Erhard von BÃ¼ren
Copyright Â© 2015 Erhard von BÃ¼ren
Translated by Helen Wallimann
. Zytglogge Verlag, Bern 1989
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Death, that most dreaded of evils, is of no concern to us; for as long as we exist, death is not come, and when death is come we are not. And so it is as nothing, either to the living or to the dead; for with the living it is not, and the dead exist no longer.
We gave the hand-knitted pullover, the wallet and the summer jacket he'd bought in the spring to Naef. The wallet still smelled of new leather.
We gave the five bottles of wine and the two bottles of schnapps to Naef and Schertenleib. We left the shirts, the socks and the handkerchiefs there too; let the people in the home do what they liked with them. We stuffed the rest of the clothes into plastic bags; most of them were dirty, worn out.
Everything else fitted into two cardboard boxes. Now the boxes are down in the basement, on a stool at the back of our section. The photographs and the postcards still have a strong smell of cigarette smoke.
It was snowing the Saturday afternoon we drove out to Breitmoos to clear the cupboard in his room in the old people's home. The snow was wet and fell in large flakes. The whole week had been like that, snow alternating with rain.
Naef told us where Father had kept his things. From his wicker chair near the door he watched us as we cleared the shelves. Pants, vests, worn-out shoes, a stained raincoat, his jacket, caps; lots of socks, shirts and handkerchiefs.
The light was on in the room. Schertenleib was sitting on his bed, his back to us. Outside, whitish twilight. The empty chair near the window.
We hurried. I didn't know what to do with the underwear and the clothes. I felt uncomfortable about leaving everything there; I felt uncomfortable about taking everything home. Sophie sorted the things. She stacked the socks and the ironed shirts and handkerchiefs on the table. She put the underwear into one of the bags we'd brought along.
Naef was pleased with the pullover. “Haller never wore it,” he said. “A woman from Riederen gave it to him. For St Nicholas' Day.” He tried it on, a dark green pullover with a red triangular pattern on the front. He set the wallet down beside him on the bedspread. “A pity Haller never had the chance to use it himself.”
Now the old wallet is in one of the boxes along with the photographs and the postcards. Last spring Father had already said he'd have to buy himself a new one soon, since the old one had holes in two places and his money was always jingling around in his pocket. If he ever had a hole in his pocket he'd lose everything.
The manager wasn't in. A young employee showed us where we could put the full rubbish bags. She thanked us for clearing up.
Sophie had borrowed the car from Mrs KÃ¶ppel. We wouldn't have needed a car. We could have managed with just a suitcase.
Before driving back to town we went over to the LÃ¶wen for a cup of coffee. The landlady shook hands with us across the table. Unfortunately, she said, she hadn't been able to come to the cremation.
His letter: “My dears, the doctor had to operate on that thing on my back. It's not quite healed yet. But it'll soon be better. I need a couple of new vests, three or four, can't get them myself at the moment. Please send, medium size. Loveâ¦”
The letter arrived on a Friday. The following Sunday we drove out to Breitmoos.
The two other men were also in the room. Father took us to the day room over in the new building. A woman was making herself a cup of tea in the corner; there was no one else there. We sat down at one of the tables in the front near the windows. A grey day.
Yes, he said, he'd taken our advice and had had that sore on his back dressed. With the stuff she, Sophie, had bought him three weeks ago at the chemists. They'd treated it for a couple of days. It had seemed to him to be healing all right. Anyway it didn't itch as much as it had. That ointment must have been the right thing. But then one day it was Mrs Christen, the woman who sometimes helped out at the home, who came to renew the dressing. She wouldn't do it, simply refused. That's something for the doctor, she'd said, she wasn't going to touch anything like that without a doctor having seen it. So the very same day the manager's wife had taken him to see Dr LÃ¤tt.
“And I lay flat on my belly on the doctor's couch and LÃ¤tt cut it out. He asked me if I wanted him to cut out the little lump next to it. I told him to take everything out while he was at it. And now I have to go there every other day. He wants to dress the sore himself: he always swabs it and puts on a new plaster. Sometimes he gives me medicine to take back for the sick people in the home. Saves him having to go himself.”
Sophie asked him what the doctor thought it was.
Oh, it was obvious that the doctor didn't know. First he'd said something about skin cancer. He'd looked at Father's back and had made a strange face. But then he'd said that it probably wasn't serious and that he, Haller, certainly wouldn't die of it; after all he was tough. No, he'd said, it probably wasn't cancer, perhaps shingles or something like that. On the other hand, as far as he could see, that was unlikely too. â LÃ¤tt was just an old gasbag, said Father; he himself knew perfectly well what had caused the ulcer. It had come up just where his belt pinched, the leather belt the shoemaker had mended last year. The boil had come up on the very spot where the four new studs were. Whenever he'd bent down â something he often had to do in his job â his trousers had been pulled down a bit, and the belt had stayed up with the four studs pressing on his bare skin. That's how it had happened, he knew. It was just a kind of boil, and the scab kept being scratched off. Finally the doctor had admitted that he might well be right and that it was quite possible that the damage had been caused by his belt studs â that or something else. That's what LÃ¤tt had said.
“I don't want to grumble. He cut it out very nicely. He gave me an injection, I hardly felt a thing. He's good at little operations like that, enjoys doing a bit of snipping. And now he's looking after it. I have to go every other day and he replaces the dressing himself. He's really going to a lot of trouble for my little sore.”
Sophie asked him if he needed anything else besides the vests.
No thanks, he had everything he needed for the moment. It was just a nuisance having to go to Weiermatten every other day. Of course it wasn't far, but it usually made him lose a whole afternoon; sometimes he had to wait a solid hour for the bus. He wouldn't say anything if there was a pub in Weiermatten, but there was no pub in Weiermatten. He couldn't understand how a doctor could open a surgery in such a dump where there wasn't even a pub.
Meanwhile two men had come into the day room and had sat down nearby. One of them was so short that when he was seated his feet didn't reach the floor. The other one chewed on an empty pipe.
When Father mentioned the lack of a pub they both glanced in our direction. The short-legged man smirked and made some remark I couldn't understand.
Father stared at him. “Any objections?”
He had no objections.
Sophie laid a hand on Father's arm. “It's okay,” she said soothingly, pursing her lips, nodding.
Talk about the weather.
“Foggy,” confirmed the man with the pipe.
We looked out of the window.
“It's nice to be in the warm,” said the short-legged man.
“Fiddlesticks,” said Father. “It's boring.”
In the weeks that followed I visited him out in Breitmoos from time to time. Or I phoned him. His mood worsened.
When I rang him at the home one Sunday in the early evening the woman said he wasn't in. He often spent Sunday afternoons in the LÃ¶wen, she said, and I should try there.
Budmiger, the landlord, answered. Yes, Haller was there. Should he call him?
It took some time for Father to get to the phone. I heard him come along the corridor. He shouted something back to the pub â it sounded like a curse.
“Ah, it's you,” he said. Yes, he was fine. Except for LÃ¤tt â LÃ¤tt had always been and still was a quack. All that swabbing and dressing had lasted quite long enough. He had no time for such nonsense; he had more important things to do. He wanted to get back to work at long last. He needed his work. He wondered if it had really been necessary to cut out the boil. It would probably have healed by itself. And it certainly wouldn't have taken any longer than it did with all that doctoring. If anything, it had got worse; his whole back was itching again. Before he'd had the operation it had stopped itching. And the mess in his bed! They had to change the sheets almost every day. It came through the dressing no matter how often the doctor changed it. Besides, could his doctorship please show him how anyone could lie down in bed with a dressing like that on his back! Enough's enough; he really had to get down to work on the fountain. Estermann had already come by twice to ask him when he was going to start. He'd also promised Adam â last autumn, that was â he'd promised him that he'd get out his tooth chisel and start broaching the windowsills as soon as it got warmer. Now it all had to wait because of that bump on his back. Just sitting around all day was not his thing. It was already March now, he had to get out. Besides, he needed the pocket money.
He'd drunk too much.
Anyway, everything LÃ¤tt said was tripe. One moment he'd say one thing, the next it was something else. First he'd say he wanted to send him to town to see Briner, a skin doctor; then he'd be talking of the hospital and radiotherapy and goodness knows what else besides. Then he'd say they'd have to wait until the sore had healed. But what he, Haller, said was that he'd waited long enough, damn it all!
I asked him if he wanted me to phone LÃ¤tt for him.
Not worth it, said Father.
Should I go along with him next time he went to the doctor's?
He could stand up for himself. He'd tell him what was what, and that was for sure. Someone like that wasn't a doctor. A moron, that's what he was!
I let him talk, didn't say much myself.
It was nice of me to have phoned, he said. His back was sure to get better, he added. Not to worry. But it was taking a long time to heal. And that got on his nerves.
Every time I phoned him he thanked me. And each time he told me to give Sophie his love.
Usually I was already awake when the alarm jangled. I switched it off and got dressed in the bathroom â let Sophie sleep another quarter of an hour. In the kitchen, which was separated from the bedroom by the sitting room and the corridor, I wouldn't disturb her.
The early morning news. Perhaps I only got up so as to be able to listen to the news on my own. There was hardly ever anything new that had happened during the night.
The din of heavy traffic came up from the Allmendstrasse. I put water to boil on the gas stove, prepared the filter, took butter and milk out of the fridge. As soon as the coffee was made, the table set, I went to wake Sophie. Those practical double beds with twin mattresses!
It's not the done thing for a manager's secretary to appear at the office unshowered or without make-up. By the time she sat down opposite me at the kitchen table I'd already started on my breakfast. She turned down the volume of the seven o'clock news: she was allergic to loud radio. She never had anything but black coffee for breakfast, two cups. I spread butter on my bread. I'd much rather have had fried potatoes, but she'd always felt almost sick at the sight of me eating so hungrily early in the morning.
“Bye, see you at lunchtime.”
And she was gone.
Under normal circumstances I'd have left too.
Instead, I lay down again; I made the bed first, then lay down in my clothes on the bedspread. I'd brought the transistor from the kitchen. I listened to the news a third time; nothing new had happened since the first.
I daresay Sophie thought I did the housework as soon as she left. There wasn't much housework to do.
In fact, I've no idea what Sophie thought. Probably she didn't waste any time thinking about what I might or might not be doing while she was at the office sorting through the incoming mail, answering the phone for Fritschi, writing letters. It was I who'd begun to wonder what she might think I did all morning.
But that's not the point.
The beer garden. Sunshine. Bird droppings on the round metal tables, chicken droppings on the gravel. They were very busy inside. Cars parked all along the road. The local savings bank was holding its annual general meeting: tradesmen, small factory owners, farmers. Budmiger had left the tables out during the winter. They were rusty. Some of the chairs were broken.
The waitress came out and sat down at our table.
“The banquet will soon be starting,” she said. “At the moment there's still someone making a speech.”
She lit a cigarette. “Time to take a breather,” she said. “Budmiger's been shouting around in the kitchen all morning and getting in everyone's way. Lucky I don't have to work here every day.” She was only helping out, a woman of about fifty, her face covered with freckles.
She and Father told me what had happened at the previous annual general meeting. It had been held in the big room on the first floor, not like this year when it was down in the main restaurant and in the back room. Oh yes, they'd always had the meal, the so-called convivial second part of the meeting, downstairs; but the annual report, the speeches, etc., had been upstairs, that year as in all the previous years. And then it had happened. After the end of the formal part of the meeting, just as everyone was barging toward the door to get down to the ready-laid tables as quickly as possible, the balcony with the outdoor staircase collapsed. They'd smelled the smoked ham, said Father. The stampede had been too much for the rotting beams. No, nobody had actually fallen through. They'd noticed just in time that the balcony was shaky. But at least half the people had had to climb out through a window and down a ladder to get to their “Bernerplatte”.
“And what are they having today?” asked Father.
“I'll give you two guesses,” said the woman.
“With sauerkraut, of course.”
When was that exactly? Not the collapse of the balcony, but the conversation in the beer garden when the two of them, the woman with the freckled face and Father, told me about it. Both of them were smoking. She had put on a cardigan and was keeping an eye on the back door of the LÃ¶wen. There was no one else sitting outside. Father had ordered coffee with schnapps; the woman had brought us the two glasses and later she'd sat down at our table. It must have been April. Only a few blades of grass dotted the scruffy ground. The horse chestnut and the lime tree were bare. Father was wearing his grey cap and a thick pullover under his jacket. We were sitting in the sun. There was no wind. It must have been a Saturday afternoon in April.
“Well, I suppose I'd better be getting back,” said the woman, stubbing out her cigarette. “Would you like to order anything else?” “Two coffees with kirsch,” said Father. And to me, “You'll take another, won't you?”
“The coffee here's good, you know,” he added after the woman had gone. “As to the restâ¦,” he snorted, “I just wonder why people come here for meals. If it weren't for Mrs Budmiger the place would have had to close ages ago.”
Out of the way, run down. It wasn't only the balcony that was unsound, he said, the whole building was decrepit. Once in a while they'd do some repairs to the roof. And again it was the landlady who organised the workmen and kept an eye on things. Her husband just talked, walked around the pub with a glass of red wine in his hand chatting up the guests. If there were any guests.
The metal tables, their paint peeling. Chairs with plastic string seats and backs. Glaring sunlight. Voices and the clatter of dishes coming from the house.
Chickens all around, setting one foot down in front of the other as they pecked at the ground, heads moving jerkily; they looked up sideways with beady eyes. Tree shadows patterned the ground.
Father at the table, short and stocky. His cap pulled down over his forehead. One hand beside the half-filled glass, a small powerful hand.
How was the sore on his back, I'd asked right at the beginning. “Healing,” he'd said, grumpily. “But now three new lumps have come up right next to it.”
He didn't seem to be interested in talking about it. The only thing that mattered was that at long last he could get back to work. On Monday Estermann was to pick him up from the old people's home.
It hadn't been Estermann's idea, it had been his own. And he'd already made one of those small fountains last summer, for the garden of a house Estermann had built.
He explained his work. He used lots of different stones â waste material from the SpÃ¤ti quarry â to make the fountain. He cut the stones into shape; the bricklayer made a reinforced concrete plinth, and the four sides of the fountain were built up on this plinth using the stones he'd shaped; finally the whole basin was lined with cement mortar.