‘Eva’: From The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Woollett, Hot Desk Fellowship Extracts 2014
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.
Laura Woollett is working on a proposed collection of short stories, The Love of a Bad Man, spotlighting the women who have stood by some of history’s most sinister men. Whether mistresses, accomplices, or victims themselves, these women have something in common: they have all felt the allure of evil. This is one of her stories, ‘Eva’.
According to my sister Ilse, there’s a Jew in Vienna who spends all his time listening to bored women talking. They lie down on a couch with their backs to him, plucking at their blouse buttons and going on about all sorts of things: their dreams, their memories, their childhoods.
‘Why?’ I ask Ilse.
‘For enlightenment,’ she says. ‘Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that.’
Ilse is working for a Jewish doctor when she tells me this. His name is Dr. Marx and he’s an ear, nose, and throat specialist. He lets her sleep in a room next to his office and she stops going out with young men, spouts off about apnea and sinusitus whenever she gets the chance. When things start changing and Dr. Marx has to move to America, Ilse’s eyes are red for weeks. She looks at me like she hates me and says it’s all my fault, that things could be different if I wasn’t so ignorant.
Sometimes I think about that Jew in Vienna when I’m lying around, waiting for Him. By the phone in my little brown-roofed villa. On the terrace beneath the bright umbrellas. Smoking in my suite at the Grand Hotel. I think about my head opening up and everything spilling out of it in a multi-coloured jumble, like clothes on the floor when I’m dressing for dinner. My dreams. My memories. My childhood. All of it falling together until I’m enlightened.
It begins on a couch. In the drawing room of his Prince Regent’s Place apartment, with Him in mourning and me giddy from a half-bottle of champagne. He won’t drink, but I’m determined to cheer him up. I lean on his arm on our way out of the restaurant and, in the Mercedes, blink at him with serious eyes. I tell him I’d do anything to see him happy.
It is quick and less painful than I expect. Embarrassing in its quickness, like a fish leaping into a rowboat, thrashing about, then sliding back into the deep blue water. His face turns red, like I’ve heard it does when he makes speeches. Once he has caught his breath and buttoned up, he rises from the couch. I hike down my dress and start pulling on my stockings, but they’re full of runs. He touches my golden head and tells me he’ll buy me new ones. He tells me I’m a good girl.
I’m three weeks into my job at Mr. Hoffman’s photo studio when He first sets eyes on me. Standing on a ladder to reach some files on the top shelf and wearing a skirt that’s hemmed too short. He stands at the front of the shop, wearing a shabby raincoat and talking to Mr. Hoffmann in a low voice. I feel them looking at my legs.
I don’t recognise Him from his photographs. I don’t recognise any of the men who come in, though I see their faces every day in the darkroom and hanging up around the shop. But after I come down from the ladder that day and he asks for my name and kisses my hand, I start paying attention. I can’t say why, but I feel I have to.
Every time He comes into the shop, he makes a point of talking to me. It surprises me that he takes such an interest, him being so much older and serious-looking, me the youngest girl at work and still plump from my convent school diet. But when we start talking, I find out he’s not so serious. He likes to eat cream cakes and marzipan. He likes to go to the theatre. He likes to pay compliments to pretty girls, me most of all.
One day, He brings me an autographed photo of himself in uniform, looking mysterious and thoughtful. I show the photograph to Ilse when I get home from work and she laughs so much I want to slap her, then tells me solemnly that I can’t let Papa see it. ‘You know how he feels about radical politics,’ she says. Together we lift up the lining of my underwear drawer and hide it beneath my schoolgirl wools and cottons. For now, I can only dream of satin and lace.
Sometimes my papa says I’m a good girl. Other times, he says I’m bad, wayward, a disappointment. I can be good for getting a B in German. I can be bad for getting a B in German. I can be good for looking pretty. I can be bad for looking pretty. I can be good for playing sports like a boy. I can be bad for playing sports like a boy. It’s so hard for me to keep track of what’s good and what’s bad, I’ve given up trying.
Ilse never gets in trouble with Papa. Neither does my little sister Gretl, who’s still at the convent. It’s always me who seems to get Papa worked up. One night at the dinner table, I ask Papa if he’s heard of Him, just to see how he reacts. ‘
That man? He’s a charlatan, a fool who thinks he’s omniscient. He says he’s going to change the world. Not likely!’
Ilse and I stuff our cheeks full of potato so Papa won’t see us laughing, and are quick to go our own ways once our plates are cleared. I think she’s sneaking out to call Dr. Marx. I shut the door to our room and lie down, closing my eyes until I can see His face floating above mine. I see his face and it’s like lying in a field of forget-me-nots, under a full white moon, at the height of spring. I say his name and feel bad, delicious.
He often has to go out of town for business, to the capital and other places. Sometimes, months pass without me seeing him. This is okay before what happens on the couch, but afterward, I assume things will be different. I wonder what the point of it all is — his compliments and gifts, his dates with me to the theatre and opera and his chalet in the mountains — if he has so little need for me. I stop being plump.
He had a niece who lived at his Prince Regent’s Place apartment before we become lovers. She was pretty and plump, and wore the latest fashions from Vienna — clicky heels and fur coats, beautiful silk dresses. One day, when he was off working somewhere else, she aimed a pistol at her chest and shot herself dead.
I remember this alone in my parents' house, waiting for a phone call that never comes. Unlocking Papa’s war pistol from its dusty case and pointing it where I hurt most, then jerking it away right before it goes off. Ilse comes home first, finds me dizzy in a puddle of my own blood. She calls one of Dr. Marx’s friends and he fixes me up in the middle of the night. We pass the whole thing off to my parents as an accident.
And Him? He flies back immediately, promises me an apartment of my own, close to his.
Papa and Him first meet when I’m on tour with his publicity team. I set up equipment for my boss and sometimes get to take photos of Him myself, making speeches and holding his hand up to the crowds. The crowds are always full of women, who give off a smell and yell out crazy things — that they love him, that they would die for him, that they want to bear his children. I’m not jealous of these women. They’ll never get as close to Him as me.
We stop at a lodge outside town. I tell my parents to be there for lunch, though our convoy doesn’t arrive until after four. Papa is civil. He hails him, and afterward they shake hands. ‘Your daughter is a very good girl,‘ He tells Papa. Papa says nothing. He knows exactly what this means.
I don’t want to be ignorant, but politics are so boring to me. Every time I try to get through the book He wrote before he became famous, my mind turns into a dumb wall. It’s the same with the newspapers, which I only skim for pictures of Him. And music. How I’d rather dance to fast jazz or slow, moony American love songs than listen to the stuff He likes: Strauss, Verdi, Wagner, Wagner, Wagner.
He doesn’t mind if I’m ignorant. I can sit in the sun and read Oscar Wilde, flick through fashion and movie magazines, and he’s happy. He says it’s better for a woman to be soft, sweet, and stupid than intellectual, and I’m not one to dispute this. I’m not like Ilse, always trying to sound smarter than she really is.
He gives me the brown-roofed villa after I take too many sleeping pills on purpose. My papa won’t visit me there, but Mama and Ilse do. We drink nice wine and I show them the flagstone patio, the table tennis set, the high garden walls that no busybodies can see over. I show them all the artwork on the walls inside, including some watercolors that He did himself a long time ago. I show them the brand-new TV set, which gets broadcasts straight from the capital. I tell Ilse she’s welcome to move in with me along with our little sister Gretl, who’s coming home from convent in a few weeks. She isn’t interested. Dr. Marx is still in town, running his practice.
He gives me two little black dogs to keep me company in the villa, which follow me around as eagerly as Gretl does. He gives me a monthly allowance and I spend it on pretty things from Vienna and Italy: crocodile leather, silk underwear, shoes by Ferragamo. Nowadays, I don’t work unless He is going somewhere and wants me along as an assistant. Instead, Gretl and I lie on my bed during the day looking at patterns and catalogues and picking out what will suit me best.
Sometimes I think of hurting myself again: not only when He is out of town for too long, but also when he’s in town and taking his discretion too far, cold-shouldering me in public and telling everyone that he’ll never marry, that the only woman in his life is Germany. I think of doing it with poison, like Madame Bovary. But then I remember the fairytales I grew up with, how everything happens in threes. Three is serious. It’s life or death.
In summer, Gretl and I hitch rides in the mail truck out to Lake Konigssee, where the waters are the same deep blue as His eyes and icy with reflected snowcaps. There are always bronze-backed young men by the lake who we have fun with, men with cornsilk hair and names like Rudi, Heini, Bruno. They flick us with their towels, dunk us underwater and bear us up again in their strong arms.
He isn’t jealous when he sees pictures of me in my swimsuit with the young men. He says it’s good to see me having fun, making the most of the long summer days. He says there’s nothing more virtuous in the world than young, healthy, German bodies having fun in the sunlight.
They are German men, His men. I don’t forget this, even when they grab me by the wrists and ankles and swing me into the water, so I hit its surface with a hard, thrilling slap. My heart breaks as pleasure ripples through me, a murky bubbling and a pure mountain sky. They help me up and I know it’s all just innocent fun, that their bodies belong to Him as much as mine does.