When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
My sister always said that it was much better to have a niece or nephew than your own child. I suppose that my mother agreed with her. My sister said that with a nephew you got to enjoy the good times, all the fun of having a kid without going through any of the trials and tribulations that came with them. Like pregnancy, or labour. Or nappies. Or being woken up in the middle of the night. And when they grow up you don’t have to scold them, or educate them, my sister went on. You avoid all the enigma and bloodshed of their teenage years. You can just spoil them and be loved in return. For instance, you can get them a pair of trousers if you like but you don’t have to get them all their trousers and then keep tabs on them, watching out for when they’re getting frayed or too small. You can watch the children grow, but at a distance, safe from all the conflagrations and black holes. Not to mention the time that passes you by, the sensation that life is slowly slipping away from you like a rudderless boat on the tide. I couldn’t have disagreed more with what my sister was saying, but I didn’t let it show. A rudderless boat is much better than one that speeds all over the place, then springs a leak and sinks. I wanted all the trials and tribulations that my sister was talking about. I wanted to iron clothes, wipe bottoms, take their temperature and bring them to the doctor for check-ups. To lose sleep and never get that pressure off your chest. But it’s always difficult to contradict your older sister.
Laura was my sister’s daughter and thus my niece. A fragile, dreamy girl, just after she turned four she started to stay at my house once a week after school. She was born in October. At first we thought that it would be best if she came on Thursdays to spend Thursday afternoons with me. I remember the afternoon on which Laura, sitting on the sofa, pointed to the hall with an unmistakeable expression of joy on her face, smiling that radiant smile that only children are capable of. It was the second or third afternoon she’d spent with me, my sister hadn’t got back from her session yet and night was already falling, even though we’d only just had tea. I looked where Laura was pointing but there wasn’t anyone or anything there, just my dark, uninteresting hallway. There were crumbs all over the floor. Then she looked straight at me and excitedly exclaimed ‘Didn’t you see it? A ghost just passed by! It was so scared!’ That was the day that I knew I’d won her trust: she felt comfortable making things up with me. She was ready to lie, play jokes or test me. Until then, she’d barely talked at all.
After Christmas, my sister decided that it was better if her daughter came to my house on Fridays instead of Thursdays. My sister was so exhausted after her sessions that it made more sense to have Laura come and sleep over on Fridays. My flat was a one bedroom but we got a fold-out bed, I can’t remember where it came from, maybe we brought it from La Torre. A small cot with a thin, ten centimetre mattress.
On those first Fridays in winter, Laura always slept straight through, exhausted by the games and excitement of spending the night away from home (it was her first time) and maybe also by the mystery of her mother’s semi-clandestine adult activities. It was a few months before she woke up in the middle of the night for the first time, although her mother had told me that she did so regularly at home. One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time that Laura started to scream at three or four in the morning. I was fast asleep in bed when I was awoken by the sound of a crying child and for a few seconds I thought that it was a baby, my baby, a non-existent son or daughter (obviously, I don’t have any children of my own) and in my bewildered disappointment, before I went to console my niece, I cried a little too, from joy, a sense of foreboding and maybe anger. I immersed myself in Laura’s tears, plunging into them in my desperation for an alternative life. Then I went to her bed in the darkness and saw that she was screaming in her sleep with her eyes closed and her lower lip trembling, her red fingers gripping tight to the edge of the duvet. I stroked her hair and, slowly, she calmed down, as though my fingertips dispensed some kind of drug.
These regular sleepovers lasted two years. I bought a toothbrush, a pink pillow with animal pictures on it, pyjamas, toys and biscuits in different shapes and colours. At home she always slept with a teddy bear that Jaime had given her, so I got her a stuffed toy to cling to when she spent her nights with me. I found a cloth duck that I liked right from the beginning. It had the empty gaze of fake or stuffed animals but it wasn’t scary, because it didn’t look real. It was soft, there was something jelly-like in its movements, and it only cost me ten euros. I kept it in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom and every Friday morning I carefully placed it under my pillow. The first thing Laura did when she came over was run to my bed to find the toy and say hello. She thought that the duck spent all week there, sleeping with me. She was a little sad that the toy didn’t have any children to play with. I suppose that my life seemed boring and predictable to her. Every time Laura saw the duck, she jumped and shrieked with joy, as though she’d spent all week worrying that the duck, or I, wouldn’t be there. We gave it a name, Feldsduck. ‘How are you, Feldsduck? Have you missed me very much?’ Laura said as she stroked its orange beak or kissed its yellow feet, covering it in drool.
I loved spending my Fridays with my niece. I went to pick her up from school in the car and we spent the afternoon listening to music, painting, in the park or at the cinema. We ran races and hid things. We smelled leaves and paints. We put make-up on each other and danced around an imaginary fire playing invisible instruments. In the evening, we made dinner: she liked to sit on a stool and taste each of the ingredients we added to the pizza or salad. Before going to bed, I read her a story. My collection of children’s books grew little by little, taking up more and more space on my bookshelf. Laura made up verbs from nouns: ‘story-ing’, ‘movie-ing’, ‘happy-ing’. She also said ‘blanket-ing’ when she wrapped herself up in the duvet. When I was with her, the world suddenly took on new meaning, it became a wonderful gamut of possibilities.
I lost Feldsduck. One Friday morning, as soon as I’d woken up, I got a strange feeling, an intuition, as though there were a gap in my chest. I immediately saw, or thought I saw, the duck’s indifferent gaze. I looked first in the wardrobe where I usually kept it and then, automatically, under the pillow. Next I searched the flat, wildly and at random initially and then systematically. In my anxious state I searched places I hadn’t explored in years, out of reach corners, under the bed and sofa, in the utility room, in a gigantic cardboard box where I keep old letters and papers, family photographs and my notes from university. As I looked back over my life I was surprised at the person I had been only a few years before. I felt guilty. I remembered that I had put the duck into the wash the previous Sunday, in with Laura’s sheets, and I remembered hanging it up to dry on the terrace, pinning its right wing to the clothesline with a clothes peg. It looked submissive hanging there, like a puppet waiting for a hand to fill it and bring it to life. But I couldn’t be sure that I’d put it back in its place in the wardrobe. Things one does regularly fade in the mind, they pile up like socks and shirts, two by two or three by three until you can’t tell them apart any more. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so I went to the shop where I’d bought the lost duck. They had a few that were just the same, lined up next to each other on the shelf, their feet hanging down lifelessly. Like children waiting their turn. They were all in the same, tired-looking pose, and had the same empty expression.
Before I went to pick Laura up, I put the new duck under the pillow. It looked identical to the other one, you couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe there was a slight difference, the one that I’d lost might have been a little worn, but a four year old girl wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I got into the car and went to the school. It was impossible to find a parking place at that time so I always left the car double-parked. The mothers (they were almost all mothers) formed a semi-circle around the door. The pre-schoolers trooped out one by one and ran to freedom. Laura was usually one of the last to come out. She walked over to me with a smile but didn’t hurry, as though she had a keen sense of dignity.
When we got home, she repeated her weekly ritual and ran to my bed. She lifted up the pillow, picked up the soft toy and looked at it. The joy disappeared from her face. She looked at me and then back to the toy. ‘This isn’t Feldsduck,’ she said. ‘Where’s Feldsduck?’
I had to admit what had happened. I apologized again and again. It’s hard to excuse yourself to a four year old girl. They don’t yet know about not hurting people’s feelings and explanations get tangled up, they sound absurd and pointless. But as I spoke I realized that she was more curious than upset. She didn’t cry. In fact, she didn’t say anything to me at all. Instead of looking at me, she looked at the new stuffed animal. ‘You know what?’ she said eventually, ‘We need to give him another name.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I answered. ‘He needs a new name.’ I suggested a lot: Ducky, Mathew, Andy, Bart, Juan Carlos. None of them seemed right. ‘He doesn’t look like a Bart,’ she’d say, staring into the duck’s blank eyes. We spent the afternoon like that, staring at a cloth duck. Laura took the naming ceremony very seriously. I had to make an effort not to laugh. How did she know that it was a different stuffed animal? That night, after I’d helped her into her pyjamas, she announced that she’d found the right name. ‘Her name will be Duckological.’ I was left speechless. Where had that name come from? ‘It’s not a boy duck, no, not exactly,’ she said. ‘She’s a girl, a girl duck.’ (She said adverbs in a very funny way: instead of ‘exactly’, she said ‘esastly’.) I told her that in that case we should call it ‘Miss Duckological’. She thought for a moment. ‘Her name is Duckological,’ she decided, bringing the conversation to an end.
That Saturday, when my sister came to pick Laura up, mi niece told her all about the adventures of Duckological the duck. ‘Best of all,’ she said, ‘we have no idea what happened to the other duck. Maybe it flew away?’
On Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. My downstairs neighbour had the original duck, Feldsduck, tucked under her arm. It had apparently fallen off the clothesline onto her terrace. She’d come by a couple of times in the week but I had been out. I thanked her. I put the two ducks next to each other and inspected them for differences. I picked up a black marker and drew an F on the label of the duck my neighbour had brought and a D on the one I’d bought a few days ago.
The following Friday I decided to try an experiment. I put the stuffed toy with an F on the label under the pillow. Then I went to pick Laura up from school and when we got home she ran to my bed, took the toy from under the pillow and started to shout like crazy: ‘Feldsduck’s back! Feldsduck’s back! Where were you Feldsduck?’
Laura said that Feldsduck was a sad toy but Duckological was always happy. She had no trouble telling the difference. After that, I started sleeping with both of them. When I told my sister, she said that I’d always been dopey but also that I had a huge imagination. ‘There must be some distinguishing mark, something that a four year old girl can see but you can’t because you never pay attention.’ I took these words as a kind of reproach but I didn’t want an argument.
A couple of years later, when everything came to an end, Laura went to live with her father in Salamanca. I asked her if she wanted to take the ducks with her as a parting gift, but she didn’t want them. ‘They’re used to living with you,’ she told me. ‘They’d both be very sad in Salamanca, they wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t like cities they don’t know. And I know you’ll take good care of them.’ I had to make a big effort to stop myself from crying in front of her.
A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was drowning. I turned on the television and tried to watch a movie. I ate a tangerine. It was Friday, so I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. It was dawn when I opened the wardrobe door. I took out the two stuffed toys and ran my hand over their cloth tummies. I looked at the labels and realized that the letters I’d scribbled to distinguish them had faded. The D and the F were identical blotches. I wondered whether Laura would still be able to tell them apart and tell me which was which. I remembered my childhood, my sister, our mother and summers in La Torre, when we swam in a big, insect-ridden pond. You’re Duckological aren’t you? I said to one of the ducks. I put the other one back in the wardrobe. I hope I’m right, I thought, as I got into bed. I hugged the toy tight until I fell asleep. When I woke up, eight hours later, the cloth toy was still there. I went to the bathroom, took out my nail scissors, (I‘d often used them to cut Laura’s nails) and went back to bed. I looked at the stuffed toy, then at the label and held it out between my thumb and index finger, but I couldn’t go through with it. What if I was wrong?
There’s been more time to study her since the tribunal, but you can’t do it twenty-four-seven. Some people in this world still have jobs, and Jennifer’s boss would hit high C if she found out you’d been trailing round after her in the ward. Sampling the tablets. Asking dumb questions. Pulling her into the supplies cupboard for a quickie while some war vet was spluttering his last on the other side of the wall. No — once you’re struck off in that business, you’re struck off for life. And not all Jennifer’s ideas are good ones.
So for most of the last three months you’ve limited your study to home hours, entertaining yourself in the flat alone while she’s been out at work. You cooked prawn linguini with chillies the night you were sacked, vegetarian lasagne the next. The whole first week you hoovered and dusted like a demon. Jennifer called you her bitch and you laughed together. She predicted your periods would synchronise soon; she made you pinky-promise to run her a bubble bath whenever she demanded it. That was when you were still buzzing from the freedom and every task was fun — then the role-play started. Now, some nights, when Jennifer’s on duty, all you do is cup your balls inside your trackie bottoms and make plans online, in the darkness. At the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, you mutter to yourself, clicking the mouse with your free hand. At the Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Just thinking about it makes the back of your neck wet. Your mouth dry. When it all gets too much, you revert to mastering FIFA 12.
Whole nights pass this way.
It’s been four months since the management asked Jennifer to cover a couple of night shifts as a favour — one of the new girls was off ill, they said. It was just till she felt better, they said. Probably wouldn’t be more than a week or two. But it’s nearly Christmas now, the ill girl has become the depressed girl, and Jennifer’s still on these nightmare lates with no sign of a pattern change any time soon. You hoped that once you were out of the call centre it might mean a chance to discuss starting again, perhaps somewhere life was cheaper and the sun was more likely to shine. But there’s been no time for that sort of talk. Six times a week she leaves home after sunset and gets back before sunrise. Day is night and night is day. Jennifer says it’s playing with her senses, and it’s affecting yours too. You’re having to adjust your sleep patterns just to coordinate being awake at the same time. On the Apache Trail, overlooked by the majestic Superstition Mountains.
You make sure you’re ready when she gets home from work — lights off, blinds shut — so Jennifer can kid herself it’s night-time. She deserves a proper welcome home but you’ve learned not to bother her at the door. She doesn’t like to be fussed over. What she does for a living, you can’t imagine it. The last moments of ordinary men and women, stripped of themselves. It’s no wonder she needs a few minutes alone. So you lie there in bed, pretending to be asleep, listening to her move in the kitchen, picking from things in packets in the fridge and eating standing up as night becomes morning outside. Then she’ll crawl into bed, kiss you once and fall asleep, sometimes fully clothed. If that happens you undress her slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements, removing her makeup with a face wipe. You put her bra, knickers and tights into the washing basket, and hang her uniform up on the back of the bedroom door ready for the following day. Then you pull the duvet over both your bodies, run your arms round her waist and wait for tiredness to take over. Most times Jennifer sleeps deeply. Sometimes you do too.
Jennifer’s dreams don’t clear her mind, but when she opens her eyes she acts like the world is a shiny new penny she just found on the pavement. Most days she’ll wake up around two, roll over to face you and before you’ve even focused she’ll whisper, Shall we, cowboy? When she’s tired, her pupils look like roulette wheels. When she’s horny, she wraps her short legs around yours, holds you hard and asks you what it’s gonna be today. Barack and Michelle in the Oval Office? Beyoncé and Jay-Z in their LA mansion? Brangelina in their South of France hideaway? Usually you decide together. Then it’s dress-up time, half an hour of what Jennifer calls rock n’roll in the same old holes, and by three you’re both asleep again. You wake around five, crash in front of the TV and grab a sandwich while watching the soaps or a DVD. A couple of hours later it all starts over, and the next ten hours are your own.
Last week you told Jennifer this couldn’t go on anymore. They were taking the piss, these suits, and you advised her to go on strike. It wasn’t practical, this sort of life. You told her that, if it went on till Hogmanay, there were gonna be problems. What were you gonna do for the bells, eh? Sky Plus the whole thing? Watch Big Ben the following afternoon, all lights off, singing Auld Lang Syne and pretending it was a different year? Jennifer wrinkled her nose. The corners of her mouth turned upwards. Then she said, We should get busy during the countdown. Try and co-ordinate. You know, 3, 2, 1… Jennifer’s a real romantic. These past few weeks, you’ve noticed some things you didn’t see back when you had a job and still picked up the phone when it rang. If Jennifer’s sleeping, you concentrate on her breathing, trying to echo it with your own, wondering if she only stays with you because she’s too exhausted to leave. If she’s awake, you pay attention to her tics and habits. Her desires. You still have some uses, right? In the disabled toilets at the Sea Life Aquarium in Tempe. In full Native American costume at the Heard Museum.
From the timings, you know she hardly ever makes a stop on the way home from work. The thin layer of wet mud on her boots proves she always uses same the same shortcut through the park — the route takes around twenty-three minutes, door to door. The played count on her iPod shows she listens to the same albums while she’s en route — full-up Born in the USA on the way to work, empty Nebraska on the way home. (She only listens to Springsteen these days. She says he’s written all the songs she ever needs to hear. On this issue, you disagree.) There aren’t many shops open on that route at 6 a.m. but anyway, even if there were, you doubt she’d stop in anywhere before coming back to her man. Her Daniel. Jennifer’s a pretty regular girl. The numbers speak for themselves.
Give or take a few seconds, Jennifer spends thirty-seven minutes getting ready for work every day — you know this because you have a stopwatch on your phone. That thirty-seven minutes usually includes about eight to get dressed, two of which she spends putting on the jewellery you bought for her birthday, for Valentine’s Day, for last Christmas. It includes six-ish minutes for her daily bowel movement. Three to brush her teeth. Nine minutes to put on a little blusher and eyeliner. Then she usually spends four or five discussing what you plan to do with yourself while she’s feeding, bathing and changing what she calls the drooling zombies of Yorkhill. It’s hard to think back that far — it was when you first got together, two or three years ago now — but when she started at the hospice, Jennifer was softer round the edges.
Back then she talked about doing work that was good for the soul. In company, it gave her a certain glow. Now the two of you don’t socialise, she tries not too think too much, the patients have become the zombies, and at home it’s all dressing up as Hitler and Eva Braun and pretending your flat is the bunker, allied bombs raining down from the outside as you squeeze in one last desperate lay before the pretend suicide pills kick in. From what she’s told you about what goes on in the ward, all these behaviours seem like pretty essential survival tactics. Jennifer says that if you think about it, the fantasies actually improve the quality of care someone’s granny and granddad are getting in their last days on earth. Out there in the world, the fantasies are saving lives. So the least you can do is run the odd bubble bath and make sure you get the outfits for a decent price off eBay.
For a few weeks after the tribunal you indulged in conversations about how you’d go about contributing to costume costs, also to more mundane stuff like the mortgage, the gas and electric; you promised to scan the papers for opportunities. You told Jennifer you’d check the job sites and sign up for email alerts. Sometimes you said you were meeting this or that contact for a pint before last orders — most of the time this was a lie, but Jennifer let it go. She didn’t ask for details, or follow up afterwards if you said you had an interview at O2, or H&M, or wherever. Still, it was obvious you had no desire to re-enter the job market. Barman. Waiter. Shop assistant. When you only get one life, you’ve been thinking, why would you bother with any of that?
Last Tuesday, when Jennifer asked about your plans for the day, you just came out with it: Remember when we talked about putting a pillow over Auntie Joan in Arizona? you said, trying to make out her expression. Taking over her place? Well maybe we don’t need Auntie Joan. Look, I’ve found something. Then you showed her the site: 17 — At the Arizona Science Centre. 18 — Mid-hike, on Squaw Peak, in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. You waited for her to throw something. List the bills she’d been covering since Greg and the guys at Head Office liberated you from The Man. You wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d left the flat and never returned. But Jennifer’s a fucking saint. She’s a naughty girl. She wrapped her arms around your neck, her warmth swimming through the air between your bodies, and she bit your earlobe, once, holding the flesh between her teeth for a few seconds before letting go. Use your imagination, she said. And that’s what you’ve been doing ever since.
Sometimes you wonder about what life would be like if you’d grown up pre-internet. What did people do? Perhaps they just gazed out of windows or down at their shoes all day, sure there was life out there somewhere, unable to prove it. How lucky you are to have access to every wonder of the universe in a millisecond. With more possibilities for the human imagination than ever before, there’s no excuse for boredom. There’s a community out there for everyone. Pigeon Fanciers of the Ex-Yugoslav States. Pumpkin Growers of Yorkshire. Witches and Neo-Paganists of the Deep South. Some people find so much available information overwhelming. They see the world, notice how small they are, and freak out. But you’re one of those who can happily spend the length of an entire hospice shift downloading music for free, watching YouTube videos of hippos dancing, and surfing for unusual places in foreign countries to give the girl you love a good hard seeing to. The universe has its arms open for you both. There’s no reason to be afraid. And, as is proved beyond any reasonable doubt by these magical virtual pages, everyone’s got their thing. The tagline to the website reads: A home from home for open-minded travellers who appreciate natural beauty of all kinds.
Number 23 reads: At dusk, in the remarkable Desert Botanical Gardens.
Number 31 reads: In one of the amazing underground caves at Kartchner Caverns State Park. (Some joker has added a pitch black photo here, captioned ‘Inside a Cave’.)
Below the full list of all 59 ‘Challenge Spots’ are links to a series of photo albums, each showing images of couples who have recorded themselves in various places on the trail. Most people don’t hit more than ten locations. Most of the images are amateurish. It doesn’t matter. One snap, of a couple from Copenhagen, is taken from the perspective of a woman straddling her husband by Lake Havasu. In the picture, you see her knees pressing down onto his arms. He’s on the floor, gazing up. This man’s expression, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before, and when you show it to Jennifer she wonders aloud what he does for a living. Whether he lied to his boss about why he wanted the time off from work, and whether his workmates know all about his holiday. Then she pushes you onto the floor, a slideshow still showing the couple from Copenhagen in a variety of ambitious positions in Canyon de Chelly, then at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park, then at Old Tucson Studios. In one video clip they’re wearing matching Stetsons, running naked from two Park Rangers. Jennifer insists on doggy style, with both of you facing the computer. She pushes back into you hard.
That was three nights ago.
Tonight, as she was leaving for her shift, Jennifer hugged you tight and asked if you had anything to help her through to break time. You thought about it, eyeing her closely as she picked up her keys, put on her coat and walked out the front door. She started down the drive. Then she stopped on the pavement. Looked back. Leaning in the doorway, seeing her as Marilyn Monroe, you as JFK, you said, Number 43 — Inside the vast depths of the Grand Canyon, overlooking the spectacular views of what geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell once called ‘the most sublime spectacle in nature’. Jennifer turned back towards the road, shook her head, smiled. As she was walking away she called out, Someone’s feeling freaky today. Then she was gone, and you watched her go. Your Marilyn. Your Coco Chanel. Your Michelle Obama.
Jennifer always said the first few hours of her shift were the worst, so you made sure she had a text waiting when her first short break finally came round — something to help the second part of the shift pass that bit quicker. It read, On one of the tables at the legendary Pizzeria Bianco (average Trip Advisor Rating 4.0 out of 5). Feeding each other optional. You attached a jpeg of Bob and Sue Hampton from Bournemouth, him in nothing but a chef’s hat, her as a topless waitress, the two of them busy next to a large plate of antipasti. At ten past midnight the reply came through, Looks messy. But tasty! I’m up for it if you are… After that you sent suggestions more regularly. You couldn’t help it.
Option 1: IN THE WILD, WILD WEST — 1880s-style, in the famous Rawhide Wild West Town, taking a ride on the mule-driven Butterfield Stagecoach, which passes through the picturesque Sonoran Desert. (Other options include shotgun wedding — cost $10, inc. souvenir photo. Potential complications: What to do about the guide? Can you hire your own Stagecoach? And would your mother mind if we got married abroad?)
Option 2: AT THE MOVIES — In Monument Valley, dressed as eccentric four-time Academy Award-winning director John Ford & his beloved wife of 59 years, Mary. Suggestions: wear an eye patch, as Ford did; reproduce versions of scenes from Ford’s most revered works. (Possible issues: how to make The Grapes of Wrath sexy? See also: How Green Was My Valley).
Option 3: SAINTS AND SINNERS — At the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson, founded 1692. Dressed as Pastor and enthusiastic member of congregation. (NB: In a supposed miracle witnessed by people from all over the Tucson area, apparently Father Ignacio Joseph Ramirez y Arellano is believed to have continued sweating hours after death. He was later made a Saint. Perhaps he could be incorporated somehow?)
Jennifer didn’t answer any of these suggestions but then, she did prefer dramas where the woman dominated. Or maybe she didn’t reply cos this was stupid and you’d gone too far and she had no time for this sort of thing cos she was busy wiping the backside of some frail, frightened old lady who’d probably have a heart attack right there and then if she heard what you were planning to do with her sweet, kind-hearted nurse. Why didn’t Jennifer reply? Something was wrong. It was, it was. Even though you knew you weren’t supposed to when she was on duty, you had to phone. Her mobile was off. Of course it was off. Instead of leaving a voice message, you texted her one more time: I miss you. I’m really proud of you. Come home safe, okay?
She arrived eleven minutes later than usual so you knew something was wrong before you saw her crying. She ran into your arms in the hallway and hid her head in your shoulder, keeping it there for a long time. When she looked up, her face was all running make-up and fear. She couldn’t breathe. You said, Come on, cowgirl, lifted her off the floor and, waddling along with her raised in front of you, carried her up the stairs. She laughed. You held her softly as she hit you and said, You’re not allowed to go anywhere. Soft kisses turned to hard ones and soon after you were lying on the rug in the bedroom, facing each other, two bodies in the morning light. Get me tissues, Daniel, she said. So you did. Then you went upstairs to run her a bath. As you did this you thought that if you were still working at the call centre, or anywhere, there’d have been no time for this. Jennifer would have gotten home, dried her tears while you slept, not wanting to wake you before your alarm went off. You’d have woken shortly after, showering and getting dressed in a rush, noticing something was wrong but having no time to respond to it, promising the two of you would talk later. You’d have gone to work, fretted about Greg, about targets, about how much the others in the office were selling. By the time you got home Jennifer would have been getting ready to leave for her next shift and wouldn’t want to cause worry, so she would have pretended to be fine, and before you knew it the feeling would have passed. In Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona. Amongst the birds, animals and plants of the southwest at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. In Paradise Valley. No, you never want to work again. You don’t ever want to miss being there for her. The thought of it makes you sick.
But it’s okay because you don’t have a job, you’re here, and you’re free, and you know the way she likes it so you load the bath with two capfuls of bubble potion, run the cold tap a while first. You fill it to just over halfway. Then you lead her up to the bathroom, take off her uniform, laying each piece down, careful not to crease. She says, I’m awake for once. You say, Yes, I know. You kiss her collar bone, behind her ear, bend down and kiss between her toes. She pretends to push you away. You let her. All this time she’s crying. You pick her up again and put her gently into the bath. She turns from pink to white, the bubbles swarming around her, her body disappearing under them. Then you go back downstairs to the fridge, uncork a bottle of white wine and return, laying both bottle and clean glasses on the floor. Do you want me to pour? you ask, and she nods. Do you want to call your mother? you ask. She shakes her head. Later, she says. Then Jennifer touches your arm and tells you to stay.
You pour two half measures.
With a sigh, Jennifer says, I shouldn’t… I mean, it happens all the time but… Victoria died during the night. You answer, I didn’t know you gave them names. Jennifer hits you lightly, laughs, takes a glass and says, They have names when they arrive, dummy. And then she starts crying again.
Between tears she tells you the life story of this woman you’ve never met and Jennifer has never mentioned before. She lived fully, she travelled widely and spoke four languages. She had three children, including one called Samuel that succumbed to cot death. She worked in Polish jazz clubs and once played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall. She lived in Arizona with her second husband for six years before moving back to Glasgow, and told Jennifer stories about her friends and family who settled there after the war. Victoria had seemed fine yesterday, when she complimented Jennifer on looking rosy-cheeked. By which she meant happy. Not that any of it matters now, says Jennifer. Yes it does, you say. You ask her questions about Victoria while you’re on your knees on the bathmat. You run a sponge softly over Jennifer’s arms and legs, then her stomach, then her shoulders, until she seems unable to keep talking. Then you dry her eyes, hold her hand in yours, and take over the talking. You do so quietly.
Here’s the plan, you say. You ready?
Tomorrow night I’ll break into Greg’s car, hotwire it, speed over to the hospital and pick you up, mid-shift. You’ll stab your shift manager with an infected needle right there in the corridor, then burst out of the doors and jump into the car through the window. Then we’ll hit the motorway, making our plans as we go. Number 46 — In the cage with the lions at Phoenix Zoo. Number 49 — On the stairwell of Montezuma Castle, looking through the turrets at the tourists below. Number 53 — Out in the open, on board a boat on Lake Pleasant. You think as you’re talking. Then, at the ferry port, I know a guy, I’ve planned ahead, and as the sun’s coming up I slip him a wad of cash in return for fresh passports. Jennifer says, Where did we get the money? You squeeze her hand to remind her not to ask questions. I become José, you say. You become Rosita. Then we queue with the rest of the passengers, getting onto a luxury cruise liner bound for New York. On the boat we both face the little round windows, the water, the sea. The heat rises off us. In New York we steal another motor and travel the two thousand or so miles to Phoenix. We sleep in the car. We hold up petrol stations on the way with the gun our man gave us at the port. You’re a natural. You threaten the staff and I grab the money from the till. Amazingly, none of these places we rob have CCTV. Jennifer makes a face but lets you continue. Only a few people get a cap in their ass, and it’s okay cos most of these guys are old anyway, or are bad to their wives. Jennifer squeezes your hand back and says, Daniel! You smile. Okay, okay. Anyway. Nobody follows us. It takes two weeks to get to Phoenix but by the time we get there we have a huge surplus of cash. Jennifer says, And then what? You grin. And then we head off on the trail!
Jennifer’s drinking from her glass, then she puts it on the side and lays her head back on the side of the bath, facing the ceiling. Sounds okay, she says, looking at you with those roulette eyes. But what about tickets for this cruise liner? You wave imaginary tickets in front of her. Now. Would I forget something so important? She snatches the air from your fingers, leans forward and kisses. I really want to get out of here, she says, the wobble in her voice returning. I know, you tell her. To stop her crying again you raise your glass and say, To Arizona! — but you clash glasses so hard that Jennifer’s smashes, leaving hundreds of little shards in the bath.
You hold her hand tight and say, Don’t move.
*This story is taken from: LoveSexTravelMusik, Freight Books © Rodge Glass 2013.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
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.
It was the whole matter of the gifts that made her think back to that night. Whenever they fought and he threw her out of the house, he always made her return the gifts he’d given her. The boots, especially, which had been her first birthday present from him. She remembered that time because, before locking himself on the balcony, Iván had thrown one of the boots out the window, and the next morning, when the doorbell rang and he’d thought immigration was coming for him, she’d accepted from a neighbor’s hands a long, red boot that looked like one of those Christmas stockings you hang from the chimney and fill with candy. “Is this yours?” the man had asked, raising the boot he held between two fingers, as if insanity were contagious and he could catch it from her through that minimal contact. She thanked him. She didn’t even remember the moment Iván had opened the living room window. Later, when she went to the supermarket, she found a bra discreetly hung from the building’s fence. A white bra, soaked through by the recent snow.
Not that the blanket she had on the table now was strictly a gift, but still, it made her think back to that night and try to reconstruct the fight they’d had. It always started more or less the same way, though it didn’t end the same. She saw—or heard—herself shouting through the glass door that led to the balcony:
“The last time they saw him he was running naked through the street and throwing himself at cars. He wasn’t trying to kill himself, but he ended up dead. Pneumonia and cardiac arrest. Come on, Iván, get inside. Pneumonia is no joke!”
He brings a finger to his temple and signals to her that she’s crazy. For a moment she thinks it’s true, that there’s no way she can be sane when for months now she’s had a packed suitcase sitting next to the door, when she’s already gone up and down the three flights of stairs countless times carrying that same suitcase that can hold all her belongings (not true: her belongings take up two suitcases; in the second one she has the less important things, the ones she wouldn’t mind leaving behind if he threw her out again, or if, again, he started to break, destroy, and trample everything in his way while screaming that every screw in that house belonged to him, because he’d earned it with his talent. “Talent” is his favorite word. “Talent” and “mediocre.” He has talent, while she is mediocre). She can’t be sane, no, not when she’s already dragged that suitcase countless times down the sidewalk thick with snow, between black streams of mud and grime that spatter the cars. The snow after the snow: what happens when the immaculate is besmirched, exhausted. Is that how everything ends up? Spat out and trampled? Just a week before, she’d gone down the three floors with her suitcase, lugged it to the subway—where there were more stairs—sat down on the metal bench, and let three or four trains go by. The cold of the seat started seeping through her leather jacket and she kept crying, not out of sadness but rage, rage that her eyes looked stubbornly toward the bridge, hoping he would come after her. “I’ll count to ten and I’m gone.” But then she counted to twenty, looked back at the clock with its fluorescent hands and let one more train go by, just one, because it was already getting dark and the freezing wind had made her cheeks go numb.
In the end she always got onto a train. She’d spend the night in a hotel or take a full trip around on the subway—the complete journey took an hour and fifteen minutes—and then she went back home. At first he wouldn’t open the door for her, he’d say “go away” until she got tired of repeating that she had nowhere to go and begging him please. Other times, he was drunk and naked when he opened the door, chopping red chili peppers, the kind that deaden the mouth. If she tried to take the bottle from him he pointed the knife at her, but not the way a criminal would, no, just by accident, moving it distractedly in her direction while he said that it was his house, and in his house he had the right to drink all the whiskey he wanted.
“He’s right, I am crazy.” Then she remembers that he is the one who’s naked on the balcony, and that it’s five below zero outside. She’s on the other side of the glass door holding a down quilt in her hand, showing it to him as if it were an angel’s fluffy wings. He shakes his head no, latches the door, yells:
“I want to catch pneumonia!”
She threatens to leave. She knows he is barefoot on a thin layer of ice, the hardened and slippery snow that won’t melt until spring. When he finally opens the door, she takes the chance to throw the quilt over him as if he were in flames. She wraps him up and he lets himself be guided to the bed. He’s shivering. His skin is red: not white like one would expect, but reddened and dry. “You’re crazy, Iván,” she repeats, while she closes the window and tries to remember how it was that they ended up that way, with him naked on the balcony and her feeling, once again, that she had to protect him. The French writer. Wasn’t that it? He’d told her that bisexuality was a stupid fad. That these days, all the girls thought they were lezzies. His way of speaking annoyed her, and he knew just the right words to use to unleash another fight. Their arguments often started around subtleties of languages. “All feminists are bitter.” Although after a while the attack would turn on her again: “You like to play at being modern, but men and women just aren’t the same.”
And yet, the day had started off well. She came home happy from her walk in the park; he was waiting for her with lunch; they were both moved watching the documentary on Pulqui; they sharpened pencils and set them out on the desk. When it came down to it, what difference did it make if she was right? Why fight so fiercely to change him if they could be happy just like that, eating mangos and Belgian chocolate on the sofa, him shirtless, her resting on his chest, breathing in that acidic smell—unpleasant in a way, but so concrete that it could exist outside of him, like his shoes or his clothes. And yet, she couldn’t stop herself: she cited that French writer, a bisexual woman in 1900. He told her that writer was another idiot. “But have you read her?” No, he didn’t need to read her to know she was an idiot. “Idiotic and mediocre like your ex, and like that friend of yours, the guy who died of pneumonia.” A nd from there to the other thing—broken objects, suitcase down the stairs—it was only a step.
From beneath the quilt Iván asks her to close the curtain. He’s no longer shivering, but his voice is muffled in the pillows.
“Male na, you’re mine, right?”
She says yes and walks over to the window.
“We’re never going to break up because you’re mine, right?”
Before closing the curtain, she pauses a moment and looks out. The sky has that dirty shine of northern winters.
“It’s snowing,” she says, and she stays there, her back to him, her eyes seeking out the weak snowflakes that can only be seen against the light, under the street-lamps.
A baroque church in a public plaza in a provincial city. A plaza like so many others in the south. In the north of the south, she should say. It’s just that now they no longer live on a foreign continent; they don’t even live together. Now she’s on the terrace of a bar, night already fallen, stars teeming behind the church tower, and maybe they’re what makes her think of snow. Because the docile snow of windless nights doesn’t fall, it seems to emerge from the air and hover, just like these summer stars.
Had the waiter looked at her strangely when he took her order? Strangely, or with pity? A woman with a bandaged wrist, her face dry but taut from old sobs, her arm purplish. Had he looked at her because of that, or simply because she was a woman drinking beer alone? Laughter issued from the surrounding tables; someone was talking about a soccer match. From time to time a group rushed past wearing feathered headbands and beating drums. A black, almost funereal car pulled up outside, and three brides got out. Two in white dresses that were as inflated and baroque as the moldings on the church; the third wore a lilac dress. Lilac dress, lilac tiara, lilac, satin-lined shoes. A bride charter, she thought. She wasn’t envious, nor did she feel bad for them. She realized she was thinking what for. Why go to all that trouble? But maybe the thought was only directed at the high-heeled shoes and those ugly dresses, probably rented, and all that squandering on photographs and dreams. She looked at her plate, smeared with white sauce. The beer bottle’s label had gotten wet and could almost be pulled off in one piece. She wanted to order another one, but she was afraid of the waiter. Her arm hurt, too, where Ivan had grabbed her to drag her out of the house. The bruises always surprised her; it could almost be said that they fascinated her. In the moment she didn’t feel pain. Humiliation, yes, and impotence, but not pain. Later she was surprised when she saw them, so large: the blood accumulated under the skin looked like landscapes on the moon.
She was staring outside again. In her worst moments, she felt like life was a kind of video game. Not a movie with an elaborate script, but a Pacman, something absurd that you operated with a joystick and four buttons. The bride in lilac was leaning against a lamppost. The photographer was saying “Big smile, big smile!” How many cherries had she eaten by now? How many lives did she have left?
A boy came over to her table and showed her something, cloth of some kind. She jumped; she’d been absorbed in the sight of the cans tied to the limousine’s bumper, everyday pea cans without labels, now lying mute on the cobblestone street. She didn’t hear what the boy said, but she made an automatic gesture of refusal—not of the skinny kid with the indigenous face or whatever it was he was selling, but rather of an image of herself. A thousand kilometers from her house, staring at brides in front of a church, bruised, idiotic, and too ashamed even to call the waiter over; her last savings spent on a sleeper bus, a dirty hostel, and the most expensive empanadas in the city. That’s how it was: an impulse, a single moment of stupidity, and game over.
What had the boy said to her? “Go tell it to your mother?” that was the first thing she thought she heard. He’d moved a little farther away and was looking at her, leaning over an empty table, with an expression that she interpreted as contempt. Or had he said “fuck your mother?”
“What?” she asked.
“I said, they’re made by my grandmother.”
Only three hours earlier she had risked her life on a motorcycle behind a crazy man without a helmet who shouted into the wind: “You fucking bitch, I hate you, we’re going to kill each other. We’re going to kill each other, you fucking bitch.” Once, she had loved that crazy man, and one time she had even saved him from pneumonia. She’d warmed his back with a hair dryer to relieve the cramping, calculated when he should take his medicine. On the motorcycle, the hot wind whips away the words from his mouth and they pelt her face like hail. She prays a Hail Mary, the white lines shoot past the tires in a nearly continuous line, a pallet truck honks its horn. “Slow down,” she says, and grabs tight to his waist. She’s disgusted by touching him. She doesn’t know him, doesn’t remember him. And he: “Shut up, you fucking bitch, shut up. What are you here for? To fuck up my life?” He was a gentleman; he gave the helmet to her, almost forced her onto the bike with the backpack on her back and the bag between her legs, before dropping her at a bus stop on the highway. And all that for what? To be afraid of a seven-year-old boy holding a brocade quilt?
“Let’s see, come here,” she says. “Show me.”
The boy comes over; he tells her he has other colors.
“It’s very pretty. Show me the others.”
He spreads them out one by one. He does it eagerly, as if he didn’t know what he was going to find inside, as if each blanket were a top hat that something magical was going to emerge from. “Butterflies, flowers,” he says softly.
“There’s a panda one, too.”
He has the cutest smile she’s ever seen, and his eyes very black. She asks him if he’s going to carnival that night. He says no, that he’s never gone to a corso parade. He talks to her about his brothers and sisters who are waiting for him in the plaza; he wants to know when she’s going back to Buenos Aires and how many hours the trip is. In the distance they can hear the beat of drums from another land. Finally she tells him “I’ll take the one with flowers. It’s for the trip, you know?”
“It’ll keep you warm.”
She pays him, and nothing in the world could have made her haggle over the price. She has just decided to buy everything she’s offered from that moment until she takes the bus back the next afternoon. In any case, she no longer has anything: no computer or savings or many other things that have broken over recent years. And she wants to have even less. She wants to get to the bottom of this thing. She’s going to spend everything she has left—including the money for lunch and the towel rental—on gifts. Gifts, she thinks, and that’s when she remembers the boots. The flowered quilt isn’t what interests her, it’s the boy’s smile, the friendly way his eyes light on her. “Thanks,” she says, and he seems to understand something because he offers her another moment, lets her help him fold the quilts, each of them holding two corners and meeting in the middle like in a handkerchief dance.
By now the brides are gone. She didn’t see them get into the car or hear the cans on the cobblestones. The moon had risen, and its light obscured the stars. More things have accumulated on the table: a prayer card with St. Mary of La Rábida, a spoon carved of carob, a bag of candy, a cactus made of matches, a straw of nickel silver. The bar is closing; the chairs turned upside down on the empty tables looked like desert flowers. She calls the waiter over and asks for the check. While she pays, he says that it’s a nice night.
“Nice night, isn’t it?”
Before going back to the hostel, she sat on a bench in the plaza. On the same bench, two girls were talking about a third one who had just sent them a text message. She didn’t want to look at them openly, but she could tell they were very young. Before long they’d be lilac-wearing brides, and maybe they’d even charter the photographer together.
“It’s her own fault,” one of them said. “He was all over her and she let him. She shouldn’t be crying now.”
“Anyway, why does she care?” said the other one. “She’ll never see that guy again.”
For a delirious moment, a video game moment, Malena considered the possibility that the guy was Iván. She looked at the tanned legs of one of the girls, the one in the miniskirt, and she wondered if Iván could sleep with her. Right away she wondered if she could. She was interrupted by a woman selling handmade socks. They exchanged almost no words, but she bought a pair of thick socks made of llama wool.
She went back to the hostel on foot. It was Saturday, and no one was there except for two girls putting on makeup in front of a lighted mirror they’d propped against one of the bunks. Both of them rummaged in the same vanity case full of broken makeup. That it was broken she knew without needing to look inside—she could see the plastic smeared with grey shadow and glitter. From her bed she could smell the crumbled powders, the Maybelline lipstick and the body mist. It was the same smell her mother’s vanity case gave off.
She didn’t worry about locking up the computer—it was broken anyway. Her backpack was marked with Iván’s footprint and some grass stains. She was dirty, and she felt dirty, but she didn’t have the two pesos to rent a towel, and in any case she didn’t want to get her bandage wet. After buying the socks, she’d given the last of her change to a man guarding cars, who also accepted the bag of candy. She only had a peso and twenty cents left for the bus from Retiro to her house, but she had the strange feeling that only now could she start to have something.
The receptionist knocked on the door and invited her to watch a horror movie in the common room. She excused herself. Her fall (that’s what she’d said when they asked about the bandage) and the wait at the hospital had tired her out. Before lying down, though, she checked her email on the hall computer. Five new messages. All from Iván. The last one received at 00:37.
She had a rough night, unable to sleep on her right side as she usually did. Every time she turned over in her sleep, the pain jolted her awake. She had planned to sleep late, but by seven the others were already starting to get up: slamming doors, talking, packing. At nine, she got up for breakfast. The last thing she wanted to see was a bunch of teenage backpackers who had stayed up all night, with their under-eye circles left over from the party and the alcohol, and that chalky exhaustion that follows joy. She felt a hundred years older than them, and she would have gone somewhere else for breakfast if not for the fact that she only had 1.20 pesos.
Coffee, milk, and two croissants with butter and jam. She eats staring blankly into the yard where there’s a foosball table and some clotheslines. She hadn’t put in her contacts and she’s wearing her old glasses, crooked from being sat on so many times. She has her hair pulled sloppily back in a bun she put up without even looking at herself in the mirror. Nor did she wash her face, and she feels sweaty. At the table diagonally across from her, a dark-skinned guy in green Bermudas with a G.I. Joe look is watching her. Watching her, because “looking” is not the right word.
“What happened to your wrist?” he asks seriously; his face is totally clean, his hair perfectly gelled, his eyes penetrating. If he’d danced until six in the morning, no one would know it. He looks cool as a cucumber, and totally wide-awake. Couldn’t he leave her alone? She doesn’t like to talk at breakfast.
“Stupidity,” she says.
She waits a little, takes another sip of coffee, looks at him.
“I put my hand through a window. It was an accident.”
What she had really wanted to do was push the living room window, the one right over Iván’s desk, and knock everything off of it, pens, computer, glasses. What she really wanted was to become Iván, break up for good, to break: abandon all attempt at sanity. But she’d calculated wrong and her hand went effortlessly through the glass, as if sinking into water.
“I didn’t even feel it,” she tells the stranger.
He doesn’t hesitate; there is something so incisive and worldly in his aplomb, his way of pronouncing words, that he seems to be giving orders instead of asking questions.
“You were that angry?”
She smiles, also without wanting to, and that improbable, ill-humored laughter is like a thread that pulls the words from her and makes her tell, for the first time, the truth. She doesn’t remember her exact words. Only the expression on the face of that angular, strong-armed stranger—younger than her—and the way he arched his brows. Quite a confession to hear at nine in the morning at a backpackers’ hostel. And she thinks, she thinks, that at one point she even told him what Iván had said to her once: “I never hit you with my fists. You just bruise so easy.”
They sit talking for a while. He has to check out of the hostel; he’s leaving in two hours for Humahuaca, but she asks him to wait, she wants to show him the gifts she bought the night before. She goes back to her room and takes the opportunity to put in her contacts and let her hair down. Suddenly, an image comes to her: she sees the stranger enter the room and corner her against the wall. He grabs her by her good wrist but doesn’t press his body against hers. He’s going to lick her hand, the soft fold between her fingers. The narrow tongue like a mollusk or warm spoon. The thought scares her. She quickly takes the bag from her backpack, goes back to the common room and spreads the gifts out on the table. “You bought all this?” he asks. They laugh. She looks at his hands as he inspects the wool socks. Is it me, then? Is it ok to desire this pain?
“You can have the socks,” she says suddenly. “So you’ll think of me when you’re in the mountains.”
He goes to his room and comes back carrying a gigantic backpack, almost as tall as he is. She doesn’t feel anything when she finally hugs him, awkwardly, over the straps and the hanging canteens. She waves at him until the last bit of backpack disappears through the door. The hall is emptying, but she waits until she’s alone before sitting down in front of the computer and looking at her email. A new message. From Iván. Don’t you see that this hatred is the size of my love?
She closes her mail but doesn’t get up from the chair. The bag with the gifts, minus the socks, is still on the breakfast table. It’s not even noon, but the sun is already streaming into the rectangle of the inside patio, and its whitewashed walls gleam. When she looks outside she sees something falling from the sky. Slow, white, weightless. What is it? She goes out to the patio, and between the bare clotheslines she looks up at the shining, cloudless sky. A rain of dust, a dry rain. She sweeps her foot over the ground, and it leaves a long track.
“Ash,” she says, and she wishes she could tell someone. Iván, the man on his way to Humahuaca.
She looks around, she looks with surprise at the empty rooms. Then she opens her arms, waits, lets the white specks land softy on her bare shoulders. Ash, no, she thinks. Not ash; snow.
I owe my acquaintance with the works of the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue to a young colleague with whom I once spent a long and arduous evening. At the time I had been living apart from my wife and son for some months, and taken a room in a hotel high up in the hills of the Taunus. The blame for the separation lay solely with my wife, who had been grumbling about me without let-up for as long as I could remember. Also, my mistress had larger breasts. I should add, though, that she lived a few hundred kilometres away, in Bremen. This gave me ample time and reason to reflect on all manner of things – women, for example.
On the morning of the day in question, the young colleague who was to introduce me to Inoue appeared in my office in the editorial department, and we talked about a piece she had written for the newspaper. She had toiled particularly hard over the first sentence; it sounded brilliant, but proved on closer inspection to be hollow. In other respects, too, the manuscript was unsuccessful, for reasons not confined, but particularly common to the newly graduated. The author didn’t really know what she wanted to say, but she had a very precise idea of how she wanted to appear in the text, and this had influenced the wording, syntax, and substance of her manuscript throughout. Perhaps she was only trying to avoid exposing herself, but the result was the same, and my job was to deal with effects, not causes.
When I had shown my young colleague that her text would lose nothing if that laboriously contrived opening sentence were simply cut, and pointed out a few further shortcomings to her, finally advising her to regard the whole thing as a failed experiment and start afresh, she burst into tears. Something similar had happened to me once before, some years back. A colleague of mine had found it hard to accept that, despite being younger, I was suddenly the one giving instructions, and – out of resentment, I suppose – had met all my requests with stalling tactics. Her sobs had rendered me speechless. It had only been the formatting of certain memos that was at issue, but the sight of the narrow, quaking shoulders of this woman, who had turned her back on me as if to hide her tears, made me feel hard-hearted and callous, and I made a timid attempt to comfort her. Later I would realise that it had all been a ploy on her part to get her own way.
This time, then, I remained unfazed by my young colleague’s tears. I assumed she was crying in an attempt to get me to print the manuscript, and indeed, as soon as I agreed to send her text to the typesetter, her tears dried up and a relieved, if rather coy smile appeared on her face. I was, of course, annoyed at the insidious attack on my peace of mind, but I consoled myself with the thought that suitable punishment would not be long in coming now that the banal text was to be published in a major newspaper.
Thus satisfaction was restored on both sides, and some innocuous small talk was made, in the course of which I came up with the idea that we might continue it that evening. The thought of returning to my room on the other side of the hill did not appeal; equally unalluring was the prospect of yet another evening sitting in my office until all hours, allowing myself to be oppressed by maudlin thoughts of my near and yet hopelessly distant home, where I knew my distraught wife and bereft child to be.
So I asked my young colleague out to dinner. It had been some time since I last spent an evening with a woman of twenty-five. I reckoned I still had a pretty good idea of what I’d felt and thought at that age and how I’d perceived myself, but not quite good enough to be able to imagine exactly what I would find in my thirteen-years-younger self if I were to meet him now that I was pushing forty. Though that was certainly impossible, perhaps I would at least manage to get an insight into the young woman and, by this somewhat circuitous route, catch a glimpse of my own past into the bargain.
This aim was not achieved and, as the evening dragged on, I more than once reproached myself for getting involved when I had known all along how it would turn out. For one thing, it was as clear as day to me that even at twenty-five I would not have been so obdurate as to insist on getting a manuscript I was unsure of published against the advice of a more experienced colleague – if not out of discernment, then at least out of caution. And I knew, of course, that a person who is self-righteous and domineering in the morning is hardly likely to prove modest and considerate in the evening.
On the other hand, she was a woman. Although I had happened to solve the mystery of women the previous weekend, I thought that if my plan to explore the past came to nothing, it couldn’t hurt to gather further evidence to support my new insights.
Incidentally, dear reader, this text is to be an essay and its subject a topic that has occupied me for some time and you for about five minutes: the author’s representation of himself in his text. If you think I was pursuing a further, hidden agenda in asking the young lady out to dinner, I should like to make it quite clear that you are mistaken! First of all, I had a full-time mistress (she of the huge breasts) and secondly, when I wasn’t with her in Bremen, I slept with my wife pretty much every day. I didn’t agree with the set-up myself, but it’s the way things were and, God knows, it was enough for me. Just to be on the safe side I got room service to make up both sides of my bed – I had taken a double room. But no, what am I saying? I certainly didn’t get room service to make up both sides of the bed; I only wondered whether I should – just to be on the safe side – and then dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Yes, that’s the way it was.
It cannot be said, then, that I had high expectations of the evening. We had arranged to meet in a small sushi bar with four tables, a kind of annexe to a rather more spacious Japanese restaurant where chefs theatrically prepared meals at the customers’ tables. This whole Japanese establishment in turn made up the smaller part of a complex whose larger part was given over to a Chinese restaurant – despite the history of otherwise rather chilly relations between the Japanese and the Chinese. Immediately next to the restaurants was a two-storey hotel lobby, and arching over the whole thing – restaurants and hotel – was a glass shopping mall, all in the centre of Frankfurt. This complicated arrangement always made the small sushi bar seem almost out of the way. When we arrived, it was beginning to snow, and the slush from people’s boots clouded the reflection of the electric lights on the tiled floor of the shopping arcade.
It was a protracted evening. More than once I privately wondered why the hell I didn’t put an end to it, and the various reasons I came up with were by no means flattering to either me or my colleague. But I was no more capable of recognising a failure when I saw one than the young woman that morning. Instead, once dinner was over, we continued our insipid conversation with diminishing strength over white wine and salted almonds in a corner of the hotel lobby, while a bored singer in pink polyester trousers stood on a podium disgorging golden oldies to a keyboard accompaniment. The evening petered out like those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea.
Out on the streets, meanwhile, there was thick snow. As I saw it, this snow was going to make it impossible, or if not utterly impossible, then at the very least exceedingly difficult for me to cross Feldberg Hill to my hotel on summer tyres. I had, in fact, already set off in that direction, but after giving the matter some thought I turned the car and, accompanied by mysterious twinges of conscience, drove east along deserted, muffled streets to my former home where I parked in my former garage. From there I went into my former flat, opened the door to my former bedroom and got into my former bed with my former wife. Looking back on the tentative end of that exhausting evening today, I admit that somehow, in spite of everything, I had arrived at my destination (unlike those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea) although I knew as little (or as much) about that destination as a river knows about the sea. The only thing that seemed clear to me was that if at half past one in the morning I were to slip unannounced under my ex-wife’s duvet with cold feet, she wouldn’t grumble.
That aside, the evening marked not only the beginning of my acquaintance with the works of the writer Inoue, but also the late onset of a long hard winter in Germany. When I crossed the sea to Föhr with my son the following Saturday, we could count ourselves lucky that the ferry was still running. The grey sea was dotted with ice floes, snowflakes were dashing against the saloon windows, and when the ship came up against a sheet of ice, it was as if a giant fist punched it in the bows. My landlord hadn’t promised too much when he’d told me in the summer that February was the best time on the island.
By day, my son and I wrapped up warm and went on long walks. In the evenings I sat by the fire, quarrelling with my ex-wife or distant mistress on the phone, or listening to the moon, while the boy lay in the next room, grinding his teeth. On one of our treks along the beach through heaps of waist-high ice floes (waist-high for me, head-high for him), we came upon a cove where we found a heavily decayed duck carcass, sparkling with frost. One of the bird’s legs was still entangled in the remains of a green net, and in the delicate wickerwork of its ribcage its black shrivelled heart lay like a solitary pebble.
My boy couldn’t take his eyes off the dead creature and when he did manage to tear himself away at last, he only took a few steps before turning back. We stood together by the corpse for a long time, around us the shattered floes, stained brown by the mud – above us a swath of open sky. My son asked me about life and death, as if I was as well up on such matters as on everything else. He had two small tears on his cheeks, but I was pierced to my soul at the sight of my troubled child, brooding at the bird’s icy grave.
When we weren’t out walking, I read to the boy from the books about whales he had chosen in the bookshop in Wyk. I had also packed a whole pile of literature for myself, including a slim volume by Inoue, The Hunting Gun. This book, an unexpected gift from my young colleague, had turned up in my office the day after that long evening. She had written a dedication on the first page, describing the evening as ‘thrilling’, rather to my surprise. I decided to take that as confirming my opinion, not challenging it.
At the time I had just finished reading Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi. This book too contained a dedication – in the hand of my ex-wife, who had given it to me for Christmas eleven years before. You could say that traversing the novel for the second time after so long, afforded me the desired glimpse into my past. For although many details of the plot had stayed with me from my first reading, I now read the book with different eyes. Over the course of the years, I had evidently acquired knowledge not unlike the author’s. This allowed me to discover all kinds of things in the novel that had previously been hidden or obscure to me; at the same time, though, I could still recall my earlier way of reading. But one thing hadn’t changed: just like a decade and more ago, I felt moved by Yoshikawa’s closing sentences, where he compares people’s desires and opinions to the sound of the waves: ‘…but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?’
I had decided to tackle Shogun by James Clavell while I was on Föhr because it is set in the same Japanese period as Musashi, and it was, like the work of Yoshikawa (and with a similar degree of success), written for a wide readership, albeit one with western taste. One inspiration for this comparison came from the remarks of a connoisseur of Japan on the – very different – love stories in the two novels. At the same time though, I was thirsty for more Japanese literature, so it was fortunate that I had also packed the slim volume by Inoue. It is a novella, not even a hundred pages long, and consists essentially of three letters, all addressed to the same man – one from his wife, one from his mistress, and one from his daughter by his mistress. After The Hunting Gun, I read all the books by Inoue I could lay my hands on; unfortunately, only a handful have been translated into German.
I am tempted to say that Inoue’s writings provided me with answers to many of the questions preoccupying me at the time. But I think what actually happened was that his texts helped me to deal with those questions by exercising a quiet influence on my way of looking at things, including the topic that is, as you, my courted reader, are well aware, the subject of this essay: the author’s representation of himself in his text. You will object that what I have written so far cannot be regarded as an essay. And I don’t deny it. Because to be honest I am quite incapable of writing essays. Only once, under duress, did I write such a thing; it was published in 1989 in the intaglio supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and earned me, though I say it myself, a certain degree of recognition – perhaps you read it. At the time no one disputed its status as an essay. As its author, though, I know better. I only pretended to be an essayist by making my text as much like an essay as I could. But it wasn’t one.
Of course, it took me more than those twelve days on the snowbound Friesian island with my son to read all Inoue’s books. Spring came and by then I had stopped thinking of that long evening with my young colleague. I had lost sight of her; our paths hadn’t crossed again since that winter’s day. I would probably have forgotten that it was to her I owed my acquaintance with the writer who meant more to me than any writer had for years. But one day, when I picked up The Hunting Gun again, my eye fell on the dedication.
My memory of that evening in the sushi bar was exactly as I have described it, but now the whole thing struck me as peculiar. How could someone who not only didn’t think like me, but didn’t even seem to understand the way I thought, have led me to a writer who so comprehensively satisfied my desires? I recalled for example some ridiculous advice my colleague had tried to give me about my father. On other matters, too, I had found her way of thinking thoroughly arrogant. Now that I knew Inoue, it was a conundrum to me what the woman could have got out of such an author. Why had she even recommended the book to me? We must have talked about Japan over dinner – it was almost inevitable – and I suppose it was in that context that she mentioned The Hunting Gun. Then I remembered – she had cited the book as evidence.
We had been talking about the mystery of women. That I had lifted the lid on this mystery was something I was careful to keep to myself. My unspoken thesis was this: Women are different. I admit that, set down like that, it doesn’t sound overly original. To outsiders it may even look as if I were only reiterating the mystery, rather than offering a solution. But to me there was something revolutionary about my discovery. After thinking it through to the end, I found myself in that state of mind where you do not feed your insights to others, but seek to nourish them instead. I found such nourishment everywhere – for instance in a three-thousand-year-old Chinese poem which contains the lines: ‘A wise man builds up a wall / But a wise woman overthrows it.’
It would have been absurd to present the wisdom expressed in these lines from the Shijing to a woman – especially to my young colleague, who was convinced that the only difference between the sexes was that women were ‘sensitive’ and men weren’t. This theory of hers had been one of the main subjects of our turgid conversation. A few times, my colleague had directed my gaze at the next table where a group of Japanese people were eating. One of them, a small man in his mid-sixties, seemed to be a figure of some importance, for all the younger people were plying him with attention, while he seemed interested only in the food, which was being served one dish at a time. He largely ignored the conversations going on around him, only snatching the odd phrase here and there. Then – and only then – he would turn his head slightly in the direction the phrase had come from. But his attention was never held for long, and his gaze would soon return to his plate.
I don’t recall the exact situation – whether my companion and I could suddenly understand Japanese, or (even more unlikely) whether the Japanese at the next table were speaking German, or lastly (and this seems to me the most plausible) whether the situation was of a hypercultural nature so that it was impossible not to understand what was going on. But during dinner, the little man was bombarded with advice from his wife. ‘Don’t eat more than half of that!’ she would say, or: ‘That’s sour – don’t you think you’d better give it a miss?’ ‘You’re right, I’ll only eat half; I’d better not touch it,’ he would murmur obediently in a low voice, as if calling himself back to reason, but intermittently he would announce in a kind of monologue: ‘Delicious! I will eat it after all!’ I believe he ended up cleaning every single plate.
My companion interpreted the behaviour of Mr Tanizaki – for such, I was later to discover, was his name – as outrageous callousness, a typical male lack of ‘sensitivity’ so different from the loving efforts of Mrs Tanizaki, whose life was devoted to her husband’s health. Need I explain that I saw the situation in an entirely different light? No, because all that concerns me here is my young colleague’s mention of Inoue’s novella in the course of our discussion. As she saw it, the book dealt with our precise topic and demonstrated irrefutably – and very impressively – how women are broken by male aloofness.
In fact, if anything, what the novella describes is the whimsical desire of three particular women to be more or less broken by the aloofness of one particular male. About the man himself we learn next to nothing, and what little we do learn is almost exclusively from the point of view of the women. Since the three women also give their opinions on one another in their letters, and all of these are drastically wide of the mark, I felt it unlikely that they should have happened to plumb the man’s soul with any accuracy. When I remembered that the book was supposed to serve as proof of a hypothesis, this seemed to me reason enough to refuse to accept it as such – quite apart from my young colleague’s total disregard of the fact that the author of the book (and thus also of the women’s letters) was a man. In the end, then, I owed my acquaintance with the novella and its author to an amusing misunderstanding. And yet on one point I agreed wholeheartedly with my young colleague: The novella was the work of an extremely sensitive and, I might add, extremely benevolent master.
In the months that followed, I made several attempts to track down Inoue’s elusive personality. In the end, as you will have noticed, even this mystery was solved. As the ice floes melted, my life, like the ice, began to restructure itself in a curious fashion. In some inexplicable way, my wife’s grumbling fell away from her and transferred itself to my distant mistress. And at some point in the course of the following summer – I had been back home for a while by then – my son even stopped grinding his teeth in his sleep. Was it all only a dream? Ah, dear reader, I’m sure you can’t tell me.
*Copyright © Volker Zastrow, 1998.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
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.
When they woke up in the morning the architect was already sitting at his computer. His office was in the right wing of the building; they lived in the left wing. The light was on all night in the inner courtyard. It would soon go off, and then at some point the architect would put the light out in his office too. Now, in winter, that might not be until mid-day. On particularly dark days he kept the light on until evening – until he finished work, leaving the office after everyone else, and took the elevator up to join his family.
He waved to them and immersed himself in his work again. He never made them feel that he was watching them, but nor did he think of drawing the drapes in his office. They didn’t draw theirs either. Usually they just pushed one of those large aluminium blinds resembling aircraft wings from one side of the long window to the other. Sometimes they forgot to do it, woke up in the morning, and they could see him at work from their bed. Once they had sex on the sofa in front of the TV set in the middle of the day. He couldn’t have failed to notice. But he never once raised his head, and to make phone calls he went back into the large room where his staff sat at long white tables, looking at their computer monitors all day long.
While Naila was in the bathroom, Splash made breakfast. They were in a hurry. They were almost never in a hurry, but Naila had to be in Jakobstrasse by ten, because her permit to stay ran out today, and he had a date to meet the one-eyed Icelander in Kopenhagener Strasse to show him the studio. He hated the idea of not being able to work alone in his studio any more – but they needed the money. Anyway he was hardly ever there, so it made no difference. He hadn’t done any work for almost a year, not since they started living together, and sometimes Splash thought that was to do with Naila. Then he thought it was to do with this building. It was far too transparent, glass and aluminium and black stone everywhere, and the trams rattled down Rosenthaaler Strasse every few minutes, scaring away the few ideas he still had with the noise they made.
Naila came out of the shower naked. She had wrapped her hair in a towel, and when Splash nodded toward the architect she said, “He doesn’t look anyway.” Splash shrugged and went into the bathroom. When he had finished Naila was standing by the window in panties and his new blue T-shirt. The architect was standing at his window too, and they were both making funny gestures. Splash turned, went back into the bathroom, and came out again two minutes later. Naila was fully dressed, the architect was back at his desk.
The architect had designed this building himself. It was his first; that was why he found it so hard to part with it. Either he sat down there in his office, or he was up with his family. He left the building only in his car. He drove out of the garage, and when he came back he drove straight into the garage again, as if the car itself were a part of the building, and that way he never had to leave the place.
Splash usually met the architect’s wife and children in the elevator or the entrance hall, which had walls clad with large, matt steel panels. It was so tall and narrow that you felt as if you were inside a rocket there. The architect’s wife smiled a lot. She was small, almost as small as her children, and the children laughed a lot too, but Splash didn’t believe their laughter was real. He had never distrusted a child’s laughter before. Probably he was being unjust, and he didn’t believe the laughter of these children was real because their mother’s certainly wasn’t. Or perhaps it was simply that the children didn’t fit into these surroundings, in their brightly colored, ugly winter anoraks, the kind that every child wore, and their thick winter boots, which were usually smeared with mud.
“Are you going to the studio today, my darling?” Naila asked.
“My darling,” said Splash impatiently. He used to be called Jörn, not Splash, but so far she had never called him by his real name.
“Well, are you going?”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she said.
He looked at her and didn’t know whether her delight was genuine. Sometimes Naila spoke in a tone of voice that he couldn’t interpret. No doubt her friends and relations at home understood that tone of voice – but he didn’t. He was angry, then he put his hand over Naila’s, which was lying on the table almost as if it didn’t belong to her, and he thought he could draw that hand some time. It was a warm hand; he stroked it, turned it over and opened it, and it was cold inside. So he put the palm of his hand on hers, and suddenly he stood up. leaned toward Naila and kissed her. She didn’t kiss him back. It had often been like that recently. When he tried to touch her breasts she retreated and said, “Stop it, he can see us!”
“I thought you said he didn’t look.”
“I did, I did,” she said, and there it was again, that tone of voice he couldn’t interpret. “I did,” she repeated, and they both looked at the architect.
The architect was standing with his back to them, speaking on the phone. Plans hung on the wall behind him, and he looked at the plans as he phoned, but he kept turning his head to look at the two of them. He had never done that before, and after a while Splash had had enough of it. He took Naila’s face firmly in both his hands and kissed her on the lips, in spite of her resistance. She pushed him away and ran into the bathroom, and when Splash looked up his eyes met the eyes of the architect. The sense of nausea in his stomach disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“Naila!” called Splash. “Quick, come here! You have to see this! I think he’s gone crazy!”
The architect had been calmly continuing his phone conversation, but suddenly he threw the telephone on the floor, tore his plans off the wall, and swept his papers, the computer, and his models of buildings off the desk. His employees came in, two of them took him by the shoulders and tried to hold him and calm him down, but he broke free, ran to the window and drummed his fists on it. In the end he slid down past the window pane and fell exhausted to the floor, and his thin face with its large green eyes and the shock of untidy black hair over them looked more attractive than usual.
“That’s what I’ll do if they don’t make long my permit to stay today,” said Naila. She was standing behind Splash and had hooked her fingers into the belt loops of his jeans.
“If they don’t extend my permit to stay today,” he corrected her, and thought, well, why not? Then he could start working again, and it wouldn’t be all Naila, Naila, Naila any more. Then he wouldn’t have to keep talking to her about her life, then it would be none of his business that her mother had had an affair with her grandfather, that her father called her Puppi and often called her at night from Beirut, in tears, that Lebanese men were all idiots and that was why she liked the men here so much – too much, he thought – and he wouldn’t have to stay living in this stupid, expensive, icy rocket of a building because of her any more. He could move back into the studio in Kopenhagener Strasse, and he could tell the one-eyed Icelander today to look for some other place, he didn’t need his money any more, not ever.
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?” said Naila.
“I thought you did,” said Splash.
“Me? Why me?”
She put on her tall brown boots and the red Alaia jacket that he hated so much – it was a present from her father – and said, “Do you have my keys?”
“Why are you always asking me for your keys? I never had your keys.”
“But you can always find them.”
“Darling … my sunlight, my heart!”
He stood up and began clearing the table. He went back and forth between the table and the kitchen at least twenty times, always carrying just one plate, or one spoon, or just the damn butter dish. When the table was empty he sat down, lit a cigarette, and tried to concentrate. Should he call the Icelander and put off their meeting until the evening? By then he’d know whether Naila could stay on or not. Or should he call off the deal entirely? He’d already put the Icelander off twice, perhaps that meant he wouldn’t turn up anyway. But maybe he wouldn’t have to put him off at all. Yes or no? At that moment he heard the loud screech of a tram very close, and he jumped. An icy gust of wind touched his legs, the next tram thundered by, he looked up and saw that Naila had opened one of the huge windows.
“La-lala-lala,” she went. She was strolling up and down the enormous room as if it were a park, she walked in a circle swaying her large Arab behind around. “La-lala-lala,”
“Do shut that window, Naila,” he said. “I can’t think with all this noise.”
“Only if you’ll help me look for my keys.”
He stood up, went to the coat stand, and took the keys out of the little inside pocket of her black leather jacket.
“How did you know they were there?”
“They always are,” he said. “If they’re not in another jacket. Or in the soap dish in the bathroom. Or in the drawer with the cookies. Or in the bed. Or under the mattress. Or under the bed.”
“Thank you, my darling,” she said, hugging him tentatively.
“My darling,” he said.
“What will I do without you?” she said, smiling. There were tears in her eyes, and she kissed him on the cheeks and the mouth. Then she looked at him again, and the tears were gone. Had they ever been there at all, he wondered. Or was it just another act in her great big emotional Lebanese show?
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll get your papers today.”
“Suppose I don’t?”
“Suppose you don’t?”
“Yes – suppose I don’t? Suppose I have to go home?”
He looked at her gravely, she looked back at him gravely, and because he couldn’t hold her gaze he looked past her at the room. It was not with his own eyes that he saw all this, it was with the eyes of someone he was not yet but soon might be. After he had seen it all, the bed, the two white Pierre Paulin armchairs, the silver lamp on its marble stand, the photos of Naila’s family in gold frames on the TV set, and his old pictures on the high walls, after he had glanced briefly at the architect’s dark and empty office, he looked into Naila’s brown, very brown eyes again and said, “If you have to go back, my angel, then I’ll go with you, of course.”
“Would you do that?” she said, surprised. “Would you really do that …?” She pushed his arms away and removed herself from his embrace. “Come on, I must go,” she said. She pressed her thin, freshly painted lips together two or three times, and as she turned away she cast a last, surreptitious look at the other side of the inner courtyard.
They stood side by side in silence outside the elevator. They stood so that their arms and shoulders did not quite touch, and that was almost exciting once again. The elevator came, the door opened, and there stood the architect with his wife. Their children were all there too. Splash and Naila got in with them, they said hello, the architect said hello too, his wife smiled, and the children looked up and smiled as well.
The architect looked normal again. Splash watched him out of the corner of his eye as he stared past the heads of the architect and Naila to look at the gleaming silver wall of the elevator. He looked at Naila too now and then, and she seemed quite normal. Perhaps a little nervous, but that was natural. He would have been just as nervous in her position. He was nervous even when he had to go to the doctor, or get a visa from some consulate when he went on a journey. She had put off visiting the aliens’ registration office until the very last day, out of anxiety, and he would have done just the same. So now she was nervous. Splash went on staring at the elevator wall, but all the same he noticed Naila and the architect briefly touching hands. She stroked the back of his own hand with her fingers, he clenched his fist, and after that she removed her hands again.
The elevator stopped on the first floor, and Splash and Naila got out. The architect and his family went on down to the garage. They said goodbye, and the elevator door closed behind them. Splash took Naila’s hand, and they went out. They walked hand in hand to the tram stop, and when Naila boarded her tram and it drove off Splash watched her go. He even thought of waving, but then he didn’t. He turned and walked down Rosenhaller Strasse to the suburban train station, and because the pedestrian lights outside the Hackescher Höfen took forever to come on he looked up at the rocket-like building. The matt, blue-gray glass façade looked dead in the hazy winter light. On two floors, lights were on at the front of the building – in the architect’s place and in the publishing firm on the floor above – and in that greenish-yellow neon lighting the people in the offices looked as if they were slowly drowning. Splash shook his head and swore quietly. Then he didn’t feel like waiting in the crowd at the lights any more, but what could he do? He waited all the same, until they turned green. Then they turned red again at once, then green again, then red again, and he still stood there, not knowing what to do.
*This story is taken from: Love Today by Maxim Biller, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Copyright © 2007 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne.
*Translation copyright © 2008 by Anthea Bell. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
When Ferdinand Klingenreiter asked the audience, dear friends and family, boys and girls, to be quiet for his great illusion, some laughed; most went on talking. The Stadelmann girls interrupted their squealing chase and turned towards the stage. The younger one – Michaela or Martina or some other name reserved for a boy with an ‘a’ stuck on the end – shouted across the hall in a shrill, strident voice: ‘Mummy, where’s Grandad?’
Klingenreiter waved to her, she looked so sweet, the pigtails, the dirndl, at which she ran to Mrs Stadelmann in fright and clutched her arm. ‘But that’s just Freddie, my darling’, her mother explained. ‘Freddie… the Famous. He’s going to do some magic for us.’
Freddie the Fantastic would have been correct, but Klingenreiter didn’t let that worry him – this was his very first appearance, after all, and how was anyone supposed to remember his stage name at this point?
Overall, though, it was now a little quieter in the community hall; you could hear the coffee machine gurgling.
Klingenreiter looked over at the table where Felix was sitting. Or more accurately, lying: the boy had sunk low on his chair, his hands in his pockets, his head in his hood, one eye hidden by his hair. Felix made invisible every part of his body that he could make invisible. The other eye was staring at the Coke or the pretzel sticks in the plastic cup on the plastic tablecloth. It did not meet his great-uncle’s gaze.
The boy’s head was elsewhere. Or just didn’t want to be here.
Ferdinand Klingenreiter didn’t let that worry him. The thoughts in his head, too, had seldom enjoyed being where he needed them, but so what? They went off picking cherries and dreams instead of doing schoolwork. Remembered neither formulas nor verses, and remembered how to work the machines only with great difficulty. No, there were a few verses he remembered: the ones his Käthe wrote.
Magic tricks, on the other hand, came to him with the kind of facility only useless skills drew out.
His head was elsewhere, his body too, somehow. Klingenreiter had always been able to behave so inconspicuously that you forgot he was there. Felix might have envied him this talent. This trick. But it didn’t just work to his advantage. Klingenreiter’s parents had argued in front of him as fiercely as if he wasn’t there. The shouting often carried on even after he had spoken up. Those were the only times Klingenreiter had wished his brother was close by. Nobody spoiled the domestic bliss when Franz was there.
It was much later, perhaps only after Franz’s death the previous year, before it occurred to Klingenreiter that his talent was not for being inconspicuous. His parents, Franz, people in general were simply indifferent to whether he was there or not. But maybe that was a talent too, making people indifferent to you.
Maybe not Käthe. No, definitely not Käthe. Käthe hadn’t been indifferent, she had always twittered away happily in his presence. Of course, you might say that Käthe twittered just the same whether he was there or not, but that wasn’t true, Käthe asked her husband the occasional question, too, and although she might only have done it to make sure he was listening, asking Klingenreiter a question meant she noticed Klingenreiter.
The door flew open, and Thomas and the family marched into the hall, all of them but Felix. Lisa, the twins, little Max – a small barrel with his fist in his mouth next to the large barrel that was his father.
Some people turned their heads, and a few got up to greet Thomas. That’s how it should be: the boss had arrived. Klingenreiter nodded to his nephew, who made an apologetic gesture towards the stage and sat down at the table beside Felix, who ignored him with a gulp of Coke.
Thomas was doing well with the sawmill, meaning he was well informed and unyielding. Even now, on a Sunday afternoon, he took a pile of papers out of his bag, definitely work-related. Klingenreiter was about to carry on, but then his nephew made a questioning, circular gesture over the pile and around the hall, he seemed to be trying to communicate something to Klingenreiter, and Klingenreiter shrugged as if in assent.
At that, Thomas handed out the pile, ‘one each’, and almost everyone took a sheet or a leaflet or whatever they were, it was almost all mill workers there with their families. There was rustling at every table, everyone was reading through them. Right at the back, by the exit, a man was sitting by himself; it was old Stangl, he declined the pile.
Klingenreiter waited, what else was he supposed to do? His box beside him. Two yellow lightning flashes, a red question mark. Oak.
Stangl. Of course, he had been another reason for Klingenreiter’s parents to argue. This name, spoken at great volume, was one of Klingenreiter’s earliest memories. It went on for years, until eventually Father hounded him out.
Mother had liked Stangl, that was a fact. They even called each other by their first names, but the sawmill was too small for anything more than that. If something had happened between them, an extractor fan would have heard about it and a splitting wedge given them away.
Stangl must be closer to a hundred than to ninety. Came up from the valley especially for this. On the bus. Sought out Klingenreiter straight away to say hello. That’s all it takes for everything to be alright, between people, seeking someone out to say hello. But Stangl didn’t have any other friends here.
Thomas was getting himself a coffee now. It almost made Klingenreiter want to shake his head, but how would that look, a head-shaking magician?
The walk, the neck, and always the ambition. Thomas was like Franz. Too much ambition was what had caused Franz and Father’s only big argument.
It was when Franz had come back from university with ideas. Franz wanted to renew, wanted to invest, to ‘deworm’ the business. Forklifts, block trains, mechanical sorting plants.
Father didn’t want to hear any of it. Not because he wouldn’t have agreed. He didn’t like Franz starting his sentences with ‘In your position, I would’. He didn’t like the pressure. Good ideas, well, they’re all well and good, but Father wanted to teach Franz a lesson in the business of ideas, and lesson one was: package your ideas well.
In the end modernisation happened, and a little rationalisation too, but only when Father himself had looked at the time and decided it was ripe.
The only ideas that Klingenreiter had were to do with the canteen and the programme for the Christmas party. Ferdinand Klingenreiter loved the sawmill, and he loved entertainment, and he didn’t mind spending his whole life as his own brother’s employee, whatever people said.
There was only one matter on which he had spoken out: the business with the wooden barrels. Klingenreiter was against Franz’s suggestion of giving up the production of wooden barrels, largely on nostalgic grounds. All the beer that was stored in Klingenreiter barrels! And could still be stored there in future! He raised his voice with Franz and Father as if it was a matter of some great importance.
Nostalgic grounds had never been grounds that carried any weight in their family. Nostalgia is the accomplice of losers, not winners. Barrel production was halted, and not a minute too soon. The decline in production value over the years that followed was tremendous; soon it was all just aluminium and plastic and other heartless stuff, and more and more people were drinking beer out of bottles and cans, terrible.
Käthe, and what Käthe said to him:
‘You silly man, you.’
‘Where have you gone this time, my Freddie, come on, stay here with me.’
‘Ah, my Freddie.’
He remembered all that. A lot of what his Käthe had said. His thoughts sometimes chided him in Käthe’s voice, bossed him around, took decisions away from him: he was useless at making decisions. His thoughts sometimes also laid it on the line for him, but sadly nowhere near often enough.
His hands trembled. He balled them into fists. Ferdinand Klingenreiter had never had much to say, and now he was trembling on stage while people waited for him to say something. Though he knew and sensed that everyone was still indifferent to what it was he was going to say. The main thing was that he took his medicine and didn’t go for a night-time stroll in the road again.
Maybe notFelix, maybe Felix wasn’t indifferent.
His box waited resolutely at his side. The two lightning flashes like eyes. Maybe people weren’t indifferent to magic.
Klingenreiter cleared his throat to call back the thoughts that even now, as he stood on stage, were skittering away from him, and the PA shrilly cleared its throat along with him. Now he had their attention.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, my dear friends.’ Klingenreiter’s smile broadened. Soon he would say what he had wanted to say in front of an audience all his life, and anything over forty souls could happily be described as an audience, not to mention the church choir backstage. Two hours before the start of the official programme, here for a magical interlude, not bad, not bad at all, thought Klingenreiter.
Once again he sought out his great-nephew’s eyes, and this time he caught the edge of a blue pupil, but then Felix lowered his head. Klingenreiter didn’t hold it against him, he knew now that the boy was engaged, the boy was paying attention; he just didn’t want to get caught paying attention.
‘What you are about to see will change your opinion of magic forever. But in order for you to see it, I need a volunteer.’ Klingenreiter spread his arms invitingly, his shirt glittered, the coffee machine beeped. No one moved.
At the climax of her show, the great illusionist Halima had said something quite different, something bold, Klingenreiter didn’t dare say it: ‘Magic is not what I do. Magic is what you don’t see me do.‘ Halima, with her black locks and her long arms that beat the air as she leapt, danced, flew across the stage.
Halima had also used dramatic music to underscore her tricks and illusions; Klingenreiter just had the coffee machine. The church choir had in fact been available; before his number, they had been rehearsing for their evening performance, and Klingenreiter had really quite enjoyed it, first ‘What if God was one of us‘, followed by the very sad ‘Wir sind nur Gast auf Erden’, then the very cheerful finale, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, all of it very competent, Fichtner barely had to intervene.
But Klingenreiter and Fichtner hadn’t been able to agree on a song to accompany the illusion. Klingenreiter would have liked the choir just to hum ‘The Final Countdown’, his first choice, or that one everyone knows from Carmina Burana, his second. But for the conductor, humming was out of the question.
‘Of course not, goodness me, Freddie.’ Felix had also had an opinion on that.
Fichtner’s official excuse was that the stage was too small for the choir and Klingenreiter and Klingenreiter’s box, which along with Klingenreiter’s outstretched arms was still waiting to be used.
Klingenreiter had booked two VIP seats for Halima’s magic show, for himself and Felix, in the second row. It had been exactly one month ago, just after Felix’s fourteenth birthday, the ticket Klingenreiter’s present to the boy, but also Klingenreiter’s present to Klingenreiter, his first big magic show. For someone who had loved magic since boyhood, who had read Harry Potter at 65 and never left the house without a pack of cards in his pocket, it really was high time.
Klingenreiter had also looked forward to the trip to the state capital with Felix. He had found a Turkish restaurant for dinner, the idea being that there weren’t any Turkish places at home. The boy seemed indifferent, he asked if he was allowed to order a Coke.
‘You don’t have to ask my permission.’ Klingenreiter laughed.
Felix said okay and ordered a beer.
Klingenreiter opened his eyes exaggeratedly wide, and Felix gave him a jaded grin.
Fourteen, though, that was something, thought Klingenreiter, ordering a lager and an extra glass, and he poured some for Felix, though he didn’t touch it, drank his Coke, and Klingenreiter only drank half his beer because of the medication.
‘So what else do you like doing?’ He couldn’t imagine any response but ‘something on the computer’.
‘Why me?’ asked Felix.
Klingenreiter didn’t understand.
‘Why didn’t you bring the twins? They just had a birthday too. Or Max? He’s four, I’m sure he’d be into this stuff.’
Klingenreiter smiled and hated the fact that he was smiling. That he always had to smile out of the corners he was forced into. There was a tapestry hung on the tiled wall, the counter was made of glass and metal. Klingenreiter looked for wood and found none. The boy looked relaxed, as winners do. As if he were glad they were failing to have a simple conversation.
Including Thomas and his family, there were forty-eight people in the community hall. Everyone was silent now, but there was still no volunteer for Klingenreiter.
Klingenreiter’s arms were heavy as he held them out in the suggestion of a hug. Perhaps people were silent because his own silence had become too great. Because it’s uncomfortable when someone stands on a stage and doesn’t say anything. Or perhaps he had wet himself again and the silence was an embarrassed one.
Felix licked the salt off a pretzel stick.
On the wall opposite hung the eternal banner: The word was made flesh.
Beside him, his box. The lightning flashes like accusations, the question mark a malicious grin.
He had designed the box himself. Almost 50 years working in a sawmill, and at 77 this was his first piece of handiwork, from design through to manufacture.
Fine, Holger Schwarzmann had lent him his untrembling hands for the detail work, and Theo Schwarzmann his muscle for the concealing system. But he had done the cutting himself. When it came to the tricks and refinements, the essential elements of any conjuring equipment, he had to overrule Schwarzmann Junior several times, and the boy had been really thrown by the fact that old Klingenreiter was contradicting him, even though Klingenreiter had been holding back, because it was clear to him that you couldn’t expect someone who had manufactured boxes for transporting potatoes his whole life to instantly manage a box for a great illusion, a box for art.
The cut surfaces had to be clean, faultless, and Schwarzmann took a jigsaw to them, cutting freehand! When every millimetre counted! And so Klingenreiter had given him the little Japanese saw he’d given to Franz years ago. Wherever he was, whether it was heaven or hell, he didn’t need saws.
The saw was a Hon Dozuki Deluxe. Rattan handle. A great tool, beautiful too, you can’t say that about our saws, they’ve never been beautiful.
Yes, and when Felix dropped by, that was the best thing, when the boy asked what the box was all about.
‘It’s for a magical illusion’, Klingenreiter replied.
‘A vanishing act.’
‘Is it a trick?’
‘That depends on whether you’re the one vanishing or the one watching.’
Felix turned aside and spat.
‘I would paint the box.’
‘I was intending to.’
‘No, I mean, I’d paint it. If you’ll let me.‘
Of course he let him. Klingenreiter could scarcely conceal his delight, and in his head Käthe asked him why anyone ever concealed their delight.
That same evening, they met in the production hall. Klingenreiter had arranged the paints, brushes, light. Music and a bit of supper, too, but the boy didn’t want that, he wanted his peace and quiet and his Coke.
They spent four hours in the otherwise deserted hall. After four hours you could no longer smell the wood, or the anti-mould chemicals.
That evening would have been Klingenreiter’s answer to Felix’s question about why he had brought him. Great uncle and great nephew painting a box for a conjuring trick, in the 900m2 production hall of the family sawmill, surrounded by wooden panels, wooden frames, wooden beams, surrounded by the sawdust ghosts of dead Klingenreiters who were haunting them in the family’s usual style: ambitiously.
‘Freddie? Could I just…?’ That was Thomas. He waved the papers and started walking towards the stage without waiting for an answer. Klingenreiter was now feeling very comfortable up there. His arms grew lighter the closer Thomas came. From the papers in his hand and the brisk way he was advancing towards the stage, it seemed certain that he was going to make an announcement.
Now? Heat rose into Klingenreiter’s face, but the words came out in a friendly tone: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have our volunteer! A round of applause please for Thomas Klingenreiter!’
Thomas didn’t understand at first, the applause translated it for him. At once, he raised his arms like he was pushing something heavy away from him, and backed off.
‘What, too much of a coward?’ Klingenreiter didn’t know if he had said it or just thought it. He was entirely indifferent one way or the other. He looked at Felix. He was sitting up now and had brushed the hair off his forehead.
For an hour and a half, Halima, the First Lady of Magic, had given her all on stage. For forty-five minutes, Felix didn’t give any indication of whether he was enjoying it. He was slumped in his seat, his hands in his pockets. It was only before the interval that the boy became visible, so to speak, and started sitting like someone with a spine.
Halima’s guests, a Ukrainian couple, did a crazy quick-change dance number, with a telephone box as their only prop. The man entered the phone box right at the start wearing Mickey-Mouse underpants, and left it a moment later in a suit. So it went on, for minutes, dancing and changing.
‘The most important thing for quick change’, Klingenreiter whispered, ‘is a good tailor.’
Felix didn’t seem to be listening, Felix was leaning forwards.
The number ended amid great applause, the boy applauded too, and Klingenreiter applauded the boy.
In the interval they stood in the foyer with their Coke and pretzels, and Klingenreiter watched Felix watching two girls his own age.
‘I draw clothes’, said Felix, his eyes still on the girls.
‘You wanted to know. What I like doing.’
‘Yes – yes, I did. That’s good. I think that’s good’, said Klingenreiter, feeling silly.
‘I don’t care what you think. Nobody has to like it. I like it.’
The lights were dimmed for the second act, the warm tones vanished, the sound of bells rang out. Halima entered the stage all in black. The auditorium was in total darkness. The smell of Sunday church hung in the air.
Halima danced on black tightropes, made the ropes vanish, danced in the air, slowly, mournfully. She got into a cage and left the cage as man and mouse, man and mouse climbed onto a bed that went up in flames, and when the flames were extinguished, Halima walked out of the smoke. She put a sword down her throat, lay on a bed of spearheads and recited the whole of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
Like all people who are serious about something, she wore herself out. Cracks appeared in her makeup. The audience seldom applauded, but was still under her spell. She didn’t want to surprise, she wanted the perfect illusion. Her expression was cold, almost tense.
Klingenreiter understood it all. Why that turn, why this position. He could explain every build-up and every finale in mechanical or visual or technical terms. It was not the explanation he enjoyed, but the inexplicable – Halima made no mistakes, never showed any weakness, which meant that all of his explanations were ultimately just assumptions.
She quoted the great magicians whose illusions and legends Klingenreiter had lived with all his life. They had been his escape when the office, the wood, the family became too much for him.
Halima quoted Houdini and walked through a wall, harmonising with herself as she sang in a foreign language.
She quoted Hofzinser and transformed the stage into a drawing room, where tea was served for audience members and ravens walked among them like liveried servants. The magician as hostess: she whispered a word here, stroked a temple there, first with a deck of cards in her hand, then a cloth, then a black dove. When the stage was hers alone once more, the tea trolley and the carpet were strewn with watches, jewellery, wallets, phones. The audience howled.
Before her last, her greatest illusion – an escape act – Halima needed an assistant. She looked over Klingenreiter’s head, pointed behind him, shook her head, and then their eyes met. He pointed to Felix, but felt recognised all the same: she had chosen him out of hundreds.
And then Klingenreiter was up there, bowing to the magician. Applause surged up and ebbed away, Halima’s helpers flitted around him like black butterflies, a clarinet played a waking dream.
How lovely it would be, the old man thought, to die like this.
Halima explained to Klingenreiter what was expected of him. He didn’t listen, he knew what he had to do, he was interested in her fingers, always in motion, what signals was she giving, and to whom? To him?
Centre-stage, a complicated contraption bared teeth that were made of blades and flames, a rope dangling above it. The butterflies handed Klingenreiter a straitjacket so that he could make sure it was in working order, help Halima put it on and fasten the belt as tightly as he could.
He reached into the sleeve and at once discovered the cord to release the inner padding and give the wearer more room. He also knew that the burning rope on which the jacketed Halima would soon be suspended had a steel core, and thus could not be destroyed by fire; a technician would break it remotely, shortly after Halima had freed herself. She was in no danger.
What if Klingenreiter looked around and explained the trick to Felix? And Klingenreiter looked around, the straitjacket in his hands, turned to face the stalls, and Thomas said: ‘I just need to make an announcement for the boys on the early shift.’
Unfortunately Klingenreiter had only imagined that taunt about him being a coward. And then he saw Felix coming towards him. He’s going to take the mic away from me, he thought, he’s going to say that I’m the coward for not defending myself against his father’s rudeness, against this life, a whole life of being a clown at best.
With the straitjacket in his hands, Ferdinand Klingenreiter was in charge. The auditorium was dark and waiting for him. ‘It’s real, believe me.‘ A little smile. ‘I can tell you that from experience.‘ Here and there someone laughed. He handed the jacket to the butterflies, Halima blew him a kiss, her fingers thanked him, and Klingenreiter left the stage. Felix was waiting for him at the steps to help him down.
‘I’ll do it.’ Felix came and stood beside his great uncle.
Klingenreiter swallowed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, another Klingenreiter!’ He winked at the community hall. ‘But this here’s a brave one.’
People applauded, Thomas retreated to his seat, Felix breathed a girl’s name into the mic, and a few seconds later four choirgirls around Felix’s age whisked out from behind the curtain. They positioned themselves at the side of the stage and, at his signal, began to hum that piece from Carmina Burana.
Freddie the Fantastic opened his box and showed the audience that it was empty. He asked his great nephew to get inside. He threw a black cloth over the box and raised his arms above his head like a conductor, like a great illusionist.
*Copyright © 2016, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institute.
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