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Authors: Margaret Leroy

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BOOK: The English Girl
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I wanted that. I wanted to be her; I wanted that kind of power. More than anything; more than life.

Mrs Slater had herself been taught by a legendary piano tutor, Dr Zaslavsky of the Academy in Vienna. She’d often talked about Dr Zaslavsky: he came from a famously musical Jewish family, and had emigrated from Odessa, she said. On one of his visits to England, she arranged for me to play for him.

When I arrived at Mrs Slater’s, shaking slightly with nerves, he was waiting in her music room. A small hunched man, quite old, with a drift of white hair, his body crooked as a thorn tree; Mrs Slater had said he suffered from arthritis, and I could see how deformed his hands were, how he couldn’t play any more. It was startling to see, in his worn, wizened face, the eyes of a much younger man – black as sloes, and fierce with life.

I played ‘April’ by John Ireland, and a Chopin Etude. I was utterly unaware of myself once I started to play, just feeling the flow of the music, in spite of everything that hung on this. He listened in absolute silence. At the end he said nothing but, ‘Thank you, Fräulein Whittaker.’ I left, dejected. I was sure I hadn’t been good enough.

Later that day, Mrs Slater called at our house, pink and vivid with excitement. ‘He
your playing, Stella. He
it. He said you have the potential to be extremely expressive…’ Warmth rushed through me when I heard that. ‘But he feels there is something held back – that there is a kind of fear in you.’ Immediately, the sense of falling inside me, all hope gone. ‘He says there is no darkness in your playing. That you have to know your own darkness…’ She looked briefly apologetic, at the very un-English flamboyance of the phrase. ‘He would like you to learn to reveal more of yourself in your playing. He says you play like a talented child, not a woman.’ Of course he would think that, I thought: I am just a child, really. There’s so little I know of life, so little I have seen. I felt ashamed of my childishness.

And then the words that glitter still in my mind: ‘He would like to help you to become the pianist you could be. He would like to take you on as his pupil, at the Academy in Vienna…’

My mother was worried, of course, about the international situation: Germany re-arming; the terrible civil war in Spain. And I suspected she felt I was rather young to live so far from home. But she knew this was a unique opportunity; she urgently wanted me to go. There was some money from a legacy from a great-aunt: enough for tuition and daily expenses, but not enough for my rent. So where could I stay? She talked to relatives, and to people from the congregation at church; no one had any Austrian contacts.

‘Stella,’ she said one morning. There were lilac smudges of sleeplessness under her eyes. ‘I don’t think we can do this – I can’t work out a way. I’m so sorry, darling.’

But I couldn’t bear it – to come so close to this thing I so yearned for, then have it snatched away from me.

‘There must be something else you could try. There

There were a couple of days when she seemed to hesitate, to draw back. I’d find her sitting at the kitchen table, taking her glasses off and rubbing her fingers over her face, a nervous gesture she’d developed in the years since the death of my father. As though steeling herself to do a thing she was somehow reluctant to do.

I came on her writing a letter. She looked up at me, little frown-lines sketching a faint fleur-de-lis between her brows.

‘I’m writing to Rainer and Marthe Krause – some people I knew long ago. They live in Vienna,’ she told me.

The names were vaguely familiar. I remembered that when I was younger, the Krauses had always sent a card at Christmas, sometimes a picture of Vienna. Perhaps some vast Baroque palace, painted the sweet, dense colour of marzipan. My mother had told me the old Imperial buildings were all painted this exact yellow. But she must have lost touch with the Krauses: no cards had come for several years.

‘Oh! That’s wonderful!’

‘Remember – I’m not promising anything, darling,’ she said, carefully.

But I was so sure it would happen.

‘How did you meet them – Rainer and Marthe?’ I asked her.

There was a little pause – just for a heartbeat. She took off her glasses, and moved her hand over her face.

‘It was at a house party, the year after the Great War. It was not long after I got engaged to your father,’ she said.

‘Was the house party at Gillingham Manor?’ I asked.

She nodded.

I knew this was a big house in Somerset where she’d sometimes stayed; she and the daughter of the family had been best friends at school. There’s a photo from that time I once found hidden in her bureau. She was standing in a rose garden, her hair blowing over her face. She looked so pretty in the photograph. I’d asked why she’d never framed it, and she’d made a vague gesture and turned a little away. ‘It was all so very long ago, Stella,’ she’d said.

From that moment, I bent my whole will on Rainer and Marthe Krause – these unknown people who held the gold thread of my future life in their hands.

Marthe wrote back straightaway; my mother showed me the letter. I still sensed a kind of hesitation in her, not the triumph I felt – perhaps she didn’t like asking for favours. And yes, they would have me to live with them; I could help look after Lukas, their little boy, who was four, and teach him English. As it happened, they’d had a woman from London living in to help with Lukas, but sadly she’d had to leave them. So this was terribly fortunate – my mother’s letter had come at just the right time. This was an arrangement that could work to everyone’s benefit …

I said a fervent prayer of thanks – that my life was all playing out as it was meant to do, the shiny path of my future spooling out before me.

So that is where I am headed, to the Krause apartment on Maria-Treu-Gasse, Josefstadt, Vienna. And, thinking of this, it’s as though my life in Brockenhurst – my mother, our home, with its safety and small comforts, and the woods, the quiet streams, the heathland glazed with summer flowers – all these things are receding behind me, muted, in shades of sepia; while the train hurries me on to my future, neon-lit, glittery-bright.


At the Westbahnhof, the man in the mud-coloured jacket helps me lift my suitcase down from the train.

‘The best of luck for Vienna, fräulein,’ he says.

‘Thank you.’

I clasp his good wishes to me. I am sure I will be lucky.

I wait under the clock, as Marthe Krause had suggested in her letter.

The station is vast and intimidating, all glass and gilded wrought-iron. People mill around me – women in coats of Persian lamb, with gems at their wrists and their throats, so much more stylish than the women of Brockenhurst, who favour gaberdine raincoats and sturdy lace-up shoes; self-assured men in business suits, every single one of them seeming to turn to stare at me as they pass. I feel a surge of fear. I am alone in a strange city. What if nobody comes for me? Or what if they came, were fed up with waiting, simply left me here?

On the edge of the crowd, there are beggars. I notice them, because like me they’re unmoving, just looking around. They are gypsies, mostly women and children: perhaps they’ve come over the border from Hungary. The women have flounced, bedraggled dresses in green and yellow and magenta, and one of them has a baby tied to her body with a shawl. This woman is rather beautiful in a louche, raggedy sort of way, her dark hair as straight as water, with a heavy shine of grease.

She walks directly over to me, as though she has singled me out. She must have seen me staring. She has a smell of onions and musty, unwashed clothes.

‘I tell your fortune, Englishwoman,’ she says, in broken German.

She has a sing-song, high-pitched voice. She knows I’m English; she must have seen the luggage label on my suitcase.

‘No, thank you, I’d rather not,’ I tell her. ‘Really.’

I don’t believe in fortune-telling. And if it’s actually possible, isn’t it better not to know? You can’t change it.

She grabs my wrist, turns my hand over, palm upward. I feel sorry for her, but a little frightened as well.

‘You are a stranger in this city,’ she says.

Well, I think, that’s obvious – she can see I’m English, she said so.

‘Thank you. But I—’

‘Don’t you want to know your fortune, Englishwoman?’ she says.

‘No, really, I’m fine, thank you.’

I try to move away, but I can’t, because of her grip on my wrist.

‘Thank you, that’s all for now,’ I tell her. As my mother might say to an over-importunate tradesman.

‘Shush – I tell your fortune,’ she says. ‘Listen to your fortune…’

She moves her finger lightly over my palm. I can hear the baby’s snuffling breath. A glossy ribbon of saliva edges down his chin.

‘You are good with your hands,’ says the woman. ‘What you make with your hands is wonderful.’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I tell her.

I’m relieved that this is plainly nonsense – I can’t sew, can’t make things, my hemming is dreadful: I always got the lowest mark in Needlework at school.

She peers at my palm. The baby fixes me with moist unblinking eyes.

The woman looks up at my face sharply. Startled.

She’s about to say something; but I suddenly feel rather strongly I don’t want to hear what she’s going to say. I take my purse out of my handbag. I have some Austrian schillings. I give her a coin. Seeing my money, she loses interest in her fortune-telling. She wants more; she pushes her hand in my purse. I feel stupid, helpless, afraid.

‘Fräulein Whittaker?’ says a man’s voice behind me.

I spin round, so grateful.

‘That’s me. I’m Stella Whittaker.’

He’s a bony, cheerful young man in a chauffeur’s uniform. He gestures at the woman, who melts at once away.

‘I’m Dietrich. I was sent for you.’ He’s speaking to me in German; he must have been told my German is good. ‘I’ve parked just round the corner,’ he tells me, taking my suitcase. ‘Welcome to Vienna, Fräulein Whittaker. Sorry about the bit of bother…’

‘It wasn’t a problem. She just talked a lot of nonsense,’ I say.

He takes me to a car, a big black shiny saloon. Inside, it’s all leather and mahogany, and has a rich, complex smell, of cigars and beeswax polish.

We drive to Rainer and Marthe’s apartment, my face pressed to the window. There are tall ornate buildings, cobbled streets; above, a clear bright sky.

The gypsy has unnerved me. I think about what she said, that I was good with my hands – and suddenly it makes sense to me: that she must have meant my piano-playing. And if she was right about that – could she really see the future? What would she have told me if I’d listened? I feel a shiver of something, quickly suppressed.


We turn into a side street. There’s a church, all white and gold, with before it a wide sunlit square with a border of pollarded trees. Dietrich tells me that this is the Piaristenkirche. The church clock is striking four; it has a melancholy sound.

Dietrich pulls up in a narrow street that slopes gently down from the church. He takes me through great wooden doors, and into a dark arched entryway. Beyond, there’s a courtyard, now entirely in shadow. We go up a flight of stone stairs, and stop at a door that has panels of glass engraved with ribbons and flowers. He unlocks, and ushers me inside.

A woman hurries out to meet me.

‘Stella. My dear. I’m Marthe.’

She’s younger than my mother, and rather broad and heavy and soft-looking, and her skin has a pale, doughy look, as though she doesn’t get enough sun.

‘Welcome to Vienna, my dear.’ She puts her arms lightly around me. ‘Was it a good journey?’ she says.

‘We were held up for a while, but otherwise very good, thank you.’

‘I’ll show you round the apartment and take you along to your room. And then you can freshen up and have a rest. I know you must be tired. But first you must meet Janika…’

She calls.

A woman comes from the kitchen along the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. She looks very robust, next to Marthe, and there’s a sheen of sweat on her skin. Her eyes are brown as autumn. I like her at once.

‘Good afternoon, Fräulein Whittaker. I hope you enjoy your time with us.’

She has a warm, wide smile.

‘Oh, I’m sure I will. And please call me Stella…’

Then I immediately wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing.

‘Thank you, I will then, Fräulein Stella,’ she says.

‘Janika comes from Hungary. She’s been with us for years,’ says Marthe.

Janika goes back to the kitchen.

Marthe ushers me through the hallway. There’s a chandelier with lustres that glitter like fragments of ice. I think of a story book I have at home, with pictures by Edmund Dulac of exquisite spellbound interiors, ornate with gems and white peacocks – settings for stories of magic and curses and beasts who could turn into men. One of the pictures has a chandelier just like this one.

Marthe shows me into the rooms. A dining room with a gleaming walnut table. A drawing room that looks out over the street; it has heavy sofas, and fat satin cushions, and Chinese lamps with fringed shades of burgundy silk.

She opens a further door.

‘We call this the sun room,’ she tells me. ‘It gets all the afternoon sun.’

It’s a small sitting room, with French doors that open onto a balcony. I step out. You can see down into the courtyard, where there are chalky-blue hydrangeas in lead planters, and a bronze fish-head drips water into a small stone pool. You can’t hear the street noises here – only the trickle of water, and the breathy murmur of doves, turning the same phrase over and over.

It’s all very lovely. But I haven’t seen a piano yet. I feel a flicker of anxiety.

She takes me on down the passageway.

‘And this, my dear, is our music room. We call it the Rose Room. It’s where you can practise,’ she says.

I step through the door.

‘Oh, my goodness…’

It’s beautiful – full of light and air, less cluttered than the other rooms, with no heavy carpets or fabrics to soak up the sound. There are mirrors on the walls, and an exuberant painting of roses, and right in the centre of the room, a magnificent Blüthner grand piano.

BOOK: The English Girl
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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