Gerda Fuchs owned the guesthouse at the highest point of the village of Zander. The road ran all along the valley floor before ascending steeply through the village, up and up until it was halted by the mountain face. Haus Fuchs was the last building before the dead-end: the road terminated at Gerda’s front door and the sheer hillside rose behind. It was an exceptional position. From Gerda’s windows a marvelous view could be obtained of the whole of Zander, spread out below, the clusters of gabled houses, the little round-domed church, the narrow road that meandered down beside the sparkling river with the mountains towering all around, all perfectly clear, so that even the blue municipal buses could be spotted from far away, speeding furiously around the bends, as tiny and belaboured as little blue beetles crawling along a furrow of earth.
‘Komme!’ Gerda would call from the window to her guests, who would have enough time to finish their breakfasts, gather their things for the day and descend to the stop on the corner with still a few minutes to spare before the bus pulled up to collect them.
In winter the valley was white and the river made a long black gash in the snow like a long and narrow mouth, the snow forming curious rounded drooping shapes on either side of the black water like pale misshapen lips. There was a path beside the river and Gerda sometimes went that way into town, gliding on her skis through the silent pine forests that gathered in the mountain wastes between one settlement and the next, but more often she was in a hurry to get back to her guests and took the bus. Like all the other guesthouses in Zander, Haus Fuchs was busy from December to April: as soon as the first snows fell, the village transformed itself, like a woman putting on her evening glamour, into a small but prestigious winter sports destination. Big shiny cars began to make their way one after another up through the white valley, up the steep winding road, and the taxi service had its whole fleet out day and night bringing people up from the airports at Innsbruck and Salzburg. The snow-muffled streets, usually so quiet, suddenly rang with loud conversation and laughter, with car horns and bleating mobile phones, with shouts and calls and with the roar of the piste machines that lumbered ceaselessly over the nearby mountainside, smoothing the terrain for the strangers’ skis; and the hard bright air smelled of petrol and gluhwein, and women’s perfume, and cigars.
The residents of Zander worked hard in these four months, for it was then that their income for the whole year had to be made. The resort was full from the first day of the skiing season to the last. Restaurants opened in December that closed again in March; some of the hotels were booked to capacity eight months or even a year in advance. Many of the guesthouses had extended their premises, and a set of big, bright chalet apartments had recently been built on the village outskirts along the road. These establishments generally stood empty outside the skiing season, their shutters closed: the melting snow would reveal them like carcasses that had lain all winter under ice, bare and ugly in the warm sunshine.
All the same, despite its charm and the famed beauty of its position, Zander had not developed on the scale of other resorts in the region, for the reason that it had only one lift, an antiquated chair that rose precipitously from the valley floor all the way to the Sonnenberg station at the mountain’s peak. One could easily take the bus to the lifts at the larger resort of Zeedorf, two miles away; the Zander lift was simple and slow, and because of its extraordinary length and its exposure to the mountain face was beset by closures and difficulties in bad weather. Nonetheless the whole ski region could be accessed from its summit. It was either Zander’s misfortune or its good luck, depending on which way it was looked at and with what expectations. There were numberless villages that had no direct connection to the pistes at all, and others, like Zeedorf, whose random geography suited them to the installation of vast gondola or tunnel systems for which investment was readily found; places where the guesthouse owners were becoming millionaires and the hotels laying on increasingly extravagant facilities to serve the whims and preferences of the most pampered customers. On wet evenings between seasons, these developments were a recurrent theme in the conversation of Zander’s inhabitants.
‘I met Ilse Meuller in the cash and carry in Zeedorf today,’ someone would say, or, ‘Boris Hartmann was standing in front of me in the queue at the bank in Himmelsberg’, and the latest stories would be circulated: Hartmann was installing hot tubs; the Meullers had bought a house in Geneva, to add to the villa they already owned in Spain; the Hotel Schwarzkopf in Zeedorf centre was welcoming members of the British royal family this winter. Some people seemed angered by these tales of wealth and success, and others were merely amused, but what was certain was that since the boom in the regional skiing industry, the ordinary goings-on of the ordinary people they knew no longer received anything like the same attention. In many ways this was a relief. The glitter of success, even by proxy, took some of the tension out of ordinary reality. It was something outside themselves, something they shared, and even if they disagreed about the rights and wrongs of the situation the residents of Zander left these conversations feeling both more unified and more oblivious, to one another and to themselves – oblivious as the mountains made them feel oblivious, the cold hard mountains that stood above and behind them, that belonged to none of them and were common to them all.
Haus Fuchs was a six-room guesthouse that had been purchased by Gerda and her husband Hans Fuchs in the fourth or fifth year of their marriage, with money Hans had won in regional and national ski tournaments and with Gerda’s earnings from her own ski career. They had one son, Hanni, who at that time was two or three years old. All summer they worked hard on the house to be open in time for the winter season, and were able to welcome their first guests, a married couple from England called the Carsons, who their friends Rudi and Ingrid had passed on to them because their own guesthouse was already full. And it was a success: their very first guests, the Carsons, had come back the next year, and indeed every year since. They always said how much it moved them, to have been the first. It was a good omen, for them at least.
The second winter, Haus Fuchs was full for most of the season. Gerda cooked and cleaned while Hans managed the bar, the office and the money. They hired a girl, Johanna, to take care of Hanni and help with the domestic work. When Gerda looked back on that time, more often than not what she saw were Johanna’s enormous watery blue eyes, outlined with black khol in a slightly pitted face made smooth with chalky beige make-up. They had seemed to follow Gerda wherever she went and to be forever formulating silent questions concerning the precise nature of Gerda’s authority. Perhaps as a consequence, Gerda was by turns propitiatory with Johanna and harsh: either way the enormous blue eyes widened further. Sometimes Johanna seemed victimised and sometimes she seemed infuriatingly hermetic and free; her beauty came and went, like the weather, or like Gerda’s own feelings, for it came naturally to Gerda neither to command nor to submit, and so as the joint proprietor of an establishment and the mother of a small son she could never feel entirely comfortable.
In the evenings she and Hans would remain in the stube, serving dinner and talking to their guests. On festive occasions Gerda would wear her dirndl; Hans would discuss the day’s skiing with the lengthiness and concentration their guests required, moving from one table to another, from one circle of cheerful reddened faces to the next, where the same atmosphere of passionate obsession waited each time, waited for Hans to set it moving so that its events could be recreated and its adventures re-lived. Such adventures had once upon a time been his only reality; now, he stood in his hotelier’s waistcoat and talked. He talked about the mogul fields, the off-piste conditions, the ice that tended to strike the south face of Schwarzkopf on sunny afternoons, the high peaks circuit, the tree-line skiing towards Zeedorf, the dangerous blacks that cascaded down the back of the mountain into Zander itself. He had the same conversations again and again, often during the course of a single evening. Night after night he talked, as obsessively as once he had skied. Watching him, Gerda thought how lucky it was that Hans had such knowledge, and the opportunity to display it. The guests could get no end of it. And yet he was their audience, not they his. In the beginning she was astonished that these people who for six days lived at Haus Fuchs with such intensity, such clamour, such drive and lack of doubt, could on the seventh appear in the hall with their suitcases and cheerfully disappear, calling their hasty goodbyes. She would tour the silent house, looking through the open doorways at the unmade beds, the overflowing wastepaper bins, the wet towels on the bathroom floors. She would stand there blankly until she remembered that before nightfall the next set of guests was due to arrive.
It seemed impossible she and Hans could differ in their feelings about running a guesthouse, for it was so much clearer and more concrete than they were themselves, so busy, so relentless: it never occurred to her that there could be another response to it than that of pure instinct, like the instinct to catch a ball thrown at you. To feel, to think, to hold opinions about Haus Fuch in those early days – she herself was not capable of such rationality. But Hans was. She realised, though only much later, that those feelings of indistinctness and intangibility were hers and hers alone, that in a contradictory sort of way they defined her and constituted a kind of strength. Many times over the years that followed, people had said this to her, including Hans himself. Even in her moments of panic her friends had told her not to worry, that she would be fine, that she was strong, that it was Hans who had problems, not Gerda. But at the time it had not seemed like that at all. Towards the end of their third summer at Haus Fuchs, after a sharp period of bad tempered silences and elusiveness, Hans made his announcement.
‘I have to leave here,’ he said. ‘I can no longer keep the faith.’
This curious phrase, of course, was to remain lodged ever after in Gerda’s consciousness. She had become bad-tempered herself that summer, with Hans’s absences and the absence too of any willingness to help her prepare for the season or look after Hanni, and she tried to take the blame for his unhappiness, assuring him that things would change. But change didn’t interest him at all. He had already packed a bag: he would come back later to collect the rest of his things.
‘How will I manage the winter alone?’ she said angrily. ‘We have guests every week until April!’
‘You have Johanna. You’ll be all right.’
She noticed his mouth when he said ‘you’: he had already separated himself from her. They were no longer ‘we’. Most surprising of all, the way he said ‘you’ told her that of the two – the three – of them, he was most worried about himself.
‘Hans was never a provider,’ Gerda’s friend Ingrid said to her once, long afterwards. ‘Other people were a threat to him, sometimes a pleasure, but a responsibility? Never.’
Gerda remembered the way the terrifying prospect had come into view, cold and forbidding as a glacier: herself alone, Hanni, the business, the cooking and cleaning, the hard routines of winter maintenance, and most of all the stube at evening, the circle of sun-reddened faces all waiting to tell their tales of the mountain, barely able to contain themselves, like children waiting to recount their day at school – yes, the thought of those faces was frightening indeed. Child-like they seemed to her, though they were prosperous and middle aged. They wanted, she realised, to make-believe: they wanted, for six days, to pretend that this was the only reality, this mountain reality that was more powerful than their own, like a fairy tale is more powerful than a child’s own thoughts. They could lose themselves in it; they paid good money to lose themselves, to sit at the day’s end on the stube’s red velvet banquettes, bouncing with excitement in their salopettes like toddlers in their romper suits, waiting for Gerda to bring them their dinner, to pay them attention, to keep the story going. She supposed this was what Hans had meant, when he said he didn’t believe in it. The mountain reality still belonged to him: he didn’t want to part with it, to make-believe, like some women don’t want to part with the life they had before their children came, and with the person who lived it. She understood this better, once she was less upset, and once she had started to act Hans’s role. After a while it ceased to hurt her quite so much.
It was something else altogether that gave her pain: the lack of protectiveness, the lack even of a basic concern, in the manner of Hans’s departure from her. He had left her as he might have left another man, assuming she could fend for herself. To begin with it felt a little like excitement, the challenge of it – she lost a lot of weight, and dashed around the guesthouse as light and breathless as a girl. But after a while something began to accrue in her, to harden: the feeling that she was not, in fact, a woman. A man would not leave a woman night after night in an empty house, with no one to defend her. A man would not leave a woman with no livelihood other than what she could earn for herself. A man would not walk away without a backward glance from the female body that had borne his child. And Hans had done all these things.
‘That doesn’t mean you’re not a woman,’ Ingrid said. ‘Perhaps Hans is not a man.’
Rudi, Ingrid’s husband, didn’t look like so much of a man himself, with his spectacles and his grey frizzy hair, his little paunch, his legs spindly as a goat’s. Hans had never let himself go the way Rudi had. On the rare occasions Gerda saw Hans, she was still arrested by his physique, so lean and youthful and hard. She would stare, ashamed, at the brown skin of his throat where his collar opened, at his long muscled legs, at his big restless knuckled hands with the fine golden hairs on the backs. It was hard to believe a man did not live inside that commanding form. Yet Rudi would never desert Ingrid and their children the way Hans had: it was, Gerda had to admit, unthinkable. All the same she hardened, into a steady dislike of herself that wore a surface of increasing cleanliness and propriety. She went every month to the hairdresser’s in Zeedorf, as she had never done in the years of her marriage; she scrupulously made up her face and attended to her nails, laundered and ironed her clothes, ate strictly and healthily, all while a terrible coldness descended on her, a feeling of profound alienation from the whole feminine endeavor of her life. Even her child, Hanni, could not retain for her an image of the woman she must have been to give birth to him. As he grew older, and needed her less, it began to seem to her that he didn’t mean that much to her after all. He had used her as the hatching place for his existence; one day he would be gone. At such moments, Hans’s parting phrase recurred to her. Perhaps she herself could no longer keep the faith. It was, in a sense, the final insult he offered to her femininity, that he had expected her to.
Gerda still possessed all Hans’s cups and trophies, for the reason that he had not taken them with him when he moved out of the guesthouse. They remained in the display cabinet in the reception hall, alongside her own smaller collection of winners’ cups. There were the countless silver cups from the regional tournaments, a set of medals representing each year Hans had competed on the national ski team, a big pewter trophy with jug handles like funny pointed ears which Hans had received as winner of the six-commune circuit race; and in the centre of the cabinet, in pride of place, was the slim figure cast in gold that had always in Gerda’s mind been fused with Hans himself, leaning forever forward on its slender gold skis as it flew down a jagged gold mountainside. This statue was presented to Hans in the year he became the junior national downhill champion, when he was seventeen years old.
The cups were regularly cleaned and polished: it would have seemed strange, now, to put them away. They represented the fact of her involvement with Hans, the years the marriage had occupied, the home and child that were its fruit. This fact grew larger and more ineradicable as her distance from it in time increased. Everything else in her experience – even the mountains – had always got smaller the further away from it you went, so how this could be she did not know. But Hans’s absence made the history of his presence ever clearer and more defined. It was the thing that had happened to her, the main event of her life. Nothing since had ever seemed entirely real. If its reality moved or changed, it was only an illusion, or rather a consequence of the light in which she saw it. Her feelings about Hans altered the way a building’s shadow alters over the course of the day, shrinking and growing and shifting from east to west depending on the position of the sun, but the building itself remaining utterly impassive and utterly unchanged.
The social life of the village revolved around Haus Schulz, Ingrid and Rudi’s ramshackle place on the sunny hillside just above the main road. Despite its cheerfully chaotic atmosphere Haus Schulz was always packed to the rafters from the first day of the season to the last: even now, many of Gerda’s guests were people Ingrid and Rudi had had to turn away, having tried and failed to squeeze them in somewhere. Yet the Schulzes never had any money and lurched from one financial crisis to the next. They were too generous; they were forever offering their guests free schnapps and wine and second helpings at dinner, and Gerda knew for a fact that Ingrid, who did the accounts, frequently undercharged her customers.
‘That can’t be right,’ she would mutter, scrutinising a family’s bill for the week, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. ‘Just a week in the mountains, so expensive! We’d better reduce it a bit, poor things.’
Gerda herself had become more and more exact in the years since Hans had left. She charged for every pat of butter, every sip of gluhwein – why shouldn’t she, when these families with their big cars and their fleet of big blonde children were so much more fortunate than her? And though her bookings never reached the heights of her years with Hans, they stayed strong enough; the Carsons – Janice and Julian, they had encouraged her to call them – continued year on year to come. They – the Carsons – secretly embodied Gerda’s feelings of legitimacy in her enterprise: she almost felt as though she could never give it up, for their sake. Each summer, a slight feeling of unease would beset her: she was waiting for the Carsons to make their booking for the winter season. When it came she instantly felt more settled, happier, more content: she was free to view the approaching months in all their practical burdensome reality. This year they had booked much later than usual, in October, and Gerda had suffered. It so happened that she had decided to put her prices up beyond the rate of inflation, something she had never done before. All that talk the villagers went in for of profits being made elsewhere had slipped into her veins and hardened there, alongside the other hardnesses. When the Carsons’ booking came she felt a sharp relief. Once more they had legitimised her.
In the smoky stube of Haus Schulz, outside the season, Gerda would watch Ingrid while the others talked, her eyes moving automatically to her friend. Ingrid would usually be standing behind the bar in her unclean dirndl – she wore the national dress at all times during the season, and often continued to wear it when the season was over – washing glasses and smoking, watching the others through a cloud of smoke, her long spindly fingers at her lips. And though her remarks were quite ordinary, even meaningless – ‘Personal hot tubs, eh?’ or ‘Clients, is that what they’re called these days?’ – Gerda felt sure that nothing of what was said escaped her judgement. Yet what that judgement was, and how it was reached, Gerda could never quite tell.
When their children were younger, Gerda had spent much of her time with Ingrid at Haus Schulz. Ingrid would install herself at the table on the sunny terrace, a schooner of black coffee and a packet of Malboros beside her, and talk away, apparently oblivious, while her three boys tumbled and shouted and created all kinds of uproar around her.
By contrast Gerda’s vigilance over her own Hanni felt like a kind of madness, a preoccupation so unresting that she sometimes found herself wishing him dead just so that her worries for his safety could cease. She was forever springing from her chair to intervene in his play or remove a hazardous object from his path, and if she couldn’t reach him in time she would simply cry out to him in a voice that shocked her with its savagery and lack of decorum, and that sometimes made Ingrid herself jump out of her skin and stop talking. Perhaps, after all, this was the result Gerda had wished for, to see Ingrid ruffled; to see her own tension make a mark on her friend’s unperturbable nature.
‘What’s happened?’ Ingrid would call, looking foggily over through her cloud of smoke to where Gerda stood, distraught, among the playing children.
Ingrid never bellowed or knocked things over in her haste or lost the thread of a conversation because her attention was riveted elsewhere. Gerda knew she made a spectacle of herself, and this sacrifice of her own dignity she considered a part of maternal sacrifice generally. Yet when she was with Ingrid it would occur to her that her dignity was the very thing she ought to hold on to. And no harm ever came to Ingrid’s children: it was always Hanni who fell down the stone steps on the terrace, who cut himself on the rusted edge of Rudi’s old saw and had to be taken to hospital, who tripped running down the road and grazed his face on the tarmac so badly that Gerda was ashamed to send him to school the next day. Ingrid had a way of summoning her children out of the path of danger without seeming to form an opinion – or even to be aware – of the danger itself: this was how Gerda had become alert to the hidden quality of Ingrid’s judgement. Hanni had had his hands in his pockets and hadn’t removed them to break his fall – it was a habit of his, one Gerda privately found endearing. He looked like such a little man with his hands forever plunged in his shorts. But only a few days before the accident Ingrid had said to her, quizzically, through a cloud of smoke, ‘Why does Hanni walk around like that?’. ‘He thinks it makes him look manly, like Hans,’ Gerda said, but instead of laughing Ingrid had raised a sceptical blonde eyebrow. Gerda remembered it later and felt a deep confusion.
Now Hanni was grown up, and Gerda barely troubled herself about his safety. He had stayed in the mountains, working all through the season at the ski schools in the big resorts and spending the summers picking fruit or working as a casual labourer. Sometimes he drove freight, like his father now did. But he lived for the winter and for the regional ski training that took up all his free time once the first snows had fallen, despite the fact that he struggled each year to make the team. Gerda herself had taught him to ski: sometimes she thought bitterly of how cruel and predictable it was that he should be unexceptional at it. At other times she wondered whether Hans might have made a champion out of Hanni, and whether that too could be considered to be her fault. The one vision she rarely entertained was of Hanni not skiing at all, of him living and working in Salzburg, for instance, as all three of Ingrid and Rudi’s children did. She simply could not imagine it.
That winter was forecast to be the best in years. A meter of snow had already fallen by late November, and much more was predicted. There had been night after night of ringing frost and the ground was hard, ready for the soft snow to fall on.
‘Sgott! The one year I decide to take it easy – the phone hasn’t stopped ringing all morning. I keep answering it, thinking it’s Fritz to tell me the baby has arrived.’
Gerda heard her blow out smoke. ‘Any news?’
‘None. In fact Susi called me herself just now. She wanted to talk about the weather – I said, why are you phoning me? Why aren’t you in the hospital? And she admitted she was still at the office! I’m imagining you all up there, she said. I said, stop thinking about us. Go home and do your breathing exercises. At least they live in the city,’ Ingrid said. ‘The hospital is a hundred meters from their house.’
‘No Dr Krantz,’ said Gerda. Dr Krantz had delivered all Gerda and Ingrid’s children, except Fritz in fact. ‘Remember Fritz,’ she said now.
‘I couldn’t forget even if I wanted to.’
It had been a winter like this one, and Dr Krantz’s Honda had got stuck in a snowdrift. By the time they’d dug him out of it, Fritz had arrived.
‘He was so upset that you had to get out of bed to find him a schnapps while I held the baby,’ Gerda said, and both the women laughed.
‘But Gerda,’ Ingrid said, more soberly, ‘this is what Susi called me to say. That she was imagining us, having our babies up here in the dead of winter. You were so brave, she said, I don’t think I could be brave like that. It’s funny, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I think of a girl like her, so independent, doing her job and living alone all those years before she met Fritz, always supporting herself – she and Fritz have separate bank accounts you know – and I won’t say that sometimes I haven’t envied her, but all the same I’d be frightened to live her life, do you know what I mean? The exposure it involves, no excuses – you know, even after the baby’s come she’ll have to be back at work in six weeks.’
‘Exposure,’ Gerda repeated. The word gave her a cold feeling at the back of her neck. She was sitting in the tiny office off the reception hall where there was barely room for a chair and a desk, but all the same instinctively she turned around, as though expecting to see someone there behind her. ‘What does Fritz say?’
‘Oh, it’s all quite normal to him. Their friends are the same, everybody so independent. It’s just that sometimes I wonder what there is to hold them together.’
‘Maybe that was my mistake,’ Gerda said. ‘I was too independent.’
‘But Gerda, you gave up everything to follow Hans!’
‘I wanted to give it up. I chose to.’
There was a silence.
‘Any word from Hanni? Is he coming?’
Hanni had been talking of coming home for a few days.
‘I’m collecting him from the station at Zeedorf tomorrow afternoon,’ Gerda said.
‘Ach, that’s good.’
‘Yes,’ said Gerda. She didn’t know if it was good. She only knew it was something. A feeling of significance would besiege her, and then she would remember that Hanni was coming. She hadn’t had this feeling for a long time. It was the way she felt about an event whose outcome was uncertain. She remembered it from her competitive skiing days, as what she felt the night before a race.
‘He was all summer with his father,’ she said bitterly.
‘So now he’s evening things up,’ Ingrid said. ‘What else can he do? Oh yes, now I’ve remembered why I called – do you have any space next week? I promised a family I’d try to help them out, because we can’t fit them in.’
‘The Carsons are coming next week,’ Gerda said, leafing through her ledger, ‘and two more bookings, so yes, I suppose so. It’ll be better for Hanni if I’m busy.’
‘Did you say Carson? I spoke to them too. I couldn’t fit them in.’
‘No, they always come to me,’ Gerda said. ‘Don’t you remember?’
There was a silence.
‘Ah well, it’s probably a common name or something. I’ll give those others your number. Better get off the line in case I miss something. Tchuss!’
‘Tchuss,’ Gerda replied.
That night it snowed heavily again. Gerda woke in the darkness of her room and felt it, the light mysterious sense of uplift, as though some great pressure had been released, some unseen burden atomised into a million soft flakes that fell and fell, bandaging the world in whiteness. This soft analgesia, after all that hard daily pressure on the soul: it seemed to echo her own state and the feeling of unreality that adhered to her still, so many years after Hans had gone away. When she was younger Gerda had sought danger in snow, had pursued risk and excitement at the first sight of it, going over it as fast as she could. That had seemed the correct response to the soft, spongy, analgesic snow: to move, move over and through it, fast. Now she did not move. She had become static, a thing the snow could fall and heap on and bury. It was painless, she knew, almost pleasurable, to be buried in snow. And she recognised it now, the feeling of a release from reality that created that deathly pleasure. Reality was smashed up, atomised into numberless white flakes, and for an instant the relief, the lightness, the uplift was so great that one did not notice the principle of descent that followed: descent of blindness, whiteness, numbness, so steady and so impalpable that people could freeze to death in snow while believing themselves comfortable and warm.
The next afternoon she followed the municipal plough all the way to the station, the road piled ten or more feet high with drifts to either side, and there was Hanni, waiting.
‘I had to go behind the plough,’ she said, through the window.
‘I guessed,’ he said.
He had opened the boot and put his bags in before she had time to get out of the car, and so the moment to embrace him passed. Gerda sat, embarrassed, while he came round to the passenger side and got in. On the slow drive over, held in check by the roaring snail-paced machine just ahead, she had felt a fierce yearning for Hanni and had imagined hugging him, but in that image they were in the warm station, her having arrived first to see him coming through the barriers with his bags. She had not expected him to be waiting outside. Now there was an awkwardness between them. She felt the familiar coolness of her attitude to Hanni, which over the years had become a kind of refuge, beginning to return. All at once a great weariness beset her. Why was it so hard to show what you felt? Always, always this disintegration, this breaking up of the impulse, this disappointment in the face of reality! When Hanni was smaller and the first snows fell, he used to stand in the small garden at the back of the house, throwing snowballs one after another at the rockface behind. Again and again he would form them between his hands and then send them out, watching them disintegrate into a spray of powder when they met the hard wall. Finally he seemed to accept that they would make no impact and would walk away, but the next day there he would be again, throwing snowballs at the wall.
‘How are things?’ Gerda said.
Hanni drummed his large, broad-knuckled fingers on his thighs and looked out of the window.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Things are fine.’
Perhaps, she thought, it was simply the difficulty of being mother and son, trying to communicate as two separate bodies, as though the whole history of their intertwinement had never happened. Once she had held Hanni, rocked him, kissed and bathed his naked form, and now here he was beside her, clothed and remote, an adult. In a sense their relationship had gone backwards. It was the reverse of what happened with other people, where time made you closer. Hanni had begun inside her own body, and over the years got further and further away. She thought of Ingrid’s boys, so big and broad and tall, the way they hugged and kissed their mother now, petted her, did things for her as though suddenly she couldn’t do them for herself. There in the car she felt all at once a great sorrow, or rather a pity, a pity for herself and for Hanni too. People had always told Gerda that motherhood was a matter of instinct. She knew what instinct was: it was the network of fine, unexamined responses by which a person secured the best outcome; it was trust in oneself. Skiing was pure instinct: if you thought about it, or became self-conscious, you simply fell over. And she remembered it, the feeling of moving like a licking flame down the mountainside, so fast, so quick, no space between the judgement and the act, moving forever forward in an ecstasy of competence.
‘It’s snowing,’ Hanni said, and it was true, they were suddenly in a thick flurry out on the valley road, the inside of the car a bright vacant bubble while the muffling flakes swarmed over the windscreen so densely that they seemed to be coming from the earth as well as the sky. Within minutes the whole valley was hidden, aswarm with whiteness and closing cloud. It was like blindness, like shutting your eyes – you flailed about, trying to find another sense through which to operate.
‘Oh Lord,’ Gerda said.
If Hanni had come a day later he wouldn’t have made it up. For the next two days the village was cut off, until they brought the bigger machines out of storage and cleared the roads. On the third day Gerda went out to shovel the heavy snow from the driveway in front of the house, and Hanni came out after her and took the shovel from her hands.
‘I’ll do it,’ he said.
Gerda hesitated. In that instant she felt that it was too late for she and Hanni to become different people. Instead what she feared was him feeling sorry for her. When they had come back from the station and she had let them both into the house, she had a sense of exposure, almost of shame as Hanni walked into the dark, empty hall. What was being exposed was her loneliness. There it was, hanging in the silent rooms like a bad smell. How could he fail to notice it?
‘If you want to,’ she said. Perhaps he felt he needed the exercise.
‘I’ll clear the roof as well. There’s too much weight up there.’
All morning, listening to the scraping sounds from outside, Gerda felt the return of some of the old turbulence. She worried that Hanni would freeze to death out there, that he would fall off the roof, and conversely that he would do the job badly or the wrong way and require her – in this most serious of maintenance tasks – to humour him. But then the hired girl Sophie arrived – the days of Johanna were long over – and she and Gerda took all the linen out and washed and pressed it, laughing and sweating in the steaming laundry room, so that by the end of the afternoon Gerda had almost forgotten about Hanni. It was snowing again. Sophie’s father called to say that he couldn’t get up the road to collect her, so she would have to spend the night. Hanni came in, his face ringing with cold, and Gerda sent him to take a bath but he returned quickly and stood in the kitchen with Sophie and herself. The young ones drank bottled beer and Gerda red wine. It was a nice evening, the three of them cosy up there, high above Zander, cut off by the snow. Gerda made fondue, one of Hanni’s favourites, though he took less than she expected. He was polite and restrained with the food, as though he was a visitor. Sophie, too, ate more daintily than usual.
‘Where are you living now Hanni?’ Sophie asked.
Hanni laid down his fondue fork carefully on the white tablecloth. ‘I’ve been staying in Flachgau,’ he said. Flachgau was where Hans lived. ‘I was doing some work there, but that’s finished now.’
Sophie nodded, watching him. ‘Are you staying up here for the season?’
Hanni was a good-looking boy, dark-haired like Gerda but with Hans’s golden skin. Gerda’s skin was white and sensitive, scattered with freckles and moles and with little red lines like tiny red lightning-bolts that you could only see if you looked at them close up. There was a thickness to Hanni that Gerda found alien, a thickness not of form or flesh – Hanni was slim and athletic – but of the skin itself, that unmarked golden skin that belonged to his father and that seemed denser, more impregnable than her own. It was a casing, a kind of armor; it didn’t blush or react, didn’t flare up as Gerda’s did, or show fatigue, embarrassment, excitement. Even the scintillating cold could only make it glow.
‘We’ll see,’ Hanni said. ‘I’d like to stay up here for the winter, maybe longer. Help run this place. It depends on Mum.’
Gerda was clearing the plates. Her heart bumped in her chest. When she looked at Hanni, she was surprised to see him lower his eyes.
‘What does?’ she said brightly, as though she hadn’t been paying attention. But they all knew she had heard every word he said. In her bedroom, sitting by the window in the darkness, she pondered that moment at the dinner table. Quite clearly she saw herself not as one woman but as two, an entity at war with itself; one woman was stubborn and cruel while the other pined for happiness. She wondered whether she had been guilty of destroying the very things that she wanted. Was that what the problem had been? She had wanted to make Hanni say it again, to make him ask, almost to make him beg. Through the window the snow lay like a mask over the village, so enigmatic in the darkness. She remembered the day Hanni had fallen over in the road. She had been laughing at the sight of him, running with his hands in his pockets. She had egged him on. Afterwards the damage to his face had terrified her – she thought he might be permanently scarred. What a punishment!
Two or three years ago, she had been sitting on the terrace at the Sporthotel in Zeedorf, waiting to meet a girlfriend for lunch, when a mother and child had caught her eye. They were tourists playing out in the snow, the mother an attractive woman in her late thirties, the child a small boy dressed in a padded snowsuit. He had a little sledge, and the woman was pushing him down the slope in front of the hotel and whooping as he slid away. Then she would go down the hill to congratulate him and pull him back up again. Something about her caught Gerda’s eye, a desperation or uncertainty beneath the loud good cheer that reminded her of herself and Hanni. The woman was pushing him each time harder and further down the slope, and because Gerda was watching instead of participating she could see it coming clearly, could see the woman’s steady abandonment of caution, as though she meant to release her child from her own racking anxiety, to hurl him away down that slope into glorious freedom. Further down, over a little rise, was a steep descent and at the bottom a wooden hut, from whose door protruded a large rusted iron key. Gerda rose from her seat there on the terrace, her heart in her mouth. She wanted to cry out but the terrace was full of people, and this clash between her inner state and her outer circumstances made her throat constrict, so that she found herself watching along with everyone else as the mother sent the child down the hill with a last ambitious push. The little hunched body in its sledge became somehow inhuman as it picked up speed: it jolted about passively, as though realising it was doomed. The sledge flew over the rise so fast it left the slope, and then it was hurtling, hurtling madly down the other side. By this point the woman knew what she had done. She began to scream. The whole terrace was on its feet, and all of them watched the accident – oh, for how many weeks afterward did Gerda feel she would go mad, thinking of it! The hut, the rough wooden, door, the huge rusty key like a spoke of pure evil sticking out into the white world. She had seen it so clearly; almost, it seemed like she had caused it. And then the blood on the snow, the child’s face completely smashed, people screaming and fainting on the terrace. The emergency services were there within minutes. They put up a tent around the scene. After that last vision she’d had of her, standing at the top of the slope with her hands raised in fright, emitting her savage cry, Gerda didn’t see the woman again.
‘Hanni,’ she said in the morning, ‘what about the team training?’
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ Hanni said. ‘I’m not in the team this year. I didn’t put my name forward.’
Gerda was surprised. ‘Why not?’
‘Lots of reasons.’
The telephone rang in the office and Hanni went to answer it. Gerda sat and looked out of the window. The valley was filled with fog: not a single house or tree could be seen. The sound of the vacuum cleaner came from overhead where Sophie was doing the rooms. On the table were Hanni’s leftover breakfast things, half a roll with a smear of butter beside it and a cup with an inch of coffee in the bottom. All at once she felt small, in the face of reality; a dot of perception moving over a vast expanse, like a skier seen moving down a mountainside from a great distance. Sometimes, when she and Hans were first together, she would watch for him coming down off the mountain. Standing at the bottom she would strain her eyes for him, trying to locate the moving dot that was his figure, raking the towering white vista for this little speck of significance. She would pick him out, not certain at first, a moving point against the white – effortfully, effortfully drawing him forth as though from a fundamental anonymity. In a sense she would return herself in those moments to the possibility of not knowing Hans, of being unaware of his existence: sometimes, as the dot grew larger and more identifiable, she would realise it wasn’t him after all. In those minutes before he was recognisable she was, somehow, free. After all, one of these other dots could have been her husband, but she would always be Gerda. It would frighten her, this feeling of freedom. It made her feel exposed. For some reason she didn’t like to be so responsible for her own life. She was always relieved when the dot grew larger and became something that was definitely Hans, drawing closer and closer, fastening on her soul.
After a while Hanni came back.
‘Some more people booked for next week,’ he said. ‘Two families. Everyone’s heard about the snow.’
‘We’ll have to go to the cash and carry again,’ Gerda said.
‘We’re full up now from Saturday to Saturday. And at the new prices too.’ Hanni rubbed his hands together. ‘It’s good, no?’
Gerda would not have chosen to have the guest house full next week. She rarely accepted that many bookings: it was too much work, too much of a strain on her loneliness, for she had found that in order to be able to live alone she needed not to be flocked around by too many people. She needed regular doses of privacy; it gave her a kind of immunity, for when the solitude returned. Now here was Hanni, taking control of things. Was this motherhood again, an extension of the old duty to provide entertainment for Hanni, to play with him at life? Or was it part of something larger, the surrender of freedom that was the basic unit of intimacy and shared life, the willful shedding of anonymity, the decision to love, in which there was always, it seemed, an element of compromise, of pretense? Each time Hans had come down the mountain she had decided, in a sense, to love him, to know him, to recognise him, and though Hans was always Hans and she was always Gerda, in some ways it was a different decision every time.
‘Dad said you would be disappointed about the ski team,’ Hanni said in the car on the way back from the cash and carry.
‘How could I be disappointed?’ Gerda said. ‘It was your decision.’
The fog had cleared and the valley was slowly filling with weak sunlight. She wanted to say to Hanni that it was easier to qualify for the ski team than to make a decision. It was easier to be a champion than to choose between one kind of life and another.
‘Maybe you had ambitions for me,’ Hanni said, looking out of the window. ‘Maybe you wanted me to have the career you didn’t have.’
Gerda laughed. ‘Is that what Hans says?’
‘He says you were the best skier in the six communes. Better than him but with not so many opportunities. He said you gave it up because of me.’
Gerda was silent. ‘But Hanni, every mother has to give up certain things.’
‘It just doesn’t seem fair,’ Hanni said.
‘When you have a baby your feelings change. You become less reckless.’
‘I don’t see why that should be,’ Hanni said stubbornly. ‘It didn’t stop Dad.’
‘But that was why he suffered, don’t you see?’
Saying it, Gerda felt she had realised it herself for the first time. But Hanni only shrugged.
‘He doesn’t seem to suffer all that much to me.’
‘Now Hanni,’ Gerda said, but then the snow plough loomed in front of them around the bend and Gerda had to concentrate on her driving.
Later, she got the little key from the desk in the office and she opened the display cabinet in the hall. She took out the slim gold figure and she held it in her hands. Sitting there on her haunches she shed a few tears. After a while it began to ache a little, to sit in that position. Her thighs were still disproportionately muscular and large, as they had been since she was a teenager – she had always thought it was the ski training that had given her such thighs, but Hans had told her it was the reverse, that they were the reason for her aptitude. A low centre of gravity, he had called it: luck of a sort, though as a girl she had been painfully conscious of them and wished fervently they were otherwise. She replaced the statue in the cabinet and locked it and stood up. The blood was coursing in her legs. She wiped her face and smiled to herself, and went upstairs to help Sophie make the beds.
The Carsons arrived after nightfall, and in the electric light they looked different, less familiar than Gerda had expected them to be.
‘Wilkommen!’ she cried, embracing first Julian, then Janice. ‘Good to see you!’
Distinctly, she felt their bodies recoil a little.
‘Hello Gerda,’ Janice said. Her kiss was faint and dry.
Gerda had put on her dirndl for the occasion, and Hanni too was dressed up. But Gerda wondered now whether she had misjudged things, misjudged the degree of intimacy she had with the Carsons – was such a thing possible? For more than fifteen years they had been coming to her house; they had even invited her to stay with them at their home in Leamington Spa, if ever she found herself in England. She had postcards of Leamington Spa tacked on the noticeboard in the office, sent to her usually by Janice, though sometimes by Julian, thanking her for their stay. Once or twice they had sent her postcards from elsewhere, from Turkey or Greece: ‘Not a patch on Haus Fuchs!’ they would write of their hotel; or, ‘Greece is lovely, but our hearts are in Zander!’
‘You remember Hanni,’ she said proudly, introducing him. ‘My son.’
The Carsons hadn’t seen Hanni for some years: he was never usually at home during the winter. She expected them to exclaim over him, but instead they were now unmistakably cool. They shook his hand briefly, and even refused his offers of help with their bags. She remembered then what Ingrid had said about receiving a booking enquiry from people named Carson, and accepted it must have been them. At dinner, serving them, she was more formal than usual. She didn’t sit down with them as she would once have done, during lulls in the evening’s work. And in fact the dining room was full, so the lulls were few and her guardedness probably went unnoticed. But when they were choosing the wine, she forgot herself.
‘I have the Reisling you liked so much last year,’ she said, pointing to it on the menu. ‘I ordered a case specially.’
Julian Carson pursed his lips and shook his head decidedly.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘We’ll just take a carafe of the Hock.’
Gerda nodded and walked away, knowing she had been reprimanded. It was the money, she realised: they thought she was greedy for putting up her prices. But it was no more than most others in the village had done! Compared to them, Haus Fuchs was still an economical choice. Hanni had been pleased with her for doing it. He said it was about time. Yet the Carsons no longer held their high opinion of her, and would have stayed at Haus Schulz if there had been space.
‘Good night!’ they called, waving cursorily across the room at her as they went off early to bed.
In the morning, at breakfast, she stayed in the kitchen while Sophie and Hanni served. She sat on a high stool, drinking her coffee and drawing up a list of groceries she needed for the day. She was happy to let the young ones do the work. Perhaps all these changes were bound up with one another, the ebb of one thing and the flow of another: the Carsons and the lonely years, Hanni’s return, even the weather, the snow so abundant suddenly after some meagre seasons, so that she had heard the north slopes of Schwarzkopf – the most dramatic and exciting route in the region – were skiable for the first time in two decades. The way things were given and taken away seemed to her just then a kind of divine mystery, a business of hidden workings irrespective of the human will, through which something, some spirit or principle, found its expression. But what spirit, and what did its expression mean, for her or for any of them?
The telephone rang in the office and Gerda found herself having to go out through the dining room after all to answer it, avoiding the Carsons’ eyes. It was Ingrid: Fritz’s baby had been born during the night, a daughter, Ingrid’s first grandchild. Ingrid was going to Salzburg straight away while Rudi held the fort here. She was worried about leaving him with so many guests, but he had insisted he would be fine.
‘My husband is a good man,’ Ingrid said, with uncharacteristic emotion. ‘And a granddaughter too, after all those sons – I’m a lucky woman, Gerda.’
‘There’s more to it than luck,’ Gerda said. ‘You deserve everything you have.’
Yes, things were given and things were taken away, but was there not another truth – that people were responsible for their own fates, that everything that happened to them they brought upon themselves?
In the evening Gerda carried a bottle of cold Reisling to the Carsons’ table and set it beside them in a bucket of ice.
‘With my warmest compliments,’ she said gently, turning away from their surprised faces and returning to the kitchen.
Later, Julian Carson came and found her in the office, where she was adding up the day’s accounts.
‘Janice and I were so touched,’ he said.
Gerda smiled at him and inclined her head.
‘We’ve had something of a difficult year,’ he said. She noticed then the way his mouth drooped, and the deep lines running down his cheeks. ‘Our son died.’
Gerda gasped and put her hands to her mouth.
‘Janice has taken it very hard, of course. She feels guilty – we both do. It’s hard to take pleasure in things any more.’
‘Yes,’ Gerda said. ‘Yes.’
‘But what I wanted – what we both wanted to say was how nice it is to be here. We weren’t sure we’d be able to come back. It’s been one of the hardest things, going back to familiar places when everything for us has changed. We even thought of staying somewhere else in the village – thought it might be easier – but I’m so glad we didn’t.’
Gerda put out her hand and he took it. He squeezed her fingers and smiled tiredly.
‘Hanni is quite charming,’ he said. ‘Janice and I like him very much.’
‘Thank you,’ Gerda said.
He squeezed her fingers again and then he let them go.
‘Goodnight,’ he said.
The next day the weather was glorious. Gerda knew it even before she had opened her curtains: she felt it in the balls of her feet. The sky was a windless vault of brilliant blue. Even the top of Sonnenberg was becalmed, and the Zander chair whirred away untroubled in the morning sunlight. The powder conditions were unsurpassable – her neighbour Fritz Hurdl told her so when she went to put out the rubbish. The Carsons had not skied the day before, but today they came down to breakfast in their salopettes, and Gerda noticed them holding hands beneath the table when she brought over their coffee. She stood for a moment at the dining room windows, looking out at the mountains in their almost unbearable reality. She remembered again the way she used to search for Hans up there and still unconsciously did, her eyes raking the shadows and crevices and the wild vertiginous pine forests, straining for sight of him, that zig-zagging dot. She had searched for him as though for the answer to a clamoring question inside herself, but when at last he came she saw he was only a man.
‘Hanni,’ she said, going back into the kitchen, ‘will you ski Schwarzkopf with me today?’
Hanni’s eyes widened. Sophie stopped drying the dishes, her tea-towel in mid-air.
‘With pleasure,’ he said. ‘Do we have time?’
‘Oh, I think so,’ Gerda said. ‘We’ll be quick.’