After he died, he discovered that he hadn’t gone to heaven. Or hell, or anywhere really. Hilf, as his colleagues called him (used to), didn’t know if he believed in God or not, but either way he was more than a little surprised to be walking the streets of Berlin after he was killed. Car accident.
As he stared at himself in his apartment window, trying to gaze upon every aspect of his face, like a puppy when it first sees a mirror, he suddenly had an urge to go outside. His legs marched him down the stone steps of his narrow apartment building and across the street. They stopped outside a café, it was 11.45am on a stony Sunday morning and it was January, a grey light shone from the sky. A girl of about twenty was sitting with her apparent boyfriend, or with a person whom she had the desire to show public affection. The couple got up from their table after the man paid, they took each other by the hand and Hilf followed them as they walked, or at least his legs did. They made their way round the corner and went down a wide street with a bakery on the left and a small park on the other side, which was covered by colourless leafs. By this time the sun had managed to burst through a small bullet hole in the sky. The shadows of the man and of the girl briefly took their shape behind them, and followed them as they continued down the pavement.
Out of nowhere Hilf jumped. He lurched forward, as if into a sandpit, and stood on the head of the girl’s shadow. Her black shadow immediately disappeared. The sun was hidden once again by the congregation of clouds.
Hilf was back in his apartment staring at the window once again. He looked fiercely at his unclear reflection and touched his plump face with his small, fat hands. He was confused. He had only just accepted that he was dead and now he was having dreams and you can’t have dreams when you’re dead, not that Hilf was an expert on death. The phone was near him and he called his friend and said this, ‘Ah Luft! Hello hello hello. Now listen I’m not sure what I drank last night but… hello… yes yes Luft? Yes I am here… I am alive! Listen to me: woof woof! Quack quack! It’s Hilf…Goose!’ Hilf slammed the phone down. Luft could not hear him because Hilf did not have a soul. You can never truly die if you have no soul but you are never truly alive either; you’re like a shadow man.
Just as frustration began to riddle his thoughts, a screech of tires and a firm bump interrupted everything. Hilf looked down onto the street below through the glass. There was a car, an open door, a tall man and a dead girl lying on the road. His heart thumped his chest and then his eyes widened as if they were being pulled apart by string. Hilf recognized the dead girl from his dream.
Ludo Vanski and his family lived in London. A London of grey faces and haste. Everyone went like clocks. Even the small children during the school holidays, their faces all engraved with the same expression. January was everywhere. It lingered and strangled the dull minds wherever it went, through the tips of their toes up to their glassy eyes. Perhaps things might change when the sun comes out. Ludo Vanksi didn’t want to wait that long.
After Ludo’s mother and father had died he had inherited enough money to see him through until death. And much more. Ludo continued running his father’s company to keep his daylight hours occupied. Nicola, who was blonde and neat, was his wife. She loved him. Her small, black leather handbag could be seen marching through London after she dropped off her children at school and her slim legs would be loyally in pursuit. On Friday evenings, the Vanski family hosted a drinks party. Nicola, being the hostess that she was, made sure that different people were invited every week. Ludo would have a glass, shake someone’s hand then go and lie in his bed. ‘Ludy. Ludy darling. How nice it was to see the Gelds… and did you hear about their cleaner? I couldn’t believe it.’ Nicola gracefully flung her flowing hair back to allow her fingers to make contact with her silver earrings, glimmering in the mirror of her dressing table. Her long, sleek neck gave way to her dress, as she unzipped it to the bottom of her back. Ludo lay flat in the bed; his dark eyebrows stared at the ceiling as his thick, black hair cushioned his head. Nicola glanced at her pensive husband in the mirror. His jaw-line was as sharp as the bedside table. His cheekbones left faint shadows on his face as the dim, golden light flooded their plain white bedroom. Ludo’s lips parted,
‘People have to be so careful.’
‘I think we’re going to Germany.’ Nicola continued to converse with her mirror,
‘Germany? I’m not sure it’s the right time. I mean we have only just - ’
‘We are moving to Germany for a while. It’s for the company. Berlin.’ Ludo spoke slowly and didn’t move. Nicola’s left earring fell onto the glass top of her dressing table. She felt like a child. The sound was shattering in the room. There was a sharp pause, like the stillness after a gunshot. Her eyes sunk away from the mirror to her lap,
‘Let’s talk about it in the morning.’
By the time March had arrived Hilf had indirectly killed about 300 people. He had no control. Energy rattled through his bones as his short, stumpy legs dictated his daily routine. Sometimes they would take him to the park, sometimes they run through a hospital, other times they would take him to church and often they would trick him; pretend to jump but miss a shadow. For the first month Hilf quite enjoyed his ignorance to the situation, he liked his legs being in command of his actions as he rambled through the hours like a dog on a lead.
But he hated the deaths. One Tuesday morning he jumped on a little girl’s shadow, of about four years old. It was a pale day with little sun on the over-ground. The small girl slipped onto the tube line and a tube came and it didn’t stop. As she lay there disemboweled with nothing recognizable - except for her small teddy, which the girl had thrown into the middle of the tracks in her fright – her mother fell to the dirty floor of the platform in utter despair. The mother’s hands flew into the air, punching the clouds, and she let out a piercing scream of shock and misery that could cause bullet-holes in the skies. Unfortunately it did, the sun shone down and Hilf found himself jumping on the mother’s shadow as well. The dead girl’s mother suddenly rose up like a warrior and launched herself down onto the tracks. She desperately stroked the girl’s blonde head which was now drenched with scarlet blood, and she reached for the teddy in the middle of the tracks. One of those odd things someone might do in desolation. Another tube came, the woman attempted to clamber back up onto the platform as the machine rolled in, but it was cold and icy; she slipped back down and joined the fate of her daughter.
With time Hilf became more comfortable with his job. And in his mind started to say that he was doing a good thing, as if it was his duty. However the fact that he knew he was dead scared him, it was as if his body had drowned and his mind was swimming; Hilf’s grasp on his reality was not secure. He could not imagine how this would end. March brought more sun.
Ludo sat in his high metal office staring out the window; he had no work to do. In fact Ludo Vanski hadn’t done any work since January, since London. The sun was shinning down on the straight Berlin streets.
Ludo returned home every evening around 7pm. It was quite dark by then. He had bought a large symmetrical house in the outskirts of Berlin with a square garden. Nicola spent her days dropping her children off at school, shopping or giving drinks parties on Friday nights. She had made lots of friends.
‘Look papa!’ Ludo’s daughter pointed out the window in awe, her eyes gleaming. Ludo followed his daughter’s pale finger to where it stopped. It was a dark, still night.
‘Look papa! A cat!’ Ludo’s hand softly stroked his daughter’s hair in a circular motion as he noticed the cat too. It was carefully stepping along the patio wall; paw by paw, touch by touch, and its curved, long tail was boldly held high, as if holding up the moon. The whole night seemed to stop and stare at that cat in the Vanski’s garden. The neighbour’s had said they had a very nice garden.
Ludo left his daughter and gently unbolted the back door; he stepped outside into the dark, closed the door and approached the cat. They looked at each other. It was so different to anything he had ever seen before. Ludo imagined that it didn’t fear or doubt. The cat stood firm; one paw bolted in front of the other, and pierced his eyes. Noticeably, half of the cat’s left ear was missing but the shadowy, silk coat gave it a fascinating presence. Ludo Vanski felt vulnerable.
He returned home earlier the next day. After all, he didn’t have much on. Ludo put his lips to his wife’s cheek, put down his briefcase on the brown kitchen table in the cream room and walked straight to the back door. He stopped before unbolting it. His heart began to quicken, a chill through his bones, and a big white smile cut across his shaven face. His hands were shaking like withering reeds by a deep lake. He unbolted the door and peered out, like playing a game. The cat lay on the table, its paws crossed and it stared at the human figure with fire-green eyes. It had been expecting him. Ludo jumped up in excitement. He felt his teeth dominate his face with such a grin and in this rush he wanted to clap, but this would have scared the quiet cat. He clenched his fists and whispered to the night,
‘What a funny thing.’
After a few days he decided to feed it, and he put a bowl of cat food by the back door. For the next month Ludo came home early to see the cat. He always approached it delicately and never touched it, like a prince before his father’s crown. As the end of March approached the cat became more confident. It coiled around Ludo’s legs as he poured food into its bowl and scratched its chin on his black, polished brogues. One Friday evening, avoiding the horror of conversation and the crashing of champagne glasses from drawing room, he went outside to see his friend.
‘Look at you.’ Ludo whispered as it looked into his eyes, half-expecting Ludo to stroke it. Ludo giggled and clasped his hands together. He marched to the wooden shed at the end of the garden. That’s what everyone else had in the neighborhood as well. Ludo returned to where the cat sat with a spade in his hands, reflecting the moonlight. It hadn’t moved. He lurched the spade behind his shoulder and hastily brought it down. It made flawless contact with the cat’s head and let out a sound similar to that of the champagne glasses. Ludo flattened its skull with three more strikes; the insides of the cat’s head were now on the outside.
In the days when his legs didn’t control him, Hilf never had a particular fondness for animals. His Grandmother’s dog bit him on his left hand when he was five. One Friday afternoon Hilf was sitting on a bench, in the park near his narrow apartment. A black cat prowled over the carpet of leaves, they crackled underneath the paws, and approached his ankles. It seemed strong and healthy. As the cat grooved its way around Hilf’s shin, its tail flamboyantly flicking in the process, he noticed half of its ear missing. Hilf stroked it, then stamped on its shadow.
Hilf frequently found himself stamping on the shadows of cats. Once it was four in one week. He thought it odd but didn’t pursue this thought in fear of getting confused and feeling nauseous. He kept self-perception to an absolute minimum. One evening, as the sky was turning deep blue in a warmer April, he followed one of the cats. He traced it out of the noise and lights of the centre until he reached a large, white suburban house. The cat jumped over a sidewall and Hilf followed. He was never worried about being seen because he had come to the conclusion that he was invisible, but he continued to wear a tweed suit after his death as he had always done. Hilf saw the cat die in a most distasteful manner; it was struck upon the head several times by a man holding a spade under the stars. His pin-stripe suit was immaculate.
The two men were bound to meet from the beginning. Hilf knew it too as soon as he saw him standing there with his spade in the moonlight. He felt a bond. A week later, Hilf found himself treading out of the centre of Berlin once more. Houses gradually grew in size and streets became quieter, as if Hilf himself was in control of his surroundings. It was a beautiful evening to indirectly kill someone. The sun bled through the sheets of clouds, all above as he walked. Light purple and dark yellow coloured the sky. It touched everything.
Hilf opened the front door. The front hall was ordered. An untouched grand piano stood to the left; a round mahogany table promptly sat in the middle with red flowers standing in a glass vase and a grandfather’s clock saluted him on the right. Hilf could hear a family talking and he became nervous. The last time he was this anxious was when he was alive. His feet carried on through the hall, pressing the Persian carpet, and into the kitchen; a family was sitting round a table.
‘Nicola can I speak to you.’ Ludo looked at his wife’s forehead.
‘What?’ She replied to her husband.
‘I would like one family supper before you go. With everyone. Like it was in London.’ Ludo’s fingers made their way to Nicola’s right arm and clutched it. Nicola’s brown eyebrows rose delicately. For a second a feeling of sympathy came over her.
‘That would be nice,’ she said quietly.
By the end of April Ludo’s life had dramatically changed. He had killed around twenty-two cats and had bought one new spade. He now had a spade at the front door as well. On top of this Nicola had discovered that he was having sex with three different women a week, not including the children’s au pair, Sofia. Unfortunately Nicola couldn’t divorce Ludo because he did not want this, and she loved him. Ludo agreed that she could move back to London with the children for a couple of months. Sofia must stay in Berlin to help him.
This family supper that Ludo spoke of had captured his attention for weeks in advance. The children were happily at the table like two buoys bobbing on the sea. They were looking forward to going back to London for a while.
‘Look at this! Say thank you to your father.’ Nicola quickly looked up at her husband as he placed the food in front of his children’s beaming faces. She gently smiled at him, recognizing the man she had married. He smiled back.
‘This isn’t bad Ludo. For you.’ Nicola gave the jest as she took her first mouthful. Ludo looked like he was about to chuckle but didn’t, he held it together and began eating.
‘Don’t thank me. Thank the shadow man.’
When they had finished their last supper, he told his family that the meal he had cooked for them had consisted of four stray cats and had taken all afternoon. After this, the supper took a turn for the worst. Ludo’s son was emphatically sick on the floor, his daughter screamed in horror and his wife had run out of the room. Ludo found her outside the front door clutching her mobile. Calmly, he picked up his new spade and took a deep breath. He grabbed his wife and threw her to the ground just outside the front door. Ludo dropped to his knees and placed her smooth legs between his thighs. His legs began to squeeze her hips. That new spade went behind his head and was forced down. Ludo struck his wife twice across the side of her blonde head and once on the front of her face, altering its shape like an artist without reason. Nicola’s blood turned an inky blue colour in the unlit darkness, flowing from all sides.
He slowly walked back into his house and killed his two children with the same spade. He dragged Nicola’s body on top of the piano and put his children’s bodies on top of that, like placing three pictures on a mantle piece. Hilf remained in the hallway; he was slumped by the grandfather clock looking at his knees. He had screamed, smashed the walls, thrown paintings, cried, but nothing distracted nor prevented Ludo. Unfortunately, like Hilf, Ludo Vanski didn’t have a shadow to stamp on.