The GDR, summer 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Jens, 14, it will be his last summer at the holiday camp Schneckenmühle (Snail Mill). The coming-of-age story tells of his friendship with Peggy, a fellow misfit.
I have to wait a long time before I’m sure they’re all asleep. In films the giants always snore in such situations, so people know what to look for. In comics it’s even better because Zs of various sizes come rising out of their mouths. I struggle to stay awake by opening my eyes as wide as I can and pinching my cheeks, but I keep nodding off all the same. If I was musical I could sing something in my head and leave out the end, like Mozart did as a child, and then his father would wake up and run to the piano and play the final chord. With the utmost caution I slide out of the bed without waking Wolfgang. I sneak out of the bungalow and once I’m outside I start putting my clothes on over my pyjamas. While doing so I put one foot down on the metal doormat and the nearly scream in pain. There’s no lookout on the bridge. We’d arranged to meet behind the stone house, next to Grandpa Schulze’s meadow. My sneakers are immediately soaking wet from the grass. Peggy’s already waiting for me. Actually, I’m hoping she’s not serious; I don’t want to be caught and sent home. But she really does start walking, and I follow. We don’t say a word until the camp has disappeared behind a corner.
“Don’t we need provisions?” I whisper.
“I’ve got alphabet biscuits and mints.”
“Can I have one?”
She passes me the tube of mints.
“I prefer lemon.”
I slide two mints under my upper lip so they look like rabbits’ teeth.
“Wuz you hopin’ for carrots too?”
Peggy bursts out laughing; it’s the first time I’ve seen her laugh. She sounds like a guinea pig squeaking as she splits her sides.
So how will we get to Liebstadt? Hitch a lift? There are no cars on the road at night. And if there was, nobody would see us, and even if somebody did, they wouldn’t stop. And it would be kind of scary – how are we supposed to know who’s sitting inside the car? We can’t decide whether to hide if a car comes along or to flag it down.
“We ought to think up false names, and a code word so we can find each other if we get separated. Like Lenin did, he called himself after the Lena, his favourite river. Stalin’s the ‘man of steel’ and Gorky’s the ‘embittered one’ because he was so saddened by the suffering of the exploited.”
“I want to be Papagena.”
“And I’ll be Pankin because I grew up by the Panke.”
“That’s no good. If I’m Papagena you have to be Papageno.”
“Isn’t he a clown or something?”
“No, the name’s from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
“It wouldn’t do for the others to find out we know classical music.”
“I won’t tell them.”
“Imagine if we got tortured.”
“I’d tell them everything straight away.”
“You need to jab needles under your fingernails as practice for enduring anything they do to you.”
“The fascists once cut a partisan’s tongue off then stuck it back in his mouth. Then they kept him gagged till the tongue went rotten.”
“You wouldn’t be able to eat ice cream anymore.”
“Couldn’t you just bite bits off?”
“But the tongue’s there to warm up the ice cream while it’s still in your mouth. The digestive process begins in the mouth.”
“Not being able to speak is a lot worse, if you ask me.”
“Like Lassie, you mean.”
“If they send dogs out after us we’ll need to cross a river.”
“Unless one of us is brave enough to distract them with the smell of blood.”
It’s started to drizzle. Should we borrow Dennis’s method and dodge straight through the drops? Suddenly the trees reflect a fast-moving shadow. It’s a car approaching round the next bend, but it could also be an optical illusion, it might really be two motorbikes driving side by side. Peggy sticks her hand out. A green truck passes, very slowly, the yellow sign at the back reads “????”. Fortunately, the truck doesn’t stop. Only then, a hundred metres down the road, it does. Is it because of us? We’re not sure whether to go running up to it or run for our lives.
A man with a shaved head and another man with cropped black hair; they’re standing in front of the truck inspecting the engine. When they spot us they shine a torch on our faces. Taking no chances we stop in our tracks, and I put my hands up. They shout something – we don’t know if they want us to keep walking. The man with the torch is coming towards us and I regret ever leaving with Peggy, ever coming to Schneckenmühle, ever being born. After the war Grandma Rakete used to keep a knuckle-duster on her bedside table just in case drunken Russians called by. One time one of them smashed a pane and reached inside for the door-handle. My uncle dashed to the nearby barracks and fetched an officer. He floored the soldier with a single punch.
The man lowers his torch. CA is printed in Russian on his epaulettes, it’s always surprised me that they don’t find it odd themselves, considering SA means “Sturmabteilung”. The torch man appears to be an officer, the other one a private.
“Kaputt?” I ask.
“Nix kaputt,” the officer says.
“Liebstadt?” I say.
“Ich liebe dich!” the officer chortles. I hope he isn’t drunk.
The soldier unplugs a cable and bites into it, removing the insulating rubber with his teeth then spitting it out. He repeats the procedure with another cable, and knots them together where the wires are exposed. Another thing you can do is thread empty ink cartridges over the cables to protect them against corrosion. I’m always noting those kinds of things that never come in useful.
The officer points to himself and says, “Sergey Ivanovich.” He points to the soldier behind the wheel: “Ivan Sergeyevich.”
“Zdravstvuite,” I say. “Menya zovut Jens. Eto Peggy. Druzhba. Vi na Liebstadt?”
“Liebstadt? Da, da, poshli.”
The seat in the driver’s cab is wide enough for us two along with the private and the officer. There’s a wooden frame with counting beads on the dashboard. The soldier tries to start the engine, the officer explains various buttons and levers needing to be pressed and operated in a certain order. The truck starts up with a jerk; evidently the soldier is in the middle of learning to drive. The pair of them don’t look Russian at all, more like the Mongolian racing cyclists who always come in last in the Race of Peace. “??????” is printed on the officer’s wristwatch.
What did we learn in Russian lessons at school? I try to remember some words or sentences. “Druzhba narodov”, friendship of nations, and “Gonka Vooruzheniy”, arms race. I wonder if they can roll a papirossi out of makhorka with one hand in their pocket? The word ????? is emblazoned on the dashboard. I’m sure that means butter. What’s butter doing there? I point to the word and say, “Eto maslo?” “Maslo,” the officer laughs, “maladyets!”
Mind-boggling, I said a Russian word and he understood it. It really does work! A really strange feeling to realize you spark off something inside somebody else’s head by saying a word that’s already in there but for you it’s just something you learned. There was one sentence I haven’t forgotten: “Ya sobirayu nakleiki ot spichechnykh karobok” – “I collect matchbox labels.” Maybe I can juggle the words round a bit and come up with something more useful?
Suddenly Peggy sings: “Chunga, Changa, siniy nebosvod, Chunga, Changa, lyeto krugligod…”
The two Russians sigh and put their hands up to their hearts. They want Peggy to keep singing. The officer has tears in his eyes. I’m afraid they might have forgotten where we want to get dropped off. But we’re moving so slowly we could equally well jump out of the truck and make a run for it.
“Jens? Davai!” The soldier is pointing at the steering wheel.
“I can’t drive.”
He wants me to take the steering wheel. The soldier throws his arms up and has a good stretch. He pats his cheek and tilts his head to show how tired he is. He also expects me to keep my foot on the accelerator. I can’t believe I’m steering the truck, up to now I only ever got to steer a dodgem car, but the two or three times I did one of the big boys jumped in and grabbed the wheel off me. For safety’s sake I drive in such a way that the wheels gobble up the broken white line the same way Pac-Man would devour a row of pac-dots. My palms are sweaty. I bet nobody I know has ever done anything like this. I better watch I don’t end up impaled upon the steering column if we crash into something.
Maybe they’re still larking about but the two of them look like they really are asleep now. I could sound the horn, but where is it? My father has never sounded his horn once, although we’re always asking him to, but it’s only allowed in absolute emergencies. Are you supposed to thump the steering wheel? Or press one of the levers? I can’t spot any trumpet symbol in the dark. I imitate the kind of honk the old car makes in The Waltons. It doesn’t wake either of them up. Maybe that just means they’re pretending to sleep. What was it historical leaders always did to tell the difference? In a poem by Bertolt Brecht a worker says “Ilyich, the exploiters are coming” to the corpse of Lenin in order to check that he really is dead. I look at Peggy, begging her to tell me what to do. Soon we’ll be in the town and I don’t know what you do at traffic junctions. Don’t Russian trucks always have the right of way? A man my parents worked with waited in his Trabi for ages at a forest crossroads because he wanted to let a column of tanks go past, and when he finally turned off he got flattened by a straggler. Peggy gets the alphabet biscuits out of her bag and opens the pack. She holds a B up to the officer’s nose. His teeth come snapping for it without his eyes opening.
Stopping appears to be the most difficult part. The buttons and levers are explained to the soldier again, and after a hundred metres the truck comes to a stop, this time right next to a Wartburg, at the entry to a forest. The officer and the soldier get out, we duck our heads down. A man with greasy permed hair down past his shoulders, but the fringe cut exactly above his eyebrows, is standing beside the car. He stretches his hand out to the officer. I try to see what they’re doing in the rear mirror, but it’s too dark to make anything out properly. The soldier unscrews something from the truck, sticks a hose into a hole and starts to suck on the other end. Is he drinking petrol? I thought people just made that up. He sticks the other end of the hose into the Wartburg’s tank. The soldier is collecting stones at the side of the path. The hose fills up several petrol cans in succession. Finally, the soldier puts the hose back in the boot and we hear a series of dull thuds, clonk, clonk… clonk, as stones go dropping into the tank.
“Something else kaputt?” asks Peggy.
“I don’t know.”
Sergey Ivanovich and the man walk over to the boot of the Wartburg. They haul out a big sack with something moving inside it. Together they drag it round the back of the truck, and then we hear a dull thump followed by piercing squeals that only stop when the noise of the engine drowns them out.
When we stop in Liebstadt Sergey Ivanovich hands me a tin of fish and a grey-coloured pack – he wants me to help myself to a cigarette. It’s got a cardboard tube for a filter. Is tobacco more healthy if it’s kept one centimetre away from the lips? Or could it be because it’s so cold in the Soviet Union? In the winter there, total strangers sometimes jump on people and rub snow into their faces because their noses are in danger of freezing and dropping off. It’s a form of good manners there. But it’s a dry cold, meaning you can eat ice cream even when the temperature is below zero. That’s what Irina says at least, and she spent the first few years of her life in Moscow. She laughed her head off at me during a lesson once because I thought the Metro connected up all the cities in Russia.
“I didn’t know you spoke Russian so well,” I say to Peggy.
“I like the letters, most of all the ?, it looks like a beetle.”
The phone box on Republic Square stinks of urine. You have to keep the door open with your foot to avoid suffocating.
“I hope it’s working,” says Peggy.
I lift the heavy black receiver, hear the dialling tone, “duduut… duduut… duduut…”, Morse code for the letter A.
“Got twenty pfennigs on you?” I ask.
“I bet it costs more to phone Dresden.”
“Fifty pfennigs then. Or even better a mark. I once heard you can dangle the coin on a piece of string somehow and phone for free but you’d need to drill a hole in it first.”
She kisses her mark coin for luck, pushes it into the slot and dials a number. A woman’s voice says, “The number you have dialled is invalid… The number you have dialled is invalid…” She hangs up; the coin doesn’t drop back out.
“Maybe you should have said, ‘Operator, please’?”
“You got any more money?”
“All I’ve got is a mark as well. Maybe a button would do it?”
Somebody outside raps on the glass and we freeze in terror.
“Looking for something to vandalize?” says Grandpa Schulze.
“No, we need to make a call.”
“Are you out on a night-time ramble?”
“No, we just need to make a call. It’s very urgent. But there seems to be something wrong with the number.”
We follow him through the village. I’m glad he’s not carrying his scythe. Hardly any windows are lit up. All the shutters are down, like the people are hiding. I know the village from visits with the group but it feels odd to be here without the rest of them; the places where we stood around look so empty. There’s a bit of noise coming from one building only, and that’s the Green Tree, the pub we always buy ice cream in. It smells of sick outside. We follow Grandpa Schulze into the bar. The door really does open outwards, like pub doors always do, so that you can get out the door even if you’re drunk. Apart from the woman behind the bar there are only men in the place. The air is smoky, there’s a sour smell of beer, like there used to be in Friedrichshain when our kindergarten group walked past one of the working men’s pubs. Grandpa Schulze takes us over to the table reserved for the regulars. “You two sit yourselves down.”
The old men are playing skat. Cigarette stubs are budged between their lips. Are they smoking Puck, the famous brand said to be so cheap? The one that really stinks? When serving, they smack their cards against the table with their fists like hammering down nails. I find myself wondering if they’ve still got legs underneath the table. Strangely, everyone in the place is drinking out of paper cups.
“So where did they come from?” one man asks.
“Schneckenmühle,” Grandpa Schulze replies.
“Only me. She lives in Dresden.”
“If you want to Draysdane come, stick a finger up your bum.”
“You been gobbling up all our Dresden cake?”
“I’d got half a pound of butter, frozen stiff,” the old man next to me says. He’s got no teeth left and a rubber ring round his pipe to stop it falling out of his mouth. The other men’s teeth are long and yellow, with gaps between them. Their skin looks like they’ve spent their lives out in the rain, with the wind blowing hard. Maybe they’re sailors? If they were you’d be able to tell by the way they walked, because they’d have got used to levelling out the ship’s rocking and lose their balance on firm ground as a result. I look about for a telephone. Maybe we should make a quick getaway? But not a lot can happen as long as Grandpa Schulze is here. I regret not having said I came from Dresden too and never getting Peggy to teach me the Saxon accent. You have to keep your jaw slack or something like that and jut it out at the same time.
A man comes into the bar, his red face all swollen like he’s been sleeping out in the woods. It’s the man who was waiting by his Wartburg at the roadside. He goes up to the landlady and holds out his hands, in which he’s got a pile of small change: “Roswitha, get me drunk, will you.”
The landlady pours beer into a paper cup, but the man calmly pushes her hand aside. “A glass for the cultivated beer drinker, if you don’t mind.”
“But we’re expecting the Russians.”
“They won’t be coming tonight.”
“Get your finger out, Ingo,” says the one they call Renz. He’s the youngest of the group, he’s got long black curls and the name Gerlinde tattooed on his arm.
Ingo knocks on the table, the others follow suit. That’s the way people greet each other in pubs so they don’t have to say Good Evening to all the punters separately. He eyes us suspiciously. “Do I smell milk pudding?”
“From the capital.”
“Capital. Of what?”
“The girl’s from Draysdane,” Renz says.
Ingo bends over Peggy and snuffles at her face. “Pudding seems just right…”
“We just need to make a phone-call, her mother’s in hospital,” I say.
“Then go back to Berlin, there’s phones there.”
“There’s no time, she’s very ill.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
It was the only disease I could come up with so quick. Ingo doesn’t bother answering, just joins the other men. He’s lost interest in us. They play skat, and I don’t know if there’s any point in waiting for Grandpa Schulze to remember about the phone.
“Did you get the roofing felt?” Renz asks.
“Nichevo. I’ve had it up to here. Wish I’d stayed in the camp.”
From Schneckenmühle © Verlag C.H. Beck, München, 2013 (ISBN: 978-3-406-64698-0)