Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
The Interpretation of Dreams
Constance paused at the entrance to the buffet car. It was almost full and a hum of conversation rose from the tables arranged in rows on either side of the car. Noticing her hesitation, a waiter sprang forward to assist her. ‘We have no vacant tables, yet if the Fraulein does not mind sharing with a gentleman’ – and he pointed to a table at the far end of the car where a solitary diner was reading a book.
Of course, Constance thought, as she followed the waiter. A book was the perfect object that allowed you to be in public while simultaneously remaining private. She wished she’d thought to bring hers.
Constance didn’t often travel alone. As she reached the table at the end of the car she felt a pang of envy for the noisy party of young people – probably students – seated at the table across the aisle. If she hadn’t left her companions in Vienna and travelled on alone to Budapest, she would have been with a similar group. Either that, or with Franz.
Constance’s thoughts turned reluctantly towards her fiancé. She had been engaged to Franz since her second year at medical school. That was almost three years ago. Franz was a year ahead of her, and since graduating and moving to Berne to work in a clinic, he had been pressing her to set a date for their wedding. Constance found his insistence annoying, although she could not have said precisely why. When she probed the source of her reluctance it seemed to turn on two objections: that the wedding would no doubt be an awkward family occasion, and that the colour white did not flatter her. The whiteness of snow she loved, yes – whether on mountains or ski slopes. Even ice had a strange beauty – but to be shrouded in white from head to toe?
Constance did not need to be told that these objections were trivial ones. Nonetheless, when a group of friends had invited her to join them on a week’s hiking trip in the Tyrol she accepted the invitation gladly. And the combination of mountain scenery, fresh air, and exercise, had raised her spirits, as it always did. So much so, that when her friends went back to Basel, she decided to travel on alone to Budapest. And now Budapest was behind her, and she was on her way home – to her studies and her family, and to Franz.
As she seated herself in the chair the waiter held out for her, her dinner companion looked up from his book with a slightly startled expression. He quickly recovered his composure, and offered her his hand to shake. ‘Árpád Weisz’, he said.
Constance shook the proffered hand. ‘Constance Mertz.’
The waiter arrived with their soup. As they ate, Constance took the opportunity to study her companion. He was older than her, she guessed, perhaps in his thirties; clean-shaven, dark-haired. He had spoken to her in German, but she thought he might be Hungarian. He had finely-moulded features, with full, slightly-hooded eyelids, and a sensuous underlip.
She wondered if Árpád Weisz was also scrutinising her, and she experienced a moment of self-consciousness. She was wearing grey woollen slacks and a red jumper and her fair hair was loose, apart from a clip at the side that held it away from her face. It was suitable attire for an alpine hut, but here, among the soberly dressed diners, the red jumper struck the wrong night – overly bright and sportlich. But her luggage was mostly taken up with her equipment (including crampons and an ice axe, for they had finished their week-long hike with an ascent of the 1,200 foot Grossvenediger), and these left little room for changes of clothing.
Constance rather hoped that Weisz would continue to read his book, leaving her alone with her own thoughts. Since leaving the mountains, images and sensations of snow-clad peaks and deep, forested gullies had continued to replay themselves in her mind, where they mingled with others from the lecture; the imagined scenes of the polar regions. Although the picture that was imprinted most sharply on her mind was of the stuffed polar bear that greeted visitors in the foyer of the Budapest Explorer’s Club – still impressive despite the poor condition of its coat which seemed to have undergone a moult: its claws cruelly long and sharp, its lips drawn back from yellowed teeth in a snarl.
But her dinner companion evidently felt it would be rude to continue reading, or perhaps he did not like to read and eat at the same time. He closed his book and put it to one side. ‘The Riesling is not bad,’ he said, indicating the bottle on the table. ‘Perhaps you would care for a glass, with dinner?’
Constance didn’t drink – except for the occasional beer with her friends after a day in the mountains – and it was on the tip of her tongue to refuse his offer. Alcohol had associations for her with laboratories and specimen jars, the sickly chemical smells of formaldehyde and disinfectant. But whether because of the lingering exhilaration from her trip, or the novelty of travelling alone, she was feeling slightly reckless and experimental.
‘Why not?’ she said and when she took her first sip from the glass the waiter brought her, was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted more of orchards than laboratories.
Over the remainder of the soup Weisz learned that she was Swiss rather than German, a medical student in Basel, and that she was returning home from Austria where she had been hiking with friends.
‘You were in Austria, yet you are travelling from Budapest?’
‘In Vienna I saw a notice about a lecture at the Budapest Explorer’s Club. I was interested, so’ – she shrugged – ‘I made a detour.’
She sensed that he was curious, but too polite to probe. She went on regardless. ‘The lecture was about polar aviation. The speaker was Margrethe Nord, the Norwegian aviatrix.’ She heard the touch of pride in her voice as she added, ‘It was the first time the doors of the Budapest Explorer’s Club have been opened to women.’
‘The dawn of a new age,’ he remarked. ‘And you were there to witness it.’ She could not tell whether he was being ironic.
‘Or perhaps you also have an interest in being a polar explorer?’ This time she was almost sure he was mocking her.
‘I might,’ she replied unperturbedly, refusing to let him needle her. She reminded himself that there was nothing about her that suggested she had any connection with the polar regions, or that she had grown up with Antarctica like a cold thought at the back of her mind. A tiny part of Adelie Land – a glacier, to be precise – bore her name: Mertz. But Weisz didn’t seem interested in provoking her and she wondered if she’d misread him.
‘The lure of the polar regions,’ he mused aloud. ‘I wonder what it signifies?’ Constance didn’t understand the question, so she nodded towards the book he had been reading. ‘Is your book about antiquities?’ She had already established that he dealt in antiquities “and other curiosities”, and was travelling on behalf of a client.
He shook his head. ‘The book was given to me by a friend; a writer.’ He held it with the spine towards her, so she could see the title. She read the author’s name, Sigmund Freud, in small letters, and in larger ones above it: The Interpretation of Dreams.
Árpád Weisz said, ‘You are familiar with the ideas of this author?’
‘Dr Freud works in the field of neuro-pathology,’ Constance said neutrally. Some of her courses had touched on the mind and its disorders. She was familiar with the names of prominent figures such as Charcot and William James. Freud’s theories had been mentioned, if not with conviction, although a professor in another faculty was rumoured to have undergone a Freudian analysis. That professor was a Jew. Constance wondered whether Árpád Weisz was a Jew.
As if he’d read her thoughts, he said, ‘My father was Austrian, but my mother is Hungarian. Descended from gypsies, she likes to say. On one side of the family, businessmen and layers. On the other, palm readers, fortune-tellers, dreamers – and dream interpreters.’
‘What do you think about dreams?’
‘Me?’ He gave her a curious look. ‘I think that if Freud is correct, then our dreams may be the only place where we are truly ourselves, a country without border guards or officials – like the ones who checked our tickets and passports as we left Hungary.’
‘They don’t foretell the future, then?’ Constance laughed. ‘How disappointing.’ She added, ‘Could you read my fortune from my hand if I crossed your palm with silver?’
He smiled. ‘I probably could, but I should warn you that palmistry bores me.’ The waiter had cleared their empty soup plates and they were eating the main course. Weisz swallowed a mouthful of potatoes dauphinoise and said, ‘If I studied your palm, would it tell me why a medical student from Basel is interested in polar exploration?’
Constance took another sip of her wine. When had the waiter refilled her glass? She didn’t remember emptying it. ‘I had a cousin, Xavier, who went to Antarctica as a member of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He never returned.’ ‘I am sorry. I did not mean to revive painful memories.’
But Constance was thinking about Xavier – the beloved son, law graduate, ski champion, cyclist: bookish and sporty, handsome and considerate. His death had broken his parents’ hearts and probably destroyed their marriage. As well as introducing Constance, young as she was, to the very idea of loss.
She said, ‘It was a long time ago. Xavier died after another companion and most of their supplies were lost in a crevasse.’
The surviving member of the party had written to Xavier’s parents, describing Xavier’s death from the effects of an illness that included vomiting and diarrhea, peeling skin, and hallucinations.
‘Do you know what caused his death?’
‘Malnutrition probably – the result of a poor diet. The precise cause is a mystery.’
‘Is that why you became interested in medicine?’
Was it? Constance hadn’t thought of that before. It was certainly true that Xavier’s fate had made her pay attention to recent discoveries in the field of nutrition. In a class on vitamin theory she’d learned that the livers of polar mammals such as seals, polar bears, and huskies, contained potentially toxic quantities of the fat-soluble nutrient known as retinol. Seated in the lecture hall taking notes, she’d thought of her cousin. When their supplies were lost, Xavier and his companions had been forced to eat their dogs. Had the strips of husky liver Xavier had been fed by his companions – who wished to give him the most easily digestible portions of the animal – contributed to his death?
She looked up to see Árpád Weisz watching her.
‘Do you believe in the power of coincidence?’ he said. Before she could reply, he added, ‘I told you that I sometimes obtain items for collectors. If you are interested, I could show you my latest commission. That is, of course, if you don’t object to visiting my compartment.’
They had finished eating, and their wineglasses were empty. Constance hesitated, and disguised the hesitation by bringing her napkin to her lips. She did not think it entirely proper to visit the compartment of a man she had only just met. But curiosity tugged at her – and, to be honest, she felt reluctant for her conversation with Weisz to end, just yet.
‘I believe I can trust you,’ she said with a smile.
The buffet car was almost empty. In the corridor she stumbled slightly, still becoming accustomed to the swaying motion of the train, and Weisz offered her his arm.
‘You’ve heard of Nansen, and his expedition on the Fram? How he allowed the ship to become frozen in the ice, believing that the Arctic drift would carry him towards the North Pole?’
‘Well, in the years the crew spent frozen in the ice, at the mercy of the drift, one of them made his own deck of cards. Tarot cards.’ He paused. ‘You know what the Tarot is?’
Constance nodded. ‘Tarocco. Cards used for fortune-telling’.
They had reached the door of Weisz’s compartment. The sleeper, Constance saw, was an exact mirror of her own, except for the leather valise open on the floor, in which a man’s shirt was visible, together with a detachable collar and a pair of studs. Weisz’s shaving brush and razor were placed neatly on the washstand. These intimate objects, with their mixture of familiarity and strangeness, their indubitable masculinity, made her feel slightly breathless, as if there were not enough air in the room.
The steward had already visited and arranged the bed. It was the only place to sit, but Constance avoided it, standing awkwardly against the door as Weisz rummaged in his luggage.
He withdrew a rectangular object wrapped in a piece of silk. Placing it carefully on the end of the bed, he untied the silk to reveal a deck of cards. The cards were worn, rubbed at the edges, the design on the backs slightly faded. Constance felt obscurely disappointed. Was this worn deck of cards really the object that Weisz had wanted her to see? But then he turned the deck over and fanned the cards with his long fingers, and she saw that the original faces had been obscured and other scenes drawn and painted over the top. She came closer. The pictures were delicately executed in pen and watercolour; slightly naïve in style – the work of an amateur, but a gifted one. They showed a succession of Arctic scenes. A card depicting a man riding on a sledge pulled by dogs was called The Chariot. On the card next to it the Aurora flared in the sky above a tiny ship, surrounded by ice. The card called The Emperor appeared to be a portrait of Nansen. The card for Strength was surely a portrait of the Fram itself, the sturdy ship surrounded by mountains of churned ice. Another card, The Hanged Man, depicted a climber wearing crampons and holding an ice axe. He was suspended upside down in his harness from the side of a mountain. In the card next to it, captioned The Devil, a polar bear reared up on hind legs, its open snout revealing the dark cavern of its mouth with serrated rows of teeth. It reminded her of polar bear in the foyer of the Budapest Explorer’s Club, and the resemblance struck her as uncanny. Another card caught her eye and she bent over to look at it more closely. An explorer in a shaggy polar anorak was crossing a glacier, his possessions in a small rucksack. There was a dog in the picture, but it was not pulling a sled, but walking beside him like a companion. The foreground was occupied by the jagged opening of a crevasse. Unseen by both man and dog, it lay directly in their path. The card was called The Fool.
‘Did the artist mean to suggest that explorers are fools?’ she asked Weisz.
‘Haven’t you heard that the Tarot is sometimes known as the “The Fool’s Journey”?’
Weisz was straightening the cards. ‘Aren’t we all fools, in a way? Or to put it another way, innocents? Compelled to act in ignorance of the consequences of our actions?’
But Constance was thinking about the Norwegian crewman labouring over the collection of Arctic scenes, while the ice crept up around the ship and the Northern Lights flared above him in the cold, black sky. ‘What was he thinking about, when he made the cards?’ she wondered aloud.
‘The future, I imagine. Trapped in a ship that was gradually drifting north with the ice, wouldn’t you find yourself wondering what fate held in store for you? Even become a little superstitious?’
‘No, I don’t think I would,’ Constance said. ‘I’m a scientist. I’d rely on rational enquiry rather than superstition to solve my dilemmas.’
Yet even as she spoke, she was aware of some kind of slippage occurring. There was a sense of things merging, softening, becoming blurred. The window was a floating panel of darkness – the visible world reduced to the glow from the lamp on the wall, with its fluted shade. She found herself in the grip of a strange illusion; that the train had stopped or was slipping backwards, while she and Árpád Weisz were suspended inside a moment that seemed to expand, driving past and future into an obscurity as mysterious as the darkness outside the windows of the buffet car.
Weisz’s hand accidentally brushed her wrist as he retied the silk around the cards, and the illusion vanished. She realised it must be late. ‘I have enjoyed our conversation,’ she said. ‘But now I think it is time for me to go.’
‘Of course – I’ll walk you to your compartment.’
But when they reached it, he seemed reluctant to relinquish her arm. Constance felt the same way. At that moment it seemed intolerable that she and Weisz would go to their separate compartments, get off at different stations, and never see each other again. She confessed, ‘It makes me sad to think that after tonight you will go your way and I mine, and we will never meet again.’
His grip on her arm tightened. ‘You don’t have to go,’ he said. ‘I mean, I don’t have to go.’
She did not answer at once, and he said hurriedly, ‘Forgive me, I should not have said anything.’
‘No’, she replied. ‘Don’t apologise.’
He nodded, and turned to leave. She thought of what he’d said earlier. ‘A country where there are no border guards or officials.’ She put her hand on his arm. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘I would like you to stay.’
He bit his lip. ‘Are you sure?’
She made her voice light-hearted. ‘Are you trying to make me change my mind?’
‘No,’ he replied, standing aside so she could enter. ‘Come in, Constance Mertz.’ And he closed the door behind them.
When Constance woke she was dimly aware that the train was slowing as if preparing to stop. She opened her eyes, saw the low ceiling of the sleeping compartment, and remembered where she was.
She looked for the open valise on the floor – Árpád Weisz’s valise, with the folded shirt and collar studs. He’d gone back to his compartment to fetch it while she got ready for bed, and the sight of his luggage next to hers – side by side – had given her a strange pleasure. But the valise was gone. It was only then that she realised she was alone in the narrow sleeping berth, beneath the rumpled sheet.
The train was stopping. Constance leaned out of the berth and pulled up a corner of the blind. She peered out. The train was pulling into a large station. She remembered Weisz saying, at some point during the night, ‘I’m getting off at Munich.’ Later as she was falling asleep, his arms wrapped around her, she had mumbled, ‘wake me before we get to Munich.’
Through the gap beneath the blind she saw a man step down onto the platform. It was Weisz. He was wearing a long coat, and a felt hat. Carrying his suitcase, he vanished into the crowd that was milling on the platform, occasionally bumping shoulders as they hurried in different directions. He did not look back. A conductor moved along the length of the train, slamming the door of each compartment. A few minutes later, the train began to move again
. Her “moment of realization” she’d call it afterwards; no doubt a way of restoring dignity to the memory of the young woman left by her lover in the berth of a sleeping car. Although, it was hard to say what exactly the realisation was of. Later she’d become familiar with the notion that experience throws us into the future, severs us from the past, but there is a delay before we begin to grasp its meaning.
At that moment though, it was sensations rather than thoughts that flooded her mind: the touch of Árpád Weisz’s fingertips, the slight roughness of the stubble along the line of his jaw. The awkward but pleasurable way their bodies had discovered alignment; their stifled laughter, her own boldness. And underneath these tactile memories ran the images from the cards; the tarocco. The mountaineer suspended upside-down in his harness, the explorer and his dog walking unknowingly towards the crevasse.
Constance sat up. Acutely, she felt the emptiness of the compartment: the total disappearance of the man who had occupied it and – like a character from myth – vanished without trace.
Or not entirely. There was one thing. A book with a blue cover. The Interpretation of Dreams. He’d left it behind – overlooked it, probably, as he was packing.
Constance fully intended to leave it there. But in the end it was the last thing she slipped into her luggage before leaving the compartment. In the months that followed she did not get around to reading Weisz’s book. It remained a reminder of that night, which had itself acquired something of the atmosphere of a dream. But by an equally strange coincidence it was also the last thing she packed to take with her when, against the wishes and advice of everyone she knew, she sailed for South America – her last stop on the way to Antarctica.