This is a story in multiple parts. I hope you enjoy it.
William knew that the poet would be there because he’d read it in the travel guide. “The secluded second floor of Café Waltraud is a well-kept secret spot, where big names like Raimund Gold like to write on Sunday afternoons.” Kaffee mit Milch, William recalled reading in an article about the poet. Café Waltraud had a glass counter on the ground level, with gold trimmings, red napkins going crimson with grease from a pile of pastries, and a few sad sausages in a blue and white dish. It smelled of stale smoke, and he remembered that smoking was still allowed in this part of the world, which made him feel at once superior and like he’d travelled in time. William had ordered a white wine spritzer, which the waitress, mid-forties, lots of bright blonde hair in a high ponytail, now set down on the table in front of him.
A bell above the door announced each new visitor, and so far, it had only rung once, when William had walked in. The upper floor was arranged around a spiral staircase, two chairs to each of the ten tables, dark wooden panels with a dusty mirror on the walls and a grey carpet floor worn thin by customers’ shoes. William’s spritzer was in a tall glass and he took his first sip carefully as he eyed the banister that ran around the staircase – he didn’t know how long it would take for Raimund Gold to turn up, and he wanted the drink to last. It hadn’t come with ice cubes, which surprised him, but he guessed it was a winter thing, even though he could’ve done with the extra refreshment in this well-heated space. He gazed up at the mirror that stretched along the far side of the room, and caught sight of himself, but quickly let his gaze flicker elsewhere, to the two windows facing the street.
This high up, he could see the top wires of the trams, and watch as they were pulled tight and downwards with every carriage that passed the window. The windows were framed by white lacy curtains, very clearly a cheap nylon fabric, but ironed perfectly. Along the top, a fringe of the same material obscured the top third of the windowpane in evenly spaced folds. Fairy lights ran along the stucco trim of the ceiling, but they were turned off, either because it was still the afternoon or because it wasn’t Christmas time anymore. The wiring looked ancient, parts of the cable had been painted the same colour as the wall, which looked more like a mistake than a deliberate aesthetic choice.
William’s moustache was dishevelled from the breeze outside, Vienna’s perpetual gale, and he observed this in his distorted reflection in the wineglass. With dismay, he patted it down, having taken such great care to brush it that morning. With his fingers, he evened out the strands of hair so they all pointed vaguely in the direction of his lips. His coat on the coat rack downstairs worried him too, all alone there, with only a forgotten umbrella and a dusty scarf to keep it company. It was a nice coat. But this was a respectable café, he was sure it would be safe.
Another sip of wine. To invoke Raimund Gold, he recited one of the poet’s famed lines to himself, solemnly, imagining that praised woman with her silk stockings “und himmlischem Schimmer” – his mouth loved making those shapes, even now, quietly. He wondered if the subject of the poem might’ve been the very same waitress who had served him his drink. Could it be? She wore tights, that much he remembered about the woman who had served him his drink, and on a bright summer’s day the sun might illuminate the space just so – it was hard to imagine, now, January had drained the city of all colour. Yes, and the grey carpet might appear silver, and it might reflect onto the tights to create that heavenly shimmer the poet had described. William touched the stem of the glass; she had touched it once, and maybe she’d been an inspiration to the poet – it was only fair to try to see the same beauty in her that Herr Gold had.
It was his last day in the city, and he had left the hotel room in a decent condition, he’d thought. Wiping down the bathroom sink with a towel to get rid of beard trimming traces had been a kind thought. The bright lights around the dresser were perfect for his hair arrangement, although the mirror provided for this reason proved to be rather too small to contain all of his hairdo needs. The mirror in the bathroom wasn’t full-length and didn’t show him in his entirety, which was annoying, because he needed to see how his sweater would go with his trousers – luckily, the elevator’s back wall was all mirror, so if he stood all the way back to the doors, hoping they wouldn’t open, he could look himself up and down. He dropped his suitcase off at reception, who kindly offered to look after it for the day, before his evening train would take him to Budapest.
Armed with only his coat and hat, he felt naked, but comforted by the thought that Raimund Gold’s café poems (“Kaffeegedichte aus der Stadt des Walzers”) were safe and pressed flat in their thin volume between his ties and his linen hill-walking trousers.
Nobody had given him any strange looks on the bus or the tram, and he was glad, because it meant that he had made the right decision with his hat, and that it just made him blend in while giving him a quiet air of sophistication and confidence. It sat on his head tight like a helmet, but light like a dusting of snow, while at the same time protecting his hairdo from the breeze. Best of all, it gave him the opportunity to hold on to his hat and lean in to the oncoming wind like a gentleman in a black and white photograph. All that was missing was a cane, but William thought it would have been too much, and it made him feel ten years older than he was, so he had decided against it, even though he had found a very pretty cherry wood one with an elegantly curved handle. A shame, really, because he had liked the thought of owning a cane, but maybe in a few years he’d come back for it. It wouldn’t have fit in his suitcase anyway, he consoled himself, and was as pleased with his reasoning as he was with his attire: It let just the right amount of chill in to make him shiver pleasantly with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, so he could feel the difference when he stepped inside the café and give him enough reason to join the pleasant chatter about the weather, no accent in his hard w’s. The bell rang downstairs.
A voice greeted the newcomer cheerfully, and after a bit of mumbled ordering, William heard some footsteps on the stairs. He stared intently, his eyes full of hope, which deflated in a blink as he spotted the woman’s shoes the footsteps originated from.
Another sip of wine. The woman shuffled about in a corner to William’s left, peeling off layers of clothes and laying out things on the table, but none of this was of any interest or consequence to him, who had already directed his full attention back to the staircase. The paint flaked off the wrought iron banister in green scraps, breaking the organic illusion of its stylised leaves and fern spirals. William’s fingers scratched at the band around the hat he was wearing, smoothing it out against his temples.
Herr Gold was bound to show up. And he would sit and drink his black coffee with just a splash of milk, and look around the room in search for inspiration, and he would find William sitting there, in his most interesting jumper – the most unusual knitting pattern, bold and thick – and his clipped, if slightly dishevelled moustache, ready to give him something to write about. William grew giddy at the thought of becoming literature, his cheeks flushing and his ears tingling. He would have to be subtle, of course, but still remarkable enough to be worth recording by the poet. Oh, he wondered what beautiful words Herr Gold might use to describe his hair? “Brünett”? No, “Kastanie”, or “elegant”, perhaps even “kurz und königlich”, appropriate words for the regal wave William had brushed his hair into, with plenty of mousse, before tucking it carefully underneath his hat. The hat! He took it off very, very gingerly, taking care to pull it away without disturbing his hair, and placed it on the table. It could only make him more interesting, its green rim stiff and flat, a dark band around it, delicately dented in the middle. A splendid hat! William gazed upon it with great pride.
The woman in the corner cackled, and with horror William observed that she had unwrapped a tiny mirror from some tissue paper and was liberally applying glittering lip gloss onto her lips and chin. All the while, she laughed with joy and adjusted the angle of the mirror this way and that, so she might see herself better in the dim light of the afternoon. The waitress, who was indeed wearing stockings, but dust-coloured, not sheer, like William had imagined, served her a tiny espresso with a spire of stiff whipped cream. She narrowed her eyes at the sight of the sparkly gel that had dripped from the woman’s face onto the table, and disappeared back into the belly of the café. The only words William caught from the muffled chatter downstairs were “schon wieder” – “again”.
He deduced that this woman must be a regular, and his neck started prickling with the daunting realisation that she was much more interesting than him. Her oblivion to her surroundings were as striking as her focus on her painting tools, whose effect she studied periodically in between mouthfuls of whipped cream. He went through the contents of his coat pockets in his mind, but no props popped out at him. His progressive knits would have to be enough.
End of Part 1 (continues here!)