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Memories fade. Or coalesce into a montage of colours and visual snapshots. A week in New York, many years ago, returns now as neon: a huge bed in a hotel room, the perfect symmetry of a young man’s body in the shower, his soap smelling of citrus. Later that night, or the next night, or maybe another visit entirely: Chinese food and a bar that stayed open late and the rooftop apartment of a couple just met. Names, dates, the activities of the days? Smudgy charcoal impressions. Or gone altogether.
I have many memories that are fragmented. And one that is not. This memory has the clarity of colour and intensity of a lucid dream. It is a shimmery, glimmering Klimt of a memory. It changed the direction of my life.
I saw, from a dormer window in an attic room in Vienna, two nuns, in love, in a garden.
I was twenty-one years old and had left the UK for a kind of gap year, but an unstructured one, before the need to hunker down and career-build and follow the rail tracks into career, marriage, children, death. I needed to make a decision about a romance with a young doctor that had developed too quickly, a relationship that was as smooth and dull as the desserts he insisted we share – one vanilla mousse, two spoons – after our increasingly frequent dates.
I wanted, like all young people, experience. I chose Vienna as a starting point; friends had told me it had music and art and was beautiful. I would stay six months.
My first job, as au pair to child psychologists, was a disaster. Ironically indifferent to their own children, the mother was a bully with a voice like an axe on wood, the father barely a shadow. The children, not surprisingly, were sullen and difficult. After two weeks, I ran away just before dawn, to a cabin in the woods near Sievering and spent one shaking night alone, the door barred by a wooden table and a chair. I sautéed potatoes for breakfast, cooked them in butter and paprika. A dish that, even today, leaves me weak with nostalgia.
I visited the British Council the next morning. I had heard of the notice board that listed au pair vacancies and there, among the offers of used cars, furniture, puppies and kittens, I found a card in a neat script from a British woman who needed someone to help with childcare and light household duties. The woman - I’ll call her Claire – was the daughter of English diplomats, her husband a French artist. They had one child, a four year old girl. I would work mornings, have the afternoon free to study or explore, and would need to babysit some evenings. I would receive full board.
The address was central, just minutes away from the baroque Karlskirche with its easily visible dome. Outside the building that held their apartment, I stared, disappointed, before I double-checked the address. The place looked unimpressive: grey stone, tall and plain. The lift, a clanking open cage, smelled damp as if it had once been marooned underwater, though the brass rail along the far wall had a gleaming polished glow. Inside, however, the apartment was huge and light, with tall windows and high ceilings and a dark wooden floor with faded Chinese rugs. Claire, a fair, elegant woman with a soft voice, met me at the door. I was introduced to a smiling child with round cheeks and words in three languages, and then I was taken to the room that would be mine: an attic room with a view of a garden.
Claire pointed out the dormer window with the stone window seat, stressing the pretty view.
“Beautiful garden,” Claire told me. “But not open to the public. It belongs to the convent. She looked around, biting at her lip. “I know the room is small. It looks a bit bare.” And then – “Wait,” she said. “I’ll bring you flowers.”
She carried a vase of flowers from the dining table and placed it on my bedside table.
I can see now, in perfect detail, the tulips in Claire’s vase: the dark ones, a rich ecclesiastical purple, a little decadent, a little corrupt. The white ones, more delicate, bowing their neat, supplicating heads. The light from the window threw shadows on the table.
“It’s perfect,” I said to Claire. She smiled.
While Claire was pale and serene, a gracious Englishwoman, her husband Michel was short, stocky as a fire hydrant, with skin smooth and burnished like a chestnut. He was bearded and loud and I loved him because he was rude to the guests Claire insisted on inviting who treated me like the servant I pretended I wasn’t and handed me their coats.
“Cherie, who are these people,” he stormed one evening, marching out of the dining room where six diplomatic types and their wives waited, sipping cocktails and hungry because dinner had been so long delayed. Claire could easily cajole him, fortunately, and an hour later, I heard laughter from the dining room and music. After wine, he was a good host.
It was just after Easter. Claire gave me a brochure showing concerts all over the city and a map with the galleries marked with a star.
“Visit the Belvedere,” Michel told me. “And the Kunst, of course. The Moderner. The small galleries, also. You will find treasures.”
Claire gave me, too, an armful of chocolate eggs, the overspill of the Easter gifts given to the child. The beautifully wrapped eggs were dark chocolate, decorated with sweet icing roses that melted on the tongue.
Mornings were busy: breakfast, the child to the park, lunch to be prepared with sandwiches and soup. I had a break in the afternoon for art gallery visits, walks, sometimes a concert, and then back to prepare tea for the child and myself. Afterwards I could escape to my little room and the books waiting to be read.
I discovered a world of literature I’d never explored. I had come prepared with Kafka and Rilke but Michel pressed Margurite Duras novels into my hands and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. After Durrell, I wanted to read Cavafy and Seferis. Vienna, then, had numerous bookstores that sold used books in all languages. Michel approved of this reading.
“That thin English blood,” he said. “We must warm it up.”
Halfway through Balthazar, I began to understand what he meant.
The city was a feast of new experiences. The first time I saw the Klimts at the Belvedere I stood back astounded, hardly able to breathe. Such colour! I heard Schoenberg for the first time and Wagner at the opera and I drank too much new wine in a Heurige and was kissed in an alley by a slender boy with an unshaven face.
In the late afternoons, I took my book, and a segment of the dark chocolate, to my perch in the attic room. The foot-wide window ledge was perfect for reading and, with the window slightly open, even on cool days, I could look down into the garden of the convent. A herb garden was tended by one of the nuns; it had roses around the periphery and an old stone bench.
The first time I saw a young nun with a smooth apricot face and downcast eyes heading towards the herb garden, I moved back automatically until I realized I was invisible to her. The apartment was angled so that my window could not be seen from ground level. The nun’s head covering hid her hair, but I imagined she was brunette; her skin colouring was a golden brown, her eyebrows dark and well defined. She carried a small basket with gardening tools, and knelt down immediately in the dirt in the garden. I saw that she lifted her skirts to kneel and that below them she wore thick padded kneelers, green and worn, strapped onto the pale skin of her legs. She dug the ground with energy, patted, raked, leant back on her heels to inspect her work. After a while she took off her gardening gloves and sat on the bench, lifting her face to a weak sun. On the third day, another nun, perhaps a little older but not by much, joined her on the bench. I guessed that she had blonde hair, her skin was pale, her brows fair. I caught a glimpse of blue eyes as she turned to look around, glance up at the sky as if checking for rain. I saw, I felt, the younger one tense. She turned. They looked at each other. And paused, as if frozen. They stared into each other’s faces with a still intensity I had never before witnessed. They did not speak. I wasn’t sure if they were allowed or if they simply chose not to speak. They stayed like that for long minutes, barely moving, simply breathing, looking at each other. Then the older one stood, nodded, and left.
The next day, they were there again. This time, I sensed anticipation in the young one as she dug her little trowel with such vigour, such a lively rhythm, into the earth. Again, she took a break, sitting up on the bench. The older one approached, her eyes already on the face of the young, waiting woman. They sat, again perfectly still, and looked into each other’s eyes.
I wanted them to touch.
Five days later, they did. The fair one, I saw her swallow, knew she was nervous, she moved, took the hand of the other, their eyes holding. I imagined the touch as electric but they did not flinch or startle but instead became very still. A warm current through their veins, connected. I thought of a force field, pulling them together.
They held hands for a long time, then the young woman stood, returned to the herb garden, digging with her small trowel, while the older one watched.
The next afternoon they held hands immediately, absorbed in each other. The hands stroked, the younger one tilted her head backwards and closed her eyes. A cat, pleasured. I wanted them to kiss. I wanted so much for them to kiss and at last, one day, a dark day, the sky heavy with cloud, the rain began, and they stood together as huge raindrops began to fall and then, a few seconds of indecision before they leaned towards each other and their lips met. Only moments later, startled, they moved apart, eyes wide, turned to walk in opposite directions and were gone.
The next day the young nun was alone at her herb bed. The other did not visit. I could see from the young woman’s dejected shoulders, the way she dug into the dirt in a desultory way, looked up and round and remained leaning back on her heels, her disappointment and her pain.
Three days later, she, too, was gone and in a week the care of the herb garden was taken over by a stubby, heavy nun with spectacles. I never saw the two young ones again.
What did I see, there in the garden? I believed then, and I believe now, that it was love: pure and simple.
“You saw what you wanted to see,” my sister said, some time afterwards. “The older nun was likely just reassuring the younger. Maybe she was upset, maybe she’d had a bereavement. Maybe she had doubts.”
“They were looking into each other’s eyes.”
“You imagined it.”
I never discussed it with my sister again.
“You were stirred by the music, the art, the excitement of the city,” said the man I loved, years later. “You were feeling passionate. You wanted to see passion, and so you did.”
No. No. I believe I understood something as I watched from that window. The strength, the power, of a love and a passion that would have one closing her eyes against the force of it. I understood how powerful the touch of a hand could be, how life changing a kiss. And knew that I hadn’t found it yet, and wasn’t to find it for another five years, until a friend in Los Angeles took my hand and said – Come, I want you to meet …
I knew, that day in the attic, that the sweet formulaic romance with the nice doctor at home was not what I wanted at all. And so I did not return to the UK but moved on to Paris, to Barcelona and eventually to Athens before I returned to London.
And those travels triggered a wanderlust, a yearning, that kept me searching for something I had never experienced, could barely define, but had witnessed from an attic room in an old building in Vienna, while sweet icing and dark chocolate melted on my tongue.