Years later, Gaby would remember the first time she ever heard the name Illya Nikolayev.
It happened on a hot, humid night in late August. She was wiping her hands on a rag, finished for the day, when the tow truck crawled into the garage hauling a half-wrecked Trabbi behind it. Only she, Otto, and Leo were left, and since the men’s hands were full, it fell to her to interrogate the truck driver.
“What the hell is this, Jan?” she demanded, marching over to the driver’s side.
“Guten Abend to you too, Fräulein,” he replied sarcastically.
“Cut the shit. What is this?”
“See for yourself. I’m not about to do your job for you.”
“Keep that up and you’ll be lucky to keep your job.” Still, she circled back around to look at the car. The windshield was intact, mostly, but the front of the car was good and crumpled, the hood dented, the bumper bent hopelessly out of shape. From what she could see of the engine, it was a miracle the whole thing hadn’t gone up in flames. “What,” she called, eyeing the damage. “Did he run into a wall?”
“Close,” Jan replied, cutting the engine and stepping out of the truck. “A tank.”
“Believe it. I’ve never seen somebody look so angry.”
“And who’s our lucky winner?”
“This big-shot Russian, wearing a suit, fancy glasses. Maybe he needs a better prescription, though, eh?”
She was barely listening. Ignoring Jan was a practice she had down to an art form, and besides, she was too busy seething to pay attention to him now. Excellent, she thought. A big-shot Russian. Probably with the army, or the government, or worse—and now his careless driving had landed his Trabant in her garage.
Jan was still babbling, and she cut him off without ceremony. “What this asshole’s name?”
“Uh, Nikolayev, I think,” he said, searching his pocket and pulling out a crumpled piece of paper. “Illya Nikolayev. He gave me his phone number and everything. Says he’ll stop by tomorrow morning.”
“Good for him,” she said crisply. “Put this piece of garbage in the corner, over there. I’m off.”
“Tchüss, Jan.” She waved goodbye to Otto and Leo, grabbed her purse from her desk, and stepped out into the night.
Usually she took her car to work, but lately she’d been relying on the train. The city had been in disarray for weeks; construction had congested traffic beyond belief, making her normally short commute unbearable. That night she walked down the darkened street, past the rows of houses and the market on the corner, and thought of the Russian: Illya Nikolayev. His name may as well have been Ivan Ivanovich. She tried picturing him, just for fun: middle-aged or older, with dark hair and thick eyebrows drawn low over a hooked nose. Definitely a bureaucrat. Hunched over, probably, from stooping over a desk all day. He would come in tomorrow morning and expect them to drop everything to fix his car—and what kind of an idiot drove into a tank, anyway?—and she would have to bite her tongue and do it. God, and how she loathed the accent; the way the Russian soldiers chewed their words, spoke German through their noses. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they were occupying her city, she thought, her country—now they were occupying her garage, as well.
She climbed the stairs to the metro stop in a foul mood. The atmosphere on the train suited her: people’s faces were haggard, chatter almost non-existent. Gaby, like other people her age, could hardly remember a time before the city had been divided—and even then, war was not something she remembered fondly. But the wall felt like the final nail in the coffin. The reality had started to sink in, and it was showing; everywhere she looked were grey faces in grey buildings, their thoughts and prayers reaching helplessly west. Just thinking of it, her already sour mood worsened. All those pigs in the Staatsrat had to do was make a few calls, sign a few papers, and just like that they could ruin thousands of people’s—
Well. There was no use getting worked up over it now.
Her flat, when she reached it, was stifling. After baking in the sun all day, the concrete walls were radiating heat; she opened the windows wide, hoping for a breeze to sweep the hot, stale air out of the rooms. She was as hungry as she was tired; her arms ached from exertion, her stomach from neglect. Torn between a shower and dinner, she gave into hunger first, fishing some leftover schnitzel and potatoes out of the refrigerator. She ate it cold, standing in the kitchen, letting the tile cool her bare feet. There was no point turning on the oven—it would only make everything hotter.
Eventually the breeze she had hoped for came, but it brought little relief. She lay in bed sweating, her thin sheet clinging to her skin, and stared at the ceiling, waiting for sleep. This, it seemed, was always the longest part of her day. She had tried all sorts of tricks—books, exercise, the radio—but no matter what distraction she tried, the moment between closing her eyes and finding sleep always seemed to stretch for hours. During the day, she coped well, felt fine; but at night, trying to relax into unconsciousness, she was overcome with worries. Silly things, really—problems at the garage, tense conversations she’d had with friends; and, before, the jumps she hadn’t landed well, the steps and turns she could have done better. And more serious things, too: like her father, and the soldiers crawling through her city, and the goddamn wall that had sprouted almost overnight through the middle of it.
She turned over again, frustrated, looking for the cooler side of the pillow that didn’t exist. The clock read 1:17, and she bit back a groan, pushing her feet out from under the damp top sheet. If her own stubborn resolution hadn’t settled it, this certainly did—there was no way she would be making an appearance at the garage before noon.
The next day she arrived at work just as most of the men had gone home for lunch. She assumed she had avoided the Russian altogether—Otto would have handled him well, she thought—but instead, when she exited the office, cinching her belt at the waist of her coveralls, she found him standing by the main doors of the garage. Or rather, she found what she assumed to be a stranger: backlit by the afternoon sun, wearing a dark, tailored day suit, the light glinting gold off his neatly parted hair.
“Can I help you?” she asked, and he turned to face her. He’d been striking from the back, but the first impression was incomparable to the full-frontal experience. He was handsome in an absurd way, the way an actor or a singer might be: straight nose, strong jaw, with even, gold skin and a serious expression. If he was surprised by her appearance—small, dark, decidedly feminine—he didn’t show it, eyeing her coolly from the door.
“Guten Tag. I’m here to see about my car,” he said, his voice deep and devoid of inflection. “It was brought in last night.”
“Your name?” she asked, a horrible suspicion pulling at her gut.
She clenched her jaw to stop it from dropping to the floor. This tall, blonde, and—well, handsome stranger was so far from what she had been expecting that she felt sure it must be some kind of trick.
“So you’re the man who drove into the tank,” she said, trying to recover her composure. He stared at her, stiffening, and she stretched her mouth into a patronizing smile. “I’m sure it came out of nowhere.”
“Is the sarcasm included in the price of repairs, or does it come extra?” he snapped unexpectedly, and she frowned, taken aback. His German was perfect.
His manners, apparently, left something to be desired.
“Just for you, free of charge,” she managed.
“Perhaps I will take my car elsewhere.” Ah—there was the entitled attitude. She crossed her arms.
“Perhaps you should. Good luck finding anyone else who can fix it.” That stopped him, smoothing his scowl into a gentler frown.
“It’s that bad?”
“Maybe if you stopped making empty threats, I could show you.” She watched him open his mouth, pause, and then close it. Her chest swelled with pride. “If you’ll follow me,” she said haughtily, and waved him after her, walking to the far corner of the garage. The Trabbi was as decimated as she remembered. She stepped around it, watching him over the top of the car as he frowned, a deep crease etching itself between his eyebrows. The white lights of her workstation caught a jagged scar on his temple, throwing it into sharp relief against the smooth lines of his face.
“This is a mess,” she said frankly, tearing her eyes away. “You’re lucky it didn’t catch fire.” She kicked a tire gently, watching his eyes scan the wreck.
“How much will this cost?”
“I’m not sure yet. You’ll need new parts, for the front—they’re difficult to get a hold of. Not impossible, but difficult. The axles are out of alignment, that’ll cost you. And the engine needs heavy work. We’ll send you an estimate, but it’ll be steep. Hell, I’d almost tell you to buy a new one.”
“Good luck with that,” she scoffed. “You’ll be waiting months, or years. But no, I’m forgetting—of course you won’t have to.” She met his eyes evenly—a beautiful blue, of course, wide and clear, the perfect distance apart on his perfectly symmetrical face—and watched them narrow, annoyed.
“I wait like anybody else.”
“You’ll be the first Russian I’ve ever met who does.” She saw his chin rise in indignation, his mouth open to argue, and she cut him off swiftly. “Still, fixing it will be faster.”
He sighed through his nose, his shoulders falling sharply with the motion. It should have been the tiniest movement; but on a man of his size, any gesture was monumental. “Where will you get the parts?”
“We’re an auto garage, Herr Nikolayev. We have suppliers.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, then looked down at the car again, running his hand along the crumpled edge of the hood. “You will bill my office for this.”
“I’ll find you the form.” She marched back around the car, past his hulking frame and across the garage, to root around in the office. When she looked up from the filing cabinet, he was standing at the door, watching her. She jumped, then scowled, embarrassed. He’d surprised her, had somehow followed her soundlessly across the room. “You’ll need to fill this out,” she said, waving it at him.
“I’ll need a desk.”
She pointed to the chair closest to the door, and, once he settled, pretended to do some filing. If she was honest with herself, she was nervous: even Ralf had gone out for lunch, and it was just her and this Russian stranger, huddled in the office under the buzzing yellow lights. She had never had any trouble taking care of herself before, but the man was a giant, and clearly not in the gentlest of moods.
“When will it be finished?” he asked sharply, snapping her out of her reverie. “The car?”
“It depends on how long the parts take to come in,” she answered, leaning over the desk beside him, her hand splayed flat against the wood. He’d filled the form in meticulously, his writing neat and square, without the usual Slavic curves. “I’d guess about a month. We’ll call you.”
“Dankeschön,” he said stiffly, rising from the chair. This close, he towered over her, a somber vision in black and gold. She fought the impulse to step away, anxious to stand her ground. “I never got your name.”
“Schmidt,” she said, hesitating for only a moment. “Gaby Schmidt.”
“It was a pleasure, Fräulein Schmidt,” he said stiffly, the words ringing heavy and false, and walked past her out the door.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” she called after him, leaning against the doorframe to watch him go. He didn’t bother to respond.
She refused to give him one more thought until a few days later, when coffee and cake at Hilde’s turned into a tirade about work.
“Wilhelm’s impossible, as always,” she said, taking a vicious bite of apple cake. “All he does is stomp around and give me dirty looks. We went out six months ago, and only twice, and baby that he is, he won’t let me forget it.”
“What an asshole,” Hilde offered sagely, taking a drag on her cigarette.
“Right? And I’m still looking for a way to get rid of Jan, but he’s just good enough at his job that it’s impossible.”
“He’s not so bad,” Josef, Hilde’s husband, called from the kitchen, and Gaby rolled her eyes.
“You’ve met him twice, Liebling,” Hilde answered. “You can’t possibly imagine.”
“And—ugh. You’ll never guess what he dragged in the other day. Some idiot drove his Trabbi into a tank.”
“No,” Hilde cooed, her mouth curling into a wicked smile. “Who?”
“This huge Russian. Tall and grim and so rude, Hilde.”
“And I’m sure you did nothing to provoke that reaction at all.”
“I didn’t! I just asked him how he could have possibly rear-ended a vehicle that, honestly, most of us can outpace walking backwards—”
“I’ll bet that went over very well,” Josef said, walking into the dining room with a bowl of raspberries and a glass of beer. He set them on the table and pulled out a chair, easing into it with a wince.
“How’s your back, Sepp?” she asked, eyeing his movements.
“It’s been better. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know,” he said, pulling a laugh out of both of them. He tapped a cigarette out from the box on the table, and Gaby watched him lean over to his wife to light it. They had only been married three months, maybe four; but already it was difficult to remember a time when they hadn’t been together.
But of course, she could: she had known Hilde for years. They had gone to primary school together, and had trained at the Berlin Ballet, driving into West Berlin together most days of the week. She had been at the party where Hilde had met Josef: an aspiring writer, working at a publishing house in the west while living with his mother and sister in the east. They had married at the beginning of June in a small but fashionable ceremony attended by dancers, writers, journalists and artists; two months later, they had found themselves cut off from their jobs, their community—fenced in by the very wall designed to ‘protect’ them.
Gaby had gone with Hilde to watch them close the border. She had stared across the street where she had once driven to rehearsal and had met the eyes of West Berliners, yelling and protesting from their side of the fence. For nothing, of course—the wall had gone up. And dear, sensitive Josef had been put to work building it, ‘rescued’ from unemployment by the same people who had cut him off from his livelihood. It was back-breaking work. At twenty-seven, he spent most of his time at home sitting, listening to the radio, too tired to write a word.
He blew out a long stream of smoke, now, leaning forward to rub at the bridge of his nose. Hilde raised her hand to scratch at the back of his neck. “Tell us more about this Russian,” she said conspiratorially, leaning her chin onto her hand.
“He was just like the rest of them,” Gaby said dismissively.
“Although perhaps a touch less able behind the wheel,” Josef added wryly. “Or at the very least, a little more short-sighted, no?”
“Was it a soldier?” Hilde continued, tapping her cigarette against the ashtray. “Or a nasty old tovarishch, with a moustache, staring up your skirt?”
“Believe it or not, I don’t wear a skirt to work. And Gott, no, he was like some kind of Soviet posterchild. Tall, blonde—he looked like a recruitment poster.”
“Nobody said anything about handsome—“
“Perhaps he’s an up-and-coming dictator,” Hilde continued excitedly.
“A party member par excellence,” Josef added, grinning.
“Or a secret agent,” she whispered at him, wiggling her fingers, and Gaby groaned.
“Don’t even joke. The last thing I need is the Stasi sniffing around the garage.”
“Please,” Hilde said, rolling her eyes. “They have bigger fish to fry. Smoke, Gaby?” she offered for the second time that afternoon, and Gaby shook her head, reaching for a raspberry instead.
“For the millionth time, Hilde,” she said, tearing into the fruit with her teeth. “Give me brandy or give me death.”
When she was younger, the weekend had felt like it would never come fast enough. Now, the end of the week was like any other day. She spent her hours at the garage to kill time; nothing soothed her quite like the steady work of tuning an engine, or changing a tire. These were problems she could handle, could understand; problems she could break into their component parts and tackle one at a time.
This Sunday morning, however, she wasn’t at the garage, or even in bed; she’d woken up at dawn to be the first at the markets, and hopefully to find some half-decent plums, a tall order this late in the season. Elsa and Franz were having a baby, and they were celebrating today, throwing a party for their closest friends. Gaby was bringing Zwetschkenkuchen, which she had of course not thought to bake the night before, and so here she was, rising with the sun, trudging into the city to get her hands on the ingredients.
It was cool in the mornings, now, the autumn chill setting in at night while the days stayed hot and bright. There weren’t many people on the streets; they were either in church or in bed, and most of the roads she walked down were empty, silent but for birdsong and the distant rumble of cars. And this is why she noticed him immediately, his heavy footfalls stark against the quiet of the morning; a jogger, barrelling down the street towards her, his shadow long in front of him against the sidewalk.
No, she thought, it can’t be, my luck cannot be this bad—but of course it could be, and was, and the jogger hurtling down the street towards her was none other than Illya Nikolayev. He was wearing shorts and a white jersey, so different from the somber suit of the other day; his strides were strong and perfectly even, not so much jogging as running towards her with unnerving determination.
She didn’t know what to do. Did she continue walking like she hadn’t seen him? Did she acknowledge him? She didn’t particularly want to give him the time of day, if she was being honest, but she couldn’t bear the artificiality of ignoring the only other person on the road at six thirty in the morning. Just as she was considering ducking into an alley, or perhaps crossing the road, he drew level with her, slowing for a moment to fix her with a serious look.
“Guten Morgen, Fräulein Schmidt,” he breathed, barely panting, and she deigned to glance at him, pursing her lips.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Nikolayev,” she replied coolly, and, with a nod, he was off again, sprinting past her and up the street with long, powerful strides. She could hear him for a while afterwards, but staunchly refused to look back; instead, she hurried forward, motivated by a new vexation. Everywhere she looked, everywhere she went—Russians.
I may as well change my name to Masha, she thought bitterly, and resolved to walk a different way from then on.
She didn’t see him for a long time after that. Her life fell back into its regular rhythm—well, its recently regular rhythm, reorganized into a smaller space—and her days took on a uniform hue as summer eased into a dry, dusty autumn. When she wasn’t at the garage, she roamed the city, stopping by her friends’ for lunch or drinks; when she wasn’t visiting with someone, she was in her flat, in the bath or in bed, whiling away the hours, waiting to sleep and begin again.
The Trabant sat in the corner of the garage, unmoved, and greeted her with its mangled front every time she came into work. She had done what she could, but without parts, the car would have to remain unfinished. They’d ordered them through the official channels, of course, but those were notoriously slow, and she knew better than to rely on them. Really, she was waiting for Ralf’s brother to pull through: he had quick fingers and clever friends, and he’d brought in a bit of extra cash for them more than once. It was harder now that the city was overrun with soldiers and police, but he hadn’t let her down yet. It was only a matter of time.
Finally, on a Tuesday night, it happened. Ralf’s brother Klaus appeared at the back of the garage and waved; Otto hoisted open the doors, and in rolled a blue Trabant—perhaps slightly worse for wear, but nothing a few hours of work couldn’t fix.
She hurried to draw the partition, cutting them off from the main room, while Otto let the doors fall shut again, the panels rattling as they fell into line.
“For you, Fräulein,” Klaus said grandly, sweeping his arm out and winking. He was younger than her, thin and dark and charming and unbearably cocky.
“I hope you waited until the owners were around the block this time, at least,” she said wryly, and he grinned. She knew how he felt—giddy with his own success, elevated, unbeatable. Inside the car, his friend honked the horn, and Otto yelled at him to get out, his voice booming in the cavernous space. “Thanks, Klaus.”
“Don’t thank me in words,” he said cloyingly, rubbing his fingers together, and she scowled, her thin patience snapping.
“Don’t get smart. You know how this works. And get that idiot out of here before he wakes up the whole neighbourhood,” she added, nodding at his friend, who was now having a full-blown argument with Otto, a man three times his age and at least twice his size.
“Always lovely to see you too, Fräulein Schmidt,” Klaus trilled, unperturbed, and waved his friend over. “Tschüss, Gaby.”
Leo locked up in front and turned out the main lights, and after that they descended on it like a pack of wolves, tearing the small car into even smaller pieces. The body plates and main engine were locked into the back, hidden in storage; the smaller, less recognizable pieces were scattered across the room, the wheels dismantled and stacked by the wall. By the time they finished, it was morning. She said hello to Gunter and Hermann—on their way in for an early morning shift—as she left, and emerged into the sun sore, sleepy, and satisfied.
At home, for once, she found sleep almost instantly, smiling happily into her pillow. There—now she could fix Illya Nikolayev’s stupid car, and take his stupid money, and get his stupid, handsome face out of her mind, for good.
Of course, things never were that simple.
Days later, a VoPo chief waltzed in demanding tune-ups on a shabby fleet of police vehicles. “You don’t have police mechanics to do this?” Otto sighed wearily, sitting with the chief in the office. The man pursed his lips in response, the face one might make upon swallowing a lemon.
“They are attending to other vehicles at the moment.”
“And our payment?”
“You can consider my continuing blind eye to your nightly operations payment enough, Herr Hoffmann.”
“To brotherhood, then.”
“That’s the spirit, comrade.”
The work was easy, but interminable. Halfway through the third car, a clunker with a rattle she just couldn’t soothe, Wilhelm stomped over to her workstation, grease in his hair and a scowl on his face. “There’s someone on the phone for you,” he said shortly. She sighed, stretching her shoulders, and walked over to the office, wiping her hands as she walked. Hermann was inside, filling out an order form, and he motioned at the phone, the receiver face down on the table.
“It’s the architect,” he said.
“The Russian. Nikolayev.”
“He’s an architect?” she said stupidly, confused and unsettled. “What’s a Russian architect doing in Berlin?”
“I don’t know—studying? Designing? Building the wall?” He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “He stopped by yesterday. Go on, pick up the phone.”
She did. “This is Gaby,” she said simply.
“Fräulein Schmidt,” came the response, broken up by the poor connection. “It’s Illya Nikolayev.”
“Yes, I know.” She waited, letting the silence stretch uncomfortably between them. “What is it?” she added, exasperated.
“It has been a month.”
“If you say so.”
She could practically hear him pursing his lips at her. “I was wondering when I would be able to pick up my car.”
“Well, the parts came in a few days ago.”
“Maybe next weekend?”
“You don’t know?”
“We’re very busy here, Herr Nikolayev.”
“I’ll come next Friday, then.”
“Fine. Auf Wiedersehen.” She hung up the phone abruptly, and stared hard at it, ignoring Hermann’s curious look.
“What was that?” he asked incredulously.
“Nothing,” she answered sharply. “He rubs me the wrong way, that’s all.”
She fully intended to have his car done by the next week, too; she was sick of looking at it, and sick of having to deal with the Russian. The Russian, who, as it turned out, was an architect. Not what she had expected, although certainly no better, either. She’d turned it over in her mind again and again, and concluded that he had to be there to build the wall—it was the most obvious explanation. Before, she’d thought him responsible in a more indirect way; now, she knew the barrier dividing her city was, at least in part, directly his fault.
Her best intentions, however, didn’t change the insurmountable amount of work ahead of her. She considered setting the police cars aside to finish the crumpled Trabbi, but the police chief came around twice more, breathing down their necks and making unsubtle threats, spurring them on to work faster. And, as Otto pointed out before sending her forcefully home one night, even she couldn’t work twenty-four hours a day. On Wednesday, she told Wilhelm to call Herr Nikolayev and let him know that his car wouldn’t be done in time, and resigned herself to putting off their final parting by another week.
Herr Nikolayev, however, did not get the message.
He arrived on Friday at lunch, wearing a grey suit and a dark tie, and marched straight towards her, his movements sharp, his expression serious. “Fräulein Schmidt,” he called across the garage. His voice boomed through the cavernous space, empty now of the sounds of machinery, and she froze where she stood, overcome by a sudden wave of dread and irritation.
“What can I do for you, Herr Nikolayev?” she asked, turning around to face him. She was caught off-guard: sweaty and tired, with oil, she knew, smeared across her cheek. She had been at the garage since dawn, unable to sleep and anxious to busy herself. Her back ached. Her eyes itched. She drew herself up to her full height as he stopped in front of her and tried to school her expression into one of indifference.
“I came for my car,” he said slowly, his eyebrows drawing together slightly. She stared at him.
“It’s not done,” she replied plainly, shaking her head at him. His expression darkened.
“It’s not done?”
“That’s what I said, yes.”
“You told me to come on Friday.”
“We called you two days ago and told you it wouldn’t be done.”
“I received no such phone call.”
“Maybe your secretary didn’t pass on the message.”
“Impossible. Did you call personally?”
She bit the inside of her lip, considering. “No,” she admitted. “I asked a colleague.”
“Then the fault is yours. Clearly he failed to pass the message along.”
Rationally, she knew, Wilhelm probably had forgotten. Despite this, she felt anger swell, hot and bitter in her stomach, as she faced his smug expression. “How dare you,” she spat. “How dare you walk in here and accuse us of incompetence?”
“You do not have my car finished. You failed to inform me of this. This, to me, is incompetence. Do you disagree?”
“You have no idea what I do, and you don’t know how long it takes to do it. Leave me to my job, and I’ll leave you to yours.”
“Something made significantly harder by my lack of transportation.”
“If you had taken better care of the damn thing in the first place, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
“You are driving instructor now as well?” His German was becoming stiffer as the colour in his face rose. She could see his fingers tapping where his arms were crossed, the motion rapid and tense.
“I don’t need to be a driving instructor to tell you that when you see a tank, you hit the brakes. Not the gas.”
“Perhaps you should spend less time thinking of tanks, and more time thinking of business.”
“The way you operate this garage is unacceptable.”
“Please, tell me all about how I should run my business.”
“You should serve your customers in order,” he bit back. “In the order that they come in, not in the order of your personal prejudice.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean,” he continued, his voice strained, his lip curled. “When I came here a month ago, this place was nearly empty. And now? Cars everywhere, half assembled. A reparations factory. I ask around, and what do they tell me? Police vehicles. German police. Never mind the Russian, yes?”
She huffed out an incredulous laugh. “That’s what you think is happening here?”
“Is it not?”
“The police chief marched in here,” she began, taking an angry step towards him. “And demanded that we take in a fleet of cars for repairs. Free tune-ups, of course, because we’re all comrades, right? We’re all part of the great German brotherhood. And to speed us along, he threw in a few choice threats about all the ways he could shut us down and make our lives miserable, so obviously, we took the work. And every time I step outside to eat or sleep or breathe, he’s back in here again, pointing fingers, dropping names, giving out orders like he owns the place. Because who cares if we need to eat, and sleep, when the VoPo need their cars and need them now. And so here I am, working myself half to death to get this done, and now you come marching in and start accusing me of incompetence. Are you going to threaten me, now, too? Withhold pay? Have me arrested?”
“No,” he said quietly, his eyes wide, but she pressed on, beside herself with frustration.
“You’re all the same!” she continued. “You walk around and talk about equality and modernity and the collective, when really what you’re doing is stomping all over us. Your goddamn Trabant will get fixed when I have the time to fix it, and not a minute sooner. Okay, Herr Nikolayev?”
“Okay,” he echoed, his voice soft, his eyebrows drawn, and she let out a heavy breath. He stared at her, and she stared back, and slowly she began to feel incredibly foolish. Here she was, a grown woman, covered head to toe in dust and grease, screaming into the face of a man twice her size. She took a step back self-consciously and jammed her hands into her pockets, meeting his eyes defiantly. He uncrossed his arms, letting them drop to his sides.
“Okay,” he said again, and his expression smoothed. “I am going away, for maybe three weeks. This will give you time to finish, yes?”
“Yes,” she ground out, feeling small and petulant in the face of his newfound composure.
“Good. I—I’ll come back three weeks from now, then.” He stood there for a moment, looking grim and concerned, and then tipped his head at her. “Auf Wiedersehen.”
“Tchüss,” she mumbled back, and watched him until his tall frame disappeared around the corner.
She didn’t exactly regret it, but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel uneasy about it.
In the days after the argument, she felt off-balance. She kept glancing over her shoulder, paranoid about something she couldn’t even name; she slept worse than ever. It turned out Gunter had heard her little monologue and told Otto, who took her aside the next afternoon to give her a stern warning about losing her temper in front of customers.
“He’s not a regular customer,” she argued weakly.
“No,” Otto said sternly. “He’s a Russian come down here for God knows what reason, and the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and your head down.”
“Gaby,” he’d insisted. “Don’t pick fights you can’t win.”
She certainly felt as though she had won, although that didn’t give her any peace of mind. Soon enough, however, the unease faded, and her life lapsed back into its usual routine. She finished the Trabbi, making it run as well as it ever would, and they finished the rest of the VoPo cars, too. The chief, when he came to check them over, was unusually subdued, almost nervous.
“Yes,” he kept saying. “Yes, very nice job, yes. Very good.” He paid them after all, looking positively anguished as he handed over the cheque, and she and Otto watched him in wonderment as he shuffled anxiously out the door, pulling his hat low over his head.
“So miracles do exist,” she muttered dryly, watching him all but run down the street. Otto grunted in agreement.
The end of October came and went, and with it the last traces of summer; the streets were filled with dry leaves and dust, and it rained more often than not. She visited Hilde and Josef, and Elsa and Franz, and Ingrid and Wolfgang, and Margret and Frank, and all the others; she went to Gertrud’s birthday party and Claudia’s christening, feeling like she was moving through a never-ending dream, the details vague, the images fuzzy. She worked and ate and danced and drank, and at the end of the day she tried to sleep. Every day felt the same as the last: empty, despite all she had done to fill it.
Ralf got his hands on a Ray Charles record and sold it to her, and she carried it home one day wrapped in brown paper, tucked into her bag. She loved the thrill of a secret, the rush that came with hiding contraband in plain sight; she listened to it all month long, playing Georgia on My Mind until she couldn’t stand it anymore.
She was flat on her back, tinkering with the suspension on a Wartburg, when Wilhelm rapped on the side of the car. “There’s a Russian here asking for you,” he grumbled, and she waited for his boots to disappear from sight before sliding out from under the car. Standing near the office: who else but Illya Nikolayev, dressed more casually than she had ever seen him, in grey trousers and a brown suede jacket, his hands in his pockets. She fussed over her hands for a moment, trying to wipe as much of the grease from them as she could, before rolling to her feet and marching over, self-conscious, and irritable for it.
“Welcome back,” she said evenly, drawing closer. He turned to face her, his facial expression betraying nothing, and nodded. “Did you need something?”
“I came to pick up my car.”
“I gave the keys to Wilhelm.”
“Ja, I know,” he said, and held up his hand, the keys dangling from his finger. “I wanted—I wanted to apologize. For last month. For my behaviour.”
She frowned, taken aback. “You wanted…to apologize?”
“Well, go on then.”
His face creased into a frown, although she thought she caught a glint of amusement in his eye. “I’m sorry,” he rumbled. “You were treated unfairly, Fräulein Schmidt.”
“Apology accepted,” she sniffed.
“I’m glad,” he said, his expression softening by a degree. “And to thank you—“ He reached for the table behind him, and came up with a slim box she hadn’t noticed before, wrapped in crisp white paper. “A gift,” he finished, and held it towards her.
Dumbfounded, she took it out of his hand. Her thumbs left dark smudges against the wrapping, and she looked at it disbelief. “You didn’t have to do this.”
“I wanted to,” he said simply. “The car is in back?”
“Ja,” she murmured, confused and distracted, and he tipped his head at her.
"Auf Wiedersehen, Fräulein Schmidt.”
“Tchüss,” she murmured, but he was already out the door.
She slipped the box into her bag in the office and didn’t think of it much for the rest of the day. On the train home, however, she found the curiosity was eating at her, and took it out gingerly, weighing it in her hands for a moment. Couldn’t he have just given her flowers? Or even better—a big tip?
The paper had been folded impeccably, held together at the seam with a neat piece of tape. She slid her nail beneath it, the grime on her fingers standing out against the paper, and unfolded the gift carefully. Inside was a flat white box, cardboard, with something written in what looked like French. She wrinkled her nose. He hadn’t bought her jewelry, had he?
She opened the box, and blinked, surprised. Inside was a pair of gloves in a brown, buttery leather, folded neatly on a bed of tissue paper. She pulled one out and ran her fingers over it, finding it wonderfully soft. The stitching was all but invisible; when she pulled it onto her hand, curious, she found that it fight perfectly, molding to her hand as though it had been custom made. She wiggled her fingers, watching the leather wrinkle and flex, and felt immeasurably strange as she thought of Herr Nikolayev, tall and handsome and serious, in a shop in France, looking through women’s gloves. He had guessed the size perfectly, it seemed, which meant he must have been paying attention to her hands, which was an odd thought. They were subtle and plain, and yet, she thought, one of the most beautiful things she had ever owned. He had gone to France, or Belgium, perhaps, and had gone to a glove store to buy her a pair of beautiful leather gloves. And after she had screamed at him, no less!
The strange feeling stayed with her all the way home, burning in her chest like a shot of vodka. She tried to swallow past it, and found that she couldn’t—instead, she found herself fighting a smile whenever she thought of him. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. The man was an asshole, and frankly, he owed you. You’re acting like a teenager.
Still, she slipped the gloves on—there was no use in letting a beautiful gift go to waste.