The neon sign above the entrance had only a feeble glow in the daylight. Marie barely noticed it as she rushed through the opening and down the steps. She pushed past the silent, staring men and picked her way round and over the bodies entwined at the edges of the steep stairwell. Descending lower and lower into what seemed like the very core of the earth, she came to the underground cellar room.
Marie was sure she’d seen him come in here, but she couldn’t spot him now in the groups of people clustered around the bar. She elbowed her way through, and mouthed ‘vodka – tonik’ to the barman, hoping to be understood over the music. She needed a drink, but not another confusing exchange in English-Austro-German.
Taking the tall clear glass, she headed for an empty table in the corner and sank down on the scratched leather-covered bench beside it. She leaned back against the brick wall, its black emulsion shiny from the sweat and grease of a hundred other heads, then closed her eyes and exhaled slowly.
This was her first visit to Vienna. The first time she’d flown out to see Evan since he’d taken up the offer of a European placement. There’d been no rows or recriminations before he left, just resentful grudging silences of disappointment. And now, although she’d travelled eight hundred miles to see him, she didn’t feel any closer.
Vienna. She’d thought perhaps the mixture of culture and history would provide a distraction; that her visit could build some shared memories, things to look back on when he finally came home. So she’d agreed to spend the day exploring the city.
As they’d criss-crossed the narrow streets, Marie and Evan had found themselves caught up in the route of a protest march. She didn’t understand all the words on the photo-shopped placards, but she could imagine the demonstrators were dissenting students, griping about cuts in funding.
Marie remembered the huge marches she’d joined in London, naively thinking they could somehow stop the invasion of Iraq. She and Evan both knew that sense of hopeless frustration. They understood that a demo could turn, suddenly and without warning, from a peaceful protest to a brawling scene of destruction. This time though, they were just bystanders, bemused foreigners.
Though the shouts of the protesters had got louder they hadn’t sensed the change in tone. Then they’d turned the corner at Stephansplatz and seen the Bundespolizei, the Federal Police, lined up across the road, machine guns held across their chests. She’d been shocked to see the armed security guards at the airport when she’d arrived, she hadn’t realised it was routine practice here for the police to carry weapons. Now their silent menacing presence on the city streets was enough to make Marie and Evan turn in their tracks, persuade them to find a quiet route away from the marchers.
When the first screams rang out Evan had started to run, yelling at her to follow. She’d tried to keep up with him, stay close, as the panicked crowds behind them sought an escape. She’d lost sight of him for a while when the crowd surged past. She thought perhaps she’d heard shots.
Then, with relief, she’d seen his ridiculous hat up ahead. A baker-boy cap he’d called it. She hadn’t wanted him to wear it, thought the misshapen black suede made him look like an old singer from the eighties; someone her mother had liked. But now she was glad he’d ignored her and worn it anyway. Moving faster, she pushed through the crowd to get closer, near enough to see him enter the bar.
Marie opened her eyes. There was a single spotlight hanging from the centre of the ceiling, she watched it spinning slowly around the cellar, casting a harsh white light, then moving on. No wonder this seat had been empty, it was in just the right place to be caught by the spotlight beam. There’d be no private moments here; whoever sat at this table would be lit up like a tableau for the rest of the bar. Marie looked down to avoid the light’s painful imprint on her eyes.
In front of her was a scarred and battered table. Ludicrously, it reminded her of the old science lab at school. The benches, with their thick varnish had always been irresistible – a place to leave your mark, your autograph if you were brave, an anonymous insult if you weren’t. They’d all carved their names, using the tip of an ink-pen or the sharp point of a protractor, seeing the edges of the varnish turn from clear to opaque as it was cut.
This table looked as if it had been collecting names for years; jumbled up, scratched at different angles, some newer ones across the letters of the older names, like words on a scrabble board. Just names; no political statements, no arrow-broken hearts, not even an insult. It was more like a visitors’ book, a record of all the men and women who’d visited this bar, sat at this table and left their mark. Always in capital letters, as though to make a firmer statement. Someone called CHRIS had really wanted his name to endure, the letters had been deeply gouged into the wood and coloured in with black ink.
She leaned forward, her fingers tracing the indentation of the letters, the curves of the ‘C’ and the ‘S’. Then she saw it. No soft curves to this name, but the straight parallel lines of an ‘E’ and the sharp points on each of the other letters. She didn’t think it was the sort of name you’d often find in Austria. The white edges gave it away as one of the newer engravings: EVAN. So he had been there. She looked up, hoping he might still be in the room, watching her.
If he wasn’t here she needed to get out and look for him. She didn’t know where to start. She wasn’t even sure what street this was. Would he go back to the apartment, assume she’d made her way there? Would he retrace their steps back to the Cathedral Square? Relief turning to irritation, she wondered why he’d been so quick to run away. Why hadn’t he taken her hand, tried harder to stay with her? Why had he let her fall so far behind? He knew this city far better than she did, he should have stuck close, made sure she was alright. She wrapped the long grey edges of her cardigan tightly around her. She thought of all the steps she’d walked down to the cellar. It seemed a long way back up to the street.
The music pulsed. The chanting English lyrics, clumsily translated and repetitive, echoed around the black walls, bounced off the vaulted ceiling.
This wasn’t the Vienna she’d pictured. The city of palaces and opera houses, art galleries and Lipizzaner horses. This underground bar couldn’t be more different to the cafés they’d passed today, with their high white ceilings and sparkling glass chandeliers, their great gold-framed mirrors, with carved cherubs peeping round horns of plenty. She’d read about these coffee houses; their history as the meeting places of philosophers, writers and politicians. Today they’d been full of grey-haired, fur-coated Viennese ladies and elderly men in camel-hair coats, who’d made her think of Hercules Poirot. Old couples barely speaking, carefully picking at the sickly sweet gateaux served on thin china plates. Marie and Evan had stood together outside, peering in through the steamed-up windows, watching the immaculately dressed waiters manoeuvring round the tables, their trays balanced high on one hand. They’d seen the sparkle and glint of gold and glass, listened to the sound of spoons and pastry forks clinking on china. They hadn’t wanted to go in.
Despite the music, and its constant rhythmic beat, nobody here in the bar was dancing. She watched the people around her. Some stood alone, staring at the flaking posters that were pasted one over another around the walls. Others sat grouped around tables, heads bent together. In the coffee houses it had been white fur coats and blue-rinsed hair. Here in the cellar, everyone was dressed in black: oversized T-shirts, tight skinny jeans, long pointed shoes, all in shades from charcoal to jet. Even on bare arms, the patterns of black-inked tattoos snaked their way around and up, covering the skin. How odd she must look, sitting on her own, in the grey cardigan and linen trousers that had seemed so right for walking round the city.
As the spotlight continued to rotate, she saw the pallor of the men’s faces, made more striking by the smudged kohl lines round their eyes, their dark hair flopping forward. So many men, looking so similar, but none of them Evan.
She hadn’t tried to listen to the conversations around her, the music was too loud for that and she wouldn’t have understood anyway. But as she sat there, mulling over what to do next, she suddenly realised that the sound of voices had stopped. No-one was speaking. One by one the people of the cellar bar turned to look at her. Under the spotlight, their pinched white faces were expressionless, their dark eyes unblinking.
She needed to leave. She wanted to find Evan. Now.
Marie grabbed at her bag. To her right, she saw a girl stand up and step towards her. She was petite, almost waif-like, but Marie felt somehow intimidated by her bony-ness, and her hesitating, awkward movements. She didn’t need this; she just wanted to get out, to find her way back to the apartment.
The music faded as the girl stopped in front of her. There was nothing to distinguish her from the others, to mark her out as their spokesperson, but that was what she appeared to be.
‘You are the English woman – is that so?’ she enunciated the words in a slow monotone.
‘Yes, but how…’
‘You should not be here. This is not the right time for you.’
‘I’m sorry… I was looking for… I made a mistake …’
‘Yes, there has been a mistake. You must leave now. Go back up the stairs. I cannot come with you, but when you get to the top you will be shown the way.’
Something wasn’t quite right in the words; Marie didn’t understand what the girl meant about time, or how she knew about the mistake.
It didn’t matter, she’d be fine when she got outside, and she’d get back to the apartment somehow. As she headed for the stairs, people stepped away, making room for her to pass. She didn’t look back at the girl, a mixture of confusion, embarrassment and fear hurrying her on her way.
She was surprised to find it was still light outside. Looking up Marie could see the sharp point of the Cathedral spire above the top of the buildings opposite. If she could just get back to the square, she was sure she’d find her way from there to the apartment.
Turning left, she saw a large crowd gathered on the pavement at the end of the street. Were the demonstrators still around? Surely they should be gone by now, scattered back to the student halls and bars across the city. She pushed her way through to the roadside, just in time to see a man closing the doors of an ambulance. There was no urgency about his movements as he climbed into the driver’s seat, shaking his head. The vehicle pulled away - no lights flashing, no sirens or claxons ringing.
Inside the Hölle Keller, the music got louder. The regular beat pulsed and the white spotlight rotated. As its light fell on the leather-covered bench, a slim dark figure slipped out of the shadows and sat down. He carefully placed a black suede hat on the table, then took a pen from his pocket. Leaning forward over the carved letters, the man slowly and methodically filled in the parallel lines and sharp pointed characters with dark black ink.