When I was 16, my parents sent me and my 8 year old brother to visit my grandmother where she lived in a tiny village near the German medieval town of Celle. Our visit was her Christmas gift, one she looked forward to with great joy. On the flight from Durban my brother, who was a cheerful and energetic child, ran up and down the aisles, pretending to be a lion roaring at the hostesses. He stole the airline blankets from the couple sitting in front of us and flung them over their heads. Pillows followed. This made them laugh; they found it endearing and delightful. I was embarrassed and apologised.
She had a European air, a nordic glamour which effortlessly undid all the anti-establishment rebellion of my braless Indian-print blouse and 70’s lace trimmed bell-bottom jeans. Her name was Sigrun, she said and held out a manicured hand with a glittering ring in greeting. I was in awe. Probably in their mid-30’s, they made an alluring couple. Cedric was undeniably handsome and wore a casual suit of some light fabric with a suave worldliness. This alone would have aroused my teenage mistrust of all things bourgeois had it not been offset by his flattering interest in everything I said. Was he flirting with me? I couldn’t tell. I very much wanted him to be.
They were in the pharmaceutical business, they said, speaking in perfect English with German precision, and had been in Durban researching opportunities. They thought my brother adorable and my straight dark hair and half-Japanese eyes intriguing and we made friends during that long flight. When we arrived in Frankfurt, they introduced themselves to my grandmother and told her they would love to host us for a weekend in Hamburg. My grandmother smiled while shooting them a look that said ‘over my dead body’. Clearly they had some sex-slave trafficking thing going on and she’d been around long enough to know what was what. She wasn’t fooled in the least, she snorted later when we were alone. I should be more careful about talking to strangers. I rolled my eyes.
Nevertheless, Sigrun persisted, calling her up and even driving the 90 minute journey from Hamburg to make a friendly persuasive visit. Eventually my grandmother relented and Sigrun arrived one day in her red Mercedes with black leather seats to whisk us away. We were enchanted, my grandmother full of misgiving.
Sigrun lived in a very smart modern apartment in Blankenase, one of Hamburg’s most exclusive suburbs, with her husband Rolf – a dark suited, aloof man who seemed to shrug us off as one of his wife’s mildly annoying projects, a foible. For the first time I felt uneasy. Who was this cold, distant man? And where was Cedric? As if to make up for her husband’s cool reception, Sigrun was sunny and effervescent as she took us shopping for food. We could, she said, have anything we wanted, and enthusiastically explained all her plans for the evening which lay ahead. My brother would be dropped off at a friend who also had young kids and I would go out with her to a few wonderful places she knew of. Oh what fun we would have exploring a little bit of Hamburg nightlife! I was elated. This was the high adventure I dreamed of.
That evening, I put on what I considered to be my best outfit; tight jeans and a soft, grey leather bomber jacket with a thin silk blouse underneath. Sigrun ran her eyes over me. ‘You’ll be cold in that,’ she observed. ‘You should try on one of my fur coats.’ She handed me a slippery-soft auburn armful. I don’t remember what it was. Perhaps rabbit or fox, some hunted creature. What I do remember was a pagan stirring as I slipped myself into its voluptuous animal warmth. In her black mink, Sigrun’s eyes glowed. Why not wear it out tonight, she offered lightly. Never had I felt so supremely sumptuous. It was a young goddess who later descended the stairs from the apartment into the icy night air. And when we arrived at the bar, I was pleased to find Cedric waiting for us.
All evening, Sigrun and Cedric held hands and exchanged deep looks while we talked. The realisation they were having an affair was unsettling. Why did I feel complicit in some weird way, as if I were instrumental to their assignation? Nothing was said but when Cedric twinkled attentively at me across the table, the gauche young girl with ugly braces and troubled thoughts melted away, and in her place sat a sophisticated fur-clad conspirator. I became aware of a young man with golden curls gazing wolfishly at me from the bar. Boldly, I returned his gaze.
And then we were leaving. As we approached the door, he came purposefully towards me. How could he find me, he wanted to know? His head bent close to mine in the noisy, smoke-filled room, casual, yet urgent. Inside the fur coat, I trembled. At first I demurely shook my head, smiling. He persisted. At last I murmured my grandmother’s name and address. A few days later, he would call her to ask for me and she would say I was not there and certainly not available to go out with him, did he realise I was only 16 for God’s sake, all the while throwing me fierce reproachful glances.
I don’t remember anything else about that night. Not what we drank or ate. I vaguely remember collecting my sleepy brother but not how the evening ended or where I slept. Not breakfast the next day. Not the journey back to my relieved grandmother. I remember only that Sigrun and I exchanged a few letters after I returned to South Africa. Today, when I tell my children this story, they are horrified and baffled. ‘What were you thinking, Mom!’ They chide me, their eyes wide, protective of the naïve 16-year old they never were.
It‘s a story that makes no sense to me now. Was it just the generous whim of a rich lonely woman who longed to spoil two children in place of the children she herself would never have? Or was it an elaborate cover so she could snatch some time, however limited, with her lover? Perhaps it was neither but something else altogether I can’t fathom. Whenever I’ve thought of it over the years, I’ve wondered if there’s something I just can’t remember and don’t understand.
But at the time, to the young girl standing on the threshold of all the mysteries of the world, it didn’t need to make sense. Why shouldn’t a stranger bestow upon me a luxury fur coat making me feel ravishing for one night? That evening gave me a lens through which infidelity had never looked more glamorous or inviting. I had no discernment, no filter to distinguish ulterior motives masquerading as goodwill. It was an initiation into sex, power and deception, one that would leave me with an unfinished memory and the faint uneasiness that I was failing to see something just out of my line of sight.
It went straight over my head that from that moment on, I was no longer my grandmother’s favourite little girl. She had not been wrong about them.
*Photo credit: Louie Amal courtesy Unsplash