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from the February 2011 issue

The Dogs in Thessaloniki

We had our morning coffee in the garden. We scarcely said a word.  Beate got up and put the cups on a tray.  We might as well put the chairs up on the veranda, she said.  What for? I said.  It looks like rain, she said.  Rain? I said, there's not a cloud in the sky.  There's a nip in the air, she said, can’t you feel it?  No, I said. Maybe I’m wrong, she said.  She went up the veranda steps and into the living room. I remained sitting outside for another fifteen minutes or so; then I carried one of the chairs up onto the veranda. I stood for a while looking over at the forest on the other side of the wooden fence, but there was nothing to see.   Through the open veranda door I could hear Beate humming.  She’s heard the weather forecast, of course, I thought.  I went back down into the garden and round to the front of the house, over to the mail box beside the black wrought-iron gate.  It was empty.  I closed the gate, which for some reason or other was standing open; then I saw that someone had thrown up just outside it.  It rather upset me.  I fixed the garden hose onto the faucet beside the basement entrance and turned the water on full force; then I pulled the hose along behind me to the gate. The jet hit slightly off the mark, and some of the vomit squirted into the garden; the rest got spread out over the tarmac.  There was no drain nearby, so all I accomplished was to move the yellowish substance four or five meters away from the gate.  But it was a relief after all that the foul mess was a bit farther off.

After I had turned off the faucet and rolled up the garden hose, I was at a loss what to do next.  I went up onto the veranda and sat down.  Some minutes later I heard Beate starting to hum again. It sounded as though she was thinking about something pleasant; she may have believed that I didn’t hear her.  I coughed, and it went quiet.  She came outside and said: Are you sitting here? She had put on some makeup.  Are you off somewhere? I said. No, she said.  I turned my head toward the garden and said:  Some idiot or other had thrown up just outside the gate.  Oh? she said.  A really disgusting mess, I said.  She didn’t answer.  I stood up.  Do you have a cigarette? she asked.  She got one, and I gave her a light.  Thanks, she said.  I went down from the veranda and sat at the garden table.  Beate stood smoking on the veranda.  She threw her half-smoked cigarette onto the gravel in front of the steps. What’s the point of doing that? I said.  It’ll burn, she said.  She went into the living room.  I stared at the thin wisp of smoke rising almost straight up from the cigarette, I hoped it wouldn’t burn.  After a while I got up, I had a feeling of homelessness.  I went down to the gate in the fence, over the narrow strip of pasture and into the forest.  I stopped just beyond the edge of the forest and sat on a tree stump, almost hidden behind a thicket.  Beate came out onto the veranda.  She looked toward where I was sitting and called my name.  She can’t see me, I thought.  She went down into the garden and round the house, then up onto the veranda again.   She looked over once more at where I was sitting.  She can’t possibly see me, I thought.  She turned round and went into the living room.  I got up and walked farther into the forest.

When we were sitting at the dinner table, Beate said: There he is again.  Who? I said.  That man, she said, at the edge of the forest, just beside the big . . . no, now he’s gone away.  I got up and went over to the window.  Where? I said.  Beside the big pine tree, she said.  Are you sure that it was the same man? I said.   I think so, she said.  There is no one there now, I said.  No, he went away, she said.  I went back to the table.  I said: You couldn’t possibly see that it was the same man at that distance.  Beate didn’t answer straight away, then she said: I would’ve recognized you. That’s different, I said. You know me. We ate a while in silence.  Then she said: By the way, why didn’t you answer when I called to you?  Called to me? I said.  I saw you, she said, and you didn’t answer.  I didn’t reply to that.  I saw you, she said.  Why did you go round the house then? I said.  So that you wouldn’t realize that I’d seen you, she said.  I didn’t think you saw me, I said.  Why didn’t you answer? she said.  It wasn’t necessary to answer when I didn't think you had seen me, I said.  I might well have been somewhere totally different. If you hadn’t seen me, and if you hadn’t pretended not to have seen me, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  Dear me, she said, it isn’t a problem, is it?

We didn’t say anything more for a time.  Beate was continually turning her head to look out of the window.  I said:  It didn’t rain.  No, she said, it held off.  I put my knife and fork down, leaned back in my chair and said: You know, sometimes you irritate me.  Oh? she said.  You can never admit that you’re wrong, can you, I said.  I certainly can, she said.  I’m often wrong. Everybody is.  Absolutely everybody is.  I just looked at her, and I could see that she realized that she had gone too far.  She got up.  She picked up the sauceboat and the empty vegetable dish and went out into the kitchen.  She didn’t come in again.  I got up as well.  I put on my jacket, then stood listening for a while, but it was dead quiet.  I went into the garden, round to the front of the house and out onto the road.  I walked eastward, out of town.  I was really quite upset.  The gardens around the villas on either side of the road were lying empty, and the only sound I heard was the fairly steady hum from the motorway.  I left the houses behind and crossed the large, level stretch of ground which runs right down to the fjord.

I arrived at the fjord just beside a small outdoor café where I found a seat at a table right at the water’s edge.  I bought a beer and lit a cigarette.  I was warm, but I kept my jacket on because I reckoned my shirt would have sweat stains under the arms.  All the café guests were behind me; in front of me were the fjord and the distant, forested slopes. The buzzing of low-pitched voices and the slight gurgling of water among the rocks on the shore put me in a drowsy, vacant frame of mind.  My thoughts followed their own apparently irrational paths and were not unpleasant; on the contrary, I felt an extraordinary sense of well-being.   So it was all the more inexplicable that, without any noticeable transition, I was gripped by an anguished feeling of desertion.  There was something overwhelmingly all-encompassing about both the anguish and the feeling of desertion that in a way suspended time, although it probably only lasted a few seconds before my senses brought me back to the present.

I went home the same way I had come, across the broad belt of land. The sun was drawing closer to the mountains in the west; a haze was lying over the town, and the air was completely still.  I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a clear, distinct thought: If only she were dead.

But I continued on my way home.  I walked through the gate and round to the back of the house.  Beate was sitting at the garden table; directly opposite her sat her elder brother.  I went over to them. I felt completely calm.  We exchanged a few trivial remarks. Beate didn’t ask where I’d been, and neither of them suggested that I should keep them company, which in any case I would have declined, with a plausible excuse.

I went up to the bedroom, hung up my jacket, and took off my shirt.  Beate’s side of the bed was unmade.  On the bedside table was an ashtray with two cigarette butts, and beside the ashtray was lying an open book, with the cover face up.  I closed the book; I took the ashtray with me to the bathroom and flushed the butts down the toilet.  Then I undressed and turned on the shower, but the water was only lukewarm, almost cold, and my time in the shower was uneventful, and much briefer than I'd hoped.

While I was standing at the open bedroom window getting dressed, I heard Beate laugh.  I finished dressing quickly and went down into the utility room in the basement; through the window in there I could watch her without being seen.  She was sitting leaning back in her chair, with her dress hiked far up on her spread thighs and her hands folded behind her neck so that the thin material was stretched tightly across her breasts.  There was something indecent about her pose that aroused me, and my arousal was increased by her sitting like that in full view of a man, albeit her brother.

I remained standing, looking at her a while; she was sitting not more than seven, eight meters from me, but on account of the perennials in the flowerbed right outside the basement window, I was certain that she wouldn’t spot me.  I tried to catch what they were saying, but they were talking too quietly, remarkably quietly, I thought.  Then she got up, her brother got up too, and I went quickly up the basement stairs and into the kitchen.  I turned on the cold-water faucet and fetched a glass, but she didn’t come in, so I turned the water off again and put the glass back in place.

When I had calmed down again, I went into the living room and began leafing through a technical magazine.  The sun had set, but there was as yet no need to put the light on. I leafed back and forth.  The veranda door was standing open.  I lit a cigarette.  I heard the distant sound of a plane; otherwise everything was quiet.  I grew agitated again, and I got up and went into the garden.  There was no one there.  The gate in the fence was ajar.  I went over and closed it.  I thought: She is probably behind the thicket watching me.  I went back to the garden table, moved one of the chairs a little so that the back of the chair was facing the forest, and sat down.  I convinced myself that I wouldn’t have noticed if someone or other had been standing watching me from the utility room in the basement.  I smoked two cigarettes.  It started to get dark, but the motionless air was mild, almost warm.  A pale crescent moon had risen over the hillside in the east, the time was just gone ten.  I smoked another cigarette.  Then I heard a faint creaking from the gate in the fence, but I didn’t turn round.  She sat down and put a small bunch of wild flowers on the garden table.  What a lovely evening, she said.  Yes, I said.  Do you have a cigarette? she said.  She got one, and I gave her a light.  Then she said in that childishly eager voice I’d always found so difficult to resist: I’ll get a bottle of wine, shall I?—and before I had made up my mind what to answer, she got up, grabbed the bunch of flowers, and hurried across the lawn and up the veranda steps.  I thought: Now she’s going to pretend that nothing has happened.  Then I thought: Nothing has happened, has it?  Nothing she knows about.  By the time she came out with wine and two glasses and even a blue checked tablecloth, I was almost completely calm.  She had put on the light above the veranda door, and I turned my chair so that I was sitting facing the forest.  Beate filled our glasses, and we took a drink.  Mmm, she said, delicious.  The forest was like a black silhouette against the pale blue sky.  How quiet it is, she said.  Yes, I said.  I held the packet of cigarettes out to her, but she didn’t want one.  I took one myself.  Look at the new moon, she said.  Yes, I said.    How slender it is, she said.  Yes, I said; I took a sip of the wine.  At the Mediterranean it lies on its back, she said.  I didn’t answer.  Do you remember the dogs in Thessaloniki which were stuck together after they had mated, she said.  In Kavalla, I said.  All the old men outside the café yelling and carrying on, she said, and the dogs howling and struggling to get loose from each other.  And when we left the town, there was a thin new moon like that one, lying on its back, and we wanted to make love, do you remember?  Yes, I said.  Beate poured more wine in our glasses.  Then we sat silent a while, for quite a long time.  Her words had made me feel uncomfortable, and the silence afterward only increased my discomfort.  I searched for something to say, something distractingly commonplace.  Beate got up.  She walked round the garden table and stopped behind me. I got scared, I thought: Now she is going to do something to me.  And when I felt her hands on my throat, I jerked away, throwing my head and shoulders forward.  Almost in the same instant I realized what I’d done, and I said, without turning around: You frightened me.  She didn’t reply.  I leant back in the chair.  I heard her breathing.  Then she left.

After a while I got up to go inside.  It had become completely dark.  I had finished the wine and thought up something to say; that had taken some time.  I took the glasses and the empty bottle with me, but on second thought I let the blue checked tablecloth lie.  The living room was empty.  I went out into the kitchen and put the bottle and the glasses in the sink.  It was just after eleven.  I locked the veranda door and switched off the light; then I went upstairs to the bedroom.  My bedside light was on.  Beate was lying with her face turned away and was asleep, or pretending to be.  My quilt was turned down and on the sheet lay the walking stick I had used following the accident the year after we got married.  I took it and was about to lay it under the bed when I changed my mind.  I stood with it in my hand and stared at the arch of her hip under the thin summer quilt and was suddenly almost overpowered by sexual desire.  Then I went quickly out of the room and down to the living room.  I had taken the walking stick with me and, without really knowing why, I struck it across my thigh and broke it in two.  The blow hurt me, and I became calmer.  I went into the study and put the light on over the drawing board.  I switched it off again and lay down on the couch, pulled a rug over me and closed my eyes.  I saw Beate distinctly in my mind’s eye.  I opened my eyes again, but saw her all the same.

I woke up several times during the night, and I got up early.  I went into the living room to remove the walking stick, I didn’t want Beate to see that I had broken it.  She was sitting on the sofa.  She looked at me.  Good morning, she said.  I nodded.  She continued to look at me.  Have we fallen out? she said.  No, I said.  She looked at me with a compelling gaze I couldn’t fathom. You misunderstood, I said.  I didn’t notice that you got up, I was sitting in my own thoughts, and when I suddenly felt your hands on my throat, I realize though that you got . . . but I didn’t know that you were standing there.  She didn’t say anything.  I looked at her, met the same inscrutable gaze.  You have to believe me, I said.  She withdrew her gaze.  Yes, she said, I do, don’t I.  

Read more from the February 2011 issue
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