“ID card and travel permit, and open that bag for me please.“
The officious voice with a distinct Saxon accent comes from behind the passport counter. It seems far away, so thick is the fog of fear that has enveloped Kerstin’s brain since she joined the queue at the Interflug counter of the Berlin Schönefeld airport. It always surprises her how Saxons can strip the word ’please’ of any hard consonants (a feat in German, come to think of it) whilst simultaneously making it sound menacing. And why is it always a Saxon? Can’t they find anyone from Berlin or Mecklenburg prepared to do this job?
Kerstin has no real recollection of how she got here, only that it took a walk to Berlin Friedrichstrasse station, a ride on the S-Bahn and a detour on an unexpected rail replacement service which meant that she’d arrived just in time instead of early as planned. She does as she is told; she is not worried about the bag, they won’t find anything compromising in it. No body searches please, not today, she pleads silently.
“You are going to where?“, asks the official in the greyish-green uniform who is rummaging through her things.
“Szeged“, Kerstin volunteers quickly and almost too eagerly, “I’m visiting my husband. He is studying on a grant there, he isn’t well. Nothing serious, I’m sure, I just, you know, wanted to be there.“
What are you prattling on about, she thinks. Surely this won’t help.
“You are aware you only have a few days lefd on your dravel bermid?“, remarks the Saxon guy who checks the papers.
“I know, it was all a bit of a rush, I hadn’t been planning on going, but as I said – “
“Show me the currency you are taking“, says the bag checker. Fiddling nervously, Kerstin finds her purse in her rucksack, opens it. Seven days’ worth of Hungarian Forinth, the maximum allowance for her type of travel permit. The 8000 Marks are safe with Caro.
“Make sure you don’d oversday the bermid, we dake thad very seriously“, says the Saxon sternly, handing her back her papers.
Kerstin nods obligingly whilst gathering her things. Better get away from here quickly. She buries her still-shaking hands in the pockets of her parka, tries her best to look inconspicuous and looks for a seat furthest away from the passport check and the two armed guards.
Still 25 minutes until the plane leaves. This is only the second plane journey of her life, and if the situation was any different she would savour the moment. Instead she sits there, at once hyper-alert and paranoid with fear, a cat waiting for a gap in the traffic of a busy road. More passengers arrive in the small, stuffy room passing for the departure gate. Almost all seats are taken now. When two uniformed women come in, Kerstin’s hands start to shake again. Instead of arresting her though, they take up their position at the final ID card and check-in desk and start checking people in.
After what seems like another eternity, everyone is seated on the plane. It manouvres into position, engines humming, before stopping again. What’s happening, Kerstin thinks, panic rising again, why aren’t we taking off? Are they coming now, is someone entering the plane to arrest me now? Did you really think you got away so easily? The engines revv up properly now, the plane starts, gathers speed, goes faster and faster and lifts off.
Christ, you are pathetic, she scolds herself, taking a deep breath. Even if they had picked her out, there is no way they could have proved she planned not to return. The truth is, she isn’t sure herself yet. The open return provides a mental safety net: Maybe this isn’t for good, I can come back, I’m not closing that door just yet. Still, she feels relieved and just a tiny bit free. She pulls out her treasured red Sony Walkman, a birthday present from Martin (hard to come by in East Germany, and anything but cheap). Looking out over the endless mountains of white candyfloss piling up against a clear-blue sky, Kerstin puts on her headphones. The smooth minor clarinet tune from Englishman in New York meanders along and into her thoughts about what the immediate future might hold. Not much in the way of certainty, that much is clear. On the other hand, it could be exciting. “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien“, croons Sting’s raspy voice. Illegal, more likely, Kerstin thinks just before falling into a deep, excausted sleep.
When she steps off the plane in Budapest, the gust of air hitting her is warm and humid, as if recently cleared by a mild spring thunderstorm. With relief she spots Martin in the crowd at arrivals. “Thank you“, he wispers into Kerstin’s ear, holding her tight for what seems like a very long time, “I’m so glad you came“, and she knows he means it.
They take the airport bus to the centre and make their way to the suburban train station at Margit Hid on the Pest side of the Danube. Kerstin loves this city with its Austro-Hungarian Empire charm. It has a grace and elegance that Berlin always lacked, even before the war and the partition. The suburban train leaves the Parliament and Matthias church behind and rattles along the river for a while before stopping at Pomáz, their destination.