Nothing but Ghosts
The letter arrived on September 20th, the fifth day after my return from Paris. Somehow Raoul must have got hold of my address at the theatre before he left for WÜrzburg; he knew that it was Ruth’s former address; anyhow, he knew pretty much everything about me from Ruth. He had gone to WÜurzburg, had probably organized his rehearsal schedule and moved into his new quarters, had spent one evening alone or maybe not, and had addressed an envelope to me the next day and sent it off. He was fast. In the envelope was a second-class ticket to WÜurzburg for the midday train on September 25th along with a return ticket. Also a piece of paper on which was written only a single sentence: ‘It would be nice if you came.’ Oddly enough, instead of signing it he had drawn a cartoon-type side view of his face, an unflattering profile.
I put the letter on the table; it looked strange and yet quite ordinary, a narrow white envelope on which my name was written. I had four days to decide, but there was nothing to think over; I knew that I would go. I no longer felt different than usual, no longer borne up by great expectations. I slept a lot, got up late, sat around in the afternoons in the cafe in front of my house, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, looking up and down the street, never looking anyone in the eye.
The telephone rang several times; sometimes I picked it up and sometimes not; it was always Ruth, mostly towards evening. She wasn’t feeling well, but not really bad either. She was very busy and seemed distracted; in spite of that, she talked a lot about Raoul, lots of questions which she herself answered. Nothing was clarified before his departure; he had left without their having another talk. ‘You should be happy that he’s gone, that idiot,’ the make-up woman had said to her several times. She said, ‘I’d like to write to him; do you think I ought to write to him?’ and when I didn’t reply, she said, ‘It’s probably useless, completely useless, I know.’
As we were talking on the phone, I leaned out of the window so she could hear the street noises, the traffic at the intersection, fragments of the conversations of people sitting outside the cafes. Ruth used to like that; now she whispered, ‘Stop it, it’s making me homesick.’ Talking to her on the phone wasn’t hard. During the phone conversation we had just before I took the train to WÜrzburg, we didn’t talk about Raoul at all; I didn’t ask about him, and Ruth didn’t mention him. It was as though he had never existed. She told me she had had a call from a theatre in Hamburg; she’d probably get out of her contract and move again; she seemed happy and excited about that. She said, ‘Then we’ll be much nearer each other again.’
We talked a long time; I was drinking wine, was drunk by the time we finished and feeling melancholy. I said, and I meant it, ‘Ruth, I miss you very much,’ and she said, ‘Yes, me too.’ Then we hung up.
I went to bed but couldn’t sleep; the street was noisy and full of people until late into the night. I lay there listening with a single absurd picture in my head – Raoul carrying me through a dark, unfamiliar apartment, through a hallway and many rooms, till he finally put me down on a bed, gently, as though I were a child. The morning of September 25th, I stood in front of my wardrobe, uncertain; I didn’t know how long I would be staying – one night, a few days, for ever? I didn’t know what he wanted, and actually I didn’t know what I wanted either. Finally, I took nothing except my toothbrush, a book and a nightgown. I turned off the telephone answering machine, locked the apartment door, and took a bus to the railway station, much too early.
What else is there to say about Ruth and me; what else can there be? We kissed each other once, just once, at night in a bar. Actually it was only to get rid of someone who wouldn’t leave Ruth alone. Ruth leaned over and kissed me on the lips, deeply and tenderly; she tasted of chewing gum, wine and cigarette smoke, and her tongue was peculiarly sweet. It was a beautiful kiss, and I remember that I was surprised and I thought, ‘So that’s what it’s like to kiss Ruth.’ I thought we would feel embarrassed afterwards, but we didn’t, nor did we talk any more about it. Ruth’s admirer disappeared without saying another word.
When we were younger, Ruth was more effusive and exuberant; she drank a lot and loved to dance on top of bars and tables. I liked that and urged her on, ‘Go do it, Ruth, dance on the table!’ Without further ado, she would push aside glasses, kick the ashtrays off the table with her high-heeled shoes, and then she’d dance provocatively. Not until much later would she rebuff me, getting angry sometimes, saying, ‘I’m not living a vicarious life or whatever for you.’ We wore the same clothes, long skirts, coats with fur collars, pearl necklaces – but we never looked alike. Someone said, ‘You’re like two lovebirds, like those little yellow canaries; you always sit there the same way and move your heads back and forth in the same rhythm.’ We liked that comparison.
Sometimes when someone asked us a question, we answered simultaneously, saying exactly the same thing. But we rarely read the same books, and we never cried together over anything. Our future, which in the beginning didn’t exist and which later became more like a space to which we had to accommodate ourselves, was a shared one – Ruth and I. Ruth was not afraid to say it: ‘We won’t ever part.’
I often looked at her, trying to imagine what she’d be like when she got old; I never could. She is most beautiful when she laughs. When she just sits there and doesn’t speak, I don’t know what she is thinking. Her eyebrows are plucked into thin silvery sickles; her hands are very small. There were moments when she clearly was not listening to me as I told her something. No photo exists of the two of us together. Did I really know Ruth?
The trip from Berlin to Wüurzburg took six hours, and I was happy during those six hours. I read and I slept, and woven into that light sleep were momentary dreams: Ruth on a staircase, looking for me, mute; Raoul at a table in the theatre canteen, alone, a stranger; my empty room in the Berlin apartment, sunlight on the wooden floor; the voice of the train conductor, ‘We will be arriving in Braunschweig in a few minutes’; Ruth whispering; my legs asleep; Raoul standing in the rain under the awning of a hotel. I woke up again, my face swollen and hot.
I went to the buffet car to smoke a cigarette; people sat hunched over their beer glasses, silent; the landscape outside the tinted windows hilly and green, the fields already harvested, small birds perched on the swinging telephone wires, forming a long, dark chain. The train rolled on and on, measuring the time, the distances, getting closer, inescapably, and I wished myself back at home, and further back into an earlier time, a before, and at the same time I was so impatient that my stomach, my head, my limbs ached. Ruth, I thought, Ruth, I would so much like to tell you about all this.
I returned to my seat, walking along the corridor, past all those faces looking at me. I read and then couldn’t read any longer and stared out of the window and got so tired that my hands shook and my knees became weak. Another hour to WÜrzburg, half an hour, twenty minutes, soon. The street lamps went on in the suburbs, there were lights in the apartment blocks, small, bright windows in the dusk. Perhaps that kind of life? That table under that lamp in that room with that view of the garden, faded asters and flowerbeds covered with branches for the winter, a children’s swing, a concrete terrace. What is going on, I thought, what is going on…This yearning of mine was both terrible and inane.
The train was slowing down, and that was vaguely comforting. I got up, took my little bag, my coat, my hot face; I thought, ‘Raoul, I’m dreadfully sad.’ Then the train stopped, coming to a standstill with a single resolute jolt. WÜrzburg’s main terminal, 6.22 p.m. I joined the long line of passengers waiting to get off, step by step by step; no one detained me, and then I was on the platform, walking towards the exit. And when at last I spotted Raoul, I knew instantaneously and with hopeless certainty that I had made a mistake.
He was standing at the end of the tracks leaning against a board listing the train schedules; he had on a coat I had never seen him in at the theatre, was wearing his glasses; he looked a bit arrogant and bored, arms crossed over his chest, shoulders raised. He stood there looking like someone who’s meeting someone coming in on a train, waiting, in expectation, perhaps impatient; he stood there like all the others, and he was not afraid. I walked towards him and I could see that he was not afraid; he might have been unsure and nervous, but the fear that had me shaking, this fear he didn’t have.
When he saw me, his bored expression changed in seconds to one that was joyful, convincingly happy and at the same time incredulous; he came towards me in two or three quick strides, and before I could have warded him off he drew me close and held me in a tight embrace. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, my arms, my face. I embraced him too, we stood there like that; he smelled of shaving lotion, his cheek was soft, the frames of his glasses pressed slightly against my temple; it was almost preposterous to feel him so suddenly, only now. He held me for a long time before letting me go. He said, ‘How wonderful, how wonderful that you really came.’ I didn’t know what to say, and he took my hand and pulled me along behind him through the station concourse. He said we’d get something to eat; he had reserved a table in a Chinese place; he was hungry, was I hungry? I wasn’t hungry.
In the square outside the station we got into his car, a small red Alfa Romeo; I had never before been in an Alfa Romeo, and I wanted to tell him so, but then it seemed silly and I didn’t say anything. He started the engine, drove off at breakneck speed, looked at me, shook his head, kept bursting into laughter, seemed to find something inordinately amusing. Did you have a good trip? How was the weather in Berlin? Heard anything from Ruth? I didn’t answer the last question, nor the first two either, really.
He parked four blocks away in a no-waiting zone. The Chinese restaurant where he had reserved a table was totally empty except for the Chinese family behind the counter staring at us unwaveringly and eerily, till one of them came to our table and handed us a much-fingered menu. Raoul ordered appetizers and a main course; I wanted a salad, if anything at all; I felt ill; my stomach was in a knot. ‘Jasmine tea, please,’ I said to the unfriendly face of the waiter.
We sat across from each other and looked at each other; nothing else seemed possible. Actually, I thought, I had come to WÜrzburg just to look at him, the way you want to look at a person you’ve decided to love. Raoul was good at that, he endured my gaze and I his; his eyes were large, wide open, they seemed to be brown, amber tinted, in their corners a smile that would not go away. We looked at each other and that took all the strength I had, until the waiter finally stepped in, putting the jasmine tea, the appetizers and my salad on the table. I looked away from Raoul’s eyes in which there was no longer any light, no remoteness, and no promise, and I resolved not to look at him like that again; it wouldn’t change anything.
Raoul ate, not the way he had in the canteen, but like a normal man; he used chopsticks, skilfully dissecting the vegetables, the fish, talking from time to time in a matter-of-fact way that took my breath away. Actually, during those four days with Ruth, he and I hadn’t talked at all, saying only disjointed words with an absolute meaning-lessness that seemed to intoxicate him as much as me. He had said ‘I miss you’ into the face of a total stranger, into a utopia, in the hope that the sentence would reach its destination and then dissolve into nothing or everything.
That’s how it had been, and now he was sitting across from me, eating Chinese noodles and intermittently taking small sips of beer, smiling at me and talking about the Musil production, his colleagues and disagreements at the theatre. And I nodded obediently and said, ‘Aha,’ and, ‘No, really?’ What had I expected? Something different? Nothing at all? And what now? How were we supposed to go on from here? I pressed my hands together under the table; they were cold and damp. My heart was pounding; I felt ill; I thought of Ruth, of Ruth.
‘Did you tell her that you were coming here?’ Raoul asked. I shook my head and he looked at me expectantly. It seemed as if he wanted to talk about it, as though my betrayal of Ruth on his account excited him, made him happy, so that he wanted to savour it a little longer, but at least I didn’t do him this favour. I shook my head again, and he shrugged and turned back to his food; he enjoyed eating; I could see that.
We sat at that table in this restaurant for maybe two hours, and in all that time not another customer came in. It was as though the world outside had gone under and only we were left – he and I and the Chinese family, who after they had served us had again withdrawn behind the counter. Sometimes I could hear the shuffling of their feet. Raoul talked a lot in those two hours; I talked very little. Sometimes he interrupted himself to stare at me, but before there was a chance that we would again gaze at each other like lovers, or before he could ask me anything else, I would ask him a question.
I asked him about his father, his childhood, Ireland, his ex-wife, and he liked being questioned and replied readily. Once when he told a friend about the premature death of his father, the friend had said to him, ‘Lucky you,’ and he had punched his friend right in the kisser. Today he regretted it, and he now understood what his friend had meant, that his father’s early death had given him a certain strength, invulnerability and maturity. No one at the theatre really knew him for what he was because he wasn’t actually an actor but only an imposter, a loner, and he wasn’t going to stay in the theatre much longer; what he really wanted to do was to write stories, plays, poems, to reveal himself.
He said, ‘I want to reveal myself.’ As for his ex-wife in Munich and their child, that was a difficult relationship and it was impossible to end it completely; they had been together too long for that. And the light in Ireland was terrific, the wide expanses, the colour of the meadows when the wind blew through them and reversed the blades of grass to white – it was the same phrase he had used weeks before to describe the colour of Ruth’s eyes. But that no longer surprised me.
Finally he thought he had revealed enough of himself. Each answer had been an anecdote that was intended to dovetail with the other anecdotes, forming a picture of the man he was. He seemed to think that it was enough for a start. I had shown him my lovely silence, my mouth, my hands, my head tilted to the side. The back of my neck hurt.
He waved to the waiter, who brought the bill and two little porcelain cups of rice brandy. At the bottom of the cup you could see a naked woman, her legs spread. She disappeared as soon as I had drunk the brandy. He paid, refusing to take my money, nodded to the Chinese family, who didn’t move; then we left. It was already dark outside and windy. We got back into his little car. He said, ‘Shall we drive home, OK?’ Perhaps the wording was intended to console me.
We drove through the dead city, terribly fast, then he slowed down, turned into a side street, parked the car in front of a small house that stood between two large villas. Instead of a hotel room, the theatre had made this place available to him – there were two rooms, kitchen, bath and a garden. He said he preferred this to a hotel room, he was fed up with his unsettled existence. We climbed out of the car. Staggering a bit, I held on to the garden fence and took a deep breath. I wanted to just stand still for a while in this dark garden. But he immediately unlocked the door, pulled me into the house, put on the light, set my bag on the floor, went to get wine from the kitchen, and pushed a chair over. ‘Sit,’ he said, ‘sit down. There’s something I have to do, but we’ll have something to drink first, OK?’
I sat down, took off my coat and lit a cigarette. The room was tiny and low ceilinged: a table, two chairs and a desk on which were the things he said he always took along with him – two or three books, a small brass elephant, a Pelikan fountain pen, and a large grey rock. A small narrow stairway led from this room to the upper floor, presumably to the bedroom. I sat there and watched as he walked across the room, unpacked his bag, sorted through the scripts on the desk, lost in thought or maybe not.
He poured wine for me and for himself too. I drank some immediately; in a terrible way nothing mattered any more. There was nothing. There were no words for our relationship, no silence and no closeness, not even a feeling of shock about the other person; even my fear was gone, the picture I had, all the images, Raoul in the rain, Raoul carrying me to his bed – none of his actions affected me any more. A tall, heavy man walking across a room in which a lamp casts a golden cone of light on a wooden table. The cigarette tasted rough and bitter and good. I drank my wine and refilled the glass, and he sat down at the table for a short while, talked a bit, and then he said, ‘Let’s go to bed.’
I brushed my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror and washed my face till it was rosy and soft, drops of water on my eyelashes, water on my temples, then I put on my nightgown and, placing my hands on the tiled bathroom wall for support, I took a deep breath. I climbed the narrow staircase and went into the tiny bedroom. Raoul was already in bed, apparently naked, lying on his stomach. He moved aside and held up the blanket. I crept under it and turned to him immediately; he would misunderstand, I knew that, but there was no other way than to touch him right away, to embrace him, to clutch him tightly.
His body was surprisingly soft and warm, a lot of skin, a lot of strange surfaces, unfamiliar – what an immense imposition. I touched him, and he immediately misunderstood, misjudging my queasiness, my fear and my shock. I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ and he said, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ That was true; I really didn’t know why, I only knew that I didn’t want to. And then he said, ‘But sooner or later we’d do it anyway.’ He was right, wasn’t he? I lay under the cool blanket. It was dark. He had turned out the light. His face was indiscernible in the dark. He said, ‘But sooner or later we’d do it anyway,’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ to his indiscernible face, ‘of course we would.’
The knowledge that he was right, the understanding of the logical consistency and at the same time its impossibility filled me with an unexpected, crazy cheerfulness. He didn’t say, ‘See?’ But he thought it, and while he did what he was eventually going to do anyway, I lay there and couldn’t help laughing, softly and violently, not wanting to stop, and he laughed too, but differently, and I held on to the edge of the bed and thought of Ruth. The way she came into the kitchen in the morning, making herself coffee and sitting down at the table with me and reading the little piece of paper on which she had written what she had to do that day: go to the post office, the supermarket, the chemist, call H. and D., get a present for M., pay the telephone bill. And then it was over and yet it wasn’t, and finally it was, and we rolled apart, he turned round, his back like a wide landscape. Then I fell asleep.
The next morning I was awakened by the ringing of the alarm clock. It must have been very early; the light in the room was still grey; my left hand had gone to sleep, and my shoulders hurt. I was instantly awake, at once tense, on my guard. Next to me Raoul groaned, threw back the covers, turned off the alarm and got up; his naked body was heavy and massive and in the dusky light seemed strangely blurred. He began to get dressed, in an awkward way, then he suddenly turned round to look at me as though it had just occurred to him that I was there – that there was someone else lying in his bed.
When he saw I was awake, he smiled at me and said, ‘I have to memorize a script now, and the rehearsal begins at nine; you can sleep a little longer.’ I said, ‘How late is it?’ He said, ‘A little before seven.’ Our voices were rough and scratchy. He opened the little dormer window; cold morning air came into the room, the dampness almost palpable. When he reached the stairs, he turned round once more and came back, stopped at the doorway and said, ‘When does your train leave?’
I think he dealt me this blow quite intentionally, but I was awake and alert enough not to look taken aback or hurt or surprised. I had no idea when my train left; I didn’t think there was a train back. I said, pleasantly, ‘Eight forty-two,’ and he said just as pleasantly, ‘That means I can still take you to the station.’ Then he disappeared; I heard him in the kitchen putting water on to boil, the refrigerator door opened and shut; he briefly went out into the garden; he turned on the radio.
I sat on the edge of the bed, put my bare feet next to each other on the floor, pressed my knees together, placed my hands on my hips and arched my back. Fleetingly I thought about the expression pulling yourself together. Then I got dressed and went downstairs. Raoul was sitting at the desk reading softly to himself and rocking his upper body back and forth. Without turning to look at me, he said, ‘There’s coffee and some fruit in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I don’t have any real breakfast stuff here.’
I took a tangerine from the kitchen table, poured coffee into a mug. ‘It’s seven thirty,’ the radio announcer’s voice said. I didn’t know where to go; I didn’t want to disturb him – there were no chairs in the kitchen, and going back to bed was out of the question; so I went out into the garden.
The garden extended down to the street, a narrow rectangle of unmowed lawn, two fruit trees, neglected flower borders, a rubbish bin, an old bicycle, and on the lawn in front of the garden fence a swing suspended from a carpet rod. The grass was dark and damp from the night, and rustling sounds came from the piles of leaves under the fruit trees. By now it was light; the sky was clear and a watery blue. I walked down the length of the garden path and back again; then I sat down on the swing.
The coffee was hot and strong; I would have liked to drink it the way Ruth always drank coffee – in one single long gulp – but my stomach rebelled. I swung back and forth a little. I knew that Raoul could see me through the window, and I was afraid that by swinging, indeed by sitting on the swing, I might present a certain image, like some poster, a metaphor, but by then it didn’t matter to me.
The street was quiet – one-family houses, one next to the other, expensive cars parked at the kerb under nearly bare linden trees. There was hardly anyone in sight, but now I could hear voices in the distance, children’s voices coming closer, and then I saw them – kids on the other side of the street on their way to school with colourful satchels on their backs, gym bags, trainers tied together by the laces and hung over their shoulders. I could see the wide driveway into the schoolyard, paper cutouts pasted on the window panes, the school clock on the gable. The children walked past the garden; they didn’t notice me. I watched them. They came by in small groups, some by themselves, slower and still sleepy-eyed, lost in thought, others holding hands and talking to each other in loud and eager voices. ‘Wait for me! Wait for me!’ one kid yelled to another and then ran off, his school bag bouncing on his back.
I peeled my tangerine and watched them. A sweet fruity aroma rose from the tangerine; it rattled me. Raoul sitting in the house, reading Musil. He was working, he was awake. Things could have been different, but this way was all right too. I ate the tangerine section by section; the school bell rang and even the slow kids started running, all in a jumble, bumping into each other or grabbing for the hand of a friend; none of them looked at me. I made the swing go a little faster. The school bell rang again, then stopped suddenly as though it had been cut off.
The front door opened and Raoul called my name; I turned towards him. Perhaps I still wished for something to happen, one last time, but not really. He said, ‘We have to leave now,’ and I got up and went back into the house, set my coffee mug on the kitchen table, the tangerine peel next to it, and put on my coat. We got into his car and drove off. Traffic was already heavy on the main roads, and at the traffic lights people were waiting to cross the street on their way to work, the office, the factory; I felt relieved, as though a burden had been lifted from my heart. I think we didn’t say much; he seemed to be in a bad mood; he said he did not know his lines, that on the whole the rehearsals were awful; he sounded as if he were talking to himself.
At the railway station he double-parked the car, saying, ‘I can’t go to the train with you; I’m going to be late anyway.’ And I said quite candidly, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ We embraced in the car, quickly, cursorily; he kissed my cheek, then I got out. I walked into the station without turning round; I could hear him rev the engine and drive off. The train for Berlin was scheduled to leave at 9.04. I got on and took a seat next to a window, opened my book, and read till we got to the Berlin-Zoo Station. Afterwards I couldn’t remember a single line I had read.
Later I thought I should have listened to him more carefully. I don’t know if that would have changed anything, if I would have made a different decision. Nevertheless, I should have listened to him properly. He had said, ‘Are you the one I think you are?’ and I had understood something totally different from what he had intended. He had recognized me in spite of that. What he had actually said was, ‘Are you a traitor for whom nothing counts, and who can’t be expected to keep a promise?’ He had asked, ‘Would you betray Ruth for me?’ I had said, ‘Yes.’
I see Ruth sitting across from me, naked, her legs drawn up to her chest, her face, a towel wrapped around her wet hair; she says, ‘Promise me.’ She shouldn’t have said it. I never told Ruth, ‘Ruth, I had to know; it had nothing to do with you.’ And I never told her about the kids going to school, their faces, the smell of the tangerine, about that morning. When we were still living together, we had a habit of writing little notes to each other whenever one of us went anywhere without the other. Whenever I came home after having been out without Ruth, there would be a note on the kitchen table if she was already asleep, a short, tender message, sometimes more, sometimes just a few words. Ruth never forgot. I happened to find one of these notes today, a bookmark in a book, the paper a little crumpled, folded up, Ruth’s large, flowing handwriting: ‘My dear, Are you well? It’s been a long day for me and I’m going to bed now – 10 o’clock – my feet are rubbed raw from the damned new shoes. I went shopping, fruit, milk and wine, that was all the money there was. A. phoned and asked where you were and I said, She’s out looking under every paving stone for a message. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that? Good night, till tomorrow. Kisses, R.’
[Translator’s note: the excerpt quoted is from Molièere, The Misanthrope and Other Plays: A New Selection, translated by John Wood and David Coward, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 114.]
The package arrives early in the morning. There’s postage due because Jonas didn’t put on enough stamps. It is addressed to both of them, to Jonina and Magnus. Magnus is sleeping. Jonina sits down on the white sofa by the window. It is still dark and she has to turn on the light. She doesn’t hesitate, not even for a moment. Maybe she acts as if she were hesitating, but she isn’t. She wouldn’t think of waiting for Magnus to get up. The package is rectangular and flat; it feels a bit heavy, there’s a ‘handle with care’ sticker on it, and the wrapping paper is sloppily secured with sticky tape. Amazing that it arrived in one piece. She rips open the paper and pulls out a framed photograph, very painstakingly framed, the photo surrounded by a green mount, and an enclosed card, nothing else: ‘The photo comes a little late, but we’ve been thinking of you constantly. The beautiful blue hour, eleven o’clock in the morning of December 3rd, much too short. Regards – see you soon. Jonas.’ The phrase a little late might be considered amusing; it was exactly a year ago; that’s not a little. It might be a little for Jonas. She doesn’t want to think about the phrase see you soon.
In the photo, the moon is suspended above the road that leads to the Old Althing. The sky is a glowing, diaphanous blue, everything else is white; the road is white, the mountains are white, blanketed in deep snow. Magnus, Irene and Jonina are walking towards the camera. Magnus in the middle; he is blurry, his face unrecognizable. Jonina is on his right, Irene on his left. The distance between Jonina and Magnus is greater than the distance between Irene and Magnus. Irene is laughing; she walks straight ahead. Jonina seems to want to walk out of picture towards the right but is looking directly into the camera. Jonas was standing in the middle of the road, his camera mounted on a tripod. Afraid that the light would change, he had yelled at them – ‘Now!’ Jonina remembers how he looked just then, his woollen hat pulled down over his eyes, the sheepskin jacket open, swearing at the cold, delighted and enthusiastic.