We left the building. Since my last visit a large hoarding had been erected outside, bearing a slogan in red capitals:
TO CYCLE EACH DAY
IS THE SOCIALIST WAY !
Ignoring this inspirational statement, we crossed the square on foot and continued to Wilsdrufferstrasse, a bland, well-swept avenue of sandy-hued apartment blocks and a sprinkling of shops. Schilling led me into a pedestrian alley where the wares of various retail outlets reconditioned watches, alarm clocks, lace, tableware were on display in free-standing glass cabinets. By now I was expecting a quiet tete-a-tete in a shadowy drinking hole, but the establishment Schilling was anxious to show me turned out to be a glass-fronted Eiscafé that went by the name of Tutti Frutti. Inside, melting under bright lights, were three varieties of ice cream. Behind the counter sat an impressive-looking coffee machine, but there was no coffee to go with it; so Schilling and I each bought a cone and perched on a pair of stools, catching glances from the children and bleach-blonde matrons who made up the rest of the clientele.
Schilling started in with a series of routine questions concerning my health (tolerable), my work (officially ongoing, actually dormant), my social life (satisfactory, if repetitive), responding to my answers with earnest nods of the head, slow licks of his ice cream and frequent glances out of the window. All the while, the document wallet sat tightly wedged between his thighs, like a bomb that needed pressure to keep from going off.
Eventually silence fell.
'Michael, what's the matter? You're acting strangely. It's making my stomach hurt.'
Schilling blushed. 'I'm sorry. Paul's coming down this weekend. At least he said he was. You know how he . . .'
Yes, I did know. Paul was Schilling's son, now twenty-two, the sole issue from a brief and disastrous marriage to the lovely Magdalena Bonner her post-nuptial loveliness proving skin deep, as I'd suspected it would. Schilling loved his son, but the best I could manage was to pity him, stuck as he was with a selfish, materialistic mother and an absent father. Paul brought to Schilling little these days but grief. After his military service, which he had been lucky to complete without a court martial, he had abandoned the maternal flat in central Berlin and taken up with a pack of dropouts in Pankow.
I would have taken less interest in the whole sorry business had I not felt in some degree responsible. The truth is that Magdalena Bonner would never have taken the slightest interest in a bookish myopic like Michael had it not been for his connection to The Orphans of Neustadt. For a good few years the success of that book lent us both an aura of glamour and distinction; qualities that more than made up for any deficiency in looks. I'd had just enough experience with women to be on my guard against mercenary love, but poor Schilling who, as far as I could tell, had never had a proper girlfriend (and only a limited number of sexual encounters, mostly of the fumbling, outdoor variety) was easy prey.
'Does Paul have a job yet?' I asked.
'Oh, yes. Caretaker, at some sort of gun club.'
'A gun club? Is that wise?'
'Don't joke. I just hope he sticks with it. You know, until something . . .'
Until something better comes along was the unarticulated sentiment; one we both knew was best left uncritiqued.
On the other side of the street a man in a grey anorak was taking a long time lighting a cigarette. Schilling watched him intently, his tongue frozen on the rim of his ice cream.
'Someone you know?' I asked. (Such instances of paranoia always irritated me.)
My question went unanswered. The stranger discarded his match and walked away. Schilling's tongue returned to duty. 'By the way, Bruno. There's something I'd like your opinion on.'
Reprinted from The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington. Copyright (c) 2012 by Philip Sington. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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