Frau Bienkowski was wrapped in a blanket, wearing a nightie.
“I’m not at all well. My nose is blocked, I lay awake all night and I keep breaking out in sweats.”
“Oh no!” I said.
I moved closer, and placed a large box wrapped in orange paper on her lap. “I’m sorry I couldn’t see you on Tuesday,” I said. “But Happy Birthday!”
Her face changed.
“Oh no, Katechen, you weren’t to do that.”
“Open it,” I said.
“But it’s so big!”
She tugged gingerly at a piece of Selotape. “I’m going to keep the paper.”
As she worked on the other corner she said, “I think I might know what this is.”
“Well, you just wait and see if you’re right.”
She lifted the sheet covering the top of the box to reveal the radio CD player I’d bought in Media Markt just a few hours earlier.
She blinked. “But it’s such a big present. I need to give you some money.”
“Nonsense,” I said.
“Keine Widerrede! Now, tell me about your birthday party.”
“Well,” she said finally, “Seven of us met downstairs for coffee and I got lovely flowers. They came from the Internet. Nowadays, you can get everything on the Internet.”
“Anyway,” she continued. “On my birthday, they said I could choose to have any meal I liked. And I knew exactly I wanted.”
“Really?” I asked. “What did you want?”
“A fried egg,” she said. “I crave them so much.”
“And did you get one?”
“I got three!” said Frau Bienkowski. “You might think that’s a lot, but they were tiny; this small,” she said, and made a little circle with her forefinger and thumb.
“And were they good?”
“They were delicious.”
“Do you not usually get eggs here?”
“Oh, just scrambled,” she said. “But I’m sick to death of scrambled.”
I remarked that this seemed a happy kind of home.
“Well,” she said. “Maybe for a year or two. But I’ve been here for five. You’re not supposed to be here that long. Most people arrive and die after a year or two. But me – I’m still here.”
“I had one good friend here for two years,” she continued. “But then she had a stroke and died. You do grieve…”
“Of course,” I said.
I took out some photographs of LSB and my family, which I’d promised to show Frau Bienkowski.
She reached for her magnifying glass and turned on the light.
The first was a picture of my family at the legendary Familienfest last year.
She moved her magnifying glass over each of our faces. “These are my sisters,” I said. “And that’s my mum, and this is my dad.”
She lingered over my father’s face, examining it carefully. He was wearing his trademark scowl, which he reserves for people with cameras and for reading electricity bills.
“He’s handsome,” she said. “I might have fallen for him too.”
“He’d be delighted to hear that!” I said.
Next up was a picture of LSB and me all done up before going to our college ball a few years ago. “He has such brown eyes,” she said. “Like you. Your children will have even darker eyes again.”
Frau Bienkowski looked at another picture of my sisters and me and asked for our ages.
“And they’re not married either? None of you?”
“Nope, none of us!” I said. “Maybe some day.”
Frau Bienkowski remarked on how nice it was to have such a big family. She herself, had just one son. But he and his girlfriend died in a car crash more than thirty years ago.
“At least I have memories,” she said. “People who never had children have none.”
I provided a clunky translation of the English expression Don’t cry because it’s over, laugh because it happened.
“It’s true,” said Frau Bienkowski. I nodded, and we were silent for a little while.
“By the way,” she said later. “That drink you got last time..”
“Yes!” she said. “I heard a report about it on the radio. Next time we go down to the café, I want to get one. It sounds very nice!”
“We will absolutely get you a latte next time,” I said.
Frau Bienkowski knows all about LSB. She even knows that he’s coming to visit me soon.
“You’ll bring him here, won’t you?” she said.
“Oh yes, he’d love to meet you! “But you’ll have to help me teach him some German words.”
She smiled. “I will!”
I took the CD player out of its box and plugged it into a socket.
I placed an audio book CD into the player.
A man’s voice filled the room.
“Can you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Frau Bienkowski. She looked happy.
When I got up I had to step over a cord attached to the lamp on the table between us.
“The bulb blew the other day,” Frau Bienkowski said. “And the type of bulb the lamp uses has been discontinued. Luckily, Frau Brein once got me a batch of ten, which will last me until I die.”