He is not sure it’s her, or rather he doesn’t allow himself to acknowledge that he is. Pencil-grey strands seem as if painted into her wavy brown hair, and she is wearing fashion model sunglasses even though the day is overcast. His lungs press against his rib cage. How could she have come here? But isn’t he sitting in a café in Kreuzberg, run by a Syrian refugee who is serving coffee in all styles Middle Eastern? It makes sense, in a roundabout way, that she is here. Probably also that he is. Even after all these years, he likes Turkish coffee and the smell of shisha, though he doesn’t smoke.
He’s been coming to this place for a few weeks now, since arriving in Berlin in late May, as soon as the semester ended. On his first stroll through the city, he saw the sign, in German and Arabic, separated by the image of a brass Arabic coffee pot. In the late nineties, an older colleague of his had the smarts to pick up a high-ceilinged two-bedroom with wooden floors here, for a year’s salary, apparently.
“You’d be doing me a favor, Jim. It needs airing out. And I can’t go over this year …”
Rent-free summer in Berlin. Higher education has its perks. The café occupies the ground floor of a four-story Gründerzeit-building. The soot-covered verdigris plaster is peeling on the outside, the off-white paint on the inside. Across the cobble-stone street lined with plane trees, the Spree. On its other bank, a few hundred yards of wall, grey where it’s not covered with graffiti. Surprisingly low, he thought, on walking along the wall for the first time. They let this piece stand for the tourists. People had been shot trying to climb the wall, so as to swim across the river. That was not so long ago, but the world has undergone many contortions since then and the stories from two generations past ring only with the muffled sound of myth.
She’s in line, a bunch of American students chatting in front of her. Now she takes off her sunglasses. She’s not seen him. He’s sitting in a leather armchair behind a droopy-leafed Ficus. Anfal, no doubt! The slightly arched nose, the straight forehead. Her skin has acquired an underlying pallor, and to the side of her mouth is a small crease that wasn’t there back then.
The last time he saw her, all those years ago, she was being marched into an elevator. She looked over her shoulder and her large eyes caught his, before she received a push on the back. The following day, he lied for her. Lied without knowing why, yet lied without hesitation. Moreover, lied to men who were police, or something of the kind, stern and bearded and dressed in resplendent white dishdashas that made them look like members of an all-powerful order brooking neither disrespect nor recalcitrance …
“Welcome to the Gulf.” British accent, paper-dry handshake. “Tony Fernsby.”
Fernsby dropped the sheet with ‘Jim Robinson’ printed on it into a trash can. All around the din of the arrival hall, people shouting unfamiliar names, some announcement over the loudspeakers. A smell in the air as of light smoke. Not unpleasant though. Children rushing past, each holding a white rose, cheering, circling an elderly woman being pushed through the gate in a wheelchair.
“You look a bit the worse for wear, I’m sorry to say.”
“It’s a long flight.”
“Yes, certainly. First time here?”
Fernsby had watery eyes, the left side of his mouth was raised in a shrewd, tired smile.
“First time east of Paris.”
“Oh dear …” A lift of an eyebrow—more to say there—then a nod toward the exit. “I’m afraid I’m the entire welcoming committee. Let me take you to your hotel. It’s rather nice. You can catch a good night’s sleep.”
Must be retired by now, old Fernsby. Probably in England, or Italy, maybe. His wife was Italian, wasn’t she? Or Spanish? Should’ve kept in touch with him …
The last of the American students is placing his order. Anfal’s eyes are on the picture of Aleppo in its glory days beside the price list on the wall. The students move along the counter, behind which two baristas are pouring, blending and stirring with Zen-like efficiency.