'Happenstance' - a short story (2,600 words)
With the exception of one old coot in a loud Hawaiian shirt off to the side, working a Sudoku, Maria McLeod sat alone in the open-air bar awaiting her Mai Tai while reading the back of the drinks menu: ‘Welcome to the Tiki Lounge! In the late 1880’s, under a nearby banyan tree, famed author Robert Louis Stevenson spent many an hour reading to Princess Kaiulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian throne.’
“How cool is that!” she thought.
When her cocktail arrived, Maria removed the tiny umbrella, swiveled her seat, and gazed out upon Waikiki Beach — beautifully aglow under early evening skies. Although she had arrived only that day — for an academic conference — she already understood what her friends had meant when saying that Hawaii was a kind of paradise; and, fleetingly, she thought: ‘I should probably buy a condo here. I’ll bet there are all kinds of interesting retired gents about.’
But, of course, she knew she could never leave Vancouver, and her children, and her grandchildren, and her beloved university community
Then Maria had another thought — which was not fleeting at all — but instead, was one which had recurred many times, over many years: ‘How different things might have been!’
Sitting side by side in the small café, Ernst and Maria pressed against one another — their fears merging into a singularity. None of the seven other patrons spoke — the only sound: the café manager’s pointless fidgeting with cups and saucers, and the ticking of the clock on the wall, indicating five thirty in the morning.
“He’s coming,” said a boy of maybe sixteen, on lookout by the window.
After the East German soldier had entered, closed the door behind him and approached the bar, asking: “May I have two coffees, please?” — a middle aged man stood up, pointed a Lugar at him and calmly said: “Please, do not speak.”
Once the soldier had been bound, gagged and removed to the kitchen, everyone gathered near the entry — including the café manager, now wearing his coat.
Signaling, the middle-aged man opened and closed the door two times, then squinted out its tiny window, awaiting a response.
The one other female besides Maria crossed herself and mouthed a prayer.
“It’s time, good luck,” said the middle-aged man, and, again, he opened the door.
It had been determined that it would probably be best if they all simply made a dash of it — and so they did — out into the pre-sunrise dim.
Maria could sense Ernst right behind her as the cadre sprinted down the pavement, staying low, keeping close to the sides of buildings. Ahead of her, she saw the other East German soldier, whose duty it was to patrol this particular street. But, instead of shouting, “Halt!!,” he was removing his military jacket and taking off his cap; and then he, too — now, leading the charge — was running in the direction of the newly laid barbed wire that now separated East and West Berlin.
Approaching the wide boulevard down which the barricade had been stretched, Maria began counting to one hundred — praying that when she had finished, that she would be safe.
When the, now, ‘ex-soldier’ reached the barbed wire, he easily pulled away the meter-long section which he had used wire cutters on during the night; and then, not waiting for the others, he scrambled onward to freedom.
Suddenly, a zing and a crack — and a groan! To her left, Maria glimpsed the other girl going down in a tumble, grasping at a bloodied calf.
“Go, Maria, go!” panted Ernst behind her.
Everything was pounding: Maria’s feet on the cobblestone, her heart, her yearning to be out of danger.
The gap in the wire was just a few steps ahead, when some strange force twisted Maria’s body sideways — and she found herself stumbling, and then falling, and then violently hitting the ground.
Opening her eyes, Maria saw that Ernst, too, was down, just two meters away, facing her, and trying to speak — but no words were coming.
Feeling somehow transcendentally peaceful, Maria asked: “What is it, Ernst? I can’t hear you!”
Then! Something was pulling at Maria, dragging her away, through the gap! She kicked, trying to get free, and one of her shoes flew off — which Ernst, reaching up, caught in his hand — just as an East German soldier arrived to put a boot into his side.
The Master of Ceremonies of the 2003 Pacific Rim Rhetoric Society Conference — a dapper academic with a gray van dyke — was once again speaking at the lectern: “We will close tonight’s opening session with the awarding of the prize for ‘Best Long Form Essay by a Graduate Student.’”
“Yea! The home stretch!” thought Maria. “Back in Canada, it’s way past my bedtime!”
“The winning entry this year,” continued the MC, is entitled ’Happenstance,’ by Susanna Asfordby, from the University of Western Australia. It is a wonderful piece of writing ... full of humor, wisdom, humanity and wit.”
Maria thought: “Susanna … mmm … a nice old-fashioned name … I like that!”
To the polite applause from the sixty or so gathered in the hotel’s meeting room, a demure, short haired brunette, in her mid-twenties, rose from her seat at the head table and moved to the lectern.
“Thank you,” began Susanna, “I am tremendously honored to receive this award; and, I must say, also, to be given the opportunity to visit these beautiful islands. My husband is an avid surfer, and as he could not join me here, I can tell you, he is one very jealous Aussie right now.”
“And, what a poised young lady you are!” mused Maria.
“Many of us, I’m sure, like me,” continued Susanna, “may be a bit punchy with jet lag, tonight, so, I promise to be brief in my remarks.”
“Thank you, Susanna! Thank you!”
“I’d like to start by reading to you from the beginning of ’Happenstance’ ... a full copy of which is included in everyone’s conference packet.”
’When I was eleven years old, I discovered in my father’s study, inside a small box on a bookshelf, two things: firstly, a tattered, old brown shoelace, and secondly, a black and white photograph of my father, from when he was a young man in which he was embracing and kissing a young woman — who was definitely not my mother! Since parents, to children, are magical beings this made no sense to me whatsoever.
’When I was fifteen, tragically, my mother died, suddenly, from an aneurysm — which left just me and my dad. That first year of the new reality was a true test of our relationship.
’One night, after I’d come home too late from a date, we had a big argument; and, a little drunk, I confronted him about the photograph — angrily asking him why it was that he kept it in a special little box, in a special little place, on his bookshelf.
‘I also demanded that he tell me about his life before coming to Australia, about which, all I knew was: one, that he had been born in 1943, in Poland, and, two, that he had immigrated to Australia in 1975.’
“Hm, 1943,” thought Maria, trying not to nod off.
’And, so, the next day, a beautiful Sunday, we spent the afternoon on our veranda — where my father, finally, filled me in regarding his origins — which included the story of the woman in the photograph.
‘Dad’s mother was Polish, but his father was German. When he was twelve, in 1955, his family moved from Poland to East Germany — where they found the style of communism to be much harsher.’
“You can say that, again, old girl!” murmured Maria, audibly.
‘At sixteen, my father became involved with some political dissidents. One day, just walking down the street, he was taken by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and thrown into prison for two months.’
“I’m sorry, what did you just say, Susanna?” thought Maria, feeling strangely confused.
‘After that experience, he said he knew for certain that somehow, someway, he was going to make his way to the West — and to freedom. But then, at seventeen, he fell madly in love — and his girlfriend was not as keen on leaving her family forever behind, along with the only world she knew and understood.’
“Please slow down, Susanna, I need to think about what you are saying!”
’And so dad began to reconcile himself to a life under communism — while at the same time continuing his efforts to convince his true love that they should flee to the west.
’And, a year later, he succeeded. My father laughed when he explained to me how it was a bundle of illegally obtained magazines — Der Spiegel, Paris Match, Vogue, Life — that had done the trick. ′
“I’m jet lagged I’m jet lagged! I’m jet lagged!” Maria’s head was now spinning.
’The pictures in the magazines — depicting as they did what life was like in the free world — had made his girlfriend quite angry with the realization that she had been lied to about the superiority of communism.
‘Soon, the two lovers were making their way to East Berlin — where, as it happens, authorities had begun shutting down passage to western sectors of the city. Ernst and Maria …’
‘… arrived on the fourteenth of August, 1961 … a Tuesday.’
Maria — now inhabiting a different plane — found herself to be standing up, and then, almost involuntarily, to be speaking: “Excuse me, Susanna, but the fourteenth was … in fact … on a Monday.”
All heads turned to Maria.
“I’m sorry?” said Susanna, from the stage.
“I just thought, perhaps, you might be interested, you know … to know …”
As the now weak-kneed Maria sat back down, the woman next to her scooted over a seat.
“Ah … well … it could be wrong, I’m sure,” responded Susanna, taken aback some. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to look it up, and to correct it, if necessary.”
Then, finding her place, Susanna continued.
‘A few days later, Maria and my father were fortunate enough to connect with some others who were also planning their escape from East Berlin.’
Maria began counting to one-hundred, praying that when she had finished that Susanna would be finished — so she could flee to her room. In the morning, when her head was clear, she would read the essay in full then.
But when Maria did reach one-hundred, Susanna was still speaking.
‘In the police car on the way to hospital, my father removed the lace from Maria’s shoe and put it in a pocket. A week later, and after two surgeries, incredibly, he escaped from the hospital — and was able to make his way back to Poland, to his grandparents’ home, where, he changed his name to theirs, and began a new life, becoming a baker.
’In 1974, after a failed marriage, aged thirty-one, he found himself in trouble with the Polish authorities. This time, he was imprisoned for over a year. But, amazingly, upon his release, from out of the blue, his long-standing application for a tourist visa to Sweden was approved. (It was my father’s belief that they just wanted to be finally rid of another troublemaker.)
‘Arriving in Stockholm, he went directly to the Australian Embassy, where he requested political asylum.’
“I’ll stop the reading there,” said Susanna, looking up from the lectern. “As you might well imagine, being a teenager myself, I was pretty moved by my father’s story ... about two young lovers being separated during a dramatic escape attempt from behind the Iron Curtain. I mean, really, how can you top that?!
“A few years later, however, at university, it hit me in a different way … on an existential level, if you will. If a bullet had not passed through my father’s torso, I would never have been born. My very existence was a matter of happenstance.
’Thankfully, an epiphany came to my rescue. Every one of us is here, really, as a matter of happenstance. The universe itself may exist as a matter of happenstance! And that is what my essay, from a lighthearted perspective, is about. Thank you all so very much.”
Maria waited for most of the conferees to depart before rising from her seat, leaving the hall, and heading for the Tiki Lounge. She very much needed a drink.
Arriving, she found the establishment now to be quite lively: On a small stage, a middle-aged platinum blond, backed by canned music, was doing some kind of Don Ho shtick, while a sizable wedding party whooped it up on the dance floor.
After getting her Mai Tai from the bar, Maria found a small table on the perimeter of the merriment, near the old coot in the loud Hawaiian shirt — back again, working Sudokus.
Later, as she stared down at her half-consumed drink — thoughts still racing in her head — Maria sensed that someone nearby had just said “Hi” — and looking up she found it to have been Susanna!
Susanna: “You kind of surprised me when you said the fourteenth of August was a Monday. I thought you must be a savant, or something. Then I realized you probably just know your history of the Berlin Wall.”
Wanly, Maria smiled back. Then she noticed Susanna’s gaze lower and to fixate upon the name tag stuck to the lapel of Maria’s jacket.
“Your name is Maria?” asked Susanna, showing faint confusion.
Following a few frozen moments, Maria heaved a big sigh and, extending her hand, offered: “Please, have a seat, my dear.”
After some hesitation, Susanna sat.
“Would you like a drink?” asked Maria.
“No, I’m with someone, actually, but thank you all the same.”
“I enjoyed your talk, Susanna,” began Maria, a tad pointedly. “And I’d like very much, I think, to tell you a story. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Sensing some thing to be up, Susanna awkwardly nodded.
“I was born Maria Zeimmer, in 1944, in a small German village between Dusseldorf and the Polish border.”
Now wide-eyed, Susanna unconsciously grasped Maria’s Mai Tai and took a gulp.
Maria, continuing: “I first met my husband-to-be, Frank … whom I lost three years ago … early on the morning of the eighteenth of August, 1961 … in Berlin. It was a Friday, Susanna. Frank was a Canadian, serving in the British Army; and he pulled me to safety after I had been struck by a bullet … one which had first passed through another, my boyfriend at the time, Ernst …
“Hello, yes?” came an interjecting voice through the festive din.
Maria turned — to find herself being faced by the old coot in the loud Hawaiian shirt, looking up from his Sudoku — and, then — feeling somehow transcendently peaceful — she replied to him: “What is it, Ernst? I Can’t hear you.”
Blinking at tears, Susanna grasped Maria’s hand — and, in time, managed to say to her: “My husband, Jim, couldn’t make the trip ... and, so, my father came along, instead.” Then, turning to the ‘old coot’: “Well, Dad, it seems that your old friend Maria, here, might just be in complete agreement with my thesis … it’s all a matter of ‘happenstance!’”
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