These last few days Hattie has not been alone on her errands around town. As soon as she leaves the house, as elderly gentleman turns up to accompany her. Hattie thinks he must be a ghost. She knows the gentleman. She also knows — even if only from old, yellowed photographs — the dark suit he is wearing, the beat-up leather briefcase he carries tucked under his left arm. And she knows stories about the man more than enough. Hattie has the strong notion that for the last two weeks she has been followed around Hamburg by her maternal grandfather who has been dead these 40 years.
He is not always clearly visible. Some mornings only a dim outline floats alongside Hattie, perhaps that depends on the light. Or his moods? Not on Hattie’s to be sure. She has tried banning the old gentleman from her view by mentally but quite sternly objecting to his being there, but to no avail. Just the opposite; his presence seems stronger the more she wants him to go. Since that became apparent, Hattie has tried to never look at the man. She also strictly forbids herself to question his presence or even think about him.
Which of course is impossible. More so because she cannot be exactly sure that she alone is able to see him, which makes things hard for Hattie who is by nature a shy person and easily embarrassed. Will the grandfather behave himself? She has little recollection of him; she was still quite young when he died. But she does remember Sunday afternoons at her grandparents’, heated debates and roaring laughter, her grandfather always in the center of things. And now she is pretty certain to have noticed, out of the corners of her eyes, various moments of communication between the grandfather and other people. Vibrations only, hardly recognizable, but they make her nervous nevertheless.
There is, for example, the almost always slightly intoxicated young man, who together with his dog, lives on the old railway bridge that Hattie crosses daily on her way to work. He nods in greeting nowadays when she walks past him and Hattie is also smiled at by women of all ages when she is in the company of the grandfather. The blue-haired punk, who the other day followed her and the old man for several blocks after they all had been on the subway together may have done so by chance, but Hattie nevertheless suffered subsequent nightmares, visions of herself walking like the Pied Piper next to a partially materialized grandfather, trailed by suspicious looking individuals, meeting with one embarrassment after the other. She remembers her grandmother talking fondly of the dead man having made friends constantly with the most unlikely people, something Hattie has never really found desirable.
Hattie cannot deal with the presence of her grandfather at the present time. With him at her side she seems to be treading on ice that is way too thin. He is simply too much right now; he does not fit in with her life, which feels to her like a bundle of half blown balloons she is desperately holding on to. Just a month ago Hattie left her partner of long standing and moved out of the flat the two of them used to share. She now wants, on her own and without anyone bothering her, to reconstruct her life from the banalities of everyday chores: work, meals, the new apartment. She really and truly has no wish for anything out of the ordinary.
Because of her pursuer, Hattie does not dare leave her flat once she has returned from work in the evenings. She finds herself huddled into the armchair next to the telephone, clutching the receiver to her ear, reluctantly answering questions from her friends. Yes, the grandfather is floating rather than walking. He only joins her in the streets. He carries the briefcase she remembers from old photographs, and he seems to be flirting with all kinds of women. No, he does not try to approach her directly, he does not talk to her and he just appeared out of the blue. There is no special occasion, no anniversary. And she is quite certain she has not unconsciously asked for him. Hattie speaks very softly, and sometimes the friends find it hard to understand her. She freely admits that she fears the old man might cause embarrassment, that she is even embarrassed to talk about him much. And she does not want any of her friends to come over to keep her company.
The friends are worried, very interested and full of theories. They want to find out even the minutest detail. They phone each other up regarding the affair, they obtain all the relevant books and meet more than once for afternoon coffee and consultations. They assure Hattie she will not be left alone with the problem, that they are all quite open and willing to approach the topic. Much too open, feels Hattie, who has secretly been hoping the friends would find her slightly crazy, recommend a good therapist and send her off on a vacation. But obviously one is expected to take ghosts and forefathers seriously. The friends supply Hattie with a lot of advice on what to do and not do and she finds it hard to communicate her own desire, which is to simply get rid of the grandfather.
She is quite willing to admit that she would have enjoyed his visit had it happened at some other time. There have been quite a few periods in Hattie’s life where she would have relished the company of the deceased, would have involved him in long conversations and, if possible, introduced him to her friends. After all, it is her good grandfather who has come for a visit, the one she is proud of, the one who was part of resistance in Nazi Germany. Tales about this man’s love for life, people and adventures are to this day told at family gatherings and Hattie has often wished to posses a bit of her grandfather’s spirit. But all of this seems so far away right now, and Hattie is so bound up in her own life that she finds it quite impossible to be interested in the past.
The friends are now quite worried and also a bit disappointed. They have put forward so many excellent ideas. They all consider the grandfather’s presence to be so meaningful. Why cannot Hattie accept that? What blocks have to be demolished here, what arguments can still be presented? They have become totally dedicated to the subject and explain eagerly how important it is to analyze the grandfather’s visit in detail. Why has he come, why now, what significance does his coming bear for Hattie’s life, for the world at large? Will there be messages for Hattie, for mankind? What a marvelous chance to unfold secret parts of family history, to clear up misunderstandings, to heal old wounds! One could even ask questions about the afterlife — how could Hattie wish to let such an opportunity pass?
Hattie in turn thinks the grandfather has just turned up out of a fancy. Perhaps he likes Hamburg. A message to mankind he would have long ago delivered, family secrets, if this had been his mission, at least mentioned. And she will certainly not bring up the afterlife with one who spent his life on earth as a firm atheist and never believed in it. No, she thinks he will just glide around town with her for a while and then be gone again, and what has that to do with her? Hattie is willing to openly disagree with her friends on the grandfather issue and she does so firmly but softly until in the end she realizes that she is left alone with her problem.
A new morning and again Hattie and the ghost march down to the subway, to be met by the punk lady they have met before. Green-haired now, but the same woman, the young lady purposefully climbs out of the train after the grandfather at Hattie’s stop and they all leave the station together. Hattie, the grandfather and the punk then cross an old bridge over some railway tracks and turn into the quiet side-street where Hattie is using a tiny old shop as her office. At the corner of the street, not far from the bridge, leans the young homeless person, already no longer sober. He greets, as is his custom now; Hattie, the grandfather, the punk, all of them? A dog sitting next to him wags its tail.
On the steps leading down to the shop the grandfather dissolves, like every morning, and the young woman watches as Hattie unlocks the door and enters her office. She then lights a cigarette and settles down on the steps. Hattie locks the door from the inside and for a moment leans her head against it. Through the door’s tiny window she can see one of her neighbors passing by, carrying some shopping and staring curiously at the green-haired smoker. In this part of town people don’t smoke on doorsteps; nobody around has green hair either. Hattie sighs. She now has the punk lady to ignore as well as the grandfather.
Hattie is a translator and normally loves her work, the patient search for the right words, the satisfaction of a text successfully rendered into a shape that can be understood within another cultural context. Apart from anything else Hattie translates letters and one of her most faithful customers is Jens, a successful advertising agent who for the past three years has been carrying on a stormy love affair with a budding young politician in Dublin. Jens does not speak English, Brian does not speak German and neither makes an effort to learn. They see each other during the weekends that Jens spends in Dublin and in between visits there are literally kilos of letters, the translation of which rests solely in Hattie’s hands.
The two men are very strongly and eloquently in love with each other and, of course, many a misunderstanding arises because they can’t talk. Hattie earns a pretty penny from the two. And while her almost daily sessions with Jens, drinking tea and chatting not only about Dublin, form a major part of her cherished everyday life, she has for some time also felt a rising impatience. Everything with these two men is always so important, Jens wants instant attention when he needs it, no matter what else might be on her mind or computer. Ever since the grandfather came she has found herself writing model letters in her head: Jens to Brian, Brian to Jens. Are the promises of love the two keep exchanging endlessly really as original and witty as they — and Hattie — have been thinking so far? Shouldn’t there be more to her working life than helping two rather nice men remain lazy and skirt the issue of making a real commitment?
This morning the grandfather has disappeared. The green-haired lady is smoking on Hattie’s doorstep, who knows what else the day might bring. Hattie decides that Jens will simply have to learn English or else find another translator. Three years is a long time. Hattie feels surprisingly glad about the decision and begins to think about the many opportunities this new slot of unoccupied time in almost every working day might offer her. She puts her kettle on and risks a quick look out of the window. The punk is no longer smoking on her own; an elderly lady with mauve hair and an old-fashioned smock has joined her. They take turns drinking something from the screwed off top of a thermos flask. Another one of Hattie’s neighbors — carrying a bag of oranges fresh from the market — slowly passes and watches the two longingly, and somehow Hattie gets the feeling that even the young homeless person and his dog are not far away. She sighs again. And then the humor of it all catches up with her. Slowly a tiny warm spot takes root inside her, spreads out, rises and turns into a giggle. The more she has been locking herself in, wishing to be left alone, not wanting to hear or see anything except banalities, the more a strange and bizarre life has crept up around her. A rift of raucous laughter drifts in from where the ladies are drinking and smoking and suddenly Hattie wants to meet the smock-wearing woman who might even be her, Hattie’s, neighbor. She also wants to wave to all the other ladies with their proper perms and nylon stockings, who seem to be forever shopping, forever staring. Before she can change her mind, Hattie opens the door. Both ladies look a bit guilty when she joins them but quickly recover and Hattie is offered a sip of hot chocolate with rum, which is what the two of them have been drinking. And, for the first time in she cannot remember how many years, Hattie spends a normal working day not at her desk.
A few hours later Hattie sets off for home. The neighbors have said goodbye and left, the punk as well. Jens has had his tea and left a bit downhearted. Hattie is in a splendid mood. She feels strangely refreshed. She might visit a friend or even watch a movie this evening! She is joined by her grandfather but does not mind at all. Quite peaceably, side by side, they approach the bridge where the young homeless man leans, a can of beer raised in greeting. The dog sitting next to him jumps up and looks expectantly. Hattie stops. “Be off now, will you?” she says bravely but not without love in her voice. Promptly the grandfather hoists himself up to a post in the railing, spreads his arms and in one graceful, dignified movement glides into the evening mist. With perhaps a bit too much pathos, Hattie thinks. Completely aghast the young homeless man bends over the railing to stare.
“That was my grandfather,” Hattie proclaims and the man straightens himself up.
“You must be completely crazy!” he says, whistles to his dog and staggers off. Hattie senses someone tugging at her sleeve; the little green-haired one. “I have wanted to tell you all afternoon,” she whispers. “I find you very attractive. May I accompany you a bit?”
Hattie is speechless.