I Grew Up in a Scrapyard

By Antonia Baum

Translation Deborah Langton

1

Theodor is our father. He claims he brought himself up without anybody else’s help.

“What? You grew up on your own, then?” asked Jonny from the back, as we drove yet again to the scrapyard. He was really called Johann-Sebastian, but always known as Jonny, and was the eldest of us three. We were in the old hearse. Theodor was in the front, with me in the passenger seat, Jonny and Clint behind us on the burgundy-coloured fake leather rear bench seat Theodor had screwed onto the loading area, but which, unfortunately, allowed only one passenger to be strapped in.

“Like I said, I brought myself up.” Theodor’s left eye rolled. Yet again he wasn’t wearing his eye-patch, something I thought made his relationship with his fellow men completely bogus, because people were almost always embarrassingly touched by the stitched-together slit which leered back at them from its sunken suture, as if from a death’s head.

Clint was pursuing the upbringing issue:

“But you must have had parents of some sort. Someone’s got to do the shopping, cooking and stuff!”

With Clint, my twin brother, it was always as if he was the younger one, but he’d been the bigger baby, born only minutes after me. He leaned towards the driving seat and smacked at Theodor’s extreme swimmer shoulders with his child-size hands, because he really wanted an answer. Theodor did not react. Clint was shaking him.

“The-o-dooor!”

“What’s up?”

I stared through the windscreen at the street, its unappealing greyness like pulped newspaper, and could tell from his voice exactly how he’d be looking at that moment; his chin jutting out, tilted slightly upwards, his head on one side, his eye narrowed and focusing on something which could actually be anywhere, not simply where we were driving.

“Go on Theodor, say something, do!”

Clint gently swiped at Theodor’s head.

Like an old hand, I said to Theodor, “You don’t listen!”

Theodor was suddenly there with, “I always listen! What was the question?”

“That people can’t actually bring themselves up on their own, and who did all the cooking!”

Theodor persisted with the ‘tilted-head-narrowed-eye’ routine. We sat waiting for him to open his mouth.

“OK, then, Mother was a particularly bad cook. So bad, everything was inedible. Apart from that there wasn’t much to go round anyway, and we were hard up, it was post-war, after all. Father and I used to go off and forage, and then, of course, there was always special stuff he wanted on the black market. And if he was tired in the evening, I always used to be allowed to drive us home. I was only eight.”

“You were allowed to drive when you were only eight?” I exclaimed, tapping my forehead and turning to Jonny so he could see I thought this was crazy, but he was sitting there grinning on the rear bench seat, his arms folded.

“That’s right. And I was involved with guns now and then. Guns were quite run of the mill,” explained Theodor and made a face as if guns were just a boring, everyday issue.

Clint was a bit upset now. “Your mother must have been worried about you!”

Theodor brushed this off. “No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t the usual type of mother, do you see? She was very adventurous and keen on sport. She didn’t really bother about anything, the main thing was that I was adventurous and keen on sport, too, and did well. It was my sporting prowess that got me into a sports boarding school.”

Jonny really wanted to demonstrate that none of this interested him, so just said, “Good, was it?”

“I once whacked one of the teachers in the face.”

Theodor fell silent for a while and then said, appreciatively, “Now that was very good!”

“Really?” I exclaimed loudly, and Clint, my twin, said, “No bullshit?”

“Yes, really. D’you think I’d make it up?” shouted Theodor, and it was hard to tell whether he was genuinely annoyed or just pretending.

It was equally hard to find out real stuff about Theodor. You know, just normal facts and tedious detail. But we had to try, somehow. And although we all knew the one about the whack in the face, even Jonny was now literally on the edge of his seat, because maybe there really was more where that came from.

“And then what?”

“I packed in school.” At this point, Theodor left a dramatic pause before explaining, nodding his head the while, his eye screwed up, “But of course it was all planned.”

Clint: “What? What happened then?”

Theodor, with pride: “I moved to Berlin.”

Now that was really something new.

Jonny, in disbelief: “How old were you?”

“Fifteen or so.”

Me: “Is that allowed?”

“You have to watch yourself a bit, but it’s OK.”

“So can I move to Berlin, too?” I asked, to test out whether Theodor would say no.

“Of course! We probably need to go to Berlin next week, anyway, for a fair bit. I know someone who wants to open a betting shop there, and I’m going to take a look at things with him,” replied Theodor, and overtook someone. On the roads he considered it his job to overtake. Hooting from behind, as usual.

“We’re going to Berlin?” called out Clint, drumming his feet with pleasure on the rear bench seat.

“Of course we’re going to Berlin.”

“But we’ve got school next week,” pointed out Jonny, with a sigh.

“If I move to Berlin, I’ll go to school there, of course,” I said. I was excited and trying to bring my forthcoming move to life.

“Look, mate,” said Jonny. “Of course you can’t move to Berlin,” he observed, looking at me with irritation. “You’re not even nine yet. Anyway, we’re talking about next week, moron.”

I gave him the finger in return. He looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.

Clint, who had been waiting patiently for the end of this discussion, carried on the interrogation.

“What did you do in Berlin, Theodor?”

“Earned money.”

“Doing what?” Clint dug deeper.

“Car dealing, for one,” replied Theodor, tersely.

“And what else?”

“This and that. I was a bouncer and a croupier, too.”

“What’s a croupier?”

Theodor, irritated: “Why d’you always want to know everything?”

“Because I want to know everything you’ve done, that’s all,” said Clint, a bit hurt.

Theodor nodded, meditatively, his eye fixed again on that spot that nobody else could see. He looked at the Rolex on his right wrist, the one with the fastener that made such a nice clacking sound every time he changed gear. He had to brake.

“Boy oh boy, we could do without this traffic. Drives me up the wall. Rolf’s waiting for us. And we’ve still got to go to Kalli’s afterwards,” said Theodor, more to himself than anybody else, like someone explaining to himself what needs to be done.

“Why do we have to go to the scrapyard again today? It’s always bloody freezing there,” I grumbled, leaned my head against the passenger door, and looked at the low sky, so low it was touching the rooftops.

“You shouldn’t say ‘bloody’, Romy, I’ve told you that a thousand times already,” said Theodor, his voice gradually getting louder and louder. “Rolf is going to lend me his angle grinder, because we need it in Berlin. And, apart from that, the Merc’s got starter motor problems again and you don’t want us to break down halfway there, now do you, my dove, my love.”

“We’re always going to the stupid scrapyard.”

I was trying to sound annoyed but not actually rude, otherwise Theodor might flip. I hated the scrapyard because there was even more crap piled up there than at home. There was nothing nice there at all. Only crud and stuff that was knackered, and everything was angular and untidy. And Rolf, who owned the scrapyard, couldn’t say anything in the normal way, but always shouted, shouted every single sentence. Besides, his nose was always full and I’d definitely seen snot hanging out of it three times.

“So what else did you do to earn money, apart from being a bouncer?” Clint picked up the conversation again. I groaned.

Theodor took a deep breath, as if the conversation was a huge effort.

“Car dealing, for one.”

Jonny made a face. “You’ve already said that.”

Clint: “And? What else?”

“I lived right next door to a scrapyard, did my school exams on the side, and studied medicine. I’ve always earned my own money.”

“OK. And when did you meet… Mum?” asked Clint hesitantly, his voice dropping to a near whisper at the end of the question.

Theodor’s reply came slowly, as if he was spelling out something for a bunch of half-wits to write down. “It always meant a lot to me to be independent. More than anything, that’s my advice to all of you. Make sure you stay with it and quickly get to earn your own money. Then nothing much can go wrong.”

“Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole,” said Clint, in full agreement.

Theodor: “That’s right. Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole.”

“But when did you meet Mum!? That was the question, Theodor,” I reminded him, and was amazed at my own boldness but didn’t hold out much hope for an answer.

Everyone was talking at once, anyway.

“But was your mother sort of nice, somehow?” asked Jonny suddenly, after being quiet for a long time.

Me, loudly: “God, what’s that got to with it?”

Clint, even more loudly: “Shut up, Romy!”

“You shouldn’t tell your sister to shut up!” said Theodor, the loudest of all.

“Well, of course my mother was nice. But she was more like a man,” he said, revelling in the impact of this explanation.

“A man?”

I tapped my forehead again.

“Whaaat?” went Clint.

Jonny said nothing, but craned forwards.

“She only had me because she could, and that was probably why she always had a bit of a downer on me,” explained Theodor, as if it was all perfectly obvious.

Jonny, the sceptic: “In what way, a bit of a downer?”

“Well, I assume so. Psychologically.”

“What’s psychologically?” I whispered.

“To do with the state of the human mind,” Theodor said, groaning a bit about us.

“What’s with the ‘psychologically’, then?” asked Jonny, still a bit wary.

“Well, our punch-ups, for a start. The old girl could really dish it out, but I used to give as good as I got. Then later on, you know, she just went swanning off round the world, and I saw her for the last time in the early seventies.”

“There’s no logic to what you’re saying,” commented Jonny, leaning back again in disappointment.

“And your father?” asked Clint.

“A lawyer. Always used to defend me,” said Theodor, and started to get much more forthcoming. “Father was an intellectual. Had an artistic nature but mother wouldn’t have any of that, so he earned the money. In any case my artistic streak comes from him. Well, at some point my father got sick of it all and cleared off to Moscow and became a pastry chef in a luxury hotel. That way he could really express himself. He made a Porsche 356 No.1 Roadster out of marzipan and sent me a photo of it, but I never got to Moscow to see him.”

“Are you sad about that?” asked Clint, in a voice like a chain-smoking Micky Mouse.

Theodor tilted his head to one side, and made an ‘O’ shape with his lips.

“Of course something like that makes you sad,” he said after a bit. He was thinking. “But I’m actually pretty contented, provided you lot don’t give me any hassle.”

“OK, then please tell again about how you lost your eye when you came off the bike doing 140 on the motorway,” begged Clint.

But we were already there.

Theodor got out.

“Back soon.”

It had started to snow, and with Theodor ‘soon’ could turn into ‘ages’.
2
Theodor’s gone. We’ve been sitting in the living room, waiting for him, ever since we all decided we should meet up, and then went to the village where Theodor’s house is, our old house. That’s where we’re sitting now, and waiting, and we don’t know how much we should be worrying. It was Jonny who’d said, “Look, let’s meet in an hour at Theodor’s place.” And when Jonny says something like that, we just do it. Nine days ago, Theodor vanished. He hasn’t been picking up. He vanished without leaving any note or message, all the more peculiar because today’s our birthday, Clint’s and mine, I mean. We’ve phoned every possible number, and Jonny’s spoken to the surgery where he works but nobody knows anything there, either; the cars are all in the garage or parked outside the house, so are the motorbikes.

On the table are empty pizza boxes and our phones. The table is protected by sticky plastic film, covered in dust. There are some faint round marks here and there. The curtains are closed, but not fully, and it’s black night beyond the terrace window, and although it’s dark outside, and inside only the dim living room lights are on, it’s obvious how mucky it is everywhere, and although it’s never been any different, the dirt makes me angry. And so do the black motorbike tyres on a bit of tarpaulin in the middle of the living room floor, they make me angry, too.

Jonny’s sitting on the beige massage chair that Sultan once bought, fiddling with the recliner button. The ponderous hum of the electric motor cuts through the stillness in the living room. It’s annoying. But it’s actually Jonny that’s annoying. He puts his feet up on the table, he takes them down again, he reaches across the table for the bottle of whisky that belongs to Theodor, he pours Theodor’s whisky into a glass and drinks, and jumps up and takes a couple of paces, and then sits down again. His eyes flick nervously round the room, and he says for the second time maybe we should be calling the police, only to say all in the same sentence that they wouldn’t help us, because the police never help anyone, they just create problems instead.

“We should ask Kalli. He might actually know something,” said Clint, next to me on the ancient leather sofa, its stuffing hanging out underneath. The leather has dark, greasy marks in the places where it’s been sat on so much. Clint’s looking for something in his trouser pocket.

“Kalli doesn’t know anything about anything. His brain had it bloody ages ago,” says Jonny, softly. He lights a cigarette and watches the smoke as he exhales into the air, as if it can tell him what to do next. He drops back down into the massage chair. The cigarette between his lips, he runs his hands over the old newspapers stacked up on the table, then gets rid of the dust by wiping his hands on his trousers, and pulls a face.

“He’ll turn up again alright,” I say, to make things better. We were quite sure Theodor was going to turn up again today at the latest. Because we absolutely always meet to celebrate a birthday, although of course we don’t celebrate like people normally do. Theodor doesn’t like birthdays, asks what all the fuss is about, you can’t help having a birthday, he says, birthdays are not an achievement. But he never forgets them. He strides up to the occasion, puts his arms round us, gives us a hug, says ‘Many happy returns’ and sings us a birthday song. He’s done the birthday roll call in exactly the same way year after year, and done his duty, although he can’t sing at all, I’m thinking and then saying, laughing and looking to see if the others will laugh with me.

“He sings just so badly,” murmurs Clint, his head bent over the table where he’s preparing the coke he did eventually find in his trouser pocket, the coke he doesn’t flog anymore but still loves like crazy. And I love Clint. And Jonny and Theodor. But loads of things about us are a bit odd. I don’t mean that in a ‘ha ha look at our nutty family’ sort of way. I mean there’s something really seriously odd about us.

But I love my father, I do not know that, and please don’t let him be dead. And, apart from that, I wouldn’t know who to turn to if I got up to my eyes in debt again. Although our dealings are always pretty heavy-going, and afterwards he thinks he owns me, I do somehow get a bit of money from him every time, and that’s how we stay in touch. That’s what we do together, argue about money and haggle over interest and make new agreements. We’ve got countless agreements, going right back to the late eighties. Theodor keeps a precise record of the amounts and the repayment terms in a little book with a brown leather cover. The book with our agreements. We haven’t got anything else. But that’s not quite true.

I look at the white canvases propped against the bookshelves, the canvases Theodor covers with his own painting. In front of the spines of the books are little paint-pots, streaks of congealed colour seeming to run down their outsides. A paint-smeared pickle-jar holds a dysfunctional family of worn brushes. It really does look as if nobody has been here for centuries, and smells like it, too. Stale air. Left-over turps, engine oil, cigarette smoke mingled with sweat, add to that fuel oil from the basement, cooking fat from the kitchen, dandruff along the back of the sofa, then all mixed together and stored in every scrap of material in the house.

“Give us a note, would you,” says Clint. I hunt in my bag and hand him a fiver. Clint does a line, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with this early evening if your father’s gone missing. His eyes are staring, his pupils huge, he looks like a fox in the headlights.

Jonny’s pacing up and down in front of the bookshelves. He says the whisky’s good, too good to have been bought by Theodor, so probably a present. We all burst out laughing at the thought of Theodor’s obsessive thrift, and Jonny’s the first to fall silent again.

The obsessive thrift is what I come up against when he says to me the thing he’s said to me for as long as I can remember, and that’s, “Romy, you really have got a manageable cost structure. It’s the basic market principles you need to grasp. Your outgoings need to match your income. When will that sink in?”

And then I say something like: “Never, and it’s your fault, because it’s all down to you that I’ve developed a completely defective relationship with money. I’ll put that in writing if you want. Scientifically proven.”

I know it’s daft to blame Theodor, it’s stupid, but I still try to talk to him. I’m studying psychology (though thinking right now about packing it in) but Theodor doesn’t set much store by my subject knowledge, and refuses to acknowledge any connection between my strange relationship with money and his, which is probably right to a certain extent. At the end of the day it’s all crap, anyway.

Clint’s snorting coke next to me. Jonny’s standing with his back to us in front of the terrace window, looking out into the darkness. To his left are Theodor’s wooden clogs, their leather patched, and patched again. I knock three times on the wooden table, because I really do now think Theodor’s dead, and I want the thought to go away. He could have been dead so many times. I’ve expected it every day of my life, simply because I always thought if I don’t expect it, then it’ll happen, so because of that I was forced to expect it, otherwise something would have happened to him. And so nothing’s ever happened to him. But today, I’m thinking to myself, maybe because Jonny’s so agitated, something could have happened. I see his smashed skull stuck to a crash barrier, one wooden clog left burning in the middle of the motorway, oh God how that abandoned shoe gets to me, even though the foot and everything attached to it is such an arsehole, and even though the clog is there next to Jonny. And I’ve so often imagined that something’s happened to him and, OK, it’s never happened, but now this could be something. If only we just knew what’s going on, if he really has got some problem. Maybe then everything would be different, maybe it would be a relief. But I don’t want to think like that. I knock on the wood again, three times, so hard I grip my knuckles afterwards.

“What’s all that about?” Jonny turns and looks at me like I’ve spat on the ground right in front of him.

“Nothing,” I say, and I have to knock three more times, or Theodor’s dead.


From
Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf,  © 2015 Hoffmann und Campe

 


Translator’s Note

I grew up in a scrapyard and lived off hub caps and bumpers. That’s just my translation of the book’s full title: Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf, wo ich lernte mich von Radkappen und Stossstangen zu ernähren.

Published in 2015 by Hoffmann und Campe, this 400-pager is journalist Antonia Baum’s second novel. I’d heard about it and noted the great title, usually shortened to ‘Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf’, and was pleased when the publisher commissioned me to do this extract translation into English.

I seem to be drawn to tales of ‘kaputte Kindheit’ where the characters find the strength and grit to work their way through early life difficulties to adulthood. One of my personal criteria for calling a book ‘good’ is if I miss the people in it when I’ve finished reading it. Although the one female character, Romy, is widely referred to by reviewers as the only halfway sensible person in the whole story, her father and two brothers are larger than life, you can almost scent their presence as you read, and I missed them, too. I like the resilience and strength of the relationships. Then there’s the impact of a family secret, the devastation that may be caused by information withheld.

Another of my personal criteria is whether I want to read the book again very soon. And I did, and got even more out of it, in spite of, and yet also because of, knowing the shocking dénouement. This is all about the information withheld. I won’t tell you in case you decide to read it. But it’s about the children’s mother.

Reviewers refer to the language and draw parallels with Rap and Hip Hop but don’t be put off by this. Sometimes I think reviewers are not given enough time to read the whole book but just have to write the review somehow. I like neither Rap nor Hip Hop but love Antonia Baum’s narrative style and the dialogue.

The reviews are positive but tend to the sensational, majoring on drugs and the unsavoury characters drawn in by Theodor, the father. This will be good for sales. But what stands out for me is the strength of the relationship between these three siblings, and their love for their crazy, affectionate, neglectful father, and the strong attachments they form to other adults as they grow up. Here are a few reviewers’ comments, translated for the purpose of this note:

Die Zeit (9.4.15)

Intensely poetic {…} good; witty, poignant, a real page turner

Poetisch dicht {…} – gut; witzig, ergreifend, ein Pageturner

Aachener Zeitung

It’s brutal, touching, exciting like a thriller

Es ist brutal, berührend und spannend wie ein Thriller

SZ (16.4.2015) Dana Buchzik

This is a magnificent novel. Antonia Baum is quite simply a mercilessly good story-teller.

Dieser Roman ist ein grossartiges Buch. Antonia Baum erzählt einfach erbarmungslos gut.

Myself 16.3. 2015

Great story

Tolle Story

There were a few interesting issues to mull over before, and during, the translation process. Theodor’s ‘voice’ was the main one. Here’s a doctor, and we know doctors are thought to be wonderfully cavalier about their children’s upbringing, but this one is completely off the scale. It doesn’t fit. Then you piece him together; the former East, packed off to a boarding school for sporting prowess, a mother who was not mad on being anybody’s mother, Theodor did that thing we call ‘shifting for himself’ in a big way. So he mixes this child-rearing approach into the rearing of his own motherless children, although he is a doctor and, presumably, seen as a pillar of some sort of community. He mixes with unsuitable people and takes his children out of school for inappropriate projects. But they still love him. Mix all this together and his ‘voice’ begins to form.

The children’s ‘voices’ were a joy to translate. Alternating chapters bring them to us as primary school age, then young adult, then back to primary. I enjoyed trying to capture their tireless questioning of Theodor, with Romy trying to keep a lid on Theodor’s unpredictable reactions. Then as young adults they banter, they interrupt each other and needle each other. And through it all comes Romy’s warm, sometimes lost, but always loving, voice.

I think the sentence I enjoyed translating the most was this one:

‘Er drehte sich weg und lehnte den Kopf an das Seitenfenster, durch das man nicht hindurchgucken konnte, weil es ein Leichenwagen-Fenster aus Milchglas war. Ein Palmwedel war auch darauf.’

‘He (Jonny) looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.’

I like it for the juxtaposition of this mostly cheerful, funny, questioning little boy and the dreariness and inappropriacy of his eccentric father’s choice of vehicle. This book is well worth the read.