Chapter 12 of my novel Christobel. Chris has settled nicely into his nursing job in Germany. He’s thoroughly enjoying it and feeling very fulfilled, apart from a recent rather worrisome event which he’s trying to put to the back of his mind. But trouble is looming . .
I do hope you are enjoying Christobel. If you would like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read successive posts on from there.
Chris still hadn’t really got used to the comparatively greater opportunity to spend time with his patients. It was certainly a much more relaxed and unhurried atmosphere on the wards of the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum than it had been back at Yeoville. By contrast with the constant, perennially understaffed rush to get five things done simultaneously there, you had time to actually relate to the patients at the FSK. It was wonderful; made the job so much more worthwhile.
Frau Weber – Gertrud – was a case in point. She was a middle-aged cancer patient: primary, in her uterus. She’d had a full hysterectomy to be on the safe side, which would be followed up by a course of chemo for good measure. There were no signs of metastasis so her prognosis was good. She’d been given the blessing of the surgeon and would be leaving hospital today to recuperate at home before returning for her first infusion in a few days’ time. Chris liked her. His German was improving rapidly, to the extent that he hardly needed Helga to oversee him now when dealing with patients. So he could talk to her direct and understand nearly all of what she said to him, which was just as well because she was certainly a chatterbox. She could talk the hind legs off of the proverbial donkey.
She was a comfortably plump, blond-fading-to-grey-haired woman who wore an almost permanent smile and had taken the operation in her stride. ‘After all,’ she had said cheerfully, ‘I no longer have need of a womb and the other items; I have made my contribution to the German population. As long as I still have the important thing, to keep my Klaus happy, that is all that matters.’
‘Well, me happy too, when I have got over this inconvenience!’ she’d added, grinning mischievously. She was relentlessly undaunted, optimistic and cheerful; you had to give her that. One of her sons, Anton, was expected soon to collect her. He was a schoolteacher, Gertrud said, and the best-placed of the family to collect her in the afternoon when the school day had finished.
Chris was not particularly busy and sat on her bed keeping her company for a few minutes, as she sat in the bedside chair, dressed, surrounded by her bags and ready to go. ‘What sort of school does your son teach at?’ he asked, making small talk.
Gertrud beamed proudly. ‘He is at the High School in Hasbergen. Doing very well, as a matter of fact. He will probably be promoted to Head of Department soon. He has applied for the job and expects to get it.’
‘Good! What subjects does he teach?’
‘Mathematics, mainly. And economics, which is very clever and the same sort of thing, isn’t it?’ She looked searchingly at Chris, as if he would be certain to know.
Chris laughed. He thought he knew which subjects she was talking about but wasn’t certain; his German wasn’t that good yet. ‘I really do not know. I am only a nurse!’
Gertrud smiled uncertainly too, looking a little disappointed, as if Chris had failed to deliver sufficient validation for her maternal pride.
‘But yes, I suppose they are, really,’ Chris added hastily. ‘And yes, he does sound very clever. Much better educated than me.’
‘Oh yes, I think he is!’ Gertrud beamed. ‘Oh, I am sorry; I mean Anton is very clever, but not more than you.’
‘That is all right. Do you have other children too, Frau Weber?’
‘Oh yes. I have another son: Christof.’
‘Really? What a, er, coincidence – is that the word? That sounds like the German for my name, Christopher. It must be, surely. It is so similar.’
‘Yes, you have nearly got it right.’ Gertrude spoke it correctly to demonstrate, Zufall. And yes, I am sure it is. It must be. So you are Christopher too!’
‘Yes, and my great-great-grandmother was also called it – well, nearly: Christobel. The female version. And she was a nurse too, in Belgium, in –’ Chris stopped dead, realising where he was heading: possibly sensitive territory. ‘– in the early part of the last century,’ he finished lamely.
‘Oh yes?’ The smile had left Gertrud’s face.
‘Yes. Er – and what does Christof do for a living? May I ask?’
‘He is a car salesman, here in Osnabrüch. At a big dealer.’
‘Oh, right. What we call a main dealer in Britain; selling just one make, like Mercedes or Volkswagen?’
‘Yes, I suppose so, but neither of those. It is Toyota.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Chris had automatically assumed it would be a German brand. It was curiously disappointing.
‘Yes, he is doing very well also,’ Gertrud said; the reflected glory of offspring-success evident in her voice. ‘He is not as clever as Anton, but he earns more money. He is a very good salesman.’
‘Okay.’ Chris cast around for a suitable comment on that but couldn’t find one. He could only think of mentioning Mick. ‘My brother earns a lot more money than I do too. Very much more. He is a pop star.’
Gertrud looked slightly put out, as if she’d been upstaged.
‘I see. Is he with a band then?’
‘Yes, quite a famous one. Vagabond. I do not suppose you have heard of them?’
‘No,’ Gertrud said flatly, before bringing the subject back to her own family, ‘and then I have a daughter, Klara. She is the youngest and is a social worker. She does not earn as much as Christof either, but she likes her job, I think.’
Chris smiled. It was the familiar story: modest pay but fulfilment in the public sector versus higher salary in the private one. ‘Good for her! I am glad she does. I think in Britain, people who do jobs like that are not always as highly regarded as people like, well, my brother. As my girlfriend says, all he really does is entertain, which is not as important as caring for or helping people.’
‘Yes, I think she is right’ Gertrud agreed. ‘And there is that attitude here too: people mostly admire wealth and success rather than doing good.’
‘Mm. What area of social work does your daughter work in?’
‘Young people, mainly. Kids who have got various problems: drug abuse, self-harm, mental health issues like eating disorders that are linked to family problems. That sort of thing. The unprivileged people at the bottom of the pile, as she calls them.’
‘Right. Well she is doing a vital job. I admire her.’
‘Yes, I do too,’ Gertrud said, clearly gratified by the proxy compliment. ‘I presume your girlfriend is German, is she?’
‘Yes, she is. Frieda works in the Klinikum too, as a physiotherapist.’
‘Oh, that is nice! So how did you two come to meet?’
Chris chuckled. ‘Well, it was on the internet.’
Gertrud looked puzzled. ‘Really? How was that? I am afraid I do not know very much about computers. They are a mystery to me. I have heard that you can, but how do you meet people on them?’
‘On Facebook. There is a British band called Albanclan. They are Scottish. They have been going for many years but are still popular, and they have a big following in countries like Germany. I suppose that is why Frieda likes them too. Someone had shared a video of them doing one of their best tracks, one of my favourites, live in Berlin, and there were lots of comments saying it was theirs too. One person was Frieda and we had a conversation about it. She looked nice in her little profile picture so I looked at her profile and she looked even nicer larger.
‘So I did a friend request, although I did not know that she was German because she had commented in English, or whether she was, er, unattached. I just wanted to befriend her because we had something in common, really. She accepted my request and we started to share other Albanclan videos and comment some more. Then I began direct messaging her, but the message boxes are very small so I suggested we do email, and then she suggested Skype and, well, things developed from there.’
It was plain from Gertrud’s blank expression that she didn’t understand the jargon or the ways of Facebook, but she did the romantic, human interest angle. ‘Ah, that is nice! So how long have you known each other now?’
Chris did a quick mental calculation. ‘Er, nearly fourteen months. Since August last year.’
‘And how long have you been working in Germany?’
‘Well your German is very good. You have learned it very quickly.’
‘Thank you! Well I have been learning it since January this year, when we decided we wanted to live together and in Germany. I had a lot of help from Frieda.’
‘How could she do that if you were in England and she in Germany?’
‘Via Skype. You know?’
‘Talking to each other on our computers. In our voices with our faces on screen. You see it done on television sometimes.’
‘Oh, yes . . .’ Gertrud nodded her head uncertainly.
‘Yes, it is good for that.’
‘Mm, I am sure it is. And do you like living in Germany?’
‘Yes, very much! It is good that we can do it so easily without needing a visa in the EU. It is not so easy outside it, I think.’
‘I would not know about that. But yes, it is good that you young people can do that, if you want to. And do you think you and your girlfriend will get married; have a family?’
Chris laughed. ‘Well, we have not discussed that yet. And I think Frieda wants to concentrate on her career at the moment. And we would have to decide where we wanted to settle down: in Germany or England.’
Gertrud looked faintly disapproving. ‘Yes, I suppose things are different these days from when I was young. Then, we could not wait to get married. Klaus and I could not, certainly.’
‘Have you been married a long time, Frau Weber?’
Gertrud chuckled now. ‘It certainly feels like a long time. It is thirty-six years. Yes; we married in nineteen seventy-nine.’
‘Really? That is a long time. You do not look old enough to have been married so long!’ The unthinking flattery escaped before he could think better of it. Chris bit his lip. Idiot! Watch what you’re saying! Germans have a more formal culture!
But Gertrud didn’t seem offended. She grinned. ‘Thank you! Well I am fifty-nine; I married when I was twenty-three.’
Chris relaxed. ‘Well that is younger than I am now. And younger than Frieda. Perhaps we should start thinking about it, then!’
Gertrud’s eyes shifted to look over his shoulder, fastening on something or someone. ‘Hello.’
He turned his head. Frieda stood behind him. She was unsmiling; wore a strained expression.
‘Oh, hello Frie!’ he said, automatically lapsing into English. ‘I’ve just been talking about you!’ But then he remembered his manners and reverted to German. ‘I was telling Frau Weber here about you, about you working here too. Well, telling about us, mainly; how we met.’
‘Yes, about how you met on Facebook!’ Gertrud put in. ‘What a way to meet! I have never heard of such a thing as that. We never did that in my day.’
‘Well, there were no computers then, or Facebook,’ Frieda said, somewhat sharply.
‘Oh no, of course not. Silly me.’ Gertrud said in sarcastic mock-contrition.
Freida ignored that. ‘Are you attending to Frau Weber, Chris, or just talking?’ she asked pointedly.’
‘Just talking, why?’
‘In that case I need to talk to you.’ She urgently indicated the ward entrance with her eyes. He noticed now that they were red-rimmed.
‘Ah; right.’ Chris looked back to Gertrud. ‘Would you excuse me please, Frau Weber?’
‘Yes, of course, Christopher,’ Gertrud said a little huffily. She had been enjoying her chat with this interesting English nurse.
‘It has been very nice talking to you. You have a good rest at home now, and I might see you again when you come back for the chemotherapy. Take care.’
Frieda was already making her way out of the ward. Chris quickly followed, almost colliding with a man entering who raised his hand in recognition, grinned and headed towards Gertrud’s bed.
Out in the corridor Frieda led the way into a small, empty waiting room. She flopped into a chair. Chris took the one next to her. She was clearly upset. ‘What’s the matter, Frie? What is it?’
She looked on the verge of tears now.
‘Oh Chris,’ she said, struggling to get the words out. ‘It’s Opa.’
He took her hand in both of his. Said gently, ‘What about him?’
Her tears were falling now. Not for the first time, probably.
‘He’s . . . he’s dead!’