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General

"You've changed."

"Haven't you?"

I answered her, I suppose, with my silence. We carried on walking through the anonymous, half-empty streets, the pavements still glistening with the early evening rain, the air damp rather than the cold I had been expecting, the only iciness in the atmosphere generated by the two of us. I looked up at the stars for guidance. The stars looked down at me disdainfully. A few moments earlier, as we had crossed the street coming out of the restaurant, I had gone to put my arm around her. She hadn't exactly shrugged me off, but I didn't need to be Desmond Morris to have understood her body language. Now, we were walking a good foot apart, avoiding any chance of physical contact, our conversation as awkward and stilted as a hospital visit. You would have thought that we came from opposite sides of the planet, rather than just Europe.

The snow was whipping into our faces, like jets of iced water from a shower, our cheeks tingling, our noses sniffling, our fingers rendered arthritic by the cold, even through the best fur-lined gloves that KaDeWe could supply. I kissed away a snowflake from the end of her eyelashes, and snuggling up as close as we could, we both tried desperately not to blink as the camera flashed against the blue-black sky. The taxi driver shook his head, as if to confirm his earlier suspicions that we were both absolutely mad, and gestured that he was going back to his cab, and that he must have been crazy himself to have volunteered to get out to take our photograph. But there was a hint of a smile on his face, as if he could just about remember what it was like to be young.

With our teeth chattering and our breath freezing in the air the moment it left our lips, we decided he might be doing the sensible thing, and still holding hands and giggling like schoolchildren, scrambled down from the wooden platform and over towards the waiting taxi, its engine already running, the driver banging his hands together furiously, trying to get some feeling back into them. The wind seemed to be blowing straight in from the Russian steppes, and as we dived into the back seat, we both let out a sigh of relief, grateful for the respite from the raw night air, before the warmth from the cab started to bring on the inevitable pins and needles in our hands and feet.

Ever since, whenever anybody has asked me what is the coldest I have ever been, I always tell them March, 1989. Standing looking over the Berlin Wall. Sub-zero temperatures. A howling blizzard. Wishing I hadn't had that extra beer, wishing I'd brought something warmer with me than an overcoat that was only designed to keep out the British winter.

As the floodlit, spectral image of the Brandenburg Gate slowly disappeared from view through the rear window of the taxi, like a bad backdrop from an old spy movie, the driver swivelled round towards Katrina and asked her where we wanted to go next. My German wasn't brilliant, but it was good enough to be able to understand her reply.

When she had introduced herself on the stand that first morning, it had come as a pleasant surprise. Whenever you hired exhibition staff in the UK, you either ended up with 'resting' actresses or drippy PR girls. Katrina was different, a language student earning some extra money during the university holidays, who in addition to English and German, spoke fluent French, Russian and - unusually I thought at first - Czech.

I liked her straight away. She had a bright, bubbly personality, and put the customers at their ease from the moment they stepped on to the stand. The fact that she was young, pretty, and was shrink-wrapped into the tightest pair of jeans I think I had ever seen might also have had something to do with my appreciation, although at the time, the last thing I had on my mind was getting involved with anybody. I had just come out of a fairly heavy relationship. So too, I found out later, had she.

It all started innocently enough, with a drink to unwind one evening after the show, followed by dinner, a night club, a chaste goodnight kiss on the steps of her apartment block, and back to work as usual the following morning. We were simply enjoying each other's company. When the show finished at the end of the week however, I was glad that I had made arrangements in advance to stay on to do some sightseeing; I was even more delighted when she said she'd love to show me around.

The weather was against us, but huddling together against the ice and snow, we saw as much of the city as was possible in the space of a few days, old and new, culture and kitsch. Charlottenburg, the Reichstag, the Zoo, the Opera House, palaces and museums, bars and cafes, window-shopping on the Ku'damm, dinner at the Kempinski. All that, plus the crazy things: taking the elevator up to the top of the Radio Tower as it swayed in the teeth of a gale, the snow sheeting against it like a watch tower in a prisoner-of-war camp on some bleak Eastern fringe of the Reich; eating temple-numbing ice cream sundaes perched on a stool in Mövenpick’s, whilst the thermometer outside registered -15°C; and of course clambering up to have our picture taken on the top of the Wall, our faces frozen in the night, the harsh glare of the flashlight capturing our childish glee, the two of us with eyes only on each other, oblivious at the time to the stark power of the graffiti and the poignancy of the rows of white crosses a few feet below us.

It wasn't until I went over into East Berlin for the first time the following day that I found myself experiencing those kind of mixed emotions, the unexpected pleasure at discovering the city's rich cultural heritage tempered not just by the drabness of so much of what surrounded it, but by how uncomfortable our visit seemed to be making Katrina. When I had suggested the trip, she had appeared to be all in favour of the idea. Perhaps I didn't know her well enough at the time to realise that she had been putting on a brave face. But once there, seeing how subdued she had become, I could have kicked myself for my insensitivity.

Sitting in the lounge of the Grand Hotel on Unter den Linden, hands cupped around steaming mugs of hot chocolate, watching the snow hanging heavy on the bare branches of the lime trees, she explained that many West Berliners were overtaken by this strange sense of melancholy whenever they crossed over, and told me why, in her case, the feeling was even stronger. She was, it turned out, Czechoslovakian, born during the Prague Spring of '68. Just before the Russian tanks rolled into the city that August, her parents had fled to West Berlin, where, on account of her father's mixed nationality, they had all been able to secure West German passports. Her grandparents and many old family friends still lived in Prague, and she went back regularly, as free to travel behind the Iron Curtain as any Western citizen. But nothing could compensate for the sense of loss that she felt, nor disguise the sadness that she saw in the eyes of the people, whenever she returned. The wall was more than an ugly scar running through the city that she had come to know as home; it was a symbol, a reminder, of a system and a way of life that she despised, and which had been responsible for what she saw as the rape of her country.

Dabbing her eyes, trying to laugh it off, she apologised for going on so, for sounding so serious, for spoiling the day; I took her hand and told her not to be so silly, that it was obviously something she felt strongly about. I don't think I had ever held a political conviction in my life, and I found her passion, her pride in her country, incredibly moving. I helped her dry away her tears, brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, and leant over to kiss her. I almost told her that I loved her. Perhaps I should have done. It might have made all the difference.

I woke up on the sofa with a crick in my neck, my mouth dry, the rest of my senses still numbed by the alcohol from the night before. The blanket had slipped down onto the floor, but it wasn't really cold. Through a gap in the curtain I could see a slice of the dull grey sky, together with a thin film of drizzle, the sort that dampens your spirit as much as it does you. I could hear Katrina making coffee in the tiny kitchenette, and thought back, almost inevitably, to the same time the previous year, waking up in her arms, snug under the bedclothes, the ice forming patterns on the inside of the windows, the snow shrouding the streets outside. I had wanted to stay there forever.

I telephoned the airline and managed to switch my flight. There was one that evening. There hadn't seemed much point staying on as planned. We exchanged weak smiles over the breakfast table, sorry it had come to this. Katrina said that she didn't have to go into the university until the next day. Did I fancy a trip on the lake?

We caught the S-Bahn to Wannsee. The rain had stopped, and though there was no sign of a break in the clouds, it was mild enough for us to be able to walk around without wrapping up. I was glad. The heavy overcoat I had brought with me this time in anticipation of the snow had been an encumbrance all week; wearing it had made me feel hot, uncomfortable, even more irritable than I already was.

Wannsee had once been West Berlin's major breathing space, the lake and the wooded area around it providing just about the only escape within the enclave from the noise and crowds of the city. It looked a little sad now, in the half-light of a drab March afternoon, like a seaside resort out of season. But it was easy to imagine what it would have been like in the summer, the sun glinting off the water, the brightly-coloured paddle steamers plying the lake, sailing dinghies and windsurfers gliding over the flat, calm surface, children swimming, sun-lovers worshipping, couples strolling arm-in-arm along the shore.

Katrina said it was one of her favourite places. If we had had time last year, even with the weather, she would have loved to have brought me out here. She cast her eyes downwards guiltily, a little embarrassed, as if she had just mentioned somebody who had died.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Me, too," I smiled thinly.

Never go back. Isn't that what people say? That had been the problem. If I had have gone back, earlier, things might just have worked out. Perhaps we were both scared. Both afraid of making any sort of commitment. When we had met, each of us had been at our most vulnerable. Perhaps what we had enjoyed over those few days had been nothing more than a boost, a good way of restoring our confidence, arnica to rub on bruised emotions. A holiday romance, which had blossomed in the depths of a Berlin winter rather than on the beaches of Benidorm, but just as impermanent, as trivial, fun while it lasted but not to be taken too seriously.

When we had said goodbye after that first week together, we had tried to be rational about it. We had even agreed not to telephone or write for the first month, to give ourselves a chance to work out how we really felt about each other. A cooling-off period, if you like. Looking back, it was a stupid thing to do. Trying to treat love like buying timeshare. We should have had the courage of our convictions. When we finally did get in touch at the end of our self-imposed moratorium, nothing seemed to have changed. It had been wonderful to hear her voice. We both agreed that we felt just as strongly, that we had really missed each other, that we could make a go of it, despite the circumstances. We would continue to phone and write regularly, meet up again as soon as we could, spend the holidays together.

I don't know where the time slipped away to. It was almost as if my life was on fast-forward. I was given a promotion at work, which meant more money, but also more responsibility, longer hours, more travelling. Katrina had end-of-term exams, then decided to spend the summer in Prague visiting friends, relations. I suppose that if we had been determined enough, we would have overcome the obstacles: the distance, my job, her studies. I would have just dropped everything and hopped on a plane for a weekend, the way they do in the movies. But this was real life. Something always seemed to get in the way.

I remember the night the Wall came down. I was on the road, stuck in a hotel room, a TV dinner on my lap, watching the evening news. It was an incredible sight. The crowds. The atmosphere. The fireworks exploding against the November sky. People laughing, singing, hugging each other, tears filling their eyes. Parents, children, pensioners, students, all linking hands, a human chain breaching the wall, souvenir-hunters chipping away at the stonework like woodpeckers, a swaying mass of people, drunk with emotion, dancing on the grave of communism.

How I wanted to be there to share the moment with her. Fighting back the tears as much as if I had been German myself, I picked up the phone. I heard it continue ringing, shrill inside her empty flat. It was stupid of me, of course. She would have been out celebrating. I managed to get hold of her a few days later, and listened happily as she laughed, cried, babbled on down the line like a delirious child, about what everybody had done that night, how the parties didn't seem to have stopped since. And how it would now change everything, not just in Berlin, or in Germany, but across Europe. She said she had never been happier.

I brought up the subject of coming out to see her. What about Christmas, I suggested? It would be difficult, she explained. Her grandparents would now be coming from Prague. The house would be full. She wouldn't have much time. And then straight after the New Year she was into her last full term. She had her finals coming up. And I'd be out in March anyway for the exhibition, wouldn't I? She wasn't doing any agency work this year, she said, because of her exams, but we would still be able to spend some time together.

I glanced across at her, kneeling on a row of seats, elbows on the handrail, staring out across the lake. She was wearing jeans and an American college sweatshirt, her leather jacket draped casually over one shoulder like a hussar. Her hair was cut a little shorter, but other than that, she looked exactly the same as she had a year ago. The wide, slightly petulant mouth, the high Slavic cheekbones, and the almond-shaped eyes and slightly dark tint to the skin that hinted at some deeper, more mysterious ancestry, Armenian perhaps, or even gypsy. Maybe I had romanticised her too much, fallen in love with the idea of having this beautiful girlfriend waiting for me on the other side of Europe, enjoyed telling everybody how wonderful she was, dispelling all those myths about butch East European shot-putters.

We had seemed so close. Now, we were like strangers. Worse, in fact. At least strangers might have had something new to say to each other. We appeared to have said it all. Seeing her again, I had felt the same frisson, the same rush of adrenalin. It was almost as if the intervening year had been no more than a long weekend away from each other. But we had soon realised that whatever it was that we had had, it had gone. We had tried to articulate our feelings but had struggled to find the words. She had been in love with me, she thought, but it had been a long time apart. Things were different now. She was a year older, for one thing. She had grown up a lot, changed, met lots of new people. She too shrugged, admitting that she was confused, didn't know how she really felt about anything at the moment.

I went over and stood next to her, leaning against the handrail, and we watched the stars in silence as the backwash from the boat trailed away into the distance. The water was an opaque, gun-metal grey, as impenetrable as her thoughts, as depressing as mine. From my pocket, I took out an old East German coin I had been planning to keep as a souvenir, and tossed it into the water, fooling the birds which had been tracking the boat for just a second or two.

If I had been able to see my face in the murky depths, I am sure there might have been the hint of an ironic smile there, as I reflected on the fact that as one wall had come down, so another seemed to have gone up in its place.

July 19, 2020 18:01

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4 comments

Andrea Smith
12:17 Jul 31, 2020

Great details! I could really feel the blistering cold. Great read.

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Cypress Grey
00:42 Jul 30, 2020

Hi there, Paul! I'm coming in from the critique circle. You have a lovely, bittersweet story about young love here. As melancholy as the ending is, I'm sure many people can relate to drifting apart from someone who they were once close to. Even so, you managed to balance the bitter with the sweet quite well and I don't feel overwhelmed by the end. However, the beginning was a bit confusing and took a while before I had gotten the hang of the story. It feels like they were fighting against each other but made it up with no explanation of w...

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Paul Rouse
09:15 Jul 30, 2020

Hi. Thanks for your feedback and glad you enjoyed it. If you were a little confused, this is the fault of the Reedsy website layout! In the version I posted, at the end of the first paragraph (...rather than just Europe.) there should be a double space, to indicate that the first paragraph is set in the present day, and then the action flashes back to a year previously. The same happens later (in the scene where he wakes up on the sofa) as this again has flashed forward to the present day, not a year ago. Hope that helps!

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Cypress Grey
15:57 Jul 30, 2020

Ah, that makes more sense! Thank you for the clarification :)

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