Am Nordufer



Our paths crossed, again, as I was walking along the canal on a silent Sunday morning of mid November. The temperature had dropped overnight but was not yet at freezing point. The little man greeted me with a toothy smile, to which I politely responded. I knew of him for one of the multitude of minor demons that populate this city, largely innocuous, albeit one couldn’t tell for certain. We had met before, and I was a little intrigued to see him here, of all places, a hardly popular meeting place, squeezed between the industrial area east of the canal, and the deserted streets bordering the edge of the kiez.

“Are you enjoying the city at its quietest?” he enquired cheerfully. 

“Indeed, most adults are having brunch, or considering it, and the younger are probably still fast asleep after a night on the town!” I replied, half absent minded about the question. 

“You are right, this is a good time to enjoy the city, and forgotten places such as this… Or indeed our many beautiful cemeteries…”

I was surprised. I had taken an interest in the many small cemeteries to be found in all neighbourhoods, in the beautiful trees often planted there, and in some of the most intriguing old graves. But how would he have known of my interest? I decided silence was best.

“Have you been to the one on Turner road? The grounds there are beautifully kept…”

The street was on my way to the school, and I walked there twice a week during term. How did he know, or was it just a coincidence? In the summer I had stopped there a couple of times to look at the small stones of the soldiers’ grave in one corner of the cemetery, left of the entrance. Most civilian cemeteries in the city have a military corner, with graves from the two world wars, or their aftermath. 

It was time to counter-attack.

“Of course you know all these places of old, don’t you?” I said rather abruptly. “After all, you and your colleagues have not much else to do than visit, time and again?” He did not appear shocked by my statement. His smile was just a little more of a rictus, but he corrected himself quickly.

“We… I am busier than you seem to think, Herr Dupuis. We contribute much to the city’s knowledge of itself. Sometime the authorities don’t even notice, for example, the interest that someone like you, a valuable visitor, shows for these things, old streets, old churches, isolated parks… In fact, Herr Dupuis, by now you know more about it than many of its (younger) inhabitants!”

We were walking in the direction of the bridge and I was mulling over my companion’s story. Contributing to the city’s knowledge of itself? What did he mean by that? But, again, he was changing the subject.

“I see you wrote again about an interview with the one you call the “good doctor”… An intriguing name, from someone of your persuasion, I mean political persuasion!” I was lost. What could he possibly know about my political views? And how could he know about my writing?

The “good doctor”? Was this creature getting too personal? I was tempted to give him a shove toward  the water. But he continued.

“I enjoyed reading that interview. You understand a lot about our city Herr Dupuis. I think you are… transmuting, may I say, into one of us. But one of the old guard, if you know what I mean…” I did not and was getting somewhat annoyed by the turn of the conversation.

He must have sensed this.

“Ha… It’s getting late for me, and I must not take advantage of your kindness, Herr Dupuis. Einen schönen Sonntag noch! Au revoir maintenant!” He’d already disappeared. 

I resumed my walk. There were a few joggers around, and the odd dog walker. I had written about the interview on my blog, so that creature must have read it. I was being read, observed, I was the object of “their” attention. What did they report to their boss?

Picture: das Nordufer,

#DiaryOfAWriter – May 13: a cycle ride

The rain stopped on Friday, leaving time for the roads to dry a little. This morning an immaculate blue sky welcomes me: a call for the open road. Just after  8am I am getting the bike ready: this ritual is soothing, and a good prelude to warming up on the pedals. First checking the tyres’ pressure, the level of the saddle, the bar alignment, the side bags, and their content: the small tools, the spare tube, the lock, and finally I am ready to pack the water bottle, the phone and the identity papers, just in case I end up squashed and crushed like a snail on the tarmac. Shoes on, helmet, gloves, last look at the gear, yes a touch of grease on the chain, and off I go.

Before 9am the motorised hordes are not yet away from the breakfast table: a good ride on the main road, to the round-about taking me to that beautiful little village, the old bridge, the lovely pub that would be noisy and crowded a few hours later… On the brow of the little hill, just before turning off to the small road, I am overtaken by a couple of much younger cyclists, all black-clad, riding super-duper road bikes… I take my old bear across the road and turn off into the poetically named Knatts Valley Road. Very quickly I am out of the village, on a narrow and still wet country road: on both sides small hills overlook the hedges, in a mix of sharp green and violent yellow colours. The sky is beautifully blue, the air fresh and clean. The legs are getting into the rhythm, a welcome change to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the gym.

Soon the road follows small woods, the occasional farms, and there is no traffic. After ten minutes a girl runner comes towards me, waves, I wave back and continue, nearly regretting not to have taken the camera to seize some of the scenery. I left home less than an hour ago, and this looks like deep countryside! I ride pass a few beautiful houses, some decidedly old, of Edwardian or older architecture. My imagination is beginning to free-wheel.  A large 4×4 drives past, at a good speed, but the driver leaves a large enough space for this fragile rider. The road is indeed fairly narrow, just enough space for one car and one bike. There is a small hill and I stay in high gear deliberately: good training for those legs (not that I have any Olympic ambition, please believe me)… Around the bend is a small hamlet. And then a long stretch without any building.

Then, perhaps a kilometre or so after the hamlet, I see the house, apparition half hidden by a stone wall, overlooked by tall trees. I feel like stopping, perhaps prompted by a need to drink water, and also by an irrepressible curiosity. I stop, stand the bike safely against the wall, and armed with my water bottle I walk towards the gate. This is a massive wood construct, and it is half open, enough to let me in through the massive wall: and curiosity trumps my usual reluctance to trespass, I walk into a paved front yard. The house is old, probably much older than the ones I rode past earlier. It is Sunday morning, but there is no vehicle in the yard. I look up, there is one floor, and the windows appear dark although the façade is bathed in sunlight. The front door opens: a svelte young woman appears at the top of the steps, smiles and asks me how “they” can help. Bemused I say something about cool water, gesturing to my bottle, and starts an apology for the trespass. She laughs, the crystalline laugh of a very young person. She must be in her twenties at most, a pale elven face framed by very dark shiny hair masking her gaze, she wears a long grey frock that falls all the way to her bare feet. “Come in, the others are waiting in the kitchen” she says – and, puzzled, I follow her. What others? She turns towards me, as we progress along a long corridor between white-washed walls and dark lintels. “Don’t look so surprised” she smiles, her long hair obscuring her face, as she let me in into a huge old-fashion kitchen. The ceiling is low, the stone walls are decorated by bright copper pans of various sizes. From a huge chimney a wooden fire lit the space: at a long solid wooden table sit four people: a man and three women. Contrary to the elven princess who let me in, those four I recognise well, and I cannot hide my amazement. The man says: “Welcome to our place, we were hoping you’d find your way here on such a beautiful morning. You remember Sarah, Jane and Melissa of course, and I guess you don’t need me to introduce myself. But you did not know Ruth, and we thought it was best for you to meet her first: a promise of a new future, as it were.” Julian adds the last sentence with a smile, and invites me to sit at the table. There is fresh apple juice in a carafe on the table, and Ruth serves me a generous tall glass. I smile and thank her. Then, for the first time, I see her light green eyes, and I shiver a little. Follows a few minutes of silent peace. I drink some cool juice, suddenly happy to be here with them

Julian then says:

“The four of us have been talking for sometime. Sarah prompted us to act, whenever the opportunity would arise. And then Ruth said it was high time you took notice of her. She’s impatient to come alive…” he adds turning towards Ruth who sits, demure, hands crossed on the table, and gives me a smile to shatter an army. “You see, continues Julian, we realise you got yourself into trouble… because of us. For example, you got into a real pickle with me being in love with my sister!” “Yes, intervenes Jane, with uncharacteristic audacity, there is nothing ambiguous between us, Julian and me, we do appreciate each other but there is not a shade of anything deeper”. “Moreover, starts Sarah, you left me in the lurch with Julian ill, his sister, here, clinging to me, and then Melissa standing on her beach, probably catching a cold!!” They laugh, and I laugh. “Of course, resumes Julian, it’s not just us – your characters – it’s also you, as the writer, getting just too close, not taking some distance, wanting to rationalise things back to your own reality, or your view of it.” “For example, observed Sarah, suddenly grave, I am not quite myself according to you, more like a shadow of your own wife, I think she said that herself didn’t she? But I am not your wife you know, I am Julian’s wife. I know there is, how shall we say? some lineage, but some important differences too, and I am my own woman. You are not Julian either, are you?” I acquiesce, silently. Melissa’s voice then rises: “You cannot use us solely to exorcise your own demons, your readers will get bored, and your story line will get lost in the sands of your own psyche. Take me for example: I am supposed to come back to haunt Julian, but I feel I am haunting you, you seem to try to avoid any contact with me, literary speaking, and it’s a great shame.” I thought  about this for a while. They are silent now. The fire burns brightly. I notice the high windows, showing trees and what looks like an old cemetery. Then Ruth speaks: “We, your characters, including myself who you had not met until today, want to help, but you have also to help yourself. No more introspection, no more self-indulgent returns to your past. We are real, as far as fictional characters can be, we have a life of our own. So, from now on, don’t try to rationalise everything, let us play, live the way we want. And you will find things taking  a far better, easier shape.” She smiles directly at me, and I feel overwhelmed.

For some minutes, or is it longer? I look at the walls, the deep dark colour of the wooden table, at the sunlight filtering through the windows coloured glass… and then I realise they have gone. I am alone in this beautiful old kitchen, the chimney is full of ashes… and yet, I feel elated. I find my way back, the corridor where Ruth guided me. The front yard is inundated by sunshine. The door closes behind me as I walk through the gate, which I carefully shut, and get back on the bike.

I follow the old road, past farms and country houses, and at the junction take the well known road through woods and gardens which I love so much in the summer, because of the shade. At home, after the delicious shower, I start working. Green eyes are looking over the page.