I’m a day late but I thought I would celebrate International Coffee Day by sharing Chapter 11 of The Doctor’s Daughter. In this chapter, my protagonist Marta Rosenblit has a chance encounter with young medical graduate Elise Saloman in one of Vienna’s finest coffee houses. They start chatting over a cup of coffee and so begins an intriguing new friendship. Have you ever found a new friend over coffee?
Ever since that first package had arrived at her door she had wondered what she should do with it. In the beginning Marta had intended to disregard it as a mistake, or perhaps a fantasy played out by one of her fathers’ patients. Yet something about the photo remained in her subconscious. And now, sitting with a second parcel in her lap she felt compelled to treat the contents of both packages more seriously.
This time the envelope was much smaller and it contained a pendant – a gift from her new lover perhaps? The oval trinket was set with tourmalines and blush pearls, but on closer inspection she could see that they were dull. It was apparent that the jewellery was not new and so she reasoned it could not be a gift, not from Leopold anyway. At the centre of the pendant was an enamel miniature bearing the image of a lady in a pink dress reclining on a chaise, flowers at her feet. The link was broken and the chain it must have been attached to at one time was missing.
Marta had discovered this package on the doorstep on her return from her morning meeting with Leopold, and again the sender had managed to escape with anonymity. She had taken it directly to her room so as not to be disturbed. The pendant must have been an antique; its style was intricate and old fashioned.
She sat for a moment. What did this have to do with her? If the pendant was not intended as a gift what was it? Was it in any way linked to the photograph, receipts and newspaper she had received before? Could they perhaps be clues of some kind? If they were, she had no idea what mystery was waiting to be solved but she was motivated to follow it up. Today was a good day after all. She had spent the morning discussing her research outcomes with Leopold, he had been impressed and they had made love for the second time. The weather was bright and clear. Yes, today was a good day to head out and do something spontaneous.
Pernilla was shopping for groceries and running errands and Arnold was in his study with his regular Wednesday morning client Mrs Keisler. The woman was mad as a box of frogs and would be in there for three hours or more. So, at just past 11 o’clock, Marta was confident she had at least two hours before anyone would come looking for her.
She returned to the drawer where she had hidden the first package a couple of weeks ago and pulled out the large brown envelope she had hidden.
Once again she laid out its contents, reviewing the picture and bits of paper to see if she could find a link between the items. Nothing. She must decide for herself where to start.
Marta picked out the stub from the Café Louvre. She would go there, this morning before the place filled with foreign journalists who frequented it in the afternoons. Her father was considered a friend by many of them, and she did not want to be seen hanging around alone.
She put the small scrap of paper into the black leather finger purse Leopold had given her as a gift, scooped the packages back into their hiding place and pulled on her grey wool wrap coat. She tucked her hair under her houndstooth cloche hat and laced her flat black garden boots. Rushing downstairs and out onto the street she noticed it was just beginning to rain. It was too late to go back for her umbrella; she would just have to duck in and out of doorways for cover if the soft spit turned into a storm.
The 30 minute walk to Café Louvre could be cut to 20 minutes if she maintained a brisk stride and cut across Volksgarten and along the Herrengasse.
Sitting on the corner of Renngasse and Wipplingerstrasse, the café was imposing, with high ceilings and around forty marble-topped coffee tables stretching along the centre of the room. Dark intricately carved wooden booths lined one wall, with the buffet tables and newspaper stands on the opposite side. Even though she had arrived after the morning rush, a gentle hum of background noise remained. Clinking cups being placed on saucers, the clatter of freshly cleaned silverware being replenished – busyness she found comforting to hide in. And was that jazz music she could hear drifting softly from the kitchen at the back.
A handful of customers were dotted around the café. Two women at the centre of the room were huddled around a copy of Record magazine, eyeing the latest sewing techniques and fashions they hoped to recreate. A man in the far corner was smoking a cigarette whilst scribbling in his notebook, she noticed that he was wearing two pairs of spectacles – one on the bridge of his nose and another perched on top of his head. In the corner booth Marta could see a rotund figure she instantly recognised as Mr Beste. He lifted the broad brim of his Stetson hat and wiped his brow with a napkin before settling back down to his newspaper. It shouldn’t have been surprising to see him there, local people and indeed the café staff called him a wirthausbruder – a café brother, using his regular table as an extension of his home and office. Every politician, diplomat, socialite or other informant in the city knew to find him there whenever they had a story for the paper. By mid-afternoon they would come streaming in, offering a steady flow of leads, gossip, policy debate and more.
He seemed engrossed in the day’s news stories and so was unlikely to notice her. Just to be extra cautious however, she stepped backwards and slid herself into the nearest booth. As she did so, she failed to notice that somebody was already sitting in it. A bright eyed young woman let out a squeal as Marta’s clumpy boots trampled her foot under the table.
‘Oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise anyone was sitting here.’ Marta glanced around the café, hoping that her clumsiness had not attracted too much attention.
‘It’s okay, don’t worry I still have five toes intact on my other foot so I’ll be fine. I’m Elise. Elise Saloman.’
Relieved at the good humoured response and not wanting to make any more fuss, she introduced herself. ‘Marta Rosenblit. Do you mind if I sit here?’
‘It’s a little snug for strangers but why not?’ she said.
Marta blushed and manoeuvred herself around to the seat on the opposite side of the booth.
‘Relax, it’s fine I’m just teasing you. I was just thinking it would have been nice to have a friend today. Coffee?’ Elise smiled again, revealing a small gap between her two front teeth.
Marta’s relief was visible in the drop of her shoulders. ‘Honestly I find coffee quite bitter.’ she admitted, not quite knowing what made her say so.
‘Oh I agree tea is much more suited to my palette, but I’ve just finished a cup so I thought I’d have a change. Let’s see, what shall I have next?’ Elise picked up the menu.
Marta watched as she prattled through the drink choices. She was in awe of this confident creature with the ash blonde crop and contrasting burgundy lips. The features on her delicate heart shaped face benefited from an agreeable symmetry and though she was not predictably pretty, she was beguiling all the same.
‘Do you know Marta, I’ve been sitting here moping for almost an hour now and I have no idea why I am so melancholy. How about you, may I ask what brought you here today?’ Elise queried.
She thought fast. ‘That’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t know. I headed out of the door without a plan and here I am.’
Elise clicked her fingers to summon the attention of a waiter then turned to face Marta. ‘I admire your spontaneity. Seeing as neither of us has so far been convinced of the pleasures of the black stuff, let’s experiment to see if we can find a way to enjoy it more shall we? Perhaps we’ve just been doing it wrong, after all almost all of the people in Vienna are mad about it!’ She paused to review the menu for a second time.
‘Waiter, please bring us both a Kapuziner.’
‘Of course madam. Would you like any pastries with that?’
Elise looked to Marta who was observing the exchange with the fascination of a visitor in a zoo. ‘Do you have a sweet tooth?’
‘Hmm?’ Her concentration broken. ‘Oh, I’m not sure I have a preference, but I will take something sweet if you will.’
‘Two slices of your most delicious strudel please, and’ holding up her forefingers in case she wasn’t clear, ‘two slices of dobostorte. Let’s give those coffees something to work with shall we?’ Elise turned to her new friend.
Still a little stunned at her unexpected companion Marta felt her cheeks glow pink as she became aware that it was her turn to say something. She struggled for words; the warmth from her cheeks was now flushing her face and décolletage.
Sensing her discomfort, Elise moved things along. ‘So Marta, now we have got ourselves settled in we might as well get to know each other a little. I’ll start. I moved to Vienna about four months ago after completing my medical education at the University of Paris. I’d planned to work in paediatrics but I admit I’m not finding it as easy as I’d like to get a break. Tell me about yourself.’ She leaned forward and clasped her hands together with interest.
Marta was not accustomed to having such a forthright female companion. She was even less accustomed to being in control of the information she revealed about herself.
‘Well, most people know me because of my father Dr Arnold Rosenblit. He’s a psychiatrist.’ She tugged at a lock of stray hair in habitual motion.
‘Ah yes of course, quite a prolific one at that!’ Elise patted her hands on the table.
‘That’s where I have heard your name before. I have studied your Dr Rosenblit’s work.’
Marta was surprised. ‘Then you will most likely know that I have been the subject of many of his research papers. You will have learned more of me from those than I could share about myself.’
‘Tell me, how do you feel about being used like that?’ Elise preferred to be direct in her enquiries.
‘Used?’ Marta was offended. ‘I don’t think I would describe my participation in that way. I have always been happy and willing to assist with his research in whatever way he sees fit. It is my privilege. Did you say you know my father or just that you know his work?’
‘I knew him for his work at first but I must confess I recently had an opportunity to come face to face with him. I’m afraid we did not part on favourable terms.’ Elise blushed.
‘Really? Tell me more.’ Whilst she was aware of some rumblings of discontent emerging in the psychiatric community, Marta had never met anyone who did not adore her father.
The waiter intervened, placing the two coffees, the strudels and two generous portions of dobostorte at the centre of the table. The women watched in silence as he lifted two small china plates, bearing hand painted hyacinth blooms, from his tray and laid them out. Napkins embroidered with the café’s insignia were dropped alongside the plates and topped with dessert forks. Then he left a cup of brown sugar lumps and a set of sterling silver sugar tongs. ‘Enjoy.’ he nodded and then left them to resume their conversation.
Elise dropped two sugar lumps into Marta’s cup without consultation. ‘It’s a little embarrassing I must admit, but I took it upon myself to heckle the doctor during a recent talk he was giving.’
‘You heckled him?’
‘Mm hmm.’ Elise said, with an enthusiastic nod.
Marta was impressed. ‘Can I ask why?’
‘I don’t buy it.’
‘His ludicrous theory on phallic symbolism and a number of other theories too since you are asking.’ Elise stated without apology.
‘I am entertained to learn that I am not the only one to find holes in my fathers’ theories.’
‘He spoke highly of you.’
‘He did?’ Marta queried with a degree of disbelief.
‘If you consider him labelling you and most other women besides, as mad as hatters, then yes.’
The two women broke into giggles. Elise continued, ‘Don’t you ever challenge him on some of the things he says?’
‘It’s not that I haven’t tried. I have but he doesn’t want to hear it. He prefers to use my inquisitive nature to highlight my shortcomings. It is a trusted tactic that enables him to overlook the questions he does not want to answer.’
‘And hasn’t it served him well Marta?’
‘Yes indeed, at times I think it serves him too well if you ask me.’ Marta felt ashamed that she had let the words slip out, and to a practical stranger. It was uncharacteristically indiscreet of her but she couldn’t help it. Something about this new woman made her feel less inhibited.
Elise scooped up her cup and sipped at her Kapuzinger. Marta took her lead and did the same, noting how a little sugar had softened the bitterness she had anticipated. She wondered why nobody had ever thought to offer her sugar with her coffee before.
‘Does anybody ask you?’
Marta was unsure what Elise meant. ‘Ask me what?’
‘How you feel or what you want?
She pursed her lips and straightened her back in concentration. ‘Those questions would not be so easy to answer. I’m not sure how I feel or indeed if I want anything at all for myself.’
Elise failed to stifle her irritation at such diffidence as she spoke. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Whatever do you mean?’
‘I mean that how I feel rather depends on how those around me are feeling. If my father is approving and satisfied with me then I feel that I am a capable consort, otherwise I am just a queen of calamity.’ Marta flashed a smile to suggest that she were teasing but Elise was not deterred.
‘Ha! Well then dear queen. If you don’t want anything for yourself, what do you want for your empire?’
Marta batted the question away with a wave of her hands. ‘Strudel and dobostorte for everyone!’ she scoffed before she could be pushed for an honest answer.
Elise backed off, she did not want to scare the admirable Marta away. She plucked her dessert fork from the table and scooped up a large chunk of dobostorte. ‘Here’s to getting what we want!’ She shoved the sticky chocolate and buttercream cake into her mouth.
Again, Marta followed her lead prudently dissecting a smaller chunk with her own fork.
‘You must find me quite unacceptable Elise.’ she said, her tongue darting to remove a crumb of chocolate from the corner of her lip.
‘Unacceptable? No. Intolerable? Perhaps.’ Elise heckled.
‘I might not be able to explain it right now but I do think I am on the verge of discovering new things about myself.’
‘How so?’ Elise asked, her brown eyes widening.
‘I have a friend, Leopold, who is trying to help me figure out what I want. Under his tutelage I think I will soon be ready to try out some ideas for myself.’ Marta returned her attention to the contents of her plate, measuring her next bite with precision.
‘We have just met and already I can tell you are smart, curious and observant, and I’m certain you are a much more rounded soul than your father. Therefore, it is intolerable to me that you don’t seem able to recognise that in yourself.’ Elise feared she had transgressed as Marta’s expression shifted from coy to humiliated. ‘Anyway, enough of that; tell me more of Leopold and these ideas of yours.’
‘I don’t mean to be rude but we are still strangers. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to share details of either today. What I will say however, is that I am interested in the psychological development of children. I have little maternal instinct but I am passionate about understanding the concerns of young minds.’
Elise’s face illuminated. ‘Well then we’d make a great team! As part of my education, I spent time on placement at the Hôpital des Enfants Malades, one of the finest teaching hospitals in France. I know little of young minds, but I am familiar with the physical ailments of children and I’m quite positive of the links between the two.’
‘That is impressive Elise, but I’m not sure such links can be established without further investigation and supporting evidence.’ Marta lectured.
‘Well, my own experiences are evidence enough for me and have taught me this much – where the head meets the heart, that is where you’ll find the root of both magic and misery. Hey, we could go into partnership!’
‘I’m not ready for a partner; I am really just getting started.’
‘Oh rubbish. Everybody has to have somebody who believes in them.’
‘Leopold believes in me. He sees something that I am not even sure I see for myself. I am positive that he will teach me some valuable lessons about myself and maybe I can teach him and others like him, something new in return.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Elise tried not to sound put out. ‘Well if I can offer any kind of counsel in future then I’d be glad to participate. Us girls should stick together you know.’
‘Thank you Elise, I might take you up on that someday.’
Marta checked the clock hanging on the wall above the servery, an hour had passed easily in Elise’s company. Her father would soon be finished with his client and would come looking for her in her room.
A waiter hovered at the next table, no doubt he was anxious to move them along and make room for the lunch customers. She nodded her approval at him and in a beat he was at the table and clearing the remnants of their coffee break.
Pulling the tiny portion of paper from her finger purse she turned to Elise.
‘Can I ask you something now?’
‘It would seem fair.’
Marta used her fingertips to flatten the crinkled stub out on the table. An hour ago she would have been embarrassed at her bitten nails and protuberant knuckles but in the company of Elise she felt that was quite adequate.
‘If you received an anonymous package in the post, what would you do?’
‘I would hope it was stuffed with Krone, and I would spend it as quick as I could.’ She joked.
‘I’m serious. I came to the Café Louvre today because of this small piece of paper. It is one of a few items I have received anonymously in the post over the past few weeks. If there had been one single delivery I could have dismissed it as a mistake, but then a second package arrived and I just felt compelled to follow it up.’
‘Always do what you feel compelled to do Marta. Compulsion is instinct whispering in your ear.’ Elise picked up the piece of paper. ‘What is it?’ She held it up to the light to get a better look.
‘It’s part of a stub, probably from a waiter’s order book or a receipt book. It features this café’s logo and some writing, but that is so worn that I can only make out some of the letters. I thought it would help to come here, but now I’m here it doesn’t make any more sense. I am not sure what to do next.’
‘What do Arnold and Leopold make of all this, no doubt they have an opinion?’
‘I haven’t told them and I don’t intend to. If I did they’d just dismiss it anyway. I want to work this one out for myself.’
‘But you told me.’ Elise didn’t understand why this guarded woman would choose a seemingly random stranger, as a confidante.
‘Yes, I did. It’s nice to seek a second opinion from someone who is disconnected from my life. As fate would have it, that person turned out to be you! Would you like to join me in straightening out my little mystery?’
‘Sure, why not. If we don’t find anything, well at least we could have some fun together. Who knows, we might even grow to be friends Marta Rosenblit! Though I am not sure I can agree to meeting your father again, we may have to separate our friendship from the rest of your life.’ she laughed.
‘It wouldn’t hurt to get a little separation, Vienna can be so incestuous. Let’s make a pact that we will only exchange the most crucial of personal information in the pursuit of the solution to the clues. When we are not figuring things out, we can work to support each other’s ambition.’
‘We could be friends too you know?’
‘Er, yes, well, I mean, yes of course if you’d like?’ Marta was taken aback.
‘Then you’ve got yourself a deal!’
Marta and Elise shook on it.
‘Now it really is time for me to get back to my father. I will have to run if I leave it much longer, and I don’t want to arrive home panting and unkempt or I might be forced to explain myself.’
‘Well it was nice to meet you Marta. Here, take my details and get in touch again as soon as you are ready. I’ve waited a long time to have cause for mischief.’ Elise pulled a pen and a notebook from her bag and jotted down her address and a contact telephone number.
‘Hooray for mischief Elise, and thank you for everything.’ she concluded, laying down payment for her portion of the bill as she spoke.
Elise tore the paper from the notebook and handed it to Marta. ‘The phone number is for the bakery beneath my apartment. You can leave a message with them; they know how to reach me.’
Marta grabbed her coat and purse and peeked out from the cover of the booth, scanning the café again for familiar faces. Mr Beste was no longer sitting at his table, but his hat still had pride of place on the marble top so no doubt he would return any moment.
Confident she could extract herself unnoticed she twisted her hips until she was free from her seat and made her way to the door.
Elise watched Marta leave the cafe. Intrigued by the exchange, she was already looking forward to their next meeting.
Copyright, Vanessa Matthews. Do not share or reproduce without prior written consent.
Extract from The Doctor’s Daughter, available now on Amazon, Waterstones.com and in selected Waterstones stores as well as in libraries across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. You can also buy a copy from Barnes & Noble.