James is lying in his bunk, the fourth row up, the wooden slats of the bunk above an inch above his nose, sawdust from the pallet above falling lightly onto his face. Hunger is gnawing at him, but he is so used to it that that is not what keeps him from sleep. The smell of shit and filth in the barrack, that doesn't affect him like it used to either. The pain in the wrist he sprained in the stone quarry today doesn't even register anymore.
What keeps him awake is the distant rumble of the train. A new trainload of inmates is arriving. James' back throbs from bending over, hacking at rock face all day with rudimentary tools, but there isn't enough space between himself and the bunk above to turn on his side. The low rumble of the train slows and halts, and James knows that very soon the passengers will be decimated, led into the woodland nearby and shot. The others, the 'fortunate' ones, would be issued camp uniform and assigned to barracks.
He fervently hopes that they will not be assigned to his hut. There are already one hundred and forty men eking out some form of existence there. Jakobsen, a Norwegian, had hanged himself the day before last, but he had been sleeping on the floor anyway.
He is up earlier than the rest. He has developed a wonderful sense of time, and he knows simply by the light that the kapo will not order them out for another ten minutes. He tries to climb out of his place, but his legs are so weak that it takes him five minutes just to lower himself to the ground. The others, yellowish skin stretched across their skulls like drumskins, are also now clambering down. James runs his hands over himself, checking everything. He unwraps his 'pillow' jacket and retrieves the tin bowl and spoon inside, holding them tightly, jealously. As he buttons up the jacket, he checks that his sewing needle is still hidden, concealed carefully inside a seam. If the guards find it in one of their searches it means death.
On parade, as they form into groups of five, James sees the new arrivals for the first time. They are mostly Poles, by the look of them. There was a time when Poles were kept in a separate compound, but these days all are thrown together in any available space. The crematorium is still very much at work from last night, pale grey ash settling like snow on the parade ground. The sky is swirling deep grey, almost brown. James shifts his feet in the thick dark sludge which is part mud and part sewage and takes in the latest arrivals. The camp has run out of uniforms, so they are wearing their civilian clothes with a broad yellow stripe painted on them. They are confused, they cannot form fives correctly. One batch of them are ordered over to stand by James' group, but they hesitate just a second too long. James looks away and hears four gunshots. The slowest four are now dead, blood soaking into the mud instantaneously.
When the new inmates are finally ordered, James dares to glance sideways at the man who now stands beside him, on the edge of his own five. He is tall, but not broad. That is a bad sign. He is smart, James can tell from the gleam in his blue eyes and from the way he had ignored the prisoners being shot. Save your own skin, that was the most important thing. But he is proud too, his shoulders squared, his lips pressed tight shut as if he wants to say something. It isn't enough to be clever – anyone can quickly pick up camp rules. But this place has no place for order, for reason. A man could be shot or beaten any time, for anything or nothing. Smart men who could maybe have adapted to a set of rules however harsh or complex just went mad here. Pride could not get you through this life – if you want to live you have to cringe and bow and make yourself nothing. James can do that; not everyone can.
James feels a breath in his ear, as the man behind him leans forward. He has been watching James size up the new inmate and has obviously come to the same conclusions.
"Muselman," he whispers in James' ear. A goner. A chill passes down James' spine. It is like looking at a ghost.
James gets out of the quarry a week later, assigned to aid the construction of a new warehouse to store the clothing of the dead. The old one is now too small. The man is also working there. Both of them are employed carrying mortar up a series of ramps and scaffolds to wherever the bricklayers need it. A few muttered words of German pass between them. The man's name is Gregor. That is both his first name and last, for he is a Polish Gypsy and has no other.
The rain thrashes down, and James is almost grateful to be up here, because the mud on the ground is now more than ankle deep. Every time he goes to fetch more mortar, he slips in the sludge and falls on his face. After several hours, he is completely coated in filth. He trudges on, a burning weakness in his bones.
The boards of the scaffolding and the ramps grow wet and slippery.
Gregor missteps as he edges around the second floor and plunges to the ground. James looks down blankly at the sprawled man below, and sees him press a hand to his thigh, where a thick splinter of bone has torn through the flesh.
"Infirmary!" orders a guard. Two prisoners pick Gregor up and James doesn't see him again.