So there is this big house and it is night and all the people in it are all totally drunk and I think they smoke pot and do drugs and drink wine. But it is so late that even they have gone to bed and to sleep. There are many rooms in this house and in every room there are people sleeping, mainly couples. In one room, with a lot of colorful fabrics hanging about, two women and a man share a bed. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and there is a pool in which a few bottles are rocking away gently in the clear, illuminated water, and you can see the clean blue tiles shimmering below. Through the wide-open veranda door you see a white leather sofa and on it sleeps another young man with round sunglasses sticking in his curly hair. In his snoring sleep he clings to a wine bottle.
Then you see the house from the street and a gang of men is sneaking around a tall white gate of solid metal, and they whisper and one of them says: “Man, tell us the code!” A man who looks drunk or at least very sweaty and red-faced types the code into this small box with buttons next to the door and then it opens. The red-faced man stands aside and the others go in, maybe ten of them, maybe more. It is then you see what the tiptoeing gang brought with them: metal bars and even a baseball bat. They pass the swimming pool and still these bottles are swimming in it and they enter through the veranda door that stands wide open and you also see a light curtain softly blowing in the night air and it might be white during the day but it looks blue at night.
They reach the guy on the sofa with his wine bottle and, without any warning, they start to beat on him, in fact they kill him, they kill him by breaking his skull, and he does not even wake up or cry out because he is immediately dead. And then the men whisper to each other and point to the stairs which are made out of white marble and they go from one room to the next to kill the people in their sleep, men and women alike. One man, sleeping by a woman, wakes up to see an iron bar coming down on his head, which makes a horrible sound, and then you see the shadow of the stick on the wall and you see the shadow going down again and again on both of them, who were still asleep so close together just minutes ago, and you understand they are cracking their skulls and there is blood spraying the wall where the shadows are thrown. I cannot get rid of this guy waking up to his own death with all this white design stuff around him.
The man who leads the gang to the gate is played by Val Kilmer, and he cheats on his friends although he was partying in that very same pool just hours before, chatting up girls, taking drugs and so on. I don’t even know the name of the film, but I remember there is a text before the titles roll at the end and it says that the story is based on true events, that the Val Kilmer character escaped justice and died of AIDS a decade after the events, and this text is put onto an image of a reddish road during sunset on which you see a car disappearing, lurching in high speed with Val Kilmer in it. This is the only other scene I remember from the movie, and then I always think: “That is much closer to what I would imagine Australia to look like.”
So whenever I gaze into the middle distance, unable to fix on a horizon line or to grasp the features of a familiar face, and whenever I am then asked by anybody what it is I am thinking about, I think of this scene in that house and the iron rods casting murderous shadows on this drugged community’s bedroom wall.
Now, in general, when asked that question, it is hard to stick to the truth and to pin down all these meaningless thoughts that are flapping around, and to give a straightforward reply. There is room for a lot of conflict there, as naturally whatever you reply sounds like a plain lie. But in my case, I know exactly what I am thinking about, and it is a scene from a not-so-good movie I saw a long time ago.
Of course everybody remembers or thinks about stuff that does not relate to anything that is presently at hand. But the problem is that in my mind this scene alters and changes and the characters begin to be played by people in my life, who lend their faces to the cast of that short scene. For example, one of my brothers takes over the part of the drunk on the sofa, or my other brother and his wife lend their faces to one of the peacefully slumbering couples that is so horribly struck down. Although from a different generation than the beach-hair community, I see my mother, running in vain from the intruders, trying to escape via the balcony door. My father, bearded and dressed in greenish silken pajamas, even tries to fight back and throws an ugly vase from the nightstand at one of the attackers’ heads, just to be handled in an even more brutal way than the others. I see my own girlfriend, who I want to be true to as to nobody else, I see her sleeping next to an unknown man — well, actually, I know that creep — and for these two there is no escape from the deadly script. There are also other people: Once I recognized a waitress working in a restaurant across the street from my apartment; another time it was my landlord, who snored on the white sofa.
But in these moments of gazing away, I wonder about how time slips away, how that beach will never be what it used to be, about how insecure I am about love and yet so needy about it. I wish I would think about existential riddles, the impossibility of happiness, anything like this. But what really challenges my mental stamina is that I think about this film and this scene.
My mind is usually a fairly happy one, free of superstition, free of fear, and I do believe that I am seeking to improve my life, to make it better, and I try to laugh more, and I think you can fairly say that I’ve made a lot of progress already, and it is just the nature of things that some issues remain difficult, and it would be even more irritating if those issues could be solved all at once.
To be honest, I’ve tried to speak about this scene when asked. But it seemed to be a way too concrete answer, especially in combination with that shoreless gaze that usually precedes it. For the other person it is then difficult to understand what I am saying, and then he or she thinks that I am making this crude stuff up — yes, sometimes I even get accused of making this stuff up, as if I might actually be thinking about another person or even thinking about making love with someone that is not there in that moment.
Do I really force myself to think of scenes of death, violence and destruction just to not admit the love I share? Do I put faces very dear to me onto the generic cast of a bad film production and watch them get killed as an emotional penalty? Am I forcing myself to recall that I actually do care about the people around me?
Be that as it may. But to keep things concrete: Over the last few months, I have turned my attention to the different characters that hang around in that house. I tried to stay with the drunk on the sofa. I then saw my silhouette carrying him off, and his silhouette and those of some lower palm trees and bushes against a beautiful night sky speckled with yellow stars. I then take extra good care to leave him in a steady position that does not only secure him from the offenders but also prevents him from suffocating on his own puke.
Other times I try to warn the sleepers and wake up the whole house by beating a huge wooden spoon on a cooking pot, screaming and yelling until everybody is awake and about, grumpy but alive, and the gang who was just about to enter sneaks off crouched and cursing. On yet more occasions when I fall back into my trance, let’s say, staring at some breakfast leftovers, gazing at the crumbs on my plate and the yoke-smeared egg shell, I see myself running up and down the stairs screaming, trying to shake the sleepers awake, trying to make them understand that they are in deadly danger — oh why would they not listen to me, why would they not wake up?
And then I try to face the bullies, with unseen martial arts moves that leave all of them knocked out and bleeding, but of course not seriously harmed. Or I make up lies that the police in their blue and white sheriff cars are on their way, that there is no use in killing these people. Pleading for their lives, I offer them all my money not to harm anyone, just to be roughly pushed out of their way and to sit whimpering on a garden chair, helplessly trying to imitate the sound of the police radio. But there is no use. Around my displaced self, sitting on this bast chair, everybody I dearly love is killed with blood-smeared iron sticks and there is not a thing I can do about it.
The whining part is the most strange for me, as I have not cried in decades, not even last week when I learned about the recent bad news concerning several family members — new that was apparently concealed from me for years, so as to not additionally trouble me during the difficult times that I recently went through professionally, which absorbed me fully.
And here comes the last example for me to explain myself to you: Waiting for the tram that I usually take to get to the center of the city, I found myself gaping at the tracks, and this time I saw my own hand hammering the code into the small box next to the white gate, and it was me hurling the door open and pulling out of my right cowboy boot a heavy metal stick with some rubbery grip wound onto one end. It really took me considerable effort to jerk myself away from the horrible scenes that followed and that have since come back, unpredictably, so many times. I tried to laugh it off as variations on a cinematic trick that was played on my unformed mind. Nobody died, nobody will die, and neither Val Kilmer nor the character he plays is a compelling alter ego for me. But let’s say that I momentarily add more details to the scene, some explicitly violent, such as that extra scene with the man and the glass table I knock down the marble stairs, for instance, or others that are more logistical, such as the code for opening the white gate (it’s 4475).
Obviously this too is just a sign of an imagination that desperately tries to free itself from the rigid system it once swore by. But there is in the story an aspect that correlates with an actual characteristic of mine that has become stronger over time. For this it might be helpful to know that the issue of treachery and the feeling of being a traitor in one way or another is a most pressing subject for me, just as it might be for many people who have dedicated their life to thinking about injustice. It is not so much that I fear I will snitch on somebody, it is more the feeling that I already did so in numerous, deliberate or non-deliberate ways, and that a very, very dark cloud, charged with black rain and flashes of iron guilt hangs over the path that I am trotting down — too dumb, too numb, too solitary, too careless.
A good friend of mine once told me that in his village there was somebody who put an ad in the local newspaper that said: If he should by any means, consciously or unconsciously, have insulted, disgruntled or annoyed anyone, he, by this ad, means to apologize to everybody, and to ask for forgiveness as well to assure the general public that anything like this will never happen again. I thought this was a funny anecdote, but by now I feel much closer to this state of mind than I would have ever imagined. I notice that I excuse myself many times a day. It seems all that is left for me to do is to excessively apologize for actions, words and thoughts, preferably in advance.
Springtime is in the city and although it rains today, we already had a few weeks with a lot of sunshine and blue skies. As it was a long winter, I was looking forward to the warm nights spent outside, and I put away my winter jacket for the season, lightheartedly, when I found the number 4475 written with dribbling strokes of blood on the back of my wardrobe. Of course not.
There is no new plot, there is nothing coming from this piece of fiction around a house with people in it, and that house is out there and fairly disconnected from the cruel scenes it once hosted. I am sure a family lives in it by now and that it was used for a film shoot at some point, now merely an anecdote that teenage siblings tell their friends, sitting around the table on the veranda, drinking iced tea and talking.
Peter Wächtler (b. 1979, Germany) is an artist living in Brussels.