Henning, Peter (Sample Translation)

Die Ängstlichen (The Fearful)

Aufbau Verlag, August 2009, 496 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-351-03267-8

“Human beings can cope with the truth.”
Ingeborg Bachmann
1. Electrical Potentials
Fear and disarray prevailed at this particular time on the fifth-largest planet in the solar system. The sun, this radiant and hitherto reliable companion some 93 million miles away, was on the verge of cooling down. Dangerous levels of ozone smog were building up in the troposphere, ready to turn the northern hemisphere at some point into a vast gas chamber. And there was nothing to suggest that order would soon be restored to the world’s climate – quite the contrary: at that very moment hurricane winds, force 12 on the Beaufort Scale, were sweeping across Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and heading straight for Southern Hesse. Frankfurt’s gleaming towers were disappearing one by one in a murky, stone-grey wall of clouds, and monstrous winds of up to 110 miles an hour were developing over Kesselstadt and moving towards Mainkur and Dörnigheim. Yet no one in the street known as Ankergasse – the epicentre of shockwaves of considerable consequence – had noticed the ominous tumult of the elements, the rapid transition of the sky from a pallid, unobtrusive grey to the metallic green of a raging ocean that was turning ever darker and would soon snatch at them with all its might. Johanna certainly hadn’t. Thanks to her increasing myopia, the cataracts in both her eyes, and her now imperfect hearing, her perceptual horizons had long since shrunk to the narrow boundaries of her domestic concerns. No one else in the three-storey, three-family pre-war house with its front-facing of weathered, pale brown shingles had noticed the impending changes either. Nor had her grandson Benjamin, who was sitting at the desk in his 42-square-metre flat a bare quarter of an hour by car from Ankergasse, putting the final touches to his pen portait of the legendary footballer George Best. Likewise her partner Janek, who two days earlier had left Ankergasse in a great rush and was now sitting in a department store café fully aware of the fact that he might not be going back there for quite some time. It was the same, too, with all the other members of what Johanna liked to call the Jansens’ innermost circle: her sons Helmut and Konrad, and her daughter Ulrike and her husband Rainer, whose orbits were nowadays at a safe remove from Ankergasse, like satellites circling around a plague-stricken planet.
As was her custom at this time of day, Johanna was sitting on the living room sofa wrapped in her sand-coloured cashmere shawl taking her usual afternoon crossword break, albeit in a less relaxed mood than usual, and she took the sudden gloom to be just another of the frequent and irritating fluctuations in her eyesight. A little earlier she had turned the TV off, aghast. She had accidentally found herself watching a news bulletin and hadn’t possessed enough energy at first to resist the dark power of the images. She had thus witnessed a direct broadcast from Baghdad. She had stared transfixed at the screen and its eerie, green-tinted images of the city lit up by tracer shells and dotted with rising plumes of thick black smoke. So that’s what ‘surgical strikes’ look like, thought Johanna: devastated streets, wrecked bridges, ruined houses with now homeless Iraqis in front of them, and gaping holes in the road from which towering columns of smoke rose into the night sky. The reporter had spoken of numerous dead and wounded, and Johanna’s horror was mixed with a numbing sense of emptiness.
I’ve seen this all before, she’d thought – she who knew so well what war meant – and the fingers of both her hands had slowly dug themselves into the cloth-covered arms of her chair as though of their own volition. Until finally she could no longer bear the images on the screen and turned the set off with a sudden jab at the button.
No, world events gave her not the slightest cause for hope at present. People were at war wherever she looked. Even the Caspars on the second floor had been on a war footing with each other over the last few days. Apparently a mislaid lottery ticket had led first to arguments and then, when both parties had steadfastly refused to stop blaming each other, to seemingly unbridgeable divisions. It was said there’d even been talk of divorce.
Only the previous day, Johanna had heard the two of them squabbling in the stairwell.
‘We won, and you’ve lost the ticket, what a disaster! Just think of it, eight thousand euros!’
‘I didn’t lose it!’
‘ Of course you did! There was a five in there, my lucky number! They said so on the radio! And you’ve gone and lost the ticket!’
‘Me? You must be mad!’
‘Yes, you! I remember giving it to you! I told you, didn’t I: I could smell it in the air when I filled the ticket out! I told you!’
‘No you didn’t!’
‘One, five, nine, seventeen, twenty two! Five correct numbers! And you go and chuck the ticket away! I had a feeling all week that we’d done it this time. But you go and chuck the ticket away. You’re just not with it!’
‘How dare you talk to me like that?!’
‘It’s true, for God’s sake! All that lovely money. Just think what we could have done with it. We could have bought a new TV. And a new sofa. But as for you ... Jesus Christ!’
‘You shut your mouth!’
All of a sudden Johanna felt completely detached from her own self, worn out as she was by all the lows in her life, and drained by her pointless attempts to resist them. They were a quiet but emphatic protest against the way of the world – a way that rendered her each day that little bit weaker, that little bit more apathetic. And thus she never really heard the initial claps of thunder, accompanied by violent squalls, that came rolling through the black-as-night sky like heavy balls of iron across a corrugated roof. Johanna prodded energetically with the tip of her right foot at the switch on the standard lamp and its 60 watt bulb burst into life, casting a narrow pool of milky yellow light across her lap and instantly throwing the white squares of her crossword puzzle into sharp relief.
The words buzzed in her head like bees circling around the powerfully scented head of a dahlia, unable to decide where to land. Until finally the neurotransmitters in a remote area of her brain began to do their job and Johanna grasped her pen with sudden vigour and in her always awkward-looking hand entered the letters A-C-E in the vertical row of spaces beneath a bright blue square bearing the words ‘playing card’.
She gave a sigh of contentment, and within less than ten minutes had solved almost the entire puzzle in that day’s Hanauer Anzeiger, foxed only by ‘Chemical element’ (6 letters) and ‘Tributary of the Rhine east of Basel’ (4 letters).
Johanna lowered her newspaper, put her pen aside, and took off her glasses. Ever since lunch – a potato soup that had turned out rather too spicy for her liking and that she had vainly tried to rescue with several spoonfuls of crème fraîche – she had been suffering slight heartburn, as though an army of tiny grubs covered with nasty stinging hairs were trying to fight their way from the nether depths of her digestive tract into her gullet.
The first few drops of rain began angrily battering the windows, harbingers of a storm that with all the grim determination of such things was roaring over Hochstadt and Dörnigheim on its way to Kesselstadt.
Johanna put her glasses back on and gazed for a moment in consternation at Janek’s empty club chair. Standing there at a thirty-degree angle to the sofa, it suddenly brought home to her the sense of emptiness that had permeated the flat for almost two days now. She hadn’t the least idea why he’d disppeared.
Ever since she’d had a pacemaker fitted a good two years ago she’d lost all peace of mind, even though the tiny little box that she could feel with her fingers beneath the skin above her left breast was supposed to produce exactly the opposite effect. She was constantly aware of her own pulse, however muffled, and of the distant echo of her heart which, for all the steadiness of its beat, was slowly but relentlessly approaching its final lapse into silence, and which seemed to her frailer than ever now that she had yielded control of it to an electronic gadget. Without it, after all, she had managed to reach the perfectly respectable age of seventy eight. And whereas previously she had delighted, at rare and treasured moments, in being able to tune in to the quintessential buzz of life and the world without having to be simultaneously aware the whole time of her own self in all its irritating complexity, she saw herself now as a creature abused, enslaved, and robbed of her most beautiful possession: the sense that she belonged to no one but herself.
Johanna stood up and, with a vigorous thrust of her pointed chin, dashed out of the living room, moved slowly through the sudden darkness in the rooms beyond, passed through Ben’s erstwhile bedroom and on into the hall, where the telephone stood. She turned the kitchen light on, instantly closing out what was left of the daylight in the garden beyond the dripping window panes.
She took a glass out of the wall cupboard, turned the tap on and filled the glass. Then she drank the water in small, steady sips to ease the burning sensation in her throat. All these little infirmities, she thought, what a nuisance they are.
She missed Janek as she stood there at the sink. Leaning her head back she tried in vain to catch any remaining whiff of his spicy cigarette-tobacco that might still be lurking in the folds of the curtains. No doubt about it, everything was easier when he was out of the way and sparing her his pettiness, his manipulative obstinacy and his constant urge to dominate. And needless to say, their relationship had long since resolved into a ritualised, ever-intensifying mutual dependence that had made them slaves of pacts they had once entered into in a spirit of freedom. Bristling with a whole arsenal of poisonous barbs that she would normally have fired off in Janek’s direction with lusty relish before they both sank into their beds exhausted by their constant squabbling, she now stood there, condemned to loneliness, trying to imagine where on earth he might be at that particular moment, and quite suddenly his absence struck her as an outrage, an affront. Crossly, she dumped her empty glass in the sink, turned on her heel, bustled to the phone, and dialled Ben’s number.
‘Janek?’ asked a tense-sounding voice at the other end.
‘No, it’s me’, he heard his grandmother Johanna say after a brief pause.
‘Oh, you’, replied Ben looking across at the hall window, the panes of which were being battered by the storm.
As he waited for her next sentence, he saw in his mind’s eye her kind, birdlike face, now narrowed by increasing age and dominated as ever by her strikingly large and beautiful nose. He saw her browny-green and nowadays somewhat sunken eyes, her cheeks reminiscent of a wrinkly apple and flecked with a multitude of small rust-brown age spots, and not least her thin lips, which – as Ben had been surprised to notice when last they met – were now a pale velvety brown in place of their erstwhile delicate pink.
‘So how are things with you?’ she asked, and Ben could hear how hard she was finding it to sound relaxed.
Benjamin Jansen was thirty four, had the lanky build of a marathon runner and an imprecise look in his eye.
His hands were not very big, his arms not very muscular, and his mid-length, ash blond hair was parted on the left. To strangers Ben could seem insecure, shifty and sometimes even arrogant. As he well knew from his own experience, almost no one had him down as a sports journalist, as someone reporting from a world in which – unlike the real world – winners and losers were still easily distinguishable and fêted like gladiators. Having dreamt once upon a time of becoming a footballer himself, he had opted for the profession of sports reporter in order to breathe the same air as these great luminaries.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Johanna, but I’d hoped it was Janek’, he replied, ignoring her question. He looked out through the window. The darkness was now so intense that the only light to be seen was that from people’s windows and from street lamps swaying around like the lights of a ship.
‘But that’s exactly why I’m ringing you!’ she said, to his surprise. ‘To see if you’ve heard from him.’
‘Yes, this evening!’ Ben blurted out, without however mentioning the fact that Janek had summoned him to the post office. He’d said something about gambling debts, 90,000 euros, an insanely large sum to Ben’s way of thinking. Ben had waited for him there in vain.
‘This evening?’ said Johanna, her voice all of a sudden clearer, more distinct, as though she had moved a few yards closer to him. ‘Well, thank God for that!’
Her sigh of relief sounded to Ben like air escaping from an over-filled balloon.
Johanna had insisted at some point that they use first names with each other, and ever since then she had seemed positively to enjoy it whenever he called her Johanna in the presence of others. It was as if it made her feel younger and more progressive, less shut out from the world of those who ruled the roost these days and decided what was what.
Ben saw his grandmother once again in his mind’s eye: the metallic grey sheen of her hair reminiscent of a tangled mass of superfine but unruly silver wire; the way her arthritic fingers gripped the telephone.
‘He rang me, must have been getting on for three’, said Ben, but without offering any further details.
‘Really? Getting on for three, was it?’ said Johanna snappishly and with an irritated glance at her right foot. She had kicked her slipper off: a pulsing sensation in her big toe had been troubling her for several minutes now.
Because of the alarm bells ringing in the back of her head she had scarcely been able to focus on what Ben was saying.
Ben now started to be extra-careful about what he said, for he could tell from Johanna’s faltering voice that she was alarmed. He had learned over the years the various levels of agitation that could seize hold of her. There was the siren with its long-drawn-out, undulating howl betokening the greatest imaginable disaster; the less dire sound of an ear-splitting doorbell that stood for a middling catastrophe; last but not least, the muffled but nonetheless grating buzz as though of an electronic timer that told her it was time to withdraw from an increasingly discomforting discussion.
‘Johanna?’ he said. ‘Is everything ok?’
‘Of course it is!’ she snapped straight back, wrinkling her forehead and bending her leg a little. Though this didn’t make her pulsing toes any more visible. There was no getting away from it: the aging process really stuck in her craw! What had happened to the ten-year-old girl sitting on warm flagstones in front of a house in Alsace playing marbles in the sunshine? The cheerful school-leaver looking expectantly ahead to her life to come? The young mother with thick chestnut hair already contemplating the future with a somewhat more sceptical gaze?
‘Go on then, Ben!’ she said. ‘What did he say?’
Ben wanted at all costs to stop Johanna getting into a panic. Just a single wrong word, Ben knew, and her world would fall apart.
So he said ‘Nothing really. He asked me to come to the post office, and I went, but there was no sign of him when I got there. That was it.’
He hoped this would calm her down. Not a word about the men Janek was obviously in fear of, not a word about his debts.
But Johanna was still suspicious. ‘He hasn’t been home for a whole two days. Something’s wrong. You think so too, don’t you?!’
‘Oh, nonsense,’ replied Ben reassuringly. He adopted an even milder tone. ‘You know what he’s like. No consideration for anyone else. He’ll be back by this evening, you can bet on it. Tomorrow at the very latest.’
Ben was on edge as he listened to his own lies, for if he was honest with himself, he too was worried about Janek. It looked as if he was in serious trouble. Ben tried to change the subject by talking about the storm, but Johanna wasn’t having any of it and instead asked him ‘What can we do?’
‘If you like I’ll go and take a look in his workshop once the storm’s over’, said Ben, glancing at his watch.
‘Oh yes, please do that, Ben!’ replied Johanna, expelling her breath so sharply that a brief, dry roaring sound could be heard at Ben’s end. ‘And what else can we do?’
‘Nothing, I’m afraid!’ he answered. ‘We just have to wait and see what happens.’
He walked across to the window, sipping at the now cold cup of tea he had made himself just before Johanna’s phone call, and gazed down at the park below, where the storm was wreaking havoc with the flower beds. The wind-tossed trees were thrusting their bare, arthritically twisted branches into the Stygian darkness as though beseeching some almighty being to spare their miserable, defenceless lives. Violent cascades of rain were beating down on the tiny park, and within an hour at most the storm would surely have churned the grass into a single shapeless sea of mud.
‘I’ll call you as soon as I have any news’, said Ben, looking across at the houses opposite, only the barest outlines of which were now visible.
‘Fine’, replied Johanna, and their conversation was finished.
Ben carried on looking out of the window, for the pale shafts of light that half-penetrated the evening darkness from between the various buildings reminded him of his last encounter with Janek. They had bumped into each other by chance in the street. Ben had been on his way home on his bike.
After a succession of different jobs, Janek’s most recent one – so he claimed, at any rate – had been as a sales rep travelling around the country trying to sell life insurance policies. He’d occasionally talked of earning quite substantial commissions. Ben had never discovered what he was really up to. One of his Polish compatriots had got him the job. ‘Janek and insurance policies?!’ Ben had thought more than once. ‘That has to be a joke!’ Before that, Janek had dealt in car spares, flogging wings, exhaust systems, tailgates and alternators that he had filched during nocturnal raids on local scrapyards and then done up in his workshop. What with all his stolen goods he had accumulated a sizeable stock of spare parts. Having spent days repairing the defective roof of the barn next to his draughty workshop, he had done more and more paint jobs in there, sometimes spraying entire cars. Ben had been fascinated right from the start by Janek’s skill with his hands, his almost magical way with wood, brass, aluminium and even perspex, as though he and his materials were secretly in league with each other, joined together in a magic alliance that rendered even the most intractable of them pliable and amenable once he held them in his hands.
At weekends Janek hung around with his mates in pubs or at the racecourse in Frankfurt-Niederrad. Sometimes he brought them home afterwards – Poles, all of them – and they would sit around the kitchen table in Johanna’s flat, smoking, drinking vodka and noisily talking all at once amidst the clouds of smoke swirling around in the light from the ceiling lamp. If Ben had had to illustrate on a sheet of paper the various stages of his life to date, starting with his first five years in a children’s home, and complete with little explanatory symbols or drawings, then Janek’s smiling face, a lighted cigarette in the corner of his mouth, would have figured at every important juncture or turning point. Followed by a machaon butterfly or swallowtail, and a mandolin.
Johanna and Janek had been a couple for a long time, though they had a strict agreement never to display affection in public. At first they conducted their relationship in secret, but in the end it was condoned even by Johanna’s husband, Paul, who had become incapable of fulfilling his role as family head once his Parkinson’s disease had become just as bad as his general state of mental confusion.
Mentally deranged and nothing but skin and bone due to never-ending diarrhoea, Paul Jansen had died in his invalid’s bedroom just before ten a.m. on the last, sun-drenched day of July 1968 behind beige curtains that the bright sunlight had turned into an amber-coloured mist. The thermometer had climbed to an immoderate 37 degrees Celsius on that particular summer’s day, and the schoolchildren, let out early because of the heat, had made a beeline for the town and its ice cream parlours.

Translated by John Reddick