All Stories, General Fiction

Climbing by Antony Osgood

For the fortieth memorial picnic, Egon Frankl had prepared ditalini with tomatoes smothered in oil. The food shimmered beneath an airless Viennese sun as he waited for his brother, who adored the dish. Not once did Egon sneak a bite. He’d long ago learned to go without so others might eat. Whilst his brother was normally late – Egon’s disappeared wife, Hilde, the person to whom the afternoon was supposedly devoted, once said being late was Ignaz’s chief characteristic – that day Ignaz excelled himself by failing to make any appearance whatsoever. Egon occupied himself by admiring the tattered life for which the city park was home. He ardently wished for his brother’s Copernicus moment, when it would dawn on Ignaz that the universe did not revolve about him. Younger brothers – even one aged eighty-two – seem duty bound, it seems, to disappoint.

After two hours Egon came to donate pasta to pigeons, parakeets, and squirrels. He alone raised an empty fork to the sky, and in the traditional salute, silently mouthed his lost wife’s name. ‘Wherever she may be. For Hilde,’ the invisible sentence ran. A cloud of sparrows at that moment rose from a bush as if drawn out by his longing.

Esterházypark is overlooked by tall modern, and older, once-elegant apartments, precise as ancient stones raised to follow stars and seasons. Egon has lived so long about these parts he can tell the time from their shadows. Today, on the anniversary of his wife’s absconding, the little park is full of poorly-dressed tourists waving maps in confusion and eating cheap sandwiches with inexplicable satisfaction. But rather that than firing squads and weeping. One must make the best even of grief.

A dapper man paused ten years off one hundred years, whose thin square shoulders slump only a little, leaves the private memorial service for the birds, and makes his way home. He passes coffee shops and the cliches visitors love, and among which real people make their lives.

Entering the apartment block he eschews the elevator, preferring instead to climb the stairs to his seventh-floor apartment. This is for his physical health. In another way, doing so is also a cardiovascular exercise. Each step is not only a reminder to keep his promise – that he will never stop climbing – but a reiteration of the ever-present need to renew that promise. After so much darkness, climbing is a way to reach the light.

There is a knack to ensuring the timed stairwell bulbs remain burning. (It is too easy to fall prey to darkness in this confined space.) Beside each polished doorway leading to each floor, he must press the plastic pneumatic switch then hurry up four twisting flights that separate each level.

Liver-spotted hands smooth cherry-wood banisters. Polished Hermes Paris Loafers finished in brun fume nip his toes for fashion’s sake. He imagines he is climbing history, ascending rolling decks of a great schooner against the cruel ebb tide called age, named forgetfulness. Somethings must never be forgot: if they are, history will repeat its foolishness in Vienna. It will start on a street corner and spread to cover the world.

The building heaves when Egon permits such thoughts. It cannot surely be him that is faltering. Ignaz – whoever he is with, wherever he is hiding today of all days – once said to Hilde how Egon reminded him of Sisyphus – ‘Unbearable and unbreakable, more’s the pity.’

Each step is richly decorated in golden and autumn tiles, and each tread is inlaid with the initials of the Jewish family who once lived here, who paid for the apartment block. Less than a hundred years after its completion, Austrians cheered on by Germans stole away their right to own even a thread, or to laugh, to live or to have ever lived. Each step is, for Egon, a little act of defiance. Each riser is a stone placed on a grave, an atonement. It is a promise to not forget the little Nazis.

Such men and women were never defeated, because ideas can never be wholly overcome. Rather such people became bankers, or sent Americans to the moon, or taught the Russians how to make atomic bombs. They continued being nurses and doctors, or joined other political parties, and no matter how they boiled-washed their histories, a little of the stain remains.

When he climbs these stairs, Egon feels each step runs the risk of erosion. This why he walks at the edge of each tread, dances up the stairwell on his tiptoes. He’d not risk defacing the tiles with their forgotten language. To not climb carefully would be like marching on a pavement of family photographs.

Egon hauls himself up risers, clings to the ironwork of flight balustrade. He daren’t let go of the building, in case its history lets go of him. Here it was that Hilde and he raised Ignaz in lieu of murdered parents. This building must not forget their happy, if brief marriage. It witnessed the birth of their son Hans, who even now asks for his mother with his eyes. And before Hilde came, here Egon kept Ignaz hidden until it was safe to once more dare to feel the sun. And here, after the war, he rescued orphans and broken humans.

The way Egon climbs these steps is often mocked by Ignaz, who claims he has learned two things in the decades he’s spent trailing behind his brother. Firstly, his brother has no discernible arse. ‘My meatless-buttocked brother.’ Secondly, it seems from his wide gait that Egon is the proud owner of an invisible horse. ‘Gee up, Egon, gee up!’

Egon climbs, smiling, wondering where Ignaz has got to, but suspecting the better question would be to ask where Ignaz has not been. Distracted, slightly out of breath, on the seventh floor landing door, he sees new graffiti that throws him to starboard: ‘Jews Out of Palestine’.

All he can think is that he is glad Hilde is too far from Europe to see this. She couldn’t face living through such hateful times again. Were she here – and oh, how he wishes it was true, whilst at the same time pleased she is living her own on the other side of the world – she would say, having poked him in the ribs, ’See, Egon, you fool? You don’t belong here. We don’t belong anywhere. Why commit your life to a city that hates us so readily?’

To which he would reply, as he did so long ago on the evening she left, ‘But Hilde, someone has to stay behind to rescue all the orphans. Someone has to mend the child soldiers.’

He will fetch cloth and detergent. That’s what he’ll do. He’s told Hans often enough that doing damns the darkness, after all. Yes! He will wipe the stairwell clean of hate. And even though this message shows they know where he lives, he will not hide again from such people.

It is what his parents would have expected of their eldest son. He will not erode the memory of the people who built this building, and he will not surrender Vienna – not a single cobble, not one building, not a step, no matter how small or grand – to the Nazis.

Gee up, Egon, gee up.

Antony Osgood

Image: Esterházypark Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Images by Peter Gugerell, Vienna

6 thoughts on “Climbing by Antony Osgood”

  1. Happy new year, Antony

    As Elie Wiesel said “If we forget the dead, the dead will be killed a second time.” This story is beautifully written, and I hope it causes someone to think a bit more about the subject than they do about stupid tweets made by celebrities.
    Leila

    Like

  2. Hi Tony,
    There are some wonderful lines in this.
    Not many come even close to being as lyrical as you. I reckon you and Tom Sheehan have the monopoly on that!!
    And when I am mentioning your writing prowess within the subject matter, that is something very special my fine friend.
    Hugh

    Oh – Especially liked –

    ‘A cloud of sparrows at that moment rose from a bush as if drawn out by his longing.’

    Like

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