They stand in a dark side street, behind a fish restaurant that recently went bankrupt: the mothers, usually six or seven older ladies in long raincoats from the 1950s. Some wear those hats shaped like inverted flower pots, a special favourite with the customers, while others go for curlers which hang in their hair like frozen tinsel. Their hands are in diaphanous lace gloves, decorated with tiny ornaments like those worn by the dead when they lie in state all day. It’s November, the weather is wet, cold, and miserable, and police checks have become less frequent. A few minutes ago a patrol car drove past and the officers wound down their window to talk to the women. One of them even gave out a few chocolate bars. Then the bearded men drove on. They certainly won’t be seen again within the next four hours. Maybe they won’t come back at all.
The ladies walk up and down here all night. To attract customers they fumble around with their raincoat buttons, round and colourful like cough sweets, push their oversized reading glasses back on their heads, or search their fake leather handbags for moisturising hand cream. Occasionally they even raise an index finger and wag it as if telling someone off. This gesture is universal and nearly always brings results.
A young man of about twenty approaches the ladies. He’s left his bike a short distance away and is walking down the dark side street, trying his hardest not to draw attention to himself. His hair hasn’t been washed for at least a week, his glasses are smeared with grease and fingerprints, and when he stops for a moment to tie his shoelace, a small diamond shaped tear can be seen in the back of his jacket. Before addressing one of the mothers, he turns off his mobile phone. He even waits until the display goes dark and only then continues walking. It clearly doesn’t bother him that his vest is hanging out of his trousers and his upper lip and left cheek are smeared with chocolate. His mouth doesn’t look like it’s getting much use. He’s quite possibly not spoken to anyone at all in the last few weeks. The general impression he gives is of someone pleasant enough, but also rather bewildered. Which exactly describes the kind of men who often come wandering into the narrow side street behind the former fish restaurant.
Irma is the first to approach him.
“Hello,” she says.
His first reaction is to move out of her way, as if he’s not at all interested, then he stops and looks at her more closely from the side.
“Philipp,” he says, and holds out his hand.
“Mother Irma,” says Irma.
She’s the oldest of the mothers. Usually the others leave the first customer to her, as they all owe Irma some kind of favour. But you can tell from the look on the young man’s face he’s not interested in Irma. Maybe it’s the headscarf she’s wearing. It’s come to be her trademark, but it doesn’t make her look maternal, just pinched, like a hard-up market trader.
Agathe gets wind of an opportunity and approaches the young man. Ulrike follows her.
“What a surprise, the vultures are coming,” says Irma quietly, taking her wide-rimmed glasses in her hand. “Well, what is it?”
“Hello,” says the young man to Agathe and Ulrike. “Good evening.”
“Doesn’t he look sweet?” says Irma, pointing to his worried face with her glasses. “But he’s made a real mess on his face.”
She takes a handkerchief out of her coat, licks it, and uses it to wipe the young man’s cheek.
“There you are…… that’s better.”
“I don’t think he looks sweet,” Agathe chimes in. “He’s just putting it on. He’s really a loser, one of those who only visits or phones his parents once in a blue moon. Isn’t that right?”
His reaction tells her that she’s hit the nail on the head. The young man smiles at her. He needs it, Agatha can tell, he needs it urgently.
“I’m Philipp,” says the young man. “How much is it for…….”
“For one night.”
“The whole night?” Agathe asks in reply.
The young man looks at the ground and puts a hand to the back of his head.
“Can we say two hundred?” he asks shyly.
“Listen, you little good-for-nothing ,” says Agathe, “you might be able to get away with that with Ulrike here, but not with me. It’s three hundred or nothing.”
“Oh,” says the young man. “Please. I …”
“Two hundred and seventy,” says Agathe after thinking a bit. “Anything less would be an insult.”
“Can I, can I possibly pay by card?” asks the young man.
The three mothers laugh, Agathe the loudest. “Yes, of course, love,” she says. “I think we can manage that. We’ll go to a cash machine on the way, promise.”
The young man’s face brightens up.
“Okay then, let’s go.”
“You daft thing,” says Agathe and puts her arm through his.
They walk away. The other mothers look after them, then return to their slow walking up and down. When it begins to rain a few minutes later, Irma puts up her old- fashioned umbrella with the laughing moon face and the other mothers squeeze up together so they don’t get wet.
“That Agathe,” says Ulrike. “There’s not a night goes by when she doesn’t get a son.”
“It’s a question of experience. Just be patient, you’re nearly there.”
“If only. This here is all I’ve got. Where else can I go? I don’t want to do daughters, although they say you can at least wait in a house and not out on the street in all weathers.”
“Come on now, it’ll all come right,” says Irma, who doesn’t like it when the others complain. “Look, now it’s stopped raining again. It was just a quick shower.”
The mothers spread out again. Somewhere a church clock chimes the quarter hour and a little later a car horn shrieks out in its sleep. Otherwise all is quiet. The evening marches on and a few single stars appear.
When the young man laughs, he holds his fist in front of his mouth as if he’s coughing. Agathe thinks it’s cute. To test how helpful he is, she pretends she’s having great difficulties climbing the stairs. Philipp stops and looks at her, then it occurs to him he should help her, and he does the best he can. He’s all fingers and thumbs, thinks Agathe, but still, at least he’s trying. The name plate by the bell says: Uhlheim. A name that sounds familiar to Agathe. Maybe a previous customer? There are so many of them after all ‒ so many children, she thinks.
In the flat he takes her raincoat and hangs it up on the coat stand. Agathe takes a look around. A typical student pad, a den with a musty smell like teenagers’ bedclothes. An ironing board, with its legs askew, lies across the sofa.
“Well,” he says. “This is where I live.”
“I knew you’d make something of yourself,” says Agathe.
Philipp laughs. It’s not a proper laugh, more of a facial reflex he couldn’t suppress in time. Maybe he finds it difficult to relax before the financial side has been arranged, thinks Agathe. She decides to make it easier for him and just holds out her hand. He looks at her, takes one, then two seconds, then understands and goes into another room. He comes back with two hundreds and one fifty which he presses into her hand. Then he sets about trying to find a twenty and starts to get annoyed because he can’t find one. It occurs to Agathe that he didn’t stop at a cash machine on the way home after all.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, “Shall I cook something for you? Like in the old days?”
His relief at this suggestion helps her relax, too. He runs his hand through his hair, grins, looks away, looks back at her. Then he says:
“Yes, yes. That would be great.”
Agathe goes into the kitchen, finds an apron which she puts on, and inspects the fridge. It’s almost empty. She’d been expecting as much, but the fact that there isn’t even any butter annoys her a little. She decides to make him an omelette. From experience she knows that customers enjoy their food more when she doesn’t say what they’re going to have, but just starts cooking as a matter of course. It gives them a feeling of security. Philipp sits down on a kitchen chair.
“Well, then,” says Agathe, as she cracks open an egg, letting the thick yolk drop into a large measuring jug, “tell me a bit about what you’re up to these days.”
His tone of voice is cheerful, unnervingly so, almost as if he can hardly believe it’s all going so smoothly. As if he’d been convinced he’d suffer greater difficulties or humiliations.
“I’m still a student.”
“What are you studying?”
“Oh, I’ve been studying forever. Physics and Chemistry.”
“Physics. And Chemistry,” repeats Agatha, to show how impressive that is, while wiping her hands on her apron.
It’s a fine line to tread – she has to concentrate to stop her gestures from being too obvious, too clichéd. But Philipp doesn’t seem to notice such things.
“Well, you were always good at technical stuff,” she says.
“Well, maybe,” says Philipp, “but I’m still not sure it’s the right thing for me. And uni can be pretty stressful, too.”
“In what way?”
“All these deadlines you’ve got to keep to. And they’re always changing things, so suddenly something no longer counts towards your marks and you have to go to the dean’s office to argue with the idiots there. Really stressful.”
“But you’re nearly finished?”
“Yes, thank God. Another year or so.”
Agathe’s omelettes have turned out well. Just the right golden yellow to give him an appetite. Philipp eats with his eyes closed. He’s doing it all for the first time, Agathe guesses, he doesn’t know yet how to behave.
“Well, you’ve been a student for long enough. It’s about time you finished,” says Agathe, tartly.
Philipp opens his eyes and looks at her, taken aback. Then he smiles, picks up the pepper grinder and shakes it over his plate, which is almost empty.
“Eat up,” she tells him. “You’re much too thin.”
He looks down at himself.
“Or d’you want to end up looking like all those stick-thin no-hopers wandering around the place, who’ve got nothing better than books to spend their money on?”
After the meal she tidies up the flat a bit. There’s dust everywhere and she tells him off for being lazy. She knows that a constant, good-natured stream of grumbling burbling away in the background has a calming effect on young men. She picks socks up from the floor, bending down slowly and laboriously, apportioning blame so successfully in each individual movement that Philipp has to avert his eyes. His dirty washing is lying scattered about on chairs and on the bed. She stuffs it into the washing machine, telling him how much washing powder to use so that his clothes get clean but don’t have that penetrating chemical smell. After creating a bit of order she sits down in front of the television.
She finds a television guide on a side table, leafs through it, and starts underlining various programmes with a highlighter pen that Irma gave her a month ago.
“Come and sit down next to me,” she says.
Philipp obeys her.
“Well? Have you got a girlfriend?”
Philipp has to laugh. Agatha pushes her reading glasses back on her head and looks at him as if to say: I do have a right to know. But she doesn’t get the expression quite right. The look on her face startles him and Philipp suddenly becomes serious.
“No, not at the moment,” he says looking at his knees. “She moved out….three weeks ago.”
“She wasn’t good enough for you anyway.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It wasn’t really that.”
“Yes, it was. She wasn’t the right one for you. Much too pushy.”
Philipp’s face freezes. He’s no longer playing along and is probably irritated at her well- intentioned shots in the dark. Agathe knows she went a bit too far. But it’s difficult to put the brake on when you realise you’re on the right track. She changes the subject and questions him a bit about his future plans. Where does he see himself in five years’ time? What will he write about in his Finals paper? When does he think he’ll be giving her the grandchild she’s hoped for all this time? Philipp responds politely to every question, but every so often looks at his watch. Agathe knows she’s got be tougher with him now, in order not to lose him.
“Are you even listening to me? Hey Philipp, I’m talking to you!”
“Yes, of course,” he says and gets up from the sofa.
“Sit back down. Here I am visiting you for just one single day and all you’re giving me is a monosyllabic commentary. I’m sorry that your life is so uninteresting. I’m sorry you haven’t got anything to tell me. But that’s not my fault. That’s not how I brought you up.”
Philipp sits down. He looks lost.
“Are you angry with me?” he asks.
“Thank God,” thinks Agathe. He’s melting.
“No, of course I’m not angry with you.”
It’s getting late. Philipp’s sitting next to her on the sofa and watching television with her. But Agathe’s getting tired and decides to send him to bed. He obeys and even lets her tuck him in. She draws the quilt right up to his chin. She watches him enjoying a good stretch under the cool covers. He breathes in deeply and rolls over to one side.
“Sleep well,” she whispers.
After she’s turned off the light in the children’s room and shut the door very quietly behind her, she knows what’s expected of her next. She sits down in the room next door and carries on watching television. Many customers love seeing the bluish flicker of the television screen coming under the door. The flickering means: Someone is there, someone is still awake and keeping an eye on the flat. She switches through the channels and finds a few programmes that interest her. The repeat of an old Colombo series, a comedy with Christiane Hörbiger. She wonders if Philipp might lend her his bike in the morning. Some of her colleagues would now be rummaging through the flat looking for money, but there’s not much hope of that here. And anyway it’s often happened that a customer gets up again late at night and goes to mother in the room next door, to lay his head in her lap. For most of them this service, which is an extra, is really the thing they want most. The best thing to do, thinks Agathe as she puts her headphones on, is to act like a beacon of reliability by just sitting here quietly till the next morning. That’s the work of a real professional.
And Philipp does indeed come out of his room at around 2 o’clock, with his left pyjama leg all gathered up above his knee so that he has to shake it to go back down.
“I can’t sleep,” he complains.
Agathe looks at him kindly and pats the sofa cushion next to her. Philipp sits down next to her.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, things going round and round in my head,” he explains, shrugging his shoulders. “Complicated things.”
Then he leans over, his head brushing Agathe’s shoulder and dropping down towards her lap.
“That costs extra,” she whispers.
She makes an effort to be as considerate and motherly as possible when giving him this information as if it’s all part of the show. It works, and Philipp just nods.
“Thirty,” whispers Agathe.
Philipp lets his weary head sink into her lap. He shuts his eyes and murmurs
“Thirty, forty, fifty…”
He goes on counting in tens. When he gets to ninety he stops, licks his lips, and seems to fall asleep. But Agathe knows that in all probability he’s still awake. She has some experience with young men who pretend to be asleep. She can tell by the rhythm of his breathing, by the lively twitching of his eyelids and, of course, by the movement of his Adam’s apple. When people are asleep they swallow less frequently. He seems to like it all the same. And it doesn’t matter to him that this service will cost him more. So he has done it before, thinks Agathe. He knows the ropes, it’s not his first time. She thinks of his innocent face when he was looking for the notes, and smiles. On previous occasions Agathe sometimes turned a blind eye and let the customer sleep on her lap for free. Most of them were very grateful and as a result became regular customers, so the investment was worth it, so to speak, Agathe thinks. It just varies from case to case. Some young men look as if they need it more urgently than others, they’ve got an odd side parting, and trousers that are much too big, and all they talk about is some film or other which Agathe has never heard of, or about the fact that they never see their brothers and sisters because they live in another town. You just can’t be angry with them. You’d almost give it them for free, the whole works. Almost, that is, of course.
Agathe sighs and looks at the satisfied human being whose ear is lying between her legs. He’s definitely not one of those men to whom she’d almost give it for free. He’s got to pay. If he refuses, she knows who she can call. But still, with him there’s something else, something she can’t explain, despite her experience of many years. It’s strange, but she feels an urge to tell him not to spend his money on her services in the future. To take more care of himself and not let himself go. And he should finish his studies and get his life on track. Agathe lays her hand on the back of his head and begins to talk to him softly, even though she knows by now he has really gone to sleep. Her tone is still professional as she does so; she’s got herself under control.
“You know,” she whispers, “I don’t think you should do this again. You shouldn’t go out in the cold each time you… you should really try to finish your studies, I mean really, seriously. Instead of, for nights on end………”
After an hour she lifts Philipp’s sleeping head from her lap and lays it on the sofa. She needs the toilet urgently. As she’s there, she cleans up a bit in his bathroom too. The mirror is so dirty she can barely recognise herself.
In the early hours of the morning she wakes the customer and gets the additional thirty euros from him. It didn’t take him long to find it. He says goodbye to her at the door.
“Let’s have one last hug,” she says and puts her arms around him.
“Really?” he says, flattered. “Stop it, you’ll break my – “
Then the breath is squeezed out of him as Agathe really hugs him as hard as she can. His breath smells sharp and sour, typical of lonely men who have to spend the whole night wrestling with dreams that they’ll never tell to a soul.
Six o’clock in the morning. When she walks alone through the empty streets of the outer suburbs at this time of day she’s often beset by strange thoughts. She thinks about the time she has left on this earth, wondering how long her last customer will keep going to the street mothers at night while the dark gold city trains go on gliding away from the station, untroubled by the world’s problems, as if they didn’t exist. And how long will it be till the sun rises again in an absolutely cloudless sky, untrammelled by the wavy silken veil the European capitals produce each morning to shield their populations? The question of time has always concerned her. It’s closely connected to the question of hope. Over time Agathe has become acquainted with just about every kind of hope that you have to satisfy these days if you want to survive. Not all her colleagues have grasped this. Irma knows it, of course ‒ better, perhaps, than she’s willing to admit. Agathe is sure Irma found a place to stay last night. She’s nearly always the last one to return to the side street, looking happy and content and telling funny stories from the life she’s shared for that one night. Agathe finds herself thinking of the time Irma showed them something a customer had made for her: a small wooden space ship. If a nuclear war broke out, this space ship would take all the mothers on earth (or was it all the happy families? Agathe can’t quite remember) to safety on another, faraway planet. Irma described the strange crayon drawings that could be seen all over the client’s flat: drawings of a small green ball, floating peacefully off into space.
When Agathe goes past the fish restaurant, its shop front boarded over with brown planks, she looks up and finds the pallid moon of early morning over the roofs, a grave metallic face behind clouds. A wooden space ship, she thinks, and has to smile at such a silly idea. How childish. A space ship for everybody – was that it?
Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, Suhrkamp, 2011.