On thin ice (Spiel, Satz, Schlappensieg) first published in Finito. Schwamm Drüber. Erzählungen [short stories], Kathrin Schmidt, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2011.
She often thought, once she was old enough to think, that her brother was probably to thank for one of the first times her mother had ever been in a state of cork-popping euphoria (that she could remember, anyway). Her brother, who’d picked and packed his chromosomes from the gene warehouse with such care not to miss any good ones – and yet, in the nine months of uterine ensconcement, had evolved into a plucked chicken. Leastways, at first sight. His skinny, yellowish, naked-chicken body didn’t go with his big chubby head. Had their mother felt any reservations whatsoever about the hybrid creature she’d brought into the world? If so, they must have lasted a mere nano-second. In the little girl’s memory, the flood of mother-love into the woman had been instantaneous, and was to engulf her baby brother and fulfill his every infant need. Apart from breastfeeding. In her mother’s view this was not the way to help build up the baby’s body to fit with its head. No – a milk formula of two thirds milk to one third water was the order of the day.
Being only his sister she was kept right out of it when, at two weeks old, the squealing little thing got pneumonia and had a mustard wrap applied every day by a black-clad nun, which made Little Squealer scream, his skin beneath it glowing red. The doctor who came each day to give him an injection was unable to guarantee a happy ending. Since Mother and Father were completely helpless with worry over the plucked chicken, she’d had to bring about that happy ending herself. Climbing onto a chair below the skylight in the loft of their building, she beseeched the Lord Jesus to appear, and lo and behold, the Lord sent his emissary unto the loft in the form of the boy from the neighbouring apartment, Kuno Bause, and bade them sing in one voice and at top volume in that hidey-hole under their families’ shared rafters, O sacred head, now wounded… She knew the hymn from the Sunday services held in the small chapel in the garden behind their building. No one else had a real church in their garden. She regularly dragged child-visitors in from the street to impress them with it. Although she was of course forbidden from going inside (they had nothing to do with all that. No connection to that place. Ignore it), she nonetheless spent her Sunday mornings round the back of the little chapel playing, whether with the sledge among the washing lines in January or amid the ripening strawberries in June, and her parents were unaware of the chapel’s back window, which was usually open so the worshippers didn’t smother, and had no inkling of the wide range of devotional hymns and liturgical words their little girl was taking in. When she knew her parents were in bed or had gone out, she would go and crouch directly below the loft’s open skylight and imagine she had a ticket for the German State Railway. Surely she’d be able to get to the Kingdom of God with that! But best of all were her fantasies in bed at night, when she’d spend many an hour wide awake, gazing up through a hole in the floorboards into Heaven (which she accepted as a fact). Like poor little Goldmarie with the wicked stepmother, her fate on being cast down the well was not to land at the bottom, but instead to be carried upwards. To Heaven. And when, through that inch-wide hole, she spied the Lord Jesus in all his glory awaiting her, she would let out a rapturous sigh, her hands raised up in prayer and her face transfigured, and then fall asleep, feeling safe.
Squealer was clearly getting better, which meant she got back some of her parents’ attention. One day, against the instructions of her great-grandmother who had taken over minding the children, she took her little brother for a walk, sneakily pushing the great bulbous pram containing the sleeping chicken (who had put on some weight) out of the garden. But once on the downhill street she was incapable of bringing the pram to a stop. Herr Wehnert being in the vicinity was sheer good luck. Without a second’s consideration of whether he should stand in the pram’s way and stop it, in a flash he flung aside his bag and submitted his substantial male form to the hands of Fate. Fate dealt with him kindly. He returned the pram to their garden gate with a slumbering creature inside it and a tearful one hanging onto its handle, then with a grin of encouragement, stole away. She snooked noisily a few more times, then wiped away the snot with her sleeves, and to avoid any suspicion, quickly ran past the windows of their ground floor apartment to the sandpit round the back.
From that day on, Squealie was her darling. As she bound around the yard like a little chimp, she’d have an even littler chimp hanging onto her. When their mother was attending to the stove, she would half-chew his little bread soldiers for him and pop them in his mouth. Later she would dress him in the pants her friend Annegret’s brother had grown out of, and ply him with pennies from her scant pocket money. She would surreptitiously slip him capers she’d picked out of the fish sauce on her plate (though it should be added, she herself found capers absolutely repulsive). She would bundle him along to choir practice, where he was the smallest boy but also everyone’s favourite – literally, the blue-eyed boy. She organized garden Olympics and poetry-reciting contests with him, did his German homework and, in her brother’s thirteenth year, was kind enough to go tell a girl on his behalf that he fancied her, though without result. She’d been rather pleased that the girl wanted nothing to do with Squealie, since her own adoration of him had by no means dissipated during thirteen long years at his side. Their parents didn’t see anything amiss in the intensity of their relationship; to them it looked normal. The siblings were now into the final months of their daily companionship, since she was preparing to study medicine in the capital.
The yawning hole her brother left healed badly. She nursed it daily. By the third year of her studies, however, she had got as far as not noticing it every day. Her own outstanding grades on leaving school had blocked the opportunity for any further members of their intelligentsia family to stay on and do the highers required for university entrance, and so on the very day she sat for her preliminary medical certificate, Squealie left school. While her parents apparently acquiesced without protest to the government’s ban on children of the intelligentsia staying on for highers ‘except in justifiable cases’, she herself felt profoundly guilty. Squealie became an electrician, and their father would quip that he was the low-brow side of the family. One good thing was that the electrical wiring in their parents’ flat had yet to be channelled beneath the plaster, and Squealie was keen to be allowed to carry this out. The day after his apprenticeship ended he got to work, and within three days had managed to re-wire their parents’ and great-grandmother’s huge five-room flat. For this he got heaped with praise. It was only his great-grandmother who’d noticed that his beer requirements were greater than the household’s supply could keep up with, but she kept this to herself.
The little girl was to give birth to three children. After each one, she had to work hard to lose weight. Though her muscle cells were ready to conform to their statutory duty (i.e. define a slim and toned shape), her fat cells unceasingly kicked against the system. She’d had excess fat cells since childhood, and during each pregnancy a padding of blubber would amass under her skin. She called it lard, a word usually spoken with a curl of the lip. Squealie, meanwhile, was stuck back in their hometown. He never came up to Berlin to do healthy walks with her or maybe introduce one of his girlfriends. She mourned for him. If she went on holiday with her children, Squealie did use her flat (with or without a woman), but when she got back he was always gone. Admittedly when she finally decided to get married he travelled quite a distance to be there, but only, she felt afterwards, to upstage their modest celebration with the announcement of his own engagement. From that time onwards the little girl suffered from a swallowing disorder.
She hadn’t known Squealie was a drinker. It was only when her mother phoned her in far-away Berlin to demand she force him to go into rehab, then broke down in tears, that she found out what had been going on. His fiancée had bid him farewell due to the alcohol, which only served to make him lose yet another tooth on yet another bender. (To be accurate he’d only lost one tooth previously – he’d got totally wasted seeing off a pal to the army and his face had smashed onto the kerb – but that’s not particularly relevant right now.) Obviously she’d never dream of forcing her brother to do anything. As she was telling her husband all this, he was for some strange reason packing his things, and when she asked him (as a by the way) what he was doing, he availed of the moment to tell her he was going back to his first wife. Just like that. And closed the door as he went out.
She spent the following weeks on sick leave until her mother came to take her and the children to Thuringia for the holidays. She wept for the duration of the long train ride, ignoring her children. When they got off the train her father and brother were there to pick them up. She immediately noticed their broad grins and that they were bursting to say something, which she found hard to reconcile with her own state of mind. She’d expected sympathy and condolences on the demise of her marriage, but the men were wearing these happy smiles and could barely restrain themselves from proclaiming the Good News with a look in their eyes like missionary zeal, which she found surprising to say the very least, given the atheism of their household when she was growing up and which prevailed to this day. All seven of them squeezed into the Trabant, one child perched on each of her legs, the third in Squealie’s lap. Once home their father brought out a bottle of expensive Greek cognac, leaving hanging in the air the question of how on earth he had come by it, and then announced the Good News: Squealie had done the Lotto on the State TV channel and landed a row of five – the highest possible score – enabling him to claim fifty-five thousand marks from the German Democratic Republic. After his cognac their father stroked his belly contentedly; however it was suddenly obvious that her brother intended to spend the rest of his day getting out of it, wasted, totalled. Sure enough he’d soon had a sufficient skinful to be cheerfully sizzled, and was whooping it up.
In secret, the little girl sobbed.
Weeks later, when she returned to Berlin, he bought her a piano.
She loved playing the piano and was good at it. As a student and in the years since, she hadn’t been able to. A good piano would have been far too expensive, and she wasn’t prepared to play any old donkey. Much of her free time was now spent wallowing in Rachmaninov, Kabalewski or Prokofiev, and the Russians affected her. Made her dwell on him. Their parents were expecting Squealie to buy the apartment building in which they lived. They said the old woman who owned it, Frau Blauwald, didn’t have any children or probably any relatives at all and would surely let him have it cheap. He wouldn’t be permitted to live there himself, as the Municipal Housing Office most definitely wouldn’t allocate him one of those big apartments, regardless of whether he owned the building. On the downside he’d have all the nuisance of trying to save the old wreck from collapse, with all the leaks coming through the holes in its roof, the perished seals round its windows and the huge areas where the rendering had fallen off. The whole thing was just waiting for a take-over, with no-one really paying much regard. Since he was in that line of work himself he’d probably have no problem finding craftsmen, but paying them a fair wage would surely mean his (unearned) wealth would get prised out of his hands faster than he would wish… She decided to advise her brother against it, and since in those days neither had a telephone in their own home, meaning they could only converse on the phone belonging to old Frau Blauwald who lived in the apartment above her parents and who’d avidly eavesdrop any private calls made on her landing, she wrote him a letter instead. He showed this to their parents, who ranted and raved about what an absolute stab in the back it was, considering everything they’d done to help their lad get this far… But their lad did indeed turn his back on house and home, and serendipitously – or so she thought back then – built himself a twin turntable deck with the most expensive kit he could lay his hands on, and became a DJ. He got a qualification through the Area Office for Cultural Development and after a while was taken on at ‘Culture Works’, a newly-built provincial youth centre. Though the job was caretaking, his DJ’s licence got him many a night’s gig doing the disco, which provided both a showcase for his not inconsiderable talent and a place where he could discreetly drink. Until, that is, he very nearly lost his hearing. During his army time his malleus, incus and stapes – middle ear components – had been removed from one ear, having disintegrated, and it now seemed those same components in his other ear had failed to withstand the onslaughts of his sound system.
Just as he was about to sell his disco deck, the revolutionary changes in the country due to the process of reunifying with West Germany effectively rendered worthless every bit of equipment he owned, so he was stuck with it. Furthermore, his unspent winnings totalled more than the newly decreed maximum sum of eleven thousand East German marks that individuals were permitted to exchange 1:1 for so-called ‘German’ marks. For him, the exchange rate was instead 2:1.
It was time he got married.
He had not been looking for the woman he found. Luckily his mother managed to prevent old Frau Blauwald from dying on their actual wedding day by taking her an ample serving from the reception. She only died a good day or so later, having devoured every last thing on the plate. Then, unexpectedly, a great-niece of hers came out of the woodwork, who admitted frankly that before the ‘revolution’ she’d never have acknowledged her kinship with Frau Blauwald and, had they managed to trace her, would have turned the inheritance down. In these new times, however, she was extremely glad to be inheriting a residential building with solvent tenants in it as well as Frau Blauwald’s own wonderfully spacious flat, into which she moved at once. This caused her no disruption whatever, either work-wise or domestically, since she’d become unemployed six months previously. The building was transformed: insulation, new rendering, new plumbing, new bathrooms for each apartment. The increased rents were just enough to cover the repayments of the loan that had financed all this and provide the owner with a modest income.
So that was that.
Squealie didn’t let himself think too much. His money had taken a walk. He regularly did this with his wife these days, though she always wanted to walk back to her previous tiny flat in a “period” tenement which was now as pristine as a new-build. Soon they had two little boys, who brought their own challenges. Having reached his forties he’d have loved at this stage to build a house for them all, or at the very least rent them a little allotment with a summer-house. The loss of his caretaking job dated back to the day the youth club was shut down. Later his wife, too, had lost her job in a bank, which she’d thought was secure. He applied to be a newsreader at the regional TV station. On his return from the audition he never told a soul what had gone on. He recovered from his attempted suicide only slowly. Though his sister had by now had a telephone for a few years, she once again tried writing, telling him he was still her dearest darling, he knew that didn’t he? Dear little Squealie, she wrote, can you remember us sitting in the little handcart and riding right into the middle of the raspberries with Grandma? And blueberries and blackberries? And going to that place where we found the larch boletes and those great big orange oak boletes? Remember? Slicing mushrooms and coating them in breadcrumbs and frying them to make schnitzel… Or those winters when us two went skating, and that wonderful crunching noise the ice made under our blades… She conjured up the past as though it were, rather, a wonderful future on the horizon – a future they were approaching as one, gliding over thin, ever-shifting ice with one holding the other firm, being a support. It was quite obvious where she wanted him to be. But he read the letter without a single recollection, and on reaching the end, poked it in among his books.
Her children were now grown up and their lives were constantly changing. One moved to Sweden, another to Thuringia. Only the third, a boy of eighteen, still lived with her. When she thought about The Future, she worried. It was as if she had already lived through everything that was yet to come; as if the mirror of mid-life was reflecting the past and it was now recurring. As if the scene that was currently rolling had already been performed, though in a different setting and with different actors, and was coming to the end of the loop, whereby it would, for her too, start over. She went over the past more and more, searching for clues, but all she found was Squealie making a rumpus in short lederhosen with his short hair and short attention-span. The leather trousers he wore nowadays were full-length and black and he wore his hair in a pigtail (he didn’t exactly have a lot of hair to play with, his head being graced with a bald patch that was creeping inexorably down towards his braid). But his attention span had continued to be short, and she had finally accepted she couldn’t go on fretting over this. She wished him luck in the job he’d landed through a temping agency. He was now away from his wife all week, travelling throughout Germany, and when he came home he’d be chilled out enough for it to last all weekend. Sometimes, if he was working in Berlin, he stayed over with his sister. Every visit, including this week’s, he got littler, bounding around like a chimp inside her head. When she bought him a child’s cutlery set and put them out, one suppertime, beside the Little Red Riding Hood plate, he didn’t even notice. Just now he was eating the little bread soldiers she’d cut up for him, with an impassive face. He was so tired, he dropped off while he was still sitting there chewing. She lay him down on the bench, took off his slippers, tucked him up under a woolly blanket, and softly, so as not to wake him, sang O sacred head, now wounded…
Multi-award-winning contemporary poet and novelist Kathrin Schmidt was born in the former German Democratic Republic, her voice feminist, political, and distinctly of the east. Her themes range through unemployment, loneliness, suicide and disaffection, which she sees as characterising the experience of East Germans during and since Reunification. Schmidt’s novel ‘You’re not dying’ (2009) won the German Book Prize and will at last appear in English in 2021 translated by Christine Les.
The UK’s Brexit vote triggered writer Sue Vickerman to throw a rope across to Europe by turning to literary translation. Being northern English, Vickerman empathizes with East German peer-writer Kathrin Schmidt who similarly hails from a region where people feel ‘left behind’ and where right-wing populism is on the rise. Sue has translated TWENTY POEMS BY KATHRIN SCHMIDT, Arc Publications, 2020. She edits for Naked Eye Publishing (UK). suevickerman.eu