September 2017 Competition Winners are:-
First Prize: Richard Johnson of Woking for
‘The Potter’s Field’
Second Prize: Ellen Evers of Congleton for
‘The Road Not Taken’
Third Prize: Catherine Hokin of Glasgow for
‘The Potter’s Field’
“Sorry misses,” the old miner surprises her gently holding her arm, “thou’s spent, nought more to do, best move on pet.” He writes a note, tenderly folding the paper into her hand. “Take this t’office, he nods toward a lighted brick building. Thou’ll need their pay. Colliery Under-Manager will sort it.”
She squints through the gathering gloom. Late in the year night came quickly, hardly a moment between sunlight, dusk and pitch-black. The pit-head’s quiet now, hushed, eerily still. No winding gear clanging, no boys shouting, no scurrying miners leaving or signing-on shift, just silence. Over four days and nights she’d kept vigil with other miners’ wives, mothers, daughters; it was two days since any of those interred, had been brought out alive.
Born and bred in the town, married young with bairns, she’d buried her parents and last born in the church-yard. Life was hard, wretched; but perhaps no more so, than in any other pit-village in Queen Victoria’s England. Here she’d lifelong friends. It was all she had; what next? Now perhaps, only Lucifer knew.
Facing her across the polished desk-top, he’s a deal older than her, but, she thought canny enough for his age. Not wearing a morning coat, just a three-piece russet tweed, white shirt, turned down collar and narrow blood-red silk ascot, didn’t he look more a game keeper, or poacher, than pen pushing management?
Fidgeting with the note, he studies her. Grubby, scrap of a creature, tall for a lass, but as spare as a pit mule, vulnerable but determined; he would’ve been surprised otherwise. Not young, nor old; under the coal clart she was appealing, bonny even. He was well used to dealing with newly widowed lasses, but this one troubled him, she felt different, heavens know why.
Looking at the note, then down at the colliery ledger on the desk in front of him, he speaks softly. “Your husband and son.” Glancing up, desperately trying to smile reassuringly. “I’m truly sorry; death’s so often the lot of a pitman’s wife....and mother,” he added, pausing, “You’ve other bairns?”
She looks away determined not to weep. “Daughters, eight and twelve, still in school; my son’s sixteen.... mine surveyor’s scholarship, in Newcastle.” Nervously she twists her dress’s frayed sleeve.
He withdraws three gold sovereigns from his desk’s drawer. “Fifteen florins each, wages owed. Compensation will be the same if inquiry proves them innocent.” Hastily adding, “Which it surely will. Make your mark please.” He turns the ledger around, passing it across the desk.“Does she sew your eldest daughter?”
“Aye, why? And I can sign my name, thanks very much”
Gathering his thoughts momentarily. “Dressmaker in town’s seeking keen lass. If she’s sharp, she’ll earn money.” He looks straight at her now. “Son’s school days are over, I’m afraid.” He reaches into his waistcoat pocket, withdrawing a small brass token. “Tell him to polish up pit boots.” He hands her the colliery-check, “and take this to shaft three, early shift six o’clock Monday.
Now she sobs, openly. “So, I’m too loose another to that confounded coal-face?”
Oh Lord, was he about to break his golden rule, to never become tangled with the widows and orphans of lost pit-men? For at this moment he felt genuine compassion, was he already enmeshed, taken even, with this lass? He hesitates in a few moments thought, then rises, moving around the desk and behind her. Placing his hand on her shoulder, he gives her his handkerchief. “Maybe there is away…to help.... to save your situation. A household arrangement, perhaps?”
Her sobbing slows and she looks up. “Oh aye, sir, what sort of ‘household arrangement’?”
“Lost my wife and daughter, I now find I’m in need of a new housekeeper. I’ve four bedrooms, space enough for a lass and her bairns. Gas, plumbing, inside lavvy. It’s a cold house without them,” he pauses, “as will yours be now. “
“Oh aye, inside privy?” she mocks him tenderly; then with honest curiosity. “And how come thee lost family sir?” She turns her head to his.
“Keighley typhoid epidemic, eighty-eight.”
She suddenly feels the bridge of sadness between them. “Oh my, so sorry; three years since, it still hurts?
“Oh aye, pain will burn till thou meet someone to dowse it. So, I’ve been told,” he answers quietly.
She narrows her eyes to study him more closely. He’s stocky, perhaps no more than three inches taller than her, straight backed, clear blue eyes, with a head of once fair hair, full moustache, and adjoining side whiskers. All now heavily flecked with silver. No beard though, jutting dimpled chin, and strong neck. It was a likeable countenance, could she abide it? Maybe. Aye she thought she could. At another time, in different place, the old devil could be, conceivably, beguiling. “Thee never found a woman who could....... sooth your aching?”
He turns his head away and shakes it, his hand still lightly on her shoulder. “Maybe one or two, but always rented by the hour.” He shrugs resignedly, and with a dry smile. “You see I still have expectations beyond doxies and dolly-mops.” He tenderly squeezes her shoulder.
His hand on her shoulder is reassuring, comforting, but slightly disturbing. For want of anything to say she asks, “Do thee always wear ratting suit at work, sir?”
“I do,” he says wryly, “Worked up from coal-face, passed managers’ ticket. Tweed was always Sunday best; cast an eye, wouldn’t I look daft in black with a winged collar and butterfly tie?”
She parts her lips in a smile.“Can’t say till I see thee in it.”
He nods, and in the moment, with a fingertip, he gently strokes the base of her neck. She shudders slightly. He fears her movement is a rejection, but hopes it’s not. It had been a long time since he’d so tenderly touched a lass. Were his wife and daughter looking down, scowling him? He felt no guilt though.
“Your housekeeper, what would be her situation and duties. What would she earn sir?” Her voice is steady, resolute now.
“Cooking, shopping, stitching, perhaps the craic of an evening, walkout on Sunday. No skivvying, mind. I have a girl in twice a week to wash and scrub. And there’s the rub bonny lass;” he pauses, “when she’s had time enough to consider the offer, don’t thee think a canny aspirant would name her own situation and wages? With perhaps agreement to the occasional additional”, he clears his throat, “domestic task?”
She catches her breath. “So, I’m to be an aspirant sir? A big word for a humble woman, I trust it means thee consider me suitable to be your housekeeper. And thee say gas and plumbing.” She gently mocked him again, “What ‘additional task….’has sir in mind? I trust it’s appropriate to a housekeeper’s position?”
He stares back at her without expression, but, she thought, perhaps his blue eyes twinkled and his neck flushed. “Be soothed bonny lass purely mutually agreed tasks. I’m no longer young……my needs are simple and scant”
Looking away, she shudders. She thought herself respectable, but she’d seen too many decent widows obliged to skivvy for others, forced to work the streets, condemned with their children to the workhouse, or worse still, found floating face down in the canal. Now she had a wake to organise, rent to find, daughters to feed, a son to send through college. Money would be scarce. She pauses for a moment’s thought. Sweet angels in heaven, yesterday’s gone, tomorrow, what? Well, didn’t she now have to think of her bairns and indeed her own dire situation?
She rises, turns, and tilts her head. She’s close to him now. There are beads of sweat on his temples and neck; making a faint dark ring around his shirt collar. His suit has the aroma of a wet dog; she smells coal dust; tobacco and ale on his breath. Surprisingly though it’s not unpleasant, just the honest tang of a working man. Oh yes, she thinks, you’re an old demon all right, but one to whom I could, perhaps, become very fond, a definite perchance at least.
She lowers her eyes and whispers, “Shame that such a strong man thinks his needs are so simple and… scant.” She pauses, he appeared not to react, she looks up; but wasn’t he trembling a little and his neck slightly more flushed? “Sir I have conditions. Thou’ll allow mean adequate period to grieve. I ask for a wage of thirty pounds a year all found for me and my family....Oh yes and please ask your girl to clean your suit. Also, Mister Colliery Under-Manager,” with set determination she narrows her eyes, peering at him. “Please don’t fence with your new housekeeper; in the eyes of the town she is a respectable woman and wishes to remain so. Let us say, for that, extra, agreed… domestic task, her price is straightforward......never again to want for ‘ought. And she’ll get her full compensation.”
He pauses, “Aye lass, agreed.” He squeezes her arm.
Still close to him her hand seeks his; into it she pressed the brass colliery-check, holding it a moment longer or perhaps wiser than necessary. On tip-toe now and more with relief than thought, she takes his face in her hands and gently kisses his cheek.
Surprised, once more his neck flushes. “Did thee mean that lass?”
She pauses momentarily before replying. “Aye, I did sir.” Coyly she glances away; perhaps now thoroughly embarrassed, she steels herself and looks up to meet his eye. “Or would thee prefer we sealed deal with a hand-shake?”
Uncurling his fingers, he inspects the returned brass token before placing it back into his pocket. She’d taken him aback; he admired her nerve. His wife was always plucky; it was a worthy asset in any woman. “Nay, you’re all right lass.”
She picks up his pen from the ink-well, and says with more confidence than she possesses. “Now sir, where in your precious book do I sign for my thirty florins? Then I’m sure, in good time, thou’ll inform me, when I’m to commence my… domestic tasks?”
He smiles ruefully, is he cheating his wife, is she betraying her husband? When Judas Iscariot gave Christ to the priests wasn’t there also a matter of a kiss and thirty silver coins? But the money was returned, and the celebrants could only use it to purchase the potter’s burial-field. So, is this unholy alliance between she and he, to be a dance to domestic bliss, or like the Judas debacle, the acquisition of their own strangers’ grave-yard?
Her head’s cocked, her face emotionless; is she expecting a word from him? He says nothing, but smiles whilst tenderly touching her arm. Thankfully she doesn’t recoil but with a hint of a pale smile, raises an eyebrow. He trusts this indicates keen anticipation rather than just resigned acceptance.
“Well sir, is our bargain sealed?” she says it quietly, replacing his pen.
“Aye lass, thank you. You won’t regret it,” he says slowly and firmly.
With her head still inclined, but not smiling now, she addresses him again. “Oh, I had better not sir, I am trusting thou with everything I have…and hold so dear to me. If not always to me sir, please be thoughtful to my bairns.” Quietly, she adds. “Will thee still want us... ten years hence?”
He smiles broadly, then casts an eye to his ledger. “Oh, aye lass, reckon so. After all, haven’t we just sealed deal…?” He pauses momentarily, then glances to her again…he’s relieved, now she too is smiling. He nods and with a muted sigh, returns his attention to his desk, blotting her newly penned signature. And now without hesitation, he deftly turns over to the next page in his colliery ledger. To a clean, crisp, fresh... indeed brand-new, leaf in his ‘precious book’.
‘The Road Not Taken’
‘Is that what you meant to do?’ DS Thomson leans back on his chair.
The question is flat, harsh and unsympathetic. Haven’t they been listening to a word I’ve said?
‘Fill your husband with drugs and then leave him to die alone?’ DC Robbins leans forward.
I sit, cold and scared, wrapping my arms around myself trying to keep warm. The smell, a combination of sweat and cigarettes long- smoked is barely disguised by industrial strength disinfectant. It is making me feel sick.
‘No, it wasn’t like that, I’ve explained.’
The police officers are world- weary. ‘Then Mrs. Collins you’d better explain all over again.’
They’d taken everything off me. Procedure they said. I did my best to help. I wasn’t going to give them a hard time. The booking sergeant asked me if I knew why I was under arrest. Of course I did. A lady officer asked if I wanted a cuppa. I regretted saying yes; the cloying long- life milk coated my teeth and I longed to clean away the disgusting taste.
I had a moment’s flash of memory as I recalled the ride here in the police car. They even pushed my head down as I climbed in the back. No curtain twitching though, all the neighbours came out to witness my ordeal; kids with hoodies lingered on bikes exuding respect and God help me I felt like a celebrity. I was ignored in the car though I did try a bit of conversation but the WPC quietly told me they were not allowed to discuss the case with me. I nodded and shut up after noticing that my comments had been recorded.
DS Thomson and DC Robbins don’t frighten me but I resolve to be as helpful as possible, that way perhaps I’ll get bail. So I start from the beginning, yet again, trying to formulate my chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order; trying to show how things were and why I had done what I’d done. I am past caring if they understood or not but I have to explain.
‘My husband has…had Locked - in Syndrome…,’ I began; ‘we’ve been in all the papers.’
And on T.V, radio, magazine articles, any publicity we could get. Simon had demanded the right to end his own life or rather let someone else end it for him. It had been a long and bitter battle and to be honest I was heartily sick of all the intrusion. When I saw his ravaged body on T.V I just wanted to switch the damn thing off.
They stare at me without comment. They must be as fed up as me of hearing the same story.
‘I’ve explained about the court cases and all we’ve been through .He ...we decided that he’d suffered enough and so I saved up all the painkillers to let us end his life. It took a long time.’
I sound so matter of fact.
‘The night nurses leave at six in the morning and the carers come at eight so we have two hours a day on our own when I look after him.’
The best two hours of the day.
It was surprising how well we managed to communicate; thank God for technology. In that private time we shared the things that had made our life so good before the stroke. The cruel irony is that Simon was your real life Action Man making imprisonment in his body even more unbearable; bungee jumping, white water rafting, desert marathons, anything that was an adrenaline fix. Being in the Army had fuelled that I suppose. When things became really bad he refused to see the kids, not able to stand their pity. There was only one way to go and I was there to help him.
I ask for water. My throat is raw.
‘So the plan was to give Simon the tablets during these two hours. By the time the day staff came he’d be drowsy, asleep maybe and they wouldn’t know until it was too late to call for help.’
DC Robbins passes a plastic cup and I thank her, gulping the water gratefully. I plod on, longing to get it over with.
‘When it came to it there was a problem; Simon struggled to swallow and I ended up grinding up pills which took time.’
This was something we hadn’t bargained for. I’d been frantically watching the clock amazed at the way minutes were rushing by, as I persevered and he choked the clogging tablets down .Simon was heroic, determined to see it through, gutsy to the last. I could feel the drip of my tears as I told him how much he meant to me. His eyes closed. I think he slept.
He looked better than he’d done for a long time. Now it was my turn to show my mettle but as his breathing became shallower I felt a full blown panic attack taking grip. I couldn’t go through with it.
‘I planned to sit with him, hold his hand until the last but I panicked. I just had to get away. I couldn’t believe what I’d done, so I grabbed the keys and took the car.’
The traffic was hellish as it backed up at Junction 19. I fought to control the tremble in my left leg but it seemed to have a life of its own. I hated driving at the best of times but this nightmare was of my own making. Craven cowardice had driven me to escape and now I was bitterly regretting it.
I pulled into Knutsford Services and sat in the car park. Shame overwhelmed me and I cried wet snotty tears. My brave brave man who had suffered so much through the last long miserable years only wanted me to do the things he couldn’t. All I had to do was to hold his hand as he drifted away. I couldn’t even do that, the easy part.
I looked at the clock. I’d managed to drive a fair distance in my panic but there was still time. If I pushed it I could get back, to be with Simon, to say goodbye. A race against time but one I was willing to try. At breakneck speed I left the parking lot swerving without indication into the fast lane, blasted by the horns of irate drivers.
‘I had to get back to him; I couldn’t let him face that alone. The drive was a blur. Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you that.’
Their smiles are not sympathetic.
‘Mrs. Collins, what happened when you returned?’ asks DS Thomas.
I could see the blue Astra belonging to Celia in its usual spot in the drive, leaving room for me to park alongside. Everything seemed normal. I felt sick with fear as I wobbled to the front door and let myself in. Celia rushed into the hall in great agitation.
‘Where have you been? How could you think of going out and leaving him? We didn’t know if we should call the ambulance. We should have called the ambulance!’
I pushed past her wordlessly to the bedroom. He lay still and as I touched him I knew I was too late.
‘He was dead. We called the ambulance but we knew it was all over. They took him away. You know the rest.’
DC Thomson leans back in his chair and gives a discrete stretch. I just feel relieved that I have told them that I didn’t intend to leave him to die alone.
‘So, Mrs. Collins, just to get this clear. On Monday 5th June 2017 you administered a life threatening amount of painkilling drugs to your severely incapacitated husband for the express intention of ending his life. You then fled the scene of the crime to return later to ensure the deed had been fully executed.’
I am shaken by the way it sounded so callous.
‘It wasn’t like that. I loved him. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer.’ My voice is a feeble whisper.
‘You have admitted that you left him alone to die. You said, “I just had to get away.”’
I shake my head with frustration. I didn’t mean to leave him. That wasn’t the plan…
‘I helped my husband to die, yes I admit that but only because I care. I almost broke my neck to get back to him!’
DC Robbins leans closer and I can smell her coffee breath.
‘Be careful you don’t end up with a traffic violation. We’ll be checking the cameras.’
They stand, satisfied with their work, and DC Robbins switches off the tape. I thought they’d understand.
‘Do you think I’ll get bail? I’ve told you everything and I’m not a danger to the public am I?’
DS Thomson shrugs and looks at me with narrow eyes. ‘Not for me to say but yeah, you probably will.’
DC Robbins picks up the files.
‘Why didn’t you stay?’
I can’t answer. How can I tell them that I couldn’t go through with the pact? Two people should have died that day. That was the final plan. I knew I didn’t want to live without Simon and when I’d helped him on his way then I’d follow. I pictured myself curling up to him and giving the last cuddle. It seemed so simple until it came to doing it.
I’m sorry Simon. I’ve made a mess of everything, but when I get bail I’ll put it right.
I’ll do what I should have done, what I was meant to do.
A sudden rush of cold through an open door, on a day constructed no differently than the rest. Magic, at first: the unexpected beauty of a dream spinning into life. Not the face or the eyes that caught me but a coat I knew better than any I ever owned. Midnight blue, a colour all of its own, and that dancer’s swing flaring the skirt. The café was crowded but its owner slipped through the spindly tables with a ballerina’s grace. That coat, that poise still marking her out, as if seventeen years was weeks or days.
“What are you staring at?” Isaac blowing on his fingers, still disoriented from the journey. He needed a drink, he needed the warm coat stuffed somewhere in the suitcases heaped and closely guarded beside the train.
“Her.” Joachim pointed to the platform across the railway lines. “Over there, in the blue coat.”
Isaac squinted: his glasses were gone, reducing the world to a blurry haze. “A girl, are you serious? God knows where we are, or why, and you’re looking at a girl?”
Joachim shrugged, “You can’t see her: she’s beautiful.”
“Food would be beautiful, my coat would be beautiful…”
But Joachim wasn’t listening. The girl swung round, the wind lifting the blue fabric in a dancing swirl. He raised his hand: to his delight she mirrored the gesture. He waved but she was gone, pulled away, her arm in a soldier’s grip. In the horror that followed, he sought her. He searched the hollow faces of the shapeless women huddled at roll call, trying to find some spark of recognition in the blank eyes. Nothing. So he dreamed her safe and somehow gone, waiting to find him when the madness was done.
“Do I know you?” The long-imagined voice mingling the present with the past and far more musical than even I had made it. “You stare as if I do.”
“Forgive me.” Dear God, I was as tongue-tied as a schoolboy. “Yes, perhaps. From before.”
“Then join me.” She waved me to the vacant chair and made no comment on my clumsiness. Black silk gloves sliding from slender fingers, a cigarette eased from its tortoise-shell case. She was even lovelier than memory had her, such beautiful skin, tinted more golden than the palefaces I was used to. My gaunt fingers splayed on the lace cloth, shirt cuffs shot back and revealing too much. I pulled them down, squared myself up, tried to look more like the man I once might have been. The waiter fussed, finding a light for the gold-tipped cigarette, suggesting pastries, filling the space my words could not. She smiled, accepted the homage; did not speak again until we were finally free. “So you knew me? You must remind me how.” Berlin inflections but a lilt in the depths I couldn’t identify.
“Not knew, not exactly. I saw you just the once.”She laughed; other diners turned their heads, their conversations brightening when they saw her.
“And you remembered me from one meeting? A compliment indeed. But we were never introduced?” I shook my head; she extended her hand, “Inge.”
“Joachim.” Her smile didn’t falter but the hand withdrew. The tiniest of pauses but it panicked me. I ploughed on, suddenly afraid she would disappear again.“It was the coat.” She inclined her head. “So beautiful and you wear it with such elegance. The memory is like a photograph.” I stopped, what if she found me ridiculous? Words that sounded charming in my dreams seemed suddenly too strange. “It was so long ago, perhaps I’m mistaken. Your coat, it still looks new, that’s not possible. I’m sorry.”She took a slow pull on the cigarette and let the smoke drift up to the stand where the blue fabric hung.
“You remember that? Well I’ve had it a long time that’s true, even though my husband thinks all I do is shop.” Husband. An innocent word that fell like a blade. She tapped the cigarette against her saucer, watching as the ash crumbled. “I’ve had it going on 20 years. I barely need it now so it sits in a wardrobe most of the year.” A pause. “So, Joachim, where did you see me? At a reception? At a cafe?”Something mocking in her tone.
“No.” I struggled topull the words out of the darkness. “In the camp, the first one. I had just got off the train, I didn’t know what was happening; none of us did. That’s why I remembered you: everything so twisted and then, all of a sudden, you. Beauty in the middle of a nightmare…”I thought she might speak, help me as I stumbled, but her face stayed quite still.
“What are you staring at?” Gunther, already bored but he had promised Inge she could see the process. His wife wrapped her new coat tighter around her slim hips, delighting in the skirt’s flare and fall.
“They’re not what I expected.”
“What do you mean?” Gunther smiled. “Did you think they would look like monsters?” She laughed and raised her hand to brush away his teasing.
“No silly, not really. They’re just quieter, more biddable than I thought they would be.” She turned again and waved at the crowd clustered on the other side of the tracks. “They wait and do nothing. If it was us, which I really can’t imagine, we wouldn’t be as docile.”
Gunther turned to go, beckoning her to follow. “And that my love, is the point and why no one will miss them. Now have you seen enough to satisfy your curiosity?”Such a strong man her husband and so handsome in the uniform all her friends envied. Inge slipped her arm through his and moved happily on.
“I never forgot that glimpse of you, it kept me sane, hopeful.” The blush rising as words I’d never spoken tumbled out, although I wasn’t sure she was listening. “You becamea sign that one day things would be alright. I didn’t even know your name, but I gave you one. Keren.” She frowned as if its sound was new. “Ray of light, you know, in Yiddish. That’s what you were to me. Foolish I suppose but it helped, it really did.” I hoped for a smile but she merely shrugged and sipped her coffee.
“And were things alright?”
How to answer such a question? How could she ask it? A shrug, not quite as careless as hers. “I survived so yes, perhaps.” I paused, hoping she would help me. “But it doesn’t leave. You know that, you came through it too.”
“That was never in doubt.” A pause, watching while I grappled for words.
“How could you know that? Was it your faith?” Inge’s laugh harder this time. She moved closer. Her perfume sweet and cloying, too heavy for the time of day.
“My faith? Joachim, look at me, look at me properly.”She waited, sipping her coffee, smoking another cigarette. And then I knew. She still had the coat when I had kept nothing. Her skin too golden and that dancing note in her accent not something learnt on German streets. I drew back and she grinned, patting me lightly on the arm as though I finally shared the joke.“There. Now tell me: what do you see?”
Words dropping like stones. “You don’t live here in Berlin, not now, you live somewhere warmer.” I stopped for a moment as she waved away the waiter. “And you’re used to servants, to a privileged life.”
She clapped her hands. “You are clever! I knew some of you were. Perhaps a shame to get rid of you all, there was talent there surely? But, no. To keep back a few would have sent the wrong message.” She picked up her cigarette and pushed her plate towards me. “You’re rather pale, well paler. Eat some of this pastry, it’s really delicious.”
“What were you doing there?” My voice not my voice but its cracks did not move her.
“At the camp? My husband had a flair for logistics that served him rather well. I was bored alone in Berlin so he brought me on a little trip. He thought it might amuse me.”
A branding iron of a word that should have made her sick at its speaking. “And did it?” My voice a whisper. She picked at the pastry, head slightly cocked as though the possibility was there.
“Would you like to hear no? Do you really expect it? The truth? I was fascinated. Gunther told me they could herd you like cattle but I didn’t believe him. And then there you all were, doing exactly as you were told, not a voice raised in protest. How you all accepted it; I was very intrigued.”
“And now?” The dream dying but still not quite dead. “Surely you think differently now?” Another shrug. She pushed away the plate, picked up her compact.
“Why would I think about it at all? Life has moved on. Argentina is lovely and, if I ever miss Germany, I simply pull out my warm coat and jump on a plane. Gunther’s job in the government is very well-paid.” Slicking on her lipstick as if we chatted about the weather. The coat hanging from the stand, jet buttons winking. Coffee spilling from the pot as my hand began to shake, a waiter hovering back in a practised glide.
“This woman, she is…”
“Finished.” Her hand on my arm, pressing me down.“Do excuse my friend: he is a little overcome by our meeting. Perhaps we could settle our bill?” The waiter smiling, sliding away, thinking he saw the lovers’ meeting I had so often imagined. “What on earth are you doing?” Her face perfectly calm. “Where you planning to denounce me?” She gazed round the room: all the couples so in tune, everything so calm and so ordered. “You’ll make a fool of yourself if you do. It’s all such an embarrassment now, nothing anyone wants to remember.”
“You’re wrong.” An eyebrow raised but she let me continue. “People care, I know they do. There are still investigations, still arrests. The news still carries them.”
“But who takes any notice, beyond a sad few?” She leaned in so close her breath caressed my cheek. “You want me to apologise, I never will. And if you said anything, here? Who would look at me and believe you? Do I look like a monster?” She looked like an angel, she looked like a dream. “That’s better.” Her hand on mine, her fingers so light. “Do you want everyone to think you are mad when you have tried so hard to hold your world together? And they will think it, Joachim.” My name like a curse. “They will look at you and see nothing but a poor fool who still lives with ghosts, who still lives in his prison. Which is the truth after all, or the truth they will see.”
She rose then, slowly, gracefully, in command. She slipped her coat back on and waved to the waiter, handing over the notes to pay our bill with barely a glance at the cost of it. My words all gone and none I wanted from her. Fingers stretching as she pulled on her gloves, a sliver of skin still bare at her wrists. Pale and unmarked, not like mine at all. A final smile and she was gone, slipping through the crowded room, slipping away; out into Berlin’s busy streets untouched. I followed her, crashing against chairs, making delicate china rattle. A blue dot dancing through a sea of grey, easy to spot. Not a single turn and, even if she had, no fear of discovery: she had not seen me then, why would she now?