I’m the only one, some say the last one but I don’t like that, it’s too negative, it sounds as if no one is coming after me. Maybe it’s true, who knows, that’s how it was with the others but that doesn’t mean it has to be the same with me. I’m not looking for a successor and no one is looking to be one either; my sons don’t want to, my daughter can’t and my assistant is too stupid, but I haven’t given up hope yet that one fine day a young man or a young woman with a bit of brains will knock at my door and say, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll keep it going.’
And if not that’s fine too, then it’ll just come to an end like everything comes to an end at some point; that’s the way of the world. Holding onto the past although circumstances have changed entirely is the quickest way to go under. I might as well throw myself straight in front of a train. I’ve seen what happens to those who clutched on to old times, who got up every morning and went to the workshop and dusted their machines until lunchtime. I’ve seen the blank order books and the blank faces, and I’ve heard them complaining about the present at the Beach Hotel in the evenings. And when I did say something about it, because I couldn’t take any more, I’d get an earful about how it’s easy for me to talk, my business is still ticking over.
Yes, I’d say, it’s still ticking over. And the amazing thing is, it really is still ticking over, in the seventh generation, Kramer Furniture, the Kramer Furniture Paradise, the sole remaining craftsman’s company in Jericho; everything else is gone. Most of them I never saw myself, I only know the ads, the photos in the history books, over at the Jericho Museum – where everyone has taken their now worthless inventory. They thought they could save it by putting it to a permanent purpose, by declaring it historical evidence. But the truth is, no one ever looks at the stuff. Many Jerichoans only pop in once in their lives; even if they have visitors from outside the village they stand outside or take a seat in the café next door and call after their guests, ‘I’ll wait here.’ It doesn’t take long, it’s just an old farmhouse in the hammrich fields, three hundred square metres stuffed full of junk. The tourists only pay to get in because there are no other cultural activities for miles around, apart from the School Museum. And the school classes herded through like cattle for the slaughter every year don’t cast a glance at the exhibits, don’t listen to the museum director, prefer to tread on each other’s heels, pinch each other, stare longingly out of the windows waiting for the moment of redemption.
I know that because I’m the director. I’m a volunteer; I wouldn’t take money for it. If I didn’t do it, nobody would. The old generation, those of my age, are happy to sit together and talk about the old days. They have far less ahead of them in comparison but they wouldn’t swap places with me. ‘Always the same stories,’ they say, and then I say, ‘Yes, always the same stories, I have to listen to yours all the time too.’
In fact we have a lot on offer, relics of a lost culture: milk bottles from the Jericho Dairy; metals signs from Busboom, Oltmanns and Kromminga; war diaries from deployments in Syria, Morocco and Spain; flags from the marksmen’s club; blueprints from Kolthoff for the new design for the village; a loom and a labelling gun from Vehndel; Schulz’s anvil; a Deutz tractor from Brechtezende; a golden-shimmering National cash register from Tinnemeyer; a roll-fronted cabinet from Superneemann; a Hollerith machine from Rosing; a tanning bed from Solar Hanken; a Bäuerle bench saw from my workshop; the cue that won Berger every game down in Petersen’s Pool Hall; a fully functional hot mangle, no one knows who from; the complete shop fittings from the Friesen Pharmacy; laundry baskets full of photos and letters and family trees; the neon sign from Club 69 and the fully stocked condom machine from Kuper’s Drugstore. But you can’t get anything out of it and the coins the young people insert with clammy fingers get stuck. I’ve emptied the cash drawer several times now; it’s added up to a pretty packet over the years, which we need urgently because we run on donations.
I’m always on the lookout for new old things. It comes in handy that I make the coffins for Klaaßen, the undertaker, so I can ask the next of kin if they have anything for me. There are some who find that tactless, but most are grateful to get rid of their forefathers’ junk. They look really relieved when I come by to pick the stuff up. I save them a few metres – the walk to the roadside; I remove a burden from them, a legacy, I free them from the duty of having to keep it all until kingdom come in memory of their relatives. Every first Friday of the month, I drive around the village first thing in the morning, before the rubbish van comes, and collect up bulky waste. A lot of it even I can’t use, pedal-operated sewing machines for example, I have dozens of them in stock, but I’m always discovering something I don’t have in that particular version: kluntje sugar tins from Knipper’s fiftieth anniversary; a pair of Breinermoorer ice skates, the leather straps half rotted away, rusty blades with a star embossed on them; a book of matches from the Beach Hotel, back in Kröger’s days.
A couple of months ago I found something during demolition works, something I can’t explain. I was prising up the parquet flooring in the rectory – a lovely herringbone pattern from the beginning of the last century, very well preserved despite a few worn spots – when I saw a piece of tin foil under the wood, carefully folded up like an envelope. I threw the first one behind me heedlessly but then I came across a second and a third and a fourth piece, scattered in the cassettes between the beams holding the parquet. I picked one of them up, stroked a hand across the surface, felt that something very thin must be inside it, and when I unwrapped it I got a real shock: a fingerprint on paper, with jagged edges as if cut out by a child’s hand. The other envelopes contained fingerprints too, blue, black, green. Some smudged and patchy, others very precise, absolutely clear, with a fine grain, with loops, whorls, curves. I looked for some kind of explanation but there was nothing more than that under the wood, no note, nothing that might give a clue as to how the fingerprints had got there. And after I’d tidied everything up I went to the last pastor, Pastor Klüver, retired long ago, and showed him my treasure. He shrugged, said it must have happened before his time, and promised to ask the local church office for documents of previous renovations. ‘You can save yourself the effort,’ I said. ‘Who but Kramer Furniture would have done it, and I’ve never heard a story like this.’
Nor did an after-work beer at the Beach Hotel, otherwise guaranteed to provide fast and simple explanations, turn up any information about the prints; the papers were passed along the bar, everyone issued an opinion on them – a joke, a practical trick, a scam. In the end I had no other option but to go to the police. Saathoff, not the youngest either nowadays, had a good look at everything and then said, ‘We’ll soon see, I’ll just run them through the system.’ He addressed something at the ceiling and an assistant in a white coat and disposable gloves came and took away the foil envelopes. Saathoff and I had a cup of tea and talked about our wives, football and our fathers – a subject we always come back to because his father used to keep a diary in his own days in the force, in which my father is mentioned. Every time we see each other he tells me about it, and every time it’s a different episode, and every time I ask him to show me it one day, and every time he promises he will but nothing ever comes of it; I’m beginning to think this diary doesn’t really exist.
When the assistant came back with the fingerprints, now packed individually in transparent plastic bags, we both stood up as if expecting news of a death. The man said, ‘There aren’t any matches.’ And Saathoff said, ‘There must be.’ ‘No, I checked everything, there’s nothing in AFIS, not one hit.’‘Everyone’s in there though, all the living and all the dead.’ ‘From the past seventy years, at least.’ ‘And there’s nothing in there?’‘Nothing.’ ‘Then they must be fakes,’ said Saathoff.‘Fakes?’ I said. ‘Fake fingerprints? Who would do that?’‘How do I know. It used to be money, nowadays it’s identities. A lucrative business. Could be samples that someone’s lost.’‘In the rectory?’‘Weren’t there refugees housed there for a while?’‘But they were under the wood,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t they have slipped through somewhere?’‘The parquet was really tight, I could hardly get it out.’ ‘I’ll have a listen around,’ said Saathoff and pulled the bags over to himself.‘Can I have them back?’ I hoped I could put the prints on display in the museum; I thought they might drum up more interest, especially because their origin was uncertain, but Saathoff shook his head and said he’d get back to me as soon as he knew more. He called me two weeks later, said he had some news, and asked me to come into the station – he couldn’t discuss it over the phone. So I drove to town again, sat down with him again and we had a cup of tea again, but this time he showed me photos projected onto the wall – photos of fingerprints, fingerprints like I’d found in the rectory, ‘But these,’ Saathoff said, ‘come from the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, and these,’ he waved his hand around the room, whereupon a new photo of new fingerprints appeared, ‘are from the court apothecary in Heidelberg, and these ones,’ another wave of his hand, and again new fingerprints appeared on the wall, looking identical to the previous ones, ‘were found in the palace on Berlin’s Peacock Island. I could show you umpteen examples from all over Europe.’ ‘So what does that mean?’ I asked. ‘Fingerprints have been found in all these places in recent years, all wrapped in aluminium foil. Interpol has set up a database specially for them because none of them can be identified.’ ‘So they are fakes then?’‘Apparently not.’‘What then?’‘The only thing we’re sure of is that the paper and ink are very old, at least a hundred years old. The oldest sample, from the,’ – he looked at a note – ‘Otaheiti Cabinet, is from about the year 2010.’Over the next few weeks he told me about new discoveries. He couldn’t get the subject off his mind and somehow – perhaps someone from the Beach Hotel hadn’t been able to keep it to himself – a journalist got wind of it and asked me questions and took photos of me and the remains of the rectory, and the story of me and my fingerprints did the rounds, everyone asked me about it and a couple of jokers left their fingerprints in the museum and wrote I was here or It was me next to them.
I asked Saathoff to give back the prints but all he said was, ‘They’re evidence, I can’t do anything for you.’ ‘Evidence?’ I asked. ‘For what? For the existence of human beings? They don’t prove anything at all.’ ‘Oh, don’t they? So how did they get under the wood?’‘What are you trying to say? That there’s something supernatural involved?’ ‘There’s probably a perfectly simple explanation.’‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Perhaps it was craftsmen wanting to leave behind a trace of themselves.’ ‘In umpteen different places, over such a long period?’ ‘Journeyman carpenters.’ ‘You said yourself your grandfather must have put the floor down in the rectory. Was he a journeyman?’ ‘I don’t know much about him. My father never talked about him much.’ ‘We don’t know very much at all.’‘He doesn’t crop up in your diary, by any chance?’‘Who?’‘My grandfather.’‘When did he die?’‘Before I was born.’‘It doesn’t go back that far.’
But yesterday, on my sixty-second birthday, Saathoff handed me a very light package with the words, ‘You’re not allowed to open it until tomorrow, it’s for the future,’ and today I opened it and the fingerprints were in there. I called him right away of course, asked whether the case had been solved, and he just laughed in response and said, ‘Much better: there’s no more interest in it.’ ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’‘It’s not important enough.’‘So that means I can put them on display now?’ ‘You can nail them to the wall in the gents’ toilet as far as I care. We haven’t got any more use for them, anyway.’ It won’t be long, I’m certain of it, before the young people are standing impatiently before them in the Jericho Museum; they’ll be crowding around the display cabinet, shoving each other aside to get the best view of my discovery, eyes full of awe and admiration marvelling at the inexplicable.
Translation: Katy Derbyshire