Erika came to his room as she had promised. She made it easy for Ben. Smiling, she took his hands. Ignoring the chairs opposite each other across a coffee table, Erika pulled him to the bed to sit down.
She was determined to be close to Ben, brought his hands to her lips, kissed both of them, and said, “Ben, you have no idea how happy I am that we meet again after all these years. I’ve never forgotten you. I always hoped we’d meet again.”
Ben looked down at Erika’s hands holding his and quietly said, “I tried for a long time, very hard to forget you, Erika. I’m sure you know why!”
As soon as he said it, Ben regretted it. He was afraid that he had spoiled a new beginning by reminded Erika that it was her that had ended their relationship.
But Erika, since leaving him at the door, had prepared herself. Taking a deep breath, she calmly answered, “I know; I hurt you then. I loved you, but I was stupid. I betrayed you, and I did not know how to make it good. So, I let you go. It was easier than telling. It was all my fault. Don’t make me tell you why it happened, Ben.”
Suddenly, an embarrassed giggle escaped her. She moved closer to Ben and added, “I might not have to. Christine will. My bolshy sister loved you. She never forgave me for our breaking up, and she losing you when you stopped coming to our house.”
Erika’s comment about Christine introduced a change in mood. It made it easy for Ben not to probe further into the hurtful past. So, he smiled and said, “I liked Christine. She was such a funny, lovely girl. I wished then I had a kid-sister like her.”
Erika grinned and leaned back on the bed on her elbows. She looked at Ben, shaking her head, “Didn’t you notice? Christine didn’t think she was a kid. And she did not want you then as her brother! She had one with Tony.”
Erika slipped off her shoes and settled comfortably on the bed. Christine had obviously shared with Erika the little Ben had told about his Australian life and his immediate plans. Now she wanted to know more about Australia, why he had stayed, his career change, his broken marriage, and his plans for the future. Ben talked at length. In concluding, he told Erika that he was only – he avoided the word ‘home’ – in Gastein for three weeks. Erika’s reaction let him know her regret that it was not longer.
Ben was equally curious about Erika’s life. And she suddenly felt that she needed to be, with Ben, honest about her marriage.
She told him that she met, at a tennis club function, a nine-year older, recently transferred to Gastein, policeman. In looking back, she suspected that, at nineteen, it was the uniform and the acclaim Heinz enjoyed as a top-class skier and mountain-rescue expert that had attracted her. At twenty, she became his wife, and at twenty-one, their son was born.
Her husband, Heinz, was very much a man’s man. He was also becoming more and more a public figure, with a matching career in the police service. The corresponding cost was less and less time to be an engaged marriage partner.
And Erika accepted it. They were respected in their community. Heinz, on the strength of his achievements in alpine rescues, was rapidly promoted. With a position, first in district command and later in the capital, he was not home much. And Erika did not want to leave Gastein. They were financially secure, had a healthy, intelligent boy, and were, in appearance, a happily married couple.
Erika shrugged her shoulder and smiled. It indicated to Ben that she considered her marriage neither unusual nor a failure. What Erika stressed was the importance of her close relationship with Christine. They maintained over the years a practically daily contact. Joining up with Christine and her circle of friends, together with all the family responsibilities that fell almost totally on her, never left Erika lonely or bored.
Eventually, when Christine married Gerd, Erika joined her on more than a part-time basis in running the Hotel Diana. With Gerd, a disinterested owner, it was an arrangement that suited them both.
Regarding Gerd, Erika was uncomplimentary. He had never shown any interest in the hotel business and had joined the regular army at eighteen. His parents expected that Linda, their daughter, would inherit the hotel. When she fell in love with a guest, an Englishman, married and moved to the UK, their plans were upset. Therefore, when they retired, their son, Gerd, had to resign from the army to take over the Hotel Diana.
By then, Christine had already effectively managed and overseen the modernisation of the hotel for the previous nine years. More out of indifference than good sense, Gerd, as the new owner, gave Christine a free hand to continue as manager for two years. He never showed any sexual interest in her. But then, almost out of the blue, Gerd proposed.
Remembering, Erika laughed. She stretched out on the bed, which made Ben’s eyes run approvingly over her tempting figure and declared, “Gerd must have been drunk, but Christine was stone-cold sober. She said, Yes! I was sure then and am now that Christine agreed to marry the Hotel Diana. It had become her creation, her life, not something she would leave at the mercy of Gerd. Gerd’s primary interest is his hunt and hunting companions. Even more serious for Christine’s care about the hotel is that Gerd is an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler.”
Erika rolled closer to Ben and reached for his hand. Ben was not sure how to read Erika’s behaviour. Was she just continuing in the half-innocent way they had behaved as youngsters? Or was Erika flirting and, perhaps, now aiming for more?
Smiling up at Ben, she said, “You see, Ben, what has become of your two girl-friends from long ago: two, by their own doing, somewhat neglected and,” Erika grinned, “possibly frustrated wives. But now, I better go before I get into mischief.”
Erika sat up to put on her shoes. Standing in front of Ben, she hesitated a moment. As Ben reached for her, she bent down to kiss him. There was more than just a bit of teasing in her tongue. When Erika raised her head from the kiss, Ben pressed his face onto her breasts. Erika held still, stroking caressingly over his head as she whispered, “It’s wonderful that we could meet again. We will not spoil it this time, will we, Ben?”
In going down for dinner, Ben passed the reception. Christine, behind her desk, gave him a broad smile and waved him in. She asked, “Have you forgiven Erika for having been so beastly?” With a peal of laughter, she added, “If you have, I’ll have to forgive her too.”
Then, getting down to business, she told Ben about the hotel’s breakfast and dining arrangements and asked him if he would eat tonight, only tonight, at Gerd’s table. Gerd was keen to meet him again. He remembered him well from their shared childhood.
Ben was happy to agree. So, Christine took him to the dining room, introduced Gerd and Ben, and returned to the reception. The girl serving dinner was just putting a second set of plates and cutlery on Gerd’s table. When she had to add a chair, Ben wondered if Christine and her husband ever shared a meal? And after what Erika had told him about their marriage, did they share a bed?
Gerd had greeted him warmly. He seemed pretty pleased to meet him again, even though Ben had been no more than a schoolmate of his sister.
Gerd was of medium height, well-built, but beginning to put on weight. His outdoor life in the army as a platoon commander had given him a permanent tan, but it lacked the glow of health. His eyes were veined and, somehow, seemed to find it difficult to focus. Although Gerd was only in his late thirties, he was visibly aging. And he was not aging well.
Over their meal, Ben managed to get a conversation going. They had never shared a past, and Ben was not interested in establishing a present relationship with Gerd. Ben, therefore, directed their talk onto what he had learned were Gerd’s interests.
In telling him about Christine’s marriage, Erika had disparagingly talked about Gerd’s hunting and hunting companions. And indeed, when Ben showed an interest in hunting, it removed for Gerd any awkwardness in their communication. As Ben was the listener, it was pretty one-way.
As an opener, Gerd asked Ben about the Australian hunting situation. He and a close friend had made enquiries about a shooting holiday in Australia. The Northern Territory attracted them with the no-limits hunting of buffaloes. What held them back was that they had read that crocodiles were now protected from commercial hunting.
Quite stirred up, taking a deep draught of beer, Gerd declared, “Bloody Greens, in Australia too! Here, they are now telling us not only when but what we are allowed to shoot on our own hunting grounds.”
The intolerable injustice of such interference by political trouble-makers kept Gerd agitated for most of the meal.
After they retired to the Lounge, Gerd told Ben over coffee and brandy that his hunting grounds had been in the family for three generations. As Ben was an ex-local and knew the surroundings, Gerd gave him a detailed account of the locality and extent of his shoot and all its huntable wildlife. While Ben sipped his brandy Gerd, with the landlord’s privilege of the bottle on the table, had repeatedly refilled his balloon.
Now he put his hand on Ben’s arm, leaned in, and confidentially whispered, “As a visitor here, I can let you into a secret. I have plans: I’ll turn my shoot into a great business! I have a hunting cabin. When I wanted to rebuild it into a lodge for the hunting season for paying guest-hunters, I could not get a permit from the council. Bloody Greens again! But now, I’ve outsmarted the bastards. Got a license for a bistro, will expand it into a ski lodge! Didn’t tell the fuckwits it will be a year-round business. Then I’ll sell this bloody hotel!”
Gerd rambled on for quite a while longer as if replying to Ben’s non-existing doubts and unasked questions. Finally, they parted to go to bed. Gerd was quite drunk.
Before falling asleep, Ben wrestled with his conscience. Should he let Christine or Erika know what he had inadvertently learned of Gerd’s plans? Was Christine aware that he planned to sell the hotel? If not, his telling her would make him immediately a participant in their life and circumstances. Being beyond what the three of them shared, Ben feared that it could interfere with the magic of their brief reunion. This he did not want to risk.
The next day Ben walked for two hours or so through the much-changed town of his youth. He looked at the people he passed without recognising any of them for sure.
Much of the afternoon Ben spent with his father. Long retired, he lived with Helen, his second wife, in a small but comfortable council flat. Both were hugely excited and more than just pleased to welcome him, but it was no homecoming for Ben. There was the unfamiliar flat, the different furniture. And for Helen, meeting Ben was not easy: she had replaced his mother on his father’s side.
His father, in turn, clearly struggled to reconnect with Ben as the son that left for Australia twenty years ago.
Ben’s father no longer talked with Ben in the local dialect everybody used in informal contact. Instead, he laboured with the formal language spoken by persons of rank and education. Ben’s father was an intelligent, extremely well-read man. He had always felt that his lack of formal education was a profoundly personal shortcoming. He envied the formally educated and had an unreserved admiration and respect for academic and intellectual achievement.
And now, Ben, his son who had left twenty years ago as a tradesman, had returned as a highly educated university teacher. Ben’s success, of course, filled his father with pride. It also burdened him with a strong sense of estrangement from his son.
Ben was aware of the problem. He tried to speak in the local dialect. He was, however, after twenty years as a formal-language speaker in both German and English no longer word-perfect. Ben avoided, as much as was possible, talking about his professional life. Instead, he questioned his father and Helen about old friends, relatives and the local changes and news, which eased the tension. Before Ben left, he invited them for a night out and dinner. He promised to ring as soon as he had made the booking.
On returning to the hotel, Christine waved him again into her office. It was becoming a pattern Ben welcomed. Over two quickly made espressos, Ben told Christine about his day and how strange and no longer like home everything felt. Then he corrected himself, “Except for the Hotel Diana and you and Erika. Here I feel I’ve come home.”
As he said it, he realised it was the truth. Christine smiled. She was pleased that Ben felt that way. Then she asked, “Enjoyed your dinner with Gerd last night? How did you two get on?”
“Oh, very well. You know I only knew him as the little brother of Linda.”
Ben paused, then grinning at Christine, he added, “I never cared for him as much as I did for Erika’s cheeky kid-sister.”
“What did you talk about? He didn’t invite you to come to the Café Wien with him to play billiards and cards with his friends, did he?”
“No, he didn’t. But he told me a lot about hunting, his hunting grounds and the problems he has nowadays. He seems very committed, almost obsessed with hunting.”
Christine shrugged her shoulder and said, “Well, it’s a family tradition – or its curse! Gerd’s great-grandfather even named his hotel, back in 1880, after Diana, the goddess of the hunt! When he sold the family’s farm but not the forest to become a hotelier in the spa-town, the Diana was meant to finance this hunting indulgence. It has done so since!”
Suppressing her welling up anger, Christine asked Ben if he would like to come along for a day’s visit to Salzburg. She needed to drive there tomorrow, taking care of business matters. It meant, unfortunately, that she could, therefore, not be with him as a guide.
Then, smiling sweetly, Christine added, “I could ask Erika. Perhaps, she would like to come too?”
Ben more than happily accepted the invitation. He had planned to get in touch with his sister. But he wondered anyway whether he should. Would they not just renew the old hostilities?
A day spent with Erika and Christine in beautiful Salzburg had a much stronger appeal.