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Now or never (short story)

Brigitte Neumann


“Erwin, did you pack the swimming trunks, too?” 

“Erna, as always, the blue one. And the sun oil and the bath towel and the beach sandals too,” Erwin Krüger shouts to his wife from the bedroom. He closes the new black suitcase and puts it from the edge of the bed onto the white carpet.

“Erwin, you must hurry. The taxi will be here soon,” sounds Mrs. Krüger’s voice shoving out of the kitchen. 

He doesn’t answer and sighs as he looks at himself in the mirror. “Erwin, who are you?” he mumbles, looking at the traces that almost seven decades of life have left on his face, stroking his smooth, shaved, wrinkled chin and examining his hair as it becomes lighter. The gray-haired curls still can’t be tamed. “If I knew,” answers his reflection, frowning his forehead. 

Frau Krüger steps into the bedroom. She holds out a cloth bag for him: “For on the way. 

“Thank you. Erwin turns away from the mirror and grabs the bag. He already knows what’s inside: a double-cut pumpernickel with cheese, a buttered ham loaf, an apple, a Capri sun orange and two refreshing tissues for the road. Everything as usual, for the twentieth time this year. Under the Christmas tree was again the ticket for the ten-day flight to Mallorca. Every year he meets there with two old friends from his studies. During the day they dive into the sea and in the evening at the bar of the hotel. 

But this year nothing would become like always. “Erwin, what’s wrong with you” he had asked himself on his daily afternoon walk. He lacked the familiar anticipation of the journey. “Man, think about it,” tickled it in him. “Everything runs as usual. Every minute seems pre-programmed. And even on Mallorca you already know what when and how will happen. Is that life? Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick...”? He was frightened and looked around. Registers grey sky, clean sidewalks, well-kept front gardens, no movement noticeable, not even the wind whirled through the trees and bushes. Everything seemed to stand still, only the life clock in him ticked.

The old yellow telephone box caught his gaze. For years they had integrated it into the street scene on the corner. But on that day she caught his eye, because for once someone made a phone call, gesticulating. That the phone was still working at all! It pushed snippets of words to the outside. “The weather is terrific... There are palm trees here, a lot even”... 

Palm trees? Beautiful weather? Here? Here? there it dawned Erwin Krüger. The unknown caller just got himself an alibi! He listened no longer. That’s it: break out, just break out of the rut, get involved with something else, travel somewhere, do something nobody expected from him, the neat, well-kept, reliable, meanwhile retired official. He felt like Erwin at the school desk. “They called him the “nerd”, the Einserschüler. He often hated his virtuous behavior - and yet he didn’t find the courage to fight it. Up to this moment he had never once slipped out of the role of a good pupil. 

“Erwin, now or never,” he reminded himself. 

The next day he told his friends off under a pretext. That was easier than he had thought. Now he prepared himself for a trip alone to Berlin, the city of his childhood, which repelled and attracted him, had become strange and yet remained familiar. He didn’t tell his wife a word about his plans, because he wanted to do everything than he thought it would expect him to do. 

The telephone booth became his secret ally. From there he rented a room in a small hotel on Prenzlauer Berg, called an old friend, was happy about his invitation, made an appointment with him and ordered tickets for a cabaret evening in the thistle. That was enough of a fixed program. The rest of the time he would just let himself drift - and go on a voyage of discovery. 

Erwin Krüger is now on his way to the station. In his hand he feels the weight of the new suitcase, packed for Mallorca, and in his whole body the exciting feeling of a good youngster who breaks out. He hesitates for a moment at the ticket counter. “Erwin, don’t pinch”, he encourages himself and demands a ticket to Berlin with a firm voice. When he boarded the ICE, he hoped that there would also be telephone booths there. He needs them to report on palm trees, beaches and wonderful bathing weather.

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