PROPELLED BY THE PLASTIC BAGS that dangled at her sides, Bertilda lurched over the defiant mid-March snow, past the dilapidated bikes and empty beer bottles, and into the square.
She’d bought more than she’d needed of course: the bags bulged with French apples, new potatoes, flour, bread, cabbages as big as footballs, they were so heavy the plastic was cutting into her fingers. It will be worth it, she thought. There’ll be plenty to go around, plenty of leftovers for Daniel. Who knew if his new wife (what was her name again?) could cook, or even if she did at all?
The tram stop was crowded as usual. It was the only line going up Prenzlauer Allee: a street near enough to the centre of town, but with just the right amount of slope to discourage walking, even among the fit and able. Bertilda shuffled into a cavity at the rear of the shelter and leaned against the cold glass. She glanced furtively at the people around her: two women were singing in a foreign language, a man wearing a loose-fitting business suit sneezed into his hand then flicked mucus onto the tram tracks, two teenagers with long fringes were locked in an embrace. They might have been kissing, or rubbing the backs of their heads together, Bertilda couldn’t tell. She shook her head. What a fine kettle of craziness Berlin had become. People who’d screamed for freedom and smashed through concrete with borrowed sledge hammers were now strapped up in suits and ties; the same people who’d crossed the old border holding bottles of Prosecco high above their heads, now sat in corner taverns melting into glasses of brandy. And these confetti blow-ins: the young people from the countryside, the bankers from Frankfurt, the foreigners, the new Berliners and their dogs. Had they done the city any favours?
A tail of cigarette smoke lashed her eyes. To her right, a young man with blue hair and nose piercings snaked into the shelter, sucking urgently on a cigarette. The stitched letters on the back of his denim jacket read: ‘Rotten punk, Filthy genes’. Bertilda knew enough English to know that the message wasn’t a positive one. By now the smoke was tickling her nostrils so she gave a polite, old lady’s cough. The man smoked on. When the second cough failed to gain his attention, she readied her shoulders and fingers and, with a low grunt, pushed off the shelter wall with her behind. She’d hoped to gain enough momentum to drive her through the waiting bodies, but as she lurched forwards, the bags swung like two pendulums and slammed into the smoking man’s ankles. Bertilda wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard the dull pop of an apple exploding in its skin.
The man didn’t flinch. He merely finished his cigarette and crushed it on the side of his boot. When he did turn his head, every one of Bertilda’s bones rattled, for above his bristled jaw and pierced nose, a pair of bloodshot eyeballs hovered silently in the cave of their sockets, each glowing hotter than fired glass.
Bertilda drew a sharp breath. “Sorry,” she managed to say as she dropped her head and dragged herself out onto the platform.
A tram bell clanged and the crowds spilled from their cracks and waiting positions, latecomers, sensing the departure of their connection, ran across the square and out of the U-Bahn entrances.
“Excuse me,” Bertilda said and began twisting herself and the bags through the tram doors. She found two empty seats (one for her and her shopping) across from a young woman and a little boy. As she sat down and released her grip on the bags’ bunched plastic handles, she let out a sigh so loud, the little boy across from her laughed. She returned his mirth with a wink.
The carriage filled quickly and people were soon pinching themselves into the remaining spaces, leaning on doors, and hanging from the yellow handrails. A few of them motioned to the two mounds of plastic next to Bertilda. They cleared their throats, hoping that she would remove the shopping bags and let them sit down, but she only shrugged and drew her legs into her as they passed. No one has ever offered me a seat in my life, she declared with a nod towards the back of the carriage.
The bell clanged once more and the tram’s hull began to shudder out of the terminal. Bertilda inspected her purchases to make sure they were all well packed and stable. She tied bows out of the plastic handles and patted down unruly carrot tops. When she looked up she almost jumped in her seat. Two bloodshot eyes peered down at her from the cream-coloured ceiling. The man with the blue hair was standing directly above her, hands in his pockets and chewing loudly on a wad of gum. His gaze swept from Bertilda to her shopping bags then back again. Something in Bertilda’s chest fluttered. She flicked her attention to the woman and the boy and tried to ignore the hulking shadow beside her.
“Why do you think people have to pay for a ticket?” the woman asked the boy, who was busy clapping at invisible insects.
“They don’t have to if they don’t want,” he replied.
“It’s free. You just walk on.”
“But how to do they pay the drivers? And keep the trams clean and working?”
“I don’t care.”
The woman laughed and went to pat the boy on the thigh, but the boy let out a squeal and slapped her forearm.
“Why did you hit mummy, Andreas?”
“You started it!”
Something about the boy’s face reminded Bertilda of her Daniel, the wide eyes, the upturned earlobes and puppy fat underneath his chin, even the way the boy hissed air through the gaps between his teeth made her think back to the time when Daniel was a toddler.
The boy smiled when he noticed Bertilda staring at him, it was a wet, gummy smile, a cup of red jelly and teeth. She’d decided she was going to say ‘hello’, but before she could open her mouth, the boy let out a sharp yap and, in a sudden jerk, kicked out across the aisle. Bertilda gasped and pressed herself back into her seat. Another leg swung her way, and this time a rubber kiddy trainer scraped the side of her knee.
“Excuse me, young man,” she said, brushing her legs where the boy had struck her. She was more shocked than injured. “Would you please stop kicking in my direction? It’s not nice.”
“No!” the boy shouted and kicked out again, this time with both legs.
Bertilda felt a jab of pain. It sent her further back into her seat and her hand to her heart. She turned to the mother, who was looking on with one eyebrow raised. “I did ask politely. Now would you please stop kicking? You really are hurting me.”
“Ha! No!” Another swing and kick. Bertilda bent over to protect herself this time and the boy’s foot scuffed off her elbows. He let out a gurgling laugh. The mother grinned.
“Can you please control your child?” Bertilda said as she dusted off her legs again. “He is hurting me.” From the corner of her eye, she noticed a few heads turning to watch the scene.
The mother looked down at her son. “Andreas? Did you hear what the lady said?”
“No!” the boy said and then fell into a fit of coughing.
“There’s not much I can do, ma’am,” the mother replied.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We’re raising him anti-authoritarian.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He’s being raised anti-authoritarian—he has to learn for himself what’s right and wrong, you see.”
“That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bertilda muttered. I hope he’s not getting his morals from you, she thought. If the brat doesn’t know that kicking old ladies in the shins on public transport is wrong, then he’s got a lot to learn. The brazen attitude of the mother and her son had so confused her that she almost missed the stop announcement. She reached behind her to hit the button, and was preparing to lift the shopping bags when she felt another nip on the shin. Turning around, she saw that the boy’s face had collapsed into a salivating yawn. Bertilda stretched her fingers. Just give me a couple of days with him, she thought. Yes, all she needed were a couple of days and she’d be able to take care of whatever social defect he had. Young mothers and their ideas!
“Hitting old ladies is wrong,” Bertilda said through clenched dentures.
“No!” the boy shouted and prepared to kick again. But as his did, a denim arm flew down and locked around the boy’s legs. The arm caught the kick in mid-air, wrapped both legs up, then slammed them back into the boy’s chest, where they remained.
“Hello!” the mother cried, squirming in her seat like a harpooned octopus. “How dare you touch my child! You have no right! Who do you think you are?”
The man with the blue hair stopped chewing and stood erect. He hooked a stubby finger into his mouth and pulled out the ball of chewing gum.
“What are you doing?” the mother warbled. But it was too late. The man had already leaned forwards and was pressing the chewing gum into her forehead. She blinked and stared cross-eyed at his withdrawing hand.
“I was also raised anti-authoritarian,” he said and licked his finger clean.
Bertilda couldn’t help but giggle: at the mother’s mouth, which had fallen open, and at her bright, bug eyes. But most of all, Bertilda was laughing at the piece of green gum, which dangled neatly in the centre of the woman’s forehead.
Someone at the front of the tram started to clap and soon the entire tram echoed with riotous applause. If the mother was upset, she didn’t show it: she was too busy scratching at her face, trying to remove the gum and spit, while her son sat sobbing into his jacket beside her. At that moment Bertilda sensed a wave of pity well up inside her. She wanted to apologise, or pat the boy on the shoulder, tell him it was okay, that it wasn’t his fault.
The strong hand that steered her upwards caught her unexpectedly. It was the man with the blue hair. Without a breath, Bertilda rose until she was looking right into his bloodshot eyes. But instead of defiance and anger, she saw only reassurance. What had once been red and boiling, was now hushed and warm.
“Can I help you with your bags, madam?” the man asked.
“Tha… thank you, sir” Bertilda replied and together, they wove through the parting commuters and stepped out into the spring snow.