We stand on the roof of a car which does not belong to us, the icy air burning our lungs. Snow crunches beneath our heels – mine ridiculously high, yours flat with a heavy tread suitable to the weather. You grip my waist. You convinced me to climb up here, looked around to check we were alone, and then gave me a leg up. I slipped – it happened so quickly that you could not save me – and my face nearly collided with the wing mirror. I yelped. My knees hit the ground, but the snow muffled the blow. You laughed and continued to help me up, your hands unsteady under the influence. Beer. New Year’s Eve. Hope.
I can feel your hand on my back, and wonder if you can feel my twitching nerves, my damp skin, through my winter coat, my new dress. You smile at me in the manner of someone who has just reached the peak of a mountain and nod in the direction of the Wall.
How old were you when you woke up and found tangles of barbed wire splitting our city? Did you, too, go, dressed in your summer cotton, and wrap your fingers around the strange phenomenon? My mother looked down at me, a tear bulbous in the corner of her eye. She blinked and the tear cleared a path in her make-up: make-up she put on before she heard the news, before she dragged me from my bed, down the stairs, into the street where we dodged a cyclist’s front tyre, and around the corner. She wiped her face, attempting defiance, but caught her eyelashes with her knuckle, smudging mascara down her right cheek into a shape resembling an exclamation mark. I stood, wire chin-height, awaiting the sounds which usually followed my mother’s tears, but they did not come.
Your eyes glisten in the streetlight as you stare ahead. I dare not look. I want to see so much and nothing at all, so I just watch you. You attempt to stand on your tip-toes, but decide against it. The car creaks beneath us. You laugh.
‘We should get down,’ I say.
‘No. Everyone’s celebrating – no one’s coming back for this anytime soon,’ you say, eyes fixed ahead.
You have blue eyes, I think. Hans introduced us, handing us glasses of beer and insisting we clink them together before he moved away. We obliged; the force of your glass left a crack in mine. We laughed. You said your name, but I cannot recall it now. I consider asking the question, consider confessing my ignorance, but decide against uttering a word. You raise your free hand, wave at the Wall. I watch the motion of your arm.
Are you waving at your grandparents? Childhood friends? Aunties and uncles you never really knew? Your mother? Father? A teacher who taught you arithmetic one day and failed to show up the next? My mother waved when she saw them walking up the street. I gripped the wire tighter, stood on my tiptoes. People milled all around – mothers cried, children squealed, a dog barked – but I kept my eyes on the couple walking towards us. I remember the pattern of their walk: a few steps, a pause, a few steps, a pause. I frowned; I did not remember them being so slow. I watched my grandfather’s eyes, small and beady in the nicest way, become big and bold. My grandmother, wearing a headscarf despite the heat, rummaged in the pocket of her skirt and produced a handkerchief which she dabbed at her eyes. I reached my hand through the wire fence then, stopping when it caught on my elbow. The sleeve of my dress snagged on the metal, producing a hole my mother could never bring herself to stitch up.
‘Why aren’t you waving?’ you ask.
‘I’m trying to remember your name,’ I say.
‘And that’s stopping you from moving your arm?’
‘Yes, it is.’
You continue to look ahead, continue to wave.
Yes, Holger. You told me your name amidst a sip of beer. I left my glass on the kitchen counter, a puddle of amber liquid dripping from the crack you caused. I thought a gentleman would have handed me his drink, apologised for overdoing it on the introductory toast, but you did not. Instead, you downed your beer and suggested we leave the party.
‘And yours?’ you ask, eyes still on the Wall.
‘Mine?’ I ask, frowning.
I am disappointed you do not remember.
You nod, stuffing both hands into the pockets of your duffle coat. I continue to watch you watching the Wall. You nip at your bottom lip. Once. Twice. Three times. A hair, desperately in need of plucking, peeks out of your left nostril. Your scarf, blue, is frayed just under your chin. The skin around your eyes crinkles as you attempt to bring the East into focus.
Who are you hoping to see? A friend? A relative? I, too, scrunched up my face with the effort of trying to reach my grandfather’s hand. He looked left and right – a ritual he always performed, a habit left over from the National Socialist era according to my mother – before reaching back. I always held my grandfather’s hand – on the walk to school, getting the newspaper on a Saturday morning, in the park, for the few steps it took to walk from their living room to their balcony, down the steps; on the U-bahn. His fingers were tobacco-stained, red around the nails. The hair on the back of his hands prickled my skin. I clutched his hand through the wire on Sunday 13thAugust 1961. I clutched his hand through the wire on Sunday 13thAugust 1961 until the slightest movement, I cannot remember whether it was on my part or on his, resulted in torn skin and beads of blood. My mother broke our grip then, pulling me away by my elbow. My grandmother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth. I howled, not for my cut hand, but for the loss of my grandfather’s.
‘Holger,’ I say. ‘Shouldn’t we get down now? We might get caught.’
‘Whoever owns the car.’
You laugh, shake your head. A bird startles from the trees above us. I look up and watch it fly over the barbed-wire topped wall. When I move my gaze down, to the snow-covered bonnet of the car, I realise I have the beginnings of a headache. Too much beer, not enough food. You had suggested a meal, but I was in the mood to walk: to walk away from the festivities.
‘Once I dreamt I was a bird,’ I say. ‘But I couldn’t fly no matter how hard I tried. In the end, I tried to peck away at the Wall, until I chipped my beak on the concrete. Then I just walked up and down the entire length of the Wall, looking for holes. I woke up before I got through.’
I am unsure as to why I decide to share this fragment. My cheeks, chest, back, arms, burn. I bury my face in my scarf.
‘Who were you trying to get to?’
I shrug, put my hands in the pockets of my coat; I stick my middle finger down the hole in the lining until I feel the material will tear if I go any further. You watch me. I look down at my unsuitable footwear – the toes scuffed and snow-covered.
‘You must have been trying to get to someone over there,’ you say.
I shrug again, look at your tread marks in the snow. Did your mother try to hold the wire down with her hands? Try to get her parents over to the same side? Did your grandparents shake their heads, look in the direction of the men guarding the barbed wire wall, look at their guns? I can see my grandfather step back, rest a hand on my grandmother’s forearm as a warning. He looked left to right – once, twice – and mouthed two words at my mother. Go home. He waved then, with his right-hand, a small, almost indistinct motion, and we waved back. I waved with both hands, in huge arcs that made my shoulders ache; I waved how I always did at my grandparents as we walked down the street following our usual weekly visits. And I waited, hands in the air, as I always did, for my grandfather to mimic my actions, as he usually did, but he did not, not on that hot summer’s day in August 1961. Instead, he hung his head, and my mother scooped me up, even though I was too big, and carried me down the street. Before we turned the corner, I looked up. My grandfather’s head was still bowed. My grandmother’s handkerchief was still pressed to her mouth. Neither of them had moved.
I look at you, at your half-buried face, at your red nose. ‘I was trying to get to my grandparents,’ I say.
You nod, kick snow off the car’s roof, and watch the white shower descend onto the sidewalk. I admire the clear patch of the car’s roof, matte and black, in the streetlight.
‘Wave to them now,’ you say, inclining your head in the direction of the East.
‘They’re both dead.’ I say.
I look at you, hoping for something, although I’m not exactly sure what. A pat on the back? A kiss on the forehead? A sigh of condolence? You keep your face half-tucked into your scarf, your eyes on the Wall. You cough, sniff, rub your hands on your cheeks in an attempt to warm them up. And then you continue to wave. I watch you, consider venting my disappointment, consider nudging you until you react, but there is something about the parts of your face I can see which encourages me to look at the Wall, to wave.
I wave with one hand to start with, an awkward, half-hearted, motion, like I used to do as a child when my mother first told me it was time to leave my grandparents’ apartment and I really didn’t want to go home. Then I hold both my hands in the air, and wave as if I am five again and I’ve accepted I really have to go home. I wave as if my grandfather were waving back. You put a hand around my waist, steadying me. I wave at the dark windows of the apartment buildings, at the empty balconies, at the streetlamps, at the snow that has started to fall again. I wave in wide arcs and try to shout out wishes for the New Year, but my breath weighs heavy in my chest, and I cough. You laugh.
You let go of me, sit down, wincing as the snow bleeds through your clothes, and slide from the car. You walk to the driver’s side and hold your arms out for me. I wave over the Wall once more before I crouch, hold my own arms out, and let you catch me.
‘Who were you waving at?’ I ask.
‘Everyone,’ you say, pulling a cigarette and a lighter from your pocket. ‘You smoke?’
I shake my head.
‘Everyone?’ I ask.
‘Yes, everyone. Mum, Dad, my brother, my two sisters, two aunties, three uncles, six cousins, and all my friends. I was born over there.’
You walk on, smoke threading about your head.
‘You were born over there?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, I came over last year.’
I catch up with you and link my arm through yours.
‘I escaped, of course,’ you say.
About the Contributor
Alone in Berlin - Hans Fallada
Based on real-life resisters Elise and Otto Hampel, Fallada’s Alone in Berlin tells the story of Anna and Otto Quangel who drop anti-Nazi postcards throughout Berlin in 1940. Powerfully written in Fallada’s typically understated style, the novel begins with loss – news of the death of the Quangels’ son at the Front – and it is this loss which spurs the couple on to ultimately sacrifice their own lives fighting back against the totalitarian regime which took so much from so many.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To by Linda Mannheim
- The Cyclops by Karen Foster
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Endurance by Gerard McKeown
- Pack Animals by Anita Goveas