The yellow crowns of the maples gleam, though the sky above Poppenbüttel looks like an X-rayed rib cage. The long Indian summer had come to an end the day Lothar went off to Bad Kissingen. Dörchen scuffles with her feet to make the leaves rustle. She had polished her shoes before she set out, but ever since the business with the savings club and the matchbook she has kind of lost interest. The scent of compost, peat-mould and leather wafting up reminds her of the red wine Gitti treated her to after they’d dropped Lothar off at the Hauptbahnhof. ‘Pretty bitter, isn’t it,‘ said Dörchen after the first mouthful, and Gitti said, ‘You just don’t know what’s good and what isn’t.‘ ‘Yeah, yeah,‘ said Dörchen, ‘Your silly old mother knows nothin’,‘ and Gitti rolled her eyes, and Jeannette said to Gitti, ‘Leave Granny alone‘, and gave Dörchen a kiss.
To get to the S-Bahn platform, Dörchen has to negotiate a set of steps. Her heart races from the effort but has settled, more or less, by the time the train pulls in. As long as she doesn’t think about the matchbook in her handbag, her pulse stays steady during the train-ride too, more or less. But it starts up again when she has to change trains, and after hauling herself up the steps to the Reeperbahn, the blood is pounding so hard in her neck that she has to loosen her silk scarf and lean on the railing to catch her breath. She has kind of lost interest since that business with the savings club and the matchbook—but only kind of: Dörchen has no intention of giving up. The same Dörchen Possehl has never given up, not in winter 1961, when she pushed Gitti out of a very wayward position into this world; nor in the 1970s, when Lothar’s double shifts of schnaps and beer chasers got out of hand; nor when Günni had that awful accident away on military service; not even that time she nearly lost the will to live, after the tick bite in Tyrol.
Lothar had worked for a construction company for forty years, and even though he was retired, they’d invited him to their big anniversary bash. After the official party, he had gone off down the Reeperbahn with a few former workmates. Like Dörchen now, Lothar hadn’t been in St Pauli for the best part of thirty years. Whenever they had visitors from Sauerland or Munich, they would take them on a boat trip round the Alster or the harbour, to the zoo or maybe the Fish Market. Strange, all the people around here nowadays. She fumbles in her handbag for the matchbook, checks the address again and battles her way up the street; the oncoming stream of people parts around her or stalls, only to break up and flow on, brushing her trench coat in passing; twice someone barges into her. The chatter and laughter, the roar of four-lane traffic and the raunchy repartee of the barkers rush right through Dörchen’s head. She’s only got eyes for the numbers on the buildings and, one hand on her hat as she looks up, the signage above them; she filters out all the multi-coloured posters in the windows, all the neon tube-lights flashing on cornices, the blacklight pillars, the pools of ultraviolet light in the entrances, and eventually she finds what she was looking for. There it is, in the same sweeping, luminous red script as on the matchbook: Moulin Rouge.
Stationed one step in front of the entrance lobby, a stout woman is twirling a sort of majorette’s mace. She’s wearing a porter’s uniform, a low top hat and unreal make-up. ‘Hello, love. Lost yer way?‘
‘No, I just want…‘
‘Hey, ye old rockers!‘ the doorwoman suddenly bawls over the feather on Dörchen’s hat, shoving her to one side. ‘Come on in! Get a load off! Get yer nuts off!‘ She taps one of the group with her mace, as if to put him under a spell, and behind her back Dörchen darts into the vestibule, gets caught in the heavy door-curtain but untangles herself again.
Inside it’s as warm as a henhouse. The walls of the lounge are papered with red brocade. To the right and on the far side, booths for two are separated by curtains in old rose. It’s quite nice, really. Almost like the Tivoli, back in the day. Funny she should think of that now. Dörchen heads for the first of the booths. Two banquettes, a low balustrade supporting ledges for drinks, on each ledge a parchment-shaded table lamp, a glass of paper-wrapped straws, a holder with a drinks list, a clean ashtray on a paper coaster. And in the ashtray an identical matchbook to the one in Dörchen’s pocket. Beneath the glossy black ceiling a disco ball rotates lazily, sending light-blossoms—forget-me-nots, or bittersweet maybe—wheeling across the floor. The patterns warp, distort, as in a nightmare, when they hit the corners.
The stage is about the same height as the two beer crates stacked beside it. Facing the mirrored wall on stage, a girl coquettishly twirls her blond mane to the kind of pop music Jeanette likes. She’s wearing nothing but a neon-green bikini bottom and struts back and forth on high heels. She throws a look at Dörchen, follows it with a longer, surprised one, and dances along the silken threads of that look. And when Dörchen sees that girl’s face, something happens, though she can’t quite say what, as if she’s been startled by something familiar. Before she can figure it out, a slim brunette in a black trouser suit emerges from the string curtains around the bar alcove and approaches Dörchen.
‘Good evening. What can I get you.‘
What a voice. Dörchen orders a piccolo of Prosecco.
‘Is anyone else joining you?‘
Dörchen says no. Her heart is thumping again, at the base of her neck, on the left.
‘Well then, enjoy yourself.‘
Dörchen decides that anyone who makes it in here will get served one way or the other. Two men are watching the girl on the stage. Sprawled in a seating area in front of the stage, they’re being fawned over by two other half-naked girls. One of the guys had turned round when Dörchen was talking to the barmaid; now he says something to the other guy, and when the second guy and the girls turn round to look at Dörchen, the first gets up and comes over. ‘Hello, love. Lost yer way?‘ He doesn’t fit in here, really. White shirt, pressed trousers, respectable jacket, and the kind of glasses smart folk sometimes wear on TV. He grins, but Dörchen doesn’t know what to say.
He clicks his fingers at the brunette, who’s opening a piccolo in the bar alcove, and takes a seat on the banquette opposite Dörchen. ‘Go on, tell us. What brings you to this place?‘ He’s still grinning. Dörchen can tell a mean grin when she sees it; this one’s just inquisitive. Besides, there’s not much going on, not yet anyway. Maybe it doesn’t really pick up until after midnight.
Okay, thinks Dörchen, here goes. ‘I just wanted to see,‘ she says, ‘what brought Lothar to this place.‘
The brunette puts the piccolo bottle and a flute in front of Dörchen, and a brown drink with clinking ice in it in front of the man with the glasses. ‘Lothar?‘ he says, ‘Lothar who?‘
Towards the end of the previous winter, Dörchen was woken up one night by Lothar’s groaning. He had already been to the loo six or seven times, he said, but the urge to pee wasn’t going away, just getting worse. The next morning he showed her a yellowish-brown bruise on the back of his hand. It looked like he’d hit it off something. But it was where he’d pressed his forehead against the back of his hand as he propped himself against the wall, trying to piss. Dörchen went with him to see the urologist. It was a nasty prostate infection, apparently. He had just about avoided being admitted to hospital and put on a drip there and then.
They’d sent him home with a prescription, and he had to put up with a catheter for a bit. ‘That’s definitely the end of it now. No more fishing,‘ said Dörchen, ‘you’ll catch your death yet.‘ But come spring he was up again at three in the morning and heading out—though his thingummy level never did go down—and it was nearly seven when he got home. He did that on an off all that time, got up at three and headed out, even after they’d had to take a biopsy. Once Dörchen heard him on the phone telling one of his friends from the club that he had ‘eja… ejakillated blood, y’know what I mean?‘, and then a few weeks later he’d had the operation. Gitti, Günni and Dörchen were on the phone to each other several times a day.
It was while she was packing his case, when Lothar was transferring to the convalescent home in Bad Kissingen, that Dörchen found the matchbook in the pocket of his good jacket. Although she had occasionally wondered how come the jacket smelled of smoke—Lothar had given up smoking on New Year’s Day 1978, after all—she hadn’t made anything of it at first. And the matches could have been from that time he’d gone down the Reeperbahn after the company bash. All the same, following a hunch, Dörchen rang Horsti, the treasurer of the savings club, inventing some reason why she needed to know the balance in the account. When Horsti kept tying himself up in contradictory knots, she threatened to kick up a fuss sooner or later—at the very latest when they all gathered for the traditional Grünkohl dinner around Christmas.
‘In five years we’ll be celebrating our golden wedding anniversary,‘ Dörchen says to the man with the glasses, ‘and God knows it wasn’t all gold, but he gave up the drink thirty years ago, and this kind of thing,‘ she says, nodding at the room, ‘he never did that anyway. I’d have noticed. He never did anything like that, and never needed to either.‘
‘He never did anything bad here, love,‘ says the man with the glasses. He knows which Lothar by now. He’d had his suspicions and called the blond girl over from the stage with a wave. ‘He only ever drank mineral water, only flirted a bit, bought a girl the odd piccolo, offered a light, put on the charm and all that, but only ever with Chantal—right, Chantal?‘
When she stood in front of them like that, the girl, one hip leaning against the balustrade, looking Dörchen openly in the eyes, Dörchen had that strange feeling again.
After an hour she makes to leave. ‘How much for one piccolo? Thirty-five euro? I’d get ten big bottles for that in Aldi! The man grins.
‘Better tell yer husband to go to Aldi next time so… ‘
‘He can go to the devil, so he can,‘ mutters Dörchen.
The following afternoon, Sunday, instead of ringing Lothar first, as she would have other days, she phones Gitti to cancel. ‘I’ve some class of a stomach bug,‘ she says, ‘I can’t even manage a cup of coffee, not to mind that carrot cake of yours.‘
She spends the whole afternoon foostering in the kitchen, gives all the lamps in the living room a good going-over with the feather duster, beats the dust out of the corner sofa and cushions. In between she puts a Carl Bay record on the 10-stack record changer. Lothar had always resisted Günni and Gitti’s attempts to make him sell off the old phonograph at the flea market, and Dörchen agreed with him; true, the kids had given Lothar a stereo for his birthday one time, but he’d never got the hang of ‘them CDs‘. She pulls another nine records out of their plastic-clad album covers—Caterina Valente, Peter Kraus, Bill Ramsey—and stacks them on the spindle, and it has grown dark outside by the time she pulls out the old photo albums as well, from the bottom drawer of the living-room cabinet, and begins to turn the pages in the light of the standard lamp, lifting the cardboard album cover with trembling fingers, and the fine protective paper between the pages of photos, and she’s only on the third page when her heart starts pounding.
Beneath the black-and-white jagged-edged photo, in Dörchen’s handwriting: ‘In the Tivoli, 1958.‘ What a fine figure of a man he was; how her stomach used to flutter when she ran her fingers through his quiff; and those stylish cufflinks… And then she looks at herself; she remembers being caught off guard by Ewald— poor Ewald who departed this world in 1966—and now, seeing her own face of 1958 looking back at her, her heart starts pounding in her neck. As usual when she needs to calm down—especially since she’s got older—she has the urge to speak out loud. ‘Only the hair’s different,‘ she murmurs, as she looks at her face, ‘but apart from that…‘ The lips, nose, forehead and eyes, the fresh, innocent expression on the face—‘Just like that Chantal girl,‘ Dörchen murmurs. ‘Just like that Chantal.‘
She’s still sitting in Lothar’s wing chair when the cuckoo clock strikes twelve; she never did phone Lothar, and when the phone rang, she didn’t answer it. For hours she has been thinking of the yellowish-brown bruise on the back of Lothar’s hand, where he leaned his forehead night after night, standing over the toilet, seat up, trying to squeeze out a few drops; and Lothar’s hands had been exposed all sorts of things in his lifetime, bricks and mortar, wind and weather, hammer-blows and the devil knows what, for all of forty years.
At some point Dörchen falls asleep in the armchair; next morning she phones Gitti and asks her to buy her a ticket for the train to Bad Kissingen, ‘just a single for now; I’ll do the return bit with Papa.‘ Suddenly, from the minute she’d woken up, there was nothing she wanted more than to see in the winter with Lothar.