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Viennese Blood

A short story by Sylvia Petter













It was the happiest time of my life. The saddest time, too. I was seventeen.

I had arrived from England to work for eight months in a grand Viennese hotel. I was excited. I would at last see the world. Get away from Turnham Green. Go farther than London.

It was early May when the train puffed into the grey hangar of the Westbahnhof. The other passengers bustled by me as I lugged my knapsack down the high steps of the train and stood lost on the platform. Suddenly, a large hand clamped on my shoulder. I almost jumped, turned and saw a tall stout man with red shiny cheeks.

"Kennes Brrowning?"

I nodded. "Kenneth," I said.

"I am Herr Klain," the man said. "Velcome to Wienna."

He picked up my knapsack in an easy swing. The knapsack dangled and his arm directed me outside. His other hand held my shoulder.

The spring sun almost blinded me as Herr Klain hurried to the black hooded taxis gleaming in a line. Then he tucked me and my knapsack into the back seat of the first car and took his place beside the driver.

"Elisabethstrasse. Goesserhof," he said.

Herr Klain’s head scraped the car’s ceiling. I could hardly see between him and the driver, so I looked out of my window at the road rushing past.

"Do you speak some German?" Herr Klain asked and turned his balding head towards me.

I shook my head.

"Ah," he said. "That will be good practice for my Harald then."

"Harald?"

"My son. He has your age." Then he settled back in his seat and looked straight ahead until we pulled up in front of a hotel. A man in shirtsleeves and a black bow tie, a long dark green apron over his black trousers, pulled at the shining brass handle of the heavy glass door.

"Gruess Gott, Herr Klain," he said.

Herr Klain nodded and ushered me in past the oak-beamed foyer to stairs curving upwards.

"Our apartments are upstairs. You shall have your own room," he said. "You shall share Harald’s bathroom," he added.

Lugging my rucksack, I followed in Herr Klain’s long shadow.

At the top of the stairs a young fair-haired man lounged against the banister. He greeted us with a half smile.

"Gruess Gott, Papa."

"Harald! This is Kennes," Herr Klain said and caught his breath.

I nodded.

"Come, boy," Herr Klain said to Harald. "Prove your English. You must learn something in that expensive school I send you."

"Welcome to … the Goesserhof," Harald said as we reached the landing. He held out his hand.

I almost lost my balance as my rucksack slid to the floor. Disengaged, I grasped Harald’s hand. "Good to meet you," I said.

Harald smiled that half smile again.

"Show Kennes to his room," Herr Klain said. "Get acquainted."

The room was long and narrow. The width of a cupboard and a bed. The door opened outward. There was one window on the opposite side. Looking out on the cobbled street, I dropped my rucksack under the sill. Harald leant in the doorway.

"One needs not much more in this house," Harald said. "It is enough to be able to come back."

I thought it was a strange thing to say, but I nodded.

"The bathroom is next door. I have made place."

"Thanks," I said. Then I smiled. Harald smiled back, but still stood in the doorway. And he stood as I unpacked my two shirts, my three singlets, my underpants. He watched me unfold them and flatten them out in the cupboard. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything, hoping that he’d leave me a moment to adapt. When I had nothing more to put away, I faced him.

"And now?" I said

"Now I show you my town," Harald said. "Come."

Harald took the stairs two by two and I ran after him.

"What’s the hurry?" I said.

"You must make the hay while the sun is still shining," Harald winked, then laughed.

We raced out the door, past the man in the green apron. I had a strange and wild feeling of freedom. Suddenly Harald stopped.

"Take a deep breath," he said.

We both stood with our hands on our hips and filled our lungs. Then we both buckled over with laughter, but I didn’t know why.

"Come," Harald said and raced ahead.

A group of four or five boys in dark blue shorts and shirts with kerchiefs around their necks, the ends held together in a leather toggle, swaggered towards us. They must have been about ten or twelve years old.

"Your cub scouts?" I said.

Harald raised his eyebrows.

"You know. Camping. Hiking. Hiking in the Vienna Woods?"

Harald nodded. "Yes. Cub scouts," he said. "Of a kind."

As the boys drew abreast Harald quickened his gait. I was almost out of breath when we stopped at a fountain in the middle of a crossing. Cathedral spires threw long shadows down upon us. I shivered. Harald splashed his hands in the water and then splashed his face.

"It’s cold," I said.

"But good." Then he stared at me. "Are you a Jew?"

I splashed my hands and wet my face as he had done.

"Why?"

"You have a big nose."

"So do you."

We both laughed out loud. "Come on," he said and slapped me on the back. "Race you back to the hotel."

He was off and me behind him, trying to keep up. At a block away from the Goesserhof, Harald stopped.

"Walk now. We must be serious."

My friendship with Harald grew with the weeks. On Mondays, when I had my day off, he would dash in from school to show me new places. One day we sneaked into Saint Stephen’s cathedral and hid in an empty confessional booth off the main altar.

"Tell me, my son," Harald said. "Have you sinned?"

I giggled.

"Sshhh," he said.

"How can I tell you if you say ‘Sshhh’? No," I said and stifled my mouth. "Have you, …my son?" I tried not to laugh.

"Not yet," Harald said. "Not really." His voice was earnest. Then he nudged me. "Let’s go."

Daytime in the hotel was spent learning as the head waiter surveyed me. The other waiters watched silently.

"Take a carp," the headwaiter said.

"How?" I said.

"Just put your hand in the tank and … take a carp. Catch it."

I rolled up my sleeves and grabbed for the slithery form. I managed to catch it. Pulled it out. The fish thrashed, slipped from my hands and landed on the sawdust strewn floor. The waiters roared.

"Pick it up," the headwaiter said drily. "Rinse it and give it to the chef."

Behind my back I heard snickering.

The hotel waiters had set up a soccer team. I burned to join in.

"Why don’t you play?" I asked Harald.

"They’re rough. You should keep away."

"But it’s a game," I said.

Harald shrugged.

When I asked Herr Klain if I could play on the staff team his face grew sad.

"I do not think you should," he said. "They are rough."

I wanted to play badly.

"Let’s go once, Harald. Just once," I said.

The next Monday afternoon we changed into shorts and jerseys and went down to the field a few blocks from the Danube Canal. Six of the seven waiters were already there. Three against three.

"Koennen wir mitspielen?" Harald called out.

They stopped and looked at us, one of them pointing to both sides.

Harald went to one, I went to the other. Then the game started. The ball came towards me and I braked it with my toe. I started dribbling towards the goal. I was in control. Suddenly I felt a thwack in my side. A word spat by my ears as I crashed to the ground.

"Sau Jude!"

Harald was by my side and pulled me to my feet.

"What did he mean?" I said.

"Let us go," Harald said and walked me away. Behind us, I heard snickering.

"I said it was better you did not play," Herr Klain said. "You are a Jew."

I stared at Harald’s father. Harald sat on the stairs, his elbows on his knees and his head hanging down.

"Kennes," Herr Klain said, "it is sad, but some of our waiters, they are good boys, yes, but … they do not like Jews."

"But how do they know?" I said. "I look just like you. Like Harald." I tried to find some relief. I looked over at Harald. "I have a nose just like his."

Herr Klain put his arm around me and reached out an arm to his son.

"It is unfortunate," he said.

The next Sunday and all Sundays thereafter Herr Klain insisted I accompany the family to mass at Saint Stephen’s. I soon forgot the soccer incident. Harald and I would exchange grins as we knelt and glanced over at the confessional boxes.

One day, Herr Klain took me with him to one of the neighbouring villages in Burgenland to place his wine orders. Glasses of golden wine were reached around in the damp cellars.

"Sip," he said.

I saw him drink, but didn’t see him spit the wine out. I took bigger mouthfuls. I swallowed.

"The boy doesn’t know how," the wine-seller said.

"You’re supposed to spit it out, Kennes." Herr Klain spat in a bowl.

"Like this."

I nodded.

"He will learn," Herr Klain said to the wine-seller.

"That type never learn," the man said. "Just like those types in the village we’re stuck with."

Two other men tasting wine in the cellar mumbled agreement. The words came to me in a haze. I wasn’t like that. I noticed the men didn’t spit out their mouthfuls. I swallowed mine.

As we came up to the fresh air, my head started to spin, and my legs wobbled.

Herr Klain laughed as I tried to walk a straight line.

"It is to taste wine," he said. "You’re supposed to spit it out. Not get drunk." And he clapped me on the shoulder. "You will learn, Kennes."

I was euphoric again.

I wished Harald were there.

On our last trip, though I didn’t know it, we saw a family at the entrance to the village. A woman in long dark skirts and a bright head scarf stood behind a makeshift stand and plaited the dried leaves of corn cobs. A man in a slouch hat squatted on his haunches, smoking. A child sat on the ground, drawing in the dust.

As we passed in Herr Klain’s old Ford, I turned my head, kept watching the family. The two men from the wine cellar appeared out of nowhere and sauntered towards the threesome. They kicked down the stand.

Herr Klain kept driving, slowly. I watched through the rear window as the child buried its head in the woman’s skirts, as the man stood and his arms encircled his wife. The two men laughed, it seemed, and walked off. All the while Herr Klain had been silent, then he stopped the car in the middle of nowhere.

"Kennes," he said. "I do not think you should stay."

"But I still have three months to go," I said. "I like it so much here. You. Harald. I love Vienna."

Herr Klain sighed.

"It is best you go back to England." His voice was cold. Final.

Harald came with his father to see me off at the station. He bear-hugged me.

"I shall write," he said.

Herr Klain swung my rucksack in the overhead strapping and dropped back to the platform where Harald and I stood. Then he hugged me.

"Leb wohl, Kennes," he said and his hand patted my face.

Tears prickled my eyes as I stood at the window waving at the large figure of Herr Klain and the slender Harald by his side.

I must have fallen asleep just after Linz. I awoke to screams as the train pulled into Salzburg. Two uniformed men in khaki, a red band flashing on their left arms were shoving three or four of the other passengers before them. It was a family I had seen board the train in Vienna. I had wondered if they were from one of the Burgenland villages near the Hungarian border where Herr Klain and I had tasted the wine. They were dressed in a similar way, almost like gypsies, but the woman was without the bright colours and the clinking gold baubles. Why would gypsies travel by train anyway, and where were they going? I had fallen asleep thinking they couldn’t have been gypsies.

I looked out of my window. One of the uniformed men was barking something at the huddling group of four. The other turned to the train driver and raised his right arm straight in a stiff salute.

I stared out past the platform as the train pulled off towards the border.

"Farewell, Harald," I said as tears rolled down my cheeks.


Copyright © Sylvia Petter 1998

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Viennese Blood is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Sylvia Petter is an Australian living in France. Her stories have appeared in print and on the Web in, among others, The European, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, Mystery & Manners Quarterly, The Edifice. One of her stories, The First Man, was broadcast on BBC World Service in December 1997. She is working on a short story collection and has completed one novel, excerpts of which may be found at Gangway. Sylvia can be reached at 100103.3141@compuserve.com and her home page is at http://sylviapetter.com











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