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Authors: Eva Ibbotson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult

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BOOK: Madensky Square
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Nini looked at me reproachfully. She is nineteen years old and could be my daughter – but this is not a line to pursue.

‘It was the anniversary of the Garment Workers’ Strike in Yaroslav,’ she said. ‘We went right along the Danube Quay and everyone supported us like anything.’

‘No doubt I shall get another visit from the police soon. When you’re actually imprisoned perhaps you’ll be satisfied.’

‘There is no progress without suffering,’ murmured my chief assistant. She rose in her shift and limped to the wash stand. Black tousled hair, ferocious Magyar eyebrows, a beak of a nose – and an unnaturally long neck which makes every movement memorable.

‘Oh, it isn’t the suffering. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that. It’s the head lice,’ I said – and Nini flinched.

But of course I understand. Oh, I mock, I despair as this girl who spends ten minutes removing a spider from the bath plans to assassinate archdukes and put the bourgeoisie to the sword, but I understand. She wants a better world for the poor and oppressed – and she wants to look pretty while she’s getting it – and don’t we all?

I found Nini when she was modelling for Paul Ungerer’s life class in his atelier off the Schottenring. She was sitting resolute and naked on a cane chair, her black hair hanging over her back, one leg stretched out and her behind too close to the stove which was one of those black capricious beasts of the kind that killed Emile Zola.

Paul lingerer is a conceited fop who wears a black velvet beret and carries on like Delacroix, but his wife is a good customer of mine and I had promised to drop off a skating dress that she had ordered.

The students were drawing the model and Paul Ungerer was striding round the studio being sarcastic when there was a thud; the chair on the dais had fallen over – and the model lay in a dead faint on the draped, plum-coloured velvet.

Nini’s thighs were checked in red and white where the cane had bitten into her skin, and the burn on her behind was serious. I told Paul Ungerer what I thought of him, which pleased the students and took Nini home.

I meant only to feed her up a little, but her mother, it turned out, had been a seamstress. (The father, who had deserted them, had been some kind of clothes-prop hussar, all sabres and
sapkas
and wind. A Hungarian, of course!)

Oddly, it was her Anarchism which made Nini such a good model. For when you are modelling clothes it is no good being ingratiating, and this slightly mad grisette gliding past some bourgeois burgermaster’s wife, flashing contempt from her black eyes, could reduce the poor lady to a state of abject longing for whatever garment she was showing.

Usually I go straight down after breakfast and open the shop, but today, because of the spring I lingered to talk to my pear tree.

My courtyard adjoins that of the bookseller, Augustin Heller, whose ancient and irregular shop juts out into the Walterstrasse. Heller is old and spends the day reading the antiquarian books which people, much to his annoyance, sometimes insist on buying before he has finished them. Last night his eleven-year-old granddaughter, Maia, came on a visit and had now escaped into the garden in her nightdress.

‘Don’t you
really
want to go to Madagascar?’ I heard her say. ‘Really don’t you, Mitzi? When you die don’t you want to have girdled the earth ?’

She’s an intense girl, raven haired: a bibliophile and an adventuress.

‘No, I don’t,’ came the voice of poor Mitzi, the eldest of the six Schumacher girls. ‘When I die I want to have baked the best gug’lhupf in Vienna.’

The salon of my shop is yellow and white like the inside of a daisy. The drapes in the windows and the curtains framing the long mirrors are the colour of newly picked lemons (that yellow isn’t even remotely egg-like) and the walls are ivory and match the alabaster bowls in which I keep fresh flowers. My carpet is grey, the chairs and sofas are upholstered in oyster velvet, and on the low tables I don’t just keep fashion magazines but also ashtrays so that the gentlemen who come and trace the imagined contours of their wives and mistresses in the air will feel at home.

The workroom is a different matter. I’m short of space and it hums like the engine room of a ship. The two machines at which the girls work are by the french windows which lead out into the courtyard, the cutting-out table takes up one wall, the wardrobe the other. The racks which hold the bales of cloth stretch tier upon tier almost to the ceiling, and every pincushion and box of tailor’s chalk and measuring rod has its place.

Between the workroom and the salon are two fitting rooms: very calm, very private, but sumptuous and canopied like the tents of Suleiman the Great.

This morning all was well. The salon streamed with light. In one window was a brown velvet street dress with black frogging which looked back to winter; in the other, a green-sprigged muslin with which I’d wooed the spring. Nice dresses both of them, but nothing to the dress that had overcome me in my sleep – the rich cream dress with the self-coloured rose which soon now would bring the traffic to a standstill as besotted women came and pressed their noses against the glass.

I was just unlocking the door when Old Anna, the flower seller, came across the square towards me.

‘I’ve got something for you,’ she said, putting down her basket. ‘Kept them specially…’

She had violets from Parma, jonquils and daffodils from the southern slopes of the Dolomites – and a bunch of tiny flowers not much longer than my thumb which she put into my hands.

‘Knew you’d want these,’ she said, flashing her golden tooth.

Wild cyclamen. I picked them with my mother in the woods above the Danube, in the Wachau where I was born. To me, as a child, they were almost people: the petals like the pricked ears of leprechauns, the sturdy, silver-dappled leaves like shields.

I can remember so well how Vienna looked to me then, when I was Sanna, the barefoot daughter of the village carpenter. The Kaiserstadt, the Imperial City, heart of the Empire. How it beckoned and shone, how clearly I saw it all: the Kaiser in his golden uniform, waving a white-gloved hand as he drove in his golden-wheeled carriage from the Hofburg to his Summer Palace of Schonbrunn… The elegant people parading down the Prater Hauptallee, the marble hall at the opera with its glittering candelabra… And now that Vienna is a real place with clattering dustbin lids and foolish dogs, I love it even more. It was a hard road that led me to this shop, this square. I let no one help me, not even the man I love, but since I came here I have woken each morning thinking: I am here where I want to be. This is my place.

I don’t believe the rumours that Joseph in the cafe across the road occasionally retails: that there are plans to widen the Walterstrasse and pull down part of the square. Not even Herr Willibald Egger, the Minister in charge of’City Development’ would be as crass as that. Yet as I was arranging the cyclamen in a bowl on my desk, I felt a sudden longing to record… to retain… my everyday life here in Madensky Square. I shall remember my tragedies, my follies and my joys – everyone remembers those. But what of the ordinary things, the little happenings? What of the ‘dailiness’ – who has a care for that?

So now at the end of this first day of spring I sit at my window and begin my journal. I shall try to keep it for a year and I shall write it to remind myself… but also I shall write it so that perhaps one day the person for whom I live – no,
at
whom I live since you can’t live for someone you will never see – might find it and say, ‘Ah yes, I understand. That’s what it was like in a dress shop in the Inner City. That’s what it was like at Susanna’s…’

Chapter April

If there is one man I really and truly hate it is the Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev. Why couldn’t he have kept his glamorous ballerinas and exotic designers in St Petersburg? Why bring them to Europe to torture poor hardworking dressmakers like me?

At ten o’clock this morning, Frau Hutte-Klopstock, the wife of the City Parks Superintendent, handed me a magazine and said she wanted to look like Karsavina in
The Firebird
.

‘Something diaphanous, I thought,’ she said. ‘Shimmering… in flame or orange.’

Frau Hutte-Klopstock is healthy, she is muscular; she is sportif and athletic. A small glacier in the High Tatras has been named after her and of this one must be glad. But, Oh God! Karsavina!

I led her into the fitting room where her double, a wire dummy padded by Nini with three whole packets of wadding, confronted her, but without dimming her ardour.

‘My sister saw them in Paris – the Ballets Russes. She says they were unbelievable – the exoticism, the colour! So she said why don’t you ask Frau Susanna to make you something like that and here I am.’

It’s the most difficult thing we do, as dressmakers: take a client’s fantasies and bring them slowly, patiently, to the point where they cease to be absurd. It took me half an hour to turn the diaphanous flame into a soft shell pink, to suggest that her husband, the Park Superintendent, would feel more comfortable if the flowing silk georgette was draped on an underskirt because the problems of the ballet are not quite the same as those of eminent ladies attending functions in the town hall. Not that it makes much difference; next month she’ll be back wanting to look like Sarah Bernhardt in
L’Aiglon
.

My next customer was easier to please. Leah Cohen’s requirements are simple. Any dress I make for her must be expensive, it must be seen to be expensive, and it must be more expensive than anything that could possibly be worn by her sister-in-law, Miriam.

I had conceded seed pearls on the collar and cuffs and a trellis of silver embroidery on the bodice. Now, however, she begged for sequins.

‘No, absolutely, no,’ I said, pinning the sleeves of the emerald moire. I have dressed Leah for seven years and we are friends. ‘I have my reputation to think of.’

‘But it’s a bar mitzvah – my cousin’s boy, I told you.’

‘I don’t care if it’s the circumcision feast of the Shah of Persia, no one leaves my shop looking like a parakeet. I’ll frame the bill if you like and you can wear it as a brooch to show Miriam, but sequins, no!’

She laughed then, but almost at once, most disconcertingly, her eyes filled with tears.

‘Oh dear. I don’t know what I shall do without you,’ she said, groping for her handkerchief.

‘He’s still thinking of going, then ?’

Leah nodded. ‘I’ll never forgive that Theodor Herzl. Ever since Heini read his book he’s been insane. Who on earth wants a Jewish state? What am I supposed to do in Palestine with all those dreadful people?’

‘They say the Arabs are very courteous and friendly.’

‘Oh, it’s not the Arabs – I don’t suppose they’ll take any notice of us. It’s the other Jews… awful ghetto people from the slums of Poland.’

I tried not to smile. ‘Perhaps it won’t happen. It’s not so easy to pull up one’s roots and your husband will miss his patients.’

She shrugged. ‘I know; he’s mad. The best doctor in Vienna and he wants to grow oranges. Oranges! You should see the fuss when I serve fresh fruit at table. He has to have an extra napkin because of the juice, and a special silver knife and finger bowls all over the place – and even then he spends ten minutes in the cloakroom afterwards scrubbing his hands.’ She dabbed her eyes and sniffed. ‘It’s bad enough having to die and go to heaven without starting on the Promised Land.’

I shut the shop between two and four. Gretl, who only lives ten minutes’ walk away, goes home to lunch but Nini (and I don’t quite know how this happened) has lunch with me.

Today, however, we sat in silence while my assistant glared at me over her goulash. I was about to take a cab to the von Metz palace and deliver the grey grosgrain day dress I had made for the old Countess – and of the Countess von Metz, Nini does not approve.

I remember so well the first time the Countess’s carriage drew up in front of my shop. Nini wasn’t with me yet so no muttered
a la lanterne
from the workroom spoiled the excited, not to say servile, welcome of Gretl, holding open the door. The carriage was ancient, the manservant who let down the steps seemed scarcely able to walk and the Pekinese he deposited on the ground was both incontinent and blind, but the quarterings on the carriage door professed a lineage which went back to Charlemagne.

If I had known then what I know now I would have shut the door resolutely in the face of the disagreeable old woman who followed her dog into the shop. The Countess von Metz is short and squat with a face like an imperious muffin and a purple nose. That first time she stayed for an hour and made me take down every single roll of material I possessed while her Pekinese, cowering under one of my draped tables, made a puddle. When I had finished the dress she’d ordered, she quibbled for six months about the bill and eventually sent her manservant with half the sum she owed me and what she declared was a valuable Chinese vase.

Since then she has never once paid me a fair price for my work and in the last year has sent in a collection of bric-a-brac by way of payment for which the pawnbroker in the Dorotheergasse, shaking his head, scarcely gives me the price of the cloth. And yet I continue to dress this unpleasant, pathologically mean and ugly old lady. Why? It’s not easy to explain…

The von Metz palace is one of the smallest in Vienna, ancient and dark. It’s in a suburb overtaken by industry; the north side abuts on to a warehouse and in most of the rooms one needs a light on at midday. The Countess has sold or pawned everything of value: only the white and gold stoves, of which in winter far too few are lit, are still beautiful. She herself is served by a handful of decrepit retainers who are too old (not, I think, too faithful) to leave. She has no husband, no known lover in her past and her only brother, an army colonel, has long been dead. In this gloomy palace this ancient, none too clean lady lives entirely alone, her only ‘treat’ a monthly summons to a meal at Schonbrunn where the Emperor, Franz Joseph, is known to keep the worst table in Europe.

But the Countess von Metz loves clothes. She loves them pointlessly, passionately, for their own sake. Today as I walked through the fusty dark salon towards her boudoir she was waiting with glittering eyes and as I unwrapped the dress her swollen, mottled hands passed in benediction across the ribbed silk.

BOOK: Madensky Square
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