Love on the Rhine

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A german flag with a motorway

It was always noisy on the Rhine in the early morning. The freight barges that had spent the night moored along the bank started up all at once with a roar that penetrated the thin walls of the students' rooms, startling light sleepers so that they woke from their dreams without being quite sure what it was all about.

On this morning, the barges woke Jamison Douglass. He groaned, and rolled over to look at the alarm clock - five a.m., early twilight on this late-summer day - and cursed softly. He usually had to get up at this time, but it was annoying to do so on his last day of leave.

Yawning, he looked over at his sleeping partner, amazed at her ability to remain unconscious through all this carry-on. Oh, well, she wasn't used to reveille.

Christa lay, as always, on her stomach, in the dead centre of the bed, her light-brown hair across her face, snoring gently. It was warm enough that she had thrown off the covers, again as always, so that she lay with her arms over her head, naked, in her sleep, as always, completely carefree and uninhibited. Her body language expressed her philosophy of life…

Awake or asleep, her posture told the world what she thought of it.

Jamie sighed to himself and, now wide awake, went into the toilet - there was no bathroom - to dress without running the risk of waking Christa prematurely. She could get grouchy.

In shirt and jeans - uniforms were forbidden off-base - Jamie went down the stairs and left the house, turning right. Instead of walking along the Rhine, he chose as his goal the Schwarzrheindorfkirche, half a kilometer distant.

The morning was still cool, the shadows of the poplars long in the low morning sunlight. As Jamie walked along the tree-lined avenue, he reflected on his relationship with this creature - more a force of nature than a woman - with a renewal of surprise at himself. He was usually such a well-behaved young fellow, did everything by the book. How in the world had he ended up under the influence of such a siren as Christa?

He chuckled to himself and - since nobody was out on the meadow beside the avenue at this hour - gave in to the impulse to sing the appropriate song. After all, he was by the Rhine.

' Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin…' I don't know why I'm so sad...the old Lorelei number.

Jamie stood in the old Romanesque church. The paintings on the walls and ceilings were like an old friend to him, especially since he'd spent his whole life in some castle or another. He stood with his head craned upward and studied the dome, with its scene of the 'Marriage Supper of the Lamb', until the pressure in his neck brought him back to this world, and he went out, down the stone staircase and into the streets of Beuel, taking the long way back to Christa's place.

He decided to pass by his favourite bakery and pick up fresh rolls. That way, Christa wouldn't be cross if she woke up and missed him.

It occurred to him on the way that it had been almost ten months since Christa had scooped him up - on the open-house day at Bad Godesberg. Jamie had been playing tourist, visiting the 'Langer Eugen', Bonn's skyscraper, admiring the Bundestag, collecting tonnes of brochures he couldn't understand - not because he couldn't read them, but because he had exactly enough political savvy to know who the current prime minister was. He'd even stood in a queue for lunch at the Red Cross wagon along with the other well-dressed refugees.

Christa had found him on the Rhine promenade, as Jamie, tired of walking, was just thinking of stopping for coffee. She had collected him - Christa was a collector. She collected people, just as she collected facts, ideas, opinions. Everything she collected was tidily arranged into her world view - or else contemptuously rejected.

Jamie she folded into her life immediately. As a project, it seemed to Jamie. Christa summed him up as 'weak-willed, conformist, bourgeois, member of a gang of military terrorists, besides that too short, I hate freckles, and where did you get that awful red hair?'

Jamie was fascinated by her from the start - he'd known so few women in his life - and found himself dragged along in her wake.

Without knowing quite how it had happened, Jamie had found himself in bed with Christa. He had never so much as touched a woman before, and didn't know if this workmanlike procedure was, well, normal - not a word spoken, no kissing allowed, his tentative caresses brushed aside ('Don't be so wet'...)

In spite of this, Jamie believed himself in love. Wasn't that what normal people did?

Jamie entered the bakery and bought bread, two eggs, and small packets of butter, giving the elderly lady behind the counter his best smile, which caused her, as usual, to look at him closely and with deep mistrust. He'd lived in West Germany almost ten years, and he'd never learned to stop broadcasting his emotions.

He returned to the Rheinuferstrasse with his purchases in a plastic bag he'd pulled out of his jeans pocket - I learn something every once in a while, he thought - and opened the door to Number 6 with Christa's key. As he reached the second floor he heard the neighbour's radio playing a current hit, 'Sommersprossen' - 'Freckles'.

Afterwards, he could never hear that song without the most distressing feelings.

Jamie came into the room and started boiling water for the eggs, cutting bread, making coffee. As the smell of Melitta Gold reached her nostrils, Christa finally woke up.

She raised her head and looked at him drowsily.

'You're impossible. Can't you let a body sleep?'

Jamie smiled at her.

'Me? If the Battle of the Rhine out there would let up, I'd be quieter, too.'

Christa groaned, and got up.

'Okay, soldier boy, make breakfast. I'll be right back.'

She rummaged around under the bed and found the old, long t-shirt she wore as a nightshirt, pulled it on, and disappeared into the lavatory.

While Jamie was setting the table, he could hear Christa throwing up in the loo. That bothered him - they hadn't had that much to drink the night before. He heard water running, and when Christa came back, she seemed to be feeling better. She went to the washbasin, where she washed herself, thoroughly and without false modesty, put on jeans and a Pakistani shirt, and sat down to breakfast. Apparently her appetite was not affected by whatever had upset her stomach - she broke the shell on her four-minute egg and began slathering butter and jam on a roll.

Jamie looked at her with concern.

'Aren't you well?'

Christa smirked.

'Oh, I'm fine. Just a little morning sickness.'

She looked at him challengingly, apparently curious as to how he would take the news.

Jamie caught his breath. He set down the coffee cup carefully, as if he might break it. The quiet morning was suddenly a thing of the past. He felt he was being thrust into a crisis, one he'd been prepared for, to a certain extent, but still...

A thousand questions went through his mind - When? How? What now? Oh, lord, the parents. He didn't know Christa's at all, and his - they didn't even know he had a girlfriend, let alone a German one...his father and his war stories...

They'd just have to come to terms with it, and then...

He'd be a father. Him.

Some of what he was thinking must have been written on his face, because Christa suddenly burst into laughter.

'You should see yourself, my little man. What are you thinking? That I'll marry you now? You really believe that, don't you?

She leaned back in the armchair, crossed her arms, and laughed.

'You think I'd follow you meekly back to Scotland, and herd sheep?'

Jamie protested.

'But...we've got to think of the child...and I think...'

Christa laughed derisively.

'You? Think? Don't make me laugh. You never think. You just feel. What do you take me for, anyway? Do you really believe I'd tie myself down for life with a short-tailed, fat-faced Scots boy like you? I'm not that stupid.'

Jamie was speechless. He wanted to answer, but he simply couldn't find the words. Apparently, though, Christa wasn't at a loss for words.

'You dumb git. You don't get it, do you? Do you think a woman can't raise her child by herself? I'm finished with school. In a few weeks I'll be starting a real job. I'll be fine by myself, thank you very much, love.'

Jamie finally found his voice.

'But...why would you have to? Why can't we raise the child together? Okay, I get it, you don't want me. But I can give you money. I could help...'

Christa laughed again, scornfully. 'You, help. I can just see you now. My child is not going to become what you've turned into. Look at yourself, soldier boy - you follow orders. You even follow my orders. You don't know what to do with yourself without an order. I've just pulled the rug out from under you, and there you sit and have no idea how to react. If it's not in the regulations, you don't know what to do with yourself.

'You poor little beggar. You can't even hate me. And you call yourself a soldier. You're pathetic.'

Afterwards Jamie could never quite remember how he got out of there. Somehow he'd got his things together. Somehow he'd got out without falling down the stairs. Somehow he'd got into his car. Somehow he'd driven over the bridge at Bonn.

It wasn't until he was on the Autobahn that he came to himself - at least enough that he didn't drive back to the base, but into Cologne.

There he wandered mindlessly up and down the Hohe Strasse until he stopped in front of a shop selling children's clothing. Jamie's blood ran cold. He turned around so abruptly that he almost ran into a young couple. He excused himself absently, and made his way back down the street to the Cathedral. He sat there for hours, staring dumbly ahead, until the evening mass roused him. He left this comfortless sanctuary, and, retrieving his car from the parking garage, drove back onto the Autobahn, in the direction of the Kottenforst.

In the woods he wandered aimlessly and mindlessly among the huge, old evergreen trees. He didn't trust himself to examine his thoughts. Every time he told himself he must have an idea about what he should think of the events of the day, his subconscious mind shrank away - as if it were necessary to let a door close on all this without looking behind it.

The summer day was long, but finally, even in the Kottenforst, the sun went down. Jamie sat on a tree stump, listening to the birds, and suddenly began to sob bitterly.

This was the state he was in when the police found him. They'd been called by late-evening hikers. At first the police officers mistook him for a drug addict. But since he showed his military ID, and seemed to be sober, they accompanied him to his car.

On the way there, encouraged by their show of interest, Jamie told them what was bothering him. The policemen - bachelors both - were understanding.

One of them shook his head.

'You shouldn't take women like that seriously, buddy.'

The other policeman agreed.

'You'll be more careful next time. Think about it - you could have had to marry that harpy.'

Jamie thanked them for the good advice, and drove home to the base. After all, he was on duty in the morning.

In his room, alone, in the dark, it finally occurred to him what he'd been thinking all day.

'She's right. I can't even hate her.

'But I have one deep, heartfelt wish...

'I wish I had never laid eyes on Christa Biermann.'

AUTHOR'S NOTE: If a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client, what can you say about one who is his own translator? This story was originally written, with excellent editing advice by malabarista, in German. Mala, like me a professional translator, quite intelligently refused to translate this drivel on the grounds that anyone who would perpetrate the phrase ' ein schlafendes Götzzitat' in a short story deserved to have to figure out how to say it in English on their own.

I hope the result amuses, if only for the odd alienation effect of a story that's been back and forth between continents in more ways than one. -DG.

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