Baumgartner's Bombay

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Authors: Anita Desai
    They sat together on a narrow seat at the back of the tram, surrounded by coffin-faces, watery and grey from having been indoors all winter. While his mother drooped, as though still weak from the lack of sunshine, Hugo himself was ebullient, excited by the names of the streets on their white signposts – Larchenweg, Terrassenstrasse – by seeing new foliage a pale yellow on the roadside trees, the women in elegant coats walking their dachshunds on leather leashes, the delivery boys on bicycles with baskets loaded with goods, the bells ringing as clear and sharp as cracked glass in the spring air. Here the sun was not only tangible but visible, a jolly blur both circular and incandescent over the rooftops, as it never was in their own dreary street. The warmth of it on the tram roof made him itch inside his coat that had in any case grown too small for him and felt like diseased fur after a winter’s perpetual use. ‘Don’t be so impatient, child,’ she warned, ‘it is a long way to the Grünewald.’
    They were both travel-sick when they got there, but the Friedmanns seemed to have anticipated that: on the wooden table under the cherry tree in their small garden stood a tray with tall glasses and a jug. They were made to sit there in the sunshine that slanted in through the flowering branches (‘Come and see the cherry tree flowering once more,’ they had written) while the young Frau Friedmann ran to fetch cakes and the old Frau Friedmann sat with her mittened hands on her lap and smiled at him coaxingly, saying, ‘In a little while Albert will come home and he will take Hugo to see the swans.’
    Hugo did not want to be taken away; he wanted to sit under the black twigs and the white blossom, and drink slowly from the glass of blackberry wine and nibble another biscuit dusted with cinnamon, and see the remarkable sight of his mother flowering in the company of her friends, the friends who she had been in the habit of slipping off to see and visit alone when his father would take Hugo out for a few hours; somehow she had not liked them to meet these friends of her girlhood, from her home town where they had been neighbours and old Dr Friedmann a colleague of her father’s at the university. Then Hugo had not cared; he had revelled in the masculine atmosphere created by his father – the somewhat roguish, slightly inebriated air of gentlemen on the town. Today he sat on the garden bench, taking in the sight of a pair of white butterflies lighting upon a grey bush, the cherry blossoms falling silently on the table, and listening to his mother’s voice lift and fly with lightheartedness and relief, and he wondered why she did not come oftener if it made her so happy. Laughing, she was saying, ‘And Adele, the time we went to the Max Reinhardt production together – it was
wasn’t it? And we had gone straight from school, in our navy blue pinafores, and were sitting up with the pigeons, in the cheapest seats, when that gentleman in tails and a top hat came running up the aisle, gave us two tickets and said’ – she imitated his voice – ‘“Excuse me, Fräulein – I am forced to leave early – my seats are free – will you not kindly take these tickets and enjoy the music from a good seat.”’ Adele joined her in the disbelieving laughter, and nodded. ‘
,’ she told Hugo, ‘and we went up, up, up, right to the front, right up to the stage nearly, and sat there amongst the ladies in their furs and the men in their tails, wearing our navy blue pinafores. And mine had chalk dust all over it.’ She raised her hands to her red cheeks as she laughed at the remembered embarrassment, now become a treasure. Hugo, instead, remembered the figure of his father, left behind in a wrapping of blankets; he felt uneasy, sensing a rift, a break between his parents that might have existed for all these years but of which he was only now really aware. He kept his eye on his mother,

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