The Gatekeeper

Jörg Michael König
The Gatekeeper
At 5:58 am, Hartmut Peter points a flat, black box towards the garage. His thumb slides into the small groove which has been worn into the button through the years; the garage door opens. The red clinker bricks are covered in dew. The neighbour’s dachshund is barking on the other side of the fence. It is exactly 6.00 o’clock as Hartmut Peter rides off on his bicycle.
After five minutes Hartmut Peter arrives at the spot where the railroad tracks cross his path for the first time. He turns off the road onto a dirt track beside the rails.
After exactly twelve minutes Hartmut Peter turns right, crosses over the rails and right after turns to the left in order to cross the main road together with the tracks. He now is on the forest trail that runs alongside the right of the rails for a couple hundred meters, then turns left leaping over the rails, makes a wonderfully curved arch to the right, and finally runs to the left of the main road. This, of course, happens when viewed from Hartmut Peter’s morning direction of travel; were someone to go in the opposite direction, it would all be different. But nobody did. No one lives out here. At 6.15 Hartmut Peter – long face, high forehead, short blond hair slowly turning grey – parks his olive green men’s bike in front of a small hut.
Inside this hut, of which the sides are four paces long, with grey tarpaper hanging crookedly from the roof, is Hartmut Peter’s workplace. Because here, where the forest road makes an elegant turn over the rail tracks, there are gates looking like half-smoked cigarette butts to protect the many bicyclists from the trains, and one cabin for the gatekeeper.
When Hartmut Peter takes a seat at his desk, the clock shows 6:30. He knows this without even looking at the radio controlled digital clock because it is 6:30 every morning when he sits down at his desk. It takes him fifteen minutes to make his control round to ensure everything is in order. Two minutes after sitting down at his desk, Hartmut Peter turns the crank which closes the gate for the first time. Ninety seconds later, the Regional Express passes that will arrive at the main railway station at 6.40.
It is a very simple life that Hartmut Peter leads. His work routine is clear; the operations he has to execute are precisely defined. Hartmut Peter likes that; he appreciates the regularity without surprises that lies spread out across the console in front of him.
Around 11:00 am, the sun has won its struggle against the fog; it is a beautiful, warm late-summer day, and soon the first bicyclists will pass by Hartmut Peter’s hut. They ride along the forest road, taking the same path that Hartmut Peter took in the morning: the turn left, driving past gate and hut, over the rails, then taking a right turn, disappearing between bushes and trees on the field path to the left of the tracks that lead to a lake.
But, today, he is also visited by a tall, young man, arriving by foot, carrying a briefcase. A pin attached to his lapel carries the logo of the railway company. He greets Hartmut Peter with the kindness indicative of one who greets somebody whose fate has already been decided for them. Hartmut Peter stays seated in front of the lecterns and consoles, checking the functionality of a display and does not let himself be distracted by the young man. He knows him, and knows how he feels about him.
“I have no Idea what to do about you, Mr. Peter!” sighs the young man. Hartmut Peters doesn’t answer. “Mr. Peter,” the man repeats, and says what he has said so many times before, “You don’t work here. The gates are being controlled from a computer in our headquarters.” The young man takes a look around the small room. He sees the logbook and the table with the closing times, looks at the buttons and displays that do not belong here, smiles pityingly at the logo attached to Hartmut Peter’s jacket that harkens back to a time when there were still no private railway companies, only the Federal Railway. He takes a step towards Hartmut Peter, stands next to him.
“The 11:53 is almost here!” Hartmut Peter rumbles and grabs the crank handle. Of course he knows that he is not actually working the gates. Parts of the consoles are remnants of old model railways he had bought at flea markets and installed in the hut. Everything is being controlled in some building in the city filled with young men with badges on their lapels. Hartmut Peter knows they have the right to send him away, and that it is only due to his luck and their mercy that they had not yet taken away his keys. The young man has still never opened his briefcase.
The two men watch the gates as they are closing. The young man admires Hartmut
Peter’s precise temporal coordination. If you didn’t know any better, you would think he actually was controlling the gates. The train rumbles by, a freight train on its way to pick up cars from the factory; empty locks clatter on empty loading platforms. The young man waits until the rumbling passes, then he says goodbye.
“And don’t forget, during the course of track maintenance, we will have to tear down this hut.”
In his rolling chair, Hartmut Peter pushes himself off backwards with his feet over to a little tool cabinet. The display he was checking before the young man arrived is not working properly; he wants to unscrew the box and examine it.
Around noon, Hartmut Peter takes a seat on the bench in front of his hut. It is pleasantly warm, the number of cyclists that take the left turn in front of his eyes, then turn right onto the field path immediately after, is increasing. They are carrying beach mats that stick out of their backpacks; it smells of sunscreen.
One lady gets off her bike and sits down next to him. He has known her for years; every summer she comes to swim in the lake. Hartmut Peter offers her a cup of coffee; she takes out two pieces of cake from a bag placed on top of her towel. She had bought the cake just to eat it together with Hartmut Peter. Hartmut Peter is happy. At 13:32 he lowers the gates again. Shortly after, the IC, which arrives at the main railway station at 13:40 passes by. It will be full of people who would not understand him. But that doesn’t matter to him. He will smile and wave to them. And he will be happy.

Translation by Shan Wardell
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