My first trip back to Austria

I was 23 when I first returned to Europe, to search of the girl I had left behind. The girl that I remembered was more like a character from a storybook than a younger version of myself. That trip, half way across the world in a Boeing 747, so many years before, had marked a complete break with the old world. I was never to write to anyone, never to speak German, never to mention Austria. As my father never did learn English, we continued to speak Hungarian at home. I desperately wanted to fit in.  At the time, bilingualism was a social stigma in Australia and, armed with that knowledge, I decided that trilingualism must make me even more of a target. I pretended not to understand or speak a word of German. 

When I returned to Vienna with my then husband and mother-in-law, I found that I had not forgotten my German at all. In fact, I could get by quite well. I had no addresses of school mates, I only knew where we had lived. I simply drew on my memory and found my way back. 

We took the commuter train from Wien Westbahnhof to Pressbaum in Lower Austria. This was the same train line my father had travelled twelve years earlier on his way home from work. It took just over half an hour from Vienna to Pressbaum, the little township nestled in the Vienna woods. In my memory we had lived a long way from the city. 

Once there, I followed my nose. I climbed up the steps from the railway station to where the small kiosk stood, midway between the station and the walking path through a forest. It was shut. As I looked about, I remembered it as a little oasis between home and school. This is where I had bought Twini ice-blocks in summer, holding the siamese twin pop-sticks until I could pull them apart so I had the illusion of two treats when I had paid for only one. 

I had many happy memories of this small kiosk. My father had a tab there which he allowed me to freely use.  On pay day, he settled his account after a couple of glasses of beer with weathered old locals whose dialects were unintelligible. I wondered where these old men would meet now. They had always had a Stammtisch  –  a regular table, and sat there from morning to night – or so it seemed to me. These locals must have felt as displaced as I did now, looking at the forlorn, boarded up wooden structure. 

We turned left at the top of the path, walked through a small patch of forest and sought out the house where I had lived. The gate was shut and no-one stirred behind the curtains. I looked up to the second floor and thought of the kindly old woman who had once lived there and supplemented her pension by selling moonshine to her loyal supporters. 

I have some photos taken in the last couple of months before our departure from Austria. Black and white, they show me holding the handlebars of an ancient bicycle in front of the gate at number 40 Bahnhofstrasse. Although I know that the child looking at the camera is me, she is a time traveller from a bygone era. I said goodbye to that girl in the photo and crossed the railway line. 

Next stop was the old station masters’ cottage. The tiny two storey house stood frozen in time. Before I could ring the bell, an old dog came tottering up the path. It was Rigo. A very old dog now, his tail still had the piglet curl. I was sure he wouldn’t recognise me but my heart skipped a beat when I saw him. My handsome and faithful dog who had accompanied me in my adventures through the surrounding woods was still alive! 

Then, an ancient, crooked woman approached the gate. 

“Frau Deim?” I ventured. 

Her eyes searched my face and crinkled into a smile. “You’ve come back!” 

She unlocked the gate and my first reaction was to reach out for Rigo. He was happy to see visitors and who knows, maybe he did know who I was. After giving the dog a long pat out in the cold, we were invited in. Frau Deim apologised over and over for the state of her house. I was simply happy to see her.

In the past I never understood my mother’s desire to leave Europe behind. For years I was homesick for this place yet I could never tell anyone. Europe was a door slammed shut. My job was to face forward, embrace the New World and not look over my shoulder lest I turn to a pillar of salt. But for years I furtively glanced back, when no-one was watching. Now I came face to face with what we had left behind.

Frau Deim was the widow of a railway worker whose body was found strewn across the tracks one icy January. She kept to herself, worked hard and bought up her only son as a single mother, well before the term was coined. The only assistance she received was her right to live in the signal master’s cottage until death tracked her down. 

In 1983 she was an elderly woman with few means and plenty of problems. She had no running water and was reliant on a hand pump in her garden. Then, one day she noticed a foul odour emanating from the well. She asked the Austrian railways to investigate. The water was deemed to be undrinkable. From that day, she had to boil her water for ten minutes before it could be used.

Entering the house was like entering a sauna. Water droplets formed brown constellations on the ceiling, gliding down the walls and fogging her windows. It was hard to breathe. Mould invaded every crevice and advanced with military precision. Frau Deim looked about apologetically. Her bedroom opened onto the kitchen and had suffered the same fate. Her clothes hung limp over doors, on nails and draped forlorn over her bed. The wardrobe doors were swollen and warped. 

As I witnessed the pitiful fate this woman had to endure, I saw my parents’ choice to leave with adult eyes. Leaving Europe was like buying a lottery ticket. The outcome was uncertain but it had offered them a last chance of starting anew.

Memories of love

My father in the early 1940’s – he would have been 99 on Feb 4, 2022

My father was a good-looking, debonair man. He flirted with ease and knew how to flatter women. He liked telling stories of his youth’s exploits. For him, women represented a source of fascination, conquest, and pleasure. The exception was Agnes, his first wife.

Throughout my childhood, a slightly tattered, black and white photograph of Agnes leant on a mirror in my father’s heavily draped room. She was a slender woman with shoulder length wavy hair who was destined to have her smile set for posterity. The photo was taken in Budapest, sometime in the late 1940’s.

I would look at this picture for hours and wished she had been my mother. Instead, Agnes died of TB. Penicillin could have saved her, if only the drug had been available in post-war Hungary. In the picture she is in her early twenties, full of life and pregnant with her first child.

Agnes was the only woman who had rejected my father’s advances. I don’t think she was playing hard to get, she just wasn’t interested in his games. They fell in love, married, and started their life together in a city that lay in ruins. In their short life together, she doted on him. Whatever wish passed his lips, she would try to fulfil. My father recounted a story of craving doughnuts in the middle of the night. Agnes got out of bed to make yeast dough so he could have his favourite jam-filled, fried doughnuts for breakfast. I wished I could have had a mother like her. And he did too.

She fell pregnant and they were looking forward to starting a family. Agnes loved the feel of the child growing within her but developed a persistent, blood speckled cough. Doctors confirmed the worst but only to my father. He set about trying to get penicillin from the West. Relatives who had emigrated were begged to help. None did. The cough persisted and she grew weaker. It became clear that she would not see out the pregnancy. The doctors enlisted my father to persuade Agnes to abort the child they both longed for. I don’t think my father ever forgave himself for that treachery. Agnes couldn’t understand why he was so adamant but yielded to his wish. This may have extended her life by a few short weeks.

My father described his anguish when she died. He walked out of the hospital and straight into oncoming traffic. He didn’t notice the screeching cars or people yelling at him. It is hard to know how he went on with his life. He had lost his son and his wife within a few short weeks of each other. No-one would ever be able to fill that emptiness. Only drinking somewhat numbed his pain.

My father died a long time ago and Agnes is suspended in an eternal autumn day. She is a hand-me-down memory, a two-dimensional figure etched on brittle, glossy paper. Yet I think of her more than I do of my father. Or maybe I think of my father as I struggle to be the woman he wanted me to become. Agnes is the looking glass, the flawless woman, the perfect mother, the ideal lover, the unattainable Madonna. The mother I never had. The mother I still strive to be.

Four-leaf clovers

I found my first four leaf clover in a meadow as a nine-year-old child. It felt like a miracle. I picked the clover and put it in my pocket only to find it had shrivelled by the time I arrived home. The disappointment loomed larger than the original miracle. Still, if I could do it once, I knew I could do it again. I became obsessed with finding another one.

I learned that fragile leaves had to be pressed between paper, the quicker, the better. A book would work as would a bus ticket or even a lolly wrapper. At that time, I hadn’t yet acquired my habit of carrying a book everywhere I go, so relied on folded scraps of paper in my pockets.

I began to make a pact with fate – if I were to find a four-leaf clover, it would mean I wouldn’t get into trouble at home; I’d be allowed to go to the cinema on the weekend or the boy I liked would finally speak to me. However, finding the second four-leaf clover, eluded me for a quite a while but I wasn’t deterred. I spent many summer hours in fields looking at clover patches and at first all I saw was a sea of green. Slowly, patterns emerged and then, aberrations in the pattern. Not all of these resulted in finding four-leaf clovers, but I began to find them with increasing regularity.

My obsession hasn’t abated. In fact, my eyes have become so accustomed to spotting slight differences in clover patches that I often notice one as I walk past. It is my special superpower. Not very useful I must admit but I am often met with amazement when I bend down to pick one. Mostly I have an old receipt in my pocket so I can immediately press it, or at worst, I push it down onto my phone screen with my thumb, which works well enough until I get home.

My friends often receive a four-leaf clover in a card wishing them a happy New Year. I note this hasn’t stopped any of the calamities that have befallen us in the past few years. Still, it makes people happy, if only for a few short moments. It is a tangible symbol of my best wishes for their coming year.

As age creeps up and I keep pursuing my childish endeavours, my mind turns to pithy epitaphs I may consider. This one has held its attraction for a while now:

Finder of four-leaf clovers, maker of her own luck.

The ink blotter

As a young child I loved my pen but hated my handwriting. My letters were neither neat nor tidy; they danced a wild tarantella across the pages of my exercise book. I had learnt to write with an old ebonite fountain pen that belonged to my mother. The pen had an elegant green and black pattern and made me feel quite grown up. But fountain pens are faithful creatures, and they won’t accommodate another person’s hand. The nib of a pen is bent toward the shape of a writer’s hand.

Try as I might, my letters were either scratchy or overflowing. Many a night I sat crying over words that spilled on the page or smudged as I closed my exercise book. Yet I loved the smell of the blue-black Pelikan ink that ebbed and flowed from the bottle on my desk. My fingers were constantly spattered with ink which left adults frowning.

Later, when my letters had been beaten into shape, I enjoyed writing letters to a friend left behind at another school or to my grandmother who lived in a country we would never visit. And then, there was the old woman who lived in a villa on the way to school, who reminded me of grandma. She had fine lines around her twinkling eyes which appeared when she smiled. When she invited me in, I was ushered into a large room with floor to ceiling bookcases and a stately oak desk upon which I spotted an ink blotter. At first, I had no idea what this contraption could be. Her ancient husband sat at the desk composing letters and when he finished a page, he reached for the blotter and in a see-saw motion, he dried the ink.

I found this simple device endlessly fascinating. I could watch for an eternity, waiting for him to finish a page and reach for the wooden artifact with a piece of blotting paper covering its convex base. There was something alluring in the simplicity of its design. I inched closer to watch him write. He used a carbon copy book for his correspondence, a habit I later adopted myself.

‘May I dry the page for you?’ I finally had the courage to ask. He lifted me onto his lap and guided my hand over the ink blotter. I felt entrusted with an important task as my hand rocked back and forth drying the ink. He then folded the letter, slipped it into an envelope, and I licked the gum to seal it.

I adored this old couple in the villa with its overgrown garden. I visited often and we talked about the books I had read and poems I liked to write. Entering their library, I was transported to a magical world of books and writing. The old ink blotter remains a tangible expression of that magic.

%d bloggers like this: