A panic attack is like standing on the cliff edge. Don’t look down, I tell myself as I put my head back and try to breathe. Above me, slate-gray clouds drift across the sky that’s still the color of lavender, but only just. I hear noises. It sounds like the staccato of rain drumming against a windowpane.
It’s not rain, I realize. It’s rocks crumbling beneath my feet. I try to take a step backward but can’t. I teeter, lose my balance and thrash about with my arms because I refuse to believe it’s happening. Because every time I believe I’ve got a chance.
I fall and let out a silent scream.
The water …
* * *
I blink. Shelves of sweets wash toward me, a freezer glides closer as if carried on the waves. My body lies twisted on a stone floor. It’s swaying. I feel seasick and gag on some bile. In the distance I hear voices and a flurry of activity. What happened? I want to ask—how stupid is that? I know exactly what happened. I fell from the cliffs, for the fourth time this month. It’s Saturday, July 20. Four falls within twenty days. I ought to be thankful—I’ve had it worse. When I touch the area on my forehead that’s throbbing I feel a slight bump and a dampness. Blood. I must have hit my head. My circulation. My eyelids are fluttering like insect wings. Unconsciousness is trying to steal me away. I would cry for help if I hadn’t already drowned. In the red water.
Don’t worry, she’s only sleeping.
I wake up.
The ground beneath me is firm again. I must have drifted ashore. Somebody pulls me up to a seated position and asks, “Are you okay?”
I think I nod. Try to get my bearings. The shelves of sweets, the freezer. The shop of a small, slightly run-down petrol station on the A13. Unleaded at 1.51 euro per liter, diesel at 1.43. I had parked the Land Rover by one of the two pumps, got out and looked around shiftily, like a fugitive.
Nobody. No other vehicle that had followed me into the petrol station and none already there waiting for me. Relief. Through the shop window I had seen the cashier inquisitively craning his neck. So I did something normal, inconspicuous. I filled up the car, locked the doors and went to pay.
“I bet it’s just her circulation,” I hear a man say. His face is merely a blur at first, but I suspect he’s the cashier. I remember a red-and-blue-checked, short-sleeved shirt and the barked laughter coming from beneath his nicotine-stained mustache when he made a joke as he handed me my change. “An old girl like that is a real guzzler, eh?” He meant the Land Rover.
“Not surprising, it’s sweltering today,” he now says, this time referring to me. The woman who just collapsed by his counter. Another barking laugh, then he says, “Annelies, go and get a bottle of water!”
My vision slowly starts to clear. I try to get to my feet, but it’s a very clumsy attempt. “Don’t rush it!” Mustache man grabs my arm to support me. My right knee is shaking as if the joint had been removed and the void filled with jelly. “Oh, you poor thing,” he says, fixing his eyes on my bleeding forehead. I open my mouth to tell him I’m okay. That I’m just a very sensitive, nervous individual, that apart from yesterday evening I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car since I took my test, and that the drive here was sheer hell—every time the road narrowed spelled an accident, every car behind me meant I was being followed, and that it was probably just a matter of time before my anxiety peaked in a full-blown panic attack. Toppling over the cliff edge and plummeting straight into the red water.
From: Letter #9
The new therapist has recommended I should write down my dreams. I don’t know what good that will do, especially as I keep on having the same one. It’s always the salt marshes of Aigues-Mortes, again and again … Do you remember it at all, this image? Aigues-Mortes as it appeared on the June page of the calendar. Everything in the photo looked fake, as if it had been recolored in the most disturbing way possible. An intensely white salt mound rising above bloodred water beneath a lavender sky. You asked me how water could be red. “Looks like blood,” you thought. “An entire lake full of blood.”
“No, no,” I said, and explained to you that this strange color was the result of certain halophile bacteria, and that “halophile” came from the Greek word for salt: “halos.” What I didn’t tell you was that “Aigues-Mortes” in French means something like “dead water.” I didn’t want you to be afraid.
I shut my mouth without having said anything. I want to allay mustache man’s concerns with a smile. Of course it was just the—as he called it—sweltering heat that triggered my collapse. There’s no reason to suspect me of anything.
My smile falters when, at that very moment, fear shoots through my body like an electric shock. On the floor in front of me is my handbag that I’d dropped and beside it, fanned out like the frayed ends of an old mop, is the blond wig. I instinctively throw my hands up, touch my head and feel tightly bound hair—my own. Attentive mustache man bends down, hands me the wig and turns away politely when I put it on with trembling fingers. In the past I often imagined myself as a blonde and thus a completely different person. Now that the precisely trimmed, light-blond fringe is hanging diagonally over my right eye I just feel incredibly stupid.
“Water!” A woman in a colorful flowery apron comes scuttling over from the fridge with a bottle. Her fat body shakes with her excited, rapid footsteps. I could weep. Instead of taking the bottle I ask for my handbag. I open it and rummage inside. Wallet, house keys, car keys, the piece of paper with the directions, mobile phone and chewing gum. Finally I find what I am looking for: the foil pack with my pills. The cashier is watching me. Under his inquisitive gaze I scrap the idea of taking my medicine. I don’t want him to think I’m ill, and in any case it wouldn’t be a good idea to take something now. I need to be able to drive; I haven’t got to my destination yet.
“Come on, have a sip at least!” the woman in the apron insists. She’s still holding the bottle of water in one hand, while the other is stroking my cheek. When she moves her arms I can smell sweat and frying oil. “She’s deathly white, Herbert,” she says to the man.
“Maybe we ought to ring for an ambulance,” he replies.
“No, please don’t,” I beg them.
* * *
Herbert and his wife, Annelies. She reminds me of Aunt Evelyn, who I only ever remember in one of her various housecoats. With her hands perched on her wide hips and that expression on her otherwise cheerful, squashy face: My God, child, what have you done this time? Abandoning the water, they decide that I could do with a schnapps instead. Plum schnapps, homemade. Much better, apparently, than the industrial swill that Herbert sells in little bottles from his counter.
“I don’t need an ambulance, I’m feeling better,” I assert, which must sound odd to the couple that run the petrol station as neither has mentioned the ambulance again.
All the same, Herbert says, “Okay, as you like.”
They escort me into a room at the back of the shop, which smells of stale smoke. It’s barely large enough to fit us all in, especially as almost half of the room is taken up by a desk. Behind it, sitting on a swivel chair, is a young boy. I reckon he’s about six or seven. Thin, red-blond hair, narrow, pale face, pointed chin. A delicate little creature struggling to thrive in the haze of nicotine. In front of the boy are drawing things: a pad of paper and a box of colored pencils. He’s completely absorbed in what he’s doing and doesn’t pay any attention to us until Annelies says, “Up you get, Timmy. We need the chair for this poor woman.” The boy stands up without saying anything. He stares with his large, piercingly blue eyes. I sheepishly fiddle with my wig, then my T-shirt. I feel like a clown. Herbert wheels the chair around the desk and gestures to me to sit: “Please.”
I sit down and turn to avoid Timmy’s gaze. Which I fail to do. Now he steps forward, his eyes still staring at me. Her grandson, Annelies says, patting his head. They look after him while their daughter, Timmy’s mother, completes her training at a Plasticine factory in Zossen. I nod eagerly, even though I don’t want to hear anything about their family. And I certainly don’t want the boy to look at me as he’s doing now. In his eyes I can see hundreds of broken promises. As well as death.
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
Nelly Schütt loves films. She always has. Her parents ran an inn, the third generation in the family to do so, in the flat countryside of Mecklenburg. It was nothing special—four rooms, adequate food and a decent level of cleanliness. The guests who ended up here were either passing through or too stingy to fork out for a hotel. On the buckhorn coatrack behind the leaded glass door that led to the dining room hung the dreams of her mother—there was always enough space among the coats of the few guests. Sometimes Nelly heard her crying. Her father enjoyed his life as the innkeeper. The moment he finished washing the tankards he would sit at the head of the regulars’ table and join in the rants about the depravity of city types. In her parents’ film Nelly only ever appeared as an extra. Even as a small child she was always in the way. She ran between their legs at the most inopportune moments—For heaven’s sake, Nelly!—causing beer and sticky brown sauce to rain down, slices of meat to land with a slap on the floor, and glass and crockery to smash. So for a while she was shifted from place to place like one of the little vases with artificial roses or the salt and pepper shakers, until they finally found the perfect place for her behind reception, away from the kitchen and dining room. There she would sit with her grandfather, who dealt with the room bookings—on his knees when she was really small, then on her own chair. They used to pass the time with Grandfather’s beloved old black-and-white films that played on an endless loop via a VHS recorder on a small television set. Nelly was a fast learner. Grandfather would say, “The Woman in the Window,” and she—six years of age—would reply as fast as a pistol shot, “1944, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett.” Grandfather would laugh and give her a caramel from the glass bowl on the reception counter, which first stuck to her teeth and then her gums.
In The Woman in the Window, university professor Richard (Edward G. Robinson) falls in love with a beautiful young woman whose portrait is exhibited in the window of an art gallery. Soon afterward he meets the woman, Alice (Joan Bennett), in real life after visiting a gentlemen’s club. Richard, whose wife and children are away visiting relatives, and who probably feels unappreciated, accompanies beautiful Alice back to her flat. They are having a drink when Alice’s lover Claude suddenly appears and launches into a furious attack on Richard. Richard kills Claude in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Frenetically, he and Alice decide to cover up the murder, Richard promising to sort it all out.
Grandfather said, “The Woman in the Window,” and the fifteen-year-old Nelly replied, “That Richard is such an idiot. How can someone make so many mistakes?”
Richard does indeed make lots of them. First he transports Claude’s dead body on the back seat of his car, his plan being to take the corpse to the woods and hide it there. But on the way he crosses a toll bridge, where his nervousness attracts the guard’s attention—he actually drops the toll money, almost allowing the guard a glimpse of the body through the side window. In the woods Richard leaves tire marks and footprints, and gets caught on barbed wire, ripping his suit and even injuring himself. A scrap of material and his blood—evidence that the police will find soon after discovering Claude’s body. Then he won’t stop blabbing to his best friend, who, as district attorney, is involved in the police investigation.
Her grandfather shrugged and said, “Richard is a university professor, my girl. A perfectly normal chap who never intended to kill anyone and who’s now in a panic. Not some hardened criminal who commits murder all the time and makes bodies disappear.”
Although Nelly thought Grandfather was right, for some inexplicable reason Richard made her cross. Just as everything else now made her cross. Life trapped in the village. Her mother who went around howling pointlessly. Her father and the regulars who bad-mouthed the city without ever having been there. Her own film, this sluggish, tedious, ineffectual drama. The guests who came and knew when they would leave. Were able to leave. And sometimes even her grandfather, who did nothing but waste his time on those stupid old films.
Grandfather didn’t say “The Woman in the Window” anymore; he’d since died. Twenty-two-year-old Nelly could only think of his voice when she pressed the “play” button on the video recorder. And she would sigh deeply. Because she missed her grandfather so much. Because sitting at reception without him was lonely. And because of Richard. He was a good man. He’d somehow got himself mixed up in that mess with Alice and Claude. Now Nelly knew for herself what it was to get mixed up in something without intending to or harboring any wicked intent. How she’d have loved to say this to the woman who’d driven up in her car this morning and come to reception. Not wanting a room, but to talk. Set something straight. And to warn Nelly.
The right phrases danced in Nelly’s head. The explanations, the excuses, but also the things she could have offered in her defense. A counterattack. Instead she said nothing, not a word. She remained as silent as a fish. Just nodded, felt ashamed and hoped that this woman would never, ever come back.
Copyright © 2020 by Romy Hausmann