Excerpts from ‘K’ a novella about a fictional composer written C 1975
Setting: mainly in the North Midlands during the early 1970’s
Months later, when spring had given way to summer, K and Asia joined us for a trip to Vienna. We arranged for Jenny’s parents to look after the children while we were abroad, which pleased them no end, I experiencing relief at being able to get away to foreign places. For K and Asia, indeed for me, it was a musical pilgrimage; a chance to be near some of the great masters of music. Not so for Jenny. It was her first time abroad, and she was excited at the prospect of seeing new cities, trying strange dishes and meeting foreign people for the first time. We travelled by rail from Calais, through Paris, Basel and Zurich, and eventually arrived in Vienna after an arduous journey; the four of us cooped up in an uncomfortable, overcrowded railway compartment, burdened by passengers that came and went and asked us questions in strange languages. K acted as our spokesman, because he had a good command of French and German, and a working knowledge of Italian. To this day my understanding of foreign languages is non-existent and I have to admit to having envied his linguistic skills. It is strange recalling how at home he became once we had reached the Continent. He took to Europe as the proverbial duck takes to water. When we reached Calais it seemed as if he had already reached home. His native land lay hundreds of miles further east, but once his foot had touched mainland Europe the distances of a lifetime vanished. When we arrived in Vienna his excitement was enormous; he was revisiting a city he had been to on a number of occasions. He knew Vienna as well as he knew London and Paris, and we were pleased about this, since we needed someone who could guide us with ease through its complicated web of streets. We stayed in a hotel, just off the Maria Hilferstrasse, and spent many days walking down Vienna’s most important shopping street to the Ring, to the Opern (which enthralled us with Die Zauberflöte), to the Stefansdom and the Rathaus; also to parks where bands played Strauss waltzes and water leapt from fountains on sunny days and extravagant evenings. We were four people intent on shedding our cares during the fortnight we were there. We had set out to enjoy ourselves and we did this sometimes as a foursome, other times as a couple.
Jenny and Asia spent much time shopping, buying things they could just as well have bought at home; but, no, they wouldn’t listen to me; so it became necessary to buy new cases in which to pack their many purchases. Sometimes when they went shopping K and I would go to a museum or an art gallery. We were keen to visit the Schubert Geburtshaus in the Nussdorferstrasse, which we did one afternoon, feeling his presence in an inexplicable yet definite way. On another occasion Asia and I visited a historic church. By then I knew her quite well and found I really liked her. She was dark; a brunette with an engaging full face that beamed amusement much of the time. Her mind ran like water over many subjects and, like Jenny, she had the ability to enjoy the simple things of life to the full. I was sure she had never had a single care in the world, if I excluded her love for K, which, because it was so genuine, was approaching the inevitable impasse. She wasn’t a reserved girl and never minded speaking about matters concerning her heart.
‘You see, I love him. Promise you won’t tell him.’
We sat, tourists beneath a large umbrella, sipping long glasses of beer outside a café.
‘You love your beer, don’t you?’ I remarked, as she took a giant swig from her glass.
She wiped the froth from her pink lipstick lips and scratched her long black hair with loud clicking nails.
‘I suppose I do. Unfortunately my figure doesn’t. Jan called me ‘a fatty’ last night. ‘Go on a diet and get rid of some of your flab’, was how he put it when we got back from the concert.’
‘He was only joking,’ I laughed, as I gulped some beer from my glass.
‘No, he wasn’t. He was dead serious. He meant every word.’
‘What did you say?’
‘’If you don’t like me as I am you can lump me.’ No, I’m only joking.....That’s what I would have liked to have said, but I didn’t. You see, I’m in love with him. Every inch of him. Though I’m not sure why. He doesn’t love me. I know that for sure. So I’m not as happy as I ought to be, but I’m not going to let it get me down.’
She continued swigging her beer prodigally. She had hardly any money, but she never let this worry her in the slightest (which annoyed Jenny greatly). I looked intently at her, studying her figure closely; a tight black top, a pair of sunglasses covering her broad face, bright blue Levis clasping her buttocks in a vice of steel. I noted her figure’s pleasing curves, her ample breasts, and wondered how it was possible for my friend to be so unaware of his good fortune. She was still young, perhaps twenty-three, with the careless manners of a student; yet she was also mature, and very much a woman.
‘I don’t think Jan knows how lucky he is,’ I said. ‘He should treat you better.’
‘He often does kind things you probably don’t know about. He’s always buying me small gifts. This brooch, for example,’ she said, pointing to one of her breasts.
I noticed only her breasts.
‘I mean.....he should give you more affection.’
I was prying into other people’s lives. This didn’t seem to upset her in the slightest.
She lit a cigarette before continuing, ‘He just can’t give it. It’s the way he’s made. I’ve got to go slowly with him; use a bit of psychology to bring him out of himself. He’s coming along gradually and I might succeed in the end. You see, Charles, it’s all his mother’s fault. She was far too possessive. And even though she’s been dead for quite a while, she still holds the reigns wherever she is.’
Asia smiled and I found myself liking her more than I had thought possible. If I hadn’t been married, I might have handled matters quite differently, instead of sitting passively beneath a café umbrella, talking about a relationship that had scant chance of succeeding.
‘Does Jenny like Jan?’ Asia asked.
‘I’m sure she does,’ I replied.
‘You’re not telling the truth.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘I can tell by the glint in your handsome eyes that what you’re saying isn’t true. At any rate, Jenny’s said things about him from time to time that make me think she isn’t all that keen on him.’
‘You’re being a little hard on Jenny.’
‘Not really, Charles. Don’t think I’ll like her any the less just because she isn’t keen on him. I understand why some people can’t see him as he really is. It’s a shame because he’s got many good points.’
‘I agree. He’s got many good qualities, but I’m afraid you’re entertaining wild hopes if you think you’re going to get him to love you. You won’t succeed. It’s just not in his nature. He’ll do many kind things: entertain, stimulate, teach, but he’ll never give himself to you and love you in the way you’d like him to,’ I blurted out.
‘What makes you think I won’t succeed?’
‘Time, my sweet, time. I’ve known him for a good few years and have learnt a great deal about him.’
‘Such as his being one of life’s loners. He’s out there on his own, incapable of communicating with anyone -sometimes even with me. And he’ll always be out there, come what may, on his own, on the storm-tossed wild lonely sea of life. There are times when his ship will come into port, when you’ll get close to him, and then before you know it he’ll be back on the high seas, lost to you, lost to us all. I’m afraid nothing will change him. His whole life’s been like that.’
‘You’re making me feel really sad, Charles,’ said Asia, looking unhappy about what I had just said. She had completely forgotten about her beer and the happy smile on her face had vanished as she wriggled uncomfortably in her chair. A waiter sidled up to us. I said something that sounded like nichts, and he vanished.
‘You’ve really got me worried,’ said Asia. ‘But you’re right when you say there’s no future for us. Even if what you say is cruel, I know it’s true. I’ve been a fool all along. Henry warned me, but I wouldn’t listen. Now the truth suddenly drops out of the sky and lands right on top of me.’
‘Please don’t be cross with me.’
‘Don’t worry, Charles, I’m not cross with you. I think you’re lovely. I wonder if Jenny realises just how lucky she is.’
‘You bet. Say ‘come’, and I’ll sit on your lap and surrender myself to you. I’d love to do that. But to be serious....’
‘Impossible,’ I retorted, trying to liven things up, for I could see cities of distress peeping through her simulated gaiety.
‘To be serious...... I think I should tell you what he’s always talking about..... Death and his funeral and what should happen to his music when he’s left this world which he claims to hate like poison.’
‘You mean to say he’s spoken to you like that?’
‘I thought it was normal for him to talk like that.’
‘No. I’m afraid it isn’t.’
I was lying, simply because I didn’t want to cause her further distress.
Suddenly K arrived outside the café and came up to our table and sat down. He had a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye. I wasn’t smiling and doubtless looked confused. I thought he’d overheard us, but clearly he hadn’t.
‘Whatever makes you say that, Jan?’
‘Of course we were,’ said Asia. ‘I think Charles would be a nice fellow to commit things with.’
‘You have my permission, but I don’t think our Jenny would like it.’
‘How did you manage to find us?’
‘Elementary, Charles Harkness. You usually come to the Café Donau when you want refreshment. The seats are comfortable, the service adequate, the large multi-coloured shade-giving umbrellas useful. Kellner! Ein Bier, bitte,’ he cried. A waiter came swiftly to our table carrying a tall glass and a bottle of beer.
With contrived precision K poured the beer into the glass. He took small sips from the glass, while watching Asia as she swigged yet another beer prodigally.