Novel: The Foliage Hunter

Preface

These are the first chapters of my as yet unpublished novel about Arielle Hamburg, an autumn foliage hunter, and the women she meets at Hotel Strangers. Arielle Hamburg wouldn’t mind getting published. Maybe then she would also get paragraph indents, which are impossible here.

THE FOLIAGE HUNTER

by Anders Bellis

I

Arielle Hamburg was a foliage hunter. Every autumn she ensured that she found herself surrounded by the explosions of serenity occasioned by the turning leaves in a northern part of the world. This year she was going to Meredith – a place where she had never been – after reading about it in a newspaper. She had not booked a room, but proposed to look at the various small hotels when she arrived, wanting to choose herself rather than trust a travel agency that would not know – or at least not care – about autumn foliage. She wanted a room with a foliage view.

But as it turned out, something else entirely made her stay at Hotel Strangers.

Arriving, she had to wait. There was no one behind the reception desk. She hit the bell several times, to no avail. So while waiting she had a look at the premises and happened upon a curious little exhibition room on the ground floor, at the back of the hotel. According to a plaque above the door this was ”The Irritation Room” and a sign on the wall proclaimed the exhibited collection to consist of memorabilia from the steady stream of dissatisfied guests since 1935, when Hotel Strangers had first opened. Arielle Hamburg was flabbergasted.

Upon entering the room she was delighted. Framed on the walls were letters from furious guests. In display cases were broken parts from furnishings and decorations, with small labels stating when they had been broken, by whom, and for what reason. The collection was modest, but telling. A John Harbinger had smashed a drinking glass when angrily throwing it to the floor in the hotel’s dining room on the 6th of August, 1953, upon being served his food; a Caroline Donahue had taken the time and trouble to completely tear a sheet after having found her bed unmade for the third consecutive day on the 5th of November, 1942; an Idelle Tice had used a penknife to scratch her complaint on the tabletop of her dressing-table after, according to her, finding the mirror in her room so smudgy that she could hardly apply make up on the 27th of March, 2012; an undated letter from a Juan Alvarez stated in very bad English that his stay at the hotel had been even worse. He further explained that under no circumstances would he pay the bill. A small note written by the manager said that the letter had been received on the 15th of July, 1977, and that the hotel had accepted Juan Alvarez’ refusal to pay. In one of the display cases Arielle Hamburg saw something that awakened a memory which had slept for many years; a broken bedside clock exactly like the one she had got from her mother as a child. Even the colour was the same. She didn’t check the label to see who, why, and when. And she already knew that she would stay at Hotel Strangers. And she knew that there would be a room available.

That same night, in the hotel’s small dining room, Arielle Hamburg was intrigued by Benedikta Barragan. She did not know Benedikta Barragan and she did not know her name, but the old, rather frog-like woman – her mouth was very wide and her eyes protruding – appeared lonely, sad, and at some kind of peace. She also appeared to be quite obnoxious, used to getting her way or otherwise raising rather a ruckus. Arielle Hamburg could not help but casting glances at Benedikta Barragan all through her meal and the old woman could not help but notice it, but she stubbornly pretended that Arielle Hamburg did not exist, even though she had an elusive impression of the younger woman with shoulder-length, brown hair being very vaguely familiar. And in a way, she was. There had been a fleeting close-up of Arielle Hamburg in a recent TV broadcast of an international figure skating competition. Arielle Hamburg had been sitting in the audience, unaware that one of the cameras was for a moment focused on her, filling the screen with her face. The image had been striking. Benedikta Barragan had seen it, but did not consciously remember it.

Later that night, Arielle Hamburg, restless, found yet another room on the ground floor of Hotel Strangers. The room was furnished with a grand piano, but otherwise empty. Benedikta Barragan was sitting at the grand piano, softly playing a sorrowful composition that Arielle Hamburg did not recognise but found as serene as the darkness surrounding the hotel. She lingered awhile outside the doorway. Benedikta Barragan was unaware that she had a listener. It would be impossible to say if she would have approved.

II

Arielle Hamburg’s room was small and simple. She did not have a view of the autumn foliage behind the hotel, but found the room satisfying nevertheless. On the wall hung a picture depicting a horse and buggy on a street in London in the 1870’s or 1880’s. The painting was remarkably well executed by an artist unknown to her – the signature in the bottom, left hand corner was unreadable – and in the background, between two houses on the street, was a barely visible tree. She tried to discern the colour of the foliage, in order to ascertain what time of year the painting was supposed to depict, but she couldn’t. It was too dark.

Having opened the little window, Arielle Hamburg laid down on the bed and felt a welcome sense of calm in the crisp autumn air. She was not a person trying to escape her anxiety; she was trying to live with it. When it gave her a respite, her sense of calm was so much the deeper. Restlessness had become part of her being, but even more integral was the calm she so restlessly strived for. She found it not only in the serenity of autumn, but in darkness, in music, in loneliness, in extraordinary passages in stories – most often biography or autobiography, sometimes fiction – and in the complex of  buildings. Lying in bed or sitting in an armchair, listening to music from a church service on the radio even though she was not religious, she sometimes visited the place in her mind where she would, given a choice, want to live. In that place she was alone, completely alone, and lived in a mountainous area in a staggeringly enormous complex of very large buildings. The buildings were innumerable and impossible, except in her mind, and consisted of more rooms than she could explore in a lifetime. So she needed an eternity. And she would also need the long, lonely walks in the uninhabited, forever autumn country surrounding them. And along the endlessly numerous corridors in them.

Nearly every time Arielle Hamburg visited the place, she found new rooms. Some of them unremarkable, some ordinary, some pleasing, some splendid. All of them rooms that no one but her ever visited. To some of the rooms she often returned, among them a small, dark bar with a black floor and a few chairs and tables just inside a large window, looking down on a deep ravine. There she would sit, in solitude, occasionally getting up to pour herself a glass of beer or a gin & tonic behind the bar counter, and drinking and smoking well into the night, nearly always with music on the sound system. Her thoughts would touch on the forbidden, and the more inebriated she got the more intrepid she became – even those thoughts that could cast her down a gulf of despair were welcome, and having mulled them over in her drunken state she would finally walk along the long corridor with the many jammed-full storage rooms on one side and the continuous row of large windows on the other – windows looking out on the vast landscape of trees, mountains, and dark sky. She would walk to the wide, palatial marble staircase, with even larger windows at landings, one after the other, furnished with armchairs and tables. She would walk to one of the many beds in this complex of buildings, this one at the top of the flight of stairs. And then she would, finally, lay down to rest. And fall asleep.

Arielle Hamburg was still resting in her hotel room, but had waken up. There was a sense of anticipation in her rest, because having arrived in the evening she had not yet seen the foliage she would see during her first long walk the following day, but the calm that overcame her was not disturbed but reinforced by her anticipation. Her moments of calm, sometimes long, were often touched not by depression but melancholy, something she had always felt made her even calmer. Melancholy is serene. Whenever in happiness, she was never serene. Happiness is too bubbly, it goes to one’s head like champagne. But depression did occasionally beset her and was sometimes the reason for her visits to the large complex of buildings. Not to escape the depression, but to acknowledge it in a place where she could handle it.

But Arielle Hamburg also travelled when depressed. And the travels were attempts at escape. She worked on the theory that if she confronted new surroundings and new situations, dealt herself things she had to cope with, she would also make it through each single day, one at a time, and finally through the depression. And more often than not, she felt like the chains were torn off, at least momentarily, when the flight she was on departed for her destination.

During one of her most severe attacks of black depression she had found herself in a small, coastal town in England. The depression had been her reason for going there. She had walked the forlorn streets in late night darkness, finding not solace but a soothing similarity between her surroundings and her inner state. During daytime, however, she had noticed a dwarf, seemingly very happy, practically bouncing with joy, who had made daily rounds around town, making various purchases. He had intrigued her. He was always alone, but amiably chatting with townspeople and occasionally waving at someone on the other side of the street. She had meant to approach and talk to him, because he seemed interesting. Some of the things he said she overheard, and he seemed well read – he sometimes spoke in quotations from famous novels. The quotations seemed lost on most of the townspeople, but Arielle Hamburg recognised them. In her mind-numbing depression, these quotations had been a source of pleasure. But she had never spoken to the dwarf.

Then late one night, when Arielle Hamburg was aimlessly walking the streets, she ended up on the beachfront, gazing out across the sea. In the darkness she could not see where the sea ended and the sky began, and for a few moments she felt that welcome sense of tranquility. Just gazing out over the dark waters and into the dark sky, she managed to release her thoughts.

Arielle Hamburg in darkness. Arielle Hamburg alone. Arielle Hamburg in sorrow.

Suddenly, though, a sound – a low, insistent sound – penetrated her mind. A sound carried by a faint, chill wind. It was some time before she became aware of the sound and some further time before she recognised it as music, coming from somewhere far off. Her tranquility dispelled, she thought at first that it might come from some distant ocean liner passing the coastal town. But she could not see any ship. The flat expanse of sea was barren.

The windows in the houses along the beachfront were dark. With one exception, very far off. In a small house, at the furthest end of the beach, to her right, light was shining. From that house came the music, realised Arielle Hamburg. At first only faintly curious, she tried to regain her tranquility, knowing it was impossible. Momentarily confused, she could, a few minutes later, not resist the urge to begin walking towards the house. The music became increasingly louder, a slow, classical piece with a steady rhythm in it – and all of a sudden Arielle Hamburg was thrilled. She began walking faster. Finally she ran.

Moments later she silently and unobtrusively, and very slowly, walked up to one of the open windows and looked in.

The room was festive. It was decorated with balloons in a multitude of colours, on a large table in the center of the floor rested an enormous birthday cake, candles were burning everywhere and a heap of birthday presents, most of them still wrapped, lay in a corner. In the room, the little dwarf was merrily and somewhat drunkenly dancing to the strange, rather sad music, that Arielle Hamburg suddenly recognised as the third movement in Mahler’s first symphony, snatching a bit of cake on his way past the table, taking one bite and then putting it back, dancing on, without slowing down for even a second. He raised an enormous mug of beer and shouted “Cheers, and my happy birthday!” to one of his guests, a life-size cardboard doll with the face of Virginia Woolf glued to the head. The room was crammed with guests, all of them celebrities, most of them famous authors – Arielle Hamburg saw, among others, Rudyard Kipling, Marguerite Duras, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as several more authors and a few film stars, among them Rita Hayworth (in the shape of a commercially made cardboard doll used to promote some film, very old). And, in the centre of the room, obviously in a place of honour, but somewhat incongrously, Charles Darwin.

Arielle Hamburg stood there in the darkness, looking at the partying dwarf, for a long while. Then she quietly went away. Now she wished, more than ever, that she had approached and talked to him when she had seen him in the streets.

Early the following day, Arielle Hamburg left the little English, coastal town. She would never return.

III

“In autumn, some certain people, quite few, will be seen walking the parks and forests with deciduous trees. These are the foliage hunters, the autumn people. They rarely want company, since their company is autumn. For all those regarding this season as one of storms, cold weather, and rains, this is quite naturally incomprehensible.

The foliage hunters see the autumn sunshine, tinged with the mildness it lacks in summer. They feel the high air, the crispness, and the caress of a chilly breeze blowing straight at them. And they see the spectacularly splendid foliage, the trees and bushes dressed in their multitude of colours. And they hear the silence. They listen to the silence. A park or a forest in autumn is silent. Few if any twittering birds, and especially on an overcast day one hears hardly a sound except the footsteps of the foliage hunters, sounding like the patter of light rain or leaves fluttering in the wind.

When darkness falls, earlier than in summer, this is also a time cherished by autumn people, for as evenings linger they will walk in the serenity of darkness as well, finding the landscape all but empty. And even more still.”

— excerpt from an unpublished article by Arielle Hamburg

IV

Arielle Hamburg woke early. She had fallen asleep fully dressed, which did not bother her. After a shower and a surprisingly good breakfast – the honey served with the toast interested her; it tasted strange but was delicious and she didn’t recognise the flavour – she went briefly to her room to brush her teeth, and then took a walk.

On her way out she once again saw Benedikta Barragan, who had obviously risen even earlier than herself. She was coming back to the hotel from a distance, so she must have taken a walk very early in the morning, while it was still dark. Arielle Hamburg did not quite know what to make of this, for she seldom sought any other darkness than the darkness in the middle of the night. She set out, and when she and Benedikta Barragan were only a few yards apart she nodded to the woman, who seemed oblivious of her existence.

“Stay in line, weapons ready!”

Arielle Hamburg turned around towards the happily guffawing young woman and realized that she herself was the one being addressed. The woman, who had dark brown hair in the helmet style of a twenties bob and sparkling, blue eyes – a somewhat incongruous combination – stared merrily and openly at her, slowly running out of her merry laughter and replacing it with a broad smile. Arielle Hamburg was quite overtaken by surprise and at a loss as to what the woman had meant or why she had addressed her. The young woman, sensing this, continued:

“Don´t look so frightfully aghast, love! But you do look determined, you know, so I couldn’t help but blurting that little comment out. You really walk like someone with a purpose in life.” She made a slight pause, looking pensive. “Sigh, sigh, I wish I also had a purpose in life,” she said in a voice that clearly bespoke she wished nothing of the kind. “What are you up to and may I help you achieve it, love, or shall I just continue being the unpurposeful creature I´ve always been in life so far and so good?!”

Arielle Hamburg beamed, without being aware of it. The saucy woman had her completely charmed. It was the frank openness and cheeky mirth she exuded; irresistible. But this was her first day in Meredith and she was taking her morning walk and she did not want company, but at the same time she suddenly wanted the young woman to accompany her. Momentarily unsure of what to do, torn between the impulse to ask the woman along and the certain knowledge that she wanted to take a walk in loneliness, she quickly hit upon a compromise:

“Well, yes,” she said, sounding more puzzled than she wanted to. “What about helping me achieve a goal I just set myself – a lunch filled with such splendid conversation that we both forget that the food is excellent?!”

“Spot on!” said the young woman, smiling broadly again. “See you in the lobby of Hotel Strangers at twelve, then. Cheerio and stay in line!”

With that the young woman continued on her way, striding along, happily humming a silly tune completely ouf of place in the crisp air. Her trousers, which were quite wide, blew around her legs in the wind, in a way that accentuated her firm buttocks, where the trousers were very tight.

In the restful but light shadow of the trees, all dressed in splendour, Arielle Hamburg suddenly found herself slightly above a small plateau, with a much smaller, quite comfortable-looking and nearly squarish plateau to the left of it. For some reason there was a puddle of water just beside the squarish plateau, on a jagged ledge. As far as Arielle Hamburg knew it hadn’t rained for days in Meredith. She had checked the forecasts well in advance of her trip. She stood there for a long time, gazing down at the plateaus. Then she climbed down to the little squarish plateau and sat there and let her gaze rest on the foliage of the surrounding trees.

Luncheon with Idelle Tice was a delight. She was superficial, but her superficiality was of the whimsical, cheerful variety that speaks quite loudly of an attractive innocence. Not that Idelle Tice appeared particularly innocent in worldly matters, but her attitude was one of innocent joy at the mere fact of being surrounded by a world of such unimaginable wonders. She laughed a lot. Somewhat incongruously, she ate with a frosty elegance.

“Yes, of course I´ve seen her. I’ve even talked to her a couple of times. Benedikta Barragan. Hardy old battleship, that one. She stayed here last year too, love.”

“You were here last year?”

“And a whole stretch of years before that, love.” Idelle Tice laughed again. “But Benedikta Barragan showed up last year, possibly even grumpier than she is now. You know what, love, I think she travels with some excess luggage. Heavy stuff, you know.”

Arielle Hamburg was momentarily confused, which must have shown.

“A secret, love!” Idelle Tice said with feigned breathlessness. “Don´t you see?! Some sorrow. Some loss. Something. She hides it within herself and that´s why she is so hostile to pretty little girlies like you and me, who live here in the outside world. She is all locked up inside herself like a clam. Or a prison, maybe. Now that was a clever metaphor, wasn’t it?” Idelle Tice laughed again, very obviously aware that it wasn’t.

Arielle Hamburg began to realise that Idelle Tice wanted to appear superficial but wasn’t. Her intelligence was shining through the quite thick but not entirely convincing facade. She was practiced but not perfect. Idelle Tice lit a cigarette, blew an immense cloud of smoke, and let her eyes travel along the line of beautiful trees some hundred yards from Lago’s, where they were sitting at one of the tables by the waterfront.

“But as I said, I’ve talked to her,” she continued, and became somewhat serious. Pensive. “I don’t think she spoke much truth. Not to me, anyway. I am quite convinced she doesn’t like me at all, love.”

For some reason, Idelle Tice seemed to find this a bit sad. She looked down and with great precision cut a small piece of her steak. She didn’t say anything more about Benedikta Barragan and Arielle Hamburg let the subject drop. The rest of the luncheon they spent happily chatting about travels, relationships and, which would have appeared somewhat odd to an outsider, apiaries. Not that Arielle Hamburg knew much about them, but for some reason Idelle Tice did. And when they sat lazily drinking tea, gazing out over the lake this afternoon in Meredith, Idelle Tice treated Arielle Hamburg to a sprightly and apparently very frank account of what she called her radioactive dating and her arrogasms.

V

The following morning, when Arielle Hamburg came down for breakfast, Benedikta Barragan was already sitting in the little breakfast room, finishing her second toast. At first they didn’t talk, but suddenly and very unexpectedly Benedikta Barragan asked Arielle Hamburg if she wanted to join her. She spoke with at foreign accent that Arielle Hamburg could not place. Without introducing herself, Benedikta Barragan steadily met Arielle Hamburg’s eyes and smiled, although her smile was neither friendly nor warm – it was superior and sarcastic. It vaguely suggested that what she was about to say was not true, although it was. To the letter.           “When landing in Toronto once,” she said, “I was met by a TV crew at the airport. They were asking arriving passengers about the purpose of their visit, if they were there on business or on holiday, and if on holiday why they had chosen Toronto. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any real reason for being there. So, on the spur of the moment, I said that I was there on business. Selling coffins. ‘You see’, I told the reporter, ‘I have invented a coffin made of cardboard, easy to fold and transport. Very cheap, too. The demand is huge. I have come here to negotiate a deal with a Canadian distributor. The market is growing, you know. People die. And quite often, at that.'” She paused for a moment and looked quizzically at Arielle Hamburg. One could easily have got the impression that she was trying to figure out where to take her story next, but when she continued the tone of voice suddenly made it quite apparent that she was telling the truth: “The thing is, he believed me. Didn’t realise I was pulling his leg. So he carefully saw to it that he got my name right, they broadcast those short, silly interviews with arriving passengers, and all of a sudden I found that the demand was indeed quite huge. Bizarre, isn’t it? And since Benedikta Barragan is not exactly a common name, a quite large number of people who had to manage funerals on a low budget or for unloved relatives got in touch with me. So then I actually did invent the cardboard coffin and went into business, and nowadays my firm employs a number of people full time and I don’t even bother going there myself that often. I just own the company and get a healthy revenue each year. And I travel. All the time. Finally. That’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life, really. Not the coffins. The travelling.”

She fell silent and looked away. After awhile Arielle Hamburg realised that Benedikta Barragan wasn’t going to say anything more and obviously didn’t expect her to comment, and smiling thinly the older woman rose and just left the room a minute later.
Very fitting, Arielle Hamburg thought. Cardboard coffins.

That suited her impression of Benedikta Barragan perfectly.

VI

Marisela Clayborne phoned Arielle Hamburg on the mobile later that morning to say that Cleveland Eustace had finally left and that she would come to Meredith for a few days and could Arielle Hamburg please book her a room at whatever hotel she was staying?

Cleveland Eustace did not come from Cleveland. He was British. Nor had he ever lived in Cleveland. The reason they called him Cleveland Eustace was that Cleveland was where they had met him several years earlier one quite drunken night in a bar, when they had saved him from getting embroiled in a brawl by pretending that Marisela Clayborne was his sister and Arielle Hamburg a friend of theirs. After that the three of them had gone bar crawling and sometime during the night Arielle Hamburg had laughed herself to tears when Marisela Clayborne delightedly, with a husky voice, had said that he was so clever that she was going to call him Cleverland Eustace. At the time Cleveland Eustace had been on the run from a failed marriage to a woman called Kerstin Towner – after the divorce she had taken her maiden name again – and half in desperation, half out of some genuine albeit hazy fascination he had warmed to Marisela Clayborne’s gradually more frequent attacks, until early in the morning she had accompanied him to his hotel, on his instigation. Later that day a delighted Marisela Clayborne had phoned Arielle Hamburg to report that Cleveland Eustace was top notch amazing, but the ensuing relationship was soon over. That had not stopped them from seeing each other on and off during the intervening years, in a somewhat furtive way – although Arielle Hamburg was always kept up to date. The off and on affair amused her.

VII

Arielle Hamburg had one of her metaphysical dreams.

She had been lying in bed, listening to soft church service music and walking in the giant complex of buildings and then serenely visiting one of the large library rooms, where she had sat down in front of the fire, looking in a book but not reading, thinking instead. After some considerable time she had left the library and wandered out into a corridor, where she had been standing gazing out of a window at a drawn-out sunset over the mountains and autumn forests, and then she had slowly fallen asleep and begun dreaming.

In the dream, she was no longer in the impossibly vast complex of buildings.

In the metaphysical dream she found herself in a bare, enormous hall, totally devoid of anything except very harsh, white light and white walls, floor, and ceiling. She was dead. This she knew instinctively. This was the hall where she would await whatever happened after death and she supposed it would be something more or less religious, because otherwise why the hall? It would hardly have been there if it hadn’t been created by some god or other.

Suddenly a voice spoke to her. What a cliché, she thought, aware that she was dreaming and vaguely disappointed at not being able to come up with something better.

But then she did.

Because the voice asked her to name the ten days out of her entire life that she would most like to experience again, but with the extra twist of being aware that she was experiencing them anew and thus both reliving and observing them from the vantage point of a life lead. The ten days did not have to be consecutive; she could pick one day here and one day there out of her entire life, and relive them all. After that, she would be dead. Truly dead.

The thought of the ten days remained when she woke up in the grey light of an overcast dawn, and she had still not decided on them all.

“Oh, dear, is existence a predicate and all that nonsense,” shrilled Idelle Tice in delight upon hearing about the metaphysical dream. It did not surprise Arielle Hamburg that Idelle Tice knew about a relatively obscure, metaphysical problem. “How much more interesting to pick ten days! Now, love, which ones would you pick?” Without waiting for an answer, she continued: “You know, I wouldn’t mind the least to re-experience some of my most radioactive dating and more specifically some of the most extraordinary arrogasms. Actually, I must say I rather fancy dating you as well, love, but I don’t think you’d be game, now would you?” That ‘would’ very drawn out, emphasised. Idelle Tice laughed heartily. And shrilly.

Arielle Hamburg felt a wave of tenderness for this happily frank woman who wasn’t all that frank and didn’t know whether or not to believe that Idelle Tice was bi-sexual. It did fit with both the quite double-faced facade she preferred to show the world and the glimpses of her real personality that occasionally blazed through the cracks. But so did a mere pretence at being bi-sexual. Arielle Hamburg laughed too and meeting the other woman’s eyes she saw a glint of incongruity. That expression suited Idelle Tice.

Incongruities appealed to Arielle Hamburg. In the St Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague she had once stood transfixed at the sight of the large, unpainted windows near the ceiling, windows that looked like they belonged in a nineteenth century factory in England. Without even trying to seek an explanation, since that might have destroyed the incongruity, she had left the cathedral to walk back to her hotel through a chilly winter evening, at that time without realising that the vision of these windows would stay with her forever.

As would the glint in Idelle Tice’s eyes that autumn day in Meredith. Apart from that fleeting association, there was very little in Idelle Tice to remind one of a church.

“No, I probably wouldn’t,” she finally replied. Knowing that no, indeed, she wouldn’t. But she also smiled.

Somehow, Idelle Tice had managed to tell Benedikta Barragan about the metaphysical dream. Or Benedikta Barragan had overheard them talking about it, which on second thought struck Arielle Hamburg as more likely. What struck her as very unlikely was that Benedikta Barragan, who just happened – by coincidence? – to come out of the Irritation Room when Arielle Hamburg came back to the hotel from a walk later that day, suddenly brought the subject up with her. At first Arielle Hamburg didn’t quite comprehend what the woman was saying, being too stunned at the mere fact that this war machine of an old lady not only knew about her metaphysical dream but began discussing it with her.

What happened, and Arielle Hamburg later recorded it in detail in the diary in which she so seldom wrote, was that Benedikta Barragan came straight up to her in the hotel’s foyer, looked at her haughtily, and said:

“That metaphysical dream you had. I have been through a metaphysical episode myself. But I was awake.”

Arielle Hamburg stared at her.

“And it was my first relationship. With a tree. I mean, my first relationship was with a tree, not a man.”

Arielle Hamburg, fascinated, continued to stare at her. She began feeling slightly uncomfortable, as she was both a little scared and trying hard not to burst out laughing.

“I loved that tree,” said Benedikta Barragan. “I was only six years old, mind you, but I loved that tree. It was a birch. Not a very big one and not very tall, but beautiful. Especially in autumn. I visited that birch nearly every day, for I did not go to a daycare centre. I was at home all day with my mother, who was a hard-working housewife. I used to sit there beside the tree and look at it and talk to it. Nearly every day, and not only in autumn but for a whole year. And more. The tree would console me when I felt the world somehow askew and things didn’t turn out right, and even though I sometimes cried the tree didn’t tell me to stop but just whispered soothingly to me with its leaves. Except in winter, of course, when it didn’t have any. But in winter the branches sometimes creaked in the wind. And we often laughed, for when I was happy, which was often, I was bubbling with joy and I wanted to share that joy with the tree. If I got a present that I really liked or if something had happened to make me happy, I sometimes got very impatient and didn’t want to stay at home even if we were celebrating my birthday or maybe even Christmas, for I wanted to run to the tree when that happinness was still bubbling over. I wanted to share all of my happiness with the tree and not only the slightly faded happiness of an hour or so later. Do you quite understand what I am saying?”

Arielle Hamburg nodded silently, staring at the woman. Stunned.

“Good. Because nearly nobody else does. Well, after about a year school started. In my country school begins at the age of seven. But I still visited my tree every day. For several months. Until I fell in love with one of the cute boys in my class. All of a sudden I felt very grown up and very important, and lying in bed one night I decided that my friendship with the tree was very childish indeed and must come to an end. I further decided to end it the very next day, which I did. After school I visited the tree, stamped my foot, and shouted at it that our friendship was over, that I was not a stupid little girl who liked stupid trees any longer, and that I was in love with a boy in my class. ‘Stupid, stupid tree,’ I said, and then promptly turned away and left. It made me feel very grown up.”

Arielle Hamburg listened intently.

“The very next day, when I passed the tree on my way to school, I was determined not to look at it. But I couldn’t resist. I cast a glance at the tree and then I suddenly stood very still. For the tree had died. It was all dry and had lost its leaves. I was so sad and so upset that I couldn’t go on and I began crying and turned back home and told my mother I felt sick. Which I did – believe you me, young lady, which I did. A couple of hours later I was running a temperature and in the end I had to stay home from school for three days. I never forgot that tree. It was my first great loss.”

Having said this, Benedikta Barragan promptly turned away and went up to her room, without another word or without waiting for a reply.

Arielle Hamburg stood there and was bizarrely struck by the thought that the woman probably didn’t know what “metaphysical” means.

VIII

The encounter with Benedikta Barragan occupied Arielle Hamburgs thoughts when she rested on her bed late that afternoon, just before dusk. It appeared that the woman had some sort of confidence in her. Maybe the same sort of confidence that people had in each other in what Arielle Hamburg called Transit World. The confidence in the complete stranger whom one knows one is never going to see again. A frequent flyer, Arielle Hamburg had spent many long hours in transit at airports. She usually spent those hours in one of the airport cafés or bars, where she spotted other travellers – not tourists, travellers – who were also in transit and with whom she struck up conversations in order to kill time. The conversations usually started with tips on flying and travel. But if the transit was long, the conversations soon meandered into other matters – often personal, since both Arielle Hamburg and the traveller or travellers she talked with knew that the chances of their ever meeting again were slim indeed. In Arielle Hamburg’s view they could air whatever problems they had, most often emotional, and get the opinions of  someone from a different country and culture, most often with a different way of thinking. Here they were all citizens of Transit World, and thus in a sense totally anonymous. And they rarely even told each other their names and they never exchanged contact information, not intending or even wanting to see each other again. To be able to trust somebody completely because of shared anonymity was a relief and it allowed both parties to talk openly and frankly about anything. And maybe that was what Benedikta Barragan was doing. And maybe that was the reason for her finishing what amounted to monologues without waiting for a comment or reply from Arielle Hamburg – she didn’t want to get to know her, she didn’t want to know what Arielle Hamburg thought, she just wanted her to listen. Also, considering what Benedikta Barragan had told her that morning and how she had finished, Arielle Hamburg concluded that Idelle Tice was probably right in assuming that the woman carried what she called excess luggage, a great loss, a secret kept, probably because it was painful. Or maybe Idelle Tice wasn’t assuming at all and in fact knew a lot more than she let on. After a moments consideration Arielle Hamburg became quite sure that this was indeed the case.

The thoughts on Benedikta Barragan and Idelle Tice slowly floated away and she once again visited the enormous complex of buildings. A couple of times she had seen lights in some of the windows of a large office building, fifteen stories high. The lights surprised her, because she wondered who could possibly be there. This time the building was practically ablaze – every single window was lit. She went there to check before seeking the solace she needed in the room with the extremely large window, in another building. The room where she used to sit watching the rain flowing in enormous streams down the outer surface of the window, making the world outside only half visible. This she found soothing, feeling both part of her world and slightly detached from it.

In the office building she walked the endless corridors and naturally found the building empty.

IX

Idelle Tice was also in her room. She was doing something that would have looked very strange to anyone.

X

Late that night, Arielle Hamburg was dancing in the middle of the dance floor at a very large nightclub called Danger Zone. Nightclub dance music was beating out of the giant loudspeakers. She loved the night and the nightlife. In the night, in the middle of a crowd of night creatures, she could lose herself and let the music completely suffuse her throbbing body. She was an extraordinary nightclub dancer, dancing wildly but with controlled, innovative moves that frequently had other dancers gather around her in a circle, clapping their hands. And there, in the middle of the circle, she let herself go, consciously performing as well as losing herself in the music. She thrived in front of her impromptu audience, she thrived in the loss of  memory. She thrived by not remembering that there would ever be a tomorrow. Which was one of the ways in which she controlled the pain when it came through.

Because she had to forget, momentarily. One thing she had to forget was the envy. Arielle Hamburg knew that she had the talent. Or at least she had convinced herself that she had the talent. But no matter how much she tried, she didn’t manage to try hard enough. She couldn’t, because it took time, and she had the time, but never used it. Not for writing. Her articles, her short stories, her novel all went unpublished. She lacked the discipline. She hardly ever finished writing anything, and when she did she didn’t submit whatever she’d written to publishing houses or magazines. And then, infrequently, she would hear of an old friend from school or some other walk of life having had a short story or even a novel published. Or she would, unexpectedly, find somebody’s story in a magazine or somebody’s novel in a bookshop. In view of the company she kept and had kept, an unusally large number of her friends and acquaintances were published and, in three cases, fairly established authors. An a number of others were journalists. And her years went slowly by, disappearing in a flurry of travelling, nightclubbing, working, socialising, simply going down the pub, and – ironically – reading voraciously.

Late that same evening, she had logged onto the Internet and, on an impulse, googled the name of an old friend, the never too bright Carla Plummer, only to discover that she had just had her first short story collection published. Arielle Hamburg stared at the screen, first in disbelief, then in abject envy. Not only was Carla Plummer several years her junior, she had never been particularly interested in writing or literature in the first place. Fully aware, on an intellecutal level, that none of this did in any way affect her life, Arielle Hamburg was still unable to control her feelings. Trying to persuade herself otherwise didn’t help, because the envy and the accompanying dissatisfaction were all emotional and had firmly taken root. So, instead of trying to do some writing, she felt paralysed and went nightclubbing. To forget. For the moment.

And this was her lack of discipline. Always choosing the easy way out.

She kept on drinking and dancing all night, getting back to Hotel Strangers around six o’clock in the morning.

XI

“Oh, we are totally underwater today, aren’t we, love?” chirped Idelle Tice happily when Arielle Hamburg, after having slept for some four hours, made her way into the breakfast room with the optimistic intention of having the breakfast she felt less like having than a large gin and tonic.

At first Idelle Tice’s shrill voice cut Arielle Hamburg’s eardrums like a razor, but then she suddenly felt grateful for the sassy woman’s company. When the immense dissatisfaction with her own lack of accomplishment hit again, the company of someone who didn’t even know and who was, on top of that, sprightly to a degree, was another outlet … another way to forget and maybe even have a hangoverly good time now that the amnesia of the night was gone.

“Been swimming that way for days,” she replied to the immense delight of Idelle Tice, who was becoming increasingly infatuated with the attitude of this largely unfathomable woman. Idelle Tice was not what one might call an ordinary person, which is probably evident by now, and was thus herself attracted to people who were, to use her term, “outside of the ordinary humdrumming”.

Arielle Hamburg got herself a cup of strong, black tea – she never drank coffee, she couldn’t stand the taste – and some toast and joined Idelle Tice.

“The Battleship was here earlier, love. I’ve been sitting here all morning. And you know what, love, I actually talked to her a bit.”

Arielle Hamburg caught herself in time, not looking up. But she was hooked. Interested. Once again she got the feeling that Idelle Tice knew a lot more about Benedikta Barragan than she let on. Maybe not only knew about … maybe knew her. She had mentioned that they’d both been here before and her theory – or knowledge – about the excess luggage did fit the strange and strangely haunting monologues delivered by Benedikta Barragan.

“She is lonely, isn’t she?” Arielle Hamburg said, feeling a bit stupid.

“Well, isn’t that obvious to one and all, my little girlie?” Idelle Tice seemed a bit disappointed by the remark. “The interesting question is why, wouldn’t you agree? Of her own choice, do you think? Or for some other reason, love? Oh, reasons, reasons. I never have any, you know. No reasons for antyhing.” Idelle Tice laughed her shrill laugh, but now it seemed quite forced and was probably meant to distract Arielle Hamburg further, to reinforce the change of subject Idelle Tice had maybe attempted.

Arielle Hamburg, intrigued, instinctively realised that trying to force the subject would shut Idelle Tice down to any further discussion about Benedikta Barragan, at least for the time being. Queasily nibbling her toast she wondered why and then changed the subject completely, launching into an account of her night at Danger Zone and all the while busying herself with her tea and toast and finally rambling. When she looked up, Idelle Tice was vacantly staring at the door, obviously having stopped listening halfway through. After a minute of complete silence, Idelle Tice suddenly came to and, having finished her breakfast long before Arielle Hamburg had come down to the breakfast room, rose from her chair, smiled, and said: “Well, I saw you there, love. You’re a good dancer, I must say.”

And then she left.

XII

Benedikta Barragan was sitting in her room writing a letter. This was a letter she had been writing for many years. Off and on in her head, off and on committing words to paper, rephrasing the sentences each time, never mailing the letter. Because she didn’t know whom to mail it to. There was no one. So she kept writing it, over and over again, honing it to some sort of perfection. She knew exactly what she wanted to say and why. And she was an old-fashioned woman, writing with a fountain pen. Now, she had a working knowledge of computers and the Internet – she had been forced to learn when starting up her business – but harboured no love for these, in her opinion, new-fangled things. A letter as personal as this one had to be written by hand, with a pen, on real stationery. For the thousandth time, or so it felt, she signed off and crumpled the letter and threw it in the waste paper basket. She knew there would never be anyone to mail it to, but maybe she could give it to the young woman who had appeared a few days earlier. Or maybe not.

XIII

“What constitutes peak foliage is a topic of discussion among foliage hunters. That peak foliage is of a beauty nearly beyond possibility is agreed upon, but since some trees turn early in autumn and others late, and since early autumn therefore still features green foliage in a mix with yellow, red, brown, and purple, and since late autumn features bare trees with the late turners now yellow and red and brown and purple, it really boils down to whether you prefer green trees or bare trees among the turned trees in a foliage landscape. For the most avid foliage hunter, the whole season from the first turning trees until all of them are bare constitutes peak foliage. And when all trees are bare, the time has come for long walks in the middle of November nights, in a darkness where there are tree-shaped holes in the dark sky. The silence in such darkness is breathtaking.”

— excerpt from an unpublished article by Arielle Hamburg

XIV

One way for Arielle Hamburg to deal with the onset of depression was to dance herself into oblivion at a nightclub. But that was a way of temporarily forgetting, albeit in moments that felt eternal. Another way to was to let all her feelings pour out into autumn foliage. She needed them both. Because the third way, to actually do what needed to be done in order to avoid the depression or at least to alleviate it, was seldom open to her. She had no clear understanding of why.

After breakfast, she walked straight out into the autumn landscape, far, and poured her feelings of disappointment and anger and frustration into the immense beauty. She allowed herself, surrounded by quietude, to let the feelings rage, turning in ravaging circles in hear head, over and over. There was no wind, the stillness was complete. The trees, nearing peak foliage of the variety with green leaves interspersed here and there, rose against a backdrop of gray clouds.

Arielle Hamburg left her thoughts. She had once, walking in an enormous, incongruos area in the marina of Athens in Greece, surrounded by large and official but empty buildings, some of which had stairs leading to walkways on the roofs, found that she could leave her thoughts in a physical place never to revisit them again until she actually went back to that same place. She had been sitting at water’s edge, at a flat expanse with small trees in long rows, and living a hopeful but impossible fantasy in her thoughts about the man she had just lost, a fantasy she then left there. And thus her thoughts and emotions, her fantasy, remained there untouched, to be revisited if she ever again wanted to experience them.

But the thoughts and feelings she left in the forest this day would not stay there. They would return of their own accord, no matter where she found herself in the world. It was only a question of time.

In certain moments, in the ungraspable area between reality and perception, between memories and the present, Arielle Hamburg could view all that happened from a distance where everything appeared to have passed through the cleansing of intellect and suddenly seem if not clear at least much less unfathomable. Upon walking slowly back to the hotel through the forest, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she might have begun to understand what Benedikta Barragan was doing. An encounter not far into the future with Idelle Tice’s battleship would confirm that Idelle Tice’s appellation was far from correct, although her analysis was.

XV

Marisela Clayborne  arrived unannounced. That is, she hadn’t called Arielle Hamburg to say at what time of day she would be coming, thinking that since she had a room booked at Hotel Strangers she would just check in and see Arielle Hamburg later. And thus she arrived unannounced and thus she arrived when Idelle Tice was sitting in an armchair in the small lobby haughtily pretending to read a glossy magazine. Arielle Hamburg had not mentioned Marisela Clayborne to Idelle Tice, but the latter instantly became fascinated with the red-haired, short, quite plump woman who looked Irish and might have been of Irish descent, in spite of her surname. However, the fact that Idelle Tice became fascinated with someone was in itself quite unremarkable. This was a habit of hers. Usually her fascination quickly faded when it turned out that the person that had attracted her attention wasn’t humdrumming outside of the ordinary boundaries. Her fascination increased, though, when she overheard Marisela Clayborne speak to the reception clerk in what turned out to be a somewhat distorted but unmistakable Irish twang. Idelle Tice had once been to Dublin to celebrate Christmas, taken long, leisurely walks in Phoenix Park and along Whiterock Bay in sunshine and winter wind, and her fascination with Ireland – a country half incomprehensible to her – had remained. When Marisela Clayborne had got her room key and turned around, Idelle Tice put the magazine down and quickly rose. Approaching Marisela Clayborne, she merrily blurted out:

“Stay in line, weapons ready!”

Marisela Clayborne looked her over, somewhat disdainfully, her green eyes making her look even more Irish. For a moment she seemed pensive.

“I’m not programmed for that,” she said simply, to the sparkling delight of Idelle Tice, and went up to her room. Hotel Strangers was not a large hotel, and it so happened that Marisela Clayborne had got a room on the same floor as both Idelle Tice and Benedikta Barragan.

XVI

Before leaving the forest Arielle Hamburg found a Y-shaped, quite long twig that she hanged on one of the lower branches of a tall maple. This is one of the signs of the autumn people, of the foliage hunters – a sign that is practically invisible if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The eyes of other people tend to sweep over the twigs hanging on branches, blending in with their surroundings. Autumn people, however, reply by hanging a twig of their own either on the same branch or a branch very close to it. Thus, they strike up a conversation of stillness, using a sign language so simple it provides room for whatever thoughts and impressions and notions each of them can dream up, without knowing and without ever seeing one another.

XVII

Not knowing that Marisela Clayborne had arrived, Arielle Hamburg knocked on Idelle Tice’s door. Idelle Tice let her in, beaming.

“Just having a chat with the archived people, dear,” she chirped.

Arielle Hamburg had not been in her room before and was surprised to see rather a pile of books and magazines. Idelle Tice had not given her the impression of being a particularly voracious reader.

“These are all archived people,” Idelle Tice continued, making a gesture in the direction of the books and magazines. “Biographical and autobiographical books and articles. I love to read a life. Don’t you, dear?”

And so Arielle Hamburg did. She experienced a moment of vertigo, because she also “read lives” and she was sure that she had not used that expression when talking to Idelle Tice. She had begun reading lives during that stay in Greece, when she got into the habit of going to a Starbucks nearly every morning, sitting in one of their huge armchairs,  reading the magazine Granta, since it contained not autobiographical or biographical articles about celebrities, but about ordinary people from a plethora of different times and places. This she found far more fascinating than reading about famous people.
The two women fell into a discussion about archived people and reading lives, a discussion during which Idelle Tice became grave and serious and totally lost her chirpy manner, something that Arielle Hamburg did not even notice until after quite awhile. And then Arielle Hamburg told Idelle Tice about The Broomway.

In Essex in England there is a public right of way disappearing into the sea, so that one literally has to walk across the water to get to the island, Foulness, where it leads…

“…and it is called The Broomway,” continued Arielle Hamburg. “At ebb tide you walk straight out into the sea, because the causeway at a place called Wakering Stairs, where one begins, just ends after a few hundred yards. Then you walk mile after mile in flatland emptiness, on the bottom of the sea. To that island, to Foulness. The day I did it was overcast. And just a few hundred yards out I was in what felt like another world. Or another life, maybe. Because out there, especially when it is misty, everything changes. It feels like walking into a pathless future. You see, there are no landmarks and there have been hundreds of deaths through the centuries. People getting stuck in the mud when the tide comes in and so forth. And there are no distances and no dimensions. It’s like all proportions cease to exist. An avocet is as big as an eagle and I couldn’t judge the distance to any object that might stick up out of the bottom of the sea and the horizon felt impossibly near and impossibly far away. It affected my mind… I began thinking strange thoughts. And that featureless life, which lasted in timelessness as I walked all the way to Foulness, was impossible to archive. Because when I got back on land, I couldn’t remember any of the thoughts I’d had out there. I couldn’t think the same way any longer. The world was back to normal and so was I and thus I couldn’t retain the thinking or the memories of that other life. Maybe one could say that it was a life archived in emptiness.”

In the long moment of silence that followd, Idelle Tice looked pensive. Then she replied by telling Arielle Hamburg about one of her own experiences and her reply made it very clear that she had understood the import of the story about The Broomway.

Idelle Tice recounted how she had visited Spitalfields in London, and come upon a man living in a house built in the seventeenth century…

“…where he acts as manservant to an imaginary family from that time, day in and day out. This is his life. A lifelong project.” The man had inherited the house not as owner but as caretaker or manager when the owner died, and since the owner had meticulously but not necessarily historically correct re-created the atmosphere…

“…of the house such as it was in the seventeenth century, the man now devotes his days to maintaining and developing that atmosphere. The lives of the family the imagines were never lived, but they are continuously being archived in the on-going present where the caretaking archivist lives. His life is not empty, of course, but it is built on nothingness.”

She added that the house was open to the public, for a fee, a few evenings each week. That’s how she had happened upon it and the man.

It did strike Arielle Hamburg that Idelle Tice had suddenly spoken in a way completely different from her usual, superficial chirpiness.

XVIII

That evening, the three women dined together in the hotel’s dining room. They were engaged in a lively but to some extent strained conversation, since there was an undercurrent of tension between Idelle Tice and Marisela Clayborne, who both seemed to be vying for Arielle Hamburg’s attention. Idelle Tice’s laugh was even shriller than usual and Marisela Clayborne steadfastly refused to laugh at her jokes, even the witty ones. Arielle Hamburg herself was in rather high spirits, and thus did not really notice the tension or, if she did, wrote it down to the two women being complete strangers to one another.

The mood further changed after a comment Marisela Clayborne made, a comment that Idelle Tice immediately pounced on.

“But that’s not the thing at all, love,” said Idelle Tice with some emphasis. “Heavy metal is an outlet for people fighting despair and loneliness, people living in large, anonymous cities. You must think of a young girlie, love. A sad one, who feels at odds with reality. And she is standing all alone, in black jeans and a leather jacket and loads of heavy metal paraphernalia, love, at night on an empty city street, and in order to be able to cope at all she needs the thundering outlet of heavy metal music in her earphones not to fall down the chasm, not to find herself in the void. It actually has very little to do with people being aggressive or worshippers of darkness, apart from the kind of darkness you embrace because of its mildness, love. Don’t you see?” She had suddenly become serious and it was apparent that she said this with some emotion. And she did catch Arielle Hamburg’s attention, since Arielle Hamburg was also a heavy metal fan. And agreed with Idelle Tice’s sentiment, although she had not previously put it into words herself.

Marisela Clayborne looked slightly annoyed at the outburst, her own comment about heavy metal not having been very serious. Now it felt like a conversational mistake. Momentarily ill at ease, she nevertheless replied:

“I used to befriend the emptiness instead. There was this birthday, for example… It was my twenty-fourth and I didn’t have a boyfriend, while my sister, who was twenty-three, was already married and expected a child. And in Ireland it is important to get married and start a family…” So she is Irish, thought Idelle Tice, with a tinge of triumph. “And I was still living at home, with my parents! I remember going home from work that day, knowing that they were all waiting, my sister and her husband too, to celebrate my birthday…” Marisela Clayborne sat silent and pensive for awhile. None of the others said anything. “I really tried to feel happy, previously having been childishly delighted on my birthdays. But I couldn’t. I was just thinking that I was still a child living at home, although I was grown up and the oldest sister. I opened the presents, we sang together as we usually did, I got my cake, I played some songs on guitar for my family, all of it the way my birthdays were usually celebrated. And then, when my sister and her husband had left, and my parents were watching TV, I went out and walked along the street, emptiness hammering through me. For a long, long while it kept on hammering and then I decided to try and make friends with it. And in the silent darkness, all alone, I slowly, slowly befriended the emptiness. The sadness did not go away, but the emptiness became a friend.”

The dining room went silent. They ate the rest of their meal with a sense of calm, not trying for any cheerful chatter.

There were a few other guests in the dining room, but Benedikta Barragan, sitting a few tables away from the younger women, didn’t openly pay them any attention. She was intensely focused on, but without letting it show, their conversation and when she heard Marisela Clayborne’s story an expression of deep familiarity came over her otherwise rather stern face.
Some twenty minutes later, the three young women had finished their meal and left. Benedikta Barragan remained, with the expression of familiarity not leaving her face.

Late that night, she once again played the grand piano. This time, no one listened.

XXIX

Arielle Hamburg awoke from a rather restless sleep, long before dawn. She lay still in the darkness, thinking about her ten days. The less previous life a day contained, the happier it would be. To some extent. She had to have memories of the day, she had to know what she had done, and her first choice would be a couple of days from her childhood. She did have a rather good memory for some certain things even from very early childhood, like how the flat where she’d lived until the age of four looked. She did remember fragments of what had happened there and according to her mother, the earliest memory came from when she was about one and a half years old. But she wanted days when she had been more of a person, more conscious of both herself and her surroundings, and she wanted to have lived a bit at least. Some days from eight, nine or ten years of age would be touchingly wonderful. She thought, well aware that memory censors but never really believing it. And then she was suddenly struck by another thought. She wondered if she would be allowed to combine enough autumn walks, some one hour long, some three hours, some five hours, to make up the two hundred and forty hours of ten days and ten nights, and thus be allowed to walk in autumn for the two hundred and forty hours making up ten days and ten nights. And then she wondered if she would be allowed to take that walk in the place where she so often went in her mind, and in that case the whole question about reliving the equivalent of ten days of her life would suddenly become moot, since she would be in that place forever and so it did not matter.

Arielle Hamburg fell asleep again. She did not sleep restlessly now, but deeply.

Copyright © 2017 by Anders Bellis. All rights reserved.

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