Nightmare in berlin, p.15
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       Nightmare in Berlin, p.15

           Hans Fallada
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While Doll was gazing enviously at the extra rations of the other patients, the milk was drying up in the breasts of mothers and children who were starving to death. While Doll was arguing with the night-duty nurse over an extra sleeping draught, old women and men, exhausted beyond endurance, were lying down in roadside ditches or in the rain-soaked forest to fall asleep for the last time. While soldiers returning home were looking for everything — their old home, their wives and children, food and work, week after week, never giving up hope — it was too much effort for Dr. Doll to go and speak to some official about their apartment and their ration cards. While Doll lived the life of a freeloader, supported by the proceeds from the sale of his wife’s jewellery, and complained bitterly that the money wasn’t falling into his lap fast enough, money that he promptly squandered anyway, frail girls were doing hard, physical labour, so poorly paid that they couldn’t afford to buy a cigarette — at prices that Doll had long since come to regard as normal.

  The fact of the matter was that he had lost his way completely, and had lapsed into a shamefully useless and idle, parasitic existence. He saw clearly the path that had led him to the padded cell in this place, sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp and quagmire since that day, 26 April. And yet he had no idea how he could have gone down this path. How had he got himself into such a state over a harmless schmuck like Piglet Willem? And how come he had let himself get so worked up about the beer wholesaler Zaches? He’d always known what these Nazis were like, after all. All this pointless running around after doctors and sleeping drugs and injections, which didn’t change anything, and just made every decision that had to be taken even harder!

  And then there was something else as well. This Dr. Doll who had just come to his senses a bit, this writer of books who had thought he had nothing more to write, this brooding self-doubter, who had thought himself completely empty and drained, this ex-mayor who had not been up to the job, this father and husband who had forgotten all about his wife and children — suddenly he thought about his children, and, full of concern, he thought about his wife, too. Now that Doll felt he was getting better, and that there might still be some sort of work for him to do in this life, in the midst of a population that was labouring with grim determination once more, he suddenly remembered his wife, and felt fearful on her account.

  By this time, Doll was getting some news of his wife. She hadn’t written, of course, but one day Dorle turned up to see him, his wife’s loyal friend, and she had brought him a brand-new nightshirt, and cigarettes, and half a loaf of bread. Yes indeed, his wife was thinking of him, she never forgot him, she was worried about him, and she took care of him. She loved him, and he loved her — once more. He’d just forgotten the fact while he was ill, that was all.

  Doll smoked, and wolfed down half the white loaf at a single sitting. Dorle sat on the edge of the bed and talked. She told him that Alma was the darling of everyone at the hospital, even the strict, devout nuns, and that everyone there spoiled her, including the doctors. Her wound had been really bad; the infection had gone quite deep because of the delay in treatment. But now it was looking better; they had sprinkled sugar in the wound, an old home remedy, and since then it was a lot better …

  And Alma had a bit of money again. Ben had eventually — after many phone calls — turned up at the hospital and had brought money with him, though only two-and-a-half thousand. Apparently he had said that with the continuing fall in the market for diamonds he had only been able to get eleven thousand in total, and he just hadn’t been able to make any more. Alma had been furious with Ben, and she had forbidden her, Dorle, to mention the matter to Doll; Dorle implored him not to let on to Alma that he knew. A woman who shared the room with Alma, and who was very knowledgeable about the black market, had apparently told Alma that a ring like the one she had described would easily fetch twenty-five thousand marks, maybe even thirty thousand. ‘So you can just imagine how angry Alma was’, said Dorle, and added that she was done with her good friend Ben once and for all.

  Doll shared her anger, but his anger was mixed with mild gratification, since no husband can avoid feeling a little jealous of his wife’s former men friends, and is always glad to see the back of them. He listened patiently, therefore, when Dorle diffidently, but understandably, sang her own praises — how she was such a good friend to Alma, willing to do anything for her, through thick and thin. And as he listened to her prattling on, he thought to himself: My dear, good, stupid Dorle! You, too, will only be such a good friend to Alma for as long as you can still get something out of her. And Alma must know this herself. Do you think I haven’t noticed that there you are, all innocent and unassuming, already lighting up the third of the ten cigarettes you brought me? I bet you do the same with Alma, even though she’s very willing to share — much too willing, in fact, and quite extravagant; she wants to share rather than have her things pilfered from her. And one day it will be all over with her as far as the friendly feelings are concerned — and that includes you!

  Such were Doll’s thoughts, but he kept them to himself, asking instead how it was going with his wife’s painkilling injections. Here again, Dorle had all the answers. To begin with, Alma had had quite a few injections, but then the senior consultant had laid down the law, and now the patient was allowed just one small shot at night, and not every night at that. So she had to stage an elaborate little routine first with the young night-duty doctor, which usually achieved the desired result, the young doctor readily succumbing to her charms when she begged, pouted, cried, wailed, laughed, turned her face to the wall, and sulked — then immediately leapt out of bed when the doctor turned to leave and clung on to him, only to go through the whole rigmarole all over again. And if that failed to do the trick, the doctor was very amenable to foreign cigarettes, which he could not afford on his small salary. So Alma usually ended up getting her evening shot — according to Dorle.

  Having reflected on this news for a couple of days, Doll decided it was time for him to go and check on Alma for himself. And anyway, it would be very nice to see the look of joy and surprise on his young wife’s face when her seriously ill husband suddenly appeared in the door of her room. Doll knew the privy councillor, and rightly doubted whether he would give him permission at this stage to go out on his own into the city. Doll was right in the middle of coming off his sleeping medication, and his moods had not yet quite stabilised; so the doctors were likely to suspect that if he went off into the city on his own, he would try to get hold of additional sedatives or other, more powerful drugs. That’s what these doctors were like, or so their patients thought — and therefore Dr. Doll, too: always distrusting their patients, and never able to distinguish the goats from the sheep.

  But if Doll was acquainted with the privy councillor and his suspicious ways, he was also familiar with the routines of the establishment, and it was around them that he now constructed his plan to slip out of the locked-down Men’s Ward III for a city visit. After lunch, when one shift of nurses was going off for their break and the next shift was returning from theirs, in that moment of transition when nobody was really in charge on the ward, Doll audaciously claimed that someone had phoned through to say that he should report to the office briefly to discuss his account.

  ‘Well, you’d better get along to the office then!’ said the male nurse with casual indifference, and unlocked the door for him.

  Doll descended the stairs. The stairs reminded him that he was still very unsteady on his feet, and that this outing into the city was really quite a bold undertaking. Steps now struck him as a funny sort of arrangement; they were never quite where you expected them to be. His knees wobbled, and a light sweat immediately broke out on his brow. But he had successfully got past the first obstacle, and now it was time to tackle the second one, the main door out of the building. Sitting in the porter’s lodge was a girl who was always alert, and she would never press the button to open the door without good reason.

  Doll tapped on the window of the lodge and then said amiably to the face that peered out: ‘The privy councillor phoned through to the ward — he wants me to go and see him in the spa house.’ (This was the main building of the sanatorium, where the privy councillor also resided.) ‘I’m Doll, by the way, from Men’s Ward III upstairs.’

  The girl nodded, then gave him a searching look. She said ‘I know’, but this ‘I know’ was in reference only to Doll’s name and ward number.

  Doll smiled again. ‘Maybe you should call the privy councillor’, he said softly, ‘just to check that it’s OK.’

  But even before he finished the sentence she had made up her mind. She pressed the button, and the door lock buzzed. Doll said ‘Thanks!’, and he was standing outside in the grounds. The gate to the grounds was unlocked, and beyond that the street was just a few steps away.

  But he said to himself: I mustn’t go out into the street here — the girl might be watching me through the window. I must go through the grounds to the spa house, and use the exit there. She was a little bit suspicious, I thought. It’s good that I’m only wearing my suit, and don’t have my hat and coat. Nobody goes out dressed like this in late November. Lucky she doesn’t know that I don’t own a hat or coat!

  He smiled to himself. He strolled through the grounds, hands in pockets, expecting any minute to run into a doctor or nurse who would not be taken in so easily. But he was in luck, and he managed to get past the main villa unchallenged and on to the street, where he now quickened his pace and headed off towards the underground station.

  It was damned cold, though. Hopefully, Alma would soon be up and about, and the first thing they needed to do was to go back to the small town and fetch some different clothes more suited to the time of year. Well, no, the first thing was to sort out the business with their apartment and the ration cards. They had a lot to do before he could settle down to work in earnest again!

  It was really too cold for the summer suit he was wearing, and he was glad when he was finally sitting in the underground train, where it was a little warmer. Now his teeth weren’t chattering quite so much. People couldn’t stop staring at him because he was so lightly clad, but let them take him for a fitness fanatic if they wanted to …

  He sat on a bench, his hands between his knees, his face leaning forward slightly so that it stayed in the shadows. He felt dreadful, overcome with nausea, and the sweating he had experienced on the stairs started again. Those damned dried vegetables he’d had for lunch! It made him feel sick just to think of it. Had they gone through the whole war eating dried vegetables, just to have them dished up now in peacetime, with a helping of mouse droppings?! It’s outrageous — the noble privy councillor can’t get rich quickly enough!

  But a moment later, Doll had to admit that it was not the dried vegetables that had made him feel ill. He did get two second helpings from the male nurse Franz, after all — and the mouse droppings may not have been mouse droppings at all, but perhaps a bit of burnt turnip. The truth is, it was just too soon for this little jaunt. He wasn’t properly well again yet. And it was too cold!

  He felt this especially keenly as he made his way slowly from the last underground station to the hospital. It was not very far — a ten-minute walk normally — but today it took him half an hour. He was no longer feeling cheerful, and not especially looking forward to seeing Alma again. Tripping over a granite paving slab that had been dislodged by a bomb, all he could think about on the wearisome trek to the hospital was the even more wearisome return journey afterwards — that, and the reception that awaited him at the sanatorium. They’d be looking for him by now. The male nurse and the girl in the porter’s lodge who had let him out would be getting it in the neck. There would be big trouble when he got back! Well, he was already in the little room, so they could hardly put him anywhere worse by way of punishment. Was this endless road going to go on forever? And then it began to drizzle — just the sort of weather you wanted for a little jaunt like this!

  But when he was taken to Alma by one of those nuns whose smile, like something lifted from a painting of the Madonna, always has a mysteriously unsettling quality about it, and he found himself standing in the door of Alma’s hospital room, and saw her lying there in bed — her back turned towards him, her face to the wall, probably sleeping — and when the lady in the other bed said: ‘Mrs. Doll, I think you have a visitor …’, then all that he had been through was suddenly forgotten.

  He placed a finger on his lips, took three quick steps forward to her bed, and said softly: ‘Alma! Alma! My very own Alma! My darling!’

  She slowly turned over, and he could see that she literally doubted the evidence of her own eyes. But suddenly her face shone with joy, she beamed with delight, stretched out her arms towards him, and whispered: ‘Where have you suddenly sprung from? I thought you were in the sanatorium!’

  He was already on his knees at her bedside, and threw his arms around her, his head resting against her breast. He smelt the old familiar scent of his wife, which he’d been deprived of for so long, and whispered: ‘I’ve run away from them, Alma! I was missing you so much, I couldn’t stand it any more, so I just took off …’

  What bliss to be together again, and to feel that there was a place for him somewhere in this icy-cold world of loneliness and destruction! Bliss and happiness, he had found them again — when for so long he had thought that he could never be happy again! To hear how she introduced him with pride to her roommate: ‘This is my husband!’ And he knew he was just an ageing man in a crumpled and far from pristine summer suit, looking crumpled and anything but pristine himself. But she didn’t see any of that, because she loved him, quite simply, and was blind to the rest.

  Later on, he sat with her on the edge of the bed and they told each other what they had been doing — dear God, they had so much to tell! They talked about the doctors they had, and about the other patients and the nurses, and about the food, where Alma had had much better luck than him, the poor man! She made him eat some bread that she still had, and also the soup that she got instead of afternoon coffee. She waved some money in the air, and a nurse went off to fetch cigarettes. Oh yes, the money: the two-and-a-half thousand, the balance owing from Ben and the last money she had received, it was nearly all gone already. Money didn’t last long with her. He needed a nightshirt, after all (five hundred marks!), she needed a nightshirt (seven hundred!) — and now these cigarettes! The crooks around here charge her fifteen marks for American cigarettes! They know she is confined to a hospital bed, and can’t do anything for herself.

  But she laughed about it, laughed about the extortionate prices, laughed about the money that was draining away: live for today, that was her motto! It would all work out somehow. She was twenty-four years old, and somehow it had always worked out so far, something had always turned up. And something would turn up now! Once they were back together again, they would do things differently this time. They would fetch their belongings from the small town; they still owned many things of value, so they could live on their hump for a whole year. They would set up home in a lovely apartment, and she would open a shop on the Kurfürstendamm, selling men’s ties. Only very expensive merchandise, mind you, preferably from England! She knew a thing or two about the business — she’d once worked in the most exclusive men’s outfitters, as he surely remembered? She would see to it that she only attracted a clientele with real money; she had a nose for such things.

  Meanwhile, while she was earning money in this way, he would write a great book that would make him a household name again overnight. But he wouldn’t only write, he would also spend some of his time looking after their child, Petta. The child must get used to being around him a lot more; she must learn to love him properly, and never to think of him as her stepfather.

  She chattered on. She saw no obstacles anywhere, and could only imagine everything turning out well. He listened to her, and nodded o
r looked reflective, but none of it signified. She was a child; today’s plans would be forgotten tomorrow, and tomorrow there would be other plans, other hopes. He was happy to let her concoct the most outlandish plans, because they would never come to anything. And yet he felt himself infected by her spirit and energy, by this bubbling youthful vitality: breaking out of the sanatorium like this might have been premature, but it was a first independent step, a nod to the future!

  So they sat and chatted tenderly about the past and the future, until the light was switched on in the room, which by now was in darkness, and a nun was standing in the doorway, her hand resting on the switch; as their startled faces quickly drew apart, she smiled her Madonna’s smile and said: ‘Supper is about to be served! I think it’s time for you to go home, Mr. Doll.’

  They had been so absorbed in their long conversation that they were quite oblivious to everything around them. They hadn’t noticed that the light was failing and that it had now become dark. The dance music on the radio had ended a long time ago, and now some man or other, speaking with a lisp, was giving a speech about the necessity for paying taxes. Even so, Doll didn’t leave straightaway. He would be getting back to the sanatorium much too late now anyway. Maybe they wouldn’t even save his supper for him, just to annoy him, but right now he couldn’t care one way or the other.

  The last cigarette, the very last one left, they now smoked together: ‘You take three puffs, then I’ll take three, then you take the next three. But hey, no cheating in my favour — that was only two puffs!’

  ‘You must come back tomorrow!’ insisted Alma as he was leaving.

  ‘Tomorrow?’ he replied with a smile. ‘I doubt if I’ll be able to come again tomorrow. They’ll want to keep me under lock and key for a while as punishment.’

  ‘Oh, you’ll find a way!’ she opined confidently. ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it.’ He just smiled at this compliment. ‘And’, she added quickly, ‘if you can’t come tomorrow, then come in three or four days’ time! Just keep thinking to yourself that I’m lying here just waiting for you to come.’

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