Ingrid slipped into the back garden for a cabbage. It was alarmingly cold, her hip a living pain, the wind sharp and the snow falling in feathery flakes about her head. For days the stubborn sky had been holding its breath, reluctant to release more than a sprinkling of fine snow. Ingrid slid the blade low down through the stem. That’s you done for, little cabbage. She put the head, whole, in her apron pocket. With great determination, Ingrid resisted the idea of resting her weight in the warm soil, and heading off on a raft of cabbage leaves far into the bowels of the earth.
‘You remember that Klaus is coming over today,’ said Gerhard into his steaming boiled egg, ‘to help me clear that branch of green wood that fell onto the pavement, the one that didn’t break clean off. We’ll only be fined for obstruction if it isn’t removed before nightfall.’ He was peeling a second egg, hoping the shell wouldn’t stick, and didn’t notice Ingrid looking at him in amazement.
‘Klaus. He lives at the end of the street.’
‘I’ve never heard of him.’
Ingrid hoped it would be this Klaus who held the clippers, or goodness knows what they would make of the hedge. Two men fussing and dawdling instead of getting on with it. Extensive talk about hedge management, menacing weather, ridiculing feeble tools, that would be the size of it. But one thing was certain, she would not be loitering about the house in exasperation while those two squandered the morning. Ingrid tied her bootlaces, buttoned up her coat, and crossed the doorstep. She longed for the cold air. It must be today, she promised herself.
As she came out into the street she noticed that the expensive-camera brigade was still buzzing around. The world in a week, Stuttgart in two snaps – the Palace Square and the State Opera House – before rushing off to Frankfurt never to be seen again. Only the occasional pelican of the wilderness stayed to breathe the soul of the city: the purple hill, the remnants of snow crowning the forests, S-Class, Daimler, dishcloths, facecloths, floor cloths, elbow grease, chimney-sweeps, coffee strong-as-soot, beer and Bratwurst, burgesses, braziers, house insurance, pet insurance, bicycle insurance, recycling, recycling, recycling, Tomic, Hegel, Klinsmann, Swabian Swabians, Turkish Swabians, hot sweet chestnuts, sugary vanilla, vineyards, old jobs, new jobs, old-city values, every luxury under the sun, and no one stopping to stare.
Ingrid set off on her journey through this wonderful city, or the best parts of it. From her home in Heslach down in the valley, she would savour each moment until she reached journey’s end, a resting place, at long last.
A sharp gust of wind sent a cold thrill of fear through her blood. Today’s the day. There had been many days, many fears. The cold days of her childhood with her parents, brothers, sisters, grandmamas, grandpapas, friends and neighbours. So many people, so many children. She no more than a little something in her school uniform. A brave little something, her collar tickling her chin and the tip of her tie secure in her skirt’s waistband.
‘That’s the last we’ll see of our Ingrid,’ said her mum. ‘Crossing the school yard is the end of innocence.’ And she was correct. Ingrid had extraordinary pleasure at school, and ordinary Catholicism at home.
During the school holidays, it was Ingrid’s responsibility to scour the bath and the lavatory before lunch, and in the afternoon to weed the cabbage patch, cut cabbages, weed the radish patch, cut radishes, weed and cut, weed and cut, until the sun brought out a hot rash of Vim spots on her hands. At school she loved the story of Nicolas Villeroy in Wallerfangen meeting Jean Francois Boch in Mettlach and establishing The House of Villeroy & Boch. When she became a grown-up she would insist on having a V&B toilet to scrub, and she would pay a gardener good money so that she would never again have to endure the sun burning cheap chemicals into her white hands.
She always knew she would be married one day. One of her chief delights as a young girl was practising her married name. Which had the best ring to it – Ingrid Schneider, Ingrid von Adelshausen, Ingrid Luther? Tailor, aristocrat, or theologian? No matter which, but it was vital that her name rang out. She tossed a shawl over her head and smiled at herself in the mirror. Yes, she would definitely be married.
She seemed sweet enough, a congenial, familiar old lady walking the street down to the shops and back. How easy it is to deceive. In her hat and shabby coat, and with the devil himself in her step, Ingrid laboured on.
She had long since given up on her dreams, of buying silk clothes hangers, of living in foreign lands, of never ever giving up. One is always happiest at home in a butcher’s apron, and an all-weather greatcoat for coming and going. She is wearing a hat because of the cold. It eats at her head if she’s not wearing a hat. Old people should keep their heads warm. Everyone knows that. She was lucky to get that nice hat for her birthday. She took pride in it, yes so that she could show off, but also to revel in the cosy feeling it gave her inside, that she had been given the gift of a hat in her old age. She had had very little as a child. A grand hat, sewn by hand, a Tyrolean hunting hat made from green felted wool, with a velour band in orange and black, and silver jewels, soft ribbon and white feathers.
She tidied her hair under its rim, and chuckled.
The party over, Papa now officially fifty, the family lounging on the sofa, and I am once again left holding the baby. Why is it my turn to dry? The table sways under the weight of a party’s worth of dirty plates and bowls, Sekt flutes and espresso glasses fighting for space with dessert bowls and soup tureens. Enough to make a grown woman weep. Where is that Illinois widow, now that I need her? The brain behind the dishwasher? Oh for the creativity of Josephine Cochrane to take the place of this damp spaniel looking up at me from the folds of the tea towel. Oh Josephine indeed.
Mama, I have plans. How can you be so insistent? She was up on her feet with her apron tied determinedly around her waist before I had finished the Emmentaler. ‘I’ll scrub the kitchen while you clear the dishes.’ How long would that take?
The spaniel droops his head. I’m up to my elbows in soapsuds, brushing the colander with a toothbrush to remove the pasta particles lodged in the mesh. What a life. Poor Bruno has already licked the saucepans dry, and the cutlery. Off to your kennel, little spaniel, into the washing machine. It is time for the muslin cloth.
Ingrid lined the sink with a towel and filled it with barely-soapy water, washing out the wine glasses one at a time and rinsing them out three times with a white vinegar solution. Kettle on the boil, glasses over the steam, she polished them with a soft muslin cloth. Cradling each glass in the palm of her hand, she dreamt of the future, her future. An hour passed, it was mid-afternoon and the Breuninger was calling her name. What harm would a quick Sekt do?
The weather was foul. Ingrid turned up her collar against the wind. She left the main street to take shelter, but with no promise of a let-up she soon continued along the path, its pools of grey water snapping at her ankles in the fierce rain. No café, no bookshop, nowhere to take cover, only her Mama’s voice harping on about jarring Sauerkraut, the virtues of red meat and wild boar steaks, ‘and don’t even think of losing weight’, she would only ‘get herself into trouble’ later on.
‘Mama, it’s time to ditch the old routines, and to go one’s own way. The days when unmarried Aryan women volunteer to have babies with members of the SS are over.’
How much longer could she stand the strain of living at home, heaven alone could tell.
Translation by Rhiannon Ifans.
Ingrid is a cultured, elegant, vivacious woman, the centre of attention wherever she goes: to the opera house or art gallery or to drink champagne in the best cafe in the town. She is smiling, witty, has made a good, happy marriage, but her mind and memory are beginning to break down. Could there be a link with a deeply buried trauma concealed beneath the confident façade? Time and place now become unreliable: one minute she is in the present, the next, she is in the past, a girl at home with her parents, dreaming of her future. As her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her family must constantly adjust to her changing moods and needs.
In her exquisitely written, prize-winning first novel, Rhiannon Ifans has achieved the extraordinary feat of conveying the experience of living with dementia, at first through the eyes of Ingrid herself, with her strategies for covering up her faux pas, but as her condition deteriorates, increasingly through the thoughts and reactions of her husband, son and daughter-in-law, their individual histories and personalities emerging as they try to cope with the evolving situation. Set in Stuttgart, whose character and geography are integral to the narrative, Ingrid is compassionate, deeply moving and utterly unforgettable.
If there has ever been a work that deserves reading and re-reading, revisiting and discovering again and again until all the circles reveal themselves, this it it.
Meg Elis, Golwg
Ingrid has the ability to charm from the moment we first meet her.