Fiction | Just for Five Minutes by Alla Melenteva

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It was an early May day. The war was considered over, though it had not yet been officially declared. A Russian junior lieutenant went through the streets of the destroyed Berlin. He didn’t know the city and had to catch solitary passers-by and inquire the way several times. The passers-by tend to try to run away the moment they saw him, because Berliners were afraid of the Russians. They were so afraid that it took them a while to realise what he wanted. Yet, when they found out that he had no wish to kill or rob them, they brightened at once and readily told him which direction to go.

The name of the junior lieutenant was Yevgeny; he was twenty two years old. He looked very young – like a teenager in uniform – but he felt confident, just as all Russians in Berlin at that time. He made haste. He had precious little time for doing whatever he was planning to do. He was in such a hurry that the risk of getting shot by someone from a hiding place didn’t bother him as much as it should.

He gave a sigh of relief when he came into the street he sought. That area had been less affected by bombing and artillery fire; there were fewer damages, less debris.

So there is a good chance that the house is intact. If the house is intact, then, technically, the apartment is intact too. If the apartment is intact, those who lived there probably had a decent chance of survival,” Yevgeny reflected. “Only if he had not moved since before the start of the war, though. It’s been a long time – that must be considered too.”

He had to walk down the entire length of the street to figure out house numbers. The house he sought was nowhere to be found. Passers-by shook their heads when he showed them a small, lined slip of notebook paper on which the address was written, and asked in a mixture of Russian and German if they knew where Alexander Braun, an ophthalmologist, lived.

There was not enough time left to continue the search. He almost lost heart and wondered if he would return without achieving his goal for which he had gone there, when he met a boy who pushed a heavily loaded old bicycle through mounds of dirt and debris. After glancing at the address the young Berliner suddenly nodded his head in recognition and undertook to show the way for five cigarettes.

“If this is the case, it means he hasn’t moved out in twenty years. I’m lucky, I’m darn lucky,” Yevgeny thought.

The youth accompanied him as far as the front door of a quite intact apartment house. Yevgeny gave him the promised cigarettes and said – in awful German –

“Stop smoking. Smoking is bad for your health.”

The young Berliner grunted something incomprehensible and shuffled away through the rubble with his bike.

Yevgeny looked at his watch. It was eleven thirty now.

Just ten more minutes – and that’s the end of it. If I could find him in ten minutes it would be a miracle.”

He ran up the steps and began checking apartments in search of Doctor Braun. The boy with the bicycle had pointed at a window on the second floor, but no one came to answer the door of the indicated apartment, and he didn’t see the name Braun on the doorplate. He thought that the miracle wasn’t going to happen and the boy had lied to him, yet he decided, for all that, to try his luck for the last time. He knocked on all doors and yelled with all his might: “Alexander Braun! I’m looking for Dr. Alexander Braun!”

Scared people began peeping out of the doors that seemed never to open. The most audacious of them ventured to step into the stairwell, looked at him curiously, glances interchanged.

Alexander Braun was found surprisingly quickly. A door upstairs opened, Yevgeny heard a man’s loud voice saying in German: “I’m Dr. Alexander Braun. What do you want from me?”

Yevgeny dashed up the stairs and stopped before the doctor – a tall, slightly stooped, carelessly shaven man in his fifties.

Dr. Braun, is that you?” he repeated in Russian and gazed at the man persistently.

“What do you want from me?” the doctor said nervously.

I am Yevgeny. Yevgeny Antipov. My stepfather’s family name is Antipov. My mother’s name is Ksenia, her maiden name is Ledovski. I –”

“Yevgeny? Zhenya?” Braun murmured in Russian, “Are you really Zhenya?”

Yevgeny glanced around. The neighbors were watching intensely.

I’ve got about five minutes. Can we talk in your apartment? This isn’t a conversation meant to be heard by strangers.”

“Yes!” the doctor said, harsh, embarrassed, catching himself, “Yes, yes, you are right, please, come in!”

He moved slightly to one side to let his visitor pass in front of him. A tense woman of middle years stood in the hall’s shadows. Startled, she backed away a step and asked the doctor in German what that Russian wanted. Braun responded with a few brief sentences, also in German, of which Yevgeny could only decipher that the woman’s name was Martha and Braun called him his son from Russia.

All three of them came into the big living room and stood there, the men opposite one another, the woman regarding them a little way off. They all were equally confused. The doctor scratched his unshaven cheek in bewilderment, shook his head and began to fuss about.

“Please, sit down… er, Yevgeny… What an unexpected meeting – especially at such hard times! If you wait Martha and I will try to treat you to something. A patient paid me with six eggs yesterday.”

No,” Yevgeny said resolutely, “In five minutes I’m out of here. Our battalion is being moved from Berlin. Besides, I’m not hungry. We’re well fed. I brought you this.”

He swung his canvas bag off his shoulder and took out several tins of canned beef. The woman by the door gasped. Yevgeny glanced at her and was struck by her gleaming hungry eyes.

Wait! Five minutes? How can that be?” Braun ignored the cans. “What’s the rush? Eat with us and tell us all about you family. You mustn’t leave so quickly.”

“No time left. I spent the whole morning looking for your house.” Yevgeny said. “If I’m not back soon they’ll call me a deserter.”

“That is impossible, impossible…” Braun said helplessly.

The woman by the door tried to speak – Braun resented her efforts, quite forgetting that he should shift into German, “Martha, please, don’t interfere with me.”

“She is your wife?” Yevgeny asked.

“She’s my friend’s widow. But we’ve been living together for a long time” the doctor said a bit guiltily. “I hope you understand me. It just turned out this way, you know. Please, don’t think I’ve been unfaithful to your mother.”

“I understand,” Yevgeny nodded. “Mom also married when it was clear that you wouldn’t return from abroad.”

“How is she? How have you all been living?” the doctor asked ardently, jumping at the chance to establish at least an illusion of the shared past with this Russian junior lieutenant of whom he knew nothing.

“Mom’s all right. She lives with my sister in Murmansk now. We relocated for dad’s work,” Yevgeny said.

“Dad?” Braun repeated softly.

I regard him as a father. He brought up my sister and me. He still believes I don’t know about you. Mom destroyed all documents, pictures. I knew nothing until I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t discovered a letter of yours. You had already written from Germany – you had written that you had been missing mom, my sister and me and looking forward for the time when we would come to Berlin. Mom kept that letter for some reason.”

“You all still could have moved abroad then! At that time, the Bolsheviks hadn’t yet closed borders!” the doctor exclaimed, “I did hope that Ksenia and you would be released from Russia. I hoped to the end.”

You had said in that letter: ‘I have a great wish to see my little son. I suppose, Zhenya is already talking properly.’ When I read this I compared some facts and guessed what it was about. Mom denied all at first, but then confirmed that my sister and I had another father, and he’s a German. It was a shock.”

“Don’t you remember anything about me?”

Yevgeny shrugged.

“Sometimes I think I do. My memories are not very vivid. Sometimes I could recall a big man holding me high in the air, having me laugh. But maybe I confused you with dad.”

“It was me. We often played like that,” Braun said with a rueful smile.

“My sister remembers you better. But mom convinced her that you were her uncle who had gone to the Far East and had died there. She still knows nothing about you.”

“Yes, well, Ksenia certainly did the right thing being silent on this point. One had better not say anything about a relative abroad. It’s for your own good,” Braun frowned judiciously and, after a pause, added out of place, “But it hurts to think about it.”

“Mom burned the letter, but I could remember the address. I didn’t speak to anyone about my other father afterwards. When the war started I didn’t know yet if I wanted to see you. But when I ended up here, I thought I shouldn’t miss the chance if I could get it.” Yevgeny broke off, fumbling for words, “I am very glad to have found you.”

Braun started to say something, but had to control the spasm in his throat.

Yevgeny glanced at his watch. “Well, I must be going now.”

“No!” Braun exclaimed hotly, “Zhenya, please, don’t leave me yet! A few more minutes!”

“I can’t,” said Yevgeny firmly, “They’ll consider it desertion.”

“You will be back soon? When will you come back?” Braun asked hopefully.

“I don’t think I ever will.” was Yevgeny’s short answer.

He held out his hand to his father.

Braun made an awkward attempt to hug him, “Leave your address.”

“No,” Yevgeny said. “You shouldn’t write to us.”

“I won’t! I promise – I’ll never write to anyone of you!” His father cried eagerly, “I just want to keep something as a connection to you.”

After some hesitation Yevgeny said, “Give me paper and a pencil.”

The doctor bustled about even more in excitement, searching for a pencil and paper. He brought a prescription form on the back of which Yevgeny scribbled his Murmansk address.

“Never write to this address,” he warned sternly again as he handed the form to Braun.

“No no,” Braun assured him.

Yevgeny nodded, squeezed his hand and went to the door.

Martha, who was still watching them, stepped aside for him again.

But before leaving the room he turned back, “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime in the future. We’ll have a meal together and talk things over thoroughly. We’ll learn all about each other, just like a real family.”

He went quickly out.

Braun sank down on the chair, the piece of paper clutched in his hand. There were tears streaming down his face. His eyes fell on the cans which stood on the table beside him and, in a rush of uncontrollable emotions, he brushed them to the floor.

Martha came and began to pick up the cans. One of them rolled under the table and the woman had to scramble for it on her hands and knees.

“See, Martha, how cruel our world is,” Braun said to her, “Going with the army through Europe to Berlin is the only chance for the son to meet his own father. How stern are realities of life! How dark are our times!”

Martha pulled the can from under the table and got up. She stared at the doctor silently, groping for words of comfort. The hardships of the war years have dulled her on the surface – deep down she still was a person of tact and kindness, capable of empathy.

“Maybe you’ll meet again one day,” she said at last, using almost the same words which Yevgeny had said a few minutes ago.