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The saying goes, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’. Roman and I chose each other. We clicked, but not in the way you might expect. Both of us were outsiders; both misfits in our families.

We palled up at university and continued our adventures in Europe; I worked in a provincial town in Germany and Roman studied in ad hoc fashion, in Paris. He threw himself at life one day – which thrilled me – and retreated into despair and withdrawal the next. His sudden astute insights had been honed as the youngest of the many children of a vitriolic father.

He provided me with diversion, emotional support and a sort of slice-through wisdom.

I hadn’t worked myself out yet. I don’t recall signing up to become his rock, but I learned on the run, live-action.

Karneval – a celebration like Mardi Gras – bumped the boundaries. In the past, Roman’s reciprocal visits raised a few eyebrows both with my landlady and my employers. That chilly weekend, he swept in with recently assumed Gallic panache on the inter-city train. He flung his arms around me, and memories of previous shared festivals and parties reeled past us in technicolour. This time he promised to curb his impulses. Fingers crossed. I live in hope. Please, Roman, don’t bat your big blue eyes – accidentally or not.

Our destination was Düsseldorf and the Karneval festivities that mark the end of the long Fasching season. This year Roman wanted to do it in style, and we had our make-up and masquerade costumes packed.

Bang on time, our train arrived. It left bang on time, too. Trust the Germans. Good thing I corralled Roman and his paraphernalia onto the platform EARLY. He gave my weathered suitcase a cursory glance and pursed his lips. On the train, he sat down in the seat facing me, unbuttoning his crisp navy-blue reefer jacket and loosening his designer scarf. ‘Almost as good as the TGV – clean.’ He appraised the interior, running his manicured fingertips over the window ledges. Green expanses of Westfalen countryside flew past, interspersed with solid grey stone towns and factories. The drizzle outside seemed to dampen his mood, betraying the sadness he camouflaged behind an air of gaiety and his polished exterior. Who could know of his history of chaotic episodes: burst waterbeds, projectile hayrides into deep snowdrifts and public alcohol-driven meltdowns, or of his bouts of guilt and deep Slavic depression?

He leaned over when I pulled out a German movie magazine. ‘Yavoll!’ He shook himself back to life, uttering the few German words he knew. ‘Wass ish dass foor n Scheisse?’ He jabbed at the magazine. It was odd how saying something rude in a foreign language didn’t seem real.

‘Shush.’ I peered around the carriage.

‘Ooohh he’s a hottie!’ Unfazed, Roman bent over for a better look at the semi-clad Adonis

smouldering on the page. Then he shrank back against his seat. Something, no, someone, had caught his eye.

‘Ow!’ I felt Roman’s foot press on mine. ‘What? Roman, I told you not to look. Stay out of trouble,’ I whispered. Do you want to get jumped on or bashed again?

His eyes bored into mine. He sat rigid, his shoulders contracted, his Adam’s apple bobbing as his fingers fiddled with the buttons of his jacket. In a flash, he squeezed onto the seat beside to me.

I slid my eyes sideways, catching a glimpse of a strongly built man with chiseled features, his hair jet-black, thick and wavy. Yugoslav? Spanish?

‘Don’t you look, either.’ Roman hissed, pretending to read the magazine he now held up in front of his face. The steamy movie idol look-alike slid into the space Roman had vacated. The man spoke in some unfathomable dialect or accent, his voice husky with anticipation.

‘Not German,’ I mouthed from behind the magazine.

Roman gave a little gasp and squeezed closer to me. He flicked feverishly through the pages. But Lover-boy was not so easily put off. He thinks Roman is flirting with him; he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. I felt the pressure of the man’s leg against mine and looked down. Roman’s knees were squeezed between his.

At this point I was tempted to offer advice, having often run into similar situations myself. Should I try to save my long-standing confidant from this over-zealous suitor? In the past, he laughed out loud and cheered me on.

But today, Roman heeded the danger signals. He lowered his eyes to avoid his admirer’s gaze, and trembled. Judging by the fervent look on the man’s face, he took this for ardour, moving closer still and placing his hand on Roman’s knee.

Will Roman be mortified if I give his pursuer a whack on his perfect nose? Or even a solid punch below the belt? Of course, he will. All those stolid Germans will scowl at him. ,Das ist verboten!’ They’ll look first at Lover-boy, then at him – at both of them.

As the train pulled into our destination, Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof – the main station – his admirer stood to disembark, shooting a hot burst of longing over his shoulder and indicating he would wait on the platform. His lips parted, moist.

Roman stood glued to the spot, taking the cases down from the rack in super-slow motion. He averted his eyes, intent on buttoning up his jacket, one button at a time. In a split second he bolted, bashing his suitcase against the forest of legs lining the aisle. Cap askew and scarf trailing, he threw himself towards the exit, creating a general outcry.

‘Here!’ I yelled over the protesting passengers. ‘You dropped your passport. You’ll need that!’ His fingers grabbed it and he was gone.

I was left to drag my suitcase along as well as Roman’s designer makeup case. I took a deep breath and pushed my way through the throng, trying to get a fix on the hunter and his prey. Up ahead of me, Lover-boy stood stock-still casting around on the platform. I dodged out of view. Just in time. Well, he’s certainly persistent. I cursed under my breath. Dammit Roman. Can’t you stay out of trouble just for once. I followed the man from a distance, out through the massive main doorway of the station, where he vanished from view. There was no sign of Roman, either.

Oblivious to the jostling swarm, I came to an abrupt halt in front of the railway station. Will there be a police investigation? Mein Gott! When the hubbub subsided, reality pressed in on me. Stranded on the sidewalk of a strange city, I gripped my battered suitcase on one side of me, Roman’s glamorous makeup bag on the other, and racked my brains. This can’t be happening in broad daylight! The unexpected sunlight blinded me for a moment. How am I supposed to explain this to the Polizei? And what are they likely to think? Kidnap? Murder? Soliciting? Good God, what exactly will I say? I contemplated the prospect of a wrecked weekend getaway. Worse still, was the thought of schlepping my suitcase down to the nearest station, followed by tedious hours of meticulous interrogation by the very korrekt German police. Where the devil has Roman got to?

‘Maggie! Maggie!’ A hoarse stage-whisper pierced my thoughts. ‘Is he gone? Can I come out?’

‘Roman! Roman! Where are you?’ Directly across the road in the little park, a large bush sprang to life; an alien life-force, its branches and leaves cracking and rustling. Oh my God. Straight out of MacBeth…Birnam Wood!

Roman emerged, white-faced, covered with scratches and brushing off the debris that stuck to his prized jacket and poked out of his hair. ‘Fuck it. What have you got to laugh about?’ He darted a wounded glance at me. ‘It’s fine for you, isn’t it? You’re not somebody’s fresh meat.’ He paused, pulled himself to full height, smoothed his hair and brushed off his clothing. ‘Where is he? Don’t laugh I said!’ He glanced wildly around him, then he gave a start. He batted and rummaged through all his pockets. In desperation, he took off his jacket and shook it out. ‘Fuck it, now where’s my passport? How will I get into the hotel? Or get money at the bank?’ He paused. ‘Or get back to France?’

Relieved and struck by the absurdity of the situation, giddy laughter erupted. Which is worse? The lost passport? Or making him even madder? ‘Look Roman. Take a breath. We’ll look for it.’

Too late. He had dived back into the bush, setting it into frenzied animation once again. ‘No, you stay there and guard our stuff!’ Several minutes passed, broken only by scraping, cracking and grunting. When Roman re-emerged, his thick wavy hair had grown a bush of its own and a fine layer of brown dust and debris coated his entire body.

At the sight of him I spun around, turning my back to him.

‘Shit. I can’t find it.’ The silence of his humiliation vibrated.

I didn’t dare speak. Get a grip, woman! Please God, don’t let me laugh again.

‘Are you laughing? – You are, aren’t you? Well, fuck you!’ He stormed around until he was facing me, still dusting himself off and tugging at the fresh crop of greenery that lodged in his hair.

‘Oh Roman, so sorry, I just can’t help it. It must be the shock,’ I choked. ‘Seriously, this is a problem. Especially in Germany. Vee hev rules. Look, let’s just deal with this later, when we’ve calmed down and had a good cold German beer.’

We trudged along the streets to the hotel in silence, dragging our cases. The intensity of recent events left us both feeling deflated. Finally, I said, ‘Roman, leave it to me. I’ll explain to the hotel. I’ll say you’re going to the embassy tomorrow. Anyway, I’ve got money. Just pay me back.’ I waited a few more moments in silence, then said, ‘They’ve got a great spa and sauna at the hotel. And I’m here to protect you.’ I looked him over. Still no response. Will I give his bottom a pat? As I did, he winced and withdrew further into silence. He’ll get over it.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘at least I picked up your make-up bag and we’ve still got our costumes. We can do our make-up together…we’ll have a great time. Just stick close to me this time. Remember,’ I laughed, ‘this isn’t Paris.’ Oh, stupid woman. Why did you have to say that?

His face clouded for a moment, then like quick-silver Roman gave a blinding smile and whooped for joy. ‘We’ll show those Germans some French savoir-vivre!’ You think?

My legs turned to lead upon entering the imposing vestibule through the heavy swing doors. The receptionist stood to attention behind the desk. Immaculate, of course; hair tied back, steel-framed glasses glinting. Well, no time like the present. Dive in! I opened my mouth to explain.

’Ah, we’ve been waiting for you. Oh, my goodness. Are you alright? Please. Sit down.’ The woman pulled over a chair, leaned forward and smiled. ‘I’ll get you a glass of water.’

Roman sat down, put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze. He looked into my eyes and said, ‘Maggie, are you OK? I had no idea…’

‘Now, Frau Morgan. I have some good news. It seems your travel companion dropped his passport at the Hauptbahnhof when he got off the train. They telephoned us. Lucky for you, it was the final destination. Yes, very lucky. There’s a black market in passports. The cleaners found it and passed it on to the station master, who found our card tucked inside it. Deutsche Post will deliver it by special mail tomorrow morning, courtesy of the Bundesbahn – the German Railways.’ She paused and turned to Roman. ‘Of course, you will have to sign for it, and show the postman another form of identification.’

A little later, we agreed that a nice cold Pilsener was a suitable antidote and adjourned to the neighbourhood Kneipe – the hub of German social life, the pub – with its polished wooden booths and cosy lighting. ‘Hmmm…I seem to remember another incident when I was visiting you in Paris. It took us days and days to get through the red tape. Remember that? So, here’s to détente!’ I clinked my glass against his.

Roman sat searching my face, deep in thought. He stirred after a few minutes and linked his arm through mine. We drank a long slow draught of the delicious cold beer. ‘But most of all,’ he held my gaze, ‘here’s to Freundschaft – to friendship!’ Does he know the depth of significance that word carries in German? For a few moments in time, caught in the golden glow of the table lamp, we sat looking at each other before we both burst into laughter, relief and a sense of connection flooding our bodies.



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