Wednesday 4 November 2020

Living in the Past

by Jenny Palmer


Taken out of her normal routine due to Covid 19 and with little daily contact, Sally found herself living in the past. She used Facebook to check in with friends and keep an eye on current thinking. You had to ignore the fake news and conspiracy theories and people who took up extreme positions. It was hard to steer a middle ground. There were those who thought the government's measures had gone too far and those who thought they hadn't gone far enough. Sally got into the habit of posting up photos without
comments. They were of flowers mainly, ones she saw on her countryside walks.

'Say it with flowers,' wasn't that what they said. Her flower pictures represented a kind of shorthand for 'Life is still worth living when there are such beautiful flowers to look at.'

She got more likes for her pictures than anything else. It was a good way of keeping in touch with people without having to fully engage. You could avoid those lengthy phone calls, which went over and over the same old stuff. They always started with 'What have you been doing?

'Not a lot. Going for walks mostly. How about you?

'The same.' and moved onto the latest statistics on the virus, the government's ineptitude at handling it and the horror of the American Presidential elections. People were free to respond to her flower posts. It was entirely up to them.  Some liked to correct her spelling or offer alternative names. Others inquired where she'd come across a particular variety. Periodically she'd type in a reply. It was no skin off her nose. She avoided getting into debates about flower genuses. That required research. She wasn't claiming to be an expert or anything. Time was precious. You didn't get it back.

Then out of the blue she had a 'like' from someone she hadn't clapped eyes on in fifty years. She recognised the name, but it wasn't until she saw the accompanying photo that the memories came flooding back. It was 1968. She'd been on her year abroad in Germany, as part of her degree course. She'd distanced herself from the other English students to give herself a chance of speaking the language and had ended up sharing a room with this French girl in an international student hostel.

1968 was the year of student revolt all around the world. In her English university there had been some attempts to get the exam system abolished, accompanied by some anti-authoritarian protests but not a lot else. She'd spent the summer term going to happenings, where women hung out in flowing robes and men in flared trousers and nothing much happened.  In Germany, the universities were plunged into activism. The students were demanding change, not just of the exam system but of the entire world.

Sally had looked forward to the year abroad. It was the reason she'd chosen the course in the first place. She'd never been abroad, apart from one trip walking in the Black Forest with her friend Anita. They'd ended up hitchhiking around Switzerland, Austria and Germany and stayed a few days in
the youth hostel in the sleepy, South German town of Tubingen where she'd hit upon the idea of spending her year there. 

Up until that point, Sally had never so much as uttered a word of German, apart from in oral exams at school, which she'd managed to get through by learning stock phrases off by heart and repeating them parrot fashion. The arrangement with this French roommate had worked out well enough. Neither of
them could speak the other's language, so they'd been forced to speak in German. There was the added advantage of not having to worry about being corrected, as there might have been with a native speaker

After a few weeks of term, the whole university had gone on strike. All lectures and seminars had been cancelled. The English students had duly written to their professor back home, who'd told them to stay put and speak as much German as they possibly could. So long as they turned in the five required essays by the end of the year, everything would be fine.  Sally hadn't been able to believe her luck and was only thankful she'd chosen the option of studying at a university rather than giving conversation lessons to German school children.

It had been a momentous year in many respects. Because of the lack of tuition, it was imperative to mingle with other students. Fortunately, the hostel had a bar downstairs. That was where everyone gathered of an evening, where alcohol flowed, and tongues loosened. She'd met students from all over
the world, sampled Fondu and Gluhwein for the first time and gone to cafes for Kaffee and Kuchen. She'd learnt to hold her own in conversations in German on a variety of topics and picked up a boyfriend cum travelling companion. They'd gone on trips to Italy and Austria and Hungary in the
holidays and spent a week on the shores of Lake Constance.  Forever after she'd cherished the memories of her year abroad. It was a time when she'd been free to do whatever she wanted, the equivalent of a gap year today.

During the two-month long mid-semester break, she'd got a job in a towelling factory.  She'd thought it would be a good way to improve her language skills and earn some money to supplement her grant. Unfortunately, people had spoken in the local Swabian dialect, which was nothing like the High
German she'd learnt at school and was virtually unintelligible to her.  It was boring work which entailed wandering around the factory floor all day, loading orders onto a trolley. The country was in the middle of The German Economic Miracle following the Second World War. Tea breaks were rare and
lasted barely ten minutes.

When the workers volunteered to do overtime, she felt duty-bound to join them. She got up at the crack of dawn to start at seven and came home in the dark. She was on her feet all day. It was the hardest job she'd ever done. The summer jobs in England working in offices and shops bore no comparison.
But she saved up enough money to spend a weekend skiing in the Black Forest, and go off on her travels around Europe.

She hadn't seen much of her roommate in all that time. They led separate lives. Mostly they used their shared room to sleep in and write their essays in. There was one occasion that stuck in her memory though. The night they'd gone to Fasching together, which was the German equivalent of Carnival.  At
the end of the year, they'd parted company. All too soon she was back in England doing her final year. Eventually she'd lost contact with everyone from that era.

Getting a message from the past was disconcerting.  She was thankful that the Messenger slot on Facebook allowed only a limited number of words. She was having to communicate in German again.  Perhaps she should take a refresher course.

'Was hast du die ganze Zeit gemacht? she asked, thinking she'd get a run-down of her friend's life over the intervening years. But her roommate just kept bringing up people from the past, people she was supposed to remember. There was this one young man that her roommate wanted to talk about.

'Es tut mir leid, aber ich kann mich an ihn gar nicht erinnern.' Sally wrote back.   

Apparently, her roommate had been broken-hearted, when the young man in question had ended their relationship on the grounds that he already had an English girlfriend, who was well-known to Sally. Sally had no recollection of either him or the girlfriend. She'd better consult the photos.  When her
travelling days were over, she'd arranged all her photos in chronological order and stashed them in a box on top of the wardrobe.

The German ones were easy enough to locate. They consisted of a set of tiny black and white snaps that she'd taken with her first camera and half a dozen larger, coloured ones that someone else had taken. Among the coloured ones, there was one was of herself and her roommate, their heads stuck in
books, looking untypically, studious. In the others they were in fancy dress. It must have been during Fasching.  She recognised her get-up. It was a combination of her formal ball gown from the previous year, incongruously worn over a dark-blue, long-sleeved blouse and she had a flower in her hair.
Her roommate had made more of an effort. She was in a traditional costume with a bonnet.  They were both engrossed in what appeared to be an animated discussion with a well turned-out, rather handsome, young man.

Something switched on in Sally's brain then. That was him. That was the man her roommate was going on about, the one who she claimed had ruined her life.  Still who was she to judge? She wasn't the one who'd been in love with him. She'd had her own heartache to contend with at the time. He really
was a fine-looking man, though. Funny she couldn't remember him or his supposed girlfriend. Perhaps the girlfriend had been a figment of his imagination. But how did you say that in German?

The conversations petered out after a while.   As the season turned into autumn, Sally continued posting her pictures on Facebook. By now the flowers had turned into berries. 

About the author

In June 2019, Jenny Palmer published her first collection of poetry called Pendle Poems. She has published two memoirs, called  Nowhere Better than Home and  Pastures New  and a family history book called Whipps, Watsonsand Bulcocks. They are available from the Pendle Heritage Centre,
Barrowford and from No 10 Literature and Lifestyle, Clitheroe.  Her collection of short stories Keepsake and Other Stories was published byBridge House in 2018 and is available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle .Many of her stories are on the Cafelit website. A 59, Fatal Flaws and The
Visitors are in Best of Café Lit 3, 5 and 7. The Visitors is also in Citizens of Nowhere and Magnetism.  

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