Spandau Sweetheart 1971
RAF Gatow, Berlin, 1971
“Rocking-Horse, Rocking-Horse! The siren sounds the alert, and then you'lll get the voice alert. Rocking-Horse. If you hear Operation Rocking-Horse it's for real. The Russians are here and there's a war in Europe.
It was sheet-change day on the base. The British Air Force wives took their sheets to a building with a kind of long metal counter, that reminded her of a slaughterhouse. Or maybe an operating theatre. Something vaguely medical, where creatures or people died. She had gone there with Olive, in whose house she was staying, two days after she had arrived. Now, a week on from that day, she wasn't going to sheet-change. She supposed Olive had wanted to show her around, help her feel at home. Or maybe Olive, with the three little girls to amuse and look after, in the long hot Berlin summer holiday, could have done with some help. But, she shrugged, she probably wasn't going to start now.
Much later she would think herself unkind for ignoring Olive, as she had. She got up late, ate the bread and preserves (Rose's Lime Marmalade was her favourite, and it went surprisingly well with the dark German bread) Olive had left out, and went wandering. Or sat around the house, idly picking up and putting down the little girls' reading and colouring books. She didn't talk to Olive. She was seventeen, and in Berlin for the summer, for reasons that were not entirely clear to her.
The British Air Force base was in outer West Berlin. Spandau was the nearest shopping centre off the base itself. You could get most things in the NAAFI though. The days were hot. The nights, too. Sometimes there were violent electrical storms, with bouncing balls of blue lightning and sudden, angry downpours. She had told her friends she was going to be “living in Berlin” over the summer. Most of them had said something like “Oh, that”, or, sometimes, “East or West?” with a smirk. People didn't travel, much, in 1971. She had saved up from her Saturday job, and gone to Berlin. Her father had driven her to Harwich, spending most of the journey, it seemed, wondering irascibly aloud why she had to take all these records with her. Vinyl LPs were quite heavy. She had taken along a dozen or so, because after all she was going to be gone for weeks, and how else could she have sounds? At the time she was into the Incredible String Band. She liked Barclay James Harvest and Mott the Hoople too.
She had taken the ferry to the Hook of Holland, and then the train. Just as far as Hanover, because although you could go directly through East Germany to West Berlin, you couldn't arrive at an Allied base from Eastern bloc territory. So she flew from Hanover. It was all terribly exciting and glamorous, and yet somewhere inside she knew that there was nothing at all truly glamorous about being a little grubby, and feeling a little sick, because Potato Puffs, and Mars Bars, and nothing else, had seemed like the right things to eat on the way over. She knew already, as they started their descent into Tempelhof, that she would invent a Berlin summer which would not be much like the summer she was about to have.
Tempelhof was a Nazi airport. She did not know this when they landed there, but it was. Albert Speer had had a hand in its design, and it had amazed Europe when it was opened, in the mid-1930s. It was still avant-garde now, in 1971, and would remain so until it closed, in the first years of the next millennium, when glass and swooping spaces began to be airport vernacular architecture, in Madrid and Manchester and elsewhere, and until airports began to be routinely named after people.
She had followed her brother to Berlin. She had spent most of her life following him, and he most of his ignoring her, or, charmingly, politely, tolerating her. She remembered another summer moment, when she had been perhaps five, and her brother perhaps eight, and they had been in the garden, and he had looked up from something he was doing and said to her, “Lovely sister, it would be so helpful if you just went away for a while. I'll see you at lunch.”
She was not stylish. Her brother often had girlfriends her age. Sometimes they were her friends, or her classmates. They were never the beautiful ones. But they always had style. She remembered a bright blue, rather odd-shaped jacket made of felt, that one of the girlfriends had worn. One of the plainer ones. She had accessorised it with an orange silk scarf, which should have looked ugly, but didn't. Seven years later, she would see a magazine feature styled exactly like it. She herself was not stylish, though. When she looked in the mirror at home she quite liked the way she looked. A mass of auburn hair, which made her look a bit like the girl on the cover of the Blind Faith album, white freckled skin, and very long legs. She had a pair of patchwork hotpants that year. Not the bib ones, those were just wrong: these were just patchwork shorts really, and she liked them, but she knew that all in all she was not stylish, and never would be.
She had followed her brother to Berlin. He had followed his girlfriend of the moment, who was called Magda and was short and rather plain, with straight hair and a pointy nose, and an underbite. Magda was Olive's daughter, and of course her husband Johnny's too. He was the Air Force man, and his job was the reason they were all in Berlin. Magda owed her exotic name to the fact that she was adopted, and it was the name she had come with. It had never been said where Magda had been adopted from, and she privately suspected that Magda was a by-blow of Johnny's, perhaps from earlier times in West Germany. Johnny had an underbite, too. The next child in the family was seven years younger than Magda, and then they went down in two-year stages, all girls. Their names were not at all exotic. They were Susan and Jennifer and Marilyn. When Johnny had been posted to West Berlin two years before, Magda had been just about to take her O-levels, and had been left behind to lodge with family friends. This too was exotic. Magda herself had invited her to Berlin. There had been talk of one or two others coming too, male friends of her brother's, at least one of whom she might have had hopes of, but at the last minute they had not come. So she was very much alone that summer. She didn't really mind that, she thought - it saved bother.
Her own name was Nicola. She didn't like it much. She knew several other girls called Nicola. All of them were her own age. There had been a brief vogue for the name before she was born. It had then disappeared. She didn't think it would ever come back. Nicole was good, though you probably had to be French to carry it off, but Nicola was no good really.
In 1971 the Wall had been there for ten years. It was there to keep the people of East Berlin from crossing to the West. Which too many of them had been doing for the government's liking. Berlin remained a city divided into sectors by the Allied powers, as it had been since 1945. The Wall was, in a way, a separate thing from what the city of Berlin was. It cut across Unter den Linden, so that the Brandenburger Tor sort of peered over the top of it. In the West the Axel Springer empire had its building right up against the Wall, so that those engaged in capitalist comings and goings might look down, as they drank their morning coffee, on no-man's-land, where the number of those killed trying to cross was growing. If they were there at night they might even see it happen. The guards had a shoot-to-kill policy.
The RAF base at Gatow was inside West Berlin, but only just. The Wall ran along the edge of its airfield, though here it was a wire fence rather than a wall. This was supposed to be a military courtesy - when Berlin was originally divided into sectors this had been a Russian base, and had been transferred to the British sector after some negotiation. It was widely thought by those who worked on the base that the wire fence was there to make a military incursion easier. If this happened it would attract the famous Operation Rocking-Horse alert. Most of the people who worked and lived on the base hardly ever left it - they were inside a wall within a Wall.
The river Havel meanders through much of southern and western Berlin. The city is green, at least in the West, and the parks and riversides are full of people on summer days and nights. She wandered them too, sometimes getting herself an ice cream, and then, daringly, a beer, at a cafe in a park. Although she went to pubs sometimes in England, and drank a bitter or a cider there, she did not drink much yet - and she had noticed that while in Germany you might often see a lone middle-aged or elderly woman with a beer, as you did not in England, you did not see a lone teenage girl. In fact you never saw teenage girls on their own. They were always in twos and threes and larger groups, chattering and linking arms, their quick-fire German snapping in the hot air. She did not speak German. But most of the families on the base spoke no German either. This was beginning to change. Quite a lot of the servicemen married German girls instead of bringing wives from England, and they had bilingual children. Some of the families stayed on after their term of service, and became German. But in 1971 this was still rare.
She began to ride the S-bahn, “Einmal Umsteige, bitte!”, which ticket gave her the freedom of all the public transport she dared use. West Berlin, in 1971, though the city did not know it yet, was approaching a crossover point. It was about to cease to be a bastion of capitalism, of creativity, of the alternative, of anything really. After all, Berlin was no longer the capital of Germany. The corridors of West German power were in quiet, complacent Bonn. The little creaking wooden advertising signs in the S-bahn carriages, (“Was trinken wir? Schultheiss Bier!”) and the swaying trams with their leather hanging straps were about to become quaint, as West European cities modernised in the long postwar process, created flyovers and motorways, and streamlined their public transport systems, which usually meant shrinking them. West Germany was doing some of these things, and of course the autobahns were a pre-war notion, but West Berlin was not.
She sat with her beer in the cafe in the park. She was wearing her patchwork shorts, and the backs of her legs were sticky against the wooden seat. A radio was playing inside the cafe, “That's Not The Way To Have Fun, Son”. Then, someone was speaking to her, in German. A Turkish kid, a boy who looked eleven or twelve. When he saw she didn't understand, he mimed a cigarette, with two fingers in front of his mouth. His fingernails were dirty, and his finger ends looked bluish under the dirt. His chest was thin. She shook her head. She'd smoked a cigarette from time to time in the past year or two, but she'd never yet bought any. The Turkish kid moved away, quite purposefully, and she watched him go. She thought he would stop by other people in the park and ask them for cigarettes too, but he did not. On an impulse she got up and followed him.
He walked fast, head down, and was quickly away from the streets which were familiar to her. The pavement got narrower, the sounds and smells changed, and she began to hear what she supposed was Turkish and Arabic as well as German spoken around her. The shops stopped being clean, well-lit supermarkets, and began to be dark-fronted places with meat and fat smells coming from inside, or tattoo parlours, or had military memorabilia and greatcoats in the windows. There were not many women on the street, now. it was still hot, but dimmer. As the light began to fade the Turkish kid ducked in somewhere, she didn't see where.
She stood for a moment, uncertainly. There were cigarette ends and greasy paper wrappings under her feet. She stood there, feeling suddenly very white, in her tie-dye T-shirt and patchwork shorts and bare legs. A woman laughed, somewhere behind her, and another woman's voice called out in Turkish, from somewhere above her. A neon light flashed on in a shopfront to her left. A narrow staircase beside it had Kino Club painted on the wall beside it. She was lost.
She turned back the way she had come, walking fast, not daring to run. Anyway, her feet were flat, and she had never been able to run. The flat wooden sandals she had on, which laced up her thin freckled calves, were no help either.
She was lost. She had turned right into the street she was in, and she turned right out of it instead of left as she should have done. She often did this, and her family said she could get lost in her own living room.
She walked as fast as she could, in the gladiator sandals that were not made for walking fast in. A sign for Spandau was up ahead. When she had been sitting in the park with her beer, a sign like that had been over to her right. But she couldn't see the park, or any trees at all, and the Spandau sign was for cars anyway, and she knew she would be wrong if she tried to cross the dual carriageway she could see ahead of her at the next junction. She stopped for a moment, hearing her heart in her chest and her breathing, noisy now in fear. Ahead of her there were more people, and it was lighter. People were walking fast, getting on and off buses, going home from work. But she couldn't speak German. She didn't even know how to ask a person if they could speak English.
Across the road, before the junction, was a little shop, a mini-supermarket. She could see a plump white lady behind the counter, with scarlet hair, smoking a cigarette. She could go in there. The lady might speak English. Or anyway, she could mime enough to make the lady understand that she needed the phone, and then she could call, and Johnny or Olive would come and get her.A sign flashed on next to the shop, Girls, and the neon sparked on and off, making the hourglass silhouette it showed wink crudely. Her breath rasped in her ears. She stepped off the pavement.
A hand grasped her elbow. She started, her heart still loud in her head. "Careful, girl, you get kill that way. I help you? You lost?" The voice was guttural, the English heavily accented, Turkish, she supposed. Hoarsely, breathlessly, she said “I need to get to Spandau”. “OK, no problem”, the man said. “I take you. My car near.” “No”, she panted, “just tell me how to get there.” She knew it was not a good idea to mention the base at Gatow, because not many people in the centre of the city knew where it was, and might not like it if they did. But Spandau, everyone knew, and she could get back to Olive and Johnny and the British authorities and safety from there. Spandau, Spandau.
The man was heavyset, with old-fashioned long sideburns and, something she had never seen before on a man, a gold earring. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and biker boots. She supposed he was about forty. She had never seen a man his age in jeans before, not anyone she knew, anyway. He had hold of her elbow now, and they had turned a corner. The bright thoroughfare with the bus-stops and the commuters in summer jackets had disappeared. She was gasping now, trying not to sob. There was a car. He began to push her in, not gently. For the first time, she pulled away from him, hard, and leaned her body away from his, ready to run. He pushed down on her shoulder, roughly, and she lost her balance and tipped into the passenger seat.
In the car, he closed the driver's door and slapped the side of her thigh, hard, and she moved her legs away. The car moved off, round corner after corner. It was dusk now, and the street lights were coming on. They stopped. She was paralysed with horror. It was almost as though she were watching a film, a film in which she herself was being taken away.
“Spandau, please", she said faintly.
“Get out of car."
“Where are we?"
“This Kreuzberg. My place. Get out.”
Then they were down some stairs, in a dark room that smelt of cigarettes and sweat and something like incense. He kept hold of her forearm. He sat down. He said, “You lovely girl. No worry, no frighten, I with you. You not hurt.” He ran his hand up the inside of her thigh. He put his thumb inside her shorts, just far enough, and with his other arm moved her, slowly, slowly, back and forth, then quicker. He was breathing hard, and then, with a profound exhalation, sat back.
“Now, lovely girl, I take you Spandau. You my Spandau sweetheart.”
He dropped her off at the Spandau shopping centre. He said, “I find you again. Every day here, four o'clock. This good for you. My Spandau sweetheart. I lucky I find you.”
She told Olive and Johnny she had got lost walking around, and they told her to be careful and stick to wide streets and where there were plenty of people. She had thought her brother would have arrived that afternoon, but he had not. He and Magda had taken off to the Wannsee and would meet some others there, maybe go camping.
That night there was a storm. She lay awake as the thunder crashed, listening to the electrical hiss of the power lines outside her window, and to the plaintive chatter of the little girls in the next room.
“This good for you.”
She was there, at four o'clock the next afternoon, and he took her again, in his car, to Kreuzberg. This time two other men were there in the shadows, watching. She didn't see their faces clearly, and she didn't look at them anyway. She looked at her own white arms and legs, there in the sticky gloom.
Every day she was there, in the room in Kreuzberg under the Wall, and every day she was there in the dark. Men were there, watching. Sometimes they touched her. Sometimes not. Sometimes they told her what to do. Afterwards she found Deutschmarks tucked into her tiny shoulder bag or the waistband of her shorts. She was glad to have them.
Especially as she hadn't done anything to get them.
Three weeks later, in the last days of August, she told Olive and Johnny she didn't want to wait for her brother any longer. She was polite, and thanked them for having her, and said she had changed her ticket, and thought it would be fun to fly all the way back. They didn't say much, but drove her to the airport. It was an evening flight, and they were almost late, because they had to pick up the little girls on the way, from a Kinder Party. This was something the German community in Spandau put on several times a year, to bring the Allied (no longer occupying) forces closer to ordinary German people in West Berlin. The little girls were deeply unimpressed with the Kinder Party. It was full of Germans, they squealed in some disgust, squirming and shrieking in the back seat, over the top on sugar and superiority.
It was only on board the plane, when the No Smoking sign went off and people around her lit up, that she realised that in all those days in Spandau she had never once seen the prison.