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Fourteen and Impossible

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The boy is looking imploringly at her again. Elsa sighs, and holds up a hand to summon the waiter.

“This tea has become cold,” she informs him. “We shall need a fresh pot.”

Bowing deeply, the waiter removes the offending article, and Elsa takes a deep breath, closes her eyes for a moment, and then turns her gaze back to her companion.

“My dear, I do rather think we should telephone your parents. Your father will not be very pleased about this, will he?”

“They’re on their honeymoon,” the boy mutters, folding the cloth of his napkin between his fingers, talking into his chest. “Uncle Max – Herr Detweiler – he is looking after us. And Frau Schmidt too, I suppose. And Liesl – well, she wants to, but she’s always waiting for...”

Eventually – thankfully - he seems to realise he is rambling and coughs, flushing.

Elsa has little enough patience for most adults who cannot maintain a bright and witty conversation, and at least one is allowed to either scorn their company or - when that is not possible - comfort oneself that only the most important and connected of people are permitted to be boring.

The strange mumblings of children, however, one must apparently simply endure.

“Regardless of who, exactly, is your guardian at present, Friedrich,” she says, with all the patience she can muster, “don’t you think you might have informed them before you came away to Vienna? Or left them some sort of message?”

Then, at least, they might have stopped him before he got to her. No reason why Georg shouldn’t have told his children where her house was – she was once almost their mother, legally speaking, after all – but really, he didn’t have to.

That the honeymoon his parents are away on might well have been her own, and that it might perturb her to know about it, has clearly not entered the boy’s mind. He is a young fourteen, she thinks – yes, Georg keeps them young. Probably has no idea about his eldest daughter and that telegram boy – what did he expect, if he never let the girl go to parties and meet young men of her own class? At sixteen, Elsa could twist a man around her little finger – had to, otherwise, she knew, they’d twist you round worse than that in their turn.

The boy is blinking back at her; such blue eyes, he is like a propaganda poster come to life, one sees them everywhere now, such blue-eyed boys, with slogans that end in exclamation marks.

When Elsa was sixteen, the country she lived in was the heart of the Habsburg Empire and wars were something that happened in hot, distant places with long and difficult names. Politics were of no consequence to a woman, nor did they need to be – a woman’s world would be insulated from anything of that kind.

It was a surprise to her, then, when the Great War came. Her first fiancé had died at Ypres. He had been a good man, not so very handsome or clever, but fervent in everything, from pleasing her to his patriotism, and with millions of others he was simply gone, a generation eaten clean away. Politics came into the salons after that; all the women were crying, sooner or later, for someone.

Now politics has stalked her here, into the heart of her beloved Vienna, and apparently this boy must come also, to make the day yet more unbearable.

“I have to see it, Baroness” he says again. There is a light in his eyes – when he first told her, when he arrived at her townhouse, she thought for a moment he was enthusiastic, and had been surprised how sick it had made her feel. Max would have been quite amused.

But the light is not joy. It is simple, overpowering purpose. The need of the young to try and understand that which no one ever will – why things happen as they do, why the world arranges itself in the shape it chooses.

She clears her throat, shifting in her chair. “You may call me ‘Elsa’, if you wish.”

Hearing her title makes her feel so old, and at such a distance from him, this boy who once hated her so strongly and silently, alongside his siblings. Does he even recall that feeling, now? Does he think, because he no longer has to resent her, that she cannot possibly resent him? Children always seem to be bewildered by emotion, by the intricacy of it, by the shades of grey.

That nun may have taught Georg to love again, as perhaps she never could, but it was Elsa who taught him to laugh, who kept him laughing when he veered so close, for so long, to despair. She did it at first with no agenda at all; she did it simply because she had the power to do so.  

“Elsa,” the boy says, carefully, testing the word. He is nothing like his father – his mother, perhaps, was this way; pale, reflective, gentle and sensitive.

This boy, she finds herself thinking suddenly, with a flash of something tugged from twenty years out of her past - a cold, amorphous dread - would not do at all well as a soldier.

“Elsa, I have to see it,” he is saying, sitting up straighter now, determined. “You should see it. Everyone keeps going on about it, what it means, what it will mean. We can’t just pretend it isn’t happening.”

Elsa had been planning to do just that. But then, Elsa had planned a lot of things for this year.

The fresh pot of tea arrives, and they sit in silence as the waiter pours for them.

 As he moves away, Elsa wonders what a good, maternal sort of woman would say at this moment. Would she pack the boy on the next train to Salzburg? Would she chastise him somehow, for his thoughtlessness? Would she ask him if he was afraid, if deep down he felt a creeping, gnawing horror, a kind of blank where the future ought to stretch?

Quickly, she takes a gulp of tea, hot and reassuring. Come now, she can always go to England - her money with her, if she arranges things properly.

That is, if England is far enough... How far will this go? Elsa should know, at least as well as anyone, what may be encompassed by ambition.

She will be pragmatic, if she has to, but she refuses to run. When a man is intolerable, you smack his face before you walk away from him. In his own, foolish way, this boy may have the right idea.

“Very well,” she hears herself saying.

The boy looks up, wide-eyed, excited:  “Really?”

Children are utterly ridiculous. “Yes, really. Come along, now.”

She has an account at this café, there is no need to wait for the bill – rising, she leads him between the tables, cautioning him not to trip or make anyone spill anything, pulling on her gloves as she walks through the doors and outside.

The surging crowds would make the direction clear, even if one didn’t know the way to the Heldenplatz. If she’d sent the boy away – she had every right to, he was no concern of hers – he might have joined them anyway and then... goodness knows what might have happened then. Georg keeps them too young – she never told him that, fearing to distance him, and she should have done.

Soon none of this will be any place for children.

“Come along.” She turns to him and sighs. “I’m afraid you had better take my hand. I don’t want to have to spend my whole afternoon looking for you. Only for a few minutes, mind you, and then I’m putting you on a train.”

He stands straight to parade attention and nods; she’s half expecting a salute.

Georg never had the first idea how to deal with children either; she had comforted him that no reasonable, thinking adult ever really could.

From several streets away, she can hear voices singing. It is ‘Deutschland Erwache’, in all its foulness, swelling loud and resounding. Whoever thinks music can only ever be a good and beautiful thing is a fool. Under the melody, come shouts and screams and hails.

 “Baroness?” Friedrich is saying, cautiously.

She has frozen to the ground, listening, and he has walked forward, and now their hands tug at the join between them, her white glove in his grubby, rough paw.

“Elsa,” she corrects, and swallows, and strides forward.

Together they go, hand in hand, to see Chancellor Hitler officially proclaim the Anschluss. She keeps her fingers clasped tightly on his, and he on hers, as the crowds jostle and press around them.

He cries after a while, overcome, and tries to hide it from her.

Elsa sighs and passes him a handkerchief from her bag, and when he suddenly turns and hugs her – angular and painful and sticky with tears and snot, how do women bear it? – she cannot think quite how to push him away, and ends up standing there, patting him on the back, slow and awkward, whilst across the square it continues, relentless as the rain.