Christmas was a weary old man when he entered the city. Puffy-eyed and heavy-legged, he dragged himself along, from street to street, from flat to flat. Our door must have been the last one on a long list, because when he finally got here, I slept through the presents and was comatose long before the oohing and aahing had faded away.
There was nothing worth staying up for.
I didn’t care about any of our relatives and because Dad wasn’t living here any more, half of them stayed away anyway. There was a cousin that I liked. She was all right. When I said I was going to bed, she nodded sympathetically. But I don’t know if she had even the faintest idea what it meant for me to be in bed on Christmas night.
Three days later I was happy all the fuss was over. Adrian was helping his dad winterproof the garden in Kladow. Eli was at his grandma’s in the Black Forest and wouldn’t be back until the New Year. Karim was the only one left, and he was just as relieved as me to leave the Christ Child sitting under the Christmas tree and clear out of his apartment. He signaled with the owl hoot.
“ARE YOU COMING DOWN?”
I ran down so quickly he didn’t even have time to spit. All of sixteen seconds from the fourth to the ground floor. I’d like to see anybody else pull that off.
“How much do you want to bet you woke the whole building up?”
I grinned and put an arm around Karim’s shoulder. Half an hour later we were red-cheeked, shoveling the grit-speckled snow to the edge of the sidewalk.
“What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Dunno dunno dunno. What’s your problem?”
Karim clapped me on the back so hard, the shovel almost slipped out of my fingers.
“My dad,” I said.
Karim said nothing.
We were shoveling snow in front of No. 11. The caretaker had asked us if we wanted to earn a bit of pocket money. And of course we said yes.
“Did you see Tom Sawyer on TV?” I asked.
“That’s what I’m going to do. If my dad isn’t back by New Year’s, I’m running away.”
“Stop messing around. Where are you going to go?”
“I’ll hide in the basement.”
“That’s not running away.”
“So what, it’s almost the same thing, it’s just to give him a fright.”
“You’re going to sleep down there?”
“There’s rats down there, you know.”
We shunted and shoveled, sweated buckets and felt the skin on our palms bubble up into a horde of impressive blisters. I inspected them and took a break, there was no point overdoing it. Karim was on a roll and kept going. My gaze wandered up the street. It hadn’t snowed for two days, but the entire neighborhood looked like it had sprung from the pages of a fairytale. I was convinced there was a law and that it had to look like this every winter. I fantasized about shooting down Philippistraße in a sled one morning and plowing into a snowbank that went on forever and only let me through. Only me. I planned on staying in that cold tunnel for quite a while, until all my problems had taken care of themselves. How great would that be.
The caretaker came out and watched us working for a while. We upped the tempo and tried to look like we were enjoying ourselves and it was all easy, even though our backs hurt and we wanted nothing more than to call it a day.
“That’s a lot of snow,” said the caretaker.
We didn’t bother answering, and he disappeared.
That was the day we learned what exploitation means.
An hour and a half later we rang the doorbell to give back our shovels. The caretaker put them away in the basement in a methodical fashion and then, in an equally methodical fashion, came out to examine the walkway. As he did so he stood in the doorframe and bent forward just far enough so as not to risk losing his balance. He reminded me of an anxious dog checking out the street before putting a paw out the door.
“Very nice, boys,” he said, pressing a coin into my and Karim’s hands.
“Come back whenever you see snow on the ground.”
Then he disappeared inside the building.
We looked at our palms, which, apart from the milky deposits of future blisters, contained nothing more than a five-mark coin apiece.
“You’re kidding me.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“He can’t get away with that.”
“He just did!”
“He just did! Are you stupid? That was more than three hours’ work. He can’t get away with that!”
Karim put one blistered hand in front of my mouth.
“I know what you’re going to say, so save yourself the trouble.”
I nodded and we set off for Aldi.
We ended up with a random bunch of stuff—sweets, bags of chips and cheese puffs, and Citrolimo—but we were really pleased with our swag. We’d earned it and we didn’t have to share it with anybody.
“So what are you doing for New Year’s again?”
We were leaning against the fence. To our left the motorway rushed by, wet and cold, to our right was the gaping, six-meter-deep piece of wasteland we used as a football pitch. It glistened coolly at us in its layer of snow, like a white fire without any warmth. The summer was a long way away.
Karim moved a piece of chocolate around inside his mouth while he waited for me to answer. That was his party trick. He called it the washing machine. Karim said that if you ate chocolate that way you got twice as much out of it. We hated him for it, we were jealous whenever he did it. I’d tried spinning a piece of chocolate round in my mouth until it dissolved, of course. It was a good laugh but I’d only managed to do it once before I gulped down the rest of the bar greedily.
“So what’re you doing then?”
“I think my mom’s expecting visitors.”
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe we’ll even go away.”
I secretly wished we would. Christmas without Dad had already been no fun, but New Year’s would be soul-destroying. Ever since I was three, Dad had always set off fireworks with me for the New Year. Would he do it with his girlfriend’s son instead this year?
Karim leaned over to me so that I could smell the chocolate in his mouth, and asked:
“What about a party?”
“A party. Where?”
He put his arm around me confidentially and whispered:
“At yours, of course!”
“Hang on, hang on, we can’t.”
I spat out my chewing gum to play for time. I put another piece in my mouth and chewed it until it was soft.
“Who am I supposed to invite?” I said, finally.
Karim named everybody we knew, rocking back and forth on his heels. Hard to argue with that.
“And where am I supposed to get the drinks from?”
“Everyone can bring a bottle of Coke,” was Karim’s suggestion. He drank at least a gallon of the stuff every day.
“And what if not everybody wants to drink Coke?”
I probably shouldn’t have said that. Karim believed in Coke the way other people believed in Jesus and Mary.
“Then they can bring something else instead, can’t they?” he said and looked at me angrily.
“And what about food?”
“Nah,” I shook my head, “my mom’ll say no.”
“Give it a go.”
I sank into the fence as though the air had been taken out of my legs. I didn’t like that idea. I really didn’t like asking for things at the moment. If my mom said no, she’d feel guilty and try and explain to me why she’d said no. And it would all come back to the same thing in the end: Dad and where he was now.
I was just about to explain all this to Karim and tell him he could have the party at his house if he was so keen on having one when sirens began wailing. They swept over our heads like a glowing hand.
We zoomed past the Opel-Hetzer building and from a distance we could already see the gathering crowds. People were squashed up against the guardrail that looked down over the motorway, right where Saldernstraße led past Philippistraße and as we approached, more and more people arrived. Soon the throng were pushing and shoving against the guardrail, it was a miracle that nobody had fallen onto the motorway below. That was where the sirens were coming from. From the motorway. Blue-red light flashed through the air and was mirrored in the snow, landed in cold silence on the gawking faces above.
Karim cut a path through the crowd with me, but we only made it a few meters. I looked around. Kirstin, Manfred and Gabi were standing far behind us. We nodded at each other.
Karim pointed left.
“Hey, look, there’s my brother.”
We pushed our way over to him. Karim tapped his brother on the shoulder and turned him around. Joskan’s face was full of tears.
“Hey, little man, what’s the matter?”
Joskan’s nose was running and he couldn’t stop shaking and shivering. He grabbed hold of Karim and muttered something.
“You did what?” Karim asked.
“I . . . I saw it,” Joskan repeated, clearing the snot out of his nose.
“The woman . . .”
He pointed to the guardrail. His eyes were like marbles.
“Did you really see it?” I asked.
“So who was it?”
Joskan didn’t know, all he knew was that it was a woman. She had long hair, he said, but he couldn’t see her face because she was too far away.
“Can we go?” I asked, “I feel sick.”
“What should I do with Joskan?”
“Bring him with us of course.”
As we pushed our way out, Karim tried to calm his brother down. I was only half listening because I was too busy finding my way through the crowd. When I finally got through, I heard it. It was really quiet, but I heard it. It was almost as though my ears had been tuned to pick up that one item, to suck it up out of the air like a hoover encountering some fluff.
I had no idea whether Karim heard it too, and it didn’t matter anyway. No one else needed to hear it. I was enough. I snatched it from the cold winter air and gulped down the four words.
“It was a Yugoslavian,” a voice said.
It didn’t matter who said it, no face was necessary, no body, just the voice, soon to be joined by a second:
“Yes, a Yugoslavian, I knew her.”
A hand grabbed my jacket, tried to keep hold of me, pull me closer, because now the rumor was moving from one person to the next at the speed of light.
Karim’s grasp held me, Adrian was suddenly there too, even though he’d said he was winterproofing the garden with his dad.
“Zoran, wait!” Karim shouted, but I wasn’t going to wait; I shoved Adrian out of the way, then a tug and I was free of Karim’s grasp and ran. Ran like I’d never run before, crossed the road in a lurching fashion, felt my soles slipping on the ice. Cars didn’t pose any danger, because cars, earthquakes, atomic bombs, none of that meant anything.
Once I’d reached the entrance to our apartment block, I forced it open with my shoulder and almost fell over a stroller. I pushed it away and skated along the hallway into the backyard. And there, next to the trash cans with a slice of sky above me, my mouth snapped open and allowed me to scream.
I expected to see all the windows fly open, I expected to see the neighbors’ heads shoot out, for them to complain like never before—but nothing happened, especially not on the fourth floor where the window on the right in the living room was open and curtains were hanging, but there was no light.
Now she’d come. She always took this long. This long and no longer. Unless she was on the toilet or asleep. No. Even when she was asleep, it didn’t take her long to get to her feet. She was in the bath! That was it. Yes, she was in the bath. Maybe that was why there was no light in the bathroom? She had to be asleep. No light in the bathroom. No light in the living room. So she must be asleep. Unless she wasn’t home . . .
My hands were bunched into fists, I prayed, I slobbered. I cried without feeling it, and cursed all the fates that might have dared steal my mother from me. At the age of five the powers of a god had been mine for a moment. At the age of nine all that was left was a screaming, writhing something shouting for his mother on a winter’s Sunday, even though that something sensed where she was to be found.
My world was on fire. My entire world was ablaze. It started to snow lightly, acidic snow, white petrol that fed the flames and stretched up four floors so that I could use it as a ladder. That’s how I climbed up. My mind wandered through the empty rooms of our apartment and returned to earth on a snowflake. I’m sorry, there’s nothing and nobody up there.
“Mama,” I whispered.
I had no body any more. I had no mother any more. There was no life in me. The world went out. Ashes remained. But even the ashes dissolved. Memories and voices made their way through the snow, they took on shape, became visions and spoke to me:
“WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING LIKE THAT?!”
I froze until the snow ran down my neck and reached my underpants.
That was my mother’s name for me, that was my father’s name for me.
My sister said Zoran, my friends said Zoran. Only my parents were allowed to say Zoki.
“Yes?” I replied.
“WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING LIKE THAT? DO YOU WANT TO WAKE UP THE ENTIRE BUILDING?”
“Nothing’s the matter!” I called up pitifully.
Even from this distance I could tell she was furrowing her brow.
“NOTHING’S THE MATTER, I . . . I . . . I THINK, I JUST . . . FORGOT MY KEY. CAN YOU THROW IT DOWN SO I DON’T HAVE TO RING THE BELL LATER ON?”
She disappeared, came back and threw down the key, wrapped in a piece of tin foil. I dug it out of the snow and looked up again. The windows were still dark, but I knew there was life behind them.
New Year’s No. 10
I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t want anybody to know I was afraid.
The day went by like most days that first year in Philippistraße. And of course there was no New Year’s Eve party up in my room.
1976 went, 1977 came.
Old doors closed, new ones were opened. Dad phoned, talked rubbish for a while and hung up. Elvis yowled from the speakers. Mom got drunk. Somebody broke a mirror. Uncle Curo fell asleep on the toilet.
At 11 p.m. I went out onto the street where the boys were waiting for me. We blew up dog turds and forced anybody who came too close to dance a jig—but mostly we threw the firecrackers at each other’s feet and then ran for our lives. The streets were wet with snow and you had to choose your moment carefully so the fuse didn’t get wet.
Quarter to midnight found us side-by-side, squatting in a line. The guardrail on Kaiserdamm Bridge was hard and rough at our backs, the television tower was a flashing line in the darkness, below us the snow-covered motorway was a slushy nightmare. You could tell the city was taking its final breaths of the year, and we were right there by its side.
We didn’t talk, we didn’t throw any firecrackers, we squatted motionless against the guardrail. It was too cold to move. At that moment I would have bet my life that nothing could stop me, I could feel it deep down. The boys and I had plans. We had lots of plans. Playing in the Bundesliga, for example, then making it into the national team. We were going to meet up at the table tennis tables in Lietzensee Park in sixty years’ time when we were old men, swap stories and all that crap. I can’t tell you what the boys were thinking that night. From where I was sitting, I hoped they were thinking the same thing, because I was up for anything. And when the night finally exploded like an overripe melon and blood-red splashes covered our astounded faces, I sneaked a peek at the boys, watched their open mouths, their glassy eyes.
Eli. Karim. Adrian.
We belonged together.
We were friends.
From the novel Im Regen Stehen, © by Zoran Drvenkar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Chantal Wright. All rights reserved.