Compensation

People like Dorn seem to be trapped just under the surface of things. No part of their character has ever been irreparably traumatised so they choose to stand on the periphery of life, operating like periscopes. Their days are usually associated with a particular place in which they float around like submarines on an arid landscape.

Long before the streetlights go out for yet another sunrise, Dorn walks towards the grocery shop. The day is still unripened, a few sleepy people pass in and out of Sophie-Charlotte-Platz station and the sound of the iron door of the grocery shop operates like the neighbourhood’s alarm clock. Dorn steals a glance at the sign above the entrance: Lebensmittel, it says, and it is decorated with a group of happy fruits in human poses.

Dorn arranges the fruits and vegetables in their crates and writes out the prices of the day. There are many people who stop by for an apple or an orange on their way to work. Dorn is observing them as if they were tropical birds. Berliners always look at the fruits quizzically, rotating them in their hands like globes, and in their eyes one can discern admiration for the distances the fruits covered in order to reach them. Experience allows Dorn to distinguish them from his Mediterranean customers who study the fruits with distrust in case they are rotten, or from the Asians who look for secrets in the circumference of the skin.

Around midday, Dorn prepares to welcome old-Finch, who lives upstairs from the grocery shop. Old-Finch descends carrying under his arm a wooden box of chocolates in which he’s stuffed his shaving kit. He has someone else shave him; it is a luxury he decided to offer himself when he turned eighty. Every noon, Dorn applies foam on Finch’s cheeks and cuts the sparse hairs with a scalding blade.

“Good weather, isn’t it, Dorn?” For Finch, whether it’s snowing or scorching, the weather’s good.

“Good weather, indeed, Mr Finch.”

“The weather’s always been good since the credit crunch. I guess it’s nature’s way of compensating for man’s misery.”

“Could very well be.”

“No doubt. You can tell there’s a credit crunch from the prices of fruit. I remember during the war, the price of vegetables went up by 20 pfennig in a single week …”

Old-Finch’s mind is stuck on the credit crunch and whatever happens is a direct result of it. If Dorn continues shaving him it is because Finch has a daughter his age. She always drops in after work to see her father. In the afternoon Dorn combs his hair in front of a tin mug that makes his head look like an aubergine. When he hears the clicking of her heels he goes to the entrance and sticks his head out of the door. Jasmine walks by hurriedly, giving him a fleeting smile and that is all there is to it. “Ask her out,” he hears a voice saying to him.

Tete is moving his beak imperceptibly inside his cage. He’s a parrot dressed in the colours of the rainbow. Dorn brought him from New Guinea years ago, when he was a sailor. The parrot had landed on his head near the sea of Bismarck, talking in some incomprehensible dialect, constantly repeating the word “tete”, which –as he later found out- means “today” in the language of Tok Pisin.

“I can’t, Tete.”

“Stupid, stupid,” the parrot always says. “If only I was a man.”

Tete demonstrates an unexpected fluency in communication and his vocabulary is constantly expanding. On the days when the old till at the grocery shop dries of ink, Tete does the calculations himself and announces the total amount separating the euros from the cents with a shake of his beak that resembles a decimal point. When he tiredly comes to roost for the night, Dorn places him on top of his own head in remembrance of their first meeting; then the old bird becomes an extension of his head, a true periscope.

Just before closing time, Dorn lets him fly about. Tete, following a few elliptical rounds, rests on the sign that reads Bismarckstraße causing Dorn to wonder whether the bird knows how to read; whether by sitting on the name Bismarck he feels as if he’s returning to the open seas of New Guinea. Never getting any answers from him, Dorn pulls down the heavy iron door and walks up Schloßstraße.

It is an old royal avenue, where the neighbourhood’s residents meet to play botcha under trees that droop down like caps. Even though Dorn spends his days amongst round fruits, he is useless in botcha. He’s never managed to win. Yet, he continues to play, mainly because many of his fellow players buy their fruits from his grocery shop. Even when night falls and the palace at the end of the road is bathed in light, the silver balls of the game continue to roll and collide and in Dorn’s ears their echo resembles the culmination of their association.

Dorn is usually the first one to leave. He walks to the side street with the name of the old mayor and ascends to the top floor of his building block. He rarely takes his clothes off before falling asleep, as he doesn’t want to part from Jasmine’s scent, which he thinks is still lingering on his clothes. He is certain that he can smell it and there are times when he jumps up from his sleep and tries to inhale it as deeply as he can. It is the scent of orange skin with a trace of cherry in it, and its strength seems to owe something to the burning sun of subtropical climates. He continues inhaling into the night resembling an expatriate parrot that does not repeat words but phrases. Then, taking a sip of water from the glass bottle right next to him he looks at the clock. There are a few more hours of sleep ahead of him before the alarm clock starts ringing. Then, an internal clock will be activated, which will start counting in reverse the hours until he sees Jasmine again. He knows that he will almost fly to the entrance just to nod at her, but for Dorn this is enough. It is as if the toils of the day are justified. It is his compensation.

Translated from the Greek by Evangelia Avloniti

Illustration by Mariza Dunham Gaspar