A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY by John le Carré
A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY by John le Carré
The Hunter and the Hunted
Ten minutes to midnight: a pious Friday in May and a fine river mist lying in the market square. Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over with tramwire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen. Their leather coats glistened in the lamplight, the black flags hung over them like birds. It was as if all but they had heard the alarm and fled. Now a car, nowa pedestrian hurried past, and the silence followed like a wake. A tram sounded, but far away. In the grocer’s shop, from a pyramid of tins, the handwritten notice advertised the emergency: ‘Lay in your store now!’ Among the crumbs, marzipan pigs like hairless mice proclaimed the forgotten Saint’s Day.
Only the posters spoke. From trees and lanterns they fought their futile war, each at the same height as if that were the regulation; they were printed in radiant paint, mounted on hardboard, and draped in thin streamers of black bunting, and they rose at him vividly as he hastened past. ‘Send the Foreign Workers Home!’ ‘Rid us of the Whore Bonn!’ ‘Unite Germany First, Europe Second!’ And the largest was set above them, in a tall streamer right across the street: ‘Open the road East, the road West has failed.’ His dark eyes paid them no attention. A policeman stamped his boots and grimaced at him, making a hard joke of the weather; another challenged him but without conviction; and one called ‘Guten Abend’ but he offered no reply; for he had no mind for any but the plumper figure a hundred paces ahead of him who trotted hurriedly down the wide avenue, entering the shadow of a black flag, emerging as the tallow lamplight took him back.
The dark had made no ceremony of coming nor the grey day of leaving, but the night was crisp for once and smelt of winter. For most months, Bonn is not a place of seasons; the climate is all indoors, a climate of headaches, warm and flat like bottled water, a climate of waiting, of bitter tastes taken from the slow river, of fatigue and reluctant growth, and the air is an exhausted wind fallen on the plain, and the dusk when it comes is nothing but a darkening of the day’s mist, a lighting of tube lamps in the howling streets. But on that spring night the winter had come back to visit, slipping up the Rhine valley under cover of the predatory darkness, and it quickened them as they went, hurt them with its unexpected chill. The eyes of the smaller man, straining ahead of him, shed tears of cold.
The avenue curved, taking them past the yellow walls of the University. ‘Democrats! Hang the Press Baron!’ ‘The World belongs to the Young!’ ‘Let the English Lordlings beg!’ ‘Axel Springer to the gallows!’ ‘Long Live Axel Springer!’ ‘Protest is Freedom’. These posters were done in woodcut on a student press. Overhead the young foliage glittered in a fragmented canopy of green glass. The lights were brighter here, the police fewer. The men strode on, neither faster nor slower; the first busily, with a beadle’s flurry. His stride though swift was stagy and awkward, as if he had stepped down from somewhere grander; a walk replete with a German burgher’s dignity. His arms swung shortly at his sides and his back was straight. Did he know he was being followed? His head was held stiff in authority, but authority became him poorly. A man drawn forward by what he saw? Or driven by what lay behind? Was it fear that prevented him from turning? A man of substance does not move his head. The second man stepped lightly in his wake. A sprite, weightless as the dark, slipping through the shadows as if they were a net: a clown stalking a courtier.
They entered a narrow alley; the air was filled with the smells of sour food. Once more the walls cried to them, now in the tell-tale liturgy of German advertising: ‘Strong Men Drink Beer!’ ‘Knowledge is Power, Read Molden Books!’ Here for the first time the echo of their footsteps mingled in unmistakable challenge; here for the first time the man of substance seemed to waken, sensing the danger behind. It was no more than a slur, a tiny imperfection in the determined rhythm of his portly march; but it took him to the edge of the pavement, away from the darkness of the walls, and he seemed to find comfort in the brighter places, where the lamplight and the policemen could protect him. Yet his pursuer did not relent. ‘Meet us in Hanover!’ the poster cried. ‘Karfeld speaks in Hanover!’ ‘Meet us in Hanover on Sunday!’
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