Munich

December 1933

Last night, I felt Gustav kicking.

I lay silently, my hand on the softest part of my belly, rising and falling. The shuttered night was black and icy, and Hans slept on beside me, his face pressed against the pillow, the steady rasp of his out-breaths cool against my left ear.

I was sure I’d felt it, that strange, deep pulse, that foot beating the taut drum of my skin; but I waited, and it did not come again.

In the morning, Hans woke first. He drew me to him, warmed the freezing tips of my toes against his legs.

“I’ll light the stove,” he said, and I said, “Thank you.”

“Sleep well?” he said, and I said, “Yes.”

After my bath, I stand for a while at the mirror, watching the steam-pattern slowly disappear from the glass.

I am fifty years old. Hans still calls me beautiful, but I know he is being kind – and he has always had the ability to see only what he wishes to see. A lean, strong-featured face (I have never been plump, though my body has long since quilted its sharper angles). Mid-length greying hair, in need of a fresh shampoo and set (my hairdresser, Hanna – a bosomy little thing with a wily vixen’s gaze – has been trying to persuade me of the merits of peroxide). A map of wrinkles webbing out from the corners of my lips.

“There is a freshness to you,” Paul said the first time we were alone. An afternoon in springtime: drowsy sounds drifting in through the open window of his studio. The smell of drying paint and turpentine. His violin propped, unsteadily, against a wall. “You’re like a cool glass of water.”

I wanted to say, So drink me up. But I did not. I was seventeen: long white dress and chastely gathered hair. Accustomed to the slow, measured rhythms of my father’s shop; to quiet evenings, just the two of us – my untutored assaults at the piano; warming the pie left by Karla, our char and cook. I was not used to other men, and certainly not to a man like him.

“You don’t say much, do you, kleiner Vogel?” Paul – I still thought of him as Herr Klee, really – stepped forward. “I like that about you. You’re quiet, watchful. None of that babbling girlish chatter.”

I smiled; my father had raised me to say little. “The best watchmaker works in silence, Asta,” he would say. “Each piece deserves his absolute, undivided attention.”

And then Herr Klee leant down, and I felt the soft pressure of his lips, and I saw that there was, in any case, nothing else to say.

We pass a quiet morning in the shop, Hans and I.

Towards eleven, Sissi Habicht comes in to collect Frau Dührer’s pocket watch: a pretty, Swiss-made piece in a gold case, set with twelve tiny diamonds. Hans has fixed the mechanism, dusted the face and hands, brought the gold up to a high shine. Sissi, always eager for conversation – I wonder that Frau Dührer doesn’t fire her for laziness – leans her elbow on the counter, primed for the delivery of news.

“Did you hear?” she says. “They roughed up Herr Baumann this morning. Came in early, while he was firing up the ovens. His sons, too.”

I wait a moment before answering, picturing the baker with his pouched, kindly face; the boys – great lurching lads – with their flour-dusted aprons. Sissi is smiling – her excitement rises from her like a foul smell. But I can see the old man and his sons bleeding and spluttering on the floor of the bakery, and the taste of bile is rising in my throat.

“Excuse me a moment, Sissi. I’m not feeling well…”

Out in the yard, I place my head in my hands, watch my breath clouding on the cold air, until the nausea has passed.

Gustav, I say silently. You would have been thirty-three on Sunday, and in some ways I am glad you didn’t live to see how low and nasty this city has become.

When I return to the shop, Sissi Habicht is gone. In her place is a tall, broad-shouldered woman, elegantly dressed. She has her back to me; the fox-fur stretched limply around her neck watches me with its dull black eyes.

“Can I help you?”

The woman turns, and in her place I see a girl of twenty, black hair caught beneath a blue velvet hat, her husband striding out beside her across Marienplatz, both of them tall and proud and unseeing.

Frau Klee doesn’t see me now, either – not, at least, as anything other than I appear. An unremarkable woman of fifty. No living children. A watchmaker’s daughter turned watchmaker’s wife.

“Is this Herr Vogel’s shop?”

Her voice is high and clipped, a little terse. Is this how she speaks to him, at breakfast, over dinner? I have heard it whispered that their marriage has not been altogether happy, though they seemed so on that night, so many years ago, when I shrank into the shadow of a café on the other side of the square, unable to take my eyes from them. She was laughing; his arm was crooked around the narrow span of her waist. Why is she here? I can think of no reason other than coincidence, and yet my pulse is beating loudly in my ears.

“It used to be,” I say. “Herr Vogel was my father. My husband, Hans Beyer, is the watchmaker now. You’ll have seen the sign.”

“Yes, I did.” Frau Klee’s face softens, admitting the trace of a smile. “And I was confused. My husband’s watch has stopped. I found a manufacturer’s bill inside the case, made out by Herr Vogel. And so here I am.”

I smile back at her. The smile feels unnatural on my lips. And yet she is not to blame; for that, I can look to nobody but Paul, and to my youth, and to those intoxicating afternoons now three long decades old.

“Anything my father made,” I say, “my husband will be able to repair.”

Frau Klee reaches into the pocket of her fur-lined coat. She is still a handsome woman, her face full and unlined, her eyes shrewd behind square-rimmed spectacles. His watch, inside its silver case, is as I remember it: the black numbers with their calligraphic swirls (my father’s trademark); the ornate scrolling on the stilled hands. I do not turn the case over to read the inscription, but I know what is etched there. Eheu fugaces, labuntur anni. PK. Alas, the fleeting years slip by.

“Can he fix it urgently? We’re leaving on Friday.”

“Leaving Munich?”

“Yes.” She is staring at me now: I must seem a simpleton. And perhaps I am one, for it is only in the prospect of their departure – hers and his – that I fully comprehend the fact that Paul is here, in Munich, now. Perhaps he is in the café on the corner, drinking Milchkaffee; perhaps he is waiting outside, in their motor car. But surely, had he known of his wife’s errand, he would not have sent her to my father’s shop: surely even he could not be quite so cruel.

“Frau Beyer, are you quite well?”

I gather myself. I meet her eye. “Yes, perfectly well, Frau Klee. We will have the watch ready on Thursday. I’ll need you to fill out this slip…”

But she doesn’t move. She is still staring.

“How strange, Frau Beyer,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d given you my name.”

The watch was to be a gift from Paul’s father.

“I’m turning twenty-one,” he said. It was March, and unseasonably warm; he was wearing a white shirt under a linen suit, and his forehead was lightly sheened with sweat. His hair was black and thick, and sticking up like a crop of overgrown grass; his eyes were dark brown, searching. “How old are you? You’re just a slip of a thing.”

“I’m seventeen,” I said.

“Seventeen, and pretty as a day in spring.” He leant forward; he smelt of heat and sweat and hair pomade. There was dirt trapped in the skin around his fingernails, and I wondered at this, for he was surely not a working man. “What’s your name, pretty one?”

“Asta Vogel.” I could feel myself blushing.

“Well. Kleiner Vogel. Little bird. It suits you.”

“Can I help you, sir?” My father, coming through from the workshop: the young man straightened up, replaced his hat. “Sir, I was just telling your daughter that my father would like to commission a watch for my twenty-first birthday. He’s in Bern, where I was born, but I’m to have it made here. I hear you’re the best watchmaker in Munich.”

I watched Papa struggle to reconcile the instincts of a father with those of a businessman. “Well, that’s very kind, sir. Now, will any of these models be suitable?”

I was standing still, behind the counter, unable to draw my eyes away from the young man’s face. As my father carefully lifted his display case from the cabinet, he said, without looking round, “Asta, go and see whether Hans would like some tea.”

Hans was in the workshop, stooped over his bench, his face tight with concentration. I must have presented a sullen picture as I stood, resentfully, in the doorway, and asked whether he would like a drink. I remember, quite clearly, how he looked up at me, with such boyish enthusiasm, and how his features – his wide-set eyes; his short dun-coloured hair – seemed suddenly rough and unformed. I must have already known then that Hans loved me, and sensed that his reward would, at least for now, be only my indifference.

Later, after supper, my father said, “I wish your mother were here, Asta. She’d know how to stop these young men from coming in and making a fool of you.”

“I wish Mama were here, too,” I replied; although truthfully, in that moment, all I longed for was the return of that particular young man.

Not long after Frau Klee has left, I go through to the workshop, tell Hans I am going to the bakery for rolls.

He looks up at me from his bench, the bench at which he has sat for eight hours a day, six days a week, for three decades. My father’s work station lies empty: since his passing ten years ago, Hans has preferred to keep it so, out of respect. “We’ll put the new apprentice there,” he said at first, but the work was already dwindling – there was no longer, it seemed, much money left in Munich for the making of watches, even among the richest families – and the new apprentice never arrived.

“I’ll listen out for customers,” he says. “Ask Herr Baumann for his special rye.”

I take my coat from the peg in the passageway, knot a scarf around my neck, and step out into the street. The cold is a clawed creature, biting at my face; I draw my scarf tighter, nod a greeting to Frau Arnold, out walking her dog. There is no snow, but the ice crunches beneath my boots, and the sky is a high, greyish white. The light, too, seems grey, and the people moving through it are dull grey shapes, outlined against the tall grey buildings, and on a day such as this it is easy to believe that the city will never see sunshine again.

The Baumanns’ bakery is closed. More than closed, in fact: it is in pieces. The windows have been shattered, littering the pavement before them and the shelves behind with jagged shards of glass. The door gapes open, like the space left by a missing tooth; on it, someone has daubed, in thick black and yellow paint, a five-pointed star, and a single word: Jude. Herr Baumann and his sons, and his plump, brisk wife, are nowhere to be seen.

I stand still for a moment, looking in. A dizziness comes over me; the glass and the shelves and the painted star all seem to fragment, shift, and realign themselves, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. Upstairs, a shutter opens an inch. I look up, hoping to see Frau Baumann there, but no face appears, and the shutter is quickly closed.

I buy Hans’s rye rolls from the bakery on the next street. I serve them with hunks of cheese and slices of Blutwurst, and say nothing of what has happened to the Baumanns. We have grown so used to silence, Hans and I; it is the element in which we swim.

After lunch, I take Paul’s watch from the counter, carry it through to Hans, and tell him the owner will return on Thursday to collect it.

Hans removes the watch from its case. “Your father made this,” he says, and I say, “Yes.”

He turns the watch over, reads the inscription on the back.

He says, “I’ll have it ready on Thursday, then.”

“I am an artist,” Paul said.

It was late afternoon; my father had gone out to meet with one of his suppliers. When, soon after Papa had left, the door had opened, and the young man had stepped in, I’d been quite unable to believe my luck: to be alone with him – well, alone but for Hans, tapping away, as ever, out in the workshop – was more than I’d allowed myself to imagine.

“Do you draw or paint?”

He looked at me, his mouth twitching into a smile. “Both. Sometimes at the same time.”

I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me. “I’m sorry. I don’t know much about art.”

He shook his head. “Oh, but you do. A watch is a work of art. Each tiny piece, locked together in perfect synchronicity. Yes, that is true art.”

I noticed, even then, his unusual manner: it wasn’t only his Swiss accent, with its slight stiffness, its formality, but something else, too – a curious, stuttering energy. Thoughts seemed to surge from him, tumbling out headfirst, and then subsiding, like waves quitting the shore.

In that moment, for instance, he was suddenly quiet; he turned from me, looked out at the street. I could hear the relentless ticking of father’s clocks, and Hans humming tunelessly in the workshop. Finally, after what seemed an age, the young man turned back, and said, “Klee. My name’s Paul Klee. Will you come and take a walk with me, kleiner Vogel? Will you fly away from your father’s roost for an hour or two?”

My breath stilled in my chest. It didn’t feel like a decision. “Yes. Yes, I will try.”

He beamed, reached out a hand and cupped my chin. As he withdrew his hand, I saw that it was not dirt around his fingernails, but dried traces of dark-green paint. “I’ll write you a note, slip it under the door. Make sure your father’s not looking.”

I nodded. His hand had been rough and warm on my skin. I could still feel it there long after he’d gone, closing the door behind him, leaving me to the shop’s slow ticking, the shifting patterns of the fading sunlight on the varnished floor.

After a while, I noticed that Hans, in the workshop, was no longer humming.

This morning, Thursday, we wake to snowfall.

The sky is a dirty, washed-out white, and the yard is carpeted with snow. In the shop, I put on my coat and mittens while the stove belches and wheezes into life, and watch the street: the wet drifts banking at the kerbside, dusting the shoulders of the few figures that pass, hunched and bent like old men. I do not see Frau Klee among them, and anticipation gnaws at the pit of my stomach.

At ten o’clock, the door opens. I hear it rather than see it: I am arranging Hans’s new models in the display case, and my back is to the street. But I know it is her – that when I turn, I will see Frau Klee, neatly swaddled in her furs.

And yet, when I look round, it is not Frau Klee I see.

“Good morning, Fraülein Vogel,” he says, and removes his hat.

It is Paul, and it is not Paul. It is a man in a dark wool coat, dotted with flakes of melting snow. It is a man whose hair has thinned, turned sparse, revealing the high white dome of his forehead. It is a man whose brown eyes, fixed upon me now, are exactly as they were all those years ago: fired by a restless intelligence; by a desire to see the world exactly as it is, and then shape it to the form of his own imagining.

“I am Frau Beyer now.”

“Of course.” He steps forward, his right hand worrying at the damp brim of his hat. “My wife… I didn’t know she had come here. I would have stopped her, Asta.”

Asta. My name sounds strange and exotic on his lips, as it always did: I thrill to hear it, and yet the ease with which he utters it drills down through the layers of time to the sedimented anger at my core. I cross my arms, and say, “There was no reason for her not to come, Herr Klee. Your watch is ready. My husband has made it as good as new.”

Paul nods. If he has noted my manner, it does not seem to have affected him: why would it, I suppose, after all these years; years in which he might have sought me out, tried to make some greater sort of recompense than that letter; that solitary drawing. I would not have accepted it, but still, there might have been some solace in the attempt.

“Your father died?”

“He did.” I will allow him no more than that. From the drawer of the cabinet, I remove his watch in its silver case. As I do so, Paul steps forward – one swift, fluid motion – and covers my hand with his.

“Asta,” he says. “Will you come and drink a hot chocolate with me? Please. It has been so long, and I am leaving Munich tomorrow. Leaving Germany, probably for good. It is not safe for us here any more – for Lily, Felix and me. Will you grant me this one thing?”

His hand, in its leather glove, lies motionless on top of mine. I think of the time I held it, on that fresh-swept April afternoon – I still hold every second of it in my mind, sunlit frame by sunlit frame – when we walked together in the Englischer Garten, and the flowerbeds were gaudy with daffodils, and I told him I believed I was expecting a child. I think of how Paul stopped, quite suddenly, caught me by the waist, and said, “Well, what a thing, kleiner Vogel. What an extraordinary thing.”

He loved me then; I know he did. He loved us both.

“Yes,” I say. “I will come.”

As that spring gave way to summer, and my waist thickened and swelled, Paul began working on a painting.

It was a series of paintings, really: five rectangular panels, each of them taller than me, to be displayed side by side. A landscape, in five parts: the swoop and rise of hills, the dark outlines of trees, and the wide, silvery curves of a river.

“The Aare,” he said. “We used to go for picnics there. The bourgeoisie love pictures that remind them of their childhood.”

A friend of his mother’s had commissioned the series to hang above the fireplace in her dining-room, and Paul was dismissive of it. “It’s a trifle,” he said. “Just decoration. Real art, Asta, is about something else. About the essence of things. How we feel about them.”

He showed me a drawing: a swirling mass of pencil-strokes, tight and knotted as a skein of wool. “This is what art should be,” he said. “A line going for a walk. A moment, caught and held fast amid the chaos. Like music, Asta. Like love. Do you see?”

I looked again at that strange mess of a drawing, and whether it was my infatuation, or my pregnancy, or the mesmeric power of his belief, I felt suddenly that I did.

“Yes,” I said, and he kissed me and said, “I knew you would understand. It’s an instinct, Asta, and you have it, too. ”

I loved to watch him work; I’d sit in a corner of his studio, drinking tea, feeling the soft breath of the breeze through the open window. At first, he didn’t like to have me there for long – he felt I would distract him – but I won him over with my stillness, with my ability to allow hours to slip by without moving, or uttering a word.

“I just don’t know, Asta,” he’d say, turning from his easel, “how you can sit still like that. It’s as if you’ve turned to stone.”

“But my mind isn’t still. In my mind, I am talking to Gustav.”

He’d smile then. “And what are you telling him?”

“That we are waiting for him. That he will be loved.”

And our son would be loved: of that I was quite sure. For we were happy then – I was happy, despite my bouts of morning sickness, despite the fact that Paul, soon after our walk in the Englischer Garten, had explained that our wedding would have to wait.

“I must finish this painting, kleiner Vogel, ”he’d said. “And my mother is expecting me home for the summer. We’ll marry in September. An autumn wedding. Say you understand.”

I didn’t understand; I cried, and told him that my father would never forgive the delay. And it seemed he wouldn’t. When I told him of my pregnancy, of my betrothal, Papa sat without speaking at the dinner table for five minutes – I watched the steady movement of the hands of the grandfather clock – and it seemed to me that he was collapsing before me; shrinking, inch by inch, into the floor.

“You’ll go to Magda’s,” he said. “I won’t have you here, in my house. Not if he won’t have you. For he won’t, Asta, and you’re a fool to think otherwise. An even greater fool than I am myself.”

And so I went – packed a suitcase with my few things, unpacked them in the attic bedroom of my aunt’s house out near the Sternberger See; endured her icy disapproval, the quiet martyrdom with which she fed and clothed me, kept me safe. And yet, through all of it, I was happy: happy because I had him; had those sunlit hours in Paul’s studio; had his mouth on mine, his hand resting on my growing belly. Had that painting, coming to vivid life before my eyes with each darting stroke of his brush. Had the promise of an autumn wedding.

In June, he made his plans to go home to Bern. I cried again, clung to him, asked him why he couldn’t take me with him.

“In time,” he said. “In time.”

I spent the rest of that summer in the garden of my aunt’s house, growing fat, writing long letters to Paul. He didn’t answer all of them, but when he did, he’d include a sketch: a man with a huge, bulbous head; a fish, strangely elongated, with a long, darting tongue. “Two moments caught,” he wrote, “and sent from my hand to yours.”

I told him I could feel Gustav kicking, that he woke me sometimes in the night. I told him I longed for his return. I told him I was carrying my father’s disapproval around with me like a stone in my pocket. I told him I dreamt, sometimes, of that five-panelled painting; dreamt that I was standing in front of it, at Paul’s easel, and then suddenly arching my back, lifting off, and diving into the cool, mirrored depths of the river Aare.

Through August, I received no reply. And then, in the first week of September, a letter came.

When I finished reading it, I sat silently in my bedroom in my aunt Magda’s house. From the pocket of my housecoat, I took out the watch my father had given to my mother on their wedding day. I held the watch up to my ear, and listened, and I felt more faith, in that moment, in the quick march of the watch’s tiny hands than in the slow pulsing of my own heart, and that of the child still growing inside me.

The café is busy. Paul finds us a table at the back, away from the blasts of cold air admitted with each new customer, shaking the silted crusts of snow from their shoes. He orders two hot chocolates and a slice of Kirschtorte. I tell him I am not hungry.

As the waiter takes our order, I sense that we are being watched. I look up and see Sissi Habicht at the counter, placing a box of Pfeffernüsse in her purse, her eyes fixed on our table. I hold her gaze. Sissi is the first to look away.

“Someone you know?” Paul says.

“Not really. A customer. A petty gossip.”

“I should not have taken you away from your work.” His Swiss accent, with its curious formality, has softened a little – all those years in Düsseldorf, I suppose; all that travelling, all those exhibitions abroad – but it is still there. “From your husband…”

“I mustn’t be away long.”

Hans. When, a few moments ago, I’d gone through to the workshop to tell him I was stepping out for a short while with an old friend, he had looked at me and said, “You know I don’t like our leaving the shop empty, Asta.” It had only been in my husband’s expression – resigned, distantly hurt – that I’d seen how much it had cost him not to say more. I had wanted to go to Hans, take his hands in mine, but I had not.

The waiter brings our chocolates, thick and dark inside gold-rimmed china cups. I lift mine to my lips, close my eyes, and think how few such moments of vivid, simple pleasure there have been in the years since Paul left me, left us. Hans has done his best – he loved me when nobody else would even look me in the eye; persuaded my father to bring me back into the shop, sullied and sorrowful as I was. Hans’s love for me is pure and true, endlessly forgiving. Mine, for him, is a tarnished thing, born in grief, brokered by gratitude; but it is a love nonetheless, and that is more than might have come to many women such as I.

“I had wanted to bring the watch to you myself,” Paul says. “I wanted to see you.”

I open my eyes. “Why?”

He produces a silver cigarette case from the pocket of his coat. “I don’t expect you to understand. Why should you? But something happened to me in Düsseldorf. Perhaps you heard…” He looks at me, and I shake my head; he leans closer, lowering his voice. “I wouldn’t swear allegiance to them, Asta. I wouldn’t. Art is beyond that – beyond politics, beyond religion, even. ‘Degenerate art’. Their hypocrisy disgusts me.”

He is speaking quietly, so quietly I have to strain to hear, but even so I feel the hateful quickening of my heart; so much fear alive in this city, a black wolf running along its frozen streets. I think of the Baumanns’ bakery. I think of Sissi Habicht and her terrible excitement. I think of my son’s tiny grave, out in the Waldfriedhof, now lying deep under a fresh layer of snow.

He draws out two cigarettes from the case, lights them, and offers one to me. I take it, though I do not usually smoke.

“The day they dismissed me from the Academy,” he says, “I went and sat in the Hofgarten. Perhaps you have been to Düsseldorf?” I shake my head again. “Well, they have a lovely park there, Asta. The lungs of the city. I went there and I sat on a bench, and I watched a family of ducks on the lake. The ducklings were nearly grown – almost all their baby feathers gone. And though I should have been thinking about how my career at the Academy was over, and with it our lives in Germany, I was thinking instead about those ducks. And I thought, ‘My God – my son Gustav would have been thirty-three years old this year.’ And I thought, for the first time in so long, how truly terrible it was to lose him.”

I say nothing. The tobacco is bitter on my tongue.

He says, “I do not ask you to forgive me. I have never forgiven myself.”

“No.”

“Tell me what Gustav looked like, Asta. Tell me how it felt to hold him.”

I look at him. “It is more than you deserve, Paul. Much more.”

“I know it is.” He looks back at me. He is an old man now, as I, too, am old: a man celebrated, praised, and now humbled, forced to slink back to the city of his birth. What use can there be, any longer, for anger?

And so I tell him.

Our son was a tender shoot, bright and new-budded. He was warm flesh and briny tears; legs scissor-kicking, tiny mouth scream-pitched or softly laughing. He smelt of newness and soap and baby sick. He had your eyes. He was an unfinished painting, an empty canvas, a moment that we couldn’t hold fast. He was the taste of hot chocolate in a Munich café, when the streets outside are blanketed with snow.

After I buried him, I wrote to your mother, telling her that the stipend she had offered would not be necessary. You wrote back – six pages in your unsteady, looping hand. On the last page was one of your drawings: a child, stick-figured and spindly. It didn’t look like Gustav, but you had written beneath it, For my son.

When my father came to collect me, to take me home to the shop – to Hans – I took that letter, and that drawing, and I threw them onto the fire. And afterwards, I wept, because now, truly, our son existed only in my mind, in my memory; and it was only there, silently, that I would be able to watch over him.

We say our goodbyes outside the café – I do not want him to walk me back down the street.

Paul does not kiss me, but places a gloved hand on my arm, leaves it there for one second, two, three. No snow is falling now, but the air is so cold it leaves a metallic, burning taste on the tongue; the pavement is thick with it, and the street-sounds seem muffled, unnaturally silent.

He says, “I wish you well, Asta. I truly hope things will not become as bad here as I fear.”

I say, “I hope so too.”

He says, “You have lived a good life, haven’t you? You have found a way to be happy?”

I say, “Yes. I have found a way.”

He nods, then, squeezes my arm gently, and turns to go.

I stand still, watching Paul’s receding figure, until all that remains of him is the dwindling disc of his hat: a black line drawn on a white sheet of paper, now walking off towards the edges of the frame.

 

Featured Image: Ariella Elovic
Author Photo: Charlie Hopkinson