It was in 2006, on my first visit to Heidelberg. I confused myself with Gutenberg, bragging to The Mrs that it was the birthplace of the printing press as we unpacked our bags in the cold and damp motel room. Those two words easily confused me, berg and burg. Our tour guide taught us the former means a mountain or an iceberg, whereas a burg is an ancient fortress or walled city. It was later after my holiday that I discovered my mistake – the berg in Gutenberg does not denote it as a place on a hill. Gutenberg lived in Mainz when he invented the printing press and started the printing revolution. The only connection to printing Heidelberg has is that it has the oldest public library in Germany. Nestled less than two hours from the Black Forest, our motel in Heidelberg was not easy to find. The Contiki coach driver meandered totally lost along the back roads of villages and small suburbs for a good hour. His voice started to quiver and rise in pitch and volume as he spoke animatedly to someone on the phone. It was obvious to many of us at the front of the coach that he was seeking directions from a loud-speaking German woman whose patience was growing shorter by the minute. Hey, it is dangerous to drive a big bus and speak on the mobile phone at the same time. I beseeched to his good sense, albeit silently in my mind.
“Is it safe?” I mumbled to the tall and handsome Indian man sitting immediately in front of me, pretending to be Lawrence Olivier in The Marathon Man. The tall and handsome Indian man who I had earlier mistaken as Dennis Nimbalker, a good friend in High School, jumped up from his seat, clearly agitated. I hasten to add he didn’t understand I was mimicking the dentist in the movie, about to torture Dustin Hoffman by extracting information about how safe “it” was. He turned to me and with a raised right eyebrow asked me if I too felt it was unsafe. “Yeah, why don’t you tell the driver not to speak on the phone – you’re nearer to him and…” I said. Before I could even finish my sentence, the bus came to a screeching halt on the gravel path next to the narrow road. The small group of Malaysian students near me woke up from their slumber, disturbed by the commotion. “Uncle, what’s wrong?” the pale thin girl whom I gave my 3-minute noodles to for lunch the day before called up to me. She told me they had nothing to eat whilst we were strolling aimlessly along the dismally cold and empty street up in a quiet town near the Swiss Alps. She complained that the exchange rate was some ridiculous figure of about ten to one and she and her friends were running short of money very quickly. A single Swiss sausage without any condiments cost twelve euros. The Mrs and I had brought along a kettle and a hot water flask each – with biscuits, tea bags, instant noodles and hard boiled eggs prepared in our hotel room, we could visit anywhere and not go hungry. Ever since we sacrificed our lunch to them, those students considered us as their uncle and auntie. All day, it was uncle this and auntie that.
“It’s the driver,” I said with a disguised soothing voice. “Are we lost?” the pimple-riddled boy next to the pale thin girl asked. His face reminded me of mine when I was a virile teenager who had just discovered the opposite sex was far more interesting than kicking a terribly scuffed football on the school field. The grossly underweight boy had hands that could not hide the details of his phalanges. His fair skin hardly hid his white knuckles, so tightly was he grasping at the shoulders of the seat in front of him. I remember wondering how thin he really was, even his puffy winter jacket hinted at his under-nourished state. “No, we are not lost.” I said. But the driver is! I shouted inside my head. They were asleep and would not have realised the coach had stopped in front of a small roundabout three times already in the last half-hour. On the roundabout stood a massive crucifix that was out-of-proportion to the size of the island. Fear suddenly gripped me, as the grotesque image of an evidently suffering Jesus Christ cast my mind back to the school chapel during my first year in primary school. There, I was permanently scarred by a similarly over-sized crucifix with a tortured dying man whose outstretched limbs were nailed onto the cross and legs brutally smashed making it impossible for him to push himself up the beam to lessen the strain on his body. A crown of thorns, pushed into his head, mocked him in death as a false king. The Jesus Christ on the roundabout appeared very much emancipated and in his death throes with that pain-ravaged look on his face, I felt he was pleading for someone to finish him off and free him from his gruesome torture.
Again, the same roundabout! The same crucifix. The same contorted face of a man dying an agonising death. The sun had very quickly decided to set, waking the night as the driver turned off the engine. As he was studying the map on his lap, turning it upside down, someone on the right hand side of the coach gasped loudly. This was followed by louder gasps and then, the tall and handsome Indian man’s young bride was on her feet. “Look! Look!” she whimpered. Dennis Nimbalker’s doppelganger got up too, as did many others on the left side of the bus. We edged towards the right side of the coach, the windows fogging up like small mushrooms in the process. Behind the rusty iron gates of the property away from the side of the road stood a two-storey motel that looked neglected and uninhabited for decades. The old building was grey and foreboding against the fast darkening sky. A single bulb suddenly flickered and dimly lit up the lobby, as if the concierge had just realised their guests had arrived. The halation from the shimmering glow conjured up grotesque shadows against the wall. “No! No! Please don’t let this be our motel!” the young Indian bride whispered with a violent shudder. An old Italian couple behind us started praying loudly. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come….(indiscernible murmuring).” That all of us in the coach could, as one, feel the ominous signs of the crucifix and the motel spelt impending disaster for me. I was ready to jump off the coach, should The Mrs tug at my hand. As if he could read our minds, the driver obeyed our unspoken command and cranked up the engine. Many of us gave many loud sighs of relief as the coach slowly inched past the eerie motel. Once the motel was behind a bend and out of sight, the mood in the coach relaxed considerably. The relief on many faces was soon followed by loud whoops of delight and raucous celebration.
The driver apologised on the PA system but no one cared. We were all jubilant when told our motel was only minutes away. By that time, the soft grey shadows of the lingering sun had disappeared. Darkness had overpowered the sun, and the lazy moon was nowhere to be seen.
Our motel was cold and damp. The night manager had little time for us, I gathered from his facial expressions that our late arrival had spoilt his plans for the evening. He rushed us through a bleak dinner of pea soup and a plate of cheese, cold cuts and slices of green capsicum and tomatoes. I can’t remember if there was any pretzel. There was certainly no beer, something that I had looked forward to all day. As we were unpacking our bags in our room, I said to The Mrs “Isn’t it odd that the night manager behaved unprofessionally?” He may have been smartly attired in his black suit but I found it discomforting that he avoided eye contact with his guests. The Mrs suggested it may have been a long day for him, maybe he just wanted to go home. “Anyway, he did say our host, the owner of the motel, will come say hello to us in the morning.” Our room was cold. The extra blankets we asked for did not warm us up. The night manager apologised that the heating system had broken down earlier in the day, and they had not been able to fix it. Our first day in Heidelberg had been nightmarish, I hoped the night would improve. It didn’t.
There were dogs howling in the dead of night. Wolves, I reasoned. Next door to us, someone was showering all night. Running water normally gives a calming ambience, it settles me when I am at my most anxious mood. But, the noise of the cascading water disturbed me. How could anyone shower for such a long time? Isn’t the heating system stuffed? I inched closer to The Mrs for extra body warmth. She mistook it to be another sexual advance from me. “Not tonight, dear.”
We were up early the next morning. I was curious to find out who was next door to us. I wanted to tell them cleanliness is a virtue but not paranoia! Did they sterilise themselves from the long shower? It was the old Italian couple who prayed in the coach. The old chap asked me how was it I was able to take such a long cold shower. “Buongiorno,” I greeted him. I chose not to spoil his day. Our host didn’t show up to greet us despite the night manager’s welcoming speech. No one cared, we weren’t there to meet him anyway.
Our day was spent in the Marklplatz, the old market place of Heidelberg in the Old Town. I have to say Heidelberg was an eerie place, even in broad daylight. It was mid-morning by the time we re-assembled outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. The sun threw sharp outlines of light and shape on the stone pavers. The tall black door of the ancient church was slightly ajar, luring me to go nearer the main entrance. A waft of eerie music reached my ears, beckoning me to walk inside. Heidelberg or “Holy Mountain” is the oldest city in Germany with relics of old forts from the 5th century BC to prove it. It saw many bloody wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes during its early history. The church itself had been fought over by invaders for centuries during the Middle Ages. Many wars, countless massacres. Too many died. So many ghosts. The one thing that made the most lasting impression on me about Heidelberg were its books. They were ancient! My aversion to churches and chapels from childhood stopped me from stepping into the church, despite the eerie music’s best attempts to lure me inside. I cast my eyes to the little stalls that lined the side of the building instead. They remind me of the temporary shack across my dad’s shop on old Penang Road, the one that sold comic books and other magazines pegged high on a string above our heads. I still remember the old Indian vendor with a shiny bald head. He was only ever seen wrapped in white cotton dhoti with a white t-shirt to match. I reckon I committed my first sin in his stall, falling for the temptation from his lollies and preserved fruits soaked in sugar syrup in big glass jars. Cheap plastic helicopters and toy soldiers in plastic bags were a constant threat to my innocence too, as much as the apple was to Eve, I comforted myself.
The one stall that abutted the church scared the living daylights out of me. In broad daylight! It was an unmanned book stall but wide open for anyone to enter. No one steals books, right? No one would dare steal those books! It still sends shivers up my spine, thinking about it. The stall was dark even though it was almost noon by the time I walked in. The books were scary not because of the stories inside. The books screamed at me; beseeched me not to touch them and not to turn the pages. They warned me not to take photos of them. I had the urge to look closer and bent forwards towards the leather-bound one closest to me. It was bigger than my 13-inch laptop but thick. At least a ruler’s length. I didn’t recognise the letters at all, but I knew it wasn’t Greek. It wasn’t the odour of something putrescent but there was a definite smell. Mouldy, with a hint of dankness. A hint of evil perhaps. It sat there, as still as a book would, but a shaft of daylight suddenly hit it. The stale air in the room was disturbed, and when I saw a plume of grey dust rising softly from the dark brown leather cover of the book, I grabbed hold of The Mrs’ hand and bolted out into the sunlight. Goodbye, Heidelberg. To this day, I am thankful we did not meet our host. Where there is light, shadows lurk. Perhaps it was the shadow of ghosts that I disturbed.