Berlin Ghost Story

Photo by photo-finish
Photo by photo-finish

I never expected to become a ghost but it happened to me all the same.  Up until my move to Berlin, I had never had a problem being real apart from the usual vagueness suffered by many people who have spent a lifetime lost in books and thought.

I had moved from New York to Berlin by myself, determined to focus on my studies and start a new life.  I found myself living in a two room Altbau apartment with wooden floors.  My apartment looked onto a cobbled street that had three restaurants, an antique shop, two florists and one community center for homeless old people. All day long, people walked up and down, walking dogs, carrying home shopping, strolling arm in arm.  And of course there were a lot of old people, on their way to the center, with bowed heads and hunched backs.

[private]The condition began with headaches, hot, screaming, loud, red pain in my head that lasted for hours. The pain had rich texture and subtle nuance; it was a vast world of pain. I went to the doctor’s, but not even that was easy to do for me as I spoke no German and the smallest of practical things in Berlin were challenging for me to do.  Where was the doctor’s office? Would they speak English? How did I file for my insurance? Often, after a day of trying to take care of simple tasks, I would find myself coming home and flinging myself down on my bed, unable to work or move, overwhelmed by the searing pain in my head and with the difficulties of everyday life.  I presumed the pain was caused by stress, so did the doctor.

The doctor said: “Frau Stark, they are migraines.  Perhaps you are stressed because of the move to a new country.”

I thought perhaps I was finally showing my age.  I was only 38 and had never had any sign of growing old, still presenting myself in the world as a young, single woman.  But it seemed I was not dealing with change and stress in the way that I had always been able to do up until then. I even wondered if the old age of the people on the street below was contagious, that I had come down with old age in the same way you came down with a bad cold.

Another consequence of arriving in Berlin and immediately coming down with those headaches was that I was unsociable; perhaps for the first time ever, I stayed at home and I didn’t meet anyone.  Not a soul.  I knew there were many ex-pat Americans in the city and I presumed before I arrived that I would meet many.  However, I found myself renting an apartment in a very traditional area where there were primarily stiff older Germans who had a reserve I couldn’t even imagine breaking through.  The utter shock of being out of the English speaking world and thrust into the alien Teutonic world froze my tongue and I found myself shy and incapable of talking to anyone.

Then, one day, after I had been in Berlin for about two months, and I had finally managed to open a bank account, order a coffee in German and figure out where the post office was, I woke up to find my eyes looked strange.  Nothing too serious, I thought, it must be an eye infection.  I treated it with a hot cloth of salt water, hoping that would fix it.  It didn’t.  I went to the pharmacy and they told me I had to go to the doctor’s.  I was annoyed that they wouldn’t just give me eye drops.  I went to the doctor’s.  I said to the receptionist, ‘I have an eye infection, I need some drops’.  I said the same thing to the doctor.  The doctor was quiet, examining my eyes.  He said, ‘I will give you some drops, but if there is no sign of improvement, you must come back.’ There was something serious in how he spoke that began to give me some small doubt.

That weekend, my eyes got stranger and stranger, and my headache worse.  The headache was a fact of life now it seemed.  I went back to the doctor on Monday morning.  He looked in my eyes for a few solemn moments.  He said, ‘You might have a serious problem, go and see this specialist’.  The receptionist made an appointment for me.  I was to go straight away.  ‘Don’t go and research this on the Internet,’ said the doctor, ‘just go and speak to the specialist’.

No one seemed to want to say out loud what was happening to me.

The specialist, Dr Emmelman, had a surprisingly humble office in another part of Berlin.  I had to take three U-bahn trains to get there and walk through a lot of ice and snow. The receptionist was young and pretty but very sad in her demeanour. She asked me to fill in a form and then she asked me to sit. I was surprised by the waiting room, it was so bare, there was nothing to read anywhere.  There was only one diagram on the wall which illustrated the stages of becoming a ghost by way of line drawings of the same woman, repeated in fainter and fainter ink.

The specialist himself was tall, blonde and handsome.  He shook my hand very firmly (I felt somehow that the firmness was contrived) but he didn’t speak much.  He asked me to sit on a chair and he proceeded to shine lights in each eye, then used some kind of device which puffed cool air into each. He measured my body, my height, my width.  He weighed me.  He pinched my arm, quite hard, and asked me to rate the level of pain. Then he looked into my eyes again. He was very quiet.  I could hear his breathing.  I could smell the faint odour of soap on his skin. I could hear the clock tick.

Eventually he said, ‘Ok.  Could you please take a seat over there, Frau Stark?’  He hesitated then he said, ‘There is no cure for your condition.  All we can do is try to manage it.  We may have to operate,’

He gave me five different eye drops and clear instructions, to put these drops in my eyes every three hours, even through the night.

“But what about sleep?” I said.

He shook his head sadly. He seemed so tired.  I wanted to comfort him.  In that moment, all I really cared about is making him feel better.

I said, “I’m sure it won’t be so bad,”

I knew that I was in shock.  That I was surprised this was happening to me would be an understatement.  Still, I didn’t know then what was to come.  I assumed that it would all take much longer.  I didn’t understand that it would all only be a matter of days.  I presumed it would stretch out for years, give me time to adjust.  Becoming a ghost in the end was very quick and the quickness was at least was a blessing.

I went home on the U-Bahn, clutching my bottles of eye drops and medicines.  I thought that all the people were looking at me, the women with cropped blonde hair and angular faces, the workmen drinking bottles of beer, the old ladies with shopping bags, the Turkish girls with heavy makeup and headscarves… all of them seemed to be looking at me, and somehow, just by looking at me, I thought they would see something strange about me, that they would know.

When I stopped at the Spatkauf to buy cigarettes, I avoided looking the girl behind the counter in the eye.  But strangely, I wasn’t quite sure she could actually see me; she seemed to peer at me as though I wasn’t quite there. I had to say what I wanted several times. When I left a man entered the shop and didn’t hold the door for me, as though he didn’t even see me.

I didn’t look at the Internet to try and understand further my condition.  I knew I would undoubtedly just upset myself.  Strangely, I also didn’t tell any of my friends or family back in New York.  It seemed like an impossible subject to broach.  I didn’t know anyone here in Berlin to tell.  There were my landlords, but I wondered if perhaps they would be upset and not want to keep renting to me, if they would be afraid I could no longer pay my rent.  My studies would have to come to a halt. When I tried to read, the words started moving around and blurring on the page as they do sometimes when you try and read in dreams.

I did call my insurance company, although it took me awhile to dial the number, I couldn’t seem to remember more than one digit at a time. Finally, I got through. I explained to them the nature of my condition and all I knew so far.  They put me on hold for a long time.  I was transferred twice.  Finally, I spoke to a long-term care consultant.  “Do not fear, Frau Stark,” said a compassionate, wavering voice.  “Whatever happens next, Plenitude Insurance is behind you.  All you must do is connect us with the specialist, we will take care of all things from there,’ I managed to tell them the name of Dr. Emmelman, and the address of his office. The consultant thanked me, her voice still wavering, and put the phone down with a soft click.

I stared for a long time at the phone, wondering if I would ever use a phone again, if I would even be able to remember what it was for.

On Monday, I went back to see the specialist.  The U-bahn was full of people in their winter clothes.  I stopped for a koffee mit milch on my way from the station but the girl behind the counter couldn’t seem to hear me when I spoke. Finally, I pointed to what I wanted on the menu.  I sat at a table and drank;  the burning of hot liquid on my tongue was a welcome distraction from the pain in my head.  By the time I got to the office, my head was hurting so much I was ready to gouge out my own eyes.

Dr Emmelman looked long and deep into my eyes.  I felt that I was in love with him, but where the feeling and the thought had come from I didn’t know.  ‘We must operate,’ he said, ‘But it may well already be too late.’

Early the next day, I arrived at the hospital, unfed and un-watered, as I’d been instructed. A nurse asked me to change into a white gown that opened at the back. I slipped into a clean white bed and I was grateful for the induced sleep from the anaesthesia.

When I woke up, the headache was gone.   “That is a good sign,” said Dr Emmelman.

Days went by with no more headaches.  It was such a relief.  Then one morning I woke up, they had brought my breakfast and the strangeness had gone from one eye. Perhaps the operation had been a success and all would now be well.  I sat up and ate, boiled lax, scrambled eggs, black grapes.  Dr Emmelman came and tested me.  Yes, one eye at least seemed normal again. He pinched me on my arm and asked me to rate the level of pain and seemed pleased with my answer. They might even be able to send me home.

But the next day, suddenly, the pain and the strangeness in both my eyes were back, stronger than ever. Dr Emmelman and a whole team of nurses pinched me harder and harder, all over my body, but I couldn’t feel even a thing.

At last, after hours of pinching me, Dr Emmelman said, “There is no hope for recovery.  But we must still operate one last time and completely severe you from reality.  The pain will always come back otherwise.”

He seemed so sad that there was no more hope for me.  But I only wanted the pain to stop.

“Stop the pain,” I said, “And I will be happy.”

I suppose I’d known all along there would be no hope.   Besides which, pain and reality had become one, so to remove one I understood we had no choice but to remove the other.

When I try and understand my feelings looking back, I draw a blank, as though life before becoming a ghost and afterwards were two entirely separate worlds.  I became a whole new person, with barely a thread joining the me of then and the me of now.  This is the only way I can

find to explain my lack of empathy for the woman I was then. Things just kept slipping and sliding away and the old world of forms and light was among them. I did my best to grasp that world, as I did my best to grasp everything from the past.  But in the end, it all fell away and out of reach.

The last thing I ever saw of that world was Dr Emmelman’s face.  It will remain the last thread between the me of now and the me of then.  The light in his eyes as he looked into mine, the communication we shared, the unspoken knowledge of each other; it was sublimely intimate.

Now it seems impossible to me that we took the reality of each other so much for granted.[/private]

Pippa Anais Gaubert

About Pippa Anais Gaubert

Pippa Anais Gaubert is a fiction writer and artist based in Berlin. She was born in Austin, Texas but grew up in West Cornwall, UK and has since lived in several other countries. She writes about transcendence, the fragmentation of reality and the point where pain and beauty collide. Her stories have been published in several print journals and anthologies and she is also a contributor for NPR. She is currently working on a novel.

Pippa Anais Gaubert is a fiction writer and artist based in Berlin. She was born in Austin, Texas but grew up in West Cornwall, UK and has since lived in several other countries. She writes about transcendence, the fragmentation of reality and the point where pain and beauty collide. Her stories have been published in several print journals and anthologies and she is also a contributor for NPR. She is currently working on a novel.


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