Tag Archives: Germany

Berlin

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.

Berlin

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.

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Finding inspiration from the other side

V2Phil: Have all the stories been told? Do we all need to churn out variations on the same tale?

No, we don’t. It’s just that finding the setting for your novel that is both plausible and recognisable to the reader gets harder every time another book plops out into the world. Imagination of course is infinite and sometimes you just need to, as the main character in our book would say, think outside the box.

Candice reviewed Dominion on Tuesday and this provides a good example. Set in an alternative version of history where Germany won World War II, the setting can be both familiar and totally alien to us.

I live in a perfect example of this. Leamington Spa would have become the capital of Nazi-run Britian. This is historical fact – there are plenty of documents to prove it. Thus, I can walk past a town hall that would very likely have been festooned with red banners bearing the swastika. Familiar but very alien.

Sticking with this theme, one of the books in my library is V2 written by Major-General Walter Dornberger. This describes the development of the German V1 and V2 weapons at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre from the perspective of the man in charge. The account, translated by the Special Scientific Book Cub, is a dispassionate account of the process. You see the whole thing from the point of view of those we traditionally refer to as the enemy.

There is no attempt to justify any of the actions – it’s just what a senior army officer did. Maybe the translators have produced a more dispassionate account that the original text would have us read but it’s no less fascinating for all that.

Chapter 15, Flaming Night, is the most interesting in many ways. Assuming the reader has made it this far, they are seeing people normally portrayed as monsters at least as human beings. The chapter describes an air raid by the Allies in August 1943. Suddenly, the bombs dropping are heading for the writer. It’s a novel perspective an d slightly unsettling as you find yourself hoping that everyone is OK. That’s not right – these are the enemy. As we know, they were carrying out acts of unimaginable evil – yet it’s more difficult to be on the side of the attackers than I feel entirely comfortable admitting.

So, maybe there is scope to write from the perspective of the other side? Not to justify actions but because on both sides of any conflict there are stories to be told from the perspective of ordinary people unable to influence things but still suffering the consequences.

Another options is to consider how history would be different if that air raid had been more succesful.

V weapon research might have been halted. Wernher von Braun and the other rocket scientists are buried under the rubble. Operation Paperclip, the spiriting out of the country of scientists “useful” to the Allies never takes place. Rocket science is put back at least 10 years.

How is the world different? Is the Cold War based on tanks rolling across Germany rather than people lobbing missiles at each other? Presumably, the aircraft based systems we built stay in service for longer but does this make the situation better or worse? Would the Cuban Missile crisis happen? Do we ever walk on the moon?

There are stories out there, we just need to change our perspective.

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I just don’t like endings

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Candice: I have finally finished ‘Dominion’ by C J Sansom.  That makes it sound like it was hard work, it wasn’t that bad but 700 pages takes time to read when you are a) falling asleep all the time, b) struggling for time around painting.  I did take it to work last week to read in my lunch break, then someone found me in the coffee shop and that was my reading break gone!

Anyway, the premise of the book is not something new.  It’s 1952 and the Nazi’s won World War II so Britain is running under a treaty from Germany.  It’s a shaky rule as the Brits are struggling with their feelings about it all, especially when the German’s start instructing for all the Jews to be rounded up.

Our protagonist, David, is half Jew but has kept it quiet all his life.  He is also struggling with his relationship as he and his wife lost a son a child a few years before and it has driven a wedge between them.  These two reasons mean he has joined the Resistance movement and with a University friend they are set a task, to rescue their other University friend who is currently in an asylum.  Why?  Because he had a break down after his American based brother told him a secret that could win the war for the Brits/Americans.

I got half way through the book while on holiday and was getting quite into it.  I’m not a historian and couldn’t tell you who was in power at that time and the idiosyncrasies of the war. This probably didn’t help me get into the book but once I understand a bit about the history, I got into the story.  However, once I came home I just lost the thread by reading just 10 or 20 pages a night and by the time it came to the end I thought it was quite poor.  I just didn’t see what it was so important, and I found the characters annoying.

I’ve read another book in the same style, ‘Fatherland‘ by Robert Harris. In fact, I’ve read alot of Robert Harris books and really like his style.  I can remember reading the whole of ‘Pompeii’ on a flight back from Turkey.  I haven’t read anything by CJ Sansom but when I mentioned the name to a colleague she jumped at the chance to read this book as she really liked his other stuff.

So, I’m not going to write this off totally as I think my lack of enjoyment in the end was partly due to the fact I couldn’t give the story the time it deserved, and I also know I am crap at endings.  I find most books a let down as I like to immerse myself in the world and then when it comes to an end I get quite deflated.

So, certainly give Dominion a go but do try Robert Harris if you are into historical drama, both are a good read.

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