Being born is like going into retirement. You clear out your desk and vacate your office. You turn the keys over to the doorman, leave the company premises for the last time, and sally forth into an uncertain future. Coming to terms with your new life won’t be easy. But with each step forward into this new life, you forget the old one: Even before you’ve learned how to drink from a sippy cup, the past is entirely extinguished.
Being born means losing the sense of the world as a unity. In order to eradicate any memory of the Heretofore, Nature has arranged a sluice in which you must remain for nine months before you’re released into the material world. This waiting period doesn’t pass unexploited–it serves to delete our cosmic software. In the Womb Re-education Center, hard drives are freshly recorded; here you learn everything that you, as an individual, substantial being, will need to hold your own against others. Your senses are divided and turned from inward to outward: eyes, to see what you want to possess; ears, to hear who disputes it with you; a nose, to sniff out the enemy; hands, to kill; a mouth, to rend.
The birth of a child, therefore, is a great forgetting: Whatever was there before doesn’t count anymore. And that goes especially for the parents, no matter how much they’ve planned and puzzled, fantasized and prognosticated. No daydream can withstand the elemental force that three kilos of human flesh brings into their lives, no previously worked out timetable and no lovingly furnished child’s room. A music box that plays Vivaldi? The child will want to hear Mozart. Cradle, bassinet, baby basket? The child will sleep in the parents’ bed. Pink wallpaper? The child will be a boy. Not to mention the fact that the child will occupy his or her own room–whatever form it may take–with the same enthusiasm as Hannibal Lecter his bulletproof glass cage.
“Wait, Poldi…” Klara reaches for Lemming’s arm and slows her pace. “Just wait a minute…” She stands still, lowers her head, and listens deep within herself.
She’s incredibly beautiful, thinks Lemming, as he has thought so often of late. Her peaceful, luminous eyes are beautiful; her heavy breasts over her mightily rounded belly are beautiful, too. The entire flourishing, fragrant, ripe woman is beautiful. Even the somewhat duck-like gait with which she’s bearing the weight of two bodies is a marvel of beauty. Lemming’s heart beats faster, as a child’s does when a promising package smiles at him from a gift-laden table.
“No, it was nothing.” Klara shakes her head. “Just a kind of tightening inside. Practice contractions, remember?”
Of course Lemming remembers what practice contractions are. In the foregoing months, he’s completed about half the requirements for a degree in perinatal medicine. He’s on familiar terms with the ejection phase and the breech presentation, with spinal and peridural anesthesia, with cardiotocography and breaking water. He’s also perfected his skills at handling such indispensable accessories as Indian baby slings and Japanese bottle warmers. His diaper changing technique and his talent for the two-finger tummy massage are equally unsurpassed. In short, Lemming is ready. More than ready. He yearns toward the moment when he can use all he’s learned. Not on a worn-out rag doll, like the one he’s rehearsed with until now, but (at this thought, his heart leaps again) on his own warm and living child.
There’s one detail, however, that Lemming’s not at all clear about, namely the point in time when that all-changing moment will occur. If he could see just a little way into the future, he wouldn’t be standing on the sidewalk and daydreaming…
“You coming?” Klara gives him an unfathomable smile and waddles ahead, down the deserted Berggasse, which descends through Rossau toward the Danube Canal.
A wonderfully peaceful spring morning shines above the roofs of the city. The sun streams down from a cloudless sky and warms the asphalt sidewalk, which is usually barricaded by parked cars. God chuckles to himself; there’s a reason why he’s chosen this particular day to bestow such glorious sunshine on the Viennese. It’s the first of May, and for the Social Democrats’ annual May Day parade, there can be no worse weather. Proletarian solidarity’s neither here nor there: Spending a work-free International Workers’ Day somewhere sunny and green is more edifying than marching around the Ringstrasse chanting slogans. Only the poor party functionaries have to remain in Vienna, when they could be looking in on their dachas and chalets. As for Klara and Lemming, instead of remaining in Klara’s little house in Ottakring, they have to look in on Lemming’s apartment.
“Shit…another one…” Klara stops again. She closes her eyes and leans forward. “I’m…I’m not sure, Poldi, but…I think it’s starting.”
“It’s…it’s starting? What’s starting?” Lemming freezes. For a moment, he gapes at Klara uncomprehendingly, but then realization comes in a flash. “My God, we have to…we have to get to the hospital immediately!”
“Please don’t panic right off the bat,” Klara exclaims in a tight voice. “We’ve got time.” She takes several very long, very deep breaths and straightens up. “The people in the clinic won’t like it much if I tie up their delivery room until tomorrow morning.”
Initial phase, of course, Lemming thinks, summing up the situation. Women giving birth for the first time require an average of ten hours before the uterus and cervix are sufficiently dilated. First of all, the fetus gets itself ready for the trip. It tests its limb placement and checks the location of the umbilical cord. It moves its head into position and has one more quick nap before making its leisurely way to the launching pad. Only when it’s taken its place in the cockpit, settled into the bucket seat, and fastened its seat belt can the countdown–the so-called ejection phase–begin.
On the other hand: What are statistical averages worth? Do you feel good, on average, if your upper half’s on fire and your lower half’s freezing?
“Yes, but…but what else do you want to do?”
“Nothing at all, my love. Let’s stay calm and stick to the plan. We’re going over to your place to pick up your mail. After that, we’ll see.”
The Servitengasse, the street Lemming’s apartment’s on, is barely two hundred meters away. They’ll need a good hour to cover those two hundred meters.
“Do you get what this means?” Lemming, wide-eyed, stares at the time display on his cell phone while Klara leans panting against a street sign. “Three minutes, you understand? Three minutes since the last contraction! Forget about the mail! I’m calling a cab, right now!”
While Lemming keys the digits into his phone, a buzzing sound–very soft at first, then more and more piercing–starts to vibrate over the roofs of the buildings.
“Radio Taxi, hello,” says a brusque female voice at the other end of the line.
“Yes, hello. I’d like…” Lemming stands still and covers his right ear with his free right hand. “I’d like a cab, please, as soon as possible…” He tilts his head up and stares at the sky, where a helicopter has just appeared above the roof-edge. “I mean, right away! Can you hear me? Berggasse! No, Berg! B-E-R-G! Damn it! What an idiot! She hung up!”
He glances briefly, helplessly at Klara, who’s bent over and clutching the signpost, and then back up at the deep blue sky. Like an ugly steel cloud, the helicopter’s hovering there, turning the street into a roaring, hellish ravine.
“Get lost!” Lemming jumps up and down, gesticulating furiously, as if he can shoo away the troublemaker like that. “Beat it! Disappear! Get out of here!”
With an elegant swerve, the machine glides away in the direction of the Rathaus. Trembling with rage, Lemming presses the redial button, holds the phone tight against his ear, and listens.
Now he’s the one who must breathe deeply. He ends the call. Redials. It’s ringing.
“Hello? Taxi? Listen, it’s really urgent! I need a cab right away. I’m on…What? I can’t hear…you can what? You can’t hear me? Damn it!”
Once again, the helicopter rises above the row of buildings. The pilot seems to have taken a fancy to the ninth district of Vienna.
“May Day parade!” Klara points upward, putting all her strength into her voice in an effort to drown out the racket.
Nevertheless, Lemming manages to hear only scraps of what she’s saying: “Police…surveillance ‘copter…ministry.” Although a remote, hidden chamber in his brain comprehends what Klara’s trying to tell him, this glimmer of comprehension does nothing to change the nature of the thoughts uppermost in his consciousness: Mortars! Bazookas! Rocket launchers!
Nothing, Stefan Zweig once wrote, is so infuriating as to be defenseless against something you can’t grasp, something caused by men but not by a single individual whom you can take by the throat. And so Lemming now does something he’ll regret within just a few seconds. He can do no other; to avoid bursting from rage on the spot, he simply must do what he does: With a savage battle-yell, he hauls back and hurls a missile–the only weapon within immediate reach–at the enemy.
The cell phone ascends, pauses in mid-air, and drops back to earth. It strikes the pavement not five meters away and explodes into fragments. The sound of the impact, drowned out by the roar of the gyrating rotors, can only be inferred. At the same moment, the helicopter veers to the side and disappears, heading east.
“Ha!” Lemming shouts, shaking his fist at the sky. “Ha….” he adds, somewhat more softly. Then he slowly bows his head. Klara’s cell phone, he suddenly realizes, is in her house in Ottakring, where she left it. Radio waves, radiation–a mother-to-be can’t be too careful…
“Let’s go, Poldi.” Klara has stepped to his side; she strokes his back soothingly. “Come on, let’s walk over to the cab stand.”
Forty minutes and eight contractions later, they’re standing in front of the promising yellow sign marking the taxicab stand on the Porzellangasse. It’s very quiet here. A pigeon coos as it stalks along the gutter, looking for lost seeds. There are no automobiles, to say nothing of taxis, in sight.
“Do you have any change?” Klara points at a telephone call box on the other side of the street, very close to its intersection with the Servitengasse.
Lemming digs in his pockets and shakes his head sheepishly. He pulls out his change purse and snaps it open. “Only a fifty-cent piece.” My kingdom for a horse, he thinks in the silence. Ten cents for a baby…
“So what do we do now?” Klara murmurs.
“Well…let’s…let’s do this: I’ll run over to my apartment and use the landline to call us a taxi–no, better yet, an ambulance. And you…you wait here. It won’t take long.”
“But I have to…I have to sit down.” Klara turns pale and gasps for air, overcome by a fresh wave of pain. “I’ll come…behind you as best I can. There are benches…by the church.”
Lemming charges away, dashes across the intersection, and turns into the Servitengasse. Not ten seconds later, he reaches his building, on the lovely, tree-shaded square in front of the Servite Church. On the fourth floor of the light yellow structure is his apartment, and in the entrance hall of his apartment is his faithful, long-serving, fixed-line telephone…
“Come on!” He feverishly searches his key ring for the right key, rams it into the lock, and pushes open the building’s main door. He runs through the vestibule, past bags of rubbish and stacks of lumber, to the elevator.
“No! It can’t be…”
The elevator’s gone. An empty shaft yawns before him, provisionally nailed up with wooden planks and sheets of plastic.
“The rats…the dirty…lousy rats,” Lemming sputters, panting as he mounts the stairs two at a time.
For two and a half years now, the terror known as roof space conversion has reigned. Two and a half years, during the course of which the verb “to reside” has dwindled to a cynical caricature of itself. How many uncountable times has the noise torn him from sleep or prevented him from reading, from eating, from thinking, from being? How often has he fled into the street, in every sort of weather, chased away like a dog from inside his own four walls? For one entire winter, he nearly suffocated–the workers had erected scaffolds and made the windows airtight by gluing thick plastic over them. The following summer, he almost drowned–they’d removed the roof panels, even though the weather forecast had called for rain. For most of the tenants, the only reason to remain in place is a notice put up by the building superintendent. According to that notice, the builder-owner who bought the property three years before is prepared to take on the costs of repairing all the riser pipes in the building. A generous offer, when you consider he’s obligated to make such repairs anyway. However that may be, several residents probably won’t see the end of it: old Schestak on the third floor, for example, or Novotny, who’s in decline and recently exchanged his crutches for a wheelchair.
Two and a half years, and now this. It’s a blessing, at least for Lemming, that he’s found refuge with Klara, and an even greater blessing that he’ll continue to find refuge with her. Preferably forever…
Finally he reaches the fourth floor, his lungs burning, his breath rattling, and stands before the door of his apartment. No time to get his wind back; his trembling hands grope for the keyhole and thrust in the key.
It won’t turn.
Lemming grips it hard, pulls on it, shakes it, leans his full weight against the door; but the key is stuck fast and won’t budge a millimeter.
With all his strength, Lemming tries to yank the recalcitrant thing out of the lock. There’s a sharp snap, he staggers backward…
Good, that it’s only the key to the attic, which no longer exists. Bad, that its broken blade is now stuck in the lock of his apartment door.
Having thrown himself against his apartment door several times and then hammered on the doors of his neighbors–all in vain–Lemming lurches out of the building. Despair has him close to tears. Nobody’s home today; the building’s as deserted as the streets, where there’s not a soul in sight. Except for Klara.
On a park bench in the shadow of an old linden tree, she’s cowering motionless–almost motionless: A slight quiver runs through her body, accompanied by restrained whimpering. Lemming sits down next to her, embraces her back and shoulders. And stares at the other side of the square, at the green portal of the Café Kairo. It’s not that the Kairo closes for May Day–or for Easter or Christmas, either–but its door won’t open for another half hour: decidedly too late for an urgent telephone call.
“Is someone coming?” Klara turns toward him. Her face is pale and distorted by pain. “I think we’re slowly running out of time–my water just broke….”
A small, glistening pool has formed under the bench. His shoes wet, Lemming leaps to his feet. After just a few steps, he’s standing in front of the massive door of the church with his arms raised like Moses at the Red Sea. “Help!” he bellows over the square. “Help! Can’t anyone hear…”
And then, finally, there’s a sound, from which he can infer the presence of some primitive if not necessarily human life form in this corner of the city: Diagonally across from him, two floors above the Kairo, a window is vigorously slammed shut.
“Help! Somebody help us! All we need is–”
Lemming abruptly falls silent and turns to his right, listening hard. A soft sound of squealing and rumbling can suddenly be heard, coming from over there, around the corner. Wheels, it’s surely wheels, rolling over the cobblestones.
On the other side of the street, a wheelchair now appears. A man sits slumped in it, and behind him–taking rapid steps–walks a nun. In a long, fluttering robe, her head closely covered by a black veil, she’s pushing the wheelchair along the sidewalk.
“Excuse me! Sister! Could you please…”
No reaction. Neither sister nor man appears to have noticed Lemming; neither head turns.
“Hello! Is that you, Herr Novotny?”
Of course it’s not. Lemming’s ill neighbor is older and thinner, and in contrast to the motionless man in the wheelchair, he always wears a hat, never a blue and yellow cap.
“Sister! Please! I need help!”
The nun quickens her pace, breaking into a light trot so she can make a quick turn into the Grünentorgasse.
“Good God almighty! Don’t you understand me?”
Lemming flings himself after her and crosses the square, prepared to block the woman’s way. But now she too begins to run; like an archaic farmer pushing his plow, she drives the wheelchair ahead of her. The jolting of the wheels becomes a steady clattering; the head with the blue and yellow cap jerks back and forth, unrestrained. The swift sister has already reached the Hahngasse. With the skirts of her robe a-flutter, she scampers to her left, around the corner.
Lemming stands still in amazement. “You…you…stupid goddamned nun whore! You…”
However forsaken the Rossau district of Vienna may be on this May Day, it’s not godforsaken. Like a heavenly menace, the bells in the church tower begin to ring; their resounding brassy clangor drowns out Lemming’s curses. Klara too seems to be shouting: With open mouth and squinting eyes, she’s kneeling beside the park bench, digging her fingernails into the wood. Lemming rushes to her side, wringing his hands. He can’t help, can’t do anything. Never before has he felt so crushed and agitated.
For a minute or two, the sound echoes over the square; then the bells slow down, ring out, resonate, and finally fall completely silent.
“Come! Come quickly!”
A hand on Lemming’s shoulder. He flinches, whirls around, and sees–he can scarcely believe it–a woman’s face in front of him. She’s probably in her mid-thirties, even though her eyes seem a little older: a steady, resolute gaze, embedded in sorrowful creases. Gray strands are visible in her foxy red, mid-length hair, which two clips hold behind her ears.
“Come on, then!”
“Yes, but…where are we going?”
“The main thing is to get out of the street. The best place, I think…is in there.” She points to the broad façade next to the church. Behind that façade is the Servite Order’s courtyard. “What’s the matter now?” she insists. “What are you waiting for?”
While Klara, leaning on Lemming and the unknown woman, falters toward the wooden door, a quick smile flits over her mouth. “Of all places…” she says, softly sighing. “Of all places, a cloister…”