The Strange Case of Renfeld by Oliver Cook

Sep 7, 2020

Over in the eastern sky, the large yellow disk of the sun was making an appearance. A gleam of light shone through the narrow gap of the olive-coloured curtains at No. 47, a modest house in typical suburban Surrey, a place where the same events occur each day and change is unwelcome.

It was a Tuesday morning after a long holiday weekend – the last one of the year – and the nation was preparing to return to work.

The blue recycling bin, which was usually collected each Friday, was instead collected on Saturday due to the long holiday weekend, and it created much talk and excitement amongst the residents.

Inside No. 47, Renfeld was awake and dressing in his conservative attire. Although not too formal, as a respectable journalist of The Times, it was important to dress appropriately. It usually consisted of a roll neck top accompanied with a pinstriped suit jacket that was never fastened.

“Your coffee and two boiled eggs are ready, Renfeld,” said Mrs Renfeld from the kitchen downstairs.


This was a typical start for a working day. The weather outside was unusually warm for this time of year – it was what is known as an Indian summer – but there were certain tabloid newspapers warning of a harsh, cold winter ahead. After finishing his breakfast with great gusto, Renfeld departed his house and walked the short distance to the railway station at Claygate. He would board the same 07:47 service he did every day and sit in the same seat of the same carriage as the train made its way through the boroughs to Central London, his destination being London Bridge and the headquarters of The Times.

Day followed day, week followed week, and it was not long until the forecasted cold, harsh winter had gripped the country.

Renfeld appreciated the change of seasons, particularly the coming of winter. Being an avid skier, he looked forward to his annual one-week’s skiing vacation in the Austrian Alps.

However, after two weeks of extremely cold temperatures and the mercury rarely exceeding five degrees Celsius, Renfeld was beginning to experience great discomfort.

He would wake each morning with a slight headache – most notably on the left side of his temple – similar to that of a migraine, and he would be shivering constantly.

Mrs Renfeld was rather concerned for her husband’s health and would often make herbal teas to help fight the cold.

“Renfeld, you are holding your cup of tea with your left hand.”

“Indeed. I had not noticed, but it feels natural.”

This was strange, as Renfeld was predominantely right-handed; however, not much was thought or said about it, as the incident did not appear to be of great significance.

The low-pressure weather system responsible for the bitterly cold temperatures had augmented and was now affecting the entire United Kingdom, and large snowflakes were falling in suburban Surrey. The Renfelds were about to sit down at their dining table and enjoy their evening supper of the goulash-style soup that Renfeld had requested.

“Do we have any schnapps?” asked Renfeld.

“Renfeld, you know the only time you drink schnapps is when you are away skiing,” a surprised Mrs Renfeld replied.

The evening passed by and, no different from any other evening, the table was cleared and the dishwasher was loaded. That is, until they both looked through the kitchen window and observed the road outside, which had turned white as the large falling snowflakes had settled on the ground. This generated much excitement, as well as distress, as many residents were concerned they may not be able to commute to work the following day.

The next day was also the collection of the blue-coloured recycling bins, and Mrs Renfeld was worried that, because of the snowfall, they would not be collected and emptied, particularly as the Renfelds’ bin was full to the top.

The following morning, the residents of suburban Surrey awoke to a clear blue sky and a snow-covered neighbourhood. At No. 47, the coffee machine was switched on and two eggs were being boiled.

“Morning, Renfeld.”

“Morgen. Wie gehts?” Renfeld replied.

“Excuse me?”

“Ich bin hungrig; wo ist meine fruhstuck?” asked Renfeld.

“Renfeld, why on earth are you speaking in German?”

“Ich verstehe nicht!”

Mrs Renfeld was becoming extremely worried for her husband’s health and, for the first time in all the years they had lived in Surrey, the blue recycling bin hadn’t been taken out to the roadside for collection.

Renfeld was also distressed and could not understand why he was speaking only in German; he had lost all knowledge and ability to discourse in the English language. Apart from a few basic words whilst skiing in Austria, he had never spoken German before in his entire life. The extent of Renfeld’s knowledge of foreign languages was his experience in secondary school, where he had studied French; had become reasonably fluent in it too.

“Was ist los?” Renfeld said as he sat down for his breakfast, putting his head in his hands.

The large snowfall had caused a disruption to public transport, which conveniently prevented Renfeld from travelling to his office; he could therefore remain at home and, with the weekend approaching, both he and his wife hoped he would be well again to return to work on Monday.

The weekend did pass, but there was still no change in Renfeld’s condition. He spoke only German, and not one word of English. This made communication rather difficult between Renfeld and his wife, and they both frequently referred to the internet to help translate their conversations.

Outside, the temperature remained cold and the snow refused to melt; it was apparent that Renfeld could not go to work.

“Ich kann nicht arbeiten heute.”

“I am not sure if I understand you, but I think we should visit the doctor today.”

The Renfelds cleared the snow from the driveway and the top of their car and drove to the local surgery where their doctor saw them without delay.

“What seems to be the problem, Mrs Renfeld?”

“Oh, it’s not me, doctor. It’s my husband.”

“Ich bin krank.”

“Pardon?” the doctor questioned, slightly shocked.

“You see, doctor, last Friday morning, my husband started speaking German and has spoken nothing but since then! He has lost all ability to speak or understand English.”

“Well, this is most unusual … Before Friday morning, did you notice any other changes or strange behaviour?”

“Well, yes … Ever since this cold weather and snow arrived, Renfeld has constantly requested goulash soup or wiener schnitzel for his supper and then, late in the evening, a glass of schnapps. He often complained of headaches – oh, and he started to use his left hand for eating and drinking.”

The doctor was fascinated by this strange case of Renfeld and decided to contact a former colleague of his who specialised in neurology.

The Renfelds could do nothing but return home and wait and hope for a change in circumstances.

As the week progressed, the cold weather abated and the snow on the roads, pavements, and gardens began melting rapidly. There was a dramatic rise in temperature, and the rear garden was alive with bird song.

“Morning, darling,” said Renfeld.

“Oh, Renfeld, you’re speaking English! Finally, it’s all over and we can return to normal,” said a jubilant Mrs Renfeld.

They were both extremely happy. Mrs Renfeld decided to make a cup of tea and contact the doctor to inform him of the good news and that life had returned to its usual routine.

Christmas was now approaching, and the Renfelds were looking forward to inviting friends and family around to their house without the worry of Renfeld speaking German. A Christmas tree was placed in the lounge, the decorations were brought down from the loft, and Renfeld enjoyed decorating the tree.

Outside, snow began to fall, enhancing the Christmas spirit, and the weather forecasters warned that, on this particular evening, there may be a large drop in temperature.

The following morning, suburban Surrey awoke to heavy snowfall on an unprecedented scale; winter had returned with a vengeance.

“Es gibt schnee!”

“Renfeld! Please … please speak English.”

“Tut mir leid, aber ich sprechen Deutsche.”

Mrs Renfeld was beside herself and, after drinking her morning tea, immediately contacted the doctor, who decided to visit Renfeld at his house, accompanied by his neurosurgeon specialist.

The doctor explained to Mrs Renfeld that there appeared to be a connection with the external temperature and snowfall. This was difficult for Mrs Renfeld to comprehend, but she followed the doctor’s advice and recorded the daily outside temperatures and if there was any presence of snow.                                          


The Renfelds’ Christmas day dinner with family and friends was greatly entertaining, courtesy of Renfeld speaking only in German.

“Merry Christmas, Renfeld. How have you been keeping?”

“Gut danke, und ihnen?” His understanding was improving.

After a three-week period of recording the weather, the conclusion was reached that whenever the temperature outside was lower than 5 degrees Celsius or it began to snow, Renfeld would start speaking German. The neurology specialist could only remark that: “It is extremely difficult to explain why or how this strange case of Renfeld has occurred; the brain is the most complex organ of the human body and is still not fully understood.”

Sudden drops in temperature below 5 degrees Celsius would cause embarrassing situations for Renfeld, such as one particular instance when paying for his petrol at his local garage.

“Sechs bitte.”

“Renfeld! What has come over you?” replied the female attendant.

“Entschuldigung aber es ist kalt.”

It was becoming apparent that Renfeld would have to take temporary leave from his employment at The Times;working as a journalist in London was impossible when only speaking German.

Based on advice from their doctor, the Renfelds began planning a much-needed vacation, preferably a location with a warmer climate, higher temperatures, and little chance of snow. The Canary Islands was the chosen destination by Mrs Renfeld, who was looking forward to conversing with her husband in the English language once again. Renfeld, however, was looking forward to his annual ski vacation to the Austrian Alps and for an opportunity to use his newly acquired, yet involuntary, German language skills. After much debate, the two agreed to make the best of the unusual circumstances and make the trip to the Alps.


Back in the snow-covered, yet leafy-green suburbs of Surrey, the doctor and neurologist were debating about other possible causes of this strange case of Renfeld.

The doctor was nearing the end of his career; he was a true academic but also possessed great wisdom. He stood up from his surgery chair and walked over to the window where he observed the falling snowflakes continuing to blanket the communal garden. Their whiteness augmented the dense bright red stems of the dogwood which, in turn, complimented the sweet-singing red-breasted robin perched on the branch of a beech tree.

“There are many possible reasons for a person to start speaking a foreign language; previous cases I have encountered have involved victims of head trauma. However, one may also look to nature for possible clues.”

“Please explain yourself, doctor,” replied the neurologist, sitting comfortably in the reclining chair.

“I believe the fur of hares, weasels, ptarmigans, stouts, and the Siberian hamster all change to white during the winter months to blend in with the white background of the snow – a form of cryptic mimicry.”

“Indeed, you should have chosen zoology as a career,” said the neurologist with a grin.

“And if I am correct, this change in fur to suit the change in seasons is caused by photoperiod – the duration of time that the receptors in the retina of the eye receive daylight – and when the days begin to shorten, the fur of the animal will begin to change to white … am I correct?”

“Affirmative, doctor; however, with the case of Renfeld, it appears primarily to do with external temperature or the presence of snow,” the neurologist said, scratching his chin and displaying a countenance that suggested deep thought before continuing his discourse. “It must be noted that if a Siberian hamster was to be placed in a room of a house with natural light and a constant room temperature maintained throughout the year, the fur of the hamster would still change to white during the winter months, agreed?”


“I can also confirm that the skin contains receptors that detect changes in temperature and that they then pass this information to the processing centre within the brain called the hypothalamus, which may control the circadian rhythm.”

The doctor interposed: “Ah yes, the circadian rhythm; otherwise known as the daily cycle that is also possessed by plants,l informing the plant what season it is and when to flower.”

“Very good, doctor. You should have chosen botany as a career,” the neurologist said with a sardonic smile. “Not only am I a neurologist but a scientist, too. Let me explain more: within the brain, there exists the pineal gland, sometimes referred to as the inner eye. This is also a light receptor and will set off a chain reaction of enzymatic events, which then also affect the circadian rhythm. Quite possibly, temperature may also affect the pineal gland. If so, this could be a plausible explanation for the strange case of Renfeld.”

“But why is it that Renfeld would suddenly start to speak German?” questioned the doctor.

“Speech and language abilities are located on one side of the brain, usually the left hemisphere; however, a small percentage of left-handed people possess a right hemisphere language area.”

“Interesting – the evening prior to the morning Renfeld first started to speak German, it was noticed by his wife that he was using his left hand for eating and drinking instead of his preferred right hand,” said the doctor.

“Exactly. The left side of the brain controls the right-hand side of the body and vice versa. Maybe Renfeld possesses language areas in both hemispheres and the sudden cold temperatures triggered a change in the brain.”

“This sounds like a possible explanation; please continue.”

“In the frontal lobe of the brain, there exists an area known as the Broca area, which controls speech, and in the temporal lobe there exists the Wernicke area, which controls understanding and speech recognition. In the case of Renfeld, both of these areas of the brain have been affected,” the neurologist said with confidence.

There was a pause in the conversation, as both were in deep thought, then the doctor said, “I am sure beyond the realms of scientific facts, the metaphysicians of this world will no doubt express their views and opinions on this strange case of Renfeld.”

The neurologist chuckled quietly to himself. “Let me remind you, doctor, I am a scientist; I believe in evidence, facts, and the results of an experiment.”

The doctor replied “I am fully aware of your beliefs, which I do respect; however, Renfeld’s ancestors on his father’s side originated from Bavaria, Germany, and one could question the immortal soul, could one not?”

“I am not a metaphysician, but do continue.”

“It is quite possible the prolonged duration of cold weather may have enabled the soul to awaken; this would override the brain, which could be regarded as just another muscle. The soul will then occupy the highest seat of authority within the human body.”

The doctor returned to his surgery chair and, in doing so, noticed his family photo placed on the side of his desk. He then suggested another possibility. “Atavism may also be a plausible explanation. Renfeld may be a freak of hereditary circumstances. If a mutated gene skips generations with an external feature of the body, such as the ears, and they are to mimic that of his grandfather rather than that of his father, then who is to say the same cannot occur within the brain? If so, then it may be possible that his grandfather’s memory has been passed down and has now resurfaced due to a sudden extraneous event, such as the extreme cold weather,” said the doctor, who was now confident he had the true answer. 


Renfeld thoroughly enjoyed his skiing vacation in Austria and made many new friends, all from Germany and who he anticipated meeting with the following winter. Back in Surrey, a mild and genial spring passed by: the lilac racemes of wisteria were replaced with the lilac of lavender and the delightful humming of the insects announced the arrival of the English summer. The routine life at No. 47 returned once more. Renfeld was speaking in his native English and had returned to work at The Times, commuting once more to London Bridge. After his strange winter experience, Renfeld began seeing life and the world wherein he had lived from a different perspective; one particular morning, as he exited the station at London Bridge, he noticed a bee resting on the station handrail. How incongruous it looked in the still early hour of the morning and not a flower blossom in the close vicinity. Yet here Renfeld was, surrounded by many other people dressed in similar attire and appurtenances. Here he was, lost in the crowd like that of a drop of water falling into a large ocean.

Renfeld and his wife later visited their close friend’s open garden party near the South Downs; they had a large flint stone house with a well-maintained, civilised garden. The Renfelds had always had a strong desire to relocate to the area, but this future plan now seemed to be in jeopardy.Not knowing which language her husband would be speaking, Mrs Renfeld was apprehensive about the following winter. She also became concerned that she and her husband might face some financial difficulties if he could not continue working.

It was not until the end of November that the temperature dropped below 5 degrees Celsius and Renfeld again began speaking German.

They had discussed possible plans and Renfeld, being an avid skier, decided to enrol in a ski-instructing course in Austria. This meant he could work full-time as a ski instructor during the winter months, making good use of his German language while also enjoying his passion for skiing.

The strange case of Renfeld was explained to The Times, who were very understanding and allowed Renfeld to freelance during the summer months.

Renfeld had always dreamt of becoming a ski instructor and residing in the mountains, but he had never found the courage to leave the security of his journalism career. What’s more, he was sure Mrs Renfeld would never have agreed to it.

This most unfortunate incident, however, now enabled his dream lifestyle to come true.

Renfeld secured employment as a skilehrer in the Voralberg province of Austria. He was well liked by his colleagues, and Mrs Renfeld would visit several times during the winter season and, becoming quite the snowshoe enthusiast. She joined associated groups and would partake in day-long tours. She would snowshoe high up in the alpine and down through the forest glades; wherever she turned, there were towering, snow-covered peaks, the palaces of nature, which dominated the skyline. She passed invigorating waterfalls and sweet-sounding trickling streams and would tread the fresh snow through the dense forest where beech and birch sporadically grew within the verdure of spruce. On warmer days, she could hear the sharp-sounding cracks of an avalanche in the distance, followed by several rumbles as the snow fell to the valley’s floor while the birds sang sweetly in the treetop canopy overhead.

Her lung capacity increased due to the salubrious, dry alpine air, which was augmented with the perfume of pine. Her countenance took on one of health and vigour; her skin would glow and her eyes radiated wellbeing. Friends and neighbours from Surrey would often comment on her healthy appearance.

The Renfelds were both very happy and enjoyed their unexpected new lifestyle. Communication was difficult at times but was gradually overcome with the aid of modern technology. Several software companies specialising in artificial intelligence took great interest in the strange case of Renfeld and supplied both he and his wife with newly invented apps for their phones, including speech recognition and translation. This enabled them to have an almost normal conversation, with only a slight delay between sentences.

Mrs Renfeld was also given an old German language compact disc from a kindly neighbour in Claygate. Given how frightfully old it was, it would perpetually stop and start in the music player. This meant that when she spoke German, she would often speak with a stutter, but she was still well understood amongst the local Austrian residents.

Several winters of speaking German and summers of speaking English passed by for Renfeld. His skiing was improving each year, and his two diametrically opposed personalities began to develop. Renfeld the journalist was stern, supercilious, and business-minded, whereas Renfeld the ski instructor was joyous, fun, and jovial; it was akin to that other old Scottish duo, people often commented.

He felt he was living the lives of two different people, his spirit and soul being transported into a different body dependent on the time of year. He would make jocular remarks to Mrs Renfeld that when he were to pass away, he would bequeath his capital to Renfeld the ski instructor. She herself would often remark that she had two husbands, one for the summer months and a different one for the winter, to which Renfeld would jokingly reply that he was short-changed and was still married to the one first wife.


At this point, Renfeld had become extremely confident with his skiing ability and was about to apply for his ski guiding certification. That is, until one particular day when the visibility on the mountain was limited due to low cloud and light snowfall. Unaware of the bumps and rocks, Renfeld experienced an unfortunate accident.

The result was his being knocked unconscious and admitted to the local hospital. Mrs Renfeld was distraught and immediately travelled out to Austria, accompanied by the doctor and neurologist from Surrey.

Renfeld had created much interest at the local hospital, as it was expected this impact to the head may affect the language he would eventually speak when regaining full consciousness. Many doctors, nurses, and surgeons were now gathering around his ward, and bets were taken to predict the language Renfeld would be speaking. Would it be German or English? Seeing as they were only halfway through the winter season, many individuals were placing their bets on German.

Finally, the day arrived. Mrs Renfeld had noticed more movement from her husband and made an announcement to the doctor.

There was a great clamour amongst the gathered professionals eager to hear Renfeld speak. Many tried to enter Renfeld’s room to no avail.

“Renfeld, can you hear me?”

“Please, say something if you can?”

There was complete silence and suspense within the ward. After what seemed a perpetual pause in time, Renfeld moved his head to one side and, looking directly at his wife, finally spoke his first long-awaited words.

“Bonjour, como sava?”


Renfeld’s speaking in French was a huge shock to his wife and all those involved. He eventually moved to Paris, where he worked as a freelance journalist throughout the summer months and secured work as a ski instructor in the French Alps during the winter. Mrs Renfeld would often visit via Eurostar, and the software companies updated their language apps.

Renfeld the Austrian ski instructor ceased to exist, as did Renfeld the journalist from Surrey for that matter. Both could be looked upon as fleeting moments of his life, and now he was a Frenchman, his spirit and soul occupying another body. Mrs Renfeld claimed she was on her third husband, and their relationship grew stronger because of it.

Five years passed, and life was settling into a comfortable routine; that is, until Paris experienced its hottest and driest summer in many years.

Renfeld’s work colleagues would often hear him saying gracias and adios, and Mrs Renfeld noticed he would often say vino tinto when ordering a red wine.

There may still be another chapter yet to come in the strange case of Renfeld.

It is reputed that Barcelona offers a good quality of life with its genial climate, and no doubt the Spanish Pyrenees offer some superb skiing as well.

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