A young student decides to start an independent life of her own and enrols in a university far away from her home town. Lacking in life experience, she makes decisions with her heart and allows herself to be influenced by her emotions. But what else can she do? Her love for her driving instructor flares up with such force that it causes her to forget about everything else. Not only is he old enough to be her father, and not particularly noted for his good manners, but he also has a reputation locally for being a womaniser. Will Sofie’s feelings be hurt?
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The Driving School
Translated from the Russian by: Helen Hagon
Content editing: Translation agency www.sprachkontinuum.de
Cover design: Book Designs
Photograph: 45620613 – portrait of a beautiful girl in the park © aleshin
All rights reserved – 2nd edition 2015
Copyright: © 2015 Nataliya Lang
Publisher: epubli GmbH, Berlin, www.epubli.de
All events and characters in this literary work are fictitious. Any resemblance to people, either alive or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Any copying, reworking, or distribution of the text of this book without the author’s permission is prohibited.
“True love is too emotional to be ideal.
Anyone who has loved, even just once, will understand…” Nataliya Lang
The Driving School. A confession
At Christmas I bought you a small present, and you reacted so warmly and attentively that I lost my nerve and forgot the words I had wanted to say. I gave you a guardian angel, so that he might protect you on the road.
You looked at it with interest for a long time and read aloud the inscription on the label: “For Benedikt.” Then you put the gift in your pocket and were about to hug me, but I leapt back, uncomfortable with your nearness. If you had gone ahead and hugged me anyway, I would have fainted on the spot from the emotional overload.
I cannot bear to be too close to you, and that is why, when I come to the driving school, I always sit the very back desk so that I don’t have to stare straight at you. Still, every time you look at me, my cheeks promptly blush and I begin to resemble a doll in a papier-mâché theatre, condemned, at the whim of my creator, to suffer from unrequited love.
From morning until evening, all my thoughts are about you, as if some kind of mysterious power is drawing me towards you. During the classes, that same feeling is intensified all the more, until it becomes unbearable, since your presence drives me out of my mind even more than your absence. Although, if the text books are to be believed, it ought to be quite the opposite.
When you are looking in my direction, I can feel it, but I do not openly return the gaze. I am afraid that I might blush even more and give myself away with that excessive redness which is a sure sign that something is wrong with a person.
In my case, for example, there is something wrong with my head, since my brain has been poisoned by love and refuses to function properly in your presence. If I then start returning your glances, I might forget everything I ever knew about driving theory. I would not be able to remember a single point and would fail the exam outright. However, everyone else would be glad, since girls who are in love should not be behind the wheel.
Of the fourteen theory lessons, I still have nine left to attend. You will tell me nine more times about traffic laws, the hidden dangers on the road, and how difficult it is to get a licence in Germany, compared with other countries.
I listen to you, your voice low and hoarse, as if someone has trodden on your throat. Then, when you are angry, you begin to howl like a wolf, and your voice takes on an altogether threatening tone. Lots of people are afraid of you for that reason, but not me. I am more afraid of myself and my feelings. They overwhelm my entire being, confound my thoughts, and make my heart race.
Your style of teaching stirs up two different feelings in me. It is more like dangling a carrot on a stick than giving a lecture on driving theory. You tell us funny anecdotes from your life, or frightening stories of the autobahn, where cars fly by at great speed, carrying gaping drivers along with them.
A friend told me that your brother had been hit on the autobahn. When his car broke down, he got out to set up his hazard warning triangle. Another car came along at high speed, ran into him from behind and dragged him several metres along the road until there was very little left of him. He was only twenty years old at the time – the same age as I am now.
You were extremely upset by your brother’s death, and so you decided to become a driving instructor to get one up on fate! If it decides to take you ahead of your time, then let it be on the autobahn as well – behind the wheel!
“Life respects those who are not afraid of death but, to those who do not value life, it is unforgiving.” You like to reiterate this phrase, at which a deathly hush always falls over the class. It is like a minute’s silence in memory of your brother who was deprived of his life.
That is why your gaze is so cold and penetrating, making my heart stop, only to start beating incredibly fast a moment later.
Perhaps you don’t even know how to look normally, like other people. Your glance sees right through me! You bore into me with your icy eyes, deep inside which there is a permanent bitterness at the loss of a loved one. If I were to hug you, I think they would turn light blue, or even a shade darker… They absolutely would…
Upon finishing high school, you learned to drive and, in memory of your brother, opened your first driving school near the university. In time you became a serious entrepreneur and owner of a whole chain of schools, although you continued to teach in the first one.
For over thirty years you have been coming here once a week to teach theory to your students. It does not matter to you that it is the smallest school in the area. The most important thing as far as you are concerned is to keep your finger on the pulse and not lose touch with your students!
To be honest, I find driving theory dull, especially as the classes are in the evenings. I have never been particularly interested in driving, which is why I made no attempt to get a licence while I was still at school.
Well, what was the point of lessons when I had no money to buy a car anyway? Wouldn’t I be wasting my time, and putting it all to the back of my mind for later, only to find that every last rule had been wiped from my memory? Then I would have to go back to classes and do everything all over again from the beginning. That would be senseless!
What is more, you don’t need to be able to drive in a big city. You can get to anywhere easily and quickly by public transport. Out here in the country, though, it is a different matter. Here the buses are infrequent and only run until seven in the evening, so not having a car is like being deprived of one of life’s essentials.
I had not thought about that when I made my choice of university. Someone from a big city, who had no driving licence, should not have opted to go to the back of beyond. On the other hand, the only place where I could do a specialist baccalaureate in the field of dietetics, which I found so interesting, was here in Witzenhausen. So, if I wasn’t going to go the capital, I would have to come here.
This was virtually the smallest university town in the whole of Germany, with a population of approximately 17,000, most of whom were students and teachers. Because of its provincial nature and its large distance from other major centres, I immediately realised that there would be no varied cultural life to be had here. Most likely, I would have to spend the majority of my free time with books, escaping from dull reality into a world of vivid fantasies. Not forgetting the fact that I would be combining all of this with a generous helping of text books, since, judging by students’ comments on the Internet, there would be a lot of studying to do!
You will agree that these are fairly miserable circumstances for a twenty-year-old girl who dreams of living life to the full. But, as they say, you can’t have it all at once, so you have to make choices!
* * *
Upon arriving in Witzenhausen two weeks before the start of the course, I checked into the cheapest hotel I could find in the town, and set about looking for accommodation.
I quickly realised that, for first-year students, getting a room in a university hall of residence was unrealistic, and so I decided to try my luck with private advertisements. However, when I discovered the price of one-bedroom flats, I then regretted having been so flippant about this matter, and not having begun to look earlier.
The town was simply overflowing with students, and so my chances of finding any kind of low-priced bedsit were practically zero. Thwarted in my search, I had already begun to contemplate going back home, until I unexpectedly spotted the following advertisement in a supermarket:
Available to rent: two-room flat in Sankt-Mart 38m2, balcony, 30 min. drive from university, inexpensive. No male applicants please!
I had never heard of Sankt-Mart until then, but when I realised it was a village near the university I decided to try my luck. To be honest, my confidence was inspired by the last phrase, which implied that there would only be half as many applicants as usual for this flat. So, I thought for a moment and then dialled the number which was given.
After a lengthy and thorough account of my personal details and plans for the future, the landlady, Frau Krause, eventually invited me to come and look at the flat. I breathed a sigh of relief because, all the way through our conversation, I had been worried that my phone battery would not have enough charge, or that I might run out of credit. Fortunately, though, that did not happen, and I was able to write down the address.
Instead of saying goodbye, Frau Krause emphasised the fact that many people were interested in the flat, and so I ought to look at it as soon as possible.
Early the next morning, I went to Sankt-Mart. Taking a few deep breaths for courage, I pressed the doorbell and stepped back from the door, just in case. There was no answer. I pushed the button again and listened but, just as before, there was complete silence on the other side of the door.
Perhaps the doorbell isn’t working, I thought, as I couldn’t imagine that the landlady had forgotten about our meeting.
Then, not knowing what else to do, I knocked on the door several times, at the same time worrying that Frau Krause might consider this rude. My concerns turned out to be unfounded. A minute later, the door opened slightly and a small, middle-aged woman peered out from inside.
“Hello!” I said to her, with a kindly nod. “I’m Sofie Stolz and I’ve come to look at your apartment.”
Frau Krause nodded back and uncertainly held out her hand to me as she stood in the doorway. I quickly shook it, but noticed that it was very cold and damp. It was as if the appearance of a stranger in the house was of great discomfort to her, but her circumstances were dictated by financial difficulties.
We stood facing each other for a little longer: I in bewilderment, and she studying me across the threshold. Then the door opened slowly and Frau Krause gestured to me to follow her.
The flat which was the subject of the advertisement, was situated on the third floor of the building, directly beneath the roof. It consisted of two tiny adjoining rooms with sloping ceilings, a cramped bathroom, and a minuscule kitchen. To my surprise, though, it seemed very comfortable. I particularly liked the balcony arranged with pots containing exotic plants. They afforded a certain indescribable charm, and I immediately felt at home.
“Well,” Frau Krause asked me, when we had finished the tour, “did you like the flat?”
“Oh yes, I did!” I replied enthusiastically, my eyes shining. “I would very much like to rent it!”
“In that case, I must ask you a few questions,” she said reservedly, but without condescension. “Follow me, please. Now might be the perfect time for a cup of tea.”
We went down to the floor below and proceeded into a small living room where, despite the time of day, the windows were covered with heavy, brown, floral curtains. This made the room seem uncomfortable even though, judging by the large number of dolls and other home-made toys filling every available space in the room, the landlady had wanted create quite the opposite effect.
Frau Krause offered me a seat on one of the armchairs standing in the middle of the room on either side of a coffee table. The chairs were made of a dark wood, just like all the other furniture in the room, and they were upholstered in a thick, dark-green fabric, giving them a rather old-fashioned appearance.
When she had asked me what I would like to drink, the landlady went away into the kitchen and then returned a few minutes later with a highly polished metal tray. She put two cups of aromatic black tea on the table, along with a sugar bowl and a plate of biscuits, straightened her glasses on her nose, and uttered a phrase which took me completely by surprise:
“I don’t like blondes at all…” Then she fell silent, concentrating as she put two spoonfuls of sugar into her cup.
Now she’s going to turn me down! I thought fearfully.
“…but you can live here, my child. I’ll get used to you… No boys, parties, loud music or barbecues on the balcony, though!”
Not knowing how I should react to her words, I nodded manically and almost dropped my cup of tea. The conditions for living in the flat, which she had announced, seemed quite feasible. Besides, just a few days earlier I had already resigned myself to a life of tedium.
“There is something else!” said Frau Krause, her index finger meaningfully raised. “Apart from the things I have just listed, there is one more important condition, and if it is not met I will be unable to rent the flat out to you.”
Upon hearing that the matter of the flat was still not settled in my favour, I choked on my tea and began to cough. The landlady realised that her words had upset me, and so she waited patiently until I had recovered from my coughing fit. Then she gently touched my arm with the tips of her fingers, as if using this ‘intimate’ gesture to apologise in advance for what she was about to say.
“Before I can sign a contract with you, I must be sure that you will stay here for a minimum of one year,” she declared, not letting go of my arm.
“If this is not the case, then I cannot lease the flat to you. I have to replace all the heating in the house before the winter, and so I am very much in need of funds. Unfortunately the money which my father left me is practically all gone, and therefore I must find another source of finance.”
On hearing that it was only a question of the length of my stay, I calmed down, as I realised that Frau Krause was in need of a stable income, and that was why she wanted to be certain of my ability to pay.
“I have come here to study, and am planning to stay for at least three years… until I graduate with a baccalaureate,” I replied, as convincingly as I could.
“And will your parents be helping you?”
“Yes. Until I can support myself. But I’m going to look for a job as well.”
“That is good!”
Something resembling a smile appeared on her face.
“Here are your keys!”
During our conversation I had been trying very hard not to stare at Frau Krause. Nevertheless I found myself gazing at her strange head covering which was pinned with two metal grips to the back of her head.
It was a white lace kerchief made of a light, synthetic fabric, which was slightly yellowed with age, but had not lost its shape. It fell in soft pleats onto my companion’s shoulders, covering her dark hair which was fastened up in a bun, making me suspect that the landlady led a rather ascetic lifestyle. Or perhaps she belonged to some religion which forbade women to show their hair in public.
Throughout the entire conversation Frau Krause constantly shook her head, tossing back the troublesome fabric which kept falling stubbornly back into its original place, getting in her eyes all over again.
As I watched this never-ending and, more importantly, pointless struggle between a human being and propriety (if that was the point of this strange piece of headgear), I began to wonder why she needed it at all. Nevertheless, deciding that now was not the time for personal questions, I suppressed my curiosity in the hope that one day she might tell me of her own accord.
Eventually, whether as a result of the endless head tossing, or the tea which was too hot, my head began to spin, and so, picking up the keys, I hurried to take my leave.
My hotel room was paid for until Sunday, which meant I still had three days to gather my things together without rushing.
* * *
The bus stop in Sankt-Mart was next to Frau Krause’s house, so I would have no difficulty getting to the university in the mornings. There was a regular bus every hour from 7:00 to 12:00. Then there was a lunch break, and the service resumed from four o’clock in the afternoon.
The last bus left town at eight o’clock in the evening but, instead of going into Sankt-Mart as usual, it dropped its passengers off on the outskirts of the village. I would have to walk the last part of the journey which was uphill and became steeper and steeper as it went on.
After walking this stretch several times, I realised why Frau Krause’s flat was so cheap. Her house was at the very end of the street, on a mountainside which was not an easy climb.
I was drenched in sweat every time, my hair stuck to my forehead, and my chest ached from the rapid breathing. The higher I climbed, the harder it was to walk, especially when my rucksack was crammed with books. The first thing I did when I reached the house was to catch my breath… Frau Krause, who was clearly aware of my suffering, had put a bench in the yard, and I would sit there for a few minutes to recover before going upstairs to my flat.
At the beginning of the semester, my studies set off on a good note. I left the house early so that I would not miss the seven o’clock bus. I was at the university half an hour later, giving me plenty of time to make my way to the appropriate building before the class started. Even though I had to organise my entire life around the bus timetable, I didn’t feel particularly inconvenienced until it began to have a serious impact on my life.
One morning, the bus did not come, and I arrived late for my seminar. Then it failed to turn up on another couple of occasions and, when I had been late for classes three times, I was given a warning. In order to avoid further cautions, I would have to defer until the next semester, in the hope that the tutor would forget about my punctuality problem.
As time went on I began to worry about all my morning classes, as I couldn’t be certain that the bus would come.
The reason for its absence was different every time. One day it didn’t come because the drivers were striking, in a bid for a pay increase. Another time it drove straight past me without stopping as I bent down to tie my shoelace. The third time, no-one remembered to inform the passengers about a change of route, and the bus turned down a parallel street before it reached the stop.
I noticed that the bus driver on our route was always in a bad mood. According to local rumours, he had become bitter about life because his wife had cheated on him, and now he often vented his gall on his passengers.
She had left him without any explanation, running off into the sunset with her lover. No-one could remember when it had happened and, being old news, it was no longer discussed in the village. Only the driver unwittingly called the incident to mind with his manner, as he simply could not behave otherwise.
He didn’t stand on ceremony with anyone. If he saw people in the distance running for the bus, he usually set off straight away instead of waiting. Or he would close the door in someone’s face, as if to demonstrate that he was on a tight schedule. Thus he exacted his revenge on the whole world, for his broken heart and his damaged reputation in the village.
However, the driver liked students least of all. He saw the university as a haven for lazy good-for-nothings who get up late and then just sit around in lectures for the required number of hours.
He would greet everyone travelling in the direction of the university at lunchtime with a sarcastic, “Good morning. Did you oversleep?” openly demonstrating his contempt for the future generation of intellectuals. If anyone objected he would retort with just as much sarcasm, “I haven’t been to any universities and I can do as I like!”
“Students don’t go to the university in the morning,” the driver called down the bus. “They sleep, and then at twelve o’clock they run at the speed of sound to the university canteen so that they don’t miss their all-inclusive lunch.”
Usually no-one was inclined to argue with him, for fear of being left standing at the bus stop. I pretended not to hear him, too, or ignored his comments, to which I grew accustomed as time went by.
There was just one old lady who sat at the front and nodded all the time. People said that she travelled on the bus with the driver all day, until he dropped her off outside her house at the end of his shift. He never asked for her ticket, but simply opened the front door for her without saying anything, and waited until she was seated in ‘her’ place.
Every time she boarded the bus, the old woman would gently touch him on the shoulder and say in a faltering voice, “Good morning, son!” after which she would sit down on the front seat on the right hand side.
So they travelled together, two unrelated souls, united in loneliness. Perhaps they wanted to feel needed by someone, even in the smallest possible way.
* * *
The last bus to Sankt-Mart picked us up from town at 19:30. Since it did not go directly to the university, as it did in the morning, I went to the intercity bus stop. The stop was beyond the woodland which surrounded the university, and a fifteen-minute walk from the main campus.
To get there, I had to walk down an unlit country lane so, in order to avoid tripping up, I bought a small torch which subsequently became an integral part of my rucksack. To charge it up, all I had to do was turn the folding lever clockwise. This gave it enough charge for the whole walk. It also meant I didn’t have to worry about batteries.
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