Emma Venables recently completed her PhD in Creative Writing and Practice-based Research at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently putting the finishing touches to her first novel, which explores the experiences of German women in Nazi Germany. She is a Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Gull is proud to present her short story Father.
I grip onto the wall as if it might crumble like the sandcastles I used to build, on trips to the Müggelsee, under his watchful eye. I stand on my tiptoes. The pipe beneath my feet wobbles and I bend my knees to steady myself. I am trying to find him all over again. Once as a child, I ran around in my bathing suit, calling his name until my throat burned and my heart strained against my chest. And then I saw him, mouth drooping into chin, nostrils flared, the deep crease between his brows that only appeared when he was angry or confused. I ran towards him and once my arms were around his waist, and my head rested against his hip, I watched my mother turn into a dot on the horizon. Father. He took my hand and we walked in the opposite direction to her. The sand crunched between my toes and on the train home he carefully wiped each one clean with a towel.
‘Can you see him yet?’ Joachim asks.
I shake my head.
Joachim steps onto the pipe. His breath causes the hairs to rise on the back of my neck despite my thick scarf. The scarf belonged to my father; I grabbed it from the coat stand the night I left. A party in the West, I said. He smiled and nodded and did not ask any of the questions he wanted to. I scrawled the address and telephone number of the apartment I was going to onto a piece of paper. He held my hand, pen and all, when I drew the curves of the final digit, an eight, and looked at me as an artist examines their muse. Father. Run along, he said. He kissed me. His beard tickled my cheek.
I peer between the barbed wire lines. The snow bleeds through my gloves but I do not let go of the wall. Joachim leaps from the pipe. My legs shake but I do not flinch or turn back to look at him. A match hisses. Joachim’s smoky exhalations seem louder in this moment as I edge closer to the wall so my toes kiss it and my knees knock it like a fist against a door. People walk with shopping bags and children hanging off their arms, unaware of me and my Western gaze fixated on them. A street I used to walk upon skirts the other side of the wall. I would always trip where that woman walks now. He would laugh, my father, when I was a child and pull me to my feet. At home, he bandaged my sore knees. There used to be a tree on that street, still and stoic until the wind got up and rustled its leaves into a fury; now a solider stands in its place. I step closer to the wall because I want to see his boots and the marks they leave in the snow.
‘Is he there now?’
Joachim grips the tails of my coat. He senses the danger in bringing me here, in arranging this meeting of sorts, in allowing me to walk up a bit of rusty pipe and touch the top of the wall. He knows I want to slip my head between the barbed wire and call his name. Father. Here. Here. When I bend my elbows to lift myself upwards he tugs on my coat with a ferocity I have not seen or felt in our three years of marriage.
‘No, Helene. You wave. He waves. That is all.’
I hear my mother’s voice snake through the pauses between his syllables. You wave. That is all. I was not to run after my father as he boarded the train in a uniform that irritated my chin and cheeks and made my eyes water. I could not help but sob as he walked away. Father. She yanked my braid. No drama. She demanded silence and belted me when the air raid sirens howled into the night as if I might have caused them, as if I were a four year-old with magical powers. Sometimes I thought I had magical powers. I wished him home to me. I sent prayers into the bellies of bombers. He returned. She left her heavy footprints in the sand when she never looked back.
‘Helene, what do you see?’
‘People who aren’t my father, Joachim.’
‘He said he’d be there.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I have my ways.’
I laugh. My husband and father spoke behind my back once before. My father told Joachim to hold me back one evening while I was in my room getting ready for a dinner date and they were sat across from each other at the dining table. If something happens when you are in the West, do not bring her back, my father said. Joachim frowned. If you cannot walk freely back home, do not bring her back. Do you understand? Joachim nodded. The morning after the party, I scratched his face when he would not let me go through the wire fence. He told me then. I cried. I cried for my father, for the clothes he would shrink in the wash, for the dishes he did not know how to cook, for the weight he would lose without me. The wall changed from wire to concrete, holding me back as my mother did that day, the day the train pulled my father from the station, from Berlin. I push against the wall, lean my full weight against it, as I did to my mother’s arm. She glared at me and did not bother to wave him goodbye. I rest my weight on one leg and place my head close to the wire. I look to the left, see an intersection, a motorcar, a child with a sled, a soldier scolds him or her. To the right, I see another car, a mother collecting her groceries from the street, a bread roll decorated with snow. And then, I see him.
I am not sure if the pipe or my own clumsiness causes my fall but I am lying, looking upwards at the sky. The clouds look dirty, as if they gobbled up the city and did not wipe their mouths after the feast. Joachim touches my cheek, clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. His cigarette bobs up and down as he mutters a reprimand which does not make itself known in any way other than the movement of his cracked lips.
I lean on Joachim and allow him to pull me back to my feet. The pipe shakes beneath me as I walk up it. I grip the wall once again. My father’s hair is now white as the snow on the ground around him. He used to ask me to kiss his receding hairline when I was a child to help it grow back. Of course, it never did. I kissed his forehead the last time I saw him. Before he closed the door and slid the latch across. I promised I would make potato and leek soup, his favourite, when I returned the following day. He shook his head. You stay with your friends. Have fun. I can look after myself. I protested. He shooed me away. If I had known then, I would have planted my foot between the door and its frame and insisted we drink another cup of coffee together. I would have wiled away the evening at the table, him at the head and me to his right. And when morning came, I would have opened the curtains and seen the barbed wire wall in the distance. But then again, if I knew, perhaps I would not have stayed. Perhaps I would have insisted he come with me. We could have arranged our life over breakfast in a café the following morning. We could have slipped back and forth, collected our belongings.
My father looks up. I wave. He nods. Joachim told me not to expect any grand gestures. He just wanted me to see that my father was getting enough to eat, that he has mastered the art of laundry, that he can still smile after all these years of an empty apartment. I press my hand to my chest, trying to stop my heart from bursting out into the East. I put my free hand to my face, indicating his beard. Where has it gone? He points. I look at the woman standing next to him. She smiles and raises her hand as if to wave. My father takes her free hand in his and squeezes it. He mouths something. I push my head closer.
The wire bites into my skin. I want him to shout. I want to hear his voice. I want to know the name of the woman wearing a black coat and brown shoes. The pipe wobbles beneath my feet. My father speaks, but I cannot make out the word. The woman dusts one of my father’s shoulders. He dusts one of hers in return. They laugh. He looks at me again. We stand, peering through rows of wire, for what seems like a lifetime. I study him as I did when he returned from the war, as I did when my mother left, scanning the points of his pain: an excess of water in his eyes, red patches on his cheeks, indents left by his teeth on his bottom lip. I can barely make out the details of his face today, but I know his expression does not possess any of these signs
‘How does he look?’ Joachim asks.