Frau Bienkowski was sitting by an open window, soaking in the sunlight. She gave me a faint smile. It was not her usual welcome. She was in pain.
“Every limb hurts,” she said.
We had been planning to venture outside the moment we got some sun. I asked Frau Bienkowski whether she thought she could manage.
Ten minutes later she was pushing her stroller around the grounds, naming flowers and telling me about the people she knew living in the neighbouring buildings.
Every so often she stopped and sat on the ledge of her stroller.
“Am I slower than you thought?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’ve only ever seen you in your armchair.”
We passed two caretakers smoking at a back entrance to the canteen. Frau Bienkowski called over to them. “I was faster last year!” They nodded sympathetically and one of them, a young woman with a scraped-back pony tail and jet black hair said, “oh, the curse of biology.”
Frau Bienkowski told me she remembered what flowers were blooming when the Russians came. “You don’t forget a time like that,” she said.
After our walk we went for coffee. I ordered a latte. “What’s that?” she asked.
I told her it was a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. She said she’d try it next time.
We chatted about parents disapproving of mixed marriages. She said it happened lots after the war and I said that in Ireland in the past, a Catholic-Protestant marriage could divide a family forever.
“You know, you’re only supposed to stay an hour,” Frau Bienkowski said after two.
“Do you have something you need to do?” I asked.
“I don’t want you to feel obliged, that’s all,” she said.
“Frau Bienkowski, we have discussed this before. This is a pleasure.”
“Oh, very well.”
Back upstairs, Frau Bienkowski asked me to read from “Die Pforte zum Himelreich,” the book by Irish writer Una Troy which I brought her last week.
“I started it,” she said. “And it is very good. But my eyes became swimmy and I couldn’t read on.”
The scene I read was a dialogue between an eager 23 year-old upstart journalist and a 100 year-old woman in a convent. She was Ireland’s oldest person and he was vying for the scoop on how she’d managed to live so long. She gave smart-ass, wry responses.
I put on my best crotchety voice for the old woman and an effeminate whine for the young man. Frau Bienkowski laughed out loud three times.
“You should be a professional reader!” she said. “I can completely imagine that nun!”
When I left, Frau Bienkowski said, “You bring me such joy.” This time her smile was real. It made my day.