Massed on the platform
We are in Klagenfurt, the place I was born. We have gone to my fathers’ old work – a watchmakers store just outside the old city. In that very European fashion the building the store is a part of has a large central courtyard. Here we meet an elderly lady who works in a nearby women’s clothing store- has done for many decades. She remembers me learning to crawl and to walk in this courtyard, and the sight of me, a gangling teenager makes her cry. I submit to her emotion, though I cannot understand the effect time has on people. The owner, a kindly old gentleman called Pieber has a sadness of his own. Later I am told that his wife killed herself years before- parked her car on the level crossing and waited for the train to come. I am still haunted by the image of her. I sometimes see her face in the swarms of people that gather on the railway platforms, resolute and bereft, a husband too busy, no children to take sustenance from her love. In the sinuous movement of the train this woman appears sometimes – I don’t know why. But I can be a memorial to her if I need to be.
Huddled in the forest
That same trip to Klagenfurt, the family goes to the edge of the Karawanken, a gorgeous cluster of limestone peaks, to the Koschuta massif and we walk. It’s like a parody of Europe there. Impossible green rolling pastures rise to the pine forests that give way to ashen coloured scree and pale rocky cones that seem impossibly high and remote. Behind us rises the obligatory church steeple a few miles away, and I am transfixed by the musical clanking of cowbells as a little herd of cattle, as pretty as a school outing, strolls demurely past us. We follow them for a while then cut across to a dirt road that leads to a swoop of pine forest that drops precipitously below. Dad sets us to looking for mushrooms ,and we peel back the carpet of needles to evoke the deep scent of earth. He nods to me, “Race you to the bottom of this hill?” I eagerly set forward only to have him yank me back so hard that I wonder if my arm has dislocated. He gestures to the serried ranks of nettles that fill the woods, as high as my face. We don’t race into the woods after all but instead walk to a little Gasthaus further up the hills above us.
Hanging from the walls
They remember the Old Man. I am constantly in awe of his capacity to leave an impression upon those he meets. He is like gravity – he distorts space around him, attracts people to him – not always for the best reasons. They know him here and he orders his usual, a quarter of red, Almdudler for us kids, a Weiß gespritzt for Mum. He gestures to the walls, and I see strange thin objects everywhere, a symphony of glossy browns and greys, black and blue, stripes and diamonds., but in the relative gloom of the building it is difficult to make out what they are.
“They’re ties. Neckties. If you ever come in here wearing a necktie, they take a pair of scissors and,” here he gestures with his fingers at his collarbone “snip it off. They’ve been doing this for years!” There seem to be hundreds of them, and I wonder at how many people had the wherewithal to walk this far up the hills wearing a tie. Who had the courage to protest as the scissors came down, to the delighted roars of the locals? It’s hard to picture the brave wearing shirts and ties, halfway up a mountain.
Sitting here now typing this in my office, it is all I can do to keep on the tie I now wear for my own job. It feels like a hybrid noose and dog collar. It is a symbol of everything the Old Man was not – conformist and restrained. It strives to make me just like everything else. Driven by so many choices we end up in places we never anticipated, driven by grief and loneliness, or misguided playfulness or simply the choices of stability and comfort. Some days it will feel unfair, as the voices striving for freedom buzz in our ears and tug at our souls, a swarm of clamouring little desires that make us yearn to rise and kick off our shoes and walk out into a loving dangerous world of mountains and oceans, forests and sand.