Published by Serpent’s Tail
192 pp, paperback, £8.99
Falster, a Danish town ‘so small that it is over before it starts’, is both the home of novelist and actor Knud Romer and the setting of his novel Nothing But Fear. Here, even though it is the 1960s, the legacy of the war hangs heavily over a young boy and two older generations of his family.
Small-town prejudice, quiet courage and profound tenderness are the hallmarks of this ironic but insightful account of the burden of the past on the present.
Sample for yourself:
Nothing But Fear
I feared my grandfather. Always nothing but fear. I knew him only as Papa Schneider. What else they called him, what his Christian name was I had no idea. It made no difference anyway, since I wouldn’t have dreamt of calling him by his first name. He was not a man you were on first-name terms with.
Papa Schneider had miles of scar on his face, all on his left cheek. They were duelling scars from the century before last, when he had been a member of a Schlägerverein. Members of the club would take it in turns to defend their honour by laying about each other with their sabres – their faces not moving a muscle, their left arm tucked behind their back.
He had grey-black, swept back hair and a high forehead, and to look him in the eye was to challenge him: Sie haben mich fixiert, mein Herr! He was beady-eyed, his gaze directed only outwards, and I don’t know if anyone ever met it without living to regret it. Except Grandmother – and that’s what made her great. She could look Papa Schneider in the eye – my mother never could – but she was the only one, his soft spot, hidden from everyone, while the rest of him was hard and impregnable.
He ruled supreme from the head of the table at my mother and father’s house, where his picture hung on the wall of the dining room. It had a gold frame and in it you could see a clearing in a woodland landscape. Papa Schneider was sitting in the grass with a book, gazing straight ahead. Grandmother was at his side with a baby in her arms, and my mother was the little girl holding their hunting dog, Bello. With book, baby and Bello each had been given their role. Papa Schneider was spirit and culture, the woman stood for childbirth, and the children were closer to nature and more akin to dogs that had to be trained.
When we ate, I sat straight as a ramrod on my chair with both hands on the table and my napkin tucked under my chin, as though Papa Schneider were sitting at table with us keeping an eye on me. If I made a false move – cut a potato with my knife or spoke without being spoken to – he would plunge a fork into my hand, I knew he would.
Papa Schneider was the strictest person I have ever known and was everything that is stiff and hard and hurts. He was the top button of your shirt. He was the teeth of the comb when you were being wet-combed. He was every grazed knee, he was the fear of being late. No, I was not onfirst-name terms with him – and nor was anyone else.
I don’t think anyone knew what his name was, or even thought about it. My Grandfather was alone in carrying it around inside him like a terrible secret – and the wildest of gambles. For if one day he heard it, he heard himself called by his Christian name, he would know whose voice it was.No one knew it apart from him – no one but God.
During the war my Grandmother – my mother’s mother – exploded in a cellar full of white gas. Her name was Damaris Dora Renata Matthes and she had been one of the loveliest women inGermany. She was as beautiful as a Greek statue, Mother always said, and, sitting and looking at photographs of her, we’d think they were postcards from a museum. Her first husband and the love of her life, Heinrich Voll, died in an operation on his appendix and left her alone with their daughter. It was 1924, not a good time to be a single mother, but thanks to her looks she was able to marry again, this time to Papa Schneider.
And then his lovely wife was blown to bits and burnt up, and what was left of her lived on in a nightmare of wartime surgery. She was patched together out of strips of skin and buttered with codliver oil because the doctor had hit on the crazy idea that it nourished the healing process and that it was good for the skin not to dry out. It was torture, and Grandmother walked the banks of the Elbe wanting only to drown herself, screaming and screaming with the pain, ‘Mein Gott, warum läßt du mich nicht sterben?’ She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to die and twice tried to commit suicide and rid herself of the bits of herself that remained, but they were not that easy to do away with, and in the end she hung a veil over her face, took the pain and the shame upon herself and went on living, a thing destroyed.
I never questioned what Grandmother looked like because I did not compare her with other grandmothers. On the contrary I compared them with her – and thought how strange they looked with their big ears and their big noses. When Mother and Father took me to museums, or when we were on a class outing to the Glyptotek Museum of Art, I walked round seeing Grandmother standing on every pedestal – minus nose and ears, minus hands and legs. For me she was classical beauty, and her face, like those of the statues, had stiffened into a lipless smile.
Tears came easily to Grandmother. She wept when we visited her, and she wept and waved her handkerchief when we drove off in the car. And every time she was touched by something – by some occasion, a sentimental film – she would weep and tell us how moved she was. ‘Ich bin so gerührt,’ she would say. In the summer we would sit outside in the garden, and I would read aloud from Eichendorff, from Keyserling, or from Robert Walser – romantic books. ‘Ach, wie schön!’ she would say when the story was over, tears rolling down her cheeks. I adored my grandmother, felt an infinite tenderness for her, and I would have plucked the stars out of the night sky for her if I could – and one day that’s just what I did.
When I cycled the fifteen kilometres out to the bogs in Hannenov Wood, darkness was already beginning to thicken between the trees. The water was inky black and full of terrors. And then suddenly I could see them in the undergrowth. Glow worms! I took them home with me and, when everything was ready, I told Grandmother to come to the window and look out into the garden. The glow worms shone in the darkness, glinting on the lawn like stars and creating a constellation. Orion. We stood there for a long time, looking at it, until the glow worms crept away, and slowly the star formation began to fall apart, growing fainter, disappearing. I looked up at grandmother and waited in anticipation. There was nothing better than to hear her say it. ‘Ich bin so gerührt!’
As for my father’s father, Grandfather, it was just like him to open up a bus route in a town that was too small and at a time when nobody had any money. It was not long before the novelty wore off and the bus ran empty. He moved the bus stops and put up more signs, changed the timetables and reduced the ticket price, but it made no difference.
Things went steadily downhill, and morning after morning Grandfather got up to the humiliation of putting his cap on, sliding behind the wheel of the bus and driving round and round the town without a single passenger.
Grandfather was not one to give up easily and instead of learning his lesson would double the stakes. There could be no question of folding up the company. Quite the contrary. Now was the time for action. He increased his fleet and extended the timetable – and the route was no longer much too short but too long, and worst of all its destination was a place where no one wanted to go – Marielyst. Marielyst was my grandfather’s Las Vegas, and he was the only person who believed that this was the new Skagen, a Mecca for holiday-makers and health-seekers. Visitors would flock from Copenhagen, from Germany, and they would all need transporting. Just wait! It was nothing but bankrupted farmsteads, fields of sandy soil and wind-blown sea-walls with a solitary bathing jetty by the guesthouse, which stood empty for most of the year, and when Grandfather opened his grand bus route it led to nowhere.
‘They’ll be coming today,’ he would say, letting out the clutch and driving off towards Marielyst. And when he returned in the evening without having sold a single ticket, he would say, ‘Tomorrow.’ Over supper he would talk himself to a pitch and babble about the beauties of nature, about woods of gold and green, and about holidaymakers all poised to flood this seaside resort from abroad, while today became this year and tomorrow next year and the one after, and the less food there was on the table the more he talked.