There often used to be two of us. Three of us. Four, five, or six. I had brothers, sisters, a tarantula. Parents, yes, them too.
Plus there was my Uncle Nikolai and the guy from the neighbourhood with the pom-pom gloves. We laughed, sometimes cried. The pigeons in the town park choked on our cookie crumbs. Then winter came, then summer again, and my cousin Sonya showed me all kinds of shapes in Playgirl. Later, it must have been fall or spring, I went on the big wheel with my cousin Arseniy and we looked through Playboy – that was nice too.
My brother Yevgeny ate the last slice of cheese pizza. My brother Yevgeny wrote Idiot on my forehead in lipstick. Yevgeny skates down the street on my brand-new roller skates. I close my eyes and see Yevgeny skating towards a giant pit, or at least a nuclear waste disposal site. And perhaps it would be good if everyone really was dead. Or at least gone.
Then school starts again and I’m good at maths. I think about other things and sometimes drink schnapps through a funnel. Later I accidentally touch a girl’s elbow and we go away together to Miami for spring break. I say no to heroin, I say no to heroin, I really would never try heroin.
Then it’s October, and later it’s another year, the leaves are falling and I have really never understood Halloween. I dress up as the velociraptor from Jurassic Park and kiss a girl. I kiss a boy. I kiss my maths teacher. I sleep with him. More often, I kiss a girl who dressed up as Alf from the TV series Alf. We watch Home Improvement together and for a little while we’re very happy.
Later I go to college and meet a good-looking economic geologist. We take weekend trips to the following cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Jacksonville. I give papers and place LSD tabs on my tongue. Although we don’t intend to, we fall in love with each other, but when I tell him I’ve always wanted to travel around Europe, he laughs at me and calls me conservative, which kind of annoys me and I think at that moment something between us snaps. Shame, when we could have been so happy.
The flight to Montreal really is outrageously cheap, and when I get to the airport, I decide to stop smoking, buy a cycle helmet, or at least become a better person. I spend the first few days surfing the internet and avoid going outside, but when I realize I’ve just read the same article on theguardian.com that I read on theguardian.com yesterday, I decide to get off the internet and make a firm resolution to start a Canadian indie rock band called IntercityExperimental or Monsieur Brown Bear. Canada, this country seems incredibly liberal to me.
Before fall comes, I finish my degree at NYU and reward myself with a road trip to Venezuela. In Caracas there may be no functioning health system or any police officers who are acquainted with the concepts of law and order, but there are parties and a great sensual naivety, which I find extremely charming and inspiring. I buy myself a keyboard and start an electro-jazz trio with Juan and that seriously cute kid Ignacio. But Juan soon turns out to be a ridiculously bad bassist, and after a while Ignacio’s cousins steal all our instruments, our money, and my passport, but I’m totally okay with that. In any case, I’ve never been robbed in a third-world country before and this experience makes me more grown up and spiritually mature, no doubt about that.
I make a snap decision to do a master’s in philosophy in Göttingen, and buy a complete annotated works of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I race through the first volume, but then in the last paragraph my eye falls on a crass error of reasoning and I turn away from Fichte in disappointment. Later I develop genuine feelings for my housemate Susanne, but her job as a model and all the traveling it involves make a genuine romance impossible, at least for me, and when I say this to Susanne she makes a fairly serious attempt to kill herself, which of course fails, but then I knew it would.
I go to the carnival in Cologne and dress up as the triceratops from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I kiss an altar boy, I kiss a female pastor, I kiss a priest. Cologne, this city seems incredibly liberal to me. When I finally wake up on a sofa-bed in Düsseldorf, I realise that my money and my passport are gone. And it feels kind of cool not to own anything anymore. The apartment I’m in belongs to a very young theatre directing student, Annika, and is insanely minimalist. She says she didn’t do it deliberately, but I don’t believe her.
I ask my father to send me some money and I fly to the following cities: Prague, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Venice. For some reason I’m into city trips. A few days later, on the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, I see a man jump into the water, incessantly shouting Ciao, ciao! Be good! I love you all! Ciao! And at once I am very quiet and terribly happy, and I believe everyone standing next to me feels the same: all at once everyone is very quiet and terribly happy and kind of one with each other.
And then I decide – probably on a whim – to visit the place where Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein. But then of course it isn’t a house, just a run-of-the-mill hospital, what else would it be, and during my stay in Idar-Oberstein I sleep with the following people: Malte and Doctor Inga Jansen. That’s all, but then I wasn’t there for very long.
I go into rehab for a little while in Tibet, and my father is mad because I quit my philosophy degree. In Shenyang, which is a Chinese mega-city that no one knows about, I walk through a marketplace and realize that maybe God really is dead. I scrabble my way through the crowds in Delhi. The pedestrian zone in Braunschweig. Carnival in Rio. I am dressed up as the flying dinosaur from Jurassic Park III. Sometimes I wish everyone was dead. Or at least gone.
I go to a spa, I relax, I drive out into the countryside. Then I sleep with the farmer. After that there are more city trips, druggy trips, splendid travels. I imagine shooting the chief executive of Google Maps in the face at close range, but quickly dismiss the thought because the chances of being immediately arrested seem pretty high. I go into rehab for a little while at home in Key West and for a short time I am very happy, watching Who’s the Boss? on the clinic’s little TV. Then I escape, steal my father’s diplomatic passport, and wake up three weeks later in Mainz, on Shrove Tuesday. Strangely I have dressed up as Chris Pratt from Jurassic World.
Sometimes I could really throttle you, my mother says on the phone, sometimes I would just like to smash your soft little head into the sink. And she’s probably right, she probably could really throttle me, I don’t want to rule out that possibility. Maybe it’s true, maybe I really am a ridiculously bad person who deserves such things, but then again maybe it isn’t and it’s actually all my mother’s fault.
On the spur of the moment, my new roommate Sven and I decide to write a manifesto, and it goes like this: our enemies are opticians and parents, men and women, our enemies are carbohydrates and nation states, times of day and the internet and train station toilets you have to pay for, our enemies are Bahncard 25 holders and those bastards at Google Maps, our enemies are right-handed scissors and German foreign ministers, our enemies are—
But unfortunately we don’t get any further, because we have to stop writing in order to do some serious kissing and then some serious making out and then some serious fucking, and that all takes so long that afterwards we can’t remember what we actually wanted to write.
And so I decide to breed sea monkeys and generally become a good person. But no matter what I do, the damn sea monkeys always go and die on me after a few days. Sometimes I wish all humans would just die as well. I throw the window open and holler: Just die! It would be so nice if you were gone. Or at least dead. Then it’s October and I wake up on a pull-out couch in Wiesbaden. My money and my passport are gone, and so is my roommate Sven. Shame, we could have been so happy.
When evening falls and I take a stroll along the Rhine, I am overcome by a great longing or sadness, and I secretly wish I was earning my money in the Korean StarCraft league or selling hot chestnuts on the Rue Royale in Brussels or was wanted for murder or was wanted for hijacking a plane or at least was wanted for something, but then I decide to finally be sensible after all and start an Icelandic fashion label with my brother Yevgeny.
The tax laws in Reykjavik are really incredibly liberal, and with a bit of luck and some clever tactics we sell the label after just six months, making us moderately rich in a short space of time, and we spend our time producing pop songs and financing diversity projects in Kinshasa. And without really noticing, we blow all our savings on cocaine and long-haul flights.
I arrive in Saarbrücken totally burned out, and secretly wishing to become a private detective, though I really have no idea why. But I soon realize that this wish is based on entirely false expectations, and also connected is with the fact that my father was never there for me when I needed him. During my short stay in Saarbrücken, then, I think a lot about connections and I buy a soft-serve ice cream and a bumper pack of Marlboro Menthols and think that these are also somehow connected.
I win 200 Euro in a betting shop for correctly predicting the results of three games in the Turkish league, and with the money I buy an intercity ticket to Zurich. I know no one in Zurich and have no idea at all what I am doing here, so I really do become a private detective, for nearly two weeks in any case, because the whole thing is actually quite tedious, and underpaid as well. Then I meet my former roommate Sven at a rave in Lucerne and he says he’s sorry about everything that happened, but he thanks me for my beautiful eyes and my reliability and my beautiful ass, thank you.
I ride down to the South of France on a scooter and take a two-week holiday in a luxury hotel in Nice to forget this whole fucked-up thing with Sven, and because it’s low season there it’s also outrageously cheap. I catch myself no longer wishing that everyone was dead or at least gone, and wonder whether I have now become a good person. I walk the steppes of Africa. I walk the steppes of Brandenburg. I wonder how my parents are doing and what my brother Yevgeny is doing and where he’s got to this time.
And just as I think that and take a drag on my electronic cigarette, I look out of the window of my hotel room and everything is on fire, no matter where I look, it burns all morning and all afternoon. And it keeps burning the next day and the day after, the houses are on fire, the roofs and the people and the galaxies burn for what must be weeks and months and there’s no end and no mercy and no darkness anymore; everything is just dazzling and crude and bright.
And then, some time later, I am sitting on a bus from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and thinking about masculine things. I think about DIY stores, razors, heart attacks. And then some time later, it must be spring or fall, I’m sitting on a train from Memphis to Phoenix and thinking about feminine things. I think about ermine, robots, earlobes. And then, some time after that, I’m sitting on a streetcar in San Francisco and suddenly I sense this great feeling within me, a feeling of purity, the feeling of shooting a machine gun into a crowd of people, and of eating the moon and being someone who knows what’s what, who is there for other people, who has the courage to admit his feelings and not be someone like my father, but someone who knows the score, who knows, for instance, that love is more important than Europe. I would like to be someone like that. I feel it and it’s the truth.
Video: from The Rules of Attraction (2002), Roger Avary.
Prison more like, said Madeleine.
Come now, said Mr Kramer.
If I run away they bring me back, said Madeleine.
Yes but, said Mr Kramer.
Mr Kramer often said, Yes but to Madeleine. Something to concede, something to contradict. Now he said again how kind everyone in the Unit was, all his visits never once had he seen any unkindness and couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice raised in anger against any girl or boy. So: not really like a prison.
Then why’s she sitting there? said Madeleine, nodding toward a nurse in the doorway. The nurse did her best to seem oblivious. She was reading a women’s magazine.
You know very well, said Mr Kramer.
So I won’t suddenly scratch your face and say you tried to rape me, said Madeleine. So I won’t suddenly throw myself out of the window.
That sort of thing, said Mr Kramer.
The window was open, but only the regulation few inches, as far as the locks allowed. Mr Kramer and Madeleine looked at it. She’d get through there, he thought, if she tried. Not that I’d ever get through there, said Madeleine, however hard I tried.
The walls of the room were decorated with images, in paintings and collages, of the themes and infinite variations of body and soul in their distress. A face shattering like a window. A range of mountains, stacked like the hoods of the Klan, blocking most of the sky, but from the foreground, in a red zig-zag, into them went a path, climbing, and disappeared. Mr Kramer liked the room. Waiting for Madeleine, or whoever it might be, he stood at the window looking down at a grassy bank that in its seasons, year after year, with very little nurture or encouragement, brought forth out of itself an abundance of ordinary beautiful flowers. At this point in his acquaintance with Madeleine it was the turn of primroses. The air coming in was mild. Behind the bank ran the wall of the ancient enclosure.
Asylum, said Mr Kramer. What is an asylum?
A place they lock nutters up, said Madeleine.
Well yes, said Mr Kramer, but why call it an asylum? Because they’re liars, said Madeleine.
All right, said Mr Kramer. Forget the nutters, as you call them, and the place they get looked after or locked up in, and tell me what you think an asylum-seeker is.
Someone from somewhere bad.
And when they come to the United Kingdom, say, or to France, Germany or Italy, what are they looking for?
Somewhere better than where they’ve come from. What are they seeking?
And what is asylum?
Sanctuary, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good word. Those poor people come here seeking sanctuary in a land of prisons. An asylum, he said, is a refuge, a shelter, a safe haven. Lunatic asylums, as they used to be called, are places where people disordered in their souls can be housed safely and looked after.
Locked up, said Madeleine. Ward 16, they took Sam there last week.
So he’d be safer, said Mr Kramer. I’m sure of that. Madeleine shrugged.
OK, said Mr Kramer. A bit like a prison, I grant you. Sometimes it has to be a bit like a prison, but always for the best. Not like detention, internment, real prison, nothing like that.
Mr Kramer’s spirits lapsed. He forgot where he was and why. His spirits lapsed or the sadness in him rose. Either way he began to be occluded. An absence. When he returned he saw that Madeleine was looking at him. Being looked at by Madeleine was like being looked at by the moon. The light seemed to come off her face as though reflected from some far-away source. Her look was fearful, but rather as though she feared she had harmed Mr Kramer. Rema says Hi, she said. Rema said say Hi from me to Mr Kramer.
They both brightened.
Thank you, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Please give her my best regards next time you speak to her. How is she?
Can’t tell with her, said Madeleine. She’s such a liar. She says she’s down to four and a half stone. Her hair’s falling out, she says, from the starvation. She says she eats a few beansprouts a day and that is all. And drinks half a glass of water. But she’s a liar. It’s only so I’ll look fat. She phones and phones. She wants to get back in here. But Dr Khan says she won’t get back in here by starving herself. That’s blackmail, he says. She might, however, if she puts on weight. Show willing, he says, show you want to get better. Then we’ll see. She says if they won’t let her back she’ll kill herself. Thing is, if she gets well enough to come back here, she thinks they’ll send her home. Soon as she’s sixteen they’ll send her home, her aunty says. But Rema says she’ll kill herself twenty times before she’ll go back home.
Home’s not a war-zone, if I remember rightly, said Mr Kramer.
Her family is, said Madeleine. They are why she is the way she is. So quite understandably she’ll end it all before she’ll go back there.
Rema told me a lovely story once, said Mr Kramer.
Did she write it?
No, she never wrote it. She promised she would but she never did.
Typical, said Madeleine.
Yes, said Mr Kramer. But really it wasn’t so much a story as a place for one. She remembered a house near her village. The house was all shuttered up, it had a paved courtyard with a sort of shrine in the middle and white jasmine growing wild over the balconies and the wooden stairs.
Oh that, said Madeleine. It was an old woman’s and she wanted to do the Hajj and her neighbours lent her the money and the deal was they could keep her house if she didn’t come back and she never came back. That story.
Yes, said Mr Kramer, that story. I thought it very beautiful, the deserted house, I mean, the courtyard and the shrine.
Probably she made it up, said Madeleine. Probably there never was such a house. And anyway she never wrote it.
Mr Kramer felt he was losing the encounter. He glanced at the clock. I thought Rema was your friend, he said.
She is, said Madeleine. I don’t love anyone as much as I love her. But all the same she’s a terrible liar. And mostly to get at me. Four and a half stone! What kind of a stupid lie is that? Did she tell you she wanted to do the Hajj?
She did, said Mr Kramer. Her owl eyes widening and taking in more light, passionately she had told him she longed to do the Hajj.
So why is she starving herself? It doesn’t make sense.
I told her, said Mr Kramer. I said you have to be very strong for a thing like that. However you travel, a pilgrimage is a hard experience. You have to be fit.
Such a liar, said Madeleine.
Anyway, said Mr Kramer. You’ll write your story for next time. About an asylum-seeker, a boy, you said, a boy half your age.
I will, said Madeleine. Where’s the worst place in the world? Apart from here of course.
Hard to say, said Mr Kramer. There’d be quite a competition. But Somalia would take some beating.
I read there are pirates in Somalia.
Off the coast there are. They steal the food the rich people send and the people who need it starve.
Good, said Madeleine. I’ll have pirates in my story.
Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. Find an image like one of those on the wall. I have, she said. My image is a war-zone. My story is about a child in a war-zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum.
Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Tell me in a word before I go what feeling you know most about and what feeling the little boy will inhabit in your story.
The sleeves of Madeleine’s top had ridden up so that the cuts across her wrists were visible. Seeing them looked at sorrowfully by Mr Kramer she pulled the sleeves down and gripped the end of each very tightly into either palm.
Fear, she said.
Mr Kramer might have taken the bus home. There was a stop not far from Bartlemas where that extraordinary enclosure, its orchard, its gardens, the grassy humps of the ancient hospital, touched modernity on the east-west road. He could have ridden to his house from there, almost door to door, in twenty minutes. Instead, if the weather was at all decent and some days even if it wasn’t he walked home through the parks and allotments, a good long march, an hour and a half or more. That way it was late afternoon before he got in, almost time to be thinking about the cooking of his supper. Then came the evening, for which he always had a plan: a serious television programme, some serious reading, his notes, early to bed.
On his walk that mild spring afternoon Mr Kramer thought about Madeleine and Rema. It distressed him that Madeleine was so scathing about Rema’s story. How cruel they were to one another in their lethal competition! For him the abandoned house had a peculiar power. Rema said it was very quiet there, as soon as you pushed open the wooden gates, no shouting, no dogs, no noise of any traffic. The courtyard was paved with coloured tiles in a complicated pattern whose many intersecting arcs and loops she had puzzled over and tried to follow. The shrine was surely left over from before Partition, it must be a Hindu shrine, the Muslim woman had no use for it. But there it stood in the centre of the courtyard, a carved figure on a pedestal and a place for flowers, candles and offerings, and around it on all four sides the shuttered windows, the balcony, the superabundance of white jasmine. The old woman never came back, said Rema. It was not even known whether she ever reached Mecca, the place of her heart’s desire. So the neighbours kept the house but none had any real use for it. Sometimes their cattle strayed into the courtyard. And there also, when she dared, climbing the wooden stairs and viewing the shrine from the cool and scented balconies, went the child Rema, for sanctuary from the war-zone of her home.
Mr Kramer was watching a programme about the bombings, when the phone rang. Such a programme, after the cooking and the eating and the allowance of three glasses of wine, was a station on his way to bed. But the phone rang. It was Maria, his daughter, from the Ukraine, already midnight, phoning to tell him she had found the very shtetl, the names, the place itself. He caught her tone of voice, the one of all still in the world he was least proof against. He hardly heard the words, only the voice, its peculiar quality. Forest, memorial, the names, he knew what she was saying, but sharper than the words, nearer, flesh of his flesh, he felt the voice that was having to say these things, in a hotel room, three hours ahead, on a savage pilgrimage. The forest, the past, the small voice from so far away, he felt her to be in mortal danger, he felt he must pull her back from where she stood, leaning over the abyss of history, the pit, the extinction of all personal relations. Sweetheart, said Mr Kramer, my darling girl, go to sleep now if you can. And I’ve been thinking. Once you’re back I’ll come and stay with you. After all I cannot bear it on my own. But sleep now if you can.
Mr Kramer had not intended to say any such thing. He had set himself the year at least. One year. Surely a man could watch alone in grief that long.
The Unit phoned. Madeleine had taken an overdose, she was in hospital, back in a day or so. Mr Kramer, about to set off, did the walk anyway, it was a fine spring day, the beech trees leafing softly. He walked right to the gates of Bartlemas, turned and set off home again, making a detour to employ the time he would have spent with Madeleine.
In the evening, last thing, Mr Kramer read his old notes, a weakness he always tried to make up for by at once writing something new. He read for ten minutes, till he hit the words: Rema, her desire to be an owl. Then he leafed forward quickly to the day’s blank page and wrote: I haven’t thought nearly enough about Rema’s desire to be an owl. She said, Do you think I already look like one? I went to the office and asked did we have a mirror. We do, under lock and key. It is a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass. I held it up for Rema. Describe your face, I said. Describe it exactly. I was a mite ashamed of the licence this exercise gave me to contemplate a girl’s face whilst she, looking at herself, never glancing at me, studied it as a thing to be described. Yes, her nose, quite a thin bony line, might become a beak. Pity to lose the lips. But if you joined the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl. The longing for metamorphosis. To become something else, a quite different creature, winged, feathered, intent. Like Madeleine’s, Rema’s face shows the bones. The softness of feathers would perhaps be a comfort. I wonder did she tell Madeleine about the mirror. Shards, the harming.
The Unit phoned, Madeleine was well enough, just about. Mr Kramer stood at the window. The primroses were already finishing. But there would be something else, on and on till the autumn cyclamens. It was a marvellous bank. Then Madeleine and the overweight nurse stood in the doorway, the nurse holding her women’s magazine. Madeleine wore loose trousers and a collarless shirt whose sleeves were far too long. She stood; and towards Mr Kramer, fearfully and defiantly, she presented her face and neck, which she had cut. Oh Maddy, said Mr Kramer, can’t you ever be merciful? Will you never show yourself any mercy?
The nurse sat in the open doorway and read her magazine. Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other across the small table. All the same, said Madeleine through her lattice of black cuts, I’ve made a start. Shall I read it? Yes, said Mr Kramer. Madeleine read:
Samuel lived with his mother. The soldiers had killed his father. Some of the soldiers were only little boys. Samuel and his mother hid in the forest. Every day she had to leave him for several hours to go and look for food and water. He waited in fear that she would not come back. There was nothing to do. He curled up in the little shelter, waiting. One day Samuel’s mother did not come back. He waited all night and all the next day and all the next night. Then he decided he must go and look for her or for some food and water at least because the emergency supplies she had left him were all gone. He followed the trail his mother had made day after day. It came to a road. She had told him that the road was very dangerous. But beyond the road were fields and in them, if you were lucky, you might find some things to eat that the farmers had planted before the soldiers came and burned their village. Samuel halted at the road. It was long and straight in both directions and very dusty. A little way off he saw a truck burning and another truck upside down in the ditch. But there were no soldiers. Samuel hurried across. Quite soon, just as his mother had said, he saw women and girls in blue and white clothes moving slowly over the land looking for food. Perhaps his mother would be among them after all? At the very least, somebody would surely give him food and water.
Madeleine lifted her face. That’s as far as I got, she said. It’s crap, isn’t it? No, said Mr Kramer, it is very good. Crap, said Madeleine. Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, did you write this before or after you did that to your face? After, said Madeleine. I wrote it this morning. I did my face two nights ago, after they brought me back here from the hospital. Good, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good thing. It means you can sympathise with other people’s lives even when your own distresses you so much you cut your face. I know the rest, said Madeleine with a sudden eagerness. I know how it goes on and how it ends. Shall I tell you? – Will you still be able to write it if you tell? – Yes, yes. – You promise? – Yes, I promise. – Tell then.
She laid her sleeves, in which her hands were hiding, flat on the table and began to speak, rapidly, staring into his eyes, transfixing him with the eagerness of her fiction.
In among the people looking for food he meets a girl. She’s my age. Her name is Ruth. The soldiers have killed her father too. Ruth’s mother hid with her and when the soldiers came looking she made Ruth stay in hiding and gave herself up to them. That was the end of her. But Ruth was taken by the other women and hid with them and went looking for food when it was safe. When Samuel came into the fields Ruth decided to look after him. She was like a sister to Samuel, a good big sister, or a mother, a good and loving mother. When it was safe to light a fire she cooked for him, the best meal she could. After a while the soldiers came back again, the fields were too dangerous, all the women hid in the forest but Ruth had heard that if you could only get to the coast you could maybe find someone with a boat who would carry you across the sea to Italy and the European Union, where it was really safe. So that’s what she did, with Samuel, she set off for the coast, only travelling at night, on foot, by moonlight and starlight, steering clear of the villages in flames.
Sounds good, said Mr Kramer. Sounds very exciting. All you have to do now is write it. You’ve looked at a map, I suppose? The nearest coast is no use at all. That’s where the pirates are. You need the north coast really, through the desert. And crossing the desert is said to be a terrible thing. You have to pay truckers to take you, I believe. Yes, said Madeleine, I thought she’d do better on the east coast, with the pirates. A pirate chief says he’ll take her and Samuel all the way to Libya but it will cost her a lot of money. When she says she has no money he says she can marry him, for payment that is, until they get to Libya, then he’ll sell her to a friend of his, who will take her and Samuel into the European Union, which is like the Promised Land, he says, and there she will be safe, but she’ll have to marry his friend as well, for the voyage from Libya into Italy. I asked Rema would she do it and she said she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, because of the things at home, but she said I could, Ruth in my story should, it would save the two of them, they would have a new life in the European Union and God would mercifully forgive her the sin. She says Hi, by the way. She asked me to ask you are you all right. She said it seemed to her you were a bit lonely sometimes. Thank you, said Mr Kramer, I’m fine. And guess what, said Madeleine, she doesn’t want to do the Hajj any more, not till she’s an old woman, and she doesn’t want to make Dr Khan have her back here either. No, she’s decided she’ll be a primary school teacher. Plus she’s down to four stone. So it’s all lies as usual.
A primary school teacher is a very good idea, said Mr Kramer. But of course you have to be strong for that. As strong as for a pilgrimage.
I told her that, said Madeleine. So she’s still a liar. Anyway, another thing about Ruth is that when she’s with the first pirate, as his prostitute, all the way up the Red Sea he sends her ashore to the markets – Samuel he keeps on board as a hostage – and she has to go and buy all the ingredients for his favourite meals, I’ve researched it, baby okra and lamb in tomato stew, for example, onion pancakes, fish and peppers, shoe-lace pastry, spicy creamy cheeses, all delicious, up the coast to Suez. So she makes her Lord and Master happy and Samuel gets strong.
Will they stay in Italy, Mr Kramer asked, if the second pirate keeps his word and carries her across the Mediterranean? No, said Madeleine, breathless on her story, they’re heading for Swansea. There’s quite an old Somali community in Swansea. I’ve researched it. They’ve been there a hundred years. At first she’ll live in a hostel, doing the cooking for everybody so that everybody likes her. Samuel goes to school and as soon as he’s settled Ruth will go to the CFE and get some qualifications.
Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, it’s very hard to enter the United Kingdom. Ruth and Samuel will need passports. I’ve thought of that, said Madeleine. The first pirate chief has a locker full of passports from people who died on his boat and because Ruth is such a good cook he gives her a couple and swears they’ll get her and Samuel through Immigration, no problem.
Rema should go to the CFE, said Mr Kramer. I believe the Home Office would extend her visa if she was in full-time education. And if she trained as a primary school teacher, who knows what might happen?
She’s a liar, said Madeleine, very white, almost translucent her face through the savage ornamentation of her cuts. She’s supposed to be my friend. If she was really my friend she’d come back here. Then we’d both be all right like we were before she left me.
You want to stay here?
Yes, said Madeleine. It’s safer here.
Why overdose? Why cut yourself?
The nurse was watching and listening.
Because I’m frightened.
My daughter was frightened, said Mr Kramer, and she’s twice your age. All the time her mother was ill, four and a half years, she got more and more frightened. And now she’s gone to the Ukraine, would you believe it, all on her own and not speaking the language, to research our family history. She phoned me the other night from the place itself, a terrible place, I never want to go there, all on her own, at midnight, in a hotel. Write your story, won’t you? You promised me. Somalia is very likely the worst place in the world and Swansea is a very good place, by all accounts. What an achievement it will be if you can get Ruth and Samuel safely there!
Madeleine’s white hands with their bitten nails still hid in her sleeves. All the animation had gone out of her. I’ll never get to Swansea from Somalia, she said. Never, never, never. I can’t even want to get out of here.
First the story, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. First comes the fiction. Get Ruth and Samuel out of the killing fields, get them by the cruelty and kindness of pirates into a holding camp on the heel of Italy, get them north among strangers, not speaking a word of the language – devise it, work out the necessary means. You promised. Who knows what might happen if you get that lucky pair to Swansea?
*This story is taken from: In Another Country: Selected Stories Copyright © David Constantine, 2015.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
It was the first Michael had heard of the girl. His housekeeper was telling him about her: she claimed— Mandy did—that there was no father. She lived in the neighboring village of W. The housekeeper laughed, Michael sighed. As if it wasn’t enough that church attendance was way down, that the old people sent him away when he tried to visit them in their home, and the children cheeked him in Sunday school. It was all Communism, he said, or the aftereffects of it. Ach, nonsense, said the housekeeper, it was never any different. Did he know the large sugar-beet field on the road to W.? There was a sort of island in the middle of it. A clump of trees had been left standing by the farmer. Since forever, she said. And that’s where he has assignations with a woman. What woman? asked Michael. What farmer? The one who’s there, and his father before him, and his grandfather before that. All of them. Since forever. We’re only human, after all, them and me. Each of us has his needs.
Michael sighed. He had been the minister here since spring, but he hadn’t got any closer to his flock. He came from the mountains, where everything was different: the people, the landscape, and the sky, which here was so infinitely wide and remote.
She claims she’s never been with a man, said the housekeeper, the baby must be a gift from God. That Mandy girl, she said, was the daughter of Gregor who works for the bus company. The little fat driver. He gave her a good spanking, she was black and blue all over. And now the whole village is scratching its head over who the father might be. There aren’t a lot of men living there who are candidates. Maybe it was Marco the landlord. Ora passing tramp. She’s no oil painting, you know. But you take what you can get. That Mandy, she’s not the brightest either, said the housekeeper: maybe she didn’t realize. Up on the ladder picking cherries. All right, all right, said Michael.
Mandy came to the vicarage while Michael was eating lunch. The housekeeper brought her in, and he asked her to sit down and talk to him. She just sat there with downcast eyes and didn’t speak. She smelled of soap. Michael ate, and kept sneaking looks at the young woman. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Perhaps she would turn to fat later. Now she was plump. She’s blooming, thought Michael. And he sneaked a look at her belly and her big breasts, very prominent under the rather garish sweater. He didn’t know if it was pregnancy or food. Then the young woman looked at him and immediately lowered her eyes, and he pushed away his half-eaten lunch and stood up. Let’s go out in the garden.
The year was far along. The leaves were turning on the trees. The morning had been misty, now the sun was trying to break through. Michael and Mandy walked together in the garden. Your Reverence, she said, and he, No, please just call me Michael, and I’ll call you Mandy. So she didn’t know who the father was? There was no father, said Mandy, I never . . . She stopped. Michael sighed. Sixteen, eighteen, he thought, no older than that. My dear child, he said, it’s a sin, but God will forgive you. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Every bottle shall be filled with wine!
Mandy tore a leaf off the old linden tree where they had come to a stop, and Michael said, Do you know how it is when a man lies with a woman? You mean, with the peter, said Mandy, and she blushed and looked down. Perhaps it was in her sleep, thought Michael, apparently such things happen. They had studied it in school, Mandy added, and quickly: Erection, coitus, and rhythm method. All right, all right, said Michael, school. That was the upshot of having so many Communists still sitting on school boards.
Holy mother of God, said Mandy, I’ve never… All right, all right, said Michael, and then, with sudden vehemence, Well, where do you think the baby’s come from then? Do you think it’s a gift from God? Yes, said Mandy. He sent her home.
On Sunday, Michael saw Mandy among the few who were at the service. If he remembered correctly, she had never been before. She was wearing a simple dress in dark green, and now he could see her condition plainly. She should be ashamed of herself, said the housekeeper.
Mandy was all at sea. Michael could see her craning around. When the others sang, she didn’t. And when she came forward at the end to receive Communion, he had to tell her, Open your mouth.
Michael spoke about steadiness in adversity. Frau Schmidt, who was always there, read the lesson with a quiet but firm voice. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth: be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Michael had kept his eyes closed during the reading, and he felt he could almost see the angel who came to visit men, an angel that had Mandy’s face, and whose belly in its white robes bulged like Mandy’s in her dress. Suddenly it got very quiet in the church. Michael opened his eyes and saw that everyone was looking at him expectantly. Then he said: We can speak with confidence. The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
After the service was over, Michael hurried over to the door to see out his old biddies. He had shut the door behind the last of them when he saw that Mandy was kneeling at the altar. He went up to her and laid his hand on her head. She looked at him, and he saw she had tears running down her cheeks. Come, he said, and he led her out of the church and across the road to the cemetery. Look at all these people, he said, they were all sinners: but God took them to Himself, and He will forgive you your sins as well. I am full of sin, said Mandy, but I have never been with a man. All right, all right, said Michael, and he touched Mandy’s shoulder with his hand.
But when he touched Mandy, it was as though his heart and his whole body were filling with a joy he had never felt in his life, and he shrank back, as though he had burned himself. And if it’s true? he thought.
And if it’s true? he thought that afternoon, as he walked down the road to the next village. The sun was shining and the sky was wide and cloudless. Michael felt tired after lunch, but his heart was still filled with the joy that had flowed from Mandy’s body into his own: and if it’s true?
He often walked to one of the other villages on a Sunday afternoon, striding quickly down the tree-lined roads in rain or shine. But on that day he had an objective. He had called the doctor who lived there, a man by the name of Klaus, and asked if he might talk to him: no, he couldn’t tell him what about.
Dr. Klaus was a local man, the son and grandson of farmers. He knew everyone and everything, and the word was that in an emergency, he would treat sick animals as well. He lived alone in a big house in W., following the death of his wife. He said if Michael promised to keep God out of it, he was welcome and might come. He was an atheist, said the doctor, no, not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God. He was a man of science, not faith. A Communist, thought Michael, and he said, All right, all right, and suppressed a yawn.
The doctor served schnapps, and because Michael had a question, he drank the schnapps, drank it in one swallow, and then another glass that Dr. Klaus poured him. Mandy, said Michael, whether… and… He was sweating. She claimed her baby wasn’t the outcome of union with a man, that she had never, no, that no man had known… My God: you know what I’m trying to say. The doctor emptied his glass and asked whether Michael meant the Lord had a hand in the business, or maybe a peter. Michael stared at him with an empty, despairing expression. He drank the schnapps the doctor had poured him, and stood up. The hymen, he said quietly, almost inaudibly, the hymen. That would be a miracle, said the doctor, and here in our midst. He laughed. Michael excused himself. I am a man of science, said the doctor, you are a man of faith. Let’s not mix things up. I know what I know; you believe whatever you like.
On his way back, Michael was sweating still more pro- fusely. He grew dizzy. Blood pressure, he thought. He sat down on the grassy edge of a large beet field. The beets had already been harvested and were lying in long heaps along the road. In the distance he could see a strip of woodland, and in the middle of the enormous field was the little island that his housekeeper had spoken of, a few trees sprouting from the dark earth.
Michael stood up and took a step into the field, and then another one. He walked toward the island. The damp soil clung to his boots in great clumps, and he stumbled, reeled, walking was difficult. Be of good heart, he thought, howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. He walked on.
Once he heard a car drive past on the road. He didn’t look around. He crossed the field, step by step, and finally the trees came nearer and he was there, and it really was like an island: the furrows of plowed land had divided and opened, as if an island had erupted from the land, and torn the soil aside like a curtain. This island was maybe half a yard in elevation. At its edge grew some grass, beyond was shrubbery. Michael broke a twig off one of the bushes and scraped some of the earth off his soles. Then he walked around the island on the narrow strip of grass. In one place there was a gap in the vegetation, and he climbed through it and got to a small clearing under the trees. The tall grass was trampled down, and there were a couple of empty bottles.
Michael looked up: between the tops of the trees he could see the sky, it seemed not so high as over the field. It was very quiet. The air was warm, even though the sun was far gone to the west. Michael took off his jacket and dropped it on the grass. Then, without really knowing what he was doing, he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, and then his undershirt, his shoes, his pants, his shorts, and last of all his socks. He took off his wrist-watch and dropped it on the pile of clothes, and then his glasses and the ring his mother had given him for protection. And stood there the way God had made him: as naked as a sign.
Michael looked up at the sky. He had never felt more connected to it. He lifted his arms aloft, then he felt the dizziness of a moment before, and he toppled forward onto his knees, and knelt there, naked with upraised arms. He began singing, softly and with a cracked voice, but it wasn’t enough. And so he screamed, screamed as loudly as he could, because he knew that out here only God could hear him, and that God heard him and was looking down at him.
As he walked back home across the field, he thought about Mandy, and she was very near to him, as though she was in him. So he thought, without knowing it, I have given shelter to an angel.
Back in the vicarage, Michael went straight to the old sideboard, and got out a bottle of schnapps that a farmer had given him after the burial of his wife, and poured himself a little glassful and then a second. Then he lay down, and only woke when the housekeeper called him down to supper. He had a headache.
And what if it’s true? he said as the housekeeper brought in supper. What if what’s true? Mandy. If she’s conceived. By whom? Is not this land also a desert? said Michael. How do we know that He doesn’t direct His gaze here, and that this child has found favor in His eyes, this Mandy? The housekeeper shook her head angrily: Her father’s a bus driver. Well wasn’t Joseph a carpenter? But that was a long time ago. Didn’t she believe that God was still alive and in our midst? And that Jesus will return? Sure. But not here. What’s special about Mandy? She’s nothing. She works in the restaurant in W., she helps out.
With God nothing shall be impossible, said Michael, and verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. The housekeeper made a face and disappeared into the kitchen. Michael had never managed to persuade her to eat with him: she had always said she didn’t want there to be talk in the village. Talk about what? We’re only human, she
said then, we all have our needs.
After supper Michael went out again. He walked down the street, and the dogs in the yards barked like crazy, and Michael thought, You would do better to trust in God than in your dogs. That was the Communists’ doing: he should have talked them around, but he hadn’t done it. There were no more people in the church now than in the spring, and you could hear of immorality and drunkenness every day.
Michael went into the retirement home and asked for Frau Schmidt, who read the lesson every week. If she’s still awake, said Ulla, the nurse, unwillingly, and disappeared. A Communist, thought Michael, bound to be. He could tell, he knew what they thought when they saw him. And then, when someone passed away, they called him anyway. So that he gets a decent funeral, Ulla had said once, when he was required to bury a man who hadn’t been inside a church in his life.
Frau Schmidt was still awake. She was sitting in her comfy chair watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Michael shook her hand, Good evening, Frau Schmidt. He pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. She had read nicely, he said, and he wanted to thank her for it again. Frau Schmidt nodded from the waist. Michael took a small leather-bound Bible from his pocket. Today I’d like to read you something, he said. And while the TV quiz host asked which city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D., Troy, Sodom, Pompeii, or Babylon, Michael read aloud, and steadily more loudly. There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of the creation. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
And he read, the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
All the while Michael read, the old woman nodded: she rocked back and forth, as if her whole body were one great yes. Then finally she spoke, and said, It’s not Sodom, and it’s not Babylon. Is it Troy?
The day is perhaps closer than we imagine, said Michael. But no one will know. I don’t know, said Frau Schmidt. He will come like a thief in the night, said Michael, standing up. Troy, said Frau Schmidt. He shook her hand. She didn’t say anything, and didn’t look when he left the room. Pompeii, said the quiz host. Pompeii, said Frau Schmidt.
No one will know it, thought Michael as he went home. The dogs of the Communists were barking, and once he bent down to pick up a stone and hurled it against a wooden gate. That made the dog behind bark still more loudly, and Michael hurried on, so that no one would spot him. He didn’t go back to the rectory, though, he walked out of the village.
It was half an hour to W. A single car passed him. He saw the beam of the headlights a long way ahead, and hid behind one of the trees lining the road until it was safely past. The island was nothing but a dark stain in the gray field, and it seemed to be closer than during the day. The stars were glittering: it had turned cold.
There was no one on the streets in W. The lights were on in the houses, and there was a single streetlamp at a crossroads. Michael knew where Mandy lived. He stopped at the garden gate and looked at the small single-story house. He saw shadows moving in the kitchen. It looked like someone was doing the dishes. Michael felt his heart grow warmer. He leaned against the gate. Then he heard breathing very close by, and suddenly a loud, yelping bark. He jumped back and ran off. He wasn’t a hundred yards away when the door of the house opened, and the beam of a flashlight showed in the darkness, and a man’s voice shouted, Shut yer noise!
On one of the following days, Michael went to the restaurant in W., where his housekeeper had said Mandy was helping out. And so it proved.
The dining room was high-ceilinged. The walls were yellowed with cigarette smoke, the windows were blind, the furniture aged, and nothing went with anything else. There was no one there but Mandy, standing behind the bar as if she belonged there, with her hands on the counter. She smiled and lowered her gaze, and Michael had the sense of her face glowing in the gloomy room. He sat down at a table near the entrance. Mandy went over to him, he ordered tea, she disappeared. Please no one come, he thought to himself. Then Mandy came back with his tea. Michael added sugar and stirred. Mandy was still standing beside the table. An angel at my side, thought Michael. He took a hurried sip and burned his mouth. And then, not looking at Mandy, nor she looking at him, he spoke.
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
Only now did Michael look at Mandy, and he saw that she was crying. Fear not, he said. Then he stood up and laid his hand on Mandy’s head, and then he hesitated, and placed his other hand on her belly. Will it be called Jesus? Mandy asked softly. Michael was taken aback. He hadn’t considered that. The wind bloweth where it listeth, he said, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.
Then he gave Mandy the little manual for young women and expectant mothers that the church provides, and from which he drew all his understanding, and he said Mandy should come to instruction, and to service, that was the most important thing, she had plenty to catch up on.
Months passed. Autumn gave way to winter, the first snows fell and covered everything, the villages, the forest, and the fields. Winter stretched out over the land, and the acrid smell of woodsmoke hung heavy over the streets.
Michael went on long walks over the countryside, he went from village to village, and he went again across the large sugar-beet field, that was now frozen, to the island. Once again he stood there and raised his arms aloft. But the trees had lost their leaves, and the sky was distant. Michael waited for a sign. None came: there was no new star in the sky, no angel on the field to talk to him, no king and no shepherd and no sheep. Then he felt ashamed and thought, I am not chosen. She, Mandy, will receive the signal, it is to her the angel will appear.
Mandy was now coming in from W. on her moped every Wednesday to class, and every Sunday to church. Her belly was growing, but her face was growing thinner and pale. After service she stayed behind in church until everyone was gone, and then she sat with Michael in one of the pews, speaking quietly. Her baby was due in February, she said. If only it had been Christmas, thought Michael, if only it had been Easter. But Christ- mas was soon, while Easter was the end of March: they would see.
Then the housekeeper put her head through the door, and asked if the minister proposed to eat his lunch today. All the trouble she went to, she said, and not a word of praise, nothing, and then he left half of it. Michael said Mandy should stay for lunch, there was enough for two. For three, he added, and both smiled shyly. Why don’t we just open a restaurant, said the housekeeper, laying a second setting. She banged the plates down on the table and stalked off without a word, and certainly without wishing them Bon appétit.
Mandy said her father was tormenting her, he in- sisted on knowing who the father was, and he went into a rage when she said it was Almighty God. No, he didn’t beat her. Only slaps, she said, her mother as well. She wanted to leave home. They both ate in silence. Michael very little, Mandy twice helping herself to more. Do you like it? he asked. She nodded and blushed. Then he said, why didn’t she live here in the rectory, there was room enough. Mandy looked at him timidly.
You can’t do that, said the housekeeper. Michael said nothing. If you do that, I’m out of here, said the housekeeper. Still Michael said nothing. He crossed his arms. He thought of Bethlehem. Not this time, he thought. And the thought gave him strength. I’m moving out, said the housekeeper, and Michael nodded slowly. So much the better, he thought: he had already concluded that this housekeeper had been a Communist, and who knows what besides. Because she always said she was only human, and because her name was Carola, which was a heathen name. He had heard the stories about her and his predecessor, a married man. In the sacristy, they said, among other things. That woman had nothing to say to him. She least of all. And she wasn’t even a good cook.
The housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen, and then she left the house, because it wasn’t right and it wasn’t proper. And Mandy moved in: she was the new housekeeper, that was the agreement worked out with her parents. She was even paid. But Mandy was already in her fifth month, and her belly was so big that she snorted like a cow when she went up the stairs, and Michael was afraid something might happen to the baby one day when she lugged the heavy carpets out to beat them.
Michael was just returning from one of his walks when he saw Mandy beating the carpets in front of the vicarage. He said she ought to take it easy, and carried the carpets back into the house himself, even if it was almost more than he could do: his body wasn’t very strong. Everything has to be clean by Christmas, said Mandy. That pleased Michael, and seemed to him to be a good sign. Other than that he hadn’t found much evidence of faith, even if she liked to swear Holy Mother of God, and was firmly convinced that her baby was a baby Jesus, as she put it. She did say she was Protestant. But not so very much. Michael was in doubt. He felt ashamed of his doubts, but there they were, poisoning his love and his belief.
From now on, Michael did all the housework himself. Mandy cooked for him, and they ate together in the dark dining room, without speaking much. Michael worked far into the evenings. He read his Bible, and when he heard Mandy come out of the bathroom, he waited for five minutes, he was no longer able to work, that’s how excited he was. Then he knocked on the door of Mandy’s room, and she called, Come in, come in. There she was, already in bed, with her hand on her brow, or else on the blanket, over her belly.
On one occasion he asked her about her dreams: after all, he was waiting for a sign. But Mandy didn’t dream. She slept deeply and solidly, she said. So he asked her if she really hadn’t ever had a boyfriend or anything, and if she’d ever found blood on her sheets. Not during your period, he said, and he felt very peculiar, talking to her like that. If she is the new mother of God, then what sort of figure will I cut, he thought. Mandy didn’t reply. She cried, and said, didn’t he believe her? He laid his hand on the blanket and his eyes got moist. We should be called the children of God, he said, therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not. What Him? asked Mandy.
Once she pushed the blankets back and lay before him in her thin nightie. Michael had had his hand on the blanket, and then he raised it up, and now it was hovering in the air over Mandy’s belly. It’s moving, said Mandy, and she took his hand with both of hers and pulled it down so that it pressed against herbelly, and Michaelcouldn’t raise his hand, it lay there for a long time, heavy and sinful.
Christmas came and went. On Christmas Eve, Mandy went to her parents, but the next day she was back again. There were not many people in church. In the village there was talk about Michael and Mandy, letters had been written to the bishop, and letters were written back from the bishop. A call had gone out, and a representative of the bishop had traveled to the village on a Sunday, and had sat with Michael and spoken with him. On that day, Mandy had eaten in the kitchen. She was very excited, but when the visitor left, Michael said everything was fine: the bishop knew there was a lot of bad blood in the district, and that some old Communists were still fighting against the church, and sowing division.
With the passing of time, the baby grew, and Mandy’s belly got ever bigger, long after Michael thought it couldn’t possibly. As if it wasn’t part of her body. And so Michael laid his hand on the growing baby, and felt happiness.
The terrible thing happened when Michael went off on one of his afternoon walks. He realized he had left his book at home. He turned back, and half an hour later had returned. He quietly let himself into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Mandy often slept in the daytime now, and if that was the case now, he didn’t want to wake her. But when he stepped into his room, Mandy was standing there naked: she was standing in front of the large mirror in the door of the wardrobe. And she was looking at herself from the side, and so confronted Michael, who could see everything. Mandy had heard him coming and had turned to face him, and they looked at each other, just exactly as they were.
What are you doing in my room? asked Michael. And he hoped Mandy would cover her nakedness with her hands, but she did not. Her hands hung at her sides like the leaves of a tree, barely stirring. She said she had no mirror in her room, and she had wanted to see this belly she had grown. Michael approached Mandy, so as not to have to look at her anymore. Then his hands touched her hands, and then he thought about nothing at all, because he was with Mandy, and she was with him. And so it was that Michael’s hand lay there, as if it had been newly brought forth: an animal from out of that wound.
Then Michael did sleep, and when he awakened, he thought, my God, what have I done. He lay there curled in bed, and with his hand covered his sin, which was great. Mandy’s blood was her witness and his proof, and he was surprised that the elements did not melt with fervent heat, or the heavens pass away with a great noise: to slay him and punish him with lightning or some other event. But this did not transpire.
Nor did the heavens open when Michael hurried along the street on the way to W. He was on his way to the island in the field, and he walked rapidly and with stumbling steps across the frozen furrows. Mandy had been asleep when he left the house, Mandy, whom he had taken in and to whom he had offered the hospitality of his house.
He reached the island and sat down in the snow. He could not stand any longer, so tired was he and so sad and lost. He would stay there and never leave. Let them find him, the farmer and the woman when they came here in spring to commit adultery.
It was cold and getting dark. Then it was night. Michael was still sitting on his island in the snow. The damp soaked through his coat, and he shivered and felt chilled to the bone. Let us not love one another with words, he thought, nor with speech. But with deeds. So God had led him to Mandy, and Mandy to him: that they might love one another. For she was not a child, she was eighteen or nineteen. And was it not written that no one should know? Was it not written that the day would come like a thief? So Michael thought: I cannot know. And if it was God’s will that she conceive His child, then it was also His will that she had received him: for was he not God’s work and creature?
Through the trees Michael could see only a few scattered stars. But when he left their cover and stepped out onto the field, he saw all the stars that can be seen on a cold night, and for the first time since he had come here, he was not afraid of this sky. And he was glad that the sky was so distant, and that he himself was so small on this endless field. So distant that even God had to take a second look to see him.
Soon he was back in the village. The dogs barked, and Michael threw stones at the gates and barked himself, and aped the dogs, their stupid yapping and howling, and he laughed when the dogs were beside themselves with rage and fury: and he was beside himself just as much.
In the vicarage the lights were on, and as soon as Michael stepped inside, he could smell the dinner that Mandy had cooked. And as he took off his sodden boots and his heavy coat, she stepped out into the kitchen doorway and looked anxiously at him. It had gotten cold, he said, and she said dinner was ready. Then Michael stepped up to Mandy, and he kissed her on the mouth, as she smiled up at him. Over supper they discussed one possible name for the baby, and then another one. And when it was bedtime they squeezed each other’s hands, and each went to their own room.
As it got colder and colder in January, and it was almost impossible to heat the old vicarage, Mandy moved one evening from the guest bedroom into the warmer room of the master of the house. She carried her blanket in front of her, and lay down beside Michael as he moved aside, without a word. And that night, and in all the nights to come, they lay in one bed, and so learned to know and to love one another better. And Michael saw everything, and Mandy was not ashamed.
But was it a sin? Who could know. And hadn’t Mandy’s own blood affirmed that it was a child of God that was growing, a child of purity? Could there be anything impure about purity?
Even if Michael hadn’t thought it possible, his word reached the people and the Communists of the village. They were touched by the wonder that had occurred, and one couldn’t say how: for such people came to the door and knocked. They came without many words, and brought what they had. A neighbor brought a cake. She had been baking, she said, and it was no more trouble to bake two than one. And was Mandy doing all right?
On another day, Marco the publican came around and asked how far along they were. Michael invited him in, and called Mandy, and made tea in the kitchen. Then the three of them sat at the table and were silent, because they didn’t know what to say. Marco had brought along a bottle of cognac, and set it down in front of them. He knew full well, he said, that it wasn’t the right thing for a small baby, but maybe if it had a colic. Then he asked to have it explained to him, and when Michael did so, Marco looked at Mandy and her belly with disbelief. Was that certain? he asked, and Michael said no one knew, and no one could know. Because it was pretty unlikely, Marco said. He had picked up the cognac again, and was looking at the bottle. He seemed to hesitate, but then he put it back on the table, and said, three stars, that’s the best you can get hereabouts. Not the one I serve my customers. And he was a little confused, and he stood up and scratched his head. Back in the summer you rode pillion on my bike, he said, and he laughed, think of it. They’d gone bathing, the whole lot of them, in the lake outside F. Who’d have thought it.
When Marco left, Frau Schmidt was standing in the garden, with something she had knitted for the baby. With her was Nurse Ulla from the retirement home, whom Michael had suspected of being a Communist. But she was bringing something herself, a soft toy, and she wanted Mandy to touch her as well.
It was one after another. The table in the front room was covered with presents, and the cupboard housed a dozen or more bottles of schnapps. The children brought drawings of Mandy and the baby, and sometimes Michael was in the pictures too, and perhaps an ass or an ox as well.
Before long the people were coming from W. and the other villages, wanting to see the expectant mother, to ask her advice on this or that matter. And Mandy gave them advice and comfort, and sometimes she would lay her hand on the arm or the head of the people, without saying anything. She had become so earnest and still that even Michael seemed to see her anew. And did all that needed to be done. In the village, various quarrels were settled during these days, and even the dogs seemed to be less ferocious when Michael walked down the street, and on some houses the straw stars and Christmas wreaths were back up on the doors again, and in the windows, because the whole village was rejoicing, as though Christmas was yet to come. Everyone knew it, but no one said it.
One time, Dr. Klaus came to see that all was well. But when he knocked on the door, Michael did not welcome him in. He sat upstairs with Mandy, and they were quiet as two children, and peeked out of the window until they saw the doctor leaving.
The next day, Michael went to W. to see the doctor. He poured schnapps, and asked how things stood with Mandy. Michael didn’t touch the schnapps. He merely said everything was fine, and they didn’t need a doctor. And these stories that were making the rounds? He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth, said Michael. Be that as it may, said the doctor, the baby will be born on earth, and not in heaven. And if you need help, then call me, and I’ll come. Then they shook hands, and nothing more was said. Michael, though, went back to the retirement home in the village and spoke to Nurse Ulla. She had four children herself, and knew the ropes. And she promised him she would assist when the time came.
Then in February, the time came: the baby was born. Mandy was assisted by Michael, and by Nurse Ulla, whom he had called in. As word spread of the impending event, people gathered on the village streets to wait in silence. It was already dark when the baby was born, and Ulla stepped up to the window and held it aloft, that all might see it. And it was a girl.
Michael sat at Mandy’s bedside, holding her hand and looking at the baby. She’s no beauty, said Mandy, but that was more of a question. And Nurse Ulla asked the new mother where she meant to go with her baby, as she would no longer be able to run the minister’s household anymore. Then Michael said: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. And he kissed Mandy in full view of the nurse. And she later told everyone of it: that he had given his word.
Because the child could not be called Jesus, they called it Sandra. And as the people in the village believed it had been born for them, they didn’t mind that it was a girl. And all were contented and rejoiced.
The following Sunday attendance at church was greater than it had been for a long time. Mandy and the babe sat in the front pew. The organ was playing, and after it had played, Michael climbed up to the pulpit and spoke as follows: Whether this is a child that has long been awaited in the world, we do not know, and may not know. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, said Michael, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. But we, be- loved, should be called the children of God.
*This story is taken from: Wir fliegen by Peter Stamm. © S. Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2008.
*Translation copyright©2012 by Michael Hofmann. Reprinted by permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.
It all began with Effie’s getting something in her eye. It hurt very much indeed, and it felt something like a red-hot spark – only it seemed to have legs as well, and wings like a fly. Effie rubbed and cried– not real crying, but the kind your eye does all by itself without your being miserable inside your mind – and then she went to her father to have the thing in her eye taken out. Effie’s father was a doctor, so of course he knew how to take things out of eyes – he did it very cleverly with a soft paintbrush dipped in castor oil.
When he had gotten the thing out, he said: “This is very curious.” Effie had often got things in her eye before, and her father had always seemed to think it was natural – rather tiresome and naughty perhaps, but still natural. He had never before thought it curious.
Effie stood holding her handkerchief to her eye, and said: “I don’t believe it’s out.” People always say this when they have had something in their eyes.
“Oh, yes – it’s out,” said the doctor. “Here it is, on the brush. This is very interesting.”
Effie had never heard her father say that about anything that she had any share in. She said: “What?”
The doctor carried the brush very carefully across the room, and held the point of it under his microscope – then he twisted the brass screws of the microscope, and looked through the top with one eye.
“Dear me,” he said. “Dear, dear me! Four well-developed limbs; a long caudal appendage; five toes, unequal in lengths, almost like one of the Lacertidae, yet there are traces of wings.” The creature under his eye wriggled a little in the castor oil, and he went on: “Yes; a batlike wing. A new specimen, undoubtedly. Effie, run round to the professor and ask him to be kind enough to step in for a few minutes.”
“You might give me sixpence, Daddy,” said Effie, “because I did bring you the new specimen. I took great care of it inside my eye, and my eye does hurt.”
The doctor was so pleased with the new specimen that he gave Effie a shilling, and presently the professor stepped round. He stayed to lunch, and he and the doctor quarreled very happily all the afternoon about the name and the family of the thing that had come out of Effie’s eye.
But at teatime another thing happened. Effie’s brother Harry fished something out of his tea, which he thought at first was an earwig. He was just getting ready to drop it on the floor, and end its life in the usual way, when it shook itself in the spoon – spread two wet wings, and flopped onto the tablecloth. There it sat, stroking itself with its feet and stretching its wings, and Harry said: “Why, it’s a tiny newt!”
The professor leaned forward before the doctor could say a word. “I’ll give you half a crown for it, Harry, my lad,” he said, speaking very fast; and then he picked it up carefully on his handkerchief.
“It is a new specimen,” he said, “and finer than yours, Doctor.”
It was a tiny lizard, about half an inch long – with scales and wings.
So now the doctor and the professor each had a specimen, and they were both very pleased. But before long these specimens began to seem less valuable. For the next morning, when the knife-boy was cleaning the doctor’s boots, he suddenly dropped the brushes and the boot and the blacking, and screamed out that he was burnt.
And from inside the boot came crawling a lizard as big as a kitten, with large, shiny wings.
“Why,” said Effie, “I know what it is. It is a dragon like the one St. George killed.”
And Effie was right. That afternoon Towser was bitten in the garden by a dragon about the size of a rabbit, which he had tried to chase, and the next morning all the papers were full of the wonderful “winged lizards” that were appearing all over the country. The papers would not call them dragons, because, of course, no one believes in dragons nowadays– and at any rate the papers were not going to be so silly as to believe in fairy stories. At first there were only a few, but in a week or two the country was simply running alive with dragons of all sizes, and in the air you could sometimes see them as thick as a swarm of bees. They all looked alike except as to size. They were green with scales, and they had four legs and a long tail and great wings like bats’ wings, only the wings were a pale, half-transparent yellow, like the gear-boxes on bicycles.
They breathed fire and smoke, as all proper dragons must, but still the newspapers went on pretending they were lizards, until the editor of the Standard was picked up and carried away by a very large one, and then the other newspaper people had not anyone left to tell them what they ought not to believe. So when the largest elephant in the Zoo was carried off by a dragon, the papers gave up pretending– and put ALARMING PLAGUE OF DRAGONS at the top of the paper.
You have no idea how alarming it was, and at the same time how aggravating. The large-size dragons were terrible certainly, but when once you had found out that the dragons always went to bed early because they were afraid of the chill night air, you had only to stay indoors all day, and you were pretty safe from the big ones. But the smaller sizes were a perfect nuisance. The ones as big as earwigs got in the soap, and they got in the butter. The ones as big as dogs got in the bath, and the fire and smoke inside them made them steam like anything when the cold water tap was turned on, so that careless people were often scalded quite severely. The ones that were as large as pigeons would get into workbaskets or corner drawers and bite you when you were in a hurry to get a needle or a handkerchief. The ones as big as sheep were easier to avoid, because you could see them coming; but when they flew in at the windows and curled up under your eiderdown, and you did not find them till you went to bed, it was always a shock. The ones this size did not eat people, only lettuce, but they always scorched the sheets and pillowcases dreadfully.
Of course, the County Council and the police did everything that could be done: It was no use offering the hand of the Princess to anyone who killed a dragon. This way was all very well in olden times– when there was only one dragon and one Princess; but now there were far more dragons than Princesses– although the Royal Family was a large one. And besides, it would have been a mere waste of Princesses to offer rewards for killing dragons, because everybody killed as many dragons as they could quite out of their own heads and without rewards at all, just to get the nasty things out of the way. The County Council undertook to cremate all dragons delivered at their offices between the hours of ten and two, and whole wagonloads and cartloads and truckloads of dead dragons could be seen any day of the week standing in a long line in the street where the County Council had their offices. Boys brought barrowloads of dead dragons, and children on their way home from morning school would call in to leave the handful or two of little dragons they had brought in their satchels, or carried in their knotted pocket handkerchiefs. And yet there seemed to be as many dragons as ever. Then the police stuck up great wood and canvas towers covered with patent glue. When the dragons flew against these towers, they stuck fast, as flies and wasps do on the sticky papers in the kitchen; and when the towers were covered all over with dragons, the police inspector used to set fire to the towers, and burnt them and dragons and all.
And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever. The shops were full of patent dragon poison and anti-dragon soap, and dragonproof curtains for the windows; and indeed, everything that could be done was done.
And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever.
It was not very easy to know what would poison a dragon, because, you see, they ate such different things. The largest kind ate elephants as long as there were any, and then went on with horses and cows. Another size ate nothing but lilies of the valley, and a third size ate only Prime Ministers if they were to be had, and, if not, would feed freely on servants in livery. Another size lived on bricks, and three of them ate two thirds of the South Lambeth Infirmary in one afternoon.
But the size Effie was most afraid of was about as big as your dining room, and that size ate little girls and boys.
At first Effie and her brother were quite pleased with the change in their lives. It was so amusing to sit up all night instead of going to sleep, and to play in the garden lighted by electric lamps. And it sounded so funny to hear Mother say, when they were going to bed: “Good night, my darlings, sleep sound all day, and don’t get up too soon. You must not get up before it’s quite dark. You wouldn’t like the nasty dragons to catch you.”
But after a time they got very tired of it all: They wanted to see the flowers and trees growing in the fields, and to see the pretty sunshine out of doors, and not just through glass windows and patent dragonproof curtains. And they wanted to play on the grass, which they were not allowed to do in the electric lamp-lighted garden because of the night-dew.
And they wanted so much to get out, just for once, in the beautiful, bright, dangerous daylight, that they began to try and think of some reason why they ought to go out. Only they did not like to disobey their mother.
But one morning their mother was busy preparing some new dragon poison to lay down in the cellars, and their father was bandaging the hand of the boot boy, which had been scratched by one of the dragons who liked to eat Prime Ministers when they were to be had, so nobody remembered to say to the children: “Don’t get up till it is quite dark!”
“Go now,” said Harry. “It would not be disobedient to go. And I know exactly what we ought to do, but I don’t know how we ought to do it.”
“What ought we to do?” said Effie.
“We ought to wake St. George, of course,” said Harry. “He was the only person in his town who knew how to manage dragons; the people in the fairy tales don’t count. But St. George is a real person, and he is only asleep, and he is waiting to be waked up. Only nobody believes in St. George now. I heard father say so.”
“We do,” said Effie.
“Of course we do. And don’t you see, Ef, that’s the very reason why we could wake him? You can’t wake people if you don’t believe in them, can you?”
Effie said no, but where could they find St. George?
“We must go and look,” said Harry boldly. “You shall wear a dragonproof frock, made of stuff like the curtains. And I will smear myself all over with the best dragon poison, and – “
Effie clasped her hands and skipped with joy and cried: “Oh, Harry! I know where we can find St. George! In St. George’s Church, of course.”
“Um,” said Harry, wishing he had thought of it for himself, “you have a little sense sometimes, for a girl.”
So the next afternoon, quite early, long before the beams of sunset announced the coming night, when everybody would be up and working, the two children got out of bed. Effie wrapped herself in a shawl of dragonproof muslin – there was no time to make the frock – and Harry made a horrid mess of himself with the patent dragon poison. It was warranted harmless to infants and invalids, so he felt quite safe.
Then they joined hands and set out to walk to St. George’s Church. As you know, there are many St. George’s churches, but fortunately they took the turning that leads to the right one, and went along in the bright sunlight, feeling very brave and adventurous.
There was no one about in the streets except dragons, and the place was simply swarming with them. Fortunately none of the dragons were just the right size for eating little boys and girls, or perhaps this story might have had to end here. There were dragons on the pavement, and dragons on the roadway, dragons basking on the front doorsteps of public buildings, and dragons preening their wings on the roofs in the hot afternoon sun. The town was quite green with them. Even when the children had gotten out of the town and were walking in the lanes, they noticed that the fields on each side were greener than usual with the scaly legs and tails; and some of the smaller sizes had made themselves asbestos nests in the flowering hawthorn hedges.
Effie held her brother’s hand very tight, and once when a fat dragon flopped against her ear she screamed out, and a whole flight of green dragons rose from the field at the sound, and sprawled away across the sky. The children could hear the rattle of their wings as they flew.
“Oh, I want to go home,” said Effie.
“Don’t be silly,” said Harry. “Surely you haven’t forgotten about the Seven Champions and all the princes. People who are going to be their country’s deliverers never scream and say they want to go home.”
“And are we,” asked Effie – “deliverers, I mean?”
“You’ll see,” said her brother, and on they went.
When they came to St. George’s Church they found the door open, and they walked right in – but St. George was not there, so they walked around the churchyard outside, and presently they found the great stone tomb of St. George, with the figure of him carved in marble outside, in his armor and helmet, and with his hands folded on his breast.
“How ever can we wake him?” they said. Then Harry spoke to St. George – but he would not answer; and he called, but St. George did not seem to hear; and then he actually tried to waken the great dragon-slayer by shaking his marble shoulders. But St. George took no notice.
Then Effie began to cry, and she put her arms around St. George’s neck as well as she could for the marble, which was very much in the way at the back, and she kissed the marble face, and she said: “Oh, dear, good, kind St. George, please wake up and help us.”
And at that St. George opened his eyes sleepily, and stretched himself and said: “What’s the matter, little girl?”
So the children told him all about it; he turned over in his marble and leaned on one elbow to listen. But when he heard that there were so many dragons he shook his head.
“It’s no good,” he said, “they would be one too many for poor old George. You should have waked me before. I was always for a fair fight – one man one dragon, was my motto.”
Just then a flight of dragons passed overhead, and St. George half drew his sword.
But he shook his head again and pushed the sword back as the flight of dragons grew small in the distance.
“I can’t do anything,” he said. “Things have changed since my time. St. Andrew told me about it. They woke him up over the engineers’ strike, and he came to talk to me. He says everything is done by machinery now; there must be some way of settling these dragons. By the way, what sort of weather have you been having lately?”
This seemed so careless and unkind that Harry would not answer, but Effie said patiently, “It has been very fine. Father says it is the hottest weather there has ever been in this country.”
“Ah, I guessed as much,” said the Champion, thoughtfully. “Well, the only thing would be … dragons can’t stand wet and cold, that’s the only thing. If you could find the taps.”
St. George was beginning to settle down again on his stone slab.
“Good night, very sorry I can’t help you,” he said, yawning behind his marble hand.
“Oh, but you can,” cried Effie. “Tell us – what taps?”
“Oh, like in the bathroom,” said St. George, still more sleepily. “And there’s a looking glass, too; shows you all the world and what’s going on. St. Denis told me about it; said it was a very pretty thing. I’m sorry I can’t – good night.”
And he fell back into his marble and was fast asleep again in a moment.
“We shall never find the taps,” said Harry. “I say, wouldn’t it be awful if St. George woke up when there was a dragon near, the size that eats champions?”
Effie pulled off her dragonproof veil. “We didn’t meet any the size of the dining room as we came along,” she said. “I daresay we shall be quite safe.”
So she covered St. George with the veil, and Harry rubbed off as much as he could of the dragon poison onto St. George’s armor, so as to make everything quite safe for him.
“We might hide in the church till it is dark,” he said, “and then – “
But at that moment a dark shadow fell on them, and they saw that it was a dragon exactly the size of the dining room at home.
So then they knew that all was lost. The dragon swooped down and caught the two children in his claws; he caught Effie by her green silk sash, and Harry by the little point at the back of his Eton jacket – and then, spreading his great yellow wings, he rose into the air, rattling like a third-class carriage when the brake is hard on.
“Oh, Harry,” said Effie, “I wonder when he will eat us!” The dragon was flying across woods and fields with great flaps of his wings that carried him a quarter of a mile at each flap.
Harry and Effie could see the country below, hedges and rivers and churches and farmhouses flowing away from under them, much faster than you see them running away from the sides of the fastest express train.
And still the dragon flew on. The children saw other dragons in the air as they went, but the dragon who was as big as the dining room never stopped to speak to any of them, but just flew on quite steadily.
“He knows where he wants to go,” said Harry. “Oh, if he would only drop us before he gets there!”
But the dragon held on tight, and he flew and flew and flew until at last, when the children were quite giddy, he settled down, with a rattling of all his scales, on the top of a mountain. And he lay there on his great green scaly side, panting, and very much out of breath, because he had come such a long way. But his claws were fast in Effie’s sash and the little point at the back of Harry’s Eton jacket.
Then Effie took out the knife Harry had given her on her birthday. It had cost only sixpence to begin with, and she had had it a month, and it never could sharpen anything but slate-pencils; but somehow she managed to make that knife cut her sash in front, and crept out of it, leaving the dragon with only a green silk bow in one of his claws. That knife would never have cut Harry’s jacket-tail off, though, and when Effie had tried for some time she saw that this was so and gave it up. But with her help Harry managed to wriggle quietly out of his sleeves, so that the dragon had only an Eton jacket in his other claw. Then the children crept on tiptoe to a crack in the rocks and got in. It was much too narrow for the dragon to get in also, so they stayed in there and waited to make faces at the dragon when he felt rested enough to sit up and begin to think about eating them. He was very angry, indeed, when they made faces at him, and blew out fire and smoke at them, but they ran farther into the cave so that he could not reach them, and when he was tired of blowing he went away.
But they were afraid to come out of the cave, so they went farther in, and presently the cave opened out and grew bigger, and the floor was soft sand, and when they had come to the very end of the cave there was a door, and on it was written: UNIVERSAL TAPROOM. PRIVATE. NO ONE ALLOWED INSIDE.
So they opened the door at once just to peep in, and then they remembered what St. George had said.
“We can’t be worse off than we are,” said Harry, “with a dragon waiting for us outside. Let’s go in.”
They went boldly into the taproom, and shut the door behind them.
And now they were in a sort of room cut out of the solid rock, and all along one side of the room were taps, and all the taps were labeled with china labels like you see in baths. And as they could both read words of two syllables or even three sometimes, they understood at once that they had gotten to the place where the weather is turned on from. There were six big taps labeled “Sunshine,” “Wind,” “Rain,” “Snow,” “Hail,” “Ice,” and a lot of little ones, labeled “Fair to moderate,” “Showery,” “South breeze,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” “Skating,” “Good open weather,” “South wind,” “East wind,” and so on. And the big tap labeled “Sunshine” was turned full on. They could not see any sunshine – the cave was lighted by a skylight of blue glass – so they supposed the sunlight was pouring out by some other way, as it does with the tap that washes out the underneath parts of patent sinks in kitchens.
Then they saw that one side of the room was just a big looking glass, and when you looked in it you could see everything that was going on in the world – and all at once, too, which is not like most looking glasses. They saw the carts delivering the dead dragons at the County Council offices, and they saw St. George asleep under the dragonproof veil. And they saw their mother at home crying because her children had gone out in the dreadful, dangerous daylight, and she was afraid a dragon had eaten them. And they saw the whole of England, like a great puzzle map
– green in the field parts and brown in the towns, and black in the places where they make coal and crockery and cutlery and chemicals. All over it, on the black parts, and on the brown, and on the green, there was a network of green dragons. And they could see that it was still broad daylight, and no dragons had gone to bed yet.
Effie said, “Dragons do not like cold.” And she tried to turn off the sunshine, but the tap was out of order, and that was why there had been so much hot weather, and why the dragons had been able to be hatched. So they left the sunshine tap alone, and they turned on the snow and left the tap full on while they went to look in the glass. There they saw the dragons running all sorts of ways like ants if you are cruel enough to pour water into an ant-heap, which, of course, you never are. And the snow fell more and more.
Then Effie turned the rain tap quite full on, and presently the dragons began to wriggle less, and by-and-by some of them lay quite still, so the children knew the water had put out the fires inside them, and they were dead. So then they turned on the hail – only half on, for fear of breaking people’s windows – and after a while there were no more dragons to be seen moving.
Then the children knew that they were indeed the deliverers of their country.
“They will put up a monument to us,” said Harry, “as high as Nelson’s! All the dragons are dead.”
“I hope the one that was waiting outside for us is dead!” said Effie. “And about the monument, Harry, I’m not so sure. What can they do with such a lot of dead dragons? It would take years and years to bury them, and they could never be burnt now they are so soaking wet. I wish the rain would wash them off into the sea.”
But this did not happen, and the children began to feel that they had not been so frightfully clever after all.
“I wonder what this old thing’s for,” said Harry. He had found a rusty old tap, which seemed as though it had not been used for ages. Its china label was quite coated over with dirt and cobwebs. When Effie had cleaned it with a bit of her skirt – for curiously enough both the children had come out without pocket handkerchiefs – she found that the label said “Waste.”
“Let’s turn it on,” she said. “It might carry off the dragons.”
The tap was very stiff from not having been used for such a long time, but together they managed to turn it on, and then ran to the mirror to see what happened.
Already a great, round black hole had opened in the very middle of the map of England, and the sides of the map were tilting themselves up, so that the rain ran down toward the hole.
“Oh, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” cried Effie, and she hurried back to the taps and turned on everything that seemed wet. “Showery,” “Good open weather,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” and even “South” and “South-West,” because she had heard her father say that those winds brought rain.
And now the floods of rain were pouring down on the country, and great sheets of water flowed toward the center of the map, and cataracts of water poured into the great round hole in the middle of the map, and the dragons were being washed away and disappearing down the waste pipe in great green masses and scattered green shoals – single dragons and dragons by the dozen; of all sizes, from the ones that carry off elephants down to the ones that get in your tea.
Presently there was not a dragon left. So then they turned off the tap named “Waste,” and they half-turned off the one labeled “Sunshine” – it was broken, so that they could not turn it off altogether – and they turned on “Fair to moderate” and “Showery” and both taps stuck, so that they could not be turned off, which accounts for our climate.
* * * * * * *
How did they get home again? By the Snowdon railway of course.
And was the nation grateful? Well – the nation was very wet. And by the time the nation had gotten dry again it was interested in the new invention for toasting muffins by electricity, and all the dragons were almost forgotten. Dragons do not seem so important when they are dead and gone, and, you know, there never was a reward offered.
And what did Father and Mother say when Effie and Harry got home?
My dear, that is the sort of silly question you children always will ask. However, just for this once I don’t mind telling you.
Mother said: “Oh, my darlings, my darlings, you’re safe – you’re safe! You naughty children– how could you be so disobedient? Go to bed at once!”
And their father the doctor said: “I wish I had known what you were going to do! I should have liked to preserve a specimen. I threw away the one I got out of Effie’s eye. I intended to get a more perfect specimen. I did not anticipate this immediate extinction of the species.”
The professor said nothing, but he rubbed his hands. He had kept his specimen – the one the size of an earwig that he gave Harry half a crown for – and he has it to this day.
You must get him to show it to you!
What you might think just after you’ve said goodbye to him and just before you leave the house:
1. What’s that photo on the wall?
2. Is that her in the photo on the wall?
3. She’s standing in front of a not very high wooden fence separating her from a small herd of geese, you might think. Her body taut, her head thrown back. You can’t see where she’s looking.
4. The photo is hanging on one of those small stretches of wall jammed between corners and doors; the kind of wall on which people hang calendars and not pictures; not the kind of wall you face as you walk through rooms; the kind of wall that gets walked straight past.
If you don’t walk straight past you see a photo she would never have hung on the wall when she was alive: standing in front of her fence, in front of her geese, while they waddle happily through the shallow puddles almost everywhere around their fanned feet. The geese aren’t looking at her, they’re looking at each other or at their own feathers. Their plumage isn’t dirty; quite the opposite, it’s very white. Some of them don’t have their beaks pressed to their chests; they are stretching their necks as though trying not to cross the puddles but to heave themselves out of them. And she too, you might think, looks like she’s trying to get herself out of something, out of a great big mess into extremely clean air, so deliberately strained that she must have briefly forgotten all notions of cleanliness she acquired over the years.
What you might think:
That she must not have noticed being photographed, her behaviour becoming a picture. She never engaged in excesses of the body; at most of her mouth. A remarkable number of people poorly disposed to her for certain reasons – idiotic reasons, she said – had died shortly after she quietly cursed them.
The path in the photo would lead her to the house, were she to continue along it: alongside the fence, over the edge of the photo, to the place where her photo is being looked at now, this picture of a body collapsed in almost stubborn permanence, which seems to have straightened up very suddenly, vertically towards the sun, towards the wind blowing on high, into which she has stretched. That’s how she’s standing there in front of the fence while on the other side of it common or garden geese waddle, avoiding looking at her directly as consistently as if that gaze had been practiced for centuries from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, migrating birds having flown it in from the most African of all countries and dropped it from the air onto these animals like heavenly providence.
At their feet, vaguely visible: goosegrass, gooseberries, gooseneck loosestrife, gooseplant, gooseweed. Geese live on an earth named only after them, which expands productively upwards every morning out of growing gratitude at being sidestepped, until its foreseeable end, a fence. On the sidestep is where she is, not looking around and not noticing she’s being photographed. Her arms outstretched alongside her, ahead of her dull wood, above her circling air.
She never behaved that way, neither outside nor inside this house she had moved into, coming from the town. For love – later she said: for sheer idiocy – she had married a man who had joined Hitler’s bodyguards at the age of 18; later, he gained a PhD in ornithology.
The camera had collapsed her and only unfolded her again over a sheet of paper, in a generous gesture – indiscernible whether she was the depicted or responsible for the depicting, on this narrowly passing rectangle of wall you’re standing in front of now: with him. And about which he’s attempting to provide information; in other words, he goes over to his books, opens them and closes them and does so again three rooms along, as you hear him murmuring: Deuterostomia, Deuterostomia. That’s the superphylum of all goose species, in ornithological terms, but what’s the phylum? It must be here somewhere – and also, why insight comes about by hitting something to make it open and hitting so that it closes.
By the side of the tiny herd of geese is a tiny stream. The water flows horizontally into the air, from right to left – against the motion of the thoughts circling above the photo. Possibly, as opposed to their peculiar eye contact behaviour, the geese’s sounds, albeit proceeding on invisible paths, were directed at the person standing by the fence, especially the lower and stronger, female sounds. Possibly, the geese were not chattering but screeching. Possibly, that’s why their beaks are so wide open. Possibly, she was screeching back, her head tipped, vertical into mid-air. Her body launching itself upwards as she screamed, a motion she hadn’t made for a very long time, or only in secret. Cursing someone as she did so, this time very loudly because she was alone. Possibly, that’s why the photographer never showed the photo to anyone but her, and he survived because he hid the evidence of her acrobatic soul from others until her death. Whereby the question in that case would be: with what intent did the photographer want to photograph her; had the camera happened upon her by chance; or had she perhaps cursed him audibly days before and he had been trying ever since, sweating with fear, to capture her in a position undepictable for her, an inconceivably depictable position, and to blackmail her with it. – Possibly, she had said nothing in view of the geese, in view of a subphylum from the superphylum of Deuterostomia; possibly, the air had been taut around her in the pose caught in black and white, taut as a net with hard or thin thread, at its loosest around her chest and tightest at her neck; possibly, she had realized how pretty and useless perspectives are when everything is so close to you, even if everything close immediately vanishes, like the brightness does in the evening, having spent all day shining from a sky filled to the brim with light.
Will he come up with the correct ornithological term for the phylum if he chants the Latin name of the superphylum to himself, as he’s doing now?
Above the white-feathered heads, the outstretched head in front of which she is stretched out: the pale leaves of the hornbeams, or white beeches. Are they too, going by the logic of the previous plant names, named after the animals beneath them? The leaves of the white beeches hang close to their branches and the branches don’t grow far away from their trunk, the whole ensemble more shrub than tree.
You might think: her parting looks rather messy in the otherwise very neat surroundings.
The hornbeams are still standing back there, you might think, just after you’ve said goodbye to him a second time and just before you leave the house. The fence still in front of it. In front of that the path. Walks are taken along the fence and glances are cast over it as you leave the house. Among the walkers is a child who tries to stop and look through the fence, his hand held by another walker’s hand. The child is very small and clumsy and tries hard to see what the fence posts alternately hide and reveal:
the subfamily of geese.
The weather was excellent that day, you hear him calling inside the house, as if searching for you and then at a window: The clouds stood still above the geese, not moving an inch!
You might think something now, but:
The child doesn’t manage to stand still. The fence posts the child is pulled past recall eyelids, fluttering and blurring what is seen; if they were mouths they would chatter without revealing anything of what they were saying. The child tries nonetheless to get through to the hidden things behind the fence, at least with his eyes. It doesn’t look as though the child might be lifted up so as to see more. Someone tugs at his arm (the same someone who was holding his hand) and tugs at his arm until all walkers have passed the fence; continuing along the path, the child’s head is slowly lowered, so slowly that it’s hard to watch the disappointed onlooker.
Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
Ricardo González loved to go to the cinema. His first major cinematic memory, many years ago now, was of a black-and-white film about cops and robbers. Before that he only went to the cinema occasionally, once or twice a month, but after that film everything changed. As he was leaving the theatre he felt a pressing need to watch the movie again. So he did. He sat in front of the same black-and-white scenes once more, closely following the robbers’ flight from the police. They stole an armoured car but were never able to break into it. Ricardo González knew that the other spectators didn’t know how the movie ended, and he wanted to talk to someone about it. He looked at the person sitting in the seat next to him and who was enthralled by the masterful scene in which one of the crooks stretches out his hand to pick up a guard’s gun, unaware that the guy is still alive. But Ricardo González didn’t know any of the people sitting near him; they were all strangers. In the end everything goes wrong for the thieves and the girl. She and the leader of the gang throw themselves off a cliff. The word “End” came up on screen, and Ricardo realized from what people were saying that the film hadn’t been a hit. It was rubbish, they said, the ending was confusing. Ricardo walked the city for hours, surprised at the audience’s reaction. He thought about the film, wondering whether he had been mistaken about how good it was. The ending wasn’t difficult at all; it was very easy to follow! The boss and the girl commit suicide, that much was obvious. What was it that people didn’t understand? He felt that he didn’t know enough about films to make a definitive judgement one way or the other, so his doubts remained. Maybe if he talked about it with someone, if he met someone in the street and asked them what they thought of the movie… But there wasn’t anyone around he could ask. The best idea would be to go back to the theatre the next day.
As he gave back Ricardo’s ticket, the usher smiled in recognition. “At least somebody likes the flop,” he said behind Ricardo’s back. “The guy who just went in has seen it about eight times.”
Ricardo González sat in the same seat as he had for the previous screenings. He anxiously waited for the lights to go down. He now knew that the actor who played the gang leader was called Rod Steiger, while the girl was played by Nadja Tiller. He followed the plot in a cold sweat. During the final scene, when Steiger and the girl tell the police that they’re “coming down” from the mountain, Ricardo saw that, once again, the audience wasn’t getting it.
“They kill themselves. They throw themselves off a cliff,” he shouted, standing up on his seat and cupping his hands to project his voice.
He was hit by a wave of voices telling him to shut up, but he ignored them.
“The camera is filming from below. They choose to commit suicide instead of giving themselves up to the police. Don’t you see?” he shouted again. That was when he was pulled off his perch by three employees.
“The only good thing about that waste of time was the guy who started shouting in the middle of the theatre,” said a woman in a purple dress as she headed for the exit.
The best thing about going to the movies is sharing in people’s pleasure as they leave the auditorium after a great film, or, if the film is bad, when we shout for our money back. That’s what’s so great about Saturdays. I see the couples going into the theatre holding hands, and I love them because I know that that’s what’s most important. On Saturday people are happy and talk a lot, so I can hear what they’re saying. I can be close to groups of people talking about the film and find out whether I agree with them or not. Sundays are good, too, but different. People go to the movies, but their faces are no longer flushed with joy. Monday is too close, I think. On Sundays I rarely get to find out what people thought of the film.
But if I had someone who liked the movies, things would be much easier. Yes, we could go to the movies every day, we wouldn’t care if the theatre was empty, and then talk about it as we stroll through the city. That would be very good for me, especially on days of the week when hardly anyone goes to the cinema. It’s depressing sitting on your own, but if I didn’t go, what else would there be for me to do? Often, on Mondays, when I’m only accompanied by three or four bitter-looking people, I consider leaving. One day I’ll set out into the city to find people who I know like cinema and then arrange to meet up with them on Saturdays at such and such a theatre. For example, I could look for the girl with the nice hair who comes with her boyfriend and is always smiling. She must know a lot about the movies because she comes almost twice a week. If I found someone to talk to, I’d tell them everything, from the first film to the last. One day I’ll do it. I promise.
You’re a Big Boy Now was only screened for three days. Ricardo González saw it on all three showings on Friday and came back on Saturday. It was on that Saturday that the audience angrily began to ask for their money back just half an hour in. Because no one paid them any attention, they started to throw greasy popcorn cartons around as well as a number of shoes that crashed against the screen. They even had to turn up the lights and inform the audience that the management reserved the right to eject anyone causing a disruption. The lights went down again and people went on making a fuss, but the management didn’t eject anyone. Ricardo, shaking with anger, wondered why they didn’t stop the screening or why people didn’t simply leave if they didn’t like the movie. For him, the film was one long ordeal as he looked up apologetically at the new guy and the debutante, begging the beautiful Elizabeth Hartman and Francis Ford Coppola in the name of all true lovers of cinema to forgive such awful behaviour. Once the film came to an end Ricardo González joined the crowd of unruly people. The girl with pretty hair was there. Ricardo came up behind her to hear her opinion, but she wasn’t saying anything at all; she was just beaming up at her boyfriend. Ricardo González thought incredulously that she was too pretty not to have anything to say after watching a movie as lovely as You’re a Big Boy Now.
If she says something about how much she liked the film I’ll go over to congratulate her. But she’s not saying a word; all she does is smile and smile.
“It was a great film, the best I’ve seen this year.” These words came from very close by. Ricardo González turned around, his eyes wide and his mouth clamped shut, looking for the person who had uttered them: it was a fat young man stuffed into a pair of jeans who continued to enumerate the qualities of the film to his excessively hostile audience. But Ricardo felt no sympathy for the man’s plight. What he felt was admiration. He wanted to run up to the fat man, hug him and shout that he felt similarly about Coppola’s film. But he restrained himself; it would be better to wait until they left the theatre. He watched the man slip away from the crowd and stand under the film poster. Ricardo followed him and was happy to see that he had come on his own. He must also be looking for someone he can talk to about films, he thought as the fat man set off down the avenue.
Realizing that he was letting his best chance of starting a conversation get away, Ricardo González walked behind the fat man, thinking about what he’d say to break the ice. Respect, man, you know your films. That’s how people talk in the city. And when the fat man asked him what he had done to deserve the compliment, Ricardo would tell him that he felt the same way about You’re a Big Boy Now, and they’d pity the poor morons who hadn’t got it. Then they’d go to a soda fountain somewhere or walk along with their hands in their pockets, talking about the best films they’d ever seen: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits; the one by Carol Reed called Prófugo de su pasado in Spanish. Do you know it? I think it has an Englishman, a little old Englishman. Profugo de su pasado, starring Laurence Harvey and Alan Bates – it’s pronounced “Beits”. No? And Lee Remick, a stunner with good teeth. In English it’s called The Running Man or The Ballad of the Running Man – more poetic, don’t you think? It’s a fantastic thriller. And they’d also talk about Robert Wise, the films he made before he started to make movies just to win Oscars. They’d talk about La mansión de los espectros – Hill House or The Haunted, something like that. I always get confused between the Spanish and English titles, not to mention the title of the novel on which the film is based. I never know which is which. Hill House, a film about ghosts starring Julie Harris – that’s the way to do it, I’d say with subtlety and respect. And I’d also tell him that I’ve been coming to the cinema since I was a baby, but I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to share my thoughts. He’d wait a couple more blocks and then approach the fat man. Hey, I liked You’re a Big Boy Now, too. All hail Francis Ford Coppola.
The fat man took his hands out of his pockets and stopped walking. A few paces behind him, Ricardo González did the same. The fat man looked over his shoulder as though something had fallen out of his pocket. He looked behind him and saw Ricardo smiling at him. That was all Ricardo could manage, a smile, as he waited for the fat man to come back and shake his hand. You’ve just been to the movies, haven’t you? Seeing that the fat man wasn’t moving, Ricardo thought that he might be waiting for him to come over. But he was wrong about that, too. The fat man put his hands back in his pockets and went on, a little faster now.
It was getting dark; they’d walked a long way. Ricardo told himself, speeding up a little, that he’d say something to the man at the next corner. You know your films. You liked You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you? The fat man got to the corner, looked over his shoulder a second time, and Ricardo smiled again, thinking that now he’d stop. But he didn’t. He crossed the road, hurrying to the right. Ricardo, confused, almost ran to the corner and crossed the road, too. To his amazement, the fat man had disappeared. Ricardo González shielded his eyes with his hands to see if the man walking in the distance in the weak late-evening light was the person he was looking for. No, he wasn’t. Worried, he wondered what might have happened to his friend. Where did you go, man? I wanted to talk to you about You’re a Big Boy Now. It’s a great movie, isn’t it?
Then he saw him. The door to a yellow house opened, and his friend’s sizeable body appeared. His hands were shoved into the pockets his jeans, and he was staring at Ricardo, who had already begun to smile and introduce himself when he caught sight of the others.
“Good afternoon,” said Ricardo. That was a bad start. In this town, people say hello with a “Hey” or a “What’s up?”
The fat man didn’t answer; he just stared. Behind him four young men emerged, followed by a fifth, who closed the door to the yellow house behind him.
“You liked the movie, didn’t you?” Ricardo stammered, coming closer.
“Don’t touch me, you faggot,” the fat man said after hesitating for a moment. “Stay away from me.”
“Let’s smash his face in,” said a boy who looked like the fat man but was incredibly skinny.
“What?” Ricardo González asked. “No, I came to talk to him,” he said, pointing at the fat man. “To discuss the film. I’m telling the truth, ask him. You went to see You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you?”
“What’s wrong? Couldn’t you find any of your little friends at the theatre?” asked the fat man, slapping away the hand Ricardo had proffered.
“No, you don’t understand, there’s been a misunderstanding. I just came to talk about the film. You liked it, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
And so Ricardo González was beaten up. He felt the first blow at the back of his head while he was still trying to process the fat man’s answer. Then came the fat man’s fist and his face behind it; something hit his back, and the boys started to crow gleefully. If they hit me there again I’ll burst, but there won’t be any blood. I’ll just burst. He said that he didn’t like the film… but that wasn’t him… I came to talk about the film… I think that your mama is calling the boys in for dinner… Look at those ripe mangos… This kind of thing doesn’t happen here… Everyone in this city loves everyone else… Then his body hit something hard, the welcoming cement, on which a puddle soon began to form.
I’ve been coming to the cinema for so long that I can even tell how the people on the screen smell. A little while ago I saw a movie by Peter Collinson, The Long Day’s Dying, a long, long day on which the only thing they do is kill because even when they die they kill: they kill themselves. But a multitude of Saturdays and Sundays and many, many films have come and gone, and I doubt there’s a single person in the city as happy as I am when I see that the people who have come to the cinema agree with me about a film. One of these days I’m going to say hello to all my friends, all the girls who sit next to me, but once begun it would never end. That girl with the pretty hair has disappeared; she must have moved. The guy who was with her keeps coming, only now he’s accompanied by a different girl, one with green eyes and black hair. They’re my friends, too. They give me an affectionate hello when they see me. Many stories have been shown on the screen on many different Saturdays, and I’m happy when people leave wowed by a film by Polanski, or Winner, or Peter Watkins, or Pontecorvo, and also when the guy telling the story is Stuart Rosenberg, the guy from La leyenda del indomable starring Paul Newman. Have you seen it? Yes, Cool Hand Luke. Don’t moan. You know very well that I have to say the original title when they get it wrong in Spanish. I wait eagerly for Saturday to come around, to say hello to my friends and chat as we walk around the city, remembering Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare by Robert Aldrich, admitting that we’re head over heels in love with Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine or Anjanette Comer when she played a Mexican alongside Marlon Brando, and also that we loved Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. And why not occasionally recall the films of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, speculating about the car accident in which they were killed? We make fun of them, but we also remember them fondly. And the weekends, the routine never changes, when we go to second- or third-class theatres to catch anything we might have missed. For example, a short while ago we got to see The Chase by Arthur Penn, and I leave holding her hand, remembering the final scenes in Blow-Up – you know, my love, the one where a man wanders through the city and sees a pair of lovers that would make an excellent photo, the very image of love, but the picture of love turns out to be about crime and death, and the man doesn’t want to let it go because it’s the only important thing ever to happen to him in his sorry life. But that’s impossible, my love, you can’t survive like that. It’s better to join the happy people who have the good fortune not to be thinkers. To survive you have to know how to play tennis without a ball or a racket. So, here we have the city, I live in the city, I watch films, and I’m happy.
What Ricardo González would like most in life would be to talk about a film he saw a long time ago, a cowboy film, Journey to Shiloh, which has war scenes borrowed from another film. It’s the only youthful film about the US Civil War. It’s about seven boys from Texas running around searching for something, but they don’t know what. He’d like to tell someone how great some of the scenes in that movie are, but he doesn’t, he knows that he mustn’t say anything, and when he leaves the theatre he walks the city streets talking to himself and staring at the ground. He knows the pavements by heart, reliving the colours, emotions and words he saw on the screen.
Because Ricardo González still loves to go to the cinema.
She has long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source, a deep lagoon: dark, wet and mysterious. But she also has a pair of repeating words, a tattoo on her back and hands that knead you like you were dough.
She says that she killed her uncle. She walks barefoot because she feels the earth growing inside her: she says that the earth slips up through her heels and grows along her veins like power lines, or roads, grew up next to the railway.
The earth makes her strong, she says, it’s how she can stand the way people stare at her. If it weren’t for the earth, by now she’d be cracked like an ombú: crazy, she says.
And she says that she left a newborn baby in a field in Benítez, about five years ago. Time has clearly left its mark. So has the cumbia music she whistles as she walks down Avenida Güemes, just where Avenida Güemes starts to go downhill so sharply that it seems as though it’s burrowed underground. It doesn’t just lose its asphalt coating, it acquires a carpet of shards of brick that were supposedly meant to fill in the potholes around the ceramics factory.
So now you tell me a story, she says when she’s finished her own. She always tells me her story. And then she chews on a blade of grass sitting by the side of the stream that bears away the waste from the pigsties and the ceramics factory behind us. On this hot evening the factory looks like a crumbling empire. I make up a story for her. She likes adventures involving warriors and princesses. She likes castles and witches. She likes landscapes that take her far away from these ruins. She likes tigers.
She’s not from around here, say the taxi drivers lined up along the curve. She came with the guys who built the Federation and stayed. She lives behind the ceramics factory in an abandoned house choked with weeds. You see her with the dogs (she talks to the dogs) and hanging around with the kids from the country. They’re much younger than her, they say. She can’t have kids yet but the way she’s going, it’s only a matter of time, someone will take her, the taxi drivers say from their wicker chairs on the pavement. They don’t know the girl’s real story. They’d never be able to imagine the scene inside the corrugated iron shack, on a farm in Castilla, her uncle pulling her hair, tearing off her clothes, entering her with dark pleasure in his eyes and a continuous whisper on his lips. Neither are they capable of imagining her six months pregnant, on a rainy night when her uncle came back and she firmly plunged a knife into his torso, coolly, no different from slicing a loaf of bread. And they can’t imagine the girl’s face, the image that pursues her every time she closes her eyes lying on an old mattress in the abandoned house, of when she left her son behind – because he didn’t feel like hers, he’d been born dirty – amid the bales of hay in a field in Benítez. She’s unimaginable to them even though they make up stories about her, even though they’re watching her now as she disappears down Avenida Güemes, swaying atop her long legs like a pair of rivers coming together at the source.
You pressed your Nazi grandfather’s signet ring into my hand and asked me to throw it in the sea or some other body of water. Because you couldn’t. And I said: I’m not doing that; he isn’t my arsehole relative. I’ve got skeletons of my own in the cupboard. It’s chock full; there’s no room for yours.
I put the ring in my box of horrors along with the plastic spider and other yucky things, and kept it for you. It’s still there – been joined by another one since.
Although we have names, and perfectly normal names too – nothing mega stupid like Babsi or Horst or anything – we don’t use them. We have these pet thingies. You call me Krasivaya and I call you Libero. Libero, because I think of you as free. Nothing to do with football or defence systems, as you always claim. I think of you as Italian, although you’re half Romanian – Italian and free, a partisan in the mountains or whatever. Sometimes, high up on the ridge, we break bread and cheese without a knife, and throw ourselves into cover against the clouds. There’s an explosion behind us. They won’t get us. Not in a million years.
Krasivaya because – no idea why. Because my head’s in outer space and my feet only just touch the ground. Because my gaze is always weightless.
I wanted to be an astronaut. I know all about parachutes, because at some point along the way my wings broke off. I must have been about eleven or twelve at the time.
Out hiking one day we found a cave in the middle of the woods, and because we were cold and soaked by the rain – because it was dropping dark, and the next hostel was fifteen kilometres off, I suggested we spend the night in the cave. And you said: No way. You were afraid we’d find a sleeping bear in there. I couldn’t help wishing you were braver – like a warrior or a cowboy – like a Red Indian who would have shot my fear to pieces with his arrows. As it was, I had to go on ahead and fight the bear until you’d fallen asleep between the stalagmites and stalactites on the muddy floor of the cave.
We’re bombardiers. Every Friday between five and eight in the evening, we take our boules and bombard the park.
When we pass Sugar, the most beautiful streetwalker in the red-light district, we pull up on our bikes with screeching brakes and enquire about her corns. She got them from her red platforms, and they’ve been giving her hell for weeks. Sugar is a beauty. Her real name is Satwan, and she used to be a man. Now she has a designer clitoris fashioned for her by a star surgeon from Bangkok and gives the best blowjobs in town. At least that’s what she says. We believe her and ask for no proof.
Gipsy boy – that’s what your ringless grandfather called you. We crochet the most beautiful laurels around the photo of your father, who is never talked about. We tell ourselves that he’s been at sea since leaving your mother – that he didn’t hang himself from a tree in the woods, as she claims. A grave, a grave, what’s a grave? Nothing but a name on a stone. We toast his health and your roots, and chuck glasses at the walls until your flatmate starts yelling that we’re arseholes. Filthy whore – that’s what your Nazi grandad called his own daughter. You raised your arm, took aim and struck – and the next day you left the village. I gave you a homemade certificate for that and sewed a free swimmer’s badge on your red T-shirt.
On the very first day I told you not to fall in love with me. When you did anyway, I slapped you round the face.
We had worked out that it would take 21.3 days to get to the Black Sea on your Vespa – driving slowly. It took us 43 days and made stomach sleepers out of us. In Hungary we had that row and I almost turned around. But what with the full moon and the Danube and your musicians – mesečina, mesečina – I couldn’t hack it and flew back into your arms.
A-Side (Your Side)
Françoise Hardy / ‘Oh Oh Chéri’
Ernst Busch / ‘Heimlicher Aufmarsch’
Goran Bregović / ‘Mesečina’ and ‘Ederlezi’
Jacques Brel / ‘Ne Me Quitte pas’
Danzig / ‘Mother’
D.A.D. / ‘Sleeping My Day Away’
The The / ‘Love is Stronger Than Death’
Your zigzag choreography made me dizzy.
B-Side (My Side)
Nouvelle Vague / ‘This is Not a Love Song’
Kim Wilde / ‘Cambodia’
Dead Kennedys / ‘Holiday in Cambodia’
Lard / ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’
Fugazi / ‘Waiting Room’
Pixies / ‘Debaser’
The Notwist / ‘Moron’
Nouvelle Vague / ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’
So when are you finally going to get married?
So why aren’t you a couple?
We shared a bottle of Jameson’s and bitched about the world. Then you sat down at the drums, and I grabbed the microphone and sang along to the beat in a wig and a pair of shades – first for you and then into the video camera, until I got tangled up in the mic cable and ended up on the floor, camera and all, laughing uncontrollably. When I saw the video the following morning I noticed that we’d kissed – some time before I fell asleep and you pressed stop.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
You, in a filthy mood:
‘Are you still in bed?’
Five seconds later, you again:
‘Shit. What’s the time?’
‘Don’t tell me you’re still in bed?’
‘Because it’s half bloody three in the afternoon. That’s why.’
Lighting-up sounds at your end of the line.
‘Missed an appointment?’
‘When did you leave last night, by the way?’
‘Dunno. Some time this morning.’
I listen to you smoking. Then I say:
‘Can I borrow your bike? Somebody’s nicked mine.’
‘We kissed yesterday.’
‘Was it good? The thing is, you see, I can’t remember.’
‘You were great, baby.’
‘See you in a minute.’
My birthday is always in the winter. Every year. I’m not happy about that. Because I’d like to have a big party with all my friends – in the park, or else by a lake, with a bonfire and sleeping out in the open and all that. Last summer you came round to persuade me to go swimming and strapped me on the back of your Vespa. You carried me over your shoulder from the car park to the edge of the lake, and I sang a nursery rhyme all the way. When I saw the table by the water laid for a party and all our friends sitting round it saying happy birthday to me, I knew you were crazy and I ran away. What a good thing you’re faster than me.
We only ever fight at our typefighter, an old Olympia, and the rules go like this:
Only one person at the keys at a time.
No speaking; you’re only allowed to write.
After one sentence, it’s the other person’s turn.
The fight minutes are filed chronologically by year.
‘Hands up!’ I shouted, the day I held up the café where you had a job behind the bar – my secret-agent water pistol pointed firmly in your direction. You looked at your boss, who had stuck up all his fingers immediately. Then you grinned, put down the tea towel you were holding, and slowly – bloody slowly – you stuck up your hands. ‘This is a kidnapping!’ I told your boss with a wink. I caught your confused eye, pulled the trigger, hit you on the forehead and ordered you to come out from behind the bar. Outside the café I blindfolded you, slipped Walkman headphones over your ears and spun you round a few times to make you lose your bearings. I carried you off to the station by a zigzag route and then on a train to the sea, which we reached that evening.
Christmas with your mother. Your grandad was already in his grave and your mother was lonely, so we asked her to celebrate with us. Christmas Eve at yours with goose and red cabbage and dumplings and wine and carols. Christmas Day at mine on the couch with leftovers, biscuits and The Godfather I-III. On Boxing Day I left the two of you and felt lonely by myself.
We stood on the bridge over the railway lines, half frozen to death, your old fishing gear in our hands. A fishing rod each. The sky had cooled down from all the big bangs some time earlier, and we put rockets in empty bottles and fixed fishing lines to the wooden end of the missiles. Commencing countdown, engines on. We held lighters to the fuses in sync and grabbed the fishing rods. Three. Two. One. Checked by the fishing lines, the rockets spat and whizzed into the sky with some difficulty and exploded over our heads. We were fishing for rockets. That was last New Year’s Eve.
The Top Ten Reasons Why I Can’t Be With You
Yesterday your mum rang. From the hospital. On your phone. I thought it was you and when I took the call I said: Where are you, you fucking idiot? and your mum burst into tears.
She said that she had a letter for me – that you were in intensive care with a pumped-out stomach and that your flatmate had found you. Then I knew why you hadn’t come to the place we’d arranged to meet that morning and I set off to see you.
A thousand tubes in your body. Monitors. Beeping. Hydraulic stuff. And you. In a coma. The consultant on duty told me you’d poisoned yourself with pills. Your breathing had stopped, your brain had been without oxygen for several minutes, so now you were in a coma, receiving artificial ventilation and artificial nutrition. The question was whether you’d ever be normal again. The chances were slim. He gave me the following tasks to carry out:
– Talk to him in a calm, friendly way
– Tell him nice things
– Be encouraging
– Touch his skin gently
– Mention familiar names and situations
The idea, said the consultant, was to persuade you to choose life and maybe come back. Although you wouldn’t be able to live the life you used to live, it was quite possible that you might, with some intensive rehab, be able to have another few good years – albeit mentally handicapped and wheelchair bound.
Where I could get at your skin, in amongst the tubes and dressings, I stroked your hand and arm. I doled out memories to you in a calm voice, sang to you, made up a fairy tale for you – and then called you names for about an hour. I took your letter home without reading it.
Your farewell letter:
You cowardly bastard.
I’ve just about had it.
Who’s going to bombard the park with me today?
And next week?
And the weeks after that?
I know the names of all your sisters now.
I have found out all about the doll’s head phenomenon. And where the brain stem is. You didn’t come back. Your mother wanted you in a grave nearby. I said: Sea burial – he belongs in the ocean! and it was all the same to her. Your heart was transplanted because you had one of those cards.
I can hardly bear the thought – that someone, somewhere, is going around with a Libero heart.
The sea burial was a complete washout. If you’d been there, we’d have laughed ourselves silly at your puking mother and the vicar droning away on board. As it was, I stood there by myself thinking how banal it all was and feeling miserable because it seemed to me something ceremonious ought to happen. Plop went the urn and my mouth went crooked.
I feel amputated. Couldn’t you be like Jesus and rise from the dead some time soon? A Friday would be good – yes, I think that would be only right and proper.
Time is like a piece of chewing gum that’s lost its taste.
I’ve sold everything, even the drum kit – sorry. I’ll take your Vespa though; it runs beautifully. Your gloves are still under the seat. The removal van is coming tomorrow. Everyone asks: Why Flensburg? I shrug and say nothing.
Her name is Simone Michalski. It wasn’t easy to find out.
My flat is in the same area as hers. She does all her shopping at an organic grocer’s. Fasten your seatbelt – I’m starting work there at the beginning of next month. Part time.
I go for walks by the sea every day. You can see Denmark. Sometimes I ride across on the Vespa, buy salty liquorice and eat a hot dog with a bright pink sausage inside. You’d love røde pølser. On the anniversary of your death I floated a candle on the water and yelled at the sea.
I look at her, searching for some trace – waiting for a spark. The worst of it is, you wouldn’t like Simone, I’m sure you wouldn’t. We’ve been meeting once a week for a few months now. She’s a useless boules player. Can’t play chess either. Her latest fad is Nordic walking, with sticks and all that. It really is a miracle there wasn’t some kind of rejection response.
I’m sitting at the typefighter breaking all the rules.
*Copyright © Carl Hanser Verlag München 2014.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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