Are you Charlie Baker?

I have translated this short story from an archived article by German author Uwe Johnson in German newspaper Die Zeit from June 1976, which I came across via a link on Konstantin Binder’s Twitter account. The original title is “Oh! You’re German?” but I don’t feel that this direct translation matches the tone of the article. I find it touching and an insight into how I feel some Germans I have met and talked to see their relationship with the British.

A stranger visits the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary; he goes for a walk there, in the streets of Sheerness on Sea. It’s a small town; the people know one another. How do they recognize that the man is a stranger here? Because he purchases a map and he has to find his way. He looks at the buildings with more interest than he looks at the people, he’s not expecting a conversation with friends. He’s kicking his heels on a work day and so he’s a visitor from somewhere else. Where could he come from? From the mainland, from London, from another county? Then he’s an Englishman, like the locals, and belongs, as they do. He could’ve arrived from Holland by ferry, in which case he’s a tourist. Tourists are welcome in Sheerness. When will the people of Sheerness know for sure? When he opens his mouth.

The stranger keeps his mouth shut. He smiles as the salesperson hands him the map, because the salesperson smiles. Someone exchanges a friendly word about the weather, while he only nods in response. Can he speak English? He can make himself understood in the language. But he knows where he comes from. He has a German passport in his pocket. The war with the Germans was thirty years ago and is finished, but he thinks of it. Eastchurch aerodrome was on this island: they bombed the Germans. There were deaths during the aerial attacks and they remain in the memories of the townspeople of Sheerness. Rocket bombs shot by Germans passed over this island on their way to London; the residents will remember the deadly whistling. This German was a child then: his father was not in the German air force, but he remains a German, one of the enemy. He expects no welcome on Sheerness Broadway. He is startled as a woman speaks to him, because he has to answer and she will recognize him as a German and turn away from him like a slap in the face.

Excuse me, Sir“, says the woman.

He answers as he learned in school; there are many words, and one sounds German. But the face of the woman remains anticipatory and she asks, “is it you?” In English, it could’ve meant “is it you?” (In German grammar, there are two forms of address, the formal Sie and the informal Du. The German is unable to tell in this instance whether the woman is addressing him formally, as a stranger, or informally, as if she thinks she knows him.) The latter is what he heard in the woman’s voice. “No, it isn’t, ma’am“, he replies in the words he learned at school, and the entire national plight with the British comes with it. The woman’s look asks something of him and she says,

If it’s you, then your name is Charlie Baker and you were at Eastchurch aerodrome, and then you had to go to Scotland, and I… you know who I am.

The stranger knew the year as 1940, the year of the first bombs. In the eyes of the woman, the German looks like someone who was eighteen years old during the war, and had now returned because he had left her. She doesn’t believe that the stranger was six years old at the time: she ignores his germanic accent because he’s supposed to be Charlie Baker, who looks like him; left, as he did. She was a nice girl thirty years ago and Charlie was an idiot, because she has waited thirty years for him. Now the stranger tells the truth, for himself and for her.

I’m so sorry“, says the woman, “you’re a guest in our country, you’re here on holiday and here I am bothering you, it’s not our usual way to stop strangers on the street. You must believe me! We had an aerodrome, Eastchurch, where a man like you worked. Can you forgive me?

The German knew too few words as he bade his farewell from Charlie Baker’s girl, and they were the wrong ones. “Some of them come back” she says sadly, and then politely continues, “Welcome to the Isle of Sheppey! Welcome to England!

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