The first time she saw him, the lovely Ilonka was not exactly impressed. The coachman rattled along on an open carriage, a landau, filled with a wobbly stack of cuckoo clocks. At every swerve and jolt the clocks produced a loud cuckoo, although some only hiccuped or uttered a dismal croaking. The fat coachman sang loudly, a rather sentimental song about the Moldau and a broken heart. Despite that, he didn’t appear to be intoxicated.
“Who is that?” Ilonka inquired. “The village idiot?”
Her friend Jenna, who was seldom ogled by the boys and didn’t even have curls of her own, sighed. “That is the coachman of the Lord of Time. He sings so loud to drown out the cuckooing of the clocks. Such a big collection invariable attracts minute-hunters or even hour-devourers. ”
“I take my words back,” Ilonka sniffed. “You are clearly the village idiot. Not him.”
However, now that she had become aware of him, he seemed to be driving past every time she wanted to cross the street. He wasn’t ugly and fat at all, she decided. That had only been a foolish first impression, perhaps caused by his loud singing? The coachman was solidly built perhaps, but definitely not fat. And whatever the reason for his singing, it proved that he was at least good-natured. The kind of guy that would serve well as a husband.
Not that Ilonka was shopping for a husband. Well, in time she would have to marry, every girl did, but not before she had fallen for every interesting and definitely wrong man in the village
When she stepped from the coffeehouse Graf Werner that Wednesday, she saw him standing in front of the bombed-out Nicholas church, with a glum face. An oversized grandfather clock was lashed to the Landau.
“Flat tire?” she asked. It was a singularly stupid question because even a toddler could have seen that there was nothing wrong with the tires. No matter, lovely women like Ilonka simply have the right to ask stupid questions, certainly of coachmen.
“Not really. The clock was a lot thirstier than I first thought. He sucked all the time from my horses. ”
Now Ilonka saw that the horses were standing stock-still and that the stiff breeze didn’t even ruffle their manes. As if they have been carved out of amber and jet, she thought.
“A bit of a problem.” He rubbed his chin, which one could quite well call strong-willed, especially with that little dimple. “My own time is all used up. And fresh seconds only start to flow the moment the sun rises.”
“Take some of mine,” Ilona heard herself say. “I am just window shopping. I have nothing that urgent to do. ”
“That’s so kind of you!”
It was suddenly night. A moon shone through the last remaining stained-glass window and in the distance, a church bell began to toll. Ilonka counted the strokes involuntarily: twelve. Midnight. What the fuck? as they would say in America.
At home, she found a note on the doormat. It looked rather creased. As if someone had crumpled it in anger and then smoothed it out.
“Where were you? You stood me up. I have spent an hour shivering under the lime tree in front of Oblomov’s.”
Dietrich. I should have dined with him tonight and then gone to a recital at the Morena-house. Something about songs by the famous soprano Josephina Schumacher. Whoever that was.
Well, Dietrich had already begun to bore her. This was the perfect way to get rid of him.
“Sorry,” a voice said, a meter or two above her. The coachman leaned down. “Once you said to take my time. The horses, they were so thirsty. Before I knew…”
“Could have happened to anyone,” Ilonka said.
He jumped from the box of the coach and came down all smooth and athletic. Like a cowboy, she thought, although she had never seen a real cowboy.
“Let me offer you a mug of hot chocolate with a dash of rum,” he said and rubbed his hands. Suddenly, Ilonka realized that she was still frozen to the bone. The glass of vodka in the bar hadn’t warmed her at all. Yes, hot chocolate and a pretzel. One of those pretzels sprinkled with crushed candy and just a little snuff of cinnamon.
“And a delicious pretzel,” he nodded. “With candy and cinnamon.”
“How do you know that I love those pretzels?” she asked. Had he been stalking her, interrogated her friends?
“Oh, you told me next week. But then I knew it already, of course.”
You told me next week. Maybe Jenna hadn’t been talking nonsense after all?
“Is the pay any good?” she asked, which of course was a kind of useless question. No matter what men earned, it was always enough to buy Ilonka something nice.
“I can’t complain. For each hour of work, he pays me three.”
On their second date, they kissed. Just kissed. It was weird, but for some reason, Ilonka didn’t feel like hurrying things.
“A real gentleman,” Ilonka’s aunt had called him. Normally such praise would have led to Ilonka dropping her coachman like a lead brick, but now she only nodded. “He is, eh?” She felt a tiny, almost secret smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
I don’t need to jump in right away, she realized. We have all the time. All the time in the world.
He had a very special way of looking at things. Perhaps it was because of his profession?
“That Jenna,” he once remarked. “She’s lucky she isn’t as beautiful as you.”
“Why?” asked Ilonka. She frowned. ‘What do you mean, lucky?”
“She’s not ugly, but only someone who really loves her would ever find her beautiful.” He rubbed his chin. “Not many people get a platinum wedding.”
“Are you talking about Jenna?”
“Certainly. And your daughters, yours and Jenna’s, they will be each other’s best friends.”
On their fifth date, the night Ilonka was wearing her special underwear because right now felt like the right time, it almost went wrong. Just after the dessert in the Grand Imperial Hotel, he handed her a picture.
“A handsome woman,” Ilonka said politely. “Especially for her age.” She pursed her lips. “Who is she? Your mother?”
“No, no. That is you. When you are eighty-four. ”
She cursed him, strode away, fuming. How could he? Wrinkles and white hair. Of all the idiotic tricks…
The moment she stepped from the revolving door, the icy wind slapped her face, a harsh blow that promptly made her stone-cold sober.
He meant well. He always means well. And then she realized what a wonderful gift it had been. I will get to be eighty-four at least. And even then, I will still be so beautiful that a stupid little goose like me will call me “handsome” and mean it, too.
She turned, squeezed through the revolving door that suddenly seemed slow as molasses. She hugged him. Held him like she would never let go.
“Thank you,” she said. “O, thank you so much!”
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