Actor and writer Matthias Brandt once described his childhood as the son of Willy Brandt as a ‘courtly situation’ – not, however, without putting his exceptional upbringing into perspective: ‘Of course it was a very unusual situation, but less unusual than you might think. My father just happened to have this funny job. I think that even if I’d grown up in different circumstances, I’d still be the same person today.’ "Nowhere" else tells the story of the first – and presumably last – night Brandt spends at his friend Holger’s. The child has trouble settling down in bed because the evening in the wonderful world of Holger has shown him where and how he really wants to live. Together with Holger’s parents, he and Holger watched Wim Thoelke’s show Three Times Nine, while eating open sandwiches with mushroom-flavoured cheese spread and salami, arranged on a platter by Holger’s mother with ‘fanned-out, semi-sliced gherkins’. Afterwards there was Neapolitan ice cream with wafers, Goldfish crackers and wine gums. Then homesickness gets the better of him. The way in which Matthias Brandt captures the closed world of the family through the child’s untrammelled gaze is particularly impressive because it is so precisely drawn. There are no superfluous words, no mannerisms, no stylistic complacency. Brandt really does get straight to the point.
Holger’s parents had already gone to bed.
The taste of unfamiliar toothpaste on my tongue, I was sitting on the duvet in my pyjamas.
Holger was standing by the aquarium and feeding the guppies. ‘Oh no, not Jimmi,’ he said.
He pronounced it the German way; not Jimmy but Yimmi, like denim yeans and Yava tobacco.
‘They’re doing Jimmi again.’
I had no idea what he was talking about. All I heard was a quiet, rhythmic squeaking that I couldn’t place. It sounded a little like a car’s starter motor whirring. Or it could have been a bird. Maybe a pigeon; they sounded like that, only deeper. A small pigeon? On the other hand, the sound seemed to be coming directly from the wall or the master bedroom behind it, which meant neither was an option. A mystery, and Holger made no attempt to explain what was going on. He just rolled his eyes and went on tapping the fish-food can with his index finger.
Holger and his father had taken me back to their place after the game. I’d been looking forward to staying over there for weeks. Holger had told me so much about his magnificent home that I’d got stage fright. The two security officers assigned to protect me had followed us in their car, keeping a close eye on our Beetle. Outside the three-storey building where Holger’s family occupied the middle floor, they had got out and had brief words with his father, probably arranging when I’d be picked up the next day. As they drove away I’d waved at them, and Herr Danner, at the wheel, did his Red Indian How while his new colleague, Herr Volquardsen, stared out of the window on the other side.
The sound was now clearly audible. Rhythmic squeaks, obviously of mechanical rather than vocal origin, the cause of which I began to intuit through Holger’s annoyed silence.
Jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi.
He left the fish tank for the record player and put on the Slade album the team had given him for his birthday. ‘Mama, weer all crazee now.’ Despite the music now drowning out the other sound, my attention was fully focused on the wall, almost as though I were just waiting for the empty groove on the LP, the gap between one track and the next, to listen for the state of play next door.
A while ago, our goalie Nettekoven had told us about how his parents, who apparently had a fold-down double bed kept in a cupboard, got buried alive under this very contraption for hours after the wall unit collapsed on them and proved impossible to remove.
It was only their son returning home on Sunday who managed to fetch help, eventually rescuing his trapped parents. Nettekoven had squealed that his parents had been engaging in ‘nookie’ when the accident happened, which had increased my suspicion that the whole thing was made up. Eavesdropping on Officers Stöckl and Danner, I had once heard the former reading a similar story out loud from the Express, in which Nettekoven’s choice of noun had of course not appeared, but it had been humorously paraphrased. In this case, a couple had got wedged inside a car and been liberated with the aid of a blowtorch, on top of which the incident had taken place in England. Whatever the case, Herr Danner could hardly control his laughter.
We got under the covers, me on the foam rubber mattress on the floor, Holger in his bed, where I’d been sitting before. The lamp in the aquarium cast a violet glow on the ceiling and wall, creating a cosy but slightly spooky atmosphere. Jimmi and Slade had fallen silent, and I looked up at Holger but saw only his bristly hair standing up on the pillow and casting its shadow on the wall. After a short while I heard regular breathing.
I thought about the wonderful evening behind us. We had watched Wim Thoelke’s Three Times Nine show with Holger’s parents, scarfing down Holger’s mother’s open sandwiches with mushroom-flavoured cheese spread and salami served on a wooden platter. Between the pieces of bread, she had fanned out semi-sliced gherkins. I had surreptitiously edged the parsley garnishes and enzyme-browned apple slices to the side of my plate, but Holger’s mother had noticed anyway. When she’d pointed it out – I had blushed bright red, caught in the act – Holger had saved me by taking the little pile and stuffing it into his mouth in one go, prompting laughter. Later, there’d been a portion of Neapolitan ice cream with a waffle poked into it for everyone, and to finish off, brightly coloured bowls of Goldfish crackers and wine gums had graced the table.
‘What a shame you can’t stay for lunch tomorrow,’ Holger’s mother had said. ‘We’re having Siegfried’s favourite, tongue in madeira sauce.’
My smile could have meant anything; I’d copied it from my mother. Now, though, I was hugely relieved to be far away by tomorrow lunchtime. Holger’s parents had drunk beer, Kurfürsten Kölsch, we’d had Tri-Top mandarin squash, there’d been coasters made out of Fimo modelling clay by Holger’s older sister Biggi, and I was utterly impressed by how well ordered their lives were.
Everything and everyone seemed to have a fixed routine and a fixed place, running along considered and predetermined tracks like a Märklin model railway, with absolutely no risk of deviating or crashing. I got the impression that here, any action tested out and found worthy was performed in exactly the same way from then on. There seemed to be none of the questions that arose for me on a daily basis, requiring a large part of my time to answer.
For instance, at a sign invisible to me, perhaps at the same time every day, all the family members had disappeared to their bedrooms only to return to the living room in various types of leisurewear several minutes later to watch TV.
Holger and I had put on our pyjamas, while his father reappeared in a luminous blue tracksuit with a black-and-white eagle emblem and the word Bundeswehr on his left breast, lending his already stocky figure a rather more boxy shape. The jacket was unzipped, revealing his vest and copious chest hair, gently embedding a small golden medallion on a thin chain that bore the symbol of Aries the ram. On his feet, he wore Romika-brand cord slippers ‘with cushioned foot beds’, as he’d told me on one occasion. I’d complained of pain in my right Achilles tendon at training, and Holger’s father had been certain it was due to my shoes lacking a decent foot bed. The subject had come up several times, him asking me in an earnestly concerned tone whether any progress had been made on the foot-bed front. He seemed to be obsessed with it. My mother, however, presented with my request for shoes with decent foot beds, had merely shrugged uncomprehendingly.
Now dressed in a one-piece orange towelling suit with a golden zip, Holger’s mother had brought us another plate of sandwiches, she too wearing slippers that left no doubt as to their meeting the highest demands in terms of joint protection and arch support, possibly even including a splay-foot truss pad, who knows.
Holger’s sister Biggi, already fifteen and going to a party that evening, was staying over with a friend of hers. I wasn’t quite sure whether I regretted that or was actually relieved. Probably both at once.
Holger’s new-build apartment consisted of the living room and master bedroom, Holger’s and Biggi’s rooms, plus kitchen and bathroom. They all branched off the hallway, where a coat rack was fixed to the wall by the front door and an occasional table faced the kitchen door, complete with brocade-upholstered telephone and matching directory. I had been instantly impressed that everything in the flat had been improved upon by its diligent inhabitants, both optically and practically.
The living room was a rather small, almost square space carpeted in moss green, with a window overlooking the road and the car park. Now, though, the shutters had been let down, as I could see through the crocheted net curtains. The walls were painted medium brown, the low ceiling a paler shade.
On entering the room there was a corner settee for four, upholstered in beige cord, against the right wall, where Holger’s father had his place on the window side. Holger and I had sat on the main section, in front of which a coffee table with a chrome-coloured frame and a dark smoked-glass top stood on a small shaggy rug. On top of it, a twist-top crystal ashtray and matching table lighter were flanked by cigarettes, one pack each of Kim and HB brand. Above the settee hung a framed reproduction of an oil painting, which depicted the lighthouse at Sankt Peter-Ording, as I’d read while sitting down.
On our left, Holger’s mother had taken a seat in the colour-coordinated armchair. Just above the coffee table hung a lamp made of glazed clay; I’d had to watch out that its white spiral cable didn’t cut off my view of the TV. The set was nestled into the oak unit occupying the entire opposite wall. During the day it was hidden behind a folding door, which Holger’s father had opened, humming in joyful anticipation. The top of the wall unit had neon tubes installed in it, switched on along with the pendant lamp and making it much brighter than I was used to at home. The moment darkness fell, my mother, who hated overhead lighting, would begin clicking on various lamps and dim lights, some concealed, being of the opinion that was more pleasant. Here, though, the television – a brand new Nordmende model – had been turned on, and Holger’s father had slumped back onto the cushions, rubbing his hands.
The show had started, and Holger and his mother had sung along to the theme tune as his father whistled an accompaniment.
‘Join in, tonight good luck’s the star, join in, and Fortune won’t be far.’
That kind of enthusiasm had been new to me; at home, my parents tended to ridicule this kind of programme, falling asleep in front of the TV or getting up after five minutes and leaving the room without comment, raised eyebrows at most, usually leaving me alone with the TV unless my mother took pity on me.
Holger’s family had followed the entire programme with unfailing attention, joined in the quizzes (the living room’s occupants chorusing ‘Rii-isk’ at appropriate moments) and sung (‘You sound unknown chords in my soul, Grand Prix d’amour, for me that’s your role’), sharing their assessments of the host’s and his celebrity guests’ condition: ‘He’s put on a few pounds, old Thoelke.’
After the last note of the closing theme performed by Max Greger and his Orchestra, Holger’s parents had exchanged brief nods, the TV was switched off, and the family had got up and swiftly cleared the table, following a well-oiled ritual. I had tried to conform intuitively to the rules of this procedure, sadly in vain, which meant I was constantly in everyone’s way. Then Holger and I had gone to brush our teeth, and by the time we left the bathroom the hallway was dark and empty.
I found it hard to settle down as I lay there listening to Holger’s breathing, excited by the evening spent in this wonderful world. The past few hours had shown me how and where I wanted to live; this was what it would look like, my future life!
All the things going through my mind! Perhaps I too could work in parliamentary administration, follow in Holger’s father’s footsteps and become a clerk, why not? But not until Holger and I had completed our four years with the army, which, as his father had explained to us, not only brought comradeship and strengthened body and character, but also had financial advantages. To take a random example, there was car insurance, where we could claim the reduced rates for civil servants after getting our driving licenses for cars, motorbikes and lorries for free in the Bundeswehr! To say nothing of capital-forming benefits, where Father State made a decent contribution.
The snugly fitting swaddling of this world’s way of thinking had instantly lulled me into submission. Yet I now also saw that this was the opposite of my home in every respect. Or perhaps rather, my previous home? On the one hand, I pitied myself because fate seemed to hold this conflict in store for me, while on the other hand I was veritably euphoric about the alternative life awaiting me, shown to me so vividly that evening.
I had a sudden urge to laugh, remembering the story I’d heard that afternoon. I had praised the towelling toilet-lid cover, colour-coordinated with the little rug around the base, and told Holger how homely I found it, whereupon he’d raced into the kitchen with me and begged his mother to tell the story of Auntie Otti, which she’d willingly done.
The following had taken place: Holger’s father had an aunt in Dresden, Frau Otto, to whom they sent regular parcels of food, clothes and other goods not available in the East. A while ago, one of these parcels had contained one of the towelling lavatory sets I had so admired. A few weeks later, Holger’s parents had received a thank-you letter from said aunt, which included the line: ‘Thank you for the nice scarf but I’m afraid the hat’s much too big for me.’ Holger’s mother had barely managed to finish the anecdote, her son rolling on the kitchen floor in laughter, whereas I didn’t understand why it was funny until they explained it to me: it seemed the old lady had misconstrued the items’ purpose and put the lavatory lid cover on her head and the rug around her neck.
No one expected me to feel sorry for her, as the family’s reactions made clear. That too had been unfamiliar and bewildering.
During my evening with Holger’s family, I had felt like I so often did: if I liked a place, I felt compelled to assimilate fully into my environment. I didn’t want to be merely like the people around me, I wanted to be more them than they were themselves! At the same time, I felt a deep rage arising towards my home, especially at my parents for keeping so much from me, as I now knew. Everything, to be precise, everything that made life worth living. Why did I have to be torn the very next morning from the bosom of the family where I’d spent such a magnificent evening, where I felt like an established member?
At that moment, I had not a drop of love left for my own relatives. But that bitter realization caused me no grief or melancholy, and it seemed as though the cold clarity of the insight would lend me the necessary strength for the inevitable letting go, the cut I would one day perform. If all parties were to act sensibly, we would certainly find a dignified form of separation; there was no other option now. Ultimately, no one could help that coincidence had cast me into the absolutely inappropriate surroundings of my so-called home. No, there was no going back from the path now drawn up for me. Touched by my own courage in the face of this test at such a young age, I did fall asleep in the end, earnestly and calmly confronting the inevitable.
It took me a while to realize the whimpering that had woken me up was my own. I was briefly disoriented in the unfamiliar room. I rubbed my eyes and, touching my pillow with the back of my hand, felt that it was damp. I sat up, a draught caressing my teary cheeks. I needed a moment to recognize the cause of my unhappiness, but then it hit me full-force. My stomach jerked and another sob wrenched itself out of my constricted throat.
And then, my consciousness more sluggish than my body, came the thoughts and images that had obviously been behind this welling up for some time. I heard my mother quietly wishing me good night, felt my forehead leaning against my father’s shirted chest and knew I had betrayed them and their love. I knew I now longed for them more than anything else, but they, I feared, were lost to me because I had denied them so ruthlessly a few hours ago. I held the pillow in front of my face, afraid Holger would wake up. I wanted only one thing – to go home as soon as possible – but I had to stay here until the policemen came to fetch me. At that moment I couldn’t imagine surviving the hours until then. A heavy burden settled on my chest, and I felt more alone than ever before. How I wished I could unthink the thoughts I’d had before going to sleep. But there was no way to do that.
Next to me, Holger grunted and rolled onto his back; I quickly turned away. My father had once – when I’d asked him what exactly homesickness was – told me a story from the olden days about Swiss mercenaries in the French army, around whom the government had issued a ban on singing a certain folk song, on pain of death, because that tune had made the soldiers collapse with longing. They had immediately deserted and set off for home.
I missed Gabor so much, all that space, being alone but not being lonely. At some point I fell back to sleep, exhausted and perhaps a little relieved, because I noticed that my pain was nothing but the realization of where I belonged.
At breakfast with Holger and his parents, I chewed at half a bread roll for politeness’ sake, although I could barely swallow. I had to find a way to avoid eating the slimy boiled egg, but I played for time. When Holger’s father opened the fridge to take out the jam, I looked swiftly away, afraid to see the blueish cow’s tongue to be served for lunch. I had no wish to risk being asked what was wrong and thus threatening my hard-maintained composure.
I took surreptitious glances at the kitchen clock above the door every few minutes. Funny – only when I looked at it did I hear how loudly it ticked. As though it were answering my stares. At the same time I listened out through the glass door for the sound of Officers Danner and Volquardsen’s engine, come to rescue me. They had arranged with Holger’s father to collect me at ten. I only had to survive a little while longer, and once I was in the car I’d be redeemed.
It was a Sunday morning so I heard the Audi from far off; there was barely any traffic. I leapt up, dashed to the balcony door and saw the car turning into the car park. I could no longer maintain a calm appearance with the best will in the world; I ran into Holger’s room to fetch my long-packed bag and raced from there to the coat rack in the hall, where I put on my jacket. I quickly shook hands with Holger’s parents in the kitchen and took a bow. What I actually wanted was to thank them for their hospitality and the lovely evening, but the instant I opened my mouth my lower lip began to tremble and tears pricked my eyes. I snorted as loud as a horse, then turned away and left without a word. The family were left standing in confusion.
Luckily, the key was in the lock inside so I could open the front door and skip down the stairs two at a time. Outside, I ran to Officer Danner and gave him an unexpected hug. Officer Volquardsen had stayed in the car. ‘Good morrrning!’ he grunted, his eyes fixed straight ahead in a way that made clear this was both the beginning and end of our conversation. The two of us would never get on, but I didn’t care a bit at that moment. Even his bad mood prompted cosy feelings of being at home. Strange – in my present euphoria, I could barely remember my absolute despair of a few hours before.
During the drive I spent a long time gazing from the back seat at the Saint Christopher plaque stuck to the dashboard.
As the gate glided closed behind me Gabor came barking and lolloping up; I knew he must have been sick with worry while I was away. I said hello to him and then I looked up at the big white house in which we all missed each other so easily.
This was where I wanted to be.
With them. For myself.
*This story is taken from: “Raumpatrouille” by Matthias Brandt © 2016, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co, KG, Cologne/Germany.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute