PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
I’ve just installed the telephone I found up in the loft, a simple,
light-grey device with a dial and no technical frippery – no
stand-by mode, no screen, no integrated photocopier with ink
cartridges that can only be changed following instructions
in pictures, and, above all, no answerphone. Just a big, oldfashioned
receiver on a sturdy base that can be opened and
repaired by any layman with a simple screwdriver.
But when there’s a ring, it’s not this epitome of durability
and recyclability, that connected my parents to the world in
the ‘60s, but the snazzy, slim, sightly concave egosmart in my
pocket, of course, that curse on humanity that forces us to be
available anywhere, anytime, if we still want to be involved in
things. The fact that it emits the same old-fashioned ringtone
as my parents’ phone merely adds insult to injury.
I’m worried it might be someone from the Community
Association. I made the mistake of volunteering to join in the
local campaign to eradicate the invasive ‘killer rape’ that’s
growing rampant everywhere. But I know the face on the
display from somewhere – the profile of a bird of prey with
receding, greying hair and pouches under his unshaven chin –
though I can’t at first remember from where.
“Hi, Basti,” the face shouts, “it’s time again. You coming?”
Hardly anyone gives their name on the telephone any more.
The more tedious the person, the more they’re convinced that
their ugly mug has made an indelible impression everywhere. I shuggle the image over to the eighty-inch compunicator
over the sideboard, hoping that at least the caller’s name will
display, but nothing doing.
“It’s me – Norbert! Don’t tell me you didn’t recognise me?
Norbert Lanschick. Don’t you remember me?”
“Yes… of course… but you’ve…”
I leave long pauses between the words in the hope that
Norbert Lanschick will fill them.
“Ohlstedt School! Graduation 1981. Has the penny dropped
It has. Norbert – Nobby – Lanschick, in those days a spindleshanks
so skinny the girls all shouted “Biafra” when he went
past; above average marks in physics, below average, if any at
all, in sport; a bit childish as well, never a girlfriend. Today:
marathon runner, lawyer, husband, father, drives a BMW,
still boring, still thin, balding. Every five years he organises a
reunion for our year in Gasthof Ehrlich in order to allow the
witnesses of his wretched youth to become witnesses of his
wonderful transformation. Which doesn’t work, of course. You
can’t pull the wool over your classmates’ eyes any more than
you can over your brothers’ and sisters’. Even though Biafra
Lanschik brings his very presentable wife, no one can forget
how he used to wrap those incredibly long, thin legs sticking
out of his shorts round the asymmetrical bars and hung there
for ages between the upper and lower bars, head down like
some bizarre insect, trying to heave himself up with his stick
arms, all the while slipping down to the floor inch by inch.
“And there was me thinking you’d given them up…” I
said. Five years ago there hadn’t been a reunion. He must have
had a setback in his career. What’s he got to show us this time?
A new wife, a new car?
“I couldn’t manage last time,” Lanschick says with a quiver in his voice, “my partner died. It really hit me. We’d had the
chambers together for thirty years, you understand? I spent
more time with him than with my wife. Since then I’ve had to
do everything myself.”
The vulture face, blown up to four times life-size on the
compunicator screen, tries to hide a self-satisfied grin. A
complexion like the skin on porridge. He looks old – old, old,
old. How can a man let himself go like that?
“But this time I’m doing it again. If I don’t, nobody will.
Do you realise this is the fiftieth anniversary class reunion?
Should I book a room for you?”
“No, I don’t need a room,” I say. “I’m back in Wellingstedt.”
“Wellingstedt? Where? Surely not with your parents?”
Lanschick makes his braying laugh. “Since when?”
“I’ve been here four years now,” I say. “And my parents are
dead. I’m just living here in the house.”
When things around me started to disintegrate, my wife
left me and took the children away, when it became clear that
global warming had already passed every tipping point and the
official state feminism wouldn’t make any difference to that,
when my favourite pub burnt down and my vision became so
poor I could only read the newspaper holding it at arm’s length
– which didn’t really matter because the last quality printed
newspaper closed down – when first my mother and then my
father died out of pure wilfulness, and my brother and sister
kept going on at me to hand over the house in which we’d
grown up to an incredibly oily estate agent, I sold everything
that was at all saleable, took out a loan, paid off my brother,
had laser treatment for my eyes and let my hair grow again,
packed my toothbrush and a couple of pairs of underpants in
a sports bag and went back to the place where I’d spent the
happiest years of my life. “Actually it’s not a bad location at all,” Lanschick says
patronisingly, “I’ve even thought about it myself.”
By now Wellingstedt is regarded as a superior residential
area for young families with a high income and poseurs like
Lanschick. A low crime rate, only two asylum-seekers’ hostels
– and very well integrated ones at that – green woods, a brown
river winding its way through the terminal moraine and only
twenty kilometres from the centre of Hamburg.
In the late fifties tradesmen and clerks had built their houses
on plots which a not very farsighted farmer had let them have for
an incredibly low life annuity. Among them were my parents,
who mixed concrete and brought in bricks in a wheelbarrow
after work. Once all the access roads had been tarmacked,
better-off people moved in and built their spacious flat-roofed
bungalows right next to the red-brick hipped-roof houses with
the coloured glass bricks. And naturally we, the children of
electricians and detergent salesmen, went to school together
with the children of bank managers and directors of insurance
companies, paddled with them in the Alster in the summer and
fought battles in which often-repaired inflatable dinghies faced
canoes of Canadian cedar. As a matter of course we finished
our schooling together under a social-liberal coalition – a brief
window of social justice had opened up, an anomaly of history
that had never before existed and presumably never will again.
In those days there were toads there, kingfishers and otters,
and even today you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of a
sparrow or a rabbit. Wellingstedt has undergone great changes,
of course. The conifers planted in the gardens in the sixties have
grown so tall that now the gardens look like Böcklin’s Isles of
the Dead. Moreover the place is gradually but inevitably being
gentrified. Estate agents are prowling up and down outside the
last little houses where the remaining indigenous population is quietly muddling along. And whenever one of those houses
is free, it’s torn down and replaced with a monstrosity of a
Tuscan-style villa on the site that is too small for it, because
for some reason or other a Tuscan villa can be built with two
stories without contravening the building regulations that only
allow one-storied buildings.
“The building itself isn’t worth anything at all,” said the
estate agent my brother had engaged to put a value on our
parents house that was to his own advantage. “On the contrary,
you have to deduct the demolition costs from the value of the
land – but that’s still five hundred thousand euros cash down,
north euros, of course.”
Property prices have gone through the roof. Which is
why the wool shop and the barn I used to pass on my way to
school have long since disappeared. The rather grubby riding
stables are now a sports hotel and the strawberry fields, where
decades ago I used to gather little sandy fruits, warm from the
sun, in a wicker basket, have been transformed into a twentyseven-
hole golf course. In the next village a koi-breeder has
set up business. And on top of that there’s a Michelin-starred
restaurant there and two ‘design for living’ shops. My past is
disintegrating like a sugar cube in the rain.
“Did your wife move with you?” Lanschick’s huge face
asks. “I mean, she must have to be there in Berlin, she can’t
keep commuting back and forth. How are you managing that?”
I don’t reply. I decide to leave him on tenterhooks for a
while until the truth dawns on him.
“Oh my God,” Lanschick says. “How stupid can I be! You
must excuse me, I’d just forgotten. What a blundering oaf I
am. Has there been any news, a clue, I mean? I’m sorry, I
really am sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “it’s more than two years ago. Anyway, we’d already separated. The divorce had come through ages
Lanschick mumbles several times what an idiot he is and
doesn’t stop apologising.
“Right then,” I say, to try and cut things short. “Now tell me
who’s going to be there at the reunion. Have many confirmed
they’re coming? Will Bernie and Rolf be there?”
“Yes, both of them. They always come.”
“And the women? Kiki Vollert and Elisabeth Westphal,
are they coming?” I ask in as casual a tone as I can manage.
Elisabeth Westphal is the woman I’ve never had. Elisabeth
Westphal is the reason why I go to the class reunions. I spent
half my young days longing for her. Today I still miss her, even
though by now I’ve become so accustomed to her absence,
that I mostly don’t notice it. Until the sight of a woman who
has a similar laugh or movements as Elli used to have brings
it all back to me.
“I’ve not got that far yet. I’m only at ‘L’. But Birgit
Lammert’s coming,” Lanschick replies.
“Good,” I say. “Great.”
I give him the number of my landline.
“Ring me on that number in future, not my mobile” – I
deliberately say mobile even though it’s only the real oldies
who say that now – “I’m going to deregister my mobile in a
“You can’t mean that seriously,” Lanschick says. “How are
people going to get in touch with you then? I couldn’t find
your email address. Fortunately Holger Hasselbladt had your
“I’ve had my email address deleted,” I say. “In three or four
months I’m going to throw my computer out and then I won’t
be using any technology that was invented after 1980. If you want to get in touch with me, there’s the landline or you can
write me a letter. Or you can come round. The old address: 12
Redderstieg. Same as before.”
“That’s crazy!” Lanschick says. “You can’t do that.”
He sounds outraged, but at the same time he also sounds
“Of course I can,” I say. “And don’t get the idea of
sending me letters with one of those cheap firms that pay their
employees four westos an hour – on zero-hours contracts as
well. If you want to send me something, then use the post,
otherwise I’ll refuse to accept it.”
Lanschick just can’t believe me, he thinks I’m having him
on, and when he realises I’m serious about it, he says it’s
probably just a phase I’m going through because everything’s
a bit too much for me at the moment.
“It happens to all of us,” he says.
But it isn’t a phase, it’s self-defence. And unless I’m very
wrong, self-defence is recognised in all the social systems
around the world as an exceptional situation justifying actions
that are otherwise not condoned. When it’s a matter of them
or us everything is permitted. Sometimes you just have to ask
other people to put up with a few inconveniences if you don’t
want to end up as a slave carrying out the orders of a tyrannical
machine dictatorship. And sometimes you have to destroy a
woman if you don’t want to be destroyed by her yourself.
And no, none of the neighbours has noticed anything.