Down by the Water by Emma Venables

Monika dips her toe in the Spree, feels the water soak through the seams of her shoes; she decides escape will be best done without her shoes on. She sits on the riverbank, hears Klaus sigh, but continues removing her brogues anyway. A bird chirps overhead. Her hands shake as she ties the laces together so they form a necklace of sorts; her shoes will still get wet but they will not weigh her down as much as they would if she left them on her feet. She stands up, takes a deep breath, and looks back. Darkness shrouds the space between where she stands and the city, her half of the city. She looks ahead, across the Spree, and finds that her destination is equally as dark.

Klaus presses his hand against the small of her back; when he eases the pressure she can feel the clammy outline of his palm on her dress. She pauses for a moment, ignores his heavy breathing, and focusses on the petrichor in the air – a scent she has loved since childhood, a scent she will, from now on, associate with the East.

‘We’ve got to go now, Monika,’ he says.

Monika nods but does not crouch, ready to slip into the water. Instead she clenches and unclenches her toes on the damp grass. They could go back — if asked they could feign a walk along the riverbank, they are young lovers after all. Then she could kiss Klaus goodnight and walk up the four flights of stairs to her parents’ apartment where she could let herself in, sit down on the settee next to her father and have a quick chat before bed. She wonders if her father suspects her intentions, whether he could possibly imagine his daughter on the riverbank ready to swim across to the West. She kept her plans to herself in the hope that when the Stasi show up on her parent’s threshold, the look of shock on their faces will be enough to quell any suspicions. Her parents are good citizens; they do their jobs well, keep their heads down and their noses clean.

‘Monika, go,’ Klaus says, palm of his hand flat against her back once more.

Monika closes her eyes, recalls when this moment became a possibility. Let’s go to the West, Klaus had whispered. No, it had been lower than a whisper. As she lay beside him in the dark she wondered if there was a word for a sound lower than a whisper, and then she wondered how he planned on getting to the West. She smiled, an expression he obviously did not see, and nuzzled closer to his chest. She could hear the thrum of his heart as he waited for her response. Not now, she replied, placing an index finger against his lips. He understood: walls have ears, windows have mouths, dusty floorboards betray hasty footprints. Her father could be heard snoring in the room next door. A television chuntered in their neighbour’s apartment. Sometimes they heard gunshots and knew they were coming from the Wall, but on that night, the first night he suggested escape, silence reigned.

‘Monika, you have to go,’ he says, pushing her gently.

She sits down on the riverbank, feels the earth beneath her buttocks. She takes a deep breath and places her feet in the water. Her skin pimples. A breeze lifts her hair from the nape of her neck in the same manner her father used to when she was a child and the summer air stifled her play. She wonders when she will see her father again, whether the grey tufts of hair about his ears will have spread. She tries not to think of the likelihood she will never see him again, reassures herself that perhaps when he retires in fifteen years, then he will be allowed to emigrate to the West. Perhaps she will bring him to the riverbank, to the spot she will soon crawl onto, and tell him of this night, of this youthful escape.

‘Go,’ Klaus says.

Monika slips into the water, stifles a gasp, and begins to swim. She keeps her movements slow, easy, as they have agreed. She does not look back. Klaus will follow. He displayed no indications of second thoughts. Monika, on the other hand, reasoned with herself all the way to their chosen escape route: she could stay, continue with her office job, have a family, but what she really wants to do is go to university, study literature, become a lecturer; options which are not available to her in the GDR. All of her university applications have been declined without explanation, but she knows why: her parents are not Party members.

The river gushes about Monika’s ears, raucous as an audience. Her shoes feel heavy around her neck; she should have left them behind, buried them, she thinks. She keeps her mouth firmly shut but water seeps between her lips. She swallows, desperate to avoid coughing. A stitch begins to gnaw at her side. She carries on. Breathe deeply and stretch out, her father used to say when she was a child. She recalls grasping for his waist in the early days of swimming, of trying to get her childhood mind around the concept of moving arms and legs in tandem and not dropping her head below the surface. When she achieved this feat for the first time, her father threw her in the air and failed to catch her, so she slapped against the water. She bawled until he handed her an ice cream on the shore. She smiles at the memory now, wonders what her father would think if he knew where she was. She does not know the time but knows he will be asleep, and this spurs her on: if she gets to the other side unhindered then his slumber will remain unbroken.

Monika arrives at the middle of the river, considers turning around to check for Klaus, considers turning around full-stop, climbing out on the Eastern side. She bites her lip, turns her head slightly, and kicks her legs with more vigour to keep herself afloat. Stopping is stupid, she knows that, but she just needs a second. She expects to hear Klaus hissing at her, expects to feel his knee against her back as they collide. Nothing.

Monika’s pulse, throbbing in her ears, blocks out any sounds around her. She turns. Klaus stands on the riverbank. She cannot make out his facial expression, but she can see his fists clenched at his sides. She wants to call out, to demand he climb into the water and swim across to her, but that would draw attention. He steps back into the shadow of a tree. She mouths his name. Her dress billows about her and she pushes it down. The ends of her hair cling to her neck. She decides she will go back. Perhaps Klaus has spotted something or someone around the river. If she can get back unseen then they can try again another night, a different way. Maybe she does not need a university education, maybe she can be happy without one.

Monika sinks lower into the water, until it just touches her nose, and prepares to propel herself forwards, towards Klaus. Her foot touches something firm, something sharp. She cries out. Spikes slice through her skin. She reaches down, tries to free herself, but when she lifts her hands from the water they are blood-stained. She screams for Klaus, her father, help. Breathe deeply, stretch out, her father says. Monika, come on. Kick. Kick. Kick. He grips her so tightly she can feel the red marks forming on her triceps. Come on, Monika. A spotlight blurs her father’s image. Monika feels the thrum of an engine. A boat. She can just about hear the harsh syllables. There. There.

When the first bullet hits her shoulder, Monika does not make a sound. Her head goes below the surface. She breathes bubbles. The metallic scent of her blood mixes with the earthy scent of the river. More bullets hit her back. One. Two. Three. Her body goes rigid with the impact. She thinks she screams, feels the rasp of her lungs. Her eyelids droop. Monika. Monika. Monika. She reaches out for her father but cannot get a grip on his waist.

Emma Venables completed her Creative Writing PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has taught Creative Writing at Royal Holloway and Liverpool Hope University. Her short fiction has previously featured in The Gull, Litro Online and The Lampeter Review. She can be found on Twitter here.

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