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  • Writer's picturemichaelkjarvie7

The Sharp Judge

This is the first draft of the opening chapter of a new novel set in Düsseldorf in 1929, at the height of the killing spree of Peter Kürten, the so-called Vampire of Düsseldorf. The English title of The Sharp Judge is a literal translation of the proposed German title Der Scharfrichter.

The idea is to follow Samuel Beckett's example, who wrote his later works in English before translating them into French. In my case, I intend to write the book in English before translating it into German.

Given its subject matter and setting, the intention is to publish the novel in a German language version only, since it's unlikely there would be a market for such a book in England.

Chapter 1




Despite the insulating properties of the roll down shutter, a film of water vapour bleared the windowpane, which was entirely to be expected for a chilly February morning. Meanwhile, throughout the night, his lungs had busied themselves manufacturing over a hundred litres of carbon dioxide. For his body was itself a self-sustaining factory of sorts, whose production line never halted for a moment, regularly repairing its fabric, not to mention sloughing off dead skin cells and preparing other liquid and solid waste products for evacuation once he got up. These were all things Gerhard would need to attend to before he went down to the bakery.

    The cumbersome Mauthe alarm clock that stood on his side of the bed was merely there as a precaution. After so many years, he awoke of his own accord, without the need for any external stimuli. His wife was still asleep, and he crept out of the bedroom on tiptoe in order not to wake her.

    Out in the walled yard at the rear of the property, Gerhard looked up at the heavens and saw the constellation of Orion, that characteristic hourglass shape of seven stars. Waiting for him outside the bakery were Franz and Karl, the latter unable to suppress a yawn.

    —Tired already? said Gerhard.

    —He’s just exhausted from opening all those Valentine’s Day cards he got yesterday, said Franz.

    —You shut your gob, said Karl.

    —Make me, said Franz.

    —His time will come, said Gerhard. Anyway, don’t you go upsetting him. You know what a sensitive soul he is. Drinking coffee and gossiping is for later.

    Karl grinned by way of reply and nudged Franz in the ribs, but the older man didn’t rise to the challenge.

    —Don’t you mean drinking beer? said Franz.

    —That too, replied Gerhard. Right, let’s get to work. I’m not paying you two for your stimulating conversation.

    —Why do you have to be such a slavedriver? said Karl.

    —I may indeed be a filthy capitalist according to the writings of your namesake from Trier, but don’t forget that it’s my bread that fills the hungry bellies of the working class in Flingern-Nord … and beyond.

    Gerhard fished the key from his pocket, inserted it in the mortise lock, and opened the door to the bakery. Turning on the lights, he surveyed his realm, donning a white smock and a white cap that matched the colour of the ceramic tiles on the walls. Karl and Franz followed his example. The bakery was soon up and running.

    After the first batch was baked, they left the loaves to cool while the next produce was prepared for the oven. Opening the ledger, Gerhard inscribed the date: Friday, the 15th of February 1929, then recorded the latest figures in red ink. The numbers flowed from the nib of the pen as if the ink had been decanted directly from a vein.

    In a few hours, some of those very loaves would be sitting on the two circular wooden stands in the display window of the shop. Right next to the door there was a notice, chalked on a slate in Gerhard’s neat handwriting. One of his regular customers was offering her sewing services to repair and make alterations to kindergarten uniforms. That many working-class parents couldn’t afford new clothing for their children exposed the desperate economic state of the country, crippled as it was with debt since the end of the war, namely the $33 billion reparation payment, that veritable sword of Damocles, which had been imposed on Germany by Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. What did the bastards hope to achieve? In effect they were punishing the ordinary working man and not those who were ultimately responsible.

    The mixing machine had two identical containers, which resembled snare drums without their skins. Gerhard stopped the paddles and emptied the dough onto the marble slab that he’d already lightly dusted with flour. For someone who had enjoyed the process of making clumsy pieces of pottery at school, he found the exercise of forming the bread rolls to be one that reminded him of his childhood.

    To fire a starting pistol would have been the perfect way to begin this contest between the three of them. One morning, he would borrow his son’s cap gun. For now, he made do with words.

    —On your marks… ready… go!

    They were off. The three of them in friendly competition with each other. Rather than moulding thick snakes of clay, now Gerhard was concerned with nipping the torn-off lumps of dough and niftily tucking the strands together. Preparing the material using a steady kneading action with the palm of his hand, it soon assumed a uniform oblong shape, identical to those already lying on the marble slab. Muscle memory directing the process to such an extent that conscious thought itself hardly played a part. He was convinced that the goal of each repetition was to complete the task with the fewest number of movements, shaving off valuable seconds like an athlete striving to beat his personal best.

    —I’ve won! exclaimed Gerhard.

    Once Karl and Franz had finished, he scooped up the bread rolls and slid them into the oven on the rectangular wooden peel, a blast of hot air enveloping him as he did so. Now that all the rolls were entombed in the oven, he added up the three figures, running the back of his hand across his brow, then added the numbers to the ledger.

    Another productive day was in prospect, another step towards self-improvement. What would those two think of the house that was under construction in Rath? A two-storey property with three spacious bedrooms to adequately accommodate his family, with a large cellar and a massive garden complete with a pond and a rectangular well and its cast-iron pump.

    In the fullness of time, he intended to plant fruit trees – apple, pear and plum – not to mention redcurrants and gooseberries, and there would also be a brood of hens and some rabbits. Would they scoff or congratulate him, and see this flight to the middle-class suburbs as a rejection of his working-class identity? Nonsense. It wasn’t as if he was about to reject his origins, far from it, for how could he deny his place in the heart of this community? In any case, the bakery in the Mettmanner Strasse and its associated accommodation would remain solidly where it was.

    He thought of the wanted poster he’d seen on the advertising column when he got off the tram yesterday in the city centre, after his trip to Hubertushain. It mentioned a reward of two thousand Reich Marks for information leading to the apprehension of the murderer of an eight-year-old girl and a 54-year-old man.

    That the same individual had possibly committed these murders, separated in time by only four days, troubled him, especially since they had been carried out in the Kettwigerstrasse and Neuer Hellweg, only a mile or so from the bakery. The murdered man had been a mechanic on his way back home from work. The awful thought that this murderer might live nearby, might even have visited his shop and eaten his bread, could not be discounted.

    He shuddered and checked his wristwatch. It would be two hours until he opened the shop, and when the rolls were ready, he would roughly hack one open with a knife, slather butter over its pulpy innards and stuff some slices of bierwurst inside it. Taking a bite, he would wash it down with lashings of aromatic filter coffee.

    As for the wanted poster, he would need to warn his daughter again. With a murderer on the loose, it made sense to be extra vigilant, as the police were useless.

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