It was Monday, a cool April Monday. Yesterday in Vienna I’d seen spring decorating the Volkspark with big banks of red and pink flowers. Here, two hours’ flight further east, it was measured only in tiny green buds on bare black branches.
I was standing in the old city park, looking down the hill toward the centre of the town. The dark soil of the flowerbeds had been freshly turned over, but the paths crossing the park were still grey and muddy, lined with rank dark-green daffodils. It had rained earlier in the morning, and I could smell wet earth, pine needles, and damp masonry, mingled with diesel exhaust from the trucks rattling down the uneven street along the park’s edge. Now the sun was out, a clear low sunlight, matching the pastel colours of the buildings; blue, pale green, rose, and that mustard shade, peculiar to the old Habsburg lands, called Maria Theresa yellow.
I was back in L’viv, as it is in Ukrainian, Lwow, as the Poles still sorrowfully call it. It is the city where Joseph Roth lived in the flickering end years of the Empire of which he wrote with such nostalgic affection. And when this city formed part of Roth’s fatherland, the Empire, German-speakers like Roth called it Lemberg.
Standing in the park, I thought of the photograph of Roth you see most often. He is sitting on a suitcase on a railway platform. Behind him is a freight car with letters and numbers chalked on it, but he is no freight-car rider, he has a suit and a soft hat and white shirtcuffs, indeed he looks as if he might be writing on one of his cuffs. Below the shadow of his hatbrim his expression is amused, enquiring, and you wonder what railway station it was, and where he was going. And you wonder what he was thinking of just then, at that moment now frozen in the photograph; something that later appeared in a newspaper under his byline, read in coffee-shops and on street corners, a scene from one of his books, or simply some private reflection that he kept to himself?
Pine trees framed the cream and white university buildings opposite. Students hurried in through the main gates, delivered in clusters by battered green trolleybuses that pulled up outside. A few fluffy whitish clouds moved slowly in the pale blue sky above the rooftops. A man walked across the corner of the park with a black dog on a leash.
When Roth was here, these same buildings across the road were the Imperial-Royal University of Lemberg. ‘Lemberg’, I said to myself, because I wanted to hear the sound of it here, in the middle of the park, near the stand where uniformed brass bands had once played the Radetzkymarsch on Sunday afternoons. ‘Lemberg,’ I said again, louder, so that the word would float out among the leafless chestnuts and dark green pines, my homage to Roth.
I had come to this city without a real reason, or rather for an imaginary reason. It
was a long way to come for an imaginary reason; a flight to London, another to Warsaw, eight hours on a train from Warszawa Centralna station, with an hour stopped in misty rain at the border while visas were unhurriedly checked. Then the crush of the main station here, the armed police standing at the exit doors, the old women lined along the footpaths outside selling potatoes, plastic bottles of home-made kvass, bunches of herbs, one a bluish-looking plucked chicken.
I had told myself I was coming back here to see Nataliya. I bought the plane tickets, booked the hotel, stood on the platform in Warsaw drinking coffee from a flimsy plastic cup, sat for an hour at a border railway station, all with the firm idea that I was doing it in order to see Nataliya, whom I had met two years before, who, when I met her, worked in the art gallery here, whom, I had to say, I hardly knew at all.
I rang the gallery from the hotel almost as soon as I arrived here, using phrase book Russian, greetings, excuse me please, can I speak with Nataliya Fedorovna, something said back too quickly for me, then silence, gone to look, I hoped.
But maybe not, I thought uneasily, holding the heavy black hotel telephone to my ear. Perhaps she doesn’t work there any more, it has been over a year since we spoke, and I wrote to her saying I would be arriving today but got no reply. And even if she is there, she may come on the line and say, ‘Who? Oh yes ….well ..,’but more likely she will just not be there at all. That might actually be better, once they tell me she is not there I can forget it, forget her, have a few days to myself in this curious crumbling old city, visit the university, perhaps have a look at the very rooms where Roth attended lectures, if I can bluff my way in.
And if she is there, what shall I say to her? How will we talk? My Russian is not much better than last time I was here. We will have to use her limited English, or else speak broken German, the common language of the eastern border town, of the border jumper, or so Roth wrote.
It was absurd to have come back here to see Nataliya, that was the truth. I hardly know her, and she was not at all beautiful, quite mumsy actually, with that bulky coat she wore each day that I saw her last time, and her hair, dyed the orange-red colour Russian women dye their hair, and cut in a sort of bob, almost a basin cut. And she was not quick or funny, in fact she didn’t smile much at all, and it is not as if we were lovers, it was not like that, not even a kiss. I took her hand when we parted – that small chubby white hand with pointed fingers and a dimple near the thumb – but that was all.
Silence still on the telephone.
I did make her laugh once. We were standing just outside the gallery in the main square. I can’t remember what I said but she actually laughed out loud, not a very lovely laugh, but I was happy. It was like a hard-won prize in a university examination to hear her laugh like that.
And she never encouraged me to think of her, certainly not to come back here on her account. That was entirely my idea. When I told her I would return she said, smiling slightly, ‘Maybe,’ in that accent. She said ‘maybe’ quite a lot, I remembered.
I remembered too her hazel eyes, the colour of sunlit leaves in a Russian forest painting, with the same flecks of gold that make those paintings alive. Tiny particles of light, filtered, green, yellow, dancing and flickering as you stare at them. And I remembered us standing on top of a hill, outside the ruins of an old castle we visited, the plain below brown and patched with snow. A winter wind blew her hair across her face. Her eyes were squeezed half-shut, but still with those golden sparks in them.
We went once to the ballet, ‘ballet,’ as she pronounced it, in the ornate Opera Theatre. I remembered our tickets printed in elaborate cursive Cyrillic, the maze of corridors and garderobes, the curved-fronted cream and gilt boxes, the rows of worn red plush velvet seats in the stalls, and how pleased she seemed to stroll in the mirrored foyer, lit by dusty but still glittering chandeliers, during the intervals.
I remember all that, but how does she remember me? Middle-aged, middle-height, greying hair even the last time I was here, two years ago. Perhaps she thinks of me without any affection. And perhaps, of course, she doesn’t remember me much at all.
Through the telephone I heard footsteps approaching. I took a deep breath. It really will be better if they tell me she has taken another job, or is away on her dacha, I will actually be relieved. Much better to have left this call unmade, just gone out for a walk by myself, changed some money, bought some bottled water, breathed in this different air, this eastern, Galician air, the air Roth breathed and walked home in and wrote about.
The phone crackled, and somebody said something. A woman.
‘Ah …Nataliya Fedorovna?’ I asked hesitatingly.
‘Peter? That is you?’
‘Yes, yes Nataliya, that is me, it is me, I told you I was coming here and I am here. How are you?’ Shut up, just wait to see what she says, how she sounds.
‘Peter, you are in L’viv?’
‘Yes, Nataliya, I am in L’viv, I just got here this afternoon, I am at the Dnister, I couldn’t get a room at the Grand, and, well, I would like to see you if you can, if you would like to.’ Babbling idiot, I thought.
‘Well, Peter, I am fine, yes. I am finish work in one half hour.’
So I asked her again, can I see you, and she agreed, and I said can we have dinner, and she said ‘maybe,’ but we arranged at least to meet by the statue of Mickiewicz on Prospekt Svobody when she finished work. I had half an hour to get there. I knew the walk would take ten minutes, cutting through the old city park.
Going down in the hotel lift I wondered if she still had that hairstyle, that orange bob. It was a lot warmer than last time I was here, I realised as I walked out the front doors of the hotel, but still I could not imagine her without that heavy coat and those brown boots.
I must buy flowers, I decided as I walked toward the park. The perfume I’d bought in the duty-free shop when this meeting was all in my imagination seemed much too personal a gift now that I was here and about to meet her.
I still had twenty minutes to get to the Prospekt, so I made myself stop hurrying, pause in the park and wait, looking through the pine trees at the University.
Once before, the last time I was here, I’d arranged to meet her at the Mickiewicz statue. It might have been the day we went up to the castle. She got out of a crowded bus, fussily, in that checked coat and those boots and carrying a clumsy-looking handbag. I’d been waiting by the statue for ten or fifteen minutes, hoping I looked like a man waiting for someone who was definitely going to tum up.
But I was happy to see her arrive, not just to vindicate my waiting, but because even though we had met only a couple of days before, I wanted to hear her low contralto voice again, and to see her round face and those tilted eyes. And I was curious, I had to admit, because I didn’t understand her at all. What does she think, I wanted to know, what does she think of me, or about anything I say, or about anything at all? Could I make her emerge from that shell of placidity? Would she ever smile more than just faintly, would she ever speak sharply, shake her head, frown, argue?
The colour of the sky over the university buildings was changing as I watched to a pale violet, although high above it was still blue.
Roth wrote that wonderful story about a soldier, returning on foot from the eastern front, who stops at the first town inside the Empire that he comes to, a proper town with churches and a bakery and town hall, a synagogue no doubt and real hotels, and simply stays there, because any place in the Empire was as good as another place, because any place in the Empire had within it the same essence, the essence of fatherland.
That unnamed city of Roth’s story must have looked much like this, the evening light above green copper domes, a rectangular park crossed by gravel paths, a railway station, of course. Every town in every Roth story has a railway station. It was at the heart of everything he wrote that a subject of the Emperor could cross the width of Europe, as Roth did himself once, on one Imperial train, all within one vast boundary, all under one flag.
And when Roth was here in Lemberg, there must have been a coffee-shop he favoured, perhaps even the Cafe Amadeus, where Nataliya and I had gone for supper after the ballet. I remembered dark panelled walls, curved wooden coat-racks, small round tables with rattan-backed chairs, lace doilies under the cups. A coffee machine steamed and hissed. There were ices, and cake, and Nataliya calmly eating her way through a big slice of Sachertorte with whipped cream, forkful after forkful at an even pace, at the end dabbing her lips with a napkin, marking it with the pale pink lipstick that suited her so badly.
The chairs and tables and doilies might have been from Roth’s time. There would have been newspapers then, probably on wooden poles, and waiters with stiff shirtfronts, but the same cigarette smoke, the same coffee with whipped cream, the same Vienna cake. The owner, sitting behind the bar wearing a green eyeshade, adding up the accounts, could have been from a page by written by Roth.
A dog barked somewhere behind me, and I realised I had stood in the park for long enough. With my hands in the pockets of my Vienna-bought overcoat I walked out through the big wrought-iron gates onto the footpath and toward the Prospekt, toward the statue. I hurried along the cracked footpath, stepping at one place on planks set over a pothole full of greyish water. A blue and white enamel plate nailed to a wall told me the street was called Kopemika, probably what it was called in Roth’s time.
I came out onto the southern side of the Prospekt, surprised to see some new leaves on the trees here, when the park only a few blocks up the hill was so bare. The traffic streamed in front of me. I had forgotten that it is almost impossible to cross this street. There is an underpass the end of it, I remembered, but I didn’t want to take the time to walk all the way down there.
Waiting for a gap between cars, I saw the last sunlight touch the spire of the white Jesuit church. I saw the old kiosks along the Prospekt, dark unpainted wood with curved roofs, distinctly eastern, almost Byzantine, selling the usual range of kiosk things, cigarettes, warm sweet bottled drinks, tickets, newspapers. They would have been here when Roth was here, I was sure. I could imagine him, in a hat and long overcoat, stooping to speak through the wire grille, Zigaretten, bitte, counting coins into the brass tray, buying cigarettes and matches and of course newspapers, the life-blood of the European. Roth and newspapers, inseparable.
I ran across the street before a lumbering Soviet-made truck could get to me and reached the long central walk. Just as I remembered, park benches ran down each side of it. People were strolling up and down the promenade, toward the Opera Theatre and back again. A cluster of white-headed men had formed around a chessboard laid across a bench. A woman walked in front of me, holding a child by the hand. The child had an ice-cream, even though the evening was becoming cool. All this Roth would have walked among, all this observed, recorded and loved.
Loved, yes, and understood. Understood that the child he saw with the ice-cream was as much a part of the Empire as the Old Emperor, Franz Josef, that the chess-playing men he walked past knew, without considering it, that they were themselves a part of a hierarchy. They moved chess pieces around a board, and in their tum kings and emperors moved pieces around a board as well.
All those players, the great and small, played in the certainty that no matter what skirmishes, even battles, were won and lost on their respective boards, no matter what courage, what failings, what wisdom, what foolishness emerged, the game could always be begun over again on level terms, because there were rules, there was order, there was tradition, there was certainty; in short, that there was the Empire.
I could see the clock-tower in the main square over the roofs of the buildings along the Prospekt, but the clock had stopped. My watch, though, said half past, so I hurried the last few yards to the statue. It was reassuring to see once again the grey marble column with the poet, life-size, standing under the spread wings of his muse.
Nataliya was not there, but it was only just half past, and she had two blocks to walk from the gallery. Around the statue’s circular base other people were also waiting, glancing at their wristwatches, checking the buses that pulled up and drew away again.
I was sure I remembered how she looked, but the daylight was fading. Shortly the streetlamps would come on. I hoped she would arrive while it was still light, so I could be certain. I realised I was watching for a woman with red-dyed hair, and I began to worry. What if she has changed it, she won’t have that coat, what if I can’t recognise her?
I didn’t like to look again at my watch, in case she was approaching and saw me do it, it is ungallant to look at your watch when waiting for a woman. But then I did glance at it, quickly, so quickly that I had to look at it a second time. It is twenty to six. Of course she will turn up. She will not leave you standing here at the statue, here in the middle of L’viv, in the middle of Lemberg.
It was now really evening. People were hurrying past me across the Prospekt to the bus stops and bars on the other side. Fewer and fewer were still strolling. Much as I wanted to, I refused to allow myself to look at my watch again, but then I did. A quarter to six. I haven’t bought any flowers, I realised.
‘Peter.’ I heard my name. I turned. She was standing behind me. Perhaps my looking at my watch had amused her, because she was smiling faintly. She wasn’t wearing that ugly coat, or those boots, but a black woollen dress and a short jacket. Seeing her, I had a sudden surge of confidence.
‘Nataliya,’ I said, ‘how lovely to see you again.’
I stepped up to her and kissed her on the cheek. She will allow that after such a long absence, I thought. ‘I hope you will let me take you to dinner, but before you decide, can we go to the Amadeus for a coffee?’
She did smile then, well, a little, and let me touch her elbow, and fell into step with me as we walked east along the Prospekt toward the cafe.
Had Joseph Roth been standing there at the statue, watching us as we walked away, knowing nothing of how I came to be there, unaware how improbable was the whole meeting, unaware that we scarcely shared a language, he would have seen simply two people, not so young, who had met at the Mickiewicz statue in the time-honoured way, and were now going off together, in a small, self-contained world of their own making, within a wider world not at all of their making, much of which they did not understand.
Roth would have some compassion for them, for us, as he watched us disappear, walking away from him into the gloom of the evening, the Galician evening, the Spring evening in Lemberg. Her hair looks just the same, I thought.