Apple of Paradise
In the spring of 1974, Anna got her first job – translating cooperation and security in Geneva. Like the pale-green stalks of a young tomato plant, European cooperation was fragile and needed nurturing.
Tomatoes, when she noticed them at all, came wrapped in tight transparency, supermarket perfect, red balls in straight rows of six. The more out of season the tighter the foil, the lighter the red, paradise dilute.
Television antennae started sprouting the length of the border between Germany’s two halves. Paradise was flaunted over the ether. It had been twelve years since eight East Germans careened in their bus at top speed through the Berlin Wall. Children were asked what television programmes their parents had watched the night before. Two up one down in the antenna maypole dance.
In September, 1974, agreement was reached on the free flow of information. Anna sat at the bar in the conference building with Peter, an East German colleague from the GDR State translation office.
‚It was the tomatoes,‘ he said.
‚What do you mean, the tomatoes?‘ Anna ran her hand through her curly red hair. She was expecting to hear an account more exciting than a story about a vegetable, even if it was the apple of paradise.
‚I come from Obersdorf. It’s in Thuringia. It’s small, only about a thousand souls. Things haven’t changed much there since before the war, …‘
Anna had heard of Obersdorf which was near Sibigrode, the village from where her mother had come.
‚… apart from slogans on the large boards near the town hall blaring cooperation with our Russian brothers,‘ he continued.
‚But didn’t you feel the difference after six months in Geneva?‘ Anna said.
‚Of course. But I’d been out before.‘
‚But you’d never been in the West for such a long time…and then going back …‘
‚Last Saturday, I was at the market in Obersdorf,‘ Peter said. ‚I saw some plump, ripe tomatoes glistening red in a pyramid. I reached out to squeeze one, just one on the corner, when a fat wrinkled old thing in a grey-blue pinafore barked at me: „Just where do you think you are?“ Without thinking, I shot back: „Geneva.“ I put the tomato on the pile and left. I didn’t dare look back.‘
Peter went home to Obersdorf that Christmas. He did not return to Geneva.
In 1976, the Russians clamped down in disregard of agreed cross-border flow of information. Anna saw Peter again at a conference in Belgrade.
‚How are you? Is everything all right? Have you been working?‘ she asked.
‚Yes, but only in the East. I guess Geneva was too long for them. So no more missions to the wild West.‘
The next day he was gone.
In 1984, Anna was sent to West Berlin for a four-day meeting.
‚Can you meet me at Checkpoint Charlie at 20h15 on Friday, 13 January,‘ she had written to Peter.
She took the tube. Passengers alighted at each stop to be swallowed by a grey that thickened the closer she got to her destination. Proofed against sound, the tube hurtled along beneath the Wall.
Anna surfaced at the station steps. ‚This is it,‘ she breathed, expelling the air of the underground.
The crossing was two hundred metres off and smaller than she had imagined.
‚Films always exaggerate,‘ she said aloud. She crossed the American side and left the bath of neon for the twilighted no-man’s land.
The German Democratic Republic. She caught her breath, as harsh shafts of yellow lit up the large grey official figure of the GDR.
‚Visa. 24 hours. You must change 25 Mark,‘ it snapped, its head studying her passport. Anna’s heart thumped a nod.
‚Where do you stay? You must mark the hotel.‘
‚Hotel … Palast,‘ she stammered.
‚The object of your visit? Business?‘ it sneered. ‚No magazines? Books?‘
‚Just my toothbrush.‘
Without acknowledging her reply, the head hovered over her passport, then dismissed her with a dull and ink-blurred stamp. She opened the heavy glass door and walked out onto the street.
The air was electric. Anna did not see Peter come out from the shadows on the other side of the road. She felt him.
‚We’ll talk at the hotel,‘ Peter said. He steered her elbow three blocks in silence and only slowed their pace when the foyer lights were in sight.
The hotel bar was brightly lit but almost empty. Cards marked „RESERVIERT“ decorated two-thirds of the tables.
‚Oh, Peter, it’s good to see you,‘ Anna said at last.
‚Hush,‘ Peter said as a waiter strode towards them and led them to a corner table, one without a card.
‚I’ll just leave my coat on the chair,‘ she whispered.
‚You can’t do that here,‘ Peter said and went to hand it with his own to the dour-faced woman behind a counter marked „Garderobe – Toiletten“.
‚The place will soon be full, by the look of those cards,‘ Anna said as Peter sat down opposite her.
‚No it won’t. Not enough staff to handle a full room, not enough that want to. So they say the tables are reserved.‘
Before Anna could speak, Peter said: ‚Remember those tomatoes? Well that was the province. We’re in the city now.‘ He folded his hands on the table in front of him and stared at his long thin fingers. ‚The only fruit we get are apples, red ones at Christmas if we’re lucky, but usually Golden Delicious. These days they are neither, just greying yellow that taste like flour.‘
Anna shook her head, her curls dropping over one side of her face. ‚But, Peter, all the good things we used to talk about, the big things, the important things … not apples,‘ she trailed off. This wasn’t the Peter she thought she knew, wanted to know. He hadn’t even said „Hallo“. Their only physical contact had been, not a kiss, but his steely fingers on her elbow, a rudder in the dark. She had been wrong. It had been easy to talk ideals with her purse and stomach full.
‚Oh, Peter … .‘ The words sank into emptiness.
He looked up and smiled at her in a sad still way then ordered two beers. They talked a while, their conversation dissolving like froth until there was nothing left to say.
‚Walk me back to the border, Peter. I’d better go.‘
He nodded, buttoned his coat and helped her into hers. His fingers relaxed on her elbow as they walked in silence to the border crossing. At the heavy glass door his lips brushed the curls over her forehead.
‚Take care of yourself,‘ he said.
Like a clockwork doll Anna stepped through to face the large grey official again. A taste of felt filled her mouth.
For almost five years Anna heard nothing from Peter. In the spring of 1989 a letter arrived.
‚Times are changing,‘ he wrote. ‚I’ve got a telephone.‘
It was months before she dared call him and when she did their exchange was guarded.
On 9 November 1989 the Wall tumbled down. The price of tomatoes went up and the vegetable became rare at the market in Obersdorf. At first Peter found competition difficult to understand, uncomfortable to digest. He soon learnt about packaging, marketing, financing and raised his tag. Germany had become one, … almost.
Satellite dishes like oversized eggshells baubled on slated roofs above peeling slogans. New outer skins affixed with yogurt, autos, underwear collided in scope, flashing gaudy. Anna and Peter were in the circuit again, but crossed conference lines separated their assignments. They lost telephone numbers, lost touch.
Peter moved to a village near Bonn, about one thousand souls. He bought tomatoes at the supermarket; they glistened in rows, their skins stretched shiny.
Anna stayed in Geneva. On her sheltered balcony, she set up a trellis on the South wall and planted the apple of paradise.