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.