A girl and a boy are sitting on a concrete bridge, their bare legs dangling through the gaps between the rusting iron railings. It’s a late balmy afternoon in August. Around them the air smells of grass and straw and dust and wild poppies, and sings with distant birdsong and the chirring of crickets practising before the night concert. In the thigh-high parched grass where the bridge ends and nature takes over, four bicycles lie discarded on the ground, the red girls’ bike visibly smaller among the boy’s and their parents’ bikes. Next to them, the children’s parents have spread out a frayed picnic blanket where they now take a rest from the cycle ride which took them past ripe corn fields and through the gently undulating hills visible in the distance.
The boy is about 12, with a shiny, almost black hair cut in a fringed pageboy style. His tanned arms and legs fidget agitatedly, and his greenish-grey eyes dart from point to point at the events happening below the bridge. He is excited: This is clearly something he had been looking forward to all day.
The girl is younger, three years perhaps. Her hair is a slightly lighter brown and falls in two wonky plaits down to below her shoulders. In fact, everything about her is slightly out of kilter: Her parting, her too short fringe, her nose, her large brown eyes, her smile. She looks charming in this imperfect way, and lanky and awkward the way children are when they’ve grown too much in too short a time.
Both children are oblivious to the birdsong, the breeze, even the church beyond the meadow, one of Lionel Feininger’s models for his countless expressionist church paintings. The children look down at the stream below the bridge, a stream not of running water but of fast driving cars.
“Ford!“, cries the boy triumphantly, and “Mazda!“ the girl, but the boy quickly corrects her:
“That was a Honda, not a Mazda, stupid. No points.“
The year is 1973, and what they’re looking at is the Transit route, a heavily guarded motorway connecting South West Germany to West Berlin. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the time when the students, hippies and military-service dodgers from Bavaria and Swabia would return home to West Berlin, and the traffic moves fast in all four concrete-slabbed lanes.
The smells the children breathe are not the grassy, earthy smells from the fields and woods beyond, but car fumes. They breathe them in eagerly: To them it’s the fragrance of freedom, of a world they have never visited and would not be able to see with their own eyes until 16 years later. The boy knows the car makes from various packs of car-themed card games he’s accumulated; he learned all their details, such as engine sizes, acceleration and top speed, with an almost religious fervour he can’t muster at school. He can spend hours laying out the cards, comparing the models’ specifications. He has sets of compact cars, limousines, sports cars, motorbikes. Occasionally he would swap a pack of cards for another on the school playground, secretly, making sure that the teacher in charge is not looking. His favourite car is the Lamborghini Miura, a matchbox model of which he wants more than anything in the world.
“Cool, an Opel Kadett!“ he shouts suddenly, pointing at an overtaking car.
“Do you know what a Kadett is?“, asks his sister, who had been lost in her own thoughts.
“An Opel, silly“, replies her brother, deeply ensconsed in their game.
“No, it’s a kind of soldier.”,”Maybe he is one”, says the boy. “He could be an American soldier, there are lots of them in West Berlin.”
“Where do you think he’s going?”, asks the girl dreamily.
“West Berlin, stupid, you can’t go anywhere else on this motorway.”
“No, I mean, how do they live, what’s their home like?“
The boy thinks for a few seconds. “I bet they have a nice big flat, and inside it smells like the parcels Auntie Inga sends us.”
“And it’s got bright red sofas, like the ones in the Bader Catalogue!”, adds the girl excitedly.
“Yes, and all the records you can wish for: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC … And posters .. Yes, a poster of The Dark Side of the Moon, the one with the big chimneys and the flying pig. And a big colour TV.”
“Hmmm”, agrees the girl, longingly. “That’s how I’ll live when I grow up.”
“No, you won’t”, says the boy, “you’d have to jump onto one of the car roofs first.”
The girl looks down, as if to measure the height: “What would happen if I did, and they’d found me? Would I be shot, like the people they talked about on the news?”
“Probably”, the boy says matter-of-factly. “And if you’d live, you would end up in prison for a very long time. Oh wow, look – a Mercedes!”