The spring afternoon sunshine warmed my cheek. The small trees lining the road were starting to unfurl their budding lime green leaves, bringing fresh clean colour to the streets. All was well with my world and it was a glorious afternoon to wander home from college. I turned the last corner into my home street.
The visceral surge of fear seared through my brain like a scratched record.
Ignore them. Carry on. Not your problem.
The two men lounged causally in the car.
Surely nobody was fooled? Everybody must know; their whole appearance and posture just screamed State Security Service. Just a sly glance at them was enough. Two strangers sitting still in a car? Who else could they possibly be?
Everyone just walked on by. Not their problem. Don’t get involved. Don’t make it your problem.
I shuddered, knowing I couldn’t turn back now: I had to cross the street right in front of them. Was it my block of flats they were watching?
My gut wrenched. I felt short of breath. I fought the temptation to look back over my shoulder and see if they were writing a note. I tried to shrug the uneasiness off but the sudden hard knot between my shoulders throbbed as I imagined their eyes boring into my back as I walked away from them, onwards towards my entrance.
Everyone was trying to carry on as normal, more carefully normal than normal normal, under their scrutiny. Someone was obviously moving boxes from the boot of a dilapidated old banger into the building. The thick tattered rubber door-mat had been heaved half through the doorway to hold the doors open. Perhaps it was black marketeers? The Service didn’t normally bother about that kind of daily life; in fact, black marketeers were often pressured by the Service to act as informers for fear of being reported to the normal police. My brain sought escape in the absurd: perhaps those two men in the car were normal police? Undercover, disguised as The Service? The ridiculousness of the double bluff almost made me suppress a silly scared laugh. My throat was dry. Perhaps if the police pretended to be Security Service then the Security Service could pretend to be police pretending to Security Service ... and everyone would be fooled! I could feel my panic revving. Who could you trust if you couldn’t tell the police and Security Service apart? I tried to breath deep calm breaths. I tried to slow my step, act nonchalant, act normal, conform. After all, I tried to assure myself, I had done nothing wrong; what did I have to fear?
The lift was out of order again. The lift was often out of order. A glamorously-dressed young lady, not much older than me, was sitting on a stack of worn battered full cardboard boxes. She was studying her bold red lipstick a small make-up mirror. I could see her big brown eyes magnified in the reflection. That had to mean she was surreptitiously watching the doorway.
She spun round and flashed me a winning smile. Sliding off of the boxes she stood up, blocking my path as I approached the broad spiral staircase that wrapped itself around the broken lift-shaft.
“Hello!” she called out cheerfully. Her greeting echoed up the stairwell. “Excuse me! Do you live here?” Her inquiring smile seemed genuine. I glanced quickly behind me, checking no-one was creeping up behind me. I nodded.
“We must be neighbours! Priscilla, 6B. We’re just moving in...” she smiled and waved her hand at the boxes to explain them away.
It was infectious: I smiled back, the watchers outside forgotten.
“Welcome! Pleased to meet you Priscilla”
She smiled and glanced me up and down, assessing me. Her wide unbreaking smile seemed to indicate approval. “My, you are strapping” she giggled. I couldn’t help grinning back. I had reached the bottom of the stairs and had stopped right in front of her now. We were almost touching. I was just standing their dumbly, unable to pass her blocking my way.
“I don’t suppose you could help me carry all these boxes up?” she twiddled some stray hairs hanging down the side of her face. She almost bit her tongue. Her eyes were laughing joyfully. Of course I was going to help.
Just below the landing to the third floor I had to stand to one side to make space for a girl heading down. She passed by on the inside where the steps were narrower. She was avoiding making eye contact. She had her head down and was in a hurry. She was almost past me before she stole a sideways glance.
Then, as though realising a problem, she came to an abrupt stop a few steps below me.
“That’s one of our boxes!” she screamed accusingly.
I suddenly realised how it looked. She thought I was a thief. Leave unattended boxes around and they will disappear. It was an obvious assumption. What was she going to do?
“Its okay Mary” the voice of lady at the bottom of the stairs carried cheerfully up the stairwell from the lobby, “he’s helping!”
Mary looked at me a bit disbelievingly. “Is that so?” she asked, an eyebrow arched, her voice dripping with menace. I nodded dumbly.
“Thanks” she smiled, a fake smile. “I’ll show you the way. Help you find the right floor” she added quietly, gesturing upwards. I turned and carry on trudging up to the sixth floor. Life was so unfair: try to do a new neighbour a good turn and almost get your head bitten off.
As I passed the fifth floor landing I nodded towards my flat door: “Johan, 5B; the flat below you. Very pleased to meet you, Mary” I tried to smile. She tried to smile back. I carried on past, gallantly heading upwards.
And then there we were, outside 6B. I stood there expectantly, waiting for Mary to open the door. “You can put it down there” Mary pointed. I nodded and set the box down by the door. “Thanks”
She was standing back to one side so I wouldn’t have to pass too close when I left her.
I stalled as I passed my landing on floor five; did I want to go back down and collect another box? Or did I want to hide in my room? I felt stupid now. Priscilla was just a user! She hadn’t even asked my name. With leaden feet I trudged on downwards to face the inevitable.
On floor two I had to stand to the side for another man to pass with a box. He perhaps wasn’t much older than me but he looked so assured, worldly, certain. He had loose wavy hair and large long sideburns and small black-rimmed spectacles. His thick black short felt jacket and long woolly scarf looked deliberately and carefully casual. He looked intellectual. Obviously a student. He ignored me, his assessment dismissing me as unimportant. It was obviously another box going up to 6B. Perhaps a random passer by? Or perhaps a boyfriend?
Priscilla cracked her smile again as I finally reached her. “My, you are fit!” she grinned encouragingly as she picked up another box and shoved it into my arms. She giggled as I turned and began to head upwards again, feeling embarrassed and vulnerable and stupid as I turned my back on playful her.
“There’s new folks in flat 6B” I announced grandly at dinner. I didn’t often have any interesting news to impart.
Dad looked up, his fork half way to his mouth. “Have you met them?” he asked, curious.
“I helped them carry boxes” I announced proudly. Mum beamed. Was she going to tell me that that was how I’d been raised?
What are they like?” my brother Dieter asked, pausing in his meal. My news was interesting.
“A girl, Priscilla, just a bit older than me. And another girl, Mary, not sure, perhaps my age? Not sure if Mary lives there or was just helping.” I shrugged. “Students, I guess”
Simone looked up sharply. Simone was Dieters young bride and they had been married now almost a half-year. As was common they were living in the room that Dieter and I had shared growing-up while they waited to be assigned a flat of their own. Nowadays I was sleeping on the sofa bed in the small living room. Everyone everywhere seemed to be living like this these days: extended families living on top of each other in flats with barely space of one child.
I could tell my news had put Simone on edge. She was feeling insecure and the news of new young girls in our block of flats could hardly put her at ease. With a sickening realisation I knew her fear wasn’t completely misplaced. She didn’t deserve my idiot brother.
The quiet clatter of cutlery on plates resumed.
“We should go introduce ourselves after dinner?” mum looked at dad expectantly. He paused again, mulling it before he nodded. Mum smiled quietly to herself. Dieter wasn’t the only one who might be thinking of new possible company, but my mum’s loneness was innocent and her thoughts well-meant. My dad didn’t deserve her either. The meal, delicious, tasted bland to me as I mulled dark disappointed lonely thoughts of my own. I glanced up and caught a brave sly grin from Simone and felt better.
After dinner mum and dad went up to say hello to flat 6B. Dieter, Simone and I sat quietly in the living room and sipped coffee, straining to hear. We heard the knock and some footsteps above but nothing else. Mum and dad came back down just quarter of an hour later with mum gushing about how nice and polite our new neighbours were. They confirmed that Mary was staying with Priscilla, and gave the impression that there were several other guests there too.
Dieter stood up, his usual idle bored look giving away his intention to leave us and go down the bar on the corner. Simone looked at him questioningly, hoping to be invited to join him, but Dieter didn’t say anything as he went to get his coat. My mum, seeing this all playing itself out again, nudged dad. Dad cleared his throat as he put his heavy hand on Dieter’s shoulder; “Ah, yes, you young’uns going out again tonight? Its just a Wednesday? You two won’t be home to late? You’ll be careful not to wake Mrs 2A if you’re too late?”
Dieter looked around at Simone as if suddenly remembering his manners. “Come on?” he asked as though surprised she wasn’t already following. And so Dieter and Simone headed out, Dieter playing polite husband and Simone being the obedient wife. Dieter had been abandoning Simone to us all too often lately. Was this what married life was supposed to be like?
It was quite late – I glanced at the clock and it said one AM – when the blinding living room light awoke me. The door banged behind Dieter and Simone. Dieter just stuck his finger up at me as he passed, dragging a cheerful Simone towards their room. Simone smiled and mouthed ‘sorry’ and they were gone. They hadn’t even ducked into the bathroom to brush their teeth.
I couldn’t understand what Simone saw in him. She looked so happy when he noticed her, and so lost and insecure the rest of the time. It couldn’t last; Dieter would stray eventually, that was certain. I hoped Simone would have the guts to divorce my useless brother, the sooner the better.
And so, with my brother’s casual evil weighing heavily on my shoulders, I had to get up to turn off the light so I could get back to sleep.
Turning the light off pitched me into complete darkness and I had to find my sofa by following the low sharp edge of the sofa table with my shin. I couldn’t hear anything from Dieter’s room now. In the sudden stillness of the night I could only hear the sharp distant click of heels on the floor above. Our new neighbours were still up. I crawled under my cover and tried, fitfully, to get back to sleep. Priscilla was beautiful but the way she tried to wrap all boys around her little finger – and succeeded – made me angry. Mary’s righteous anger and her preparedness to confront a thief was more interesting and I tried to recall how she looked, but drew a blank. I had barely a fuzzy recollection of her. I wondered if the other guests my mum had mentioned might also be girls, and I was wondering what they might look like as sleep finally claimed me.
Dad and mum were up early as usual, preparing breakfast for my dad who had an early shift at the steel mill. As they had to pass through the living room to go from their bedroom to the kitchen or toilet it was impossible for me to sleep in, so I got up too. It took just a few minutes to put away my bedding and return the living room to its proper function. It was a regular routine that I always had to do it before breakfast.
Dad kissed mum on the cheek and left. Then mum and I sat quietly at the table and sipped our morning coffee. This was really the only quiet time mum and I got together, the half hour before Simone and Dieter had to get up to get ready to go to the factory where they had met and both worked. Dieter was on the shop floor and Simone worked in the offices and they had slightly different hours but usually went off to work together.
They were late getting up. “What time did they get home last night?” mum asked quietly.
“I don’t know, after eleven I think” I white-lied for Simone’s sake.
Mum got up to tap lightly on their door.
There were no watchers staking us out when I left to go to college. Everything was normal: normal normal. I realised I hadn’t even mentioned them at dinner last night; normally that kind of thing would be remarked upon, but the news of new neighbours had driven them from my mind. Sure we were alone, unwatched, I pushed them out of my mind again, ignoring them, forgetting them. I hummed as strolled off to my first lecture, my satchel swinging lightly on my shoulder.
Today could have been yesterday, today could be tomorrow. Everything was so routine. I felt safe again.
My schoolfriend Klaus fell into step as I passed his apartment building. He had been lounging in the weak morning sun waiting for me. We grunted, the kind of grunt that passes as a warm greeting between boys. Rob joined us on the next corner, and by the time we reached college we were the usual gang.
“Where’s Dieter?” mum asked me quietly, urgently, as I slipped in. I shrugged. “Can you go up and see if he’s upstairs?” mum looked desperate. Although the details unspoken, I instinctively knew what mum feared. I nodded. Simone would be home soon. I turned and slipped out again and jogged up the stairs to the floor above.
“Hello?” Priscilla said as she opened the door. She didn’t seem to recognise me.
“Hello, I helped you with the boxes the other day?” I tried to help jog her memory.
She looked blank. “Oh yes, thanks for that!” she replied, her face still studying mine to see if she knew who I was.
“Eh, I know this is strange, but I was wondering if my brother Dieter was here?” I asked nervously. It seemed suddenly so silly and presumptuous. Mary was standing quietly behind Priscilla. So that’s what Mary looked like! They looked so different, with Priscilla so made up and elegant and wearing high heels indoors and with Mary looking so normal and with such dark straight long brown hair looking so natural.
Mary laughed. “And you would wonder this ... because?”
“Because he might have come to say hello?” I countered, knowing Mary was needling me.
Priscilla turned and marched back into their flat, her hand beckoning me to follow. Mary stood to the side to let me past, grinning.
“Any of you called Dieter?” Priscilla asked as she entered the kitchen. Four young men sat around their tiny kitchen table and looked up, surprised! They all considered the question and shook their heads in unison. “Thought not!” Priscilla declared, and turned to me. “Satisfied?” she smiled her broad manipulative smile. I couldn’t help grinning foolishly back.
“Who are you?” it was the man who had I had met carrying boxes on the stairs. The men were huddled around the tiny table, perched leaning over it and its solitary ash-tray.
“Oh I quite forget my manners” Priscilla giggled. “Everyone, this is... ?” she turned at stared questioningly at me, realising she didn’t even know my name.
“Johan” Mary filled in. Priscilla glanced quickly at her, another questioning arch to her eyebrows. Mary had used that eyebrow on me on the stairs the other day. Suddenly I thought they looked quite alike. Mary shrugged nonchalantly.
“Johan, pleased to meet you” Priscilla recovered and held her hand out for me to shake. Instinctively, and I don’t know why I did this, I grasped it and kissed it as people did in olden days. Everyone just stared at us, except Mary who smirked.
“Eric” the man from the stairs said, introducing himself. Then he pointed around the table, naming his companions. “We are a study circle” he added, asserting his authority. He was obviously the leader and he was obviously involved with or wanted to be involved with Priscilla; I could see the aggression in his eyes when I’d kissed her hand.
“Well, if you see Dieter, please tell him to come home” I said stupidly and then turned and made to leave.
“I’ll show you out” Mary said quietly and followed me.
“So this Dieter,” Mary was asking, “what does he look like?”
“A lot like me, I guess” I hadn’t really thought about that.
“Your brother, you said” Mary smiled.
“Your sister?” I asked, nodding back towards the kitchen.
“Umm yeah” Mary seemed shyer now.
“But you two don’t look so alike.”
“Its dyed” she smirked and closed the door in my face.
Dieter was home when I got back down. He had just been a bit late home from work. I kind of felt guilty, how mum and I had distrusted him, but it had been so plausible. When he discovered Priscilla he would probably drop by there quite often ... the injustice made me angry.
The kids were kicking the football towards the men in the car deliberately. I was sure of it. They were trying to provoke a response. They wanted the men to get out of the car so they could get chased and try and get the men lost. It all seemed a harmless if exciting game to them. I felt sick. Games like that could have serious repercussions for parents. An old lady approached the kids to admonish them and now they swarmed around her instead as she dragged the gang leader away by his ear.
I didn’t feel I was being watched particularly as I crossed the road in front of them to go into my block of flats.
Simone had been in the bathroom when Dieter had headed out. Mum hadn’t noticed until the deed was done. Simone was spending the evening alone with us again. I tried to smile wanly as I set the chess board up on the coffee table between us, the usual procedure in these recurring circumstances. I felt as trapped as Simone must have felt. I couldn’t really abandon her and leave myself too, could I?
“So have you introduced yourself to our new neighbours yet?” Simone asked me sweetly.
“Yes, the other day” I confirmed quietly, whispering just enough to for her to hear me over my parents radio playing in the kitchen.
“Oh do tell all” she lent forward, interested. Her eyes sparkled.
“Well there’s definitely two sisters, Priscilla and Mary. And there were some other students there, but I’m unsure if they live there or were just visiting” I explained.
“Are they very pretty?” Simone dared me.
“Well,” I shrugged, “I haven’t really thought about it” I lied. Simone smiled knowingly. She was teasing me.
“I know!” I exclaimed, hit by sudden idea, “Why don’t we go up and introduce you, Simone?”
That wiped the smile off her face! Immediately she seemed insecure and vulnerable again: “Do you think we could?” she asked tentatively, but I knew she wanted me to force her to do what she wouldn’t dare do alone. I smiled back at her, no words needing to be spoken.
“I’d better freshen up” she said quietly as she got up and hurried into Dieter’s room and began rifling in the wardrobe.
I knocked gently on the door. There was no answer.
“Perhaps they’re not in?” Simone whispered nervously and started to turn away, dragging me around too as our arms were looped.
“Perhaps they didn’t hear?” I replied, determined to not give up so easily. And so I banged on the door and, after a few seconds, we heard the click of high heels on the other side. The door flew open and Priscilla, dressed as elegantly as always and holding a shot glass, stood back and gazed welcomingly at us.
“Why hello Johan! What a pleasant surprise! And who is this lovely lady? Is this your girlfriend? Oh you never said!?” Priscilla rattled off with a scandalous lilt as she stretched forward to gracefully kiss the air beside each of Simone’s cheeks.
“Priscilla, this is Simone, Dieter’s wife” I introduced. Priscilla recoiled slightly, smiling warmly, as she assessed Simone completely.
“Ah, the infamous Dieter! Tell me, Johan, did you ever find him?” Priscilla simpered.
Simone glanced sideways at me, her eyes wide in horror, questioning. I tried to stare reassuringly into Simone’s deep eyes as I shook my head.
“Simone and Dieter are living with us, temporarily, in 5B” I added. Everyone would understand the setup without elaboration; young newly-weds living with one or the other’s parents was usual, although living with the girl’s parents was perhaps slightly more common.
“Well come in, come in!” Priscilla beamed, beckoning us on and closing the door behind her. Mary eased out of the kitchen shyly. “Simone, this is my sister Mary. We are very pleased to meet you, neighbour!”
Their flat was the exact same layout as ours; the door opened straight into the living room with doors for the kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms leading off from that. It was sparsely furnished, with rugs instead of carpets and just a few chairs around and strange abstract modern paintings hanging on the walls. It felt a bit temporary. I was trying to discern that glint in Simone’s eyes: was it envy? Was she jealous? How could two students get a flat while her and Dieter waited?
There were four ways to do it: you could join The Party, you could pay a backhander, you could sleep with a Party Official or you could wait your turn. I felt a sudden pricking of fear that Priscilla was a kept woman. Her clothes looked expensive. All clothes were expensive – a normal suit or dress costs at least half a month’s salary – but Priscilla’s looked unusually expensive. I hadn’t noticed an old out-of-place man in a posh suit on the stairs.
Shaking these thoughts from my mind I sat down beside Simone on the sofa. It was like the sofa at home – quite hard with an upright back because it unfolded into a bed. For all her posh clothes and the fact that they had a flat, the furniture looked old, worn and second-hand. The paintings looked amateur. Things weren’t so posh on closer inspection. Priscilla and Mary had settled into the two armchairs across the sofa table from us. Priscilla and Simone were already babbling.
“Mary, be a dear, fetch some coffee?” Priscilla smiled at her. I suspected Mary was immune to Priscilla’s charms but she got up to do it anyway as it was the polite thing to do in front of new guests. I hadn’t seen where Priscilla had discretely laid her shot glass after we filed in; it wasn’t anywhere in sight. There was just a heavy ashtray and a small box of cigarettes on the sofa table. A foreign brand! The kind of very expensive black-market cigarettes that everyone would leave around in full view to boast of their access. The cigarettes didn’t quite fit properly and I suspected, like I had seen at friends houses, that the fashionable foreign carton had been refilled with an inferior local brand.
I watched Mary walk away, feeling left out of Priscilla and Simone’s conversation. I tried to listen to them instead.
“Languages” Priscilla was explaining, “mostly French and Spanish. Its my second year, at The Institute”.
I did some rough mental arithmetic; that would make Priscilla at least nineteen or twenty years old?
“Of course Mary is still at college” Priscilla was adding as a footnote.
“How is married life?” Priscilla changed the conversation direction abruptly, forcing Simone into dangerous territory. It was adeptly judged and, as Priscilla had already worked Simone into listing and comparing mode, Simone started to describe it without her normal shy guards. Mary had returned with a small coffee can and some very small fine cups on delicate saucers. There was no way I could get even my littlest finger through the handles.
“You don’t say much” Mary observed, looking at me trying to grip the cup. She was grinning.
“So you’re at college?” I leaned back, trying to get Mary to talk to me.
“The Technical College, Mechanical Engineering.”
We smiled at one another. Neither of us were comfortable talking to strangers, not even in this informal friendly atmosphere. I stared around the room, trying to settle on something to talk about.
“These paintings,...” I started. How could I finish that sentence? I left it hanging.
“Oh yes, these paintings,” Mary laughed. “Karl, the one with the long hair you met the other day, he paints. They are very...” she paused, searching for a diplomatic word, “abstract”. She smiled triumphantly, pleased with her cleverness.
Priscilla looked diagonally across the table at me. “Mary’s not capitalizing our guest, I trust?” she smiled. Crocodiles do smile, apparently. Priscilla was snatching me from her sister. I felt like bait, but in Priscilla’s warm welcoming smile I melted. “So, what do you do?” Priscilla asked me. Presumably Priscilla had extracted lots of interesting information about married life from Simone and was bored of it. Simone was looking at me happily, expectantly, waiting to hang on my answer too.
But I had already forgotten Mary, and I dived in with all my heart trying to impress Priscilla. I think, when I revisit that evening, that I recall Mary was smirking at my hopelessness.
“Did you have a lovely evening? You look so happy, dear” mum was asking Simone when we came back down. It was perhaps a foolish thing to say: Dieter was sitting on the couch trying to hide his irritation. It was late and he had got back before us and the stink of beer and cigarettes filled the small living room.
“Where have you been?” he asked Simone, interrogating her.
“Johan took me upstairs to introduce me to our new neighbours. They were very nice.” Simone explained innocently. “I really got along with Priscilla; I think I have a new friend”
“Any men there?” Dieter asked angrily.
“Only Johan,” Simone giggled, “why, that is okay isn’t it?”
Dieter nodded non-committally. It was so typical and unfair of Dieter, wanting to come and go as he pleased but keep Simone isolated and dependent. Realisation suddenly struck me: was that why Dieter had brought Simone to our flat instead of them living with her parents?
“Well I think it will do you a world of good!” mum interjected, caressing Simone’s cheek lovingly.
“Where are you going?” Dieter asked accusingly.
Simone turned in the doorway, “Why, dear, I’m just going upstairs to say hello to Priscilla; I have promised” she sang.
Dieter looked a bit pissed off. He stood up in a huff “Well I’m going down the pub” he declared to nobody in particular.
“You will come up too, won’t you?” Simone was asking nicely, a few days later. “Its just a few friends, and I promised I’d bring you and Johan”
Dieter shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. I could tell he was eager to meet the girl he had heard so much about. He was really relieved and excited to be invited but he didn’t want to show it.
Mary opened the door and whisked us in after just one knock. There was murmuring from the kitchen and we strolled in.
Priscilla was leaning forwards against the window sill looking out, her sheen skirt pulled seductively taught over her firm behind. She turned her head as we walked in and shone a searchlight sweet smile. I almost didn’t notice anyone else was there, Priscilla’s presence was that bright. I shock my head, trying to shake away the fuzzy sensor overload. I knew her game.
Simone introduced Dieter to Priscilla and then to everyone else. Clearly Simone had already met the four men gathered around the table talking, smoking and drinking vodka shots. Dieter was snapped out of Priscilla’s captivation by Eric, the leader of the four, standing up to shake his hand.
Mary appeared behind us and snuck around the table and rested a gentle hand on one of the men’s shoulders. “Karl,” she said quietly, but loud enough for me to hear, “Johan has been admiring your art!”
Karl leaped up excitedly and eased around the table to face me, thrusting his hand out in greeting. “Pleased to meet you properly, Johan” he said, smiling broadly, his eyes on fire. I shook his offered hand, trying not to stare daggers at Mary who was now smirking and wriggling her eyebrow from her new spot leaning back against the kitchen cupboards.
And so Karl and I sauntered slowly around the living room like it was an art gallery. Mary was watching from the safety of the doorway, smirking at my attempts to compliment the works as Karl described in detail the process of painting them. He was light on interpretation, though, saying it was for everyone to form their own opinions. But he had a lot to say about the process.
Simone and Priscilla were deep in conversation just inside the kitchen and I had lost sight of Dieter- he had presumably joined the other men at the table.
When Karl had finally run out of things to explain we went back into the kitchen. It was as I had extrapolated; Dieter was sitting in Karl’s vacated place and so we had to return and I kept Karl company in the living room while Mary brought us shots and offered cigarettes. “We really must get more chairs” Mary was apologising, “ ... and a bigger kitchen” she grinned.
It had been a pleasant night. I had been pleased that Priscilla hadn’t led Dieter on; in fact, I judged that Simone and Priscilla were actually getting along really well, and were now genuinely friends. Although polar opposites of introvert and extrovert, they were both very quick witted and interested in everything and they seemed as captivated by each other as each was to the other, and they ignored all the other distractions in the room.
And Dieter had actually got along great with the men around the table and made new friends too.
And this was a new social scene, the student scene, but Dieter, Simone and I were fitting in quite nicely. Things were decidedly less bleak now we’d made proper friends with our new neighbours. It was refreshing to have new young people in our stairwell, as everyone else was mum and dad’s generation or older. We were all happy when we went to bed.
“He is really cool!” Dieter exclaimed at dinner. Simone and mum smiled on him indulgently. “He has so many new ideas!”
I could sense that Dieter was talking about Eric. Eric was a leader, and Dieter was quickly becoming disciple. Eric could be command attention just as Priscilla could; they were both magnetic personalities, and boys and girls alike sought their hypnotic attention.
“Is he a member of The Party?” dad asked dismissively. Dad wasn’t really listening; he’d ask these kind of questions of anyone.
“Does he go to church?” asked mum. She usually followed up with that question too. It was as though to mum and dad these two questions put everyone in the right pigeon hole and helped them decide what they would think of them.
“He says that the social economic system must plateau and for urban mobility to rise we must build more houses!”
Dad had suddenly paused, his fork half way to his mouth, as he did when listening at the table.
I tried to parse what Dieter had said. Dieter wasn’t stupid, he knew what all those terms meant. But he’d never have put them together like that, nor thought about it; it was all Eric.
“Son, thinking can be dangerous” dad warned flatly. We all knew, he had warned us a thousand times before. “Listening, too.”
“Well,” Dieter said, standing up abruptly, “I must get going! I’m going to the Young Working Man’s Club”.
Simone looked up, amused. The dynamic had changed slightly since we had taken Dieter to meet our new neighbours. He was much more cheerful and much politer to Simone.
“Sorry, its men only” Dieter explained apologetically, “I promised I’d meet Karl there at four.”
The whole family turned as one to look at the clock. That was quite soon; dinner was usually at three PM.
“Its okay, I promised I would call in on Priscilla” Simone replied happily.
After Dieter left Simone got herself ready too. Even though it was just our neighbours she still put in some effort. I smiled at her. She smiled back, “Want to come too?”
Priscilla and Simone did air kisses beside each other’s cheeks as we entered. Mary stood back grinning. Priscilla and Mary seemed pleased to see us as they led us into the kitchen.
“Tonight we get to sit at the table” Mary giggled. We joined her.
“Johan, be a dear, put the coffee on?” Simone said sweetly, handing me a small cache of the brown power. It was normal, if you regularly had coffee around someone else’s house, to split the rations. I stood up again and opened every kitchen cupboard until I found the equipment. Mary just let me search, amused.
Priscilla and Simone were deep in conversation beside us, ignoring us. Although we were sitting so close there was really two separate, private little conversations going on.
“So we finally got to meet the mysterious Dieter” Mary was smiling, “I was beginning to believe he didn’t exist!”
I nodded wanly.
“Eric made quite an impression on him, didn’t he?” Mary was probing.
“Yes, they are meeting tonight down the Young Man’s” I confirmed. Mary rolled her eyes.
“They just come here to talk” she waved dismissively. “They say it is safe here” her eyes suddenly hardened. I felt my stomach tighten at her words too. “They are harmless” she added and relaxed slightly.
“Eric likes Priscilla?” I asked tentatively.
Mary rolled her eyes again: “Everyone male likes Priscilla” she smiled dangerously. “You?”
“You think I carried all those boxes willingly?” I retorted playfully.
“I don’t think you had any choice in the matter!” Mary’s eyes twinkled as she giggled.
“But I can’t compete with my sister in law” I grinned, nodding at our table companions who were ignoring us.
“It is genuine” Mary whispered defensively. I nodded and we smiled at each other, happy that our sister and in-law had found each other and become good friends.
“So,” I brought the conversation back, “Eric likes Priscilla?”
Mary smiled but there was no warmth for Eric there. “And she likes the attention, but its not serious” Mary trailed off. So they weren’t formally dating; or if they were, it wasn’t serious.
“At least now I have my own room!” Mary said brightly. I tried not to wonder how Mary had connected that thought to Priscilla’s suitors.
“Yes, you are both so lucky to have a flat of your own.”
“Tell us about it!” Mary declared emphatically. I could tell there was a bit of hardness to her voice, not just happy to be free, but happy to be away from her family. I waited, seeing if Mary would add more.
“Our dad drinks too much” she said quietly. Now I saw it. Priscilla had extracted Mary to protect them.
“Any other brothers or sisters?” I asked quietly, seriously. Mary shook her head, no. I felt relief. We smiled awkwardly at each other, trying to give assurance.
“Dieter should be careful” Mary changed the subject, talking in an even lower quieter voice. “Karl and his friends can be...” she searched for the right word again, “indiscrete.” There was another pause as I waited for Mary to carry on. “Oh I do wish they’d stop meeting here!”
Dieter had brought four more plastic kitchen chairs at the second hand market. He presented them proudly. They almost matched the original four. And now eight could sit in the kitchen, although it was very tight and not all could easily reach the table.
Priscilla and Simone had drawn their chairs slightly apart and were sitting half way towards the door. Dieter and I tugged ours towards the table.
But there were nine of us: Mary was leaning against the door frame, watching from a distance. I stood up and gestured to my chair but she shook her head, declining. I sat back down and patted my lap instead, and she grinned and stuck her finger up at me but there was a playful warmth in her smile.
“So the towers can all see each other and there are searchlights” Karl was describing. “They have wandering dog patrols”
Everyone was listening intently. Karl lent back, resigned, and shrugged.
I got up quietly and slipped away, hoping nobody could hear the banging of my heart. But everyone else lent closer to Karl. Nobody paid me any attention.
Mary peeled off from the door-frame and went with me into the living room.
“This is NOT safe” she complained angrily. We sank into the sofa together, scared.
“I can’t believe they talk about it so openly” she said flatly, lost in fear.
“How did you get this flat?” I asked carefully.
Mary just stared blankly at me, scared, perhaps trying to work out if I was an informer.
I shrugged. “Want to go for a walk?”
“Its safer than here” I gestured towards the kitchen. Mary nodded.
“The Security Service are watching the apartment block” I said quietly.
Mary was hanging on my arm. It was dark out, the street-lights glowing only a dim orange. “When did that start?” she asked carefully.
“The day you moved in”
“Oh” Mary said quietly. That was the understatement of the year.
I paused. I had to phrase this carefully. “Do you think Karl is a provocator?” I had been wondering about how Mary had been saying he was so indiscrete. How had he managed to survive so long?
Mary didn’t answer but she gripped my arm tighter.
“Priscilla can kick him out?” I asked, starting to iterate some possible solutions.