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  • Ollern is the name for the attic in the Siegerland, the part of Germany I grew up in. I spent my time taking radios apart and putting them back together. When I was in the ollern I felt safe since it provided incontestable deniability: it was conceivable, on account of the distance and the intervening heavy wooden door, that I would not hear my mother's voice when she called me down for an errand. Jo-achh-imm! I let her shout. The ollern was my life, the place that was silent enough so I could fill it with my day-dreams.

    When I thought of writing about the time when I was growing up, I had to think about the tedium of reconstructing sequences of places and events. It is easy to give up when faced with that challenge. But then it occurred to me that in reality I'd been at one place all along, a place I'd perhaps never left.

    The wooden door had a bolt on it on the outside. It was a black bolt with a full sound to it: clack! The locking of bolts and locks on all doors to the outside and to the basement and to the ollern was part of my father's nightly routine. Being in the ollern meant to face the possibility that on one of those nights, when I'd forget the time among radio valves and capacitors, the bolt would be locked, and that I would have to spend the night in the cold.

    The ollern was not a real attic but the leftover of a third floor that had been destroyed along with the roof when the house was hit by an incendiary bomb, in 1944. The real, original ollern had been in the space above, but since the present ollern had no ceiling and the real ollern had no floor, one merely being separated from the other by a grid of wooden beams, the real ollern was no more than a construct of the mind.

    There was one dividing wall in the ollern that was half-destroyed by the fire. The wall just stopped somewhere halfway going up and suggested a division, between rooms, where there was actually none. I was too small to look over it. Out of the fractured top of the wall the charred stumps of beams pointed upwards. I used to step on a chair and break off little pieces of charcoal to write with. But when I wrote on the wall, the wall would yield a few centimeters. When I released the pressure, the wall pivoted back to its normal position. I discovered that the bottom of the wall was fractured, and that it was held in position by nothing but some kind of chicken-wire that was attached to the frame on both sides, to hold the mortar.

    We sold the house after my mother died. The new owners restored the third floor, and at the place where I spent my time dreaming and soldering resistors and capacitors into radio chassis, there is a prosaic kitchen now, with a prosaic fridge humming on and off.

    (postcard with a view of Siegen, my hometown)
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