For Willi Kufult, prison life means staying out of trouble, keeping his cell clean, snagging a precious piece of tobacco, and dreaming of the day of his release.
Then he gets out.
As Willi tries to make a new life for himself in Hamburg, finding a job and even love, he still cannot escape his past. Gradually he becomes sucked into a world of drink, desperation, deceit, and, with one terrible act, he is ensnared in a noose of his own making . . .
Hans Fallada, whose famous works include Alone in Berlin and The Drinker , brilliantly crafts this dark and moving novel, originally written in 1934, as he describes a seedy criminal underworld of shabby lives and violent deeds, showing how our actions always catch up with us. His work is unparalleled, and Once a Jailbird is a fantastic title to add to Fallada’s recently translated works.
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Read an Excerpt
Once a Jailbird
By Hans Fallada, Eric Sutton
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2014 Nicholas Jacobs
All rights reserved.
Prisoner Willi Kufalt was pacing up and down his cell. Five paces forward, five paces back. Five paces forward again.
He stopped for a moment under the window. It was opened slantwise, as far as the iron shutters allowed, and through it he could hear the shuffle of many feet and the intermittent shout of a warder: 'Keep your distance! Five paces apart!'
Section C4 were having their recreation period, walking round and round in a circle for half an hour in the open air.
'No talking! Get it?' shouted the warder outside, and the feet shuffled on and on.
The prisoner walked to the door, stood beside it and listened; not a sound in the whole vast building.
'If Werner doesn't write today,' he thought, 'I must go to the chaplain and beg to be taken into the Home. Where else can I go? My earnings won't come to more than three hundred marks. And they'll soon be gone.'
He stood and listened. In twenty minutes recreation would be over. Then his section would go down. He must try to grab a bit of tobacco before that. He couldn't be without tobacco for his last two days.
He opened his little cupboard and looked inside; of course there was no tobacco there. He must rub up his plate too, or Rusch would be on to him. Polish? Ernst would get some for him.
He put his coat, cap and scarf on the table. Even if it was a warm bright May day outside, scarf and cap were compulsory.
'Well, only two more days of it. Then I can dress as I please.'
He tried to imagine what his life would then be like, but could not ... 'I'll be walking along the street, and there'll be a pub, and I'll open the door and say: Waiter, a glass of beer ...'
Outside, in the Central Hall, Rusch, the chief warder, was knocking his keys against the iron grille. The noise echoed through the entire building and could be heard in all 640 cells.
'He's always making a row, the old bastard,' growled Kufalt. 'Something upset you, Ruschy? ... If I only knew what to do when I come out. They'll ask me where I want to be sent ... and if I haven't got a job, my earnings here will be handed over to the Welfare Office, for me to draw a bit every week. Nothing doing! I'd sooner pull off a job with Batzke ...'
He looked abstractedly at his jacket, the blue sleeve of which was adorned with three stripes of white tape. This meant that he was a 'category three' man, in other words a prisoner whose conduct promised 'permanent improvement and continued good behaviour on release'.
'And how I had to crawl to get them! And were they worth it? A bit of tobacco, half an hour more recreation, wireless one evening a week, and my cell not locked in the daytime ...'
True: the cell doors of category three men were not locked, merely left ajar. But it was a strange sort of favour; he was not to push the door wide when he chose, go out into the corridor, or walk even a couple of steps along it. That was forbidden. If he did that, he would be degraded. The point was that he knew the door was open; it was a preparation for the world outside where doors are not locked ... a gradual acclimatization, devised by an official brain.
The prisoner stood under the window again and wondered for a moment whether he could climb up and look out. Perhaps he would see a woman across the walls ...
No, better not — save it up for Wednesday.
Restlessly he picked up his net and made six, eight, ten meshes. As he did so it occurred to him that he might wangle some polish as well as tobacco from the nets orderly — he dropped the wooden needle and walked to the door.
For a moment he stopped and wondered whether he should try. Then an idea came into his mind: he quickly unbuttoned his trousers, went to the bucket and laid his morning egg. He tipped some water over it, closed the lid, did up his trousers, and grasped the bucket in both hands.
'If he catches me, I'll say they've forgotten to empty my bucket today,' he said to himself; and pushed the door open with his elbow.
He glanced over his shoulder at the glass cubicle in the Central Hall, where, like a spider in its web, the chief warder usually sat and watched all the corridors and all the cell doors. But Kufalt was in luck; Rusch was not there. In his place sat a senior warder who was reading a newspaper, bored by the whole business.
Kufalt tiptoed along the passage to the toilets. On his way he passed the nets orderly's cell and paused for a moment; there was a quarrel going on inside. One, an oily voice, he knew; it was the nets instructor. But the other ...
He stood and listened. Then he went on.
The toilets were a hive of activity. The orderlies of C2 and C4 had slipped in to have a smoke.
And somebody else was there.
'That you, Emil Bruhn? You must be finishing your stretch too, pretty soon?'
Kufalt tipped his bucket into the sink as he spoke.
'You filthy scumbag! Can't you see we're smoking?' said an orderly angrily.
'Shut up, you scab,' retorted Kufalt. 'How long have you been in, eh? Six months? And talking about filthy scumbags! You ought to have stayed outside if you couldn't do without a flush and plug. Shut your face! I'm category three, I am — any of you got a smoke?'
'Here, Willi,' said little Emil Bruhn, giving him a whole packet and some cigarette papers. 'You can keep it all. I've got plenty till Wednesday.'
'Wednesday? Are you getting out on Wednesday? Me too.'
'Are you sticking around this town?'
'No way. With all the prison officers about! I'm going to Hamburg.'
'Got a job there?'
'No, not yet. But I'll sort something out, through my relations ... or maybe the chaplain ... I'll manage.' And Kufalt smiled a rather thin smile.
'I've got a job already. I'm starting here in the timber works. Nest boxes for hens — piecework. I'll earn at least fifty marks a week, the manager says.'
'Too right,' assented Kufalt. 'You've been at it for nine years.'
'Ten and a half,' said little fair-haired Bruhn, and blinked his watery blue eyes. He had a round, good-humoured head, rather like a seal. 'It was eleven years really; only they gave me an extra six months' probation.'
'Jesus, Emil, I would not have taken it! Six months as a gift — and how long will you be out on probation?'
'You're a bloody fool. If you so much as smash a window when you're pissed, or get rowdy on the street, you'll have to serve your six months. I'd have served the whole time out.'
'Yes, but, Willi, when you've done a ten-and-a-half-year stretch ...'
'They were all on at me, the governor, and the schoolmaster and the chaplain, to apply for probation. But I'm not such a fool. When I come out on Wednesday, I'm in the clear ...'
'But your application was refused,' butted in one of the orderlies.
'Refused? I didn't make one; you'd better get your ears cleaned out.'
'Well, that's what the storeman's orderly told me.'
'Oh, did he? And what kind of bastard do you think he is? He kicks the kids' behinds and pinches the pennies their mums have given them to go and buy the supper. To hell with him! Got any polish?'
'And the orderly also said ...'
'Oh, bollocks. Got any polish? Show me — good, I'll have it. You won't get it back again. I've got a lot of cleaning to do. Now don't you start talking. Besides I've got a bar of soap among my things, I'll give you that in exchange. Come to the discharge cell on Wednesday. Shall I slip a letter out for you too? Right. Discharge cell, Wednesday morning.'
The C2 orderly remarked: 'Getting above himself, he is. All uppity because he's out the day after tomorrow.'
Kufalt suddenly turned on him: 'Uppity, am I? You're crazy! It's all shit to me whether I stick in here a couple more weeks or not. I've done 260 weeks — 1,825 days — mind that — and you think I'm uppity because I'm getting out?'
Then he turned more calmly to little Bruhn: 'Now listen, Emil — ah, you want to bunk. Recreation will soon be over. Get up to category three at twelve o'clock today ...'
'I can manage. Petrow's on duty with our lot on F landing. He'll fix it.'
'Good. I've got something to say to you. And now get lost.'
'And now ...' said Kufalt, picking up his emptied bucket. 'By the way, does anyone know what's up with the nets orderly?'
'Someone's split on him; and now he's for it.'
'How do you mean?'
'He smuggled letters with the dirty washing to someone in the women's prison.'
'To which of 'em?'
'I don't know. A small dark one, I think.'
'I know her,' said Kufalt. 'She's from Altona. The burglar's girl. She's done in half a dozen lads, and pinched the swag ... Who's orderly now?'
'I don't know him. He's new — put in by the nets instructor. A fat Jew — fraudulent bankruptcy, they say ...'
'Ah?' said Kufalt, recalling a word or two he had heard as he passed the cell door with his bucket. 'So that's how it is. Well, I've had my eye on that slimy old Nets for quite a while; now I'm going to set him up. Shove your head out, mate, and see if the coast's clear. Kerrist,' he cried in despair, 'what kind of suckers are they sending us now? They bash the door open fit to bring the bloody house down. Just look out and see whether Rusch is in the glass cubicle. Not? Then I'll go and pay a visit to old Nets. Morning.'
He picked up his bucket and went back to his cell.
On the way back Kufalt glanced down at the glass cubicle; there the position was unchanged, Senior Warder Suhr still had his nose in the paper.
When Kufalt reached the nets orderly's cell he stepped aside, flattened himself against the wall by the door, and listened.
There he stood, in blue dungarees and a striped prison shirt, his feet in list slippers, with a pointed yellowish nose, pale and thin, but noticeably potbellied. About twenty-eight years old. His brown eyes should have been frank and friendly, but they looked haunted, and furtive, and unsteady. His hair was brown. He stood and listened, and tried to catch what was being said. He still held the bucket in front of him with both hands.
One of the voices said excitedly: 'You give me back that ten marks. Why does my wife keep on sending you money?'
And the smooth, oily voice of the nets instructor answered: 'I do what I can for you. You ought to be very grateful to me for getting the work inspector to make you nets orderly.'
'Grateful!' said the other angrily. 'I'd sooner have done paper bags. This yarn tears your hands to shreds.'
'That's only for the first few weeks,' said the instructor comfortingly. 'You'll get used to it. Paper bags is much worse. All those who stick bags come to me.'
'You'll have to get me a pair of nail scissors — all my nails are torn ...'
'You must report that to the storeman on Wednesday. He's got a pair of nail scissors. Then you'll be sent for to cut your nails.'
'When the storeman has time. Saturday or Monday — maybe even Friday.'
'You're crazy!' shouted the other. 'What do you think my hands'll be like by Monday? The whole net's covered with blood — you can see for yourself!'
His voice rose to a roar.
Kufalt, outside the door, grinned. He knew what it was like when your hands began to bleed from the sharp sisal yarn and the harsh threads were drawn through the cuts next day. True, no one had told him that the storeman had a pair of scissors. He had trimmed his torn nails with bits of broken crockery.
'That's right, get mad, my friend,' he thought to himself. 'I hope you'll be doing a long stretch and find out all about it for yourself. But my bucket's started stinking like hell again. I'll have to clean it out with hydrochloric. If I go before the doctor today, I'll get the infirmary orderly to cough up a bit ...'
'Hand over that ten marks. I won't have you fool me. I want my money.'
'Now we don't need to quarrel, do we, Herr Rosenthal?' said the instructor imploringly. 'What do you want with money in this place? I get you everything you need. I'll even buy you a pair of nail scissors — but cash in prison, that might get us into a real mess.'
'Don't play the fool with me,' said prisoner Rosenthal. 'You're not a real official. You haven't taken any oaths. You're just an agent of the net manufacturers, to give out the work. You don't run any risks.'
'But what do you want with cash? Tell me that, anyhow.'
'I want it to buy tobacco.'
'That can't be true, Herr Rosenthal. You can get tobacco from me. What do you want the money for?' The other man was silent.
'If you tell me, you can have it. But I want to know who gets it and what for. There's some that are straight, and they're all right.'
'They don't do the dirty on us, Herr Rosenthal, they don't shaft us, they don't do us down, they don't squeal. That's what the word means here.'
'I'll tell you,' whispered the other — and Kufalt had to lay his ear against the crack of the door to hear what he said; 'but you mustn't breathe a word. There's a big dark brute who'd kill me if I gave him away, he told me. He's in the boiler room — he made up to me in the recreation period ...'
'Ah, Batzke,' said the other. 'There's a right crook.'
'He promised me that if I gave him ten marks — look, you won't give me away, will you? Right opposite my window, on the other side of the street, beyond the wall, there's a house.' Rosenthal swallowed, drew a deep breath, and went on: 'I can see right into the windows; and twice I've seen a woman there. And the man swore that if I'd give him ten marks she'd stand stark naked at the window tomorrow morning at five o'clock, and I could see her. Now hand over those ten marks. This place is killing me, I'm half mad already. Come on now.'
'Well, that's a neat bit of work, that is,' said the other, in a tone of admiration and pride. 'But if Batzke says he will, he'll do it. And he won't split. Here you are ...'
Kufalt thrust his foot into the crack of the door, pushed it open, and with one step was inside; he said in a low voice, 'Halves, or I'll split!' and waited.
The pair looked at him dumbfounded. The instructor, fishy-eyed, round-faced and bearded like a walrus, stood with his wallet in his hand, and stared; under the window, pallid, bloated, dark and rather fat, stood the new nets orderly, Rosenthal, shivering with fear.
Kufalt put down his bucket with a flourish.
'Now then, we don't want any argument, Uncle Nets, or I'll talk, and get you a stretch for yourself. You got the last orderly jugged so as to give his job to this old grafter. Don't look so scared, you dumb bastard, it'll only cost you your money. I'll be at the window tomorrow at five myself. So out with it. How much? Well, we can't exactly split it, I don't know how much you've had. I'm cheap; a hundred marks.'
'It's no good, Rosenthal,' said the instructor resignedly. 'We'll have to cough up if you don't want to get at least eight weeks' solitary. I know Kufalt.'
'It's cold in the solitary cells, young man,' grinned Kufalt. 'When you've dossed on stone for three days, the marrow in your bones will turn to ice. Well, how about it?'
'It's up to you, Herr Rosenthal,' urged the instructor.
Two strokes of a bell boomed through the building. The whole landing leapt to life, bolts began to rattle ...
'Quick, or I'll go straight to the chief.'
'Please, Herr Rosenthal!'
'I'll put Batzke on to you, you fat swine, he's my mate. He'll knock your head off.'
'Herr Rosenthal, please ...'
'All right, give it him ... but you've got to stand in with me, Instructor.'
'On account,' said Kufalt, and spat on the hundred-mark note. 'I'll be outside the day after tomorrow, fatty, and I'll think of you when I'm with the girls. Now, Uncle Nets, you put my bucket in my cell while I'm at recreation. And some hydrochloric too, or there'll be trouble. Morning!'
And Kufalt darted down the corridor to his cell.
Eighty noisy, chattering prisoners clopped down the four iron staircases leading to the ground floor. There, at the door into the yard, stood two warders, repeating mechanically: 'Keep your distance. No talking. Keep your distance. Anyone talking will be reported.'
But the prisoners did talk. Only when near the warders were they silent; once they had passed, they dropped into that loud whisper that carries just further than five paces, though the speaker's lips must never move or he would be reported at once.
Kufalt was in high form. He conversed simultaneously with the man in front of him and the one behind, who were anxious to get anything they could out of the category three man.
'It's all balls that category two are to hear the wireless. Don't you believe a word of it, mate.'
'Yes, I'll be out the day after tomorrow ... Don't yet know. Perhaps I'll pull off a job again, perhaps I'll go into my brother-in-law's office.'
'How are they going to get 125 category two men into the schoolroom? There's only room for fifty at the most. You're a twerp. You'll believe anything.'
'My brother-in-law? I don't mind telling you. He's got a felt slipper factory, if you must know. I might get you taken on there.'
'Hold your tongue, Kufalt,' said the warder. 'It's always you category three men that give trouble.'
'I didn't speak, sir, I was only breathing hard.'
'You'd better hold your tongue or I'll report you.'
'All my things are with the storeman. All immaculate, silk-lined tails and patent shoes. Hey, I wonder what it'll feel like after five years!'
'Oh, let that ape of a warder gibber if he wants to. I know something that'll keep him quiet. He had me make a shopping bag and a hammock for him.'
Excerpted from Once a Jailbird by Hans Fallada, Eric Sutton. Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
3 The Home of Peace,
4 The Road to Freedom,
5 The Cito-Presto Typing Agency,
6 On His Own,
8 A Job,
9 Ripe for Arrest,
10 North, South, East, West — Home's Best,