Andy lay on the pavement beneath the odd-looking clock tower, his head and arm expertly bandaged, with most of the blood having been mopped up. The crowd around him had, if anything, grown and he was a little bemused by the whole thing. Matthias was nowhere to be seen; having volunteered himself and his exchange student for first aid practice – something to do with Saturday morning classes, but Andy hadn’t properly understood it – he had almost immediately been summoned back to school by one of his cousins, leaving Andy a house key and clear enough directions for getting back to the house. Eventually the first aid teachers proclaimed themselves satisfied, and Andy was released from his bandages. Having earned himself effusive praise and thanks – and having probably marked himself down as a soft touch – he felt in need of a rest and to at least read some English, if not hear some spoken.
He found his way back to the house with no difficulty, and let himself in. He stood in the entrance hall for a moment, just listening to the silence, and appreciating the difference between rural village life and the urban noises he was used to. He was thinking that the one thing he would most remember of Hohenügel was how quiet it was, when he realised that it was not entirely silent. Somewhere in the house, a radio was on. He coughed loudly, and clumped noisily up the wooden stairs, so a not to take anyone by surprise. Halfway up, he heard Matthias’ older sister, Karla, laughing at something she was listening to. She must have heard him, and yelled out “Hey! English boy! Come and talk to me.” Andy felt his face redden, and thought of feigning deafness, but she could see him from her bedroom, and was staring at him quizzically. “Come on; I don’t bite.”
Andy had had next to no dealings with Karla, other than to be introduced to her on the first day, and to be tongue-tied by her presence at every mealtime. She was small and slim, almost boyish, with a severe close-cropped haircut and a stare which made him most uncomfortable. She also appeared to speak idiomatically perfect English, and had instantly supplanted her as an object of desire, although that situation seemed to be complicated, and he had not even begun to try to work it out in his own mind. He knew that if he opened his mouth to talk to Karla, he would ruin everything, and had resolved to keep silent whenever he was in her company. However, she now seemed determined to give him an opportunity to expose himself as a naïve, clumsy 15-year-old; and there was no way out.
Karla was sitting on the edge of her bed. She had a battered old transistor perched on a shelf in the corner of her room, and she leaned over to turn it off. As she did so, her t-shirt rode up her back, and Andy was paralysed by what he saw. He didn’t, however, have time to think about her skin, because she abruptly sat back up and turned to face him.
“It’s OK,” she said, smiling, “I just want to practice my English on someone.”
Andy heard himself say that he thought her English didn’t need practice, and then stop and not say anything stupid, and as her smile broadened, he thought that maybe he actually could carry this off. He tried something else:
“Actually, I think your English might be better than mine – how did you learn so well?” He cringed inwardly at his sentence structure – after nearly a week in Germany, he was habitually simplifying some of the things he said, but was only now aware that it might sound patronising. Karla, however, was explaining how she seemed to have a natural aptitude for languages -“I don’t know where I get it from, although he has taught it for a long time” – and how she had spent two months in England the previous summer, and forced herself not to use any German at all.
“My accent, though, needs some work, I think.”
“Oh, many English people are much harder to understand. Anyway, your accent is nice. It’s very” – Andy stopped, aware that he was an unflattering shade of beetroot, and that Karla was laughing. Her laugh made him feel uneasy, for some reason, and he mentally compared it to her laugh, which he had heard so often on the bus and several times during the week. This train of thought was uncomfortable, however, and he felt for some reason that he needed to be paying full attention to Karla.
“Hmm, English boy, I think I like you – you’re sweet and kind.” She got up and walked over towards the door. As she passed him, she took hold of his upper arm, and murmured “and a little bit smitten, no?” He heard her walk slowly down the stairs behind him, but he was unable to move. Her voice floated up from below:
“That’s right, isn’t it? Smitten is the right word?” Was she asking about vocabulary or the state of his emotions? He stammered something and fled to the safety of his room.