She got there just before seven. She’d expected to make more headway and arrive sooner by traveling in the early morning. When she hit more road construction, and yet more, she grew nervous. Would he walk through the gate, look out for her in vain, his ﬁrst reaction one of disappointment, of discouragement? The sun rose in the rearview mirror—she would rather have been driving toward it than away from it, even if it had dazzled her.
She parked where she had always parked and walked the short path to the gate as slowly as she had always walked. Everything to do with her own life she cleared from her mind, to make room for him. He always had a ﬁrm place in her mind; not an hour passed without her wondering what he was doing right now, how he was getting on. But each time she met him, he alone existed for her. Now that his life was no longer in suspended animation, now that it was starting to move once more, he needed her full attention.
The old sandstone building stood in the sun. As so often before, she was strangely moved that a building should serve such an ugly purpose and at the same time be so beautiful: the walls covered with Virginia creeper, ﬁeld and forest green in spring and summer, yellow and red in autumn, the small towers on the corners and the large one in the middle, its windows like those of a church, the heavy gate, forbidding, as if it wished not to shut the inhabitants in but to shut their enemies out. She looked at the clock. The people in there liked to keep you waiting. She had often applied in vain for a two-hour visit, and after the hour granted, was simply not collected but went on sitting with him for another half hour, three quarters of an hour, without really being with him any longer.
But when the bells of the nearby church began to strike seven, the gate opened and he stepped out and blinked into the sun. She crossed the street and embraced him. She embraced him before he could set down his two big bags, and he stood in her embrace without returning it. “At last,” she said, “at last.”
“Let me drive,” he said as they stood by the car, “I’ve dreamed of it so many times.”
“Are you sure? Cars have got faster, the trafﬁc’s heavier.”
He insisted, and kept driving even when the sweat stood out on his brow. She sat tensely next to him and said nothing when he made mistakes turning in the city and overtaking on the autobahn. Until they passed a sign for a service station and she said, “I need some breakfast, I’ve been up for ﬁve hours.”
She had visited him in prison every two weeks. But when he walked along the counter with her, ﬁlled his tray, stood at the till, came back from the toilet and sat down facing her, she felt as if she were seeing him for the ﬁrst time in ages. She saw how old he had become, older than she had noticed or admitted during her visits.
At ﬁrst glance he was still a handsome man, tall, square face, bright green eyes, thick salt- and- pepper hair. But his poor posture emphasized his little paunch, which didn’t match his thin arms and legs, his gait was slow, his face gray, and the wrinkles that crisscrossed his forehead, and were steep and long in his cheeks, indicated not concentration so much as a vague sense of strain. And when he spoke—she was startled by the awkwardness and hesitancy with which he responded to what she said, and the random, jittery hand movements with which he emphasized his words. How could she have failed to notice that on her visits? What else was happening, in him and to him, that she had also failed to notice?
“Are we going to your place?”
“We’re going to the country for the weekend. Margarete and I have bought a house in Brandenburg, rundown, no heating, no electricity, and the only water comes from the pump outside, but it’s got a big, old park. It’s gorgeous now, in the summer.”
“How do you cook?”
She laughed. “Are you interested in that? With great fat red gas canisters. I’ve ordered an extra two for the weekend; I’ve invited our old friends.”
She’d hoped he’d be pleased. But he showed no pleasure. He only asked: “Who?”
She had thought long and hard. Which old friends would do him good, which would only make him embarrassed or reserved? He needs to be among people, she thought. And more than that, he needs help. Who will he get that from, if not his old friends? Finally she decided that the ones who were pleased she had called, the ones who wanted to come, were also the right ones. In some of those who made excuses she sensed honest regret; they would have liked to be there if they’d known about it earlier, if they hadn’t already made other plans. But what was she to do? His release had come as a surprise.
“Henner, Ilse, Ulrich with his second wife and their daughter, Karin with her husband, Andreas, of course. With you, Margarete and me that’s eleven.”
“You know the one—for a long time he just wrote to me. He visited me for the ﬁrst time four years ago and he’s been a regular visitor ever since. Apart from you he’s ...”
“You mean that lunatic who nearly cost you your reprieve?”
“He only did as I asked. I wrote the welcoming speech, I knew who the addressees were, what the occasion was. You have nothing to reproach him for.”
“You couldn’t have known what you were doing. He did know, and he didn’t try to stop you, he just rode on into it. He uses you.” She was as furious now as she had been that morning, reading in the paper that he had written the welcoming address for an obscure left- wing conference on the theme of violence. His actions, the paper said, had revealed his incapacity for insight and remorse—such a person didn’t deserve to be reprieved.
“I’ll give him a call and invite him.” He got up, looked for and found some coins in his trouser pocket and walked to the phone. She got up too, was about to run after him and stop him, then sat back down again. When she saw he didn’t know where to take the conversation, she got back up, walked over to him, took the receiver and described the route to her house. He put his arm around her, and it felt so good that she was reconciled.
When they drove on, she was at the wheel. After a while he asked, “Why didn’t you invite my son?”
“I called him and he just put the phone down. Then I wrote him a letter.” She shrugged. “I knew you’d want him to be there. I also knew he wouldn’t come. He decided against you a long time ago.”
“That wasn’t him. That was them.”
“What difference does it make? He’s become the person they brought up.”