Harz stared up at the building on the edge of the ring-road, oblivious to the roar of passing traffic behind him. The street ahead looked like a normal, attractive, old-town avenue, the lime trees in full leaf, people sitting at tables drinking from coffee cups and beer glasses.
Harz felt anything but normal. He was trying to screw up the courage to go through the large wooden doors. The only other time he’d entered the building had been twenty five years ago, under armed escort.
They’d been gathering at the church – the Nickolaikirche – for weeks, to speak out freely, a small sanctuary in a city of surveillance. He remembered clearly what they’d been told that evening. If you’re arrested, don’t struggle, don’t be violent, just shout out your name so we know who you are and hold your candle tightly in your two outstretched hands. They’re less likely to attack you if you’re holding a candle.
And it had worked. He hadn’t been assaulted. He’d been arrested and taken to the building on the ring road.
All these years later, standing on the doorstep of the building, he could still feel the terror of that cell, still smell the sweat and urine, still see the two small beds and the blocked toilet in the corner.
He took a deep breath, pushed open the wooden door and stepped into the foyer. They were tables full of leaflets explaining how the building had been used by the security service. Harz wandered in a daze through the rooms, trying to take in the displays in the glass cabinets, the recording equipment, piles of cassette tapes, a pair of slippers just like the ones he’d had to wear, a seat just like the one where he’d been photographed from three different angles, a map of the city, full of pinholes, but no pins, each hole representing a property that had been used by the long arm of the security service.
Harz tried to bring himself to look at the framed lists and photographs on the walls, to read the words describing interrogations like his own, to comprehend just how many unpaid informants there had been – thousands of them, providing information about their neighbours.
His father had warned him time and again about the risks. But his father had been from a different generation. He hadn’t resented the restrictions. He’d kept his head down, worked hard at the gasworks, tilled his allotment and enjoyed a few beers at the weekends.
His father had only lived for a year after the revolution and Harz had always wished there’d been more time for them to get to know each other as adults.
Standing on the pavement once again, back out in the sunshine he found he was shaking. He needed to get to the church. He hurried through the narrow streets, crossed the Markt, passed the Altes Rathaus and only slowed his pace when he saw the spire ahead of him. He ignored the tourists inside, snapping everything in sight and sat in a pew in the far corner, with his eyes closed, his breathing steadier.
It was his first trip back to his home town. After his mother’s death, he’d immersed himself in his academic life in America and tried to bury his memories of the past. He’d become an expert on the works of Goethe, lectured at seminars and conferences, gradually developed his reputation.
But, eventually, memories of the past had wormed their way back to the surface and he’d felt unable to resist the pull of ‘home’ any longer.
When he finally opened his eyes and began to rise from the pew, he saw a face, one he recognised instantly - the jutting chin, sunken cheeks, something almost cartoon-like about its exaggerated features. As the figure slipped through the church door into the sunlight, Harz followed, keeping his eyes on the man’s shock of white hair.