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?”
“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.”
“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.