A Story for July: The Sound of… Austria

July 2018

This ‘tongue in cheek’ story set in Austria first appeared in The Lady magazine.

The Sound of …

Mary had been christened Maria, but had changed her name when she was eighteen.

“It’s not that I’ve got anything against the name Maria,” she said to friends. “It’s just that I don’t see myself as a Maria. I just don’t.”

Her friends were sympathetic. “If you don’t see yourself as Maria,” said one, “then I can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t change. Nominal self-determination, I call it.”

“Thank you,” said Mary. “It makes it much easier to be yourself, if you see what I mean, if your friends are supportive.”

And Mary did have supportive friends—and a supportive family. In particular, her sister, Angela, had always been close to her and had provided her with the sympathy that she needed after Mary broke up with her Charlie, her partner of fifteen years. This break-up had been at his instance, and Mary had been devastated. She had not seen the warning signs: the long absences on business trips, the sudden attention to appearance, the buying of younger-looking clothes— all the give-away signs of male restlessness. And now here she was at forty, by herself, and feeling that the past decade-and-a-half of her life had been invested in a relationship that had been going nowhere and had left with nothing.

Thank heavens, she thought, for my family. Angela had telephoned her every day and she and her husband, Ted, had invited her to spend virtually every week-end with them. This suited Mary, who was fond of her twin eleven-year-old nieces, Flora and Patsy. They, for their part, worshipped their aunt, and were never happier than when she was staying with them.

In spite of the close sisterly relationship that existed between herself and Angela, Mary had a sneaking feeling that Angela actually felt sorry for her. This was hard to take, as few people like to feel pitied, no matter how difficult their circumstances.

“I’ll be all right,” Mary assured her sister. “I’m fine, just fine.”

“Of course,” said Angela. “Of course you’re all right. I’d never say you aren’t all right, you know. I’d never say that.”

But Mary could tell what Angela really thought. She thought that she—Mary—was on the shelf. She thought that all that lay ahead of her was spinsterhood—that terrible, condescending term spinsterhood. She could tell that this is what Angela thought because she could see it in her eyes. Your eyes give you away; your eyes say what you can’t put into words. Your eyes say all that.

That spring, after the break-up with Charlie, Ted and Angela invited Mary to join them on a spring holiday in Austria.

“We’re renting a house on the shore of one of those Austrian lakes,” said Angela. “We’d really like you to come with us. Three weeks. Three blissful weeks. We won’t take no for an answer. You’re coming.” She paused. “You speak German so well. You could practice that. I’m hopeless with languages you know.”

Mary had several weeks of holiday due to her, and had to take these before the summer. Sher had not been contemplating a spring break, but saw no reason why she should not go. And yet there was a nagging doubt as to why they were inviting her.

‘You aren’t asking me because you feel sorry for me,” she said to Angela.

Angela affected astonishment. “Feel sorry for you?” she exclaimed. “Why on earth do you think we should feel sorry for you?”

Mary wanted to say, “Because your eyes give it away” but did not. Instead she simply shrugged, and said, “Well, you know how it is …”

She thought: you know how it is—on the shelf; no man; no prospects of a man. The last fifteen years just wasted.

Angela said, “I’ll show you a picture of the house. It’s lovely. There are fields on either side—Alpine meadows, I suppose you’d call them. Cows with bells around their necks. Perfect.”

And the house was perfect. From her room in the attic, Mary could look out across the fields to the rising slope of the mountain. And the cows were there, as promised, the sound of their bells drifting down to the house on the breeze. Below them was the lake, its surface an impossible light green—the green of melted snow. The air was fresh and invigorating.

“Heavenly,” said Mary, breathing in the crisp mountain air.

“Oh, goodness,” said Angela. “Pure bliss.”

They fell into a routine. In the morning they drank hot chocolate and ate small pastries in the village. In the afternoon they undertook small hikes in the local woods. In the evenings they played cards and board games. The girls usually won.

“Wouldn’t it be great to live here forever,” said Angela. “Just like this. Far away from traffic and jobs and news bulletins—all that stuff.”

“It would,” agreed Mary. “Except it’s impossible.”

“Oh well,” said Angela. ‘One can dream, I suppose.”

Then, one morning Mary went for a walk in the village by herself. Coming upon an unfamiliar lane, she decided to explore it and found herself faced with an ornate iron gate in a high wall. Behind the wall, she could see that there was a large house, rather like a French chateau, but more Germanic in its architecture. As she was looking at the gate, it suddenly opened and a middle-aged woman appeared.

“You’re late,” the woman snapped.

Mary was taken aback. She opened her mouth to speak, but the woman cut her short.

“You must come in,” she said. “The Captain is expecting you. Come along.”

Mary hesitated, and then she made her decision. Why not? Why not for once do something really adventurous? Why not?

“I’m sorry,” she said. “The bus was …”

“Yes, yes,” said the woman, impatiently. “Come along now.”

She followed the woman down a path that led to a side door in the main house. They went inside.

“Wait here,” said the woman, indicating a chair in a large, rather impressive hall. “I’ll tell the Captain you’re here.” She added, “At last.”

“The bus …” began Mary, but the woman had retreated into an inner room, to reappear a few minutes later.

“The Captain says he’s ready to see you,” she said. “This way, please, Fraulein.”

He was standing behind a desk, wearing what appeared to be a naval uniform. As Mary entered, he gestured to a chair and invited her to sit.

“I am Georg von Tresk,” he said. “Captain von Tresk.”

Mary inclined her head politely. “I see.”

His expression was impassive. “You come with a very strong recommendation from Mother Superior,” he said.

Mary frowned. Mother Superior?

Captain von Tresk consulted a piece of paper on the desk in front of him. “She says that you have had some child care experience, even though you’ve never been a governess.”

Mary said nothing. This was absurd, and she should put a stop to the pretence, and yet, and yet …

“I have five children,” continued the Captain. “They can be a bit of a handful at times.”

Mary decided to end the farce. “Actually, I think that …”

She did not finish. Her life had been uneventful, and now, suddenly, she was faced with the delicious prospect of doing something fundamentally irresponsible. She would be caught out, of course, but nobody would be harmed. For the second time that morning she asked herself: why not?

“You what?” exclaimed Angela.

Mary’s tone was level. “I’ve taken a temporary job,” she said. “Just for two weeks.”

Angela stared at her sister open-mouthed. “But why? And what? What on earth will you be doing?”

“Looking after some children,” replied Mary. “While their regular governess is away.”

Angela’s astonishment grew. “Governess? Who employs a governess these days?”

“He’s called Captain von Tresk,” said Mary. “He’s rather nice. He has five children. Or six, perhaps. I can’t quite remember.” She paused. “The little one’s called Liesl, I think. And there’s Hans. Or Frans. It’ll take me a bit of time to work out just who’s who.”

Angela’s eyes widened. “Are you feeling all right?” she asked. “You haven’t taken leave of your senses, have you?”

Mary smiled. “It was all a bit unexpected, but you know what, Angela? I felt like a bit of an adventure, and I asked myself why not?”

Angela shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “You go on holiday and you take a job looking after five kids …”

“Or six.”

“Even worse. Are you out of your mind, Mary?”

“No,” said Mary. “I’m rather looking forward to it, as it happens.”

It took Mary a few days to get used to the von Tresk household. She found the Captain rather remote, and did not see much of him, but the children were friendly enough and she soon became fond of them. The Captain was a somewhat stern father, and she felt that the children were in awe of him; he should relax a bit, she felt; he could stop lining them up as if for inspection—he could let them be children; he could let them do the things that ordinary children wanted to do.

She took her charges cycling by the lake. They went out on a boat. They performed a little play, using puppets she had found in the attic. The spring sun shone as warmly, as encouragingly as if it had been summer. Austria basked in the unusually benign weather.

In the back of Mary’s mind, though, was niggling feeling of familiarity. It was not quite a sensation of deja-vu, but it was close to it. This experience, accidental and unexpected as it was, this strange case of mistaken identity, seemed to her to be vaguely familiar. It was as if she were acting out the plot of a play that she had already seen; seen and only half-remembered.

More significant than her doubts was the feeling she was beginning to have that Captain von Tresk, initially so reserved, was warming towards her. As the days passed, she noticed that he tended to spend more time with her and the children. His manner was visibly softening; the barked commands, the blowing of the whistle that hung about his neck—these became more infrequent, and eventually disappeared altogether.

“I am very pleased that you took this job,” he said to her one afternoon. “The children are clearly very fond of you.”

“And I of them,” said Mary.

There was a short silence. Then he continued, “They miss their late mother. They miss her very much.”

‘I can understand. They are still young.”

“Yet you seem to have made it easier for them,” he said. “You have made them happier.”

She did not say anything.

“I shall miss you when you go,” said the Captain. “I shall miss you a great deal.” He paused. ‘Unless, of course, you were to stay.”

Mary held her breath.

“Which is what I should now like to ask of you,” he said. “I would like you to stay.”

Mary closed her eyes. Why was this so familiar? Was this something that she had somehow experienced before—perhaps in a previous life? Was that it?

She opened her eyes. The Captain was looking at her with an undisguised fondness.

“I could consider it,” she said.

He smiled. “That reply has made me feel very happy.”

She walked back to her house that evening by a circuitous route. This was grassy expanse that rose sharply to the brow of a hill. She found herself running, her arms spread wide, the evening sun warm on her face. She lifted her head, gazing up at the sky, so wide, so airy, so promising. Something made her want to burst into song. She simply had to. She had to sing.