“Are you alone?” Frau Bienkowski asked as I poked my face through the door.
“No,” I said. “I’ve brought somebody for you to meet.”
LSB was on his best behaviour. Earlier, he’d been fretting about the propriety of his shoes and had asked how he would know the appropriate time to shake hands.
Wandering through the streets of Berlin in the past few days, we’d rehearsed the following sentence ad nauseam:
Es freut mich, Sie zu treffen. Ich habe schon viel von Ihnen gehoert. (=It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you)
LSB is a fast-learning savant but word order is not his forté.
Frau Bienkowski held out her hand. LSB smiled nervously and got ready for his moment.
But he wasn’t quick enough.
“Es freut mich, Sie zu treffen. Ich habe schon viel von Ihnen gehoert,” Frau Bienkowski said.
LSB gaped at her. “Freut mich, freut mich,” he said.
I had already recommended LSB’s services as a wheelchair driver, which meant that for the first time, we could venture outside the grounds.
Frau Bienkowski had the afternoon all planned out. She had a plastic bag full of laundry which we were to drop off at the dry-cleaners before going to the coffee shop next door.
Frau Bienkowski wanted a pot of coffee and a small treat. LSB and I decided to share an enormous piece of Zupfkuchen, a decadent chocolate-cheese cake of Russian descent.
When we brought it to the table, Frau Bienkowski looked disgusted.
“You are to have a cake each” she said. “On no account will you be sharing.” She turned to LSB, who looked bewildered and bemused. “Get yourself your own,” she said. “Go on.”
I translated for LSB. He waved his arms about ineffectually. Frau Bienkowski became sterner and LSB got back up to examine the cakes on display.
“I wish he were that obedient to me,” I said as we watched him choosing a pastry. Frau Bienkowski laughed. “You are too young to be sharing cake. It’s ridiculous.”
From the window of the café Frau Bienkowski could see the neighbourhood where she grew up. “There used to be a tram on this street,” she said. I asked her whether she remembers horses and carriages.
“Yes,” she said. “There used to be a track for horses.” But it, along with the tram was abolished when Hitler came to power.”
“They widened all the roads,” she said. “For the rallies.”
She said she remembered watching them as a girl.
“What were they like?”
She paused. “They were exciting.”
Frau Bienkowski asked us to take her back to the old people’s home through the park.
The sun was out and the birds were singing.
“After the war,” Frau Bienkowski said, “there were no trees here. Everything had to be used for fuel. There was nothing left.”
Back in her room, I asked Frau Bienkowski if I could show LSB the photograph of her family.
“Yes,” she said. “Take it down from the wall so he can see better.”
I asked LSB to guess which child was Frau Bienowski.
He chose a toddler with wispy hair looking to the side.
But it wasn’t Frau Bienkowsi. She was the little girl kneeling on the bottom left, with short hair and buckled shoes.