The Write Stuff: Correspondence by Dilys Rose

WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, Correspondence, which appears in I Am Because You Are, an anthology of short stories celebrating the centenary of the General Theory of Relativity, edited by Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman and published by Freight

The boy, in mittens, muffler and woollen cap, shields his eyes against the snow glare and looks down over a city which may never feel like home.

His father is everywhere. Hatless, gloveless, at once intent and distracted, he makes his way along broad, frosty Bahnhofstraße. In one hand he carries a violin case, in the other a small valise. He still has a good walk ahead of him but appears to be in no hurry: he ambles across the Gemüsebrucke, where the market is in full swing. He pauses at a flower stall and stoops to inspect the roses standing in buckets of water. For the longest time he scrutinises the blooms, compares the scent and colour, the condition of petal, leaf and stalk.

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He has just arrived from Berlin on a packed, overnight train. The border, closed for months, was opened briefly and those able to find a space on the train were celebrating their good fortune: the blockade has been causing considerable shortages and as the winter progresses the impact is worsening.

Predictably, there were lengthy holdups while border guards inspected papers. In the way of incident nothing serious occurred; nobody was frog-marched off the train at gunpoint, though a small gold and cream Spitz did cause a bit of a stir. The dog had passed the journey in a biddable manner, for the most part panting gently on the lap of a young woman or snoozing at her feet. When the guards barged into the compartment it wriggled between their legs, leapt through an open window, landed on the glittering tracks with a sharp bark of surprise and took off. Its owner was a crinkle-haired blonde with luscious cherry-red lips and until the dog made its bid for freedom, the guards had been taking their own sweet time on her papers.

Hampered by bulky overcoats, the guards were diverting to watch as they chased, apprehended and eventually returned the nifty runaway to the young woman’s arms but the dog’s antics created further, unwelcome delay. It was close to Christmas; there was a war on and the vast majority of the passengers, whatever their religious or political affiliations, were keen to reach their destination as soon as possible. Not so the great thinker and authority on the relative nature of time, who was more than content with a delay; there were many reasons why arriving at his destination might prove as troublesome as failing to arrive.

Perhaps as he stoops to sniff the flowers, the boy’s father pricks his finger on a thorn. Briar Rose, as everybody knows, pricked her finger on a spindle and then slept for a hundred years, hidden behind a hedge of thorns. For the boy, his father’s ideas can be as impenetrable and entangled as a hedge of thorns.

Stories. Once upon a time, when they were all together, his father promised him and his brother a story and then, caught up in some thought experiment about the laws of the universe, he forgot about his promise, and the story; he even forgot to come down from his study and join his family for a supper of broth and bread. The boy could describe the steaming bowls as they stood on the table that evening. He could describe his father’s palpable absence, the tenor of his brother’s cough, the knot in his mother’s brow and the dark hank of hair which fell into her eyes as she lowered them, in stormy silence, to her food.

But that time is past and the boy considers himself too old for stories. When he’s poorly, which is much of the time, his younger brother likes to listen to stories. When she has a mind for it, their mother will tell a Serbian story about Vodenjak, the water sprite who steals souls. Vodenjak is green, frog-faced, covered in slime and lurks under stones. On occasions when he favours dry land, Vodenjak, like their absent father, smokes a pipe and plays the violin.

The glint-eyed flower woman, with her craggy cheekbones and a sceptical tilt to her chin, has almost given up hope of a sale when the unkempt rose-sniffer – whose face is somehow familiar – straightens up suddenly, knocking the umbrella askew. He searches his pockets for his wallet until, wonder of wonders, he locates it, and cheerfully hands over payment for a dozen butter-yellow roses. He is pleased with his purchase, pleased with himself for remembering that women like to be given flowers. And pleased that he remembered his wallet.

Satisfied that, in this respect at least, he has done what is required of him, he turns his attention to the traders assembled on the vegetable bridge, engaged in the elastic give and take of commerce. There is more choice of food on the stalls than in Berlin and more refugees as well, offering handicrafts and family heirlooms for sale. He is taken with how each stallholder has fashioned a small cosmos from tables and wicker baskets, with wares deftly arranged in stacks and bundles and fans. How captivating the humdrum world can be with its humdrum concerns!

Midway across the bridge a twisted stick of a man saws away at a violin, his head and shoulders tossing and turning as if in thrall to a capricious wind. Unlike the citizens of Zürich, who barely break stride to part with their alms, the boy’s father listens closely to several passages before placing a few rappen in the battered cap at the man’s feet. To be sure, he thinks, the man plays badly but a badly played tune is better than no tune at all. Pleased with the shape of his own phrase, the boy’s father decides that tonight, should he not play well for whatever company might assemble to celebrate his arrival, this will be his riposte. It is not his cleverest phrase but cleverness is not always required of him, at least where words are concerned. Too often, however, he finds himself pressed to pass judgement on topics and situations which do not concern or interest him, as well as those that do.

He looks forward to playing Mozart this evening – he has already decided that he will play only Mozart, looks forward to it more than anything. Music is not physics, yet for the life of him he would not be without it; indeed music is part of physics. War is not physics either, and he would certainly be glad to be without war. He has said as much, in private and in public, and in no uncertain terms: war, he believes, will produce no victors, only the vanquished. War is not physics. Music is not physics. Market trading is not physics.

Now that he has made his purchase, which he knows full well is a peace-offering, if a fragrant one, he would like a smoke. This poses a practical problem: even with the violin case lodged under an arm, the valise and the roses in the same hand, there remains the question of how he might hold a match to his pipe. He considers his options: to continue to his destination without a smoke; to light his pipe and attempt to continue walking and smoking, despite the awkwardness of such an arrangement and the likelihood that he will not, as a result, fully appreciate his smoke; or to stop, make himself comfortable and yield to his desire.

He firmly believes that mankind should, in some matters at least, yield to its desires. If he did not believe this his boys would still have a father at home, and their mother a husband, though he is adamant that the time for such an arrangement has been and gone. As he is already late, and the church clock confirms this, a few minutes’ pause will make a negligible difference in the grand scheme of things. As he is a devotee of the grand scheme of things, he deposits violin case, valise and flowers on the flat bridge wall, and fills his pipe. His mood lightens. His eyes twinkle with glee. After all, hasn’t he proven that time has no independent existence?

What is in his valise? Sheet music, but of course. Bach and Mozart. A small jar of pickles. Small, modest gifts for the children. He disapproves of extravagance, materialism, greed. A bottle of calcium chloride, for the benefit of young teeth and bones: new research has indicated its beneficial effects. Notebooks – some already full of equations, others blank. A spare pen. A bottle of ink. A spare pipe. An extra tin of tobacco. A change of clothes. Shaving things. Basic toiletries, including a new toothbrush. A hairbrush he is unlikely to use.

The boy’s father is everywhere. He’s in the aromas of coffee and tobacco which mingle and drift like rumours around café and bierhalle doorways. He is in the newsstand headlines. Sometimes there’s a photograph of his soft, broad face caught in an expression of wry congeniality beneath a mushroom of hair. He’s in the clatter of dray wheels, the snuffle and clop of the droop-headed horses, in the tring-tring of trams swinging onto Bahnhofstraße, the klaxons of motor cars proclaiming their arrival: Here I am, here I am! But when is this ever true of his father?

His father is nowhere to be found in the dark days that accompany his mother’s increasingly contrary humours. Like a restless revenant she paces to and fro, embarking on one task then finding herself unable to complete it, starting on something else then breaking off, muttering irritably until even the walls quake in dismay. Or else, deep in the doldrums of melancholy, she glares at the wall all day, insensible to pleading and protestation, and the house takes on the funk of standing water. Fires are rarely lit. Food is rarely cooked. The boys learn to fend for themselves.

His father is everywhere: in the leaden ripples of the river, in leafless branches creaking under the weight of snow, in the lake’s moody blue eye. The world says that his father has his head in the clouds – which today are downy pillows of cumulus and wispy mares’ tails of cirrus – but that’s not right: his father has his head – and his sights – beyond the clouds, beyond the farthest reaches of the sky, on something so tricky to contemplate and articulate that it needs years of thinking and screeds of workings out. And which, even after so much time and effort, may never amount to more than an interesting hypothesis. Rarely does he have his sights on his boys – the sturdy, surly one and the frail, sweet-natured one – or on their volatile, distraught mother.

In a tin box beneath his bed, the boy keeps every letter his father has written to him. His father is everywhere in the letters. He’s in the smooth cream envelopes, with their Reichspost stamps depicting a steely Germania, in imperial crown and breastplate, olive branch in one hand, sword in the other. He’s in the fuzzy black Berlin postmark, in the clean folds of the notepaper, in the small but fine hand, in the evenly spaced, perfectly formed letters, in the faint whiff of ink.

The boy has read the letters many times. He prefers to read them alone, in a secluded corner of the house. Though he knows their contents off by heart he needs to see the words on the page. When his father was writing to him, surely he must have been wondering what his son was doing at that very moment? And surely, while he sealed the envelope and walked to the post box, he would have continued to keep his son in mind, at least until he dispatched the letter and returned to his study to once more think about his big ideas? But why must his father remain in Berlin, why must he raise money for poor artists when he could be in Zürich with his own children?

His father is not in the crunch of snow as the boy throws himself on his sledge and careers down the slope in wild zigzags. No other place is as nice for boys as Zürich, and so healthy, his father wrote, at the beginning of the year. The boy’s playmates do not tease him about the absence of his father; some of their own fathers are away from home, defending the Swiss borders. They are more impressed by who can be first down the hill. Rarely do these boys, all elbows and knees and ruddy cheeks, waste time on talk about absent fathers or distraught mothers. Rarely do they waste time on any kind of talk.

In his dreams his father is side by side with his son: hiking in the mountains, walking and talking, in all weathers, all seasons. They sing together, loud as you like, and clap each time an echo greets them. They have such lightness of being that they seem to walk above the surface of the ground. They crane their necks to watch eagles circle slowly overhead or to marvel at the daylight moon. Walking and talking, his father presents him with problems and riddles – which in dreams the boy can solve in a trice – and urges him to persevere with the piano. Music, his father declares, is a kind of heaven and may be the only heaven there is. And if the boy asks, as in dreams he always does, when they will all be together once more, his father vanishes.

Still perched on the wall of the bridge, the boy’s father is savouring his pipe when two squat matrons approach, in large hats and fine fox furs, and bid him guten Tag. He has no recollection of previously making the acquaintance of these women, who are clearly not streetwalkers, and is temporarily baffled by their forwardness. Then he remembers that few people are in the habit of having their picture in a newspaper. Briefly he wonders whether it would be possible to predict, with an acceptable level of accuracy, the percentage of the world’s population who might have their picture in any newspaper on any given day but deems the question not worthy of his consideration. Surely, however, he will not now be obliged to acknowledge greetings from multifarious strangers? How much bowing and handshaking might this entail!

His beautiful idea has become a beautiful theory and it matters little at this point whether five or five thousand understand it; what matters is that it is correct and even though he cannot yet foresee the ways in which it will irrevocably alter the cosmos, and humanity’s conception of it, he continues to feel elated. And exhausted. He knocks the dottle from his pipe, picks up his violin case, valise and the flowers, and trudges onwards towards his destination: his family.

Would he have been permitted to cross the border? Were there really roses in the market in December, with thorns which might prick a careless finger? Or were there only scentless, poisonous, thornless Christmas roses, which don’t at all fit with Briar Rose, her long sleep and her hedge of thorns? Did the flower seller and fox-furred ladies really recognise a stranger from a photograph in the newspaper? Would he ever arrive?

On winter mornings, when the boy walks to school in the dark, muffled up against the cold, his father is not beside him. Nor is he at the dinner table at midday, eating absently, anxious to finish his food and return to his thinking. When he struggles with his sums, his father is not there to help, though his mother, when she is not marooned in despondency, is more than able to assist him. His father is in a place with no name, no dimensions, a place where time does not follow the tick of a clock, in a topsy-turvy place with few recognisable features, where everything is puzzling, unpredictable, a place which can barely be put into words.

To the faint strains of carol-singing the boy drags his sledge home, stows it in the shed, removes his boots and goes inside. The stove is lit, the kitchen is cosy and comforting aromas of butter and nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar waft around. His mother, with his brother’s help, is baking a cake. She doesn’t smile but neither does she scold him for the wet footprints his socks leave on the kitchen floor. Instead of his father seated at the kitchen table, puffing on his pipe, is a letter, unopened, in a familiar but distant hand.

• Dilys Rose is a novelist, short story writer, poet and librettist. She has published eleven books, most recently a novel, Pelmanism in 2014.