Leo hangs around the house, evidently in doubt whether to go upstairs and bring me to reason or refrain from such a crude and unfeeling intrusion and bear the consequences.
“At last! Hurry up, Irene!”
He rushes to the car, opens the door for me and starts the engine. I disengage myself from Milan, sit down beside Leo and acknowledge my break of trust by a wane smile. Leo’s only comment is an eloquent glance at his wristwatch. I curl up on the seat, rest my head against Leo’s shoulder and savour the remains of Milan’s embrace lingering on me like the aftermath of a vanished sun on a walled garden. Leo speeds through the deserted streets, stiff with the effort to find a plausible excuse in case we are caught red-handed returning home long after midnight. Poor Leo! For him Irene spells “trouble”. And he doesn’t even know that his father plots to murder his mother to get his lecherous paws on me! Shall I give Egon away? Better not! Not at these small hours when vampires prowl about the sinewy streets of Prague hunting for blood. And then, Beda must have been just joking and... All of a sudden, Leo gives a start and puts the brakes on.
“It isn’t normal that your villa is lit at this late hour? Better tidy yourself up, Irene. Whatever you need is in the glove compartment. You DO look a mess!”
I stare at the flood-lit house in agonised silence hoping that it has nothing to do with my “after-hours”.
“What shall we say, Irene?” Leo’s green eyes flash a SOS.
“We’ll tell them we’re returning from “The Flaming Heart”.” I suggest. “It’s as simple as that. Beda will corroborate our version. Don’t worry. There’s no harm in listening to music in a piano bar, is it?” I say more lightly than I feel and coat my bruised mouth with Zita’s lipstick.
His brow puckered with worry, Leo drives to the front of the villa, goes around and opens me the door. Pale, dishevelled, the very image of misery, my father rushes to meet us.
“Where have you been? You owe me an explanation, Herr Zwettler! Follow me into the drawing room!”
“It concerns you too, Irene!” Father scrutinises me and I wonder how close to the truth he is.
“I’m so sorry, Daddy. I should have given you a ring when I decided not to go home straight after the tuition. I thought about it, honestly I did, but then I decided against it. Mama goes to bed so early and I know how much you treasure her rest. We went to “The Flaming Heart”, Daddy, and Beda played so well that I didn’t realise how late it was and...” I remain stock-still at the door of the drawing room. Shrunken in her skin, a size too large for her, Zita is slumped in an armchair. Her ashen face, incised with deep wrinkles, is blotched with messed-up make-up. Tonight she shows her age. She lifts her arms as if preparing to hurl herself on Leo, then contains her temper and remains seating.
“We were so worried, Irene!” My grandmother scolds me.
“Poor Zita! She ran up to us seeking comfort! Alone! In the dead of night! Fearing the worst! Your father was about to inquire at the hospitals about car accidents. I can’t believe you could be so inconsiderate and ruthless!” My grandmother heaps reproaches on me and I am glad Leo is spared at least her anger. Poor Leo, stricken by guilt and grief! I wish I could put myself in front of him and shield him from Zita’s incriminations. But this would make the situation worse. The only way to take his side is not showing how much I care and mind.
“Please, accept my apology for all that trouble I’ve caused. It’s solely my fault. I forced Leo to take me to “The Flaming Heart”. He surrendered to me by sheer politeness and only to do me a favour. He would have called home from the piano bar but the phone was out of order and, as a true gentleman, he couldn’t leave me alone, could he? He reminded me many times that we should be going home. I didn’t listen. I’m the only one to blame. I beg you to forgive me. As you see, nothing much happened, we’re safe and sound and ...”
“Leopold! Make your excuses to Irene’s family! We’re leaving!” Zita gets up and makes it for the door, brushing her son’s offered arm off.
“I wish you all Good night. I’m extremely sorry I’ve intruded on your privacy.”
Leo runs to the door to open it for his mother and my father accompanies them to Leo’s car.
“Where have you been, Irene? You reek of alcohol like a drunken sailor! That poor Leopold! If I didn’t know him so well, I’d doubt that you spent the evening in a piano bar!” My grandmother points at my mouth but stops short from touching such an explosive material further.
“The best is to get you married as fast as we can and ...” she silences herself when my father enters the room.
“Go to bed, Irene! I wonder how you’ll manage to scrape through your exam tomorrow! I’ll await you at six at my study with the report of its result. Thank your lucky star Frau Zwettler didn’t wake up your mother. That woman is impossibly hysterical. Her main problem is that she takes her son for God’s gift to mankind. I wish you both Good night,” he gives my grandmother a frosty glance and rushes off to watch over my mother’s sleep.
I slip out to escape my grandmother’s tongue lashing. I summon Milan to my dreams and fall asleep.