The Page

A tale of intimacy and loss

Tag: Civil War

Return to the City of Faust

LongingAfter two years, Sarah decides to return to Berlin, the city where last she lived with her husband. She longs to see again the banks of the Spree, crowds of youths on Museen Insel, the cafés of Bergmannstraße, the runners along the Landwehrkanal… Above all, she wants to find the spirit  of Julian, the one who left, leaving her, alone with his ghosts. Maybe she’ll be better armed to exorcise them, there, in the light and peaceful apartment where they lived, in Neukölln, through the quiet streets of Friedrichshain, in the park of Charlottenburg…

She’s tired of her lucrative business. For two years, after her last encounter with Helga, she travelled across the world, from financial centre to another, tirelessly making money, negotiating deals, to saturation. With Julian’s inheritance, and her own fortune, she can retire comfortably, keeping her house in London – she may well let it now – and living the life she wants in the city of Faust. She is not without men, a cohort of admirers that have long followed her and showered her with presents, offers, sometime to absurdity. But her only attachment is for Jane, Julian’s young sister, a regular visitor to her place in London, and now in Berlin. Jane, more beautiful than ever, a successful actor and model, and her lover since her first stay with the couple in Berlin. Jane, loyal, for ever missing her brother – Sarah’s well aware of her romantic attachment to him – and whose smile may turn, in the light of this late summer, so much like that of Julian.

Sarah moves back to their Neukölln apartment in late July, with those pieces of furniture, art and books she wants to retains from London. She makes Julian’s study her room, and shifts the HiFi and bookshelves to their former bedroom. The lounge is now her workshop, where she intends to write, paint, and spend hours with Jane, nude, to design the photography album they have decided to make together.

One evening, as she walks back through Kreuzberg from a visit to the Altegallerie, she stops at a restaurant in Bergmanngieß where Julian and her used to go, in Melissa’s time. She likes the place but it is the first time she goes back there since Julian’s departure. She orders an Italian dish and some wine, and, as she waits for the wine to arrive, she suddenly recalls what Helga shared with her, at their last meeting in London. Through her Eastern contacts, Helga had learnt of Julian’s activity in shipping arms to the insurgency via the Caucasus. She also knew that this displeased the authorities of the Federation to the extreme. Late into the night they had discussed the implications of Julian’s actions, for his and his wife’s safety. Was Julian’s death natural? This was also the question Sarah was determined to resolve, here, in the city of Faust.

A Moon-lit Dune

Aurès I rarely think of those years, what Melissa calls my “lost years”.  Those times are immersed in a dusty landscape, tainted ochre like the small walls hiding death, a place where I missed her more than life, and my days were a long, uninterrupted, bloody nightmare.  Behind me then were the golden years of a happy childhood, her love, her hand in mine, the little town with the old library, and its staircase.  In front, around me, everywhere, was war.  Not the neat little war of cavalry charges: the dirty war of the djebel, where friends were foes, where death struck in the shape of a small child, where women were fighting, got butchered, dismembered, like the rest of us.  At night we – the leopards –  talked of girls, and homes, of all the memories we were fast losing, of our disappearing childhood.  In winter we crawled in the snow, in the sand tainted by the blood of our comrades.  We fought with knives, with rocks, with the deadly hand-grenades that sometimes “they” threw back at us, smiling of the devilish smile of the victors.

But those memories are deep buried, and I want to keep them buried.  I remember more about the “return” to civilian life, the despair, the chaos, and then the orgies.  For a while we met at our vet association, but leopards age badly. Many of us took to drink and worse.  I did not.  After a while I decided for myself that life was, after all, worth living. And I forgot her, Melissa.  In time I made money, and met you, my love.  There is no shadow anymore, just the neat certainty of a  happy life and marriage, writing, the mountains, and my sister.

But last night I dreamed of the dune.  It may have been just looking at the night sky too much the evening before.  It came back to me with invincible clarity.  It was a month or so before we left: the last operation in the Aurès.  My patrol had got separated from the main group.  The enemy was nearby, silent, deadly.  The night was clear, icy, and the moon was full.  I told my men to stop and I moved alone towards the top of the hill to take a position (no sat-nav in those days!) The hill was crowned with a sand and rocks dune, and it was lit by the moon that gave it a silver hue.  Silently I climbed to the edge, and in one fraction of second I saw her: she was lying flat against a small rock, her sniper rifle steady aimed at me. Her blond hair was bound under the small cap, reflecting the moon light.  I knew I was dead meat: I kept still, waiting for the bullet.  Nothing happened, she did not move, or at least I did not see her moving.  I closed my eyes: death could not be that easy. But then, she was gone: the blond warrior had disappeared.  I took the position with the little sextant and went back to the men.  “You took your time sergeant, we were beginning to worry”.  I smiled. I had seen Death, and She had spared me.

As I woke up this morning I could still see the lying shape, the dark green uniform, the moon light, the dark barrel of that rifle…  So long ago: where is that woman now?  Did she, like me, survived the war?  I have no idea why this came back to me now.  I did not say anything to Sarah, got up, and went to my desk.  Memories are strange constructs, with a life of their own, independent from us.  I know what they say about synapses and the complexity of the brain.  In the peace of my study, as I type these words, I am thinking of Elga, and of what Sarah told me about her: that she is a collective mind, an association of perhaps millions of individuals who pool their thoughts.  Is this our future too?  And is Melissa part of them?  Is this the message of my dream: we have been spared, but the way forward is to belong, to surrender our individual being, to mesh?  Those thoughts trouble me: is Melissa showing us the way, the abolition of death, the abandonment of homo sapiens for something else, as distant from him as he was from the Neanderthals?

I leave these thoughts to concentrate on the letter to my publisher: the first draft is nearly completed, perhaps in a couple of months I will ask my editor to proceed.  She’s very busy – and very competent – and I have to give her due notice.  And I would like Sarah to read through too.  She has read abstracts, she likes this version.  Yesterday she told me about Shikoku, Kafka, and Shimamoto, the eighty eight temples…  The shore… a moon-lit shore?

The phone rings, it’s Jane, she’s coming to dinner and she’s bringing the wine.  Sarah picks up the upstairs handset.  I leave the two of them chatting away.  As I said, I am a lucky man.  I finish my letter and mail it.  Then I pick up where I left last night in the novel: Susan is now Paul’s lover, the two of them have crossed the border…

Les leopards

Peace

Norwegian_woodAs I look at those pictures, at the colours beginning to fade, and those faces not yet totally forgotten, I recall those instants I never seized, all those years back, before peace reached me. And peace, I owe to you, my love, you brought me down to reality, and to acceptance of the world. Yet I cannot entirely forget that other life, those other lives. These places still impregnated of the then recent disasters, the long wars, the signs of destruction still present all around us. Europe was then still on her knees.

From time to time, an article, a book, a scent, brings me back to those years, to a youth full of longing and unhappiness. The world was young… no, it was the old world, but we were young, naive, and dangerous. The calamities of today pale in insignificance compared to what was then the daily life of our parents: the sheer poverty, the cold, the threats, and the still smoking ruins. Yet there was also hope, born from the deep soul of their hearts.

This is when I met Melissa, both of us, me more than her, innocent and ignorant. This story is that of our loss, and the strange way we found each other again, decades apart, in a world we could never have then imagined. A world of shadows. But I have first to write about the present, this fabulous mixture of the seedy and the wonderful, called modernity, although this term is now, so passé…

This coming year, after much consideration, and with your help my love, I am leaving behind those preoccupations, the business where I have made my fortune, for indulging in my long postponed passions. I will be the writer – even if unpublished – that I have longed to be since my school days, and also the serious runner, the one unconstrained by time and professional duties: freedom. Freedom to train, to spend long hours refining the person I want to be. Then there will be the long hikes in the mountains we both love: and there will be pictures, of you.

And so, on the threshold of a new year, I will start anew. Soon I will have forgotten the illusions of ambition, the jealousies, the petty envy of lesser mortals. I will live again. My close friends will be the blank page, where I will share those memories and longings I care most for, and those beautiful lenses that will help me to see the world with new eyes. Soon I will roam those streets, in the city that has adopted me, reluctantly at first, but, ultimately, without looking back.

I will, but not now, I am just observing the clear sky from my desk, that faces our garden: a pale blue sky of December, small frayed clouds already tainted pink by the early sunset. Familiar tunes float through the room. My wife, Sarah, is upstairs washing her hair. Peace.

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