Enso Faringer was nervous. That was beyond question. The moment they sat down at their usual table at Freddy's, he had started squirming around and scratching at the ugly rash on his neck he always had in the winter. He also gulped down his beer, and managed to smoke two cigarettes before the food was served.
The conversation was floating around in circles, and Maasleitner could see that his colleague didn't quite know what leg to stand on. Or rather, what chair to sit on. He had tried to get Faringer to eat out with him on Tuesday evening, but had been given what was obviously an excuse-an old friend was visiting, something like that.
So he was supposed to believe that Enso Faringer had friends? Maasleitner had a good mind to inquire further about the alleged visit while he had him trapped on the line; but he had swallowed the lie with a wry smile. No point in stirring things up. He played with the idea of putting his colleague on the spot now as well, but let it pass. He didn't want to be awkward. Faringer was a contact, after all. Somebody who had insight into what was going to happen at the Elementar school, even if he was hardly capable of drawing conclusions of his own. Or influencing them in any way.
Come to that, Faringer was his only contact. There was nobody else he could rely on. In a situation like the one he was in, Maasleitner would have to make do with whatever was available.
They had kebabs, as usual, and Faringer gossiped tentatively about a few pupils and teachers he knew Maasleitner didn't like. A bit about his aquarium as well, and his father, who had been in a mental hospital for several years, but never wanted to die despite the fact that he was more than ninety-five years old. Enso was in the habit of visiting him about four times a week.
That was also a sign of his nervousness, of course. The fact that he was gossiping. Faringer's mouth seemed to be ticking over in neutral, as if he were talking to his fish, or to a classroom of pupils when he didn't need to think too hard about what he was saying. Maasleitner was tired of his company after only ten minutes.
“Whose side are you on?” he asked when Faringer had been served and taken a swig of his third beer.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No… well, yes, maybe. No, you'd better explain. I'm not quite with you.”
“I'm going to get the sack three weeks from now. Or two and a half, to be precise. What do you say to that?”
“You can't be serious? That can't be allowed to happen. I must have a word with…”
He fell silent.
“Have a word with whom?”
“I don't know. But you're surely not going to leave? It'll sort itself out somehow or other.”
“Don't talk rubbish. Don't try and tell me you don't know the score. It's as clear as day for Christ's sake.”
“I'm going to get the boot because I gave those fucking thugs what they deserved, haven't you grasped that? What the hell do you mean by sitting here mumbling on and pretending you don't know what's going on?”
His anger had spilled over much sooner than he'd expected, and he could see that Faringer was scared. He tried to smooth things over a bit.
“There must have been some sort of reaction among the staff. Are they just going to stand by and let things take their course, or… or am I going to get some sort of support? What are they saying? That's all I want to know.”
Faringer looked relieved.
“So if you could keep your ear to the ground… listen to what's going on. I mean, you're good at interpreting moods. You have more insight than a few of the others, there's no need to hide your light under a bushel…”
It was a very clumsily expressed compliment, but he could see that it was effective. Enso Faringer leaned back in his chair and lit another cigarette. Narrowed his eyes and tried to look like he was thinking hard.
Maybe he really is, Maasleitner thought.
“You'd like me to make a few soundings, is that it?”
“Maybe start a little… campaign?”
“Well, why not?”
It was obvious that the beer was starting to affect his colleague's confused mind now, and it dawned on Maasleitner what a waste of time it all was. Needing to turn for help to the likes of Enso Faringer! Sitting here and asking for favors from this universally despised and ignored laughingstock. Herr Fr"aulein, the pupils called him.
Besides, he wasn't at all sure what he hoped to get out of it. Just a chance to let off steam, presumably. Give vent to his irritation and his feeling of being trampled underfoot. A stubborn old fool with a bee in his bonnet, was that what he would end up becoming? Slowly but surely he could feel exhaustion and pointlessness grasping him by the throat, and when he saw the little German teacher frown and take a ballpoint pen from his inside pocket, he had the feeling that everything was being enacted in the theater of the absurd.
Was Faringer going to work out tactics on his paper napkin? Sketch out a manifesto, perhaps? An appeal?
Bloody hell, Maasleitner thought. Who are all these people I'm surrounded by?
Or are they all like this, if you scrape a bit at the surface?
It was not a new question. Barely even a question, come to that.
More of a statement.
More beer, he thought. Might as well blur a few edges. Inertia, come and embrace me!
When they staggered out of the little basement restaurant some considerable time later, the mood was significantly more relaxed. Maasleitner even found it necessary to place his arm over his colleague's shoulders in order to assist his attempts to negotiate the steps leading up to street level. Faringer missed one step altogether, grabbed hold of the iron rail, and roared with laughter; and when they shortly afterward managed to flag down a taxi, it transpired that he had left his wallet on the table. Maasleitner went back to retrieve it while Faringer lay slumped in the backseat, singing a rude song for the scarcely amused but decidedly unimpressed driver.
As Maasleitner watched the cab's rear lights vanish around the corner by the printing works, he wondered how on earth Enso Faringer would be able to summon up the strength to face his classes the next day.
As far as he was concerned, that was no longer a consideration that he needed to take into account, and thanks to the alcohol flowing sweetly through his veins he suddenly had the feeling that despite everything, all was well with the world. A nice, comfortable lie-in was in store for him the next morning, and then perhaps a little excursion. To Weimarn? Why not? Provided the weather turned out to be reasonable, of course.
It wasn't too bad at the moment. The rain had died away. A warm, gentle breeze caressed its way through the town, and as he slowly began to wander through the familiar, narrow alleys that would lead him home to Weijskerstraat, he had the strong impression that there was not really much point in worrying about the future.
As if to confirm this feeling, at about the same time a lone figure emerged from the dark shadows enveloping the Keymer Church a little farther down the same street.
It followed him about thirty paces behind; discreetly and silently, as Maasleitner walked over the rounded cobbles, across Wilhemsgraacht, into Weijskerstraat, and right up to the front door. Maasleitner was somewhat surprised to find that it was standing ajar, and that there appeared to be something wrong with the lock. Despite his euphoric state, he paused for a few moments to mutter away about the circumstances-while his pursuer waited patiently in another doorway diagonally across the narrow street. Then Maasleitner shrugged, stepped inside, and took the elevator up to the fourth floor.
He hadn't been home for long, hadn't even had time to get undressed, when there was a ring at the door. The clock over the stove in the kitchen said a few minutes past midnight, and as he went to open up he wondered who on earth it could be, visiting him at this time of night.
Then it dawned on him that it must be Enso Faringer, whose euphoric state had doubtless enabled him to come up with some crazy idea or other, and there was a tolerant smile on his lips as he opened the door.
Some sixteen hours later his seventeen-year-old daughter opened that same door, and if the circumstances had not been so grotesque, it would probably have still been possible to see traces of that smile on his face.