Aufbau, March 2007, 768 pp. ISBN: 978-3-351-03210-4
THE FAIRGROUND. Organ music, blaring tinny loudspeakers. The ground behind Bermsthal Church flickers, bellows, heaves. The corpses have been billeted out, the graves evacuated, two years ago now when they wanted to sink a shaft here. But nothing came of the shaft, nobody knows why. They dumped slag and rolled it smooth, a ground for rallies and popular amusements. This time it was called a Christmas Fair.
Behind the ground, the darkness lurks. The landscape has only two colours, white and grey. The village is dingy by day and dark by the afternoon; in the evening it is an evil, flogged, malicious beast, deadly weary and voracious. It is a beast on the lookout, a beast in agony, hidden in the darkness, silent. But the ground is bright, imitating warmth and vitality. A triumphal arch opens it, built up on the remains of the graveyard wall, nailed together out of rough boards and garishly painted. To the left a pitman holding a candle, in the parade uniform of the sunken silver mine, with a shiny black leather apron and wooden face, Merry Christmas. To the right a Wismut miner, pithy, all ore, I’m a miner, who is more!
But the ground is bright, and the people here hunger for brightness more fiercely and desperately than anywhere else. They are strangers to the mountains, they are alone underground, alone with themselves and the mountain, alone with their hopes, their doubts, their indifference, alone with the darkness and danger. The darkness is around them and in them, and there is no starry sky above them, there is only the mountain with its deadly load and its silence. They started out as soldiers of fortune, wrecked, scarred, desperate, hungry. They descended on the mountains like locusts. Now the mountains are grinding them down with their long winters, their monotony, their nakedness and hardness. If nothing more can move them after all that’s behind them, the light moves them. If there is nothing more they take seriously, they take the miners’ greeting “Good luck on your way up” seriously.
The ancient lure of the fair. Fists, knives, crumpled hundred-mark notes ready in pockets. The money rolls in. Tens of thousands have come, and in their wake come the wagons and the sidestalls, come the showmen, come the tumblers and the travellers, the hookers and the crooks. And even those who have got a foothold at the top of the production statistics, those who carry hope out into the valleys and a glimmer of certainty, even they can’t quite resist the lure. They blend in with the others, the many, to catch a strand of good luck, gaping gullibly at the pinchbeck glitter, still knowing it is all a substitute for something else, or already forgetting. Every evening, streams of people roll into the aisles of stalls, crowd out the carousels, the beer tent, the prize-boxing ring. Every evening, they stand in front of the loudspeakers of the big wheel and the big dipper, stamping out the beat of the music, jigging their legs, shouting into the night. Bottles of spirits pass round, girls scream out, show their legs on the swing boats, their skirts tucked up by the wind. There are paper flowers to be won at the tin-can alley and hoopla stalls; at the raffle stalls plaster statuettes, naked porcelain girls, ashtrays and vases. There are sausages for sale, hot drinks, grog and beer and vodka. Wismut is a state within a state, and vodka is its national drink. Behind the stalls, the black market flourishes, couples make love on toppled gravestones, on forgotten benches, leaning against a tree. Every now and then a fight breaks out, then they come running from all directions, make a ring, cheer on the fighters or throw punches of their own. The police seldom show their faces after darkness breaks. And if they do, then well out of harm’s way.
In their early-shift week, they met at the fairground nearly every evening: Peter Loose, Christian Kleinschmidt, Spieß the trammer, and a few others from their barracks. They stood by the big wheel, by the boxing ring, sat in the beer tent. They never arranged where to meet; they knew where to find each other, they found each other.
That evening they were sitting in the beer tent. Sitting in front of sticky grog glasses, sitting on garden chairs at rough board tables that they had shifted sideways at the back of the tent, out of the way of the loudspeakers. Spieß the trammer was the centre of attention. A former farm worker, he had been at Wismut since forty-six and had the respect and privileges of an old hand. He had never made it any further than trammer in all his years in the pit, though; he was a little slow. Spieß was the only one at the table who had a girl with him; he’d been going out with her for three weeks. She was called Radish, she was skinny and short and tough as a cat. She was a shop assistant, eighteen years old, and Spieß was her seventh boyfriend. But she knew she’d found Mr. Right this time.
December air flooded in, the noise of the loudspeakers and barrel organs bounced off the canvas walls, carousel lights flickered, strings of coloured light bulbs. They drank grog at the back of the tent, and when the glasses were empty they drank miners’ tax-free spirits out of bottles they’d brought along; there were two empty bottles under the table already. There was one man missing that night who otherwise always came along: Müller, Siegfried Müller, a mine carpenter and inhabitant of barrack twenty-four, Rabenberg; at least he used to be until recently. Kleinschmidt, Loose, Mehlhorn, Müller. The carpenter had just moved out, to somewhere at the bottom of the village; he had a thing going with a widow. But that wasn’t why he was missing that night, or perhaps it was, to be precise. He’d caught the clap from his widow, and they were all just talking about it.
The one with the harelip was called Heidewitzka, a former ordinary seaman in the glorious imperial navy, broken out of an English POW camp in Schleswig. Heidwitzka was saying, ‘It’s his own fault if he’s got the clap!’
The mob jeered their applause, especially Liebling, a skinny-malinky with a pointed face, the youngest in the group so particularly obscene, but in truth there wasn’t much behind it and he knew little of the perils of the flesh. But as none of the others knew how to prevent accidents of that type either, the applause soon ebbed away and they awaited Heidewitzka’s announcement. He laid his brown smoker’s fingers on the table and said: ‘It’s easy enough. I always use my tobacco finger first. If she jumps, the frigate’s sprung a leak.’
That was the stuff of subject number one. They sat in their padded jackets, passing round the bottle, greedy mouths in the flickering half-light, and then they started singing, without Loose’s guitar this time; it was back at the barracks. They sang the wonderful song about the Polish girl, the Polish girl in the Polish town who loves a young Fritz, in secret of course and five verses long, but then she walks into the water, the good Polish girl, she loved only once and then never again. It was a great ditty, the Kaiser’s boys had sung it, every third German knew at least the tune and knew the words, fathers passed it down to their sons and so on all the way to the grandsons, for the Germans like their singing, and they set great store by the earthy poetry of their more recent folk songs. But the mob went on from the Polish girl to a hot dance tune, the singing thinned out; that was enough for now. The tent landlord brought a new round.
Kleinschmidt and Loose were sitting at the bottom end of the table, slightly further away from the others. Kleinschmidt wasn’t drinking much, but Loose was getting slowly drunk. Loose knew Kleinschmidt didn’t feel comfortable here; of course not, the grammar-school boy was used to better things. He only came along because he was scared of being on his own. Who wasn’t scared of being on his own, here in this wilderness, with all the hard drudge, who can put up with sixteen hours of loneliness above ground after eight hours of loneliness a day underground? Grammar school’s no use to you there, nor cleverness; a man’s a man first of all and needs his like. Did Peter Loose like being on his own? Yes, sometimes. But the misery grabs hold of you when you’ve nothing more than the four walls of your barrack and your eight hours with the shovel at the rock face, the monotony creeps into the windings of your brain and fills your skull with lead until it explodes, until you either smash something up or reach for a bottle or roar out like a bull. They called it the pit rage. As if it were just the pit! It was the whole misery of this messed-up life, this life without prospects, which pushed you around, which bashed out blindly at the righteous and the unrighteous, which wanted bashing back, even if it only lightened the load. You couldn’t change much, alone against the rest of the world, you’d been drip-fed it up to well over the measuring mark. And Loose fetched the bottle out of his jacket pocket, topped up Kleinschmidt’s grog glass to the brim and then his own, and nudged Kleinschmidt: ‘Go on, drink up!’
But Kleinschmidt only took a kid’s sip. He’s too posh to even drink properly, thought Loose. Well, let’s be fair on him, he can’t take much. Still, the way he gritted his teeth and got down to it in the first few weeks, that was pretty decent. Loose had certainly noticed how hard Kleinschmidt had found the work and how often he was on the brink of giving up; he’d been convinced: he won’t stick it for long. The fact that he’d still stuck at it was an achievement Loose respected. The man just wasn’t built for the pit; anyone who saw him in the shower room could tell. Loose was made of stronger stuff, and he was proud of it. He had nothing else to be proud of.
The foreman had found that out soon enough: this Loose was a tough lad, but one with sense, and that was rare. He was prickly and hard to get along with, a drinker and a rowdy, but there was nothing wrong with his work. The foreman had to count on every man and every hand – so he put Loose to work in places where it made a difference, where it was hard-going and you had to be able to knuckle down. Loose had noticed of course, and he saw that the foreman treated Kleinschmidt more gently too; even that he seemed to be his favourite, although he didn’t work so hard. He thought: that’s poetic workers’ and farmers’ justice for you. A little professor’s son, when he comes down the mine, they spoil him rotten. But the likes of us – nobody gives a fig if you sweat blood and grind down your bones and bash your noggin in. Nobody in the new Germany gives a monkey’s for our wellbeing. But still, Loose was proud that nobody had to go to any trouble for his sake, still he liked this life, he took up the challenge.
Only sometimes, when the alcohol was chasing his blood faster through his veins and he was boxed in by the abruptly changing pictures, something in him broke open, broke out from his innermost self and only left him in peace if he numbed it with ever stronger spirits, if he drowned his mind in eighty-proof. Once he had dreamed of becoming a bold explorer and discoverer, of doing heroic deeds and surviving adventures, of reaching the stratosphere and the bottom of the sea like Piccard, he wanted to be an African explorer, a fighter pilot, a submarine commander, a Mount Everest climber. He had devoured the adventure comics and war books and listened for the enchanted sound of foreign names, Narvik, Tobruk, Deutsch-Südwestafrika, he had sat in front of cinema screens and wanted to be a hero like Trenck the Pandur, like Rommel and Mölders and Ohm Krüger, and thought that the world had been designed specially for the descendants of the Goths and the Guelphs: and deep be the stake, as the prize is high – who life would win, he must dare to die, hail King Widukind’s line! But it wasn’t the days of victory that dawned, it was the Yanks who came, and then came the Russians. Russians came, moved in on wagons and in frayed old coats, they fitted in perfectly with the landscape as it was now: hunger, disease, ruins, refugees. Without further ado, the heroes stepped down over night, the swastikas sneaked out of the flags, down in the air-raid cellar hid his stepfather, hid everyone who had stood straight as a rod yesterday: left right, left right, Germany must live, even if we have to die, crept away from the ragged rabble who couldn’t even march in time, begged for mercy, renounced, denied. All that was left was a world with no glitter and glamour, and no hope either. The new tune they whistled was: if you don’t work you don’t eat, a convincing enough melody, and the loudest chanters were those who had never jostled for work in the first place and intended to go on through life with two left hands. The Blockwart became the street officer with a monopoly on bread ration cards, the Hitler Youth gymnastics instructor switched to the Antifascist Youth and commanded build-up-build-up, even his stepfather soon had a little job, they ate up the CARE parcels in secret and in public they hoisted their free ticket for the new age, for you have to have money or power or at least respect to get other people to work for you. You’ll always be down here with your nose in the dirt, Peter Loose, you’ll always be working your fingers to the bone and making up for it with a couple of hours on the fairgrounds of this world, with vodka, the warm skin of a girl, because there are a few little things you haven’t got that you need to get to the top in this day and age. You haven’t got the talent for adaptability, for mindless chanting or unscrupulousness in the service of progress, and you haven’t got anyone who sent you to grammar school like Kleinschmidt, the likes of you has to put bread on the table from the age of fourteen. Just you wait and see how they climb past you on the ladder, and they’ve nothing you haven’t got except those few little things. Mehlhorn, he’ll suck up to the powers-that-be until the power’s in his hands, while you sweat out your dreams and forget them. The creeps and the goody-goodies will grow big and strong, the holier-than-thou will be traded at high prices, and for your kind they’ll reel off the old wives’ tale of the liberated working man from sunrise to sunset, of the creator of all works and the ruler of this stretch of land, so that you stay on the ball and shovel your chest full of hope and glory, hope which they’ve got the patent on, glory which they rake in. The whole truth flickers in the faces before you, Spieß, Radish, Liebling, Heidewitzka, you’re all cut from the same cloth, and they won’t let you break out of the namelessness, them last of all. It’s a vicious circle, Peter Loose, and you saw through it long ago, deaden your views or shout them out loud, all life has left over for the likes of you is crumbs and a kick up the behind for afters. That’s what you’ve got coming: there are too many of you, they quote you by the company on the stock exchanges of this world, under the market rate for bone-marrow, and where the higher rates start are the borders of the fatherland of the plebs. A three-star vodka with hammer and sickle to that, Peter Loose, sto gram to the present and sto gram to the future. Hurrah!
And the mob joined in with the hard drinking now too. Spieß ogled his glass, schnapps a finger below the rim, bottoms up and a song, three four, Wismut boys for ever more, and Radish right in the middle of things – Radish with her squint, she could drink many a grown man under the table. The landlord cocked an eye at them; he could charge them corkage, he’s entitled by law, but there’s no one for miles around who would help him get it out of them. The round had got bigger by now, Kaschau had arrived and Titte Klammergass, Paule Dextropur and Siggi the ghost of Badergasse, they came from the middle shift. The rubber jackets hunched black at the board tables, grey moustaches above black collars, Spieß raises his glass. And Kleinschmidt, the only one who doesn’t have to be here, Kleinschmidt just sips, suckles at the mouth of the bottle like a babe-in-arms. Kleinschmidt really doesn’t have to be here. He’s read the letter, his dear old uncle on the Rhine sent him best wishes and asked if he didn’t want to come running, someone with his abilities wouldn’t be as stupid as to mess up his life in the Eastern zone when he could go to university on the other side, dear nephew Christian, Uncle Hollenkamp would pull the right strings. But babe-in-arms Kleinschmidt didn’t want to, the man had a thing about it. He’d rather slave away for the Russkis than take favours from his family. He’d rather take something from Foreman Fischer, a privileged workplace with a high wage group and moderate drudgery, good old Kleinschmidt. If only you had an uncle like that! But all you’ve got is a sister over there on the German Rhine, and she’s married to a poor bugger, a sewing machine repairman, Landser by name and Landser by nature. You really did get a bad deal on the market of life, squashed and battered at the bottom of the pile, you can say that again.
Then Radish had to pop out for a moment, and Titte Klammergass took the opportunity to tell one of his hand-crafted stories. Titte drove a haul truck and before that a Studebaker; cars and sex were all he ever talked about. On top of that, he’d had a really bad tour for the last six months, back and forth the couple of miles from Shaft 412 to Stalin Mine, and the more boring the route got, the more stories he thought up. ‘Guys,’ said Titte Klammergass, ‘this doll came sailing down my way today, boy oh boy! Stands there and asks if I could give her a lift to Erlhäuser, and not for nothing neither. You can bet on that, I thought, but I’ve got no business in Erlhäuser, I’m afraid.
But there was no getting rid of this lass. Oh really, she says, and makes eyes at me until I go really soft, and so in the end I load her up. But along the way I think to myself, twenty blessed miles, boy oh boy, the best thing to do is to take the high track, that’s at least five miles shorter.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Peter Loose. And Spieß said: ‘You couldn’t get along that track in a T34, not even a helicopter.’
And Radish, who was back by then, added: ‘If anyone manages that I’ll let him have a free ride.’
‘Well,’ said Titte Klammergass, ‘I only thought it, but then I took the valley road. Anyway I have a quick fumble of the lass’s knee while I’m changing gears, and she keeps mum, and when we get to the forest I stop the truck so I can collect my payment. But suddenly the lass is made of ice. I must have tried it on for about a quarter of an hour. What can you do? I dropped her off just inside Erlhäuser, and she went to give me a ten-mark note, and I said she could stick it where the sun don’t shine.’
‘Hahaha,’ Liebling snickered, and Heidewitzka joined in, and then he said: ‘She really took you for a ride, my boy. I’d have given her what for. And then I’d have left her in the woods, at the darkest spot, Heidewitzka captain!’
‘Hm,’ went Titte Klammergass. He looked at each of them in turn, Radish, little Liebling, Christian Kleinschmidt and Peter Loose too, and then he said: ‘There’s more to come. To cut a long story short – I finish off my shift and bring the truck back to the mine, and just as I’m about to bugger off, along comes someone and says I’m supposed to go and see the boss. Great, I think, who knows what the old man wants from me this time. But I’m not even in through the door and it all starts off. “So, young comrade,” the boss purrs, “you tell us how you managed to do an extra tour today.” Well, I keep schtumm of course, I can’t very well tell the old man I turned the milometer off, can I, and while I’m still wondering how the old man knows about it, I suddenly spot one of those spooks from the police. “So,” says the spook, “lost your memory, have you? But we can help you out this time.” And he opens the door, and what can I say: there’s my lass! “Right,” says the spook to the lass, “is this the man?” And the lass says, “Yes, Comrade Detective, that’s him!”’
My, how the mob cheered! Gave their jaws a good airing. And the ghost of Badergasse gasped for breath, and Radish couldn’t get her mouth shut; the mood was perfect. Liebling was slurring his words and they were all drunk, Heidewitzka yelled at the landlord, Kaschau fired beer mats at distant heads, the mob cheered at every hit, cheered because no one dared say anything, for they were the strongest party here: something had to happen now. It was time to kick up a row, a kingdom for a row! It was just the mood that would have given birth to glorious heroism not too long ago, from the Maas to the Memel and from Danzig to Burgundy, just that mood. But where were they to get their row, the frustrated Filler Three Thousand and Eleven, the young Siegfried demoted to digging dirt, where? Where, when humanity was suddenly brimming over with docility? When morality was suddenly bursting out of every buttonhole? When the people wanted to be left in peace and mowed down everything that stuck out in any way. There they sat, the late spawn of the Greater German end-of-season sale, and an epidemic of piety had broken out overnight and the impotent were as happy as Larry, there they sat and searched the de-idolised heavens and the stolen horizon, searching for adventure and a wind that follows fast, and in truth they were searching for a fatherland.
And now the mob moved on.
The mob moved on, moved on to the swingboats, to break Peter Loose’s record of twenty-two loop-the-loops. There was nothing else to do. The competition had tipped over the swing carousel two days ago, just for a laugh, and the prize boxers from the show ring were all beaten up, the Tobruk gang from the next village had seen to them, and the police had already been escorted out right on the first night, they’d withdrawn voluntarily, so to speak, flanked by a guard of honour, retreating from the crowd as it edged forwards, what a touching sight. Almost as touching as the story with the railway police. They hadn’t wanted to let the train leave the station in Johannstadt because it was too crowded, and they’d been beaten to a pulp, about ten of them. And three stations further on down the valley they’d turned up again, about thirty men quickly drummed up by telephone and telegraph, and wanted to stop the train, and of course they’d been beaten up as well, faster than you can say Jack Robinson. And when the train got to Schlema the police turned up again, this time with sixty men, and they got another hiding, and the train carried on, went on to Zwickau, and by that time the miners on the train were ready for at least a hundred and fifty policemen, because the railway police had a larger contingent in Zwickau. But the contingent never came. Instead came a slice of the Soviet Army, about forty men with machine guns at the ready. And that did the trick alright. That suddenly calmed things down. That’s what happened. And the story at the fairground was nearly as touching, a couple of days ago, with the police retreating voluntarily. But that was all over now. There was no more fun to be had out of it.
But the swingboat record, that was still a good laugh. Even Radish perked up.
So the mob jeered its way across the fairground, over rolled slag and evacuated graves, and the swingboat owner saw them coming. He shoved aside the young lad on the brakes, because the man knew what was coming: he’d have to do the job now. The swings had two boats that went over the bar and six harmless ones, they came back down after a hundred and sixty degrees. And the owner took over the loop-the-loop swings himself, planted himself legs astride at the brake lever. The man was used to all sorts of things in his business, a showman since nineteen twenty-one, he’d fought his way across all the Greater German fairgrounds, first he’d owned a shooting range, then a shooting range and a big wheel, then two shooting ranges and a big wheel and a set of swingboats, and he still had the swingboats, and he knew that he had to man the brake himself, he knew that, and then the mob was upon him. But one of the mob climbed up onto the red-and-white platform and shouted: ‘A round for the first one to break the record!’
That’s how it started, and it started quite normally. But another one of the mob, a tall, weedy one, shoved his way through to the one on the red-and-white platform and said: ‘Look who’s here!’ And Peter Loose looked, just looked for a moment, and then he got down from the platform.
She came straight towards him, Ingrid with the pinchbeck necklace, with hands that were red and transparent from the cold of the dishwater, and with her pale blonde hair that she wore very straight and very long, and with her hungry smile. He knew she had a shift in the station pub tonight, behind the chrome bar with its green and yellow stains, and he thought: she must have pulled a sickie. And she came straight towards him, she put her hand in his and smiled, and then she nodded in the direction of where Christian Kleinschmidt was standing and the others, but she didn’t smile at them.
Her hands were different today, Peter Loose saw, not like that time in the station pub and not like on the couple of other days he’d met up with her; they were cold as well, there was a bit of a frost, but other than that they were very white and smooth. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘have you skipped a shift?’ And Ingrid smiled again and then she said: ‘Oh no, closed for renovation.’
But now the others really got started. There were only two competitors in the mob who had a chance of breaking the record: Spieß and Heidewitzka reported for duty.
They put a powerful swing on the boats with their backs straight and knees bent, making a triangle of their shoulders, bent arms and the rods, with their bodyweight and the impetus of the shifted load. A swing forwards – and the fairground went under, fell away under the bottom of the boats with noise and lights, shot up again on the downward swing, darted backwards away from the impetus, had Heidwitzka hanging horizontally above it, Spieß’s feet even higher, then came closer again and fell away under their knees, made way for the view of the church tower and slanting down to the big wheel, eight times, nine times, and at number ten Spieß was at the top, reached the dead point, now he fell down on the other side, and had done two loops by the time the other one began his first, and had eleven by the time the other one began his ninth, and the mob counted out loud and was gone, came up and sank away, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, then the boat wouldn’t reach the dead point any more, stopped still, Spieß pointed his feet towards Virgo, his forehead to the earth’s centre, stayed like that for a while, and then came down backwards with the boat, and Heidwitzka fell down too, came down at eighteen, and neither of them had made the record, and the swing owner braked.
The fairground swung.
The fairground was still swinging when Spieß came along with nineteen loops, his personal best. Radish grew an inch or two. But Heidewitzka gave a speech.
‘Namely: that was just a practice run. Secondly: that damn boat rolls about in the wind. And thirdly: let’s make a bet! A bottle of vodka down in one, then two men in one boat, thirty loops, Loose and me!’
But Loose was still standing by the platform, standing next to Ingrid; he’d heard Heidewitzka of course, and he saw the mob turn all eyes on him. Pretty laid back, that guy, thought the mob, pretty full of himself. Just standing there with his station beauty queen and looking, not opening his mouth, and letting us wait. He still had her hand in his hands, her hand that was cold and white and smooth, and he had her hair before him and her smile and the hunger in her eyes as well. Ingrid, he thought, it sounds like the sea and birch forests, it doesn’t fit in here. And then he said: ‘Did you know I was here?’
Ingrid laughed and said: ‘Where else would you be?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Where else?’
And went over to the others.
The mob had pulled out the bottles, all ready. Loose drank first, drank without taking the bottle from his lips, then passed the bottle to Heidewitzka; he hoisted his two quarts and tossed the bottle away over the stalls towards the forest. ‘Right,’ he said then. ‘Heidewitzka, captain! Swing me higher, Obadiah!’
But now the owner had caught on. He came over, he sniffed at them, and then he said he couldn’t let anyone on with that much inside of them, especially Heidwitzka, he was drunk as a skunk. And two men in one boat wasn’t allowed anyway. Well, that made him a few friends.
The mob put up a front. He ought to have another think about that, the mob told the swing owner, otherwise they’d take his ride apart and that’d really cheer him up. And the people gathered round and gawked. And no one moved a muscle. The swing owner had another think. If he gave in and the lads fell out of the boat he’d end up in jail. If he didn’t give in, the gang would smash his ride to smithereens. There was nothing he could do. Or maybe there was something he could do. If he just stayed standing in front of the entrance he should be able to save the ride. The gang would have to push him aside if they wanted to get on, but then there’d be violence at play and he wouldn’t be liable any more. He looked around to see if there was anyone nearby who might help him out. But he didn’t see anyone. Just that tall lad, the one with the grammar school face, he didn’t seem to be quite agreed with his pals, he was trying to persuade them in his pristine Leipzig dialect, but of course they weren’t listening. So the swing owner stood legs astride in front of the entrance. So the mob pushed him aside. And the masses all around gawked.
Heidewitzka, by the time he got on the boat, had a sum total of nearly two pints inside of him, and Loose not much less. Nonetheless, they started in astonishingly alert. The swing owner had stood aside; Spieß was on the brake now. The two of them put a lot of energy into it, they’d already reached the dead point, the fairground stayed away beneath them and raced towards them, the noise ebbed away and swelled, now came the great popping in their eardrums like when the cage goes down the shaft, deafness above a shrill whistling sound, the airstream plus pressure, and the joints creaked, and the mob’s eyes widened, Loose was giving it all he’d got, Heidewitzka was already a little clammy on the ropes, looping the loop, guided by light and dark and counting: dark above light below one, dark above light below two, and the mob counted offside, counted twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, and Loose tried to make out the faces, he looked out for Ingrid especially, but a bit for tall Kleinschmidt, but he couldn’t make them out, it all blurred into one, and he had Heidwitzka’s cramped face before him, it was pretty damn white, and he thought: let’s hope he doesn’t lose his breakfast, and then he thought: how many rounds have we done now? But he didn’t know any more. And the swing owner watched from down below. Let’s hope the lads don’t make a mess of it, thought the swing owner. Let’s hope they don’t go too far. The whole gang was yelling, and the people tore open their beaks and noses. As if it was a sensation. He, the swing owner, had seen plenty of lads doing thirty rounds. Not with a pint-and-a-half of the hard stuff inside them though. One of them was hanging on to the chains, pretty clammy. He was feeling sick, that was for sure. If the swing owner were standing at the brake, he’d brake now. But he couldn’t get through, the crowds were like a wall. Thirty! Someone yelled. And they went up again and another time. But now it was all over. Now the boat came back. Damn, that one was hanging in the boat like a corpse! His head fell downwards, pulled forwards again, fell away again! The lad on the brake had noticed now, he pulled as hard as he could. The crowds screamed, and the swing owner broke through the wall by brute force. There was the boat. Loose stood there, panting, got out slowly; Heidwitzka leant white against the pole, put one leg up on the edge of the boat, released his cramped fingers, his jaw hung slack, but Loose couldn’t see that any more, he had already gone down the stairs, he didn’t see Heidewitzka slump down, fall forwards in a stiff turn, slam down onto the step, he only heard the crowds shout out and saw their twisted faces, and then he saw Heidwitzka slide down the stairs onto the slag of the ground.
Kleinschmidt and the swing owner were the first to reach him. Then came Spieß as well. ‘Water,’ ordered the swing owner. ‘From the hydrant over there!’
Loose fetched a bucket and a grubby towel. Heidwitzka lay with his head in a yellowish pool, eyes closed. Blood seeped from behind his ear. He smelled of spirits and sweat and vomit. Loose wiped the unconscious man’s face with care.
The four of them lugged Heidewitzka back to the camp: Kleinschmidt, Spieß, Radish, Titte Klammergass. It turned out his injuries weren’t all that bad once they got there. The bad thing was the alcohol poisoning. The camp first-aider dealt with the wound with iodine and sticking plaster.
Peter Loose hadn’t gone back to the camp. He went down Bermsthaler Straße with Ingrid, the way he’d taken four or five times with her, and it had never been what he thought at the beginning. Back then in the station pub he’d thought: she’s that kind of girl then. But she wasn’t that kind of girl. It was just that he had no idea what kind of girl she really was.
They walked along the side of the spoil heap, behind the paper factory, and sometimes a ringing tone came from very high above, or scree came slipping down; far away were a few lights. They climbed over the tracks in the station yard, dodging the points and the signal wires. Then a shunting engine came along. They let the engine pass but the stoker spotted them. The stoker had no time for people climbing about the shunting yard at night, and he started throwing coals at them. They didn’t hit their target because Peter dodged, but he didn’t see where he was dodging to; suddenly he collapsed.
He slipped into a drainage channel, pain shot through his ankle. Peter slid across the track on his knees, felt for a pile of sleepers, felt his foot. Ingrid came and helped him. Might be sprained. He tried to stand up and only managed it on the third attempt.
Later, as he limped along the side of the stream, he remembered he’d been through more or less the same thing before. Back in the hard winter of forty-five. At the big curve before the coal station: Furth in Chemnitz.
They were there every evening, twenty lads, sometimes a couple of girls; every evening they waited for the train, which had to slow down on the curve. They stood in groups of two, one of them jumped up and threw coals down, the other collected them up, with the competition at his back. Peter was the jumper, his friend Mäcki Selbmann was the sacker. Sometimes they got half a hundredweight in one night. And sometimes they had to clear off, make a run for it, the railwaymen came along with heavy sticks, railway police up their sleeves, special constables. And sometimes the train didn’t come. He’d sprained his ankle back then, jumping down, when the railwaymen were just behind him, and they caught up with him. They weren’t exactly gentle with him. And then they took him down to the police station. There he sat all night long until they finally got his name out of him; the charge came three days later. And with the letter came the second drubbing. His stepfather had beaten the eleventh commandment into him with his military belt-buckle: thou shalt not get caught!
Those were his memories. People are full of them, they just need something to bring them out.
‘Hey,’ said Ingrid, ‘are you alright?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’ll be alright.’
They walked through the village, uphill; they walked across the marketplace and past ‘Gambrinus’ and past the village hall, uphill all the way. The air carried night sounds from far away; sometimes they heard the haul trucks on the mountain or the signals of the spoil heap engine, less often voices. The house was halfway to Hundshübel, where Wolfsgrüner Weg branched off. You could see well out over the valley from here.
There was still a light on upstairs, but all was dark downstairs where the Zellners’ lodger lived. They hoped they’d get past the corner window unnoticed, behind which Ingrid’s parents slept. Peter knew the routine. Mrs. Zellner lay in bed all day; you never knew whether she was awake. He’d stood in this doorway a few times now, where the wind couldn’t get to you and nobody could see you. They got past this time too. They got to the doorway and stood there a while, and he felt the pain in his foot again. He complained a little and tried to rest his foot, but it didn’t work. She watched him, and all at once she said: ‘Come on.’ – She simply took the key out of her pocket and opened the door. She didn’t turn the light on though. He’d never been inside the house. She took his hand and led him through the dark corridor.
They had been noticed after all. When they got to Ingrid’s room they heard voices next door that he couldn’t understand.
Ingrid said: ‘It doesn’t matter, they’d have found out anyway.’
She went across the room and tidied a few things away, hung Peter’s coat on a hook; she didn’t want him to notice anything. The room was narrow. The light of a streetlamp swayed in from the street. But now the voice was too loud to be overheard. ‘You tart!’ said the voice. ‘You little slut! You’ll get yourself pregnant, see if I care! You just get yourself saddled with a kid! I’d be ashamed of you, you’re disgusting! I’d chuck you out! You just tell him about the clap shop, that they kept you in there, so he knows right away what kind of girl you are! Let me tell you: I’d beat you to a pulp if I could get up! If I hadn’t worked myself to death for you kids: I’d beat you little slag black and blue so that no one ever looks at you again!’
Peter Loose stood at the window, not moving a muscle, as if nailed to the spot. He heard the voice break down and croak to a halt in a fit of coughing; someone knocked loudly on the floor from upstairs; he’d never heard anything like this. He stared out at the street; he felt as if it were time to wake up at last.
Ingrid said quietly, ‘What can I do? When I was seventeen we had a lodger from Wismut. I had to clean his room. That’s when it happened. He just took me by brute force, I couldn’t do anything to stop him. He moved to the West later. I was never sick. It’s all in her head. They took me away in a raid, at the station, and I had to stay in hospital overnight till they’d examined everyone. They don’t just keep you in for a night if you’re really sick. It’s all in her head. What can I do? I can’t help it that she’s got like this.’
She stood next to him, leaning on the wall; he put his arm around her shoulders. He was miserable and helpless. He thought: of course, she’s old and she’s sick – but he still couldn’t explain her hate. Despite all that had happened, he knew his mother could never have said something like that, not even his stepfather; he could have done anything he liked. He’d thought he was badly off, and now he realised: there were people who were even worse off. He realised it could get a whole lot worse, and there might not even be an end to how bad it could get. He held Ingrid tight, and he held himself tight to her, he stroked her hair, and then he kissed her. She embraced him with such abandon it took his breath away.
Later they lay next to one another for a long time; he’d laid his arm around her shoulders, she laid her head on his chest, breathing softly. She said quietly: ‘We ought to do everything differently.’ She thought: we ought to get out of here, go somewhere nobody knows us. But she knew she couldn’t leave. There was no one but her to look after her mother. She told him, and then she fell asleep on his shoulder; now she was quite calm.
But Peter Loose couldn’t sleep. Get out of here, he thought. He’d always got out of places. But had he ever arrived anywhere? A different place and different streets and different faces, but it always stayed the same; he knew that. Only the names were different, nothing else. He saw the light from the street on Ingrid’s hair, and he thought: so that’s what’s the matter with her. No, he thought, you can’t get out of here, you really can’t. You could only be on a journey, that’s all there really was. You had to know that you could never get out of a place and never arrive anywhere, however much you walked. The journey, that’s all there was.
He was tired but he still couldn’t sleep, and now he saw everything quite clearly. It was often like that before he fell asleep: a clarity that makes everything transparent and recognisable, and takes everything over to this different state. Fairgrounds, he thought, a bit of friendliness and warmth, and the other people you can’t do without. Pinchbeck, paper mâché, fairgrounds – going round and round in a circle. You get on the swing and swing yourself high above the dead point, but you always come down again, and it’s always just as it was before. That’s all then. He didn’t want it to be all, but he didn’t know any different. Then there was only the breathing next to him, and he thought: I want and it has to and it will; then he thought nothing. And the light stayed on all night long.