Yellow signs bearing the single word Fernverkher -long-distance traffic — pointed the way out of Berlin, towards the race-track autobahn that girdled the city. March had the southbound carriageway almost to himself- the few cars and buses about this early on a Sunday morning were heading the other way. He passed the perimeter wire of the Tempelhof aerodrome and abruptly he was into the suburbs, the wide road pushing through dreary streets of red-brick shops and houses, lined by sickly trees with blackened trunks.
To his left, a hospital; to his right, a disused church, shuttered and daubed with Party slogans. “Marienfelde,” said the signs. “Buckow.” “Lichtenrade.”
At a set of traffic lights he stopped. The road to the south lay open — to the Rhine, to Zurich, to America… Behind him someone hooted. The lights had changed. He flicked the indicator, turned off the main road and was quickly lost in the gridiron streets of the housing estate.
In the early ’fifties, in the glow of victory, the roads had been named for generals: Student Strasse, Reichenau Strasse, Manteuffel Alice. March was always confused. Was it right off Model into Dietrich? Or was it left into Paulus, and then Dietrich? He drove slowly along the rows of identical bungalows until at last he recognised it.
He pulled over in the familiar place and almost sounded the horn until he remembered that this was the third Sunday in the month, not the first — and therefore not his -and that in any case his access had been revoked. A frontal assault would be needed, an action in the spirit of Hasso Manteuffel himself.
There was no litter of toys along the concrete drive and when he rang the bell, no dog barked. He cursed silently. It seemed to be his fate this week to stand outside deserted houses. He backed away from the porch, his eyes fixed on the window beside it. The net curtain flickered.
“Pili! Are you there?” —
The corner of the curtain was abruptly parted, as if some hidden dignitary had pulled a cord unveiling a portrait, and there it was — his son’s white face staring at him.
“Can I come in? I want to talk!”
The face was expressionless. The curtain dropped back.
A good sign or bad? March was uncertain. He waved to the blank window and pointed to the garden. “I’ll wait for you here!”
He walked back to the little wooden gate and checked the street. Bungalows on either side, bungalows opposite. They extended in every direction, like the huts of an army camp. Old folks lived in most of them: veterans of the First War, survivors of all that followed — inflation, unemployment, the Party, the Second War. Even ten years ago, they were grey and bowed. They had seen enough, endured enough. Now they stayed at home, and shouted at Pili for making too much noise, and watched television all day.
March prowled around the tiny handkerchief of lawn. Not much of a life for the boy. Cars passed. Two doors down an old man was repairing a bicycle, inflating the tyres with a squeaky pump. Elsewhere, the noise of a lawnmower… No sign of Pili. He was wondering if he would have to get down on his hands and knees and shout his message through the letter box when he heard the door being opened.
“Good lad. How are you? Where’s your mother? Where’s Helfferich?” He could not bring himself to say “Uncle Erich”.
Pili had opened the door just enough to enable him to peer around it. “They’re out. I’m finishing my picture.”
“Rehearsing for the parade. I’m in charge. They said so.”
“I bet. Can I come in and talk to you?” He had expected resistance. Instead, the boy stood aside without a word and March found himself crossing the threshold of his ex-wife’s house for the first time since their divorce. He took in the furniture -cheap, but good-looking; the bunch of fresh daffodils on the mantelpiece; the neatness; the spotless surfaces. She had done it as well as she could, without much to spend. He would have expected that. Even the picture of the Fuhrer above the telephone — a photograph of the old man hugging a child — was tasteful: Klara’s deity always was a benign god, New Testament rather than Old. He took off his cap. He felt like a burglar. He stood on the nylon rug and began his speech. “I have to go away, Pili. Maybe for a long time. And people, perhaps, are going to say some things to you about me. Horrible things, that aren’t true. And I wanted to tell you…” His words petered out. Tell you what? He ran his hand through his hair. Pili was standing with his arms folded, gazing at him. He tried again. “It’s hard not having a father around. My father died when I was very little -younger even than you are now. And sometimes, I hated him for that…” Those cool eyes…
“…But that passed, and then -1 missed him. And if I could talk to him now — ask him… I’d give anything…”
“…all human hair cut off in concentration camps should be utilised. Human hair will be processed for industrial felt and spun into thread…”
He was not sure how long he stood there, not speaking, his head bowed. Eventually he said: “I have to go now.” And then Pili was coming towards him and tugging at his hand. “It’s all right, papa. Please don’t go yet. Please. Come and look at my picture.”
The boy’s bedroom was like a command centre. Model Luftwaffe jets assembled from plastic kits swooped and fought, suspended from the ceiling by invisible lengths of fishing-line. On one wall, a map of the Eastern front, with coloured pins to show the positions of the armies. On another, a group photograph of Pili’s Pimpf unit — bare knees and solemn faces, photographed against a concrete wall.
As he drew, Pili kept up a running commentary, with sound effects. “These are our jets — rrroowww! — and these are the Reds” AA-guns. Pow! Pow!” Lines of yellow crayon streaked skywards. “Now we let them have it. Fire!” Little black ants” eggs rained down, creating jagged red crowns of fire. The commies call up their own fighters, but they’re no match for ours…” It went on for another five minutes, action piled on action.
Abruptly, bored by his own creation, Pili dropped the crayons and dived under the bed. He pulled out a stack of wartime picture magazines.
“Where did you get those?”
“Uncle Erich gave them to me. He collected them.”
Pili flung himself on the bed and began to turn the pages. “What do the captions say, papa?” He gave March the magazine and sat close to him, holding on to his arm.
“ ‘The sapper has worked his way right up to the wire obstacles protecting the machine gun position,’ ” read March. “ ‘A few spurts of flame and the deadly stream of burning oil has put the enemy out of action. The flame throwers must be fearless men with nerves of steel.’ ”
“And that one?”
This was not the farewell March had envisaged, but if it was what the boy wanted… He ploughed on: “ ‘I want to fight for the new Europe: so say three brothers from Copenhagen with their company leader in the SS training camp in Upper Alsace. They have fulfilled all the conditions relating to questions of race and health and are now enjoying the manly open-air life in the camp in the woods.’ ”
“What about these?”
He was smiling. “Come on, Pili. You’re ten years old.
You can read these easily.”
“But I want you to read them. Here’s a picture of a U-boat, like yours. What does it say?”
He stopped smiling and put down the magazine. There was something wrong here. What was it? He realised: the silence. For several minutes now, nothing had happened in the street outside -not a car, not a footstep, not a voice. Even the lawnmower had stopped. He saw Pili’s eyes flick to the window, and he understood.
Somewhere in the house: a tinkle of glass. March scrambled for the door, but the boy was too quick for him -rolling off the bed, grabbing his legs, curling himself around his father’s feet in a foetal ball, a parody of childish entreaty. “Please don’t go, papa,” he was saying, “please…” March’s fingers grasped the door-handle but he couldn’t move. He was anchored, mired. I have dreamed this before, he thought. The window imploded behind them, showering their backs with glass — now real uniforms with real guns were filling the bedroom — and suddenly March was on his back gazing up at the little plastic warplanes bobbing and spinning crazily at the ends of their invisible wires.
He could hear Pili’s voice: “It’s going to be all right, papa. They’re going to help you. They’ll make you better. Then you can come and live with us. They promised…”