To the outside world Kerstin had always been the cautious, rational type. It was different in her family, where grounded professions such as engineering and architecture were the only acceptable choices, and where she, the youngest and the only girl, was viewed as the exotic one, a bird of paradise. Having excelled at school in the arts, humanities and languages, she probably would have gone on to study law or literature, had this been a different country. Instead she had chosen art and design, a discipline known for attracting a high number of dissident students. She had done well to make it through school, Abitur and her studies without having been coerced into joining the Party of Socialist Unity, the state-prescribed governing force in East Germany. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been pressurized to on several occasions, but so far she had got away with either declining politely or tactically delaying her decision. Maybe it had been exactly that measured, reserved approach that had saved her. No fits or meltdowns from her, no daring escapades. She was, to put it bluntly, a good girl. Which makes what she is about to do today the more audacious.
Are you really sure about this?, Kerstin asks herself for the umpteenth time while paying for the ticket to Budapest at the Interflug counter. It’s a return, although she only needs the outbound flight, but just asking for a one-way plane ticket to anywhere, let alone Hungary, is out of the question. A request such as this would make the woman behind the counter reach for the phone to call her boss, who in turn would call the Stasi. And this being Alexanderplatz, the 1970s designed heart of East Berlin, the capital of the German Democratic Republic, they would be here within minutes to arrest her. Kerstin asks for the return date to be left open though, explaining in her most dutiful-wife-voice that her husband worked there and has fallen ill, and that she was not sure how long she would need to stay.
“That’s fine”, replies the woman behind the counter in a voice indicating that it isn’t, “Just make sure you don’t overstay your travel permit, it runs out on May 7, you know.”
No need to remind Kerstin, she is painfully aware of that. Applying for a new one would take at least six weeks, time she doesn’t have. And there is every reason to assume she won’t be issued it. That’s why she needs to leave tomorrow, but of course she can’t tell the woman that either. Kerstin counts out 753 Marks in cash. If she continues to spend Martin’s money at this speed she’ll need to visit another twelve post offices to make up the 8000 Marks she is supposed to bring.
For a surreal eighteen hours now she’s been racing around central East Berlin, surrepticiously raiding Martin’s bank account for a journey she hadn’t even planned to go on until last night. But then last night, or at least the part of the evening before the doorbell rang, was another universe – a place where she sat over her degree paper, trying hard to concentrate through the tears and the turmoil caused by Martin’s failure to return from his mission impossible. She had expected him back from Hungary last weekend; at the end of Saturday she still thought he might just be delayed and would get on the next plane. At any rate, there was no point in wasting a handful of Marks in a public phonebox calling the lab at the Biochemical Institute in Szeged – he would have long left by now. In fact he had said he wanted to spend the last week of his stay checking out the border to Austria, possibly with the help of Hungarian friends.
There was of course a possibility that he’d been caught doing just that. Would she hear about it? When? And from whom? Would the secret police watch her, gather evidence of her knowledge, even complicity, in order to cobble together a case against her that would then give them grounds to arrest her? She shuddered at the thought of the interrogation. She’d heard about those – everybody had. She would be expelled from university of course. Shame, she was so very close to her degree. She’d pobably be assigned a menial job, as a cleaner in a hospital or a harvest worker or something similar. This was a special treatment reserved for people with degrees and dreams. They knew how to humiliate and suck the lifeblood out of those who had something to lose.
She’d never been one of the politically compliant ones, not even at school. Not that she’d actively chosen to when she was little; but rather that it was understood that talking about what had been on television the night before was taboo at school. She doesn’t remember ever having been told that, neither by her parents nor by a teacher. It just went without saying. Like a lot of things did in 1970s East Germany.
There had been stories about teachers questioning children about the look of the clock on the TV news programme or the characters in last night’s Sandman, but that was before her time. By the seventies schools seemed to have by and large given up trying to stop children watching the wrong programmes. So Kerstin and her brother watched Starship Enterprise with a devotion bordering on the religious: the Sunday 8 – 9 pm slot was sacred to them. On the playground they replayed Shiloh Ranch, with Kerstin inevitably ending up as a sole Red Indian fighting against Peter and his friend.
But today is no game. On Kerstin’s mental to-do list are another eight post offices, then a trip to the cleaners to pick up some shirts Martin had left there for ironing (in true mad scientist manner, he was known to wear his shirts crushed when there were no ironed ones left). Plus, and this was the most difficult bit, a visit to a friend to drop off the keys to Martin’s flat. She’d need an excuse for her sudden decision to go on a trip, what could she say? A long weekend at the Baltic Sea to draw? She had done that before, there was even a place she could stay at on her own: a little room in the loft of an old ladies’ house on the island of Rügen with a rickety loo and a bowl and water jug for a bathroom but very special student rates to make up for the lack of comfort. But in the middle of writing her degree paper? How believable was that after that very friend saw her in tears only a few days before, when she was unable to tell her what was wrong? Well, she has to make it sound convincing. All she knows is that it is vital that no one, not a single person, has even an inkling of what she is about to do.
By the time she reaches the flat, lugging the carefully wrapped ironing pile, it’s ten past six. She always feels uneasy walking the streets in this governmental area a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, but today she’s almost paranoid with fear. It’s as if the uniformed guards could x-ray her head while she walks past. She could swear she’s breaking into a cold sweat on this rather chilly spring day.
Finally she turns into Otto-Nuschke-Straße and struggles to open the heavy brown double-doors that lead into the apartment block facing the street. She continues through the building and into the bleak courtyard, a grey narrow shaft with one single chestnut tree, tall but scrappy, fighting a losing battle for light and survival among the crumbling brick and plaster. Once in the flat Kerstin opens the ironing parcel – and doesn’t recognise a single one of the 15 shirts inside as Martin’s. There must have been a mix-up at the cleaners. These are hideous affairs, thin and greying, with nasty vomit-coloured patterns and frayed collars. Why anyone would spend money on having these ironed is beyond her.
There’s nothing she can do about that now: Her plane leaves at seven tomorrow morning. Kerstin fishes out four or five shirts that are, if not exactly beautiful, then at least neutral enough to look ok with a jumper on top. She packs these into her rucksack and piles up the remaining ones on top of the paper and plastic bag they came in. She ponders whether to write a note explaining the mix-up, in case Martin’s mum is first to enter the flat, but on reflection drops the idea. If she did that, and the Stasi got wind of what she was about to do and entered the flat tomorrow morning, they would have the evidence they needed. No, no notes of any kind whatsoever.