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Julia Franck's novel "Lady Midday" - an excerpt

They headed to the station at a run. But on the staircase down to the station, a uniformed nurse with a protruding belly came towards them, obviously a colleague of his mother's. She told them the special trains weren't coming into Stettin, they'd have to go out to Scheune, walk to the next stop; that was where the trains were going from.

They walked along between the tracks. The nurse got out of breath quickly. She jostled into place next to his mother and Peter walked behind them, trying to hear what they were talking about. The nurse said she hadn't got a moment's sleep, she kept thinking of the bodies they'd found in the hospital yard at night. Peter's mother didn't reply. She didn't mention the soldiers' visit. Her colleague sobbed, she admired Peter's mother for her dedication, even though everybody knew, well, that something wasn't right about her origin. The nurse laid a hand on her round belly and puffed, but she didn't want to talk about that now. Who had that courage after all? She could never have taken one of the stakes herself and pulled it out of one of the women's bodies, staked like animals, their guts all torn to shreds. She stood still for a moment and propped her heavy body on Peter's mother's shoulder, taking deep breaths, the woman who survived had kept calling for her daughter, but she'd bled to death beside her long before. Peter's mother stopped still and told the nurse gruffly to stop talking. For heaven's sake, stop it.

The narrow platform at Scheune was crowded with people waiting. They sat on the ground in groups and eyed the new arrivals with mistrust.

Nurse Alice! The call came from a group of people sitting on the ground; two women waved their arms wildly. Peter's mother followed the call of the woman, who seemed to have recognized her. She squatted down next to them on the ground. Peter sat down next to his mother; the pregnant woman followed them but stayed on her feet, indecisive. She shuffled from one foot to the other. The women whispered amongst themselves, and two women and a man disappeared with the pregnant nurse. When a woman had to pee she was accompanied by several people if possible. People said the Russkis were hiding in the bushes and jumping out on women.

It was to take several hours until a train came. The people rushed at the train before it even came to a halt, trying to grab onto handles and railings. It almost looked as if all the people brought the train to a halt, as if it were they who stopped it. The train didn't seem to have enough doors. Arms windmilled, feet trod, kicked out, and elbows boxed. Swearing and whistling. Those who were too weak were shoved aside, stayed behind. Peter felt his mother's hand on his back as she pushed him through the crowd, Peter had clothes fabric in his face, coats, a suitcase dug him in the ribs, and then his mother grabbed him from behind and lifted him high above the other people's shoulders. The conductor blew his whistle. At the last moment, Peter's mother fought her way the decisive yard ahead, pushing Peter, shoving him, pressing him into the train with all her might. Peter turned around, he held tightly to her hand, clutching her, the train shuddered, started moving off, the wheels were turning, his mother was running, Peter held onto the door, held his mother tight, he'd show her how strong he was. Jump! he called to her. At that moment her hands had loosened. The people left on the platform ran alongside the train. Someone must have pulled the emergency brake or the engine was having difficulties; the wheels squealed on the tracks. A stout lady in a hat called from behind: Sausages, sausages! Und many people really did turn around to her, stood still, stretching and straining to see who had called out and where the sausages were. The woman made the most of the opportunity and fought her way a few yards forwards. The crowd pressed Peter's mother into the train, along with the suitcase. Peter encircled his mother with both arms; he'd never let her go again.

On the train, they stood in the corridor, with people pushing and shoving; the children had to stand on the suitcases. Peter liked standing on the suitcase; now he was just as tall as his mother. When his mother turned around, which she kept doing, her hair tickled him; a lock had fallen down from her bun. His mother smelt of lilac. The door to the compartment next to her was open. Two young girls in short-sleeved dresses stood there, holding onto the over-full luggage rack. Under their arms grew a few first hairs, and Peter leant over his mother's shoulder to get a better view of their dresses, which had curves in certain places. Under his chin, Peter felt the pleasant rub of his mother's coat. She must have been sweating, but she hadn't wanted to leave her coat behind. There was a shudder and the train moved slowly off. The people who hadn't got a space moved by outside the window. One of the two girls waved and cried, and Peter saw that there were fine hairs sprouting under her other arm as well.

Hold on, his mother told him, nodding her head at the compartment doorframe. She had her cap on top of the blond hair put up on her head; she was still wearing it, despite the coat and although they weren't even at the hospital. Are you listening? Hold on tight, she barked at him. But Peter put his hands on his mother's shoulders, he remembered the soldier who had been hunched crying behind the door. Peter was glad they were finally leaving, and he wanted to put his arms around his mother. Then he got an elbow in his back and banged against his mother with such force that she almost lost her balance. The suitcase swayed beneath Peter's feet, tipped over, and Peter fell onto his mother. His mother stumbled into the compartment. She would never have screamed; she just growled her annoyance. Peter put his hand on her hip so as not to lose his connection to her. He wanted to help her up. Her eyes glittered with anger. Peter apologized but his mother didn't seem to hear; her mouth stayed pressed tightly closed, she pressed his hand away.

Peter wanted to get her attention at any price now. Mother, he said, but she didn't hear him. Mother, again he reached for her hand, which was cold and strong, and which he loved. In the next moment the train shuddered, making the people fall over each other, and his mother held onto the luggage rack and the doorframe with both hands for the rest of the journey, while Peter grabbed onto her coat without her noticing and stopping him.

Just before Pasewalk, the train came to a halt on the track. The doors were opened and the people pushed and shoved one another out of the train. Peter and his mother let themselves be pushed along by the crowd until they reached the platform. A woman screamed loudly that someone had stolen her luggage. Only now did Peter realize they'd lost the pregnant woman. Perhaps she had never come back after she'd had to disappear to relieve herself in Scheune. Peter's mother was walking quickly now, people were coming towards them and getting in their way, Peter kept getting bumped into and held onto his mother's coat all the tighter.

You wait here, said his mother when they got to a bench from which an old man had just stood up. There are trains from here to Anklam and Angermünde, there might be tickets. I'll be right back. She took Peter by the shoulders and pressed him down onto the seat.

I'm hungry, said Peter. Laughing, he clutched onto her arms.

I'll be right back, wait here, she said.

And he said: I'll come with you.

And she said: Let go of me, Peter. But he was just standing up to follow her. Then she pushed the little suitcase towards him and pressed him back onto the bench along with the suitcase. Now Peter had to hold the suitcase on his lap, he couldn't reach out for her any more.

You wait. She said it strictly. A smile flashed across her face, she stroked his cheek, and Peter was happy. He thought of the sausages the lady had called out in Scheune, maybe there were some here, he wanted to help his mother look, he wanted to help her with everything, he opened his mouth but she would brook no arguments, she turned around and vanished into the crowd. Peter stared after her and made her out at the back by the door to the station concourse.

He urgently needed to go, and looked out for a toilet, but he wanted to wait until she was back. After all, it was easy to get lost in stations like this. The sun went down slowly. Peter's hands were cold; he held onto the suitcase and jiggled his knees. There were tiny particles of paint stuck to his hands from the case, oxblood red. Over and over, he looked towards the door where he had last seen his mother. People streamed past. The lights went on. At some point, the family next to him got up from the bench and other people sat down. Peter had to think of his father, who would be building a bridge over the River Main somewhere in Frankfurt. He knew what his name was: Wilhelm; but he didn't know where he lived. His father was a hero. And his mother? He knew her name too: Alice. She was of questionable origin. Peter looked at the door into the station concourse again. His neck had gone stiff from sitting like this and staring in the same direction for hours. A train came, the people grabbed their luggage, their next-of-kin, everything had to be held tight. Anklam, the train wasn't going to Angermünde, only to Anklam. The people were happy enough as long as it was going somewhere. It was after midnight; Peter didn't need to go any more, he was just waiting. The platform had emptied; presumably all those left waiting had gone into the main hall. If there was a ticket counter, wouldn't it be closed by now? Perhaps there wasn't even a concourse behind the door, the station might have been bombed like the one in Stettin. At the other end of the platform, a blonde woman appeared. Peter stood up, the suitcase jammed between his legs now, he craned his neck, but it wasn't his mother. Peter stayed standing for a while. When he sat down again and started chewing on his lips he heard his mother saying he peeled and ate himself on all sorts of body parts. He saw her disgusted face before him. Someone, Peter told himself, someone had to come. Peter's eyes fell closed, he opened them, he mustn't sleep otherwise he wouldn't notice if someone came to look for him, he fought off sleep, thought of her hand and pulled his legs up onto the bench. He put his head on his knees but still didn't stop looking at the station door. When the dawn came he woke up, thirsty, with the wet cloth of his trousers stuck to his skin. Now he stood up to look for a toilet and some water.


Translation: Katy Derbyshire
Copyright S. Fischer Verlag
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