The Vacation

Wolfgang Hildesheimer

Some time ago Adrian awoke at dawn. Sleep had abandoned him like a dissipating haze, gently but relentlessly, and here he was left in the twilight of reality, Try as he might to retreat into sleep, to soar upwards in order to snatch again a tip of the hazy cloud, he did not succeed. Wakefulness crept up his legs and tensed his body. So he lay, while the threads of reality, which bound yesterday to today and now made escape impossible knotted again. He yielded. Increasing daylight brought the routine of daily business closer, a routine in which one, as it seemed to him, so often threatened to founder.

These thoughts busied him now on the morning of a day marked by important appointments. He was torn from these thoughts by the ringing of the telephone. At the same instant someone knocked on the front door. What to do first? The day was beginning with a dilemma, thought Adrian, and he wanted to open the door and ask whoever was knocking to wait until he answered the phone. But he remembered his lack of clothing. He closed his ears to the knocking and went to the telephone.

It was Mariella calling from the city to invite him to dinner. Adrian thanked her and said he would like very much to come. Then he explained to her why it was impossible to carry on a longer conversation, as usual: he had overslept; moreover, someone was knocking on the door, and he hung up. But the knocking had ceased. He went to the door and saw that it had been only the mailman. He must have gotten up very much later than was his custom. His clock had stopped. He had forgotten to wind it, as so often happened these days. He took the mail from the box. It consisted of a four-page brochure inviting him to buy some kind of object at a greatly reduced price, and a package, probably a book to review. Adrian had expected several urgent letters, but it was just as well. He threw the invitation in the wastebasket and put the book in the pocket of his coat, to read in the train, Then he went to the closet to dress with care.

In order to reach the city, which Adrian usually visited once a week, he had to walk or ride his bicycle five kilometers to the next town and from there travel an hour by train. It was an especially warm November morning. Earlier, frost had lain on the ground, but the air was full of a late summer fragrance, and it had been Adrian's intention to walk the five kilometers. Now, however, because it was late, he took his bicycle. When he passed the village church, he saw by the tower clock that it was no later than usual; he could have walked. He went slowly, therefore, in order to enjoy the last warmth, which the fading year still had to offer. Only when he reached the station and learned that he had missed the train did he remember that the tower clock had stopped some time before, probably had not worked for several months.

He read on the bulletin board that the next train left in an hour. He took his bicycle to the storage shed and went into the inn across the street.

As he sat in the empty taproom, his back to the tiled stove, and drank the Enzian he had ordered, a feeling of peace came over him, a feeling he had not experienced for days, indeed it seemed months. He lolled about in physical well-being as if in a warm bath and looked out at the November sun which shone into the room through the skeletal trees.

Suddenly an unwelcome thought surfaced. He tried to seize it--what was it?--and after a few minutes it came to him: Mariella. He had forgotten the date and time of her dinner party, or worse, he had not even heard it. He would have to call her again, only not just yet. He did not want to interrupt the well being of this unexpected vacation. But he was disturbed; real peace did not return.

When it seemed the right time, he stood up and went to the station. Neither travelers nor station officials were to be seen. Beyond the station two boys ran on the tracks and attempted to fly a kite. Otherwise everything was quiet. Two baggage cars stood at the siding. They had always stood there. "Station of origin, Kassel" was written on them. How did they get here?, Adrian thought.

He waited several minutes then went to the counter and asked if the 10:41 were no longer in service. The official looked at him for a moment silently and then said--his voice sounded sad but stern and a little pleased to be able to impart unfavorable information-- that this train had never been in service on weekdays, only Sundays. Today, however, was a Tuesday. In addition, it was in service only in summer, because it carried an observation car. All of this, if the gentleman knew how to read, was to be seen on the board.

"Well, well, an observation car," Adrian said, and since he suddenly felt inclined to joke, as often happened in situations of slight desperation, he said that his powers of observation had not been well developed. But the man had slammed his window down. Contact with the official world was again broken.

Adrian went to the bulletin board to seek out a train that was in service in winter also and found one. The crossed hammers behind the departure time, 17:57, indicated that it also traveled on weekdays. That much he knew, after all.

He went back to the inn with a feeling of uneasiness, to be sure, because now all his arrangements had come to nothing--but yet also with a light heart, because he planned to intensify the vacation situation, to pursue it artificially. Explanations and excuses--that would come later. In the event that Mariella's party was this evening, which naturally was a possibility, he would still arrive on time. Because he dared not miss this. It was more important than anything else. He would call Mariella. But not now, not just now.

In the taproom he sat down at the same place and ordered lunch from the hostess. She was happy to see him again, since he had forgotten to pay for the Enzian. To her question what he wanted to eat, he answered cheerfully that he was so hungry he could devour an entire horse. The hostess said there was none. Then, said Adrian, he would keep within the bounds of what was at his disposal. At his disposal was schnitzel,

While Adrian waited for the food, he remembered the book in his coat pocket. He took it out. It was called On the Paths to the Sun. He opened it sullenly. On the dust jacket was, "This collection of genuine nature lyrics will, for everyone to whom the rush of daily. . ." He put the book aside.

When the hostess brought lunch, he asked her if there was a telephone in the house. There was none. Without being conscious of it, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Late afternoon found Adrian still in the inn. The sky looked ominous
and the cloud layer in the direction of the mountain range indicated snow.
The mountaintops were veiled. Adrian had been sitting in the empty taproom and in order to quiet his growing uneasiness had drunk several glasses of Enzian. These had made him tired. He was not able to struggle through to a decision to sit in
the station for an hour in the late twilight. He had attempted a moment with On the Paths to the Sun, but the wealth of feeling evident therein
moved him to dull disgust. So he asked the hostess to prepare a room
for him, and when the afternoon train left the station, Adrian lay in a deep sleep.

When he awoke next day, thick snow lay on the ground. Everything around him was white, soft and quiet. His peace had returned. He dressed and went downstairs.

There the hostess told him, as she set breakfast on the table, that because of the sudden unexpected snowfall travel in this region had been discontinued. Adrian accepted this report calmly and asked her to heat his room.

In the afternoon he thought about telephoning into the city from the station to explain the situation to his friends and most of all to Mariella, but after some consideration he abandoned this plan. He should have done it yesterday, as an immediate and--as he now confessed to himself--actually obvious reaction to this unusual coincidence of chance and carelessness. Now he was much too late for his meetings; the dinner party was probably in the past. Thinking about the worry he might have caused, he was nearly pleased. To remain here for the present-- that required no decision. If the train was not running, the streets were not practicable for traveling, either.

But the next morning thoughts of Mariella took hold and would not be displaced. He decided to call her and waded through the snow to the station. Several workers were about, removing the iron bars that separated the platform from the street. In the deep snow they worked noiselessly; their breath steamed. The telephone box, formerly inserted in the bars, had disappeared. Adrian returned to the inn. He decided to make no inquiries about this circumstance.

Two days later Adrian went through the snowy town to buy some things. At this time the lack of business attracted his attention. There were few people to be seen on the streets. He explained this to himself with the deep snow. Later when he shared his observation with the hostess, however, she said the town had, within the last months, lost its population, since the possibilities for employment had dwindled. She too would soon go away.

How would it be, thought Adrian, to live in a totally deserted village? The thought of such a strange, voluntary isolation led to the kind of fantastic notions on which he often and willingly dwelt. Nevertheless, he decided--entirely without obligation--to examine the bulletin board once again. He would keep the decision to travel in reserve. And one day--it was warmer again and there had been some thawing--he went over to the station. The bulletin board had disappeared. He knocked on the counter. No one opened the window. Uneasy, he went through the open gate onto the platform. Several workers were here, dismantling the rails.

"What are you doing there?" he called, as if he meant to prevent an injudicious act. Now Adrian realized that, as a consequence of the dwindling use of the railroad, the network was being removed. The town would in the future have no rail service. And as a matter of fact, the station area was already devastated. A part of the building had been taken away, glass removed from the windows which, black holes now, gave the building the appearance of a ruins. Posters were torn off, the numerous prohibitive signs removed, Also, the two baggage cars had disappeared. They had probably returned to their home, to Kassel.

Now anxiety took hold of him. He hurried to the storage shed to get his bicycle. It stood there still, wet and dirty. He snatched it and pedaled off without looking around. At first there were some difficult kilometers on muddy field paths; then he turned on the other side of the former subway--the rails were already gone here--into the main street in the direction of the city, where he arrived after several hours, His throat was parched, sweat ran from his temples, He pedaled like a somnambulist to Mariella's house, paying no heed to traffic lights or pedestrians. He leaned his bicycle against the wall and rang the doorbell violently. After a while the door opened. It was Mariella herself. "Mariella," he cried, but his voice was toneless, so that it sounded like a sigh. "As always, the last one," she said, smiling, and kissed him. "We've all been waiting for you. Well, you look as if you want to wash first. But hurry! Dinner is about to be served."

--Translated by Patricia Haas Stanley

 

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