Fiction

Do I know you?

DELAGE HAD AN engineer's mentality, although he had no training or diploma in engineering, more an inventor's mentality, directed towards a single specific mechanism he had happened upon - the restless inventor attracts good fortune. He was a man who easily became engrossed; and, as if he was looking up from solving a problem, he had developed an oblique way of seeing people and the nearby world. His sister was forever saying his mind ran too much along a man's lines, that he'd be a more interesting person, he'd have more friends, if he included in his thinking a woman's way of thinking. Women, she said, he told Elisabeth, are attracted to a man who has a woman's psychological conversation, that was the word she used, conversation, and the layers of affinity it produces. 'It's the combination. Interesting,' Elisabeth appeared to nod, not getting it quite right. He liked looking at Elisabeth, or more often, glancing at her. Here she was holding onto the rail with both hands, facing the breeze, an advertisement for expensive sunglasses. With the rushing sea below, Delage couldn't avoid calculating his chances if he had the misfortune of falling overboard, the shock of landing in the deep cold water, legs kicking, nobody noticing as the fat stern slowly disappeared. 'Do you agree with what she said, your sister?' Elisabeth had turned. Before stating the obvious, which was that his sister was always on the phone, giving firm advice, just checking up, as if he was in need of help, he said, 'By way of example, she said I should take an interest in fabrics, their colours, the feel of them.' Every conversation is an exaggeration. A story told, a description, voices imitated, an idea or a thought put into words, they're condensed or coloured - tailored - to hold the listener. And Delage was constantly aware of doing it himself, anything for the stronger effect, especially when leaning forward and selling the virtues of his remarkable, as it had been publicly described, invention, The Delage (piano). Women waited for attentiveness, they allowed even the most shameful exaggerations. Was that what his sister, Elisabeth too, apparently, meant? In conversation, Delage had noticed he avoided a woman's eyes, it was unnerving the way they frankly met his, unwavering, nothing in the world to feel awkward about, at least when talking to him, the receptionist at the hotel the most recent, instead, he had formed the habit of glancing away at something, the corner of a table, or a bird on the wire, or the traffic passing, and so missed the effort, what appeared to be the truth, behind the face. For all his difficulties with the eyes, Delage, when drawn into a psychological conversation, felt a shifting of interest to a more personal, intimate level; and he felt part of him flow to the woman, and back to him, the bookkeeper, he recalled looking up from her pristine desk in Sydney, now Elisabeth. They had the subtle grasp of situations.

Every other street had a shop devoted to music, their windows displaying recordings of the most acclaimed performances, as well as the most recent performances, which of course is not the same thing, while others specialised in sheet music or books on music, busts of the greatest of composers now made in China, conductors who couldn't help composing, and vice versa, wind instruments in the window, and one offered secondhand violins (and violas). The calculating businessman in Delage, the most irregular part of him, wondered how they all could make a living. You would think by now every family in Vienna had its piano or music stand, not to mention the alabaster bust of Beethoven on the mantelpiece. And yet Steinway & Sons had at least two dozen concert grands in their showroom, and probably more out the back. Near the Albertina, one shop had a few metronomes working in the window, and a display of white plates which featured around their circumferences a pattern of black keys as seen on a piano, so that someone eating their sausage and sauerkraut would be encouraged to think musical thoughts, perhaps even to hum a few bars, in particular, piano, as they wiped the plate clean. A woman in a cream coat splayed at the hips and glossy cream high heels was talking to the owner, who glanced at Delage and went on talking. He was selling these 'piano' plates, but showed little respect for those who bought them. At the same time, Delage couldn't help but notice, he was listening to and smiling at the woman, as if she were known to him, the thin and tall (as well as bald) shopkeeper tilted towards her, pressing one hand to his waist, the other cupping his elbow, as if he were in severe pain, which made him appear, in every sense, lower still. Turning now, speaking to no one in particular, except she seemed to appeal to Delage who happened to be in the shop, she switched to English. 'What to get a man for his seventieth? A husband is an impossibility.' Delage saw she had on a small, very smart round hat with a remnant of a veil, like a piece of delicate graph paper, called in more accurate times, a 'fascinator', something Delage didn't know, which shadowed her forehead. 'A husband who has most things, I would suggest,' the shopkeeper widened his smile. 'A piano,' Delage joined in, not even seriously, 'a new piano.' Her face was accustomed to giving the quick glance. 'He has more than enough pianos.' 'Yes,' the shopkeeper glared at Delage, 'of course he has pianos.' The shop represented in miniature the reception the city had been giving him since he arrived. 'I know of something your husband couldn't have, couldn't possibly have. There's one in Vienna, as we speak. It's under wraps. Would he - but, first of all, you - be interested in something modern? I don't think so.' Delage could hear himself sounding forced - too formal. A sudden change in circumstances, and voice and manner can change, whereas a simple awkwardness can be more truthful. At the door he gave a bow to both of them, which probably looked ridiculous, and out on the footpath he remained for a moment in full view, deciding whether to go left to the Griensteidl, or right to the hotel, or cross the street and head towards the gardens; after all, he had nothing better to do. The colour of her coat and shoes was the same lacquered cream as requested by one of his earliest customers, a piano to match his wife's hair, perhaps that was what made him look twice, so he was thinking, when close by she spoke, 'You've taken that poor man's plate.' Delage saw it in his hand, and made a move to hurry back in. 'Leave it. He won't mind. Tell me, in there I did not understand what you were talking about?' There was nothing worse than talking or explaining himself, his presence in Vienna. 'This was for my sister, who lives in Brisbane. She has a cupboard full of plastic Eiffel Towers and Statues of Liberty, and what-not, places she's never been to. This plate she'll like. She'll put it on the mantelpiece.' The smallest thing could make his sister happy, or at least happier, she'd be on the phone to him immediately. He'd post it somehow when he got back. Close up he saw around her eyes the beginnings of softly radiating lines, helped along by the Austrian skiing season, 'crow's feet' back in his dry country, but it only made her more elegant. 'Do you have a brother?' he asked without warning. Meeting a person for the first time, Delage invariably spoke abruptly, almost harshly, which was odd, for he didn't look harsh at all, the instinct was to ward off, even for a minute or two. He went on, 'I find this is an unimpressive place. I mean the city itself. By the way, you looked completely out of place in there. I can get you a taxi. I'll do that.' He stepped out onto the street.It wasn't necessary, the shopkeeper could have told him, Amalia Marie von Schalla had her dark limousine and chauffeur waiting outside. Shop for the tourists, 'piano' plate, sister, woman wearing little hat turning to leave (another second or two and the rapidly intersecting lines would not have met - had Delage remained staring at the display of plates in the window, instead of stepping inside). Moments of chance break into the flow of everyday life, producing aftershocks, sometimes deflecting a life for the better, or worse, so common that a subsequent once-in-a-million, so called stroke of luck or a complete coincidence should not come as a surprise. The lost ring, a slip on the ice, wrong number, taking the wrong seat, bumping into a stranger, the flight missed, the right place at the wrong time, stopping to tie a shoelace, do I know you? At the window seat at the Sacher, she had the over-casual manner of giving time to someone, Frank Delage, she would normally not be bothering with, certainly not over coffee, such as it is in Austria, and the world-famous Sacher pastries. The headwaiter had elbowed his three waiters aside to greet Amalia Marie von Schalla, and found a table when there didn't appear to be one by snatching with a histrionic flourish a small printed sign 'Reserved', and was excessively formal to the elderly American couple who arrived almost simultaneously, the man red in the face, 'Now you listen. I'm room 401, and a booking was made seven weeks ago,' etc, it went on, the difficulty of remaining neutral in a foreign city. Amalia von Schalla took her time removing her gloves, and seemed to ignore or give only the faintest acknowledgment to similarly grey-blonde women in their fifties at other tables, craning to have her attention, while at the same time, Delage could not help but notice, examining him, strange man accompanying Amalia - they cannot help themselves. 'I see women here like to wear hats indoors, but I haven't seen one nearly as special as yours.' Men too went about on the streets in white raincoats down to their ankles like laboratory coats, local fashion apparently, therefore hardly worth mentioning. In a low voice that had him leaning forward she went back to his speech on the footpath: 'In many ways I would agree. Vienna can be difficult. But then you're frustrated. You cannot be expected to know our city.' To rest his hand on her hip he leaned back at a somewhat awkward angle on the sofa, smelling of her and her skin, a yielding woman, for in her softness she continued to take an interest in him, even though she could sit without moving or speaking for an unusual amount of time. Elisabeth pondered the answers he gave, now and then repeating a word in English. 'Talked about this and that. She was easy to talk to.' Elisabeth moved her hair to behind her ear, and spoke in a dreamy sort of way, 'She's not like other mothers. I could tell you plenty about her.' 'I think it was what I had to say about the piano situation, in general. She took an interest. I thought that was pretty unusual.' In turn, he managed to keep his eyes on the face before him, on an angle. For all the wealth behind Amalia von Schalla's elegance it did not appear as a deliberate elegance, which only draws attention to the effort, little more, and was a large part of the envy of other women believed to be her friends. 'She's always liked clothes,' Elisabeth said, after a pause, 'and you've seen the house.' 'What was your mother doing in that shop? I meant to ask.' Twisting around, Elisabeth lay herself across his lap looking up, which broadened her cheeks, almost the face of another person, her breasts too fell away, the breasts of another, happy for him to survey her paleness, her wide openness. The different voices, expressions, movement of shoulders, her pauses and sudden opinions had become part of her appearance. 'Am I too heavy for you? Tell me if I am.' She remained looking up at him, his hand on her belly, 'You're not listening. What happened? Have you told me everything?'

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