Her family was happy about it. It was a big deal to get one of the new places. The entire district was a building site, a showcase for the socialist future. She reckoned she had about five more years before she turned into one of the horrible sows who gave her the evil eye from behind their net curtains when she walked past with her friends. Five years of life. At weekends she’d take the train to Alexanderplatz and hang around with other teen-agers. Sooner or later they were always chased away by the police.
She never got on at school and left to become an apprentice at a textile factory in a town just outside Berlin, which improved things because she could move out of the family home and live in a hostel. It was O.K. at first, but the boredom was like acid. She had a bad temper, and sometimes got into fights. One day some old piss-schnapps-cabbage man at the factory called her into an office and gave her an official warning. She already had a mark against her because she didn’t want to join the Free German Youth.
Every weekend she would take the train back to the city. The first time she saw punks, it was amazing, like being electrocuted, jolted out of her dead skin. A couple sitting in a square in Friedrichshain, like two peacocks. The boy had a leather jacket, and his hair was spiked up. The girl wore a dog collar, and her head was shaved so that only a sort of lock or tuft hung down at the front. They just didn’t give a shit.
She didn’t have to think twice. She hacked off her hair, dyed the tufts with watercolors, and spiked them up with soap. Then she went back to look for the punks. Why not? She had nothing else going on. Even then it wasn’t as if she were really doing anything. Taking the train, drinking, wandering around, drinking more, hoping for something to happen. But that was all anyone was doing. It was what there was to do. Soon she knew most of the crew, at least by sight. The peacock couple, everyone. The boys from Köpenick, the idiot with the army greatcoat who stabbed his own leg on a dare. It wasn’t such a big scene. Bored kids. She went to a party where a band played in the attic of someone’s house. Fifty of them in there, throwing themselves around, drinking and dancing and smoking cigarettes. It was the greatest evening of her life.
All they wanted was to jump around. It wasn’t a big deal, but it sent the piss-schnapps-cabbage men crazy. They thought the punks were agents of the C.I.A. Poison from the West, a threat to good order. Not that you could get any of the real punk clothes unless you knew someone who could cross over. You had to improvise, make studs and patches and buttons out of whatever was available. You sat on park benches in your homemade outfits. You couldn’t stay put for ten minutes without the cops coming.
At the factory she got another talking to, and they told her someone else needed her place at the hostel. It was a punishment, of course—they didn’t really bother hiding it. What could she do? Better to lie down on the tracks than go back to live with her doormat of a mother and her piss-schnapps-cabbage dad. There seemed to be no third option, so she went into the city and got fucked up on paint thinner and tried to shake her head off her shoulders, pogoing in a courtyard behind a church in Prenzlauer Berg as a band thrashed cheap guitars and a singer rhymed “shit and boredom have no borders” with “everyone is taking orders.” Two cool girls were dancing next to her, jerking their heads and punching the air. When some limp dick tried to hit on one of them, Monika gave him a shove, sent him sprawling.
We need a drummer, the girl with the bleached crop said. Monika told her she couldn’t play drums. That’s O.K., she said. It doesn’t matter. And just like that a third option opened up. The girls, Katja and Elli, were living in a place on Linienstrasse, with a rotating cast of boyfriends to carry furniture and fix things. It was a tenement that had been declared unfit for habitation—on one side there was nothing but rubble, on the other a building whose frontage had collapsed, a sort of skeleton that no one had got around to demolishing—but several of the apartments were occupied by young people who didn’t have a hope of getting on the list for official housing. That was where they took her to jam, in this building whose façade was pocked with thousands of wartime bullet holes, and it was sort of understood, without her needing to ask, that she was going to move in. The equipment was set up in their living room. The guitar and vocal plugged into a single amp. She bashed away at someone’s borrowed kit. She didn’t know what to do, so at first she did everything at the same time, hit with the sticks and stamped on the pedal, making a big lumbering primitive noise. She would get better, but not much.
Then it was the three of them. Katja sang, and Elli played guitar. Monika had never met anyone like them, girls from art school who spent their days making things, as if it were a job. They weren’t ashamed of being different. They laughed at the idea that they could ever end up as net-curtain twitchers, disgusting baby factories doing the ironing while some man drank himself stupid in front of the TV. Katja declaimed her crazy poetry into the microphone, all this gothic stuff about blood and graves and ravens, while Elli threw poses and windmilled her arm as she slammed down on the strings.
Elli was shy, except when she played guitar. Katja was a social force. She seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to make things happen. Whatever you needed, whatever plot you’d just hatched in the bar, she would be there with an idea, a connection. It would turn out she’d seen exactly the thing you needed, discarded in the street, or had bumped into someone from the old days—Katja had old days, it was one of the sophisticated things about her—a guy who liked her and could be persuaded to help. One day she breezed in and told them she’d got the band a gig. She said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world, but to Monika the prospect was terrifying. Getting up in front of people, making a spectacle of herself.
In the G.D.R., you needed permission from the authorities to play music in front of an audience. You had to audition for a committee. The official pop musicians were all balding men who’d done their military service and trained at the conservatory. Of course no one was ever going to give the green light to some dirty punk girls, so they had no option, really. The gig was a secret, or as much of a secret as something like that can be.
So there were official bands and unofficial bands, but few as unofficial as Die Gläsernen Frauen. They’d needed a name, and naturally Katja had one. The Transparent Women. There had once been a transparent woman and a transparent man, anatomical models made out of some kind of see-through plastic, technological marvels of the nineteen-twenties that children were taken to see on school trips to the German Hygiene Museum, in Dresden. It was a good name, Monika thought, a defiant name.
The concert wasn’t much. A couple of dozen people in a dusty room, the cellar of a building where some friend of Katja’s worked or lived, Monika wasn’t exactly sure. They borrowed another amp and found a drum kit that was a little better than the first, though one of the heads was patched with tape, and the cymbals were the kind with leather straps, made to be used in an orchestra or carried in a marching band. The kit’s owner had hung them awkwardly from a pair of homemade stands. There wasn’t a stage; they just walked out into silence, some scattered clapping. And then they attacked. One two three four, into their first number, which was just Katja shouting “Stupid bear! Stupid bear!” while Elli played some chords she’d copied from a Ramones song. Everyone was surprised, of course—three girls playing music—but soon people were dancing. Katja and Elli’s art-school friends, the kids from the park. A few apprentices from the meatpacking plant hung at the edges while the punks fought in the mosh pit. Monika battered her kit and it sounded like dead bodies hitting the ground and the guitar and the vocal fed back so that the whole thing was just a mess of distortion, you couldn’t say what it was, or if it was music exactly, but it had something. Energy. Life.
Of course the factory hadn’t lasted, but Monika needed to do something; it was illegal not to have a job, and after a lot of hassle she found one in the neighborhood, at a workshop where they electroplated bathroom fixtures. One evening, as she was sweeping up, her last task before leaving, a man in a roll-neck sweater let himself in and stood watching her. He had that look. They all had it, that unclean cleanliness.
He offered her a cigarette. He was older than her, but not by much. In some places, he would have been considered handsome. What are you doing here? he said. This place is not for you. Like a lover, a leading man in a movie. It was absurd. What did he want? Nothing bad. He wanted her to be able to stretch her creative wings. He did a little drumming mime. He swept his hair back from his face and lit a cigarette, doing some kind of cool-cat business with his lighter. He said he had a car outside, could he give her a ride home? No? Well, then, he could take her out instead. He would buy her a drink, hear about her big dreams. She was a girl with big dreams, he could tell.
She wanted nothing to do with him. Everything about him was wrong. Go away, she said, but he wouldn’t stop talking. Finally she waved the broom, made as if she were going to hit him with it. He laughed. O.K., O.K., holding up his hands. He didn’t take her seriously at all. I left you something, he said. In your locker.
When she was sure he’d gone, she checked. Her lock was still attached, but inside was something she hadn’t put there. A record. It was an LP by an all-girl band from London. She knew them. She had a tape—maybe Elli had copied it from one of her friends—with a couple of their songs on it. They were good, but this album had a sort of soft-porn cover, the three band members topless and covered in mud, like sexy savages. It was supposed to be shocking. As a present from that guy, it was just sleazy. He knew so much about her taste and at the same time he’d found a way to leer at her. She thought about throwing the record away, but despite the shitty cover the band was good, and if she decided not to keep it she could swap it for something, so she put it in her bag and took it home.
He left it two weeks. Long enough for her to think he’d got the message. He made her jump, of course. He was that type. You could go to music school, he said, leaning out of a car window. Another man was driving, matching her pace as she walked home from work. You could get some time in a recording studio, whatever you want. She could do this, she should do that. She told him to stick his studio up his ass, and he made a sad-clown face. Honey, don’t be like that. You ought to be sweet to me. You wouldn’t want anything to go wrong in your life. You wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.
He gave her a time, an address, held out a piece of paper with the details. When she wouldn’t take it, he finally got out of the car and came after her. He blocked her path and stuffed the paper into the front pocket of her jeans, pulling her close to him and grinding his knuckles against her belly. She would be there or else he would “spank her bottom.” Hearty chuckles as the car pulled away. When she got into work the next day, there were three more records in her locker. She left them where they were. She didn’t even want to touch them.
She didn’t go to the meeting. She had what she thought of as a perfect excuse. The band was heading out on the road. Ten days of Katja singing “Better off dead than getting kicked in the head,” Katja singing “Only if I’m dreaming can I say I’m free.” Leipzig, Dresden, Halle. Barns and cellars and old factories. In each place there were young people, floors and couches to crash on, hands to pass a bottle or a cigarette. So, yes, she felt hopeful. There were people like her. That didn’t mean their lives were “nice.” Or “liberating.” Mostly they were tired and scared. They were making do, getting wasted on whatever was to hand. There was always a bad atmosphere when D.G.F. played, an edge of violence. When they were onstage in Dresden, someone threw a glass bottle at Elli, which hit her on the side of the head. She staggered, then went down on her hands and knees. Monika stopped playing, thinking she was badly hurt, but she was only trying to find the bottle to throw back.
When they got home to Berlin, Monika knew there’d be a reckoning, but she didn’t think it would be so quick or so brutal. When she went to work, her boss, a nice old man who’d never seemed to mind how she looked or where she spent her leisure time, told her that he was sorry but he couldn’t keep someone like her around anymore. She didn’t have to ask what he meant. Could she clear out her locker? Yes, he did mean right away. The records were still in there. She didn’t know what to do with them, so she stuffed them into a borrowed shopping bag along with the rest of the locker’s contents—her lunch box, her spare clothes. And of course when she walked out onto the street the man in the roll-neck sweater was waiting with his smirking friend. Two junior piss-schnapps-cabbage men, leaning on their piss-schnapps-cabbage car. She tried to give him back the records. He’d had his fun, now he could leave her alone. This time he didn’t pretend to find her cute. Silly bitch, did she think she could just mess him around? He told her to get in the car. It was time she understood a few things.
They drove for a short while and pulled into a courtyard, next to a delivery truck with a picture of fruit and vegetables on the side. A man in blue overalls was leaning on the hood. As they drew up, he ground out a cigarette with his boot. They took her from the car and told her to get in the back of the truck. She hesitated, and they were rough as they pushed her inside. She had a moment to see that the interior was divided into little windowless compartments, before she was shoved into one and the door locked behind her. She was left in complete darkness, sitting on some kind of stool. The engine started, and she groped around to see if there was a bar or a handle, something to hold on to.
These things are easy enough to read about. Transported in total darkness, brought out into a punishingly bright place, banks of neon strip lights trained down on a garage with reflective white walls. The transition from darkness to dazzling light, a shock designed to induce a physical crisis, to reduce the subject to a state of abjection, nothing but a half-blind animal, stunned and panicking.
They were quick but thorough, photographing her, taking fingerprints. The interrogation room was furnished in the style of any other government office. A pair of wood-veneer desks were arranged in a T-shape. At the window hung a dirty lace curtain. The lace curtain was funny, she supposed. The roll-neck man probably had a sow wife at home twitching one just like it as she spied on the neighbors.
It was the first time she’d seen him in uniform. He looked primmer than he did when he was roaming around the city in civilian clothes. He had placed his hat neatly on the desk, next to a pale-pink file. He didn’t look up as the guards brought her in, just pretended to read. Sit, he said, waving vaguely at a chair at the foot of the T. He pushed back a strand of his thick black hair, smoothed and patted it with a flattened palm. No, on your hands. Still he didn’t look up. She was confused, and he raised his voice. Put your hands under your buttocks, palms down. Sit on your hands. She did as she was told. He opened up a file and made some kind of note.
In front of him he had a telephone, a tape recorder, and a box with a row of buttons whose function was not obvious. In front of her was a microphone. Things were going to change, he said. From now on there would be no time for romantic games. She asked if she was under arrest. No, what made her think that? They were just going to have a little chat.
The threat hidden in that twee bloodless phrase.
He pressed a button on the tape recorder and began. Factual questions. Names and places, information about the band, people she had met in other cities. I don’t know, she kept saying. I can’t remember. In that moment, she was telling the truth. She really couldn’t remember anything. It was something she was good at, practiced in. Partial self-erasure. She could live for long periods as if her memories were not hers, as if they were just images taken from films or books.
He oscillated between unctuous compassion and petulant threats. Had she given a single moment’s thought to her family, her friends? Take it from him, the consequences of these things were never limited to one person. She should imagine, he said, that she was throwing a stone into a pond. The ripples would spread out. Luckily for her he had a solution. To what, she wondered, other than the trouble that he himself was causing? His solution was this: Together they would write out an agreement. She would confirm her loyalty to the German Democratic Republic and agree to work with the Ministry for State Security. A small thing. Most people would see it as their patriotic duty.
She didn’t want to provoke him—she had no sense of the limits of his power, what he could realistically do to her—but, as he whined on, a bolus of disgust rose in her throat. All of it, the fake delivery truck, the cell, the blinding lights, just so a repressed little man could issue threats and shuffle papers at his desk. She had to concentrate to fight her nausea, and because speaking made it worse she didn’t speak, didn’t say the things he wanted her to say. Again and again she swallowed the words and shook her head and eventually he seemed to run out of steam. With one more twist he could probably have broken her, but he didn’t see it. Instead he pressed his call button and ordered the guards to take her to her cell.
As she sat and waited for whatever would happen next, she tried to divert her mind from the more frightening possibilities, but there was nothing else to dwell on, no way to distract herself. If it got really bad, could she escape? The light fixture would hold her weight. She still had the laces in her shoes. Then she heard the sound of keys and the door’s heavy bolt being drawn. Roll-neck came in, and ordered her to stand. She caught the sour hormonal stink of her own sweat. He could smell it, too. His face was a mask of disgust.
I’m going to throw you back, he said, in a tone of professional regret. She thought she had misheard. Throw her back, like a fish. He stepped aside, making an irritated gesture at the open cell door. Could he offer one word of advice before she left? She ought to go straight home. She wouldn’t want people to start wondering where she’d been. That weaselly hint of concern. As if the two of them were complicit in something, a scheme or a love affair.
She was given back the borrowed shopping bag, still filled with the contents of her work locker, and escorted to the front gate. The gate closed behind her, and she found herself on a residential street, facing a row of maisonettes. Behind her was a high wall and a watchtower. She didn’t have a way of telling the time, but from the light she guessed that it was late afternoon.
She chose a direction that seemed likely to lead to a main road, and began walking. Eventually she found a U-Bahn station, and arrived home at more or less the normal time, as if she’d just finished her day at the workshop. When she came through the door, Elli was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. Everything O.K.? she asked distractedly, then squinted at Monika’s bag. You have records, she said, brightening up. What did you get? At first Monika didn’t understand. Then she felt sick. She’d forgotten about Roll-neck’s “gifts.” Without thinking, she had brought a piece of him home. Mechanically, she dug the records out of the bag and handed them over. Seeing Elli reading the sleeves made her feel guilty, as if she were exposing her to a contagious disease. Her friend’s amazed, slightly envious expression told her that she’d made a problem for herself. The records were too good, too recently released to come without an explanation. I swapped them with Peter, she said, the first thing that came into her head, and then cursed herself because this Peter was a close friend, in and out of the apartment all the time. The lie could easily be found out. She had a sudden sense of threat, the springing of the trap set by Roll-neck as she left the cell. Go straight home. You wouldn’t want people to start wondering where you’ve been. Why should she lie? What was the point? Because he’d put the idea into her head? But then again how was she to tell the story without inviting suspicion? Every question would breed more questions. Why hadn’t she ever said anything before about talking to the Stasi? Were the records payment for some kind of service? She was exhausted and very hungry. She just wanted to forget about everything for a few hours. After she’d had some sleep, she would handle it. She ran into the bathroom, stripped off her clothes, and stood shivering under the thin trickle of the shower.
Her plan was to tell Katja first. She wanted to do it when the two of them were alone, but somehow she never found the right moment. There were always people in the apartment, or they were all out somewhere, watching a band or with a big group at a bar. As the days went by, a sort of skin or scab grew over the memory of her arrest. Why pick away at it? Little by little she fell into a kind of magical thinking, as if the reality of what had happened to her depended on its being told, put into words. Instead she swallowed it, forced it down into the pit of her stomach and barred its way back out with the gate of her teeth.
Elli had a boyfriend, whose name was Kurt. Another musician, a bass player. One morning Monika was lying in bed when Kurt put his head round her door. Had she seen his notebook? He’d left it on the kitchen table. She propped herself up on her elbows and said no, she hadn’t, and just at that moment she spotted it, or, rather, they both spotted it simultaneously, lying on top of the beer crate where she kept her clothes. There was no reason for it to be there. They had all been at a party. She’d come in and gone straight to bed, just fallen in drunkenly without even turning on the light.
Kurt was more quizzical than angry. If you want to read my secret thoughts, he said, you could just ask. But the notebook was only the beginning. Over the next few weeks, all sorts of personal things went missing or were moved around in the apartment. Someone took a hundred marks from the pocket of Elli’s leather jacket. Katja’s photos were left out on her bed. No one came out and made accusations, but these small crimes and clumsy invasions of privacy put everyone on edge. Who would leave a used sanitary towel by her bed? Or tear pages out of Elli’s books? A bad atmosphere developed. Katja and Elli became conspiratorial, exclusive. Sometimes Monika thought she was going mad. Was she actually responsible, doing all these things without knowing?
Then came the fight at the church. Even the old Chekists of the secret police only dared to go so far against the Lutherans, and some pastors took advantage of this latitude to do political things, such as letting punk bands play in their halls. The pastor of a church in Friedrichshain was a bearded young man who painted abstractions and believed in turning swords into plowshares.
On the night of the concert, there was a good atmosphere, at least at the beginning. Another band played before D.G.F., and the crowd was excited, whooping and cheering as it waited for them to come on. A few people had even crossed over from West Berlin for the show. Katja introduced her to an English guy who was dressed, for some reason, in a Weimar-era postman’s uniform. He’d brought some tapes of underground industrial music as a present. He said he wanted to take the three of them into a studio. Though he was obviously trying to score with Katja, the offer seemed to be genuine.
The church hall had a proper stage, and they were standing in the wings, waiting to go on, when some skinheads arrived. Not a few. Twenty or thirty. It was 88 Tommy’s birthday, and they’d all been drinking. Everyone knew 88 Tommy and his idiot friends, but tonight there were more of them, a lot of faces she didn’t recognize. D.G.F. went into their first song, and right away the skins pushed their way to the front. They started spitting and making obscene gestures. From farther back, someone threw a bottle. Monika was protected behind the kit, but at the front it was bad. Katja was jabbing at shirtless men with her mike stand, warning them to keep back. During the second song a couple of guys started Sieg heil-ing and one of them got onstage and pushed Elli down into the crowd and after that it was chaos. As if at a signal, the stage was full of skinheads throwing punches, kicking over the P.A., beating people with mike stands. Monika cowered behind her kit, unable to see what had happened to her friends. When she spotted an opening between the scuffling bodies, she ran for a side door.
Almost as soon as she got outside, she was grabbed by two men in bureaucratic raincoats who smelled of cigarettes. They hustled her in the direction of a waiting car, talking loudly about how they were “here to protect” her and “get her to safety.” The street was full of people who had come outside to get away from the fight. The men made such a noise, raising their voices. They drew everybody’s attention.
Pastor Daniel was in the crowd, holding a handkerchief against a wound on his forehead. He frowned as he saw her go past. She tried to shake the men off, but one of them poked her in the small of her back with a fist or a stick, a quick discreet attack that caused a flash of intense pain. While she was incapacitated, they more or less picked her up and threw her into the back seat of a car.
They drove her to a hairdresser, of all places, nearby in Lichtenberg. The lights were on in the shop even though it was almost midnight. She could do with a makeover, said one, laughing. Mousy little thing like her ought to do something with herself. She should take a little more pride in her appearance. They led her to the back of the shop where, of course, the roll-neck man was waiting, natty in driving gloves and a new brown leather jacket. Have a seat, he said. Don’t worry, you’re safe now.
She could have defied him. She could have said, Pig, when did I ever ask you to keep me safe? She could have said, I know you don’t give a damn about me, so cut the shit and tell me what this is really about. Instead she flopped down onto a chair and almost in a whimper, the whimper of a frightened little girl, a beaten dog, she asked why he had to make it so obvious to her friends. And as she heard herself she understood what he’d done, how completely he’d won. He’d made his abuse into a shared secret, a cozy secret that had alienated her from her friends, and she was disgusted with him, and with herself for falling for it, and with the sordid world that made such a thing possible.
He was using his indoor voice, his forked tongue. He told her he admired her loyalty to her friends, however misguided. He made offers. Perhaps she needed money? He might be able to organize a stipend. She told him to do whatever he wanted. She’d had enough. He pretended to be offended. He had, he said, a sworn duty to uphold the law. He took that seriously. Did she not take that seriously? Surely, after such a disgusting display of violence, it would be obvious even to someone as obtuse as her that negative decadent elements were at work in her little milieu.
She threw up her hands. So why the hell had he arrested her, instead of them? He claimed not to understand. Them? The skinheads. The ones who did the violence. She couldn’t believe how little he seemed to understand. Skinheads? Did he really not know what they were? He asked her to describe them. Ah, yes, he said. Ah, yes. So did these animals have names?
He smiled and took a pad out of his pocket. Tommy. Very good. So what else did she know about this Tommy? A surname, perhaps? Where did he live? And then she saw what he was doing, getting her to give him information, to report to him, and she had a feeling like looking into a pit. No, she said. Just that. No. He pretended to be surprised. Wasn’t this Tommy one of the real criminals, the ones she thought he ought to be focussing on? Well, then, surely she should be happy to assist. I’m not working with you, she told him. I’m not one of your creatures.
There was a rustle of plastic curtain beads. She swivelled on the chair and there he was, as if she’d magicked him into being. 88 Tommy the skin, his white T-shirt with a few spots of red near the collar. He grinned a doughy grin. He looked drunk. She was so confused that she just sat there with her mouth open. She could not put it all together. Roll-neck’s smirk. Tommy’s presence. His easy, casual air, leaning in the doorway, scuffing the sole of his boot against the floor.
Roll-neck let her take it all in for a minute. We have many people helping us, he said. In all sectors of society. So, it was late. Perhaps he ought to let Tommy drop her off? Someone should see her to her door.
You could come and meet the boys, Tommy said. Roll-neck thought that line was hilarious. Meet them? All of them? No, no, Tommy, she wouldn’t like it. He grinned at her. Maybe, Roll-neck said, they should play a game. If she agreed to work for him he’d give her a head start. She didn’t understand. He gestured to Tommy, and then to the door. Say yes and she would have five minutes before he unleashed the beast. Tommy looked angry at being called a beast, but he didn’t say anything. An expression crossed his face, a brief collapse of his drunken smirk. Maybe, she thought, Roll-neck had something on him, too. She stood up, without speaking. Then she turned and walked to the door.
Once outside, she started running, convinced that Tommy was coming after her, but after a few blocks and a few turns she realized she was alone, and allowed herself to slow down. Eventually she had to stop and rest, propping her hands on her knees, coughing and spitting into the gutter.
When she got home she found the apartment full of people. The atmosphere was unfriendly. They squinted at her through a haze of cigarette smoke. So who were her friends? She tried to explain as best as she could. Yes, they were cops. Of course they were. They’d been harassing her. She’d never given them a thing. She’d found out that they were working with Tommy. That part of it people seemed to believe. Tommy with the pigs. But why hadn’t she said anything before? She told them all to fuck themselves and shut herself in her room. After a while, Katja followed her. I would be so sad, she said, to think that you could ever do something like that. Monika promised her it was nonsense. On my mother’s life. You don’t give a shit about your mother, Katja said.
Pastor Daniel had found out that Monika needed money and offered her work as a gardener. When she showed up, she could tell that he was suspicious. There was a lot to be done on the church grounds, he said. He supposed he could use her. A couple of days later, she walked home after a day in the garden, dressed in old clothes, mud on her boots, to find everyone waiting for her in the living room, not just Katja and Elli but most of her close friends, people from other bands, the pastor himself. They had set up a sort of courtroom. They sat around the walls.
Elli went first. Monika had left with some policemen after the fight at the gig. She’d claimed they were harassing her, but many people in the room had seen pictures that told a different story. What pictures? From a folder, Elli produced a grainy black-and-white photograph of her talking to Roll-neck outside the electroplating workshop. It must have been taken from far away. Who gave her the photograph? She kept asking, but Elli carried on. There were a lot of reasons to be suspicious. Monika had just attached herself to their group. She had no friends, except the ones she’d met through them. Had she been ordered to worm her way in? Elli wasn’t afraid to give her opinion. Monika was a snitch. She should leave.
What hurt most was the way Katja looked at her. As if she were a bug or a spider. With a feeling like sinking into icy water, Monika understood what her future would be. These people had picked her up and invited her in. Elli was right: without them she had no one. And now they were telling her to go.
They didn’t even let her stay there that night. She was told she could come back for her things in the morning. She didn’t know where to go and it was late and the weather was warm, so she slept in a park. That was what she did for a couple of days, hung around in the park, until she was so tired and hungry that she fell asleep on a bench in the middle of the afternoon and woke up to find it dark and a couple of cops shaking her. They put her in a cell overnight, and told her she’d be charged with vagrancy. She really didn’t care. She didn’t see what difference it made.
In the morning they let her out, and Roll-neck was waiting on the street, looking like the cat that got the cream. I thought we’d lost you, he said. That would have been a shame. She let him put her in the car. She knew she smelled bad, and she didn’t care. They drove to Prenzlauer Berg, through the streets of war-damaged tenements, and as they got closer she could feel the horror creeping up. She realized where he was taking her. There was a line of police vans parked around the corner from the building. He drew up behind them. The thing is, he said, if you’d coöperated when I first asked you, all the people asleep in there would still be your friends. You’d be in there sleeping, too, instead of out here. It wouldn’t have had much of an effect on your life. A chat every week or two. A cup of coffee. Things would have gone on much as normal. And instead all this has to happen. Why? Because you gave us no choice. Order must be kept. Now please watch. He gave a signal to a man who blew a whistle. In ones and twos, dozens of police officers jumped out of the vans and doubled round the corner.
In the year or so that she’d been living at the band house, more people had moved in. The building had turned into a little community. Roll-neck got out of the car and opened the rear door. Come on, he said. She refused. He told her not to test his patience and began to stroll across the street. She followed him, her feet like lead. The police had herded the tenants down into the courtyard. They stood there, shivering in their nightclothes, listening to the sound of their apartments being searched, bangs and crashes echoing in the stairwells. People she knew, Katja and Elli among them, stared openmouthed as Roll-neck walked her in from the street. Surrounded by high gray walls, he stuck his hands in his pockets and began to whistle, a jaunty little tune to accompany him as he ambled about, exploring. She followed behind, because staying in the courtyard would have been even worse. He visited almost every occupied apartment in the building, blandly unconcerned about the destruction going on all around him. Monika watched policemen pull out drawers, tip books and records off shelves as Roll-neck peered around like a tourist in an old church. Finally, he pushed open the door of Katja and Elli’s place. She saw the pile of kindling that had been their living-room furniture, their clothes ground underfoot. The basin and toilet had been smashed, and water was pooling on the bathroom floor, which was covered in unsleeved records, grimy with boot prints. She looked out of the window. From the other side of the courtyard, she heard the sound of glass breaking, someone crying.
As she stood in the apartment that had been her home, Monika felt completely dissociated, as if she no longer occupied her body. It was self-protective, she supposed. A way of distancing herself from what was happening to her. Roll-neck walked her down the stairs, half supporting her. And when she broke down in the car afterward, when she began shaking and screaming, he spoke kindly to her, rubbing her back and offering her a handkerchief. He knew it was unpleasant, but he had to make her see how things were. This was how the world worked. He would have liked her to be useful in Berlin, but there were other places, too. He would find her somewhere else to live, give her a new start. He made her feel grateful to him. Then he took her to an office where she wrote out a document, a declaration that she was loyal to the G.D.R., and was coöperating with the Ministry for State Security of her own free will.
She moved out of Berlin. The Stasi used her in other cities, where she wasn’t known. She was taken to places where the band had played and told to get back in touch with people she’d met when she still belonged to herself, when she was, as she put it, “still a person.” In a few cases the contacts had heard rumors about the police raid and wanted nothing to do with her. But others welcomed her, gave her a meal or somewhere to stay, and she paid them back by making reports, reports that caused trouble for them, opened up the possibility of harassment, or prison.
Roll-neck would meet her in hotel rooms or private apartments. There was always somewhere to which he had the key. He often brought a bottle and would badger her to drink with him. She usually refused, until one evening she was sent to a poetry reading at an apartment in Leipzig. The poets were good people, and she felt shitty enough about reporting on them that when Roll-neck was debriefing her she said yes to the offer of a glass. Later on, when everything was blurry, she let him take her to the bedroom and do what he wanted. She was aware, from a great distance, of Roll-neck’s white body, his grinding and whimpering, his ragged breathing next to her on the pillow after he came. She felt almost tenderly toward him. After all, he was the only one. The only one who knew her, who listened to her, who cared if she lived or died.
By this point, she felt she had no inside. She was a sort of hall or public gallery that people could walk about in as they pleased. Gradually Roll-neck found her less useful. The targets she was supposed to observe became suspicious. They could tell something about her was wrong. She was drinking more and more and one night got into a fight at a bar and used a heavy ashtray on another woman, who was badly hurt. A broken nose, a cracked skull. She was arrested and charged with assault. Roll-neck did nothing to help. He told her that the situation was her own fault. He washed his hands of her. She was sentenced to eighteen months in the women’s prison at Hoheneck, a grim red brick fortress on a hill above a Saxon market town. It had a bad reputation, and the reality was worse. Sleeping in a dormitory. Up at five for labor, sewing tablecloths and bed linens under signs extolling order and cleanliness. There was never a moment when she was unobserved.
After she got out, she moved to Potsdam and eventually found work in a factory canteen. She served and swept and scrubbed, and tried her best, as far as possible, never to speak to another living soul. Then one day she arrived to find the canteen workers gathered round a radio, listening as if their lives depended on what the announcer was saying. Hadn’t she heard? The borders were open in Hungary. She didn’t believe it. She thought it must be a ruse, a way to entrap traitors. From then on, things moved very fast. The G.D.R. began to collapse. People were packing and leaving for the West. Not her. She wasn’t fooled. It was impossible to believe that the whole system would fold just like that.
Everything happened without her. The dancing on the Wall, the champagne, the banners hanging in the stairwells of the occupied Stasi buildings. She didn’t even visit the West until almost a year after the change. A day walking around the other side of the city, looking in the windows of the shops. She went into the KaDeWe, the big department store, and rode the glass elevator up and down. When she came to the food hall, the luxurious displays of chocolate and fruit and delicatessen goods, she couldn’t take it anymore and hurried away. She did not belong in such a place.
Soon enough, the secrets started to come out. Researchers were looking through the Stasi files, trying to reconstruct documents that had been hastily shredded or burned. Victims wanted to talk about who had done what. There were ugly scenes on the TV, media denunciations. Friends found out the truth about friends. Heroes turned out to have feet of clay.
Maybe it was a sign of her naïveté, or her isolation, but it didn’t occur to Monika that any of that would touch her. After all, who was she? Nobody. Nothing.
She didn’t recognize the man who came to the door, until he reminded her that he used to write a fanzine. Then she remembered him, one of the Köpenick boys. He used to wear a dog collar and an army shirt. Turned out he’d done well in the new Germany, learned the tricks. He was now a journalist for a big weekly news magazine. Out of his writing he’d squeezed a watch and a fancy tape recorder and a little VW Golf, parked on the street outside. He wanted to put certain questions to her, accusations of an unpleasant nature. Documents showed that she had been an informer. She’d sent people to prison. Go away, she said. She had nothing to say to him.
Though she never read what he wrote, her neighbors did. They began to spit on the ground when she walked past and let their dogs do their business outside her door. Someone pushed a note through the letter box, calling her terrible names. By that time she had another job, quite a nice one, serving lunch to children at a kindergarten. One day a teacher told her that “someone like her” had no business near children. They didn’t fire her. They didn’t have to. She took her things and never went back.
Through all this, she had doubts. Everyone said that the Stasi was gone, but was it really true? For her, it had simply sunk underground, into the walls and the floorboards, the fabric of things. Objects still moved around in her apartment. She’d find the tea in the coffee jar, her books in a different order on her shelves. There were unexplained setbacks. A stolen bike, lost parcels at the post office. All of it was suspicious.
The texture of her reality was soft, spongy. She couldn’t trust that anything would take her weight. She often wondered what had happened to Roll-neck. Sometimes it was as if he were still with her. At any time he might walk in, smirking and carrying a bottle of cheap booze. And then quite unexpectedly she saw him, standing in the cold, selling pickles at a street market. He was wearing a cap with earflaps, and his breath was spilling out in a frosty plume, and somehow the sight of him, wrapped in his hat and scarf, offering samples to the shoppers, was pathetic. It was like a balloon bursting. Finally she could believe that it was gone, the thing whose face he had been. She hurried away before he could spot her. That night she cried as she hadn’t done for years.
Little by little, she made a life for herself. One with small dimensions, but safe and sustainable. Sometimes at weekends she packed a picnic and went to the lake, or took a bus out to the countryside. Then came the revelations about Katja, and everything was difficult again. Naturally, with the fall of the Wall, Katja had become an important person. It was inevitable, a woman with her charisma. After her days in the band, she’d been part of the movement for democracy. She’d written poetry and made speeches and chanted slogans. At the reunification ceremony she’d even been invited to sing a song at the Brandenburg Gate. She was an artist, an activist, a victim of the Stasi, a national symbol of resilience in the face of oppression. She’d just published a memoir when they found her file, and for Monika it felt like the night of the skinhead attack all over again, when she’d turned round to find Tommy standing in the doorway. The shock was just as great.
When she looked back, it seemed to Monika that her best memories of Katja were actually invented. She had usually been kind, but it was the sort of kindness that cost nothing. She’d always won so effortlessly, and no one had ever thought to question how she did it. Now it seemed so obvious, the ease with which she could get hold of things, make things happen. Monika could barely process what was in the articles, couldn’t draw it into the circle of her imagination, so she made an appointment at the office that handled the Stasi archives. She was allowed to read only the material that pertained to her, but that was enough. Katja had been recruited by the Ministry for State Security in high school. She was described as “highly motivated,” and “committed to the cause of socialism.” She had reported everything, worked as hard as she could to undermine the influence of the decadent West. Most of Roll-neck’s cruelties—the way he’d pressured her, the guilt he’d made her feel—had served no useful purpose at all, because Katja had already been telling them everything. It was even more perverse than she’d imagined. In a secret ceremony, during the time that they were in the band, the Stasi had awarded Katja a medal and the rank of captain. Finally Monika understood the purpose of parading her in front of her friends on the day of the raid. It had been to protect Katja, to divert suspicion from their real asset.
This time she read the newspapers. A tabloid printed a picture of Katja holding up a hand to ward off a photographer. There were other pictures, interviews with people the band had known in Berlin, all saying how shocked they were to discover the truth about their famous friend. There was a brief revival of interest in D.G.F., the three-piece band with two informers. Monika moved again, though that didn’t stop a journalist from finding her and following her down the street to ask about her Stasi “colleague.” After a month or two, things died down again.
And that was more or less that. She did a lot of drinking and tried to work out what she would say to her friend if she ever saw her again. Ten years after reunification, someone found Katja in a small South German town and persuaded her to give an interview for a TV documentary. Monika barely recognized her. She’d got fat, and her hair was badly dyed. The bohemian disorder of her youth had become an ugly jumble. She was breeding dogs, or rabbits, or something. Animals for pet shops. She said she didn’t regret what she’d done. She’d followed her heart. So what if things had changed around her? She’d turned out not to be right about the world. That was true of many young people. Who could see into the future? A few months later, Monika saw Katja’s face again, in a newspaper obituary. She had gone out to the Wannsee and walked into the water. She had taken a lot of sleeping pills and filled a backpack with rocks. ♦