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Authors: Ferdinand von Schirach

Tags: #Detective and Mystery Fiction

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BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
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Sebastian was allowed to sit in the front seat of the car on the way to his boarding school because he felt sick in the back of the old vehicle on long drives. Looking out of the window, he imagined that the world was only just being created, and hoped that his father wouldn’t drive too fast, or it wouldn’t be finished in time.

Once past the orchard on the banks of the large lake that his father called the Swabian Sea, they reached the Swiss border. The area between Germany and Switzerland, said Sebastian’s father, was no-man’s-land. Sebastian wondered what the people of no-man’s-land looked like, what language they spoke, and indeed whether they had any language at all.

The border official looked dignified in his uniform. He checked Sebastian’s new passport, he even asked Sebastian’s father whether he had anything to declare. Sebastian stared at the official’s pistol in its shabby holster, and was sorry that the man didn’t have to draw it.

On the other side of the border his father changed some money and bought chocolate at a kiosk. He said you always had to do that when you crossed into Switzerland. Each square of chocolate was separately wrapped, and the silver foil was stuck down with tiny photographs: the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen, the Matterhorn, cows and milk churns outside a barn, Lake Zurich.

They drove higher into the mountains; the air grew cooler and they wound up the windows. Switzerland, said Sebastian’s father, was one of the largest countries on earth; if you laid the mountains out flat, the country would be as big as Argentina. The roads became narrower; they saw farms, the towers of stone churches, rivers, a mountain lake.

As they drove through a village that looked particularly neat and tidy, Sebastian’s father said, ‘Nietzsche lived here.’ He pointed to a two-storey house with geraniums on the windowsills. Sebastian didn’t know who this man Nietzsche was, but his father said it so sadly that the name stuck in his mind.

They drove for about another thirty kilometres through the rocky landscape, and finally parked in the marketplace of a small town. Because they were a little too early, they went for a walk along its streets. The town had houses two or three storeys high, with tiny windows, arched gateways, and thick walls to keep the hard winters out. From here they could see the school buildings, part of a Baroque monastery. Arcades surrounded a fountain dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the two towers of the mighty Collegiate Church rose beyond it.


They were met by the principal of the boarding school, wearing the brown habit of a Benedictine monk. Sebastian sat on the sofa beside his father. There was a Madonna behind glass in a niche in the wall. She had a tiny mouth and sad eyes, and the baby in her arms looked unwell. Sebastian felt uneasy. He had a bird-whistle in his trouser pocket, along with a very smooth stone that he had found on the beach last year and the remains of some orange peel. As the men discussed things that Sebastian didn’t understand, he picked the orange peel in his pocket apart into ever tinier pieces with his thumb and forefinger. Once the grown-ups had finished talking at last, and Sebastian could stand up, his father said goodbye to the monk. Sebastian was going to shake hands with the strange man too, but the monk said, ‘No, no, you’re staying here now.’

The tiny scraps of orange peel had dropped out of Sebastian’s pocket; they were scattered on the sofa, and there were dark patches on the upholstery. Sebastian’s father apologized, but the monk laughed it off. It wasn’t as bad as all that, he said. Sebastian knew that the strange man was lying.

Life in the monastery had concentrated on reading and writing for centuries. The library was a high-ceilinged hall with light oak floorboards, and it contained over 1,400 manuscripts and over 200,000 printed books, most of them bound in leather. In the eleventh century the monks had founded a scriptorium, and they had added a printing press in the seventeenth century. For the school students, there was another library, a room with dark wooden tables and lights with brass lampshades. Among the boys, rumours circulated about secret rooms in the monastery cellars full of banned books: accounts of torture and witch trials, manuals of sorcery. The Fathers did not actively encourage reading; they knew that many boys would come to it of their own accord, and others would never find books interesting.

In the seclusion of the monastery, Sebastian began reading. After a while the boarding-school rules no longer bothered him, he got used to saying Mass morning and evening, to lessons, sports and study periods. The rhythm of the monastic days was always the same, and it gave him the peace and quiet to live in the books.


For the first few weeks, he missed the house by the lake. The boys were not allowed to go home except in the holidays. Telephone calls had to be booked in advance. Every other Sunday Sebastian called his home. He stood in one of the little wooden cubicles in the entrance hall of the monastery, and the Father on duty at the gate put his call through.

On one of those Sundays it was his mother who answered the phone. Sebastian knew at once that something was wrong. His father was ill, said his mother, but not seriously. When Sebastian hung up, his knees were trembling. Suddenly he was convinced that only he could save his father. To do that, he would have to walk alone through the Viamala Ravine. Sebastian was afraid of the ravine, the darkness there, the narrow way along it. He had not gone on the class excursion to see the place.
Via mala
meant ‘the bad way’: walls of rock three hundred metres high, smooth and cold, stone steps and bridges.

Sebastian set off at once, without telling anyone. He took the bus from the boarding school. Only after setting off did he realize that he was wearing thin indoor shoes and had not brought a jacket. He was twelve years old, he was afraid of heights, but he must do it. He walked very slowly. When he crossed bridges he kept in the middle of the path and did not look down. He heard the river below him. He was so pale that other people out walking asked several times whether they could help him. After three hours he had done it. He went back to the monastery. They had been looking for him, and of course the monk who bore the title of Prefect didn’t understand about his father. Sebastian was chastised, but he didn’t mind: he had saved his father’s life.


The school was almost two thousand metres above sea level, winters there began early and went on for a long time. It was late autumn before they turned any heating on; the tall rooms were never really warm, and there were draughts in the long corridors. Sebastian was always glad to see the first snows fall. Then sleighs were brought up from the cellar, and the boys went skiing at weekends. In the mornings there was a thin layer of hoar-frost on the quilts of their beds, and tiny icicles came out of the taps in the bathrooms.

Sebastian was unwell every year at the beginning of winter, when he would develop an inflammation of the middle ear and a high temperature. The village doctor had a large diagram of the middle ear in his surgery. He showed Sebastian the skin, cartilage, bones and nerves in this diagram. Perhaps the skin of his ears was too thin, the doctor suggested. Gleaming chrome instruments lay on his desk; they were cold, and hurt when they were pushed into his ailing ear. Sebastian thought of the cook at home, who used to make him compresses of finely chopped onions to cure the pain. She said that onions made you cry, but they could do you good as well. The cook would sit on his bed and tell him about Tunisia, the spices on sale in the markets of the Medina quarter, the desert lynx that had ears with tufts like paintbrushes, and the heat of the Saharan wind that she called the

In the dark months at the boarding school, when books were no longer enough for him, when the nursery garden, the sports field and the benches were covered with snow, the colours in Sebastian’s head were his salvation.

It was the first day of the long summer holidays. Sebastian had hardly slept. They set off for the game preserves at four in the morning. It had been raining overnight: the meadows were damp; earth stuck to their gumboots and weighed them down. Sebastian’s father was carrying his double-barrelled shotgun over his shoulder. The stock rubbed against his loden coat where the fabric had worn thin with the years. The roses and gold lines of the English engravings on it were hardly visible, the stock itself was almost black. The loden coat smelled of rabbits and tobacco. Sebastian thought of the gun that his father had promised him when he took his hunting examination. He could take it when he was seventeen, so there wasn’t long to wait.

He liked walking with his father. Hunting is a serious business, his father had often said, and Sebastian knew what he meant. It was different only when they were out on a shoot with beaters. Then there was potato soup in the yard of the hunting lodge, and it was all rather noisy. Often there were new guests, ‘wild boar piglets’ as the beaters secretly called them. They wore new coats and had new guns. The wild boar piglets were taken to special places where they couldn’t do any harm with their guns. They talked all the time, even when they were waiting for game to turn up. They talked about their work in the city, or about politics or something else, and Sebastian knew that they didn’t understand hunting. Later, when the kill was laid out in front of the hunting lodge, the animals were dead and dirty. Sebastian stopped going on shoots like that. But when they were alone, and his father hardly spoke, the forest and the game belonged to them, and there was nothing dirty and nothing wrong about it.


They climbed to the hide and waited until the morning mist had dispersed. When the roebuck came out into the clearing, Sebastian’s father gave him the field glasses. The deer was a fine six-point stag, he was tall and proud, and very beautiful. ‘We have plenty of time,’ Sebastian’s father whispered. Sebastian nodded. It was early August, and the close season wouldn’t begin until mid-October. He wondered why his father had a gun with him at all if he wasn’t going to use it. But then he thought that later on he would always bring his gun with him too.

His father produced a cigar from his cigar case; the leather was stained and old, just as everything that his father owned was old. From here they could see far down into the valley, to the tower of the village church, and on a clear day even further, all the way to the Alps. Later on, Sebastian would recall every detail: the cigar smoke, the smell of resin and wet wool, and the wind in the trees.

They took turns with the field glasses, which were so heavy that Sebastian had to prop his elbows on the crossbeam of the hide. They watched the roebuck for a long time.


Then his father briefly took aim and fired. They clambered down from the hide, and Sebastian ran across the clearing. The deer’s forelegs looked as if he were still trying to run, they were at an angle and small, his eyes were open, bulging and clouded, his red tongue was strangely twisted. Sebastian knew the old jargon of hunters, who said ‘lights’ instead of eyes, and muzzle instead of mouth. His father had said that hunters were superstitious, and you mustn’t use ordinary words in the forest for fear of warning the game. But now the deer was dead, and words made no difference any more.

His father bent over the animal, spread its back legs and knelt on them. He cut the abdominal wall from the anus to the throat, and blood and guts spilled out. His father removed the rumen, heart, spleen and lungs from the body and placed them on the grass beside him.

Sebastian felt as he had when he was out walking and had looked down into a ravine. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from it. He had gone on staring down into the depths, defenceless, bereft of his own will, until his father had snatched him back from the brink. And now it was the cut that his father had made with his knife. It both attracted and repelled Sebastian. He couldn’t move, he looked at the white parts of the deer’s body, the muscle fibres and the bones. At last his father had finished, and put the deer over his shoulders. Sebastian carried the rucksack and followed his father back to the car. It was going to be a hot day, vapour was beginning to rise from the meadows, the light was glaring, and it was better to stay in the shade of the trees.


At home, Sebastian’s mother was sitting out of doors at the iron table under the chestnut trees having breakfast, with her two dogs dozing on the lawn. It was Thursday, and she would be going to a horse show today; Sebastian had seen the horsebox. A few years ago his mother had had the stables renovated, and now her two dressage horses lived in them. Sebastian kissed his mother on both cheeks, then ran up to his room and took her present out of the case. He had made a nutcracker in the workshop at school, a nutcracker in the shape of a little man with white teeth, a red beard and a black hat with a wooden pheasant feather in it. Sebastian had spent a long time working on it, and had painted the feather brown and green. But now the present seemed to him silly. He looked down at the ground when he gave it to her. He still had resin on his hands from the hide, and now it stuck to the nutcracker because he hadn’t handled it carefully enough. His mother thanked him. Twice, she made the nutcracker open its mouth. Then she went on reading her
Equestrian Review
. The registration papers for her horse shows lay on the table. Sebastian told her the news from his boarding school. Sometimes she asked a question without looking up from her papers. After a while she said that she’d better be going. She folded her napkin carefully so that the edges coincided perfectly. She kissed him on the forehead. The dogs jumped up and trotted down the avenue to the stables at her side.


Sebastian stayed sitting in the shade of the old chestnut trees. The long summer holidays lay ahead. Maybe he would go down to the boathouse and work on the wooden canoe, which could do with a new coat of paint. Sebastian remembered all three of them crossing the lake in the boat, his father rowing, while he lay on his front, chin propped on the gunwale. He had still been very young, maybe five or six years old. His mother had been wearing a pale linen dress, and she sat stiffly on the seat in the middle of the boat. She still used to laugh a lot at the time, and she squealed when his father splashed water on her with the paddle. Sebastian had dipped his hands in the cold lake, he had seen trout, perch and whitefish, and sometimes he could smell his mother’s warm perfume: roses, jasmine and oranges wafting over the water.

All that seemed to him very long ago. He knew, now, that his parents did not love each other any more. He often looked at the album with their wedding photographs in his father’s study. In those pictures, they looked young and strange, his mother diffident and soft, with a frank face and clear eyes.

In the past, when Sebastian’s parents were still speaking to each other, he had often heard his mother telling his father that he had no ambition, no self-discipline, not even a proper profession. You needed aims in life, she had said, that was what mattered most.


Sebastian went to the garage for his bicycle, pumped up the tyres and rode out of the park. His friend lived in the last house before you reached the fields and, on seeing Sebastian, the boy’s grandmother called out of the window to say he was down at the lock with the others. Sebastian turned his bike, rode back to the marketplace, and beyond the pharmacy turned into the path through the fields.

His friend was standing at the water’s edge with the other village boys. Although they hadn’t met for the last three months, they greeted Sebastian as casually as if he had never been away. They spent the day repairing their raft. It had been lying in the mud all winter, and the tree trunks it was made of had absorbed a lot of water, making them heavy and slippery.

They put unripe corn cobs on sticks and grilled them. The corn stuck in their teeth and tasted of nothing much, but the smoke of their fire drove the wasps away, and it was pleasant to sit beside it. They picked reeds, cut them up, and smoked them as if they were large cigars.

In the shadow of the alders, the lake was cool and dark. Sebastian swam far out and floated on his back. If he raised his head, he could see his family’s house on the other side of the lake, shining bright white in the sun. He saw the landing stage there, the boathouse, painted blue, he heard the clear voices of his friends on the bank, and when he closed his eyes everything inside him turned to a single colour for which he knew no name.


Early in the evening Sebastian rode home, washed his face and put on clean clothes. It was too chilly to eat out of doors, and the cook had laid the table in the room with a view of the landscape. His father smelled of alcohol and looked tired.

‘I’m not hungry, Sebastian, I’ll just have something to drink.’

He’s grown thin, thought Sebastian. He knew that his father was hardly ever at home, and spent most of his time on his game preserves in Austria. When he was here, he was almost always in his study. The curtains there were never drawn back, and no one could enter the room when he wasn’t at home. He used to lie on the sofa, staring at the ceiling and smoking. He spoke less and less these days, his suits hung loose on him, and he was beginning to drink in the mornings.

After supper they went into the billiard room. His father was unsteady on his feet.

‘Shall we have a game?’ asked Sebastian.

‘No, I’m too tired. You play and I’ll keep you company.’

Sebastian arranged the billiard balls. His father sat on the window-seat with a glass of whisky and lit a cigar. Sometimes he looked at the billiard table, and said, in his old-fashioned French, ‘
’, ‘
’ and ‘
à cheval
’. Sebastian played an American break, concentrating hard; he drove the ivory balls along the cushion round the table. For a long time, the clicking of billiard balls on the cloth was the only sound.

When darkness fell, he replaced the cue in the wooden stands and sat down in an armchair beside his father. There was still a light on in the library; a narrow strip of it fell through the sliding door on to the floorboards. The wood looked like dark velvet.

‘It’s good to have you here,’ said his father. His voice was colourless.

‘Shall I put the light on?’ asked Sebastian.

‘No, please don’t,’ said his father.

Outside, a hawk screeched. Sebastian was feeling sleepy. He saw his father’s profile in the semi-darkness, his high forehead, his hollow cheeks. He heard his father breathing. It seemed to him that his father wanted to say something, but was still searching for the words. However, his father said nothing.


Sebastian had fallen asleep in the armchair. When he heard it, he ran down the stairs to the main hall on the ground floor in the dark; he stumbled, grazing his knee, ran on down the passage to the study. He flung the door open.

The only light came from the lamp on the desk. A cardboard box of ammunition stood beside it, holding cartridges of shot with pale red cartridge cases, 12/70 calibre. Sebastian cautiously skirted the desk. His father’s tweed suit had already worn thin at the knees and elbows, his green handkerchief was hanging out of the breast pocket of the jacket. His left leg lay on the chair, which had fallen over; the heel of his shoe was trodden down, showing the nails in it. His father had no head left. The force of the nine lead pellets had shot away his face and lifted off the roof of his skull.

Sebastian stood in the study, unable to move. He smelled the gunpowder, the whisky dripping from a bottle that had tipped over on to the stone slabs, his father’s aftershave. He saw the dust on the books, the brass telescope, the cracks in the leather upholstery and the silver cigarette case with the big jade stone set in it. Then it was too much for him, images raced through his mind, were superimposed on each other, came together again and again in new combinations, he couldn’t arrange them in any kind of order. Colours swelled to form huge blisters.

Sebastian’s nose was bleeding; warm blood ran over his lips and on to his tongue. He took a step forward, picked up the cigarette case and switched the desk lamp off. He didn’t know why he did that, but afterwards it was quieter.

‘We have plenty of time,’ his father had said.

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
12.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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