Author: Volker Röhlich
Translator: Steph Morris
[Excerpted from The Stumbler (Der Stolperer)]
The lady with the beehive hairdo was kind of like a relative.
Pretty soon after the first time I met her, on that very cold day the November before, I met her again. In the sand pit; and now it was early summer. The lady with the beehive had a name; and my mum told me it. Her name was Auntie Lizbeth, and I was supposed to call her that. Only she wasn’t really my Auntie; just a neighbour, my mum said. So in the sand pit she suddenly talked to me, because I kept kissing Bertie. Bertie was a boy my age from the next block. Really Bertie was my first best friend. Bertie had a lovely face and golden hair. When the sun shone on his hair it glowed, and then when he smiled as well I always wanted to kiss him. And I did, every time. And Bertie liked it; well he never told me not to kiss him.
Anyway, she came up to us.
It was only me she talked to; she said I couldn’t kiss Bertie all the time. “Boys shouldn’t kiss other boys”, she told me. “Boys can only kiss girls,” she went on to explain, “but never other boys.”
“But I can kiss Bertie,” I said to her.
And I showed her one more time; I gave Bertie a quick kiss. Seeing as he was sitting right next to me in the sand pit.
“Look, Auntie Lizbeth, I can kiss Bertie.” Bertie laughed. Suddenly she held both my little hands and looked me in the face very seriously. She said that boys were not allowed to kiss boys and I had to stop it right now; it was for the best. She made me scared; she looked so strict.
She must have had a word with my mum. Because my mum said something to me that night, over tea. My mum told me too that I couldn’t kiss Bertie any more. She said too that boys couldn’t kiss other boys; that boys could only kiss girls, and never other boys, because that was what was right; not the other way. I didn’t quite understand, somehow, because I really, really liked Bertie, and he really, really liked me. Anyway I was not supposed to kiss Bertie any more, and I didn’t, not any more. But I still wanted to, all the time, specially when the sun shone.
I was also the kind of boy who wanted to be like his dad, and stumble. I started to stumble about wherever I could.
I stumbled in every room in the flat. I stumbled on the street and on the pavement. I stumbled down long hallways. I stumbled in precincts. I stumbled in gardens and in fields. I stumbled in corner shops and department stores. I stumbled at the hospital. I stumbled at the zoo, at the swimming pool and by the pond. Twice I even stumbled in church. The old people there stared at me very sternly. I stumbled just like all the other kids my age really.
I stumbled over bumps and dips; I stumbled over edges and ridges.
I stumbled up stairs and down stairs. I stumbled over wrinkled carpets and wooden floor-boards, when they poked up slightly.
I stumbled over tree roots growing back out of the ground. I stumbled over stones lying on paths. I stumbled on my own and holding my mum’s hand. You could do a bit of stumbling anywhere, any time. When I couldn’t find anything else to stumble over, I stumbled over my own feet.
The bigger kids were always stumbling deliberately in the sand-pit; over the sandcastles and sand-cakes us little ones had built, and they always laughed about it. The sand-pit was right between the three blocks of flats on our estate; in the middle of a big patch of short grass. There was a high metal slide, which led into the sand-pit, and a little bit away from the slide was a much larger climbing frame, with a roof on it, all made of metal. And there were three wooden benches, for the mums; somewhere nice to sit while they minded their kids while they were playing. There were also mums who liked to mind their kids from the windows of their flats. And there were other mums who didn’t mind their kids at all, but the other women, the ones sitting on the benches, minded their kids for them too. One person who was always minding the kids was the woman with the beehive, Auntie Lizbeth, because she didn’t have any kids of her own, and that must be why she liked looking after all the other kids.
Anyway, as well as stumbling I was getting very interested in differences. From our living-room window you could see the other people’s little houses, over the road from our estate, straight across from us; other people not in blocks of flats; in little houses.
The little houses actually belonged to the other people themselves, the front gardens too, and the garages which came with them, all belonged to the people over the road. The block didn’t belong to us; and the flat didn’t either. The blocks didn’t have garages. And our flat had a special name; it was called a social flat. The others were also called that, social flats, and none of them belonged to the people living in them. That’s the way it was; my mum explained it to me. But I didn’t know why, because I couldn’t understand the word ‘social’. My mum couldn’t explain it to me; it was still too hard for me to understand what social was.
All the little houses were painted a different colour. But all our three blocks of flats were painted the same colour; brown. And every front garden outside each little house was different from the next. All the front gardens were fenced off differently, with little walls or bushy hedges or wire fences. And they were all full of nice plants; there were even garden gnomes standing in some of them. One family had even dug themselves a pond, and there were real fishes in it, and there were loads of gnomes standing round it. One gnome really was always doing a wee-wee in the pond, the whole time, without stopping.
In front of our block, same as on the big patch behind, there was just short grass, but each of the little houses also had a much bigger back garden that went with them.
I heard that from the kids who sometimes came over to our sandpit. And in the back gardens the people planted things to eat, generally fruit and vegetables; all kinds of things, even cherries and strawberries and other fruits, and other vegetables as well; potatoes and cauliflower, radishes, onions and celery.
There was only dandelions growing on our patch of grass.
Only rabbits could eat dandelions, and the only person with rabbits was the old man. He came from time to time with a sack and chopped off the dandelions. Then he stuffed them into the sack and took them off to his rabbits, who ate them all up.
At the weekends the people from the little houses washed their cars in front of their garages.
Dads and sons generally; they got the cars all soapy then sprayed them with water.
I often watched it from our living-room window. But I could see more than that, because the people sometimes left their doors open.
Furniture, wardrobes, mirrors and pictures, proper painted pictures in gold frames, and flowers in big pots. Even better, late afternoons you could see into the little houses and watch the people. When it got dark they switched the lights on in their rooms, and only pulled the curtains across their windows later. So you could see really well into the rooms, see their furniture, old cupboards made of real wood with carvings on them.
And nice chairs with turned legs, and more pictures on the walls:
Proper hand-painted ones in gold frames; and books on shelves, lots of books.
Loads of books.
If I climbed up onto our window sill I could even make out the carpets in the rooms; real carpets, oriental ones. And the patterns on the carpets were ornamentations; my mum explained that to me once. And sofas and armchairs made of real leather, which the housewives polished till it shone.
Our furniture was totally different.
No pictures on the walls. We didn’t have any books, except my dad’s wild-west stories, which didn’t have pictures. My dad had a few of those, not very many. They sat in the dresser in the living-room, a unit made of fake wood.
That meant not proper wood; dark brown veneer; ‘antique walnut’ was its full name.
There were no proper carpets with pretty ornamentations in our flat. We had wall-to-wall mottled brown and grey carpet; its name was ‘acrylic’, and it wasn’t oriental; it was made in a factory. But our sofa and our armchair were made of leather; brown fake leather. My mum didn’t need to polish it; it stayed shiny anyway, for ever. In our kitchen there was another cupboard, which wasn’t made of proper wood either. But this was called something different to the one in the living-room; the one in the kitchen was called ‘formica’.
And our chair legs were not turned.
That was impossible, because they were made of steel rods, and you can’t do turning on steel rods.
Really my mum had a baby every year. Except one year, then she had two at once; girls; twins. So I thought perhaps we could become the German champions, because of the song on the radio, which went, “A baby a year. A baby a year. Till we’re the German champions here!” So I wanted to know if we were the German champions, so I asked my mum. She laughed and said no, and said that the Stroller family could well be the German champions. They lived in a different block from us. The Strollers had nine kids, but we only had five at the time; five kids, including two little twin girls.
The Stroller family didn’t have any twins. So I decided that from now on all my mum had to do was only have twins, and then in a few years we might be the German Champions, seeing as the Strollers obviously couldn’t get twins. My mum just laughed at this, and then she said it again; that I really was a daft little lad, and laughed while she said it; like she often did: said that, then laughed.
There were loads more nappies at this time, when we were getting to be loads more kids. Loads of nappies hanging on the line: white cotton nappies. Square nappies and longish nappies; they got filled with pee, filled with poo, and washed; in three buckets. Which stood in our bathroom under the sink. The nappies landed there in the buckets to be soaked. Dropped in soapy water in the first bucket to loosen the worst, then rinsed in the other buckets before they got washed. Rinsed by hand, by my mum, with her bare hands.
We all peed in bed, all the kids; often, very often; for ages; in bed or in our nappies, the bigger ones of us in the bed and the little ones in their nappies. There was my brother, one year older than me, who only sometimes wet the bed; then there was me, and I still wet the bed pretty often. Then came my oldest sister, but she was one year younger, and she wet the bed nearly every night. Last of all, at least for now, there was just my little twin sisters, and they peed in their nappies, every day, several times in fact; for ages. My mum had loads of washing to do.
Nappies and sheets; every day she was busy with the buckets in the bathroom; every day she rinsed the worst out of the nappies first. She rinsed the sheets roughly by hand in the bathtub before they went in the wash.
Anyway, the three-part mattresses, with the head-rest which belonged to them, were generally soggy from all the bed-wetting. So my mum took the mattresses out of the large, old, dark brown half of a double bed every day and stood them upright against the wall, to dry out. My mum and dad slept in the other half of the large, old, dark brown double bed. And this other half of the large, old, dark brown double bed was in my mum and dad’s bedroom.
Anyway we played with our mattresses too.
Once they had dried out we built a house out of them; a playhouse.
And in the evenings just before us kids were supposed to go to bed, my mum fitted the mattress back into the bed. That night too, she had fitted the mattress back into the bed as usual and put all of us kids to bed like she always did.
Then she turned out the light, like she did every evening. But we switched the light back on again.
We couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to, so we decided to play a bit longer instead. My mum looked in on us a few times through the evening though, and each time she switched the light back off.
One of us always switched it back on though.
And we carried on playing. The playing often got rough, very noisy and rough. Then my dad came in and told us off, loudly. Sometimes, often really, he’d be stumbling slowly towards us while he told us off, trying hard not to drop his bottle at the same time. Sometimes he sat with us on the edge of the bed and drank out of his bottle. He was generally cheery and funny then, but not always. Sometimes he wasn’t in a good mood, when he drank from his bottle on the edge of our bed. When he wasn’t in a good mood it upset my mum. She got suddenly nervous, and was angry that my dad was sitting on the edge of our bed, drinking out of his bottle; that he was in a bad mood and that he was complaining a lot. He either complained about us kids or about other people, like neighbours or workmates. Sometimes there was no end to it.
That must be why my mum got angry, because she kept telling him to let us kids go to sleep at last. But my dad took no notice.
He only went off again once he felt like it. That evening my dad had already taken himself off a while ago, to my mum and dad’s bedroom. And us kids were playing as usual in our bed. The bed was really good for jumping on, because of the metal springs in the frame, further down, under the mattress. We really liked playing circus, and we pretended we were performing trampoline tricks. Obviously we pretended we had an audience too, watching our show with bated breath as we jumped up and down, and turned pirouettes and even somersaults. In the circus this was called ‘acrobatics’, but we’d only ever seen the circus on the TV.
I can’t remember which one of us was jumping when we heard the sound; like something tearing, like cloth tearing. Suddenly there was this dip under the sheet; you could see it clearly, a sudden hollow which couldn’t just have come from three of us, or even five, just sleeping cuddled closely together on the bed.
One of us lifted the sheet up. And then the screams began. Screams coming from us, all of us. All of us at the same time, and all of us very loud.
We had to scream, in the middle of the night, all at the same time, because we could see them; we could all see them, all of us and all at the same time we started screaming in the middle of the night because of them. We looked at what was under the sheet and kept screaming.
With every second our screams got louder. We all had to scream loud, and we all started crying, all of us, all at the same time, loudly and bitterly. Because we could all see them, very clearly; the maggots, all the maggots. The mattress had split. The dip was actually a hole, and this hole was filled with maggots; hundreds of maggots. Long and white, squirming about in the hole, flicking restlessly this way and that, squirming over the ragged edge of the hole, which stank too, because the straw was mouldy. We screamed even louder, and bawled, bitterly and loudly.
We stared at each other, at all our brothers and sisters. Stared into the horrified, screaming faces of the others, and looked just as horrified ourselves, and screamed just as much. We couldn’t stop it.
And the maggots, which looked more like worms they were so big, started creeping over the ragged edges of the hole in the mattress and spreading across the area around. That made us scream even louder and my mum and dad burst into the room at last; my dad first, my mum right behind him. Their faces were already horrified when they entered the room.
It must have been because of our screams. My dad was furious, without knowing exactly what was going on. My mum was worried; she wanted to know exactly what was going on.
No-one had to say anything. They could see for themselves straight away; the hole in the middle of the mattress. And they could see the maggots for themselves; the way they squirmed and turned, side to side, this way and that.
‘You deal with it’, my dad said to my mum. And walked off.
Went back to their bedroom.
My mum… was horrified, wanted to scream, wanted to cry, wanted to despair, wanted to give up.
And didn’t give up, and didn’t despair, and didn’t cry, and didn’t scream either.
Instead she ran into the kitchen and rushed back with newspapers in her hands. First of all she tried to calm us kids down, because it was late in the evening really. She managed to get us just to sob for a while, since we still couldn’t stop being horrified.
Then she unfolded a sheet of newspaper, held it in both hands and reached into the hole, right inside the mattress. She reached in and grabbed a clump of maggots with both hands. Then she turned the paper over and crunched it up quickly. Now she was holding a paper ball in her hands, full of maggots.
Holding the ball, she ran quickly back into the kitchen and threw it in the stove. She had to keep on doing this, and the whole while we were sobbing; it turned into endless sobbing, because we really couldn’t stop it.
My mum burnt all the maggots in the stove, in big balls of newspaper.
Finally she managed to burn all the maggots, and afterwards she did her best to make it clear to us she had burnt them all . By now our sobbing had simmered down to light whimpering, endless whimpering of course.
She led us up to the hole so we could take a look into it ourselves. But there were still one or two maggots in there. She got them out too; she picked them out with her fingers and wrapped them straight up in newspaper, which she quickly put in the stove.
While she filled the hole in the mattress, to which end she took some towels and stuffed them in it, she tried to help us understand how it could have happened.
She told us about the flies, which sometimes flew over the mattresses while they were leaning against the wall to dry. The flies flitted around in the sunlight on the mattresses and while they were flying they hid their eggs. In the mattress, where the hole was now, the flies had hidden their eggs, which is where the maggots came from; all the maggots came from all the tiny eggs, which came from the flies.
Now our whimpering had changed again, while my mum was talking. Now it was just shuddering, endless shuddering, where your lips quiver, quiver and quiver, and you can’t make it stop, as if you are really freezing, which we weren’t.
Finally my mum pulled the torn cloth on top of the mattress together and smoothed the sheet back over it. And she said that we could lie down again now, but none of us wanted to, and it made the trembling turn straight back into whimpering, endless whimpering of course, which didn’t last long before turning back into loud screams again, from all five of us kids. Endless screams.
I was in between five and six years old then. I was always exactly as old as my mum had kids. And her round tummy was saying loud and clear that I would soon be six years old.
What could you do?
We had to get back into the bed to sleep. Where else were we supposed to sleep? There was only this bed for us kids.
Somehow my mum managed to get us back into the bed, all of us. We were allowed to keep the light on, all night. Somehow she also managed to get us not to talk about it, not with anyone, ever.
My dad didn’t do anything. But two weeks later he got new mattresses.
I never knew where from.
Original © Volker Röhlich
Translation © Steph Morris