W. made his slow way up the steps into Am Sandwerder and accustomed his eyes to the light, uncertain whether the streaks in the sky signified dawn or dusk. Never could he recall feeling so depleted. He had lost count of the hours he’d spent in the basement room, absorbing its smells and its darkness, breathing in the fetid atmosphere of the small set of people he lived with, concentrating on his work. Tired though he was, he feared that unless he escaped to stretch his legs and grab a bite to eat he would use his hands to do something violent.
In the days after Bekka left, he had come to regard with a suffocating rage the men and women with whom he shared the apartment. Odd to think how intensely he once cared for them, even fancying, early on, that he was uniquely positioned to pronounce on their behaviour. How patient he had been. How loving! Small wonder Bekka’s resentments. Week after week he serviced their appetites, their perversities. But it was the usual story: proximity had bred in W. contempt for his housemates and, in the case of one of them, a powerful desire to extinguish her altogether.
Laura was an attractive but narcissistic young artist who wore mauve chemises tight-buttoned at the collar of a long, thin neck. He had known her almost two years, and she had grown to depend on him in the way of Bekka (come to that, all the needy women he was susceptible to). But he knew, by now, he could expect nothing from her. Laura’s selfishness blinded her to his state of mind. He had to find a way to replenish himself or there was no telling what he would do.
He emerged from the building intending to buy an apricot cake at Meyer’s and perhaps, on the way back, to look once more at the painting of a young girl in the window of the Galerie Kleist whose face recalled his sister’s when they were children growing up in Wiltshire. He had put on his grandfather’s twill coat, patted his hair, checked that there was money in his wallet and stepped into the street.
It was warm outside and the sidewalk filled with couples strolling beside the Wannsee. It depressed him to watch people enjoying themselves, and he set off resolving to avoid eye contact with anyone younger than himself. He had taken two steps when, advancing towards him, face lost in thought, was a young woman with short black hair and an interestingly pale expression. He walked faster, resisting the impulse to look around, but his glimpse had touched something deep, hidden, effective, complex. He could read the woman’s mind. She’s driven to that gaunt, sightless expression by a ludicrous passion.
The image of her rapt young face so disconcerted W. that instead of stopping at the Bäckerei Meyer he continued in the direction of Wannsee station.
The Kurd begged always in the same doorway, next to the bakery, in smelling distance of the hot bread. W. glanced down and saw a cross-legged man. Now he slept under cardboard, but W. could see into his life. He had not spoken his language for two years or made love with a girl for three. (She was like him, a bum. It had been a vagrant’s fumble in a bad-breath silence. Not love.) Once in a city ringed by snow-covered mountains he had slept with two women in the same night. Their cries sometimes came to him on the S-Bahn. Vital, positive exclamations in words he understood.
“Sorry,” scowled W. and hurried past, his volatile mind still haunted by the doleful young woman. He couldn’t deny it. Something about her had reminded him forcibly of Laura. His arrival on the empty platform coincided with a train. He watched his reflection steady itself in the passing windows. In the sodium glare he looked shaved down, with the goggle eyes of the station lights. Could she have been heading towards his building?
The doors parted and he stepped inside the carriage. A neatly dressed woman rose like a woodcock as soon as he sat down. Austere faces looked at him from other seats before averting their gazes and noses. He recognised what an unappealing figure he must cut. The rims of his eyes were red, his shirt was on backwards and his trousers were a baggy-crotched tracksuit that he had not changed for a fortnight – not since Bekka pressed her keys into his lap: That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.
His eyes still sore, he felt in his coat pocket for a cheap pair of sunglasses, and putting them on thought suddenly of Bismarck who, asked why he wore dark glasses in Berlin, was it an eye infection, replied no, there’s nothing to see. W.’s experience exactly! You have to will yourself to find a single thing of interest in this city – another of his careless opinions that upset Bekka, who had grown up in Potsdam. The train rumbled off and he folded his arms, determined to stifle further thoughts of her or of Laura and wondering, instead, how many of the petite old ladies who sat opposite, dressed in lapis cockerel brooches and jade necklaces, had been raped.
By the time W. returned to his apartment it was late afternoon and the light and the weather had changed. He paused at the corner of Am Sandwerder, taking in the grey tonalities of the Berlin sky and the cold wind blowing across the lake. Despite the sharp drop in temperature he felt lighter-hearted for his excursion. All he had needed was a break from Laura. Perhaps Bekka was right: He hadn’t admitted to himself how much Laura occupied his thoughts. But what would his walks beside the Wannsee be like without her?
The wind blew from behind and he started towards the building, following his long, uncombed hair towards the steps down to the basement – where he lived, as he would say, like a lighthouse keeper in a city of four million. He was fishing in his pocket for his keys when two shadows solidified beside the garbage cans. “That’s him!” hissed a woman’s sharp voice, and before he could absorb what was
happening his arms were being gripped, a hood was being tugged over his head and a sharp metal point was stabbing into his temple.
“Yes,” with a whimper.
“You ought to. It’s yours.”
A hand squirmed under the hood to stuff his mouth with something. Then another menacing voice breathed into his ear: “One squeak and we write you off.”
Ninety minutes later, W. reflected on the dramatic circumstances in which he found himself. His arms compressed by ropes, he appeared to be rolled in a carpet and lying on his back in a van.
“The savage,” came a whisper above the engine noise, “the savage.”
Through the carpet’s open end he heard his two kidnappers muttering to each other. It was not W.’s habit to panic, but their conversation caused his heart to boom against his ribs. The first woman was speaking, the same antagonistic voice as before. “What I’d like to do,” and she gave a soft flick with the back of her hand to the carpet around his groin, “is cut it off.”
W. writhed, tried to cry out, but his mouth was gagged with what tasted like paper.
She squeezed again, although not hard enough to cause the tears that sprang from his eyes.
“In fact, I’d like to do it myself.”
Could it be Bekka? She didn’t sound like Bekka.
The voice of her accomplice said: “I’d like to take this and gouge out those bloodshot eyes.”
“Why not lop off his hands too, while we’re about it? That way he can’t do any more harm.”
W. was scared. He’d had reason once or twice in the course of his work to brush up against murderers and mutilators, but only second-hand. Was this to be his fate, to be sliced into pieces by a pair of demoniac Amazons from south-west Berlin? And yet what harm was he supposed to have done? Or did they want money? He wasn’t wealthy, as they would swiftly discover. Or was it – and he giggled with relief to think he had hit upon the explanation – an intervention? Of course it was. And he remembered Bekka telling him only a month before about a cousin of hers in Florida who was involved in a smouldering relationship with her professor. One night Marty came home, switched on the light and there, assembled in the room, were all her friends and colleagues, who proceeded to rebuke her and, following the protocols outlined by AA in 1984, demand that she break off the affair instantly.
He started to relax. These women were Bekka’s friends. They had sprung this prank to make him, on the contrary, take her back. Soon they would unroll him. Bekka would be there and, after the usual minuet of make-up and rapprochement, the two of them would go home.
But when W. was unravelled and his mouth unplugged he found himself nursing his giddy head in a gloomy underground room. The only item of furniture was a long table. Around it, staring at him from the shadows, sat half a dozen figures, none of whom he recognised.
The feeble light with its tinge of midnight oil was not much brighter than the room where he worked. It smelled of cold coffee, cigarette ends and cheap white wine. But the people! There was something deformed about them, something suggestive of caricatures, and he wondered fleetingly if they could be on steroids. One ugly woman with cropped red hair surveyed him with eyes almost too small to see anything; another, wearing a floppy hat, had a huge nose over which her gaze jumped with a look of indescribable anguish. A fat man with an unkempt beard and mestizo features vigorously scratched himself – and appeared, in addition, to be suffering from a facial tic. Little by little, W. made out several other obscure shapes, among them a very old lady with a black silver-topped cane and a middle-aged man with short, neatly brushed dark hair. The low light from the single overhead lamp gave them sick vegetarian complexions.
The redhead, with lipstick overrunning her lips, raked his face with an expression of unshakeable dislike. He noticed a spot on her chin, or was it a mole? It seemed to get bigger once he had noticed it. She skimmed a half-smile down the table and over the back of an empty chair.
“You look, if one may use the expression, a complete mess.”
He struggled to sit up but someone stood behind him, pressing a metallic object into his head.
Taking tremendous care not to say the wrong thing, W. mumbled: “I don’t bother very much with how I look.”
“You don’t bother at all,” reacted a voice beyond the edge of the light.
“I have a hernia.”
“Do you get a hernia from goosing other people’s wives?”
“I’m with Bekka.”
“OK, we had an argument.”
“Know about Sister Corinna, does she?”
“Or Ursula?” added another voice threateningly.
But he wasn’t to be put off. “I know what this is. I know exactly what this is.” And, feeling almost pleased with himself, he told them.
“A what?” guffawed the redhead, her goading, scornful, throaty chuckle suggesting a hatred only loosely under her control.
“We’ll show you intervention all right,” snarled the nose in a Spanish accent.
“Tell him,” urged a voice.
His face evidently showed so much bewilderment that
the redhead snickered. “We wanted to give a party for everyone you’ve made suffer, but decided there wasn’t anywhere big enough.”
“Who … who are you?”
In place of an answer the redhead got to her feet, gazed through a narrow window, then pulled back the curtain and sat down. It was now that W. saw in the darkness, sitting at the table’s far end, a sombre ancient face, bald with a thin grey moustache, dressed in a black robe.
“Quiet!” said the judge. He had the expression of a critic W. had once met in Paris: a nervous, pedestrian man with a dry scalp and circles under his eyes like the rings left by a cup on a book cover.
“As the grave,” said the redhead.
“Good. I think we can proceed,” in a clipped voice. “Herr W., you are here to answer charges that are, in the estimation of those who bring them, a matter of life and death.” The old man looked around. The pent-up moon faces. The scalded voices waiting to have their say. “Who wants to start?”
The nose raised her hand. “I do.” She arched her eyebrows until they disappeared beneath the brim of her hat and stared insanely at him. “You killed my husband, the man I loved. And for such a stupid reason! Why?” her eyes panted to know.
W. looked slowly round the table. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Next to her, the beard shuddered. “I have a horror of innocence,” in a Spanish accent much like hers.
Ignoring him, W. took the brunt of her look. Strangely relieved, he said solemnly: “I’m sorry. You’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“No, amor, I haven’t,” her eyes blazing with outrage. “And because of you I lost custody of my children. I’m also deformed after that accident you set up. Look – I still can’t move my leg. How’s yours, by the way?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You can’t just come in and play with my life and walk away. You’re always walking away scot-free and taking no responsibility for the calamity you produce. The more
calamity the better!”
“Oh, why were you so cruel?” Her eyes, close to tears now, were the brown of a cornered beetle and her nose hated him. “To this day I don’t understand how you could turn your back on me like that. I suppose some people run away from being understood.”
“You understood me even less,” complained the redhead, who had taken on a resemblance to his sister. “It was because of you I married a Portuguese. Me! A Portuguese!”
“Because of you I had to sit out in a car week after week with no heater,” piped up the middle-aged man who looked like a policeman. “In the middle of the Peruvian winter!”
“What?” And again: “What?”
“Can I say something?” The beard raised his hand to his mouth to suppress a cough. “My complaint is of another category.”
“Go ahead,” said the judge.
“I am a private man,” the beard went on in a quiet voice with a sinister trace of fury. “My raison d’être relies on no one knowing who I am. But you revealed this.”
“Me?” exclaimed W., holding on to the table. This whole thing was ridiculous. “But I’ve never seen you in my life.”
“Is that so?” challenged the beard, which probably hid a feast of warts, and moved closer.
When W. recognised with a shock who it was, he felt a chill in the back of his arms and in his kidneys. “Not
President Gonzalo!” he disbelieved. Not the revolutionary of blubbering psoriatic lips. A man notorious for his acts of cruelty. Into whose life W. had spent several months investigating.
“I thought you were in prison in Callao …”
“Let me tell you what it means to lose your privacy,” President Gonzalo continued, gently rubbing the back of his knuckles. “At this moment, all over the world, in chairs, in buses, in the bath, people are reading about me. Things I’d prefer they didn’t know. Like the fact I’m circumcised. Like my eczema.”
“Tell the whole world about our pimples, why don’t you?” sneered the redhead, sticking out her chin and smoothing the pages she had plucked from his mouth.
It was too much. W. was infuriated. He turned to her. “Who are YOU?”
She held up one of the pages to the lamp and read out: “If you don’t want them at your death-bed, you shouldn’t have them in your life. Ring any bell?”
“No.” Then: “Wait … I wrote that.”
“Bingo! Well, here we are. Your very own.”
His mouth hung open a little, as if it had bitten on a truth that was poisonous. As if the moment of illumination would snuff him out. The terrible knowledge seized him like a cramp. These were his characters.
Behind him, a movement. Whoever had stood pressing the weapon into his temple tossed it on the table. Dumbly, he gazed at his biro. A young woman sat down in the empty seat. She looked at him not submissively but quizzically.
He stared. It was impossible anyone could be lovelier. “Laura?” in a whisper.
“Partly. Only partly.”
“You’re more beautiful than I imagined,” trying to be adequate.
She refused the bait.
“We all know you’ve got a crap imagination,” grizzled the redhead, who was, he remembered, called Pamela, and had appeared in the first short story he published. She handed Laura a sheet of paper and said with the bitterness of a rejected woman: “Why wasn’t I in a novel?”
“Please listen, everyone, to this,” said the quiet magnet that was Laura. He heard the blood through his body as she started to read.
“Laura was an artist in her late twenties; she had plucked
dark eyebrows, deep-set blue eyes and a pale complexion, and dressed fashionably in loose-fitting expensive trousers and little lavender chemises. She gave the world the impression that she had enjoyed piles of affairs. In truth, she had only to get into bed with a man before panic overtook her; her body would tremble and her eyes close in a way that was often mistaken, in its preliminary stages, for an ardour that might require many nights to quench. This had two unfortunate effects: it excited her partner, and in the same hot breath it urged them to stronger measures to gratify her passion. But Laura had no passion. All her life she had searched to find in herself what she had only read about or observed on screen. As soon as she undressed, she froze. Who knows how many disappointed men departed her bed, but none of them ever spoke ill of her out of fear the fault was theirs. And so Laura’s reputation as a woman of the world increased until one day she met General M. ...”
“That’s you, I suppose,” snorted the nose derisively.
Laura put down the page. “Did you write that?”
“Yes,” he said without force.
“That’s not like me at all. You don’t know about the other men. You don’t know about the oboist, the publisher, the married diplomat who fled me for South America. You don’t know a lot of things.”
“There, there,” said the judge.
“And might I say, these chemises. I really dislike them. They make me feel like a choirboy.”
“No matter how good you are at words, nobody can
properly describe what I felt after you got rid of Hipolito,” pursued the nose, who was, he realised, none other than Clothilde Lagos, a doomed heroine from his second novel who was forever harping on about the injustice of
“Who says he’s good at words?” broke in Pamela.
“Or character! How can he be when he’s such a sexist?” said Clothilde, and seizing one of the pages from the table she recited: “She was standing at the back of the queue when God was handing out noses … She’s not pretty, but she looks nice at night … She has a pussy that couldn’t catch mice. Is that you, amor? The mouse, I mean,” tapping her proboscis and adding for good measure: “General M.!”
W. said nothing.
“Hey, camel-lips. Yes, I’m speaking to you. Silverfish got at your words? I could go on …”
“And your philosophy!” winced Pamela. “Everything we cannot explain, we worship. If we understand, we cannot worship. This is just clever stuff. It’s not felt. It’s fake, wouldn’t you say? Fake.”
“Not as fake as his prose!” contributed the ruthless revolutionary leader. “Tell him, Frau Weschke.”
It was the turn of the old lady with the cane to speak. She peered at him over her round spectacles with the same eviscerating glare as the woman who had batted off in the
S-Bahn. “He had a stick and he smelt of snow. How can you smell of snow? Snow doesn’t smell.” She sniffed. “At least, not like you.”
“It’s a metaphor,” his mouth said weakly.
“Here’s another one. Well, I think it is. Her face was not a face but an old right of way grown over with grass and wire and rusted cars.” She looked at him as if he disgusted her. “I’m sorry I don’t know much about cars. On the other hand, I know something of faces.”
The accusations fell thicker and faster. His characters were not fleshed out. (“You never describe someone’s mouth. Just their nose.”) He had made money out of them. (“That film of your fourth novel. I mean, to cast Nicole Kidman as me. I suppose you thought I’d be flattered. But she acts with her hair!”) He was melodramatic. Sentimental. A sworn enemy of truth and beauty to whom literary talent was a hostile stranger. (“It’s contemptible what you do to your gift. Really contemptible. You write lines that would be better left in a bank vault under lock and key.”) But mostly they boiled down to the same thing: he didn’t understand them, and not understanding them amounted, in their judgment, to a libel of their true characters, and even, in one or two severe instances, to assassination.
“Do you really think people behave like that?”
“It’s as if you only see half of us.”
“You reckon everything you think you sanctify. It must be wonderful to know you’re always right.”
Until definitely the joke had gone on too long. “This is getting us nowhere. But nowhere,” W. yelled. “Don’t you see? You don’t exist. You’re invented.”
“If only you were capable of invention,” sighed Laura, who had begun to sound like Bekka.
“You stole me from real life.” It was the beard again. “But you can’t duplicate my identity like that. Everyone now treats me like a counterfeit, like an actor. Plus I have to suffer the fate of the guy who committed the real crimes. You locked me in a cell, too. How fair is that?”
“You don’t understand how the method works.” Wildly, W. turned to Laura, who had begun even to look like Bekka. “Didn’t you read to the end?”
“Only three-quarters,” she admitted. “Tell the truth, I was bored. Like all men, you loathe the blood and guts of the female body. You’re happier with pure projection.”
“Then you don’t know what happens to you.” He said it triumphantly, almost viciously. “You don’t know you’re killed!”
Around him the silence burned.
“That’s enough, I say!” The judge brought down his gavel and a carp-face looked at W. “Before I pronounce sentence, do you have anything to add? What worries me slightly is that you don’t appear to realise the enormity of your crimes.”
Laura – or was it Bekka? – gazed at him with her throat raised above its constricting collar. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” she murmured voluptuously. “To see you laid bare. No passion indeed!”
He thought, will no one defend me? He tried to speak: I tried to love you, Bekka, Laura, Pamela, Clothilde, Gonzalo … But no words came.
“Why are you crying?” Clothilde wanted to know. “Why is General Mouse crying?”
“Then if you have nothing to say,” concluded the judge with a final evaluating look, before resettling his buttocks, “I order you to stay here with us. That way, no one gets to finish the story.”
But Clothilde was on her feet. “Hey! What’s happening to him?”
“Puta madre,” the beard observed, with a grudging fascination. “He’s melting away.”
“Where are you?” Pamela called out, and with glances at the others: “Where the hell has he gone?”
“I’m still here!” he shouted.
Meanwhile, Bekka was foraging under his chair. “I don’t believe it. He’s vanished! The bastard’s vanished.”
“Bekka, here I am!” and reached out, but to his infinite amazement his hand blurred into her arm. Again he screamed, but the sound that issued from his throat resembled nothing so much as a nib scratching. Desperate, he lunged from the chair. But all he heard was a crackle of something going up in flames, or a page turning.
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