New Times

by Zulfikar Abbany


The new German chancellor stood in the toilets of Bonn's Haus der Geschichte, viewing herself in the mirror. She considered the campaign that had got her elected, and the time before work moved to Berlin: her first weeks in the former German capital, her first in West German politics.

Back then, when her fraudulent boss took her out in the evenings, she remembered there was always an old woman who kept watch over the toilets, checking to see who went in, who came out, what they did while they stayed, and making sure they paid to spend a penny because she was the one who would have to clear away the mess.

Now, over a decade into Germany's combined trajectory, that old woman and her little dish of coins had disappeared. Gone, like bus conductors and Ersatz-Kaffee.

'These are new times now,' said the chancellor, as if to warn her reflection. New times. And these times were hers.

And because it was her time, she liked to keep people waiting until it was their time. That even went for her head press secretary.

He was outside, feeling the strain from having to wait for his mistress, the chancellor, and as a result was running out of pen nibs to blunt.

The press secretary was a man known only by his surname, Kovski.

The chancellor had been in the toilets for a good fifteen minutes. She was overdue for what would become a defining questions-and-answers session. The assorted media, gathered at the museum, were ready to revolt.

'What to do? What to do?' said the press secretary in a nervous whisper, but just loud enough for one of the journalists in the front row to hear.

'I bet that's exactly what our new model Thatcher's asking herself,' said Karl Pohlig in his trademark uncalled for manner. 'But go on Kovski, give her a call, get your orders. The boss'll tell you what to do, won't she? Even if she hasn't a clue herself!'

Pohlig turned to his colleagues for laughs and began singing a round of 'We're in the army now, oh, oh, oh, we're in Anke's Army now!'

'Oh, very drole,' snapped Kovski. 'But remember this, Karl, and you can pass on the message to your comrades. Once Anke gets going that comfy little job of yours at Radio Dead Air won't be worth... ,' distracted, Kovski stopped himself and checked the time.

'Won't be worth what?!' demanded Karl, but Kovski ignored him.

The chancellor had been in the toilets for over twenty minutes now. Only five since the last time Kovski looked, but every second longer was like a cheese grater against the soles of his feet. What could she be doing? Was she constipated? On drugs? Sick? With stage fright? Surely not, thought Kovski, she'd done this sort of thing before.

Whatever it was, he had to find out. He turned his back on the journalists, and dialed the chancellor's number.

In the stalls, a familiar ring tone echoed, bouncing off the marble and glass.

The chancellor checked the caller ID and groaned before answering.

'Yes?' she said.

'Chancellor.'

Kovski paused.

He wondered whether this would be a good moment to test his 'new tact': respectful yet firm, rather than his usual, plain respect. Yes. It was as good a time as any, he assured himself.

'Chancellor?'

'Yes?'

'Are you… coming?' he asked.

'Am I coming? Of course I'm coming. I'm here, aren't I?'

'Yes, chancellor. Thank you chancellor. Yes, you are here. But, with all respect, chancellor, you are in there – when you should be out here.'

Coming along fine, thought Kovski. But he had always been too quick to judge, and that's not the best quality in a press officer.

'Ah,' said the chancellor. 'I see the problem.'

'That's a relief,' said Kovski.

'What was that?'

'Um, nothing… So are you coming?'

'Not that again, Kovski, really?!'

Time to pull back the troops, regroup, thought Kovski.

'I'm sorry, chancellor, it's just we've… ,' he paused again to clench his stomach muscles, '… chancellor, we've got every political editor this country has thrown up in the past 40 years... out here... plus feature writers, even a bunch of teenagers from the local school rag... all eager to ask you one or two pertinent questions. Some you might even like. And, you know, you're such a good talker.'

He stopped. The idea of massaging the chancellor's ego, or any of her, while she was so indisposed left him feeling queasy.

The chancellor was silent.

She knew her greatest strength was making people wait. She had been made to wait long enough herself and it was her turn now to make others wait.

She mulled over the situation and, in particular, the questions to which Kovski had so casually referred.

Essentially, it was just the one question.

Her predecessor had faced the same question once. He answered with an off-the-cuff remark and with that, won his second term in office - that, and the small issue of a very big flood. Then, when it came to the following election, he faced a similar question, flattered himself with the same off-the-cuff remark, but this time lost.

The new chancellor was determined to avoid the old one's mistakes. And she had been doing fine so far - for a start, she hated cigars.

So what did the people want to know?

Well, it was not whether the chancellor found it difficult being a mother to both her children and the country. Neither was it whether she approved of the Haus der Geschichte and its new show, nor whether she regretted the money spent on building what would have been a modern chancellery down the road in the 1990s (had her predecessor not decided to move parliament to Berlin instead. No, it wasn't that.

The chancellor and her press secretary knew exactly what the country wanted to hear, knew what the first question would be when she finally stepped out of the toilets and walked towards the awaiting media. The House of German History would be the perfect setting... for the wrong answer.

For a moment there, Kovski believed he could hear the chancellor's thoughts over the crackly mobile line. He waited some more (who could tell what she would do if he interrupted anything important).

But silence was all there was.

'Chancellor, are you there? I said, We've got every single editor out here... radio and TV too… we had to wallpaper the place to make up the last five rows... you know, OAPs and handicaps... but that could be good... a friendly photo here and there... unless the do you like Blair and slow clap you of course... chancellor?'

It was like a dead line, but not quite.

Kovski thought he could hear something, so he continued, gaining a feverish momentum until he reached a verbal terminal velocity. He did his best to enjoy the ride for a moment, and then just lost it.

'Chancellor,' he stressed, '... the reporters are getting restless. I think I can hear a slow clap already... oh mein Gott... maybe next time we should ban everything but Mexican waves...? Yes, waves verboten, that's it!'

Then he lost his nerve. He had to get her attention. Somehow.

'It's not looking good, Chancellor?! Are you all right? Can you hear me?'

Frankly, she couldn't have hadn't heard a word.

While Kovski rambled on desperately, the chancellor balanced her handset on a spare roll of toilet paper to free her hands and straighten her clothes. When she was ready, she hit the flush and exited the stall, forgetting her phone and leaving it to fend for itself.

Kovski heard the flush and wisely took it as the chancellor's reply.

The chancellor washed her hands with cold water and she laughed at the sight of an anti-bacteria soap dispenser. Stuff like anti-bac soap had had no place in the east. When she was there, growing up, no one would have known what to do with it. Even after the Wall had fallen, products such as Echt Sauber, a market leader in the west for household disinfectant, failed in the east. During the forty years of the DDR, East Germans had learnt to live with dirt. The grit made them stronger - so her advisors had told her. And it was this thought that lent the chancellor new resolve.

'Yep, these are new times all right' she smiled to herself, 'and I'm the mummy now!'

She brushed herself down a final time and blessed the fact she was wearing trousers.

Her thoughts turned again. She remembered her poor press secretary and imagined his weeping somewhere in a corner outside. Gently, she prized opened the door of the toilets to peek at the waiting crowd.

And then with the door firmly closed again, she activated the hands dryer, walked over to the window, opened it wide, and climbed out.

© Zulfikar Abbany 2009. All rights reserved.