In early autumn the swallows leave the north. They criss-cross the sky in wide sweeping ribbons, drop away, dart side to side in the air, then soar up again effortlessly, full of strength for the flight south. They only come back in the spring. They fix their nests under the roof and live in these cracks during the year. You could follow the swallows’ path along the dyke when they went south. They always flew over the land, never over the sea. When they went, you knew that autumn was coming. They take the light with them, someone once said. When they are gone, it gets dark.
He sold me his orangey-red Swallow moped. He said, ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer,’ and laughed as he said it. His face was broad, his beard stubbly and dense. He was wearing a dark-blue cap. He introduced himself as ‘Uli Fähnlein’ – Little Flag – ‘and I am the kind of person who’s blowing in the wind, or something,’ and laughed again. I thought, What a strange person with his sad laugh.
We went for a test drive through Neukölln, then stopped by the bank and I took out 400DM. In front of his shop I counted it into his hand. It was windy, he laid his hand on mine and we ended up shaking them.
‘And if you need a camera,’ he said, pointing to his shop window, ‘always come to me.’
‘Why?’ I asked, one foot on the starter, hands on the handlebars.
‘I’ll tell you that if you actually show up.’
On the day it happened, I wheeled the Swallow out of the house and was just driving up the street, past the camera shop, when Uli called to me. I stopped, and he checked whether all the lights were working. ‘It’s not bad,’ he said. ‘It does sixty.’ I nodded and drove off in the direction of the city centre.
The phone call came in the early evening; I’d just come home. My mother couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t ask her what had happened. I got on a train and went north. I arrived around midnight; a grey car was still standing in front of the house.
‘They’ve already come for him,’ my mother said as I came into the hallway. ‘They just took him away.’
I didn’t see my father again, I just saw how he had left everything. His workbench in his hobby room, the tweezers and the soldering iron was lying around as if they had only just been put down, as if he would come back any moment and tidy everything away.
I stayed until the funeral. The morning after, my mother said, ‘Take the cameras away with you. I don’t want the things here any more, they all stare at me.’ I took them with me, and pulled the heavy bag across the station. My mother raised her hand and waved goodbye; I just asked her if she would cope with everything.
I put the bag of cameras out in the hall. I didn’t want them in my room. The next morning I carried them over the road to the camera shop. Uli was sitting on a folding stool in front of the shop window, drinking coffee.
‘Ah, well, well,’ he said. ‘Want something to drink?’ He watched as I put the bag down and went to sit next to him. ‘What’s happened here?’ he asked, his gaze sought my face and he turned to look at me. I told him about my father. ‘Killed by smoking,’ Uli said quietly, and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’ I sat there next to him; our arms were touching.
I opened the bag and said, ‘Have a look.’ He took them out one by one, turned over the cases, pressed the shutter release over and again; metallic clicks eminated from inside the cameras.
‘They’re good,’ Uli said appreciatively. ‘Did he collect them?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s been years since I’ve seen him take a photo. He just put the things in the cabinet and took them out every now and then to clean them or to fiddle around with
‘I can’t give you any money for them,’ Uli said. ‘I’ll have to sell some of them first.’ I nodded. I didn’t want to carry the bag any more and didn’t want the lenses’ empty eyes in my apartment.
‘Will you get rid of them?’ I asked, and was immediately ashamed of the question.
‘The Nikons are on a run just now,’ Uli said, business-like. ‘The Voigtländers are probably too old – no-one’s buying that kind of thing just now – but all the Olympus stuff will go, I’m sure about that.’
He offered me some coffee. I shook my head. ‘Don’t you want to keep one?’ he asked. A car revved loudly outside.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said, although I was sure I didn’t want to have any of the cameras.
He looked at me for a moment. We were still sitting close to each other. I saw the large pores in the skin on his nose, his face. He had a very particular smell about him: part early-morning sleepiness, part cigarettes, and something old, maybe from the dust that was lying around in the shop. He stood up, pushed the bag behind the counter, locked the door, hung a sign on it – SHORT BREAK! – and sat down next to me again.
‘Shall we go for a little walk?’ he asked and pushed his cap back and forwards again with a swift movement. I nodded.
‘Let’s take the Swallow,’ he said. ‘Then we can head out of town.’
Excerpt from “Something for Nothing”
Larissa Boehning, Lyn Marven (Trans.)
Comma Press, 2016
Larissa Boehning was born in Berlin in 1971, lives in Berlin and works as a graphic designer, lecturer and freelance writer. Her debut collection,Schwalbensommer, published in 2003, or Swallow Summer in English, published in 2016, received critical acclaim firmly establishing her as one to watch. Larissa’s story from this collection, ‘Silent Fish, Sweetheart’, won the 2002 Prenzlauer Berg Literature Prize. Critics were amazed by the way her virtuoso literary abilities allowed her to make the small disasters that occur in everyday life appear continually interesting and relevant.
Her debut novel Lichte Stoffe, ‘Light Materials’ (Eichborn, 2007) was longlisted for the German Book Prize and received the city of Pinneberg’s Culture Prize and the Mara Cassens Prize for best debut novel in 2007. Her novels since include Das Glück der Zikaden, ‘The Song of the Cicadas’ (Galiani, 2011), and most recently Nichts davon stimmt, aber alles ist wehr, ‘None of it’s Right, but it’s All True’ (Galiani, 2014).
Lyn Marven is Senior lecturer in German, in the department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Liverpool and a translator of contemporary German Literature. Her translations include Maike Wetzel’s short story collection Long Days(Comma, 2008) and the anthology Berlin Tales (OUP, 2009) as well as short texts by Saša Stanišić, Herta Müller, Ingeborg Bachmann and others. Lyn researches contemporary German-language literature and is the German section editor of the journal Modern Languages Open.