13 Ich bin ein Berliner
13 ICH BIN EIN BERLINER
Magda, you never told me about your first reaction when you got a long letter from a strange Irish guy who you barely knew and who seemed to have had more time for Halina than for you.
What were your first impressions of that love-struck Irish terrorist, as you later called me? Were you complimented or cynical when he tried to explain, in very mediocre German, that a chance encounter with the most incredibly attractive Polish girl had turned his life upside-down and that you had left chaos in the lives of two people on a small island at the most remote corner of Europe.
I can’t remember waiting more impatiently for any letter before or after in my whole life. Weeks passed and I was resigned to failure. I told myself I was a fool and knew that had I taken anyone into my confidence that they would have concurred.
However, even when the chances of success are slim to non-existent, there always remains that last glimmer of hope. We see this as significant when things work out, but choose to forget the senseless self-inflicted pain when we stubbornly persist with lost causes.
Then one wonderful morning I heard Granny shout up the stairs that a letter with strange foreign stamps had arrived. Within seconds, I was grabbing it out of her hands, abandoning any resolve to hide feelings too raw to share.
The answer had been worth waiting for. As well as a long letter, written in the most attractive handwriting, you had enclosed several black and white photographs.
“I am more than surprised that you noticed me at all,” you replied humbly. “You seemed to only have eyes for Halina.”
Shaun imagined the expression on Magda’s face as she wrote and his heart raced, as it had done that day in Wittenberg.
He kept her photo in his inside pocket at school, taking it out of the envelope every so often to admire her. Even his own name, written in her handwriting, on the envelope fed an endless pool of emotions within him which threatened to overwhelm him without warning.
“I’ll be in West-Berlin in a little over a month,” she had written. “A German exchange student called Uli, has invited me. This might be my only chance to breathe your free democratic air,” she joked, “so I had better make the best of it.
I never intended to wreak such havoc in your life” she apologised, “and so perhaps it could also be a good opportunity for you to come and find out what a terrible person I really am. Alternately, my mother has offered to send you a long list of all my faults, but you would have to learn Polish to appreciate the gravity of all my many flaws.”
You have since made it clear that my communicative deficit in German allowed me to misinterpret a light-hearted flirtation as a genuine invitation. In that case, thank heavens for my inability to fully appreciate your Polish banter.
Shaun was deluded enough to believe that if he spent a week with Magda in Berlin that he could free himself of this immature and juvenile infatuation.
The danger he didn’t want to consider at this stage was how unbearable it would be to forget her if things went well. There was no one he could turn to with this. He didn’t even recognise himself. He had been consistent and sensible for as long as he could remember. The Workers’ Party had been the only stupid distraction, but he had soon found his way back. Still he remembered the adrenaline buzz of dropping off that cliff and doing something no one he knew would support or agree to.
True, he had never felt this way about anyone before and there was every possibility that he never would again. He knew he risked losing the support and respect of those who meant something to him and his reason told him it was absolutely crazy to fly off to Berlin, but his heart was screaming, “go for it.”
There were two major problems, he hadn’t even considered, which were capable of putting a stop to this foolhardy undertaking: Having just paid his university fees, he was short on cash, and he was back at school.
Granny’s track record for keeping secrets is not the best to say the least, but she was the only one he could approach for money and he would need her to hide the fact that he wasn’t going to be at home for over a week.
“Mum there’s something I need to talk to you about,” he started, “I met somebody while I was in Magdeburg and I just can’t get her out of my head. You are going to think this is crazy, but I am going to take a week off school to meet her in West-Berlin.”
Shaun waited for the sharp, unsympathetic response, but Granny surprised him totally.
“Sounds like you’re in love,” she deduced, with a knowing smile on her face.
“How much money do you want?” she offered, before he even had the chance to ask.
“There’s no hurry paying me back,” she told him.
“Just tell your father you’re bringing the class off somewhere for a few days. He wouldn’t understand.”
Shaun thought he knew everything about Granny, but she had managed to surprise him and her ready acceptance of his decision reassured him that he hadn’t gone completely insane.
Coming out of the travel agents, he couldn’t believe that he had actually booked a flight to Berlin, not knowing where he would stay, or even if Magda would turn up.
“Perhaps I should have contacted her before I booked,” he thought.
She would be in Berlin before a letter arrived and he had no phone number for her. His only option was to send a telegram.
“See you at the Gedachtniskirche 8.30 October 30th,” he wrote, keeping it as brief as possible.
Each remaining night in Dublin was filled with nightmares. In one he pleaded with an unwilling doctor to write him a sick note. In another he waited for hours at the Gedachtniskirche in vain. Nor could he find any peace when he awoke exhausted the following morning.
His days were just as plagued with self-doubt and bouts of panic.
“Have I gone mad?” he asked himself.
“What would the rest of the family think if they knew?” he wondered, while at the same time being amused by the thought of their mouths hanging open in shock at the youngest brother. They were sure he was far too sensible to do anything without planning it well in advance. He was the shrewd one with the degree and the dependable job.
“Look at you,” your aunt had often teased me. “I bet you still have your communion money.”
A little over a month later, I sat on an Aer Lingus 737, enjoying a tasty Irish breakfast, surrounded mostly by businessmen in smart suits. It was late in the afternoon, when the airport bus dropped me at Bahnhof Zoo.
“I need a place to stay,” Shaun told an attractive young clerk in the tourist office.
“I’m not fussy,” he stressed. “Anything will do as long as it isn’t too expensive.”
“Anywhere near the Ku-Damm is costly,” she told him, “but there’s a small guest house right beside the S-Bahn. I can’t say a lot about the standard, but it’s definitely the cheapest.”
As he walked along, the sleek ultra-modern offices and shops soon gave way to rundown apartments and sleazy bars with shabby customers, who looked out with cold suspicious eyes. He passed under a gloomy red-bricked railway bridge and spotted Pension Berlin when he came out on the other side.
It fitted in very well with its surroundings. Shaun could have well believed that nothing had changed much since the war. The porter stood behind a miserable wooden counter, with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip and a permanent scowl on his ugly face.
He muttered something in Berlin German, revealing a mouth of uneven tobacco stained teeth. Shaun put down the card from the tourist office stating that he would be staying the following three nights.
“Three hundred D-mark,” he demanded not wasting a word.
“Fourth floor, no lift,” he said, banging the key down on the counter, the cigarette never leaving his lower lip.
Shaun wanted to ask if breakfast was included, but decided not to bother.
The noise and the light filtering through a faded off-green curtain woke him before six the following morning. Looking through a grimy window, he was confronted by a dark cloudy sky and the screech of city traffic, as it reclaimed the wet streets. He showered and selected carefully from a restricted range of light casual clothes, applying aftershave and deodorant liberally. He sat on the bed reading the Bild Zeitung, from the previous day, a second time and checking his watch nervously every few minutes. Finally, he gave in and determined to walk through the bleak city streets, leaving enough time for a prayer in the Gedachtniskirche.
A very faint October sun had pushed its way through the clouds as he spotted Magda in the distance. She saw him in the same moment and slowed her pace, straightening her jacket. She looked different in autumn clothes, but that smile with the hint of challenge and those wonderful eyes, made his heart miss a beat all the same.
“I wasn’t sure I would recognise you,” she admitted, as he kissed her on the cheek.
The momentary sunshine, which had accompanied her entrance, had already disappeared and a heavy shower began to drench them. Shaun put up his umbrella, offered her his arm and smiled:
“Rain and umbrellas just seem to follow us.”
“At least this time you left the short trousers at home and remembered to bring an umbrella,” she answered, her eyes laughing.
“Let’s find a cafe?” he suggested.
The downpour began in earnest as they pushed their way through the glass doors of an elegant cafe. The memory of his first date with Caragh came to mind as he held the door open for Magda.
“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked once they had sat down.
“I’ve just had breakfast with Uli,” she told him.
“Have a coffee at least,” he persuaded, secretly relieved that he wouldn’t have to spend too much.
He himself only ordered a cheese roll, despite the pangs of hunger coming from his stomach.
It surprisingly easy to open up to her and tell her all about his life. He didn’t even have to try to amuse her with his funny stories. Her constant barrage of jibes lifted his spirits and gave him the material to counter with. Despite the repeated requests to bring them something else, they managed to hold onto their coffee cups and the hours just passed.
They could see, looking through the window that the weather had improved again and Shaun was ready to suggest an afternoon visit to the Zoo when Magda told him she would have to leave.
“Have I said something wrong?” he asked in panic.
She laughed at his confusion and touched the back of his hand for the first time across the table, explaining that she had really enjoyed his company.
“I have promised to meet Uli at twelve,” she apologised. “Poor Uli has taken the whole week off work to show me Berlin,” she continued, “and I’ve spent the first morning with an Irish terrorist.
I’m sorry Shaun, but I really have to rush,” she pleaded looking at her watch.
“Would this be it?” he asked himself.
The look of sheer desperation on his face showed her the child in the man for a brief moment. Was this my trump card Magda or were your thoughts somewhere else on that morning? You are the secretive one. I suppose I will never know the real answer to that question.
“We could meet at the Gedachtniskirche tomorrow at the same time,” she suggested as he appeared lost for words.
“Nothing until tomorrow,” he complained.
“Sorry Shaun,” she apologised, “but I have to be fair to Uli.”
The arrival of an exorbitant bill in the same moment served to deflate him even more, but the look on Magda’s face told him that he wasn’t going to change her mind.
“Fuck this Uli,” I thought secretly, waving and smiling incessantly as you rushed to catch the bus. I felt safe that you couldn’t possibly have read my thoughts, but I’m sure I underestimated you.
The afternoon and evening were spent alone, walking through wet streets, looking for cheap menus or seeking out fast-food outlets. The thought of you spending the day with another guy made me more jealous than I had ever felt capable of. Finally, having run out of ideas on how best to spend a lonely wet afternoon, I determined to return to the shabby guest house and sleep until it was time to get ready to meet you again.
The belligerent expression on the porter’s face, as he threw the room-key on the counter fitted my picture of Berlin exactly on this horrible afternoon.
“He thinks I’m a fool,” Shaun thought, “and perhaps I am. Her eyes have left me hanging in an abyss somewhere between absolute joy and heartrending misery.”
The room wasn’t going to lift his spirits, but at least the bed might sooth his pain. He stripped naked and jumped in between the off-white sheets. He felt something wet. The bottom of the bed was sapping. He looked up at the ceiling and saw the stain left by the rainwater. The room was too small to allow him to move the bed to another position. Lying crossways, he managed to avoid the wetter parts of the blankets. He would certainly complain in the morning, but for the moment he just wanted to fall asleep with Magda on his mind. After hours of twisting and turning and fruitless soul-searching, the light waned through the split in the curtain and the sounds of rough voices and loveless sex subsided in the next room.
Radiant sunlight woke him up early the following morning. The fear of disappointment which had possessed him the previous day had abated. The memory of the hours spent in the cafe showed him that he had fallen deeper than before and the thought of seeing her again filled him with such emotion that he decided not to allow reason to insinuate itself on this marvellous adventure.
His suspicions about Uli’s intentions towards Magda left him somewhere between fury and rampant jealousy. However, he knew that these were feelings he would have to put to one side when he met Magda later that morning. From what she had said the previous day, it was obvious that she expected them to become great friends should they came face to face at some stage during his stay.
There was no one at the reception to complain to, as he left the guest house. He had only reserved for one more night, he told himself, and he would make his mind up the following morning. He didn’t anticipate any problem in staying longer and the weather did seem to have improved so the leaky ceiling was less of a concern.
Even the miserable streets he had walked through on the first night looked radiant in the autumn sunlight. He thought of the constant tension at school and imagined a substitute teacher trying to motivate his forty pupils during Irish lessons or trying to keep them all active in the tiny sports hall during PE. He thought he would have felt guilty about missing school, but the unjustified absence and the danger of being caught just made the stolen moments with Magda all the more intense.
I remember you were already sitting on one of the benches in front of the Gedachtniskirche, when I arrived. My heart jumped when I saw you and I immediately doubted my ability to manage to hold your interest.
“How long would it be,” I asked myself, “until you realised that I was just a boring school teacher from a shabby council estate in a backward, narrow-minded city.”
Shaun’s first question was to ask how long could she stay. She had taken Uli’s number and had agreed to ring him later in the day.
“He wants to meet you,” she said, “and he intends to invite you to come back with us for coffee and cake.”
“That’s really very nice of Uli,” Shaun agreed, trying to appear impressed and well disposed towards this clever bastard.
“Let’s go somewhere for breakfast?” Shaun suggested.
“I’ve already eaten breakfast with Uli,” she answered.
“He’s really like my dad. It’s obvious that he feels responsible for me while I’m here. He wanted to know all about you.”
“What did you tell him?” Shaun asked, curious about her answer.
She looked at him without saying anything for a second and then smiled.
“I told him you were an Irish terrorist,” she answered. “That’s when he decided he needed to meet you as soon as possible.”
She took a cheese roll wrapped in a serviette from her leather shoulder bag and handed it to Shaun.
“Thanks,” he told her, taking the roll willingly.
“Was the bag a present from Greece?” he asked, looking at the unstained leather.
“No, I bought it in Bulgaria last year,” she replied looking proudly at the bag.
“Did you go on a package tour?” he asked naively.
“No,” she laughed, “we drove.”
Shaun tried to hide the question in his expression, but she had spotted it and was quick to exploit the situation to find out how jealous she could make him become.
“I was in the company of three mature males,” she boasted with a devilish smile, pausing for a few seconds to take in his reaction.
“And your parents didn’t mind?” Shaun probed feigning indifference.
“Why should they,” she replied, “I’m over twenty I can make my own decisions.”
Shaun had no answer to this. He wondered how many more surprises there would be over the following days.
“My uncle the parish priest convinced my mother to let me go with him and his two young seminarians,” she continued.
“Let’s have a look at the Berlin Wall from your side,” she continued, before he had a chance to ask more. “We could walk through the Tiergarten Park on the way.”
“Hold on for a minute first,” Shaun requested as he rushed off to a shop he had spotted the previous day.
He queued impatiently at the checkout, finally paying for soft drinks, sliced cheese and bread in a sealed plastic package.
Magda pretended to be engrossed in her street map when he returned and showed no interest in what he had bought.
“That’s not the reaction I would have expected,” he thought. “There’s still so much about her that leaves me in unchartered territory. It’s at moments like this I appreciate the certainty with Caragh,” he thought. “It comforting to be able to predict a girl’s reactions, but now I need to start at the beginning again and I have the feeling that Magda will be more of a challenge than anybody I ever met.”
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the challenge has never gone away. I have come to know you a lot better, but the challenge has never disappeared. You have remained way outside my comfort zone. You have demanded the best from me, but you have given your best too and you have never been fake or two-faced and I love you for the high ideals you have always set for yourself and managed to live up to.
Caragh’s trusting face crashed uninvited into Shaun’s thoughts. He realised he had barely thought about her since he had left Ireland. He turned to Magda and she smiled at him with those massive dark eyes and Caragh was gone again.
Shaun wanted to take her hand, but was slow to take the liberty. Perhaps she was already bored by his company. He was talking too much, but was terrified of long silences. He explained about the tension at school and told about the hypocrisy of the Church towards the Travellers. Her associations with the Church were poles apart: Her face glowed as she described her uncle, a much-loved parish priest from a picturesque village in the mountains outside Cracow. For her the communists were the oppressors, blocking the building of new churches, while their Polish Pope was at the forefront of the fight for freedom.
“I’m very proud to be a Polish Catholic,” she told him. “The church is the only weapon we have to fight for our democratic freedom. It has always been fully behind our struggles for freedom. There is a new hope in Eastern Europe that the future will be better. Russia won’t always have the upper hand and we will become a democratic, independent country again.
Do you know?” she said with pride in her voice, “when the Pope came to Poland I sang in the choir in Nova Huta. I’ll never forget that day. The school director told us there would be consequences if we stayed away, but very few students turned up and they didn’t dare punish the whole school.”
“Our experiences with the Church are very different,” Shaun told her. “I was beaten by Christian brothers and threatened by the Church that they would stop me getting a job because they didn’t like my politics. That is exactly what you accuse the communists of. We are talking about the same level of oppression. I spent a summer with the FDJ in East-Berlin in a delegation of communists from Ireland, but I had to keep it secret. Hopefully, that isn’t the freedom you are fighting for.”
Shaun waited for a reaction, but she simply listened with great interest and remained silent when he had finished.They had continued walking all the while and now they stood beside a stream in the Tiergarten.
“Should we sit on the grass near the stream?” Shaun suggested. “I have a towel in my backpack and perhaps we could sit on it.”
She looked a little dubiously at the grass, which must still have been damp, but didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for the picnic he had taken the trouble to plan. The cloudless sky and the absence of people weighed heavily on her reserved agreement.
“I hope you’re ready for your first ever picnic in October,” Shaun challenged, tossing her a can of Coke which she just about caught before it landed in the stream.
“Hand them over,” she told him, shaking her head in mock exasperation as Shaun fought awkwardly with the plastic wrapper on the bread rolls.
Soon they were both struggling to eat half-baked rolls, stuffed generously with thick slices of cheese.
“Didn’t they teach you to read in Ireland?” she teased, showing him that they were meant to be re-heated before consumption. He hung his head in exaggerated shame.
“It really is a lovely picnic,” she consoled, coming closer to pat him on the back.
In that instant Shaun turned his head towards hers and before his brain had a risk-pleasure graph worked out, he was kissing the most fantastic face and she wasn’t recoiling in terror. His fingers ran through her hair and his head turned to meet her lips.
“I think I’m in love,” he admitted as he paused and she brought her lips to meet his and he felt the back of his neck tingle under the touch of her soft hand.
The hours rushed by even faster than it had done the previous day. He prayed she would forget about her promise to ring Uli, but he knew that she wouldn’t. Her strong sense of fairness was killing him, but he knew it showed a strength of character that he had to admire.
He stood in the phone booth, as she sounded out Uli’s phone number in Polish and thought that even Polish in her mouth was the most beautiful language he had ever heard.
“Let him decide to stay at home,” Shaun prayed, but the apologetic look on Magda’s face told him that the news wasn’t good.
“He’ll be here in about forty minutes,” she told him, putting her arms around his neck and giving him a tantalisingly short kiss on the lips.
“Don’t stop,” he said, “don’t stop,” but an irate Berliner was already pounding on the glass of the telephone booth in exasperation.
“Uli’s a really nice guy,” she consoled. “I’m sure both of you will really get on.”
They waited in MacDonalds and tried to make the best of the time.
“This is my first Macdonald’s,” she admitted, when he returned from the counter with coffee and apple fritters.
“Be careful,” he warned, “the filling can be very hot.”
They ate the dessert as slowly as possible and sipped their coffees, wishing time would stand still.
“I need one more kiss,” he begged before they left their seats to a family who had been trying to shame them into leaving.
Magda ended the kiss and looked guiltily at the impatient family.
“Sorry,” Shaun told her when he saw her blush.
“Don’t apologise,” she told him, “I like your kisses, but they are much nicer without an audience.”
When they left the restaurant Magda recognised a serious looking thirty-something year old, of average build, standing on the other side of the street.
“Uli, Uli,” she called out at the top of her voice and he waved over smiling when he saw her.
“Shaun meet Uli,” she introduced when he crossed over.
“I’m very happy to know you,” Uli greeted in school English, holding out his hand.
“Hi,” Shaun responded, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Have you holidayed in West Berlin before?” Uli asked.
“No this is my first time,” Shaun admitted. “Then you won’t know the Berlin Wall or the Tiergarten,” Uli presumed.
“We can go there first and then you can get the U-Bahn back with us for coffee and cakes.”
Shaun and Magda exchanged a secret look, but neither raised any objections.
He was a quick walker. Magda did her best to keep up, but was generally two or three steps behind. It soon became obvious that he had few interests outside politics and the SPD. The walk to the Berlin Wall gave him the opportunity to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of German current affairs and it didn’t seem to concern him that he was doing all the talking and they were doing all the listening.
Magda made little or no attempt to even pretend interest and before long, it looked like Uli was spending the afternoon with Shaun, with Magda tagging along.
Any normal person would have picked up on Magda’s total disinterest from her body language and expression, but this went completely over Uli’s head. Shaun was tempted to assume the same disinterested expression as Magda, but in truth, if he hadn’t been competing for Magda’s company, Uli could easily have become a close friend. They shared the same interest in politics and history and Shaun could detect no hint of animosity from Uli’s side.
As the walk continued Uli addressed himself almost exclusively to Shaun. Shaun tried to hold Magda’s hand at one stage, but her firm and unmistakable reluctance was not to be countered. When her constant yawning and bored expression became obvious even to Uli, he suggested that they take a tram back to his apartment and have something to eat. Shaun sat on the tram, looking quite pleased with himself: The dreaded Uli had turned out to be quite a nice guy and his potency as a competitor could safely be discounted.
Shaun’s main fear was that she would lose patience with both of them as they continued to discuss politics. He took his leave after an hour or two at Uli’s and Magda accompanied him to the door.
“Gedachtniskirche at eight,” he suggested sure of her willingness to meet.
“Uli has something planned for us tomorrow,” she told him bluntly.
He stood devastated at Uli’s front door not knowing what to do next.
“Uli’s brother has invited us tomorrow,” she explained, “but I will tell Uli that I intend spending the following day completely with you. Don’t be sad,” she told him.
“It was a very special day for me. It’s not every day that a handsome young man tells you that he might be in love with you. I wish I could be with you tomorrow as well,” she confessed as she closed the door, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek before she disappeared.
He chose to walk all the way back to the guest house, just to save money and get his thoughts together. The reassurance he had felt earlier had disappeared and he felt alone and stupid.
“Was she his girl or wasn’t she?” he asked himself.
“What is going to happen when we part at the end of the week? You’re much worse off than you were before. How are you going to forget her? Are you prepared to live in Poland?”
He was too depressed to think about looking for new accommodation when he woke the following day. He decided to book for another three nights and was about to complain about the leak when the porter cut him short –
“alles belegt, alles belegt” (all booked up).
He couldn’t believe it. Who would want to stay in such a dump if they had a choice?
Five minutes before ten, Shaun threw the room key on the counter and left with the conviction that the prevalent anti-German prejudices were absolutely valid.
“If ever I decide to write a short story about Berlin,” he thought, “that porter has to be in it.”
The same woman served him when he returned to the tourist office.
“How was your pension?” she enquired automatically.
“Terrible,” he answered honestly to her surprise,
“However, they still evicted me this morning,” he continued with a smile, but his attempt at humour went over her head.
“Can you find me something else, but I can’t afford to pay more?”
“Would you be interested in private accommodation?” she asked. “We have a list of private people, who offer bed and breakfast accommodation. You may have to travel a little further, but it’s the cheapest we have.”
A few minutes later, he was walking up the steps from the U-Bahn and going towards a large flat block. A cheerful old lady, well in her eighties answered the door a few minutes later and greeted him with the telephone in her hand.
“You’re the Englishman,” she confirmed. “I’m just talking to my grandson,” she said handing Shaun the phone.
“He speaks English. You can say hello.”
Shaun found himself having a very awkward conversation with a young man whose English wasn’t nearly as fluent as his grandmother believed it to be.
“This is your bedroom,” she told him, showing him into a small room with a view overlooking the last stretch of S-Bahn line in West-Berlin before it disappeared over the bridge into the GDR. Everything looked clean and spacious, and it cost half as much as the guest house and included breakfast.
Shaun treated himself to a beer at the Irish pub in the Europa Zentrum and saw that an Irish group would be playing there the next evening. He walked aimlessly through the wet streets and finally came across a cinema with huge posters showing half naked girls.
The cinema reeked of stale cigarette smoke. He soon found himself sitting on a threadbare cinema seat surrounded by an exclusively male audience. The front row was taken up by a number of shabby men in wheelchairs. He felt for some reason that there was something terribly perverse and sleazy about people in wheelchairs watching porn, but had to accept that his prejudice wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. He wondered what he would say when Magda asked him how he had spent his time. He was certain that he wasn’t going to tell the truth and that was for the best.
A wintry sun woke him the following morning. He got up and looked at the train line and knew he would accompany Magda along it the following day. The old lady pushed her way into the room with the breakfast tray in her hand, while he still stood in his underpants.
“Guten Morgen,” she greeted, putting the tray on a small table and making conversation while he pulled his jeans on.
The freshly ground coffee smelt incredible and he saw she had brought him hard boiled eggs and a selection of bread and jam.
He intended to save the U-Bahn fare so he left early. He imagined life on neutral territory with Magda in Berlin. They would build a German future together, never learning each other’s languages and abandoning their respective cultures, families and friends. It didn’t seem very realistic and, when he considered it further, not very desirable either. He determined to make the best of their time and leave his reason locked firmly outside.
The clang of the bell in the Gedachtniskirche in the distance roused him from his daydream and he started to hurry, seeing he had only another five minutes. He wiped the sweat from his face when he arrived and took off his jacket, ignoring the chill in the air. He spotted Magda in the distance, her hair bathed in sunlight, and he knew she was unique. She was by far the most wonderful girl he had ever known, even from a distance.
They spent their last day in the same spot in the Tiergarten. They spent hours talking and caressing one another, begrudging every minute that passed. The chill of the autumn afternoon finally overcame them and they decided to seek shelter indoors.
Shaun suggested looking for a nice restaurant, but Magda insisted she wasn’t hungry. In the end, she agreed to accompany him to McDonalds. They sat eating Big Macs and sipping hot coffee and looking out on the square in front of the Gedachtniskirche.
“Just think,” Shaun said, “this is the first evening we have ever spent together.”
“Yes, Magda agreed. “Let’s hope it won’t be our last.” “Don’t say that,” Shaun cautioned. “I came to Berlin didn’t I and I’ll come to Cracow as well as soon as I can.”
Couples walked hand in hand past the large plate glass windows and inside the seats were filled with couples and groups of young people. Magda kissed Shaun on the lips.
“Thank you for the most wonderful day,” she whispered.
“I love you,” he told her. “I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”
He tried to stop the tears welling up in his eyes, but one escaped. It rolled down his cheek and crashed silently against the plastic surface of the narrow table.
“What will this wonderful time together mean in our lives when it comes to an end tomorrow?” she asked and her eyes looked sad.
“You have changed my life,” he replied.
“This isn’t what I expected, but it is what I had secretly hoped for.”
They walked hand in hand through the streets, admiring the lights and the floodlit buildings. Berlin was steeped in a sea of artificial colour. They paused every so often to hug and kiss and to look into each other’s eyes. They entered the Europa Zentrum, delaying for a while at the huge water clock. Shaun brought Magda down one flight of stairs to the basement,
“Tell me where you are bringing me,” she demanded.
“All in good time,” he answered, refusing to still her curiosity and taunting her with the devious grin on his face.
The sound of Irish music could already be heard from the bar as they approached.
“Now you have the chance to meet some more Irish people,” he challenged.
“Yuck,” she countered, “No thanks, not if they all have flaming red hair and freckles.”
They were lucky enough to spot a group leaving and pushed their way past them, grabbing two seats close to the stage. The band was excellent and excelled at engaging in cheeky banter with their mainly English-speaking audience. Shaun did his best to translate the funniest exchanges and Magda appreciated the humour.
When he went to the bar the Irish people beside them engaged her in conversation.
“Irish people are so friendly,” she affirmed, when he returned, placing a pint of Guinness in front of her.
The alcohol lightened their feet and Shaun was soon swinging Magda to the beat of an Irish tune. They laughed when it came to an end, completely out of breath. The overcrowded dance floor was filled with young couples who were intent on making the most of the evening. There was something wild and daring about Irish music and Shaun was proud to be exposing her to it. Magda would have loved to stay longer, but she worried about Uli.
They glided arm in arm along the Potsdamer Strasse with Shaun attempting to swing her in circles. She indulged his high-spirits initially, but cold German stares robbed her courage. Finally, she broke off, and he gave in to her embarrassment.
Sensing his disappointment, she teased him about the come-on looks from the prostitutes, who had just about taken the street over.
They parted across the street from Uli’s apartment. Her lips tasted warm and her nose cold against his. He covered her ears with his hands and tried to drink in her fragrance, before turning to walk back.
“I’ll see you at twelve outside Bahnhof Zoo tomorrow,” he confirmed.
“Don’t be late or I’ll have to go without you,” she warned.
“Don’t worry,” he told her, “my life depends on it.”
They intended spending the last day in East Berlin together. Magda’s train was scheduled to leave Lichtenberg at five in the afternoon. It would take sixteen hours to reach Cracow. Uli had told her he would leave her at Bahnhof Zoo. He objected to paying the obligatory twenty five mark currency exchange to the GDR authorities.
Magda was already at Bahnhof Zoo with Uli the next morning, when Shaun arrived. Uli wished her a safe journey and kissed her on the cheek.
“Take good care of her in East Berlin,” he cautioned, shaking Shaun’s hand.
The train was full of day trippers, who were allowed to stay in East Berlin, until midnight. They stopped at an empty station, where the drivers swapped over and then continued across the rusty iron bridge and disappeared under the canopy of Friedrichstrasse Station.
The platform was patrolled by grim-looking East-German border guards. Other soldiers stood with machine guns at the ready, watching from steel gantries, set high above the platform. The station itself was cheerless and devoid of any, but the drabbest of colours. An automatic silence descended on the tourists, as they left the train and descended the steps to the border crossing. Magda joined the shorter queue for citizens of socialist countries, while Shaun joined the mass of western tourists.
Although Shaun was already familiar with East-Berlin, he had never felt the great contrast with the glitter of West-Berlin, so intensely. The street was filed with gloomy civilians or staunch-looking young men in uniforms reminiscent of the Nazi past.
A weak sun did its best to brighten up a very austere East-Berlin. They window-shopped and had coffee and cake in a cafe at Alexander Platz, having deposited their bags at the station.
They sat for a while in the rose garden, in front of the red bricked town hall and felt observed by the park wardens, who watched everybody suspiciously. Shaun was taken to task immediately for daring to move a metal chair out of line. Even the absence of traffic did little to relieve the overwhelming tension everywhere. The Stalinist architecture along the Karl Marx Allee did nothing to lighten the oppressive atmosphere which was in keeping with the countless obstacles which Shaun felt were closing in on him as the clock ticked on relentlessly.
“Let’s escape to the quayside under the Janowitz Bridge,” Shaun suggested and they walked in that direction through Alexander Platz.
Several minutes later, they stood against the railings, looking into the small harbour, which was surrounded by show-piece apartments. One could forget the crumbling buildings and the depressing shabbiness here and imagine they were still on the other side of the Wall. The ripples on the dark water of the harbour gleamed, just as they had in the Tiergarten and the gulls screamed as they competed with one another for food.
I kissed you slowly and enveloped you in my two arms. “If only I could stay here with you forever,” I sighed.
“I’m afraid that when you leave me and return to Poland that you will forget me.”
“Come with me and live in Poland,” you challenged, looking into my eyes for a reaction.
“If we were the masters of our own destinies I would willingly join you,” I answered, “but my East-German visa runs out at midnight and your Polish authorities would lock me up if I arrived in Poland unannounced.”
“A visa is easily arranged, you continued. A native speaker of English would have no problem getting a job in Cracow. Do you want me to check for you?” you offered, but we both knew, even then, that life in communist Poland would defeat us eventually.
Darkness descended quickly and they retraced their steps to the Alex Grill. The meal was tasty and the beer refreshed them. They looked out into the evening and noticed the absence of neon signs. The cafe was filled to capacity with soldiers on their weekend leave. Magda was tense, although she tried to hide it. He caught her glancing at the clock on the wall and squeezed her hand in his. A shiver ran up his spine as he imagined the emptiness which would engulf him as soon as she had left.
Lichtenberg Station was cold and depressing. The Polish train looked like Russian ones he had seen. Old women with heavily wrinkled faces and black clothes stood at the windows. Polish workers with bulging bags, weighing them down, called to each other. Magda boarded the train and her beautiful face competed with old wrinkled faces at the open window. An old lady asked her something in Polish about Shaun and laughed. Magda frowned and turned away. She waved as the train pulled out.
“I love you,” she called in English.
“I love you too,” I called back and knew that whatever else happened in life I would never forget this moment.
A weary Shaun arrived home to a wintry Dublin. The streets were wet and the wind blew papers and plastic bags before it. He sat on the Drimnagh bus and couldn’t remember ever feeling more hopeless and lost.
Magda heard the front door opening and when she opened the door to the hall she found her three soaking children busily stepping out of wet shoes and carelessly discarding umbrellas beside the empty shoe tray.
“What’s for dinner mum?” Darek asked expectantly and the other two children turned towards Magda, waiting for an answer.
“Dad hasn’t come back yet,” Magda answered, ignoring the question.
“Mum, you’re always the same,” Ania complained. “You always expect the worst.”
“Perhaps, he cycled off through the woods to Aying and had a puncture or something,” Andrzej suggested.
“I’ll check if his bike is still in the garage,” Darek determined and disappeared back through the front door.
“That’s exactly what has happened,” Darek reassured as he joined them all in the kitchen a few minutes later.
“Set the table in the dining room,” Magda told them as she made for the cellar to get the birthday cake.
“The three of you can make the salad and then you can set the table,” she told them. “I’m nearly finished Dad’s manuscript and I don’t want to be disturbed until I have. We can send out for an Indian when he arrives”
“Poor Dad,” Ania sighed. “We were soaked just coming back from the S-Bahn. Imagine the state he must be in.”
“We’ll make it up to him when he gets back,” Andrzej encouraged, and they all determined to make a fuss of him when he got back.