Alone in the silence and pale light of his attic room, Henrik pondered over an atlas, open at a page showing north Germany and Denmark. He ran his finger over the untidy configuration of islands and peninsulas lying scattered along Denmark’s eastern seaboard where some Nordic god, in a fit of rage or playful vandalism, had apparently gone down the coast with his hammer, smashing off chunks and flinging them into the sea. One of the chunks was marked Lysholm, and a dot near the north-west side bore the name Norvik. That dot was his destination. More than that, it was the key to his infancy. He imagined putting the dot under a microscope, like a drop of water, magnifying it a thousand times and seeing in microcosm the first three years of his life, which had always been a blank sheet for him. Up to now, whenever he had felt the impulse to fill in the blank, he had reminded himself of certain basic Marxist axioms: that human beings are shaped by their material circumstances and their class affiliation, not by their ancestry; and that what matters is your part in the world-wide triumph of the proletariat and the emergence of a universal, classless society, not your blood, nor the place where you were born, nor its customs and traditions.
Yet now, seeing the dot waiting to be placed under the microscope, he felt a long pent-up wish to know what was in it. The Stasi’s careful enquiries had revealed that the Karlssen family were still living at Norvik, running a fruit and vegetable farm. The family consisted of Birthe Karlssen and her husband Sven and their two grown children, Niels and Kirsten, as well as Niels’s wife and two small children. He pictured a cosy farmhouse set in blossoming orchards, the family happily living in the illusion that the past was safely buried.
Kurt had been right about one thing: Henrik certainly had to write a letter. He pushed the atlas aside and reached for a sheet of paper and a ball-point pen. The first problem was which language to use. At the Stasi Academy he had studied English and later Danish. His Danish reading comprehension was good, but his speaking and writing were still rudimentary. Perhaps his mother spoke German, but he could not be sure. English seemed the best option, but now he realised that it was one thing to take a course in English at the Stasi Academy and quite another to write a delicately phrased letter to a mother who might not even want to be reminded that he existed. The instructor on the course had been an elderly ex-schoolmaster, Dr. Schulz, who had taught for a year at a minor English public school back in the 1920s and prided himself on his command of colloquial words, idioms and phrases, of which he composed long lists that he made his students learn off by heart. Lutz Erdmann had been a diligent pupil, but the English he had learned now seemed pitifully inadequate and potentially old-fashioned. How was he to begin?
Henrik found it painfully ironic that he should have to write the most important letter he had ever written using a language which he had never studied in any depth. If his mother tossed it aside and refused to see him he would soon be back in the GDR and going nowhere in his profession. Oriental music floated up from Claudia’s rooms on the floor below, a slow, heavily rhythmic sounding of gongs and drums, accompanied by deep male voices of what sounded like Tibetan monks. After some minutes it ceased and heavy, percussive rock music made the floor vibrate. He was growing used to Claudia’s alternating moods. One minute she was meditating, the next she was in party mode. He struggled to focus his mind on the letter again, searching for the right words and expressions.
“I have no optic memory of you, and you would probably not recognise me as your son, as I was only an infant when you last saw me. I am now twenty-five and desperately nourishing the hope of you once again seeing.”
He wondered about his father. He knew virtually nothing of the man except his name, Heinz Ackermann, and the fact that he was a German corporal and had been killed later in the war. He found himself speculating how they might have met. Maybe the corporal had raped her. If that was what had happened, then his mother would be doubly reluctant to see him. For the first time in his life he began to wonder seriously about the man whose genes he carried, and about his unknown German relatives. Somewhere in Germany he probably had uncles, aunts and cousins – he might even have passed one of them in the street without realising it.
He finished the letter, giving his address and phone number in Hamburg and saying that he hoped she would call or write, even if it was only to say that she would not see him. He put the letter in an envelope and attached a stamp, intending to post it at once. Today was Sunday, but it would be collected first thing in the morning, and with luck would reach her on Tuesday or Wednesday.
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