My father is lying in bed.
‘Where’s Mama?’ I ask him. He yawns, groans and pulls the covers over his head. The bed next to him is empty.
‘She’s in the bathroom making herself beautiful’ mumbles my father into the covers. I leave him alone. He often works nights so we have to be careful not to disturb him too much during the day. My mother stands in the bathroom, toothbrush in mouth. She’s brushing her long, black hair.
‘May I?’ I ask, and stand on my tiptoes to reach for her arm and the brush. I love combing my mother’s hair; it’s thick and heavy like a horse’s mane. I picture myself grooming her coat, the brush is almost within reach. But my mother stretches her arm out higher and says we don’t have time. My mother is wearing a lilac nightie. I like all the colours my mother likes. I perch on the edge of the bathtub and try to reach the wall opposite with my bare toes.
‘Stop that,’ says my mother. ‘Put your socks on instead, it’s cold. And do you really want to keep that skirt on?’ I nod, it’s my favourite skirt. She forgets that all the time, she’s always got so much to think about. My mother likes to think a lot about things and sighs sometimes when I interrupt her train of thought to tell her something. So instead I wait for what seems to be the right moment. My mother shakes her head, gathers her hair together and puts it up. She leans towards me and turns on the tap of the bath boiler. The water gushes out onto the yellow rim and into the bathtub. Steam rises, the heat smells salty. My mother takes off her T-shirt and I tell her she looks like Morgan Le Fay wandering through the mists of Avalon.
‘Budge up a bit,’ my mother says and nudges against my knee to shift me along the edge of the bath a little. She crouches down in front of the bath boiler and opens the little iron door. She bends down, blows, and lights a cigarette from the embers. She blows again. The coals begin to glow. I hold my nose. My mother laughs and tells me to buzz off.
The entire floor of our bedroom is littered with scraps of paper: yellow, red, black. My sister Hanna is sitting on the rug, chewing on her stuck-out tongue and deliberately pulling a yellow scrap off my flag.
‘Don’t!’ I cry.
‘Why not?’ she says. ‘If you get rid of that bit it’ll be a West German flag.’
‘You shouldn’t get rid of it,’ I tell her.
‘It looks stupid anyhow,’ she retorts. ‘You can’t really tell what it is anyway.’
The doorbell goes.
‘I’ll go,’ Hanna cries, letting my flag fall and leaping to her feet. I catch up with her just before she reaches the door and shove her out of the way. Thorsten is standing outside, all smiles. He holds his arms out, but we’re not going to leap into them just like that, or at least I’m not, because he’s got his sheepskin waistcoat on again and he only ever turns up when we want to do something with our mother.
‘Mama’s having a bath,’ I say to Thorsten.
‘And Papa’s asleep,’ says Hanna.
‘I see,’ says Thorsten, stepping inside. ‘Then I’ll just make myself a coffee while I’m waiting for your mother. Do you girls want anything?’ He pats me and Hanna on the head. We follow Thorsten into the kitchen and show him where the coffee is.
‘I want squash,’ cries Hanna as she jumps into Thorsten’s lap. Thorsten pours some squash into a glass for Hanna and asks if I want some too. I shake my head.
‘We don’t have time today,’ I inform him and as his lap is taken, I prefer seeing what my mother is doing, and find out when we’ll be leaving. She’s in the middle of washing her underarms when I enter the bathroom. Her breasts are all covered in soapsuds so you can’t see her nipples at all.
‘Shall I rinse?’ I ask my mother, but she’d rather do it herself; I always end up spraying water everywhere. She dries herself off and asks if Papa’s still asleep. Of course he is. ‘Then we’ll let him sleep, he likes his rest.’ My mother slips into her red silk dress and puts some lipstick on. She has a dark red lipstick that my father loves, and I do too. My mother is the most beautiful ever.
‘Shall I comb your hair? I ask.
‘Oh you!’ she laughs and opens the hairclip. ‘It’s fine as it is.’ Her hair falls over her shoulders and almost reaches her waist. Perhaps I should tell her that Thorsten is sitting out in the kitchen and that I don’t want him to come with us. But she would refuse to understand; she’s known Thorsten since forever and is always pleased when he comes over. She always laughs so oddly too when father tells her that the family friend was there again and has left a note on the door, and my father smiles then too. We’ve got a lot of family friends but Thorsten has been coming round far too often recently and I wonder whether I shouldn’t tell her that sometime. Perhaps she hasn’t actually noticed, she has so much to think about, some things she simply doesn’t notice at all. Just like last night, when she completely forgot to send us to bed and we stayed up playing until one in the morning. My mother sprays something on her wrist.
‘Opium.’ She laughs mysteriously and whispers, ‘It’s from Uncle Klaus in the West.’
‘You smell much better without perfume,’ I say to my mother. She strokes my hair and pushes me out of the door ahead of her. In the kitchen, she creeps up behind Thorsten and puts her hands over his eyes, and he pretends he has no idea who it is. Then she leans into him and presses her face in his. I can understand why Thorsten visits so often.
He says he’s brought something for my mother. He presses something into her hand. I badly want to know what it is, but she doesn’t want to show me. She laughs, and takes a sip of coffee from Thorsten’s mug.
‘Are we ok?’ he asks. My mother says to us, ‘Come on, now, put your shoes and jackets on and say goodbye to Papa, but quietly.’
I ask my father whether he doesn’t want to come with us after all. Everybody will be out on the streets celebrating May Day, even the People’s Army will be there and Erich Honecker and everyone will have red carnations and it’ll be so much fun, and we made the flags in school weeks ago, and even Thorsten’s coming as well. Hanna toots on her melodica. Can’t he hear the drums? ‘Come on,’ I say, and try to pull the covers off him. No, my father wants us to go without him so he can get some sleep. My mother comes in, kisses my father on the neck and whispers something in his ear. He hugs her and I try to wriggle my way in between the two of them. I’m hugging him too, until he says that he can’t breathe anymore, but still I won’t let go. He tickles my stomach, my arms, tickles me all over. Hanna cries, ‘Me too, me too.’
I would happily stay with my father but my mother says we shouldn’t disturb him, and she pulls me and Hanna out of the room. Before she can close the door, I catch a glimpse of my father as he throws the covers over his head. He must be glad we’re finally leaving.
Thorsten stands in the hallway and offers Hanna his shoulders. I put one hand in my mother’s and hold the flags in the other. In the S-Bahn I want to be able to see out the window and have my mother next to me. But she doesn’t want to sit with me, she whispers with Thorsten and then they speak in Russian so we can’t understand them.
‘Why do you always have to be so secretive?’ asks Hanna. Thorsten and Mama laugh at us. My carnation has come off its stem again and I try to pin it back on until Thorsten takes it off me and claims he can mend it. But he can’t and gives me his instead.
We change at Alexanderplatz. Hanna and I would rather stay there. Children are splashing in the fountain and we want to splash about too. But Mama says we’ll go to Thorsten’s first, he’s got a Meccano set we can play with, the one we like so much. We’d rather wave our flags to the music along with everyone else. Our mother promises us that Thorsten has multi-coloured rice puffs at his place.
Thorsten nods and says he’s got squash too. What else can we do? That doesn’t mean I have to hold Thorsten’s hand though, I only want my mother’s. My mother has her fur coat on, even though it’s already warm and she’s sweating. On the platform I crawl under her coat. My mother smells good. Hanna tries to feel my head through the coat and I stretch both fists out so she thinks it’s my head. We take the U-Bahn and get out after a few stops.
Thorsten’s flat is small and smelly. It’s the dustbins, Thorsten explains and points down into the courtyard. I think it’s Thorsten’s sheepskin waistcoat, but he won’t admit it. A bowl of rice puffs is put on the kitchen table for Hanna and me. We divide them out according to colour. Red is my favourite, green is hers. Thorsten takes my mother by the hand into the main bedroom and closes the door. Hanna wants red to be her favourite colour as of today and says I have to pick a different one. She’s crazy. Red was always my favourite, there’s nothing I can do about that now. We can hear my mother and Thorsten giggling. They didn’t need to close the door. Hanna doesn’t want to play, she’s so boring. We want to go now. I go to the door that Thorsten and my mother have disappeared behind. It’s stuck, I try the handle a few times but the door won’t budge.
‘Mama!’ I call out. It’s quiet behind the door. Hanna comes over and leans against the door.
‘It won’t open,’ I say.
‘Mama!’ calls Hanna, this time more loudly. Nothing moves behind the door. I kick the door and rattle the handle, Hanna beats out a rhythm on the door with her fists, calling out cheerfully first one name, then the other. ‘Mama! Thorsten! Mama! Thorsten! Mamathor stenma mathorstenma ma!’
Then we hear footsteps and the door bursts open. I fall on to my knees and Hanna falls over me.
‘Why did you close the door then?’ I ask, when our mother laughs and says we should get up. She’s standing in the middle of the room and Thorsten, who had opened the door for us, is sitting on the bed putting on a sock.
‘We want to go now,’ says Hanna and jumps on to Thorsten’s lap. Thorsten asks my mother if she can pass him his shoes, so she picks them up from under the table and brings them to the bed.
‘I’ll put your shoes on for you, ok?’ Hanna offers. Hanging upside-down as if from a set of imaginary monkey bars, she falls backwards from his lap onto the floor and tries to put his shoe on. My mother has to go for a wee. I follow her to the bathroom but she says I should wait outside. I’m always allowed in with her at home.
‘We’ll eat something first,’ my mother decides when she comes out of the bathroom. She wants to cook rice and peas.
‘Ohh no, I thought we were going to May Day.’
Thorsten says you can’t go to May Day because it’s a day and not a place or a person. Thorsten always thinks he’s the cleverest, which makes him pretty stupid. I don’t want to stay at Thorsten’s. Every time we go to his place my mother wants to stay and it’s often really late before we can leave. Once we even had to sleep at his because it got dark and the U-Bahn wasn’t running any more.
My mother is standing at the stove frying onions. She says they’ve planned a surprise for us this evening, so we’ve got to eat well. Thorsten lays a flat piece of cardboard on the floor and says we can play with his Meccano set. But I don’t want to and Hanna doesn’t either.
‘What kind of a surprise?’ I ask my mother.
‘If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise,’ she says and starts to sing. Thorsten stands next to my mother and sniffs her hair, then says something quietly to her that I can’t catch.
‘Thorsten shouldn’t do that,’ I whisper in Hanna’s ear. Hanna turns to face the two of them.
‘I think Thorsten likes Mama,’ Hanna whispers back.
‘So what? Doesn’t mean we have to spend all day in his flat though, does it?’ I hold my nose and pretend I’m going to be sick. Hanna does the same, though I’m not sure if she doesn’t actually secretly like him just as much, she always jumps straight into his lap as soon as mother leaves it.
We need to come and eat, or else there won’t be any surprise.
‘So what? As if I care,’ I say, and cross my arms. Thorsten’s feeding Hanna, using the fork as an aeroplane even though she’s not a baby anymore.
‘What’s the grumpy face for?’ he asks me.
‘I’m not grumpy,’ I huff and turn my back to him. It’s already dark outside and we haven’t been to the May Day celebrations yet. Thorsten really annoys me, he doesn’t understand anything.
‘Don’t start arguing you two.’ My mother rolls her eyes.
‘Don’t be so irritable,’ I say to her. My father always says that to her too. She doesn’t respond and instead asks Thorsten where the cigarettes are. Thorsten lights one and passes it to my mother across the table. The pair of them gaze at one another.
‘What now?’ I ask. I want to go home. No one answers. The doorbell goes. Thorsten gives Hanna his fork to hold and goes to answer the door. A friend of Thorsten’s has arrived. My mother, the friend and Thorsten stand in the hallway and talk quietly together. Surprises are stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I make sure to tell my mother when she comes back into the kitchen.
‘Eat first, and then we’ll go.’
I chew on the rice and peas, letting them roll one by one on my tongue until my mother yells at me to behave normally for once, if that’s not too much to ask. Her voice sounds strangely warped, just like our old record player, when Peter and the Wolf’s voices got deeper and deeper and my father said that the motor wasn’t turning quickly enough anymore. Hanna’s voice has deepened too. Her head falls forward onto her arms and it looks as if she’s asleep. I can’t stop myself from yawning.
‘Hanna,’ I say, and my tongue feels all heavy. Thorsten looks like he’s in a Hall of Mirrors. We went to one in Treptow once. There was a rollercoaster there too and even back then Thorsten had that stupid laugh of his, that stupid, stupid laugh. I push the plate aside and lay my head on the table, my mother’s hair hangs across my face, swaying slowly back and forth. I can feel my mother’s arms lifting me, carrying me to Thorsten’s bed, I don’t want to sleep there. But instead she keeps going, taking me further and further. I can’t tell her how stupid I find all this, my tongue feels like a lump in my mouth and I can’t even cry because my eyelids are so heavy.
The air is stuffy, it smells of cigarettes and it’s dark. I can feel something rumbling and shuddering around me. I try to get my bearings. There’s something heavy lying across my chest and I reach out to grab it. It’s Hanna’s arm, she’s still asleep. I can hear my mother’s voice from in front, she says we need to turn left here. I feel slightly sick from the motion of the car. I had no idea Thorsten even had a car. I close my eyes again. That’s good, I think to myself, that way he can always drive us home in the evening, even when the U-Bahn isn’t running any more. The rain is pelting down on the roof of the car. I can see a small rivulet streaming across the window. There’s a hissing sound as each car passes.
‘I’m thirsty,’ I say. My mother turns to me and strokes my hair.
‘So, you’ve finally woken up then?’ She passes a bottle back to me. There’s lemonade in it – Astoria, I think – but the bottle looks a bit different. That doesn’t matter, I think to myself, perhaps I’m dreaming. It seems odd that I can think about a dream within a dream. But the pins and needles in my arm make it clear that I’m not asleep. If I can tell my arm has gone to sleep then I must be awake.
‘I feel sick,’ I say to my mother.
‘Oh, that’ll pass.’ She strokes my forehead again, as if I were ill. Thorsten looks over his shoulder and asks, ‘So, had a good sleep?’
A good sleep? I shut my eyes tightly and only open them again when I’m sure that Thorsten is no longer looking back.
‘When will we get home?’ I want to know. My mother doesn’t let go of my forehead.
‘When will we get home then?’ I push my mother’s hand away, I want her to answer me.
‘What time is it?’ my mother asks.
‘Half four.’ Thorsten lights a cigarette.
‘Still got a bit to go then. Try and get some sleep.’ My mother makes it sound so easy. We’re driving through city streets now, I can see the streetlights outside as they pass by. We stop at a set of traffic lights. There are yellow street signs up ahead and I try to read what they say: Tempelhof, Marienfelde. No idea where they are. I close my eyes and try to sleep, I don’t feel well, my stomach’s churning. I sit up again and vomit. My mother tries to use her hands to catch it but most of it lands between the two front seats. I cry because of the horrid bitterness in my mouth. My mother gives me back the lemonade and asks whether I want to take off my blue neckerchief and use it to clean myself up.
‘Are you crazy?’ I say to my mother, ‘that’s my Pioneer scarf.’ But clearly my mother cares as little about Pioneer scarves as about May Day or the fact that my father will already be worrying about where we are.
Photograph by Sebastian Rittau