Herr Doktor Baum (West Germany, 1982)

I am sitting at a long dining table. The table cloth is brilliant white, a crisp unblemished linen. There is a multitude of heavy forks, knives and spoons for each of us. I assume they are silver. But I wouldn’t know.

I am twenty-two years old. Everyone else is twice or three times my age. Except for the woman to our host’s left. She is pretty, not much older than me, quiet.

Each of us has two wine glasses. Mine is half full. I must stay sober.

To my right is my boss. To his right is his boss. I don’t know why I’m here really.

Opposite me is Herr Schmidt. Their Managing Director. He drove us here. It was a Mercedes. Big, with leather seats that enveloped.

Germany had moved past the window faster than I had ever been. On land that is. Then we had turned off the autobahn and found our way to this house.

The house is large and modern, perfect white in this summer’s evening, with a sweeping drive and a servant to open the door and bring us in.

But now we are here, in this cavernous dining room, with paintings and portraits around the walls and heavy, dark furniture. Perhaps it is mahogany. I don’t know.

I look at Herr Schmidt. He is tall, with thinning hair and a poker-player’s face. He is leaning to his left, where our host sits. His boss. The owner. Herr Doktor Baum.

Doktor Baum is a small man. Silver hair. Heavy faced. A suit, cut well to conceal a large body, almost.

We are waiting for the first course.

Doktor Baum has been telling us about how successful his company is. He speaks English, the accent heavy. Germanic. Herr Schmidt says nothing.

I am bored.

Until Doktor Baum says, “And if my company is not successful, I fire the Managing Director.”

I wait for a smile to say, ‘That is a joke.’

There is none.

“I should tell you how I met my wife.”

There is silence.

“I decided I needed a wife. So I made a list. All ze zings I wanted in a wife.”

He cannot say ‘th’. ‘Ze. Ze zings.’

“And I gave scores out of ten to each woman zat I knew. Beauty, 9 for example. Brains. Cooking. A long list.”

We say nothing.

“Then I add up ze scores at ze end, and one woman came top.” Pause. “And here she is.”

The young woman next to him raises her head and smiles. Sort of.

Herr Schmidt looks at my boss and says, “You should ask him to play the organ.”

“The organ?”


My boss says, “You play the organ?”

“Yes, come.”

Our host stands and we dutifully follow him out of the room and climb stairs past closed doors to another set of stairs.

He switches on the light.

We are in a long and wide room in the attic, perhaps the whole size of this large house. The eaves drop to waist height on either side and there are large dormer windows. He opens one wide and the night air comes in. Cool air.

Then I see, at the far end, some huge organ pipes and very many smaller ones. They stretch up to fill the whole end wall of the room. Eave to eave, into the very tallest part of the roof.

In the centre are the keys and stops and pedals and a polished wooden bench.

The entire room is devoted to this wondrous, extraordinary organ. Focussing on it. And to the man now sitting on the bench, facing away from us, as we ring ourselves around him.

He raises his hands. Big hands. Like steaks.

The hands fall and the sound is overwhelming. The pipes, a dull green, stretching high into the roof, reverberate and so does the room, the whole house. He plays for no more than a few minutes. He stops and my ears, my body take a moment to adjust to the sudden silence.

Doktor Baum is still facing away from us. He speaks. His voice is loud. Too loud.

 “I bought ze organ when zey close ze church. It was too big for my roof. So I bring in builders. Zey raise ze roof.”

He lifts his hands again, but stops with them in mid-air.

“I play when I come in from work. I work late. Two, zree, four in ze morning I come home. I play to calm nerves.”

His hands come down on the keys and there is that astonishing noise again vibrating through me as he plays.

He stops.

“Sometimes,” he says. Shouts almost. “Sometimes ze neighbours telephone to complain.”

I imagine the sheer volume reaching across still night air to neighbouring houses. Their homes vibrating at two, three, four in the morning just like this one has been and will do again. The cursing as they struggle to the phone to chide Herr Doktor Baum. Or more probably to curse the quiet and pretty young woman who is standing at my side and whose duty it will be to pick up the telephone.

“Yes, sometimes zey complain. And zen,” pause, “maybe, maybe I shut ze windows.”

And then those great steak hands fall to the keys once again.