Authors: Tessa de Loo
At that moment Beethoven’s Ninth began through the open window, booming and massive. The volume was turned up as far as the loudspeakers could manage. The photographer held his
in his hands and shut his eyes pathetically. I cannot
like this, he gestured. For the first time Lotte experienced a piercing, sweet-poisonous emotion that she could not yet define as hate. She looked over the photographer’s head to the tops of the conifers that were moving gently in the breeze and wished
that her thoughts had the power to kill. ‘Laugh!’ cried their mother, prodding and pinching them, ‘laugh chaps!’ She showed her radiant smile, all teeth bared (didn’t she want to tear him to
pieces?). Her eyes joined in too, she was beside herself with
. ‘We’ve got one more child,’ she shouted above the Scherzo, ‘a big, stubborn child, in there.’ She gestured towards the window with her head, laughing sideways. A cloud passed in front of the sun, the photographer raised his long black arm to the sky and pushed it away. He held his breath and pushed the shutter in.
Lotte’s father did not always opt out. He put up fierce resistance when she was sent to a Christian school because the state schools were not accepting any more pupils. He looked at his wife with utter disgust as though she had enrolled Lotte at an institution for the mentally handicapped. ‘You’ll see,’ she said laconically, ‘that in her case religious stuff will go in one ear and out the other.’ She was proved right, though not in the way she meant.
The Bible had the appeal of the forbidden. Just as some girls sneaked into a bioscope with painted lips to watch an adult film breathlessly, Lotte was secretly thrilled by the Bible, which
also carried the ‘over eighteen’ label, with all that death and killing, adultery and fornication it poured over the innocent reader. What tame reading matter her father’s favourite book was in
. Diligently she studied the stories of blood and miracles. Attempts to exchange ideas with her classmates ran straight into a wall of indifference. They had absolutely no thoughts about it; they were brought up on religion like a daily dose of cod liver oil. Similarly with the minister’s daughter, with whom she shared her bench, the Bible was not a subject for contemplation but a duty, a soporific aspect of Sundays – weekly imprisonment in the gloomy confirmation classroom next door to the church. Their blind,
acceptance of it as a ragbag of stories, presented as ‘what actually happened’, shocked her. With her outstanding marks in biblical history, she was the only one taking religion seriously!
The director of the school, a man with a face etched from ice by a razor-sharp pen, spied at the pane in the door as the pupils ended their lessons with a prayer, and saw that one of them was looking out of the window waiting resignedly for the ritual to end.
He hurried into the classroom and with pursed lips said to the
instruction teacher: ‘She must stay behind.’ A bony finger was pointed at her. The chosen one or the doomed? The class
. ‘You were not praying,’ declared the director. ‘No sir.’ ‘How is it that you do not pray?’ ‘Sir, I never pray.’ ‘You never pray?’ The narrow top lip was raised in an involuntary biting movement. ‘No.’ ‘And what about at home?’ ‘They don’t pray there either.’ ‘Then do you never go to church?’ ‘No, I never go to church.’ The religious instruction teacher stroked his apostolic beard in
. ‘But how did you end up at this school then?’ ‘There was no place anywhere else. My mother enrolled me. She wasn’t asked whether I was a Christian.’ The director stared at her with a
frown, as though she were withholding from him the
point at issue. It was clear that she was guilty of something, though he could not decide what it was. ‘But you get the highest marks in the class in religious instruction,’ exclaimed her teacher. ‘I am hearing it all for the first time,’ said Lotte; ‘I have been
very carefully.’ ‘And what do you make of it?’ he asked,
curious. ‘I assume you have perceived that it is all profound truth,’ said the director, supporting him. Lotte swallowed. She cast him a nervous glance – if she told him the truth that had been burning on the tip of her tongue all these months, he would expel her from the school immediately. ‘Devil’s children!’ echoed a voice from an immense distance. ‘Devil’s children!’ An apparition she vaguely recognized urged her on. Something black, something flapping about, the mournful tapping of a stick … It was no more than a diffuse feeling. ‘No,’ she said, suddenly seizing courage. ‘Why not?’ asked the director sharply. She looked over his bony shoulder to the outside, where shining black branches moved to and fro against a dark grey sky. ‘It doesn’t make sense,’ she said. ‘According to the story of creation, God is almighty and He is love. Then how is it possible that He has let the devil loose among the people … if He can do everything?’ ‘That is … a mystery of faith,’ stammered her teacher. What a bromide! She looked from
one to the other, overcome with contempt and pity at their
naïvety. ‘Adam and Eve lived in Paradise and ate from that
fruit …’ She sighed. ‘I think of it as Snow White.’ The teacher took his glasses from his nose, fished a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket with thumb and forefinger and began to clean them thoroughly. The director’s pronounced Adam’s apple went up and down, he emitted a dry, cynical laugh. ‘You cannot prove these things,’ he announced, ‘you must simply believe them.’ Lotte scratched the back of her head. Her skull itched all over, she understood that it would be impolite, at this moment, to scratch vigorously all over with the nails of both hands. ‘At one time you believed in Santa Claus,’ she mumbled, ‘but then one day no more.’ Oh dear, she was on cracking ice, she had already gone too far. All she could do was walk boldly onwards, continuously
her weight. The director looked at her as though he wanted to tear her heathen’s tongue out of her mouth. ‘She doesn’t
at all,’ sounded the deep voice of the religious instruction teacher, which gave a warm, bronzy dimension to the Bible stories. He put his glasses on and looked laconically at the director, who let his hands drop, the right one clenched into a fist; it was pointed at Lotte with the index finger sticking out like the barrel of a pistol. ‘You are obliged to obey the rules of this school. Think it over. from now on you will pray with the others as normal.’ He turned his high, crooked back on her with its drooping shoulders. Stooped beneath three centuries of Calvinism, he walked out of the
with something sharp in his step, as though he had got right on his side with this command.
‘And …’ Anna asked, her arm linked in Lotte’s, ‘did you pray with them from then on?’
They had left the café, whose interior harmonized perfectly with the period that was haunting them, and were walking step by step through the snow. It had already grown dark again. Nineteenth-century facades rose up on either side – balconies,
dormer windows. In the shop window of a neighbourhood stationer’s, between calendars, desk diaries and dip pens, was a book in which the Russian President set out his vision for the future; a dog was cautiously lifting its paws as it embarked on an untrodden piece of snow; the trees of the Athenée Royale stood motionless in their spot; the Christmas decorations were still twinkling in a greengrocer’s.
‘Of course not,’ Lotte said, out of breath. The street was
to mount, and the alcohol too; it made her dizzy. They rested on the railway bridge. A red signal burned in the distance in the snow, a white spire stood out sharply in the dark sky. ‘The director took every opportunity to thwart me. One day …’ she giggled, ‘I was wearing a dress with a V-neck. He stopped me in the corridor. “Now then, you must ask your mother for another dress you can wear. This one really is too naked.”’ A wave of Ratafia de Pommes ascended; she swallowed and began to laugh again. ‘One time I rode to school on my father’s bicycle. I got off in the playground and put it in the bicycle rack. As I turned round I almost bumped right into the director. “Don’t do that ever again,” he cried, “here, in public, in full view of everyone, getting off a man’s bicycle! Shame on you!” I looked at him baffled. What did he mean, I asked myself, why does it bother him?’
Their laughter sounded drily over the cotton wool snow. They plodded onwards. When they reached Lotte’s hotel, Anna invited herself for dinner. Presently they were seated opposite each other beneath a salmon pink ceiling with white ornamental borders and crystal chandeliers. At the next table was a young woman who was taking a postnatal rehabilitation treatment at the Thermal Institute. They agreed they would be better off ordering a carafe of water than a carafe of wine. For hors-d’œuvre they had
with Ardennes ham and strips of smoked pork; they cut the fat off the ham and left the smoked pork. The mother of the new-born folded her hands and closed her eyes before picking up her knife and fork.
‘Wouldn’t you like to … to …’ Lotte whispered with an ironic laugh in the woman’s direction, ‘I mean … before the meal …’
‘Me? Say grace before the meal?’ Anna draped the salmon pink napkin on her lap. ‘Understand me correctly, I do still believe, in my own way, but I renounced the institution of the Church long ago. Yet I have not forgotten what the Church did for me, then. Don’t underestimate how far Church and society were caught up in one another. Those were quite different times – quite different.’
Jacobsmeyer summoned help from the child welfare agency. They sent a social worker to the farm. Aunt Martha started on about Anna, who was eavesdropping behind the door. All that time her poor aunt had been harbouring a viper: the child did not want to be good for anything, she associated with older men – she was a whore, young as she was. To Anna’s amazement, the social worker encouraged her aunt uncritically in her philippic. Her last hope was flying away. The woman had come to help Aunt Martha, not her. When she had finished letting off steam, the woman said calmly, ‘Now I’d like to talk to the child alone.’ Anna fled back to the kitchen. With a satisfied laugh around her mouth, Aunt Martha came to fetch her. Anna went into the living-room
– Aunt Martha went outside, confident of her case. The social worker closed the door behind Anna, stood there with her back against it, opened her arms and said, ‘Trust me, I will help you.’
Beneath her gaze, which was signalling that she could see through Aunt Martha, Anna’s resistance melted. She understood that someone was throwing her a lifeline, someone for whom a nod was as good as a wink. A representative from another world who was objective and reasonable and perhaps (she hesitated) also more loving. Outside, she saw her aunt picking pears, right under the window, in the hope of catching something of the tirade that would be meted out to the young cuckoo. Anna relaxed. Was her serfdom really over? Would she no longer be at the mercy of the
capriciousness and mistrust of a mentally deranged pear-picker?
She was plucked out of the house as she was, in her farming kit. She had a nourishing meal at Jacobsmeyer’s. He gave her his blessing and money for clothes and waved to her as she rode in a car for the first time in her life out of the village on the Lippe. Up and down hills, through forests that flamed yellow and orange, until a village appeared, its houses ascending high up the slope, to come as close as possible to the ambit of the church towering over everything, and a half-timbered castle with dozens of tiny windows and slate roofs. Leaning against the church was a convent of the Poor Clares. A nun in a black habit hurried through the gate to meet them with open arms.
Compresses of crushed comfrey on the blue bruises, ointment on the cuts in her hands, age-old Franciscan calm, carefully
within the thick walls, foaming milk in large mugs, the unselfish devotion of the nuns, who fluttered along the lofty
like black butterflies. From her bed she could see the castle of Baron von Zitsewitz – a name from a fairy-tale, like the Marquis of Carabas. She had literally come straight into the lap of the mother church, together with a group of fellow sufferers, chosen ones, emergencies. They were silent about their pasts, as though by tacit agreement. From the nuns they learned the skills with which they would cope in the world later on: sewing, cooking, looking after children and even serving at table. There was a room specially for them where people from outside came to eat at lunchtime, well-fed guinea pigs (Mittagstischgäste), who consumed their experiments with relish.