13 September 1971

First schooldays (Part 2)

CLICK. Click. Tick tick tick ...

Consequently, the situation I was now in, standing alone in a freezing basement of an unknown tenement building, was not entirely my fault.

It had been a rough winter so far. It had started snowing in late November and continued all through December and by the time the Christmas holidays came around the snowploughs had trouble finding spots on the streets where they could pile up their loads. It was a great time for us children. We built snow-castles and snow-caves and staged snowball fights and toboggan races, and when we came home after dark our anoraks and lined trousers were soaked and our faces, arms and legs were cold and red and itchy, and my grandmother had warning words about pneumonia and meningitis.

My mother had dropped me off at school an hour earlier today. And after I had given her a kiss, said good-bye, and turned to open the door, I hesitated. Then I turned back again and began to cry, not deliberately, not in a calculating sort of way, but in desperation.

I saw that my mother was worried and annoyed at the same time. Worried about me crying. Annoyed about me crying. Annoyed about herself that she felt more annoyed than worried. Emotions are complicated. She was only twenty-six.

I confessed that I hadn't done my homework for calligraphy class. It was not that I had forgotten, and it was not that I was lazy, which I was. I simply hadn't done my homework because I knew that no matter how hard I tried and how much time I spent on it, my handwriting would always be a terrible scrawl at least into the foreseeable future.

My hope for pity was in vain. Instead my mother insisted that Herr Arbeiter would be very angry with me, and Herr Arbeiter was an angry man on the best of days. I started to sob and leaned over for my mother to comfort me, but she pushed me away and told me to get out of the car.

I wiped the tears from my eyes so that nobody could see that I had cried. Then, slowly, I took the first steps down the cul-de-sac to the school building. It was snowing again, and I felt and heard the snow crunch underneath my boots. Then I heard the unique sound of a Volkswagen beetle driving away in anger.

I thought of Herr Arbeiter and how it certainly didn't help that I was one of the few in my class of thirty-six who hadn't graduated from writing with a pencil to writing with a fountain pen. There are sheep, and there are goat, and I was a goat. And as the Tibetan proverb says: Hit the goat to scare the sheep.

I had almost reached the school's entrance when I slowed down, and slowed down even more, and then completely stopped. I had a realization: I don't have to take any of this. Not the humiliation of being found out. Not the piercing blue eyes of Herr Arbeiter when he asked me to repeat what I had just said. Not the stares from my classmates and giggles from the girls. Not the fear when I walked down the aisle out to the teacher's desk. Not the fear that I might pee my pants when he started shouting. Not the fear that I would pee my pants if he hit me. I didn't have to suffer any of this. And I wouldn't.

So I turned around and began to walk back out of the cul-de-sac. At the intersection where my mother had dropped me, I turned left and continued on the narrow street. I would have taken that street anyway, except four hours later. Obviously, I couldn't show up at my grandmother's that early, but I certainly wouldn't go to school either.

Slowly I meandered through the residential area with its beige three-storey houses that belonged to the Railway Authority and where the railway families lived. Reaching the bus stop I suddenly felt exposed and worried that if I ran into an adult they would send me back to school. I turned around.

The snow fell heavily now which meant that I was better concealed. But I still had no idea of a proper hiding place. When I passed the railway houses again I tried one of the entrance doors, and then another. That one was unlocked, and I stomped the snow off my boots and entered.

It was dark, the weak light from outside falling in only through the frosted glass slits in the entrance door. There was an illuminated red button to the left of the mailboxes, but I didn't dare to press it. Instead I stood quietly on the small landing and listened carefully. Far away I could hear a radio play.

I tiptoed counter-clockwise up the stairs to the mezzanine. There were three doors, one to the right, one in the middle, one to the left. I couldn't tell if anybody was at home, but I noticed that I could hear myself breathe. If caught I could always claim that I was looking for a schoolmate and that in the snowstorm I must have mistaken the house.

On the next floor the peephole in one door had a shiny golden centre. This was the apartment from which the sound of the radio came. It wasn't loud but clearly audible.

I stopped on the landing between the first and the top floor to look out the small window that was rattling from the draught. Gusts of wind were driving the snowflakes in eddies. A corridor is an unsafe place for a fugitive, it's a busy place, and it's easy to get trapped.

CLICK. Click. Tick tick tick ...

Silently I made my way back down. I was about to leave the building when through the frosted glass of the entrance door I saw a figure approach quickly. I turned around and, in a panic, ran down the stairs into the absolute darkness of the basement. Around the corner I tried to press closely against the wall but my satchel was strapped on my back.

Somebody entered the corridor and the light came on and then nothing. I didn't dare to look around the corner. There was some rustling but no footsteps, and all I knew was that whoever was up there was waiting for me.

My heart was pounding in my chest and the lie that I had planned to use came to mind. But I was not a good liar, and I never would be. I will just admit that I was skipping school. I was about to step forward into the view of whoever was waiting for me up there, when I heard the mailboxes being unlocked and opened and the sound of the mailman quickly flinging mail into the mail slots.

I stood in the dark long after the mailman had left. I thought of nothing and then suddenly of spiders. I pressed the light switch and took a step or two into the middle of the small anteroom.

There was a bike rack here with three or four dusty bikes and there were dark wooden doors along the wall that protected small storage compartments that contained who knows what. A musty smell filled the cold air but it had something comforting to it. On the floor in the corners there were small heaps of pink flakes that my grandmother had taught me were rat poison.

Why was I so afraid of spiders? No spider had ever done anything bad to me. In fact, no animal had ever done anything bad to me. Except once at the zoo when one of the Przewalski horses bit me in my upper arm, and I could still see the bite marks the next day. Reluctantly I looked around at the walls. But even upon closer inspection there were no spiders. And even if there were, what was the worst that could happen?

(Years later I would think up the tale of two spiders: Imagine you see two big hairy spiders sitting on your bed. You want them off your bed. Naturally. You want them out of the house. You may even want them dead. Why, you don't know. But as you start shooing them around you notice something. When one is moving ahead the other quickly scurries after it. When one goes to the right or to the left, the other quickly follows it. And you can't help thinking: Hey, these two spiders seem to like each other's company. There is something like love. You cannot possibly hate something that loves, and in fact you start liking the spiders for it.)

Anyway. I smiled, and I was cold, but somehow I wasn't as cold anymore. I'd rather spend my time with spiders than with Herr Arbeiter.


I let the light go out. It was nine o'clock now. Three hours to go. I couldn't wait for the afternoon to come. Just before I had to leave for the weekend Manfred had told me that he found out a secret. He said he would tell me on Monday. I couldn't wait to hear what it was.

I would have a snack at ten o'clock, recess time at school. That's an hour away, or sixty minutes. Six ten-minute intervals or ... twelve five-minute intervals. I could do this by five-minute intervals. Five minutes. Sixty seconds per minute. That's sixty plus sixty equals ... one-hundred-and-twenty.

It took me a while. Five minutes equals three hundred seconds.

One. Two. ...