The officer studied Werner’s passport closely, then looked at his face. “Are you seeking asylum?” he asked, jumping right in.
“Yes,” Werner said without hesitation. “If that’s possible.”
“Under the current circumstances. But you’ll have to decide right now. And I’ll need to keep your passport.” Werner nodded his head in agreement. And in that instant his passport was gone.
I felt as if I hadn’t understood properly. How could such an enormous decision be made that fast? We hadn’t discussed it on the plane. I stood there with my mouth open as the officer told us someone would be coming shortly and to step to the side. Maybe ten minutes later a gentleman in plain clothes appeared and gestured for us to follow him. We were taken to a small room with a desk and a few chairs. For all I knew they had a one-way mirror. It was Heathrow but had the feeling of a well-run security facility.
We remained in that room for close to three hours. What was Werner’s profession? Who could vouch for him? Who was I? Who were his publishers? What were his plans? Where would he live? The first gentleman was joined by a second one who kept leaving the room to make phone calls. My passport was removed from me as well. It was all very civilized but they did not let us go until they’d phoned all Werner’s contacts and verified his information. In the end, they said he would receive a stateless passport that would enable him to travel. There would be further interviews with the Home Office. My passport was returned.
Well. The whole experience was utterly exhausting. I felt like three days had passed instead of three hours. As we got into a cab, Werner said, “Welcome to my world.” He had had no idea he’d be offered asylum just like that, as easy as slicing through butter. His plan had been to return to Czechoslovakia once the politics became clearer. He left behind his brother, who was really his best friend and business partner. And his father, who was dying of cancer. About his father, who he claimed was an alcoholic and ne’er-do-well, he never had much good to say. His mother, Anna, who had died the year before, was a different story: brilliant, smart, sensitive, creative, the brains of the family.
He also left behind his previous romantic partner, Trude, who was fourteen years older than he was, a chic Viennese woman whose sophistication I could never hope to match.
Did I feel trepidation about any of this? Yes, certainly, but in a way that was remote, as if the experience were happening to someone else. When we got our bags out of the cab and entered the flat, I had an odd sinking sensation – this was for real, permanent, and possibly bigger than my ability to understand or cope with. But I quickly brushed those thoughts and fears aside. I loved Werner. He was here with me: what a miracle! We would cope with all obstacles in our path.
**An episode from this memoir is published every Tuesday & Thursday for those following!