Blurb and Chapter 1
As mentioned, this is an as yet unedited work in progress. So any feeback is appreciated!
Jonas Bergman hugged the grocery bags to his chest, as the old elevator slowly lumbered up to the top of the four-story building. The elevator cabin was open, walled in only by a crisscross of iron bars. He lived in one of the heavy medieval stone houses in the old part of Zurich, called the Niederdorf or Low Village at the east side of the Limmat River.
Upstairs, the old elevator stopped with a rattling sound and Jonas stepped out. One day, I’m going to be stuck in here, he thought, giving the old but so far reliable cabin a suspicious glance. He only used the elevator when he had heavy stuff to carry. Clutching the bags to his chest with one arm, he reached into his coat pocket with the other hand, searching for his keys. “Damn it,” he muttered as he dropped them. They made a metallic crunching sound on the hardwood floor.
“Let me help you, Mr. Bergman.”
Jonas turned around. A stout elderly lady with curly grey hair came out of the apartment next to his. She bent down and picked up the keys.
“Oh, Mrs. Schatz, don’t bother. Well, thanks anyway and excuse my language.” Jonas watched as the woman was sliding his apartment key into the keyhole.
“That’s okay, I’ve heard worse.” Mrs. Schatz chuckled.
“Thanks again. What would I do without you?” Jonas winked at her.
“Come on, Mr. Bergman. What you need is a woman of your own. I’ve told you many times.”
Jonas shook his head and gave a slight grin. His neighbor had been trying to fix him up with someone for about a year without any success. Mrs. Schatz was married and believed that a single man, particularly a widower of Jonas’s age, was doomed.
One day, when Mrs. Schatz was in Jonas’s kitchen, lending him a certain spice he didn’t have handy, she gave him a lecture on the very topic. “Men don’t feed themselves properly; they don’t keep their home clean. They need a woman to take care of them. Now, women, mind you,” Mrs. Schatz continued, raising a finger to emphasize her point. “Women do quite well on their own. They are much more independent. But men,” she shook her head, “they get lonely, they begin to drink.” She nodded in the direction of the whiskey bottle on Jonas’s kitchen table.
Jonas tried to explain that he only had one drink a day and he used the whiskey mainly for cooking. She just gave him one of her “yeah, right”-looks.
Mrs. Schatz would invite him for tea when a few of her widowed or divorced women friends were present. However, her matchmaking failed miserably with Jonas. He was friendly and attentive but that was all. None of Mrs. Schatz’s subtle or not so subtle hints made Jonas take the next step and invite any of the available ladies to dinner or even show them his paintings.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Schatz, these are very charming women, but I’m just not ready,” Jonas tried to explain. Mrs. Schatz rolled her eyes and, as Jonas suspected, began to think of the next batch of women friends she could introduce to the “lonely bachelor next door.”
Jonas sighed with a smile and unpacked the groceries. He had gone shopping at the open air market at the Bürkliplatz, a large park at the end of the lake, where merchants and farmers from the surrounding villages sold their fresh produce every Friday. He put the lettuce, zucchini squash, tomatoes, basil, and a piece of mountain cheese into the refrigerator. He inhaled the sweet smell of an apricot before he bit into it, then stepped into the living room.
As usual, when he came back from an errant or a trip, he stood a while in front the photo of his wife, Eva, on the bookshelf. A beautiful face with wavy shoulder-length blond hair, shiny blue eyes, and the touch of a cute snub-nose smiled at him. He smiled back and sighed. "Hi there," he whispered.
His neighbor wasn’t the only person who tried to nudge him toward female companionship. His son in Denmark and his daughter, who spent a year in the United States, brought the topic up occasionally. “Dad, remember what Mom said before she died? You shouldn’t pine for her, you should live and have another woman in your life.”
There is no other woman. Only you. He gently touched the frame of the photo, then stepped to the floor-length window and looked outside.
Jonas’s apartment was on the top floor. It was light and airy and overlooked the rooftops, the river, and a small section of the lake. Across the river stood the Fraumünster Cathedral with its five stain glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. If the weather was good, Jonas could see the mountains in the distance.
The apartment was tastefully furnished. His Danish background was visible in the uncluttered simple elegance, the light colors of the sofa, drapes, and the rustic but simple light-wood furniture. A few of Jonas’s and his students’ were hanging on the wall.
Jonas poured himself a shot of whiskey, then went into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and dropped a few ice cubes into the glass. He shook the glass a little and watched the golden liquid swoosh around.
When Eva was still healthy, they would have a drink in the evenings before dinner. Jonas had a whiskey on the rocks and Eva a glass of white wine. It was a ritual they both enjoyed and it gave them time to talk over the day’s events. Eva would give him the latest gossip from the theater rehearsals. She had been an actress at the Schauspielhaus, the main theater in Zurich. Jonas would tell her of an incident with one of his students or about a new painting he was working on.
After Eva had died, Jonas kept up their ritual but the “happy hour” became an hour of grief. He slowly upped his alcohol intake from one glass to two and eventually to three or four. He hardly ate afterwards, being too full from the drinks. He went to bed, too numb to feel the pain of loneliness. The following morning, he would wake up with a hangover.
One night, he dreamt of Eva. She was sitting on his bed, looking ill, the way she looked during her last struggle with cancer. Her large blue eyes in her now haggard face gleamed with tears. “Don’t, Jonas. Please, don’t.”
The voice woke him. He sat up in bed, catching his breath. His head was throbbing. According to the illuminated face of the alarm clock, it was shortly after midnight. Jonas moaned and turned around but he was unable to fall back to sleep. He finally got up, put on his robe, and sat in a chair next to the window, staring into the night. In the distance, city lights refracted from the lake. The dream was still vivid and the message clear.
The following evening, Jonas forced himself to prepare a decent meal. While the lamb stew was simmering, he poured himself half a shot of whiskey, plopped a few ice cubes in it, and put the bottle back into the liquor cabinet. He raised the glass to Eva’s photo, then stepped in front of the window and took a few sips. Joy and sadness overwhelmed him in equal measure. He grieved for Eva but he also had a new idea for a painting, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. He walked into the kitchen and filled the empty glass with Perrier, then stirred the stew. For the first time in quite a while, he enjoyed the smells of a good meal.
* * *
The sun was setting behind the buildings, surrounding them with halos of gold. The strip of the lake Jonas could see from his apartment sparkled in the last light of the evening. Jonas was thinking of the little girl and her aunt. He sighed, remembering the look on the child’s face when he lifted her up. How well he could relate to that feeling of sadness and despair.
Jonas loved children and now that his own kids were grown and his grandchildren lived in Denmark, he made due with the kids he taught privately. He enjoyed teaching children. It made him feel needed and their company helped him push away the loneliness for a few hours.
The thought of working with Karla, however, filled him with excitement for another reason. In the two pictures he had seen of hers, he detected an unusual talent. Her drawings were still rough and unpolished, of course. But skill and craft could be taught. What was more important was the degree of passion and the level of personal expression, which was rare in a child so young.
What Karla needed now was the willingness to learn and to practice, which Jonas believed she had. He had seen it in her eyes when she asked him if he would teach her. How long her endurance would last, that was another question. Children changed as they grew up, they developed other interests, they got bored. He had seen it happen many times. He remembered his own children, the years of paying for piano and violin lessons and just when they were getting good at it, they became interested in video games and dating.
Jonas picked up his pipe and stuffed it with tobacco. He struck a match and lit the pipe, closing his eyes and enjoying the earthy taste. He had stopped smoking cigarettes years before, but he treated himself to an occasional pipe. He opened the balcony door and stepped outside, watching the last golden and orange hues of the setting sun fade into the approaching dark.
“Well, Karla, what do you say? I think it’s worth a try.”