Writing on the Walls


Sherry Landow

Rain water spits at my words, steadily washing the fresh black ink down the concrete wall. It collects at my boots, gutter froth, word broth, before seeping down the lamp-lit street.

Gott ist tot

Es lebe die Freiheit

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dan –

The words stain nothing. Gain nothing. Are met with nothing, besides the daily sidewalk deposits of old men’s bile and rat piss. The slower lines of ink leave a trail down the concrete wall, as if mascara down a damp woman’s face. Not thick enough to keep me indoors but constant enough to soak into the inner layer of my coat, this rain is patient and uninterested, taunting me. The rest of the ink thins while it veers with the gutter, out of my line of vision. My message will travel, unsupervised and disfigured, until it collides with the leaves and other debris of the day too large for the sewers. Moving with the water, my words will grow resilient, patient, malleable.  Seeping through the blockage, they will enter the drain no longer words but diluted remnants of an idea. They won’t belong to me then, these underground thoughts. Not anymore.

I tighten my coat and step over the gutter, heading towards the shop fronts. The street is empty, and I briefly wonder if the echo of my shoes can be heard from the other side. The face of the city feels like its aged in the three years since I last saw it. Heinrich’s bakery has gone, or at least been moved off the Bernauer Straße. There is a new shop in its place, something with a foreign name that I can’t quite recognise. The words are long and block lettered, apart from one German Deutsch painted in cursive. Heinrich’s brass bell is still behind the door, hanging from the ceiling.

I have never seen a foreign language so public in Berlin, not on either side of the wall. I take my glove off and use it as a cloth to wipe away the rain drops. Inside, I see cigarettes, chocolate, postcards, coffee mugs, steins, maps, Schildkroet-Puppen dolls, a Bavarian nut cracker. The back wall has the words ‘Berliner Mauer’ alongside pieces of small, crumbled rock.

My reflection in the window looks wrong somehow, disjointed. The stock interferes with my face, acting as dividers, so that I no longer see my face as a whole but as segmented fragments thereof. This glass has eyes, mouth, postcards, nose, maps and foreign words I can’t decipher. This face is a new one, and I try to assess the differences, before piecing it back together. “Willkommen zurück Lotte nach West-Berlin…”

I am no longer an East Berliner.

My parents only ever kept one photograph nailed into the walls when we were growing up. It was greyscale, framed, and hung in the hallway that led from the lounge room towards their bedroom. It was an early portrait of them before they married; Father, ready for a nice photograph looked sideways at her and grinned just before the shutter clicked. Even in greyscale you can make out the blush in her cheeks, the colour on her lips. Her hair was up, sprayed.

I asked her once why we only had one photo framed, and why Lukas and I weren’t in it. “Nails leave awful holes all throughout the walls,” she told me, while scrubbing the dishes in the sink “And besides. That, my dear Lotte, is a special photograph.”

The rest of the family photographs were tucked into an album that was kept below the china cabinet. This album was meticulously structured so that not a single photograph was out of order and, if you wanted to, you could read our lives from the front cover to the back in the same way as a book.

Every Monday morning it had become Mother’s ritual to pull the albums out and read our lives this way while polishing the silver. She moved the vase to the kitchen bench and sat the album upright in its place, with the tea cup holding the pages open. After circling the face of each spoon, knife or fork she placed it on a white teacloth and turned to the next page of the album.

I had been back for thirteen days and had forgotten rituals like this. Waking daily to this vague familiarity of tea beside my bed, the fireplace on and Mother in the kitchen had evoked a surreal nightmarish nostalgia; as if I was drifting around a doll house hoping no one would notice how overgrown I was, how gangly, how the doll house would rip apart if I sat upright in bed. But wait, of course not. This time, Mother’s hair was greying, Lukas was either imprisoned or dead, and Father wasn’t at work but on the other side of the Wall. He was probably confused, annexed, angry; aware that he’s being watched constantly at work, the corner store, at home. He won’t know where to go, the Stasi agent whose children left.

I pause at the door to clarify this thought, maybe for the first time. The Stasi agent, children left. Each clause resonates in this room, this house, and I don’t dare open my bedroom door until it has silenced. As if walking into the sun room would vocalise my thoughts, confirm them somehow. As if, in the sun room, Mother could find out.
I find her up to the spoons and long past their marriage. She has her hair tied back in a loose bun which falls softly around her face. She isn’t wearing makeup. Lukas stares through the book at me from the silver covered table; eight years old, small body framed by a bowl cut and suspenders.

Tonight I stick to the street lights and try to make out the writing. I start near Heinrich’s old store and read the Wall from left to right, like a book. I don’t know what I was expecting to find. Maybe I hoped that there would be some secret message to decode, answers on how to find Lukas and that maybe, somehow, these words held facts, answers and non-fiction.

Putsch for Freedom!

The bulk of the words are almost unrecognisable. I say almost because, every here and there, a token German word is immersed as if the writer knows what they’re talking about. As if a German word amidst French or English phrases somehow makes the writer authentic and intelligent. Wie pathetisch.

Multi-coloured cursive vocalises the thoughts of long gone travellers, as if they’ve left their fingerprints or initials carved into a tree. “I’ve been there. I’ve touched the Wall. Here, I bought a small chunk of it turned into a fridge magnet, come see.”

Instead, their paint-by-number messages of encouragement are neither coherent nor revolutionary, but an amalgam of dried voices, each as misspelt or mistranslated as the last. These artists, writers, souvenir-buyers use our Wall as their pages, capitalising words as if to shout them. Ha! And here I remember real revolutions on the East as quiet.

Suddenly I am disgusted with their words, their misdirected chirpiness. ‘Putsch?’ They wouldn’t know the meaning of the word. They know pens, paint and colour. Who are ‘they’, anyway? They are not Germans. Well, East Germans, at least.

I finally reach the mascara remnants of my words, distorted and now, too, seemingly foreign. I can trace the marks of its validity draining down the concrete and into the gutter.