Franz and Loura

I wish that I was Franz.  He is tall and has an angular face and a lean body and a haircut that is synchronised with the shape of his head.  His arms reflect those of a working man, broad and capable.  He spends time with his grandmother and has friends who respect him, and a wife who loves him.  Loura.  I wish that I was married to Loura.  She has a beautiful face that is plain.  She wears the same clothes every day and you cannot tell from her voice where she is from.  When she kisses Franz, it is always a surprise.  It is like an explosion across a river where the vibrations are felt seconds later.  Franz and Loura turn heads.  They are adored by the elder statesmen of their family and placed upon a pedestal by their niece and nephews.  At Christmas, during annoying parlour games, Franz and Loura are an unbeatable couple.  People are not jealous of them.  Their home is in the hills and they live off the land, sowing fields and collecting chicken eggs.  When Loura’s sister was sick, Franz invited her to live with them until she got better.  They are planning to have children soon.  Loura’s pregnancy will be a graceful one, and their children will not scream in public.

Franz is the kind of man who hugs a friend when their father dies.  He gives good advice and lets other people get on with their business.  In the morning he stretches, then makes a coffee for his wife.  He does not drink coffee.  His one anxiety is a fox coming to kill his chickens in the night.  He does not meditate but is happy to sit doing nothing.  Sometimes he loses track of time, and Loura has to remind him of an appointment he has made.  Since meeting Loura, Franz has not been late for anything.  They met in a beer garden.  It was a warm spring day when Franz accidentally poured his beer over Loura.  She took the glass from him and finished the drink.  They share an ability to never be drunk.  Loura will never be bored of him, but she can see that his skin is beginning to itch, and so her encouragement is becoming persistent.  You need to make the home proper, by abandoning it, she says in a language that only the two of them understand.

It is winter and I am watching them, and my feet are cold.  I am not sure they know of my existence, nor their existence.  Franz and Loura live amongst the clouds, up and away from the village in a wooden house that hangs off the edge of a severe incline.  A path leads you there.  They take every precaution to make sure their home never burns down, and Loura keeps the path from getting too overgrown with weeds.  Franz tells her to let the weeds grow.  He is going away soon.  I cannot remember the name of their closest neighbour, but he is a friend to them.  He gives them flour from his flourmill.  It is operated by a water mill, that is attached to open funnels that trickle along the weedy path.  They have no worries that soiled water will contaminate the flour.  I am worried for them.  The parasites are so small, and the grains so big.  Loura’s sister has died and she is grieving quietly.  Franz read a poem at the funeral service that was well-received by all.  The church pastor tells them they are welcome into his castle anytime for an unloading of secrets.  Franz is grateful.

The mourning of Loura’s sister has extended on longer than expected.  She was not the favourite sister.  People in the village must be upset because of Loura’s sadness.  She is not talking as much as usual and has stopped visiting the flourmill.  Franz delays his exit, and Loura falls pregnant.  The child is born at home, and the grief within the walls fades away.  I have little interest in their children.  They have their second and third almost immediately after.  Franz comes to me with a broken watch, and I cannot fix it.  His trip is scheduled soon, and it is set in stone.  Before leaving he visits the church pastor.  He goes in the night without saying goodbye.

This is my chance.  I have kept my eye on this marriage for a long time.  The problem I am having has something to do with my own sentience.  If I can just achieve a state of mind where I am aware of the breath leaving my mouth, I can reach the heights of Franz and Loura.  The man of the house will return with a treasure to place on the mantlepiece of a burned down home.  It will make him stronger.  In his absence, Loura has taken to tending to the farm alone.  The children have grown so much and are able to help her.  She rarely thinks of her sister.  Her mind is occupied with Franz’s deep-sea adventures on the other side of the world.  His wetsuit is as tight as her apron, in the realm of dreams.  I want to see him dive eternally, an endless mirror falling into the abyss.  The town misses him too.  He is the glue that brings his friends together, and their conversation now moves slowly in the biergarten.  The pastor has taken to drinking with them, even passing on the wine.

Be honest, the watch will not fix itself.  One hand, then the other.  With concentration, perhaps I can make the clock turn backwards.  Loura has received a letter from a tropic address, signed by Franz.  She is not convinced it is from him, there are inconsistencies in his prose.  The camera keeps cutting away from the main themes.  His handwriting looks under duress, like bullets are whizzing past the fat that rests between his index finger and his thumb, grazing whips of a red along his now tanned skin.  Loura reminds herself of the blue sky, and I remind myself of the truth.  Loura is not her name, but simply the one I gave her.  She is an actor, a poser, an evaporating oil in a scorching hot pan.  Franz does not know.  I should be the one to tell him.  The train station would be a tremendous ambush location.  Or a leap from the trees as he races down the dirt road on his bike.

I am edging closer.  Franz is searching deep under the sea for something.  To complete a contract, to capture a lost piece of history.  I wish I had the bravery for that.  My cowardice has no boundaries.  Loura receives a visit from the pastor, and she hates the way that his nose moves when he talks.  It crinkles from side to side, like puppet strings yanking at the corners of his mouth.  He is dripping saliva onto their lovely wooden kitchen floor.  Loura is polite and offers the pastor more tea.  He refuses but asks if he may use the bathroom.  More fluid on the bathroom floor then.  Loura and I share a thought together, unbeknownst to the two of us, a thought of the pastor slowly decaying from an illness caused by an empty church.  Franz is the only true believer.  I cannot commit myself to a belief right now.  The pastor leaves a trail of slime behind him as he goes.

Communication had a simple life in those months.  The days hardly passed one another, without bookends every twenty-four hours.  I retreated.  Franz’s bike assaulted the dust on the road when he returned.  He appears at the end of the path, and Loura hears his feet on the ground.  She leaped on him when he got to the house, knocking them both to the grassy hill, with an all-time surprise embrace.  They elongated their kiss, until Franz, out of breath and flushed, asked Loura where the kids were.  Inside, she said.  One of the three children was not present in the dining room, but that didn’t seem to bother them.  Franz showed them the treasure.  An invaluable golden bear was in his hands, then an invaluable golden bear was on the table.  It is ugly and gold.  I hope it is not flammable.  Loura cannot let go of Franz.  She is putting her arms into any gap that she can find.

The fictional Loura continues to disguise herself well.  Franz still thinks that she is real.  He goes back to work on the farm, and he sees his friends and the pastor.  There is no change inside him.  Both Franz and Loura have not realised that one of their children is missing.  They are preoccupied with the position of the golden bear in the house.  It is moved to above the fireplace.  It is moved to the foot of their bed.  It is moved to the window above the sink.  The pastor requests that the golden bear be donated to the church, and Loura denies that request before Franz can agree to it.  It is quite an embarrassing few minutes.  There is some tension when Franz comes back to me to collect his watch.  I have forgotten all about it.  It is made even stranger by the fact that he cannot see me and that I am not there.  He is standing in the shop mumbling to himself, shaking the watch in his hand.  This is the first time I have seen him weak, but I cannot see him either.  I am worried about my ability to save him from the great pretender that is his wife.  The conflict is dwindling because she is a mighty fine actor.  Five stars across the board in that department.  There must be a way to buy petrol without blood in my veins.

In the village a summer festival is ongoing.  Franz and Loura are not in attendance, instead they are trying to catch raindrops from the clouds as they stand on their roof.  The festival has joy and justice for anyone who brought an overcooked cake.  Loura’s pastries are always baked to perfection, she could have at least rolled one down the path to the buffet table.  For the first time in a while, I remembered that I cannot taste food.  I am mentally pouring salt down my throat.  Nothing.  The festival lasts for nine days and Franz and Loura are on their roof for the entirety of the nine days.  They have collected enough water to boil a rain soup.  During their hand waving to the god’s escapades, another one of their children has wandered off, presumably to join their sibling in a world with fewer insecurities.  The man from the flourmill is coming down the path.  He is knocking on the door.  He is welcomed inside but is dismissed quickly when Franz mistakes him for a charity worker.

Months that morph into years pass with only one child left in the house.  The golden bear has been moved around again, and can often be found in the large front pocket of Loura’s apron.  Franz cannot lift anything up anymore.  He has completely lost the skill of picking up.  His arms tense up and he drops whatever item he was trying to carry.  There are shards of material on the floor of the house.  I have given up watch fixing, and my aspiration to have a beating heart.  All I need now is fuel, oxygen, and heat.  Surely science works for the non-conscious as well.  The final child is leaving, except this one says goodbye.  They even have a farewell party.

The argument has been presented, now for poetry.  Franz and Loura have not seen a single soul for an eternity.  They are wrapped in tin foil on their wooden kitchen floor, with the golden bear looking over them.  Franz has cuts on his cheekbones, and Loura has lost half of her bodyweight.  The pastor was the last person to speak to them.  He told Loura of Franz’ confession, the lurid confess of all-knowing.  Franz knows that Loura’s face is plastic, that she sits across from him shaking because she was put there by a painter, or a film director, or a writer.  He has always known.  Loura’s satisfaction with her station is gratifying to him.  She kisses him on the cheek, and he was ready, and he flinched.  Franz reaches for the box of matches.  My banging on the window is futile.  You cannot hear when there is no sound.  Loura looks away from Franz towards the mantlepiece and sees the dripping yellow of the melting golden bear.

 

Paul (short story)

The café is in Berlin, but it could be in Belfast, Brighton or possibly Brussels too.  Not France, certainly not the south of it.  The wallpaper is red, bedding canvas paintings with price tags attached to them.  It is not busy, however conversations can be overheard with little effort, and a table behind us are speaking a mix of German and English.  This happens a lot here.  The coffee is black and average, poured into dainty white mugs that are very similar to the ones in the apartment that I am staying in, which makes me wonder if the place is a Polish joint, as the apartment owner is a Pole.  It would only be ignorant guesses, trying to work out whether the décor had a Polish look.  I’m sat at the window that looks out onto a narrow street, something incredibly uncommon in this city, where three-lane roads are a mountain to climb every time you need to be on the other side, a tally in the con’s column.  Across the street is a beige building, around three floors of rectangle, and a protruding tower that rises two floors higher.  It is peri-metered by a gate that would take a ladder to traverse, before worrying about the spikes at the top.  Through the bars I can see an etched in stone marking that reads: Jüdisch Gymnasium.  The rest underneath is not visible.  I glance over to my companion, who looks even more tired than they did yesterday, and older than I’ve ever seen them.  They are fifteen years older than I am and starting to show it.  I glance back outside to see that two policemen have appeared.  It is peculiar seeing regular police with guns, and they are hopping around whilst chatting, trying to stay warm.  There is a clear impression that they have been walking this beat a while and walking it together a while too.  A woman with a limp walks by, then another woman with a similar injury, causing me to infer that there must be some kind of physical surgery facility down the road.  I make a comment about this to my companion, who is writing ineligible notes down, and ignoring me.  The policemen are chatting vigorously, as a man approaches them.  He’s short, has dark hair and a moustache.  On his approach the policemen have stopped talking, and the man instigates a handshake, to which is completed with familiar smiles.  My eyes track the moustache man as he advances along the gate, out of my vision, then returns on the inside, entering the building.

“That was nice,” I say, sipping my coffee.

My companion looks up from his notebook.  “What was?” He asks.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I continue to gaze outside.  After some deliberation, one of the policemen leaves the other, and the remaining one crosses the road to come right up to the glass, putting a single air-pod in his left ear as he is moving.  For a second, I think that he is looking at me, then he begins talking to himself, obviously in some kind of telephone conversation, still pacing to keep warm, his gun shaking gently on his hip.

“I’m sorry,” my companion says.  “I actually feel inspired to write something down for once.  I think the art might have helped.  You were right to take me there, all the years I’ve been living here, not once have I seen something made after 1990, until today.  Maybe I’m exaggerating.”

His American accent is more subtle than it used to be, having spent the majority of his life in Europe by now.  He’s forty-six and called Paul, the greys in his beard are more prevalent than the ones in his head, and he’s put on a bit of weight.  The good looks are not fading just yet, and during the last week he has attracted some female attention, thanks to some fame and some precise complexion in his face.

“You look tired,” I say.  “You could put the notebook down for a while, enjoy the coffee.”

“The coffee is shit,” he says.  “They get it wrong here and besides, I thought you wanted me to write more, isn’t that why you’ve been sent to Berlin?”

“I’ve not been sent here.  I’m here as a friend, I’m here to help.”

“So the tasteless coffee isn’t going on the expenses?  I’m sorry, I shouldn’t get so worked up.  It’s this damned book, short stories, who would have thought?  I don’t think I’ve read a short story in my life.  They’ve always seemed pointless to me, and we both know no-one buys them.  I like you; I do, you are about the only person I trust in publishing, and you’re definitely the youngest person I speak to these days, but I know why you’re here.  You want another novel, your bosses want to bleed me dry one more time before the contract ends, before I’m out in the wilderness, eating rice for breakfast, probably scratching poetry into the walls.  I can’t write anything long anymore, there is no commitment in my life for it.  News moves too fast and I can’t take another line being added to the subway map.  It’s the same everywhere.  I would have been happier being a carpenter like my father, he was making shelves for money till the day he died, the miserable bastard.”

It was hard not to laugh and I would kill for half of the talent he has or used to have.  “The projections for the short story collection are solid,” I say, calculations running through my mind.  “And they are going to be posted online, so they’ll get read and you’ll get paid.  What more do you want?”

“I don’t know anymore,” he says.  “The joke would be to ask my ex-wife I guess, wherever she is.  You know when we first met you sounded a lot like a writer, now you sound more like one of them.”

“I’m not a writer.”

“Neither am I, anymore.  I’m an old computer cycling through programmed instincts, hitting simple notes on a piano that will get a definite reaction.  I haven’t written anything good for years.  Perhaps I ought to move again, rinse another European city for every last drop of inspiration it can give me, suck the oil out of the ground, and ignore the cries of the dying children.”

He lit up a cigarette and wafted smoke way from his eyeline, knocking spectral thoughts into the ether.

“You’re lucid now that you have stopped drinking,” I say.  “If you can’t write, talk, and dictate.”

He coughed.  “I have no daughters or sons to dictate to,” he says.  “That’s disgusting anyway, like I have a disability or something.  Next one, surely the bosses gave you more tactics than that, rather than the pressure of you looking over my typewriter.”

“There’s no tactics Paul, and no pressure.  To be completely honest with you, I think the company cares less about your output than you think.  Sure, you used to be a cash cow, and lately less so, but that works in your favour because they have less to lose now.  Times are changing and if you asked for another contract extension, they’d give you one.  It would be less money of course, and they might ask you to move back to London, or even New York.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see the policeman jolt away and run down the street.

“That’s not happening,” Paul says, getting my attention back.  “There is no way I am going back to either of those godforsaken places, not in this life.  I don’t want another contract with the leeches you work for, no offence.  I want to be able to write again, to feel something in my fingers other than pragmaticism.  I should start drinking again.  I’ll take brief painful anxiety over eternal depression.  Or I’ll get back on the meds, and call it quits completely, check myself into the home for washed-up writers, call all of the people I’ve wronged and apologise.”

He had finished his cigarette too fast and I could tell he was dizzy.  I order two more coffees, and he gets up to go to the bathroom.  The street outside had lost all of its foot traffic, and I notice we were now in the café alone, with the employees making muted noises in the back after delivering the fresh cups of coffee.  On the table is Paul’s notebook, only a short movement away from my hand, and to resist the temptation I’m drinking the coffee quickly, tasting the same bland liquid as the first one.  Paul has returned and is sitting back down like he is in pain.

“I feel better now,” he says.  “Always do after a piss, or a meal.  Or a cup of coffee that tastes better than this.  Let’s talk about something else and get out of here soon.”

I wonder what there is to talk about with a man like Paul, in a state like this, not anything distressful that’s for sure.  Sometimes when I visit him, he asks about my two children, or my wife, which usually led to a conversation about how I manage to keep everything so stable.  Lying to myself, I would tell him, and having no talent.

“My son is five now,” I say.  “And has started to read a little.”

“Poor kid,” he says.  “Get him out of that and get him in a team of some kind, talking to other kids.”

“Thanks for the advice.  My daughter is the sporty one, like her mother.”

He has drifted away again and has pushed the new coffee away from him.  In silence, he is starting to put on his coat and scarf, and I’m looking up at him like he’s one of the great Berlin memorial statues.

“Are we leaving?” I ask.

“I have a headache,” he says, whipping a scarf tail around his neck.  “We have to get the train before it gets too crowded.  I’m sick of touching other people involuntarily.”

I’m standing up, and looking outside once more, seeing an eerily sparse scene, where the city seems to have died in between sips of my drink.  Paul gives me a flat smile now that we’re both ready to leave.  We get to the front door, saying danke and auf wiedersehen to women that we cannot see nor hear, then suddenly we’re hearing a bang in the distance, that is followed by an echoing crackle.

“What was that?” Paul says, hand on the door handle.

It could have been an earthquake, a train derailment, a gunshot, an explosion, a plane crash, or a dog barking at a stranger.