Author: Ralf Rothmann
Translator: Tom Morrison
… and found them sleeping for sorrow. The first words of the day, a sentence marked by a line in the margin of the ribbon-tailed book that was a gift from Marie, and the sun is rising behind the row of chestnuts that line Fontane-Promenade, where nobody is yet to be seen, not even a dog, just a magpie hopping along the strip of sand that runs down the middle, anxiously followed by an elongated shadow. The clock by the bed, a tiny Peruvian alarm clock sunk into a shoe, has stopped; judging by the light it would have rung in an hour.
Crows, huge swarms of them in varying formations, are flying over the rooftop, absolving their daily flight to Hasenheide park. The rooms are bright already, the water almost warm, and after a few cursory brushstrokes the menthol-free toothpaste drops cleanly from his mouth – the moment in which he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and begins again the day he thought he’d got through yesterday.
And found them sleeping. A gulp of tea at the kitchen table, the radio, two minutes of the news, forecasts of still higher temperatures for this record-breaking summer; down on Blücherstrasse the limes look dusty, ripples have appeared on the green plastic covering of the sports ground, and he prefers not to think about the fumes it gives off in the heat of midday. Never an animal to be seen on it, no birds, none of the rats so plentiful in the nearby bushes.
Shoes to be cleaned, a backpack to fill, wallet and keys to find. Not a trace of drowsiness although the night was short, no superfluous fumbling, a gravity previously unknown to him focusing every movement, even the buttoning of the blue shirt given to him by Marie. He locks his door and crosses the hallway, opens the door to her flat, two rooms opening onto the backyard. Her place is smaller than his, tidier, the whole place overshadowed by a birch, and Raul goes into the bedroom and takes down from the wall her icon, Saint Anna, hardly bigger than a credit card. Like everything else, the white handkerchief in which he wraps the likeness has been ironed.
He takes eight minutes to reach the pool; barely any traffic at that time of day, only a few bikes leaning against the wall, and the ticket-office is still closed. Men and women, about a dozen of them, are waiting at the gates, the fat retired couple at the front of the queue. Armed with cool boxes, newspapers and a transistor radio, the pair plant themselves on the patio of the café until the pool closes at eight, eating and drinking the whole time, solving one crossword puzzle after another, and never, no matter how hot the day, going near the water. Their muscular, lean companions flicking through their Filofaxes are here most mornings around the same time, absolve their lengths from seven to shortly before eight, then race off on bicycles or more sophisticated conveyances possessing over twenty gears and electronic locks.
Monthly passes flash as the gate swings open, then the dash to the changing rooms begins, some men unbuttoning their shirts en route, and Raul too tosses his backpack into an open locker, number fifty-three as usual. Bathing trunks, goggles, the armband with the key, and following a quick, cold shower the first disappointment: the athletes’ pool is closed for cleaning. Amidst grumbles and mutters the others proceed to the second pool, the heated one shaded by acacias and during the day seething with bathers, their cries audible far and wide. Its water is notorious for its bobbing freight of hairs, wads of chewing-gum, rotting leaves and plasters with dull red stains. The stew, the real swimmers call it.
He stops. A frown briefly appears on the face of the grey-coated workman who’s pushing a chrome-plated apparatus, connected to a pump, along the bottom of the athletes’ pool; but he keeps his eyes down, continues to clean the tiles row by row, only three left to go. And Raul sits down on the edge of the terraced slope for sunbathers, does some breathing exercises and contemplates the glistening surface, the poplar landscape trembling in blue.
There’s only one right thing to do now, and that is to leap into the looking-glass and so placate this day with all its lurking possibilities of destruction. And what lies behind the mirrored surface is the end of fear: a glass door, a long corridor, birds warbling in the park full of women garbed in new dressing-gowns, young women who take small shuffling steps in their medical stockings and clutch their stomachs. It’s enough. Behind it lie the last tears, a brief pain after which everything, please take our word for it, will be better, why didn’t you come to us sooner. But Marie, a thick needle in her arm, a transfusion of her own blood that will hopefully stave off the threat of infection, Marie just laughs her bright, almost twelve-year-younger laugh and shows him the gift from the woman in the next bed, a total extirpation discharged the day previously who’d re-traced her steps through the spacious grounds in order to give her the sprig of clover, four-leafed, she’d found at the hospital gates.
The body’s defences, antibodies, two thousand metres a day. And who might you be? The companion at her side during every examination and every scan, the one who wipes the contact fluid off her stomach, even takes her blood pressure. A more cautious note creeps into the doctors’ tone, they become less off-hand, the smiles linger longer on the nurses’ lips, and the words spinal paralysis make the anaesthetist sink back down in his seat. Would I be talking to a colleague?
White clouds outside the window, a few fluttering butterflies, and on the bed he places the pen, points to the dotted lines. But Marie no longer wants to know what she’s signing. Marie’s weary, spoons up her soup, swallows her pills, looks at the roses. See you tomorrow, sweetheart. Will you be here early? A waved goodbye from the nurses inside their glass cubicle; he waves the sheets of paper in reply, takes the lift down to the ground floor, and through the flap in the office door he slides the forms, among them the one requesting the patient’s consent to be dissected in the event of death, the form he didn’t give her to sign.
The grey-coated man pulls his chrome-plated apparatus out of the pool, takes a step to one side and begins on the next row of tiles. Hardly a day’s illness in her life, never had an operation, and Raul with all his useless knowledge, the raw material of his anxiety, who’s seen people dying from operations more simple by far – some tiny anomaly, flawed tissue, a tube accidentally scraped against the carotid artery, then abruptly a spouting arc of blood, and none of the doctors present can save the athletic school-leaver who came in to have his appendix removed and from whose gaping throat now issues a final, almost enraged, sound…
So who’s going to break the bad news to the boss? And into how many hospital rooms has he walked that looked just like this one, bright and cheerful, Nolde’s poppies, and how often did he dispense caps for patients to cover their hair: Morning, time to get going, need to visit the toilet first? And then Marie takes a long time, desperately long it seems to him; the nurse glances at her watch, the student yawns and gazes dreamily out the window, leaves are whirling through the air, and from the bed-end clipboard he takes the sheet of paper and studies the blood-pressure measurements he’s long known by heart. She finally re-appears, closing the door behind her, and looks down at her hand with its punctured back. Re-opens the door, reaches into the room and snaps off the light. Did I show you my shave? Very punky. And the student laughs and helps her into the bed.
Raul takes the cap out of the nurse’s hand, another task he’ll see to himself, pushes the red curls under the elasticated border then unlocks, with one kick, the wheel-block. You look just grand. But Marie senses he’s close to tears, of course she does, and strokes his arm. It’ll be alright, believe me, they did another inspection yesterday, even the professor was there. Everything hunky dory. Will you be there when I come round? Will you?
The clunking of the wheels as they trundle over the entrance to the lift, and from inside the steel shaft a waving hand and twinkling eye, fearless it would seem, the effect of the pills. Then the closing of the door, his head tilting, as hers does too, to catch one last look. Adieu.
He goes into the waiting room, teeth gritted and fists clenched, clumsily brushes a few magazines off the table in the passing, trips over the doormat on the balcony. A child’s drawing on the opposite building, bill-less birds, on the roof a helicopter, and from the flower-box he roughly plucks a handful of blossoms, geraniums, and hurls them over the balustrade.
Wind, a warm breath, blows them back. I’m there. Nothing to eat or drink, a resolution he can’t explain but right, he can feel it, all the same. No food, no liquids, be sure not to lean against anything, not the chair nor the door-frame or the balustrade, as long as the operation is taking place. Two hours, maybe three. And then the two hours she’ll spend in the recovery room, and the friendly nurse, Polish, puts down a tray next to the cold TV set, tea and sandwiches. Raul thanks her but doesn’t touch a thing.
Waiting. And the shock, time and again, when lift-doors open and a patient, just operated, is returned to the ward, the identity of the sleeping or waking head slumped deep in the pillows sometimes distinguishable only at second glance. Shadows of pot plants pretend to be Marie’s silhouette in the smoked-glass partition screening the ward from the corridor and once, briefly, he closes his eyes when a woman’s voice asks: So how long do you intend to keep sitting here?
Over twenty years. He’d nodded off in a place near the university hospital, the pub where he got drunk after deciding to hang up his stethoscope for good. No more misery and death and hope-giving lies, no more of the white-coated rat-race, nothing more to do with doctors who’d flog their own grandmothers to clinch a senior post… He wanted to rest, maybe do some research, he wanted to live and do some travelling – wanted another drink from that barmaid. The pub was so dark that he couldn’t see his small change, but every mirror in that place was alight with the glow of her hair. She brought him a coffee.
So it’s you then, she whispered when first they kissed, just one day later, not far off morning somewhere behind the pub, and to him her face, her mouth, the arch of her eyebrows and the line of her brow already amounted to some kind of scripture, a holy one that would abruptly light up and reveal to him the words offering him eternal salvation.
Twenty years. The blink of an eye. He lifts up the red-and-white tape acting as a barrier and sits down on a diving block; the workman raises a mock admonishing finger and continues to clean the last lane. And then it’s evening, the door slides open and a bed comes rolling out of the lift; he reaches the end of the bed in two, three bounds, his heart in his mouth, and the nurse smilingly whispers, Easy now! Marie, who’s conscious and looking at him in amazement, struggling to get her bearings, her whole face a wordless You? What happened? – Marie is paler than ever before, her lips scarcely distinguishable from her skin, and the hand he grasps and which doesn’t, of course, return his squeeze, her hand with a canula on its back, is cold.
He helps the nurses install the bed in her room, hooks the infusions to their stands, attaches the drainage tubes to her night-dress, pins the half-full bag to the side of the mattress. Then he unpacks the bottles with the glucose and salt solutions, twelve of either, and adjusts the drop counter. Thanking him for his help, the nurses leave him alone with Marie.
Marie is asleep. Unable to find an operation report in the file with her clinical record and results, he feels her pulse, which is racing, but her blood pressure is normal. He cautiously raises the sheet. Her stomach is brown from the disinfectant solution, the incision covered only with gauze; just above the line of her pubic hair, it stretches from pelvic bone to pelvic bone, and Marie, without opening her eyes, asks: What does it look like?
Wonderful, he says, startled, of course that’s what he says, you won’t need a new swimsuit. They’d cut horizontally and stitched only subcutaneously; the upper layer of skin is taped. No needle marks. The scar will hardly show.
She clears her throat, swallows; not allowed to drink yet. Her lips are cracked. And do you know, she breathes, what they told me before they did the inspection? What they discovered?
He makes no reply, waits, but she’s drifted back into sleep – the painkiller, and there’s two more ampoules on the table, if needed. The flushing agent drips bright-red from the tube emerging from a hole next to the stitches, liquid hydrogen and blood, not much of the latter, but it’s as potent as ink. The values seem fine, at any rate, even if he can’t make out the time of the last sample, the stamp is blurred, and he sits down on the chair next to her bed and holds her hand.
The first of the roses are beginning to droop, and it’s quiet in spite of the open window; few people left outside in the grounds, only a faint clatter of crockery and cutlery from the children’s clinic opposite, while a cat slowly crosses the grass, cutting through the thick clover.
Raul looks at the sleeping figure, her luminous forehead, the freckles below the golden-red hairline. The upper part of her nose is slightly crooked, a bicycle accident in childhood, the bow of her lips as Florentine as it ever was, and he thinks of the time also inscribed in this face so much younger than his – but enriched by so much more love. A love whose unerring confidence and matter-of-factness was a constant source of wonder to him, and often one of shame; a love that would endure almost anything, every sacrifice, all of his moods, his acts of unfairness and brutality; a love always wiser than either of them and able to stand even the fiercest of trials. After one separation of almost eight months during which they neither spoke nor wrote to each other he had phoned her, sheepish and not altogether sober – he was in the bar of a hotel in Swansea, Wales, and had been sacked by the pharmaceuticals company that had hired him to oversee its preparations for a trade fair – she just said, It’s about time! I wouldn’t have stood it for much longer.
And now the pain, the dry gulps, the creases around her mouth deepening, and he saws open the ampoule, squirts the liquid into the infusion tube. The sun is setting somewhere behind the building, its light glows in the windows opposite, a reflected ray rests on Marie’s cheekbone, on her throat, and here and there he sees a shimmer of fluff, a delicate spiral beside her ear. Her breathing is quiet, almost soundless, and after a long look at her face, which is something she always senses so that even now her eyelids flutter, Raul kisses her forehead, already less cold than it was, hooks a new infusion to the stand, and quietly closes the door behind him.
The glass cubicle is empty, and he goes through to the office behind it and requests the operation report from a nurse who is shuffling through a stack of papers, cigarette in hand. She nods but doesn’t look up. You’re neither husband nor relative, am I right? Then I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say very much. Everything seems fine, so far. A pretty normal operation. Except perhaps… As she slides the folder into the rack, he takes a step towards her: Except what?
Her cigarette smells of menthol. Well, fair-skinned redheads tend to bleed a lot during operations, that’s why we take the prior samples. But it was different in the case of your friend. Scarcely any blood to be swabbed at all, to be honest. Must be something to do with the phase of the moon… And let her tell you the rest, she adds with a wry face, and only then does Raul spot the ID badge on her coat and realize that he’d addressed as nurse the ward physician, just arrived for the night shift.
He takes a bus back to Kreuzberg, to Bergmannstrasse, where he has something to eat and drinks two glasses of red wine at Milagro. Although the more scenic route for the short walk home would be the one past the churchyards, he takes the other one. He lies down on Marie’s bed and watches TV. But then he gets tired, limbs aching, and he crosses the hall to his own flat, cleans his teeth, puts out the light. The evening has turned chilly, the old floorboards are creaking. The golden cut of the book shimmers dully. Could you not watch one hour with me?
Shortly before midnight the ringing of the phone, a call from a woman he drowsily takes to be Marie. He knocks over the reading-lamp, winds its cable round his legs. Marie? He recognizes the Polish nurse’s voice: I thought I’d give you a quick call. An examination. Nothing to get alarmed about. It’s not even urgent, but it is an examination. First thing tomorrow, at nine, she’s top of the list. So what shall I tell her? Will you be there?
He looks over at the clock above the ticket-office and takes up position on the diving block. He’ll get there on time if he confines himself to one thousand metres of crawl and then takes a cab. The grey-coated man pulls up the wire-wrapped hose, winds it round the motor, and Raul puts on his goggles. In front of him stretches the unruffled, virgin water, so tranquil it looks almost concave and Raul, already poised to dive, is briefly unsure whether the sky, in which flocks of birds have suddenly re-appeared, is above him or below. And no sooner does he see the suction apparatus, the flashing of that chrome cylinder, than he pushes himself off the block and follows his elongated shadow into the water, which is neither cold nor warm, not clear and not murky, is at that moment not water at all but something glistening and flowing, just as the yell from across the pool is nothing other than the silence inside his heart, a starry expanse in which a soft voice sounds.
The sudden recognition that a woman is special. The bright formulation of one’s own dark, and the startling concordance in matters with which one had expected to remain alone for the rest of one’s life. The strength and the warmth in the vicinity of somebody who is always optimistic and ready to be happy and the beautiful melancholy in the depths of her smile…
When Raul walks into the ward shortly before eight-thirty, he finds the door to Marie’s room open. Her bed’s empty; a man clad in overalls is cleaning the window and gives him a nod. Strips of plaster adhere to the edge of the mattress; in the bathroom are a pair of rubber gloves and the plastic bag with detergent. One red hair clings to the bar of soap, the bedside table has been cleared of everything except the medical sheet and the form he didn’t give her to sign, a question mark now entered behind its dotted line, and for one moment – the man tilts the window, the reflections of passers-by appear in the glass – he believes he sees the shape of her face, a shadowy outline, on the indented pillow.
From the collection Rehe am Meer by Ralf Rothmann © Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2006
Translation © Tom Morrison