“What I wouldn’t give to be that happy again,” Monika whispered, listening to the ripples of laughter coming from the staff room as her colleagues began their annual plans for their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Just thinking about it made her want to cry, even though they were on the cusp of a supposedly exciting, new decade. Life in Friedrichshain had been tough for the nineteen-year-old, made tougher still since her father’s escape.
Following her mother’s death two years ago, her father had rediscovered his revolutionary zeal, spouting his opinions of the regime with an all too frequent regularity. He’d always been hotheaded, but had mellowed for her mother’s sake. With Mutti gone, he no longer tolerated the rules and the oppression, and spoke of escape whenever they met. Last year, he and her younger sister, Lisabet, had finally got out. It was meant to be a family mission but, at the last minute, her brother Georg fell ill with a nasty bronchial infection, making such a daunting journey impossible. Monika’s nursing - and sisterly - instincts kicked in and she agreed to stay with Georg until he was well, promising to join Vati and Lisabet at the earliest opportunity.
Twelve long, lonely months had passed since then, and Monika and Georg had borne the consequences of that departure, facing extra financial pressure that meant working all hours, and being blacklisted from most social activities. Her life had become one long, monotonous routine of work, sleep and work again.
Her shift had just ended and she was eager to leave. So, declining the company of the other nurses, she took the stairs two at a time, her footsteps echoing on the cold, concrete steps. Raised voices from the foyer drifted up to meet her, stopping her in her stride.
What’s going on?
The hospital building, sterile and grey in every direction, had a solemnity about it that didn’t welcome disturbance or discord. Curious as to the reason behind such an aberration, she bounded down the stairway to see a frenzied horde of would-be patients, cheering and jumping for joy. Exuberance invaded the vast, clinical-looking space, speckling it with colour and emotion as tear-stained faces smiled at her. Some punched the air while others roared with delight and madly waved faded, frayed flags as young, half-smiling children gawked at the excessive high-spirits of their elders.
Monica watched on, open-mouthed, from the bottom step.
“Great news, isn’t it?” her colleague, Andreas, shouted to her over the hubbub.
“What is? I’ve just finished my shift to find everyone has gone crazy. What’s happened?”
“The border … it’s to be opened.”
“What? When? For how long?” The words tumbled from her lips, each question drenched in uncertainty.
“Immediately and for good, it seems. They just announced it on the radio.” Wrinkles formed at the corners of his eyes.
Monika hesitated as the sentence registered, then with a bold tugging of her belt, she fastened her raincoat and raced through the doors, all signs of fatigue and sorrow now gone as adrenalin pumped through her veins. “Goodbye Andreas. Goodbye job. Goodbye hospital.”
Outside, throngs of revellers filled the streets, pouring from the side alleys onto the main street, all heading in the same direction: Checkpoint Charlie. The noise was ear-splitting and the mood infectious. Monika, forcing her way through the ant-like procession, couldn’t contain her excitement and joined in with the rambunctious shouts of ‘Tor Auf!’ When a young, blond man, with the trademark moustache of his countrymen, picked her up and swung her around, she laughed loudly before he placed her carefully back on the ground and engulfed her slim body in a tight squeeze. Twinkling eyes, partially obscured by an unruly fringe, and a humongous grin, together with raised, almost apologetic hands, made their impression on her long before his words did. “Sorry, Miss, but it’s such a wonderful time to be alive.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” She yelled to be heard over the torrent of calls to ‘open the gate’. Even from this distance, some 200 metres from the checkpoint, the tidal wave of voices would be heard. The young man extended his hand in the form of an invitation.
“Sorry, but I have other plans.” She gave a throaty chuckle. Indeed I do.
With a shrug and a wave, he continued on his path, immediately caught up in the celebrations.
She slipped through the crowd, her focus restored, and headed in the opposite direction. The side streets emptied as she took a brief detour and returned to the flat she shared with Georg.
In her bedroom, she reached for the tattered shoebox atop her wardrobe and placed it with great care onto her dressing table. Her fingers trembled as she removed the string-wrapped lid and pulled out her treasured stash of family photographs and letters, clasping the bundle to her heart with a sigh. Vati, We’re coming.
From Georg’s room, she fetched a black, chunky-knit sweater, a grey woollen scarf and matching gloves and shoved them into a leather holdall, on top of her own garments, her prized letter collection and a small bottle of her late mother’s Eau de Cologne, from which she’d already sprayed a light mist onto her wrists. Loosening her long, black hair from its restrictive, hospital-regulation bun, she finger-combed the thick tresses before gathering them loosely into a chic French plait. “Hm, that’s better. Paris, here I come,” she giggled at her reflection then tied a chequered, silk scarf around her neck, tucking the loose ends underneath her collar and exited the building. “Goodbye apartment.”
On the street, the clamouring continued to echo, saturating the vacant buildings in a newfound hope. Her head high, and with a definite spring in her step, she wove her way to the Oberbaumbrücke, where Georg, a customs guard, was on duty. Softly humming to herself, she hoped he would appreciate the warm clothing for their imminent journey. He’d been short with her lately, snapping at her for no apparent reason. She’d even caught him holding a lit match beneath the last letter she had received from their father. When she challenged him, his stonewalled her, giving an extra long nonsensical speech about foreign mail being used against them.
At the checkpoint, a ruckus had developed among the guards and a handful of angry civilians, demanding to be allowed across the border. Georg had never seen so many of his fellow countrymen on the bridge before, pedestrian access was confined to only West German travellers. Hostilities intensified at an alarming rate, yet despite fearing the consequences, Georg stepped forward to intervene. His attempts to ease the tension were ignored, as the argument exploded into a riot of fierce attacks, knocking him to the ground several times before he dashed for the safety of the guardhouse.
“It was on the radio that the borders would be open immediately,” said a tall, middle-aged man dodging the fracas to confront the officer-in-charge.
“We wait,” barked the officer. “WE WAIT!”
The crowd quietened awhile. Hushed voices collaborated only a few feet away from the guards, then the crowd separated allowing their spokesman through. The same lofty gentleman, dressed in a business-like suit in contrast to his fellow dissidents in their heavy, winter coats, cleared his throat and directed his statement once more to the officer-in-charge.
“You have no right to stop us any longer. Open the gate. Tor Auf! Tor Auf!”
The people followed his example and the chanting increased in volume and speed until its short, sharp sound mirrored a military drumbeat, drowning out all other voices and calls for calm. The officer-in-charge dashed to the guardhouse, yanked the telephone from the wall and jabbed at it, muttering something to Georg who fled the hut and joined his colleagues, now linking arms to prevent people from getting through until the order was made official. Bearing hammers and pickaxes, some men broke through to strike at the wall, knocking huge chunks out of the graffiti-covered concrete. Shards splattered around, one hit Georg just above his left eye, causing a trickle of blood to stain his cheek.
Monika had spotted her brother running back to the guards and forced her way through the swarm of bodies, ducking beneath flailing arms of the red-faced, raging masses, their number multiplying by the minute. She saw Georg in the line up and ran to him, dismayed at his bloodied face.
Georg struggled to free himself from the man-made barrier. “It’s my sister, let me talk to her,” he shrieked, but his colleagues held him firm.
The officer-in-charge returned, his demeanour that of a defeated man now questioning his own place in this new regime. “Open the gate!” he ordered, resulting in cheers aplenty from the crowd who coaxed the bewildered guards towards the gate. Amid the now good-natured jostling and clapping, the barrier rose and eager bodies rushed forward.
Monika ran to Georg, her hand raised to wipe away the blood. “Come, Georg, we can leave now. We can join Vati, at last,” she said, blinking rapidly.
Georg stared at her, his expression pained. “I can’t go, Monika. My place is here.”
“B-b-but, we’ve been waiting for this day. We promised them. We said … when the time came, we’d join them, Georg! You know we did!”
Georg looked away.
Monika reached for his chin, and turned his face to hers. “Why, Georg? Why?” Tears welled in her eyes and she gulped back the sobs forming in her throat.
“I never thought this would happen, Monika. I thought we’d be happy here, forever, just us.”
“But you knew how I always wanted to visit Paris with Lisabet, to sample a Berliner Weisse with Waldmeister and taste exotic foods, to attend a live Madonna concert and dance until dawn. Come on, Georg.” Monika bounced on her toes as the details of her memorised wish-list rushed from her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Monika, I can’t come with you. But you can stay here.” His eyes pleaded with her, “You have me and your job. You love being a nurse. Don’t believe all they say about the West. We can be happy here. You and I”
Monika dropped her hand from his face and lowered her gaze. “You said we would leave when we got the chance. Vati almost died last year to get away; he and Lisabet are waiting for us. You know they are.”
“I’m sorry.” He began to walk away, his shoulders hunched..
Monika watched him, “Wait!”
He stopped and faced her.
“Just tell me why, Georg. Why did you promise to take me to Vati if you had no intention …?” She leaned forwards, making direct eye contact with him.
Georg turned again. “Because he’s not my father. He took mine from me. I wanted to take something from him.” Georg spat the words out.
“What? Georg, no! You’re wrong.”
“Mutti told me everything. She made me swear not to tell you. But you should know what a selfish monster he is.”
“Georg! You’re mistaken.”
“No, Monika, I’m not. Your precious father reported mine to the Stasi when I was three, claiming he was a Western spy. They shot him.” His icy stare made her shiver and she pulled her coat tighter around her petite frame, numb from the cold wind blowing in across the River Spree and the ache now residing in her heart.
“Then, Vati,” he sneered, “your dear, beloved Vati moved in on and married my mother. Soon after, you and Lisabet came along. He gave me his name, but he never loved me. I was in the way then. He won’t want me there now. ”
“Georg, I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. See, here’s my passport. I changed my name back when I was eighteen. I want nothing to do with him. Do you think they’d let me be a guard with his name? Even when he’s not here, his very existence ruins my life.” He flung his documents at her.
Monika flicked through the pages until she came across the relevant entry. The written confirmation stole her breath momentarily and she had to gulp in a lungful of air before regaining her composure. “Georg, you were ready to leave, last year. We all were, if it hadn’t been for that infection …”
His chin dipped as his gaze fell away from hers, “I faked that too: The guys at work gave me some stuff to bring on that coughing fit and make it look genuine, even to you.”
Monika staggered towards him, frown lines breeding across her brow.
He stepped back, shunning her advances, a move that halted her progress and she stood rooted to the spot, processing his revelations. Time lost all meaning and despite the mania surrounding them, the only sound she recognised was the thumping of her chest.
Unwilling to accept defeat, she threw her hands in the air. “I don’t care about any of that. We’re family. You, Lisabet and I, we can be happy together in the West. Lisabet so longs to see her darling big brother again. You know she does. I have her letters with me.” She rummaged through her bag and held them out to him.
He shook his head. Under the glimmer of the lamplights, Monika saw tears glistening on his cheeks.
Moments passed and Georg approached her, “Monika, please stay. Don’t you leave me too.” He searched her face for reassurance. The creased brow, the sad, yet hopeful, eyes, revealed her decision.
“You know I have to go, don’t you?”
He closed his eyes tightly, as though blocking out the inevitability.
Feigning enthusiasm, Monika reached out her hand, “At least give me a hug. Tell me you’ll visit. Or that Lisabet and I can visit you, when everything has settled. Don’t let this be our final goodbye, Georg.”
His heavy footsteps broke the silence that lingered between them, as he sloped over to her, took the proffered passport from her shaky grasp and pulled her into a warm, teary embrace.
She whispered in his ear, “Bis bald, Georg. See you soon. Promise me.”
He withdrew and nodded, before gesturing for her to join the queue, a weak smile forcing its way across his bloody, tear-stained face.
As she passed through the checkpoint, she turned and waved, “Goodbye, Georg. Auf Wiedersehen.”