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Authors: William Boyd

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BOOK: Waiting for Sunrise
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Lysander smiled blandly at her as he took his accustomed seat at the dining table. He sensed the years falling from him: Frau K made him feel he was in his adolescence again – younger, even, pre-pubescent. He became unmanned in Frau K’s presence, strangely cowed and respectful; he became someone he didn’t recognize – a man without opinions.

He saw there was a place set for a third party – the other lodger in the pension, Lieutenant Wolfram Rozman, apparently absent or late. Dinner was at eight o’clock, sharp. Frau K approved of Lysander – he was nice and pleasant, and English (nice people) – but the lieutenant, Lysandser instinctively felt, did not meet with Frau K’s full approval. He was not pleasant, perhaps not even nice.

Lieutenant Wolfram Rozman had done something wrong. It wasn’t exactly clear what, but his presence in the Pension Kriwanek was a form of disgrace. It was a regimental matter, Lysander had learned from Herr Barth. He had not been cashiered but had been temporarily expelled from barracks over this scandal, whatever it was, and forced to live here until judgement was delivered and his military fate decided. Lieutenant Rozman didn’t seem unduly concerned, Lysander had to admit – apparently he’d already been in the pension for nearly six months – but the longer he stayed the more Frau K found him not a pleasant man, incrementally. Even in the two weeks Lysander had been witness to their exchanges he had detected a marked sharpness in address, an increase in frosty formality.

In fact, Lysander liked Wolfram – as he’d been invited to call him almost immediately – but he studiously kept this opinion from Frau K. She smiled her thin smile at him now and rang the bell for service. The maid, Traudl, appeared almost at once with a tureen – containing clear cabbage soup with croutons – in her hands. This was the first course of dinner in the Pension Kriwanek, summer or winter. Traudl, a round-faced girl of eighteen who blushed when she spoke and blushed when she was spoken to, plonked the tureen down on the table hard enough for two splashes of soup to leap out and land on the immaculate white nap of the tablecloth.

‘You will pay for the cleaning of the tablecloth, Traudl,’ Frau K said evenly.

‘With pleasure, Madame,’ Traudl said, blushed, curtsied and left.

Frau K said grace, eyes closed, head level – Lysander bowed his – and served them both clear cabbage soup with croutons.

‘The lieutenant is late,’ Lysander observed.

‘He’s paid for his meal, it’s up to him if he eats it.’ She smiled again at Lysander. ‘Have you had a pleasant day, Herr Rief?’

‘Very pleasant.’

 

After the meal (chicken stew with paprika) the custom was that Frau K left and the gentlemen were permitted to smoke. Lysander lit a cigarette and resumed his normal persona now Frau K had gone, and began wondering, as he was inclined to do after any time spent with her, whether he should move to a hotel or another boarding house but, as he ran through the pros and cons, he realized that actually he was comfortable at the Pension Kriwanek and that, apart from one meal a day with Frau K, life there suited him.

The pension was in fact a large apartment on the third floor of a newish block on the south side of a courtyard off Mariahilfer Strasse about half a mile from the Ring. It had hot-water heating and electric light; the large bathroom the lodgers shared was modern (flushing toilet) and clean. When Lysander had consulted the travel agency about his trip he had stipulated that the list of boarding houses he was given had to be able to provide a comfortable bedroom with a capacious wardrobe, offer professional standard laundry services (he had very precise demands about the use of starch) and be near a tramway halt. The first address he had visited was the Pension Kriwanek, where he saw that his room was comprised of a sitting room, a curtained alcove with a double bed and a small boxy annexe that served as a dressing room with plenty of shelves and cupboard space for his clothes. He hadn’t bothered to look any further – and this was probably the fact that inspired his postprandial thoughts of leaving – should he have seen what else Vienna had to offer? Still, he had a tutor in residence, also, and that wasn’t to be overlooked.

When you entered the apartment through double doors off the third-floor landing you were confronted by a wide hall – wide enough for two cane-backed bergères and a round table with a glass-domed stuffed owl as a centrepiece. From this hall a long corridor led away to the dining room and the three lodgers’ rooms – Lysander’s, Wolfram’s and Herr Barth’s – and the bathroom they shared. At the end of this passage there was a door marked ‘
Privat
’ that must give on to the kitchen area, he assumed, as well as Frau K’s rooms. He had never been through it, never dared. Traudl also lived in so she would have had a corner somewhere that was hers, as well. There seemed to be a narrow parallel service-corridor from the kitchen to the dining room – the dining room had two exits – but beyond that his sense of the pension’s geography was vague – who knew what lay behind
Privat
? The place was comfortable, you could keep yourself to yourself. Breakfast was served in your room, dinner was a paid-for supplement, a packed lunch could be provided at a day’s notice. He felt strangely at home, he had to admit.

Traudl came in and began to clear away the dessert dishes.

‘How’re you, Traudl?’ Lysander asked. She was a solid, strapping girl and clumsy with it.

On cue she let a dessert spoon drop to the carpet.

‘Not very happy, sir,’ she said, picking it up and rubbing away the custard stain with a napkin.

‘Why’s that?’

‘I’ve so many fines to pay Frau Kriwanek that I won’t earn anything this month.’

‘That’s a shame. You have to be more careful.’

‘Traudl? Careful? Totally impossible!’ came a man’s voice.

‘Good evening, Lieutenant, sir,’ Traudl said, blushing.

Wolfram Rozman hauled out a chair and sat down heavily.

‘Traudl, my little fluffy chicken, bring me some bread and cheese.’

‘At once, sir.’

Wolfram leaned across the table and clapped Lysander on the shoulder. He was wearing a pale-blue suit and a lilac bow tie. He was a very tall man, inches taller than Lysander, with the gangly, limber laziness of movement that very tall men display. He sprawled in his seat, one arm flung over the back of the adjacent chair, and thrust his legs under the table. Lysander saw his pale-blue trousers and spats emerge on his side. He had hooded, sleepy eyes and a dense blond moustache with its tips waxed upward over loose, full lips.

Lysander offered him a cigarette that he accepted and – after fruitless rooting in his pockets for a box of matches – lit with Lysander’s lighter.

‘I suppose I’m in her blackest books,’ Wolfram said, blowing excellent smoke-rings. ‘As black as night.’

‘You’re just not very “pleasant” – let’s put it that way.’

‘I was running back, trying not to be late and I thought – Jesus, God, no,
Herrgott Sakra
, I can’t stand it. So I went to a café and drank schnapps.’

‘Why don’t you forget dinner, like Barth? Then you don’t have to see her.’

‘The regiment is paying for everything. Not me.’

Traudl came back in with a plate of black, sliced bread and some soft creamy cheese.

‘Thank you, my little mongoose.’

Traudl seemed about to say something but thought better of it, curtsied and left by the service door.

Wolfram leaned forward.

‘Lysander – you know you can mount Traudl if you give her twenty crowns. Yes?’

‘Mount?’

‘Possess her.’

‘Are you sure?’ Lysander calculated quickly: twenty crowns was less than a pound.

‘I do it a couple of times a week. The girl’s short of money – she’s actually quite agreeable.’ Wolfram put his cigarette out in the ashtray, spread cheese on his bread and began to eat. ‘Big friendly country girl, they know a few special tricks, those girls – just to tell you, in case you felt like it.’

‘Thanks. I’ll bear it in mind,’ Lysander said, a little bemused at this revelation. What would Frau K say if she knew about these goings-on? He would look at Traudl with new eyes.

‘You look surprised,’ Wolfram said, munching on his bread and cheese.

‘Well, that’s because I am. I had no idea. In this place of all places – the Pension Kriwanek – it’s very deceptive.’

Wolfram pointed at him with his knife.

‘This place – this Pension Kriwanek – is just like Vienna. You have the world of Frau K on top. So nice and so pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowing, dark and strong.’

‘What river?’

‘The river of sex.’

 

 

6. The Son of Halifax Rief

 

‘I am in the stalls bar of the Majestic Theatre in the Strand. I am walking through a crowd of elegantly dressed society ladies – young and middle-aged. They gossip and chat and occasionally one of them glances at me. They pay me hardly any attention at all – even though I’m completely naked.’

Lysander paused. He was reading to Bensimon from
Autobiographical Investigations
.

‘Yeeessss . . .’ Dr Bensimon said, slowly. ‘That’s interesting. You dreamed this last night?’

‘Yes. I wrote it down immediately.’

‘But why a theatre, I wonder?’

‘It’s obvious,’ Lysander said. ‘If it
wasn’t
a theatre – now, that would be more interesting.’

‘I don’t follow.’

‘I’m an actor,’ Lysander said.

‘A professional actor?’

‘I earn my living acting on stage, mainly in the West End of London.’

He heard Bensimon stand up and cross the room to sit down on the end of the divan opposite. Lysander turned in the armchair – Bensimon was staring at him eagerly.

‘Rief,’ he said. ‘I thought it sounded familiar. Are you any relation to Halifax Rief?’

‘He was my father.’

‘My god!’ Bensimon seemed genuinely astonished. ‘I saw his King Lear in . . . Where was it?’

‘The Apollo.’

‘That’s right, yes, the Apollo . . . He died, didn’t he? Halfway through the run or something.’

‘In ’99. I was thirteen.’

‘Good lord. You’re Halifax Rief’s son. How extraordinary.’ Bensimon gazed hard at Lysander as if seeing him for the first time. ‘I think I can spot a resemblance of sorts. And you’re an actor as well, goodness.’

‘Not as successful as my father – but I earn a fairly decent living.’

‘I love the theatre. What was the last play you were in?’


The Amorous Ultimatum
.’

‘Don’t know it.’

‘By Kendrick Balston – drawing-room comedy. It’s just closed after four months at the Shaftesbury. That’s when I came on here.’

‘Goodness . . .’ Bensimon repeated, nodding slightly, as if something had been revealed to him. He went back to his desk and Lysander looked at the silver bas-relief. He was becoming very familiar with it, he felt, even if this was only his second session with Bensimon.

‘So – you’re naked in the stalls bar of the Majestic. Are you aroused?’

‘I’m enjoying being there, I suppose. I’m not ashamed of being naked in front of these people. Not embarrassed.’

‘There’s no laughing or sniggering, no pointing, no mockery.’

‘No. They seem to take it perfectly normally. Idle curiosity would be the strongest emotion. They just glance at me and carry on their conversation.’

‘Do they “glance” at your penis?’

‘Ah. Yes. Yes, they do.’

There was a silence. Lysander closed his eyes, he could hear the Bensimon pen scratching away. To take his mind momentarily off their discussion he forced himself to recall the pleasures of the last weekend. He had caught the train to Puchberg and stayed the night at the station hotel there. Then he had taken the funicular to the Hochschneeberg and had walked (he had brought his hiking boots with him) all the way to the Alpengipfel peak and back. He had felt his mind clear and his spirits lift as they always did when he was hiking in the mountains or on one of his walking tours. Maybe, he thought, this was the best reason to have come to Austria – new walks, new landscapes. Every weekend he could take a train and walk in the mountains, empty his head, ignore his problems. The walking cure –

‘Is this a recurring dream?’ Bensimon asked.

‘Yes. With variations. Sometimes there are fewer people.’

‘But it’s essentially you – naked – amongst women, fully dressed.’

‘Yes. It’s not always in a theatre.’

‘Why do you think you dream this?’

‘I was rather hoping you might tell me.’

‘Let’s continue this conversation next time,’ Bensimon said, bringing the session to an end. Lysander stood and stretched – he felt strangely tired, all that concentration. He slipped his notebook into his pocket.

‘Keep writing everything down,’ Bensimon said, showing him the door. ‘We’re making progress.’ They shook hands.

BOOK: Waiting for Sunrise
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