Translator’s Preface: This passage consists of the opening chapters of Vater unser and describes the narrator Eva’s arrival in the Otto-Wagner-Spital, a psychiatric hospital outside Vienna. There she meets her brother Bernhard, who is also a patient and suffers from an eating disorder, and Dr Korb, her psychiatrist with whom she discusses her conservative Catholic upbringing in rural Austria. Told from Eva’s highly unreliable perspective (we never know why she’s in the hospital, but she claims to have shot a classroom full of children), the novel follows her attempts to reconcile with Bernhard and persuade him to join her in murdering their father.
They’ve tied my hands behind my back. I lean my head against an opaque pane of glass. Nobody’s smoking but the seat cushions tell of past nicotine delights. There’s a grate in front of me. An officer is sitting in front of it, her ponytail dancing in the wind.
The air conditioning is off. I’m surprised. If I’d had to guess, I would’ve thought that the Austrian police keep the air-con on when they crank down the windows. But how wrong I’d have been — quite sensible of them, really.
“Excuse me,” I say, “I’d like something to drink.”
No response. I feel awkward. I wait half an hour and try again.
“Apologies,” I say, “thirsty.”
“She wants a drink,” I hear a voice say from the driver’s compartment.
“Oh. She’s thirsty, is she?” says another.
“Correct,” I say, “I’m thirsty.”
The police officers mumble among themselves. From the front I hear an “alright”. Alright, I think to myself, these police actually are alright. What’s everyone complaining about?
Five minutes later we stop in front of an Esso petrol station. The police confer via radio with the head office, then the ponytailed officer gets out and opens the door for me. She has a made-up face and bright nails. In my head I call her Maria. Next to Maria appears the other voice from the driver’s compartment. The policeman is small and solid like an egg cup.
The egg cup goes into the petrol station. It’s only when he gives the Okay over the Walkie-Talkie that the rest of us get moving. You’ve got to hand it to them, these police officers are well-organised.
The police officer buries her fake nails so deeply into my upper arm that I worry the small plastic gem stones could find their way inside my body. She forbids me from speaking and brings me into the toilet. In the cubicle she pulls my trousers down and sits me on the toilet bowl. I scrunch my hands into fists so that my fingers don’t touch the loo seat, and try not to think of the toilet scenes in Wetlands.
“Excuse me,” I say to her from below, “I’m thirsty.”
She’s surprised, then remembers: “Ah, yes. You were thirsty!”
She stands me up again and pulls my trousers upwards.
“Thanks,” I say. And when I notice the fastening of a thin golden chain on her collarbone: “God Bless You.”
I’m brought into the shopping area of the petrol station. No other customers. The shop assistant pulls her head back into her grey jumper like a turtle. Maria holds a bottle of mineral water in front of my face. I lean forwards and drink through a red straw.
“Aren’t you hot?” I ask the shop assistant after a while.
She shakes her head and points to a table fan behind the till. I nod and look around. My gaze falls on a small altar, on which an empty crate of Villacher beer is arranged. A rosary lies on a hand-embroidered tablecloth, next to a framed portrait photo of Jörg Haider, our far-right trailblazer. Above it a little Jesus is hanging out on a cross.
“My God,” I say. “Are we in Carinthia?”
The shop assistant nods. I empty the bottle in three gulps.
Four hours later we turn into Hütteldorfer Strasse and someone starts to hum. The sky turns gaudy as the giant grated compound appears before us. The egg cup climbs out and stretches his back. Forms are filled out and my gaze wanders over Vienna. Summer evenings always make me feel better about life.
New people in new uniforms take over and I nod to my police officers one last time. A man leads me through the grounds. Our steps crunch over the gravel stones. My leg muscles are not used to the climb and I notice I have to make an effort to keep up. The toes of our shoes get dirtier with each step. I’m thinking about how the summer takes what it needs from the earth when we turn onto an asphalt road. A few metres straight ahead. Then we stop in front of a white front door. Above the entrance I read the number fifteen. The nurse starts to fumble around with a big ring of keys.
I look around the hospital grounds — only a little, I don’t want to see everything yet — and discover a small group of people in tracksuits ten metres away, in the vegetable patch. A woman with broad shoulders talks at a few of them, while others lay their harvest on a blanket spread out on the floor.
“How wonderfully educational it is here,” I say to my custodian.
“Right you are,” he grunts.
He probably says that often. A familiar sweet smell rises in my nose. I hear cries of indignation and turn around again to the flower bed. A girl around 20 years old with protruding ears is stomping the tomatoes, meticulously laid out one by one, flat on the cloth. She screams and puts her bandaged wrists on her head, on top of which sits a brown topknot. A nurse stops the tomato girl, talks to her angrily. Then another figure approaches them both. It raises its thin arm and lays a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She sinks her head and whispers something to him. She stops screaming. Then this figure raises his eyes and meets mine. He stares. The nurse pushes me through the now open door. Our steps echo from the walls.
“Somebody you know?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
I’m naked. I had to undress myself behind a screen. Silly, really, that undressing has to be hidden when being naked isn’t a problem. A ward sister examined me and then left, leaving me alone in a treatment room full of scalpels and operating scissors. I consider whether I’m allowed to get dressed again, but then sit myself down on the examination table as I am and dangle my feet. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d be embarrassed by my nakedness. The door opens and the ward sister comes back with a doctor. He’s around fifty and balding. When he sees me, he stops in his tracks. He asks the sister in a whisper if the examinations have not yet been completed. Then he turns to me:
“Wouldn’t you prefer to put some clothes on, Miss Gruber?”
“I’m alright, thank you,” I say, and cross my legs.
“Right,” says the doctor and approaches me to shake my hand. He looks me in the eyes: “I’m Doctor Korb. I’m the senior psychiatrist here.”
At the end of the sentence he raises his voice, as if it were a question.
“Great,” I say and nod interestedly.
The doctor pulls up a stool and sits in front of me. When he notices that his head is the exact same height as my lap, he stands up again.
“Yes,” he says, “Miss Gruber”, and looks at the ward sister standing motionlessly by the closed door, like a potted plant.
“Yes,” I reply.
“I’ll come by again later,” he says and goes to the door. When he pushes the handle down, he pauses, turns around and nods to me. I nod back. Then he leaves and the sister follows him. Before the door clicks into the latch, I shout out: “Doctor!”
I slide off the couch. The doctor comes back in. Behind him I see the ward sister’s head peering into the room. “Yes?” he says and gestures to her with the flat of his hand to slow down. I clear my throat: “I have a question.”
Doctor Korb nods: “Yes?”
“I’d like to know if someone called Bernhard Gruber is a patient here.”
He studies me. Hesitates. He wants to say something, but I cut him off.
“He’s my brother,” I blurt. “I think I saw him earlier in the garden.”
He looks at me, tilts his head. Then he nods. “Well, then”, he says, “we’ll look into it.” He exchanges a glance with the ward sister. “Well, then”, he repeats, turning towards me again, “anything else?”
“No,” I say. He furrows his brow and looks at the floor. Then he nods and leaves. Just before the door swings shut, he stops it once again from outside.
“And please put some clothes on,” I hear him say.
The room is no more awful than any other hospital room. No one could be offended by anything. By any of the furniture, for example. To the right of the entrance is a shelving unit attached to the wall, on the opposite side is a bathroom. Two hospital beds next to each other, both unoccupied — I’ll be living here alone. In the corner a small television with a frame screwed to the ceiling. Next to it a camera. At the start, they’ll film me at night. I know because I had to give my signature. I go over to the window but don’t quite have the nerve to rattle it. The view is beautiful. Other hospital wings, fields, Vienna. Without knocking, a ward sister comes in and gives me a bundle of laundry. She outlines the coming days to me in ‘we’ sentences. I nod. When she leaves, I ask her to please knock in future.
By now the sky has turned black. I sort through the washing on the bed. Two hand towels, two mint green tracksuits. Hospital clothes that look like they’ve been sewn from kitchen towels. The less said about the underwear the better. Only at the start, Doctor Korb said.
The shower is a grey square indented into the floor. The quadrant is mirrored by a metal rail on the ceiling, from which a white shower curtain hangs. Though the air is already muggy, I have a warm shower. While the water pearls over my dry hair before submerging it, I run my foot along the shower’s edge. Little grey nubs to stop me from slipping. When I’m done, I throw the wet and the dry towel over the metal rail.
At ten o’clock it’s bedtime. Getting enough sleep is essential to maintaining a healthy psyche, so I’ve been told. They don’t need reminding here, I think, as I stare up in the dark and wonder whether I should put on a little show for the rolling cameras. A little masturbation, perhaps.
Shortly before midnight, a ward sister storms into the room. I was screaming in my sleep. We both calm down (it takes me less time than her) and then I fall asleep again. At one o’clock she wakes me once more while checking if I’m sleeping. At three I’m woken up by a bang from the bathroom. I remember the camera and don’t let on — I don’t want to have to talk to anyone else tonight. When I go into the bathroom in the morning my towels and the shower curtain are lying in a heap on the floor. The shower rail is broken, snapped into two pieces. I trace my thumb along the brittle material, where the stump has shattered. Breaking point.
I’ve been here for two days now and I’ve not seen my brother again. I’ve already been to my first group meeting, but now I’m on strike. I’m saying nothing until I’ve met Bernhard. Doctor Korb is aware of this. He had me brought into a treatment room, where I’ve been waiting for half an hour with a nurse. I’m sitting on a swivel chair and lowering myself up and down, up and down. The nurse’s nose is blocked and he whistles gently with each intake of breath. I’m becoming more irritated by the minute, but he hasn’t noticed. Then Korb finally arrives. He says something, but I’m not listening. Behind him, the gaunt figure from the garden comes in: Bernhard. He’s so tall now— and so thin. He’s wearing a tracksuit with the sleeves rolled up. I can see a small tube sticking out of the crook of his arm. He looks at me briefly, then at his feet. He tucks a non-existent strand of hair behind his ear.
“Hello,” I gush and stand up.
I spread my arms out but my brother doesn’t move. I notice that he’s grinding his jaw. He looks at Doctor Korb, who squints and smiles, and Bernhard slowly sets himself in motion. He approaches me like a calf approaches an abattoir. Twenty centimetres in front of me he stops and stands. I hug him awkwardly. It’s terribly embarrassing. You’d think we were two acquaintances running into each other in the street.
“So?” I say and take a step back. I try to keep up my smile. Bernhard opens his mouth and closes it again. He clears his throat and tries once more: “Hello, Eva,” he says. He takes a deep breath:
“How are you?”
“Not too bad,” I say and smile. “And you?”
Bernhard nods: “Yeah.”
Then he turns back to Korb, who looks back and forth between us and notes something down on his clipboard. I try to work out what to say next. Slowly, my smile fades. I’m annoyed my brother can’t make small talk with me, after all this time.
“Why are you here?” I ask, and Bernhard turns again to Doctor Korb.
“Can’t you understand me?” Doctor Korb adjusts himself, but Bernhard doesn’t react.
“Do you need an interpreter or something?” I say and feel myself getting angry.
“Hello?” I shout.
“That’s enough,” says Doctor Korb and makes the same gesture in my direction that he’d made a few days ago to the ward sister. The nurse positions himself in between me and Bernhard, who seems relieved and trots off to the exit. Doctor Korb follows him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done well,” I hear him say. They leave the room. I laugh out loud. It’s just astounding. The nurse looks at me seriously.
“Shush,” he says.
“Shush?” I snarl at him.
He flinches and backs away. I seize my chance and run out of the room. In the doorway I first turn right, then left. I see my brother and Doctor Korb standing at the end of the corridor.
“Bernhard,” I yell as loudly as I can.
They both turn around to me, terrified.
“Well, then,” I shout, “how are you finding the weather?”
Bernhard is the only person whose fear is worse for me than my own. As a kid he once told me that he was afraid of falling face-first onto the big cactus on the landing. So he always went downstairs very slowly, with his left hand sliding carefully down the bannister. Going upstairs was quicker. There were no eyes on the back of his head, he explained to me, and so obviously there was nothing for the cactus to gouge out. I laughed then — and I still laugh now when my mother talks about it. When she recounts past tribulations, in order to smooth over those of today. I laugh at my stupid brother, who’s afraid of everything. It’s easy to be the brave one next to a coward like that. As a kid I would’ve been the first to beat Bernhard up in the playground if he hadn’t been my brother. So I beat him at home, when our parents weren’t looking, and did the same at school to anyone who got too close to him.
At some point I also got scared when I saw the cactus, though I’d never tell Bernhard that — there was even a little colourful sombrero on its thick spike. It’s not that I was afraid of hurting myself. No — it was the thought of my brother’s blonde mop of hair cowering submissively in front of a potted plant that made me ill.
Bernhard’s birthday is on the first of April. Bernhard, our walking April Fool. When it’s his birthday, the night lasts eleven and a half hours. When it’s my birthday it’s a little shorter. My father and I argued, back then, about whether the day starts at dawn or only when you see the sun. For me it starts with dawn. Afterwards, my father started to wake me. Every day at half past four he stood by my bed in his pale blue pyjamas, which probably used to fit him long before Bernhard was born. I’d always shut my eyes immediately, and he’d always tap me on the forehead until I kept them open, with a fingertip that reeked of nicotine. If it was a morning when my eyelids were heavier than normal, his hand would wander to the breast pocket of his pyjamas, through which the rectangle of a cigarette packet was clearly visible. It was a reflex for him. At some point I threw the duvet back and heaved my legs out of the bed. Even today I still can’t get up in one go. When my feet touched the cold wooden floor, I ran my hands over my thighs and scratched at all the mosquito bites from the day before. Even if there were no bites, I always had to scratch. I don’t remember a morning in my life where I’ve not had red flecks of grime under my fingernails.
My father was patient. He waited until I was ready, with his arms folded. We went downstairs together, past the cactus on the ground floor. I always had to go to the toilet first — I’d fall asleep in there again. When I finally came into the dining room, I saw him through the terrace door, dragging again and again on his cigarette and staring into the sky. Now I’m thinking about it, I wonder if I fell asleep for less time than I thought, or if he simply lit up one after another until I arrived. We never spoke but I knew where I had to sit: looking to the East, at the still grey sky between the mountainsides. After smoking, my father always disappeared into the kitchen. I heard things clattering around, he was not particularly light of touch, and then the beeping of the microwave. He sat next to me, gave me a cup of cocoa that I never drank, and we looked into the sky until we saw the glowing orange sun rising.
One day we came downstairs and my mother was waiting for us. In her white terrycloth dressing gown, she sat there with a mug of tea — and waited. She’d turned the radio on. I sat next to her, and my father went to get the cocoa. Then the three of us looked out of the window while Bernhard slept upstairs. The presenter said that Lady Di had been in a car accident. My mother turned off the radio and we went upstairs. My father never woke me again.
Excerpted from Angela Lehner, Vater Unser (Our Father), Carl Hanser Verlag, 2019.