The sun is a memory that wakes me every morning, a child with an eye at the crack of the door to see if I am awake. But it is spring so it is not too early, and my aching knee would wake me anyway.The nights can be long and uncomfortable, but I always get over in the end and have a few hours of sleep. Plenty really. I open my eyes, such as they are now, and the dust particles dance in the sunbeam. I watch them play, children dancing around each other in the park, screaming and laughing. My boy Hans was like that. We’d take him to the swings. “Higher, Papa, higher,” he’d shout, throwing back his head giggling madly, playing with the edge of his fears. Good days long gone. So to the present and that aching knee.
It has been worse. I shall walk it off properly later and see if Mrs. Webber would like to join me for a stroll after breakfast.
There was a time as a young man I relished breakfast. I always joked to Frieda that it was one of my three favourite meals of the day. She would wrinkle her nose at my bad jokes, like a bunny, and moan at me for being so boring. But I know she used to like it. That’s the trick you see of a long engagement, something they never tell you in the army, but finding pleasure in all the little things is the key to happiness or survival at least. She pretended to hate my jokes, but if I was sick or worried, Frieda was the first one to give me a nudge with one of my well-worn catchphrases. “Karl,” she’d say, “where do fish keep their money?” It was better than saying “Karl, stop mopping around and get on with things”; instead she reminded me my job was to make her laugh or annoy her in the process, both of which I was once pretty good at. It rubbed the other way too of course, Frieda had her little habits that I learnt to live with and then to love. There’s no one elbowing me in the ribs anymore to go and put the kettle on before Hans or Margit get up. I miss them all now: the habits and their people.
Where was I? Ah yes, breakfast. After making tea – I prefer coffee, but Frieda liked tea, I think because of her English uncle, so we had tea – Frieda was ready to face the world. Then she would put out my favourite breakfast: thin slices of pumpernickel, Gouda and German salami, a little butter too. I tried the Italian salami once but it was never a patch on the German sausage, but I’m a little biased. Now she’d make me coffee as well, just black and hot. Hans would blow on his milk aping me as I cooled mine, and then I would pretend to drink it through my nose and have a sneezing fit. Hans would squeal with delight and try to do the same and snort his milk and sneeze for real and we’d both get a scolding form Frieda. “You are teaching him bad manners.” All too soon he became a teenager and such things were just childish, so he put them away and concerned himself with serious things, and girls and eventually a serious girl. I was the same, of course, but I so loved getting those childish things out of the toy box in my mind when Hans then Margit came along. They I’m sure would have done the same with their children. Anyway, the doctor says that butter and sausage and cheese are off the menu, they won’t help my knee. Whenever I get the chance, I do so enjoy ignoring doctors. Life has much more meaning with butter and cheese in it.
Oow! That chill one gets when putting feet onto a cold floor. I wish I had my slippers. Now for the rest of my morning routine before I call on Mrs Webber. I do so hope she has that light blue dress on this morning.
A short walk around the bedroom first. Heel to toe forty times. Wake up my ankles by going on my tiptoes twenty times. Warm up my old back by bending down and then stretching to the ceiling twenty times. Hello, toes. No, I’m sorry again today I have failed to reach you. It has been some years now since I could touch you, but I would try again tomorrow, like Sisyphus, only happier. Twenty twists at the waist. Left knee up high, ten times. Right knee the same. The neck: side to side, up and down and circles, ten each. Ready.
The strangest thing I have found about living alone is how gregarious I can be. Let me explain. It is not as if anyone comes to see me. Who is left after all? It is how convivial it can be to absorb oneself with one’s thoughts. To be clear, I do not just sit feeling sorry for myself. That is a recipe for disaster, and I’m sure it is the fate of many men, such as myself. But like the tragedies of their lives much of it is lies at their own feet. Rather, they, I, should be concerned with all the good memories. Even men, perhaps especially such men, responsible for great wrongs in their lives can find many moments of joy. By definition those men, for most of their lives at least, were not victims, so be happy.
Memories are a bit like boxes in the attic. We pile so much into boxes and put them out of sight. Then on spring cleanings days, after the children had left home, I remember Frieda would have me pull those boxes down and we’d rummage through them. Those afternoons were so absorbing, to see the pictures that Margit had made at kindergarten, or Hans’ school reports. “He is a bright boy but prone to mischief. Excellent at sport.” The first bit always made us laugh. I have often thought school is perhaps the very worst place to put small boys. It is like placing a puppy in a tiny cage because you don’t want it to chew your slippers and cause chaos. But puppies and small boys are supposed to cause chaos: it’s how they learn best. However, I would always draw the line at Hans chewing my slippers.
Where was I? Ah yes, memories, they are like boxes in an attic. We’d have so much fun rummaging through the boxes but then we’d pack them up again neatly and put them back into the attic. So it is with memories. After a lifetime there are so many, why keep them locked away, when you could rummage around in them all day long?
The trick though is not just to list them: I met Frieda on September 24th, as the leaves turned gold in Friedrichshain Park; we got engaged in the summer nine months later; my brother was late for our wedding the following Spring because he lost the ring; Hans was born… you get the idea. Each element of the list is a memory to be unpacked for a whole day, to climb right into the box and imagine yourself there again: walking every step, smelling, seeing, touching, feeling and replaying conversations with old friends.
Anyway, today is not about memories; today is about making new memories, for which there is also a knack to be had. Slow down Hans, I used to say, savour the moment but young men never listen. On the other hand, with Margit we were always prodding her to be more adventurous. She loved nothing more than to read and draw, and even as a child she could be swept away for hours by a book or some picture she was sketching. I am like my daughter in this way. I would look at her and wonder where she was. It wasn’t on the coach, with her little sandaled feet tucked underneath her, biting her bottom lip, her nose wrinkling like her mother’s– what was annoying her in that moment? Well, now we shall never know, so why worry?
Time to get dressed for my stroll. The thrill of courting brings everything into such vivid focus, which for my eyes is quite a feat. Maybe courting is the wrong word. I don’t really know what it is. Maybe I’m just imagining it all. What do two old people call it when they regularly step out for a walk together, or have coffee and cake sitting outside a Kaffeehaus, or an early supper with a glass of wine? Friendship? Yes. But I certainly feel like I did when I first met Frieda: butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation. No doubt the neighbours will be gossiping away about my behaviour; however, I have lived too much to care about the thoughts of busy-bodies.
Such occasions give a man, with no need for the facade of work, a reason to dress well and impress once again. Although, I also get a great sense of pride just for myself in executing the subtleties of my appearance. It is like a complex symbolic game where in displaying too much one will achieve so little. One must do things just enough, but there is no absolute measure, not like in the chemistry I learnt at Linden. And so today I will wear no tie, it is only a walk after all, but my shirt will be buttoned to the top. My shoes will be polished of course, but they are my brown shoes, not my flashy dress shoes, that would be too much. The leather is soft and worn; wrinkles at the joint of the toes reminds me of river deltas. I could be in a plane flying over Africa taking photos to make maps of exotic lands.
Now, the choice of suit is equally important. It must of course coordinate with my shirt and shoes not only in colour but in intent. Not showy nor must I look like a slob. I must seem to be making an effort, but not too much of an effort. Gone are the days where we all wore those smart uniforms, high-polished boots, and military hats, even if we were only lowly scientists or administrators. Ah yes, this is the one, well rather this is the only one I own nowadays, and it will do the job just fine: dark brown, and just enough wool for the spring. A waist coat too? It would be easy to slip up here and overplay my hand. Luckily I only have a green waistcoat and it is not perfect for this, so I will choose instead? Which one? Yes, this one. My red sleeveless pullover. I think I am done.
I lay everything out on my bed precisely. The shoes at attention on the floor, my socks and underwear, then my suit with the jacket underneath and my trousers on top. Then my shirt, pressed and next to the suit, with my pullover beneath it. Above them all, my wrist watch, which Frieda bought me the Christmas after Margit was born. It has had many new straps since. My wallet and a handkerchief.
Getting dressed is no trivial matter but most people simply throw everything on. Essentially, this is my art of living. I won’t let moments pass without exploring them to their fullest, to dive into the most mundane of activities and find pleasures in it. And in so doing my days pass as rich tapestries full of detail to be enjoyed from different perspectives: close up, far away, from the left, the right, from looking down or up or from the inside out. Perhaps I am a silly old fool, maybe even a little mad, and if not mad then senile. That may very well be but I am happy and therefore see no reason to question my delusion.
This could quickly become a metaphysical debate and I have no interest in ruminating on such matters. Many great minds, and even more average ones, have been wasted, lost in such things. I choose to enjoy the moment I am in: kind of a Descartes crossed with Epicurus. That would be a strange poodle.
Socks. I could write a treatise on socks but possibly only I would read it. Merely reaching my toes is impossible now, as we know. I must sit on the bed like a lady riding side saddle, with my foot propped up. There is most definitely an art to furling a sock up from hem to toe, into a little compressed pouch to insert one’s toes. Oh hello toes, we meet again. I know, I can touch you now, but it doesn’t count if my legs aren’t straight. I am cheating you and myself at the same time. Here, have a hat; you look cold. Once the toes are concealed I can, with a lifetime of experience, unfurl my sock up over my foot and ankle. I can feel the clean, laundered cotton stroke my old skin centimetre by centimetre. This moment presents the possibility for the mind to jump into a thousand other related images. Frieda, not seeing me in the doorway of the bedroom, as she gracefully puts on her stockings; Margit heaving on her school socks and they get caught around her toes; Hans pulling on his polished, black Wehrmacht boots before a rally. This is why thoughts must be managed and not allowed to run riot: there is much personal risk to be had, many emotions to be dealt with. This would be fine if today was a memory day, but it isn’t, so I must stay focused on the task at hand.
My shirt next: left arm followed by the right. I always do the cuffs first, with a precise and delicate twist of the button to pop it through the hole. Now I button up the front. Here there are two classic schools of thought: one either starts at the top working down; or one begins at the bottom. I have always started at the top. There is too much risk of missing a button or misaligning the two sides of the shirt if buttoning begins at the bottom, and then the process must be started all over again. Avoiding such little annoyances presents one with a small victory early on in one’s day. The shirt must be done before the trousers to facilitate the tucking in, though I must remain focused, as at my age I can ill afford to be hopping around with my trousers around my ankles: a lesson, really, for a man at any age.
Now I lace my shoes, slip into my jacket, pulling down the cuffs of my shirt and now for the finishing touches. My watch. I have few pieces of jewellery, like most men. It is my last connection to my wife. I know it is not real, but what are we talking about if not the power of one’s mind to control a situation? With the duty of a religious man, I wind it twice a day. Through the night when all is silence, but for the cries of my neighbours, its constant tick reminds me of Frieda: her tutting at the mess I made after making tea in the morning, or her tense fidget that lasted for days after I told her we must move from Berlin for work. I wish I had a fire in here; the back of the watch is cold on my wrist but I feel her embrace as I fasten the strap: I am standing behind her helping with the clasp on her dress, getting ready for a Party meeting. I fasten the clasp and the pin of the strap goes through the little hole in the leather and I direct the leather tongue through the metal loop. My wallet now goes into my right inside breast pocket and I finish it with the white handkerchief. Again, we must be careful here. A monogram would be too much. It is merely white, but pressed. I fold it simply, with clean symmetrical lines. By eye I can fold it in thirds with the exact width of my breast pocket, and I pop it in to leave a slip of white. Nothing is left to be done. I am finally ready to call on Mrs Webber.
I can feel the butterflies already: not long now. It is not that we have made a specific engagement for today, but more often than not when I call for Mrs Webber she is available and ready for a walk or a talk over coffee. Whereas I take great care not to appear over eager in my appearance and my manner, Mrs Webber is a woman with an effortless grace. Like one of those American actresses, never appearing to be anything less than immaculately dress, she carries herself with the deportment of a well prepared debutante, but she also has the wisdom of a mother of a thousand children. Or maybe I’m imagining it and my desire merely impresses those qualities upon her. Still the butterflies flutter as they do and I almost tremble with anticipation at our meeting. I may be old but I am not dead, yet.
A deep breath.
“Good morning, Dr Voss.”
“Oh, er, hello Buck. I didn’t see you there. How are you today?”
“I’m just fine, Doc. How about you? Are you feeling okay?”
“Thank you for your concern, Sergeant. Yes, I am feeling surprisingly well today, considering. Just getting ready to go.”
“That’s good, Doctor Voss. I’ll leave you to it for now but I’ll come back soon, okay?”
“Yes, yes, my good fellow. I will look forward to it.”
There he goes, moving on down the street in the sunshine. I’ll wait until he is well past Mrs Webber’s house. There are so many American soldiers around these days. It is like we’ve been invaded by movie stars, all of them with a cigarette hanging out of the side of their mouth, with the confidence of their immortal gun-slingers. Sergeant Buck has always been a kind soul to me, dropping in to check I’m okay. Not all of them have been so agreeable. Who could blame them?
It is only a short walk down my path, a few steps across the pavement, and I am here looking up to where she lives. My heart is pounding like a school boy’s. I straighten myself. Buck put me off my stride for a second. I cannot afford distractions, though they must always be factored in. I approach as casually as possible but have you ever noticed how hard it is to walk normally if you think you are being watched? Every gesture can feel performed, unnatural. Maybe that is why all the American’s strut. We are all watching them and they are watching us.
There I go again. Come back to the here and now. Do not get distracted, Karl.
I will wait here at her corner, looking up to her house. She will see me and come out. She always does. A little movement, just a twitching of silk and I know she has seen me. She will come quickly, but gracefully, her long legs covering the distance between us and she will take my hand.
Oh, the blue dress! She has worn it today. It hangs most beautifully on her. She has put her hair up too. I like it anyway she wears it but up is best. It shows off her neck, for me always the most beautiful part of a woman. Down she comes, dropping effortlessly to me. My heart, as if it were possible, pounds even harder when she takes my hand.
‘Good morning Doctor Voss.’
‘Good morning Mrs Webber, but please call me Karl.’
‘Karl,’ she smiles at me, ‘are we ready for today?’
‘Of course, Mrs Webber. Are you happy to join me? I thought we’d take a stroll?’
‘Karl, I said I would. Do you not remember? Are you teasing me?’
‘Well… no my dear… I do not think so. I think I would remember. I would never tease you.’
Maybe I made myself forget. Perhaps, it is one of my mental games, to make this moment seem more alive, more real. I cannot be sure. It is getting harder and harder to keep my focus. Only a few years ago I could get lost in the work of my experiments. The pressure was immense, of course, and the stakes even higher. The only way through it was to get absorbed, to have complete commitment. Don’t worry about the outcome, or the effects, just get it done by enjoying the science, the process. But at what cost? Frieda? Hans? Margit? No, only Frieda was my fault directly. My marriage paid the price for our obsessions. But Hans and Margit? No, they were grown; they made their own choices; we all did, and we all paid our price. Some of us are still paying for it. The isolation, the loneliness, they are part of the price, making one’s memories rush in, crashing down around you, on a wave of guilt. No, no, no, I mustn’t. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
‘Karl? Karl? Are you alright, Karl? Don’t think so much. Let’s enjoy this little time we have. I will walk with you, Karl.’
I hear her words and feel her touch on my hand. We are on the pavement. We are here and now, aren’t we?
‘Yes, Mrs Webber. That would be delightful. Where shall we go?’
‘Oh Karl, how you do like to tease. I can play this game. Let us pretend we don’t know. Shall we go to the Kaffeehaus?’
‘A splendid idea, Mrs Webber. Aren’t the trees lovely this time of year? Their green shoots arealmost electric. So vivid.’
‘Indeed, they are. Quite lovely! Have you had a good day so far, Karl?’
‘Yes, thank you, Mrs Webber.’
I do not want to say it was all for her. That everything I did was to keep my mind on her. I would sound too eager, if not a little crazy.
‘I just read the newspaper over a pot of tea with some toasted pumpernickel and did a little calisthenics.’
Only half a lie.
‘How nice, Karl. How you find the energy to exercise, I don’t know.’
‘It is only a habit’
‘I find even habits can be exhausting at our age’ she tells me.
‘This is true. This afternoon I will have a long sleep so the exercise makes me feel alive.’
‘Yes, Doctor Voss.’
‘Karl, call me Karl.’
‘Yes, Karl. Ah, here we are. Shall we sit outside near the door? It is warm enough, I feel.’
‘Yes, Mrs Webber. I would order us coffee and slice of cake.’
‘That would be lovely, Karl.’
I can hear the sound of his boots on the hard floor before he speaks to me.
‘Here we are, Mrs Webber. They had chocolate cake.’
“Hello, again Doctor Voss.”
“It’s time to go, Doctor Voss. Are you ready?”
‘It is okay, Karl, I’m here. We talked about this. I will stay,’her words manage to reach me.
“Yes, Buck. I was in the middle of something.”
“Okay, Doc. But we have to go. You know that.”
Buck is a good boy, maybe the same age as Hans would be. Kinder than my boy became. Kinder than I became. He doesn’t need it but his hand hovers close to his pistol. Gun-slinger, I think and smile. It is hard to keep control of my thoughts now. Things have a way of catching up with you, finding you wherever you try to hide, even if you hide among them.
‘I’m sorry, my dear, I must go with the Sargent,’ it is only polite to tell her.
‘I know Karl but I will come too.’
“Is it okay if I bring Mrs Webber?” I ask the Sargent.
I see the confusion on Buck’s face; it must be against protocol. I hold up the hand she is holding to show him.
“Sure Doc. You can bring her.”
What a kind boy. His hand on my shoulder, as strong as justice. Her hand on my hand, as gentle as silk.
“It has been a good day.”
‘Yes, it has, Karl.’
“Sorry, what did you say, Doctor Voss.”
“I was speaking to Mrs Webber, Sergeant. I was saying what a good day it has been.”
“That’s good, Doc.”
“Sergeant, would you remember to post that letter for me?”
“I’ll take care of everything.”
“You are a kind man, Sergeant. I’ve appreciated you looking in on me over the past months. I would very much like to leave you a gift when I die. I would like to gift you my watch. It is not expensive but my wife Frieda gave it to me. It is the most important thing I own.”
‘He won’t take it, Karl.’
“But I would like him to have it.”
“Doctor Voss, that is very kind of you. What did she just say?”
“Mrs Webber said you won’t take it.”
“The good lady is right. I am not allowed to take gifts.”
“Ah, of course. You are only doing your duty. I know what that is like.”
‘That is why we are here, wouldn’t you say, Karl?’
“Yes, my dear Mrs Webber.”
“What did Mrs Webber say? I didn’t catch it again.”
“Yes, she is very quietly spoken. She said, duty is why we are all here.”
“Hmm, she is a very smart lady. Okay, Doctor Voss we’vearrived. It’ll be quick.”
I need her voice. ‘Karl, Karl, Karl, calm down Karl. Listen to my voice, Karl. I’m here. I’ll be here to the end. That’s it, Karl.’
“I need to put this over your head now, Doctor Voss.”
“Would you do one thing for me?”
“If I can I will.”
“Would you see Mrs Webber home? I won’t be able to take her.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“She lives up in the corner.”
“I know it. Now Doctor I’m going to put this over your head. It’ll be over soon. Think of something nice, somewhere good. I’ll take care of the rest.”
He puts the bag over my head and I catch my breath again. Slow, slow. It is morning and Hans’ eye peaks through the crack in the door to see if we are awake, as the rope drops around my neck. Margit woke early and I lifted her from her cot. He sees we are awake and runs in. How do little people make so much noise when they run?He cries “Papa!” and throws his arms around my neck; I hardly feel the rope tighten. In the distance someone is saying something, as if shouting orders far off down the street. They sound so serious. They need to have a little fun. Maybe they haven’t heard the one about where fish keep their money. Anyway, I can’t hear them here with Frieda. So beautiful. I will make us tea. Her uncle just sent a tin of it over for her birthday. Then we will go to the park. Frieda will push Margit in her pram and I will push Hans on the swings until he gets scared, like me, as he feels the chain go loose. He knows it will tighten with a jolt and throw him off. But I will catch him…
“Time of death 1400 hours.”
“Sergeant, will you take care of the particulars.”
“Yes, sir. I have it all in hand. I’ll box up his personal effects and clear the cell this afternoon.
“Hey, there little lady. That’s it, crawl onto my hand. So you’re Mrs Webber. I wondered who the Doc was jabbering away to. He’s at rest now. Paid his dues. The morgue guys will be here soon to take him. Come on, I’ll escort you back home to that web of yours.”