The Man in the Homburg Hat

The slender, box-shaped outline of a man appeared from behind a glass partition, and Faber recognised at once the figure of Marius Eichert. He did not know where the German had been waiting—the platform was a crush of asymmetric window panes and mobile flesh which had hidden him from view—but Faber’s attempt at raising his eyebrows in an ironic greeting only resulted in emphasising the creases in his forehead.

Marius extended his hand and Faber’s completed the handshake. “You arrived, Harry,” said the German with a grin. “Or was it Henry?” he added. Marius had clearly mastered sarcasm.

“You can call me Heinrich if you must,” replied Faber, reddening a little and marvelling at Marius’ easy manner. “But I probably won’t answer you.”

This inside joke was enough to relax the Englishman’s muscles. Marius, to no avail, persisted in harrying Faber about his reluctance to reveal his Christian name. The German affected a broad, vowel-heavy English accent as he led them between tourists, shoppers and the occasional punks with bright shocks of hair. “My dear Faber!” he said. He followed Marius past a staircase thronging with people and to an elevator that stood at the centre of the platform.

Faber had known Marius for two years. While still a first-year graduate student, Faber had been sitting at the library cafe when a tall, stubble-afflicted man in a leather bomber jacket and a Homburg hat approached him incautiously. Tipping the crumpled, bobble-covered felt from his head, the stranger had said in an accent almost Slavic: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth!” He had then tapped a long finger against the illustration in front of Faber and asked, “Sherlock Holmes, or…?” The accent, it transpired, had been German; the man in the Homburg hat had been Marius Eichert.

Without a hint of compunction he had tossed his hat aside and joined Faber. Effusing in broken sentences, he explained that his English had been sharpened by reading Conan Doyle’s stories, that he had fallen in love with the exotic Victorian milieu and with Holmes and Watson’s adventures, and that, finally, he had won a grant from his university in Germany allowing him to study in the UK. He regretted that he had not been accepted to a university in London—“the fog of Baker Street,” Faber had muttered at this juncture—but was glad that the detective story was of some interest even to Warwickshire’s academics.

Faber had shut the book and given the usual perfunctory explanation of his project. “Which writer?” Marius had asked.

“Charles Thornton,” Faber had replied, sealing their acquaintance and guaranteeing their friendship.

The elevator shunted more badly than the train. Descending towards the subways buried beneath the glass and steel station, Marius said: “We’ll take the U8 to my place. Kottbusser Tor is the station.” His English was now a hop away from perfect. In the two years since they had first met he had become increasingly more fluent and proportionally more garrulous when he spoke English; in his native tongue Marius was even harder to shut up. These were purely symptoms of confidence, and Faber envied them.

Exiting onto the U-Bahn platform, a subway car to their right was rolling to a stop. Marius gestured towards it and they stepped into the train only to be crushed against the opposite doorwell by a mismatched cadre of Berliners. Faber soon began to feel uncomfortable when Marius quizzed him in English.

“Well,” Faber replied. “Thornton doesn’t have an archive, as such. He left his belongings—letters, stories (if there are any), perhaps some recordings— .” He paused, assessing Marius’ reaction. Besides Stephen and Faber, few people knew about Thornton’s penchant for dictation. Even Denford Scholes hadn’t mentioned this goldmine in his biography. When Marius didn’t flinch, Faber continued: “He left his things in the hands of friends or relatives here in Germany. Hopefully—after a few German lessons—I’ll be able to make some headway on tracking them down.”

“German lessons? I’ll try,” Marius said wryly. “But I think teaching English is my strong suit.” Faber contemplated a reply but the train car had begun to shunt mechanically against the tracks and to bubble with the sound of an unfamiliar language.

At Kottbusser Tor they exited. The underground platforms were cheerless and poorly cared for but the turnover was greater at this station than at any they had passed through. A father and son tried to cram past Faber and his suitcase onto the subway car, while two doors down and with a guitar slung across his back, a short, Turkish Johnny Cash boarded and began his street performer spiel. Faber caught only a few words before the doors kissed shut and cut the performance short.

They took an escalator then a second set of stairs before emerging above ground. They were anonymous against the summer morning, and Faber found himself vaguely troubled by the small group of men (and the occasional woman) congregating around the U-Bahn who looked decidedly like homeless, drunk ex-punks. Marius reassured him and launched into an invective in perfectly-crafted English sentences (and, indeed, paragraphs) on Berlin’s ability to publicly confess to and reveal its seedy underbelly, unlike most urban sprawls.

Faber did not reply. He followed Marius beneath train tracks that ran overhead, then crossed the street and angled left onto Reichenberger Strasse. As they came to a door marked only by a series of buzzers on its left hand jamb, the German ended his monologue: “these people—alcoholics, drug addicts, punks, the homeless—they live on the surface of this city like a tattoo.”

₰    ₰    ₰

The gurgle of the coffee machine filled the apartment as though the kitchen were crying out in hunger. Verbose as he was, Marius had never been prone to small talk. As soon as Faber had set his luggage down in Marius’ office—Faber’s makeshift room for the duration—the German had dispensed with pleasantries by calling questions to him across the apartment—how long was he staying? How was his graduate project going? What were his plans in Berlin?—and following them up with a miniature monologue. He had finished a teaching qualification and was working at a school in Potsdam, he told Faber, teaching English classes and reading Conan Doyle with his students.

“So my dear Faber,” Marius said, taking a seat on the futon next to him. He smiled and handed Faber a cup of dark, murky brew. “What on earth can you be planning that requires an indefinite stay in Berlin?” He pronounced the word elaborately. “Mr. Thornton died in the ‘90s, right?”

Faber had grown weary and wary of expounding on his project at Warwickshire. Freed now from the constraints of teaching and the bane of research—they were not his strong suit—he felt renewed and sensed a new lightness to his voice. “He died here in 1997, of renal failure combined with a fatal bout of hypothermia. Little to nothing is known about those last few years, though. The years since reunification, since the Wall came down.”

“Yes. Well, it will take you all of a couple of hours to see the remains of the Berlin Wall,” Marius said, “but significantly longer to notice what was left behind after tearing it down.”

Faber sensed the beginning of another invective and turned quickly back to Thornton. “But his death isn’t what interests me most, Marius,” said Faber. “Berlin had been his home since the early ‘60s. He had been a success in America, had written two novels and countless short stories, even edited a handful of screenplays for MGM. So why, of all places, did he move to Germany? Why did he choose a city torn apart from war—a war he fought in—for his new home?”

Marius did what Faber couldn’t and contorted his face into a wry grin. Faber was aware of his tendency to speak in extended sentences, for parentheses to go on for so long that the point was lost amongst tangents, but the German clearly recognised and appreciated his investigative spirit. “It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.”

As he pulled apart his luggage over the next half hour, Faber realised that Marius was right. From his suitcase he had picked out fresh clothes, deliberately setting the trunk of the bag against a wall so that he had a makeshift closet; delving into the pockets on the outside of the case he had removed and neatly stacked the cassette tapes beside the futon and then strewn his books across the couch itself, beneath the window looking onto Reichenberger Strasse. In this den, a foreign protectorate of Charles DeForest Thornton and of the past, of smoky rooms and conversations, Faber felt secure. He considered for a moment removing his laptop from its case, but he knew he could not bring himself to type out Stephen’s email address.

₰    ₰    ₰


Marius’ cigarillo twisted its ash into the air as they stood on the balcony. “Really you should be wearing the hat too, if you’re going to go all Bogart on me,” Faber said. The German smirked sideways, crooked teeth appearing beneath the filter in his mouth.

“I always preferred Cary Grant, actually,” he said. “So have you listened to the tapes yet?”

He was caught off guard. “Actually… no. I brought an old cassette player with me, but tuning out airports, planes and trains to listen to the old guy seemed like…”

“Sacrilege?” suggested Marius.

Faber nodded and wished that he knew more than ten words of German. In signs and speech he could find sufficient similarities with English to allow for some understanding, but when called upon to read any extended passages in his newly adopted language, he was lost among unfamiliar characters, confusion compounded by umlauts and deceptively long sentences.

Embers left a trace of the cigarillo’s descent as Marius let it drop to the grass below. After a moment of silence, he told Faber to wait right there and went back into the apartment. In thirty seconds he reappeared with two bottles of beer in one hand and a book in the other.

He passed one bottle to Faber before handing him the book. “C.D. Thornton?”

“For some reason either he or his publisher didn’t want to use the name Charles.” Marius pointed to the cover. “Das Mädchen Ohne LächelnThe Girl Who Lost Her Smile. Though it actually means ‘The Girl Without a Smile’.” A smirk floated back onto his lips. “We Germans love to be literal.”

Faber turned the book over. The back cover was empty but for the publisher’s logo. At the bottom of the page a stylised hand bearing a torch was set over words printed in small caps—Lichttrager Verlag. The German publishing house had snatched Thornton up as soon as it had become public knowledge that he had settled in Berlin. Denford Scholes had taken pains to present testimony from Lichttrager that supported this theory, supported it so avidly that Faber suspected that they had wished, retrospectively, to exaggerate their lucky catch.

“I thought you might like some bedtime reading,” Marius said, lighting another cigarillo. “You have tapes to listen to and books to read, my dear Faber. So I leave you to it.”

In the balmy summer air Faber felt obliged to finish his bottle of beer before retreating to his room. Marius’ balcony looked out onto a street filled with bicycles and boxes, trees shading the pavement and exterior walls of peeling paint and splashes of graffiti. A stretch of water which must, he thought, be a canal sparkled through the leaves of the treetops across the street. It was a peculiar juxtaposition, as though the greenery poked and curled up into the light in spite of the urban decay surrounding it.

As the glint of the water faded, he closed the balcony door and tossed the dregs of beer into the sink. Marius had deconstructed the couch into a bed and had fanned out Faber’s books across the flattened futon so carefully that Faber sensed sarcasm in the arc of pages and bindings. Beneath Scholes’ biography, a tome on detective fiction and his cheap, afterthought travel guide for Berlin were Thornton’s novels. He picked out The Girl Who Lost Her Smile and laid it open on the bed, setting beside it Das Mädchen Ohne Lächeln. Reading page for page and line by line, eventually, softly, like honey smearing from the end of a spoon, his eyes began to close.

* * * * *

“The Man in the Homburg Hat” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.