The Ends of the Earth

By Roger Willemsen

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With the impression of fleeting kisses still on our cheeks, we stepped out into the night of New Year’s Eve; we’d raised our glasses to the heavens for the umpteenth time and refilled them, formulated a few resolutions, and the lovers who’d just split up a couple of weeks ago vowed that they would always remain good friends. Next to them, the eternally-cheerful-one, popular with everyone, got upset because her boyfriend had kissed the wrong girl on the stroke of midnight, upon which he rushed into the bushes to throw up. And so yet another New Year’s Eve had faded away in a minor key. A few hours later everybody had found a bed, a mat in some corner, or drifted off into the first sleep of the year in a landscape of sofas.

The next morning I groped my way outdoors in my pyjamas – it had snowed during the night – to find my friend with a pickaxe, hacking at the frozen vomit, which was flying off in all directions in colourful shards. The others joined us, some already clutching coffee mugs, and inspected his work, the first of the year.

Soon after the whole group can be found traipsing through the landscape of the Voreifel, down some snowy country path towards wide-open fields and distant woods. We were walking in several little groups and not saying much. Some amble along aimlessly, while others plod purposefully like they did when they were children, fired up by the languid euphoria induced by the craving for fresh air. We strayed from the path. The crusted snow is lying so deep on the field that it’s like walking on a meringue. The landscape is tautly stretched and uniform: on our right hills covered with scrub, and on the left hills with mixed woodland against the backdrop of an open horizon. We walk on.

A random point is reached. We all stop, and nobody takes another step. The wind skims over the featureless plain we’re standing on, huddled together like we’ve been swept into a pile. One of us says:
‘There’s nothing here. Let’s turn back.’

And none of us dares take another step further across the imaginary line. As though catching the echo of the border, eve- rybody raises their head, listening and slumping into motion: Everyone nods. Everyone turns on their heels. And trudges homewards.

‘See how worn my skin is already,’ says the girl with the pageboy cut to her boyfriend, waggling her chin between two fingers.

The wind carries her words across the untouched field. Nobody looks back, and I’m left standing there with a woman friend, looking at the virginal snow, which is not going to be trodden on after all. What was it about this landscape that said: No further, go away, turn around, clear off?

‘There it is, then, the landscape that says no. There’s nothing for us here,’ I remark, drawn by this human-repelling, lacklus- tre zone untouched by any emotions.

‘It’s almost like we’ve gone round to the back of the land- scape,’ says the friend. ‘Why do we even imagine we’ll discover something pristine here, of all places?’

‘Maybe because people think of themselves as somehow pris- tine? Because inside they, too, don’t have anything on show, either?’

‘That at least would explain the terror such landscapes conjure up, the terror of the sublime. People see in these land- scapes what they don’t want to see in themselves: the deserted,
uninhabited and uninhabitable?’

Then we pondered whether landscapes could be seen as any- thing but symbolic, given that every range of hills, every spar- kling lake, every mood of the light over a valley reflected an inner situation, be it sweet or sick or raw. Every landscape is experienced like music, as a manifestation of the soul.

‘And that’s where the traveller gets his favourite cliché from, the one which says that the real reason for travelling is to journey into yourself?’ I concluded.

‘But what if you reach an inner landscape like this? One that denies you?’ asked the friend.

‘Then that’s no landscape to procreate in.’

‘Precisely!’ she said. ‘Let’s go. I’m famished!’

Back then I thought that if you travelled far enough, to be sure that at some point you’d touched the end of the world, then maybe you’d also attain a new, totally different state of arriving. A state where you couldn’t help but believe that all journeys must have an end even though they’re actually inconclusive. These places would radiate a power just like those in fairytales, where the giant likewise gains his strength from touching the earth.

Might it be the case that it’s not the travellers who move, but rather it’s the world beneath their feet picking up speed whilst they remain static? In truth, all one ever does is reach another destination which is hurrying one along, only to set off again, perhaps ultimately to reach that inconstant place I only call ‘home’ because it accumulates more rituals than others; the home of repetition. I can’t even claim that I know home better than any other place – on the contrary, tourists abroad duti- fully visit all the notable landmarks while completely neglect- ing those at home. It’s perfectly possible for me to feel more at home with the music in an airport lounge in Timbuktu, with a photo in an ad, or a television image that I might see any- where in the world showing the Berlin bear dancing in a tutu, than I do in a German railway station. At least I probably know the plausibility of the music or the image better than the local Tuareg do, who are being forced to inhabit the media history of the West.

A freezing cold New Year’s Day in the Voreifel had given way to a clear and frosty night by the time I left for my first engagement of the year. Brigitta hadn’t been free to celebrate New Year’s Eve with us. She was a nurse and had agreed to do the holiday shift on the children’s ward because of the special atmosphere, and, as she put it, because she liked to be there when the children looked forward to their new year.

When I entered the nurses’ room, she was still wearing her white coat, cap and name tag on her lapel. When I was a student in my first semester I’d called Brigitta my ‘romance’. Her kind- heartedness was intimidating, and so were her round eyes in her freckled face with its slightly pouty lips. Only when she took off her coat and cap to reveal the brown woollen pullover over her ample breasts did she suddenly seem to have a body.

And then, when I held her in my arms a moment too long or our greeting kiss became too intense, she began to breath more heavily, and again I was no match for her. The body as an object of medicine and as an object of desire were on a par for her. For me, the two did not even coexist in the same space. Sometimes Brigitta gave me drawings of big plump girls, holding sunflow- ers, with their hair done up in a bun. In their innocence and their corporeality, I saw these drawings as the epitome of a beautiful world that was inaccessible to me.

That evening she was alone when I entered the nurses’ room. She glanced up briefly from sticking labels on small plastic boxes, even let me kiss her on the cheek, but was remote, her sensuality suspended. But then we hugged each other for a brief moment and, downcast by the present, vaguely wished one another something good for the future. She said ‘our future’.

We were going to have a quiet evening. I sat down at the square Formica table, where she was now busy filling a syringe, and put my hand on hers. All of a sudden, she burst into tears.

It turned out it was about a boy called Tom, an eight-year-old kid, with the same brooding disposition she had. She’d taken him on as her special charge since they’d transferred him to the ward shortly before with a brain tumour. At first, and in rather vague terms, it had been explained to him that he was ill, very ill in fact. This had left him confused, as he wasn’t feeling any pain or impaired in any way. But in no time he came to see his illness as some inward sign of nobility, and started moping about the corridors demanding his immediate release.

On the day of my visit Brigitta had been landed with the task of telling the boy the truth about his illness. She’d closed the door, sat down on the edge of his bed and uttered the word ‘cancer’. When Tom kept staring at her, unmoved, she added ‘incurable’, and when he still kept looking at her like he was searching for a roadmap in her face, she realised her emotions were as useless to him as all her words, and she divulged the final bit of information the doctors had told her: he had three months more to live – no one was prepared to give him any longer than that.

Tom had walked over to the window and named the makes of two cars that had recently appeared in the car park, and Brigitta left the room. When she reached this point in her story and was wiping the tears from her eyes with her knuckles, the door suddenly opened and in walked the boy in his pyjamas. In stubborn and reproachful tones, he announced: ‘I’m bored!’

No sentence could have been more poignant at that juncture, and I immediately felt responsible for the boy. I recalled the virgin snowfield we’d turned back from that very midday, and took Tom by the shoulders, led him back to his room and lay next to him on his bed. In a spirit of solidarity, we stared at the ceiling. How much reality there was going spare – landscapes, swimming pools, clothes, funfair rides, theatre – how much stuff there was for him still to do, and yet it would remain there, unused, for the rest of his life, without him ever being able to experience it. We lay on his deathbed, and I was in a quandary: was it better to leave him in the narrow confines of his reality, or should I try to push open windows and show him the big, wide world out there? Should I tell him he wouldn’t be missing much, or should I try and make up for what he’d never have?

His life – you could hardly call it a life’s journey – was drawing to a close and I asked myself: Where would he have travelled to? Where would he have fetched up? What would have driven him? What unique experiences might he have had? Where might he have encountered that thing people call ‘self- discovery’? Maybe in a room full of hot and humid air with a backdrop of honking car horns, the cold blast of the air-con- ditioner and slightly tipsy on rum? What pictures would have accumulated in his memory: long, colourful fingernails, the tilt of a head nestling on an arm? Perhaps he would have left behind all the waiting and the silence and ventured out to find some freedom of movement, some received sense of self-loss and a different experience of time.

And so we lay there on the hospital bed, side by side, and stared at the chalky-white ceiling, the monotonous and prob- ably final image that would impinge on his consciousness.

‘Come on, let’s go on a journey,’ I said. ‘Where to?’
‘Wherever you want.’
‘As real as we can make it.’

This qualification was necessary, because I suddenly found myself in the same position as all those stay-at-homes who are beset by phobias, idiosyncrasies, obsessions and neuroses, and asked myself their fundamental question: How can one travel somewhere while actually remaining at home the whole time? So I told Tom about a Dane named Søren Kierkegaard, who together with his father re-enacted Sunday strolls in their living room, though they could easily have taken these walks through town for real. They greeted fellow citizens left and right, dreamt up little conversations and admired a newly erected building.

I told Tom about Xavier de Maistre, a French general who in 1790 had been placed under house arrest after fighting a duel and so hadn’t been able to escape in a Montgolfière like he’d done once before.

‘What’s a Montgolfière?’
‘If he’d been free, he’d have climbed into a balloon and floated up and away. Instead, he journeyed through his room and wrote about all the adventures he had on the way, about how he’d crossed the carpet and ascended the sofa. And after him more and more people started travelling through their rooms, their handbags, their houses or their tents.’

‘That’s good,’ said Tom. ‘I want to travel as well.’
‘And that would be to where, exactly?’
‘To the end of the world!’
‘The end of the world’s an invention,’ I replied. ‘The world
has no end.’
‘I don’t want that.’
‘You can always decide for yourself where your world ends,
where it actually seems to you to end.’

So I painted pictures of landscapes for him that had no showy façade, landscapes where nothing begins and which turn their backs on the onlooker just like the reverse side of an embroi- dery, where all the threads hang out. I conjured up situations for him where you can actually penetrate deeper into landscapes like this, and venture deeper into foreign parts without them becoming more foreign, just further away. I actually meant landscapes like the ceiling, Tom’s end of the world. But I didn’t say as much. Instead I told him about the tracks in the snow, and the place where all steps stop and you see the untouched, untrodden earth, rejected by … But by then he’d fallen asleep.

When Brigitta came by to look in on us, I put my finger to my lips. In the same way that Tom seemed unmoved by his dying, so I was rendered helpless by the unconscious presence of death in this obstinate, reserved boy. Thinking about the world he’d never see for himself, I now imagined places where death had intervened; empty, deserted tracts of land, places of dying, of departure; all places where the earth is not round, but finite. There are regions you go to where you are certain that some- thing has come to a full stop, and that this end does not harbour a new beginning. Not you, not here, not now, these landscapes seem to say, and: You’re the one who’s out of place here. You daren’t look me in the eye.

At some point I returned to the nurses’ room to take Brigitta out into the first night of the year. She was still wearing her nurse’s coat and was staring intently at a game of patience she hadn’t yet started.

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