Gerda had always despised the West End. This hypocritical neighbourhood that pretended to be London in a way it never had existed, and never would. These posh Notting Hill houses with their red, blue and turquoise doors, inviting nothing but meaninglessness. That’s why Gerda had remained in the East End of town all those years. Authenticity, she told herself, it was all about authenticity. With the change of the seasons, she paid Anoop Akhtar a visit, the tailor. Anoop wasn’t the best tailor in Whitechapel, but he had the prettiest fabrics. Gerda loved their smell and textures: velvet, lace, broderie anglaise, softly draped cotton or linen.
Anoop’s shop was at the far end of Brick Lane in a little red brick house that had no windows facing the street, but a door with brightly tinted glass panes. He let the measuring tape drop from Gerda’s shoulders below her hips and wrapped it around her waist.
“You’ve lost weight”, he said.
“Lost?”, Gerda was surprised.
He went to the storeroom to fetch the new fabrics that had only just arrived from Bangladesh. Gerda had a browse while he was gone. What a dusty place. Properly filthy. Anoop’s iguana was hogging a corner under a dressmaker’s dummy. He looked much larger than usual. And why could she hear it? Why could she hear the snapping noise he was making, was he devouring a worm?
Finished garments populated the clothes rail between door and counter, ready for collection. Gerda paced the rail, brushing along suits, dresses and blouses. “Mrs. D’Antal”, “Mr. Ryosuke Ho”, Mrs. Brown” … Anoop had carefully labelled each garment with a note. She quickly withdrew her hand from Miss Deedle’s linen trousers: her fingers were covered in slime. The substance poured down to her elbow, faster than water. She looked at the open door to the storehouse because she had heard the noise of a machine. Clackclackclackclackclack. Too loud for a sewing machine. She grabbed a red velvet dress with her left hand. There was no name tag. It was a classic shift dress, trimmed with navy cotton along the neckline.
As if it had a life of its own, the fabric clung to Gerda’s skin, the dress slipped over her head, and enveloped her body. As she looked down herself, the seam along the neckline seemed to open. A strong but pleasant power pulled her in – first her face, then her head and finally her whole body, until she vanished in the seam. Everything around her was suddenly pitch-black. The only thing she could make out in a corner – maybe on the floor – were withered whining Lipizzaner horses. The animals stood close together, their beaming white bodies covered in blood and egg yolks. She fed one of these disgusting creatures with a sugar cube. The animal first devoured her hand and finally Gerda whole.
Gerda heard muffled voices and rattling of tableware. And then she saw light again. The horse had spat her out. On the Michaelerplatz in Vienna, in the beer garden of Cafe Griensteidl. “Would you like anything else, madam?”, the waiter asked. Gerda nodded. She liked the look of herself in her new blouse and poured a latte over it.
in Bad Aussee
Every other year in November, Gerda drove to Bad Aussee to visit her school friend Edith’s grave. Twelve years ago, Edith had suffocated on a gingerbread crumb ingested in Café Zandler in Altaussee. The baker was renowned for his Styrian walnut cake with cream, but Edith had ordered a dry piece of gingerbread on that fateful day in spring. When she was young, she had fallen in love with a forester from Altaussee during a school trip to the Salzkammergut. He was a man with a moustache and a narrow face. He would only wear the traditional costume, even the hat, and recalled a further thirteen years of memories in comparison with Edith. Shortly after their wedding, Fritz Rauhnagel had been killed in an accident in the woods: A strong west wind had uprooted a spruce up on the mountain, which thundered down towards the valley. The tree had hit the lime rock, dislodging a boulder, which in turn kept crashing into the mountain on its way downhill. Eventually, upon arrival at the foot of the mountain, reduced to nothing but a pebble, it had hit Hubert Rauhnagel, Fritz’s brother, on the head, startling him to such an extent that he lashed out, forgetting the axe in his hand. Fritz had been standing right next to him. “Fratricide on the Seewiese” people would whisper to each other in the aftermath.
Gerda loved the Seewiese, this beautiful meadow on the shore of Lake Altaussee. Because everything about this “geographical centre of Austria” looked like Canada. And Gerda loved Canada. She wanted to walk around the lake and, for this purpose, she had bought new boots from a small traditional costume shop in Bad Aussee. The boots soon revealed both their practical and stylish qualities, judging by Gerda’s own impression and that of others: After only half an hour’s walk, she saw a female figure in a pale blue cloak emerge from the water, surrounded by a halo of light, spreading her arms in a kind and benign manner. “Give me your shoes”, she said. As she spoke, salt crystals fell off her lips and ruffled the calm waters. The salt crust on her face was so thick that her eyes and nose disappeared under it. “Your shoes!”, the apparition repeated, salt crumbling from her face.
The path took Gerda along to the scarcely lit Seehotel – which, amidst groans, was pressing balconies out of its façade –, by abandoned fishing huts in desperate need of a lick of paint, past the restaurant by the lake, long closed for the season, leaving the hatchery behind, and all the way to the hunting lodge on the Seewiese, which offered an awe-inspiring view across the lake to Mt. Loser (1838 m). She stopped for a break on the lodge porch, huddling around the heaters with the small number of guests. The other hikers were people of few words, spoken in a dialect Gerda struggled to understand. They spoke about leaves the sudden onset of winter had caused to freeze on the trees, before they had had the chance to fall to the ground. To die without a fulfilled life. The proprietor spoke about animals sensing something or other. Maybe fresh snow, or something else. In any case, they apparently knew more than “aw uff us”. Gerda focused on every single sound: the proprietor’s words, the snow sliding off the roof, the creaking of the wooden bench, the humming of the heater. Trivial noises became amplified. If this was a film, she thought, something grand would happen at this point in the script. She put her teacup down, wished the other guests a nice rest of the day, and set off to complete her tour without her boots. Half way along the way, a forester offered to take her into town in his jeep. But Gerda knew already then that idleness is the root of all psychology, and kept on walking.
From Die Sprachlosigkeit der Fische. Edition Atelier, Vienna, 2015.