Lenora has a feeling in her teeth, rattling about her back molars and sharpening itself against her canines. It feels as if she is standing on the railway tracks, and far off a train is coming. She can feel the shaking as it hurtles towards her. She has to get off the tracks before it comes.
Lenora has a feeling in her teeth. And so Lenora leaves East Germany.
She does so quietly, secretly. She does this for two reasons. One, there is more a chance of the moon falling from the sky (without American intervention, that is; God only knows what the Americans have planned for space and God, as her party so reliably has informed its people, does no more exist than Father Christmas) than there is her being allowed to simply waltz away from her job without consequence and two, she knows that the others will never understand. Tischbier, Schweppenstette, the thrice-damned Comrade Alexej and his bosses in Moscow- their ears are all so stuffed with cotton that they wouldn’t know if the train was half a year away or right on top of them.
No one in Berlin can feel it. Sitting in their grey concrete monoliths and scratching away on thin paper with the state’s ink. Lenora smokes western cigarettes and drinks western coffee. Lenora leaves the island of the Democratic Mission to stalk the streets of Bonn and smell the Italian restaurants and hear the American rock music. If Comrade Alexej could smoke a pack of cheap American cigarettes and drink Coca Cola and hear the thrumming of a drum beat aching against his ears, he would surely understand what Lenora had learned: inevitability.
Alright, it wasn’t exactly correct to say that no one in Berlin knew. The people in Berlin probably knew, deep in their bones. With their contraband vinyl records and coveted relatives in the west bringing them good coffee beans. The Stasi knew everything and somehow, they were going to be the last ones to realise.
That happened fairly often with the party. It was one of the reasons why Lenora was leaving.
When Lenora was born, the sky was charcoal grey. The sky was charcoal grey and the trees were naked and shivering in the November cold. Most of Lenora’s earliest memories are grey. She’s not sure if it’s from looking at old black and white photographs, or the majority of her memories being in winter, or if Germany had really just been grey, leeched of colour and life and sound, a muffling, breath-snatching, bone-quivering grey hanging over leaking roofs and empty pantries.
Her mother didn’t talk about the war. Her father would only pinch his mouth together into a thin line before shaking his head.
So Lenora made her own wars. Everyone else had them, why not her as well?
She remembers clearly the first apartment she had lived in all on her own. The Plattenbau with the already-crumbling plaster that would rain down from the ceiling whenever her neighbours in the flat upstairs started fighting, clattering and screaming at each other and covering Lenora’s second-hand furniture with a fine white dust.
Years later and she lives in a beautiful building in Bonn, on a quiet leafy street. Her neighbours upstairs have two small children who she can hear playing together in the courtyard and the local grocers’ always has more fruits in stock than Lenora knows what to do with. She is deep in enemy territory. But it’s the sacrifice that people like her make, for the cause.
“Kolibri thinks that Able Archer is just an exercise,” Tischbier tells her, with almost zero inflection in his tone. “Thinks that the Americans are just playing games.”
“The Americans are always playing games. Everything is a game to them.”
Tischbier smiles lazily. “You don’t have to remind me. I’m not the one wavering.”
Lenora looks at him sharply. Tischbier meets her gaze evenly. “You think Martin is having doubts?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. He’s not about to defect. But he isn’t committed to doing what needs to be done. If it needs to be done.”
Discussing Martin as if he is just another puzzle piece puts her slightly on edge. He is, after all, her nephew. Lenora has never been one to prioritise sentimentality over necessity, but she doesn’t welcome Tischbier casting aspersions on her own flesh and blood. She changes the subject. “What about the general’s son, Edel?”
The lazy smile widens. “Coming along nicely. It helps that his father seems to be intent on aiding our cause by driving as many spikes between the two of them as possible.”
Lenora knows about Tischbier’s proclivities, of course. She’d be very poor at her job indeed if she didn’t keep herself informed on the private lives of her colleagues. She doesn’t particularly care: who Tobias finds it amusing to scatter his artificial silk affections on makes little difference. She does get a brief, dry laugh out of the fact that while urban legends abounded about good western girls being seduced across the curtain by dashing Soviet spies, no one had dreamt that the same might happen to good western boys.
Tobias is a good agent, an excellent agent. A little bit too excellent perhaps. Lenora isn’t entirely sure what the full extent of his orders are regarding her nephew, and she knows that Tobias most likely thinks qualms are a new type of American candy even as Lenora herself is being reacquainted with the concept of doubt with each new missive from Martin. She only hears the full extent of the debacle with the computer after the fact, and it serves to reinforce the growing notion that the party –at this point it’s becoming the party as much as it is her party, a delicate balance that shifts farther and farther from the possessive as time goes on- is out of its depth.
Late August in the DDR. And in the BRD across the way. Heat spilling over the border. The sun is split between the two Germanys. Lenora stands by the open window of her office in Bonn and wonders if the sun feels different in Berlin.
The Diplomatic Mission in Bonn gets a copy of Neues Deutschland, the party rag, delivered straight to Lenora’s desk. Ridiculous and expensive, to have it shipped out from the east, especially when any really intelligent government agent knows that ND is just a propaganda soapbox with no mind of its own. And yet someone in Berlin has the job of sending each copy Lenora’s way, for her to better read up on her own government positions on the issues of the day. So sometimes she wonders if most of the party really is just simply deluded instead of conniving.
When she hears about her sister’s secret library, she isn’t surprised. Schweppenstette looks at her with what is probably a very piercing gaze but Lenora doesn’t take notice. No, she hadn’t known about the collection of books hidden in Ingrid’s basement. No, Ingrid had never mentioned anything of the sort. Schweppenstette believes her with an ease that is almost upsetting. He knows that the relationship between Lenora and Ingrid is less than intimate.
Lenora had never been Ingrid’s sister in the west, albeit a sister in the west who was still a citizen of the Republic. She had never brought Ingrid silk stockings or Belgian chocolate, much less anything actually illegal. And Ingrid had never asked. Ingrid had never needed a sister in the west: Ingrid had been building everything she needed right in her own home deep in the heart of socialism.
Perhaps if she was a better agent of the state, she would be furious at the idea of her own sister committing such an infraction against the Republic. Maybe once upon a time she would have been furious, but lately Lenora has been-
Well. What was it that Tischbier had said? That Martin wasn’t committed to doing what needed to be done?
In the end, Kolibri is right. Martin is right. The West isn’t going to push the button, there will be no war. Not yet, in any case. The rockets remain in their berths, the planes stay grounded. The German Democratic Republic breathes a rattling breath, and it’s either a sigh of relief or a last gasp, and Lenora doesn’t care for waiting to find out. One cannot be ideological when trying to survive. Let the party twist in the winds blowing from the west.
She really had been in line with it all, once. She had been in the Pioneers and the FDJ, like everyone else, and she had learned by rote all the correct answers when asked the usual questions. Who are we? Who is the enemy? Lenora knew. Everyone knew. But she had also believed it, beyond the drilling and the memorising and the repeating. Lenora hadn’t joined the state on a whim. It had been her state. She hadn’t been entrusted with the important position in Bonn for no reason. Lenora had been sent to Bonn because she could be trusted not to simply walk off into the west, into the proverbial sunset, the moment she arrived. Lenora believed in the socialist future. Had believed. Still believed? It was difficult these days to parse beliefs from desires from necessities. After what had happened with Martin, Lenora had sat in her office and smoked an entire pack of cigarettes each right down to the filters, staring at the passport on her desk and weighing quietly, carefully, everything that she thought and knew.
Dealing with Martin as though her bargaining chip were only his mother, and not her sister as well. When she had come close to screaming at that doctor, encased in white and antiseptic in the tiled ice box of the hospital, Lenora had been forcibly reminded of the kind of person that her job needed her to be.
(Although perhaps it was unfair to put this blame, at least, on the shoulders of the Republic. Lenora had always liked meddling.)
She’s sure that she’d played the greater good card on Martin at least once, but in that moment in the hospital there had only been one East German citizen whom Lenora cared about, lying on the gurney. Ingrid’s skin had been wan and clammy and Lenora had remembered summer holidays on the Ostsee with her family, Ingrid always browning easily under the sun while Lenora only stayed pale and freckled. She had wanted to kill that doctor in Berlin.
The more she thinks about it, the more she’s coming to believe that Tobias will understand, for all his political truths and certainties. He will live and die by their party, and if he was told to and was able to he would drag Lenora back. But he’ll understand. Tobias, after all, knows a thing or two about self-preservation.
Summer is over, well and truly. Winter means the end of the year, and the end of another year for Lenora. Ingrid was born in July and it suits her. But November is the month for Lenora. Cold sinking into the earth, turning the soft summer ground cold and hard.
Ingrid answers all the questions truthfully. No, Lenora hadn’t said anything to her. No, she doesn’t know where her sister may have gone.
And maybe it’s the cold look in Martin’s eyes or just that she still has that influence with Walter, a proverbial sword hanging over her that makes her untouchable to a point, but the state doesn’t bother them again.
It is the thirty-fifth anniversary of their small nation and Ingrid wonders where her sister is. She peels potatoes and doesn’t worry, because worrying about Lenora would have been like worrying about the moon. Ridiculous. Ingrid worries about Martin, she worries about Annett, she even worries about Walter sometimes, because for a man with so many responsibilities and so much power he can be alarmingly naive in ways that make Ingrid want to bite at her upper lip and haul him back from the edge. But she doesn’t worry about Lenora.
She only wonders where she is.
The state must know by now. The East German cultural attaché could not –would not be allowed- to just up and vanish without the Stasi with their steel-grey jackets and their prybar fingers immediately dusting down everything that Lenora had been in proximity to before her disappearance. The state must know. A concept that Ingrid does not find reassuring whatsoever.
Walter is a very clever man, but he is also a bit of an idiot. Ingrid isn’t above using that. She’d built her secret library with Thomas safe in the knowledge that Walter would never allow anything to happen to her for that particular breach of the law. Ingrid isn’t sure if she loves Walter any more. Or perhaps that was the wrong way to put it. She did love him. But she isn’t sure if she was still in love with Walter, or if she ever really had been. When he screams at her across the interrogation table, distress and sleepless nights stark in the lines of his face, Ingrid wonders if he knows that theirs is a relationship of power imbalances. She loves him, she hates him. Walter certainly hates her, even if just a little, but it makes no difference. He is in love with her.
She doesn’t think she is in love with him.
November and Ingrid almost starts writing Lenora a birthday card before remembering that she wouldn’t know how to address it. Days slip by and when the day does come, Ingrid only drinks half a glass of red wine, a silent toast to her silent sister. Wherever she may be.
Ingrid was born in July. A false July, in the same way that all Julys and Junes and Augusts were false: warm days and sun hiding the facts of the matter, namely that Ingrid’s family was living in the unbreathing, unblinking buffer zone between two superpowers.
Ingrid didn’t know this when she was born, of course. She didn’t even know it when she was a girl. Oh, they learned about the party and the Soviets and the Americans, the Americans who hated that people in the DDR were happy and well-fed and free. Ingrid learned about atom bombs and air raids and terrible people across the border who were now working with the Americans against the good communist folk of the Republic. Ingrid learned all this and more, and didn’t understand any of it until much, much later, by which time Lenora had already quietly figured things out for herself and was preparing to climb her way to the top. Ingrid didn’t want to climb to the top. Ingrid decided that she wanted to tunnel her way underneath.
Not out. Ingrid’s parents had known people in Berlin who had taken the S-Bahn from Ostkreuz to Savignyplatz, emerging in West Berlin and vanishing into the west, but by the time Ingrid understood her situation in the DDR, the Wall –the capital letter just came along naturally- had long been a fixture in the loophole city and anyway, Ingrid doesn’t want to leave the DDR. She just wants to build something within it.
The library is a natural occurrence. Ingrid had always loved books.
When she meets Walter the collection is about five volumes. Nothing terribly bad, all frowned upon but not so blacklisted that upon discovery she would be punished by anything more severe than confiscation and a summons to a party speaking event for wayward citizens.
By the time she’s given birth to Walter’s child, the collection of illegal books has grown to fourteen. And Ingrid doesn’t look back from there.
Funny, that the reason why Walter could never have been a father for Martin was the party –clashes of personalities aside, it all came down to the party in the end, as did most things in the DDR- and it was the party that made it possible for her not to need Walter for Martin. The party ate Walter up, and gave Ingrid playgroups to care for Martin while she went to work. Something ironic about that, she thinks. But nothing worth analysing. Her world is not literature: there is no deeper meaning to the twists and turns that pepper her path. They just happen.
For the most part her life is fairly ordinary. Like so many, Ingrid doesn’t take much notice of the machinations and maelstroms that whip around their little country. But her connection to Lenora brings her a little bit closer, and the brushes that she has with the kind of people who actively seek to engender the chaos brewing in the east and the west are worrying, to say the least. She already knows that Lenora loves to meddle. She had grown up with Lenora, forever prodding at things that she shouldn’t, turning over stones to see if there were any secrets underneath. And she’d known what- well, she hadn’t known what Walter was. That she’d discovered later. But the point is, Ingrid knows some of these people.
But to tell the truth, Ingrid is more frightened of people like Annett: that blind, burning, naive loyalty –fanaticism- was far more worrying than Lenora’s brand of calculated obedience. She loves Annett, of course she does. How could she not? Martin loves Annett, the mother of his child and Ingrid’s grandchild, but there is a danger in her that Ingrid cannot ignore. Annett likely believed that she was genuinely doing the right thing, condemning Thomas to the mercy of the party. Lenora, on the other hand, had always known that mercy wasn’t included in the SED’s platform.
Oh, Lenora had been fanatical once. Ingrid remembers. In school, the blue shirts of the FDJ always immaculately tucked in, raising the flag on the playground. But she had traded fanaticism in for ambition long before reaching Annett’s age. Annett was the type to go running to tell the teacher. Lenora would have gone straight to blackmail.
And you knew where you stood with Lenora, Ingrid thinks. She had a shifting morality that was infinitely, brutally rational. The best possible outcome was, in Lenora’s eyes, always achievable in a clear-cut utilitarian sense. You could get a second chance with Lenora’s type of devotion to the party. You could always turn informant. Give up your accomplices. Set a trap for others behind you. Lenora would take any class enemy, any western infiltrator, any doubter within the borders of the DDR and turn them into a tool. Anyone could work for the party, it was all a matter of finding the right leverage.
But Annett? Annett had gone right to Walter without even stopping to think. Uncritical, unconditional. That was far more dangerous than Lenora’s manipulations. It struck without warning, with rhyme or reason. Ingrid doubts that Annett had ever questioned whether the SED really was the final arbitrator of universal justice and morality. For her, it just was.
Annett. Lenora. Walter. Why did the people she loved tend to be so awful? Martin, she supposes. Martin was good. He had always been a sweet boy. Martin had looked into the lives they lived and the things they did and unlike Lenora who had seen opportunity or Walter who had seen some sort of ideological victory, Martin had come back with dark rings under his eyes and a sadness that Ingrid knew only too well.
But Lenora had left. Lenora, who had walked into the west and firmly stayed an extension of their grey little state, had left. Ingrid thinks that she’s rather proud of her. Furious, of course, in the way of relations who don’t get Christmas cards, that Lenora had slipped off without even a whisper, but then again, whispers were the business of the Stasi, and the Stasi would certainly be less than pleased with what Lenora had done. She had almost forgiven her sister for what she had done to Martin, because Ingrid has done things as well, terrible things, perhaps not for an abstract concept like the state but for closer things, bloodier things, things like mothers and sons and devastatingly clever professors with awful obligations.
An abstract concept. Things that Ingrid cannot concern herself with, but that’s why she has her sister. Between the two of them, Lenora deals with concrete, Ingrid deals with blood. They had always been different. Not opposites and not complements, but contrasts. They had played together in the garden as children and hadn’t fought, but had never seen eye to eye, either. Ingrid remembers playing with Lenora and always feeling as though she was playing by herself.
It is winter in East Germany, and Ingrid wonders where her sister is.