An extract from Eluned Gramich’s new novel, Windstill, published by Honno on 20 October 2022
Lora ended up lounging on the sofa, watching a crime drama while her grandmother, Elfriede, went around the house in her dressing gown, closing the blinds and double-checking the locks.
In an effort to conceal the real use of the room (watching krimis and scrolling through teletext), Ernst had stuffed the television into a wall of books, between Ancient Egyptian tombs and Immanuel Kant’s A Critique of Pure Reason. Facing Lora was the Heimat section. The books on the lost homeland, given to her grandparents by friends and relatives over the years. These filled two shelves. A library of remorse and nostalgia. A Diary of East Prussia. Famous personages of East Prussia. Memoirs of a Königsberg Childhood. The Death of Prussia, and so on.
Lora took a few books down from the shelves to flick through, because she found it impossible to do one thing at a time anymore. A couple of musty pre-war medical textbooks belonging to her grandfather; an art companion to Otto Dix; a memoir, written by her aunt Trudi, that Lora had once heard mentioned, years ago. Lora spread the books on her lap, turning her attention back to the show periodically.
Later, Elfriede stood in front of the TV screen and announced she was going to bed.
“Will you stay here long?” she asked.
“Just watching this.”
Elfriede turned to look at the screen at the moment when a female victim was being stabbed in the groin.
“Oh dear,” she said.
“Remember to turn it off at the wall.”
Elfriede went to do her eye drops in her en-suite, before coming back and collapsing theatrically on the sofa.
“What are you watching?”
“The same programme.”
“Did the girl survive?”
She tapped her feet on the carpet, her furred slipper coming loose.
“How long does it go on for?”
“It’s almost half past ten now. What is it?”
“A detective thing.”
“Oh,” she said. A siren swept past outside. Elfriede sat up, biting her lip.
“It’s nothing, Oma,” Lora said.
On screen, two men were discussing the murdered woman. They were both dressed in the green-yellow uniform of the German police. Straight crease down the front of the trousers, the uniform hard yet somehow appealing, the silhouette achingly familiar. She liked the shirt tucked in tightly under the belt, the stern shoulders. The way the uniform created something no ordinary person could be. And there were the guns, too. She wasn’t sure about the guns; it made her think again of the policemen on the train that morning, and the guards at the judicial offices. The sight of the weapons had sent her heart racing.
The policemen gave chase. The filmmakers had shot it well: normal acts of running transformed into glamorous action on screen.
Elfriede pointed at the books on Lora’s lap.
“Opa’s medicine textbooks,” she said. Although it was only half-true.
“Remember to put them back in the right place.”
She looked down at Trudi’s memoir: a fat, awkwardly bound little book. She had no intention of putting it back on the shelf. Lora wanted to read it after Elfriede had gone to bed for the night. Her great-aunt’s memoir might reveal more about that first marriage and anything else they’d neglected to tell her. She felt wary of discussing it with Elfriede. Her grandmother seemed restless, fragile. Lora didn’t want to risk upsetting her, start her off talking about Opa’s death again, the past… It was best she went to bed and rested.
On screen, the murdered woman was being cut open for the autopsy. On her lap, a young woman in the medical textbook had been cut open for a lesson in anatomy. CHIRURGIE. The body prostrate, sinews open to the air, the throat red and white. ANATOMIE DER FRAU.
“Oh dear,” her grandmother said, blanching at the TV. “Do they have to show everything?”
Lora put the gruesome textbook to one side and turned her attention to Aunt Trudi’s book Memoirs of a Königsberg Childhood: My Path Along the Amber Coast. The print was very small, difficult to read. The whole thing was badly printed. It looked self-published. As Lora flicked through the thick text, she came across an anomaly: a folded page, shoved into the middle. She took it out, easing it open to reveal a series of black and white photographs. The photographs had been glued to a folded piece of A4 card, but the glue had long since dried, the pictures coming loose in her hands. They all showed the same dark-haired woman, who someone had clumsily cut from larger scenes. In one, the dark-haired woman was outside in a field, wearing traditional dress, about to jump from the fence she was sitting on. Her gaze was fixed on the camera. This must be the first wife, Lora thought. Ernst must have put them here. A lover’s album: ten, fifteen photographs of one woman, tenderly arranged on the page, no note to say where or when they’d been taken, as though it didn’t matter, or it didn’t need to be recorded because he knew. She could imagine her grandfather behind a camera, young then but still bespectacled, eagerly capturing that look: self-assured, even haughty. Her cascading dark hair was reminiscent of a 1920s German film actor (she would have looked the part, eyebrows plucked to a line and a mole on her cheek). Only her clothing – dirndl, bows, chequered apron – said otherwise.
“Oh?” Elfriede looked over her shoulder. She put her hand to her mouth, muttered between her fingers: “Is that one of your friends?”
Lora stared at her. Why would she have black and white photographs of her friends?
“Who’s that, then?”
“They’re Opa’s. I found them in this book.”
“He didn’t have any photographs. They were all lost after the war,” she said quickly.
“He brought the collected works of Goethe back from Königsberg. I’m sure he might have saved some pictures.”
Elfriede shook her head. “He didn’t have any photographs,” she repeated. “If you were stupid enough to go back for your possessions, they shot you. Maybe Trudi smuggled a few out. She’s shrewd. She could have done it without telling anyone.”
“Is this Agnes?”
Elfriede didn’t reply. Instead, she drummed her lips with her fingertips, staring at the photographs with something like panic. Lora was about to slip the card back – pretend nothing had happened – when she spotted something that made her hold her breath.
“Oma,” she said, holding up the picture. “Did you know about this?”
Elfriede took the creased photo from her as if to better inspect it, but instead she laid her hands over the dark-haired woman, covering her up.
“Put this back where you found it.”
“Do you see what I see?” Lora pressed.
Elfriede shook her head. “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to rummage through his things.”
“She looks pregnant.”
“I ask you to put it back… Why doesn’t she do as I ask? Why doesn’t she listen?”
“But, Oma, look at her stomach.”
“She wanders around the house, taking things out of drawers, pulling books off shelves. She thinks I don’t notice, but I do.”
“Put it back,” she snapped. “Leave his things where they are. I don’t like you moving them around without my knowledge.”
“All right.” Lora took her great-aunt’s book back to the shelf.
“Not there,” she said. “Right at the top. Turn that awful thing round so I don’t have to see it.”
“Why is it awful?”
Elfriede waved her hand dismissively before replacing her fingers on her lips. Lora did as she was told.
“I’m sorry if it upset you,” Lora said.
“Upset me? I don’t get upset.”
They returned to the krimi. Lora had no idea what was happening; the only thing she could think about was the woman. So, she thought, that was Agnes. The curve of her dress in that photograph. It could have been the angle, the lighting perhaps, or simply the wind catching the fabric, blowing it up. Something about the way she sat, though – her knees apart, back arched a little against the fence…
“I suppose you think she was his great love,” Elfriede said, suddenly.
“No,” Lora said, carefully. “I don’t.”