The next morning began with birdsong.
Waltraud had long since left the house when Claire made it out of bed. Her favourite activity had to be postponed because of her sister.
"Hurry up. We're supposed to help in the restaurant later," Claire said through the door.
"That's right," came from the other side.
Claire sat on the last step.
She examined the landscape painting in the hallway. It had been hanging there for ages. It showed a beautiful lake with a picturesque town and floating boats. She had rarely looked at it so intensely and wondered what city it was supposed to represent.
It fitted wonderfully into the house. The dark wood panelling kept the light out. Sometimes it was eerie when the sun shone in and shrouded the hallway in a mysterious brown.
Her sister was standing next to her. Claire had not noticed.
"We chatted a lot yesterday."
"Yes," Claire said quietly.
"I'm afraid I forgot to tell you... well, Father can't come."
Claire flinched briefly. A blow to the face nearly sent her tumbling down the stairs. The shock was evident. Her pupils grew and avoided her sister.
Her voice was failing. Her mouth was parched. Giselle could clearly see it. The disappointment was gigantic. Quickly she put on her apathetic expression, but she did not succeed.
"He sent me a telegram. Father's orders are inconvenient, but he wants to do the work because they have to be done before the end of the month. He said they are-"
Giselle broke off her sentence.
Was she really about to say more important? More important than his youngest daughter's birthday? It was another slap in Claire´s face. Nausea grew in the pit of her stomach. That wasn't why Giselle had broken off. Claire had brushed against her. She had closed the bathroom door behind her. The water was coming out of the tap.
Claire refused to believe it.
Her thoughts were buzzing around this explanation, at the same time she wanted to remember what she had been dreaming about.
There was a town. It was in a large valley. There were fields everywhere. There was this narrow path leading to a lonely house, a villa. There was a man. He was kind... what did he look like...? I can't remember.
Father is not coming.
Didn't he have black hair?
Father is not coming.
Glasses. Glasses with round lenses, I'm sure of it.
Father is not coming.
He's not coming...
She did not feel lonely. She did not feel empty. In fact, she wasn't even upset. Things like this happened to her all the time. What she was most looking forward to was bound to go wrong. Had Claire even hoped that her Father would really come to visit?
It was not the first time that her Father had disappointed her. Time and again he had to cancel at short notice because work took too much out of him. She was used to being the second choice but couldn't keep this emotion under control. But she was not allowed to fall into a mope. Giselle and Waltraud were there. She couldn't abandon them because of one man. Not because of her Father.
You would only have talked to Father about your future.
The shower had purified her. Father had announced the cancellation ages ago. Claire didn't feel it. She didn't think of herself as a daughter. She didn't like him because he was never interested in her. It was always about her. They talked about her, about her school, about her future, never with her, just about her.
Claire dried herself and shone in the glow of the sun. The open window let in the cold spring air. Soon summer would begin. Already, most of the gardens were in bloom. Claire liked that.
Before leaving the bathroom, the girl looked at herself in the mirror and smiled aversely. Her dark eyes haunted her. A tear fell down her cheek.
"It's going to be all right. After all, nothing bad happened."
The venue was the restaurant. It was open for lunch today and completely closed tomorrow. Waltraud had come up with many ideas for the festivities. To make the room more colourful, she got novel decorative items. She was a little drunk yesterday when she bragged about the colourful feathers. Some hung from the lines with clothes pegs, others she wore in her long mahogany-brown, frizzy hair.
Waltraud knew about the bad news after Giselle told her about Father. Benedikt was not mentioned at all. Claire creepily fell into a state of apathy. She had become superfluous.
Towards evening, her mood changed abruptly. Emma came to her in the restaurant.
Behind her was Léonard.
By now the tea service would have been a pile of broken pieces if Claire had held them in her hands. She was stunned. It was an embarrassing moment. Claire saw the person she had imagined before her. Léonard was different from the one in her head. Before the situation seemed too petrified, he left Emma's side and drew his hand.
"Good evening, my name is Léonard. You must be Claire, right? Emma has told me a lot about you," he croaked, adding a smile.
Shyly, she shook his hand. She ignored his eyes.
"Pleased to meet you."
"He turned up yesterday," whispered Emma, quite beside herself, "He was at my door. Can you imagine?"
"No... not really."
Claire was not suspicious, but naïve.
Is that really Léonard standing in front of me, smiling at me? No, ... or is it? He's quite different... Not like that... Could there be two Léonards?
"I'm afraid we're a bit later than expected as he had to send a telegram," she confessed, "Where can we help?"
"I think there are some things in the kitchen that need to be brought in. Wait, I'll help you."
Although Claire would have preferred to be alone with him now, she had no spare minutes. Giselle had caught sight of the handsome young man and introduced herself elegantly. Aunt Waltraud was visibly delighted with Emma's "cousin".
Lost in thought, Claire disappeared from the restaurant through the kitchen for a while and tried to pull herself together. Léonard was there. It confirmed the story around her friend. It gave her proof. The unbelievable became believable. And yet... who was he?
Nothing particularly exciting had happened during the decorations. Léonard had introduced himself; everyone was charmed. He spoke when asked and helped beautify the restaurant. Emma did not leave his side. On the way home, Claire inquired where he was staying, to which she said he had a room at the inn at School Alley.
Claire recovered from an unknown excitement.
She had not been dreaming. Léonard really existed. Besides, he seemed like a nice person. It was only with the water in the shower that she was struck by the thought of where he came from. What nationality did he belong to?
In the kitchen, the radio was speaking when she came out of the bathroom. Giselle nibbled on a slice of cheese while the cheering patriots talked about a glorious victory of a long battle. The enemy had lost again. The campaign to the capital of Weißberg continued.
"Good morning," she said kindly, turning it down.
"Morning," Claire greeted her sister.
"We'll be heading downstairs as soon as your hair dries."
"I'm not fourteen anymore," she grumbled, "Besides, I've been drying them for a long time."
"I'm just teasing you," Giselle giggled.
"Is there another slice of cheese?"
"It was the last one. I'm sorry."
She was not disappointed about that. Something better awaited her in the restaurant. A cake with everything she liked. Ashamed of gifts to come, she didn't want to think about them.
Restaurant Krug & Glas was open for the closed society.
The beautiful, glass double door shone as it stepped out of the shadows for a few seconds. Especially the calming navy blue and the mixture of golden yellow and olive green were a pretty picture when you looked closer at the doorway. The midday sun gave the entrance a colourful splendour that made the flowerpots all around envious.
The decorations remained as they were left yesterday. The tables were set to be ready for the guests tomorrow. One table, larger and more rectangular than the rest, stood in the middle of the wide room, more richly filled than the rest. The table was set for five. Léonard replaced father Silberlilie.
"Anyone here yet?" called Giselle immediately.
Just then, Auntie waded out of the kitchen with a gigantic smile on her lips. She suppressed a yawn.
Their teeth resemble X-rays, Claire thought. She had only recently read something about it and still couldn´t believe that you could look inside a person without cutting them open.
"Claire, you fine girl! Congratulations on your eighteen years!"
She couldn't help but hug her surprised niece and kiss her on each cheek. She accepted it silently and then thanked her with a fake laugh. Embarrassed to be the centre of attention, Claire had to feel good. Nothing obnoxious could happen in the midst of the people she knew.
"How time flies, my child!" said Waltraud as she poured her a glass of red wine and urged her to take a big gulp.
"I'll wait a bit. Emma and Léonard will be here soon," she said, fending off the glass.
Claire looked for her place. Giselle followed her.
"All right," her aunt spoke and drank hers empty, "Let's wait a bit."
Meanwhile, Claire was talking to her sister when Waltraud disappeared into the kitchen. It was shortly before midday when the last guests Emma and Léonard, appeared. Thus, the group was complete.
Emma, like Waltraud, hugged the birthday girl with all her heart.
"All the best!"
Léonard also shook her hand and held a slim, thin package hidden. Claire tried not to see it; she already had an inkling that it must be a gift.
Waltraud tried to persuade the cook to join the party but forgot to officially open the party and give Claire her presents.
A savings account from her aunt worth three thousand Kronen, almost made Waltraud burst into tears when her niece had the paper in front of her.
Claire had never even had an idea about it and meekly thanked her. She thought it would be good seed capital for the future. There was a non-fiction book from Giselle that she had wanted for a long time. Emma gave her a little booklet with sheet music in it so she could play new pieces. Then Léonard gave her a record of Hermeline Arminia, a well-known Sagauvelish violinist. Claire, who did not have a record player, stared at him as if he had just supported organised crime.
There was a four-course menu that went down well with everyone. Everyone tried a little of everything. It became more problematic when the cake was carried out of the kitchen. It almost landed on the floor when Waltraud wasn't paying attention. She had banged her left foot against the counter.
There was singing and talking, Claire thanked them several times and finally wanted to go home, as piece after piece of cake mixed with coffee and wine filled the stomach and crumbs and stains multiplied on the tablecloth.
Late in the afternoon, the party had to be over, (Claire was already saying goodbye,) the doors of the restaurant opened. Dozens of people poured in. Friends of the aunt who had invited them approached Claire. Some recognised the shy girl, others surrounded her. Her music teacher and the headmaster of the school were there, Bormann, and the photographer of the town, so many that it could almost have been half of Regenschloss. During the handshakes and congratulations, she lost herself and fled from the crowd before Mayor Axmann could kiss her hand and arm.
Too many strangers made her uncomfortable. She had known nothing about it. Waltraud, a dozen times more extroverted than her niece, must have secretly planned it. For Claire, it was a nightmare. All of Regenschloss was present in her opinion. Somewhere she even saw Emma's mother. The street was deserted. The noise was inside. After catching her breath, she sought out the riverbank. In front of her was the station.
She condemned her aunt. Then she condemned herself. Should she have given in? Talk to strangers? What could she have said to them?
When she thought she had the world of fantasy with her, she was disturbed in her solitude.
Léonard leaned on the rusty railing and smoked.
"It got too much for you?" he asked calmly.
"Humans are strange creatures. When there are too many of them, we can't help but retreat."
"They're strangers," Claire explained quietly, "It was because I didn't know they were coming."
"Must have been a surprise," he muttered, tossing the stub into the river, "Would you have been happy if your aunt had told you that from the start?"
"Would you have fought back?"
"What Auntie decides is law."
"Submitting to the laws of others is the cornerstone of a functioning society. So is being together and communicating. We humans need contact.”
Claire wanted to leave. So, he was also one of those who talked about rules they didn't have to follow.
"I guess my gift didn't make you as ecstatic as the others."
"No. Not at all..." she interjected and stopped, "It's just... I don't have a record player at home. But if I had one, I'd be happy. I like violin a lot, I play myself."
Léonard nodded. He took a new cigarette out of the old pack.
"Do I get one?" she asked tensely.
He gave her the box.
"I smoke to weigh myself a little in peace. Otherwise, there's hardly anything left in the world to relax me," he philosophised, "And when you start, it's right away like an urge. You wait for the next one..."
He threw her a pack of matches.
It would have been quiet if Claire hadn't coughed all the time when she took a drag on her cigarette. Léonard whispered something to the empty station.
"Emma has told me a lot about you," she said in a shaky voice.
"The secret never stops with one person. It always goes on."
"Shouldn't she have...?"
"I didn't tell her any more than I wanted to."
"You're different from what I imagined," Claire admitted after a few seconds, "A little... never mind..."
Why am I telling him about this?
"What did you imagine me as? As a possessive person with no thought for my fellow man?"
"You're different too. Different from Emma," he said, blowing smoke far out into the air, "You're not as childish as she is, it seems to me. You're more mature. Emma isn't like that. She sees me as a friend she lost and has now found again."
He took a new cigarette. He offered her one, which was gratefully declined. Claire felt a little woozy.
"Emma is too young to understand what I came here for. What I was in Sehlingen for, too," he continued, "you will surely understand my situation better."
"Has it something to do with the nameless people? Who are they?" she asked hastily.
"I named them that way myself. Once these people set their eyes on someone, there's nowhere in the world to hide. They are like shadows that cling to us."
"Have you seen any of them yet? Is there one after you?"
Léonard was surprised by her. Thinking that she was not as clueless as Emma, Claire paid much attention to his explanations. Had he been mistaken about her?
"I've seen these people before. Really after me... what you want to call it," he replied thoughtfully, "But enough of that. It's your birthday. We can't be musing on gloomy thoughts when we have a reason to celebrate."
She smiled sheepishly.
"Are you feeling a little better now?"
"Good," Léonard said.
"Let's go back."
"I have one more question, if I may."
Claire's heart was racing. What did he want to know?
"Do you know Petrichor?"