January 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
A neighbour died in 2012. I don’t know exactly when. It was sometime in February during a long period of permanent frost when the lakes froze up and people could skate on them and drink Glühwein, the same frost that made people invisible on our street, where everybody was disappearing quickly into their warm homes to live or die in privacy.
We didn’t receive an invitation to his funeral. We weren’t really friends, although he did try to make contact when we first moved in almost a decade ago. We’d always been very polite, but we had little in common with him and his wife. He was an agency worker and she was a night nurse, both of them in their fifties, but that wouldn’t have been a reason for us not to become closer. I’m just a farmer’s daughter and H. is a child of farmers’ children who somehow (maybe not even legitimately, in his father’s case) managed to survive the war and profit from the Wirtschaftswunder period afterward. We moved into the building knowing that this is a working-class neighbourhood, a neighbourhood heavily bombed during World War II because of its proximity to the railway lines, with most of its structures hastily renovated or built anew after the war to provide cheap accommodations for the many homeless families. Our building is the only one on the street that completely survived the bombings; we fell in love with its high ceilings and double doors.
Our neighbours spent most afternoons sitting on the back balcony of their ground floor apartment facing their tiny garden and, unfortunately, our new tiny garden, too. In the warm afternoons, but also in the chillier ones because their balcony was roofed over — they’d even converted it into a strange winter garden using old planks and windows they had salvaged from the bulk trash of demolished buildings — they would sit there rolling their own cigarettes, smoking quite a few of them, and watching our desperate efforts to turn our shadowy-because-in-the-wrong-cardinal-direction garden into a place where we could sit and read, or have dinner with friends, or do all the other things we’d imagined doing there before we finally gave up trying. The wife loved to comment on our efforts and constantly offered unsolicited advice. H. avoided her advice more successfully, probably because he avoided the garden work more successfully, but I was at her mercy. He, the neighbour, was actually reticent, an extremely thin man with sunken cheeks that made me think of Chet Baker and missing teeth. He seemed to have little to say in his marriage. When he worked in their garden she’d give him instructions from their balcony, too.
His widow would tell us later that, as the youngest of nine children, he was tyrannised throughout his short childhood until he set off early for his (ultimately also short) workman’s life. Their two grown children — a married daughter with two little children of her own, whom I saw visit only once, and an adult son whom I never saw — had at first known a heavy-drinking father who eventually became depressed and anorexic after giving up alcohol. At some point, the neighbour also gave up investing time and labour in his garden, although as far as I could tell, he was a canny gardener. He told H. that he’d bought an allotment garden on the other side of the railway lines. He had found peace there, he said. After that, we saw little of him, or at least I remember seeing little of him.
Except for once, one evening. I was coming back from the supermarket in the early winter dusk and he was probably coming back from his allotment where (also according to the widow later) he spent every single free minute. He was putting his key into the lock of their front entrance when he stopped to watch a couple standing just in front of our building: a man, his own age, mid-fifties, embraced a woman, maybe in her late forties, pulled her closer, and kissed her. It was a beautiful kiss, a real one, one of those we’ve all had or could’ve had in this life. He remained still, watching this couple kissing, and I remained still in the shadow of our entrance, watching the neighbour watching. He’d lost even more weight: his glasses covered almost his whole face and he had shaved off his mustache as there was almost no space left between lips and nose for it to grow. He recognised that kiss. I knew then he was a dying man.