Goodnight, Vienna by Marius Gabriel



You had to be careful where you walked, not just because the pavements were smashed and the streets blocked here and there by tons of rubble that had yet to be bulldozed away, but because the zones of the four Occupying Powers – American, Russian, British and French – were marked only by hand-lettered noticeboards; and it could be dangerous to wander into the wrong zone without the right permit.

The Russians, in particular, were unpredictable. They might give you a swig of vodka, if they were in the mood. They might take you round the back of a bombed building and rape you. There was no way to know.

She had been warned that women who walked alone in Vienna were kidnapped sometimes at checkpoints. They vanished into the cellars and were never seen again, even if the paltry ransom was paid.

But she could not let fear hold her back. She had experienced many years of fear, and she knew that if you gave in to it, you stopped moving altogether. So she let her feet go where they willed.

As in a dream, nothing was the way she remembered it. But things were half-recognised sometimes. You saw a marble statue you had once known, ghostly against the dark ruins; but the horse and rider had both lost their heads, and they now stood among a scattering of cracked masonry, like ice floes in a half-frozen sea. Or you looked down a street that seemed familiar somehow, except there was nothing for the memory to catch hold of, because the buildings you might have known were hollowed out and the coffee shops you might have sat in were empty caverns filled with debris and foul water.

Weeds grew between the heaved-up paving stones, some of them in flower, dirty purple or bloodless white, rank life reclaiming the places where once carefully tended roses had bloomed.

And as in a dream, the streets were deserted. If you did see another person, it was a silhouette that flitted like a shadow at the end of a once grand Hauptstrasse, and was gone; or an old woman plodding with her head down, scavenging for God knew what; or children clambering on the distant hulk of a burned-out tank.

Vienna was a city that belonged to the dead and their ghosts. And to soldiers. The soldiers who congregated in odd places were the only presence that seemed really alive. Russians in fur caps and padded coats, negotiating with women who took to the streets in their nightwear to leave no doubt as to what they were selling; Americans with cameras, photographing everything as though it were not all defaced and despoiled; British and French with hard eyes, sporting the thin moustaches made popular by the film stars of the day.

Otherwise, Vienna was desolate and grey.

She walked along the banks of the Danube, and it was desolate too; no longer blue and rollicking, but a flat wash of lead that ran from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, and no more belonged to Vienna than did the flat, leaden wash of the sky overhead.

She walked the broken streets, remembering, yet not really sure what it was she remembered. It had been so long ago, a lifetime ago, though only a scattered handful of years.

She came at last to St Stephen’s Cathedral. But it was not as she remembered it. The American bombs and the Soviet artillery had seen to that. The rich swathes of stained glass were gone, leaving gaping holes. The wooden trusses of the roof had burned to charcoal. The stone skeleton of the great building was blackened by fire. The ranks of saints and bishops were mutilated. A heavy price had been paid.

She stood looking at it for a long time before she had the will to go in. She picked her way over the rubble and through the doorway.

The bare interior of the cathedral was being cleared by old men with handcarts. But candles had been lit in the heavy wrought-iron candelabra, as though God still lived here, and still cared about such things. Their small flicker led her on.

An old priest made his way towards her, hurrying as fast as his arthritic limbs would allow, his red-rimmed eyes anxious. He took her arm, and pointed a finger upwards to warn her of the danger of falling rubble; men were up there, working on the roof, black spiders against the grey sky. She nodded to show that she understood. He pointed to the wooden collection box. She found a few schillings in her pocket, and dropped them in. They landed inside with a hollow rattle that reverberated around the nave. Gutted as it was, the cathedral conserved its aural space. There was a hush between these walls, an echo that was somehow holy, despite everything. Every sound you made, every cough or scuff of the shoe, was returned to you in a whisper, as though by a legion of phantoms.

She made her way slowly to the altar, trying to remember how she had felt, what it had been like, before the war. She stopped at last and looked up. The Gothic choir stalls were buried in ash. One night before Christmas, long ago, a choir had sung here, jewelled voices supported by the deep hum of an organ. Here she had stood and listened, entranced. She strained her ears now for the ghost of that music. But it had fled.

If she was looking for something, it was no longer here. She would have to find it somewhere else.

It was time to go back.

She turned at last, and made her way back through the ruined city to the concert hall.