A brown leather sofa, on it a man, below it a Lurch. A Lurch is a bundle of dirt made of dust, fluff and hair. A Lurch is what I call a Wollmaus. Because the chairs are never cleared away I have a lot to do, the man says. Because the chairs are never cleared away I get angry. But because the chairs are never cleared away I have a job to do. It’s better to have a job than not having a job. Because what would I do if I didn’t have a job. I would just sit at home, sitting at home is nothing, what do you do when you don’t have a job. It’s better to work even if I get the same money I would get if I didn’t work.
The man takes his left hand from his stomach, lays it behind his head, moves his thumb back and forth. Ferdinand watches the man move his left thumb back and forth. Ferdinand watches TV. It’s after ten pm, Ferdinand prefers serious programmes, he appreciates their seriousness and while watching he frequently looks past the television. Is there a hole in the air? A student asked him once; no, a lake, Ferdinand had answered.
Ferdinand watches TV and looks past the television into space, until the man who’s talking about the chairs comes, then Ferdinand stops looking into space. He watches the man stacking chairs in an auditorium and he hears him say, while sitting on a sofa: Because the chairs are never cleared away I have a lot to do. Ferdinand watches the man twiddle with a biro while he says this sentence, he unscrews the lid, then screws it back on. Ferdinand hears the man say it’s hard to find good work. It’s hard because of the foreigners. I’ve got nothing against foreigners, there are some good ones, but most of them have no work ethic. Work for two Euros an hour and take our jobs, the Turks should speak German and shouldn’t oppress their women. Then the man continues stacking chairs. Ferdinand switches over. A father leads his daughter to the alter and hands her over to her husband. You may now kiss the bride, the man who’s standing opposite the couple says, and the husband kisses the bride and children run through the shot before they leave the church.
Ferdinand knows that the chairs will never be cleared away. Ferdinand leaves the TV on, goes in the kitchen, gets himself a beer and comes back. There are straws in the drawer of the coffee table, Ferdinand takes one and puts it in his beer. Ferdinand only likes the thin straws, and he likes it when a straw bobs back up after being submerged in a beer bottle. They are plastic straws, straws made from straw are a thing of the past, like milk in glass bottles and Stollwerk caramels sold individually. Ferdinand likes yellow straws the best. Ferdinand works with chairs. He moves them to one side, he puts them out. He stacks them. There are many chairs in his house, he doesn’t know how many.
Ferdinand’s been a school caretaker for twenty-three years, he’s lived in the caretaker’s quarters on the ground floor with his family for twenty-three years. His family is now only Ferdinand and his wife Margit, their children have left school and live in their own apartments with their own families. The school has changed over the years, that’s what the teachers say, and that’s what Ferdinand says, the children can’t really say anything about it. Physical Exercise is now called Movement and Sport, the name Lena has become more common, just like Özlem and Lukas, the students’ smoking room has been abolished, the teachers’ smoking room has been abolished. Ferdinand and his wife Margit are the only ones who are allowed to smoke in the school. Ferdinand says, we’re the only ones who live here after all. Me more than my wife. Margit works outside the school at an old people’s home, some days she’s free, on others she works the whole night through. Many days when she comes back to the school after work, Margit is so tired that she can’t stay awake for very long. She sleeps despite the shrieking children who run through the corridors and who in some cases are no longer children. Margit’s sleeping now, now, where it’s quiet and Ferdinand looks into the hole next to the television.
It’s hard when there are foreigners, the man on the television says again, this time his voice comes from Ferdinand’s head. Ferdinand hears this sentence every day. He hears it at the school, he hears it in front of the school, in the street. How do you do it, Ferdinand is sometimes asked, how can you stand it, they don’t even speak German at school. Ferdinand doesn’t say anything when he hears these sentences. He doesn’t say anything and lifts his shoulders only to bring them down again. There’s a creak when he does it, especially from the left side. The Minister of the Interior is making an attempt at integrating immigrants, Ferdinand read in the newspaper this morning. His wife had left the newspaper open on the kitchen table just like she did every morning, she ate her breakfast before Ferdinand and the newspaper remains open on the page Margit had last read. Ferdinand always only reads the pages that Margit has left open, there isn’t enough time for much more. The shared read spread is the mutual factor of their evening conversations. A national action plan has been developed, Ferdinand read while stirring his first coffee of the day, and then: It will specifically target the shortcomings and problems of the past, in particular the lack of German language skills.
Ferdinand came to the city when he was ten. He lived at the boarding school, he went to school and he was laughed at because he would say der Butter instead of die Butter. Because he said Postauto instead of Postbus. Because he would say I came with the post. He didn’t understand why the others laughed, he didn’t understand why the others asked whether he came in a package or in a letter. Where do you come from, his German teacher asked him once, twice, three times. Ferdinand got a ‘satisfactory’ in German, his German was just about sufficient, and Ferdinand endeavoured to say die Butter and die Marmalade and was embarrassed that time and time again new words would surface that he had learnt differently at home. He started keeping a notebook where he would write words correctly; he was glad when he had to learn his first foreign language because the others had to learn the language too, because he learnt faster and began a notebook where both of the new languages met one another.
Ferdinand finished school and moved back to his parents. He lived at his parents’, did a carpentry apprenticeship, and was laughed at when he said die Butter instead of der Butter or die Marmelade instead of das Marmelade or Postbus instead of Postauto. Ferdinand would have been laughed at even more if his English notebook had been discovered beneath his pillow where he used to hide it. Ferdinand wrote down words he heard on the radio, words he read in the newspaper; he wrote them out and read them over and over again, and when he wasn’t at home they waited for him under his pillow. What a load of nonsense, why on earth do you need that, we speak German in this house, his mother would have said. There’s enough German music, you don’t have to learn English, you don’t need to understand it.
Ferdinand has nine notebooks. He has nine dictionaries. He asks the students where they come from when he sees them for the first time and again if he forgets where they come from. Ferdinand knows simple phrases in nine languages. Hello. Good morning. See you later. Have a good weekend. Where are your slippers. No running. How are you. What happened. He’s working on more. Ferdinand has to monitor the slipper rule, the director instructed him to do so. Ferdinand doesn’t wear slippers. Set an example, the director would say and Ferdinand would say, no, I’m old enough to decide that for myself. I work here, if I wear slippers my feet will get wet. Ferdinand prefers to ask the students where they come from. I got distracted, he says whenever the director points at someone wearing shoes. I got distracted, Ferdinand says, my parents brought me up to always say hello. The director then nods and walks down the corridor to the conference room in his red slippers. He sits there most of the time. Ferdinand has been to Turkey, Spain and Croatia. He hasn’t been to Bosnia-Herzegovina yet, or Albania, Kosovo or Chechnya. I don’t want to get killed, Margit says when Ferdinand suggests they go there. I’m only joking, Ferdinand says. Let’s go to Turkey, or Greece, the sea’s the sea.
When Ferdinand and Margit travel to Turkey on holiday they’re picked up at the airport. A man stands there holding up a sign with Felber on it. They get in the shuttle bus; it smells differently than the ones back home, Ferdinand usually says and breathes loudly through his nose. Ferdinand and Margit travel through the streets, sometimes a town passes by, it’s mostly dry land; it takes a while to reach the hotel. The hotel has green lawns, palms and pools. The buffet is international, on Tuesdays there’s a Turkish emphasis, but the international dishes remain. There’s Beck’s and Heineken and people that bring their own beer steins and say that the beer will get warm otherwise. Ferdinand and Margit have breakfast, lie on the beach, eat lunch, lie on the beach, eat dinner, sit on the beach. Sometimes they go for a walk but they quickly reach the beach of the next hotel and there are men preventing them from going any further. Margit likes watermelon. Once a week there’s a karaoke night, at first the holidaymakers sit in their plastic chairs, no one wants to sing, then someone gets up and more and more people head towards the stage, they sing in German and English. You don’t hear the muezzin.
When Ferdinand’s working he makes his way through the school talking with the students and the teachers. When Ferdinand’s working he sits in the entrance hall of the school behind a pane of glass in a small room. Ferdinand is clearly visible. There are many keys in his office, this is also where the dictionaries are kept. On the wall opposite the office hang the mayor, the governor and the President of the Federal Council, all men; the women hang in other places with fewer clothes on. The mayor, the governor and the president all look younger in the pictures than they do today. Crosses are mounted on the walls only in the classrooms, most of them are simple wooden crosses, Jesus isn’t on any of them. Nine dictionaries are in Ferdinand’s office, seven of which are hidden. He can leave the notebooks with the sentences out on the table, no one can tell what’s inside them.
Seven of the nine dictionaries are in the cupboard because of the questions. Do you have to learn Turkish now, has it come to that, a father said. Albanian, what are you doing with Albanian, they should learn German, said one of the mothers. Ferdinand was tired of giving explanations, was tired of shrugging and cleared the dictionaries away. Not all of them, English and French remain on the table, Ferdinand receives appreciative looks for English and French. Learning a language at your age, said the postman and: Paris, Paris is wonderful, have you been? said a mother and: Paris, the city of love, said a father in the process of coming through the door.
Ferdinand had been to Paris. He ordered a baguette and two croissants at a bakery and had a good feeling when he was given a baguette and two croissants. Margit and Ferdinand went to the Eiffel Tower but they didn’t go to the top because it was too high for Ferdinand. In Montmartre Margit and Ferdinand stood in front of the Moulin Rouge, they didn’t go in, but a couple asked them to take a photo of them. Ferdinand watched the two of them stiffen into a pose as Margit took the photo.
French isn’t just spoken in France, Ferdinand said to his friend Hubert when he raved about France after seeing Ferdinand’s dictionary. French is spoken all around the world, in Cameroon, Ruanda and other places, Ferdinand said. Hubert looked at Ferdinand and said, those are bad countries, a black worker will always be an illegal worker, he’ll never be a white worker. Ferdinand took a sip of his beer and nodded. Ferdinand doesn’t object to sentences like these. He listens to them, sees them standing in the room until they decay. Ferdinand tries to say something against these sentences until he can’t hold the others’ gaze and says: Just some banter. Then he laughs and the others laugh too.
Ferdinand is still sitting in front of his television looking into the hole in the air. He hears the man speak and reflects. Because the sentences are never cleared away, things are how they are, Ferdinand thinks and breathes in, deeply. Margit went to a yoga course this past year, Ferdinand knows that he must consciously breathe out to the bottom of his stomach. Ferdinand breathes in consciously and back out, and in and back out, then he says, because the sentences are never cleared away, things are how they are. He takes the straw out of his beer, sticks both ends in his mouth and chews on it leaving small holes in the plastic. Ferdinand is about to make a decision. Because the sentences are never cleared away, he says again, this time a little louder. He considers waking Margit. Margit I want to go to Bosnia, Ferdinand will say. Baklava tastes better than Gugelhupf, I want to go to Sarajevo, Mostar and Jajce. Medvjed means ours which means ayɪ which means bear. Baklava is sweet, and ćevapčići is made from beef and lamb. Margit would be woken by Ferdinand’s words, Margit would be tired and would be angry so Ferdinand decides not to wake Margit for as long as she hasn’t had enough sleep. Instead Ferdinand decides to see whether the main doors are locked. They are, and as Ferdinand comes back, the straw is next to the beer, the TV’s on, as it was, only the feeling in his stomach has gone. It’s now moved to his chest and spread itself out; it’s become an unpleasant feeling. Right, says Ferdinand after a while, he says it loudly. He can speak without Margit hearing it, there are two rooms between them. Ferdinand bends forward, takes a slip of paper from the coffee table. He takes a pencil and sits down.
Clear away sentences, Ferdinand writes on it. World peace, he writes next and briefly considers whether world peace is a bit much. Ferdinand leaves world peace where it is. Besides ‘clear away sentences’ and ‘world peace’ Ferdinand writes ‘to do’. He writes it in capitals and puts it in his trouser pocket. He feels better, the feelings have gone. Margit explained that Elsbeth’s psychotherapist had said that you should write negative thoughts that preoccupy you on a slip of paper to decrease the burden. On the slip, out your head, the psychotherapist is supposed to have said to Elsbeth. Ferdinand takes the paper slip back out of his trouser pocket and folds it in a nicer way, so the edges line up. Ferdinand’s aunt once folded him a paper fortune teller that told him whether he would go to heaven or hell, but that was a long time ago.
Anna Weidenholzer was born in 1984 in Linz and now lives in Vienna. She studied Comparative Literature in Vienna and Wroclaw, Poland. Weidenholzer has been published numerous times in literary magazines and anthologies and has won many awards, such as the Alfred-Gesswein-Prize (2009), the Residency Stipend at the Schloss Wiepersdorf (2011), the State Grant for Literature (2011/2012), Stadtschreiberin of Kitzbühel (2012) and the Reinhard-Priessnitz-Prize (2013). Her debut novel Der Platz des Hundes (2010) earned her a nomination for the European Festival of the Debut Novel in Kiel in 2011. Her novel Der Winter tut den Fischen gut was nominated in the fiction category of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2013.
Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, editor and curator based in London. She is The Quietus’ columnist for literature in translation and her articles and reviews have been published by the TLS, Huck and Modern Poetry in Translation. Her own short fiction has appeared in Structo and TEAM and she has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2015. She edits the Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt, is former acting editor of New Books in German and is guest literary curator for the Austrian Cultural Forum London throughout 2015. She has translated prose and poetry for Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut and is currently translating Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Read More from German:
- Translation as Firework: A Prismatic Rendition of Anna Weidenholzer
- Translation Tuesday: Multilingual Poems by Ann Cotten
- Hands Across the Water: A Dispatch