February 23 2016
Roland — he sold bad paintings, crucifixes and clocks at the Dasing flea market — invited me to the greasy spoon just across the parking lot to have a coffee. He also encouraged me to have a piece of cake.
“Why not live it up.”
“I don’t really like sweet things,” I answered.
But he told the waitress: “One big piece of chocolate cake for the lady.”
I wondered why he’d invited me — what did we have in common? Perhaps he was lonely. Perhaps he thought I was.
Our orders arrived, and he tucked into a plateful of fat sausages and fried potatoes, grinned. “I’ve already had three heart attacks. Even though I’m only fifty-four.” And very overweight, with a choleric red face, podgy bloated fingers. His breathing sounds like an asthmatic steam engine. In short, not a man for a long friendship.
“You shouldn’t be eating food like that,” I said.
He put down his fork long enough to have a long suck at the cigarette burning away in the ashtray. “If I have to give up my pleasures, life isn’t worth living.”
I wondered if industrial sausages heated up in fried-out cooking fat and oily reconstituted potatoes weren’t rather meagre pleasures to die for, but what’s the use arguing with those bent on self-destruction? Unless you’re in a threatening uniform or have that miraculous tool of fear at your disposal, you can’t possibly succeed. Besides, Roland was only a casual acquaintance: occasionally I bought a clock from him.
I did my best to keep the chirpy conversational ball rolling in payment for the cake and coffee. That’s me, all right: thinking I have to entertain, skip and dance around, when I should be just as stodgy and dull as the person opposite. At one point, Roland asked how I liked living in Bavaria, and I said the obsession with cleanliness would drive me crazy after a while. I told him about a friend presently at war with a neighbour because her cat had crept into his garden, stirred up ground under a shrub.
But Roland didn’t look suitably indignant. His face darkened, became sulky. “I know all about it. I have a terrible problem with my neighbour too, and he’s a pig-headed jerk. There’s this tree between his house and mine. A big tree. His house is up-wind. Mine’s down. The tree’s a conifer, and the wind blows all the needles onto my roof and into the gutters, and it costs me good money to repair the damage. So what do I do? I go to my neighbour, beg the guy to cut the tree down, plant something else, without needles. But you know what? He refused. Said the tree had been there since he was a kid, that his grandfather planted the thing, and he wouldn’t chop down something his grandfather had left him.” He stabbed a chunk of potato.
“Well,” I said, true mediator style, “why not just be happy there’s a tree there. It could be something awful like a cement wall. A tree is beautiful. A conifer is green all year round.”
Roland shook his head. “It’s not as if the tree looks good or anything. The electric company comes along every so often, lops off branches. It’s ugly. A small tree with even branches would be fine.”
“Sounds to me as though you’ll have to accept it though.”
“You kidding? I hate that tree. I’m going do something about it.” His fatty fingers trembled even more than usual. “I’m going to kill the damn thing if the neighbour doesn’t get busy, saw the thing down. I hate the damn needles. They’re dirty, slippery and I’m in no physical shape to be cleaning shit like that up.” Vengefully, he masticated sausage. “Yeah, I’m going to kill it, and I don’t give a damn what the consequences are.”
I argued on for a while — well aware I’d lose — in favour of the tree. I was beginning to pity the neighbour and his love of that bit of nature in an ugly suburb. I wondered if, perhaps, Roland might have another heart attack before he could destroy something so inoffensive. “How can you condemn a man who loves nature? Who wants to preserve a beautiful thing in an over-populated, polluted world?”
Roland snorted. “Loves nature? My neighbour loves nature? What a joke. He shoots every bird that crosses his garden, day in, day out. He just sits in an upstairs window with his gun, waits for them to pass. I told him I’d go to the police, but does he care? And every spring when he finds a nest with babies in it, he knocks it to the ground and kills them all. He says they make dirt.”
“Dirt: that’s anything other than what humans make, evidently. And that’s how this conversation started.”
Roland stared at me for a minute; his long grey moustache twitching. “I’m going to kill that damn tree.”