a novelette by
The taxi from the airport to the centre of Kitzbühel was an extravagance, but one Raymond Towner knew he could afford. Since the death of his wife three months ago, his finances had never looked so healthy. Twenty years of Caroline's chronic illness was a drain on his bank balance. Private nursing and prescription charges took a large bite out of his monthly salary cheque, leaving him in a position of having to forego any kind of luxuries in his own life.
He stepped out of the taxi onto the bustling, busy pavement. The snow had long since cleared from the streets, but the tops of the mountains that surrounded the town, still kept their white helmets, reminding residents and tourists alike of a harsh winter recently departed. He waited patiently for the driver to unload his suitcase from the boot of the rusting Audi, paid him -- giving him a five mark tip -- and trotted up the steps to the foyer of the Hotel Alpenblum.
The woman at the reception desk spoke impeccable English. With a finely manicured hand she slid a white card across the mahogany towards him. 'If you could just fill that in, Mr Towner, I'll have Peter take your bag up to your room.' She inclined her head towards a young boy dressed in a green and gold livery, who stood attentively by the lift. At the gesture he left his post and came across to the desk. In a fluid movement he lifted Towner's bag, spun on his heel and carried it up the sweeping horseshoe staircase -- the lift obviously for the use of guests only.
Towner completed the card, checked it for errors and handed it back to the receptionist. She studied it briefly, put it to one side, looked up and smiled warmly. She was really quite beautiful, Towner thought. Elegant, well groomed, about his age, which made her mid-forties. Her golden hair hung in a sleek bob, the heavy fringe accenting the clear blue of her eyes. He glanced down at her hand and noted with disappointment the ruby and diamond ring on her wedding finger. At least it's not a wedding ring, he thought, allowing his spirits, and interest, to climb again.
'Your room is on the first floor at the end of the corridor,' she said. 'Dinner is served in the restaurant from seven. If you require breakfast in your room, or an English newspaper, could you please order it here before ten thirty.'
He took the key from her with a smile of thanks.
She smiled back. 'It's good to have you with us again, Mr Towner.'
His smile faltered. 'I think you must have me confused with someone else. This is my first visit ... '
Before she could respond the hotel door opened and three young people walked in, talking and laughing loudly. One of them called something in German to the receptionist, who answered in the same tongue, a laugh in her voice. She came out from around the desk and started conversing with the threesome, two boys and a girl, Towner seemingly forgotten. He glared at the intruders angrily, then crossed to the lift and jabbed the call button with his index finger. He wasn't really sure why he felt so annoyed by the interruption. He'd wanted to point out the woman's mistake, but that in itself was not enough reason for the anger he felt seething inside him. Perhaps it was because the intruders were so young, and obviously in very high spirits. He'd met and married Caroline in his last year at college. She'd fallen ill a year after that. As the years passed and the constant demands of an invalid wife wore him down, he felt acutely that his best years were being stolen from him.
He still felt the pain of lost chances and missed opportunities, and it gnawed away at him, as perniciously debilitating as the disease that claimed his wife.
Once in his room he tipped the porter and laid full stretch on the bed, easing out the cramps in his joints and relaxing the muscles of his limbs, stiff and aching from the journey.
He was not a natural traveller, unlike his wife who, before they'd met, had trekked to India, toured Australia, backpacking, and visited most of the major capitals of Europe with her parents. That was what she found so frustrating and depressing about her illness. It wasn't the constant pain; she learned to live with that -- a pain-management course helped, as had the drugs. But being confined to the house, moreover, one room, she found intolerable.
He would try to brighten her moods by bringing her brochures from the local travel agents. At first she accused him of being insensitive and deliberately hurtful but, gradually, she sought solace in the glossy pages, craving more when she'd exhausted a particular batch.
Eventually the brochures were not enough, and he was forced to scour video shops for anything travel related, and bookshops for maps and tour-guides. For Caroline it had become a full-blown obsession. If she could not travel physically, at least she could do it mentally.
In the last year of her life, Austria became the focus of her obsession. Videos of Amadeus and the Sound of Music played constantly on the television screen in her room, books on Salzburg, Mozart, Austrian lakes and mountains were constantly thumbed and poured over.
In a way Towner saw his coming here, visiting the place she had such a regard for, a valediction to his wife and the life they'd endured together.
He shook away the memory and went across to the french-doors, threw them open and stepped out onto the balcony. He breathed in the chill Tyrolean air and took in the view. Towering above the houses and chalets was the magnificent sweep of the Kitzbühler Horn Mountain. A green and purple edifice, swathed in dense plantations of pine trees, its crown white with snow, shrouded in low lying cloud. Three quarters of the way up was a clearing, occupied by a modern, glass-fronted building. A restaurant, he guessed, or perhaps another hotel -- Kitzbühel seemed to be full of them.
Overhead a watery sun broke through the cloud and from the balcony of the building on the mountainside something caught the rays and sent them spinning like glass shards into his eyes. He flinched and shielded them with his hand and turned his attention to the cable-car station further along and higher up on the mountain.
The taut steel cables ran back to the town and, along their length, the gondola cars hung like multi-coloured pendants, some ascending, some on the downward trip. They looked fragile and vulnerable, as if at any moment a strong gust of wind might detach them from the cable and send them plummeting to the woodland floor below. He shivered at the thought, but knew he would have to experience the thrill and the fear of riding in one of those flimsy vehicles if he was to get up onto the mountain, and he certainly was not going to leave Austria without the experience of being on top of the world.
Perhaps tomorrow, he thought.
Before he went inside he looked back to the restaurant. Whatever was mirroring the sun had moved and there was no longer any need to protect his eyes. For some reason he got a mental picture of a telescope; one of those coin-operated ones that line the promenade of some coastal towns, to enable visitors to examine the bleak, grey nothingness of the sea. And he could imagine someone, standing on the balcony of the restaurant, dropping coins into the slot and surveying the town. It was something he would do himself when he went up there.
He was about to go inside when an idea blew into his mind and took root.
Someone was watching me; checking to see that I'd arrived.
The rational part of his brain dismissed the idea in an instant as preposterous, but the echo of the thought haunted him as he went inside and closed the french-doors behind him.
He lifted his suitcase onto the bed and was about to open it when a movement of the floor stopped him. Crawling across the carpet, close to the armchair in the corner of the room, was a beetle, unlike any he had seen before.
It was about half an inch in length with a shiny white carapace. He crouched down to take a closer look. Even its head and legs were white, as were the antennae waving the air in front of it. It looked as if it had come from some subterranean cavern to which sunlight was a stranger, and where the lack of it bleached everything of colour.
A feeling of intense revulsion swelled up inside him and he stood upright and crushed the beetle under his foot, twisting the sole of his shoe to ensure the creature was truly dead. He paused for a moment, glancing around at the bedside table where a box of tissues resided. He would need something to clear up the mess.
Not looking down at the carnage under his foot, he plucked a tissue from the box and went back to remove the squashed carcass.
Only there was nothing there; only a small damp stain on the burgundy carpet. He rubbed at the stain with his finger, stared at his fingertip, and sniffed it. Not blood; more like water. Yet he'd not imagined the beetle.
He checked the sole of his shoe. Like the carpet, the leather was damp, but there was no sign of shell fragments or any other disgusting matter.
He looked uneasily about the room, thinking the insect might have escaped but there was no sign of movement, no pale shapes scuttling away into the shadows.
After a moment he shrugged and returned to the job of unpacking his suitcase and hanging his clothes in the wardrobe. Every so often he would stop and turn sharply hoping to catch the creature in the act of escape, but there was never anything there.
After a shower he dressed in a casual shirt and jacket and prepared to go down to dinner. The creases in his slacks were knife-sharp thanks to twenty minutes in the trouser press in the corner and, as he surveyed himself in the wardrobe's mirror, he smiled. Despite the casual wear, he was immaculately turned out, from the polished slip-on shoes to the ruler-straight parting in his sandy hair. The effect pleased him and bolstered his self-confidence. Should he find himself in the position of meeting an unattached lady, then at least his appearance would not let him down.
He took the rear stairs to the dining room, a sweeping spiral, lavishly carpeted and guarded by a highly polished wooden rail. At the junction of each floor was a small landing containing at least one piece of antique furniture and an original watercolour depicting Tyrolean scenes. He found the effect bordering on cliché. He could only partly appreciate Caroline's love for the country -- it was, after all, scenically very beautiful, but her obsession with Austria and all thing Austrian left him slightly bewildered.
It was just another European country, albeit a very wealthy one, and he found the scenery in Switzerland just as, if not more breathtaking. And Italy certainly had more to offer in the way of culture. Austria, he decided, was just a second-rate Germany with better views. It gave the world Mozart, but then cursed it with the Von Trapps, the inspiration for Rogers and Hammerstein's awful musical.
A cliché then, he decided, as he walked into the dining room.
The headwaiter was at his side attentively, showing him to his table and laying a napkin delicately in his lap. He handed Towner the menu and asked in slightly accented English, 'May I get you something to drink?'
'A glass of wine, I think,' Towner answered. 'A hock, if you have it.'
'My pleasure,' the waiter said. 'And may I say what a pleasure it is, having you back with us again, Mr Towner.'
Towner started. 'Now look here ... ' But the waiter had departed and was heading with precision towards the kitchen. A short while later a waitress wearing Austrian national dress, brought a bottle of wine on a tray and poured a splash into his glass, waiting patiently for him to sample it.
He was never sure if he should sip the taster or sniff it. He liked wine but was no connoisseur, and sniffing would prove nothing, as he was not sure what he was meant to be smelling. He sipped it instead and it tasted fine. He nodded approval at the waitress. She smiled and filled his glass.
The headwaiter had re-assumed his position by the doorway and as a small group of dinner guests appeared, greeted them effusively.
' ... a pleasure having you back with us again ... ' Towner heard him say, this time to a tall blond man who seemed to be leading the group.
It dawned on Towner then that this was probably hotel policy, to make the guests feel appreciated and valued, and to show that the hotel staff were attentive -- knowing each guest by name, aware of their previous visits to the hotel. How could they, after all, given that thousands of people a year passed through the hotel, be expected to remember every name, every face. They were obviously briefed beforehand by the management. Only in Towner's case they'd plainly got it wrong, and confused him with another Towner, or perhaps even a Turner.
Satisfied with his rationalisation of the puzzle, he smiled broadly at the pretty, dark-haired waitress when she returned and took his order for dinner.
The meal was beautifully cooked; veal with fresh vegetables and potatoes, followed by a rich chocolate cake with tangerine sauce. He finished with three cups of strong black coffee and a selection of sweetmeats. Over the years he'd become almost comfortable eating alone, and found that if he immersed himself in the textures and aromas of the food, the solitude became a bonus and not a curse.
The only thing that marred the evening was the awareness that he was being watched throughout his meal.
The group of people that arrived in the room just after him had taken a table by the window, a few yards from him, and their conversation was loud and animated, punctuated by guffaws of laughter. Two women and three men; an odd group, he could not work out the pairings at first; not certain which of the men was unaccompanied, but gradually, as the meal progressed, it became evident that it was the tall blond man who was single, the one who had elicited the effusive response from the head waiter.
It was the tall blond man who seemed to be paying Towner an inordinate amount of attention. Towner was aware of the other man's eyes upon him during the course of the evening. Occasionally he would look up from his food and glance across at the group and, sure enough, the blond man would be staring at him. He would still be eating and conversing with his colleagues, but his gaze rarely left Towner.
Well, you'll know me when you see me again, thought Towner, and tried to ignore him as much as possible.
Later, lying in bed and thinking about the evening, Towner realised that he could not bring to mind the faces of the other four people sharing the table with the blond man, but his face was etched clearly on his consciousness.
Handsome Teutonic features; cold blue eyes, a square, jutting jaw, slim, slightly aquiline nose, ears that pressed close to the side of his head, and hair the colour of ripe corn.
Towner put his book down on the bed, took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes. The blond man's apparent interest bothered him slightly. What bothered him more was the fact that the man was vaguely familiar. He was sure he'd seen him before, but could not bring to mind in what circumstances. The man's face nudged his memory, but it was like trying to remember someone encountered only in a dream.
He put his glasses on the bedside table and was about to turn off the light when a movement by the french doors attracted his attention.
Another beetle was crawling sluggishly across the floor towards the bed. As with the other one, it was pure white, the shiny carapace glinting in the weak light of the reading lamp. He cursed and threw back the covers, swinging his legs from the bed. There was no way he could even think about sleep with that thing crawling about the room.
The bug was making slow progress across the floor, crawling lethargically, its movements slow and deliberate, but at the same time determined and inexorable. Towner stepped around it and went into the en-suite bathroom. He would not make the same mistake again by trying to crush it. He took a glass from the shelf above the sink and returned to the room. Crouching down beside the beetle he placed the glass over it, trapping it and stopping it in its tracks. He looked around for a piece of card, or something to slide under the glass in order to be able to lift the whole thing up and carry it out onto the balcony. Then another thought struck him. He'd paid a lot of money for this room and the hotel was graded with five stars. He shouldn't have to put up with vermin like this. He'd complain to the management tomorrow, and he'd take the beetle with him to show them the evidence.
With that thought nestled satisfactorily in his mind, he left the glass-enclosed beetle exactly where it was, climbed back into bed and switched off the light.
He was asleep within minutes.
It was a long, torturous night, filled with disturbing dreams. Images of Caroline before her illness, fit and well. Caroline turning the corner of the street, Caroline on a boat in the middle of a lake, Caroline laughing and calling to him from an elevator, just as the doors were closing. The Caroline he'd fallen in love with, in situations where she was elusive and just out of reach.
Towards morning the dreams took a darker, more sinister turn, with himself walking the streets in an area that looked like London's Kings Cross, being approached by garishly dressed prostitutes; blonds, brunettes, redheads, make-up plastered on their pallid faces, all looking at him expectantly through the cold, dead eyes of his late wife.
In the dream that finally woke him he was climbing a long, desperately seedy staircase in an old, near-derelict building. The doorway at the top of the stairs opened and the sounds of a party in progress drifted down to him. He climbed wearily and as he reached the top and looked inside the room he could see a party in full swing. Noise pumped from a huge stereo system in the corner. The guests were all recognisable as friends and work colleagues, drinking and talking amongst themselves. In the centre of the room was Caroline, dancing a slow smooch with a shadowy figure. Towner stepped into the room to get a better view of her partner. Taunting, the figure turned towards him, but not sufficiently for Towner to see the face. It was as if there was no face at all, just a blank vista of shadows.
In the dream, Towner said, 'Caroline?'
The music stopped and the scene changed to one of a snow-covered, desolate wasteland. In the distance the two figures were still entwined, still engaged in their dance; Caroline and her anonymous partner dancing in silence on a carpet of snow. Snow that was shifting and undulating under their feet. Towner watched and suddenly became aware that it was not snow at all, but a lake of white polished carapaces. Millions of white beetles that crawled and scurried, all turning their waving antennae towards him and crawling relentlessly to where he stood. And in the centre of the creeping lake of insects, Caroline danced with her mysterious partner, laughing -- laughing at her petrified husband.
'My world now, Raymond! My world!' she called in a thin girlish voice.
Towner cried out and awoke. Wasted night had drifted into weary morning.
He was sweating and trembling from head to toe. The last dream was so vivid he could still hear the echo of Caroline's voice. 'My world.' What could she have meant?
He threw the duvet back irritably and padded to the bathroom to relieve himself. The face that stared back at him from the bathroom mirror was haggard and drawn; dark rings circled his eyes and the stubble on his chin gave him the look of a vagrant. He poured some water into the sink and splashed some on his face.
He looked ten years older than his forty-three years. Life had take its toll on his features and left him battle-scarred. The skin beneath his chin was beginning to slacken and small broken veins in his cheeks gave him a slightly florid complexion. It was such a contrast from the night before when he had looked in the wardrobe mirror and a dapper, young looking, smartly dressed, middle-aged man had smiled back at him.
It was Caroline's fault, of course. Even in dreams, her presence had a depressing, debilitating effect on him. She had sucked the life from him like a leech for all the long, interminable years of their marriage and, now that she was dead, the memory of her, lodged in his sub-conscious, continued to do damage.
With a long sigh of resignation he turned on the shower, set the controls to 'hot' and stepped under it, flinching as the spray soaked his body. As he rubbed shampoo into his hair he heard voices; a man and a woman, their voices raised in anger.
At first he thought the sounds were coming from the suite next door, but as he washed the lather from his hair it became apparent the voices were drifting in to the bathroom from his own hotel room. And the voices themselves were horribly familiar.
The woman's voice was Caroline's. With the rush of the shower-spray he could not distinguish all the words clearly but the tone and tempo were unmistakably hers. The man's voice was not quite so familiar, but to Towner it sounded like someone doing a poor impersonation of his own voice.
He groped for the tap and turned off the shower. The voices ceased instantly. He grabbed his towel and rubbed his eyes, blinking furiously to clear them, then wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped from the shower-stall. Steam still rose from his body as he walked out into the bedroom.
The room was empty. His reading glasses were on the bedside table where he'd left them the night before; the duvet was in a pile at the foot of the bed where he'd thrown it. Everything in the room was perfectly normal and unchanged. Except for the glass on the floor -- the glass he had placed over the beetle the night before. Now it lay on its side on the carpet. Of the beetle there was no sign. He swore. All thoughts of making a complaint to the management evaporating like the moisture from his skin.
So he'd imagined the raised voices. He told himself this, but even the voice in his head that told him this sounded unconvinced.
He dressed quickly and went down to breakfast. Fortunately the dining room was nearly empty and he took the same table as the night before. The waitress, a different one this time but just as pretty, brought him coffee and hot water in silver jugs, and poured his first cup, telling him he should help himself to whatever he wanted from the well-stocked buffet table, set against the far wall. Fresh rolls, she explained, were in the large basket at the end of the table.
He breakfasted on cold meats, cheese and the rolls, which were quite delicious, nicer than any he'd tasted in England. He had several, all spread thickly with unsalted butter and, by the end of the meal, a feeling of well-being displaced the depression he'd felt since waking, and the disturbed night was fading into memory.
The walk through the town to the cable-car station at the base of the mountain was exhilarating. His opinion of the night before of a clichéd Tyrol was disappearing fast. Kitzbühel was really quite a beautiful place to visit. The streets were clean and the buildings had a well-scrubbed, pristine look about them. Traditional Tyrolean styled house and hotels, laden with colourful window boxes containing red swathes of pelargoniums, all freshly watered, with not a dead head in sight. The Austrians took a pride in their surroundings that put Towner's homeland to shame.
The cable-car station was modern concrete and glass but the design was in keeping with the rest of the town, and did not look out of place. It nestled at the foot of the mountain, dwarfed by the towering edifice. Small gondola cars emerged from a large rectangular opening at the back of the building and began their shaky ascent, hauled up the mountain by the thick strands of twisted steel, and as each car departed on its upward journey, so another descending one arrived at the station.
At a small kiosk Towner bought a ticket from a matronly woman, again in national dress -- they certainly went in for such apparel, though whether it was their chosen way of dressing or simply to appeal to the tourists, Towner wasn't sure. The woman smiled at him as she handed him his ticket, a smile that was mirrored by the morning sun overhead.
He walked up a flight of steps and entered the somewhat gloomy interior of the station. The air was thick with the smells of grease and hot machinery, and the sounds of the huge engine that rotated the pulleys were almost painful to the ears. He walked up the final flight of stairs to the loading platform and was dismayed to see a good dozen people waiting their turn ahead of him.
What disturbed him more was the fact that the group immediately preceding him were the two couples from the dining room the night before, and their tall, blond companion; the man who had shown such an interest in him.
None of them acknowledged him as he joined the queue behind them, and Towner deliberately studied the thin guidebook he had purchased at the kiosk that described the mountain he was about to ascend. It was a way of avoiding eye contact with the group, and negating any possibility of conversation.
On the other side of the station the gondolas were arriving frequently, their passengers disembarking. Then the cars carried on, swinging around to Towner's side to pick up the people travelling up the mountain.
The queue thinned rapidly as the cable-car operator -- peaked cap perched precariously on the back of his head -- opened the doors and ushered people inside the cramped cars, slamming and locking the doors behind them. The group before Towner made their way forward as an empty car arrived and, as the operator opened the door, the two couples climbed aboard, making themselves comfortable on the hard wooden seats. They said something in German to the blond man, who they called Hans. He shrugged and stood aside as the operator shut the door to the gondola and pushed the small car back out onto the main cable.
The blond man turned to Towner, who'd looked up in consternation from his guide-book, and said in faultless but heavily accented English, 'The cars only take four. We'll share the next one, yes?'
No, thought Towner. 'I don't think ... ' he said hesitantly, but the operator already had the door of the next car open and was waiting for the men to get inside. The blond man took Towner by the arm and guided him into the gondola. 'I'd rather wait ... ' Towner said half-heartedly, and then looked at the faces of the people behind him in the queue, who were staring at him as if he was the most selfish person in the world. He slumped dejectedly into the seat and the blond man, Hans, climbed into the car and took the seat opposite him. The door was slammed, the lock clicked into place and the car swung out onto the main cable and began its ascent.
In the confined space of the gondola the silence between them was almost palpable, an unseen wall separating the two men. Both sat there quite still, staring out at the passing scenery as the stout cable pulled them ever upwards.
Towner shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Heights had never bothered him -- as a child he had been an enthusiastic tree-climber -- but he was extremely susceptible to bad atmospheres. All the years with Caroline had given him a kind of sixth sense about them, until it reached a stage where he could walk into her room and, though she was lying there with her eyes closed, saying nothing, he could still judge accurately that he was in a bad mood. It was as if her negative thoughts produced a dark shadow that hung over the room.
In the gondola there was a similar atmosphere, though whether it was emanating from the blond man or himself he wasn't sure. It was there, however, an unspoken agenda between them.
Eventually the blond man turned to look at him. Towner was aware of his gaze, even if he did not turn his own head to intercept it. It produced the same feeling in him as it had done the evening before in the dining room.
'A long way down,' the blond man said.
Towner stared down at the tops of the fir trees over which they were passing. 'Indeed,' he said.
'Sometimes the urge is very strong to just open the door and step out into space, yes? Do you ever feel that?'
'Actually, no, I don't.'
'Hans Niederman.' The blond man stuck out his hand. 'We're staying at the same hotel, yes?'
You know damned well we are, Towner thought, but said, 'Yes, yes we are.' He took the proffered hand and shook it. 'Towner, Raymond Towner.'
'Yes, I thought I saw you in the dining room last night.'
'Well you did manage to stare at me all the way through the meal.'
Niederman gave a small smile. 'Was I being that obvious? I apologise. It's just that I have the unmistakable feeling that our paths have crossed before. You know when you see a face you recognise, but just can't place it. Have you ever been to Austria before, or Germany? I lived in Berlin during my youth.'
'This is my first time to Austria, and all I have seen of Germany is what I saw from the plane as we flew over it.'
'And I have never visited Britain. Extraordinary. You must have a doppelganger, Herr Towner. A double, yes?'
Towner shrugged, and did not tell the other man that he'd experienced the same recognition himself. For reasons he could not quite explain to himself, he'd taken an intense dislike to Niederman, and the sooner this journey was over the better. He turned his attention back to the scenery.
There was a moment's silence then Niederman said, 'It's a beautiful country, don't you think?'
'Yes,' Towner said, not looking round. 'Yes it is.'
'It's not only my homeland, but also my spiritual home. Those years spent in Berlin were like torture to me, but my father's business took him there and my mother and I had no alternative but to accompany him. Those years were miserable.' Niederman changed tack suddenly. 'A photograph, that's where I have seen your face. In a photograph ... but where?'
Towner rounded on him. 'Forgive me if this seems rude, Herr Niederman, but I couldn't give a two penny damn if you think you know me or not. You don't, and I don't know you. I have never been to Austria before in my life, and I have never stayed at the Alpenblum hotel, despite the staff's misconception that I have. This is my holiday. I came abroad to get away from people's bloody morbid sympathy after the death of my wife. I am not seeking companionship, nor am I looking to discover imaginary relationships that total strangers think they may have had with me in the past. Do I make myself perfectly clear?'
Niederman shrugged and smiled slightly. 'You do, Herr Towner. You make your point very eloquently. Forgive me for my intrusion into your grief. I apologise.'
Towner nodded, and looked away, up at the mountain. The cable car was reaching the top and, thankfully the journey was nearly over. He was shaking slightly. He hated confrontation and it was totally out of character for him to speak out like that, but the disturbed night and dreams of Caroline had left him feeling slightly ragged. He had noticed in the past that dreaming about his late wife, even when she was alive, put him a bad mood for the rest of the day. There was nothing he could do about it and usually the mood only lasted until bedtime. After a good night's sleep he was usually his old self again.
Niederman was unfortunate in that he'd been in the wrong place on the wrong day, and Towner was beginning to feel guilty.
'I'm sorry,' he said, ' ... for my outburst. It was unforgivable and very rude. I'm a little out of sorts today.'
Niederman smiled solicitously. 'I do understand. I am in love with a very wonderful woman. If anything ever happened to her, well, I think my life would end too.'
That's not what I meant, thought Towner, but let it pass.
'It's why I returned to Austria from Berlin. I was still living there and I came here on holiday, must be ten years ago now. We met, fell in love ... '
'No, I'm sorry to say. She was married to someone else, you see. Oh, I know what you're thinking -- what kind of man is it that steals another man's wife? But it really was not like that. Her husband was a very cruel man, who kept her a virtual prisoner at home. He was a tyrant, but he allowed her one holiday a year, accompanied by him, of course. One day he was feeling ill and did not want to leave the hotel room, so she slipped out to explore the town. We met quite by chance on this very cable car and it all began from there.' Niederman laughed at the memory. 'Do you know what the first words she said to me were? She said, "Sometimes the urge is very strong to just open the door and step out into space. Do you ever feel that?" Those were her first words to me. Desperately sad don't you think?'
'So you're still not together?'
'Ah, but we will be soon. Her husband died recently. She is coming over to join me here. We will be together at last.'
'I'm very pleased for you.'
'It's very strange,' Niederman said. 'Two deaths, one so very tragic and the other so liberating.'
Towner nodded, but before he could respond the gondola jerked and bucked as it arrived at the station. 'Looks like we're here,' he said.
Niederman extended his hand again. 'It's been a pleasure to meet you, Mr Towner. Perhaps at dinner tonight you will join us?'
'Thank you, but ... '
'I understand. You prefer your own company.'
Towner smiled. Very much so, he thought, very much so.
The gondola stopped. The operator, a much older man than the one at the base station, opened the door and Niederman stepped out, Towner following close behind. They walked down the steps to the exit in silence. Niederman's friends were waiting for him, clustered around the doorway, their jackets done up to their throats to keep out the swirling fog that was eddying around the exit. With a nod of semi-recognition Towner passed them and walked outside onto the mountain.
His first reaction was one of disappointment, as the fog was thick, reducing visibility to a few yards. Then, as he started to walk through it, he realised that it was not fog at all, but low-lying cloud shrouding the top of the mountain in a grey cloak, and a sense of wonder enveloped him. I'm walking in the clouds, he thought, and smiled to himself.
From the ground the snow on top of the mountain looked like a solid white cap. In reality it was patchy, grass and rocks breaking through the dull grey ice. He took the path leading down to the restaurant, realising that if he climbed higher the cloud would be more dense, giving him even less to look at, and he would feel cheated if he'd come all this way up and then could not enjoy the view across Kitzbühel and beyond.
He paused for a second and turned to look back at the cable-car station. Niederman and his friends could just be seen disappearing into the mist, heading in the opposite direction to Towner; the station itself was nothing more than a grey rectangular shape, blurred and distorted at the edges.
The fact that the others were not going the same way as him pleased him enormously. Solitude was something he valued above almost anything else. After years of always having to be at another's beck and call, to suddenly be alone and responsible solely for oneself was a wonderful feeling. Niederman had summed it up nicely. Death could be so very liberating.
He wondered what to make of Hans Niederman. A rather intense individual -- one who did not mind telling a complete stranger his life story. There were people like that, as barmen across the globe would attest, but Towner wondered why he had been chosen to be the recipient of Niederman's account of his love life.
The feeling that there was some kind of agenda between them increased as he walked in the near-silence of the mountain. He felt as if he'd been sought out deliberately, as if the two of them sharing the cable car alone had been some carefully planned out exercise -- although commonsense told him that could not be. Nevertheless, as he walked, he began to feel uneasy about the encounter, and he struggled to control his rising paranoia.
The path ahead of him was clear. To his right was a field, to his left a thin grass verge, beyond which was a sheer drop. There was a railing of sorts made from thin wire, but nothing substantial. There was a sound to his right and with a gasp he turned to see something looming out of the fog towards him, something large and threatening -- a grey shape more solid than the grey mist that surrounded it.
He backed away from the approaching shape, and took a step closer to the edge.
There was a gust of wind and the mist swirled and parted to reveal the brown, bovine head of a cow, staring at him from the other side of a fence. As the cloud lifted more he could see that there was a small herd of them in the field, and as they grazed he heard the dull clanging of their brass bells, carried on a wind that was doing its best to disperse the cloud.
He remembered reading in the guidebook that cows were kept up here, and remembered thinking how preposterous the idea was, but the evidence was there for him to see. The cow stood at the fence and watched him incuriously as he passed, gazing at him dolefully through large brown eyes. He reached out to stroke it but it shied away, turning and trotting back to the herd. Towner shrugged and carried on, keeping close to the right side of the path, well away from the drop.
'Sometimes the urge is very strong to step out into space.' Niederman's words flashed through his mind as he continued along the path. He'd denied it at the time, but the truth was he had contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. During the bleak times with Caroline the urge to take a one-way journey away from his misery was very strong. He had considered the many ways it was possible to kill oneself, discounting the more painful and bizarre ways very early on. Eventually he had settled on a hosepipe connected to the exhaust of his car, or pills washed down with alcohol. Painless methods, or so he'd read. The question that always came back to nag him was, how did they know it was painless?
The thought of sitting in a car choking on noxious fumes seemed terrifying, and he could easily imagine himself writhing on a bed with severe cramping pains in his stomach as the pills slowly poisoned him. And even when despair got the better of him and his misery seemed complete, those were the images that always made him pull back from the brink. Essentially, he thought, I'm a coward, quick to see myself making the 'grand gesture', but lacking the guts to go through with it.
It was those thoughts, and the solace he sought in other ways, that enabled him to outlive his wife. How glad he was now. He was still a relatively young man, with many years of life ahead of him. In some ways he felt he was only now embarking of the adventure known as 'life'.
As he walked on he began to pant slightly: the air was much thinner up here on the mountain. Gradually the cloud thinned and he began to get glimpses of the view across the town, and for the first time he got a complete impression of how high up he actually was. Looking down at Kitzbühel was like looking at a child's toy, albeit a very elaborate one. A town comprising of miniature houses and matchbox cars.
He rounded a bend and came to a plateau on the mountainside. Here was the restaurant he had seen from his hotel room's balcony -- much larger than he'd imagined it. There was also a road leading from it, snaking down the side of the mountain. There were no cars, just two cyclists, legs straining, their faces red with effort, pedalling slowly up the road towards the restaurant. Rather them than me, Towner thought.
The restaurant was brightly lit and modern in design. Marble-topped tables surrounded by leather and chrome chairs; a long stainless steel counter containing appetising plates of salad and delicious looking cakes. He ordered a hot chocolate, mit sahne, with cream, paid the cashier then took the meal on a tray outside to the tables and chairs on the large wooden-railed veranda.
It was not particularly warm, but he was dressed for the outdoors and the slight breeze that was blowing cooled him after his fairly strenuous walk. He sipped his chocolate and took a forkful of strudel into his mouth, delighting at the light texture of the pastry and the delicate flavours of the apples, sultanas and cinnamon that complimented each other perfectly. He gazed across the landscape and the feeling of excitement about his life to come, blossomed into one of euphoria. 'This is the life,' he said quietly to himself. 'This is the life, Raymond Towner; you are one lucky ... ' His attention was caught by the telescope that stood on a sturdy metal frame at the far end of the veranda, and he remembered the sun-flash he'd seen from the balcony of his room.
He finished his strudel, drained the thick chocolate dregs from his cup and walked over to it, feeling in his pocket for some change. He found an Austrian schilling and dropped it into the slot. The shutter opened with a metallic click and he looked through.
The magnification was quite strong. He focused on the main street; swung round to take a look at the lake, known to locals as the Schwarsee, then back to the town. In Kitzbühel he watched the locals and the tourists going about their business; groups clustered around tables outside the Konditorei; visitors taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, talking animatedly to each other and pointing at the local beauty spots. Out of curiosity he moved the telescope to the left until he found the Alpenblum, his hotel then, once he'd worked out the geography, found his room.
The first thing he noticed was that the french doors were open; yet he was sure they'd been closed when he left the room earlier that morning. Perhaps the maid was cleaning the room. He focussed on the french doors, looked past them. In the shadowed interior he could see a table and chair, certainly not where he had left them. There was a bottle on the table. He guessed from the square shape it was a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. Spread across the table were clusters of the shiny white beetles that had plagued his visit so far. He squinted through the telescope's lens, trying to get a clearer view. Squinting helped a little. Beside the Johnny Walker bottle was a glass and another, smaller bottle -- brown glass, white capped. And the small white objects on the table were not beetles at all, but clusters of pills; hard white capsules about half an inch long -- containing what?
A pair of legs came into view just beyond the table and he raised the telescope to see who had entered the room. The telescope's shutter closed with a metallic finality as the money ran out.
'Damn!' he said aloud, and then looked around to see if anyone had heard him. The veranda was all but deserted. A young couple sat on the side furthest away from him, and they seemed only to have eyes for each other, oblivious to anything else that might be happening around them.
He scrabbled in his pocket for another coin and fed it into the slot, but the view he got from the telescope this time was quite different.
In the town of Kitzbühel it was snowing. Not only was it snowing but it had been snowing for some considerable time; days, perhaps weeks. The snow lay thick on the street, high drifts pushing up against the fronts of the shop-fronts. From the gutters of the snow-capped buildings, icicles hung like glass spears, some more than a yard long. On the streets the people thronged, some carrying skis, all of them wrapped up tightly against the blizzarding snow.
Towner recoiled from the telescope and stared down at the town. Above Kitzbühel the sky was a glorious blue and virtually cloudless. The roads were dry and clear. There was not a trace of snow.
Looking back through the telescope Towner experienced a feeling of foreboding, almost of fear. He was looking at the snow-scape again. He swung the telescope towards his hotel room and gasped as he saw Caroline standing on the balcony. She was dressed in a thick Fairisle sweater and her hair, grey when he had last seen her, now jet-black, was swept elegantly away from her face. As she turned her head to speak to someone in the room, he saw a silver clip secured her hair. He recognised it as one he had bought her for their first wedding anniversary,
He kept watching, like a man in a trance, as another figure emerged onto the balcony. With growing alarm Raymond Towner watched himself step out onto the balcony. He recognised the long-sleeved navy blue cardigan as one of his particular favourites. The hair was longer than it was now and there was the freshness of youth about his face, but it was definitely he.
He could see from the body language and the angry expressions on their faces that they were engaged in a furious argument.
When they were joined on the balcony by a third figure, Towner cried out; this time loud enough for the young couple to break from their courting and take notice. The young man called out to Towner.
'It's okay ... I'm fine,' he replied, for an instant glancing round. But that instant was time enough for the scene to change again.
Caroline and the third figure, the man he had recognised quite clearly as Hans Niederman, had gone, leaving a solitary figure slumped over the balcony rail. Himself, hung over the wooden rail like a sack, blood dripping from a gash on the side of his head, staining the snow on the ground below a deep crimson.
Large, fat snowflakes landed on the navy cardigan, looking for all the world like a procession of white beetles.
The shutter closed again and Towner staggered away from the telescope, flopping down in the nearest chair. His hands were shaking and his breath was coming in short gasps.
A glass of water was placed on the table beside him and he looked up to see the young man from the table opposite standing over him, a solicitous expression on his face.
The glass shook as he put it to his lips and sipped the water. 'Thank you,' he said.
The young man nodded and smiled and said something in German that Towner didn't understand.
'Do you have any change? Coins, I need coins,' Towner said.
The young man looked at him blankly. Towner got to his feet shakily and took the young man by the arm, dragging him over to the telescope. He pointed to the coin slot. 'Coins,' he repeated. 'Schillings?' He pulled a crumpled five-mark note out of his pocket and waved it under the young man's nose. 'Change?'
The young man nodded his understanding, and from a small pouch on the side of his waterproof jacket, produced a handful of coins. Towner scooped up half a dozen and replaced them with note, ignoring the young man's protest that he had given him too much.
He dropped another coin into the slot and peered once more through the telescope.
The young man shrugged and shook his head, turning to his partner who was gathering up their bags ready for departure. He pointed to his temple and jerked his thumb back in the direction of Towner.
The scene that presented itself to Towner this time was very different. The snow was gone and bright sunlight bathed the balcony of the hotel room. Caroline and Niederman stood there in light summer clothes, sipping red wine from large crystal glasses. Caroline looked very different. Her face was made up and her hair was cut into a chic crop -- Towner always hated short hair and insisted she keep it long, below her shoulders. They were laughing and entwined, with their arms around each other. They were looking up at the mountain, looking directly at him, and laughing. Laughing at him.
Confusion and fear gave way to anger and he pushed himself away from the telescope.
He ran back to the cable-car station, past the field of cows, not caring that one slip on the pebble-strewn path might send him plummeting over the edge. Within minutes he was engulfed in cloud again and he checked his speed, slowing to a trot. Eventually the station loomed up in the distance.
He ran up the stairs and onto the loading platform. There was a gondola waiting, but no sign of the operator. Towner opened the door and climbed inside. Behind him the door slammed and he turned and looked out of the small car's window to see Niederman locking the door. The blond man smiled at Towner. 'Bon Voyage, Herr Towner,' he said, put his walking boot against the side of the car and pushed it back onto the main cable.
The gondola lurched and swung out through the station door, and was still swinging as it made its descent. Towner felt sick, though whether from the swinging car or from the events of the past thirty minutes he could not be sure.
The descent was agonisingly slow. At one point the car stopped completely and hung in space, rocking backwards and forwards as the wind took it. Towner suspected sabotage, expecting that any moment the cable would snap, sending him hurtling down to the trees below. Then, with a sickening lurch the cable started to move again and the descent continued.
When the gondola reached the base station Towner climbed quickly out of the car and sprinted back through the town to the hotel. As he ran he drew curious looks from the people he passed, and, as he barged through a group of tourists taking photographs of a monument in the centre of the town square, there were a few angry shouts, and his jacket was grabbed from behind. He spun round to find himself face to face with an elderly man in a Tyrolean hat. The man said something to him. Towner watched the lips move but heard nothing. He wrenched his jacket away and continued to run.
The Alpenblum Hotel had a revolving glass door. Towner's entrance left it spinning. He ran to the lift, at the same time searching for his room key. Then he remembered he'd handed it in at reception before he left this morning. He ran back to the desk and rang the bell impatiently. A young man emerged from a room behind the desk and stared at him suspiciously. 'Ja?'
'Room 309,' Towner said breathlessly. 'The key? Room 309? Bitte.'
The young man looked unimpressed. 'Name ... please.'
'Towner. It's Towner ... Room 309.'
The receptionist turned to study the pigeonholes on the wall behind him. 'I think you are mistaken, Herr Towner. That room is currently occupied.' He opened the register and began to scan through the names.
'But you must have my key,' Towner said frantically. 'Room 309 ... '
The young man raised a hand to quieten him. 'I say again, room 309 is occupied, and unless your name is Niederman, then you have the wrong room.'
Niederman! That man again. He was taking over his life.
A door opened at the far end of the reception area and music spilled out, together with the sound of a party. Towner was instantly transported back into his dream. He wandered across tiled floor and approached the door. Inside the room was filled with people; people dancing, people drinking, people laughing.
'Excuse me, sir.' The young man came out from behind the desk and walked purposefully across to where Towner stood. 'You are not allowed in there. It is a private party.'
Through the crowd Towner saw what he knew he was going to see. In the centre of floor was Caroline, dancing. Her partner was Hans Niederman.
Towner made to move forward but the receptionist grabbed his arm. Towner spun round and pushed the young man in the chest, sending him tumbling backwards.
As he entered the room the crowd by the doorway parted and Towner approached the dancing couple. He reached out for Caroline's arm, half-expecting that his hand would pass straight through her and prove to him that she was nothing but a figment of his fevered imagination. But as his fingers closed around the soft flesh of her forearm he realised that she was indeed real, horribly real.
The music stopped and Caroline turned to face him.
She was as beautiful now as when they had first met, before the life-leeching disease robbed her of her looks and turned her hair prematurely grey. But her eyes were cold and hard and regarded him with unconcealed contempt.
'Caroline?' Towner said.
'Who did you expect?' Even her voice sounded younger.
'But you're ... '
'Don't say it, Raymond. Don't even think it.'
Towner was aware that the music had stopped and all the eyes in the room were turning to stare. Still holding on to her arm he propelled Caroline to the doorway, away from the prying eyes and ears.
As he let go of her arm he noticed the large diamond ring on her wedding finger. He made a grab for her hand but she evaded him.
'And that?' he said. 'What's the meaning of that?'
'Hans and I. We're to be married.'
'Married? But you're married to me.'
She looked at him steadily. 'Poor Raymond. You never did have much of an imagination, did you? This is my world, Raymond. My world. In this world I'm well, not racked with pain and sickness. In this world, I'm young again, I'm in love again.'
'Yes, with a fine man, Raymond. A man who won't betray me with every cheap whore who winks at him.'
The colour drained from Towner's face.
'You looked shocked, Raymond. Did you really think I didn't know? Didn't you think I could smell them on your clothes ... on you?'
'But you were ill ... you were dying ... '
'God, you're pathetic. Thankfully, Raymond, I no longer have to think about you, because as I said, this is my world now, and in my world you don't exist.'
With a cry he raised his hand and slapped Caroline across the cheek. Only there was no slap, no crack of flesh on flesh. Caroline was solid, substantial but Towner's hand was not, and passed straight through her smiling face.
He turned then and ran. Seeking the sanctuary of his room, of anything familiar. He ran up the horseshoe staircase, along the corridor and into his room. Only when he was inside did he realise he had not opened the door but simply passed straight through it.
In the centre of the room was a table containing a bottle of whisky and some pills. On the chair beside the table, a figure was slouched, but the figure was vague, shadowy, half-formed. Likewise on the balcony the figure in the navy blue cardigan slumped over the rail was just an outline, a sketch.
How many endings had she planned for him as she lay dying in her bed, Towner thought as he sank to the floor. He pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them with his arms. Suicide? Violent death at the hands of herself and Niederman? How many more scenarios had she created as she'd thumbed through the travel brochures and watched the endless stream of videos? In this world nothing was real. This was her world, a world she'd created in her imagination, and Towner had been sucked into it.
He looked to the bed. It was swarming with beetles. The white shells clicking and clacking as they clambered over each other. He shuddered with revulsion and turned his head away, and saw that the figure in the chair was gradually becoming more solid, more real. Whilst he ... He looked down at his body, nothing more now than a misty, grey shape -- he could see the chequered pattern of the carpet through the vague outline of his legs. Whilst he ... was nothing. As insubstantial as the snow beetles that fell from the bed and melted on the carpet around it.
© LH Maynard and MPN Sims 2002, 2003. This novelette appears in the collection Incantations, published by Prime Books (2002).
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