My latest novel, published 2018 by The Dome Press
‘Half a World Away is a stunning book: tender, chilling, original and uplifting. The changing face of East Berlin is depicted in cinematic detail, while Sue Haasler draws you so close to the central characters of Alex, Nicky and Detlef you can feel their heartbeats through the page. A powerful story quite unlike anything I’ve read before. I loved it.’ – Miranda Dickinson
‘A hymn to optimism and open-heartedness’ – Su Bristow
East Berlin, 1987. Alex is a talented saxophonist, flirting with ‘Western’ jazz as well as girls. When he meets Nicky – a beautiful English girl visiting East Berlin as an au pair – she makes him feel that his dreams could become reality.
Detlef’s love for his country has always been enough for him, until Alex makes him feel things he never thought possible. But what use is his passion when its object doesn’t even know he exists?
As Alex meets a new group of musicians, he moves closer to influences considered subversive by a state that has eyes and ears everywhere and Detlef’s unrequited feelings threaten to endanger them all.
The book is sadly out of print now but I have a few copies, so if you’d like one just email me at pauseliveaction(at)hotmail(dot)com
EXTRACT FROM HALF A WORLD AWAY:
He tapped the metal cover of the peephole lightly with the pad of his forefinger. It swung aside, making only a whisper of sound, like silk against silk. It still sounded alarmingly loud in the deep silence, but he was sure it couldn’t be heard from outside. The time spent unscrewing it and polishing it to a mirror finish had been time well spent. He experimented a little and found that, with a steady pressure from his index finger and a swift clockwise movement, it was almost silent.
He was just about to leave and go about the day’s business when he heard footsteps in the stairwell outside his door. The peephole gave a perfect view of the stairs, so he was able to watch whoever was going up or down for several seconds, noting what they were wearing, what they were carrying, who they were with, sometimes catching snatches of conversations.
This time it was just the old woman who lived on the floor above him. She was moving painfully slowly under the weight of a bucket of coal which she’d no doubt already carried up the flight of stairs from the cellar.
He could have just stayed there and watched, but there came a time when watching wasn’t enough. His scalp tingled as he decided what he would do.
He unfastened the bolt and three locks that secured the door. As an afterthought he threw a scarf around his neck and picked up an empty bucket that stood by the door, stepping out and coming face to face with his elderly neighbour.
She looked startled.
‘I see we have the same idea,’ he said, indicating his coal bucket. His voice sounded reedy and strange and he coughed to clear his throat.
She glanced up at him, her watery grey eyes suspicious and guarded. ‘Has to be done,’ she said. ‘If we aren’t to freeze to death.’
‘Please allow me to help.’ He locked his door and placed his own bucket down next to it, and took her heavy pail from her hand. She didn’t protest.
‘Thank you, Herr…’ she said, leaving a pause for him to supply his name. He didn’t, but there was nothing wrong with her eyesight as she quickly read the name written under his doorbell. ‘Herr Ohm. You’re very kind,’ she added.
Even without the bucket, she walked annoyingly slowly. He kept pace beside her as she shuffled towards the next flight of stairs. There was a strong smell of cleaning fluid and a fainter one of cheap cigarettes.
‘Not many young people would be as kind as you,’ she remarked.
He shrugged modestly. ‘One must do one’s best to be neighbourly,’ he said, fighting the urge to give her a little push to help her speed up.
‘Tell that to that shower who live next door to me,’ she grumbled. He didn’t reply, but shifted the coal bucket from one hand to the other so he could lean closer to her. ‘They come in and out at all hours, banging the door, shouting at each other.’
He knew the family she was talking about. He knew them all.
‘What do they shout about?’
‘Ach, I don’t know. They’re just volatile types.’
She obviously didn’t know much, or wasn’t going to say anything, and he couldn’t think of any way to prompt her without seeming too obvious. He was glad when they reached the door of her flat and he could hand the bucket back to her.
‘Thank you, young man. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?’
This was the risk. His simple act of apparent kindness had made the silly old fool think he wanted to be friends.
‘Unfortunately I must be off,’ he said, and left it at that, turning around and reaching the bottom of the stairs before he even heard her key turn in the lock.
As he reached the door of his flat, out of habit, he glanced down the stairwell and something caught his eye. Picking up the coal bucket he’d left by the door, he walked down the next flight of steps. The paper was lying crumpled in a corner, kicked and trodden on by various passing feet. He picked it up, glanced at it, and dropped it into the bucket as if it was toxic. He walked quickly back up the steps and almost forgot to breathe until he was safely inside the flat, door double-locked.
He took off his scarf, folded it neatly and placed it on the polished surface of the old hall table. Opening a drawer in the table he took out a notebook. The yellowish pages were ruled in faint grey squares. Picking up a pen, he entered the date – April 17th 1987 – and the name of his elderly neighbour, Frau Bergman. Next to that he noted the time and the word COAL. There was nothing else to add, so he picked up a ruler, drew a neat line and then made another entry for her neighbours. Flicking back a couple of pages, he found he already had quite a few entries about these neighbours, the Schmidts. The son: who came and went at all hours of the day and had recently adopted punk clothing. The mother: who occasionally flaunted carrier bags from Western supermarkets. The father: who seemed overly fond of drink.
The piece of paper lying at the bottom of the empty coal bucket made him feel uncomfortable. He picked it out with a thumb and forefinger and placed it on the table. Who had brought such a thing into his house? He’d bet it was that Schmidt boy from upstairs. He looked just the type to go round with his pockets full of this kind of rubbish. Peace? Disarmament? It was nothing but thinly-disguised propaganda against the state. Very poorly printed, too. He placed it between the endpapers at the back of the book, closed the book and replaced it in the desk drawer. Behind it were five other identical books, all full of information. Each little entry on its own was nothing. It was all about the patterns, the trends. It was about being observant and meticulous, ensuring nothing was missed. It was about safety.
Hearing voices on the stairs, Detlef Ohm returned to the peephole and softly brushed the cover aside.
At twenty-three, Alex Meissner had the natural confidence that comes to someone with talent, youth and beauty, who is generally adored, and who lives a reasonably comfortable life in a totalitarian state. But as he cycled along the wide, tree-lined boulevard of Karl-Marx Allee on a damp April afternoon in 1987, Alex was feeling unusually nervous.
For one thing, he was late for the wedding. He didn’t like being late for things and letting people down, though the wedding itself didn’t bother him at all. What was making him nervous was the letter he’d had that morning.
He cycled roughly over a kerb and felt the saxophone case bump against his back. He shifted it into a more comfortable position with his elbow and slowed his pace down a fraction. Better to arrive late than with a sax that was even more battered than before. That was the last thing he needed, especially now.
A moment of panic washed through him again, like it had when he’d opened the letter from the university. Had it been complete arrogance to apply? What if he got to the audition and couldn’t play a note? What if, like the day he’d first put his lips to the instrument, only a sound like a broken car horn would come out? He took a deep breath and mentally invoked John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and his all-time hero Charlie Parker. He’d bet that even they, geniuses all, sometimes got nervous and made mistakes. The trick was to act like it was a style choice.
He glanced up, above the ornate buildings that had been built to house ordinary working people and to show off at the same time (everything had an ulterior motive in this country). An aeroplane, tiny and fragile-looking against the gunmetal sky, hummed above him, and Alex wondered where it was heading: Moscow, perhaps, or Warsaw, maybe even somewhere as exotic as Cuba. The range of possible destinations was limited to places with friendly regimes. Maybe one day he’d be on a plane himself, jetting across the world to give a concert. Musicians could travel to places other people wouldn’t be allowed to go – but only serious, proper, accredited musicians with degrees. Well, he’d taken the first step towards joining them, and he had this letter inviting him to the next step, to audition at the music school itself. Maybe it wasn’t an impossible dream.
The tyres of his elderly bicycle were throwing up pellets of damp sand, which he hoped weren’t making too much of a mess on his dark trousers. His legs ached, and the saxophone in its case banged uncomfortably against his spine again as he rode over another kerb and across the road, ignoring a red crossing-light and the outraged shouts of several pedestrians: even when there were no cars to be seen, it was considered an absolute sin to disregard the crossing lights. He narrowed his eyes against the fine rain which had started to fall, wishing he’d thought to put on a hat. This was no kind of weather for a wedding, he muttered to himself.
The final part of the journey was easier, across the smoothly-paved walkways separating several huge, modern blocks of flats. The height of the buildings kept the wind and rain off a bit, at least. He pulled hard on the worn-out brakes as he arrived at the back of the community hall, and jumped off the bike, pushing it against a wall under an overhanging balcony, where it would hopefully stay at least partly dry, and ran into the building.
‘Where’ve you been? Look at the mess you’re in!’ Ute was waiting for him, wearing her best dress and what she liked to call her ‘stage’ make-up, and she was not pleased. Her dark eyes flashed angrily at him.
He kissed her affectionately on her powdered cheek; her skin felt warm on his lips after the cold wind outside. ‘I’m here now, aren’t I?’ he said.
‘You’re soaked! And your hair!’ she grumbled, reaching up to smooth at his blond, messy hair, and the gesture let him know he was forgiven even if her face and her voice didn’t. ‘Everyone else is here,’ she said, tutting when she noticed that the bottoms of his trousers were, as he’d feared, covered in a spray of yellowish sandy mud. ‘Even Jakob.’
‘Wow. I must be really late.’
The community centre was decked up in its festive best, with red tablecloths across the trestle tables, covered in plates of food ordered in from local butchers and bakers: sausages and salads, dark and white bread, huge plates with alternating stripes of salami and sliced cheese adorned with a sprinkling of paprika, pickles, copious amounts of the salty pretzel sticks called Salztangen. Tinned peaches and pears floated in orangey-red liquid in a huge punch bowl. There were streamers and balloons festooned around the walls like at a child’s party, and even the oversized framed portraits of Lenin, Marx and Honecker had streamers draped over them, like they were joining in the fun too.
‘The bride’s friends tried to take the patriotic pictures down, but you won’t be surprised to hear that the Hausmeisterin had a fit and ordered them all back up,’ Ute said, pulling a face because this gorgon of a caretaker, Frau Dannowitz, also happened to be her mother.
‘I can always play better with the eyes of Vladimir Ilyich upon me,’ Alex said, glancing up at the smug face of Lenin, an image almost as familiar to him as his own reflection.
‘As long as someone’s watching you, you’re happy.’ The last to speak was Alex’s oldest friend Jakob, who was sitting behind his drum kit, beating on his thighs with his drumsticks because he could never keep still. The final member of the band, Michael, simply nodded at Alex and carried on tuning his guitar.
Alex opened the battered case and took out his precious alto saxophone, the metal icy to the touch after its cold journey through Berlin. It was even colder than his fingers, which were stiff and cramped. He blew on them and rubbed his hands together to try and get some feeling back, holding the reed he was going to use in his mouth to moisten it. Once the reed was ready, he fitted it carefully to the mouthpiece of the instrument, tightened the ligature and started to breathe gentle, long breaths into it, warming it back to life. He played a B-flat scale to check the tuning and he was ready.
‘So how come you were so late?’ Jakob asked him. ‘We thought you weren’t coming.’
‘I had to finish cleaning up at work,’ Alex said, his still-cold fingers silently working the saxophone keys as he spoke.
‘You should have asked your old man to finish up for you.’
Alex shrugged. ‘I didn’t like to ask him. He’s been working too hard recently.’
While the wedding guests were still arriving, Ute’s mother Frau Dannowitz bustled about in the background, helping to lay out the food and making sure no one got too high-spirited and caused any damage. As the concierge of the Kulturhalle and the apartment block it was attached to, it was her responsibility to see that all was in order. She could be over-zealous, fussy and irritating, as Alex knew too well, having known her for most of his life. She was the one person he’d met whom he’d never been able to charm, which had been a considerable drawback during the time he and Ute had been a couple. The thought of Frau Dannowitz as a prospective mother-in-law had probably been one of the main things that ensured the romance didn’t last.
A friend of the groom signalled to Ute that they were ready for the music to begin. They played crowd-pleasing old standards and cover versions of current favourite East German pop songs. Alex’s role was mainly to accompany Ute, who sang in a husky contralto. He loved it when sometimes it was hard to distinguish her voice from the notes coming from his saxophone. That was what made the sax such a wonderful instrument: it sang with all the range of a human voice, and could express any emotion a voice could express, but better.
Not that there was too much scope for expression in this schmaltzy dance music. Alex yearned to play bigger, more complex, more interesting, more beautiful things, be part of a band of musicians who could challenge him and astonish him. He yearned to be better. Despite the invitation to the audition, there was a part of him that didn’t think it was possible. He was only a baker, after all, a humble breadmaker, who’d left school at sixteen to join the family business. He’d done his military service, served his apprenticeship, followed the path that had been laid out for him since he was born. The only thing that had been different about him was music.
His father had an old Charlie Parker record, and hearing it one day Alex knew that he wanted to play the thing that made the miraculous noise he heard on ‘A Night in Tunisia:’ he had to have an alto sax. Once he’d decided on it, he felt like it had always been there inside him, as much a part of him as the blue of his eyes. He managed to beg, borrow and earn the money to buy a saxophone, and as soon as he successfully got a few notes out of it, he knew he’d found his voice, a way of expressing anything that was inside or outside of him, whether it was joy or pain, love or frustration.
The last song before the break was the Eurythmics song ‘There Must Be An Angel’, which was one of Ute’s favourites to sing. Alex loved it too, and especially the opportunity for improvisation that he got from Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo part. Finally, he could play like he wanted to play, and he didn’t want to stop. At the end of the solo he loved the sound of applause that was just for him.
Soon afterwards the group took a break, while taped music was played for the entertainment of the wedding guests.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Michael said to Alex. ‘You dragged that out for about fifty more bars than we did in rehearsal.’
Alex sighed. ‘Haven’t you heard of improvisation?’
‘This is supposed to be a band, not you and your backing group.’
‘If you want something to sound exactly the same time after time after time, you should just play a record,’ Alex said. ‘This is meant to be live music.’
‘And you would know, baker boy. Been playing the saxophone all of five minutes and you’re an expert.’
Ute attempted to calm the situation. ‘Michael, let’s go and get something to eat. You two want a beer if we can find any?’ She led Michael away among the wedding guests.
Alex looked at Jakob, who was grinning. ‘You’ve really pissed Michael off now. You know he tries to look cool with his stupid John Lennon glasses. You totally stole his limelight.’
‘Sometimes I forget I’m not at home playing on my own,’ Alex said.
‘What bollocks,’ Jakob said. ‘There’s nothing you like better than an audience. You were just spreading out your musical peacock tail. But, sadly for you, the girls always go for the drummer.’ He gestured with a drumstick and Alex looked across the dance floor, where a very pretty blonde girl was gazing across at them. As soon as she realised she’d been noticed, she blinked and quickly looked away.
‘Ah, the German female in full flirting mode,’ Jakob said.
‘She’s quite cute.’
‘I saw her first.’
‘Calm down, it’s not a competition. Go and talk to her if you want to. Be back in ten minutes, though.’
Alex settled himself on the side of the stage and watched as Jakob made a beeline for the girl. After exchanging a few words, they disappeared through a side door. Jakob was obviously determined to make full use of his ten minutes.
Alex took the letter from the university out of his pocket again, even though he’d read it so often he could have recited it from memory. He tried to picture what a university audition might be like and tried to work out what he would play.
He noticed Ute and Michael weaving their way back through the party guests, each of them clutching a glass of beer in each hand and trying not to be jostled.
Then he saw three men of about his own age, heading for the exit Jakob and the girl had just used. Something about the way they were moving disturbed him. It was purposeful, like a unit. Michael had stopped to talk to someone, but as soon as Ute got near the stage, Alex stood up.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he said to her.
When he opened the door to the corridor there was no sign of Jakob and the girl, but the other three men, looking awkward in their cheap suits, were conferring. One of them turned and saw Alex.
‘We’re looking for your mate,’ he said. He didn’t have a Berlin accent. ‘The drummer.’
‘He’s probably gone to the park around the corner,’ Alex said. ‘That’s usually where he takes girls.’
‘The bastard!’ the tallest and most stupid-looking one said, and punched his fist into his palm in a graphic, if unoriginal, demonstration of what he might like to do to Jakob’s face. His mates snarled in support.
‘Quickest way out is that door there,’ Alex said, pointing to a door marked No Exit. ‘Then turn left and then right. Follow the footpath.’
Two of them started towards the door, but the third one, who was perhaps a little bit brighter than his friends, said to Alex, ‘Why are you helping us?’
Alex shrugged. ‘I’m sick of him. He does this every time.’
The three headed out, fired by testosterone and alcohol.
Alex opened a door on his right. Jakob and the girl were in the dark, half hidden behind a stack of chairs and a shelf of cleaning materials. A smear of the girl’s garish red lipstick was now on Jakob’s face.
‘Alex! What the hell?’
‘I just saved you from a beating. You need to get back into the hall now. Get behind that drum kit and act like you never moved.’
‘They’ll be back in a minute. Is it your boyfriend?’
The girl shook her head. ‘Brother. He likes to ruin my life.’
‘I know how you feel,’ Jakob said, glaring at Alex. ‘And he’s not even my brother.’ All the same, he did as he was told and managed to get back to the hall just as Frau Dannowitz bustled out.
‘What’s going on?’ she said when she saw Alex with the girl. ‘Alex Meissner. You haven’t changed, then.’ This was a comment which implied some very unfair things, under the circumstances.
‘I was just helping this lady find the bathroom,’ he said.
‘You managed to get her dress all messed up in the process.’ Alex looked at the girl, who was looking a bit crumpled. ‘As well as messing up my cupboard.’ Frau Dannowitz went to close and lock the door the three men had gone through. ‘So who opened this?’
‘Her brother has gone out there looking for a fight,’ Alex said. ‘You might want to check the front door is locked too. We don’t want any trouble.’
‘Always looking out for yourself,’ Frau Dannowitz tutted.
Back at the stage, Ute had brought plates of food to go with the beer. Jakob, his mouth full, grinned conspiratorially at Alex.
‘You owe me one,’ Alex said. ‘Ute’s mother now has an even lower opinion of me than she had before.’
‘What about my mother?’ Ute said.
‘Nothing.’ Alex picked up a bottle of beer. ‘Who’s Michael talking to?’ The guitarist was chatting to someone Alex had never seen before.
‘Some guy he went to school with apparently.’
The stranger, seeming to realise he was being talked about, looked over at Alex, and smiled.
Michael beckoned Alex over. ‘Alex, this is an old school colleague of mine, Detlef Ohm. This is Alex Meissner, our saxophone genius. Or so he likes to think.’
The other man was tall, with close-cropped dark hair, unusually pale green eyes and a small bow-shaped mouth which broadened into a smile, revealing perfect but somewhat alarming teeth.
‘I enjoyed your playing,’ he said, shaking Alex’s hand very formally, even bowing his head a touch. ‘You have a very great talent.’
Alex felt somehow unsettled by Detlef Ohm, but he accepted the compliment graciously. ‘Thank you. You like jazz?’
‘I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert,’ Ohm said smoothly, ‘but I know a little about music, and it’s easy to spot true talent wherever it manifests itself.’
Alex could readily believe that this man and Michael had gone to the same school – they both spoke like they’d swallowed the German dictionary. Still, it was always nice to be appreciated. Michael was looking a little miffed, possibly because his guitar playing hadn’t been singled out for particular praise by his old school friend. In fact the two old school friends didn’t appear to have much to say to each other; there were no reminiscences about former teachers or fellow pupils. It was all a little awkward. Alex attempted to be friendly. ‘Are you a friend of the bride or groom?’ he asked.
‘Both, you could say,’ the other replied. ‘A distant cousin of one, a work colleague of the other. I didn’t plan to come to this wedding, as I had other commitments, but I’m very glad I did. It’s a rare treat to hear good music in a setting such as this.’
‘We’re just amateurs,’ Alex said.
‘You’re far more than that,’ Detlef Ohm said, with an intensity that made Alex feel uncomfortable even while he enjoyed the flattery.
‘Are we going to play again or what?’ Ute broke in, resting her hand lightly on Alex’s shoulder. ‘It was only supposed to be a short break.’
Alex clipped his sax back on the strap around his neck. When he looked up again, Detlef Ohm had disappeared back into the crowd.
The partygoers were in the mood for dancing, so the band obliged with what Alex thought of as their finest collection of granny music, unchallenging and very dull.
To finish the evening, they played ‘Strangers in the Night’, which Ute sang beautifully in English. Alex loved the song, and felt himself relax into the melody, trying to emulate Frank Sinatra’s impeccable phrasing, in the end blowing the sax so softly that it was more breath than sound, a soft exhalation of spent passion.
And the other advantage of ‘Strangers in the Night’ was that it didn’t need a drummer. Jakob was half way home before the wedding guests even started to disperse.
Nicky Linton put down the book she was reading and wandered to the window, from where she could hear voices calling out and laughter. Pulling the curtain aside a fraction, she looked down at the rain-glistened street which reflected the streetlights in soft yellow pools. Across the road was a low, utilitarian-looking building like a scout hut or something. Nicky hadn’t noticed anyone using it before, but now the doors were wide open, spilling fizzing light on to the pavement along with a quantity of people. There must have been some sort of party – everyone was in good spirits and several were obviously pretty drunk, laughing and jostling each other playfully. They were all dressed up rather formally for just any old party: Nicky thought it might have been a wedding, though she couldn’t spot a bride or groom. Maybe brides in East Germany didn’t wear white – that was just one of millions of things Nicky didn’t know about the country she found herself living in.
Standing at the window clutching a handful of net curtain that smelled like an old photograph album, she suddenly felt self-conscious at the idea that someone might look up and spot her there, all alone on a Saturday night. She moved away from the window and sat back down. After a few moments, she turned on the television, but quickly became frustrated because she could understand very little of what was being said. She cursed herself for not taking the German option at school – she’d gone for Psychology instead, and much use that was to her now, with no one but a sleeping three-year-old boy for company. She decided she’d ask John about German lessons. Maybe he’d even teach her himself.
He’d promised her he would be back early and it was only ten o’clock, which wasn’t late at all really. She wasn’t even entirely sure where he was. He worked as a photographer for a big news agency, but he didn’t talk much about his work and at this time on a Saturday he was most likely out socialising. She didn’t mind her own company, but she hoped all her Saturday nights in Berlin weren’t going to be spent alone in this spartan little flat.
She couldn’t resist the temptation of the window; at least there she could feel some connection with the rest of the world. The partygoers had almost all gone now. A group of five yelled goodbye and squeezed into an old-fashioned pale blue car, which puttered away towards the city centre. A young man with messy blond hair and a black case strapped to his back was talking to a small, dark-haired girl. Their shadows, caught in the street light, splayed across the pavement. They were joined by another young man who looked like ‘Imagine’-era John Lennon, complete with a guitar case. How strange that a band had been playing just over there and she hadn’t heard anything, Nicky thought. She’d only known there was a party when it was over.
The boy with the guitar put his arm around the girl, and Nicky faintly heard them call goodnight to the blond boy, who retrieved an ancient-looking bicycle that was propped against the wall, and prepared to mount, adjusting the case on his back before he did so. As he was about to pedal off, something made him glance three floors up to where Nicky was looking down at him, and he looked right at her before she had the chance to duck out of sight. To her intense embarrassment, he waved, grinning cheekily. She smiled back and was just about to move away when she saw one more person come out of the scout hut: Frau Dannowitz, the housekeeper of the block of flats where Nicky, John and Oliver were staying. Nicky watched as the woman exchanged a few words with the boy who then cycled off quickly in the direction of Karl-Marx Allee.
A few moments earlier, Alex had been desperate to get back to his tiny flat and the bliss of his bed. He was totally exhausted. He was just about to set off home when Frau Dannowitz came bustling out of the Kulturhalle. He braced himself for another rant about what she imagined had been going on in the store cupboard. Apparently, though, she’d forgotten about that, or more likely stored it up for later, and she now had something else on her mind.
‘Alex! Thank goodness I caught you,’ she said, her face flushed with self-importance. ‘Your mother’s neighbour just telephoned to say your father has been taken ill and your mother needs you to go home at once.’
Alex felt his skin tingle as though he was cold. Hardly pausing to thank Ute’s mother, he cycled off.
‘I hope he’s okay!’ Frau Dannowitz called after him.
He pushed open the heavy front door of the tenement block where his parents lived. The enormous dark hallway, which in former years had been able to accommodate coaches and entire teams of horses, now looked like the belly of a whale, the bare stone walls lined with bicycles instead of the swallowed skeletons of fish. Alex added his own bike to the others and pressed the light switch at the bottom of the stairs. The first flight of stone steps was dimly lit, and he braced himself for the climb up the next five flights on legs that were already feeling like jelly from the bike ride.
Quietly unlocking the door of the flat, he saw the light still on in the living room. His mother was watching some old film on TV. She smiled at him, a worried, preoccupied smile that instantly took away what little breath he had after the climb. ‘What’s happened, Mama?’ he asked her, in Russian. Even after twenty-four years in Berlin, his mother found it easier to talk in her native language.
‘He’s been having those pains in his chest again, but this time a lot worse. The doctor has been here.’
‘Why didn’t you send a message to me earlier?’ he asked. He knew his mother would have struggled to communicate with the doctor, who was a brusque man with no time for foreigners.
‘I had to leave him once to go downstairs to call the doctor. Luckily the Schönemanns were at home so I could use their phone. Then I came straight back up and, you know your father, he wouldn’t hear of me disturbing you when you were playing. But I got Mrs Schönemann to call Lotte Dannowitz as soon as I could to give you a message.’
‘Where is he now? Have they taken him to hospital?’
‘Oh, they wanted to take him, but your father kicked up a huge fuss and swore he’d be fine, and the doctor gave him some pills which seem to have helped. He’s sleeping now, anyway. But I was so worried, Sasha.’ She always used the Russian version of his name.
He sat down beside her and hugged her. ‘I know, Mama, but I’m here now. He’ll be fine, I know he will.’ There was no way he could conceive of his bear of a father being anything other than fine.
His mother smiled at him, brushing back the strands of brown hair which were escaping from the ribbon she always wore, with an almost aggressive gesture.
‘I’m just being silly and over-reacting, I expect,’ she said. ‘He says it’s only indigestion, and he’s probably right. As long as he isn’t blaming my cooking. He eats too many snacks while he’s working, that’s what the problem is. So tell me about the wedding. What was the bride wearing? And did they enjoy your playing? I wish I could have heard you.’
He smiled and relaxed a little now that she was talking about everyday, ordinary things. ‘The wedding was a wedding,’ he said. ‘Quite a good crowd, danced a lot, seemed to like us. And you know better than to ask me what the bride was wearing – you should ask Ute when you see her. I’m sure she takes notes and keeps a scrapbook of these things, for when she finally gets her claws into poor Michael.’
‘Michael loves her, which you know perfectly well. I wish you wouldn’t be so cynical. In fact, I wish you would find a girl as nice as Ute for yourself. You should have hung on to her when you had the chance.’
‘That was three years ago, and she’s with Michael now,’ he said, trying to suppress a yawn which would insist on coming anyway.
‘I should let you get to bed,’ his mother said. ‘It was nice of you to stop by. You’re a good boy, Sasha.’
‘I could stay here if you like,’ he offered, dearly hoping, despite himself, that she would say no. He needed his own bed so much, and the idea of sleeping on the sofa didn’t appeal. But, far worse than that, if she said yes it would mean that things were really bad with his father, and he couldn’t bear that.
‘No, baby, you go home and sleep. Unless you have a girl waiting for you outside?’
He grinned. ‘You brought me up far too well for me to even think of leaving a lady outside in the dark,’ he said.
‘All the same, I wish you could meet someone nice.’
‘Maybe I’ll meet someone at university,’ he said, trying to sound casual.
She looked at him for a few seconds, and repeated, ‘University?’
He told her about applying for the music school, and how he’d been invited to an audition, which must mean he was in with a chance.
He waited for her reaction, and when it came it wasn’t what he’d hoped for.
‘Sasha,’ she said, ‘the doctor said your father should take it easy for a while. You know what that means.’
‘Yes, I know what it means,’ he said, thinking about days or weeks of getting up in the dark, cycling to the bakery, stoking up the enormous ovens with coal, getting the bread made, doing the work of two. Or maybe even three, if his mother had to stay home and look after his father instead of serving the customers as she normally did. But it would only be temporary, surely? His father would be fit and well soon, and then there’d be time to follow his dreams.
He knew his father’s response, when he heard about the application to the university, would be entirely different from his mother’s. His father was passionate about jazz, and would have loved to have been a musician himself, whereas his mother had, of necessity, to be the practical one of the family, the one who faced the harsh realities when her husband and son had their heads in the clouds.
A cold wind was blowing when he left the apartment block to cycle back to his own tiny flat. It wasn’t far away, but by now he was so tired that the sax felt like a lead weight on his back. He left the bike in an entrance hall similar to the one at his parents’, but even more ramshackle. His own flat was in the Hinterhaus, the part of the building at the back of a courtyard with a view only of the back of the next house. The building itself was semi-derelict and therefore cheap. He picked his way through standing water and across some piles of rubble left over from repair work that had never been completed, and climbed a mercifully short flight of stairs, past the shared outside toilet and shower-room, to his flat. This was really nothing more than a living-and-sleeping room and a cupboard-sized kitchen, and it was freezing. The tiled stove in the corner, which was the only source of heat, had gone out and the tiles felt as cold as a mortuary slab. He cursed himself for forgetting to see to it before he went out, and shovelled in some of the dark brown coal from the bucket next to it. The bucket was nearly empty, meaning his first job the next morning would be to haul coals from the cellar.
Haul coals, make up the fire in the stove, cycle to the bakery to take delivery of the day’s quota of flour, get the first batch of bread made. That was the plan for the following morning, just like most mornings, except his father wouldn’t be there, cracking jokes and gossiping with the delivery men, hefting bags of flour and sugar and salt like they were filled with air, making the early hours before the sun rose seem like they were precious things you wouldn’t want to miss.
Alex tried not to think of how it would be to work in the bakery alone for weeks or months. He knew that what he should be thinking of was the audition, which was next week. He’d already been rehearsing possible audition pieces with a dedication and urgency that surprised him, because up until that point everything had come easily to him and there hadn’t been much need for effort. This audition could literally change his life. If he was accepted into the university’s music school, if he ended up with a degree in music, he’d be able to play at official venues. He’d be earning a good living from what he loved doing best; the German Democratic Republic prized its artists and rewarded them accordingly. He might even be able to join a well-known band and become a famous soloist, and travel to places he’d only ever read about. Make records, even. He could support his parents and his father would be able to stop working, or at least hire some extra help.
He would go to the audition, play the best he knew how, be accepted into the university and he would work every day from the dark hours before dawn to the dark hours after sunset, baking, practising, reading books and writing essays. He’d keep it all going, because he had to; he owed it to his father and he owed it to himself.
He put a tape on, a copy of the old Charlie Parker LP that belonged to his father and had been played almost to breaking point, and got into bed, having added his coat on top of the quilt for extra warmth. Bunching up his pillow, he curled into a ball trying to keep his feet away from the iciest far reaches of the bed, and let the beauty of Bird’s playing transport him to a sleep in which he played jazz in the clubs of New York and New Orleans, and never had to bake another loaf of bread in his life.
Detlef Ohm was also preoccupied with jazz as he prepared himself for bed, though his mind was far from 1940s New York. He hadn’t even heard of Charlie Parker, and wasn’t interested in music at all. He owned no records or tapes, or any equipment to play them on, and very seldom even listened to the radio.
Music had never moved Detlef, until that evening, when a boy with the brightest blue eyes had played the saxophone like it could reach right inside his body and clutch his heart.
Detlef looked at his reflection in the mirror. It was smiling back at him, which seemed like such a bizarre thing to happen that he automatically stretched the smile wider and turned it into a forensic inspection of the cleanliness of his teeth. He brushed them meticulously, then left the bathroom and walked down the wide, bright, box-lined hallway to his bedroom. He folded his clothes neatly over the back of a chair and put on deep-red cotton pyjamas, which had been warming by the stove.
As the warm, soft fabric settled against his skin, he couldn’t help thinking of the blue-eyed saxophone player again. ‘Strangers in the Night’ coursed through his head, the notes tumbling like fallen blossoms, and he was glad he didn’t have any records, because anyone else’s interpretation of the song just wouldn’t come close to the one he’d heard that night, and he didn’t want to risk that perfect memory being overlaid by another version.
His memory was good that way: he could store things perfectly in their original form, for later recall. He had a magpie mind that loved collecting shiny little details: lists of people, places, events. He was an avid collector, of stamps, postcards, badges, all neatly catalogued and filed away in the boxes stacked along the sides of the hallway. As far as people were concerned, he found details of an individual far more interesting than the personality constructed by them, and he generally preferred to keep people at a distance, as if under a microscope, so they could be observed, safely under glass, controlled and controllable.
That was the plan, anyway, but despite himself, a shimmering but all too corporeal image of Alex Meissner would keep flowing into his mind. He pictured the way Alex stood with the saxophone held slightly to his right and close to his body as if he were dancing with it, seeing again the dark curves of his eyelashes as he closed his eyes when he played, how those eyes had been an astonishingly clear, deep blue, how it had been difficult to speak when they were looking at him.
Detlef passed a cool hand across his face, as if he could wipe the image from his mind that way. Something about Alex had taken a hold of him in a way that scared him, and he tried to think of anything at all that would clear his image from his mind.
What would Holger advise? It was always good, in these situations, to remind himself what Holger would think, and say, and do. Usually he looked forward to telling Holger about everything that happened to him, but he didn’t know what he would be able to say about the boy with the saxophone, if anything. He couldn’t help feeling that Holger wouldn’t approve of him going up to the band like that and talking to them – he’d surprised himself when he’d done it. It wasn’t as if he knew the guitar player that well. They had gone to the same school, but had never been friends. Detlef had never had any friends. He couldn’t help himself, though: something about Alex’s music had called him as surely as if it had spoken his name. And there was that picture in his head again.
He turned down the corner of his duvet, and got into bed, stretching his legs out on cool, smooth sheets, trying to get the ear-worm that was ‘Strangers in the Night’ out of his head, and knowing he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep for a very long time.
© Sue Haasler 2018
The book is sadly out of print now but I have a few copies, so if you’d like one just email me at pauseliveaction(at)hotmail(dot)com