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At the Stasi Museum
Sarah Turner

She was in the Stasi Museum, looking at a photo of a wedding, when she got his text. She read the first few words quickly on her lock screen – ‘Sorry, can’t make it after all’ – and dropped her phone into her bag to stop herself replying with the angry, blunt phrases that were flooding her head. The photo was in black and white. It showed a man standing between a bride and groom, arms around them both. None of them were smiling. That was what she noticed first – that and the blankness in the bride’s eyes. The caption underneath the frame said that the man was an undercover Stasi agent and that in the weeks after the wedding, he’d filed reports on them both. She looked at their faces again, saw the distance in the way they were standing, and thought that they must have suspected all along that he’d do that, but were pretending to be friendly anyway. Perhaps there’d been a strategic reason for it, or maybe it was just an echo of a time when they’d been close, but when she looked at it, she thought they were roleplaying the relationship they wished they could have had with him. It was what she did with her dad, playing the role of dutiful daughter, hoping he’d play back as a father, but braced, all the time, for the illusion to shatter.

 

The room was getting fuller. People were coming in through the door behind her. She moved over to the window and read her dad’s whole message. His wife had invited people over. She needed him to help cook and look after the kids. ‘Maybe tomorrow?’ a second text said. It was just under three hours before they were due to meet. She stood still, furious at him for not giving her more notice and at herself for ever having believed that he would turn up. She started to text back – ‘I’m leaving tonight. Sorry.’ – but deleted it almost straight away, worried about coming across as too abrupt. She wanted to have seen him, didn’t want it to be her fault if she didn’t. He’d lived in Berlin for twelve years now, almost half her life. She thought about the times she’d seen him since he moved here, when he’d briefly been back in the country and had booked a restaurant in her hometown or university city. They’d sat talking uneasily, him asking questions, her trying to answer them, but uncomfortably, because the questions had always seemed to relate to some other life that was different from hers. Did she swim? Play tennis? The evenings felt like a succession of ‘no’s. Each attempt at conversation seemed to reveal a different misunderstanding, and she kept wanting to stop him and explain that she wasn’t like that; she’d never thought or done the things he assumed she had. But she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him like that. She answered his questions in brief, awkward monosyllables, feeling as though he was reaching through ice to her, seeing her blurred and distorted, and counting the minutes until the film he’d booked would start. 

 

Now, reading his messages, she felt like that again. He’d assumed she was staying for longer, that it wouldn’t be a big deal to her to delay, and it was embarrassing to have to tell him that she’d already stayed an extra day in the hope of seeing him. She started to recalculate. The week ahead was busy, although if she cancelled a meeting tomorrow, she might be able to extend her stay. But she pushed the idea away, irritated with herself again. The conference was over. It would be ridiculous to wait longer in Berlin in the hope that he’d see her.

 

She walked back into the hall, taking in the van at the bottom of the stairs. The door was open, showing five small cells inside. She thought of the people who must have sat there, waiting to be taken to some unknown place, thinking back to an unguarded conversation, a moment of connection with someone they’d thought they could trust. At the top of the stairs, she stopped and tried to text again. ‘That’s a shame. Totally understand, but I’m leaving tonight, flying at 9. Maybe next time? T x’. She looked out at the grey buildings opposite, with their endless blank windows, and pressed send.

 

There was a video playing in the next room. She leant against a wall and watched it play. Photos of men and women filled the screen. She’d been wrong to be angry; she thought this abruptly, looking into the face of a stranger on the screen. Her dad hadn’t lived with her since she was three; they were strangers, too. It was presumptuous of her to expect more of him than this. He had his own life here, with children who he saw every day. He hadn’t texted back. She read what she’d sent him again, worried that its tone had been wrong, that she’d been too off-hand or too obviously angry. 

 

She thought about the times he’d visited when she’d been older and they’d talked more fluently, often about her degree. The French Revolution. The unification of Germany. He’d been interested in her course and had wanted to discuss it in detail, throwing ideas at her with confidence. They’d often been interesting, although his knowledge of each period was incomplete. The conversations had been less stilted than when she was younger. It was just that there was never much feeling beneath them. She thought about what she knew of his life. Some facts about his childhood. A general sense of what he did now. There was very little that was personal. She didn’t know anything he’d ever felt; he’d never told her about decisions he’d made or times in his life when he hadn’t known what to do. 

 

All the same, he did his duty. He visited her two or three times a year. He talked to her, running through subjects he knew she was interested in, looking for the one that would spark the most fluent response.  He always knew her address. It was much better than nothing. Still, there should have been more. It was easier sometimes not to see him than to have to notice the distance between them and think that it reflected some failing in her. She tried to rationalise that thought – he’d been detached like this for as long as she could remember, since she was two or three, at least, so whatever he was reacting against must have been there all along. There was very little she could have done to put it right. She was left with a broad, aching sense of being deficient. If he’d turned up today, it would have been the same. Their interaction would have been just as flat as always.    

 

She went into the next room and read more about the investigations. Eighty percent of them had been fruitless. Record cards had been kept about individuals, nonetheless. They’d taken up whole rooms of the building. She looked into the faces of some of the agents, blown up to life-size, with short biographies beside them. Many were only educated to primary-school level. The shock of that stayed with her: all their suspicions had been based not on carefully conceived strategy but on instinct and emotion. She put on headphones and heard voices read extracts from their letters and statements, pressing a button to move on to the next. It was the distance between people that struck her most; everyone isolated, not knowing who to trust. Her phone buzzed in her bag. Her father had texted again. ‘I thought the conference finished on Saturday.’

‘No, yesterday. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry.’

She weighed it up – the three years they’d lived together and a lifetime of uneasy contact, balanced on the thinnest of bases, like an upside-down pyramid. It was obviously precarious. How could she have expected it to be otherwise? She thought of his wife, Nicole, trying to create a life with him that felt normal and satisfying, and of herself turning up, her presence always a weight, trying to claw him back to a previous world that Nicole had never been part of. It was no wonder that she made plans that were incompatible with theirs. She felt presumptuous now for interfering with their life, although the conference had been here anyway. If she’d been able to see Nicole, she could have explained that. In this room, there were more faces behind glass. Teenagers dressed as punks, investigated for being different. 

 

There were offices upstairs. Heavy wooden panelling; cheap, flimsy-looking desks. A view from a window, unchanged since the eighties. A photograph with labels naming each faceless building. She felt drained. People had conspired against each other here. Fear and suspicion still seemed to linger in the air. A tour guide was talking in German further into the room. People clustered around him. She edged past, going back to the thin grey corridor.

 

‘Where are you?’ her father asked. She was tired of agonising over the right words. She sent him back a photo – the stairs and the van – and went on. There were more videos, more audio, more photos. The oppressors and the oppressed, lined up in front of her, all of them looking out from photos with the same quiet desperation, although a speaker she’d seen interviewed yesterday had said that he’d been happy growing up in the DDR. He’d felt that the best people were there. They’d cared about each other. No one had been envious; they’d all had more or less the same. Together, they’d escaped the materialistic impulses of the West. But there was this, too, the sadness in the eyes she saw, the stiffness in the way they were standing, the space between them and the others around them. But perhaps people were always like that. Perhaps in the end, everyone was alone, making gestures towards connection without ever really hoping for more. 

 

 She wanted to leave. There were more exhibits to see, more videos, more faces, all of them relating their own experiences with an urgency that had felt compelling at first, but now, after everything she’d seen, seemed too insistent. She walked down the grey stairs, blindly pushed one of the heavy doors open and stood for a moment, blocked from the sun by the construct that had been designed to hide the identities of people going into the building. She moved away from it after a moment and felt the warmth of the autumn sun on her face. There were information boards out here that would have told her more, but she didn’t want to read them. 

‘Eva?’ He was there, getting up from a wall, greyer and thinner, but still recognisably himself. 

‘Dad! What are you doing here?’ She was immediately wary. He smiled, shuffled his feet, and hugged her with all the old awkwardness. 

‘I didn’t want to miss you.’

‘But what about Nicole?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ll still be there for most of it.’

 

‘If she does, it’s too bad.’ Anxiety crossed his face for a moment, and she felt pity for him, seeing him stranded between the two of them, pushing Nicole’s needs away in a way she might not forgive. ‘But anyway, here I am,’ he said. Let’s get some lunch.’

 

She let him hug her again, and they walked past all the rows of identical buildings to the U-Bahn, which took them swiftly underneath the old borders to the restaurant where they’d always planned to meet. 

 

 

Sarah Turner's short stories have been published/are due to be published by journals including The London Magazine, J Journal, Fictive Dream, Litro, Shooter Literary Magazine, After Dinner Conversation, Welter, LEON Literary Review and Epoque Press. She has an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from the University of East Anglia. In 2023, her stories were shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Short Story Award and longlisted for the London Magazine Short Story Prize.

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