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Translation

Forty Spheres of Care

When Will It Finally Be Like It Never Was Again

ORIGINAL TEXT BY JOACHIM MEYERHOFF
INTRODUCTION & TRANSLATION BY JEN CALLEJA
ILLUSTRATIONS BY SOPHIE ALDA

The following extract is a chapter from the second of a series of autobiographical novels by the German stage actor and author Joachim Meyerhoff, and the book I attribute to triggering my desire to become a literary translator. His story of growing up in the grounds of a vast hospital for children and young adults with various mental and physical disabilities and disorders (not as a patient, but as the son of the Director) fascinated me when I read it for the first time a few years back. 

When Will it Finally Be Like it Never Was Again is an in-depth exploration of childhood and what 'normal' means, his relationship to his distant father and competitive brothers, as well as Meyerhoff's uniquely magical way of viewing the world; his idiosyncrasies, routines, trains of thought and personal logic. Having been an odd kid myself, it felt like a relief and a thrill to read about another odd kid. 

This particular part of the book reminded me of my own tantrum while trying to make a cake all by myself (but really with my mum) when I was small. My mum suggested I should make a Victoria Sandwich; I didn't want to make a sandwich, I wanted to make a cake. 

I hope to one day have the chance to translate the whole book – or even this whole series of books – which take in his gap year in America, his time at acting school while living with his grandparents, and his overlapping relationships while starting out as a young actor. All of his books are about him trying to figure out who he is, and I think his tragi-comic writing helps us figure out who we are in the process of reading them.

While I rotated around the kitchen floor like a human gyroscope powered by rage, my mother stood there stunned, observing me like I’d been seized by an attack of rabies

Forty Spheres of Care

Two days before my father’s fortieth birthday, my mother and I had a terrible row – though row isn’t really the right word. While I rotated around the kitchen floor like a human gyroscope powered by rage, my mother stood there stunned, observing me like I’d been seized by an attack of rabies. Like so many times before, she had set me off by doing a good deed. That was my mother’s speciality. Completely certain of her actions and at peace with herself, she tapped, well no, she drilled her loving, motherly finger into the tender wound. She was always perplexed when she saw what she had caused. She considered herself the friendliest person in the world, someone who found all underhandedness and maliciousness completely alien, which meant she just couldn’t understand why anyone could bear her bad feeling. The whole thing was further complicated by the fact that she was for all intents and purposes a loving person through and through. But somewhere in my mother was a subversive power that injected her with the most peculiar ideas. 

Here’s one example of many: my eldest brother bought her a drawing by Picasso for her birthday, a matador with a bull. What was so special about this drawing was that Picasso had drawn the entire picture without taking his pencil from the paper. The two figures were intertwined together in a single line, thus creating not only a combative, but also a graphic unity: the torero just before the fatal blow and the onrushing bull. My mother was so pleased that she hung it the same day while my brother was out fishing – in his room. He came home, saw his birthday present hanging over his own bed, went to my mother and asked: “Mama, what’s the bullfighter doing in my room?” My mother replied lovingly, “It looks good there, right? I just thought it was the best place.” My brother said: “Yeah, but it’s your picture. It’s a present.” And my mother kept talking enthusiastically; “That’s OK. I’ll lend it to you!” That this made my brother disappear into his room, slamming the door behind him, was a complete mystery to her. Sympathetically she asked my father: “What’s up with him? Maybe he didn’t catch anything!”

Chapter 8: 'Vierzig Kugeln Sargfalt' from Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war by Joachim Meterhoff ©2013, Verlag Kiepenheauer & Witsch, Cologne, Germany Translated by Jen Calleja (2014)

he loved marzipan potatoes

The trigger of my own meltdown was similar. As I wanted to finally give my father something other than a glass coaster for his birthday, I had thought up something really special. He loved marzipan potatoes. My plan was to give him forty of them for his fortieth: not bought, but homemade. By me! This was – I was certain of it – a fantastic idea. This was how I would reach the same level of present-giving as my brothers. An eight-year-old spares no effort: he will become a confectioner and make his father his favourite sweet.

I asked my mother to get me the recipe and went with her to buy the ingredients. The list sounded exotic: almonds, icing sugar, bitter almond oil and cocoa powder. The ingredient I especially liked the sound of had to be picked up from the pharmacy: rose water. The marzipan potatoes were therefore more than just a sweet; they were a kind of medicine. I proceeded very carefully and forbade any maternal support whatsoever. Five hundred grams of almonds have probably never been weighed as precisely as I weighed those almonds. Three’s too many, two’s too few. One’s too big, the other’s too small. I nibbled half way through the all-important one. My mother came past and said cautiously: “You have to shell them!” Shell almonds? Is that a joke? “The shell’s already off, Mama! Almonds are nuts!” “Yes, but look here, this brown skin needs to be taken off. Are you sure you don’t want me to help you? You have to pour boiling water over them.”

With every marzipan potato that I circled between the palms of my hands I felt a little of what the passing of a year was. I rolled and daydreamed and saw a cocoa-dusted future before me

I was worried that if I didn’t do everything 100% myself, my brothers would say: So really this is a present from Mama and you? But I had no idea what she meant, so I reluctantly accepted her help. The almonds were blanched and afterwards I could just squish them out of their husks. That was the only way to get them out smoothly. I took a step back and shot warm almond kernels into the bowl. I crumbled them up, mixed them with the sieved icing sugar, added the bitter almond oil along with thirty perfectly counted out drops of rose water. I kneaded the mixture together. It actually smelled of marzipan. In this moment I was completely sure that I never wanted to do anything else other than this. I had found my calling. I would become the best marzipan maker of all time. With the balls of my hands I rolled spheres the size of cherries. That’s what it said in the recipe: cherry-sized. I considered this for a while. It could have just said ‘marzipan potato-sized’ in my opinion. Everyone knew how big they were meant to be. Would it say in a recipe for a cherry cake: marzipan potato-sized cherries? Never ever!

I formed forty potatoes, one for every year. That was the first time I got a sense of how old my father really was. How much older than me. After the first potato I said out loud: ‘One’. My father is one. What a peculiar thing to imagine. My one-year-old baby father. After the eighth potato, he was as old as me. I thought eight was a lot, but on the baking sheet it looked like bugger all. And so it went, until all forty were done. With every marzipan potato that I circled between the palms of my hands I felt a little of what the passing of a year was. How much, and yet how little a marzipan year was. I rolled and daydreamed and saw a cocoa-dusted future before me.

found my calling

I spooned the cocoa into a bowl and placed it next to the baking sheet. I needed the loo. To prevent the potatoes from drying out I dunked a tea towel in water, wrung it out with all my strength and lay it, protective and moist, across my work. Sitting on the toilet, I thought about how I could most effectively package my grandiose present. Individually would be crazy. In the shops they sell them in little see-through cellophane bags, but that seemed sorely beyond my means. It was completely silent in the bathroom. The cleaner had been in the morning and it always felt like the blinding white bathroom was much quieter than the not quite so clean one. My hoovered and tidied bedroom was similarly stupefied after her visit, and it would only be after I had chucked my shoes in the corner and rumpled the bedcovers that it felt like itself again. When I was ill and didn’t have to go to school, I liked to sit on the closed toilet seat and watch my father washing and shaving. He wore nothing but a pair of his vast underpants. His back was covered in hair and for a man who never did sport he had a remarkably wide lower back. Every morning he would clean his bald head with a cotton wool ball dipped in the shaving water until it was pink and shiny. He would show me the dirty grey cotton ball: “It’s astonishing what comes out even though I’ve showered.”

He used an electric razor and pressed it so hard against his face that the skin would be slightly irritated and as smooth as a baby’s. The sound of the razor would tell me how long there was left until he’d be finished. The rasping sound would get quieter and quieter. Finally, it would gently purr frictionless over the soft fatherly skin. In order to shave he would partially open two of the little mirrored doors of the Allibert cabinet. In all three parts of this mirror triptych I could only see my rosy father. If I made my eyes go out of focus, which I liked to do often, I saw a three-headed many-eyed man with an overlapping mouth and a hairy back. This blurry monstrosity could do three things at once: practise his speech for the staff meeting, shave, and clamp cigarette after cigarette in the corner of its mouth so the ash would simply fall into the sink.

If I made my eyes go out of focus I saw a three-headed many-eyed man with an overlapping mouth and a hairy back

Hanging on a hook on the wall was a flannel that was for one thing and one thing only: the dreaded bum flannel. My father wiped his bum clean with it every morning after his half hour shut away in the bathroom, and my brothers and I, and our mother too of course, had a healthy respect for this thing. My brothers would threaten to wash my face with it or, totally absurdly, dare me to suck on it: “If you suck dad’s bum flannel dry you can look through my microscope every day for a year” my middle brother would say.

A good idea for the packaging came to me in the quiet of the bathroom. I wanted to make a tray out of tin foil with forty troughs. Maybe I would find a marble in my room that I could use to mould the dents in the foil. I hurried back to the kitchen.

The baking sheet was empty. The damp tea towel was balled up on the kitchen table. My first suspect was the dog. But hadn’t I seen him sound asleep on the porch? Or was he faking? Did he have a mouth full of marzipan potatoes and was he just playing dead? I ran to him and prised open his lips. I startled him, he had no idea what I wanted or why I was pulling on his tongue. I ran back to the kitchen. There I discovered a bowl covered with a soup dish on top of the fridge that I was sure wasn’t there before. Around the edge of the bowl I could make out cocoa powder.


a dusted promise of the future

I lifted the cover off of the bowl. There they were! Dark brown, cleanly domed, a pyramid of powdered orbs. Done and dusted, coated in cocoa. I screamed. My mother ran in, overcome with worry that something terrible had befallen me: “What’s happened?” I suddenly had no idea how to construct a sentence. How to start or end one. I pointed at the bowl and bawled “Whaaaaaaaaatttt?” And then again “Whaaaaaaaattttt?!?” My mother didn’t understand and looked at me blankly. “What’s happened sweetheart?” I snatched the bowl and held it in front of her: “Whaaaaaatttttt?” She shook her head. She was sure she knew me, but this blond-haired boy with the bowl in his hands who kept screaming ‘Whaaaaaaat?” was a real puzzle to her. “But they came out so well!” she cried. I screeched an octave higher: “IIIIII waaaanted tooo dooo iiiiiiit!” and then another drawn out and pain-filled “Whaaaaaaaaatttttt?”

I reached into the bowl and mashed the potatoes together. My mother watched me do it reluctantly: “What are you doing that for? They were so nice! Now, really. It’s not that bad.” I ran back to the bathroom with clumps of it in my hands, locked myself in and began to wash it off. How could she? There was nothing I was looking forward to more than individually coating my forty presents with cocoa powder. It would have been the pinnacle of my efforts. That was it! That’s what I was really proud of: that I had done something with care. That was the real present. Me, the erratic one, always easily distracted, me, the one who never read a book to the end, that couldn’t conduct a long conversation without staring off into space, who became hysterical if he had to sit in silence for thirty minutes at school, the one who slipped into a daydream at every opportunity, I wanted to give my father forty cocoa-powdered balls of care for his fortieth birthday. A dusted promise of the future! All destroyed, thanks to my mother, with her obedient pre-emptive help. 

But the drama would escalate even further. I washed the sweet clumps away under warm water. It smelled stronger and stronger of marzipan. The scent was exactly as I had imagined it would be in my own factory. There was a knock at the door, my mother pulled down the handle. She spoke in two voices. One of them was comforting and said: “Please come out. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you wanted to do it yourself.” The other voice was annoyed with me and admonished: “Come out now. It’s not right to get so upset about something like this. You’re acting like something much worse has happened.” And while the tears came, the clumps of marzipan dissolved in the ever hotter water, became smaller and smaller, ran through my fingers and disappeared gurgling down the drain. I tried to hold onto it, to make it anew. But by then it was a creamy paste, just marzipan soup. The plughole let out a bitter almond burp and pulled the last gulp down.

For a moment longer I mourned the forty-part bereavement, and then came the rage. A hot wave rising from my feet, a swell of vengeful thoughts. I saw fists and blood, lifted my head and suddenly saw my mirror image standing there. I hadn’t realised how wild I looked. My reddened eyes stared at me with bitter anger, my bottom lip quivered. I was fascinated by this unrecognisable, uninhibited, devilish, scowling boy. I wouldn’t let myself out of my sight. My mother knocked and called: “I’m sorry. I just wanted to help you!” With a higher, cheerfully humble voice I shouted: “That’s OK! I’ll be out in a minute!” The tone of my voice didn’t go at all with my wrathful face. This was what made it so strangely appealing. “Are you sure?” my mother asked. “Uh huh, I’m sure Mama. Everything’s fine now.” Her mouth must have been really close to the door as she said, not very loudly: “Please come out.” Frothy spittle had collected at the corner of my mouth. I didn’t lick it away; I let it run down my chin. “Really, Mama. I’ll be right there” I purred in a chiming and boyish voice, staring at this out of control, wayward, slobbering being with blood-shot eyes.

My mother left. I opened my lips as wide as I could, clenched my teeth together and growled at myself. Only lots and lots of cold water could wash away the hateful face. But seeing myself like this made me both curious and fearful. Where does this second face come from, I wondered, and could it be my true face? Had I seen myself, my true self, for the very first time?