The train journey from the city to Fernow, our property, was just as depressing as I had expected. It rained continuously, a fine drizzle falling at an angle that seemed to completely erase the summer. My father and I were alone in the carriage. My father didn’t speak to me, he simply ignored me. His head resting gently against the side of his seat, his eyes closed, as if he were sleeping. And when, from time to time, he lifted those heavy eyelids with their long curved eyelashes and looked at me, he raised his eyebrows, which was a sign of disdain. I sat opposite him, stretched out my legs and played with the tassels hanging from the the window blinds. I felt rather small and miserable. Through some scheme of the teachers, I had failed my final school exam. Given I was almost eighteen, this was a serious matter. Now it was said that I had been lazy, and instead of spending pleasant holidays with Mama and my siblings by the sea, I had to accompany my father, alone, to Fernow in order to catch up on the studies I had allegedly neglected, while he settled accounts and oversaw the harvest.
Not being allowed to go with the others was hard to swallow; a complete waste of the holidays. But far worse was having to spend the summer alone with my father. We children always felt awkward around him. He was often off on his travels, and whenever he returned, the house immediately had a different feel to it. Something of a holiday mood came into our lives, as though we had visitors. We had to dress for dinner with more care, the food was better, the servants more agitated. The rooms smelled of Egyptian cigarettes and strong English perfume. Mama had more colour than usual in her pale cheeks. At the dinner table, there was talk of far-away, exotic things, place names such as Obermustafa cropped up, people called Pellavicini. French was often spoken so that the servants were unable to understand. It was distinctly uncomfortable whenever my father fixed one of us with his grey-blue eyes. We felt that he was displeased with us. At such times, he also turned away, raised his eyebrows and said to Mama: “Mais c’est impossible, comme il mange, ce garçon!”. Then Mama would always blush on our behalf. And now I was to be alone with this stranger throughout a whole summer, sitting alone opposite him at the dinner table day after day! It would be hard to think of anything more unpleasant.
I carefully observed my father. For the first time, I realised how good-looking he was. The lines of his face were symmetrical, sharp and clear. The mouth under his moustache had thin, bright-red lips. On his forehead, between his eyebrows, there were three vertical lines, as if etched with a penknife. His shiny hair had curls, with just a touch of grey at the temples. And then there was his hand, like a woman’s. A gold bracelet jangled softly on his wrist. It was all attractive enough, but God! How unpleasant! I simply couldn’t bear to look any more. I closed my eyes. So was there no joy at all on the horizon this summer? Of course! There were the folk out in Warnow, just half an hour from Fernow. There’ll be more of the holiday feeling in the air over there; out there, everything was pretty and soft. My aunt, reclining on her little sofa, with her velvet dressing gown and her migraines. And the girls. Ellita was older, and far too unapproachable for someone like me to fall in love with. But at times, when she looked at me with her almond-shaped violet eyes, I felt warm inside. Gerda was my age, and it was her that I was in love with – and had been forever. When I thought about her shiny braids, and her small face, so tender that her blue eyes seemed almost violently dark, whenever I saw this vision of blue, pink and gold in front of me, the feeling in my chest was both painful and enjoyable. I had to take a deep breath.
“When we make a mistake, we pull ourselves together and accept the consequences,” I heard my father say. Startled, I opened my eyes. My father gazed at me in a bored manner, yawned discretely and remarked: “It is most disagreeable to have a companion who continually sighs and acts like a lamb being taken to the slaughter. So – a little tenue – if you please.” I was furious. In my head, I made a lengthy, irreverent speech. “It is also most disagreeable to have a companion who looks down on you from on high, one who speaks only to make snide comments. I wasn’t even thinking about the stupid exam. I was thinking about Gerda, and I don’t wish to be disturbed.” At this point, the train came to a halt. Fernow station! “Finally,” said my father, as if the dull journey had been all my fault.
The rain had stopped. The linden trees around the small station building shone as water dripped from their leaves. A group of ducks slowly waddled across the wet platform. Some young girls stood by the fence and stared at the train. There was a smell of linden blossom, of damp leaves. It all seemed rather depressing. The old fox-hunting carriage was already there. From under his large, baggy cap, Klaus nodded to me, showing his weathered Christ-like face. Old Konrad fastened our luggage to the carriage. “It’s all good, young master,” he said, “nothing to worry about.” It’s strange how we feel sorriest when others try to comfort us. I could have cried when Konrad said that. “Ready,” called my father. We set off. The sun had gone down, the sky was clear, pale and bright as glass. The mown meadows were covered in mist. In the corn fields, quails murmured. A large, reddish moon rose above the wood. It made for a striking effect. Extending into the distance, the land lay there calmly in the summer sunset, and yet I felt as if this silence, and these shadows, held dreams and possibilities to stir the blood.
“We’ll have to pay a visit to the Bandags in Warnow,” said my father. “However, time spent with the relatives mustn’t interfere with your studies. Your education comes first.” Of course, he had to go and say that, just as a pleasant mysterious feeling had started to help me forget my woes.
Darkness was already falling when we stopped in front of the old, one-storey country house with its large gable. The cook stood at the top of the steps, pulling her black headscarf over her head and looking nervous. She obviously wasn’t too happy about our arrival either. The rooms were quiet and dark. Despite the open windows, there was the damp odour of rooms that nobody lived in. Crickets had made themselves at home and shrieked loudly inside the walls. I shivered. In the dining room, the lights were on, and my father called loudly for dinner. Trina, the little maid, who had always been on the cheeky side, laughed at me and whispered: “So, young master, you’ve been naughty, and now you have to stay with us for a while?” It appeared that the story of my exam results had even made it down as far as the chambermaids.
I felt hungry, but I found sitting across from my father in the large, lonely dining room so unnerving that I couldn’t appreciate the food. My father acted as if I wasn’t there. He drank his port and looked straight ahead, as if into the distance. At times, it seemed as if he were about to smile, then instead simply fluttered his long eyelashes. It was all rather creepy! Suddenly, he remembered my presence. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we must draw up a practical schedule. Regardless of your studies, I don’t wish you to neglect your physical exercise. Because…”, he thought for a moment, “it – it’s too short for sitting around uselessly.” “What is?”, I blurted out before I could stop myself. My father appeared to find this a logical question. He took a drag on his cigar and said thoughtfully: “Life.”
There followed a further painful silence, broken only once by my father’s remark that “making balls from breadcrumbs at the dinner table is a bad habit.” No problem! I had no real desire to do so, anyway! Finally, the property manager arrived, filling the room with the smell of his rubber boots, and spoke about fertiliser, the Russian workers, the animals, about all kinds of harmless things that were out there sleeping in the moonlight. I listened with one ear and blinked sleepily against the light. “Get some sleep,” said my father. “Good night. And tomorrow I hope to see a friendlier face.” Me too, I thought darkly.
My room was at the far end of the house. I heard the floorboards creaking in the empty rooms next to mine. The crickets’ screeches sounded like little creatures eagerly filing away at fine chains. My windows looked out onto the garden and were opened wide. The lilies reflected white in the light of the dusk. The moon had risen further, and its light shone through the branches of the chestnut trees, leaving golden patches of light on the lawn. Down in the pond the frogs croaked. And then, another sound made its way up to me, out of the darkness of the avenues in the garden, the deep voice of a young woman singing a song, a monotone series of drawn-out notes. I was unable to make out the words, but every verse ended with rai-rai-rah-r-a-h. It rang through the summer night, lonely and sad. I simply had to cry. It felt good to cover up my face as I did so, like a child. Then I got into bed and allowed myself to be sung to sleep by the faraway voice in the park: rai-rai-rah-r-a-h. –
Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.