Last spring the Fizz Gallery offered me the opportunity to exhibit some of my pictures. The gallery is in G, the town I grew up in, in Germany’s east, which in my childhood was still the German Democratic Republic. I set off, full of excitement because I hadn’t set foot there for twenty years, having spent the last two decades over in West Germany finishing my schooling and then doing my degree. Would it feel familiar?
It hardly did at all. In fact, I found the town to be greatly changed. The Renaissance-era town hall had been beautifully restored and the entire town centre had been pedestrianised. The quaint little buildings now housed bookshop and clothing chains, as well as a few medium-sized concerns, and even one of those Vietnamese-run household stores, full of the kind of unbelievable junk that middle-aged provincial housewives find so irresistible. However, those buildings taken over by large retail chains had managed, miraculously, to expand their premises to the rear, whereas the Vietnamese store was only as big – or to be precise, as small – as Balder & Sons, Stationers. I was amazed that Balder & Sons still existed, considering that twenty years ago Herr Balder the elder had been over eighty and his sons well over fifty.
On entering the shop I recognised the two of them straight away, perched there behind the old-fashioned counter, reading. Ortwin sprang up to attend to my needs – though ‘sprang’ is taking it a bit too far. More accurately, his eyes responded with sprightliness, whereas his body slowly and laboriously heaved itself out of his narrow armchair. His brother Erhard’s hair was still combed forward into a fringe that was trimmed in a dead straight line across his forehead – the Bertolt Brecht look. He remained seated, not even looking up. I smiled, and at first didn’t speak; just waited expectantly. Because of the silence, Erhard at last tore his eyes away from his book and looked in my direction. He recognised me, of course, since as a teenager I’d been in that shop every single day. I would go to play chess with old Herr Balder, who at the same time kept an eye on his sons from his lookout behind the counter, even when they were approaching pensionable age themselves, as though he couldn’t trust them not to ruin the business. My own hair with its centre parting was no longer blond but carroty – an accident with henna last week – but it hung to just below my shoulders, exactly the same as back then, and proved to be the thing he recognised. After Erhard had come and said hello he wound a strand round his fingers. It took Ortwin longer, and he needed his brother’s prompting before it dawned on him who I was. Before my mother and I emigrated in the mid-eighties, we had lived in this building, in the top floor flat under the roof with its one tiny main room and its even tinier side-room. I was born and raised there, on the floor above the – also tiny – three-room flat where the three Balder gentlemen lived, which, in turn, was directly above the little shop on the ground floor. The house belonged to old Herr Balder. My mother had told me, way back, that his wife had died in the early ‘fifties and that since then no other lady had ever crossed the Balders’ threshold. It was odd how Ortwin and Erhard had not only accepted their father’s hermit-like existence but actually joined in it. From their three-person hermitage they had skippered the little shop through the waters of time, but time had not been good to them. Indeed, the waters they were navigating today were no less choppy than twenty or forty years ago, when private ownership had been a matter of disgrace. While private ownership was nowadays far from a matter of disgrace, private ownership Balder-style was, as it had always been, modest, comprising no more than a draught-ridden little house with a small antiquated shop that could only continue to exist because there was no rent to pay, and which no doubt had folk queueing up to buy out the two resolute elderly gentlemen and pack them off to a luxury retirement complex. I was imagining with satisfaction all the unsuccessful overtures from potential buyers, then suddenly wondered how I could have got so lost in my thoughts when I realised that Ortwin had brought me a cup of tea, and Erhard had been asking questions and was now looking to me expectantly for answers.
I didn’t want to let on I’d been imagining all this, and feeling such schadenfreude over the rejected buyers. Pardon? I said, casually as I could.
He still often comes out with your name, said Erhard.
I was immediately taken aback. Was old Herr Balder still alive? At over a hundred years old?
Where have you accommodated him? I asked, delicately, since they too were actually of an age when single gentlemen ought to be thinking about moving to a residence offering care facilities.
They looked at me uncomprehendingly, then at each other.
In the flat, of course, said Ortwin.
What – ours? I asked uncertainly.
No, no – Erhard piped up: Where you used to live was taken by a young man after you left, though we hardly ever saw him. He did pay his rent on time but of course that’s not saying much, seeing as it was only fifteen marks back then anyway! Then after Reunification he left and we started using the flat as an attic. Father had so much old clutter, but we couldn’t throw it out, so we stored it up there.
Aha. So they’d gained some space. Because a person as old as that needs a special bed; a commode… Was he still compos mentis enough to want to see me? I definitely wanted to see him, and so inquired as to whether he was receiving visitors.
They laughed, but their obvious embarrassment unsettled me. Erhard coughed. Ortwin said they’d have to clear up a bit beforehand, and the fact was, they hadn’t had a visitor for so long it wasn’t true, and they didn’t even know if they’d be able to offer a drink or refreshments. They themselves always went across to the guest-house, the Pension Schubert, where that nice Frau Schmidt made them their breakfast, lunch, and supper.
And… what about him? I asked in the same uncertain tone.
Oh, the little he eats, I can stock up in the supermarket and it lasts him easily three months, explained Ortwin.
Wordlessly I imagined a grizzled, emaciated geriatric whose existence was perhaps known to no one; a man who, like a piece of wizened Christmas cake dropped long ago behind the bookcase, had passed from the memories of those who used to live round here in former times, while people who’d moved here more recently had never known him, and thus had not noticed his disappearance.
My uneasiness was growing.
I asked them how soon they might finish the tidying.
They both went red.
Not… not… not before tomorrow night, stammered Erhard.
We could just bring him downstairs though, don’t you think? Ortwin’s suggestion served to release the iron grip that for the last minute or so had been tightening round Erhard’s heart. And with all the businesslike efficiency they still had at their disposal, the duo headed upstairs, having asked me to keep any potential customers talking.
I looked round. The hidden contents of the many drawers were revealed on the cards inserted into the little slots on their fronts. I read off Lead. Coloured. Ink. And A4, A5, A6. Though there were brand names too: Geha, Rotring, and Pelikan. The two tall shelving units against the wall were filled with boxes stacked in piles, neat and tidy, each bearing a label. Calendars, fountain pens, blotting paper, erasers, brown paper, compasses, glue. Just how it had been back then, under the old regime. Presumably the reason they kept this archaic system was that their father was still alive.
Unsurprisingly, no one did come into the stationery shop.
What I was more interested in was how they were going to get the old man down the stairs.
Might he still be good on his feet?
I heard the door close upstairs. There were no falling noises, no pushing or heavy breathing. They were coming down the stairs as quickly (or should I say slowly) as they had gone up.
I could hardly bear the tension.
They opened the door to the shop.
When I instantly burst out laughing, they were clearly startled. There, sitting on Ortwin’s shoulder, was Coco! I’d completely forgotten Coco’s existence. When I was little the only Amazon I knew about was a tanned, buxom woman who was good with a bow and arrow. Until Coco taught me better. It seemed male creatures, too, could be Amazons. Coco was an Amazon with a yellow beak. His life in an exclusively male household had made him suspicious of all females, hence my name had only ever come out as a screech of fury. He still often comes out with your name, so Erhard had said. Would things be any different now?
I couldn’t stop laughing. Ortwin and Erhard looked at each other, perplexed.
Coco screeched my name, sounding furious indeed. When I’d at last calmed down, I saw him for what he’d always been: a green terrorist with misogynistic tendencies. An old feeling long since deleted from my emotional inventory now overwhelmed me: my sheer love for that parrot. What else could it be, this coach and horses galloping through my heart, making me choke up? With all due deference, I stepped back.
I didn’t tell Ortwin and Erhard about the misunderstanding. Anyway they’d gone on to telling me in detail, and with ever greater animation and pleasure, about Coco’s quirky habits: his love of television, but how watching TV would make him fall asleep while perched on one or other of their shoulders; how both his laughing and crying were so insistent that once he started up, you were forced to join in. However, his liking for a specifically human diet had been thwarted after they started having all their meals over at the guesthouse. He’d only taken to dry food very slowly; for the last decade, however, since the death of their father who’d always cooked their meals, he’d had no other option.
Old Herr Balder had lived to be over ninety, and the way he’d looked after his sons had been more like a mother… I didn’t want to think about the limited life of this man who, despite his own unmet needs, had nonetheless amply provided for the happy and fulfilled life that this Amazonian parrot had enjoyed.
At the end of that afternoon in Balder & Sons the Stationers, I bought some paints. Acrylics, in small white tubes. Nowadays I have a picture of Coco hanging above my desk. If I stare at it for long enough, the three Balder men pay me a fleeting visit. They stand before me, guests in my here-and-now, waving. Then, in the blink of an eye, they become The Past.
Kathrin Schmidt, “Balder & Söhne” in Finito. Schwamm drüber. Erzählungen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag, Köln, 2011.