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.
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