Daphne was asleep when Claire left the flat.
It was a day like no one had expected. The weather was wonderfully sunny and the emerging heat - the last for late summer - made the children's hearts beat faster.
Claire had been on her way to Südthal for half an hour. The carousel of thoughts went round and round. It kept playing its music and rocking the horses back and forth. The words that had been put together flew out. They were thrown overboard with every bounce. Uncertainty and tension followed her from the front door to the last steps of the station.
Südthal had a very bright taste for colours. Then the green-brown viaduct assaulted the community with this sinister mixture and divided the low road in half. Claire had found out how to get to the house, she knew the address after all.
A little lost, she later looked for a street sign. At a corner with a bakery, she had almost reached her destination.
Yawning, her legs dragged her upstairs. Worry grew as she thought of her father peeking out from behind each hedge. It was an invasion of his privacy. A visit to a stranger whose keys she had. What was going to happen? Would he lose his temper again?
It was frightening to visit her father in his kingdom. If he threw a tantrum now... what then? Claire was absolutely sure that the day was going to end badly. She knew that one would explode at some point. All the reasons to call for that explosion, she had fulfilled. She regretted it.
It went steadily upwards.
On a side slope along the valley. She had just made it halfway when she could watch the cows grazing. At a fork in the road, it leads her further up. Of course, he lived so secluded from everyone else.
It was a long way back to the village. The view, on the other hand, was fantastic; she even thought she could see the Seelenherz buildings in the distance. Far away on the horizon, sparsely, one could even make out the outlines of the mountains. It was a beautiful picture.
The air tasted better.
Every exhale helped her; every inhale unsettled her. One hundred and eleven was the number she was looking for. In the distance, the clock tower bells chimed nine o'clock. The lime trees and more trees grew larger, and there she stood in front of the dark-looking walls of her father's house.
No light penetrated through the windows. It seemed dead quiet. The turquoise stone steps were overgrown with weeds. Benedikt rarely used this path. The colossal glass door reminded Claire of everything that she did wrong in her life. The ringing was the worst when she had finally dared to use it. The echo lasted forever. She wished fervently that no one would open it.
The noise resembled wind chimes. Even a deaf person heard the shimmering sound in the neighbouring house.
It remained quiet.
Five seconds. Should she go?
Claire jumped around, wanting to fly away, away from this world, back to her bed.
Ten seconds. Should she just put the key in front of the door?
A shadow flitted across the bare hallway. In rapid succession, the greeting happened. He was not angry. He was relieved.
"I'm glad you found me," he whispered thoughtfully.
It was not a familiar face that stood before her. Rather, it was a stranger. As if she were visiting someone she had never seen in her life.
They were sitting in the living room. Claire didn´t know how she got there.
It looked sterile. There was little furniture, a cuckoo clock, and a picture of his three children. Claire felt distancing herself from the photo. She was eight or nine then. Back then she thought a lot of her father, who worked in the distant city to give them a carefree life. Now she despised him and the picture in equal measure. That carefree expression and the folded hands on her lap. If she could face her former self, she would have hurt herself. Beaten and scratched her just so she wouldn't have sat in front of the camera with that coldness.
The awkward silence was broken by her father.
"I knew you wouldn't come to me."
Claire remained silent. She wanted to say something in reply. Benedikt's voice sounded plaintive. She avoided looking him in the eyes.
"It's not bad,” he swallowed, "You found your way to Berlyne. You always wanted to go to this town. It was your dream."
Now he sounded like a benefactor.
"It is very big - the city."
“Yes," he responded absently.
He did not know where to put his hands. They moved from his trousers to his pockets, to his face, and back to his trousers in a matter of seconds. Claire, meanwhile, pulled the key out of her pocket and placed it on the sparse tea table between them. The cold room looked like a black and white photograph. Was her father uncomfortable showing up unannounced? Did he had already forgotten what he wanted to do on his day off?
"Do you live here alone?" asked Claire casually, already knowing the answer.
"I'm rarely home to really call it living, but yes."
"Where are you staying right now?"
He choked out the words. The bile ate up his throat. He felt the burning throat enlarge and engulf everything inside him in flames.
"At a friend's house."
"I hope you are well with this friend."
"Your belongings have arrived. Already a few weeks ago."
Claire was getting mouldy in this grey and gloomy place. His last words hinted at a return. But it was not fulfilled. She smiled at him sheepishly. He was different from the work.
It was strange. Father and child sat together and smiled at each other. When he suggested they go and see the things, she found that her aunt had disobeyed her. The violin was sitting lovelessly on top of the boxes and clothes, protected by the suitcase. Everything was to be sent to father, but not the instrument. What she was ashamed of now, Claire did not know.
They had made it out of the grey nightmare.
They dined at an inn not far from Lime Avenue. Claire had remained silent, answering few questions, and suggesting a nod if her father told her about work. Then he asked her where she had been the time since Regenschloss.
Claire rarely lied. That's why she was probably quick to believe these lies. She didn't want to be reminded of the closed city and Erlenbrunnen, revealed what she had to tell in short, monotonous sentences, and sufficed herself with a short concluding sentence that Emma was there as well.
"I'm reassured that your path brought you here. It didn't turn out the way I expected," he murmured, deep in thought.
He took a sip of tea. The plates were already covered, replaced by two cups and a pot.
"You've grown up. I never thought you could do it. Giselle and Bolderich would never have done it."
"How are they?" she interjected. Slowly, her voice in her head wanted to get rid of the memorised sentences. She could no longer stick to improvising.
"Giselle is pregnant. She told me on the phone yesterday. And Bolderich... well..."
Trembling, he took the cup in his hand.
"He works in the Dümmer factory halls. He has dropped out of his apprenticeship."
Claire's eyes widened. He was disappointed, she saw it and enjoyed it. Almost smiling, she wanted to get rid of a Really?
"He's a stupid boy. A good-for-nothing. But he chose it," Benedikt revealed, "He became an enameller. It doesn't take much to do that."
It did not interest her. Rather, she wondered if Giselle was already pregnant on her birthday. She was rarely close to her brother. He was the eldest and had hardly spent any time with his sisters. He preferred to be outside the front door having adventures. His laziness at school could still be straightened out after father had a long phone call with him.
"I thought I had purged him when he started at Seelenherz Inc."
He shook his head. Claire's gloating increased. So much so that she burnt her tongue on the hot tea.
"Why did he drop out?"
"I don't know. It's been two months, damn it!"
He ordered another tea.
"Claire, how about you? Have you been to school? It will help, you're not such a slacker like your brother."
"I... I wanted to talk to you about that," she admitted quietly. Her gloating turned to agitation. Benedikt's cold, extinguished eyes bore witness to deep-seated grief.
"You don't want to go there."
"I wanted -"
"You won't find a job," her father said fanatically, "No one will want to take you. They'll quit you as soon as you get married. No man will want you if you have a job. It's difficult and dangerous in the environment, Claire.
You'll have to work in a factory, like Bolderich. Assembling shell casings. You will become sick and unhappy. Accept the path I give you, then a warm home, a family with many children, and a secure income from your husband awaits you. You will be safe from the war. Giselle has gone this way and has a home, a loving husband and now she is going to be a mother!"
"I'm not like Giselle.”
"It's not about who you are. It's about what you will become. I have just explained to you that nothing can become of you if you look for a job. What would you be looking for? A cook? It's not for eternity! There's a war going on and you want to cook? Some people are happy to get a mouldy piece of bread between their teeth."
"I don't want that."
"What now? Speak Claire."
"Conductor? You mean train conductor?"
Completely perplexed, he drank the second cup of tea.
"Claire that's impossible. How are you going to keep your head above water? You have to be made for that, working shifts. Late at night and early in the morning."
"I can do all that!"
"Forget that Claire, Mr. Haarmann, and I would never allow that to happen."
"You will be grateful to me one day when you have found an ideal man. The Petra Schröder School is the right place for you."
"Do you want to dictate my whole life?" Claire swallowed quietly, "Do you already have someone in mind? Are you going to trade me in like a doll? I'm free!"
"I will not tolerate backtalk! I am your father.” Benedikt said after a pause.
Claire shed a few tears. With anger, she pressed her index finger on the table, pounding several times as she stared into her father's face.
"I don't want this! No! I actually came to make you understand, but you are so narrow-minded! I don't accept your wish. I'll take my own way. Something like this... this stupid school has no place there, don't you understand?"
The raised voice hurt her. She should have screamed, not cried. Few guests looked up.
"Your behaviour is not docile! I already don't think it's okay that you don't show me the respect I deserve, and now you act like you understand the world!"
"I understand them all better than you do! I don't work all day and abandon a family. You don't care about me; you rule over me. That's your problem. You don't realise how I feel, pretending to be a benefactor, but in reality, you just want to-"
There was a slap.
Claire sat in tears, wrapped in front of her uplifted father. The teacup had fallen to the floor when he had stood up. With a minute movement, he realised what he had done.
Her cheek hurt and turned red. She remained silent. No sobs, warm tears ran down. Some reached her lips. Claire did not like the taste. She listened to her heart. It was pounding. Everything around her was silent. She was shielded, in a capsule where no one could hear her.
It was the highlight of that day. Claire had not shouted, and yet it had been enough to make her father angry. The argument had come to an end. Her father's depressed mood and low tolerance were torture. Her head wanted to fight, to throw everything to the ground and show her father who she was. But she couldn't. She couldn't even run away from him. He didn't seem that obtuse anymore, she realised. They both were.
Benedikt breathed a sigh of relief.
"What I just did was to exorcise your foolish ideas. It's for your own good."
Stunned, the girl pressed her hands into her thighs, through the dress.
Now you've come this far. You have stood your ground and told him. If you leave, it means you have lost.
Benedikt demanded the bill.
You're not the only one. He moulded Giselle and Bolderich. Bolderich broke away and more or less managed to assert himself independently against father's will.
Because he is a man. He can fight back. I can't.
You have two choices: You can leave and never return. You have lived half your life without a father, so you don't need him. You cannot care what he does, he doesn't care. Or you can go with him. Why did you come here? It wasn't just to return the bloody key, was it? You wanted to see him. The pathetic way he lives alone in his house. Because you killed mother by your birth. Show yourself to him and he'll suffer.
Claire was waiting outside the restaurant.
Silently, he followed behind, a little surprised that she was still there. He took the stairs up, she behind him, always five feet away. She followed him. She did not know why her legs did not run away.
He opened the glass door and left her in the living room.
Take the photo and break it.
Claire touched it, pressed on the frame.
She's pregnant... and he's a metalworker... are we a family of losers?
What's wrong with being pregnant? She has someone she loves.
She is used. Like a thing.
He has given her freedom.
Father came into the living room.
"I shouldn't have reacted like that. I'm sorry. Also, what I said to you in the office."
Claire did not move from the photo.
"Do you forgive me?"
"Not yet,” she said coldly, seeming to be back on the winning side.
He came closer.
"The photos were taken on your eighth birthday. At Richter Street at the photoshop Wolff." he explained tenderly, "Don't you remember? I was with you for a fortnight."
It was an unusual, restless, and sad picture. Father watched Claire by the window. Her silhouette was reflected in the glass.
"I don't know anymore," she spoke, adding with relish, "I don't care either."
"Waltraud said it would be a nice memory when we are all older."
"It changed us; the time."
"It made us more equal," her father replied awkwardly.
Expletives buzzed through her head. Almost demonically, she wanted to attack him with something. To tell him that the slap had not hurt, that she would continue to do what she wanted to do. Everything she wanted to rub his nose in and show him what she had become. Her voice commanded her to go and get the violin and break it in front of him.
Then something else occurred to her.
"Why are there no photos of my mother?"
Benedikt was silent for a while.
"I have the wedding photo."
Claire was silent while he went to get it.
Like a newborn baby, he presented her the photo hidden in an oak frame. It was a happy moment. The shot summed up the story. Claire had never seen her father like this. He, with a mischievous look on his face, was reminiscent of a winner, out of many winners, hit the jackpot, and drowned in a euphoria that could never end. His mouth was caught in a corner of pure emotion that his daughter had never seen in him. There was no pained expression, it was an unabashed, free attitude, far removed from the constricted man of today.
Next to him stood her mother. With her head held high and the same hear as Claire, her bright, dark eyes stared into the camera. Standing on tiptoe to have her whole face in the picture, her smile showed something of a veil, a blissful, glorious veil that had joined the two of them. It went from her lips to his, probably embarrassing the cameraman himself to immortalise this wonderful photo.
The picture meant everything to him. There was not a grain of dust on it. Everything in that house was dead and abandoned except that one photograph, Claire noticed.
"It was for a short duration."
"Where is her grave?"
He placed it gently on the shelf.
"Not in Berlyne," he muttered martyred.
"Where then? It's not in Regenschloss either."
Like a dagger piercing his body, he sank into a hunched figure and sat down on his armchair. The fireplace had never been used. The cold wood beside it had been touched once. Dust lay on everything that had not been used. Everything had died.
"We would have all moved here after you were born. This was our house."
If he was trying to arouse Claire's feelings, he was wrong. Was that sentence supposed to blame her for the whole thing? That she was to blame for everything, the whole breakdown of the family?
"Her grave reminds me too much of her," he spoke softly.
"Where is it?"
He had at least managed to give her a brief moment of shame. But it was not enough. She remained in her anger when he made no reply. His wrinkles widened; his eyes weakened. His hair fell to the floor. He had become an old man trying not to die alone. Claire gazed at him through the window with relish.
"The house is in disrepair."
His voice sounded like a little boy. Claire remembered again. She remembered what she had done to Fritz, always when he had stolen her doll at school. She hadn't beaten him up, she never would have done it. She had laughed at him. For not having a father. For being missing since the war. She had teased him about it until he broke down crying. She thought of the worst possible ways he could have died. The subsequent interrogation by the teacher was satisfaction. It did not change Fritz's mental state if he ran home crying. When he returned the next week, he had his stuffed bear with him, which she now stole and tore apart. Emma came back too when Claire mocked her. When Claire wanted to see someone suffer. Yet she was so stupid and continued to be her friend. Claire laughed inside. Only a peasant child could be that stupid.
The voice in her head delighted in this thought. She should do it now with the wedding photo. Whispering like a snake, she went to her father and tormented him. Her dark eyes looked like sapphires in the window.
"I will still start an apprenticeship and not attend school. I will deregister there. I'm not going the same way as Giselle," she spoke seductively. She stood behind the armchair, holding onto the backs, and counting to ten. There was no reply.
"I would like to leave now."
"I'll drive you down."
"I'm going alone."
"You don't take things of yours?"
"I don't need all this. “
"Not even the violin?"
"I only learned to play because you ordered me to. I don't want the violin. I hate playing."
"Claire... I'm sorry. For everything in your life."
"Will we still see each other?"
“Maybe," she murmured with relish.
"Please get back to me... sometimes."
“Goodbye," she repeated quietly and pulled the front door closed behind her.