Aris Kalaizis

Manchester. A third story after a Kalaizis-painting

In Switzer­land borned and in New York liv­ing author Chris­toph Keller (2009) writes with his third story to a paint­ing of Leipzig paint­er Aris Kala­izis "Manchester". A sur­really story between sky and hell

Aris Kalaizis | Manchester | Oil on canvas | 51 x 59 in | 2009
Aris Kalaizis | Manchester | Oil on canvas | 51 x 59 in | 2009

Their names were Robert and Paul. First it was Paul who put on the bowl­er hat. When Robert put on his, they were gone.

They were broth­ers. Robert, the older, was a res­taur­ant own­er, Paul was pro­gram­ming soft­ware. Lately, there had been an alarm­ing amount of fights between them, some violent.

“Why did you punch me?” Paul asked. So sud­denly sur­roun­ded by dark trees, he longed for Elisa’s slender body. He also felt hungry.

As Robert couldn’t turn around, he glanced at his broth­er over his shoulder. Paul was wear­ing an old-fash­ioned brown suit and a heavy-look­ing back­pack. They were in a small clear­ing that looked familiar.

Paul sensed that Robert’s silence was the silence of the wood, filled with the noises of creatures he couldn’t see: there was chirp­ing and clit­ter­ing, hiss­ing and belling. He must have had a reas­on for punch­ing me, he thought. Robert nev­er did any­thing without a reas­on. Even when blow­ing off steam, he did it in a care­fully pre­med­it­ated fash­ion. Robert was hold­ing an open umbrella. It wasn’t rain­ing, was it? The air felt dry, smelling invit­ingly of warm res­in, aging foliage. All trees had leaves, none needles.

Robert felt some­thing under his foot. Some­thing soft that got harder when, sum­mon­ing all his strength, he pressed his foot down. It was a white top hat. He must have crushed it arriv­ing here. It felt wrong. Just like it felt when, as a young cook, he had spit in a soup and then had the waiter serve it. He didn’t even know who had ordered the soup. It was a hor­rible moment. He often thought of it. If he had always hated that guest it would have been dif­fer­ent. If he simply couldn’t stand his face, it would have been easi­er to under­stand. But he didn’t even know who would get the soup. His guests were his fam­ily. Was it pos­sible that he had hit his broth­er, just like that, and because there wasn’t a reas­on he had done it, he had com­pletely for­got­ten about it? But he hadn’t for­got­ten about the soup. And he loved his broth­er, didn’t he?

Detail: Manchester
Detail: Manchester

Robert tried to lift his foot but couldn’t. Glan­cing at his umbrella, he said, “It’s been rain­ing white top hats, Paul.”

Paul was feel­ing the weight of his back­pack. He kept pok­ing with the handle of his umbrella. Or was it a cane? Just because his broth­er was hold­ing an umbrella didn’t mean he was hold­ing one as well. He didn’t know the rules of the place yet. He was search­ing some­thing. He looked at his hand hold­ing the slick ven­eered handle, but when he looked bey­ond it, there was noth­ing. No shrub, no trees, no ground, not even dark­ness. The world just stopped. But when he glanced side­ways, he could see for miles, deep and deep­er into the wood, just by fol­low­ing the white top hats with his eyes.

“You don’t know that,” Paul said.

“It’s not wet, the sky is cloud­less, and I’m hold­ing an umbrella. What else could it be? Everything hap­pens for a reas­on. Accept that in your heart, Paul.” It angered Robert so much to think of God.

“The hats have been here before us. Before we came,” Paul said. He thought of his daugh­ters, five and elev­en, from two dif­fer­ent moth­ers. Both refused to see him. He thought of Elisa’s daugh­ter Myrna he spoiled so much. He was afraid of los­ing them, of los­ing all women in his life. He remembered Myrna’s blue sweat­shirt when he had taken her to the play­ground recently — how the cot­ton had ripped when her sleeve got caught in a branch — but he didn’t remem­ber a single one of his own daughter’s dresses.

“We didn’t come, broth­er,” Robert said. “We’re … just here now. Like guests who have already taken their seats but, mira­cu­lously, what they ordered is already on the table, hot and steaming.”

“Without com­ing?”

“We appeared, Paul.”

“Like a vis­ion?” Paul laughed, but it was an insec­ure laugh. He couldn’t get that ripped piece of cloth­ing out of his mind. There was the stac­cato of a wood­peck­er hit­ting a tree. It had the qual­ity of speech. “But to whom? There’s no one. Is it a vis­ion when there’s no visionary?”

“How do you know no one’s watch­ing us?”

“What is our mes­sage in that case?”

“Maybe we are the mes­sage, but we’re not sup­posed to know what the mes­sage means. Fact is we’re here.”

“Fact is we don’t belong here, Robert.”

“You don’t know that. What if we do belong here? What if we have been in the wrong place all along, and now, all of a sud­den, this place opened up?”

“Like a new loc­a­tion for a restaurant?”

Robert sadly shook his head. Fact was that they both didn’t under­stand what was hap­pen­ing to them. Fact was that whenev­er Robert felt some­thing, a pres­ence, some­thing not to be named, Paul felt com­pelled to ridicule that moment, tak­ing it away from him. That was a reas­on for punch­ing him.

“What would you make of that?” he said. “A place … sud­denly open­ing up for us?”

“I would make of that …” Paul stopped, sur­prised, then said, “Maybe it makes us gods. Gods with no wor­ship­pers, left to our own devices.” He hes­it­ated. “Or are the top hats the wor­ship­pers? Do they wor­ship us? Or are they the gods and we’re sup­posed to wor­ship them?”

Robert felt the strong urge for a clear-cut faith. His res­taur­ants, worker’s water­holes turned food temples, offered pricey organ­ic gour­met meals, and who­ever ques­tioned that was free to eat elsewhere.

“It’s … mys­ter­i­ous,” he said. “Maybe we should leave it at that.”

That was when Paul became aware of the shiny, pol­ished sur­face on the ground behind him. A tiny skat­ing rink with two white top hats obli­vi­ously skat­ing. That much Paul could see from the corner of his eyes. He sensed that there was some­thing under­neath it. Some­thing so ter­rible it made you lose your mind when you knew it, some­thing so cru­cial it ate you alive when you didn’t.

“I punched you,” Robert said, “because you betrayed me with my wife.”

More than ever Paul wished he could move — and put his hand on Robert’s arm. He now remembered clearly why Robert had punched him. He had stood up for Johan, one of Robert’s waiters, whom Robert had fired so heart­lessly. Robert must have exper­i­enced that as betrayal.

“Robert, you don’t have a wife,” Paul said.

“Maybe here I do,” Robert pondered. “We don’t know where we are. We don’t know how we got here. We’re just … here.”

Paul nod­ded. “It has all star­ted at Manchester.”


“Your res­taur­ant, of course. Don’t you see … what’s writ­ten on the bar­rel, the arrow under­neath it! Let’s go there, fix everything, Robert, before it’s too late. Johan … he needs his job.”

Robert cinched, filled the wood with angry silence. There was the feath­ery rust­ling of the leaves, the demand­ing howl­ing of the wind.

“Why not?” Paul insisted. “Why are you so hard on him? Yes, he screwed you by not show­ing up, but wasn’t he genu­inely sorry when he did, ready to make up for it? He pan­icked. His girl­friend is preg­nant. Give him anoth­er chance. Show some heart, brother.”

“Why can we speak here, Paul,” Robert said after a while, “while we can’t move anymore?”

“Maybe so we can artic­u­late our fears?”

“The top hats,” Robert said. “I remem­ber now. It has noth­ing to do with Johan. We were hav­ing lunch, at Manchester. Then Pen­tagrass showed up. The paint­er who occa­sion­ally eats here. With two bowl­er hats and the suits his wife had tailored — the ones we’re wear­ing now. Remember?”

Paul nod­ded. “He told us to put the hats on, and —”

Then, sud­denly, the world opened up. Paul, ter­ri­fied, looked around. There was still noth­ing where he was stand­ing, pok­ing with the handle of an umbrella or a cane. But sud­denly, he was afraid that if he wouldn’t stop he would find some­thing — a piece of torn cloth­ing he would instantly recog­nize as belong­ing to Clara or Selma’s dress. He dropped the handle and swirled around, announ­cing agit­atedly, “I have to hurry — take bet­ter care of my daugh­ters. Let’s go, broth­er, while we can!”

But Robert shook his head. “I do belong here, Paul. I’ve nev­er felt that way before. I’m sorry I have punched you — did I really? And did I really fire Johan? Tell him he can go back. Tell him to take care of the res­taur­ants and report to you until I’m back. If that’s okay with you, of course.”

Paul nod­ded. “It is. Of course, it is, Robert.”

They hugged, care­fully first, then filled with fire. One stayed, the oth­er left. One became the keep­er of the White Top Hats, the oth­er fol­lowed the Trail of White Top Hats. They were both happy, in their own ways. They were broth­ers. Their names were Robert and Paul.

©2010 Chris­toph Keller | Aris Kalaizis

Christoph Keller in his flat (NYC, 2007)
Christoph Keller in his flat (NYC, 2007)

Chris­toph Keller, born in 1963 in St. Gal­len, is the author of sev­er­al nov­els, essays and plays, most recently the novella “A Few Famil­i­ar Things” (2003), the auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al nov­el “The Best Dan­cer,” (2003), the play “The Found­a­tion,” (2004) and the pho­to­graphy show “Eye Catch­er” (New York, 2006). In the spring of 2008, The State of Last Things was pub­lished, the third nov­el with Hein­rich Kuhn as Keller+Kuhn. He divides his time with his wife, the poet Jan Heller Levi, between St. Gal­len and New York City. This is his third story after a paint­ing by Aris Kalaizis.

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