An exclusive extract from the Nobel prize-winning authors final run describes how he and his wife imagined their farewell
At long last, having discussed our joint project many times, testing and rejecting various notions at the kitchen table, we had reached a decision; the master carpenter Ernst Adomait sat across from us. The dialogue began over tea and cakes, hesitantly at first, but soon underway.
Adomait has worked for us for years. Hes built standing desks and bookcases, and various smaller items for my spouse. We told him what we wanted, never defining it as our last will and testament. After appearing through the French window into the summery, windless garden, he agreed to take the job and make the boxes. He indicated they be measured separately for duration and width, and we agreed. He had no objection to our request for two different timbers: pine for my spouse, birch for me. The boxes would be of equal depth, but hers would be two metres 10 long and mine two metres. My box would be five centimetres wider, to match my shoulders.
When I said not tapered towards the foot, which was once standard and may still be customary, he nodded in agreement.
I mentioned Wild West cinemas in the course of which this sort of plain carpentry grew in demand. My sketch on a newspaper napkin demonstrated unnecessary; the idea was clear enough. The boxes would be finished by autumn. We insured him we were in no hurry, but laced the conversation with hints about our combined age.
The style of the handles was still under discussion. I wanted something in wood. My spouse preferred strong linen straps. In any case, there would be four on each side, to match the number of our children. The route the boxes would be sealed was left open for the time being. The dialogue was down-to-earth at first, and dealt with practical details, but soon turned virtually cheerful. When I suggested setting the lids loosely on top after all, the weight of the earth will hold them in place or fastening them down with carpenters glue, Adomait permitted himself a quickly fading smile, then declared pine and birch dowels more suitable.
A costly technique, he warned. Alternatively, bolts could be inserted in carefully drilled holes. I preferred hammering in old-fashioned nails with solemnly echoing jolts at a devoted signal. In the postwar years, I often put up gravestones in graveyards while working as a stonemason, and once made a deal with a gravedigger: five Lucky Strikes for a good dozen hand-forged coffin nails; later, much later, they appeared as rusty assemblages in drawings, lying this way and that, a few crooked, each with its own shape. And every fingernail had a tale to tell from its past. Sometimes I added dead beetles lying on their backs, and bones large and small. In one depict, fingernails and rope hinted at a demise only humans could devise. Soft pencil, hard-line pen and ink drawings, all of them still lifes, a few found buyers intrigued by their cryptic nature.
Adomait seemed to follow my digressions more out of politeness than interest. Then we chatted about current affairs: the ludicrous rise in the price of petrol, the uncertain summer climate, the now-familiar bankruptcies. I defined a bottle of mirabelle plum brandy beside the empty teapot and what remained of the cakes. Just a small glass, said the master carpenter, who still had to drive home in his truck.