Some people are like surprise eggs. You know, the chocolate ones with a tiny toy inside. You don’t discover what’s inside them until you’ve nibbled away some of the outside. And Granny Hilde was an egg with an extraordinary number of surprises. She’d totally fooled the security guard, and that was just the start. While he was taking his report to his boss, I told Granny Hilde the whole story from start to finish: how I’d dreamed of getting in-line skates ever since I’d seen Starlight Express; how I’d found a beautiful silver-gray pair with turquoise stripes and wheels—the last pair left in the sale and still seventy-nine euros; how I’d hidden them in the most expensive rucksack in the shop display to stop anyone else snapping them up before I’d saved enough money. And now the security guard thought I’d stolen them.
Granny Hilde just sat and listened, her head slightly to one side and her hand on my knee. Finally, she nodded, pulling a handkerchief out of her cardigan.
“What keeps us alive if not the dreams in our hearts?” She dabbed at her nose, then put the handkerchief back in her sleeve. “And even when they seem as far out of reach as a star in the sky, they still light our way.”
Granny Hilde’s words warmed me like a ray of sunshine, melting the hard, icy lump in my stomach—just a tiny bit.
“And that’s why . . .” still fumbling to put her handkerchief back, Granny Hilde pointed to the door. Not the one that the two men had disappeared through, but another, opposite the first, made of heavy steel with a few shoeboxes in front. A Hawaiian dancer key ring hung from a key in the lock. “And that’s why we’re getting out of here.”
“What do you mean, getting out of here?”
“Making a break for it!”
I didn’t need telling twice. I took all the boxes blocking our way and stacked them on the desk. The door was locked, and the key stuck, but after I’d thrown my weight against the door a couple of times, the key finally turned and pulled out easily. I turned to help Granny Hilde, but she was already on her feet, standing straighter than I’d ever seen before. Her eyes were sparkling so brightly, you’d think someone had switched Christmas lights on all through her tiny body. Not two minutes later, we were out, complete with Granny Hilde’s walker, and the door snapped shut with a dull click. To win us more time, I double-locked it. Then I put my arm under hers to support her, but she shook me off.
“It’ll only make our getaway trickier.”
“OK, sorry.” I started walking.
“Wait,” said Granny Hilde, “my eyes need to adjust to the low light in here first.”
She was right, it was pretty dim in there. We’d obviously ended up in the warehouse. The only light came from a few fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. Long rows of shelves towered up to the distant roof.
“Excellent,” said Granny Hilde, “now we need to creep along here.” She was bent over like a banana again, but her eyes were still sparkling with glee.
Unfortunately, we made very slow progress. Granny Hilde was pushing her walker a short way forward, then toddling two steps after it, but she seemed to be leaning harder on the handles every second. I began to wonder how she’d ever made it to the Sportfit shop at this pace. And why on earth had Agathe, her carer, even let her go? And still wearing her slippers?
As if she could read my thoughts, Granny Hilde said, “I had such a friendly taxi driver. He even came to the door with an umbrella for me. What a stroke of luck. Agathe couldn’t do it, she had such a terrible backache. She was busy rubbing in some ointment.”
“I see. And how did you know the number?”
Granny Hilde gave me a hard don’t-treat-me-like-an-idiot stare. “Agathe had stored it in my phone contacts. Now let me concentrate on my feet.”
I glanced back at the door; nothing was happening there yet. But I was getting worried, and every couple of yards I turned my head again. Had I just heard the sound of a door handle turning, or was I imagining it? Granny Hilde was wheezing as deeply and regularly as a steam train. At shelf 42, she said her legs were getting a bit tired and she needed to sit down. I forced myself to breathe calmly.
“Can you make it around the corner here? Then we’ll be out of sight.”
“No, I think it needs to be now.”
I realized how exhausted she looked, grimly clinging to the handles of her walker. My gaze fell on a pile of boxes six feet ahead. “Wait, I’ll build you a seat.”
“Oh no, not boxes. I’d rather take that seat there.”
I looked where she was pointing. Surely she couldn’t be serious? The only thing over there was a bright red forklift truck. OK, it had a seat, with a lovely, soft fur cover too. Unfortunately, it was a good six feet off the ground.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, fervently hoping I’d been mistaken.
“That classy little forklift, of course.”
The Granny Hilde marathon was already in progress. The sight of the forklift seemed to have renewed her energy; she was already standing at the footboard.
“Give me a hand, Lulu darling.”
“Granny Hilde, no!”
“Oh yes. Now hop to it, it’ll be fine!”
She grabbed a handle and kicked her walker to one side. I sighed.
“All right, but if anyone asks, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Push!” she commanded, her right foot already waving in the air.
I shook my head and gave in. Bracing myself against her backside, I pushed with all my might. Finally, after much coughing from Granny Hilde—and a little groaning from me—there she was, actually sitting in the driver’s seat, looking like she couldn’t quite believe it herself.
“How are you feeling now?” I asked.
“Marvelous. And the seat, absolutely wonderful. And what a view!”
She bent over the steering wheel, her finger drawing a circle around a green button. “Look, this forklift even has an electric motor.”
“Lulu, could you see if you can set the seat a little lower, please?”
I didn’t ask why; I was too busy worrying. I was expecting to see Security Guard Klötzing storm around the shelving corner at any moment. The shoeboxes on his desk must have given away which door we’d escaped through—but where else could I have put them? And there was bound to be a spare key somewhere. I noticed two small buttons, one with an arrow pointing down, the other with an arrow pointing up: electronic controls for the seat height! I pressed the first one, holding it until Granny Hilde had purred to the bottom.
“Excellent,” she said. “Now I can reach the pedal. What a good thing I’ve driven tractors so often in my life.”
“Why is that a good thing?”
But she had already pushed the green button. The forklift jerked, then hummed into motion.
“Lulu darling, run and fetch my walker frame!”
For a moment, all I could do was stand there, watching her tiny figure teetering on the seat as it wobbled away from me. Somewhere in the warehouse I heard a door bang and someone shouting. I grabbed the walker and made a run for it. “Granny! Someone’s coming! Put your foot down!”
She did, too. I could barely keep up with her. The forklift veered off course, knocking a few rows of boxes sideways and sending them crashing in a heap.
“Watch out, Granny!”
The steps behind us grew louder.
“Around this corner!”
Granny Hilde careered around a sharp right-hand bend, flattening two empty boxes, and there in front of us was a huge doorway. It looked about as inviting as a dragon’s jaws, but it was our only hope. For a few seconds, as I watched her weaving her way toward it like a snake, I was afraid Granny Hilde wouldn’t make it, but she only scraped the frame. I dived after her, my lungs burning. I’d barely gotten myself across the threshold before I heaved all my weight against the steel sliding door. Our luck held: the door was well oiled and snapped shut almost without a sound. Then there was nothing but darkness, and the sound of an electric motor purring to a stop with a faint whistle somewhere a few feet in front of my face. Outside, footsteps clattered past and faded away. Granny Hilde giggled. She chuckled, choked a little, then giggled again.
Man, what a granny!
“And now,” said this crazy Granny, “now let’s make ourselves comfortable until the coast is clear.”
Not long after, I was sitting on the forklift’s footboard, my feet stretched out in front of me on a box and my head resting against Granny Hilde’s scratchy tights. I pushed one of her bitter lemon sweets around my mouth with my tongue.
“How long do you think we’ll have to hide here?”
“A long while yet.”
“Hm. In that case,” I suggested, “why don’t you tell me how you come to have a pair of ice skates at home that you’ve never used?”
“Oh yes, that’s a good story,” said Granny Hilde.
“Great,” I said, closing my eyes. It’s funny, but I can listen better with my eyes closed, even if I’m sitting in the pitch dark.
“It started when we had to get my father out of prison.”
“Prison?” I had to ask, in case I’d misheard.
“Oh yes. It was my parents’ anniversary. My father had taken us out to dinner in a proper restaurant, with tablecloths and candles. ‘Today there’ll be meat for dinner,’ he’d said. Well, meat was something we only ate now and then, as a special treat on Sundays or birthdays. We ate braised beef, holding every morsel on our tongues as long as possible so as not to miss any of that delicious flavor. Father was in good spirits that evening, too, clinking his beer against our glasses. He was in such a good mood he forgot about the hyperinflation happening all across Germany. So while we were inside, savoring every bite, inflation continued outside, doubling the price of our meal, and at the end of the evening Father couldn’t pay the bill. There was a heated argument. Father called the owner a cutthroat and the owner bellowed could he not read?! The menu clearly stated that prices would track the money rate. And suddenly there were men in uniform at the door. Father shouted at them, too, then they took him away. Just like that. And threw him in jail.”
“In jail, the full works?” I asked.
“With bars? And bread and water?”
“No way! And how did he get out? He did get out, didn’t he?”
“Oh, we had to free him, of course. My sister Martha, Mother, and I. It must have been the middle of the night when Mother woke us. She hadn’t lit a lamp, so I could only see her outline. She asked whether we wanted to help get Father out of prison. Didn’t we just!
Mother told us to put on our darkest clothes, and she blackened our faces with soot. She warned us to be quiet as we ran down the stairs, and my heart was in my mouth. Outside was a Ford Model T, and you won’t believe how surprised we were when Mother pulled a bunch of keys from her pocket and unlocked it. She had borrowed the car from a neighbor. My sister and I hadn’t even known she could drive! Well, it turned out she couldn’t. The car jumped about like a wild pony. Once, Mother even put it in reverse gear by mistake. I really have no idea how we survived that journey. But at some point Mother stopped at the roadside. There were crickets chirping, and I looked around. There was no prison—nothing at all: not a building, not a house, not a tree to be seen. No light, just the darkness and the stars above.
‘Where’s Father?’ I asked.
‘In prison,’ Mother answered. She pulled jute sacks out of the trunk and gave them to us. ‘We’re going to get Father out with potatoes,’ she said. ‘The potatoes we dig up out of this field.’”
“What?! Granny Hilde, was your mother going to KO the prison guards with potatoes?”
Granny Hilde giggled. “Ooh, that would have been a brilliant idea; but no, she was only going to bribe the restaurant owner with them, to persuade him to drop the charges against Father.”
“Really? I can imagine bribing someone with something tasty like chocolate, but potatoes?”
“Potatoes were highly valuable,” explained Granny Hilde. “Potatoes filled your stomach, and they could be stored for a long time.”
I rubbed my backside where it was beginning to hurt. Forklift footboards were clearly not designed for sitting on.
“Everything OK?” asked Granny Hilde.
“Sure, if you go on with your story.”
“So, Mother, Martha, and I climbed down into the field with our sacks. We had to be careful: stealing potatoes from a field was highly illegal. Getting the rest of our family thrown into jail wouldn’t have helped us one bit.”
“Oh no!” I realized I was shivering slightly with excitement, and I pulled my jacket tighter around me.
“I can still remember how soft the ground was under our boots, and how damp it felt to the touch. The wind was blowing around our legs, and the cold night air crept down our necks. But after we’d spent a little while rooting through the earth for potatoes, something like the thrill of the chase awoke in me. I began to feel tremendous. My mother, sister, and I had a common goal, and nothing makes you stronger. Then, with my sack half-filled with potatoes, my hands struck something. It was flexible, but tough too, and at first I was afraid it was a dead animal, but when Mother brought the lantern over, I could see it was only a big leather bag. Well, finding a bag in the middle of a field was unusual enough, but imagine my surprise when I unzipped it to discover a pair of ice skates. In the middle of summer! They were beautiful.”
I flicked on my phone light, shining it in Granny Hilde’s face. She squinted.
“What? You found your amazing skates just lying in a field?”
“No, not the ones under my bed, a different pair.”
“You’ve got more than one pair of ice skates?”
“If you stop interrupting me, I’ll explain.”
I nodded, flicked the light off, and leaned back against her legs again.
“Mother allowed me to keep the skates. Although she had no idea how they came to be in the field, she was pretty certain the owner was never going to appear to reclaim them. She handed me the bag as solemnly as if they were the most valuable gift I’d ever received—which they were. She said: ‘Next winter, you’ll be gliding over frozen lakes, and that’s almost as good as flying.’
I put the bag in my sack and went back to digging potatoes. We filled two sacks, one for the restaurant owner and one for ourselves. By the time we were finished, the roosters were already crowing in the village. That was when we realized how tired we were. Exhaustion wrapped around us like a bank of fog. Back home, we didn’t even have the energy to wash off the dirt; we crept into bed with mud still under our fingernails and soot on our faces.”
Granny Hilde paused. Since she often paused in her stories, I waited; but then an all-too-familiar sound gurgled in my left ear: shnurrrk. Unbelievable. She’d fallen asleep again. I tugged at her sleeve.
“Hey, Granny Hilde, wake up!”
She gave a loud snort. I flicked on my phone light. Her head had sunk onto her chest, and her mouth was open.
“Hey!” I shook her gently. “Don’t leave me here on my own.”
“Just a quick forty winks,” she said.
I sighed, switched off the light, and closed my eyes too. What else could I do?
From Der Himmel kommt später (S. Fischer Verlag, 2015). © Angelika Glitz. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Melody Shaw. All rights reserved.