Piper Verlag, August 2008, 320 pp.
Is there such a thing as perfection in this world?
The most likely place to find it would be in cases of symbiosis, where creatures complement one another: algae and fungi, clownfish and sea anemones, ants and greenflies, sometimes man and dog, more rarely man and woman. But you will definitely find a symbiosis between barman and patron (and I do not say this in jest). This particular pairing has something of the incontestable logic of the master-servant relationship, but less conflicted because the position of ruler and ruled – and particularly the inversion of these positions – is less perceptible. Added to this is that in the case of master and servant there exists a latent, uneasy sexuality. Never, though, between barman and patron. If we do find a touch of eroticism there, it doesn’t come out directly, but by way of an object that clinches the connection. We might hazard calling it an immaculate conception in the form of a glass of wine or a mug of beer, traveling from one to the other.
But let me say right away that the concept of immaculate conception will not be taking center stage here. The matter at hand has more to do with the relationship, the perfect relationship, between a barman and his customer. Alcohol, which is involved, is neither devil’s brew nor medicine. Even if it does cause harm to the body of one of the parties – the customer – that’s not the issue either, for the harm is assuaged by quite a few things. I would say that the alcohol the barman serves the patron benefits both parties. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a symbiosis in the strict sense of the word, or, to put it another way, a useful co-existence.
The bar was called Pow!, and was located in the front part of a three-story hotel, Hotel Hiltroff, named after the village at whose eastern edge it stood. In the old days its restaurant had also borne that name, but it was renamed during a spell of renovation, or rather it had relinquished its function as an eatery and mutated into an establishment only serving beverages. Some called it a bar, others a pub, and in a sense Pow! could be either, depending on the patron. It is also a truth in this world that all objects are in fact chameleons that will adapt themselves to their users. If the user is a worthy person, then the object he makes use of will take on that worthiness. Conversely, in the hand of some bastard, anything and everything he touches takes on a bastardly coloration. It’s as simple as that.
The Pow! bar wasn’t exactly a goldmine. Only a few locals frequented it, and as the hotel wasn’t doing particularly well there weren’t many out-of-town patrons either, though there were some, despite the exposed location of Hiltroff, or rather because of it. The town lay high in a craggy limestone region in which it often rained and where the fog always got trapped, a light gray fog through which the sun’s rays cut like searchlights; as if an alien intelligence were in search of life, only to ascertain that the planet in question was depressingly inhospitable, that even microbes there were unthinkable.
Between two massive limestone rocks above Hiltroff lay a mountain lake of middling size. Its water was black. Nobody had ever seen such black water, though it wasn’t tarry, but had the transparency of clear liquid. Compressed water, not condensed – a shrunken ocean. Some locals called it “intelligent water,” though they did so without further elaboration. Others felt that it wasn’t reflecting the sky, but mirroring the universe by way of the fog, a universe that was distinctly empty. Information concerning the depth of Lake Maria was conflicting. The last dives had been many years back. People said the lake was dead, just as one might say the meal was burnt, and it was true enough that there were neither plants nor fish in the few areas where the water was shallow enough to see bottom. But it was a beautiful dead lake, on whose rocky shore visitors liked to sit. These visitors were mostly conference people. Halfway between the village and the lake a cube standing on four short columns had been built, windowless on three sides, its surface of snow-white glazed brick. The white surface came across as synthetic, almost transparent, like watered milk: milk for cats and hedgehogs, diluted so they wouldn’t get diarrhea. That is what it looked like. To reiterate, the brick wall was seamless. Only the side that pointed toward a ravine on whose edge the cube rose like a youth ready to dive from a diving board had a continuous tinted glass façade, whose color changed with the light, the way modern sunglasses do. Inside the cube there were three levels that afforded a comfortable space for fifty people. The conventions there were elite affairs, not rowdy sales conferences. Eminent gatherings, like … well, the people of Hiltroff surmised that they had something to do with physics, experimental physics, or mathematics; in other words, with religion. However, the village was rarely aware of what matters were dealt with in the cube over this or that weekend or week. The locals called the cube Götz, because the man who had had this “shack for brainy folk” built was a native son, and his name happened to be Götz. He had spent many years abroad, without much news of him filtering back. Then at the age of forty he returned, moved into the house of his deceased parents, and soon thereafter had the cube built. How he had managed to get a building permit for such a precarious spot remained a mystery. But mysteries were a major component of Hiltroff’s local lore, which one can safely say of the lore of every village. The smaller the village, the greater its penchant for mystery. In a metropolis, mystery fritters away, lacking the necessary foundation or soil. It lacks the spark.
Beside the people who nested in the Götz and exchanged ideas in utmost exclusivity, there were also nature-lovers who came to Hiltroff, partly because of a native lichen, and partly to hike over a limestone landscape riddled with holes and caves. But the real attraction was Lake Maria, also called Black Lake on account of its color, or Black Maria. Its surface formed two overlapping ellipses the size of football fields.
Swimming or snorkeling in the lake was prohibited for ecological reasons. Even the local teenagers observed the rule. The water was probably too black for them. It was a lake to be viewed, not touched.
Unfortunately (for Hotel Hiltroff and its bar) the man whose name was Götz had also bought the old village hall and converted it into another hotel. A comfortable hotel, with a small but highly select restaurant in which a retired master chef perfected his later works, enticing an elegant assortment of gourmets to Hiltroff. This hotel and its restaurant sported the villagers’ name for the lake, “Black Maria.” The hotel was almost always fully booked, and to secure a table in the restaurant one had to reserve well in advance, or know the man who insisted on being called “Herr Götz.” Not that Herr Götz presented himself as a power figure – at least not in a swaggering and arrogant way – but not fawning and obsequious either, as is so often the way in hotels. Nor did he take a folksy stance: his stance was simply pragmatic. He treated everyone with a cool amiability, and seemed to find satisfaction in cultivating his wine cellar. Word had it that he had a wife in Berlin, which sounded as if people suspected Herr Götz of something nefarious, though everyone in Hiltroff was happy enough to look the other way, since he paid by far the highest taxes in the village.
The success of the Black Maria hotel and restaurant was in contrast to the lack of success of the Hotel Hiltroff and its bar, though they had never been competitors. The factors of success and failure were seen by both parties as natural phenomena. Neither party had anything to do with the other, not that the landlords of either establishment or their staffs had ever spoken a nasty word about the other.
Hotel Hiltroff and its bar belonged to a couple by the name of Grong, Job and Lisbeth Grong. They were a very sedate couple. The idea that there might be a spark of emotion somewhere deep inside them was left to the imagination of those engaging them in conversation. Their ages were also unclear, as they never celebrated their birthdays, at least not with friends or acquaintances. They were probably approaching seventy: working retirees, in good shape, slender and tall, but not remarkably tall. They never smiled but were pleasant enough, and rarely shook anyone’s hand either, but bowed or nodded slightly in an unequivocal gesture of greeting, establishing a polite distance, a pleasant barrier, pleasant but insurmountable. The Grongs avoided misunderstandings. When called upon, they could be exceedingly clear and sharp; but the sharpness lacked the usual trembling and edginess, lacked signs of high blood pressure. Their special brand of sharpness was like turning up the radio so that everyone can hear the news.
Frau Grong looked after the hotel and its few guests, while Herr Grong saw to the pub and its equally few patrons. And so it came about that the Grongs looked after a certain Vincent Olander, who had lived in the hotel for three years and been a regular at Herr Grong’s bar for an equal amount of time. First thing every morning he drank his coffee in the Pow! bar; at noon he never ordered anything beyond two cups of lightly sweetened espresso. He wasn’t known to eat anything the rest of the day either, without, however, giving the impression of being haggard or starved. He seemed much more like someone who simply forgot to eat and had gradually outgrown the need. At least he wasn’t shrinking.
At lunchtime he would often head over to the small bistro on the main square of the village for one or two glasses of cheap red wine, which he would imbibe standing at the bar or sitting at one of the tables outside; this despite the fact that Hiltroff’s altitude meant that there were only a few days in the year when one could step outside without a jacket. There was always rain or a chilly wind, or fog that slithered like a parasite into everyone and everything. Even at the height of summer there wasn’t a single mosquito to be found, despite the proximity of the lake. Clearly, it wasn’t a lake for mosquitoes either.
In the afternoons, invariably between three and four, Olander would return from the village to the Pow!, where he would remain until it was time to go to sleep, and in the state he was in by the end of the evening, sleep was instant. It should be said, however, that Olander was never so drunk that malaise or dizziness might have knocked him from an upright position, though he had invariably partaken of so much alcohol that bed and sleep were the only options, a very early sleep, mostly before eight. Nor did he take a book to bed or turn on the television. That had never occurred and never would, despite Olander’s partiality for books, and, indeed, for television. But alcohol got in the way. Alcohol was the nest into which Olander had settled, in which he felt secure. Books or a TV set didn’t fit in this nest. In fact nothing fitted into the nest, nothing except Vincent, of course. It was a one-man nest.
If one of those notorious figures from the land of fairies (or the daily tabloids) were to appear before Vincent Olander and ask him which three things in the whole world he would like to have on a desert island, he would have replied: “Four things!” Naturally, he would have been promptly reminded that only three were allowed. But Olander wouldn’t have budged. “It’s either four things, or you can keep your island!” – “OK then, for crying out loud! What are the four things you’d want?” To which Olander would have replied: “Port, Fernet Branca Menta, quince schnapps, and Whisky from Holyhead Island.”
Those were the four kinds of drink he would have, in that very sequence, every afternoon, two glasses of each, rarely more. On the few occasions when he overstepped this limit, he became depressed and seemed disappointed with himself. If he stuck to his rhythm, which was usually the case, he would leave the bar a man comfortable in his skin, sheltered in his nest of alcohol.
So it had been three years since Olander had arrived in Hiltroff. He had given the impression of a man gone to seed: unshaven, fallow skin, his eyes glassy and lifeless, his hair oily, his suit crumpled, his car bespattered with the mud of many countries. But it was the dirty car that had drawn attention and sparked the conjecture that Olander had to be a man of some means. Or at least that he had seen better days. It was not a negligible thing to own a legendary BMW M1, a car that was notable for not looking like a BMW, but more like a Lamborghini. (The Italians had in fact been involved in its construction). The color of this 1978 model was vanilla, or of yoghurt that had been left out too long, depending on how one looked at it. Its lines were flat and angular, but not too flat and angular. Inside, one sat like in an eternal night, so black was its interior. When the retractable headlights popped up, all was well with the world, for one knew that princes could turn into things that were more charming than frogs. And if it hadn’t been for the typical BMW grille – reminiscent of close-set nostrils – it would have been a handsome car indeed.
Though this two-seater was a powerful street version of a racecar, it also gave the impression of a certain casualness, much like an animal that will hunt from time to time but enjoys all the advantages of an omnivore who knows how to appreciate a luscious meadow that can’t run away. Pure hunters, on the other hand, are sad figures despite their popularity. In other words, one could also drive this car slowly, or not move at all, without looking ridiculous. The BMW in question could only be called sad because its owner didn’t take the trouble to have it washed.
This man who was so inconsiderate toward his car had settled in the Grongs’ hotel and driven around the countryside, but without giving the impression of someone who was particularly interested in the native lichen or the like. He didn’t strike one as a man hunting for something, but rather like someone being hunted, a hunted man who doesn’t want to be found. He didn’t move so much as he just stood around, presenting himself quite openly in Hiltroff and its environs. If back in those days someone had set his mind on shooting at a person at random, then Vincent Olander would have been the best of targets. For a few weeks he seemed to do little more than present himself as one. A willing target.
Gradually, however, his target-like existence appeared to exhaust him, and he increasingly frequented the Pow! bar, where he sat by a window that looked out onto the street. There he ordered port and inhaled cigarillos as if they were a medicine that only takes full effect when incessantly administered, which of course was the case, as smokers who fall sick do so because they don't smoke regularly or because of repeatedly giving up and relapsing. They confuse their bodies to death.
Even now, after all the years Olander had been frequenting Herr Grong’s pub, he still appeared to be parading himself, positioning himself so he could be seen through the window by every passerby. Apparently he had become tired of presenting himself in the open, where it was cold, wet, and foggy. He was a man marked by fatigue. He looked as if he had been punched in the stomach and was still hunched forward, unable to straighten up again. That was why he also gave the impression of being shorter than he actually was. He was, all told, quite handsome: masculine, angular but not rough, chiseled, peeled (in an elegant way), or, if you will, potatoey (in an elegant way), with white-blond hair that was receding at the temples, which were glistening and were the only areas that had some color, as if it were early summer and they had been touched by the sun. Olander bore a resemblance to the painter Francis Picabia, although he was a pale-skinned version. It was Picabia who said that man’s head is round so that thought can change direction. In this sense, Olander was not merely a sallower version of the artist but one who was ignorant of the possibilities of a round head. His thoughts always traveled in the same obsessive direction.
But what Olander’s obsession was, and why he had come to Hiltroff, was to remain a secret for the time being. He was a man of few words. He spoke only when he had to, and never about anything personal. When other patrons of the bar asked him something, his replies were noncommittal. Politics, sports, and the usual chitchat didn’t seem to interest him, though he was rarely disagreeable – just somehow absent. The locals saw him as some kind of nutcase, but a nutcase with money, since he could afford to hang around in Hiltroff for three years without putting his hand to anything, as far as anyone could tell, and he had enough money to cover a hotel room and his daily bar tab. Not to mention that he could afford to keep a sports car that might already be dubbed a classic, although he seldom drove anywhere in particular; he just drove interminably through Hiltroff and its surroundings at an excruciatingly slow speed – here too presenting himself as an ideal target.
The symbiotic relationship between the barman and his patron came about from the simplicity of their interaction. From the moment they met, Job Grong and Vincent Olander had entered into an unquestioned partnership of convenience, in which the one limited himself to filling glasses with alcohol, and the other to emptying them and paying up. This is not usually the way things work. In many cases the interaction between barman and patron is strongly influenced by trivialities and diversions, debates over politics, griping, discontent, and prying into personal matters. But Grong didn’t pry, and Vincent Olander, however troubled he might be, didn’t go so far as to want to burden the barman with what a poor bastard he was, etc., etc., though most of the other patrons of Pow! – almost invariably locals – indulged in constant whining (also about the fact that no soccer matches were shown in the bar and that there wasn’t even any music or a slot machine). There were a few newspapers, but hardly anyone ever looked at them. And there was a Lichtenstein, a Roy Lichtenstein, in other words a picture by the American Pop artist, hanging next to the counter that looked as if it had been quickly hammered together from the veneered boards of some old shelves. There was just enough space by the counter for three barstools. The bottles stood in two glass-fronted kitchen cabinets mounted on the wall, fitted inside with pale turquoise wallpaper. It must be said that this bar, in its so-called renovation, had in fact taken a downturn toward a yellowish drabness. The renovation had been an inverted one. Like a misprogrammed time machine that doesn’t land before or after a war, but right in the middle of a battlefield.
The Lichtenstein silkscreen print had been hanging on the wall since the bar’s restaurant days when times were better. Herr Grong had acquired it, one of a limited edition of 200, back in 1965 when he had been living in New York. Someone had ventured that the Lichtenstein might well fetch $30,000 today, but even if that were true Herr Grong wouldn't have parted with it. It was a piece of him – in fact it ranked a close second after his wife, whom he had known even longer, though he loved neither his wife nor the print with a searing passion. For him, both were symbols of constancy. He was a man who believed that one woman and one work of art were enough in life. So it should come as no surprise that, after transforming his restaurant into a bar and putting it through a reverse renovation, Job Grong not only hung the picture back on the wall but renamed the “new” pub after it – Pow! – though the picture was in fact called “SWEET DREAMS BABY,” which would have been quite a good name for a bar.
The print shows the face of a man, in typical Lichtenstein comic-strip fashion, who has just been hit by a fist. At the point of impact one sees a jagged exploding balloon with the onomatopoeic letters Pow! inside in thick red letters with a black edge. In the upper corner of the picture, inside a speech bubble, is the puncher’s statement to his victim: Sweet dreams, Baby!
Job Grong could not have said why he had purchased this particular picture forty years ago. He hadn’t been an admirer of this trend in art, or of the artist. Nor was he a particular fan of comic strips. But it was 1965, and high time – high time for a thirty-year-old – to obtain one work of art for life, and Grong hadn’t wanted to put it off, just as he hadn’t wanted to put off choosing a woman for life. Both the woman and the print had been compromises – good compromises. Grong hadn’t been hoping for a miracle, in other words to get the picture of pictures, or the woman of women. But he hadn’t gone to the other extreme either, of making do with something inferior. That was as much the case for the Lichtenstein as it was for Lisbeth. Both the woman and the print were suspended in a golden middle ground. Job Grong couldn’t have expected more from life than this picture and this woman, and he didn’t.
Essentially Vincent Olander had become part of Grong’s modest perfection by being the patron in the barman’s life, essentially by day after day ordering two times four drinks. Olander had brought with him from his former, secret life a partiality for port and Menta, the sweet and slightly creamy variant of Fernet Branca. He was new to the magic of quince schnapps, and above all the magic of a whisky hailing from a mysterious distillery on Holy Island, an island off the western coast of Anglesey in Wales; mysterious, because the said distillery did not really seem to exist, though there did exist modest, colorless bottles bearing the name “Holyhead,” in which a twelve-year-old single malt was enclosed. It had a distinctly dark hue, a touch of red, like brandied cherries. But the whiskey had a wonderful taste, no hint of cherry whatever, but there was a distinct subterranean element redolent of water that surfaces only reluctantly, water shying away from the sun, from evaporation. Job Grong could not say what was special about this whiskey, or what its true provenance was if not the Holyhead Distillery, as the label professed. He ordered the bottles from a dealer, who in turn ordered them from another … and God knows how long the line of dealers was. The European Union had become a labyrinth in which people moved only small distances up or down, while proclaiming that they were quite capable of locating the exit at any moment. And yet they didn’t even know where a particular bottle of whiskey came from.
Vincent Olander had initially ordered and drunk port and Branca Menta at random, until Grong had taken it upon himself, after the second or third week, to offer his new regular a Swabian quince schnapps and the Welsh single malt as a tasting – and this only on the occasion of a delivery from his liquor merchant. From the point of view of taste, these were in stark contrast to Olander’s favorite drinks. But, at least on this occasion, Olander’s pale Picabia head was round enough for his thoughts to change direction and subdivide the evening into two halves, moving from dark sweetness to southern German rusticity and the oily austerity of the light-shy water. Olander kept to this new pattern. He liked the new order, not to mention the rule of four times two glasses.
Most characteristic for this ritual was that despite the artlessness and quiet dignity with which barman and patron communed, the barman never took it upon himself to bring any of the eight drinks to Olander’s table unsummoned. Each time, the patron would ask for a drink, a request the barman acknowledged with a slight nod, after which he would oblige. For despite the routine that had increasingly solidified over the three years, Grong upheld the principle that a patron always had to be given the opportunity of changing his mind. Even if there wasn’t the slightest prospect of it ever happening.
The few short conversations between the barman and his patron had never crossed into private or anecdotal terrain. They touched mostly on the weather, though always in a serious way, such as commenting on the texture of the fog, or the extent to which on fog-free days, when the sun shone unhindered on Lake Maria, the black waters took on a reddish tint, redolent in an eerie way of a full glass of Holyhead held up against the light. That was naturally a somewhat forced comparison, but the two men agreed, one or the other holding the glass up to the light with the comment: “Incredible, don’t you think?”
The day when Olander and Grong did come closer, and forcibly so, was not one on which Lake Maria had a tint of Holyhead red in its waters. The lake lay as black as black could be beneath a thick, low-hanging pile of clouds. Olander was sitting on a rock, feeling the chill in his bottom. On the opposite shore he saw a number of people, each sporting two walking sticks. They looked like skiers without snow, in other words somewhat pointless. They were probably members of a conference who were stretching their legs. Olander knew the inside of the cube, knew the man Götz. Olander knew everyone in Hiltroff, had introduced himself to everyone – never pushing himself, just pointing to his presence as if to say, “Look, here I am, do with me as you please, that’s why I came here.” But the people of Hiltroff and Herr Götz merely wondered whether Olander was crazy. Not crazy in an all-out way, just a touch psychotic. Nobody wanted to do with him “as they pleased,” and nobody had anything to say to him. The only thing that interested the locals was whether Olander might be selling his BMW, since he used it so rarely. In a word, the general hope was that his money might run out, compelling him to part ways with the magical car.
Olander got up. The people with the walking sticks had disappeared. He was alone now. He decided, as he always did when he came here, to go once around the lake and then back to the village. There wasn’t a real path – a real path couldn’t have formed on the limestone – just a vague one, and Olander made his way along it, limping slightly. The limp was barely noticeable, but it was there. It came from a muscle injury in his right leg from four years back. He had been trapped in a car wreck in Italy and had to be pried from the crushed front seat with blowtorches. The pain in his leg was a constant reminder of that day. But another pain even more.
In some places the vague path around Lake Maria led over low but steep rock face, which is why Olander had to climb. So it came to pass that he attempted to put his right foot in a niche where there was only a flat surface, much like a driver who claims to know a certain road by heart but then takes a nonexistent curve at full speed. Olander’s right leg, the injured one, kept playing such tricks on him. The leg was his enemy. He slipped, lost his hold, and went sliding downward. Almost substituting for the nonexistent niche was a hole in the rock that Olander had overlooked, one of the countless holes in the limestone into which the abundant rain flowed. But this hole was wide enough to swallow a man, which is just what it did. Olander slid unchecked over the smooth edge and fell into a pipe-like cavity. Too surprised to cry out, he fell a good eight feet, the impact being very different from what he had expected and feared. It wasn’t hard rock but soft water into which he plunged, without reaching bottom. For a moment Olander kicked against the emptiness, then his thrashing legs drove him upward. As he surfaced and threw his head back, he could see only the opening above him, framing the dim afternoon light. Far too high for him to reach.
It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, where he could vaguely make out the nearby walls. Walls without protrusions, washed smooth, not offering anything to hold on to, to escape this prison, so like an insect-swallowing pitcher plant. At least the water wasn’t quite as cold as one might have been led to expect if one knew how cold Lake Maria was. But one couldn’t really call it warm either.
Olander made no attempt to cry out for help. Who would hear him? Luck of course might be on his side and send a hiker this way. But how long might luck take to do such a thing? How long would Olander have to shout? An hour? Two? He would run out of strength well before then. No, he was not going to shout, not shout at random just because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. He was alone and would drown. He imagined this as the punishment he deserved, the punishment for failing, the punishment for having done something only half-right.
Half-right was the worst thing. Half-right was like administering a deadly dosage of the correct medicine, and Olander had done something like that, he felt, and therefore he also felt that everything was as it should be. Floating in a dark hole filled with water, in a latrine pit that nature had formed, Olander a piece of floating shit that would at some point sink.
But things did not work out as simply as he imagined, perceiving himself as a piece of excrement and so removing himself from all responsibility; just to die, as if one had already reached the last page of a novel, where all and sundry were permitted to depart in God’s name. But this wasn’t the last page. It wasn’t the final echo of a bad beginning.
Olander thought of Clara. Naturally he thought of her, his little girl, his child, his everything. That was why he was here, because of Clara, to find her. He couldn’t just let himself go, and die in a water-filled hole. Absolutely not! Olander punched the surface with his fist as if he were breaking through a glass table, shaking off the unconsciousness that was enveloping him. He swam to the wall and ran his hand over the surface which the rain had polished flat, tapping it with his legs, looking for a suitable spot … and finally found one, a crack stretching downward just beneath the surface. The crack was wide enough for Olander to slide his stronger left foot in, up to his calf. This allowed him to stay above water with the least motion of his arms.
The absurd aspect of this act, however, was that he thrust his leg – sore at first, but then numb – with such force into the crack that he couldn’t get it out again. This anchoring was so smooth that he didn’t notice it at first; exhausted, he even drifted into sleep without going under. Olander was now like a shelf jutting out from the rock wall. But the problem with shelves, of course, is their immobility, and the water now, so much was clear, had begun to rise; water in such situations always does. Olander was awakened by the rising water splashing on his face. Now he realized that he couldn’t free his leg, not least because he no longer had the strength to push himself off with his other leg. Try as he might, he was stuck.
He had shifted himself into an upright position as best he could, stretching his knee, but the water soon reached his chest. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from – not that he could have stopped it. His strength clearly flagging, and not knowing what else to do, he began to shout, the water slapping against his chin.
Drowning would be foolish, he thought, but it was nothing in comparison to what he had been through in the last few years. For he would drown on his own. Everything is so much easier when one has to endure it only with one’s own body. Being murdered, too. Being murdered was, needless to say, the better solution. Also faster.
Something came plunging down from above. Olander thought a piece of rock had broken loose, and as the object collided against his shoulder, it forced him under water. His mouth filled. His nose. Everything. Suddenly a strong grip forced him upward, his head lurching out of the water, and he spat out everything he hadn’t yet swallowed. Somebody was holding him tightly. This somebody had clearly jumped in and grabbed him, pulling him down with him, prying loose his jammed leg, though not without breaking it. But Olander no longer felt pain, despite still being conscious, though only from the neck up – the part that luckily was and now would remain above water.
The water continued to rise, though this was now an advantage, conveying Olander and his savior upward. The water carried them. The man behind Olander, holding him tightly in his grip, proved a good swimmer, an athletic man with endurance, despite his seventy years. But what were seventy years if one was a block of wood? Grong had once described himself as one, probably referring to the gnarled roughness of his nature, but certainly also to his resilience. Yet how wonderful it was to be a block of wood that didn’t sink.
The gurgling, almost effervescing, water carried the two bodies to the rim of the opening where it spilled over and flowed down to the lake. Grong swung himself over the edge and then pulled his patron out, depositing him on a flat rock. He checked Olander’s vital signs, and then reached for the cell phone that in wise foresight he had placed in a rock niche, whereas most people who jump into the water to save someone’s life, do so with all their accessories. Not Grong, who now called the emergency services.
“I am … okay,” Olander stuttered. He spoke in a gurgling tone, like fish in the process of learning to talk.
“Yes, you are okay,” Grong said, eyeing the bottom half of Olander’s leg, which was twisted and bent to the side like a tree branch.
All things considered, everything went well even though there were some complications with his broken leg. But things could have been worse, for even though Olander would limp slightly, this would to some extent even out the limp in his other leg; like a building that tilts to the right, but then also tilts to the left, ending up straight again.
After a week in the hospital, Olander was sent home, which in his case meant a return to Hotel Hiltroff and the Pow! bar with his leg in a cast. For the time being he limited all movement to commuting between the two places, only managing the journey from the second floor to the bar on the first floor with the help of one or the other of the two Grongs. It would have been better if he were in a wheelchair, but there was no elevator. Furthermore, Olander shied away from all contraptions from which one might never find one’s way out again, lulled into the comfort of disability, a thing Olander wanted to avoid at all costs. He believed – now more than ever, having survived the water incident – that the only reason he was in Hiltroff was to find Clara again, even if there hadn’t been the slightest clue to the child’s whereabouts in all his three years of waiting.
“I would like to tell you a story, Herr Grong, if you have the time,” Olander said one evening around seven, as he sat in the bar, the only patron, his cocooned leg resting on a leathercushioned bench. He was sipping his second quince schnapps, and still had two Holyheads before him.
A cloud now hung over the ideal relationship between barman and patron. It goes without saying that a life cannot be saved as if nothing had happened. There is something embarrassing about an act of lifesaving, something intimate in an unseemly way, something overly physical. As if one were to touch a person’s bottom, and then proffer the excuse that one was merely chasing away a fly. But touched is touched. Olander and Grong had come close in a way that both parties would have preferred to avoid. Then again, there had been nothing out of the ordinary in Herr Grong’s wondering where his regular patron might be on the afternoon in which Olander had tumbled into the flooded cavity. In three years Olander had never arrived in the Pow! after four o’clock. And as Grong, too, was a man of order and principle, he surmised that only a dire incident would keep his patron from his customary punctuality. Grong had locked up his bar, which was empty anyway, got in his car, and driven to the village to ask if anyone had seen Olander. Luckily he came across one of the old men who sat in all weathers on the benches in front of the war memorial, moving chess figures that looked like fossilized charwomen and dwarfs feigning death. The old man said he had seen “the man who owns the BMW” go up toward the lake, perhaps heading to the Götz, but anyway he’d gone along the only path leading from the center of the village up toward the mountain.
Thus Job Grong had reached Lake Maria, taken that vague path around the opal black waters, and had heard his patron’s shouts. He quickly made his way down to the edge of the hole and peered in, realized that there wasn’t a second to lose and that there was no time to call the fire brigade or to go find a rope. So he placed his cell phone on a niche in the rock and jumped into the hole, aware that this would be the end of the ideal relationship between him and his patron. He really thought this as he jumped into the darkness of the rocky hole. “What a pity,” he thought, and thought as well that one couldn’t let a man drown on that account.
And so it came to pass that some days later Vincent Olander asked Grong to come sit with him by the window, as he wanted to tell him something.
“If you insist,” Grong replied. He didn’t mean to be unfriendly, he was just resigned. The symbiosis was over. When one person wants to tell another person a story, practically forcing the story on this person, it is a burden for him who has to listen to it. And one-sided burdens are, needless to say, the death knell of a symbiosis.
“I’m sure you must have been asking yourself,” Olander began, “why I’ve been here in this village for three years now.”
“I’ve been here a lot longer,” Grong replied.
“You are here of your own volition.”
“No,” Olander replied, and told Grong how it had all started.
How his misfortune had started.
Translated by Peter Constantine
© Piper Verlag GmbH, Munich 2008