Alexander Wye is a British-born writer and English teacher. A love of romance, the local cuisine and the beautiful Vienna Woods has led to the Austrian capital becoming his permanent home.
A Voice from Above
“Ave Maria….Jungfrau mild”, a powerful peel of sound singing through the air like a high-pitched silver bell. Christian stared at his father’s gardenia laden coffin, let his eyes close and placed his hands together, bathing in the beauty of the voice. He felt, or thought he felt, his father’s soul lifting from its casket. Maybe there was a God, a heaven, a place where he would see him again.
He unclasped his hands, turned and stared up at the soloist in the choir stalls. Sabine, the frail, pale ghost of a woman who worked as his mother’s care assistant, stood powerfully dominating the church, gesticulating as she sang. He was astounded. As the song came to its rapturous finale she drew a breath, let her body fall and smiled down at him.
He smiled back, and turned again to face the altar. His sister and mother were sitting ahead of him in the pew at the front. He stared past Elsa’s brightly feathered hat, more suitable for a wedding, and the other’s plain dark clothes, picturing his father in his mind’s eye, the kind, super-energized editor and publisher. He had passed away two weeks ago, following a short battle with cancer. After a few prayers and hymns, and a touching eulogy from Father Roman, the Polish priest with the face of a saint, again came Sabine’s voice, filling the air, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
He closed his eyes in genuine reverence, transported from the stunned fog of disbelief that had enveloped him since his father’s passing.
Afterwards, the congregation shuffled slowly down the aisle and he nodded at Horst, Elsa’s bulky car-dealer husband; his father’s colleagues, now grown old, glancing around mournfully at the stained- glass windows and the statues of Christ on the cross and Maria and the baby Jesus, balanced precariously on narrow ledges jutting from the high walls.
As he reached the rear of the church, Christian lined up with the others to light a candle for his father, placed it on the small wooden trolley provided, faced the altar and made the sign of the cross. He went into the church entrance room, pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped out into the street, where a shaft of sunlight blinded him and the cold October air cut through the thin cloth of his suit trousers.
His cousin George, he noticed, was standing a little to one side, smoking. George lived in England, as Christian and the family had done until Mum had got fed up with living in a ‘foreign country’ and had wanted to come ‘home’. Dad had used his contacts at Penguin, where he worked as a junior manager, to get a job in the printing and publishing department of the United Nations in Vienna.
“Hi George,” said Christian. “Haven’t seen you in ages, ” as he went over to him.
“Hi Chris.” He offered Christian a cigarette, who took one and George reached out to light it for him.
“Pity about your Dad. Remember when he took us over the common at Weobley, when we were about 10 or 11, and he let us drive the car. The Hillmann Imp.”
“Sure…..Crazy really, but fun.” Christian sighed and took a deep drag on the cigarette, exhaled and gave a short cough.
“So, what’s going to happen now? I mean, with the house and everything. Is your Mum gonna stay alone there, or are you gonna sell it? Or what?”
“I don’t know,” Christian said. “I haven’t thought about the inheritance or anything.”
George looked at him. “Yeah. Course. Sorry mate.”
Christian looked over at his mother and sister, and the others, gathered around Father Roman, his sister’s loud voice carrying in the wind. She was filming them all on her I Pad.
“Best go and join them,” said Christian and they ambled over.
“Oh, Chris! Keep that cigarette away,” cried Elsa. “Father Roman doesn’t want smoke in his face.” They always spoke in English. Maybe Father Roman understood, maybe not.
“I don’t suppose Catholic priests are used to smoke,” Christian said, his sarcasm lost on her.
“Don’t mind my son, Father Roman,” their mother interjected. “He never knew any manners, despite all the schooling money could buy.”
The priest just smiled.
Christian caught Sabine’s eye. “Sabine,” he said. “Can I have a word?”
She fixed the brake on his mother’s wheelchair and came over to him.
“I never knew you could sing like that.”
“I told you I was a singer. Didn’t you believe me?”
“I believed you. Of course. But nothing like that. That made it a proper send off for Dad. It was brilliant.”
“So sad about your Dad. He was such a nice man.”
“Yes. He was that.”
“I’m singing again next week.” She looked briefly away, then straight into his eyes. “At an old people’s home. Would you like to come?”
An old people’s home? It didn’t sound at all enticing. But he was drawn. “Sounds good. I’d like that. Thanks.”
The following Tuesday afternoon Sabine was on duty at Mrs Schmidt’s (Christian’s mother always insisted on the German version of the family name) in Perchtoldsdorf, a pretty village just on the southern edge of Vienna. The family had lived in this large house, with its fir trees and rose beds and small goldfish pond for the best part of 30 years.
Sabine was at the sink in the kitchen when she saw Elsa pull up in her red VW convertible. She wrung the dishcloth tightly and watched as Elsa, in a spotless red and cream pantsuit, walked up the narrow path to the front door, ignoring Dragos, the Rumanian gardener. She came through the unlocked front door, stuck her head into the kitchen and hissed a breathless “Hello” to Sabine who replied with a curt “Grüß Gott Frau Schüch”.
“Another minute and I’ll be off.”
Elsa went into the lounge at the back of the house, with its view across to the Perchtoldsdorfer Heath, the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral beyond and in the distance the group of ugly 1950s buildings that housed the United Nations, where Mr Smith had worked his way up from junior to head of the publications department.
Sabine finished in the kitchen and went into the hallway to get her coat and shoes. Elsa’s voice sounded loudly through the closed door of the lounge.
“Look Mum,” she was saying. “If you sign it all over to me, I’ll look after Christian. He’s got no idea about money. Horst and I can put it into the car business and pay him a monthly allowance. €300 a month.”
“He’ll never agree to me putting everything in your name. Not even Christian,” replied the mother.
“He will if you back me up. He’s always been scared of you.”
“He’s always been scared of you too, if you want to know,” Mrs Schmidt said, her voice gone hard now.
“We’ll just give him the papers to sign when we see the lawyer next week. He probably won’t even read them. You know what he’s like,” said Elsa.
“Let’s just see,” her mother said.
“Christian was always Dad’s favourite. Now it’s my turn in the limelight,” said Elsa.
“Bye then Mrs Schmidt. Bye Frau Schüch,” Sabine called from the hallway.
Elsa’s high-heels clacked across the parquet flooring. She opened the door quickly. “You weren’t listening were you?” she asked.
“No. Of course not,” Sabine said, keeping her eyes fixed on Elsa’s. I’m going now. ……Can you tell Mrs Schmidt I’ll call in again on Friday. Could she pay me then please? And for the singing.”
Christian arrived at the Senioren Heim in Vienna’s noble 19th district bang on the appointed five o’clock. He made his way into the large hall. Sabine was hunched over the piano at the front, making final preparations.
Very elderly people, mostly women, were lined up in rows of uncomfortable looking institutional chairs, and several more in wheelchairs were at the very front. He and Sabine greeted each other with a peck on the cheek and she introduced him to Atsko, her piano accompaniment, sitting primly on her stool with her nose in the air.
The concert began. Sabine introduced each piece - first a Mozart aria, then a Schubert Lied , but mostly traditional Viennese songs that the old people knew. Still, Christian was entranced, her voice somehow carrying him to a place of calm, a place he hadn’t been for many years, if ever at all.
After about 45 minutes Sabine made an announcement. “This is the last song. One all of you know, I’m sure,” and they launched into, ‘Im Prater blühen wieder die Bäume,’ the old people singing merrily along, their rheumy eyes shining.
Afterwards, they said their goodbyes to Atsko and took the U-bahn into town. It was a warmish evening and they strolled along Schwedenplatz, with its kebab and pizza-slice stalls thronged with customers, to Lala, a smart Turkish restaurant on the edge of the lively Bermuda Triangle.
Neither were very hungry but they ordered drinks and a few appetizers. She seemed shy, he thought, and she stared down at her drink, her frail fingers clutching at the straw she had asked for. He reached out and took her hand. She let him.
“You’re so different when you’re singing. So confident. And then, well, you seem so shy,” said Christian.
“I know. It’s just that, singing was a way out for me. You know, an escape.”
“I know what you mean,” said Christian. “Or at least, I think I do.” He paused, pondering something. “You know, I really loved Dad. He taught me such a lot. And I feel I failed him. He was such a success. And look at me. A nothing, scurrying away in a library all day.”
Sabine placed her glass down, leaned over and took Christian’s other hand in hers. She looked him squarely in the eye.
“Christian,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
“I was at your Mum’s the other day. And Elsa called round. They were talking about you. You and the inheritance. I know it´s none of my business, but….. well…. “ She stopped, a little afraid.
“Go on, “ he said. “ It´s all right.”
“They´re planning so you get an allowance. Elsa´s going to get all the money and the house. Your Mum´s going to sign everything over. Sorry, you know, Elsa speaks so loudly. I wasn´t snooping or anything.”
“Well, fuck them”, said Christian. “ Sorry. It´s just always the same. I´m always the last to know.”
They paid and left and crossed over to walk along the Danube Canal. A party boat passed, the revellers on the upper deck waving and shouting as the rhythm of the music briefly filled the night.
The wash of the swell from the boat hit against the stone side of the canal. He stared at the water momentarily lost in reverie. He came to, reached out, drew her to him, looked into her eyes, and kissed her.
A few days later Christian sat plunged into a high-sided leather arm chair at the offices of Griessmann and White. The secretary had offered him a coffee, which he’d refused, and now he was scanning through copy of Auto magazine, casually taking in the sleek contours of the latest models.
He heard the ping of the lift bell and looked over to see his sister, mother, and, to his surprise, Sabine coming through the door. Sabine was pushing his mother in her wheel chair. Elsa came over to him, a fur stole wrapped tightly around her neck.
“Hi Chris! How are you?”
“Okay, I suppose.”
“Look, I haven’t told you because I didn’t want to worry you. But there is a paper for you to sign when we go in. Just sign it. It’ll be fine.”
Sabine was looking over at him. Coolly, it seemed.
“Well, I’ll read it first,” was all he could summon up.
The middle-aged secretary called them into Griessmann’s office.
“Hi, Anthony. How are you?”, said Elsa, loudly, as she went in ahead of everyone else.
Griessmann, a large round-faced man in an immaculate three-piece suit, flinched as Elsa tried to kiss him on the cheek.
“Won’t you all take a seat,” he said. “There’s water,” he added, gesturing to the two jugs of water and gleaming upturned glasses placed on white napkins around the table.
They all sat, except Sabine, who stood behind Mrs. Schmidt, looking over at Christian opposite her.
“Well, I have the papers you requested, Frau Schüch,” said Griessmann.
“Great.” Elsa snatched the papers from him, sifted through them and found the one she was looking for.
“So, I’ll take over responsibility for the house and Mum’s care. And Christian will get a monthly allowance . €300. For the next ten years,” she said. “Till he’s sixty.”
Christian’s face flushed. “What do you mean, ‘responsibility’ ?”, he said, his voice rising in anger. “What you actually mean is, you get the lot and I get fobbed off with a measly 300 a month!”
“You get what’s due to you!” They held each other’s gaze for a moment. He wondered if she was still taking Prozac.
“Dad would have wanted……,” he started, but she cut him off.
“Dad’s dead. We have to look after Mum. And I’m the one who can do that.”
Christian turned briefly to Griessmann, then quickly back to Elsa.
“What am I going to do? If I want to buy a house…….. or get married?”
“You. Married. Come on, Chris. It’s not likely is it? Not at your age. Be glad you’re getting the 300.”
“No way I’m signing that paper.”
“He just wants what’s fair,” Sabine interjected, her face tense as it confronted Elsa.
“What’s it got to do with you?”, asked Mrs Schmidt, rudely.
“Me and Chris are together now,” she said, staring at them.
“You! A stick thin nobody like you!” cried Elsa.
“Come on,” Chris said to Sabine, his voice angry and upset. “We’re going.”
He stood up and picked up his coat. Sabine came round the table to join him.
“Stop behaving like a maniac Christian,” the shrill voice of his mother cut across the room.
“Mama, es ist mir vollig würscht,” he replied, red in the face now.
“Well, it seems there are some discussions still to be had,” said Griessmann. “ Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Schmidt. Please to make a termin with my secretary.”
Christian took Sabine’s hand and they left. They didn’t look back, but went quickly down the stone spiral staircase and out into the dark. It was snowing. The first bright snowflakes of winter. (2474 words)