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A Man Passes Through

Author: Jackie Thomae
Translator: Deborah Langton

Translator’s Note:  ‘Momente der Klarheit’ has received high critical acclaim, and its promotion by Hanser to English language publishers will include this sample translation in English. This unromantic comedy about love presents a range of metropolitan characters united by the thread of relationships which start and fail. We meet Bender in this chosen extract from this ‘Episodenroman.’

 

                             I’m standing alone, I’m watching you all,
I’m seeing you sinking
‒ The Stone Roses

Fools’ inferno, thinks Bender, who’d long forgotten how to traverse a dance-floor without being trampled on and constantly jostled. It’s not so much people’s behaviour that amazes him but the time of day, so early for hysteria. Bender turns and faces the DJ console and could so easily say to the whey face behind it: if you’re playing B-sides of hits with a decade or so on you, you can’t have had an original set in years. Get hold of some rare stuff and play A-sides instead. And more than anything, you’ve got to know how to mix. But he doesn’t say anything and stands quite still in the dancing crowd. He’s really turned off by the long hair flicking him in the face even though it smells good. In the old days everything smelt of smoke, now it smells of people and perfumes. People smell stronger than perfumes. Hair, skin, breath, sweat, snatch. Bender’s surrounded by whooping and whistling, flailing arms and is surprised. Has this flip-side got anthem status thirty years on and without him realising? Dry ice and strobe lighting kick in. For a moment he thinks nothing’s actually changed. Then he sees a couple of blokes in suits and recognises them as his contemporaries and realises a few things have changed, after all. Two women in long dresses push past, saluting him with ‘Cooeee, Bender!’ ‘Evening’. The first one he’s seen naked, the second he’d really like to have seen naked way back when. She’s gripping a champagne bottle by the neck, waving it round so much she catches Bender a glancing blow on the chin. ‘Whoops.’ ‘No problem’. But it is a problem, you silly cow, but what can you do. Bender rubs his chin. Engelhardt’s ex, Isabel, is wearing a backless evening dress and standing so firm in the crowd that Bender has to get hold of her shoulders and push her to one side to get through. It occurs to him he hasn’t spotted Engelhardt himself at all. ‘Hello, Izzy, where’s the old bastard?’ No reaction from Isabel who carries on talking away at someone opposite. It’s far too early to behave like that, too.

It’s as if two dress-codes had been issued at the same time. Come as you are and Black Tie. La Grande Bellezza, thinks Bender, as glitter rains down from the ceiling, best disco scene ever. The guy from the movie is pushing 65 so that makes us almost young. He walks stoically on through the glitter shower, letting himself get pushed around and messed up. The suit needs dry-cleaning, in any case, and gin and tonic doesn’t stain.

When he’s on his second visit to the gents and asking himself what he’s actually doing here, two young women squeeze into the adjacent cubicle. He wonders fleetingly whether he should leave and come back later, and stays put. He can hear fumbling and giggling. The dividing wall stops short of the floor, he’s looking at a pair of shoes which leave him bemused at first glance and, at a second, no clearer. Rectangular pieces of wood, each with two blocks under the middle of the foot. Geisha girls wear shoes like this, Bender doesn’t know how he knows this and assumes that a geisha is a woman with pretty feet while the toes on this one are nothing more than lumps of bowed flesh with toenails planted somehow in their midst, ending up like miniature windows, all a bit skew-whiff. The other woman’s wearing black boots which, if these women were of any interest at all, old Bender could go with. He forces himself away from their feet, stares at his shoes, folds his arms, and waits.

‘So what’s up afterwards, then?’

‘Lachner’s girlfriend and someone or other are having a joint ninetieth.’

‘Is that two or three people?’

‘Good question. Two, I reckon.’

‘Jeez, they’re all so bloody old…’

Bender raises his eyebrows.

‘Come on! Frankie’s knocking 40.’

Bender nods. In amusement.

‘It’s quite different for guys.’

Ralf Bender, 48, notes his sense of relief.

‘Shall we go by bike?’

Bender looks at the geisha shoes again. Those little lumps of flesh were moving as if they were actually doing the voices. Grotesque. The toilet flushes, the woman talks over it.

‘The old one on the bar thinks she’s Madonna.’

On the bar. Bender pauses for thought. At the bar, surely?

‘God, yeah, really bad. Doesn’t get it.’

Something metallic falls on the tiles.

‘Saddo.’

‘Sad ‘n’ menopausal.’

Giggling, snorting, coughing. The flusher goes again. Zips go up, the door next to his opens, heels go clopping away. Bender sits down on the closed toilet-seat.

‘Cooeee.’ A moon face peers over the partition wall. It’s crowned by a top-knot positioned so centrally to the head that Bender can’t help thinking first of an apple, then of William Tell, and then of William S Burroughs, who shot his wife in error during a drunken attempt to re-enact William Tell. The face is chewing gum and giving him a hard look, cheeky with it.

‘Hi,’ says Bender. He’s not going to apologise for being a man in the men’s toilets. Moon Face nods knowingly. That’s bloody cheeky, too, he thinks to himself.

‘Everything all right with you?’ asks Bender.

Moon Face’s eyes take in every inch of the cubicle and linger on the cistern. There’s Bender’s Lufthansa credit card, expired.

‘Everything’s cool, thanks.’ Bender hadn’t expected anything different. He holds her gaze. He’d like to let this prying kid know just who he is. Only then would he be able to do a bit of what you might call a chat-up. In Bender’s case this is only a minimal deviation from his usual behaviour, noticed only by very few women and thus on Bender’s terms. He doesn’t like it all flowery, he likes it targeted. And, of late, extremely infrequently. If we’re talking about the one with bare feet stuck into clattering geisha platforms then even the most casual of chat-ups would barely get off the ground.

‘Serafina?’ Her friend’s calling her. Moon Face winks at him and vanishes.

Behind the bar two girls are moving fast and ineffectively. Bender doesn’t feel like elbowing his way through so just waits. He wants a beer because he doesn’t like getting a short measure of vodka drowned by a bucket of tonic in which he’d find swimming a mucky, pesticide-packed slice of lemon, just like the one being sawn off with a blunt knife by one of the girls.

Bender’s attempt at a bit of a high in the gents had given him what he describes privately as a Pinocchio Effect. His mind’s in overdrive and actually watching itself thinking. He nods imperceptibly at a few familiar faces and imagines the conversations. Yeah, things are great. It’ll be out soon. Or else, it’s in the can. Let me congratulate you. Thanks. How about you? You really must come to our place sometime. Right, yeah, when the weather’s better. Or then again: bought a boat, done a marathon, got a decent osteopath at last, so-and-so’s moved to New York. Jack and Jill have split, the project’s live, the kids are growing up all the time, house move in the cards, taxes stressing me out. Next! Giving up: my car, carbohydrates, cholesterol, nicotine, drugs.

Tonight’s the night we give up giving up. Focused, justifiable excess in honour of Engelhardt. But still Bender doesn’t feel like talking.

Not even with Reza, who pushes through near him and says hi. He was once Engelhardt’s producer and isn’t anymore. Bender doesn’t know the details and doesn’t want to hear them. Viktor comes over with a big bear-hug for Reza. Their combined joy is so over the top you’d think they hadn’t seen each other for decades. Bender indulges them even though their mood couldn’t be more different from his. He would hate anyone touching him right now.

Two women in their early twenties slide in between Bender and the bar. Girls’ night. He finds himself looking at yet another top-knot and a mouse-coloured mushroom-cut adorning a closely shaved nape. Bender darkly remembers a time when a shaven nape could drive him crazy. Provided there was make-up, ear-rings, no horn-rimmed spectacles. Bender misses for a second time his chance of a beer. The girls push through again, leaving him there, and two six-foot young guys block his line of vision. He stays fixed and immovable in a growing wave of youth, feels a bit isolated but not bad about it. He can’t remember ever being invited as a twenty-something to a fortieth.

Engelhardt hasn’t had a woman to snuggle up to lately, nor even a woman who could’ve helped him stage something with a bit of style. And so Engelhardt, understandably not wanting to turn forty alone, had revived his natural raver bent and invited old friends, each ‘plus one,’ for a general tipple, plus a busload of ‘yoof’ for a booze-up. The party differs from the average club night in only one respect, and that’s the table at the entrance for presents. Bender’s contribution is an excellent single malt for which he doubts sufficient reverence will be shown. He’d love a slug of it right now.

He orders a scotch but the girl behind the bar can only start on it after studying the labels on all the bottles, pouring the measure into a schnapps glass, then tipping it over a mountain of ice-cubes which Bender pointedly picks out again and piles up on the counter. Beer and non-alcoholic stuff was on Engelhardt, Bender pays for his whisky and tips the bar girl generously just to confuse her, something which he actually fails to do.

A female chum of Doro, his girlfriend, warmly puts her arms round him. Bender puts his Pinocchio arm round her shoulder and nods minimally.

‘Soooo?’ says Ariane, putting the ball into Bender’s court, a man who never says ‘So?’ but does now. Then he does a fair bit of nodding, even though he can’t hear a word, whereupon she laughs and gives him the thumbs up. Nodding’s good, Ariane’s gorgeous.

Now a young woman joins them, looking around in a bad mood. Bender’s just wondering whether Ariane goes round with younger girls now when he remembers she’d had a baby well before any of the others did. He adds about eighteen to 1996 and hits present day. Yeah, that fits. He doesn’t recall the baby as a baby but he does recall the baby as an issue. She’s got protruding ears which stick out from beneath her long, sleek hair, green eyes set wide apart, a fixed expression of complete disdain on dark-red lips. Ariane and a photographer, whose name must have been known at the time but which Bender can’t now call to mind, brought into the world a mythical creature who seems as at odds with this party as he is.

Ariane hands her daughter a drink, Bender raises his beer, they chink glasses but the girl remains motionless. Bender wonders whether she thinks it’s passé to do cheers or whether she’s just never come across this ritual before. She’s wearing an asymmetrical black dress that Bender would have recommended for a middle-aged woman with an art gallery. She just doesn’t want to look like her mother, that’s normal, he thinks tolerantly. He hopes Ariane isn’t going to force a conversation across the generations because the girl is sending out disdain in unsettling waves. And anyway, converse about what? School? Ariane starts to dance, her daughter sits herself on a bar-stool and looks bored. Bender’s jostled by his lawyer who’s letting his girlfriend pull him through the crowd. Clemens waves to him, looks the girl up and down, then glances back at Bender and vanishes into the throng. Bender wonders how people would take it if he really was with a sixth-former. When the girl smiles at him with good grace, he smiles back in relief but is annoyed at himself for doing it. Since when has he let a young kid make him look a real tosser? Obviously since this very moment.

Slap her, someone, thinks Bender, and says, ‘Another drink?’

‘I’m OK, thanks,’ she says, and addresses her mother’s ear.

Ariane shakes her head and poises her finger close to her self-satisfied child’s nose. Looks like a ruling’s on its way. But what about?

Perhaps the child wants to go to bed and isn’t allowed to. Ariane draws Bender’s ear down towards her mouth: ‘Party….Neukölln area…no chance,’ is all he gets. ‘No way!’ Ariane speaks forcefully and, quite superfluously, repeats it as he soothes his ear and looks at the girl whose composure has collapsed and is now almost in tears. There you go, thinks Bender. Neukölln will just have to get along without you. He’d always had enough cash not to have to live in Neukölln. And now he was no longer of an age to have to go with the hype. No bad thing in the case of Neukölln.

He reflects on his own situation. Even he had always kept on the move through the city, trying to find a better place to be. But without his mother. It’d been good and was now long behind him. Now this lot are all at it, too. Make something of your lives, pack in this backward-looking retro crap and for once come up with something new to shock us, the guys who once did all the shocking. With a sigh he interrupts his private rant about the zeitgeist, caught in the act by Ariane’s daughter as she scrutinises him with a yawn.

A DJ from another era, but apparently still in service, is dragging a case of records towards the dance floor and pulling another one on wheels. Old guy goes on holiday. His lived-in face briefly acknowledges Bender. The nameless child, still perched mournfully at the bar, studies her black nail varnish. Kids want to party without their parents, never mind how their parents do it, thinks Bender, believing for a moment he’s really got something there.

By the time he’s back from the third toilet trip he’s had two brief conversations and one attempt at dancing. He tilts awkwardly back and forth on the dance-floor, keeps a half-hearted lookout for Doro and decides that for Stone Roses it’s better just to sit and jig.

The weathered-looking DJ puts a schnapps glass right under his nose, Bender drinks with him and enjoys the shared silence while staring at the dance-floor as they might the sea. ‘This lot are on a different planet,’ says the DJ down his ear, quite differently from Ariane, so that it’s comprehensible and doesn’t hurt. The DJ nods towards the crowd. ‘I can’t tell whether they’re feeling good or about to kick off.’ He gestures towards the people dancing in front of them but Bender doesn’t see anything he hasn’t already worked out for himself. ‘No idea what they’re on,’ comments the DJ whose suave fragrance didn’t suit his shabby look. Bender just shrugs. So what are they supposed to be on? Recreational chemicals? Prescription stuff? So what’s new? He’s not just too idle to ask, he doesn’t set any store by the old guy’s theories, either. Bender doesn’t like conversations about drugs, they bore him and insinuate a use that’s nobody’s business. ‘One thing’s for definite, their vibes are totally different from what ours used to be. They switch from being complete Neanderthals one minute to touchy-feely hippies the next. Totally weird.’

The DJ points out examples of what he means but Bender can’t see why he’s so puzzled by it all, had always thought he was the weirdo but just nods in agreement. His innards thud in time to the reverberation off the bass, at least the sound system’s good. One man’s practically licking his girlfriend’s shoulder off, a good-looking woman’s so off the beat she looks brain-damaged and two guys dancing at her are pushing away two women who move really well but are neither tall nor blond. Nothing indicates a new aspect of drug use. Maybe it’s nothing more than a few beers, maybe even nothing at all. A matted youth takes a mouthful of water from a bottle and lets it trickle into the mouth of an elaborately tattooed woman. ‘And,’ shouts the DJ, pointing into the crowd again, ‘they don’t even get pissed anymore.’ Bollocks to that, thinks Bender. People’ll always get pissed. Giving the old veteran a friendly pat on the shoulder, he moves on.

Less wooden now but far from being the vibrant soul of the party, Bender goes up to the bar again and orders another whisky. Ariane’s daughter has meanwhile become engrossed in a conversation with Viktor and Reza and they look like three adults having a serious discussion. The men’s faces, particularly Viktor’s, are glowing with interest. When Reza wants to introduce Bender to the girl, she just looks dismissive. What’s that supposed to mean, Bender wonders. That she already knows me? That I’m a friend of her mother’s and that means I’m old? Uncool by nature? Do people still say uncool? Bender laughs to himself, looking bemused.

Next to him, Viktor’s wife, Natalie, attempts to order a tea and is greeted by the bar-girl with obdurate incomprehension. ‘This lot can’t speak German,’ calls Reza who seems to know the place. You can understand ‘tea’, thinks Bender, if you know any English, French, Spanish or anything else. ‘Detox,’ shouts Natalie. ‘Great,’ says Bender and decides to leave but, instead of moving towards the exit, he lets the crowd suck him back into the throng.

The music has switched to minimal techno and then slipped into disco classics. The dancers look forced, like at a company do. Balloons float around, no thanks. What’s going on here? People alive in 2014 are sending up the people who rediscovered the seventies in the mid-nineties? No, that’s not it. It’s uninspired, purely and simply. Bender breaks off, knowing he’ll end up going round and round on his eternal monologue and boring himself the while. Anyone who knows Bender knows all about this, and Doro best of all, Doro the world’s most patient woman. Where is she, anyway?

Bender makes his way back to the bar like a neurotic tiger. The man who always does the photography at these gigs says hi and stands next to him. Then he asks Bender, oh so politely, if he could just move aside and he takes a photo of Ariane’s daughter, framed by Viktor and Reza. She still doesn’t know that one day she’ll recollect all these nights as a single blur of high points and shit mornings-after but she does know for a photo you have to suck in your cheeks, lower your chin a bit, and fix your gaze just above the camera. Only her chubby face stands between her and her modelling career.

Bender’s done his duty at Engelhardt’s party, yeah, and the rest, quite by contrast with Engelhardt himself, who is still nowhere to be seen, definitely his problem and not Bender’s, Bender who now plans to move on without farewells. Bender’s just deciding he really does want to find Doro now, when there’s a load of whooping and whistling at the other end of the bar. A diminutive figure in a cat-suit is climbing up onto the actual counter and then whistles through her fingers. With pride, Bender ogles her perfectly shaped little backside as she bends over to pull Ariane up there beside her. OK, one more performance, then we’re going, thinks Bender, in a better mood now and waves his empty glass at the girl behind the bar. She gives an apologetic shrug and nods towards Ariane and Doro. This act is not be interrupted by bar service. Nor by Bender, who has been with Doro for almost ten years, Doro who sometimes writes her name as D’Oro but Bender’s talked her out of that, as well as the equally fictitious and outdated surname of Sapporo. D’Oro Sapporo, alias Dorothea Conrady, is a brilliant mover. It had been her moves that had first attracted Bender. It hadn’t been obvious to him that he’d been looking for a woman who could lift his mood but the first time he’d seen her she’d released something in him, something which felt so good and exhilarating that he had to have it. He wanted Doro’s effortlessness and, contrary to the received wisdom about finding true love, got it without any prolonged struggles or need for self-promotion. Bender had seen her, made her laugh, taken her home, and turned them into an item overnight.

Bender switches back to the present. Bar service has been resumed, Doro and Ariane seem to be dancing in a parallel universe. This party is so dysfunctional that even the ancient concept of dancing on the table doesn’t lift the atmosphere. Anyway, at least Engelhardt’s turned up, his clapping and whooping making people near him do the same for a bit. Lame bunch, thinks Bender, let’s get out of here. He sees Engelhardt leaning on his crutches again after his brief attempt at improving the atmosphere and wants to take back that thought. He’d completely forgotten that Engelhardt really is lame. Much more concerning is his overall state. Engelhardt the brute is barely recognisable. His temporary injury makes him look neither manly nor bold, and does not even look temporary. He looks as if he’s mislaid something really important, his mojo, thinks Bender, and searches for a word to describe Engelhardt’s new look. Non-descript? Just then Engelhardt looks over and throws him a V for victory. Poor bloke, good guy, Bender wants to go for a quiet meal with him some time soon. Then, as he looks into the charmless crowd, he finds himself thinking how they should be pumping it up some, too, just to get something going here. Even if only to show some respect to the guy, damn it, this is a sick man who wants to throw a party, so make it happen for him, will you? He looks up at the bar again. When Ariane goes down on her knees and Doro stands over her playing air guitar, her legs wide apart, he does begin to think this is a real case of less is more. He loves Doro’s demonstrative style, loves his woman being the centre of attention. But, hey, just not now. Stuff like this is out of place here. Doro should be able to see that. But instead she kicks a glass off the bar, oblivious of the disapproving looks she gets.

Bender gazes round the bar area and feels as if he knows nobody. Nearby, Ariane’s daughter must have cracked a good joke because Viktor and Reza are laughing. A really pissed older bloke of Bender’s vintage is trying to grope Doro and Ariane. Just stop this crap straight away, thinks Bender, as if he could be heard, as if he was in charge of the whole show. Someone’s eyes meet his. The moon-faced girl with the apple on her head is standing in a forest of waving arms and beaming. She’s smiling at him as if he’s found an ally amidst a bunch of lunatics. He feels a bit hit on and yet caught out and would really like to make it clear to her that she’s got things wrong. No, little girl, it’s not that occasions like this make me feel insecure, it’s much more that their pointlessness and absence of originality annoys me because Herr Bender is normally to be seen at events of a quite different calibre. He raises his whisky glass in her direction. Elder statesman, is that what he wants to be? Too late. She’s giving him a long look while her friend is shrieking something down her ear, then she grins at him and he attempts a smile. As she gestures with her chin towards the women dancing on the bar and raises her eyebrows in amusement, his mouth goes dry. He suddenly realises who she meant earlier on when she said that about the saddo woman on the bar, looks up once more at Doro and looks back at Moon Girl, now coolly winking at him while replying to her friend’s remarks.

He sees Doro in a different light. The light of this party. Doro is, and this is how it goes, knocking on a bit now. The unforgiving light she’s now dancing in shows up every year. Bender doesn’t know what money or time she spends on her looks but has always felt confident he was with an exceptionally ageless woman. It’s simply that she’s never changed her style, he’s thinking to himself, but she has actually aged. As he studies her well-formed profile, he notices in it for the first time a tiredness that suddenly makes him feel sad. Then she turns towards Bender and he feels a bit better because her public face is there again, shouting out ‘Word Up’. Her body, too. Perfectly proportioned, supple, petite.

He’d never been interested in what women thought of one another when together, why they would, in the same breath, fall out and yet call for greater solidarity, something which he’d always found laughable. Here at this bar he saw himself confronted for the first time with the thoughts of younger women about older women. Maybe this one’s just a complete bitch, wonders Bender and decides not to trouble himself with stuff like this in the future. Doro just needs to stop this nonsense and come with him immediately.

Frank Engelhardt makes dance moves on the spot and swings his crutches around over the heads of the crowd, his old self briefly shining through again. Engelhardt was once one of Doro’s admirers. Once. Dancing round him now are some women whose baggy coats, woollen hats and beer-bottles make them look like down and outs stamping around some makeshift brazier. Definitely not my type, thinks Bender, who feels as if he’s in a mass of identical people, the only one to stand out as remotely different. And then there’s this presumptuous top-knot girl still looking him up and down. She’s got the unfair advantage of knowing what her advantage is. At her age Bender hadn’t known that youth is priceless. He looks back and forth tennis-match style between the bored young women and the hyper older women and tears himself out of his musings. Don’t take it seriously, all this crap here. Bad party, grotty coke, daft people, through any minute, don’t give a shit. The problem isn’t Doro, Bender’s thinking, the problem is these kids here with their wannabe coolness, an unfavourable contrast with their own enthusiasm. Unfavourable for Doro. Bender’s gloom persists. Just as Doro really turns it on and makes like she’s had a massive electric shock, the Moon Girl is suddenly at the counter, swinging her body up onto it and starting to dance. To Bender it seems everybody’s staring at the girl in revealing hot pants and danceable boots and not at the geisha-girl flip-flops attached to the feet of the woman Engelhardt’s now allowing to unbutton his shirt.

Doro and Ariane seem pleased about their new joiner even though this statuesque girl reduces them to support act status. Doro now assumes her favourite facial expression of big eyes and a big pout. Bender, realising for the first time that she’s deliberately making a dumb blonde face, as plain dumb as in a silent movie or a circus act, is getting seriously annoyed. Ariane simply wants to act sexy and stay sexy and it looks like she’ll manage that, so good luck to her. Doro’s tactics are well past their sell-by and this bothers him hugely although he’d really known it already, just never seen it in action. To Bender’s chagrin it all stirs up a real storm in him now, as if he’s discovered her secret flaw now so publicly exposed. Bender looks in the bar mirror and then up at his girlfriend again. He recognises himself but he doesn’t recognise her anymore. It’s not that he sees a stranger, that would maybe be better, someone transient and absurd, like this event. Bender sees someone he was once close to and isn’t anymore. Someone he hasn’t seen for a long time and who has developed along a completely different path. An old acquaintance misbehaving. And because on top of this, he’s in a state where he can see his thoughts not as thoughts but as quotations, he sums it up like this: Doro is a big kid. It’s so intolerable for Bender to have this kind of insight at this event that he’d rather be blind and deaf right now. But instead he thumps on the bar and shows his empty glass to the two dumbos standing behind it.

Women over forty aren’t cute anymore except if, please God, they’re beautiful, concludes Bender, carrying on in aphorism mode and really wanting to paint his observation on a sign and hold it in front of Doro’s nose. He wants Doro to stop the pouting stuff and making an arse of herself in front of these kids, wants her to act her age, and, more than anything else, wants to be standing at a bar where he can get some decent bloody service. And who on earth is Doro’s exhibitionism supposed to be aimed at – looks like it’s not Bender, whose presence at the bar seems to have passed her by, no eye contact from her, no smile, instead just a woman wasting her efforts on a void, expending everything on nothing, there’s no other way of describing it. The whole thing’s so shattering he nearly forgets to draw the next breath.
Miss Moon jumps down from the bar amid general applause. Doro and Ariane have completely lost any rapport with the audience, who now treat them like go-go girls and not people to be celebrated. Bender’s just turning away when someone pulls at his sleeve.

‘Pear or plum?’

Reza’s leading a countdown like a teacher with kids on a trip. ‘Wait until the oldies are done,’ Ariane’s daughter advises him and gives him such a smug smile that Bender, who’d normally describe himself as a gentleman, decides that this would be just the perfect moment to give her a slap. One of those women up there that she’s taking the piss out of is her mother, OK, another disaster but fortunately not Bender’s. ‘Just let me through,’ he says and keeps reality and his imagination poles apart while he gently, but pointedly, eases the girl to one side. The word ‘through’ stops dead inside his head. Through, through, through. Let me through, you useless twerps. I’m through. And he shoves his way further towards the exit, feeling like the one sighted man amongst the blind.

When Bender steps out into the night, he feels somewhat appeased. He thinks about the veteran DJ and congratulates himself on his own choice of profession which will not require him as an old man to stand around in clubs. With every step closer to his car his mind regains more of its usual state. He’s going to leave the car where it is but it’s reassuring to see it. Hey, look. Under the wiper there’s a parking ticket which he rips up on the spot, suddenly angry again with everyone who makes his life difficult and in that moment that really is everybody, including the taxi-driver who ignores his outstretched arm. He’ll complain to his next fare about not getting enough fares Through. Bender sets off on foot, breathes in the clammy air and feels happy for a moment without really knowing why.

A couple of blocks later the wall divided the centre from Kreuzberg, loaded with history but no longer recognisable, and Bender takes a leak against a hoarding. He reads the brightly illuminated sign about the builders and the architects, the apartments advertising the view of the river – a river which is far more unspectacular than the sign lets on. As Bender reflectively does up his flies, a car pulls over next to him. Fine, thinks Bender as he gets in, a woman wants to give me a lift, that’s new and about bloody time.

‘So? It’s you, then?’ says Moon Face while she accelerates away. And as Bender starts to reply, something’s released inside him and everything which comes out, his stories, his opinions are, all of a sudden, exciting and new again.

 

© From Momente der Klarheit. Hanser Berlin im Carl Hanser Verlag München, 2015

I Grew Up in a Scrapyard

Author: Antonia Baum
Translator: Deborah Langton

1

Theodor is our father. He claims he brought himself up without anybody else’s help.

“What? You grew up on your own, then?” asked Jonny from the back, as we drove yet again to the scrapyard. He was really called Johann-Sebastian, but always known as Jonny, and was the eldest of us three. We were in the old hearse. Theodor was in the front, with me in the passenger seat, Jonny and Clint behind us on the burgundy-coloured fake leather rear bench seat Theodor had screwed onto the loading area, but which, unfortunately, allowed only one passenger to be strapped in.

“Like I said, I brought myself up.” Theodor’s left eye rolled. Yet again he wasn’t wearing his eye-patch, something I thought made his relationship with his fellow men completely bogus, because people were almost always embarrassingly touched by the stitched-together slit which leered back at them from its sunken suture, as if from a death’s head.

Clint was pursuing the upbringing issue:

“But you must have had parents of some sort. Someone’s got to do the shopping, cooking and stuff!”

With Clint, my twin brother, it was always as if he was the younger one, but he’d been the bigger baby, born only minutes after me. He leaned towards the driving seat and smacked at Theodor’s extreme swimmer shoulders with his child-size hands, because he really wanted an answer. Theodor did not react. Clint was shaking him.

“The-o-dooor!”

“What’s up?”

I stared through the windscreen at the street, its unappealing greyness like pulped newspaper, and could tell from his voice exactly how he’d be looking at that moment; his chin jutting out, tilted slightly upwards, his head on one side, his eye narrowed and focusing on something which could actually be anywhere, not simply where we were driving.

“Go on Theodor, say something, do!”

Clint gently swiped at Theodor’s head.

Like an old hand, I said to Theodor, “You don’t listen!”

Theodor was suddenly there with, “I always listen! What was the question?”

“That people can’t actually bring themselves up on their own, and who did all the cooking!”

Theodor persisted with the ‘tilted-head-narrowed-eye’ routine. We sat waiting for him to open his mouth.

“OK, then, Mother was a particularly bad cook. So bad, everything was inedible. Apart from that there wasn’t much to go round anyway, and we were hard up, it was post-war, after all. Father and I used to go off and forage, and then, of course, there was always special stuff he wanted on the black market. And if he was tired in the evening, I always used to be allowed to drive us home. I was only eight.”

“You were allowed to drive when you were only eight?” I exclaimed, tapping my forehead and turning to Jonny so he could see I thought this was crazy, but he was sitting there grinning on the rear bench seat, his arms folded.

“That’s right. And I was involved with guns now and then. Guns were quite run of the mill,” explained Theodor and made a face as if guns were just a boring, everyday issue.

Clint was a bit upset now. “Your mother must have been worried about you!”

Theodor brushed this off. “No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t the usual type of mother, do you see? She was very adventurous and keen on sport. She didn’t really bother about anything, the main thing was that I was adventurous and keen on sport, too, and did well. It was my sporting prowess that got me into a sports boarding school.”

Jonny really wanted to demonstrate that none of this interested him, so just said, “Good, was it?”

“I once whacked one of the teachers in the face.”

Theodor fell silent for a while and then said, appreciatively, “Now that was very good!”

“Really?” I exclaimed loudly, and Clint, my twin, said, “No bullshit?”

“Yes, really. D’you think I’d make it up?” shouted Theodor, and it was hard to tell whether he was genuinely annoyed or just pretending.

It was equally hard to find out real stuff about Theodor. You know, just normal facts and tedious detail. But we had to try, somehow. And although we all knew the one about the whack in the face, even Jonny was now literally on the edge of his seat, because maybe there really was more where that came from.

“And then what?”

“I packed in school.” At this point, Theodor left a dramatic pause before explaining, nodding his head the while, his eye screwed up, “But of course it was all planned.”

Clint: “What? What happened then?”

Theodor, with pride: “I moved to Berlin.”

Now that was really something new.

Jonny, in disbelief: “How old were you?”

“Fifteen or so.”

Me: “Is that allowed?”

“You have to watch yourself a bit, but it’s OK.”

“So can I move to Berlin, too?” I asked, to test out whether Theodor would say no.

“Of course! We probably need to go to Berlin next week, anyway, for a fair bit. I know someone who wants to open a betting shop there, and I’m going to take a look at things with him,” replied Theodor, and overtook someone. On the roads he considered it his job to overtake. Hooting from behind, as usual.

“We’re going to Berlin?” called out Clint, drumming his feet with pleasure on the rear bench seat.

“Of course we’re going to Berlin.”

“But we’ve got school next week,” pointed out Jonny, with a sigh.

“If I move to Berlin, I’ll go to school there, of course,” I said. I was excited and trying to bring my forthcoming move to life.

“Look, mate,” said Jonny. “Of course you can’t move to Berlin,” he observed, looking at me with irritation. “You’re not even nine yet. Anyway, we’re talking about next week, moron.”

I gave him the finger in return. He looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.

Clint, who had been waiting patiently for the end of this discussion, carried on the interrogation.

“What did you do in Berlin, Theodor?”

“Earned money.”

“Doing what?” Clint dug deeper.

“Car dealing, for one,” replied Theodor, tersely.

“And what else?”

“This and that. I was a bouncer and a croupier, too.”

“What’s a croupier?”

Theodor, irritated: “Why d’you always want to know everything?”

“Because I want to know everything you’ve done, that’s all,” said Clint, a bit hurt.

Theodor nodded, meditatively, his eye fixed again on that spot that nobody else could see. He looked at the Rolex on his right wrist, the one with the fastener that made such a nice clacking sound every time he changed gear. He had to brake.

“Boy oh boy, we could do without this traffic. Drives me up the wall. Rolf’s waiting for us. And we’ve still got to go to Kalli’s afterwards,” said Theodor, more to himself than anybody else, like someone explaining to himself what needs to be done.

“Why do we have to go to the scrapyard again today? It’s always bloody freezing there,” I grumbled, leaned my head against the passenger door, and looked at the low sky, so low it was touching the rooftops.

“You shouldn’t say ‘bloody’, Romy, I’ve told you that a thousand times already,” said Theodor, his voice gradually getting louder and louder. “Rolf is going to lend me his angle grinder, because we need it in Berlin. And, apart from that, the Merc’s got starter motor problems again and you don’t want us to break down halfway there, now do you, my dove, my love.”

“We’re always going to the stupid scrapyard.”

I was trying to sound annoyed but not actually rude, otherwise Theodor might flip. I hated the scrapyard because there was even more crap piled up there than at home. There was nothing nice there at all. Only crud and stuff that was knackered, and everything was angular and untidy. And Rolf, who owned the scrapyard, couldn’t say anything in the normal way, but always shouted, shouted every single sentence. Besides, his nose was always full and I’d definitely seen snot hanging out of it three times.

“So what else did you do to earn money, apart from being a bouncer?” Clint picked up the conversation again. I groaned.

Theodor took a deep breath, as if the conversation was a huge effort.

“Car dealing, for one.”

Jonny made a face. “You’ve already said that.”

Clint: “And? What else?”

“I lived right next door to a scrapyard, did my school exams on the side, and studied medicine. I’ve always earned my own money.”

“OK. And when did you meet… Mum?” asked Clint hesitantly, his voice dropping to a near whisper at the end of the question.

Theodor’s reply came slowly, as if he was spelling out something for a bunch of half-wits to write down. “It always meant a lot to me to be independent. More than anything, that’s my advice to all of you. Make sure you stay with it and quickly get to earn your own money. Then nothing much can go wrong.”

“Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole,” said Clint, in full agreement.

Theodor: “That’s right. Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole.”

“But when did you meet Mum!? That was the question, Theodor,” I reminded him, and was amazed at my own boldness but didn’t hold out much hope for an answer.

Everyone was talking at once, anyway.

“But was your mother sort of nice, somehow?” asked Jonny suddenly, after being quiet for a long time.

Me, loudly: “God, what’s that got to with it?”

Clint, even more loudly: “Shut up, Romy!”

“You shouldn’t tell your sister to shut up!” said Theodor, the loudest of all.

“Well, of course my mother was nice. But she was more like a man,” he said, revelling in the impact of this explanation.

“A man?”

I tapped my forehead again.

“Whaaat?” went Clint.

Jonny said nothing, but craned forwards.

“She only had me because she could, and that was probably why she always had a bit of a downer on me,” explained Theodor, as if it was all perfectly obvious.

Jonny, the sceptic: “In what way, a bit of a downer?”

“Well, I assume so. Psychologically.”

“What’s psychologically?” I whispered.

“To do with the state of the human mind,” Theodor said, groaning a bit about us.

“What’s with the ‘psychologically’, then?” asked Jonny, still a bit wary.

“Well, our punch-ups, for a start. The old girl could really dish it out, but I used to give as good as I got. Then later on, you know, she just went swanning off round the world, and I saw her for the last time in the early seventies.”

“There’s no logic to what you’re saying,” commented Jonny, leaning back again in disappointment.

“And your father?” asked Clint.

“A lawyer. Always used to defend me,” said Theodor, and started to get much more forthcoming. “Father was an intellectual. Had an artistic nature but mother wouldn’t have any of that, so he earned the money. In any case my artistic streak comes from him. Well, at some point my father got sick of it all and cleared off to Moscow and became a pastry chef in a luxury hotel. That way he could really express himself. He made a Porsche 356 No.1 Roadster out of marzipan and sent me a photo of it, but I never got to Moscow to see him.”

“Are you sad about that?” asked Clint, in a voice like a chain-smoking Micky Mouse.

Theodor tilted his head to one side, and made an ‘O’ shape with his lips.

“Of course something like that makes you sad,” he said after a bit. He was thinking. “But I’m actually pretty contented, provided you lot don’t give me any hassle.”

“OK, then please tell again about how you lost your eye when you came off the bike doing 140 on the motorway,” begged Clint.

But we were already there.

Theodor got out.

“Back soon.”

It had started to snow, and with Theodor ‘soon’ could turn into ‘ages’.
2
Theodor’s gone. We’ve been sitting in the living room, waiting for him, ever since we all decided we should meet up, and then went to the village where Theodor’s house is, our old house. That’s where we’re sitting now, and waiting, and we don’t know how much we should be worrying. It was Jonny who’d said, “Look, let’s meet in an hour at Theodor’s place.” And when Jonny says something like that, we just do it. Nine days ago, Theodor vanished. He hasn’t been picking up. He vanished without leaving any note or message, all the more peculiar because today’s our birthday, Clint’s and mine, I mean. We’ve phoned every possible number, and Jonny’s spoken to the surgery where he works but nobody knows anything there, either; the cars are all in the garage or parked outside the house, so are the motorbikes.

On the table are empty pizza boxes and our phones. The table is protected by sticky plastic film, covered in dust. There are some faint round marks here and there. The curtains are closed, but not fully, and it’s black night beyond the terrace window, and although it’s dark outside, and inside only the dim living room lights are on, it’s obvious how mucky it is everywhere, and although it’s never been any different, the dirt makes me angry. And so do the black motorbike tyres on a bit of tarpaulin in the middle of the living room floor, they make me angry, too.

Jonny’s sitting on the beige massage chair that Sultan once bought, fiddling with the recliner button. The ponderous hum of the electric motor cuts through the stillness in the living room. It’s annoying. But it’s actually Jonny that’s annoying. He puts his feet up on the table, he takes them down again, he reaches across the table for the bottle of whisky that belongs to Theodor, he pours Theodor’s whisky into a glass and drinks, and jumps up and takes a couple of paces, and then sits down again. His eyes flick nervously round the room, and he says for the second time maybe we should be calling the police, only to say all in the same sentence that they wouldn’t help us, because the police never help anyone, they just create problems instead.

“We should ask Kalli. He might actually know something,” said Clint, next to me on the ancient leather sofa, its stuffing hanging out underneath. The leather has dark, greasy marks in the places where it’s been sat on so much. Clint’s looking for something in his trouser pocket.

“Kalli doesn’t know anything about anything. His brain had it bloody ages ago,” says Jonny, softly. He lights a cigarette and watches the smoke as he exhales into the air, as if it can tell him what to do next. He drops back down into the massage chair. The cigarette between his lips, he runs his hands over the old newspapers stacked up on the table, then gets rid of the dust by wiping his hands on his trousers, and pulls a face.

“He’ll turn up again alright,” I say, to make things better. We were quite sure Theodor was going to turn up again today at the latest. Because we absolutely always meet to celebrate a birthday, although of course we don’t celebrate like people normally do. Theodor doesn’t like birthdays, asks what all the fuss is about, you can’t help having a birthday, he says, birthdays are not an achievement. But he never forgets them. He strides up to the occasion, puts his arms round us, gives us a hug, says ‘Many happy returns’ and sings us a birthday song. He’s done the birthday roll call in exactly the same way year after year, and done his duty, although he can’t sing at all, I’m thinking and then saying, laughing and looking to see if the others will laugh with me.

“He sings just so badly,” murmurs Clint, his head bent over the table where he’s preparing the coke he did eventually find in his trouser pocket, the coke he doesn’t flog anymore but still loves like crazy. And I love Clint. And Jonny and Theodor. But loads of things about us are a bit odd. I don’t mean that in a ‘ha ha look at our nutty family’ sort of way. I mean there’s something really seriously odd about us.

But I love my father, I do not know that, and please don’t let him be dead. And, apart from that, I wouldn’t know who to turn to if I got up to my eyes in debt again. Although our dealings are always pretty heavy-going, and afterwards he thinks he owns me, I do somehow get a bit of money from him every time, and that’s how we stay in touch. That’s what we do together, argue about money and haggle over interest and make new agreements. We’ve got countless agreements, going right back to the late eighties. Theodor keeps a precise record of the amounts and the repayment terms in a little book with a brown leather cover. The book with our agreements. We haven’t got anything else. But that’s not quite true.

I look at the white canvases propped against the bookshelves, the canvases Theodor covers with his own painting. In front of the spines of the books are little paint-pots, streaks of congealed colour seeming to run down their outsides. A paint-smeared pickle-jar holds a dysfunctional family of worn brushes. It really does look as if nobody has been here for centuries, and smells like it, too. Stale air. Left-over turps, engine oil, cigarette smoke mingled with sweat, add to that fuel oil from the basement, cooking fat from the kitchen, dandruff along the back of the sofa, then all mixed together and stored in every scrap of material in the house.

“Give us a note, would you,” says Clint. I hunt in my bag and hand him a fiver. Clint does a line, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with this early evening if your father’s gone missing. His eyes are staring, his pupils huge, he looks like a fox in the headlights.

Jonny’s pacing up and down in front of the bookshelves. He says the whisky’s good, too good to have been bought by Theodor, so probably a present. We all burst out laughing at the thought of Theodor’s obsessive thrift, and Jonny’s the first to fall silent again.

The obsessive thrift is what I come up against when he says to me the thing he’s said to me for as long as I can remember, and that’s, “Romy, you really have got a manageable cost structure. It’s the basic market principles you need to grasp. Your outgoings need to match your income. When will that sink in?”

And then I say something like: “Never, and it’s your fault, because it’s all down to you that I’ve developed a completely defective relationship with money. I’ll put that in writing if you want. Scientifically proven.”

I know it’s daft to blame Theodor, it’s stupid, but I still try to talk to him. I’m studying psychology (though thinking right now about packing it in) but Theodor doesn’t set much store by my subject knowledge, and refuses to acknowledge any connection between my strange relationship with money and his, which is probably right to a certain extent. At the end of the day it’s all crap, anyway.

Clint’s snorting coke next to me. Jonny’s standing with his back to us in front of the terrace window, looking out into the darkness. To his left are Theodor’s wooden clogs, their leather patched, and patched again. I knock three times on the wooden table, because I really do now think Theodor’s dead, and I want the thought to go away. He could have been dead so many times. I’ve expected it every day of my life, simply because I always thought if I don’t expect it, then it’ll happen, so because of that I was forced to expect it, otherwise something would have happened to him. And so nothing’s ever happened to him. But today, I’m thinking to myself, maybe because Jonny’s so agitated, something could have happened. I see his smashed skull stuck to a crash barrier, one wooden clog left burning in the middle of the motorway, oh God how that abandoned shoe gets to me, even though the foot and everything attached to it is such an arsehole, and even though the clog is there next to Jonny. And I’ve so often imagined that something’s happened to him and, OK, it’s never happened, but now this could be something. If only we just knew what’s going on, if he really has got some problem. Maybe then everything would be different, maybe it would be a relief. But I don’t want to think like that. I knock on the wood again, three times, so hard I grip my knuckles afterwards.

“What’s all that about?” Jonny turns and looks at me like I’ve spat on the ground right in front of him.

“Nothing,” I say, and I have to knock three more times, or Theodor’s dead.


From
Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf,  © 2015 Hoffmann und Campe

 


Translator’s Note

I grew up in a scrapyard and lived off hub caps and bumpers. That’s just my translation of the book’s full title: Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf, wo ich lernte mich von Radkappen und Stossstangen zu ernähren.

Published in 2015 by Hoffmann und Campe, this 400-pager is journalist Antonia Baum’s second novel. I’d heard about it and noted the great title, usually shortened to ‘Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf’, and was pleased when the publisher commissioned me to do this extract translation into English.

I seem to be drawn to tales of ‘kaputte Kindheit’ where the characters find the strength and grit to work their way through early life difficulties to adulthood. One of my personal criteria for calling a book ‘good’ is if I miss the people in it when I’ve finished reading it. Although the one female character, Romy, is widely referred to by reviewers as the only halfway sensible person in the whole story, her father and two brothers are larger than life, you can almost scent their presence as you read, and I missed them, too. I like the resilience and strength of the relationships. Then there’s the impact of a family secret, the devastation that may be caused by information withheld.

Another of my personal criteria is whether I want to read the book again very soon. And I did, and got even more out of it, in spite of, and yet also because of, knowing the shocking dénouement. This is all about the information withheld. I won’t tell you in case you decide to read it. But it’s about the children’s mother.

Reviewers refer to the language and draw parallels with Rap and Hip Hop but don’t be put off by this. Sometimes I think reviewers are not given enough time to read the whole book but just have to write the review somehow. I like neither Rap nor Hip Hop but love Antonia Baum’s narrative style and the dialogue.

The reviews are positive but tend to the sensational, majoring on drugs and the unsavoury characters drawn in by Theodor, the father. This will be good for sales. But what stands out for me is the strength of the relationship between these three siblings, and their love for their crazy, affectionate, neglectful father, and the strong attachments they form to other adults as they grow up. Here are a few reviewers’ comments, translated for the purpose of this note:

Die Zeit (9.4.15)

Intensely poetic {…} good; witty, poignant, a real page turner

Poetisch dicht {…} – gut; witzig, ergreifend, ein Pageturner

Aachener Zeitung

It’s brutal, touching, exciting like a thriller

Es ist brutal, berührend und spannend wie ein Thriller

SZ (16.4.2015) Dana Buchzik

This is a magnificent novel. Antonia Baum is quite simply a mercilessly good story-teller.

Dieser Roman ist ein grossartiges Buch. Antonia Baum erzählt einfach erbarmungslos gut.

Myself 16.3. 2015

Great story

Tolle Story

There were a few interesting issues to mull over before, and during, the translation process. Theodor’s ‘voice’ was the main one. Here’s a doctor, and we know doctors are thought to be wonderfully cavalier about their children’s upbringing, but this one is completely off the scale. It doesn’t fit. Then you piece him together; the former East, packed off to a boarding school for sporting prowess, a mother who was not mad on being anybody’s mother, Theodor did that thing we call ‘shifting for himself’ in a big way. So he mixes this child-rearing approach into the rearing of his own motherless children, although he is a doctor and, presumably, seen as a pillar of some sort of community. He mixes with unsuitable people and takes his children out of school for inappropriate projects. But they still love him. Mix all this together and his ‘voice’ begins to form.

The children’s ‘voices’ were a joy to translate. Alternating chapters bring them to us as primary school age, then young adult, then back to primary. I enjoyed trying to capture their tireless questioning of Theodor, with Romy trying to keep a lid on Theodor’s unpredictable reactions. Then as young adults they banter, they interrupt each other and needle each other. And through it all comes Romy’s warm, sometimes lost, but always loving, voice.

I think the sentence I enjoyed translating the most was this one:

‘Er drehte sich weg und lehnte den Kopf an das Seitenfenster, durch das man nicht hindurchgucken konnte, weil es ein Leichenwagen-Fenster aus Milchglas war. Ein Palmwedel war auch darauf.’

‘He (Jonny) looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.’

I like it for the juxtaposition of this mostly cheerful, funny, questioning little boy and the dreariness and inappropriacy of his eccentric father’s choice of vehicle. This book is well worth the read.

April (two excerpts)

Author: Angelika Klüssendorf
Translator: Deborah Langton

Chapter 1
The young woman rings the doorbell for the ground floor flat. Fancy writing on the name-plate, Frl. Jungnickel. A bird chirrups, two little trills, then all’s quiet again. The man next to her clears his throat and then he’s pressing the bell push too, impatiently, insistently. This time they hear footsteps, the barred window set in the door opens and an old lady looks through it, motionless but for a twitch of the eyelid. After a bit, she seems to grasp what the man from youth welfare is telling her. The young woman and the man have to show her their papers before being allowed in. They follow her through the hall into a tunnel-like room. The young woman looks around, feels an icy draught on her face; the window can’t fit properly. This is where she’ll spend the next few months, maybe even years. She’s just eighteen and has been allocated the room by youth welfare, as well as the clerical post at the central power station.
They go into the kitchen with the old lady. Never in her life has she seen so gloomy a kitchen, even the man registers surprise. The floor tiles are black as pitch, the walls have been covered over with dark paint, oily and glistening, the worktops on the kitchen cupboard, and even around the sink, are coated with black linoleum.
It’s because of the ‘dest’, says the old lady in the local dialect. It’s the first time she’s ever heard the word and she asks, What’s dest? She can’t quite follow the explanations but thinks she understands it to mean ‘muck’, and yet the kitchen is spotlessly clean, not a speck of dust in sight.
The man takes his leave and wishes the young woman good luck for her future life, as if it were a game of dice.
Fräulein Jungnickel, scraggy, around seventy, vanishes into her room, leaving the door open just a crack. Now the chirruping is quite loud, together with the voice of the old woman, carrying out a conversation with the bird.
In the afternoon the furniture she was allowed to choose from the house clearance place gets delivered, a settee, two armchairs, an old glass cabinet, then pans, crockery, bed linen.
She’s spent the last few years in children’s homes and has been released into adult life with a hundred marks and the paperwork for the flat allocation. She’s called herself April. April’s meagre possessions are inside her only suitcase, which she now heaves up on to the stove. She’ll have to get hold of some coal, there’s still half the winter ahead. It’s midday Saturday; she goes to the only store there is and buys bread and a huge supply of packet soups. On the way back, she tries to memorise which buildings have piles of coal outside on the pavement.
Just when she wants to make a packet soup for herself in the kitchen, Fräulein Jungnickel comes in and stands in front of her, arms folded. The old spinster stays put, silently watching April. As soon as any drops of water splash the black linoleum, she picks up a neatly folded cloth and wipes them away, then resumes her previous position. It goes on for some time like this. April stirs the soup, a little drop or a speck of something go astray, the old woman swoops on her prey, hawk-like. April knows she has to get on with the old bag, so she smiles as she would over a little joke.
She makes up her bed on the settee, wrapping the blanket round herself tightly. As she tries to read, the clock chimes. Just as it strikes ten, her door opens and in comes Fräulein Jungnickel, and switches off the light without a word. April lies on her back and stares into the darkness. From upstairs there’s a prolonged, persistent knocking that carries on echoing behind her forehead. When the noise stops, she notices how very quiet the room is.
In the morning, she wakes early and becomes aware first of the hideous wallpaper, then her feet, numb with cold. She stuffs the blanket around the ill-fitting window, lights the gas stove in the kitchen and warms herself by its flames. The bird’s making what sounds to her like some lament. She dresses and leaves the flat. The harsh rays of morning light fall on deserted streets, the snowdrifts piled up against the kerb are mucky with soot, the place smells of flue gas, coal dust and sulphur. She wanders around aimlessly, the snow crunching beneath her feet. The shops look as if they were abandoned years back, the usual lifeless tat in the windows. April wonders what she’ll buy with her first pay packet. There’ll be a record-player, whatever happens. She’d so often pictured herself with a room of her own, listening to Janis Joplin. She’s proud of this album, the one she’d got by swapping a Wolf Biermann, which she’d previously got hold of in exchange for Shakespeare’s works, a superb edition bound in green leather.
There’s no sighting of the Fräulein all day. She even makes her packet soup without interruption and yet overhears the dialogue with the bird going on until well into the evening. This time April switches the light off herself, before the clock strikes ten, relieved that Sunday is over.
She wakes before the alarm, quietly goes into the toilet and cleans her teeth at the washbasin. She wants to look tidy so she can’t put on her favourite stuff, her patched Levi’s and tee shirt from the West, the one with the US flag on it.
It’s still dark when she gets off the tram in the city centre. She joins all the others walking towards a large, low building, with the power station’s official name, “VEB Kombinat Starkstromanlagenbau Leipzig -alle”, written in neon over the main entrance. It should actually say ‘Halle’ but the ‘H’ isn’t lit up. For some reason she likes this, although she has little appetite for her new job. But what other routes could possibly be open to her? She’s nothing more to show than the basic school-leaving certificate and an incomplete apprenticeship at a cooperative.
The doorman escorts her to her department. The smell of disinfectant lingers in the corridors. As she steps into the room everybody looks up, then a middle-aged woman at the end of the large table gets to her feet and introduces herself as the office manager. She gestures, as a hostess might, towards the vacant seat by the window. April counts up seven more people, all staring at her nosily. The office manager introduces her to everyone, but the names barely sink in. The woman to her left immediately starts a lecture about their tasks. These consist of allocating cable to companies, filling out a form for every single allocation, and, in doing so, adhering to the coding from one to ten, where number one signifies government property and is to be given priority. The woman’s speech generates a lot of saliva and April tries discreetly to wipe the spit from her own face. A man with thinning hair carefully combed over his scalp firmly and repeatedly runs his pencil along the edge of his ruler. He’s the only man in the room. After just one hour, it’s taking all April’s self- control not to fall asleep on the table. She tries to fill out the forms in her best handwriting. During the breakfast break she buys coffee, sausage and some bread rolls from the kiosk. She feels intimidated eating in front of all her colleagues; she thinks she can see a gentle sense of superiority in their expressions and what she’d most like to say to them is, I won’t be here when I’m as old as you are now.
With her first pay packet of 320 marks, she buys herself a record-player and a beautifully illustrated old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Whenever she reads her favourite story, the one about Gretel, the clever cook with the two roast chickens, she goes back to her childhood when she used to get locked in the cellar as a punishment and would distract herself from her hunger by reading this story. Now she reads the book with the feeling she has escaped, for the time being.
She’s left with a paltry 28 marks for the rest of the month. But there are always ways and means of making ends meet. She steals whenever she can. Back in the children’s home she was the cleverest thief, once spiriting away ten bars of chocolate from right under the shopkeeper’s nose.
Before setting off early for work, she places the Janis Joplin record on the turntable, repeatedly lifting the needle back to the same track, ‘Summertime’, her best-loved song that winter.
She tries to get on with the old spinster, although for quite a while now she’s stopped just taking it all. If the old woman switches her light off in the evening, April simply puts it back on and ignores the nagging, knows to let it go in one ear and out the other.
She has got hold of some coal and missed a rental payment. She lives on packet soups and the kiosk breakfast. During the day she daydreams about meeting interesting people. In the evenings in her room, she writes long letters to an unknown lover, presenting herself in a variety of roles, sometimes a student of veterinary medicine, sometimes an actor, or sometimes just an adventurer.
One particularly icy day, she puts more coal on until late into the evening. When a coughing fit wakes her in the night, she finds the whole room full of smoke. Bleary-eyed, she switches on the light and finds her suitcase smouldering, still on the stove. Half asleep, she flings open the window, drags the case into the hall, dopily leaves it there on the wooden floor, tumbles back into bed and goes back to sleep straight away. But then she gets woken again, this time by a deafening hammering and when she opens her door, she finds two firemen coming towards her through clouds of smoke. Fräulein Jungnickel, dressed only in a nightdress, is wandering around in the hall, one of the firemen is trying to calm her down and the bird is pitifully squawking for its life. The men carry the suitcase outside, hose down the wooden floor and one of them shouts something, wondering how anyone could be so incredibly stupid.
With the suitcase, April loses everything which connects her to the past. Letters, diaries, objects she’s collected up during the course of her life. Once everything has calmed down, she can’t get back to sleep for some time. Perhaps the fire was a sign, a sign of a new beginning, but she has no idea what that’s supposed to look like.
After this incident, Fräulein Jungnickel doesn’t let April out of her sight. The old woman comes into her room whenever it suits her, comments on every speck of dust in her sing-song Saxony accent, even follows her to the toilet and waits outside the door. She complains loudly to her bird about April, and lets fall the word ‘dest’ over and over again.
Friends from April’s old crowd pay her a visit for a flat-warming. They travel in from villages, cross the Styx to see her, the one who now lives in the big city. During her apprenticeship, she’d spent all her spare time with them, roared around the area on the back of a motorbike, always after new thrills. Off to Brno to watch motor racing, eat goat’s cheese, drink a dark beer; in March, the first dip in the Baltic Sea; once they’d even spent the night in a church.
Schwarze Paul has brought along two crates of beer; he’s a sheep-shearer and his powerful arms could carry five like her. He greets her as if he’d seen her just yesterday. Well now, Ribby, it’s pretty cold in this place of yours. He shows her a bruise the shape of a sheep’s hoof on his hand. ‘Bastard animal,’ he says. ‘Could have bloody throttled it.’
She likes her nickname. ‘Ribby’ has a comforting sound. A while back, the boys had had rather different names for her: ‘Bag of bones’, ‘Twig’, ‘Rake’.
Sputnik arrives, called after one of the many Soviet satellites. She was the only one who could match up to April’s long-distance running at school. Sputnik takes in April’s room with a sceptical look. ‘Hey, really bourgeois wallpaper, and who’s that old bag out there?’
The old bag’s never been young, says April, she was even born old, and with her cleanliness fixation, she’ll be blowing my nose for me if I’m not careful. She relates how Frau Jungnickel keeps her under surveillance – they all quickly agree the old spinster is mad.
God, you can’t put up with that, said Schwarze Paul, his slight squint taking a slide, giving him a dangerous look.
It’s late afternoon and the whole gang’s gathered together in her room. They drink, smoke, chew over the old days like war vets, Midge does a send-up of Walter Ulbricht, they sing seventies’ hits. Midge is even thinner than she is, his features chiselled like a wooden puppet. April has never heard him speak of his terminal disease, but Sputnik says he’s not going to make old bones. In the evenings they get the bus to a small-town disco, the ‘Riviera’, and queue patiently to get in. By the time the pock-marked bouncer waves them through, the best seats by the stove are gone, so they warm themselves with a ‘traffic light’, a liqueur mix of crème de menthe, apricot and cherry. Midge stands round after round. The atmosphere’s really brewing up in the packed hall as April, high as a kite now, fights her way across it, dipping and diving until she manages to get up on to the stage to ask the DJ to play ‘April’ by Deep Purple. As day breaks she just doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to stop dancing, but the house-lights snap on harshly even while ‘Je t’aime’ is still going. She’s had a dance with Frieder, snuggled up close to him, and when the music stops, she’s still there, captured in a freeze-frame, her eyes closed as she returns his kisses.
Early in the morning she’s the first to wake, her friends in sleeping-bags all over her floor, her room stinking of alcohol and yesterday’s smoke. April’s shaky and hungover. At the window she notices a glittery icicle, drops escaping from its tip; she thinks she can hear the explosion as each drop bursts. Frieder’s lying next to her on the settee. She tries to remember what happened the night before, but nothing more than smooching comes back. April is in love, which means nothing, as she’s often in love. She can exchange glances with a stranger and dream of him for nights on end; just one encounter is enough to make her heat beat faster, but it doesn’t last. Frieder’s mouth is gorgeous but his kisses are hard and dry. He’s joined up for three years because he wants to be a doctor. The girls really rate him, and not just for his looks. He wears Levi’s and knows stuff about music. She clambers over him gingerly, goes to the kitchen and while she’s putting the kettle on, notices there’s no birdsong coming from Jungnickel’s room, not a single tweet. Gradually, all the others wake up and Midge finds more booze in his rucksack, a bottle of high-proof miners’ schnapps; she only sips at it. At some point, Schwarze Paul has this idea about paying a call on the old woman and her bird. April isn’t too keen, but says OK.
Let’s toss for it, says Midge. Heads or tails and the winner has to strip off and warble some song in front of the old dear, starkers.
Heads, calls Schwarze Paul and wins. He undresses as if everything’s quite normal. Sputnik lets out an admiring whistle at his frighteningly impressive dimensions. It’s now that April wants to call the whole thing off but Schwarze Paul’s already on his way.
They can hear him belting out ‘Ramona, goodbye’, then a shrill screeching, rising through the octaves, mingled with the crazy sound of a bird seeming to scream out hue and cry, and when Schwarze Paul comes back, he’s deathly pale. That old girl has never seen a naked man before, that’s obvious, he says.
In the evening, once her friends have said ‘bye and gone, April doesn’t dare go into the hall. She can hear some banging around, as if furniture’s being shifted, and she visualises the old spinster barricading herself in behind a wardrobe and thinking about Schwarze Paul.

Chapter 4
Fräulein Jungnickel is complaining about the heat. Sonny, I’m in a lather of sweat, she says to her bird; to April, not a word. The old woman has never called the bird by name before. April glances into the room, sees only the empty cage and that’s when she realises there’s definitely no more chirping in the flat.
She’s on holiday leave. She doesn’t miss Sven. But sometimes she wonders whether he and the guv have tried the poisoned sugar, whether they’ve both died, but then she calms herself with the thought that that kind of thing only happens in films.
April dozes her holiday away by the hour, but still feels tired. She goes to the outdoor pool they went to as kids. She thinks of her brother, Alex, and how they climbed in over the fence. She would swim for so long her lips went blue while Alex spent hours crouched beneath a tree, his snorkel always in his mouth.
Midge is dead. A blood disorder. He lies in state, behind glass. She can’t associate this face, wizened like a newborn, with Midge. She can’t help thinking back to when he’d asked her for a kiss. And what had she done? Fobbed him off with an empty promise. Later, Midge, when we’re grown up, then I’ll kiss you. Miserable, lying bitch! April wants to mourn but senses only her loneliness. After the funeral, she and the group go to the pub, drink beer, schnapps, wine, sing Midge’s favourite love songs. Schwarze Paul tearfully kisses away the beer froth still on her lips. Saying goodbye to her friends afterwards seems to April like a conclusion, as if this phase of her life is over.
Late in the evening, she’s wandering through the streets in the city centre and goes into a particular bar for the first time. The lighting has a watery hue; she sits on a stool and takes on what she thinks is a suitable pose. She tries to make herself heard by the barman. A vodka and cola, she says loudly, and when he looks at her inquiringly, she says it again. A vodka and cola.
You old enough, kid, he asks her, and butterflies flutter in her stomach as she puts her identity card on the counter. It feels as if she’s been caught stealing. But the barman just pushes the drink across the bar to her. April lights each cigarette from the still glowing tip of the one before and waits for the alcohol to help her unwind. Blinking, she sees wisps of colour whirling through the air, feels so light her bones could be hollow. She orders the same again. When a man raises his glass to her, she goes over and, without introducing herself, tells him all about Midge’s funeral. She’s talking as if to complete a sentence begun lifetimes ago. The man buys her drinks, but when he wants to kiss her, out in the street, she breaks free and runs off.

For days, she keeps meeting Midge in constantly changing guises. He checks her ticket on the tram, is on the till at the store, crashes drunkenly into her in the hall, calls her a stupid cow, comes walking towards her on the street, wearing a Tyrolean hat. Midge gloats over her misfortune, becomes her departmental manager and puts his hand on her breasts, actions only permitted to the dead. He asks her why she’s fucking up everything she’s fought to build up, and when she refuses to answer, he says, Well, you really should be thinking about that. Then he leaves her for good – which is precisely the ways she treats friends, too.

She’s barely uttered a word for days, feels the beating of her heart, so intense and loud, as if in an empty room of its own. In the office, her colleagues are discussing whether she should do an apprenticeship to become a trained industrial clerk. It would mean she could get a proper qualification once and for all; that would clearly be the best thing for her. April barely makes any contribution to the discussion, doesn’t really feel involved, says politely yes, that would be nice, a real profession. And highly respectable, adds Herr Blümel, slightly annoyed at her lack of ambition.
She finds the form-filling so boring she thinks up little games. She allocates cables not to the government and the armed forces, but to smaller organisations. This contravention goes unnoticed until a building site supervisor sends her his thanks and a donation to the coffee fund, whereupon the office manager makes it clear to April that her little unauthorised acts could also be viewed as acts of sabotage.
She’s surprised other people even bother thinking about her. She has really no conception of how she’s viewed by others; sometimes her feet feel twice the size of the rest of her body. She simply ignores her colleagues’ pointed remarks. When Herr Blümel’s female neighbour at the table casts a critical look in her direction and remarks, men want to move in with a woman, not a stick insect, she doesn’t care. Men. Women. Slugs and snails. A woman’s cunt. She hates the ‘c’ word but can’t think of anything better. And if she can’t even think of the right word for the thing between her legs, then it’ll just have to remain unknown.
She calls the women in the office ‘harpies’. Herr Blümel’s a harpy, too. As the only man here, he can’t really be anything else, and she assigns female characteristics to him, too: deceitfulness, rage, weakness. Whatever happened to gratitude? And as for herself, maybe she isn’t a woman? Still, at least she’d found herself a name. She feels forcibly stalled in childhood, a girl trying to act like a woman without making it across the invisible boundary in between.

She can’t concentrate on anything anymore. A dark mood has given itself squatting rights in her body. She doesn’t go to the office, stays on the settee all day, wrapped in a sweat-soaked sheet. She hears Fräulein Jungnickel talking to herself, her shuffling footsteps in the hall, doors opening and closing. She waits until Tuesday. On Tuesdays, Fräulein Jungnickel works late, on toilet duty at the factory. This is the day on which April is planning to kill herself. She’s not particularly anxious or upset at the thought, she’s simply sick and tired of breathing.
Early on Tuesday morning, when the flat door slams shut at long last behind the old woman, April carries her mattress and record player into the kitchen. She has a thorough wash, carelessly spatters water around the place, and slips on a kimono. She turns on the gas, puts on Janis at full blast. She lays down, her head on the stove door. The kimono, a gift from Schwarze Paul on her seventeenth, had been his grandmother’s, the silver-grey cloth embroidered with colourful birds, the arms cut wide and loose, the lining now cool against her skin. It’s like something a wizard might wear. April manages to get up once more to turn the record over.

Tiny, white lace cloths are fluttering down on her from a long way up. Or are they birds? Little sparrows, made of wool? Feathers? No such thing as woollen sparrows, thinks April, although she finds it hard to believe. She’s on her back, can’t bring any order to the voices round her. She blinks, tries to keep her eyes open like the voices are telling her to, and when she eventually does, she sees people clad in white and immediately realises she’s in hospital. She nods in response to a question she doesn’t understand.
It could have turned out quite differently, the man in a white coat is saying. It was close. If your landlady hadn’t turned up, we wouldn’t be talking to one another now.
April takes a deep breath. She’s alive, that’s how it’s turned out, even though she definitely wanted to die. But then if dying is as hard as living, she’ll definitely go on living a bit longer. She has survived and the elation unlocks a real sense of exuberance deep within her. She could just herd sheep or go to sea. Look at the opportunities! Why hasn’t she thought of this before?
But the enthusiasm doesn’t last long, her spirits already tempered by the prospect of having to see Fräulein Jungnickel as her saviour.
Fatigue catches up with her and the happiness evaporates like a puddle in the heat.
A doctor is sitting on the edge of her bed. She refuses to look at him as he talks about her feelings. She’s supposed to describe her unhappiness to him, her rage. Her rage is cast iron, but she says nothing. The doctor’s a psychiatrist. A bloody psychiatrist! She isn’t mad, surely.
The psychiatrist won’t be shaken off. When he suggests she goes into a clinic for a couple of weeks, she agrees but only on condition he assures her she doesn’t have to go into the secure unit, that she can go into an open ward and be allowed home at night.
When she rings the doorbell at the flat, only the little window set in the door is opened and Fräulein Jungnickel gives her a long, hard look of disgust. The caretaker’s got the key, the old woman snarls, slamming the window shut.
The caretaker would rather spit on her. So we’re getting you back as well, are we, he says, and she wonders what this ‘as well’ is all about. Who have they already got?
Fräulein Jungnickel’s resentment is relentless. Well into the night, April has to listen to herself being described as a murderer, a monster who tried to blow the entire building sky-high. And then there’s all that ‘dest’!

From Angelika Klüssendorf, April © Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014
Translation © Deborah Langton