Henry Miller had written about his city, and Francis Lenôtre too had known happy days in his birthplace. The street was calm, a few children were playing near the school, a familiar sight. Francis closed the door, turned slowly round holding his light suitcase in a firm hand. The metro station was ten minutes walk from his apartment, a well trodden path he had followed many times in the thirty years he’d lived there.
A short and wiry man, in his early sixties, he still projected a sense of energy and strength, and the attentive face of a fit, mature man, at ease in the lecture room as much as in the training room. Today, his first stop would be the Gare de l’Est, where he would catch the afternoon high speed train to Berlin. The journey would take six hours, with a fifteen minutes stop in Frankfurt. He would have plenty of time to read the brief for the literature conference he would be attending two days later, to polish his own paper, and perhaps he would even be lucky enough to catch Myriam, his ex-wife, on her busy schedule.
In front of the town hall he noted the new graffiti on the wall of the old party local office, and the hate symbols freshly painted from the previous night. The day before he had read several articles describing the explosive situation in the East, the coastal cities, and western Ukraine. The internet was awash with speculations and warnings of an impending war, of the next move by the powerful Eurasian Federation, and of the neutral silence that was now a feature of US diplomacy. He boarded an almost deserted underground train, and soon he arrived at his destination.
As he entered the station, Francis reflected that, at a time when high speed trains were finally replacing internal European flights for the greater common good, rail stations looked more and more like the previous century’s airports: Mammon temples. A patrol of four soldiers led by an NCO marched past him, as he was checking the news panel. The NCO’s beret revealed an elegantly shaped feminine nape, and a young face with beautiful dark eyes. He was already walking to the gate, then boarded his coach, found this seat, and checked for messages. He had tried to contact Myriam since he knew for certain he would attend the conference. He always told her what he was doing, and where he was going, a habit of ten years of marriage he had not abandoned. Of course, he was never sure of where she was, since the compliment was rarely returned. To his mind, it did not matter, as it was still his duty to ensure she knew where he was, in the unlikely but still possible event that she would need him. Francis logged his pad to the train network, and accessed the conference site, checked the timetable of speakers.
The subject of the conference was “fiction and reality in the days of neutrality”. This was a clear reference to the situation of writers, now that the East-West old rivalries had finally been made all but obsolete by the newly elected US president’s unilateral and popular decision, five years earlier, to return his country to near isolationism, declare neutrality, remove his troops and most of his diplomats from Europe, quit the Alliance military wing, as well as withdraw from all but a few of the now useless overseas bases. Authors, who had long thrived on stories of Middle-eastern wars and western special forces heroics, were now high and dry, like their predecessors spy hunters at the end of the Cold War. But western Europe was holding forth, in the shape of a resurgent, and, occasionally, vociferous German conservative government, that had taken again the mantle of defender of the “free world”, whatever that now meant for the Alliance.
As his train was leaving the Paris conurbation at accelerating speed, Francis checked his pad again for messages. Myriam was, as ever, silent. On one of the Eurasian Federation news sites he followed, Francis noticed a recent post describing the violence and racism of some groups in one of the coastal countries. The author claimed that no amount of Alliance armour or ex-US fighter jets would soon protect those thugs from a just punishment. The tone was patriotic but calm, and Francis wondered whether the blogger was writing for herself, or inspired by some officious source. Some news channels reported movements of Alliance troops close to the Federation border. The day before, the chancellor had made an uncompromising speech in the Bundestag, affirming that the Republic would stand by its allies, and the “common European values”. But who counts now as her “allies”, thought Francis, and as for “values”…
Half empty at the departure in Paris Est, the train filled up in Frankfurt, a mix load of passengers including military personnel travelling east on duty, business travellers like him, and families. The journey to Berlin would only take now two hours, which Francis intended to use to polish his speech. His subject was a humoristic comparison between John Le Carré and a fictional young writer who had achieved some fame singing the praise of the old intelligence services, champions of freedom, before neutrality set in, and this genre became quaint and, finally, irrelevant. He meant to contrast the spirit of Le Carré’s writing, denouncing the elites’s collusion with forces of evil, as in the “Constant Gardener”, and the early Cold War Smiley’s novels, with the total adhesion of some recent authors to the myths of the “War on Terror”, the threats to civilisation and the glory of its heroic defenders, reflecting, in his view, the subservience of many of these youngsters to a crumbling order. Francis expected a moderate approval in response to his thesis, at best. Did he care? In a sense he did, as he was still of the old school, who believed in a role for literature in the business of living, and therefore, politics. His invitation to the conference had been from an old acquaintance in the german publishing world. He’d accepted for the sake of old time, and for the opportunity this gave him to be back in Berlin.
As the forested landscape of central Germany flew past the Intercity window, Francis reflected on the events of the past decade, and on his own life. His wife Myriam had divorced him ten years ago, and they had since remained “friends”. Myriam, born in Tel-Aviv in the 80’s, from a jewish observant American mother and a French entrepreneur father (entrepreneur in what, Francis had never known for certain), was attractive, sure of herself, and determined to have everything her way. Even to have him, Francis, whom she’d married, first and foremost, to prove to herself that she could master the art of being a wife, and, secondly, have a son from a man she could respect. Their son, Philip, gifted with his father’s charm and his mother’s determination and looks, was now starting in his career as architect.
The marriage had not lasted more than ten years, which Francis thought, at the time, was an achievement in itself. Myriam was unfaithful, openly, and seriously so, compared with his own infidelities, a very successful business woman, who rapidly tired of their life together in his old-fashioned suburb, even though, in the later years of their marriage, she did not spend there more than two or three months in the year. She now lived in London, with a lucrative job as a private financial consultant to high net-worth individuals, or to the façade companies that shielded them from preying eyes. Their meetings were far apart, but not so infrequent for them not to get a little closer, occasionally. Philip had decided, after Oxford, to live close to his mother, and mother and son shared a spacious penthouse in the East End.
They were now approaching the marches of Saxony. Francis checked his pad: he had a message from Philip who said that his mother would call him once he’d arrived in Berlin; but, of course, he reflected, this had to mean she wanted him to call her then. Memories came back to him of Myriam and him in Berlin, before their divorce, one of the happy trips away from France, which had found them once again in love, and in love with the city. The city of Faust. They had even, briefly, considered living there, exploring Brandenburg, visiting Poland, perhaps even Russia…
They’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, all glass and steel. Francis checked the time, packed his pad: it looked like a warm late afternoon in Berlin, so he would walk to his hotel on Friedrichstraße. He enjoyed the walk, past the chancellery, along the river bank and the Reichstag, and Unter den Linden. When he reached his hotel he found a message from the conference organisers: the start of the conference was to be delayed by a couple of days since delegates from Eastern countries – did this refer to Poland? – were experiencing travel disruption. He was to call the organisers’ information desk the next day to get a new schedule. It crossed his mind that he wouldn’t mind spending a little longer here: nothing was urgently requiring his return to Paris, and he knew where to rent working space, if needed. When he tried and called Myriam, to his surprise, he found the network congested. He unpacked, and decided to take a stroll to Gendarmenmarkt before dinner.
The old square, and the two churches, were a nostalgic spot for him, where he had often stood and watched the crowds, the demonstrators holding various nationalities flags and symbols, the balloons sellers, the bubble blowers, the tourists in summer dresses. The square in this early evening was crowded; he noticed various flags, but there was no confrontation. Several trucks of black-clad city police were parked along the eastern side of the square, at a distance. The mood was somewhat more subdued than he remembered, but his last stay here was back four years. His walk took him past an Austrian restaurant he remembered he had, almost in another life, appreciated. The interior was cosy and light, the waitress smiled at him and asked what his accent was. Am I losing my Berliner? He asked himself, a little puzzled. But then the waitress was not German, unless she came from a remote germanic tribe in the Far East, for neither could he identify her own accent. He ordered a generous salad and half a bottle of Austrian red.
It was then that his phone rang, with the hallmark tone of the lady Myriam. She wanted to know how long he was planning to stay in Berlin. She’d heard some noises of panzers close to the Polish-Federation border. But this wouldn’t deter her to come to meet him in Berlin, if he did not mind, and stay a little. No, he did not mind, in fact, he said, it would be nice to see Berlin now, with her, and perhaps they could discuss the situation then. She laughed: ever the talkative type, Francis! She said she would call back once she had sorted her flights. Flights, plural, of course, he thought. But he was delighted. What could be more agreeable than the company of his best friend?
In the lobby of his hotel, a group of American tourists were watching the news. Columns of armour were following a long motorway, viewed far away from the air. The colours or flags were not visible. Where was this? He would read a little, then turn off.
Viktoria Park I © 2017 Honoré Dupuis
Photography: Gendarmenmarkt, Eigenwerk–