Excerpt: 'Blood Brothers' by Ernst Haffner


Doenhoffplatz, Berlin, 1932

From Chapter 4:

Fred had every reason to go haring out of the Mexiko. The man he was running from was neither a stranger nor a policeman. Fred was running away from his old man. A postman from Schöneberg. Fred’s mum has been dead for ages. The old man repeatedly threatened to abandon Fred and leave him to his fate, unless he stopped robbing family and friends. Fred had run away numberless times, numberless times his father had thrown him out after compensation for Fred’s latest misdeed cost him another two weeks’ wages. But no sooner was Fred gone for a couple of days than the old man would start looking for his son. For days on end. He had pulled him out of the Mexiko once before. Another time, the police had tipped him the wink. Then, once Fred was happily back at home, he would beat the living daylights out of him. But soon enough Fred would fall back into his old ways. He sold all his father’s clothes, and one day his father had even caught him in the act of getting the piano picked up by a furniture dealer.

Today was another one of those days. He went looking for his son. Found him. Kept him in sight as Fred ran across Alexanderplatz. A succession of trams happened to cut off Fred’s road. The old man caught him up. He didn’t say anything on the street, but he kept a trembling grip on Fred’s arm. Then they piled onto a bus, transferred to a number 5 at Stettiner Bahnhof, heading for Schöneberg. The old man fried him four eggs for breakfast and set the plate down in front of him. Pulled on his postie’s jacket and locked Fred in the back bedroom. Neither of them said a dickey bird.

Fred sits in the fourth-floor bedroom. The doors to the room and the apartment are both locked. Run away, do one, back to the gang, of course that’s all he can think about. But how’s he going to get out? He doesn’t even have a piece of wire to tickle the lock with. Damn. And the old man’s chastisement tonight. Two, three hours go by. He can neither sleep nor sit nor read. He’s even let the eggs go cold. How’s he going to get out of here? He’s just thrown himself down on the bed when he hears the gang signal. A whistle. He throws the window open. Walter and Erwin are standing in the courtyard, craning upwards. Looking questioningly, gesticulating. For a few seconds Fred runs round the room in perplexity, then he scribbles a note on a piece of paper: The old man’s locked me in. Can you get hold of a bit of wire for me, for a jemmy? So I can get the door open? He secures the note to an end of thread, and lowers it out of the window. Walter and Erwin read it and scarper. Fred stands by the window, waiting. The boys return in triumph with three feet of wire, purchased at the nearest ironmonger’s. Fred pulls up the wire on the end of his thread. Tries and tries to bend it with his bare hands. He can’t do it, it’s too thick. He jams one end of the wire between the drawer and a chest. The wood suffers, but the wire bends in the desired way. The primitive jemmy is ready. The simple bedroom lock gives right away. There’s the first. Now it’s the turn of the apartment door. A security lock, no, that’s not so easy, sunshine. Fifteen minutes go by, half an hour. The lock won’t budge. Fred is crying with frustration. Then suddenly it does. A grind, a squeak, a couple of clicks, and the apartment door is open as well. Cap on, coat on. Fred stops for a minute, runs into the open living room, and soon finds what he was looking for: his gold confirmation watch. He closes the front door behind him, and races down the stairs.

“Morning, gentlemen!” he greets his mates. Fred is full of glee, imagining the old man’s face when he finds the apartment empty and notices that Fred hasn’t left empty-handed either. He shows no hint of shame or doubt as he produces the stolen watch. It’s his after all, innit? Sure, the old man bought it for him with his savings over many years, but a present is a present . . . The only question is whether he should hock it or flog it. The pawnbroker demands to see papers. That settles it then, he’ll flog it, queer Christopher is certain to be interested.

Queer Christopher, a local fence in Schöneberg, is interested. He offers thirty marks, he knows any pawnshop will offer him a hundred for the solid gold watch. He agrees to go up to forty. No more: he needs to keep his margins up. Fred pockets the forty marks; he would have taken twenty. First, he treats his mates to a slap-up dinner at Aschinger’s. Then the three of them hop into a taxi to the Alte Post, on Lothringer Strasse.

All the Blood Brothers are there. Fred, the escaped hero, is welcomed with a great fanfare. The waiter has both hands full. Fred orders mulled wine, cigarettes and chocolates all round. And now Fred has to tell them all about it. Even his friends fall silent as he tells how the old man just “gawped at me, like he was about to burst into tears . . .” In the long run, mulled wine is too expensive. Fred is in a mood to drink himself unconscious. But on the cheap. They go round Elsässer Strasse to one of the notorious Raband bars. Here you can get blotto at a competitive price. For ten pfennigs you can get a schnapps that’ll scorch your throat like pepper. Fred calls for a round of doubles. He gives the command: “Blood Brothers!” They take their glasses. “Drink!” And they knock back the stuff. Next round. And another. “Blood Brothers . . . drink!”

The drink has transformed the taciturn Heinz. He makes as much noise as the rest of them put together. “Ten in a row? No bother!” he brags. Fred makes it happen. Ten glasses are set up in front of Heinz. “Blood Brother . . . drink!” “Drink . . . drink. . . drink,” orders Fred sadistically. After the fifth, Heinz falls off his chair like an empty glove. His young face is a crumpled white sheet, the contents of his last glass dribble out of his mouth. The others go on with their senseless drinking. Just before closing time two old bloated whores join them, and Fred treats them as well, to as much schnapps as their boozy necks can take. At closing time, the ladies talk business. Jonny, Fred, the reawakened Heinz and Konrad are taken in tow by the old trouts, who are intent on taking them for the last of their money. Ludwig and the rest of them totter back to a hostel on Linienstrasse. They’ll all meet up somewhere tomorrow.

The glory of the forty marks hasn’t taken long to dim. One solitary round thaler has escaped the clutches of the ladies. In late afternoon, the gang assembles in the Münzhof. The thaler is converted into beer and cigarettes. Ludwig notices that Heinz is missing. “Heinz had to go to the emergency ward,” Jonny says matter-of-factly. Back with the ladies, Heinz fell into his old boastful habits. He wanted to make up for his failure as a drinker by putting on a show with the women. What about five times? . . . The drunken ladies cacklingly availed themselves of the virile eighteen year old, and by the time their flabby thighs relinquished him, he was bleeding. A couple of hours later, Heinz was unable to walk. They had to take him in their midst and take him to emergency. Five hours later, he was apparently still there.

Fred, in such good earning form, has a new idea that must be good for at least three hundred marks. Only he needs three or four helpers. From his time as a male prostitute he has one faithful old admirer left. A very well-off butter merchant, who is surely good for a couple of hundred marks, especially if there are four of them. Fred picks Jonny, Konrad, Hans and Erwin to help him. Then he goes to find a telephone. Comes back and tells them he’s meeting Fritz in the Tiergarten at eight. The helpers’ task is to catch them together in a compromising situation. The four seeming strangers are to act outraged and threaten to call the police. The terrified Fred will beg his merchant to secure their silence with a little bribe. And that is where the three hundred marks comes in. “A doddle. He won’t kick up, he’s got a wife and kids.” So Fred concludes his presentation.

Very slowly, setting one foot down in front of the other, Heinz walks into the bar. His eyes are full of pain and the fear of mockery from his friends. Fred is about to oblige: “Well, how’s it hanging, you old eunuch!” But curtly and decisively Jonny puts a stop to it. Heinz tells them that the doctor wanted to keep him in hospital. Only when Heinz objected that he would be very well looked after at home did he finally let him go. Fred wants to leave now, and he decides to add Georg and Walter to the bunch, just to be on the safe side. Ludwig and Heinz agree to meet them at Schmidt’s at eleven.

Heinz can hardly remain upright with pain and exhaustion, and gratefully accepts Ludwig’s suggestion that they go back to the hostel. They pool their money. There’s just enough for a bed for Heinz.

Excerpted from Blood Brothers, by Ernst Haffner, translated by Michael Hoffman. Published by Other Press, 2015. Copyright © WALDE+GRAF bei METROLIT, Translation Copyright (c) 2015 by Michael Hofmann. Reprinted with permission of Other Press.