10. Civilian life in Germany

Leaving Britain in 1978 I had the feeling that I was doing something that had consequences, but I pushed it aside, just as I pushed aside the bad experiences that I’d had that made my decision easier. I was a romantic fool who had so much to learn, spurned on by romantic tales of life in Europe and those I had the short time I’d been living in Germany. Life seemed to be so easy and free of the continuous banter that I hated so much as a soldier. I am a strange person in that respect, always looking for a straight conversation, getting confused if the conversation was made lighter by such banter, which I regarded as a loss of focus. Monika’s friends had become my friends and I was looking forward to seeing my wife. It seemed strange then, at 22 years old, to talk about “my wife” but I couldn’t wait for the ferry to arrive in Belgium.
However, after my return, I had a difficult start. First of all, living in a very small flat with my wife’s Grandmother, I was getting into all sorts of problems. Behaviour, which is quite normal for a young newlywed couple, became difficult living virtually on top of an eighty-year-old blind lady. Locking the bathroom door was a problem, fooling about was a problem, coming home late was a problem, coming home early was a problem. Therefore the first months in Germany were dictated by this experience. Secondly, the simple confrontation with everyday life using a foreign language made me very self-conscious. I felt I had to get everything absolutely right. As a soldier, I had experienced the occasional German who ridiculed my pronunciation of German words, and there is a particular problem with the construction of a sentence in German. If you get it wrong, Germans often don’t understand what you are saying. So I was intent on getting it right and just shopping in the local supermarket became a challenge. I reluctantly rose to the occasion but succeeded more and more, which in turn gave me confidence.
I found work with a subcontractor of the local Brewery delivering beer, but I was constantly being persuaded to make trips to Britain using the larger vehicles. I wanted to take the opportunity to graduate from school. The long-distance trips were, therefore, a problem, as were the delivery jobs, which often had me working from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening and gave me the added stress of keeping my co-driver, who was always drunk, in the vehicle. He would leave me to unload and, rather than arguing, I got on with it. Afterwards, I would find him downing a glass of beer, obviously not his first, any time of the day. I needed him to show me around the place, but that became increasingly difficult, the more he drank. One day he told me we could take a short cut and guided me into a cul-de-sac, where the signpost was covered by branches of a tree. It took us two hours to get back out, reversing with a trailer. My means of transport to and from work was a bicycle. After cycling across town to get home after such a day, and there were many, I was in no state to do anything more and had to get up the next day early and bright.
We moved into our own flat during that time, but it wasn’t any closer to my workplace, but closer to Monika’s parents. We used a delivery lorry to travel all over the town at the weekend, collecting used furniture, and man-handling it through the window from the street. It was old and worn, but it was ours. The flat was situated across from the main coal-mine in Dortmund, and we could see mountains of coke across the road from our bedroom. The bedroom was on the main road, and lorries carrying cinders drove back and forth from the early hours in the morning, including Saturdays. On the first day of the weekend, we would often be woken by the vibrations of these trucks. It was the dirty part of Dortmund and the cinders left thick dust on everything if you left the window open. The whole place smelled of coal and coke as well.
I was determined to get back to school and learn a trade, which had been suggested to me by Monika’s stepfather. I started learning German by reading and translating a news magazine, Der Spiegel, which was also quite left-orientated. There were many topics written with a perspective that I wasn’t used to, but which interested me. Fortunately, a mixed group of students moved into the flat above and made it into a shared apartment. These young people found it amusing to speak with a young Englishman who was learning the language and we discussed everything I had been reading. I was able to enjoy the company of Monika’s friends, but I relished the nightly discussions with these young people. They helped me better my German like no-one else had, although Monika remains the main influence over time.
After a year and a serious accident that forced my boss to write off a truck, I changed my job. I then drove a dump truck to construction sites and transported the excavators with a trailer. Not long after starting work, I fell over on to my backside and the back of my trousers were suddenly filled with bloody pus. After consulting the doctor, it turned out to be a fistula at the coccyx, or tail-bone, which had to be operated on. I was lucky that my boss didn’t sack me, but he felt it could have been an accident at work, and so he put up with it. His stepsons complained that he was treating me better than others, but he took me back after six weeks of sick leave. I used the time to read Erich Fromm’s “Haben oder Sein” (To have or to be) and translate this into English. He too was Marxist orientated but he interested me because of his use of biblical and Buddhist examples to illustrate his thesis. I bought myself a Bible and a book on Buddhism.
After I recovered, I took the opportunity to go to evening school and take the so-called 2nd educational path. Evening school in Unna was an awakening experience. The participants were mostly mid-twenties like me and had, for whatever reason, not passed the necessary exams or achieved the necessary marks. We didn’t need any time to get to know each other and often met in cafes between classes on Saturdays. Very often I experienced being interesting just because I was an Englishman, it was no different here. I noticed how characteristics associated with my country were applied to me, which I didn’t consider typical. In fact, I had left the UK because I wasn’t really the “typical” Englishman if there is one outside of the imagination. At evening school I was surprisingly successful. German and history were of particular interest to me, but also my math teacher, Mrs Hofmann, showed me that I was not incapable, although I had been unable to grasp math in England. This new chance at education at 25 was completely different from my experience of school as a child. I was very much engaged in the classes, and my German teacher, Herr Wemhöner, seemed intent on getting me through to higher education.
After passing my exams with flying colours, much better than expected, I wanted to become a geriatric nurse, but my wife had become pregnant and we decided that I had to put these plans on ice. There was no other way as I would not have earned enough money to care for my wife and child whilst training so I looked for another job. My wife and I decided that she should go back to work after the birth, to begin with, and I would stay at home for a while since she earned more than I, and her job was stable. That meant I would have to talk to my employer about how I was to become unemployed. As it happens, he was already talking about reducing the number of drivers and so I suggested he sack me, instead of another young man who had just married. He wasn’t happy, nor were his son’s, who hadn’t been happy about my sick leave so early on, but he consented.
When our son announced his birth, Monika’s amniotic sac burst and we rushed to the hospital. We were shown into the delivery ward and Monika was prepared for the birth procedure. Unfortunately, our son wasn’t prepared to arrive and so we were left waiting for some time. Monika asked me to read something to her, but the only book I had picked up on the way out was a German edition of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. After her initial disappointment, I started to read the story, but as our son still wasn’t ready, it began to bore her and we soon found the situation laughable. We managed to pass the time until the medical staff decided to “persuade” the child to arrive. The drama of the birth was then prolonged when the doctor asked me to leave, as he had to use forceps to pull the child out. My wife and I protested about me having to leave, also the nurses, but I found myself outside the birth room, frustrated because I wanted to be there when our son was born. Suddenly the door opened and I was ushered in “Hurry, hurry!” Our son’s cranium was just visible and he slithered out as I arrived. The standard slap opened his lungs and we thought everything was okay. The doctor thought otherwise.
The hushed conversation, probably intended to prevent us from getting worried, only amplified the seriousness of the situation. Then all was fine, the doctor came to us with a smile and we were told not to worry. Monika had a spotty face from the capillaries that had burst when she was pressing, and she was tired. We arranged to meet up later that day after we had some sleep and I had registered the birth. I shuffled off, quite exhausted by the experience, disappointed still that I hadn’t been there all the time, especially as I had felt Monika’s need for me to be there. I arrived home and fell asleep almost immediately.
Later that day, I arrived at the registry office and was told in all seriousness, that the name Marc-Ian, which we had chosen for our son, was considered to be “unusual” and I should consider the fact that he would carry this name all his life. I replied, “It’s not as though I want to call him Pumuckl or something like that!” The very conservative looking lady gave me an uncertain look and finally stamped everything and gave me the papers.
When I arrived at the hospital, I met my wife in a terrible state on the stairs to the ward. Between the tears, she told me that our son had hydrocephalus, apparently about one to two per 1,000 newborns have this condition, which is an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid, and associated with several serious illnesses. I didn’t really know what to say. During the pregnancy, I had been reading all sorts of literature about being parents, including a book on what to do if your child is disabled in any way. This book had obviously caused a discussion with Monika, who was concerned about me reading on such a subject. Now it came all rushing to my mind and I felt guilty somehow.
We had several fraught days at the incubator, and Monika was allowed to go home but they still kept our little treasure in the hospital. On one occasion the nurse made a point of saying that our son was a fighter, he had already disconnected himself a couple of times. Finally, the swelling subsided and we were allowed to take him home. However, we were told that we would have to be very careful because the neck wasn’t strong enough to carry the head, and we would probably have to go to physiotherapy with him. Another problem was that he didn’t drink so well, and was very thin. This continued to cause us problems at home.

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