Thursday, 24 December 2015


I was working at a hospice in East Berlin on the Christmas Eve when the wall came down.  I think I’d made a point of coming to Germany because it was the place that would most upset my family.

I was caring for a man called Felix Morgenschein.  He was very old, though nobody seemed to know exactly how old.  And he didn’t have long, though nobody seemed to know exactly how long he had.  But everyone who went into his room could feel him dying.  It was like there was a ticking clock somewhere in the room, and it was slowing down.  It wasn’t a bad feeling.  It felt like a countdown to a well-deserved rest.  It seemed to merge with the approach of Christmas.  I don’t celebrate Christmas of course, but I was surrounded by people who did.  I was young and new to the job, and secretly scared of the very people it was my job to care for, of their pain and their demands, and of being unable to help them.  But Felix required very little help.  Felix was kind and comforting, as if it was his job to care for me.

It was in the old days, as I say, back when the state - for all its faults - provided adequate medical care for everyone, and nobody faced a cold and lonely and painful death because they didn’t have the money.  It was before the East Germans had that kind of freedom.

Felix talked a lot, when he wasn’t too tired.  He seemed to want to talk.  I did a lot of sitting next to him, holding his papery old hand, listening to him talk.  Coming from anyone but him, I would have doubted the stories he told me… but Felix gave off straightforward honesty like a radiator gives of heat.  It was the honesty of an earnest child.  In many ways, despite his great age, there was something boyish about him.

He’d been in the First World War.  He’d been one of the soldiers who played football with the British in the Christmas Truce of 1914.  He’d sung ‘Silent Night’ in German alongside Tommies singing it in English.  Disillusioned with the war, he’d deserted from the army not long after.  He’d travelled.  He’d come back to Germany after a while and rejoined the army just before the end of the war.  He never explained to me how that had worked.  He’d led a mutiny in his regiment.  He’d kept the mutiny going until the armistice and then headed back to Germany without permission, taking advantage of the official paralysis after the Kaiser had fled from his own people.  He’d gone home and found that his parents had both died of influenza.  He’d found his sweetheart, who had promised to wait for him, and met her husband and their young son.  He’d apologised to her for disappearing, and wished all three of them well.  And then he’d headed for Munich and been one of the founders of the Bavarian Council Republic.  Though disgusted with war and with killing, he’d fought the White Guards and the Freikorps up to the very last moment, and then fled - somehow escaping with his life.  He’d gone to Berlin and joined the SPD, and then become disillusioned with their commitment to the Russian line, and split to join Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacists.  He’d been in street battles with Stormtroopers.  He’d been one of the last people to see Rosa and Karl before they were murdered.  When the Nazis took over, he’d fled from the country, only just escaping capture.  If they’d caught him, he’d have been sent to Dachau.

I told him about my grandparents, who’d been in the Warsaw Ghetto, crammed into one of the houses by the wall.  I told him about how my uncles and aunts had fought in the rising, and died.

Felix moved to Britain after escaping Germany.  He told me it had seemed natural to go there, as his greatest friend - with whom he had travelled after deserting from the Great War - had been “British… in a way”, whatever that meant.  I often asked him about this friend but he was always vague… though it became clear to me, from little hints and slips, that she had been a woman.  He’d joined the RAF, and had fought for the Allies, but had deserted - again - after refusing to take part in bombing raids over Dresden.  Then his life seemed to become hazy to him, as if he could remember the early years clearly but the later years were out of focus.  He never explained to me how he came to be living in East Berlin at the end of his life.  But there he was.  And he knew he was at the end.  He was not scared.  Looking at him, I found it hard to believe he had ever been scared of anything.

On the Christmas Eve when the wall came down, I arrived at Felix’s room at the start of my night shift and found a woman sat next to his bed.  For some reason, I did not go straight in and announce my presence.  I lingered behind the door and listened.

“They’ll fit.  Trust me,” she was saying.  She spoke in perfect German but her voice was English.

“But why, Doctor?” Felix was asking, in the plaintive tones of a child.

Doctor?  I didn’t know of any female Doctors working in the hospice; certainly not any English ones.

“Because I want you to get up and come with me.  One last time.”

“I told you a long time ago… no more travelling, not your way.  I want to get there on my own.”

“And I’ve respected your wishes.  I’m not inviting you on a trip.  Just a little walk.”

“Doctor,” said Felix, “I’m too tired, and I’m in a lot of pain.  I don’t think I could stand for very long, let alone walk.  And I don’t want to go too far from my lovely morphine.  To tell you the truth, I think I’m addicted.”

I was touched by his sheepishness about the obvious.

“Addicted to not being in pain?” asked the woman rhetorically, “Good for you.  But don’t worry about any of that.  Just sit up and put these boots on.  Do as you’re told for once, you awkward old cuss.”

“I don’t understand,” wheezed Felix, and I heard distress and exhaustion and pain in his voice, and realised how much he hid from me.  Somehow, he didn’t even try to hide anything from this Doctor woman.

I went into the room and they both looked up at me.

“Ah, you’ve decided to come in and ask me who I am,” she said, sounding amused.

She was thin, a youthful forty, with straight strawberry blonde hair cut pixieishly around a small face, out of which looked two sceptical but humourous dark grey eyes.  She was wearing a ridiculously inappropriate scarlet velvet frock.  She looked like she’d come straight from a Hollywood musical of about thirty years before, except for the scuffed trainers on her feet and the preposterous old top hat perched on her head.

Felix was lying back in bed as usual but seemed to be trying to rise.

I approached him to soothe him but he held up his hand.

“It’s all right Adina,” he said hoarsely, sounding pained and anxious - and yet also excited, “this is a friend of mine.”

Well, I won’t go into the details of the conversation.  I said all the usual things, the professional things you’d expect.  Every sensible word of mine was batted back at me by that infuriating woman, always charmingly, always in such a way as to confuse me and blast me off my train of thought.  She pressed ahead relentlessly in her determination to get the old man to put on the pair of dirty, battered, mud-caked old army boots she was holding.  There seemed to be no getting through to this woman that the whole thing was ridiculous and unfair, though she obviously understood every word I said.  She just made it clear to me - sweetly, amusingly, bizarrely, unanswerably - that she didn’t care.  I flailed to counter her leaps of logic and her oblique non sequiturs, but I got nowhere.  And somehow I never left to call for help ejecting her as an intruder.  It was like I was mesmerised by her brazenness.
Eventually Felix took pity on me and intervened, saying, laughter coming back into his cracked voice, “Doctor, stop it… Adina’s a nice girl… she’s my friend and you’re not to tease her.”  The woman seemed slightly chastened, but soon rallied, impishly holding the boots out to Felix again and saying “I’ll go easy on her if you put these on, you old fool,” to which Felix laughed and sighed and shrugged, and started getting up again, though he winced with the effort.

“Help me Adina,” he said, and - though I don’t know why - I slid past the Doctor and started helping him to sit up in bed and swing his legs around.

Of course, once the boots were on everything changed.

“Put the TV on,” said the Doctor as Felix danced around the room, “you need to see the news.”

As it happened, it was at that point that one of the other nurses ran in and breathlessly asked us if we’d heard… stopping in her tracks when she saw Felix sweeping me into a waltz.

We got to the wall about an hour later, Felix in his pyjamas and dressing gown, scampering ahead of the Doctor and I, jumping in puddles, laughing like a kid.

“You understand that this is only temporary,” the Doctor had said as he’d hugged her, “the effect of the boots will wear off in a couple of hours.  Then they’ll just be boots again.”

“How did you find them?  I thought I’d lost them forever!”

The Doctor just smiled.

“I thought you told me once that this happened in early November,” said Felix as we started making our way through the crowd.

“It did, originally.  November 9th.  Next year.  I pushed it forward a bit.  Did a bit of editing.  Couldn’t hurt.  Didn’t want you to miss it, and you stipulated no more trips, so…”

Felix gawped at her.

“Besides,” she said, “I’ve always thought it should’ve happened at Christmas.  Remember I told you once that if there’s one thing Germans are good at, besides critiques of political economy, it’s Christmas.”

“Some might say that critiques of political economy are what got Berlin into this mess,” I remarked, deciding not to think about the implications of the rest of their conversation.

“Yes, and some people say that other people shoplift because they’ve got bad blood.  You always want to be careful of people who think life is a vast straight line of falling dominoes.  Felix and I know how much more complex it is than that.”

Felix, meanwhile was making for the wall.  The crowd parted for him, as if recognising someone with priority.  He was handed a pickaxe by a girl with frizzy hair and a flushed face.  He began swinging it at the wall.  He swung it like a man of twenty.  Chips and slivers, and then great chunks, began flying off it where he was attacking it.  The Doctor and I watched him from the back of the crowd.  She grinned indulgently, like a parent watching her child playing on the beach.  Her grin was so wide, I thought her head might split in half.  It was impossible not to smile with her.

Felix was dancing along the top of the wall by the time she turned to me, touched my arm, and said:
“Be sure to get him back into bed within an hour or two.”

“I will,” I said, understanding that she was going.

And then, somehow knowing that she was the person to ask, I nodded towards the increasingly ragged, mobbed, swamped wall and said: “All this… it’ll be all right, will it?”

“It’s a wall,” said the woman, “and like any wall there are good and bad things on both sides of it.”
I could tell that was all I was going to get.

By this time, Felix was leading the crowd in a performance of ‘Silent Night’, conducting them from his perch on top of the wall.

“You will help him, when the time comes, won’t you?” asked the woman.

“I will,” I said again.

And to my surprise, that strange woman hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, and whispered “Bless you,” in my ear.  And then she was gone, like mist, into the jigging and cheering crowd.

Felix was back in bed a couple of hours later, flushed, grinning, tired.  He died the next day, unconscious, holding my hand.  Somehow, the boots disappeared.  I thought they must’ve been tidied up and thrown away by one of the attendants.  All his things were thrown away.  He had no living family.

I saw the Doctor again a couple of years ago.  Christmastime again.  It’s strange how many Muslims celebrate it in Gaza, in solidarity with the Christians who will show solidarity with them.  It’s not unlike Christmas in East Germany, where people did it for their own reasons, partly political.  I was at a hospital near another wall, tending the survivors of the latest bombing raid.  I was writing an email to my sister, who was proud of me by then, though she didn’t dare tell my brother-in-law that we were in contact.  I looked up from my laptop and saw that woman, the Doctor, not a day older, dressed in an astrakhan coat this time, still wearing that stupid top hat, walking through the ward.  I ran out but she was already gone.  When I got back to my laptop, the boots were sat next to it.

I still have them, and the mud of Christmas 1914, and the dust of the wall, is still clinging to them.

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