Disturbed by an unexpected illness, retired Senatspräsident of the High Court of Saxony, Daniel Paul Schreber, last of the great Schreber line, suffers the return of feelings and thoughts he has long kept in check.
Coal dropped through the chute, sending a hint of black rising up the stairs into the hall. Schreber stopped. Framed in the archway into the drawing room, he swallowed and took a deep breath. Nothing to be concerned about. Quite the opposite, really. Some coal dust mingling with the scent of fresh flowers. The post laid in a fan on the hall table. Dim light. The opaque mist of bacon fat heated past transparency on to smoking and spitting. Simple matters.
From downstairs in the kitchen came the crack and hiss of a hot iron skillet banged down onto a table top. Perfectly ordinary.
He brought himself up straight.
‘Sabine!’ Schreber called. ‘Sabchen?’
He went back and leaned through the doorway to downstairs.
‘Cook! My good woman, is it really so important?’
Cook replied in that hard-done-by manner she had, with only half the words spoken clearly so that the other half had to be guessed at. Something about lunch, the club, a promise. Very well…
‘Sabine! Cook is asking after you!’
Was she sleeping?
He sniffed and walked down the hall to where the parlour door stood closed.
No sound of her in the parlour. Wouldn’t she be humming a tune? Or whistling? He didn’t hear either thing. Nor any quiet snoring in their place. He turned his head so that his ear was nearer the door and he listened harder.
Thirty seconds passed.
Cook cursed – an unruly pan of boiling stock bubbling over. By the parlour there was only silence.
Should he open the door and go in?
He straightened his waistcoat.
There was a school of thought amongst the men of his acquaintance that the owner of a house had the right to enter any room of his choice. On the other hand, there was a competing school – advocated primarily by the married men – that said that if a husband was allowed anywhere in the home it was only on sufferance, and that he shouldn’t dare go into a room he suspected of being solely occupied by his wife, the reasoning being that if the wife was not already in her husband’s company, then she quite probably did not wish to be.
He turned and coughed and listened again.
On the wall in front of him there was a portrait of his grandfather. It was done in browns and greens and muted reds, dingy through decades of hanging, sun-faded, almost lost amongst the jumble of still lives and theatre playbills. He was standing with one hand in his breast pocket and the other resting on his writing table. Schreber reached out and wiped a line of dust from the picture frame. Poor old Grandpapa. He licked a corner of his handkerchief and ran it gently over the gold finished wood. When he was done he looked back at the old man. It seemed as if he had receded from view, into the background of the picture, into the wall, his modesty overwhelmed by the gold frame and the bacon fat and the coal dust. Standing at the old man’s feet was Schreber’s father.
Schreber lifted his chin and sniffed. A tic. One that an observer might have recalled seeing when Schreber made his way from his chambers to the court room, or earlier, when he was bought before his father in knee shorts, pressed, with the backs of his ears rubbed red and stinging with soap.
‘Sabine! Have you gone deaf, dearest? You are needed.’
Should he risk it? Knowing precisely her response if she was busy?
He sighed and coughed and did not move.
Beside his grandfather on the wall was Sabine’s father – Herr Behr – a totally different type of man altogether: round-faced and smiling. Exuberant. Extravagant. Even in an etching this man gave off an air of life and energy. It was an advertisement from a theatre in this very city, in Dresden, for Das Gefängnis, and he, the leading actor, stood mouth open, singing. A little ridiculous? Perhaps.
Schreber turned away from him and there, now, was the door handle.
‘Sabchen,’ he said.
What was she up to, behind this door?
There was prickling on the back of his neck. There was thickness gathering behind his eyes.
Just a normal day, like every other.
She would be taking tea and attending to her affairs, as he had been attending to his, distracted, both of them, by the business of the day, the arrangements for the party, the news. If cook needed something, then what of it? Always so demanding! Wasn’t it her place to wait on them? Anyone would think it was the other way around! He shouldn’t even think of disturbing Sabine with the woman’s request. Behind this door he would find her, perfectly well, and she would be testy with him. He was thoughtless and inconsiderate. So much she had said many times, and now he was thinking about bothering her? Distracting her from her important business? Very foolish! She would have the table laid out with a hundred things – cards and napkins and napkin rings in bone – and she would be so busy with her decisions about this and that – things husbands have no comprehension of – that to expect a reply, even if she heard him, was ridiculous. Utterly dim-witted! If he turned this handle and opened the door he would see her, standing, leaning over the table like a general, moving her troops across the map. When he said her name she would wheel around to face him, and her jaw would be clenched and her brow knotted. Yes. He would have to apologise.
But why was it so quiet?
He meant to turn the handle, but, when he tried to do it, his hand gripped the metal until his knuckles poked up. It was as if they intended to breach the skin.
What if…? – he caught the thought and moved his hand back from the handle onto his waist, onto his waistcoat, and he smoothed the round, firm curve that the passing years and cook’s facility with pastry had built between them. Don’t be an old fool! It was just an ordinary day. Pull yourself together! Too little sleep and too much milk at break- fast. Nothing to be feared from this place. His home. Hadn’t every day proved so much to him a thousand times? He blinked and sniffed and smoothed and before he knew it his hand was making progress through the air again, towards the handle.
‘Sabine! What are you up to, my dear?’
If the sounds from the street were not convincing – if they seemed theatrical – then what of it? If the walls seemed thin, knocked up from plaster of Paris, then what of it? Wasn’t there also the newspaper beside the post? Wasn’t there Bülow, carried unconscious from the Reichstag? The twenty excess invitations that the girl had foolishly requested from the printer, useless except for notes, since the date and time was there plain as day on the front? Weren’t those things there too? The flowers? The telegraphs from Sabine’s friends, agreeing to come? If the pictures were arranged one way or the other then so what? He could hear cook downstairs working. He could hear her irritation in the banging and clattering of pans. Didn’t this offset the strangeness? Of course it did! He sniffed and blinked and stood tall and reached for the door handle.
‘Excuse me!’ a voice said from close behind him.
Schreber jumped as if he had been stung by a wasp.
It was cook. She was a short, fat woman with big red hands like an ironmonger’s, and she pouted and looked sidelong when she spoke.
‘I don’t mean to bother you, sir,’ she said.
‘What is making that noise?’
‘In the kitchen. If you are up here, what is making that noise down there?’
Cook said nothing for a while. She examined him from the corner of her eye. Looking for what? Had she discovered warning signs? Could she see what he only felt – the uncanny sensations gathering in the house? Had her years in his company attuned her to these things? Or was she simply slow, like other women of her type?
Eventually she answered.
‘The girl, sir. Sarah.’
Of course. Schreber nodded slowly, and when he saw the edge in cook’s expression he tried his best to smile.
‘Of course… the girl. Noisy thing, isn’t she? What was it…?’
Cook looked down at her feet.
‘I’m very sorry, sir, but I really must know as soon as possible: will you and the missus want lunch today, or will you be taking it out? I wouldn’t press, it’s only that with the missus not responding to my earlier enquiries, then, well, I don’t know quite who else I should ask.’
Over years of anxiety and service, cook had rubbed the front of her linen apron smooth and shiny, and she was doing it now. Schreber stared at her, smiling, not speaking, and now she stared back – a little impudently Sabine might have thought – a demonstration of cheek and surliness bought on by her husband taking too friendly an attitude with the staff. Too accommodating by half. Too apologetic. If the master had his peculiarities, then what business was it of theirs?
Schreber couldn’t for the life of him think of what to say to the woman. He pulled at his cuffs until they came the proper distance out from the sleeves of his jacket. He swallowed. He pinched with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand the exact centre of his moustaches and then moved finger and thumb apart, smoothing. Cook was waiting, and rubbing, and glancing back down the stairs to the kitchen every few seconds, her attention drawn by a clattering lid, or the smell of scorching. Schreber coughed, and sniffed, and drew himself up.
‘Yes, cook, quite right, we’ll take our lunch here, thank you,’ he said. That should have been the end of it, but the silly woman went on.
‘Very good, sir… it’s only that the missus said she was going to let me know about it this morning – so I could send out and have plenty of time to prepare and what not – but she never said, and she gave me to believe that you might very well be lunching at the club, so that now if you want something it’ll have to be cold cuts and bread because I’ve got the stove top full for the function tonight what with the extra for the guests, and will last night’s chicken be acceptable? Only the mutton has turned on account of the heat from me having to keep the stove burning last night so that I could make an early start what with it only being me and the girl, you having decided it wasn’t necessary for me to bring in my sister, like I asked?’
Schreber made a motion with his head that was neither a shake nor a nod, and had he been asked to account for it he wouldn’t have been able to. At first, cook hesitated and stared, but in the end, when her words had disappeared away to nothing and Schreber’s gesture was fading from memory, it seemed good enough for her, and she turned and went back downstairs.
Schreber let his shoulders drop.
Once, Schreber went down into the kitchen on an errand, and there he found cook busy scrubbing the flagstones on her knees. Her skirts had caught up on themselves at the back and one calf was visible, almost up to the knee. Schreber knew better than to take advantage of her disarrangement, but he couldn’t look away. Her skin was snaked with blue veins that rose from near her ankles. Each vein was the thickness of a child’s finger and they crept up and around and under her skirts.
As he often did, Schreber remembered those blue snakes now, standing outside the parlour with his hand on the door handle. A noise came into his head – a buzz – as if prompted by the memory, and with it came a thought – that cook was a mother and that she had given birth to many children. These were the rightful scars carried by such women. Nothing. A little trap? He stepped back from the idea and thought of something else: his bedtime pipe lit and warm in the palm of his hand. The cold brass of the door handle. Something solid. A defence against his old illness, against dreams of motherhood and death and the way of things. Of God and women. Womb-thought. He put his hand on the door handle and pushed it open.
The room – the part of it that he could see – was as it always was: the benched bay window, the broad cherry table with an arrangement of hyacinths in a blue-and-white vase. There was the mirrored side cabinet and glasses. There were those ornaments beloved of his wife, gathered from small shops in the back streets of a hundred Saxon towns on a hundred jolly excursions and hoarded here: the porcelain dogs, the perfectly tiny glass windmills, the silhouettes and cameos. It was Sabine’s room. Even Fridoline was told not to come here, and the skivvy was told not to dust. Here Sabine would shut herself up and play quietly on the piano, or rehearse lines for plays she would never perform again. Here she would lean forward and talk in hushed whispers to her gaudy friends and always know, seemingly, when Schreber set foot in the hall, the audibility of their conversation rising with the change of subject to matters of no import.
It was the same as it always was.
A little different…
There was no sound, except that which leaked in through the window. No operetta played one handed on the piano, the other hand turning the page. No rustling of dried flowers released from books of yellowed paper secured with a vice. Only a man outside and his horse. Shouted orders that were ignored. The reluctant clicking of iron horseshoes on the stone of the street.
He stepped into the room, two firm steps, straight-legged, and when he took in the rest of it he saw Sabine lying on the ground with her head under a side table. Her legs were arranged as if she was running, except that she was still.
Schreber did not move. Instead, he stared and his head tilted over to one side, like a dog’s does. In this way he tried to understand what he was seeing. He sniffed, and coughed, and drew himself up.
Sabine lay there, and her dresses rode up, as if they had been kicked high like a can-can girl’s. Her arms were outstretched, her hands urgent, reaching across the floor. She was reaching for her necklace: her grandmother’s emerald brooch. He had taken it to a jeweller, a Slav, who was nonetheless of good reputation, and who had been wonderfully helpful. He had strung it first on a gold chain of large bold links, and then on a smaller one of silver, both by the same fitment, so that now it could be worn on the bosom and also, when desired, around the neck. The mechanism affected neither its placement close to the breast, nor impeded its straight hanging as a pendant, and all for a very reasonable price. It was a gift for their anniversary, among others, a symbol of his love and his appreciation of their marriage, childless though it sadly was. She was burdened with an incompetency, six times failing, but he loved her despite that. He loved her despite her moods, knowing himself to be the worst! He fixed the brooch in appreciation of her struggles and travails, and for the worry he had put her to. He found it in a box of things long forgotten and stored away. She never asked the circumstances of its rediscovery and he thought it more thoughtful to omit the details. It was the fact that the brooch was found that was the important thing, in any event, and that he had taken it to be altered, knowing his wife’s preference for hanging jewellery. When he presented it to her she wept, as he had hardly ever seen her do, because it was returned to her, and he had shown such kindness.
Now it rested on the floor in front of her. Her mouth was open, as were her eyes, and, looking closer, Schreber saw that she was conscious down there on the floor. Her gaze flickered about and she made little motions: shakings in the hands and legs. Her lips tightened and went slack.
At last he came forward, knelt in front of her, and placed his hand on her cheek gently.
He said: ‘My love…’ to which, no matter how long he waited, she did not reply.
There was a scream.
Cook again, standing now in the doorway, in her hands a covered dish: the one with a fruit pattern – plums and apples and hedgerow berries. It fell from her hands, smashing on the floor, spilling a chicken carcass amongst the shards. Rather than clear up the mess, the silly woman stood and stared, one hand over her wide, silent mouth. Then another woman, another girl – the skivvy – she came in at a run, to see what the commotion was. This girl – a bright little thing, fat and lively – she saw at once what was needed where her elders remained rooted to the spot.
‘I’ll fetch the doctor. He’s only in the next road,’ and she ran off.
Schreber picked up his wife, the top of her at least, her body coming up while her legs lay as they were. He held her to his chest, close to his breast, so that her breath ruffled the handkerchief in his jacket pocket, still smudged with dust from a picture frame. Her panting blew a thread that curled from one corner of the handkerchief forward and back, shaking it as she breathed. He smoothed her hair where it had come loose from its pins and he rocked her a little, like one might rock a baby. He hummed a nursery tune, and in his arms she tensed and relaxed, each transition provoking a gentle moan.
Her mouth was pulled up at the cheek on one side; it was somewhat grotesque, he thought. So different from her public mask: her resolute authority about the house, that showed itself clear not only in her face, but in her posture, and her demeanour, and in the particularities of her use of reason.
To lie there grimacing and shaking?
It was not like her. To suffer such a disturbance?
She was not like this.
She would not let herself become like this. She was a rock. A mighty fortress.
A plaything of the Lower God?
That was of the past. Gone away. A dream.
But if not, then what was this thing in his arms? If it was not a puppet? If it was a puppet, and not his wife, then where was that woman: calm, even-handed and haughty, dismissive even to him. What was this? This panting thing? Moaning. It was one thing, or the other, this thing cradled in his arms, this grinning mannequin. Its skin was stretched pale and taut over the bones of the skull, taking on the appearance of wax, like a dressmaker’s dummy. It was like a sculpture modelled on his wife’s form, but without her soul. A representation, miracled up and laid on the ground, half in his arms. One of a thousand? Taking on a strange solidity, so that the pulling of the corner of its mouth was no longer what concerned him, nor even the slight movement of the lips, and even less the bubbles of spittle that gathered, it was that his wife, strong, would not have allowed this. So where was she?
Now here was the doctor, barging past cook like a man who has been separated from his lunch too soon and who is keen to return without delay. He kneeled beside Schreber’s wife – not his wife, the replica – and opened his bag. Schreber was moved by unseen hands to a seat on the red settee. There was buzzing in his head, and his ears, and now, suddenly, in his eyes. The doctor snapped his fingers in front of the replica’s face, in front of the improvised thing, made up from the dirt, and then over each of its ears. He called for a lit candle, which he held in front of it, illuminating briefly the interior contours of its nostrils, and of the sides of its mouth. Then he marched out of the room.
He returned almost immediately with a passing drayman.
‘Sir, your wife has had a seizure. She will require immediate treatment. I have given this gentleman a few marks to take her to my surgery. I will, of course, add his fee to the bill.’
‘If I can get the bloody horse moving,’ the short scruffy drayman said, smiling, ‘I’ll take her on the cart. Else it’ll be the young ’un and me. One at the tip, the other at the toe. Alright?’
The man expected a reply, but no one offered it, and it seemed like hours before the drayman and his boy did what they had been paid to do. They wiped their noses with the backs of their sleeves, picked the thing up, and took it from the room.
‘That is not my wife,’ Schreber said to himself.
The doctor pursed his lips and frowned.
‘My apologies, I was told by this girl that the wife of Herr Schreber… she will require treatment in any event. Can I assume you will accept the bill?’
He turned to leave, putting on his hat and gloves.
‘That is not my wife.’
The doctor turned to the girl, straightened his coat and he spoke to her, but Schreber did not hear what he said. He marched rather into the hall, and shouted for his wife upstairs.
‘Sabchen! Where are you old girl?’
He stamped up the stairs in that peculiar way that Sabine had always found endearing, putting his foot to either side of the carpeted runner so that the heels of his shoes clicked on the wooden steps. Though the sound could be heard throughout the house, the carpet never became worn. If it was a habit inherited from some Schreber familial commandment, then it was one that might be allowed to continue in Sabine’s house, at least for the men, who were heavy and clumsy and therefore more of a strain on the furnishings.
Cook came up behind, calling after him in that plaintive, imploring tone that was exactly what Sabine warned him against succumbing to. The staff must learn to take responsibility for their own actions and not come running to him with every trivial matter. He should not indulge them! They had, after all, her written instructions and were employed on the basis that they might be expected to cope with whatever circumstances the day should bring them. If they could not cope, then no doubt there were a hundred others in Dresden that could and would be glad of the opportunity to prove it. The best thing to do was simply to ignore what they said, and if only he could learn to say no to these people then it would be a great boon to her, because they looked to him as the authority in the house, wrongly. For every helpful suggestion he gave, or ruling on this or that matter, she heard it back tenfold if something was done wrong or forgotten. “The master said that it would be better if I did such and such”, or “Sir told me it wasn’t worth the time and that I should attend to this or that”. Didn’t he realise it was hard enough as it was, running a house? Couldn’t he spend more time at the club, like other women’s husbands?
From the bottom of the stair the doctor coughed.
‘Will you come with me, sir? Or will you make your own way to the surgery?’
‘Sabine!’ Schreber shouted.
The doctor tutted and hissed. After looking up the stairs for a while he gave his address to the skivvy on her promise to pass on the informa- tion as soon as was practical.
Schreber bowled into every room in turn, and cook followed him like a shadow, like a ball attached with string to his coat tails, yanked behind him, bouncing on the floor.
‘Sir, what’ll be done…? Sir, what about the party…? Sir, will she be alright, sir…?’
Schreber went into his wife’s bedroom and there was her bed – the blankets and quilts tight as a drum skin. Here he stopped and cook stopped with him, running into his back. She kept talking and talking. Schreber turned his gaze to where his wife might have been laying, and examined the space, knowing that this was the place she should be. His dearest, his Sabchen, little round face, a damp flannel laid across her eyes and her hands together over her belly. But there was nothing to see and, though he wished there would be, no matter how hard he concentrated on the bed there was nothing. There was no sign or message, and the pattern of the blanket came toward him in ever closer magnification the longer he stared. Grids of red and green entwined like the mesh of the ether, intersections picked out in gold thread, and below that motif the brown webbing around which each fibre was woven. Each individual filament was taken up and down, over each other, in and out. If his eyes hadn’t filled with tears – caused not by any emotion, but by his repression of the urge to blink – he would have seen through to the mattress, and then to the bed, and eventually who knows where? Down to the very core of the Earth? But the fluid over his eyes acted like an imperfect lens, bowing and flexing the image before him, disturbing the space on which his wife had lain. The noise in his mind was building so loud and clear now that he could almost hear it speaking of his bad character. It spat parts of words that never quite came together, still obvious in their disgust at his poverty of will. His impotence.
When his nose touched the blanket he drew back in alarm. Cook put her hand on his back.
‘What did you say?’ Schreber snapped, turning. She looked down at her shoes.
‘I was just asking what it was that I should do about the guests.’
‘Will the missus be alright? What was it the doctor said? It’s only that in the fuss I didn’t quite hear it.’
There was a knock at the door downstairs.
‘Excuse me,’ Schreber said, and he pushed the dumpy woman on the shoulder, too roughly, much too roughly, clumsy brute, knocking vases over, was he a child? Was he incapable of looking where he was going, like all men? And they call themselves civilised, traipsing mud through the house. He ran down the stairs, heels clacking loud, with his hand on the banister and each foot kicking out to the side. They threatened to slip on the varnish, to send him falling back, to crack his skull. Clumsy brute. Silly man.
The skivvy was at the bottom, opening the door. He was sure it would be Sabine, returning from an errand: a small bag with ribbons inside, decorative lace for the table, a new bone napkin ring to replace one yellowed and cracked.
But it was not her. It was a boy.
‘Block of ice, Fräulein? Have I got the right place?’
The skivvy turned and looked at Schreber. He was standing one stair from the bottom. In his mind there was something like speech: the odd word, muttering, louder and louder.
‘Send him away,’ he said, and he took the last step down.
The girl did as she was told and the boy went back down the path, rubbing his neck and checking a grubby piece of paper. Schreber held out both arms and the skivvy, conditioned by daily repetition, slipped his long grey winter coat over his shoulders and looped his scarf around his neck. She was nothing: a flimsy ripple in the world.
He ran out into the street.
‘Sabine! Where are you?’
Alex'S NOVEL playthings WAS PUBLISHED BY GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS IN novemBER 2016. TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY SIMPLY HEAD HERE.