Published in Stand Magazine (UK), 1989. Also available in German translation.
A. Colin Wright
The train slows in the tunnel before emerging into a station I know will be dimly lit and abandoned, its name in black Gothic letters on grimy boards hanging there since the thirties. I stand by the doors anxious to catch each detail in the seconds it takes to rattle through: Stadtmitte, the signs read. I glimpse the wide steps leading down from blocked-off corridors above, and again we’re carried past a little booth in mid-platform that would have been for some controller in by-gone days. Perhaps even now someone is sitting there, silently observing these ghostly trains from another world—but we pass too quickly and I can’t be sure.
An anguished female voice comes from behind me in German. “Why aren’t we stopping?” I turn in surprise, for the other passengers, long used to travelling these dingy tunnels under the communist capital, between the modern and brightly-lit stations of the West, sit with their normal indifference. This woman, though, drab and sixtyish, looks as though she’d intended to get out.
“We’re under East Berlin,” I explain, something I know perfectly well although I haven’t been on this line before. “The western trains still go beneath it”—we pick up speed as we plunge into the tunnel again—“but without stopping. The stations are all closed.”
I’m a collector of underground railways. I know all about them. The London Tube, the Paris Metro, the New York Subway or even the modern Russian ones: such systems have fascinated me since I was a child. I learned German so I could come to Berlin, with both its underground proper, the U-Bahn, and the elevated city railway called the S-Bahn (which in places goes underground too)—and with all the peculiarities of their operation caused by a divided city.
“But they always stop,” the woman contradicts me. “I’ve lived in Berlin all my life. We stopped at Kochstrasse, didn’t we? Then there’s Stadtmitte, Französische Strasse, Friedrichstrasse, Oranienburger Tor and the Stettin Station... ”
“They call it North Station now,” I correct her, but she doesn’t hear. “And there’s no station left there anyway.”
“I had to change at Stadtmitte for Alexanderplatz! Oh no”—as we slow again and pass without stopping through the next station, as ghostly as the first—“is there an air raid on or something? But”—she’s puzzled—“that only affects the overhead railway, not the Underground.”
“You can’t change at Stadtmitte anymore.” I show her my map. “You could in the old days, but the other line’s in the East. You see”—I point to the key in the upper corner: “a white box, ‘stations where the trains don’t stop.’” (And haven’t for more than twenty years.) “We’re going from south to north under East Berlin, where the old city centre sticks out in a huge spur, until we come back into the West, here, at Reinickendorfer Strasse.”
She doesn’t understand. “I suppose I’ll have to change at Friedrichstrasse and take the S-Bahn. And at least”—her fussy anxiety gives way to a sudden relief—“I didn’t see Kurt on the platform at the last two stations, did you? But the trains always stop.”
We’re already slowing again before I can point out that this obviously isn’t the case.
“You see, what did I tell you? We are stopping at Friedrichstrasse.”
Triumphant, with forlorn hope, she looks into my eyes. If she’s a Berliner, how can she not know what is a commonplace, that Friedrichstrasse is still a major interchange station for the whole system, a little enclave of the West under the centre of East Berlin? This U-Bahn line and an underground section of an S-Bahn intersect here; overhead you can take the other S-Bahn back to the West or, from a different platform protected by a high metal barrier, to the East as long as you pass through the checkpoint first. It’s this line the woman will have to take to Alexanderplatz.
“Of course, if he’s on the platform here I won’t have to go any further.”
The doors open and she disappears in a surge of other passengers. Crazy, I think, wondering if she’ll get through the checkpoint. I’ve been into the East so I know the procedure: join the queues in front of doors of frosted glass marked variously For foreigners, For citizens of the Federal Republic, For West Berliners; have your passport examined, receive a day’s visa for five marks, then change a further compulsory non-refundable twenty-five... It all fascinates me. My interest in transport systems and the like started in England, when my grandmother died and we had to spend several days at her house in London. Bored and lonely while my parents rummaged through her possessions, I’d draw maps of the Underground lines, learn the station names by heart, or sometimes my parents would give me the odd shilling so I could take a trip and be out of their way. Now, the woman gone, I return to my contemplation of the ghost stations, three more of them, eerie and abandoned like fossils of an earlier age, before we pass somewhere under the Wall again into the mundanely efficient western stations.
It was two days later that I saw the woman again, on the platform of the S-Bahn this time, where it drops below the surface at the Anhalter Station, once the busiest terminus in Germany but now no more than a crumbling façade with a weed-covered wasteland where the main-line trains used to stand.
“It’s terrible, terrible.” The woman didn’t look at me and I wasn’t sure whether she’d recognized me. “They must have come in the night. I used to think the British were decent people, but they’re monsters, monsters. Why are they dropping bombs on innocent people?”
I peered down the track to see if our train was coming, then asked where she was going this time.
“Alexanderplatz,” she said. “I meant to get on at Gleisdreieck, but they said the line was closed”—she was right, it had been shut down completely where it crossed over to the East—“a that the simplest would be to walk to the Anhalter Station. Which was when I saw what those monsters had done to it. I’ll have to change at Friedrichstrasse, or Potsdamer Platz.”
“Better Friedrichstrasse again,” I advised her. Potsdamer Platz, once the Piccadilly of Berlin, was a barren wilderness in the middle of the Wall zone: one of those places where I’d climbed an observation platform on the western side to look out over barbed wire, batteries of lights, and dogs being led by guards in drab grey-green uniforms. The S-Bahn stations would be yet another relic where we wouldn’t stop, and the U-Bahn station it had communicated with had been turned into a museum by the East Berliners. I asked: “Did you reach Alexanderplatz all right the other day?”
“Well yes,” she said. “That’s where I said goodbye to Kurt. But I have to see him today, I’m so worried about him since the terrible flooding.”
There’d been no rain in Berlin since my arrival, but the approach of our train prevented me from asking about it. As I expected, the woman was again dismayed when we creaked without stopping through the empty Potsdamer Platz station. And at Unter den Linden she thought she saw a figure in the controller’s booth: “Was that Kurt?”
Was there really anyone there, or were we both imagining it?
When she changed at Friedrichstrasse I decided to go with her. She led the way up the steps in the middle of the platform, with assurance at first, but then she got confused. “No, this isn’t right.” She wouldn’t let me tell her but stopped another man, who pointed the way to the banging glass doors of the checkpoint. It was a Saturday and there were long lines; I wondered if she’d know which door to queue at. But an East German guard came up to her and immediately barred her way.
“But I must get to Alexanderplatz, I’ve got to find Kurt!”
The guard was firm, and she soon gave up arguing with him. I asked him if he couldn’t help her.
He was so taken aback that he answered. “She’s crazy, that one. She comes here every day. Always the same, never has any documents or she could go through, so she sits down for an hour”—she’d already taken a place on a bench—“then toddles off home again. Don’t waste your time on her.”
In the busy life of every day I’d have shrugged and forgotten her, but the woman obviously belonged to this underground world and after all I was on holiday, pursuing—in a way which I admit is a little obsessive—my one and only hobby. I’ve no wife or children making their demands upon me, my grandmother was the only person I ever loved and she let me down by dying when I needed her: why shouldn’t I indulge myself by exploring these depths, systems which function reliably when the surface holds dangers, obstacles, walls that man’s conscious mind has built? I went to sit beside the woman, thinking what a great game this was.
“It’s always blocked,” she said. “It must be because of the flood.”
“What flood?” I now asked.
“They haven’t said anything? It must have been some accident. I’d said goodnight to Kurt—we’re going to get married, you know—and was on my way home on the U-Bahn. I changed somewhere and the platform was full of people bedding down for the night: actually sleeping in the Underground because the British are bombing us! Suddenly there’s a rumbling from the tunnel and a huge wave of water comes rushing in—with people struggling to get up, fighting to get to the stairs. Well I’d only just come down so I was right there, but I think some were drowned.”
Passengers were arriving in front of us, forming perpetual queues, the war years long forgotten in the reality of a city rebuilt but forever cracked in two. I recalled how at the end of the war Hitler had flooded the Underground by blowing up the tunnels under the river, in case the Russians should use them to reach the city centre. But how reliable were the woman’s memories? Were the trains still running then? I of all people should have known.
“And I don’t know what happened to Kurt!”
“What did he do? What was his job, that is?
“Did? Why do you say ‘did’? He’s an inspector on the Underground. He travels all over”—said with pride—“but he’s based at Alexanderplatz.”
The kind of job I’d have liked, if my parents hadn’t forced me to go to university.
“He’s an invalid of course,” she went on, “or he’d be at the front. He was wounded in North Africa. They gave him the Iron Cross.” She looked at me. “You’re not really Kurt in disguise, are you, playing a trick on me? No, you’re older. He’s not very handsome,” she whispered. “He even looks a bit like Himmler. But charming, and a real hero.” Unexpectedly she started to cry, as though for a moment something had brought her back to reality. “They always stop me here, but they let the others through. They’d let you through. Could you go to Alexanderplatz for me and give him a message? Tell him to meet me on the Potsdamer Platz at the kiosk there. He’ll know where I mean.”
Which is why I again find myself crossing to East Berlin, with a name, a photograph and an address which may no longer exist: looking for a man from the past I’ll never find, to give him a message to meet a crazy woman on a square long destroyed and inaccessible, from both East and West, between walls and barbed wire. A game, I think, unable to say why a make-believe excursion into the nineteen-forties should so inflame my imagination. When this woman last saw her lover I was only a child, in a different country but where bombs dropped just the same; where grandmothers died and parents didn’t care, so one sought one’s escape in diagrams and underground systems.
The guard in his box compares each detail of my face with the photo in my passport, then stamps his approval on a card he hands me in exchange for my fee. A woman changes the currency I’m required to produce and I press past a throng of people waiting for visitors into the streets of a different if strangely similar world. Up stone steps to the S-Bahn overhead, and I wait on a platform now separated by a metal wall from those more familiar trains going back to the West.
She’d told me to look for Kurt at all the stations, but how will I recognize a man nearly seventy from a picture taken when he was twenty-four? So I look at young and old alike, examining each detail of their faces. A train arrives, rickety and old, emptying itself of passengers who disappear down the steps below. Once it would have continued westwards; now it will reverse—as I get on, the driver walks to the other end—and head back across the Museum Island in Berlin’s grimy river Spree. Marx-Engels-Platz, I read at the next station, then: Alexanderplatz. I descend into a modern concrete square with a complex of hotels and shops around the huge pod of the T.V. Tower which dominates the city.
But I must find the world of the forties. “Any of the lines from the Alexanderplatz,” she’d told me, “that’s where he’ll be.” So down again to the Underground, more crowded than in the West, and I wait on the platform aware that there’s one line I can no longer take from here. Somewhere beneath me, difficult to imagine, is ghost-station Alexanderplatz, the line I first travelled on, carrying its unseen passengers between the entry points of their own, western world. No, there’s no access—I look carefully—no indication of its existence: one can only guess where the corridor once leading to that life beyond has been blocked off. So on to Stadtmitte, then, the end of the line since they closed the rest: another station deprived of its own ghost—where, I recall, I first met the woman whose fiancé I’m now seeking.
It’s futile, of course. No one matches the photograph, though I travel all afternoon, even taking the S-Bahn again as far as Ostkreuz. I’ve never had a better excuse for pursuing a hobby I find difficult to explain to others.
Only I wish she hadn’t given me that address. It’s true she told me not to go there: “That might spoil everything. His parents don’t know about me, they wouldn’t approve”—except that I really don’t think they’d be too concerned anymore. By now I’m ready to get the train back to Friedrichstrasse and the West, it’s getting dark, but perhaps at least I should see if the house is still there. Köpenicker Strasse, I find on my map, and it’s right by one of the closed U-Bahn stations on that western line going through Alexanderplatz.
“I’m Kurt Baumgartner,” says the man who opens the door. Frail, old, smelly, but I recognize him from the photograph. Not expecting this, I have trouble finding what to say. “Anna Hofmeier,” he says after my jumbled explanations. “Oh come in, come in.”
He leads me up a precipitous flight of steps into a dingy apartment crowded with possessions: antiques, pictures of his family, books and, framed on the wall, what is surely an old map of the Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn. I manoeuvre myself towards it as he shuffles around, and yes, it’s a pocket-sized folder from the thirties perhaps, a diagram of the system as it was then.
“Anna Hofmeier,” he repeats, indicating for me to sit down on a chair he’s cleared of papers. “Yes, there was an Anna then. I didn’t get her pregnant, did I?”
“I... don’t know.” He slumps down in an armchair right in front of the map, which I can still see on the wall above him. We’re in near darkness, though. “Do you mind putting on the light?” He turns on a lamp by his chair. “Yes, that’s better.” I tell him about Anna as I peer over his head, recognizing easily enough the central part of the system, with the S-Bahn forming in those days a complete circle around it. More S-Bahn lines then, but fewer U-Bahn ones and their tentacles don’t spread out so far.
“Said I was going to marry her? It’s possible. I told most of them that. No one could be accountable for anything then.” The loose folds of skin on his face move to form a smile. “Oh yes, there were plenty. All the men were at the front, but I’d been sent home, a hero no less. One lived for the moment before being blown to pieces the next. And I had my moments when I was young. You’d never think it now.”
I try to follow the lines on the map behind him. I’m embarrassed by confessions of love affairs. Friedrichstrasse in the middle, Alexanderplatz to the right of it.
The memories make him talkative. “I got one girl pregnant. And now, well the desire’s still there, but as for the means to do anything about it... ” He shakes his head.
Is there any way he’d part with the map, which sparkles in the light from the lamp? What a reward for me, I think, for helping a crazy woman.
“So there’s one who’s alive,” he goes on, his eyes shining. “I’d like to meet her. After I got married in 1946 I had to be careful that none of them turned up! My wife’s dead though now, and the children don’t care. It might give me something to live for again. See if I’ve any of the old charm left. Anna Hofmeier, you say?”
He rattles on, imagining he’s young again, while my eyes follow the line I’ve now located from Alexanderplatz to Stadtmitte, then on where it’s now closed through Potsdamer Platz to Gleisdreieck.
“You’re looking at my map,” he says suddenly. Accusing me?—but no, he decides to tell me about that too. “They couldn’t trust me to pull a trigger anymore, so they told me to punch tickets instead. I had that map with me on the night of the flood: can you see the water stains?”
“That’s when you last saw Anna,” I remember to say.
“So that’s the one,” he says, smiling again. “Gorgeous red hair, and a figure... I thought she’d drowned. Before I even managed to get her into bed with me!” He shakes his head. “Then there were the Russians, the occupation... all one could think of was survival. Now, though... it would be nice to see her.”
I remind him: “You were telling me about the map.”
“Yes. Well, I was nearly drowned. They say the Führer did it. All those people, I’d never have believed it then. I was a different person, I suppose.” He gives a sigh. “But I managed to swim to an exit. Afterwards I found that map in my wallet, and I thought, well, if it had managed to survive with me perhaps it had brought me luck. So I dried it out and kept it. Later I had it framed. Superstitious perhaps, but I feel that as long as nothing happens to it... ”
But I want it! You can’t know how marvelous it would be for me to have a map like that. “You wouldn’t sell it?”
He doesn’t hear. “Does Anna still have the same figure, the same red hair? No, of course not.”
“I’ll give you a hundred marks. Two hundred. West marks.”
“I’d like to see her. Tell her that. She can visit me. They can now, from the West.” He whispers, confiding: “I’ve still got the double bed. No fear I’ll get her pregnant now, eh?”
It’s revolting, I want to shout. Forget her, she’s insignificant; it’s only things that are important, reliable. See how the Underground still works, while people one loves are either dead or crazy like your Anna? I check my wallet. Five hundred marks!”
“Or”—he still ignores me—“it might be possible for me to go to the West. They don’t care once you’re too old to work any more.”
“Look, I’ll have to go back to my hotel and change more money, but I can come back tomorrow. A thousand marks.”
He waves his hand, understanding my words at last but not what I’m saying. “Tomorrow? Who knows if we’ll still be here tomorrow? I don’t need money. Just tell Anna to come and see me. Or”—suddenly triumphant, he points to a telephone sitting on a pile of books—“she can phone me. It’s only a local call, they tell me, from West Berlin to East: it’s considered an international one from here. Here”—he pulls himself up out of his chair—“I’ll get something to write my number on.”
He disappears into the bedroom, where I can hear him shuffling. I eye the map. If nothing happens to it, nothing will happen to him, that’s what he meant. But that’s nonsense, and now I know it’s fate that’s brought me here. Why else should I let myself do stupid things for a crazy woman on the Underground? Today, I realize gleefully, could be the culminating point of my life, from the days when I was a child and the stations on that map were real, not the ghosts they are today; from the days when I was secure and happy with my grandmother. Now I’ve found it at last, all I was searching for, on that wall in front of me. Easily portable under my arm, if the old fool would only sell it. Or perhaps I should just take it—only how to remove it without his noticing?
He returns with his phone number on a scrap of paper. “Here you are, Herr... Even if she’s not too well”—he taps his forehead—“get her to call me. Or write. Then she can visit me. It gets so lonely nowadays.”
I’d like to help, I really would, if he’d just let me have the map. Things like that don’t abandon one. Didn’t it save his life in the flood? “Two thousand!” I say.
“Anna Hofmeier,” he says, taking no notice. “Why, little Anna. The one who got away. Well perhaps I can make up for that... ”
I can’t stand it any longer. “Give it to me!” I shout, pushing by him so that he topples backwards into the chair. I grab the map from its place on the wall, at which he puts his hands on his head and gives a groan. But he does nothing to stop me. “Here”—I take what money there is in my wallet and throw it at him.
“Our Father who art in Heaven... ” He clasps his hands and starts to babble, which makes me angry. When did a heavenly father ever do more than an earthly one? Then I see he’s looking between his fingers at the telephone. I step over him to reach it first and yank it out of the wall. Aware now of how much he smells, I push past him to the door, while his eyes follow the map I carry under my arm. Then I rush down the narrow staircase, almost falling in the dark, out onto the street below; stopping only to take the map in both hands now, in case it should fall and be forever lost.
The nearest station, quick!—to the Friedrichstrasse crossing before he calls for help. (Or Potsdamer Platz will do, where that crazy woman waits.) I consult my map in its handy frame: Heinrich-Heine-Strasse at the corner here, then the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz. But where’s the station? I look around. Could my map be wrong? Looking as I walk, I hurry on. I reach the river—still no station, but on the other side I can already see the S-Bahn overhead. Of course (I check my map), Jannowitzbrücke, and I needn’t change. Over the river then, and up the steps. A train comes straightaway. Three stops (time to admire my map again) and out onto the platform at Friedrichstrasse. Down more steps into the street below, to find the modern building—the glass house I’ve heard it called, or even house of tears—which conceals the entrance into West Berlin.
The guard compares each detail of my face with the photo in my passport, probing my inner secrets. I hold my map beneath my arm.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“My U-Bahn map.”
He grunts, returns my passport, and opens the barrier for me to pass. I’m still uncomfortable, walking on. Will they think it suspicious when I hesitate which corridor to choose?
The S-Bahn overhead, I decide, and I mount more steps to the place I just arrived at, except that now I’m the other side of the metal dividing wall.
Waiting for a train I notice a border guard patrolling on a footbridge high in the roof’s arched dome, where he can look down on the whole station, both its eastern and western halves. Another guard joins him, bringing the message perhaps about the theft. What if they see me here, with the map under my arm? This is still the East, for all the Westerners passing through. Can they stop me now? Cautiously I move behind the refreshment stand, then back into the passage. I’ll take the other S-Bahn, underground here and out of the view of patrolling guards. And of course—I check my map—I can go straight to Potsdamer Platz, where I’m to meet that crazy woman, little Anna, at the kiosk on the corner.
On board the train I feel safer. We rattle sharply round the turn into Unter den Linden—but something’s wrong, we’re not stopping, yet we always stop! Just an empty platform, lights burning dimly, blocked-off steps leading down from above—and in the controller’s booth a figure observing, watching me. I’m carried past. It’s another turn to Potsdamer Platz where I get out—but, I don’t believe it, we only slow and keep on going. And again a deserted platform except for the figure waiting, watching from the booth in the middle...
Quick, check the map again and yes, we should have stopped: maps don’t tell lies as people do. Look: Friedrichstrasse, Unter den Linden, Potsdamer Platz and, next, Anhalter Station. And what if we don’t stop there either, going on and on, forever and ever amen?
It was the best day I’ve had in my life. If only there were more like that to relieve the loneliness, the boredom.
I still carry Kurt’s scrap of paper, since I didn’t give it to the crazy woman. I considered trying to find her by going back to Friedrichstrasse—I’d really like to help—and waiting at the checkpoint. But that’s in East Berlin with their border guards observing, and they could still notice my map under my arm. And then, I remind myself, it would be useless giving her the number because Kurt has no phone, I disconnected it before I left. She’s crazy anyway: whoever’s going to love a crazy person?
I saw her one more time. I was travelling from north to south this time, on the ghost line that goes under Alexanderplatz. It’s my favourite, I’ve decided. Bernauer Strasse, Rosenthaler Platz, Weinmeisterstrasse, Alexanderplatz—where there’s nothing but the silent observer in his booth to remind me of the interchange station where I once stood overhead. Then Jannowitzbrücke—I could change to the S-Bahn if I could reach it—then Heinrich-Heine-Strasse. She stood by the doors, lamenting each time we passed through a station. “Why aren’t we stopping? We always stop.” At Alexanderplatz her eyes were full of tears. “That’s where I should get out. To find my Kurt.”
But I knew better. It was Heinrich-Heine-Strasse she needed, on the corner of Köpenicker Strasse. “Look”—I proudly showed Kurt’s map as we rattled through— “look, there really is a station here, it really does exist. Maps don’t lie, you know.”
It excites me every time, when I remember how once I couldn’t find it; I imagine a darkened room in an inaccessible world above, an old man staring at an empty wall. But why tell her? I doubt if he’s alive by now.
I clutch my map more tightly. I take it with me every day (when my parents give me a shilling to get me out of their way), following every station on it as we pass. Not that I need to, for I know each twist and turn in this marvelous underground world. For instance, the U-Bahn line: Stadtmitte, Französische Strasse, Oranienburger Tor, the Stettin Station (some people call it North)—shall I go on? Would you like me to list the S-Bahn too?
The main-line trains run on the S-Bahn tracks as well, on parallel ones, that is. With Deutsche Reichsbahn, German Imperial Railways, painted on their sides: left like that as though it were the thirties. Other trains run right through East Germany to the normal world again. Passengers get on at Friedrichstrasse, or the Zoo Station in the West. You used to be able to watch the guards crawling beneath, clambering on the roofs, checking through the trains. I’m expanding my collection to the main lines too, you see. One shouldn’t become too limited, that’s what I always say.
I’d like to take a train like that, when I finally leave Berlin. When I’m satisfied they’re not looking for me any more. But for now I must be careful in case they see my map. I can’t risk that. What would I ever do without my map?
A.Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, www.barnesandnoble.com, and www.iUniverse.com.