Lit-Mag #38 – (Not) at home in Vienna
Through the eyes of Kommissar Rex
Many years ago, in those long undergraduate coffee hours, one of our group announced that he was going home. “Mutti”, he always referred to his mother with that intimate endearment, never as we did, neither the babyish “Mummy” nor drawling out “Mum”, nor with a clipped English “Mother”: but so, “Mutti”. He repeated himself, “Mutti is taking me home!”
Which was a nonsense of course because he had been born a day after me at Adelaide’s Calvary Hospital, where the nuns fluttered down longish corridors bringing little rays of sunshine with them as their headpieces flapped open and shut in time to their strides. Our mothers shared the same ward, smiled at the same priest, glared the same ways when our fathers eyed off the nurses.
Petro took in our gaping mouths, Griffiths’s bad teeth, the rattle of refectory cups on chipped china saucers, Elsa’s sob of disappointment. He smiled in triumph, something to note in that Journal he made a point of keeping, even as we were discussing the proprieties of journals and secret diaries, and all those filthy habits we attributed to Frogs and other less desirables, in public. He’d pull it out of his satchel as soon as Filipovski had left and write in a word that had been used, or scribble down an apt phrase Elsa had invented, just so as it would be entered in that book.
Petro tried smiling again, whispered the magic word.
He then sipped the University’s sour coffee quite noisily, and whilst still holding the cup in his right hand, took out a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and blew his nose, noisily. The spell had been broken.
Petro was about to fill us in, so we all leant forwards and tried all so desperately to disregard the clock that was telling us there were only fifteen minutes before the next Language Laboratory session. I just had to get there in time, or else Frau Unpronounceable-Russian-Namova would have me for dinner, and Elsa likewise had to be at her class in Old Norse with five minutes to spare, or else the Professor would be rather cranky with her: we both were prepared to wait for five minutes before leaving. Petro would need to be quick, for once.
“Mutti, as you know”, we didn’t, but he was telling us as a matter of fact, “is Viennese”.
Something we didn’t know until then, but now this information tied in exactly with Petro’s predilection for Cheesecake and Kirsch whenever the plates went around at a cast party: that, and other minor vices, now marked him out as Viennese.
Who else but a Viennese would have a weekly appointment with “my psychiatrist, Herr Dr. Kroeber” whose suite was tucked away behind the rooms of Proctologist Dr. Pirkstis on the fourth floor of the greystone building where my father worked, when all we ever had were our Confessors, for those of us who were Catholics, or for all others, Protestants, pagans, communists and the motley, merely a friendly ear: no absolution and damnation for eternity! Who else but a Viennese would insist upon waltzing backwards when the orchestra, the school band really, correctly managed the key-change, only to step on his partner’s dress and so pull the bodice down to such a degree that the girl delighted every young bucko within eye-range? But then, Kitty O’Connor was not Viennese and is still unversed in the ways of the twirling world.
“So?” Elsa was less than impressed. “My mother was born in Mittau Castle itself, ergo, she is Mittauian! So what if deine Mutti auf Wien?”
The table had invented multiculturalism before it became fashionable in Australia. Elsa and Petro would trade insults, and perhaps endearments, in Deutsch, Elsa would entertain her sorority in Lettisch, Rory and I could throw a few Gaelic phrases onto the log fire, and if all else failed, we’d have Elsa read the juicy and gory bits from the Eddas in Old Norse. Not that we understand a word of it, but it sounded far more blood-curdling than the rants we’d been forced to endure in Modern History 101A: European Destinies. The Engineers avoided us.
Petro, who had fancied himself as a bit of Romantic and who had actually induced Elsa to accompany him to the Deutschverein Ball last weekend, and whose misadventures had already been around the tables before first lectures on the Monday, merely smiled.
“It’s the Sacher Torte, really.” He paused for good effect. “You know, Sacher Torte?” None of us admitted to knowing anything.
Elsa glared at him.
“You mean, Piglet, tau Mamuliņa is taking you to Vienna to get fat?!”
Petro, a boy, not quite a young man as yet, remembering this was at the end of his first term, was rather rotund. He was in my Physical Education group at Teachers’ College and found the compulsory morning runs through the Parklands such a horrible chore that he was always last into the showers, by which time he had to stand under a shower-head dribbling utter cold over his sleek flanks. We all called him Piglet: no offence intended as I was Sticks, being nothing but skin and bone, whilst Griffiths was Batlet, being as blind as one. Petro endured his trials with good grace and the no-necks left him alone.
Petro smiled. “Not at all, my Uncle Rudi will see to it that I am put on a regular diet, and that the staff at his Kurort will supervise me correctly.”
Seeing that we were totally perplexed, and all were looking at our watches, time leaking away all too quickly, explained in a sudden rush of words that one of his many uncles had purchased a commodious estate, converted it into something for which we in Australia really do not have a word.
“A health-farm?” ventured Griffiths. “Like in that film we saw on Thursday, L’année dernière à Marienbad?” Griffiths liked the sound of French, even if he had not yet mastered her.
Petro nodded, sort of, and was about to launch into a long-winded explication as we, the men that is, all began to dream of Delphine Seyrig in a nurse’s whites, when Elsa, rising to her full height, she towered over everyone except Griffiths and me, put paid to the morning’s kaffé-klatsch. “I know, La avventura di Petro à Muttibad!”
Elsa half-smiled, signalled to Petro that their affair had been terminated, turned on her balletic toes, and decamped. Petro looked down into the dregs of his coffee, sighed and tried unsuccessfully to cadge some silver from me for “further fortification”. No luck, I was a broke as a gypsy.
In a rush to get to our next sessions we all dashed off, leaving Petro to wheedle the cost of his next coffee from the Irish boys’ table. We all expected to see him later that day, but he was gone when we came back into the refectory for afternoons, and was not around for the rest of Term. Word eventually got back through one of the tutors that Petro had handed in all of his Term assignments rather early and had taken indefinite leave, and his place at the table was soon filled in by another.
I never gave Petro another thought. That’s how callow we youths can be, and even in old age when rifling through my memories of all those years ago, JFK was still alive then and just a vague mention at the dinner-table of travelling to Europe after I’d finished my studies was enough to start a three-day drama of tears and phone calls to the parish priest, I could not remember who had sat next to me and had announced that his mother was taking him home, to Vienna.
Then I saw him. Rather Kommissar Rex saw him for me.
On Thursday evenings, once dinner is finished and the dregs of the day’s marking are put away, we settle back and watch Kommissar Rex and any of the other criminal dramas that SBS-TV (Melbourne) presents, such as Ørnen, which recalls Elsa’s excursions into the Eddas. The writers of Kommissar Rex always set a puzzle for Moser and his team to solve, and of course, Rex assists, even solves some of the crimes. When Angus, our Border Collie, was alive, he’d sit at our feet and cast a worried look at the television if ever Rex signaled he was in distress, even to the point of one night standing in front of the television and barking at a leather-clad villain who was yelling at our hero.
So there he was. Petro!
Larger than life. Rotund almost. Not as much as the Coroner who seems to delight in slicing up the cadavers that Moser and team zip into the body-bags and dispatch to City Morgue, but rotund certainly.
My physician, a refugee from Putin’s cleptocracy, will look at me tomorrow, I’m certainly less than half of Petro’s girth, and he will ask, “How soon you wann’ die? Tomorrow, nex’ year? Nu?”
Of course I have no sensible answer to this, I would really like to live forever.
What would my physician have said to Petro, “You are alive?”
The same words Elsa used last year, “You are alive?”
I wasn’t sure whether this was a question or an accusation, for Elsa expects her discards to remain civil to her, and to each other. We try. But as for my being alive, she’d heard that I had been knocked over by a bicyclist in Salzburg. It made the headlines even, especially after I had called the rather rotund cyclist “Piglet”.
Apologies all round. I am alive.
On the screen, Kommissar Rex followed my friend Petro, my long lost friend, through the streets of Vienna, dodged between trams, tagged along as his mark waddled across one the bridges spanning the Danube. All of this was seen as through the hound’s eyes. The camera must have been set low on a dolly as the humans loomed over and peered down as the pace of pursuit increased. I become Inspector Hound.
A zither plays, Harry Lime emerges from the shadows, “Pssst! Silk stockings?”
Lili Marlene slouches against the lamppost, lights a cigarette for Humphrey Bogart who’s just passing by, or was that Tom Cruise? Where’s Nicole? Rex has helped himself to a wurst, or a kransky perhaps?
I remember that there’s a cold half-sausage in the refrigerator. When there was a commercial break I got up, turned on the kettle and wolfed the half-sausage. Petro had disappeared by the time I got back with our cups of tea.
The sunset was beautiful. Vienna glowed. We vowed that next time we travelled to Europe that we would make a point of going there, and not be fobbed off with a bus trip just to Salzburg as a quick stop.
I think that we too could sit in the afternoon sunshine and indulge in an aromatic coffee and we could share a slice of Sacher Torte. Perhaps Petro would be there, taking some time off from acting as an extra in a television series or running his uncle’s gymnasium, which is what the Kurort most likely would have turned out to be, or perhaps he’ll introduce us to one of the hounds playing in the next series of Kommissar Rex.