Ice cold, p.5

Ice Cold, page 5


Ice Cold

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  On one of those nights of full moon, she woke to see her grandmother sitting by the window. There she sat in only her nightie and her knitted bed jacket, staring at the moon. Kathie, curled up in bed and afraid, kept staring at the old woman and didn’t know what to do. When she told her mother about it, Mama only said, ‘Let her be, she’ll go back to bed when she feels cold. She’s tough, she won’t catch her death in a hurry.’

  But one December night death caught Grandma. It’s four years ago now. Kathie slipped into bed with her. That evening the old woman’s body seemed even bonier than usual. Kathie lay very close to her; it was an icy cold December night. A night of frost. Even as she fell asleep she heard her grandmother’s cough, heard her heavy breathing rattle in her throat. It was almost morning when Kathie woke up. She felt cold, she’d been shivering, she put an arm out to Grandma, wanting to cuddle up to her. Only then did she realize how strangely cold and still her grandmother lay there in bed. She listened for her breathing, but however hard she strained her ears there was no sound to be heard. It was perfectly quiet in their bedroom. Kathie got out of bed and ran barefoot downstairs to her mother. And it was her mother who told her the old woman was dead. She doesn’t remember what happened next, only that she saw her grandmother lying in her coffin in her best clothes. And that she, Kathie, had wondered why Grandma wasn’t wearing any shoes. She wore her grey woolly socks in the coffin, but no shoes. In her black Sunday dress, hands folded over the rosary on her breast, she looked as if she were asleep. The grey woolly socks have stuck in Kathie’s mind to this day, and she also remembers that she wanted to leave the village. Go away and lead another life, not the kind of life that Grandma had lived and the one that her mother was living.

  And she feels hands on her shoulder again, feels as if they’re large and heavy. She wakes with a start and doesn’t see Anna until Anna speaks to her. It’s already after three, and Kathie was fast asleep when Anna came into the room. She’d better get up quickly, Anna’s in a hurry, she says, it’s urgent. She wants to go and see Mitzi with Kathie, and after that to the Wiesn.

  ‘It’s silly to sit about indoors in this lovely weather.’

  Kathie is still sleepy, but glad to get out of the apartment all the same. She hasn’t known what to do all day, alone in Munich like this. She puts her coat on quickly, and her shoes, and then they go over to Mitzi’s on this fine, warm late summer’s day. The air is mild, so she hasn’t done her coat up, she’s left it open, she has her little blue hat on her head, she’s strolling through Munich with Anna. To Mariahilfplatz, where Mitzi lives.

  Kathie stops at every shop window they pass, looks in, just to see herself reflected in the panes in the sunlight. To see herself with her coat unbuttoned and the little blue hat on her head.

  Mitzi lives next to the grocer’s shop behind the church. The wording over the shop says Bombay Groceries. Kathie looks closely at the shop sign and reads it before they go into the building. Kathie likes Mitzi’s apartment. It’s light, and in the city centre. As she sits there waiting for Mitzi to be ready, she looks around the apartment. Furnishes it in her mind. Decides she’ll have a little apartment like this some day. She asks Mitzi how expensive an apartment like this is, and what kind of work does she do, to be able to afford such a pretty place?

  Anna answers for Mitzi. ‘Mitzi here is an embroideress. But you can’t afford a place like this just by doing embroidery. It’s her fiancé pays the rent. A fine gentleman from Gelsenkirchen. He has a little business and comes to Munich twice a year. Our Mitzi knows how to fix these things. You want to look for a fiancé too, you’ll never afford a place like this working as a maid. You’d have to watch every penny. And here in Munich, well, Hans looks after her. You just have to keep your eyes open and maybe you’ll find someone to pay for an apartment for you too, someone to look after you. You’d have a pretty good chance with Hans, and maybe something even better will turn up.’ So saying, she winks at Mitzi and they both laugh. But Kathie has got the point. Who knows, maybe something would come of this apartment idea sooner or later? Anyway, she’s imagining herself in her own apartment. She’d have room at last, not like at home.

  ‘What are you looking like that for? Ooh, look, our Kathie’s miles away!’ The voices and laughter have brought her out of her thoughts. Back to Mitzi’s kitchen at the table with the oilcloth cover. Anna is sitting on the chair opposite, still laughing at her. ‘Come along, get a move on, we’re off to visit Mitzi’s sister Gustl in hospital, and after that we’re going to the Wiesn.’

  So they set off, Anna, Kathie and Mitzi, on their way to Thalkirchnerstrasse.

  It says DERMATOLOGY on the door of the hospital department. Kathie has no idea what that means, she just follows the other two into the ward where Gustl is lying. There are six of them in the ward. The separate beds are divided from each other by curtains, most of them not drawn. The curtain round Gustl’s bed is open too. Mitzi’s sister lies in bed, very sick. She looks white, almost translucent, and weak. Her hair is thin and sparse although she’s still a young woman. Kathie thinks she can’t even be in her mid-twenties, although she has an old woman’s face. She complains of the hospital food. And the strictness of the nursing nuns, they treat you like dirt, those preachy ladies, as Gustl disparagingly calls them. Mitzi secretly slips her a few cigarettes, asks when she can come again, that’s if Gustl would like her to, and then visiting hours are over. Kathie is glad to get out of the hospital into the open again, the air in that ward almost stifled her.

  They go straight from Thalkirchnerstrasse to the Wiesn, and it’s an even nicer afternoon there. They’re in the beer tent, where they meet a few men who invite them to have a bite to eat, and they go on the swingboats and to the shooting ranges too.

  It must be about seven when they arrive at the Soller inn with their companions. It’s at Soller’s that Anna tells her the story of Mitzi’s sister. How Gustl had been going out with an artist. A well-known artist here in Munich. Gustl had been ever so pretty, not the picture of misery she is today. She worked as an artist’s model, or, as she was always saying, his Muse. Anna twisted her lips and sounded sarcastic as she uttered the word ‘Muse’. They really lived it up at the parties that fine gentleman gave. Or at least, that’s what Gustl told Mitzi. Anna was ready to believe those stories, though she’d never been to the parties, but she’d heard things. Mitzi had told her about the parties, and she, Mitzi, had it from her sister. Gustl never showed her face here at Soller’s. Why would she want to come to a place like this? She moved in very different circles. And those fine artists, they were partying all the time. Seems the bubbly flowed freely at those parties. Seems they had money and to spare. Not like the poor starving sods here at Soller’s. As for that artist of Gustl’s, he was very peculiar. Used to go about stark naked wearing just a feather.

  ‘Just a feather, think of that, and guess where he wore it? Up his arse! Up his arse! Really perverted, seems he wore feathers in his arse like a peacock. Well, that’s what Mitzi says, but he paid well. He always put the money under the bedspread. Only coins. That’s what those artists are like, they think up funny ideas, they don’t just put the cash down for you. He used to count it out coin by coin in the bed, put the sheet over it, and Mitzi’s sister had to lie on top of it. Acting as if she didn’t know her fee was under the sheet. That got him tremendously excited, and afterwards, when she counted the money, he wanted to watch that too. Well, everyone has their funny little ways. They lived it up, they really did. She was always laughing at us, she had money, and he took her travelling with him – until she caught syphilis. Poor thing. There she is in Thalkirchner-strasse, in the Dermatology department. You saw what she looks like now. Her hair’s all fallen out, she looks like an old woman. That artist had other Muses too, and guess how quickly his prick drooped! He dumped her just like that. No more feathers, no more bubbly.’

  Hans is at Soller’s too, he thinks it’s a very funny story. Says he guesses ‘that artist fellow thought h
imself cock of the walk’, and Hans crows like a rooster, again and again. They laugh, Hans, Anna and Kathie, laugh until the tears run down their cheeks.

  But in the course of the evening they forget all about the story. A blond man comes into Soller’s and sits down by Kathie, asking if the place next to her is free. Kathie doesn’t say no. She likes the blond man, she makes eyes at him, and he smiles at her. Is she new here? He’s never seen her here before, though he comes to Soller’s almost every day. He teases her, and as she’s hungry she lets him buy her a meal; after all, she’s had nothing hot to eat all day, only that snack on the Wiesn and a mug of coffee.

  Around midnight Anna leaves, and Kathie goes with her. The blond man accompanies them for a bit, says he’s going their way. So they all arrive back in Ickstattstrasse together.


  I remember the day I met the girl very clearly. It was 29 September 1938. A Thursday. The day when Mussolini came to Munich. Not a thing I’d be likely to forget. My wife wanted to go into town, see the Duce. ‘You don’t get to see him every day, and with a bit of luck we’ll see him driving towards the Feldherrenhalle in the open car.’ My Lisbeth was wild about the Duce, said she absolutely had to see him. ‘Such a fine-looking man.’ I’d have liked to go into town with her too, but I couldn’t. That was the day I had to stand in for my mate Zimmermann. Zimmermann was due to give a talk to the people on the air-raid precautions course. He’d been an ambulance man in the war, same as me. But then he was sick for a while, so I stepped in for him. My Lisbeth was a bit cross because I couldn’t go with her, but still, she went to town on her own. By train, in the morning. There were one or two things she had to do, she was going to meet her cousin and then spend the evening with her, just in case it all went on late. I had the day off because originally I’d been going to Munich too. And I still had some holiday due to me, so the trip to Munich would have been a nice idea.

  The 29th was another lovely summer’s day, and I didn’t want to spend my day off sitting around at home on my own. I went for a bike ride in the morning. First I went to the station with my Lisbeth, and then I went straight on to Hohenpeissenberg to see an old friend who used to work with me. It’s a nice ride from where we live, just right for a day’s outing.

  I spent the day with my old friend. He’s retired already, his wife died not long ago, so mostly he’s alone. That’s the way the world goes. We went into the garden and drank coffee there, because like I said, it was lovely weather that day. His daughter, she lives nearby, she’d baked a cake with plum topping specially. We had a good time. It’ll have been around four in the afternoon when I started home. I had to go to the air-raid precautions course in the evening and give that talk, and I wanted to look through the notes Zimmermann had given me first.

  So I cycled back to Peissenberg along the main road. It must have been around kilometre-stone 50 when I saw the woman. She was lying there a few metres ahead of me, right on top of the tree-trunks stacked to the right of the carriageway. I didn’t even have to get off my bike to see the girl was completely exhausted.

  I know about these things, you see, I was in an ambulance unit in the war, so I can judge that kind of condition. I don’t know how many people I saw at the time, exhausted like that. Must have been dozens, if not hundreds.

  The girl’s bicycle was lying at the side of the road next to her. At least, I assumed it was hers, because there wasn’t another soul in sight anywhere. There was a cardboard box on the carrier of the bike. I’d say it was about 45 by 30 centimetres. I remember that cardboard box because I was surprised it hadn’t slipped off the carrier when she let the bike fall in the grass. Can’t remember what colour it was now, no, only seeing the box still there on the carrier.

  So I got off my own bicycle and went over to the girl. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked her. ‘Are you feeling ill? Is there anything I can do for you?’ She said, ‘No, thank you, everything’s all right, I just feel so terribly tired.’

  I asked if she’d fallen off her bike or had an accident. But she wouldn’t accept any help. ‘No, thanks, I’m fine, just so, so tired,’ she repeated.

  Well, what would you have done? I wasn’t going to leave the girl alone there, I couldn’t, not with her in that state. So I asked where she’d come from.


  Had she come straight from Steingarden? ‘No, from Füssen,’ she told me.

  ‘For heaven’s sake, you must already have cycled nearly fifty-five kilometres today. Where were you making for?’


  ‘You can’t possibly get there, not in your present state. It’s another thirty kilometres or so from here to Starnberg, maybe thirty-five. You must drink something. Do you have anything to drink with you?’


  ‘Well, you have to drink something, child, and have a bite to eat too. A little thing like you!’

  I mean, tell me honestly, how could I leave her alone in that state? Not the way she was, there at the side of the road. So I persuaded her to let me go with her part of the way. I picked her bicycle up, and we pushed the bikes along side by side. I wouldn’t let her ride hers, she was so exhausted. So I took the short cut through the woods with her. By the time we came out again on the old state highway, she was strong enough to get on her bike again. We cycled on together to Peissenberg.

  On the way I talked to her. She told me she was going to look for a job in Munich. Her home was in Unterellegg, near Sonthofen in the Allgäu. She had a sister in Munich, she said, a married sister who lived in Sendling, and another sister who had moved to Munich quite recently and was getting married soon. She was going to visit both her sisters, and she was taking the bicycle to one of them, because it really belonged to her, the sister. That’s why she was travelling by bike and not on the train, on account of taking the bike to her sister in Munich. And she wanted to go to her younger sister’s wedding. Her mother was coming to the wedding in Munich as well, and they’d meet up there.

  When I said it would have been more sensible to come by train and take the bicycle as luggage, all she said was, ‘I can’t afford the train, by myself or with the bike. I’d have had to borrow the money. Anyway, I cycled to Munich once before, so it came in really useful that I could go on my sister’s bike. If only that horrible man hadn’t followed me on his bicycle at Steingarden, I wouldn’t have been all out of breath like that. He rode along beside me all the time, and he kept trying to look under my skirt. I was scared he might pull me off my bike. I’m not having any of that, I thought, and I cycled like crazy until I was sure he wasn’t following me any more.’

  So finally, when we reached Peissenberg, I said she could come home with me, freshen up a bit and stay the night if she liked. It would surely be better for her to have a rest, I said. But she refused, she said she really had to cycle on to Starnberg today.

  I felt sorry for her, so I gave her ten pfennigs for something from the bakery. ‘Since it seems that’s all I can do for you,’ I told her. She was glad to accept the ten-pfennig piece. She went into the shop, and I waited outside with the bikes. When she came out, she asked me if I could lend her a little more money, she’d like to buy some sausage from the butcher’s shop too. So I gave her another thirty-five pfennigs for some sliced cold meat. She said she’d never met anyone as kind as me, she didn’t know how to thank me. I asked her again if she wouldn’t change her mind. ‘The offer’s still open,’ I said, ‘you could stay the night with me.’ But she shook her head again and said no, she really did want to go on. She’d easily do the thirty-five kilometres now she’d had something to eat.

  So we went on a little further together, and I said goodbye to her outside my place. I stood outside the door for a while, watching her cycle off. Then I went indoors. It must have been nearly six o’clock, and I had to look through the notes for my talk. It was getting late.

  What did she look like? All I know for sure is she was wearing a green raincoat and a dirndl dress. Her hair? Oh
, her hair was bobbed, know what I mean? It suited her thin face. All things considered I’d say she was a pretty girl.

  It was getting late now. She didn’t remember Munich being quite such a long way off. When she cycled there five years ago, the same stretch of road had seemed far shorter. Had she been wrong? And she hadn’t been nearly as tired and exhausted as she was today. Of course, if that man in Steingarden hadn’t followed her she could have paced her strength much better. But she’d cycled as if the Devil himself were after her, and just before reaching Peissen-berg she simply couldn’t go on. Everything went black in front of her eyes, and she found it hard to catch her breath. Her lungs were short of air. She hadn’t eaten all day either. She was exhausted, so she sat down on the tree-trunks at the side of the road in the sunlight. But after a while even sitting was too tiring, so she simply lay down. She very nearly fell asleep, she was so tired, she’d closed her eyes and was listening to her own breathing.

  She’d slept at her auntie’s in Füssen last night. She cycled away straight after breakfast, at four in the morning. She’d borrowed two marks for the journey, but in the end she didn’t buy anything to eat with the money.

  Lying there like that, gradually getting her breath back, she never noticed the man. And when he spoke to her so suddenly and unexpectedly she was really alarmed at first. He was getting on in years a bit, he wore plus-fours. He asked in a kind, attentive way if there was anything wrong, had she had an accident, did she need his help, all that soft soap. At first she wished he’d simply go away and leave her alone. But then she remembered the horrible man in Steingarden, and she was glad he was there and would go with her part of the way.

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