Artwork by Shaunna Henshall
Artwork by Shaunna Henshall

SHE’S STILL FIGURING out her new housemate, but she likes the way he laughs. His name is Kaspar.

‘As in Kaspar Hauser?’ she asked the first time they met, thinking of the Herzog film.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘Or also as in Suppen-Kaspar.’

Suppen-Kaspar is a character in a Heinrich Hoffman fairytale who refuses to eat his soup, shrivels away to nothing and dies. She knows this because James, her other housemate, owns a book of Hoffman’s stories. He’s trying to learn German by reading a fairytale a day before his corn flakes; each morning a naughty German child perishes in a different way.

The three of them sit with their coffee. She’s peeling an orange, telling the boys about the dolphin man who tried to teach dolphins to communicate with humans but ended up injecting them with LSD, his funding cut, his project doomed. James is in his baggy Indian pants. Kasper’s wearing his faded military service T-shirt as a pyjama top. He listens, though his attention is focused on trimming the wax edge from his pre-sliced Gouda and placing it squarely on his pumpernickel.

The buzzer rings, interrupting her story. Kaspar looks up. Their building is full of German families and retirees, including one man who stands glaring by the window, arms-crossed, whenever they play music after 8pm. She pulls out the speaker jack as Kaspar opens the door. Their silver-haired, sixty-something neighbour from the floor below is standing there in a purple cardigan.

She has never spoken to this woman – but they hear her practicing the piano on Sundays. It’s always the same song, a jangly jazz tune for beginners that they now all know by heart; the sound of her fumbling the keys, stopping, starting once more, echoes across the courtyard.

The woman blushes as she speaks to Kaspar, who starts to laugh. From the woman’s rapid German, she gleans the word ‘Zweibeln’, as does James, though she doubts any German children have been killed off with onions. He leaps up to fetch one for the woman, almost knocking over the table. Wordlessly, he passes the onion to her, ecstatic. The four of them stand silently grinning and nodding at one another, while a passing truck gently shakes the apartment.