She was sent off into the world with one piece of advice from her esteemed sire. He told her: “Don’t let them win you on penalties. If it comes down to it, bow out and walk away.” Her father considered himself to be the Confucius of his age and with such an excess of nose and ear hair, she often thought of him as a relic from some Lancashire-based monastic order. Still, she had learned to ignore his guidance, the deliveries of wisdom with which he was always so pleased. Our neophyte knew something of this land of wall-destroyers and philosophers. She was present for the curriculum which celebrated not one, but two “glorious” and “British” victories against them. She talked in History, to fill up the time as she did in every lesson she attended, but the more wretched events caught her attention. Still, she prided herself on not being one of those people who automatically ascribe crimes past to nations present.
She was 15 years old. Her eyebrows had not entirely grown back yet, but make-up had been introduced and the effects were quite acceptable. Hair dye was being used with increasing amounts of success. She was known for her dramatic achievements and defiant dancing style. She was of an athletic build – sometimes she even indulged in the winning of sporting events. She was still patiently waiting for a chest. She had kissed three boys, and received semi-positive reviews. As long as someone else dressed her, she could be presentable. The previous year had seen her ears pinned back so she could now enjoy a high ponytail, as was the fashion. All in all, it was the right time to debut in another land.
She found herself on a boat. This was not a new experience – years of being confined to a people carrier on the way to the motherland had prepared her. Four siblings, sticky fingers and sleepy eyes were the norm. These journeys always ended in relatives, guilt (and plenty of it), ham sandwiches, fishing and apple pies. When she was eight years old, she learned that she was of a cynical disposition. It was in the car on the way to a great aunt’s that she had found herself thinking grimly of an afternoon spent watching the television as a means of familial communication. She had anticipated the presence of many doilies. However, this time she was not bound for Ireland, she was heading east. She was part of a well-established trade: the German-English exchange.
First, there was the smoking. At this time her relationship with cigarettes was still illicit and deliciously spontaneous, and the offer of a drag from one of the more troublesome youths was impossible to refuse. They hid behind a lifeboat and passed the forbidden article around, delighting in their private rebellion. Then, there was the drinking. She was familiar with beer, but a water bottle of Smirnoff had been snuck aboard and its provender circulated the contraband with a high degree of exclusivity. Only the smokers drank, and to be invited to such a circle was the highest of honours. The substances quickly clouded our friend’s brain. The Pussycat Dolls were overplayed, dancing was done. Her cabin-fellows bitched and told stories of intimate relations with males from home. As always, she tried to appear aloof. The admission of only three kisses would have seemed paltry in comparison to the fumbles on display. Eyebrows were appraised and our friend endeavoured to allow hers to grow, at least for the summer months.
They docked at Holland. Her only lasting memories of this portion of the journey were of wind turbines, which were painted in gradients of green. Like the plains of her homeland, the Netherlands was an ongoing series of fields. Nevertheless, suddenly they were in Deutschland, and the journey was almost over.
Deep in the German woods were several caravans. It was evening, and they were lit up with florid signs. It was a prostitute camp, and it was fascinating. She imagined being confined in one of the trailers. She saw a huge bird of prey circling, drifting on thermals, and made a note to research its features when she got home.
It was cold in Germany. Medieval cows created clouds and turned the soil with languid purpose. The buildings were built for the cold. She had not packed appropriately. Her partner was accommodating and entirely preoccupied with teenage desires. Many a night was spent throwing firecrackers at cars, with more vodka (why always vodka?), and far too many cigarettes. She was able to duck out and flee to the toilet, where she released hell upon the porcelain. Looking in the mirror afterwards, she wondered: why did she never stop? Unfortunately, this would not be the last time she asked this of herself, nor was it the last time her reflection wore that expression. Sort of jaded, disappointed, and always pale.
On more than one occasion our friend exited the shower to find a male in her room. This was an affectionate gesture from her German counterpart – she had found a boyfriend and wanted the same for her temporary companion. Being semi-naked and confronted with such a generous helping of monobrow was an entirely new experience for the Engländerin. Any kind of blossoming romance was of course ruined by the fact that the offering was waiting for his friend to realise intentions in the room next-door. Together, the English girl and German-Turkish boy politely listened for the end of the lovemaking. They had no language for one another. One must at least exchange pleasantries as a prelude to a kiss.
The Brits were routinely brought together. They regrouped and swapped stories, not knowing when their next reunion would be. They were aliens, for the first time in most of their lives. Those who did not get on with their exchange partners told horror stories of being interrupted in the toilet or having to hide during a family argument. She was extremely relieved that her partner was so reasonable, and that her partner’s family was hardly ever there. She remembered when her own bunch had invited a Japanese girl to stay for the week. The absurdity of such a composed creature being forced to endure the loud haphazardness of her clan had been laughable, at best.
The school was entirely unlike anything she had seen before. For instance: it was in the middle of a forest. A real schwarzwald. The Englishmen clung together with a fierce camaraderie. With only two years of language (1-100; animals; my favourite lesson/colour/food is; I live in; I have a; etc.) they had no means with which to assert their presence. The Gymnasium was entirely run on solar energy. That kind of innovation was considered too much of an effort back in Blighty, but she couldn’t help wondering whether the attendees such a forward-thinking institution might just end up running the world one day. Also, if you bought Coca Cola in bottles they would give you 60 cents when you returned the container upon completion.
A visit to an otter sanctuary served as a delightful diversion. It appeared that the local populace was entirely consumed with preserving the integrity of these river mammals. A man with a beard explained the importance of small woodland pests such as the elusive pine marten. This tiny creature was encaged in an area not unlike the velociraptor compound of Jurassic Park, although the only menace it presented was to the car engines in which it liked to slumber. She noticed that the Germans were similarly unconcerned about the health of the mink. In England, if you caught one you were legally obliged to dispose of it. They were only there to be made into coats, and disrupting the natural order of things was an unforgivable act.
Geil was the keyword of this time. Her partner informed her of its complexity at an early stage in the exchange: “Like hot, or attractive, or sexy…literally it means randy.” In short: if a boy called you geil, it was a compliment.
It was in a Music class that they first met. After three days of school, she was used to settling down and disengaging. Slouching in her chair allowed her to peruse the room at leisure. Two rows in front, there was a boy. He was wearing a trilby and he turned with comfortable confidence to look at her. His name, they said, was Unnamed German. He was a couple of years above her, and known to be something of a philosopher and scenester. For whatever reasons, he had not partaken in the exchange. He had blonde hair, small, brown eyes and broad shoulders. He was quite beautiful, in his own way. And apparently he considered her to be rather geil.
One glance shared and she was already preparing a monologue for the interested parties, who waited for missives. Like a German Johnny Depp, she thrilled, and so charming. So intoxicatingly un-English. So bloody German. No one at home would admit that they didn’t know what that could possibly entail. It was all too convenient, and she merrily drafted elaborations.
There was no time for a second run-in with Unnamed German. The group was taken to Berlin, to tour and to learn. For the first time she visited a concentration camp. They were escorted around the camp’s museum, where there were piles of belongings transfixed in cabinets and images of starvation were framed. Outside, the air was thinner. Birds still flew, but did so with a hurried embarrassment. They knew they weren’t really supposed to conduct business within the camp’s perimeter. The Germans came too, and kept to themselves. British politeness prevented her from asking her partner how the displays made her feel. It would have sounded accusatory in any structure. She would always remember attempting to be overcome with empathy at Sachsenhausen. She may have almost cried – but it didn’t feel sincere.
The teachers made the fatal error of allowing their students to drink – they were all around the legal age. One boy overdid the Guinness and vomited out of a window. When the group departed, they all took a moment to observe the line of black ejection running down the side of the hostel with a mixture of pride and scorn. She herself had managed to make it to a loo, as she almost always did. People who drink to excess must learn to handle themselves responsibly.
Under the Brandenburg gates someone was handing out small parcels of popcorn. History was prevalent and obvious. It was sensibly signposted. Interesting and important people milled. The tourists stared at everything around them. They looked at the Wall. A teacher at home had helped to destroy a part of it in his youth. He always placed a chair upon a desk, and taught his lessons from above.
Upon their return, there was a party – a Geburtstag – in a strange structure not unlike a clubhouse. “Dirrty”, by Christina Aguilera, was on repeat. The resultant dancing was appropriately tasteless. She wore a polka-dotted ensemble, the memory of which would make her blush in later life. Oh, but still something was right about that. There was alcohol and nicotine. Young bodies collided. There was a young-looking boy with an erection, which sent her into mild hysterics. As he grinded against her, she mouthed surprise to one of her fellows – “I can feel it! Oh my god, oh my god. It’s there!” She was not mature enough to know that boys got hard-ons if you rubbed your arse against them. It was still a compliment, of sorts. She felt happiness in shortness of breath – gasps of pure elation would always be how she this feeling was sincere.
They surrounded her. Espousing virtues to a crowd of male adolescents, she rambled. “Möchte…such a more indulgent word than ‘like’, don’t you think? Ich möööööchte.” Our friend was treading the dangerous line between being attractive in her foreignness, and deporting herself as an Anglo-twat. She did not even try to care. For the first time in her life, the gentlemen were attending to her. As flavour of the evening, she reveled. Her other friends had already secured partners – the four edges of the hut were lined with kissers. She could have selected one, but he wasn’t there.
For the most frustratingly long time, he wasn’t there. Until he was. For the first time she felt the thrill of being commanded. He asserted his control and dominated the exchange. His pomposity allowed him to ignore her ramblings. He converted them into something completely profound and validated uninformed statements with his philosophical responses.
Imagining an event and actually living to experience it in real life had a potency that she would rarely be allowed to experience. There was a road. It didn’t feel entirely like tarmac, but we must assume that this affluent area was too civilized for a simple dirt track. It felt pastoral, at least. They weren’t holding hands, which was a godsend: she suffered greatly from a mixture of poor circulation (cold hands) and nervous perspiration (palm sweating). They were close to one another, and she didn’t know how she would get home.
The moment. She knew it had arrived because he was looking at her in that way they do before the final swoop. She had to prepare. Something of a semi-pout, allowing for him to entirely invade her space. Let him negotiate your mouth, she told herself. It was the clearest thought she could muster. He drew in (oh goodness, he came closer!), and she was forced to meet his gaze. His eyes seemed kind.
Technique was of the utmost importance at this time. Her arms were poised to snake around his shoulders – a previous participant had particularly enjoyed this maneuver. But the kiss did not come. Instead, he gently brought his lips to her left cheek. For a millisecond, he lingered: “I’ve never met a girl like you.” And then he was gone.
She did not see him again after the party. On the way back to the boat, she thought of him and encouraged a part of her mind to keen for his memory. A high, mournful sound, and listening to it was entirely delicious. They had agreed to message one another – which they did for some time. He sent her a poem. Then the French exchange party rolled into town and he was off with another girl. A French one, so she’d have been far more experienced, it was assumed. This new infatuation reminded him very much of our friend. So that was something.
Soon she would see the white cliffs of Dover, and be entirely underwhelmed by them. She stood on the deck. She was alone and, as so often happened, enjoying the time to indulge. She digested what had passed. Or, more importantly, what had not happened to her. This unexpected nonevent became malleable and she smoothed the edges as one prepares an artifact for public observation.
She laid on a cabin bed, drunken girls around her. She thought: Now I understand that unrequited love is infinitely more potent than the realization of desire. She cultivated these words with no true comprehension of them – stealing them for their fanciness. She turned a kiss that didn’t happen into the most important kiss.
Máire C. Ryan is a first class graduate of Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh (2012). Upon graduating, she moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she worked for Cinema for Peace, taught English, and volunteered for charitable institutions as an events coordinator. She now resides in London, writes often, and is a member of the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop.
Photo: Sergiu Bacioiu