Schwellenangst

Schwellenangst
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Photo by Martijn van Exel
Photo by Martijn van Exel

She can just make out the words in the fading sunlight: ‘The only good system is a sound system.’ The concrete façade is marred in patches, but several stretches are still pristine grey, damaged only by the salt air and bird droppings – the vandals defeated by its sheer length. Most of the graffiti is in German, but language here is no badge of authenticity. Everyone Joy has met seems eager to parade their English before her. Even the older residents, the ones who learnt Russian at school, pepper their dialogue with it. ‘Auf meinem To-do List stehen drei Urgent Emails.’

[private]Her own German is rusty, but fine for ordinary conversation. She isn’t bothered about details like gender. It makes no sense, anyway, that ‘sea’ is feminine but ‘ocean’ neutral. She tries both out, looking at the glittering water just visible through a screen of pine trees. ‘Das Meer. Die Ostsee.’ The Baltic, starting here on the Northern German coast and rising in a silver arc along the Scandinavian peninsula.

She has been walking for almost an hour, yet there is no sign the building will surprise her. Its uniformity is strength, the sheer brute force of a monolithic bulwark against – what? On the way over, when they stopped for lunch, the fat woman who ran the café tried to talk them out of staying there. ‘Go to Binz instead,’ she insisted. ‘Nicer there. Not so much history.’

Joy tried to explain that history was exactly what they were after, why the school was sending twenty-three of its brightest A-Level candidates on a journey away from anything normal teenagers might find exciting. The Head of Department having decided the way to truly understand a language is to know the past of its speakers, they have gone in search of artefacts.

And now, Prora. They arrived that afternoon, but the real exploration will take place tomorrow. Her solo walk around is ostensibly to identify potential problems in their route, but really she wants to experience the building without the distraction of two dozen well-meaning but unbiddable young people. The daytrippers have long gone, and she has the narrow footpath to herself.

Even with the wind, she can hear vague throbbing that resolves into a bass line as she nears a row of broken windows with light behind them. Not the steady glow of normal lamps, but flickers and flashes. Torches? Then she gets closer and it is obvious. As she watches, a tallish red-haired man steps from a window, finding his footing on the ledge, lighting a cigarette. They eye each other. She calls up, Englishly polite even when speaking another language, ‘Entschuldigung, ist hier einen Rave?’ Hoping the German word is the same as in English, as they so often are.

He shrugs. ‘Name it what you like.’ His English is excellent, with only a trace of accent. ‘Come up, come in, if you like. Why not?’

There are many reasons why not, but she finds herself testing the first step of the ladder, gripping a rung, easing herself up. The man waits, and offers her the hand which isn’t holding a cigarette. ‘Peter,’ he beams.

‘Joy,’ she offers in return. Now that she’s up here, the music is a physical force, thrumming through thick walls and empty windows. He leads her into the room, still smoking, and she has the impression of chintzy furniture tortured by birds and rainwater, spiderwebs layered thickly over the ceiling.

Peter hands her a beer, slamming the bottle open against a table edge. She accepts it carefully, wiping the rim before putting her lips to it. ‘You like this?’ he says loudly, his hair gleaming like copper in the hazy light, and she nods. He smiles like a wolf.

There are about forty bodies in the space, mostly older than she’d have expected – some even in their thirties. They are dancing in a listless, bobbing sort of way. The music is some kind of European house, not all that different to a normal nightclub anywhere. Perhaps the location is the only subversive thing about this gathering.

Peter is waving at a girl, who walks over to them. ‘My twin sister, Sigrid,’ he says into Joy’s ear. She has the same shade of hair, matte and unruly. Joy smiles uncertainly and she responds by leaning forward for a kiss, which ends awkwardly as she moves back while Joy is leaning in for the other cheek. ‘Not very rock and roll,’ says Sigrid cheerfully, and drags them both onto the dance floor. It’s been a while since Joy has done this. She stands swaying for a while before falling into the rhythm, though she is stiff next to long-limbed, dextrous Peter and Sigrid.

After twelve songs or so, Joy begins to feel bored, and this too is something she remembers from her clubbing days. Even when the melodies vary, all dancing seems to be against the same beat. These tunes, all cool detached topnotes with electronic riffs, feel assembled from parts by a robot.

Around the third time she has this thought, her beer dangling emptily, Peter nods at the window and Sigrid smiles, then all three of them are scampering down the ladder like children into the damp night air. ‘Enough,’ says Sigrid, as if instructing an apprentice. ‘The art of parties is knowing when to leave.’

‘Who organises this?’ says Joy, eliciting another shrug from Peter. ‘Someone. Some people. They come here from the town. There is not much happening her on Rügen, I think. They party and they leave. We heard about this from a friend.’

‘Where in Germany do you come from?’

‘Where in Germany?’ Peter mimics. ‘Stockholm. Did you think I sound German?’

Joy is about to apologise when they laugh and instead she asks, ‘How long have you been here?’

‘On the island?’ Peter shrugs. ‘Yesterday. It’s easy to get here, Sweden is just—’ He gestures vaguely towards the trees, to the dappled water beyond. They reach a sandy, shallow slope, dotted with fir trees sweeping down to the unseen ocean. It is tempting to suggest a dip in the dark, but they were warned at the youth hostel about dangerous currents, and the water is probably cold. Already, the evening is falling into more orderly lines, and Joy instinctively knows the single aberration of the not-quite-rave is all she has appetite for. She is aware of her sensible shoes, her glasses, her utter lack of what Sigrid would call ‘rock and roll’. But that is fine. She will sit for a time with her new friends, then head to bed.

‘You are staying nearby?’

‘In the Jugendherberge.’ She gargles her ‘r’s a little to sound like a more proficient speaker.

‘Oh.’ Sigrid wrinkles her nose. ‘We passed by earlier. All neat, ping pong table and barbecue pit outside? I don’t know why people stay.’

‘But a party is okay?’

‘That is different. The building is empty, ruined, we don’t pretend it’s fine, we see it and we dance. But that side – painted white, pretending it’s so nice and perfect, no.’

Joy takes a pull from her beer, not sure she can formulate a coherent response.

‘Do you know the history of this?’ says Peter.

‘Of course. We’re here to experience the place.’

‘My grandmother wanted to stay here,’ says Sigrid unexpectedly. ‘I read her old diaries, when she died. She talked about Prora like paradise. How great the Führer was, to build this. Cheap holidays for workers.’

‘Kraft durch Freude,’ says Joy.

‘Freedom through happiness, yes. You have researched.’

‘Your grandmother?’

‘She was German. So were my parents.’

‘And now you’re here instead of her.’

‘We thought we would see if there is any furniture left in the bedrooms,’ says Peter. ‘But now I think we will sleep here. Siggy? Here it is nice.’

‘If no rain.’ Sigrid rests her head on Peter’s bony knee, her hair fanning over his lap. He leans forward, his skinny back arching, and kisses her hard on the mouth. She rises on her elbows. When they are done, Peter winks at Joy. ‘She is not really my twin.’

‘Did you say that?’ Sigrid tilts her head back. ‘He does that sometimes. It is maybe amusing because we look similar.’

‘You believed?’ Peter waggles his ring finger at her. ‘Wife, not sister.’

‘Congratulations,’ is all Joy can think to say.

‘See how it turns out before you congratulate.’

Sigrid smacks him across the shoulder. ‘Joy, where are you from?

‘Hackney. East London.’

‘I do not know it. Do you have something like this?’

‘A five-kilometre concrete hotel built by the Nazi Labour Front? No.’

‘Then no wonder you come here to see it.’

Joy checks her phone. No messages or missed calls – everything must be all right. She is surprised by the time, later than she thought. They students will be asleep by now, or at least in bed. They have an early start in the morning, a visit to the museum and then a guided tour of those parts of the ruins it is safe to walk in. The ballroom, the many swimming pools, the dining hall designed to serve meals for twenty thousand in shifts. A sandwich lunch, provided by the youth hostel, then back on the coach for more history.

This is meant to be the exciting part of her job, but so far it has been largely pedestrian. The only requirement is they return with the same number of students they left with. This evening –she has a flash of how odd it is, like a movie, to be here. The Swedes are completely relaxed, as if used to the loose ebb and flow of people. They enjoy her company – they must do, or they wouldn’t still be here – but at the end of the evening they will not be swapping e-mail addresses or promising to add each other on facebook.

‘Where will you go after this?’ says Peter, combing Sigrid’s long hair with his fingers.

‘We’ll head along the coast for a bit – to see the towers, the watchtowers—‘

‘Grenzturm.’

‘Is that them? The ones they used to look out for people trying to escape.’

‘Yes, Grenzturm. For anyone swimming to the West. Searchlights level with the water to spot them more easily. Still people tried, and got shot. My aunt froze to death. She thought it would be easier in the winter.’

Sigrid volunteers this so matter-of-factly that Joy takes a moment to be sure she has heard it. ‘Your family was here?’

‘My aunt married someone from here. My mother was in Berlin.’

‘Which side?’

‘East, of course. We were all East. She could see the wall from her bedroom window, when she was a girl. So close. There was one viewing platform on the other side. People from the West stood there, waving or just looking, with signboards like “Down with Communism” or “We are solidarity with you”. My mother waved back sometimes. Then one day, she was looking, and you know, she saw—‘

‘She saw herself, a doppelganger in the West,’ says Peter in a ghost-story voice.

Sigrid smacks him. ‘No. You are a dick. She saw Beata, her best friend from school.’

‘How did she get across?’

‘She didn’t know. People crossed, and of course you wouldn’t tell your friends before you went. Beata waved, but maybe not at her. She never saw her again. Later, they came and covered all the windows with bricks.’

‘We’re going to Berlin, with the students. Leipzig, then Berlin.’

‘Bernauerstrasse, my mother’s street. You should visit. There is still a platform there, and they have kept a part of the wall. For souvenir.’

‘Did she ever get out?’

‘No, she didn’t try.’ Sigrid’s beautiful face is unreadable. Peter has tuned out, not unsympathetically, but Joy can tell he has heard this story more than once. ‘We left like everyone else, when the wall fell.’

‘1990,’ says Joy automatically, less like a teacher than a schoolgirl at a quiz, hand in the air.

‘It’s funny, we heard it was happening, but my mother had a cold so she slept early that night. My father didn’t care about the news, he said nothing would ever change, just one wall won’t make a difference. But the next day our neighbour said what are you doing, you are missing the biggest event of your life. So we drove there, not very far, then there were so many people we couldn’t move. We got out and walked. There was a big smash in the concrete, nothing like we’ve ever seen, all the way through the two walls, outer and in. We went through and the people on the other side were like us, but not so, what, grey? A woman put her hand on my cheek and gave me sweets.’

‘And you were in the West.’

‘For a few hours, then we went back, I had to do homework and my mother wanted to cook dinner. We went across again on the weekend. Fewer people, and more wall missing. It was more normal to walk across, and no one welcomed us like before. I asked my mother where the people with the sweets were. She laughed and said life in the West would not always be so much fun. A few weeks later we moved to Sweden.’

‘Why Sweden?’

‘Why not? It was the West. She hadn’t seen anything West. Maybe she remembered her sister, trying to swim to Sweden. Not so far, but far enough.’

There is a silence, then Peter says, gently, ‘They came to Sweden so she could meet me.’ It sounds like a joke, but there is a stillness in his voice that was not there before. He lowers himself onto his elbows so Sigrid can fit her body against his, sliding together as if their curves and grooves were made to match.

‘And now,’ says Sigrid, ‘I am Swedish.’

‘But you came back.’

‘I wanted to see.’

‘You have walls in your country too? London Wall,’ says Peter.

‘That was gone long ago. Anyway the Romans built it to keep people out, not in.’

‘Most walls do both,’ says Sigrid.

They talk about the next day. The Swedes have no plan, they will hitchhike off Rügen, see where they end up next, or maybe take a ferry to Norway. They have a bit of money saved up, and travel is cheap in summer when you spend most nights in the open.

And behind them, still visible in the moonlight, is the great concrete slab of Prora. Really, they are between two walls, that and the screen of trees shielding them from the full force of the sea. Joy is looking forward to seeing what remains of the Berlin wall – Mauer, she remembers, not Wand like an interior wall. The few stretches they have allowed to remain, the line that marks the rest. Are there walls where she comes from? Ones around the estate, when she was growing up. To keep people out or in?

This feels like the end of the night, the wind softening its tone like a lullaby, like the last slow song before the lights come on. How unlikely, that she should be here, hundreds of miles from where she was born. She carefully brushes sand off her blouse and thinks, I should get back, but stays a moment longer, enjoying the sounds and sap-smells of the night.

Peter and Sigrid are quiet now, but there isn’t enough light to tell if they are asleep. She doesn’t want to speak, it would spoil something, whatever is circling in the air around them. The ground, cushioned by pine needles, seems to mould itself to her body.

Joy collects German compound words – enjoying how they are concertinaed together, even the term for them: Bandwurmwörter, tapeworm words. There is always one for the specific sensation of each moment. Right now: Waldeinsamkeit, the feeling of being alone in the woods. As she shuts her eyes, they slide through her mind like beads on a string. Schadenfreude, of course. Verschlimmbesserung, a so-called improvement that actually makes things worse. Schwellenangst, the fear of crossing thresholds or boundaries.

Joy dreams of being in a maze, of running through a limitless number of turnings and crossroads, all of which might lead to more choices, or to a dead end. On either side of her are walls too high and smooth to climb, so tall she can only dimly see the sky above her, and a glimmer of the moon. Behind the walls, she somehow knows, are all the people she has lost, but on this side just her, just the path ahead.

She wakes up with a niggle of disquiet in her mind, a persistent crick in her neck, but most of all a warmth and well-being that radiates through every cell in her body. The sun is already up, an intense point low in the swimming-pool sky. A moment of panic as she looks at her watch. Not yet seven. She has plenty of time to walk back, shower, and present herself at breakfast, respectable Miss Hammond once again, as if none of this has happened.

The Swedes are still asleep beside her, their skin even paler against the tangle of red hair by daylight. She looks at them a moment, decides against taking a picture, and waves goodbye although they cannot see her.

It is not far to the hostel, and she allows herself to meander through the trees. Prora is to her right. She looks hard but cannot work out which set of windows the party was in. Even with the graffiti as a marker, the surface is too uniform. To her left is the Baltic Sea, flexing its surface with strong, regular waves. The green-black water reaches all the way to the horizon, but she imagines that she can just see, in the distance, other lands.[/private]

Jeremy Tiang

About Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy Tiang's short fiction has appeared in the Istanbul Review, the Philippines Free Press, Fleurs des Lettres and QLRS, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport and Iowa Review Prizes. He has also translated several novels and plays from the Mandarin, including Zhang Yueran's The Promise Bird and Yeng Pway Ngon's Unrest. His adaptation of the eighteenth-century novel A Dream of Red Pavilions will soon be staged off-Broadway by Pan Asian Repertory Theater.

Jeremy Tiang's short fiction has appeared in the Istanbul Review, the Philippines Free Press, Fleurs des Lettres and QLRS, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport and Iowa Review Prizes. He has also translated several novels and plays from the Mandarin, including Zhang Yueran's The Promise Bird and Yeng Pway Ngon's Unrest. His adaptation of the eighteenth-century novel A Dream of Red Pavilions will soon be staged off-Broadway by Pan Asian Repertory Theater.

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