Bernard Travers was not what Greta Diehl was expecting. Not surprising. Even though they’d been pen pals for three years, he’d been careful to send Greta only one photo, and that was of his older brother, Gerard. Gerard was the good-looking one; wasted on the seminary his mother said. Greta had sent several pictures of herself so he knew who he was looking for as he stood with stinging palms on the platform at Hamburg Hauptbahnhof with the wretched case splayed by his side.  

He’d grown to hate that case. There had been three changes of trains on the journey from Ostend and the case thwarted him at every transfer. On the last leg, he’d struck up a conversation with a young Englishman called Philip who’d pointed to his own luggage in the rack overhead, a small attaché case, in tanned leather, polished with venom, with capped corners and thick ornate stitching.  

“If it doesn’t fit in there, it doesn’t come,” he said. “That’s the whole point of travel, don’t you think?”

Bernard didn’t know what the point of travel was. He was 17 and this was his first trip to the Continent. He had just finished secondary school and would shortly start a clerking job in the county council. The trip to see Greta would form the interlude between these two stages in his life.   

“You get to shed your possessions,” Philip said when Bernard failed to respond. “That’s the point: you become your most essential self.”

Bernard’s case, crammed with clothes for every season and too cumbersome to be lifted onto the rack, colonised the aisle of the carriage and was in everybody’s way. 

The air in the station was gritty. Destinations were called on the booming public address system and trains huffed and puffed importantly, seemingly impatient with loiterers like him. He wondered if he should have worn a large card strung around his neck with his name on it like a war orphan when he felt his sleeve being tugged. He turned and there was Greta and her dismay.

“Really?” she asked, “it is you?”

He recognised her dark bouncy hair, but she had different glasses which made her look much more secretarial than the school shots she’d sent him.  Or was it the clothes? In the photos she was wearing a uniform of some sort, but now she had a flouncy kind of dress with flowers all over it and a black jacket. And she was tall. Way taller than him.

He stuck out his hand and she shook it manfully.

“You are more fat,” she said.  

Charitably, Bernard put this down to her English, though he knew that being fat seemed to license other people to be very pass-remarkable, as his mother would put it. Greta’s mother came up beside them, small, sad-eyed, her high-built blonde hair shrouded in a gauzy scarf.  

“This,” Greta said, “is Mutti.

Mutti said something very fast in German that sounded like a question and ended with his name. 

Burn heart. 

For the first weekend, Greta marched him into the centre of town, took him to the small museum full of altarpieces, religious statues, and a small room devoted to torture. There was a tram ride to a large park with a lake but when they got there, there wasn’t much to do. Bernard had surreptitiously brought his togs with him but once he saw the murky waters of the lake he kept quiet about them. He wasn’t prepared to disrobe in front of Greta and she clearly didn’t think that the lake was for swimming in. Instead they watched a group of muscly young men dive from a little jetty and cavort athletically in the water. Then they got back on the tram and went directly home. The perfunctory aimlessness of this trip filled Bernard with dread about what other activities Greta had lined up. But come Monday, she resumed what he presumed was her normal life, which didn’t include him. She had a complicated schedule of choir practice, tennis matches and study groups (she was a year younger than Bernard and still at high school) to which Bernard was pointedly not invited. She disappeared early in the morning and was gone for the day leaving him alone with her mother.  

He tooled around the apartment with its stained floors and heavy dark furniture feeling like a trespasser. His room was bare, a single bed and a hospital-style locker, more of the stained floorboards and a full wall of wardrobe with sliding doors which when he opened it was as gloomy as a vault. It was packed full of tweedy clothes he was convinced belonged to the dead. That’s what they smelled of, this slack-shouldered army. He slid the door closed. He felt it wrong to put his own clothes in there.  He could hear his mother’s voice warning him to unpack his good shirt immediately to shake out the creases. She had visions of him going to concert halls because she believed all Germans were interested in classical music and didn’t Greta tell him she was in a choir? Well, Mam, he thought, I won’t  be needing my good shirt.  So he kept his clothes intact in the big suitcase – that way he wouldn’t have to struggle to get the lid closed as he had when leaving home. In truth he wanted to pack himself away out of this unhappy household.  

The kitchen with its bright white cabinets was the only non-brown room and here Mutti held possession though Bernard wasn’t sure if she was very busy.  Any time he came into the room she was sitting at the red Formica table, smoking languidly, though she cooked three full meals a day and the house looked clean as far as Bernard could judge. The days were interminable. He’d brought one book to read – Nevil Shute’s On the Beach – and he’d finished it by Tuesday morning. The only relief from the tedium was the food, which was meaty. There were stews and breaded chops, pies and sausage. He liked the sausage, in particular, which came in several guises, but he ate everything and Mutti seemed to enjoy feeding him. He said “sehr gut” after everything and she was always pleased to see his polished plate. 

On Wednesday afternoon, he couldn’t stick the brown flat any longer and determined to go out. He didn’t know if he should ask permission. At home he and Gerard would have to account for their movements, before and after. He knocked at the kitchen door and said in English, “Frau Diehl, I’m going out now,” and pointed to the front door. Mutti had no English so she just nodded. She pointed to her tiny wristwatch and he raised six fingers.  

The Diehls lived in an apartment block on an austere, respectable street with grassy patches out front and leafy trees, but when he started walking towards where he thought the centre was, it led into docklands with enormous monolithic factories and grim sidings where trains seemed to have been shunted and left to die. Greta’s father worked in the docks as a nightwatchman, if Bernard understood correctly. He was a ghostly presence in the flat. Seen at the breakfast table in blue overalls, bleary-eyed, with his hangdog face and bulbous eyes, he wolfed his food and eyed Bernard incuriously. Then he would shuffle off to bed and that was the last Bernard saw of him until the next morning. Frau Diehl serviced him like a sullen waitress, planting the heaped plate down in front of him without a word. 

It was inevitable, Olivia said to him years later. Olivia was the only person he’d ever told.  But Bernard had seen nothing inevitable about it.

The town centre proved elusive so he found a pub, Der Insel Teufel. Devil’s Island, Bernard thought, just perfect. It was in a red-bricked, flat-iron type building jutting like a prow on to a street, one side of which was a quay, with tracks scored into the cobbles. It looked over a basin of water to another quay, where a number of ships were docked. Behind them were rows of brick warehouses, and behind them a row of  cranes, their muscled necks frozen and their idle hooks like inverted question marks. The place seemed deserted. Was Wednesday half-day at the docks, he wondered.

It was equally quiet inside the pub. A couple of old men played dominoes noisily at the tables but Bernard sat at the bar and ordered a beer. He was expecting to be challenged but wasn’t. The barman, with a dead cigarette between his lips, produced a big blonde beer in a large tankard with a handle and smiled  at him as he set it down. Then he slapped his towel over his shoulder and went somewhere out the back – to restart his cigarette, Bernard supposed.  He was grateful for the lack of curiosity. His German wasn’t up to conversation. Here he felt blessedly ignored, and let’s face it, manly. 

He’d spent very little money since he arrived so he ordered two more tankards of beer. Live dangerously, he told himself. He knew he would have to fabricate a version of this trip for his mother who had helped him with the ferry fare.  He couldn’t disappoint her by saying that the highlight of his week away was getting drunk in a pub on his own.

Night was falling as he stepped outside. It was a fresh evening and he was glad of the wind as he walked home.  It would sober him up. He’d missed dinner at the Diehls and he worried  how he was going to explain that. He hadn’t been given a key to the apartment – in that it was just like home – so he had to ring the bell when he got back. Mutti opened the door. She looked different.  First of all she had shed her apron and was wearing a  blouse in a peachy colour with a ruffled neck and a porridge-coloured skirt that was just above her knee. And instead of her usual house slippers she had a pair of patent sling-backs. In her hand she held a thimble glass which she sipped from as she greeted him with a wide smile. There was no remonstration about dinner. He followed her into the dark sitting room where the television housed in a mahogany cabinet with doors was on at murmuring level.

She offered him a glass of what she was drinking – it was honey-coloured and awfully sweet. He drank slowly, relieved that it wasn’t another beer. He didn’t feel manly now; he felt bloated and sluggish. There was news first, followed by some kind of documentary about the Nazis. Mutti said nothing but seemed to be watching intently as the screen illuminated the dark room with vivid explosions. 

“Krieg,” she said, looking at him directly for the first time. She made it sound like a lament.

“Ja,” he said and nodded his head assertively.

More Krieg followed – marching columns of hard-hatted troops, aerial shots of the Nuremberg rallies, Deutschland Über Alles, and raised salutes.  He stole a sidelong glance at her.  

“Hitler,” she said and shook her head sorrowfully.

He wondered if she was expecting a guest, was that the reason she was all dolled up. In his state, he wouldn’t be able to handle two monosyllabic conversations at once, so he tossed back the stuff in the glass – it tasted sticky like glue – and extravagantly made to rise. In response, she stretched out her hand and covered his on the shiny brown leatherette of the sofa. She shook her head and pursed her lips and kept her hand on his quite firmly. They sat like that for several minutes. He felt his hand blushing in her tender prison. Then with great resolve, she stood up, and going over to the TV she switched it off. Damn, he thought, whatever chance he had with the TV between them as a source of conversation he was bunched now. She went to another cabinet in the room which opened on top and hid a record player. Why did the Germans coffin everything like this? She lifted out an LP and slid the record out placing it on the turntable. Then she lifted the needle very carefully – was she drunk, Bernard wondered, then chastised himself; who was he to point the finger – and set it down on the vinyl. She brought the cover over for his inspection. James Last, Games that Lovers Play. She beamed at him as a bombastic brass section declared its intentions. He recognised the title track immediately. He smiled at her accommodatingly.

“Möchten Sie tanzen?” she queried and for a minute Bernard got a glimpse of what she might have been like twenty years ago. Winsome, fey, appealing. For the first time in this house he felt emboldened. There was a lot of stuff he was crap at, but he was able to dance. 

“Nothing happened,” he told Olivia, when she winkled the story out of him thirty years later.  She was inordinately pleased to discover what she called a Mrs Robinson episode in his past. Olivia was always convinced he was withholding on her. He’d never gone as far as telling her he was a virgin. He wasn’t sure she would believe him. It wasn’t a credible thing to be in this day and age. He was already a fat, middle-aged man living with his brother – a defrocked priest, although Gerard insisted he’d left the priesthood of his own volition – in the house they’d grown up in. That was enough of a social handicap to bear; it told most people all they wanted to know. Declaring the extent of his sexual innocence would have been a burden. For Olivia, that is. 

“Nothing happened,” he repeated as Olivia wiggled her eyebrows at him like a smutty comedian. 

He didn’t describe the nesting sensation of Mutti in his arms, the animal closeness of another body, the trustingness of her. Not a bit like Auntie Min who’d taught him, who was vibrant and lip-sticked and smoked a cigarette as she swung around the sitting room in green silk, while imperiously pushing and pulling him about the place, like some jousting bully. There was initially some awkwardness with Mutti, which hand went where etc. Because of his age, she expected him only capable of that modern shuffle business, arms at waist level, gripping your partner’s love handles. But he didn’t want that because he was afraid of how his own body might react to such frictive proximity. So he placed a hand firmly in the small of her back and took the lead. 

Mutti was quite solid in his arms; he discovered comforting little rolls of flesh under her armpits that felt like baby fat and when he looked down – he was a good foot taller than her – he could see fair down on her cheeks. Mutti (even in his head, he couldn’t keep calling her Frau Diehl) complied, surrendered. She knew most of the steps too although he could tell it was a while since she’d danced. When she’d forget or stumble she’d look up and smile but otherwise their bodies did the talking. Even as Bernard shimmied and jived with Mutti, he knew her loneliness was more intense than his, but it chimed with what he felt was his deep unloveability. After a while he forgot he was dancing with his pen pal’s mother and he believed she forgot that he was the soft pouchy boy her daughter had brought home. That was the joy of it. They forgot themselves.  

He recognised several other tracks – ‘A Man and A Woman’, ‘Fly me to the Moon’, ‘What Now My Love’ – from Hospital Requests, which his mother liked to listen to, though she didn’t care much for James Last. James Blast, more like, she said. Bernard’s own taste ran more to Elton John and ELO.

Luckily Mutti was turning the record for a second time when they heard Greta’s key in the door. She dropped the needle noisily on the vinyl and tamped down her hair, then wordlessly she went to her end of the sofa, he to his. She patted her cheeks with her palms while he tried to regulate his breathing.  When Greta peered around the door, they were sitting as stiffly together as when they’d started, while the lush strings of ‘Lara’s Theme’ filled the room. 

“Oh Mutti,” Greta said in English for his benefit, “Bernard is not liking this altmodisch music.”

Bernard found himself bristling; what did Greta know about him?  Nothing… His letters to her in his stilted German allowed only the tedious cataloguing of activities – much of them invented – and he found himself tongue-tied in her presence, all his paltry German deserting him. She crossed the room and pulled the needle roughly off the record. Behind her back, Mutti looked at him, shrugged ruefully and smiled.

Greta turned the TV back on.

“Ein Platz an der Sonne,”  a hectic TV voice declared with matching words on screen. A flashing starburst showed a large sum in Deutschmarks.

“This,” Greta explained patiently, “is our game of chance.”

A lottery, Bernard had already guessed.


Unsurprisingly, Greta never made the planned return visit to Ireland. 

“It’s a wonder Mutti didn’t show up on your doorstep instead,” Olivia said. It was one of the few times Bernard was disappointed in her. Intimacy was always a joking matter with her, something to be belittled, perhaps because she’d never really mastered it. For her, nothing short of full-scale penetration would have counted as something happening, whereas this experience belonged to the realm of the unrequited. You can love someone warts and all, he longed to say, without ever having sex with them. From what he could gather, most people used sex to work off hostile energy. But he didn’t say any of that because he knew how threatened Olivia was by unspoken longing. His, in particular. 

Bernard’s underground feeling for Olivia had long been the sandpapery grit in their friendship. Olivia recognised it, he knew, and feared the power of its pathos.

“Didn’t Greta notice anything?” Olivia asked.

“No, she was too wrapped up in herself. ”

“And wasn’t it awkward afterwards?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “it wasn’t.  We just went back to being who we had been.” 

But Olivia didn’t believe him.

“Are you sure she didn’t tiptoe into your monkish room in a pink negligee and have her evil way with you? Go on, you can tell me.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to lie, to satisfy Olivia’s appetite for what she called the dirt.  But he demurred, faithful to the memory of Mutti, even though she  must be long dead now. 

“She gave me a packed lunch for the return journey.”

“Aw,” Olivia said but it was sardonic.

He couldn’t tell Olivia that for decades he had drawn amorous solace remembering the half hour that he danced with Mutti. That it sustained him when nothing like it was on offer to him; no one would ever declare love, full-blown, unconditional, lustful love for him. Neither did he tell her that he still had the note. The paper was fragile now after so many years of folding and unfolding but still bore the fat, greasy watermark of what had been mustard smeared on the sausage sandwiches. He would read its message which, at this remove, seemed both urgent and valedictory. 

Gute Reise, Agnetha.

Mary Morrissy

Mary Morrissy is the author of four novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender, The Rising of Bella Casey and most recently Penelope Unbound. She has also published two collections of stories, A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive. Her work has won her the Hennessy Prize and a Lannan Foundation Award. A member of Aosdána, she is a journalist, teacher of creative writing and a literary mentor. “Burn Heart” is from a forthcoming short story collection entitled 20/20 Vision.

About Burn Heart: An old friend told me about the central episode in this story – the young man dancing with the mother of his pen pal. The surrounding architecture of the story is all mine. I wanted to explore the notion of unrequited love, so often perceived as pathetic or indicative of a lack of emotional sophistication. It’s also seen as an affliction of the young, a kind of illness that “real life” will eventually cure you of. Yet the experience of unlived-out love can often be much more intense and persistent than its requited counterpart. The real richness of Bernard’s life is that he has drawn enduring sustenance from the smallest of romantic offerings.