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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio



translated from the German
by Sue Vickerman

Vaspersky was sweating. This was nothing unusual, here in the south, at this time of year. Everyone who did not hail from here had been sweating since at least April; the locals since a little later in the year. But as Vaspersky knew, sweat ran down his body in January as well as in November or December, no matter where in the world he was. When he had been to his family doctor about a year ago for his sensitive stomach, the doctor had noticed his sweating and wanted to send him for a range of tests. Vaspersky successfully stopped him, claiming it had all been looked into previously and no cause had been found, which was of course not true. He knew full well when he had started sweating. His doctor, who didn’t know, just shrugged and prescribed an anti-cholinergic. The prescription had sunk deep down in Vaspersky’s trouser pocket and disintegrated in the next wash.

Since Vaspersky had been living alone down here on a six-month stipendium from the Foundation for New Music, he’d had a lot of time to reflect. He gave no time to this when at home. Reflection was entirely lacking from his life. Just as well, as far as he was concerned. He made himself a black tea. His Professor of Sinology would always say that hot drinks are good for you on hot days like this. Vaspersky seated himself at his apartment’s kitchen table. Outside his window was a terrace. A giant palm lily was growing there. He had the same plant at home. No way would it ever have survived even a mild Berlin winter outdoors, whereas this one had grown about five times as tall as her German little sister who was kept inside, and had no doubt grown just as deep into the ground. Vaspersky realised he’d never given a thought as to whether the temperatures would be anything like wintry at this latitude.

Now though, tea in hand, he made himself get on with the Flattriols he’d been planning to compose here and which the scholarship’s sponsors would surely regard as the pièce de résistance of his composition. He had yet to find the right thing for the ostinato fluttery sound – during the flowing-on of which an oboe, or even a flute, maybe, would add a sense of consternation. Using a musical box felt too conventional; recordings of birds flying off, much too obvious. His gaze fell on the bowl of lemons from the local orchard. One still had a tuft of leaves at the end of its stalk. He was about to reach across and give it a shake – get a sound out of it – when just for a second, above the boundary wall between terrace and street, there appeared a boy’s head. Bright eyed, with black curly hair. Vaspersky froze, and even when the boy was long gone, still didn’t move. He had looked very different from Raphael, his sister’s blond, green-eyed child, but he must have been about his age. Five-year-old Raphael. Vaspersky had adored him, and had tried as far as possible to act as a male role-model after the boy’s father had gone back to France with no conscience whatsoever about abandoning this role. When his sister was tussling with her doctorate, or rather with her (male) supervisor, and it was far from clear which of them would come out on top, Vaspersky had taken the boy to and from kindergarten. Thinking of this he couldn’t help a smile – and then swiftly suppressed his mouth’s slight upturn, applying a vice-like grip to his jaw and those woefully disobedient lips. Because when he thought of his sister, he did not want to smile; she who had suffered so much from the loss of her boy; who for a long time now had been incapable of sleep; whose lips nowadays were set in a thin line on her pale, hardened face.

Vaspersky got up and chewed the last two aspirin. The pressure in his head got worse. He wanted to avert the pain and the images that would now inevitably start passing before his eyes. He’d start sweating even more profusely than he was already, and his legs would begin to tremble, then his body, and for the rest of the day he’d be laid out with the shakes. Something like resignation was affecting his limbs, weakening them and making their movements random: sure enough, they were slowly starting to tremble uncontrollably. He lay on the floor curled into a foetal position, seeing himself on the way home with Raphael on the last Wednesday of December two years ago. They’d been on a little shopping trip. The child had been treated to a small felt purse, and while he was happily imagining filling it with coins, Vaspersky was obsessively imagining its jingle, and this jingling in his head took on a life of its own and carried him off into the parallel universe of his internal sound-studio, into which he normally only ever retreated when the boy wasn’t around. The child was off in his own happy little world and completely unaware of all this, and to Vaspersky’s increasing irritation, chattered on incessantly. Vaspersky realised how annoyed he was becoming and wanted to escape the sound-studio, but he was captive to it. It would not let him go. His body became the sound, and when yet another silly little question came near to destroying the soundscape, his sound-body could no longer handle it, and out of the blue he hit the boy in the face, and with a yell the boy tore away and tumbled into the street. Vaspersky had been incapable of telling his sister, later, that he’d slapped the boy’s face. He just left it that he’d broken away, which was true, but which Vaspersky knew was only part of the real truth, and this is what had plagued him ever since. The only memory Vaspersky had of the hours after the accident was of locking himself into his apartment and writing his Automobiles Indosinfonietta for chamber orchestra, tabla and mridangam. It was to be his breakthrough as a composer.

When he’d accompanied his sister home from the cemetery a month after Raphael’s death she’d begged him to stay over. She had cooked vegetable soup and not salted it, saying her tears while she ate would suffice. She had been in such despair he didn’t know what else he could do but get in bed with her, and she had pressed herself against him, which he still thought was not to be taken the wrong way – she’d been far too wrapped up in her feelings for Raphael – although since parting that day, she had never again looked him in the eye.

It was late evening before Vaspersky felt able to get up. He just needed a little walk. To the lemon tree. Or the drinking fountain.

He was sweating.

© Kathrin Schmidt
© translation 2021  Sue Vickerman

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