The Ghost and the Refugee

Do you remember me taking this photograph? We were in that hotel in northern Germany; or at least it was a hotel when I discovered it two years earlier. By the time I got around to making an offer for the building it was filled with several families of asylum seekers – some of the thousands of refugees flooding into the country from the East. Did we actually call them refugees? In fact did we refer to them at all as we ducked underneath the clotheslines strung across the restaurant or stepped over the couples sat on the stairs. I wanted a shot from the restaurant into the corridor with the reception in the background. The bar had to be in the photograph; preferably with you stood behind it. But then he appeared in front of me, posing, standing to attention like a soldier. As far as I can remember he said nothing. Can you remember him speaking? Afterwards perhaps, when he followed us out to the car.

Thinking about it I don’t recall him talking. His was a monochrome image in a silent age. He is still here of course, still in the hotel; but only as that black and white image, the boy himself is long gone. I’m using his photograph as a bookmark; inserted in the pages of Le Carre’s ‘A Most Wanted Man,’ at the point I stopped reading, the point where it first becomes apparent the story won’t end well for the young asylum seeker. Le Carre’s young asylum seeker that is: not ours. If our story had turned out as I planned you would be downstairs now, organising breakfast and checking out the guests and I would be laying here listening to your voice echo up the stairs. Instead I am just another guest, another businessman, car parked on the opposite side of the road for two days; or what was the road until the main highway south was diverted around the village and the forest swallowed the hotel.

I packed the book when leaving Britain. It had been on my shelf for a year or so. Were it not for this two-day break in the journey between Köln and Berlin it would probably have remained unread. The boy’s photograph was taken, on impulse, from an old album. I hadn’t given him much thought since that day, about a year after that first visit, when I was stood beside my Mercedes at the back the building. This building: a hotel again by then, albeit an empty one. I don’t think the policeman breathing down my neck had a gun in his hand. He was undoing the holster as he told me to place my hands flat on the roof of the car but the incident was reasonably amicable. He was just making it clear, using as few words as possible, that I wasn’t going anywhere until his colleague had searched the hotel.

So as doors were flung open and boots tramped up and down three flights of stairs I thought of the young refugee. As I said, he was no longer here. Asylum centres in North Germany had been firebombed and the relatively small amount of money earned from housing migrants suddenly seemed less attractive. The policeman wasn’t looking for him anyway, he was searching for a ghost, one that appears in the imagination of German policemen after seeing someone climb out the driver’s side of a left hand drive car. My policeman, the one with the imaginary gun, not the one with the loud boots, confirmed this was the case, asking several times who else had been in the car. I could have told him it was you. After all sometimes it was you. On those occasions when I wasn’t travelling to you, or away from you, it was you sitting beside me in the car – my ghost.