The Drinker

Hans Fallada (trans. Charlotte Lloyd, A.L. Lloyd)


Of course I have not always been a drunkard. Indeed it is not very long since I first took to drink. Formerly I was repelled by alcohol; I might take a glass of beer, but wine tasted sour to me, and the smell of schnaps made me ill. But then the time came when things began to go wrong with me. My business affairs did not proceed as they should, and in my dealings with people I met with all kinds of setbacks. I always have been a sensitive man, needing the sympathy and encouragement of those around me, though of course I did not show this and liked to appear rather sure and self- possessed. Worst of all, the feeling gradually grew on me that even my wife was turning away from me. At first the signs were almost unnoticeable, little things that anyone else would have overlooked. For instance, at a birthday party in our house, she forgot to offer me cake. I never eat cake, but hitherto, despite that, she had always offered it me. And once, for three days there was a cobweb in my room, above the stove. I went through all the rooms in the house, but there was not a cobweb in any of them, only in mine. I meant to wait and see how long she intended to annoy me with this, but on the fourth day I could hold out no longer, and I was obliged to tell her of it. Then the cobweb was removed. Naturally I spoke to her very firmly. At all costs I wanted to avoid showing how much I suffered through these insults and my growing isolation.

But it did not end there. Soon came the affair of the door-mat. I had had trouble at the bank that day; for the first time they had refused to cash a cheque for me. I suppose word had got round that I had had certain losses. The bank manager, a Herr Alf, pretended to be very amiable, and even offered to ring up the head office about an overdraft. Of course I refused. I had been smiling and self-confident as usual, but I noticed that this time he had not offered me a cigar as he generally did. Doubtless this customer was no longer worth it. I went home very depressed, through a heavy fall of autumn rain. I was not in any real difficulties yet; my affairs were merely going through a period of stagnation which could certainly have been overcome, at this stage, by the exercise of a little initiative. But I just couldn’t summon up that initiative. I was too depressed by all the mute dislike of myself which I encountered at every twist and turn.

When I got home (we live a little way out of town, in our own house, and the road is not properly made up yet) I wanted to clean my muddy shoes outside the door, but today the mat, of course, was missing. Angrily I unlocked the door and called into the house for my wife. It was getting dark, but I could see no light anywhere, and Magda did not come either. I called again and again but nothing happened. I found myself in a most critical situation: I stood in the rain outside the door of my own house, and could not go indoors without making the porch and hall quite unnecessarily muddy, all because my wife had forgotten to put the mat out, and moreover had failed to be present at a time when she knew full well I should be coming home from work. Finally I had to master my feelings: I tiptoed carefully into the house. As I sat on a chair in the hall to take my shoes off, having switched on the light, I found that all my precautions had been in vain: there were most ugly marks on the pale green hall-carpet. I had always told Magda that such a delicate green was not suitable for the hall, but she was of the opinion that both of us were old enough to be a bit careful, and in any case, our maid Else used the back-door and generally went about the house in slippers. Angrily I took off my shoes, and just as I was pulling the second one off, I saw Magda, coming through the door at the head of the cellar steps. The shoe slipped from me and fell noisily on to the carpet, making a disgusting mark.

‘Do be more careful, Erwin,’ cried Magda angrily. ‘What a sight this carpet is again! Can’t you get used to wiping your feet properly?’

The obvious injustice of this reproach took my breath away, but I restrained myself.

‘Where in the world have you been?’ I asked, glaring at her. ‘I called you at least ten times!’

‘I was seeing to the central heating in the cellar,’ said Magda coolly, ‘but what’s that got to do with my carpet?’

‘It’s just as much my carpet as yours,’ I answered heatedly. ‘I didn’t dirty it for fun. But when there’s no mat outside the door...’

‘No mat outside the door? Of course there’s a mat outside the door!’

‘There isn’t,’ I shouted. ‘Kindly go and see for yourself!’

But of course she would not dream of looking outside the door.

‘Even if Else has forgotten to put it out, you could very well have taken off your shoes in the porch. In any case, there was no need to throw that shoe down on the carpet with such a thump.’

I looked at her, speechless with rage.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve nothing to say. When you’re told off, you’ve nothing to say. But you’re always telling me off...’

I did not see any proper sense in her words, but I said: ‘When have I told you off ?’

‘Just now,’ she answered quickly, ‘first because I didn’t come when you called, and I had to see to the heating because this is Else’s afternoon off. And then because the mat wasn’t outside the door. With all the work I have to do, I can’t possibly look after every little detail of Else’s work as well!’

I controlled myself. In my heart I found Magda wrong on every point. But aloud I said: ‘Don’t let’s quarrel, Magda. Please believe me, I didn’t make the marks on purpose.’

‘And you believe me,’ she said, still rather sharply, ‘I didn’t intend that you should have to shout all over the house after me.’

I kept silent. By dinner-time, we both had ourselves quite well in hand again, and even managed a fairly sensible conversation, and suddenly I had the idea of fetching a bottle of red wine which someone had given me, and which had been in the cellar for years. I really do not know why this idea occurred to me. Perhaps the sense of our reconciliation had put me in mind of something festive, of a wedding or a baptism. Magda was quite surprised, too, but she smiled approvingly. I drank only a glass and a half, though this evening the wine did not taste sour to me. I got into quite a cheerful mood and managed to tell Magda a few things about those business affairs of mine, which were causing me so much trouble. Naturally I did not refer to them as troubles, on the contrary I presented my misfortunes as successes. Magda listened to me with more interest than she had shown for a long time past. I had the feeling that the estrangement between us had completely disappeared, and in my joy I gave Magda a hundred marks to buy herself something nice; a dress or a ring or whatever she had set her heart on.

The Drinker Hans Fallada (tr. Charlotte Lloyd, tr. A.L. Lloyd)