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PART OF THE Feast Your Eyes ISSUE

‘What she doesn’t tell him is that Marie was terrified of the ordinary, the mundane, of being sucked into mediocrity and disappearing without a trace. She didn’t watch TV, she didn’t do small talk, she dropped in for dinner, uninvited.’

Juliet Conlin’s new novel, Sisters of Berlin, is a wonderful domestic and political thriller that takes one bereaved sister, investigating her sister’s past, into the heart of Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall. Here, we share an extract where we find out a little more about the sisters’ relationship.

 

Extract taken from Sisters of Berlin
By Juliet Conlin
Published by Black and White Publishing

 

‘Well then,’ Franzen says and looks down at the file. ‘Yes, that’s pretty much in line with our assumptions.’

‘Assumptions?’

‘That Marie knew her attacker. As far as we can tell, nothing of value was taken from her flat – there was some cash on the kitchen counter and a laptop and a stereo in the living room. The only thing missing, really, was the TV.’

‘Marie didn’t own a TV,’ Nina tells him. ‘She said it took up too much valuable time.’

What she doesn’t tell him is that Marie was terrified of the ordinary, the mundane, of being sucked into mediocrity and disappearing without a trace. She didn’t watch TV, she didn’t do small talk, she dropped in for dinner, uninvited. She completed a couple of semesters of a Cultural Sciences degree, but left without any qualifications. Her parents were horrified when they realised she’d quit university, and spelled out to her in a long, bitter, emotionally laden letter that if she chose to throw away such opportunities, they had no choice but to cut her off financially. Nina happily stepped in, tore up the letter and encouraged her sister to focus on something she felt a vocation for, something artistic, something creative. And leave her parents to stew in their disapproval.

It shames her now to realise that perhaps she was perpetuating the drama by rescuing her sister again and again. That she could only stand up to her parents in an act of rebellion by proxy. But what was she to do? It was the only kind of rebellion open to her; it was never quite articulated, but the threat was always there, that if she went against her parents on anything, however trivial, she’d cause unimaginable harm to everyone.

Marie, by contrast, took their parents’ disapproval in her stride. She thrived on acts of defiance, on challenge, hurtling headlong towards god-knows-what as long as she could feel herself moving, anything not to stop and stagnate. This is why she loved Berlin, a city that changes itself constantly, at vertiginous, anarchic speed; a place that’s always becoming, and never being. Maybe, Nina thinks now, maybe this city had been toxic for Marie. That what she needed was security, stability and a rootedness. Perhaps she needed to settle and to be.

But this is impossible to explain to Franzen. ‘Marie didn’t watch much television,’ she says vaguely. ‘She always said she could spend her time doing other things. Such as writing. She liked to write, you know.’

Franzen put up his hands in agreement. ‘You don’t need to explain that to me, Dr Bergmann. I don’t have a TV at home, either.’

He smiles. Maslowski sniffs again and mumbles something Nina can’t quite make out.

‘My colleague here on the other hand,’ Franzen waves his hand in Maslowski’s direction, ‘would be stuck without his daily fix. Am I right, Mika?’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Maslowski grumbles into his paperwork.

Nina’s dizziness increases, intensifying the stupor she’s feeling, and adding to the surreal quality this conversation has taken on. Her vision is accosted by numerous small black dots and she has to concentrate hard to follow what Franzen is saying. She will have to join Sebastian and the kids for supper tonight; yesterday, she claimed she wasn’t feeling well. Maybe she should make ratatouille, then it won’t be so obvious that she’s just eating vegetables.

‘Are you okay?’ she hears Franzen ask.

‘What? Yes, I’m fine.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘It’s just – I’m still feeling a little shaken.’

‘That’s completely understandable,’ he says softly. ‘Would you like to come back another time?’

Nina shakes her head. ‘Perhaps you already know this,’ he says, ‘but the initial stages of an enquiry are crucial. Anything we miss out on now, well, there’s always the chance that it’ll get lost altogether. So, if you’re up to it, I’d be very grateful for anything you could tell me about your sister.’ He pauses, as though to check she’s okay to continue answering his questions, then asks: ‘Did Marie have any friends?’

She tells him what she knows, the names of a few friends Marie knew from university.

Franzen is scribbling away furiously. When Nina pauses, he looks up. ‘Good, go on, anyone else?’

She opens her mouth and closes it again. Behind her, Maslowski slams a file drawer shut. She jumps. She’s finding it impossible to concentrate. Finally, she says, ‘She was part of a writing circle with five or six other writers. They met up regularly.’

‘Would you happen to have their names?’

‘No, sorry. Marie was . . . guarded about her writing. It was very personal for her, so she didn’t talk about it much. I just know that she and these other writers met up. But they had a name for the group. Wortspiel.’

‘Wortspiel,’ he repeats. ‘Wordplay.’ He writes it down.

‘Not very original, for a group of writers,’ Nina says. ‘Marie hates it. I mean, hated it.’ Her hands are trembling in her lap. She interlocks her fingers and squeezes them tight. She will never get used to referring to her sister in the past tense.

Franzen puts down his pen. ‘We found several writing journals in your sister’s flat. Did she ever show them to you, Dr Bergmann?’

‘No. I mean, I’ve read some her stories, but –’

‘No matter. I read the journals. It appears she liked to familiarise herself with the topics she was writing about. Her research was really quite in-depth.’

‘Yes, that sounds right.’

‘There were a few stories, and copious notes, about political extremists. The far left as well as the far right.’ He pauses, then adds in a pensive tone: ‘She was a talented writer.’

Nina almost thanks him, but stops herself in time.

‘Well, you’ve been very helpful, Dr Bergmann. I guess that’s all from me right now. Unless you have any questions you’d like to ask us?’

‘Did she fight back?’ Her voice is hardly more than a whisper.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Marie. Did she – her attacker . . .’

‘Oh. I see. Yes. There was most definitely a struggle.’ He clears his throat. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure how much detail I should go into. We’ve no DNA evidence. Apart from the baby.’

The baby. The thought of the baby – the sudden image of a perfect shell-like curl of a foetus – shocks Nina so much she forgets how to breathe for a moment.

‘Dr Bergmann,’ Franzen says, concerned. ‘Can I get you a glass of water?’

She shakes her head, although her mouth is dry and sticky. She gets to her feet slowly. Then another question occurs to her. ‘Have you spoken to Robert Kran yet?’

‘I’m driving to Leipzig tomorrow,’ Franzen says. ‘Our initial focus is on people who knew Marie. And –’ he gets to his feet, ‘we will be speaking with your husband, as well.’

Nina stands up straight, the black dots fizzing and then settling behind her eyes. ‘My husband was with a client on the morning Marie was attacked,’ she says calmly, her cheeks burning. ‘It shouldn’t be too difficult to confirm that. He’s a lawyer.’

‘Don’t worry, Dr Bergmann,’ says Franzen. ‘We will. As you said, it won’t be difficult to confirm.’

Her stomach growls audibly as she opens the door to leave.

‘You obviously didn’t get around to having lunch, either.’ He smiles.

Nina swallows and bites her lip. ‘There’s a Bratwurst stand on the corner,’ he says. ‘They’ve got by far the best Currywurst in town. Homemade tomato sauce. Secret recipe, I’m told.’ He smiles. ‘You should try it.’

‘Yes, I’ll do that,’ she says.

Stepping outside into the grey Berlin air, she turns and looks up at the imposing police building, tips her head back at the fourth floor and tries to locate Franzen’s office. The building, with its grand sandstone columns and barred windows, seems to tilt towards her and for a split second, she has the terrifying sensation it might fall and crush her. She steps backwards, into the path of a man shoving a Currywurst into his mouth, and she apologises hastily, nearly heaving at the smell of the spicy ketchupy sauce.

 

Sisters of Berlin by Juliet Conlin is published by Black and White Publishing, priced £8.99

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