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Babushka

Author: Schutti McMahon
Translator: Deirdre McMahon

 

Just begin, Maja said, so many first sentences.

 

She’s not called Babushka; she’s Matryoshka, said my great aunt, my father’s only aunt, although she didn’t know any Russian. She was right, but I simply did not believe her. I had always called mine Babushka, shaken her carefully, taken her apart, and put her together again. I would examine the smallest one very carefully to see if I could open her like the others, searching for a hidden mechanism, and I simply could not believe I had reached the last one.

I would often lie awake and let my eyes wander around the room, and I would tell the biggest Babushka what the house looked like from the outside: about the garden, sprawling outwards, and the shade that lay over most of the houses for more than half the year. I would tell her about the valley with its wooded hillsides, about the night sky stretching tightly over it. It frightened me that no one could tell me what lay behind it. But perhaps you just needed to ask the right questions to get an answer. The Babushka would look at me with her big eyes and I would open her up, take the smallest doll out, lay her tenderly in my hand, rocking her to and fro, amazed at how grown up she looked.

My Babushka had gone missing, or so they led me to believe, but that was impossible. I had never taken her outside. Perhaps my aunt decided that I was too big for dolls and hid her in the attic or threw her away. Maybe she had found the nightly murmuring from my room disturbing. I never asked.

I told Marek about the Babushka and he stroked the hair behind my ears and kissed me on the forehead.

Moje kochanie, he whispered, and I knew what that meant even though I knew no Polish and had lost the Belarussian of my first years, along with Babushka.

Marek had a little wooden house with an unkempt garden. He offered old Walter money for gardening, but Walter did little more than get rid of a few branches. He said mowing was impossible because there were too many scrubby bushes along the fence and around the house. He left the bushes standing and bought himself schnapps.

Marek didn’t drink schnapps; he never drank. Nevertheless, his eyes were sometimes red when he sat at the window looking out.

They hadn’t died one after the other, as local gossip suggested. Marek once told me that his uncle went first, then his grandmother. Then Micha, his favourite nephew, died. He hung himself from a tree, from the tree that his grandfather had planted for the uncle. He didn’t speak about his mother and father. Everyone knew what had happened, but nobody could explain why Marek had moved to this particular village as a young man and why he hadn’t returned home after the war.

Forget all that again, Marek had said, wiping his eyes, forget it. However, I never forgot, and I asked my aunt if she could tell me anything about Marek. The shadow side is bad, she answered, going on to ask me why that was any of my business. I asked why there were houses here anyway, when the shadow side is so bad, but I got no answer.

The snow arrived early and stayed a long time. Even in high summer you needed a woollen jacket by four in the afternoon if you wanted to play outside. Only mint and chamomile, dill and garlic, grew in the garden. When you ran barefoot on the grass it stabbed the soles of your feet. I just could not imagine soft grass, or not anymore. As a small child I must have run over soft grass, at least once. Years later my aunt gave me a photo showing my mother and myself in a park. I was wearing a short little white dress embroidered with flowers, with a hand-crocheted border on the collar. My mother was holding my hand, laughing at the camera, not staying still for the photo; her arm and face were out of focus. We were standing barefoot on the grass and I looked uncertain. My eyes were wide open, my lips an open slit.

My aunt didn’t want me to visit Marek. She thought I’d be better off playing with other children. I often acted as if I had spent the whole afternoon playing tag and French skipping. I would kneel in the meadow on the way home and stroke the palm of my hand over damp earth. Sometimes, if I had enough time, I would lie down in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on a rosy red tinge and, when the light was fading, I could observe countless tiny insects populating the skies and turning the air restless.

It was not that I wanted to turn myself into an insect and flee from there; I had not thought that far ahead. And I didn’t want to be an animal either, though having a favourite animal and knowing everything about it came with the territory back then. After school Fini asked me what kind of animal I would like to be, continuing in the same breath to say that I didn’t need to answer as she already knew – definitely a bird – or an angel  –  so that I could follow my mother to heaven. I didn’t want to fly to my mother because it was cramped and cold beneath the earth –  or so my aunt had told me – and I believed her.

There are various Babushkas. Some resemble each other down to the finest details and some have different pictures on their fronts. A different picture on every front and you know immediately which story belongs to it. And the big Babushka holds all the stories together like the cover of a book of fairy-tales. The smallest picture needs to be examined particularly carefully because, if you are lucky, even this tiny expanse has a background showing a forest or a stream or flowers. I was lucky. My Babushka had been particularly beautiful. I can remember every picture and I still know the stories that went with the pictures; they translated themselves without me noticing.

Marek often asked me to tell him these stories. I thought that maybe they reminded him of the stories of his childhood because they were similar, but perhaps he only wanted to prevent them dropping from my memory.

Marek would give me presents of sweets or colourful stones which I would store under a loose board in my room. Whenever I was out with my aunt and we met him by chance, he would just give us a curt hello, hardly looking at me, as if he were indifferent to me. But in the afternoons when I went to him, he would stroke my cheeks and sit down opposite me at the heavy wooden table, drinking black tea with milk and sugar from a glass printed with flowers. Because of me, he always had a choice of drinks in his larder that I never got otherwise. I loved the sparkling yellow or red drinks. I would sit on Marek’s lap letting him read books aloud or tell me stories, hanging on his every word. There was an unevenness about his voice that only I could hear, or so I thought back then, something in his tone that reminded me of something from the past, from way back in my early days.

When I got big enough to take the bus into the next town my aunt would send me shopping once a week. She gave me two cloth bags, and for weeks she would make me recite the bus stops and the departure times before I left the house. I never forgot anything and occasionally I was permitted to buy some little thing for myself. As time went on, I knew all the shops and got much quicker at completing my errands, so that I had time to wander the streets and look at the shop windows. That was when I began to think about my mother more often. I would stand in front of the shop windows trying to superimpose my reflection onto the clothes on display. Sometimes it worked but in other shops the clothes were hanging just too high. I would imagine what it would be like if my mother’s face were reflected beside mine, how beside her  I could smile in at the displays and we would hold each other’s hands.

Sometimes I asked myself what it would be like to hold a young man’s hand, to go with him, as Fini called it. I tried to walk tall as I wandered up and down the street. According to Fini, pulling in my tummy was really important, like wiggling my hips so that it looked like I was wearing high heels. I used to imagine how it would be if a young man called me from the sunny side of the street. He would ask my mother if she would allow him to take away her beloved only daughter  –  yes, that was just what he would say  –  and my mother would smile and nod, catch me by the shoulder and nudge me towards the young man, folding her hands across her chest, waiting until he had given me a kiss and taken me in his arms. And then she would wave until we had vanished around a corner.

Fini sometimes took me by the hand when we were wandering through the woods. If it got dark on the way home, she would clutch me so tightly that the prints of her fingers were visible on my hands for a long time afterwards. I never told her that she was hurting me. On long summer afternoons when we had had enough of each other’s company and I wasn’t with Marek, we would sit down at the stream, dangling our feet in the water until they turned red. Then we would lie down on the flat sun-warmed banks and pull up our shirts to tan our stomachs. Fini told me stories, not fairy tales. She would tell me what she knew about the other girls and their families, about her older brothers and their friends and girlfriends and plenty about what she had observed through keyholes. She explained what it would be like in a couple of years when we became young women, and the men would be interested in our brown legs and stomachs. I loved listening to her; her sentences flowed on like the stream, almost a calming murmur, and although there were no ogres like Baba Jaga and bewitched kings’ daughters, I hung on her every word. Her family would become mine for an afternoon. I used to take Fini’s stories home with me, feeling that I had escaped out of the shadows and undergone an experience. One evening I wrote a sentence, a phrase that had struck me on the way home, “if a person could keep all these stories like a shield over their body, wrapping strange sentences around the body like a camouflage coat”. I read the sentence aloud to Fini the next time we met but she just looked down on me and began to laugh. I crumpled up the paper, put it away and threw it in the stream on the way home, knowing that it would soon become a tiny scrap, that it would dissolve completely in the cold water. I never again composed such a sentence and would never again write anything like that. But I remember this one.

You always just have to start over again, said my aunt when I gathered my courage and asked her about before, although I felt that she wouldn’t answer this time either, and would make me feel that she was irked by my question. The past I had experienced with my mother pushed against the past I had with my aunt; I had no idea of the fault line, no memory of how I had come out of the city to the village.

I still know that I didn’t understand my aunt. She talked at me in an unfamiliar language. I was supposed to say Papa to the strange man who had collected me. First, I saw him only at weekends and then less and less because he took my aunt’s advice to heart and made a new beginning. I was allowed to stay with my aunt; she was glad of company in the big house.

Your mother was too good for us here, said my aunt, and when I was just a few weeks old she left the village and my father behind; but she didn’t want a divorce, and to this day, I don’t know why.

And now that you are here, be satisfied. I knew I had to be satisfied.

When Marek died, I no longer lived in the village. The photo on his death notice shows him as a fifty-year-old; I know this for certain because that had been his nicest birthday. That photo stood on a narrow shelf beside the house door, his best birthday as he used to say back then. Fifty-fifty, someone had written on the lower edge in white touch-up pen. His life had not lasted a hundred years, but who can say how much life a person gets. My aunt died before him. She reached the age of eighty-three; nobody needs to worry about her grave. She had ordered and paid for a stone tablet years before her death, and anyone who wants to can place a candle on it or lay a bunch of flowers to be dried by the sun and blown off the gravestone by the wind. She knew I would never come back.

I did not come back; I couldn’t. I got a Matryoshka that looks so like my old one, my hidden or thrown-away Matryoshka. I took it apart and set all the dolls out in a row. There are scenes from fairy-tales on the dolls’ fronts, but they make me sad now, when I remember them. I lost my language along with my mother: the falling-asleep phrases, the comfort phrases, this cradle-rocking of words, our language island where there was just room enough for the two of us, on which we wandered through the city to the playground or the bakery. Latrine, shovel, and bread roll – I can’t remember what German words I had when I came to my aunt’s.  And now: encouraging phrases out of the dictionary, encouraging sentences spoken on tape but the lullaby does not want to reappear; those sentences remain forgotten. 

Moj bednyj anjol, my mother must have said, moj bednyi anjol.

I turn the dolls around and let them look out the window. From behind, they all look the same  –  light blue flowers on a red background. Where have my first sentences gone, I ask myself –  I only ask now that I have flourished in a complete language for a few years and withered on the shadow side again. Those phrases haven’t even remained in memory, at least not in mine.

 

Excerpted from Carolina Schutti, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg-Wien, 2015.

The Woman from the East

Author: Katja Oskamp
Translator: Jo Heinrich

 

She does what she feels she has to, she is in charge of her own fate and she never plays the victim. The most powerful thing the GDR brought to the table was its feminine side. A portrait.

21:30, Fulda Station, platform 3: shift begins. Sabrina stands at the deserted platform edge, on her back a rucksack with the company logo. She chews some gum while she waits. A stocky woman with wavy blonde hair, she is forty years old; she wears sturdy trainers, three-quarter length jeans and a t-shirt with the bold inscription in English ‘Total Life Forever’. The train draws in and comes to a halt. Sabrina grabs the bars by the door with both hands, and quickly climbs up the three steps into the train’s cab, as if she were emerging from a swimming pool to dry off. In the cab with its smell of heat and metal, she turns to slam the iron door shut behind her. She throws off her rucksack and swings up into her seat behind the enormous control panel. This is the Taurus, a bull amongst engines, and Sabrina’s favourite. When it starts up it makes a little ascending tune, a scale in C-major: surprisingly dainty for this booming, quivering beast. Sabrina hums along. ‘Goes like hell,’ she says to herself, enthroned in her executive seat with its headrest and its fancy suspension, which sways and rocks her body. Her gold earrings flash as they catch the light.

Sabrina is a train driver, and today she needs to take an empty train to Regensburg. She’s alone for the journey. She zigzags across Germany for ten days in a row, every day a different engine, every night a different hotel, or vice versa, depending on her shift. She presides over nearly 10,000 horsepower and a 641-metre train, gliding out into the greenish-blue summer evening.

Sabrina was born in the Weissensee area of Berlin. She is the product of a mishap between an ageing cook and a seventeen-year-old unskilled cook’s assistant. The cook had family elsewhere, and soon disappeared from the scene. Her mother beat, bullied, and neglected her unwanted child. Her grandfather threatened to go to court and demanded custody. From then on, Sabrina grew up with her grandparents. It was, in fact, her granddad who had chosen her name and written her a poem when she was born. He took his granddaughter to swim training, and celebrated her victories. When Sabrina was nine, he sent her to advanced Russian classes. He worked as an engineer in a tyre factory, and when he came home late, Sabrina would be waiting for him so that he could wish her a good night. When she was twelve, her granddad died. She could see the ambulance in front of the house when she came home from school. After that, Sabrina was alone with her overburdened grandma and she began to look after herself. To this day, she’s never visited her granddad’s grave, and she’s no longer in contact with her mother.

At fourteen, Sabrina started at a residential school for prospective Russian teachers. Out of 150 students, 140 were girls, brought together from all over the GDR. The days at the elite school were severely regimented: up at six, ‘political information’ three times a week in Russian, supervised homework, countless obligatory sessions and strictly regulated results. Sabrina’s grades were very good, and it was only for conduct that she was consistently getting average marks. Her hair was dyed red at that point, and looked like a broom. When the head instructed her to kindly get a proper haircut, she turned up the next morning with a shaved head, and was expelled from the school. That was at the end of the tenth year. She got on a train and went back to Berlin. When she got there, her old friend Mirco was at the station.

In the summer holidays, Sabrina went to the careers advice centre. The woman working there said she’d come much too late: all the apprenticeships had been allocated long before. Sabrina didn’t give up: ‘I’ll do anything but cooking,’ she said. That September, she started an apprenticeship with Deutsche Reichsbahn, on the railways. 500 trainees, one girl. In the summer of 1988, she finished the apprenticeship and began shunting. In the spring of 1989, she became pregnant by Mirco. In the autumn of 1989, the Wall came down.

23:15, 119 kilometres, approaching Ochsenfurt. It’s dark now. Sabrina isn’t using a computer, nor does she need full beam. She could almost drive this stretch blindfolded. It’s as dark in the cab as it is outside. Only the drone of the engine cuts through the silence. Familiarity with the track is crucial in her line of work, she says. It takes time, and you can lose it over time, too. In the distance, flashes of lightning are twitching, snatching desolate cloudy visions out of the darkness for split seconds. There’s no thunder to be heard. Fat drops of rain burst noiselessly on the windscreen. Mute midsummer storms.

With the water on the tracks, the train begins to lurch. Sabrina imitates the faltering noise and drops sand onto the rails to maintain the traction between wheels and track. Then she gets her food out of the fridge. Mirco made her sandwiches for her. Mirco is a trained chef, just like the father Sabrina never got to know.

Although tiredness encroaches after midnight, Sabrina doesn’t drink coffee; in fact, she drinks very little during her shift, to avoid needing to go to the loo – there isn’t one. There are eighty train drivers working for Sabrina’s company, but only three are women. Sabrina operates in a man’s world, but she seems not to notice. It goes without saying, to her mind. The men can pee in a paper cup or out of the door while the train’s moving; she’d have to radio the signaller to ask if she could stop. But for Sabrina, every stop is a small setback. She wants to keep moving and clock off on time, if she can.

After she’s eaten, she lights a cigarette: a Marlboro Light, the long variety. It glows in her fingers. The Taurus has an ashtray on the wall with a hinged lid. The rain has eased off. A goods train comes towards her and turns up its headlights, like a three-eyed creature. Sabrina flashes her lights and raises a hand. When people working through the night see each other, they always give a friendly wave. It’s something the masses of people asleep right now have no idea about. Then once again, trees with empty nests sweep past, bleak stations, signals, lights.

Soon after the Wall came down, Sabrina gave birth to her son. She was twenty years old. After a year with the baby, when she wanted to go back to work, Deutsche Reichsbahn was about to merge with Deutsche Bundesbahn. She was offered a security job in Hanover, but she didn’t want to be a security guard, and she didn’t want to go to Hanover. She took severance pay and started training as a bilingual secretary, a career that the job centre suggested.

In their free time, Sabrina and Mirco trained in a gym that belonged to a Russian. Sabrina got just as obsessive about it as she had with her swim training as a child. Mirco became self-employed and set up a small haulage company. He took out a loan. Sabrina signed the agreement as guarantor. Work did not materialise, and Mirco was left without a job, but with plenty of debt. Instead of looking for work, Mirco lay around on the sofa all day. Sabrina had no idea how she could feed three people. She took her son and moved out, but then found she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up her family, and she went back to Mirco. She sent him to see the Russian, who owned a nightclub as well as a gym. Mirco started working as a bouncer there. A door opened into a different world.

At some point, Mirco came home and suggested that Sabrina should go on the game. She agreed. Mirco didn’t force her into it: the fact that it was her decision is close to her heart. They had debts to pay and something had to be done. Sabrina abandoned her bilingual secretary training and took her ID and AIDS test results to the police station. She paid 150 marks in ‘lamppost rent’ every shift to the pimp she nicknamed ‘Ponce’. On the first night she didn’t earn a single penny.

More experienced colleagues taught her how to hustle, and how to pretend to give a blowjob while actually using a hand and a cheek. She secretly tried it out on Mirco. The extra-thick condom helped, and the long-haired wig hid Sabrina’s face. Mirco didn’t suspect a thing.

After that, the couple started their shifts once their son had gone to sleep. Sabrina would stand under the streetlight dressed as a Barbie doll, in high-heeled white boots, nude leggings, a wide belt done up tight, her face hidden under the wig of fake blonde hair. On a good day, she’d get fifteen customers in a shift. She went after her punters in their cars. Professional honour entailed driving her prices higher, and every little extra had its fee. Stripping off in a campervan: fifty marks for each item of clothing. Intimate shaving: a thousand marks. When a punter drove up with his car full of balloons for Sabrina to burst one by one with her stiletto heels, that was a month’s pay. On Mondays and Thursdays her regulars brought her something from McDonald’s. Mirco and his pals would sit in a car with binoculars and a notebook, writing down registration numbers and keeping an eye on the clock.

04:00, Regensburg Station. Her shift should have finished at 3:30. Sabrina waits for the green light, or a message over the radio, she clears up her things, pulls out a packet of wipes and cleans the control panel. ‘Hookers aren’t victims. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s the punters who are the fools.’ It doesn’t even occur to Sabrina to regard herself as a victim, although it would be easy to, with everything that’s happened. She quickly learned to take her fate in her own hands instead, and never to let go of it again.

She drives the empty train into the siding, heaves the door open, climbs down the steps and uncouples it. She takes the engine to the marshalling yard, goes to the cab at the other end and parks the Taurus behind another engine. She sorts out the logbooks in their compartment and checks if the sand levels are OK, then turns off the electronic display. Sabrina puts her rucksack on her shoulder. She locks the engine up with a large key and, dawn breaking, she walks over gravel and timbers to the station, and then on towards her hotel.

On the day when all the debts had been paid, Sabrina stopped working on the streets. Mirco, now used to so much money, wanted her to carry on but Sabrina refused and got an admin job with the local authority, in the maintenance payments department. Every day she’d sort out papers, label them, and file them for a full eight hours. Mirco was back on the sofa again, but she never gave him a penny, not even for cigarettes. After a year he pulled himself together, registered at the benefits office and eventually started working behind the bar at a restaurant. In 1999, Sabrina got pregnant for a second time. She stayed at home for three years with her daughter. In 2003 she completed further training to become a train driver. She was nostalgic for her first job, which she’d loved and had never been able to do for long. Six years ago she started working for the company she’s still with: a rail transport business dealing exclusively with freight.

13:30, Regensburg Station, Burger King. After a sleep, Sabrina has a late breakfast of a Whopper meal. She’s feeling good. Her shift starts at 14:30. Sabrina puts on her hi-vis vest, heaves her rucksack over her broad shoulders and trudges to the marshalling yard under the hot midday sun. She unlocks the twenty-metre-long engine, this time a 189, which has a narrow corridor. The steel floor panels clatter with every step she takes. She gets a dustpan and brush to clear out the gravel walked in by the drivers before her. The train is loaded with cars: 23 wagons, 1090 tonnes. Sabrina uses the wagon list to fill out the brake data sheet, calculate the brake weight and the braked weight percentage, and she inputs all the data into the computer. She reports that the train is ready to leave. 16:54 departure, on schedule. As soon as the train leaves the depot Sabrina can let rip, back to Fulda again. She ensconces herself in her seat, her gold earrings flashing in the light, pirate-style. You would never believe that this strapping train driver once stood under a lamppost in a Barbie outfit. She’s just done what she felt she had to. Keeping afloat comes naturally to her.

Sometimes she’s asked if she’s ashamed of her past as a sex worker. But she’s not. ‘If I hadn’t done it, we’d probably still be in debt now. We made a fortune! For me, it’s also part of being an adult: you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “This is me, that’s it.” I always wanted a normal family. And I wanted it with Mirco. For one thing, I really fancy him, and then he’s also my best friend. And the father of my children. And my housewife.’

When she gets to Würzburg, she rings Mirco, who’s had a dentist’s appointment today. After that, she helps her daughter with her homework as she operates the vigilance system and the driver’s brake valve. Fragments of Bavarian and northern German voices waft through the cab from the radio, and there’s a croaking sound whenever the last wagon leaves a tunnel. ‘Sifa! Sifa!’ a recorded woman’s voice pipes out at regular intervals, which means Sabrina has to step on the driver safety switch pedal under her controls to let the system know that she is still conscious, or else the engine will automatically come to an emergency stop. It might have been nice if there had been someone in Sabrina’s life to ask if she was coping every now and then, to keep the plates spinning for her if necessary. But there wasn’t.

21:15, arriving into ‘fucking Fulda’, as railway workers affectionately call the junction. She clears up; her replacement is already standing on the platform. In the evening sun, Sabrina climbs down out of the engine backwards as if she were getting into a swimming pool.

Her granddad, in his time, made sure she was able to swim. These days she can even dive. She did a diving course with her family on her last holiday in Egypt. Only her son stayed at home – he’s twenty-one, and lives with his girlfriend in a flat of their own. The girlfriend is pregnant. Sabrina will be a grandma by Christmas.

 

Originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 September 2010, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German reunification.