I finally reached the Berlin Wall at daybreak, just as the lamps above it all went out. By mid-morning the place sounded like a workshop, chisels worrying euphorically away at the graffiti – who knew what those chippings might not one day be worth? If we are seriously re-considering, now, Europe and our place in it, then I think there is a third view of this matter, beyond the two which are currently permitted. I don’t by that mean the views ‘for’ and ‘against’. I mean the view from ruinous disunity, the view from 1945, for which all profess a polite but condescending respect. The other (preferred) timeline is 1973, from which our talking heads perform those intricate cost-benefit analyses which are alleged to prove something or other.
But what if you were twenty-two when you were there in 1989? The British public, with a little help from its newspapers, has learnt to put an exact and very round figure on what all those chippings and that euphoria were worth. Back then we seemed less sure. Squaddies set up tea urns in the Potsdamer Platz, rubbish-strewn no man’s land that it still was, jauntily offering cups of wishy-washy to bemused but grateful passers-by. Tea urns and long tables in the Potsdamer Platz struck me as a fitting and a witty note on which to end the Cold War and European partition. The brand of surrealism was one I recognised and enjoyed.
I had arrived in Germany that autumn with no more clue than anyone else about what was at hand. This was before the age of cash machines, too: I’d brought enough money, in travellers’ cheques, to meet the modest needs of a serious young student of literature. I’d spent the bulk of what I had left on getting to Berlin via an entertaining but roundabout route, which there’s no time to go into here. I’d phoned my bank and some money was due to arrive tomorrow. But tonight I was skint.
One of that illustrious tea-dispensing unit gave me the number of their barracks and I called it, but my patriotic impulse was not reciprocated. They were kind enough to furnish me with a list of homeless shelters, one of which finally said it had room. On arrival, more or less in shock from the cold as I was, a charitable soul on reception treated me to a talking-to about how this place was for the homeless and not for student-adventurers. I might not be among the deserving homeless: she conceded that I might all the same be counted among the truly cold.
The only other occupant of the dormitory I was assigned was already asleep. It was still dark when I heard him getting dressed and leaving. Yet when I woke it was to the uneasy awareness that I was not alone in the room.
A man was sitting with his knees drawn up on the bottom of the bunk opposite mine. He was dressed in his day-clothes and there was no sign of any luggage. In his mid-twenties perhaps, he wore that rumpled Chinese-made denim which was standard issue for the young East German male. Frowning at two or three sheets of printed paper, he seemed in his absorption not so much unaware as utterly uninterested in whether or not he was alone.
I addressed him in German. He looked up, startled: rumpled Chinese denim notwithstanding it was clear that this was no East German. In an accent somewhere half way between mid-Atlantic and middle European he asked apologetically whether I spoke English. Encouraged by my answer he handed over the sheets of paper immediately, asking me to translate.
Jozef was Polish. On one document were the details of a Peugeot which had been confiscated and impounded. Another was a detailed map. The third was an order that he present himself at half past eight, at a Police Headquarters marked on the map, for questioning about a stolen vehicle. That left us twenty minutes and I say ‘us’ because it was at once clear he couldn’t go alone. I suppose this was also, if I’m honest, as close as I’d really got to one of these easterners. They might be everywhere and I might have had innumerable brief exchanges in recent days but nothing substantial. I’d listened to a good deal of scepticism from young West Germans and it was true the crowds of East Germans didn’t look quite so admirable once you’d watched the men queuing outside porno-cinemas while their womenfolk went into ecstasies over the stacks of chocolate bars in supermarkets. But it seemed mean to judge from such randomly gathered impressions. Or maybe it was his shock and exhaustion as he gazed at the indecipherable text before which he stood accused – maybe it was this which persuaded me to play the defence lawyer. Too much marvelling at this momentous public event had awoken in me a craving to quit marvelling and do something. Here, now, was what I could do. Because the point of all this was to be found, surely, neither in news-room hyperbole nor in the anxious imaginings of the affluent, but precisely in what only being here could offer. Like the opportunity to help someone out who is even more stranded than you are.
Even if he was a thief?
But he wasn’t. He told me everything as we hurriedly followed his map as best we could through the unfamiliar streets and the freezing fog. Unless somebody there spoke Polish and was going to translate and / or represent him, which I doubted, it seemed wisest for me to prepare my brief in what little time we had. He’d been woken in the small hours to more than one torch – he couldn’t say how many – being shone in his face. Then there was thumping on the window and angry voices and he glimpsed the silhouette of a Police cap against a building. They obviously wanted him to open up and when he obliged they wanted him to get out, too. One was jabbing at the For Sale sign he’d put in the window while another got in the front seat and seemed to be checking the mileage or something. He’d bought the car in Warsaw a couple of months earlier, then his mother had fallen ill when the cold weather started and he’d driven across to see if he could sell it so they could bribe the doctor.
He had tried to tell them all this but the dark and the torches and the hostility had frightened him. He had been confused. His German was no good and they didn’t speak English – ‘or to me they didn’t.’ Now a squad car arrived with two more officers. They took his wallet and the keys of his car – was that legal? – and in return he had got these sheets of paper of which he could make nothing at all. From waking with torches in his face to arriving at the hostel with these sheets of paper, he had understood nothing.
He talked while I made the best sense I could of the photocopied map and it brought us soon enough to a collection of large buildings with squad cars parked everywhere.
There were two plain clothes detectives in the small room to which we were directed, one at the desk another on a swivel chair to one side.
‘You’re late,’ the swivelling officer greeted us. We had made the best time we could, I explained, and introduced Jozef.
‘Who are you then?’ the swiveller asked, revolving towards me with an irritable and omnipotent air.
‘I’m his translator.’
Together the two policeman directed at me a look which mingled pity with contempt in a most original manner: ‘Then you can ‘‘translate’’ to him,’ the swivelling officer suavely resumed, ‘that we found ten video machines in the boot. Maybe he can ‘‘translate’’ how they got there to you and then you can ‘‘translate’’ that back to us.’
My expression as I turned to Jozef was probably not the friendliest and he saw it at once. That look of alarmed and exhausted incomprehension spread once again over the features of his face as he asked what was being said.
I explained and he protested vehemently that it couldn’t be his car.
‘Yes yes,’ the swivelling officer wearily waved a sheet of paper at us, from which he then read. ‘Polish male. Apprehended 0430. Green VW. Passau, right?’
The vehicle in question was a black Peugeot, I assured him.
The non-swivelling officer muttered an apology and snatched up another piece of paper on his desk. Now they started again. It was the non-swiveller’s turn. How exactly had Jozef acquired his translator? he asked. I explained the circumstances of our meeting. The detectives both listened, archly expressionless now, having been caught out, but I’d seen no sign they meant to provide a translator themselves. Besides, the ten video machines had confirmed me in my new calling by giving me an early success. I was getting a highly ethical buzz out of this.
They returned to the attack. Their records showed that the vehicle Jozef did not deny attempting to sell had been stolen a year earlier in another part of town. What, the non-swivelling officer would like to know, did my new-found friend have to say about that?
I already knew what he had to say – that he’d bought it in Warsaw a couple of months ago, knew nothing of its history and now needed money because his mother had fallen ill.
They were sorry to hear that. The mileage had been tampered with as well. Its present figure was less than half what it had shown at its last service. Would Jozef like to comment in any way?
He would not. He’d bought it in Warsaw a couple of months ago. From a dealer. He couldn’t remember the garage’s name. ‘It was just some place.’
‘We keep hearing about this ‘Just Some Place’ where all you people buy your cars …’ The swiveller pulled himself up short. ‘So you buy yourself a car, drive it across, find a quiet street, put up your For Sale sign in the window … ’
He’d had a girlfriend who lived in that street once – he remembered where it was so he parked there …
It’s hard to re-construct now what I felt about his stories at the time. That about parking in streets with which you have a past might have sounded like sob-stuff to me at the time but I would have more time for it now. I remember the un-well mother narrative did feel a little suspect, especially the way he went on repeating it, and especially now that I was required to repeat it on his behalf. It must have irritated the detectives too because the swiveller, his confidence returning, rudely interrupted it to ask if they could see another piece of photo ID. To me the question in itself sounded routine.
But from the inside pocket of his denim jacket Jozef now produced something around which a clear plastic bag had been carefully folded several times, which bag he now unfolded. From it there fell at last into his hand an American passport in mint condition, which he passed across. The non-swivelling officer fell at once to testing his thumb against the weave of its pages with an expert air, then, after passing it to his colleague, didn’t quite know where to put his eyes. With the nail of his forefinger the swiveller scrabbled at random pages, as when you try to remove the surprisingly tenacious remains of some insect accidentally flattened long ago between the pages of a book.
And I sat as if nothing could be funnier than their predicament, my expression set to a smugly vindicated ‘Wow – it must feel really precarious where you’re sitting now’. Though I was no less baffled than they. This Jozef was a darker horse than I’d taken him for. He might have seemed about to crack but he had kept his counsel and played his cards in the right order. I, of course, had been one of them. The passport had been acquired through marriage, he claimed.
They’d been keeping the wallet in a drawer all along. Jozef checked through its contents while a document releasing the car was signed and back at reception we were told which bus would drop us nearest to the car pound. Oh yes, we strutted forth like schoolboys, elated and triumphant, back out into what was left of the morning. I expect there was some relieved chortle-chortling about German peaked caps shining torches in your eyes. And yes, he’d worked in Texas for three years and met a girl there. ‘Have fun with American girls but don’t marry them’ was his advice. He had kept the passport, naturally. I asked what he had done for a living there. He had worked in a garage, he said. I appreciated his frankness. We were quiet after that.
The bus dropped us as far as I could desire to be from any Global News Event. Here were scrap metal dealers and super-stores packed with hideous furniture and an incinerator for the city’s rubbish. The man read our piece of paper, searched through a giant wreath of keys, unfastening one of them and asking us to follow. In immense dimly-lit rows the stolen or wheel-clamped vehicles stretched away under the long low ceiling and we were led along them by the guardian of this dreadful place to the black Peugeot. There was Jozef’s bag still in the back with its change of clothes inside. How that place reeked of petty crime, of the frayed nerves and the vexation with which all of us clutter up our own and other peoples’ lives. It had been perverse of me to turn away from the most sensational event in recent history for this squalor.
Back on the road, complete with wallet and wheels, Jozef had his life back: even when he was a kid he’d loved everything about England – the Beatles, fair play, Churchill, tradition … Driving me to the bank where my money had been sent was the least he could do. It had arrived, so having started the day in a homeless shelter, by midday fortune was beaming down affectionate smiles upon both of us though we were, truth to tell, tiring of each other pretty fast.
He insisted on buying me a whisky so we went to a bar where he ordered me a much larger one than I generally drink at ten or eleven in the morning. Or any other time actually – I’ve never much liked the stuff. But here for a few minutes were the two of us, still playing the victors together in this bar instead of me wandering at a loss and him – well, it still made me shudder to think what the police had had in store for him. He wrote his phone number and address in the back of my diary, made me swear if I was ever in any sort of trouble in Warsaw I should be sure to call him. I still look at it now and again, but have not yet been in trouble in Warsaw.