Of course everything seemed so much larger when you were young, but I was still confused that the hill was missing. Then it occurred to me that I was standing on it – and that hill was a very generous name for what was a 5 metre high mound of earth, swathed in grass, so unlike the first meeting.
1994: The taste of tea and snow
The Uncle has been friendly enough, but very quiet. Even accounting for the language barrier it’s hard to think of more than a few sentences he has said to us in the week since we arrived. In the light of adulthood and maturity it is clear that he is uncomfortable around children – his own son has not spoken to him in many years, even though they live a few hundred metres away from each other in this tiny village.
So at the end of that first week he produces a sled from the basement that looks like something from a story book. Glowing curled runners and wooden slats smoothed with the patina of a thousand excited rides. He takes the leather straps and leads me and my sister out into the snow blanketed fairytale that is Austria.
And we reach the rodeln hill,
and he demonstrates, wordlessly,
how to slide down the hill.
And it is fun – so much fun in fact that for the first time the anxiety and wonderment of this new life our family has committed to becomes different. there is a potential here. This is my Uncle, here is snow to play in, we are seeing our Oma daily. This can be home. This will be home.
After a while the snow starts to fall in flurries and he points across into the lacy white and says ‘Drinks.’ He takes us to Gasthaus Grasl and order us two pots of tea, and a glass of something strong and brown. And then he orders another, while my sister and I hesitantly sip the scalding bitter tea.
In the end it doesn’t work out the way it was intended to. The Uncle and our father have a huge falling out and they never speak to each other again. The last thing they say to each other seems to take all that family bond of some 50 years and make it as small as a hill no longer constrained by a child’s memory.
Uncle: Can’t you see that you are asking me to choose between my wife and my brother. I’m sitting across two chairs.
Father: Then go sit on the broader one.
And following that remark he walked outside and for the first time I saw my father cry, which scared me more than I knew it was possible to be afraid. Watching a father cry like that reveals the artifice of all your imaginings. Gods are men, hills become mounds of earth, cosy villages become oppressive prisons.
2015: The size of a hill
As the days become almost routine, and the final goodbye draws closer, there is little regret left, beyond the relentless longing for more time. But gnawing away is the sense that the two brothers have the right to reconcile. Or the chance to do so. It’s so confused now – knowing that the village was so small, the news of my fathers imminent death would have reached his brother almost sooner than it reached me. He knows, and would come if he wanted I tell myself, this is not your concern. But at the same time, I want to make the gesture – as terrifying as it is to do this, to risk opening poorly knitted wounds. Maybe Uncle is scared of us, I think, maybe he would respond to the offer, and two brothers could at least say a goodbye of sorts, even an angry one.
I raise the idea with my mother and sister. They don’t think it’s a good idea. They remind me that the uncle knows, and that it’s probably best not to interfere, and make things worse.
But the idea of passivity is anathema to me, and I decide to try at least, so that I can go to my own grave without the spectre of what if haunting me.
I walk towards their house, unannounced, yet I wonder if the weird grapevine of the village has already tracked me. In my minds eye I can see figures hidden behind drapes, lifting walkie talkies, saying things like, ‘The target is making his way down Neubaugasse, over.’ But when I arrive, I see the Uncle in the garden, and I become acutely aware of my thumping heart and trembling hands. The last time I saw him with his wife, two years earlier, he looked straight through me as they rode their bicycles and towards that same Gasthaus where he had bought us tea, and himself rum at 9 o’clock in the morning.
And so here I stand in the afternoon light, and he looks up from what he was doing and looks at me, and he knows who I am. And no doubt he can guess why I am at his gate.
I clear my throat and say, “Uncle Walter, it’s me. I was hoping we could talk just for a minute. I don’t have to come in, I just want to let you know something.”
He stands up, and looks at me and for a minute I think he might come to open the gate and we can try and ease the burden these two brothers have laboured under. But then he turns, never saying a word and goes inside his house. I hear the deadbolt turn, and then nothing.
I stand and look at the closed door, and hear that silence. When I start to walk back to my father the shadows are long and the sky is fading into evening.
I must have been standing there for some time.