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by Michael Stone

On the 18th of December, 1918, a young Austrian by the name of Adolf Hitler disembarked from a train in Munich. Snow was falling from darkling skies, curling like ashes in bitter wintry draughts. It coated the stark framework of the steam sheds, glistened like sweat on the engine's black iron flanks.

Adolf stepped onto the platform, his nostrils flaring as he savoured the commingled scents of coal, dung and oil-laden steam. He thumbed the moustache that grew thickly on his cheeks. I thought he appeared calm and appraising, if a little dishevelled after his train journey.

He sauntered past me, the snow squeaking under his boots. He gave no indication of noticing that the snow at my feet was ugly with bloodstained phlegm.

I fell into step behind my quarry.

Presently he stopped outside a gasthaus, squares of sallow light leaking from its windows onto the slushy road. Das Schwarz Wildschwein. The Black Boar: a drinking hole popular with servicemen. Adolf hitched the rucksack higher on his shoulders, straightened his bonnet cap and ran his fingers through the close-cropped hair above his ears.

He shoved open the door and let the babble of deep male voices wash over him. A badly scarred pine counter ran the length of the opposite wall. Pewter steins hung by their handles from brass hooks. Yellow candlelight flickered on brown bottles. The smell of beer, stale sweat and fresh sawdust commingled with the blue-grey miasma of pipe-smoke. A single oil lamp struggled to penetrate the fug. Adolf Hitler placed a coin on the counter then selected a table near the fireplace.

I stood on the pavement outside and watched through fern-frosted glass and condensation as he struggled to remove his wet rucksack and greatcoat. A Christmas tree stood in one corner, decorated with spent cartridges and silver paper, the role of the fairy taken by a crude imitation of Wilhelm II, cruelly complete with a withered left arm.

Placing his cap on the table, Adolf sat down with his back to the fire and stretched his legs. He wasn't made to wait long; a wide-hipped serving-girl threaded skilfully through the clamour carrying a stein and a jug of beer.

I couldn't see what was said, but she laughed at some witticism he made. He took a sip at the cold beer and smacked his lips in appreciation.

My own mouth was a mass of painful sores. My feet were dead from the cold.

I entered the gasthaus and ordered myself a drink, although I knew I would be unable to taste it. I stood well back from the fire. 

“Won't you join us?” a man at an adjacent table asked Adolf.

Adolf gave the speaker a cursory glance, registering the man's round florid face and gleaming high forehead.