It was during my final year in Berlin that Johannes began drinking in the pub. He came on Fridays, to end the working week sitting at the corner of the bar. Johannes went to the pub, he said, to be somewhere different than the places he spent the rest of the week, to be among people different to those he worked with in the tall, glass tower at Potsdamer Platz or at the evening events his bosses expected him to be a part of. He worked as an analyst for a large financial company, the man in the tower whose job it was to predict the movements of the markets and to insulate his employers from the worst impacts of the next crash before it happened. This was all we knew, as Johannes did not like to talk about work. He did not want to be defined by it, by what people expected him to be, when they found out what it was he spent ten to twelve hours a day diligently working on, in his office, twenty storeys above the city streets below.
Instead, Johannes came to the pub to listen to the conversations already taking place along the length of the bar. He would also join in as, although he was not a football fan, for example, he knew enough to talk about the most recent travails of the city’s teams. He had a good memory for details, whether the names of grandchildren or wives, upcoming hospital appointments that had been mentioned in passing or the niggling problems of an old car. Johannes did not like to talk about himself, but he enjoyed talking about others, learning about what bothered them, sympathising with a hand on the shoulder and the offer of a drink. In the year or so that I knew him, I never discovered the name of the company he worked at, his relationship status, or even where in the city he lived. He showed no interest in telling anyone these details of his life. To know the Johannes who came once a week to take his place at the end of the bar, it was not important to have these details, and he did not tell me, nor the other drinkers in the pub on those Friday evenings.
There was, however, one part of his life he did not mind speaking about, and that was his village, the place he grew up in, not far from Berlin, where he had lived until he left for university and the place he still called home.
It was a Friday night, early in the year. I was sat at the table by the door, waiting for K. to meet me after she’d finished at the university. Johannes pulled out the chair opposite and sat down, placing a pile of papers on the table between us. I looked from the papers to him, and waited.
‘I thought you might be interested,’ he said, leaning forward to push them closer to me. They were loose, about five hundred sheets in all, fastened together in the jaws of a large bulldog clip. There was no title page, no title at all, just a top sheet of dense, eleven-point, single-spaced type. I flicked through the first few pages and they were all laid out the same way, all offering no clue as to what I might discover if I began to read.
He had heard I was interested in stories, he explained when I looked up at him. That I had an interest in local history. And this was the story of his village, the history of the place where he’d spent his childhood and adolescence. It had taken many, many months, working mainly on the weekends and the occasional evening in the week. He had visited libraries and ordered rare books online, all part of his attempt to piece together the major events in the story of the village, from the first Germanic settlers until the present day. It was not yet finished, but knowing of my interest in things like that, he’d thought I might like to see it.
Johannes looked down at the table as he spoke, rolling the base of his beer glass against the polished surface. The confident financial analyst, standing at the corner of the bar with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his tie stuffed in his pocket, had been replaced by a nervous author. It was a coming out.
He was not much of a writer, he continued, but he felt this was more important than any work that he did for money. People were too often defined only by how they earned a living, he said, but surely other things were more important? They had to be more important. He did not wait for me to reply, but continued to talk about the book. It was over a thousand pages already and he had just reached the period when his parents had moved there in the 1970s with their toddler son. He was finding this part hard because it was no longer abstract history, but personal. It had become his story.
As he continued to talk, I wondered why he was showing me the manuscript if he was not going to let me read it. This was the only hard copy, and although he had it saved on his computer, he was not yet willing to let it out of his sight. That wasn’t why he was showing it to me. The point of showing me, it turned out, was that he wanted to show me the village itself, if I was willing to join him.
A week or so later we met at Alexanderplatz and caught a train east, out through the mix of crumbling brick industrial buildings and GDR-era concrete-slab apartment buildings that lined the railway, until we reached the suburbs of garden allotment colonies and new detached houses that seemed to increase in number every time I took this journey beyond the city limits. Outside it was cold, and although there was no snow on the ground, the gardens and fields beyond the carriage window seemed frozen, the ploughed furrows hard and unyielding.
Johannes pointed out landmarks along the way. A water tower and a stretch of the canal. The parkland where he had spent childhood summers as a member of the Young Pioneers and a sedge of cranes, striding across one of the rutted fields. A new solar farm, visible from space. Once we reached the open countryside, passing yet more fields and patches of woodland, he told me stories of farmers finding the remains of soldiers as they dug. These were stories I had heard from others, but I let him tell me because it seemed important to him that he did.
Outside the window, beneath overcast skies, Brandenburg was dulled. Hooded crows and queues of cars waiting at level crossings. Village houses huddled around a church spire, hoping for protection. A solitary walker, making progress between two fields, following a ditch and a line of poplar trees, skeletal and still.
We disembarked at a station that seemed isolated among the fields and beneath a wide expanse of sky. The village was two kilometres away, down a tree-lined avenue. It was over a thousand years old but not important enough to cause a diversion of the line. They simply built the station where the tracks crossed the road to the next village, Johannes explained, so each day during high school he had to make the walk, once in each direction, to catch the train to the nearest town large enough to have a Gymnasium. He must have made that walk two thousand times, he said, following first a sandy trail between the road and the next field, and later the tarmacked bicycle path, laid in the 1990s. By then, his parents were already thinking of leaving. They had moved there because his mother was a teacher at the village primary school and his father worked at the nearby collective farm. When his father lost that job after reunification, he started selling carpets at one of the large furniture stores that had opened by the motorway junction, fifteen kilometres away. As people left the village, it was announced that the primary school was to close. His parents hung on long enough to get Johannes through his schooling, but once he had gone to university, they went too. Now they lived on the other side of the country, close to the Rhine, approaching retirement.
‘The village is dying,’ Johannes said, as we approached the first of the houses. It was a residential block, built for the farm workers who were no longer needed. Their apartment had been on the second floor, looking out across a patch of grass that divided the block from the row of garages, each just about large enough for a Trabant. The grass was criss-crossed with muddy tracks, between the garages and the stairwell doors, passing rusted poles that once held up washing lines. Many people had left the village, Johannes continued. Most of the businesses too. He pointed across the road to a residential house, where, above the front window, it was still possible to make out the six letters of a sign long-removed.
There had not been a grocery store since the mid-1990s, he said. The bakery closed down about ten years after that. The pub shut its doors not long after he had left for university. The village was dying, he repeated, which was why he was so determined to tell its story.
We stopped at the church and walked through the graveyard. His family were not from the village, Johannes said, they had been sent there for work. Half the children in the primary school were kids like him, incomers from elsewhere in the GDR. The other half were from families whose names could be found on the headstones in the churchyard. Children whose families had been in the village for generations. It was not surprising that the incomers left, once the work was gone, but now it was the established families who were also leaving or dying out. All but the most hopeless were gone, he said, to find work and a new house in one of those estates on the edge of the city, those new colonies of McMansions built to the same template but individualised with cosmetic alterations to the roof, a porch, the addition of a carport or a conservatory around the back. The city was doing what it had always done, pulling people towards it, increasing the pressure on those who were already there by adding ever more numbers, drawn by the promise of better times. And all the while, his village died its long, slow death.
I asked him if he had ever thought about coming back. About returning to the village and helping arrest the decline.
Johannes nodded. He had, he said softly, almost under his breath. And one day he would. He had an idea, almost a vision, he continued. An organic farm and accommodation. Seminar rooms and a distillery. Selling nature and schnapps and an escape from what Berlin had become and was becoming, all connected to the land and rooted in the place and its people.
He began to walk on and told me to follow. There was another place he wanted me to see.
It was the very last house, right where the cobbled street that ran through the village turned back to tarmac, snaking away in the distance. The house was set back from the road at the end of a short driveway and was surrounded by a wild, overgrown garden. It had been fenced off, although this barrier was easy to breach, and there had also been an attempt to seal off the interior, but there were gaps, holes in the boards that had been hammered into the frames of windows and doors, and we could hear the wind whistling through the hollowed-out building.
This was the house where the White Lady lived, Johannes said, as we stood at the fence. It had been her house since he was a child, back when the house already stood empty. If the White Lady lived there, no one else could.
It was a statement as definitive as the declarations of the love and scurrilous items of local gossip that had been spray-painted onto the disintegrating walls. In front of us, a path had been flattened through the overgrowth, leading from a hole in the fence to a hole in the wall. There was a scorched fire circle between the brambles, with a pile of charred logs at its heart, alongside discarded beer bottles and cans. I asked Johannes if he wanted to go inside, but he shook his head. He had been in once, he continued, when he was about ten. He never went in there again.
It had been a game, a dare between friends. Whoever went in the furthest, whoever penetrated the house the deepest, whoever got closest to meeting the White Lady… they were the winner. Johannes had made it all the way up to the first floor, passing a hole in the staircase until he reached the upper landing. His friends had long since disappeared. He had won. He could remember standing there and listening. Listening for his friends or other signs from the outside world. But he could hear no conversation from his mates, no sounds of the birds in the trees, the tractors in the fields or the church bells, drifting through the village to where he stood on its very edge. All he could hear was his breathing and the echo it created in the shell of the house. It was dark and it was damp and he was scared.
They all knew the story of the White Lady. That to disturb her was to bring bad luck, to you and your family. There had been the boy in his primary school, a few years older, who had fallen and broken his leg. A family, destroyed by financial ruin. A father, taken away by the Stasi. A woman who suffered a miscarriage. Scarred lives. People had died. That was why they had been told to stay away. Everyone knew it.
But he had gone in anyway.
‘I didn’t believe the stories,’ Johannes said, with a shrug. He had wanted to show his friends, and by extension the whole village, that there was nothing in that house to be frightened of. Not even the rats.
He looked at me.
And then, he continued, as he stood on the landing, he heard something. At first he thought it was a knocking. Someone banging against the wall or a door. A rhythmic beat. One, two, pause. One, two, pause. Then he realised they were footsteps, of someone pacing back and forth in a small room. And then he heard a voice, a woman singing. The voice was gentle, plaintive and beautiful. He could not make out the words, but he could sense a yearning in what she was singing, and that it was a refrain, a chorus repeated, over and over. He could still, all those years later, hear the melody in his memory, the sound of it drifting out from beneath a closed door to where he was standing at the top of the stairs.
The White Lady.
They all knew the story, he said again. The story of the landowner going off to fight in the Thirty Years War. About the landowner’s wife having an affair with a travelling minstrel who was passing through. About how the landowner returned from the battlefield to catch them, drowning the minstrel in the village pond before locking his wife away as he no longer trusted her. He returned to the battlefield having left her enough food and water to keep her going until he came back to the house. But he never did. He was killed, fighting the armies of Sweden in the north, and in turn his wife would die too, locked away, cursing her husband and putting a curse on the house.
Johannes gave a dry laugh.
The thing was, he continued, his ten-year-old self had been correct. The story really wasn’t true. The real White Lady haunted a cursed house in Westphalia, hundreds of kilometres away in the west of Germany. But at some point in the 1960s or 1970s it had become the story of the abandoned house at the edge of their village, a story from the other side of the border. They had invited the White Lady to come and stay with them, like the members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had been invited to hide out in the GDR, undetected and undisturbed. The White Lady’s job was to scare people, and especially children, away from the ruined house on the edge of the village, so that no one would go exploring and no one would get hurt. And so she did, and it worked, until everything changed.
When the Wall came down, Johannes said, the White Lady returned to Westphalia, just as the Baader-Meinhof members, with their fake names and new lives, were also exposed. And then they finally learned the story of the house on the edge of the village, and how it came to be a ruin. They learned of the day at the end of the Second World War when the Red Army came, and of the stories that had been advancing ahead of them for weeks. The house had been owned by a German officer, and when it became clear they were going to lose the war, he sent a message to his wife. Get out. Go to the Americans. Go anywhere but don’t stay there. But she did not leave. The house had been in her family for generations. It was her home. She was not going to abandon it.
Her husband deserted, travelled west overland to get back to the house, dodging the death commandos as he made his way to the village, where he was distraught to find his wife had ignored his letters. She was still there. Again, he tried to persuade her to leave. Again, she refused. He told her what had been done in the east, what had been done in her name. What was being done in return. But she was not going to leave the house, however much he pleaded.
Johannes gripped the fence with his fingers.
It was a spring morning when the Red Army arrived. Later, when the story was told, some of the details would change, but almost all versions agreed that the husband was wearing his uniform while she was wearing a simple, white peasant dress. There was a bang at the front door. The husband made a final plea. The garden was clear. They could at least try. Gently, and finally, she refused one more time. As the soldiers began to batter at the door, with kicks of heavy boots and swinging rifle butts, the husband climbed the stairs to their bedroom where he put his gun in his mouth. The soldiers found the wife in the living room, sitting calmly in her favourite chair.
Johannes would not tell me what came next, although he was sure I could guess. There was an intensity in his voice, one that told me he needed me to know what had happened at that place, that he needed me to understand.
There were different endings to the story, he continued. One was that, when the soldiers had left, the wife had climbed upstairs to where her husband lay and sat down next to him. She took his hand and then lifted a bottle of bleach to her mouth. Drank deep. Burned her insides out.
On the edge of the village, facing the house, there were three beats of silence, and then:
‘That is the ending I prefer.’
It was an odd choice of word.
I asked him why they had not told this story in the village. Why they hadn’t used the ghosts of the couple to scare the children off. But there were too many reasons, Johannes insisted, and anyway, by then the Russians were their brothers, they were their friends. In any case, it did not matter. Their ghosts did not occupy the house any more than the White Lady did. What he had heard as a ten-year-old was simply his imagination, the creaking of floorboards or sudden gusts of wind. There were no ghosts.
But he did not want to go inside, I said, and Johannes shook his head.
There were no ghosts, he said again, letting his fingers drop from the fence, but the house was still haunted.
‘We are still haunted.’
The last time I saw Johannes was a few months after our trip to the village. He was standing in his usual position at the corner of the bar, his beer and a shot of korn in place in front of him, talking to the regulars as normal.
He came over to me and pulled up a chair, his face flushed. The book, he said, was finished. He had finally understood what it was supposed to be about. He leaned across the table towards me. It wasn’t about the village, he continued, eyes locked onto mine. Not really. It was about Germany. The village represented something bigger. He leaned back, smiling. Didn’t I understand? All those stories that he had found, they all represented something deeper. More than just the village. The bodies dug from the fields, the rapes and the suicides, the abandonment and the ruins left behind… they all served a greater purpose. He was insistent. It was only through suffering that a culture could come together to form a true nation. It was only out of the ashes. And that was what was needed now. The village had to die, in order for it to be reborn. And the village was Germany.
He stood up and turned to go back to the bar, and then stopped. He rested his fingertips on the table and looked me in the eye. I waited, but there were no more words to be said between us, before he looked away and turned on his heel.
I watched him walk back to the bar, finish his beer and then say his goodbyes. As he passed me again on the way to the door, he leaned forward and rapped his knuckles on the corner of the table, and then he was gone. It was the last time I ever saw him.
And yet: in the weeks and months that followed, I was sure I saw him many, many times, so much so that I almost expected to catch a glimpse of that familiar figure, with its slim face and slightly hunched shoulders. I was convinced it was Johannes I was looking at, even when I saw him from behind. I saw him on a demonstration at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, where I watched from the counter-demo through the line of police officers and glimpsed him for second between the row of helmets. There was another march, full of German flags and banners, black and gold crosses against a red background. There was a rally on Alexanderplatz, where I was sure I saw him near the front, by the stage, listening intently to the speaker’s twisted grasp of history and what it all meant.
I began to see him on television, in front of a theatre on a platform between two poets or on a podium in a market square, occupying the shadows behind the men and women at the microphone. The more I saw him, the more I looked. I did not know his surname, but I searched online, scouring photographs and news footage as the rise of this new movement gathered pace. And there he was. Always in the background, always slightly obscured, but always there.
Johannes was a vision in a huge march at the other end of the country, walking in solidarity with movements in another land. Johannes was standing behind a political candidate, in the media scrum outside a hustings. Johannes was in a YouTube video from a small town in Saxony, sitting on the back of a truck as slogans were shouted through a crackly loudspeaker.
The more I searched, the more convinced I was that I could read Johannes’s voice behind anonymous contributions to forums, social media feeds and on comments beneath newspaper articles, hiding behind a range of pseudonyms that represented in words and numbers the nature of the struggle to which he was now committed.
It was getting out of hand, K. said, and she was right. She could not understand why it mattered, why I cared if it was Johannes or not. What mattered, she said, was that this was happening. Not some person who had once been to the same pub we went to. If I was to use my energy for anything, it should be to try and help win the argument that was now taking place, rather than obsessing over an impossible search for a living ghost.
She was right, of course. But one morning I went into the kitchen after she had already gone to the university. On the table she had left a copy of the newspaper, opened on a page that featured an interview with a man who had been photographed outside his comfortable-looking farmhouse in the country. He was a farmer, he told the journalist, and he was committed to the environment. His farm was now completely organic and he was clear that there was a need to break the dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. The way we treated the planet, he said, was a disgrace. But he did not see any contradiction in his environmental politics and his approach to politics elsewhere in society. The extreme left, he continued, seemed to think green issues belonged to them. But they didn’t. He loved his country and he loved the land; he understood instinctively that there was a need to protect it, and not despite his nationalism but because of it. There was nothing wrong with wanting to protect what you had. Not in nature, nor in culture. And there was nothing wrong in being proud of what you had. In nature and in culture. In what came before.
Beneath the article was a related story. A huge march, crossing a bridge above a wide river in one of Germany’s neighbouring lands. Thousands of people beneath a series of ugly, nativist banners. The caption told of hundreds who had travelled there in solidarity from other European countries. One of the faces in the crowd had been circled by K., using a green highlighter pen.
Dein Gespenst geht um in Europa…
K had scribbled these words in biro down the margin, next to the photograph.
I pulled the newspaper close. I could not be sure if it was Johannes. In any case, I understood that it did not really matter if it was Johannes, and yet even as I knew this constant search had been pointless, I was still catching glimpses of him, this spectre in the shadows that was now crossing borders. His name appeared on no ballot papers. He had not written any books. There were no interviews with him in the newspapers. But he was in all these places nevertheless, and each time I sensed his presence, I wondered again at what he thought he had heard, standing on the landing of the ruined house at the edge of his village. What had the White Lady been singing to him, what was the song that had echoed down through two decades to inform a thousand pages of his book? What was the message and what was it, exactly, that she was calling him to do?
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, the author of Ghosts on the Shore (Influx Press, 2017) and Built on Sand (Influx Press, 2019), and is regular contributor to Caught by the River and Hidden Europe magazine. He lives in Berlin.
Paul Scraton © 2019. Image © Jo Mazelis 2019.