Another sugar cube went into the wine glass, the new one this time. It fizzed a little bit. His neighbour watched the cube dissolve, but didn’t react in any way, and William was painfully aware that nobody was writing anything down. Nobody tried to find a word for the way his jumper fit him snugly around his wrists, or the whimsy with which he had sweetened his beverage. Nobody mentioned how his hair had retained its shape perfectly even after he had shed his frankly outstanding hat. The alcohol and lack of food made him bold. Could he dare…? It was the only way! He reached across to the empty table on his left, grabbed an ashtray and poured some of the old drink into it with a flourish and a splash. Then he sat all the way back in his chair, to let the flamboyance sink in. He couldn’t be stopped! Would someone, anyone, please finally lift a pen and immortalise this uniqueness? – No.
The new poet received a cup of black coffee, milk on the side.
William groaned with frustration.
The waitress wiped her hands on her smudged and stained apron, and turned to ask if he was alright. He nodded, and looked down onto his two spoiled drinks, the hat, the kidnapped sugar bowl and the flooded ashtray, and, lost for options now, finished what was left in his first glass, more out of resignation than enjoyment. The sharp sourness of the wine, mingled with the sugar crystals and diluted by the tepid sparkling water, didn’t taste nice at all, and the waitress shook her head as he pressed the back of his hand to his lips while she removed the drained glass. He smiled, suppressed the urge to spit up the contents of his mouth, and swallowed.
Stirring his drink with his index finger didn’t create enough of an interesting sound, William soon discovered. In fact, he had to drown one, two, three more sugar cubes in his full glass and eat two straight from the bowl with a great crunch before the new poet finally finished his coffee and took out a notebook. This was the moment. The pain and disgust had finally paid off, and now he had to pull himself together. William felt his face quite hot, but checked his reflection in the big mirror behind the man with the crossword and found he wasn’t even all that flushed. His hair was firm and sculpted, he was ready, oh so ready, to be written about.
Should he carry on, he wondered, or just sit still now and let Raimund Gold take in his profile in this position? Was the angle okay? Would Herr Gold need to see his height, his trousers and their folds or his shoes?
He got up and straightened out his jumper. His thighs knocked against the table, which shook considerably and spilled some sweet wine from the ashtray, soaking the rim of his hat. He picked up the hat and dried it on his sleeve, but the thick material was already dark and rich with liquid. He picked it up and sucked the wine out of it, and it tasted salty and smoky. Both men turned and looked up from what they were doing, and after the suckling noise had dissipated, their attention and its silence was all that filled the room. His hat in hand, William took a little walk to the middle of the room, quite slowly, and held on to the banister, quite slowly, so as to allow the poet to observe his stride. The curtains on the windows stayed still while the wind pushed against the glass, and the room was quiet.
Standing there, William decided he should probably do something, so he walked downstairs to use the bathroom and to straighten out his moustache. The tap was the shape of a fat trout, and it was golden, which seemed only appropriate for such an important afternoon. At the door, he felt to make sure he had closed his fly. Ha! Even the thought of a little bit of white fabric sticking out of his trousers amused him, but it would wreck the intriguing picture he had painted already of himself and lead the poets onto a more vulgar, less appropriate track. It was closed. William rolled his shoulders before pushing the door open, exhaling, ready to begin.
Walking back up the stairs, William discovered he had quite a spring in his step, and he was delighted to see that the glitter woman had finished her coffee, packed up her things, and looked about ready to leave. Her face was radiant, not an inch left unpainted, and she crinkled her eyes at William when their gazes met. Less competition. Good riddance. He sat down to the utter mess he’d made of the table. Long had he admired the poet’s work, and the day had finally arrived when he would join the ranks of those immortalised on a page in such delicate detail. He wondered what the title of his poem would be. Oh, and what meter would it be in? Would it rhyme? A maniacal laugh bubbled up in his throat, but he swallowed it down. Can’t get too excited now, can’t give it away, no one wants a subject that knows it’s being watched. As his gaze followed the woman, who had wrapped herself back up in her coat and descended the steps, he found the man across from him had swapped his paper for a notebook and was scribbling away.
Out of the corner of his eye, he checked, and the other man was also writing. He checked back with the first poet, and sure enough, he was looking over at William every now and then, probably to consider the curve of his eyebrows and the hollows of his cheeks for inspiration. To his right, the older man seemed to be staring at William’s wine glass, holding his head at an angle to get a good look at the sugar that had collected at the bottom.
But it was wrong, thought William, that’s not how it should be! He had wanted to sit for Raimund Gold, not for some random amateur poet! And now he was confused. His eyes darted back and forth. No, he couldn’t for the life of him decide which one was the right one, and which one would only be butchering his idiosyncrasies with his clumsy descriptions.
The bell rang downstairs, and a loud voice echoed in the stairwell. Heavy footsteps came closer, closer, and a man in a white shirt and a brown sweater vest appeared. His sleeves were creased where they had been rolled up inside his coat, which would be hanging downstairs, among the others.
He nodded a quick acknowledgement of the other men, then found a seat in a corner and sat down at the chair facing the wall, not the one facing the room. What a strange man, thought William, to choose that chair even though he was by himself! Who does that? He was facing the wall, his back turned to everyone else in the room, and William couldn’t figure out if it appeared rude or confident or both.
The bell rang downstairs as the glittering woman departed, leaving them alone, all four of them. The new man was facing the mirror that ran around the walls, and he wrinkled his forehead in recognition of his own reflection before turning his gaze back down to the wall, the back of the bench, and finally the table. William held his breath, rubbed a drop of wine from the rim of his glass, and waited.
The only good thing he could perceive about this situation was that he had plenty of time to consider the newly arrived man’s back without him noticing. The vest was uniformly brown and fuzzy, like it had been through a lot of washes. He had had a slightly pockmarked face, William remembered, with a long nose that was so finely dotted it looked like a bit of cauliflower. He thought this with no vanity, he knew he himself was no beauty, and quite to the contrary, he detected a spot of jealousy as his cheeks flushed with colour. This was a real man, no frills, just an ordinary Viennese man, Damn him, look at how little he cares about the others in the space!
He received his tea – what a painfully ordinary thing to order! – from the waitress, who also brought a woodworking magazine from the magazine rack and sat it next to the steaming cup of hot water. The new man submerged a tea bag in it, which he casually extracted from its paper sachet, and William winced. Tea was an infusion, you were mean to put the tea in first, and then pour water on it, didn’t this man know? He envisioned himself running over and knocking the mug from the man’s hand to stop him from drinking this sub-par infusion, but it was no use. He had already stirred it, poured some lemon into it, and opened the magazine. How wonderful! How authentic! Here was a man just in from the cold to read about a bit of woodworking and drink some tea!
Sure, it was all lost now. He sat up a little straighter in his chair. He didn’t dare look around at the poets, because whichever one of them was actually Herr Gold, it didn’t matter now, because he had lost. Of course! He should have known. Raimund Gold’s subjects were the everyday customers of Café Waltraud, not some elegant modern gentleman with eccentric behaviour! Oh, if only he had put less effort into the subtle wave in his hair, brought a less exciting hat, worn a plainer, more casual jumper! Tearing his gaze from the man in the vest, he looked at the hat that sat at the end of his table. So contrived, it now seemed. He flipped it over and stroked its small dent with his fingertips, feeling the rough felt tingle with broken promises.
As he raised his eyes again, he saw that both of the poets were still looking at him, and a smug warmth spread through his chest. All was not lost. He was still being written about. What words would they use, he wondered? Was this how he would be remembered? Suddenly the word “try-hard” floated into his head, and William stopped in mid-movement, just as he was reaching for the stem of the wine glass.
No, it was wrong. He shot a look at the pens moving across the paper, and wanted to say No, no, this isn’t what I’m actually like. It’s all different! His habits were more subtle, usually, and he wished he could take back the sugar cubes, dry them off and stick them back together before returning them to their bowl, one by one. More doubts appeared, first about his choice of drink: Did he want to be just another alcohol-loving character, this early in the afternoon, with all the baggage that role suggested? Why couldn’t he have picked a simple coffee, or, more quaint still, a cup of tea, like the man in the vest? Oh, he was clever, that man. Tea implied a calm soul, a quiet temper, probably a loving wife and at least one loyal, ageing pet. He was just another lost man, burying his troubles at the bottom of a glass of spritzer, where they would lie visible to everyone. What was worse was that the poets didn’t even know what he was going to be doing. He should’ve brought his suitcase along instead of leaving it behind, it would’ve added a history, a future, a purpose, some dimension to his character. He could be a frivolous man on the run, for all they knew, with his lack of baggage. Not even a briefcase, a plastic shopping bag, nothing.
Oh, he was a fool. How were they meant to deduce that he was a traveller, that he was interested in culture and cities and that he spoke German with barely a hint of an accent? He had been drinking and spilling things and wandering around for the whole time, only muttering a word of thanks here and there. He could’ve engaged someone in conversation, maybe even the glittering woman, asked her something, anything, to make himself appear more human and more worldly. How were the poets meant to know this? Oh, they were probably writing it now, the idiot who wanted his drink so badly he sucked it from the fabric of his hat. He inhaled and pulled in his stomach, but it was too late now, it was all too late, they had already seen the way his sweater stretched around his middle, bunched up around his waist and above the stretchy top of his trousers, his belt cutting into his belly.
Was his breathing loud? There was no music playing in the café, and he tried holding his breath to be able to discern whether that loud puffing sound was really his breath. Yes. It stopped when he stopped breathing, and started back up again when he ran out of air, rattling, panting almost, sounding obscene to his own ears.
William was sweating now and he looked at the windows and they were fogging up; the whole room was too warm for him. The tram rang its bell again, pulled its wires tight and down, and he pushed the wine glass around on the table. Oh, how he missed the woman’s presence now, to distract the poets! He was close to calling out for her, asking her to come back, to be more interesting than him, but she was gone. The door had long ago closed on her. The laughter in his throat had disappeared, and all William wanted to do was vanish, thinking every movement he made would only add to the poem that was in the process of being written. Nothing could be hidden now: His hair felt all wrong, for starters, and he raised his hands to fix it, before realising that movement would be recorded. Everything about him was fated to endure forever, as poetry. Every part of his face felt like it burned, his skin seemed to stretch across his cheekbones, the tip of his nose was surely a comical ball, and he did not dare to check in the mirror to see how much of this actually translated to what he looked like. Besides, it didn’t matter, he was embarrassed and there was nothing to be done about it. He felt dressed up, the hat on the table so contrived, the jumper too modern and tight. The moment was here, but he now found himself wholly unprepared. Through his own heavy breathing, he felt he could hear the scratching of the two pens on paper, pulling his every feature into a caricature. Was the light bright? The fairy lights flickered and twitched, and an electrical hum travelled through the room as the overhead lights were turned on, humming to life. Yes, that was definitely a bead of sweat now, trickling from his futile perfect hairline down his temples and hanging there, on his jawbone, forever, until it fell onto a row of chunky modern stitches on his left shoulder.
This was it. William counted seconds, weighed his options, then took his hat in both hands and made a run for it.
Downstairs, William paid for his drinks with trembling hands. As he took his coat and put it back on, he couldn’t shake his grating curiosity, and it gained urgency the closer he got to leaving. It built and built so quickly that by the time he had buttoned up his coat the decision had been made: He couldn’t leave without knowing.
“Ist Raimund Gold hier?”, he asked, the door handle already pushed down, ready to leave. With the door open a crack, he held it there with his foot while he put on his hat, the rim still a little damp, the silken band on the inside caressing his scalp and pushing down his hair. There was no need to be careful anymore, and he could feel the mousse pushing against his scalp, the waves flattening out and the shaved bits in his nape tingling at the contact with the wet felt. He watched the waiting staff exchange a look, cloths and trays in hand, ready to clear up his table. He thought of the sugar. One of them smiled, and the other one craned her head towards the staircase.
“Sicher! Raimund!”, the waitresses called out, upstairs, to coax the poet to come down and meet William. But when Raimund Gold descended, all that was left of William was the ringing of the bell above the door, and as the poet looked out across the street he had already vanished amongst the winter crowd.