My mother is giving off. The washing machine has broken down. Boys, she yells, who put nails in the washing machine. My father takes us by the hair, we forgot to take the nails from Giacasep’s out of our trouser pockets before throwing the trousers in the tub for dirty clothes. My father pulls at the bottom of your hair at the back. When he pulls it there, it hurts more. Little rogues, my father yells. Ash from his Kiel cigar falls on the rug in the corridor. My father bites on the yellow mouthpiece of his Kiel. His teeth are grayish-yellow. Just you wait, there’s going to be trouble, off to bed with you now, no supper tonight, sez la cuolpa, only yourselves to blame.
Luis-from-Schlans has a steinbock on the sleeve of his blue ski jacket. He’s a skiing instructor. He always wears the same jacket and always the same belt as well. Okay boys, he says, if you want some chocolate, nip into the kiosk, into Mena’s, and get me a packet of Rössli cigars. Do you know which ones, say it’s for Luis, and Mena will know, and to put it on the slate. Mena’s sitting behind the glass pane, reading the NewPost. Behind her, Jesus is hanging on the cross. His right hand’s broken off. She takes off her specs and opens the glass pane. Tgei levas, she asks. Rösslis ed ina tschugalata Rayon. Mena won’t give us the chocolate, she doesn’t believe Luis said we could have the Rayon. She won’t give us Torinos either, though they’re smaller. Luis-from-Schlans says, don’t worry, you’ll get the chocolate from me, bye then, you two. We take the short cut to the station. Behind the station we discuss it all. It’s Mena’s fault. Mena will be in trouble, we’ll take her by the hair.
On Saturday morning the soldiers come down the station road. Do you have any biscuits, we ask. They produce biscuits from their pockets and hold the biscuits out to us. We say merci buccups. They produce dark chocolate from their pockets and hold it out to us. Merci buccups. They laugh and continue down the station road, cutting the bend. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re not supposed to cut the bend on the station road. When will you finally cotton on that you’re not supposed to cut the bend, you little camels, my father says to us, do you want to end up under a car or what. We don’t. We only cut the bend when we forget we’re not supposed to cut the bend. If we end up under a car, we’ll go to FrauRorer.
My grandmother is bollock in front of me. When she sees me, she’s startled. She’s wide-eyed. She has her mouth open. She hasn’t her false teeth in. I’m startled too. I don’t look away though. I can’t look away. My neck is made of wood. I’ve never seen Nonna bollock before. She looks so different, totally bollock. Oh, she says. She limps back into the bathroom and closes the door. One of her legs is shorter than the other. The sole of her right shoe is thicker. It looks like she has a wooden foot. But at least she doesn’t limp with shoes on. Without her shoes, she stands crooked. Through the bathroom door I hear her say, why didn’t you shout something. I don’t say anything. I did shout. I shouted haliho Nonna as I came in. No one answered. I went into the kitchen with the plastic bag with the mangold leaves from our garden. My mother said to take them to Nonna, Nonna makes her capuns with them. I could hear someone in the bathroom, that’s why I waited in the kitchen beside the coffee machine. If you want into Nonna’s bathroom, you have to go through the kitchen. Nonna comes out of the bathroom. She has tied a bath towel round her. Her toenails are grayish-blue. The bath towel is pink. She doesn’t look at me. Why didn’t you shout as you came in, silly. I did shout. I don’t say so. Suddenly, I can’t talk any more. My Nonna, bollock, took my voice away. When she goes into her room and closes the door, I put the plastic bag down on the table beside the coffee machine and leave. I close the front door carefully. There’ll be trouble for sure.
Arno Camenisch writes in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German. He is best known for his award-winning trilogy of novels, beginning with ‘The Alp’, already excerpted in Harper’s, and continuing with ‘Behind the Station’ and ‘Last Last Orders’, all of which will appear from Dalkey Archive Press over the next two years.
Born in Derry, Donal McLaughlin moved to Scotland as a child. His debut collection, ‘an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories’ (2009), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. In 2012, he featured in ‘Best European Fiction’ (Dalkey Archive) as both a writer and a translator. In 2013, his translation of Urs Widmer’s ‘My Father’s Book’ (Seagull) was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (USA).
This excerpt is taken from ‘Behind the Station’ (Columbia University Press, 2015), and appears with kind permission from the publisher.