I know you’re watching me watching them. Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m not standing amidst them, voice loud, free arm addling the air, blending East and West, or clutching a beer, enjoying its scent and stick on my coat sleeves as I hold it up and shake it above my head.

Lina stirs and I hold her tighter. Perhaps you think me an idiot for bringing a baby to the fringes of a crowd that must consist of thousands of people, but I’ve accepted this moment’s significance to her, her life, and I want to be able to tell her that we were there, that I sucked it in like schnapps for her. Tag der Deutschen Einheit. East and West aligned. Time for the real stitching to begin. My mother made dresses. Sometimes the material or the pattern would pose a problem and I’d watch her ruffle her hair, mind ticking through the solutions. If she did that then the hem would be wonky. If she popped an extra fold here then some of the pattern would be distorted. How would she approach this conundrum? Which parts, which sides, of the pattern would be sacrificed to create something alluding to seamlessness? I ruffle my hair the same way these days when I try and decipher life beyond the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.

I hear the click and whir of your mechanical eye documenting it all, documenting me and my reaction. You’ve likely already got your caption set. You likely sniffed me out for my faded denim and my lack of labels. Yes. She’s the one Germans tucked away in their cities beyond Berlin will eat their breakfasts over, drip their coffee onto: East German Mother and Baby Celebrate German Unity, October 1990.

I scan the crowd, looking for my escape. It’d be easy to blend in, to become anonymous. I could push forwards and tuck us in closer to the Reichstag, the place to be tonight, it seems. I could hide myself and my daughter beneath the hundreds of West German flags which now represent a united Germany once again. But I’d rather stay here on the fringes with the Reichstag a spec, moving in and out of focus, and you, trying to get the photograph that sums it all up for now, for the future. I kind of want you to ask me for my story, but you’re a photographer not a journalist—you prick rather than probe. Or rather you probe later—maybe in your dark room you’ll see my flecks of uncertainty, of fear as I reveal myself to you in the red silence.

Lina begins to cry—I feel this rather than hear it. I hold her up to my face, pull her hat further over her ears, and smile at her. My maternal instincts give you your longed-for photograph. You’ll leave us alone now, won’t you? Go find some other Berliners with bigger smiles, better opinions. Our images might even get lost, replaced with something more in keeping with the general sentiment. I consider this, consider my images dog-eared and boot-printed on your floor. Maybe you’ll stow them away in a drawer or a folder and take them out at some point in the future, hold them up to the light, maybe they will speak to you more on anniversaries of this night: Mother Reassures Child as Germany Unites, October 1990.

I look at you. Your camera rests on its strap about your neck. A breather. A second to take it all in yourself. The smell of smoke and schnapps. The boom of drums and horns. The rounds of Happy Birthday rippling through the crowd. I await your departure. We might depart too, make our way back to our apartment on Marienburger Strasse with the photographs of long-gone relatives on the living room wall. Some slipped into the West—one in a car boot, another through a tunnel. Another, my husband, slipped into the Stasi’s net. If I shouted that in your ear, you’d definitely want more snapshots of us. Perhaps you’d nod as if you possess some tints of empathy for the wife of a man imprisoned by the secret police. No. I have already told people that, have already invited that, and it’s a lie. My husband’s life was not prison cells and locked doors and interrogations. His life was park benches and street corners and car seats as he spied on neighbours and acquaintances. Tipping his hat, waving hello, making notes at the kitchen table in the evenings. I said things by accident sometimes—well aware of who he was, what he did—and clapped my hand across my mouth, bit my tongue until it bled, pulled strands of hair from my head in the bedroom just to feel the needle-like sting of regret. He left as the Wall fell. I lay in the bath. Lina kicked the wall of my abdomen from within in time with the sounds of hammers and chisels on concrete without. I doubt he went West, doubt he waves his arms, has dared to show his face, in this crowd tonight, but I wonder if I came just in case.

You stand firm, attached to us. Isn’t it weird not to tell your subject your name at the very least, let alone to not ask them if you can take their photograph? I catch myself thinking about whether he could have put you up to this. Did he send someone to do his dirty work for a change? My mouth moves, ready to ask you these questions, but then the clocks all over Germany strike midnight and a black, red, and gold flag slides up its pole and billows above the Reichstag once more. You would not hear my questions, my accusations, no matter how loudly I shouted in your ear.

I look up at the fireworks—I know you search my face for the awe that fireworks instil upon everyone’s features, but I make a point of keeping my mouth shut. My eyes are the only possible betrayers here, but you can’t get a good angle. I know you will tilt your camera, try anyway. Moral of our story, right? Try escape. Try protest. Try the least qualified person in the room and hope their uncertainty displaces into axes, hammers, ein Volk.

I look at Lina, pull the blanket ever so slightly away from her mouth to admire the perfectly formed ‘o’, the colours kaleidoscoping across her forehead, cheeks, chin. There’s another shot for you, but I’ll not let you close enough to acknowledge it, let alone take it. It’s fragments of motherhood like these that make me think of my friends, pregnant by mistake, with the option for abortions at their fingertips in October 1989, but then the Wall fell and the rules changed. They have sons and daughters they never wanted now. They have maternity to uphold when they never wanted household days or breathing spaces in their careers. I suppose they don’t have them anyway in this newly united country. They just have a mewling infant, unemployment, an appointment for a meeting with some office who promises help when there’s not enough help to go around. If you were a man with a pad and pen, I could snatch them from you and jot all this down. Tell our story. The real story. Bitte.

A woman bumps into me. Her perfume smells expensive like the Chanel I spritzed on myself when I went to the KaDeWe with my Begrüßungsgeld last Christmas. She apologises, kisses my cheek with a Western confidence I find myself admiring and despising in the same breath. I know when she steps back, I’ll see you and you’ll have your eye pressed to your camera’s viewfinder, flash as brazen as the fireworks above. The woman screams in my ear, her hand pressed to Lina’s back. I flinch at the warmth and tickle of her invasion. I waste no energy deciphering her words. I step back, wave her away. Wunderbar. Gute Nacht.

I’m going to tell you that I’m going home now, that I shouldn’t have come because I’ve been jostled in too many crowds from birth with little choice and I don’t know why I thought I’d do the same to Lina. She has the right to her own voice, can criticise anyone she chooses when she learns how to string together her vowels and consonants, can’t she? She can say yes or no and not face imprisonment or a designated stalker like her father’s victims, can’t she?

I turn and search for you. Yes, you’re still there. I want to call you out, to ask if you’re our designated stalker, asked by him to document my reactions to this night, this shift we all feel in the ground below us as people jump up and down and Berlin pulls herself together. My mouth moves, ready, and I step closer to you, but I realise, as a firework illuminates you in pink, that your focus has moved, has followed the Western woman to her group of Western friends who are embracing you, gesticulating at the night. Take our photo, their outstretched arms say. No embarrassment, awkwardness, here.

I pull Lina closer to my chest, feel her sleep-laden limbs twitch with the contact. I navigate a pathway between bodies and begin the long walk home.

© Emma Venables
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Emma’s interview]