by Andrew Meehan
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“What do you know about fruit preserves?”
“Try me,” I say.
“The German ones contain artificial sweetener, yes?”
“It’s jam, like.”
The Laureate shifts in his seat without actually moving. “Sorbitol draws water into the intestinal tract—in some cases that can cause diarrhoea.”
“Antibiotics do the same for me,” I say. “All the little boats into the bay. But in all my life I’ve never heard of a reaction to jam.”
“In all your life?” The Laureate says. “What is this—all my life? You have blackheads.”
I inspect my forehead in the car’s rear-view mirror. “I don’t think so.”
This week, I have at last found some work—chauffeuring dignitaries to and from a gathering of Nobel-prize winners at the old university in Heidelberg. This particular Laureate resembles a handsome pope. He looks seventy and he looks virile, the kind of man who would attempt intercourse with a tree from a high-speed train.
“Believe me,” he says. “They’re there.”
Prof. Dr. Tommaso Benedetti is a scientist. Indeed, I am these days also a great believer in the universe, I am a great believer in its cruelty. My father’s keratoconjunctivitis, my mother’s Yankee candles. Of late I have become a great believer, too, in the great miracle of the body—so it must be auspicious when The Laureate is caught short on the drive from Hotel Europäischer Hof to The Laureate Forum on Universitätplatz. It’s not every day that the man who co-discovered knockout mice needs to crap in your apartment.
Hannah Sturm’s place—where I live, too—isn’t far from Universitätplatz, but The Laureate doesn’t think he’ll make it as far as the centre of town. We are living moment to moment. Prof. Dr. Benedetti is wearing mirrored Wayfarers and a safari suit. He’s wearing a paisley pocket square but a pen has leaked in his pocket. I worry about the paleness of the safari suit, as though the colour matters—no, I don’t want to think about it.
When I am not dropping off delegates to the Neue Universität, I usually park up at the Europäischer Hof, so I have been able to observe many aged fellows with wastrel hair exiting BMWs like the one I have been charged with driving for the week. Helplessness is the general air—and not a great deal of eye contact in the Nobel Laureate world. Gazes are trained on the rooftops in case of minute adjustments to the cosmos, or snipers. There are no female Laureates, as far as I can see. They must be keeping them hidden somewhere.
We whip along Neckarstraße—it’s a hundred-grand car, surely you can bluetooth your shite into someone’s bathroom. It costs all that money but the radio is stuck on Baden-Württemberg traffic updates. The Laureate utters the kind of soft, surprised Oh you make when a waiter overfills your glass at a stand-up buffet.
“How are you feeling now?”
“I’ll tell you what you need to know,” says The Laureate. “Are we far?”
“A minute. Less.”
“That could be too late.”
The Laureate doesn’t even lock the bathroom door. I offset the vapours with a spritz of the Joop! Miss Wild Hannah requests for Christmases and apologies. The perfume masks her born odour—which is mushrooms—and she chose it on account of the ads that say “Why only seduce when you can Joop!” There is no question mark because there is no question. I bite the air—the Joop! Miss Wild makes me so frantic (the interior of the new BMW has already been soaked in it). That and Hannah’s big knees and strong back, all that power.
I’m used to it now but at first I was unsettled by the tiling in Hannah’s apartment—in the bathroom, in the hall, on the walls, the bedroom floor. Ours is a love built on toil. Polish the tiles, sweep the stairs, sweep them again. Check your shoes for spiders, check them again. If she wasn’t so dedicated to her job as a vet at the National Tumour Centre’s maushaus, Hannah would make shot-putt at the next Olympics, no bother. We have just been on all-inclusive cruise around the Aegean that I couldn't afford and didn’t enjoy. I growled about the cost of the add-on spirits but Hannah was thrilled—or reconciled—with the no-name rum. Every morning she swamped herself with enough Lidl Bübchen Öl to facilitate the burn. If you are going to sun bathe you may as well burn, she says—a pairing that confounds my mother who would much rather find something about this German woman about which she can disapprove.
In the afternoons, after we’d taken unsatisfactory boat-showers and queued for the buffet, we would make ardent love—Hannah accepts nothing less than maximum effort—on our cabin’s under-sized double bed. No matter that she makes love like someone changing a tire—Hannah, my beautiful mountain, my blocker of the sun.
I am about to start doing a Masters in turtles. I am not about to start a Masters in turtles. Take your pick. But I can speak—can read—five languages and at home in Glasthule they call me Google Translate.
Speaking—knowing—all those languages will make me an excellent diplomat, my mother says. My father, a landlord of seven pubs including the one above which I was born, says they will make me an excellent barman.
“How’s the diploma?” my mother asks each week.
“It’s not a diploma exactly.”
“You’re a linguist. What do you know about beekeeping? No—owls isn’t it?”
“You suit owls better—you were always nocturnal.”
“Turtles. But they’re on hold while I figure a few things out, while me and Hannah figure a few things out.”
“Hannah and I. And why should we suffer while you float through life?”
I—who could have been a diplomat or a barman—owe one hundred and ninety-one grand in hush money to the Perry family of Adelaide Road. An incident took place outside The Eagle House on a bank holiday, during which a lump hammer was produced and Noel Perry—grandfather of sixteen—died of a heart attack days after finishing the Airtricity half-marathon in a personal best.
Let’s go to town you and me—this I don’t remember shouting. But I do recall that losing my temper felt like spicy beans were being forced into my larynx. It’s nobody’s business that the day before I had ingested twenty-five homemade Temazepam and tried to hold up a post-office—and that nobody noticed.
My father, a slave to the dry eyes, was so exultant during the trial that he nearly blinked. You would have thought he’d had money on a manslaughter conviction.
“It’s a wonder you didn’t get a hold of my chainsaw,” he said.
My mother took it badly. She said she knew by looking at me that I’d done it, from my mien—freshly cast out of Eden, tender, a maddened dog, could go at any minute. She got the point, she said, she felt it in her spine—her bright, joyless and occasionally psychopathic son didn’t touch anyone but a man died of fright anyway. I didn’t get jail but I got Germany.
In any case, the drama is over and Prof. Dr. Benedetti has perked up. The safari suit looks pristine. But it does not seem like he wants to leave for the conference—The Laureates are expected to be in or near the Neue Universität building all day, after which there will be a carp buffet in the foyer of the National Tumour Centre. I get regular transport updates on my official Heidelberg Laureate Forum tablet (I don’t have a mobile phone at the moment). Sir Q. Richard. E. Grieve went straight there before breakfast. Also present are Vinton Ray Cerf, Alder J.J. Busch, and Leslie Edwin Wainwright, not to mention Sandra Sauer, The Laureate Forum’s co-ordinator, and the Co-Director Generals, Prof. Dr. Tony Boutros and Prof. Dr. Axel Prüfer.
Prof. Dr. Tommaso Benedetti hums the death march as he gets into the front of the BMW, discarding the German phrase-book I have left on the passenger seat. One thing Sandra Sauer insists upon is no personal items in the vehicles. I stow the book in the glove-compartment, update our status on the tablet, and climb in to drive The Laureate, at last, to the conference.
The phrase-book is important. After six years, and five other languages, I can offer little more than a few bawdy phrases in German, on account—in all honesty—of the powerful amount of porn I consume when I am not applying for my Masters. I go on awful binges. It helps to be in Germany sometimes, the way my mind wanders. Sometimes I ask Hannah to go along with it.
“I’m a pilot?”
I always have to correct her. “I’m the pilot and you’re the plane. We’re on a peaceful mission—we don’t bomb civilian settlements.”
“I’m a fighter plane?” she says.
“Let’s swap then, you’re the pilot and I’m the plane.”
Sandra Sauer is the nice lady at the university who smokes a few hundred L&M a day. She is my best friend in Germany and the reason why I have this job as a driver for The Laureate Forum—she even lent me her dead father’s suit and it had a pristine fiver in the breast pocket. Sandra Sauer has the boiled head of a schnapps-addict—and when I get paid I will gift her with a miniature of local schnapps.
I am as much a part of the place as the phone shops or the monument to the burned-out synagogue, so I know the unspoken code that visitors to Germany do not ask about the Nazis—if you do ask people become distracted, as if their favourite song is playing from a far-off carousel. My father mentions the Nazis—and their women—so often that, blaming the roaming charges, I have stopped answering the house phone. Hannah talks to him instead.
Sandra Sauer is at pains to speak about the unspoken code. As a topic, Goebbels is out. Mark Twain is in.
“People always ask about That Fella.”
“What’s That Fella?” Sandra Sauer says.
“Who,” I say. “Speer. Albert. The architect. Dapper man.”
“We mustn’t allow those questions.”
Also, if anyone asks—and they will—the Thingstätte is under construction. I want to ask how a hill, even a bad one, can be under construction. We mustn’t allow those questions. If anyone wants to see the innocent hills, Sandra Sauer says, Steffi Graf has a holiday home on the Philosophenweg—but that is unconfirmed.
Prof. Dr. Takuya Ohashi is about to speak at the Neue Universität and his take on blue light is not to be missed. Because I don’t know where Prof. Dr. Benedetti has gone, another unspoken rule she reminds me of is that you are supposed to stay with your passenger at all times.
“You must find him,” Sandra Sauer says.
I use Sandra Sauer’s low-end mobile-phone to call Dagmar. Dagmar is from Zurich and is famous in the altstadt for working at the Rote Ochsen, La Fée, the Weinloch, Destille, the Weisser Bock and Schnitzelbank. She is the reason why I can’t find a job in a bar.
Dagmar answers on the first ring and says to head directly to the Weinloch, where a man in mirrored sunglasses has caused a scene by ordering a foreign liqueur in a bar that is known for selling nothing but room-temperature Müller Thurgau. (It is said that if you drink enough of this wine you will hallucinate in the old-fashioned way—theremins and vibrating flagstones.)
The Weinloch has a varied clientele. It’s where the hurt and weary of the town congregate—dinner ladies from the prison and men who drank and pilled the sixties, when Heidelberg was faster and dirtier than Berlin. A corner is used for coughing and a door in the floor leads to the lonely room that houses the dishwasher—bought in 2002 to appease the health inspectors and never used. Every other Thursday a dwarf mimes the saxophone. If you are too hurt or weary to get home for dinner—and she likes you—the owner, Maxime, will make you a brötchen with honey and butter, but I have never had one.
There, wearing Wayfarers in the very dark bar is The Laureate.
Prof. Dr. Benedetti turns away when he sees me enter. He is saving a number into his phone—it’s quite a low-end model too.
“That Swiss woman is excellent. But it’s a very strange bar.”
“It helps if you’re from here,” I say. “If you live in the altsatdt they’ll serve you your own puke in a pint glass if you ask nicely. You don’t have to ask that nicely.”
“She reminds of my first wife.”
The old dead wife trick—I imagine it works, too. But there’s something in Prof. Dr. Benedetti’s tone that suggests there has been only one. I get the BMW to point in the right direction and I am looking forward to saying goodbye to him for the day when he requests a detour past That Fella’s house.
“I can take you to the place where Mark Twain stayed,” I say. “Or the school where Oscar Wilde’s children studied.” I know the location of the school because I often eavesdrop on the guided tours that trundle through the altstadt—this is on my quieter days.
“I adopted one of Speer’s projects as my own when my wife died.”
Here we go. A fascist sympathiser—I should have known from the safari jacket. And Hannah will want to know if I spoke to him about my Masters.
“When Susie died, every night before bed I made the journey from our house to her childhood home. Every day in the Spandau prison yard Speer would measure out the distance from Berlin to Heidelberg as he walked—picturing the places he was walking through. It helped me sleep when I did it, so it became a valuable excursion. Salt Lake City to Seguin, Texas. Thirteen hundred miles in two months. Her family are still there. They own the local paper.”
That Fella’s house is on Schloß Wolfbrunnenweg, five minutes from where we have parked, but I pretend it has disappeared from the map. I am Google Translate, not Google Maps. That Fella’s grandson lives there now and is a chiropodist or Reiki instructor, one of those. I have no idea. I pantomime checking the tablet and send a message to Sandra Sauer.
Benedetti getting morbid. Please advise.
Sandra Sauer responds with a paragraph pasted from an old profile in The Economist.
“His father was already missing-in-action when Benedetti's mother, the American born Whitney Bly, disappeared to protest against Mussolini. She sold her belongings and gave the proceeds to a peasant family to house the infant Tommaso while she concentrated on her pamphleteering. The family stole the money and the little boy ended up on the streets of Bolzano, surviving on used coffee grounds from the town’s cafés.”
I think about dinner. Whatever we’re having has to be nicer than carp.
Hannah is what you might call giddy for a Tuesday. What she is not is a natural hostess and she will be filthy, even weepy, at the thought of someone—Nobel Laureate or not—in her house on a weeknight. But there will be nothing oppositional from her in front of a visitor.
She is still funny about her neck—the suppurations have abated but the blisters persist—so she has changed from her bus scarf to her house scarf. I twitch my nose in case there’s a bounce of Joop! Miss Wild on the air.
Hannah has new braces so we tend to have soup during the week—this one is a fowl broth emboldened by the last of the peas from her parents’ allotment. I can’t imagine a Nobel Laureate will be happy with rapidly-heated soup, but Prof. Dr. Benedetti wolfs his and asks to finish Hannah’s. She is taken aback when The Laureate compliments her colour. It does not seem to concern him that she is on the blistered side of tanned.
“You have nice feet,” he says. “Holiday feet.”
In her dreams of dreams, Hannah would love tanned feet the year round.
Hannah loves Clannad, too—anything Irish gets her going, she played The Chieftains non-stop on the cruise—and she loosens up when I put on the theme for Harry’s Game. She gets expansive and opens the good ham I was saving for my lunches and out it comes, the box of lebkuchen we keep for Friday nights.
There is some beer under the stairs, and after three mouthfuls of warm Dortmund Pilsner, The Laureate is letting it all hang out. “I wasn’t pleased by the amount of dinners they expected you to attend, although the hospitality is remarkable. Don’t ever pass up a call from Nobel if you hear from them.”
“Noted,” I say.
“At dinner I sat next to a computer scientist from Oslo who didn’t want his salmon. Can you believe someone from Norway not enjoying fish? I swore to myself that if I ever won anything like that I’d make the most of it. The cutlery doesn’t say Nobel or anything, there are no logos, but I know. But being a Laureate has its ups and downs. You’re a step down from a pop star. People shriek at you and watch you eat. It’s hard not to feel violated—all I am is a mouse guy. Did you know I was an orphan? I had to eat pebbles. I’m just like you people. I painted barns to pay for my PhD. And when my wife died I was orphaned again. Please don’t stare.”
Hannah is staring—The Laureate could be a lebkuchen.
It’s kind of a sad story—a widower stealing forks—but I don’t see it that way. I would have taken a souvenir, too. Hannah’s mouth is slightly open and I can see the wires and tiny silver sleepers that are guiding her teeth into a more desirable shape and her towards a better life away from me.
It is quiet in the car on the way back to the hotel—no more madrigals from a quickening stomach. Prof. Dr. Benedetti wants to stop by the Weinloch in case Dagmar is still excellently there.
There is a surprising number of regulars at the bar, hands in pockets all. Every one of them has the same idea as The Laureate. Junichi Die Japanische is in residence, some twenty-six glasses and two honey and butter brötchens into another night of public rumination. There is no one there to talk him out of his twenty-seventh, since Dagmar has gone on her break, and Junichi Die Japanische has an impenetrable look about him.
Unpushily I suggest it’s time for bed but The Laureate wants to find Dagmar. Everywhere we go she has just left—scheiße sie nicht, she was standing where you are now about thirty seconds ago. It’s two am before I drop Dagmarless Prof. Dr. Benedetti back to the Europäischer Hof. Night night, old man—keep on walking. We’ll do all this again tomorrow.
Hannah is awake when I get home.
“Tommaso just called.”
“Tommaso was here for dinner.”
“How did he get your number?
“Our home number is in the Forum handbook—you have to get a mobile.”
“Some people find that alluring,” I say. “Being out of range.”
Hannah has just accepted Prof. Dr. Benedetti’s offer to visit the conference as his guest the following day. I remark that chauffeuring your own girlfriend will be a little awkward, but Hannah says that she will meet The Laureate at the Europäischer Hof herself. I can take the morning off.
I can see old Tommaso now, at some other junket. Some Nobel floozy is in his lap, her nose damp from his ear and they leave during the speeches to ride in a laundry room. The dead wife trick has worked, again. The walking to Bumfuck, Texas. The fella from Norway who doesn’t like fish. Not with my Hannah you understand. You won’t be able for her—all that power.
I have the spicy larynx. In the morning I will drive over to the Europäischer Hof and go fucking gorillas on The Laureate as he’s lining up at the breakfast buffet. Let's go to town you and me. A hammer planted in Tommaso’s skull will soon take his mind off the jam. A golfer’s righteous rhythm—nothing showy. Man down at the bain-marie.
I always calm down by the morning. But the hanging mist of Joop! Miss Wild seems rancid and penitential. Hannah’s lab Crocs are in the hall and she has taken all the good ham, every bleak slice. For breakfast I tear a towel in half and knife the vollkorn loaf into thirty pieces.
Through force of habit, I drive to the Europäischer Hof, eyes peeled for Sandra Sauer, who will be skimming her tablet for notifications. Update: the man who overcame a disadvantaged childhood to co-discover knockout mice has gone awol with the woman from the maushaus with holiday feet.
I spend Sandra Sauer’s fiver on a box of Berliners and drive into the hills past the Schloß, farting into the upholstery. The sugar-frosting is preparing me for the grave. I drive illicitly along Schloß Wolfbrunnenweg towards That Fella’s house. At the gate is a shanty town of abandoned stoves and fridges—well, people need new kitchens. A sign reads Vorsicht vor dem Hund. And, hark, there is a barking dog. I listen—no, it is a recording of a barking dog piped through speakers hung on a pylon. Well—this a notorious house and there must often be young men at the gates.
Nobody pays me any mind, but I start to feel ashamed for snooping. I drive away via a fire-path but the wilderness is quickly upon me and the car becomes infuriated by the ridged road. The tablet is pinging and so is the BMW’s advance-warning system. I abandon the car and take a path into the trees. The scientist in me would like to do an analysis of the air. It’s thick and mealy—and the mealiness is of Hannah.
The electronic hund continues on its loop.
Next, I am screaming security passwords and PIN numbers and still the dog barks and the tablet sends notifications. I unlock the pass-code on the tablet and fuck it into a bush—a little add-on to some Nazi-collector’s visit to Heidelberg. What was Perry doing in a lock-in, anyway—with all those grandchildren littering the town? Old men, especially those with ongoing conditions, shouldn’t be running half-marathons. I sit in the BMW listening to the Baden-Württemberg traffic news—there is a major alert at Heilbronn. Pass me by pass me by.
I think of calling Sandra Sauer from the home phone but the worst thing to do would be to move from the couch. It is, of course, time for one of Hannah’s soothing ballads. Early Clannad are unreal—word has it Enya was the least talented of them but I won’t have any of that. The music is rising and I am all fired up—having visions wherein I and all of Clannad have gone around to Van Morrison’s castle for General Tso’s Chicken. I am thankful for the existence of harps.
I am looking for some Christy Moore when I see it—there is all of a sudden no getting away from the fact that a familiar pocket square is resting, convivially, in the doorway to the bedroom beside Hannah’s disturbed schlafzimmer slippers. The paisley pattern starts to move like the dance in a Petri dish. The colours are livid—they might be flames.
At this point, I amble, being coy. You’re the pilot and I’m the plane. In the end I have to lead myself towards the bedroom, where I find the sheets asunder and a damp map of Kerry on the mattress. With thumb and middle finger, I establish the grey veracity of a pube. Even though it is my own bed, I feel ashamed for snooping, but the foolishness cannot be helped because it is epidemic in me. Hannah’s farinaceousness is alive in the air, her spores have been scattered.
“Turtles have no vocal cords. They can’t cry.”
I am discussing my Masters with the new barista in La Fée. After the doughnuts, I have one-fifty to my name and—after all I have been through—I intend to live large. I intend to wow my friend with turtle facts.
“They look like old men,” the new barista says.
Hannah is passing the window, lumbering along Unterestraße towards the Heiliggeistkirche—I catch up with her in its shadow. You’re the pilot and I’m the plane. I want her to see me slam myself again and again into the church wall and for her to cry.
“There are some things I’d like to say. I’d like you to know that I love you. I love tiles, honest to God. So fuck you.” The pepperiness has reached my sinuses.
Hannah takes the back of my head in her meaty palm. “Fuck you,” she says.
“Liebling, have you spoken to Sandra Sauer?”
“Where is he? Was it the Joop? Be honest.”
“She’s very disappointed in you.”
“The Joop. Yes or no?”
It is true, Sandra Sauer is very disappointed in me.
“Where is the car?” she says. Sometimes Sandra Sauer feigns annoyance with me, but this doesn’t seem put on.
“The car’s fine. It’s up beside That Fella’s house.”
“You must get it and you must also find Benedetti.”
“And put his face in a hankie.”
“You must find him,” she says.
A look under the lid of the brötchen reveals the holy golden sludge. “Maxime will go crazy,” Dagmar says. “She weighs the honey.”
I take a bite and instantly spit the mouthful into my hand and dump it into the fur of ash at Junichi Die Japanische’s feet. I wipe my hand under my armpit.
“I’d love a drink, actually,” I say. Dagmar pours a glass of warm Müller Thurgau from an unmarked jeroboam. “It’s been quite a day. Have you seen that fuckpig Benedetti?”
“Fuckpig?” Dagmar’s voice sounds like Stephen Hawking has been afflicted by passive-smoking.
“You need to get a cell phone,” she says.
“We’ve a good phone in the house.”
“I’m sorry about the mess. Tommaso was all worked up—animal. I was going to be late for work so we had to leave in a hurry. I calculate three free glasses, including that one. Then we’re even.”
The wine is pokey enough. At once I sense light from an unusual source. The door in the floor is open and, lo, there is The Laureate, slowly ascending the painted wooden stairs. Dagmar takes from him a very old bottle of Jägermeister as he beats the cobwebs from his safari suit. He informs me that he will not be returning to the conference. The man who co-discovered knockout mice appears to have lockjaw and, from the way he climbed the stairs, there might be an issue with chafing.
I drink more of the warm wine. Downstairs is heaving, there’s a lot to take in—I have never thought to look before. Stewed light rises by way of a blue lamp—there are, of course, theremins. You’re the pilot and I’m the plane.
Dagmar urges me to drink up before Maxime arrives.
“I’ll be at this one for a while yet,” I say.
She slides the jeroboam towards me before using the bar’s phone to call a taxi—“Europäischer Hof, bitte.” When she is finished, I will ask permission to use the phone. I’ll call home and if Hannah’s there I’ll ask her to join me. She doesn’t care for the Weinloch but she does enjoy a glass of the local wine, we both do.
The electronic hund cries from under the floor. Downstairs, I see beatniks, mice, and presidents of this great nation. That Fella is down there, hoarse from the cheroot smoke—my father has had his wish and is grilling him about his mistress. I see the heavenly ghost of Whitney Bly, outdoing my mother with wartime grandeur and a talented son—although they are keeping it civil since they seem to have a great deal in common. Isn’t motherhood an awful vault of sorrow? There is another door in the floor and another staircase to a room dominated by a widescreen TV. Sir Q. Richard E. Grieve and Leslie Edwin Wainwright are watching the Champions League and lowering jumbo cans of Becks—absolutely flying it. And my mother’s words have worked like a charm—for logistical reasons, it will be impossible to make it back to Dublin this year.
Andrew Meehan has been a winner of the Cúirt Literary Festival’s New Writing Award. His most recent fiction can be found Banshee (issue #2), and an essay called ‘Difficult People’ featured in the journal Winter Pages. His novel One Star Awake will be published in 2017 by Liberties Press.