39. The Professor’s manuscript

I spent the rest of Friday and then most of the weekend at the hospital, waiting to see if the Professor was going to regain consciousness and trying to get some information out of the perpetually harried doctors.

I finally managed to corner one of them — an Italian woman in her late 30s whose wedge-cut hairstyle and single earring made me suspect she was a lesbian — who confirmed that the Professor had had a mild stroke. No, she didn’t know when he might wake up. They were fairly confident there had been no significant brain damage, but it was impossible to tell for sure at this stage. She had no idea how long he might have to stay in hospital.

In the mean time, there were no signs that the Professor knew I was there. In fact the only way I knew he was still alive was the gentle rising and falling of his chest.

But when I came in at nine on Monday morning his eyes were open. Somehow I got the feeling he knew it was Monday and there was work to be done.

His body didn’t move but his eyes followed me as I came and sat by his bed. I asked him how he was feeling, suddenly self-conscious now that he was awake again.

He mumbled something I couldn’t understand. “Sorry?” I said.

“Manu …,” he repeated, his voice a dry, indistinct croak. He had to say it again before I got what he meant.

“Manuscript? You have a manuscript?”

He made a grunt which I took to be an affirmation. I leaned closer in order to hear better and asked him which manuscript he meant.

“Mar,” he said.

“Mar?” I couldn’t think what he meant.

With great effort he forced out the word “Marx.”

“It’s to do with Marx?”

Again the affirmative grunt. Then, “Desk.”

“It’s on your desk? In your office?”

“Flat.”

“It’s on the desk on your flat.”

Grunt.

“And what should I do with it?”

“Ham.”

“Ham?” I was stuck again. Then I realised what he meant. “Oh, Hamburg. You want me to send it to Hamburg?”

Another grunt. Then he closed his eyes. The effort seemed to have exhausted him.

38. An emergency

I was dreaming that my alarm clock was going off. I kept trying to switch it off but it kept ringing. This seemed to go on for a frustratingly long time, until I realised that the telephone was actually ringing in the real world and I woke up. I could see a room that wasn’t mine dimly illuminated by artificial light coming through the window and had no idea where I was. Then the light beside the bed went on and I saw my ex-girlfriend getting out of bed, turning into Jasmilla in the process.

I lay back down, waiting for all the light and noise to stop so I could go back to sleep. I was grateful when the telephone stopped ringing. I was sure the aberration would soon be over. But the tone of Jasmilla’s voice made me realise something was wrong. I sat up in bed and tried to figure out what was going on. But either my brain was too befuddled, or Jasmilla’s side of the conversation was not informative enough, because I still didn’t know what was happening by the time Jasmilla hung up. I just knew something really bad had happened.

“It’s the Professor,” said Jasmilla, coming back over. “He’s been taken into hospital.”

“Is he ok? What happened?” Suddenly I felt completely sober.

“They don’t know. Tanja found him unconscious in the flat.”

She sat on the edge of the bed and told me the whole story. It had been Tanja, the Professor’s daughter, who had called. She had come home from a night out with friends to find her father lying on the floor in the kitchen. She had called an ambulance, then, while she was waiting for them to come, she had wanted to tell someone else and ask for help. But the few relations she and her father were in contact with lived far from Berlin, and she didn’t know any of her father’s friends. Then she had seen Jasmilla’s number written on a notepad next to the telephone and had called it in desperation.

“We have to go to the hospital,” I said when Jasmilla had finished, my wits once more about me. “Is there a taxi stand near here, or should we call one?

“You can get a taxi at the stand on Tor Straße,” she said. “Or you might be able to hail one down.”

“Aren’t you going to come?”

Jasmilla paused before replying. “You know the Professor much better than I do.”

“But you just did all that work for him. And he had you over for dinner and everything, he really likes you. And I’d really like it if you came to the hospital with me.”

Jasmilla looked down. “Sorry Richard. I need to get up in the morning to work on my exhibition. I only have a few more days to get it ready …”

Before she could finish, I had got up and was heading for the door.

Half an hour later, I was at the hospital in Prenzlauer Berg. I was a couple of marks short of the taxi fare, but the driver, an Iranian living in exile, let me off when I explained the situation, saying I could give the money to him next time I saw him. It was just starting to get light, and when I checked my watch I saw it was 5:30.

After waiting several minutes for a drunken woman to finish having an argument with the receptionist — a dispute which was resolved by two security guards coming and physically dragging her away — I managed to find out which ward the Professor was in. The nurse on duty refused to let me see him at first, repeatedly explaining that it wasn’t visiting hours and I wasn’t family, and I was almost reduced to tears of frustration when Tanja appeared out of the ward. I quickly explained to her — out of the earshot of the nurse — who I was.

She then started a new round of the conversation, and, with the relentless persistence that I have since learned almost always manages to break down the resistance of German bureaucrats, finally persuaded the nurse to let me see “Herr Leberknecht,” as the sister insisted on calling him.

The Professor had a room to himself. I had been expecting him to be covered with the usual medical vines and tendrils that I associated with hospitals, but he was lying peacefully asleep in a spotlessly clean bed, illuminated by the glow of a dim light above his head. His face was free of its habitual wrinkles — I had never seen his brow look as smooth — and there was the hint of a smile on his lips.

We pulled up institutional plastic chairs up to the bed and sat there in silence for a while, just watching him. After a while I asked Tanja in a low voice if they knew what was wrong with him.

“They think he might have had a mild stroke,” she said. “They’re going to do some tests in the morning.” In that moment she seemed a lot older than she really was.

The hospital began to wake up around seven and I could hear the sounds of conversation and vigorous bustling coming from outside the room. Tanja looked exhausted and I suggested she go home and sleep. After repeated assurances that I would phone her as soon as anything happened, she relented.

I dozed for a little as best I could in the chair until a nurse came in and started checking the Professor’s pulse and taking his temperature. She left, and then a doctor came in to take a look at him. He wouldn’t give me any information other than they were going to do some tests.

Just before nine, I called Ana from the hospital’s pay phone to tell her that I wouldn’t be coming to work. She was concerned when I told her what had happened and it was all I could do to persuade her not to come rushing over to the hospital herself. Again I promised to let her know as soon as I heard anything.

“By the way, I ordered the courier for you,” Ana said just as I was about to ring off.

“Courier?” I asked blankly.

“For your manuscript. Henk wanted you to send it to Hamburg directly, remember?”

“Of course,” I said, struggling to keep a pretence of calm.

After I hung up, I tried to think what to do. I had completely forgotten about the manuscript with all that had happened. There was no way I was going to get it finished now, but I didn’t care. I didn’t feel like the book had anything to do with me any longer. I would just send the Hamburg editors what I had and they would have to make do with that. Maybe they could cut a chapter or they could ask me to write the missing pieces later. I would worry about that another time.

But how to get the manuscript to the courier? I didn’t want to leave the hospital. Then I had an idea.

“Of course I can give the manuscript to the courier,” said Krebs after I had phoned him to ask if he could take care of it.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “It’s on my desk,” I added, wanting to make sure he would get it right.

Yes, he knew it was on my desk, he said. He had seen me working on it the day before.

“It’s the English course,” I explained.

Of course it was the English course, he said. He knew exactly which manuscript I meant. He would make sure the courier got it.

Feeling relieved that was all taken care of, I thanked him, promised I would keep him informed of any developments in the Professor’s condition, and hung up.

37. The kiss

Thirty minutes later, I was waiting for Jasmilla at the Five Goats. I had offered to meet her and lend her some moral support, an offer she had gratefully accepted — although somehow she still managed to be late, not that I minded. The manuscript was abandoned in my office, I could finish it in the morning.

I felt a curious sense of anticipation. Of course, I was sorry that the Professor had fired her, but I felt flattered that she had chosen me to talk to when she was upset. And I felt already on the telephone the situation had given us a new closeness. I was looking forward to playing the role of confidante. And who knew where all that pent-up emotion might lead?

She looked fabulous when she finally turned up, and I realized she had spent time getting ready — a good sign. Her make-up was perfect and she was wearing a tight black polo neck.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek — which I found more exciting than ever. For some reason I just knew that something was going to happen.

She sat down and I poured her a glass of the wine I had ordered in anticipation. My hand brushed against hers as we chinked glasses. “To sorrows drowned,” I proposed.

I listened as she told me the whole sorry tale again. It did sound like the Professor had been mean to her, which I still couldn’t understand. He was normally so polite and I thought he really liked Jasmilla. It must be the stress from over-work, I thought, and felt guilty for refusing to help him the last time he asked.

As we spoke, Jasmilla gradually cheered up — a function more likely of the wine than my consoling presence. Soon she was re-telling the story again, this time as comedy rather than tragedy, imitating the way the Professor had spoken to her. I remember finding it intensely amusing at the time, although I’m no longer sure why it was so funny.

Then we decided we were hungry, so Jasmilla had a word with Herr Speck, the owner. Soon two steaming plates of spaghetti appeared, even though no one else in the place was eating and there was no menu. It tasted delicious and we ordered another bottle of wine to go with it. That bottle got finished too and another was ordered. Or possibly it appeared of its own accord, courtesy of Herr Speck — my recollections of that part of the evening are hazy, although I do remember we were both in high spirits and getting on famously.

Then Jasmilla mentioned a bottle of vodka which she had at home, which someone had just sent her and which was the most special kind of vodka available, for reasons which now escape me. We decided it would be a capital idea if we went back to hers to try out the vodka, even though spirits were frankly the last thing we needed, we were already so drunk. Somehow the bill got settled without any money appearing to change hands (I remember shaking Herr Speck by the hand and thanking him effusively and at length) and we walked back to Jasmilla’s flat, linking arms.

There, we sat in her kitchen, which had a beautiful view of the TV Tower and Berlin rooftops. Jasmilla produced the vodka from her fridge and poured it out into souvenir shot glasses from St. Petersburg. For some reason I insisted that she teach me some Russian, and we began repeating phrases together. At some point — and I no longer have any idea how this happened — my hand ended up on her thigh, and soon after that she was sitting on my lap and we were kissing.

I had been anticipating this moment for so long that at first it seemed natural, as if it was something we did every Thursday night. Then I remembered how special this moment was, and how amazing it was that I was actually kissing Jasmilla. Then I started worrying that if I was thinking too much then I might not be kissing well — I didn’t want her to be dissatisfied with my kissing — so I paid more attention to my technique. Finally I stopped thinking and began to enjoy the experience for what it was.

Then Jasmilla suggested we get into bed, which we did. There we continued kissing until, tired and drunk, we both fell asleep.

36. Demotivated in Berlin

The next few days were unpleasant. I tried to phone Isobel to speak to her, but Ingrid told me — very apologetically — that Isobel didn’t want to talk to me. I didn’t hear anything else from the Professor. I could kiss goodbye to my editor’s credit now.

And it was depressing to be in the flat all by myself. Now that Isobel was no longer helping me, I really was going to struggle to get the book finished in time. There was no way I would have time if I went back to work, so I got myself signed off for another week. I would have to go back to work on the day before the deadline, but I figured I would just about have the manuscript finished by then.

I did as best as I could to get by without Isobel’s help. I copied her texts and instructions from earlier chapters to use in later ones, changing a word here and there. The pressing deadline concentrated my mind wonderfully and I progressed with the work at a satisfactory pace. But any pleasure I had taken in the work was now entirely gone. Without Isobel’s input, the material was boring, but I no longer cared about producing shoddy work. I knew Henk would not be satisfied with it, and I could forget about getting my internship extended. But I didn’t care. I was sick of the book, sick of Henk and sick of the Verlag.

At the same time, the pleasure I had taken in being in Berlin had also disappeared. I no longer thought of it as “Berlin,” but just as a tedious and inconvenient city. I had to limit my trips outside to the absolute minimum, in case anybody saw me. I was on bad terms with three of the five people I considered friends in Berlin. As far as the other two were concerned, with Markus I had to maintain the fiction that I was ill, and I imagined Wolfgang would take his sister’s side, for the sake of a quiet life if nothing else.

I took some consolation in the fact that I was only going to be in Berlin for a few more weeks. I changed my ticket so that I would fly home a few days before Christmas. I wouldn’t be returning to Berlin. I would speak to my advisor in Edinburgh when I got back and see if I could sort something out. Perhaps I could do another internship elsewhere in Germany in the new year. I didn’t really care.

“So you’re feeling better, then?” Ana asked when I went into the office on the Thursday, the day before the deadline.

“Oh, yes,” I said, suddenly remembering my back pain and making sure to wince a little as I walked. “I’m still not completely better, but I’m well enough to be back at work.”

“Well, don’t overdo it,” said Ana, sternly, who clearly thought I should be signed off. “You shouldn’t come back to work until you’re completely fit. You don’t want to end up like the Professor, do you?”

I was seized by a sudden feeling of alarm. “Did something happen to him?”

“He’s off work sick, too. At least, I think he is. He phoned in sick on Monday — just for that day — and nobody has heard anything from him since then. He’s not answering his phone. We’re all worried about him. I feel like going round to his flat myself to make sure he’s okay.”

When I went in to see Markus later — I wanted to ask him to check some of the German in my manuscript for me — he agreed the Professor’s absence was worrying.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“Let’s leave it another couple of days and see if we hear from him. If we haven’t heard anything by Monday, we can go to his flat and check on him. It could just be that he’s pretending to be off sick so that he can get some work done in peace. He’s done that before.” I gave an embarrassed cough and didn’t say anything.

I went through to my office. I was relieved to see that Krebs wasn’t there — although a half-empty empty coffee cup on his desk suggested he wasn’t far away — so I would be able to get some work done.

I sat down at my desk and took out my manuscript and my copy of “Let’s Speak English.” Markus had pointed out some spelling mistakes in words I had copied from the book, and I wanted to make sure I got the spelling right this time.

After I had done that, I started work on the final chapter, which I still hadn’t done. I was feeling stressed by this point. I was going to need all my time to get it finished by the next day.

But before I could get into the work, the telephone rang. It was Ana. “Henk wants to see you in his office. Now.”

That didn’t sound good. “Did he say what it was about?”

“No. But he’s in a bad mood, so I wouldn’t keep him waiting.”

“Mr. Wilson,” Henk said as I hurried, out of breath, into his office a couple of minutes later. “I was wondering when you were going to put in an appearance.”

“Er, and why was that, Herr Henk?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“Why,” he said, breaking into a false grin, “isn’t it obvious? Today’s the big day.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not quite following you.”

“Take a seat, Wilson.” He indicated the chair in front of him. “Now, today is the deadline for your book ‘English in a Flash.’ You haven’t forgotten about that, have you?”

“But, er, tomorrow’s the deadline,” I said, totally confused.

Henk didn’t seem happy that I had contradicted him. “I think you’ll find, Mr Wilson, that today is the deadline. After all, I’m going on holiday for three weeks tomorrow. I would hardly set the deadline for the first day of my holiday, now would I?” As proof, he showed me his desk diary, pointing at that day’s entry. Sure enough, the deadline was written in under Thursday, with his holiday — he was going to Mallorca, I saw — marked down for the Friday.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I must have made a mistake.” What I didn’t bother mentioning — it would only serve to irritate him further — was that I could see that the deadline had originally been written in the box for Friday, but had been erased, presumably when he booked his holiday.

“Well, the most important thing” — he indicated the manuscript lying on his desk — “is that the book is finished. Anyone can forget a date.”

Before I could say anything, he had picked up the manuscript and was leafing through it. He started firing questions at me about the content, so that I didn’t get the chance to tell him it wasn’t actually finished.

“This is all looking very good,” he said. “There are a few things that need to be changed, of course, but the editors in Hamburg can … Hang on, what’s going on here?”

He had reached the end of chapter 11 and was looking for chapter 12, turning the manuscript over to see if he had missed anything and checking through the papers on his desk. “I’m sorry, Wilson, I don’t know what’s happened… I can’t find the last chapter.”

“I’m afraid there, er, isn’t a chapter 12,” I began. “I was meaning to tell you, but –”

“Wilson, we agreed that there would be 12 chapters. Where is chapter 12?”

“Er, I haven’t finished it yet.”

“But the deadline was today.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll get it finished by tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow will be too late. I’ll be on holiday. I was going to write in my comments this evening on the train back to Hamburg, then drop it off at the office tonight so that the editors can start work on it tomorrow. We need to get it on to the market in two week’s time if we’re going to have any chance of benefitting from the Christmas boom. And I’m away for two weeks.”

He stood up, paced over to the window, tapped on it, then came back to his desk. “I know. Why don’t you give me the first 11 chapters now, and then send the last chapter to Hamburg tomorrow? At least that way I can write my comments on most of the book.”

“Er, I actually need to make a few more changes to the other chapters as well. There are still some exercises missing, and I found some mistakes I need to correct.”

“Bloody hell!” He got up and paced around some more. “Well there’s only one thing for it. You’ll have to finish the whole thing by noon tomorrow — and when I say noon, I mean noon — and then send the manuscript to Hamburg by express post. And that cost, my friend, is going to come out of any royalties you receive for the bloody thing. The editors will just have to do their best without my input. The most important thing is that we get it onto the market quickly. It’s going to be a bit shit, but we’re just going to have to live with that.”

“Mr Henk,” I began. “I’m very sorry –”

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “Now get out of my office and do some bloody work for a change.”

When I got back to my office, having already planned out the final chapter, I saw that Krebs was there.

“Ah, there you are, Robert,” he said. “Someone telephoned for you earlier. Now, where did I put that paper? I had it here somewhere.”

I wanted to suggest that he could have been kind enough to leave the message on my desk so that I could find it, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Here it is,” he said finally, having gone through all the stacks of paper on his desk. He put on his reading glasses. Very slowly. “So, I didn’t catch the lady’s name, but it might have begun with a G. Or a J.”

“Was she Russian?” I asked as he handed me the paper.

“Could have been, could have been. She was certainly foreign, I could tell that.”

I looked at the telephone number on the paper. It was indeed Jasmilla’s number. Krebs had managed to transpose two of the digits, but fortunately I had it memorised.

“She seemed a bit upset about something,” added Krebs as an afterthought.

“Really? When did she call?” Now I felt concerned.

“Oh, it must have been about 11 o’clock this morning.”

Cursing him silently for not having given me the message earlier, I dialed Jasmilla’s number.

“Richard?” she said when she heard my voice. “I’m so glad you called.” She sounded like she might have been crying.

“What happened?” My first thought — as always in these situations — was that someone had died.

“I got fired,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“The Professor told me he didn’t want me to work for him any more.” She explained that she had gone over to his flat that morning to talk to him about the latest translation she was supposed to be working on. But the Professor had told her — in no uncertain terms, by the sound of it — that she wouldn’t be doing any more translations.

“Did he give a reason?”

“He said my work wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t very nice about it. It wasn’t like him at all.” I heard a strange sound at the other end of the line and realised she was crying.

35. That fateful Wednesday evening

Isobel had come over in the early afternoon and we had put in a good four hours working on the book. We were feeling satisfied with our progress and looking forward to dinner, which I was going to cook, Isobel having gone shopping for the ingredients earlier.

I was just putting the spaghetti into a pan of boiling water when there was a knock at the door.

“I wonder who that is,” I said, letting the pasta drop from my hands.

“Ignore it,” Isobel said. “It’s probably just someone trying to sell you something.”

“What if it’s something important?”

“It won’t be,” she said decisively. “It never is.”

One of my fatal flaws — which has annoyed every girl I have ever gone out with — is that I cannot leave a ringing telephone unanswered. The same, I discovered at that moment, applied also to knocked-upon doors.

“Sorry,” I said and went through into the hall.

When I opened the door, I saw, to my utter surprise, the Professor standing there, holding — bizarrely — a bunch of flowers. My first thought was that he had found out I had lied about my illness and was coming to expose me. But then I realised he wouldn’t have brought flowers if that was the case.

“I thought I would come and see how you were doing,” he said, giving me one of the smiles which I was now heartily sick of. He handed me the flowers. “These are for you.”

“Er, thank you,” I said, accepting them with a certain reluctance — I knew he would want something in return — and not a little confusion as to why a man would bring flowers for another man.

I thought of the tomato sauce spurting away on the stove. I couldn’t stand in the doorway and talk to the Professor. “Would you like to come in?”

“If you’re sure I’m not disturbing you?” he said, with another, particularly charming, smile. This was looking bad, I thought. If he was being so nice he could only want one thing.

I showed him through to the kitchen (“What a charming apartment,” he said, as I pointed out the living room in passing) and introduced him to Isobel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Herr Professor,” she said, without much warmth, as they shook hands. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he said with a grin that did not quite reach his eyes. “I hope you haven’t formed too negative an opinion of me based on what you’ve heard?”

“Quite the contrary,” said Isobel coolly.

Meanwhile I was attending to the pasta and sauce, which were both just about ready. There was no way not to invite him to eat with us. “We were just about to have dinner,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “Would you like to join us?” Isobel threw me a look, but there was nothing else I could do.

“If you’re sure I’m not imposing?” he said. Another smile.

“Not at all,” I said, forcing a smile of my own. I could see how a habit could be formed.

I invited the Professor to take a seat then set another place at the table, as Isobel developed a sudden and intense interest in the calendar I had stolen from work and hung up. I served up three platefuls of pasta and placed them on the table, together with a grater and a chuck of fresh Parmesan — which Isobel had paid for, such luxuries being out of my budget, even if it had occurred to me that Parmesan could be bought fresh — and picked the heavy metal pan off the stove and put it in the sink.

“Your back seems much improved,” said the Professor. I couldn’t work out if he was being ironic or not. “When I had back problems, I had to stay in bed for a week.”

“Well, I’m feeling a lot better,” I stammered, then faked a wince. “Ouch, there you go. I shouldn’t overdo things.”

“You should take it easy,” said Isobel, coming to my rescue. “Come on, sit down. The food’s getting cold.”

We made very small small talk during the meal. The Professor asked Isobel what she was studying. It turned out that he had supervised the PhD of the head of her institute. I could tell she was impressed in spite of herself.

“Some academics from the East did better than others after the Wende,” the Professor said, with a certain sadness. It was only then that I noticed how tired he was looking, almost to the extent of looking unwell. And unkempt — there was a stain on his shirt, and his fingernails needed clipping.

The Professor looked at me. “You’ve probably asked yourself how I ended up working in a place like Presborck Verlag, haven’t you?”

It was true, I had thought about it several times. “I have wondered about it, yes.”

“I suppose it was really to do with my wife,” he said.

“I didn’t realise you had a wife,” I said, interrupting in my surprise.

“Oh, she’s dead now, she died two years ago. I have a teenage daughter too, who is completely out of control. But that’s another story.” He sounded very tired.
He took a bite of his pasta. “This is excellent, incidentally.”

“Thank you,” I said, eager for him to continue.

“Anyway, where was I? My wife was a painter. Probably neither of you have heard of her, but she was well known in the GDR. Shortly after the wall came down, a reporter from Bild — a terrible newspaper — exposed her as an informant for the Stasi, an Informeller Mitarbeiter or IM, as they called them. I had had no idea. She had of course informed on me as part of her duties.”

He paused to eat some more of his food. We both sat there, waiting for him to continue. “Anyway, this got quite a lot of coverage in the newspapers, much to my distress, and at some point the same Bild reporter wrote a story accusing me of also having worked for the secret police. It was a complete lie, of course, and I successfully sued the newspaper for damages. But nobody notices a one-paragraph retraction on page 17 of a newspaper. My reputation was tainted, and my applications for work in universities were turned down. They always gave some other reason, of course, but I knew what it was all about. My wife and I divorced soon afterwards. When she died, our daughter came to live with me.”

There was a long time afterwards when nobody spoke. I cleared up the dinner plates in silence, all pretence of back pain forgotten. I could tell from Isobel’s face that the Professor’s story had touched her too.

“Would anyone like a glass of whisky?” I said, for something to say, indicating the almost empty bottle.

“That’s very kind of you,” said the Professor. “However I should get going soon. But first I should tell you my reason for coming to visit.”

I felt my stomach contract in tension. He was going to ask me to do some work for him. I had almost forgotten about that in the intimacy of the dinner.

But instead of saying anything, the Professor reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced an envelope, which he laid on the table in front of me. “This is for you.” There was a playfulness in his voice which made me think he knew he was wrong-footing me.

I picked up the envelope, mystified as to what it could be. Was he giving me money in exchange for my help? Did he have a note for me from someone?

“Go on, open it,” said Isobel, who was as intrigued as I was.

Inside the envelope was a card with a film still showing two men on it, dressed in period costume, perhaps from the turn of the century. The other side was covered with text, with a headline “Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky.” It took me a second to work out that it was the invitation to the premiere of a film of that name. It took several seconds more for me to realise that the director of the film was Wim Wenders — and that he would be there at the screening.

“Is this really for me?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the Professor. “I asked Wim if I could have an extra invitation for you. I remembered that you liked his work. Naturally he said yes.”

“You know Wim Wenders?” asked Isobel, impressed in spite of herself.

The Professor nodded nonchalantly. “We’re old friends.”

“Thank you,” I said with real gratitude. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was going to meet Wim Wenders! Suddenly all the work I had been doing for the Professor seemed worthwhile. “I don’t know what to say. This is so kind of you.”

“It’s the least I can do, after all the assistance you’ve provided,” he said, smiling.

There was a pause, which I later realised was significant. Then the Professor said, in a thoughtful tone, as if the idea had just occurred to him, “Actually, while we’re on the subject, there was another little matter which I wanted to discuss with you.”

I glanced at Isobel and saw her eyes narrow. “Oh yes?” I said, feeling my heart sink.

“The London publishers are absolutely insisting they get the chapter on Welsh by next week,” said the Professor, almost apologetically. “And I was wondering …”

I was feeling so full of gratitude and warmth towards the Professor that I was about to offer my help, when Isobel stopped me with a significant cough before I could speak.

“Could we discuss this in the other room for a minute?” she asked, giving the Professor and me an innocent smile.

“Of course,” I said, a bit mystified.

I followed Isobel through into the living room.

“You’re not really going to help him, are you?”

“Sure. He got me that ticket. It’s the least I can do.”

“Don’t you see what’s going on?” She sounded like she was struggling to keep her anger in check. “He’s just using you. He knew that ticket would persuade you to help him.”

“But it was kind of him to get it. And he’s really over-worked, that’s obvious.”

“You’re over-worked too. And you have to put yourself first. We’re not going to get the book finished in time if you take on anything else. And Wim Wenders” — she couldn’t help say the name in a tone of admiration, despite herself — “probably gave him a second invitation without him even having to ask for it.”

“I can’t just leave him in the lurch though.”

Isobel was studying one of the posters on the wall. “Are you really going to help him?” she asked, without looking at me.

I thought about it. I pictured the Wim Wenders ticket and felt a thrill in my stomach at the thought of meeting him in person. “Well, yes,” I said.

“Right,” said Isobel curtly. She turned and stared at me for several seconds before speaking. “In that case … In that case, you can finish the book by yourself. I’m not going to waste my time helping you if you’re not prepared to take the project seriously.”

“Isobel,” I said, but she was already striding out of the room. I heard the front door open and close.

“I hope I haven’t caused any problems,” the Professor said when I finally went back through to the kitchen.

“No,” I said wearily. “Don’t worry.”

“Right,” he said. Then, after a pause, “I don’t suppose you’ve decided about that chapter?”

I looked into the Professor’s eyes, which were grey in the evening sunlight. “I’m sorry,” I said eventually. “I can’t do it.”

For a moment the Professor looked very tired. I almost wanted to change my mind and say I wouldn’t do it. But in a strange way, saying no to him had been satisfying, almost enjoyable, and I was reluctant to give up that feeling.

“Oh well,” he said. “I imagine I’ll see you at the premiere, then.”

I looked at the ticket, which was lying on the table. It had already lost the magic it had had just a few minutes earlier. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”

34. Off work

The next morning, I went to my nearest GP, who I had found in the Yellow Pages with Isobel’s help. Everything went according to plan. I trotted out the description of my symptoms that I had practised with Isobel, winced at the right moments, and before I knew it I was walking out the door with a sick note in my hand, signed off work for a week.

“Just give me a call if you need to extend it,” said the cheery doctor, who clearly dispensed time off work as casually as he might hand out leaflets on avoiding athlete’s foot. “You don’t need to put yourself through all the trouble of coming into the practice when you’re in so much pain.”

“Well, that’s very kind of you, but I hope it won’t be necessary,” I said, trying — in my Calvinistic Scottish way — to convey my eagerness to return to work.

“But you have to take off enough time to let your body heal,” he said, giving me a disapproving frown. “I know you English, you’re all workaholics. You’d be going into work with one leg hanging off if nobody stopped you.”

I thanked the doctor and hobbled painfully out of the surgery.

Back home, I phoned Ana at the office to tell her the bad news. She was so sympathetic and concerned that I experienced an attack of conscience.

“I can do some work from home, of course,” I emphasised. “I have some stuff to be getting on with, and maybe I can send my friend in to pick up –”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” snapped Ana. “The doctor signed you off work so you could rest and get better. I don’t want you working and over-exerting yourself.”

“Oh, I’m not in so much pain that I can’t –”

“Promise you won’t do any work,” she insisted. “I know you English, you’re all workaholics.”

There was nothing for me to do but promise — with fingers crossed — that I wouldn’t do any work.

“And take more time off if you need it,” she said. “I don’t want to see you again until you’re completely better.”

So my subterfuge turned out to be a complete success, and any guilty feelings I had soon evaporated when I saw how much work I could get done on the book without the distractions of having colleagues. And I salved my conscience with the thought that I was after all doing work for Henk, so it was no great sin that I was committing.

Isobel came over to help with the book whenever she had time. We decided I should stay in the flat as much as possible for the sake of my cover, in case someone from the Verlag phoned, and Isobel — bless her — even went to the supermarket to get my shopping for me.

If she didn’t have to go to university or to work — she had a part-time job in an art gallery — then Isobel would often stay at the flat for hours. Once we got our work done for the day, we would just sit and drink tea and chat. I enjoyed her company and liked talking to her. She was a good listener and I never had the feeling I needed to watch what I said or try to impress her.

I got to know her a lot better during those odd in-between days. I found out more about her university course (too much Heidegger, not enough Habermas), who her friends were (bitchy Helene, helpful Beate), and what she liked to do in her spare time (play cell in a string quartet, write poetry).

She also found out more about me. I told her all about growing up in Edinburgh and what studying there was like (she was pleased by the coincidence that we were both students in European capitals who lived with our parents). It was strange to talk to her about Edinburgh; it already seemed like another life. On some level, I just assumed that I lived in Berlin, always had done and always would.

The work was going well too. We were right on schedule and would have the book finished in time if nothing went wrong. Or so we thought, until that fateful Wednesday evening.

33. A necessary subterfuge

Isobel and I had it all planned out. If we did a chapter every couple of days, then we would get the book finished a week before the deadline. That would leave us a few days to look over the manuscript and polish it before we handed it in. It was just about doable, but it meant I had to work every evening, and it didn’t leave much time for anything else.

One thing it certainly didn’t leave time for was the Professor. It was vital that I did not let myself get trapped into doing more work for him, or the English book would never get finished. I was still committed to the encyclopaedia project — the editor credit had not lost its allure — but that would have to wait until after Henk’s deadline.

Hence it was essential that I did not run into the Professor, because it was certain that if he saw me he would give me work to do. I took to skulking around the Verlag offices, checking to make sure the corridor was clear before I sneaked down it. I made a point of walking very quietly past the Professor’s door so that he would not hear me and look out.

But I soon discovered that the Professor was not my only problem. One morning I was just about to enter my office when I heard a loud noise coming from inside. It sounded like someone had blown a horn. I stopped in my tracks. My first thought was that a burglar was inside — it was just after 8 and no one else was in the office yet — but then it occurred to me that a thief would be unwilling to advertise his presence through loud noises. I peered round the door and spotted a man sitting at the desk opposite mine. He was in his fifties, balding, with a moustache, and he was blowing his nose.

He was in mid-parp when I knocked on the door.

“Can I help you?” he said, not in an unfriendly tone, putting down his handkerchief.

I introduced myself and told him that I had been working in the office.

“Ah, nice to meet you,” he said, standing up and offering me his hand. “Günther Krebs.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I said, shaking his hand, which was slightly sticky.

“Well, sit down, sit down,” he said, seeing that I was unsure what to do. “This is your office too now. Don’t let me stop you getting to work.”

As I settled down at my desk, he explained that this was his first day back at work after his Kur. Somewhat foolhardily, I asked if he was back to full health. Instead of the simple “yes” I had been expecting, he launched into a description of his various ailments. Apparently he was not really fit enough to be back at work — he had some kind of circulatory problem, as far as I could understand — but he was determined to soldier on. “I don’t want to be a burden to the Verlag,” he said.

Krebs was friendly and chatty, and seemed to take a liking to me — possibly because I, out of politeness, listened to his descriptions of his health problems, something no one else in the company was prepared to do — but after a couple of days I had already grown to resent him. It was impossible to get any work done while he was around. For one thing, he was constantly blowing his nose, coughing, or making a curious harrumphing sound with his throat which might have been intended to clear it but came across more as a nervous tick.

Then he had very strong feelings about the status of the window. I discovered he had an elaborate medical cosmology involving the ideal degree of stuffiness in the air and the dangers of draughts. He would allude to his beliefs, as if they were common knowledge, while manipulating the windows, without ever fully explaining them. Whatever his philosophy was, it seemed to involve positioning the windows in the way guaranteed to cause maximum physical discomfort. On warm days, he insisted that the windows remain shut, while on cold days they needed to be wide open, and he would become irritated if I even suggested closing them.

On top of that, he had decided that, as the company intern, I was his own personal assistant, and was constantly giving me tasks to do which ate up my time. Initially I tried to explain I was busy, but that information seemed to be so detrimental to his health,  causing him to have such severe coughing fits and come close to the complete circulatory collapse he dreaded, that I gave up and did what he asked me to.

This was partly because I felt sorry for him. It became clear to me very quickly that he was completely  and utterly incompetent. He had no idea how to use a computer, and was incapable of performing even the simplest task without messing it up. He was always trying to fill in the wrong form or using the wrong version of a manuscript. Once I caught him just as he was about to shred the translation I had just done for him, convinced that it was an old document he no longer needed.

But despite my pity for him, it was clear I had to do something about the situation. I wasn’t getting any time in the office to work on my manuscript, and I was falling behind with my schedule — just working in the evenings was not enough. I wondered if it might be possible to change offices. I would have to think of some excuse so as not to hurt Kreb’s feelings, of course, but desperate measures were needed.
I ran the idea past Ana when I came in one morning, as I was helping her carry the crates of bottled water which had just been delivered through into the downstairs kitchen. I tried to be as subtle as possible, and say that I wanted to move because my office didn’t get enough light.

“Not a chance,” she said. “The waiting list for changing offices is years long. Nobody has enough light.”

I explained the situation to Isobel the next time she was over at my flat to help with the book and asked her if she had any ideas.

“You could always resort to the tactic Germans use when they find work is getting too much for them, or they want to avoid an inconvenient situation in the office.”

“What’s that?”

“Get signed off sick,” she said casually, taking a sip of the herbal tea I had made her.

“But I’m not sick,” I protested. “How can I get signed off?”

“Easiest thing in the world, if you live in Germany.” She explained that I just had to go to the doctor and tell him that I had the symptoms of some non-life-threatening but painful illness, preferably one which had symptoms that could not be independently verified or treated apart from with rest. “He’ll be signing you off work faster than you can say ‘Krankenversicherung,'” Isobel said. “You do have Krankenversicherung, don’t you?” she added quickly, suddenly looking worried.

“Of course,” I said, feeling glad that the Verlag had taken out health insurance on my behalf when I first came to Berlin. “But what is this magic illness which will get me off work?”

“Let me think,” said Isobel, furrowing her brow in a manner which I found quite charming. “Food poisoning could work, although he might ask you too many questions about the consistency of your stool. Flu is a possibility too, but then he might want to inspect your inflamed sinuses, and that’s hard to fake.”

We pondered for a few moments. Then Isobel cried, “I’ve got it.”

“And?”

“Back pain. Men are always taking time off work because of back pain, I read about it in Der Spiegel. It doesn’t have any obvious cause, they have to take your word for it that you are experiencing pain, and there’s nothing they can do about it except give you painkillers and tell you to rest. It’s perfect.”

“I’m not sure I can fake back pain, though.”

“Of course you can. Come on, let’s practise.” She indicated for me to stand up. “Walk across the room very gingerly, as if every step were sending shooting pains through your back.”

“Like this?” I tried to walk as gingerly as I could.

“Good,” she said. “But bend over a bit more.” She put one hand on my waist and gently pressed my back forward with the other. “That’s better. And wince as you put your foot down and you’ll be perfect.”

I practised walking backwards and forwards across the room until Isobel decided my subterfuge was convincing. Then I practised sitting and standing up in pain, and finally making noises of pain when Isobel touched my vertebrae, in case the doctor decided to do an in-depth examination.

“Excellent,” she said when we were finished. “You’ll fool anyone. And certainly an overworked German general practitioner.”

“You know,” I said, sinking back down into the sofa. “I think my back really is starting to hurt after all that practising.”

Isobel clapped her hands together. “Even better. Then you’ll really be convincing.”