Infatuated with the countryside, Henrik and Rebekka had moved to the area for the full, fly-swatting experience. At the edge of the village, where one last row of houses sat sharply against the green hillside, they moved into a little red-brick cottage that sandwiched itself between two large farmhouses.
On cold days, the farmers would hang up, by their hooves, large pigs, which greeted them along the path to their front door. On hot days, the wind carried sweet dunghill smells across the courtyards and into their kitchen. Henrik and Rebekka were in love.
I, too, enjoyed visiting their house throughout my childhood. Their steel refrigerator always stocked large glass bottles of cow’s milk and little wooden boxes of colourful, seasonal fruit and veg: luscious pink cherries, glistening green apples, bold yellow corncobs and deep violet eggplants. They owned posh things, such as a pasta machine, and one of their kitchen cabinets was set up as a ‘make-your-own muesli’ dispensary that neatly catalogued 30 different types of nuts, seeds and grains into metal clamp jars. Breakfasts here were the best. Thank you IKEA.
In 1985, on a warm summer day, Rebekka ran into Charlotte crossing the local sports ground that divided the village in half. Rebekka fashioned a long, jet-black razor cut, and Charlotte carried a sleek blond bob, her hair stylishly cut just under her chin. The two women couldn’t have looked more different, aside from the fact that they were equally pregnant. They sat down on an old wooden bench that looked towards the playground and started talking.
Naturally, they discussed life post-pregnancy, which was approaching fast. Rebekka was particularly nervous because Rebekka 2.0 was going to be the first addition to her family and she didn’t know what to expect. It was clear that she looked forward to being a mother but also wanted to return to work, which she loved.
On the other side of the bench, with a ream of different jobs behind her, Charlotte wasn’t sure what she wanted to do professionally, but knew that she loved being a mother, and eagerly anticipated her second boy, not a doubt in the world.
They continued to talk and perhaps it was the warm weather or the fresh cheesecake waiting for her at home, but Charlotte proposed to look after Rebekka’s new addition when the time would come, allowing Rebekka to pursue her passion and return to the classroom in the following the year.
Pragmatic as she was, Charlotte figured that one or two babies wouldn’t make a difference; though little did she know at the time. Charlotte always wanted a house filled with kids, and she looked forward to little me arriving in November and little Helene in March. The two women hugged, Charlotte slung her avocado green tote bag over her shoulder and headed home. Cheesecake.
Next spring, and from then onwards and every morning, Rebekka or Henrik would drive up the little dirt road to our house in the middle of the forest and, with the engine still running, jump out of the car and hand over their little redhead and bags to Charlotte, leaving Helene behind like someone who couldn’t afford the bus fare.
We all grew older, and Helene’s bags became larger, but for seven fun-filled years our morning routine would remain the same. We had breakfast, played, and waited until we heard grandpa’s dry breath and slow steps across the creaking veranda. One hand tightly gripped his favourite wooden walking stick, which the dog couldn’t stand, and the other held his old, green felt hat, the one with the feather, in which he always hid two deliciously chocolatey Duplo bars. We grabbed them with our grimy little hands quicker than he could say “Guten Morgen!”
With my first set of teeth slowly rotting away, Charlotte asked grandpa to stop his morning delivery of chocolate. But, as is often the case, the embargo failed. After our two-week ‘chocolate bar fast’, the Duplos were back, and so were we at the local dentist’s.
Dr. Scholl (Med Dent BDS MSc WTV) was a large man with large sausage fingers and a dislike for any form of anaesthesia. Naturally, I developed an incredibly high tolerance to pain, which continues to surprise my present-day dentist. But frankly, if you cannot handle a dentist’s drill without an injection, I will think of you as weak. Now hand me that slice of chocolate cake, I’ve got a root canal appointment to which I have to get.
Helene and I did everything together. We spent our days building fortresses in the woods or rafts on the creek; which would sink to its bottom as soon as chubby little me took one step on board.
We ran track. We learned how to play the piano. We made pottery. We boiled magic potions in an old iron stove that we found on the local skip. We made our own paints, which we used to repaint our neighbour’s staircase. Sorry, not sorry, Frau Braun from next door!
We shared the same urge for freedom and to make our own decisions, however terrible they were. We were spontaneous and impulsive and we never took ‘no’ for an answer. Most importantly, we were relentlessly inventive.
When we were old enough to write, we adopted my father’s disused typewriter and started a small business. Every day, we would go from door to door to try and sell ridiculous, made-up products, including our own supply of non-breakable sticky tape and soundproof fly screening. There was a clear gap in the market at the time, or so we thought.
We bombarded villagers with reams of proposals, invoices and contracts, which we safely kept in an old lockable briefcase – having carefully changed its combination to 007.
There was no stopping us. At least, until we went into liquidation a few days later – by which I mean that we opened our own lemonade stand next to the local bus station.
When we were seven, things quickly and suddenly changed.
Our dog died, our bird died, and grandpa fell from a damson tree, which is the kind of thing that only happens in the countryside. With his fourth vertebra fractured and several ribs broken, he stubbornly swung himself onto the tractor, drove home to call an ambulance and was hospitalised for many weeks. Unrelated, but to make things worse, my parents finally decided to divorce and Charlotte and I moved out of my childhood home.
Charlotte took up work at a ‘Ski, Snow and Climbing’ shop in the city, and with Helene and I having started elementary school, Rebekka and Henrik stepped in to look after us, predominantly during after-school hours. Rebekka prove-read our homework and Henrik cooked us delicious meals.
We quickly realised that a big switcheroo had been pulled on us when we spent more time at Helene’s than mine, more time attending piano lessons with our frail, nonagenarian teacher, and less time pulling pranks on our nervous neighbours. We suddenly had responsibilities, such as school work and helping out around the house, and life became more serious and less careless.
Nevertheless, we had each other and life went on and we slowly grew up in our eclectic and hectic new type of hodgepodge family.
Only at the age of 13, when Rebekka and Henrik could no longer support my ever-growing appetite for Knödel, and Charlotte grew tired of chauffeuring me around from one house to the next, both families decided to pull the plug on our family fortune. This was the real divorce, that followed the divorce. We started to spend our afternoons and evenings separately, looking after our own schoolwork. Charlotte remarried and we moved farther away. Helene started dating. We spoke less. Both of us started to take different classes at school and made new friends. We met up less often. My family moved again, but this time four thousand miles away and across an ocean. We we were separated for good.
Helene came to visit the summer after we had arrived in Michigan. I was ecstatic to see her again. We had kept in touch as often as our rickety modems allowed, but nothing beat seeing my freckled friend in person. It was a hot summer, and we stayed up late most nights. Drenched in sun lotion from the day that had passed, we sat on the porch and caught up over iced lemonades and leftover doughnuts. I had missed her.
Helene never came to visit again, but we saw each other at least once a year, when I returned to Germany during my summer holidays. I returned to the little red brick house to enjoy Henrik’s cooking and was filled in on all the local gossip and drama at school. When I arrived early enough in the summer or late enough in the school year, I even attended some of Helene’s classes and was able to catch up with all my old friends and confused my old teachers, who I’m certain had been relieved when I initially left the country. There was only so much sarcasm a day they could handle.
But the distance between us grew bigger than the four thousand miles between us. Calls and emails became less frequent, even though we had upgraded to a clunky new wireless phone and a more reliable modem. And we struggled to stay in touch. By the time I started university we no longer talked, and it would be years before we saw each other again.
Helene came to grandpa’s funeral, for which I once again travelled to Germany. Not a damson tree related incident this time, but simple dementia was the cause of my visit that spring. I was touched that she came and was glad to have a friend in the crowd.
I called her parent’s house the day after the funeral, still the same four digits, 5201, thanked them for their well-wishes and asked for Helene’s new number. She had moved to Frankfurt to study patisserie or thanatology, or something, and was living in a swanky new flat along the Main river.
I called her the following day to thank her for coming to the funeral. We talked just like we used to. We gossiped. We laughed. We exchanged stories, recipes even perhaps. We said how much we missed each other and made plans to see each other again soon. We had officially reconnected and it felt like the beginning of something new.
We never spoke again.