While we have been a bit slack on the writing front and don’t have a festive story as a present for you this year, we have a couple of pieces in the nolanparker archive that haven’t been given an airing. This effort was destined for a short story writing competition which we assume we didn’t win. Despite this, we don’t think it’s bad, so hope you enjoy our non-Christmassy tale.
The house was uninviting but her future lay inside.
Grey paint peeled from weather beaten walls. A few straggly plants clinging to life drooped over the edges of a rotten window box. Peering through the filthy glass, all she could see were threadbare and stained curtains. A tiny, barely glimpsed movement revealed there was someone in there.
She stood in front of the front door and reached for the knocker. A moments pause. Just as she had paused before. Each time something had made her turn and walk away. Now it might be too late.
A final furtive look around to see if there was anyone watching her. All she could see was the clouds of her own breath. The gathering gloom made it feel even colder. Every breath felt like someone was stabbing the inside of her lungs.
A few months ago, it had all been so different. The summer sun was shining. The flowers were in full bloom. She was studying at Berlin University to become a doctor and in a few months planned to be back home working in the same Dresden hospital she had been born in.
Best of all Bernhard would be with her. They had met at a concert five months earlier and had been inseparable ever since. The day he asked her to marry him was the best of her life. There had been no hesitation in her answer or any restraint in the kiss that had followed it. For a month she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off the ring he had bought her. The ring she could now feel under her glove.
After the best day came the worst.
Bernhard was an engineering student. He was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in a conference had at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg.
“A trip to decadent West”, he joked proudly showed off the papers that would allow him to travel, “I will try my best to avoid being corrupted by their degenerate ideals”.
They laughed. Like other students, they enjoyed what little Western music they could find of and sometimes gazed at the other side of the city wondering what it was really like. Surely not everyone was an evil Nazi as the political officers told them.
Bernhard even got into a fight with a drunken party member in a bar who berated them with stories of what he said was the evils being perpetrated just a few miles away and demanded to know why anyone should want to expose themselves to them. She dabbed his eye with a cold flannel to stop the swelling and soothed his temper. He would soon see it all with his own eyes. If they weren’t black that is.
A couple of days later, she chocked back tears as he climbed the steps of the coach that would take the group to the conference. Bernhard waved and blew a kiss from through the window. She watched the street until the vehicle was out of sight. Then it was back to her rooms while repeating that he would only be away for four days. She went to bed staring at the calendar where the date was ringed in red and drifted off to sleep.
Then the wall arrived.
In the university canteen everyone was talking about it. Overnight soldiers had started stringing barbed wire along the streets. People said that they had heard gunshots and someone claimed to have seen a man trying to cross the line being killed. Her heart froze as she realised what this meant. Bernhard was on the wrong side of the divide.
Weeks seemed like years but she heard nothing. Concentration on daily tasks became impossible. Nights were filled with dreams of her love calling over the barbed wire.
Suddenly there was a letter. It took a few moments before she recognised the writing as his. People said it was hardly readable but it didn’t matter. His fingers had touched the envelope. His pen had caressed the page.
Not just his hand though. The letter had been opened, probably by the Stasi. Everyone knew about them of course but until that moment her life had never knowingly been touched by the secret police. Now they had pried into her private world. Defiled it. Dirtied it. Tears welled up. How dare they ? In a flash of anger she nearly threw the envelope away.
But she didn’t.
She unfolded the letter and read it. Quickly at first and then again and again. Each time absorbing the words as though trying to soak the ink itself into her fingers. His ink. The only connection they had.
Bernhard was safe. He had been found a room in the house of one of a fellow student from the conference. When news of the division of the city reached them, many had decided this was their chance to stay in the West. He said he had wanted to come back to her but had been worried that if he tried, the authorities might wonder why only a few of the party returned. The Western authorities had been only too happy to help these poor refuges from Communism.
Should she reply ? How could she ignore it ? Not knowing if her letter would ever arrive she hurriedly scrawled on some writing paper. At the post office the teller looked at her oddly but took the envelope and said it would be delivered. As she left there was a feeling that someone was watching her.
The wait for a reply seemed interminable but at last it arrived. Again, the envelope had been clumsily opened and re-sealed. For a while she just stared at the paper without reading the words.
Another letter posted. And another. And another. The teller was starting to recognise her so she started using different post offices around the city. After a few months she had been into nearly every one within walking distance and then had to start taking the tram to new districts.
Bernhard even remembered her birthday. He mentioned he might be travelling East on the day to meet Charlie. There was a point he wanted to check at noon. The code was crude but she in a flash she knew what he meant. Everyone knew that Checkpoint Charlie was what the Americans called the crossing.
On the day she stood at one side of the crossing and stared hard at the other side of the wall. He was there. A little fatter than before but unmistakable. He saw her and waved. She waved back. He tried to shout but the distance and noise was too great. In the end they just stood and stared at each other. She tried not to cry but eventually a tear ran down her cheek. A guard spotted her and shouted. Then he pointed his gun and she had to move away.
Back in her room she howled into her pillow. How could she bear to be apart ? Enquiries to see if there was a chance to visit the West had been sharply turned down. Far too many students had managed to escape already. The man she had talked to described it as a “brain drain”. He advised her not to try anything “silly” either in a way that made her shiver.
Her friends tried to console her. They said that the wall couldn’t last forever. Maybe Bernhard might come back. After all, he loved her and maybe the West wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway.
She hoped and dreamed they were right. Then she scolded herself for thinking that way. If Bernhard came back to her, his first few days would be spent being “de-briefed” in some Stasi basement. Who knows what the bastards would do to him. They’d say he was a spy. She was sure that someone had been watching when they saw each other. They weren’t stupid, evil maybe but not stupid, they would have worked out Berhard’s code.
A week passed. Her friends were concerned. They kept telling her she needed to eat but her appetite had gone. Gone west. As she sat in the refectory toying with some awful slops pretending to be goulash, a blond man approached. He asked if the seat opposite her was taken. She grunted a response which he took to be negative and sat down.
Her companion seemed more interested in his food than she was. He was wolfing down the nauseating stew like he hadn’t eaten for a week. She tried to ignore the noise he made. Despite her best efforts he kept looking at her. Suddenly he spoke. Her face tried to express complete disinterest but there was something about his eyes that drew her in.
For a few minutes she resisted conversation but eventually he wore her down. He seemed to know a lot about her. For a moment she wondered if he was a plant. They said that there were spies at the university to check on disloyal feelings. He seemed to know about Bernhard. One of her friends had told him he said. Suddenly the tone of his voice dropped. He drew closer to her. She thought for a minute he was going to try and kiss her. There was still a bit of cabbage leaf in his beard. Seeing her recoil he looked slightly hurt and then lent in again.
Checking that no one was listening in he revealed that he asked if she had ever heard about something called the Girrmann Group.
She thought and then shook her head. Even if she had known anything it wasn’t wise to admit it. You never really knew who you were talking to.
He smiled. The Girrmann Group might be able to help her he said. If she wanted to know more then she should meet him again the next day.
Suddenly her mind was a ball of confusion. Why was he telling her this? Was is a Stasi test? Had he thought her fiancée was out of the picture and was trying it on? How could she be sure? She twisted the ring on her finger again and thought of Bernhard. What could the authorities do that was worse than separating her from him ?
More meetings in the refectory took place. Apparently discussing things in plan sight was the best way to avoid suspicion. That’s what he said anyway. She was glad of this. If he couldn’t try anything in a public place and she made sure he saw that she still wore her ring. Just in case
A week later and contacts were made, instructions given. No luggage. This was a one-way trip.
When it was whispered that escape was via the sewer system she had only a moments pause. All of a sudden it was serious. Until then, everything had seemed a bit like a game. Unreal. At the back of her mind a little voice said it could be a trap or even a cruel joke but she couldn’t bear the thought of that.
Her friends had become distant. Some had spotted her regular rendezvous and thought that she was “moving on” as one put it. Others felt she was just pining for Bernhard. She knew that if this worked, they would be questioned. Everyone would. The less they knew the better. Was it fair to them? Should she just wait for a bit to see if everything blew over?
In front of the house she pulled the bit of paper out of her pocket and looked at it for the hundredth time. This was the right address. The one she’d been at before and turned away at the last minute. This time she had to go through with it. Her friend had said that the route the group had used was likely to be closed. It was now or never. She turned at took a last look at the overcast October sky and knocked on the door.
Her future lay ahead. Whatever it was. At least there would be answers.