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Read an extract from Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel

Other People’s Clothes 


Calla Henkel 

Published 8th July 2021


Chapter One


‘Start from the beginning,’ she insisted and if I were allowed to smoke, I would have lit a cigarette. I was never good at telling stories and this one always felt like it belonged to someone else; I had been young and stupid. I had been idealistic. I was twenty. Maybe I could start from the first slide of art history class – a black diorite pillar. Hammurabi’s code: two hundred and eighty-two laws and sliding punishments for 18th-century-bc justice, some seemingly logical, an eye for an eye, a surgeon’s hand for a botched surgery, a builder’s life for a collapsed building, some more bizarre – the guilt of the adulterer judged by whether or not they sank when thrown in water – all etched out onto a seven-foot column. But there was nothing for me on the cold black stone. No law had been engraved to deliver due process for what happened to me last year. I had no idea whose hand to chop off.
‘OK. Well, what about her first words? What did she say when you got here?’
I sat silent, arms tightly folded, unable to understand Frau Klein’s persistent interest in the beginning.
The Spa was only for women, all of whom were present for different disorders, and some diseases, most unknown to me. But everyone knew why I was there. I was famous, and the angular whispers of the nurses and patients followed me through the concrete building. However, I found comfort in their efforts to mask these remarks, knowing all too well that outside of The Spa there was no reason to whisper. By the time Berlin’s summer was blazing, we – Hailey Mader and myself, Zoe Beech – were all anyone could talk about.
Sprawling and old, The Spa was situated in a converted primary school somewhere in northern Brandenburg. Its hallways still smelled chalky like the inside of a brick, and most of the bedrooms, once classrooms, were shared by two to three girls. But I was alone, living in what I assumed had once been a very generous broom closet, with my own square window, blue painted chair with matching desk, and a porcelain sink adorned with a halo of dark-brownish mould. I liked to imagine that the ring of mould was a well-run city of tiny spores, filled with good, non-violent mould citizens, maybe even with mould artists and mould curators doing coke at tiny mould clubs.
I spent most of my time in this sort of useless daydream, elbows pressed into the soft wood of the desk, staring out at the unbearably still farmland and then, lightning, an interruption to my doldrums: a body writhing in a lake of blood, flashes strobing, sound blaring, like a Rihanna music video, or a trailer for a horror film. And just as fast as it crested, I’d snap back to the barren field or mildewy sink or the constellation of moles on Frau Klein’s neck.
Frau Klein loved the word par-a-noi-a, letting each syllable slip like a ping-pong ball out of her wet mouth. She was in her early forties but dressed for her sixties, with roadkill-brown hair and potato-sack skirts. We had at this point spent many hours together and I was certain she was living vicariously through me, filling the void of her own existence with my answers and traumas, extracting information she would eventually sell to the tabloids, or her own tell-all.
‘Zoe, how did sex make you feel?’
‘Did you ever fantasise about Hailey?’
Her voice sounded scripted as if she were recording an audio cassette from a language class.
‘What drugs did you do?’
‘What pushed you to do them?’
I watched in disinterested horror, as the saliva began to surface at the edges of her thin lips, thirsty for my reply.
‘I did what was around.’
She nodded. More questions. Whenever I mentioned the name Beatrice her eyes flickered and she would take her stubby blue pen and quietly draw a shape in her notebook. Frau Klein entertained my theories but she always returned to the same head tilt: ‘And what makes you so sure Beatrice was watching you?’
‘She read my emails.’
‘And how can you know that?’
‘I told you already—’
‘But is it possible you imagined it?’
Frau Klein made another shape in her notebook then checked the clock. The stainless-steel lamp on her desk cast an orange circle on her over-moisturised cheek, her skin hanging loose like the Mask of Agamemnon or a glob of half-baked cookie dough.
‘And whose story do you believe you are in right now?’
‘Yours,’ I said, motioning towards her notepad.
Frau Klein made a suggestive nod. ‘And, let’s go back to the beginning again. What were her first words to you when you arrived?’