This is a translation I just did of Wolfgang Borchert’s short story from 1947, called “The Kitchen Clock”, or Die Küchenuhr. This kind of story, the kind of story that most people end up never hearing, because it’s foreign, old, and not particularly famous is why I love languages – you read things you’d never end up reading otherwise.
They saw him from far off, coming towards him, because he stuck out. He had a very old face, but as he approached, it was noticeable that he was actually only about twenty. He sat down with his old face beside them on the bench. And then he showed them what was in his hand.
“It was our kitchen clock”, he said, and looked at them all, one after the other, who sat on the bench in the sun. “Yes, I found it. It’s still here.”
He held up a round, china-white kitchen clock, and dabbed the blue painted numbers with his fingers.
“It’s worthless now”, he said apologetically, “I know that too. And it’s also not especially appealing. It is just like a plate, with its plain white lacquer. But the blue numbers still look very pretty, I think. The hands are naturally only rough bits of tin. And now they don’t work any more, besides. No. Inside it’s broken, that’s for sure. But it still looks like it always did. Even if it doesn’t work any more.”
With the tip of his finger he traced a careful circle around the edge of the plate clock. And he said, slowly: “And this is what’s left.”
They sat on the bench in the sun, not looking at him. One of them looked at his shoes, and the woman looked in her child’s pram. Then someone said:
“You lost everything, then?”
“Yes, yes”, he said brightly, “just think, absolutely everything! Only this here, only this is left.” And he raised the clock up again, as if the others still didn’t know it.
“But it doesn’t work any more”, said the woman.
“No, no, that it doesn’t. It’s broken, I know that for definite. But otherwise it is still entirely as it always was, white and blue.” And again he showed them his clock. “And the most beautiful thing”, he continued excitedly, “I haven’t explained that to you yet. The best thing is namely: just think, it stopped at half past two! Of all times, just think, at half past two!”
“Then surely your house was struck at half past two”, said the man, and stuck his lower lip out importantly. “I’ve often heard about that. When the bomb goes down, the clocks stop. That comes from the pressure.”
He looked at his clock and shook his head in wonder. “No, dear sir, no, you are wrong. This has nothing to do with the bombs. You don’t always need to talk about the bombs. No. At half past two was something completely different, you just don’t know. That is quite the joke, that it stopped exactly at half two, and not at quarter to four or seven o’clock. That is to say, I always came home at half past two. At night, I mean. Almost always at half two. That’s just the joke.”
He looked at the others, but they had directed their eyes away from him. He couldn’t meet their gaze. So he nodded at his clock: “Then I was naturally hungry, no? And I always went straight into the kitchen. There it was almost always half two. And then, then, fact is, my mother came in. I would open the door ever so quietly, but she always heard me. And as I looked for something to eat in the dark kitchen, suddenly the light would flick on. Then she stood in her wool jacket and with a red shawl. And barefoot – always barefoot. And bear in mind our kitchen was tiled. And she would make her eyes very small, because the light was so bright. She had just been asleep. It was, after all, nighttime.”
“So late again, she said then. She never said anything more, just: So late again. And then she made me a bit of warm supper and watched as I ate. As she did, she would always rub her feet against each other, because the tiles were so cold. She never wore shoes at night. And she sat for such a long time with me, until I was full. And then I heard her putting the plates away again, when I had already gone to my room and turned out the light. Every night that happened. And mostly, always at half past two. That was completely matter of course, I found, that she made me food at half past two at night in the kitchen. I took that completely for granted. She always did that. And she said nothing else, only “so late again”. But she said that every time. And I thought, this could never end. It was so obvious, normal to me. All this had always been so.”
For a long moment it was entirely silent on the bench. Then he said slowly: “And now?” He looked at the others. But he couldn’t really find them. Then he said slowly to the clock, into the white and blue round face: “Now. Now I know that that was paradise. That was really paradise.”
It was silent, all still on the bench. Then the woman asked: “And your family?”
He smiled sheepishly from one to the other. But they didn’t see him.
When he raised his clock up high again, he laughed. He laughed: “Only this here. This is left. And the finest thing is, that it stopped, of all times, at half past two. Half past two, of all times.”
Then he didn’t say anything else. But he had a very old face. And the man who sat next to him looked at his shoes. But he didn’t see his shoes. He just kept thinking of the word – the word paradise.