Dominik Wichmann

The weight of lead and feathers

It is a detached house and it is broad daylight. The exterior is pale. At the front two garage doors, almost closed and slightly tilted. The shutters are down. A satellite dish is stuck on the side of the house. From the side of the house you can see the planks of the balcony balustrade. Five pieces in all. Made of dark wood, like the ridge of the roof and the garage doors. Only the shutters are made of some reddish material, presumedly plastic.
Where the house is standing it has be en snowing. Perhaps just last night, as the ground doesn’t seem cold enough yet for the snow to have settled: on the grass in the garden snow flakes are melting into a wet mush and on the driveway up to the two garages the asphalt is already appearing beneath the car tracks.
The house can be seen on a painted picture. A photo of this picture has been sitting on my desk for weeks now. I’ve been told that the picture was painted in some place not far from Bregenz and that the house shown in the picture does in fact exist. It is supposed to be on a small estate called Höchst, a few kilometres west of Bregenz. It is house number 1c. But why do I keep looking at this picture? Why has this picture, this particular picture, been lying next to me for weeks? The picture reminds me of my childhood. Of an incident with my parents’ friends.
It was after dinner and already dark outside. We were going for a walk through our neighbourhood. An area with houses and front gardens, of the kind you might find in Höchst. My parents’ friends were called Manfred and Petra Faller and were about the same age as them. How old they were exactly I was unable to guess in those days. Adults were either middle-aged like my parents or really old, like my grandparents. There wasn’t anything in between. So, the Fallers were middle-aged and had a son and a daughter. Their names were Philipp and Yvonne. The boy was three years older than the daughter and I was good friends with both. We went to school together, played in the garden in the afternoon and often went on holiday to Italy together with our parents.
The part of town we lived in had only been built after the war. The streets were at a right angle to each other and had names that were intended to show their new inhabitants that the new Germany was going to be different: more cosmopolitan, friendly, educated. So all streets were named after French authors, philosophers and composers. Of course, I was not aware of this in those days and my parents didn’t know this either. Only Manfred Faller knew it because he was a teacher and was the type of father, who after dinner likes to ask their children and their friends questions to test their general knowledge. Whoever knew the answer would be rewarded and would be allowed to watch television for an extra ten minutes.
What weighs more: a kilo of lead or a kilo of feathers? Back then I believed that my friends’ father was happiest if his children were the only ones to know the answer. Nowadays I no longer believe this. Manfred Faller liked it most, when his children didn’t know the right answer. Because then he was able to pour scorn on them, because secretly he hoped that this would be an incentive for them to want to become like him one day: so educated and so clever,even educating his children in such a thoughtful manner.

For years on end he tormented us with his eternal questions to test our knowledge and once Manfred said that he only wanted to prepare us for the big wide world outside, outside our estate. I seem to remember that he spoke of a world in which education was the only defence.
When my parents, the Fallers and I went for a walk that evening through our part of town, Yvonne and Philippe didn’t come along. Both children had probably done something wrong again or hadn’t known the answer to something and were therefore not allowed to accompany their parents. Because in Manfred Faller’s world, ambition necessitated not only rewards, but also punishment.
The parents were among themselves and spoke so openly about their sorrows that I soon became rather frightened. I let myself fall a few steps behind, hoping not to be noticed and witness no more of the sorrows of the adults who up to now had always seemed so invincible. The fear made me silent, but as in a frightening film I did not just look away and try not to listen, I wanted desperately to know what was going to happen next.
The Fallers lived in a semi-detached house. The house consisted of a ground floor with a first and second floor above. In the cellar there was a so-called hobby-room, with a washing machine and a dryer. I often wondered why on earth this particular room with the household equipment was called hobby-room. Perhaps because this room also contained the television. Originally because this room could be locked up. This way the parents could go to the movies in peace – the Fallers liked going to the movies – without worrying about their children watching television secretly in their absence. Some years later, Philipp and Yvonne were somewhat older, their father stopped locking up the hobby-room, when he and his wife were leaving the house in the evening. Instead he loosened the antenna cable or took the batteries from the remote control. His somewhat surprised children were then allowed to watch television, however, only after they had found the problem and solved it.
Then father and mother left the house. Not once did the children manage to find the fault. The next morning Manfred Faller would make fun of his children. They were too stupid, he laughed and said that you could do anything if you just tried hard enough.
After we had walked in the fresh air for about ten minutes, Manfred Faller told my father he didn’t know what was going to happen now.
“Why?” my father asked him.
“I am in debt. ”
“How much is it then?, ” my father wanted to know, looking down at the damp asphalt of the street. “It is so much, that soon everything will be over. ” Manfred’s voice was quite low.. Now I fell roughly three metres behind the adults. It was the first time in my life that I had heard a man of my father’s age cry. Manfred said he could name the date.
“What date?”
“The day my entire world of credits and loans will collapse. ” All of a sudden my father stopped walking: ”When will that be?”
“Three weeks today. ” Again Manfred cried and neither of the two men said another word. Silently we continued walking through our part of town. A strong, wet wind blew
 into my back. The windows of the surrounding houses were shining bright in the colours of the drawn curtains: red and white and beige and blue and yellow and yellow. From time to time through a narrow gap in the curtains I was able to glimpse a family eating at their living room table or observe a woman on the telephone. We were walking through the night, as determined as if we were on patrol and controlling our part of town: seeing what the neighbour was doing; checking if the edge of the forest was safe and quiet, registering if a foreigner had strayed into the area. Each of us knew the way because it was always the same. What might happen in three weeks’ time? What does Manfred mean when he says that soon everything could be over? What weighs more: a kilo of lead or a kilo of feathers?
I was lying in my bed and couldn’t sleep for a long time. What I didn’t know at that time was that the Fallers had bought a house. A detached house. A house with a balcony and garden und small square angled roof above the entrance. A house with a cellar, three floors and a saddle roof above it. A house with yellow washed walls, window frames lacquered in white, dark brown beams and a small pond in the middle of which a dead water lily bobbed up and down.
The problem was, that the Fallers had bought the new house before they had sold their old house. Now they didn’t only possess two children and two cars, but also two houses. However, no buyers could be found for the semidetached house. Not in the first week, and also not in the second. Soon the Fallers had to start paying for their new house. But where was the money to come from? Still the family was unable to sell their old house. They’d have to take out a loan, the bank intervened. Month after month passed. And soon the Fallers asked for a second credit, because the interest on the first had to be paid back urgently. Time passed without anybody wanting to buy the Fallers’ semi-detached house. Manfred Faller knew that it was only a question of time until the family went bankrupt. The new house of the Fallers was very similar to the house in Höchst, whose picture has now been lying for weeks on my desk. Again and again I kept looking at it, because I have been asked to write about inhabitants of such houses. They are said to spoil the appearance of the entire area, the Rhine Valley, the Lower Country and it’s just impossible to imagine how anyone could live in such houses without getting sick.
That is easily said.
The next day at noon I drive from Munich to Bregenz. It is the day before Christmas Eve, it has snowed and the air is cold. Near Lindau I leave the Autobahn and continue on the country road to Bregenz. I convince myself, that I am doing this to keep looking for ugly detached family homes. In reality I want to save the money for the Austrian Autobahn toll and I am looking for an excuse to lie to myself. Dusk has already begun to fall when I leave Bregenz behind me and continue on Rheinstrasse towards Höchst. I pass a community called Hard, a few car dealers, an snack bar called “Ankara ” and several provisionally fenced-in areas where freshly cut fir trees are being sold as Christmas trees. A roundabout, a supermarket, another roundabout. It doesn’t take long before I’m lost.   
I wanted to go to Höchst, Höchst in the community of Unterdorf. To house number 1c. I wanted to ring the bell and ask the inhabitants if they had become sick in their onefamily building. But I don’t find the house and instead I allow myself to get caught up in the evening traffic of the 23rd of December.
For a long time I did not understand what made the Fallers want to change their old house for a new one at the time. Both were at a distance of only a few kilometers from each other and almost of the same size. And before long Philipp and Yvonne would have left their parents` house anyway. And then? The new house would have been too large, a whole floor would have been empty.
“Anyhow, why such a house ” , my mother asked Manfred`s wife Petra on the phone one of the days after I had heard him cry. My mother kept silent and listened to Petra. She changed the position of the receiver from her left to her right ear and did not say a word for a long time. On the whole it might have lasted for about five minutes, then the conversation ended. I asked my mother what Petra had replied.
“Petra said, that she finally wanted to live in a house one could walk around. ”
“How walk around?” , I asked.
My mother shrugged her shoulders. »Not a semi-detached house anymore, you understand?« I didn`t understand a word.
The traffic in Höchst slowly calms down. It is just after seven, the shops already closed a long time ago. Most of the cars turn off into the side-streets and slide through the open garage doors into the houses. The doors are closed as by magic hands and the weather-resistent outdoor lights are turned off. One of these streets is called »Paradise«. I also take a turn and drive slowly through the housing estate. I park the car in front of a yellow house with just a few windows. The house is brightly lit: it seems as if almost endlessly illuminated garlands are twined around the ridge of the roof, the window frames and the balcony balustrade. It is Christmas time and people want to bring light into the darkness. It glitters at all corners and straights and as if this were not enough, all the small houses standing around the big house are even more decorated: from the dustbin shelter a pink Chinese lantern is shining, glittering Christmas stars are hanging down from the bird house and a further few meters away a Santa Claus of the size of a gnom is trying to climb over the tool shed.
“Are you looking for something special?” asks a man of about forty in a calm voice. A few hairs flecked with grey are showing under his finely knitted sports cap. His moustache is accurately trimmed. He is wearing a red anorak, bluejeans and grey hiking-shoes.
“I saw you standing around here for some while and I thought I would ask you, if you needed help » the man explains and cast a glance at the number plate of my car.
“Thank you, very kind” I answer.
“You are not from around here, are you?”
“ Exactly. I just wanted to have a look at these houses here,
especially this one here. ” I pointed to the house with the Christmas tree.
“They are not at home ” , the man says: “They spend Christmas
with their children in Innsbruck ” . Suddenly I feel uneasy standing aroud here. I don`t know the people here and they don`t know me. I feel like an intruder bursting into a strange world, their world. I am looking at myself, the car, the house and the man in his red anorak. It seems to me as if I were in a scene of “Aktenzeichen XY ungelöst – Crimewatch – unsolved cases ”.

A young man drives through a residential area which he apparently does not know. He spies out the habits of the inhabitants. Later a neighbour will tell the police that he remembers exchanging some unimportant phrases with the stranger. One week later more and more mail can be seen spilling out of the neighbours’ letterbox. Someone has informed the police who want to force the door. But the door, dark veneer with dull glass in the middle with a grill over it, has been left ajar. The policemen enter the house. The porch has been ravaged. The drawers of the black lacquered bureau with the heart-shaped, old rose pulls arbitrarily dragged out. The square mirror next to the wardrobe is broken. On the staircase, whose walls are made out of thick glass cubes, the investigators find traces of blood. They are expecting the worst.
With their right hand gripping their firearms and their left hands the iron handrail, they slowly feel their way down into the cellar. They have to be careful because their steps can be heard on the tiled floor. A calendar with pictures of the area around Lake Constance hangs on the wall and next to it a white cloth is attached with a saying embroidered on it in red: “ Four were invited, six have come; pour water into the soup and welcome them all. ” Once in the cellar, the police officers open one door after the other. It is dark and only the beam of their torches show a big furnace wrapped in yellow sealing material.
Suddenly one of the two gets frightened. But false alarm:
it was only an Almanac wooden mask, which the perpetrators had thrown carelessly on the floor. In the hobby-room one of the investigators inadvertently leans against the light switch. All of a sudden it becomes bright. In the pale light of the neon tube they discover two dead bodies: the owner of the house and his wife. The sand-coloured woven carpet is soaked with blood. There is no trace of the perpetrators. If you think you may be able to help us in our inquiries, please contact your nearest police station.
I ask myself: Why do you feel like an intruder? Why do I suspect that the man in the red anorak sees me as a threat? Why do I think that with his friendliness he is only trying to mask his curiosity? What is heavier: a kilo of lead or a kilo of feathers?
Probably I am doing the man an injustice. Probably it has got nothing to do with him, but with the houses standing here. They behave as if there is no warmth outside. Their windows are slits, the shutters are like iron bars, which have been let down and the garage castle gates, which have been slammed shut. “Stay away ” , the houses shout at every stranger and in order to confuse him, all the houses look alike, except for the nameplates. Plain and boring fronts with a hedge or a rustic fence around it. People live secretly inside, because the outside world doesn’t promise anything good. Only the possession of their own four walls gives them shelter and security. And recognition.

Cosy homes wherever you look. I imagine that the houses of Höchst were all very tiny, as small as the houses in the landscapes of the model railway-train builders. I would carefully and silently take off the roof of one of the houses so that the people living there wouldn’t notice that I was observing them with my big eye. I would see one of the children in its room on the first floor practising a Christmas carol on the recorder; I would see the other child decorating the Christmas tree together with its mother; I would see the furnishings of the family, all those souvenirs brought back from many trips all over the world; the shells at the edge of the bathtub, the artificial ivy in the cellar, the cat’s litter tray in the hobby-room; I would smell, that they’re having lasagne for dinner that night, and I would hear the mother tell her child that the mince is from the ecological farm at Listener. And I would see the father sitting in living room on the couch watching “Aktenzeichen XY ungelöst – Crimewatch – unsolved cases ” and telling his wife that they should think about getting a good alarm system and that in the Rheinpark of St. Margarethen they have a very good offer on at the moment.
The German artist Gregor Schneider caused a small sensation at the previous Biennale in Venice. Schneider removed the interior of his parents` home at Mönchengladbach in a part of the city called Rheydt – and rebuilt it in Venice. And as you can`t get good quality German wood chip paper in Italy Schneider simply brought erverything along with him. “ Even the screws and the water for the puddle in the cellar” , Schneider said in an interview. And he said something else: “The continous work at the house is not a renovation. The work consists in the work itself. As soon as one room is finished, I start again in another place. Working makes one forget. The monotony of work creates new work. This is the moment when I start building a new room in the room. ” I drive back home. Past the car dealers shops again, in front of which flags are blowing in the wind, as if they were consulates of foreign brands and companies. Past houses, which look almost the same. One could say: rooms in a room. I am thinking again of the Fallers and how they finally managed to sell their house and moved happily into their new domicile. How they were working in their yard every free day, putting a statue of David, peeing into the water, next to the dead waterlily and big shining glitter balls into the flowerbed, to keep the birds off. From the terrace to the pond’s edges Manfred put down squares of fibre cement on the grass so that one doesn’t get dirty.
Very soon afterwards we moved from our apartment as well and rented a semi-detached house, only a few hundreds yards away. More is not possible, my parents said, but now they could also enjoy everything that the Fallers were raving about, when they visited us: such a house was really something of one’s own and one could even walk around it. However, as I said, we lived in a semi-detached house, so walking around didn’t quite work out.
I hated our new house right from the beginning. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that in the following years my mother aught my father several times with other women. One day, it was a Friday evening, she packed his suitcases, put them in front of the house and had the lock changed. She put a red checkered towel into the door bell and took the telephone off the plug. Just so that we could sleep well, she said to me. I didn’t close my eyes all night. A few month later my mother and I had to move into a 2-bedroom apartment.
The contact with the Fallers broke off.

© Dominik Wichmann, born 1971, lives in munich
Translation: Helga Doppler

In: Ingmar Alge, Malerei 2001 02 03,
Neue Galerie Dachau, Dachau 2004