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.


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.”


“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.”


“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.



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:

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!”


“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.


Falling leaves

The doors of the lift slid open and I found Frau B sitting in her wheelchair, waiting.

Heaviness hung in the air. It was a bad day for me to be late.

“I’ve been so sad this past while,” she said when we were back in her room. “I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

We looked out the window at the tree. Its stark crown stood out against the grey sky. A gust of wind swept a handful of orange leaves off its lower branches. We watched them swirl to the ground.

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

We’d arranged to clear out the wardrobe, a task I was not looking forward to. Frau B is a back-seat tidier.

“No Katechen!” she will say as I stand haplessly before the wardrobe. “Hang it up so the zip faces left!”

“No!” she exclaims when I do what I’m told. “Put it over there with the blouses.”

We got the job done, and by the time I’d closed the wardrobe door, Frau B’s sadness had morphed to anger.

I found out when I tried to convince her that a sticker might be the solution to an ongoing problem she’s been having with her television.

Frau B’s fingers are crooked and hook-like so she often ends up pressing the wrong button on her remote control.

This results in a maddening situation where she cannot remove the teletext from the screen.

My suggested solution, as with all uncooperative technology, is to turn the offending device off and on again.

But there’s little point if you don’t know where the on button is. So I’d brought along some luminous stickers I thought could be used to mark the right button.

Frau B was having none of it.

“That’s not the on button,” she insisted when I showed her. “It’s somewhere down here.”

I politely persevered.

“NO Katechen!” she snapped. “That’s NOT where it is!” 1478964532403

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

I reached for the book and we continued the story about Rosa Luxembourg, which had captivated Frau B last week.

I was a few sentences in when she asked me to stop. “Let’s just chat instead,” she said.


Frau B’s sadness-turned anger had morphed into remorse.

“You’re my one and only, Katechen” she said. “You really have no idea where I’d be without you….”

Her eyes were glistening and her gaze reached far beyond me.

“And me without you!” I said, with that false kind of brightness that stops you from welling up.

“And I was so snappy with you!” she said.


“My mother always said I would find someone to take care of me in old age,” she said. “And then you came along.”

“You see, mothers are always right!” I said, and made her laugh.

We sat there for a while, looking at the falling leaves, safe in the knowledge that this kind of melancholy too would lift.


When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.


Frau Bienkowski’s ex-boyfriend

“Did you have boyfriends before LSB?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“I did,” I said. “But I can count them on one hand. Did you have any relationships before you met your husband?”

“When I was a girl,  I had a crush on a lad who went to the boys’ school nearby. He was quite good-looking and certainly the best-dressed among his peers.”

I nodded understandingly. (Who am I to question the selection criteria of a lady with 70 years more dating experience and a vastly superior fashion sense?)

“We were friends for a while,” said Frau B. “But then he went away to do an apprenticeship with Siemens.”

“Did you keep in touch?”

“We wrote each other letters but agreed not to be exclusive.”


Here is a tangential picture of LSB’s sillouette

“What happened when he came back?”

“Well, one night, we all went to a ball. My mother made me a red silk dress; it really was exquisite; a perfect fit.

Months later, the boy told me that he’d always remember how well I looked that night.

Then suddenly,” said Frau B, pausing for effect, “out of nowhere, my bubble burst and he no longer paid me a scrap of attention.”

“Oh no!” I said. “Why not?”

“At first, I had no idea,” said Frau B. “Then finally, one of his friends admitted that he’d told my crush a bizarre story about me hating his guts!”

“What? Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know. Jealously probably. Anyway, we didn’t talk for months but eventually re-established contact. We wrote each other letters for years and years after that – even after we’d both married other people!”

“How did your husband feel about that?” I asked.

“He didn’t really like it,” said Frau B. “I had to reassure him sometimes. Once, when I was out walking with my husband we saw the man again. He didn’t look that great any more. I told my husband that now, were I to meet the man for the first time, I wouldn’t give him a second glance.”

“Did that reassure him?”

“It did,” said Frau B. “You’ve got to reassure men sometimes, don’t you?”

“You do,” I said, and told her all about my dating history in exchange.


Ever the Bridesmaid…

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t managed to marry me off yet, which is a pity since she likes a good wedding. She’s always talking about William and Kate’s and is the first to know about the appearance of a new photograph of Prince George.

She’s interested in failed marriages too. Like those of former president, Christian Wulff who, scandalously, separated twice. And she thinks it’s high time his successor, Joachim Gauck marries his long-term partner. After all, Frau B says, she accompanies him to most official events.

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale

Luckily for us both, our appetite for wedding-related stories has recently been whetted by living vicariously through my sister, who got married in Philadelphia in July.

Frau B was there every step of the way.

She was thoroughly briefed on the suitor. And on how he met my sister.

(“Everything is possible online these days!” she had said approvingly)

She knew all about  the navy bridesmaid dresses, which we ordered online for $25. She knew my sister was making her own wedding cake. And she had a good knowledge of the guest list too.

Ever the stylist, she worried about how I would wear my hair on the day. She suggested I get the same cut I had last December.

I have documented my fear of hairdressers here before. Believe me, they get worse when you cross the Atlantic. My cutter had scraggly blue hair and dreadful manners. She refused point-blank to cut the shape I wanted, instead insisting, “It’s 2014  dude. You sister is getting married! Try something new.” She also accused me of frequenting “old lady salons.” (She’s right obviously; hip salons don’t have libraries attached.) I ended up with a stupid cut. Relieved I wasn’t the bride.

Frau B was also privy to my pre-wedding music-related woe.(PWMRW; primarily affects  amateur musicians, according to DSM X)

I had brought my violin back from Dublin at Christmas after my sister hinted she might want my (other) sister and me to play during the ceremony.

Things were going okay at first, though I hadn’t played in years. My fingertips were getting tougher and I was playing halfway in tune. Then one night, when I was doing my floor exercises (as you do) LSB tried to step over me to get to the couch.

Except he tumbled over my open violin case instead. I watched as if in slow motion as he landed, knees first on top of the instrument.

Snap. Crack. An expletive.

I twisted out of my yoga pose faster than you can say “downward dog” in time to see my E string spring loose. Then the A string. Then the bridge collapsed. It was all very traumatic.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had to bring it to the Geigenbaumeister. He fixed it for €10 and told me he’d had a Stradivarius in earlier that week. Frau B told me I’d got lucky. She was right. Could have been much worse. Could have been a collapsed Stradivarius bridge.

When I visited her last week, Frau B said: “Tell me everything about the wedding. Then show me the pictures.”

I told her that my sister was objectively the most beautiful bride there’s ever been.

That the wedding took place in a medical museum which boasted among its displays a gigantic colon. (Available for guests to view before dinner).

That everyone survived the violin duet.

That the cake was spectacular.

That my tough big sister had to try really hard not to cry during the (self-written) vows.

That I had to try even harder.

When I showed her the pictures,  Frau B said. “My! What long hair your sister has got!”


Christmas with Frau B

Willy Brandt wouldn’t really have been my type,” Frau Bienkowski says, examining the Tagesspiegel’s full-page spread in his honour.

“Nor mine” I say.

“He was a bit of a womaniser.”

“Well, just as well he’s not our type!”

Willy Brandt  source: Wiki Media

Willy Brandt
source: Wiki Media

She laughs. “Shall we get some coffee?”


“So Katechen, tell me about your week.”

I tell her about my friend’s visit and our trip to Dresden. And about work and the Christmas parties I’d been to.

She tells me her niece is arranging a little Christmas party for her and that the cooks downstairs have agreed to roast them a goose.

This will be Frau B’s 95th Christmas. She has decorated her room with electric candles (real ones are deemed too hazardous in the home), a bunch of deep red flowers and a table cloth she made herself.

We agree that Christmas is an event choreographed by women and enjoyed by men.

“I remember my father standing by the fire once. It was just after Christmas and he was saying ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful time of year! I could do this all over again.’ Quick as lightening my mother piped up ‘No wonder – you didn’t have to lift a finger! ’”

Frau P smiles. “I’ll never forget that!”

I take out my gift for Frau P.

It is poorly wrapped in grey tissue paper.

She opens it gingerly and fingers the picture frame.

Because she has impeccable manners she says immediately: “Oh, it’s lovely!”

But I can tell she hasn’t seen it properly yet. I wait for a moment while she examines it more closely.

“Is that… us?” she asks.


“But when..?”

“Do you remember my parents when my parents came to visit in the summer?” I say.

“Oh yes!” she says. “Thank you, Katechen – that makes me really happy!”

“Now,” she says. “It’s my turn.”

“What? Frau B … you’re shouldn’t have.. ”

She hands me a little package wrapped in reindeer-themed paper. “It’s just five bars of chocolate,” she says. “You know I can’t get out to the shops.” Then she presses an envelope into my hand.

“Open this at home,” she says. “It’s for you and Andrew. I made an attempt at writing but you know I’m no longer capable of it.”

I stammer a thanks and tuck the envelope into my bag.

I pick up the book about the Irish nuns.

(My current fine on it is €8.75)

“It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this,” she says. “We are just so good at chatting!”

“I reckon we’ll have it done by this time next year,” I venture.

“Oh come on Katechen,” she says. “How long are you expecting me to live?”

“Oh, there’s life left in you yet!” I say – brightly because that is the only way to talk about death to a 95 year-old.

Later on at home, I open the envelope. Inside is €30.

I can’t make out much of what it says in the card inside but I can discern the word “Katechen.”