Consulate |

A Better Life

by Martin Brinkmann translated by Neil Blackadder

edited by Guest Editor

The bus accelerates up the gentle slope leading from the wide street on to the small brightly lit bridge that takes it over a branch of the Oker, and no sooner have you caught a glimpse of the murky water, the houses and fences which line the riverbank, than the bus jerks to a halt in the shadow of a building at the Oker Bridge stop. The door hisses open with a sigh, and from here it’s not much further to his street, Spinnerstrasse. As if things weren’t bad enough already, he has to live on Kook Street. His apartment, a so-called studio, is awkwardly shaped, sort of like a trapezoid, but also curved on one side. A desk, a chest of drawers, a mattress on the floor, raffia mats on top of the linoleum. Hardly any room to move around. But then why would he want to move around? The apartment depresses him. It did so from the start. Nothing about it is particularly comfortable. The walls are white. Everything works. When you turn the light on in the bathroom, the fan starts whirring. It doesn’t give him the feeling of having arrived. Braunschweig itself, or the little of it he has seen so far, consists of broad, endless streets, major roads into the city—or out of it, whatever. He regularly loses his way in the city center. But that’s not the worst of it. The problem is that he does not know anyone. And he is not getting to know anyone. He attends his seminars and lectures, and at lunchtime he can be seen rummaging through the books on tables outside the canteen, then joining the line and carrying his tray to wherever he sits down and reads the flyers from political groups, feeling a bit envious of those students who are caught up in some conflict. But that’s about all. Every day he finds himself back in the supermarket. It’s right on his way home. His old school bag lies in his shopping cart. He has never gone to the supermarket as often nor hauled as many crates of beer through the streets as he has this summer—this summer when he gets to be a student. With a jerk the bus comes to a halt, the door opens with a hiss, and from here, the Oker Bridge stop, it’s not much further to Spinnerstrasse. On the third floor, right at the end of the long corridor, number 28. Back in his apartment, he always expects to find a message. But that makes no sense—he doesn’t have an answering machine. At the weekend he goes to the ‘Panopticon.’ He stands at the bar upstairs and watches the young people. When he sees faces he knows from class, he’s surprised at first that people don’t recognize him—but then at some point he gets used to the fact that being recognized isn’t so easy. He stops thinking about it, orders another beer and carries on standing in the same spot. Someone opens a window behind the bar. Nice cool air comes in, and he looks out at the busy intersection in the darkness. Once he went to a party in a student house. It was outside the city. He has no idea how he found his way there. Then for hours he drunkenly wandered from one room to the next. Later on someone swam across the lake, carrying a lighted torch all the way to the island. The whole time he was wondering what kind of island it could possibly be. When he went to a party at the student center he showed up far too early. The hall was still virtually empty, but an hour later, when it was gradually filling up, he was already quite drunk, and after all the standing around leaning against the wall and staring into the empty room his thoughts were no longer as friendly as they might have been, so he had to go home. All of a sudden he felt afraid of every extra minute he stayed awake. It is worst on Sundays. He never has the slightest idea what to do with the time. There is no point checking the mail. Not that he might get any—he even takes the supermarket flyers and the free newspapers with the badly written local news about the circus, the soccer team and the student strike back to his room to make it look as if he hadn’t expected anything else. Every morning he wakes up with a hangover. In the shower, the curtain clings to his body. He has to huddle in the corner. The faucet keeps slipping, so that the water turns hot then cold. He will never get round to finding the right weights to attach to the bottom of the curtain. Freshly showered, he sits down at the desk and drinks coffee. Everything seems to be set up just right. He looks out of the window. Below him there is a sort of pond which every now and then fills with water. For a long time he has wondered what in God’s name that is all about. All around there are buildings just like the one he lives in, with the same balconies, except that they have chairs on them, unlike his, and umbrellas. The sun even shines over there. He decides he’ll do something and takes the garbage out. The trash cans are behind the building. The sky is clear. It is still morning. After eleven there is no more chance of getting mail. He could try reading the paper. But the fact is, when you have not spoken to another person in days, reading the newspaper is a pretty pointless exercise. You quickly start to feel insulted that elsewhere things are still happening. So to do something different he goes to get laundry tokens from the manager’s office. Then he carries his laundry into the basement in an old cardboard box, and the washing machines give him an opportunity to wait for something. When he gets too bored in the afternoons, he goes to the university library. At the computer he clicks on some old books, maybe something about Germanic myths—and half an hour later the books really are there for him to pick up at the circulation desk. A conveyor belt carries the stuff up from the basement. All you have to do is click on it. Shortly afterwards he hands the books back under the pretext that they are not the right ones, and he goes outside into the sun. When it comes down to it, the vacation is much harder for him than the term, because he doesn’t have a single fixed commitment. Near Spinnerstrasse the tower of some factory rises into the sky. Once, at the start of the spring term last year, he walked along the Oker, which in that spot is very dirty. He did not make it all the way to the tower. He climbed up an embankment, and what he saw was yet another of those access roads, or exit routes, whatever. At first the tower always served him as a point of reference. You see it from the train, long before you reach the main station. It always reminds him that he has to orientate himself by something, as they say. You can see the tower from the park too. Sometimes he goes there. In that part of town even the streets and houses are nicer. Cobblestones and little cafés, balconies he would love to sit on. He thinks up stories, things he would like to happen to him. Walking around these streets he forgets the experimental setup of Spinnerstrasse. Summer is really here. Trees bursting with leaves and lit up by the sun, a few clouds in the blue sky. In the park people are playing frisbee and barbecuing. They drink beer and throw sticks for their dogs to chase into the water, which glistens and sparkles in the light. Dripping wet dogs run around all over the place. A few pant their way right past the bench he is sitting on. They are too big for him. He has just about had enough of sitting anyway, so he gets up. At least by now the hottest part of the day is over. On the way home he stops by the gas station. Of course it is still too early. But he is worried that his supply of beer might not last. And in any case, he is not going to get anything more done today. Just then in the entrance hall a young girl comes toward him, presumably someone who also lives in the building. This is the first time he has seen her. Above the waist she is wearing just a top. Her lace-trimmed underwear is visible because for some reason her pants are hanging too low. He gazes after her. And then he decides, for the first time since he has been living here, to use the elevator. He takes it all the way to the top.