I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Underground politics

A short story (With apologies for the half-naughty words)

Someone was banging on the door, but that didn’t matter. He could wait. Groaning she got down on to her knees and ran her fingers over the glittering pipes beneath the two washbasins. Not a drop, not a smear. Hah, not this time, Herr Schultheiss.

Getting up was harder and she’d been warned not to put her weight on the basins. Why? Because they’re ceramic, said Herr Shitbag, and they’ll crack. But here in the West things surely don’t break. However, Herr Shitbag came from Zwickau and still had the east mentality. Still wore cardboard shoes.

The man banging on the door had started shouting: “Three minutes past, three minutes past.” She rinsed her hands under the little shower thing: why not a real tap? Wiped fingers on the sides of her skirt. Slid the door bolt back, slowly. Control yourself, Blockhead.

And as Blockhead rushed in towards the urinal, fumbling with his zip, she sat down heavily on the tubular fold-up chair. Pulled it squeaking over the tiles to the matching table and pushed the saucer with its freight of half-euro coins a few centimetres nearer the handbasins. Time passed.

When Blockhead turned away from the white apparatus he was transformed. Coming in his dick had been on fire; now his face was pudgy and rested as if he’d found a bargain down the Reeperbahn. Would he choose the air blower or a paper towel? Each moment he seemed to get younger and youth preferred the blower, with all that roaring; like a Skoda she’d seen in Halle that had mounted the pavement, crushed a waste basket and lost its silencer. The driver drunk, the engine growling throatily as if in pain. Halle had been a shit place. She’d pushed trolleys of books round the library, unable to reach the top shelf, been threatened with an Ineffectual rating by a mimsy counter-worker whose dyed blonde hair looked like a plastic bag.

Zipped up, his hair combed, Blockhead fumbled change. No sign of silver, only brass. Look at their hands not their faces, Gerda had said. Look at their face and they tended to get embarrassed, tended to run off, leaving a few brown cents. This one had black dirt under his finger-nails and still fumbled. Lost his patience and let a small avalanche of twenty-cent pieces slide into the saucer. Well over a euro, she guessed. Not that she smiled.

Quarter of an hour elapsed with no custom. Intermittently water sighed in the unused stalls. Once, in a talkative mood, Herr Schultheiss had invited her to sneer at the automated flushing. “No need for all that clever stuff. Westers piss away their money,” he said, laughing at his choice of verb, unaware he’d used that joke three times before in her hearing. “No need for that in our day. Just a button with Push. The good citizen-comrade does his pissing then washes it away. The button reminds him we all work for the state. Timers! Who needs timers?”

Two students in jeans worn white at the knees came in, laughing, talking, even though their ears were wired into MP3 players. More laughter at the stalls as they looked over the divider and pointed to each other’s “smallness”. Brown coins only from this pair. As to the white knees she’d been told this wasn’t due to wear, it was intentional, part of the styling. Young Westers pretended to be poor while young Easters had been poor. A defective solidarity.

She was pleased they washed their hands since many didn’t. But became angry when one passed his hand too closely under the spray tap and shot foam over the display for after-shave and other toiletries.

“Sorry about that, mother,” he said in a Bavarian salutation. “Shall I wipe it off?”

There’d been no one to call her mother for several years. Her son Erich had been part of a bunch of louts  - half-strongs she called them in her dated slang – who fire-bombed a hostel for Turkish immigrants and had been lucky no one inside had been injured. Erich was doing five years in a maximum security jail near Augsburg and she had moved north, ending here in Hamburg.

Mother touched her, strangely. “I’ll clean it, little man. You’ll have no idea. No one buys any of this stuff you know. But the spotlights show up every mark.” The other student laid a five-euro note on the saucer but she was too irritated to show any real gratitude. Kids with money. It didn’t seem right.

“You OK, mother?” said the first student who’d done the squirting.

“You political?” she asked abruptly.

“Nah. Just rock-and-roll.”

“Good. Stay out of politics. Don’t get hurt.”

“We’ll do just that.”

They left, looking back at her uncertainly over their shoulders.

Her knees wobbled and she sat down heavily on the metal seat. Felt the fold of belly-fat press against her thighs, felt tears squeezing out between her eyelids. Looked around uncomprehendingly at her workplace with its tiles and glittering metal. Rust-free steel they called it. A pisser fit for a king. Or a Herr President. Imagined Walter Ulbricht standing at one of the stalls, hair brushed like folded wings at the side of his head, beard neatly trimmed. Unzipping but still dignified. Hadn’t thought of Ulbricht for years. Honecker had been weaker. He’d let them pull down the wall.

She dried her eyes. Remembered Erich down there in Augsburg. Defiant, the prison officer had told her. She’d come north to get away from the neighbours. That was what she told herself. But Erich had scared her. Her son. A political.

Men with rain-spattered shoulders came in and out, her only measure of the the weather outside. Leaving the place in the evening, especially in summer, was like being reborn. Doors on the two cabinets remained open, just so, unused this morning. But that was normal. They got their customers after lunch when men came in with newspapers. And stayed. You could hear the pages rustling, hear them sigh. Other sounds.

She’d almost dozed off when the door-closer squeaked pneumatically and a man came in as if he owned the place. Not yet forty, confident, three-piece suit which you didn’t see much these days. Most had gone two-piece, copying the Yanks. He’d been buying in the department store on the floor above and carried one of those shaped bags in thick shiny stuff. Something expensive, usually women’s knick-knacks, unless of course… She watched as he stood erect in front of the urinal, doing the business with style. None of that hundred-and-seventy-fiver rubbish, though you weren’t allowed to say that any longer. There was another word, not German. Didn’t sound right. She’d forgotten.

At the washbasin he slid back his jacket cuffs and she saw cuff-links, heavy and silver. Manly decorations. He cleaned his hands briskly as if he’d taken lessons. Blower or paper towel? He reached out and snapped a towel out of the dispenser. Again briskly. Not wasting time.

When he turned it was as if he saw her for the first time but he didn’t look away as the others did. His eyes narrowed; he was inspecting her. The way they used to. It made her quiver but she took comfort from his suit. None of them had ever worn clothes this expensive.

Now he stood in front of her table, one eyebrow raised. “Magdeburg?”


“Where? I’m just interested.”

What surprised her was the accent. Not a Wester. “Gommern,” she said.

He smiled, pleased at something. “My grannie lived in Schönebeck.”

Grannie! She’d had a grannie pronounced that way. “You, an Easter?”

He nodded.

“But you were so young. Then.”

He nodded again. “Just ten.”

“Obviously,” She gestured. “Times have been kind.”

“I’ve worked for it. But here, in the west. you can. You don’t have to march in step. And you?”

“It’s a job. In one year, a pension.”

He was silent and she felt herself shrivelling under his gaze. Almost gently he said, “And yet… and yet. This is not your paradise, is it?”

“Ach. I was there too long. I got used to the old ways, the bad ways. I did what I was told and they didn’t bother me. Here there is too much freedom. I can’t use freedom. It… worries me.” A fleeting memory. “The young ones have money.”

“But at least you are warm in winter?”

“Warm in winter. Ja. Tell me, sir. You are not… political?”

That amused him enormously. “No, not political. Just a lawyer.” He took out his wallet and detached a fifty-euro note. “In memory of - where was it? - Gommern. And my Schönebeck grannie.”

One of the cabinet users had left a paper and she read it during the quiet afternoon. The headlines mentioned arguments between Germany and Greece as if Germany ruled Greece. But this abbreviation, EU, meant nothing to her and she turned to the sports pages where another abbreviation caught her eye. At first she wasn’t interested. A women’s relay team had broken a “tainted” record that had stood since 1985. So what? What she did notice were the letters DDR cropping up in the text: DDR  - Deutsche Demokratische Republik – her homeland for fifty years. She read more closely but what impressed her weren’t the facts, rather the shoulder-shrugging tone. That race twenty-seven years ago had involved drugs but then the four women were from the DDR. What else did anyone expect? Meanwhile, the four American women who’d shaved the time by almost half a second were…

In 1985 she had been in her thirties. She could well have read a report of that record. Not because relay racing fascinated her but as confirmation of the DDR’s superiority in sport. Athletes were expected to win, she remembered, and from these wins citizens were encouraged to believe in other superiorities. That Walter Ulbricht, for instance, was a titan – capable of retaining his dignity standing at a urinal. Carefully she folded the paper and slipped it under discarded towels in the bin.
Fifteen minutes before she left that evening Herr Schultheiss did his usual tour of inspection. Checked the outflow pipes beneath the washbasins where once, a month ago, he’d found a small accumulation of grease and dust. “You understand, Frau Gruber. This plumbing is like a work of art. We must take care of it.”

But she’d heard Herr Shitbag on that, day in day out, and wasn’t listening. “Your shoes, Herr Schultheiss.”

That pleased him. “You noticed.”

“No longer the old style.”

“The time of the wall. There was looting. Just a little looting. No Stasi. No order. I stole three pairs.” He laughed. “A crime against the state. I threw away the last pair yesterday. These are fine shoes. Brogues I understand. They will last until I retire.”

“Handsome.” She’d stood up automatically as he’d entered; the habit was ingrained. “A small point, Herr Schultheiss. Does sport interest you?”

“But of course, Frau Gruber. I would die for HSV.”

“Besides football. When you lived in Zwickau.”

His geniality became thinner. It was typical he hadn’t said where he'd come by the shoes. “Of course. All sports. In those days there was money to be spent; our country had many successes.”

“In those days, Herr Schultheiss, we won everything. But were there any questions?”

The smile had become a rictus and she was glad she’d hidden the newspaper. “Questions?”

“Two customers were talking. A relay race won by the DDR. The record was wrong in some way. I didn’t hear any more.”

“You are not here to listen to customers, Frau Gruber.”

“You know I do not gossip, Herr Schultheiss. But they were close to my table.”

“Nevertheless… “

“It is of no real interest, Herr Schultheiss. I’m sure it was simply mean-spirited talk. Foreigners.”

As she waited for the tram she wondered whether Zwickau had had a large athletics stadium. Most towns of that size had. And whether national athletes had trained there. And whether anyone called Schultheiss had been on the permanent staff. It would be easy to track a name like that. Easier than Schmidt or Braun.

She was sorry that those victories – which she and her neighbours had cheered – had not been real victories. But never mind. Here was her tram, a source of light on this murky evening and plenty of empty seats. She felt warmed yet nevertheless alert. Time to remind herself of what she had learned: stay clear of politics.

Unless politics might - just might - touch on one’s boss. A boss who was a well-proven shithead.


  1. This painted a picture as I read it. Your dialogue sounds so natural that I can hear the voices of the characters.

  2. RW (zS): Vielen Dank. I tried very hard with this one.

  3. Vivid pictures were created, and a concise, palpable atmosphere established, and this also hit a personal note.

    On my backpacking walks I actively promote, and then encourage conversation with many different characters including street cleaners, shop keepers, fellow walkers of various nationalities, and old ladies walking dogs. For me that is an important part of those trips, and one develops certain skills in asking the most productive questions, AND THEN LISTENING.

    Nearly everybody has some interesting story to tell, particularly the often neglected elderly.

  4. Sir Hugh: Your comment is much appreciated and I agree with the general premise: older people have history, younger people merely have a future. So it's a contest between facts and speculation and facts will always win.

    This story sits very strangely with me. I have this love/hate relationship with short stories, rarely being tempted to read them, my experience based on old-fashioned examples of the genre. But every so often I feel I'd like to try my hand since it's not possible to write novels at the drop of a hat. The fact is that once I'd got going with this one, I had difficulty stopping. I could have turned it into a novel. There are several reasons.

    One is Germany. It's far more interesting to write about than Britain or France. One has only to look at John le Carré's earlier novels to recognise this; that Germany was an endlessly rich character which enriched the rest of the cast.

    And then there's the ambiguity of east/west Germany. The young sharpie suggests that although Frau Gruber is warm of a night the transition to the west has not turned out to be a paradise. Older people require stability, not adventure.

    When I told Rouchswalwe I'd worked hard on this story it was only partly true. I did when I realised what I'd got; but the first draft was mainly a matter of deciding what to leave out. In plotting terms this is easily the best thing I've ever written, but then plotting a story is easier than plotting a novel. Perhaps this thing is too well plotted, perhaps it fits together too deftly. But for the moment at least I can live with that. As I look back on the novels I know that the things they're weakest on is plotting.

    We write not knowing whether we've got writing within us. Just occasionally there's a tiny confirmation and one regrets one's advanced age.

  5. a real short story, which opens a door on somebody's life. Congratulations. I can hear the voices too, and smell the disinfectant that lives in those lavatories.

  6. “One has only to look at John le Carrés earlier novels...”, here is a favourite quote from The Secret Pilgrim:

    “Hamburg had always been a good place to be English, now it was an even better place to be a spy. After the lakeside gentility of Zurich, Hamburg crackled with energy and sparkled with sea air. The old Hanseatic ties to Poland, northern Russia and the Baltic states were very much alive. We had commerce, we had banking - well, so had Zurich. But we had brashness and vulgarity galore. We were the German capital of whoredom and the press. And on our doorsteps we had the secretive lowlands of Schleswig-Holstein, with their horizontal rainstorms, red farms, green fields and cloudstacked skies. Every man had his price. To this day, my soul can be bought for a jar of Lübeck beer, pickled herring and a glass of schnapps after a trudge along the dykes”.

  7. Please write more in this series. I do very much like them.

    You portray her regret so well. I wonder if former east Germans feel as if their country has simply dissolved instead of emerged into something new. Older Czechs miss communism, but at least their country is still there.

  8. Joe: I learned one thing doing this. I used to think I could write about anything, I could in fact, regarded it as a challenge. But for it to be any good at all I think one has to be driven by the subject. No one would ever write a novel as a challenge, based on a randomly arrived at subject. Same with a short story. You've got to be able to see the strata below.

    Sir Hugh: Funny, I think of Hamburg as a swanky place. It is a very rich city. But I suppose it depends on where you live and how much you have in your pocket. I'd rather not have my Lubeck beer in a jar, though.

    Julia: I hadn't thought of it from your point of view, a sort of parallel world. But Prague looked as if it had a thousand stories to tell, all of them hinging on that big, big change.

  9. Very satisfying, I don't know, but I feel you do 'get' Germany very well, perhaps better than France? I get the feeling the last paragraph with her wondering what she might be able to do to Schultheiss, you did want to carry on the story at greater length, and as such it's quite a big thing to have left hanging, and, perhaps I need to read it again, the connection between him and the sporting records isn't quite satisfactorily established...

    But it really is a great read, and I love the title! (Much good matter in the comments too.)

  10. Oh, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Replying to this is going to take a thousand words which I don’t mind but do you have the stamina to read it all?

    “Getting” France. I admit freely I don’t get France but that doesn’t stop me trying. In fact what little bit I do get has probably arrived through writing fiction which forces a new and more profound examination of unplanned observations made down the years. This may sound silly but fiction requires a structure (however artificial) and it isn’t until you try to put one together that you discover what you have. The story I refer to in my latest post is my most recent gathering of crumbs, some of it true (or true-ish) and some of it invention. Having lived in France for fifteen years you’ll find it childsplay to lay a finger on the divisions between the two. If you ever read it (see new post for explanation).

    Germany is different. It seems to have built-in dramatic potential (starting with the place names) which widens enormously if the story encompasses East and West. Even re-unification turns out to be far more than an administrative burden. One has only to contemplate shorthand summaries of the two countries (Ever the victim vs. the reformed villain trying to go straight) to realise which is more attractive to a writer. Ask John le Carre (and definitely read the passage Sir Hugh refers to).

    “Carry on the story”. You have here pressed the button to start up a huge Heath Robinson contraption. What is a short story? What is its nature? I have held a gun to Joe’s head over this and he refuses to be forensic. “A slice of life” he says, and he got that from The Crow. My response was to say that this merely describes the contents not their nature. But I’ve subsequently become more tolerant. If “slice” means something then it must be sliced from something else. Thus it is unlikely to be complete and the slicing procedure is likely to be abrupt. To leave “a big thing hanging” is at least proof that I haven’t written a novel where ends tend to be tied off. When I said I could have gone on writing I was talking about the characters and the setting rather than the exigencies of the plot. Frau Gruber’s discovery is a defence mechanism which is the sort of skill one might pick up while living under a repressive regime, it was not really meant to whet the reader’s appetite for more.

    Sporting record. Two things here: one technical, the other you may be right. The record breaking actually happened although it occurred at the London Olympics and is thus out of synch temporally. However one runs the risk of nerdishness by adding too much detail, since the information doesn’t naturally fit into the rest of the narrative. I’ve probably over-condensed. You may be right in saying I haven’t established a real link between the record and Schultheiss but I hope, if you do read it again, you will see that Frau Gruber alludes only to the possibility of a link.

    I’m glad you liked it and I’m glad I was pessimistic on the number of words this would take. (A mere 543)

  11. Lucy: Ah, I see where the possible Schultheiss - record link was incorrectly emphasised. Now corrected.

  12. Lucy is right: you do "get" Germany. Wonderful story. Pointillist details, characters to remember in Frau Gruber, and the man, an Eastie go-getter, with the cuff links who could be from early Carre. Us Yanks have no idea the baggage some carry, even to public bathrooms. Dialect and accents mean nothing to most of us. The dialogue of your story will have me listening closer.