The Hotel Neukölln was not as prepossessing as some Jack had stayed at. It was an elegant eighteen nineties building in the Silberstein Strasse with a mad mixture of porticos and oriels in and among its gentle yellow stucco. The rear of the hotel was plain concrete and grit rendering and backed onto the railway he had alighted from. That suited him, as he found the noise of slow-moving suburban trains, less annoying than the roar of traffic echoing between tall buildings, which he would have had in a room looking out the front. Shabby chic would have been the travel-agent jargon, except this hotel never got into travel-agent catalogues. Once he stayed here with his wife, but hoped no one would remember, although he had no idea why that would be important. He paused in front of the entrance door and sifted through his thoughts. Was he panicking?
‘You need to get a grip,’ he said to his trembling knees. ‘I haven’t done anything – nothing illegal that is; just irrational.’
Despite his efforts to rationalise the irrational, he felt his nervous stomach expanding to dominate his entire lower body. What was it about the girl that made him so nervous? He had a bad conscience, but why?
As he pulled the door for the girl to go through, he used the moment to observe her. ‘Face – white as a sheet, eyes – red and weepy, hair – in desperate need of a wash and other attention, make-up – non-existent and deportment, body language, that of a defeated woman.’
It was a checklist he had used during his professional life as a tax inspector. Always know your enemy.
He approached the desk.
‘I’d like to have a twin room, instead of the double I booked.’
He had hoped Felicity would change her mind about a holiday in Lugano with her sister and join him in Berlin. The woman behind the desk, he noticed, didn’t look up at him or his female guest. So long as he paid, Jack surmised, he could entertain a harem upstairs in as many beds as pleased him.
‘I’d like to pay a week in advance.’
He decided to talk English. He thought it wise to hide his knowledge of German but wasn’t sure why these precautions were necessary.
‘What am I worried about,’ he wondered. ‘Have I been reading too many spy thrillers?’
‘Can’t be done,’ she replied. ‘I can only take money after we do a bill when you leave.’
‘Just take five hundred euros from this card. If I need to leave in a hurry, I don’t want to do it owing you money.’
He handed over his card and then realise how foolish his actions were. ‘You are getting into hot water here. Why would you need to leave in a hurry? Too late now.’
In a moment of poor decision-making, he had taken this young woman, perhaps just a girl, maybe not even sixteen – just because she looked older didn’t mean a thing, in which case he was breaking the law – under his wing to sort her problem, whatever that was and to make matters worse, he was playing the sugar daddy and drawing attention to his actions by suggesting he may have to leave in a hurry. And now his mentee stood there, motionless and exhausted from the nervous energy she had been expending, trying to avoid an impending disaster; a disaster he knew nothing about. It could be nothing or he could be entering shark-infested waters. Why would he do that?
The desk clerk passed him the handset to put in his PIN. While he did it, the clerk studied the girl. He clenched his teeth in frustration and was admonished by his inner voice.
‘What a mistake? Everything else I’ve done can be undone, but this stupid request to pay in advance has drawn attention to us. Poorly done, Jack,’ he thought. ‘Our dad always said, there is no fool like an old fool.’
He glanced at her passport as she signed her part of the form. Polish; Maria Dabrowska . Nice name. He didn’t manage to read her age.
He headed off to the second floor. He wished the girl would keep up, but he could sense how weary she was, hardly lifting her feet from one stair to the next.
The recent face-lift in the stairway and corridors took his mind off things. The walls were freshly painted a nondescript cream with heavy brown frames and doors. There were new carpets. His previous visit had been different, still with pre-war carpets and colours. West Berlin never received its post-war makeover. The Silberstein Strasse was so close to the old German Democratic Republic border that no one had thought it worth spending any money on buildings so vulnerable to a cold war escalation.
Under the fresh coat of paint, the room doors were still the same with ancient creaking locks and massive steel keys. He was glad about that, although, the house knew if you came home late.
He was desperate to discover the girl’s problem, but once in their room, she fell on one of the beds and sank into a deep, but not peaceful sleep, leaving Jack to sit in an armchair by the window and look at the trains rattle by – and wonder.
He could see acres of tracks in both directions and a lowly bridge in the distance, with a few children armed with kites, crossing it. It would be a beautiful evening so people were heading to the disused Tempelhof airport. He pondered its history. Once shut, the authorities had not the money or ideas to put the vast area to use. While the Berlin Senate was thinking about it, the people took it for themselves and now, on a fine evening, hundreds of families would barbeque or fly a kite or have a family Frisbee competition. He’d read how keen sportsmen and women enjoyed the feeling of cycling, skateboarding, roller booting, or wind boarding across the vast stretches of tarmac and had often promised to go and look at the mêlée sometimes. At the moment he would have to dream about it, but with an effort he could make out the lines of one of the old airport lighting towers. It stood way above the tree line like an immense concrete bird standing on one leg, the lighting gantry perpendicular to the leg, forming a huge menacing beak.
‘A very effective memorial,’ Jack muttered, thinking of the swarms of tiny planes in and out of that airport, which had kept Berlin alive through one of the most ferocious winters of the twentieth century. The winter he had been born, and his mother told him so often how severe it had been with coal in short supply.
A noise down in the yard disturbed his reverie. He lifted his head to peer over the ledge. A young small man, in a chef’s overall, was tidying the yard and carrying a card to a screened off area. Jack would have lost interest, but the man looked in a vague way in his direction. He considered him too beautiful to be a bloke, slim with blond hair, pale skin and an olive-shaped face, largish nose, sparkling blue eyes and a pronounced chin. Jack’s tired eyes drifted from the window, back to Maria, now breathing the sleep of the righteous. He wondered how righteous she was. He thought of a story he’d heard years ago, of some naturalists, who had discovered a young wildcat, exhausted, swimming far from the banks of a Scottish loch. They had rescued the cat, taken it home and put it in a cat basket with food and water. The next day the cat awoke, refreshed and not pleased with its new masters. For their part, the masters wanted to release the animal but didn’t know how to open the basket without losing an eye as the bundle of fury erupted from its cage. In the end, one of them borrowed a beekeeper’s outfit, and drove to a forest, took a deep breath, undid the fasteners and ran. A volcano of fur, teeth, and claws streaked from the basket with a primeval growl and disappeared into the forest. What would Maria do when she awoke? The same? Accuse him of rape, kidnap, and demand money to keep quiet? He knew he was playing with fire and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.