East Berlin looked grey, as Shaun looked through the S-Bahn windows. He trudged across snow and slush to get back to the flat. The excitement of life behind the Iron Curtain was gone. His attendance at lectures or seminars had ceased and the only activities, which gave his life structure, was the morning swim and the jog, every second day in Friedrichshain Park.
He sipped warm coffee, sitting on the edge of his bunk bed, in the empty room and wondered how he would fill the gap until Christmas. The writing pad lay on the desk, but he couldn’t bring himself to write. He covered himself with his duvet and tried to think about Magda, but her face wouldn’t come. It was blotted out by Caragh, her head against his chest and her body trembling as she tried to hold back the tears.
The next day he rose early and took the S-Bahn the two stops to the swimming pool. He did his fifty lengths with even more determination than ever, pushing the tension out of his limbs. An hour later he sat in front of a blank page, fighting against the urge to put it off yet again. He knew this was the only option, unless he waited until Christmas. He convinced himself that it was better for Caragh to know now and he also knew that he couldn’t carry such a terrible burden on his shoulders for so long.
It took him the whole day to compose the letter and the waste basket was full of his failed attempts when he finally sealed the envelope and headed for the post office. He listened for the hollow sound as the letter left his hand and dropped to the bottom of the post box. The deed was done, but he felt no relief.
He imagined Caragh’s excitement opening his letter and the disbelief as she read his words. The weeks passed without reply. He had dreaded her answer, but her silence was even worse. The bleak sky did nothing to lift his spirits as he drank whiskey from the Intershop and looked over at the grey concrete building with the huge white letters. He had become just another figure in this gloomy concrete desert, where everybody was lost.
There was a hand-written letter waiting for Shaun at reception when he returned from swimming one morning in late November. His heart raced as he was sure it was finally the long awaited reply from Caragh. However, when he took the letter into his hands he saw that it had an East German stamp and the envelope was the poor quality paper typical for the GDR. What surprised him when he opened it was that it was written in English in very poor hand-writing. It read as follows:
The Liga told me that there was an Irish guy living in Berlin and I thought it would be a good idea to meet up.
I work for Democratic Women of the World here in the city centre near Alexander Platz. It would be great to meet if you were free at six next Saturday evening. I’ll wait for thirty minutes at the World Clock.
Hope you can come
Anne from Dublin”
Shaun thought of the girls from the Worker’s Party. He didn’t really feel like discussing a socialist Ireland for a few hours in a bar in East Berlin, but then he had nothing better to do and at least it might take his mind off Caragh.
He stood in front of the World Clock the following Saturday evening and read the inscription:
Berlin, City of Peace open to the World. “That’s pushing it a bit,” he thought.
He surveyed the area, curious to find out if his picture of Anne would be accurate. His eyes fell on a group of kilt wearing British soldiers posing for photographs. A Russian officer looked on, his face clearly betraying his contempt. Under the Four Power Agreement allied soldiers could enter East Berlin without border controls, which made it the only place inside the Iron Curtain with such a mix of uniforms in one spot.
In another corner three American soldiers sat on a bench eating hot dogs and making fun of everything they saw. This included the young East German soldiers just across from them, standing together in old-fashioned pale green army uniforms.
Shaun had started to count the cameras mounted on the surrounding buildings when he felt a tip on his shoulder. He turned and saw Anne, small in stature, in her mid-thirties with an Irish complexion.
All in all, amazingly close to the person he had imagined.. She wore jeans and a worn brown duffel coat. Her greasy shoulder length hair confirmed the impression that she wasted little time on her appearance.
“Howa ye, I’m Anne,” she greeted in a thick Dublin accent. “Hope ye haven’t been waitin too long.”
“Nice to meet you,” Shaun said offering her his hand.
“Are we goin for a pint or what?” she suggested with a laugh.
“What about Zur letzten Instanz?” Shaun proposed.
“Yeah, know it well; I go there sometimes with the girls.”
“Do you like workin in East Berlin?” he asked giving her the opportunity to confirm his suspicions.
“Yeah, it’s great,” she answered. “I’ve been here for about six years now and I’m really enjoyin it.”
“How do ye get a job in East Berlin?” he probed.
There was a pause before she answered and it was obvious that she was considering how much to tell.
“I was delegated by the Communist Party,” she admitted waiting for his reaction.
“I know a few people in the Communist Party,” he lied, trying to remember a few names from the East German Society.
They found a secluded corner in the busy pub and ordered two beers.
“The Communist Party chose me,” she explained, “because I had already been to Eastern Europe several times and knew what to expect. They knew there was the danger of younger more idealistic members becoming disillusioned when they saw the real thing,” she smiled.
Shaun avoided mentioning his involvement with the Worker’s Party knowing how hated they were by the Communist Party.
As Shaun had expected, the conversation dried up after a few minutes and they filled in the long silences by drinking more beer. By the time she had finished her fourth beer she felt confident enough to start up a conversation with the German couple, sitting next to them.
They were a little standoffish at first until they had more to drink. The woman, in her late forties, confided that this was her first date since her divorce.
The balding man with the double chin at her side didn’t look like a great catch. From what Shaun could see she was only too glad to use them to hinder his unwelcome advances.
“Let’s call for the bill and go back to your flat,” he said interrupting their conversation abruptly.
“Perhaps you would both like to join us for a bottle of good red wine,” the woman suggested.
“Yeah, that sounds great,” he heard Anne agreeing before he had a chance to refuse.
Shaun would gladly have gone home straight away, but Anne having consumed more than enough wouldn’t hear of it. At length, he agreed to accompany them albeit reluctantly. A young man, with long hair and an ear-ring loitered on the steps at the entrance to the S-Bahn.
“Want to come with us good lookin?” Anne invited, grabbing his multi-coloured scarf and pulling him with them.
Shaun laughed at her cheek and was more than surprised when he followed. They had just managed to get onto the last S-Bahn when the red light flashed and the automatic doors closed.
“Hi I’m Wolf,” he told them, focusing on Shaun as he spoke. He had spent several years working on the huge gas pipeline in Russia.
“What’s it like in Russia now?” Shaun asked.
“With Gorbachov in power,” he answered, lowering his voice, “there is a new optimism. People are much more open and daring to say things they wouldn’t have even thought a year or two ago.”
Shaun was impressed by Wolf. People didn’t hold conversations like this in the S-Bahn and certainly not with strangers.
“How do you like being back in Berlin?” Shaun asked.
“How can you ask such a question?” he laughed, leaning his arm on Shaun’s shoulder as he spoke.
“There’s a huge problem with accommodation,” he explained. “Everybody wants to live in Berlin.”
The woman from the pub signalled to exit at the next stop.
“Please keep your voices down,” she warned when they reached her flat. “My six year old is fast asleep, the little dear, and I don’t want anybody to wake him. He’s more important to me than anybody else;” she stressed, looking at the bald man meaningfully.
Thirty minutes later they were stamping their feet on the icy pavement, wondering how they were going to get home. Anne was still drunk enough to find the whole affair hilarious.
“If we get back to the main street,” Wolf proposed, “we’ll have no problem picking up a private taxi.”
Ten minutes later they were sitting in the back of a Wartburg having agreed a price to get back to the city centre. The World Clock read one-thirty as they crossed a deserted Alexander Platz. A policemen looked suspiciously at them, but passed on when they heard them speaking English.
“You’re welcome to crash on the floor,” Wolf suggested, before they had decided what to do next.
“Great, that’s us sorted,” Anne agreed for both of them.
A wintry sun shone through the window, when Shaun woke up the following morning. The sleeping bag Anne had occupied was empty and Wolf stared over from his mattress under the window.
“Your friend had to leave early. She promised she would be in touch.”
Shaun was in no hurry . Sunday was the most soul destroying day of the week and he was happy to accept Wolf’s invitation to spend the day in the city centre. They went to a popular cafe in the Gendarmenmarkt. A young man in uniform called Werner joined them and they drank beer. The warm atmosphere in the pub that afternoon made him feel he could have been sitting with friends in a pub in Dublin.
“Make sure to keep in touch,” Wolf said, as they parted with a warm handshake.
A few weeks later, Shaun stood checking the departure board at the airport in West Berlin. He should have been looking forward to returning home, but the very thought of what awaited him sent shivers down his spine. He was hoping to see a familiar face, when he came through the arrivals door. He scanned the faces pulling his case through the overcrowded terminal and outside to the bus stop. It felt warmer than in Berlin, but the persistent rain, together with the ever-present wind, drenched his clothes as he waited.
Granny’s house stood in darkness when he finally arrived at the front door. The usual flashing Christmas tree was absent from the sitting room window and Granny looked visibly older and weary, when she opened the door.
“It’s lovely to have you back son,” she told him, putting her arms around him.
“Don’t let the cold in,” she warned, turning back towards the living room door as he closed the hall door behind him.
“Your dad is in bed,” she told him, as he pulled his chair closer to the electric fire. “He hasn’t been well at all since you went to Berlin. He was in hospital for tests. He has lost his appetite and is too feeble for anything.”
“What did the doctors say?” Shaun asked, deeply concerned.
“The doctors tell you nothing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t cancer. The weight is just walkin off him.”
“I’ll go up and say hello,” Shaun told her, getting up from the warm fireside.
“Close the door after you,” she reminded him, “its bloody freezin. Your dinner is ready so don’t be too long. I made you your favourite.”
Dad looked frail when I entered the unheated bedroom. I remembered a much healthier Dad carrying heavy beams of wood on his shoulder a few years earlier and I lost the battle to hold the tears back.
“How are ye dad?” I managed trying to appear cheerful, even if my heart sank.
“Shaunee, I’m glad you’re home. The house was empty without you.”
I sat on the side of the bed and squeezed his hand. I thought of him grinning as he jumped naked from the side of a hired rowing boat off Greystones harbour. I had convinced myself that a man so fond of life would be there for me forever. There was a peace with him. The confidence in his eyes, when he looked at me, had been my motivation.
“I hope those communists haven’t turned your head son,” Granddad asked with concern in his voice.
“Don’t worry Dad,” I replied with a forced smile. “I don’t think I’ll be handing in my Irish passport just yet.”
I wanted to tell him all about Magda, but he was fighting a hopeless battle of his own and his chances looked even slimmer than mine.
“Can I get you somethin Dad?” I asked, standing up from the side of the bed.
“No thanks Shaunee,” he replied. “Go down and have your dinner or you’ll catch your death. Your mother’s delighted to have you home again. It’s all she could talk about for the last few weeks. Try and be nice to her won’t you?”
“I will Dad,” I promised.
The phone rang, as Shaun descended the stairs. He rushed to pick it up in the parlour.
“Moseley’s,” he answered, in his telephone voice.
There was a silence. He could hear Christmas music and people’s voices in the background.
“I’m in Crumlin Shopping Centre.” It was Caragh.
“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he told her.
“Who was that?” Granny asked when he returned to the living room.
“I’ve got to go out,” he answered ignoring her question.
“What about your dinner?” she asked in frustration.
“I can reheat it,” he replied.
“It won’t be the same,” she complained.
“The world won’t come to an end if my pork chop dries up,” he snapped at her, closing the door behind him.
Tears filled her eyes as she heard the gate slam behind him.
“Why is he always so cold to me?” she asked herself.
“I only want the best for him,” she sobbed. “Sacrifice yourself sending them to college and then they abandon you when it suits them.”
She would have liked to tell him how proud she was of him, but she sensed this ever-present hostility against her. Even when she made the effort to make him a lovely dinner he threw it back at her.
Shaun faced a sharp, wintry, wind and regretted the loss of the car he had sold before leaving.
Caragh stood just inside the entrance doors. Her face told him how much she had suffered since they had last met. She was thin and pale and her hand trembled, as she brought a cigarette to her mouth.
“There’s a cafe across from Dunnes,” Shaun suggested, not daring to hug her.
She followed without a word, pushing through crowds of Christmas shoppers. They sat at the only free table, which was strewn with dirty dishes. The air was heavy with the smell of chips and cigarette smoke.
“How could you send me such a letter?” she sobbed.
“I couldn’t have kept it to myself until now,” he defended. “I was going crazy. Why didn’t you write back? The waiting was worse than anything else.”
“I wasn’t in Dublin to get your letter,” she replied. “The principal sent me home for a few weeks. Your letter was waiting for me when I came back. My reply wouldn’t have reached you even if I had known what to write.”
She tried to use her anger to hold back the tears, but she failed.
“Let’s get out of here,” she pleaded.
They sat in her car in silence; neither knowing had to start the conversation.
“Come back with me,” she demanded. “I don’t want to sit there alone. I should be in Galway but I stayed for you.”
Caragh drove for about twenty minutes until they reached an estate of small terraced houses in Clondalkin.
“Is the alco still here?” Shaun asked as they walked down the front path.
“He moved out just after I came back from Berlin.”
Caragh made a fry and they sat together eating, as if everything was normal between them. Shaun cleared away, while she lit a fire in the sitting room and he brought two mugs of coffee in with him. He felt like kissing her and telling her he would always be there, but he knew there was no easy way to do this and he would only be turning the knife in the wound.
“This would have been a good house for us,” she smiled sadly, sipping the hot coffee.
“You deserve someone better than me,” I told her sincerely, “I have no reasonable excuse for doing this,but from the moment I met her she dominated my thoughts and my dreams. I thought I could put things right by meeting her, but every time we met I fell deeper and deeper.
You should be throwing things at me instead of making me dinner. You are much kinder than I deserve. You are the best, most loyal friend I have ever had. You know me better than anyone else and it still isn’t enough.
I’m torn between holding onto you for dear life and letting go. Tomorrow she’ll be back in my head and even without words you will know. I can’t do that to you.”
Caragh looked at me with tears in her eyes and I wanted to hold her head against my chest, but that would have added to the pain for both of us.
“We know what will happen if I stay,” Shaun warned taking her head in his hands and squeezing his lips against her forehead.
“Stay a little longer and I’ll leave you home,” she promised.
“It’s better if I go before I change my mind,” he answered realising that these would be their last words.
Her face disappeared behind the door as he turned towards the road, welcoming the cold wind, as he made his way uphill to the bus stop. It was dark and the streets were deserted. The snow came as he waited for the bus.
“Mister, the bus doesn’t stop there anymore,” a passing motorist lowered his window to tell him.
He found relief in the pain and the discomfort as he made his long way home on foot. He mind flicked through the wonderful years with Caragh as he trudged through the snow. He couldn’t regret any time he had spent with her. He knew her anger would take the place of the love she now felt, but he would always have a place for her in his heart.
There was an unnatural silence as I passed my parents’ bedroom door, nonetheless I was sure they were listening and wondering.
Granny had often told me that Caragh wasn’t good enough for me, but I was in no doubt that the opposite was true. I was the cynic who had argued that romantic love was just a dangerous fantasy. I had contented myself with the perfect friend and you had wreaked havoc on my logic and I was powerless against you.
That feeling was beautiful and terrible all at once and I didn’t know how to swim against it, but I was determined to ride it out.
“Hi Shaunoosh,” Magda greeted, over the phone, the following day.
“I’ve made plans for us for New Year. Bring your good suit with you when you come.”
“I’m sorry Madgi. I’ll have to postpone the trip. I can’t leave my dad for the moment. I’ll ring you when I’m back in Berlin.”
“But you promised,” she protested.
“Sorry, but I need some time to think,” he admitted hearing the disappointment in her voice. “I don’t know if I deserve to be happy,” he told her. “All I do lately is hurt everyone and make them miserable.”
“I love you Shaunoosh,” she insisted, “and if you really love me that is enough.”
“Let’s talk when I’m back in Berlin,” he dismissed, determined to avoid being drawn by her comments.
Shaun was very subdued over Christmas and reluctant to say anything other than to confirm that he had broken off the engagement. The week after Christmas his father came out of the doctor’s surgery with better news than he was expecting.
“My heart has weakened,” he told them, “but there’s no sign of cancer.”
“That calls for a celebration,” Shaun suggested. “Dinner at the Downshire Arms in Blessington is on me.”
I waited until we were drinking our coffee in the Downshire before I trusted myself to share my decision.
“I’m in love with a Polish girl called Magda,” I announced, fearing the doubt in their faces.
“I want to ask her to marry me, but I’m not sure I can make her happy.”
“Shaunee, are you sure you love her?” Dad asked.
“I’ve never been more certain of anything else in my life,” I smiled.
“Then you don’t have much of a choice, do you” he concluded with absolute conviction in his voice.
“Thank you Dad, Thank you both,” I stressed, feeling a ton weight lifting from my shoulders.