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The homecoming (short story)

Brigitte Neumann


Karl Hackett pushed the duvet aside. His pajamas were all over his body. Another one of those sleepless nights in which he tormented himself hour after hour towards the morning.

He listened to the silence. The alarm ticked loud. On the floor above him, the floor creaked. A toilet flush was rushing. Water gurgled. It got quiet again. He turned to the left side. His heart was beating, almost in time with the clock. He turned to the right, the throbbing became quieter, but the dark thoughts remained awake.

It got lighter outside. Traffic was increasing. Karl rose, looked with his foot for the mountain pines in front of his bed and felt the heavy sleeplessness resting in all limbs. Tiredness jumped out of his eyes as he foamed his face with the soft badger hair shaving brush in front of the mirror. 

The phone rang. The answering machine started. Thereafter the voice of his colleague sounded from the loudspeaker.

“Karl? It’s John. Are you home again? Then please get in touch.” Karl shrugged his shoulders. John and him, they were both graphic artists and good partners. Their small agency was booming, soon they would have to hire new employees. But he didn’t want to talk business before the first tea. They’d be meeting at the office soon, anyway.

He poured boiling water on the tea leaves in the small silver pot and set the radio. The early news had just begun. “...the fire of the explosion destroyed two full wagons of the night train. A still unknown number of passengers burned beyond recognition. Paddington Station is closed until further notice.”

Karl listened. The newsreader referred to a special feature after the programme and went on to the next topic. The Labour Party’s survey results fell again. Prime Minister Brown, however, ruled out new elections. In Kabul, another suicide bomber blew up a bus. Karl stood in front of the device, could wait until the weather forecast ended the news and he learned more about the train accident at Paddington. Then it was confirmed that this was the night train in which he would have been sitting had it not been for the last appointment yesterday afternoon. In his tired head his thoughts whirled. Not too late. Just got away again.

The phone rang shrill in his ears. John again. “Karl, call. The train, this train of misfortune... You’re not...” This is where John broke off.
The hourglass had already gone through. Karl’s hands trembled as he took the teen net out of the pot. As always, he remembered the words of his mother. “Sit down. The tea is ready,” she had said when he came home. This silver pot was the only thing he had left of her. His sister had sent them to him. “Mother’s teapot”, was written on a plain white card in the even, steep lettering that the mother had also had. “You shall have them. That was her wish.” That’s all.

He poured it in, grasped the thin cup with both hands and led it to his mouth. The tea tasted as bitter as the thought of her dying. If he’d been on that train, he might have been dead by now.
The phone rang again. The caller hung up without leaving a message. In the display Karl saw that John had tried again to reach him. He picked up the phone and wanted to call back, dialled the first three digits, hung up again, sat down breathing back to his teacup and stroked his shaved chin.

Three days, he’d be wearing a stubble beard. In three days he would be over three hundred kilometres from London by bicycle. Three times three days, he estimated, he would need to come home. “Home”, that was the Isle of Skye, the largest of the inner Hebrides, high up in the west of Scotland.

Karl went to the desk. He found the front door key in the back corner of the drawer. Mother wanted him to keep it. “So you could always come home,” she said.

“Too late!” Karl could not swallow more, the lump was so thick in his throat. “You can always come home,” he heard the mother’s voice in him again. He never had time. The company structure, the many orders, the success and the pressure to increase this success, everything was more important. Even when he stood at her grave. He drove back to London to reach the next customer on time.

“Karl, don’t get sentimental,” said his reason. “Call John at last. Otherwise, he’ll report you missing from the train crash.”

“Don’t call,” said another voice. “Let’s go. Get on your way home.” 

The two voices didn’t fight long. Karl packed the most necessary things into his two bicycle bags, thought at the last minute about putting in his rain and repair kit, locked his apartment door and cycled. As if in a hurry he left London, drove and drove without a break until late afternoon, ate a few dry scones, drank water in addition, continued to cycle, always further, stayed overnight in a shed outside, the next morning he cycled again to the first telephone booth.

“Hello, is this the police? This is Mark Miller, a friend of Karl Hackett’s. Is he one victim of yesterday’s train crash? ...Yes, I’ll wait until you scroll through your list...” The policeman confirmed that Karl Hackett was one of the last on the missing persons list.

Again he sat down on his bike. Kicking, kicking, kicking, right foot down, left foot down, right foot down... He paid no attention to the landscape, nor to the mild autumn weather. The driving force superimposed all thoughts to arrive. He forgot John and the customers. It didn’t occur to him either that anyone could recognize him. He cycled on and on until darkness came and spent the night in a bed-and-breakfast quarter. The next three days were similar. Every morning, under a different name, he convinced himself he was on the missing persons list. For the rest of the day he pedaled until darkness devoured the paths.

On the fifth day light rain set in in the morning, which increased in the morning’s course to violent castings. A bus overtook Karl. What the rain hadn’t managed yet, the splash water fountain succeeded. In the shoes the water talked, the soaking wet rain trousers softened, the jeans underneath stuck to the legs. Like an ice-cold coat, the clothes snuggled against his upper body, the rain dripping from his hair into his face and neck, through his glasses he could only see dripping landscapes.

He drove to the next village, parked his bike under the canopy of a small restaurant, shook the thick drops out of his hair and clothes, cleaned his glasses and nose. Before he went in, he was peeling himself out of his rain gear. He shivered.

The restaurant was full to the last table. Stale, stuffy air waved towards him, interspersed with murmuring voices. The landlord cashed in on an old man sitting alone at a table in a window alcove. His tea glass was already empty. He had the newspaper rolled up in front of him. Karl approached the table.

“May I?” He pointed to the free chair. The old man nodded.

“Yeah. Got wet?”

The old man stayed seated. He rolled up his newspaper, read a little, folded it back together.

“I saw you coming by bike. Do you have far to go? The weather stays bad. Look, it’s right here.”

He held out the weather map from the newspaper to Karl.

“Yes,” Karl replied. The rain pelted against the window. He ordered a pot of tea and a serving of eggs with ham on toast.

“The food’s good here.” The old man felt his way in again. “I come here every day. You know, when you live alone like that, be with people.”

Karl tried to get a friendly smile.

“I know I’m bothering you,” his opposite exposed his thoughts. “My son, he’s got the same look on his face as you when I want to tell him something.” Again the old man picked up the newspaper, rolled it up and lifted it up like a pointer to confirm his words and continued talking.

“I’m proud of him. He set up a company, a modern print shop, near London. Three years ago he was here last time, briefly...” The old man stopped. His dark blue eyes shone. He laid the rolled newspaper on the table and folded his hands together. He kept talking. “That was when my wife died. I’ve been alone ever since... and I come here every day. But I told you. There’s always people here. And you see: from this place I have all in view. But why am I telling you this? Excuse me, I don’t want to bore you.”

“No, you’re not boring me. It’s all right.” Karl looked at the old man. He rose. 

“I have to go home now. Answer the phone. Could be my son calling. Maybe he’ll call today and I want to be home.”

Karl saw him reach for his stick and limp to the door with heavy steps. Outside he stopped in front of the wet, loaded bicycle, shook his head and pulled away. Karl remained behind.
“What this son could do, I can’t do anymore. Too late is too late.” If he’d been on that train, it would have been too late. But wasn’t everything too late, anyway? He ordered another tea. For the first time since his hasty escape from London, he thought about what he had done. He wasn’t around anymore. He was on the missing persons list and was one victim of the train crash. He was a nobody. No one would miss him. John, maybe a little. But also because of his work. They were never close in human terms.

The waitress brought the tea. The hourglass on the tray was still trickling. When the fine white sand had passed through, he took out the tea egg, placed it in the container provided and drank the hot drink in small sips. Warm he ran down his throat, gave warmth to his stomach, which felt so cold a moment ago.

He straightened up. He didn’t want to give up. Outside, the cloud cover thinned out. A few minutes later he sat on the bike again and continued. “Arrive first!” This thought drove him further, towards his goal. Three days later he took the first ferry to the Isle of Skye in the morning. Thick wafts of mist lay over the island.

He cycled towards the cemetery. He had a weak stomach when he locked the wheel at the gate. He found the grave after a brief search. Someone had planted a small rhododendron.

“Don’t jump in the fresh beds.” Karl saw himself and his sister playing catch. They only lived in the new house for a short time. Mother had returned to her old home with them after she had left her father. She had promised the children that everything would be better now. No more quarreling, no more irascible drunken father to whom she was defenceless at the mercy of. She found a job fast. She worked at the nursery all day. Sometimes she came home late at night.

Karl had to go to a new school. The other pupils, he remembered, made life difficult for him, the stranger whom no one knew, the twelve-year-old who had left his friends behind.

Now he, the grown son, stood here at his mother’s grave. Tears rolled down his cheeks. The old loneliness felt the same as the new one. His nose was running. He looked for a handkerchief, found the front door key in his left trouser pocket, was shaken and shaken and ashamed of the tears like the key child who once wanted to be brave and strong.

“A boy doesn’t cry.”

He couldn’t stop them. With them, so much anger broke out of him. A rage that had never allowed him, he had never been allowed. Anger he had to leave his friends as a child, that he had felt like a nobody and a nothing, that this feeling dominated him all his life, that he was afraid of new friendships, because they could be taken away from him again.

“A nothing, a nobody, that’s what you made me do,” he hurled sobbing towards the hill Earth.

“I made you one?”

He collapsed. It’s always been that way. Mother threw all the accusations back at him. He was the one who felt guilty about his thoughts and feelings.

“Once again you’re right,” he mumbled. “I’ve wiped myself out.”

He froze. He pulled the jacket tighter around his slender body and looked up. All around, the many tombs told of lived lives. The fog had settled on Earth. The sun sought its way through the clouds. He stood here shivering, cold, hungry, all alive.

A large bowl of porridge with thick cream appeared in front of him. He sat on the hard bench at the old wooden table full of notches and spooned the warm breakfast. His stomach felt full when he got up. He went into the yard and played with his friends. As always they played football and as so often he closed his ears when his parents argued, he did not look at the bruises his mother was wearing.

“That’s why you tore me away from my friends,” he stammered at the stone grave cross. “And I... I didn’t get out of my defiance... until today... I didn’t take care of him... I let no one get... I wanted to show everyone... Success at work yes, friends no, relationship no... always the fear of separations...”

“Yes, that’s why,” the mother seemed to answer. When the crying shook him again, he felt as if they were holding each other. These tears washed away the rage and much that separated.

Karl remained on the bench opposite the tomb for some time. He felt exhausted and relieved. His soul had rolled a thick stone.

The next day, he returned to London. He found his apartment the way he had left it. He reported to the police. Then he called John and invited him for tea.

A few months later, the court sentenced him to 5 years imprisonment with probation. The reason given by the judges was that he had stolen precious time from the security forces during their difficult work with the missing person report about his colleague and with his increased calls. He accepted the verdict. He had never felt as free as he had ever felt since he returned home.

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