands beside the control board, his arms akimbo. Everything seems normal, nothing unusual. “Long live Comrade Gorbachev!” He turns away and pours himself a cup of coffee from the thermos on the table. “So? Are they up there?”
“Of course,” says Eric, rolling his eyes ceilingward. “It’s a warm night.” He seems disinterested. The burglary has reopened old wounds. Yesterday he and his wife argued about their son, Joris, whom they haven’t seen in six years.
Marcel goes into the telephone room. Five old-fashioned wooden booths, each with a wall-mounted phone. One by one he lifts the receivers, slowly and clearly pronounces the day’s cipher code, and hangs up. Then he returns to the control room and takes a seat. “I can use a little entertainment,” he says, “but first I have to wake up.” He sips his coffee.
For the next four hours, Marcel and Eric will work side by side. Then Marcel will be on his own for four hours, and then Etienne—their third colleague—will relieve him. It hasn’t always been like this. During the heat of the Cold War, there were six men in the control room around the clock, with six more standing by—or, rather, sleeping by—in the barracks. Civil Defense didn’t move into the bunker until years after the end of the war. Before the Germans retreated, they filled the corridors with wood and paper, barricaded the armored entrance at the foot of the stairs, and set the place aflame. For a long time after that, the bunker was uninhabitable.
“All right,” Marcel says. He gets to his feet. “Where’s the mic?”
“Where it always is.”
Marcel opens a cabinet and pulls out the microphone, which is mounted on a metal stand. He straightens out the wire and plugs it into an outlet. “Here come the pill bugs,” he says. He opens a hatch in the corridor just outside the control room and carefully pushes the mic and its stand upward. Dozens of pill bugs fall from the shaft, sprinkling his arms like a hailstorm and ticking as they land on the linoleum.
“Jesus,” he mutters, brushing the insects from his uniform sleeves. Warm, damp air breathes out of the shaft. The ventilation chimneys are the only part of the bunker that betrays its presence from ground level. When Civil Defense decided to clean up the burnt-out corridors, seventeen years after the end of the war, they built a pavilion above the entrance where the park’s maintenance workers could store their equipment. On the western slope of the hill is an open-air theater used for impromptu musical performances on weekend afternoons . . . and, after sundown, for other, less dignified pursuits.
Eric switches on the tape recorder on the rickety bureau against the wall, and its big white reels begin to turn. An oversized loudspeaker crackles and sputters. Against a background of indistinct traffic noises, it’s possible to make out the sound of muted male voices. Eric winks at Marcel. It’s showtime.
* * *
In all the years that Civil Defense has manned the bunker, only once has there been a red alert, on May 2, 1986, a little more than two years ago. Marcel was on duty, and Etienne was sleeping in the barracks. The bunker monitors and measures radioactivity across the province of East Flanders. At the end of April, 1986, a radioactive cloud rose up from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Ukrainian SSR and wafted across northwestern Europe. By May 2, it had reached Belgium’s border. Alarms rang almost simultaneously in the bunkers scattered across the country’s nine provinces, including Ghent. It was a beautiful spring day. Suspicious characters could be heard on the hill in the middle of Citadel Park that evening too.
“Not much action tonight,” Eric complains, bored, changing the reel on the recorder. “If things don’t pick up, we won’t have anything good for Etienne to listen to.”
“Wait,” says Marcel. His reading glasses rest on the tip of his nose as he makes notes in a thick logbook. “The later it gets, the weirder the cast of characters.”
Marcel is right. In the hours before dawn, this section of the park is used by lonely men in search of anonymous gratification. Like most of the rest of Ghent’s population, they are unaware of the uniformed civil servants who monitor the province’s atmosphere day and night from beneath their feet.
The rustling of branches.
Over here! Do you see me?
Marcel winks at Eric. “Here we go!”
Where are you?
Right in front of you! I can see you.
I can feel you.
A muffled sob.
The sound of someone gagging.
The sound of someone dying.
A body drops onto the grass.
“What was that?” demands Eric. He brushes involuntarily at his mustache. “Was that what I think it was?”
Marcel rewinds the tape recorder and listens to it again. “Mother of God,” he says. “I’d better go have a look.”
Civil Defense employees are forbidden to abandon their posts for any reason whatsoever while on duty. They are required to wear their uniforms, and to change back into civilian clothing before leaving the bunker.
No one will know, Marcel thinks. After all, it’s the middle of the night. He strides down the corridor to the exit and twists the heavy lock of the armored door. As he ascends the staircase, the temperature rises with every step. He opens the outer door and walks around the pavilion in the darkness to the lawn, where the ventilation chimneys rise from the ground like monuments. There’s a small flashlight hanging from his jingling key ring. He sweeps its beam across the chimneys. Nothing. Not even a sign of footsteps in the grass. Through the felt of his uniform cap, Marcel scratches his head. Thoughtfully, he breathes in the sweet night air and goes back around the pavilion to the door and the stairs.
The rest of the night is uncomfortable but uneventful. The two men on duty have lost their interest in listening to whatever might be going on above their heads. At ten minutes past four, Eric leaves for home. Marcel works the remainder of his shift, greets Etienne as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred, and goes out into the summer morning. Young mothers in sandals push baby carriages along the park’s paths. Preschoolers feed the ducks in the pond. Behind the snack bar, the first sunbathers hike their summer dresses up above their knees to tan their legs.
Marcel steps over the wire staked around the ventilation chimneys and inspects the grass. Nothing to be seen. He’s about to get onto his bicycle when he spots something glittering amongst the daisies. He hunkers down and picks a gold ring from the grass. He looks around guiltily. No one is watching him. He drops the ring into his trouser pocket, hops onto his creaky bike, and pedals out of the park.
Copyright © 2021. The Bunker by Herbert De Paepe