Julian pulled the door open right up to the stopper in an exaggerated welcoming gesture.
“Guten Abend Vera!” he said.
After seeing Vera shuffle towards the threshold with her walking stick for half a second, Julian leapt towards her holding out his hand.
“Vielen Dank Herr Gartlberg. Always the gentleman!” she said, with her trembling hand struggling to hold onto Julian’s.
Theresa, Julian’s wife, giggled in the hallway.
“You look so well today, Frau Vera!” said Theresa.
“You are a poor liar, Frau Gartlberg, but thank you for your kindness.”
Julian and Theresa looked at one another, acknowledging in silence that Theresa’s compliment was an untruth.
“Well I’ll take your coat, shall I, Frau Vera?” asked Julian.
He helped to tug off the heavy fur coat that with Vera’s stooped and declining frame looked like it might swallow her up one day soon.
“I have been meaning to tell you for some time that it is a beautiful coat,” said Theresa.
“Thank you,” said Vera. “I got it on my last visit to St Petersburg, or Leningrad as they call it in public.”
Julian laughed. “Well you don’t have to with us.”
“Thank you,” said Vera. “I may have a wavering sense of smell but I can notice a delicious scent coming from your kitchen.”
“Ah, that would be Theresa’s Kasnockn,” said Julian, “she cooks them with the traditional Pinzgau recipe.”
“Come please, Frau Vera,” he continued. “This way to the dining room.”
“Now we have a Riesling and a Pinot Gris,” Julian said, squinting to try to gauge Vera’s reaction. He saw no change in her wrinkled but sturdy small round face. “Apfelschorle and spring water too, if you so prefer.”
“Riesling will suffice, thank you,” said Vera. Julian waited for a smile from her to follow the remark but non came.
“Are you sure, Frau Vera?”
“Right you are, I’ll be back in a few seconds.”
After three minutes of chatting in the kitchen, Julian returned with an uncorked bottle of Riesling. He was shadowed by Theresa carrying a steamy dish of Kasnockn.
“It’s from the Züggler winery in Burgenland,” said Julian, pouring the wine into Vera’s glass.
He faced her and noticed her gaze was focused on the record player in the corner of the dining room. Her lack of squinting indicated a strong eyesight for a lady of her age.
“Would you like it if we play some background music?” Julian asked.
He walked straight to the record player without waiting for an answer.
“I bought a recording of the last New Year’s Concert when we visited Anna in Vienna last month,” Julian said, opening a cupboard.
“And how is Anna?” asked Vera.
“She’s fine,” said Theresa. “She doesn’t seem to be taking her studies all too seriously, but it’s just the first year, and she’s enjoying the life in Vienna.”
Vera laughed, before taking her first sip of wine. “Good, good. Youth is a thing to be cherished!”
Julian turned around, and was about to say something, but decided against it, instead returning to look for the record.
“Has she been to the Staatsoper yet?” asked Vera. “Swan Lake is being performed there at the moment and the producer is known to me. An absolutely wicked man!”
“Anna seems to enjoy more the smaller and less traditional venues where the musicians have long hair,” he said.
Julian placed the record beside the player and lifted a vinyl from underneath the needle that he placed back in a colourful sleeve.
“What’s that?” asked Vera.
Julian turned around with an open mouth.
“That record, I mean?” she said.
“Oh – this is one of Anna’s. She was at home last weekend. Ja, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band by the Beatles – pardon my poor English. Have you heard of the Beatles?”
“Darling, Frau Vera is a famous musician, of course she knows the Beatles,” Theresa said. She went red in the face, despite herself being surprised that Vera’s knowledge of popular culture appeared every bit as other parts of her mind.
“Oh of course, Frau Vera,” said Julian. “Perhaps you would like to listen to the Beatles then?”
“No, I would prefer the New Year’s Concert please, Herr Gartlberg.”
Julian put the record on. Relieved that the misunderstandings at the record player were over, he sat down to the table. He was optimistic that the soft crackled sounds of Strauss would smooth over any further gaps of understanding between the Gartlbergers and their elderly neighbour.
Theresa dished out the Kasnockn and the trio took hold of their cutlery.
“And does Anna like this Ivan…oh what’s his name, Ivan – the main man in the Beatles with the spectacles.”
Julian looked at Theresa, with his glance pleading for her to be the one to correct Vera.
“John Lennon?” Theresa asked.
“Oh yes. That’s his name. Did I call him Ivan? How silly of me. I was thinking of the Russian name for John.”
“Anna has a poster of him and his wife at her student apartment,” said Julian.
“Does he still have a beard?” asked Vera.
“He does,” says Theresa. “I should say I prefer him without it though.”
“He looks a little like a mad monk,” says Vera. “Kind, I would say, but a little mad.”
“Anna is rather enthusiastic about some of his ideas.”
Vera gulped some food and helped herself to another sip of Riesling.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to remind me of what his ideas are,” said Vera, “I do get a tiny bit forgetful these days.”
“Well, I think the whole of the Beatles spent some time associating with Eastern mysticism in India,” said Theresa. “In particular the Hare Krishna movement, which is a kind of Buddhist cult I believe.”
“Anna took us to a Hare Krishna restaurant in Vienna,” said Julian, opening his eyes wide while looking at Vera. “They served no meat at all.”
“That must be very easy on the stomach,” said Vera.
“Yes, but the waitress looked like she had not washed her hair in years,” said Theresa.
“Hmm,” said Vera. “Well I suppose one doesn’t have to be in a cult to avoid meat, one can just enjoy Kasnockn.”
Vera laughed and raised her wine glass to her lips. Both Julian and Theresa laughed out of politeness.
“But tell me,” said Vera, resting her fork on her plate “what does he believe in?”
“Well,” said Julian. “Peace and happiness mostly, through the ending of wars, perhaps by smoking some exotic weeds too.”
“All good ideas,” said Vera. “Especially after what has happened to both our countries in our lifetimes.”
“Yes, except I’m not quite sure how far the weeds advance this aim though.”
“Well, Herr Gartlberg, I can testify that 60 years ago at the Moscow theatres you could find the most invigorating Siberian herbs backstage. They would have the most beneficial impact on the mind.”
Theresa blushed. Julian placed his cutlery down.
“Well, Frau Vera, I don’t doubt you. But in the modern day there are also chemical drugs, and I believe that they have such a strong impact on the mind they can be rather debilitating.”
Theresa pushed some fragments of the cheesy noodle dish onto her fork while she stared at the plate. They had not told anyone their concerns about Anna’s confession of having taken LSD “once or twice” in Vienna.
“And what else does this man believe to make him so extraordinarily popular?” asked Vera.
“It’s funny you should ask that, Frau Vera,” said Julian, who was looking at Theresa, trying to establish eye contact as he knew what she was thinking. “As he recently released a song which explains his utopianism quite clearly – it’s a kind of manifesto of sorts.”
Vera circled the end of her fork in the air a couple of inches above her place to indicate for Julian to continue while she chewed.
“Its name is Imagine, which is English for Stell dir vor. I’m afraid I have no idea how you’d say that in Russian.”
“I understand from the English and German, thank you, Herr Gartlberg.”
“Yes,” said Julian, “well I believe the first line is something like ‘Imagine there are no countries as there would be nothing to die for’. Rather controversial words for many.”
“And a good sentiment,” said Vera, before continuing to chew.
“And then –“ said Julian. He paused having decided not to mention the line ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ to a woman in the last years of her life.
“I think it continues more or less with that same pacifism,” he continued. “Oh there is also something about ‘Imagine there’s no possessions’”.
“So it’s complete Scheiße!” said Vera, prompting deep laughs from her two hosts. She took another gulp of wine.
“A little too much like communism for your liking?” asked Julian.
“A little too much like communism for the world’s liking,” said Vera. “Excuse me for talking politics, but that pacifism is a load of nonsense too.”
Julian looked at his wife in a silent request for permission to disagree with their guest.
“I think for me that is the one part of his message I find appealing,” he said. “Every time I think of the past, well, I wish that this is something our daughter’s generation does not have to experience.”
“Exactly!” said Vera, knocking her knife off the plate in a burst of excitement. “But to save all the innocent people, the evil ones must die!”
Theresa leaned over to place the knife back on Vera’s plate and looked at Julian, raising an eyebrow at Vera’s awkward outburst.
“How do you find the Kasnockn? They’re not too creamy for you, are they?” Theresa asked.
“I like them just fine, Frau Gartlberg, thank you. But think about what I say, not just in the context of the ranting of an old lady. If you had been in alive in Vienna when Hitler studied there, and you recognised his evil, would you have killed him to spare the world?”
“That is a question you hear discussed on the television set, and a most intriguing question too,” said Julian.
“And what do they say?” asked Vera.
“Well, I believe it’s a very difficult question. Of course you never know a guilty man is guilty until he commits a crime, so – “
“Okay,” said Vera, interrupting, “but when a man is in circles of power already, and you can see his evil intentions and actions. That’s a different story.”
“You’re quite right, Frau Vera, it is a different story,” said Theresa, hoping flattery might end the debate.
“Exactly!” said Vera, hitting the table with a thump that shook the plates and left Julian open-outed.
“When I get to have my little sit down with St. Peter shortly, just like I’m sitting here with you today, I shall tell him I do not regret it,” said Vera.
“I’m sure you have nothing you need to regret, Frau Vera,” said Julian.
“Ah but for a long time I thought, did that man deserve to die? It was too late to save our monarchy. But then I realised we should have done it sooner.”
Julian and Theresa were unable to disguise their anxiety as they looked at one another.
“That is a very valid point you make, Frau Vera, thank you for bringing this topic to our attention,” said Julian, reaching out to grab Vera’s wrist.
“Ach Entschuldigung, did I not tell you my secret before?” said Vera.
Julian shrugged his shoulders this time when looking at Theresa, who shook her head to indicate she had no idea either what to say or do.
“I am so sorry, sometimes I mix faces in my memories, I believe it’s my aging neurones,” said Vera, taking another deep sip of Riesling.
Theresa reddened in the face and Julian smirked as he tried to communicate to his wife without speaking that Vera had insisted on wine despite his reservations.
“It was the most exciting thing I have done in my life – helping to plot kill a man.”
Theresa gulped and put her hand to her mouth to stop some food dropping out in surprise.
Julian opened his mouth but had no idea what to say and closed it again.
“My job was simple enough but exhilarating nonetheless. To talk to him and watch to see him finish his cup of poisoned wine. There was another young actress there, Marianna Erikovna, and we talked about some of the sins that went on in the theatre circuit. Gosh, he had some incredible powers to him, it is true – he would make you talk about things you would not dream to share with your closest friends. All the time you would think ‘I shouldn’t be saying that’ but you still couldn’t stop yourself.”
Theresa arranged her knife and fork on her plate having decided she’d finished.
“ ‘Do not be afraid, there is no redemption without sin’ I remember him saying, and through those eyes, well, you could see those thoughts were coming from a deeper place than the thoughts of you or I. He was no mere imposter or charlatan, I can tell you that for certain, Herr Gartlberg – he was the devil himself!”
Theresa turned her gaze to look out of the window at the bare trees of the dull November afternoon. That left Julian with the thankless role of maintaining eye contact with Vera to show he was listening.
“Oh there was a sweet feeling in that study as we saw him finishing his cup. Knowing that this would be his last minutes on earth. Of course not even we could have imagined that a hefty dose of cyanide would fail to do the job.”
Julian smiled at the level of detail Vera was providing in her fanciful story.
“So the count shot him. We all cheered and thought that was that, but when he arose and barged his way out of the palace in a rage, we were astounded. The devil doesn’t die easily, Herr Gartlberg. He was shot again and stabbed outside, and I believe the frozen canal water did for him in the end.”
Theresa peered over at the plate that Vera had left untouched while recounting her tale.
“Have you finished your Kasnockn, Frau Vera?” she asked.
“Yes, why thank you,” said Vera.
“I’ll take your plate then,” she said. She and Julian collected the dishes and carried them through to the kitchen.
The pair deposited the dishes in the sink, and Julian closed the door.
“Look, about the wine –“ he said.
“No, darling, it’s my mistake,” said Theresa, interrupting, “I should never have invited our mad old neighbour over for dinner.”
“Well, at least it hasn’t been too dull,” said Julian, giggling as quietly as possible.
Theresa lent against the door and closed her eyes as the laughter overtook her.
“My God – wasn’t that the death of Rasputin she just claimed an involvement in?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so,” said Julian, “she must have played that role in a performance at some stage. The poor confused woman.”
This story is based on Vera Karalii: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Karalli
How unfortunate it is that she left the world only as a ‘reported’ conspirator in the death of Rasputin, over 50 years after that event.
I wonder what the reporters in Austria in the 60s were doing failing to interview her. Then again, some things are perhaps best kept as a mystery.