The Bell of the Past

(My final short story for my Creative Writing course of last semester)

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” Charles Baudelaire

Maybe she ought to have been happy with Hitler’s regime, Rosemary’s thoughts twisted.  For wasn’t it thanks to him that she had met the love of her life? But then, wasn’t it also thanks to him that she had lost him? Rosemary tightened her fingers around the glass. Should she be happy to have known him or should she be angry to have lost him? In the past, these questions had swerved around her mind like fish lost in the endless sea. She had tried to stretch the limbs of her mind, trying to reach and grab the notions of explicable nature. The paper underneath her poems had been her sidekick. Everything from dreams to troubles were subjugated by pen. She had been one of the few lucky people alive to make a living by writing and performing her poetry. Unfortunately over the years, old age had caused her to stop pondering. It needed her to save the last of her life energy to live. Her writing had turned into sporadic twists and outbursts. Not today though. Today was different. Today, back in her hometown, it was like her past was suddenly the present again.

Several decades had passed since the last time Rosemary had been in Liebekrank, the village she had grown up in. The urge or a reason to go back had never really inhabited her. Fifty years ago, when she was around forty, she immigrated to England. Before, she had learned some pretty decent English and her poems were enjoyed by many households within the UK. Following this, opportunities arose. Rosemary did not hesitate for a moment. Two of her three children just started their own lives and the third one, then sixteen years old, accompanied her. After years of battles, she had finally found a new home, one that had the feeling of chiming bells in the early morning. However, at this moment she had been thrown back to the first forty years of her life. A blow that entered her entire body harder than she had expected.

The little bell above the entrance of the door tinkled. A grey-haired man entered the pub. He sternly nodded to the bartender and immediately sat down at a table near the window. His determined pace made Rosemary assume that he was local, going to his regular seat. The man had big, curly whiskers that made her giggle a little inside. The sight became even funnier when, after having pushed away the bushes of hair, he tried to light a cigarette. It would probably take a while before that stylized forest on his face would get into Greenpeace’s protection program after the deforestation process commenced, Rosemary thought to herself, unable to get the smirk off her face.

“That is Doktor Heinfeld. He came here about twenty years ago from another city.” She turned her head towards the bartender. He was one of the few people she still knew here. Even though he was not the same young guy anymore, she was happy to have some familiarity around her.

“Hmm… Okay.” Rosemary nodded understandably. “So many new people”, she murmured to herself.

“Can you poor me another drink, Herman?”

The bartender took the whiskey bottle from one of the shelves behind him. While he refilled the glass that stood in front of Rosemary on the bar, she followed the flow of the liquid with her eyes. The urge to drown slowly came upon her.

“So you ready for tonight, Rose?”

“I guess I am.” She turned her eyes down.

“Quite an honor! Right?!”

“I guess it is.”

“They don’t just ask anyone to recite one of their poems at the memorial service!”, Herman said, pointing the cleaning cloth he had in his hand playfully towards her, while he walked away to clean the other end of the bar.

Rosemary rubbed her face with her hands in an attempt to revive the blood running through her veins. Then she grabbed her bag that stood on the ground next to her barstool and put it on her lap. She took out some papers and put them on the bar next to her glass. Some papers had typed up versions of poems on them. Others had poems on them still in rough written drafts, words crossed out and added. She slowly turned the pages, while after every turn she took a sip of Whiskey. She still hadn’t decided upon the poem that she was going to read at the memorial service. What approach was she going to take? The organizers had left her with complete freedom. She could do whatever she wanted and thought was appropriate.

She had brought multiple poems. A few that she had written a long time ago. A few that she had scribbled down just this morning, when she had arrived in her hotel room. The page in front of her had a typed-up version of the poem Crossing Waters.

“The world is a never-ending plot
Turn-takings at the dock
Sailing towards the sun, and warmth,
At least I hope, will embrace
The featured that were instilled with
Love. Put to the test by Death.”

She had written this poem decades earlier. On a dark night, alone, contemplating the losses she had gone through. Both death and life had taken her loved ones away. She had been married, but ever since she lived in the UK she had no incentive to ever marry again. It was like the magic clothes of marriage had been washed too many times in bleach, nothing but emptiness left. She continued to stare at the paper in front of her for a couple of minutes. Her mind was blank. Why did she ever say yes to this ludicrous idea? Why did she come back?

She turned the page. Tunnel Vision was the next poem in front of her.

“Descending gifts are being prepared
Shooting pains on the glares
Of music. That’s how I wander,
Wander through eternity
Grimacing momentarily.

Softened death, embalmed
By memories, a coin
Tossed in the air to land
On our card house none the less
What’s the purpose of this mess?”

It told about the dark land that was inhabited by people in mourning. She had originally written this poem in German and later in life she had translated it herself. Never had she been truly content about the outcome. Rosemary sighed.

“Herman?” The bartender approached her.

“Can I have another drink, please?”

“Coming right up!” Herman took the bottle from the shelf again and poured another drink.

“Thank you”, Rosemary said with a faint smile.

“Everything going okay? Maybe finish this one a little slower?” He smiled with genuine care.

“I will”, she mumbled and immediately turned back to the poem in front of her. No, this was not the right one. This one won’t do. What was it she needed and what was it that she was looking for? She turned to the next page. Another poem was in front of her now. She looked down. Immediately, she grabbed her glass and took a big gulp of Whiskey. Her hand trembled, so she put her glass down again. It had been a long time since she had drank a few strong glasses of alcohol.

Looking down at the poem again, Rosemary remembered something that a Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, once told her on a conference. “A poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” She had felt the truth of this statement in every sense of her body then and she felt it now again. The poem in front of her was about her former husband. He had been her husband for only a four weeks period.

“Pure was our affiliation from the start, tight-knit
With sparkles that lit up the room, with eyes
Twinkling of affection.
It was love that made you, who cherished the truth,
Who wanted our bond never undone,
Look back like Orpheus:
Two dead.”

After her greatest love Jan, a Dutch farmer, died, she had never felt as much alive as she had felt before. Before World War II broke out, there were lots of workers wanted in Germany to work in the ammunition factories. Jan and his four brothers all temporarily moved from the Netherlands, where there was little work, to the North of Germany to make money. When the war broke out, all the Dutch had to go back to their country. Jan, however, had fallen in love with Rosemary and Rosemary had fallen in love with Jan. He promised he would soon try to visit her. Shortly after she sent him a letter, announcing her pregnancy. Jan was even more eager to go back. Within a few months he was back in Germany. Times were difficult, but together they felt invincible and he both wanted and promised to get it written down on paper. Hitler’s laws, however, prevented nationals to marry foreigners. In 1944 Jan had found the solution. Nationalization. He did not hesitate for a moment, though his friends and family all persisted against it. Germany seemed to be losing the war, so if he could please wait. But he had made a promise and he had been determined to marry her and so he did. Now a German citizen, he got called for army duty and consequently died in battle.

She took another sip of her drink and faintly smiled. How tragic the situation had been, coming right out of a typical ‘I love you, you love me, we love each other until death do us part and then one tragically dies’-kind of story.

Throughout the course of her life, Rosemary had gained the skill to dress up her pain with jokes. But the truth was clichés also hurt.

Again, the little bell above the entrance rang again. She looked up and saw a man enter. Her gaze immediately followed the dog that was behind the man. He was old and had scruffy hairs that were covered with sporadic spots of dirt. He was not bigger than its owner’s knee height. He slowly limped behind him. Rosemary glanced for a second at the man. The pet definitely resembled its boss’ ‘atmosphere’. He sat down at a table. Following, the dog jumped on top of the chair that was standing at the opposite side of the little square table and sat down. He started licking its hairy coat, on top of its hind leg slowly following the line of the leg’s attachment, ending up at its genitals.

She watched him and faintly smiled. At least he seemed to lead a careless life, not worrying about what other people think. She piled up her papers and put them in her bag again.

“Are you leaving?” He frightened Rosemary. She hadn’t seen him coming.

“No, just going to the bathroom for a minute. Could you watch my bag for me?”

“Of course. The bathroom is right there in the back.” He pointed with his finger to the other end of the pub. It was about ten meters further away.

Rosemary put one foot on the ground and slowly tried to stand next to her barstool. When she put down her second foot, she trembled a little.

“Rosemary, be careful! I think that was one too much for you”

She steadied herself, straightened up her back and looked at the barman. “Herman, I am an 87 year old woman. You are not going to tell me what I can and can’t do.” She turned around and started walking towards the back of the pub. Great acting was not one of Rosemary’s strong points when she felt the effects of the happy drink. She clumsily found her way through the pub, here and there softly bumping into a stool or table. She imagined how easily a film shot of this moment would fit into that new television show Benidorm Bastards, a group of grandparents taking a piss at young people. She had once seen an episode of a grandmother that talked in full ornate about her sex and drugs life, while sitting next to a twenty year old. You should have seen the girl’s face! Rosemary spontaneously started laughing. She noticed several people looking at her, including the whiskers man. Embarrassment crept over her back, causing a shudder all over her body.

The bathroom was only a few steps away now. She opened the door vehemently and stepped inside. For a moment she stopped and took a deep breath. She slowly approached the toilet door. She entered and locked the door. Unbuttoning the zipper of her cream-colored trousers did not go very fluently. She knew she had a little belly and the alcohol had not helped to reduce it. After the struggle, she pulled her trousers down and seated herself, ready for a waterfall to emerge. The door in front of her was full of one-liners and anecdotes. Not much had changed in this little two square meters room. Fifty years ago people already made engravings at the doors of the bathrooms.

Rosemary suddenly put her hands tight on her knees. The door in front of her seemed to be spinning in slow motion. She felt like a hamster in an exercise wheel, not able to run away. In an attempt to reduce the feeling, she closed her eyes. It did not help. The darkness in front of her eyes was accompanied by swirling ribbons of light shooting from left to right and from right to left.

She opened her eyes and looked at her watch. Four o’clock. Just four hours left until the memorial service began. It was time to get herself together and look for some distraction to sober up. She took some toilet paper, wiped herself clean and stood up with difficulty, gently closing her trousers. Her hand grabbed the handle of the door and opened it. Rosemary approached the sink to wash her hands, while she looked at herself in the mirror that hung on eye-level. She rubbed her wet hands over her face and gently tapped herself on the cheek. Her face looked flustered red. Often, her skin was like this. It seemed as though throughout the years her skin had diluted and her arteries were pushed more to the surface.

She left the bathroom again, half stumbling over the pedestal at the bottom of the entrance. When she looked around the pub, she saw that only the man with the whiskers was left. He looked at Rosemary and she abruptly bumped into a chair.

“Be careful there”

“Yes. Yes” she giggled.

She took a few steps further until she came to a halt. Her body turned around and she examined the man with whiskers again.

“Can I accompany you?”

“If you want to” He looked slightly conspicuous at her, raising his right eyebrow.

Rosemary quickly approached her prior barstool and took her bag.

“Herman, just going to sit with Doktor Heinfeld for a while” He nodded.

She approached the whiskers, still blundering with her walk. Confidently she sat down on the chair opposite of him.

“What big whiskers you have!” She could not help herself making jokes when she was tipsy. The Doktor was not very amused and continued to stare her down.

“I see. Tough audience today.” Rosemary realized she was behaving absurd and she fixated her eyes on her hands. Her fingers were fidgeting. Then she slightly turned around, pulling up her finger in the air.

“Herman, one more please!” He nodded and she turned around again.

“Are you sure to be taking another drink madam?” Mr. Whiskers asked delicately. His face that a minute ago looked like it was frozen in an uncomfortable way, now seemed to slowly defrost.

“I know. It is just… the nerves. And this town. I don’t know.”

“I haven’t seen you around before.”

“I was born here and stayed until I was around forty. Fifty years ago.”

Herman approached their table and put a glass down in front of Rosemary.

“Here you go. This’ll do you good.” She looked at the glass.

“It’s water?”

“Yes, and I won’t serve you anything different in the next coming hour.”

“OK. Fine” she responded a bit grumpy. Herman was right, though. She knew he was. A few more drinks and she could turn the ceremony into a disaster. She needed to sober up.

“So why did you come back?” The whiskers man asked.

“They asked me to recite one of my poems at the memorial service tonight.” She took a big swallow of water.

“And why are you so nervous about this?” Only then Rosemary saw that the man had a book lying in front of him. It was a German novel written by an author she did not recognize. She gently took the book and studied it.

“Who’s this author?”

“That’s actually written by a friend of mine, not so long ago. He’s not very well-known.”

She opened the book and swerved through the pages, ending up at the back of the cover. She quickly read through it. Something with a boy and a girl and a foreign country.

“Sounds interesting”, she assured him. She put the book down in front of him again, exactly where it was placed first.

“So I hear you’re a Doktor?”

“I think there is still a question pending. Why the nerves?”

Rosemary pulled the ends of her sleeves and wrapped them around her fingers, causing a weird contrast of shy school girl meets old granny. With the cloth around her hand she held the glass of water.

“So…? A few minutes ago you were still very talkative.”

“I am not sure if you’d understand.”

“Try me”

“Well, let me put it like this. A Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn, once said ‘a poem can have an impact, but you can’t expect an audience to understand all the nuances’.”

“You are afraid they won’t understand your poem?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Well, it’s just all so personal.” Rosemary looked at the glass in her hands.

“Do you already know which one you are going to recite?”

“No, not really.”

“Can you maybe show me some?”

She nodded and took her bag that was standing next to her chair. She took the bunch of papers out of it and put them in front of her on the table. Her right hand stayed on top of the papers, like a bitch protecting her litter. You’d think it would be easy to show others your work after you have published so many times. The contrary was true.

“You don’t have to…”

“No, no I want to show you some.” She slowly lifted her hand, first her palm and then her fingertips. She looked at the pile for a few seconds and gently pushed it towards the man. Next, he slowly touched the papers as if he was asking for approval and that is what Rosemary gave him. Even though she felt far removed from comfortable, she knew she had to share this with someone to get ready for the service tonight.

He randomly opened the pile of papers. The poem that was in front of him was called A Perfect Match. It was a printed page, indicating that she had written the poem some time ago already. How long ago, she did not know.

“Yesterday, the neon signs were still shining
Brightness lighting up our atmospheres
Until the horror of honeymoons hit town
And slowly the exuberant lights start decreasing
Now, the helter-skelter image of us together
Is demystified by the calumny of words
Others may opt for the legibility of the issue
But I say, even in not so perfect bearings,
We are like macaroni and cheese.”

When Rosemary saw which poems he had in front of him, she got frightened a little. Again, Douglas Dunn was going through her mind. She could not expect this guy to understand the meaning, but above all the beauty that she saw in it.

Her face turned quite uncomfortably and she put her hand on paper.

“Macaroni and cheese” She laughed, making fun of herself. With gentle care, he removed her hand from the paper again.

“Maybe you should look at another poem. This is not really anything for tonight anyways”, she asked hopefully.

“Hmm”, he murmured. Rosemary didn’t know what this ‘hmm’ sound meant.

“I mean there is no death in it or something and it is a goddamn memorial service.” The man averted his eyes from the paper to her. Just like she hadn’t understood his ‘hmm’ a minute ago, she didn’t understand his facial expression now.

“Pardon my language.” The man looked at the paper again. He turned a page and started reading the poem. Following, he continued to read a few more poems. Rosemary just sat there and kept investigating his face and body movements to discover a weak spot that would make her able to look inside and read his mind. Her attempt to pierce him miserably failed. At that particular moment, she had a flashback feeling to the time she brought her first manuscript under the eyes of the high bosses of the publishing company. She was nervous then as much as she was nervous now. How funny and strange it was, she thought, worrying about the opinion of this man she had never met before. Then, she realized that this man was a paradigm of the audience that was going to judge her this night.

After he had turned to, what was already around the sixth poem, he unexpectedly moved. He straightened his back, after which he hunched a little more forward over the paper. He put his right index finger on the paper and slowly let it follow the lines of the poem. His finger repeated the same motion and finally came to a stop at the last line.

“This is the perfect poem”, he said still looking at the page in front of him.

Rosemary curiously bent over the table looking at the poem that was lying in front of him.

“You think?” Her voice trembled.

“Yes, definitely.” He said in a clear and strong way. So determined, he seemed.

“Uh okay” Rosemary had not been prepared for such a robust answer from him. He hadn’t said a word in at least half an hour, just looking at and reading though her poems. Now, he suddenly had said something and how opinionated he came across.

“Everything is just right. The words, the topic.” He turned his head from the paper towards Rosemary. Again, she was distracted by the whiskers. The truth was that they demanded their dominance on his face. Then, she noticed that his whiskers were shining as if they were drenched in water. Her focus now changed to his eyes, while she glanced at his cheeks as well. Only then she noticed what had happened. This man had been touched by her poetry. He had felt something while reading. It was the first time that Rosemary had actually seen these results in front of her face, so direct. She felt an immense gratitude and fulfillment, but she also could not help it to feel a bit awkward. Did she really want to let this community back into her life again?

In her haste she grabbed the papers from the table and put them in her bag. She stood up, not able and wanting to look at the man again. Up to that point, the whiskers had been her friend. Now it was merely a drowned puppy and she did not feel like bringing it to animal protection. She turned around and walked away from the table. She quickly approached the bar. Herman wasn’t there. He had probably gone to the toilet. She put the money to pay for her drinks on the bar. She wasn’t sure how much it would cost so she left more than enough. Quickly she went in the direction of the door, only looking at the floor while she walked out.

She opened the door and the little bell tinkled.

– K.J.E. Fall 2011

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