It has been said, dear readers, that one can go years without seeing a true friend but at that moment of reunion time melts away and we slip into the never-forgotten banter like an old t-shirt.
As the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Britain looms, I was pleased to meet up with the oldest friend I have in this country. I met him in 1984, when I was more than half the age I am now. He was Best Man at my wedding and godfather to one of my daughters. Sadly, our lives now run on different tracks and it is difficult to get together.
We sat in our front room, drinking bourbon and coke as my son listened in to the re-telling of stories that formed our friendship.
One story remained untold. We never speak of it much. When we do it is in cursory terms, each of us looking down and not making eye contact. It causes us uneasiness. It is held in solemn reverence deep in the recesses of our memories. But for both us, my dear old English friend and I, it is vivid. The images are strong, deeply personal and horrific. To retell the story resurrects the ghost from their casket which has been sealed for the sake of moving on with our lives.
It was 1986 and Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain. Germany was physically split in two by political ideology; the capitalist west from the communist east. It was in this climate we decided to drive from London to East Berlin and sample the communist experience for ourselves.
The trip would be difficult. West Berlin was an isolated enclave deep in the heart of the former East Germany. To reach it we would have to take the international highway set aside for foreigners; a straight line of aging concrete that ran for many miles through the East German countryside. It was a heavily policed route, spotted with signs in English reminding motorist that cars were not permitted to stop under any circumstances and must make the journey unbroken into West Berlin. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment. A steady patrol of soldiers with Kalashnikovs made certain the rules were observed to the letter.
The trip east was uneventful. It was the return trip that is silently summonsed on an almost daily basis in both our minds. It was the return trip that wasn’t shared as we sipped Jim Beam in the warmth of a British summer.
The snow had started as we departed Berlin and started out on the international highway towards West Germany. The signs on the side of the road were just as had seen on the trip in; DO NOT STOP YOUR CAR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
The snowfall quickly deteriorated into a blizzard and we focussed hard trying to keep the 70s model Saab on the icy road. Maybe twenty miles into the trip, we watched the car in front of us spin out of control and disappear over the small bank of earth that lined the length of the asphalt.
In a moment it was gone, but in my mind, years later, it happens in slow motion; the gray car against the gray industrial sky vanishing over the untouched white of the snow. The sharp intake of air from both of us in the Saab’s front seat gave way immediately to a moral debate as to whether we observed the signs warning us to travel straight through, or stop to help the vanished car’s occupants. We chose the latter.
Pulling over to the side of the road we jumped out and onto the icy bank at the shoulder. The drop off on the other side was much steeper than we had anticipated. The vanished gray car sat at the bottom of the 40 foot ravine, engine still running blowing great cloud of exhaust into the scene.
Sliding down the hill on our backsides we reached the crash scene in seconds. A woman jumped from the passenger side door, screaming something in German. We tried to reassure her in English as we peeked inside the car to see a child of about 5 years old in the back seat and a man at the wheel.
My old and trusted friend pried open the back door and began to get the child out. I raced around the car to attend to the driver. The woman followed me, beating me on the back to get my attention. “Hertz, hertz!” she cried.
I had taken two years of German at school, enough to understand that she was saying “heart” and I immediately made the assumption that the driver was her husband and he had driven the car into the ravine as the result of a heart attack.
Pulling open the dented driver side door, I found myself face to face with the driver. His skin was the colour of the industrial sky and he gazed at me as I tried to remove his seatbelt and reassure him in pigeon German.
His eyes were glazed over. Instinctively, I knew he was dying. My friend, holding the small child was trying to calm the woman, his frau I imagine, who by now was hysterical.
The driver looked at me, his head slightly tilted towards the open car door. I told him to stay with me, I would get him out. He coughed and blood spouted from his mouth as he breathed his final breath.
I think I must have gone into shock. I remained in the same position, leaning in through the car door, my hands on his shoulders telling him he would be alright. The blood he had brought up from the deepest recesses of his circulatory system covered the front of my jacket and gave off steam that entwined with the exhaust form the car.
A few moments of silence were punctured by the screech of the woman as she realised the man was dead. I stared at her, unable to move, to speak, with my hands still on his shoulders and my jacket dripping with the blood of his final earthly act.
I recall German voices tumbling down the steep embankment at the side of the road. Someone pulled me out of the car and in broken English told us to get out of there before the police came. We clawed our way up the snowy hill and got back in the car.
We drove on in silence, in shock, in disbelief of what we had just experienced. The blood, still wet on my jacket was slowly drying to a deep brown. We drove on to a lifelong friendship, peppered with stories of drunken debauchery and football or cricket matches. But the story of the East German accident is never spoken, never summoned to the clink of a bourbon glass.
Keep the Faith,