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    the club / a short story

    THE CLUB opened its doors in March, at that time of the year where the weather refused to warm up, but the stubborn coldness of winter finally started to thaw. An indecisive, uncomfortable kind of weather, driving people into THE CLUB in the belief that they were taking time for themselves and, of course, to be seen there by others. The austere, yet noble exterior advertised the deep cleanse of a body, allegedly revealing its topography in a whole new light before washing away the traces of everyday life from its skin. The hygiene concept, which at first seemed crude or even exaggerated, later appeared totally enticing and innocuous – at least once guests left the warmly lit, slate-clad changing rooms to enter the bathing hall. There were five pools, four of which were were side by side and one – the last – was elevated, only accessible via some large steps of pale stone. The water in the various pools shimmered with different, ever-changing colours that were unusual and impossible to name. Even the scents that swirled around the steamy hall smelt foreign and yet strangely appealing.

    Word quickly spread that the waters of the four lower pools had a weird, almost eerie effect: they revealed traces on one’s skin. These ranged from imprints of past physical contact (fingerprints, bruises, haematoma, pressure or strangulation marks) to actual – often destructive – words that once had an impact. In some instances, the words remained legible but in others, there were so many that they drowned collectively in a bruise-like cloud on particular parts or even whole areas of the body. 

    Guests were required to abide by the numbered choreography of the pools. This was closely observed by a stately gentleman in a soft, shimmering suit, who quietly but firmly gave out warnings to those disregarding the rules. After the second pool, slight shadows would already begin to form, hinting at the body’s hidden landscape. The third revealed lines and particularly dark patches and after the fourth pool, the skin resembled inscribed parchment paper, radiating in a chronology of injuries and interpersonal violence that had previously been carefully contained in well-kept suburban homes. After all, THE CLUB was not a particularly favourable experience. 

    THE CLUB’s policy paper contained a questionable clause. In the midst of a long block of text lauding the secret formula and the sustainable and profound healing qualities of each pool, there was something about an »elite«, about making you a better and purer person after visiting THE CLUB. Although this theory certainly triggered a sense of unease, many willingly overlooked it, because: a visit to THE CLUB was now the done thing. You went to be cleansed and purified, so that everyone knew you had rid yourself of past marks and humiliations. 

    As soon as the strange effects of the water became talk of the town, the exuberant chatter beyond the pools’ stone edges that had filled THE CLUB in the early days died away too. Upon leaving the pools on the lower level, guests now encased themselves in big towels and a silence as thick as the suspiciously well-scented steam of the bathing hall. In the water, however, there were whispers and murmurs: now and then, a hiss or part of a sentence penetrated the water’s white noise, before becoming muffled and dying down again. For even though it was a disgrace to wear these marks, there was a ranking amongst the bathers: ridiculed were those who entered the cleansing, healing, final pool with only a few scattered words or bruises on their upper arm. Yet pitied were those with a particularly large amount of words on one part of their body that – God forbid! – were still legible or maybe even true, according to the expert audience. 

    The expert audience consisted of those inside the pool. However, as soon as a bather left the pool once their time was up, grabbing their towel quickly (not hastily) to see if there was space in the next pool – all under strict surveillance of the suited gentleman – they also became subject to judgment. 

    Judgments were given and received through looks. A shocked but respectful look conveyed a positive verdict (respect and regard for acknowledging the need to visit the baths, and for having the courage to follow through). Bathers receiving such judgments accepted them with their head held high and a steady stride: for one did not run in the bathing hall, no matter how shameful, deep or clearly legible the words, how glaringly bright and large the blotches on one’s skin. After all, they were washed away for one to be liberated and cleansed, for all the shame and humiliation to be erased. But not just that: the clean skin shone in new splendour, it seemed to have a special shimmer, a kind of protective film, like pearls of water on a duck’s plumage. Guests left the final pool and descended the steps more languidly and dignified than before, under the eyes of the audience. This was the only moment where an audible murmur, sometimes even a slight applause or a cheer wandered through the misty hall – depending on the severity of their washed off stains, or whether the person was a public figure. 

    Such was the experience of THE CLUB.

    Over time, an unspoken etiquette evolved that went in line with THE CLUB’s ideals, and with it, its clientele evolved as well. The initial popularity amongst the wellness community with their skimpy towels, subtle make up and high-heeled bathing shoes, quickly died down. There was also a brief hype in the BDSM scene as some subs rushed to the baths to show their lovers the landmarks and patterns they had left on their body. To their dismay, their skin did not reveal the form of violence in which they felt at home, but rather those forms they sought to forget, buried deep within that fragile homeland: forms that uncovered a fearful past. They entered the final pool in resignation and dismay, to erase the traces of those they did not want to remember. Needless to say, most of them did not return.

    There were also two or three very unpleasant incidents in the early days, which, unlike the usual custom of the small town, were not discussed as much as one might think – like when mothers tried bringing their children to the baths: this was quickly prohibited on the grounds that children had no business being amongst entirely naked adults and, besides, children don’t reveal traces anyway. There was also a scandal involving the mayor’s wife that did indeed become talk of the town – much to the delight of the general public. She, too, decided to test the mysterious waters of THE CLUB. After the second pool, she had already gathered several noticeable markings, and after the fourth, she was almost completely covered in vibrant colours – a Naples yellow so deep it was almost orange, a rich purple, indigo blue, a luminous black – you could barely find a free patch of skin. But she did everything right: without batting an eyelid, she strolled from pool to pool in stoic and unfazed fashion, not once looking into the shocked faces of the public. Having not uttered a single word the entire time, she descended the steps from the final pool with smooth, shimmering skin, as if impregnated. She became a regular over time, always with new marks, albeit not quite as brutal as the first time. And so she persisted under the watchful eyes of the public, stuck to their bathing etiquette, participated in their gossip and whispers and left the baths shimmering, with her head held high, to do it all again next time. 

    Though the shimmer did not last forever. It was yet unclear (at least officially) as to why and how quickly it wore away. In most cases, it continued fading until it completely vanished, leaving the skin – at least in comparison to before – kind of dull. But by this time, most people had gathered enough new marks of whatever kind to allow themselves another visit: for seeing someone enter the baths almost as unscathed as he, or in most cases she, walked out, left those for whom a visit was obviously essential feeling uncomfortable or even ashamed. Although this was not openly spoken about, the bathers’ judging faces after the fourth pool said enough. 

    Another unspoken topic was the longevity of the baths’ shimmering effects: for some it lasted several months, for others only a few days. But then again, why should something so clearly visible even need to be mentioned. 

    Either way, it now seemed to be the custom of the town to visit the baths at least once, especially for women (blessed be those for whom the effects lasted longest). As for men, nothing was said, but one long, disapproving look at their healthy and vigorous shimmering skin said it all: what are you doing here? Or: how did it come to this – a thought that no one ever dared voice in relation to women.

    And so THE CLUB’s clientele had formed, establishing social parameters and unwritten rules, thereby raising the bar for social acceptance: this was the skin that had to be worn if one wanted to be considered pure and strong. 

    As time went on, THE CLUB had to adapt their opening hours. Guests could come earlier or stay later, even on Sundays and national holidays a visit was possible. At some point, you had to book in advance to avoid the pools being overcrowded or a queue being formed outside. The increase in visitors was initially attributed to the locals, who had to save money in order to even afford a visit. Recently, however, more and more strangers were spotted – many of whom had traveled a long way just to go to THE CLUB.

    The profound experience of the baths quickly outweighed the discomfort of being confronted with strange faces and bodies. So long as each bather stuck to the etiquette – keeping glances discreet; judging others only from within the pool; those outside the pool becoming objects of scrutiny; never reacting to judgments, neither positively (proudly showing off their markings) nor negatively (insecurity, shame, shying away); ascending and descending the steps to the final pool slowly and casually – they were regarded town residents for the duration of their stay. The actual town residents were surrounded by an aura of pride, as though they had built the baths with their own hands, yet they, too, readily paid the extortionate entry fee every single time. From the first, tentative steps inside the hall, wrapped in an oversized towel and casting shy glances at others, to the leisurely exit, head held high, towel in hand or even casually draped over one’s shoulder: if you stuck to the rules, you belonged. All of them looked forward to the passeggiata del trionfo: they walked it especially slow, savouring each moment almost provocatively, balancing on the verge of obtrusive dawdling. All of them, except for Marlene. She didn’t even bother in the first place. 

    Marlene entered the baths as a resident of the small town, whose newfound fame seemed to deeply affect her. She was visibly nervous, chewing on her bottom lip, making her a not too welcome guest: nervousness was often a sign that someone wasn’t sure whether the yet-to-be-revealed map of their body actually qualified for a visit to THE CLUB. Either way, she must have saved up for a long time because she did not come from a wealthy family. In fact, it was unclear what she lived on at all – a fictitious rumour had spread just before the opening of THE CLUB, something about buying and using a large amount of incense sticks, about curtains and seeing numerous men, and that she died a silent but sudden death at the baths’ release party. Yet here she was, passing briskly through the excessively large entry gate, past the check-in area, across the changing rooms and straight into the first pool where she waited impatiently for the allocated time to pass. Stubbornly, she stared straight ahead into the depths of the rippling water, blind to its strikingly new colours and deaf to the tentative approaches from the other guests in the pool, who gradually fell quiet and finally lapsed into a reproachful silence. But she didn’t notice that either. Once her time was up – marked by eye contact and a curt nod from the gentleman in the silk suit, who rarely had to raise his voice or go to a pool to get someone to move on – she got up abruptly and, without wrapping herself in a towel or feigning patience, stomped directly to the next pool. A shadow was already forming around her throat, which was very unusual after just the first pool. 

    The second pool was no different. Again, Marlene stared straight ahead, unfazed as the guests from the first pool gradually joined her: already they seemed to be in silent agreement about the impertinence of this young lady, even though their curiosity about the shadow and the possible reason for her behaviour mildly intrigued them. Maybe she had forgotten something and wanted to retrace the past on her body? Or maybe she had been drunk or unconscious and wanted to confirm a suspicion regarding those lost hours? That would explain her hastiness. The other bathers quietly whispered and observed her, in contrast to the stern-faced gentleman in the suit, who was blatantly watching her every move. Ignoring his nod, she punctually rose from the second pool. The slight shadows around her throat had now solidified and more started appearing on her upper arms, lower legs, buttocks, as well as a strange trail on her inner thigh. Looks were exchanged and eyebrows raised. Moderately bad, that was the verdict for now. Throat: bad, but stomach and face so far intact. Suspense prevailed. 

    By the time she got to the third bath, she seemed more relaxed, which was rather puzzling. One would think she’d become increasingly impatient as she approached her supposed goal. She even began listening in – and rather intently at that – on some of the hushed conversations about other bathers, and she occasionally sought eye contact with an impalpable nod, though she never smiled. The guard, too, began to relax and let his gaze wander. But on the way from the third to the fourth pool, Marlene took an unusually long time: again, she did not cover up, she wasn’t even going in the direction of the fourth pool and instead started to examine her body, wandering around in search for a mirror. Needless to say, there was not one mirror to be found, for in THE CLUB we do not cling to the past: we make it visible, only for it to evaporate and disappear forever. One journalist actually wrote an article referring to this: we shouldn’t act so surprised, it said, that »in a country with a history like ours we find such pleasure in erasing traces of violence and in the fake pseudo-hygiene regulations targeting only a certain group of people in society«. She was later banned from both visiting and writing further articles on THE CLUB. 

    Finally, when she couldn’t find a reflective surface, Marlene sat down on one of the many rocks that had been carefully arranged around the hall in such a way as to imitate the organised chaos of nature. She began inspecting the marks and patches on her body, reading the words in between, even tracing them with her fingers. No one had dared do that before – mainly because the guard would immediately intervene, which he did. There was a short, incomprehensible (much to the disappointment of the other bathers) exchange between them. Eventually, she got up and headed towards the fourth pool. The guard’s penetrating gaze followed her every move – something that would have been considered utterly shameless in any other context – or, if we were completely honest with ourselves for a moment and pushing aside the high entry fees, was extremely inappropriate here, too. Once in the water, it was clear that she was still analysing and reading her blemishes and marks, as though trying to imprint them in her mind. The guard couldn’t think of anything to do other than to glare at her angrily. Intervening was not an option – it would disrupt all the other guests in the pool, who in the meantime tried normalising the situation through casual whispers. Though nothing about this situation was »normal«. Marlene clung to her wounds, took them way too seriously, as though she wanted to keep them forever – and that was totally against the concept of THE CLUB. 

    At long last, she left the fourth pool and ascended the steps to the holy fifth pool – hastily, without savouring it, without allowing the sacred mood to arise that was usual for this moment. She arrived at the top step and stood still, looked down into the empty pool, and spat in it. Then, with a questioning yet provocative gaze, she turned around to face the bathers and strode across the hall to her towel. In this moment, everything fell silent – other than the water, which was still moving, independent and indifferent to its surroundings, continually transforming the now rigid bodies of the bathers.

    That is, until the guard rushed towards her and forcefully tried tackling her into the final pool. He quickly realised his mistake as he saw new bruises immediately forming on her arm where he had grabbed her, causing him so much distraction that he accidentally let go of her. Marlene, still in her towel, fled through the changing rooms, past the bewildered, always slightly shimmering ladies at the check-in to get outside. 

    Naturally, this had its repercussions – probably the fastest legal repercussions in the small town’s history: Marlene was banned from revisiting and was also sued for something written in small print in the house rules. But she came back. The very next day, she was found standing right by the entrance to THE CLUB, smoking a cigarette as she waited. She was covered in bruises, her throat enveloped by a dark cloud of hatred and violence. That was on Monday, and in no time journalists arrived, swarming round her like hungry flies, though her answers remained cryptic. They asked her who or what she was waiting for, to which she responded:

    –– For the others.

    On Tuesday there was even more press and she wore a T-shirt that said:



    She wasn’t alone for long. By Wednesday, a few people had already joined her and on Thursday, two young ladies were denied entry because they weren’t carrying bags, revealing themselves as Marlene’s supporters. On Friday, all of them came carrying bags. A long and winding queue of people with heavy, previously non-existent luggage formed around the entire building: for a wordless language had now finally been found: more harsh than any word could be, more irrefutable than any evidence. 


    THE CLUB is a short story that was shown as part of an artist's publication in the exhibition 13 MORGEN at KIT. The scenography in which the story could be read is reminiscent of a wellness area with comfortable loungers, embroidered towels and the babbling of a fountain.

    © Thea Mantwill

    translated by: Rebecca Grundmann

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