11 Meeting Magda in Magdeburg
11 MEETING MAGDA IN MAGDEBURG
Looking back, it’s easy to see how these frustrations and the lack of alternative job opportunities forced Shaun to channel his energies into other activities.
My love affair with Politics and History forced me back to university and improving my command of German also seemed important if I was to have access to sources closed to the English speaking world. Without my ability to converse at ease in German, your mother would have tired of me and the world would have been deprived of three very able individuals with boundless potential to make a difference.
Magda, when we finally met, the many boring hours spent with German grammar, equipped me to appreciate your intelligent wit and challenging personality. Just imagine, your mother stole my heart through the medium of German rather than Polish or English. It was the German Magda I came to know first.
Despite the many negative experiences, the first trip to the GDR had awakened Shaun’s interest in life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. To exploit this to the full he needed to improve his communication skills in German. The means to do this was served by the Evening B.A. in German.
An added advantage of studying at UCD was the bargain rates for squash courts. The envious looks of sports centre staff was also an ego-booster when he came accompanied by young attractive squash partners in skimpy sportswear.
Understandably, this didn’t improve his relationship with Caragh. In fairness, she did her best to fit in to his new life, braving the traffic to come in her new car from the north-side to play squash with him. He squeezed her in before or after one of his new friends. They didn’t seem to like her very much, which didn’t really surprise him as she was generally very cold and distant when she met them. She couldn’t resist jeering their fake tans or mimicking their posh accents.
“You don’t have any time for me anymore,” she complained.
“It will only be for three years,” he pleaded, “It’s important to me.”
“Life is passing us by,” she told him. “I feel privileged if you agree to meet me for an hour in town after lectures.”
“You’re the most important thing in my life,” he answered with just too much conviction. “Even when I’m exhausted after lectures, I still make the effort to meet you.”
“So it’s an effort is it?” she complained.
“You know what I mean, Caragh.” he sighed.
Caragh sat alone in a cafe in the city centre. She had looked at her watch at least a hundred times. It was ten minutes to ten.
“What the hell is keeping him?” she wondered.
Shaun appeared through the door, looking in every direction but hers. She waved frantically and was already vexed by the time he spotted her.
“Hold your temper,” she told herself, “he’s here, isn’t he?”
“It was the most fantastic lecture on East German Literature,” he greeted, “Berna has lent me her book until mine arrives.”
She knew he expected her to share his excitement, but all she wanted him to do was to care about some of her problems and be a sympathetic ear. He was so much into his own life that he hadn’t even thought to ask how she was.
“Me, Me, Me, – Why wasn’t there any room left for her anymore?”
He noticed the look on her face and his mood changed.
“What did I do this time?” he asks and the walls go up on both sides.
The winter weeks passed all to slowly and the short weekends in Galway were never long enough to forget about the stresses of Dublin. Caragh dragged herself through with thoughts of the endless summer months spent on some far flung shore. The modest teaching salary would allow them to finance several weeks abroad if they were very careful and prepared to rough it. She was hopeful Shaun would forget about university at least for a few sun-drenched weeks. The dancing course with Gerard had been the only accomplishment over the winter. Shaun hadn’t liked the idea of her dancing with another guy, but he would never have done the course and he was too busy anyway.
Gerard, who was also from Galway, had suggested getting a group from college to go island-hopping to Greece for the summer. Caragh had managed to convince the girls she was sharing with and now all she had to do was to twist Shaun’s arm as well, but that would be an uphill struggle. He didn’t like big groups and being exposed to intense heat for a number of weeks scared him.
Caragh surprised Shaun when he emerged from the exam hall with a small group of female students.
“See you tomorrow girls,” he said giving each of them a hug before coming over in her direction. It was obvious he wasn’t thrilled to see her, but at least he tried rather ineptly to conceal it.
It was a beautiful June day. The sun shone brightly in an uncharacteristically, clear blue, Irish sky.
“Let’s sit over on the grass by the lake,” she suggested.
The rectangular-shaped pond was enclosed on all sides by gloomy grey concrete buildings, but the strong sunshine turned this architectural nightmare into a welcoming oasis.
“I bought some cream cakes on the way,” she offered, taking
the paper bag out of a bigger plastic bag.
“I hope the coffee is still hot,” she smiled, producing two beakers of MacDonald’s coffee.
“Thanks love,” he said, giving her a peck on the cheek and reaching into the paper bag.
“What do you think about spending the summer in Greece?”
she asked, trying not to show too much enthusiasm.
“Who else is going?” he asked suspiciously.
“Some of the girls from college together with Gerard and his friend,” she replied.
“When?” he asked, enjoying his power.
“August,” she answered. “Gerard said you can survive in Greece for half-nothing. The biggest expense will be getting there.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” he agreed, determined not to show too much interest. “As long as it’s in August and not in July,” he added.
“And what’s so important about July?” she asked, being almost afraid of his answer.
“I applied for a summer course in East Germany a while back,” he explained. “My professor gave me an excellent recommendation, so I have a good chance of getting it.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay in East Germany for August as well?” Caragh asked sarcastically.
“Do you have to be like that?” he pleaded.
Shaun sensed how important the Greek adventure was for Caragh and he agreed despite his reservations. Caragh for her part, left him to the airport on the first Friday in July when he set off for Magdaburg. She hugged and kissed him, already sensing his thoughts were somewhere else.
“Don’t get up to anything,” she warned.
“You know I’m only going for the German and not the Germans,” he replied pleased at his own joke.
He arrived late in the evening at the Technical College in Magdeburg, having changed trains in East Berlin, just glimpsing the huge TV tower as the train passed through the city. His new Iraqi roommate had very little German and answered Shaun’s questions with single words after a great deal of hesitation. Shaun gave up after about ten minutes, having found out he came from Bagdad and had spend the previous two years fighting the Iranians.
The student hostel consisted of a four storey pre-fabricated concrete structure, typical for East Germany. The outside facade was dotted at regular intervals by small square windows. The large segments of pre-fabricated concrete were joined by steel bolts which had been roughly covered by huge daubs of cement. The soul-destroying ugliness was echoed in the surrounding flat blocks. The absolute monotony of the view was broken only by the communist slogans, written in huge, red letters on a white canvas background, and stretched along the whole sides of buildings.
Shaun returned indoors. His nostrils exhaled the stink of blackened factory chimney stacks and the fumes of heavy trucks, only to inhale the stench feet from the worn shoes left outside each door. His bladder told him that he needed to relieve himself and he made his way to the toilets which were located on the second floor. The urinals gave off a pungent chemical odour which left his lungs burning as he returned to the stale air of the corridor. An East German student ignored his “hello” on the stairs as she passed. He knew she was East German because everything she wore looked hideous and faded.
“Hello! Where are the showers?” he asked the next male he passed.
“They’re down in the basement, came the reply, but don’t expect any hot water at this time.”
Shaun felt sweaty after the long journey and decided to brave the cold water anyway. He took the briefest of showers before returning to his room, finding no other excuse to avoid an early night in bed.
He was relieved the next morning to hear English voices at breakfast. A Scottish boy arranged to go jogging with him, and told him that he also intended taking part in a marathon after the summer break. Shaun made sure to tell him that he had already completed a number of marathons and that he was optimistic about completing the course in under three hours..
Later that day, as he waited outside the student hostel for the Scottish boy, his mind went back over the lectures he had yawned his way through earlier. Even Goethe and Schiller were discussed in a Marxist Leninist way in the GDR. He wondered how East Germans could mentally survive five years of being told exactly how to think and being forced to regurgitate stock phrases to get a good degree.
As he waited, a tall, attractive Swedish girl, whom he had noticed earlier, approached him.
“Mind if I join you for a jog?” she asked in the most appealing Swedish accent.
“I would be very glad of your company,” he answered trying not to betray too much enthusiasm.
“Wait, I’ll just be a minute,” she apologised.
By the time the Scottish boy appeared, the beautiful blonde was rushing behind him, turning every male head on the way. Shaun wasn’t surprised as she had one of the most perfect bodies he had ever seen and her revealing sportswear didn’t leave a lot to the imagination.
They crossed a noisy city street and jogged down a narrow overgrown lane, finally coming out along the river. The water looked stagnant and factory chimneys on the other riverbank sent endless clouds of smoke which hung in the air and soon filled their lungs with fumes which they hoped were less toxic than the stench implied. They left the chimneys behind them as quickly as possible and continued along a neglected pathway with overgrown bushes and unsightly weeds thriving along its edges. Shaun ran in the middle and tried to include the Scottish boy in the conversation. The Swede ignored him to the point of rudeness. She was incredibly self-assured, to the extent that Shaun was completely over-awed and more than a little intimidated.
The Scottish boy made himself scarce as soon as they returned, leaving Shaun wiping the sweat from his face before the Swedish girl caught up with them. As Shaun expected, she looked as cool and perfect as she had when they had started forty minutes earlier.
“Have you any plans for this evening?” she asked only slightly out of breath.
“No,” he stuttered, not believing his ears.
“Maybe we could go for a drink,” she suggested.
He examined himself as he dried off in the shower room in front of a cracked mirror. He was twenty four and at his physical peak. The intensive sport regime had left its mark. His hair had a healthy shine and his beard was neatly trimmed, giving the impression of more wisdom, than he possessed. Still, he knew the Swedish blonde was way out of his league which made her all the more desirable.
Shaun arrived at the student cafe about five past eight. He sat in a corner, which commanded a clear view of the door. It seemed like an eternity before she came through the door.
“Hi Shaun,” she greeted without any hint of apology. “I’ve found a landsman,” she said, pointing to an athletically built male in his late twenties.
He seemed less than pleased, at Shaun’s presence and made no attempt to hide it.
The following few hours turned out to be one of the most frustrating and humiliating experiences he had ever endured. Although both Swedes could speak German, they spent most of the evening flirting with each other in Swedish. Yet each time Shaun stood up to go she pressed him not to leave. Every time the guy’s hand accidentally touched her leg, it seemed to go a little higher.
Shaun fumed, sipped his beer, and tried to hide the feelings that had taken hold inside him. He found it ironic that the only LP they seemed to have at the cafe was ABBA’s greatest hits. He left them after what felt like an eternity and resolved never to listen to ABBA again.
The next evening, Shaun arranged to meet a group of English-speaking students at the same cafe. He bumped into the Swedish guy on the way back from the toilet.
“How did you get on last night?” he asked casually trying
hard to conceal his true feelings.
“I can’t stand women who blow you on the first night,” he boasted in mock complaint.
“Right then,” Shaun ended awkwardly, a little lost for words. “I’ll see you around.
Not long after, Shaun spied the Swedish girl coming through the door out of the corner of his eye. The athletic Swede pretended not to see her, but she walked right up to him and engaged him in conversation. His face looked angry and in the end he pushed past her and made for the door even though she tried to hold onto his arm. The pleading look on her face disgusted Shaun and he turned back to the group and determined to catch up on their conversation.
“Hi Shaun,” she said ignoring the others and pulling over a chair from another table, without bothering to ask if it were free.
“This is Tove,” he told them.
“Pleased to meet you”, they replied and continued their conversation.
“Why did you leave so early last evening?” she started.
He looked with disbelief into her gorgeous eyes. Could the total misery of his situation the previous night have gone so completely over her head? He had to admit the look of sincerity on her face was hard to discredit.
“We’re off now to a club,” the Scottish boy told him as the others stood up.
“Wait, I’ll be with you as well,” Shaun replied making to get up.
As he did, he felt her hand on his thigh.
“Don’t go yet Shaun, stay and keep me company.”
The others were already waiting at the door.
“Go on,” he called over, “I’ll stay a little longer.”
“I’m sorry about last night,” she apologised, trying to look
as repentant as possible.“I never intended to hurt you.”
“That’s alright,” he answered, trying hard to banish the anger from his voice.
“Let me make it up to you,” she suggested, playing with her fingers on his leg as she spoke. “How about coming back to the room with me?”
“What about your roommate?” Shaun asked.
“What roommate?” she grinned.
“You mean you have a room to yourself?”
“All it took was a bottle of Johnny Walker for the caretaker,” she boasted.
Shaun was repulsed by her self-satisfied expression.
“Why did you want to be with him and not me?” he heard himself asking in a wounded tone, before his brain had had time to put on the brake.
“I always find well-built older guys really attractive” she answered honestly.
“So I’m just the stand-in this evening?” he concluded. “Thanks Tove, but no thanks,” he told her, signalling to the waiter for the bill.
“I have never had sex before,” he whispered, as if it was a shameful secret, “and when I do,” he continued, “I want it to be with someone special.”
“I was fourteen the first time,” she admitted, “with by my mother’s latest boyfriend, and believe me there was nothing special about it. It’s just fucking after all. There is no sense making such a big deal about it”
“Thanks for sharing that insight with me,” Shaun answered with sarcasm in his voice. “Call me a fool if you like, but I would rather keep my romantic fantasies alive a little longer.”
Shaun gave himself over to jogging and the less demanding cultural challenge which the British group posed from that onwards. One of the English girls, whose mother had committed suicide that spring, made her interest clear, but Shaun knew he would have felt terrible if he had taken advantage in any way. Sadly, the East German councillor designated to their group was more than willing to exploit her vulnerability.
The remaining days of the first week passed uneventfully and Shaun had resigned himself to more of the same when he and two of his British friends were approached by a small group of Polish students when they emerged from a lecture from which the Poles had been excluded.
“How was your lecture with the government representative?” they asked sarcastically. “Do you know that only students from capitalist countries were allowed go?”
“We’ve all decided to join the SED.” Shaun joked, “By the way, they warned us not to listen to you lot. They told us that the Poles were the worst communists in the Eastern Block.”
The English group were keen to get in before the dinner queue stretched out through the door. Shaun would normally have joined them, but he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity of meeting some genuine Poles and finding out what was really going on. The Solidarity strikes had been in the headlines for months. Everybody was expecting another Czechoslovakia, but the new Polish Pope was doing everything possible to put pressure on the communist government to back down.
“How about coming along with us to the cinema this afternoon,” Maciek suggested.
“Yes, come along,” the two Polish girls urged as Shaun faked indecision.
“Okay,” Shaun finally agreed. “I’ll meet you outside the refectory after lunch.”
I’m sure you have guessed that one of those Polish girls in that group was your mother. Obviously she had not been very impressed by her first meeting with me, otherwise she would not have left Halina and Maciek to accompany me to the cinema that afternoon. However, even without your mother, Shaun managed to enjoy the afternoon immensely and he was determined to spend more time in their company when the film ended.
As they walked back to the hostel, Shaun asked what plans they had for the evening.
“Don’t forget Shaun, we’ve to be up before five tomorrow to travel to Weimar and Wittenberg,” Maciek answered by way of excuse. “That will certainly be the highlight of the whole trip,” he continued with genuine excitement.
Shaun raised his eyebrows, unconvinced that a visit to Schiller and Goethe’s houses would change the course of his life.
“I’m up for doing something,” agreed Halina suddenly, just as Shaun was about to give up on the idea.
He met her outside the student hostel, soon after the evening meal and they went along his jogging route. The river was transformed by the marvellous sunset. Couples of all ages passed them as they walked. Shaun envied them and regretted all the evenings he had spent studying during his teenage years. He was in his mid-twenties and Caragh was the only real girlfriend he had ever had.
“Let’s go in here,” he suggested as they passed a small
romantic cafe along a less industrialised stretch of the river. He ordered two desserts, with fruit and alcohol and lashings of fresh cream. They laughed as they raced each other to finish the frozen ice cream at the end of the glass.
“Let’s not go back yet,” he urged calling the waitress over to order a bottle of red wine.
They sipped their wine and the hours past. They would have sat longer, if the waitress hadn’t begun to stack chairs around them.
They sat on a wooden bench outside and looked up at the clear night sky. Shaun put his arm around Halina and she turned towards him. Her cheeks felt soft and he drank in her fragrance. He kissed her for all the time he had wasted during his teenage years and the clumsy attempts with girls before he had met Caragh.
He heard the rain patter against the window the next morning and jumped out of bed in alarm when he saw the time on his alarm clock. He was relieved to find Maciek, Halina and Magda still waiting on the platform at the station.
“You’re lucky East German railways are so inefficient,” Maciek joked.
Shaun, still out of breath, exchanged a knowing smile with Halina and they both blushed at the memory of the stolen kisses a few hours before.
They found seats on the train together. Halina told him that all three Polish students were in their final year of study and all were from Cracow. Shaun did his best to entertain them with stories about Ireland, editing out the tension at school or any mention of Caragh.
Dublin was a world away and here he was free to reinvent himself. He glimpsed his reflection in the window. He saw a confident young man in his twenties who didn’t doubt his intelligence or his ability to be interesting and entertaining. There was no trace of the self-conscious youth who had felt himself judged every time he opened his mouth.
Life can conspire to surprise us beyond our wildest dreams and this day was to be a good example of that. Nothing would have convinced me in advance that this rainy day would turn out to be one of the most special days of my whole life.
Shaun looked through the train window and saw the wet, dreary streets of Wittenberg as the train pulled into the station. A sky filled with black clouds without any hint of blue, didn’t lead him to expect much from the visit. Like many Irish tourists, he expected summers on the continent to guarantee sun or at least to improve as the day progressed no matter how overcast the morning appeared.
This groundless optimism exposed him to more than a few raised eyebrows when he appeared in shorts and a tee-shirt. His light haversack served no function other than to carry a small bottle of water. Walking from the station, he passed small groups of sensible students unfolding rain-jackets and taking umbrellas from their backpacks.
A Protestant pastor gave the tour of Luther’s house. He spoke with great passion in his voice. As he spoke Shaun remembered the words of his own history teacher at secondary school:
“Listen boys! I can’t understand why Protestants are so proud of that character Luther. Everyone knows he was mad from boyhood having been struck by lightning and then he ran off with a nun and had six children with her.”
Shaun winced, remembering how gullible he had been; ready to accept such half-truths as truth.
Luther was indeed, a great man, far beyond his time, however his attitude towards peasants and Jews, not to mention the burning of witches would have cast him in a very poor light in our times. That being said, the Church fathers who chose our Gospels and repressed the others would have found more common ground with Luther than with us and still Christian trust with their choices is steadfast.
Re-emerging onto the church square, Shaun was surrounded by a sea of umbrellas under an even blacker sky. Your mother, the incredibly attractive and youthful Magda, stood alone, fighting with her umbrella against a sudden gust of wind.
“Hi,” Shaun greeted, “Do you know where Maciek and Halina are?”
“They have already gone ahead,” she answered, pointing to a group just about to disappear around a corner. “You can shelter under my umbrella,” she offered before Shaun had a chance to decide whether to run on ahead or not.
He crouched under her umbrella and walked awkwardly by her side as she stretched her arm over his head.
“It’s obvious they didn’t teach you much in Ireland about dressing,” she remarked sarcastically, “ but I had hoped that they taught you something about being a gentleman.”
“Sorry?” he responded not believing his ears.
“Well, in Poland,” she explained, “a proper young man would immediately insist on holding the umbrella.”
“Tell me this,” he defended, “Do Polish men enjoy being continually scolded by very dominant Polish women?”
She looked up with the most wonderful eyes he had ever seen and her lips curved into a smile. Her flawless, slightly tanned face beamed as she struggled for a second or two to come up with an appropriate answer.
They had come to a main road and Shaun took control of the umbrella as they crossed. Her hand seemed to burn into him as she held onto his arm. Shaun wanted this moment to last forever and when she removed her hand again, he wanted to beg her to put it back.
“There’s my friend Eva,” she said rushing to catch up with her. “Look at the half-drowned Irishman I rescued,” she joked when they came within earshot.
The conversation soon switched into Polish and Shaun could only guess what they were talking about, but it was obvious that Magda found more than enough to laugh at. Polish sounded like an impossible language to learn with so many unusual sounds.
As the girls became more engrossed in conversation, Shaun used the opportunity to admire Magda from the side. How could he have been blind to have missed such an attractive form with well-formed breasts and a shapely body, concealed under a modest dress? Her legs were lightly tanned and a watery sun made their contours even more appealing.
Shaun was overcome by the desire to hold her and look into her face, but the moment was gone and now her attention was focused on her friend. He prayed that they wouldn’t catch up with Maciek and Halina for a while yet. The adrenalin was flowing and he felt fully alive, but his time in her company was running out.
“Well, my Irish terrorist,” she said turning in his direction. He summoned up everything he had to show her how witty and entertaining he could be. Magda made it easy by continually mocking his answers and daring him to retaliate with those fantastic dark eyes. She excelled at the empty compliment, expressed in a sarcastic tone to be followed by an expectant pause.
“I envy your skill,” she jibed, “you can actually manage to speak German without ever bothering about Umlauts(accents).”
Shaun followed her uphill threatening her with his open palm.
“Now I know how gentlemen in Ireland treat their women,” she mocked, smiling back in his direction.
“Over here,” Halina and Maciek called, as they reached the brow of the hill.
His time had expired, but it had been wonderful while it had lasted. Halina took his hand and they continued and Shaun caught Magda’s eyes turning away as he looked back.
“Why was I so hasty?” Shaun asked himself as he sat eating lunch next to Halina in Weimar later that day.
The kisses exchanged the evening before had lost their thrill as his eyes searched for Magda across the restaurant.
“You’re very quiet today,” Halina remarked.
“I’m just tired,” he smiled, but it was a bitter smile.
Shaun spotted a vacant place next to Magda at the very last second on the train back to Magdeburg.
Halina is further down the train, Magda told him, as he sat down beside her.
He pretended not to hear and decided to treasure every stolen minute, no matter how much torture it would bring him later. Halina came past as the train reached Magdeburg.
“I was keeping a seat for you,” she charged.
“Sorry,” Shaun replied, “I didn’t know where you were.”
The remaining days were spent in the company of Halina and Maciek. Shaun suffered two incredibly boring afternoon lectures, in the unsuccessful hope of meeting Magda alone. He tried to block the memory of her hand on his arm, but the moment refused to leave him in peace. No touch, had ever tortured him as much. It transcended the merely sexual and dug into his soul. Her dark eyes woke him in the middle of the night and left him in torment. She would walk out of his life in a day or two and they wouldn’t even have shared a kiss.
On the last day, in utter desperation, he threw himself between Magda and the others on the pretext of giving her a book. He had put his address on the inside cover with the request that she write to him, but he doubted she would. She looked at him with those big eyes, trying to figure him out and feeling Halina’s cold stare on her .
“Can I have your address Magda?” he persevered, handing her a pen and a torn page from a book before she could escape.
The last evening with Maciek and Halina, was spent, as always, in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil on a frustratingly weak electric ring,
Shaun promised to visit Poland, not really believing it even as he said it. They finished the biscuits and the last of the coffee. Shaun delayed longer with Halina. He had enjoyed their talks and the long walks together. He had missed his chance with Magda, but what he had experienced with Halina had been special, nonetheless.
“I have to apologise,” he began, pausing not knowing how to proceed. He looked at Halina and went on. “I have never met anybody like you,” he confessed, “I have enjoyed every minute.”
She went to kiss him, but he knew that if he yielded he would never get to continue. “For some reason” he continued,” I have developed feelings for someone else on the course who I don’t even know. If I appeared absent sometimes, it was because I was trying to put her out of my mind.”
“Who is it?” she asked a little surprised, shocked by his honesty.
“Someone I saw around the same time I met you,” he answered evasively. “I have barely spoken to her, but the thought of her leaves me no peace. It may seem contradictory to you, but you can believe me when I tell you that, my time with you has been very special to me,”
He proceeded to take out a small, neatly wrapped parcel from the inside pocket of his leather jacket, once he had finished.
“Real perfume,” she smiled, hugging him appreciatively.
“I just wanted to show you how special our time together has been even if we have no chance of building on it.”
“It was a very special time for me as well,” she told him and then she kissed him on the cheek and a single tear escaped from the corner of her eye before she turned away and made for the stairwell at the end of the corridor.