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.”