The Ghost and The Refugee

Do you remember me taking this photograph? We were in that hotel in northern Germany; or at least it had been a hotel when I discovered it two years earlier. By the time I got around to making an offer for the building it was filled with asylum seekers – some of the thousands of refugees flooding into the country from the East. Did we actually call them refugees? In fact did we refer to them at all as we ducked underneath the clotheslines strung across the restaurant or stepped over the couples sat on the stairs. I wanted a shot from the restaurant into the corridor with the reception in the background. The bar had to be in the photograph; preferably with you stood behind it. But then he appeared in front of me, posing, standing to attention like a soldier. As far as I can remember he said nothing. Can you remember him speaking? Afterwards perhaps, when he followed us out to the car.

Thinking about it I don’t recall him talking. His was a monochrome image in a silent age. He is still here of course, still in the hotel; but only as that black and white image, the boy himself is long gone. I’m using his photograph as a bookmark; inserted in the pages of Le Carre’s ‘A Most Wanted Man,’ at the point I stopped reading, the point where it becomes apparent the story does not end well for the young asylum seeker. Le Carre’s asylum seeker that is: not ours. If our story had turned out as I planned you would be downstairs now, organising breakfast and checking out the guests and I would be laying here listening to your voice echo up the stairs. Instead I am just another guest, another businessman, car parked on the opposite side of the road for two days; or what was the road until the main highway south was diverted around the village and the forest swallowed the hotel.

I packed the book when leaving Britain. It had been on my shelf for a year or so. Were it not for this two-day break in the journey between Köln and Berlin it would probably have remained unread. The boy’s photograph was taken, on impulse, from an old album. I hadn’t given him much thought since the day, about a year after that first visit, I was stood beside my Mercedes at the back the building. This building: a hotel again by then, albeit an empty one. I don’t think the policeman breathing down my neck had a gun in his hand. He was undoing the holster as he told me to place my hands flat on the roof of the car but the incident was reasonably amicable. He was just making it clear, using as few words as possible, that I wasn’t going anywhere until his colleague had searched the hotel.

So as doors were flung open and boots tramped up and down three flights of stairs I thought of the young refugee. As I said, he was no longer here. Asylum centres in North Germany had been firebombed and the relatively small amount of money earned from housing migrants suddenly seemed less attractive. The policeman wasn’t looking for him anyway, he was searching for a ghost, one that appears in the imagination of German policemen after seeing someone climb out the driver’s seat of a left hand drive car. My policeman, the one with the imaginary gun, not the one with the loud boots, confirmed this was the case, asking several times who else had been in the car. I could have told him it was you. After all sometimes it was you. On those occasions when I wasn’t travelling to you, or away from you, it was you sitting beside me in the car – my ghost.

Eventually boot-stamping policeman abandoned his search. Through the Romanesque style windows I saw him making a cursory examination of the restaurant. He missed the cellar: no doubt mistaking the small entrance door in the kitchen for a cupboard. Is that where you were hiding, finger held to your lips warning the young refugee to remain silent until the sound of boots faded and the rear door of the hotel slammed shut?

Then there were two policemen asking why I was visiting the hotel. I could remove my hands from the roof of the car but not take my papers from the glove compartment, the boot-stamping policemen did that.

This was still the same tense, edgy, monochrome, country the refugee had arrived in over twelve months earlier. Policemen, along with everyone else, were nervously watching the border just fifty kilometres to the east; viewing with suspicion anyone, especially those driving foreign cars, that passed through it frequently and with comparative ease. Perhaps I had come back to see the refugee. To ask him a few more questions. “What were your teachers saying about the West?” Where did your father work and what as?” “Had the doctor in you village fled to West before you left?” Fragments of intelligence for the big picture, gathered from children before their parents realise your interests extend beyond the architecture of the building they are sheltering in. Yes, I remember now, the refugee did speak to us as we walked back to the car. But talking to him again would have been pointless. There was no longer any need for fragments of intelligence; as cracks opened up in the Berlin wall the big picture was becoming obvious to everyone.

After examining my papers the police let me go and I returned to Springe; a small town a few kilometres south of the hotel. We were staying there if you remember. Springe too was looking to the East, though in expectation rather than with apprehension. The town had been patiently waiting, for over four decades, for the border to reopen. You remember that sculpture, the wire frame family hoisting up a sign showing the distance, in kilometres, to Dresden, Leipzig and Potsdam – the cities so many residents of Springe left in 1945. And while they waited, while they faced east but looked west, they held their breath, their small town frozen in time.

We would sit in the Café Thörmer on winter afternoons, listening to the old soldiers and their tales of Stalingrad; their wives brutally cutting into the story when the light faded. Pulling the collars of fur coats tight around their necks the women would lead silenced husbands out into the snow-covered street. Usually you would leave with them and the Café would fall silent. I would be left to finish my Apfelkuchen and coffee as outside the cobbled streets and timber frame buildings froze. Perfectly preserved beneath the ice so the ghosts from the East, when eventually they arrived, would feel at home.

It was later, one spring evening, as we sat in the garden, that I promised to stay forever. Holding my plane ticket over a candle we watched flames reduce it to ash and then talked of the hotel. But that never happened and I didn’t stay. The summer nights were stifling and the town became claustrophobic. Unable to sleep I would walk up to the edge of the forest above the town, sit on the wall in the pool of light below Heinrich Göbel’s memorial, and stare eastwards. Sometimes the witches would rise up from the Hexentanzplatz and chase me deep into the labyrinthine forest from where, like Ariadne, you would rescue me. But the more flesh and blood you became the less real you were, eventually fading into the memory of the person, out of focus, in the background of that photograph..

Then the wall fell. I’m not sure what I, or anyone else in Springe for that matter, was expecting. We all knew of the East. I had been back many times: to search for you in the potholed and paint peeled villages and amongst the grey concrete apartment blocks. Sometimes you were a shadow in the garden of an abandoned house or a voice in a restaurant, but never real enough to smuggle back across the border. I felt contempt for those who spent four decades trapped with you behind the barbed wire and guard towers. Their inability to bring you back to life was, in my eyes at least, a betrayal of trust.

The dream of us and the hotel remained just that, a dream. I doubt you would recognise Springe today: the Café Thörmer closed, replaced by an ice cream parlour. But why go on preserving the past for someone who refuses to return and live in it. And perhaps I should tell you now you were never my ghost, you belonged to a young soldier who scrambled across the Elbe in 1945. You were everything he left behind: inaccessibly, and as close to a religious experience as is possible in this secular age.

Despite remaining illusive for so long, last night you were here again. Waking from a fever racked sleep I felt your hand touch mine. The aroma of Kölnisch Wasser still hangs in my room as I dress and you whisper softly as I pull back the blinds and push open the window. You are on the stairs waiting for last guests to leave so you can clean their rooms. Or you are until the girl speaks to me in Romanian and you take flight, caught on an iced slice of spring breeze that carries you out between the billowing curtains and east across the plains of Lower Saxony.

I think of him again, our refugee, as I’m standing by the reception desk. “Would you mind if I took a photograph?” I ask the girl, who isn’t you, behind the desk. Taking the monochrome boy from between the pages of the book I work out where I was standing, twenty-five years ago, when I took that photograph. The camera imitates the sound of a shutter and the frozen image, colour this time, appears on the screen. Not exactly sure what I’m expecting, but I find the emptiness of the resulting picture jarring.

Is it just the stark contrast between the hardcopy black and white photograph and the colour image on the screen? Three megabytes of modernity pasted over a now forgotten part of this building’s history? Now sitting in the car I cup my hand around the camera, shielding the screen from the sunlight. I wonder where he is now, the refugee now missing from the three hundred year narrative of the building. A story that began with the Ludwig Knigge post hostel and ended with the present day hotel and hiker’s retreat. Did he stay in the west? Is there, somewhere in Germany, a thirty five year old businessman sitting in his car, about to drive to a business meeting? Did he repay his father for the life savings handed over to people traffickers and corrupt border guards by fulfilling all the dreams his father abandoned?

It was always more than a mere photograph wasn’t it? As that refugee and I stood facing each other he was looking into his future while I was looking into my past. And did he see you standing behind me? Did he realise that, as an act of faith, one day he too would inherit not just his father’s dreams but also his father’s ghosts? Or, unlike me, did he find material wealth filled the spiritual void in which ghosts like you reside.

Is that why we are back here: to see if that void has been filled? To discover whether you too have been airbrushed from the history of this building. Perhaps this is an attempt to convince myself you were an illusion and that in the cold, twenty-four bit colour, light of day you will simply disappear. But as illusions go you have always proved particularly illusive. Now you have found a new home, the Internet, where your very transience enhances your persistence. You have become a fragmented collection of sounds and images, capable of crystallising on a screen: coming into being at the time, and in the form, of your own choosing. So where are you now? Have you returned to the place we once called home?

Perhaps, returning to your apartment one winter’s evening, your eye is caught by the pale yellow light from a window cast into a rectangle on the pavement of a quiet side street of a city on the verge of sleep. You walk towards the light, the freezing slush crunching under your feet like broken glass. As you push against the door of the small café a rush of warm air from inside, heavy with the smell of coffee, cinnamon and warm bread, leaves you light headed. Maybe this is how ghosts feel when they walk into someone’s dream. You sit by the window and pull off your gloves, one finger at a time. The coffee is brought to the table and you press your cold hands against the warm cup. Outside it has started to snow again. The waiter reaches down behind the glass counter and lifts out the last slice of Apfelkuchen which he carefully packs into a cardboard box. You stay sitting at your table staring out of the window long after draining the last mouthful of coffee from your cup. The manager apologises as he places the ‘closed’ sign in the window, perhaps realising you are waiting for someone. After pulling on your gloves and wrapping a scarf around your neck you take the box from the counter and step out into the night, closing the door behind you slowly so as not to wake the slumbering city.

Cars have stopped rumbling along the dumbstruck cobbled streets. Tramlines are buried under a blanket of powdery snow. Serpent like tyre tracks run alongside your footprints as you push your bicycle along the pavement, moving silently from one pool of orange light to another. The apartment too is quiet: but bright compared to the poorly lit lobby, on the floor of which puddles of water are already forming around the wheels of your bicycle and discarded shoes.

The cardboard box is placed in the middle of the kitchen table. You look briefly at the black and white photograph stood on the bookshelf next to the radio that you only turn on rarely to blunt the silence. Another glance at the photograph as, seated at the table, you take the Apfelkuchen from the box and cut it in two. Half for the ghost, half for the refugee.