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Authors: Margaret Leroy

The English Girl (28 page)

BOOK: The English Girl
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At last the nurse comes to take us through to Harri’s room. They’ve given him morphine; he’s sleeping. Eva is horrified, seeing his injuries, the lacerations on his face, his heavily bandaged arm that rests on top of the sheet. His skin is as white as the linen he lies on. I think how strong he feels when he holds me, how safe I feel in his arms. Then I think what I learned when he fell to the pavement – how fragile we are, how easily lost. It takes so little: one kick, one slice of a blade. I wish I didn’t know this.

50

In the morning I go to the hospital, to take Harri back home.

He’s dressed, waiting to be discharged. His arm is still elaborately bandaged. The cuts on his face have scabbed over, and he has livid purple bruising. There’s still something frail about him, a translucence. But I feel a surge of happiness, seeing him up and ready to leave. Looking more like himself again.

I put my arms very carefully round him, as though he could easily break.

‘My darling. So sorry to give you all this bother,’ he says.

‘Don’t. Just don’t,’ I tell him. I kiss his cool mouth. ‘How are you? How much does it hurt?’

‘I’m not too bad,’ he tells me. ‘I’ll be back at work in a day or two. Though I probably won’t look very pretty for a while … But what about you, Stella? I’ve been so worried. The nurses told me you were all right. But did anything happen to you?’

I’m touched that he’s worried about
me
, after being so horribly hurt.

‘No, I’m fine … It was just very frightening, that’s all … I could
kill
them.’

‘I can’t remember it all,’ he says. ‘I’ve been trying to piece it together. I have a vague memory of someone bringing me here in his car.’

‘Yes, someone did. He’s an Englishman. He’s called Frank Reece. I knew him from before.’

‘Oh.’ The slightest frown creases his brow. ‘You’ve never mentioned him.’

‘The thing is, I don’t really know him that well. I met him at Marthe’s party. He works at the British Embassy. He was at
Giselle
– I noticed him in the foyer…’

I think,
Should I tell him more?
About what Frank told me, about what he asked me to do? About the men I saw after Rainer’s meeting? But I don’t want to trouble Harri with this – not today, when he’s still recovering.

‘I’d like to thank him. I’ll write to him,’ he tells me.

‘What about the police?’ I ask.

He shrugs.

‘They came. I gave a statement. But my guess is it’ll end there.’

‘No. Surely not.’ I’m shocked. ‘They have to find the people who did this.’

‘They don’t exactly fall over themselves to solve this kind of attack,’ he says.

‘But – you’re not going to accept that, surely? That man had a knife. They could have
killed
you.’

‘Well, fortunately they didn’t,’ he says, with a small, wry smile.

‘Perhaps I could identify them,’ I say.

He frowns.

‘I’d rather keep you out of it,’ he says.

‘No, really. I could go and see them – tell them what I saw.’

‘Don’t worry. It happened, it’s over. I’m thinking that perhaps my mother was right all along. Better just to keep our heads down.’

This seems so wrong to me.

The doctor comes and discharges Harri. He’ll have to come back in a week to have his stitches removed. It’s so good to step out of the hospital with him, to leave behind all the hospital things – the chill antiseptic smell of the corridor, the stern, urgent nurses; the fear I felt there.

We take a taxi back to the flat on Mariahilferstrasse, where Eva has left some chicken soup ready to heat on the stove. I make a bed for Harri on the sofa in the living room, which is so much warmer than his attic. I enjoy making a fuss of him.

It’s all over, thank God
, I say to myself.
It was horrible and terrifying, but it’s over now.

51

Thursday. After my lesson, I walk down Johannesgasse towards the inner city, to buy a new coat. There’s a gleam of sun in the pewter sky, but the touch of the air stings my face, and the light has a sharp, raw edge. My breath makes ragged clouds.

I turn into the Kohlmarkt.

I become aware of a black Mercedes that’s slowing in the street, moving beside me, gliding along at my pace. I pretend that this isn’t happening, that I’ve never seen this car before. I tell myself that Vienna is full of black Mercedes cars. I keep walking.

The car edges along beside me. I glance towards it, then away. There’s no passenger, only the driver. He pulls to a stop just ahead of me. He leans across to the passenger side and winds the window down.

‘Fräulein Whittaker.’

A bald man in uniform. Frank’s chauffeur. I can’t pretend that it isn’t him any more.

‘Excuse me, Fräulein Whittaker.’

I stop, turn to him. I have to.

‘I’m to give you a message from Herr Reece,’ he tells me. ‘Herr Reece would like you to meet him, Fräulein Whittaker. At the Franziskanerkirche. I can drop you right at the door.’

I stand there, stupidly. As though I am weighing it up – deciding if I can fit this meeting into my busy timetable. As though there is a decision to make. But I can’t refuse – after everything Frank did for Harri, for us.

The chauffeur gets out of the car, comes round to the passenger side and opens the door. I climb in. The leather is lustrous; the car has a smell of beeswax polish, and the spicy, luxurious scent of expensive cigars. You’d never guess that Harri had lain and bled on these seats.

I take a cigarette out of my bag; the chauffeur turns to light it for me before he starts up the car. We drive through the narrow cobbled streets, weaving our way between the fiakers. I sit there, smoking, trying to seem nonchalant, flicking ash into the silver ashtray in the back of the seat. Trying to still the thudding of my heart.

We come quickly to Franziskanerplatz. The Franziskanerkirche looms up over the square: above, the sky is pale and shiny as tin. Icicles hang from the Moses fountain; they have a dangerous glitter, like broken glass, in a white glimmer of sun. In a courtyard leading off the square, I can see the bookshop where I bought Dr Freud’s book about dreams; that feels like a hundred years ago now. A hunched pigeon shuffles across the cobbles, its feathers puffed up from the cold. Apart from the pigeon, the square is empty.

The chauffeur pulls up outside the church.

‘Herr Reece will meet you inside, Fräulein Whittaker.’

I stub out my cigarette, get out of the car. He drives off.

I stand in the doorway, looking for Frank.

The church is dazzling, ornate – so many golden cherubs and saints, all with their faces turned heavenward – and the stonework is white as icing sugar and intricate as lace. Austrian churches are so different to the Anglican churches of England, with their hassocks embroidered by the Women’s Institute, their smell of dry rot and mildewed prayerbooks, everything fading and old. The Franziskanerkirche is full of sparkle and gilt, and has a smell of incense, and of hot-house lilies with their heavy, languorous scents. On the chancel steps, a choir is rehearsing the Allegri
Miserere
. Now and then the singers stop and the conductor corrects them, and there’s a ripple of laughter at something he’s said.

I can’t see Frank.

I pass a bank of shimmering votive candles. I drop a coin in the box. I take a candle, light it, linger there for a moment, thinking of all the other people who have lit a candle like me. All as full of desires and fears as I am – full of dreams for their lives, full of longing. Thinking this, I feel humbled. I’d like to pray – but I don’t know what to pray for.

Up in the chancel, the choir is singing again. ‘Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.’
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness.

I walk towards the altar, and sit in a pew. On the wall beside me, there’s a carved plaque showing the damned, the figures naked, raising their hands in desperate entreaty, while hungry gold flames lick at them, reaching as high as their waists.

Perhaps he won’t come
, I tell myself.
Perhaps he’s changed his mind. Perhaps he’s got something far more important that he’s decided to do.
I allow myself a little rush of hope – that I won’t have to go through with this.

Slow footsteps coming along the aisle. Frank slides into the pew beside me, puts down his briefcase. My heart pounds.

He peels off his gloves and places them on the prayer-ledge; shakes my hand.

‘Stella, good to see you. How is Harri?’

‘He’s better, thank you. Well, he’s got some nasty scars on his face. But he’s fine really…’ We speak in hushed voices. ‘Thank you so much for your help.’

‘It was the least I could do,’ he says.

‘I’m incredibly grateful to you. We all are. Me and Harri and Eva…’

He makes a slight gesture, acknowledging this.

‘So, Stella. You must understand better now. After what happened to Harri. You’ve seen the vein of ugliness in this beautiful city,’ he says.

Placing the words like little stones before me, one by one.

He waits for my agreement. I don’t say anything.

‘You need to think how it will be here – if the worst does happen.’ He’s sitting too close to me. As he turns towards me, I feel his words on my skin. ‘If Hitler comes, he will find fertile soil in this place. There is something in Vienna that will rise up to meet him.’

I tell myself this is melodramatic.

‘They were just thugs – the men who attacked Harri. There are always thugs. In every city, everywhere.’ My voice is thin and shrill. ‘It was just a horrible random attack.’

‘Stella—’

I speak over him.

‘There’s no significance to it,’ I say emphatically. ‘There’s always that lawless element in society. It’s important not to generalise from a single incident. It doesn’t prove anything about what could happen in Vienna.’

He doesn’t respond for a moment. My words hang in the air between us – balloon-like, hollow and bright.

‘Stella, I don’t think for a moment that you really believe that,’ he says. ‘Though, I have to say, that’s how they would see it in England, most of them. That it’s without significance.’ He shakes his head, a shadow moving over his face. ‘Nothing has significance – if there’s any risk at all that it might disturb their comfortable lives.’

There’s a trace of bitterness in his voice. I suddenly sense all the frustration in him: his feeling that they don’t understand, in England. That they won’t listen to him – the government, the people he reports to. I have only the haziest sense of who those people might be – imagining big mahogany desks and oak-panelled rooms, brandy, a sense of entitlement, a certainty about England’s place in the world. I think of what I once said to Janika: how people in England think bad things won’t happen and everything will be fine, as long as you are reasonable, as long as you are sensible.

‘There are those who don’t close their eyes to the threat – Winston Churchill for one,’ he says. ‘But they don’t get a hearing. When Churchill stands up in the Chamber, nobody listens. They think it’s just Winston having a rant as usual. Yesterday’s man.’

I hear all the anger in him. It’s something I hadn’t realised – that Frank is full of such rage.

We sit silently for a moment. It’s cold in the church; the raw air from outside has got in. The choir is singing again, the voices piercingly sweet, the music throwing its shimmering nets over everything. ‘Cor contritum et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.’
You will not scorn this crushed and broken heart.

Frank clears his throat.

‘I wondered if you might have changed your position. About the things we discussed when we met at the Klagenfurt Hotel…’

The anger all contained now: a casual, conversational tone.

I know exactly what I am going to say. It’s carefully planned in my mind: I worked it all out, coming here. But there’s the tiniest pause, just a heartbeat, before I can get out the words.

‘No, I don’t think so. Not really.’

He’s noticed my moment of hesitation: I can tell from the change in his breathing. I’m so cross with myself that I hesitated like that.

I expect him to go on urging me. But to my surprise, he puts on his gloves and picks his briefcase up.

‘All right, then, Stella. It’s your choice. Thank you for coming.’

He makes no more effort to persuade me. I hear his quiet steps retreating down the aisle. I almost say:
No. Wait a moment

He’s left me here with my thoughts, with all my uncertainty.

I think about Rainer. I remember the men who came to his meeting, who gave the Hitler salute; and sitting here in the scent of the lilies, beside the carved plaque of the damned, I suddenly see him quite differently. It’s like when you wipe a dirty windowpane – everything coming so clear. Quite suddenly, in this moment, I know who he is, what he wants; and realise I have known this for a long time – and yet chosen not to know it, keeping the knowledge hidden in a corner of my mind. Turning away; refusing to look at it. It’s just as Harri once said. That so often we close our eyes to things we don’t want to see. That we can know things and not know them, both at the same time.

And, thinking of Harri, I think of the men who attacked him. I remember the ugly things they said, remember my utter helplessness, relive it all, too vividly. I hear again the sound of their fists on his head; I see the thin man putting his hand to his belt, the perilous flash of the blade, see the terrible moment when Harri fell, hear the crack of his head on the ground.

I leave slowly. I have an odd empty feeling. Of something unfinished.

As I pass the bank of votive candles, a woman steps briskly into the church, and a rush of raw air through the open door blows half the candles out. A little grey smoke spirals up from the sooty wicks of the blown-out candles. A tremor goes through me. So many guttering candles; so many longings and wishes and prayers. It was just the cold air from the street, but I still feel a faltering in me.

It’s your choice.

He hasn’t gone far. He’s walking slowly down Weihburggasse. He’s unmistakable – his lanky body, long stride, the way his head juts forward. A little cold sunlight shines on him from the high pewter sky.

BOOK: The English Girl
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