Saturday, 8 November 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 8 Images of disillusion (3)

This was the darkest despair, the lowest ebb I had ever known. I had only been saved from an attempted homosexual rape by an angry cleaner, both harridan and saviour, chasing me out of the station toilets at the end of a wet mop, kicking over her bucket in her savage indignation and screaming abuse as though I was the initiator and not the evil Herr Schniedelwutz, who vanished as though he had never existed. I ran up the steps as fast as my rucksack allowed.

Nor of course was there any sign of Hink. Nor of George. The horrid thought struck me that he might have caught the next train back to Ostend. Solid and loyal friend, easy and undemanding companion, he had finally had enough. He'd really just come along, without any particular interest in to Beethoven, for an adventure that had turned out to be as disagreeable as it was uncomfortable. He must have become increasingly fatigued by my obsession with Adèle: how could I blame him for lebbing off? It was all my fault.

Far from resisting the blandishments of Hink and his dismal catamite, whose nickname (surely?) proclaimed his chief interest, I had sought weakly to ingratiate myself with them. Between them they had stolen my pocket-book with all my Deutschmarks, my return ferry ticket and my precious photo of Adèle. Never was trout more easily tickled: I had let them steal my self-respect as well. I was unslept, filthy, hungry, none the better for at least three glasses of schnapps at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning. All the make-believe bubble world of German Romantic poetry had burst, had been shown up as a treacherous delusion, zerfliesst wie eitel Schaum, vanished like a vain mist, as the wretched Heine put it, similarly betrayed by his own nature. I sat on my rucksack and could not hold the tears back.

This was how George found me a little later, a new George, determined and quietly assertive. We were getting out. There was a train for Siegburg in forty minutes. I was to get up and follow him to the ticket office. I didn't know where Siegburg was. I thought we were heading down the Rhine, for Bonn and Coblenz. George told me it was south of Cologne, on the way to Karlsruhe, where we could pick up the autobahn that would lead us to Munich, Salzburg and on to Vienna, just as we'd planned.

- I haven't got any money. You know I haven't.
- It doesn't matter. I'll pay.
- I'll pay you back. I don't know how or when, but I will.
- Sure. You can pay me back tomorrow. Just don't worry about it.
- Tomorrow! How will tomorrow be any different?
- You'll see. We'll be out of this shit-hole, for one thing. And for another, how about having a look in the back pocket of your shorts? Your other ones. The ones in your rucksack. Where you hid all those Belgian francs we got in Liège. You can't have forgotten. We'll find a bank or a bureau de change in Siegburg tomorrow.

There was time, after George had bought our tickets, to report the theft, which exercised my German to full stretch. The station policeman to whom I reported it wasn't much interested, but he took my name and home address. I had just enough change in my pocket to buy an orange for each of us - I felt I needed the sharp, sweet scour of fresh orange to cleanse my mouth and my mood - and something from the station bookstall: Beethoven und seine Zeit (Beethoven and his times). I felt as indebted to him as I did to George: if I hadn't been in a position to sing Die Ehre Gottes aus die Natur in Josef Kula's church in Liège, with its resulting shower of money, I would have been in an even worse way.

So we shook the dust of Cologne from our sandals without regret or backward glance. I've never felt any call to go back.

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