Sprecherstrasse 8, Zurich, Switzerland
Benedict Wells was born in 1984 in Munich. At the age of six, he started his journey through three Bavarian boarding schools. Upon graduating school in 2003, he moved to Berlin. There he decided against an academic education and instead started to dedicate his time to writing. In order to pay for his living expenses, he worked in several side jobs. In 2008, he published his critically acclaimed debut novel Becks letzter Sommer which gained him the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis, a Bavarian arts and literature prize. The novel was adapted into a feature film and released to cinemas in 2015. His third novel Fast genial became very popular with readers and ended up spending several months in the German book charts. After years of living in Barcelona, Wells has recently returned to Berlin.
English translation copyright © Katy Derbyshire
The home my siblings and I were sent to after our parents’ death was not one of the elite boarding schools we might have imagined to begin with, complete with tennis courts, hockey pitches and pottery studios. It was a cheap state-run institution in the countryside, consisting of two grey buildings and a canteen, all on the grounds of the local grammar school. We went to school with the country kids in the mornings and we spent the afternoons and evenings in our rooms, by the lake or on the football pitch. You got used to the barracked life, but even after years it could still be depressing when the day pupils went home to their families after class while you had to stay behind in the home like a prisoner, feeling like you had some kind of defect. You shared a spartan room with strangers who sometimes became friends. You had to change rooms at the end of each year. It was difficult to restrict your whole life to so little time and space; we had plenty of arguments but there were also conversations that went on for nights on end. Very occasionally, we’d talk about really important things, things we’d never have repeated by daylight, but mostly all we talked about was teachers and girls.
‘Did she look over at me at dinner?’ or, ‘What, you don’t know her? Jesus, Moreau, she’s the best-looking girl in the whole bloody school.’
A lot of the boarders had had issues at home or failed at another school; some had taken drugs. Now and then, particularly criminal cases washed up at the boarding school like flotsam and jetsam. As a state institution, it was obliged to take in almost anyone. The local kids looked on in bewilderment as the crazies invaded their idyllic village. ‘Are you from the home?’ they’d ask, the word ‘home’ meaning more lunatic asylum than boarding school. At mealtimes we wolfed down all that we could; it was never enough. There was a hunger inside us that could never quite be satisfied. There were rumours in plenty, though; a constant white noise of gossip, registering precisely who spoke to whom, what friendships came about and who was popular with the girls. Not every change was approved of. There were new clothes shown off proudly by their owners and then banished to the back of wardrobes if they hadn’t gone down well. Some boarders tried to cultivate a new image over the summer holidays, returning from home with fresh confidence, but most of them went back to their old selves in a matter of days. You were only ever the person other people thought you were.
While I had felt secure in my innermost self over the previous years, now there were moments when I noticed matte evening light falling into a dingy corridor or the trees spreading a ghostly shadow over the land in the dusk, and then something suddenly cinched together inside me. The thought that I was on a planet shooting through space at incredible speed was as shocking to me as the new, disturbing realisation that dying was inevitable. My fears grew like a spreading fissure. I began to be afraid of the dark, afraid of death, afraid of eternity. These thoughts drove a thorn into my world and the more often I dwelt on it all, the more I grew apart from my often untroubled, cheerful classmates. I was alone. And then I met Alva.
In the first few days at the new school, I made a joke in class. At my old school that had been expected of me, but even as I steered towards the punchline it became clear that it wouldn’t work here. I looked at the unfamiliar faces of my classmates and realised that my confidence had evaporated, and at the end of the joke no one laughed. That sealed my role. I was the odd new boy who didn’t care what clothes he put on in the morning and who got his words twisted when he was nervous: ‘farecree’ would come out instead of ‘carefree’, for example. So I barely said a word so as not to end up the laughing stock of the class, and sat isolated in the back row. Until a girl sat down next to me, six weeks later.
Alva had copper-coloured hair and horn-rimmed glasses. At first glance a shy, graceful country child who copied down the notes on the board using different coloured pencils. And yet there was something else about her. There were days when Alva seemed deliberately to avoid the other children. Then she’d stare darkly out of the window, entirely absent. I didn’t know why she wanted to sit next to me; we didn’t speak a word to each other. Her friends giggled when they looked back at us, and two weeks later I was on my own in the corner again. As surprisingly as she’d arrived, Alva had moved to another seat.
From then on I often looked over at her in class. When the teacher called her up to the front I watched her standing uneasily by the board, her hands behind her back. I listened to her gentle voice and stared at her red hair, her glasses, her white skin and her pretty, pale face. What I liked most of all, though, was her front teeth, one of which was slightly askew. Alva tried not to open her mouth too wide when she spoke so that no one would see it, and she held a hand in front of it when she laughed. But sometimes she’d smile; then she didn’t pay attention and you could see her wonky incisor, and I loved that. My entire life consisted of casting glances at her across the classroom, and when she finally looked back I would look away, shamefaced and happy.
A few months later, though, there was an incident. It was a muggy summer day and the teacher in our last class let us watch a video, an adaptation of a book by Erich Kästner. Alva started crying in the middle of the film. She sat huddled on her seat, her shoulders quaking, and eventually emitted a sob. The other kids noticed her then as well. The teacher hastily stopped the video – on a scene in a holiday camp – and rushed over to her. As the two of them left the classroom, I caught a glance of Alva’s reddened face. I think we were all shocked but hardly anyone said anything. Only one person commented, saying Alva’s father never came to parents’ evenings and was a strange man; maybe that had something to do with it. I often thought of that comment but I never mentioned it to Alva. Whatever it was, her suffering must have played out under cover and she kept it a secret from then on.
A few days later, I was walking from the school building to the home.
‘Jules, wait!’ Alva tugged at my shirt until I turned around. She walked with me to the entrance to the boarding section.
‘What are you doing now?’ she asked as we stood uncertainly outside the door. She always spoke very quietly, meaning you had to lean down towards her. Even though she was a day pupil and lived with her parents, she seemed not to want to go home.
I looked at the clouded sky. ‘Don’t know… Probably listen to music.’
She didn’t look at me but she blushed.
‘Do you want to come with me?’ I asked, and she nodded.
To my relief, my roommates weren’t in. I had inherited my mother’s record player and music collection, about 100 albums: Marvin Gaye, Eartha Kitt, Fleetwood Mac and John Coltrane.
I put on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, one of my mother’s favourite records. I’d hardly been interested in music before but now I had a moment of happiness every time the needle touched the vinyl with that crackle.
Alva listened with intense concentration, her expression barely changing. ‘I like it a lot,’ she said. Strangely, she hadn’t sat down on a chair but on my desk. She took a book out of her backpack and began reading it wordlessly, as though she were at home in my room. I was pleased she felt so comfortable around me. The afternoon sun broke through the clouds and bathed the room in cognac-coloured light.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked after a while. ‘Is it good?’
‘M-hm.’ Alva nodded and showed me the cover: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. She was 11, like me. I went on watching her immersed in her reading. Her eyes raced along the lines, left to right and then back again, incessantly.
Eventually she closed the book and inspected my belongings. A strange being that had found its way accidentally to my room and studied the Spider Man comics and cameras on my shelf with interest. She picked up first the Mamiya and then the newer models my father had often used in the last years of his life. She touched all the objects deliberately, as though wanting to make certain they were real.
‘I’ve never seen you taking photos.’
I shrugged. Alva reached for a family photo showing my mother and father.
‘Your parents are dead.’
That sentence surprised me; I think I even turned off the music instantaneously. I hadn’t told anyone anything about it since I’d been at the home. ‘Why do you think that?’ I asked.
‘I asked a teacher.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Yes, they died six months ago.’ It was as though I had to ram a spade into frozen ground for every word.
Alva nodded and looked me in the eye for a long time, an unusually long time, and I’ll never forget the way we were able to cast a glance at each other’s inner worlds. For a brief moment I saw the pain hidden behind her words and gestures and she got an idea in return of what I kept deep inside me. But we didn’t go any further. Each of us stayed on the other’s threshold and we asked no questions of one another.