A Splendid Hat is a story in multiple parts. Read Part 1 here.
Before he could come up with a better plan, the bell rang again downstairs.
A quick order, some polite banter, and footsteps on the stairs: A man appeared. This must be him, William thought, his heart racing. It was all correct: the confident posture, the way he considered the room, the light, as if he was already searching for words. He might stroll around, tilt his head to look at the curtains, kneel down to listen to the sound of the floorboards creaking under his weight. To get his poem right he would have to experience the room, as writer did, William thought. The man put his bag on a table on the opposite side of the room. Right opposite William’s, in fact – could it really be happening? And he left again. Down the stairs.
Now or never, William. He’ll be back, he always sits on this floor, he’s in the building. Quick! A prop! Now! Leaping up from his seat, weaving his way out from between all the tables and chairs, William grabbed a dish of sugar cubes from a side table next to the staircase, along with their silver tongs and serving tray. Balancing them precariously, cold and delicate in his grip, he stood there for a second, but Raimund Gold was already on his way back up the spiral staircase, so William hurried to his seat and set the tray down.
For a mad moment, William looked up at the curtains and thought about using them as a tablecloth, but it was over, it was too late. He worried that the table was becoming quite crowded, anyway, with the large tray, the fantastic green hat, and the glass of spritzer. Its contents had lost their sparkle somehow, and his drink had gone entirely flat in the meantime. William sat down and shifted the glass a bit so it lined up with the tray, but that was all he had time for before Raimund Gold re-emerged in all his glory, coatless, from the depths of the café’s ground level.
At the sight of the poet’s bobbing head of hair moving up the spiral staircase, William grew desperate, and a different realisation arrived in his mind: Herr Gold’s coat must now be hanging on the very same coat rack as his – what an honour! With so little time left, William stared at the odd assortment of things on his table and threw two sugar cubes into the only vessel that was present: his glass of white wine and now-flat sparkling water.
They sank and disintegrated slowly, but didn’t really dissolve, they just piled up as single grains like sand in an hourglass. He watched as the bubbles stirred by the sugar rose to the top and burst without a sound.
Only then did he allow himself to look over at Raimund Gold, who was painfully oblivious to William’s actions and had opened a paper flat across his table. He read it intently while playing with a pen, with his long fingers, those fingers capable of writing such beautiful words. He read, and turned over a page to do a crossword puzzle – or so William assumed, being not quite close enough to see, despite getting up slightly from his chair to get a better look. He was definitely writing. That much was apparent. What if…?
No, now the poet put the pen down, fumbled in his pocket and took out a shiny cigarette case. With the flick of a match – how very old-worldy of him! – he lit a cigarette and William held his breath so as to be able to hear the first tobacco leaves at the tip fizzle and burn. His cigarette perched casually between his lips, the poet’s eyes slid over to look at the glittering woman, who had switched her tools in the meantime and was now dabbing dark red lipstick on her eyelids with her ring finger, in firm concentration on her reflection in the small mirror. Every now and then, she licked some cream from her espresso cup with her small, pink tongue. It was unsettling and, he wanted to kick himself, endearing. William’s palms itched, and his stomach twisted. He shifted a bit in his seat, and catapulted another sugar cube into his drink, with as much of a plop as he could manage.
Raimund Gold’s eyelids fluttered at the sound, but he didn’t look, sod it. Now the cube was dissolving rapidly and Herr Gold would never know how fascinating William was.
The waitress brought the poet’s coffee and a large slice of layered sponge and cream cake, which he dug into with a spoon. William knew that this type of cake was called a Bienenstich, and he patted his mind on the back for being so good at remembering things. Then he sighed, as the poet cracked the caramelised almond top of the cake, and asked for another white wine spritzer. The waitress gave the sugar tray on his table the same sort of bored, disapproving look as she’d shot at the glitter woman, but didn’t mention it. To reassure her that he needed the sugar there, that’s the way he liked his drink, William took a hearty sip of his wine. He kept his grimace hidden behind his hand, feigning a yawn. The waitress left, down the stairs. The interaction had obviously sparked Raimund Gold’s interest, because even when the waitress was gone, he still looked over to William’s table and the items spread across it. William swirled the sugar around in his glass, and took the opportunity to look back at the other man and nod a greeting, how daring! Only a little nod though, just an acknowledgement of the other person’s existence. Raimund Gold looked much younger than he’d thought, and he wished his books had a photograph at the back instead of just a short, elusive author bio. But his coffee was right, he checked quickly: yes, small jug of milk, cup of black coffee.
William picked up another sugar cube from the diminishing mound in front of him and looked at it closely. Maybe his close scrutiny of the sugar would make him noticeable to the poet? William watched as Raimund Gold’s pen moved deliberately across the page, for long enough to convince him that this was actually a crossword puzzle and not a strange poetry technique. It left him somewhat disappointed. He took a long sip of the drink, whose upper half was already intensely sweet – William dreaded finding out what the sugar dregs at the bottom would taste like. His stomach gurgled, and he remembered that he’d been too nervous to eat lunch. William looked over at the hat that still sat perched on the side of the table, taking up too much space, its rim sticking out over the edge, but not far enough to be in any kind of serious danger of falling. It looked like the forest, he thought, but not so outdoorsy as to appear out of place in this urban setting. It was a character, piece, the woman in the shop had said, and definitely worth the money.
A hat like this is an investment you only make once, you know, she had reassured him as she’d charged his credit card, swipe, sign here, please, have a good day now, thank you very much I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time together, and a wave. His German was good enough for such social interactions, although her thick mountain accent did make it difficult to separate genuine charm from sales-pitch friendliness.
Once more, the bell rang downstairs. Another order was placed, and another man walked up the stairs, closely followed by the other waitress, more senior, who looked exasperated at the slow pace that the new customer was dictating. He held on to the banister and half-walked, half-pulled himself up to the floor level. His hair was thinning on top, and his thus extended forehead shone red from the cold outside. William didn’t perceive him as a threat, he seemed ordinary enough with his fogged-up glasses and his shuffling steps. Besides, if he did turn out to be terribly interesting, William was sure he could take him on. He was still relatively young and strong. Finally, the man got the message of the ringing of glasses on a tray behind him, and stepped aside with an apologetic nod.
A tram outside rang its bell, and William thanked the waitress for his second drink. She made to take away his first glass, but he held on firmly, explaining that he wasn’t done yet, but thanks anyway. The new man sat down next to William, and unfolded his hands, took off his glasses, refolded his hands, and just looked around for a while, like he’d had a long journey behind him and was happy to have got there. So strong was that sense that William started to feel like he was intruding. Doubt arrived, just like that, in William’s mind.
Could this be Raimund Gold? It wasn’t impossible; he did appear to scan the room carefully and to sit still, almost as if to appreciate its atmosphere. The new man was also closer to what William had imagined Herr Gold to look like, sort of old and wizened, but active, too, and willing to go out into the world, all with an air of calm. Back and forth, he looked at the poets. The one with the paper had the right fingers, and the smoking, although surprising, fit with the tone of the poems he wrote. And, most importantly of all, the coffee was right – it had to be him! But this new arrival threw William off balance; he didn’t know how to sit for his literary portrait anymore. He would experiment, William decided, to see if he could work this out.
End of Part 2 (continues here)