Thirty-Seven Neugrabenstrasse

story about isolation

The world’s unhappiest billionaire was born on 12 April 1974, in a hospital in Vienna. He was named Markus. His mother was named Katja. His father remained at home.

Home was number thirty-seven Neugrabenstrasse, an inauspicious flat on the top floor of a Viennese suburb. The flat may as well have been the entire world, for it was a place that they very rarely left.

As the years passed, every inch of those eight rooms impressed themselves deep within Markus’s memory, from the fading paint on the walls of pale blue living room and mint-green bathroom, to the pealing yellow wallpaper in his bedroom, the patterns in the hallway woodgrain and the shape of each watermark in every ceiling.

Through Markus’s early years, his family was supported by their friends – a rotating cast of extremely serious people who would come and go quickly and quietly, and who spoke exclusively in hushed voices, as they brought provisions and money with them into the flat.

Markus found them all so featureless and interchangeable that he could only remember them as ghosts: faceless, sombre and grey. For the most part, they had no interest in talking to a child. The only real exception was an older woman named Jule, who spent three days a week home schooling Markus.

Jule taught him essential skills, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. She also taught other subjects such as geography and history. She told him that they were all German, though they lived in Austria – which is Germany’s neighbouring country. She would emphasise that it was the duty of all good neighbours to live polite and quiet lives, just like the old man on the floor below.

Jule was not unpleasant, though she did lack warmth. Markus could feel obligation in their interactions; he understood on an instinctive level that their relationship was transactional by nature.

Markus would watch other children playing from the window. Yet on the rare occasions he encountered them in person – those times in which Katja would take him out for groceries, doctors, dentists and occasional play-parks excursions – the other children frightened him. They were like wild animals, bounding impulsively with alien joy. He found their laughter and shrieking abrasive. Markus would cling to his mother and quietly plead to return home.

If his shyness saddened Katja, Heiner, his father, remained unmoved. Markus once overheard him saying that a billionaire simply does not need friends, as quietly as his frustration would allow.

Heiner said that word, ‘billionaire’, often. It was a word that alighted his eyes and, at times, made the grip of his fingers so tight on Markus’s arms that it caused bruising.

When Markus asked what the word meant, Heiner told him that the word meant they owned one billion schillings, so much money that it would not fit inside the flat. He would try to explain the value to his young son by writing down all the zeros on paper, or else he would say that the weight of the coins was probably heavier than a whole herd of African elephants. When his son was unable to comprehend any of these attempts to conceptualise their wealth, Heiner grew irritated, summarising that being a billionaire means, in short, that they were exceptionally fortunate and would want for nothing in their lives.

As Markus grew older, he began understanding one thing about his family’s wealth. It seemed to make their lives a paradox of sorts. Their exceptional fortune seemed to weigh heavily on both of his parents. Heiner would twitch behind curtains, sometimes demanding total silence while he listened with skittish intensity, his head cocked, his palms damp. Katja would sometimes hold Markus in the kitchen while she wept silent tears. His parents would argue in the night too. That was a strange thing to hear; two people shouting in whispers and furiously scribbling letters to each other in the same room.

Markus read everything he could find in the flat, many books on art history, artist biographies and a handful of old novels. He read them all, over and over, until he could recite whole chapters by memory. Whenever he was not reading, he spent his time among the many paintings owned by his parents. He would sit in their storerooms filling his imagination and his heart as he left his childhood behind.




In the summer of 1988, aged fourteen, Markus began writing a diary. There was little in his days that merited recording; nevertheless, it was an occupation, and a means to express his thoughts.

5 May 1988. Mother is tired of me complaining. She has given me this old notepad with the suggestion that I keep a diary of my thoughts and share them with her before bedtime. We have been talking about art a lot recently, and she has procured several books on the subject for my education. I am currently learning about the history of one of her favourite painters: Pablo Picasso.

The late nineteenth century ushered in an age of constant artistic revolution. The artists of the early twentieth century felt compelled to charge boldly through the doors of modernity cast open by groups such as the Impressionists. Two groups, both represented in my father’s collection, emerged almost like competing aesthetic schools. The Fauves, such as Matisse, took their inspiration from vibrant colour. However, despite their radical innovations, the Fauves were essentially Expressionists by nature, acolytes of the school of Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh. The second school, led principally by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, turned their attention elsewhere. In doing so, they invented an even more revolutionary visual style called Cubism, compositions built from abstracted details and visual riddles that interrogated conventional understandings of space and time. For example: Mother sprawled. Hugging peas. Frozen. ‘Oscillating fan’. Ceiling watermark in the shape of a cloud. Art and Illusion, by Ernst Gombrich. Potato salad with pickles, ham and bread. 98.6 degrees. A blue fractured body with divorced shadow. Neck protruding oddly. Head atop the canvas. .ratiuG Strings slashed diagonally




This how I think Picasso might have described our living room today. As a style, I find it emotionally detached. When I put this observation to mother, she said that it is precisely this coldness that appeals to her, and that she thinks sometimes detachedness is best.


19 June 1988. Today I started reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This will be the fifth reading. My last reading took four days and six hours. Mother tells me there is an even longer Russian novel called War and Peace. She promises that she will get it for me one day. She swears that it will keep my mind busy for at least a week.

I wonder if all old novels follow the same titular pattern of balanced and diametrically opposed concepts. The pattern is pleasing. The concepts cannot co-exist, for they are defined by their contrast. A person cannot experience Freedom and Confinement simultaneously. Nor Happiness and Sadness.

One of the grey ghosts visited us today. His name is Götze. He has a very dour face, like it has been painted by Otto Dix. Even though Götze looks miserable, his visit made father happier than I have ever seen him. He was laughing, hugging mother and myself. He produced a bundle of schillings from the vault in his bedroom and sent mother out to the shops for wine. Father even allowed me to put the radio on quietly while we waited for her return. He hummed along to the music: Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner.

recant behooving nephew

benign cenotaph however

newborn pathogene chive

whatever nonbeing epoch

venerating hebrew pooch

When mother finally returned, she gave me a glass of an Italian wine called Vietti Barolo that I did not like at first. We ate an untitled dish, made of sausages and beans, garlic, onion and tomatoes, tubes of pasta and a bowl of salad. I separated out the constituent parts and tried to find the dish’s title through interrogation and rearrangement. Mother told me to stop that at once.

Father talked incessantly about returning home, about buying a cabin in the Alps, and about buying something called a Porsche. Mother was also crying, though she also said that she was fine. Finally, it is almost over, she said.

This picture is incomplete.


2 August 1988. Something has happened, but I do not understand what. All I have are abstracted details and visual riddles.

Götze returned two weeks ago. Shattered plates on the floor. Hushed voices in the kitchen. ‘Fallen through, cannot be sold on.’ 

Cubism table one

 No one comes for me all night. ‘Sometimes detachedness is best.’ Rumbling stomach. Mother crying. Father observing a composition only he can see, deep within the ceiling. Everything is different. Father is withdrawn, mostly in his bedroom repeating his new favourite word:

Cubism table two

Mother tells me it is time to stop reading books all the time, it is time for me to learn how to be a man around the house. She shows me how to cook several dinners and how to complete necessary tasks around the flat: changing light bulbs, wiring sockets, cleaning glass and brushing canvas.

Last night there were noises: more hushed arguments, things moving inside their bedroom. ‘Fallen through.’ All fern though. Fall on her thug. Go far hell hunt. Though in feral. Ran fought hell. Ghoul in father. ‘Cannot be sold on.’ Cloned nanobots. Let noon abscond. Anon blonde Scot. Lends onto bacon. Bald connotes no. No nascent blood.

6 August 1988. This morning, I woke to find my parents waiting in the kitchen. Mother was fully dressed, her bags and suitcases packed already by the door. Father’s head was in his hands. Mother said she cannot stay any longer. She is not strong enough to endure number

Thirty-Seven Neugrabenstrasse,





‘Stop crying and quiet your voices.’ Father is angry.

Mother would not take me with her and cannot stay. ‘You are a man, Markus, this comes with rspnsblty, nd dty.’

I was told that the family, the money, the sacrifices made so far, all meant my place was here: at number thirty-seven Neugrabenstrasse.

‘Listen to your father. Do not go outside, and do not talk to anyone without permission.’

Knock at the door. Grey ghosts. Mother gone. Sometimes detachedness is best.

The flat is quiet without Mother. Father did not know what else to say to me. After lingering silently for some time, he said that the fridge has been left full, and that he would like lunch around twelve. He left me alone in the kitchen until I ran out of tears. I do not fully understand what has happened. All I know is that this will be my last diary entry, and that I am tired of Cubism.

No doubt, the diaries of other fourteen-year-olds are quite different.




With his mother gone, Markus was responsible for the flat and his father. Heiner seemed to have shrunk over time. He became so thin that his old and ragged clothing hung loosely around his frame. Still, the billionaire would not leave his flat to purchase anything new. Heiner’s beard and hair had grown long, matted and speckled with skin flakes. Markus frequently offered to trim and groom his father, but Heiner would refuse, insisting that he was uninterested in vanities. He did allow Markus to clip his nails though, whenever they curled inwards sufficiently to cut his fingers and toes.

On his eighteenth birthday a letter arrived informing Markus he had been given a job with a maintenance company in Germany. Markus never visited their offices, or indeed left Vienna, and yet once a month money was paid into an account that had been set up for him. His wages were enough to pay off the utility bills, buy food for them both, with a little for other amenities. Heiner insisted to Markus that this money was payment for all the tasks he completed around the flat and informed him that they should expect fewer visits from the family friends.

Markus used the leftover money to buy new books, and newspapers. He loved newspapers. Pictures and stories from the outside world fascinated him: the travel pages showed images of the mountains of Nepal, of Caribbean beaches and igloos beneath the Aurora Borealis.

Heiner promised that one day they would go see it all.

Markus also liked the sports section. Germany, he was told, is the greatest footballing nation in the world; Die Mannschaft won the Euros in 1996. Markus and Heiner followed and memorialised the tournament through newspaper cuttings, one game at a time. The day after the final, they drank beer together in victory, Heiner sitting back with his eyes closed as Markus read the journalist’s account of the match. Heiner promised that one day they would go and watch a game in person.

The thought of television and film also fascinated Markus. He would read those sections of the newspapers excitedly, pleading for one to be brought into the flat. Heiner strictly forbade the notion, fearing anything that could send out signals into the world. All Heiner could give his son was more promises of another day.

Katja wrote letters. They came to the flat indirectly, their envelopes addressed to a location in a city called Hamburg in Germany. These letters arrived in erratically timed bundles, pushed into a letterbox downstairs during the night. Markus would read them aloud to his father. Sometimes Heiner wept. Other times he stared impassively into the distance. Then, Katja wrote enough was enough, and that Heiner should stop living this life, go to the police and… Markus never found out anything further, the letter was snatched from his hands. After that, Markus vowed he would hide any further letters from his mother, though no more ever came.

As a young adult, Markus was permitted brief trips away from the flat. He was required to venture out for groceries and reading material. Heiner would warn him to exercise frugality, insisting that money was not limitless.

Markus began to get irritated, asking why they had to treat each schilling so preciously when, apparently, they had so many that they could not fit it all within the flat? Heiner replied, declaring proudly that they owned a billion schillings easily, but that, for the time being, it was getting harder and harder to access their money and so, for now, they must be careful.

As Markus would put on his coat and shoes, Heiner would loom in the hallway, scratching at his bleeding wrists, visibly panicked and saying things such as: don’t forget the eggs. I want eggs for lunch today. And don’t be too long. You are much slower than your mother was. You like to stroll, don’t you? Gorging your eyes on shop windows, and parks, and the pretty ladies too. Don’t you think I want to be doing these things as well? Come back, Markus, quickly.

At night, the flat transformed. There were faces in the walls, faces in the ceiling, faces in the shadows, and eyes that always followed.

Outside the windows were the Bird-People. They patrolled the streets below, they swooped through the sky, cawing malevolently, their beaks opening and filled with sharply pointed teeth.

In those hours, Markus searched frantically, opening every door, looking for an escape. Each room contained only disembodied screaming. Heiner stalked languid in pursuit: long-legged, taloned and scaly, his beard and hair turned to feathers, a long robe of plumage billowing as he moved, his pale blue eyes cold and glassy as he scanned for any trace of Markus.

One night, Markus opened the letterbox and called for help. A man crawled up the staircase outside, grey-green in complexion, with hair made of flames, hissing like a snake. It slithered up through the letterbox and coiled on their floor before pulling itself upright onto its one stumped toe, unfurling itself up to full height as it moved along the hallway walls. The malevolent creature had tiny arms, at the end of these arms were gigantic hands with claws like knives. It began to claw maniacally at its torso, ripping away at its skin, tearing flesh and shrieking in wordless agony.

Markus felt his teeth falling from his face. He tried to push them back in, but every tooth that he touched detached weightlessly from his gums. He would clean his father’s paintings, only for the oil to ruin and for the canvas to tear. Heiner somehow knew of these mistakes immediately. He would hurtle out from his lair, screeching Markus’s name, forcing him to flee beneath the floorboards. Markus found a system of tunnels beneath the flat, tunnels that twisted and turned in the cold wet dark, only to lead him back inside thirty-seven Neugrabenstrasse.

His adolescent mind strained, trying to satisfy his hormonal urges, trying to build a convincing image of a woman. It had no point of reference. The women he constructed stared back at him with dead and vacant eyes. They were static images. They were fluid abstractions, or they were provocative and crude. They were two-dimensional vaginas that flowed into thorny flowers. They were cubist compositions, their features randomised and angular. They were bare-breasted mocking skull-faces like in his father’s Magritte.

When a woman finally felt real, Markus felt warmth and affection as she held him close. The woman said that she loved him. She said she had a sister though, and her sister wanted to hurt Markus. Markus simply had to meet her. The sister mocked him. She said that she had left him and was never coming back. They had both left him and were never coming back. Confused, Markus asked who they were. The sister asked Markus if he was so stupid that he could not see.

Suddenly, Markus realised the two women had the same face, that they were both his mother.

The realisation jolted him awake, and he found himself crying.


In the autumn of 1996, the quiet old man downstairs passed away. Markus and Heiner peeked out from the corners of their curtains, watching as his body and possessions were removed from the building. Soon after, a young couple moved into the vacant flat.

Two days later, the young couple ventured up the stairs and knocked. Markus opened the door and haltingly introduced himself. The couple were named Simon and Esme. They had brought a gift of a loaf of home-baked bread. Markus, grateful for the gesture, began to invite the couple inside for coffee. Heiner came charging through the flat immediately, his eyes wide and brows sweaty. He told the couple that he was sick, and that his illness was contagious.

Heiner spluttered and feigned snivelling as he closed his doorway.

Markus asked why his father had been so hostile, but Heiner refused to listen. He pressed his ear against the keyhole until he was certain the couple had walked downstairs.

‘We do not talk to strangers, Markus. This is quite simple. It is how we have always been. You know this.’

‘But why father?’ Markus pushed, clenching his fists in frustration. ‘They seemed friendly, and we could use some company. They brought us this.’

Markus passed the loaf of bread to Heiner.

‘Simon. He said his name was Simon.’ Heiner muttered, tossing the bread into the dustbin.

Markus did not understand. Heiner was worse than ever. He was convinced of vermin in the flat. He had Markus lay traps around the skirting boards of both storerooms. He seemed terrified of the new neighbours, though other times he laughed about them too, broken notes of sharp, acid amusement.

‘It is fate,’ he would say, ‘now it is we who hide in attics, and Simon − Simon! − who lives downstairs.’

Heiner requested Markus shop for food during the night-time. He was losing his mind, repeating the same requests over and over, and forgetting the hours kept by normal society. His skin was sore, his body small and emaciated. Heiner coughed endlessly, sometimes leaving blood on tissues. He desperately needed to see a doctor, though, when Markus suggested it, Heiner declared theatrically that he would never again leave his flat, even if it meant dying there.

Markus found himself increasingly in one of two places. If Heiner was locked in his bedroom, Markus would window-watch, staring out at the passers-by, happy families and loving couples. If Heiner roamed the flat, Markus would sit in storeroom two beneath the Klimt.

His father owned one large Klimt. Over the years, it had become Markus’s favourite painting in the family collection. A depiction of two lovers entwined, painted in soft oils and gold flakes. Markus took a pillow from his room and recreated the pose, embracing the pillow tightly. He closed his eyes and imagined the scent of perfume he had smelled on ladies in the street. He imagined the pillow breathing with him. He imagined a heart beating inside it. He imagined what it would be like for the pillow to have a collarbone, a neck with jewellery, a head and a face. He imagined the pillow turning to him to brush his lips with soft kisses. It was futile.

Markus could not hope to even imagine love. Not by clutching a pillow on a hardwood floor. When he opened his eyes, he saw the shimmering gold of the painting and felt a rush of anger coursing through his body. His family were supposed to be so wealthy, and yet their wealth had created so little happiness. Their fortune had broken both of his parents and made a freak of him.

For years now a current of deep unease had coursed through his spirit. He knew that something was profoundly wrong in their lives. As he turned off the lights in storeroom two that night, Markus resolved to find out what it was.


Keeping secrets in such an enclosed space was always going to be difficult. However, with careful planning and a little patience, Markus used what little autonomy and privacy he had to sneak new books into the flat. These contraband works were neither novels nor biographies of artists, they were books on European history.

When he was certain that Heiner was asleep, Markus would sit in his bed, reading about the World Wars. When, for the first time in his twenty-one years, he encountered the names of Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi Party, an apoplectic rage burned within him. So much knowledge and understanding of the world had been denied to him.

He kept his tongue at first and kept reading. Markus’s anger turned to horror as he learned of the persecution of Jewish people, about the murder of millions, of the banality of evil, and the active and passive complicity of the general population as a nation chose to look away. He read of property and wealth, including thousands of artworks, stolen and not returned to the rightful owners. He read the stories of minor Nazis and Gestapo officers fleeing Germany to hide in other countries, his horror transfiguring into revulsion as he came to understand it all – the paintings, the network of family friends, their quietude and anti-sociability, his father’s paranoia and his mother’s shame.

Heiner had not banned the subject of his own father outright, but neither had he ever encouraged any discussion on the matter. As a child, Markus had naturally and innocuously inquired about his grandparents once or twice. He had been informed that his Heiner’s father had played a role within the German armed forces at a time of war. It was over breakfast one morning in February 1997, that Markus resolved to ask Heiner exactly who his grandfather had been.

‘My father was a war hero. For the fatherland.’

‘Was he a Nazi?’ Markus replied, blunt in his reply. A long pause followed this question, the air in the room turning thick and awkward.

‘Markus, where have you heard this word? Who have you been talking to?’ Heiner rose to his feet and paced the kitchen. ‘Have you been talking to the couple downstairs? Has Simon taught you this word?’

‘No father… I have been reading.’

‘Reading?’ Heiner let out a deep sigh. ‘My son. Every book is a story, even history books are stories. You see, every book comes from a writer, and every writer has a side. You must understand, we were on the losing side of a war. The war.’

‘How did you acquire these paintings father?’ Markus asked. ‘And why do you never leave the flat, if there is no reason to fear leaving them? Why must we always be quiet?’ Heiner said nothing, he leaned against the kitchen counter and narrowed his eyes. ‘Is this our money?’ Markus pressed, ‘All of it contained in stolen art? Sixty-seven paintings father, I know them all. Is this why you tell me that we are billionaires?’ The accursed word was so bitter in Markus’s mouth that he could barely speak it.

‘Schillings, Deutschmark, American dollars,’ began Heiner waving his hand dismissively, his skin like the petals of dead violets. ‘It is easily a billion wherever we sell them. The Klimt alone could sell for a hundred million! I was told one just like it reached that price at auction. The Picassos − thirteen Picassos! − they are worth tens of millions. Each!’ There was something like passion in Heiner’s eyes once again. Markus had not seen such a look in years. It was the hope that kept his father tethered to this miserable existence. Heiner leaned close, his voice straining. ‘We can still be rich men, my son; we will send for your mother. We will buy everything we ever wanted—’

‘We have nothing father,’ Markus interjected, ‘worse than nothing. These paintings are not yours; they belong with other people. They are a cursed inheritance. They have wasted your life and destroyed your family.’

‘My father bequeathed these paintings to me on his deathbed, along with this flat. I have committed no crime. These paintings are mine, Markus. I keep them for you. I will sell them for you. Please.’ Heiner’s voice trembled. ‘Please do not lose faith.’

The moral argument failing, Markus tried a practical one instead. ‘You will never sell these paintings without getting noticed. These names: Picasso, Ernst, Klimt… You will be arrested if you even try to sell them now.’

‘Jail? Pah.’

‘Who would you even sell to? If your family friends knew of buyers, they would have sold them years ago. Mother was right…’

‘Your mother betrayed us!’ Heiner shouted, raising his voice and his hand to Markus for the first time in their lives. Markus was not scared however, for Heiner’s rage was impotent, and hollow. He was too weak to hurt Markus now. They both knew this. ‘What are you going to do?’ Heiner asked softly in retreat. ‘Will you abandon me too? Go and tell Simon downstairs? Tell the police? I am too weak for another such betrayal. It will be the death of me, Markus. You do this and you will kill your father.’

Markus looked at his father and beheld a truly pitiful sight. Heiner was a paranoid lunatic. A bearded vampire. A thing of darkness and obsession. He had lived too long upstairs at number thirty-seven Neugrabenstrasse to walk away from it now.

‘I will not tell a soul,’ Markus declared, standing purposefully. ‘That responsibility is yours. I hope you will see sense. Phone the police. They will surely show leniency towards a man of your age, trying to make amends for the sins of the past.’

Heiner remained petulantly silent. Markus made for the door.

‘Markus,’ Heiner barked after him. ‘Markus, I command you to stay.’

For the first time in his life, Markus ignored a direct command from his father, and opened the flat door.

‘Please,’ implored Heiner softly. ‘I promise you this is the death of me, son. The death.’

Markus looked back one last time. He knew that Heiner was correct, he could not continue alone. He wondered if his departure would force his father to change his mind and join him, if he would sulk for a few days before handing himself in, or if he would see things out to the bitter end.

He realised that it did not matter which, for Markus also knew that he could not stay here another minute. Whatever Heiner chose to do, number thirty-seven Neugrabenstrasse would soon be free of him and his stolen paintings, the works rediscovered and returned to their rightful owners.

‘Here, you are dead already father,’ said Markus from the hallway, ‘this is no longer a flat, it is a grave. Mother could not live here, and neither can I. See sense. It is over. Do the right thing. Please?’

Heiner lingered, downcast in the doorway. Saying nothing in reply, he stepped back inside and shut the door forever.



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