Sunday 10th March 1974
Achmed turned in through the open gate of the junk-yard compound and pulled up beside the steel roller door of the soils lab. At a nod from Holson he jumped out of the VW cargo van and, picking up a scrap of steel pipe, used it to bang on the door. Tufik appeared round the corner of the block and yelled in protest. Achmed smiled in satisfaction at the quick response and got back into the truck where he sat proudly behind the wheel. It was his first day on the job.
Ray Holson stepped out of the van and raised an arm in greeting towards Tufik. After some salamming and nodding Tufik pointed towards the office door. Ray pushed open the dull green door and came face to face with Aniela Grasse for the first time. Aniela was still living from hour to hour in fear of repercussions from her frightful Friday. This western dressed stranger, rough looking as he was, was clearly not one of the security police she half-expected. Ray was struck by the sudden look of relief on her face as she looked up from her grey steel desk. They both turned their eyes to the door at a burst of tinny-sounding eastern music as Achmed switched on the cracked transistor radio that he took everywhere. Achmed sat grinning and mining deep inside his nose, while waggling and swaying his head like a cobra to the repetitive tuneless rhythm. Ray and Aniela were for an instant bonded in a sense of cultural superiority.
Ray quickly glossed over introducing himself and explained his interest in using the lab for some new engineering work he was about to start at Geotechnic on siting microwave transmission towers. He would need rock and soil samples tested. Could he look around the lab facilities? Aniela called for Tufik to roll up the receiving bay door to the lab. Tufik scurried in and while he was pulling the rattling chain and winding up the clattering slats of the door Aniela raised her voice and shouted assurances of the excellence of the test capabilities and her staff’s qualifications. The sunlight flooded into the lab as she led Ray through. After what Ray judged was a seemingly thorough inspection of the recognisable sieves and the oven, and his knowing nods around the unknown devices and tools, which he had never seen the likes of before, he asked about the sample receiving and storage arrangements. Aniela showed him the samples from other clients that were stored in labelled bags. Ray carefully inspected the labels to try and decipher geographical place-names. He could see that a large number were from a place called Nalut. He pretended to have heard of it.
‘What’s getting built in Nalut?’ he asked disingenuously.
‘They’re designing a new road from Giosh to Nalut. These are samples of local road-stone that they plan to quarry for building the road. And these…’ Aniela went along the rows of bags. ‘…over here are sands being tested for sewage filtration; and these wooden boxes are core samples from test wells for the big desert irrigation scheme.’ She lifted a wooden lid and uncovered semi-circular section wooden troughs, each trough holding grey and brown cylinders of rock.
‘Where are those from?’ asked Ray casually.
‘About 100 kilometres south, up past Garian on the escarpment.’
Ray continued to look at the bags but could see no sign of the lustrous blackish rock he was seeking. ‘Too much to expect it to be that easy,’ he told himself. He thanked Aniela and assured her he would get back in touch in a week or two. Aniels didn’t care one way or the other and just smiled as if to say, ‘Suit yourself’.
Ray hopped off the concrete doorway onto the oil stained dirt and returned to the van. Inside the radio was yeoweling to itself. Achmed was missing. Ray looked around the yard and saw Achmed in a far corner, leaning against the door of an old army truck with his face at the open window. He seemed to be talking but Ray decided that he was just nosing around out of boredom and was still mouthing and nodding his head to the horribly hypnotic music.
‘Shit! I could get hooked too if I’m not careful, ‘ he muttered. ‘Achmed! Shape up! Shipping out!’
Aniela stood by the office door. She hesitantly returned Ray’s wave as the van chugged out of the compound, leaving a pleasantly aromatic blue haze enveloping Tufik where he stood gazing after the van in the bright sunlight. As Aniela turned to enter her office she heard the familiar sound of Tufik as he hawked and spat into the iridescent puddle of oil left by the visitors.
Zophie couldn’t believe her luck. She at last got finished at work and rushed back to her apartment. She was first back and stretched out on her bed to think it all over again. A week in Dresden! I’ve never heard of such a thing. Libya sending a Pole as a representative to a conference in Germany! It seems too good to be true. And how in the world did I get to go and not Aniela? Aniela must be mad with envy, even if she managed to hide it when she said it was a ‘fully- merited’ reward from the Ministry of Public Works. But if only Helene could have been going too. That would have been perfect and given her another chance to smooth Helene’s ruffled feathers. This conference will only irritate matters. Helene stuck here while I go on a week’s holiday to her home town. But I have to go anyway. It’s an order really. Then she remembered another time, the only other time, she had gone to a conference at the Technical Institute, and she turned her face into her pillow. She turned over and lay on her stomach, her head buried under an arm as she ran through the whole tragedy of her brief marriage. She remembered the little brass hammer and sickle lapel badge of the man who knocked on the apartment door to tell her of Adolf’s death. She couldn’t remember the man’s face, just his badge and the frayed cuffs of his grey flannel trousers as she stared down in disbelief and averted her eyes from his stilted rehearsed words. She re-lived the summer strolls along the Elbe with Adolf’s arm around her, past the vineyards and trio of Schlosse on the opposite bank to the beer garden at the Blau Wonder, picnics on the grass in the Grosser Garten, afternoons spent on the trams and buses, going to the ends of the lines just to see what was there. Then she remembered the bombed-out ruins of the Frauenkirche, and the creepy feeling of standing in the Altmarkt and thinking about incinerated bodies of whole families, couples like them, babies, infants, school-children, a few centimetres underneath her feet. The heart of the city was a weave of beauty and culture thickly woven with the blackest dyed threads of old hates, horrors and murderous deaths. Zophie sobbed, shoulders heaving until she had exhausted herself and lay quiet. She fell asleep.
When Zophie woke up about an hour later and opened her swollen eyes, Helene was sitting on her own bed watching her. Helene wore a deep frown and her thin mouth was down at the corners. There were thick creases from the sides of her nose down past her arched lips all the way to her chin. She was staring into space but as Zophie eyes opened Helene’s eyes brightened and her face slid effortlessly into a gentle and kind smile. ‘ Gott, Zophie, what is the matter?’ she asked very quietly.
Thirty minutes later Zophie’s face was washed and all their plans were made for Zophie’s trip. Far from being jealous, Helene was happy and had extracted from Zophie a promise to visit her brother Stefan in Dresden and take him a little gift Helene wanted to send him, one that was heavy and expensive to send by mail. Helene would write him a letter and ask him to meet her at the airport. They started making a list of things for Zophie to buy and bring back to Tripoli. Toilet soap, shampoo and milk chocolate topped the first page. They decided that a special trip to the suq was warranted to buy the biggest suitcase they could find. They discussed the possibilities of a speculative investment in golf balls but decided the money would be better spent on more chocolate. They agreed to revise the list each night as a vicarious shopping binge for the benefit of Helene. The technical agenda and timetable for the conference had not been provided to Zophie. Neither she nor Helene gave that a moment’s thought.
While they were in earnest debate about the volume:want ratio of things that could fit inside the suitcase and estimating the factor for converting the airline baggage allowance into equivalent units of scented soap and milk chocolate there was a heavy knock at the door of their flat. They hid their lists under Zophie’s pillow and went together to see who was banging so loudly.
‘Who is it?’ Helene called in what she hoped was a firm confident voice through the peeling paintwork and warped panels.
‘Zophie, is that you?’
‘Mein Gott it’s Iain’, said Zophie, ‘open the door.’
Helene opened the door and Anderson stood beaming at Zophie, a handful of wilted green stems in one huge fist.
‘It’s me Zophie,’ said Anderson redundantly, ‘I jist thought I’d drop by an’ see how ye are.’
‘Well come in then now you are here.’
‘I brought ye these Zophie. They were a’ I could get. Some o’ the petals fell off coming up the stairs. Still it’s the thought that counts eh?’
‘Petals?, asked Zophie, ‘what colour were they?’
‘A real bonny shade o’ blue, Zophie.’
‘I’ll try to imagine them. Thank you.’
‘They might pick up a wee bit if ye put them in water’
‘I’ll do that.’ Helene interrupted as she plucked the sad bouquet from Anderson’s fist and went off to the kitchen.
Zophie dithered for a few seconds wondering where to put Anderson in the flat. He had never been there before and she was suspicious of his sudden visit. There was no living room, just the hall, pokey kitchen and the bedrooms. She decided firmly against inviting him into her bedroom. Helene had been thinking through the same problem and settled the matter by going into the bedroom she shared with Zophie and shutting the door behind her.
Zophie took Anderson into the tiny kitchen that had a rickety square table set against a wall opposite the sink. It was barely big enough to hold three plates rim to rim. In the centre of the table was a cracked jam jar holding half an inch of cloudy water and the once-blue weeping bouquet. Three heavy wooden stools served as dining chairs. Anderson plunked himself down on a stool and it gave a loud farty crack as the top split. Anderson flushed and made a daft grinning face in his attempt to express innocence. He wriggled to get his nipped bum out of the split. The stool creaked and cried out under its uninvited burden. Zophie sat down opposite and pushed her long black hair back from her face.
‘You don’t want a drink of water or anything.’ she stated rather than asked.
‘How about a cup o’ tea?’
‘ Tea.’ Zophie said flatly. She got up with a distinctly audible sigh and put water on to boil in a saucepan. She dug around in the cupboard and found a crumpled packet with their last spoonful of tea, except for the fat packet marked BR on Bogdana’s shelf.
Anderson looked around at the kitchen. Even he could see what a mean ill-furnished dump it was. It was clean though and a few little attempts at decoration had been made by taping postcards to the walls. There was a current one-year calendar hanging up on a nail, which was even torn off to the current month. Beside the calendar there was a sheet of paper squared off with the roster for kitchen, hall and bathroom cleaning, strictly up to date with BR ‘approved’ initialled ticks. Anderson concluded that they looked after the bedrooms themselves. His mind wandered by association from bedrooms to bed to Zophie and he turned to watch her shapely bottom as she moved about making the tea. He looked down at his upturned palms and back at the bottom as if judging the fit. Perfect. He sighed loudly and let escape an unintended grunt. Zophie spun round. ‘Bitte?’
‘Eh?’ Anderson replied, startled out of his daydream.
‘You said something.’
‘Me?, no, I was just sitting here waiting for my tea.’
‘Mmmm..’ Zophie frowned and turned her back. Anderson decided to keep his eyes firmly on the table. He studied the little cuts and gouges in the green plastic top. Zophie gently set a stoneware mug in front of him. He looked questioningly into her beautiful dark eyes. She gazed back trying to anticipate his next advance. She had no doubt he was here for more than the last of her tea. He continued to look deep into her eyes, as if trying telepathy. She kept her eyes wide open and tried not to blink. She didn’t want to miss the message, if it came through.
‘Have ye no’ got ony sugar and milk?’
‘Vva―! Nein! she snapped. ‘Dummkoff’, she thought, cheated of her intended rebuff.
‘Oh, well maybe I’ll no bother with the tea.’
Zophie sat down, took the mug and started to drink it herself.
Anderson rested his hands on the table and sat twiddling his thumbs. He decided he may as well broach the subject of his visit. He had been forcibly reminded by Withers of his undertaking to Her Majesty’s Secret Service and urged to get samples of the stones from Zophie’s lab ‘pronto’. His chances of an Aston Martin were slipping with every day that past.
‘Zophie, I need into the lab this Friday night.’
‘What? I thought you have plenty of your Flash still left.’
‘Aye, I do but it’s all spoken for and I have a new order, worth a lot Zophie, some money for you too in it.’
‘It’s impossible for the next two Fridays.’
‘Three weeks! My God, why?’
‘Because I am going to Dresden on Friday for a week, to a conference.’
‘Good grief! I mean that’s great Zophie! How did you wangle that?’
‘Wass ist Wangle?’
‘Oh never mind. That’s great. It will be a nice wee holiday for ye.’
‘And I will be meeting Helene’s brother Stefan. He lives there.’
‘Oh that’s grand. He can show you the sights. Aye, that’ll be―’
Anderson was interrupted by the flat door banging as Bogdana came in and entered the kitchen carrying a bag of her groceries.
‘Who is this?’ she demanded of Zophie with a scowl. The flatmates had agreed not to entertain any men in the flat. And to add to the insult, Anderson was sitting at Bogdana’s established place at the table. Anderson was twisting around to greet Bogdana with a welcoming grin when his fleshy backside was caught by the razor sharp edges of the split in the stool. He leapt to his feet and screamed as he came face to face with Bogdana. ‘Aahh, ya fuckin’ bastard’ he roared, as he clutched his torn buttocks with both hands. ‘Buggery hell!’ Oooo, ma erse!’ he concluded as Bogdana cringed back in terror from his greetings. Suddenly remembering himself, Anderson removed his right hand from his bleeding behind and offered it to Bogdana.
‘Hello, I’m awfy pleased to meet ye.’ he gasped. Zophie belatedly rushed to make the introduction. ‘Bogdana Iain, Iain Bogdana.’
Bogdana gave Zophie a withering glance and, ignoring Anderson’s hand, she turned her back on them and started to unpack her groceries. Anderson could feel blood seeping from a welt across his right buttock. Turning his back to the wall he slipped his hand down inside his underpants and felt for confirmation. It felt like a good time to leave. He muttered a sad good-bye to Zophie, wishing her ‘a’ the best’ for her trip and backed crab-wise towards the open flat door. Bogdana was busy writing BR on her packets and tins and stocking her little grocery shelf. Zophie watched Anderson’s back as he turned to depart and noticed the ragged red line of blood seepage across his backside. She felt sorry for him for a second, then gave a sigh of relief that he was gone. She looked at the leaning stool and quietly bent to straight it up so that the split closed. She looked at Bogdana’s backside as Bogdana continued to monogram her purchases. After a two second pause she decided not to mention the stool and went to the bedroom.
Helene had fallen asleep on top of her bed, an open magazine across her chest and chin. On the front cover was the familiar red tractor and on the back cover inspirational graphs of Hungarian annual beetroot production. Zophie silently closed the door and sat on her own bed. She quietly took the Dresden wish-list from under her pillow and lay down to read it through yet again. She closed her eyes and drifted into a confused dream of scented soaps, charred ruins and tunnels cut into hills of flaky milk chocolate. There were bombs exploding and fires everywhere and women screaming, screaming, screaming; and then just one woman screaming, nearby and louder than all the others. She sounds a lot like Bogdana, dreamt Zophie.