Wie Komme Ich Am Besten Zum Bahnhof?
By Stuart Evers.
The screams of children are the same in every language. He thinks this as he walks along the wide avenue, traditionally tree lined, in Wiesbaden, some miles north of Frankfurt. He is holding a briefcase and wheeling a trolley suitcase behind him; wheels that scuff on fallen leaves and are gummed already with mulch. Inside the suitcase, amongst other possessions, is a soft toy for his child and a selection of biscuits, which may or may not be specialities of the region, for the people at the office. He will buy perfume from the airport for his wife.
When he was a child, his father went away on business. On his return, he would give him miniature tablets of soap, hotel-swiped, toy-like and thin. In the bathroom, he would unwrap them carefully, like chocolate, and use them until they softly expired in his hands. It could take weeks of careful use for them to finally dissolve and there was always sadness, but there was always also another business trip. He liked the wrappers on which Cyrillic, or Chinese characters had been printed. He never kept the wrappers, however; he was only interested in the miniature soap inside.
He is not thinking of his father’s soap, or his daughter’s soft toy or the perfume he will buy for his wife, or wondering why Wiesbaden avoided Allied bombing during the war, or even the biscuits, speciality or no, that are crumbling in a crumpled box that will appear cheap when placed on the receptionist’s desk. The screams of children are the same in every language, is what he thinks, again, as he pulls the trolley suitcase and feels the mulch clag the wheels and slow his advance towards the bahnhof.
There is a group of children in the middle of the avenue, a rhomboid space of grass where they are screaming, chasing each other in red plastic boots, bobbled hats, throwing some ball or Frisbee or some other flying item. Three women watch over them, hands on the handles of pushchairs, big coats with fur-lined hoods, their breath smoking as they speak to one another, their eyes trained on the children screaming. In the distance he can see the façade of the bahnhof, flags rippling in the occasionally gusting wind, but he, like the women, keeps his eyes on the screaming children. He moves his head and looks to his left, the pillars of the art museum, a security guard talking to a man in a tight-fitting grey suit. He turns because of the ambiguity of the thought: the screams of children are the same in every language. He knows what he means, but without context, without knowing that he is the kind of man who buys soft toys for his children, and confectionery for his colleagues and intended to buy expensive perfume for the woman he loves, it could be misconstrued.
He fears that thoughts are unsafe, that they can be exposed like pornography spilling from a suitcase onto the flooring of an airport departure lounge. Already he is concerned by the thoughts that sentence has provoked. The thoughts have cleaved: one a line of enquiry that ruminates on the universality, the simplicity of a child’s scream of pleasure; the other following a more controlled, scientific approach, imagining the screams of children being tested, screams of pleasure measured against screams of pain, their pitch and volume, whether there is a geographic inconsistency within the results.
The latter becomes the dominant strand. He sees white-coated men stirruping children, injecting them, slicing them, microphones close to the children’s small noses and button mouths. Indian street kids, American baby pageant winners, Maori boy warriors, coquettish French brats, slide-rule fringed Mexican infants. And then kids from back through time, a constant gathering of information from down the ages, beginning some time in the late eighteenth century as a one-man interest before expanding down the years, the same room in the basement of a large townhouse like the ones he is walking alongside, walls lined with leather-hewn volumes that plot, graph and meticulously record the child’s screaming data. The books, taken as a whole, suggest the theory that the screams of children are not just the same across the world, but also across time too; that the screams of pleasure and of pain are subtly different, but this difference is hard to pinion. So the experiment remains ongoing, the children tickled, then pinched, then sliced, then invaded.
With an act of will, he stops the thoughts dead and concentrates on his routine on reaching the bahnhof. He will purchase a ticket, get on the 14.06 and be at the airport in a little over forty minutes. After check in, he will have around an hour to select a perfume for his wife. She has a lot of perfume though and only really uses Trésor, which he usually buys for her. Perhaps he could buy her a watch instead, or something from one of the electronics stores, or a new purse. Her purse is old and falling apart. But purses are personal items and she might think that a new purse is an attack on her in some way, that he has noticed its long state of decrepitude and has for some time been planning to replace it. She probably loves it just the way it is. And why is he thinking of such banalities when there are children being experimented upon, children being abducted just to prove or disprove a theory, an obsession, of one man from hundreds of years before? What about all those Jewish kids in the thirties and forties? Do they not deserve some respect rather than such thoughts of a purse for his wife?
The interjection is toxic; he sees it in vapours around him. A bus drives past, a school bus, and he imagines the screams inside. And what of his own child’s screams? The scratched knees, the playground games, the descent from a too-tall slide? He stops and checks his trolley suitcase, uses a tissue to unclog the wheels of mulch. The soft toy is in the main section of the suitcase and he wonders if he buys his daughter too many soft toys, that they are not as well received as the miniature soaps he was given a child. The soft toy will join the pile by the side of the child’s bed. It may make the leap to emotional attachment and join his daughter underneath the covers, but this will only happen for a short amount of time — if at all. He throws the muddied tissues in a nearby litter bin and can’t help but ask himself whether it is just him that has these thoughts. It can’t just be him: surely these thoughts are like the screams of children; the same the world over? Thoughts that probe unthinkable things; whether there is ever a chance of him touching his child in a way that is only experimental, only out of curiosity, but would and could never be seen as such. This was something he would never do. He loves his daughter, his wife, his home and his position, but these thoughts do not care for such matters. He thinks again about the purse and the perfume and whether biscuits, possibly a regional specialty or possibly not, are enough for the people back in the office, whether some chocolate might be better. Whatever happens, he thinks, the biscuits will not go to waste.
The screams of children are the same in every language. He thinks this again as, in the rhomboid patch of grass, he sees another group of children playing. They are dressed in much the same way as the others, but there are only two women watching over them, and only one has their hands on the handles of a pushchair. Despite the chill, he is sweating a little. His daughter could be screaming now, in the playground of her school. His daughter is something of a screamer; the other parents say so and it is hard to ignore. He has become accustomed to it when at the park or the playground, but he has never stopped to consider that the noise she makes is not unique, is not even indigenous to his part of the country. The vastness of the inclusion causes him to shake slightly.
He ate badly the night before and his insides are beginning to churn. He feels an uncomfortable ache that turns painful in his abdomen. He does not think of children or perfume or soft toys or chocolate, and instead only concerns himself with the pain. He feels a build-up in his stomach and knows that the only way to clear it is through expulsion. He looks to the children, hears their high squeals. The screams of children are the same in every language.
The pain is sharp and wincing. Again, he thinks that the only way to clear it is through expulsion. He pushes, gently, tentatively. There is relief, for a moment. Too late, he realises that too much has been expelled. He feels it warm and then cool. It sits wetly in his underwear, the special shorts he prefers for travelling. He is between a five and ten minute walk from the bahnhof. The children shriek, another group of them running onto the grass, screaming and throwing a ball. He doesn’t know what shames him most: his body or his mind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stuart Evers‘ Ten Stories About Smoking, was published by Picador and won the London Book Award 2011; If This is Home, a novel, is forthcoming in July. His fiction has appeared in Best British Short Stories 2012, Prospect, 3:AM and on The Times website.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 30th, 2012.