“Good night, Frau Schroder”.
Mr. Khemka got up and winked at me to carry on. Our Frankfurt based friend Jagtar reluctantly dismounted the tall stool; he didn’t seem ready to leave the bar after only two drinks. But a health conscious Mr. Khemka prevailed and diabetic Jagtar had to bid a reluctant good bye. I knew they were exhausted and immediately left for their room. Mr. Khemka was not eager to listen to my mundane talk with Hilda; the vivacious bar tender aged about thirty five, a former communist party spy. Sardar Jagtar Singh didn’t seem to mind and was curious to know more about Hilda Schroder. The day has seen grueling long drives, a dreary visit to a ghosted large automobile plant, concluding in a business meeting extending late in the evening.
A smiling Hilda handed me another drink looking amusingly at my departing friends. She loved to practice conversing in English and was seriously taking language lessons like so many former East Germans. She had a son from her failed second marriage, and was worried about him as any single mother would be. Our stay in the modest hotel had been about two weeks long and I somehow managed to develop an admiration for her and wanted to know more about her life during communist rule in East Germany.
A worried Sardar Jagtar warned me not to ask political questions; otherwise I was destined to get a suitable thrashing from hurt and angry former East Germans ex-communists. Mr. Khemka and Jagtar were greatly amused at my interests in politics, arts and culture. For these hardcore businessmen, these were just a waste of time and energy. But both admired my budding friendship and common political, cultural interests with Franz, the senior German executive. The ideals and concept of soft cultural power was neither known nor understood in those times.
I found myself alone facing Hilda at the bar. Most of the guests had preferred to watch and participate in a fashion show behind next door.
“Do you find my English better than before?” She asked less haltingly.
“Yes, you have improved a lot in last few days.” I said admiringly.
“Are you sure?”
“I am damn sure, Hilda.” I assured her, as she looked suitably disposed to tell me about her past. A very tricky venture, as she was also prone to relapse in her own thoughts and ignore my attempts to seek her story. To me, her sad eyes betray a hard life led under repressive communist rule. Or I thought that was my own biased presumption, as she might have been very happy leading a team of welders in a now closed big automobile factory near East Berlin.
“You have been to Frankfurt many times; do you think I will find some work there?”
It was an innocent question but difficult to answer for me, being a foreigner and totally clueless about the employment scenario there. But I knew a positive reply would certainly edge me nearer to my own selfish motive.
“I am sure, you would, Hilda.”
“What work do you think I could find?” Hilda seemed eager to know my answer, displaying a childlike curiosity.
“To start with, a bar tenders job, as you are now.”
“I don’t like it; I want to do something else.”
“As a welder perhaps, that was your job in the Berlin factory. Wasn’t it?” I reminded her.
“No. Not that. They are putting up robots to do, kind of welding work, I used to do. What else can I do there?”
I was again speechless as the repertoire of her skills and employment, job scenario was not familiar to me.
“I wish Heidi was there to help me.” She suddenly had moist eyes and voice was laced with strain of suppressed emotions. That signaled her relapsing to gloomy mood, something, I instinctively tried to contain by diverting her attention from past.
“What most of your former coworkers are doing there, these days? May be that can provide some hint.”
“Most of girls work as prostitutes, and I don’t want to be one.”
I decided to keep my silence, as she turned and wiped away her tears.
“Heidi was a talented gymnast. Everyone thought she will win a gold medal for us at the Olympics. She was three years older and I used to feel very secure when she was around. Now I feel so lost and insecure with no one to guide me.”
Hilda turned away from me. I asked without thinking,
‘What happened to her?”
She turned back with visible effort and replied haltingly.
“She…. died….last year.”
Hilda remained silent for some time with her elbows resting on counter, face held by her slender hands.
“Do you want to know why and how she died?”
I couldn’t say yes but wanted to let Hilda unburden herself. She looked at me to judge my interest in story of her diseased sister, and must have read my morbid interest oozing out shamefully.
“Ok. I will be relieved in few minutes, than we can go the bar nearby and talk.”
I paid my bill and moved to a table and waited for her to join me. On eve of two holidays, I could afford to retire late on a Friday, without phone calls and an angry rebuke by my friends. She came attired in blue jeans and charcoal overcoat.
We walked silently to a nearby bar. She ordered drinks and led me to a table in secluded corner.
“That man in turban wants to sleep with me, doesn’t he?”
I was taken aback by her straight question and remained speechless. But being silent for long was to confirm her assumption; and a denial I presumed, might lead to many more questions, away from my dormant quest.
“Who wouldn’t?” My question cum answer made her laugh heartily and then saw her felt silent. I drank slowly awaiting for her answer.
“I don’t do it any more…” Her voice was calm. I tried hard to decipher her words but failed to arrive at any logical conclusion.
“I don’t understand what you mean…?
“I stopped…being a whore… before joining this job…” She eagerly tried to explain her answer explicitly. I was not surprised but could not dare to probe further.
“The hotel would not hire any girl who sleeps around for money… some girls do it discreetly…but the management keep their eyes and years open…they fire any one on mere suspicion…it’s their policy…” Hilda expanded further and looked satisfied on her successful attempt.
“How is my English..?”
“Excellent.” I assured her with a smile.
“Thank you. I really hated being a whore but could not find any other work for long…after my second husband went away with a younger women…she my closest friend …there were no jobs…and I had to pay bills… support my son…so…” She weakly trailed off with a deep tinge of remorse.
I could only nod and looked away. She drank, smiled faintly and continued with enthusiasm,
“You know…when I take my English exams in few months and qualify…I will become an independent tourist guide…and the money will be far better…”
“I am sure you will be a very successful tourist guide…but I would expect a hefty discount on my next visit here…” I tried to cheer her further, feeling happy at the welcome change of subject.
“I bet you would…and hold a second… I will do it free for you…okay?” Her laughter was childlike.
“Oh really… Thanks a lot.” I tried hard to sound cheerful and felt guilty about my dormant desire to get Hilda back to her sister’s death. She emptied her glass, signaled the waitress and looked at me mockingly,
“Why are you are drinking very slowly?”
“I have already had two before…” I tried to justify my measured drinking and probed her softly,
“How was your job as a welder?
“Oh, but I thought you wanted to know about Heidi?” She looked at me with surprise.
“Yeah, I do, but you can tell me that later…” I evaded the probing stare, presuming her life as a welder wouldn’t be harder than the sad tale of her sister’s untimely death.
“It was good in beginning but later I found it quite boring…but met my first husband Henry there …we used to work in the same team…he was my first love…I was so happy when we got married…it was so blissful for three years…but then one day he was gone…” Hilda turned misty.
I sat still, unable to sooth her.
“My boss Rudolf, the old leech couldn’t tolerate him…he wanted me for him alone…I resisted and foolishly reported my problem to the party…but he was very powerful…the chief party spy of the factory … he threatened me many times… I said a big no and suffered in a big way…he charged Henry for spying for the west and sent him to jail…”
“Oh, but how that happened…? I immediately felt foolish asking such a stupid question, which might make her angry.
“You don’t know anything about Stasi…the secret police…?” She was surprised.
“I know a little…” I replied evasively.
“Hmmm that means you know nothing…Stasi was the hated ghost that ruled our lives completely…even documented how many times I pissed in a day. My brother was shot dead trying to scale the Berlin wall.” Hilda was getting agitated. An old couple sitting at the table nearby looked at her with concern and nodded in agreement. She whispered,
“You know …I become a whore to save Henry from death…slept with Rudolf and danced naked for his senile friends to make life easy for Henry in prison…to send him little money…but could never know what really happened to him…he vanished…as so many others in those horrible times…I hold myself responsible for tortures he went through and the death …must have listened to reason and moved with Rudolf to save my love…but I was young, in love and naïve… didn’t know my damn beauty was noticed by powerful party men…I envied plain flat skinny women…most of them were spared the dreadful attentions from the bosses…who seemed to own all the women working for them… they were less likely to be asked to stay late hours and endure quickies… it was so difficult being a beautiful woman in those horrible times…it was a curse…I cut my long hairs short and wore baggy clothes to turn unattractive… …but that didn’t make any difference…rather my plight become worst… I had to attend more night parties in skimpy revealing dresses, endure severe fondling and sleep with higher party leaders and state guests…some of them were dirty kinky animals…they scared my body and soul forever…on the way… become hardened… learned the power game and got close to a top party leader…made him very happy…and at last took my long cherished revenge on that old leech Rudolf…he too vanished one cold night like Henry…and I become the chief party spy at the factory…” Hilda laughed aloud with tears in her large eyes and signaled the waitress for a refill. I felt bad for probing her past but outwardly joined her clear laughter.
“Being a spy…that must have been an interesting job?”
“Initially I hated it, but many might have suffered if someone else was the chief spy. I helped people by shooting down crazy stories of minor spies under me, who tried hard to blackmail innocent women and men … they feared my contacts and couldn’t do anything to harm me…they did try a lot but failed…Rudolf used to send about three people every month to prison and so many others were given lesser punishments...so I must have saved hundreds during five years before the fall of the Berlin wall. We are so happy that the monstrous wall has vanished.” She was now cheerful and I firmly decided against probing her sister’s death.
“That’s great…why didn’t you join politics?”
“I am still a simple girl with no ambitions…totally unsuitable for politics…and doing that would place me close to some of those dirty animals who mauled and brutalized me…that would prompt me to go for more revenge…I want peace and not war…I do get angry reading about and seeing some rascals on TV…I shifted to this small town…to avoid bumping in to the demons of my past…”
“Any names to share..?” I blurted and immediately felt bad.
“Sorry…won’t share any dirty names.” She smiled faintly and continued after a pregnant pause,
“One day I will find out what happened to Henry… where he spent his last days…and how he died…for that I have to earn good money…I wake up at nights and miss him…his broad smile…blue eyes…I crave for him…his touch…feel so alive with his memory…his dreams…” She closed her moist eyes.
“I am sorry for making you remember bad times…”
“Don’t be sorry…it’s my past…bad and ugly…only hope I will be happy in future…”
“I am sure you will be…”
“Do you think so? “ She asked innocently.
“Yeah…why not…” I couldn’t say more.
“But now I feel free and that makes me happy…I am not afraid of dressing up…no one can force me to sleep with…I can sleep with any one I fancy…that’s a huge change.”
“Oh it’s already ten…got to go…” Hilda opened her purse and called the waitress.
“It is on me…” I decided to intervene.
“But I invited you…” Hilda looked at me.
“Still, let me pay…”
“Okay..” Her smile broadened.