Authors: Birgit Vanderbeke,Jamie Bulloch
I love this monologue. It’s the first Peirene book which made me laugh out loud.
The author lays bare the contradictory logic of an inflexible mind.
This is a poignant yet hilarious narrative with a brilliant ending.
It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion, although in a very different way from what we’d had in mind. Basically, what we’d had in mind when we were planning the mussel feast was pretty insignificant, certainly less important than the immensity and gravity of what actually happened. But you can’t call our decision to cook mussels that evening a sign or coincidence.
Mussels were my father’s favourite food, although not ours; my brother liked mussels too, whereas my mother and I never cared for them much. I don’t care for them much, my mother always said as she bent over the bathtub, alternating between the small kitchen knife and the scrubbing brush, her hands bright red from cleaning mussels under the cold tap; she had to scrape, scrub, brush and rinse several times because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth. The sound drove him round the bend. I really don’t care for them much, my mother said that afternoon too, blowing on her icy hands. But it was a special occasion and that’s why she’d gone and bought four kilos. She thought my father would enjoy a feast of mussels when he returned home from his business trip, because he’d usually had enough of the fried and grilled lumps of meat he was served up on his trips, and so he would ask Mum to make him some decent food, something home-made at any rate; he never got anything like that in the conference hotels. He was fed up with these conference hotels; they may be comfortable, but they’re not cosy, he said. My father hated going away on business trips; he preferred to stay at home with the family, so his return was always a special occasion. It was our custom to have jacket potatoes with quark and linseed oil, sometimes pea soup, too, and because my father had eaten this food as a child, he’d often request it for nostalgic reasons. He never actually asked for mussels since my parents always cooked mussels together. So for Mum to be scrubbing the mussels on her own that day, her hands bright red under the cold tap, was unusual in itself; it was quite normal, however, for her to say, I don’t care for them much. It was what she always said when my parents scrubbed mussels in the bathroom together, taking it in turn to bend over the tub so that neither became too stiff. For a good hour the bathroom would resound with my father’s laughter and my mother’s squealing and in the past you might have heard them singing the old workers’ song ‘Come, Brothers, to the sun, to freedom’, which they’d learned over there and were forced to sing; ‘This is the final struggle’ and songs like that, my mother with her soprano voice and my father in his baritone. But later, when we were in the company accommodation, they didn’t sing any more. When they came out of the bathroom with bright-red hands they’d look a bit sheepish after all their larking around, and they’d continue messing about in the kitchen. Over time we found out that when they’d gone on their delayed honeymoon to my uncle’s, he’d cooked them a dinner of mussels. They’d never tasted mussels before, because of course there weren’t any mussels in the East, so they must have seemed rather exotic. They also thought there was something suggestive about mussels, something naughty, and they always started flirting when we were having mussels; as a result of the delayed honeymoon by the sea, flirting was routine at our house when mussels were on the menu. And remained so until that day, which we knew in advance was a special, even historic day for our family, for this business trip was to be the last step on my father’s path to promotion. None of us doubted that my father would gain his promotion; for weeks we stayed as quiet as church mice on Saturdays and Sundays while he was writing his lecture and also drawing several colour transparencies by hand; we always said how beautiful these transparencies looked; so, what do you think of them, my father asked, and again we’d say how particularly beautiful they were. We already knew that my father was a brilliant and highly influential speaker; he was known for, and very proud of, his extraordinary didactic skills which he unfurled during these lectures. He also possessed a very winning and endearing manner with the public, a natural charm in addition to his expertise in one of the most difficult and controversial areas of science. This endearing manner with the public softened the rigour of his expertise, and audiences were consistently delighted by the lectures and by my father himself. That evening my mother, alternating between the small kitchen knife and scrubbing brush in her bright-red hand, was holding the mussels one by one under ice-cold water, all four kilos of them, scraping and scrubbing and rinsing several times – since my father couldn’t bear the crunch of sand between his teeth – because he would be coming through the door with his promotion virtually in the bag; not officially of course, but he’d been given the nod from above. Though Mum grumbled jokingly that she didn’t care for them much, and complained about her crooked spine, still we weren’t allowed to help; leave it, if there’s any sand in them then at least neither of you will be to blame, my mother said. But we were allowed to cut the chips; you always have chips with mussels, I don’t care for them much, either, even though Mum cooks the best chips I’ve ever tasted. My brother, on the other hand, goes crazy for them, they’re unrivalled, he always said; once he even invited all his friends who doubted and teased him about the chips to our house, and my mother made chips for them all, and my brother was terribly proud of her. Since then we’d sometimes help prepare the chips; that evening we peeled the potatoes and cut them into thin batons, increasingly feeling twitchy. Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension. We may well have exaggerated the tension in retrospect; perhaps we didn’t suspect anything at all. My brother, for example, didn’t sense anything, while Mum and I did feel anxious, but then again we’re the anxious ones in the family, whereas my brother only gets anxious when it’s inevitable; until then he can quite happily ignore hints or signs of foreboding. I, at any rate, can remember precisely when my mood suddenly changed: when I looked at the clock and saw that it was three minutes past six. At three minutes past six my mood shifted from an anxious anticipation to an uncomfortable, even uncanny, feeling. My mother had put the mussels in a pot beneath the kitchen clock, and as I heard the noise I looked first at the mussels and then straight at the kitchen clock. The noise was coming from the mussels, which had already been cleaned and scrubbed; they were sitting in the large, black enamel pot that we always used, because it was the only one large enough to hold four kilos. My mother had fled from the East with this pot, she told us; it was indispensable for washing nappies, and she used to wash our nappies by hand, or rather with a wooden spoon. I asked whether it wasn’t impractical to flee with a massive pot like that; in my mind I had a ridiculous picture of her escaping over the barbed wire, dragging the enormous pot behind her, but Mum said, you’ve got completely the wrong idea about the flight, I mean we didn’t just make a dash for it, we prepared well in advance. We loved listening to how she managed to move all our stuff to West Berlin, and to the story about the bananas, too. My father was almost arrested at the border, on his very first and in fact last trip to Berlin. He must have acted very awkwardly; even he admits that he’s no good at such clandestine business. The only time he dared to bring anything across the border, he was too cocky, trying to take back two kilos of bananas from the West. They caught him immediately, hauled him out of the underground, interrogated him and everything, but in the end they let him go. I don’t know if they really arrested people for a few bananas, seeing as half the country was trying to escape; I can’t imagine that was the case, but my father says that it was resistance, political resistance. In any event he never went back and my mother
brought the big enamel pot to her friend. She always took me with her when she went to Berlin; mother and child looked less suspicious and anyhow she needed to go to the Charité Hospital because I had a problem with my hip. She simply got out of the train en route and handed the things to her friend, that’s what she always told us; on the way there we were wrapped up in winter clothes, on the way back we weren’t wearing very much. It was risky; your father’s no good at such clandestine business, my mother said when we showed surprise at the story with the bananas.
Anyway, the noise came from the pot and as I glanced over I couldn’t help looking at the clock, too: it said three minutes past six. And at that moment my mood changed abruptly. I stared at the noisy pot and although I knew that the mussels were still alive, I didn’t know that they made noises in the pot, because I was never around when my parents cooked mussels. Initially I wondered whether the noise was coming from somewhere else, but it was distinctly coming from the pot, and it was a distinctly strange noise, which made me feel creepy; we were already twitchy and nervous, and now there was this noise. I stared at the pot and I stopped cutting the potatoes into batons, because the noise was driving me mad, and the hair on my arms stood on end. This always happens when I get a creepy feeling, and unfortunately it shows, because the hair on my arms is black, so now my mother could see that I was spooked, although she didn’t realize the cause was the noise of the mussels from the pot, as for her it wasn’t a strange noise. Can’t you hear anything, I asked. Listen! It’s the mussels, my mother said, and I remember saying, isn’t it awful, I mean I knew that they were still alive, it’s just that I’d never imagined that they would make that rattling noise with their shells. I’d imagined they’d be cooked, eaten, and that was it. And my mother said, they’re opening up and then the entire heap of mussels will start moving. How horrible, I thought, the entire heap of mussels will move because they’re opening; of course I didn’t empathize with them; I do eat them, after all, even if I don’t particularly care for mussels, and it’s obvious that they’re alive beforehand and not alive when I eat them. I eat oysters, too, even though I know that they’re still alive when I eat them, but they don’t make that noise. Actually I was kind of angry at the mussels for opening instead of lying silently in a heap; I said, don’t you find it obscene that they open and make that noise, obscene and indiscreet, but at the same time I probably thought it was indiscreet because we were going to kill them. I’d rather not have had to think about the fact that they were alive beforehand; when they’re lying there, jet-black and closed, you don’t really need to imagine that they’re alive, you can pretty much regard them as objects, and then there’s no problem tipping them into boiling water, but if you consider that they’re alive then it’s creepy. If we were to cook them now I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking that we were killing them. I’m quite happy for animals to be killed for food, it’s just that I don’t want to be involved in the killing – other people can do that – nor do I want to have to think about it.