A few days later, we drove to the railway station in the afternoon to bid farewell to the Warnowers. I was a little excited. It was sad that the girls were leaving, but at least there was a reason for being sad. There would be crying, there would be embraces, beautiful moving things would be said. How would Ellita act? What would he do? This was an opportunity for me to breathe a little invigorating dramatic air. Later, I could be truly unhappy, and perhaps write some poetry.
The whole family was assembled in the waiting room. My aunt was crying. “Oh, Gert!” she cried, “and you, my little Bill, it’s time to go our separate ways.” Cheri yapped incessantly. The girls, in their grey summer coats, grey boy’s hats on their heads, sat on the benches, their hands full of flowers from Warnow. I joined them, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Went rushed back and forth, taking care of the luggage. My father and my aunt discussed where to change trains. Time passed without anything special being said or done. In fact, everyone seemed more disgruntled and mundane today than ever.
Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes. Then things became a little more emotional. Gerda kissed me. “Next time we meet,” she said, “let’s hope we’re a little happier, poor Bill.” This brought tears to my eyes. I heard my father say something. Ellita laughed. He must have cracked a joke. Then they were all sitting in the carriage. We stood on the platform and nodded to them. There was nothing left to say.
With a horrible feeling of emptiness and disappointment, I watched the train move off. Another let-down! I whistled sadly to myself. The stationmaster stood in the middle of the tracks and yawned into the yellow afternoon sunshine. As his fat ducks slowly waddled past, I picked up some small stones and threw a few at them. It made me feel better.
“What kind of person throws stones at ducks?” said the stationmaster angrily. I would have liked to throw stones at him, too!
“Are we off?” asked Konrad.
I went to the waiting room to look for my father. He was standing there injecting something into his wrist with a small golden syringe. As I approached, he hastily put the syringe into his jacket pocket, and his golden bracelet fell back over his wrist with a jangle. “My migraine has returned,” he said.
On the way back, my father held the reins himself. I was surprised that he went easy on the horse with the blaze on his forehead and left everything to the brown one. We didn’t speak at first. I was thinking of Gerda kissing me. Such thoughts can be thought over and over. Just as well for those, like me, forced to live such joyless lives. Suddenly my father turned towards me. He beamed a kindly, youthful smile, similar to the one he had in the garden back when he picked up Ellita’s glove. “So,” he said, “you’re feeling a little blue, too?” I was a little surprised by the “too”. He laughed. “Yes, they’re all rather good at that, leaving such – such a hole behind them – ha – ha. That’s the kind of people they are.” He cracked the whip. “There’s nothing for it but to knuckle down to your studies.” The start of his observation had been pretty, and touching enough. A pity it had ended so trivially!
For the next few days I went around in a lazy, sullen mood. I was sad, but with none of the sentimental benefits. Whenever I remembered that there, where the girls – the others – were, life was going on full of colour and excitement, and that I was missing out on it all, I flew into a rage and decapitated the large red dahlias with my walking stick. I saw little of my father. At meal-times he was often away from home, or ate in his room. If our paths crossed, he looked at me strangely, distracted, and politely asked: “So – how are things?” Even he was becoming uninteresting.
One night I heard Margusch singing down in the park again. I couldn’t sleep. An agonising restlessness had me tossing and turning in my bed. In the dark silence, everything I had experienced and everything that was to come took on a bizarre, malevolent significance. At such moments, life seemed a dangerous, risky affair, one that brought little joy and yet made you wait for it painfully.
The night’s sultry breath wafted in through my open window. The Rai-rai-rah rang out monotonously and calmly from the darkness, calmly, as if constantly repeating: “Everything’s gone.” I couldn’t bear to simply listen to it any more. I got dressed and climbed out of the window in search of the sound.
The night was black. A few withered leaves already rustled on the paths. Each time I happened to step on the green burr of a chestnut, there was a soft crack. Suddenly I heard steps behind me. I listened, hurried to one side, pressed myself up against a tree trunk. The red glow of a lit cigar approached. A dark figure passed by. It was my father. He stopped and raised the cigar to his mouth. For a split second, I was able to make out the lines of his straight nose. I heard him say something softly. As he walked on, the eager mumbling still drifted across to me. I waited a while. I was inclined to turn back. There was something ghostly about this lonely man, spilling his secrets out into the night. It would undoubtedly be awful if he spoke to me now. But at home in my bedroom I was alone. I couldn’t go back. There, down by the pond, with the big, warm girl, everything would be safer and more comfortable. I crept on.
Margusch was sitting in her usual spot. When I sat down beside her, she said: “Oh! The young master, again!”
“Yes, Margusch. And you’re singing again?”
She sighed. “It’s all I can do,” she said.
“Has your man gone again?” I asked.
“They’ve all gone,” she replied in her deep, mournful voice.
“You see, Margusch, that’s why we have to be together.”
“Yes, young master, come here – what can we do?” And we pressed ourselves tightly together.
A late moon rose above the park trees. It was accompanied by wind that tore up the clouds and pushed them across the sky and the moon in the form of dark round clumps. Light and shadow alternated over the land. The reeds and branches rustled vigorously. A duck awoke in the reed bed and squawked loudly and angrily into the night.
“Best to get back to the house”, Margusch decided, squinting up at the moon.
“Yes, everything’s getting restless down here,” she said.
“Did you know that he’s down here too?” I whispered.
Margusch nodded. “Yes, yes – he’s here every night. Go back past the big linden. He doesn’t go that way. I’ll come in a while. We mustn’t go together.”
I walked along the edge of the pond, lost in thought. The strong gusts around me and the shifting light of the moon did me good. I felt as if my blood had taken on something of the safe, regular pulse of Margusch’s blood. I sensed it flowing warm and continuously through my veins, a calm, reliable source of life.
As I made a sharp turn into the avenue of linden trees, I stopped dead, for I was standing right in front of someone sitting amongst the roots of the big linden tree. It was so dark there that I was unable to make anything out clearly, yet I immediately knew that it was my father. I stepped back a little and stopped. I waited for him to address me. The shape had its back against the trunk, leaning slightly to one side. The head was bowed. Was he asleep? No, I could sense him in the darkness, watching me. I had to say something.
“I’ve just been for a bit of a walk,” I began anxiously. “It was so oppressive inside.” No answer. “Aren’t you feeling well?” I timidly continued. “Can – I do something – for you…”
The clouds had passed across the moon, a little light made its way through the branches, fell on the bowed head of the sitting shape, illuminated the moustache, the dark line of his lips, which seemed a little crooked, with a slightly repressed smile. Is he playing a trick on me? Am I supposed to laugh along politely? – I thought. “Because it was so hot…”, I said hesitantly. The darkness covered the silent figure once more. I leaned against a tree to hold myself up. My knees trembled. I have to go to him, I told myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. There was something strange in that face fallen in on itself, something nameless. I couldn’t leave him, but standing here was torture. Margusch came around the corner. On seeing someone standing there, she stopped. “Margusch,” I called, “Margusch – look – he – he – he’s not speaking, I don’t know…”
“He’s asleep,” she said. “No – I – I’m not sure if he’s sleeping.”
Margusch went up to him. “Sir,” I heard her say, and then she touched him, straightened him up, pushed his back straight against the trunk with a firm, respectless hand, as you might shift an object. Something shiny rolled across the moss and clinked against a stone. It was the small golden syringe.
“He’s dead,” said Margusch. She came back over to me, sighed and said: “My goodness, the poor master, he couldn’t go on anymore!”
I was silent. Death – yes, that was the strange thing that had confronted me.
Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.