Gun Girl In The Tower
by Zulfikar Abbany
I've been crossing the deutsch English divide my entire conscious life. Back and forth I go with such regularity that I often have no idea which way I'm going or why. Sometimes I stay put and side with the opposition (whoever that may be on the day), and sometimes I'll raise my own right arm in mock spasm – it's simply more fun being called a Nazi when you are leading the way: as the Führer, so to speak. But mostly I move from side to side because I have to – to survive. Make no mistake: the deutsch English divide can be treacherous terrain. And it was no more apparent than at the London newspaper where I once worked.
Edgar was invariably the last to arrive. It always seemed more a tactic of his than a matter of the tube running late. It was like an assumption of power. He was a lanky man with grey curly hair, whose gait had him kicking his way into the office rather than walking.
'Hello all. Any rain?' he enquired one morning in a tired, seen it all, London-cum-Oxford drawl. What he really meant by 'any rain' was to ask whether any big names had died over night. Big, big names, like a Royal, the PM, or one of the Bond alumni.
'No, not much, Ed,' said Fi, Edgar's deputy.
Fi (as in Fiona) did her best to make sure he started the day without any big, big surprises.
Fi was quiet and good natured, though it has to be said a little posh.
Edgar took his seat, let out a sigh, jabbed the power switch on the computer keyboard in front of him and watched the screen as the aged CPU booted up.
'Tea, anyone?' asked Fi.
Fi's deputy looked up, knowing it was her turn to get them in. I think her name was Zara.
She was Birkenstocked of foot.
'I'll get them,' I said.
Zara and Fi looked to where I was sitting, but they couldn't see me. Edgar's head and numerous stacks of manila folders created a wall between us.
'Are you sure? It's a bit much for a worky,' offered Zara in consideration, but not financial assistance.
'Yeah, it's no problem,' I said. 'What's it again?'
Fi took over.
'Well, it's a builders with the bag in for Zara. I like a builders, no sugar, bag out. And Ed,' she paused to make sure I was listening, 'Ed likes the bag straight out and a drop of milk.' Then quieter, 'Literally.'
'Just yank the bag right out,' added Edgar without taking his eyes off his computer, which was coming to life like a heavy smoker spluttering morning phlegm.
Fi eyed me before I turned towards the lifts. Don't mess up, she seemed to be saying.
Edgar's computer must have finished booting up a second later because as I reached the glass doors of the office, on my way out to the lifts, I heard him moan.
'Oh, it never rains,' he initialled the cliché. 'First Franjo Tudjman goes – and now Heller! And in the run up to Christmas too.'
Fi looked guilty. She knew this was what Edgar had mean by any rain. In their little way, Tudjman and the author were big, big deaths. I turned back to witness Fi flash a look of 'I though I told you to check the wires?' at Zara. Because this was how things worked: before Edgar arrived each morning, Fi would spend half an hour or so fixing up manuscripts that had been filed in the body of an email. She would copy and paste the raw text into a Word document and reformat the lines, a laborious task of setting the cursor, hitting backspace, setting the cursor again and hitting backspace until all the gaps in the text were gone. While Fi did this it was Zara's job to check the wires to see who had died over night – people of a certain profile, that is – and make a note of them for a possible obituary. I have no idea why Fi couldn't check for deaths herself, or why it wasn't more appropriate for Zara to reformat the texts. Perhaps it helped Fi relax of a morning if she first performed tasks of mind blowing simplicity. Perhaps she liked to delegate. But how would I know? She wouldn't even trust me with the tea (I suspect she thought Germans don't drink it). Zara's actual job was to compile the paper's listings – lectures, marriages, legal notices, the usual gazette thing. You would think that checking the wires was not, as a rule, beyond her capabilities. I, on the other hand, spent the mornings gluing the last day's obituaries into a scrapbook.
When I returned from the canteen, Edgar was on the phone to the picture desk. His grey, curly hair, looking like the tungsten filament of an incandescent light bulb, was ready to glow.
'Oh, thanks ever so much Gebhard. Here's a pound. You know, you really shouldn't be buying us tea all the time – as a worky, I mean.'
'No, it's all right, really,' I replied.
Zara dipped her sticky fingers into the desk's tea kitty and handed me a coin regardless. She liked to put me in my place. Fi pretended not to notice.
Then I put the last polystyrene cup in the only space I could on Edgar's desk, intoning, 'Here you go, Ed.'
Fi swivelled around to me on her chair, once more eyeing me with a message instead of using words. This time she seemed to be saying, Shuuush! Edgar continued to stare at his computer screen and gave nothing away, his face a poker masterpiece.
I stepped back to my place, the place I liked to call mine. As a worky I had no place, officially. But for two months I had purposely arrived at the office ahead of everyone else, especially the other interns, to secure my place. That place was a tiny space between the gazette and books desks.
Soon after starting my work experience at the newspaper someone had told me that if I just hung around long enough, I would get a job. I was skeptical. I had tried that at university but it didn't help me to get a degree. Still that is what I did at the paper, for a time. I hung around. And when I wasn't hanging around I would archive obituaries, sometimes even organise a charity book sale for the books desk or unpack the hundreds of review copies that arrived by post each day. Once in a while I would help Zara select lectures for the gazette while she fretted over how to get her new sofa into her flat, or which train to take down to her parents' at Black Heath for Christmas. It wasn't much but it was my place.
'This really is the most important death we've had in a while. We need a picture today, in an hour at the latest, now even.'
Edgar was still on the phone to the picture desk. It's a common rule that most obituaries are written in advance. Well, those of 'important people' anyway. So as a rule a picture is all that is needed to top things off.
'Heller. H-E-L-L-E-R,' said Edgar in a tone, which, though not relaxed, was by no means terse or aggressive. 'There's got to be something …Yes, I know he was old. That's partly why he died. Try calling his publisher, and then will you please come and see us over here. I'd rather we discussed this face to face.'
Edgar, forever the traditionalist, detested using the phone unless the person he wished to speak to was at least on another floor of the building. Fi turned in her seat again. She could tell which of the picture editors Edgar had been talking to and wondered whether it had been a good idea to invite her over.
'Are you sure?' There was a trace of sarcasm.
'Not at all,' replied Ed.
Ingrid Kroll, the picture editor, had a reputation. She was a 52 year old German who, during the 1970s, had been known as 'Miss Terror'. Having only recently started at the paper, another paper - a local, free sheet - had exposed her as a one-time member of what it dubbed 'the extreme left Baader-Meinhof gang'. (While she was with the gang, Kroll took pictures, which were later published as a photo documentary.) The headline read: 'Baader-Meinhof gun girl working in the tower'.
The Baader-Meinhof gang, the paper reminded its readers in that typically vague yet sharply tabloid style, had been 'responsible for a number of bombings, kidnappings and murders in the 1970s'. The article's author did not refer to any motive the gang may have had, but Kroll later explained in a broadsheet feature that the Red Army Faction, as the group had called itself, was the vocalisation of a furious German youth, angered by the previous generation's unquestioning support for Hitler. 'It took up a concept and followed it through in a very German-determined way,' Kroll had written.
A picture in the 'gun girl' article showed her standing at a bus stop holding an umbrella. It was the image of 'the artist as a normal person'. Kroll saw herself as an artist and as a normal person. Colleagues preferred: 'easy to get along with' and 'strong minded'.
'You know what she can be like!' chuckled Fi.
Edgar raised the corners of his mouth. He continued to stare at his computer monitor.
'Quiet now. Here she comes,' he said.
'Now this author,' began Kroll with a burst, as though falling into the house with the front door.
'Yes,' interrupted Edgar, 'he wrote Catch-22. The one about the WAR.'
Fi and Zara struggled to contain their laughter.
Kroll understood. It was the usual line. She seemed to remain calm, reassuring herself no doubt that Edgar and his girls were ignorant and had missed the point of the RAF. But her eyes blazed with what I read as a muted onslaught of Du faschistisches Arschloch.
'I've found two pics but this is the one we'll use,' she said.
Edgar stalled. He scanned the image Kroll had presented him with and Fi stopped typing, her fingers suspended in flight.
'Can't we at least have a look at the other one … to compare.'
'I can't see why you'd want to bother. I am telling you this is the best. I have a feeling for these things … '
'And guns,' muttered Zara, hoping the comment was way under her breath.
Edgar struggled to move forward, but he had to try, and in the politest of tones insisted: 'Please.'
This visibly irritated Kroll. She shuffled a few sheaths of paper, among them printouts of many different shots and lists of others she had yet to find that day. She thrust an arm forward with one hand waving the Heller cast-off somewhere between Edgar's face and his monitor.
They were silent, but the situation had attracted the attention of other people.
Kingsley, the literary editor, nudged his assistant, Kim. It was highly inconsistent of him. Usually bent forward and with his neck outstretched, Kingsley's nose was perpetually stuck to the screen of his computer from the moment he started work to the moment he left at night. He probably needed glasses. I heard him ask Kim to observe carefully the scene unfolding between Edgar and Kroll so she could fill him in later.
For five minutes, Edgar did not move. He held both pictures in front of his eyes. His eyeballs may have flicked from left to right, or right to left, but that would have been the extent of it. As far as I could tell the two pictures were very similar. That is, looking as I was out of the corner of one eye, upside down, and from an angle.
'Um,' he said. Then, before proceeding, took a deep breath and a sip of tea. 'Leave these two with me? Thanks.'
Kroll turned on the spot, almost clicking her heels, and left.
'Did you see that?' Zara asked, incredulously. 'The cheek.'
Neither Fi nor Edgar responded. I'm not sure they even heard Zara's remark. I only did because I was swooping around her desk, trying to find a new tube of glue.
'Well?' asked Fi. 'What are you going to do? The second one's clearly better. She hasn't a clue. And you certainly don't have the time to spend the rest of the day pretending to consider either of them. You'll have to tell her.' It was the most assertive tone she could muster. 'Now, Ed. We can't afford to wait until a quarter to three like the last time.'
Features were put to bed at three – that is when they had to be ready for the printers.
'Do you want to do it?'
'Edgar,' she said consolingly. 'You know I'd love to. Really. But don't you think it would be better coming from you?'
Edgar took another sip of tea. It must have been very cold by now.
He continued to stare at the images, shuffling them from hand to hand as though they might somehow improve with each movement.
Then the phone rang.
Before answering, Edgar positioned the picture he was holding in his right hand behind the one in his left, so that the two stacked like playing cards. He then moved his right hand towards the receiver, keeping his eyes on the images. His hand hovered over the receiver for a moment longer before he picked it up.
The person at the other end said something to which Edgar replied with a solitary 'Um'. And then, 'Jaaah, … um.'
For a man of words, Edgar got by with remarkably few.
'Now you know I don't like accepting changes or additions over the telephone once a piece has come in .... But if it's short, go on.'
Edgar put the pictures down, called up the article on his screen and began to insert the correction or addition, which ever it was, and replaced the receiver without saying goodbye.
Saving the document, he turned to Fi.
'That was Hugo, about the Rex Gildo. Could you put it on the page? It really must run tomorrow. The man's been dead almost three weeks and his obit's starting to look as dusty as Quentin Crisp's New York apartment.'
Crisp had himself died the month before and was still in the frontal lobe of every obituary writer who had missed out on drafting the man's last words.
I detected a note of irritation, hidden as it was by Edgar's strict adherence to the scriptures of Debrett. But it wasn't really the Gildo obit that was eating at him. Gildo had been a German Schlagersänger, a crooner, whom few people knew, and those who did had probably only stumbled upon him through the misfortune of having visited the shabby Rheinbow Club back when London swung. His obituary could have held for another month, according to Edgar's well considered standards.
Fi nodded, she would put Gildo on the page. But I could tell she, like Edgar, was far more concerned with Kroll.
Edgar dropped his unfinished tea into a bin and dialled a number. No words were spoken, there was probably no answer. He got up and announced in a low voice: 'Right, I'm off to bully the gun girl.'
The gun girl had had her chance to set the record straight. Five days after her tabloid exposé, she had written a 2,000 word feature in our rag on the trauma of having been spotted and branded a terrorist at a time when her sole crime was waiting for a bus in the rain.
Kroll had found it hard to live down the past, she wrote, but she was reluctant to hide what she had done in any way. This put her in an awkward position. Her life in England reeked of contradiction. She had come from a country with a history that needed dealing with, a country which she, while with the RAF, had wished would face up to what it had done and become. In England, Kroll was herself forced to deal with a personal history, one which she had long claimed to have filed away.
She reminded me of Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr's 1930's Berlin detective, who in March Violets says it's Germany's 'obsession with its history that has partly put us where we are now: in the shit. You can't go into a bar without some arsehole going on about our pre-1918 borders, or harking back to Bismark and when we kicked the stuffing out of the French. These are old sores, and to my mind it doesn't do any good to keep picking at them.' It was a different time and a different story, but dealing with 20th century German history seems always to have been a double edged sword.
I'm not entirely sure Bernie's right. It can be good to reevaluate your understanding of the past. I'm not talking revisionism. What I'm saying is that reevaluating the past can help you understand how you might have been or gone wrong. Reminding ourselves of the horrors of the past can remind us what we as humans are capable of. Rather than demonising figures such as Hitler, or groups such as his regime or the generations of people who supported them, we should remember that they were not demons but human, and because we are human too we can easily repeat the horrors they committed. The Baader-Meinhof gang made this mistake. They demonised the generation before them and forgot they were part of a continuum.
At the height of their activities, one Baader-Meinhof member had described her motives as a reaction to the caviar capitalism of 1970s Germany. Then twenty years later – the same amount of time between the end of the war and the birth of the RAF – defining members such as Horst Mahler had become quite conservative themselves. Kroll was among them. Just four years after the RAF officially disbanded in 1998, Kroll joined a growing public call for Germany to produce its own Margaret Thatcher (or someone who would presumably sort out the unions).
Significantly, as a former member of the anti capitalist Baader-Meinhof, Kroll seemed to have little objection to profiting from her past. For a while she sold photos she had taken during her time with the gang and spoke at film retrospectives. Business must have been slow for her to have to work at the paper.
It was half an hour later and Edgar was still gone.
With all the commotion that morning I had barely managed to work through the obituaries from Saturday and Monday (I had to cut them out individually, give them neat titles and a date - it was a tricky, painstaking job) and it was coming up to my lunch break. But I couldn't leave just then. I looked around, distracted for more interesting work. From where I was sitting I could make out the picture desk. There, Edgar and Kroll were hard at it. The scene looked like an act of role-reversal. Edgar was the one now standing and Kroll sat motionless with her eyes fixed on a monitor. The rest of the picture editors refused to be subtle - they stopped work to watch.
I was unable to make out what they were saying though and was distracted once more when my stomach began to make noises. I got up to replace the scrapbook I was working on and made myself ready for a bite. As I turned to return to my seat, I saw Edgar and Kroll walk back towards our desk.
To understand what happened next, you'll have to picture the shape of the office. It was like a capital E but with no central arm and part of its spine hollowed out. The picture desk was situated close to the furthest right-hand point of the top arm. The glass doors that took you to the lifts, and down to the basement shopping area of the building or up to the canteen, were where the central arm would have been. And the gazette was closest to where the top arm met the spine of our imagined E.
When Edgar and Kroll came back along the top arm, I thought they were heading for the editor's office (at the farthest left hand point). But instead they parted ways and Kroll took a sharp left towards the lifts. Without a second to lose, I grabbed my bag, which carried a packed lunch, and went after her.
I was somewhat faster on my feet then than I am now, so catching the lift with Kroll onboard was not the problem. The problem was the lift was full. In some unspoken awkward way I had to convinced the rest of the passengers of the importance of my travelling with them. Some actively attempted to reject me like an unwanted kidney. Others tutted or furiously jabbed the button to close the doors. And Kroll eyed me with a scent of suspicion. We had never had any contact, and technically I had little to do with Edgar or Fi, but she had seen me around. I could tell she felt stalked. The old paranoia must have flooded back.
The RAF's founding members, Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, were but a few steps from the grave when I was born in 1974. They had been arrested by then, and soon after were either killed or committed suicide in prison. Ingrid Kroll had left the group before things got really ugly. But I felt she had been active and influential during a time to which I belong, but of which I have no personal recollection. Kroll's presence at the paper occurred to me as if I had received as a birthday present a back issue of a journal or newspaper published on the very day of my birth. I suppose I wanted to read her. To learn more about myself.
We spilled out of the lift and walked side by side until she broke free from the pack. I called out to her and to my surprise she stopped. Maybe it was because I pronounced her name in German.
'What do you want? Did Edgar send you?' she said as if firing off the words automatically.
'No,' I replied.
'Then let me go. I want to eat. Is that okay?!'
'Ja, klar, ist in Ordnung. Du willst deine Ruhe,' I said, letting her know I understood. But still I hoped to establish some kind of common ground, a connection, by speaking German. I stepped closer.
'I just wondered whether we could have lunch together. That's all.'
'Why? D'you think the gun girl's sexy?'
'No! ... I mean, yes, or what ever you prefer!'
She curled her lips at that and revealed her greying teeth. I took this as my way in. I explained all that stuff about the birthday present and told her again that I just wanted to chat. But she remained combative.
'So you can write a lifestyle feature for the Saturday mag? Sort of, how-to-make-sure-your-lipstick-doesn't-smudge-when-you're-on-the-run kind of thing? Well, I'm not that kind of girl, and I'm over all that anyway.'
'Yes, I know.'
'So then why don't you get over it too?'
'Yes, but … I don't want to talk about that. Not exactly.' Kroll's suspicion was not about to subside. 'Can I join you for lunch?'
She did not agree, but when I started to walk she walked with me. We left Canada Square, that indoor, reddish brown zone at Canary Wharf, where people gather not to meet and talk but to be sent up 20-odd levels to their working lives, and stopped at Cranks on the ground floor across from the escalators to the Docklands Light Railway.
Silently, we stood in line. I felt small talk was off the agenda - that much I knew about German conversation. So I looked at her instead.
Kroll had hard features. I suppose you might expect it. But I don't mean that in a stereotypical way. She simply had hard features. Other than that she had few distinguishing marks. She wore ordinary jeans, a sweatshirt and red waterproof jacket, black sensible shoes, and carried an umbrella tightly, for security maybe.
I knew it would be difficult talking to Kroll, to get anything out of her, whether it was a view on something or simply the time. But I did not find her intimidating. That old line about Germans being harsh, angry souls dies at the starting blocks in my book. They are anything but. You just have to know how to handle them.
'My mother is German,' I started as we sat down on stools. 'I've spent a lot of time in Germany. To tell the truth, I've only just got back after seven years in Cologne. I grew up here. It's been three months.'
She listened without looking at me and was probably wondering where this was leading.
'You know, it's funny – and I know I said I didn't want to talk about the past – but the first few times I saw RAF graffiti scrawled on walls in Germany I couldn't for the life of me work out why the Royal Air Force was spray-painting German towns!'
Her lips cracked into another slight smile.
'How long have you been here? I mean in London?'
'Not long. Few months more than you.'
'But you were here before – before, um, the extradition.'
I had almost blown it.
' ... England has been very good to me,' she said through those greying teeth, 'I have lots of friends here.'
She took a bite of her sandwich as though its grains were gravel.
'But that's all I'm saying about that.'
'Sorry … ,' I pleaded. She remained seated but behind her eyes I could tell she was gone.
'All that gun girl business – that's rubbish. It's just ... what I really wanted to know was why you didn't go to the east, like the others.'
Her eyes drifted. Someone on an escalator had drawn her attention.
'Why do you want to know?'
'No reason,' I lied, then changed the subject. 'You came here especially for the job then?'
'You could say that.' She looked around, anxiously. 'Actually, I have two jobs. One's at the paper and the other is dealing with people like you – but I regret I did not come especially for either.'
'Sorry,' I repeated. I can be very English.
'Okay,' she said. 'And now I must get back to put your dear Heller to bed.'
Kroll ditched the rest of her wholemeal sandwich. She got up and grabbed her umbrella, clutching it tightly as she walked back to Canada Square.
When the moment had passed I moved to a bench opposite Cranks to eat my packed lunch.
Hardly anyone ever sat down at Canary Wharf. People seemed to hover at speed, with a direction and force that was alien to me on the mainland. There was an undeniable sense of urgency as mundanity sucked high-powered office workers through the building. Their compressed lives blipped in front of my eyes like viral zeros and ones. To me their existence was back to front. They were on an endless cycle, compelled to drink their gas bills or find wrapping paper for lattés, to pay their overdue mothers and drink a bundle of useless Christmas presents.
That dreaded season was upon us. I had a few presents to get myself, although I would not be drinking them.
Once I had finished my lunch, I popped into a bookshop chain to browse the shelves. I found it hard to concentrate. I kept thinking about Kroll and a nasty sense of guilt. Couldn't I have left her alone? My questions seemed to have hit the gun girl's temple - I'd touched a nerve. I decided to get back to the office and apologise.
But when I got upstairs, Kroll was gone. I asked the head picture editor, her assistants and the freelances, and no one had seen her. Not since she had left for lunch.© Zulfikar Abbany 2009. All rights reserved.