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The Autumn Castle
By Kim Wilkins
Warner Books Copyright © 2003 Kim Wilkins
All right reserved.
Chapter One Please don't make me remember, please don't make me remember Inevitable, however. Christine had known from the moment the man had glanced at her business card, his eyebrows shooting up. "Starlight. That's an unusual surname." "Mm-hm."
"You're not any relation to Alfa and Finn Starlight? The seventies pop stars?"
Pop stars! Her parents had considered themselves musicians, poets, artists. "Yeah, I'm their daughter." Amazingly, her voice came out smooth, almost casual. She didn't need this today; she was already feeling unaccountably melancholy.
"Oh. Oh, I'm so ..." "Sorry?" "Yes. Yes, I'm very sorry."
Because he knew, as most people did, that Alfa and Finn Starlight had died in a horrific car accident from which their teenage daughter had been the only survivor. Suddenly there was no point in resisting anymore: she was back there. The English Bookshop on Ludwigkirchplatz, its long shelves and neat carpet squares, spun down to nothing in her perception; it was all blood and metal and ground glass and every horror that those evil, stubborn thirty-five seconds of consciousness had forced her to witness.
"I'm sorry too," she said. Her lower back twinged in sympathy with the remembrance. She wouldn't meet the man's gaze, trying to discourage him. He was pale and clean-shaven, had a South African accent, and was clearly battling with his impulses. On the one hand, he was aware it was rude-maybe even distressing for her-to keep asking about the accident; on the other hand, he was talking with a real-life survivor of a famous and tragic legend. Christine was used to this four seconds of struggle: enthusiasm versus compassion. Compassion never won.
"When was that again? 1988?" he asked. "1989," Christine replied. "November." "Yes, of course. My sister cried for days. She'd always had a crush on Finn."
"I think a lot of women did." "He was a good-looking man, and your mother was beautiful too."
Christine smiled in spite of herself, wondering if the man was now pondering how such stunning parents had managed to produce such an ordinary-looking child.
"One thing I've always wanted to know," he said, leaning forward.
Christine braced herself. Why couldn't she ever tell these people to leave her alone? Why had she never developed that self-preserving streak of aggression that would shut down his questions, lock up her memories. "Yes?" "You were in a coma for eight weeks after the accident." "Yes."
"The kid who ran you off the road didn't stop." "No."
"And there were no witnesses." "That's right." "Then how did they find him and convict him?"
Yes, her back was definitely twinging now, a horrid legacy of the accident, the reason November 1989 was never really consigned to the past, to that cold night and that long tunnel. Her doctor back home would tell her that these twinges were psychosomatic, triggered by the memory. She had no idea what the word for "psychosomatic" was in German, and the doctor she had seen twice since her arrival in Berlin two months ago was happy to prescribe painkillers without too much strained bilingual conversation.
"I was conscious for about half a minute directly after the accident," she explained. "The kid who hit us stopped a second, then took off. I got his license plate, I wrote it on the dash."
"Really?" He was excited now, privy to some new juicy fact about the thirteen-year-old story. Many details had been withheld from the press because the driver of the other car was a juvenile. The law had protected him from the barrage of media scrutiny, while Christine had suffered the full weight of the world's glare.
"I'm surprised you could collect yourself to find a pen, under the circumstances," he continued. "It must have been traumatic."
Oh, yes. Her father crushed to death; her mother decapitated. Christine smiled a tight smile; time to finish this conversation. "If you phone at the end of the week, we should be able to give you an estimated due date for that book. It's a rare import, so it could take a number of months."
He hesitated. Clearly, he had a lot of other questions. Chief among them might be why the heir to the Starlight fortune was working as a shop assistant in an English-language bookshop in Berlin.
"All right, then," the man said. "I'll see you when I come to pick it up."
Christine nodded, silently vowing to make sure she was out back checking invoices when he returned. He headed for the door, his footsteps light and carefree, and not weighed down with thirteen years of chronic pain, thirteen years of nightmares about tunnels and blood, thirteen years of resigned suffering. A brittle anger rose on her lips.
"By the way," she called. He turned. "I didn't have a pen," she said. "Pardon?"
Had he forgotten already? Was that how much her misery meant to anybody else? "In the car, after the accident," she said. "You were right, I was too traumatized to find a pen." His face took on a puzzled aspect. "Then how ...?"
Christine held up her right index finger. "My mother's blood," she said. "Have a nice day."
Gray. Black. Brown. No matter which way Christine surveyed it, this painting of Jude's looked like every other painting he had ever done. "It's beautiful, darling."
He lifted her hair and kissed the back of her neck. She pondered the colors, Jude's colors of choice as long as she'd known him. She often wondered if his preferences bore any relation to the reasons he was attracted to her. Jude was alternative art's pinup boy, with a wicked smile, a tangle of blond hair, and sparkling dark eyes. Christine, by contrast, knew she was profoundly forgettable. She was thin but not sleek, pale but not luminous, her brown hair was thick but not shiny; and with her button eyes, flat cheeks, and snub nose she possessed not even the distinction of ugliness.
No matter how hard she tried to be good-natured and generous and kind, Christine knew that she was cursed with invisibility. "What's it called?" she asked him.
"Urban Autumn," he said, dropping her hair. "You really like it?"
"Of course." Jude stood back and smiled at the painting. "Today's the first day of fall," he said. "It's kind of a tribute." "First day of fall?"
"On the pagan calendar, according to Gerda. Except she calls it autumn."
"Perhaps that explains why I'm feeling so odd. Summer's gone, winter's on its way."
He turned to her, concern crossing his face. "What's the matter? You sound kind of melancholy." She sighed. "I am melancholy. Don't know why." "Is your back giving you trouble?" His hand dropped to the small of her back and pressed it gently. This was the locus of the chronic pain that-unbelievably-she was still not used to after so many years.
"No more than usual." She thought about the twinges she'd felt while talking about her parents' accident. "Nothing else bothering you?"
There was, but she could barely articulate it. Fuzzy memories of her childhood, a recurring half-remembrance about a crow she had seen once, a fluttering buzzing anxiety lacing everything, a breath caught perpetually in her throat. "I don't think so. I guess being back here reminds me of ... happier times."
He smiled and folded her into his arms and she tried to take solace in his beating heart-
He doesn't love you as much as you love him. -and to put aside all her irrational feelings.
"Hey, love pigeons!" Jude released Christine and she turned to the door of the studio. Gerda stood there, shaking her head so her blond dreadlocks bounced around her shoulders. "You guys are always smooching."
"Can't help ourselves," Jude said, shrugging. "We're on our way out," Gerda said. "Coming?" "Who's 'we'?" Christine asked.
"All of us. Me, Pete, Fabiyan. Shall we make it a Hotel Mandy-Z outing?"
"Yeah, cool," Jude said, "just don't ask Mandy." Gerda giggled; nobody genuinely liked their wealthy benefactor. "If we run into him downstairs in the gallery we won't have much of a chance of losing him. Coming now?" "No, give me a half-hour to get cleaned up." Jude indicated his shirt, which was splattered with brown paint. "We'll be at Super Jazz on Chausseestrasse. It's just been voted the smokiest club in Europe."
"I'll bring my gas mask," Christine joked. "Yeah, yeah, I'll convert you yet, Miss Starlight," Gerda said. "You can't be the only person in the hotel who doesn't smoke." With a cheery wave she disappeared. Jude had turned back to his painting.
"I want to give it another fifteen minutes," he said, picking up his brush. His eyes were taking on a distracted gaze. "I'll wait upstairs." She'd lost him; until he came back from wherever it was in his head he went when he was painting, he was no longer hers. She glanced at him as she left the studio: his right shoulder was flexed, his hair fell over his eye as he touched the brush delicately, carefully to the canvas. As long as he was happy, his painting was a mistress Christine was prepared to tolerate.
Two hours had passed before they arrived at Super Jazz, and by then the others were all drunk. Mandy was not with them, to Christine's relief. She found Immanuel Zweigler the most loathsome being she had ever met. He was a tall, corpulent man with pinkish skin and pale watery eyes. He dyed his hair black, but ginger roots peeked through, conspiring with his ginger eyebrows to give him away. He usually smelled of the heavy incense he burned in his upstairs rooms, where he also wandered around naked and didn't care who came to the door; Gerda had already reported popping in to borrow coffee and getting an eyeful she'd never forget. But it was none of these things-his appearance or his habits-that Christine despised. It was some other ineffable malignancy that washed off him, some calculating miserliness or inhuman detachment, that made her lean away whenever he spoke to her.
"Drink for you?" This was Fabiyan, the Belarusian sculptor who lived across the hall from them. He had to yell over the band playing loud Miles Davis in the corner. Jude slid onto the sofa next to Gerda, and Christine took the seat opposite.
"Beck's," Christine said. "Beck's!" Gerda exclaimed as Fabiyan went to the bar. "You're so predictable."
"I'm living in the capital of Germany," Christine responded. "It's only right I should drink German beer." "Berlin's not the capital of Germany," Gerda said, waving her cigarette effusively, "it's the capital of the world." Every year in summer, four new artists took up residence at Hotel Mandy-Z for their twelve-month Zweigler Fellowships.
This year they were Jude Honeychurch, New York's hottest young thing with a paintbrush, fresh from an immensely successful West Chelsea exhibition; Gerda Ekman, an ebullient Swede who worked in metal and stone; Pete Searles, a nineteen-year-old Australian who put together bizarre video and multimedia installations that required warnings about epilepsy; and Fabiyan Maranovich, first time out of Belarus where he had spent his life working as an electrician. Christine had a soft spot for Fabiyan especially.
He had conscientiously learned German before taking up his fellowship, only to find that English was the linguistic currency at Hotel Mandy-Z. He was picking it up quickly, but sometimes Christine had to translate for him into German. Not that her German was faultless, but she had lived here briefly in the seventies with her parents and a refresher course taken over the spring left her with a better grasp than the rest.
"So," Gerda said to Jude, snaking her arm around his shoulders, "I like your painting. Nearly finished, is it?" "Nearly."
"You must be so proud of him, Christine," Gerda said, smiling her Cheshire-cat smile. "Yes, I am."
Fabiyan leaned down and handed Christine a beer. She sipped it gratefully, then rested it on the scarred table. If she were to be totally honest, she didn't think much of anybody's art in the hotel. All those abstract, impenetrable shapes and images. It baffled her far more than it delighted her. But she was perfectly willing to admit she wasn't an expert and she hadn't the faintest idea about what artists felt or intended, even after four years with Jude.
Pete, who sat next to her, pointed at her beer and said, "Did you know that Germans drink around 127 liters of beer per person per year?"
"No, I did not know that." Christine smiled. She was discovering that Pete had an endless store of facts and figures. He had been lauded as a genius since he was twelve, and perhaps that meant he had never outgrown some of his adolescent obsessions.
"It's topped only by the Czechs, who drink 160 liters." "What's that in pints, Pete?" Jude asked. Pete looked skyward briefly, did the math, then returned with, "About 336."
Jude doubled over with laughter, deep lines arrowing out from his eyes. She loved his smile, the gorgeous changeability of his expression. His face settled smooth again as he got serious about the business of lighting a cigarette. "I don't know how many liters they piss every day though," Pete added in a solemn tone.
Gerda, as she did so often, looked at Pete with an expression bordering on alarm. She hadn't caught the rhythms of his humor yet. Jude glanced across at Christine and winked; she felt herself smile and blush like a teenager. She downed more beer and began to shed the day's despondency. The first band finished and the second came on-Duke Ellington in thick German accents. Christine grew drunk but Gerda was always drunker. Sometime around two A.M., while Pete, Jude, and Fabiyan were making enthusiastic conversation with Sparky, the club owner, Gerda pulled Christine down next to her on the sofa.
"Here, here," she said, trying to shove a lit cigarette in Christine's mouth.
"No, really. I'll be sick." "You're the luckiest girl in the world," Gerda said, reaching for her drink and missing by at least six inches. "Oops." "Yeah, I know." Christine and Gerda had had this conversation before. Gerda had a big crush on Jude, but then, Gerda had a big crush on every second man she met.
"He's so beautiful. Why couldn't he turn up on my doorstep?" Then Gerda laughed, because that was exactly how Christine had met Jude. He had been sitting on the stairs in front of her West Twenty-third Street home, trying to read a badly drawn map directing him to a gallery party. "Don't despair. You and Garth might work things out," Christine said.
Garth was Gerda's husband back in Stockholm. He had refused to come with her to Berlin. Gerda was shaking her head. "No, never. You just keep your eye on Jude, Miss Starlight. I'll steal him the first opportunity I get." "You'd better not. I don't know where I'd find another one just like him."
Gerda waved her hand dismissively. "Impossible, of course. He'd never look at another woman."
Christine knew this was true. Her silly jealousies had so often been directed at a paintbrush, never at a person. But it was nice to hear someone else say it. "Do you think so?" "Darling, he's always got his hands all over you. He never lets you out of his sight. It's damn frustrating. Look at my tits, they're wonderful-not like your tiny little things-but he's never looked at them once."
Christine laughed loudly, then said, "Well, thank you for being so reassuring. You know, he's so gorgeous, and with the age difference and all ..."
Gerda scoffed. "Three years? It's nothing. He's twentyeight, not eighteen. But don't worry ... if I ever see another woman making a move on him, I'll do everything in my power to keep her away. Lie, cheat, steal, whatever." "That's very sweet," Christine said, giving her a squeeze. Gerda lit another cigarette. "So, what's up with you lately, Miss Starlight? You seem a bit blue. It's not just the pain in your back, is it?"
Christine shook her head, her eyes darting off to locate Jude. He was on the other side of the room, a cigarette jammed between his lips, drawing a shape in the air with his hands for Sparky, who laughed enormously.
"What's it all about? Not Jude?" "No, not Jude." Christine shrugged. "Autumn, I guess. Gray skies, winter coming." "Bullshit. It's more than that."
She tore her eyes away from Jude and met Gerda's gaze. "It's weird, Gerda. Just the last few days I've been feeling on edge. Like something's about to happen. And I keep having these flashes of old memories, things I haven't thought about in years."
Excerpted from The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins Copyright © 2003 by Kim Wilkins. Excerpted by permission.
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