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Authors: Ferdinand von Schirach

Tags: #Detective and Mystery Fiction

The Girl Who Wasn't There (7 page)

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
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The exhibition of
The Maja’s Men
was a success. A TV cultural magazine programme had transmitted a preview, and on the afternoon of the opening there was a long line of people waiting outside the gallery.

Sofia was wearing a black dress and had tied her hair back. She was slim and elegant as she moved among the guests, distributing business cards, laughing one moment and the next moment serious again.

He thought of the ladder in her tights that had been bothering her before the exhibition, and how she had gazed out of the kitchen window that morning without saying anything. She had been watching a little boy playing in the yard. Then she had turned to him, and he had seen the question that she no longer asked and that he could not answer.

Eschburg looked at Sofia. All this is possible only with her, he thought, the photographs, and still being with her, and enduring.


Eschburg left the viewing, went back to Linienstrasse, packed a few things and went to the Charlottenburg municipal swimming pool. It had been built in 1898, three storeys high, a red brick building with a Jugendstil façade, its roof a structure of steel girders like a market hall.

He went through the green iron door. At this time of day he was almost always alone here. He changed, showered, and let himself down the steps and into the pool. He swam a few lengths, fast and steadily. Then he turned on his back and looked up at the sky through the high glass ceiling. He breathed out and dropped to the bottom of the pool, where he stayed underwater until it hurt. The samurai of ancient Japan used to rise every morning saying, ‘You are dead.’ It made the idea of death easier. He thought of that now, and was at ease.


Eschburg returned to his studio. There were prostitutes in high-heeled shoes standing in Oranienburgerstrasse; their wigs were very blonde or very black, and sweat left narrow runnels in their makeup.

There was still a queue waiting outside the gallery. Eschburg carried on until he came to an art-house cinema, where he bought a ticket for the film that had just begun. He sat at the end of the back row. The sound in the cinema was loud, and the cutting of the film too fast; he couldn’t make out what was happening.

After half an hour he left the cinema again. It was hardly any cooler. The pavements were full of people, buskers playing music outside a café, a few drunken tourists dancing.


He walked the streets until he was tired. He stopped at a building site. It smelled of drains and shit. Eschburg looked down, and saw a fox lying among the pipes, its coat wet and full of sand. He stared at the dead fox, and then he thought the fox was staring back at him.

When Eschburg came into the studio next morning, Sofia was already at her desk.

The Maja’s Men
was sold yesterday,’ she said. ‘To a Japanese. You’re rich.’ She laughed.

The iron hooks that had held it were still in the studio wall.

‘It would never have happened but for you,’ he said.

She looked happy and tired.

‘Shall we go away?’ he said. ‘We could rent a house on Mallorca.’

‘Yes,’ she said.

They had hardly slept for the last few nights before the exhibition. Sofia sat at the computer to search for holiday houses. Early the next day they flew out.

They hired a car at the airport, and drove down the highway to Santanyí in the south-east of the island. The air conditioning wasn’t working; Sofia tied a scarf over her hair and let the window down. The air was hot and salt. They stopped in Llucmajor.

The espresso in the Café Colon was burnt, market women were talking loudly at the bar, the fruit machine was on. They bought a few things in a food store and climbed back into the car. Beyond S’Alqueria Blanca they turned off the main road and drove between narrow walls up to the house.

That evening they toasted dark bread and ate it with olive oil, tomatoes and garlic. The sea was almost two kilometres away, but even up here it smelled of seaweed. They sat on the terrace, where they could see over the almond trees and Aleppo pines down to the plain and on to the sea. The earth was red with iron oxide.


He was woken by the misfiring of a motorbike somewhere down on the road. Sofia was no longer lying beside him. He went into the garden. She was sitting in a deckchair near the pool.

‘Perhaps these are our last days,’ she said.

He looked at her. The underwater lighting from the pool was greenish-blue.

‘What do you mean?’ He was awake but at the same time felt dull-witted. He wanted to go back to bed.

‘I’m afraid you won’t be here any more. And I’m afraid of your fantasies. Loving you is such a strain.’ She was silent, and so was Eschburg. Then she said, ‘Who are you, Sebastian?’

Eschburg got up and went to find a bottle of water. When he came back, the light in the pool had switched itself off. He lay down with her, put one hand to the nape of her neck and closed his eyes. He thought of the colour of the ears of oats that he had rubbed apart with two fingers, and the colour of the reeds beside the boathouse. They were sharp and cut your legs.

‘You’re still a stranger,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Eschburg. Far out to sea he saw the ships, the wandering lights, amber, agate, carnelian, and then he waited for the silence between the sentences they uttered, which was his only measurement of proximity to another human being.


That night, the wind brought sand from Africa, and in the morning everything was covered by a thin, pale yellow layer of it.

After a week they flew back separately. Sofia had to go to Paris, Eschburg wanted to return to Berlin. He took a taxi to Linienstrasse from the airport.

He carried his case up to the first floor. His neighbour’s door was wide open. Eschburg glanced into her apartment. It was almost empty, with only a sofa and a small table in the middle of the room.

A woman was lying on the sofa. She was naked. Eschburg couldn’t see her face; she had laid her head over the arm of the sofa and wasn’t moving. For a moment he thought the woman was dead. He was about to go to her, but just then Senja Finks appeared in front of him. She had been standing by the door. She nodded to Eschburg, slowly and seriously. Then she placed her right hand on his chest, pushed him gently back into the hall and closed the heavy door. She did not say a word.


Eschburg went into his apartment, unpacked his case and lay down in bed. He slept restlessly. When he woke at about five in the morning, he felt that he was not alone. The apartment was dark. He waited with his eyes closed, not moving. Suddenly he smelled cedars, and then he felt her breath on his face.

Over the next few days Eschburg cleared his studio. He painted the partitions, dealt with his post, took his cameras apart and cleaned them, phoned his publisher and the gallery owner who showed his work, got his hair cut and bought new trousers. He went for long walks in the city and its parks, visited exhibitions and sat in the café for hours without doing anything. He realized that he was taking Sofia’s absence badly.


After ten days he flew to Paris. Sofia’s agency was holding a reception for an animal protection organization that evening, and Eschburg went straight there from the airport. The reception was in the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. The women wore long dresses, the men dinner jackets. Eschburg was bored. In the toilets, a young man was taking a line of coke; his left earlobe was stretched out of shape by a bright green silicon earring about twenty millimetres thick. Eschburg went out of the hotel and watched the traffic.

Sofia was able to leave at about one a.m. A driver from the agency took them to her apartment, three tiny rooms in the 10th arrondissement. The first photo that Eschburg had ever taken of her hung over her bed. He had enlarged it to 1.50 by 1.50 metres. It was the only picture in her apartment. Sofia said she was so glad he had come. Then she dropped on the bed and fell asleep at once.

There were sliding glass doors between the bedroom and the living room. He observed Sofia through the glass, and at the same time saw his own reflection: her face on his face. He stood like that for a long time, watching her as she slept.


After the weekend he flew back to Berlin. He went to the State Library and looked for books about Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, who was born in England in the early nineteenth century. Galton invented the weather map and identification by fingerprints. He was convinced that all criminals had visible characteristics distinguishing them from other people. Galton had wondered for a long time how he could illustrate those characteristics, and finally he set up his camera in a London prison and had prisoners brought in. He photographed all their faces on top of each other on a single photographic plate. Galton did not know what evil would look like – it could have shown in the eyes, the foreheads, the ears or the mouths of his subjects. He was astonished when he saw the photograph for the first time: there were no unusual characteristics, and the composite face of all those criminals was a beautiful one.


Eschburg read a lot at this time, filling a book with his notes, and drawing sketches for an installation. After four weeks he booked thirty-eight women from a theatrical agency. His stipulations were few: all the women should be about the same size, they should be between eighteen and twenty-two years old, they were to be dress size 8, and they must be prepared to have nude photographs of themselves taken.

A frame on a wooden platform forced the models to adopt the same physical attitudes for their heads and bodies. Eschburg photographed them one by one from in front with an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera on Polaroid, exposing the photos for fifteen seconds.

The Polaroid pictures were pale grey and looked like soft pencil drawings. The long exposure time made all inessentials disappear, with only the lines of the women’s bodies and heads remaining visible. Later, Eschburg had the Polaroids scanned, enlarged to two square metres, and printed on thin Plexiglas plates.


A young man who usually programmed video games for a software company now came to Eschburg’s studio every morning. He set up his computer, sat in front of a high-resolution screen, and programmed the installation to Eschburg’s instructions. Eschburg got him to explain the principles of his programming. After two months he bought the young man’s computer and worked on his own for another eight months. It was a year before the installation was finished. Things were easier with Sofia at this time; they got used to one another, and Eschburg thought he had found the right rhythm for this kind of relationship.


Finally he showed the installation to his gallerist. Eschburg left him and Sofia alone in the studio and went into the inner courtyard. He sat on the steps outside the entrance and peeled an orange, carefully separating the segments. He held the naked fruit up to the sun, turned it, looked at the individual chambers in the flesh, the white skin, the thin veins, orange, yellow and red. He wondered how far it went back, that never-ending number of decisions leading to this moment on the steps. Eschburg slowly closed his hand, the flesh of the fruit was squeezed through his fingers, juice spurted on his shirt, his hair and his face.

The entrance to Linienstrasse through the gate in front of Eschburg’s building was almost dark. One of the two street lights had been out of order for weeks. All the same, Eschburg could see Senja Finks. A stranger was clutching her throat and pushing her back against the wall. The man was stocky, the nape of his neck shaved; he had broad shoulders and wore a peaked cap. He was stabbing her in the stomach with a knife; he was fast. Eschburg ran.

The stranger drew back to thrust for the second time. Eschburg grabbed the collar of his leather jacket and tore him away from her. The stranger stumbled and lost his balance. Even as he fell, Eschburg turned and hit him. He put all his weight into the blow and struck the stranger’s chin. The man’s jaw splintered.

Eschburg heard the whirring behind his left ear too late. He couldn’t swerve in time. The steel tip of the cudgel hit his head. He was lucky; the angle of impact was low, and the cudgel did not smash his skull. Eschburg fell to his knees. He saw the paving stones, blue-grey with sand and moss between them. Briefly, the pattern they made intrigued him, and then his forehead hit the ground.


Long before he opened his eyes, he knew he was in a hospital. It was the smell: the mixture of disinfectant, sickness and boiled bed linen.

The first thing he saw was Sofia, sitting by the window with a book. She had taken off her shoes and put her feet up on the windowsill. With the light behind it, her throat looked too slender.

Eschburg didn’t want to speak yet; he just looked at her. Finally Sofia put the book down on her lap and audibly breathed out.

‘What happened?’ he asked. His mouth felt dry, his lips were split.

Sofia came over and kissed him cautiously on the forehead. ‘You fell and lost consciousness. You have a hole in your head.’

He tried to move, but the covers on the bed were stiff and heavy.

‘You must sleep,’ she said. ‘They’ve given you medication.’

Eschburg felt her hand on his forehead; it was cool. He went back to sleep.


When he next woke up it was dark in the room. He sat up in bed and stayed sitting until he was sure he wouldn’t feel sick. He was still wearing the hospital smock, but he was not connected to the drip now. He got up and shuffled to the bathroom. There was blood in his urine. His head was bandaged, the right hand side of his face was severely grazed, and he had a dressing over his right eyebrow. He sat on the plastic stool to brush his teeth. It was a strain.

When he came back into the room, there was a woman sitting at the table by the window. It took Eschburg a moment to recognize Senja Finks. She was wearing a dark trouser suit, a pearl necklace and horn-rimmed glasses. Her hair fell loose over her shoulders. The trouser suit looked expensive.

‘I waited until your girlfriend left,’ she said.

‘You look different,’ said Eschburg.

‘People never see anything but what they want to see.’

Cautiously, Eschburg sat on the edge of the bed. ‘You’re not injured?’

‘It’s all right,’ she said.

‘Who were those men?’

‘It’s been dealt with,’ said Senja Finks.

‘What do you mean?’

She shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. Eschburg lay flat on the bed. ‘Can you put the light out?’ he said. ‘It’s dazzling me.’

Senja Finks switched the light off. She asked, ‘Have you spoken to the police?’

‘No,’ said Eschburg.

‘Then please don’t.’

She opened the window. The air was cool and smelled of rain.

He turned his head to her. ‘Can you tell me what happened?’

She picked Eschburg’s watch up from the bedside table. ‘Nice watch. From the sixties?’ she asked.

‘It was my father’s,’ he said.

She put the watch down on the table again.

‘Please tell me what happened,’ said Eschburg.

‘It’s a long story. You don’t want to know.’

‘Of course I want to know,’ he said.

She looked at him for a long time. ‘Very well,’ she continued. ‘Those men were not pleasant characters, understand? They pick up girls in the villages of Ukraine and promise them a good life. Then they train the girls as prostitutes – “breaking them in”, it’s called. The girls are made available to punters, often ten or twenty men at a time, mass rapes in empty factory buildings. The police always arrive too late, and by the time they do turn up the girls and their pimps are in the next town. That scene is a world to itself; the punters pay good money, and the pimps are everywhere, in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany. They’re quick, those men, and frontiers mean nothing to them at all.’

Senja Finks paused and grimaced. Her shirt was turning dark over her stomach area; her injury had opened up. Her breathing was shallow.

‘When a girl is worn out,’ said Senja Finks, ‘they cut off her hands and her head and throw her away with the garbage. Or they sell her first to a punter who whips her to death. The men record it on video and sell that later.’

‘That sort of thing is only for the movies,’ said Eschburg.

‘No,’ she said, ‘you won’t find it in any movie.’

They both fell silent. Eschburg closed his eyes. His head was hurting.

‘Let me ask you now,’ said Senja Finks, ‘what is a girl like that to do if she’s managed to get away? If she’s stolen a great deal of money from the men, if she’s learned to survive and to kill?’

She stood up and took the two steps over to Eschburg’s bed. She smelled of cigarettes and blood. When she leaned forward he saw that her eyes were pale green. Behind the glasses, her pupils were vertical slits.

‘What is guilt?’ she asked. Her voice sounded feverish.

At close quarters, thought Eschburg, death no longer seems threatening.

‘I don’t know,’ he said.

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
9.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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