‘Twas one of those days one starts by referring to the old self with numbers and using the word ‘twas. Well, I wasn’t sure if it even was day already, because my eyes were in a similar state as my uncle Heinrich’s window shutters. You see, they just opened when he applied brute force. And even then, they only opened slightly, squeaking like a pig stuck in a fence, just enough to let some angry rays of sunshine inside. That was my eyes now, thank God without the piggish squeak.
The sun shone maliciously through my window and started to tickle my nose. Of course, that wasn’t all. As the old-timers around here say: all good things come in threes. I wouldn’t call those things good, but, blimey, they came in threes. The rusty eye shutters, the sunny nose, and now the church bells intruded into my ears. It felt as if they weren’t dangling over there at church but rather as if they were attached to the old brain. On the seventh day, so He said, we should rest. But every week, again and again, He seemed to have changed His mind.
On my way to church, I took a little detour down memory lane, and I was proud to remember some details about last night.
My friend August had spent two days in Berlin, and now he was a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan or whatever the word was. I was rather amused that he thought spending two days outside the village had made him a new person, open to the world and whatnot. Two things you must know about August: he’s always late, and he exaggerates a lot. His late arrivals already started before he entered this world. Ironically, he was born at the beginning of September, but that was no valid name for a chap like August, so they kept the name they had set their mind on. His exaggerations started when he began to talk and never disappeared. Just like yesterday, when he told us about his visit to the city. In fact, it wasn’t Berlin he visited but his aunt in a Berlin-adjacent village. She had sent a telegram asking for urgent assistance because the old girl feared losing her eyesight. August, as a conscientious nephew (and one capable to inherit), followed her call to read newspapers and all the stuff one does to old, rich, and nearly blind aunts. Fortunately, she had forgotten to put on her glasses and after August solved this problem, he decided to spend the night, since the last autobus back to our village had already left.
Not everybody is able to look through August’s overacting as I do. He’s quite good at breathing credibility into his stories with the help of requisites or whatever the things are called. Shortly after his return yesterday afternoon, he came over and knocked enthusiastically at my door to invite me for the evening. He said he had found something exquisite in the city, and I was wondering if the city was also the place where he had discovered this strange word.
As planned, we met at around eight at Wilhelm’s place, or better Willi since his father was already called Wilhelm and his father’s father as well. It was tradition, this meeting on Saturday evening. Of course, August was late.
After exchanging a round of hellos, August, who looked as proud as a sitting hen, put a bottle on the table and exclaimed, “This drink is exquisite.” There it was again, this hideous word that found its way to Untergrubenbach with the bottle, but I decided not to comment on that. Unlike Willi who took quite a fancy to the bottle.
“That’s a phenomenal bottle!” he proclaimed as if had discovered one of those gigantic pumpkins at our harvesting festival.
“Forget about the bottle, simpleton! More important is what’s inside!”, said August, “It’s called Absinth and it is the big hit in the capital. We need glasses and a spoon and matches and sugar.”
Willi immediately went off to get the required objects and seemed to be a bit overwhelmed, just like my little sister when she went to the market alone for the first time. Meanwhile, I was wondering about the sugar. August explained all the tasks one must complete before drinking absinth, which I couldn’t remember due to my head shaking constantly. Don’t get me wrong, if somebody wants to meet for a drink, I’m the first one who arrives but something that has to pass through several stages before being drinkable seemed a bit suspicious.
I still tried to understand when Willi returned.
“I haven’t got any sugar, only salt,” he said.
I saw how August’s thoughts raced through his head before he let us know that salt would be just as good since it looked the same, and I was sure that that couldn’t be right.
“Watch! I will show you how to do it,” August said, not unlike our old village teacher. So, he poured that stuff from the phenomenal bottle into the glasses, and Willi and I must have had the same expression on our faces at that moment.
I’m sure you know that trick during which one shoves the thumb between the index finger and middle finger to make children think one stole their nose. With the same expression as those noseless children, Willi and I sat there.
Believe it or not, that swill was green!
We were beginning to recollect when August started the second act of his play. He scattered salt on the spoon, lit the match and tried, for whatever reason, to set the salt on fire. Of course that didn’t work. I sat there and didn’t have the slightest what was happening. Without further comment, August put the salt into his glass, stirred, and drank. His facial expression said without words what I had already known: Salt might look like sugar but besides that, they were totally different.
“Even in Berlin it doesn’t taste better,” said August, and I started to understand why my father always said that Berlin was riddled with lunatics. I could have imagined better things than drinking this stuff, but you know how it is when you are with friends. So Willi and I did the same. Salt, match, stir, drink. And that was the last thing I remembered about last night.
“Thou art late!” said a voice from somewhere and pulled me out of my thoughts. Not that there were any more of those. It was Erich Fisher, another one of those characters with ironic names. Never caught a fish in his life. So there he stood, quite bearded, and repeated to sound like something very old. Fortunately, he discovered another late person, so I stole away quickly into the church.
As I expected, Father Pfeiffer already stood on his pulpit or whatever they call it, and I took a seat in the penultimate row, so I could avoid contact. There I was, listening to the clergy going on about paradise and all the rivers of milk and honey, and I thought that that would be quite useful if one wakes up there with a sore throat. It was almost meditative when a long vowel hit me from behind.
“Kaarl,” whispered the voice against the back of my head. I know more than a dozen characters with the same name in Obergrubenbach alone, and I’m sure that there are even more in Untergrubenbach but I recognized this voice and immediately knew that none of the other thirteen or so Karls were meant.
“Kaaaarl,” he whispered loudly like an autobus, and the even longer vowel made me realize that I wouldn’t be able to ignore him. Nonetheless, I gave my best to concentrate on the clergy who in the meantime had arrived at water and wine, and I asked myself if he had maybe mixed up the bible and the menu of the Golden Ox.
Long vowels didn’t achieve what he wanted, so he decided to use his fingers to tap my back. Again. And again. Slowly, in an owly manner, I turned my head and already knew who was waiting for me there. Ferdinand is one of those chaps who cause headaches without absinth. He has the eyes of a drowning frog and other features of the green amphibian. His tongue, for example, does little horizontal jumps when he speaks, as if he’s craving for flies.
“Karl, you won’t believe it!”
Skilfully I evaded the leaping tongue and was more surprised about my fast reaction than about whatever Ferdinand was going to tell me. I waited for his news, which would very probably not be newsworthy, but all I got was his arm, which he had stretched out in front of my face. He commented with a glance that was as proud as August’s hen expression last night. After being somewhat happy about my quick reaction a few moments ago, I was now back in a state of confusion. Ferdinand started to shake his arm and I still had no idea what he wanted to tell me.
“Karl, my new watch!” he said and delivered me from confusion. I commented that with an Ah and turned back to the clergy. Meanwhile, Ferdinand’s own sermon had begun.
“Fortis Harwood Automatic,” he said.
I knew that those were sounds coming out of his mouth, followed by the Ferdinandian tongue jump, but what did they even mean? He continued his hymn of praise, “The first automatic watch. This is the future. Look, here inside the …”
I got drowsy again and wasn’t interested in Ferdinand’s lecture. He had taken the watch off his arm and explained all its functions and other things. It wasn’t hard to conceal my disinterest.
Ferdinand is mad about such things. Inventions and all. I remember when he came back from war with an abducted radio. He managed to gather the whole village to present his new apparatus. The problem was, there wasn’t any broadcast at that time, so all we got to hear was awkward silence, which was interrupted by a rooster and Ferdinand’s cursing.
When Ferdinand started the big finale of his speech, the rest of the churchgoers rose to sing one of those hymns and I would have never thought that off-tune singing saved me out of Ferdinand’s clutches, or rather flippers to keep the froggy image.
All the talking about water and wine, and honey and milk had made me hungry. Luckily it was Sunday, and Mother must have already cooked. Before the hymn ended and too fast for Ferdinand to catch me, I ran out, ran as fast as I could in case Ferdinand decided to hunt me, still faster until I reached around the church wall. And now it dawned on me: It was a wonderful spring day, and the sun was bothering me a lot less than earlier. The anticipation of the Sunday roast had put me back among the living. Like a young foal, I galloped towards the parents’ domicile.
“What ho, old man!” I exclaimed when I entered the parental parlour and earned a fatherly glance that said, “Don’t talk like that in the presence of your family.” The flesh and blood were almost completely assembled, but when I saw that it was grandmother who was doing the cooking, my condition worsened again. Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother was a brilliant baker, but I think she spent the cooking classes sick in bed or elsewhere. And now it was she who made the Sunday roast. I threw an enquiring look into the room, and my father was the one who caught it.
“Mother’s still in Untergrubenbach at Otto’s,” he threw back and I saw that he was equally desperate, “Luckily Grandmother helped out.” I knew that this was a lie but sometime back in the old days, some cove decided that you should not speak badly about old people, so we didn’t. Instead we spent some moments doing nothing, I thought about whistling, but Father didn’t like that. Then Mother came back and had a sorry-for-not-cooking-expression in her eyes.
We sat down and didn’t talk much. Grandmother required silence while eating and anyway, we were too engaged with chewing. I started to suspect that she had hidden away the real roast to have it for herself later and had given us a piece of an autobus tyre.
I don’t know if you ever strolled from Obergrubenbach to Untergrubenbach, but abreast of Gießler’s farm, shortly after the chestnut tree, Otto let his cows graze in former years. I spent many happy hours watching them. There they stood, chewing, chewing, chewing as if their lives were depending on it. If those cows had peeped through our window right now, they would have thought we belonged to them. So we sat there: chewing and chewing and, by golly, how was it possible to do something like that to a roast?
When we finished eating my headache was gone. Instead of that my jaw hurt now. I thanked the old people for the food, lit my pipe, and set out for home, where a nap was already waiting for me. I’m sure you know, but an afternoon nap after a long night and a copious meal, no matter how hard to chew, is one of the happiest things in this world.
I sat down on the old bench in front of my house and finished smoking my pipe. I was almost through the door when a long vowel hit me. I turned around and saw the frog-like character jumping toward me. I sat down back on the bench. It was impossible to escape Ferdinand. All my anticipation for napping was gone, and I awaited the second part of the watch report.
“Karl!” This and heavy breathing were the only things he could articulate at that moment. I lit my pipe again and waited. Slowly he came back to life and began his monologue.
“Karl!” he said, but I already knew this part, “I need your help! The worst thing happened, Karl, my father—” Here began what they call in theatre a dramatic pause because the speaker was tearing up.
“My father, my watch, my Fortis Harwood Automatic—” and again he paused to fight back his tears.
“Calm down, Ferdi,” I said and offered a puff from my pipe. The frog declined and went on: “Father traded in my watch for a pig. I put it in its case after church so that nothing bad happens to it. And when I went to look at it later, it was gone. Just gone. Emma said—” and here I had to interrupt.
“What did Emma say?” I enquired, but in hindsight it wasn’t my most clever moment since he already announced to tell me what she had said. But you must know that there is no girl that pretty in the whole Grubenbach region. Mentioning her name made my heart jump as high as one of Gießler’s goats. Those were some brilliant beasts. Last summer we put up wooden boxes to find out which of them was the most acrobatic. In the end, it was Gritty Gisela, a grey-brown specimen, that jumped over five of the boxes, and with that, she was far ahead of Wobbly Walther. He already failed at jumping over one box.
“She said father has taken the watch and traded it in for a pig at Otto’s farm,” Ferdinand said and ended my commemoration of the Goat Olympics. I commented on all that with one of my Ahs.
I had secretly hoped that she said she wanted to marry me but that didn’t fit the motif of the lost watch.
“What are we to do now?” he asked determinedly, and I didn’t like his we. Now I knew that I had to say goodbye to my nap.
“Yes, we, Karl.”
“What do I have to do with your hideous watch?”
“The Fortis Harwood Automatic isn’t hideous. It’s the first automatic watch. In 1926 in England—“
“Yes, yes, I know,” I said. Even though I didn’t know.
“Karl, do you remember? When I saved your life? When I pulled you out of the water? You must help me.”
Not this story again. It was around two years ago, after a similar night and on a similar day, and I had decided to take my nap in the brook to cool off. The mentioned brook wasn’t even suited for drowning the old self. Even if one tried, one’s nose would still stick out of the water and prevent sleeping with the fishes. What had happened was that I fell into a deep sleep and woke up when something pulled my foot. At first, I thought it was one of Gießler’s cows since cows and frogs look quite alike if one isn’t fully awake. At second sight I saw that it was Ferdinand who pulled me out of the brook. “Hullo” or something like that I must have said, but the poor thing was occupied with Karl-pulling. I decided to take the ordeal and let him pull me onto the meadow to dry. Since that day he believes he had saved my life, even though I explained so many times that I was just there to sleep. So I didn’t owe him anything. But I decided to help him. You must know that I’m there when help is needed. Especially when the beautiful damsel’s distressed brother needs help.
“Right ho, Ferdi, what’s the plan?”
“Simple. You go to Otto’s farm and steal my watch.”
That was neither simple nor a plan.
“That’s it? That’s not even a plan,” I said.
“All right, Karl, listen. You go to Otto’s. He always takes off his watch before he works at the pigsty, he puts it somewhere. Just look for it and take it. He will think that one of his pigs ate the watch.”
Just when I thought this day couldn’t get more absurd, he said this. The part about stealing was difficult already, but there are some things one does for a sister. But a watch-eating pig? Otto didn’t have the brightest mind in the village but even he would look through that.
“A pig that eats watches, Ferdi, do you really believe such a ghastly thing?” I asked.
“They do, Karl,” he said indignantly, “Pigs eat everything. Do you recall when Gießler’s tyres were gone last year? That was one of Otto’s pigs. It ate the whole tyre!”
I remembered my grandmother’s roast. That would be a feast for pigs. The whole thing was still quite unbelievable, but I had no other choice. In my current state I couldn’t think of a better plan.
“All right, Ferdi. But you will put in a good word for me with Emma.”
“Oh, Karl, I knew you remembered that I saved your life.”
I waited until Ferdinand disappeared into the horizon and decided to smoke a last pipe before executing the plan.
I supposed that it wouldn’t be too difficult to make a watch disappear from a pigsty, and left the village towards Untergrubenbach where Otto’s farm was situated.
On my little journey, I passed chewing cows and the little brook that invited me to a nap. But there was no time to enjoy the scenery. Usually, I’m one who loves being distracted by cows and brooks but minutes were scarce on this mission. So I said hello and goodbye to cows and the brook with a single wave of the hand, and went on.
A piggish stench marked the end of my journey. I stopped at the fence in front of Otto’s farm to get a general idea. The old pig farmer stood at a distance from the farm and was absorbed in digging the ground like a dog that had lost its bone. My eyes wandered on and stopped at the sty. Its gate was wide open. Sometimes in life one gets a feeling without knowing if it means anything at all. I had this feeling that I could find Otto’s Sunday suit together with the watch. Otto was still excavating furiously so I could sneak into the pigsty unseen. I entered and looked around and saw exactly what I had expected. Pigs, mostly. On the wall to my left, I caught sight of something that resembled a wardrobe. That could be Otto’s dressing room, I deduced. I opened the furniture and after a short and thorough rummaging I discovered a watch.
The problem was, as you might remember, that I paid little attention to Ferdinand when he described the watch to me and when I say little, I mean none at all. So I didn’t have the slightest idea what the watch looked like. They all look the same to me anyway.
I seized the old thing and felt relieved.
The word “Fortis” shone from the wristband, and I remembered that name.
“Karl, you are a genius,” I praised myself when I discovered something else between the piggish mass. Two braids, resembling pretzels, appeared out of one of the pens, and shortly after were being followed by the corresponding child. What a good place that was to store children! My delighted mood passed quickly when I saw that it was Otto’s daughter who watched me, then the watch in my hand, then me again.
“What are you doing with Father’s watch?” she asked.
I needed a clever explanation, quickly, and again my genial mind didn’t let me down.
“My name is Ulrich van den Uhren and I am a Dutch watch cleaner,” I said in an allegedly Dutch accent. Every other child I could have convinced just with it, but not this one. This specimen was persistent. If she had only inherited some of Otto’s stupidity then I would have been on my way home now, finally taking that well-deserved nap.
“I know who you are,” she said.
“Ah?” I replied.
“Yes, you are Karl, and you want to steal Father’s watch.”
I was caught. I had no more vigour for creating further fantasies. The child wasn’t just intelligent but also reasonable, so I decided to be honest. She understood and after I ended my story she grinned like a stork.
“All right,” she said, you can have Father’s watch.”
“But I want something in return,” she said.
And now she would came up with something I couldn’t deliver. A pony I’d reckon, or whatever children of that age desired. Gießler had one of those.
“I want chewing gum,” she requested, and I felt as if I fell into a thesaurus.
“Chewing gum. Käthchen’s brother brought some from Berlin, and I also want some. Then you can have father’s watch.”
Maybe she had spent too much time with those pigs. There was no other explanation for why somebody would like to chew gum. However, the problem was solved. Käthchen was our cosmopolitan’s sister and if there was one person who could help now, it was August.
“Right, dear child. You wait here and I get your chewing thing.”
I went on my way back, no, I ran as fast as I could without even looking at cows and the brook, and that meant the whole affair was serious.
August lived in his parent’s old home. They had moved to the grandparents in Untergrubenbach and I thought that I would have done the same if I had to spend all day with August. Don’t get me wrong, August’s a brilliant chap, but spend some time with him, and his drivel will eventually make you go away far and fast.
His window was wide open, and I whistled a short chord. That usually worked as an open sesame. Not today. I knocked and considered waiting in front of his house. But this wasn’t a situation one sits out. So I worked at his door like a barmy woodpecker until August opened. He still looked hennish but not proud anymore. More like a plucked hen.
“Mm?”, he muttered, but I had no time for these nasalities.
“August, spare me your Mms, we have a problem,” I said. I knew how to activate August’s brain.
“August, you are the only cosmopolitan I know and a brilliant one for sure. I need your assistance with a matter of great urgency.”
Of course that did the trick. August is always keen as mustard when one makes him feel important.
“I knew that you would appreciate my excursion to the metrop eventually. Believe me, nobody knows the colourful city life as I do. So, how can I be of help?”
I had no time to explain the matter and came straight to the point.
“Chewing gum, you got something like that? I heard you brought some for Käthchen.”
“Oh, Karl! Chewing gum is en vogue right now. It’s so exquisite.”
The seriousness of the situation prohibited any commentary on August’s vocab.
“Yes, yes, exquisite—” I interrupted him and then immediately myself because this word, against all of the odds, sounded so, well, exquisite. I continued, “I need some. Urgently.”
“But Karl, Käthchen has already eaten all of it, and I didn’t bring any more.”
Of course. That was typical.
This terrible plan had so many holes and I was about to fall into all of them. But August had awakened my interest.
“Say, August, can you use your wit to explain to me what chewing gum is?”
“Any child can tell you that. Chewing gum, that’s sweet, how do you say, pieces of sugar that you can chew. You can chew them for hours and when you are done, you can just spit them out.”
If there had been a record for the most stupid sentences uttered in one day, this day surely broke it. Not many hours ago I was in that exact state when I chewed endlessly on Grandmother’s roast, and I could not imagine that anybody would do this purely for fun. Why go to Berlin when you could use grandmother’s roast as chewing gum?
Before I ended that thought I exhaled another one of my Ahs.
Now this wasn’t one of desperation or indifference, no, this Ah was one of those that one uses when one ponders over 2+2 and suddenly, out of nowhere, a 4 pops into your head.
“August, you are a genius!” I exclaimed but he didn’t hear any of it because I was already on my way to my parents’ home.
When I reached, I tiptoed into the kitchen to get some of the chewing gum roast. Grandmother was lying in the parlour, sleeping. I took the debris of the roast in my jacket’s pocket and knew, that this had been another of those bad ideas that I had had today. Now I had to solve the next problem: The thing was everything but sweet. But I was full of zest for action. I went home to the old kitchen where I was better stocked with sugar than Willi had been last night.
I cut the roast into bite-sized pieces, wrung out the last remains of gravy, and covered them with sugar. I was so occupied with the prep that I didn’t notice August, who decided to visit and now was leaning against my doorframe.
“Hullo, Karl, I’ve got something for you.”
“Ah,” I said, surprised this time, “what’s that?”
“I can’t provide any chewing gum, but I have some of the wrapping paper. You see how exquisite it looks?”
“August, you are a saviour!”
I began wrapping the sweetened pieces of Sunday roast in the paper and knew that the day was saved. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw August who had shoved a big slice of roast in his mouth and now chewed laboriously. That chewing gum chewing wasn’t just a very odd fad, it also looked superlatively stupid, I thought to myself watching him. After I had packed all the chewing gum roast in my pocket, August was still chewing and I invited him to spend the next few hours, or how long it would take, here.
I remembered reading in the newspaper about this great cove at the Olympics, Abraham Whatshisname. Some English chap he was. Ran 100 metres at golden speed. That’s just to give you an idea of how fast I hurried back to Otto’s farm.
When I arrived, he was still digging. The pretzeled child came round the corner and requested jaw-hurting confectionery. I turned over the delivery and awaited her reaction.
“Don’t you want to try?” I asked and knew that that wasn’t one of my well-wrought questions. I was sure she would recognize the fraud, but I wanted to see if her jaw could manage it.
“No, they are for Luise. When I give her some chewing gum, she lets me ride on her pony.”
I knew it!
It was always about ponies! But I didn’t give it any more thought, I had accomplished my task and was ready to receive the watch. I looked at her in a manner that told her I was waiting.
“The watch is in there,” she said and pointed to the pigsty, “you can take it, I won’t tell Father.”
And off she went on her way to that bally pony.
I went back to the pigsty and began rummaging inside the wardrobe. In the watch’s earlier place was nothing. Where did it go? What if that child had misled me? There I stood, watchless in a pigsty, wondering what else was to be done. I turned to leave when I discovered the wristwatch between the pigs’ legs.
“Ah,” I said, delighted, and reached for the old thing.
There it was.
The wonderful lettering that spelled “Fortis”.
The stupid child must have thrown the watch in there, either accidentally or deliberately. I already told you that I didn’t know a lot about watches, but I knew that watches shouldn’t look like that. I pulled the wristband from between the pigs’ legs and that was it. Nothing more. Half a wristband with traces of pigs’ teeth.
This was the point to give up on this day for good. At least I knew now that pigs indeed ate watches.