He begins to follow her at the Marktplatz.
It's Saturday morning. He sees a frail old man leaning on a stick. A military old man buying cold meat, wearing glasses with designer frames. He looks at the glasses and imagines in their place those mean, wire spectacles from the 1930s. But it's her movements that capture him. She’s inspecting apples, each of which sits in her crabbed hand before she places it in a waiting paper bag. The stallholder lets her, then smiles and cashes up. She likes to know what she’s getting. He thinks of witches. She moves on, and he follows her.
He finds that he is sweating, and the trousers of his suit whisper as he walks. He thinks this would be a good time to turn back, but rhythm carries him forward.
She walks away down the alley and then right again, and crosses the cobbled stretch where the tram-tracks gleam; then she cuts down the stairs that run between the post office and an older building that could do with being cleaned.
The post office has a yellow bugle for its marque. It’s modern, pure and bright. And the post office itself is modern, made from glass and steel and aluminium. He’s grateful for that. Built since 1945; during the 60s, probably. Keith Jarrett played here, too, years ago. He has his albums, still on vinyl. The sound is great, as long as you play it on the right equipment. He used to tell Sandra that a good stylus treats the imperfection of the medium as a surgeon would. And Sandra used to laugh at him. Well, now he's free to say mad things, if he wants. And to do mad things, too. So he carries on. The old woman is cutting down the stone stairs that belong to the past.
He follows her there.
He watches her go towards the old quarter, and lets the black monument on his right go unlooked-at as he goes after her.
She stops outside the Café Tölke, and then turns decisively in through the doorway.
A young woman, Spanish perhaps, in a black uniform and white apron, with dark eyes and dark hair, smiles at her and indicates a table. She orders, and he stands outside and wonders what she’s ordering. He orders for her, in his mind: coffee and Apfelkuchen. Or Strudel. He must be looking hungry, because the Spanish woman sees him looking through the glass. She smiles and shows that he’s welcome inside, but he smiles back and waves a no. She’s too young.
He looks at some cakes through another window, for a while. Then, at another, sailorwear. What’s that doing there? Nobody’s going to head off downriver in that. A gust blows from the river, and he feels it. He, too, could be sitting in a café, drinking coffee, reading an easy book for travellers. Work is done for the week. Liese in Human Resources shook his hand and smiled yesterday, saying how grateful she was that he had sorted out the inter-office miscommunication. She’ll definitely send an e-mail to Charles. She has a look. He pinches his eyelids. Why’s he thinking this way? He knows he can, he’s allowed to now, but he feels it’s wrong and that’s how it is. He feels he’s being watched a little, even here. And so, after the coffee, he will get his taxi to the airport in time to buy key-rings for Jack and Sam, for Friday when he sees them, till Saturday when they must always go. How did he end up here? He would like to drop to his knees and weep.
He finds he is beginning to know her; the way she lifts the cup to her lips; the way she blinks as she sets it down on the saucer. She looks up. He turns away, his breath quickening, his legs trembling. He remembers a film where a man pulled back into the shadows, but he was a villain, a rapist, a killer.
The old woman comes out of the café.
A little cry, and she realises that she’s forgotten to pay. She turns back, opens her purse. One by one the Euro coins are paid into the dark hand. Then the old woman leaves the doorway and comes right past him and walks away along the street.
Something’s different. He looks at her right hand, and sees that her shopping bag is absent. He looks through the doorway of the café and sees it there, under her table. He should go now, back to the hotel, and pack. He runs in and, with an apologetic look at the waitress, he grabs the shopping bag and holds it up. He backs out and scurries after his quarry.
He wonders when to give her her shopping. Wait too long and it will look like theft. But do it now, in this secluded place, and it might look like assault. Someone might see and misread the situation, and he has no command of the language. And he has a flight to catch. Entschuldigung, he says. She turns, her eyes covered in distance, staring through him for a second before she accommodates and sees his dark eyes. She looks down at the shopping bag. Then it’s clear and she starts talking German. He can see she’s thanking him, but he can’t hear it. He smiles, throwing up his hands placatingly. Ick bin Inglesch, he says. He knows what it should be, but he gets it wrong. She has stopped talking and is looking at him, into his eyes it seems. Perhaps she has heard a significance in his mistake, and she’s wondering where he is really from. She puts out a hand, touches his elbow and walks away towards the tram stop. Now he’s out of his cover, and he can’t possibly follow her. All right. Time to stop. Stop.
She’s on the tram, sitting, staring through the window at the side. He is standing further down towards the front, keeping a three-quarters attitude so that she won’t see him. He checks in his pocket for his passport, which is there. He can get off at the next stop. He doesn't.
The tram goes on outside the town he knows, past a mainline station and bus depot, past a launderette, a music shop and a sex shop. A shop selling mobiles, advertising the company he works for. It looks like home. Then past a large city park, with children in red and yellow coats playing on bright green frames.
And now they are in a fine little district that doesn’t even seem German. If he closed his eyes halfway, he could imagine that it was Sweden, or something. His eyes shift focus to the Nicht Rauchen sign on the window, and the world outside blurs. He finds he’s holding the vertical bar tightly, as if he were about to fall. A little panic drops through him and he readjusts his eyes. The area is modern. Houses with solid fittings. Light but not flimsy. The sunlight has begun to drop, softly. It’s oblique at this time of year, at this time of day, even so early. She gets off the tram.
There are few people. If she had noticed him, which she hasn’t, it would seem threatening that he’s still here. Then why is he here? He’s taking a look around, that’s what. How many times has he been here? And never really looked. It’s good; it’s bracing. He walks on, and so does she, at a steady pace. The noise of children in the park is still there.
She’s walking up to her door. This is it. This is what happens; things happen just off the beat, just when you don’t have yourself ready. He’s about to lose her, too soon. She’ll go in, and that will be it. Now is the moment, compressing itself to spring. He feels a chemical charge down inside him. He will go to her and ask her. He is walking up to the past. He will ask. Tell me, madam. I’m sure you can understand me. I just want to know - what? I don't have an excuse. There are no tattooed numbers on my family wrist. So. What, then? Do I want to know whether you sang the Horst Wessel song? Whether you liked the tune? Whether you watched your brother breaking windows, standing boldly in front of people like my gran and saying Jew? He walks towards her.
She seems doubtful. He’s approaching her, his fingers buzzing, his throat dry. He gets closer. She seems more doubtful. He can’t stop himself. She becomes sure of a sensation that was, before now, vague. And she turns, and sees him. Was wollen Sie? she asks. It’s cold, like the snap of a teacher. And then another look into his eyes. Was habe ich gemacht? There is a silence after this, filled with nothing. The sounds of cars and birds, the beat of modern music from far away, the children in the playground, nothing is there. Her eyes, the eyeballs themselves, are old. He throws up his hands to show he's no danger, but of course it just makes him look more Jewish. Entschuldigung, he says, and steps back. She turns away from him, slides the key into the lock, twists it twice and feels an answering jolt, pushes open the door. She goes in. He sees half her face as she looks back at him from behind it. Then she shuts it, cutting him off.
He’s some way away before he knows anything. He is encased in sweat, walking fast, thinking about the madness of what he has done. He hasn’t done anything. He is walking past the city park. The children have gone home and it’s filling with shadows. He doesn’t know if she’ll call the police. He could find himself in a prison.
He could fall through the cracks in this place. The flicking through the passport. The indication that he must get into the car. The drive through the streets where the lights of the shops are lighting up and welcoming the people of the town, telling them they can soon go home and get ready to go out again. He can feel his throat catch.
He walks, coughing, as if he knows the city, back towards the centre. There are signs. So far there are no sirens. There are no repercussions yet. There may be none. There are more people here. He gives himself the chance to look at his watch. There are still, thank God, two hours till check-in. He can cool his throat, and slake the terrible thirst that has come upon him.
He reaches a café on a corner close to the old quarter. It’s done out in cement and zinc, with French techno playing loudly, and strong espresso. A bottle of Sprudel mineral water, the bubbles of which bang against his mouth. His shoulders drop, and he lets out a long breath, feeling tears on both cheeks, which could simply be the coughing. Then the coffee, bitter, with life in it; then more water. He clacks down the cup. He clocks down the glass on the counter. He leaves a ridiculous tip. Nobody gets to say he’s a mean Jew.
Walking back to his hotel, thinking about the airport, his breathing slowing, his eyes take an unfamiliar direction to find a Greek restaurant, which advertises Meze in German.
He looks at the menu; all in German, of course. It makes the Greek food sound strange. But it must sound strange in English if you’re Greek. Opposite, a dance school. A plaque he has not seen before, advertising the fact that a synagogue was burned down there during the second world war. A world war, one street, one building, one burning.
He walks out of the street and finds the black monument filling his sight. A black upright and a black lintel that sits on top. On the other side, he sees that the engraved words, referring to the murder of six citizens, Jewish citizens, during the War, are still there. So are their names. He is filled with gratitude. Citizens, which is respectful. Murdered, which is true. His knees weaken beneath him. He wants to turn to all the people he can find, and embrace them. He wants to tell them that this is a good world, where our telephones talk to each other, and their sources are forgotten. The traffic is constant and crosses borders. I will cross a border in a few hours, and nobody will come to catch me. I haven’t done anything. The old woman will forget me, and I will forget her.
The light is oblique, getting lower, and the atmosphere is softer still.
He can see people in their twenties coming out of the dance school. Several have their arms around each other. Two are kissing. They disengage and walk on. The young woman has dark blonde hair and grey eyes. She is, he can see, amazing. He looks at her for a long time; long enough to draw attention if she cared, but she doesn’t. She’s softened with love. Her head tilts to the young man’s shoulder, and they draw together. He watches this. He puts his right hand over his heart and feels the buttons on his jacket, the slide of his silk tie. He hasn’t given his heart away; it doesn’t belong to this place, and can be kept safe. He’s unnoticed again, thank God. Perhaps the young people will go to clubs tonight, meet and kiss. Do they call each other Schatzi? Or is that only in another film? It’s all dissolving.
Soon there will be an aeroplane; jet fuel and its thrilling smell; take-off; chilly food; a demonstration of the unlikely event of a landing on water; a crumpled magazine; the tilt of a wing and the miraculous rising out of cloud into blue sky.
Short story, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 - read by Paul Higgins
© 2021 Roger Hyams