Next World Novella
ExcerptOpening pages 7– 16 of German edition
If only it hadn’t been for that smell! As if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, filling the air with the sweet-sour aroma of decay. Schepp noticed it at once, that subtle sense of something Other in the midst of ordinary life, slightly skewing the morning. From the far end of his room autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. They’d have to open a window to let all that light out later. Schepp stood there, blinking at his world gently flowing around him, a world of stucco moulding and decorative wallpaper, book-lined walls, chairs with silk covers. Checking the way his hair lay over his bald patch, stroking the back of his head, he told himself that he was a happy man.
Not least because of Doro, whose own hair, pinned up, mingled black and silver, he could see above the back of the desk chair. At one side he glimpsed the kimono she liked to wear when she sat in that chair, editing what he had written the day before. Since the children had left home, she had wanted to resume her career. That had pleased him. Not only did he go to bed late, he also got up late, so if Doro had fallen asleep over her editing, wedged at an awkward angle between the desk and the chair as she was today, he would just shake his head, because he couldn’t have put into words all that he felt.
Oddly enough, as regularly as he had found her here before, he had written almost nothing since his operation, so was there anything to be edited? I’m still dreaming, he told himself as he moved quietly across the fishbone-patterned parquet towards the sun and the desk and the big vase standing on the floor with the decaying gladioli in it, and Doro.
Before he planted a kiss on her neck, stealing up quietly like a man newly in love, a few of the little wooden segments of the parquet creaking slightly, a fly buzzing somewhere (but even that sounded familiar and homely), before he bent over Doro, to the little mole at the base of her throat that he knew so well – any minute now she would wake with a start and look askance at him, half indignant, half affectionate – he suddenly registered a stack of paper on the desk, her reading glasses, a packet of aspirins, a water glass that had been knocked over and a dark mark on the leather inlay of the desktop, with her fountain pen beside it. Once again she had forgotten to put the cap back on it. He was about to pick it up when he remembered, and no, he wasn’t dreaming any more, remembered yesterday evening and the new waitress who had given him such a long, intent smile as he was leaving the bar. Schepp was standing directly behind the chair where Doro sat so still, only the wing of the chair-back kept her from tipping over, and he smiled at this thought for a few seconds. Well, Hinrich, he said to himself, grinning at the place where he thought he detected a last reflection of the night before, you may be sixty-five but the ladies still have time for you. Then he bent over Doro. Once again the smell hit him, an entirely strange smell now, a sweetish aroma mingled with the odour of sweat and urine and – he shrank back, his mouth gaping.
How he made his way around the desk he didn’t know. He clung to it with both hands, hardly daring to look up. Doro? She sat there before him, her features relaxed, entirely at peace, her skin grey. The left-hand corner of her mouth drooped, a thread of saliva hanging from it. It had dried where it ended on her chin. Her lips were slightly open, her tongue lolled awkwardly in her mouth, looking swollen. But worst of all were her eyes, almost but not entirely closed, so that you could see the whites and a bit of the irises, as if she had pulled her lower lids down at the last moment.
I don’t understand, thought Schepp, understanding.
It’s not true, Schepp decided.
Everything will be all right again, Schepp assured himself, and at the same time he was overcome by the certainty that he was choking.
‘At least say something,’ he whispered finally. ‘Just one word.’
He wanted so much to take Doro in his arms, to hug her until she was gasping for breath and stopped playing this game. But there was nothing he could do, he saw that, he felt it, he knew it. He couldn’t even pluck up the courage to whimper; he remained immobilized, breathing as shallowly as possible.
At least it hadn’t been rotting flower stems that he had smelt when he had come into the room, he knew that now. Leaning on the desk, Schepp looked into what could still be seen of Doro’s eyes. He dared not close them. How long, he wondered, had she been sitting here dead, waiting for him? He attempted to take her pulse; he had to try several times; he feared the chill of her wrist so much that he flinched as soon as he touched it; he was sure, in any case, that there was nothing to be felt. Should he call a doctor? Oughtn’t he to call a doctor?
He stared across the parquet and into the great void; he saw himself immobilized at his mother’s deathbed because he could not bring himself to touch her in farewell, he saw himself finally, wordlessly, placing his hand on her forehead – and that immediately brought him back to the hard, oaken presence of the desk on which one of his manuscripts appeared to be lying. Obviously Doro had been editing it and, in her usual way, annotating the pages, summarizing her impressions; the top sheet was three-quarters covered with her firm handwriting. Or rather, only the first lines were written in that familiar script, then the characters visibly slipped sideways. Schepp bent closer to the page; the letters appeared very untidy, Doro would never have set them down like that, not in full possession of her senses. Soon whole words were sliding away from her; here and there the paper had absorbed water from the glass she had knocked over, and the ink had run. Schepp almost reached towards the manuscript to put it somewhere dry. Only then to embrace Doro, warm her, perhaps put her to bed and sit beside her until she awoke. But the sight of her kept him at a distance, the sight of her face frozen into a mask, alarmingly peaceful, already alarmingly unfamiliar, smooth, almost unwrinkled, surprisingly like the face of her sister, who was still under fifty, how strange. To think, reflected Schepp, trying to hide in the shelter of his hands, to think that you grow younger in death. Then his throat tightened as a great wave of misery washed over him. When he could move again, the clock on the Church of the Good Shepherd was striking eleven. He hesitantly touched Doro’s right hand and once more shrank from the cold skin and its waxen feel, like a layer of varnish. Finally he took her left arm, which had slipped off the desk, holding it by the sleeve of her kimono and carefully replacing it where he thought it belonged, beside the manuscript. Her hand was swollen and purplish-red, her forearm a shade of violet. Schepp stared at the pale pressure marks that, despite his caution, he had left on Doro’s arm. The longer he looked, the more blood seemed to flow back into it. The silence of the room closed gently around her again. Overwhelmed, Schepp breathed in the smell of death.
Finally he looked back at the stack of paper that Doro had left for him. Yes – it hit him like a sudden revelation – that was the first, the most important thing to do. He had to read those pages, find out what her last message was. How relieved he felt all at once! As if some kind of hope could be derived from that act. The idea that another action might be more appropriate, considering that he had spent half his life with the deceased, did not cross his mind.
At first it seemed as if his shaking hands were holding a long, unusually long set of editorial comments. Beneath the top sheet, where the handwritten lines soon became crooked and agitated until finally all the words were in the middle of the page, lay many other sheets, meticulously filled with Doro’s familiar handwriting. Under those was a typewritten manuscript, the first page at the bottom of the stack and untitled; only after leafing forwards and back for a while did he realize that this was a fragment he had discarded long since and far from being a serious work of scholarship. How had Doro found it, even thought it worth editing – and she had obviously been editing it for days – this old, forgotten text of his? He hadn’t concealed or destroyed it, he had just forgotten when he last had had it in his hands. The longer he thought about it, the more certain he felt that Doro had been looking for something, something else. Schepp fell into all kinds of speculations; he hardly noticed the sheets of paper slipping from his hands and falling on the patterned wood of the parquet. The throbbing in his throat grew worse and worse, and a rushing in his ears began to make him dizzy.
Once he had opened the window he felt better. He tried not to shrink from the chilly presence of Doro waiting for him on the other side of the desk, with a smell about her that would certainly have embarrassed her very much when she was alive. When you’re dead, she had once whispered in his ear before going to sleep, you can’t smell anyone any more, isn’t that sad? Schepp felt ashamed on her behalf, and whispered that there was no need for her to feel ashamed, he loved her all the same; perhaps he loved her even more for her inviolability and the stillness she radiated, had radiated even in life, had he ever told her that?
He replaced the cap on her fountain pen, righted the empty glass, retrieved the scattered sheets of paper from the floor and hesitated again, staring at the last page of Doro’s comments. They read:
... turned into its opposite, the gentle wind above, the rejoicing lake beneath. ‘It is good to cross the great water.’ But without you, Schepp, do you understand, without you. As far as I’m concerned, and now I will say it once and for all, you can go straight to Hell! Along with Hanni and Nanni and Lina and Tina and
whatever they might be called. Your
I’m sorry, my head
suddenly hurts again,
like when I
Had Doro really written that? The spaces between the words became larger and larger, the rest was illegible, or no, at the bottom of the page, on the right-hand side, there was a little more in a shaky, entirely unfamiliar hand. It took Schepp some time to decipher it.
and now this too
talk about it
Doro’s last words – how they blurred before his eyes! The pattern of the parquet – how it stretched away to the surrounding bookcases, which held his publications and special editions as well as standard works and volumes of commentaries, and on which were arranged all the things he had brought back from lecture tours and guest professorships, together with photographs of the children, Pia radiant just before her wedding, Louisa looking sulky because he never had time in the evening for anyone but his ‘silly old Chinese people’ – it was all there, but now so far removed that he saw none of it. Schepp had been left desperately alone. All he had were the sheets of paper that Doro had written for him.
But written in what kind of confusion, and by which Doro? Obviously she hadn’t been entirely in her right mind; he’d never known her to sound so out of control, so wild, so forceful. What on earth had come over her? Doro, that fragile little woman whose discretion he had always admired! He wanted to start reading at once, from the beginning – ‘As far as I’m concerned’ – no, something wrong there – ‘As far as I’m concerned, you can go straight to Hell’, and when had she ever addressed him by his surname? Was she making fun of him?
It was no good, he had to read it. Yes, maybe he ought to have let the children know first, but did a few more minutes make any difference? Yes, he ought to have called a doctor to fill out a death certificate. But which doctor should he have called, when Doro wasn’t even registered with a GP? And then it really would have been over, they’d take what was left of her away, and emptiness would move in, first into her favourite places, soon even into the most remote nooks and crannies – no! There was time enough for that in what life he had left. Gesticulating at the room, right index and little fingers extended as if in full flow, talking himself into true lecturer’s mode, Schepp strode back and forth, punching accentuated reprimands into the air with his fist, until he came to a halt by the window. And saw that life outside was still going on as usual.
He would just stand there, then, stand there until he finally fell over, or woke up, or until the world came to an end. Standing like that also meant that he didn’t have to look at Doro. What had she died of, anyway, when she had never been really sick? As if her doubts about conventional medicine had kept her healthy. Apart from two or three migraines a year, she had managed very well indeed without all the check-ups and aftercare that kept her sister happy. ‘No tumour, no heart problems,’ she had been told after a CT scan following one of her migraines. ‘Everything’s in good working order.’ These days people didn’t just drop dead at the age of fifty-six!
Although she herself used to be preoccupied with that very thing. It was how he had met her in the first place, he was then a mere Teaching Fellow whilst she was already a Lecturer in the Faculty. Out of the blue, she had told him about her fear, her great fear of the cold, dark lake whose shores you’d reach immediately after you died, only to die there a second time. Or whatever it could be called when you were already dead. He had almost let slip a stupid remark, saw the tears in her eyes just in time.
So now it’s happened, thought Schepp, now she really has gone to the place she’s dreaded all her life. And what about me? I promised to hold her hand there, and I’ve failed her. Had she already reached the lake? Was she standing on the shore scanning the water for an island, the island that, during their life together, he had hoped she would find there? Perhaps she had already taken her first steps into the water, bravely, without any fuss, in her usual way. Perhaps she was swimming with calm and steady strokes towards a second death? No, no, Schepp was sure that whatever Doro was doing on the other side, at least she wasn’t doing that; she had always promised not to.