This is the sixteenth part of a fiction serial, in 1215 words.
On the day Inge arrived, I was at the main station before her train got in. I expected her to be tired after a long journey, but I had managed to get hold of some nice chocolates and a small bunch of flowers, as a welcome home gift. Surprisingly, not that many got off the train. Most were Russian of course, and many were in uniform. When there was no sign of my sister, I walked further along the platform, looking into the compartments. Almost at the last carriage, I suddenly heard a voice behind me. “Manfred”.
As I turned with a growing smile, it stopped dead on my face. I was unable to hide my shock. There was little Inge, now sixteen years old but not much bigger than when I had last seen her. Dark circles ran around both her eyes, and her skin was pasty-looking. Walking forward, I wrapped my arms around her, and kissed both her cheeks. I was alarmed to feel how tiny and frail she was, with her ribs obvious, even through her coat. I forced a happy face. “Shall we go and have some hot chocolate and cake, Inge? I know a good place that will have the best”. She shook her head, her expression joyless. “I am not hungry, Manfred. Can we just go back to your place, so I can rest?” I reached down and took her small suitcase. It was the same one she had left with, all those years ago.
The walk to my apartment wasn’t far, but Inge stopped numerous times on the way. After the fourth time, when she leaned on a lamp-post for support, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What’s going on, dear sister? Are you ill? You must tell me”. Taking a deep breath, she tried to smile, but failed. “It’s okay, Manfred. Let’s get to your place. We can talk later, when I am rested. It was such a long journey”. Inside my apartment, I took her coat, and caught my breath when I saw how thin she was. The small dress was so loose on her, it twisted around her body as she walked over to sit on my one armchair. Her wool stockings had fallen down around her shins, and she made no effort to pull them up. Her legs were so skinny, I could make out the bones of her knee joints quite clearly. She was far from being a healthy gymnast, that was for sure.
There was so much I wanted to ask, but I respected the fact that she was no longer a child. I had to give her the chance to speak when she was ready. As I made some coffee, she removed her shoes. “Can I go to bed, Manfred? I will feel better after a sleep”. I waited until she was settled in my bed, and quickly checked on her. But she was already asleep, still wearing her dress.
The plan for that evening had been to take her to the bar, to meet Mona. I thought we could have beer and sausages, and chat to my new girlfriend when she got a break between customers. But by the time it was dark, Inge was still asleep. I decided to wake her, and took a cup of coffee through. “Inge, wake up darling. I have brought you coffee. It even has sugar in it. Sit up, and drink it while it’s hot”. She was reluctant to stir, but eventually sat up. Trying to sound very cheerful, I stroked her lank hair. “How about we go and get some food? We can meet Mona at the bar, she is so looking forward to seeing you”. After one small sip of the coffee, she shook her head. “I’m not hungry, Manfred. You go, go and meet her. I will be alright here”.
Now I was losing my patience. “Nonsense. I haven’t seen you in all these years, and I am not about to just go out and leave you sleeping. Come on, get out of bed. You must eat something”. She swung her legs out of the covers so slowly, it reminded me of when my mother was desperately ill. “I will drink the coffee, Manfred, but I really don’t want to eat”. I decided to try to tempt her. “We don’t have to go out, Inge. I have your favourites, right here. Fresh bread, smoked cheese, even some delicious plum jam. You know how much you love plum jam”. There was no lightness in her voice. “Like the jam Grigiry used to bring? The Russian jam?”. I nodded. “That’s the one, the very same”. She shook her head. “Not for me, thank you”.
As she sat back in the armchair staring at her coffee, I made myself a snack with the cheese and bread. I was hungry, and it looked like the planned trip to the bar was not going to happen. Inge wasn’t saying anything. The visit I had anticipated with such delight was already turning into something that gave me grave concern. After almost an hour of silence, I just had to say something. “You are not well, I can see that. You are too thin, even for a gymnast. I am worried about you, have you seen a doctor? Don’t just sit silent, you have to talk to me. We only have each other, and I am not going to sit here like this for five days, until you go back to Moscow.”
When she replied, her voice sounded much older, as if there was something heavy in her throat. Still holding the cup with both hands, she turned her head to talk to me, and I saw something dark behind her eyes.
“I am no longer a gymnast, Manfred. I wasn’t good enough, never stayed in the top three. They said I was too tall, then I was too heavy. For the past year I have been helping the coaches, mainly arranging the kit for the travelling to events.
I don’t even get to share the dormitory with the young girls anymore. I sleep in a store-room at the training school, surrounded by floor mats and drying washing. They say I am too old now anyway. So that’s it. My so-called career is over. I am not on holiday, I have come home. I will need to find work, and I didn’t even finish my studies”.
The tears were forming in my eyes as I walked over and knelt on the floor in front of her. I took the cold coffee away, and wrapped my arms around her, kissing her head. She was trembling, but had no tears. I suspected she had cried them all out, long ago. After a long time sitting like that, she pulled away. “Manfred, there is more. I don’t know how to tell you, and I am ashamed to talk about it. But with Mummy gone, I have nobody else to tell. Auntie Greta is too far away, and I have no friends”. I stood up, and stroked her face. “You can tell me anything, Inge. You must know that”.
She swallowed hard, and began to talk.