The coffee had a very poignant taste – maybe not ‘out of this world’ as Mona had described it, but it sure was no usual dispenser-coffee. Judging by the fancy design of the place it would cost an outrageous amount too. Mona was leafing through the menu, which was mostly pictures of what was to be had, so I felt as if I was getting a short break now that she was distracted. I ventured to take another look around. I noticed that all the furniture was low and unassuming, although the individual pieces had a classy look. I’d called it minimalist a few minutes ago, but I’m not sure with specialist jargons. The thing is, you wouldn’t even get the feeling there was any furniture there at all, what one was struck by was the tree, surrounded by that implausible interior like a stage set or a Photoshop-processed picture. Amid all that sophisticated space that looked like nothing real, the tree, giving off that smell of earth and leaves and sap, had a sort of hallucinating effect. A bit like being half awake and half dreaming; immersed into hypnosis with senses still alive, very much alive in fact. It smelled of real life, but the place was like a dream.
“I wonder why all furniture is so low and the walls so blank,” I heard myself thinking aloud. There were miniature paintings of landscape, the shape and size of family photos, hanging just around the entrance, but large areas of the walls around were simply blank. There was of course the visual effect of that strange paint and its texture, but it also looked as if there had been some design in these large vacant surfaces.
Mona raised her eyes from the menu just for a momentary look, stirred only by my question, but otherwise quite familiar with the place. Resuming her reading she just said casually,
“That’s because they project images around.”
“They do what?”
She put the menu away.
“They project images around, you know, it feels almost like the holospace from Starship Enterprise. You’re sitting here, having coffee and around you there’s life from a different time and a different place. They’ve got every decade since the nineteen-twenties, and various places like cities in France, Italy, Germany, US, and then rural images, rivers, oceans, forests, you name it. All of them are true-to-life, the natural size, that’s why the large wall surfaces, so that the pictures can be really lifelike.”
I was starting to get creeps down my spine, for some mysterious reason. Mona was obviously quite enthusiastic about the place, and it does sound, now I’m telling, like a very fancy place too, but there was something looming over my head, breaking gates open and thrusting itself into my thoughts as it were. It felt just like one being drawn into a whirl playing havoc with all settled things. It was digging into something inside me that I didn’t want to see out, because I resented that digging itself, the sensation of tunnels being bored into my mind against my will, against my sense of order and rationality, which said that I should be asking the questions and boring into other people’s thoughts, taking them on adventure rides in the limelight, on the stage.
To make things worse and sharpen my feeling of stones rolling, the hydrangeas that I’d seen next to the house flashed through my mind, this time however in full bloom, in the shade of the apple tree, behind the neighbour’s fence, taking up the full bed, which itself was narrow and squeezed between the fence and the foot path along the house. A tiny little garden that was, just a patch, overgrown with the two huge hydrangeas, both splashed as it were with cyclamen blots the size of Tante Elsa’s both palms, held together. Tante Elsa was trotting the path towards the outhouses in the back yard, where her sister Erika, an ever-smiling harmless spinster, lived. The outhouses had been turned into a tiny bungalow where Elsa and Erika had set it all up properly and decently, so they could be together and help each other as family does. The din of the Berliner building sites was roaring away, though somehow muffled by the apple tree and the fence and the shady garden bed mysteriously leafy and flowery, smelling of damp earth and Torf and whatever else Tante Elsa was choosing to prime her hydrangeas with.
“Thoughtful?”, I heard. Mona was smiling half enquiringly, half motherly.
“Yes, a bit”, I gave to. I admitted. I must have been just two or three on that garden path watching Elsa hobbling along past her hydrangeas, because in 61 it was all over. Was I really recalling this, or just inventing it? 61 was another era. What was I doing there in the first place?
“We could ask them to project something”, Mona said. “Britain? Germany?”
“How about Romania?” I teased back.
“We ARE in Romania, what’s the point!”
“Right, we are in Romania but we’re not actually seeing the country”, I retorted a bit grumpy. “Just sitting here, or chasing some ghostly Grandpa.”
“And talking to me, face to face, less than a foot away”, Mona added pointedly. “And last night you saw Dorin, and my friend Monica, and Dorin’s friend Andrew – and any moment now you’re going to see Andreas, the manager. Maybe this is it, you asked for it, didn’t you, you said you want to see people, you want to see what this country is really like not just the media coverage of some political statements. So now you see Romania”, Mona concluded emphatically.
She had a point, or several. But my restlessness was getting me.
“Come on, let’s get some action here”, she added on a different line and sprang to her feet and walked away. I looked up the tree branches above my head. It looked amazing. All that greenish-grey of polished ultramodern wall paint, the Schnickschnack of the minimalist furnishing (less is more, right?), and then these absolutely primary green leaves nearly imperceptibly shivering in the air! Was it an apple tree I wondered?
Then something crazy happened. The lights went still dimmer than they’d been and a glow was on the blank walls. Mona? I called inwardly. Und jetzt kommt’s – and now comes it: the walls came alive as streets with building sites in the background and eine grüne Ecke ganz vorne in the foreground, where – hold on – those were bushes in blossom, cyclamen blossom, two of them, huddled together under an apple tree (or was it my apple tree here, bowing over my head, over this table?), and a meandering garden path – and who should be trotting toward me, other than – Mona herself! Was noch soll da auf mich zukommen, Herr Gott nochmal!
“There you are”, Mona let herself fall on her chair. “Thought you might like it – Berlin!”
Yes, Berlin it was. Just the day before she sprang from her window over the wall.
“Even if it’s before your time”, she added.
“Before my time?”, I mumbled.
“That’s when the wall was being erected, see there? That was 61 if I’m correct.”
“Genau. That’s right. I lived that. I was three or four.”
“You lived that?” Mona opened her eyes wide. “You look much younger then,” she added and I took it as a compliment. Or maybe it was anything but flattering.
“I’ve seen all that. Ich war eigentlich da, I mean, I might even be in one of these damn pictures.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a Berliner!” it was Mona’s turn to be stupefied.
“I was damals a Berliner”, I stressed the past. “Yes. Soldiers trampling across our little garden. Building something as far as I can remember.”
“Goodness”, Mona whispered. “So you’re saying that your parents’ house was standing directly on the border? Where the wall was built?”
“No no no, that wasn’t my parents’ house. Just where we were living. Me and – Elsa and Erika, Ersatz-Mamas. Ganz lieb und unschuldig.”
I heard myself and was startled, glanced at Mona to see the effect on her face, but she was listening quite full there with me, voll dabei, as if patiently waiting for me to come to the point. I went back to translate,
“I mean, Elsa and Erika were sort of guardians for me, very kind and harmless old ladies. My parents were working elsewhere, abroad. But that’s an ancient story that’s buried and archived, let the past rest, we say in German.”
Mona’s face was lit up by a broad sunny smile, as if way to go kid! I frowned.
“What?” I asked somewhat abruptly.
“I like your we. Now you’re coming. Enough of that professional bullshit, no labels attached, no strings, no manufacturer’s tag. Now you’re starting to be coming from somewhere.”
I pursed my lips and gave a slightly pissed off guffaw. As would this matter, where I fromcome! It was already enough that the decaying buildings were floating around us, the eternal uniformed skirmish, the lumber of the stone on-each-other up-building, the shrieks, the boos, the watchmen whistles, the once trotting Erika now dashing forth, Elsa behind the fence or was it a wall, me somehow blitzing across to the fence or wall, someone’s hands gripping me, Elsa’s arms half sunk behind the fence (or wall?) waving frantically, that she should be so strong in her years, Erika gripping the wall (or fence) with fingers wide apart like hens’ claws, somebody clutching me tight, it almost hurts, Elsa’s arms now almost gone, only tips of her fingers flickering behind that which whatever it was, fence or wall who knows anyway –
“Hi! I’m Andreas.”
Never was I thankfuler been, a person in flesh and blood before my eyes to see. A dark, intent gaze, right into my eyes, sucked me mercifully out of the whirl.