It’s usually bad news when Achim is called to see his superior. Especially given the normal state of affairs, which is that the boss is barely aware of Achim’s existence. And that is exactly Achim’s purpose in life: to blend in with the wallpaper. He cuts a perfectly bland figure in his regulation grey trousers and blueish-grey waterproof anorak, his entirely forgettable features, average height and mousy, slightly greying hair cut in an average style: not too short and certainly not too long. Nothing about him merits a second look. That is how Achim likes it, and it is also exactly the look required in his, for want of a better word, occupation.
Achim is a fully paid-up member of staff at the Ministry for State Security in Berlin. He himself would describe what he does as ‘investigative work’, but in reality he mainly paces the streets or hangs around in hedges with binoculars, watching the movements of suspects whilst trying to remain undetected himself. He is, in other words, a human bug. Although Achim himself would flinch at this definition, he sees nothing wrong with what he does. He is a simple man living the simple life, so he doesn’t understand why some people don’t like this country. If you stick to the rules, you can have a nice little flat on the sixth floor in a block of flats in Berlin Marzahn, apply for your Trabant and maintain your allotment while you save up for it and wait the ten years until it’s ready. Everbody has a job, and everything in life is decided for you. What’s not to like? And why would you have anything to hide unless you are guilty of something?
On those days when it turns out that he had been watching a suspect doing nothing other than taking out the rubbish, weeding the garden and having sex with their married partner or girlfriend, he tells himself that it was worth finding out that an innocent person has been wrongly suspected. Or that they had just happened to watch an enemy of the state on an innocent day, whichever is more likely. And watching the sex is a perk of the job.
Right at this moment, Achim couldn’t be more conscious of his own presence as he stands in front of the boss’s desk. He is waiting for the man to stop hollering instructions down the phone while slurping his coffee. The office is filled with the smell of the stale brew which had probably been left stewing on the coffee machine in the corner for hours, coupled with a note of equally stale cigarette smoke and a whiff of body odour which definitely isn’t emanating from Achim. Though, truth be told, he is nervous enough to break into a sweat himself. The ubiquitous overcoloured photo of a menacing looking Erich Mielke, the head of the Ministry for State Security, serves only to point out how rather very beige the rest of the office is, and how rather very red his boss’s head. This has nothing to do with the man being angry – which, admittedly, he often is – but with some condition, skin or heart or otherwise, which gives him the perennial look of a middle-aged bald man who had held his breath for so long that his head was about to explode.
“If our files are correct, you were put in charge of that biochemist’s case”, says the boss, hanging up the phone and simultaneously practising his power stare on Achim.
“Yes”, says Achim a little too meekly.
“Well, they – ”
“- disappeared, I heard. “, cuts in the boss, rising from his chair, arms folded, drawing unwanted attention to his ample midriff. He started pacing the room. “They are in Hungary, if you’d care to know”, he says, menace in his voice, pausing to grab a piece of paper from his desk. It was a photocopied letter with Kerstin’s handwriting which the boss now waved in front of Achim’s nose. “This was picked up by our colleagues in Leipzig. It’s a letter to her mother. How come you didn’t notice two people you were supposed to surveil left like that?”
“The girl wasn’t under surveillance”, says Achim.
“We did watch her to start with, but she seemed unimportant compared to him and the other 50 cases we have to keep an eye on. We’re rather busy you know, what with all the church gatherings and people printing flyers and so forth.”
“She was his wife, for heaven’s sake!”, growls the boss.
“Well, only in a way.”
“She was the wife of a scientist and doctor who was on our surveillance list, who cost us thousands to educate, who had far too many contacts in the west and who was important to the socialist economy!” Achim could swear the man’s face had reddened further.
“She was writing her degree paper, why would she not return from Hungary? Of all the people we were watching she was the one least likely to attempt to flee the GDR. Far too scared.”
“Seems you got her wrong, Sherlock. She’s writing here that she isn’t coming back.” The boss’s finger stabs the photocopy ferociously. “They have applied to the Hungarian government for political asylum, and you know what? Our Hungarian friends have granted them temporary leave to stay. The foreign minister is up in arms about it, but the Hungarians are not handing over any more of our citizens since they’ve signed an agreement with the West German government in February.”
Achim’s mind scans the events of the last few months. Had they missed anything? It all seemed a perfectly usual student life she was living: A carnival at the university, the subject dressed in a costume made out of plastic bags, her face painted to match the colours. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes she and the scientist had sat in the bistro of the House of the Soviet Culture together, eating blinis and smoked salmon. That was a good thing, surely, to embrace the culture of our friends and allies? The scientist had spent six months in Moscow as a student where he would have learnt to appreciate the culinary delights of the Soviet Union.
Once Achim followed them on one of their late walks, really late, they did that sometimes, increasingly after his flat had been bugged. They must smell it, these people, those with something to hide. Half past midnight it was, and they were standing on Leipziger Straße looking across to Checkpoint Charlie, a little too long for Achim’s taste, talking quietly. Now that really had been suspicious. He even dared to walk by, trying to catch a word, but they had stopped talking by the time he’d reached them. Stupid thing to do, he thought in retrospect, that really must have drawn attention to the fact they were being shadowed. He had to bend down to tie his shoelaces as soon as he was around the corner, internal Stasi code for requesting to be replaced due to his cover having been blown.
They had also followed her to the Gethsemane Church, the centre of resistance within the evangelical church. She had gone there a few times with a friend, but they had attended some fringe group, something to do with South America. Harmless. Anyway, all the groups at that church were monitored closely. There was an informal member of the Stasi in this particular group – a guy with a full white beard and a fairly new Commodore PC at home. Funny how easily some of these people were fooled: The middle-aged Santa with the computer was fairly charismatic, so questions about why an ex-Policeman who had fallen out with the regime would have come into possession of something as exotic and rare as a computer were rarely raised. Of course he was very generous about other people using it, so the Stasi had a copy of every document those dissidents had written on it. In due time they would pounce on them all.
Kerstin was not among them though. She’d never written or said anything that would indicate that she was about to do what she had done. Escaping from the German Democratic Republic was a crime – one of the worst, inevitably resulting in a long prison sentence if the subject was caught. It had been the only way to stem the never ending ‘brain drain’, the flow of educated people leaving East Germany, even after the wall had been built in 1961.
There is no telling with some people. Another one of Achim’s mottos.
“Are you following me?” The boss hollered, bringing Achim back to the beige room.
“I – I was just thinking that there’s no telling with some people”, said Achim by way of defence.
“That wasn’t my question. I want to know what you’re going to do about it.”
“We – we could go to Hungary, trying to find her.”
“No need, she’s somewhere in Budapest”, said the boss, reading from the letter. “But go there anyway, shadow her movements. And find someone who speaks Hungarian, call that blasted institute or whereever the scientist worked before, see if they’ve offered him a job or whatever. Someone there must have helped them secure the permit to stay. And the usual of course: Stop their accounts, search the flat, take anything of value.”
“Will be arranged, comrade. Socialist greetings.” Achim hastily leaves the room.
“Dimwit”, says the boss quietly to the closed door. He reaches for the used water glass on his desk and, with the other hand, pulls out a large bottle of Korn from the bottom desk drawer. He pours the last dreg from the bottle into the glass, lifts it to the Mielke portrait :”We’re all doomed, mate”, he toasts the minister and downs the glass in one.