The country house which we had miraculously found in the middle of that living hell was pulling us towards it, demanding that we got in. With an enormous oak tree growing just beside it, the cottage seemed to be out of a fairy tale.
Summer and I moved up the slippery hill until we reached the porch of the house, the first dry place we had stepped on for hours. I instantly felt warmer and we weren’t even inside. We knocked on the door without a second’s hesitation. Moments later, a woman in about her seventies opened the door, the scent of fireplace and baked potatoes poignant. As soon as she laid her eyes on us she rushed to close the door.
“No, no! Please, we beg you, please help us!” Summer placed her foot between the door and the door frame, stopping the door from being closed. That action was quite aggressive, and it took me by surprise, to say the least. I could tell Summer was willing to do anything to get out of the cold.
“Raus aus meinem Eigentum oder ich rufe die Polizei!” The woman from inside said as she tried to close the door. In that moment I realised the woman had no idea what Summer had just said, just like we had no idea what she was telling us.
Then, a male’s voice sounded from the inside.
“Was ist los?” he said in a gravel voice. The woman responded back quickly. In the meantime, Summer and I stood dumbfounded by the door, trying to make sense of a senseless language.
The man who spoke from inside walked towards the door and opened it himself. His hair was white as snow and looked as fluffy as a cloud, the blue in his eyes faded over the years. He wore a shirt under his wool jumper, dark bombazine trousers and some mountain boots.
“You’re English, right?” he asked, taking Summer and I both by surprise. We exchanged glances, water dripping from our hair.
“Yes Sir, we are,” I answered, “Please, we need help. We’ve been lost in the forest and we have nowhere to go-”
“How long have you been in the forest?” he asked, opening the door of his house and letting us in. I noticed Summer’s body instantly relaxed, knowing that we were getting out of the cold weather.
“For about two hours Sir, “I answered, shaking hands with him “I can’t thank you enough! My name is Harry, and this is Summer.”
I looked at Summer who had sat down on the nearest armchair she could find, a behaviour which was uncommon of her. She would’ve never sat down without asking, especially at a strangers house.
She was a wreck.
The man seemed to understand my concern and looked at the woman who I had assumed was his wife. She was keeping a safe distance from us, still uneasy with our presence.
“Das Mädchen sieht aus, als würde sie zu Tode frieren,” he said, then switching to English and talking to me “Pardon her, she doesn’t speak English. I was fortunate enough to learn.”
He seemed upset as he talked to his wife, and although I wasn’t understanding what they were saying, their body language helped decipher some of it.
“Du bist immer gleich! Du immer willkommen Fremden in unserem Hause! Eines Tages werden wir beraubt!” She said, equally exasperated. Visibly reluctant, the woman moved to the living room, motioning that we followed her. Summer, who had been shivering, got up slowly and followed behind me. The first thing that greeted us was a fireplace and we ran to it, standing so close to it that we could’ve burnt our fingers.
“Thank you, thank you,” Summer kept saying, looking at the man, her hands almost touching the flames. She was still in survival mode, not caring too much about formalities. However, the warmth of the house had been sufficient enough to warm me, so I was more aware of our surrounding and the people who had helped us.
“We’re sorry we entered so abruptly, it’s just that we lost our way and this was the first and only house we saw. We are very grateful Sir...?”
“Oh, I’m afraid we haven’t introduced ourselves. My name is Karl and this is my wife, Odette. Please, don’t thank us, the girl there seemed to be almost collapsing. This weather is harsh, even for the people who have lived here for years. It was the least we could do.”
I looked at Summer, noticing a hint of a smile. I let out a sigh of relief I didn’t know I was holding.
“Das Mädchen sollte sich ändern,” Odette spoke from across the room as she prepared something on the stove of the small, open kitchenette, “Sie wird nicht wärmer mit diesen nassen Kleidern.”
“What is she saying?” Summer asked politely, joining in the conversation.
“She is telling you to change clothes. Those clothes won’t dry no matter how long you stay close to the fire.”
Summer looked at me, then at the suitcases we had placed next to the entrance of the living room.
“Odette, zeige ihr, wo sie Kleidung wechseln kann.”
The woman dropped her apron and moved towards Summer who had her suitcase in hand. She motioned her to follow her, and they disappeared into the shadows of the staircase, leading (I guessed) to the rooms upstairs.
I took that opportunity to take off my jacket, noticing my clothes were fairly dry. My hair, on the other hand, was not, but I knew that it would air dry soon.
Karl motioned me to take a seat on his comfortable sofa which resembled a giant bed due to the numerous patterned covers of all sizes and colour which lay over it. With so many blankets at my disposal, I couldn’t resist in covering my legs and lap, feeling instantly warmer.
“Karl, if I may ask you, where exactly are we?” I asked, trying to assess the situation. Maybe we were close to a town, maybe we literally were in the middle of nowhere. It was incredibly hard to tell since this was the only house we had seen.
“Harry, wasn’t that what you said you were called?” I nodded and Karl proceeded, “Well Harry, you find yourself near Bochum.”
“How far are we exactly from that town?” I asked, the name of the location giving me no clues.
“We are twenty minutes away, it’s not far.”
I relaxed, knowing that once we recovered from the shock of accepting death we could resume our journey with no problem. I felt intrigued as to who Odette and Karl were and what they were doing living in such a rural area, but I didn’t want to sound intrusive. After all, they should be the ones asking us questions, not the other way around.
Karl lit up a pipe and sat by me on a wooden chair. It was so fragile and old that it looked like it could snap any second.
“Harry, tell me, how old are you?” He asked, studying me.
“I’m eighteen,” I answered.
“You are a long way from home, boy... What are you doing here in Germany?” I could see the man was trying to figure us out but with some difficulty. If two German teenagers knocked on my door soaking wet I would be naturally asking some questions, so I took the liberty to explain why we were there. I was surprised by my openness towards the man, but maybe it was due to the fact that his kindness had just saved our lives.
“Well, you see, my mother is very sick and she is here in Germany to get treated. We are here to visit her.”
The man leaned back in his chair, taking a drag of his pipe, the sweet smoke dancing around his head.
“And where is she in specific?”
“She’s in Bonn,” I answered.
“Oh, that’s not that far away,” he said with enthusiasm. As soon as he said that my spirits were instantly lifted. “If you catch a bus you’ll arrive in three hours, give or take.”
I pressed my hands together, excited “You have no idea what we’ve been through Sir, the journey we took to get here. To know that our destination is so close, it was all worth it.”
“Ah, so you two came alone? With no adults?”
The man took another drag “I now understand your despair when you knocked on my door.”
When he said that, footsteps echoed from the wooden stairs. Summer and Odette entered the room, Summer now wearing a thick wool jumper and a new pair of trousers. She had also combed her hair, the tips already dry. As our eyes met and we exchanged smiles, I moved to the side so she could sit down by my side, but she followed Odette into the kitchen.
“So, you and this girl,” Karl continued as I tried to figure out what Summer was doing on the other side of the room “Are you siblings, cousins?”
“Oh, we aren’t family. Summer is my girlfriend.”
Karl looked at Summer who wasn’t listening to our conversation “So you’re the only one visiting your mother?”
“That’s correct. She’s accompanying me.”
Karl shook his head “This girl came with you to a foreign country to visit someone who isn’t from her family, risking her life... Reminds me of my Odette.”
I tilted my head, intrigued “How so?”
“Well, in nineteen forty everyone was fleeing the cities because of the War. At the time she young and she had to make a choice; to flee with her family or move with me to the countryside, and you can figure out who she chose. A bit like Summer, no?”
I looked at Summer, noticing how she was trying to explain the meaning of her name to Odette using gestures. At the time I thought she had had no choice when she decided to come to Germany with me, but now, with Karl’s words dancing in my head, I wondered: was that really her only choice? She could’ve opted by going back home if she wanted, instead of coming with me.
I had thought she had no choice, but she did, and she chose me. With that realisation, it felt like I loved her even more.
I looked at Summer again. It seemed like she had succeeded in explaining to Odette her name, and they were both laughing at her expense. She looked much better now, the colours had returned to her face. She looked beautiful.
After a while of stirring something in a pot, Odette poured its content into two deep bowls. She handed them both to Summer, vapour rising from them like two hot cauldrons. She walked across the room, past the dark wooden furniture and the coloured sofa and placed one the bowls in my hand. I instantly knew what it was, and I accepted it gladly.
“This soup is delicious, thank you,” Summer said after drinking it. Even if it wasn’t, she wouldn’t have said so because the generosity of those people was enough to make it taste like the best thing I had ever tasted.
“Summer,” I said, turning to her, “Karl says we are just twenty minutes away from the next town, and from there we can catch a bus. Bonn is just three hours away.”
Summer put her soup down on her lap, turning to Karl who was still sat next to us “Really? That’s such good news! We thought we were so far away!”
He smiled pleasantly, his wife bringing more soup for both of them as we sat together in a circle.
“We can still get there today!” Summer said, looking at me with excitement.
“And you are indeed lucky. If I’m not mistaken, the bus leaves by five,” he looked at his watch, “Which is in about thirty minutes.”
Summer looked at me again, her eyes glowing. My heart skipped a beat at the realisation that our plan hadn’t completely failed. Odette sensed our change in mood and asked her husband what was going on. After Karl explained to her what was happening, he got up and moved to a wall key holder, opening the glass protection and retrieving a key with a red plastic head.
“My truck only has two seats, but we’ll make it work.”
I glanced at Summer again, wanting to share my happiness with her, but the smile I was looking for wasn’t there. Instead, she seemed rather uncomfortable.
“Harry,” she tried to speak in a way Karl wouldn’t hear her, although that was almost impossible since he was right there “We have no money.”
I understood immediately why she didn’t want Karl to hear her. It would seem as if she was asking for money, and I knew that was the last thing she wanted. She didn’t want to abuse the kindness of the man, and asking for money or admitting we had none did exactly that.
But there was nothing we could do. Without money, there was no way we were getting on that bus. I wasn’t going to risk smuggling in and going through another deadly experience.
“What is the matter? If you want to catch that bus we need to hurry.”
“We know Karl. The thing is,” I looked at Summer who was standing beside me, downright uncomfortable “We were in the forest in the first place because we were robbed. All the money we brought with us, which was quite a lot, is all gone.”
Then, out of the blue, Summer interrupted.
“When we were in the forest we were trying to find a road or even a gas station to ask for help, but we found nothing until we came across this house. You have already helped us so much, we didn’t want to ask for anything else.”
Summer looked up at me, trying to find some comfort. Her forehead was wrinkled, expressing her true feelings. There was no easy way to say we needed money.
“Oh, that’s alright. When you get reunited with your family you can pay us back,” said Karl, as if what we were asking him was nothing, “Let’s see this as a loan of sorts, because you know, we German’s like to get out money back.”
Summer giggled at the man’s comment although I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Something to do with history, no doubt, and Summer had picked it up easily. The important thing was that we settled things without any tension. Still, I was incredibly surprised at the man’s trust in us. How could he be sure we would play him back? Independently of what he thought, we were going to pay him back, no matter what.
With that, we hurried to get our suitcases and put on our coats. Again, Summer wore my giant overcoat, earning a round of laughter from Odette who was always standing nearby. Summer shrugged her shoulders as if saying she had no other choice but to wear it. We said our goodbyes to Odette, and that was a word I did know how to say in German.
“Auf Wiedersehen!” I said, kissing the woman on the cheek. She jumped at my audacity, Karl and Summer bursting into laughter. The woman swatted my arm with her kitchen cloth, but they gave me a half smile.
With that we were off. We walked around the house under the protection of the porch. It was still raining, but, it seemed, it was not as cold as before.
We walked in the direction of the Volkswagen truck which was clearly used to transport heavy materials for farm work. The truck was empty now, and Summer and I walked to the passenger’s seat while Karl took the driver’s seat. Inside, although only having two seats, it was spacious enough for both of us if we squeezed in, our suitcases lying flat down so we could have space for our legs.
“Ready?” Karl said, turning on the motor. The truck came to life, the steering wheel trembling like an earthquake. Karl put on reverse, then turned right in the direction of the gate. After driving over muddy puddles and patches of dirty grass, we finally reached a dirt road. If Summer and I had continued walking we would’ve found the road easily and wouldn’t have bothered those kind people, but certainly we wouldn’t have gotten a ride.
I looked straight ahead on the road, the windshields of the glass clearing the rain out of the way just for a few seconds before rain splashed all over. I didn’t see much difference in the German countryside compared to the English, and for some moments I enjoyed dwelling on the idea that an ocean wasn’t in between me and my homeland.
After fifteen minutes of staring at fields, houses started to come into view, each of them similar to Karl and Odette’s home. Then, those cottages became brick houses, then we started to see apartment buildings here and there. The few street signs became more frequent, and the dirt road was replaced by concrete, the grass replaced by sidewalks.
Karl drove us to a square, the street mostly vacant due to the pouring rain. He parked the car next to the station and walked us there. He served as our translator when we went to buy the tickets, and he paid for them without a moment’s hesitation.
“Here are your tickets, but first let me write the address...”
Karl took out of his pocket a pen and scribbled on the back of one of the tickets the address of his house. He handed us the tickets with the biggest of smiles.
“You are always welcomed to visit us!” He said, extending his arms to both of us. With the warmth of the motor of the bus behind us and Karl expectantly waiting for a hug, I truly felt like we were going to have no more problems from that moment on.
Both Summer and I hugged him at the same time, nothing but happiness and gratitude radiating from us.
“We cannot thank you enough Karl, seriously! You and Odette saved our lives!” Summer said, overwhelmed.
“Oh, enough of that!” Karl crossed his arms “Go on, get in or it will leave without you.”
I shook hands one last time with Karl, wondering if I would ever see him again.
We entered the bus, smiling at the German bus driver and taking a seat. Through the window, we watched Karl get in his truck and drive away, and I instantly knew I would miss him.