„A Better Version of Life“ from autor Sibylle Berg – written in the Swiss Deluxe Hotel Castello del Sole, Ascona participating at the Swiss Deluxe Writer’s in Residence project.
It was a heavy light in autumn by the lake. Heavy to bear, almost strange, through the light haze, golden, although you couldn’t tell anyone. You see, you couldn’t tell anyone how golden the light was because nobody was there. Over the seemingly endless meadow slid figures in white, floating as if in a better 49 world, disappearing against the light. Children played with donkeys which lived on the land, and even they were quiet as if the sound didn’t match the beauty here. The woman took the other guests to be grown up, unlike herself who had always remained ageless, and so suspected that she belonged to them.
To these people who were chinking glasses of red wine. She no longer wore clothes that she had altered with nail scissors, she didn’t toast, there was no one there, and a teenager wouldn’t have been able to see any difference between her and the other guests of the Castello del Sole, the teenager would have turned away bored and wouldn’t have cared less if someone had told him that he too would become old almost overnight and probably wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in such a hotel. It would have been all the same to him. The hotel didn’t interest the pubescent, it offered nothing that would have appealed to their overexcited nerves, the hotel was golden. The woman was autumn, she had given in, abandoned herself to old age, she no longer measured herself against the generation that followed, she had made her peace. Almost.
Once a year she came to Ascona, not because the place appealed to her particularly but solely for the hotel, which seemed to her to be a better version of her life. It made her sad and happy in equal measure. Happy to know that perfect places still existed, even if they were disappearing, even if they were small and ended up behind fences. She was sad, because the feeling was so close to happiness and because her life had not been so even, so weightless and extraordinary as this place and because, although she didn’t feel old, she knew that her existence – of which she had not made anything special – would no longer be without end.
Later in the afternoon, the smell of leaves lying on the ground filled the room; the woman had never taken the time to look at the furniture, it was there, never interrupting, with no obtrusive design; the patio door slid open, like the ashtray in a Jaguar saloon car that still existed in the past when people still smoked and didn’t go jogging. The floor of the balcony was warm under her feet which didn’t seem to ache here. She sat and looked across the lawn, which seemed to be tended using nail scissors, to the lake far below which she knew was there and which she did not therefore need to visit. The smell of cottonwood down there was too strong, the little kiosk, the loungers and the swans were too beautiful for her. She saw herself, all too clearly, with no one to whom she could have said: that is kitsch, that is too much.
On the balcony, she felt the familiar mixture of pain and happiness. The sadness that this place was only borrowed, that she had to return to her home in a city which changed so quickly without asking her opinion, made it clear to her that everything would continue if she were no longer there. The alternative would be not to come, to stay in her apartment in the city afraid of being given notice on her flat, like almost all her neighbours whose houses had been demolished and replaced by hideous blocks for young, high earners. The woman had no idea what had happened to all the old neighbours, whether they were lying somewhere under a bridge or were kept underground.
The idea of not coming here created a strong pain in her chest, as if she would disappear from this world if she could no longer have her week here, her raison d’être because she hadn’t found anything else worth living for. Old age had crept up on the woman – that happens now – because there weren’t enough hours in every day; she had missed out on having a family, not bought a house, saved nothing, achieved nothing that she could have looked back on with pleasure. She had always believed that there was still time for the extraordinary things, the miracles. The woman had hoped and her retirement had deeply distressed her.
On her last day at work in a firm about which she couldn’t care less, she had packed up what remained of thirty years of work. A coffee cup and a couple of postcards from friends, who had not been friends for many a year now. Later, she sat down in her apartment, looked at the new blocks in front and was at a complete loss. So that was it, life which had always been presented to her as a great gift? At the end of the day, it was reduced to a coffee cup and a view of scaffolding.
She had decided to celebrate joining the great grey mass of pensioners, the unproductive, the useless with a holiday in the hope of discovering what was being sold as the joys of old-age. She had first come to this hotel five years ago and as she returned home – home where there was nothing waiting for her – she had cried, feeling bereft. On the terrace the tables were set, the sun went down and the woman left her room. She stood on the 50 damp lawn, she had done everything wrong. She had lived such an indecisive life thinking that it would be enough to have a safe job, an apartment where you could watch the television at the weekend. She had never taken a chance and couldn’t even feel bitter about it, just the weight of the world was pressing down on her there by the water where the sand was already cool, cottonwood leaves lay on the ground as if they had been arranged; the closed kiosk looked like a symbol for something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, a mist was lying over the water. The woman went back past the terrace, what she saved out of her pension was enough for a week’s accommodation not including food. Every day, she worried that her bread and cheese would be discovered and that she would be asked to leave.
At the tables sat couples of every sex, a couple of parents with grown-up children, they were well dressed and in a splendid mood, had impeccable teeth, good manners and toasted one another, no one was alone here. The woman climbed the steps to where there were no longer any rooms, to the attic. She didn’t want to go to her room, wanted to make time last a little longer and discovered the room in the same way as when a door believed to be closed suddenly opens. The little door in the wall was hidden behind old pictures and bedsteads, behind it a room, not overly dusty, with a bed, a wardrobe holding clothes from another era and a large window looking over the meadow down to the lake, and if it were light, you would see that, like everything else in the hotel, the room was perfect in every way. A room like a warm, friendly person inviting you to fall into its arms.
As the technical staff – calling them chambermaids probably did not reflect their qualification – entered the woman’s room the next morning, her luggage and the bed linen had disappeared. They reported the departure to the hotel manager, who simply shrugged his shoulders. He knew every guest and had had his doubts about the woman’s ability to pay. It’s a shame, he thought, if she had just asked, a solution could have been found. The incident was already forgotten a few minutes later; in the hotel people in white floated over the lawn, the lake smelled sweet, the sunlight was melancholic as it slowly slipped away from this part of the world. The woman sat on her new bed in her new home which, if it were left up to her, would be the last one she ever lived in. It hadn’t taken much during the night – a quick clean, a few flowers – to make the room look like something which had arrived in a capsule from another epoch.
The large window stretched down to the floor, the room was an extension of controlled nature, the sun was milky, the woman was happy. I’ll never go anywhere again, she murmured to give herself courage, do you hear, I’ll never go anywhere again, and it seemed as if the wardrobe nodded in agreement. At about two in the morning, she knew about REM phases, the woman went to the kitchen, stealing only a little so that it wouldn’t be noticed, taking a few flowers, books from the library, unnoticed by the receptionist, and for the first time in her conscious adult life, the woman was brave. The disobedience was worth it, not living up to expectations was rewarded.
Since that autumn, the woman has lived in the attic of the Castello del Sole. Guests rarely want to see a woman in old-fashioned clothes walking through the meadow at night, probably one of the ghosts that were said to live in this part of Switzerland, the spirits of well-groomed, happy women; and now and then the chef notices that some food has disappeared. The hotel manager probably has his suspicions about the woman in the attic, but he’s a kindly man and knows that it’s worth making others happy if it doesn’t mean distorting his own character.
The woman still lives in the hotel and in the winter, when all the guests have left, she checks that everything is alright, turns the heating up when it’s too cold, seals the windows and chases foxes away. She has never again wondered what the point of her life was because now, in the last ten or maybe twenty years, the great promise that had never been made to her has come true.
Castello del Sole,
Via Muraccio 142,
Tel. 091 791 02 02,
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