Small-town Novella

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bertolt brecht
love song in a bad timewe had no friendly feelings for each other
yet we made love like any other pair.
when we lay in each other’s arms at night
the moon was less a stranger than you were.

and if today I met you in the market
and both bought fish, it might provoke a fight:
we had no friendly feelings for each other
when we lay in each other’s arms at night.

i am afraid. am female, am male, double. feel my body departing from my body, see my white hands, my eyes in the mirror, i don’t want to be double who am I? want to be me, male, female, see only white. i am facing myself, want to reach myself, stretch my arms out towards myself where am i? i see, kiss, hug and intermingle. at some point lea appears, then reappears, and at last he is aware of her. b. senses: he’s lying in bed, it’s morning, his room is blurry, he tries to take it in, feels the movement of his head, doesn’t try to steer it. no hope for a good day today, fuckingettingup, fuckingschool, fuckinglife. what pisses him off as usual is his mother trying to wake him, year after year the same words, phrases, that tone of voice. there’s no escape from her love, it makes her wake him so tenderly that waking is almost unbearably dragged out. his coming round, collecting himself, his crankiness are all reactions to the way she tries to stave off reality. if at lunch he tells her he was late for school again, that lat wound him up or he got to flirt with lenkel in lieu of an apology or that lehm got all moral on him about his constant sloppiness, she says: perhaps we should get up earlier, or she just accepts it. it’s impossible to get up earlier if only because the morning would be dull, a dull start tinges the whole day. even throwing back the cover is an effort, so he doesn’t, certain of another warning. the patient stage of her waking-up ritual is past, now she’s ratty, soon she’ll be adamant: when she gives up, he’ll get up. after he’s made himself open his eyes, his mind becomes clearer, he runs through the school day with a glance at the timetable pinned to the wall. he can’t read what it says but he’s given each subject its own colour and almost knows the lesson plan by heart. still, to be certain, he has to overcome his short-sightedness. b. loves his glasses, they’ve been his friend in all sorts of situations, for the past two years they’ve been through what he’s been through, he’s proud of them; when he comes in from the rain and has to clean them, when they fog up in the shift from cold to warm and he’s blind; now he kisses them, murmurs, sings, does an operetta: i am your slave my whole life long. b. sits up, swings from his bed, the mattress has shifted, he stands up, turns around, black spots before his eyes for a moment, low blood pressure, he hears his spine cracking as he stretches backwards. he staggers into the hall after he’s put on his jeans, goes to the wardrobe and stands indecisively: shirt time is decision time. eventually he grabs any old thing, throws it on and sits at the table where she’s been calling for a while: i’m already at the table! two eggs are waiting for him, one in the schnapps glass with the gold rim, the other lying next to it, and the cup of coffee, into which he tips milk and three heaped teaspoons of sugar. he hears himself say: first class is double latin. the coffee is a testimony to maternal care: a lot of love, a little cocoa. from an early age, lea has determined his taste, he can’t eat anything without sweetener these days, he’d prefer something bitter or sour. as he stirs, he thinks of what he dreamed, finds it hard to remember. as always, this makes him try all the more, which makes it even harder. most times, his dreams don’t come back to him except sometimes at school, perhaps at break time, but often in some boring lesson, which makes the class even harder to endure. he gets hot thinking his own thoughts, he wants to flee, run away, give himself entirely to last night’s dream: to be alone now, allowed to work it through, in peace. but instead he has to sit with his mother whom he calls by her first name, or with a bunch of bored teenagers who are probably thinking about their dreams, or their girlfriends, or their last wank or their good grades, if they aren’t doing their homework for the next lesson. if b. storms out now, down the steps, across the courtyard to the toilet, his dream will be gone, he’ll curse himself, wait a while then go back upstairs. he knows what’s in store once he’s drained his cup of coffee: the nauseatingly trivial and familiar demands, warnings, instructions, the packing of his school bag, the bathroom ritual with constant shouting from outside the door, he forgets everything: teeth-brushing, his glasses, his money, his books, his key, notes etc. b. eats the second egg with that slow dedication that makes his mother worry whether she can ever let him leave home, making precisely this a necessity and reinforcing b.’s desire to do so: when he no longer needs to delay anything, he’ll change. he stands up, dithers on the spot for four seconds, then goes into the bathroom. he hates his morning ejaculations, his well-practised beautiful body, his hair in the mirror, his nose that, once you know, you can see has been broken, jumping on the trampoline at school, his eyebrows that join above it, his mouth with its full lips, the two incisors that appear when he smiles, the hair on his chin, so scant that it makes him feel awkward. what he loves are his upper lip, the pubescent fuzz that’s having some success, and the large, pale-red tip of his cock in his right hand. he overlooks that his eyes are large and sky-blue, he only knows that they’re much more expressive with make-up, that his long eyelashes only have their full effect when he slowly closes his eyes, which comes across as wayward or awkward or snooty or cocky. when he comes out of the bathroom, lea’s standing there in her coat, although she knows perfectly well that he’ll be another ten minutes. he tells her this, irritated, has no idea of course where his latin book has got to, reads the headlines of yesterday’s newspaper to reconfirm that he’s not alone in the world, but he’s with lea, who follows him everywhere. he picks up his german book from the floor, making the notes and the booklet inside fall out which causes a further delay of about fourteen seconds that makes them both even more impatient. digging around among the coats: the black jacket with the arafat scarf or the grey silk scarf isn’t warm enough, and the coat is too well-cut for the scruffy types to accept, a fashion without guarantee: cdu-party key rings can also hang on low-slung jeans. he puts on the cardigan which isn’t warm either but he likes it because his badges fit between the two rows of stitching: and armed with badges, he is strong. b. puts a thick pullover on underneath, loops a belt around his waist, looking like a girl from the back, reaches into the key box as he goes past and goes on ahead. long, dark entrance hall, doors on either side, lift, glass door, seventy letter boxes, seventy doorbells. it’s a beautiful, clear winter day and from the village, the bells are ringing, they cross a field, his mother enters the six-storey building ahead where all the tenants behind them work: the hospital. b.’s mother is a nurse, they live in the residential home for healthcare workers, and just now b. is reaching the misplanned intensive care unit that is now used for housing, where his classmate lives, the daughter of a doctor. b. drums his fingers on the window pane where, on the other side, leyla is just putting on a blouse and looking in the mirror. she turns round to him, sees him, laughs, makes a sign he can’t work out and leaves her room. tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is coming from somewhere. leyla comes out with lutfiye, gives him a kiss on the cheek, asks: hey, how are you? and takes his hand. you’ve got my shirt on says b. and gets a smiling yes in return for his thoughtfulness. the two sisters are a head smaller than him, the three of them look funny in the big wardrobe mirror when they visit him. have you learned the words for the vocabulary test? lutfiye asks him seriously. she’s cramming for her ‘a’ levels, sometimes tests him on stuff that they’re forced to learn. b. laughs, asks: what for? he takes for granted her solidarity and condemnation for his flights into anarchy. leyla talks to lutfiye in their native tongue – turkish – b. walks along with them, not the centre of attention, irritated, then reminds himself that he’s just used to being it or is perhaps being foolish. they go past the high hospital building where a woman jumped from the top floor not long ago. they bypass the faded traces of blood in the grass, have to climb over a chain, there’s no official path here, leyla holds it up after b. has climbed over it and bends down and under it, while lutfiye goes round it altogether. like every morning, b. feels the advantage of being almost six foot two. i don’t look brawny, he thinks, just lanky. they cross the main road, turn into a small street, go round the schoolyard that is bounded on two sides by the pavement and enter the building, a school route of five minutes. outside the doors, people stand waiting for the bell, smoking their first cigarettes, having their first moan. b. says hello!, loses the two girls to some group of kids, goes over to renate whom he owes a mark from yesterday, gives it to her, chats. renate asks, what’ve you got now? latin, b. answers, because since they started the course system, each one has a different timetable. b. gets his latin book out and looks at the vocabulary words for the first time. they have precise meanings. there is only one word for good, decent, prosperous: bonus. and liberalis means both frank and generous. when the bell rings, they linger a while, then go into the classrooms. b. has to go to room twenty-two, up a few stairs in the old building, a few hellos!, a few silent looks, arrives, goes in, sits down next to laura. hey stupid, how ya doing? she greets him like every morning, oh, just like always. she gives him an invitation for saturday’s youth mass in the village church that her youth group have been preparing for a long time. she knows he’ll come, doesn’t waste words asking, just presses the dog-eared invitation retouched with felt tip into his hand and says: you coming? b. says oh sure, and smiles. she tells him about her work, he shares her joy in the seminars and successes, the small-town pastor’s youth work. which is a great deal in a society that encourages everything except social behaviour. b. goes over to the blackboard, takes a piece of chalk and writes in his childish scrawl: those who don’t expose themselves to danger, are killed by it. someone calls out from the crowd: are you some kind of philosopher? and the ones who have read it laugh, b. too, they sit on the tables, and when the latin teacher comes in, they’ll drop into the chairs which their feet are still propped up on, they don’t even notice the steady abhorrence of him at the front. although lat pretends to be hip, they all know that he’s not quite at ease with this new-fangled way of behaving. and lat is mr banks, whose governess is mary poppins, and who singingly announces: tradition, discipline and rules/must be the tools/without them we’ll see: disorder, catastrophe, anarchy. someone who’s had to spend his whole career translating tendentious reports on infantry, encampments and attacks has a worldview infused with true values: there are hard workers and lazybones, cowards and statesmen, speakers and the people. only in this disguise is one reactionary and progressive. in latin texts, the world is ruled by the hard-working and the strong who let youths vie for their favour, a circumstance that, as lat comments indignantly, was due to the prevailing lack of morals at that time: a rare caveat. if you never learn the background to things, how are you supposed to presume there is one? no one around b. seems to notice the cruelty of lat’s example sentences that illustrate various grammatical rules. but it’s important whether he killed his mother beforehand or if he was right in the middle of it! the leader saw that the soldiers loved him! he thought he was a friend! and on cicero: the text is written for intelligent romans, not fish-sellers! and the worst thing is his repetition three or four times a lesson of the phrase: with deadly certainty! next to him peter is trying to set fire to his textbook under the desk, perhaps testing the school curriculum for resilience. b. escapes by exchanging notes with laura. now and again, he’s called on and has to recite rows of pronouns, he gets it wrong of course. lat bellows, learn, you atreuses! through the room and no one dares ask what it means. b. is done with lat. lat regularly goes over time and doesn’t give a break in a double lesson. when they’re outside, the conversations start: did you see the film yesterday on tv? crazy! the way he kept whacking him in the stomach and kept shouting: kindergarten! and everyone dead at the end. beginning was a bit tacky but otherwise resuuult! second repeat and they’re still none the wiser, b. thinks melodramatically. a few of them go over to the kiosk that makes a living from them: chatting, drinking coke, eating crisps or rum balls or trail mix, buying or sponging cigarettes, and there’s the area where the dealers hang out with their shit. the following incidents threaten to escalate into complete chaos, writes the school headmaster on a handout: every break time, the school is turned into a travelling circus. doors, tables and chairs are demolished, without anyone taking the slightest responsibility. hygiene would justify locking the toilets, the cisterns are blocked, rolls of toilet paper are shoved into the drainpipes, toilet seats are dirtied in the most revolting manner, paper towels are set alight, etc. the windows have been equipped with special security arms. in many cases, these arms have been removed in order to open the window fully. it is worrying to observe the conduct of students and motorists in front of the building. it is merely a question of time before the first accident confronts us with the reality of an administrative investigation. therefore please advise your classes once again that all pupils below the tenth grade are forbidden to leave the school yard at break times. i propose to the conference that we punish infringements with up to three days’ suspension because i cannot be accountable otherwise for pupils’ safety. to underscore the seriousness of the situation, i am sharing this letter with the town council and the parents. at the same time, i would ask all class teachers to read out my directives to their classes! despite the mostly amused reaction to the handout, profits fall, leaving only the ones who have to knock back their beer at half past nine in the morning because they can’t take it otherwise. that’s what school teaches you: if it’s all shit anyway, then just get the hell out of the whole thing, no conforming, whatever happens! resistance is a pile of shit damned to fail from the start, not worth it. better a bottle of beer or a joint. and someone who’s just toking on one and whose ‘nuclear power? no thanks!’ badge is winking from his jacket smiles at b. and says: if only we smoke enough, they’ll soon stop with their nukes. the guy laughs back. b. goes into the new building, advanced german with lenkel, counts towards ‘a’ levels. at the beginning he tells the others he’s tempted to take her hand, breathe a kiss on it and, with a struggle to control himself, stammer the words: ‘my dear lady, i honour thee.’ lenkel provokes it, she’s fashionable and small and fat. in any case nothing helps much, not discreet lilac nail varnish nor the matching handbag, watch or ear clips for every outfit: the trouble the woman goes to is simply staggering. b. watches her reading a woman’s magazine during a class test and can hardly finish his essay because he’s laughing so much in sympathy for this woman whose face reveals everything: her frustration, her difficulties.

From Kleinstadtnovelle  © Konkret Literatur Verlag, Hamburg and Thomas Keck, Berlin/Hamburg 2002
Brecht poem cited from Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, ed. Ralph Manheim, Routledge 1998