Not to give us away at the tuition is our ultimate feat of strength. Neither to lead nor to be led into temptation I have recourse to Draconian clothing tactics. No low-cut gowns, three petticoats under a full skirt. Combined with our preliminary love sessions, nobody suspects what is going on; we play it safe.
So far so good, tonight, things are getting out of my hands and I mistrust Egon’s version. Jumpy as a cat, I wait in my grandmother’s drawing room until Mr. Tichy brings the car forth.
“Stop clutching at your present, Irenchen! You’ll crease it. No need to be so tense. It’s a birthday party, not a trial!” My grandmother says ominously and I shrivel.
“The car is waiting, Gnadige Frau,” Mary comes in with our coats. We put them on and settle in the Rolls.
From now on anything can happen. I prepare myself for the worst.
“Why are you shivering, Irene? Are you cold?”
“Mr. Tichy, put the heating up, please.”
The car climbs towards the castle up Nerudova Street. Passing “The Flaming Heart” without stopping I feel Poe’s raven sharpens its beak on my heart.
The brightly lit-up von Zwettlers’ villa rises like a haunted castle from the ragged clouds. It seeps through the darkness strangely out of reach, yet sucking me in like a bottomless swamp. The car hoots three times. The gate breaks open. We pass through.
Smoothly handsome in his dinner jacket, Egon looms up on the porch. He kisses our hands and ushers us in.
“Are we the first ones?” My grandmother inquires, visibly embarrassed by our breach of etiquette.
“The first and the last ones, Gnadige Frau, it is a strictly family affair. I’m very sorry that my mother is still at Antibes. As much as I’d like to have her with us tonight, it would be selfish to bring her back before she had regained her health completely.”
My blood runs cold. So it is to be done: no witnesses, no clues, no error.
We leave our coats with the maid and go to the drawing room. Heavy sea-green velvet curtains on the panoramic windows are tied back with the ropes of dark-blue silk. The peacock-blue netting displays a perfectly groomed English lawn strewn with white and blue crocuses, saffron-yellow daffodils and crimson tulips gleaming in the spotlights propelled against the budding trees.
“Zita has such an exquisite taste! The garden a fairy-tale like, Come nearer, sweetheart, have a look!”
I recoil from Egon’s scolding breath and cuddle up against my grandmother’s protective body.
“May I offer you a drink? A sherry?”
“Well yes, but just a drop. Thank you, Egon,” my grandmother accepts reluctantly.
Egon hands me the drink. Over the rim of the glass, his wolfish eyes are enormous. The undercurrent of tension charges the air like an approaching storm. The silence is total. The night is a pitfall. Fear trickles down my spine. My grandmother takes a nervous sip of her sherry.
“It seems we’re too early,” she sighs.
“Not at all, Gnadige Frau. I apologise for Zita’s and Leopold’s lateness. Oh! Here they are!”
Her Channel Number 5 heralding her from afar, Zita makes her entry on her son’s arm.
“Sorry to be late.” Zita says with an insolent pout on her mouth smeared with blood red lipstick and sinks into the armchair.
Flushed with the afterglow of love, Leopold greets us dreamily. I wonder if my grandmother, to her very marrow a lady, suspects that something isn’t quite right.
“Dinner is served, Madam,” the maid invites us to the table. Egon gives my grandmother his arm. Sharing Leopold’s arm with Zita, I am fully aware I am the odd girl out.
The table is set with imposing perfection. Lozenges of light fall from the silver candlesticks upon the white damask tablecloth with Meissen porcelain crockery, ornate cutlery and Bohemian crystal.
Before taking our assigned places, Egon calls for our attention and we clink glasses with the birthday boy. The cork pops out, champagne streams into the sparkling glasses. We drink a toast to Leopold and offer him our gifts.
The table is set for five. An odd number. We settle around the table and start the dinner with gleaming moist oysters traced out with wedges of lemon on oblong Tiffany trays, thin brown bread and rich creamy butter. I savour the food with delight. Yesterday is dead. Tomorrow not yet born. I put up with tonight and with the Chablis, prickly fresh in my mouth.
I watch Zita out of the corner of my eye, crushed by her imposing presence. Tall, strikingly blonde, exquisitely bosomed, she sucks the oysters with stirring greed. What if it were her last meal? With amused nonchalance Egon contemplates his son’s eyes hooked upon his wife’s breathtaking cleavage. Maybe Zita and Egon struck a deal with Leo as a part of Zita’s package. Divorce by consent. Why not? I stiffen and suppress the urge to spit out the half-eaten oyster. The taste is strange. I look around me stealthily. Nobody seems to enjoy the meal, though no one seems to suspect foul play either. I swallow the oyster with bated breath.
The table is cleared; we reach the meat-course. Burgundy is poured out, cheeses and fruit are served. My head is light. To be or not to be is no more THE question. Desserts are brought in. We retire to the drawing room for coffee and liqueurs.
“Show us your presents, will you, Leopold?” Zita asks sweetly, sipping her Cointreau.
“With pleasure, Mama.”
Leo lays out a golden Omega wrist-watch, amethyst cuff-links and a Gucci crocodile-leather attaché case. My poem sticks out of this luxury like a sore thumb. I could kill myself for not having thought about something more appropriate; a classical music record or a book. I would die if Leo were blunt enough to pass my gift around.
“May I have a look, Leopold?” Zita proffers her hand to seize the poem.
“It’s strictly private. Sorry, Mama,” Leo refuses firmly and puts it back into its envelope.
Dearest Leo! Those are our moments closest to love! I flash him a grateful smile and hold my glass to Egon for a refill.
“Irene had enough! You shouldn’t encourage her, Egon!” My grandmother rebukes him so fiercely that it’s dawning on me that she may know more than I think.
“Thank you for the wonderful evening. Can you call us a taxi, please?”
“It’s my pleasure to bring you back home,” Egon rushes in before Leo had time to offer us his service.
“How very kind of you, thank you, Egon. I wouldn’t dream of interrupting a family gathering. A taxi will do. I mean it!”
“So do I, Gnadige Frau!” Egon rings the maid to bring our coats.
It seems so strange to sit with my grandmother in Egon’s champagne-coloured Ferrari, in all innocence and in the open. Egon asks for our permission to put some music on. I shut my eyes listening of Mozart’s “Little Night Music” flowing softly through the dark.