Something was very amiss. I was obviously still in Berlin, but I appeared to have been deprived of the entire apparatus of government. I had to get back to the Führerbunker – urgently – and it was as clear as daylight that the youths around me were not going to be a great deal of help here. The first thing I needed to do was orient myself. The featureless piece of land where I now stood could have been anywhere in the city. I had to get to a street; in this protracted ceasefire surely there would be enough passers-by, workers and motor-cab drivers to point me in the right direction.
“Hitler Youth Ronaldo! Which way to the street?”
I expect my needs did not appear sufficiently pressing to the Hitler Youths, who looked as if they wanted to resume their game of association football. The tallest of the lads now turned to his friends, allowing me to read his name, which his mother had sewn onto a brightly coloured jersey.
“Hitler Youth Ronaldo! Which way to the street?”
The reaction was feeble; I am afraid to say that the youths practically ignored me, although as he shuffled past one of the two younger ones pointed limply to a corner of the wasteland. Peering more closely I could see that there was indeed a thoroughfare in that direction. I made a mental note to have Rust dismissed. The man had been Reich Minister for Education since 1934, and there is no place for such abysmal sloppiness in education. How is a young soldier supposed to find the victorious path to Moscow, to the very heart of Bolshevism, if he cannot even recognise his own supreme commander?
I bent down, picked up my cap and, putting it on, walked steadily and purposefully in the direction the boy had indicated. I went around a corner and made my way between high walls down a narrow alleyway towards the brightness of the street. A timid and bedraggled cat with a coat of many hues sloped past me along the wall. I took four or five more steps and then emerged into the street.
The violent onslaught of light and colour took my breath away.
The last time I had seen it I remembered the city being terribly dusty and a kind of field-grey, with heaps of rubble and widespread damage. What lay before me now was quite different. The rubble had vanished, or at least had been removed, the streets cleared. Instead there were numerous, nay innumerable brightly coloured vehicles on either side of the street. They may well have been automobiles, but were smaller, and yet they looked so technically advanced as to make one suspect that the Messerschmitt plant must have had a leading hand in their design. The houses were freshly painted, in a variety of colours, reminding me of the confectionery of my youth. I admit, I began to feel faintly dizzy. My eyes sought something familiar, and on the far side of the carriageway I spied a shabby park bench on a strip of grass. I ventured a few steps, and I am not ashamed to say that they may have seemed quite tentative. I heard the ring of a bell, the screeching of rubber on asphalt, and then somebody screamed at me:
“Oi! What’s your game? Are you blind or what?”
“I… I’m terribly sorry,” I heard myself say, both shaken and relieved. Beside me was a bicyclist, this at least was an image I was comparatively familiar with. Added to that, the man was wearing a protective helmet, which appeared to have sustained some serious damage given the number of holes in it. So we were still at war.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, staggering around like that?”
“I… pardon me… I… need to sit down.”
“I suggest you take a lie down, pal. And make it a nice long one!”
I found sanctuary on the park bench; I expect I was somewhat pale when I slumped onto it. This young man did not seem to have recognised me, either. Again, there was no Nazi salute; from his reaction one would have thought he had almost collided with any old passer-by, a nobody. And this negligence seemed to be common practice. An elderly gentleman walked past me, shaking his head, followed by a hefty woman pushing a futuristic perambulator – likewise a familiar object, but it offered no help out of my desperate situation. I stood up and approached her with as much outward confidence as I could muster.
“Excuse me, now this may come as something of a surprise, but I… I urgently need to find my way to the Reich Chancellery.”
“Are you on the Stefan Raab Show?”
“Or Kerkeling? Harald Schmidt?”
It may have been nervousness which triggered my impatience; I grabbed her by the arm.
“Pull yourself together, woman! As a fellow German you have your duties and obligations! We are at war! What do you think the Russians would do to you if they got here? Do you honestly think a Russian would glance at your child and say, ‘Well, what a fine young German girl we have here, but for the child’s sake I will leave my baser urges in my trousers?’ At this very hour, on this very day, the future of the German Volk, the purity of German blood, indeed the survival of humanity itself is at stake. Do you wish to be responsible for the end of civilisation merely because, in your extraordinary stupidity, you are unwilling to show the Führer of the German Reich the way to his Reich Chancellery?”
The lack of a helpful response had almost ceased to be a surprise. This imbecilic woman shook her sleeve from my grasp, glared at me dumbfounded, and tapped the side of her head with her index finger: an unequivocal gesture of disapproval. I had to accept the truth of the matter; something here had spiralled completely out of control. I was no longer being treated like a commander-in-chief, like a Reichsführer. The footballers, the elderly gentleman, the bicyclist, the perambulator woman – this was no coincidence. My first instinct was to notify the security agencies, to restore order. But I curbed this instinct. I had insufficient knowledge of my circumstances. I needed more information.
My refusal to abandon faith in ultimate victory, even in the deepest, darkest hour of the Reich, had paid off.
With ice-cool composure my methodical brain, now functioning again, recapped the situation. I was in Germany, I was in Berlin, even though the city looked wholly unfamiliar to me. This Germany was different, but some of its aspects reminded me of the Reich I was familiar with. Bicyclists still existed, as did automobiles, so probably newspapers still existed too. I looked around. And under my bench I did find something resembling a newspaper, albeit printed far more lavishly. The paper was in colour, something new to me. It was called Media Market – for the life of me I could not recall having given my approval to such a publication, nor would I ever have approved it. The information it contained was totally incomprehensible. Anger swelled within me: how, at a time of paper shortage, could the German Volk’s valuable resources be squandered on such mindless rubbish? As soon as I got back to my desk, Funk was going to get a proper dressing-down. But at that moment I needed some reliable news, a Völkischer Beobachter, a Stürmer; Why, I’d have settled for the local Panzerbär, which had only been going for a few issues. I spotted a kiosk not too far away, and even from that distance I could make out an extraordinary array of papers. You could have been forgiven for thinking we were deep in the most indolent peacetime! I got up impatiently. Too much time had already been lost – now order must be restored as rapidly as possible. Surely my troops were awaiting orders; it was quite possible my presence was sorely needed elsewhere. I hurried to the kiosk.
Even a cursory look furnished me with some useful information. Myriad colourful papers hung on the outside wall – in Turkish. A large number of Turks must now be living in this area. I must have been unconscious for a significant period of time, during which waves of Turks had descended on Berlin. Remarkable! After all, the Turk, essentially a loyal ally of the German Volk, had persisted in remaining neutral; in spite of all our efforts, we had never been able to get him to enter the war on the side of the Axis powers. But now it seemed as if during my absence someone – Dönitz, I imagine – had convinced the Turk to lend us his support. Moreover, the comparatively peaceful atmosphere on the streets suggested that the deployment of Turkish forces had brought about a decisive turning-point in the war. Yes, I had always harboured respect for the Turk, but would never have imagined him capable of such an achievement. On the other hand, a lack of time had precluded my having followed the development of that country in any great detail. Kemal Atatürk’s reforms must have given the nation a sensational boost. This seemed to have been the miracle on which Goebbels had always pinned his hopes. Full of confidence, my heart was now pounding. My refusal to abandon faith in ultimate victory, even in the deepest, darkest hour of the Reich, had paid off. Four or five Turkish-language publications, all printed in bright colours, were unmistakable proof of a new, triumphant Berlin–Ankara axis. Now that my greatest concern, my concern for the welfare of the Reich, appeared to have been assuaged in such a surprising manner, I had to find out how much time I had spent in that strange twilight on the patch of waste ground. Unable to see a Völkischer Beobachter anywhere – obviously it had sold out – I cast about for the most familiar-looking paper, which went by the name Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was new to me, but unlike some of the others displayed there, I was heartened by the reassuring typeface of its title. I didn’t bother with any of the news reports; I was looking for the date.
It said 30 August.
I gaped at the number in amazement, in disbelief. I turned my attention to a different paper, the Berliner Zeitung, which also displayed an exemplary German typeface, and sought out the date.
I tore the newspaper from its bracket, opened it and turned a page, then another one.
The number began to dance before my eyes, as if mocking me. It moved slowly to the left, then back again more quickly, swaying like a group of revellers in a beer tent. My eyes tried to follow the number, then the paper slipped from my grasp. I felt myself sinking; in vain I tried to clutch at other newspapers on the rack. I slid to the ground.
Then everything went black.
You can Reserve & Collect Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated by Jamie Bulloch) from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1koXYSK) or online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1gRfafC