I have a friend who is deeply ill. We don't speak with each other, and perhaps we should write, but we rather reach one another with voice recordings, left at odd hours, to be listened to at leisure, when there is time (and strength, in her case) to pluck at each word and phrase, and to hear it's thrum, sometimes clear, but often now thin with worry.
August Sander - Baptism and Absolution
Our instrument is an old one, tuned and left out of tune over many years of fluctuating communion. The seas and time zones that divided us – as well as mutually unfulfilled marriages, beautiful children, work, and all the rest – made us fickle about our contact, but even when time has been long between times, the truss of our love has always been there, meeting at our centre as a bond of love, friendship, trust, and revelation.
We met when we were both young, and strong, and beautiful, with all of life stretching as lengthily and shimmeringly as the beach upon which I first saw her. She was four or five years older, a trainee doctor doing a little louche time in Sydney.
Like a menthol cigarette, she was cool and hot at the same time, with every breath.
Poor upright Australian men, forever exercising and flexing our muscles: we melted under her German accent and arctic eyes, and her cool, clinical regard for posturing.
Our love flamed on a cliff top at night, and it was led over many months amongst beaches, and rock pools, and tropical forests, and it was nothing, nothing at all if not languid, long, and somewhat careless, however deep the fire that we had lit in each other.
Now, I can look over my shoulder and see back along the years, a ridge of fire which has smouldered for a very long time, and I think it might have gone on, had not fate simply intervened to distend and attenuate our serpentine path back to one another.
My father had fumed at our relationship. In my recollection, he muttered incantations about Germans, Nazis, Krauts, and our relatives spinning in their non-existent graves. He regarded me then as hopeless, so my blood vandalism in bedding down with the enemy fitted his grim view of my efforts to find a path through life.
If not treachery, it was close. I was not the stuff of survivors. How wrong he was, and how much further I would travel along paths he did not imagine, way beyond his regard.
Church bells, Sitges, Barcelona
Over the years my love and I met in Prague, and Sarajevo, and Barcelona and Hamburg, and Rome, and Paris and Crete and then – once she had settled there – again and again in Berlin's Charlottenburg District where she practiced as a doctor and raised her beautiful children, who have loved me like an uncle.
My love for her is now indivisible from my love for Berlin.
The 'new objectivity' of Weimar...
I would frequently visit, taking an early morning tram from my apartment in Prague's Malostranské Náměstí, just off the Charles Bridge, to Praha Hlavní Nádraží, and take a bus that coasts along the four hours of the Elbe River, through the Sudetenland to Dresden, before striking southern Berlin.
In the last ten minute walk to her apartment, I'd stop to buy some bottles of mineral-tingling Riesling at the top of her road for us to share throughout our long weekends spent in loving regard.
August Sander - We are all circus folk now...
Her grandfather had been an avowed Nazi to the end of his days, and my grandfather had perished out of Auschwitz.
We made sombre pilgrimage to Berlin's Jewish museums and memorials, and to the villa at Wannsee on Berlin's outskirts where Reinhard Heydrich and other fantasists had met in 1942 to work out the Final Solution to eradicate Europe's Jews.
She has a moral curiosity that has shunned nothing.
"Today, the men who directed me to
literature in my youth seem
not nearly so important as those
who diverted it to reality."
Stefan Zweig, "The World of Yesterday," (and Zweig knew all of the European glit-und-literati)
Shortly before Covid, at her suggestion, we had planned to take a road trip together, first to that most notorious camp, and then to the Polish city of Gdańsk. Now Polish, the city had once been the Germanic port of Danzig.
In 1945 the heroic Russian forces, storming their way through Germany along the paths worn by German forces into Russia, had systematically wreaked revenge through pillage that left nothing untouched, and rape that barely spared any female.
Her family fled before the Asiatic horde, and she had never visited the city of her Prussian past.
Utterly in love, she filled me with excitement.
But who, I wonder took this photo in "Bill and Toni's" café in East Sydney?
Instead of our journey, however, something intervened to prevent us (a sick, graduating, or lovelorn child?). Rather, one night she plucked from a cupboard in her Berlin apartment several old shoeboxes, and set them on the Persian carpet of her living room.
There, in a kind of wonder, my voice came back at me from cassette tapes recorded decades ago, describing train trips, and border scrapes, and narco-nights in strip joints, the dissolute and great I met on my sojourns through foreign lands (India, Nepal, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Central America, Afghanistan and Russia), sounds of birdsong and snow dripping in the Himalayas, a collection of the early pieces as I set about to confirm my gestating universalist view of the world.
Danzig burns, 1945
That night too, our conversation turned for the first time to our mistiming, the mistaken cues, the confounded expectations and hopes of our tortuous love affair in which, somehow, we had by-passed each other. Yep, like two ships in the night.
Now her nights are narco-filled, cocktails of vicious chemicals and radiotherapy, and nausea and fear, and I am thousands of kilometres from where I would rather be, consoling my dear friend of many years, cooking for her perhaps, reading a few words.
But I always recall her words from the first months we knew one another, that "the human body is both terribly strong, and very, very fragile."
My bet is on her strength, this little Prussian, the power of her love, her goodness, her persistence. You'll be okay my darling woman, and we will wander still yet the museums and streets and galleries of Berlin.
She, in Prague, 2019
Now, I send her recordings again from Kenya. Sounds of birds in forest walks. The rumble of my car engine and a chat as I cross the Rift Valley. Or, as I did this morning before work, a reading from a book. New sounds, new recordings to carry us through into old age, decades down this track of life.
August Sander - "Unemployed Sailor", probably on Berlin's Spree river in 1928