The Methuselah Gardens
It is only at breakfast that my mother does not speak. She is, I think, a little intimidated by the neatness of the hotel dining room and by the other guests all talking – rather too loudly – in a language she doesn’t understand. I suspect too that she wants to smoke. There are ashtrays on the tables but they are small and white and spotlessly clean. No one else in the room is smoking – nor has smoked, as far as I can remember, in the three days that we have been here.
I can tell by the way she is holding her cup that she is nervous. There is something a little affected about it, unnatural, and her hand shakes though she is careful that not a drop of the strong dark coffee is spilt. When she glances at her watch and then at the entrance from the lobby I know that it is eight-thirty, the time the English couple come down to breakfast.
My mother has never travelled outside Australia before. It is a revelation to her. She is discovering an interest in things that would never have interested her in Australia. On the train from Munich she interrupts my thoughts constantly, reading anecdotes from a book about Mozart that she has bought in London. She stares at the scenery and every lake we pass, each tiny ribbon of water, is an occasion to hum the opening bars from The Blue Danube with painful imprecision. Her head is filled with the possibilities of arrival.
The Hotel Rimini stands in a quiet side street of the ninth district of Vienna. It is close to the city centre and a block away from Freud’s consulting rooms, now a museum. It was while we were visiting the museum yesterday that we passed the English couple on the stairs, speaking to them briefly for the first time. My mother calls them our other half, the woman being about my own age, her companion closer to my mother’s. The other patrons of the Rimini – a small family hotel – I judge from their dress and demeanour to be business people. They come down to breakfast early and are always gone before nine. Our conversation with them is restricted to a polite ‚Morgen!‘ as we enter the room. Their own brisk chatter is scarcely interrupted. My mother sits at the table, folds out her napkin and begins her silent meal. She breaks a piece of bread, butters it, spreads a little jam and then chews on it thoughtfully. I wonder if she is thinking of the bacon and eggs she cooked for my father every morning for nearly forty years, but I never ask. If I speak softly my mother, who is a little deaf, will never hear. To speak up is to proclaim myself, to hear my own voice come back to me sounding more foreign than that of the German-speakers at the neighbouring tables. I begin to understand my mother’s native silence.
When the English couple enter, they pause a moment to murmur their ‚Morgens‘, nod cursorily in our direction and then settle themselves at their usual table close to the door. The man walks with a limp. I can’t say I’d noticed it before yesterday when we met them at the Freud museum; he’d needed his companion’s hand then to help him down the stairs. Inside the museum my mother had looked to see if they’d signed the visitors‘ book but there had been no entries since the day before. Naturally her suspicions were aroused: she thinks there is something illicit about their relationship; in short, that they are lovers. But watching them at their breakfast I am struck by how alike they are, how, when they touch, it is open and unselfconscious, how their eyes meet at a safe distance across the table. They speak desultorily in whispers. Occasionally he will lean forward, turn his head to hear her more clearly. I suspect that, like my mother, he is a little deaf. He pours milk into his cereal, stirs his second cup of coffee, breaks another piece of bread. The woman eats like a sparrow.
The woman interests me. Before yesterday, I admit, I had hardly noticed her. From a distance she seemed all hard lines and angles. It’s true, she’s tall and ungainly like a schoolgirl surprised by a sudden spurt of growth. Her face has the haunted look of the undernourished. I could imagine someone making love to her with a sort of cold fury, and hearing her bones crack. And then, passing her on the stairs, close enough to touch, I caught the faintest whiff of scent. It could’ve been the perfume she used, the smell of her clothes; its very elusiveness was enough to arouse my senses. The air in the stairwell was chilled, almost icy, yet as we paused to exchange a few words I thought I saw tiny beads of perspiration form along her upper lip. Continuing on up the stairs I thought how those tiny beads of sweat might collect in other parts of her body, under her arms and breasts, between her thighs; how her body would shine after lovemaking (what nonsense was that about broken bones..?)
My mother – I trust – sees nothing of this. She thinks that since the break-up of my marriage I have little interest in women. It’s years since I was living at home. Now that she has me she wants to keep me there, keep me from leaving her on her own. My mother is in mourning though she works hard not to show it. My father died a year ago, slowly but uncomplainingly of a large malignant tumour embedded in his brain. I was expecting my mother simply to get on with her life. It was she, after all, who had been the driving force of the marriage, she with her committees and charity work. My father was a quiet, solitary man. My father had an interest in botany.
I try not to think of the woman when I’m with my mother. It’s something I’ve noticed before, how she seems to know exactly what I’m thinking, even as I think it. It’s as if the smallest gesture, the briefest flicker of an eyelid can give me away. Sometimes I feel that even silence is a trap, that silence has a texture that can change as my thoughts change, and that my mother knows me too well not to understand the nature and the meaning of those changes. This morning, as we finish our breakfast, I focus my thoughts on the woman’s companion.
He is taller than my father was, but stockier; you might say, pugnacious-looking. I am curious about the cause of his limp. Is he some underworld figure, I wonder facetiously, who has fallen foul of a rival mob and had his kneecap shattered as a lesson in territorial rights? His clothes fit him comfortably; there is no suggestion of the neat tuck or the hidden adjustment. His hair is short, neatly parted. It is this very air of respectability that makes me suspect that he is not entirely what he seems. (It would appear that I have become infected with something of my mother’s imaginative response to the new and exotic.) In Sydney, I think, he would be a well-known racing identity, or a criminal lawyer, or a company director, someone with an interest in imports/exports…
And quite composed. It strikes me at last what it is about this couple that sets one apart from the other when so much else connects them. It is particularly noticeable now that they have finished their breakfast. He leans back in his chair, lights a cigarette (the first I have seen him smoke). He closes his eyes, purses his lips contemplatively. His hand, resting on the table, is perfectly still.
The woman plays nervously with her napkin. The smoke from her companion’s cigarette drifts slowly across the room, caught by a draught from an open window. There is a lull in the chatter and the woman’s agitation grows. In my mind I am calming her, soothing her, stroking her gently as if she were a cat. My mother stirs suddenly, folds her napkin and rests it neatly across her plate.
The conversation in the room remains muted; the mood of disapproval is quite palpable though I can only guess at what is being said. Within a few minutes most of the other guests have left (it is almost nine o’clock anyway). A waitress begins clearing the tables.
With the other guests gone the woman begins to relax. She says something in a low voice to her companion which makes him laugh out loud. He puts on a great display of stubbing the butt of his cigarette in the little white ashtray. He knows we are watching him; he has been aware of it since they sat down to breakfast. It occurs to me that his indifference to others‘ sensibilities may go beyond getting under the skins of prissy foreigners: it was the woman, his companion, after all, who had been the most visibly distressed. Yesterday, at the museum, she had seemed elevated in our eyes by his need of her to help him down the stairs. I remember how he had kept his eyes averted as we passed, how his response to my mother’s cordial greeting had seemed afterwards unnecessarily curt, almost begrudging. It was as if we had caught him in some shameful act, not indecent exactly, but injurious to his pride, his sense of well-being. I understand now why they never use the hotel stairs, but will wait interminably for the lift to return from the upper floors even though their room – like ours – is only one flight up. I understand too that the pleasure he took in his cigarette was not in the smoking but in the way it drew attention to his companion’s diffidence, her fear of scrutiny. It occurs to me also that giving offence to our German-speaking neighbours was probably incidental; this little piece of theatre on the nature of vulnerability had been purely for the benefit of my mother and myself.
Nudging me with her knee my mother indicates that it is time we were leaving. Today she wants to look at the shops on the Kartnerstrasse and take a photograph of the horse-drawn carriages standing outside St Stephen’s Cathedral. As we approach the door the English couple too are preparing to leave. The woman pushes back her chair. She keeps her head lowered, brushing out her skirt with a slow sweeping motion that strikes me (as she has hardly eaten anything) as largely reflex. Her companion stands with surprising ease. It is only because I have watched him, have begun to learn something about him, that I can see how deliberate and controlled this seemingly smooth movement is. He stands a moment, a little unsteady on his feet, and then steps confidently around the table. For the first time he looks me squarely in the face. His eyes are small and dark but there is a playfulness about them I find rather attractive. His mouth, pursed in a little smile, leaves an impression that is quite openly ironic.
After lunch my mother retires to her room for an hour or so to rest. Her stamina, I have to say, is undiminished: it is the idea of travel, I think, that has begun to tire her, the lure of the unfamiliar. I suspect that she is more than a little homesick. This morning, shopping for souvenirs, she talked for the first time of going home. It wasn’t said with any great sense of longing or urgency, yet I could see that something about her had changed. I think it is simply this: she has finished mourning my father’s death.
Downstairs in the lobby I notice the English woman waiting near the reception. She is looking at some postcards on a revolving stand. She is dressed as she was at breakfast except that over her arm is the heavy winter jacket she wore yesterday when visiting the museum. She takes a card from the stand and stares at the picture as if trying to locate it within her recent travels. I pass behind her, without speaking, and pretend an interest in a newspaper someone has left on the reception desk. Almost at once the manager approaches, swinging one of the room keys from his finger as if it were a toy. He tells me I may take the newspaper if I want it, if I wish to read it. ‚Vielen dank!‘ I say. With some deliberation I fold the newspaper and put it under my arm. The manager’s eyes are filled with amused curiosity. He knows my German is thoroughly inadequate to read a local newspaper.
Moving away from the desk I notice that the English woman has left the postcard stand and is making her way across the lobby to the hotel entrance. I walk quickly after her. Outside, she pauses at the top of the steps and slips into her jacket. She turns as I come up behind her. For a second I think she is laughing, that she is expecting me, that her only surprise is that I have caught up with her so soon. Her hand flies instinctively to cover her mouth; her eyes are wide and searching and I think I see in them something of the manager’s amused curiosity.
For the first time I notice that she is taller than me, by half a head at least. I wonder how this might influence our lovemaking (my wife barely reached my shoulders). I take a pace or two down the steps and look up at her. For some reason I feel this gives me a certain advantage. Yet it’s as if I’ve lost her attention already, as if she’s not even aware that I’ve slipped from her sight. She stands transfixed, staring back through the hotel door into the lobby. (It seems inconceivable that she should be admiring her reflection in the glass.) A little too loudly, perhaps, I apologise for having startled her. She notices me then (that it is me , not some comic apparition), almost running down the steps past me into the street. I think she’s going to walk on without speaking but after a short distance she stops and looks back. She seems anxious to get away from the hotel. I hurry to join her though it is beginning to rain and I have left my coat in my room. As we continue walking she tells me that her father (yes, her father) is reading and that she had a sudden craving for coffee and a piece of rich chocolate cake. We walk to the end of the street and wait for a streetcar to pass before crossing the busy road. The rain becomes heavier and I cover my head with the newspaper. The woman strides on ahead, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her warm winter jacket. She is wearing comfortable-looking walking shoes and thick black stockings which have become splashed with dirt from the wet pavement. Glancing ahead I see that she is bearing down on a small huddled group taking shelter under a cafe awning. She is like a mortar shell striking home: the group not so much parts to let her through as disintegrates, human fragments flying off in directions as myriad and random as if they had been pieces of shrapnel.
Inside the cafe she removes her jacket and hangs it on a hook behind the door. There are three or four other people in the room including a stout woman with a small dog on an extendable leash. As I close the door the dog approaches, cautiously, to sniff at our shoes. The leash extends, and then continues to extend as the dog, responding to its owner’s bark of command, returns by the more intricate route around the legs of the tables and chairs. The English woman watches this spectacle for a moment and then indicates a table near the window. In the street the rain is coming down in sheets.
No sooner are we seated than someone comes to take our orders. My companion speaks clearly in English and uses her fingers to indicate two coffees and two pieces of chocolate cake. The proprietor tears a numbered sheet from his notebook and leaves it on the table. While we wait the English woman stares out of the window as if I am not even here. I take the opportunity to observe her closely, noting the long straight nose, the firm jaw, high cheek bones. In profile she loses that gaunt emaciated look that I found so unattractive earlier. Her eyes are large and unblinking. She is aware of my close scrutiny and yet doesn’t seem to mind at all. I can’t believe that this is the timid woman I saw eating breakfast with her father this morning.
The coffee arrives with the pieces of cake and two small glasses of water. She pays the proprietor with a clean uncrumpled banknote and leaves the change on the table. We drink the water quickly and then start on the cake. While we are eating she begins telling me about herself with a familiarity I find quite alarming. It is as if we are old friends, meeting for the first time after an absence of many years. I learn that she is a former mistress of a private girls‘ school and that she has given up her work to look after her father, a retired naval officer. She calls him the Captain, though it not clear if this had been his rank or if it is simply a family nickname. I mention his limp and she explains that about four years ago her parents were driving to London from the Cotswolds when their car was involved in a collision with a dairy truck. Her mother was killed instantly; her father’s left leg was so badly crushed it had to be amputated. I am tempted to try and amuse her with the thought I had earlier that he was a major underworld figure who’d had his kneecap smashed, but something warns me against it. Her voice is soft and controlled but not altogether sure as if the story she is telling is in fact someone else’s, half-recalled or not entirely understood. I watch as she scrapes up the last crumbs of her cake, remembering the sparrow’s appetite she’d had at breakfast. When I ask how long she and her father have been in Vienna I sense a change in her manner, a slight tenseness as if in bringing her story so quickly up to the present I have been in some way pre-emptive. When she doesn’t answer I begin telling her something of myself. She listens courteously but with little apparent interest until I mention my mother. She’s not at all indifferent about my mother. Her father, she murmurs, thinks my mother has the face of an angel.
I have never thought of my mother as angelic. When I was a child it was she who used to beat me because my father hadn’t the stomach for it. When she grew old something of the fire went out of her which saved her, I think, from becoming hard and embittered. In old age my mother is still quite beautiful, something she finds strange and rather cruel. The English woman smiles when I say this and I wonder if she understands what I mean. I tell her about the tiny park across the road from where my mother lives. Every morning a plump matronly woman brings a group of old people from the nearby retirement village to walk between the narrow beds of flowers and native shrubs. My mother calls the park the Methuselah Gardens because it is only the old people who regularly use it. A boy on a skateboard or a young mother walking her children is a rare sight. My mother is afraid that in not too many years she too will be walking in the Methuselah Gardens, a little freakish old lady with a mannequin’s figure and the face of a porcelain doll.
The English woman is stirring her coffee. She’s not looking at me but at the rain in the street and the people hurrying past in their raincoats and struggling with their umbrellas. I wonder if she’s even been listening to me. She asks if I’ve ever had a dream in which I didn’t appear and is surprised when I say I don’t know. Finishing her coffee she leaves the table and hunts through the pockets of her jacket hanging behind the door for a packet of cigarettes. I see her remove what I think at first is a little paperback book, taking it from one pocket and securing it in another. The ‚cover‘ looks familiar and I realise as she is returning to the table that it is not a book at all but a stack of postcards that she has taken from the stand at the hotel.
When she smokes she reminds me of my mother. Perhaps it’s the way all women smoke these days, a little guiltily, thinking of their hearts, their lungs, lumps in the breast. (One thought tends to lead to another.) She asks if my mother has taken a lover since my father’s death. The question seems not so much indelicate as absurd. Her father, she tells me, for six months has been making love to a woman of forty-five who is employed to help with the cleaning. Every afternoon, before she leaves, she assists the Captain upstairs to his bedroom. They undress and while he unstraps his artificial limb she turns back the covers of the bed. After she has gone (it never takes long) he sits in the kitchen and drinks a glass of sherry. One day, while she is waiting to be paid her wages, the woman confides that her husband thinks the work is too much for her because she is too tired at night to make love to him. When the Captain hears this he’s delighted. Then the woman takes a few day’s holiday and he becomes morose and restless. He’s unhappy when there’s no woman around him, at a loose end. Each afternoon he stumps around the house after his daughter, like a panting dog.
After she has told me this I think she is going to weep. I wish the rain would ease so that we can leave. I want to hear the woman with the dog say thickly, ‚Goot afternoon!‘ as I open the door (I hope she keeps her hand on the dog’s collar). I want to smell the damp of the English woman’s jacket, discover that she has thirteen postcards of the Museum of Fine Arts hidden in her pocket. Tonight, I believe, somewhere in the heart of Vienna, the Captain will charm my mother over dinner. My mother is not easily charmed so there will be coffee and liqueurs before a taxi is called to return them to the hotel. My mother will stumble into bed a little drunk.
In his own room the Captain will find his daughter asleep. He will marvel at the stillness of her body, smell, perhaps, the semen draining from between her legs. As her breath dies, he will see that it is her eyes that move restlessly beneath their parchment lids: this dreamer, dreaming her dreams of invisibility.
Originally published in print in Meanjin.