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Authors: Margaret Leroy

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BOOK: The English Girl
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My lessons with Lukas go well. I have so much patience with him, as we sit at the dining-room table and read from the books that I’ve brought – Beatrix Potter, a Rupert annual. When the weather is fine, I take him to the Volksgarten, on Marthe’s recommendation. ‘We always say it’s like one of your English gardens, Stella. You’re sure to love it…’ Just as she says, it’s English-looking, lavishly planted with flowers, unlike most Viennese parks or gardens. There are long lines of standard roses, like decorous girls dressed up for a party in scarlet or apricot silks. I give Lukas his English lesson there, and teach him the names for the flowers.

I’m friendlier to strangers. I give a beggar, a gypsy woman, all the loose change in my purse. I remember the gypsy at the Westbahnhof when I first came here, how she tried to read my fortune. Did she see all this joy in my future, waiting for me? It’s as though I am more at home in the world now – it all seems less frightening to me. With Harri in my life, I feel warmer towards everyone else.

Except for the other women he has loved.

I discover that I am a very jealous person. I hate every woman he has ever been with – every woman he has ever desired. Sometimes I imagine him with other women. There was a magazine Kitty Carpenter once filched from a drawer of her father’s bureau, a copy of
Men Only
: it had sketches of naked women wearing only high heels or long gloves, the women drawn in pastel colours, their nipples of a startling red. The women I picture him with are like the women in the magazine – their pastel flesh so enticing, their poses blatant, without shame. When I imagine these things, I have a hot feverish feeling – a feeling that I hate, yet that also fascinates me, so I return to these thoughts again and again. Rather as you might pick at a scab, or rip at the skin at the sides of your nails: it hurts, yet is compulsive.

I know I must look different. Rainer notices. He doesn’t say anything about this at meal times. He’s often out in the evening, and when he is home for dinner we only talk about general things: Marthe has strong feelings about what it’s appropriate to discuss at the dinner table. But one day, he stops me at the door to the Rose Room.

‘Stella. I’d been meaning to ask. How are those lessons going?’

‘Better now, thank you.’

‘I always enjoy hearing you practise,’ he says.

‘Thank you,’ I say.

‘So – you’re getting to know some other young people, I hope? Other students at the Academy?’

‘Yes … People here are so very friendly,’ I say.

There’s too much warmth in my voice. His eyes are on me, grey as the sea in winter. The thought suddenly comes to me that he might be able to read me, that he might be able to tell that I’m seeing someone.

‘I’m so glad you find that,’ he says.

I feel I have to explain myself. I ought to tell him about Harri; but I find I don’t want to, just yet. It feels too fragile, too new and delicate a thing. And there’s something else I feel as well – just a little batsqueak of concern. A worry that Rainer might
mind
that I’m going out with a man.

‘I’ve met a girl who’s studying ballet. She comes from Bad Ischl,’ I say.

‘Good,’ he says. ‘Very good.’

But there’s a question in his face: he knows I’m not telling him everything.

The silence between us makes me nervous. I scrabble around in my mind for something to say.

‘I’m not sure how much she wants to be a ballet dancer, though. She’d really like to be a film director,’ I tell him.

‘An unusual ambition,’ he says.

‘There’s a film-maker she admires. I can’t remember her name. Leni something. She works in Germany…’

There’s a sudden warmth in his eyes.

‘Leni Riefenstahl?’ he says.

‘Yes, I think that’s the name. My friend says she’s very artistic – that she has a real artist’s eye. And she thinks it’s wonderful to see a woman doing so much.’

‘Does she now?’

‘To be honest, I don’t know much about films,’ I tell him.

‘Leni Riefenstahl’s work is outstanding,’ he says. ‘She’s made some wonderful films. Most uplifting.’

I’m pleased with myself, that I’ve raised a subject that really interests him.

‘This is good, Stella,’ he goes on. There’s animation in his face, and his voice has a satisfied sound. ‘We feel responsible for you while you’re living with us. We want to know you’re meeting the right kind of people,’ he says.

I seize the moment.

‘There was something I wanted to ask you,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve been invited out for Friday night. To the Musikverein, for the Bruckner concert. Are you and Marthe happy for me to go out in the evening?’

He frowns slightly. Seeing this, I have a sensation of falling.

‘Well, you
are
very young, Stella. And we wouldn’t want your mother to be worrying. We wouldn’t want to cause her any alarm.’

It hadn’t occurred to me that they might forbid me to go. Wild schemes rush into my mind. If they won’t give me permission, I shall go anyway, and deal with the consequences. They can’t stop me.

‘It’s so lovely of you to be concerned.’ I smile my most disingenuous smile. ‘I wouldn’t be home late, I promise.’

He considers this.

‘So, I imagine you’d be going with this young friend of yours, the ballet student?’ he says.

I think quickly. He seemed a little reluctant to give me permission to go. How would he react if he knew I was seeing a man?

I tell him yes, I’m going with Anneliese.

‘Well, I don’t see why not then, Stella. It’s good to take advantage of all Vienna has to offer. It’s all part of your musical education here,’ he says.

I agree warmly.

But after this conversation, I feel uneasy. I should have told Rainer and Marthe about Harri, when they
feel responsible
for me. I’ll tell them very soon, of course, when things are more settled: not yet.

On Thursday, I’m at the Landtmann with Anneliese.

‘How was the lesson?’ she asks me.

‘Better. Dr Zaslavsky set me some proper music, not just those awful Czerny things.’

‘Good for you, Stella.’

She slips her jacket from her shoulders. She’s wearing a dress of apple-green silk that has a pattern of birds.

‘So. Tell me
everything
,’ she says.

‘I met him again and he took me to his café.’

‘Ooh, Stella. And he’s still your fantasy? Fred Astaire and Clark Gable rolled into one?’

‘He’s wonderful. We had so much to talk about…’

Her face is wreathed in some private amusement.

‘So when are you seeing him next?’ she says.

‘He’s taking me to a concert tomorrow. Bruckner at the Musikverein.’

‘Well, this all sounds very promising. I shall of course expect a very detailed report…’

I think of seeing him again, of his touch, his kiss. My pulse skitters.

We are the post-war generation. We can do what we want
.

‘Anneliese. D’you really believe that thing you said – that we need to be our own women? That we shouldn’t let other people dictate to us how to behave?’

She doesn’t reply, just gives me a look from under her eyelashes. Her eyes are liquorice-dark and knowing.

I feel my face blazing red.

16

We step out into the street, the music still singing on in my mind. I try to persuade myself that this is real, not just some wild imagining.
I have been to a concert at the
Musikverein in Vienna. I am in Vienna, and I am falling in love.

In a pool of dark between the street lamps, he turns me round to face him. Desire flares in me. We kiss, the city fading around us as though it is immaterial, light as air. I would stay like this for ever – my body pressed against his body, his mouth exploring my mouth.

When at last we pull apart, I can’t bear it.

‘I’d better take you home,’ he says.

There’s the slightest question in his voice.

A silence. A deep breath. My heart is a tennis ball, banging against the walls of my chest.

We are the post-war generation.

‘Harri.’ My throat is thick, I’m so nervous. ‘I’ll come back with you if you like … If, you know…’

My voice is breathy, high-pitched. I must seem so young, so ignorant. Not a woman of the world.

‘You mean…’ He stops. He’s searching my eyes.

I nod. But I’m far too shy to say it.

He pushes my hair from my face with one finger. It’s the same gesture as the very first time he touched me, in front of
Paradise
, when my hair was wet from the rain. His eyes are wide. He’s startled. Happy.

‘You’re sure, my darling? I don’t want to rush you.’

‘Yes. Yes, I mean it.’

He kisses me again.

‘Oh, Stella,’ he says.

His words are warm on my skin.

‘But – you have to know…’ My voice dries up. I’m horribly embarrassed. I try again. ‘I haven’t … I mean, before…’

‘Yes. I thought that,’ he says. ‘I’ll look after you.’

We walk down Mariahilferstrasse. Harri stops at a lighted window.

‘This is my mother’s shop,’ he tells me.

I peer in. A rocking horse with flared nostrils; china dolls in sprigged frocks.

‘Oh. It’s a
toyshop
.’

I press my face to the glass.

Beyond the window, the shop is in darkness. There are clowns, toy soldiers, marionettes – the marionettes like characters out of the fairytales that I love: a wolf with red gaping jaws, a witch with spidery hair. When I pull back from the window, there’s a misted ‘O’ from my mouth.

‘It looks magical.’

‘You must see it all properly sometime. I’m sure that Lotte would adore to show you around.’

I love it when he talks like this – about our being together, our future tense.

He unlocks the door next to the toyshop, and leads me up several flights of stairs that smell of cabbage cooking.

Anxiety surges through me. What on earth am I doing here?

‘Harri. Will your mother mind us – you know – being here together like this?’

‘She’s out with my grandfather playing bridge,’ he tells me. ‘But you don’t need to worry – she lets me live as I choose.’

It comes to me that he speaks from experience; this has happened before. I push the thought from my mind. I don’t want to think about other girls he has brought here. I hate them. I hate every girl he has ever made love to, every girl he has ever looked at or kissed or wanted to kiss.

He takes me through a door into a small hallway, then a living room stuffed with furniture. The room smells of lemons and buttered toast. There are lamps with shades of tangerine silk, plump damask cushions, comfort. But the place is very small – I can’t imagine how four people manage to live here. I understand why Harri has his consulting room elsewhere. A little kitchen opens off to the side; it’s dark, the view from the window blocked by a metal stair, which must be the fire-escape for the building.

I look round, intensely curious, wanting to learn about him from the intimate landscape of his life. On a shelf, there’s a candelabra with nine branches, like the one in the apartment I can see from my bedroom. He tells me it is a menorah, that they will light it for Hanukkah.

A faded photograph catches my eye – a man and a woman, who look rather foreign and strange: the man has long curled hair, and is wearing a loose embroidered shirt.

‘Those are my father’s parents, who came from Galicia,’ he says.

‘Oh.’

I’d like to ask more about his father’s parents, about Hanukkah. About what he believes, what he practises – all the things I don’t know.

But he is impatient. He puts his hand on my arm.

‘My room is at the top. Stella – are you still sure?’

I nod: I can’t speak. My pulse skitters. I am going to bed with a man I love, and I have never been more afraid.

We climb a further narrow flight of stairs. Harri opens a door.

‘This is my room,’ he tells me.

I step out into space, into shivery light – a white cool beam of moonlight. It’s a small attic room. There is very little in the room: books, on a shelf, and in piles on the floor – big heavy books with intimidating titles; a small table where he can write; a mattress that serves as a bed. There’s a heap of blankets on the mattress – it must get very cold in winter, up here right under the roof; Viennese winters can be bitter, my mother told me. There are uncurtained skylights in the ceiling, and through the slanting glass, you can see the night sky – a moon, nearly full, an extravagant scatter of stars.

It charms me, this steep-roofed retreat from the world, with the stars above and moonlight and starlight spilling into the room.

‘I’m afraid there isn’t really space for a proper bed in here,’ he tells me. ‘But I like it. I like to be so high up. And to see the night sky.’

‘Yes. Yes, so do I. It could be a room for an artist.’

He goes to switch on the light.

‘No, leave it,’ I say hastily. ‘I prefer the moonlight…’

I’m frightened of being naked with him. Of him seeing me.

The mattress bed isn’t made, all the sheets and blankets tossed back. You can see the imprint of his body where he lay last night. This seems astonishingly intimate to me.

He sees me staring at the bed. He gives a small rueful smile.

‘I’d have tidied up if I’d known you were coming. I’d have got out the white satin sheets. If I – you know – had any…’

I stand there in the chilly light, unsure. His face as he turns towards me is made of shadow and dark.

‘Stella.’ He kisses my forehead lightly. ‘So you’ve never done this before?’

‘No.’

‘It’s going to hurt,’ he tells me.

How does he know this? In the way that everyone knows? Or does he know from experience, because he has done this before – made love here before to a virgin like me?

‘Yes, of course, I know that,’ I say bravely.

I don’t know what should happen now. My heart is pounding. I don’t know if I should take off my clothes, or if he will do it.

There’s a towel hanging on a rail. He spreads the towel on the mattress.

I remember what Anneliese said, about the French letter.

‘Harri – do you have, you know – something to use?’

BOOK: The English Girl
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