Author: Andreas Neeser
Translator: Frances Jackson
Honegger folded up the map, stowed it in his small rucksack and turned down the narrow cobbled street in the town’s old quarter. His steps became shorter as he drew close to the antiquarian bookshop, his shallow, energy-saving gait breezier. Honegger bobbed and bounced, as if some spot of impending good fortune needed to be stalled for a few moments.
Since the death of his mother, he had not made a single journey without investing at least a day in lonely visits to antiquarian booksellers. And he always had his mother’s book in his luggage, a lavishly illustrated, leather-bound Bible from the year 1736 that sat nicely in the hand and had been found while the house was being cleared out.
Over the years, his wife – more in silent protest than out of any real inclination – had acquired a taste for exploring new places independently, gradually turning the unwished-for gift of freedom into an unfettered pleasure. Even the idea that she had her departed mother-in-law to thank for this particular good fortune had become less disconcerting as time went by.
For years, Ida had nursed his mother, transforming the spare bedroom into a fully-equipped sickroom. The cancer would not and could not be held in check. Sometimes it seemed to Ida that her mother-in-law was taking her own sweet time, too, enjoying the attention of her nurse in an overbearing and frankly unseemly manner. She felt as though old Mrs. Honegger were savouring the monopolising presence that she had assumed in her son’s life as a tacit triumph over his timid attempts to live his own life. Well, she’s got him back now, thought Ida sometimes, and fancied that she could detect a slight improvement in the general condition of the bed-ridden patient. The knowledge that this terminally-ill woman, who had never let her son out of her clutches, also held sway over Ida herself was what hurt most of all and some days made it almost impossible to provide her with reasonably tender care.
To Ida, the mother-in-law’s death felt like the potent fulfilment of a repeatedly deferred and ultimately forgotten promise, a defiant capitulation, the perfidiousness of which lay in its unannounced, noiseless secrecy. She wanted to turn the end, for which she had not always been waiting patiently, but at least with the appropriate degree of respect, into a beginning. For both herself and for her husband she wanted a life that they might call their own, something to fill the void. But his sudden passion for old books nipped all her efforts in the bud, afforded no freedom apart from exploring tourist destinations alone. However beseechingly she asked – what it was that he was looking for or hoped to find, what he’d lost in the first place – she never learned anything that would have helped her to understand. The growing conviction that he himself didn’t understand either had reassured her and at any rate made the failure bearable.
Even at a distance it had seemed strange to Honegger that there was no window display indicating a shop where the antiquarian bookseller’s was supposed to be, according to the guidebook. Now, standing in front of the shop window and the dim, shabby entrance, it was obvious: Hutmacher’s Antique Books was closed. The black letters in their archaic Gothic script were affixed in an arc that spanned the shop window. Honegger placed a hand on the windowpane, went up so close with his head that his reflection disappeared and the room within became visible. The bookshop seemed to consist entirely of sets of wooden shelves, arranged in rows and interrupted only by a small cash desk in the middle of the room. The shelves had been emptied of everything but paperbacks; in a crate under the desk there was a stack of oversized leather-bound volumes that had evidently been discarded because they were damaged.
Honegger did not read any of the countless books that he acquired in antiquarian bookshops, nor did he select them for their content. Rather he asked to be shown the oldest books and examined them, every single one. Time and again he would open page after page, apparently at random, stare fixatedly for a few moments, head right up close, moving back and forth over the paper. In the join, it was the smells that were particularly distinctive, whereas at the edges the many different forms of discolouration became apparent. Whenever his wife asked him why he had bought a book, he said: The smell, Ida. The colours, the colouring, whatever. It’s chemistry, that’s what it is, so much life.
At first Ida had made an effort to overcome her inward resistance and show some interest in his fixation. She tried to recognise the different methods for tanning leather, estimate the age of the paper according to the grey tones or the patina. For the sake of her marriage, for the sake of her husband, who had always been a good husband to her, earned honest money as an attendant at the local public swimming baths, regularly went cycling with her, and not just over short distances. Neither of them had wanted children.
Honegger sensed her attempts at a rapprochement, but did not respond to them. If something couldn’t sustain a rapprochement, then it needed to be protected against infringement. With all due respect, Ida, he’d once said.
He took two steps back onto the pavement, looked around the street at a loss, consulted his watch and turned back to the bookshop – incredulous, reproachful. The doorframe was warped and out of shape, the dark green emulsion faded. Leaves of paint in all shapes and sizes curled up en masse beneath the letterbox. Dried-out, crumbly putty held the window pane in its frame, the brass coating of the handle lustreless and dull. At chest level, there was a piece of paper affixed to the pane with a bit of tape. It dangled against the glass, its edges curving away from the surface. Honegger bent down, tried in vain to decipher the three-line inscription with its exclamation mark and date. Looping letters, written by hand, and, it appeared, in some haste:
Honegger leant to one side, looking for the beginning of the writing in the left-hand bulge of the paper, and followed it, letter by letter, to the right-hand margin, which had curled up away from the glass in the window. Honegger read as if from the Torah. He read it again, still not lifting his gaze from the paper. Stooped, buckled, he stood there and read, as if he were receiving covert instruction, a directive that he would have to follow.
Although the paper was badly yellowed, the black letters now just a brownish grey, Honegger felt a short, sharp pain on his retinas. Then he lost focus. The dismay was written on the forehead of his reflection.
Honegger turned around as if he were looking for someone, something, somewhere in the little street of that unfamiliar town. He stood like that for quite some time and then he headed back down along the pavement. His gait was tentative, groping, as if he were walking on precarious terrain. He carefully placed one foot in front of the other, inconspicuously using his arms to keep his balance. Something had given way within him, collapsed, and he walked like someone taking their very first steps.
Honegger paused by the bar on the corner, trying to find his bearings. Diagonally across from where he was standing he could see a park, severely pruned hedges, colourful flowerbeds, a pond with pondweed, ducks, swans. Honegger crossed the road and found an empty bench right at the entrance to the park. He wasn’t due to meet Ida until six and the square where she’d told him to be was only two rows of houses away. He had a good hour left. There was no way to fill time.
Honegger had put his elbows on his knees and was staring at the ground in front of him. He breathed in deeply at regular intervals, held his breath – and breathed out audibly, although it required some effort to move his heavy head back and forth at chest-level. On the manicured green, a couple of children were throwing a huge inflatable ball between themselves. They shrieked in unison whenever one of them stumbled while trying to catch the airy orb, when the neon yellow avalanche rolled towards Honegger and came to a stop in front of his shoes.
Shortly before six, Honegger got to his feet.
Rose Lane led to the market square from round the back. His stride became more assured with every metre; he could feel an elastic tension in his back, a pleasant, sinewy looseness in his ankles that he thought he had lost forever.
Ida was sitting at one of the street cafés. She was poring over the municipal art guide that she had bought while on a tour of the museum. With a startling twist from his shoulder, Honegger shed the rucksack and sat down at her table.
Well? she said.
Ida reached for the slim macchiato glass, took a sip, while he seemed to be looking for something in the rucksack. During their previous holiday, travelling from Hanseatic city to Hanseatic city as part of a guided tour group, they had stopped telling each other about their individual explorations. Both had accepted that there was no point wanting to share something that in truth could not be shared. They had never spoken about it. It hadn’t been necessary.
Next year we’ll have a holiday at Hans and Berta’s, said Honegger.
At their high summer pastures?
You’ve always wanted to do that. Not a museum or church in sight. Just nature. Cows, grassland, mountains. Hay for a bed.
Ida tried to read Honegger’s expression. He had turned away and was delving into the rucksack with both hands. One by one, he put everything onto the adjacent empty chair.
And the books, Alois?, said Ida. What about your books?
He sat up straight and looked at how neatly everything had been unpacked and arranged on the chair. Map and umbrella, tissues, an open pack of nuts, a can of cola.
Honegger reached into the bag again and extracted his mother’s Bible from one of the inside pockets. He opened it up at the flyleaf, where at the time he’d made a note of the date of her death.
My books? he said. Without looking up, he pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket, checked as ever whether it was in working order and crossed out 11th September 2001. Twice, three times, the ink of the thick pen making the numbers illegible. Then he wrote the current date underneath. For a moment his hand hovered indecisively over the paper.
Honegger grabbed the book and stood up. He surveyed the tables of the busy street café, tentatively, vaguely, while putting the book under his arm. At the little table furthest from the café, an elderly lady had just got to her feet and was about to make a move. Honegger headed as inconspicuously as possible towards the newly available table. He stood in front of it for a moment, then put down the book, turned on his heel with surprising ease and went back to Ida. By the time he sat down beside her, a waitress was clearing the old lady’s table. She briefly raised her head, put the book on the tray along with the dirty dishes and disappeared into the kitchen.
Alois, said Ida. Her voice sounded higher than usual.
Honegger took her hand.
Fancy another macchiato, Ida?
From Andreas Neeser, Unsicherer Grund (Haymon Verlag 2010).