5,343 words – approx. 18 minutes
The problem, Laura told herself firmly, was that she hadn’t had a holiday in years. For several months she had been feeling a little listless, somewhat uninterested – nothing alarming, but disorientating nonetheless, as if she had shifted very slightly out of her skin. She had tried returning to the activities commonly prescribed for such conditions, which she had some time ago allowed to lapse: yoga, light exercise, meditation. But these only required more entries in her already-crammed moleskine diary, and added to the bustling crowd of appointments, case histories, and the names of people and their pets she needed to remember.
Nick, at first, was unconvinced by this new diagnosis. “What about those weekends in Weymouth?”
“Oh please. I mean a proper holiday, not two nights in a B&B. Jav can look after the surgery.”
Nick’s mouth twisted into a noncommittal knot. But through the week he became less hostile to the idea, and on Sunday, ladling pancake batter into the pan, he announced his conversion. “Guess what,” he said to Laura, who was impatiently eating blueberries from the tub on the counter.
“We’re going to Berlin! I’ve got a schoolfriend there I’ve not seen in ages, and you said you wanted to get away.”
Laura didn’t ask if he’d already booked the flights. He had given up so much for her, quitting his job to help her set up the surgery, and dealing with the financial side while she spent long days in the back room, treating animals of all kinds on the stainless steel table. He deserved a break as much as she did – and why not Berlin? She slipped her arms around his waist and nestled her chin on his shoulder as the pancake mix bubbled and thickened.
Until that point, Laura’s only knowledge of German was a handful of immigrant words – zeitgeist, schadenfreude – and a single phrase: ich liebe dich. The latter she had learnt from a card Javinder had given her, which read: “Life is short, so tell people you love them. But it is also confusing and terrifying, so shout it at them in German. Ich liebe dich!” Nick wouldn’t join in her efforts to learn the language – everyone there speaks English, he said – but Laura was appalled by the idea of being the stereotypical little Englander, and bought a ‘German for beginners’ book and CD that she studied religiously in the evenings and the rare gaps between patients.
She found that she took well to the rough scrape of the unfamiliar sounds and the rigidity of the grammar, and she was soon at least as confident as she had been of her schoolgirl French on her last trip abroad. More so, in fact, because then she had been limited to an ossified set of phrases, which meant she could request an ensuite double room on the second floor, but not ask how regularly the trains ran between the airport and the town she and her friends had stayed in. Even when a word or phrase leapt into your mind, it could be wrong; you might think you’d found the right words, but they were just ones you’d been looking for some other time. In contrast her stunted German was more malleable, and could be rearranged into new meanings, repositioned at will, like jigsaw pieces that could form different pictures depending on how you connected them.
As the departure date approached Laura realised that she knew very little about Jack, Nick’s friend in Berlin who was also, it turned out, to be their host. “Did you say you went to school with him?” she asked, a few days before their flight.
“Yeah, he’s a translator, went there after graduating and never came back. I’ve visited him a few times, did I never tell you?”
He hadn’t. Further questioning revealed that Nick had been out there three times, all before he met Laura, and each time in a different place: once in a Soviet block in the old East, then in a flat with a balcony where the nearby church did sonographic battle with the neighbours’ music in the courtyard, and finally in a poky one-room apartment that stank of bacon, even though neither Jack nor his then-girlfriend ate any (the smell, they said, put them off). “I hope he’s settled down a bit now!” said Laura when Nick had finished, her laugh not quite covering the sharp point of the statement. Nick said nothing. “Really?” she said to his silence as dismay cloaked her face. “We’re spending the week with some itinerant bachelor you barely know? Oh fucking hell, Nick!” She stormed upstairs, ignoring his pleas that he’d sort it, that it would be alright, and slammed the door.
Scheisse. That was another word she knew.
It turned out fine in the end. An hour or so later Nick knocked sheepishly on the bedroom door. There had been a mix-up, apparently: Jack had thought they wanted to house-sit, so would be in Brussels while they were there. They’d have the flat to themselves.
“Okay.” Laura’s anger had long since soaked into her mood, and her voice was flat. Nick sat down next to her on the bed. The mattress, a wedding gift from her parents, creaked.
“To be honest, I’m quite glad he won’t be there. He didn’t sound like I remembered on the phone.” He had a new laugh.” A new laugh. How did that happen, wondered Laura. Was it something you picked up, like a shell from the beach? Or something you worked on? (Why would you do that?) “Laura?” Nick was looking straight at her now, and holding her shoulder with his right hand. “Alright?”
Laura nodded. It wasn’t quite an apology, but it was close, and there came a point when close blurred into the real thing. Nick kissed her cheek and left the room, and it was only then that she wondered what it was that Jack had been laughing about.
The night before they flew, Laura insisted on emptying her hand luggage onto the living room floor. Old train tickets, pens, unread copies of the Big Issue, and a blue poncho still in its bag – where had that come from? – scattered across the carpet like leaves on an autumn pavement.
“What on earth are you doing?” asked Nick when he came in to find Laura shaking out her bag.
“You can’t take liquids on the flight,” she said, triumphantly holding up a half-full bottle of water.
“That’s why they have the security gates,” replied Nick. Laura just ignored him and thrust her hands into the side pockets as if they might contain stinging nettles that had to grasped. Nick shrugged and went back upstairs. It was ten more minutes before Laura was satisfied that no bottles, tubs, or cans remained hidden. Nick might not appreciate it, she thought, but that was a lack of imagination. She could vividly picture the chaos in miniature of a misplaced aerosol: the flash of the x-ray machine, the exasperated looks from the staff, faces registering none of the worry that had seeded deep within them (“Idiot terrorists,” she’d heard someone joke on an airport documentary once. “Can’t they read the instructions?”). Then there would be the humiliation of unpacking her bags, her magazines, rice snacks, sanitary pads – private things – in front of everyone, while she held up the line.
They had to stand with their liquid-free bags on the train, a reassuring inconvenience that made Laura feel like she was going to work rather than on her first holiday for nearly a decade. The cheap flights were early in the morning, so they would be at the airport overnight, just as she had been last time. Then, the five of them had determinedly stayed awake, fuelled by caffeine and sparky excitement, but now she was looking forward to some snatched sleep in the stiff departure lounge seats that seemed designed for some other activity than sitting entirely.
At three o’clock she woke, her neck rigid from the unfamiliar position. Nick wasn’t there; he’d wandered off, and taken his hand luggage. She stretched and went to queue for a coffee. The menus on the wall of each kiosk were so small that you had to get close to peer at them, and then you were already there so you might as well pay seven pounds for a bagel and a latte. But while she waited she changed her mind, and when she went back to where she’d been sat there was a young man there. She thought about saying something, then decided against it. You never knew how people might react – they were like dogs in that way.
The airport was waking up now. A bustle of people wandered through, blearily eating flat croissants. Some still wore travel pillows around their necks. Lights came on around the necklaces in the jewellery stands, making her think of minerals in a museum, or an aquarium fishtank.
Nick reappeared: “We’re ready to board.” Streams of people were moving now, like iron filings to a magnet. Laura dug her hand into her pocket, feeling the reassuring shape of her passport. Last time she had clutched it throughout like an amulet, ready to show it to anyone who asked. “Do you need this?” she’d said several times, to the woman at the check-in counter, the man directing the queues, even the flight attendant, anxious to prove that she too belonged there, among the men in shorts and socks and the girls in sunglasses drinking midday vodkas.
(No, that wasn’t right. The outward flight had been in the morning; it was the return leg that had been in the middle of the day.)
They sat in the boarding area as the priority boarders filed in first, heads held high, unrepentant. A couple next to them were filling the time by reading medical textbooks, the man combining this with listening to music that leaked from the earphones buried deep in his ears.
Nick wouldn’t join the queue until almost all the passengers had crossed the tarmac to the white steps; they had their allocated seats, so why wait in line? Their side of the aisle was a two, and Nick let Laura squeeze past him to take the window seat. This looked like a kind, thoughtful gesture, but Laura, with her years of experience of both sides of this particular worn-down coin, knew differently. The primary, even sole purpose of this awkward manoeuvre was to give Nick the ability to step out mid-flight and have a quiet, sharp word with the family across the aisle a few rows forward, the family whose child was repeatedly lowering and raising the screeching table tray – a word she would otherwise prevent him from having.
She’d sat by the window eight years ago as well. There had been a mark on the glass, and she had reached for it, but another pane she hadn’t seen was in the way. Her finger banged against it, as if she was testing it, considering breaking out. When they’d taken off the plastic of her water bottle – this was before the new security measures – had sucked in, like in a horror movie where things come alive.
They were yet to take off. A small crowd of air crew gathered at the front of the plane; perhaps someone was unwell. Laura noticed the shriek of the table tray had stopped. The people in the seats directly in front of Laura and Nick took this as an opportunity to get to know each other. Laura tuned into their voices like a radio dial.
“Where do you work?”
“I work in retail. For Next.”
“One of my tops is from Next – I was very impressed with it.”
The man who worked for Next took the compliment with grace, and Laura’s attention drifted across the aisle, although not before she noticed that the safety notice stuck to the back of the seat was branded with the airline’s bright logo. The couple with the medical textbooks were now reading a newspaper together. From the corner of her eye Laura could see if was a story about a child with incredible muscles, like a bodybuilder. In her limited vision he looked like the Michelin Man, or one of those obese 13-year-olds you saw on the news sometimes. “Weird,” said the man, and for some reason – no reason at all, really – Laura found this very funny, and had to stifle her laughter.
A whisper reached them that the hold-up was caused by someone who had dislocated her shoulder when putting her bag in the overhead locker. The captain apologised for the late departure, although it wasn’t his fault, and assured them they would be moving soon. Laura strained to see the woman, pale and disoriented, being escorted from the flight.
The sea, as they rose above it, looked wrinkled, like the soft aging skin of a dark blue balloon. And then they passed through the layer of cloud to a new, Arctic landscape. “They look like mushroom caps,” said Nick. No, no, ice floes! thought Laura, but said nothing.
For the first three days of the holiday she felt gluey and washed out. It was as though she hadn’t woken up properly, as if a weekday without operations, injections, and paperwork could only be due to illness, her body responding accordingly.
“What are you doing?” called Nick, to where she was, for the first time that week, logging in to her emails. It was her magazine that did it – out here in the Berlin heat words could look very different. They could spark all sorts of thoughts.
“Nothing,” she replied as the tired relief of her inbox rushed through her, caffeinating her in a way her milchkaffee had yet to near. If he’d been listening, he might have noticed her response was too quick, the discordant guilt, and guessed that her muscle memory was flying her fingers over the screen to allow her to remotely access her work. But he was just lying there reading the one book he’d brought with him, shifting position constantly. At the moment he was on his back, holding the paperback away from his face, sacrificing comfort to block out the sun. She could see his face with its little pine-needle moustache. When he’d grown it she’d teased him – but that was two years ago, and she’d long since stopped mentioning it.
She’d had to persuade Nick to let her bring the iPad, that it would give her something to do and take up less space than the books, games, and boredom she would otherwise pack. You could always get round Nick by showing how you’d save him money – and luggage charges were so high these days. It was the accountant in him. She had taken books to France, like bricks in her luggage. Short stories mostly. You knew where you were with short stories. If you lost the thread you could just start a new one, rather than hoping the author would provide a clumsy reminder and that no-one would ask you what you thought of it.
Back then they’d had no internet; instead they had been like slugs, lounging around and showering only every other day. In the morning they’d dragged a long-handled net through the pool to catch the leaves and twigs, the natural debris that otherwise would clog the filters.
Her bookmark on that trip was one she’d found tucked inside a now-forgotten novel at the local library’s book exchange: a coloured-in outline of a muscular man with DADDY written in large bubble letters. While her friends were seeing who could stay underwater the longest or padding wetly poolside to fetch another beer, she read, feeling somehow guilty for preferring the shade to the shimmering pool.
Her friends were uncomplicated, with wholehearted delight at the pool and the cool stone of the house. She, by contrast, was half-hearted, or less. Part-hearted. But their enthusiasm was infectious, and she managed a pale imitation, like the weak strain of a disease after an inoculation.
More things she remembered: there had been a duck, which they’d named Confit then felt bad about; and a notepad on which the first awake would scribble to say they’d gone to the boucherie. They ate the croissants shamelessly, adding butter to the already all-butter pastry without alarm. On the last day the cord on the pool cover, frayed from use, broke, and they worried about their deposit, even though it hadn’t been their fault, not really.
The two holidays were alike in only the most superficial ways – the clean, swept streets, the marvel of menus with unfamiliar terms for familiar things (surely Zwiebeln, Erdbeer and Hähnchen were politicians, not ingredients), or the stringy black men who ranged the sun-stricken streets offering – in Berlin, at least – Sonnenkreme! Sonnenkreme!
France, though, had been more uptight about the spread of English, unlike Germany, where you could find kaffee to go and take up exhortations to Explore Berlin on bike!. Shop assistants spoke English without resentment, even though Laura didn’t want them to – but the more she tried to stagger through an interaction with her lumpen vocabulary, the more kindly they showed their prowess.
In the first few days (what day was it?) they saw the remains of the Wall and refused to buy a souvenir piece. “They’ve been selling this for twenty-five years now. It’s just some bits of rubble from someone’s garden,” Nick complained. They also went to the Jewish Memorial Museum, throwing looks at the teenagers taking selfies on the plinths outside, and shared an audio tour. “I like that they call them people,” said Laura at one point, reading the translated text by an exhibit. Next to them an old man in a heavy coat coughed and muttered: “Because being a Jew is not enough?” They both pretended not to hear; that hadn’t been what she meant.
Perhaps it was the helpless shame of having been so misunderstood, perhaps the rare, enveloping heat that promised a thunderstorm that never came, but Laura was restless that night. She wanted to go for a walk, but the only route she knew was to the U-Bahn station, so she went there and back, feeling only a little reassured by the ghostly HSBC on the corner. This wasn’t her city; she didn’t know what belonged, what was memorial and what was graffiti. The following day, over salami and bitter rye bread, she suggested to Nick that they do something different – she’d had enough of culture, needed something simpler. He seemed to have adapted better to the new environment; she’d caught him leaving beer bottles on the street.
“Why are you doing that?” she’d asked.
“For the hobos.” The worded sounded strange from his mouth.
“But they’re empty.”
“They’ll collect them for the pfand.” This hadn’t been on her CD. “Pfand,” he explained. “You take the bottle to recycling and you get 25c or whatever. They’ll be gone by the morning, watch.” He has right: the next day, she saw with a tug of disappointment that they were no longer there.
There were table tennis tables throughout the city’s parks, so they bought a cheap bat and ball set and started playing. The table was exposed, but the only other one nearby was occupied by young men sitting and smoking, and neither Laura or Nick were in confrontational mood, especially in a foreign language.
They played unseriously. Laura thought she was slightly behind, but it was hard to tell: if the ball hit the metal net or overshot the edge they’d just carry on, unless it came to a stop in the sand that surrounded the table, in which case someone would have to serve. The wind that breezed through added an element of chance to their already casual game; it could drop the ball suddenly short so it rolled off the tip of the paddle, or send a well-aimed shot swirling wildly off the table’s edge.
A game so dependent on chance had a short life, and after an hour or so their interest had dwindled. They wandered through a park and came across what seemed to be a large semi-amphitheatre around which a crowd had gathered. Sweating from their exertions, and curious, they made their way over.
As they neared they heard the sound of a woman singing. The crowd was larger than it had first appeared; up the high, full banks of the amphitheatre’s seated side, people scratched fly-bitten shoulders, or fanned themselves with newspaper, or drank from bottled beer. The strange, separate rhythms of two hundred people in the same place. The singer finished and they applauded, their hands fluttering like birds set free among them.
She left the stage, and Laura took the opportunity to weave her way nearer, murmuring placatory Entschuldigungs as she did so. There was a man giving out and collecting small strips of paper, and he took to the microphone to announce the next act. “Oh no,” groaned Nick, who’d caught up to Laura. It took her a moment to realise the source of his exasperation: they had stumbled across some form of open-air karaoke. The crowd was right up against the stage, and without warning a girl of about ten clambered up just as the next performer came on to supportive applause. The girl began to wander around the stage – allowed to do so in a way a young boy couldn’t. Laura kept watching her as the act began (badly out of tune, and too close to the microphone). The girl clamped her hands to her ears, at first in a genuine effort to prevent the noise – then, when she noticed the indulgent attention it awarded her, more deliberately, sticking out her elbows and wheeling around like a plane. She was joined in this by a couple more tearaway girls, and they circled round the stage, the real show to themselves.
“I don’t know why you say German children are so well-behaved.” The voice came from behind them, a woman’s voice, wry and worn. Laura processed it awkwardly, jaggedly, and with a discomfort similar to a lump in her throat she realised she had no idea whether the sentence had been spoken in English or German. It made less sense in German – but she had heard no-one else speaking English in reply. And it could have been a German speaking to a foreigner, or a foreigner speaking in German.
She felt dizzy.
“Are you alright?” asked Nick, the sudden concern creasing his face.
“Just hungry. What time is it?”
Nick checked his watch. “Nearly two!”
“Well, no wonder then,” she forced a smile and linked her arm into his. They eased their way out through the crowd, which parted without argument. Whether it was the daylight or some Germanic characteristic she couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Laura unlike any crowd she’d known in England, which were all elbows and frowns.
The supermarket – if that was the right word, it was really somewhere between that and a corner shop – was cool compared to the heat of the park. Outside, sticky fruit-filled pastries lingered behind ineffectual protective plastic. Wasps burrowed into the Danish.
Nick picked up the lunch items (brötchen, käse, and salami) while Laura grabbed a comb, her own having been lost somewhere in the apartment, and they made their way to the counter. There were no shortcuts to be had; the aisles were laid out so you had to wind your way around each of them, past the unfamiliar brands of tomato sauce and cereal. They had seen no-one else in the shop, but when they reached the counter an old woman was unloading her basket onto the weary conveyor belt. The checkout assistant, a dull-eyed, brown-haired girl, was having trouble with the machine. In accusatory green letter its display flashed: Kunde könnte nicht gerettet worden. Laura was trying to work out what this meant, reading it aloud in her juddering German, when a voice startled her.
“Does it hurt your throat to talk like that?” Laura turned to see a tall man with a small, round mouth looking at her. He seemed clean and reasonably dressed, and a quick glance confirmed that his shopping was respectable: eggs, cheese, and a jar of Bolognese sauce.
“No, not really,” she said with a little laugh. He had spoken in English so she did too, not wanting to be in unfamiliar territory with this stranger.
“It must be painful to speak so deeply.” He grabbed at his Adam’s apple with his thumb and middle finger to illustrate the point. She felt a little shiver and turned to Nick for help. He was determinedly looking at the cashier; she couldn’t catch his eye. Meanwhile the round-mouthed man continued in a light and not unpleasant tone that was all the more unsettling for it. Here was someone for whom the normal rules of conversation didn’t apply. It was like talking to someone who, quite un-self-consciously, believes that there is a global conspiracy for a particular group to control the world: there would somehow be a sinister undercurrent, whether the topic at hand was baseball, literature, or in this case, the mysteries of language.
“I’m so fascinated by different languages,” he continued. His English was very good for a madman. Laura made a noncommittal noise and angled herself away, still hoping he might suddenly realise that it would only be polite to stop talking.
“You know, in Berlin people talk to each other.” He said this in the same conversational tone as before, but the hint of a threat, of a violation that implied retribution, hummed through the words. If only the cashier would hurry! No-one else was paying them any attention, as if they were in a TV show where their dialogue was unnaturally loud for the audience’s benefit but the extras were oblivious. “It’s not like you’re in Munich.” Again Laura looked towards Nick, hoping that she could somehow communicate her situation to him, but he continued to stare steadfastedly ahead. The woman in front of them was buying five huge cartons of eggs, and taking her time about it.
“I can see you looking away from me,” the man said. Laura could feel the fluttering in her chest. The woman had finally paid, in maddeningly small coins, and they were next. Nick glanced at Laura as they moved towards the cashier. “And your looks at each other. You should at least wait until you are outside to do that.” This was partly advice and partly admonishment, and he’d seen through their attempts at subtlety with the matter-of-factness of a child. Laura wanted nothing more than to slap a ten Euro note on the counter, forget the change, and get out.
They’d planned to buy their things separately – Nick preferred to keep their expenditures distinct. But Laura felt in her pocket for her purse and discovered she had left her money at the apartment, so Nick paid for both. He was, she knew, keeping a careful mental note of the value of her debt.
“Go on, run from the crazy guy,” the man called after them as they left. They weren’t running, quite. Once they were out of sight of the shop Laura and Nick exchanged looks, and with false bravado Nick said, “Gaw, he was a bit weird!” She wasn’t sure about Nick, but Laura’s heart was hammering now from the fear and the pace. Nick looked over his shoulder. “He’s coming, he’s running!” Laura thought he might have been joking, but at the same time her mind skipped ahead to a television news story where this scene formed part of the setup before the… robbery? Assault? Murder? She ran brazenly through the extremes as she turned. If he was following, she didn’t want to be surprised. She didn’t want the first she knew of it to be the pinch of a hand around her neck.
She jolted when she saw him running towards them, his shopping bag swinging from his hand.
“I saw you at the checkout, looking at each other. At least wait until you’ve gone to do that.” He stopped, hands on his knees and panting. He seemed genuinely hurt by their reaction, and Laura felt guilty. She and Nick would later convince themselves that he was mad, and had ignored all social convention, and eventually it would become a story to bring out after a few drinks: remember that guy in the shop in Berlin? But at that moment Laura was swallowed by the feeling she had done him a great injustice.
“And I saw you pay together, to get out more quickly.”
“No, no, that wasn’t anything,” said Nick.
“Ah, not that one? Okay.” Who was this man who so easily accepted their explanations with the trust of a kitten brought in for its spaying?
“We have to turn this way,” said Laura. This was also true; she could not have told a lie just then.
“Bye,” said Nick. Laura didn’t dare to check back until they were through the gate and it had closed behind them, when Nick admitted he’d expected to see the man still following them. She joked that he might be waiting at the apartment door, the fear already receding to the chill of a childish nightmare. She strode, confident but tense, into the empty flat, and once they had wordlessly satisfied themselves of its safety, that it had not been breached, they settled down to eat.
After twenty minutes standing at the departure gate, the passengers were restless. There were no officials to be seen, and the sight of their plane abandoned through the glass only added to the frustration.
“They’ve all disappeared, the cowards,” said Nick. He was peering over the heads of passengers behind them, as if the sheer force of Being Nick could have a sheepish official stride over to them and sort things out. A fly landed on Laura’s arm. She twitched to shake it off, but it didn’t react (fearless!), so she blew it away instead.
Laura closed her eyes. On a sweltering train platform in France she had experienced a similar sense of helplessness, as the man at the station tried valiantly to explain in his scraps of English that their train had been cancelled due to a strike. They had stood around, fanning themselves with their now-useless tickets and soothing each other with talk of what the real time was, the time back home. Then he had rapped on the window of his booth to get their attention and explained, just about, that there would be a train they could get in just a few minutes from platform one. But when they reached platform one there was no train, and they flitted from platform to platform by way of the little subway, increasingly panicked like trapped wasps under a glass. When the train finally arrived – on platform one – they felt bad, because it was like they trusted the man at the station. Or maybe they just hadn’t understood him. That was better.
She opened her eyes when the crowd’s babble quietened. Someone had news. Nick craned his neck to see. They couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the relieved exhalations told them what they needed to hear.
On board, passengers clutched the odd combinations they’d bought in the duty-free: Pringles and Nutella, Hugo Boss perfume and an Ampelmann necklace, souvenirs of their temporary VAT-exempt madness. Towards the end of the flight, one of the cabin crew walked through the plane collecting in-flight magazines to reuse. Some people gave him little bags of rubbish they’d collected as well, which wasn’t really what he was there for, but he didn’t seem to mind taking them. He seemed used to it. He reached Laura’s row and she wanted to explain that she understood, but as he walked past her the words wouldn’t come, and she had to hand over her unread copy in silence, albeit with a smile.