Chapter 10: Hungarian Rules

It’s early June. In Beijing the Chinese government has just slaughtered hundreds of peaceful protesters on Tiananmen Square, and Egon Krenz, Crown Prince to East Germany’s Politburo Boss Erich Honecker, is on his way to congratulate the Chinese comrades on successfully frustrating these “disruptive actions carried out by elements infiltrated by the West”.

Meanwhile in Hungary the summer of ’89 is shaping up to be a great one: Imre Nagy‘s public rehabilitation is about to take place in Budapest, and the sky has been a persistent blue for the past two weeks.  Kerstin is having the time and the tan of her life: when not swanning around the archaeological dig in a bikini top and shorts to draw the graves, she sits at the parasol-covered camping table, an ancient iron stirrup or brass buckle in front of her, carefully drawing every last detail, crevice and rust-eaten surface first in pencil, then in black ink. This is her kind of work: meticulous, requiring focus, a steady hand and great attention to detail.

She is fascinated by the archaeologists’ ability to deduce from the material and style of the finds where these people lived before arriving here, where the iron was sourced or the style of the decoration on the clay beads and vases originated. Occasionally a Roman object is retrieved – mostly coins of all sizes, usually later ones, but sometimes it’s shards from coloured, rough glass vessels, a material the Avars wouldn’t have known how to produce yet. When these things come out of the ground it’s impossible for an amateur to tell what they are, so caked are they in earth. Adrienne and Zoltan know though – they can also tell exactly what’s missing from the stirrup, the pieces of mysterious decoration, the buckles. They somehow know how the beads fitted together as a neckless or bracelet, even the order of the pearls, or what tool that rusty broken-off bit once was a part of, and what it was used for.

Kerstin needs that information to draw the outlines of the missing bits, but she is also more and more taken in by this world of ancient warriors who buried their wives and horses with the men. She imagines the pain of some fiery, fearsome moustachioed man as, some 1200 years ago, he gingerly lowered his tragic little daughter into her grave, covered in jewellery and the finest clothes his stash of Roman gold coins could buy. And she wonders why, with all the other options she considered, it had never crossed her mind to study archaeology. She loves it when stories come to life through images and objects. And what, after all, is archaeology other than the accumulated stories of our lives past and present, told through objects and locations such as these?

At lunch they sit together by the lake, eating their brought sandwiches, talking. Martin has left the dig to work at the Lab in Szeged for a few days, and none of the other helpers speak German, which means Kerstin has to get by in English and, increasingly, rudimentary Hungarian which she has started to study in the evenings. Learning languages has always come naturally to her, so much so that she never really saw the point in choosing them as a university course. Hungarian though is different: It’s not related to anything she knows and generally regarded as the hardest European language to learn. It helps that Kerstin knows how to pronounce the words, something she was taught as a child learing Hungarian songs in the school choir. Up until now though she had no idea what the words meant, and the grammar, compared to German, is back to front: Pronouns are stuck to the ends of nouns, and prepositions become ‘postpositions’. The plural of a noun can have two endings stuck to it, depending on the case and context. Yet after only four weeks she spent immersed in the language she is able to hold a very basic conversation in Hungarian, a feat she just about mastered in Russian and English after years of studying.

Among the diggers is a young Hungarian archaeology student from Transylvania, one of the most cheerful and entertaining people here. He often seeks Kerstin’s company. In a mix of Hungarian and bad English he tells her how he once worked on an ancient Avar burial site in a small town near Sibiu. The site, just like in Budakalász, was adjacent to the modern cemetery. Both the ancient and the new cemetery were located in the town, and drinkers staggering home from the pub used the cemetery as a shortcut on their way home. One night a drunk did just that, no doubt crossing himself while he swayed between the graves (this was Dracula country, the home of superstition), when he reached the Avar site. It was the middle of the night and he was barely able to stand, so he most likely didn’t notice the canvas covers of the excavated plots, and stepped right into the first. Had he been sober and able to stand up he would have realised that the ‘grave’ was only waist-deep, but in his current state he just let out a panicked howl and tried to pull himself up grabbing the edge of the grave and, hopefully, anything beyond it. Just then another drunk staggered by, scared witless by the sound he had just heard, when a hand seemed to appear from one of the graves, grabbing him by the ankle. The second drunk fell over and into the grave, howling in unison with the one already in there. There must have been a cartoonish moment of two crazed men bawling at each other, resembling a scene from a slapstick comedy, before they recognised one another as drinking companions.

“You’re making this up!”, laughs Kerstin, wiping tears from her eyes, “How come you know this? Were you one of them?”

“We found them in the morning”, he replies, “they were too legless to get out of the grave, so they spent the night in there.”

Occasionally she takes the train into Budapest after work. She has neither enough time nor money to visit any sights, but just finding her way around and breathing in the atmosphere of this city makes her happy. Also it delays her return to the bungalow in Pomáz where it’s a little crowded now that Nandi and Caro are back. They returned two weeks ago and, though the three are getting on well, their house share has the air of a temporary arrangement that has been going on a little too long. She is glad that she can at least contribute some money for food now.

One night Kerstin writes a letter to her parents to at least let them know where she is, something she has been putting off for the last two weeks. She explains that they are in Hungary, and that she has decided to stay here, with Martin. She has to be careful how she phrases the letter; it will most likely be intercepted by the Stasi. While she writes she thinks of her mother, and tears run down her face, uncontrollably. Mum’s not dead, for heaven’s sake, she tells herself. But they may not be able to meet again for years, the way things are going politically. It now looks as if Kerstin had caught one of the last planes out of East Germany: the authorities have stopped issuing new visas for travel into the other Warsaw Pact member states: Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union. Travel was always heavily restricted, but never like this before. They are pulling up the drawbridges. They must see something coming.

But what?

Chapter 9: Digging up Turks

Budakalász is a brisk 30-minute walk away from Pomáz, and no more distinctive. It’s a further ten minutes to the disused quarry and lake, opposite of which a sign points to a mental hospital with a closed ward. A safe distance away is what appears at first glance to be both a regular cemetery and a stalled building development: there are modern tombstones on one side and deep excavations on the other, steel reinforcements for the concrete foundations lying ready to be used, heavy machinery standing idle. Squashed in between, on the dug-up ground and right beside the lake, are little plots covered in canvas or being dug out with small spatulas and brushes by diligent young people working with great purpose and concentration. The centre of the archaeological dig is marked by a small camping table, chair and white parasol. In a safe distance, a small group of about half a dozen subdued-looking men in well-worn blue overalls are leaning on their spades, waiting for instructions.

While Kerstin and Martin survey the scene, a studious-but-friendly-looking bespectacled man in shorts walks towards them, wiping his hands on his trousers as he approaches.

“Hello, you must be Ilona’s friends“, he greets them with an open smile. “I’m Dr Tivadar Zoltan, the leader of the excavation. Please call me Zoltan.“ All of this he says in very respectable German. Martin and Kerstin explain their professional background and current situation – and that, strictly speaking, they have no work permit, but that they could start rightaway, provided the archaeologists had no problem with the permit issue. He looks so elated that Kerstin wonders whether he even heard the last bit.

“A scientist and a designer, that’s exotic! Most of our helpers are archaeology students, they come here for the field experience. If you’re a designer you must be good at drawing.“ He looks at Kerstin.

“I think I’m okay“, she says.

“She’s more than ok, she sold a drawing to a tourist in Szentendre two days ago, and we’re still eating today thanks to the proceeds“, chips in Martin, who is genuinely impressed with people having a proper ’trade’, be it sewing or woodworking or drawing. Maybe that’s because it’s so alien to himself. And in their current itinerant situation, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a skill that can be applied to different uses.

“Sounds good! We need someone to sketch the contents of the graves we’ve uncovered, and the locations of the finds. And we need people digging. Well, it’s more carefully removing earth and brushing, not heavy digging“, he adds, “that’s done by the guys over there“, he nods discreetly at the group of overalled men with the spades. “They’re patients from the mental hospital. Not to worry, they’re fine.” His voice drops to a whisper: “I suspect they are heavily sedated.“ “That was my first thought when I saw them“, says Martin, who, as an anaethesist, knows a thing or two about the subject. “We’re grateful for their labour though“, says Zoltan, “and my impression is that they enjoy getting out a bit.“

The site, it turns out, is an ancient Avar cemetery, right next to the modern one. It’s the common pattern, explains Adrienne Horváth, the other archaeologist leading the excavations. She is short and round-faced with dark hair, tanned skin and a ready, cheerful smile. Her German is as good as Zoltan’s, and it’s clear she loves practising it. “Are you interested in archaeology?”, she asks. “We don’t know the first thing about it”, admits Martin, “but we’re quick learners.”

The Avars, Adrienne explains, were an early warrior tribe, possibly from Turkey, or perhaps they were Tatars from Cental Asia. After a prolonged and tempestuous period when the Avars had fought Emperior Tiberius’s troops, the Carpathians and even advanced into areas as far north as South-Eastern Germany, they appeared somewhat deflated by the 8th century, and seemed to be looking mainly for somewhere in Central Europe to stay. They ended up in the plain between the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains, in what is today Hungary and Transylvania, where they partly fought, partly procreated with the Hungarians.

Digging up Avars is something of a national sport among Hungarians who are endlessly intrigued by their own ambiguous heritage. Their exact origins remain disputed, though some theories hold more ground than others – namely the one that they too came from east of the Urals. A more recent and far more popular theory is that the Finno-Ugrian tribe had walked all the way from the Himalayas, and indeed some of the more characteristic Hungarian features could purport this. Whether the Finns and Hungarians – the only two nations speaking Finno-Ugrian languages in Europe – indeed arrived in Europe together also remains disputed. No significant genetic similarities were ever found between the two populations.

This is the latest and most northern of a number of ancient cemeteries discovered in the region. The people here were buried in the 8th century, say the archaeologists. Based on previous experience with such sites and the graves already uncovered, they have drawn up a rough map of where the other graves could be. Some of the graves so far excavated have been found with the bones in disarray, explains Adrienne, a sign that grave robbers had been looking for treasure sometime in the 17th and 18th century. Avars, a proud warrior tribe, buried their most prominent families with many of the valuables they owned, including their horses, tack and all, so there were rich pickings to be had for thieves. The first grave Kerstin and Martin are helping to dig out is just such a grave: The bones of horse and rider are in a mess, and any gold, silver and jewellery are missing, though they retrieve iron stirrups and bits and some brass buckles.

The next day Adrienne asks them to dig next to the horse-and-rider grave. She thinks they may find a child, or the rider’s wife. The mental hospital patients have already removed the top layer, so Kerstin and Martin proceed cautiously. Soon they arrive at a round, smooth surface. They brush and carefully remove more earth. The pale spherical object becomes bigger until it is clear that they’ve come across a perfectly formed small scull. A child, reckons Adrienne, about 6 years old.

“Careful around the ears, there may be earrings”, she warns, and, after a little more brushing and gentle scraping there they are, two perfect painted clay beads, one on either side. The scull is ghostly white and so well preserved that Martin wonders whether the child was really buried over a thousand years ago.

“Definitely, the earrings prove that”, says Adrienne. “I know what you mean though, they do come like that, occasionally.”

She passes Kerstin the clipboard and pencil, and Kerstin quickly draws the grave and location of the finds.

“Ooh, we’ve never had one this good”, says Adrienne appreciatively when she looks at the finished sketch. She calls Zoltan, and they talk together over the sketch.

“Congratulations!” calls Zoltan, “You’ve just been promoted to illustrator in residence!”

Chapter 8: Staying Alive

The lawyer’s office is in central Budapest, not far from the Parliament buildings. Kerstin and Martin want to take the HÉV train but Nandi insists on driving there in his only driveable car, the precarious-looking Jeep. The art deco building containing Dr Kovács’s office was grand once: over the double-door entrance, two well-toned Atlases balance a large globe. Now years of neglect and heavy traffic have lead to the elaborately decorated and undoubtedly once colourful façade to be covered in a uniform brownish-grey patina of layers of dirt and exhaust particles.

The office is on the third floor and appears to be part of a complex of lawyers’ suites. On the wall Kerstin spots Nandi’s poster again. In East Germany such open criticism of another Warsaw Pact member’s internal policies would be unimaginable, she has time to think before Dr Kovács hangs up the phone to greet them. The human rights lawyer is in his fifties and thick-set with thinning grey hair. He exudes the self-righteous air of someone who always gets what he wants, a trait Kerstin both detests and admires in other people. Well, if what he wants is the same as what they want, she is happy to ignore her gut feeling on this occasion.

Kovács speaks fast in Hungarian, with Nandi translating as quickly as he can. He repeats what Kerstin heard the day before about the general political situation, plus he has contacted the Biochemical Institute in Szeged where Martin had worked until March when the grant ran out. The Head of the Institute, a colleague and friend of Martin’s, has written a ringing endorsement of him as an exceptionally talented scientist who would be a real asset to Hungary and greatly help to increase the country’s international standing as a centre of scientific research. If the government would grant him – and by extension his wife – permanent leave to stay in Hungary, the Institute would create a post for him immediately.

“Excellent stuff, excellent“, repeats Kovács, looking appreciatively at Martin over the edge of the letter. “That should sway the Ministry. I’m working on getting you an appointment with Turos András, the Minister of the Interior, for next week, you know.“

Briefly, panic rises in Kerstin: In East Germany, the Interior Ministry is the home of the notorious Stasi, the hated and feared secret police.

“Don’t worry, that’s not what they do here“, says Nando, reading her thoughts. “In Hungary they are the ones deciding over who can stay here.“

“Does he really think we are in with a chance?“, asks Martin sceptically.

“Absolutely, he’s very positive. That endorsement will open doors“, says Nandi, looking for confirmation from an enthusiastically nodding Kovács who obviously understands English far better than he lets on.

“I think I will have an appointment for you early next week. Will you be around?“, asks Kovács, rising from his chair.

“Seeing as we can’t go anywhere right now, I suppose we will“, replies Martin with a dry laugh as they shake hands. It doesn’t occur to Kovács to shake Kerstin’s hand. She is the wife, the girl, the add-on. She doesn’t count.

The night after the meeting Kerstin has the first of a series of recurring dreams: With her Interflug ticket she somehow managed to board a plane back to Berlin and gets off at the other end without being arrested or detected. She is now in the university building, looking for her seminar room where she is hoping to retrieve something vital and unspecified which was important enough to her to leave the safety of Hungary for. Racing along the empty dark corridor, she suddenly becomes aware of her precarious situation. They must be searching for her by now. It also hits her that she is trapped: she has no return ticket to Budapest. She needs to get out quickly before someone might spot and recognise her, she thinks, anxiety rising, when a shadowy figure walks out of one of the doors towards her, addressing her. Before she can recognise who it is, she wakes, heart beating fast.

True to the lawyer’s word a letter reaches them on Friday, inviting them to an interview with the Minister the next Monday. Even his office isn’t in the beautiful Victorian-style Parliament but in an ugly 1960s building next to it. It smells faintly of boiled peppers and disinfectant inside. They walk along an endless corridor laid out with that very shiny yellowish-brown vinyl which appears to be the floor-covering of choice of every institutional building in Central Eastern Europe.

They are meeting the minister, his surly-looking bespectacled secretary and an official translator in a conference room which is panelled in some large ocre-coloured tiles of an undefineable material. At the end of the room a copper relief of Lenin’s profile is framed by a Soviet and a Hungarian flag each on either side. So not quite the end of communism in here, thinks Kerstin. András Turos, a jovial man with a receding dark hairline and a luxurious moustache that makes him look not unlike Super Mario, shows himself almost as impressed with Martin’s scientific prowess as Kovács did last week.

“Very good“, he keeps saying, “very, very good. We certainly need people like you here. But you will understand that your application for political asylum places us in a somewhat – how shall I put this? – awkward position since traditionally we had to fullfill certain … obligations towards your government. This is not to say that we will be sending you back“, he adds hastily as he sees their faces sink, “you may have heard that things are changing fast in Hungary right now. And we have human rights obligations towards West Germany too, as part of an agreement the Hungarian government signed recently. Of course we know that you can’t simply go back to East Germany now. But we will have to go through the motions, tick certain boxes, you know what I mean. We will consider your application carefully in the light of your situation and this letter. This may take a few months, so in order to avoid you breaking the law by being here illegally while you wait, we will grant you temporary leave to stay in Hungary as of today. You will receive all of this in writing at your – ” – he checks the paperwork – “Pomáz address.“

Outside the building Nandi awaits them.

“How did it go, what did he say?“, he asks impatiently.

“He said we have temporary leave to stay starting today“, says Martin, not quite believing what he had just heard.

“That’s bloody phantastic!“, cries Nandi, his face beaming, “So why aren’t you dancing in the street?“

“We still don’t have permanent leave to stay“, injects Kerstin doubtfully.

“Why the hell do you need that?“, laughs Nandi, “by the time they grant you that or throw you out you might be God knows where! To be honest I never thought he’d be this quick with the temporary leave to stay, you must have impressed him with that letter. Hey, you’re legal now, I can show myself with you!“

“Thanks, my genius scientist“, says a relieved Kerstin, throwing her arms around Martin’s neck.

“I told you that wedding was good for something“, he grins, wrapping his arms around her.

Nandi leaves for East Germany the next day to join Caro. Martin and Kerstin are on their own now in the bungalow, with Kerstin’s meagre tourist allowance of Forinths running seriously low. Because they’re very careful, they manage until about the middle of the following week. Then they cook whatever they can find in the cupboards: pasta, rice, tinned soup. They turn temporarily vegetarian. They work out how to cook white squash, the scallop-edged small pumpkin variety Nandi is fond of and has left a fair amount of behind. One night they’re down to the last potatoes they can find, months old and gone soft, and boil and eat those still edible without anything else.

“This is delicious“, remarks Martin sarcastically while they eat.

“We have to make some money“, says Kerstin determinedly. “I’m going to Szentendre tomorrow with my drawing kit, there must be some Austrian tourist I can sell a picture to.“

The next day they are sitting in the sunshine on one of the little walls of Sentendre’s Old Town, a pretty whitewashed old Serb settlement with winding staircases, walkways and endless picturesque rooftop vistas, perfect for drawing. Kerstin fills an A3 sheet with a view of the church and the mosaic of rooftops. It takes her hours, and several tourists walk past, admiring the picture. By the time it’s finished she is so attached to her pencil and graphite drawing she doesn’t want to let go, but one man offers her 500 Forinths for it – peanuts for him, almost a week’s worth of food for Kerstin and Martin. She sells and takes nearly as long to draw another one, this time for her portfolio. By the time she is finished the sun sets, and they go home to celebrate having briefly staved off starvation with a pizza and a small beer to share in the Pomáz bungalow.

Kerstin contemplates going back to Szentendre again the next day, but an unexpected visitor changes all that: A big, white, dreadlocked Hungarian shepherd comes to see them at the bungalow. The dog appears to be on his own until they spot the slight, pretty, dark-haired girl he is dragging along. She looks about 12 but is in fact 22 and has worryingly little control over the huge animal. The dog, whom they learn is called Pipacz, and his hapless owner Ilona are looking for Nandi and Caro. The three of them wrestle with the friendly but completely untrained dog for a while until eventually they manage to tie him to one of the wooden posts at the porch before he can chase after the neighbours’ cat. Kerstin prepares jasmine tea for Ilona and excuses the fact that they don’t have anything to go with it. She explains about their situation and the money trouble when Ilona’s big brown button eyes light up:

“Maybe I can help you“, she says in heavily-accented English. “There’s an archaeological site in Budakalász, over by the quarry lake, and they are looking for people to help them dig. I came over to ask Caro if she wanted to work there. She was a bit fed up with her waitressing job in Szentendre, she told me last time I saw her. I thought of her because the archaeologists speak German.“

Chapter 7: The Proposal

Neither Kerstin nor Martin were exactly what you would call the marrying kind. Martin was already married to his job, and Kerstin had grown up witnessing too many of her parents’ arguments to be under any illusion that the big wedding at the end of a romantic comedy was really a happy end. So it came as a surprise to many when they both decided to tie the knot a mere two years into their relationship.

There was of course a rather pragmatic reason for their sudden haste to commit: In her third year, when the students had to select their graduate job from a list made available by the university, Kerstin found that her own choice had been limited to three of the most dire places in East Germany, none of them in Berlin where she wanted to stay. On paper the university was entitled to do this, since every aspiring student had to sign a document committing themselves to working for three years in a company and location considered ’vital to the socialist economy’. In practice this led to downright abuse, with universities offering the more convenient students the pick of the crop and reserving the worst places for those not toeing the line. Three years in an abysmal place and job feels like a very long time to anyone in their early twenties, so Kerstin was angry and more than a little shocked the day she was told she had a week to decide between the three equally unappealing options. What was particularly upsetting was the fact that the list presented to all the students still contained a number of available jobs in Berlin which, so she was told, she was not eligible for since she had no family there.

“Of course I have, my boyfriend lives here“, she said at the interview.

“Oh, I can’t let boyfriends count, otherwise everyone would claim they have a boyfriend here“, replied the Head of Design with a smirk that didn’t escape Kerstin. “It would be different if you were married, which of course you aren’t.“

“Didn’t I read somewhere that this system aims to place students near where they’re from?“, she asked. “None of the three options you’re offering me are anywhere near my home. Here, take this place: How is that anywhere near my hometown? It’s twice as far as Berlin, and it’s right by the West German border, in the 50-kilometer-exclusion zone. Anyone wanting to visit me there would need to apply for a special permit to do so.“

“I already told you: The Berlin options need to be kept open for those with family in Berlin. This is what’s available to you.“ His voice was patronising now, whith a nasty edge.

“But I happen to know the Berliners have all been placed already. So who are you keeping these for?“

“Don’t you think it’s down to us to decide whether they have been placed?  Now, I will see you back a week from today when you will let me know your choice out of your three options.“

“Excuse me but why are you doing this to me?“, Kerstin asked, looking him straight in the eye. It didn’t matter now. “If this is some sort of prison sentence, what’s my crime?“

“Now don’t get shirty with me, lady“, the Head said, suddenly thrown off-track by this rather daring insinuation. He clearly enjoyed having power over people, though he didn’t quite know how to handle that either. It was obvious that he hadn’t got his job thanks to his abilities. Many were puzzled as to what those were. He tried a smile, but it came out as another smirk. He put on his lecturing voice:

“Do you call these prison sentences? You should be grateful to be given a job, there are many countries in the world where people are unemployed, as you very well know.“ He dismissed her with a patronising wave of his hand:

“Off you go, I’ll see you next Wednesday.“

When she told Martin about the interview that evening, his reaction was swift:

“We can marry if that helps you.“

Kerstin stared at him. This hadn’t even occured to her. “You’re joking“, she said.

“I’m perfectly serious. Wouldn’t that be the most straightforward way to solve the problem? The guy said so himself, didn’t he?“ Martin’s uncompromising logic never failed to astonish Kerstin. In a way he was absolutely right of course. Though as far as proposals were concerned, this one took some beating in its lack of decorum and romanticism.

“I wasn’t aiming for that, if that’s what you think“, she said.

“I don’t. And since we’re both not keen to get married, at least here’s a proper reason to. Or do you expect me to go down on one knee?“ He grinned.

She pummeled his chest with her fists: “You really are the most – “

“You’d have to organise it all, of course“, he continued, not interested in what she thought he was. “And you’d have to be quick, you know I’m leaving for Hungary in five weeks. And“, he added, almost as an afterthought,  “I might not come back. In which case you can keep my flat, as you will be my wife by then. See, another good reason to get married – I’m surprised I didn’t think of that earlier!“

“Well, thanks“, Kerstin said, although she couldn’t quite decide whether to be grateful or offended. He was right: She didn’t think much of marriage, and she knew perfectly well that he didn’t either. Still, she was slightly in shock. What was she to him, she wondered. Was this his way of declaring his love for her, since he didn’t ’do romantic’? Should she be flattered he trusted her this much? Or did he really not care about whom he was married to, and why? Of course it didn’t matter to her. Or did it? The more she thought about it, the more confusing it all became.  And how on earth would she break this to her parents? They hadn’t even met him yet. Well, they had to cope with it, surely they wouldn’t agree with her being pushed around by some little jobsworth. Or would they?

The following day Kerstin called the registry office. She found out that it was four weeks between submitting the necessary paperwork and the wedding. No time to lose then, she had to get a train home the same day to retrieve her birth certificate. Berlin Pankow District had the first available date, so she took that.  Next came the call to her mother at work.

“Hi Mum, I’m fine. I’m just calling because I need to come home tonight to collect my birth certificate. Could you dig it out for me, please?“

“Why, what happened?“ As always, her mother sounded concerned.

“Mum, I’m getting married. Please don’t freak out. The university want to send me to some depressing place for three years, and I’m definitey not going there, so we have to marry. Seriously, you should see the options they’ve given me, it’s outrageous – “ Kerstin heard the last coin clank through the public payphone. The call would be disconnected in a few seconds.  “I’ll explain later, I’m running out of change“, was all she could manage before she heard the long, continuous tone at the other end.

A three-hour train ride later Kerstin arrived at her parents’ flat to find her mother perched on the stool in the tiny kitchenette, sobbing quietly. Her father, not normally the caring type, conveniently made use of his wife’s upset to scold his daughter, though for a different reason: He was ashamed, he said, of this calculating move of hers.

“Can’t you for once stick to the rules like everyone else?“, he barked at her, bigging himself up. She was slightly taller than him.

“Not if what you call ’the rules’ are being used to punish me because I haven’t joined their damn party“, Kerstin replied, “why should I let them win? These are three years of my life they’re trying to ruin. And since when are you so in favour of the rules of this system? You’re the first to complain about them as long as the neighbours are out of earshot. But when it comes to someone having the guts to actually stand up to them, you don’t even want to hear them out. Even if it’s your own child.“

“Don’t you dare talk to me like that!“, fumed her father.

“Why not? Because it’s true?“ She held his gaze. He couldn’t touch her anymore.

“Get out of my house now!“, he hollered, stomping out of the room in one of his typical strops. With great pleasure, thought Kerstin. She turned to her mother. “I’m sorry Mum, but I have to do this. Do you have the certificate for me?“

“You haven’t even told me yet who you’re marrying“, sniffed her mother.

“Martin of course. I told you about him.“

“You never even brought him here. His parents know you, of course.“

“He’s your dream son-in-law, trust me. He’s a doctor, and a scientist to boot. You can show off to the neighbours now.“

“Don’t you make fun of me! I’m upset enough as it is. I hope your children will never do that to you.“ She fished a soggy-looking handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose.

“Mum, honestly, I could do a lot worse. It’s not as if I’d met him yesterday.“

“Am I at least invited to the wedding?“

“Wedding? Oh yeah … it will be a small party, just you and a witness for guests. In Berlin, probably Pankow. Around four weeks from now. I’ll call you about the date and place, ok?“

Back in Berlin, Martin greeted the news of Kerstin’s mother coming to the wedding with rolling his eyes.

“Does this mean we will have to have some sort of party and all that stuff?“

“Just a small lunch, to keep her happy“, promised Kerstin.

The news had travelled through the university corridors by the time she went back. In a surprising display of openness, one lecturer stopped her on the stairs to congratulate her on ’socking it to them.’ It certainly felt good to reply to the question “So which option have you dedided for?“ at her next meeting with the Head by saying:

“I’ve decided to get married.“ She produced the paperwork with the wedding date.

“I see“, said the Head, making a good impression of someone sucking on a lemon while Kerstin took her pick from the Berlin options.

When the big day came, the ‘something borrowed’-rule applied to most of Kerstin’s outfit, a cream crepe summer dress lent for the day by a fellow student she’d approached in the corridor where she’d spotted her wearing it. She’d bought the small rose bouquet herself, keen to look the part when she picked up her mother from the Underground station. She arrived there five minutes late and found Martin and her mother standing a few metres apart, looking past each other. Well, at least her father hadn’t come. Not that she’d expected him to. Martin looked slightly shocked when he saw the dress and the flowers. Kerstin ignored his expression and introduced her mother to him.

The marriage had all the pizazz of a divorce. “Is this everyone?“, asked the woman in a blue suit who was conducting the ceremony, looking in confusion at the two people assembled behind the bride and groom. “Yes please, you can go ahead“, Kerstin said in a deliberately cheerful voice. At Kerstin’s request the music was kept to just one piece, the Wedding March.

“Oh please, no“, hissed Martin, “surely ’I will survive’ would have done?“

There were no rings either, also at the couple’s behest. By now the official looked positively bewildered. With the centrally issued portrait of the thin-lipped head of state Erich Honecker watching over the ceremony, she stumbled through the closing words of her standard speech, which included something about socialism and duties. Then, suddenly, it was all over, they spilled out onto the street and were on their way to some charmless restaurant with plastic flowers on gingham tablecloths for a lunch of schnitzel and chips and some awkward conversation.

Chapter 6: All Change

No matter how kindly you are prepared to look at the place, Pomáz isn’t pretty. Or even a village. It’s a commuter place, a dusty stop on the way to the village of Szentendre, the picturesque tourist trap at the end of the HÉV line. Where other villages have a church, a village shop and perhaps some sort of a green, Pomáz has a flat-roofed single-storage station building for a centre, outside of which a man named Istvan sells his artery-clogging fare: Langos, deep-fried savoury flat breads the size of dinner plates, topped with soured cream. Langos Pisti is as much landmark as he is a Pomáz institution, so bereft is the place of other distinguishing features.

Nandi and Caro live in a small 1950s bungalow halfway up Kossut Utca, a street filled with identical-looking properties in varying states of disrepair. The rusty gate, one side of which is limply hanging from the only remaining hinge, seems to pre-date the featureless property by several decades. The bungalow sits in the centre of a reasonably-sized green patch that would have made a decent garden had either of the couple been in any way green-fingered. As it is, the grass is mostly knee-high and full of weeds, and muddy tyre tracks mark the ‘drive’ in front of the entrance. There are four cars: some are more, others less complete, and none of them looks in a fit state to drive.

“Nandi’s car cemetry”, Martin points out. “It drives Caro crazy.” Amazingly one of them, an ancient, rusty Jeep-type thing, is being driven by Nandi, he explains.

“Is that safe?”, asks Kerstin, ogling the pile of metal in disbelief.

Martin grins: “This is Hungary!”, he says by way of explanation.

Inside the house is mostly open-plan: The main room serves as both dining and sitting room with a kitchenette and breakfast bar and a futon sofa that turns into a double guest bed. It isn’t exactly a huge place but comfortable and cosy. At the back of the room two adjacent doors lead to Nandi and Caro’s bedroom, a tight fit for a double bed and small wardrobe, and a surprisingly decent-sized bathroom which doubles as Nandi’s darkroom. And that’s where they find him, perched on the edge of the bathtub, with trays full of developer covering every available surface, including the floor, so they are tiptoeing carefully between them. From the trays awkwardly-grinning schoolchildren in different stages of colour development stare at Kerstin.

“Jó napot kivánok, welcome!” An enthusiastic bear hug from Nandi nearly causes her to lose her balance. “Steady!”, she laughs, hugging him back.

“Sorry about the mess”, he apologises, gesturing around him. “I photographed a whole school yesterday, 800 kids, awful job. It will take me two more days to develop, but it will pay the bills for a month. Let me take this lot out of the bath before they turn completely green, and then we’ll have some coffee, ok?”

In the kitchenette Martin puts the metal mocha pot on the stove. No Hungarian household is complete without these, although they are an Italian invention. The coffee is one of the best things about Hungary.

Kerstin spots a poster on the wall next to the breakfast bar. It shows a young woman in national Hungarian costume and blonde plaits. She is standing on the edge of an enormous excavator shovel, the ground around her piles of dug-up earth, a tear running down her beautiful face. The contrast between the angelic creature in the colourful dress and the rubble is stark.

“What’s this about then?”, asks Kerstin, intrigued.

“Haven’t you heard about the two hundred villages Ceaucescu wants to raze to the ground in Transylvania?, replies Nandi.

“Two hundred? That’s a lot. Where would I hear about that? It’s not the sort of thing they cover on the news in East Germany, you know.”

“They’re all Hungarian villages of course. Ceaucescu plans to resettle the villagers in the big cities, except none of them were ever even asked if they want to. It’s ethnic cleansing of sorts. We’ve printed a thousand of these, Tibor will have them smuggled into Romania next week, to kick up a little fuss.”

“It’s very beautiful”, says Kerstin, “very haunting.” Nandi has always been campaigning for human rights issues concerning the Hungarian minorities in Rumania. That’s how he got to know Dr. Tibor Kovács, the lawyer who, so they hoped, would be able to help Martin and Kerstin too.

The three of them sit down for some strong mocha to update Kerstin on recent events. This takes place in flaky English, the only language they are halfway fluent in, Martin far more so than the others. What they tell her makes Kerstin sit up: There will be an official rehabilitation in Budapest in early June of none other than Imre Nagy, the revered head of the interim committee during the 1956 uprising, Hungary’s short-lived attempt at shaking off the Soviet Union’s iron grip. This is remarkable news since Nagy, who was later arrested by the Russian army and transported to a Siberian Gulag where he was said to have been tortured to death, had remained the symbol of Hungary’s proudest moment, as many saw it. The authorities’ countless attempts to erase his name from history only served to increase the people’s adulation for Nagy.

Even more astonishing is another piece of news: That Hungary is in negotiations to end its membership of the Warsaw Pact.

“Hang on”, says Kerstin, “what do you mean: negotiate? Nobody can negotiate with the Russians!”

“It appears they do”, says Nandi, “it’s not on the news, but Dr Kovács told us about it. According to him, our government has also signed an agreement with the West German government stating that they would no longer shoot at anyone trying to cross the green border to Austria or Yugoslavia.”

“How do you know this is true? He could tell you anything”, says Kerstin, indignation and disappointment rising again. This is too much. To her, this Dr. Kovács guy sounds increasingly like a fantasist. She turns her eyes on Martin, rational, analytical Martin, almost pleading to assure her this is all crazy stuff.

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly want to test the no-shooting agreement myself yet,”, Martin says cautiously, limbs in a characteristic tangle, “but I’ve been here long enough to know that there’s much happening here that is not in the news. That’s why the Western media don’t pick up on it either. It’s a very delicate situation, that’s for sure, and it could turn any minute, but I think something’s changed in Moscow. Something big. Either that, or we’ll be here to witness another 1956 uprising being squashed by Russian troops this summer.”

“What exactly happened in 1956?”, asks Kerstin carefully. Her instinct tells her that here in Hungary this is a rather sheepish question. But it’s also one of those topics, like Stalinism, the details of which East German history lessons liked to draw a veil over.

“What happened? Are you kidding?”, asks Nandi. “Everyone was dead at the end, that’s what happened. Dead or in exile. Budapest was full of Russian tanks and soaked in blood.  That’s why there are four million Hungarians living here, while the other four million,  or just about that many, live somewhere in the West.”

“Blimey”, says Kerstin. She really had no idea. This is becoming a history lesson on acid.

Nandi and Martin have made an appointment with Dr. Kovacs at his office tomorrow to talk about their options. If Kerstin wants to join Martin, that is. They both look at her now. It’s time to make up her mind, again.

“I’m not sure”, she says, “I could just go back on Sunday, couldn’t I? With my ticket?”

“For heaven’s sake!”, says Nandi, a twinkle in his eye, as if he’s surpressing a laugh, “What do you want back there? Haven’t you been listening? Can’t you see? It’s all happening here now!”

Chapter 5: Alien

“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.

Chapter 4: The Secret

It’s one in the morning when Kerstin finally finishes packing. She knows she’ll be too nervous to sleep, but even a rest is worth having. Now she’s lying in the dark, her eyes for the last time taking in the ghostly outlines of the sparse interior. She has grown to like this place, although it is an acquired taste, especially for an art student. There is no category the one-bedroom apartment’s interior style – if one could call it that – fits. There are no wall-covering bookshelves crammed with black and white Reclam paperbacks, the mark of the Berlin intellectual. Rather it’s a careless assembly of the most vital pieces of furniture and appliances a human would need to survive, thrown together by someone clearly too busy with serious work to notice or care. Come to think of it, the place had always felt like a temporary den inhabited by someone on the run.

True, there are pieces Martin is really attached to. Like the turn-of-the-century oak piano chair on which he had sat as a boy learning to play the baby grand at his parents’ home. A large dry-point etching of an enormous sinister-looking bird flying low over a bare, seemingly post-apocalyptic earth. On closer inspection the bird’s wings are made entirely of sine curves and algebraic equations, an evil monster created by a megalomaniacal or simply blinkered scientist. The etching had been a present from a (possibly concerned) amateur artist family friend at Martin’s graduation. Although Kerstin admires the craft and detail of the artwork, the overall impression is gloomy enough to give her nightmares. And it seems an awfully big format to convey a message quite as simplistic and obvious as this.

Kerstin never thought she could fall in love with someone for their beautiful mind, but then she had never met anyone like Martin before. He has quite a few quirks, but they are overlooked by everyone who knows him, so in awe are they of his at once sharply analytical and creative brain. She never ceases to be surprised by his questioning things she had taken for granted and repeated as read. He never says anything clichéd or tired, and he had taught her to look at the world from viewpoints she hadn’t even known existed before.

Martin quietly detests laziness of thought. He has no time for anyone who passes off unreflected half-knowledge as fact, but his manners are far too good for him to be openly scathing about them. His friends or rather followers, most of whom he met at university, clearly see him in a different category from themselves, because they have lifted him onto a pedestal where, it appears to Kerstin, he feels rather uncomfortable and a little lonely at times. He doesn’t think of himself as exceptional, which gives him an aura of innocence slightly at odds with his otherwise so sharp perception.

So when Kerstin and Martin were first introduced by friends three years ago, she didn’t immediately see what the fuss was about. There he was, this wiry guy with large alert grey eyes, short, spiky brown hair and evidently a lot of fidgety nervous energy. A starker contrast to Kerstin’s previous boyfriend, a hunky blonde architecture student-turned-painter with an excellent backhand in tennis, a huge ego and a roving eye, was hard to imagine. So the science geek didn’t impress her as much as the friends had expected, and she soon said her polite goodbyes to go back to her freezing student den and heartbroken sulking. A few months later though Kerstin and Martin met again by chance, in a late performance of some very worthy sub-titled movie, apparently unmissable. The film was as hyped as it was forgettable, but they hit it off that night.

In retrospect, those following weekends they spent going out to dinner or to the theatre, those long Sunday brunches and seemingly endless days wiled away in galleries and on long walks along the river Spree felt transient. Even though it was not until almost two years later that Martin told her about his plans to leave the country.

It had been the night of his twenty-eighth birthday. Late November was an especially bad time in East Berlin: the greyness, never in short supply, seemed to permeate everything, settling like a suffocating carpet on the city. The four guests had left just before midnight, and Martin was in a pensive mood. He had taken up one of his contortionist positions in the chair by the window, twisting his lanky limbs into a pose reminiscent of an Egon Schiele painting.

“Kerstin”, he said, ruffling his hair, “I won’t be staying here.”

“What do you mean?”, she asked, confused. “Are you going to move?”

“I suppose you could call it that, but a little further than you think.”

A sudden chill ran down Kerstin’s back. “You haven’t filed an application, have you?”

Martin gave a dry laugh. “That would be pretty pointless. They’d  never let me go.”

“So what are you … you’re not really thinking of …” Kerstin couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. This was one of his more cynical jokes, surely.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but it won’t be the official way”, said Martin. “Doesn’t have to be here, though it’s tempting. Five minutes to Checkpoint Charlie, and how hard can it be?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“Has it never crossed your mind?”

“Not really. I’m not suicidal”, she said. “But why now?”

Martin sighed. “Promise me not to say a word to anyone about this, you are the only person I trust. There are about 300 people working in cardiolipin research in the world. All except a handful are in the West. I should be over there working with them in their labs, in San Diego, in New York, in Munich, now, while I can still compete with them. Otherwise by the time I’m 35 I will be out of the race. I don’t want to end up as one of these disaffected people who could have been great.”

“God, I had no idea. That’s … of course I understand.  Aren’t I lucky I don’t have problems like that.”

“Besides, I don’t mind allotment gardeners, but they shouldn’t be in charge of anything bigger than their plots, and here they are running the country. Do you want to have your life ruined by a bunch of garden gnome collectors?”

Despite herself, Kerstin let out a laugh. The picture was apt: A country-sized allotment, surrounded by a concrete wall and barbed wire, and guarded by alsatians.With nothing but red carnations growing inside. Now she knew why she had always hated those flowers.

“No, but I’m really not desperate enough to want to risk ending up dead, or worse in one of their prisons. And even if we did make it” – she halted, taking in the very words that had just passed her lips for the first time in her life. Where had they come from? – “what would I do over there? I don’t even have my degree yet. And where is ‘over there’, anyway?” She shook her head as if trying to banish the idea. “No. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m not you. I’m scared.”

Chapter 3: No return

The doorbell ring that changed everything came late last night, around half past ten. It was Caro, a friend of Kerstin’s, who had married a Hungarian the summer previously. This was a common way out of East Germany, almost as popular as marrying a West German tough easier, because the authorities could hardly hassle you for marrying a citizen from another Warsaw-Pact membership state. Hungarians, unlike East Germans, were free to travel to the West provided they had the means. The lab in Szeged where Martin had worked was run by a scientist, Laci, who together with his biochemist wife and two children had worked and lived in Texas, Canada and Paris for years at a stretch. It was a lifestyle so exotic, so far removed from anything Kerstin had ever heard of, they might as well have lived on Mars.

When Caro rang, Kerstin opened the door wearing the face of someone expecting somebody else. A policeman perhaps, or more likely one of the anoraks in beige trousers, spineless people making up some feeble excuse to ask questions the answers to which were none of their business. Instead there was her friend from Hungary, one of the very few she could trust, greeting her with the words: “It’s looking good, for you too. Let’s go for a drink.“

And in that precise moment Kerstin realised that some part of her brain had made the decision a while ago. Forget the exams: what she needed to do was to get out of here.

Ten minutes later they sat in the bistro of the House of Soviet Culture, a 1980s slab of concrete and glass on the corner of Otto-Nuschke- and Friedrichstrasse. It was the very best place to discuss escape routes, Martin and Kerstin had found, here, right under the nose of the regime. It was far better than the trendy bars in Prenzlauer Berg or Auguststraße which the arty set and a fair amount of Stasi informers frequented.

“Have they bothered you yet?“, asked Caro, lighting a cigarette.

“No, but I was kind of expecting them when you came.“

“I noticed. If you were trying to play it cool you weren’t making a good job of it“, said Caro, blowing the smoke past Kerstin’s face. “Getting to you a bit, is it?“

“It’s been getting to me for a year now“, replied Kerstin in a low voice, “and I don’t think I can take much more of it. So what’s the news?“

Martin had abandoned the plan of crossing the green border to Austria since it was still too well guarded. And, despite the Hungarian government’s newly issued order not to shoot at anyone found trying to cross, there were still stories of soldiers who had fired at people. Instead Caro’s husband Nandi had put him in touch with a human rights lawyer who specialised in cases of Hungarian Romanians, illegal refugees from Transylvania. There were many of them in Hungary, people who had crossed the green border between the two states and, once in Hungary. applied for political asylum there. With his help, many of them had got indefinite leave to stay in Hungary, something that had happened for many years and so discreetly that not even the Western media had picked up on it.

The logic behind giving these permits was, of course, entirely absurd: A communist country, and a member state of the Warsaw Pact to boot, could hardly grant political asylum for people fleeing another Warsaw Pact state. Yet these applications had been successful, because ethnic and nationalistic feuds had been bubbling under the surface ever since the hated Russians turned these countries into their bona-fide territory in the late 1940s. The crude re-shaping of the borders in the Balkans had inflicted deep wounds that had never been given a chance to heal, and the bile seeping from them poisoned any bilateral relations. In 1989 about two Million Hungarians and some 20,000 ethnic Germans lived in Dracula’s homeland. Then there were the regions near the Yugoslaw borders, towns such as Temesvar/Timisoara, a town shared by German, Hungarian and Serb minorities and ruled over with an iron fist and plenty of Russian support by Nicolae Ceaucescu.

“The lawyer thinks that you should apply for political asylum too“, said Caro, stubbing out her cigarette. “In Hungary of course. He thinks you have a good chance of getting it, in the current climate. He’s pretty confident the Romanian precedence is strong enough.“

“And you seriously believe that?“, asked Kerstin, her heart sinking. “Why should the courts in Hungary care about precedences or justice anymore than they would in East Germany?“

Was that it, she thought. Was that the big idea, to apply for political asylum in a communist country? Oh for god’s sake. How could Martin, the most rational man she had ever known, be so impossibly naïve?

“Who said anything about courts? This guy knows people way beyond any legal system. The kind of people who tell the courts what to do.“

“And he’s supposed to be – “

“You mean safe? Well, you can never be absolutely sure, but we think he is“, said Caro. “Nandi knows a few of the people he’d helped, and they say he’s the best. Anyway, what choice do you have?“

“I could just stay here.“

“And then what? Be taken in for questioning once the Stasi gets wind of what the great scientist is about to do? Or do you really think they will leave you alone? If I were you I’d take the Hungary option anytime. It’s a bit of a gamble, I know. But at least you have a chance of coming out of it as a free person.“

Very true, thought Kerstin, downing her glass of wine almost in one. She was a nervous wreck now, and that was just in anticipation of what might happen. She had never been a good lier, and you’d have to be, the way the Stasi interrogators tended to take people apart during ‚interviews’. And – this only occurred to her at that moment – she would not be able to finish her degree course, whether she left or stayed behind. They simply wouldn’t let her, the newly-wedded wife of an absconded leading light in clinical biochemical research. Getting her degree had been one of the chief reasons, or so she’d convinced herself until now, not to join Martin.

How had she got into this mess? She’d always told herself that she had some sort of future here in East Germany. She had friends here, and no matter how much this country limited your life choices, trying to leave it carried with it the risk of being arrested, interrogated and locked up in one of their notorious prisons like Bautzen or Hohenschönhausen. The official line had always been that there was no such thing as a political prisoner in the GDR, which meant anyone, whether caught organising underground meetings whith regime critics or trying to flee using a fake passport, was classed as a criminal. With cruel calculation they were put into cells with proper criminals, the kind who had a record for grievous bodily harm and were often deliberately set up by the wardens to bully the political inmates.

What else did she have to lose? She wouldn’t see her friends or her family for a very long time. She didn’t mind about her father, but her mother was a different story. Just thinking of her now gave her a pang of massive guilt and sorrow.

Kerstin had known about Martin’s plan to leave for nearly a year, but telling her parents about it had been out of the question. Her father, never shy to rant against the regime in his own four walls, would have disowned her in his worry about what the neighbours or his superiors at work might say. She wouldn’t even have put it past him to march her to the nearest police station to confess in order to keep his own name clean.

Mother on the other hand would be less judgemental, but she never had the nerve to keep a secret of this magnitude. She’d probably have told someone who would most likely be exactly the wrong person. Mum had so little intuition as to whom to trust, plus she was easily intimidated. God only knew how she had managed to get through life in East Germany without being picked out for her non-conformist views. Kerstin had long stopped needing her parents, but her mother probably needed her. She was near retirement age though, and since the elderly, sick and infirm were the only people East Germany didn’t mind getting rid of, they were allowed to travel to the West. So Mother and her would be able to meet somewhere in West Germany, given a year or two.


Chapter 2: April 1989

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.