Three episodes from Ullo's childhood... as deswcribed in the novel Treading Air by Jaan Kross

by Jaan Kross

Three episodes from Ullo’s child hood as described in the novel “Treading Air” by Jaan Kross:


Ullo did not recall his impressions of the railway journey. But he did remember the taxi journey to Unter den Linden in the dark evening, through the bustle and the city lights. And his disdain when the hotel, the "Adlon" as he remembered, was not at all situated under lime trees (whose crowns the lights in front of the hotel lit up as a greenish gold roof from underneath   he had imagined this all with tangible clarity) but stood instead under the open sky. The Hotel Adlon was grand enough, nonetheless, certainly the most noble in Berlin at the time, standing as it did on the corner of Unter den Linden and the Französischer Platz. From the outside it was not particularly imposing, being rather reminiscent of the headquarters of Bank of Lending being built in Tallinn at the time. But from the inside it was extra grand. The porters and lift boys wore red uniforms and their bows and smiles were multiply reflected in the mirrors lining the walls. But at the time it seemed to him that this was how it should be in hotels where he stayed.
Father, mother and Ullo went to their hotel apartment which consisted of a lounge and a double bedroom leading off, and to which a dressing room and a bathroom belonged. What would nowadays be termed a suite. Charlotte went to her smaller room nearby, which proved not to be so small after all. As well as a single bed, there was also the couch on which Ullo was put to bed of an evening when father and mother had gone visiting, or to the theatre or the cabaret. Looking back, it seemed that the weeks spent by them in Berlin consisted only of such evenings.
Ullo always slept badly on the couch. On the fourth or fifth morning in Berlin he woke very early and found that Charlotte was not in the room,  and that the clock on the chest of drawers said a quarter to six. Even seventy years later, Ullo was loath to admit that he had been afraid, or that he had called out for Charlotte and that when there was no response, he had gone looking for her. Or was really, in fact, looking for his parents. Their door was only a few dozen paces away.
Ullo arrived at their door, turned the handle and found the door to be locked, as it indeed should have been at that hour, so he cried out and knocked, cried out and knocked, until it was opened by his father. Ullo bounded inside and saw that both his parents were fully dressed and sensed that they had just come from the company of others. He could smell tobacco and perfumes and god knows what else, but little trace of alcohol. Because of these strange smells he did not want to be hugged by either of them, but he did want to get onto their still made up bed which had not been disturbed that night. Since they were standing in his way, he ran round the bed and saw, between the bed and the wall was his parents' yellow strapped suitcase, the lid open. It was in his way, and so that he stepped with one bare foot into it in order not to lose his balance. He then jumped under the silky orange eiderdown, pushed his knees in between the smooth sheets and cried   looking all the while at the suitcase:
"Oh, how rich we are!"
The suitcase was brim full of violet banknotes, each with the figure of a blacksmith striking an anvil. Written on each and every one of them: Eine Milliarde Mark.
His father began to laugh and said: "There's only a modest sum in that suitcase. Come here," He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled Ullo towards him. He pulled his wallet out of his jacket pocket and took from it two five thousand mark notes   of Estonian currency. (Estonians will remember the one designed by Nikolai Triik, yellow, green and brownish in colour. In the middle a Madonna with child, men with swords and shields kneeling around.) His father asked:
"Well, how much have I got here in Estonian money?"
Ullo was as quick as lightning at mental arithmetic: "Ten thousand."
His father glanced at his mother implying she should agree with her son, and continued: "And is that a great fortune, in your opinion?"
"It's no fortune," said Ullo briskly, "but there behind the bed are billions. That," and pointing at the money in his father's hand" is only enough to buy two model train sets as you yourself said at Wertheim's only yesterday when I was trying to get you to buy me one   "
"And thank goodness he didn't" his mother said, smiling.
"Of course I didn't!" cried his father   "Not because it would have been too expensive, but only because it was too big. I did explain. The tracks form an oval some five or six metres in length. Too long to fit in the middle of our living room on Raua Street. Anyway, as I was saying, over here, ten thousand of our currency is enough to buy two such children's train sets. And that pile of billions over there under the bed is worth exactly the same amount. So now you see how ridiculously low in value German money has become. It doesn't tell you anything at all about how rich or poor we are. Wait a minute   " his father looked at the clock   "this is perfect timing."
His father went to the window and rolled up the white blind with a swish: "Ullo, come over here!"
Ullo went pum pum pum over to his father's side and his father lifted him up onto the warm edge of the radiator under the window. They could see the Französischer Platz lit up by street lamps, and when they pressed their noses against the pane they could see the lower row of young lime trees of Unter den Linden. The empty pavements were yellow in the lamplight. At the brightly lit main entrance of the "Adlon" several taxis were arriving with tra la laa ing foreigners, and trainee waiters in red uniforms were thronging to open the car doors. And round the corner drove vehicles from baker's shops and dairies were going through the tradesman's entrance of the hotel to the kitchen yard. Ullo's father squeezed Ullo's elbow:
"Look there! Sandra, you too come over here and watch!"
Four goods vans pulled up in front of the main entrance of the hotel. Men wearing greenish uniforms like the Schutzpolizei jumped down and divided into pairs   each pair unloading from the vehicles grey wash baskets which were carried impetuously, and at a running pace, into the hotel. There were eight baskets in all, each around two cubic metres in volume.
"What are they delivering? Clean bed linen?" asked Ullo's mother.
"Money. Filthy lucre." said his father, laughing. "Forty printing houses across Germany are busy printing paper money round the clock. It's distributed each morning, in lorries for longer distances, carts for shorter ones. So that before the start of the working day all institutions and businesses will have their money by the start of the working day. In the morning, each basketful contains the equivalent some fifty thousand Estonian marks, but by the evening this has diminished to ten or twenty thousand. That is how rapidly the value of the German mark is falling."
His mother said: "So, the more of that money there is, the cheaper it becomes!"
Since he was fond of sentences which sounded as if they contained philosophical profundities and paradoxes, Ullo's father said: "That means that the more it appears to be, the less it in fact is."
Ullo cried: "Explain to me, how can it work like that! I just don't understand it at all!"
His mother said: "Maybe no one really understands."
His father said soothingly: "One day I'll explain."
(Here I wrote in my 1986 notes: Ullo thinks that this early morning scene could have primed the time fuse which set off the crisis in their family fortunes, seven or eight years later.)


I was five years old, Father and mother had gone abroad and I was staying for the summer with the maid Charlotte at Kose, opposite the Koch’s residence, I don’t remember whose summer house it was. We had four rooms, I think, on the ground floor, above which was a small tower with four upper storeys. This tower contained the ship models made by the owner of the house, fascinating objects they were, and at the top was a platform with an observation balcony. I was only allowed up in the tower and on the balcony in Charlotte’s presence. We had my dog with us at the summer house. A sandy-haired dachshund. A wonderful creature. I had named him Traks on account of the rhyme with “taks”, i.e. a dachshund.  As I said, he was a wonderful creature with a completely smooth, yet tough, coat. It was as if the skin were electrified. Made to stroke. One morning the dog was ill. He ran around whining, then lay down on his cushion. He did lap up water cautiously, so Charlotte concluded that he couldn’t have had rabies. As I said, I was five years old at the time, and I couldn’t be with him and worry about him all day long. I probably wouldn’t have been able to even now. I dragged Charlotte up into the tower. I was holding a pair of binoculars in one hand and wanted to go and look out from the balcony as I usually did. At the tops of the trees, the roads, people, rivers, rowers. Then we heard: Traks coming howling, or rather bellowing, on account of the pain. He rushed up the tower staircase - we could do nothing to stop him - and out onto the balcony, between our feet and between the slats of the balustrade - straight into the air. By the time we got downstairs, he was lying on the sand below. Dead.
When the first shock had passed, it suddenly occurred to me: so if you really want to, you can step out of it all - voluntarily.


In November 1929, there, between Rahukohtu and Toom-Rüütli streets, in a higgledy-piggledy three-century-old house facing the courtyard, in the two poky rooms that remained to them, the bailiff noted down all their belongings. Then his assistants loaded them onto a waiting cart and took them away, God knows where to. Probably to some warehouse for second-hand goods where they would be put up for auction, to pay off father’s debts. But only a very small part of them, only symbolically.
When their belongings had been taken away - two vague cart tracks in the delicate ground glass of snow, across the cobbled courtyard, out and away - they remained there, Ullo and his mother, sitting on the two chairs at the oilcloth covered kitchen table which they still possessed. Which made me think of when my own father was arrested in 1945, for political reasons, not debts. On that occasion, my mother was at least left with a decent oak dining table with brass feet. And two chairs too. Even though I was not actually living with my mother by then. She was living alone and had asked the officer in charge of removing the furniture, a Russian NCO with blue épaulets, why the state had left her two chairs when she could only sit on one at a time.
And there they sat, Ullo and his mother - when suddenly he said, in a hoarse commanding voice, as I can well imagine Ullo could muster:
“Mother - let’s promise ourselves that we’re not going to cry!”
They had shaken hands on it, the tears welling up in their eyes. And maybe they would not have been able to stop the flow of tears at being tricked and betrayed, had not the handshake, which in itself threatened to start the tears flowing, had been meant to prevent them. But some time later Ullo fell ill. When talking about this, he felt that as his adolescent pride had not permitted the shedding of tears, he was bound to rot away in sickness. At any rate, he was attacked by his third or fourth bout of earache of his childhood, this time the most virulent and serious of all. He suffered acutely and ran a high temperature. Doctor Dunkel, whom his mother summoned and who, being an old family friend, turned up quickly on Toompea and shook his head. A Red Cross ambulance was sent for Ullo from the Juhkental Military Hospital, and Doctor Dunkel made a point of attending to him there for the next two or three weeks. Ullo only began to recover when an incision was made behind his right ear and the pus was drained off. Incidentally, I wrote down verbatim what he himself told me: “This was a depression which had manifested itself physically.”