by Jeremy Tiang
Nicholas and Sophia plan their honeymoon by a process of elimination. Not America — Sophia went to college there. They covered most of Asia during their brief courtship. Africa and South America will be perused later, at leisure. Australia is, of course, not even in the running. This leaves Europe, which to Sophia means expensive chocolates and the novels of Thomas Mann.
Thanks to an adolescence of ski trips and inter-railing, Nicholas is already au fait with Europe — not, like many of his fellow Englishmen, cut off from the continent. He speaks French, he likes to boast, with a Parisian accent. Gallant, though, he proclaims that having his young wife with him will make each place brand new.
And so Sophia finds herself in Zurich, a town on a lake. She is astonished to discover such power and influence reposing in a place smaller by a factor of ten than Singapore! There is nothing to match the tall buildings of her own country — everything is faded, wanly charming, like old Christmas cards. She stops taking photographs after realising she is unable to distinguish one picturesque street from another.
This is the first chance she has had to breathe in quite a while. She thought too far ahead, saying yes to the proposal — to the babies, the commitment, the mortgage. The immediate consequence was, in fact, months of flurry as the wedding coalesced around her. Her mother swung into action, not once mentioning her annoyance at her daughter marrying outside their race. In gratitude, Sophia submitted to the cake-tastings and gown-fittings, starting a machine that would not turn off until it had deposited her, winded and flushed, at the altar — where Nicholas awaited her, startlingly attractive in his new Hugo Boss suit.
Nicholas is at home in Zurich, a city of bankers. Although he promised this trip would be business-free, people react subtly when he mentions where he works. They pass him cards. They invite him to country clubs or the ballet. Nicholas declines most of them — ‘Honeymoon,’ he whispers, and the men nod conspiratorially — but a handful he has accepted, rolling his eyes apologetically at her.
She should not complain, she knows. This is the world she has married into, and part of her looks at the box seats and casually expensive lunches, and feels that Europe has spread itself before her feet as if she were a Henry James heroine. And of course it is important that Nicholas make contacts — though he himself would prefer these acquaintanceships to be seamless, to happen without obvious exertion on his part.
She knows they make a handsome couple, and this is part of what draws people to them. They radiate success (or he does, and she is part of this success). Nicholas is tall for an Englishman, just under six foot, and blond without being effete. Sophia does forty-five minutes of Pilates every morning, and never eats carbs after six. She knows what shades to wear to set off her honey-coloured skin and straight black hair. They are the sort of couple one looks at and automatically begins imagining their beautiful children.
Sophia has tried asking Nicholas if they could have more of a normal holiday — infusing her voice with warmth and flirtation, luring him into complicity. Lazy mornings, she urges. Shopping. He merely raises an eyebrow at her, as if to indicate he will not understand. It is borne home that he is no longer wooing her, and her function has accordingly changed.
On their last day in Zurich, Sophia finds herself resenting their quaint hotel room, its carpeting the colour of mould. She chews grimly on a Sprüngli macaron, aware she is being petulant. Ignoring her, Nicholas is getting ready to go out. In a minute, he will snap at her to get dressed, but now he is moving efficiently about the limited space, enacting a ritual. Now, cufflinks. Now, the tie.
They are going to the opera this evening, the guests of Hanspeter — the son of someone Nicholas’ father knows. He swooped on them and announced that of course they must not miss the event of the season. Everyone has seen it, this opera, that is what one does in the summer in Zurich. He will arrange tickets, his bank always holds a few for every performance.
Nicholas insists on walking to the restaurant. Sophia does not mind, the cobblestone streets and occasional fountains match her idea of Europe so exactly it gives her pleasure just to be amongst them. An elderly lady drops her scarf without noticing. Not running, merely lengthening his stride, Nicholas restores it to her. The woman exclaims theatrically as her husband nods thanks. They look like a tableau from a play.
At the restaurant, Hanspeter orders everyone Zürcher Geschnetzeites, which turns out to be a thick stew made of veal. It would be a sin to leave Zurich without having tasted this. Hanspeter keeps slipping into his native tongue. Even without understanding what is said, Sophia knows that Nicholas’s precise schoolboy Hochdeutsch is more pleasing to the ear than Hanspeter’s guttural Swiss German.
Hanspeter’s thin wife Mitzi kindly asks Sophia questions about herself. What do you do? Are you in banking also? She dabs her exquisite mouth with a napkin after speaking, and leans forward, all polite attention. Sophia has practised her answer: I used to be at Deloitte, and now I’m a consultant. She has to stop herself saying ‘just’ — ‘just a consultant.’
Sophia — this is Hanspeter, trying to make the conversation general once more — Why do you not tell us about your Singapore? Again, Sophia has rehearsed the answer to this, and is able to speak glibly about the heat, the shopping centres, their adorable new flat in Tanjong Pagar with teak furniture imported from Myanmar. She is careful to emphasise how much of a financial hub it is, mindful that Nicholas suspects people of thinking he has relegated himself to a backwater.
Hanspeter glances at his watch, which seems to be the cue for Mitzi to shepherd Sophia to the powder room. They fix their make-up together, and she is obliged to admire Mitzi’s handbag snapshots of their seven-month-old. It is practically my first night out since he has arrived, giggles Mitzi. I have been forgetting what this feels like. When they return to the table, the men are ready to leave. It is part of Sophia’s new life that for her, restaurant bills no longer exist.
Hanspeter drives them out to the opera, which is taking place on the lake. They must look gilded, the four of them strolling by the lakeshore in evening dress, but Sophia is primarily worried about whether her heels will slip on the rough flagstone path. Listening to Mitzi chat skilfully about this and that, she is able to relax and talk about their visit to the Gestalt Museum that afternoon.
They are ten rows back from the front, in a little enclosure reserved for corporate guests. Blank-faced attendants in black bring them glasses of champagne. For a while they sit in silence, sipping and taking in the set, which is constructed on a platform arcing out over the lake, gigantic, with just a hint of sunset around the edges causing the water to glimmer.
Sophia belatedly realises she has no idea what the opera is about. She scans her programme — entirely in German. She should have looked up the plot on the internet. Nicholas would be mortified if she said anything now. The point is the music, not the story, she tells herself.
The first scene is set in a castle, its towers swooping up unnaturally high. There is some kind of party going on, and Sophia allows herself to be diverted by the sheer spectacle of so many people moving in unison, singing over and under each other to make a wall of sound. It is a carnival, a riot — they hoot and lean flirtatiously into one another, hats and masks colliding.
Next to her, Nicholas seems rapt, unmoving. Mitzi you can tell is only half-listening (earlier, she confessed to Sophia, with the air of someone unburdening herself, that she does not really care for Verdi). Hanspeter nods his head almost in time with the music. Sophia only vaguely envies Nicholas his childhood of Covent Garden operas and visits to European capitals, but there are times like this when she feels it as an acute lack in her own life.
On stage, a hunchback is capering grotesquely, his ill-fitting clothes at odds with the sleek elegance of court. He is one of those men who would look out of place in any setting. The other characters mock him uneasily, as if they are secretly afraid. Now they cluster about him, now they wheel away and dance a figure. They exchange words in little bursts of notes, and now and then the audience will laugh to show they got a joke. Nicholas nods appreciatively, as he does at a good volley at Wimbledon.
By the first interval, the lake can barely be seen. The stage now feels sinister, crevices appearing that did not seem to be there before. Sophia is profoundly disturbed by the final scene, in which a woman is abducted by a group of masked men. For some reason the hunchback is also present, but with a scarlet cloth bound round his eyes. The coloratura screams of the kidnapped girl slash through the music, beautiful yet horrible at the same time. The hunchback rips off his blindfold and howls.
Then they are on their feet, applauding, and the stage dims as the singers drift away. Someone brings them erdbeerbowle, a concoction of red wine and berries. They half-eat, half-drink it, and soon their lips are tinged with red.
Mitzi flips through her programme, far too well-bred to initiate another conversation with Sophia — it would seem too much like forcing herself upon her. Sophia can feel her strength ebbing, the sullenness return. Glancing at Nicholas’ watch, she sees they have only been there an hour.
The seating stands ramp up behind them; there must be close to a thousand people here. They are tall, most of them, and gleam with good health. By her side Mitzi is now, for some reason, singing snatches from the score. She has a light, pleasant voice, and mimics the gestures of the heroine well enough. The men are laughing and applauding her, as if this is a normal thing to do.
It occurs to Sophia she can simply leave. The singers are filing back onto the stage. She moves against the tide of people returning to their seats. Nicholas mutters something about being foolish, waiting till the end of the interval to go to the toilet. She decides to be asleep by the time he gets back to the hotel room, and claim the next day to have developed a headache.
It is further back to the city than she remembers, but she knows she will not get lost if she follows the shore of the lake. Zurich feels more alive at night. People meander with the glassy cheer of those on their way from one drinking place to another, and she smiles at strangers in a way that is not possible by day. Men loosen their ties. The city feels slack around the edges. It must be close to Walpurgisnacht, and Sophia would not be surprised to see dancing in the streets.
She contemplates going into a bar, but the thought of standing in the gloom, nursing a solitary drink, is as bleak as heading back to the hotel now. She feels like she did in her first month of college, before she learnt how to make friends, hiding in her dorm pretending to study. Now, she is confident enough of her looks to know she needn’t do anything, someone will eventually offer to buy her a drink. She has also learnt that such men are not the ones she wants to feel obligated to.
There is a McDonald’s on the next corner. She is quite hungry all of a sudden, and does not have much money – the smallest meal here will set her back ten dollars, almost all she has. Amusingly, there is a burger designed specifically for Switzerland – the McEmmenthaler. She orders it and tells the boy, carefully, Vielen Dank, relieved when he nods and thanks her in return.
The taste of french fries, she notes, is universal, as are the teenagers lounging on the plastic seats upstairs. She must look ridiculous in her satiny evening dress and elaborate hairdo. Despite the advertising leaning heavily on the use of authentic Swiss cheese, Sophia’s meal does not taste significantly different from a regular cheeseburger. She eats a third of her fries before stopping herself.
Back outside, the air has turned crisply cold. Sophia’s pashmina is hanging off the back of her seat at the opera. She turns a corner expecting a fountain that is not there, and realises she is lost. She tries to retrace her steps to the McDonald’s but the sloping, angular streets defeat her.
Now the crowds are thicker, louder than before. The bars must be closing. She worries that it is getting too late, and for the first time that evening begins to feel the cold prickling that accompanies a sense of wrongdoing. These days, the tone of admonishment in her head comes directly from Nicholas. She begins to walk faster.
Everyone in Zurich speaks English, of course, but no one appears to have heard of their hotel. She might not be pronouncing the name correctly. It’s on a street near Starbucks, she cries, resisting the urge to physically grab someone. People shrug and smile apologetically, then move on before they get lumbered with a lost tourist. She cannot help noticing that Swiss men carry themselves as if perfectly proportioned, but are generally on the large side and would be considered fat in her own country.
It begins to feel as if she will never get back to the hotel, or Singapore, or anywhere that could be considered a place of safety. The laughter of strangers now sounds sinister, and she stumbles more than once on the picturesque cobblestones. At some level, she knows that girls like her are always rescued eventually, but there is no immediate way out of her situation. She walks past dark shop windows and unfriendly houses. There are no signs, nothing telling her where to go.
Many years later, Sophia will think of this night, and how close she was to tears. She will wonder how she could have allowed herself to arrive there, but also feel a twinge of loss for the girl still capable of losing control. Her feet sore and her chignon unravelling, Sophia cannot be expected to take a broader view; she is too busy fighting the rising panic to see that this might be the last moment she is fully herself.
She feels a sudden touch on her elbow, and looks up to see Nicholas. His suit is immaculate, his face well-bred, impassive. He isn’t angry, she thinks, I’d know if he were angry. She can find nothing to say to him. Her wrinkled dress smells of fried food. There is a ketchup stain down her front. Nicholas wraps an arm around her waist and leads her away. He mutters something about nostalgie de la boue, but without any particular emotion behind it. She leans into him as they walk down the narrow street. Everything will be all right, now that Nicholas has found her. This time tomorrow they will be in Vienna.
First published in The Istanbul Review, Issue 2 (Winter 2012), and reprinted with the author’s permission.
Photo by Oliver Rockwell
Jeremy’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Esquire, POSKOD.sg, Meanjin, Ambit, Litro, QLRS and Best New Singaporean Short Stories. He won the Golden Point Award 2009 and has also been shortlisted for the Bridport and Iowa Review Prizes. He has translated five books from the Chinese, including novels by Zhang Yueran, Yeng Pway Ngon and Su Wei-chen, and was awarded a PEN/ Heim Translation Grant in 2013. Jeremy trained as an actor at Drama Centre London and now also writes plays, including The Last Days of Limehouse (Yellow Earth Theatre, London) and A Dream of Red Pavilions (currently in development with Pan Asian Repertory Theater, NYC).