Going Back

By Richard Watt

General fiction, Literary fiction

Paperback, eBook

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898
10 mins

Chapter 1

PART 1: ANDREW

AUGUST 2003

Andrew was tense, sweaty, and lost. His memories seemed to be conspiring against him. He thought he knew why he was doing this, but the more he worked the thoughts over in his mind, the less clear they seemed. He knew that he wanted to return to the place where it had happened to him, but he was unable to explain why, even to himself.
His ex-wife had scoffed at the idea initially, and then had sent a strange, almost pleading message, asking him not to go stirring things up. Andrew had considered giving in to this - there were a number of other places he’d also like to visit - but he had made plans, and sticking to plans was one of the few things he felt he was really good at.
He snatched at the gear lever, mistiming the gear change once again, but grateful this time that he had not first reflexively punched the door with his left hand. Eventually, he supposed, he would get used to things being on the wrong side, but he had so many other things to worry about that he was genuinely surprised not to have already ploughed into the back of some expensive-looking Mercedes. Another unfamiliar German road sign came into view, and he peered at it, hoping that he would recognise one of the place names or road numbers, but the same mixture of vaguely familiar names whipped out of sight just as he began to decipher them.
He wondered at what point he would have to admit to being lost, and what he would do about it then. Thankfully, Friday evening traffic in Frankfurt seemed slightly more forgiving than the London variety he was used to, and he took advantage of the forgiveness to veer wildly from lane to lane in search of something familiar. After half an hour or so of surging round impenetrable gyratory systems in ever more random fits and starts, he spotted a sign for the airport, and feeling confident that he could find his way from there, set off in entirely the wrong direction.
He found the exit for the airport, realised too late that it was the cargo side of the airport, and seriously considered just returning his rented Golf, and calling the whole thing off. He could still be home in time to catch the late Prom on the radio, and he’d have a free weekend.
Trouble was, free weekends weren’t all they had cracked up to be when he had been married, and something in him insisted that he had come this far, and there might be at least one question he could have an answer to. He knew that he had been suppressing the memory, but he wanted to know the truth about Karla, and why she had done what she had done to him. Then perhaps he could get to like free weekends; maybe even get to know his children a little better. He had a suspicion that it might even explain why he was no longer married, and why he had always felt like a spectator in his own life. Someone had once told him – or had he read it in a book? – that feeling detached from one’s own life was perfectly normal; that everyone experienced that, but he didn’t believe it.
He stopped at the side of the road, pulled out the poorly photocopied map which he had made before leaving London earlier in the week, and squinted at it until it made vague sense. He fixed on a couple of likely place names – places which were both on his way and liable to appear on direction signs. He repeated them out loud three times each, in the hope of making them stick, then tore off his tie, opened his shirt collar, turned up the air conditioning, and set off in what was surely the right direction. The fact that, ten minutes later, he passed the building where he had spent the previous two days he took to be a good omen.
He allowed himself to think back to the last time he had been in Germany, and smiled at the memory of the dreadful bus. He wouldn’t be here on the Autobahn headed for Kassel had it not been for that bus, and the sudden, shocking, realisation several months earlier, that 25 years had passed. Prompted partly by the unexpected lull in his life which the finalisation of his divorce had brought him, he had written both to his old school, and to the school they had visited, expecting only that someone, somewhere, might remember something. What he had received was a non-committal, vaguely interested reply from the school in Chester, and an entirely unexpected greeting from Hohenügel; the place which nagged at his memory for so many reasons. He hadn’t intended to actually go there, but finding himself in Germany for work reasons, he managed to shuffle dates and flights enough to be able to spend the weekend stirring up some ghosts. Which was not going to happen unless he began to concentrate on the bewildering pace of driving, and the way the road numbers seemed to keep changing.
Andrew Macintyre was, he knew, slightly taller than what people generally considered ‘tall’; his height had been a curse throughout his adolescence, and he still found the world generally not designed for someone of his build. He thought he looked pudgy - bland and inoffensive - but had been surprised to learn in an exit interview he had carried out for one of his staff the year before that most people considered him stern and forbidding. His heavy black eyebrows and even darker eyes probably had a lot to do with that, he thought, since he felt that he was easy-going and mildly eccentric.
His eccentricities were well hidden, since he lacked the confidence to carry them off, but he liked to think of himself as slightly out of the ordinary. And, in as much as most people seemed to think him slightly odd, he was out of the ordinary. Notwithstanding a comfortable and well-paid job in a well-respected company - which these days mainly involved getting people below him to do what people above him wanted done, rather than the technical work which he so enjoyed - and his divorce, he did feel different from most of the people he socialised with or met through work. He liked music which his few friends thought unlistenable; he read great, complex novels which he could never discuss with anyone; he refused to be interested in sports or cinema; he went to the opera more often than he could reasonably afford; and he drove a sports car which he couldn’t actually quite fit comfortably into. Which at least meant that his rented Golf felt spacious, and he could change gear – when he remembered where the gear lever was- without getting his knee wedged in his ear.
After half an hour or so the road signs began to make more sense, and he nurtured the feeling that he had been here before. He thought the forest looked familiar, and then thought about how much the forest and the surrounding landscape – particularly in this part of Germany - would have changed since he was 15, and laughed at himself. He caught himself yawning, and tried the radio again. Having spent the last two days immersed in technical German, he was hoping to tune his ear to more conversational language. When he had been given this project to look after, he quickly discovered that his claim to have ‘conversational German’ wasn’t entirely true. He had forgotten most of the German he had known back then, and if he was honest, that hadn’t been much to begin with. But he still had a good ear for language and picked up enough to get by in meetings, even if he didn’t always have the confidence to actually join in conversation. The radio seemed to be offering light classics, noisy Europop or impenetrable politics, and he turned it off again. He tried to squint at the roadmap on the passenger seat, but in doing so, earned himself a blast of expensive and rapid German horn. He sat back up, and concentrated on the road.
And then, suddenly, the forest – or, rather, the road - really did look familiar. Because they had used the school as a base and visited several places by bus, they must have traversed this particular piece of Autobahn around a dozen times, and something stirred in his memory, just as he saw the first sign for Fastlose. This was where the road ended, he thought. Just about here. He saw the junction flash past, and recognised that a memory had also slipped just out of reach, and then caught sight of the church between the trees – still exactly as it had been in the photograph he had found when removing himself from the family home. He smiled as he drove on to the next exit, where he hoped he would be able to summon enough German to check himself into his hotel.
Motorway hotels turned out to be the same in Germany as in England – spartan, functional affairs with just enough amenities, and a low background rumble audible wherever you were. Andrew negotiated the reception quite well, he felt - although the receptionist switched effortlessly to idiomatic English once she saw his passport, he was pleased at having initiated the conversation and established who he was and what he wanted. He showered quickly, and sat on the end of the bed for a few minutes, contemplating his situation. The hotel was just over the line of the old border, and there were some long-suppressed memories nagging at him now. He had been here, or somewhere close to here, before, and he suddenly felt cold and scared for reasons he wasn’t able to properly digest.
The cold hand which suddenly appeared to have grasped his heart belonged to Karla, he knew. He also knew that he was going to have to finally face up to why he was here; not because of Matthias, or some romantic idea about retracing his youthful steps, but because Karla had changed him in a way he still felt uncomfortable thinking about, even 25 years later. And because he still had trouble even thinking about his encounters with Matthias’ sister. He shook his head as if to clear it, and then reached for his travelling bag.
A large part of him didn’t want to bother with dressing and going out again – he’d even forgo dinner if necessary, but he knew that he had to face up to why he was here. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to meet Matthias again – he had genuinely fond memories of his German shadow – but he was now properly alarmed about who else might still be in the village.
His email to the school in Hohenügel had been more hopeful than anything else. He had tried to write it in German, and was not too unhappy with the result; he had managed to get a colleague to proofread it for him, and the changes had been stylistic rather than grammatical. Still, it had been a surprise when he had received a reply almost immediately, and seeing Matthias’ name on it had been quite startling.
In Andrew’s mind, the process would have been something like this: he would write to the German school, receive a bland reply from some office functionary explaining that there was no-one still there who remembered anything, but that if he was ever in the area, he was welcome to come and visit. He would then happily drive out there after the Frankfurt meeting, look around for a day or so, and go home, satisfied that nothing terrible lurked in the unassuming rural village, and that whatever he thought had happened to him while he had been there was a product of his overactive teenage imagination. After all, he thought, it was every teenage boy’s dream. Wasn’t it?
He was, therefore, truly taken aback to see Matthias’ name appear in his inbox the following day. Before he saw the message, he would have been hard pressed to say for sure what Matthias’ last name had been, but in spite of the fact that he was regularly receiving emails from German colleagues in conjunction with the current project, and that sometimes messages came from people he had never even heard of, as soon as he saw From: Matthias Schneider, he knew exactly who it was.
Matthias. The boy who was so determined to get away from Hohenügel, away from something he had never been able to properly explain to Andrew. Matthias’ dedication to learning English was because he felt sure he could learn to be a pilot, had even saved up enough money for a handful of flying lessons, although his father had seemed scornful to say the least about this whole idea.
Matthias was, for some reason, still in Hohenügel, and worse, was on the staff at the school, the same school he had hated at the time, although Andrew always felt that was because of being taught by his overbearing father. Perhaps the old man – Andrew remembered that Herr Schneider had been considerably older than his own parents, older perhaps even than old man Cartwright – had something to do with it; perhaps he had forbidden anything other than going into the same profession. Perhaps –
And perhaps Andrew should go and meet Matthias, as arranged, and find out for himself.
The pub was exactly where he remembered it to have been – not in Hohenügel itself, but a couple of miles along the road in the next village, which appeared to be called Witkreuz, although the name seemed new to Andrew. Although it looked quite different from the outside, inside – once Andrew’s eyes had adjusted, it appeared still to be very familiar. The bar was where he remembered it to be, and if he looked over his shoulder as he stood at the bar, he could see the room where he had first experienced being drunk. This memory had been one of the few he had tested out with his German colleagues earlier in the week. He had explained how he remembered being able to go in a pub and buy beer at the age of 15, and had been assured that this was perfectly normal; that the legal age was 16, and that even in a pub like that, it was fine at 14 if you had a responsible adult in charge. Andrew was finding some of the teachers who were on the trip fuzzy in his memory, but he felt sure that at least one of them would have been classified as ‘responsible’.
Matthias had not sent a photograph, and Andrew spent some time peering cautiously at the few unaccompanied men in the bar, but none of them seemed to recognise him. He managed to order some of the local brew, and stood at the bar, confident as always that the person looking for him would not mistake his 6’5” frame.
“You remembered how to find it, then?” – Andrew looked along the bar, and saw a vaguely familiar, but bearded, face grinning back at him.
“Matthias? Of course it is.” The two men shook hands warmly and laughed. Matthias looked middle-aged; his hair was more grey than not, and his beard, although neatly trimmed, was almost white. Andrew wondered how old he must look to someone who hadn’t seen him for a quarter of a century.
“You haven’t got any shorter in 25 years, then?” Andrew laughed again.
“And you haven’t grown any, I think!” The height difference between them had been one of the main talking points of the whole trip for everyone. Andrew had always suspected that the match had been made deliberately, to give the teaching staff some light entertainment; in truth it had given the two shy boys something to laugh about from the first, and had seemed to cement their friendship.
“Shall we sit; you must be tired?” Andrew agreed gratefully, and let Matthias lead the way to the back room. He gazed around him
“You remember this? We were supposed only to use this room, because we were school pupils. You remember – we weren’t very good at staying here!” Andrew’s memory served up another image – he remembered sitting around a long table in here, translating rude jokes back and forth. He smiled. Matthias started to interrogate him about his life since they had last met, and in spite of his normal discomfort at talking about himself, Andrew found the conversation remarkably easy – it was good to have someone else to talk to about his life, and he used the time to try to frame some reciprocal questions which wouldn’t seem too prying. Andrew had an abiding and, he felt, well-founded, fear of asking the wrong question at the wrong time. Although he knew many people who could get away with the most outrageous lines of questioning, he never felt he had the confidence, and often simply never asked the things he wanted to know.
So the long explanation of how he had married one of the girls from the bus – Matthias said that of course he remembered her, and Andrew began to piece together some more memories – and how their marriage, like so many, had simply run out of steam because they had married too young, and had turned out to have quite different expectations of one another, proved to be a useful conversational buffer. Andrew gradually realised that he was being fairer to her, and harder on himself, than usual, and some part of him wondered whether this was him actually coming to terms with it, and accepting his share of the responsibility.
The conversation turned to children, and the two men compared stories. Matthias had a daughter of 13, and there was shared fearfulness over what girls of that age get up to, since Andrew’s daughter was 14. He pulled out his photograph of his children – the boy younger, but seeming older thanks to his father’s genes – at 12, he was approaching six feet tall, and already attracting the kind of comments Andrew remembered only too well.
“I think we have not done so badly,” Matthias commented. “I had a time when I was almost not married, but it passed, and things are good. I think you are quite happy, too, no?” Andrew agreed – whatever he felt about his life, he was enjoying being back here, enjoying Matthias’ company, and slowly relaxing as he understood that nothing dramatic was about to happen. He was about to say something to that effect, when Matthias suggested some dinner.
“You remember our food?” He laughed. “Of course you do – all those sausages; I remember your complaints!”
“Complaints? Only because we thought we might burst. I remember your sausages very well.” He allowed Matthias to order for them, and watched him as he went to the bar to collect more beer.
Matthias seemed outwardly cheerful and relaxed, but Andrew wondered about his demeanour. He remembered that the two of them shared a kind of social awkwardness which manifested itself in simple things like the inability to maintain eye contact. Andrew noticed that Matthias spent most of the conversation looking anywhere but directly at him, and he noticed that he seemed to have some nervous tics, constantly rubbing his arms and patting his legs. He had seemed particularly distracted when they talked of his ex-wife, and Andrew remembered that Matthias had seemed genuinely fond of her at the time – perhaps he’s embarrassed about his schoolboy crush, Andrew thought. Matthias returned and Andrew watched him tug on his sleeves and smooth down his sweater as he sat. Has he always been like that?



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