PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell
1: A swelling of the solar plexus
When, a few days later, Anton L. started to think the matter over- initially he had had no time for that, he had been too busy gawping in astonishment and organising his new life- he remembered that that during the night of the 25th he had briefly woken up once. He had not looked at the clock. There had been a strikingly bright glare coming in through the gap in the curtains, a pale, yellowish glare such as you get on snowy nights. He had only been awake for a brief moment, Anton L. recalled, not long enough to summon up the energy to look at the clock, but long enough to think: It's a snowstorm, and to counter: No, not in June. Then he must have gone back to sleep.
This bright, pale yellow glare was the only thing Anton L. had noticed during the night of the 25th that he could later take as a clue when he was looking for an explanation of what had happened. It didn't get him very far.
June 26 was a Tuesday. Anton L. was woken, before his alarm clock rang at half past six, by the barking of the dogs on the veranda of the house diagonally opposite. The family that lived there had two dogs, a small one the colour of a frankfurter, with hair hanging down over its eyes, and a larger, spotted one with a pointed muzzle. From the fact that he woke up with his head ringing, Anton L. deduced that the dogs had been barking for some time. He got up and drew the curtains.
The window of his bed-sitter did not open directly onto the outside, but onto a veranda similar to the one directly opposite, where the dogs were barking. Since he had been living there, the veranda outside Anton L.'s window had been full of useless objects - old, dusty household appliances and other jumble. Sometimes, when his landlord, Herr Hommer, had given her another of his lectures about keeping the house clean and tidy, Frau Hommer would spend a day or two desperately trying to clear up the mess on the veranda. Since, however, she was too afraid of Herr Hommer to throw anything, even the most useless objects, away, her efforts were more or less vain. More recently- since Herr Hommer had retired the previous autumn to be precise - Frau Hommer's task had been rendered even more difficult by the fact that Herr Hommer kept an iguana in a terrarium on the veranda. It was hard to say which Frau Hommer was more afraid of, her husband or the iguana.
The veranda windows were uncleaned and covered in grime. Through a pane that was slightly less dirty Anton L. could see the veranda across the street. The bigger dog was standing at the window, its front paws on the windowledge. Immediately it disappeared and the barking modulated to a whimper.
Now his alarm clock went off. Anton L. took his toilet bag and towel and went to the bathroom. There were no washing facilities in his room, but Anton L. had the right to use the bathroom according to a precisely drawn up timetable, of which Herr Hommer, at that time still employed in a senior administrative post, had handed him a written copy when they signed the tenancy agreement.
The arrangement was pedantic, but not ungenerous. Anton L. did not even make use of all the available time his landlord had allocated him, although one has to take into account the fact that he had a very individual attitude to cleanliness. Anton L. was what one might call an intermittent cleanaholic. At irregular intervals, which could be as long as six months but were never shorter than four weeks, he was seized with the need to cleanse himself. He would spend whole weekends, or several days' holiday, in the public baths (the facilities offered by the Hommers were natually inadequate to satisfy the demands of such excessive periods of self-ablution), taking hot baths, cold baths, steam baths, shower baths, bubble baths, saltwater baths, mineral baths; he had massages, manicures, pedicures, went to the sauna, used scrubbing brushes, sea-cucumbers, aloe-vera gloves [?], lay back in the bath studying sodden brochures on new medicinal cleansing products, underwent scalp massages and skin compresses and sometimes even colonic irrigation. Once this period of excessive cleansing was over, Anton L. restricted himself for, as we said, up to six months, to a minimal daily routine of a brief brushing of his teeth, shaving and washing his fingertips. During such times Anton L. did not change his underwear either, with the result that he gradually started -there's no other word for it- to smell, especially since he also used to sleep in his underwear.
Anton L. had been fired from both a job in a bank (four years ago) and a job with a travel agency (two years ago) because of his smell. (He had left a position with a publisher for other reasons which we will go into later.) He wasn't sorry about the bank, but he would have liked to stay with the travel agent's. He had therefore blushingly tried to explain to his boss how pleasant, even comforting it was to keep to the same unwashed underwear. With time, Anton L. had said, your underwear reached a degree of softness impossible for clean underwear. It became part of you. You became part of it. You had a feeling of invulnerability, Anton L. said. His boss was unimpressed.
For two years now Anton L. had been working at the Tax Office. They have clients who would still only come reluctantly even if the civil servant in charge of their case smelt of all the perfumes of Arabia. The head of the Tax Office hardly ever saw Anton L. so was never confronted with his smell. Now and then a colleague who shared an office with him would complain; if he complained loudly enough and persistently enough, either he or Anton L. would be moved to another room. That did not bother Anton L. He was not interested in social contact with his colleagues, whom he regarded - with a certain justification, it must be said - as his intellectual inferiors.
Later, on the Friday or Saturday when Anton L. had had time to think about the matter, he said to himself: Who knows, my smell might have protected me from the catastrophe. Who knows . . .
All was quiet in the apartment. That was not a cause for concern, but it was unusual at that early hour. Normally Frau Hommer got up before Anton L. and would scurry round the apartment (with the exception of his bed-sitting-room, of course), going about her mysterious business. He often wondered whether this constant scurrying - which meant that the image people had of her in their minds was always fuzzy, slightly out of focus, so to speak - whether this constant scurrying was congenital. Or did she scurry around to provide a less clear, moving target for her husband's anger? If that was the case, then it was wasted effort; the sound waves of Herr Hommer's commands were sufficient to reach a woman even if she was scurrying. Since his retirement Herr Hommer had got into the habit of having a long lie-in every morning, but even from his bed he was well able to keep his wife on the move. Her scurrying became a wasp-like buzz, bringing the woman back into sharper focus, when the retired senior council official left his bed in order to celebrate - there is no other word for it - the completion of the digestive cycle. That took place with precise regularity every morning shortly before half past seven, when Anton L. - on working days - was about to leave for the office. Herr Hommer would emerge from the conjugal bedroom, attired in a Turkish dressing gown with a gold cord, swing the tassel and say in an astonished tone - every morning - as if the encounter were a great coincidence, 'Ah, Herr L.' and - every morning - 'A very good morning to you,' adding - every morning - in an urbane baritone, 'I'm off to plant some cacktuses.' Naturally the details of precisely what went on behind the lavatory door were unknown to Anton L. The planting of the cacktuses lasted a long time. From his days off he knew that Herr Hommer - who weighed himself before and after planting his cacktuses - returned to his bed with the newspaper in hsi hand and a pensive look on his face, and that beforehand, while he was still in the lavatory, a bowl of warm soda water had to be handed in to him.
- Where can the old woman be today? Anton L. wondered. He could not imagine that she had overslept. She had never overslept. Could she be ill? He tried to imagine Frau Hommer dying. There was no other way it could be: one day she would scurry out and down the three flights of stairs, scurry along like a puff of air to the cemetery, past two nonplussed coffin bearers and into an open coffin, that happened to be lying around, and close it over her, like a mussel closing its shell. That was the only way she could protect herself from the anger that could reach beyond death with which her husband would be seized. Who would warm up his soda water for him now?
When, shortly after a quarter to seven, Antol L. vacated the bathroom and once more crossed the corridor to return to his room, there was still no sight nor sound of Frau Hommer.
Anton L. got dressed. According to his written tenancy agreement, he had the right to a kettle of hot water between seven and half past eight. In this, too, Anton L. waived a large part of his entitlement. He put two teaspoons of instant coffee in a tumbler and took it to the kitchen. Still not a sound in the apartment. He put the kettle, a very old inhabitant of the Hommers' kitchen, sixteen-sided (that is, almost round but not quite), whose metal had long since gone dull, on the gas stove. Anton L. knew his way around, even when Frau Hommer was not there.
While the water was heating, Anton L. went out onto the balcony, which was accessible from the kitchen. The whimpering of the dogs on the veranda of the house diagonally opposite had grown even more pitiful. It was a clear, sunny day. The line of sight along which the iguana was looking was at an exact tangent to Anton L.'s head. It was a beautiful animal, a large iguana. Only a superficial observer could have called it 'green'. As the first bubbles appeared in the sixteen-sided kettle, Anton L. watched the animal in the clear rays of the morning sun. Its body shimmered with all possible shades of the colour green, just like a broad-leaved forest damp with the dew of a summer morning, from almost yellow to almost blue. The iguana's name was Sonja. It had originally been Ernst, until an iguana specialist had pointed out to Herr Hommer that it was a female. - Can the Hommers have gone away? On holiday? Anton L. wondered. All the time he had lived there the Hommers had never gone away. They couldn't, they always said, because of their daughter. And if they had, who was going to feed Sonja? Surely they'd have left a note for Anton L. But: yesterday evening the Hommers had gone to bed before Anton L. That they would get up again into order to sneak out of the house and go away, was highly unlikely. One can, of course, leave very early in the morning, at five o'clock, for example, but that will inevitably, especially with people like the Hommers, who were not accustomed to travelling, cause some noise. Anton L. would have heard it.
The water boiled. Anton L. poured the boiling water onto the coffee in the tumbler. It broke. The hot water - or was it already coffee? - spilt over Anton L.'s left knee and down his shin. His hot, wet trousers wrapped themselves round his leg. He took them off - in the kitchen! Standing there in his yellowing underpants, he thought, - How fortunate the Hommers aren't here. Herr Hommer was, as he often emphasised, a free thinker, but he was also a stickler for morality. He would never have allowed his wife to see him, that is her husband, Hommer himself, in his underpants, much less their lodger. It might even have led to his immediate separation from wife and lodger.
Anton L. ran to the bathroom, dried himself (according to his sub-tenancy agreement he was entitled to one hook in the bathroom hanging space; towels he had to provide himself), then went to his room and put on another pair of trousers. If he insisted on having a cup of coffee he would be late for work.
'There's no way I'm going without my coffee,' he told himself. This was the point at which the thought first flashed through his mind that he might possibly be ill.
The tumbler he had broken was the last one he possessed.
He went back into the kitchen. Still no sound from the rest of the apartment. They really have gone away, thought Anton L. He grew bold. He took one of the Hommers' cups out of the cupboard, spooned some more instant coffee (from his own jar) into it and put more water on.
While he was waiting for it boil, he cleaned the floor. Then he made his coffee and - taking another liberty, this was not part of his contractual entitlement - sat down at the kitchen table.
They did go to bed before me, he thought. He had spent the previous evening with the Hommers in their living room. Of course that was not part of his entitlement either. He had been invited. The ex-council officer liked to have company when he was watching television. It was his habit to explain what was going on on the screen - not to comment on it, to explain it, as if the others could not see it. It was a habit that quickly got on one's nerves, but Anton L. never said anything. At most he would occasionally, with profuse apologies and excuses, refuse an invitation from the Hommers to watch television, but even that he only dared do at most once a week, not more often. Anton L. was afraid of Herr Hommer. That was something he had established, to his dismay, while pursuing his favourite pastime of analysing himself. Yes, he was afraid of Herr Hommer. Why? Anton L.'s self-analysis had not got that far. Herr Hommer, on the other hand, had taken a clear liking to Anton L. No one could fail to see how much better Herr Hommer treated his lodger than his wife.
The previous evening they had watched an episode of a fairly long series about the ups-and-downs of a rather extended English family. It was Herr Hommer's favourite programme. He had seen it years ago on Channel 1, then watched in on Channel 3 and was now enjoying the repeat on Austrian Television, that the Hommers could get thanks to a special aerial on the roof. The relationships of the English family were so tangled that a genealogical table had to be shown at the beginning and end of each episode, sometimes even during the transmission. After every three or four episodes a special background programme was put on in which professional genealogists explained the developments within the family. Herr Hommer had also bought a booklet with family trees, which the broadcasting company had had the foresight to publish when the series was first shown.
The previous evening the granddaughter of the oldest member of the family had married a cousin three times removed. The cousin's uncle was having an affair with his brother's wife who, for her part, was a niece of the very oldest elder of the family, who had died during the early episodes. A brother of the current head of the family found out about it, but went bankrupt, which for the moment prevented him from following the matter up. A son of this brother murdered his wife - or his sister, it happened very quickly and was not quite clear to Anton L. - and the sister of the granddaughter mentioned at the beginning ran off with her piano teacher. The piano teacher (or the bankrupt uncle, that, too, was unclear) had an illegitimate child by a duchess. Unrelated to the family - and therefore not included in the genealogical tables - was a butler who appeared frequently, usually carrying a silver tea-pot on a tray.
After the programme Herr Hommer, already in his Turkish dressing gown with the golden cord, had switched off the television, without asking his guest if he would like to watch something else, and gone to plant his evening cacktuses. Unlike his morning, midday and afternoon cacktuses, his evening planting was not done by the clock, by depended on the end of the television programme Herr Hommer was interested in. That Herr Hommer would have got dressed again after having planted his evening cacktuses, in order to go away, seemed highly unlikely to Anton L.
As usual Frau Hommer had scurried in and out of the living room from time to time the previous evening and stared at the television as she gave a bowl, the lampstand or a chair a wipe with her apron - given the circumstances, it was presumably impossible that she had the slightest idea of the family's tangled affairs; then she had heated up the soda water and scurried off to bed shortly after her husband. (That Anton L. had deduced from the fact that he could not hear her scurrying round any more.)
Their daughter emerged only rarely, if at all. The reason was her illness. She was called Marianne and had an allergy, which nothing could cure, to clothing. One of the conditions Herr Hommer had inserted in the sub-let was that the lodger should neither take offence at nor derive carnal pleasure from the fact that his daughter always appeared unclothed. Marianne never went out of the house, understandably, and every effort was made to avoid her having to leave her room. There were times, of course, when that was unavoidable. When he first moved in, Anton L. met her now and then in the corridor. Since he showed no visible signs either of carnal pleasure, or of taking offence, Herr Hommer's embarrassment gradually disappeared. (From the very beginning Marianne showed no signs of embarrassment.) The result was that for some time now Marianne had been allowed to join them watching television once or twice a week. She would sit naked on the sofa, and Anton L. took advantage of the fact that Herr Hommer stared at the television set to stare at his somewhat plump but not unattractive daughter. Given that situation, it was hardly surprising that he missed a lot of the circumstances surrounding the English family's strife.
Marianne had not been present the previous evening. Could she have suddenly overcome her allergy, perhaps at five o'clock in the morning, and could the Hommers, overjoyed at this development, have decided on the spur of the moment to take advantage of an improvement which might be only temporary, and gone out for a walk?
It was seven thirty-five. Anton L. had finished his coffee. It was his standard breakfast, he didn't start feeling hungry until ten o'clock. Then he would get two rolls - one with sliced sausage, one with cheese - and a glass of apple juice from the canteen or, rather, from the makeshift stall the woman who leased the canteen set up in the cellar. The canteen proper did not open until half past eleven.
Anton L. went back out onto the veranda. During the hour that had passed Sonja had not moved. He approached the tangential stare and regarded the animal. A thin fold of skin of remarkable size hung down from its - or, rather, her chin to her feet. There was a little disc pulsating behind her ears, at least behind the place where you would look for the ears on a normal animal. Seven forty. If Anton L. were to leave immediately he would arrive late, but not so late that a superior would notice.
Anton L. was also an intermittent hypochondriac. At irregular intervals he would suddenly find himself suffering from imaginary ailments. His periods of hypochondria did not coincide with his periods of excessive cleansing, though they did sometimes overlap. Whenever Anton L. found himself in one of his sick phases, every cold wind - but also every warm wind - was a threat to his health. He would get an invisible rash under the skin from a particular kind of vegetable, for example, or intervertebral spasms from fastening up his trousers too tightly. Various mucous membranes required special care. Worst of all, though, was the swelling of the solar plexus, a condition which he had developed out of a number of other ailments after studying various popular medical handbooks, especially a treatise on Astrological Medicine. He treated his ailments with various naturopathic remedies, for example by wearing two pairs of socks, by closing every window that was open and opening every one that was closed, or by turning off every radiator that was on and turning on every one that was off, but above all by taking it as an insult when people did not notice that he was unwell. The worst excesses of this were, of course, visited on the clients who had the misfortune to be interviewed by Anton L. during such periods, but those who suffered most were the colleagues who shared an office with him. Since Anton L.'s ailments were not recognised by the blinkered practitioners of orthodox medicine, or only rarely, he was not granted a doctor's certificate and therefore almost always had to go to work during his intermittent periods of ill health. In the course of time those who shared an office with him - as mentioned before, they changed frequently - had developed several strategies for dealing with Anton L.'s ailments, which he naturally described in great detail and at great length. Some simply ignored his accounts by pretending not to hear. Others cracked jokes and one - this made Anton L. seriously angry - caught the diseases off him, so to speak, had the same subcutaneous rash and swellings of the solar plexus, and trumped Anton L. with his fungal infection of the nervous system.
Shortly after he got up Anton L. had sensed an ominous grumbling in his solar plexus. Now, at a quarter to eight, the certainty that he was going to be ill again started to flood through him. - I'm not going to the Tax Office today, he said to himself. (One day's absence without a sick-note was permitted.) I'll phone them.
The telephone was in the living room. Anton L. knocked on the door, just to be sure. Not a sound. He went in. The curtains were still drawn. Having gone into the room without being invited, Anton L. did not dare open the curtains. He could not bring himself to. So he switched the light on. Nothing happened. He flicked the switch up and down a few times. The light did not go on, so he opened the curtains after all. The telephone was on Herr Hommer's desk, which Herr Hommer seldom used. (He wrote one letter of condolence a year, perhaps two, otherwise he wrote nothing at all.) The desk was an item from surplus Tax Office stock which Herr Hommer had bought, for Herr Hommer had also worked in the Tax Office. (That was how Anton L. had found the room with the Hommers. It was also the reason why Herr Hommer had set aside his principle of only taking female lodgers.) The telephone was the only object on the large, heavy, dark desk. Apart, that is, from a thin brochure beside it: the genealogical tables of the English family on the television.
Anton L. knew the Tax Office number off by heart. He picked up the receiver. There was no dialling tone. He jiggled the rest several times - nothing. Despite that, he tried the Tax Office number. The line remained dead. - And that for a sick man with his solar plexus starting to swell. Anton L. replaced the receiver. The fact that the telephone wasn't working might be connected with the power cut. It was almost eight o'clock already, too late for Anton L. to change his mind and go to work after all. He would have to go down to the telephone box. He grasped the cord to draw the curtains again, then paused. His eye fell on the other door in the living room, the one he had not come in through. This other door was the one to Marianne's room. He went over to it on tiptoe and knocked. No reply. He had never been in that room. Slowly he turned the handle. It was dark in the room, but he could make out a bed opposite the door. It was empty. Anton L. went in. There was no one there. The bed had obviously been slept in, but now it was empty.
Well, well, Anton L. thought to himself. So they must have gone out for a walk after all. Or perhaps they take their daughter - naked - out every night, as that's the only way she can get some fresh air? Maybe they got lost today? No, Herr Hommer would never get lost. Perhaps they'd gone too far and it was too late to get back before dawn, so they'd have to spend the whole day hiding in the meadows by the river? And a good half an hour ago Herr Hommer would have had to plant his cacktuses in the open air - without warm soda water, not even with cold soda water . . . Or perhaps a policeman had caught the three of them and arrested them for behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. Anton L. almost felt it would serve Herr Hommer right.
Anton L. went back to his room, put on a second pair of socks and left the apartment. On the second floor, in the apartment of the woman who owned the building, Irma, the Alsatian, was barking. Irma, a fat Alsatian whose mouse-coloured coat had yellowish patches of mange, jumped up against the door when it heard Anton L. go past. That means she can't be looking out today, he thought. Frau Schwarzenbšck, who owned the building, was in the habit of peering out through the spyhole in her door at the busier times of day. Her cleaner, a dwarf, peered out through the letter box, which was lower.
When Anton L. came out into the street, all hell broke loose. Dogs started barking in every flat in the street. - I've never heard that before. Who would have thought there were so many dogs . . . What can be wrong with them?
The telephone box was not far from the house, in a park which, lower down, merged with the meadows bordering the river where the Hommer family was possibly even now in hiding. Anton L. went in, lifted the receiver and put two ten-pfennig coins into the slot. That telephone was dead too. The two coins were returned.
- Very strange, thought Anton L.
It was only when he was back in the flat that it occurred to him that he had seen no one. He had not gone very far but, still, the road he had crossed was normally busy.