SAMPLE READING - HOTEL LIONHEART
I was never very brave or very clever. I certainly was not handsome and definitely not tall or dark - more of a mousy colour that never settled for blond or brown. I could lift heavy objects from an early age but I don’t think I was exceptionally strong. I could run pretty fast but I didn’t always come first. In fact, I probably was so average that most people would have overlooked me in a crowd. But they were so wrong..! You see, none of this occurred to me at all. I was Felix the Lionheart. I could outsmart, outrun and outdo everything and everybody. No matter in the universe was strong enough to hold me back or put me in my place. The universe was my place and what was not actually there I could always find somewhere else.
When we were younger, after lights-out, my brother Luke and I would lay in our adjoining beds and whisper worlds to each other. The world of fishing rods, the world of money, the world of whatever we could think of, we just had to hop from one to the other because none of the worlds ever held everything we wanted, just the one thing, like an endless row of tiny little shop windows that only ever displayed a single item. And not just things – people, too had their own worlds. Gisela Miranda, the most beautiful girl in the world, had her very own planet.
‘I’m going to kiss her.’
‘On the mouth?’ Luke asked.
‘On the mouth,’ whispered Felix Lionheart. ‘One day, when the time is right.’
We never went there again. Well, Luke didn’t. There were an infinite number of other places to be created. Sleep always took over but just before we drifted off, our worlds orbited in beautiful harmony and the universe was in perfect order. I was always thinking about it but at some time we must have stopped talking about it.
Just about everybody in the small lakeside town of Meilen thought Luke and I were twins. Luke was two and a half years younger but at that time we were about the same height and build and we dressed the same. Mum always bought us matching outfits and most of the time we both hated them. Sunday was church day but only for us. Mum and Dad never had time; they were working seven days a week in the pub. Mum used to dress us up for Sunday school in the church.
I don’t know what possessed Mum to buy us knickerbockers. As far as I knew only Sherlock Holmes and the weirdo reporter from the local newspaper ever wore them. The reporter dated one of our waitresses. She, too, thought he was weird but it took her a while longer. God, we hated those trousers! We wore them once to Sunday school and the shame was humiliating. We could just as well have walked around in diapers. The other kids called them turd catchers. Felix Lionheart does not get called a turd catcher. Ever! We had to lose the knickerbockers.
We spent a lot of time at the local blacksmith’s who lived in the middle of town, sandwiched between two pubs. One of the pubs belonged to my parents. We lived there before we moved down to the Hotel Lion by the lake. The blacksmith was a small bent and gnarled man with hands as big as frying pans. His name was Mr Yordi. We hung around his workshop all day long. When he was in a good mood he let us use some of his tools or hold the horses. That could be quite a job. Mr Yordi was a very good farrier and some mornings there could be half a dozen horses assembled in his yard.
I loved that place when the horses were being shoed. It had something epic about it. The air would hiss and steam with the smell of coal fire from the smithy and the stench of burning hoof when Mr Yordi fitted a red hot shoe. The older draught horses were used to it - they just stood there with their noses buried in a bag of oats, occasionally flicking an ear or a tail when a flying spark caught them by surprise. The very young horses were a lot more trouble. You could see the panic building in their eyes. Every cut of the hoof knife made their flanks flicker, every sweep of the hoof rasp made their skin tremble and every touch of the new shoe made them back away. Good handlers knew how to keep their grip on the horse’s leg and not let go but when a horse had had enough and decided to rear up instead of sideways they all jumped out of the way. I got a few teeth knocked out of my mouth before I learned that lesson. As I said, it was epic and heroic with blood and fire and smoke and wide eyed horses jumping all over the place with Mr Yordi in his leather apron standing in the middle like an immovable rock.
Mr Yordi was not just a farrier. He also made beautiful wrought iron fences and gates; he made picks and shovels and just about everything else that involved steel or iron. Every now and then he got sick of us kids hanging around his workshop, using his stuff, nicking the odd cigarette out of his packet of Marylongs or killing fish in the creek behind the Smithy with carbide blocks from his storage room. He had a lot of carbide. It was used to make gas for lamps. It looked like grey chalky lumps of rock and only reacted once it came in contact with water. We would throw a few clumps in a waterhole by the creek and instantly the water would bubble up a lot of stinking old gas and soon after a couple or more belly-up trout. We loved fishing. Living by the lake it was what everybody did. I guess using carbide to catch fish wasn’t exactly fair but it was very effective. Mind you, we didn’t really need it. Luke could catch any number of trout in that creek with his bare hands. No kidding! He would just sit on the bank and watch the trout. When they got spooked they would all hurry under rocks. Once Luke knew which rock they hid under he would wade up the creek to the rock, slowly move his hands from both sides under the rock, and then close them in one quick snap.
Mr Yordi hated fish. When he caught us using his carbide in the creek we tried to appease him with a couple of the belly-up trout.
‘I don’t want no stinking fish and I don’t want no stinking children in my workshop no more. Get out and stay out!’
It never lasted long. We crept back in the next day or the day after, not many things ever change in a small town. Mr Yordi’s daughter Beth babysat us when we were little; his house was so close to our pub that we could spit the distance..., there was no way the blacksmith could get rid of any of us, ever!
But he got rid of our knickerbockers. Well, he didn’t actually do it. It was the water pipes. The council had dug up about a hundred old iron water pipes that needed new flanges and valves or the likes. They were stacked in the yard and painted with red primer that took for ever to dry. This is where Luke and I sat down after Sunday school until the red primer soaked our knickerbockers into oblivion.
Dad had taken on a second job as a travelling salesman, selling wine. I never knew why because the pub surely must have made enough money for us to live on. I think Dad just liked to do his own thing because Mum was in absolute charge of the pub and later the hotel. The thing about selling stuff as a travelling salesman is that you have to actually like what you want to sell. Dad certainly liked wine.
He would give us five francs to clean his good car before the trip. Dad used a tiny green four horsepower Renault 4CV as his runabout and he drove a grey Mercedes 180 for his job or to take the family around. Luke and I liked the little green car a lot better. The key was always in the ignition and we were allowed to drive it in and out of the garage when Dad changed cars. Dad only used one set of licence plates. When he changed from one car to the other he made us switch the plates for him. It was perfectly legal. Dad had to pay a bit extra but it was still a lot cheaper than running two cars with different plates.
Five francs was a lot of money and Dad demanded value for it. If we washed one car the other was included in the price. So was cleaning his shoes. Dad always dressed up for his trips. Mum and our older sister Anne fussed with his tie and his jacket while Luke and I had to shine his black shoes. We would carry his briefcase and walk him out of the house as if he was the president of the Swiss National bank on his way towards the next million.
Dad took us on some of his trips. All he really did was sip wine in lots of different pubs. He would carry a case full of sample bottles, sit down with the publican and taste some wine. They never spat any of it out but they ate little pieces of bread “to cleanse the palate” in between sips from different bottles. Dad would call on maybe six or seven pubs along Lake Zurich in one trip. The calls would grow longer as the trip progressed. So would the sips of wine. It was excruciatingly boring watching two men sip wine and nod their heads as if they shared a secret or some great truth that came out of those bottles. At least there was plenty of food available and Dad let us have whatever we wanted.
Most pubs had no bar. Everybody sat at tables and on every table there was either a basket full of packets of chips or a glass domed plate of pastries or coloured boiled eggs in a stand with salt and pepper shakers attached. There was an endless supply of snacks and bits and pieces available in most pubs and Dad knew them all. We ate fresh tripe with vinegar and salt; Limburger cheese with cumin seeds, the cheeses so ripe it would melt onto the wooden board it was served on. I swear you could actually see how much it stank of bad feet! There were frog legs in batter; snails in green sauce that looked like snot and an endless supply of air-dried meat so hard that it had to be cut paper thin or you could not chew it. None of this was meant to be a meal. Cleansing the palate was a big thing in Swiss pubs.
When Luke and I could eat no more and sit no more we would go out to the parking lot, horse around and watch the cars or the patrons coming in and out of the pub. Eventually Dad would appear and take us to the next pub and the next. His speech would be slurred and his eyes would be dull like the eyes of a belly-up trout and we knew that he was drunk. He didn’t show it much; you had to know the signs. They always frightened me. He turned sort of solemn and kind of started talking to himself. Sometimes the drink would put a twinkle in his eyes but most times he was not a happy drunk. He always got us home in one piece but Felix Lionheart was alert and ready to pounce and take over the steering wheel if Dad ever lost it.
After a few trips we asked Mum to make Dad not take us any more. She simply nodded and that was the end of that.
Mum never learned how to drive. She tried but her nerves always got the better of her. That little green Renault was really meant to be her car. We didn’t mind. We used it whenever there was a chance. Just driving it in and out of the garage, sometimes with an added short spin over the parking lot. The car was very hard to start because the battery seemed to be flat all the time. We had to insert a crank handle into the engine at the back and turn it with all we had. The parking lot was not very big. It kept our driving to the first two gears and that was quite an achievement because our legs really were too short so that our heads hardly cleared the lower edge of the windscreen. But we managed and that third gear was almost within reach.
After the debacle with the knickerbockers Mum must have realised that buying us stuff we didn’t like was not going to work.
‘Well, boys, looks like you’ll have to come shopping with me.’
Mum had this obsession with being dressed right. I reckon Dad must have felt the same because he always dressed up for his wine sipping tours. Dressed right was kind of being dressed like a banker. Like Mr Meyer who ate lunch at the pub every single day of the week. He was not really a banker; he worked for the local council. But he looked like a banker. He would come in, put his hat and coat on the rack and sit at the same table facing the front window. He would put his leather briefcase on the spare seat to indicate that he wanted no company. He would rearrange the fork, knife and spoon and line them up with the paper serviette in a perfect straight line. He would undo the top button of this jacket, adjust his tie and sit perfectly still until the waitress came.
‘What can I bring you today, Mr Meyer?” the waitress would ask.
Mr Meyer would put on this big show of pondering the menu as if this was the first time he had seen it. Finally he would look up at the waitress.
‘I’ll have a little Vienna schnitzel with chips and a little green salad, please.”
‘And for drinks?’
‘Bring me a Rivella Blue.’
The waitress would nod her head and pretend to write it all down on the orders pad but by the time she poked her head through the passe-partout that opened from the dining room into the kitchen she would have long discarded the scribbled note.
She would simply say, ‘Mr Meyer is here.’
Mum and everybody else in the kitchen would sing out as one, ‘a little schnitzel, a little chips, a little green salad and a little Rivella Blue, coming up!’
Mr Meyer never, ever ordered anything else. Mr Meyer never, ever wore anything but a suit with a white shirt and a tie with a hat and a coat when it was cold. He was the banker of all bankers. I actually met him once at the council office. Mum sent me there to pick up a permit for a late close. All pubs had to close half an hour after midnight but for special occasions the council could issue a permit to stay open until two. I had the form and the cash with me. The woman at the front desk sent me into this office and there sat Mr Meyer. He looked exactly the same as he looked sitting at the table in the dining room of our pub. He did not smile. He hardly looked up and he gave no indication that he knew who I was.
He put the cash in a drawer and stamped the form about a hundred times before he silently handed it over.
‘Thank you, Mr Meyer,’ I said. I wanted him to know that I knew who he was.
We kept going to Sunday school. Mum and Dad never forced us to go. I guess they couldn’t really tell anybody anything about going to church because they never went there themselves. I loved Sunday school. It was the place of stories and I liked nothing more than stories. You just can’t help listening to a good story. Of course you can pretend, just sit there and nod, like Dad and the publicans nodding over the wine they tasted. I bet that felt exactly the same as pretending to listen to a bad story. You just cannot remember a bad story after you have pretended to listen to it.
Sometimes the stories were told by a visiting missionary. Those were my absolute favourites. Missionaries were like soldiers full of war stories, complete with battle scars to prove them. There was this one old missionary who built shelters for the poor in Africa. He had part of a hammer head embedded in the palm his right hand. I don’t mean a great big sledge hammer, just a small part, about the size of a thumb nail. He told us that there were no doctors at that place in Africa and because it healed over by itself he never bothered having it removed. I could see the sense in that. He showed it to us and he let us touch it. It looked blue and felt hard. Without the hammer it might just have been another bad story.
I didn’t really truly believe the stories about God in heaven with golden streets and all that stuff down to the last detail but I guess it was ok because it sounded a lot like Luke’s and my worlds after lights-out. What troubled me a lot more was the fact that everybody would be there, even the bad apples and that it would last forever and ever and ever. I did not want to be the same forever. I still had to kiss Gisela Miranda and finish school and become a test pilot. What if God made me a banker or turn me into Mr Meyer and I had to eat schnitzel and chips with salad and stamp forms forever and ever? What if there were no real jobs in heaven and we had to churn out golden trumpets or wings for the angels? See what I mean...? This began to sound like a bad story and there was no hammer! In the end I came to terms with it. After all, Luke and I always knew that those worlds of ours only ever existed between lights-out and sleep. That’s where I wanted to keep God and heaven. I knew he would be there but there was no way I was clambering to get there!
After a while, Sunday school moved out of the church and into a classroom at the local primary school. That was a real dumb idea. There was no regular school on Sundays but just by moving there it started to feel like regular school. A year or so later TV came to town and that was the end of Sunday school for us. Instead of putting twenty cents into the collection box with the nodding little black African boy we took our money up the road to the Migros chocolate factory where they had set up a TV set in the canteen. They put blankets over the windows and doors to darken the place. Entry was free for Migros Production workers and their families and twenty cents for everybody else. We knew nobody who worked there so we had to pay.
Sunday morning TV was not worth twenty cents. I mean, how stupid can you get.... move out of the church and walk up the hill to watch another church service on a tiny little black and white screen in a pitch black room that smelled of chocolate. Chocolate! Now that was worth all of the twenty cents. There were great big tubs full of it and all of it free. Not regular square blocks but big lumps and shattered bits – hardened leftovers from cleaning out the huge mixing tubs. We stuffed ourselves with chocolate and watched TV and everything got better still when Fury came on. God, I loved that horse! I went home and begged Mum to buy me every Fury book there was.
After a few months we didn’t need to pay for TV any more. Rolf’s grandmother who lived in a small flat behind our pub got set up with the first TV in our neighbourhood. Rolf’s dad paid for it. Rolf was another publican’s son from the other pub next to Mr Yordi’s blacksmith shop. He spent even more time there than Luke and I. There was not all that much on TV then. Apart from Sunday, the transmissions started late in the afternoon and only lasted a few hours. There was nothing to watch on Tuesdays. It was TV’s day off. Still, there were some good shows. Mostly American shows like Fury and Lassie but there also was this local children’s show with Heidi Abel. There was no boy alive who didn’t love Heidi Abel! She was so blond and beautiful and.... well, nice! She spoke like an angel, too. In that low and kind of whispering voice that made you feel good. Nobody I knew spoke like that. I could just sit there and listen and watch her make something or other out of an old Ovaltine tin.
We begged Mum and Dad to buy us a TV but those sets were really expensive and Dad thought it was just a stupid fad that would go away soon. Everything Dad wanted to know he got from the radio or the local newspaper. At 12.30 we ate lunch and listened to the news on the wireless. Every single day apart from the days when Dad was on the wine sipping tours. School was out over lunch, everybody went home for a cooked meal. We always had soup for starters, meat and vegies and a salad on the side, followed by sweets. Everybody ate lunch like that except for Mr Meyer. All the other regulars had their soup plates on the table as soon as they sat down. Some had their drinks already sitting there, large beer glasses full of ‘Half ‘n Half’, a soft drink mix of oranges and apples.
Lunch was a madhouse. Mum and the kitchen hands would swirl around the kitchen from stove to bench to the passe-partout, shouting orders and cursing the waitresses if they didn’t pick up the plates in time. Mum and the kitchen hands could fly out sixty dinners well before the news came on. One minute before the news Dad would turn off the jukebox in the restaurant and turn the radio on full blast. We would sit down at the kitchen table and start the soup right on the last beep that marked the beginning of the 12.30 news.
By that time most diners had finished their meals. The waitresses cleared the tables and put out large square felt mats, wood-framed slates, chalk, wet sponges and playing cards. Everybody played cards after lunch. They ordered coffee with cream or coffee fertig that came in a glass with only a spoonful of coffee and a large dose of schnapps, topped up with hot water and three sugar cubes.
Luke and I got to know most of the regulars and we got to know all their drinks as well. We worked the counter in the pub whenever we could. The waitresses gave us the orders and we prepared the drinks and put them on round tin serving plates. If we didn’t know the drink the waitress helped us but after a while we pretty much knew every drink. If we were quick the waitresses rewarded us with a smile or a pat on the head. The quicker they got the drinks out the more money they earned. Waitresses didn’t get paid a wage. They lived off the tips and they got plenty!
We usually had one or two regular waitresses, young women who lived in the rooms above the pub. They worked shifts from nine in the morning until very late at night with just one hour break in the afternoon for a nap in their room. Mum reckoned waitresses earned more than most men with a regular job but they deserved every cent of it! They had to put up with long hours and a lot of men hitting on them. None of them ever lasted long. They either got engaged or married or found an easier way to earn a living.
Running a pub was hard work. Mum was on her feet fifteen hours a day and if there were more hours in a day she would have used them as well. Dad never spent that much time in the pub – he kind of distributed his time between his own and other pubs. As for us, we were pub children and that meant we either stayed or helped or we tried to get away. Sometimes Mum helped us to get away. All we had to do was show up for lunch and dinner. The rest of the day was ours – if we made it out and there was no school.
My sister Anne had to help in the pub, too. She was four years older than me and we didn’t really have much in common. Luke and I were just the annoying little brothers that got in the way of all the important things she had to discuss with her girlfriends. She was pretty and had a lovely smile. I guess she was always there but sometimes it felt like she lived somewhere else – just as Dad always seemed to be in some other pub. One day, out of the blue, he moved us into another pub as well.
‘I have taken up the lease of the Hotel Lion,’ he announced one morning.
‘Great!’ I shouted.
‘It’s a terrible pile of old bricks,’ said Mum in disgust. ‘It’s been empty for over a year. You can’t be serious, Henry! Nobody wants it.’
‘Come on, Dora!’ Dad replied. ‘I’m not going to buy it! The council asked me to take up the lease. They need it because it is the only building in town with a great big hall and a stage.’
‘And what about our pub? We have put a lot of money and work into this place!’
‘We keep it and lease it out, ‘replied Dad. ‘Double the money!’
‘Double the work,’ murmured Mum. ‘Double the trouble.’
Luke and I were over the moon. The Hotel Lion was a humongous great old building by the lake. It was very old – I mean ancient as in castles from the middle ages. It was actually two large buildings made into one. On one side was this great big hall – just like the great halls in old castles, on the other side under the same roof line was the actual hotel. The Lion sat right next to the church and was practically on the shores of the lake, separated only by the road to Zurich. Over the road were the pier where the lake steamers berthed and a marina for small boats. Right at the marina was another part of the hotel: a beer garden, known by the locals as Lion’s Garden, surrounded by a stone wall and covered with the crowns of old chestnut trees. True, the mortar of the hotel facade was crumbling and the original yellow colour was washed out but the sheer size of the building was impressive. The windows were all intact and the roof had no holes; the hotel Lion seemed a pretty solid place to me.
‘It will be a challenge,’ agreed Dad.
‘It will be hard to find staff,’ said Mum.
‘We’ll all chip in,’ said Dad. I don’t know if the others noticed but I think he was looking straight at Luke and me when he said it. I was too excited to care. This was the best surprise, ever!
This is my favourite bit.... needs to be read in context with the build-up to fully appreciate it but even as it is – I was prepared to write an entire book just to get the last scene in. It's from the stage play we put on in the hall. Real life characters, down to the last crow called Metan.
We had moved the battle tank grand piano right in front of the stage and Hans was ready to fire. My fake piano lessons had paid for his brand new tail coat. He was just warming up with soft lounge music that got drowned by the babble of excited kids.
‘This had better be good,’ whispered Rene behind the curtain. We were just about ready to go. Rolf joined us and we all peeped through the crack in the curtain.
‘I’ve got the explosions under control,’ he whispered.
‘No fire on stage. You promised!’
‘Not fire. Air pressure. My dad lent me two of his confetti cannons. They are hooked up to fire extinguishers as propellants. My little brother and his friend will set them off when I give them the signal.’
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘I guess that’s it.’
I opened the curtain a little bit and signalled to Hans. Rolf turned off the hall lights and switched on the spot light in front of the curtain. Hans played his introduction and the hall quietened down.
We were on the way.
I took a deep breath and stepped out in front of the curtain. I couldn’t see a thing, the spot light hit me right in the face. I looked dead straight ahead. My head swirled with things I didn’t want to think of right now. What was my line? What was the first word? The piano stopped. The hall hushed. I was in a grave and there was no way out. There was nothing left - I couldn’t even hear my thoughts any more. Just this blinding light and then I heard Felix Lionheart’s voice, clear as a bell.
‘Once upon a time there were the brothers Grimm who went in search of the fairy tales that came before them. And they found Hansel and Gretel and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. This is their tale. We give you the Brother’s Grimm Compilation!’
Hans kicked the Bechstein into action. I went off with the opening curtain and took up my place behind the set.
We were up and running.
Paul the huntsman, armed to the teeth with every musket and prop gun we had found in the attic, brought Snow White out into the forest. Eva looked stunning. She had on this flowing white dress her mum had made for her and she wore pale make-up and bright red lipstick. She was the star of the show the minute she hit the stage.
We got through the first two acts without any major hiccup. Everybody must have thought about their lines because some of them were a lot better than in any of the rehearsals. In the middle of act two the two stories became one when Gretel and Eva met centre stage and embraced each other like long lost sisters. We had never rehearsed that and I wished I had thought of it myself. At any rate, it really wasn’t as much a play as it was a series of scenes with costumes and props and light and music. We threw in everything we had. Everybody wore wigs and hats and false beards and moustaches and as much makeup as would stick to their skin. Some costumes fitted well, others not at all. One of the four dwarfs wore a sombrero, another fireman’s uniform complete with helmet. Bar Snow White and Gretel everybody was dressed for a costume ball and armed for the crusades. Add the stage lights, the sets and the music and we had our play.
By the time we came to the third act I felt pretty relaxed. We had all but nailed it. We had managed to keep a room full of babies and first graders in their seats .
I was really looking forward to the last big scene. Eva was beautifully decked out on a large wooden crate centre stage. Hansel and Gretel had just made up with their weak-as-water woodcutter dad and the four dwarfs and the huntsman came out of the wings and joined them in a half circle around Eva. In the wings the witch was still wriggling in the oven while on the other side the evil queen was making faces at that golden mirror of hers.
Rolf dimmed the stage lights and put the spots on Eva. Hans cut the music. Everybody waited. Hans started up again, caressing the keys, slowly building up the crescendo, fortissimo, out of his bench, arms flying, fingers hammering and the Bechstein smoking. And just when the music hit the peak of the top of the highest of Beethoven’s mountains, there was this almighty bang and Luke came floating down on the chandelier hoist, holding on to the chain with one hand, the other holding a sword in his outstretched arm like the archangel Michael descending on earth with Metan flapping right after him. He landed with a clang and turned towards the audience, greeting them with his outstretched sword like he was some kind of a Roman gladiator prince. Metan couldn’t make up his mind on which of Luke’s hands he should land. He settled for the one without the sword.
Hans found another gear on the piano and when Luke finally bent over Eva for that most famous kiss of all and everybody thought it couldn’t get any better, Rolf’s little brother and his friend set off the two confetti cannons and the witch and the evil queen disappeared in a mass of foam and red and yellow confetti that just about blanketed out the entire stage. It was epic. It was better than Ben Hur in Cinemascope.
Rolf turned on the lights, Hans played Lucky Lips which was the biggest hit that year, and we all danced around the stage and hugged each other like idiots with confetti raining down on us. Eva gave me an extra big hug and left red lipstick all over my face.
I didn’t even get to say my last line. We all lived happily ever after already. Hans played Lucky Lips once more as an encore and most of us and half the audience sang along in the German version Cliff Richard had put out because it was such a smash hit.
The rush wore off soon but we still couldn’t help smiling when we looked at each other. Half of our elation was just relief that it was all over. The audience had filed out, some parents leaving an extra donation in Alvin’s plate.
A few parents of the cast members stayed behind and amongst them was Mr Murer. He came up to me and said: ‘You have done well, Felix. You all have done well.’
With the sale of the drinks Mum donated we made well over five hundred francs and booked our ticket to the ski slopes of Miraniga.
That night Luke and I played it all again, tucked in bed in the room in the attic.
‘It was awesome,’ said Luke ‘Did you see Metan following me down? He was awesome. I wish I had a white dove, though. That would have made it just perfect.’
‘It was awesome,’ I said. ‘You were awesome. And Eva and Hans and Rolf, everybody was awesome. I feel like such a fraud. I didn’t do a thing and they all come up to me and congratulate me like I did something special. I did nothing.’
‘But you did,’ said Luke. ‘You made it happen.’
After lights out and just before sleep I hovered in the space that usually held our worlds. They didn’t show up that night.
It was just me and Felix the Lionheart. He had done well, too. Maybe that was our role in life. Maybe we were meant to be the fuse that lit the fire.
flashback to the earlier years....
My godmother had bought me a leather school bag that had a folding flap covered with soft light fur with beautiful dark spots. All first graders had school bags like mine. They had straps and we carried them on our backs. Mum gave me an apple for morning recess and sent me on my way. The school was just around the corner from the pub where we lived before we moved down to the Hotel Lion by the lake. I certainly knew how to find my way to school. Only nerdy little kids needed mum to hold their hands and walk them to school.
I walked straight into a storm. The mums of the nerdy kids were all over me. Turns out I was carrying the fur of a baby seal on my back! Give me a break! What first grader reads the newspaper and knows about Canadian seal hunters clubbing innocent little baby seals to death? Frankly, apart from the nerdy kids’ mums nobody knew anything about it. Not even the teacher who rescued me from the mob.
It was a kind of shaky start to my school career. I went home and told Mum and Dad about the baby seal thing. Mum made a few phone calls to make sure it was a real story. Turns out the nerdy kid’s mums where right. There were men on the ice of Canada hitting little baby seals over the head with baseball bats and my godmother had paid blood money for the fur on my school bag! I didn’t want any part of it.
Mum sent me up the road to the saddlery with a note of instructions. The saddler removed the seal fur and promised he would have replacement ready in a couple of days. A week into school I had cow hide on my back and the nerdy kids’ mums had no more complaints. It was smooth sailing from then on.
Gisela, the girl that had her very own planet in my universe.....
And that’s when I kissed Gisela Miranda in the school yard, right at the end of recess bell , drowned by the wolf whistles of the boys and the cheers of the girls. It looked a lot easier in the French movies. And before you go smirking at me; who has ever told you that you have to keep breathing when kissing a girl on the lips? Nobody ever told me. I just about fainted and I can tell you another thing: I would have been happy to die of suffocation by kissing right there and then with Gisela Miranda in my arms and her soft lips on my lips. I could have gone straight to heaven and told them all that Felix Ward had just kissed the most beautiful girl on the planet and if anybody had a problem with that they could just get lost.
The teacher on yard duty had a big problem with it. He pulled us apart and marched us right into the school office. The principal made us sit so far apart that he had to turn his head from side to side when he gave us an earful about school yard behaviour. Frankly, I don’t think there was a paragraph about not kissing in that school manual of his. Kissing at school just wasn’t done. Breaking the rules of things that just weren’t done was always bad.
He made us sit there for almost an hour while he typed out a report for our parents on his old Remington. Our school was too small for a secretary and he wasn’t really a full-time principle, either. Just the head teacher who got lumbered with the paperwork.
He finally handed us one typed sheet each.
‘You are suspended for the rest of the day. Tomorrow morning you bring back these reports, signed by your parents. I’ll let your teacher decide what further punishment he feels is appropriate.’
Gisela lived too close to the school to ride a bike. I walked her home pushing my bike. It was the first time I ever walked a girl home. It was the first time of everything. We didn’t talk much but we looked at each other every now and then. I knew the look from the end of the play in the hall after the thrill had ebbed out and relief swept in. We had done it. We had lit the fuse that lights the fire.
‘Are you going to be in trouble from your parents?’ I asked when we reached her house.
Gisela looked up at the windows above, anticipating who would be home. She shrugged her shoulders.
‘I might be. My parents are pretty strict. Don’t worry, they’ll get over it. What about yours?’
‘I don’t think they have time to worry about a kiss.’
‘I guess I am.’
We didn’t kiss again. Gisela went in the house and I rode my bike back home. I met Dad in the foyer.
‘Ah, Felix!’ he said. ‘Right on time. We have to push all the chairs in the hall out of the way. They are going to set up a boxing ring in the middle of the hall after lunch.’
Dad hadn’t even noticed that I was not meant to be home halfway through a Tuesday morning. I gave him a hand with the chairs and told him about the suspension and showed him the report.
‘Your first kiss?’ he said. ‘And you managed to get a suspension for it! It might catch on, if they are not careful,’ he added grinning.
He scrunched up the report and threw it in a corner.
‘Dad! You have to sign it!’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll write you a note.’
One of the many colourful real life characters that made it into my story (abridged for this sample)
One day Uncle Theo and Dad went to a hotel sale on the other side of the lake near the city. The hotel had closed its doors for good. The inventory was going to be auctioned in large lots. Dad managed to get a few boxes full of stuff but the prize of his auction day was a bellboy. His name was Riccardo Banchetti. Of course he was not auctioned off. Dad had hired him. He was just left there stranded in the empty hotel. Given the difficulties Mum and Dad had had finding any staff at all, finding a bellboy seemed like a stroke of good luck. Mum wasn’t so sure.
‘Who would leave a bellboy behind?’ she said. ‘And what do we need a bellboy for?’ she added.
‘He has a lot more experience in the hotel trade than any of us. He can do anything, even waiting on tables and helping in the kitchen. He needs a job and we need help. Couldn’t be better.’
I had a sneaking feeling that Dad had only hired Riccardo Banchetti because he came with a great uniform. In fact, he had an entire suitcase full of spare hotel livery that looked like the uniforms of the town marching band. Nobody in our hotel wore any kind of uniform work clothes.
Dad was all for showing off Mr Riccardo, have him stay downstairs and open the front door for everybody who entered. Mr Riccardo mentioned that this was really the job of a doorman but by now he must have realised that the Hotel Lion was not exactly the kind of hotel that would have a spare doorman. He stood by the front door from eight till ten, took a break and went back until twelve and came up for lunch. He greeted every single person that entered like they were booking in for Champagne breakfast and gala dinner. And every single person that came up to the restaurant asked Mum or Helga if there was anything special going on.
By lunch time Mum had had enough. She made Mr Riccardo change and help her clean the dishes in the kitchen. He even had a uniform for that: a striped shirt and a dark green apron. He told us that this was the kind of outfit you wore when cleaning the shoes left outside the doors by the guests of the Hermitage. He made it sound like he had really hit rock bottom now.
With his first pay check Mr Riccardo bought a Cadillac. That doesn’t mean my parents paid him a lot. On the contrary, the Cadillac matched Mr Riccardo’s modest pay. It was a very old car, so old that even Rolf didn’t know what model it was.
Mr Riccardo’s Cadillac was not all that bad. In fact, it looked quite good with its big front and the long fins on the tail - almost like a power boat on wheels. It was green with a white roof and white walled tires. It wasn’t registered and it had no plates. The owner of the car yard had driven it to the hotel with his dealer plates. It was parked at the side of the hotel and matched the tired old facade quite well – at least that’s what Mum thought. Dad wasn’t too happy about having an old car sitting anywhere near the hotel. He reckoned it was bad for our image.
The car engine was even more tired than the exterior. It started under protest and if it finally got going it spluttered and huffed and puffed - no matter how gently you tried to push the accelerator. Everybody had a go – even Jack who opened the hood and fiddled around the big oily engine cave for quite some time. The engine started a lot better after but it still wouldn’t rev up for anybody.
On his evenings off, when he didn’t play the squeezebox on his bed, Mr Riccardo sat in his Cadillac and listened to the radio. Rolf reckoned the radio was the best thing in that car. Radio Italy didn’t make it over the Alps but he could get the stations from the Italian and the French part of Switzerland.
Sometimes he started the motor and had it bumping along in idle. Luke and I watched him from our bedroom window. The fire escape rope ended right beside the Cadillac. We wondered what he was doing, just sitting there, pretending to be on this long road trip to nowhere. After a while we just had to know. We stood outside his car and looked at him until he opened the back door and let us hop in.
‘What are you doing, Mr Riccardo?’
‘Driving home to Bella Italia.’
‘But the car is not moving!’ blurted Luke out.
Mr. Riccardo turned around and looked at us with this patient look reserved for little kids.
‘I know that, Lukas,’ he said. ‘I’m driving in my head. The radio and the motor are the sounds of my journey.’
‘Where are you going, Mr Riccardo?’ I asked.
‘I drive along this lake up to the next, over the Alps and down the long slopes to the Adriatic Sea and Venice. Then on through the vineyards of Tuscany to Firenze where I grew up. Have you ever been to Firenze?’
‘We haven’t been anywhere.’ I said.
‘Well, one day you will have to come and visit me there. I’ll show you the domes and the palaces. I’ll show you paintings so beautiful that they put a spell on you . You’ll never forget them, even if you only see them once. We’ll eat gelati in a caffetteria and walk over the bridges of the Arno and up the hill to the little stone house I grew up in.’
‘I would like that very much, Mr. Riccardo.’
He was a sentimental Italian all right but I grew to like him. When he saw me outside he would open the back door of the Cadillac and I would hop in like I was going for a ride in a taxi and he was my driver. In a way that was true. He took me to all the places he missed. No just Italy. He could talk about the big hotels of France he had worked for, the famous people that stayed there and the luggage he had carried for them. Sometimes I would listen and sometimes I would pretend to listen and nod. You have to be pretty desperate if all you have to talk about is the luggage you carried for some famous dude.
After a while the Cadillac ran out of petrol. Dad bought Mr Riccardo a brand new jerry can so that he could fill up the tank but Mum put her foot down and made him promise not to run the car engine any longer than a minute or two. The fumes of the badly tuned engine wafted right into her kitchen and affected the bouquet of her soups. After Jesus my Dad was the most generous man that ever walked the earth but Mum was a better cook than the both of them.
........ The day after we got TV we lost the bellboy. Mr Riccardo did not show up for work next morning. His room was empty and the old Cadillac was gone. Nobody had heard a thing.
Mr Riccardo, who didn’t have a driver’s licence, drove his Cadillac right through the night, up lake Zurich, over the dam in Rapperswil, up the valleys between the mountains and all the way up the Gotthard pass with six meter high snow walls on both sides. And the Cadillac, built for the plains of America and the beaches of California didn’t break a sweat and idled along with one or two cylinders taking a nap every now and then.
On top of the Gotthard pass Mr Riccardo tuned in to Radio Italia and followed the music out of the snow line into the valley that reached right into Italy. The Swiss border guards waved him straight through. It was early morning and they weren’t all that interested in people leaving.
The Italian border guards, on the other hand, were a lot more efficient. They stopped Mr Riccardo because he was a driving a car without licence plates. As it turned out, Mr Riccardo didn’t have any papers at all and no proof that he was in fact an Italian citizen. All Mr Riccardo could show them was the receipt for the purchase of the car and a business card from the Hotel Lion.
The Italians made Mr Riccardo backup to the Swiss border where the red faced officers took him into an office and tried to figure out how to get rid of him. They were tempted to just send him away but they couldn’t really ignore the fact that the car was not registered. They had very little to go on except for the phone number of the Hotel Lion and that’s who they rang and told Dad to come and get his bellboy or they would have to hand him over to the Federal Police and charge him with illegally entering the country – which probably was not really true.
And because Dad was Dad he jumped in the Mercedes with his newly re-instated drivers licence and drove all the way to the border to rescue our bellboy from the clutches of the Swiss bureaucracy which Dad hated even more than the latte drinkers. Dad and Mr Riccardo had to stay in a hotel overnight because the border guards insisted that he organise the removal of the old Cadillac from the border. I guess they thought it was bad for the image of the country. Dad and Mr Riccardo sold it to the towing company for scrap.
The following evening we had our bellboy back. He got his squeezebox going and Aldina came out of her linen cupboard and they made music like nothing had ever happened.