Haus des Meeres, Short Fiction by Antony Osgood

On the second floor (Mediterranean & Tropical Fishes) Professor Frankl passes a guide politely explaining the history of the Aquarium to sceptical British tourists wearing baseball caps and sandals. 

Frankl at this point usually begins to wonder if the steps go on forever. Will he ever reach the roof terrace? But today he feels there are insufficient steps. He coughs himself to business, makes a note to inform the guide his shirt should always be freshly pressed. He also writes: All things end, in a certain hand. The notebook and fountain pen find a perfect home in his jacket pocket: the line of material is undisturbed.

At the doorway to the third (Corals & Eels) Spanish tourists chewing gum feign interest in crocodiles whilst aching to discover the calibre of gun the Aquarium tower once boasted. How many flak-towers did Vienna boast? they demand to know, and answer, “Not enough!”

On this floor Frankl always suspects he is climbing a metaphor, and pauses for breath. This afternoon, an overwhelming urge to wash his hands engulfs him. 

He stretches out his neck and steps on.

Arriving at the fourth (Café), Frankl listens to a harried young guide engage in confounding conversation with Americans concerning the construction of the tower, particularly whether prisoners of war (namely, their grandfathers) were used as slaves. 

Here, Frankl often suspects he has climbed more steps than await him. He pushes through curtains of terminal desolation, as if walking on stage for a final bow. Today the fabric gathers about his feet. 

“You must understand, all nationalities were prisoners to war,” the guide explains. The Americans don’t buy that.They believe war can be won easily as right can be made distinct from wrong. Frankl listens to the guide and nods; he makes a note to remind the guide of the protocols concerning permissible hair styles, and award her a commendation for bravery.

Pausing on the fourth, as if the sorrow of so few remaining steps is an anchor, Frankl busies himself with tidying his suit, employing fingers as disguise. He feels invaded, and not for the first time wishes this place didn’t require tourists. 

It is his belief that when visiting the city, guests speak as if only buildings matter. Frankl (who has been Director for twenty years) is principally enamoured with the archaeology of ideas, though he allows himself to appreciate that architecture is a canvas upon which humans paint the reinvention of themselves. It is the uses made of buildings that matter, Frankl often finds himself telling visitors. 

Buildings, Frankl writes in his notebook, are mirrors of dreams. 

Unusually, as if putting off the inevitable, he pauses at the Café long enough to take a macchiato. It is ‘traversable’ (meaning the coffee is a hard slog but passable). He smiles at his thin witticism and hands back the cup. He dabs his lips, feels for the notebook in his pocket, pats a tower wall. 

Just as he turns to climb the steps, the florid Café manager calls his name (using an endearment!) and Frankl is handed complimentary cake. Frankl fails to hear apprehensive enquiries, and he barely examines the kuchen. This is so uncommon an event, the Café manager says later, alarm bells should have peeled across the whole of Vienna. 

“Professor Frankl was always so precise in manners, clothes and cake!” the wailing manager will cry. “Polite to allstaff. We were like family. His turning without thanks should have prompted me to tackle him to the floor!”

Frankl, had he known, might have said his staff were very much unlikehis family. (Frankl preferred employees.) 

*

He is breathless from melancholy; each step seems an angel wrestled. Frankl dislikes clichés as much as shirts not tailored but bought from a rack, but he might say, were he able to grant such soiled words entry to his lips (charging them an exorbitant admission), that he feels to be walking through a dream that’s become a nightmare. 

He sees reflected in a tank of piranha his own face lined with tears. 

Still, up he climbs. 

On the sixth floor (Chinese Salamanders) rather than face a press of Italian tourists, he pulls punschglasur from his coat. His eyebrows twitch in surprise at finding a poor rabbit in such a fine jacket, and he sighs.Bless the manager for his kind thought, but this cake is too sweet, too pale for his palate. A miserable nibble suffices to reveal the cake holds no artistry. Made by machine not hand, he’d wager. The new Director will be obliged to end the stocking of such unloved cake. 

Frankl places the punschglasur in a bin so as not to make a mess, and wipes his mouth with a handkerchief. He pulls out his notebook, but doesn’t know what to write, so returns it unopened to his pocket. This day as full of discontent, and blue unwritten words. 

No further notes to the actors on this stage, he thinks. 

He shakes himself. Opens the notebook as an excuse to catch his breath on the seventh (Gila Monster). He writes in walnut ink: April 14th is too warm a day. The city’s plush with people, bursting with life, and poor cake. 

The pen hovers, like a father not kissing a child for fear of waking it from dreams, until he can bear it no longer, and on a new page gently turned he writes: To whom am I writing?

Frankl lifts his fountain pen, sketches in the air an image of his Grandfather sitting atop the flak tower seventy-five years ago. He is watching Russian tanks crushing children as they skip home. 

Another page, a second kiss: We are curators of our history

The defeated man moves on, continues his painful ascent.

*

Yesterday afternoon, one month into his fitness routine, Frankl had been alarmed to discover the duration of his mid-afternoon climb increasing. The first peregrination from his ground floor office to the roof terrace had taken eight minutes and forty-three seconds, one step at a time. Yesterday, the climb required twenty-three minutes and sixteen seconds, two steps at a time. 

He blamed Schultz. His Grandfather was also liable. But primarily he accusedthe sharks. Frankl often finds himself staring at the tenth-floor hammerheads (and Toilets). Yesterday he recognised predation in their eyes. He felt unable to escape. 

The Amazonian rainforest on the ninth holds its temptations (notpaying attention here invariably results in the damned monkeys stealing his glasses), but he knows they cannot hold him. The hammerheads, always calling, capturing histhoughts with their beauty, side-line feet, fill his lungs with seawater. The creatures should never have been thought of as suitable for his Aquarium, though the tourists love them, and the city desires a tourist’s purse. 

Yesterday, Frankl felt he’d been holding his breath whilst staring at the sharks. 

For twenty years he’s been treading water, predator-blind.

*

Today, the hammerheads seem neutral in their regard of him. 

Sharks prefer live prey, not dead meat, he writes. 

At the roof terrace Frankl inhales his beloved Vienna. He caresses the terrace mesh and surveys Esterházypark below. Café Ritter on nearby Mariahilfer Straße has served the finest sachertorte since 1867. Yesterday morning, immediately following Schultz’s heroic leap from the roof terrace, Frankl had turned to his pale assistant and therefore naturally said, “Today, Maria, is a two slice sachertorte day. Ensure the cream is freshly whipped.” 

Admiring his city, Frankl imagines that is what the mayor took exception to. His otherwise exemplary actions following Schultz’s unexpected swan dive were marred by the ordering of cake. 

“You called for sachertorte before calling the ambulance?” 

Frankl suggested an ambulance would provide little help, and what is an emergency without a little sweetness to see one through?

“You should have phoned for shovels,” the mayor shouted. 

Staring toward the MuseumsQuartier, Frankl writes in his notebook. History, like the eyes of a hammerhead, has keen depth of vision; once it spots you, escape is not permitted. 

Sun through sticky eyelashes crafts rainbows in his eyes. He touches the concrete of the tower, as if comforting a pleasing dog. He touches the mesh where Schultz had climbed; eyes follow the distortion caused by boots. The crate of beer, upon which his Grandfather stood to launch Schultz up and over the mesh, has yet to be seized by the Police. Frankl takes a beer, pops the stopper and doesn’t rest until the bottle is empty. He turns a new page. There are so few remaining. 

Being childless, I write to the city.

*

For the last two decades the group of elderly men have appeared, demanding discounted entry every 13th April. Led by Frankl’s own Grandfather, the troop insist on reparations, namely, the best seats on the terrace, an eye turned the other way, and free coffee. Over the years their numbers diminish, but the gang become louder the more their hearing fails, they dance for longer the more arthritis grinds their bones, beyond raucous as their ranks reduce and schadenfreude engulfs them. 

The irregular remnants of the 2nd Panzer Corps of the Sixth Panzer Army sashay grandly about the terrace, toss off sketches, toast their beautiful defeat at the hands of Szokoll’s Austrian Resistance Group and the Soviet 46th Army. They smuggle their own alcohol into the Aquarium and delight tourists.

Are all families part circus? he writes.

In 1945, the city defenders had been doomed to fail. They suspected their true mission was not to protect the streets but the idea of a lost Vienna. The 2nd Panzer Corps had long ago mislaid their tanks but not their schnapps or vodka, and their backpacks were crammed with solen paint and brushes. For every pistol, they carried three canvases. They possessed more easels than helmets, felt safer for it. The Corps took a vote and agreed they required not bullets but perspective, and pausing on their way only to bake sachertorte in the kitchen of Café Ritter, they liberated the flak tower, enjoying a swig of cooking sherry on each floor. On the roof terrace white bed sheets painted with sketches and encouraging messages in Russian were waved, photographs of one another were taken, and a gramophone discovered. They danced while they painted the end of the world. It wasn’t long before everyone on the ground began to shoot at the pirouetting child soldiers on the roof. No side welcomed jeering kids. Their war was a serious matter, not suitable for art on bed sheets. 

Frankl’s Grandfather led the Corps. He was at that time busy pretending not to be Jewish. He camouflaged himself in plain sight by dint of a good Austrian name, assuaged guilt by hiding bullets in bidets and encouraging artistic revolution among the tankless soldiers. Grandfather saved all his Corps but one, the youngest. Atop the flak tower that day little Max turned eight. He fell without making a sound, his easel flapping behind him as if it were a parakeet. Max died a victim of mistimed steps, art, and schnapps. 

“He flew from us!” Frankl remembers Grandfather saying. 

Both Germans andRussians shot Max as he fell. The Austrian Resistance Group removed their hats in respect; they cried as the child fell. He seemed lighter than air, swooped like a feather. They beckoned him toward their waiting arms. Max missed joining the resistance, and the resistance could not catch Max.

War is a cloth bag, Frankl writes, full of tears and outstretched hands, stitched by missed opportunities to be kind. 

That most of the Corps survived was worth an anniversary drink. 

Frankl never objected to their singing, nor their ironic saluting. He did not even mind their habit of achieving inebriated enlightenment by eleven in the morning. Yesterday, it wasn’t their drinking that caused an impact, but the falling. 

Having spent a whole life climbing, there is grandeur in falling from great heights, Frankl writes, admiring, through prism eyes, Vienna.

His heart calms. He is recovered from his ascent.

*

Being a responsible man (unlike Grandfather) Frankl asked Maria to fetch the insurance documentation after the cake. Being Director obliged him to consider not the horror of a falling veteran but practicalities. Frankl dared not contemplate what the events meant for him personally, because he immediately knew. 

“You checked paperwork before seeing the damage that old fucker caused?” the mayor asked. “Did you hide away, eating cake, reading cowardly documents, all the time expecting more veterans to fall from the sky?”

“For three generations my family has overseen the conversion of the flak tower into a tourist attraction, sir,” Frankl had said, and was told to be hushed. He knew at that moment – with that dismissive hush – his future, proficiently as he did his history, as he knew each step, each exhibit, each story the tower contained. Where shells were once piled, there now was ocean life. And where there once stood a Frankl, guiding the tower toward peaceful dreams, there stood a conservative mayor. He thinks of his Grandfather, always resisting. Standing on a crate of beer, Frankl believes seventy-five years is nothing to history, and that this city will always be keen to seize any excuse to rid itself of an upstart Jew. He writes, as if he is a Hofburg on a horse: Grandfather is a family curse of a hero, too precious to be hidden.

That ex-Private Schultz leapt from the terrace and fell upon a group of tourists, killing two and causing trauma to dozens, was disquieting enough. (Frankl knows Schultz landed so hard that for the whole of the forthcoming tourist season the wide outline of liquefied once-Private Schultz’s body will be visible.) What rankled the mayor was that Schultz had inadvertently landed on Israelis. And so publicly! The mayor was voted in because of his hatred of minorities, but such an obvious action was not his style at all.

“It looks like a racist suicide!” the mayor claimed. 

For Frankl, like his Grandfather, the anti-Semitism stitched into the history of Vienna is often far less overt than Schultz’s fall. He feels it under his nails. He smells it on street corners, in the grind of every coffee. 

“Such catastrophic synchronicity!” the mayor complained. A delegation needs to visit Tel Aviv to apologise, Frankl was informed. (And spend a few days sightseeing, paddling, eating out, all at the city’s expense, Frankl didn’t say.) That the falling ex-child soldier was a painter, a pacifist, a hater of Nazis, an artist whose work pursued yellow stars at night on canvas, made little difference. 

Friendly fire, Frankl writes, remains fire.

Frankl has no idea what possessed Schultz to choose the seventy-fifth anniversary of the fall of Vienna to kill himself. What is certain is that Schultz had been helped overthe mesh barrier. (Only a rare eighty-eight-year-old might be so independently athletic.) Frankl knewhis Grandfather had given Schultz a bunk-up. 

Grandfather, being the oldest of the child soldiers, their commander, had ordered his Corps to climb the flak tower, and then to descend like hell when everyone shot at them. It was Grandfather who gathered Max’s broken body, Grandfather who with bleeding hands had buried Max in buckets among the debris of a fallen city. It is always Grandfather. Even the Aquarium was his idea.

“He flew from us, too!” Grandfather had cried yesterday. “Another little boy!”

“He was eighty-eight and–” 

“Artists can never afford to grow old!”

He was weeping, laughing between tears, holding tightly to his Grandson, staining with dust-tears Frankl’s new jacket. They held one another. Words failed them. 

You never let go of Grandfathers. They are your history. They held you, then you hold them.

*

Forty-seven metres takes so little time to fall. 

Schultz was probably unable to complete the melody he was singing. Frankl wonders whether Schultz hoped to fly twice around the tower justto finish the song. Had Schultz flown, Frankl imagines the ghost of an anti-aircraft weapon would appear, shooting viscous shells at the singing veteran. Because anything is possible. Except acceptance. 

Frankl strokes the mesh of the roof terrace, and he knows just what can be achieved if belief is written a blank cheque. It can buy a flak tower and transform it into an Aquarium. It allows boys who are old men to fly. It motivates a Grandfather to pass on a dream.

But for how long might belief survive life?

*

The mayor, that writer of city cheques, that popularist canceller of budgets, called the Aquarium this morning. Frankl must resign. Given his family’s history, he has no choice. 

Haus des Meere will be someone else’s dream. 

Frankl stares across dry-eyed Vienna. With any luck, he might land upon his meddlesome Grandfather, relatively friendly fire remaining fire. Frankl straddles the mesh as if sitting atop a beautiful hammerhead. He writes: History causes some to fall to ruin, some to hide. Others transform into a home for sharks. 

Professor Frankl stretches one leg into the Viennese afternoon, and lets it hang. 

Writing is a wish to be remembered, if only as a fool who cannot spell, he scribbles. 

He turns a page against the wind and stares across red roofs. Vienna is crammed and it is empty. He examines his notebook. Each entry less neat than the last, as if climbing into the sky has starved him of oxygen. And so? Each word, no matter how deformed, tells of his existence. 

He stares at the final page of his notebook. He cannot see for sparkle.

Given Austria’s history, Frankl writes, perhaps we should all resign. 

He rips out white pages, tosses them as if gifting the wind. Confetti-words fall childless. Tears in his eyes cause Vienna to fracture. He steps toward his beloved city, and begins to sing.

About the contributor

Antony Osgood lives a skimmed-stone's bounce from Margate. His youth involved hauling coals to Newcastle: worked in psychology, autism, disability fields, wrote & edited books, chapters, articles, moved into academia. Retired, he writes full time, and is completing his second novel. He passes his time with little to show for it.

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