WEEKEND by Kate Whitehead

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Cottage

A vicious gale had bowled stealthily into the village and Gloria dreaded the familiar cacophony of whistling, banging and rattling. It was time for the soothing nightly ritual of closing all the curtains: catching a final glimpse of the flickering night sky before retreating into the golden cocoon of her living room.

She peered out of the bedroom window where the steep coastal road wound into the distance but there was no sign of the visitors.

Their airy room had been waiting for them all day. It was a pristine modestly furnished room. A vase of freshly picked bluebells sat on the bedside table between the two single beds.

Marjorie, her neighbour and ex best friend wouldn’t agree to take down the “English Spoken Here” poster in her window.  Marjorie’s sudden preoccupation with the far right had coincided with the sudden death of Gloria’s husband. Being bereft and friendless simultaneously had cruelly eradicated half a century of jolly vivacity. Overnight Gloria was left with a life of perfunctory empty routines, intolerable loneliness and financial stress in the Winter Months.

The Germans had made a booking over a crackling fading line. Gloria wondered if she’d misheard the date.

During News night she fell into a deep sleep by the soporific warmth of the fire and dreamt vividly of her dead husband till the rat-a-tat of the door tugged her up to the surface.

A freezing gust of air hit as she opened the front door to the visitors.

The Müllers; twin brother and sister were grey haired and wiry with identical Reiker rucksacks and a single deep red suitcase on wheels.

Apologising profusely for their lateness they stepped into the cramped warmth of the living room.

“Ah this room is really perfect,” Maria Muller exclaimed, noticing the vase of bluebells on the bedside table in their room.

Relieved and exhausted Gloria double locked the front door and fell asleep, undisturbed by the gales lashings and the low murmur of the Müllers’ voices in the bedroom next to hers.

They were waiting in the breakfast room when Gloria came down: scrubbed and rested.

She brewed their coffee and was ready to skulk away after her usual round of bed and breakfast chit chat.

But the Mullers were unusually sociable guests genuinely warm and interested. Self-consciously, Gloria answered their questions, painfully aware as she spoke of how dull she sounded: all those years of village life, scrabbling around the same small space astonished with the speed with which time accelerated whilst she stood still.

Her voice cracked with emotion as she told them about Fred’s cruelly sudden death on the eve of his fifty-fifth birthday.

Marjorie peered unashamedly and inquisitively through the window at the three of them on her morning jaunt to the shops.

Gloria watched the retreating sou’wester clad figures of the Mullers trudging up the road to the small gravel path that led to the cliff edge whilst she cleared up the remnants of breakfast.

Clutching the dregs of her coffee she fantasised about Berlin. Gloria hadn’t travelled further than Plymouth except in her imagination where the colours and shapes of other places were always vivid and hyperreal. a romantic mishmash of images gleaned from films and books.

Marjorie used to say that all Germans were Nazis. Since Marjorie had so emphatically declared her loathing for the German Nazis, Gloria had found it baffling that she’d throw her lot in with a party who were whipping up hatred everywhere. A whiff of pure nastiness had blown into the village recently, clouding the good natured haze it was renowned for. Maybe Gloria thought Marjorie was too stupid to see the link between the two.

Gloria was still tangled up in her melancholy musings when the Mullers returned from their walk: windblown and red faced. They enthused about the beauty of the cliff side, asked her for the names of the wildflowers and exclaimed at how fantastically fresh the air was.

They were less enthusiastic about their brief foray into the village where they paid more than two euros for a cup of coffee by the harbour and someone had imitated their accents. Bernard Muller had noticed the sign in the window of Marjorie’s cottage. Maria told Gloria that they loved the cultural mix in their city: the all night Kebab Bars near their apartment, the Greek patisseries, and the Indian Restaurant in the square. She wanted to talk to them about their history but it seemed cruel to puncture their enthusiasm with sombre talk.

Gloria didn’t have a booking after the Mullers. On their last morning, the village was buried under a dirty suffocating mist. She awoke to a feeling of heavy sadness at the prospect of the empty days ahead without their energetic exuberance filling the cottage.

“Of course you’ve got our number, please ring up if you want to visit our city,” Bernard had shouted over the taxi engine.

Gloria wondered if he’d meant it: then returned to her personal stock taking establishing what was left was simultaneously consoling and alarming. She’d never considered the cottage in terms of its value; it had been just a shell when they bought it for £2000.

“Why don’t I?” she muttered to herself, buttoning up her smart blue coat.

Waiting in the Estate Agents, Gloria thought about how disturbingly familiar and distant everybody seemed at the same time. Mr Pascoe, the owner, was now a smug corpulent man, so dissimilar from the warm-hearted, free-spirited child Gloria had spent all of her summer holidays doing nothing with.

She wandered aimlessly through the town stunned and disorientated by the enormity of it all and astounded at the worth of the cottage they’d bought for two thousand pounds in 1963 had just been valued at half a million.

Hunched on her favourite bench high up on the cliff mesmerised by the crashing surf, Gloria felt a sudden pang of loss at the landscape she would be leaving behind, today an unpeopled paradise.

With shaking hands and sick anticipation, she phoned the Mullers.

“Ah you’re coming to visit our city. Fantastic,” Bernard shouted.

“It’s not a holiday; I’m selling my cottage and moving to Berlin.”

The line went silent. Maybe he’d put the phone down.

“Ah how exciting well ring us when you’re settled. Goodbye for now.”

Gloria sank into the leatherette seat of the taxi craning to see the tiny basin of the village gradually shrinking and fading from view, not sure if she felt relieved or disappointed that Marjorie hadn’t come to say goodbye.

On the plane she pored attentively over her Everyday German phrasebook only distracted by the glowing network of lights as the plane descended, feeling strangely relaxed and almost content at being shaken out of her grey stupor. The village had been saturated with memories and associations with Fred and she felt a sense of release at being out of his territory.

Patting her hair attentively, Gloria checked her luggage. She bought a hamburger from the stand by the taxi rank because she had told herself that would be the first thing she would do on her arrival in Berlin. It was an early summer night and there was an acrid tang in the air.

Clutching the hamburger in one hand and her everyday German phrasebook in the other Gloria waited in line, her bright red suitcase on wheels next to her. It was a delicious hamburger with just the right amount of onion and tomato sauce.

Intoxicated with the mass of new sights, sounds and aromas she perched on the edge of her bed in the high ceilinged room. It was an old apartment with a creaking lift shaft.

Shafts of golden sunshine danced on the wooden floorboards. Trains rattled by on the bridge opposite and streams of cars hurtled by in both directions on the hectic main road. She was mesmerised by the overwhelming, disparate city activity, showered and dressed but not quite ready to face the teeming uncertainty.

In the tantalising patisserie two doors down from the apartment, Gloria ate her breakfast: two plain croissants and a slice of orange jelly cake. The mundane blare of the TV in the corner was a reassuring anchor rooting her back in the everyday after the strangeness of the massive dislocation. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t understand what the news presenter was saying. With the smattering of words and the pictures on the screen, she got a sense of it.

She felt like calling the Müllers but decided to wait. After all, she hardly knew them. They might feel obliged to help her when they really didn’t want to.

A small straggle of tourists lingered by the Holocaust Memorial, the adults silent whilst the children obliviously carried on with their boisterous play. The stifling humidity was exhausting. Gloria felt like crying, moved both by the bleak tragic enormity of history and her own solitary predicament.

She bought three postcards and a cup of espresso coffee in a small café near the memorial but didn’t know what to write. She wasn’t on holiday and couldn’t communicate in a few anodyne scribbles her scattered impressions of Berlin – her plunges from exultation to despair.

The mediocre pastel rows of clothes in C and A were soothing in their familiarity. Gloria tried to speak to the assistant using phrases she’d memorised from her book.

It was after midnight and Gloria tossed and turned, throwing off her bedding and then tugging it back, her mind racing. Back in her room, paralysed with exhaustion, she’d decided to have an early night but felt wide wake the instant she’d lain down, her heart thumping in her chest.

Clutching a bottle of red wine, Gloria pressed the buzzer, relishing in the tranquil stillness of the tree-lined street. It was a compact, modern attractive block of flats. With bicycles chained to the railings and neat rows of recycling bins.

After the frenetic strangeness of her room the cheery domesticity of the Müllers’ apartment was soothing as was their company. If they were perplexed at her sudden decampment to Berlin they didn’t show it. On the contrary, they had a suggestion to make.

The golden stormy days of summer were a buried memory. For the fifth day in a row it was -15 and light was in scarce supply. Accustomed to the mild Cornish climate Gloria hadn’t experienced a winter like this but she was enjoying shopping for her arctic window wardrobe.

That morning someone had come to put up the Guest House Sign and Gloria was outside, marvelling at how attractive and colourful it looked when the phone rang.

The woman’s voice seemed slightly distorted or affected as she enquired about the receptionist vacancy, the fifth applicant of the day.  Her hands trembled with the shock as she strived to comprehend the elaborate steps that Marjorie must have taken to track her down. Mechanically, she scribbled her name on the list below the other four.

The hilarity of the situation slowly dawned on her and the tremor of unease at Marjorie’s intrusion into her new life was tinged with a pathetic yearning for the old conviviality.

With good natured pragmatism she decided that she would interview Marjorie along with the other four and then she’d see but it was really highly unlikely. How would Marjorie ever be able to communicate with guests from all over the world? She woke with a start before dawn cursing her own slow wittedness. Marjorie wasn’t uprooting herself from the village and moving to Berlin. She was snooping on her as usual, checking for confirmation that she  was making a success of her new life. Gloria could hardly wait to show her the proof and say a proper goodbye.


 Kate has been writing short stories for many years. She has previously had her writing published in a fanzine and more recently online. In 2013 she collaborated with the artist Morwenna Morrison for the exhibition ‘the Art Of Writing’ which was displayed in the CMR gallery Redruth Cornwall and Highams Park Library London.

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