• Vol. 04
  • Chapter 01
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Herr Hagelstein’s Hand Shoes

'Sir, this is pointless.'

Herr Hagelstein glanced up from the teachers' guide and regarded the pupil in the back row.

'Wieso denn?'

'Everyone speaks English. Why we gotta learn this?'

No Sitzfleisch with this lot, thought Herr Hagelstein. If something's hard or boring, it's not worth doing.

Three students yawned. The classroom was quiet, save for the buzz of an extractor fan. Fumes from the whiteboard pens were giving him a headache. Two months into the job, he couldn't see himself last two more days.

Did it have to be hard or boring?

'OK,' he said, switching to English for the first time that lesson. 'I would like you to take your textbooks...'

Thirty-two restless bums shifted in their seats.

'...and throw them as hard as you can into that corner.'

Thirty-two eyebrows lifted in unison.

'Am I speaking Martian now? You heard.'

Thirty-two satisfying thuds and a crumpled mountain of dry academia later, Herr Hagelstein faced the slightly more energised class.


Herr Hagelstein’s Hand Shoes

'Right,' he said. 'Treppenwitz.'


'Who knows what Treppenwitz means?'


'It's what happens when you think of a witty comeback long after the moment has passed.'


'So,' he continued. 'Tell me, because I don’t know. What’s the English word?'

A raised hand.

'Uh,' said the student from the back row. 'There isn't one.'

'Ah. Then you’ve gained something already.'

Later, he would teach them the meaning of Backpfeifengesicht, Dreikäsehoch, and Sitzpinkler, and hold contests for the discovery of the longest, most ludicrously specific compound noun of the week.

By the end of term, German with Herr Hagelstein was the highlight of everyone's timetable.


Herr Hagelstein’s Hand Shoes


Following The Poll, Herr Hagelstein had to leave.

He was one of the lucky ones; at least he had somewhere to go. Too young to remember when The Wall came down, he rues the fact they're now springing up along borders everywhere.

Laden with Fernweh and Weltschmerz, his Heimat is not the land he recalls. Even the air tastes different - there's a rawness, a redness, which sticks in the sinuses - and, catching sight of himself in the mirror, his image gawks at him askance. It mimics neither his thoughts nor movements.

The gloves begin to arrive as winter approaches. He'd told his classes January could be very cold where he came from. He raises a smile at the memory.

'You what, Sir? You call 'em "Hand-Shoes"?'

'That's right. In my country, we walk upside-down.'


He counts the packages as they arrive - forty-one, forty-two - and, with his austere bedsit lacking decor, pins them to the wall.

No messages accompany them. But maybe, this time, words aren't necessary. The gifts alone suffice, a tacit show of understanding from those too young to have cast their ballot, but old enough to no longer know which way is up, which way down.

He opens the final package: a blue pair. He puts them on, and feels comfort.

For the future, he thinks, there is hope.