[Over a week ago I promised a new short story. Well, here you are. This is a completely reimagined version of Walking on Air which I posted about a year ago. I had rewritten it slightly for a class to get some feedback on it but my lecturer thought it were not subtil enough (and I reckon she was right). Fortunately, she liked this version much better. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with just another draft, as she made me rewrite the whole thing completely and it’s a totally different story now.]
At the time I didn’t understand why, but during the whole two hours of my flight from Berlin to Glasgow the Italian version of the saying “while there’s life, there’s hope” was racing through my head: “Finché c’è vita, c’è speranza.” The fact that it was Italian was probably due to the guy next to me who was Italian. I had taken up the opportunity to refresh my rusty Italian and we’d talked during the flight. The meaning of the proverb confused me however. It was rather something you’d say to cheer someone up, and I wasn’t depressed. My parents and friends were alive, so there was hope. If only I had never forgotten that the proverbial life is not simply about the people you love…
When we arrived in Glasgow, Leila was already waiting for Gian. When they locked each other in their arms and kissed I suddenly remembered the beginning of a wonderful movie I had seen long ago. I could even hear Hugh Grant saying “love, actually, is all around” in my head. At least the Italian saying was gone for a moment.
Gian’s girlfriend somehow looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why and I quickly decided that it was a meaningless déjà-vu.
He introduced us and asked if I cared to join them for a drink before we’d go our separate ways. I am usually not the type who quickly bonds with people but the last two hours on the plane were quite enjoyable and that uncanny feeling about Leila intrigued me. I had no plans for the evening anyway, so I agreed. The meeting with my editor was scheduled for the next day at 4 p.m., so I could easily sleep through the morning. In Berlin, my parents hadn’t allowed me many zeds, they were too excited that I was finally home again after six months. And when they slept, I went to the Sony Centre to meet up with some old friends. It was a great week.
We went to a pub right next to the airport and sat down by the window from where we had a great view of the runway. As Gian paid for a round, Leila told me she had grown up in Berlin too, but she and Gian were having a long-distance relationship. She was an assistant lecturer at the University of Glasgow and he was working for an insurance company in Berlin.
When it was my turn to pay for a round I asked Leila what drink she’d like. Suddenly the Italian saying vanished for a second time and I heard the Ouverture of Gershwin’s World playing in my head, which confused me even more. I hadn’t heard that song in years; I couldn’t even remember when I had last listened to some Hancock.
Leila and Gian both asked for a cup of coffee. I wanted to go for an Irn-Bru but then decided to order a toddy – I needed something to pull myself together and Craig Ferguson once noted that whiskey solves any problem as long as it’s hot. I had never tried it, but when in Glasgow, do as the Glaswegians do.
As it turned out, comedians sometimes do tell the truth. The toddy tasted great and I felt a bit better. Gershwin’s World was no more and Gian and I started telling Leila about the trouble of getting through the check-in with all the fans of the winning teams arrriving and those of the losing teams leaving. I have never been into football – or any other kind of sport for that matter – but I am usually a calm person, however, that chaos was annoying. Luckily, it was not as bad as the disaster that came to be known as the World Youth Days in Cologne the year before. Some people still talk about Teutonic thoroughness, but we are far not as thorough as we like to think.
I can’t remember exactly how but at some point we ended up exchanging stories from our various encounters with the punks at the Alexanderplatz. Perhap U2’s Zoo Station playing on the radio inspired us to discuss the social issues in Berlin. I got carried away and started talking about the love of my youth, who just so happened to have been a punk. Unsurprisingly, I lost a bit of their sympathy when I started reminiscing about Zoe. Or should I say they lost a bit of my sympathy when they showed no understanding of the problems that can drive teenagers into becoming punks – for example a father who sets off to Thailand and leaves his family behind, as was the case with Zoe’s dad. I sometimes wonder why she is the only girl I end up remembering time and again. Admittedly it is hard to imagine falling in love with a girl who has blue hair and more piercings in her face than any other punk, but it’s not as if she had been like Christiane F. who had been a heroin addict and prostitute by the age of 14. Christiane didn’t even hang around on Alexanderplatz, but at the Bahnhof Zoo and anyway that was in the seventies. I felt uncomfortable justifying my ex-girlfriend and I decided to stop remembering my youth. I was just about to change topics by asking Leila what it is like teaching at the University of Glasgow when her phone rang.
“Oh my god that lady’s just been hit by that car!” she screamed.
“Go look for a phone booth and call 112, I’ll check on her,” I shouted, running towards the woman.
“I got a mobile…”
“She’s still alive but she’s heavily wounded! Where’s the bloody car?!”
“It’s gone. Hit and run.”
“Fuck! Have you called the ambulance?”
“On its way.”
“It’s gonna take them at least ten minutes to get here. You know first aid?”
“I can remember some but…”
The memory was foggy after seven years but the woman looked incredibly similar to Leila. When she had put down her phone I realised that it had actually been her mobile that triggered the memory, even though it wasn’t the same phone of course.
I tried remembering more of the scene but it was like Marcel Proust’s famous scene of the madeleine, at every attempt the images fainted more and more. I thought about asking Leila, but after having gotten off track and talked about my punk girlfriend earlier I didn’t want to add any more weirdness to their first impression of me in case I was just imagining the woman having been Leila. I would probably never see them again but, as I said, I am not the guy who quickly bonds with people and I actually started to feel quite at ease with these two. Messing it up and parting in total awkwardness was not at all how I wanted the evening to end.
I had decided that asking Leila about her favourite musical genre was the easiest way to go – if she didn’t like Jazz, I’d know that it couldn’t have been her who I met at that Jazzfest back then.
Thinking back, I am surprised that we went our separate ways and never saw each other again after that fateful night. Leila, if it had been her, was one of those very few girls who not only are stunningly beautiful but with whom you can also have a meaningful conversation. Perhaps that was the reason why I had accepted the invitation to drink a pint with them even though I thought I didn’t know them – well, I was still pretty sure I had never met Gian before.
“I would never have expected seeing another person as young as me here,” I heard the girl behind me say.
“Well I like to blame my father for it, he listens to Jazz all day long. And he particularly likes Hancock. He tells everyone that Hancock is the best. He must have passed that passion onto me,” I replied, turning around.
“Oh I love Herbie Hancock.”
“Really? So we found one similarity. Two more and you’ll have to go drink a coffee with me afterwards,” I answered, deciding that the girl in front of me was absolutely worth flirting with.
“Silly you! Of course we both like Hancock, we’re standing in line to enter the concert hall,” she said.
“Don’t look for excuses, you’re the one who started this conversation after all,” I replied in an overly cocky voice.
“Because I was bored,” she teasingly answered.
“Ouch,” I said, looking down on the floor.
“You don’t even know my name…”
Leila liked Jazz. She even started talking about having been to some Jazz concerts. I didn’t dare asking her if she’d ever been to the Jazzfest though. I still couldn’t get a clear image of the girl I met back then. Maybe it was Leila, but I could only remember small pieces of that day and I didn’t trust them as they were really fuzzy.
After two hours we had come to talk about my book of which I was going to hand in the final draft the next day. Gian asked me about every detail of the story, even though he had already bombarded me with questions on the plane. I decided to tell him about the chapter in which the main character receives her nonna‘s secret receipe for the best pasta in the world (leaving out the fact that I had also written about how pasta was actually invented by the Chinese and not the Italian) on her wedding day. That did it for Gian. He started talking about his nonna as soon as I had finished my sentence. You have got to love Italian people and the incredible pride they take in la famiglia, especially their mother or, in this case, grandmother. Leila told Gian to stop however, complaining about getting a headache from the same old story.
“Hey, you alright?” she asked me.
“Did the doctor just say she’s dead, before they closed the door and drove off?” I asked, trembling.
“He said she had a cardiac arrest, he didn’t say she was dead. All we can do now is hope that she makes it,” she tried comforting me, though of course it wasn’t any real comfort.
“There’s only hope while there’s life. She wasn’t alive when they put her in the ambulance.”
“There is nothing else you could have done.”
“She looked so young. She certainly wasn’t older than we are.”
“Come on, let’s go get a cup of coffee and talk about it.”
“I can’t believe I couldn’t remember how to move her into the lateral recumbent position.”
“It wasn’t your fault. She was severely hurt and you were not the one who hit her in the first place.”
“Still… Did you ask what hospital they are taking her to?”
I remembered having gone to a café opposite the concert hall. I remembered having sat there with this girl who only two hours earlier I had actually wanted to ask out and who now was trying to comfort me about another girl. I remembered feeling inane. But I had blotted out the memory of that day completely long ago and it was only coming back slowly. I couldn’t even remember her name. Perhaps we never introduced ourselves.
I looked at Leila and tried concentrating, maybe this time I would succeed in putting all the pieces of memory back together. She looked back at me; surely I must have seemed like an obsessed person when I stared at her face. Why didn’t she recognise me? Maybe I was mistaken and it hadn’t been her after all. She asked me if something was wrong, which I denied at first, but then I saw a scar on the top of her forehead, covered beneath her auburn hair.