The Man on the Moon
It was 1969, the year of the man on the moon. When Samantha had left Australia she’d winked at him not knowing that before the year was out he would not be alone – not knowing that she would be very much so.
She thought of Jake. She missed him. It wasn’t that his absence left a hole; it was just that there was so much more when he was there. Samantha stared out of the train window as the countryside chugged by.
She’d come in from the East from Vienna via Prague. After the awful experience with Fritz, her need to run had been so suddenly strong – the need to get out, find her family, her roots, safety. She’d been so tough when she left Sydney. She hadn’t thought twice then either. ‚But the first setback scares you and you want to go home.‘ But home was far away, always too far.
The train screeched to a halt on the Czech/GDR border. Two puffed up grey uniforms entered the compartment. Each took an aisle.
‚Passport,‘ one florid face sighed at her, took the navy booklet and flipped through to the Czech visa as if to make sure she could really leave. The other passengers proffered their papers and the officials swung down on to the platform as if they had run out of air in their exhalation. The train lurched into motion over an expanse of grey barren terrain and then screeched to another halt.
‚Passport,‘ clipped a new uniform. ‚Koffer aufmachen!‘ Samantha didn’t know whether she was expected to first show her papers or open her suitcase. She held out her passport.
Samantha took down the suitcase, now grubby beige, with the liner stickers – CABIN – ANTONIA LAURETTI plastered willy-nilly on the lid and peeling off at the corners. She opened it.
‚Was ist das?‘
‚A koala,‘ she said, ‚a koala bear.‘ As if the word ‚bear‘ would bestow it more innocence. They weren’t bears of course, but he wouldn’t know, Samantha thought. The dour faced uniform took out a knife from the instep of his boot, slashed the stuffed creature in a clean rip right down the belly. He put the knife away again and dug his fingers into the synthetic entrails, spilling them into the suitcase. Samantha gaped, her eyes wide – she could feel perspiration on her palms.
With a flick of his wrist, he threw the fur carcass into her case. ‚Books? ‚
‚No,‘ Samantha whispered.
‚No!‘ Samantha trembled inside as she fought back the tears. She stared straight ahead as the uniform went on to the next passenger.
Samantha was glad to alight. The physical exercise of changing platforms in Halle and boarding the local train had calmed her as she took a seat in the almost full compartment.
She glanced at the teenage girl sitting opposite her. She was struggling to open a bottle of – the label said ‚Malz Kola‘. The deformed word drew Samantha’s hand down to her suitcase. The koala gift was inside. What had they been looking for? Samantha swallowed – so cute, the only gift she had for her family and they had to ruin it.
The blonde girl in her knee socks, white blouse and skirt started worrying the bottle cap on the side of the metal armrest. Samantha shook off her first taste of shock and rummaged in her bag.
‚Bitte,‘ she said and held her hand out for the bottle. The girl gave it to her with a look of surprise. The bottle was warm. Their Coca-Cola, Samantha thought. Warm coke, she shuddered. She plucked off the top with a pocket knife and opener and handed the bottle back.
‚Danke,‘ the girl said and began to sip and then, as an afterthought, offered the bottle to Samantha. Had she done it spontaneously, Samantha might not have noticed.
‚Nein, danke,‘ Samantha said and continued in German. ‚How many stops is it to Sibigrode?‘ Six fingers, Samantha thought, as the girl switched the bottle to her left hand and tucked her right hand in the pocket of her pleated dark-blue skirt.
‚Just one more,‘ the girl answered.
She must have noticed the difference in accents. Samantha’s German was not fluent, but it was clear she would get by – as a stranger would, and the girl with the ice-blue eyes had seen that. Yet Samantha found the girl’s accent and the words more familiar, more innately known than the speech and dialect of Vienna. German was many things, she thought.
And the girl must have felt a certain ease as well. ‚Where are you going?‘ she asked.
‚To the Friedrichs. Do you know them?‘ Of course she doesn’t, Samantha thought. She remembered how she’d laugh when asked if she knew someone so-and-so in Sydney. Now she was doing the same thing.
‚No. But the town is small. They’ll know at the station.‘
The train pulled in to a simple grey platform with a low one-room building and outhouse. With her suitcase in hand and her hessian carry bag over her shoulder, Samantha got off with a wave of ‚Auf Wiedersehen‘ although she knew she would not see the girl with the strange hand again. One never knew. Who was it, Samantha wondered. Oh, yes. Anne Boleyn. They’d taken her for a witch. Well, she could always have it removed. Plastic surgery here, at the end of the world. Samantha smiled to herself, now where was down under? She shrugged and walked towards the small squat building.
‚The Friedrichs‘ house is the last one on the road to Gorenzen – about twenty minutes on foot,‘ a man said in a low flat voice. He must have been the station master. He was the only person there, the house would not have had room for anyone else and his grey uniform and cap gave him an official look.
It took Samantha thirty minutes to walk down the dusty road that had been tarmacked, but never repaired. There was no footpath, just rubble and sand seeping into rough grass. The houses stood aligned, grey after beige after grey. Any garden they had must be in the back. Behind the houses were fields, flatness and in the distance copses of trees. Further off the low hills rolled and even further she could see peaking forests – the Harz, she thought. She remembered her mother speaking of the Harz Mountains. The last house had trees, tall elms, two of them and there was a tiny garden in the front. Just a few bushes, hydrangeas behind a peeling picket fence. All the houses had peeling picket fences, but this one peeled more.
Samantha opened the gate and walked up to the front door. She looked about her, placed her case on the ground, took a deep breath and hit the knocker.
The door opened and a stout old woman in long skirts and apron, her grey-white hair pulled back in a bun stood before her. She had a round flat face with high cheekbones. Her wrinkles bore witness to smiles and sorrow.
‚Tante Klara? It’s Samantha, Samantha from Australia. Helga’s daughter.‘
‚Helga? Australia? Samantha?‘ With each word the old woman’s face softened and her smile seemed as if it would envelope Samantha as her arms opened in greeting. ‚Samantha. How did you get here? All the way from Australia! Otto, come look, it’s Helga’s Samantha.‘
An old man, a head shorter than Klara, shuffled to the entrance. He had a full head of sparkling white hair and a bushy moustache clipped short. He wore a grey hand-knit jumper that was neatly darned in a spot past his stomach. His gaze was strong from steely blue eyes as he smiled and said: ‚Yes, it’s Helga’s Samantha.‘
Samantha stepped forward to his tentative embrace, then pulled back and grinned. She didn’t know what to say.
‚So will you stay with us? You can have the room your mother had before she left,‘ Klara said.
Samantha nodded and followed her aunt up the narrow creaking stairs. The room was small with an attic window and scrubbed wooden floorboards. A bed with a dark wooden headboard, decorated with a rose and two symmetric swirls that opened upwards, like curling vines, stood pressed against one wall. A small dresser stood opposite. It had the same carved pattern around the mirror fixed on top of it so that it looked like a dressing table. The mirror was blotched brown with age in the corners, and on the dresser stood a large white china jug in a china basin.
As Samantha opened her suitcase on the linen bedspread, she heard her aunt’s steps creaking up the stairs.
‚It is simple, but clean,‘ she said. ‚The toilet is outside. It’s an old house, Liebchen.‘
‚That’s OK, Tante Klara,‘ Samantha said. It was like being sent back in time with fragile things useful for years. But, running water would have been nice …
As if reading her thoughts, the old woman said: ‚Oh, but a lot of people have very modern things these days – can’t see the use of it all myself, though. But there’s Irmgard, my daughter – your cousin, you know. Well, she and her husband – they’re up in the Harz, they mind the venison, and even up there, Irmgard has running water and shiny taps, even an enamel toilet inside the house. And she has a refrigerator. We put everything in the cool cellar. Oh, I remember …‘
Samantha smiled. She loved stories. ‚What, Tante Klara?‘
‚Oh, it was when your mother started school …‘
This was wonderful. It was hard to imagine her mother having started school. ‚Yes?‘
‚Well, it did cause some talk in the village.‘ The old woman skirts began to jiggle as a belly laugh stifled into a chuckle. ‚You know, here in Germany, the children on their first day of school, well, they receive an enormous cone filled with sweets, bonbons …‘
Samantha had heard of the tradition. She had even seen photos in the West German Burda magazines her mother got months late and used for her dressmaking patterns. At school begin there would be photos of children in street clothes – not uniforms like she had to wear. The children held bright coloured cones almost as big as themselves. No doubt, mothers would make bright skirts and shirts and jackets for the first school day. So it went that far back.
‚So! What happened?‘
‚Well, the teacher – all the classes were together in one room – he told the children that the tree with the cones grew in his cellar.‘
‚Well, your mother, oh, that Helga …‘ Tante Klara started to chuckle again and held her hand on her stomach as if that would stop her petticoated skirt from jiggling. ‚Helga and one of the boys from the village thought the tree would grow bigger and have bigger cones if they fertilised it. So they poured a bucket of … cow piss …‘ Tante Klara’s skirts jiggled more and more, ‚…into the cellar window of the teacher’s house.‘
Her aunt wiped tears from her eyes with the corner of her apron. ‚… he kept the freshly baked bread just under the window on a stone ledge …‘
Samantha roared with laughter. ‚And he couldn’t get mad at the children?‘ She loved this new mother of hers.
‚No, he couldn’t get mad with them. He should never have told them such a lie.‘
Samantha and Klara smiled at each other, then, as if it had all gone on too long, Klara said: ‚Well, I’ll let you unpack. Then you come down.‘
That afternoon Samantha took an old bike from the shed.
‚It still works. I take it now and then … when the sun shines,‘ her uncle said.
Samantha biked to the next village along a deserted country road to fetch fresh bread rolls for supper. They were firm and brown and smelled of malt. A gingerbread world of malt – malt bread, malt coke, everything malt.
The countryside with its grey houses in huddles, its copses of trees peppered through tilled fields bore no scars of bygone wars and no greasepaint of modernity. It was not the regime, Samantha thought, but time that held it suspended, as if in aspic. There was no talk of Stasi then although the slit koala bore witness to the closed claws of the border.
The following day, Samantha’s cousin Irmgard and her two young sons came to visit Tante Klara. Samantha knew the word had spread fast that Helga’s daughter from Australia had dropped in on the village. It was Sunday. Onkel Otto donned a white shirt with a stiff stand-up collar. He wasn’t going to church. There were no churches – or they were not used as such. He just went out to the gate. It was still an occasion for he even had on his black Homburg hat.
Irmgard was a tall woman, well into middle age. She had gone to great pains with her clothes. She wore a white blouse nipped a notch too tightly by a dark-blue skirt that spilled over thickening hips. Irmgard tweaked at her waistband as she approached the gate with a large paper carry bag and two boys in tow.
‚Samantha, my dear, you’re just like your mother, Aunt Helga. This is Rolf and this is Helmut,‘ she said pushing a sullen 12 year-old and a friendlier-looking 8 year-old before her.
The photos she had seen of her mother in her youth had shown a slim dark-haired woman. Samantha was blonde; her mother used to call her hair California blonde as it darkened in the winter and lightened in the sun. But she did have her mother’s dusting of freckles.
Helmut thrust out with both hands a large box-like contraption. ‚This is for you. A gift. I made it myself, ‚he said.
‚Danke.‘ Samantha took the object. She had nothing in return. She couldn’t give him the ripped koala. ‚I’m afraid they took away the gifts I brought – they took them away at the border,‘ she lied. ‚Your gift is lovely. What is it?‘
‚Take off the paper. It’s a windmill. Made of match sticks.‘ The boy blushed. His older brother watched impassively, the first sprigs of acne peppering his cheeks.
‚Thank you, Helmut,‘ she said. ‚I shall put it inside, it looks fragile.‘ Turning to Irmgard, she said with a smile: ‚It must have taken him ages.‘ Then she carried her prize up to her room. What the hell am I going to do with it, she thought as she placed it on the dresser.
When Samantha came out again her Aunt Klara and Irmgard were busy setting a wooden table under the shade of the elm tree behind the house. There was coffee, malt coffee, and baked cheesecake and Samantha recalled the waft of sour sweet that had tickled her nose that morning.
‚I don’t believe it,‘ Otto said.
‚But it’s true, Onkel Otto.‘ Rolf slammed his fist in the air.
‚Yes, they did,‘ chirruped Helmut.
‚A man cannot walk on the Moon. That’s impossible. They’re telling us stories again,‘ Otto said.
Samantha placed a hand on her uncle’s elbow. The old man was sitting on the bench, upright and proud, his Homburg straight on his head. Samantha imagined that he must surely look like that at a funeral, only there he would stand to bid farewell to an old friend. ‚It’s true, Onkel Otto,‘ she said quietly. ‚A man, an American, has walked on the Moon.‘
The old man shook his head: ‚I don’t believe it,‘ he muttered over and over again. How hard it was for him to accept things others took for granted. But she was that way too. Jake, he had taken it for granted that she loved him. She did, of course – or did she? But the gifts? She’d been so sure she could breeze in with strange antipodal stuffed animals – who would mistrust a koala?
‚Samantha,‘ Irmgard said in a voice that snapped her back to them. ‚I was wondering if you needed something like this? They’re the best in the GDR, ’she said proudly. ‚My brother-in-law sells them in his, well it’s not his …, ‚ her lips tinged with bitterness as her voice softened. ‚… his Kaufhaus. We are known for good quality.‘
Samantha didn’t know where to put her face as her cousin held out a floor length red flannel horror of a dressing gown. ‚You will need this in Europe,‘ Irmgard added. ‚It’s colder than in Australia.‘
Samantha nodded and stretched out her hands. No way would she wear it. She hated dressing gowns. But they were gifts, gifts from her family – here on the other side of the world. She could always give it to the Caritas when she got back to Vienna. ‚Thank you, Irmgard. I’ll make good use of it.‘ Samantha turned to fold and place the gown on the bench.
‚And Samantha,‘ Irmgard glanced sideways as if to block out Otto who was still nodding sadly to himself. ‚These, too, they’re of superior quality. You can always fill them with hankies, but I think they should fit.‘
Samantha stared and tried not to laugh out loud. Irmgard held out a pale dusty pink bra, polyester, sewn in concentric circles and ending in a point where a nub should be. They were burning their bras back home and she would place a pencil under her breast once a week – the pencil always fell. Her breasts needed no support, not for a long while yet, she thought.
‚I have a white one too,‘ Irmgard said.
God, I’d never wear those, Samantha thought as she said ‚Thank you‘ in a warm soft voice. Her reward was Irmgard’s proud glow. They were the closest she would get to a family. Yet they were strangers, as distant as the man in the moon – but she didn’t want to walk on their faces.
‚We had our chance,‘ Irmgard said. They had gone up to the Barbarossa caves to see the king whose beard grew into the ground through a massive table as a sign of his sorrow. ‚Did your mother ever tell you the story of Barbarossa, Kaiser Friedrich?‘
‚Something about him trying to unite all the German dukes, bring peace? Didn’t he fall in the crusades?‘ Samantha said.
‚Legend has it that he didn’t die. He hid in the caves with his flaxen-haired daughter and members of his court.‘ Irmgard’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‚And there he stays sleeping until Germany becomes one.‘ Her whisper hoarsened. ‚Hitler imagined uniting all German people.‘
‚And look what that led to,‘ Samantha said. ‚It looks like Barbarossa will go on sleeping forever.‘
Irmgard’s eyes caught Samantha’s. For a long second her gaze was straight. ‚We never thought they would really put up a wall. We should have left then,‘ she said. Samantha watched the tears glisten in her cousin’s eyes. ‚But this is our home, Samantha. Do you understand?‘
Samantha shifted from one foot to the other and then walked off a few paces in that height of the Harz. She wasn’t the one Irmgard should be telling such things. How could a tumbleweed understand? She had no roots; well, they weren’t in the GDR.
‚There’s a joke.‘ Irmgard’s voice broke in to her thoughts. ‚Ulbricht, our leader, loses his wallet one day. He offers a reward – any wish – to the finder. A pretty 18 year-old girl finds the wallet and he asks her what she wants. She says: ‚Open the wall for 24 hours.‘ Ulbricht laughs and says: ‚You naughty girl, you just want to be alone with me.‘
Samantha smiled weakly. There was more to her cousin than her too-tight waistband. But what about the running water and the shiny taps?
On the train back to Vienna via Prague, Samantha soon forgot the shiny taps. As the countryside pulled by and she drew further away from people she had always been told were her family, she pondered on the meaning of the word. Blood coursed in her veins. It was hers. Not theirs.
At the Austrian border she paid little attention to the words the inspector said as he stamped her passport.