Discovering Magic


Bernd Becker, a balding man with short white hair and a slim build, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, was travelling from his hometown of Dortmund to the island of Borkum in the North Sea. It was summer, and the warmth caused a thin trail of sweat to descend the back of Bernd’s neck onto his back. It irritated, and he pressed himself against the seat to relieve the sensation. He had planned to spend three weeks doing “relaxation training” at the health resort and was already regretting the train journey, which took far too long and required him to change trains twice amid the loud voices and chaos on the platforms. The journey’s regional train from Dortmund to Emden Central Station was the longest travelling time. From Emden, he had to change trains to the port of Emden, and from there, he took the ferry to Borkum. The characteristic “Inselbahn” or “Borkumer Kleinbahn”, which connects the harbour with the town of Borkum and other places on the island, gives the place a unique charm. For our traveller, the charm was lost in a rush of depression.

Bernd became a widower at seventy-two with no warning or preparation. He fell into depression, went into therapy, and emerged with an anxiety disorder that made him avoid contact, even on the phone, and friends either sent him messages or emails. Bernd had sold his car for enough money to buy an e-bike and spent his time riding around, stopping to read or draw. Now seventy-four, he often took the tram into town to the library, which was an emotional challenge. Still, he managed and usually sat in the corner with a book, a notebook, and a flask of tea. This trip to the island had been as challenging as any since the shock of his wife’s death, and as the train made its way through the mudflats, her face appeared in his mind. He recalled a family spa holiday fifty years earlier with their children.

With its nostalgic but sparsely equipped carriages, the colourful train was travelling at around fifty kilometres per hour. After a good 15–20-minute journey, they arrived at Borkum station in the island’s centre, the terminus. A red brick building came into view, and all the travellers jumped up and gathered their bags and luggage together, so Bernd, in his anxiety, let them go first as they all were in a hurry. His luggage had been sent ahead to avoid problems when he changed trains, but finding the collection point was no problem. He then walked to the Nordsee Hotel, three hundred metres from Nordbad beach but 30 minutes from the station, following Deichstraße. Others were dragging their suitcases behind them and walking in the same direction, so he followed them.

Bernd had read up on the island on the train to see if it had changed much and discovered that the town of Borkum had a long history, having been settled in the Middle Ages and grown over the centuries to become a popular tourist destination. He vaguely remembered the various historic buildings and landmarks that testified to the island’s long history and that he should have been more impressed according to his wife. But he did remember the island’s healthy North Sea climate, which makes it a popular destination for spa and wellness holidays with various seawater therapies. Seawater and seaweed are used for different cosmetic and medicinal purposes, from reducing the appearance of cellulite to relieving joint pain. Still, the island also has many facilities and wellness services.

Soon, the group struggling with their baggage began to thin as everyone reached their respective accommodation, and his hotel came into view as they passed the park on Wester Strasse. Bernd was sweating in the sun, and the breeze blowing across the island didn’t help. Although he was glad to be able to stretch his legs, the duffel he was carrying was starting to get heavy, and Bernd was thankful that he was nearly there. The sun shone warmly on him as Bernd entered the hotel from the beach side, a trolley pushed in front of him, on which Bernd placed the bag and rubbed his aching shoulder. Two families were checking in ahead of him, so he waited quietly in the queue until they were finished.

Standing there, Bernd reflected on how the trip had been a fleeting idea that he now felt had interrupted a routine that had helped him get on with his life, and his anxiety on the way made him regret the trip. As he watched the procedure unfold before him, he decided to finish the therapy and then return home to where he had left off. Still, he was relieved when a staff member approached him and asked him to come forward to check-in. After the procedure, he was taken to his room with his luggage, and after giving the young man a tip, he inspected his room. It was pleasantly furnished but small, and he could imagine he wouldn’t be spending much time in it. Opening the window, the smell of the sea air was refreshing. The sound of the seagulls reminded him how far from home he was. Taking off his shoes and jacket, he fell onto the bed and must have fallen asleep immediately.

When he woke, he panicked, as he had so often done since the loss of his wife. The strange surroundings were stranger because it was dark, and he realised he had been asleep for several hours. He was hungry and decided to walk down to the promenade to see if there was any chance of getting something to eat, as the hotel only served breakfast. Dodging the people walking around, he found a restaurant on Bismarckstraße and ordered a snack. After paying, he walked to the lighthouse and around the Nordseeklinik to his hotel, where he sat in the bar with his reader and leafed through his English-language books. Unsatisfied, he decided to visit the signposted library the next day after his therapy appointment, which he had noticed on the way to the hotel. He then retreated to his room.


The next day, Bernd looked at himself in the bathroom mirror and repeated the usual line: “I don’t know who you are, but I’ll wash you anyway!” His weight loss had given him a slim appearance in clothes, but when he saw himself naked, he remembered all the residents he had washed as a geriatric nurse. The age lines and signs of previous obesity were a brutal reminder that he was in the autumn of his life. He also noticed that the anxiety was more severe that morning and he underwent the washing procedure.

Bernd had breakfast at a window overlooking the promenade. He then went to the clinic for therapy. The booking process took longer than he expected, and he found that his first appointment was at 1 p.m., so he walked over to the beach. It was an excellent beginning of the day, although with a cool breeze. Still, the beach was already beginning to fill, with excited children running to the sea and, when discovering it to be cold, yelping in feigned pain. The waves were small, but their sound let him relax at night, even when he woke up at 2a.m. It had always enabled him to relax, which, it seemed to him, was one of the reasons he had decided to travel there. His misgivings were slowly giving way to an appreciation of the holiday spirit.

He had been given various brochures about cognitive behavioural therapy, with which, if you suffer from anxiety, depression, addictions, and other problematic disorders, the brochures assured the reader that they could treat and overcome them. He sat on a bench to read them. The therapy’s approach addresses dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviours, and cognitive processes and contents through several goal-oriented, explicit systematic procedures. Bernd remained sceptical, but his neurologist had suggested that it would help. In such an environment, he was willing to try. He stood up to walk down to the library he had seen signposted the day before, which sat in a park with a sea view, but saw that it opened at three p.m., so he sat in the park and enjoyed the view.

From behind him, a young woman approached him and said, “Excuse me, but was it you that tried the door to the library?”

Bernd was surprised and replied, “Yes, I’m sorry, did I alarm you?”

She smiled and said, “No, it is just that we have very few visitors, and I just wanted to say that we open at three p.m.”

“Yes, I saw the sign. I’ll be back when I have completed therapy,” Bernd replied, filling in a short gap in the conversation.

The young lady looked concerned, “Oh, so you are a patient at the clinic?”

“An outpatient, it’s not that serious,” Bernd replied, “So you run the library?”

“Sort of. I’m a volunteer in the holidays, really, but I’m filling in for the librarian, Mrs Schmidt, who has gone on holiday.”

“Gone on holiday?” Bernd said, amazed, “Holiday is here, isn’t it?”

The young lady smiled and replied, “I know, but she has family on the mainland, and someone is sick. The lady is quite old, but the library is her passion.”

“It isn’t very big,” Bernd commented, “is there a good selection of books?”

“Yes, she tries to keep a classical collection next to popular modern books. But we still have few visitors.”

“Is it your passion as well?” Bernd asked.

“Sort of. I am studying German studies, and here I can do some research because Mrs Schmidt has a little classical literature, but mostly because it is quiet, and I can catch up on my studies.”

“Yes,” said Bernd, “it’s the quiet that attracts me to libraries as well, and I have been reading more classics recently.”

The young lady perked up, “Oh really! What have you been reading?”

“I started with Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and liked his language, but also how he critically saw the social norms and moral conflicts of 19th century Prussia. But I was especially taken in by Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.”

The young lady looked excited, “Oh, then you must read Steppenwolf as well, which explores a man’s inner conflict and search for identity in the big city. Have you read Schiller?”

Bernd felt caught out because his reading list wasn’t exceptionally long. “Uh, no, I’m afraid not,” he said. “I’m really just going through what I find in the library, and I’m a bit slow in my reading.”

“Oh, that is understandable. I tend to speed-read as we say but to properly appreciate literature, you must take your time.”

Bernd appreciated the graciousness of the young lady. Still, he was no longer used to such a conversation, and once more, a gap occurred. “Do you mind if I sit with you to enjoy the view?” she asked.

“No, of course not, please do. So, you are taking a break from studies today?”

“Oh yes, it can get boring if you don’t take a break now and then.” She chuckled, “That’s probably why I have to catch up.”

Bernd was a little uneasy because this young woman, half his age, had chosen to sit next to him after their brief conversation, but she took a paperback from her bag and started reading. Bernd took out his reader and looked to see if he could find something appropriate amongst his English language books. Finally, he came across the W. Somerset Maugham collection that he had downloaded months before and forgotten. Somehow, he couldn’t get into reading and put his reader away.

“I prefer real books,” the young lady commented.

“Oh yes, said Bernd, “so do I, but I use my reader for English books and go to the library for German books.”

The young lady looked surprised, “You read English that well? I took English, but I couldn’t read for leisure in the language; I find German easier.”

“Yes, I had an English friend with whom I spent a lot of time – but that was a long time ago. But we read books together, mostly popular novels with little depth, but I learnt to appreciate the language more in conversation with him.”

“How fortunate you are!” She exclaimed. “That is what I would like, but you hardly meet anyone who talks about books, let alone an Englishman or any other nationality. What was he, a teacher?”

“Oh no, he was a store manager and had come to Germany as a soldier. Sadly, he chose to return to Britain when Brexit happened – but since regretted it.”

“Does he still write to you?”

“Yes, once a month normally, but it is mostly about his dissatisfaction with living in England. He says that he had become used to the German way of life, and it was quite a shock to return after thirty years.”

“Are you married?” the question came out quite surprisingly, and Bernd was taken aback at first but answered, “I was, but I’m a widower.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“That’s okay, a guy at my age on a holiday island, you’d expect it, wouldn’t you.”

“I mean, I wasn’t trying to chat you up …” she reddened in the face, and her embarrassment showed, and she stood up. “I’m sorry, I’m just too … too …”

“Straightforward?” Bernd offered. “Don’t worry, it’s quite okay; I didn’t assume anything … I mean, I’m at least twice your age.”

She sat down again, “Really?” she asked, but silence ensued.

Bernd stood up to return to the hotel and said, “Well, I’ll be off, and I’ll see you as soon as my therapy is over, and I’ll look at that collection of books you praised.” The young lady also stood up and held out a hand, “I’m Gabi,” she said, “I’m sorry if I …”

Bernd shook her hand, saying, “I’m Bernd, and look, it’s okay, and I’ll be back, so you can see I’m not offended. I liked our conversation!”

“Bye, Bernd,” she said.

“See you later, Gabi,” Bernd replied as he walked down the path with a feeling of elation that he had seldom experienced in the last months; his anxiety seemed to have dissipated during that conversation.


Contrary to his hopes, the first session was a group session - the worst kind for Bernd. A woman with bright make-up who still looked twenty years older than him greeted Bernd with the words: “Thank God! A handsome young man comes to cheer up the class!” Bernd was startled by her appearance, and since he couldn’t hide his thoughts well, she turned around, annoyed by Bernd’s reaction, and stomped away. Several other attendees smiled; one held his hand before his face, and a woman said: “Don’t worry!” Bernd thought: “Worrying would be the last thing I would do!” and looked for a place to sit.

As expected, the class consisted of older people, something he had gotten used to in the psychiatric clinic during his therapy there. There was great despair in the psychiatric clinic, but here, the mood was noticeably more balanced, and there was at least laughter. Most participants had arrived the day before and stayed in neighbourhoods around the city. Each participant was first asked to say why they were there. Bernd said bluntly, “Anxiety disorder,” and received a nod from the therapist, a young woman with a stern expression who seemed glad that Bernd hadn’t explained his problems in as much detail as some of the guests had.

The topic of “somatic anxiety symptoms” was presented by the therapist, which interested Bernd, but as a geriatric nurse, much of it was familiar to him. He thought, “It’s not that I didn’t have any information beforehand, but because I didn’t act on it.” The problem, according to the therapist, was that the body was reacting to a stimulus that the brain did not share. So, the intention was to convince the body that there was no danger. The declared therapy goals were to develop various skills for relaxation and proper breathing and to learn to slow down, which Bernd felt he had already been learning in the last few hours.

He heard that the participants were looking for very different things. What they had in common, however, was love of the fresh air, which supposedly allows visitors to breathe deeply and helps them find a new attitude to life. The therapist called this the “Borkum experience,” which, in her words, was “characterized by absolute openness and a deep connection to nature.” The stern expression softened during the two-hour session, and these words were intended to inspire participants to discover new life energy and creativity on the island. After the lecture and the subsequent exchange, Bernd received his appointments for the following five days, most of them in the morning. This gave him hope that he could spend some time in the library or in the park around the building.

After the group had divided into groups of two and three in front of the clinic, Bernd went alone to the restaurant where he had eaten the night before. He found a table and ordered a beer while perusing the menu. Even though the table wasn’t hidden in a niche like Bernd usually preferred, he was relieved that he didn’t feel anxious, just slightly excited. While waiting for his food, he told himself it was stupid to think Gabi would have time for him. Why should she? He accosted himself for his stupidity. After dinner, it was time to stroll to the library, and he enjoyed the warm air after the cool air in the clinic. Just in case, he always carried a cardigan and a shoulder bag for his Kindle.

Walking through the park, he noticed the grass turning yellow in the sun and needing watering. He admired the statues of the “Three Bathers” and thought they looked completely naked, which had been customary in the 1970s and 1980s but had since reduced. At some point, people realized that the freedom to sunbathe naked was welcomed by voyeurs, typically men watching with their binoculars. Bernd had often heard the saying that those who were aesthetic enough to attract voyeurs didn’t do it. In contrast, those whose appearance was not so aesthetic did. Bernd felt when he saw such people that they were somehow protesting against such prejudices and perhaps also against the fact that they had lost their childlike freedom.

In the distance, he saw Gabi walking toward the library from across the park, so he quickened his pace to meet her. He realized he hadn’t looked at her when they had spoken the day before. Her slender, lively body, short hair, and large eyes did not reflect what one would typically describe as beauty, but she exuded an attractive vitality. At the same time, she appeared vulnerable but was apparently unaware of this fact. As she approached the building, she stared at her phone and didn’t even notice Bernd waiting a moment. Before entering, Gabi stood at the door for a few minutes, still glued to her screen, and then entered the building.

Bernd wondered whether he knew what he was doing. He knew that during his depression, he had become somewhat overly attracted to ideas, things and, in particular, people and feared it would happen again. Still, he told himself he knew what he was doing and, therefore, there shouldn’t be a problem. Bernd went to the library door and entered the building. The large room full of bookshelves was brightly lit even though the sun was shining outside, but it wasn’t as big as he had thought. The hall took up only half of the building, which, from the outside, suggested that it was more spacious. Gabi was hunched over behind the counter, apparently sorting through something out of sight and didn’t see him enter. As she stood up, his presence caught her off guard momentarily, and she said, “Phew, I didn’t hear you come in. A little surprise. Hello Bernd.”

“You were busy. I said I would return, but I’m sorry I shocked you.”

Gabi waved her arms theatrically and presented the bookshelves: “Well, this is the library, and over there, behind the shelves, there are tables and chairs where you can read and write. There are even a few comfortable chairs for a longer reading session. I’ll let you browse a bit; I must do something here, but if you have any questions, just come over.”

Bernd nodded and turned around to examine the treasures on the shelves. He watched Gabi momentarily, but she was preoccupied with whatever it was. He wasn’t interested in many shelves, but he found the shelf with German classics and browsed through it. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” seemed a bit too ambitious for him, as did “Elective Affinities”. He saw that even “The Marquise of O” was among the books and several by E. T. A. Hoffmann: “The Elixirs of the Devil”, “The Sandman”, and “The Serapion Brothers”. Apparently, Ms. Schmidt liked Hoffmann. Gabi called from the counter: “Bernd, I think I have something for you. Have you read Thomas Mann?”

Bernd appeared behind the shelves and said: “No, I haven’t, but isn’t it relatively new?”

“Well, if you think a hundred years ago is something new…” Gabi offered bluntly.

“Hmm, yes, you’re right,” said Bernd, annoyed at his ignorance, and when he got to the counter, he picked up the heavy book. “Over a thousand pages! I’m not sure I can do it in three weeks!”

Gabi smiled and replied, “Well, if you start now, maybe you’ll get hooked, and you’ll stay longer!”

Bernd returned the smile but said: “There’s no chance!”

“Hans Castorp said that too,” she replied.

“Who is that?” asked Bernd.

“He is the main character. Haven’t you seen the movie… or was it a series? Anyway, check it out. Of course, you don’t have to, but I thought it might appeal to you.”

Bernd went into the reading section with the book and sat at a table. The opening text began formally: “The story of Hans Castorp that we want to tell – not for his sake (because the reader will get to know a simple, albeit appealing, young person in him) …” Bernd wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, he started to read the book and soon got through the first chapters. He was struck by the connections to his journey, even though the story is set before the two world wars, particularly the shared unwillingness to give up a routine and the intention to get it over with. He hadn’t mentioned this to Gabi, so he thought it was a strange coincidence to find such similarities.

Thomas Mann described the climb to the sanatorium in the Alps and the conversation with his cousin in very vivid language, leaving many questions unanswered, which certainly fascinated Bernd. He realized that he had already been reading for a whole hour when Gabi looked around the bookshelves: “You are very quiet! Have I found something that will satisfy your reading appetite?”

Bernd looked up, “Yes, I think you have. I was a bit sceptical at first, but as the story moved on, it got more interesting. I had to smile at what you said about staying on. How Castorp reacted like I did to the suggestion of staying in the sanitorium he was travelling to for six months.”

“Yeah, that caught my eye when I quickly browsed through the first pages, and then you said it too. Funny how coincidences occur, isn’t it?”

“But that is where the coincidences end; how old is Castorp supposed to be?”

“I think he is portrayed as a young man in his early 20s if I remember rightly,” answered Gabi, “but he matures considerably in the book.”

Bernd smiled and asked, “When do you close?”

“Oh, I won’t close until 6 p.m., so you don’t have to hurry, but I’ll leave you to it,” said Gabi and returned to the counter, leaving Bernd with the book. He noticed that he began thinking more about her than the book, so he stood up and walked to the counter.

“Can you put this aside for me, so that I can carry on tomorrow?” he asked.

“No, take it with you. I’ll just need you to fill out this form,” Gabi said, in a matter-of-fact manner. The charm had disappeared, even though she was friendly enough, and he filled out the form quickly.

“Do you mind me sitting in the corner?” he asked.

“Of course not, you might want to take advantage of the weather though,” she said, “it is summer, after all. But you can sit here if you want and if you want to, we can talk about the book.”

Bernd took the book and said, “Yes, I’d like that, see you tomorrow then,” and left.

Death bed

Bernd felt the warm air when he opened the door and guessed it must have been almost 30°C. He walked to the hotel a little mentally confused and unsure how he felt. The older man was annoyed with himself because what did he expect? Bernd had held on to expectations that could not be fulfilled. “It’s your own fault!” he thought. Bernd noticed what a state his mind was in and went to his room without eating. Fortunately, he had the Magic Mountain with him, and so he turned to that so that he could occupy his thoughts.

The leading figure, Hans Castorp, was around twenty or twenty-three. Thomas Mann described him as relatively inexperienced and disconnected from the realities of illness and death. His laughing at the thought of psychotherapy and his cousin calling it “soul dissection” made Bernd feel how it reflected Castorp’s unfamiliarity with the field of psychoanalysis and psychological treatment - but it also reminded him of when he started training as a nurse, how sceptical he had been. At that time, he hadn’t really known what to expect, and finding a bed with a dying woman in the corridor because the staff were trying to cope with staff shortages, the pragmatism of the situation had shocked him. The lessons in psychology had seemed so theoretical compared to the job at hand. In time, a more experienced Bernd had changed his mind.

In the early 20th century, the time the novel is set, psychotherapy was still a relatively new and evolving discipline, and Bernd thought about how his friends had responded to his change of heart almost sixty years later. His conviction that psychology gave him a way to cope with situations was also met with insecure laughter, which showed how his friends were encountering concepts that were foreign or perplexing to them. Bernd had overcome his initial lack of understanding. He immersed himself in the intellectual and cultural aspects of geriatric care, which had made him, in a sense, an outsider. On the other hand, Bernd had thought it odd that even some of his colleagues seemed resilient against the teaching they had received and preferred to concentrate on pragmatic solutions, which, in the end, didn’t solve all the problems they were having. It was this balance that Bernd had achieved, and others had not reached, that Bernd thought he would improve when he moved into nursing management - the idealist finally resigned himself to the fact that he had failed.

Also, the fact that it was a Pulmonary Clinic where Castorp found himself reminded Bernd of the family therapy for chronic bronchitis on the island fifty years before. However, really, it was the children who suffered, and his son contracted a lung infection on the last days of their stay. Travelling home on the train with his son, already a frail figure, coughing his heart out, drew sceptical looks from fellow travellers, and he thought then how ironic it was that they had been to therapy for bronchitis and kept quiet about it.

Suddenly, Bernd heard a knock at the door and stood up to answer it. A middle-aged dark-haired woman greeted him with a shocked expression, “Who are you?” she asked, visibly upset and trying to enter the room. Bernd blocked the way and said, “I’m sorry, but you must be mistaken. This is my room. What room are you looking for?”

“This one,” she replied, “where’s my father?” Her accent revealed that she was not German, but from her features, it was difficult to place her. She was about the age of Bernd’s daughter and had a stocky build like her, but her clothes were conservative and looked expensive. The energetic lady finally let up from her attempts to enter the room, and he saw her double-check the room number against a piece of paper in her hand.

“I assure you, there is no one else in the room. I suggest you go to the reception and ask which room your father is in,” Bernd proposed. Without a word of apology, she turned around and walked away.

Bernd shook his head in disbelief. The situation had intensified his anxiety considerably, and he couldn’t continue to read or think about the book, so he grabbed his cardigan, the book and his shoulder bag and went out to see if he could get a snack.

In the foyer, he heard great excitement and the foreign lady gesticulating in front of the reception. The receptionist had great difficulties calming her down, and Bernd stopped, like several other guests, to watch the proceedings. Although the receptionist had disappeared into the office behind the counter, the foreign lady continued to shout. Yet, Bernd couldn’t understand what she was saying. A man came out of the office with the receptionist. He beckoned the ranting lady into the office, where it continued but was muffled behind the closed door. Bernd decided to leave when suddenly a muffled scream resounded from behind the door, and the woman tumbled out in such a state that Bernd asked himself what had happened. As the woman half ran out of the foyer, Bernd approached the reception desk and asked, “What happened there?”

“I’m sorry,” the young receptionist said, “we can’t give any details.” A large man standing behind Bernd said bluntly with an accent similar to the woman’s, “I understood her. Her father is dead!”

Bernd shook his head again in disbelief, “I hope it wasn’t in my bed!” he said.

The clerk, or perhaps the manager, who had come to the assistance of the receptionist, spoke from the open door, “I assure you, we carried out the necessary cleaning and disinfection procedures to ensure that the room is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.” Bernd stood there with a gaping mouth but then, speechless, walked out into the warm air outside the hotel and over to the railing overlooking the darkened beach.

After a while, Bernd calmed down, remembering that in his nursing days, it was a regular occurrence that when a resident died, a day later, the bed was reassigned. They had also carried out the necessary cleaning and disinfection procedures to ensure that the room was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, as the clerk or manager had said.

Slowly, the appetite returned, and he remembered what he had left his room for. He made his way towards the street, where he knew there were several restaurants and bars, and selected a bar where he could sit outside in a niche and eat a snack. The lighting wasn’t optimal for reading, and he felt he needed reading glasses, so he put the book down and just watched people pass by. He saw the large man from the foyer with the foreign accent walk past and then turn to step up to him.

“I nearly missed you sitting here,” he said. “Quite a shock to hear that someone has died in your bed, isn’t it?” Bernd beckoned him to sit opposite him, which he accepted and sat down. “She was Ukrainian,” the big man offered. “She bewailed that she thought him safe whilst she attended to the rest of the family.”

“I wasn’t aware that Ukrainians were in the habit of bewailing their dead,” Bernd said bluntly, “Are you Ukrainian as well?” The man shifted in his seat and raised his hand to attract the waiter, “You heard my accent, yes?” He ordered himself a large beer and returned his attention to Bernd.

“Yes, you do have a slight accent,” Bernd understated. “Are you on holiday here too?”

“No, I’m on business here,” the large man said, smiling, “combining business with pleasure.”

“Hmm, I wouldn’t have thought there was much business to do here,” Bernd commented.

“No, but it is a pleasant location to have talks,” the Ukrainian answered.

“I’m sorry about what is happening in your country,” Bernd said, “Such a loss of life!”

“Yes,” he answered bluntly, “but what are you doing here?”

Bernd noticed the shift and said, “I’m on a therapy course, nothing special, but also combining it with pleasure, like you said.” The Ukrainian looked towards the waiter, who approached him with the beer, and he took the glass and placed it on the table. “You Germans are very fortunate to have these centres for therapy. In fact, you all lead very privileged lives in comparison.”

Bernd raised his eyebrows, “In comparison with what?” he asked.

“Well, almost everybody, I think,” he answered, “except perhaps the Scandinavian countries. They seem to have a similar approach.”

“Oh yes,” said Bernd, “only we are often not thankful enough.”

“That’s true!” The answer had been quick and brought out the underlying criticism Bernd had felt was coming. “The saying ‘Ingratitude is the reward of the world’ might apply here,” the Ukrainian said, revealing a knowledge of German phrases. He continued, “We Ukrainians have a feeling that Germany, but also the other European states, are not thankful enough for our holding back the enemy.”

Bernd realised the conversation wasn’t going anywhere near where a friendly chat might have led. He nodded, sipped his beer, and remained quiet.

“I’m sorry, my friend, after the shock of hearing that someone has died in your bed, I have shocked you as well. I’m sorry!” The Ukrainian sounded sincere, and he raised his glass and said, “To Germany!” Bernd raised his glass and repeated quietly, “Germany!”

“What do you do for a living,” the Ukrainian asked.

“Oh, I’m retired, have been now for eight years. I was in nursing, old people’s homes and such.” Bernd thought this wouldn’t impress his interlocutor, but he was wrong, and the man’s eyes lit up.

“My sister does the same work,” he said, “That is a hard job!”

“It can be quite stressful and physically tiring,” Bernd said, “I always tried to impress on my staff that we were comparable to sportsmen and women. Sometimes, it was like a marathon.”

The Ukrainian lifted his glass once more, “Here’s to the nurses!” he said with a bright grin. “I couldn’t clean people up like that,” he said and shook his head in distaste. “No, no, I can do any difficult jobs, but that is beyond me.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that from many men. I didn’t have that problem,” he said.

“Were you always a nurse?” The Ukrainian asked before taking a large swig of his beer.

“No, I was in the Bundeswehr for ten years and did long-distance driving for another ten years before starting nursing,” said Bernd.

“Oh, very different professions,” said the Ukrainian, impressed. At that moment, his cell phone rang, and he looked at Bernd and said, “Excuse me,” before answering it. He was speaking in Ukrainian and waving to the waiter simultaneously. He stood up, turned to Bernd, and said, “Excuse me, I have to go.” He approached the waiter, paid for his beer, waved and walked away, his phone still at his ear.

Bernd found the conversations he had had since the therapy session very strange and decided to return to the hotel and his “death bed”. After Bernd had paid, he gathered his things and walked towards the hotel in the warm evening air. Bernd let his gaze wander over the dark sea, and at the railing, he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the sound of the sea.

Heavy Breathing

Bernd heard a familiar voice behind him, “Funny, every time I think of you, you appear!” He turned and saw Gabi in front of him sporting a big smile, and at that moment he didn’t know what to say. He smiled back at Gabi, pointed to the hotel, and finally stammered, “That’s where I’m staying at the moment.”

Gabi noticed his uncertainty. “I come here often,” she said, “the sea is so calming and it’s too warm and too early to sleep.” She turned to face the warm breeze and took a deep breath. “What have you experienced in the meantime?”

“You couldn’t imagine,” he said, feeling a surge of emotion inside him. He spouted words that he regretted in the moment he said them, “Unfortunately, you don’t know enough about me, but I don’t want to burden you with it. Just this much: I need therapy here on the island because I’m a little unstable…"

Gabi turned to him and he was afraid she would hug him, but she didn’t. Instead, she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” She was about to leave him when he said, "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. “I’m just not good at conversation since my wife died, I’m quite a loner normally … I’m sorry.”

Gabi felt a little overwhelmed by the situation, but stopped and said, “Well, would you like to have a drink?” She gestured with her hand to a bar with seats outside.

Bernd was amazed that he didn’t seem to scare her off and nodded in agreement. They walked to the chairs and sat down. It didn’t take long before they were able to order, Gabi took a small beer and Bernd a large one. “Well, tell me what happened,” Gabi said encouragingly.

Bernd talked about how he was thinking about the book in the hotel and showed her that he had it with him. He explained how the events had unfolded and Gabi appeared deeply impressed, saying, “Oh, you poor man!” at an appropriate point. He talked about his conversation with the Ukrainian, and Gabi’s brow narrowed at the description of the man. “He seems a bit shady to me, don’t you think?” Bernd hadn’t thought of it, but there was something there, she was right.

They started talking about the book, and now it was Gabi who noticed the coincidence and spooked, gasped with her hand in front of her mouth. “There was something about his room, wasn’t there? Someone had died!” “Yes, exactly,” agreed Bernd, “but more than that. Who would have expected that I would encounter foreign guests here? This isn’t a lung clinic in the Alps!”

“Yeah, true!” Gabi nodded and then took a sip from her glass. “The whole thing is strange,” she said. “But you have to keep me updated. This is really exciting.”

Their conversation cleared up the initial embarrassment, and his senseless emotional reaction was no longer mentioned. Still, Bernd thought when they separated later, ‘she’ll ask herself what that was.’ But as they parted, she shook his hand, saying goodbye and showed no signs of it. Bernd knew that he had almost screwed up the situation, and it took a while before he could fall asleep.

The next day, Bernd woke up in a panic, jumped out of bed, ran into the chair beside the bed, fell over and knocked his head on a small desk. He’d had a dreamless sleep, he thought, but something was wrong. Bernd pulled the curtains aside, and the day blinded his still-tired eyes. He scrambled around looking for his watch but saw a digital clock over the desk. Bernd was late, and after sweating in his sleep, he needed a shower. The procedure lasted half the time he usually took; he then dressed himself, choosing a white hoody that Bernd had bought but never worn and jeans instead of the short trousers, which Bernd was already regretting as he rushed out of the room to grab a bite, before going to the clinic. His heart was pounding as he left the hotel, even though the clinic was only a few meters away, and as he approached the entrance he looked nervously at his watch.

A male voice rang out next to the entrance, “Look, a white rabbit is coming, ‘I’m late, I’m late’!” Bernd spotted his group, who were now laughing at his expense. “No need to hurry; the therapist has been delayed; he’ll be here presently.” The speaker was a tall, athletic type with a shaven head but wearing a white beard. His head revealed a red spot, and he had obviously used a lotion to combat the sunburn. The day before, he had laughed the loudest when the loudly made-up lady reacted to Bernd’s unfortunate grimace. He spoke to the group, some of whom were sitting on a bench and whom Bernd hadn’t noticed immediately: “Although if we hadn’t come at all, we wouldn’t have missed much if what was on offer yesterday is anything to go by.” Nobody reacted except for a few nods here and there, and Bernd thought that his loud voice had already left a negative impression on the group. Bernd noticed a few faces he hadn’t seen the day before and spotted the lady in the corner, this time without make-up, and thought her appearance had improved.

The woman who had told him not to worry the day before approached him and said, “And did you relax yesterday like we were told to, or discover the “absolute openness and a deep connection to nature” on the island?” She was the inconspicuous type, some would say a plain Jane, but she was attentive, and Bernd had noticed how she had spoken to a number of participants and had left the day before in a group of three. “Hello,” she said, holding out her hand to be shaken, “My name is Petra.” He shook her hand replying, “Bernd. Well sort of, I was in the library, had a chat, discovered that someone had died in my bed the day before, and was approached by a Ukrainian who thought we were all unthankful.”

“Wow, all in one afternoon? I was just sat on the beach with a book,” Petra replied. “They have a library here? I might need a few books before we’re finished here.”

“Well, the library is quite small, and I suppose it depends on what you are looking for. Sometimes I find books in the hotel that people have left behind,” Bernd said.

With Petra, Bernd noticed that her closeness didn’t bother him, and she had a modest charisma that reminded him of his previous colleagues. “What do you do for a living?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing special, I was working in the office but was laid off and have been looking for a job for a while. In between I had a temporary part-time job, but nothing permanent. But, with luck, I can retire the year after next. That depends on how much I get.”

Bernd nodded understandingly. “No husband?” he asked.

“No, divorced. I wasn’t young enough anymore, I guess,” she said, nervously touching her nose. Bernd had many colleagues who had similar stories, so the gesture was not unknown to him. It had already occurred to him back then that it seemed to happen again and again to women who supported their husbands without any demands, and from Petra’s words he assumed that it was true here too.

When the therapist arrived, a gaunt young man whose complexion was unusually pale in comparison to the participants in the group, wearing colourful clothing that was often associated with the “alternative scene,” the subject was “Diaphragmatic Breathing,” which everybody practised under instruction. It was pointed out that taking a few deep breaths are okay to slow down and cool off, but “catching” one’s breath by taking deep breaths in anxiety could be counterproductive. Instead, the practise presented was a regular exercise that enabled a long-term solution to anxiety. It entailed breathing into the belly, positioning the hands on that part of the anatomy, which then move up as the partakers breathed in. Above all, the intention was to slow down the pace of breathing. Everybody was given the task to practise this two times a day for ten minutes at regular times.

When the therapist left, the group didn’t disperse immediately, but sat around talking. The self-designated speaker was called Klaus, and he was quite critical of what they had learnt in the last two days, but Petra said that she had no idea of what was to come so she was going to just wait and see. Klaus wasn’t happy with this and said he was going to complain. Petra stood up, put a hand on his shoulder, and said “Klaus, relax! That is what we are here to learn.” At that he stood up and left the room and chatter took over. Bernd wasn’t too impressed either, but what Petra had said was also true.

A group of four around the elderly lady were discussing her tan, which had noticeably darkened overnight, and she told them that she was in the “Free body culture club”. A small man with a large moustache said, “Oh, nudists!” The lady seemed to take umbrage at his comment and said, “No, Free body culture club!” She told her audience that at the “beach sauna” there was the “Strandsauna restaurant,” and it was all very orderly and civilized. Petra looked at Bernd and raised her eyebrows, “Not for me,” she said. Bernd nodded in agreement. They both left the clinic after saying their goodbyes and at the entrance, Petra asked, “What do you have planned?”

“I’ll probably find a nice place to sit and read my book,” he said.

“Oh, what are you reading?”

“The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann,” he replied.

“My goodness, that’s heavy reading for a summer vacation!” Petra exclaimed, to which Bernd was at a loss for words. “I mean, no criticism, but I’m all for light reading,” Petra said defensively.

“I accept that,” said Bernd with emphatic understanding, “But that’s what I’m reading.”

“Okay, do you mind if I join you? I mean, we are a little at loose ends, and I won’t be practising heavy breathing until tonight.” Petra smiled and lured a smile from Bernd.

Bernd looked at her and said, “Okay, shall we meet after dinner at the beach in front of the hotel?”

“Okay, 1 p.m…” she said, “See you then!” and she was off.


It took Bernd a while to process what was happening and that he was meeting so many people after months of essentially living like a hermit, aside from visits from his daughter and occasionally his son. As usual, his escape route was a book, so he sat at a window in the hotel overlooking the promenade and continued reading. Or rather, he turned back a few pages to get back to the story. Bernd was fascinated by the detailed depiction of young Castorp’s life with his grandfather, who was orphaned because his mother died of heart disease and his father died of pneumonia. The description of the house and all the trinkets and ornaments that filled it, as well as the reverence for specific items such as the baptismal bowl with which Castorp was baptized, made Bernd reflect on modern life, filled with collected objects that are less cherished. Today, basements and attics are often full of things that people say cannot be thrown away but for which there is no longer any use. Instead of exhibiting them, they are hidden until one day, they get in the way and are thrown away with an emotional struggle.

Bernd thought about all the books he took from public bookcases that were gathering dust on his shelves. Something stopped him from returning them for others to read. He shook his head and continued reading. He read Castorp’s memories and thoughts of how he lost his grandfather several months before revealing the different types of impressions and emotions that such a loss can trigger. Castorp suddenly remembers the death of his father, and all the thoughts and feelings associated with it come back simultaneously and intensely. Death had a spiritual or religious significance for him, and he perceived it as something that had meaning and beauty in it, even though it was also sad. At the same time, Castorp experienced another side of death, which was connected to the physical and material, with inheritance formalities and contracts. Castorp considered this side not beautiful, meaningful, or pious, and it could not even be described as sad.

Bernd had extensive professional experience with death and could only agree. The borderline experiences in life give the relatives a whole mix of feelings that they have to somehow come to terms with. He thought of the Ukrainian daughter who had been surprised by this the day before, but also of the numerous relatives of deceased residents whom he had tried to comfort. Bernd was often the last person in the room or witnessed how the last breath was taken and how peace spread across the faces of the dying. He had a hard time convincing his friends that it can be almost an exhilarating feeling when someone could finally let go - especially after seeing them fight against it in their final hours. He and his colleagues always said: “He or she had made it!” They had achieved their goal.

The problems arose when the dying endured the torture of their loved ones, who lacked any empathy and clung to their mothers or fathers when it was time to leave. He had reprimanded his staff for agreeing to move dying patients from their beds so that they could be driven around in wheelchairs by their relatives, seeming to pretend that life could go on without end. Some of the residents showed every sign of impending death and were resuscitated, only to die an hour later, or were taken to hospital and intensive care despite being well into their nineties and having already spoken out against that. Bernd’s mother-in-law had railed at her dead husband’s body because he had “the audacity” to die unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Castorp’s privileged life had none of this, of course. Whenever he was left alone by a dying relative, there was always another to take him in. Living in a house in which the table, morning and evening, was richly laden with cold meats, with crabs and salmon, eel and smoked breast of a goose, with tomato ketchup for the roast beef, he knew nothing of the existential struggle of people outside of his stronghold. Bernd was reminded of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the prince shielded from the impressions of old age, sickness, and death. He asked himself whether there had been any inspiration from that ancient source. Both Hans Castorp and Siddhartha Gautama are on journeys to discover the meaning of life. Both characters spend a significant amount of time in isolation, and both narratives delve into the exploration of mortality. Bernd thought he would ask Gabi what she thought of that.

Then he thought of Petra, who would soon appear to spend some time reading. Bernd wasn’t sure what to think about that, considering how she felt about his literature, and she wasn’t yet retired but unemployed. He hoped she wasn’t looking for a permanent relationship since he didn’t want another relationship after his wife died, even though it had been two years ago. Bernd had accepted the solitary life as his destiny. Although he found the conversation with Gabi exciting, he decided that there were no romantic feelings involved. At least, Bernd thought that, but an underlying doubt nagged him.

Bernd found it disturbing how his time and his contemporaries tended to impose inventive ideas about what his life was about and make him doubt even what he was sure was true. Romantic comedies were, in reality, short stories that captive audiences thought would fill a life, and even though he knew this, their plots crept into his own thoughts and imaginations. Bernd cursed his insecurities that gave him such ridiculous ideas. Still, he had to remember that the mind doesn’t age. Only a look in the mirror shows how deceptive such fantasies can be - although the aching joints also did their best to show how ridiculous these thoughts are.

When Petra showed up, she was the cheerful and humble person he thought she was. Her friendly features were showcased in a colourful floral dress, and she wore one of those floral-embellished floppy hats that were all the rage in the summer. Bernd smiled as Petra approached but avoided praising her looks. “Well, where should we go then?” she asked.

“It really depends,” said Bernd, “whether you want sand or not, shade or sun, privacy or a public place.”

Petra looked confused. “Do you have a suggestion? I’ll just join in.”

“I tend to avoid sand and sun,” said Bernd, “even though the privacy isn’t that bad. There is a park around the corner near the library and benches overlooking the sea where there is some shade.”

“Okay,” said Petra, “Show the way!”

They walked through the busy streets into the quieter area, where houses were lined up on the left and the park came into view on the right. Bernd showed the way to the benches and found that they were occupied. The only free bench was where he had met Gabi, but it was in the sun. Petra said, “It’s a bit cloudy, so we could sit over there, and maybe the other bench will be free after a while.” Bernd agreed and followed Petra, who led the way. When they sat down, Petra asked how Bernd was doing because he wasn’t very talkative. Bernd said he was fine and a loner, so he sometimes forgot that people usually talked. Petra smiled and said, “Well, maybe when we leave the island, you’ll have become more talkative!” Bernd smiled and took out the volume of the Magic Mountain, and Petra commented on its bulky appearance: “I wouldn’t want to carry that around with me. My paperback is sufficient – ​​and is lighter.”

Bernd thought about a comment about the lightness of the content but kept it to himself. “Yeah, but I don’t usually carry it around with me,” he lied.

Petra accepted the silence that ensued as they began to read but occasionally glanced at Bernd to make sure he hadn’t abandoned her. She felt comfortable in his company but sensed that Bernd was somewhat brooding and gloomy, which she associated with the loss of his wife. Her paperback was entertaining enough, but it was strange for her to sit next to someone without any sort of communication. Bernd was also distracted and barely turned the pages of his book; instead, he was thinking about a situation he had not foreseen.

He returned to his book and chuckled softly at a passage that said of Hans Castorp: “Exacting occupation dragged at his nerves, it wore him out; quite openly he confessed that he liked better to have his time free, not weighted with the leaden load of effort; lying spacious before him, not divided up by obstacles one had to grit one’s teeth and conquer, one after the other.”

Petra looked up: “I didn’t know it was a comedy!” she said, smiling.

Bernd smiled back and said, “Oh, it’s not that, but some statements…” Bernd explained that the main character states that he respects work and then read the passage to her.

“Hmm, that sounds like a privileged young man who doesn’t know what working people have to go through!” said Petra and Bernd was amazed at how accurate she was.

“Very astute!” he commented.

“Not really. My husband was a lazy ass, and he respected work as long as other people were doing it.”

“Yes,” said Bernd, “I’ve come across that kind often enough.”

“You said you were a geriatric nurse, didn’t you?” Petra asked, “Wasn’t that physically demanding? I can’t imagine people doing it up until retirement.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised what necessity makes you do,” answered Bernd, “But in a way I cheated because they put me in management early on, so really, I was only working on the ward for about seven years, including my training.”

“Is nursing management easier?” Petra asked.

“It’s different,” said Bernd, “The stress is different, and somehow you need to be able to answer any number of queries at any time. Of course, you are responsible for the whole service you are providing, which is a bit of a burden, because you are the people that relatives complain to.”

“I wasn’t good under stress, which is perhaps why I couldn’t hold down a job. My husband caused me a lot of stress too, but that’s another story …” Petra broke off conspicuously and Bernd decided not to pursue the question.

Bernd turned on a hunch towards the library, and strangely enough, he saw Gabi walking down the path. He jumped up and said, “Wait here, I’ve just got to catch the librarian …” and ran towards Gabi, leaving Petra surprised back at the bench. She watched him dash off with an energy she hadn’t seen before, except when he came late to the clinic, and she was a little disappointed. But seeing them talk and walking towards her, she was reconciled. Gabi was very young, Petra thought, and could have almost been Bernd’s grandchild. But as Gabi came closer, Petra saw that she was a few years older than that.

“Petra, this is Gabi, who I told you about!” said Bernd, a little out of breath.

Gabi looked surprised but said, “Hello, Petra. I’m not sure what he told you; we hardly know each other!”

Bernd looked embarrassed and said, “I meant I told her about the library.”

Petra confirmed, “Yes, it was the library he told me about. Have you been a librarian long?”

Gabi smiled at Bernd and said, “So you haven’t told her much about me,” and then turned to Petra, “I’m a stand-in; Mrs Schmidt is the librarian; I’m just a student with a holiday job.”

“Oh, I see,” said Petra, “Bernd said you may have some paperbacks for me?”

“Sure, we even have the paperback depot, as we call it, where you can swap books,” confirmed Gabi, “For every one you bring, you can take a different one with you. That way, our stock is replenished, and the choice of books is renewed.”

Petra stood up and started walking with Gabi towards the building, leaving Bernd a little lost for words, so he gathered up the book, his cardigan and bag and followed them. Petra and Gabi seemed to hit it off immediately, and they soon laughed together. Petra glanced back at Bernd to check he was following them and then continued chatting. Gabi gave Petra a detailed introduction to the library and, in particular, the paperback depot, asking about Petra’s preferences and making suggestions. Bernd went to the back, where the comfy chairs were, and sat down with his book. The constant chatter of the two women meant he had difficulty concentrating, so he started browsing the shelves himself, occasionally peering over at the two women who continued chatting as though Bernd wasn’t there.

After about thirty minutes, Bernd took his book and things and sauntered to the door. Petra looked up and said, “You’re leaving?” but Gabi didn’t turn around.

“Yeah,” said Bernd, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and left.

Home Truths

Back in his hotel room, Bernd reflected on the “blank slate” that Hans Castorp was at the novel’s beginning and how his potential and direction were unclear. Of course, the privileged environment he lived in was already noted on this slate, so it wasn’t entirely blank. His recorded views showed Castorp was passive and distant, not fully engaged with the world around him. He had not yet explored or experienced a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection to something larger than himself or found the bonds and relationships that make up the character.

It was Bernd’s way of questioning himself, and he wondered if his being alone since his wife’s death had been a break from all the things Castorp still had to learn. Bernd had not overlooked the lesson he had learned in the library, that he had unreasonable hopes and expectations, and that Petra and Gabi had the advantage of being free from such thoughts. Their connection was fluid and natural, as women often are with each other. He remembered a time when he was comfortable in the company of women. Still, his cut-off feelings sought relief on this trip, and he could not expect people to meet such needs, as they burdened every interaction.

These problems he had conveniently circumnavigated in his solitude, moving like a ghost between the living people, observing but not engaging; it was as though he had died as well. The pain returned, and once again, he felt amputated, lacking the wholeness he had experienced for fifty years. Since then, the dialogue in his mind has been one-sided and lacked the wisdom he found in the interaction with his wife, which is why this enhancing voice now came from literature, and the back and forth he shared with his wife was replaced by the lessons learnt from novels. But that other voice didn’t caress or show love. It didn’t smile at him or lovingly correct him. It didn’t look to see if he was okay.

The therapist in the psychiatric clinic had said that he shouldn’t cling to her memory, and Bernd had looked at her and thought, “You have no idea!” She had read his expression and said, “I know it was something special …” but it wasn’t, it was unique. It was a part of what Bernd had become in the company of his wife. He noticed that many people couldn’t understand how two people could join to be one in the way they had become and cherish their differences as enhancements to their person rather than reasons to quarrel.

Bernd wiped the tears from his eyes and realised he was hungry. He washed his face and put on the white hoody to find a place to eat. Bernd knew from experience that, until trying everything on the menu, he would end up at the same place as on the last two evenings, and it was so. The warm evening air was intoxicating, and he felt at peace after mourning. Bernd thought it had been the right thing to do after messing up the afternoon. He enjoyed the meal and a glass of beer in a niche of the busy street bar, watching the people walk by, tanned by the warm sun during the day. Their eyes seemed to lighten up the brown faces, and their skin had a silky shine under the lotions they had used.

Bernd pulled his reading volume from the chair. He started reading, occasionally looking up to see the people pass by. Suddenly, Petra stood among the tourists, peering at him questioningly. Bernd stood up and waved. Petra smiled and made her way to him. “I wasn’t sure whether it was you or if I was disturbing you. But the white hoody gave you away.”

Bernd smiled; he felt differently now towards her; his feelings had been cleared up, and he intended to relax. “You are quite welcome,” he said, to which Petra beamed a smile that seemed to say, “I’m glad you are feeling better.”

“What do you want to drink?” Bernd asked.

“Don’t worry, I can sort that out myself,” and she waved to the waiter who came over to take her order. As he left, Petra pointed to the book he had put on the chair between them, “I thought you don’t carry that thing around with you?”

“Exceptions prove the rule,” he said deceptively. “Did you find something to read?”

“Oh yes, Gabi pulled novels out of the corners to please my tastes!” Petra smiled but then, with a questioning look, asked, “Weren’t you a bit upset?”

“Oh no,” lied Bernd, “You both hit it off so well that I thought I was redundant so I could go and do my thing.”

“Gabi said that you wanted to talk to her about the book,” Petra said, “But then I got in the way.”

“No, we can talk about the book anytime. I’m glad you found something,” said Bernd, but he felt caught out.

“Bernd, I think I should say this to you, even though we have only known each other for such a short time, but you are a terrible liar.” Her words came out strangely tender and caring, “Your enthusiasm when you saw Gabi was … let me say, a little strange for a man of your age.”

Bernd lifted his glass and drank it empty. “You are quite direct, aren’t you?” Bernd commented.

“Yes, it’s been my downfall before,” she answered, “I just felt I should tell you.”

Bernd waved to the waiter, and Petra was unsure whether he was leaving or ordering another drink and was relieved to see that it was the latter. “I appreciate your honesty,” said Bernd, and he meant it. “I thought about it this afternoon, and … you’re right. I have been a recluse for too long, and I don’t know how to behave anymore.”

“Wow!” said Petra, “I thought I was in trouble. I didn’t see that coming!”

They talked for two hours until Petra said it was time to sleep, and when Bernd offered to accompany her home, she told him, “No, I can do that alone. If I’m not careful, you’ll hit me with that book!” They both laughed and called over to the waiter. Petra insisted that they pay separately, and then they walked to the hotel, where they said goodbye until the following day.

Bernd was pleasantly surprised at how the evening had played out. He walked into the hotel’s foyer where a young woman and her companion, the worst for wear after a party, judging by the glitter in their hair, were debating over which room number they had. The same young receptionist who had suffered the Ukrainian woman’s wailing was trying to cope with them, but they thought it was all hilarious. Finally, they found the key in a handbag, swerved and stumbled towards the elevator, so Bernd took the stairs.

Bernd puffed and panted as he climbed the two floors, but when he approached his room, the glitter on the floor and the ecstatic laughing he heard told him they had been quicker and were next door to him. He hoped that the walls dampened the sound enough to be able to sleep but found that they couldn’t cope with the sheer volume. When the laughter turned to moans and groans, with familiar creaking noises, Bernd left the room with his book and went to the foyer, where he sat under a light to read his book.

The beer and his tiredness made it challenging to concentrate, so he reached into his bag and pulled out his mobile phone, which, since leaving home, had been switched off. He hated the thing, and he struggled with his feelings before turning it on. After the starting phase, it started beeping as all the messages came in, and he saw that besides twelve emails, he had eighty-two messages. He opened the emails first and found that just as he had thought, eight of them were from his daughter. One was from a friend, and three were from his son. The messages were all but a few from his daughter, pleading with him to get in touch and answer her emails.

But he was too tired to reply, so he dared to go back to his room, but it was quiet now, except for the distant sound of snoring.


The following day, Bernd called his daughter: “Hello Sanni, it’s me, Dad.”

The voice on the other end gasped, “You’re calling me?” She asked desperately, “When was the last time you did that?”

“I’m sorry,” Bernd replied, “I should have called earlier…”

“Well,” said Sanni, whose real name was Susanne, “I can’t disagree with that! How are you doing?”

“I’m feeling better than I have for a long time,” said Bernd. “The air is good for me, but I think meeting people helped me.”

Bernd heard Sanni on the other end, but she didn’t say anything. He thought she was crying. “Sanni?”

“It’s okay. It is such a relief after months - no years - of you hiding from the rest of the world. Will you call Sasha? He was worried, too!”

“Yes, I will, but why eighty messages, Sanni?” Bernd asked tenderly.

“You’re taking a trip for the first time in years, completely out of the blue - and I’m still not sure where you are - and you’re asking why I’m worried?” Sanni’s voice showed that her sobs had turned to annoyance.

“Okay,” said Bernd, “I apologize. I am in Borkum and am attending a seminar to relieve my anxiety disorder.”

“Borkum?” cried Sanni, “Where were we as children? You hated it there!”

Bernd was at a loss for words; his enthusiasm had waned a little at the time, but there were other reasons that he couldn’t explain to Sanni.

“I know, but I’m here now for the next few weeks, and I promise I’ll keep you informed. Just don’t send me eighty messages, okay? I’ll have to go because I have to breakfast and go to the clinic …”

“What kind of therapy are you having? Not what we had?” asked Sanni.

“No, that was because you and Sasha had chronic bronchitis, him more than you. I’m having psychological therapy, well, sort of. Today, we are learning about mindfulness, for example.”

Sanni sighed, “That sounds great,” and added somewhat sarcastically, “Exactly what you need after shutting your mind off!”

“Okay, Sanni, I love you both, but I must go. Tell Sasha I’ll ring later today, and don’t worry!”

“Wow, this has been quite a telephone call,” Sanni paused, “We love you, Dad; that is why we were concerned, but I’ll let you go and have breakfast. Bye, love you! And call Sasha!”

Bernd needed a moment to recover his composure and dry his eyes, which had filled with tears. She was correct; it was almost like coming back into the land of the living, and it hurt him to realize how much grief she had expressed.

At breakfast, reading through the schedule, he realized that mindfulness filled three days, and he asked himself what it was about mindfulness that took so long. When he approached the clinic entrance, he saw Petra waiting, and as he approached her, she came up and kissed him on his cheek as a greeting. He showed his surprise, and she said, “That’s for not hitting me with that book!” He saw over her shoulder the approaching Klaus, whose face expressed a wrong assumption, and he said, “I see you two have been getting to know each other better!”

Before Bernd could react, Petra said, “Just face it, Klaus, you’re jealous!” and walked through the clinic entrance, leaving the two men standing. Klaus looked at Bernd and said, “A bit perky that one!”

“You think so?” replied Bernd and walked away to follow Petra to the seminar room. Petra sat next to one of the women she had sat next to in the past days and started talking with her. Bernd sat, as in the past, in the second but last row and pulled out his notebook. Klaus came and sat next to him and said, “Taking notes, eh? Very keen!”

“I normally take notes everywhere I go. I’ve just not done so the last two times,” Bernd answered.

When the gaunt young instructor with the ashen complexion, who had also taught diaphragmatic breathing, came into the room, Klaus sighed audibly and said, “Oh no!” The instructor heard the remark clearly because he looked over to Klaus but then walked to the front and brought his chair to the front of his desk. He then asked everyone to rearrange the room so that he and all participants could sit in a circle, and he moved the tables to the side of the room. He explained that they could leave the room like that at the end of the session because they had the room for three days.

As everyone sat down, the instructor told them that his first name was Han, which caused a little laughter, and he confirmed that “Yes,” he said, “My parents named me after Han Solo.” He smiled as he asked, “So, who were you with in the shower this morning?” More jovial chattering and Klaus nudged Bernd and said, “I know who you were with!” It was loud enough for Petra to turn and give him a look of disgust. “No, Klaus, you are wrong. I was alone in the shower,” said Bernd and Klaus, “Yeah, sure!”

Han said, “When we do anything, our minds are constantly chattering, and we are imagining people that we will see during the day or perhaps have seen the day before, and a shower is a place where many people prepare mentally for the start of work.”

Klaus said: “Han, we are mostly pensioners, so I sing in the shower.” Petra responded with “Oh God!” and received applause and amused laughter. “I sing quite well,” Klaus said defensively, which received even more laughter. Han had difficulty bringing the group back to the topic but continued, “A lot of people go through conversations in the shower that they’ll have later. These are signs that we are not paying attention to the things at hand. When we become overwhelmed and experience anxiety, it may be because we have not even learned to focus on the moment and the one task we are doing at that moment.”

“We are women,” said a woman whom Bernd hadn’t noticed before, “We are multitaskers, so we have to do several things at the same time; we won’t get things done!”

Han stood up and walked around the group. “That’s a misunderstanding,” he replied. “Several studies have confirmed that true multitasking – completing more than one task at the same time – is a myth. People who think they can divide their attention. People who work between multiple tasks simultaneously don’t get more done. They perform less, are more stressed, and perform worse than those who only complete a single task.”

Petra raised her hand and said, “But we have the feeling that we are managing more and that we would otherwise not manage; how do you explain that?”

Han was visibly pleased with the exchange: “Well, most of us can do two simple tasks at the same time, like walking and talking like I’m doing right now, or driving a car and talking, which is starting to get difficult, but you that can’t be said for more complex tasks. David Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in America, has said we simply don’t have the brainpower to multitask, I quote: ‘… as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, and you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks, there just aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.’”

There was a brief silence, but Klaus spoke up, “I know people in my business who can’t cope, so I can understand that there are differences in abilities. But others revel in the work process.”

Han replied, “We must differentiate, are your staff attempting to do two or more tasks simultaneously, are they switching back and forth between tasks, or are they performing several tasks in rapid succession, like on a production line? Each has a serious effect on our ability to do work well and gain meaning from the process.”

Klaus interjected: “Their salary is, in the end, what gives meaning to work!”

Han smiled and asked Klaus, “Do you enjoy boring, repetitive tasks?”

“No,” I give them to my staff to do," laughed Klaus, but not everybody laughed with him, and Bernd asked himself whether this was going the way it should.

Han replied, “Exactly, we give such tasks to computers, or other people who can’t choose. If our workday is made up of multiple tasks that are not engaging, we switch to automatic. Our body is working, but our mind is disengaged, and as long as there are no disturbances, or new challenges, that can go okay, but in the case of driving, how many accidents have been caused by distraction? By people who, in effect, forgot they were driving?”

After a short pause, Han continued, “Back to mindfulness. We’ll do a short experiment where you all relax, find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and try to count your breaths. Try to practise using the diaphragmatic breathing technique I taught you. All you have to do is count to ten, then go back to one and start again. Be honest with yourself and if you notice that your thoughts are wandering, start again. We will do this experiment for five minutes. Please start.”

Bernd put both feet on the floor, sat upright, closed his eyes, and immediately noticed his tinnitus, which seemed to get louder and louder when it became quiet around him. His counting to ten was successful the first two times, but he then noticed how his thoughts began to wander, and he thought of Sanni, then of Sasha, and Petra’s kiss, which had surprised him. Bernd was going to give up but kept his eyes closed and tried repeatedly. The longer the session, the harder it became, and he was sure five minutes had already passed. At long last, Han said, “Okay, you can open your eyes, and if you want you can have a drink. There are bottles of water next to the door.” Almost everybody stood up and went to the crate at the door, but Petra had a small bottle in her bag, so she just stood up and drank from it. There was murmuring, and a few chuckles, and slowly, everyone returned to their seats carrying their opened bottle of water.

Han stood in the circle and asked, “So what did you experience?”

“I nearly fell asleep,” offered one of the older participants who had remained inconspicuous until now, and several made it clear with a nodding of their heads and chuckles that they had the same experience. Han waited for other contributions, “I couldn’t complete one count,” said Petra. Han nodded and asked, “Was anyone successful?”

Bernd replied, “The first count and perhaps the second, but after that …”

Klaus interrupted, “I had no problems!” A moan of disdain, as far as Bernd could tell, led by Petra, went through the room. Han just clapped his hands twice and ignored Klaus.

“I nearly fell off the chair,” said the nudist lady, whose deeply brown face was sporting contrasting make-up again, and everyone laughed. Han laughed as well and explained that mindfulness’s purpose was to learn not to engage with thoughts as they arise but to let them pass. Instead, the concentration on the breath is paramount, and no matter how often one fails to count to ten, to return to the breath. The group practised once more, and then Han told them that their homework was to try to concentrate on their breath whenever they were waiting or not engaged in conversation, whether in the supermarket, the restaurant, or sitting on the beach in the sun.

Han closed the session with the reminder that mindfulness was one of the cognitive skills that prevent anxiety and take power away from thoughts, which can sometimes be unnerving and distracting, but in the end, they are just thoughts.

In the end, the group expressed their appreciation with a short applause, and although Bernd took part, it surprised him a bit. Klaus didn’t applaud.

A long-awaited call

Bernd took his cardigan, bag and empty bottle and left Klaus, who was still brooding, sitting in the circle. Bernd put his empty water bottle in the crate and was about to leave the room when Petra approached him: “Hey Bernd, I’m going to spend some time with the girls this afternoon.” She waved to the three women he hadn’t yet got to know better, who waved back.

“Yeah, sure,” he replied, “I don’t know what I want to do, but I have to call my son, and I wanted to see Gabi to see if she wanted to talk about the book.” Bernd looked undecided, and Petra touched his arm before saying, “Yes, do that. I told you she was expecting this conversation. We’ll rent a few bikes and do some exercise.” Then she left him and went to the other women.

Bernd thought it was a good idea, especially as his joints were stiff and he hadn’t done much sport. Bernd missed his bike but wasn’t sure if he should hire one on the same day as Petra and her group for fear they would think he was following them. Bernd liked to give women space and practised this with his wife and female colleagues. But he had also promised to call Sasha, even though his son was just as reticent on the phone as he was.

The sky was slightly cloudy as he walked to the railing at the beach, so the sun was warm, but he didn’t want to seek shade. The sea breeze blew into Bernd’s face, and he felt a little anxious. But he knew that since his depression he had become far too sensitive. He might have taken Petra’s words as a rejection, even though it was understandable that she didn’t want to be with him all the time. Seeing that it was midday, Bernd looked at his phone and wondered when it would be a good time to call his son. He decided to try around 4pm and put the phone back in his pocket.

Bernd went back to the hotel to get his book, and on the way back he decided to rent a bike himself and change into shorter trousers. He thought the women would probably make their way to the North Beach. This northern beach stretched eastwards, so Bernd decided to take the road to the southernmost beach, where he could read his book and, if he wished, explore the area further. There were plenty of bicycle hire companies, so Bernd hired a bike from the nearest one, and with his book in his bag slung over his shoulder, he made his way to the south beach, which was full; so he continued along the Loopdeelenweg, a walkway, mainly for cyclists, that connected the beaches, and arrived at the southernmost beach, thankful that he had chosen shorter trousers. It had become quite warm, although the sky was cloudy, and many families had also made their way there.

It was quieter there than on the south beach. Bernd couldn’t sit in the dunes, which were closed off, but he found a place on the beach and, opening the book, joined Hans Castorp and his sick cousin Joachim Ziemssen on the Magic Mountain. Bernd reflected on how tuberculosis was a serious and widespread public health problem at the time of the novel. Although the disease is still not completely eradicated, the discovery of antibiotics has revolutionised the treatment of tuberculosis.

The character Adriano von Settembrini, portrayed in the novel as an Italian humanist and supposedly a voice of reason and enlightenment, came across as a scoffer and was always looking for something to joke about. Still, Bernd thought how he would appreciate a conversation with such a person. However, Bernd reasoned he might not laugh as much as the naïve Castorp at his blasphemies. In comparison, Klaus often made fun of the course they were attending, but his criticism had no humour. Settembrini’s enthusiastic endorsement of a ‘Hymn to Satan’, Bernd thought, was in line with his more comprehensive critique of religious dogma and authoritarianism, particularly the conservative forces represented by institutions such as the Catholic Church. Although Bernd was unfamiliar with Carducci’s poem, it sounded like a rebellious work that challenged traditional religious beliefs and was probably a symbol of intellectual and artistic defiance.

Bernd thought about his last two years, during which he had withdrawn from most social activities, and how he became more critical of what he perceived as social standards and expectations and society’s inability to deal with his non-conformity. The Settembrini character seemed to be more than a sceptic. In his dismay at having contracted tuberculosis, his caustic criticism merged with concern about what he saw as forces of oppression, conservatism, and dogma. Bernd couldn’t help but think that the sadness that Mann had attributed to his character was possibly due to the author’s feelings toward the social changes that had occurred leading up to and the brutality of the First World War that he had experienced, which he placed in his character in the years before the war. As he sat on the beach that summer day, the situation in the book was far away. But Bernd felt a similar dismay that the world had not changed much despite all our technological advances. The conflicts of the world, despite his attempts to shut them out, aggravated his remaining melancholy.

Bernd was happy that he was sitting on the beach in winter and not trapped on a mountain. Still, his love of sandy beaches was limited, and he soon packed up his book and pushed the bike to the Loopdeelenweg, where he set off for the library. Bernd watched the tourists on the move and was glad they didn’t radiate any of his melancholy. He decided it was actually a good idea to come to the island. Bernd had always felt joy watching little children play. When his children suddenly grew up, he was angry with himself for not following their development closely and instead being busy with his job.

Bernd arrived at the park before the library opened. He leaned his bike against the bench, sat down to admire the view and placed the Magic Mountain beside him. Noticing that his previously pale skin was beginning to itch and redden in exposed areas, Bernd realised that the sun was burning him despite the thin clouds. He touched his balding head and realised he needed a hat. His wife had always made sure that he thought of such things and brought sunscreen whenever he needed it. She had commented that his concern for others often made him forget these little necessities for himself.

He heard a familiar voice say, “Looks like that’s a bad sunburn!” It was Gabi, and as she looked at the bike, she asked, “Where have you been?”

“Not far,” Bernd said as he turned around, “I’ll probably go further tomorrow. I miss the freedom of my bike.” He stood up and noticed that Gabi had a rucksack on her back and empty bags in her hands. “What are you up to?”

“Oh, I’m going shopping,” she said, unnecessarily embarrassed, "I thought you might be here and wanted to tell you I’d be back later. Mrs Schmidt is back from the mainland and is opening today, so you’ll have a chance to meet her. I told her you’d probably turn up, but I thought I’d tell you in person since I saw you.

Bernd was slightly disappointed: “Are you going to be away for long?”

“Oh no, but at least an hour!” said Gabi, “Mrs Schmidt said she was a big fan of Thomas Mann, so you could talk to her about the book,” she pointed to the volume on the bench. “Did you get far?”

“No, not really; a lot has happened, and the book is quite thought-provoking.”

“Where did Petra go?” Gabi asked, tilting her head curiously.

“She went on a cycling trip with some other women,” Bernd replied.

“Why didn’t you go with her, I think she likes you?”

“I guess I’m a bit of a loner,” Bernd replied, “and women like to be together.”

“Very clever!” Gabi commented: “But not always true! I’m going now, and if you’re still here when I get back, we can have a chat, OK?” She turned and walked away without waiting for an answer. Bernd looked after her, feeling that the conversation had ended abruptly.

Bernd had to think about the words, “I think she likes you,” referring to Petra, which had not escaped him. It worried him that Gabi had noticed it too and that Klaus had already commented on it. Bernd had no intention of attracting a “fling” and it hadn’t occurred to him as a possibility. At his age and after the loss he had suffered, the idea of ​​a romantic relationship was distant and not desirable to him. He turned to the Magic Mountain and started reading.

It suddenly occurred to him that he had to keep an eye on the time to keep his promise and call Sasha. Sasha was almost as distraught as his father had been when his mother died, and Bernd had fallen into a deep hole. When Bernd appeared, he surmised that Sasha had been through a similarly dark night. Sanni had appealed to her father to look after his son when Bernd was having a difficult time, and he felt he had made mistakes that were still causing father and son to distance themselves. This made all conversations, especially on the phone, very difficult.

Bernd decided to wait until 4pm to talk to Sasha first before going to the library and tried to concentrate on reading the book, but he couldn’t concentrate. So much had changed in him in so few days that he was taken aback at the influence of the trip to the island. It was especially strange considering the impression he had after his last trip here with the family all those years ago, and even though times had changed as much as he had, he shook his head in disbelief. He became suddenly self-conscious of his actions and how that may appear to others, and looked around, but there was no-one to be seen except an elderly couple several hundred metres away who seemed to be in a deep conversation.

Finally, the clock showed 4pm and he called Sasha. The phone rang three times and Sasha answered, “Becker?”

“Yeah, here too, how are you, my son?” asked Bernd. The moment of silence, then a sigh from the other end, made Bernd nervous. Then a voice like his own said, “I wasn’t sure if you would call, even after Sanni assured me.”

“I’m sorry,” Bernd offered, “I should have called earlier.” Another moment of silence had Bernd wondering if he should fill the space, but then Sasha replied.

“Yes, you should have. You should have at least left your phone on or been at home when Sanni and I knocked on the door or answered our emails”.

“I will try and make it up to you,” Bernd stammered, “I’ll at least try, and I …”

Sasha interrupted, “Dad, can we move on? This isn’t helping, and I think we just need to pick up the pieces.”

Bernd was now silent for a moment, surprised by Sasha’s proposal and lack of resent. “Of course,” Bernd said, “I’ll be back home in a few weeks, I could even cancel here …”

“Dad, slow down, finish what you are doing – it seems to have prompted you to call us, so there seems to be something positive going on. When you are finished, come home and let’s reassess the situation.”

“Okay,” replied Bernd, astonished at his son’s reply, “but I’ll call regularly, is this the best time for you?”

“Dad, if you give me a call once a week to tell me you’re okay, I’m happy. If you want to send a message, then that is also okay.” It sounded like he was the father, berating his son. Bernd had somehow expected a different reaction.

“How are you?” asked Bernd.

“I’m okay, there are a few problems at work, but its manageable,” Sasha replied. “I’ve got a new girlfriend – well, new for you. Sanni knows her, and she sends her regards.” Bernd heard chuckling in the background and felt relieved.

“Well, okay,” Bernd said, “we can talk a bit more next time. Same time next week?”

“Sure,” said Sasha, “Same time next week. Dad, look after yourself!”

“Yeah, you too. And give my regards to your girlfriend – what’s her name?”

“Jennifer,” Sasha replied, “Bye Dad!” And he was gone.

Change of heart

Mrs. Schmidt was a small woman who looked a few years older than Bernd but was very lively, had a round figure and a bright red face. When Bernd entered the library building, he heard her laughing loudly at something the person she was talking to had said. “Yes, that’s what young people are like these days, but I love them all.” She waved Bernd in when she saw him, indicating that it would only be a few minutes. “Hey, Friedrich, I don’t want to bother you, but I have visitors; say hello to your wife and tell her that I’ll call her at the weekend; yes, goodbye, Friedrich, all the best to you both!”

When she hung up, she quickly turned to Bernd and smiled at him: “You must be Mr. Becker!” She hopped out from behind the counter, gave him her hand, which he shook firmly, and said: "Schmidt, nice to get to know you!

“Becker, likewise,” Bernd replied, “I’ve heard much about you. It’s great that you maintain this service for the island.”

“Oh, what! That’s my passion,” she said. “What’s an old widow supposed to do? I heard you were left alone, too."

Bernd cringed at the thought of being “left alone,” knowing how much his wife loved him. “Not quite,” Bernd replied, “I have two children who look after their elderly father.” Bernd knew he was glossing over his situation, but he still accepted it as true.

“Yes, I have them too, but they have moved out into the wide world and only come home now and then. My oldest is in India, and my youngest is in America. But I guess that’s just how it is." She thought for a moment and then said: “Gabi is shopping. I came home late yesterday, and there’s nothing left in the fridge.” Her mind was awake and well-informed: "I heard you read The Magic Mountain. This is a bit difficult for young people. But at our age, we are probably more familiar with the formalities of that age,” Ms. Schmidt said.

“Well, I’m not finished yet,” said Bernd. “Thomas Mann is a challenge, and I’m not an academic. I’m always thinking about history. I probably make too many comparisons to today to just read the story," said Bernd.

“Maybe, but I’m not an academic either. I love books and our German culture. I think it’s worth preserving," Ms. Schmidt replied. “Tea or water? I don’t drink coffee. It’s bad for my heart,” she said.

“Thanks, water is enough too. Very kind of you!"

"Oh what! If we can’t offer a visitor a glass of water, we are really poor souls,” said Ms. Schmidt, who was already opening a water bottle.

“I’m afraid I haven’t gotten that far yet. It’s a big book, and I probably won’t finish it before returning home.”

“Then you must borrow or purchase the book from your local library. “Nowadays, there are these electronic books – not for me, but that makes them cheaper,” said Ms. Schmidt. “Gabi said you like to talk about what you read. Was that your intention or to get out of the sun on this beautiful day?” She pointed at his legs. “You should buy some sunscreen. Otherwise, you’ll have problems - the wind and clouds are deceiving," she said.

“Yes, I seriously underestimated the sun; I’ll probably have to buy a hat too.”

“Let me see,” said Ms Smith, who had gone into mother mode and motioned for him to show his scalp. "This does not look good. It’s best to stop by the pharmacy as soon as possible. They’re used to people doing things like that. That happens often enough.”

“Yes, I will,” Bernd replied and changed the subject. “The book made me think that the situation in the book is not dissimilar to our situation.”

“Do you think so?” asked Ms. Schmidt. “I don’t know; those were different times; the people were stiff and stubborn, and above all, they were all sick.” She motioned for Bernd to sit in the seating area next to the counter. The simple chairs weren’t as comfortable as the armchairs at the back of the library, but Ms. Smith seemed to want to stay in the front.

“I meant the danger of war, but the characters are symbols of attitudes that we still find today, don’t you think?” Bernd wondered where the conversation would lead.

Ms. Schmidt rubbed her nose and grimaced. "So, you think we’re headed for war? That’s not the kind of thought I like, I must say, especially not on such a beautiful day.”

“I’m sorry,” Bernd apologised, “I think there are other aspects we can discuss. What memories do you have of the book?”

“Very long conversations and a long-winded story!”

“Oh, so you don’t think it was a good choice Gaby made for me?”

“Oh, linguistically, it’s a masterpiece! But the lessons he wanted to teach are so old news – at least for me. The lure of Clavdia Chauchat is so old-fashioned – and then so much text in French! Clavdia may be a mysterious and enigmatic woman who captivates Hans, but her charm and sophistication are rather stereotypical for today."

Bernd looked at the book and placed it on the table. There was silence, and Ms Smith looked as if she was about to apologise when Gaby entered the library and broke the silence. “Haaallo! “I’m back,” she called happily. Mrs. Schmidt and Bernd stood up and smiled, relieved at the change in conversation, and Gaby threw the purchases on the table. “So, what were you talking about? The Magic Mountain?"

“Yes,” said Ms. Schmidt before Bernd could answer, “I told him that was old hat!”

Gaby laughed, clearly unfazed by the criticism. “It’s a bit stuffy,” she confirmed, “but it was a book we worked on at university. What do you think, Bernd?”

Bernd was at a loss for words: “I, I’m not sure,” he said.

“I think Hans Castorp is not a good protagonist for a man of Bernd’s age,” Ms. Schmidt said. “All this pining and desire for a seductress belong to the younger years.”

“Yes,” Gaby agreed, “I hadn’t thought of that.” She sorted the purchases she had made for herself from those she had made for Mrs. Schmidt. The two women talked about what Gaby had bought, and Bernd strolled to the back of the library and sat in an armchair.

He believed that Ms. Schmidt was right, and after meeting Gaby and Petra, his thoughts took a direction that he found ridiculous for a man of his age. Young Castorp’s romantic adventures had not yet appeared on the pages he had read, but if Castorp was as fascinated by Clavdia as Mrs Schmidt had suggested, it might awaken unrealistic hopes. After his wife’s death, he escaped those feelings by riding his bike to get a different perspective, some fresh air, and hopefully other thoughts. It hadn’t always worked, but it wasn’t an infatuation he’d suffered from, but a loss. He had started to leave the idea of intimacy behind before he left for Borkum, but it had flared up again in conversation with some real people.

He decided to choose a different book, perhaps with a lighter theme, but he knew he was still looking for magic. But was that right? The magic he had with his wife was special, and it ended abruptly - incomprehensibly. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he found himself sobbing uncontrollably. He hadn’t been like that at the funeral, keeping a stubbornly serious face but not being able to laugh for a year. Even after that, the laughter came out in a measured, slightly muffled manner.

The two women heard the sobs and glanced at each other. Ms. Schmidt motioned for Gaby to stay at the front and went to the back of the library. She stood there in silence for a moment until Bernd looked up. He pulled out a tissue, wiped his eyes, then looked up and said, “I’m sorry!”

“There is no reason to apologise. “I know what you’re going through,” Ms. Smith said, touching his shoulder. “I was sad, I was angry, I was devastated, but then I decided to move on with my life.”

“Maybe I should never have come here,” said Bernd. “I don’t know why it came out now. I’d managed quite well so far…"

“No, you suppressed it and prevented your true feelings from coming out. Now you have been surprised, and the feelings are coming to the fore.” She made a hand gesture that performed surprise, and Bernd smiled.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said, “I have to look for another book…”

“Book?” Mrs. Schmidt barked: “You need people, Bernd, not books. They’ve been trapped in books long enough. Use your time here to get in touch with people, do things you’ve never done before, maybe go swimming or to the sauna. Leave the books on the shelf for now – they’ll be there when you return.”

Bernd looked shocked and didn’t know what to say. He looked at Mrs Smith, who had looked older but now looked ten years younger. Her cheeks were flushed with emotion, and she smiled. “I shocked you, didn’t I?”

Bernd nodded but said, “Well, surprised is probably the better word. I’ll think about what you said, but you may be right - you probably are …”

“Don’t think about right or wrong, Bernd, just what you need now.”

Gaby appeared from between the shelves with a cautious smile, and Bernd smiled back. He stood up, took a deep breath, and said, “Well, thank you both. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I’ll leave the Magic Mountain here.” They both nodded, and as he walked to the door, they followed. Bernd turned to say goodbye, and Gaby gave him a quick hug. Mrs Schmidt patted him on the shoulder, but they all remained silent. And he left.


Bernd didn’t know what he needed at that moment other than something to soothe his sunburn and some sunscreen. He had quickly dealt with his unexpected emotional outburst before leaving the library, but whilst pushing his bicycle on the pavement opposite the statue of the bathers, he let out another sob - a single sob. He looked around in embarrassment, but no one had seen him. Approaching a bench in the park, he sat down and tried to collect himself. It bothered him that it happened so suddenly and unexpectedly and that he was more volatile than he had thought. The outburst at Gaby had been a sign of his instability, he thought, and now a confirmation. Gaby would avoid him, he thought. Thank goodness Petra wasn’t there.

He left the bike and went to the chemists, where he got what he needed - and a lecture on the dangers of sunburn, which he didn’t need. The seafront was busy as he walked up to the railing to breathe in the sea air, and the sand was covered with bathers in various stages of undress. He turned to walk towards the hotel and saw a familiar figure limping towards the hotel. It was Petra. She had a bad graze on her left knee, which was causing her problems. Bernd walked towards her and broke into an unfamiliar jog until he reached her. She saw him coming and turned to face him.

She had been crying but had wiped away the tears and some of the make-up she had been wearing. When Bernd reached her, she fell into his arms, something he hadn’t expected. “Oh Bernd, I’m so stupid!”

“What happened?” he asked.

“I fell off my bike, or rather I went off the road!” She looked down at the wound on her knee, “And this is the price of my stupidity!”

He looked at the wound, which didn’t look clean, and said, “You’ll have to get that looked at.”

“Can’t you do it?” she asked, “I can buy something at the chemist’s.”

“It needs to be cleaned,” Bernd replied. “There’s a hospital over there. They probably have an emergency service.” With Bernd holding her up, Petra limped to the entrance and asked the receptionist for help. The receptionist told them to go to the Miners’ Clinic, which was “not far”, as the receptionist said, in Boeddinghaus Street. Following the directions, it took them fifteen minutes to get there, and Petra was grimacing badly by the time they arrived.

Petra was asked to sit down, which she gratefully did, and when she saw that Bernd was still standing, she said, "Please stay, Bernd.” He sat down and nodded. “I hope you at least made better use of the afternoon than I did, although you do have a sunburn on your legs - and your head.” She smiled as Bernd showed her the contents of the chemist’s bag. “A little late by the looks of it,” she said, and both smiled.

They sat quietly, waiting for Petra to be called. Bernd was nervous about talking about that afternoon, so he asked, “Where were you when it happened?”

“Oh, I was riding back from a meeting with Clarissa, the nudist lady, and she’s right; everything is fine there.” She smiled, “And there were no men, so it wasn’t so bad!”

“Oh, so you did…”

“Get naked? Yes, but it was just the girls and me. I got bored and decided to go back to a bar or something. I should have stayed with them, then maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”

“Maybe,” Bernd said, “but it did. I was on the other side of the island, reading, which is how I got this sunburn.”

“You look quite sporty in your shorts, though,” Petra said with a broad smile, and she nudged him playfully with her elbow. At that moment, she was called and limped off, supported by a young trainee nurse who only reached up to her shoulders. It amused Bernd to see how she supported Petra.

Bernd realised how he had been drawn to Petra by circumstances that he had found inappropriate when he had been thinking things over in the library. He was a mess, he concluded. He enjoyed Petra’s straightforwardness; her adventurous spirit was not overbearing, and he was strangely confused about how to react. He struggled with the thought that his wife may disapprove, but Mrs Schmidt had told him that she came to a point when she decided to continue with her life. He decided just to play along and see where his journey was taking him.

When Petra appeared with a nurse, using a crutch to support herself, the nurse approached him, handed him a paper bag with material for the next wound dressing and a prescription and said, “Your wife will have to take it easy for a few days…”

Bernd interrupted, “She’s not my wife!”

“Oh, in that case, your girlfriend will need your support for a few days,” the nurse replied matter-of-factly and left. Petra came closer and smiled, “She thought you were my husband?” She laughed contagiously, and Bernd found himself laughing, too. They walked slowly out of the surgery and towards the hotel when Bernd stopped and said, “Are we going the right way?”

“What do you mean?” asked Petra.

“Shouldn’t I accompany you to your quarters? You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”

“Oh, Bernd, don’t think so much; I’ll be okay. You’re with me!” She pulled him close to her with her free arm.

Bernd decided to say nothing and continued to the hotel, where they decided to pause but then find somewhere to eat. When they took a break on the promenade, Bernd looked at the dressing and found it was firmly in place. It caused Petra no problems, and standing up she said, “I don’t really know why I was given a crutch!”

“Probably standard procedures,” suggested Bernd as they walked to the restaurant. “I won’t always be there to support you, and it can help. Especially tomorrow when you get out of bed, you might find your leg stiff.”

“Yeah, shame!” said Petra, but Bernd ignored the intimation.

They went to the restaurant where Petra had found him before and found the corner Bernd had preferred was free. Petra said, “Cosy!” as she sat down and looked around, but then she looked at Bernd with theatrical curiosity, “Where’s your book?”

Bernd smiled and said, “I thought you might notice. I decided it wasn’t the right reading material for a holiday.”

Petra smiled and said, “I told you so! Besides, you’d get a hernia if you carried it around!” They both laughed, and Bernd felt unusually relaxed. During the meal, Petra turned to Bernd and said, “You don’t laugh much, do you?”

“I just did!” Bernd said defensively.

“Yes, but when you laugh, your face is completely different.”

“What do you mean - different?” Bernd put down his knife and fork. His smile took the usual sternness out of his expression.

“You look younger when you laugh, maybe ten years or so. You should do it more often!”

Bernd said nothing but smiled at Petra and then continued to eat.

After dinner they sat and talked. Bernd did most of the talking because Petra had so many questions, and finally she asked, "What was your wife’s name? You’ve never told me.

Bernd felt emotions stir at the word ‘was’. He looked at her and said, “Brigitte!” His voice broke as he said her name. Petra noticed but ignored it and said, “Hm, Bernd and Brigitte, that has a certain ring to it.”

“Yes, that’s what we thought,” Bernd said, “but I’m not so good at talking about the past.”

“Well, you’ve told me a lot about your service in the army and your time in geriatric nursing and management,” said Petra. “But Brigitte is where your heart was - or is. And that’s OK, I understand.”

“Thank you,” Bernd said, and Petra comfortingly patted his hand. Bernd looked at her and said, “But you don’t talk much about yourself, do you?”

“Oh Bernd, I don’t know where to begin. It was such a rollercoaster,” she said. “I was married to the man every girl wanted. Imagine that! Me! I never knew why he chose me, the girl who never had a boyfriend at school”.

“Don’t put yourself down!” said Bernd.

“You’re sweet!” Petra replied. “But I should have known that I could never be enough, and when I was humiliated because everyone knew about his antics except me, I was devastated."

Bernd reached for her hand to comfort her, and she welcomed his touch. “I must admit, I came here hoping to meet someone else, and the first person I met was Klaus. He is everything my ex-husband was - only Klaus seems to have derailed, which I can only hope my ex does too!”

Despite her outgoing nature, Bernd had suspected that Petra was lonely and hurt differently than him. He was at a loss for words and told her so, but she replied: “That wasn’t the best of it, Bernd. I have a daughter - or rather, he has my daughter. When I realised what was happening, I left him and took my daughter Julia. But I was in such a mess that my very influential husband had me arrested and put in a psychiatric hospital. I lost her after that, even though I was released shortly after the proceedings”.

“My God!” exclaimed Bernd, “It gets worse! I hope that was it. That’s terrible.”

Petra had tears in her eyes and fumbled in her handbag for a handkerchief. Finally, she wiped her eyes, and the rest of the makeup came off. She looked at the handkerchief and said, “Well, there you go, my story without makeup!” She laughed to calm herself, and Bernd looked at her sadly.

“Well,” Bernd said, “if anything, you’ve stopped me feeling sorry for myself!” Petra smiled and took his hand. “You’re special, Bernd,” she said and then laughed, “But don’t worry, I won’t try to seduce you! You’re too special to be ruined like that.”

“I’m not special, Petra. We are all special in our own way…”

“Except my ex,” Petra interjected, “although he’s special in a bad way. He got me fired from two jobs, you know.”

Bernd shook his head in disbelief, “Does he have that much influence?”

“Oh yes, a real powerhouse!” said Petra bitterly.

As a waiter passed by, Petra asked for separate bills and smiled at Bernd, “I think I’ve shocked you enough; we should go.”

As they left the restaurant, Petra said jovially, “Okay, Bernd, I loved talking to you – well, listening to you. We’ve got some meditation tomorrow, and I don’t want you distracted.”

“I’ll walk you home,” offered Bernd.

“No, that wouldn’t be good. I’ll manage from here; I have my crutch, after all!” She held the support in the air. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and a long hug, and without saying anymore, hobbled away, stiff in her wounded leg.

Bernd watched her go until she was out of sight and then went to the railing to look out on the dark sea line. “What a day!” he said.


Bernd fell asleep quickly that night and was surprised that he had when he woke up with a start. It was four in the morning, and the sound of the surf and the swaying of the curtains suggested a strong wind. He got up to close the window, looked at the bright yellow promenade and saw Uri, the Ukrainian, talking to two dark-clothed young men. Bernd stepped back when Uri briefly glanced at his window, but he watched them behind the transparent curtain until they were out of sight.

After going to the toilet, he returned to bed but couldn’t sleep. The previous day’s emotional turmoil had initially exhausted him but now occupied his thoughts. He felt stupid about the scene in the library, but his feelings had come so unexpectedly and quickly. Maybe Mrs SchmidtMrs Schmidt was right, and he had suppressed it through therapy. The therapist had warned him that his limited knowledge of psychology could prevent the therapy from being successful.

The encounter with Petra with her injured leg also seemed strange to him because she was near the hotel. It seemed like she was looking for him, but why? Apparently, GabyGaby was right, and Petra liked him—after all, she had admitted that she had come to the island looking for a man. On the other hand, he thought she avoided getting too close to him. He didn’t expect this turn of events when he decided to come to the island.

He got up, turned on the light and looked for his journal, which he found in his suitcase. Writing had helped him after therapy, but when he opened the last page on which he had written, he saw that it had been three weeks since his last entry. He took out his cheap fountain pen, which he preferred to a ballpoint pen, and began writing down what came to mind.

Borkum hasn’t changed much over the years, but maybe I haven’t noticed the changes. The last thing I expected was an emotional encounter with three women. Brigitte, I miss you! Our relationship was so harmonious that I don’t really know what to do now.

He threw the pen on the table, accidentally leaving an ink stain on the page. He blew on the ink until it dried and scanned the previous pages where he had collected quotes, written comments, or sometimes filled two pages with thoughts. But it was either too early, or he just didn’t feel like it, so he closed the book and decided to go for a walk or run, depending on how he felt. He wasn’t a natural and preferred “power walking,” as it was called, to jogging, but he had discovered the value of any kind of exercise in the past.

Dressed in workout shorts, a T-shirt and his white hoodie, he walked down the stairs to the reception and saw Uri on the phone and sitting in the lounge. He tried to reach the door unnoticed, but Uri looked up, whereupon Bernd waved to him and jogged off. As soon as he was through the door, he hurried to move away from the hotel, looking for a route that would allow him to circle the city and return from the other side.

The promenade was lit up, and there were already a few joggers outside, so he didn’t feel strange going out so early. The wind was quite strong but felt invigorating as it ran parallel to the beach to his left, past the clinics high to his right, overlooking the sea. When he reached the YMCA, he stayed on the beach path where most joggers were running and avoided the streets lined with hotels. The wind at his back encouraged him to jog slowly, and he had to be careful where to tread on the path after the sand had been driven off the beach. The sun was slowly rising, and there was already a glimmer on the horizon, but it was still dark enough to stumble and fall in some places. When he reached the Café Sturmeck restaurant, he turned right and walked back towards town, past the rehabilitation centre, then turning left at the campsite, where he started jogging again.

Forty minutes after leaving the hotel, he reached a large lily pond, where he turned right again to pass the town from the other side. Ten minutes later, he realised he was not far fromclose to the South Beach, where he had read the day before, and took the streets he had cycled down towards the promenade. He followed the promenade back to his hotel, now with the wind in his face, which was very welcome after the heat he had built up. His legs were a little sore, but he was grateful for the exercise, and when he arrived at the hotel, Uri was no longer in the lounge as Bernd made his way to his room.

Bernd showered until the water flow became a thin stream - perhaps because other people were showering at that time of day. In the warmth of the water, Bernd thought about how the run had cleared his head but also made him a little tired. Once dry and dressed, he looked at the schedule and saw that a full day of meditation with a one-hour lunch break was planned. This seemed a bit daunting, but he couldn’t sleep anymore, so he decided to rely on coffee to stay awake. He went down to the buffet, and Uri waved him over during breakfast, saying, “I take my hat off to you for going jogging so early at your age!” Bernd smiled, shrugged, and sat at the table beside Uri.

“What was so important that you had to make a phone call so early in the morning?” asked Bernd.

“Oh, nothing really. My client has a few problems,” Uri replied. He doesn’t sleep well and thinks that when he’s awake, everyone else is too!”

“Oh dear, such a client!” said Bernd sympathetically.

“I have to go! See you soon!” said Uri and stood up.

“So, you still have unfinished business?” asked Bernd.

“Yes, it will take a few days, so maybe we will see each other again,” Uri replied, waving and going to the door. Bernd watched him go unconvinced about what he’d said about the kind of business that made Uri get up at four in the morning.

When it was time to go to the clinic, Bernd put on sweatpants, sports shoes, a T-shirt, and his cardigan and expected to sit around all day. When he reached the lecture hall, there was a buzz of conversation amongst the participants, but Petra was nowhere to be seen. Bernd returned to the reception and saw Uri talking enthusiastically to the receptionist, so he disappeared back into the hall to avoid being seen. He felt like he saw him too often. As Uri hurried past him, he entered the reception area and saw Petra looking left and right out of the women’s room door. When she saw Bernd, she limped over to him. "Oh, Hello Bernd. As you can see, I gave up the crutch. I felt silly walking around with it.”

Petra was wearing a dark tracksuit and a beige T-shirt underneath. “I didn’t want to show everyone my war injuries,” she said, pointing to her trousers. The freckles on her face had darkened overnight, and Bernd thought that morning that there was something else different about her. They went into the lecture hall, where they met the group of women she had been with the day before. One said, “Hello, Ginger!” and the others laughed.

Petra seemed a bit reserved and smiled but pulled Bernd to the side of the room. “What was that about?” he asked.

“Oh, just a girl’s joke,” she replied, “where are you sitting?”

“Anywhere,” he replied, “we’ll probably start in a circle.”

“I’ll sit next to you if you don’t mind,” Petra said.

“Sure, but I thought you were sitting with the girls?”

“Not today!” she said shortly.

Bernd thought she had acted strangely that morning and wondered if their conversation the day before had something to do with it. She looked at her mobile phone for an unusually long time and was not as talkative as if she had something on her mind. But she didn’t seem to mind when Klaus entered the room and gave them both a suggestive look. Bernd also looked at her questioningly, and she smiled back. Bernd wasn’t sure, but he thought it looked like a mischievous smile.

When Han arrived, he waved and greeted everyone loudly, obviously looking forward to spending the full day with his class. As Bernd had predicted, they started in a circle, and Han asked who had tried to sit quietly the night before, but there was little response. He amused himself with the comment, “Party animals!” Bernd was about to protest, but Han quickly moved on. He explained that many people suffer from depression or anxiety and that their habits perpetuate their feelings. Bernd scanned the room as he listened and saw various reactions, including that of one of the young women Petra had been with the day before, who was whispering in her neighbour’s ear.

Han went on to point out that it is usually repetitive thoughts that plague people suffering from depression. He said that mindfulness could help with therapy and become a preventative measure to help patients redirect their lives. Klaus spent most of the time looking down at his feet, and in between, some of his facial gestures suggested that he was bothered by having to sit there. Petra had said the day before that Klaus had gone off the rails, and Bernd wondered if she knew anything or if she was just assuming what she had said. Petra was quiet beside him, but he thought he could sense some kind of tension.

Clarissa’s face was once again brightly made up to contrast with her tan. Her shocking pink blouse only emphasised her intention to stand out, but her eyes suggested that she was having trouble staying awake. However, Bernd found Hans’s voice pleasant and his lecture interesting. Some of the participants Bernd hadn’t spoken to were starting to make him curious, but he avoided staring and turned to Han, whose eyes suddenly fell on him. “We’re having trouble concentrating,” Han said, and Bernd sensed that he was being referred to and made a point of sitting up straight.

After Han’s introduction, the participants were asked to find a partner, and Petra’s hands at once grabbed his arm. He wasn’t surprised, but she seemed to be deliberately playful. He decided to play along, and when the couples were seated opposite each other, Han asked them to look at each other and tell what they saw. Bernd suddenly noticed that Petra was wearing a wig. It was an incredibly good wig, but it wasn’t really straight. Petra immediately noticed his look, got up, and left the room, apologising to Han. Bernd watched her go and noticed Klaus staring at him with a grin.

Before she returned, Han had started asking the couples one by one what they had seen that they hadn’t noticed before, and a buzz of voices filled the room. Bernd got up, left the lecture hall and entered the foyer, where he met Petra, who had just returned. She said, “You must be shocked!”

“Should I be? I know women who wear wigs for many reasons,” Bernd replied.

“Of course,” said Petra. “I should have known you wouldn’t find it strange.” She walked past him and asked Bernd at the door: “So, are you coming in?”

“I’m just going to the men’s room,” he said, “I’ll be right there!”

They separated, and Bernd was even more confused - less because of the wig and more because of her reaction when he noticed her. After a minute, Bernd entered the lecture hall, where the room was still buzzing with conversation, and saw Han continuing to ask questions. Petra motioned for him to hurry up, and they sat opposite each other. “Don’t mention the wig!” Petra said quietly, and they began to make observations about what they saw.

Han stopped the exercise before he reached Petra and Bernd. He asked everyone to sit back in the circle and asked if anyone had noticed that they were seeing things they hadn’t noticed before. Bernd smiled, and Petra nudged him lightly. Most people commented, but Han didn’t force everyone to talk, so Petra and Bernd were relieved when Han announced a new exercise. The morning continued with various exercises, and when the break came, everyone went to the canteen.

Petra held Bernd back, waited for the room to empty and said: “Bernd, I have a secret to tell you!”


Bernd sat down on a nearby stool and looked up at Petra. “Secrets? I don’t know if I want to know your secrets, Petra.” He felt a familiar sense of fear rising up in him, something he had felt during therapy, and which had returned.

Petra looked at Bernd and replied: “I’m sorry. Maybe I made a big mistake and should have been honest with you, but I’m sure you’ll understand if you know what’s bothering me.”

“Petra, maybe this isn’t the right place or time to discuss this. We’re here to learn about mindfulness.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too. Maybe we should just leave … after all, we’re here voluntarily,” Petra suggested.

Bernd shook his head. “I’m not sure - what will Han say…?”

“I’ll say I need your help with something, and we’ll come back when we’ve sorted it out,” said Petra.

Bernd felt like he was drowning in problems but nodded in agreement and cursed himself simultaneously. Petra hurried to reception and Bernd got up and slowly followed her. He watched as she told the receptionist to let Han know, but also as she wrote something down. Then she came to him at the door.

“Can we go to your hotel? I’d rather we go in and talk about it,” said Petra. Considering Petra’s worries, Bernd agreed and walked around the building to the hotel. Once in the room, they discovered that room service had not yet finished, and Bernd apologised for the state of the room. Petra smiled, went to the chair and sat down. Bernd sat down on the unmade bed and waited for her to begin.

“Bernd, I like you, and actually, it’s the last thing I’d ask of you, but I need your protection.”

Bernd was startled and raised his arm in a weak protest, saying: “No Petra, I’m not a bodyguard! And who do you need protection from? From Klaus?”

“No, you misunderstand. I think my husband sent some of his men here, and I had to hide from them this morning,” she replied. “Maybe that’s why the wig slipped.”

“Listen, Petra, I don’t understand. Who is your husband - and what is this all about?” Bernd sounded angry but also shaken. When Petra sensed that she was in danger of losing his support, she suddenly took off her wig demonstratively and exposed her red hair in a pixie cut. Without the blonde wig, her freckles and complexion matched the red hair, and a different personality seemed to emerge. She seemed more impulsive and more energetic.

Bernd looked at her in astonishment, and for a moment, his only reaction was his open mouth. Petra smiled and said: “The wig is my disguise and …” she hesitated, “My name isn’t Petra either.” She gave Bernd a moment to compose himself and explained: "My name is Jacqueline Clement, and my husband is Lionel Clement. She pronounced the surname in French.

Bernd raised an eyebrow, shook his head, and said, “I’ve never heard of him—and I’ve never heard of you either!”

Jacqueline nodded: “Of course! You come from another federal state. We’re from Saarland, and you’d have to know something about his business to know our names - then you’d understand how precarious my situation is. Let’s just say I was his accountant, then his wife, and we had a daughter 25 years ago”.

Bernd shook his head again and went to the window. He turned around and said, “Okay, but why all the fuss? Why the drama?”

“Well,” Jacqueline began slowly, "I realised very quickly that he was involved in some shady dealings - we accountants see that sort of thing - but most importantly, I found out he was cheating on me with other women. When I confronted him, he became violent again, so I left him and took our daughter with me. Julia was sixteen years old at the time and completely confused.

“Is that what happened with the psychiatric ward?” asked Bernd.

“Yes, he did everything he could to get rid of me and take Julia away from me, and he’s been working successfully to turn her against me ever since!”

“So that was seven years ago?” asked Bernd.

“Yes, something like that, and since then, he’s done everything he can to destroy my life.”

“Why can’t he just let you go? Why is he causing so much trouble?” Bernd shook his head again. “I don’t understand!”

She stood up, and suddenly, Bernd faced an angry woman. “Bernd, you don’t think I’m going to let him have Julia, do you?” Her anger quickly evaporated, and she sat down again and apologised. “I’m afraid it’s true what they say about redheads! Even if there’s not much left of my splendour.”

A silent pause made Bernd’s head spin. “Okay,” he began, “what do you mean by protection? I mean, I’m not a fighter, and if these guys are carrying weapons, I can’t protect anyone …”

“Oh no, Bernd, I don’t want that kind of protection. I just want you with me so we can pass as a couple. They’re looking for a redhead who’s alone, not an older couple.”

“A couple - you and me? I’m ten years older than you and look older, too; I don’t think that will work.”

“There are already much bigger age differences around, and the blonde wig makes me look older. Besides, I’ve said before: if you smile, you look ten years younger.”

“Flattery won’t make it any better,” says Bernd with a smile. “But does anyone in the group know who you are? After all, they called you Ginger!”

“It wasn’t because of the hair on my head,” said Jacqueline, smiling shyly.

It took a moment for Bernd to understand what she meant, and then he smiled back and nodded. He got up and went to the window. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was afraid that the woman, now called Jacqueline, would put him in a situation he couldn’t control. The world she came from was so foreign to him, and it had seemed so different at first that now it all seemed like a nightmare. He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned around and said, “I don’t know where to begin to understand your situation, and I can’t imagine being trapped in it. I …”

Jacqueline raised her hand and said, slightly agitated, “Okay, Bernd. I really shocked you, and I’m sorry. I’ll just sort it out myself.” She turned around resolutely and struggled with her wig in front of the mirror next to the door.

Bernd regretted his answer, walked up to her and asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Jacqueline cursed, took the wig off again and tried to put it back on. “I’m not sure. Without protection, I have to get off the island. Otherwise, they’ll find me soon.”

Bernd looked worried and asked: “What do you think they’ll do when they find you?”

“I have no idea, but I fear the worst when I’m alone.” She grabbed Bernd’s arm and pulled him close. She had tears in her eyes, and Bernd felt obliged to take her in his arms. However, when he did, she pulled away. “Stop it, no, Bernd, I’m sorry. I don’t want to blackmail you emotionally. I understand that you think I’m asking too much of you - and you’re probably right.”

Bernd looked helpless, his heart racing. “I want to help, but I don’t know if I can. My resources are limited, both financially and, well, I didn’t come here because I’m well. I don’t know. The situation looks very complicated. What did you plan to do?”

“I was hoping we could find a room together, which might be difficult in itself because it’s holiday time - maybe an upgrade or something…”

Bernd interrupted: “A room together?”

“I can’t stay where I am! I think my husband’s men have somehow found out where I’m staying. I have enough money, so that’s not a problem …”

“So, your ex hasn’t deprived you of your financial resources yet?”

“Oh Bernd, I’m an accountant. We have ways and means.” She wiped her eyes and smiled.

A sudden impulse grew in Bernd, and he heard himself saying, “Petra… Sorry… Jacqueline. I’ll go down and ask if an upgrade is possible. It doesn’t cost anything to ask!” Doubting his own words and not understanding his hasty decision to help, he added: “I doubt it’s possible!”

“You’ll do that?” Jacqueline asked excitedly. “Oh Bernd, thank you, you’re a darling!”

Bernd thought to himself: “Or a complete idiot!”

He left Jacqueline in his room and went to the lift, his thoughts still whirling. “What are you doing?” he shouted as the lift door closed. He felt a cramp rising inside him, just like before when he felt overwhelmed by emotions.

By the time the door opened again, he regained his composure and went to the reception desk, where only one person was being attended to. As he waited, he struggled with the idea of turning around and telling Jacqueline that there was no room available. He tried to reconcile his dishonesty with the thought that there probably wasn’t a room anyway, but suddenly, the receptionist was free.

“Hello, I was wondering if it is possible to get an upgrade. My wife wants to join me, and my room is a bit small, so too small for two people”.

The receptionist smiled kindly and said, “I’m not sure. It’s the high season, but I’ll have a look …”

Bernd was about to turn away and say, “No problem!” when the receptionist looked up and said, “Oh, you’re in luck!”

Bernd looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“We had a cancellation half an hour ago. You could have that. I’m afraid it’s much more expensive on the top floor!” The receptionist smiled, and Bernd swallowed hard. He resigned himself to his fate.

“Okay, we’ll take it then,” he said, accepting his “good fortune” with the expression of someone who has just been sentenced to death. While Bernd was signing, the receptionist asked him if he needed help moving. That wasn’t necessary, he said and went to the lift with a new key card.

When Bernd opened the door, Jacqueline had put her wig back on and was looking at him expectantly. Bernd hesitated before saying in an exasperated voice: “You’ll never believe it!”

Jacqueline’s look changed from hope to disbelief. “I had already given up hope,” she said, contradicting Bernd’s first impression. She stood up and hugged Bernd like a rag doll. “Thank you, Bernd! I’ll make it up to you!”

Bernd nodded, still unsure whether he had done the right thing, and walked silently to his suitcase. He pulled it onto the bed and started packing clothes from the wardrobe. Jacqueline watched him carefully. They didn’t speak until he had finished.

Jacqueline touched his shoulder and said, “You’re not sure this is right, are you?”

“No,” he said, “I don’t know what I’m doing at the moment. But let’s have a look at the room.” He put the suitcase on the floor, pulled it behind him on the two wheels and left the room. They took the lift and went to the door of the new room. Bernd gave Jacqueline the key card, and she opened the door with a gasp. Bernd looked in, somewhat dismayed, and wondered whether he should cancel the upgrade. “This is huge,” he said. The room was almost four times the size, and he could understand why it was so expensive. He turned to her and said, “Are you sure you can pay for this? I can’t pay for it!”

“Bernd, don’t worry,” Jacqueline said reassuringly and smiled. Then she went to the bed and jumped on it playfully. Bernd looked for the safe, checked the much larger bathroom, opened the balcony door, went outside took a deep breath and said, “What have I done?”


Jacqueline came to him on the balcony and hugged him gently from behind. Bernd was surprised but let her hold him tight. She said softly, “Bernd, everything is fine, don’t worry.” He wasn’t so sure, and her approach filled him with a mixture of satisfaction and guilt. He hadn’t felt a hug in years, but Jacqueline had become so familiar to him in such a short time, even though the future of their relationship was uncertain. He released her grip and turned to face her.

He looked her in the eye and said, “Jacqueline, what do you want?”

She looked out to sea and replied levelly: “I miss being close to someone. I’m sorry for being so direct. You need time…”

“Time for what?” Bernd asked bluntly. “Where is this going? I’d just become used to Petra and now I’m confronted with Jacqueline. It was a friendly acquaintance with Petra, but Jacqueline is hugging me. What’s going on here?”

Petra turned round and went into the room. Bernd watched her go. The situation was getting more confusing by the minute, and he regretted his decision to follow Jacqueline’s plans. She went into the bathroom and closed the door, and Bernd turned round and looked at the scene below him, where the tourists were going about their uncomplicated lives. His life was pretty uncomplicated too, he thought, but then he remembered how he had reacted to Gaby’s friendly attention. He was just as complicated. He felt as if two complications had created a complete mess.

He turned around, walked into the room, and sat on the small sofa. There was no sound from the bathroom, and Bernd wondered if Jacqueline was all right. As if she had heard his thoughts, she opened the door and approached him with red eyes. She sat down next to him and took his hand. “Bernd,” she said slowly, “seven years ago, I wanted to escape from an abusive relationship. My husband didn’t just beat me. He also humiliated me. He played vulgar sex games with me and forced me to do things I don’t even want to name. When I thought I had escaped, he had me committed to a psychiatric hospital and had my daughter taken away from me. He made sure I lost my jobs, and he had my flat and car vandalised.”

She let the tears flow, and Bernd reached for his handkerchief to dry her face gently. “I’m sorry,” Bernd said quietly, “you didn’t have to tell me all this.”

“Yes, Bernd, I do; otherwise, you wouldn’t understand that I’m fed up with men like that! You’re different, and I feel safe with you.”

“Jacqueline, to be honest, you don’t know me. We’ve only known each other for a few days.”

“A woman senses these things, Bernd. But I should have thought about what you need. I’m sorry, but you let me into your life without the usual shtick women have to go through, and I am attracted to you.”

Bernd fell silent, stood up and looked out of the window. He knew that he had wanted it somehow, even if he had convinced himself that he wanted to be faithful to his wife. Jacqueline had certainly been pushy, but he had allowed it. The years he had spent alone had not been able to heal the emptiness inside him, and the woman he had come to know as Petra, the wallflower, had had a calming effect on him. But now Jacqueline had stepped out of her and brought many problems with her. He took his head in both hands and rubbed his scalp.

He turned to her: “What about your stuff? We’ll have to pick it up, won’t we?”

Jacqueline wasn’t prepared for this and stood up, speechless momentarily, then hugged Bernd tightly. Then she turned around, picked up her bag, and ran into the bathroom, from where she said, “Just a moment, I have to make myself presentable!”

Bernd knew that he was just letting things happen. He’d given up trying to control everything, and the journey to the island was the first step. He hadn’t reckoned with all that had happened to him, and at first, it had scared him, but now he wanted to play on intuition. He felt a spasm shake him as though his body contradicted his thoughts, but it passed by the time Jacqueline appeared. Her eyes were still red, but the make-up was back in place, and the wig looked like it was her real hair again.

They left the hotel and walked towards the accommodation where Petra/Jacqueline was staying. Jacqueline was still limping, but they were both moving quickly. Bernd asked: “What are you going to tell the landlords?”

“Nothing, except that I’m leaving and want to pay my bill,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I’m paying. What are they going to say?”

Jacqueline entered the three-storey house when they arrived, and Bernd waited outside. He looked around and realised he must have run past the back of the house when jogging that morning. Then he felt like he was being watched but couldn’t see anyone looking in his direction. It was warm again, and even in his sports clothes, he realised he was sweating a little from the brisk walk. Jacqueline didn’t show up for a while, but Bernd found a bench to sit on across the street, where he saw a figure gesticulating in the upper window that looked like Jacqueline. He got up, hurried across the street and found the door ajar, so he went in and climbed up the stairs.

As he went up the stairs, he heard voices. A man was talking to Jacqueline, and as he entered the room, he heard Jacqueline say, “Look, the payment has been made. What is the problem?”

The landlord, a tall man with broad shoulders and a square chin, said, “I’m just saying it’s not usual for customers to pay with cards that don’t belong to them.”

“Well, here’s my husband,” Jacqueline said, then turned to Bernd and said, “Do you mind if I use your card to pay my bill, darling?”

Bernd took a moment to comprehend the situation but replied, “No, of course not, dear!”

The landlord looked irritated and, shaking Bernd’s hand, left the room.

Bernd looked critically at Jacqueline and, closing the door, asked, “What was that all about?”

“I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of here,” she said bluntly. They picked up the bags and walked down the stairs and into the street. Bernd saw over his shoulder that the landlord was still watching them as they walked down the street and wondered what the problem was. Because of the luggage, the walk back to the hotel wasn’t that fast, and they had to switch bags halfway because one was too heavy for Jacqueline. Bernd looked at Jacqueline and asked, “Whose card was it?”

“It was mine, only it had a different name,” Jacqueline replied nervously.

“A man’s name?” asked Bernd, looking her in the eye.

Jacqueline picked up her bag and started to leave. She said over her shoulder, "Yes, look, I’ll explain when we get to the hotel room, okay?

As they entered the hotel, Bernd saw Uri at the reception and told Jacqueline to go upstairs. He walked over to Uri and caught his eye, so he didn’t see Jacqueline pass by. “Oh, are you leaving already?” asked Uri.

“No, I just bought some things,” lied Bernd.

“That’s an unusual bag for a man,” said Uri, pointing to the lilac-coloured bag.

“Oh, it was my wife’s!” said Bernd. “You’re still here though!”

“Yes, for a day or so, then we can pack up. Sorry, I can’t talk now, I have to go. See you later,” said Uri and went out the door. Bernd went to the elevator and met Jacqueline in their room, where she was already putting her things in the closet.

“Jacqueline, you must explain that to me,” said Bernd.

“Who was that?” she asked back. “Where do you know him from?”

“One thing at a time. First of all, you explain to me what the problem was.”

“Oh, it was nothing. When I left Lionel, I had money hidden under a false name in an account.”

“A man’s name! How did you do that?” asked Bernd sceptically.

“Bernd, I know my way around, okay!”

“Show me the card so I’ll know my name,” said Bernd firmly.

Jacqueline picked up her bag, rummaged through it and handed him the card.

“David Beyer?” said Bernd, somewhat surprised.

“Yeah, I am here as Petra Beyer the whole time, remember?”

Bernd shook his head in disbelief. Mistrust rose in him again, and he sat down. “Jaqueline, we need an honest basis if we want to continue. Constantly being confronted with new stories scares me. I cannot do that!"

Jacqueline sat down next to him and said, “I know! I’ve lived with so many lies for years that I’ve forgotten how they must affect you. But you must understand that I am being followed, and I’ve been fighting for my existence.”

Bernd took her hands and said: “Jacqueline, answer me honestly now. Who owned the money you hid?”

“I was entitled to that money!” replied Jacqueline defiantly. “Without the money, I wouldn’t have survived!”

Bernd looked to the ceiling, held his hand before his eyes and said: “Oh no!” He stood up and went to the window.

“Bernd, that man. I’ve seen him before!” said Jacqueline, “who is he?”

Bernd turned to her and answered, “That’s Uri, the Ukrainian. Where have you seen him? He’s been on the island since we’ve been here.”

“No,” Jacqueline said, “I’ve seen him elsewhere.”