"How do I look?"
Old, of course. I had studied Dad earlier, seen the bush of grey hair growing out of his supposedly shaven chin, the patches of stubble on his throat which had been missed by the razor. There was a light sprinkling of dandruff on the shoulder of his dark military blazer, like powdered sugar or poppy-seed cake.
"Fine, just fine."
I didnt turn round and continued staring out of the window of the Hotel Excelsior at the Cathedral. The sky, typical for a Rhineland summer, resembled damp brown gabardine. The smell, coming through the crack of the unwashed five-star, €240 a night window, was of wet dog. It had been raining for exactly 11 days. Cologne was at its most beautiful; a widow in grey.
I was still a bit shocked by Dads physical presence. Despite all the hints, despite the phone calls and the letter, I had not really expected him to come. He had seemed so depressed, so incapable of action.
I could not imagine him setting out on the long trek to Stansted airport, standing in the noisy queue for Prolet-airlines and making his way past German pass-control without provoking some kind of international incident. But I had underestimated him.
When I met him in Cologne, he was predictably frail. Somehow though he had charmed the flight attendants I am old enough to remember when they were called stewardesses and at least a dozen passengers seemed to be on first name terms.
The malign influence of Tom was already obvious. Tom had persuaded the airline to supply them both with wheelchairs to speed their way to the luggage pick-up. Tom admittedly had one leg missing but that hadnt stopped him walking a kilometer to the pub everyday or indeed having a number of affairs. As for my father, he had always been a walker, taking time off from my mother and domestic routine, to walk across the Yorkshire Dales. Now, I could see, his leg muscles were beginning to melt.
Dad was still staring at the body length mirror. The army feminises men: no one looks at his reflection as many times a day as a soldier. They adjust the creases of their trousers, cock the angle of their hat. They are as hungry for admiration as a catwalk mannequin. Difficult to imagine them going off later to kill someone. And especially difficult to picture your father killing others. I looked at the sky again: Would the boat trip be cancelled?
"Last time we had contact with Cologne, it was at 18,000 feet," said my father. The city was just zone one, zone two, zone three in those days. This would have been zone one, because of the railway station. Isnt that right Tom?"
Tom had been the rear gunner in the Lancaster piloted by my father. He was, if anything, even more vain than Dad. Sitting on the edge of the hotel bed he was twirling the ends of his waxed ginger moustache. I know that he pretended to the barmaid of his local pub in Deal that he had been an officer, a daring pilot. The moustache was part of the pretence: It was an officers growth, made to point upwards like the handlebars of a mountain bike. Only gay men wax their moustaches nowadays, I had once told him, and he had glared at me as if I had been in the sight of his Browning machine gun.
Tom rose, with difficulty, his arms spread out like wings and made engine noises vroom, vroom through his false teeth. He was, as ever, profoundly embarrassing.
"Maybe you shouldnt over-do the bomber imitation this afternoon," I said.
"You are supposed to be on a reconciliation mission, remember? And you bombed this place flat. I dont think people will laugh too hysterically."
"You leave Tom alone," said my father sharply, as if I were a cheeky 11 year old. "We did what we had to do, and they did what they had to do."
"Aye, only they had camps and stuff," chipped in Tom.
"Well, you did all right out of your camp, as I recall."
Both men had been captured when they were shot down over Aachen and had spent the next 60 years telling stories about their adventures, the good guards, the bad guards. As I grew older and started to watch "Hogans Heroes," I realized that some of the stories had been borrowed from television. Toms leg, supposedly lost when his plane was shot down, was actually amputated in 1957 after an unlucky and very alcoholized exit from a moving taxi. Those were the days before doors were childproof. Even so their war, compared to the Germans they had bombed, had not been so bad: The prison camp was more comfortable than their boarding school, their food was better than Royal Air Force rations, they caught up with their sleep and they were spared from their demanding girlfriends at home whom they later went on to marry and impregnate. War, for them, was a second boyhood.
I walked over to my father and brushed some of the snow from his shoulders.
"Youre wearing your bomber command tie again," I noted, "you know youre not entitled to do that."
"Shut up," he hissed. "Why dont you wait downstairs."
I was happy to be alone for a while. The need to find a suitable bride was taking its emotional toll. Rarely had I felt so tired. In theory at least I should have been bursting with energy. Following a long dry period after Becky, I was grappling with a choice between two attractive women.
Claudias jealousy about Renata had taken me by surprise. It seemed such a strange relationship with Claudia, on and off, full of promise and of promise-denied, platonic and physical.
Tony told me, drawing on the long annals of his experience, that this was a normal German relationship.
"German women spend 80 percent of their time in concealment, he confided over a well-earned post-marathon beer. They are the Viet Cong of our days. They march by night, hide by day, staging occasional ambushes.
I thought about this extravagant metaphor for a while.
So, the answer is to napalm them? I concluded.
Tony nodded vigorously. Or marry them.
Claudia had calmed down a little. I had, in my masculine way, played down the episode with Renata. And, after all, I had just run a marathon to please Claudia. It was a physical investment in a physical relationship. Not a very honest one, perhaps, but it was at least based on mutual attraction and good will.
We decided to take a short sabbatical from the relationship, let it rest marinate would be a better word since I had been drinking more systematically since the end of my marathon training until after I had steered my father through his wartime reunion.
Then we would talk sensibly and seriously.
Yet the kiss with Renata had created a bond, greater than that of the near-kiss with Claudia. Renata, full of self-doubt but intellectually alert: I couldnt get her out of my mind. Not least because she was constantly sending me text messages. They had a lightly teasing tone, not exactly flirtations but demanding attention. She was hungry, it seemed, for conversation even if it was in the crude form of an SMS.
Where it was all going to lead I couldnt tell but there was a clear difference in style between the two women.
Claudia was a woman who favoured the staccato: off-on, on-off. It was like decoding a Morse Code message.
Renata flowed; the kiss, I understood, was part of a rolling process. She was an intellectual, in a German feuilleton-reading way, but one capable, even eager, to switch off her brain.
What to do?
Choosing one or the other would be a statement about me. Or about my financial status. Time was running out. And how long could my father operate as an independent being? I would have to watch him carefully.
The lobby was beginning to fill up with veterans, already rehearsing their stories. In their own country, they were technically heroes but, in fact, regarded as something of a bore. Or even an embarrassment. Here, they could reconstruct their youth without someone shouting: Shut up you old windbag!
You must be Bobs son, said a man with Parachute Regiment wings pinned to his lapels.
Thats me, I strained to look over his shoulder. His breath smelled of sour milk.
He was blond just like you, curly hair, we called him Angel Face.
How did you know him? I mean you were jumping out of planes werent you? And he was dropping bombs.
Met on leave, summer 1942. Shared the same girlfriend for a while.
The old paratrooper started to cough until he was red in the face. His nose and cheeks were full of broken veins. One eye seemed to point leftwards.
Not my mother, I hope.
Course not. Great little woman.
She died a while back.
Sorry to hear it. Elspeth, her name wasnt it?
Ah, yes. The paratrooper turned abruptly to go, pushed through the blazers and baggy flannel trousers, towards the toilets.
Dad and Tom arrived. I ignored Tom.
Who is that parachute chap, Dad, he seems to know you well?
Dad stared at the man waddling past the reception. Never seen him before in my life.
He didnt have an affair with Mum, did he?
Ive told you a hundred times, Mum did not like sex. Now stop talking dirty and count everybody.
The veterans were all present and, more or less, alive. No heart attacks yet, no one stuck in the lavatory. Buzzing like debutantes at a ball they crowded into the bus, the old pilots sitting towards the front, the gunners at the back, the navigators took window seats.
Willkommen in Köln, said the young student guide from the Christliche Hilfswerk, Welcome to Cologne.
Willkommen, bienvenue vel-kom. That was Tom and I could sense trouble ahead.
We are now on our way to the flight school in Hangelar, a little way outside town. There you will meet veterans of the night-time fighter squadron. As you can see from our programmes I saw Point 5, 14.30-15.30 'spontaneous get together' "the highpoint will be a joint cruise along the Rhine. Lets hope the weather improves! In the meantime relax and enjoy your reconciliation tour!
Sociologists say British and German young people have uniquely short attention spans; only the Americans are worse. But even the non-video game and SMS generations working mothers in Essen and Leeds, middle managers, stock brokers, policemen have astonishingly weak concentration. Worst of all are the over-70s. They whine, they demand attention, they pretend to read books but secretly read tabloids like Bild and the Daily Mirror. And thats just the sane ones.
Sure enough, Britains assorted heroes visiting Germany for the first time in 60 years chose not to look out at the new country but rather to launch into a sing-along. Hitler has only got one ball and Goebbels has no balls at all! they sang, linking arms on the backseat. I spotted Tom at the centre of this subversive activity.
Dad, please tell Tom sometime that Hitler is dead. Goebbels too.
Tried to explain it to him, lad, but all he said was: do we have proof?
I sighed. On the autobahn there was a big sign marked: Wahn ("insanity") 10 kilometres.
The smell of Rinderroulade (roulade of beef) wafted out from the barracks and engulfed the old Englishmen as they tentatively stepped on to German military terrain. This was, I could see, to be one of those intricately planned reconciliation exercises. A few years ago Germans would rather have chewed carpets than touch beef, tainted by British madness. Now beef was on the menu again and one guessed that the welcoming speeches would make some semi-humorous reference to cows. I could hardly wait.
Outside the Fliegerhorst building stood 10 men: 10 to 14 of ours. The odds were good but not conclusive.
They look bloody fit, said the parachute veteran who may, or may not, have had a fling with my Mum.
Its all those holidays in Majorca, said Tom, and indeed many of the German pilots had brown parchment skin stretched tightly over their cheekbones.
All 10 stood with their shoulders back and there was not an ounce of fat on them. Our lot were flabby, breathless, flushed and their facial features were so blurred they might as well have been wearing stocking masks.
Wouldnt like to meet any of them on a dark night, said Dad and the others guffawed. Because, of course, these men were the night fighter pilots who had tried and often succeeded in shooting them down.
The German pilots reached forward and though they did not click their heels and though there was no trace of duelling scars on their cheeks, the British visitors felt quietly satisfied that they had conformed to the cartoon image of the old enemy. One, Oberst Bubi von Kreuznach, even wore a monocle.
The table in the messroom was decked out with plastic model aircraft, Messerschmidt 101s, Lancasters, Heinkels, Halifaxes: the kind that I used to glue together as a child. A little nest of crossed German and British flags made up the centrepiece of the display. The walls were covered with black and white photographs of planes and their crew.
This was the headquarters of Jagdgeschwader (fighter squadron) 300, said Oberst Bubi, we pioneered the tactics of the Wilde Sau flying into the night, without guidance from below, using our naked eyes and the glare of the searchlights to shoot you down.
I Like that, whispered Dad, no nonsense about being pleased to see us.
One of our first missions was in July 1943 over Cologne, the city you are now visiting. Nine of us, including me, shot down 12 of your bombers. It was very satisfactory. Now I would like to wish you a very pleasant stay. And please enjoy the beef which is from the very best German herds.
There was a ripple of polite laughter.
Bit abrupt, said the parachute officer, just as well, I suppose, stomach is rumbling like a washing machine.
I sensed though that there was more at work than the colonels sensitivity towards the digestive juices of the British.
Whats up with the colonel? I asked one of the German pilots. His name tag said: Borstig. Is he always like this?
Everything is in order, I think, said Borstig, who had the narrow chest and slight build of a fighter pilot. Some kind of pea soup with sausage had been put in front of us, in chipped white tureens marked with the crest of the unit. Borstig grimaced. He was obviously not a soup man. Actually, it is more complicated, I think.
But you are a journalist, I think.
Its ok. I dont bite.
Before you came, we had the old argument, fought the old battle.
Which battle is that?
The battle for the Ritterkreuz (Knight's cross). Some of the officers here were in a squadron in the Netherlands. If you had good connections you could take off early and shoot down the bombers. There was almost no risk and you were on your way to a Ritterkreuz. For some of the people here today, the Ritterkreuz was everything.
Borstig ran his hand across his stiff white collar. We used to say: they have sore throats. There were always rumours that after the war we would be given an estate. Some of these officers were close to curing their sore throats and then they were sent here. They really had to learn how to fight. It was dangerous as hell. And no way to get a medal.
Must have been difficult flying blind.
We got shot down by our own Flak. Or we shot our planes by accident.
So some people here hate the colonel?
And some love him. It is as in life.
Why did the haters turn up?
The Defence Ministry pays a special attendance fee for reconciliation meetings.
Sounds like Germans should be trying to reconcile themselves with Germans.
That, young man, is the tragedy of my country.
What have you been blabbing on about? Dad was demanding attention.
Major Borstig says you should eat your carrots. He says its good for your night vision.
The beef roulade had indeed arrived with carrots. The dish was a smouldering delight, eliminating at a stroke the British prejudices about German cooking.
Even Tom was briefly silenced. This was a mercy. He had spent twenty minutes telling his German hosts about his brilliant piloting skills. The British delegation, knowing full well that Tom was a back-of-the-bus man, started to cringe. Neither Tom nor my father was a great hero. A third surviving member of the crew had told me how they bailed out too early. There had been a chance to save the plane. As they floated to earth trapped in the glare of the searchlights, waiting to be shot at they each soiled their pants.
Never been so frightened in my life, my Dad admitted later.
Only Tom continued to boast about his wartime career. Sixty years on, the stories had grown and mutated and lost all contact with reality.
The British tucked into second helpings and soaked up the Rhine wine; the Germans politely declined.
God, no wonder theyre so fit, said one of the RAF men.
Thats because they were used sensibly after the war, said Dad. They werent just dumped like we were. No wonder we let ourselves go to seed.
A smartly dressed man close to the head of the table coughed. It was the kind of sound you give in England when the doctor holds your balls and says Cough! to test if you have a hernia. An abrupt piece of social punctuation. He scraped back his chair and stood up. I had not noticed him before but that very fact told me precisely who he was: a minder from the Federal Press Office which was keeping a wary eye on the great reconciliation process. There was still a nervousness about letting soldiers meet. The minder was in his 30s and there wasnt in contrast to the British guests a crease or crinkle to be seen. His suit was smooth, his shirt, his manicured hands, his tightly sun-tanned face: it was as if a giant steam iron had been applied over his whole body.
If I might just say a few words on behalf of the federal government, he said and reached inside his jacket for his notes.
I could see that none of the airmen, not the German or British, could stand him, or his American-accented English.
I took a paper napkin and wrote on top: IMPORTANT SPEECH. The wrinkle-free bureaucrat noticed the gesture and smiled approvingly. The press was paying attention. As he meandered on and on, I drew up a table that seemed to represent my options:
|Ready for a fight||x||Guerilla||x|
|Likes fitness centres||x||Dislikes sport||x|
|Smoker (like me)||x||Bites nails||x|
|Doesn't laugh||x||Laughs like a mule||x|
|Sinewy thighs||x||Green eyes||x|
I chewed the end of my pencil. Perhaps, in the end, it was the eyes that mattered most.
The smooth bureaucrat smoothly progressed through his speech. A few polished clichés rolled towards me, like glass marbles in a childrens game. Unification, he was saying, was the end of a process and the beginning of a process. Germans could be proud again. I could see Tom was growing restless. The man was on point 8, I could see on his notes, 8 out of 10.
The Oberst, barely able to conceal his impatience, tapped his glass with a spoon.
Thank you, that was fascinating, he said to Herr No-Crease, blundering into the middle of a sentence. But the time has come, I think, for a toast.
He sprang to his feet.
I would like to raise my glass to the Queen!
To the Queen!
Dad looked flustered. Whats the German presidents name again? Köhler.
He rose. To President, er, Killer.
The British pilots echoed: To Killer.
The Oberst was up again.
To the great Fliers of the Royal Air Force.
Who contributed so much to the urban planning of your cities, interjected Tom. A chilly silence fell around the table.
My mother was killed in the Braunschweig raid, said Borstig.
And mine in Dresden, said another officer.
Just a little joke, said Tom, not at all abashed and hissed loudly, as if on stage, you see no sense of humour.
It was beginning to resemble a Lunch in Hell.
Excuse me for a moment.
I left the room and went towards the toilets. Earlier I had noticed automatic fire sprinklers set in the ceilings; a sensible precaution on an air base with highly explosive kerosene scattered around the barracks. I lit up a Marlboro light, stood on a chair and waited for the alarm system to work. Sure enough, bells started to ring and sirens started to howl. Water gushed out of every sprinkler in the mess hall.
My God, its an air raid, shouted Tom, everyone into the bunker.
Grimly, a clutch of British and German pilots emerged soaking from the building as if they had just been fished out of the Atlantic. The parachuter had grabbed a bottle of wine and taken shelter under the dining table. I hid the stub of my cigarette in the pot of a rubber plant.
Perhaps we had just better move on with the next part of the programme and forget the spontaneous get together.
The colonel nodded. Across the camp, fire engines were hurtling towards the building. Soldiers were shouting. Aircraft were being moved into hangars.
Any casualties? yelled a medical team carrying breathing equipment on a stretcher. If youre uninjured, move as far away from the building as possible.
How many anti-smoke masks do we need?
And, the most intelligent appeal of all: Wheres the fire?
Could be terrorists, said Dad, looking on the bright side of things. There could be anthrax in there.
I dont think so somehow, said the colonel, looking straight into my eyes. I tried to avoid his gaze. Out of the window I could see a fire engine unwinding a hosepipe for the non-existent fire. You have a very competent rescue service, Colonel.
And you, Sir, also have a talent for rescue. He paused between each word to make quite clear that he was deploying irony.
No, no, you dont understand, chirped my father, he simply has a talent for catastrophe.
Oh, shut up Dad. It had been another long day.