ESSAY Anne Lauppe-Dunbar

NWR Issue 102

Dark Mermaids

We drove past trees to a running track, turned the corner onto the small road that led from one end of the complex to the forest, and waved at a giant of a man in small shorts, who stood, one hand on a pink buggy, the other firmly round his wife’s waist. Klaus mumbled a name: someone in boxing, someone famous. Now, directly below me was darkness. Not the crisp coal-black night dark, but the cloying potpourri of damp grey. The steps leading down were Lilliputian. Take the one-man steel lift? I murmured a polite no and headed for the stairs. Klaus Novack, director of the athlete’s training centre at Kienbaum, scowled before I followed him, descending into the underground labyrinth. The spectre of dead athletes followed; the ones who hadn’t escaped. Would they trail through the mushrooming walls, sighing over lost chances of a gold medal and the ever present longing to be the best? Or would they marvel at my naïve, astonished delight at simply being here?

I had come to Kienbaum, a sports training centre near Berlin, to walk the hallowed ground of former German Democratic Republic athletes, to see where they had trained, slept and screwed their way to oblivion; pumped so full of steroids they could do little else. These athletes arrived from all over the GDR, Mexico and Cuba to train in running, swimming, shot put and discus. They also came here to benefit from a unique resource: steroids. Months of writing/phoning/emailing of requests to former GDR athletes, doctors, and trainers had returned a single drawn out NO. Finally, out of the blue, Kienbaum replied with a clipped: yes, I could visit and stay. Yes, I could have a tour, providing I didn’t ask questions about specifics: names, details of files etc. I agreed and booked a flight before they could reconsider.

Above us, the windows of a sentry turret, perching on a hill not unlike a burial ground, stared across the forest and up to an empty sky. Here, once, Russian helicopters had circled, filling the air with a vibrating drone, passengers trying to see just what the GDR was so keen to hide so far underground. Earlier that morning I watched the June dawn melting the frigid water of the lake, turning the landscape to a feeding frenzy of insect life and the occasional gawping fish. Eyes closed, face turned, a dandelion to the sun, I imagined Sophia, my protagonist, a child Olympic swimmer who’d escaped the cycle of training/steroids/training and run to the West. I pictured her walking across the grass to the canteen, trainers loosely tied, hair and shoulders pulled back, her long legs moving her forward into a day that began and ended in the pool. She’d waited inside my mind for such a long time – perhaps waiting for me to write her? To walk her into her own story – this girl I often glimpsed in the mirror, a watery imprint of dark hair, grey-blue serious eyes and stubborn chin? She was tricky, difficult at times, a watermark, it seemed, of me...

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