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21/12/2005

At the final fairy tale

A Christmas story of impending demolition. By Georg Klein

At Christmas it was raining a little, as finely as though a vast exhalation of breath were blowing the droplets out of the concrete-coloured clouds. Joshka removed his winter cap as soon as he stepped through the hotel doors, glad to feel this mist on his close-cropped scalp. And hardly had he passed the guests' parking spaces and turned into the woods, before he finally shoved his head covering into a jacket pocket. This was not so sensible, as he did have a tendency to catch a chill. But what was a man young for? A cold wouldn't kill him this time either. And that short spell of fever before falling asleep he had always found peculiarly pleasant.

Everyone he'd spoken with since his arrival yesterday had pointed out to Joshka, almost mechanically, the merits of these woods, as though a visit were part of the deal. Just now in the breakfast room the waitress, really quite a young girl, had told him the trees didn't seem to want to go to sleep this year, and how so many leaves were still hanging onto the branches right into the festive season: not only dead black ones, but red and yellow and even yellow-gold!

Yet she too, so sensitive and voluble, had said no word about the place Joshka's boots were actually making for. Clearly the theme park in the woods was no longer considered a sight worth seeing. Evidently the natives were even ashamed of it, at least in the state it now was in. And so they concealed from visitors exactly the thing that these, on all their hikes and cycle trips, would unavoidably come across.

This was the area in question today, on Christmas Eve, that Joshka wanted to explore. First thing tomorrow, Christmas Day, the park business would be gone over again with Herr Kantner on the telephone. And then, before dawn on Boxing Day, Joshka's boys would advance with the machines and, piece by piece, clear it all away. The first thing to do was to check the approaches. In principle, the unimogs could penetrate any terrain. With their elevated axles and all-wheel propulsion, sure of step and strong of traction, these little post-war Federal German lorries, complete with various implement and crane jib attachments, were considered the mule among the heavy duty vehicles. But they weren't to lose a single bit of freight from the heavily laden trucks on the way out. Not only the wide clearing which the park had occupied, but the tracks that led there were to be left void of any trace of ominous fragments. A clean sweep! – was how Herr Kantner had put it, who was prepared to go to some expense in carrying out this plan, fixed at such short notice.

Neither in summer nor winter did Joshka care much for plants. As a child his nature-obsessed mother had dragged him nearly every weekend into the woods around his home town. And his remembering the fanatical squeal of glee in her voice as soon as the green seam of young spruce plantation came into view, beyond the last row of single-family homes, still sent a shudder of unspeakable lost boyhood down his spine. Enjoyment amidst the vegetative misery was, then, at the most, available to young Joseph via the ants. After the single mother and her only son had cycled deep into shadowy green, as soon as the blanket was laid out for a picnic in a sunny spot, Joshka would be on the lookout for the little creatures. And then, as crumb after crumb was carried off by the efficient industry of black or red hexapods, he was able at length to envy the monkishly simple purpose of their labour.

Naturally, now, at Christmas, ants were nowhere to be seen. But even their hibernation was cosily homely as Joshka pictured it. He, who after eleven and a half years of Grammar School and two abandoned apprenticeships had found his place in the world as a demolition contractor, loved it likewise, when the men in nasty weather were huddled in the van, right next to the edifice which two mugs of coffee later was to be transformed into a plain pile of rubble.

This was now the third time he had worked together with Herr Kantner. Last time Joshka's troop had pulled a post-war bungalow down for him. Before the bulldozer was given the go-ahead to fold in the flimsily built walls, he'd gone round all the rooms again with his client. Joshka took this last check of a condemned building very seriously indeed, ever since he'd discovered a stray Alsatian bitch and her still blind litter in an ear-marked house. There was nothing alive, no derelict to be saved in Kantner's bungalow.

But as Joshka put his head into a built-in cupboard Kantner suddenly confessed that he himself had grown up within these four walls. In the year of his birth his parents had celebrated the traditional topping out ceremony, although, strictly speaking, the obligatory freshly-framed roof-truss skeleton was missing on the flat topped construction. As if to prove the existence of his childhood, Kantner drew a penknife and slit the damp coarse-grained wallpaper open in a broad arch. As he peeled away the strips a light blue paper appeared beneath the yellowed white, revealing teddy bear upon teddy bear. Teddies sitting with legs splayed, stomping awkwardly around, and in between them always one who tossed a somersault.

Joshka found Kantner's faux pas over past times embarrassing for no more than a moment. This or that weakness belonged in the business. And Herr Kantner, who was old enough to be his father, was looking like becoming a long-term partner. Should the little Christmas project go through smoothly, one might consider a collaboration of more indefinite extent. It was only this morning, that a future pregnant with such possibility had spoken from his mobile phone.

The forest track remained comfortably broad all the way to the park entrance, and was nowhere as sodden as Joshka, after the rains of the last days, had feared it would be. It was the gate, that his supervising client had termed the Rose Portal, that first gave him pause for thought. Leaves and vines of iron, clumsy blossoms and the dagger-dimensioned thorns, all appeared solid and only superficially corroded. The wrought-iron was impressively high, but it narrowed at the top to a point, preventing access to the raised cab of a unimog. Both to the right and to the left there were rows of sturdy beech trees growing too densely to allow any of the fence near the gate to be broken down. They would have to prise apart the cast-iron corner posts in order to drive into the park and trundle their freight out again.

Hardly had Joshka turned the bend behind a rotten and blackened booth, no doubt the erstwhile ticket office, when the second obstacle stretched before his eyes. The pavement had been laid out with immense rough stone flags. And for almost a hundred metres, right up to the first station in the circuit, the irregular, consistently wagon-wheel sized plates had been thoroughly dislocated. Angled obliquely, sometimes nearly steeply thrusting, the red-veined slabs, freshly glistening through the rain, reared in the air.

A picture came to his mind, hanging on the classroom wall in his last year of school. It was the reproduction of a famous painting. Pointing out the stature of the original, Joshka could well remember their German teacher, even the severe tone of his elucidations, but not the name of the artist. And as he'd also forgotten the title, it was a shame he couldn't tell any more, whether it was the rugged, fissured landscape of a jagged mountain range, or massively bursting polar ice, or simply a gigantomaniac magnification of ordinary shards that had been depicted.

Under the slabs of the path, so spectacularly risen, was a thick pillowing of moss, which in the mild weather had remained a lush green. It was almost as if these velvet hemispheres themselves had heaved the stones on high. Of course, that was no suitable explanation. But in the interests of removing an obstacle, it was not in the first place necessary to give a thorough theory of origin; and landing back on the utilitarian plane Joshka reflected on whether at least part of this material couldn't also be transported with the necessary care back to the depot . He could sell it on from there through the classifieds, as he has done often enough with oaken beams, valuable tiles, and even once with the solid bricks from an ancient barn.

Problems are gregarious. There are times when they enter already courteously in pairs, and they will gladly mass up into a packed herd, but both the small and the great among life's adversities come most comfortably in threes. Already in his first year as a contractor Joshka had realized this. He was expecting, therefore, while following the circuit around, but patient to see what kind of spoke in the wheel it was to be, the hurdle the park would toss between his legs.

After the first station of the theme-park the path seemed to be well in order again, and so broad, that a strolling family of four could easily promenade from statue group to statue group, hand in hand. The artefacts themselves seemed to pose no hidden problems. They were all more or less the same size, and presumably of similar weight, as it was in each case the same poor quality light concrete. The material was partly so washed out and splintered by frost that a kind of primitive reinforcing was visible. Most of the sculptures were sure to crumble away and dangle from their pitiful frames as soon as the grab of the unimog lifted them from the ground and swung them over towards the loading platform.

Joshka noticed how the figures, both the humans and the animals, had once been glossily coloured. In the crinkles of elbows and the folds of drapery, on the bellies of wolf and little kid and on the throat of an enormous frog, still clung patches of paint. But the concrete of the sculptures was mainly bare, only sparsely mantled in places with a greenish down. Joshka knew his concrete. The study of materials was about the only subject that had taken his interest at night school. Half way along the course he finally clambered over the low barrier, that had once kept children from touching the loved and familiar forms, and broke a spike off with his bare hand from a fat king‘s crown, surveyed the line of rupture, and conclusively satisfied himself, that what he was dealing with here was cheap and porous, post-war stuff, no older than the teddy bears on Herr Kantner's nursery wall.

Only by the final fairy tale did the moment come. And as the decisive difficulty met his gaze he doubted, for one sharp instant, Herr Kantner's credibility, even his gentlemanly honour. Unfortunately, it all too seldom happened that demolition firms were exploited by their customers, receiving commissions to wipe more than was immediately obvious off the face of the earth. Kantner's first job, too, the clearing of a garden centre and tree nursery, had not been altogether free of perfidy.

Only when he had gathered his lads around him to go through the exact procedure did Joshka realise, that he had let himself in on a deal with Kantner for a fee that was much too low. The glass of the old greenhouses had to be disposed of as special refuse, and none was to remain on the premises. One after the other, each hothouse had to be dismantled by hand. And with an equal, time-wasting care they had had to ferry the broad panes to the suitable containers. At the end of the day it was Joshka's error. Kantner was not obliged to point out those details to his business partners, whose perplexing nature lay only in the logistics of the thing.

But this time, at the final fairy tale, it was a different story. Joshka was ready for all grades of obstinacy in concrete and iron. For trees of whatever girth the appropriate chainsaw can be supplied. Dobermann and Rottweiler can be put to flight with irritant spray and high-frequency howl device. But what was labour lost on granite and greenery, what was flinching at bared canines to the fear of the soul, the fear a member of one's own species makes one feel? Has a technology been developed to deal with this woman, seated there in front of him, long fair hair falling well over her shoulders, on the broken boulder stump of the last of the theme-park fairy tales?

There was nothing to be done. Joshka had to go up to her. Following the course of the path, he pondered first some reason why the sitting figure only wore a sleeveless frock. The rain had stopped. Giving in to a wild mood, or a sudden hot flush perhaps, she'd thrown off her winter coat. Nearing her by broad ascending bends, he couldn't see a coat anywhere, but rather had to notice what sort of footwear it was, this lightly dressed girl had on. Completely bare feet would have annoyed him less than those thin soles, those delicate straps, those slender graceful pointed heels.

Yes, even utter nakedness would have shocked Joshka less. In his mother's circle of friends there had been no shortage of people ready to stamp out onto frozen lakes, hack holes in the ice and then, in the climax of their obligatory pleasure, slip their nudity into the wintry water. The woman at the last fairy tale wore gold-coloured stiletto sandals under a knee-length light blue dress of thinnest material. Her hair reached down her back. And Joshka, familiar as he was with lead, tin and zinc, even with copper, but not with the intimate circle of precious metals, while he cleared his throat loud and long, and walked up behind the seated form, supposed that this matt shining, parted to the right and left of her crown, was known among beauticians as platinum.

"I've been sent by Herr Kantner," he growled, in the hope the lightly clad, the beautifully combed girl might accept some statement of the property relations. But in the same moment a new suspicion assailed him. Responding to his query, why the fairy tale figures had to disappear over Christmas of all times, Herr Kantner had made a dismissive gesture with his hand, but then had answered after all: that this sort of thing can only be carried out "under cover of darkness and fog", as the Germans have it. At Christmas the nights are long. And the mild weather would provide the necessary mist.

"I beg your pardon?" Joshka had dared to probe. At this he was pulled by the sleeve, by Kantner who otherwise wouldn't even offer his hand in greeting, but now had drawn him up close, knocking on his chest with his fist and barking,

"Don't you understand at all? Someone only needs to turn up and have this leprous rubbish declared as art at the last moment, and then I'll have listed buildings preservation, national monument people, citizen pressure groups and bevies of sentimental women making petitions in my back yard."

The platinum blonde turned her head at last. She looked young, but luckily no longer underage. Her features being prettily plump were within a hair's breadth of restoring Joshka's composure. But then she turned her body fully to face him; he dropped his eyes, and her glorious doming belly, her firm, and almost steeply vaulted abdomen was no longer to be overlooked.

"You're not pregnant or anything?" Joshka groaned.
"Naturally I am. Heavily pregnant, as you can see."

Sighing, the young woman drew back her shoulders, spreading open her knees a little, and Joshka saw how the small, pursed ring of her navel nudged through the cloth, before she folded her hands over just this spot.

"Don't you try and scare me!" That ought to have sounded brisk, brusque even, but it came out rather timidly over Joshka's lips.
"Don't be afraid, Joshka. Don't be afraid. Tell me, though. Have you got any space for me the day after tomorrow? For us. In the driver's cockpit."
"In the cockpit?" Joshka heard his own strangely high-pitched, almost boyish echo. And the word 'cockpit' seemed suddenly enigmatic and a little repulsive.
"Yes. In the Cock Pit. High up in the captain's cab of your Uni Moke. That word means, probably, the one – who can make anything, or anyone. Carry anything off."
"It's uni-mog, actually. And it stands for Universal Motor Gadget," Joshka corrected her automatically, from the depths, the bottomless abyss of his practical knowledge.
"OK, Uni Mock, which means the mighty gear of the man, then. Who may get what he'd like, or whatever he's likely to get!" And the blue-clad consort clapped her hands in rhythm, as if it were all a game, old and inexhaustible, pleasure-making play, to reconceive each wordly word the way she wanted.

Joshka felt in both his jacket pockets for his winter cap. He couldn't find it. He must have lost it somewhere, already on the forest track, or here in the saga park. But that was the least of his worries. In his overnight bag, back at the hotel, he had another one. And in the car, in the boot, there was even a cap with lambskin-lined ear flaps. Here, at the last tale, he stood bare headed. It was probably proper so. A pleasant shudder passed over his head and neck. For the first time, he felt remorse for wearing his hair, following a fatal fashion, in a military close cut. Wild locks and a beard down over his breast would have fitted his expression better. Tomorrow he would be ill. And the day after that, really so. By then the weather would be ice cold, according to the forecast, and clear at last.

So be it. What else was a man young for? At some ungodly hour, under the last star, the fading rays of rising Jupiter, they would be advancing with the unimogs. And his lads, two German-born Turks and a naturalised Lebanese, would have begun their long autobahn journey under a shining black sky, in joyful expectation. The three weren't Christians or anything, but decent blokes. He could trust them blindfold. They didn't call him boss, or chief, but Meister Joshka, master of his craft, knowing full well he'd broken off both his attempts at training as a carpenter, without taking the journeyman's examination.

Dusk was settling on the saga park. Here at the final station the day was shorter than the calendar could tell. Joshka was shaken by the first, hefty, truly splendid fever attack. He really did need to get back to the hotel. He wanted to ring Kantner. He would try to obtain a bonus for the trouble of the paving slabs and the gate. The young woman, however, her hair, her left shoe and her right shoe, her tummy tautly reinforced as concrete, and everything, everything imaginable – even if his heart would burst – with the greatest, chaste pleasure, he would keep to himself.

*

Georg Klein was born in Augsburg in 1953, and lives with his family in Berlin and East Friesland. His novel "Libidissi" was celebrated as one of the best books of 1998 and widely translated. In 1999 his book of short stories "Anrufung des Blinden Fisches" was published, and he won the Brüder Grimm Prize. In 2000 he won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from his novel "Barbar Rosa".

Translation: Ruskin Watts
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