‘Living the dream!’ Oskar sniggered, whilst gazing down from the window of his new lodgings. His dark eyes swept over the scene before him, raking over the rotting timbers of the village houses, the barricaded shops and the cracked cobbled pavements. In the distance were the ruins of the twelfth-century church, now a dumping ground for old fridges, empty Schnapps bottles and a cack-brown corduroy sofa. A lone figure, hunched against the harsh October winds, staggered along by a sidewall, eyes blinking fearfully from behind a pair of thick black glasses.
Oskar withdrew from the window and did a little sock-dance to celebrate. Of course, he’d had high hopes when he read about the village of Keinefreude back home in Berlin two months before: highest levels of alcoholism per capita in Europe! Rocketing rate of heart disease! Zero birth rate! A trawl through some travel reviews had further fuelled his excitement – Oskar’s favourite description being ‘a truly grim little village set in the bleak shadows of the Black Forest with absolutely nothing to offer except for relief at one’s exit.’
Oskar had only been in Keinefreude for three days and already he’d seen the small acts of daily spite, the sly bickering and rampant greed rife amongst the villagers (a punch-up in the butcher’s over a piece of pork was not uncommon). He’d gleefully noted their addiction to cheap daytime TV and cutprice alcohol, and to his delight he’d discovered that almost everyone’s eyesight was rapidly deteriorating, due to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables following the closure of the grocer’s.
All in all, Oskar was having a whale of a time.
Inhaling a lungful of choking grey smog from the nearby gravel processing plant, Oskar picked up his sketchbook next to his bed and began a rough outline of the village. As he sketched, he thought of those painters who believed that the artist’s role was to inspire humanity through visions of beauty, to offer people a glimpse of the divine, helping them to momentarily forget their horrid little lives.
Quatsch! The true artist should document life as it was, steeped in suffering. ‘This hell of individual existence’ as Nietzsche had so perfectly put it, should be revealed in all its glory. Why try to rose-tint reality with pretty pastel colours when they’d only fade to reveal the grey undercoat of torment?
Oskar glanced around his new home that lay on the top floor of the tall, 400-year- old house at the end of the village’s main street. Although it was only temporary – three months max before he headed back to Berlin – he rather liked the building, with its scowling wooden gargoyle that guarded the front door. It did, however, lean markedly to the left. Consequently the few sticks of furniture that came with the house were clustered on that same one side along with the stand-alone sink, the one ring gas stove, the wood burner and the wardrobe with the broken mirror. Only his iron bed, salvaged from the psychiatric wing of an old Berlin hospital, was stationed at the other end, tethered to the wall to prevent that too from joining the jamboree of household clutter.
Along the wall next to the wardrobe hung his canvases, amongst them one painting he’d kept from his breakthrough exhibition The Dark Side of Mother one year ago, when he had just turned seventeen. That was the exhibition which had made the papers, securing him his first proper art gallery. Berlin’s youngest outsider artist! The teenage misery merchant! Abandoned and alone on the streets since the age of thirteen! How he’d revelled in the art critics’ headlines.
But now, of course, he had to follow up that success by painting something even more sensational. Twelve months was a long time in the art world and people would soon forget who he was. Hence the need to get cracking asap. So having spent those first three days scouring the village for potential subjects – now it was time for his meet and greet.
Comb in hand, Oskar considered his lanky reflection in the cracked mirror: baby-fine black hair styled into a high quiff; forehead a little too large to fit the rest of his face; deep-set cheekbones; dark leather trousers and a sweatshirt depicting Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It was a shame that his eyes were giving him so much grief. He’d left his special prescription drops in Berlin and now they were all red and itchy from the chronic conjunctivitis. Still, a trip to the chemist’s would hopefully sort that. Fastening the metal buttons of his black trench coat, Oskar pointed at himself in the mirror with one long forefinger. Looking good, Oskar Dunkelblick. Looking good.
Ten minutes later he was down on the high street, gazing into the window of the bakery, which lay next to the abandoned florist’s. Inside, the owner Frau Miesel, who Oskar had already singled out as a possible sitter, was standing by the dough-rolling table wearing a stiff white apron and a rigid grimace. Skinny as a skateboard and brittle as a biscuit, her coarse grey hair was cut in a block fringe, which ended just above her pointy black glasses.
Stepping through the door, Oskar adopted a casual smile. After four years on the streets he prided himself on his blade-sharp survival skills and his ability to adapt his language and behaviour to almost any social situation. Simple old-school flattery should nail this one.
‘That’s a nice outfit, Frau Miesel.’
Frau Miesel narrowed her already narrow eyes. ‘It’s an apron.’
‘I know, but a well-starched apron.’
‘What do you want?’ Frau Miesel’s voice sounded like steel bullets ricocheting off sheet metal.
‘Hmmm . . .’ Oskar replied, scouring the shelves as if they were heaving with all kinds of tasty treats, instead of just loaves of grey sourdough and pumpernickel. ‘Let me see.’
This hesitation was a good opportunity for Oskar to gather data on this tempting specimen. As Frau Miesel turned back to the table to measure out some dry yeast, he studied her from behind: the turkey-scrag neck; the bony varicose-veined legs; the bizarre helmet hair . . . ooh, and a nice little skin rash peeking above her collar. Eczema? Psoriasis? Or maybe even shingles? Oskar made a mental note to consult his medical dictionary when he got home.
Oskar had been fascinated by sickness for some time. As a six year old he’d become obsessed with Herr Hinkel, who lived in the flat opposite him and his mother in the Altona district of Hamburg. Herr Hinkel had lost a leg in a motorbike accident and now the right side of his trouser-leg ended abruptly at the knee, safety-pinned together to prevent prying eyes. One of Oskar’s first life goals had been to snatch a peek at the severed limb. Consequently he’d developed a range of tactics – from peering through the keyhole to spontaneous visits with offerings of liver sausage – hoping to catch Herr Hinkel on the hop, with his trousers down.
At the age of nine, Oskar had bought his first medical dictionary and many a happy hour was spent skipping through the symptoms of renal failure or Crohn’s disease. This was followed by the discovery of Dr. Sommer’s problem page in the teen magazine Bravo, in which Dr. Sommer would advise German youth on matters of health, particularly sexual health. Mein Penis ist krumm . . . Mein Busen sind zu klein . . . Ich habe Herpes . . . were all regular complaints. Once there was a whole double-page spread featuring in-depth descriptions of sexually transmitted diseases, the details of which Oskar would silently repeat whenever he found himself at a loose end.
‘Made up your mind yet?’ Frau Miesel was facing him once more, bony hands on hips.
Oskar stared at the barren shelves. ‘Do you have any Apfelstrudel?’
Frau Miesel shook her head yet her metal-grey hair didn’t move a millimetre.
Frau Miesel pursed her blueish lips.
‘Black Forest gateau?’
Another head shake. Was that helmet of a hair-do welded to her skull?
‘This is a bakery, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s an abattoir,’ snapped Frau Miesel. The deadpan delivery took Oskar by surprise. He glanced around quickly, just to be sure.
‘Ha ha,’ he replied. ‘So no cakes at all?’
‘No cakes at all,’ said Frau Miesel, tartly.
Oskar left the bakery with a loaf of sourdough under his arm, while behind him he heard the bolt being dragged across the door. Subject Number 1: Sorted.
His next stop was the local Bierkeller, which was bang opposite the bakery. Inside, Oskar noted with glee the gaping cracks in the walls, the cobwebs that clung to the ceiling and the windows caked in grime. Thomas, the owner, was slumped over the bar, clutching a brandy glass while staring at the television screen in front of him. His shirt was stained a dark yellow and his matted brownish-grey beard looked more like something you’d wipe your feet on, rather than grow on your face.
‘Groossies!’ said Oskar, delighted with his customised Grüss Gott greeting.
From behind his grease-smeared glasses, Thomas’s gaze remained fixed on the television, which was broadcasting scenes from a flood somewhere in central Germany.
‘A Dunkelbier, please,’ said Oskar.
Thomas turned towards him and glared.
Oskar hadn’t seen potential Subject Number 2’s eyes close up before. They really were quite marvellous. The eyeballs were threaded with little red veins like those fun joke ones with which you could scare small children and the dark iris was filled with a look of such torment that Oskar could only stare in fascination.
‘Had this place long?’ asked Oskar, while Thomas filled his glass from the pump.
Thomas grunted before sliding the beer towards him and retreating to the armchair to stare at the TV, which now showed an entire village submerged underwater.
Oskar sipped the flat beer and watched the screen, where an old-fashioned television set on top of a pile of splintered planks floated into view.
‘Hope there’s nothing good on the Goggler tonight,’ he chuckled, ‘or the owners of that telly will be super sour.’
Thomas said nothing.
‘Just look at those two!’ Oskar pointed to the woman and small boy in pyjamas, who’d clambered into a tree above the torrents. ‘They could have dressed for the occasion. Don’t they know they’re on national TV?’
Thomas eyed him menacingly.
‘Wow, I’m liking this joint more and more,’ said Oskar. ‘Warm welcome, cool décor, great beer . . . you’re onto a winner here.’
‘If you don’t like it, you can piss off.’ Thomas’s reply was spiked with such hostility that Oskar jerked backwards, noticing how the man’s right fist was bunched like a hand grenade.
‘You know what?’ he said, quickly. ‘I think I’m done here for today.’ He took a final slurp of his beer, slipped off the stool and dashed towards the door as fast as his black brothel creepers would allow.
Relieved to have dodged any possible violence, Oskar continued on to the final shop in the row. Krank’s the chemist occupied two premises and its shadow crept halfway up the high street. The windows were decorated with antidepressant offers of the week mounted on bright orange cut-outs shaped like smiley faces. Three packs of Dopazine for the price of two! One month’s free trial of Seratox! Half price Trixilon! Of course, Oskar knew all of these brands and many more besides. One of the best presents that Franz, his former flatmate, had left behind in the Berlin apartment rented by Oskar’s gallery, was a hardback book entitled Depression. Don’t Let it Get You Down, which contained descriptions of every antidepressant known to the Western world.
As Oskar surveyed the cheery cardboard faces, he thought of Franz. Franz from Füssen, whom Oskar had hoped would catapult him and his art career to international fame following The Dark Side of Mother triumph. Fat lot of good Franz had turned out to be.
Feeling his mood plummet, Oskar pushed his way inside the chemist’s and joined the queue. Behind the counter, the owner Krank cut a fascinating figure with his thin black hair draped around his shoulders like an oily stole, his glacial smile and pointy nose. He reminded Oskar of his favourite character from one of E T A Hoffmann’s stories, The Sandman, who used to throw sand in the faces of little children to blind them before pulling out their eyes and feeding them to his own children who lived on the moon.
‘May I help you?’ Herr Krank’s voice was slippery as an eel in Oskar’s ear.
‘I just want some eye drops.’ Oskar pointed to the reddened rim of his right eye. ‘Conjunctivitis.’
Krank reached behind him. ‘Do you suffer from headaches as well?’
‘Sometimes,’ said Oskar. The headaches came mostly when he thought about his school days and what had happened in the months before he’d run away from home.
Krank nodded and gestured towards the stand displaying dozens of black spectacles. He removed a pair and twirled them between his fingers. ‘Perhaps these might help?’
Oskar shook his head. ‘No thanks, just the eye –’
And that’s when he stopped, pulled up in his tracks by what he had spied in the stockroom. For there she was: Greta, the chemist’s junior assistant hunched over a clipboard, pale blonde hair hanging down her face like bleached weeds. And what was going on with that droopy left lid? Could it be a lazy eye? Oskar suppressed a whoop.
‘Have you been feeling a little down lately?’ Krank was fingering a white packet of pills, when Oskar turned reluctantly back to the counter.
Oskar’s eyes darted back to Greta in the stockroom. She was perfect! Together with Frau Miesel and the barman he had his hat trick.
‘Actually, Herr Krank,’ he beamed, ‘life’s pretty peachy right now.’
Oskar was still feeling pretty peachy when he left the chemist’s and headed back home. As he walked up the high street, he struck up a whistle from his favourite Wagner opera. But when he passed the empty florist’s next to the bakery, he noticed that the two blinds had been drawn down over the windows and behind them was a sort of glowing, a luminous shimmer that appeared to make the whole front wall pulsate.
Oskar backtracked a couple of steps to get a better view. It was then that he heard a voice calling his name.
‘Oskar.’ The voice had a warm, velvety depth to it, which seemed to wrap itself around him, drawing him closer.
‘Oskar,’ the voice called again.
Was it coming from inside the shop – or inside his head? Oskar wasn’t sure but he felt a melting sensation as if his body was filling with liquid honey. With it came a fluttery feeling in his heart, a light, happy feeling that he’d not had since . . .
Don’t be stupid! Oskar gave himself a stern telling off. Your mind’s playing tricks. You’re just over-excited. Ignore it.
So he did.
And when he looked back at the shop once more, the glowing was gone and everything was deliciously dark again.