Their spines contain their highlight reel

Here I am on a Monday morning in the Staatsbibliothek.

With my folders and flashcards.

And the Microsoft Word document open before me.

Surrounded by faces scowling in concentration, I am blank as a slate.

Here, where minds bathe in luxury, anything is possible.

All it takes is the scratch of a pen, the tap of a key, the turn of a page.

“Read over document as a netural, distant reader might,” it says on my to-do-list.

I breathe in. And out. And in again as I begin:

It was the day everything began to change and bit by bit, the threads of Dora Danckelmann’s past became unraveled…..

I scroll through the document.

Then 40 minutes later, the verdict.

The neutral, distant reader shakes their head apologetically.

They are neither kind nor unkind.  Neither my champion nor my challenger.

Their task is indepenent arbitration.

The words (all 54,375 of them) the reader says carefully, refuse to dance together.

Some shoot out in vulgar bursts. And others crawl too carefully along.

Too uncertain and at once too brash to form a bond.

Less than the sum of their parts.

I thank the reader and survey the truth:

The story has no flow. In 54,375 ways, it has steered off course.

A sorry tribute to its source.

It doesn’t work. Not because I am in the mood for self-destruction; but because it’s the plain and simple truth.

My story isn’t any good.

Not yet.

The shelves around me bulge with books. Thousands of them, forced into neat rows.

Like soldiers in waiting.

Their spines contain their highlight reel. The anguish that made them, rubbed away like sadness on your Facebook timeline.

Their polished boots ready for inspection, ready to deny the battles they’ve seen.

Like them, I’ve got no choice but to soldier on.

54,375 ways I’ve gone wrong. 54,375 ways to make it right.

One word; one battle at a time.

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Why you must read The Land of Spices

In my final year of university I took a class on Irish women’s writing. Among the works on the reading list was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. Years later, whenever anyone asks me to name the book I wish I’d written, it’s the title that slips effortlessly off my tongue.

Why?

Because it’s everything a novel should be: beautifully crafted and full of psychological insights. Tender yet unsentimental; political but not polemical.

Published and promptly banned in Ireland in 1941, it’s the story of a nun whose life is unalterably shaped by a scene she encounters as a young woman. It’s also about how a little girl with a troubled background awakens in her the very sensibilities from which she has tried to flee.

Re-reading this book as I try my hand at writing something of my own has been a humbling experience. How does she do that? I ask myself. How does she jump across time so smoothly? How does she find the words to describe those micro-moments that occur as we assess each other during a conversation? How does she examine a distant relationship with such subtlety? How does she manage to convey the landscape of Irish nationalism so unflinchingly?

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I don’t have the answers; if I did, I’d have written my own Land of Spices. But I do have some relatable quotations to share, which I hope will spark your desire to read this thoroughly perfect book:

When you feel guilty for judging someone harshly, then overthink the situation and appear disingenuous and defensive when you apologize:

She was ashamed of her earlier severity with him … She racked her brain for a way of expressing friendliness and repentance …. But he thought he saw a further thrust at himself in this self-explanation – and he was still rankling with dislike of her.

When blind faith assaults the intellect:

That was the point of the vow, she would tell herself ironically- for can there be obedience without conscious subjection of the brain?

On being alone in grief:

She stared ahead at nothing visible to others.

On the paradoxes of Irish identity:

The Irish liked themselves and throve on their own psychological chaos … They were an ancient martyred race, and of great importance to themselves – that meagre handful of conceptions made a history, made a problem – and made them at once unconquerable and a little silly.”

On fighting the urge to interfere and allowing a person to heal themselves:

For she was confident that a soul, left to itself, has good chances of recovering in some measure from any sickness – whereas rash manipulation may establish a deformity.

In the end, The Land of Spices  was banned because of a single, eleven-word sentence.

It’s a pretty essential one: not the kind you can leave out.

But don’t worry: I won’t share it here. (Spoiler alert)

I guess you’ll just have to pick the book up yourself – and enjoy the exquisite writing of a woman who deserves pride of place in Ireland’s literary canon.

 

*** PS – For anyone who wants to see and hear Kate O’Brien, this from RTE’s archive might be of interest: http://www.rte.ie/archives/2016/0201/764550-kate-obrien-the-early-years/

 

First Dates Germany: bluntness at its best

Words can’t describe the joy I felt when I discovered that First Dates Germany is a thing. It was yesterday, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

If you’re unfortunate enough never to have heard of this show, here’s a quick summary: strangers meet for a date at a restaurant owned by a flamboyant, semi-famous chef; the encounter is filmed and dissected by a snarky voice-over with a penchant for puns.

The Irish version debuted on RTE back in 2016 but tragically – while the episodes are available online – you can’t watch them from abroad.

That said, I have (obviously) seen enough episodes while back on the old turf to make a meaningful comparison with the German version.

Here, based on several glorious hours of binge-watching,  are my first impressions of First Dates: Ein Tisch für Zwei:

The Teutonic reputation for bluntness and practicality?  Firmly upheld. One woman praised her date for his attractive personality but rejected him on the basis that he simply wasn’t “optically” up to scratch. Another factored in the cost of the airfare that would be required for a long-distance relationship between Cologne and Zurich.

And when it comes to paying, there is far less beating around the bush. One young man leant back luxoriously when the bill came, waiting for his date to pay up. “I like to be treated,” he said simply, as if this was all that was required for a free dinner. It worked.

“Can I pay?” another man asked his date.

“Sure,” she said.

No “Ah, God no.” “Ah go on.” “No, we’ll split.” “No I insist.” “Oh go on then.” “Are you sure? Next one’s on me.” “If there is a next time: oh God. How presumptuous.” “Thanks ever so much. You’re too good.”

If you think it’s all about reason and logic on the German dating scene though: think again! These people are obsessed with star signs! In fact, asking prospective love interests their Zodiac sign appears to be a standard first-date question. This, of course, presents plenty of opportunities for some astrological banter too. Take last night – for example – when a Pisces (the German word for it is Fisch) ended up ordering – you guessed it – fish.

Staring blankly in the face of compliments is also common among participants in First Dates Germany. “You have lovely eyes,” one date said to another last night. No“ah stop” in response. No “yours aren’t bad either.” Not even an embarrassed glance to the side. Just silence and a long, impassive stare back at the admirer.

Altogether, First Dates Germany does not have the delicious appeal of the Irish version, with its self-deprecating and often highly witty participants. But the candor offered by the Germans offers its own unique comedy and charms.

Consider me hooked.

 

‘Men are absolutely useless’ says LSH

We were holidaying in Ahlbeck, a seaside town near the German-Polish border. It was our last night and we were in an Italian restaurant, waiting for the enormous pizza we’d ordered to go.

All of a sudden, a look of panic spread over LSH’s face, and he began tapping his pockets frantically. Then he emptied the contents of his bag on the table.

“I don’t have my wallet,” he said.

“It’s probably in the apartment.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Go back and check,” I suggested. “I’ll wait for the pizza.”

I couldn’t wait to tear into its cheesy, spinachy goodness.

It came moments after LSH had left. The heat from the box radiated through to my fingertips as I crunched through the snow back to the apartment. Giddy with greed, I expected to find LSH sheepishly reunited with his wallet, and ready to crack open a few bottles of the local beer we’d bought in Edeka earlier.

Instead I found him stony-faced.

“It’s gone,” he said.

We turned the apartment inside out, tearing open drawers, accessing nooks and crannies we hadn’t known existed. We even turned the couch upside down, as if we expected the wallet to tumble out with a guilty “alright, you got me!”

“I had it in Edeka,” LSH said later, miserably munching a cold slice of pizza. “I paid with exact change. I must have set it down when I went to pick up the bottles.”

“We’ll go back first thing tomorrow morning,” I said. “But until then there’s nothing we can do.”

“All my bank cards,” said LSH. “My BVG travel ticket. My Trinity College graduate library pass.”

“It’s expired,” I said gently. “We moved away six years ago.”

“The existing pass is required for renewal,” LSH said tersely.

The romantic, gorge-ful evening we had envisioned was slipping away.

“I just have to sleep it off,” said LSH, and went to bed, leaving me to nurse a flat regional beer.

The next morning the snow sparkled under brilliant sunshine. It has to be in Edkea, I thought, though I was careful to conceal my optimism.

The shop had just opened. A young man sat at the till.

“Good morning,” I said. “We’ve lost a wallet. And we think we left it here, on this very ledge, last night. Could you check to see if you have it?”

He shook his head vigorously. “Nope,” he said. “No wallet here.”

“Go to the department of lost items,” the customer behind us chipped in.

“Oh?” I said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“It’s in the town hall,” he said.

“This is very odd,” I said as we made our way down a long and narrow yellow-walled corridor, passing glass cases that featured posters outlining the requirements for passport photographs due to come into effect in 2004.

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How LSH and I feel about women everywhere

“It is a sleepy town,” said LSH.

We found a door labeled “Office of found items” We could hear a radio on in the background.

We knocked.

There was no answer.

A young woman swept past us on her way into another room.

“Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

“Sure,” I said. “We’d like to declare a missing wallet.”

“You’re in the right place,” she said, sympathetically. “But the office might not open for another few minutes. Why don’t you just take a seat?”

“Thanks,” we said.

We sat down outside the Lost and Found office, and became aware of a male voice coming from it.

We agreed that this time it wasn’t the radio.

“I’ll knock again in a while,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, the same woman emerged again from her room.

“Still no answer?” she asked.

We shook our heads sadly.

Forty-five minutes later, during which time no one had actually entered the room, we knocked again.

“Come in,” said a gruff voice.

An old, bearded man was sitting at a desk. Judging by his expression, he was not happy to see us.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“My husband has lost his wallet” I said.  “Has it possibly turned up here?”

“No.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Perhaps we could report it missing?”

The request appeared to pain him.

“I’ll need your ID.”

“It’s in my wallet,” LSH said helplessly.

The man sighed.

“Perhaps I can give you my passport instead?” I suggested.

He agreed, reluctantly.

He typed my details –  painstakingly slowly – into the computer.

I asked if I could provide an e-mail address so he could contact me if the wallet was handed in.

He squinted at the computer.

“There’s no box on this form for an e-mail address,” he said. “There has to be a box.”

“Oh, hmm perhaps you could just take a note of it then?” I asked.

He continued to gaze at the screen.

“Actually, there is a box,” he said. “So you can give it to me after all.”

He printed out a document to confirm that LSH had lost his wallet.

We thanked him profusely and left.

“I’m going to have to cancel everything,” LSH said, crestfallen. “So many phone calls.”

(We hate phone calls.)

On or way back, we passed Edeka again.

“Come on,” I said, suddenly determined. “We’re going back in.”

We passed the young man at the till and made our way up and down the aisles until we found another member of staff: this time, a woman stacking shelves.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a hint of desperation in my voice.

“My husband thinks he left his wallet here last night. Is there any chance it’s been found?”

She smiled.

“What does it look like?”

“It’s black!” LSH blurted out. “Bulging with receipts.. a ton of cards!”

She nodded.

“And look,” LSH said, brandishing our document from the man in the town hall. “We’ve even got an official document declaring it missing!”

She glanced at it, bemused.

“One moment,” she said.

She disappeared to the back of the shop and came back with the wallet.

LSH clapped his hands together in adulation. I called her an angel.

She looked at us with the kind of sympathy reserved for the deranged.

“You’re welcome!” she said and returned to her tins of soup.

As we left the shop, passing by the young man at the till, LSH turned to me and said:

“Katzi, men are absolutely useless.”

“Go on,” I said, happily.

“The tosser at the till, swearing blindly that he didn’t have the wallet. He didn’t even look. Or ask someone!” He paused, then continued, “that old man in the town hall: zero help!”

“Yes,” I said. “I can certainly see where you’re coming from.” But then, for the sake of diplomacy I said, “Not all men though. You, for example, are alright.”

“Katzi,” he said.  “I’m the one who lost my wallet!”

“True,” I said. “And I’m the one who got it back.”

We crunched through the snow back to the apartment, singing the praises of women everywhere.

Happy International Women’s Day!

How to write a novel

A short guide by someone who’s trying

On character:

It doesn’t matter what color hair they have, what month they were born or how long their nose is. Ask yourself instead: what do they desire? What have they been wrong about all their life? This advice from Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius came to me like a revelation. It changed everything.

On self-loathing:

When you are failing, look down at yourself like the deity of your choice would. Watch the hunched-over figure staring at her blank Microsoft Word document, and her 23 open tabs, ranging from ‘How to write a novel,’ to ‘How to beat your inner critic.’ Then laugh at the senseless misery you have created.

Laughing beats loathing. Take it from someone who’s good at both.

On time:

Unless you’ve got a magic stream of income or you’re certain you’re the next Stephen King, don’t quit your day job. Take a deep breath and accept that you’re never going to be able to give your novel the time it needs or deserves.  That’s because in your head, it’s the most precious thing imaginable.

Full disclosure: I’ve gone months without writing a word of my novel. In fact I’ve only recently got back into it after a long absence. I had good reasons. Work was crazy, I was feeling anxious and a loved one was sick. Your reasons are probably better than mine.

But do you know what I didn’t do in my fallow period? Abandon the idea. If the idea of writing a novel is something that eats away at you at night, you have no other choice but to believe that it can be done.

On planning:

For every single idea you have, ask ‘why.’ If your story is about a little girl who loses her dog you need to answer the questions: why does she lose her dog? Why does it matter that she loses her dog? Why does she have a dog in the first place? If you answer these questions, you already have lots of scenes to write: the one where you describe how she loses her dog, the one where you describe what her dog means to her and the one where she gets a dog. All of these scenes will create their own ‘whys?’ Asking why helps you get to know your character’s back story. It also boosts your word count exponentially.  ‘Why’ is a magic word.

On publication:

Don’t write to be published. Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse. Write because it helps you understand. Write because it’s the greatest act of imagination in the world. Write because without stories, we are nothing. Write because you have no other choice. And when you have done that, to the truest of your abilities, show it to the world. And when it is rejected, rest easy knowing that you wrote for the right reasons.

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Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse.

The end

 “I look like I’ve been on a sun holiday,” Frau B said from her hospital bed on a Sunday evening in early January.

“You sure do!” I said, laughing. “Mallorca was it?”

She nodded conspiratorially.

Her skin had a yellowish glow, but it was difficult to know how much that had to do with the room’s artificial lighting.

There were two other women in the ward. Both attached to tubes and staring glumly at the wall in front of them, they seemed in far worse condition than Frau B.

“What do you need from the home?” I asked quietly.

“A pair of shoes for sure. The navy ones. My pink cardigan. The pocket mirror. A comb. Some hair slides. And I’m pretty sure there are still some grapes in the fruit bowl?”

“Got it,” I said. “I’ll bring everything over tomorrow.”

“Oh Katechen!” she said happily.

****

“She was in good form,” I texted to Frieda. “In fact, I think the change of scene has been good for her! They’re doing tests tomorrow.”

Frieda is Frau B’s next-of-kin. She’s in her seventies and lives in Hamburg. Until recently, she worked in the bicycle business, selling helmets to clients all over the world.

Their grandmothers were sisters but to keep things simple, they tell people that Frau B is Frieda’s aunt.

Frieda and I have met a few times and keep in sporadic contact. It was she who’d informed me that Frau B had been hospitalised.

“What a relief!” she texted back. “So glad you’re there.”

****

A few days later, Frau B was discharged.

When we spoke on the phone, her voice was wispy and her speech slurred.

She said something about cancer. I didn’t catch what exactly.

I asked her what she needed from the shops. The question stressed her.

“The usual, Katechen. You know yourself.”

I hung up and said to LSH: “It’s the beginning of the end.”

He looked up from his laptop, surprised.

***

I bought yellow tulips (her favourite), some grapes and a couple of pears. All safe bets.

***

I began visiting Frau B once a week nearly exactly five years ago. There have been occasional gaps, when I’ve been abroad, but even then we’ve spoken by phone. Her number is the only one I know off-by-heart.

We arrange the visits days ahead.

Each time, I’ve knocked, listened out for her two-syllable “Ja-a” and opened the door to find her sitting, waiting.

In the early years she’d been in her green armchair. Later, her wheelchair. Almost always in her Sunday best, she would watch me come in and take off my coat, then demand I come closer so she could take a look at the pattern on my dress.

“Nice,” she would say, tracing her fingers along the material. Or once, before Christmas about my woollen boyfriend cardigan, “it’s a good material but a little oversized don’t you think?”

This time, there was no reply when I knocked.

A bag full of red fluid hung from the side of the bed. Somewhere under her nightie she was attached to a tube.

She was making terrible rasping sounds as she slept.

I put the tulips in a vase and the pears in the bowl she’d inherited from her mother-in-law.

Then I sat there, watching her.

I’m not next-of-kin, and the information I was getting through Frieda was being drip-fed.

I took my phone out and went onto some forums. The yellow colour and the extreme rasping pointed to the final stages of liver cancer.

People who’d watched their loved ones die this way had thought to write about their experience and I was grateful for it.

***

I left the room to look for the care staff. They were in the dining hall serving lunch.

Temps from an agency, none of them looked familiar to me.

Like everywhere else, here too they’re understaffed. The pay is terrible; the job is tough and thankless.

“I’m a friend of Frau B,” I said, awkwardly addressing them as a collective. “She, erm, doesn’t seem well at all. I was wondering if anyone could give me some information?”

The faces looked at me, kindly and blankly.

PICCHA

This picture used to hang in Frau B’s room. It was her wedding gift to LSH and me. It now hangs in our bedroom.

 

They didn’t know her.

“Hanna should be able to tell you more,” one said.

Hanna is the head of the section. I know her.

“Thanks,” I said.

I couldn’t find her.

***

I continued, helplessly, to listen to her rasping.

I did some Googling to try and find out what the red stuff in the bag was. I wondered if it could be doxorubicin, a cancer drug otherwise known as the “red devil.”

(It turned out it wasn’t. It was actually a catheter containing her waste).

The rasps and gasps continued. I was terrified that Frau B would simply stop breathing.

Then, like a miracle, she woke up, just before they brought the food in.

“Who is it?” she asked.

“Katechen,” I said.

“Oh Katechen!”

“You were asleep,” I said gently.

“No I wasn’t!” she said. “I just had my eyes closed.”

“Oh really?”

She’d been asleep.

The carer handed me a bowl of hot mush. Mashed potato, friend vegetables and bits of chicken.

“Hanna says you can come see her in her office if you have questions.”

“Thanks” I said.

I decided I’d feed Frau B first.

She was lying flat and didn’t have the energy to sit up.

I was a little worried about her choking, so I started with the mashed potatoes.

She ate them hungrily.

I moved on to the softened vegetables.

She ate them too.

She’s still got an appetite, I thought to myself. This is really good.

“Is there no meat?” she asked.

Never before has a vegetarian been so glad to hear the question.

“Of course there is!” I said.

I cut the chicken up as best I could with the spoon.

She wolfed it down.

I couldn’t find Hanna on the way out.

***

I began an all-consuming course at work, learning to operate a professional camera. We had class all day Monday to Friday. In our spare time we had to organise shoots. The weekends were for filming.

I went to see Frau B as many evenings as I could.

The tone of my conversations with Frieda began to change.

“Don’t worry about anything,” she’d said one evening on the phone as I was leaving work and making my way to the home.

I’ve taken care of everything. The undertakers. The room. It’s all sorted. You don’t need to do anything.”

“Thanks,” I’d said.

***

The last story I read to her was by our beloved Erich Kästner. It’s about a vicious snowball fight between pupils from rival schools.

I made an effort to read it dramatically. Commanding Frau B’s full attention was a challenge that when met, felt like a triumph.

This time, I succeeded.

“He writes so well,” she said as I closed the book for the last time.

“I know!”

I was pleased to have spotted Im Schnee, a collection of his winter-related writing, in the bookshop just before Christmas. Having read our way through the Lyrische Hausapotheke and Sonderbares vom Kufürstendamm, this was the perfect title to get us through a long Berlin winter.

After we read, Frau B requested I feed her some grapes.

“Be careful with the fruit bowl” she said as I approached it, adding significantly, “It’s in your interest.”

Over the years, whenever I brought fruit, I’d ask Frau B to hold the bowl as I placed the pears, apricots, grapes, or whatever else inside.

It had become part of a ritual, which I hoped reminded Frau B that this was a relationship – a friendship – of equals and not of one-sided reliance as she occasionally implied.

I’d often compliment the bowl, knowing that it would trigger an anecdote about her mother-in-law. “If only she knew we were still using her bowl!” she’d say.

“She’d be delighted!” I’d reply.

Perhaps, from where Frau B was sitting, it sounded like I was coveting it.

She wasn’t strong enough to hold the bowl now but she was certainly still interested in the grapes.

I popped them near her mouth and she caught them neatly like a fish.

“Just one more,” she said a few times.

Before I left that night she said, “Katechen, you’re going to laugh at me, but I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“When I’m gone, will you visit someone else?”

One of the managers had asked me that the week before, and I didn’t appreciate it.

Now, coming from Frau B it broke my heart.

“I really don’t know,” I said. “This has turned into a friendship. It wouldn’t be the same.”

***

 

When Frau B and I first met, I was a new arrival in Berlin, scrambling for work and unsure how long I’d be staying. LSB was abroad and I didn’t know many people in the city. As a result, I had plenty of time on my hands.

Five years on, LSB is LSH; together we have a coffee machine from Woolworths, a solid group of friends and far less free time than we’d like.

After he moved to Berlin, LSH, always impeccably behaved (unrecognisable at times), accompanied me on many of my visits to Frau B.

At first he sat mutely in the corner, reluctantly eating the creamy cakes Frau B insisted on saving for him. Then, as his German improved he was given a modest role calculating how much Frau B owed us for the shopping.

We called him “Der Rechner” (or “the calculator”).

His promotion was largely attributable to Frau B’s suspicion that I was undercharging her.

Much to her dismay, LSH’s bills didn’t come to any more than mine had.

“I’m sorry, but Rosmann own-brand Hairspray really does only cost 79 cent,” we’d protest. “We can’t help being thrifty!”

“You’re not to be trusted,” she’d say, shaking her head as she handed over the money.

(We did occasionally undercharge her but only because she sometimes insisted, ridiculously, on tipping us).

***

If I could go back in time and re-capture a single moment with Frau B as she lay dying, it would be this one.

It was, I think, the last time I saw her when she was still awake.

She was very weak, and no longer wanted to eat.

A bunch of  grapes lay untouched in her mother-in-law’s fruit bowl.

On the window sill was a little pot I’d brought a few days before. It contained a hyacinth bulb. After days of doing nothing, it had finally blossomed.

I’d bought it in a rush and hadn’t known what colour it would be.

As it turned out, it was a deep, dark pink.

I picked it up, delighted and brought it over to her.

“Look what blossomed!” I said, holding the pot over her bedside.

She was so weak I expected her, perhaps, to muster a wobbly smile.

Instead, she grabbed the pot and pulled it to her nose.

I had no idea she still had that kind of strength left inside her.

“It smells lovely!” she said.

“I wish we had captured that on camera,” I whispered to LSH.

“Remember it instead,” he whispered back.

***

The last time I saw Frau B, she was already making her way to another place.

They’d removed the catheter to make the journey more comfortable.

LSH and I sat by her bedside.

She seemed smaller. Her glasses were off, making her features appear even more delicate.  Her false teeth, too, had been removed. The bile was still colouring her yellow.

She looked unbearably beautiful, like a tropical fish.

There was no rasping now.

In fact, Frau B looked like she was swimming.

She was thrashing her arms about the way you see babies do in amniotic fluid.

Sometimes, like when I’d reach out to take her hand, she would lift her arm up and away, as if to say – this this – is my point in time.

***

I got the call the next morning. I was in the middle of filming a report with LSH.

“She’s gone,” said Frieda. “She’s at peace now.”

LSH’s friends were coming around that evening to complete the shoot. Cancelling wasn’t an option.

They left in high spirits at 1am; I filmed the entire thing.

When the door closed, I broke down in a way I’ve never done before.

***

The next day LSH and I met Frieda for lunch.

“It all happened so fast,” she said.

“I know.”

“You’re to get the fruit bowl,” she said. “I’ll make sure that happens.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s nothing.” She dabbed at her eyes with a piece of tissue. “She was the last remaining member of my family,” she said. “Now it’s just me.”

“She asked to be cremated,” she continued. “And for her ashes to be placed in an unmarked grave.”

I willed myself not to cry again.

At home, I’d shed more tears than I knew I had. My eyes looked like those almond flakes you buy for baking.

“I think it’s time for a toast,” I said.

We raised our wine glasses.

“To Dora,” Frieda said.

“To Dora,” we replied.

To Frau B, I thought: I’ll remember the spot. I might even mark it with a hyacinth bulb.

***

flowers

Picture: John O’Neill  – Wikipedia Creative Commons

The rabbit cage

A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.

Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.

The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.

Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.

This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.

I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.

Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”

“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.

Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.

She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.

It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.

Still, I nodded indulgently.

As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.

She became increasingly paranoid.

The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.

The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.

The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.

She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.

Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.

I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.

For a while, it seemed to work.

But things are different now.

She insists that the staff  hate her.

And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.

She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.

As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.

The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.

When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.

I didn’t bring it up again.

Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.

She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.

We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”

“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”

I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.

“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.

On this, she had a point.

She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.

I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.

Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.

Photo from Katzi

Photo: LSH aka Andrew Hayden: instagram.com/andrewchayden

She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.

“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.

“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”

“You’re playing me for a fool.”

“Let’s read,” I suggested.

I thought it would help.

But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.

I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.

“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.

LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.

Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.

I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.

I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.

Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”

I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.

“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”

We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.

When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.

Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.

The next day, I called her on my way home from work.

“Who’s this?” she said.

She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.

“Das Kätchen!”

“Kätchen?”

“Yep, it’s me.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I treated you terribly.”

“It’s nothing.”

“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”

“I was worried about you.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”

Now it was my turn to pause.

Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”

We hung up just as it began to drizzle.

As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.