A Trip to the River

(from the short fiction collection Die Nacht, die Lichter)

We called him “The Boxer” because his nose was beaten so flat it almost disappeared into his face.
Sometimes when I sat with him by the window in the evening and we smoked in the floodlights and waited for the night, he laid his big hand across his battered face and left it there until we got up and went to our beds.
We had plenty of beaten-up guys. I saw them at work, I saw them in the corridors and the yard; there were some who came in with really pretty faces and went out mashed up, but in all my time I never saw a nose as flat as the Boxer’s.
At night, when I lay awake and he was asleep, his nose made whistling sounds, and when I listened for a while and thought about things, they’d turn into real little tunes.
‘Hey, Boxer, play something else,’ I said quietly, but he stopped whistling altogether—he’d woken up and started tossing and turning above me. ‘You know,’ he whispered in his hoarse night voice, ‘you know, I really used to…back then…’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘that’s what they’re all saying. This guy came in last week, short guy, going a bit grey…’
‘Wolfgang,’ he whispered.
‘Yeah,’ I nodded a couple of times, even though he couldn’t see me.
‘Always was a big-mouth,’ he whispered.
He turned over above me. I saw his foot for a moment in the light of the jailbird moon. We hung our towels over the window; the floodlights were outside in the yard and outside the walls, but we never got it quite covered up. I heard him breathing, and a few minutes later he started up his whistling again.
‘He weren’t bad,’ Wolfgang had said and passed round cigarettes—he was scared shitless—‘back in the East. Not right at the top, but he nearly made it to the Olympics a couple of times.’
The Boxer had never told me that, even though we’d been sharing a cell for more than two years. The Boxer didn’t talk much, and once he did get started, because the Russkis had brought us some samogon, he used to tell me about his daughter. She must have been about seventeen or eighteen.
He still had a few years to go. They said he’d knocked some guy out and he hadn’t got up again, in the pub, a fight, money, women—no one knew exactly and of course he’d never told anyone anything.
One of the old dossers, who came and went and were all back inside again over the winter, even told me once the Boxer was a lifer, doing life. Apparently he hadn’t just knocked out that one guy but beat a security man into a coma too when he tried to hold him down, and he slept so deep he never woke up.
‘The Boxer lost it; it was the drink,’ the dosser said and shook his head and rolled his eyes enough to make me dizzy. ‘They got him down to ten or eleven years; it was the drink, you know.’
‘I know,’ I said, and the old guy licked his lips and I gave him a bit of tobacco. But I didn’t believe the Boxer was carrying two corpses around with him, and the tramps talked a lot of shite when they were coming down.
‘They should have built it by the river,’ the Boxer said. We were sitting at the table, like every morning. It was slowly getting light outside; the window was open although it was cold and it had snowed. We were eating and looking out across the walls at the bare trees and the city.
‘What?’ I asked, although I knew what he meant. He tapped one of the bars, and I nodded. ‘Might have been better.’
‘The view, you know.’ He pushed his plate aside and got up. ‘You know, a river, when you can see it all the time, there’s always something going on on a river.’ I got up as well and stood next to him, and we looked out at the buildings, a long way off, that the river must have been behind somewhere. He rolled two fags and passed me one. ‘You gonna look at it?’
‘The river?’ I gave him a light and he nodded.
‘Maybe,’ I said.
‘Gonna get your leave after all, eh?’
‘Looks like it. But you never know with them.’
‘You gonna go on a trip?’
‘It’s only a weekend.’
‘I mean a real trip.’ He looked at me and I saw a thin trail of smoke coming out of one of his nostrils, now just a slit.
‘Nah, they find you anyway. A trip…’ I laughed, and he smiled too and flicked his fag out between the bars.
‘So…so d’you wanna go anywhere, got any plans?’
‘This and that,’ I said, ‘Leipzig, the usual, you know.’
‘Our city,’ he said. I pressed out my fag in the snow on the windowsill. He rolled two more, lit them up and passed me one.
‘Wanna visit your sister, eh?’
‘Nah, better not. She’s just got married.’
‘Kid?’
‘Yeah. Still a littl’un.’
‘When my daughter…’ He flicked his half-smoked fag out the window and closed it. I picked up the ashtray from the table and lay down on my bed. ‘You know your leave…’ The Boxer turned round to me for a moment, then he leant his forehead against the window pane. I smoked and looked at his back. It was a pretty broad back; maybe he’d been a cruiserweight, maybe even one class higher, in his golden days, when he’d nearly made it to the Olympics. I dragged on my fag until I felt the heat on my lips. ‘When you’re out on leave…’ the Boxer said, muffled against the glass and moving his head back and forth. I pressed my fag into the ashtray, the key banged in the lock, the Boxer turned to face the door, I jumped up, the ashtray fell on the floor, I nudged it under the bed with my foot, the warden was standing in the door, seven a.m., time for work.
‘When you’re out on leave,’ said the Boxer in the middle of the night, when he woke up, ‘You listening…?’ I didn’t answer, I didn’t breathe, but he kept on talking because he knew I was awake. ‘…And when you’re in the city, in Leipzig… you know, kid…’ I hated it when he called me ‘kid’. I’d celebrated my thirtieth with him last summer. He’d got hold of some samogon and home brew from the Russians, and then he’d spent all night talking about his daughter until he fell asleep. ‘Got such dark hair, nearly black, not from her mother, no. Had it down over her shoulders, back then, you know… And take a good look what she looks like now, you listening kid, take such a good look that… How tall she is and that, her eyes, her eyes as well…’ He came down the ladder, I saw him dark in front of my bed. I sat up and leant against the wall. ‘Course,’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you all about her eyes, if that’s all you want.’
‘Something else,’ he said, and I heard him walking across the dark cell to the table and sitting down. His lighter clicked, and then I saw the burning tip of his cigarette moving to and fro as he spoke. ‘There’s these two poofters owe me something. Won’t be any trouble. Got a little shop. Beer, schnapps, fish butties. I’ll let them know you’re coming. It’s not much. Take it and give it to her. S’a surprise. She’s on a training scheme, not much coming in. I trust you. And tell her… tell her…’
‘I’ll tell her, Boxer.’ I leant against the wall, pulled the blanket up and over my head and breathed through the material.
The Boxer was standing at the window. But when I looked up at him and raised my hand briefly, I wasn’t so sure anymore, so far away, and the twisted wire between us on top of the wall. I looked at the big clock on the tower, ten to eleven, same as always. I noticed it was snowing, and wiped the snow off my hair. Then I walked slowly away from the gate, turned around again, saw the woman behind the glass of the porter’s lodge, old and white-haired—been here since Adolf, we used to say. I walked past the little shop, closed now, saw the original jailbird products in the window: guaranteed organic potatoes, wooden figures, baskets, my baskets; I’d got to be a great basket-weaver over my time. I stood still by the commemorative plaque in the little car park a few yards away from the shop. ‘In memory of the victims of the fascist dictatorship in Fort Zinna.’ Someone had laid flowers in the snow. There was another commemorative stone a bit further along because the Russkis had been here too. When I first arrived I’d walked to and fro between the stones until it got dark and I went up to the gate. I put my bag down and looked past the jail to the fields. I lit up and squatted down. I pressed my hand into the snow and felt it melting between my fingers and kept looking at the white fields and dragging on my fag, until I noticed the snow had put it out. I wiped my wet hand across my face and got up. I threw the fag away and walked towards the bus stop. I passed the low building where the day-release boys lived. Two of them were standing outside and nodded at me. I raised my hand briefly, fingers slightly apart— that was how we used to put them on windows, doors, walls. When I turned round again a few yards later they were still watching me go, hands in their pockets.
‘Drinks World,’ ‘Sports Corner,’ ‘Torgau welcomes careful drivers.’ The bus drove so fast I felt sick, but I knew it would get slower the further we drove. Someone once told me he’d had to puke the first time he got on a bus after five years. I felt people looking at my bag and staring at me and leant my head on the window. When we drove past the brewery I wanted to get out, but I stayed put. The bus stopped at a crossroads and I saw the sign ‘Riesa 182 km’ next to me. There was a big juvenile facility there, out in Zeithain, in the middle of nowhere, but I was a few years too old for them now. ‘How much time you done now, kid?’ asked the Boxer.
‘It’s been a few years now,’ I said, ‘all together.’
‘Can’t grumble either,’ said the Boxer. We were playing chess and I offered him a pawn. He ate it up, and a few moves later his king got what was coming to him. It was only boxing he’d been top-class at. I’d learned to play chess more than ten years ago in Zeithain. ‘Traudi’s Inn’. I got out. The station was one stop away, but the trains to Leipzig ran all day, and I went in to Traudi. The door swung to behind me, and I opened it again and looked out. The bus was driving down the road and I saw a couple of heads moving behind the big rear window. ‘Hey, it’s getting cold,’ someone said, and I flinched, dropped my bag and turned around. Just an old bloke at one of the tables, holding tight to a beer bottle with both hands and looking down at the tabletop, pretty far gone. I picked up my bag and went up to the bar. This skinny guy was fiddling with the beer pumps, but when I sat down on one of the bar stools I saw that the skinny guy had put on a truckload of lipstick and must have been a woman. As if she wanted to prove it, she stuck out her chest and smiled. She had a nametag on her apron, it said, ‘Traudi Schmidt at your service’.
They talked about Big Traudi inside, ‘Got this great place, you gotta go there when you get out, Big Traudi’s got the best beer in town, you better believe it,’ but perhaps Big Traudi had been on a diet over the years. ‘Alright,’ I said.
‘Beer and chaser, right?’ she said and smiled and looked at my bag and curved her skinny back so far forwards I started worrying about her spine.
‘Coffee,’ I said, and she turned round and got to work on the coffee machine.
I went through my pockets and put a tenner down on the bar. ‘Can you change this for me?’
Traudi put my coffee down next to the note. ‘No problem,’ she said and took it. She held the tenner between her forefinger and thumb and fanned it in front of her face and smiled at me as if she’d been in another kind of business, back when she was fat. I unwrapped the sugar cube, dipped it in the coffee and watched it slowly dissolve. Traudi was still grinning at me and now she stroked her lips with the note. I drank a mouthful of my coffee, then I poured in some milk and stirred it around a couple of times with the spoon. ‘How d’you want it?’ asked Traudi and looked at me over the note.
‘For the machine,’ I said. She screwed up the tenner in her fist and bent over to the till. She fingered through the coins and slapped three twos and four ones down on the counter. I nodded and went over to the cigarette machine. The old bloke looked up for a moment, still clinging onto the beer bottle, which was empty now. He really did look pretty far gone, like the alkies and dossers inside when they couldn’t get hold of any home brew. Some of them tried to make their own, and collected every crust of bread and every rotten apple they could get, but most of them had the DTs and messed it up.
‘A little beer,’ said the old man, ‘a nice cold beer. And a chaser, you know. You’ll think of me, won’t you, you’ll have a drink to me?’
‘Yeah, right,’ I said, ‘a double just for you. Soon as I get to the station.’ The old guy smiled, and for a second his head stopped wavering and even his eyes were still. The coins jangled through the machine and I selected my old brand. I had to put more money in, the prices had gone up. I leant over and picked up the packet. I looked around. Traudi had poured herself a beer and was drinking and flicking through a thick catalogue in front of her on the counter. Looked like underwear and clothes.
‘Oi mate, got one for me?’ The old man looked at me, lowered his head slightly and let go of his empty bottle. I put the new packet in the inside pocket of my jacket and gave the old man four of the roll-ups the Boxer had given me that morning, ‘For the journey, kid.’ He smoked the cheapest stuff, we called it ‘pubes’, but some evenings, when we were sitting at the window and waiting for the night and swapping cigarettes, his fags tasted better than Davidoff Filter. I paid for my coffee and left.
I saw four chemists by the time I got to the station, three of them on the same road. Maybe people in Torgau were really run-down and got ill easily, or they beat each other up all the time and needed loads of bandages.
There were a couple of people in the ticket office, so I got my ticket from a machine. The station pub didn’t open till the evening, and I stood in front of the timetable and smoked and read the names of the towns, until they announced my train and I noticed I was cold and felt a bit sick. On the platform was a girl with a dog. Even fairly pretty, maybe a bit too young, seventeen or eighteen, dark hair and nearly black and down over her shoulders, and her eyes…
The little grey dog danced around her, and she took a couple of steps so the lead didn’t get tangled around her legs. I dropped my bag and squatted down, as the little grey dog danced in my direction and stopped a couple of yards in front of me; maybe the lead wasn’t long enough or she was pulling him back. But I didn’t even see her anymore, although she was really quite pretty; there was only the little grey dog in front of me, in the middle of the platform. He raised his head and sniffed, his nose was shiny. I held out my palm to him, my fingers slightly apart, the dog danced to and fro a bit and howled quietly. I heard the train pulling in and straightened up.
And then night. In fact it was still evening, but it had been dark since four, and I saw all the bright lights of the city. I stood outside the door, looked at the cars driving by, looked at the luminous signs and windows of the shops and bars opposite. The Turks and the Arabs had taken the area over years ago, and the Russians had a hand in things too, and back then before I went inside, I’d had a couple of run-ins on this street, when we crawled from one bar to the next, but that was all over now. I opened the door and went inside. I took the money out of my bag, counted it out, rolled it up and put it in my inside pocket. The money smelled of fish, and the two poofters in their little snack bar had stunk of fish as well.
‘The Boxer sent you, did he? Shacked up with him, are you?’
The guy winked at me and leaned over the little counter. ‘Used to look out for me, always looked out for me back then.’ He talked about their great friendship, about the Boxer’s honour, ‘Never lets anyone down, never leaves you in the lurch, you better believe it,’ and he talked about how the Boxer nearly made it to the Olympics, back then. He put a can of beer down in front of me and opened one for himself. ‘Have a drink. Out on leave, are you? Let’s drink to the Boxer.’ We said cheers, and he started talking again, about the Boxer and about the jail and about their golden days. The other guy didn’t say a word the whole time and just cut rolls and herrings, and when he started on the onions and guy number one was still going on and on, I flicked my half-smoked fag across the counter at him and said: ‘Time’s up.’ He grinned and nodded and took me to a little caravan he called ‘my office’, and it stank of fish and beer and cigarettes in there too.
I walked slowly up the stairs. The house was silent, and when the light went off I stood still and lit up. I walked on slowly in the dark. Light shone through the pane in the door. I stood still and put my hand on the bars. ‘Close it, I wanna show you something.’ I closed the window, turned around and still felt the bars cold on my hand. The Boxer was standing naked to the waist in front of his bed. ‘Hey, what’s this all about, mate?’
‘Just wanna show you something, kid, come over here, come closer.’ He’d put his big hand on his chest, and I walked over to him slowly. He had the usual words and pictures on his arms and a big eye in the middle of his belly, but I’d seen all that often enough in the two years we’d been sharing. The Boxer wasn’t quite as inked up as the billboards I used to see in the showers, who carried their whole lives around with them on their skin, but he went to one of our in-house tattooists every couple of months. ‘It’s a new one, you haven’t seen it yet, it’s still fresh. Don’t need no photo any more. Never. Chucked them all away. She’ll always be with me now.’ He took his hand off his chest. There was the face of a young woman, she had shoulder-length black hair and was smiling. Her eyes were much too big, almost like in Japanese comics. She must really have been pretty fresh, her face was swollen up, especially her forehead and below her mouth, because there weren’t any tattoo care sets in Fort Zinna. ‘Looks really beautiful,’ I said, and the Boxer nodded and went a bit red. I looked at his daughter, smiling at me with her big eyes. ‘Come in,’ she said. I looked at her nose, then her hair, which was quite short, and then her eyes…now they were sparkling and squinting at me. ‘Come in,’ she said again, ‘come on in if you’re going to.’ She turned around and I followed her along the hall. Maybe the Boxer had told her I was coming, maybe the fish butty boys. ‘The door,’ she said, and I went back again and closed it.
She sat down on the sofa, and I stayed standing up in front of her, and she squinted up at me so that I took a couple of steps back. I held tight to my bag with both hands and looked around. It all looked pretty cheap, but the Boxer had told me she was doing some training course, as a hotel clerk or something. ‘Like a drink?’ I nodded. She went past me to the sideboard, and I heard her clinking glasses behind me. She took a couple of steps, and then I felt her breath on the back of my neck. I held tight to my bag and looked at the wall above the sofa. There was some reproduction modern picture up there, all just blobs of colour. She walked slowly back to the sofa and put two glasses of brown liquor on the table. ‘Why don’t you sit down,’ she said. She stroked the sofa cushions and tilted her head and smiled, she must have learnt that on her course.
I put my bag down and sat down next to her. ‘You’ve come on a little trip because of me, right?’ she said and moved closer. ‘Not that far,’ I said. I picked up my glass, it smelled like cheap and nasty ‘Goldbrand’, tasted like it too.
‘Bet you’re glad you’re here now, right?’ She moved away from me again towards the armrest, kicked off her shoes and stretched out her legs, making her feet touch my knees. I reached for my glass and pushed it to and fro on the table. There was an ashtray there as well, and I pulled out my cigarettes. I felt the roll of money in my inside pocket. ‘Be a sweetie and give us one.’ I lit my cigarette and handed her the packet. She fingered one out and put the packet down on her leg. I wanted to give her a light, but she took the cigarette out of my mouth and lit hers on it. I stood up and reached into my inside pocket. ‘Listen…’
‘Hey, don’t go running off.’ She jumped up so quickly that her cigarette and my cigarette and the packet as well fell on the carpet, but she took no notice and pressed right up to me and put her arms around me. She was really strong, even though she was so short. I wanted to push her away, throw the money on the table and disappear, find a place to hide and wait for Monday, but she held tight onto me, she must have got her strength from the Boxer.
‘Don’t do that,’ I said, but she was still hanging on to me and rubbing her face against my neck, it must have been her nose, no, she can’t have got that from the Boxer, but maybe he’d had the best nose in town, before he nearly made it to the Olympics. She fumbled with my flies and said, ‘You’ve got to give me a little something, you know…’
I felt the roll of money in my inside pocket, but I knew that wasn’t what she meant, and now I knew that neither the Boxer nor the fish butty boys had told her I was coming either. I grabbed her by the shoulders but let her go again straight away, because I felt her skin and bones. I picked up my half-empty glass and lobbed it at the sideboard, so hard that splinters of glass and drops of liquor sprayed back at us. She took a couple of slow steps away from me and looked at me with her big Japanese comic eyes. I stumbled backwards and sat down on the sofa. I picked up her glass and drank it dry. Suddenly there was a man in the middle of the room. ‘Trouble,’ he said and came over to me. He walked fairly slowly, and I could have got him in the face with the glass, but I put it down on the table. I got up. I saw him pulling back to punch, but I didn’t move. He had a good right hook and I was on the floor. I turned on my side and looked between the table legs. She was crouching in front of the sideboard, her chin on her knees, and I looked her straight in the face. I got up. Straight away, the guy gave me two or three hard ones, and I went down again and looked under the table at the Boxer’s daughter, still crouched in front of the sideboard, not moving. I felt blood on my face. I saw the guy’s legs right next to me, I could have grabbed them, pulled him over and mashed him up, but I got up again and looked at him. He didn’t hit me straight away, and I looked over his shoulder at the wall. The guy rammed his knee in my belly, I gasped for breath and crouched down. ‘Stay down, motherfucker.’ He punched like a professional and talked like one too. I lifted my head slightly and saw her leaning forwards and moving both hands to and fro over the carpet, as if she was playing with something. I got up slowly and closed my eyes. He got me pretty bad, and I felt my nose break.
‘Hey kid,’ said the Boxer, ‘you’re nearly as pretty as me.’
‘Walked into a door,’ I said, ‘in town, the usual, you know.’
‘Did she see you like that? You didn’t scare her?’
‘No no, Boxer, I went to hers first, it was all alright. She’s fine. She was pleased, the money and that, really pleased.’
‘Wasn’t much, but she’s still a trainee, in a real hotel. She doesn’t get much there, has to watch her money.’
‘I know.’
I stood on the bridge and looked down at the river. In the fields to the left and right were the remains of the morning mist. I heard the cars behind me, quite a lot of traffic, start of the week. A long way off, I saw a tugboat on the wide river. It didn’t seem to be moving. Maybe it was going over to the Czechs, maybe in my direction and then on to the sea in Hamburg. I lit up my last filter cigarette and threw the empty packet in the river. My nose started bleeding again, and I pulled a tissue out of my inside pocket. It smelled of fish, just like the money. I’d put it in her letterbox on the ground floor. Really wasn’t much, just over a ton, but it must have been the Boxer’s last reserves from his golden days, when he nearly made it to the Olympics. I looked down at the river again. A couple of ice chunks disappeared under the bridge, one got caught up on a red marker buoy, then broke free and floated on again. I pressed the tissue to my nose, threw my fag-end in the river and went home.

Bios

Clemens Meyer

Clemens Meyer was born in Halle/Saale in 1977 and lives in Leipzig. He started his working life as a builder, furniture removal man, and security guard, before studying at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig. Clemens Meyer won the MDR-Literaturwettbewerb in 2001 and the Rheingau-Literatur-Preis, the Märkisches Stipendium für Literatur, the Förderpreis zum Lessing-Preis and the Mara-Cassens-Preis for his first novel Als wir träumten, published in 2006. His short fiction collection Die Nacht, die Lichter was published by Fischer Verlage in February 2008 and contains the story “A Trip to the River.”

Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a British freelance translator based in Berlin. She has translated Raul Zelik, Rolf Schneider, Kristof Magnusson, Joseph Winkler, Julia Franck, and Werner Bräunig.

“A Trip to the River” (from the short story collection Die Nacht, die Lichter).  Copyright (c) Fischer Verlage, 2008.  English translation copyright (c) Katy Derbyshire, 2008.