The floorboards in the factory are creaking under our feet as we walk. The rooftimbers over our heads still look reasonably sound. Through the holes in the roof spots of light enter the hall. There’s a smell of mould and damp wood. Dust particles float lazily over broken tiles, the yellow plastic chair with three legs, two empty vodka bottles, the pile of beer cans long since finished and loads of rubble.
The light is shining almost golden on the wooden floor. Like in one of those paintings. The heat has got trapped under the roof. It’s muggy and the dusty air makes breathing difficult.
“We lived here for three months,” says Konni, “three months, and then everything here was cleared. Basically they were afraid it’d all get out of hand. That they’d lose control. ‘Cause none of them really felt responsible for these old buildings.” He pushes me away as I try to lean on him. “Only three months,” he said, “but three great ones. Perhaps the greatest ever.” He looks around him. “Two years ago they knocked holes in the roof there so that the damp could eat away at the structure of the building. All the factories round here are listed buildings. Then at some point they’re too damaged to be renovated and they can tear everything down.”
“Then they’ve got what they want,” he said. “So much empty space free for new things which devour the old.” I walk over to the pile of rubble and try to sit on the three-legged chair. It doesn’t work, nor is it funny. I take four bricks and sit on them instead. The floor creaks under me. I might fall through it and end up somewhere down below.
“Are you going to tell me why we’re here?” Beads of sweat have formed on my forehead and nose. I wipe them away with my forearm.
“We had a kind of café down here. Really colourful and with old chairs out in the open air. And the security guard responsible for the building always dropped in for a coffee. He thought it was good, what we’d done.” He laughs and pushes his hood out of his face. “Now all you can do is yell at the silence. Let’s face it, there’s nothing left here any more, those days are over.”
That’s old folk’s talk. Something my grandmother would say when she talks about the war, hunger and rubble.
“Those days are over” closes the stories of the bombings, of the sweethearts who never returned from the front, ends the laments about the bad dreams, the nights she still spends in the bomb shelter when the green glow of phosphor repeatedly devours its way across the deserted city above her. Those days are over, and the year 1922 is chiselled into the stone lintel above the entrance. The factory is as old as my grandmother and, like her, spared by the bombs. Almost a miracle.
Konni says something I don’t understand. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything.” He walks to the far end of the hall. Thirty metres further away, he seems smaller and younger. I worry. I ought to give her a call soon – my grandmother, that is.
At home I take off my shoes and open the window. The layer of dirt on the panes is too thick for this time of year. It ought to rain soon. I take a beer from the fridge and light a cigarette. Then I fetch the phone from the shelf, sit down on the mattress and dial her number. When I give my name, she says, “Hang up, I’ll call you back.”
“It’s Sunday, doesn’t cost anything.” I invent a rate I don’t have with which you can phone free on Sundays. She doesn’t believe me. But doesn’t hang up either. I ask her how she is. She talks about the heat and how hard it is to breathe at these temperatures. And that this week she still hasn’t come up on the lottery. I talk about work. A trip to the lake in the afternoon I didn’t make and friends coming round for dinner this evening. “That’s nice,” she says, “that’s nice.” And, “The lake, we didn’t have it back then. So much has changed there.” We’re silent for a bit, but not too long. “I wanted to thank you for your letter,” she says. Her language is fuzzy, as if her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth.
“You already have. Don’t you remember? We spoke last week on the phone.” The line is silent.
Then she says, “Ah yes, last week. I’m so forgetful.”
When we’ve put the phone down, I smoke a cigarette and start reading a book. The beer’s no longer really cool and it’s gone flat. I drink it nevertheless. A good book and too little time lately in which to read it.
The next day I meet Konni after work in the old factory. He’s already there, sitting right at the top of the metal stairs which lead to the production hall on the first floor. I climb the steps, and the stairs move a bit. At the top, Konni kisses me on the lips. He takes my hand and pulls me through the opening where the door used to be into the hall. It isn’t as hot as yesterday. This morning the roads were all wet with rain. So wet I slipped on my bike into the tramlines. When we’re lying down, Konni sees the bruise on my thigh. “The things you get up to.”
“There aren’t any trams at home,” I say and he laughs.
“A real country bumpkin you are.”
The floor isn’t hard but it’s dusty. Konni has brought a blanket which we’re lying on. His skin tastes salty and of damp wood. His lips feel cool on my stomach. Outside and in the factory it slowly gets darker. We drink lukewarm beer from cans. No light falls through the roof any more. Cars are crossing the bridge over there by the canal. You can see the streetlights through the open door. In a house behind the factory a child who had been crying is now quiet.
“It’s something no-one can understand who didn’t experience it themselves,” says Konni, before we go. “We really thought this was now the start of something new. The city used to be so big, back then. Today there’s nothing left of it.” I try to imagine Konni living here. Talking to the security guard, painting walls, trying to begin something new. One thing leading to another.
We fold up the blanket and he stuffs it into a rucksack. We put the empty cans by the others on the heap of rubble. I take the last one with me. In the hall it’s so dark I reach for his hand. The skin is warm and dry on his palms and a little rough. I let go as I walk down the metal stairs. They sway. I have to hold onto the handrail because I can see the ground through the grid in the steps, and I spill beer in the process.
We walk across the grass in front of the factory and then through the opening in the fence. When I turn round, the building is silhouetted like a big black box against the city sky. The nights are never totally dark out here. The windows with the remains of the shattered panes stare at the housing estate on the other side of the canal. The streets are often deserted in this part of the city. Few cars and even fewer people. We cross the bridge and turn into the street where I live. In front of the house Konni stops and says he’s going now. To do some work, for an hour or so.
“Are we seeing each other tomorrow?” I ask.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Probably not, I’m going to Berlin tomorrow. To visit friends. Don’t yet know for how long.” He gives me a kiss, says, “See you then.” Someone once told me that the last mouthful in a can of beer is eighty per cent spittle. It’s still a bit early for that.
“If you leave now, perhaps you might just as well go hang.” He laughs, puts his hand on my cheek, quietly says something I don’t catch because his fingers are stroking my ear. Then he gives me another kiss and takes the can out of my hand.
“There isn’t any proper beer left in here.” I watch him going up the street. From a distance a little younger, with his hood pulled up over his head. Before he disappears around the corner, I’ve unlocked the front door.
It’s late – in the middle of the night, in fact – and stuffy in the flat. I open the windows, which are less dirty today.
Her voice sounds sleepy as she answers the phone. “Sorry I’m calling so late. There’s so much to tell you about,” I say.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve had trouble sleeping well recently.” I hear her drinking something. Her false teeth quietly touching the rim of the glass and her swallowing. I talk about work, which was good today. About a colleague who’s just had a baby and about yesterday evening. How good the food had tasted that I’d cooked. “You were always good at cooking,” she said, “and baking. Better than me. I’ve forgotten it all.”
“You need to cross your fingers,” she says, “that we’ll finally come up on the lottery. I don’t want it for me. I don’t need anything. But you, you ought to buy yourself a proper sofa, so you and your friends don’t have to sit on the mattress all the time. On the floor like that, that’s not much good.” We’re silent for a while. I light a cigarette, which glows in the dark. I breathe in and out. A few times.
“There’s an old factory in the Aurelienstrasse. Right by the canal. I’ve been there quite a lot recently. I’d like to know what used to be there. Perhaps you remember.”
I tell her about the floorboards, which creak as you walk on them. About the smell of mould and damp wood. About the light falling through the roof when the sun shines. “I don’t know,” she says, “I don’t know anything. It’s been such a long time since we left. More than forty years, child. Such a long time.” There’s a lump in my throat, which sticks under my larynx. I try to swallow it, but I can’t. I ought to shout at her that she should remember and has got to understand. That this here might be more important than the war and the nights of bombing. She’s quiet on the other end of the line. There’s a soft noise and I ask her if she’s crying. “No,” she says. I hear how her voice suppresses the tears, how she swallows. “The days are so long,” she says.
Original © Johanna Hemkentokrax
Translation © Alison E. Martin, Michèle Fischer, Johanna Huber, Susan Kolata and Manja Kratzin
This translation was undertaken as part of an extra-curricular seminar in Literary Translation (German to English), offered by Dr. Alison E. Martin in the English Department of the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. This course had a dual aim: to hone the skills of students of English in Halle in the area of literary translation and to enable the work of young writers from the Deutsches Literaturinstut Leipzig to reach an international audience. Having considered issues of register, style and audience, seminar members prepared a section of the translation week by week, compared in class the divergences between these individual translations and discussed the most appropriate solutions. Once a first draft of the English text had been completed, we contacted the author with any queries and invited them to offer feedback on the translation, thus enabling the student translators and author to interact with each other and gain further insight into the creative processes that underpin both writing and translation.