“Kann ich noch nennen Sie Johnny?”
She saw I was struggling.
“Ah”, she said, “so, you did not keep your German?”
The teacherly manner. Grey eyes in titanium frames .
“Your career took you elsewhere, did it not?”
Said as if she was reviewing my curriculum vitae.
It was all so unexpected. A month ago an invitation came in the post from Germany to a celebration of the 90th birthday of Liesel Wagemeyer.
She was my nanny from when I was one year old until I was seven. She looked after me, and later Polly, as infants and came back to England with our family in 1955, and stayed for two years before going home again.
We are in a crescent-shaped room with scenic windows overlooking a park in Hamburg in north Germany.
I only saw her once again after she left us. We visited her when I was in my teens. By then she was manager of a small hotel.
When I thought of her later, which was not often, it was always as a young woman with a fair complexion and auburn hair in a tight bun.
The hair was steel grey now. She wore a dark blue coat and skirt.
Everywhere there were campaign posters for Angela Merkel, who had just been re-elected for a third term.
My childhood memory is of broken buildings everywhere and knots of people wandering uncertainly or peering at the ground, as if trying to find a path home.
Now this place: so solid, so sedate, so rich.
The owner of the hotel, about to retire too, paid tribute to role she had played in the hotel chain which had built.
The event was clearly intended to end at about 8:00pm and I felt it was the moment for me to leave and I went to her and extended my hand and she took my hand in both of hers and said: “It was wonderful that you came”, and she turned to the person standing beside her: “This is my great-nephew. Dirk, meet Herr Smith.”
Dirk, who looked as if he was in his early thirties, walked with me to the elevators and said in good English: “She used to speak of you from time to time and she was pleased by what you were doing…”
It never occurred to she would have followed my career.
It was a cloudless, sunny autumn day when I flew home and the great waterways of northern Europe were glinting in he sun.
And all the way I thought of little else but her. Our two countries. Our different lives.
Germany had to write off its history, rebuilding while others settled scores or fantasized.
I think Liesel was proud that I was there to see what she had done.
And rightly so.