Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
At half time he went down to the cellar and switched on the phone. No message. He waited. No one called. After half
an hour he switched it off again and went to bed; he couldn’t go on pretending that soccer interested him.
He couldn’t get to sleep, and shortly after midnight he got up and groped his way back into the cellar, barefoot and in his nightshirt. He switched on the phone. Four messages. Before he could listen to them, the phone rang.
“Ralf,” said a man. “Sorry I’m calling so late … but it’s important! Malzacher is insisting that the two of you meet tomorrow. The whole project may be on the skids. Morgenheim will be there too. You know what’s at stake!”
“I don’t care,” said Ebling.
“Are you nuts?”
“You really are nuts!”
“Morgenheim’s bluffing,” said Ebling.
“You’ve certainly got balls.”
“Yes,” said Ebling. “I do.”
When he wanted to listen to his messages, his phone rang again.
“You shouldn’t have done that!” Her voice was hoarse and forced.
“If you knew,” said Ebling. “I had a terrible day.”
“Why should I lie?”
“It’s all because of her, isn’t it? Are you two … together … again?”
Ebling said nothing.
“At least you could admit it!”
“Don’t talk nonsense!” He wondered which of the women whose voices he knew was the one she meant. He would like to have known more about Ralf’s life; after all, it was now, to a small extent, his life too. What did Ralf actually do, how did he make a living? Why did some people get everything and other people almost nothing? Some people achieved so much and other people didn’t, merit had nothing to do with it.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “It’s often … hard with you.”
“But someone like you—you’re not like everyone else.”
“I’d love to be like everyone else,” said Ebling. “But I’ve never understood how to do it.”
“Tomorrow,” said Ebling.
“If you don’t show up again, we’re over.”
As he crept soundlessly back upstairs, he wondered whether Ralf actually existed. Suddenly he found it unbelievable that Ralf was living out there, going about his business, oblivious to him, Ebling. Perhaps Ralf’s life had always been intended for him, and some mere accident had switched their destinies.
The phone rang again. He picked up, listened to a couple of sentences, and cried, “Cancel it!”
“Excuse me?” asked a woman, her voice shocked. “He came specially, we’ve worked so hard for this meeting, so that …”
“I’m not dependent on him.” Who could this be about? He would have given a lot to know.
“Of course you are!”
“We’ll see.” A rush of euphoria such as he had never felt before surged through him.
“If you say so.”
“I certainly do!”
Ebling had to fight the temptation to find out what all this was actually about. He had worked out that he could say anything provided he didn’t ask any questions, but that people got suspicious the moment he wanted to know something. Yesterday a woman whose throaty voice he particularly liked had accused him directly of not being Ralf—all because he’d asked where in Andalusia they’d been together on summer vacation three years ago. That way he’d never learn more about this man. Once he’d stopped in front of a poster for the new Ralf Tanner movie, imagining for a few dizzying seconds that maybe he had the legendary actor’s phone number, and it was his friends, his colleagues, and his mistresses he’d been talking to for the past week. It was just possible: Tanner’s voice and his own were quite similar. But then he’d shaken his head with a lopsided smile and gone on his way. In any case, it couldn’t go on much longer. He had no illusions, sooner or later the mistake would be corrected and his phone would go silent.
“Ah, you again. I couldn’t come to Pantagruel. She’s back.”
“Katja? You mean—you’re back with Katja?”
Ebling nodded and scribbled the name on a scrap of paper. He thought the woman he was talking to was named Carla, but he didn’t yet have enough clues to risk calling her that. It
was unfortunate that nobody announced themselves on the phone anymore: the numbers came up on the screen and everyone went on the assumption that the other party already knew who the caller was before they picked up.
“I won’t forgive you.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Bullshit. You’re not sorry!”
“I swear.” Ebling smiled as he leaned against the side of the wardrobe. “Or maybe not. Katja’s amazing.”
She yelled for awhile. She cursed him and made threats and then even ended up crying. But because it was Ralf, finally, who had unleashed this chaos, Ebling didn’t have to feel guilty. Heart thumping, he listened to her. He had never been so close to the very heart of an exciting woman.
“Pull yourself together!” he cut in. “There was no way it was going to work, you know that!”
After she’d hung up, he stood there for a time, feeling a little faint, listening to the silence, as if Carla’s sobs were still echoing somewhere.
When he encountered Elke in the kitchen, he was so astonished he felt rooted to the spot. For a moment, he’d believed she came from another life, or a dream that had no connection with reality. That night he pulled her close again, and this time too she gave in to him reluctantly, and all the while he imagined Carla, swept away by passion.
Next day he was alone at home, and called one of the numbers for the first time. “It’s me. Just checking everything’s okay.”
“What’s this?” a man’s voice asked.
Ebling hastily hit the disconnect button, then tried again with another of the numbers.
“Ralf, my God! I tried you yesterday … I … I …”
“Easy!” said Ebling, disappointed that again it wasn’t a woman. “What’s up?”
“I can’t go on like this.”
“There’s no way out.”
“There’s always a way out.” Ebling couldn’t stop yawning.
“Ralf, are you telling me I … finally have to take the consequences? That I have to go all the way?”
Ebling went channel-surfing. But he was out of luck, there seemed to be nothing around but folk music and carpenters doing things with planks, and repeats of old series from the eighties: the whole afternoon-TV gloom. How was he even seeing all this, why was he at home and not at work? He had no idea. Was it possible he’d simply forgotten to go in?
“I’m going to swallow the whole container.”
“Go right ahead.” Ebling reached for the book that was lying on the table.
The Way of the Self to the Self
, by Miguel Auristos Blanco. The sun’s disk on the jacket. It was Elke’s. He pushed it away with the tips of his fingers.
“Everything comes to you just like that, Ralf. You get it all on a platter. You have no idea what it’s like always coming second. Being one in a crowd, always someone’s last choice. You have no idea!”
“I’m going to do it—I mean it!”
Ebling switched off, just in case this pathetic person tried to call him back.
That night he dreamed about hares. They were large, there was nothing cute about them, they emerged from dense thickets, they looked more like filthy beasts than the charming little creatures from animated films, and they stared at him with eyes that glowed red. Behind him there was a cracking sound in the bushes, he swung round, but his movement shook everything loose, reality melted away, and he heard Elke saying it was unendurable, how could anyone breathe that loudly, enough was enough and she wanted her own bedroom.
Starting the next morning, the phone was silent. He waited and listened, but it didn’t ring. When it finally did so in the early afternoon, it was his boss wanting to know why he hadn’t come in the last two days, if he was feeling ill, and if his doctor’s certificate had somehow got mislaid. Ebling apologized and coughed for good measure, and when his boss said it wasn’t serious, these things happened, no reason to get excited, he was a good worker and everyone knew his worth, he felt tears of rage in his eyes.
The next day he sabotaged three computers and installed a hard drive in such a way that all the data on it would erase themselves exactly one month later. His telephone was silent.
He came close a few times to calling one of the numbers. His thumb was on the call-back button and he imagined that only a second separated him from hearing one of the voices. If
he’d had more courage, he’d have pressed it. Or started a fire somewhere. Or gone in search of Carla.
At least there was Wiener schnitzel for lunch. Twice in one week—a rare treat. Rogler sat opposite him, chewing religiously. “The new E14,” he said with his mouth full. “It’s enough to drive you crazy. There isn’t a damn thing inside it that works. Anyone who buys it has only himself to blame.”
“But what are we supposed to do?” Rogler was getting loud. “It’s new. I want it too! There’s nothing else on the market.”
“True,” said Ebling. “There’s nothing else.”
“Hey,” said Rogler. “Stop staring at your phone.”
Ebling twitched and put it in his pocket.
“Not so long ago you didn’t want anything to do with one, and now you don’t budge an inch without it. Just relax—nothing can be that urgent.” Rogler hesitated for a moment. He swallowed, then stuck another piece of schnitzel in his mouth. “Please don’t take this the wrong way. But who would be calling you anyhow?”
novel without a protagonist! Do you get it? A structure, the connections, a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout.”
“Interesting,” said Elisabeth wearily.
He looked at his watch. “Why are we running late again? It was the same thing yesterday, what are they doing, why does it keep happening?”
“Because stuff happens.”
“Did you notice the man over there, he looks like a dog on its hind legs! But what causes those delays, why can’t they experiment just once, just like that, and try taking off
She sighed. There were more than two hundred people in the departure lounge. Many of them were asleep, a few others were reading crudely printed newspapers. The portrait of some bearded politician grinned down off the wall under a gaudy flag. A kiosk offered magazines, detective novels, spiritual
self-help books by Miguel Auristos Blanco, and cigarettes.
“Do you think these airplanes are safe? I mean, they’re really ancient equipment sold on by the Europeans. With us, they’d never even be allowed to take off, it’s no secret, right?”
“It’s no secret.”
Leo massaged his forehead, cleared his throat, opened and shut his mouth, and blew his nose at considerable length, then looked at her with watering eyes. “Was that a joke?”
She didn’t reply.
“They should have told me up front, they shouldn’t have invited me, I mean, where are the rules? They can’t invite me if it’s unsafe! Did you see the woman over there, she’s writing something down. Why? What’s she writing? Say, you were joking, weren’t you, about these planes—they’re not really dangerous?”
“No, no,” she said, “don’t worry.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better!”
She closed her eyes.
“I knew it. I can tell. See over there! If we were in a story, we’d be part of this group, and they’d forget us before we even took off. Who knows how that could develop!”
“Why should anything develop? We’d catch the next plane.”
“If there is one!”
Elisabeth said nothing. She wished she could sleep, it was
still early, but she knew he would never allow it until after they’d landed. She would have to spend the entire flight explaining to him that flying was perfectly safe and there was no need to worry about a crash. After that she’d have to take care of the luggage and in the hotel it would be her job to speak to the receptionist and arrange for room service to send something up that Leo would agree to eat, given his juvenile tastes in food. And in the late afternoon she’d have to make sure that Leo was ready when they came to collect him for his lecture.
“I think things are starting to move!” he cried.
At the other end of the departure lounge a young woman had taken up a position at one of the counters. People began to stand up, gather their belongings, and shuffle in that direction.
“It’s still going to be some time,” said Elisabeth.
“We’ll miss the flight!”
“They’ve only just started. They’ll be another half hour at least.”
“They’re going to leave without us!”
“Please, why would they—”
But he was already on his feet and in the line. She crossed her arms and watched his skinny figure inch its way forward. Finally it was his turn, he showed his boarding card, and disappeared into the walkway to the plane. She waited. Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes passed, and people were still boarding. When there was nobody left, she got up and boarded within seconds. Pushing her way down the center aisle, she sat down next to Leo.
“You have no right to do that! I thought you weren’t coming. I was already working out how to stop them taking off, but I can’t make myself understood here, I can’t explain things to anyone.”
“No, really, it’s all exhausting enough as it is, I can’t cope with more … Did you see the two children up front, they’re weird. Particularly the little girl. Green eyes! They’re flying on their own, without their parents.”
“Impressive,” she said.
He took a long look at her. “I’m pathetic,” he said finally. “Aren’t I?”
She bobbed her head.
“I’d understand if you wanted to go home. Of course if you did, I’d fly home too. I couldn’t get through it without you. The whole thing was a mistake anyway, I should never have agreed, absolutely idiotic. Shall we just go home? Right now?”
“Please. Give it fifteen minutes. Please, just settle down.”
He fell silent. And he actually managed to get a grip on himself and keep quiet for the next ten minutes while the plane accelerated, took off, and soared into the sky.