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Authors: Eva Ibbotson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult

Madensky Square (9 page)

BOOK: Madensky Square
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‘What’s the matter?’ asked Alice.

I stopped giggling and shook my head. ‘Nothing,’ I said, and I explained. ‘It’ll just have to be the moss-green crepe.’

May June

I thought it was the full moon that woke me; I’d left the shutters open, for today was the first day of summer heat. It was two o’clock in the morning and even in the busy Walterstrasse the traffic was stilled; yet something had disturbed me.

I slipped on my kimono and went through into the kitchen to warm some milk. The moonlight was very bright: Saint Florian with his bucket was white as alabaster.

Then I heard the stamping of horses and saw a carriage standing by the Schumachers’ front door. The doctor. Some time tonight, then, the child would be born – and I leant out on the sill and prayed that the baby would be strong and well.

My baby was well. She was perfect. They shouldn’t have given her to me to hold, but she was born at night when the sister who was in charge of the ward was absent – and the young novice gave her to me. So I held her.

As soon as she lay in my arms I knew for certain that I was going to keep her and I told her so. I felt well and strong and entirely without doubts and I spoke to her calmly and sensibly, for my joy was so overwhelming it needed the discipline of extreme politeness.

‘There is, for example, the question of your Christian name,’ I said to her as she lay and snuffled in the crook of my arm. ‘You see, Sappho called her daughter Kleis and I would very much like to call you that. Only I don’t think it would go well in German? So I wondered if you’d care to have my mother’s name? Would you like to be called Elisabeth?’ I asked my baby. ‘Would you care for that?’ And she opened her eyes.

We talked most of the night, my daughter and I, and in the shadowed ward the young novice who had brought her to me moved about her work.

The next day the sister came back and was furious. Babies destined for adoption should never be given to the mother to hold. By this time my temperature had begun to rise, and it rose and rose in the next days while half-comprehended figures in black habits sponged my forehead, felt my pulse and mouthed again and again their terrible, sincerely held beliefs. I must be sensible… I must sign the papers… I must let go.

I had puerperal fever. Most of the time I was delirious, but when I became aware of my surroundings they gave me laudanum because I screamed for my baby and upset the other patients.

Some time during those days, my daughter vanished.

I was ill for a long time. Puerperal fever kills more often than not, but I was eighteen and had been healthy all my life. I got better and they sent me down to their convalescent home in Klagenfurt where I sat in the sun with the other Fallen Women and stared at the Worthersee. After a month the doctor said I was fit for work and the nuns found me a job in domestic service in Vienna.

My employers had a big apartment behind the stock exchange. I slept in a windowless cupboard, rose at five-thirty and worked without a pause till nine at night. But it wasn’t the work that was the problem. I was prepared for that. It was my employers’ detestable sons, Alphonse and Franz, young men-about-town with incipient moustaches and ridiculous dandified clothes who regarded the maids as entirely available and thought they were honouring me with their favours.

I bit and scratched my way through my three months there. Then one morning I found my employers’ newspaper and in it an advertisement for a seamstress in the teeming textile quarter north of the Hohermarkt.

I worked for Jasha Jacobson for three years. He came from Russian Poland and ran a typical sweat shop – overcrowded, noisy, ill-ventilated. I knew nothing about Jews: their religion, their habits – being there was as strange to me as if I’d gone to work in an Arabian souk. We worked unbelievably long hours and my pay was low, but I’ve never ceased to be grateful for my time there. I learnt everything there was to know about tailoring: choosing the cloth, cutting, repairing the ancient, rattling machines. At first I was a freak – a
set down in the midst of this close knit immigrant community – but gradually, I became a kind of mascot. People passing smiled and waved at the blonde girl sitting in the window beside the cross-legged men sewing their button holes. And I was never molested – I might have been a girl of their own faith by the care they took of me.

When Jasha realized that I was serious about wanting my own shop, he began to take me about with him. I met an old Tunisian who did goldwork and his crippled wife who showed me how to handle sequins and beads. Lacemakers, leatherworkers, pedlars from Flanders and Normandy… I got to know them all and know them still.

After three years I asked Jasha for a reference and left. There were tears in his eyes when we said goodbye, but he was glad to see me go because his nephew, Izzy, his heir and the apple of his eye, wanted to marry me. Izzy had been rotted by education and lent me books by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky which I fell asleep over after a twelve-hour day. Jasha knew I had no intention of accepting the boy but it hurt him to have a member of his family who would consider marrying out of the faith.

With the reference Jasha wrote for me I got a job in a fashionable dress shop in the Herrengasse. I started in the sewing room, but soon I was modelling and helping with the designs, and at the end of two years the proprietress hinted at the possibility of a partnership, for she was getting on in years. Some of the customers befriended me and they had brothers, cousins – even fathers – who were very willing to take me out. I began to go to the theatre, to the opera; to meet writers and painters. Listening to their talk in the cafes, I became almost educated. And I learnt how to behave like a beautiful woman, which is not the same as – but more important than – being beautiful.

By this time I was sharing a flat with Alice: three rooms and a kitchen in a pretty, arcaded courtyard behind the Votiv

Church. We’d met at Yvonne’s, both staring at the same hat: a green straw with parrot tulips and a navy-blue ribbon which we both decided not to buy! We got on well from the start -I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much as I did with Alice, nor seen so many operettas!

So within five years of leaving the House of Refuge, a penniless girl without a future, I had an excellent job, a home, a circle of friends.

I don’t know when I stopped daydreaming and decided to act But one day at breakfast I said:

‘Alice, I’m going to get her back. I’m going to find my daughter. Can she come here?’

And Alice, who alone in the world knew my secret, jumped up and put her arms round me and said, ‘Yes. Oh, yes, yes,

At four a.m. the doctor’s carriage was still outside the Schumachers’ house and the windows blazed with light.

Oh, let it go well for her, I prayed – she’s so tired, poor Helene – and let that pompous husband be good to her whatever the outcome.

Should it take so long, a seventh child?

It was one thing to decide to bring my daughter home, another to find her.

The sister who had been in charge at the House of Refuge had been transferred; the other nuns would tell me nothing. The deed was done, the child had a good home. As I beseeched and pleaded, they suggested I go to confession and purge myself of impure desires.

I went to the Ministry of Home Affairs and was transferred from room to room. At last I found the place where the adoption records were kept – and was met with a blank refusal. The files were confidential; there was no question of my seeing them.

‘I’m afraid it’s impossible, Gnadige Frau. It’s the regulations. There’s nothing we can do.’

They went on doing nothing, a thing that Austrian civil servants are very good at, for week after week. I kept going to see if a different clerk might be on duty; I implored, I wept -and still, implacably, they answered ‘no’.

And yet I didn’t lose hope. Now when I drove out with one of my escorts, I looked at Vienna with new eyes, noting fountains which would amuse her, alleys where she could bowl her hoop. I found myself staring at a poster of the Danube Steamship Company, searching the timetable for river trips which would not keep her from her bed too late. Once, quite by myself, I went to the Prater. Sometimes I think that of all the days of my life, that’s the one that I’d most like to have back: the day I tested the dappled horses of the carousels, travelled the magic Grottenbahn, sailed high over the city on the ferris wheel with my imagined daughter.

And I began to dress a doll. There has never, I do assure you, been a doll like the one I dressed for my daughter. Alice made her hats, but the rest – the evening gowns of faille and lace, the sailor suit, the nightgowns and bed jackets and capes, I stitched in the evening. The doll was my flag nailed to the mast. While I dressed her, I still had faith.

Then one day in July my luck turned. Going yet again to the records office I found a new clerk: an unattractive young man, spotty, with a big Adam’s apple, too much hair cream.

I began again, pleading, asking to see this one entry – the one referring to the adoption of a daughter born to Susanna Weber on the seventh of April 1893.

He listened, looked round to make sure that we were not overheard, asked what I would be prepared to give.

All the money I had, I said, also whispering. Everything I possessed – and I almost tore from my throat, then and there, the necklace that I wore.

But of course that wasn’t what he wanted.

It was a long night, the night I spent with him in a cheap hotel behind the Graben – oh Lord, it was long. But he played fair. The next day he brought me a copy of the entry I had asked for. A baby girl born on the seventh of April 1893 to Susanna Weber, spinster, had been adopted on April the twenty-third by Erich and Sidonie Toller of 3, Nussbaumgasse, Hintersdorf, Salzburg. Herr Toller’s occupation was given as ‘water engineer’ and I remember being cross about that. Surely they could have done better for my daughter than a water engineer ?

So now I was ready. I had been saving up my annual holiday, and on a perfect late summer’s day, with the doll packed in a special box, I set off for Salzburg.

Everyone knows what Salzburg is like. Very pretty, a little absurd. The Mirabelle Gardens, the Fischer von Erlach churches, the castle high on its hill. And Mozart of course. Mozart whom the inhabitants ignored and who now brings the tourists flocking.

But if you drive round behind the castle you come to a green and pleasant landscape which has nothing to do with the fashionable shops and the crowds. Here there are fields of clover, little streams and prosperous villages in which people who work in the town have built pretty villas with well-kept gardens.

Hintersdorf was one of these. There was a main street, a few quiet side streets running out towards the fields.

I had booked into a pension in Salzburg. Now as I alighted from the bus I was suddenly terribly afraid. Not that I couldn’t bring her back with me – I knew I could do that – but that she would be less than I had hoped, strange to me. Other…

Oh God!

I walked down the lane and found the house. Low, yellow stucco, in a big tree-shaded garden. There was a wooden table tinder a walnut tree and a swing in the branches of a cherry.

And she was in the garden.

It is becoming very hard to write but I had better finish now. She was exactly as I had known she would be. Her face, wide-mouthed, sweet and funny was the face from which all others departed at their peril. She was fair, plump and golden-skinned; her thick hair was braided, but loosely so that the ends curled into fat tendrils the colour of corn. She wore a blue dirndl with a crisp white blouse and a dusty pink apron; her socks were white as snow and the ribbons which fastened her pigtails matched exactly the colour of her dirndl. It was like looking into the mirror, like being six years old again but better. She was prettier than I had been, for her eyes were brown. I could see that from where I stood, half concealed by the trunk of an acacia – and I thanked Karli, my long-forgotten lieutenant, for this gift. They were quite lovely, the brown eyes in the fair and golden child.

I had come as she was preparing for a party. Three stuffed animals were propped against cushions on the ground – a bear, a donkey and an elephant, and everything needed for their adornment lay to hand: bird cherries for earrings, necklaces of threaded berries, rings she had woven from the stems of grass.

‘You must be patient,’ she said to the animals, lowering a necklace over the donkey’s head. ‘It takes time to make things fit.’

Her voice was sweet and clear, with a trace of the local accent which would go, as mine had done, in the city.

After the necklaces came the earrings, causing problems with the elephant.

‘You’ll be pleased to look so smart when you get to the King and Queen,’ she told him. ‘You’ll be glad you didn’t wriggle. And remember, I have to get dressed too.’

I watched and watched. I looked at the child, into her, through her. She was gold, pure gold. Then slowly I dragged my gaze away and looked at the house. Neat white curtains, an espalier peach against the wall; petunias and begonias in the window boxes; bantams strutting in a wire enclosure.

My eyes roamed, searching and searching for something that jarred; something I disliked.

Nothing. My prettily dressed yet untrammelled daughter played in perfect contentment in a country garden with her well-loved toys. So I would have dressed her, so I would have wanted her to play. From my child there emanated above all that strange, unspectacular, almost never-encountered thing: a quiet, self contained and peaceful happiness. An ordinariness which is in fact so extraordinary, so unbelievably rare.

Then a woman came out with a glass of milk on a tray and a plate of biscuits and my daughter looked up and smiled.

The child had not noticed me, but the woman saw me. The resemblance must have been very striking for she knew me at once. She didn’t scream, she didn’t faint – she walked very carefully, slowly to the table and put down the child’s milk. Then she grasped the side of the table and held on. Just held on.

BOOK: Madensky Square
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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