Had to change trains twice to get home and I was reading Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, great, familiar, female, underrated. On the second train I glanced up when somebody laughed and saw a short, beautiful African man gazing longingly at me.
It was so startling. I hurried back to Cranford, the village where the old ladies are not nearly so old as they were in Miss Matty’s own youth. At the next station I looked up, focussing between the heads of people sitting back to back all down the left side of the cabin, and saw that he was still looking at me. His eyes were soft and fond as though I were terribly familiar. We smiled. I went back to my book.
Someone got off, occasioning the usual genteel German shuffling whereby everybody shifts their knees to one side saying, Bitte, Danke, Entschuldigung. All of a sudden the man who had been gazing plumped into the vacated seat opposite, he slung his bag down on the floor and had altogether an air of decision.
So I looked up and said, How are you? Good, he said, and you? Good, I said. Thank you. Then we all travelled along in a kind of noisy trainside silence for a while.
What are you learning?
O, it’s not really study, just rereading a book I have read so many times before. I turned the cover to show him.
You have a very nice face, I told him, and he smiled. You, too. Thank you, I said. In fact he was beautiful, with a pointed cat like chin and slanting eyes and in the middle of his forehead he had an asterisk-shaped scar as though someone had shattered him with a mallet and then put him back together again.
The moon, upstairs, was rounding white and only slightly eroded down one side like an aspirin in water. I hadn’t seen it yet but later it led me right home. The man said, My name is Maxwell. And so I stuck out my hand and said, Cathoel. We shook hands and I said, Are you new in Berlin?
Three months. Ah, I said, welcome. He had lived four years in Italy. So I speak Italian. But no Dutch.
Ah, I said, again. And then he began talking to me about Jesus. Jesus knows how many hairs you have on your head. He took hold of a lock of his hair and tugged it.
Well, I said, that must be very comforting. I am getting off here. Good luck in Berlin!
But as I was standing on the platform he appeared beside me, standing too close. Are you married? No, I said. Why not? It’s not my way. I stepped away a half pace and he stepped up close to me again, in my shadow. Can I ask you a question, I am not a bad man.
Thanks, I said: I don’t want to marry you.
Ok, he said. But can I give you my phone number, friends? Friends. I am lonely and it’s good to have a friend in Berlin. Berlin is big.
The train pulled in and he said, ingeniously, I can get on the train with you. I can always ride back again after I give you my number. Oh, well, I said. Okay then. But I am going to be reading my book.
We sat opposite a lady with a fiery head of hair and a warm wrinkled smile. She was holding up a magnifying glass on its stalk to read some tiny photostatted text closed printed across an A4 page. She listened to our conversation, smiling at me over the man’s head, and when he got off, as promised, at the next station and I folded his phone number and put it in my pocket I said, in German, He wanted to talk because he is lonely, I think.
Her smile grew warmer. She reached into her pocket and handed me a card, much creased, printed in black and white. This is a church where people get together, she said, plenty of African people go there, he can make friends.
It was evident neither of us were native speakers. Oh, I said, then I am glad. I will pass it on. I got out at my own stop and walked up the stairs into the night and the incomplete moon made me gasp. If you are Ghanaian and you come here over Italy, you cannot access refugee services because you have Italian papers. The trees on either side of my road have bloomed and lost their bloom and though the forbidding Germanic cold has now returned still it seemed to me something warmer, something Springlike was afoot, a pussyfoot, an affair of the filigree trees, afar.