Author: Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Translator: Thandi House
Translator’s Note: These are the opening pages of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s story, Gone!
The excerpt sets the scene for a mystery which grows more involved as the story continues.
Theresa was nine the first time she spent the summer holidays at her grandparents’ house. Her mother put a little bag around her neck with her ticket, some money, and her ID card. She did not like this one bit but it did mean she could travel on her own. She had a smart leather suitcase with polished brass fittings. It had been a birthday present from her father and Theresa thought it was rather elegant. In fact, she was proud of it.
Rain was pouring down as the slow train reached the station at the end of the line. She looked around but there didn’t seem to be anyone there to pick her up. A rotund, elderly lady was waving at her. It was Anna, her grandparents’ maid. In the station car park, they approached a particularly bizarre contraption. It did look something like a car, except the whole of the front opened out to reveal the smallest of seats.
“Hop in!” said Anna, “There’s enough space for both of us.”
Theresa hesitated. “What sort of car is this?” she asked.
“It’s my Isetta.” said Anna proudly, “Perfect for doing the shopping though the engine does splutter a bit.”
The road to Theresa’s grandparents’ house wound through a little wood and up into the mountains. It was almost dark by the time they arrived. Theresa’s family had always insisted on calling her grandparents’ chalet “the villa”. It had towers and gables, and a carved balcony, and it reminded Theresa of a cartoon about a ghost she had seen on the television.
“Terrible weather!” grumbled her grandfather by way of a greeting as he opened the door. Anna found a towel for Theresa to dry herself off. There were deer antlers on the wall and it smelled funny, not like moth balls but like floor polish. The walls had dark wooden paneling, and there were stained glass windows in the door. Jakob, that was Theresa’s grandfather, took her past a wrought-iron coat rack and a huge cupboard, and into the dining room.
“Sit there,” he growled, indicating a high leather chair. Then, pointing to a hideous thing hanging from the ceiling, he said proudly, “That’s a magic lamp. Do you know the stories from Arabian Nights? Those are precious stones from India. You don’t find that kind of thing in every house. Can you swing a pendulum?”
Theresa did not know what he meant.
“I’ll show you. You have to sit under the lamp or it doesn’t work.”
He took a pointed brass weight attached to a string from his pocket.
“You hold it over the table like this and it goes around in circles like so; you wait until it’s not moving any more. Then, you ask the pendulum a question. If it swings from left to right, the answer is yes, and if it goes in a circle, the answer is no.”
Theresa did not know what to ask the pendulum. And besides, she thought the ceremony was quite strange.
“Are you happy to be here?” asked her grandfather. The pendulum immediately began to circle wildly.
“You’re doing it wrong! Totally wrong!” cried Jakob.
“I didn’t ask the pendulum anything at all,” Theresa apologised.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” snapped her grandfather, returning the pendulum to his pocket.
“Where’s Grandma?” asked Theresa. Taking in her surroundings, she felt like she had suddenly found herself in the middle of a furniture storage hall.
“She’s sitting in the kitchen as usual,” said Jakob.
“Wally! Wally! We have a visitor!” he called, clapping his hands impatiently.
Theresa’s grandmother shuffled in. Her name was Walburga though no one called her that. Her wrinkled face made her look like a Native American.
“There you are! How was the journey? Have you brought us anything?”
Theresa pointed to the shelves on the wall, which were crammed with angels, little elephants and other knickknacks, and answered awkwardly,
“We didn’t know what you could possibly need. Mummy said you didn’t have any space left.”
“Nonsense,” growled her grandfather. “Anna will take you up,” he said, “and Wally, you go with her! Don’t forget the suitcase!”
Theresa was taken up a steep staircase into an attic room, which was packed full of old furniture. It looked gloomy. There was no reading lamp, just a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Her bed was under one of the eaves.
“You can hardly get in,” protested Theresa.
“There’s no need to be afraid,” said her grandmother. “I’ll lend you my box. That will protect you from the earth rays. We have problems with them around here.”
“Are they dangerous?” asked Theresa who had never heard of these rays.
“Yes! They cause headaches and sleeplessness, and that’s not the worst of it. Here, read this, it says they sometimes even cause cancer. I need to go back to the kitchen. You get some rest!”
Theresa glanced at the booklet that her grandmother had recommended. It was called “The White Flag,” and the content was quite strange. She was too tired to think much about earth rays now though. She lay down on the narrow bed and went straight to sleep.
It was not long before she was woken by a clang that could be heard throughout the house.
“Punctuality,” her grandfather called up the stairs, “is the politeness of kings!”
Reluctantly, Theresa got up.
Downstairs in the hallway, she found that it was a large gong that had dragged her from her sleep. The next days would show just how strict Jakob was about meal times. The gong was sounded three times a day, punctual to the minute. Everyone had to sit at the large dining table while Anna served; silent Aunt Hulda, Wally’s sister, who had been visiting for a few weeks, was there too.
Jakob carved the roast with a silver knife. Only Wally never ate a bite. She brought a pot of herbal tea from the kitchen, and sometimes ate spoonfuls of a mystery mush, which she had prepared herself, from a saucer.
On the second day, Theresa decided to ask her grandfather what that was all about.
“You know,” he said, “your grandmother is not very disciplined when it comes to housekeeping. To tell you the truth, she is slovenly. She leaves everything jumbled on her little desk: old letters and forgotten bills, half-eaten apples, tissues and lone earrings. There are throat sweets, stamps and sticking plasters in her sewing table, all jumbled together among the buttons. And the kitchen! Have you noticed how odd it smells in there? Whatever’s left over, she throws into a saucepan and lets it simmer until it is inedible. You’ll see. Sometimes you can’t force the stuff down, however much you try. When that happens, I escape to the Red Ox. I’ve got a healthy appetite and I’m not going to let myself starve. You’re welcome to come with me.”
Theresa didn’t know what she should say to that.
“And that’s not everything!” continued her grandfather. “Your grandmother believes in ghosts! Sometimes she mumbles incomprehensibly – it’s like she’s under a spell .”
Theresa remembered the earth rays and cautiously asked her grandfather what he thought.
“Don’t believe a word of it!” snorted Jakob, “Do you know where she’s put her bed? It used to be in the bedroom but she couldn’t bear it there. Apparently, she couldn’t sleep any more. She complained that she was short of breath and had heartburn. She summoned a spirit healer, a dubious little man, who went everywhere with a divining rod. He didn’t leave her in peace until she’d put her bed in the room next to the kitchen. He also forced this black box on her, which is meant to protect her from earth rays. Since then, she’s been snoring in the place we used to keep old chests of drawers, vacuum cleaners, horse blankets, and old rags. She says things are much better with that device under her bed.”
Theresa felt a shiver run down her spine. What was wrong with this house? She felt uneasy about the attic room where she was to spend the coming months.
“Don’t worry about Wally. Once she’s got an idea in her head, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. She believes in supernatural powers.”
“What about you? You have your pendulum.”
“That is quite different. You don’t understand anything about that,” her grandfather chided. “If you ask the pendulum the right way, you will get the right answers. If you don’t understand it, you get everything wrong.”
Theresa was too scared to get into a fight with him. Her parents had told her that her grandfather was both a tidy person and a terrible pedant. He kept his pencils as sharp as possible and they all had to be dead straight on his desk, otherwise he couldn’t begin to think about his work.
In reality, her grandfather did not have any work to do. He’d long since retired. But he sat at his big desk in the study and kept meticulous records about everything possible: cigarillo usage, the length of his Sunday excursions, and every last mouse that had fallen prey to the cat.
Once he showed his granddaughter a black notebook.
“This is my inventory,” he said, “this details all the house contents. And here is my financial statement. I have kept something aside for emergencies. It will be yours one day. You won’t just get an appanage during your studies; you’ll also get the oak sideboard and the magic lamp.”
“What’s an appanage?” asked Theresa, who shuddered at the thought of that monstrous sideboard in the hallway. “It is a sum of money that Dr Schönhuber, my solicitor, will have transferred to you each month. That’s what’s written in my will. I won’t have it said of me that my only granddaughter had to do without.”
Theresa had never imagined she might inherit something from her grandparents. Instead of asking her grandmother, she asked reliable Anna more about this.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” she said, “You had better not mention that. I don’t know how often he’s changed his will. Each time Dr Schönhuber comes there’s trouble.”
“Why?” said Theresa, “Is it a lot of money?”
“I don’t know but your grandfather is convinced that your Aunt Hulda is just waiting for him to die. He’s said she’s a snake and that he’ll disinherit her. Your grandmother does not like to hear that at all.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Theresa, “she can have the lot.”
A little while later there was a catastrophe before dinner. Suddenly, Jakob – a red wine bottle in his hand – said, “Wally, where’s my corkscrew?” Theresa could not have imagined that her grandfather would consider his personal corkscrew to be so important. It was an antique with a mahogany handle and a little brush for brushing the dust off the bottle. Using a different, standard corkscrew was, of course, totally out of the question for Jakob.
And so everyone immediately started searching for the rare item: Anna, the maid, Theresa, and stick-thin Aunt Hulda. Even Theresa’s grandmother stood up with a sigh to rummage through some drawer or other. Her husband stood with the wine bottle between his legs and observed the search reproachfully.
The missing item had disappeared, and it remained that way. Two other corkscrews were found during the search. The first, a bulky thing with several complicated levers and screws, was in the chest of drawers under the napkins; the other, which was attached to a Swiss Army knife, was hidden behind the radio. This was not much consolation for her grandfather, who declared contemptuously that under such circumstances, he would rather do without his wine.
“I’ll just go to the Red Ox.”
“Why don’t you ask your pendulum?” suggested Theresa.
“That’s a good idea,” said Wally, “you do always say that thing has an answer to whatever you want to know.”
“Kindly do not interfere in things you don’t understand!” thundered Jakob, “But fine, I can give it a try.”
He put his hand in his pocket and started, “Damnation! Yesterday evening I put my pendulum in my jacket pocket and now …”
“Don’t get so het up, darling,” said Wally. “Your pendulum will turn up again, as will the corkscrew. Nothing disappears in this house.”
Seldom in her life had Theresa’s grandmother been so wrong.
The attic was not a place that Theresa found particularly comfortable. The door of the small wardrobe in the corner often creaked open at night, and there were other suspicious noises. Perhaps it was the black box under her bed. She drew up all her courage, dragged the thing out and listened. She could hear a faint ticking sound. When she hit it with her fist, the tin lid came off.
Despite the vague smell of moth powder, she decided to investigate the contents more closely. What she found was a confusion of rusty wires, coils, and switches. No great technical expertise was required to establish that her grandmother’s “healer” had just swept up a small pile of rubbish. A pile of mouse droppings was enough to convince Theresa that the device was harmless. She was no longer concerned by the dangers of earth rays. She was considerably more concerned about her grandmother’s mental health.
Theresa escaped the villa as often as she could. She found a place to swim close by and when it rained, she borrowed her grandfather’s big, black umbrella and walked into town, where there was a tiny cinema, or she read the magazines in the cafe.
On her return from one of her trips out, Anna told her that Jakob’s hat had gone missing. It was a dignified hat that looked like it came straight out of the silent film era.
“Maybe you left it in the Red Ox,” said Wally.
“Nonsense!” I put it exactly where I always put it: on the hat rack! Really! It’s enough to drive you mad!”
Anna swore she had not seen Theresa’s grandfather’s smart head apparel, let alone moved it. Jakob went into his study grumbling to himself. At dinner, Wally wasn’t there, and no one spoke a word.
Two days later the standing lamp next to the sofa was gone. Jakob lost his temper. “This has gone too far!” he shouted. “In this house, one can’t even be sure of one’s life! It’s not enough that you’ve gone and lost my corkscrew and my hat. Now you’ve started clearing out the house!”
His wife knew him well enough not to contradict him directly.
“Yes,” said Wally, “it is unpleasant but please don’t get so het up! A lamp is just a lamp. Tomorrow Anna will go into town and buy a new one.”
If that had been the end of the matter, Jakob might have calmed down. However, one sunny August morning he went to listen to the radio show like he did every Sunday, and discovered that the radio, an expensive piece in a flame birch casing, had disappeared overnight. Now his face had a somewhat haunted expression. He wandered through the house for quite some time. Then he collapsed on the sofa.
“Wally,” he said to his wife, who had hurried pass with a glass of water. “This is not a normal house any more, it’s a thieves’ den. Criminal minds are at work.”
“But Jakob, who could it be?”
As it happened, Aunt Hulda had finally left with all her luggage the day before.
“Don’t you find that strange, Wally?”
Wally found this question outrageous.
“I know you can’t stand my family but for you to suspect poor Hulda, I simply won’t accept that! And quite apart from that, what do you imagine she did? Do you think Hulda, that fragile creature, lugged your giant radio to the train station? Don’t make me laugh! Aside from that, you know my family has no need for such things. You only said that to annoy me.”
After that, Jakob began more and more to conduct inspections of the whole house, inventory in hand. The generous impartiality with which his wife distributed all kinds of things throughout the house made it difficult to have an overview, and his energetic attempts to return things to their rightful places was not very successful.
His efforts also did not result in locating the corkscrew, the Borsalino hat, or the radio, and the standing lamp, too, remained a thorn in his side.
The next object to be the subject of his displeasure was the prominent flower stand in the conservatory, apparently a present from his brother for their silver wedding anniversary.
“Where have you taken the flower stand?” he yelled one morning before breakfast. This time, his suspicions fell on poor Anna. It wasn’t clear how and why the faithful creature would have stolen such a bulky item.
“But it must have been someone!” Jakob seethed. Anna burst into tears and it took Wally three days to stop her from resigning.
Theresa was happy when the holidays finally came to an end. She had noticed that the mood in her grandparents’ house was growing darker day by day. When she went to pack her red suitcase on the evening before her departure, she asked her grandmother where she had put it. It was not where it should have been in her room. Another search began and again her grandfather raged when he heard that once again an irreplaceable item had gone astray. Only this time, it was something belonging to Theresa.
Theresa angrily rejected her grandmother’s offer to lend her an old cardboard suitcase.
“Just give me one of the plastic bags you’ve hoarded in your rotten villa!” she yelled.
Wally waved the matter aside. She was the only one who was unmoved by the catastrophes that afflicted the house. She generously gave Theresa a hat box from her youth, which was big enough to put her toiletries, clothes and diary in. Her departure was hardest on Jakob, who felt like he was being left alone with his wife and her catastrophic cooking skills. Wally told Theresa to protect herself from the earth rays, and rickety Isetta was retrieved from the garage once again. Reliable Anna put the hat box in the car and took the child to the station.
It was some time before Theresa found out how things had continued at her grandparents’ house. Her parents did not believe her holiday stories to begin with. “Anyone can lose an umbrella or a shoehorn but a flower stand – you must have made that up,” said her father. He also doubted that his mother-in-law would have employed a spirit healer because she was afraid of earth rays.
Theresa was hurt. But when she kept coming back to her stories of the haunted house, her mother said, “Maybe there’s something in her stories. My mother did always have a bee in her bonnet.”
“So you think we should be worried about Wally and Jakob?” said her husband.
“We can’t just act as if everything is okay there.”
A few days later, Theresa’ s mother called her parents to find out how the family drama had developed.
Anna answered the phone. She confirmed Theresa’s stories in a hoarse voice.
“I don’t know what’s got into Jakob,” said her mother. “He was always so tidy.”
“That’s the worst bit,” said Theresa.
Her father did not miss an opportunity to say, “And your mother? You can’t exactly say she put any value on keeping a tidy house. Wally’s house was always utter chaos.”
Theresa knew this conversation well, for repetition is the spice of all family stories.
The reports from her grandparents escalated. In the haunted house, there were challenges that household remedies like the pendulum simply could not resolve. On one occasion, there was talk of a missing magic lamp. Theresa had to explain what this treasure was. Another time, a heavy oak sideboard went missing; it apparently disappeared into thin air overnight. While Wally’s reaction to these events was one of almost intolerable serenity, Jakob, considering the enigmatic disappearances of his property, gained an energy that no one would have believed the old man was capable of. He called the police and would not relent until they had been going in and out of the house for weeks. The search for clues was fruitless. There were no unknown fingerprints; all the locks, doors and windows were secure.
“Well,” said the policeman, who was clearly out of his depth, “these things do happen. My wife recently lost her curlers. There was a big upset as there always is when she loses something. And what do you know? After a few days, they turned up. You know where? In the washing basket!”
Anyone who believed that Theresa’s grandfather would be satisfied with this explanation did not know him well. Jakob demanded that the police commissioner himself come to the house. After he had investigated the case, the commissioner grumbled, as Jakob later angrily reported, that based on how things were, only someone who lived in the house could be responsible because there was no evidence of a break-in.
“He’s provoking me!” Jakob shouted into Theresa’s mother’s ear when they spoke on the phone. “Hair curlers! This is a large-scale crime! And who do the police suspect? Not the thief but the victim!”
A few weeks went by.
A dozen napkins and her grandmother’s emerald brooch followed the oak sideboard and Theresa’s suitcase into the abyss, and the police investigations were discontinued. A disciplinary complaint from Jakob was unsuccessful.
But Theresa’s grandfather did not give up. He now determinedly declared war on his insurer. With the help of his inventory, he made meticulous lists of things that had gone missing, even including missing pencils and salt spoons, and he demanded compensation for everything that fate had snatched from him. The insurer referred to the police report, which Jakob brushed to one side, commenting that the police had turned out to be entirely incompetent.
Jakob concluded that nothing could be straightened out without an experienced lawyer. At first, he thought of his old friend Dr Schönhuber. He was a solicitor but only knew about family and inheritance law. He referred Jakob to a colleague, who was specialised in malcontents.
There followed an endless series of court proceedings, which took up most of Jakob’s time. Theresa’s father joked about Jakob’s battle and said the lawyers would take every penny he had. He even said his father-in-law had always been a dogmatic mystery-monger and a superstitious crackpot. His wife disagreed with him and doors were slammed. The whole thing now bored Theresa. She did not want to hear anything more about it and preferred going to the cinema.
The sinister energy with which objects large and small had fled the house appeared to dissipate over time. It was seldom that one heard tell of a gravy boat or a carving knife absconding. That is, until one day when Jakob lost a key which he always kept on the same chain as his pocket watch …
From Verschwunden! Suhrkamp Insel Verlag, 2014.