Except for the name shield, the railway station looked unfamiliar. Now brightly painted and its hundred-year-old shell refurbished with wide doors and much glass, it seemed not the place where Ben had taken the train to leave home more than twenty years ago.
It was then six-o-clock in the morning as he waited for his train, with two suitcases at his feet. It was just dawning and cold. Ben was on his own; nobody had come to see him off. His mother was unwell, his father on nightshift, his sister, offended. She possibly even hated him. Tony, his closest friend, had not managed to get out of bed.
So, nobody was there to farewell him. And Ben was not just leaving home to work in Salzburg or Vienna as other young locals did. He was leaving for Australia, the other side of the world. True, Ben had assured his mother – believing that it might be true – that he would return after a two-year working holiday.
Now, twenty-one years later, as the train that had brought him pulled out, Ben stood again on the platform of that now so different seeming station. Nobody had come to welcome him home. And he questioned for a moment, was it that still?
His mother had died many years ago; his father had remarried a woman he had never met. His sister had divorced her husband. Ben and his brother-in-law had liked each other. His sister, Ben was sure, had never forgiven him for leaving his then already sick mother to go to Australia.
And Tony, well, Tony was dead! Was it really fourteen years ago that father had written that Tony had been killed, crashing his motorbike on a steep mountain track?
Ben, therefore, was just like the dozen or so other arrivals that milled now through the station: A short-stay guest arriving in a holiday destination. Like them, he took a taxi to his hotel.
Unlike most of them, Ben had not made his booking on the strength of a brochure or web information. He had always known the Hotel Diana, having grown-up nearby. Linda, the owners’ daughter, had been in his grade and form through their eight years of schooling. He, Linda, and her tagalong, three years younger brother Gerd, had been on/off playmates into their early teenage years before drifting apart.
Linda’s and Gerd’s parents, the hotel’s owners, had not paid much attention to him. They probably never knew his name. Therefore, Ben did not expect to be recognised or given special treatment by staying in the Hotel Diana. For Ben, it was, mainly, a sentimentality that he chose this hotel for his stay in Gastein and with it the familiar surroundings of his childhood.
However, the Hotel Diana, when the taxi pulled up, had changed even more than the railway station. Its granite stone walls, fashionable at the turn of the last century, had been rough-cast and painted white. And now it had modern, double-glazed windows. The main entrance from the road had now large, glass double doors that lead into a stylish reception lounge.
The most significant change was on the lower level. The hotel had been built on a decline with road and entrance on top. Now the kitchen, dining, and entertainment area on the level below had been opened up with large windows and doors to a multi-terraced garden. All in all, the familiar Hotel Diana had changed beyond recognition.
When Ben stepped up to the counter in the reception, a tall, slim woman rose from her desk in the adjoining, glassed-in office. She came out, greeting him with a welcoming smile.
She was beautiful, tall, and slim, a natural blonde, with just a suggestion of lipstick and no further need for make-up. Her age, beyond the twenties, Ben could only guess. Returning her greeting, Ben gave his full name and told her he had made a booking.
As she typed the information he had given in to the computer, she suddenly paused. A smile began to spread over her face as her eyes glanced between Ben’s face and his details on the computer screen.
With a much broader smile than the earlier, more formal one, she said, “I’m so sorry, Ben. I should have recognised you immediately. I’m Christine. Remember – the sister of Erika and Tony. You taught me to ride your motorbike.” Then, bursting into a laugh, she hurried from behind the counter with her arms stretched out, all ready to hug Ben.
At the last moment, Christine regained a degree of self-possession and only grabbed the two hands of the amazed and speechless Ben. He had half-expected to meet Linda or Gerd at the hotel. But Christine? There had been no connection between Erika – his then, long ago, first-ever love – and her kid-sister Christine with the Hotel Diana.
And now Christine pressed and shook Ben’s hands and apologised for not having recognised his name. She had, she said, completed his web-booking. After registering his Australian address and Dr. title, his not uncommon surname of Hofer had not alerted her that she knew him.
All bubbling with excitement, Christine dragged the unresisting Ben into her office. She quickly made them on a handy little coffee-maker two espressos, joking that she needed to settle her excitement about meeting him again.
Then, almost at ease, Ben and Christine began to exchange bits about their respective lives since they parted more than twenty years ago.
Ben did not talk at length about all the things he had done in – for Christine – unfamiliar Australia. He told her that, after deciding to stay in Australia, he went to night school. Getting a scholarship, he went to University, became a teacher, and studied some more. Now he was a lecturer at the prominent University where he had been a student. He had also married. It had not lasted, and he was divorced. After his brief visit here in Gastein, he would spend a term each at two universities in Germany as a guest lecturer.
In the tone and way Christine told her story, there was a suggestion of wistfulness. For Ben, it contrasted so noticeably from the joy she expressed about meeting him again.
Christine had, on leaving school, completed a diploma in Hospitality Studies. She started work in the Hotel Diana. Christine grinned and, with a shrug of her shoulders, continued, “As you see, I’m still here. When the original owners retired, the new one took me over with the hotel and inventory. It was Gerd, the son of the owners. He married me eventually – now four years ago. So, you see: the manager of Diana became the wife of its owner.”
As Christine got up, she added as a throw-away line, “Not very exciting, Ben, is it, compared to your life? But I have a surprise for you.”
Reaching for the phone on her desk, she pressed a button. When it was answered, Christine just said, “Could you come to the office, please?” She listened for a moment before cutting the other party off with a brisk, “No! Right now. It’s important.”
Ben read Christine’s smile as apologetic, as she said, “Sometimes, you just have to show your staff who is boss.”
The woman who entered the office a minute or so after was, like Christine, also beautiful. Wearing the same outfit as Christine – black, hip-hugging trousers and a bone-coloured blouse – she was not as tall as the latter. Also, a blonde, her hair was a shade darker and left longer. Her alluring figure, womanlier in hips and bosom than Christine’s, was firm and enticingly proportioned.
On stepping into the office, she gave Ben a sideways glance. Confronting Christine, she asked, “What is so urgent now?”
Christine smiled, reached for a key-card, gave it to her, and, very business-like, said, “Erika, could you please take Doctor Hofer to his room. It’s four-o-three.”
Erika turned to dumbfounded Ben. She gave him an appraising look which then slowly turned into an open-mouth stare of amazement, “God, it’s you, Ben! What brought you here? I can’t believe it, seeing you again after all these years!”
Then, like her sister before, Erika stepped up to Ben opening her arms. But she, unlike Christine, embraced Ben in a no-holding-back, lengthy hug. Ben, afterward, could not remember; they might even have kissed.
Eventually, Christine, visibly amused, broke the silence, “I see, first love has not faded.” With a mischievous smile and wink at Erika, she added, “Not with you, Erika, I know! Can I trust you to take Ben to his room?”
Quickly responding, Erika poked out her tongue at her cheeky kid-sister. Ben grabbed his suitcase; Erika took the room card, and they escaped from Christine’s mirth.
At the door, the fourth-floor corridor was empty of onlookers. Erika gave Ben another hug and said, “I won’t come in now, Ben. I am all shaken up and have more work to do. If you are not going out, I’m free at five. Can I come and see you then?” Not waiting for an answer, Erika turned and rushed off.
The room was large, well furnished with a king-size bed, inbuilt robes, a coffee table and two lounge chairs, and a desk and chair. The bathroom was modern and large. Obviously, the Hotel Diana had been thoroughly modernised from what he remembered. Ben wondered to what extent this was Christine’s achievement as its manager.
While Ben unpacked and settled in, he thought about himself and his past with Erika and Christine, now twenty-three years ago.
He had met the sisters through Tony, their brother. Ben and Tony had become friends during their eight-month conscription in the Austrian military. They were nineteen. Ben was a qualified cabinet-maker, and Toni was a motor mechanic. Both had light-weight, two-stroke motorbikes which they liked to tune up and modify to race on little-used dirt tracks. Tony’s father owned a service station. So, Ben began to spend much time in its workshop and, eventually, also in Tony’s home.
Tony had two sisters: Erika, who was eighteen, and Christine, sixteen. And Ben fell – for the first time in his life – with Erika seriously and painfully in love. For him, Erika was the most beautiful, most desirable, most perfect girl alive. She was so different from the girls he had been with before.
Falling in love with Erika confronted Ben with several uncertainties. For a start, he was a tradesman from a working-class background. Her parents were business people, and Erika’s had completed a business studies diploma. It had secured her a trainee management position in the local branch of a national travel agency. In Ben’s mind – formed in the context of their small town’s class consciousness – he was not a suitable boyfriend for her.
However, for Erika, these differences seemed not to matter. Nor did they to her parents who watched what developed with benign disinterest in Ben’s suitability.
One evening, when they were momentarily alone, it was Erika who drew Ben into their first, chaste kiss. From then on, her untutored but more than willing kisses and the feel of her firm young-girl tits pressing at his chest robbed Ben often of his sleep. Therefore, what left their love for each other finally unfulfilled was not due to Erika’s resistance or external hindrances.
It resulted from the combined youthful inexperience of both of them. For Ben, Erika’s natural beauty and sweetness of nature had – if he had known the word – an angelic purity. He felt, therefore, that the arousal her nearness evoked had to be resisted. Yes, he wanted to slide his hand under her tops, down her panties, undress and make love to her. But he detested himself for having such thoughts! They violated Erika’s purity and betrayed his love for her.
And Erika, in her inexperience, expected that Ben would sense her sexual desires. She hoped that he would take the lead in making love to her after she had made the first move in kissing him.
Therefore, the consummation of their love remained – as traditional morality prescribed it – between Erika and Ben in suspense. Although Tony and Erika’s parents gave no signs of disapproval, being always with Erika in her close and loving family circle inhibited Ben’s courting behaviour further.
The perhaps most significant restraint on Ben’s often wished for more ‘loving’ behaviour was Christine. Christine was sixteen, already taller than her sister. Tom-boyish lanky, Christine displayed little of Erika’s softness and feminist allure. Nevertheless, the sisters were closely attached to each other. Theirs was not, as is often the case, a companionship forced on siblings by shared rooms and the obligations of their relatedness.
The fondness between Erika and Christine was, for Ben, with his strained relationship with his older sister, a delightful surprise. Cristine immediately showed him that she liked him too when he paired up with Erika. She happily accepted that there were now three of them, naturally united like peas in a pod.
Ben had genuinely liked Erika’s tom-boyish sister from the beginning. He joked and talked with her a lot, even when Erika was not present. It became a paradox that Ben almost spent more time alone with Christine than with Erika. He took her, for instance, riding pillion on his bike to their race-tracks in the forest. And there, he also taught her to ride his bike.
Still, for Ben’s romance with Erika, Christine’s continuous nearness was a problem. Not so, it seemed to Ben, for Erika. Not once did she ask Christine to leave her and Ben alone. She seemed not at all disturbed that her sister was an obviously interested observer of her, admittedly, only warming-up petting with Ben. Doubting that Erika wanted him as much as he desired her, Ben suspected Erika used Christine as a chaperon to keep his advances in check.
What followed seemed to confirm Ben’s uncertainty about the genuineness of Erika’s feelings for him.
The two sisters spent three weeks with relatives in a house on a lake in Carinthia in the summer holidays. On returning, Erika had changed. While she told him nothing, her behaviour convinced Ben that it was over between them. Deeply hurt, he could not bring himself to ask her why or continue to be near her.
His friendship with Tony survived. They worked on their bikes in Tony’s father’s garage, but Ben avoided visiting him at home. It meant that together with loving Erika, Ben’s friendship with Christine also ended.
A year later, Ben left for Australia, leaving his hometown and the hurt of Erika’s nearness behind. Over the years of being far away, the bitter-sweet memories of his first love faded into something that no longer ached.
But now, Ben’s meeting Christine and Erika so unexpectedly had brought his long-submerged memories again to the surface. And their so openly shown joy in meeting him was an unexpected and revelatory surprise. In his confusion, Ben’s response to Christine’s and Erika’s unrestrained show of delight had been wooden.
Despite the long delay in his homecoming, Ben had expected to find some continuity in the relationship with family and friends he had left behind. It did not include Erika and Christine, as their relationship with him, he was sure, had ended. For the year after the breakup, Ben had avoided all contact with Erika. And Christine had not tried to stay in touch with him.
Ben had always believed that they had found him wanting, that their first affection for him was a mistake. And although he had not been conscious of it, did their rejection motivate him in leaving home to become a different man?
And now, Christine and Erika had welcomed him back with shared and undisguised joy! Did it dawn on Ben that in Christine’s and Erika’s minds and memories, their caring for him had never wavered? Or that it could be more than just sympathetic caring?