Berlin, a short story by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 7: A young Irish couple get an unexpected – and unrequested – extra member for their family
One Friday the Wall comes down. Meaning, the gates open, the guards leave their posts, anyone who feels like it can walk through from one side of Berlin to the other. Lolly and Bill and Ryan and Amelie watch the event on the RTÉ news in their little house in Stoneybatter. On the screen are crowds dancing and laughing and singing. Violins. She hums along. Freude Freude. She has an impression of candlelight, lanterns, soft festive flickerings, as at a summer garden party. It is November.
Can it have been such a surprise? Some dramatic things happen out of the blue: accidents, lightning strikes, mass shootings by crazy Americans. But not big political events. The process of liberation has been going on for years. Glasnost and perestroika have entered the English language, words as familiar as vodka or caviar. The kind-looking soft face of the Russian president was on TV every turn about. But Lolly has been so preoccupied – the house, the children, all the satisfactory private stuff that constitutes life – that she hasn’t paid much attention to what was going behind the Iron Curtain, even though it has important implications for her. The last thing you can imagine is a big public answer to a personal question, because, no matter how well you know the truth of it, it’s hard to believe in your bones that the personal is political, and vice versa.
Exactly 10 years earlier Lolly had been in Berlin. Nobody had the slightest expectation then that the Wall was entering its last decade. Lolly thought it had been there for ages, since the end of the war, although in fact it had been erected in 1961. Already by 1979, it felt old and permanent. She was spending that year, the year between August ’78 and ’79, in Copenhagen, on a research scholarship: the research was a history of a story which had first been documented by a German poet in the 12th century and had since then been written and told by various writers and storytellers over most of Europe. The story was a fairytale about an abandoned child, a bit like Hansel and Gretel, a scary story that folklorists believed contained metaphorical references to infanticide, child exposure, and such unspeakable customs, widely practised in the days when people had no birth control. She had acquired versions of the story from archives all over Europe – thick shiny photocopies with the pungent chemical smell photocopies had in the 1970s. But there was a version she hadn’t managed to get, in the Humboldt Library in East Berlin. Her letters had not been answered. Since she knew a girl who was studying in West Berlin, she decided to go down there and visit her and the divided city, and check the reference in person. She went on the train and the ferry and then the train from Rostock on the Baltic coast down through East Germany, where the green fields, the higgledly-piggledy farms, the unkempt hedgerows, looked strangely familiar. That year, her life was full of surprises. Who would have anticipated that East Germany would look a lot like Tipperary, say? And not a bit like the tidy fields of Denmark.
She went through the Wall at Friedrichstrasse railway station, where there wasn’t really a wall, just several little grey booths like ticket offices, where they scrutinised your passport with obsessive anxiety and asked searching questions in impatient, rather rude, voices.
Like the countryside, East Berlin was a surprise. It was much nicer than West Berlin, at least the bit on the other side of Friedrichstrasse.
The big plaza, like the forum in Rome or the agora in Athens. The noble museum with classical statues standing quietly in the sunshine. Everything built of old grey stone. Cafes with tables outside on the square. A fountain.
It was the sort of place where you’d expect to see hundreds of tourists, but there were not many of them. And where was everybody else? The East Germans? Slaving away in ghastly factories? Foostering despairingly in their flats in the grim Stalinist blocks? Locked up by the Stasi?
Well. It was 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Maybe the city just hadn’t got going yet? Like any other city.
The Humboldt Library had high ceilings, sculpted friezes, and a general air of untidiness. There were reference books around the walls but you had to order most books at the librarian’s desk, and wait for them to be delivered by an attendant. Lots of staff then, checking tickets and dockets, fetching and carrying. Lots of time spent waiting for things to happen. But at the long table the readers were bent over their books, engrossed. As in every library of this kind, in Ireland and in Denmark and, so it seems, even behind their Iron Curtain, there is the same harmonious hum of activity – of reading and writing notes. You could almost hear the minds in conversation with the texts.
She found her reference and handed in her docket at the big oak desk. The book came soon enough, within 10 minutes, and yes, there was the story, on page 151. Wouldn’t it have been easy for them to get it and send a copy? But she was glad they hadn’t, because it was nice to have a reason for coming here, to East Berlin. It’s always nicer to have a purpose for your visit.
She read the story. Easy now in any of the 10 languages it occurs in; stories know no borders. She knew the plot like the back of her hand. The details could vary – oral storytellers tended to stick to the point, whereas the writers padded out the story with descriptions of weather, landscape, costume, and so on. Even in these superfluous details there was a surprising amount of uniformity: the writers were shameless borrowers.
She asked about photocopying at the counter. The librarian directed her to another room. She left the comfort of the reading room and went down a corridor. Soon she had the feeling she was in the wrong place. There were stacks of newspapers along the side of the corridor, and boxes of books in a corner, waiting to be catalogued. Or just removed from the boxes. They looked as if they’d been waiting for quite a while.
She turned a corner.
There, halfway along another corridor, was a photocopying machine.
Not like the supermodern photocopier in the library in West Berlin. But it was like the one in the National Library in Dublin, which lurked hidden behind the reading room in the librarian’s office.
She opened the lid and placed her book upside down on the glass plate. Pressed a button.
She pushed another button.
The machine emitted a hum, like a lawnmower. It got louder and louder. Nothing was getting copied, and the machine sounded as if it was gearing up for an explosion.
A young man came running.
“Was machen Sie?”
He pulled away her book, looked at it crossly, and then looked at her.
To her surprise, she started to cry.
He shrugged, sighed, and said, in English: “What do you want?”
“A photocopy of this story.”
He led her to an office. There was his big desk, with a phone and two books open on it. At a smaller desk was a woman with a bun and glasses, wearing a pink cardigan, guarding a giant photocopier.
Lolly filled in a form. She paid two marks for the copy and 10 marks for the postage to Copenhagen. She let Teresa check her passport and her day visitor’s visa and her ticket for the library.
They’d send it on. In three weeks. Or so.
She went to the door. She realised she had no idea how to get back to the reading room.
“Okay! I will show you.”
They sat in a café on Unter den Linden. She found out a lot about him. Gerhardt. He had an MA in Slavonic languages. Russian and Bulgarian. He translated novels from Bulgarian and went to Bulgaria on holiday. Another surprise. Communist holidays.
“I’ve never heard of a Bulgarian writer.”
“The most famous one is Ivan Vasov.”
“Have you translated him?”
He didn’t laugh when he explained that Vasov was a 19th-century author whose work had been translated many times already. Gerhardt did contemporary writers, for the money.
“Do they pay well?” the question was out before she could stop it. Obviously not.
“It’s adequate. It’s extra. And I could work at it full-time.”
So there were actual jobs, in publishing companies, for translators? Full-time jobs.
“I would like to translate from English. An Irish writer perhaps. Who would you recommend?”
Lolly could never think of anything when asked questions like that. She read novels all the time, and was familiar with many Irish writers. But who was best? Who was even good? Who could you rely on?
“Aidan Higgins?” She just about remembered the name of one of his books. But once she started thinking several names came to mind. The new writers were mostly women. Emma Cooke. Maeve Kelly. Ita Daly. She took it for granted that he would want to translate male writers.
“John McGahern, some people like him. John Banville.” She thought. “William Trevor.”
He got her to write the names in his notebook.
The sun began to sink and the air to grow cold and they were still talking. The lights came on, the quiet lights of the east and the glaring lights of the west. When it was time to go before the gate closed he asked if she had a boyfriend.
The question made her stomach somersault; the dreamy time was over.
He pulled her close to him. They were walking back to the Wall, hand in hand.
She decided not to ask him the same question but he answered it anyway.
“I have a wife. Sort of. And a baby. Sort of. “
He gave her a quick kiss before she went back through the Wall.
Three weeks later, spring and summer came to Denmark hand in hand, all at once. One day there were heaps of grey snow on the flower beds in the park; the next, daffodils and tulips and buds on the trees and everyone sitting out on the pavement cafes in shorts and sandals. Her photocopies arrived in the post from the Humboldt Library (the three pages she needed). She was working hard now.
The year which had seemed eternal was dashing to its end. In September her scholarship would stop coming, she’d have to go back to Ireland. She had a boyfriend, she had a family, she had friends, but she didn’t want to go back. She avoided the word “home”. Although it wasn’t a word she could apply to Denmark either, obviously; what she loved about Denmark was that it was “away”: she loved the unfamiliarity of it, as well as the taste of its pastries and rye bread, the curl of its language in her ears, the down-to-earth optimism of the people. The snow and frozen sea in winter and now the hot summer. When she thought of Ireland her stomach sank – the old sow who eats her farrow. It was reaching out for her with big fat claws, it would drag her in to its drab ordinariness, its dull jobs, its army of priests and nuns, its relentless mediocrity. So it seemed.
The day after she came back to Dublin the pope arrived. All her old college friends went to the Phoenix Park, with bottles of champagne, to celebrate the visit of the great man. They clapped and cheered as he encouraged them to maintain the Catholic republic. “Faith of Our Fathers, Holy Faith,” they sang, lustily. Girls who had been on the pill for years, girls who had gone to England for abortions, sang at the tops of their voices in the golden September sunshine.
She sang too. But how she longed to be back in Denmark, where people think straight!
Gerhardt had sent the first letter while she was in Copenhagen. She responded and sent him a few novels, by newish writers, not very well known anywhere. Even in Ireland. He persuaded one of the publishers he worked with to commission him to translate something.
Months passed before the next letter. And then, some years.
Lolly and Bill – the boyfriend – moved in together. They bought a house, they married, they got a son. Ryan. He was one and a half when Gerhardt wrote to say he was visiting.
Lolly was suspicious. But Bill dismissed her panic-stricken suggestion that Gerhardt was trying to escape.
“If he was defecting he’d pick somewhere better than here.”
The attraction might be freedom?
“Freedom from what? He’s probably doing just what he says. Getting a sense of place, or context, or whatever. For the book. Who wrote it anyway?”
So much for contemporary.
“He’ll have to sleep on the sofa.”
That’s where guests slept – her mother, usually. It wasn’t very comfortable, in the small, rather dim sittingroom.
“But he’d be used to that sort of thing, I suppose, in the DDR.”
“Won’t the publisher give him some money for a hotel? Or a hostel? They must have some money, even there. How long does he say he’s staying for?”
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
She waited for the plane. Ryan was with her – she had him on a rein, he was a good walker and inclined to run away very fast whenever he got a chance.
“Plane,” he said. “Plane.” He sounded cross as he scanned the boring arrivals lounge, looking for a plane.
“Yes, it’s coming, soon.”
He repeated his new words ad nauseam, apparently making sure he locked them in his mind before moving on to the next one. For the first weeks after he started saying words she had kept notes. Baba. Bottle. Bow wow. But as the process of expansion speeded up she lost track.
Actually the plane had just landed as she and Ryan came to the gate – she didn’t want to wait for too long, Ryan wouldn’t stand for that. Passengers were coming through the grey door that opened, so dramatically, like a curtain on a stage.
In those days you could try to guess where travellers were coming from by their appearance, their clothes. The first lot included several people in summer outfits, beach clothes, shorts, flip-flops. (It was raining outside and about 14 degrees.) Then men in suits with briefcases. Then trim people in neat, expensive-looking, sporty clothes – hiking boots, neat jeans and waterproof anoraks.
“Ice cream. Ice cream.”
“Soon, Ryan, darling.”
A young woman wearing a close-fitted tweed jacket, beige trousers that looked like jodhpurs, and gleaming brown boots.
German, almost certainly.
Now it occurred to her that she’d forgotten what Gerhardt looked like. She’d been in love with him for an afternoon, in a café on Unter den Linden, and she had cherished the memory of those hours for years, but not seriously, more like a postcard of a nice place she visited than as a precious gift she could not be parted from. The details were blurred, to put it mildly. Blond hair curly, a nice smile. He was taller than she was, she remembered that from their walk to the Wall, but so were most German men. What colour were his eyes? (Well, there were only a few possibilities.) She couldn’t have identified him in a police line-up.
“Gimme ice cream.”
Sometimes she was thrilled when Ryan managed to put a few words together, to form a sentence, even if it was always in the imperative mood.
He was startled by the tone, even though he didn’t know what the words meant. Yet.
The bright, high voice of an air hostess. An Aer Lingus hostess, in her dark green suit, tight skirt, perky pill-box hat. With the smooth beige face and chilling smile.
The hostess was holding a little girl by the hand. Blond curly hair, blue eyes.
That was Amelie, Gerhardt’s daughter.
“We can’t just keep her.”
Amelie had, in her little pathetic plastic communist suitcase, a West German passport and a birth certificate. The EU rules had changed. You didn’t need a visa or a permit to live in Ireland if you were an EU citizen.
“She’s not an EU citizen.”
“Her passport says she is.”
She also had a letter, from someone called Dieter Hartmann.
Gerhardt could not get out. He wants you to look after Amelie until he can join her in a week or two. There was a telephone number and an address in West Berlin.
So of course they kept her. Amelie.
Just a few weeks, it was, at the beginning.
Gerhardt could not get out. And Amelie stayed. Nobody that mattered asked serious questions, such as, who is this child? Why is she living with you? The Irish farmland looked like the farms in Pomerania and Mecklenburg but the Garda Síochána, the social workers, were different. They didn’t go in for checking things much. It wasn’t so easy to fob off curious inquiries from neighbours and relatives (they told her mother – she put up with it, as with so much else), but it was possible. Lolly had lived abroad for over a year, Bill was a writer.
In Stoneybatter, which had not yet been completely yuppified, they were regarded as slightly eccentric, the sort of people who could have friends in Germany who would die and ask them to look after their child.
It was easier than you’d think.
And now Gerhardt can go wherever he likes. The world is his oyster.
Free travel all over the globe (if you have the money).
Amelie has not forgotten her father, or presumably her mother. She is 10 now. She cannot have forgotten anything significant, especially any journey or change of location, that she has experienced since she was two or three. Of her parents, their home, of East Berlin and how they got her out of it, she must have clear memories.
But she never talks about any of that. She talks about school, her pals in Dublin, the TV shows she likes (Phineas Fogg, The Simpsons.) X Boxes, Barbie. Things like that.
Gerhardt will obviously contact them. He will probably show up unannounced, on the doorstep. Any day now.
“Maybe Amelie isn’t Gerhardt’s child at all?” Bill comes up with this, three weeks after the Wall came down. “She had a false passport.”
“But if she is not Gerhardt’s, then who is she?”
“You mean, whose is she?”
There is a nursery rhyme, in Danish, that Lolly learned when she was over there.
Little cat on the road.
Whose are you?
Whose are you?
I am my very own.”
“She’s ours, I suppose,” says Bill, who does not know this rhyme. “Until further notice.”