When I arrived at the nursing home earlier this afternoon, I passed a group of ladies pushing Zimmer frames and wearing feathered masks. Before I went up to Frau Bienkowski, I ordered a coffee downstairs. I was served by a lady with whiskers and a tail.
Frau Bienkowski said she would prefer to forgo the carnival celebrations downstairs, but we turned on the TV and watched an enormous red float make its way through the centre of Duesseldorf.
“When I was young,” Frau Bienkowski said, “we didn’t dress up that much for Carnival. But we had a masquerade ball.”
“At midnight, you would take off your mask to reveal your face to your dancing partner.. Of course it wasn’t always a surprise. You knew some people by their hands, or the way they moved.”
She paused. “You aren’t wearing that beautiful pattern today,” she said, studying me carefully. “But that skirt is nice too.”
I complimented Frau Bienkowski on her green two-piece suit.
Then I emptied out my bag. “I brought something for you,” I said.
“Well, since you said you liked reading, but that your eyes were no longer quite up to it, I took out some audio books from the library.”
“Yes, here have a look.”
“I didn’t know there was a such thing as audio books,” she said. “And you can take these out of the library?”
“You can! And you can even borrow films too,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and borrow a CD player.”
“Will it be big?” asked Frau Buenkowski.
“It might be,” I said.
“Here, take this,” she said, pushing her Zimmer frame over to me. “And would you mind picking up some coffee too?”
I made my way down the hallway to the communal sitting room. Five ladies in wheelchairs were seated around a table, eating cake and drinking coffee.
“Did you hear the Pope has resigned?” said one.
“Oh, I knew that already!” replied another.
“On grounds of age,” chirped in a third.
I unplugged the CD player and popped it inside the basket of my Zimmer frame. I filled up two cups of coffee and balanced them precariously on top.
Frau Bienkowski and I listened to a few minutes of a German novel, read by the author himself.
“Do you think you might like this?” I asked.
Frau Bienkowski nodded. She looked happy.
“Which library did you go to?” she asked.
I told her. “Did you know that the building used to be a Sparkasse bank?” she asked.
I didn’t. “It was a vault, which the Russians plundered after the war. Back in the day, people had less jewellery, and they used to bring it there for safekeeping. One of my friends never saw her necklace again.”
My eyes were becoming wider. “Anyway,” Frau Bienkowski continued. “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”
I told her I’d worked a rather uneventful night shift last night. Frau Bienkowski laughed. “It’s not every day the Pope resigns, is it? I don’t know why they picked someone so old in the first place.”
Frau Bienkowski, like me, suffers from insomnia. Hers is much worse. “I haven’t been able to sleep since my husband died,” she said. “Last night I was awake until 5 o’clock, but I got up again at 7. Routine is important.”
I asked her if she was plagued by racing thoughts.
“No,” she said. “My husband and I used to have wonderful times together. We went to the museum a lot. I have a wonderful talent to recall these happy thoughts. Some other people are riddled with anxiety at night, but I simply think of these good times with my husband.”
We talked for two more hours and I said I would call Frau Bienkowski later that week. She looked at me. “I never want you to feel obliged to come see me,” she said.
Frau Bienkowski, forgive me my bluntness but you could not be further from the mark. And this week, I am going to buy you a little CD player from Medienmarkt.