Auf die Minute! Frau Bienkowski says, glancing at the clock which hangs to her right.
This is always my greeting. It is the third and final thing that happens before we shake hands.
First I knock twice on the door. Frau Bienkowski says “Ja” in two syllables, which she stresses equally.
And as I am pushing open the door and making my way past where her coat hangs, she says it.
Auf die Minute! – to the minute!
Once, Frau Bienkowski had another visitor – a lady – when I knocked on the door at precisely 3 o’clock.
Auf die Minute! they said in unison, because Frau Bienkowski had told the lady that I come exactly on time, every time. And we all laughed.
“So gehört es sich auch,” – that’s how it should be – I retort as I take the hand she has outstretched.
Sometimes Frau Bienkowski playfully teases me about my punctuality.
“You must pace around the corridors!” she says.
“The corridors? Are you joking? I go for a walk in the gardens!”
It is a source of immeasurable pride that my punctuality amuses and reassures a German. A 94-year-old German at that.
I have not told Frau Bienkowski that she alone benefits from my impeccable timekeeping and that back home, my parents are bemused by what they called my “scurry” – a trademark dash out the door which I perform with my shoulders hunched forward, my head down and usually missing an item vital to the appointment I am trying to make.
Today Frau Bienkowski is wearing a yellow jumper with short sleeves. She matches the apricots I have brought her.
“I couldn’t find the Turkish apricots which you requested,” I tell her. “These are Greek.”
“Oh, perfect,” she says.
“And they are still a little hard. But I chose them deliberately because they go soft so quickly.”
“Absolutely right,” she says, digging out her purse and pouring coins onto the table. “Now, what do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I get a monthly travel allowance of €25 for visiting you, which I do not use because I walk. I think it’s well spent on apricots.”
“Katechen,” she says, as more coins topple out of her purse. “I swear to you, I will not ask you to get me anything ever again if you do this!”
“But I don’t need the…”
“They cost €2.29,” I say.
“Good,” she says. “Take €2.50.”
“Ha! You must be joking.”
Frau Bienkowski digs her fingers through the netting of the plastic container. She gropes the apricots, pressing them with her forefinger and thumb.
“Let’s have one each,” she says.
I take them and rinse them under the tap in her toilet sink.
To the left there is a plastic shower seat, where Frau Bienkowski sits when she gets her back washed.
“It is the only thing I can’t do for myself,” she has told me many times. “I can still do everything else. I can get dressed, and make my way downstairs for lunch. I always say, as long as I still can, I will…But I can’t reach my back any longer.”
We sit by the window, munching apricots.
It is a dull day, but every now and then, the sun breaks out from behind the clouds.
On the window sill is a line of pots.
“Look,” Frau Bienkowski says, pointing to the pot of carnations I brought for her birthday.
They are deep pink and in full bloom.