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THE SKY WAS yellow as brass, not yet hidden by the smoke from the chimney stacks. Behind the roofs of the factory the radiance was especially bright. The sun must be just rising. I looked at my watch; not eight o’clock. A quarter of an hour too early.
Still I opened the gate, and put the petrol pump in readiness. There was always a car or two passing at that hour wanting a fill.
Suddenly I heard behind me a harsh, high-pitched squeaking—like the sound of a rusty hoist being turned somewhere down under the earth. I stood still and listened. I walked back across the yard to the workshop and cautiously opened the door.
A ghost—stumbling about in the gloom! It had a dirty white cloth wound about its head, its skirt was hitched up to give its knees clearance; it had a blue apron, a pair of thick slippers, and was wielding a broom; it weighed around fourteen stone, and was in fact our charwoman, Matilda Stoss.
I stood watching her. With all the grace of a hippopotamus, she made her way staggering among the radiators, singing in a hollow voice as she went “the Song of the Bold Hussar.” On the bench by the window stood two cognac bottles, one of them almost empty. Last night they had been full. I had forgotten to lock them away.
“But Frau Stoss!” I protested.
The singing stopped; the broom dropped to the floor. The beatific smile died away. Now it was my turn to be the ghost.
“Holy Jesus!” exclaimed Matilda, staring at me with bleary eyes. “I wasn’t expecting you yet.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Did it taste good?”
“Sure and it did. But this is so awkward, Herr Lohkamp.” She wiped her hand across her mouth. “I just can’t understand—”
“Come, Matilda, that’s an exaggeration. You’re only tight—full as a tick, eh?”
She maintained her balance with difficulty and stood there blinking like an old owl. Gradually her mind became clear. Resolutely she took a step forward.
“Man is human, Herr Lohkamp, after all.… I only smelled it at first … and then I took just one little nip, because—well, you know, I always have had a weak stomach … and then … then I think the Devil must have got hold of me. Anyway, you have no right to lead an old woman into temptation, leaving good bottles standing about like that.…”
It was not the first time I had caught her so. She used to come to us for two hours every morning to clean up the workshop; and though one might leave as much money lying around as one liked she would never disturb it—but schnapps she could smell out as far off as a rat a slice of bacon.
I held up the bottles. “Naturally! You’ve left the customers’ cognac.… But the good stuff, Herr Köster’s own—you’ve polished it all off.”
A grin appeared on her weather-beaten face. “Trust me, Herr Lohkamp; I’m a connoisseur! But you won’t tell, Herr Lohkamp—and me a poor widow?”
I shook my head. “Not this time, Matilda.”
She unpinned her skirt. “Then I’d better be going. If Herr Köster should catch me …” She threw up her hands.
I went to the cupboard and opened it. “Matilda.…”
She came waddling along. I held up a rectangular brown bottle.
Protesting, she held up her hands.
“It wasn’t me,” she said. “Honour bright, it wasn’t, Herr Lohkamp. I didn’t even smell it!”
“You don’t even know what it is, I suppose?” said I, filling a glass.
“No?” she replied, licking her lips. “Rum. Stone Age Jamaica.”
“Excellent! Then how about a glass?”
“Me?” She started back. “This is too much, Herr Lohkamp! This is heaping coals of fire on my head. Here’s old Stoss goes and mops up all your cognac on the quiet and then you treat her to a rum on top of it! You’re a saint, Herr Lohkamp, that’s what you are! I’ll see myself in my grave before I touch a drop of it.”
“You’re quite sure, Matilda?” said I, making to drink it myself.
“Well, all right, then,” said she swiftly, seizing the glass. “One must take the good as it comes. Even though one doesn’t understand. Good health! It’s not your birthday, I suppose?”
“More or less, Matilda. A good guess.”
“No, not really?” She seized my hand. “Many happy returns! And lots of dough, Herr Lohkamp.… Why, I’m all of a quiver.… I must have another to celebrate that. I’m as fond of you as if you were my own son!”
I poured her another glass. She tipped it down and, still singing my praises, she left the workshop.
I put the bottle away and sat down at the table. The pallid sunlight through the window shone upon my hands. A queer feeling, a birthday—even though it means nothing. Thirty years.… I remember the time when I thought I should never reach twenty—it seemed so far away. And then.…
I took a sheet of paper from the drawer and began to reckon. Childhood, school—an unresolvable complex of things and happenings—so remote, another world, not real any more. Real life began only in 1916. I had just joined the Army—eighteen years of age, thin and lanky. And a snotty sergeant-major who used to make me practise, on-the-hands-down, over and over again in the mud of the ploughed fields at the back of the barracks … One evening my mother came to the barracks to visit me; but she had to wait for me over an hour, because I had failed to pack my kit the regulation way, and as punishment had been ordered to scrub out the latrines. She offered to help me, but that was not allowed. She cried, and I was so tired that I fell asleep as I sat there beside her.
1917. Flanders. Mittendorf and I bought a bottle of red wine at the canteen.… We intended to celebrate. But we never got so far, for early that morning the English bombardment began. Köster was wounded about midday; Meyer and Deters were killed during the afternoon. Then, with nightfall, just as we thought things were quietening down, and were about to draw the cork, gas came over and filled the dugouts. We had our masks on in good time, but Mittendorf’s was defective, and by the time he knew it, it was too late. He ripped it off, but before a new one could be found he had swallowed so much gas he was spewing blood. He died the next morning, green and black in the face.
1918. That was in hospital. A fresh convoy had come in a few days before. Paper bandages. Badly wounded cases. Groans. Low operating-trolleys trundling back and forth all day. Josef Stoll was in the bed next to mine. Both his legs were off, but he didn’t know that. He could not see it, because the bedclothes were supported on a wire cradle. He would not have believed it anyway, for he could still feel the pain in his feet. Two chaps died in the night in our room, one very slowly and hard.
1919. Home again. Revolution. Starvation. And outside the machine-guns rattling. Soldier against soldier.
1920. Putsch. Karl Bröger shot. Köster and Lenz arrested. My mother in hospital. Cancer.
I pondered awhile. No, I couldn’t remember. That year was missing. 1922, I was a platelayer in Thuringia; 1923, advertising manager for a rubber goods firm. That was during the inflation. At one time I was earning as much as two hundred billion marks a month. We used to be paid twice a day, each payment followed by a half-hour’s leave, so that one could dash out to the shops and buy something before next publication of the dollar exchange rate—for by that time the money would be again worth only half.
And then what? The years after that? I put down the pencil. There was no point in going over all that. Anyway, I could not remember any longer; it had been all too confused. My last birthday I celebrated as pianist at the Café International. It was then I met Köster and Lenz once more. And now here I was in the Aurewo—Auto-Repair-Workshop; Köster & Co. Lenz and I were the “Co.,” but the shop belonged really only to Köster. He had been our school friend, and in the Army our company commander; then he became an air pilot, and later for a time a student; then a speedway racer.… And finally he had bought this show. Lenz, after spending some years drifting around South America, had been first to join him—then I.
I fished a cigarette from my pocket. After all, I had every reason to be content. I was not so badly off really; I had work, I was strong, I did not tire easily, I was healthy as things go.… But it was better not to think too much about all that—when alone, at any rate; and especially at night. For every now and then things had a way of rising up suddenly out of the past and staring at one with dead eyes. It was against such times that one kept a bottle of schnapps.