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Lena, Me and The Artist

I wrote this short story, Lena, Me and The Artist many years ago. It was my very first attempt at historical fiction and I’ve kept it exactly as I wrote it back in the day when getting anything published was a dream impossible to visualise. I had no idea at that time where this journey with historical fiction would take me. I wrote this piece as a response to the theme in Mslexia magazine (which I still subscribe to – cannot recommend it enough) which was ‘GLOVES’. So here it is – what came from my imagination from that word. (By the way, yes, he was an artist. This will make sense once you have read the story.)

Comments more than welcome – the good, the bad and the ugly!

 

‘To dear Miss Katharina,’ the letter read, ‘I am much obliged to you for returning my glove to me. I am quite attached to that particular pair and I am, therefore, very grateful for your trouble. If you would care to call at the hotel one afternoon I would like to invite you for tea and thank you in person. I enjoyed meeting you on the train. Yours,’ and then his name in a great, bold flourish.

I never did go and meet him. I was having far too exciting a holiday to barely give him a second thought. But I kept the letter and now it sits hidden at the back of my closet like a dark, stained secret. Nobody knows he ever wrote to me; that is, apart from Lena. But the fact that he’d been less than charming to my friend offended me on her behalf. And so, he left my life as quickly as he’d entered it. Over the years, I’ve found myself playing out two contrasting scenarios in my mind. One is that over tea at his hotel we embark on a lifelong friendship which somehow changes him, broadens his mind. And in the other, I am luring him to the carriage door of the train, opening it and pushing him to a certain death in the gulley below.

The first time I went on a train without my parents was in the summer of my seventeenth year. It was stiflingly hot, that August of 1911, and after I spent many weeks pleading with them, my parents conceded and allowed me to travel with my friend Lena to her family’s summer house at Lake Wörthersee. My parents insisted they see us off at Vienna station, for they were concerned about us travelling alone and Lena’s family were already at the lake. As we wove our way through the crowds and the steam and the heavy cases being passed up to the carriages, I stared up at the excited people leaning from the windows, chattering to the people on the platform.

‘Katharina, here!’

Lena pointed up at our carriage and after my father had safely installed our bags in the compartment and my parents had hugged us goodbye, we collapsed into our seats. Three weeks! Three whole weeks of walks by the lake, bathing, long lunches, reading and drawing. Sketching was the latest thing amongst our circle of friends – we spent hours at the weekend at each others houses draped over an armchair or sitting before a flower in the garden in deep concentration. I must confess that it usually left me feeling frustrated. Lena was the undisputed talent amongst us: she would capture a scene or a person effortlessly whilst for the rest of us it was a great struggle before we could feel anything close to satisfaction.

When the train pulled out of the station, there were only three other people in our carriage. One was an elderly gentleman who fell asleep as soon as he sat down. His bottom jaw fell wide open and he began to snore loudly; great stilted snorts which made Lena and I giggle terribly. The other two were a middle aged couple who looked as though they had quarrelled, for they wasted no time in snapping open their papers and glaring at one another over the top of them in furious silence. A few minutes after we had left, a young man walked to the door of our carriage. He surveyed the scene before him for some time as though examining a painting in great detail then took two long, purposeful strides to the only spare seat. He carried just one small case with him and,

despite the heat, was wearing a heavy dark coat. As he placed his case on the overhead rail, I turned my head slightly towards Lena, who raised an eyebrow at me and grinned. The truth was that we rarely came into contact with young men and the prospect of having some male company (an elderly snorer and middle-aged feuding husband aside) on our two hour journey made our carriage seem…well, more interesting, certainly.

Having sat down, I noticed that the young man had removed his coat but not his gloves. His clothes were surprisingly shabby. I don’t know why this was a surprise exactly; perhaps because his face was rather distinguished. Lena and I busied ourselves in our books, but I could sense that she was trying as hard as I was to give the impression that we were deeply absorbed in our reading. Snatching glances at our travelling companion over the top of my book, I decided he was a difficult man to age. In one sense, he looked no older than Lena and I yet there was something about his look, rather than his face, which made him seem far older.

As though she had read my thoughts, Lena had brought a pencil from her bag and propped her book on the slant of her lap. In the margin, she slowly wrote 25? I suppressed a smile and with my finger traced a downwards line on the palm of my hand. She continued writing numbers until she reached 21 when, at that point, I nodded my head slightly. Lena grinned at me then took up her novel in earnest and was soon lost in its pages.

Lena. She was my closest, dearest friend in the world. We’d known each other since kindergarten and since that time, we had become virtually inseparable. We couldn’t have looked more different: I was slim and very fair with pale blue eyes. Lena on the other hand had black hair and thick, slanting eyebrows framing her dark, almond shaped eyes. I thought she was beautiful and I longed for her luxuriant black waves and the confidence of her stride. Lena, on the other hand, constantly scowled at her reflection until her eyebrows touched in the middle. ‘I wish I had your skin, Katharina’ she would say, staring with disgust at the colour of her darkening face during the summer months. ‘I wish I had yours’, I would respond truthfully as I stroked the golden brown of her arm.

Lena’s family were bohemian – I sometimes envied my friend her freedom; her bright, unusual clothes; her house filled with books and paintings and the interesting people that would often call on them. But spending time with her allowed me to feel as though I was the same. My parents were kind, honest people but they were conservative in both dress and manners, so it was like a dream come true for me when I was allowed to spend those three weeks at Wörthersee.

The elderly man in our compartment had started to murmur in his sleep and Lena looked up with a start, snapping her book shut. The younger gentleman stole a glance at him then looked back directly ahead, right over the top of my head. But within seconds, the old man’s head had begun to droop so that it lolled on our companion’s shoulder. With distaste, he tried to shift over in his seat, but the carriage was cramped and in doing so, the old man seemed to get in to a more comfortable position and began snoring again. We watched in curiosity as the young man took the elderly gentleman’s head between his gloved hands and gently laid it on the other side, against the compartment wall. Then, very slowly and precisely, he pulled his gloved fingers one by one until they were loosened from his hands, took them off and then hit then sharply together, as though to expel any dust or undesirable dirt that this recent exchange had made his precious gloves come into contact with. He then laid them in his lap and I stared at them. They were fine, hand sewn leather gloves and I found myself wondering how much their owner must have paid for them.

Looking up, I realised that he was staring straight at me. I felt myself flushing and dropped my nose into my book.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in an even, surprisingly strong voice. I looked up slowly and peered over the top of my book. I could feel a very gentle pressure against my left foot where Lena was nudging me. ‘Excuse me,’ he repeated. ‘May I ask what you are reading?’

I felt my whole face being engulfed in what felt like violent flames and yet again, cursed the fact that I did not possess my friend’s darker complexion. ‘Reading? Wh…what am I reading? It’s…’ Flustered, I snapped the book shut and turned it round to face him. ‘It’s a book about Louise – ’

‘Louise Breslau. Yes, I thought I recognised the cover. Do you admire her work?’

I glanced hurriedly at Lena, hoping that she would help me out. After all, it was she that had introduced me to this German artist whose style we had recently being trying to imitate. But Lena remained silent.

‘Do I admire her work?’ Oh, why on earth was I repeating every question he asked me. ‘Yes. Yes indeed, very much.’

He nodded politely at me and I noticed that the elderly man had woken up and was listening to our conversation with one glassy eye wide open. There was silence for several moments and I willed Lena to say something. She was a far better conversationalist than I. She was so accustomed to speaking to complete strangers and I was therefore puzzled and a little annoyed that she wasn’t coming to my rescue.

‘She is a reasonably talented painter,’ he said. ‘But I’ve never cared much for oils.’

‘Do you paint?’ suddenly asked Lena, without a hint of timidity in her voice, and I breathed an inward sigh of relief.

‘Yes,’ he replied. He looked only quickly at my friend and was now smoothing out each finger of one of his gloves with great precision. ‘I am an artist.’

I felt my heart flutter beneath my ribcage and wondered if our travelling companion were a famous painter. Oh, how I longed to freeze time so I could discuss it with Lena!

‘How wonderful!’ enthused Lena. ‘We are artists too!’

The elderly man had gone back to sleep but the warring couple were gazing at us disapprovingly. Lena lent over to the young man and offered him her hand.

‘I am Lena Birnbaum and this is Katharina Kaull.’

He shook Lena’s hand, but I noticed that it lacked any warmth. I extended my own hand and he shook it heartily, looking me directly in the eye which made me feel excited and uncomfortable at the same time.

‘Are you going on a vacation to paint?’ Lena continued. Sometimes I marvelled at her confidence.

‘Yes,’ he replied, but I noticed that he was looking straight at me. ‘I am going to Lake Wörthersee for inspiration. I shall be staying at the Hotel Geblergasse; I’m not sure if you know it. It’s right on the lake. And you? Where are you going?’

I couldn’t understand why he seemed reluctant to include Lena in the conversation and I shifted uneasily in my seat. I glanced beside me and saw that my friend’s forehead had furrowed slightly. ‘We are also going to Wörthersee,’ I said quietly.

‘And will you spend some time painting there?’ he asked. I could feel his eyes boring into me, even though I had dropped my gaze into my lap. I no longer wanted to talk to him and I felt myself reddening. Lena had picked up her novel once more and was leaning her head against the carriage window. I nodded gently and stole a glance up at the young man. He was still staring at me in a way that I had never seen anyone look at me before. One of his eyebrows were raised and he seemed to be appraising me in a way that did not suggest lust or even admiration, but deep, intense interest as though I were a fascinating specimen. I quickly looked down again and placed my hand on my book, hoping that he would sense my discomfort.

‘I’d like to see some of your paintings if you’d allow me, Katharina.’ His use of my name made me smart. Somehow it felt inappropriate and far too intimate.

I looked up at him. ‘Perhaps sometime,’ I opened my book again, signaling the end of the conversation.

Lena and I did not talk whilst the young man remained on the train with us. She looked deeply engrossed in her novel whilst I only feigned interest to avoid having to raise my head. My friend seemed genuinely unworried by our recent brief exchange with our traveling companion whereas I felt intensely uncomfortable. I couldn’t understand it – this man was an artist and surely our mutual interest in painting would have endeared both of us to him. Yet he would only look at me.

At the station before Wörthersee, he jumped up from his seat and gathered his belongings together. I watched him as he scribbled his name on a piece of paper and just before he left he stood close to me.

‘I have to get off here to visit somebody, but I’ll be in Wörthersee by this evening.’ I nodded without the least idea of how to respond, or even if he expected me to respond. ‘I’ve written down my name and hotel name. Please do drop by, Katharina.’

I was reluctant to take the paper from his hand but was keen for him to leave so I quickly did so. Before he left the carriage, he tipped his cap from his head, and was gone. Looking beside me at Lena, she had doubled over with laughter and I prodded her in the ribs.

Who has an admirer then? Please do drop by, Katharina,’ she mimicked.

‘Oh, be quiet Lena. He was detestable.’

‘Well, he was clearly smitten by you, my dear.’ Lena returned the disapproving glare of the steely-faced couple and stretched out in her seat like a cat. ‘Surely we must be there soon. Oh – !’

She lent forward and scooped up one of the young man’s gloves from beneath the seat.

‘Let’s throw it out of the window,’ I suggested solemnly.

‘Oh no, I think we should keep it and frame it. You never know, he may be a famous artist one day!’

‘Famous artist? I doubt that somehow.’ I suddenly felt a little unkind and added ‘I suppose I have the name of his hotel. I could always send it back to him.’

‘Or take it in person?’ Lena teased.

‘No. Most definitely not.’

Lena stretched out once again then looked at me and smiled. Lena. My dearest, closest friend in the world. She was only forty-nine when she died. Mother of four; wife; daughter; friend. And over twenty years on, I still miss her, each and every day. All I can hope is that her death wasn’t too lonely, or too painful. And although I refuse to allow myself to dwell on it for the pain I know it will cause me, somehow I doubt this to be so. But this journey, unlike that other train that years later would lead her to her death, was a happy one. Full of summer promise and blissful ignorance. As Lena took up her novel again, I unfolded the paper and read the young man’s precise lettering ‘Adolf Hitler – Hotel Geblergasse.’ No, sadly he was not a famous artist, just a struggling one, like the hundreds of others in Vienna.

I heaved a deep sigh of content. Finally, I could relax. And I was to spend three whole weeks with my dear Lena. I closed my eyes, placed my head against her shoulder and listened to the gentle chug as the train pulled its way towards the lake.

4 replies
    • Rebecca Stonehill
      Rebecca Stonehill says:

      Renita, thank you so much 🙂 Very happy to hear that. I am fond of it, because it was my very first attempt at anything resembling historical fiction!

      Reply
    • Rebecca Stonehill
      Rebecca Stonehill says:

      Hi Roy, thanks SO much for your thoughts, really thrilled to hear you enjoyed the story. Great to hear that you have written some of your own – what kind of short stories are they? I’d love to also know whose short stories you read also. Best wishes, Rebecca

      Reply

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