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Hammer, Agnes (Sample Translation)

Dorfbeben (Village Rumours)

script5, Loewe Verlag, September 2010, 280 pp.
ISBN: 978 3 8390 0119 6

In the end
All you can hope for
Is the love you felt
To equal the pain you’ve gone through.
Editors: Bones
From the CD “An End has a Start”, 2007
Chapter 1
The sounds of the village were those of a late but sunny day in October. Jakob, our neighbor pushed a droning lawn mower across his well-kept lawn and further up the slope I heard the noise of a tractor slowly fading out. The leaves of the staghorn sumac rustled softly in the wind when I passed it. In my left hand I held the folder with the sheet music for our band rehearsal and I actually felt pretty cool. I don’t know, just like I imagined Brian Molko [1] on his way to rehearsal. Although unfortunately, I don’t resemble Brian much in any other aspect. The main street of Auroth also isn’t what Brian steps on when he goes to band rehearsals. He probably doesn’t even have to leave the house, just goes down into the basement of his castle where he has dried out the walls and installed his own recording studio. At least that’s what I think Brian’s life must be like.
Sadly I wasn’t wearing a cool t-shirt carrying the logo of some band in the front and the tour dates on the back – the evening air was too chilly for that by the end of October. Instead I was wearing an ugly red winter coat that Grandma had bought for me the year before and a black sweater underneath. But at least I was on my way to band rehearsal and I had written a song that would blow their minds.
Usually on my way to rehearsal I start dreaming away. I see a dark stage entrance, I am on my way to the stage, hear the crowd get louder, applauding and stomping their feet. I go up a few steps, uneasily and blinded by the spotlights and the loud screaming of at least a thousand people who have come to hear me is rushing up to me like the waves of the ocean. Then as I sit down at my keyboard I imagine a moment of silence so immense that the first note sounds like the first drop of rain on the leaf of a tree.
Felix and Suder stood in front of the rectory. They were waiting. Felix is our lead guitarist, he has the appropriate good looks of the type narcissistic soccer star, well-toned and wellgroomed. Exactly the kind of look we need for our gigs on Friday nights at the village discos. Suder is playing the drums and so it doesn’t matter that he is locally known as “the Monster”, almost 2 meters tall and completely covered with pimples. You can’t really see him behind his drums. He is rather the quiet type and after school helps his father on the farm. He always smells a bit like cow.
“Hi” Felix said. He pushed his long hair behind his ears in a movement you usually only see with girls. Suder only nodded at me.
“Hi” I said. “Let’s do it.” I unlocked the door to the youth centre. The two of them went in in front of me like Cristiano Ronaldo with a blow-dried hairdo and a giant farmer, but to be honest I was happy to know them. Most of the guys my age living in Auroth do not have the same taste in music. They listen to German hip-hop, drive up and down Main Street with thundering subwoofers in pimped-up cars as soon as they are eighteen. Also they think I am a retard. If they knew I was regularly turning into Brian Molko on my way to band rehearsal or at least thinking about him they would probably bombard us with rotten tomatoes or fire crackers at our next concert. They are not shy in that way. And Brian uses make-up and wears skirts – at least in the beginnings of his career. But my legs usually are clad in unobtrusive jeans.
Suder took the cover off his drums, his foot tapped the bass drum, he then fished the sticks from the torn insides of his coat and hit the high-heat.
Felix plucked a few strings on his guitar. He held his ear close to the strings, something that might help when tuning an acoustic guitar but is pretty much inane with an electric guitar. He kept pushing his long hair behind his ear. It is completely beyond me why girls are so crazy about him.
I got behind my keyboard and adjusted the electric piano.
We started with an old number of U2 that Felix suggested. Suder missed his cue twice but that didn’t matter. We anyway never play this at gigs, only when we have no more encores prepared and this has not yet happened. Then Vane appeared and suddenly the cold air turned hot and I had to belch and grin all the time, hitting the micro with my behind and realized I was sweating.
Felix is just better at it, of course, they are almost neighbors and take the same class so they see each other every day. They are used to each other. Or he is used to her and I am always short of breath as soon as Vane is in the same room as I am.
Vane put the bass around her neck. She looked at Suder who gave her the cue and then we played Everytime – a number I had written something like three years ago. An awesome, fast piece of music that keeps surprising you whenever you think you are sure how it will go on. It’s our opener, almost always, and the people like it - they usually tuck their beer bottles under their arms and start applauding when we are done.
After that we played a slow number. It’s called Cirle Train and I wrote it when I realized that in all likelihood nothing was ever going to happen between me and Vane. That was about a year ago.
Then we played Fairy Tale Bubbles which I wrote when I was convinced that Vane and I were going to happen. That was ten months ago. And so we played through my entire hopes, disappointments, and longings. All the while Vane was standing there, playing her bass and Felix was singing the words I had written for Vane and neither Felix nor Vane and least of all Suder knew that they were singing about me and Vane.
Afterwards I talked about the new number. It had a driving, difficult bass line with an easy melody and a beautiful riff for the guitar.
It was about the fact that I loved a beautiful unattainable woman breathing just centimeters away from me. It was therefore called Just a Few Centimeters.
Vane is an apparition. I mean, I have been living in this village for years ever since it was no longer possible for me to live in Cologne and Vane completely threw me from the start. Well, she looks incredible for starters, if you take a closer look anyway. Most people may think she is a little too heavy, or that her hair is a little short, but she is – and I have thought about it for a long time and think this is why I think she is so incredible – completely fearless. For a girl she has a low voice and says things I would never ever dare to say. She just starts playing, and during the first easy runs is not occupied with the more difficult passages later on. She just keeps with the rhythm. Each tone is of the same importance to her. And that is what makes her a really good musician.
Bass is a completely underrated instrument. If you don’t manage the guitar or if you are too lazy practicing you are supposed to switch to playing bass, that is what they say. But that’s wrong. I constantly write songs with difficult bass lines, hiding under Felix’ trashing on his strings (Felix is not quite the guitar talent I could wish for, but he sings tolerably), and people do not understand that the bass directly goes to their guts turning everything upside down in there, because they are so fixated on the melody. They want something to sing along to. I do write melodies too, easy to hum along, that have the occasional surprising twist – so I hope. We have been practicing together for two years now and we have made appearances on stage for a year. We have won the talent show sponsored by the Sparkasse [2] and in three months we are off to a national thing, held by Antenne 222 [3]. We are saving to do a CD and finally get known. That’s something that would not only help my ego as a musician. I really need the money. I am living of that which my Grandma can spare from her pension (ha-ha), the money my mother sends us and from what I earn playing the Church organ each Sunday at service. Achim thinks of me as a tragic genius or something. So he keeps supporting me. Felix on the other hand is far from a tragic genius. He was just singing through the refrain of the new number not getting that I had added a syncope – to make things more interesting and to underline the text. Never mind, he clutched the microphone, breathing and whispering into the thing and his brown, shoulder long hair flew about like a girl’s.
Vane played her bass line, Suder drummed a bit off rhythm and I sat at the keyboard. Ok, it really did not sound like anything yet but I already got the idea what it would sound like once we had it going. The rehearsal was almost over.
“Are you coming Saturday evening too?” Suder asked me. It was about a party at their school. Felix was already stowing away his guitar – a really nice one – and Vane was looking at me with big expectant eyes. She has wonderful eyes, especially since she cut her bangs. They are accenting her high dark brows.
“Vane and I are going there together. We could pick you up.” Felix said to his guitar case. Ahh, the two of them are already again using “we”, I thought and got the chills.
“Nope” I said.
“Ahh, go on!” said Vane and I felt a little less chilly.
“No, really I can’t” I lied. “Grandma wants to take a trip on Saturday and I promised her to come along.”
Going on a sightseeing trip with the Catholic seniors’ Club was probably not what Brian Molko would do to pass a Saturday afternoon. Never mind, they were going to Cologne, I was born there and Grandma had been happy when I told her I would come along. And in any case it beat watching Vane and Felix getting reacquainted at a party.
“But you could still come in the evening …” Vane said.
I did not like her pressuring me like this. Did she have to complicate things so?
“That’s too much for me!” I replied louder than planned.
A hint like this was enough. There is a reason, you see, why I am always the looser and it sounds more exciting than it actually is. A normal human being hears sounds between twenty and twenty thousand Hertz. I can hear a lot better than that – and this is now the test result of one of the many doctors I have seen. It is in the family, Lena also hears pretty well. But I am really punished. I have bouts of psychic deafness, acoustic aphasia, which means I do hear everything but I cannot process it. Hearing without a filter. My brain perceives the background noise of the Highway – that’s what we call the L288 – on the same level as the gum chewing noise of Vane’s or the silent clicking of my computer’s keyboard. I cannot do anything against it. No doctor can. I just have to lead life as quietly as possible, with the least noise possible. At nineteen. It sucks.
“I was fired. I can’t go there again …”
“But they can’t just let you go.” This was my grandmother’s voice, its pitch rising with anxiety.
“Yes, they can!” replied the voice of my aunt Lena.
I had already seen Lena’s old Ford Fiesta parked in front of the house and I knew there was trouble. Otherwise she would not have come here on a Wednesday evening.
I put down my folder with the music in the hallway.
“What now?” asked Grandma.
“No idea!” said Lena. She was mad, I could hear that.
“Couldn’t you talk to your boss again?”
I heard the quiet clinking of a spoon. Lena probably just kept eating so she did not have to reply. But I was wrong.
“Mattes? Are you just standing there in the hallway to eavesdrop on us?” she called.
“Not at all! I was just taking off my shoes!”
Lena is really my aunt but she is only five years older than me. My birth had been a real scandal in the village. My mother had only been sixteen when she had me. My father is unknown. It sounds more mysterious than it is. Honestly, I do not care who my father is. I have never asked my mother, I call her Andrea.
By now Andrea has pretty much caught up on all the things you usually do growing up: finishing school, getting an education and a steady job. A beautiful apartment and a serious relationship. All the things I haven’t even managed in part. Lena and I virtually grew up together.
“I don’t want to go back” Lena said.
“Are you unemployed?” I asked.
“What now?” I asked.
“Well, I thought, I’d look for something around here and start writing my Ph. D. thesis. I am fairly sure that the professor who supervised my Master’s thesis would become adviser on my Ph. D …”
Grandma took a deep breath.
“But what do you want to do here?” She meant to ask how Lena would earn money around here.
Lena’s Master thesis has won a price at university and you could buy it on the internet. Many in Auroth had done so even though they had no grasp of the scientific aspects of the work, I was sure of it. But they had been the probands whose speech pattern Lena had researched in a panel study over six years. Lena had started the recordings and data collection already during her first semester.
“I could work again at the cashier at REWE [4], couldn’t I?” Lena’s voice had become small and sad, even though she was pretending that everything would turn out just fine.
“Oh, Lena, it’s not as easy as that …” Grandma said.
I knew exactly what she meant by that. Lena had finished school with the Abitur [5] and went on to Freiburg for her university studies. She had a degree in forensic linguistics and a great job at an institute in Koblenz. But now it was about time for Lena to get married, settle down, build a house and start a family of her own. That she would return to being a jobbing student was not to Grandma’s liking at all.
Before, Grandma had always liked to tell others about Lena’s job. She was a linguistic analyst and often worked together with the criminal investigation department. And now she had been fired.
Things went back and forth between the two of them for a while. Grandma worried, but then Grandma always worried even though she seldom let on. Grandma is a quiet person, which is probably why it feels so good for me living with her. She is usually dressed in dark shades, at least since Hermann, my Granddad died. She takes care of the large garden she still refers to as Granddad’s garden.
My Grandma and Granddad – people like them hardly exist anymore. They did not have to meet because they already knew each other forever. They got married at 21 and had four children and were happy together. When they thought they were done with the largest part of the work Granddad had an accident at the roller mill. Afterwards he was missing an arm. He only had a scarred stump and a badly fitted prosthesis he never wore. Instead he used a picker arm, which consisted of a wooden stick with two bent metal fingers at the ends that he usually operated with his mouth. I only knew him with this picker. He always reached up on the living room cupboard and came up with a bar of chocolate he then gave to me. He smoked all the way to the end, mostly hand-rolled cigarettes that he produced with a little rolling machine. He clasped a cigarette paper in the little hollow, concentrated on spreading tobacco over it and licked the gummed paper. With a twist of his thumb across the machine it turned into a cigarette. Even when he had lost all hair from the chemo and every ounce of body fat. He died when I was seven.
Nothing was alright and later, when Grandma had gone to bed, Lena told me everything. We both have certain habits, for example we both like sitting in my room without the lights on. That’s what I like about Lena. If you are anyway relying on your ears light usually is not necessary and Lena relies on her ears as much as I do on mine.
Lena is the most beautiful among her siblings. Everything that is too long, wide or thin with the others is perfectly proportioned with Lena: big green eyes, pretty full lips and a strong but not too exaggerated nose. And no weak eyes either. Instead she has inherited Grandma’s blonde curls unlike her siblings. She always tries to straighten them but usually around noon at the latest they are already curling up again into a dramatic crown around her head.
I could hear that she was not fine because her voice sounded a little sludgy like she had been crying a lot. And it was not just about the job.
“What was his name?” I asked the glowing tip of the cigarette near Lena’s mouth. We were listening to an old CD of Lena’s. Late nineties, very electro, very slow with a beautiful woman’s voice.
“Doesn’t matter. He was married anyway.” Lena said.
“And so you broke up.”
“No, not at all. I wanted him to come over at night because I had been fired from the institute.” She sighed like an old woman. “I wasn’t feeling well.”
The next number started with an intro that sounded like the hiss of a badly adjusted radio. We listened for a while.
“And everything got too much for him. He wanted a girlfriend without problems.”
I could not imagine Vane having any problems. What would I do if she wanted me to solve any problems for her? Would I be able to? Would she like me for it and at least allow me to hold her hand? Or would the infatuation suddenly be over? Sometimes I wished for exactly that. That I would wake up one morning and the longing for Vane was gone.
“And why is your job gone?”
Lena got up and stopped the CD.
“I can’t listen to this trip hop shit any longer. Do you have anything else?”
We stood next to each other in the dark, our hands illuminated only by the little red lights of the stereo. Lena was using a new perfume. Somehow she smelt more grown up. I knew that Placebo was on top of the stereo.
“Here, listen to this. I can only say: guitars, real guitars.”
Lena sat down again.
“It was the first job I really liked. The tennis instructor for example,” she went on telling me. “It was early one evening and I was just packing my things. Two cops came by and brought a recording. Usually my boss would have copied it to his computer and we would have stared at the curves for hours and would have been stuck.” She paused as if she were waiting for Brian Molko’s voice.
“Then, what happened?” I asked.
“I listened to the recording.” She went on. “And I immediately had the solution: -that’s no Hessian dialect! He is only imitating it- I said. The two cops gaped at me, apparently it was really urgent. Usually we get sent the material.”
“Wow” I said, so she would continue.
“ – Just listen to the palatals. My hunch is Austria – I told them.”
“What are palatals?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what the cops asked too.”
“And?” I turned Brian down a little.
“Well, the way he pronounced the “sh”. He did it too far in the back of his throat. And my boss grinned.”
Lena paused again. We were still standing in front of the stereo. I pushed the off button.
“Go on” I said.
“And further I said that he usually was screaming a lot. His vocal cords were pretty affected.”
She switched on the little lamp over the stereo. “What other music do you have?”
I had to look at her because she sounded like she was about to cry.
“They really got him. It was the tennis instructor of the boy. He thought he could make big money like that.”
A tear drop glistened on her eye lashes.
“Do you want to hear the new numbers of our band?” I asked her.
She sat down on my unmade bed and listened how Suder, Felix and Vane got going.
“Working at the institute was more than a job.” She told me, while Vane was playing the bass line of Circle Train. “During my studies I never even thought there might be a job for me. Linguists are not exactly sought after, you know. And then … I was good at it, really good. I listened to the voices forwards and backwards over the speakers until I was really sure and then I wrote my expertise. Those lead them more than once on the right track.”
We kept listening to the band and honestly, we pretty much sucked.
“Everything seemed to suddenly … make sense.” Lena quietly added.
I nodded even though she could not see me in the dark. We then listened to more music of the band. Suder and Felix did not play together at all and Felix did not only screw up the rhythm he also used wrong notes.
“Are all the songs still for the bass girl?”
“Not all of them.”
“They are beautiful, really.”
“But if you were this good, why did they fire you?”
“Because of this commissar. Krämer, he wanted to see the computer analyses.”
The CD came to an end but I stayed next to Lena.
“I immediately admitted that I hardly ever did full computer analyses, and really, I was actually kind of proud of it, until I realized that I was about to be sacked.” She sniffled until I handed her a handkerchief. I thought I could hear her leaving something out.
“And this asshole Krämer started really pressuring me. Even when I gathered my things I hadn’t realized that I was out of a job. I went back home on the tram, listening to the voices of the boys in front of me, out of habit, and still kept pretending.”
“Do you want to listen to more music?” I asked.
Working Class Heroes” she hummed through her snotty nose. “That’s an old number. By the Rolling Stones. Do you have that?”
“Only on a record. I would have to look for it.”
“Forget it.” She blew her nose again. “I am going to bed.”
She stayed where she was.
“There is a line in that song I often have to think about.” She blew her nose. “We’re still fucking peasants. Do you get it? Even though we really are no heroes.”
I nodded.
When Lena had disappeared into her old bed room I got the dictionary and looked up peasants. It meant farmers/villagers. So what?
Chapter 2
I have learned more about music from Achim than from any one else. All this Mozart-Bach stuff, I would not know otherwise. Reading music and all that. Anyone having trouble modulating from h-minor to A-major or problems with the cycle of fifths may come to me. And just because Achim has taught me how, I also play a bit of piano. Well, not like Lang Lang [6], but well enough to know what I am doing.
Achim also knows a lot about Jazz. In the evenings we often listen to CDs he has bought and he then starts pointing out things I would never have heard and he looks like on Sundays in church when he is once again taking too long with his sermon. All I want to do is listen to the music. But he does not quite get that.
In any case on Saturday I did not mind that I had to get up early. So, at eight o’clock I sat in the bus with Lena, who did not want to stay home alone, and Grandma to leave with the seniors’ Club. (After all, Brian Molko also grew up in a strict Christian house hold and is now writing really cool songs with lyrics about sex and stuff.)
If it had not been for this thing that Achim had been transferred for, he never would have ended up in a place like Auroth. He was much too fond of cultural things like concerts or at least big shopping malls with multimedia stores, and there were none in the immediate neighborhood. He never told me what exactly had happened but I guess that is his own business anyway. I am sure he could have had a big time career with the Church, but he really seemed content with his three parishes, his communion kids and the parish council. Now he looked at us sitting in the back of the bus across the head of Jakob Bähner.
“Good morning” he said and grinned. Achim pushed past Jakob to say hello.
“This is Lena, my aunt.”
They shook hands.
“I’ve heard a lot about you.” said Achim.
“I really hope you’ll take me along.” She reached into her jeans’ pocket and handed him ten Euro. “Otherwise I will be stuck at the house the entire day.”
“No problem” said Achim. “I’ll give the money to Mrs. Schneider.” This was Irmgard who mostly took care of the finances.
He went back to the front.
Bruno, the bus driver handed him the microphone. Achim coughed.
“Well, good morning once again!” Achim unfolded a note and started reading. “And welcome to our sightseeing trip. Today we will go to see the beautiful city of Cologne, visit the Dome and Groß Sankt Martin. Afterwards we will lunch at a little German food tavern – I have reserved a table – and in the afternoon continue to the cloister of Marie Gnaden where I will hold a service before we return home. At five o’clock in the afternoon we should all be back in Auroth safe and sound I hope.”
He paused. “Good, I hope everybody is on board. Let us speak the morning prayer together.” Achim put the microphone back into its holder, folded his hands and launched into the “Our Father”. The seniors joined him. Grandma too started praying.
Lena put one plug of her headphones of her MP3 player into her ear and pulled up her scarf. The bus drove on through the darkness, the wiper blades wiping the panes clean. It was drizzling.
Achim again reached for the microphone. “And now, let’s sing something together.” He coughed. Then he intoned “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” [7]. Perhaps this was not the most suitable song for this rainy October morning but it was currently at the top of his private list of favorite chorales and I often had to play it at church.
Renate’s and Grandma’s sopranos rose against the plastic paneling like there was no tomorrow. Renate is our neighbor and Grandma’s best friend. They are constantly sitting together unless Renate is at her office at the municipality, where she holds a part time job.
In front of them sat Jakob Bähner and his wife Maria. Now retired, Jakob had been the village’s mayor for many years and probably was the one with the most money of them all. They lived across the street from us and always did everything just right. Their old farm house was half-timbered, the frames around the windows painted in glossy dark green and the weather side freshly done up with natural slate. Even their flowers in the front garden looked better than ours. While our lawn turned all mossy under the staghorn sumac, Jakob laid out special roll-up lawn under his conifers, an extra blend for the shade. While our dahlias lost their blossoms in the summer, Maria cut hers to make colorful pompons for her vases. I do not know how they did it. But whenever I went over there to borrow an egg and stood in their shiny-clean and modern kitchen I always felt that Grandma and I lived in some kind of makeshift arrangement.
Jakob now joined in, grumbling an octave lower. His wife Maria did hit the right notes but her voice was not very nice. Even when singing they were doing it just right in a low-key manner. Old loony Grandma Burkhart and her son Herbert in the row in front of the Bähners did open their mouths – you can say what you want about Grandma Burkhart – that she is an old witch for example – but she can sing. She knows every melody and sticks to it perfectly. Her Herbert on the other hand can neither keep rhythm nor melody: proof for the fact that musicality is not inherited.
Achim supportively droned into the microphone forcing everybody to go to the second verse. Elli and Martha in the two seats next to the Bähners sang rather hesitantly. The two of them had been cleaning the church since – I don’t know - the ice age perhaps and took care about anything that was none of their business.
They are neighbors, wearing practical short hairdos and apron-dresses. They spend their lives behind the drapes of their kitchen windows, their eyes focused on Main Street in order not to miss the tiniest thing. They know every car in the village and do not even stop from interrogating Grandma when Lena is brought home in a new car or is going out with a guy from outside the village.
They have also already complained that I am allowed to use the basement of the rectory for band rehearsal. Achim then had probably sold it to them as being charitable and they had resigned to it. But with the two of these Achim really could practice the grace of charity.
Irmgard sat in front of Elli and Martha on her own. She takes care of the money collection and is a real stickler with everything. If Elli - who is so well-known for her stinginess in the village that people actually joke about it – tries getting out of paying on some cheap excuse, she just stares hard at her over her rectangular glasses until Ellie finally digs out her wallet and manages to find a ten Euro bill.
She also does not want us to rehearse in the rectory’s basement. But she always stresses “rehearse free of charge”, reminding Achim that she would not mind the practice if we were to pay a little something for it.
Of course Lena and I sat in the last row. From here I could observe pretty well that the bus driver Bruno was throwing glances at us through the rear view mirror. The singing now was not quite as loud as before as only Grandma Burkhardt and Achim knew the text and kept singing.
Whenever we passed by an unkempt property Martha said something alone the lines “They really should be clipping their hedges. Just look at it!” If they had a rusty old car or something like that out front it would be “Just look at all that junk. Couldn’t they clean that up?” Ellie and Martha shook their heads disapprovingly.
Bruno had a bloated unshaven look and always smelt of booze and sweat. Everybody knew he was drinking even though he was the bus driver. He also constantly cheated on his wife. I was not quite sure how he was doing that what with that smell.
Perhaps the women he picked up were attracted by violence because Bruno was a known fair rowdy beyond the borders of the village. But really he was one of the rather pathetic characters in the village, a loser just like me. His success with women was a mystery to me, I often observed it first hand when we were playing at a fair. He usually picked up the prettiest girl despite that fact that he looked bloated like a yeast dumpling. Perhaps this would make for a good song text Brutalo Man or something like that. But I am sure Vane would protest and would not like to play that. I put my MP3 player on and with the plugs in my ears decided to doze for a while.
The first few years I lived with my mother in Cologne until the acoustic aphasia appeared more frequently and I moved in with Grandma in the village. I like Cologne and if I were still living there and had a band I probably would not have to play Fridays at the youth center of the neighbor village but get gigs at actual clubs. Perhaps I would meet a famous producer who discovered my talent and I might make a ton of money. But on the other hand I would never have met Vane and Achim would never have taught me all the classical stuff. So I guess I know that living in the village is quite good for me.
“I need to do something.” I said as soon as we had left the bus.
“Andrea is working today.” Grandma said.
“I know, I want to go somewhere else.”
“I’ll come with you.” Lena said instantly.
“Please go with Grandma” I told her.
“Oh, please, I rather want to go to the city with you.”
“I have to do this alone.” I said and Lena shrugged me off.
I took the local train from the main station to Deutz [8]. I wanted everything to be just like when I had my last fit before I was brought into the clinic and started living with Grandma.
There is a passage underground leading from the rail tracks to the subway which takes forever. It is has orange, yellow and brown tiles and these tiles are the last thing I remember seeing before I woke up sedated in hospital. Strangely enough I was more worried to see the tiles than hearing the noise.
Today it was all different, back then so many feet had hit the underground in a cacophony of rhythms till the syncopated tact got too much for my ears. I had been stressed out in school, nothing out of the ordinary, but it looked like they were going to send me to a special-ed school because I was often covering my ears during lessons. I still was a child, ten or eleven years old, and it was always loud in the classroom. I did not like the teacher who played wrong on his guitar and forced us to sing along all wrong too and had us beat against rhythm onto our Orff instruments. Back then I was not yet able to explain what bothered me so much about the noise. I just knew what it was supposed to sound like and everything we did was wrong. We had a lot of project lessons and even learned the multiplication tables by singing and drumming on our wooden instruments.
I must have beaten the two guys with the triangles, and the little fat girl with the bongo I kicked in the behind. After the obligatory telling-off from my teacher and phone calls to my mother’s station – she worked as a nurse – I was allowed to leave the school. We lived in the neighborhood of Cologne Kalk and I had to change trains to the subway line 1 at the Deutz station. That was when it happened. It suddenly was too loud for me. In my ears all the sounds started blending – the in- and out-going trains of the Deutz station above me, the footsteps of the people in the underground passage with clicking high heels, squeaking crepe soles, scuffling leather, the voices coming from their mouths, loud, shrill, giggling, insistently quiet or assertive like blows, the ringing of the tram and the cars driving above which came to me through the entrance of the passage like a big funnel. I tried concentrating on the noise that derived from changing gears in the cars at the traffic light above, tried filtering it from the huge muddle of noise, just like focusing on a certain point at the horizon, but it was too late. Suddenly it felt like all these noises and even others that I could not identify were directly in my head. A jet plane was landing inside my head. No landing strip. It sank in the quagmire of sounds, its gears still running wild in the morass. That was all I remembered.
Now I normally strode past the tiles, left the kiosk on the right hand side and already reached the escalators leading to the subway. I extended a hand touching one of the tiles but then realized how stupid that must look and put my hand back into my pocket. I went up, and looked at the traffic intersection where the ambulance must have stopped back them. It was still drizzling. The seniors should be on their way to Groß Sankt Martin now. I could easily catch them going for lunch and then go back home.
Jakob, our former mayor, was standing among them like the bull among his cattle, pushing his umbrella over all the others. He listened closely to the parson talking about the development of the Marienquarter - apart from him only Lena was listening – and now and then threw in a question so Achim would keep talking. The others looked like they wanted to go for lunch as quickly as possible. The food is always the unofficial highlight of these senior tours. Perhaps because for once the women do not have to cook themselves.
“And? Got everything done?” Lena asked me.
I nodded.
Achim led us to a small tavern located in a narrow street. Inside is was stuffy and looked exactly like you would imagine an inn hosting lunch for these senior clubs going for sight seeing tours: dark wooden paneling, plastic flowers on checkered table cloths, a bar and fortunately a separated room for large parties.
Achim talked to the waitress – a cheerful woman in her forties – and really, the room in the back was reserved for us. The service was quick, the selection moderately old-fashioned – so I would chose the pork escalope and Lena would go on everybody’s nerves with her vegetarian antics. Jakob asked for a beer and a schnaps before the waitress could even get out her pen and pad. Herbert followed suit. His old mother protested. Bruno, Achim and I sat next to another and each ordered a Coke, Jakob looked at us derisively.
The women did it differently. As soon as Renate had ordered a Kölsch [9] all the others dared too and I regretted ordering the Coke but did not want to change the order.
Ellie, two seats next to Achim, was fidgeting around, but he knew exactly what she wanted from him. As usual she had left her purse on the bus and of course he invited her. He was already used to it.
He then smiled encouragingly at Grandma Burkhart sitting opposite of him. She pushed her false teeth around.
“You would think some people had better manners!” she said disapprovingly looking at Renate who was just emptying her beer glass.
Achim quietly sighed. It really was not easy sitting close to that old witch.
“Mom, please!” Herbert tried silencing her.
“Poor Malchen [10]” Ellie answered aloud and nodded at Grandma Burkhart.
Achim reached for his Coke glass. They were speaking about Renate’s old mother Amalia Sannert, who had been buried last week.
I had played the organ and Renate had forked out fifty Euro for it. She did not have to do that, after all we were living on the other side of the street and I really would have had to be a pallbearer with the other men of the neighborhood. That’s just how it was done in the village. Her husband Peter had stopped by the evening before with the song book asking me what I could play from it.
I play everything, I had said. I really had been relived not be a pallbearer.
“I think we can absolutely regard this day as a pilgrimage.” Achim said.
“Poor Malchen” repeated Grandma Burkhart as if he had not said anything.
“Nothing worse than losing a child” Ellie answered. But really it was obvious that now that her meal was paid for she just wanted a bit of gossip.
Achim did not understand what they were talking about, you could see that and he did not seem to want to ask because they anyway would not have explained it to him.
By now they were talking about their own children. Maria’s granddaughter was married to a departmental manager in Swabia.
“But such a big house, that’s a lot of work!” She complained.
“In May my Herbert is going to become … Herbert, what’s it called?”
“General manager” Herbert morosely answered. He was cutting his pork loin and concentrated staring at his plate.
Please don’t let me end up like Herbert, I thought with a sudden chill running down my back – going on these senior coffee tours with Grandma when I am over forty. Herbert probably only comes along to have an eye on his mother, because Grandma Burkhart likes fighting with others and often needs stopping. He is single, whip thin and general manager of the health insurance company. Crazy for sports – he often runs the marathon – and crazy for his dog, a drooling old mongrel. Lives with his mother and has no friends whatsoever in the village to go out with in the evenings. But, still, he had his job. More than could be said for myself.
“Well, you have your mother to keep the house clean.” Irmgard said to him now. He did not even look up.
“And what about you?” she suddenly addressed me. “How is the music coming along?”
“He’s going to be a star someday and you will all watch him on television, you will see,” said Lena pushing with one hand fries into her mouth.
My escalope came – it was huge, the breading crusty and I gratefully started digging in.
“Another beer, please!” I heard Jakob’s voice.
Herbert also signaled for one.
“After all we are not just merely here to have fun!” Jakob called the waitress. “And bring one for the parson so he starts laughing for once too.”
Achim protested, but Jakob forced the waitress with a nod to take the order down on her pad.
“And bring one for the bus driver too! Won’t hurt!”
“I pay for myself!” Bruno loudly said fixing his gaze on Jakob for a long time. The waitress stood by wavering, her pen poised.
“Bruno, come on, one will be ok!” said Jakob.
“But if he does not want to!” Jakob’s wife Maria threw in.
Achim gave me a questioning look but I just shrugged.
“You are not going to pay for my beer! Not you” Bruno said in a loud voice and I got a pretty good impression what he would be like at the fairs where there were fewer grannies around.
“Besides, you still need to drive.” Renate injected from the lower part of the table.
“Alright, Bruno! Sit down again” Grandma said and Irmgard who was sitting next to Bruno tried by pulling his sleeve to keep him in his chair.
“I’ll get the bus! Departure in half ‘n hour.”
Bruno’s chair fell. He reached for his wallet in his back pocket and threw a twenty Euro bill on the table.
“Whatever is the matter with him!” Maria said. “It really was well-meant.”
“And one beer – really, I mean, that’s nothing!” Jakob agreed with her.
We were back on the bus and nobody was in the mood for singing or praying. I sat in the back with Lena listening to the new compilation Vane had given to me, with quite an accent on the bass, but then of course, if you are playing bass that’s what you are focused on most. It was raining and raining until we reached Mariae Gnaden where Achim had arranged to hold his closing service of this trip.
“Boy, am I glad we will be home soon!” said Lena quietly to me when we were leaving the bus. The rain came in heavy gusts, the wind blew up my coat that I had never closed because it looked stupid. It was getting dark already although it was only shortly past five o’clock.
“What a drag!” Lena said more loudly.
“Well, you insisted on coming!” Grandma hissed, pulling her hood over her head.
“Let’s get inside” I proposed.
The church was filled with the sound of violins, an orchestra was practicing. It sounded very baroque to me, but I was not quite sure and this music warmed me after the wet cold outside.
“Wow!” Lena made. She opened her coat and sat down in the back row of the church benches.
All the others – including me – reached with their right hand for some holy water and made the sign of the cross. We then stood close to Achim.
“We are a bit early” Achim apologized. “But please sit down and listen to the rehearsal.”
The musicians seated in the sanctuary had stopped playing and were going through their sheets. The conductor was tinkering with the microphones, two of the choir singers, young, slightly heavy girls came down the aisle. One of them already with the cigarette in her mouth, the other fumbling with the cellophane of the packet. She was good looking; her short dark hair reminded me of Vane’s.
Before I could sit down, Achim stepped next to me, lifting his hand as if he wanted to touch me and then did not.
“In the front there, that’s my friend Feininger. I really wanted to introduce him to you.”
I followed him to the sanctuary.
“The orchestra plays all the way to the fugato of the violins … Dominik, please take a seat again” Feininger was just saying. He was a large man with a big belly and a beard.
A perhaps twelve-year-old cellist squeezed back behind his instrument. Then the conductor gave the cue with his large hands – the wedding band cutting into the thick fingers. The basso once again started with the theme.
I listened. I heard the cellos accompanying the bass theme, heard how the pages were turned. Something is wrong I thought, when another voice followed suit with the theme. In this moment Feininger interrupted and I was relieved.
“Once again, violins. On the upbeat, the exact cue please, you were better before.”
The strings turned back their music.
Then he noticed me and Achim. His mustache pulled into a grin.
“All right, that’s enough for today. Choir rehearsal as usual on Thursday, on Saturday please choir and orchestra at 3pm.”
He extended his hand to me.
“So you are Mattes.”
Achim grinned at me.
“So I finally get to know you. Achim is always raving about you.”
Had Achim told him all this tragic-genius stuff?
We shook hands.
“Uhmm” I said vaguely.
Achim’s grin got broader.
“If you really are as good as I‘ve heard I might have a job for you.” Feininger continued.
“Here at church?” I asked. Mariae Gnaden was about twenty years kilometers away and I have no driver’s license.
“No, no, nonsense. We are looking for someone to play the keyboard. We are a quintet, the Feininger Quintet, perhaps you have heard of it.” The beard parted and gave way to teeth large as piano keys. “We play jazz.”
“Cool” I said. Even though I did not particularly like it. Jazz, I mean. That is something for men between forty and almost-dead. But of course I could not say that to Feininger. “Here is my address. We can make an appointment for the first rehearsal.” I took his card and tried to grin appreciatively.
“You can find us on youtube. Just have a look.”
I nodded and somehow felt really good. After all I could really use the money – and this would mean getting paid.
“You don’t sing, I suppose?”
I shook my head.
“Or talk?” His mustache grinned at his own joke “It’s also not quite your thing.” Feininger answered his own question.
“He’s really good.” Achim assured him.
“We will see.”
The sanctuary had emptied. The seniors from Auroth sat on the benches waiting for the closing service.
“Alright, I have a mass to prepare for.” Achim said his good-bye.
“I know, Father Albert is already waiting.”
Feininger laid his heavy hand on my shoulder. “Now, don’t be so shy. We really do play great music and also make good money with it.”
“How much?” I asked and right away could have kicked myself for it.
But Feininger just kept grinning.
“Well, about fifty to hundred usually.”
“Each?” shit, I just sounded plain greedy, money grubbing.
“Yes.” Feininger’s smile stiffened a little.
“I liked how quickly you just interrupted. When the violins …”
His mustache now covered his teeth and he regarded me seriously.
“Was that Händel [11]?”
“The Messias. For Christmas.” He was already smiling again.
“They’re quite tricky these fugues …”
A little bell rang.
Feininger shut his mouth and put his finger against is lips.
“I have to sit with Grandma.”
Achim, dressed in a plain chasuble stepped in front of his little congregation.
When he had reached the altar he started singing Der Mutter mit dem Sohne, a beautiful, simple song in G-major that went beautifully with the patron saint of the abbey but after the full sound of the orchestra is just sounded pretty frail and out of tune. It was a pity I could not play along on the organ. He was almost alone singing it and it seemed to me that some of the voices that had sung this morning were completely missing. I sat up front between Grandma and Lena.
The sermon was quite short, probably because Achim knew that his sheep wanted to go home. He only recited the credo, we did not sing it.
One of the highlights in the course of the Catholic church year is the feast of Corpus Christi in summer, a celebration with a lot of meaningful choreography, golden ostensories and dais, heavily embroidered choir tunics and hymns in major and common time. After that no much is happening in the church year. Christmas is far away and you have to figure a way to make a good show till then. All Saints is ok, but of no interest to me because all the action takes place on the graveyard. Achim was just celebrating the preparation of the Gifts with Father Albert, a fat monk with blond fluff on his round head, when the church door was pushed open. I could hear that it was still raining. Apart from that it was all quiet, and Achim carefully lowered the chalice onto the altar before slowly descending into the nave.
Our feet were scrapping the floor as we rose. Lena’s heels quietly clicked next to me.
“Shit” she said silently.
Bruno was standing in the shadows, swaying and soaking wet, carrying a heavy sack. Suddenly he roared at us.
We all stood in the middle aisle and slowly advanced towards him, Achim as our front man and he reached with his hands for Bruno.
Then Bruno roared even louder than before. He sounded like a wounded ox, braying as he was hit with a stick by the farmer, all anger and fear.
We stopped, only Achim continued as if everything was fine with Bruno. And Lena pushed her way through to the front.
Bruno’s face was all wet, difficult to say if he had cried or from the rain, and snot was running from his nose. His clothes, especially his pants, were covered in mud. In his arms he carried not a sack - we could see that now - but Jakob Bähner. In the place were normally his chin merged into the throat he had a dark dripping hole. His hair, usually meticulously combed to the back, was hanging down in bloody strands.
“So, help me!” Bruno whispered and swayed. Then he collapsed under the weight of the corpse and threw up on the stone tiles of the abbey of Mariae Gnaden.
I was really grateful for one thing. I did not have a break down. I mean, this was my first corpse and everything was covered in blood, real blood.
My ears were humming and I got a bit dizzy, things related to the equilibrium organ inside the ears, and I had to reach for the church benches to steady myself, but neither was there a rushing sound in my head as if a Boeing was landing nor did anything else scary happen. So I stood there not just thinking that some kind of crazy person had murdered old Jakob, but also that I apparently had to be a lot more healthy than I was thinking.
Of course I kept this to myself for now. Grandma was not feeling so well, she was standing in a pew looking down on Jakob’s dead body. Her mouth was half open and you could see her tongue. She did not say anything, but I could see from her hands that she was not well. Her hands actually were bluish-white and when she took my hands they were icy cold and wet at the same time.
I rubbed them, slowly at first then faster and pushed Grandma back onto the bench so she would not have to see the corpse anymore.
“What are we going to do?” Grandma whispered.
“Someone has to call the emergency doctor” I said even though I was not sure. Do you right away call the police? It was oddly quiet around us.
I heard how Achim embraced Bruno in his arms. I could hear it from the rustling of Bruno’s coat and the silent sound of his soles on the floor.
“What are we going to do now?” Grandma asked again.
I took my cell phone from my pocket and called 110 [12]. The voice on the other side of the line belonged to a woman and I spoke slowly and clearly. I even remembered to wait for questions from the other side, the way you are supposed to in an emergency. I once again stated our location at the cloister of Mariae Gnaden. That someone – and this was when a rushing sound started interfering, either in my head or in the line, - had probably been murdered. When I said this the rushing got louder and I realized that it was not my phone. I felt the seniors watching me who probably all thought that I was retarded and pushed the red off-button on my phone as calmly as possible.
I looked at them as they were sitting or standing in the pews. None of them was looking at Jakob. As if they were afraid. That’s why I dared. It was bloody, it frightened me, more than I had been frightened this afternoon in the underground passage in Deutz. Every tiniest noise echoed in my ear canal. But my soul remained where it was. It just stayed in its place. “It’s ok, Mattes.” Lena said quietly. “Just sit down with Grandma.”
I was so relieved that she was there. My blood was pumping through my body and I carefully lowered myself into the pew next to Grandma. Any quick movement made an attack more likely.
The Fathers of Mariae Gnaden agitatedly walked up and down their church, whispering among each other and then started praying. There were about ten old men in dark frocks, their veined hands cramping together. One of them, a really old man, bent down – and I have to say he really impressed me with it – anointing Jakob’s forehead with oil. He then closed his dead eyes, murmuring.
The others prayed, at first quietly, then a frail voice took over with the Hail Mary and all of us joined in the painful rosary, which I knew from Good Friday but did not know by heart.
The auditory sense is the last one to go. When breathing, seeing and feeling long have stopped working, there are still those tiny hairs inside the inner ear that are passing all information on to the dying brain, and the rosary with the prayer leader and the painful answers suddenly seemed very appropriate to me. Poor dead Jakob would no longer hear us, but I imagined the dark answers reaching him, somehow this gave me comfort.
I do not know what the police and the doctor thought when they entered almost simultaneously the basilica of Mariae Gnaden and found us grouped around the body, praying. I am not quite sure what kind of impression the Catholic rituals make on others. Felix, for example, is Lutheran and he always says that our rehearsal room smells of incense. He is fascinated by all the equipment, the tall candle holders and all the gilded ornaments.
The police did not do anything. They were just standing around until one of them, arriving a little later and quickly coming down the aisle, raised his voice.
“Secure the crime scene! What is going on?” he shouted. He was about forty years old and had a gleaming red bald head.
“I don’t believe it!” Lena whispered to me.
Finally action enfolded among the police officers. The doctor bent down to the corpse and all of us taken for interrogation separately in the vestry.
May 1944
The mobile gallows came with the men from Koblenz and for the first time in his life Robert observed a man being hanged. The boy – and Robert suddenly realized that the Russian was younger than he himself – wanted to say something, in German, but they put the noose around his neck and just pushed him off the board. His neck snapped, a spasm went through his small body and then he was just hanging there, his feet swinging back and forth, a puddle of urine forming under him.
Robert made himself look into his face, but he was unable to raise his gaze above the rope cutting deep into the red flesh of the tender neck.
The other foreign workers stood around the gallows machine guns trained on them, they were supposed to see this.
The hangman and the two men from the SS were in a strangely elated mood after this execution, they drank schnaps and took large bites from their minced meat sausages as if death had made them hungry. They offered some to Robert too and before he could decline, his father patted him on his shoulder showing his pride.
They took the map that Hans had drawn and Robert told the truth as he always told the truth and everything just came out easily. They wrote down his name and laughed with him and a Robert he did not recognize any longer picked up their laughter and was louder than all of them together.
Later on he helped his mother cutting the potatoes for planting, no more than three sprouts per piece, and he smelled the earth on his hands and the soft breeze of May. He was silent as if tired.
It was evening before he could see Amalia behind Bell’s barn. She smelled of potatoes and earth just like him and she batted his hands away, roughly. The Robert who had been hiding all day came out, waking up as if he had been sleeping all along.
“Where is Hans?” asked Amalia. “What have you done?”
She asked this hoarsely, so that the real Robert could answer with a mighty word he only heard on Sundays.
“I have sinned, dear God, forgive me.”
Further summary of the plot:
As Mattes and Lena start investigating the murder it becomes more and more obvious that the villagers from Auroth are very reluctant to talk to them or the police. Each one of them seems to have some hidden past relating to Jakob. Mattes and Lena slowly discover that Jakob was for some reason blackmailing a number of villagers. The reasons seems to lie somewhere in the past and Auroth’s history during the Second World War. Before Lena and Mattes can uncover more, Lena’s car is tampered with and she ends up in hospital only barely escaping death herself. Now, Mattes takes over the investigation himself, during which course he also finally is able to get closer to his first love – Vane. In a dangerous show-down the surprising truth of the murder is unveiled …

  1. Lead singer, guitarist and song writer of the band Placebo
  2. Germany’s largest regionally organized savings bank
  3. A radio station
  4. Supermarket chain
  5. German high school degree necessary to start university
  6. Famous Chinese pianist
  7. German choral hymn by Nicolai “How lovely shines the morning star“
  8. Deutz is a working-class quarter of Cologne at the right hand side of the Rhine river
  9. A regional brand of German beer in Cologne
  10. Diminuativ German girl’s name (Amalia)
  11. German composer (1685 (greg.) – 1759)
  12. German emergency number for the police
(by Julia Courmont)

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