Sunday, 9 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 1 Flaming Adèle (3)

Little offset my sense of loss, my feeling that from the very start the fabric of this adventure had snagged on a nail in Ostend and was fast unravelling. I had one or two relics of Adèle with me. They brought no comfort. Relics never do, they only serve to confirm misery and obscure other horizons. Great Expectations came to mind, with Miss Havisham sitting eternally in Satis House in her wedding dress among the stopped clocks and relics of the marriage feast that never took place. The original Satis House in Rochester (but novelists may shuffle persons and places and events about as they please) was actually where George and I had recently completed our sixth-form years.

I had her photograph, a spare passport picture in black and white she'd given me once. As a place marker in The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, which I carried everywhere, I had the stub of a Royal Festival Hall ticket, where we'd gone together a few weeks earlier for - what else? - a Beethoven concert and she'd worn her white dress. They'd played the Coriolanus overture, the C minor piano concerto and the 7th symphony. George wondered if 'Coriolanus' was a specific for piles. Both of us adepts at turning a joke and standing it on its head, I told him that he could be right: I'd studied it for O level Music and had never been troubled.

And I had my left hand, scrupulously unwashed since the last time I'd touched her, a fleeting auf wiedersehn caress a week before. Occasional application of this hand to my nose brought nothing much now, just the inside of my pockets, cigarette tobacco and Swan Vesta matches. No meadowsweet, freshly ironed poplin or shantung, no rich and heady scents of summer scalp-sweat and Silvikrin, no subtle Rosenduft of being eighteen, and lovely, and unattached, and lonely, and above all German. No hint, either, of barely-dared intimacies.

Clutching at the slightest straws, I outlined to George some joyfully irreverent ideas I had about the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. This was - is - a curious theological notion that the touch, the laying-on of hands, which a Christian priest or confirmation candidate receives from a bishop or senior cleric at ordination or confirmation is the touch of Jesus himself, transmitted from him to St Peter and the other disciples and thence to myriad others through the ages and down the generations. The touch is symbolic of the means to Christian grace and salvation, but I was much less taken by this than by the notion that it could be applied to other, more localised situations. Adèle and I had touched each other frequently, not (more was the pity) in any carnal way, but just in the ordinary way people show affection for each other, kissing, holding hands, an arm round the shoulder or waist. So far so good. Now Adèle must, presumably, have often touched her breasts in the course of her private daily round, washing, dressing, and so on. In the spirit, but as a pallid reflection, of the Apostolic Succession she had therefore inferred my touch, my laying-on of hands, to her breasts, and conversely I could vicariously apply her touch to my person. George saw where this might lead, and reckoned I was loopy, far gone.

So my left hand stayed steadfastly unwashed. The least drop of water might rinse away the last, precious, fleeting vestige of Adèle. Not only that, it carried other pledges: it could only be washed when next we met, which in its difficulty - so natural is the mutuality of the hands that keeping one clean and not the other is next to impossible - was both token and test of fidelity, a sort of hair shirt. I remembered hearing about a woman so besotted with Franz Liszt that she stole one of his cigar butts when he wasn't looking and, Miss Havisham-like, kept it in her corsage for the rest of her days. I doubted whether Adèle was going about with one of my fag-ends secreted in her bra.

We reached the dual carriageway leading to Brussels and beyond. As he dumped his rucksack by the roadside George said he'd heard more about flaming Adèle than was good for either of us and we should now concentrate on giving thumb, his term for hitching lifts.

I should close the chapter by tying off the ends. I never saw Adèle again. She didn't appear at Cologne station. It was here that some lewd fellow of the baser sort and his dismal catamite stole my pocket book with her photo in, presumably to feed someone else's fantasies because their own proclivities wouldn't have encompassed German sixth-form exchange girls in white dresses. Several months later she wrote to me: on returning to her home in Rhineland after the summer term's exchange she'd spent several days in a dreadful agony of indecision. Eventually she'd taken a deep breath and had told her parents that I'd invited her to come with me on my pilgrimage to Vienna, travelling rough and sleeping rougher, to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven, and that she'd agreed. They were horrified and forbade it. By this time it was too late to contact me. And maybe silence was the softer option.

So with much heart-searching I turned my back on the immediate past.

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