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Death of a Teacher

By Declan O Leary All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Other

Ich bin ein Berliner


I can imagine Magda opening that first long letter explaining my strange behaviour in Magdeburg. That love-struck Irish terrorist, as you called me, explaining how his feelings for a beautiful Polish girl had caused such chaos in his life. He waited impatiently for her reply, underestimating how long it would take a letter to reach Poland. Weeks passed and he was almost resigned to failure, when he heard his mother calling up the stairs that a letter with a foreign stamp had arrived. Within seconds, he was grabbing it out of her hands, abandoning his resolve to hide the feelings he wasn’t ready to share.

The answer had been worth waiting for. As well as a long letter, written in the most attractive handwriting, she had enclosed several black and white photographs.

I am more than surprised that you noticed me at all,” she wrote. “You seemed to only have eyes for Halina.”

He could imagine the expression on her 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. He also surveyed his own name written in her handwriting on the envelope and he tried to imagine her writing it.

I’ll be in West-Berlin in a little over a month,” she had written. “A German exchange student called Uli, who once stayed with us in Cracow, 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 offered to send you a long list of all my faults, but you would have to learn Polish first.”

While he knew she didn’t dream he would actually take her suggestion seriously, she had given him the excuse he needed. He would spend a week with Magda in Berlin and free himself of this infatuation. The risk which he didn’t want to confront at this stage was how unbearable it would be to lose her a second time if things went well. He had never felt this way about anyone before and there was every possibility that he never would again. It was time for action or regretting his cowardice for the rest of his life. His reason told him it was an absolutely crazy idea to fly off to Berlin, but his heart was screaming, “go for it.”

However, having just paid his university fees he was short on cash, not to mention the difficulty of getting a sick cert. He didn’t want to let his mother in on his secret, 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 my plans?” he thought, almost wishing he could see the looks on their faces.

He knew they thought he was far too sensible to do anything without having planned it well in advance. He was the shrewd one with the state job and the long summer holidays.

Look at him,” Aunty Noreen had once teased. “I bet he still has his communion money.”

Nonetheless, he was as surprised himself, but despite the doubts and the nightmares he had never felt as fully alive before.

A little over a month later, he 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 him at Bahnhof Zoo.

I need a place to stay,” he 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 at strangers 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 lined 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 day. 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.

“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 protest rumbles coming intermittently from his stomach.

He found it surprisingly easy to 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 all too quickly.

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 her 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. It was his trump card, if only he’d known.

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.

The afternoon and evening were spent alone, walking through wet streets, looking for cheap menus or seeking out fast-food outlets. The thought of her spending the day with another guy made him more jealous than he had felt himself capable of. Finally, having run out of ideas on how best to spend his afternoon, he determined to return to the shabby guest house and force himself to sleep until it was time to meet her again.

The belligerent expression on the porter’s face, as he threw his room-key on the counter mocked him.

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 and he prayed that she would be in his dreams. Eventually, 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 filled him the previous day was gone. His excitement at the very memory of the hours they had spent the previous day in the cafe showed him that he had even fallen deeper than before and the thought of meeting her soon again filled him with such longing that he didn’t recognise himself.

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 all to get on well together when they came face to face sooner or later 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 thirty five pupils during Irish lessons or trying to keep them all active in the tiny sports hall during PE. He would normally feel guilty about missing school, but this stolen time with Magda simply served to make the experience all the more intense.

She was already sitting on one of the benches in front of the Gedachtniskirche, when he arrived. He could feel his heart jump when he saw her. His 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 competing male.

“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 he could be.

“I was in the company of three handsome young men,” she boasted with a devilish smile, pausing for a few seconds to take in Shaun’s reaction.

And your parents didn’t mind?” Shaun probed.

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,” she continued.

He told her that Father Andrzej was one of the most trustworthy young priests he had ever known.”

“What about the other two?” Shaun inquired still curious. “Father Andrzej knew them from the seminary,” she answered as she stood up.

“Let’s have a look at the Berlin Wall from your side,” she suggested. “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 the 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 which I just don’t know. It’s at moments like this I appreciate 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 before.”

The memory of Caragh’s trusting face accused him for a moment. 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 knew he was talking too much, but he was afraid of long silences. He complained about the tension at school and told her about the hypocrisy of the church in relation to the travellers. Her associations with the church were very different: 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, refusing permission to build 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 shown itself to be fully behind Solidarity. 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.”

“My stories are very different,” Shaun told her. “I was beaten by Christian brothers and I spent a summer with the FDJ in East-Berlin in a delegation of communists from Ireland. I have since parted company with my communist friends, but I go running on Sundays instead of going to church.”

Shaun waited for her 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. taking his pleading expression into account, agreed.

The cloudless sky and the absence of people made it a perfect choice.

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 ordered, shaking her head in exasperation as Shaun failed repeatedly to open 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 baked before consumption.

He hung his head in shame. She put her arm around his shoulder to console him.

It really is a lovely picnic,” she tried to convince him.

In that instant Shaun’s face turned towards hers and before his brain had a chance to intervene, he was kissing the most fantastic lips he had ever experienced. His fingers ran through her hair and he covered her face with kisses.

I think I’m in love,” he admitted 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 as they had done the previous day. He prayed she would forget about her promise to ring Uli, but he knew that she wouldn’t and even though her sense of fairness was killing him, he didn’t want her to be any other way. 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 unconvincingly. “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 the 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 to meet them.

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 the SPD and the walk to the Berlin Wall gave him the opportunity to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of German current affairs.

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 independent observer could have immediately detected 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 despite his turning up unannounced in Berlin.

Shaun tried initially to include Magda, but as the day wore on Uli addressed himself almost exclusively to Shaun. Shaun tried to hold Magda’s hand at one stage, but her disapproving look was enough. When her constant yawning and discontent 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. He tried to kiss her but she turned quickly away.

This isn’t the time or place,” she told him firmly.

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 answered his request with an impatient –

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 people’s anti-German prejudices were absolutely valid.

If ever I decide to write a short story about Berlin,” he thought, “the porter has to be in it.”

The same girl 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 has taken for granted.

“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 the slightest 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.

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 himself living with Magda in Berlin. They would build a future together, never having to learn each other’s language. The clang of the bell in the Gedachtniskirche in the distance roused him from his daydream and he started to hurry, when he saw that 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 thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.

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 a place 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 they sat at.

What will this wonderful time together bring us 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 modern 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 Irish 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 a lively 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 out of the evening. There was something wild and daring about Irish music that Shaun was proud to be part of. 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 at the start, but then firmly resisted, letting him know that she didn’t intend inviting public attention. Sensing his disappointment, she teased him about the come-on looks from the prostitutes, who had just about taken possession of the street they walked along. 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 he turned 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 rest of 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. It 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 socialist countries, while Shaun joined the mass of western tourists.

Although Shaun was already familiar with East-Berlin, he had never felt the contrast with the glitter of West-Berlin, so intensely. The street was filed with gloomy-faced civilians or serious young men in uniform. 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 stored 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. The great absence of traffic did nothing to relieve the overwhelming tension everywhere. Even the Stalinist architecture along the Karl Marx Allee conveyed a feeling of oppression.

“Let’s escape to the quayside under the Janowitz Bridge,” Shaun suggested and they walked there from Alexander Platz.

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 on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The ripples on the dark water of the harbour gleamed, just as they had in the Tiergarten and the gulls screamed at one another as they had earlier in the week.

Shaun kissed her slowly and enveloped her in his two arms. “If only I could stay here with you forever,” he 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,” she challenged, looking into his eyes for a reaction.

Nothing would please me more,” he lied, “but my East-German visa runs out at midnight and your Polish authorities would lock me up if I arrived in Poland without a visa.”

“A visa is easily arranged, she continued. A native speaker would have no problem getting a job teaching English in Cracow. Do you want me to check for you?” she offered.

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 soon stood beside an old lady at the window. She asked her something in Polish and laughed, looking out at Shaun. Magda frowned and turned away. She waved as the train pulled out.

I love you,” she called in English.

I love you too,” he called back and he knew that whatever else happened he would never forget this moment.

He 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 in his whole life.

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 onto the shoe tray.

“What’s for dinner?” Darek asked expectantly and the other two children turned towards Magda, waiting for her answer.

“Your dad hasn’t come back yet,” Magda answered, ignoring the question.

Mum, you’re always the same,” Ania complained. “You always expect the worst straight away.”

“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 and the lasagne.

“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’ve finished it.”

“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 leave the lasagne untouched in the oven until he got back.

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