There was nothing different about the night compared to the day. Just that everything’s colour was missing, we told each other.
“The bed is the bed, the room’s the room. The hall is the hall and the stairs are the white stairs.”
The door was the door, and it was shut.
The garden outside is still the garden at night, we told each other. And Ira knew, just as I knew, that each of us would have to learn how to be alone, even at night. After the countless nights in our shared bed, there followed the long years where we each slept in our own rooms. Then we each lived in our own flats, had our own cupboards for our own things, thought our own thoughts and endured – as best as we could – our fears alone.
Looking back, it seemed that I must have resisted being alone for longer than I’d thought. Since leaving home at nineteen I’d lived alone for a total of less than three months. I’d moved into a shared house, and then another, and from there into a third. Housemates came and went. I’d lived with three friends for a time, later with two, and then just one. When he moved in with his girlfriend, I also looked around for a girl to live with.
Meanwhile Ira was travelling. For over ten years, until she turned thirty, my sister travelled the world, learned languages and had boyfriends in different places. For a while she lived with Hector in Rio, then with Dave in Brooklyn, before she moved on to St. Petersburg or Netanya like some big, grey migratory bird. She would describe her lover in return for me telling her about whichever girl I was idolising at the time. At first they were fellow students, later colleagues – a painter, a video artist, a young Slovenian girl with a flower shop that was scarcely bigger than the basket of a hot air balloon. Sometimes I lived with someone, sometimes a girlfriend moved in with me. I never got a place jointly with anyone. My mother called it a “nest-building aversion.”
Ira travelled to Israel to learn Hebrew and got pregnant. I married my neighbour in Hamburg. Ira came back from Netanya and gave birth to a son. I got divorced. But my former wife wasn’t far away, Saskia and I remained friends. Then, fearful for each other, we became neighbours again.
With hindsight it looks as though, unlike me, my sister really tried to arm herself against her fear. Or had her travels been an escape? From what? From whom? It seems that we either carried whatever tormented us inside us, or we were ourselves that thing. Both of us took it around with us everywhere, knowing that neither one of us could escape it.
At some point she lived in her own house. It wasn’t a pretty house; there was nothing special about it, except that in the years before her death it was the centre of her world. In her house, Ira said, everything was hanging in the balance, at every second of the day and night.
Alone with the child, she felt as though she was trapped in the house. In all weathers – always! – the local children came out of school and rode their bikes through the estate shortly after half past one, just as twenty years ago she herself had ridden through Schnelsen, less than six miles away.
The garden was overgrown with moss, and the mosquitoes arrived as early as March. From mid-June the little dog from next door barked at the patio awning as soon as it was rolled out. In high summer she pushed the buggy with the boy in it to cheerless playgrounds. In autumn she stood at the patio door and stared through the pouring rain at a mossy pergola and the conifers. Two bats fluttered through the dusk. Sometimes she wanted to dig up the grass, to cast light on the black earth, but she didn’t. It grew cold and the heating oil dripped in the tank in the cellar, in the child’s room, in the front garden, in the garage, wherever you stood and listened, you could hear it everywhere.
Once she asked me to draw her house. We were standing in the garden on a winter’s day and she described how she imagined the picture: with the house flying away. It should consist entirely of big, grey migratory birds which all looked like her and were streaming away.
Ira called her house her state of fossilisation.
The house wasn’t big. But her fear was, and unlike mine it grew bigger. While she was travelling her anxiety had dissolved or turned to dust; the old night fear sometimes seemed to have been blown away in all directions. In each foreign land the black things tried to gather again in the dark, to join together and to force their way into her, just as they had always done. But somehow it had been different from at home. The new impressions, the foreign language, the people, had deflected them, and she had gradually forgotten that there was something that made her afraid. In Rio she was no longer afraid of the dark. At some point she began to talk to herself in Portuguese, in Netanya it was the same but in Hebrew, and already she dreamed in the new language. And soon she wasn’t alone anymore. There was always someone staying overnight when she was abroad, someone like Dave or Hector, who lay next to her and talked or listened or snored in the dark.
It was different in Wellingsbüttel. She was alone in her house, even when the child was there. She thought about the oil, brooded over it. In her imagination it overflowed the tank, then the cellar, and finally rose up through the house. Inky, it crept up the steps, lapped over the floor and carpets, sometimes at night it flowed into the child’s room and the walls were immediately grey from it. A grey colour everywhere which reminded me of the pictures that Degas had painted on his greyest days. And we were all this grey – without lives of our own, Degas had said.
Ira told me she sometimes saw an old, mouse-grey woman in the evenings, going backwards and forwards on the pavement in front of the house. Perhaps it was somebody who was confused, I said to her, after all there was a large old people’s home not far away by the river. She didn’t believe it.
“My own life is disappearing,” she said. “I am the woman.”
And I said, into the telephone: “Fantasy. Shall I come round? Have you eaten? I’ll bring something. We could talk, or watch a film.”
She didn’t want to eat anything, or see a film. Perhaps we could listen to music and chat.
“I’ll come now. You have a bath. How’s Jesse? Is he asleep?”
Yes, the little boy was in her bed, he was sleeping.
“Calm down, please, promise me.”
“Since this morning I’ve been trying to make myself understand that the walls are just walls,” she said. “But the more I try, the less I believe my own thoughts. Markus, my thoughts, they’re not mine at all.”
How to perceive the moment when the page turns? Was it even possible to perceive a moment? It was a matter of preparing yourself for the time when nothing was how it used to be.
When I thought of my sister I thought of the questions that Ira and I had gone over and over in vain during the nights at her house. There were no answers to them. They were questions which excluded answers and increasingly I had the feeling that Ira only asked them for that reason.
“When you see that you’re in a corner, when absolutely everything seems to be against you and you think you can’t stand a minute more backed against the wall, where do you find the strength to see that it’s all an illusion?”
I didn’t know how to reply. I couldn’t follow Ira and nor did I want to follow her up to the grey wall.
“Stop putting yourself through it. Take your tablets, take them regularly. Go to the doctor’s. Go to that group you used to go to, that was always a good thing. Don’t let yourself be eaten up and ripped apart by all the negative stuff.”
For the most part I just churned out phrases.
“I know,” was her usual answer, as soon as she had tired herself out with talking, “yes, I know,” – which sounded just as mechanical, but was honest. And then she would sigh, which turned me inside out, or even worse the sad smile with which she stood at the patio door, blowing cigarette smoke into the night air.
“You have to phone the Lewandowskis,” she said. “Please do it. Phone them and ask whether he can stay with them for the next two weeks.”
She was talking about Jesse before I’d even thought about him. She saw her misery through his eyes, from his perspective. “How can you, as a mother, make your child understand that in every room, even his, you see a gaping hole in the ground?”
Her riddling questions only further alienated her from me. It was so long since I’d said anything to her that had actually sunk in.
“Try breathing in slowly, Ira, in and out, in and out, and once more in …,” said her doctor very calmly, and for a time she calmly did as she was told.
I could only think of platitudes or, when I was reading Hemingway, of Hemingway quotes, and at best Ira would ask how old the translation was.
Shrug. “Probably older than us, no idea. One thing’s for certain, that no horse named ‘Morbid’ ever won a race.” That’s what the terminally ill colonel says in Across the River and into the Trees.
She smiled. She stroked my arm as she walked past.
“Please phone the Lewandowskis. The number’s saved.”
I made the call. Jesse’s stand-by foster parents would be there for the next two weeks, the boy was welcome to come to them. The Lewandowskis had never said no.
When Ira talked about Jesse her old smile from our childhood flitted across her face. I saw it, even though it was so gloomy in the house, and loved it precisely because it had become so difficult to love her instead of just feeling sorry for her. When Ira smiled it seemed as though the many nights we’d spent together were not lost, perhaps because – as so often when we were children – we were thinking the same thing.
It gradually dawned on me what Ira had long known: the page which would change everything was too heavy for her. Jesse would have to lift it up, he would have to hold up the page that had become too heavy for his mother and turn it over. With her son, a new chapter began.
At the beginning she was perhaps not aware of the consequences of the idea that was forming inside her. I was seized by a tremendous fear as soon as I grasped just how ready she was to give herself up.
For her, on the other hand, it had long been a certainty: entrusting her own life’s mission to her son meant that there was nothing left that merited her effort. Consequences had not even been a factor for her for a long time.
With thoughts of Ira turning over and over in my mind, I sat in front of the wall that was the last thing she’d seen. They were thoughts to make you weep, dismal visions full of self-reproach which I’d had often enough, but couldn’t banish from my mind. You sit there in your loaded-up car, staring at a garage wall. Looking through the window, at the bull’s eye. Outside in the October light flying insects gleam, while here in the half-dark you are haunted by the only person you’ve ever loved. How will you ever get out of this mess?
After Ira’s death my parents gave up their house in Schnelsen. To make the transition as easy as possible for Jesse, they moved in with him in Wellingsbüttel and opposed the unhappiness with what they did best, their proficiency in coping with everyday life. Only the garage was beyond their pragmatism. It was a crime scene and a monument, the gate to the underworld and a stigma, an incomprehensible place. So it stood empty and became a mausoleum reeking of petrol into which no one besides me ever set foot.
When I visited the three of them I put my car in the garage for the weekend. Before I went into the house I stayed sitting in the car until the grey stone with its circular window lost its tomb-like qualities. After dinner I stepped outside, smoked a cigarette and unlocked the garage again. I heaved the door up, sat at the wheel, put the cigarette out in the ashtray and waited for the thoughts to arrive: my thoughts in Ira’s garage were always the same. Sometimes it was instantaneous, I saw her in front of me, the way she’d stand smoking at the patio door, saw her smiling, her childhood smile, her long thin legs in the gym at a sporting event or how she cycled home with a friend balanced on the back of her bike. I heard her voice, which was dark and ill-suited to her small figure. My sister’s voice sounded inexplicably slow to me when she said things in that particular way of hers.
“Is there anyone at all who is capable of perceiving a decisive moment?”
When the weekend was over I got in the car on Sunday evening or Monday morning and drove out. The door was scarcely closed and all thoughts and questions disappeared, just so, as though they’d stayed with my dead sister in the garage.
For a long time my father had been planning to have the garage demolished and to build a new one. It would be in the same place and on the plans it looked just like the old one, except it wasn’t. It would have a connecting door into the house. And there would be safety ventilation. My father drew detailed plans, like before, and even purchased a technical pen for the purpose, having given his old draughtsman’s set to me years ago.
He had been putting off the project since March. Even though my parents found their son’s garage devotions macabre, though they preferred to walk to Ohlsdorf to the cemetery and thought they should forbid Jesse from entering the garage or from playing basketball in front of it with his friend Niels, they saw in time that nothing comforted me as much as sitting in front of Ira’s wall.
When my mother asked me why I didn’t stop going to the garage, I replied that I let it alone as soon as I went away. But that wasn’t true. I did not believe for a minute that I’d ever be able to get over Ira’s death, and neither did I want to.
From Nie mehr Nacht by Mirko Bonné, © 2013 Schöffling & Co.
Translation © Sheridan Marshall