If only it hadn’t been for that smell! As if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, filling the air with the sweet-sour aroma of decay. Schepp noticed it at once, that subtle sense of something Other in the midst of ordinary life, slightly skewing the morning. From the far end of his room autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. They’d have to open a window to let all that light out later. Schepp stood there, blinking at his world gently flowing around him, a world of stucco moulding and decorative wallpaper, book-lined walls, chairs with silk covers. Checking the way his hair lay over his bald patch, stroking the back of his head, he told himself that he was a happy man.
Not least because of Doro, whose own hair, pinned up, mingled black and silver, he could see above the back of the desk chair. At one side he glimpsed the kimono she liked to wear when she sat in that chair, editing what he had written the day before. Since the children had left home, she had wanted to resume her career. That had pleased him. Not only did he go to bed late, he also got up late, so if Doro had fallen asleep over her editing, wedged at an awkward angle between the desk and the chair as she was today, he would just shake his head, because he couldn’t have put into words all that he felt.
Oddly enough, as regularly as he had found her here before, he had written almost nothing since his operation, so was there anything to be edited? I’m still dreaming, he told himself as he moved quietly across the fishbone-patterned parquet towards the sun and the desk and the big vase standing on the floor with the decaying gladioli in it, and Doro.
Before he planted a kiss on her neck, stealing up quietly like a man newly in love, a few of the little wooden segments of the parquet creaking slightly, a fly buzzing somewhere (but even that sounded familiar and homely), before he bent over Doro, to the little mole at the base of her throat that he knew so well – any minute now she would wake with a start and look askance at him, half indignant, half affectionate – he suddenly registered a stack of paper on the desk, her reading glasses, a packet of aspirins, a water glass that had been knocked over and a dark mark on the leather inlay of the desktop, with her fountain pen beside it. Once again she had forgotten to put the cap back on it. He was about to pick it up when he remembered, and no, he wasn’t dreaming any more, remembered yesterday evening and the new waitress who had given him such a long, intent smile as he was leaving the bar. Schepp was standing directly behind the chair where Doro sat so still, only the wing of the chair-back kept her from tipping over, and he smiled at this thought for a few seconds. Well, Hinrich, he said to himself, grinning at the place where he thought he detected a last reflection of the night before, you may be sixty-five but the ladies still have time for you. Then he bent over Doro. Once again the smell hit him, an entirely strange smell now, a sweetish aroma mingled with the odour of sweat and urine and – he shrank back, his mouth gaping.
How he made his way around the desk he didn’t know. He clung to it with both hands, hardly daring to look up. Doro? She sat there before him, her features relaxed, entirely at peace, her skin grey. The left-hand corner of her mouth drooped, a thread of saliva hanging from it. It had dried where it ended on her chin. Her lips were slightly open, her tongue lolled awkwardly in her mouth, looking swollen. But worst of all were her eyes, almost but not entirely closed, so that you could see the whites and a bit of the irises, as if she had pulled her lower lids down at the last moment.
I don’t understand, thought Schepp, understanding.
It’s not true, Schepp decided.
Everything will be all right again, Schepp assured himself, and at the same time he was overcome by the certainty that he was choking.
‘At least say something,’ he whispered finally. ‘Just one word.’
He wanted so much to take Doro in his arms, to hug her until she was gasping for breath and stopped playing this game. But there was nothing he could do, he saw that, he felt it, he knew it. He couldn’t even pluck up the courage to whimper; he remained immobilized, breathing as shallowly as possible.
At least it hadn’t been rotting flower stems that he had smelt when he had come into the room, he knew that now. Leaning on the desk, Schepp looked into what could still be seen of Doro’s eyes. He dared not close them. How long, he wondered, had she been sitting here dead, waiting for him? He attempted to take her pulse; he had to try several times; he feared the chill of her wrist so much that he flinched as soon as he touched it; he was sure, in any case, that there was nothing to be felt. Should he call a doctor? Oughtn’t he call a doctor?
He stared across the parquet and into the great void; he saw himself immobilized at his mother’s deathbed because he could not bring himself to touch her in farewell, he saw himself finally, wordlessly, placing his hand on her forehead – and that immediately brought him back to the hard, oaken presence of the desk on which one of his manuscripts appeared to be lying. Obviously Doro had been editing it and, in her usual way, annotating the pages, summarizing her impressions; the top sheet was three-quarters covered with her firm handwriting. Or rather, only the first lines were written in that familiar script, then the characters visibly slipped sideways. Schepp bent closer to the page; the letters appeared very untidy, Doro would never have set them down like that, not in full possession of her senses. Soon whole words were sliding away from her; here and there the paper had absorbed water from the glass she had knocked over, and the ink had run. Schepp almost reached towards the manuscript to put it somewhere dry. Only then to embrace Doro, warm her, perhaps put her to bed and sit beside her until she awoke. But the sight of her kept him at a distance, the sight of her face frozen into a mask, alarmingly peaceful, already alarmingly unfamiliar, smooth, almost unwrinkled, surprisingly like the face of her sister, who was still under fifty, how strange. To think, reflected Schepp, trying to hide in the shelter of his hands, to think that you grow younger in death. Then his throat tightened as a great wave of misery washed over him. When he could move again, the clock on the Church of the Good Shepherd was striking eleven. He hesitantly touched Doro’s right hand and once more shrank from the cold skin and its waxen feel, like a layer of varnish. Finally he took her left arm, which had slipped off the desk, holding it by the sleeve of her kimono and carefully replacing it where he thought it belonged, beside the manuscript. Her hand was swollen and purplish-red, her forearm a shade of violet. Schepp stared at the pale pressure marks that, despite his caution, he had left on Doro’s arm. The longer he looked, the more blood seemed to flow back into it. The silence of the room closed gently around her again. Overwhelmed, Schepp breathed in the smell of death.
Finally he looked back at the stack of paper that Doro had left for him. Yes – it hit him like a sudden revelation – that was the first, the most important thing to do. He had to read those pages, find out what her last message was. How relieved he felt all at once! As if some kind of hope could be derived from that act. The idea that another action might be more appropriate, considering that he had spent half his life with the deceased, did not cross his mind.