“I am the last of the line,” she said dolefully, drawing heavily on her cigarette. “The family name will die out with me.”
She was very lonely and loved to talk. I was five decades younger and came from a culture that respected age and experience. We got on very well together. A pattern was established within weeks after our first meeting, I came to expect a gruff-voiced phone call every two months or so inviting me over for a glass of wine. I rarely refused an invitation and usually took along a carton of her favorite cigarettes or a bottle of red wine. In time a curious kind of friendship developed between us; a friendship sanctified by clouds of mutually exhaled cigarette smoke and sealed anew at each meeting with a bottle or two of red wine.She was flattered that I found her life story fascinating, but in the fragments of her family history, I saw reflected the chequered history of Europe and I always wanted to hear more. Someday perhaps, she smiled an enigmatic smile, I will tell you everything and then you can write the history of my family. But right now, I will simply talk to you as a friend. So we continued to meet, as friends, for three years, several times a year.
She died in 1982. I attended her funeral uninvited and was eyed with mistrust and suspicion by a handful of distant relatives who had appeared out of the woodwork to lay claim to an inheritance which might have been considerable. Perhaps they regarded me as an aspiring false claimant. Such was their suspicion and antipathy, I never got a chance to reassure them that my only claim was to her friendship. Now, three decades later, I have decided to bridge the gaps in her stories with my imagination. Although names have been changed to protect identities, it is a true story nevertheless; a story of one woman’s courage in the face of cataclysmic world events, and the restrictive mores of her time. The excerpt below is a fragment from a work in progress that will appear as a novel in 2014. As you read, keep in mind Mark Twain’s adage: Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A COUNTESS
I was standing in the Museum of Art History and contemplating an uninspiring allegorical portrait by Hans Makart when the Countess asked me to sleep with her. I was too embarrassed to look her in the face but when I did after a moment’s silence, the inexplicable intensity of her gaze made me say yes. It was past six in the evening when we were in her tiny, cramped apartment. Removing only my overcoat and shoes, I slid under the crazy patchwork quilt and closed my eyes. I heard the rustle of clothing and felt the mattress subside as she got in beside me. I opened my eyes and it was pitch dark. She had drawn the heavy drapes and turned off the lights. I drew her towards me. She was fully clothed as I was.
Her body grew rigid and began to tremble when I touched her. Only in that instant did I realize the enormity of her loneliness and her need and I recognized it only because my own was as great. I traced the path of her tears with my fingertips and held her in my arms. I did not speak. She was a stranger, and I did not know what to say. I only knew that we had made some kind of a connection, platonically speaking, and not in the crude sense of the term. We had both reached a common node in two hitherto separate existences; she at the end of a long and eventful life; I in the prime of mine.
I know that speaking of going to bed with a Countess brings lubricious images to mind, overplayed scenes of sex and seduction, childish fantasies from immature romances. It was not like that at all, but rather as the book of Ecclesiastes says. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh … a time to love, and a time to hate. A paean to life in all its infinite dimensions which refrains from explicitly saying that sex is wonderful; at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. All things in their proper place and time. That night in the Countess’ souvenir cluttered bedroom was neither the time nor the place for sex. I simply held her in my arms and said nothing. At intervals her shoulders heaved with powerful emotion and all the while a great Danube of tears flowed steadily, like a frontier between two adjacent countries, the past and the future.
A Napoleonic brass eagle soared from the Empire clock that quietly ticked away the minutes. It must have been after midnight when she finally went to sleep. I quietly slipped out of bed, put on shoes and coat and tiptoed out of the flat into the night air. It was early June and the cold was unseasonal. The air was heavy with a mist that made the street lamps gleam distantly. Stray beams of light straggled through the fog, touching the surface of the cobbled streets and making the stones glint like metal.
As I walked the silent streets, I felt light and unburdened, totally devoid of self, as though I too had bathed in the river of the Countess’ tears and been cleansed by it. On the Ringstrasse, the Marriott Hotel with its luminous facade of glazed arches looked like a curious mixture of art and artifice and I could not decide whether I liked or hated it. That facade might serve as an allegory of life, as well as some of the paintings I had seen earlier in the Museum. Our lives constantly hover between Kunst and Kitsch, between Art and Artifice. There is a relatedness, a constant dynamic tension between the two; and it is often only a question of timing that determines whether a work of art is considered to be “artistic” or not.
As in art, so too in human relationships. It is only the context that determines whether a certain act is wise or foolish. I had found out the hard way that there are no easy prescriptions, no set formulae for right action. Life was nothing but an eternal groping for those moments whose luminous beauty made all the waiting and the groping worthwhile. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Now was the time for me to sleep.
I went back to my hotel room and for the first time in years slept the deep sleep of childhood and of innocence; a sleep that was seamless and untroubled, natural and deep. And when I awoke in the morning I was quietly joyful, refreshed but langorous, as after a night of love.
I dressed and went down in time to gather the last few crumbs of the hotel breakfast and washed it down with two cups of wonderfully strong Viennese coffee. With the smoky flavor of the coffee still on my tongue, I returned to my room and dialed the old lady’s number.
“Yes,” said the Countess. “I was hoping you would call. If you have time, we might meet again today.