Read The Mussel Feast Online

Authors: Birgit Vanderbeke,Jamie Bulloch

The Mussel Feast (7 page)

BOOK: The Mussel Feast
8.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Spätlese
and we carried on drinking. At this point she said, I’m to blame for it all; she always said that, she always took the blame completely, adding, I did it all wrong, and we had to comfort her and say, absolutely not, you didn’t do anything wrong, but she said, I’m a wreck; caught between you two and your father I’ve been ground down to exhaustion. And we were worried that she might sit down at the piano and play Schubert songs, which she was particularly wont to do when she thought she was to blame for everything, or after a domestic scene when my father would slam the door behind him and leave; then she was to blame because my father couldn’t bear her pedantry any longer, her stinginess. He’d drive off and not come back until the middle of the night, always after they’d tried to complete their tax return; Mum couldn’t do the tax return on her own because she needed bills and receipts, which my father didn’t keep because he was generous rather than a nit-picker; and my mother would calculate that we couldn’t afford this or that, but my father calculated that he couldn’t afford her nit-picking any more; my father didn’t scrimp on his generosity on business trips, not with himself, nor with others he met while away and who he’d automatically pay for; out of generosity he’d always pay the bill, and my mother would say, these bills are huge; my father always chucked away the receipts for these bills and never calculated his expenses; he refused to calculate expenses, he would have felt ashamed to do so with the firm. They were both irritated by these discarded expenses; my father would say to my mother, you’re so pernickety, and we’d hear them argue, which was rare in our house, because my mother loved harmony and hated arguing; usually she’d give in, so we’d only hear our parents arguing loudly when they filled in the tax return, and also when my father bought Japanese shares. The Japanese firms had a tendency to file for bankruptcy the instant my father put all his money into the shares; my mother took against Japanese shares, she was prejudiced against them since the first bankruptcy; but as soon as another financial adviser visited us and started talking up Japanese shares, my father would offer him
Spätlese
, and after a few bottles of
Spätlese
he’d put all our money into Japanese shares once more. On several occasions all our money was lost from one day to the next and practically overnight, although this didn’t stop my father, who was very popular with the financial advisers, from buying Japanese shares the next time. We haven’t even paid back all our debts, my mother said, how do you imagine we’re going to pay our debts back, and she’d also say, wouldn’t it be a dream just to be able to go into a shop and buy a dress; even when my father had climbed the career ladder from the bottom to near the top she continued to imagine what a dream it would be to be able to afford a blouse without fretting over the cost, to be frivolous, she said. But her stinginess didn’t allow for such frivolity; my mother always bought our clothes in end-of-season sales, for herself, my brother and me; another special offer, my father would sneer when she showed him a new purchase – a skirt or a jumper – which she had indeed bought at a reduced price; she never dared tell him how cheap it really was, however, as my father would have felt ashamed. When she said, reduced from seventy to thirty, my father said, I’m not going out with you in that reject; my parents rarely went out because of the cut-price rejects my mother always wore. My father, on the other hand, was not only quite a bit younger than my mother, he also wore made-to-measure suits, from day one; only the best was good enough for him once he’d secured the job at his firm. You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don’t have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn’t have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you’re throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it’s not heaps, and, I can’t help it if you’re stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk. On those evenings Mum would always sing Schubert songs, having first said, I’m to blame for it all, and the mood was grim: my mother sobbing at the piano and the entire flat shrouded in melancholy. That’s why when my mother said, I did it all wrong, we were worried that she’d start on the Schubert songs again; whenever my mother said, I did it all wrong or I’m to blame for it all, then that’s what usually happened, and she’d add afterwards that she was old and ugly and dull – a Plain Jane – and not sophisticated enough for my father. He desperately needed her to be sophisticated. The men all brought their wives along to firm dos, apart from my father, who couldn’t bring my mother because she wasn’t sophisticated enough, and because of the special offers and rejects she wore; she didn’t understand the etiquette, either, and the one time he did take her along, she embarrassed him horribly. At the very start of the evening my mother was asked whether she’d like a martini, and she said, yes, please, and then she was asked how she’d like her martini, would she like it dry, and she said I only know wet martini, and my father felt utterly humiliated that such a worldly man as himself should be fated to have a wife who didn’t know what a dry martini was; my parents never invited people to our house for my father’s fear of shattering the positive impression he’d made at work with his efficiency, natural charm and intelligence. Just imagine if my father’s boss, who regrettably he’d never been able to invite over, had asked for a martini, and my mother hadn’t known what a martini was, thinking that a Cinzano Rosso was a martini, and had served my father’s boss a glass of Cinzano Rosso instead; my father’s positive impression would have been shattered in the boss’s eyes. I can’t take the risk, my father said, when my mother said how she’d missed having guests since our arrival in the West, because there hadn’t been the right sort of people; nor had there been the right sort of friends around for my brother and me; they came from poor families and so weren’t right for us because they wouldn’t have had proper table manners. You could tell their poor backgrounds from both how they spoke and the way they looked, in particular that long hair of theirs; my father said, don’t let me catch either of you with such a mop of hair. We always had very short hair, my brother and I; for many years people thought I was a boy and said, come on, be a gentleman and pick up the lady’s bag for her; if a lady ever dropped anything everybody would look straight at me to bend down, because with my short hair I had to be a gentleman. My brother and I visited the barber’s regularly; our heads were shaved from front to back with clippers; my mother would console me, hair grows more nicely if you cut it regularly; I found, however, that it grew better if you let it grow and I wanted to have long hair like my friend, whose poor background you could spot at once on account of her long hair. My other friend wasn’t right for me, either, because she was hideously nouveau riche. My parents said that being nouveau riche didn’t turn you into a cultured person. This nouveau riche friend of mine was allowed to eat ice cream from the ice-cream van, as much and as often as she wanted, and ice cream from the ice-cream van was not cultured. In any case, my father didn’t like coming home in the evening to find other children there, and so my friends, as well as my brother’s, always had to leave before supper; it was barely worth them coming at all because my brother and I had to have finished our homework by the time my father came home in the evening, besides our one hour’s piano practice, no more and no less. Our friends wouldn’t have known what to do in that time, because they did their homework later, in the evening, when we were watching television and playing skat, because we were a proper family and did things together in the evenings, whereas my friends, without exception, didn’t come from proper families where they enjoyed things together. Actually I never met anyone who came from a proper family; I was forever meeting people who, without exception, didn’t come from proper families, rather from families where the children did their homework in the evenings when their parents had guests or went to the cinema, which as far as I can remember my parents never did. Once a month we’d go to a concert together; we had a subscription, and all senior employees had the same concert subscription as us; my mother was delighted, she loved the concerts, and couldn’t stop praising the quality of the music. I’m so starved, she’d say, and we always listened to first-rate international symphony orchestras from London, Tokyo and Philadelphia; the programmes, too, were also well put together; balanced, my mother called them. Haydn would be followed by a modern piece, and then some Brahms after the interval. The applause at the end of these concerts always went on and on until they played an encore, and the encores usually consisted of a brash piece, wild even, mostly another modern composition, but short, which pleased my mother greatly as she wasn’t especially fond of this modern music. For me, she said, art finished at the end of the nineteenth century, she even found Mahler a bit odd; I’m not especially fond of Mahler, my mother said on many an occasion, but they never played Mahler at the concerts, and the modern stuff was kept tastefully short because the programmes were balanced. I didn’t get to know modern music at these concerts, in short bursts, but from listening to it secretly on the radio, and from the radio I gained the impression that music and mathematics were not so dissimilar, but closely related, they went hand in hand, I told my mother. My mother didn’t like twelve-tone music, however, it doesn’t have the same harmony, she said; she preferred harmonious music, but not when it went dum-dee-dum-dee-dum like Verdi, who she didn’t rate as a serious composer. My father d
idn’t really look forward to these concerts; not again, he’d say, but he had to go along because of the senior employees who milled about in the interval with their drinks; he was always delighted when the concert had finished, and he’d duly said hello to all the senior employees; in fact my father would have been happy to leave after the interval, and he did leave early on a few occasions, but then his colleagues noticed the empty seat. With a subscription you keep the same seat for years, and senior employees greet each other not only in the interval, but also in the concert hall; my father stopped leaving after the interval and saw these concerts through to the end, so that everybody realized that he saw things through to the bitter end. Another reason my father disliked these concerts was that he knew he didn’t want to be a senior employee, but a top one; his mind had been set on the top the very first day he joined the firm and he executed the pursuit of this goal not gradually and with patience, but extremely rapidly; indeed, he carried out his plan at the highest speed possible and he considered his attendance at these subscription concerts purely as a means to an end. And that evening my mother suspected that as soon as my father was promoted the subscription would be cancelled. I’m delighted for him, my mother said, but no one seriously believed that he’d ever go to another subscription concert, because he’d now conquered the senior-employee stage, and my mother said that what followed the subscription concerts was the dry-martini stage, the drinks stage; that’s what she saw in store for herself. That evening, however, as she was no longer stable on her feet and also insubordinate for the first time in her life, she let slip that she’d definitely prefer the subscription concerts to the drinks stage; I’ve played along, she said, by which she meant ever more expensive cars and holidays to ever more un-village-like resorts instead of Austrian mountain lakes with plenty of meadows and flowers. And in fact, shortly before leaving on his business trip – which was almost certainly the last stop on his way to promotion – my father had announced that he was looking to cancel his subscription; instead he intended to go to Bayreuth in the summer; all his life he’d misjudged Wagner, and that was a mistake – to misjudge Wagner – so now he intended to correct this mistake. My mother put Bayreuth and the dry drinks and the ever more expensive cars in the same bracket, because she’d never cared in the least for Wagner or dry drinks; that evening she said, I’ve played along with everything, but at some point it has to stop, by which she meant it stopped at Wagner and the dry drinks; in truth it had already stopped with the
Spätlese
, we replied, but she contradicted us, she really loved the subscription concerts; they were what my mother called classical harmony and she believed in classical harmony. She may not have been religious, but she did believe in classical harmony, in the dominant and subdominant; my mother loved it when we sang quodlibets together; although he came after Brahms, my mother thought that Hindemith was the only composer more skilled in the use of counterpoint; she loathed atonal counterpoint, it hurts my ears, she said, and was happy that the concerts were balanced and that the modern pieces were short, whereas I always felt the modern element of the subscription concerts was a bit pathetic in its balance-inducing brevity. I find classical harmony, with its dominants and subdominants, extremely suspect, I said; I had the suspicion that composers merely stuffed everything into this harmony; those poor voices, I said to my mother, they’re being forcibly stuffed into the harmony; but my mother shouted out, no way, harmony’s got nothing to do with force, and she talked of coherence and consonance, which didn’t exist in twelve-tone music; I said, twelve-tone music equals pure control. My mother tried to get me to appreciate the Schubert songs, but without success; her attempts to push Schubert on me were in vain. I already knew that Schubert used enharmonic modulations, yet my mother never once succeeded in getting me to like the Schubert songs or even appreciate them. No sooner had my mother sat at the piano and started to sing a Schubert song from
Winterreise
than the hairs on my arms, indeed all over my body, would stand on end, because my mother could only sing Schubert songs with a broken voice, on the verge of crying; no sooner had she sat at the piano and started playing Schubert songs than tears would appear, which I called my mother’s Schubert tears; maybe it wasn’t the Schubert songs but the Schubert tears which made the hairs on my arms stand on end, I used to think, and that evening I was relieved she didn’t go to the piano. Having said that at some point it had to stop, however, she didn’t know what would happen if it did stop, because until that evening she’d always thought it had to go on. My brother, meanwhile, was happy that these subscription concerts were going to stop; the concerts were pure torment for him, he said; we had to sit still and the top button of his shirt tormented him, and the music went straight over his head. We’d always go to the concerts very well dressed, the four of us in our best clothes; my father never failed to point out that my mother didn’t have any best clothes, only rejects, which spoiled his mood; in this spoiled mood he would look at my brother and me to see whether we, at least, were sufficiently well dressed, then he’d say to my brother, no, you can’t leave your top button open, do your button up, and if my brother said, but it itches and scratches, he’d say, those are just your tics, for my brother was sensitive about certain things, one of which was itchy and scratchy closed collars. As soon as he was made to fasten the top button on his shirt my brother would start twisting and stretching his neck this way and that; my father, with his mood already spoiled by the rejects my mother had put on, never failed to notice if my brother tried to slip into the concert with his top button undone; he didn’t have a chance, my brother, he had to fasten his top button immediately, because open collars look sloppy; and if my father’s mood was particularly spoiled, he really gave my brother what for, and he’d be forced to wear a tie or bow tie over the fastened button; from that moment all music went straight over his head and his tics wouldn’t leave him alone the entire evening; he’d sit in the concert and twist and stretch his head this way and that because of the torment; my father, who couldn’t show his despair and bitter disappointment at a subscription concert, felt humiliated, for everybody could see how my brother was afflicted by his tics. Over time my brother started to have difficulties swallowing; as soon as he fastened his top button he could hardly swallow a single mouthful without making a peculiar guttural sound with his throat. This noise could drive my father up the wall; in our family my brother was likened to Christian Buddenbrook; leave him, my mother begged, when my brother’s coughs and throat-clearing got my father’s goat, as he put it, but my father couldn’t leave him; I don’t want a Christian Buddenbrook in my family, he said, and wouldn’t tolerate it; my brother didn’t want to be a Christian Buddenbrook, either, he merely didn’t want to fasten his top button. This is how odd habits start, my father said; there was no question of leaving his top button undone. My father was convinced that this is how it all started, and that with his shirt collar open my brother was even more like that oddball Christian Buddenbrook. Music thus went over my brother’s head and he was delighted when Mum said, at some point it has to stop, although she meant Wagner and the martinis rather than the concerts. All the same I asked my mother, why do the subscription concerts have to stop, if you like them so much; this was a highly insubordinate question, and suddenly we felt light-headed from the

BOOK: The Mussel Feast
8.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Sookie 13.5 After Dead by Charlaine Harris
Rebound by Thompson, Nikki Mathis
No God in Sight by Altaf Tyrewala
Omega City by Diana Peterfreund
The Mask of Troy by David Gibbins