The opening to Naomi Wood’s third novel, The Hiding Game, published by Picador in July 2019.
So: Walter König is dead. Irmi called with the news in the middle of the night: she sounded upset, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t. ‘He was your friend, Paul,’ she said. ‘How can you feel nothing?’
I said I didn’t know.
Tricksy Walter, unlovely Walter: he was no more a friend to me than Jenö, really, who had disappeared decades ago in London. What should I care that Walter was dead? His life was no more than easy treacheries and lazy spite, and I’d washed my hands of him when I’d left Berlin for good.
I felt nothing; it was hardly a surprise.
Half of our group are gone now: Walter, from stroke; Kaspar, his plane shot down over Alexandria, and then there is Charlotte, dead in the beech forest, not five miles north of Weimar, where this story begins.
I think of Charlotte every day. Memories of her are all electricity. I can be sitting at a canvas, brush poised, ready to paint, when I am strung with a pain I do not know what to do with, even after all this time: nearly thirty years have passed since her death; forty, since we lived together in Berlin. Now she comes to me in dreams, over lunch, when I’m in the bath; I see her at the loom, strolling the Tiergarten in her men’s clothes, and finally, before the Bauhaus raid, saying she would not leave Germany.
I would rather Walter dead three times over than to have lost her, but there; that’s a dreamt-up notion. The truth is, I hold Walter accountable for her death. He could have asked Ernst Steiner to spring her from the camp; he could have talked to the right people. It was within his power. Perhaps it was even the last move in his stratagem: to let her die, in the clearing before the forest began again, where we had camped during so many summers, before we’d cycle down to the city, watching the blinking negative of the rushing forest take us back to Weimar, when all six of us were together in our first golden years at the Bauhaus.
My friends would all have different accounts of what happened to us, and I can’t deny my subjectivity. I know the story is lit now by later sorrow: my happiness glows stronger, and grief has perhaps given more depth to the harder times. Sometimes, I envy my younger self, at others, the past is a dereliction.
This is my account of what happened to us in the 1920s: a decade of resplendence and tragedy. But if I am to tell this story, then I can’t tell it . Now that Walter is dead, I will give an account of him; but I must also give an account of myself. This is my confession. A confession I haven’t yet made to anyone, and one I haven’t even really admitted to myself. For all those years I blamed Walter, there have been as many – more – when I have put aside my knowledge of what I did, and didn’t do, to save Charlotte.
A friend of mine once said that a secret is truly abject when it can never be voiced; its shame buys its silence. All this time, I have kept my silence, but here it is. There was a moment when Charlotte and I were living together in Berlin, when I, too, could have saved her. It was Walter who gave me the choice, and I looked at all the evidence, and then – methodically, carefully – I chose not to act. It was not a fleeting decision over the course of minutes or even hours. I came to my decision over two weeks.
If Walter killed her, then I killed Charlotte too.