Hello all and welcome to our continuing series of author interviews. Today we get to laugh to death. No kidding. Today’s guest is Tatjana Kruse whose genre is a real specialty; crime comedies. Currently Tatjana’s work is known everywhere but the US and folks, we are missing out. With titles like Grabt Opa aus! (Dig up Grandpa!), Der Gaertner war’s nicht (The Gardener Didn’t Do it), Jeder Mann ein Treffer (Every Man a Hit) and Wie klaut man eine Insel? (How to Steal an Island?), come on, folks. These books are worth a read.
Everyone please stand up and give Tatjana Kruse a big round of applause for taking part in our exciting adventure.
I’m a former rocket scientist, supermodel, attack dog walker, Nobel peace prize winner, exotic dancer turned writer (one is actually true). I was born at an early age and led a sheltered childhood in the small German town of Schwäbisch Hall. A crime fiction fan from a young age, I started right on Agatha Christie – no Enid Blyton or Dr Seuss for me. My addictions include laughter, reading, Gin & Tonic, long walks to the fridge and a love/hate relationship with Hollywood blockbusters. The mere facts: full time writer, specializing in crime comedy, living in the south of Germany, but most often travelling through Europe, doing research and/or readings/signings.
Tatjana and I talked about her negotiations with George Clooney, the value of research, whether first readers or worth it, why she can’t have a dog, why being alone in a big office building on a Saturday afternoon can be scary, book signings, writers’ conferences, breaking into new markets, getting paid to speak, a life on the go, the joy of coffee, how staying in a new town can lead to murder and more.
You can find links to Tatjana’s books on the right or at the bottom of this post (depending on your device). You’ll also find links to Tatjana’s sites underneath the video. And please comment both pro and pro. Okay, con, too, if something really peeves you.
An excerpt from Tatjana’s Bei Zugabe Mord! (Deadly Encore: A Diva Investigates)
Is He Still Singing or is He Dead?
I am a zombie.
My heart is broken, as withered as a prune. I’m emotionally numb. At least, when it comes to men in general. And tenors in particular.
My grandma was right: never fall in love at work! Too late.
And now it’s over. Finished. History. Water under the bridge. He’s singing at the Met in New York and I’m in Salzburg.
Yes, I’m an opera singer. And not just any old warbly mezzo, gigging in concert halls and churches and giving recitals. No – I’m the new primadonna assoluta of the opera world, if you believe The Opera Magazine. Pauline Miller: from the sticks to the grandest stages on earth. Well, they didn’t put it quite like that, but that’s how I took it. Coming from the humblest of beginnings – born in Arlington, Virginia, she grew up in Nuremberg, like Sandra Bullock only later – she’s a sought-after diva who can pick and choose where she wants to sing. The Sydney Opera House, Glyndebourne, La Scala (Cosa c’è? You still haven’t paid me!) and now the sort-of high point, Salzburg.
When I was a child my Franconian grandma (on my mother’s side) took me on day trips to the city every now and then during the summer holidays, so that I could drink in the atmosphere. Later we would watch the performances on television. It was then that I decided to become a singer, and that eventually I would tread the boards at the Festspielhaus. Mission accomplished. I’m here. And I’d rather be in New York with …
No, think about something else! Immediately!
I’ve got to pull myself together, lock my heartache in a box and throw away the key. After all, I’m a professional. Plus my hoop skirt is pinching.
‘Dearest Madame Miller, is everything alright?’
Luigi Pescarelli, a round, excessively hairy globe of a man comes rolling towards me. He’s staging this year’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I was his chosen candidate for the role of Konstanze, for which I should strictly speaking be grateful, but if he calls me ‘Madame Miller’ one more time I’m going to knock his lights out right in the middle of the main stage. Which wouldn’t be very difficult, because thanks to my build I’ve got a right arm like a prizefighter, as certain malicious female colleagues unkindly put it, and Luigi – despite his spherical shape – weighs no more in his clothes than the wig I’m currently wearing.
‘All fine, my dear,’ I purr to Luigi, forcing a smile to my lips.
We’ve just finished the dress rehearsal, singing the whole thing through in full make-up.
Rehearsing with Luigi is a trial of patience. He swears by the index card-method. On each card is a stage direction – Konstanze kneels and gazes up at the heavens, Belmonte flings up his arms and gazes at the heavens, Pedrillo storms across the stage and gazes up at the heavens (he’s evidently got a thing about the heavens) – and from one rehearsal to the next virtually everything changes. One time a rumour went round that there was no theory behind the index cards, and that every morning before the rehearsal Luigi just shuffled all of them and ran with the result. Maybe tomorrow Pedrillo will be kneeling, Belmonte storming and me flinging up my arms. But if we’re ever in doubt, we all know to gaze up at the heavens. It’s never the wrong move.
It’s time for Luigi’s motivational speech. He’s a firm believer in getting the whole team on board. Everybody’s still standing on their marks for the final applause – even the whole Janissary chorus – except me: I’m out of the spotlight, leaning against one of the two ionic columns that are the only ones in the entire sea of pillars not made of cardboard.
No wonder I’m exhausted. Quite apart from the romantic troubles weighing me down, I’m wearing a costume that, while it leaves me free to breathe – otherwise it wouldn’t work – manages to pinch, pull and constrict absolutely everywhere that isn’t breathing-related. And on top of that I’ve got a towering Marge-Simpson-style rococo wig on my head – just in white instead of blue. I’d go so far as to claim that not even Olympic weightlifters could have hoisted this thing without difficulty. It must be the plentiful strings of beads in the hair – doubtless made of granite, judging by the weight. It’s all going on my list of things that have to change before the premiere.
You never know with modern productions. Die Entführung aus dem Serail – it might be historically accurate or it might be staged as an allegory of IS’s atrocities in the Middle East – so at first I had some misgivings.
The scenery and costumes, however, aren’t as austere as they were in Barcelona in 2010 or Zurich in 2012. Our designer, Gisbert, comes from the world of film, and definitely had the blockbuster Amadeus in mind – there can hardly have been such an extravagant production since Mozart’s day. A real dervish comes whirling across the stage, there are two camels, and the women in the chorus have all been given belly-dancing lessons.
I had seen the 2013 production in Berlin, of course, and put a no-nudity clause into my contract as a precaution. I needn’t have bothered.
I’m wearing an enormous, rigid crinoline – which is why I can’t sit down, despite my exhaustion – with a shepherdess dress on top, garlands of flowers and an actual, honest-to-god stuffed sheep sewn onto it. Baah. Now I almost wish I were wearing nothing more than a skimpy harem ensemble in gold and pink and red. Like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie, only in a size large.
Scratch that – extra large. I’m no waiflike coloratura soprano, more of a Valkyrie. When Mother Nature laid the gift of a gorgeous voice in my crib, she had probably intended me to sing Wagner, Wagner and more Wagner. But Mother Nature can bugger off. I turned down Bayreuth. Who, may I ask, says that Mozart wasn’t picturing Konstanze as a magnificent female with an ample bosom when he wrote Die Entführung? After all, Wolfie married his Konstanze shortly after the premiere, and she was no stick-insect. Ok, so she wasn’t quite as Rubenesque as me, but nonetheless hardly a size zero. Definitely a real woman. And not a clothes-hanger.
‘Gather round, my darlings,’ cries Luigi, flinging his arms open in an almost benedictory gesture in the direction of the main characters: the pasha, his harem overseer, the abducted Konstanze (i.e. me), her servant Blonde, and Belmonte and Pedrillo, who are heroically trying to free the girls. When nobody moves, he hurries – arms still held wide – into the middle of the stage.
He’s shouting in German, even though in our international industry people tend to speak English, or a sort of wild linguistic mishmash. But the crowd here in Salzburg consists either of native speakers (the conductor and pretty much the whole crew), bilingual people who grew up here (me and Mads) or singers who’ve worked on the German stage for years (Harry in Stuttgart, Branwen in Frankfurt, Jimmy at the Semperoper in Dresden). Germany, they say, is the promised land for most opera singers. For every long-term position, German opera houses can get up to five hundred applications from all over the world. Where else can you find this many established, subsidised institutions? Or, crucially, a repertory system in which singers are contracted for one or more seasons rather than for a single production, stagione-principle style?
Our director Luigi has spent the last few years putting on shows in Vienna, and speaks German with his mouth and Italian with his hands. In other words, he gesticulates a lot. A lot a lot.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail is the opera for beginners. It’s more of a musical, really. With action scenes. The whole plot plays out as spoken dialogue, and only when emotions really bubble over do the characters begin to sing. It’s easy to sit through, even if you’ve been dragged along to the performance against your will.
What’s it about?
In mid-sixteenth-century Turkey, the lovely Konstanze, her lady-in-waiting Blonde and a servant called Pedrillo are abducted by a lascivious pasha by the name of Bassa Selim. Konstanze’s lover, the Spanish aristocrat Belmonte, decides – gentleman that he is – to rescue her. While the thick-set harem overseer Osmin falls for the coquettish lady-in-waiting, Konstanze rebuffs all Bassa Selim’s lecherous advances, and to his credit he doesn’t force the issue. In affairs of the heart he’s a sort of fruitarian, only eating what drops willingly into his lap. In that sense he’s a biodynamic gourmet. In the end he gives Konstanze, Blonde and the two young men – captured during a rescue attempt – their freedom, and everybody’s happy. Everybody except the bodyguard, Osmin, who is facing a bleak future of watching over beautiful women without having one of his own. Wolfie should have depicted Osmin as more of a Kevin Costner type – then maybe things would have turned out differently, and Blonde would have fallen for him.
‘Fantastico, my dears, molto grandioso, that was absolutely top notch …’ gushes our director, with the demonstrative exuberance of his native land. ‘We’re going to write operatic history, I can feel it in my bones, indubbiamente!’
Then he rattles through exactly the same motivational speech – presumably accidentally, having got lost in his index card jungle – as after yesterday’s rehearsal.
One of us would almost certainly have cut short Luigi’s rousing speech so we could finally go back to our dressing rooms, except that today we had a film crew in from the local TV station, who were taping the rehearsal for a three-part documentary called Die Entführung: The Creation of a Festival Opera, and obviously no one wanted to come off looking like the bad guy. These days you can’t assume they’ll cut unflattering scenes at your request.
A hand is laid on my shoulder. It belongs to James O’Shay, the Belmonte, who’s crept up on me.
‘You look absolutely ravishing when you perspire, my darling,’ he whispers into my ear. I can feel his hot breath on my neck.
James, whom we all refer to as Jimmy, is a tenor, and therefore a Casanova. Yes, it’s a cliché, but stereotypes come about for good reason: they frequently turn out to be accurate. Jimmy – black curls, blue eyes – is one of those men where the effects of a wet shave in the morning have already disappeared by midday, and I can hear a soft prickling sound as he strokes the bristly stubble on his chin.
His sweaty chin. Unlike me, he’s not sweating because his costume is heavy, but because Luigi decided to introduce a spirited fencing scene towards the end of the production. I’m not sure whether Luigi envisaged Die Entführung as an action piece right from the start, or whether Jimmy – I think this more likely – had the fencing scene written into his contract. I know him from before: he’ll do whatever it takes to be allowed to tear the shirt off his chest on stage and show off his six-pack. Ah, two souls beat in one breast – his vocal cords are those of a lyric tenor, but in his heart a heldentenor is slumbering. Ok, that’s not a great metaphor – your vocal cords aren’t in your chest – but you know what I mean. He knows we women like bad boys, ergo he always insists on doing daredevil stunts on stage. In La fanciulla del west in Stuttgart a few years back, he rode onto the stage on an actual stallion.
‘Don’t waste your time on Pauly. She’s known you for ages and now she’s immune to your charm.’ Branwen Lloyd is playing Blonde. She’s allowed to wear the light, airy harem costume I’m longing for right now. Possibly because she looks like a clone of Catherine Zeta-Jones in her heyday? Maybe she actually is a clone. She does come from Wales, after all, and who knows how the locals there procreate.
I don’t know what she means by saying that I’ve known Jimmy for ages. The main cast all studied together at Julliard in New York, apart from the balding Wolfgang, who acts the part of the pasha – and I mean acts rather than sings, as it’s a genuine speaking role.
Wolfgang is a locally famous actor. They did tell me his last name too, but I’m certain to forget, as actors and opera singers inhabit two parallel worlds, only occasionally meeting through crossover wormholes. So, Wolfgang aside, Jimmy, Branwen, Mads, Harry and I are all proud Julliard alumni. To be singing together in the same piece some fifteen years later borders on the miraculous. Statistically speaking it’s about as probable as winning the lottery, only rarer. But it doesn’t automatically mean we’ll get on. Especially not me and Branwen.
‘Sweetheart, we’ve both known him for ages, but perhaps you’re forgetting that in your dotage,’ I trill. She’s only five years younger than me, though you wouldn’t know it from her wrinkle-free, baby’s-bottom-smooth face. On the poster advertising the Festspielhaus’s production of Die Entführung she looks like my daughter. In reality it’s only too clear that there are Botox faces and BOTOX faces. She gave herself the latter shortly before her last birthday, the big three-oh. If she wants to be expressive on stage, she has to put it all in her voice – she can’t make facial expressions anymore. To be honest, I wouldn’t have cast her, and I wonder why Luigi did. It can’t be the obvious reason, because Luigi is as gay as the day is long.
‘Play nice, little ones, otherwise Uncle Harry’s going to have to step in,’ rumbles Harry Cho, the bass singing the role of Osmin. He mimes boxing someone’s ear with his meaty hands.
Meanwhile Luigi is standing more or less by himself in the middle of the stage, directing his speech primarily to the Janissary chorus and assistant director, as well as the TV cameraman and sound technician.
I give Harry a friendly jab in his generously upholstered ribs. He’s a giant bear of a man and a generally good sort. I love him like the brother I never had. Or possibly like the irritating brother you’d sort of like to strangle in his sleep, except that you never know when you might need a kidney.
Harry is incredibly good at selling himself. Why, for example, was he invited for a television interview in the Blaue Gans restaurant when I wasn’t? I’m the one singing Konstanze – his is only a supporting role. It can’t be that he’s apparently got an IQ of 180 and just recently delivered a crushing defeat to the current, Ukrainian world chess champion. It must be because he was born not only with a silver spoon in his mouth but a whole cutlery draw. His family owns South Korea. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but there’s a grain of truth in it. I bet he has a top-flight team of PR specialists, instead of a scatter-brained assistant who’s paid by the hour to send out clumsily worded press releases, most of which miss their editorial deadlines by a whisker. I really need to speak to my agent about that idiot – she’s got to fire the PR assistant and find someone more professional. A seventh grader, for instance.
‘So? What’s up?’ asks Harry. He’s actually whispering, but with a set of pipes like his, soft tends to be somewhere in the three-figure decibel range.
Luigi shoots us a nasty look.
Only the actor and Pedrillo (alias Mads) have stayed put. Fifteen years ago at the academy, I should have got off with Mads, not Jimmy. He’s one of the few tenors with more than two brain cells to rub together. And not only is his singing absolutely divine, but his acting is excellent. The hackneyed operatic stereotype of the tenor getting stabbed in the last act, rasping dramatically and pulling all sorts of tortured faces in his death throes, then spending the next ten minutes singing until he actually dies doesn’t apply to Mads. With him you always know whether he’s still singing or whether he’s already dead. But I’m not into blonde Vikings.
Mads is definitely the most normal of us. Married with two children. Only works on the continent, so he’s always within easy striking distance of his family in Denmark. When the rest of us are all jittery with nerves and start getting at each other, he just smiles calmly. And when his composure starts to grate on us and we all gang up on him, it just bounces off him as if he were wearing an invisible Ironman suit of impenetrable affability. Frankly, it’s not normal for an opera singer to be so normal.
‘We’re nearly there, my lovelies,’ cries Luigi, who has reached the final, red motivational index card. The directorial index cards are blue. He also has a selection of yellow ones, but nobody knows what they’re for. ‘Tomorrow’s the final rehearsal. We’ve just got to polish up the boat scene and the love quartet, but I’m confident, moltissimo fiducioso, that we’ll knock the premiere out of the park! No doubt about it.’
Applause breaks out – among the chorus, naturally.
Luigi glances in my direction, as if I’m the resident bellyacher, poised to spoil this moment for him.
I consider making a fuss about my ridiculous costume and wig in front of everybody. I can’t sing like this. But I don’t want to seem difficult. There are too many great singers – many of them younger and, well, in conventional terms prettier than myself. I’m unique, of course, especially in the part of Konstanze, which has practically been my trademark since I stepped in for a sick colleague in Paris two years ago, triumphing magnificently in the role. I’m a wonderful Konstanze. To put it modestly. They say my voice is not only clear and powerful, but that it has a particular resonance, an emotional frequency, a colour. Red, like love. Actually they didn’t say that last part, but it’s what I imagine. Red is my favourite colour.
Leland Perkins, the New York opera critic who’s as aged as he is astute, once wrote that he had heard the greatest sopranos of all time in the role of Konstanze, yet that I far outstripped the clarity of Callas, the magic of Schwarzkopf and the youthful innocence of Kiri te Kanawa. Ok, so Perkins is older than God and probably completely deaf, so I shouldn’t put too much stock in what he said, but I have it in black and white, and in the New York Times no less! I carry the article with me everywhere, sealed in a plastic wallet in my purse.
At some point you simply have to tell yourself that once you’ve made it into the room, you’ve earned the right to be there. You make yourself a diva.
I’ve still got to practise that a little – my breakthrough is relatively recent.
So I clear my throat carefully, trying not to damage my vocal cords, and declare firmly: ‘We need to do a little work on my costume. The crinoline pinches, and the wig is too heavy. I can either lift weights or sing, but not both at the same time.’
I can’t look Luigi in the eye as I say it, but it has nothing to do with a sudden pang of conscience about my capricious foray into divahood – what’s true is true, and it’s not like I’m being unreasonable – but rather with the fact that Luigi has a glass eye, and as with Peter Falk in Columbo, I never know which one’s real. So my gaze flits back and forth, and it’s obviously rather embarrassing.
Gisbert, who designed both the sets and costumes, comes running onto the stage. ‘Goodness gracious, you say the wig is too heavy for you?’
Oh great, for you. So it’s not the wig that’s too heavy, it’s me that’s too weak. Ha!
In one swift movement, Gisbert removes a string of beads from the wig and a garland of roses from the crinoline. The total weight: about a hundred grams. I’m still wearing the remaining ton.
‘Better, my love?’ He beams.
‘No, my love.’ It’s possible that tiny clouds of smoke are rising from my ears.
Gisbert fiddles around some more, as I continue to fume. Eventually he says: ‘Gisbert’s just going to quickly grab a bolt cutter’, and runs backstage.
Luigi quickly ushers the chorus off the stage, as if he’s afraid I’m about to erupt like a volcano. The television crew follows them.
For her part, Branwen follows the camera. What’s the point of plastic surgery if you don’t capture the results on film or store them digitally? Luigi takes his leave, blowing me a goodbye kiss.
Harry and Mads high-five, as they do after every successful rehearsal, and Jimmy is gazing at his mobile phone, checking to see whether some groupie is available for a quickie. Obviously I’m not sure about the last bit – I’m just assuming. But I know what he’s like.
At that moment I suddenly feel very stupid, like I could just about murder the lot of them.
What I don’t realise is that out of everybody left on stage, I’ll be the only one still alive by the end of the season …
Out of the Pan
People who estimate James O’Shay’s IQ to be hovering somewhere below room temperature have got it right. He’s pretty, but not the brightest bulb. Tenors generally have that in common. On the plus side, however, he’s a good-natured chap. ‘Sweetheart, something’s bothering you! What is it? Can I help?’ He leans over my shoulder, gazing ingenuously into my eyes through the enormous make-up mirror. Anyone else might have thought he wanted to comfort me out of the goodness of his heart. But anyone else doesn’t know him like I do. A moment later he reveals what his true colours are. Were. Always will be. He’s heard the rumours about me and his fellow tenor at the Met. Whispering a platitude into my ear – ‘the best way to get over a man is to get straight under another one’ – he kisses me on the shoulder.
Jimmy keeps kissing and purring where he left off: ‘I’m sure you remember the pleasures I can offer, don’t you? I’m not saying I’ve got a perfectly honed super-penis, but I do like to affectionately refer to it as a chick flick.’ He grins. ‘With a flick of my magic wand, you’ll be in a world hitherto unimagined. And your romantic issues will disappear, never to be seen again! Scout’s honour.’
I slap at him playfully with the hairbrush, missing him by a whisker. ‘You’re a pig, and this is sexual harassment in the workplace,’ I grumble. My grumbling is half-hearted, partly because by now he’s kissing the area around my throat, and his stubble is sending pleasant shivers through my body. As Jimmy covers me in pheromone-drenched saliva, Radames – sitting on my lap and resting his forepaws on my ample bosom – licks Jimmy’s neck. What Radames feels for Jimmy is true man-on-man adoration. Completely unwarranted, I might add. Jimmy’s never so much as slipped him a treat or played a manly game of fetch. But he radiates something that evidently leaves no one unmoved – neither women nor men, the Fates nor dogs.
At the last moment I manage to suppress a contented sigh.
Jimmy smells nice. I have a major weakness for nice-smelling men. And he’s not entirely incorrect – life must go on. At least with Jimmy I know where I stand. Recrimination-free, no-strings-attached sex.
‘How about we go back to my place and I’ll cook for you? You know how good I am with a stove.’ The way he says it is unambiguously ambiguous.
It’s a good fifteen years ago now, but I remember my affair with Jimmy all too well. It was when we were at Juilliard. In those days, though barely twenty years old, he already had a romantic back-catalogue in the triple digits. I had assumed that someone like him – a sort of Formula 1 racing car in a sea of VW Beetles – must be the greatest lover of all time, a man on a par with Casanova, as filthy as the lady who wrote 50 Shades of Grey. Worse, even: as pervy as the Marquis de Sade and with the kind of stamina that, had this particular horizontal discipline been an Olympic sport, would have won him a string of gold medals. But – take note! – having a lot of sex is no guarantee of being good at it. On the contrary, people who are constantly switching partners never have to jazz up their standard repertoire to make the other person happy. After all, the next one’s already on the starting blocks. Quantity doesn’t mean quality! And so I’m torn. Although Jimmy collects hearts like stamps and by now has more-or-less a whole post office’s worth, give or take a few, that might be exactly what I need right now. A light snack to keep me going. Completely calorie-free.
‘I could whip up a light, vegan salad. With my famous aphrodisiac dressing.’ Jimmy stands up and picks up the panting Radames. ‘See, your dog thinks it’s a good idea!’
Radames’ tiny tail is wafting fresh air towards me like a fan. That traitor!
‘Oh, alright then. But I don’t want any of that rabbit food. I want spaghetti bolognese. Don’t skimp on the mince. And we’ll go separately – I’d rather not add any grist to the rumour mill.’
As if we weren’t already the subject of gossipy muck-raking backstage, among all our colleagues, the members of the choir and the musicians. My wardrobe assistant saw Jimmy going into my dressing room – that would be enough for an initial spark. And not even light travels as quickly as a hot piece of gossip at the Festspielhaus.
‘Spaghetti bolognese?’ James laughs, scrawling his address on a scrap of paper. His chiselled, Adonis-like body hasn’t seen a carbohydrate in years. His physique is not the product of good genes, but rather a strictly ascetic diet. And plenty of horizontally orientated endurance training, of course. ‘Don’t skimp on the mince? Does it always have to be meat with you?’ He gives me a conspiratorial wink, managing once again to sound highly suggestive.
‘Well, I’m from a different generation. We still ate normally instead of being on a perma-diet,’ I reply caustically. Jimmy is a little younger than me. ‘But I do have some meat-free days, of course. I still remember that time the field kitchens got stuck in the mud, back at the Somme in 1917.’
Jimmy draws my right hand to his lips and kisses it. Promisingly. ‘I’ll take care of your need for … er … fresh meat, I swear it on my life.’ He strikes a musketeer pose, raising his eyebrows twice in quick succession. It reminds me more of Magnum PI than d’Artagnan, but the thought gives me a pleasant tingle nonetheless. ‘Very well, my lady. Your wish is my command! I shall be off.’
And he was.
Out into the corridor.
Only to stick his head back round the door and call out in his melodic tenor voice – a voice that carries far and wide – ‘Cara mia, make sure you bring something to drink. A light summer wine? You can find some at the supermarket in Kaigasse. It’s on the way to my place.’
So much for discretion and quashing rumours.
It’s a glorious day. Not as boiling hot as yesterday, just beautiful sunny weather. I decide to walk, adding a yellow straw boater to my huge sunglasses. In that get-up, even the stupidest tourists must realise that I’m famous, but I hope by the time they’ve recognised me I’ll already be gone.
I left Jimmy’s note with the scribbled directions in my dressing room – I’d rather rely on my iPhone’s GPS. I’ve been told his cottage is charming. It’s at the foot of the monastery where Maria von Trapp was a nun for a while, before she dedicated herself to the children of the widowed Baron von Trapp and the whole singing and dancing lot of them became the inspiration for my favourite musical, The Sound of Music. Confession time: I know every single line of every single song in the entire musical by heart, and before I leave Salzburg I’m definitely going on a bus tour of the filming locations. Hellbrunn, Mondsee and Mirabellplatz, here I come! It’s not very far from the Festspielhaus to Nonnwegstiege. Frankly, nothing in the heart of Salzburg is very far. A charming little town, if ever there was one. And a good thing too, because my Armani sandals are a fraction too small – half a size too small, actually. Thank God – I’ve already reached the supermarket Jimmy mentioned. I tie Radames’ lead outside the door and buy a light Austrian white wine and a ready-made tiramisu, because I’m pretty sure that Jimmy the Calorie-Counter won’t be providing anything sweet for dessert. He probably thinks he’s dessert enough. I disagree.
The little alleyway begins with a set of steep steps. Radames tugs me eagerly up them, as if he can already smell Jimmy’s meatballs, and a moment later we’ve left the noisy little town behind us, emerging – on the narrow, paved steps – into another world.
The cottage is nearly at the end of the street. It reminds me of a gingerbread house, only without the gingerbread – everywhere that isn’t covered in ivy is painted the colour of pink frosting, the shingle roof anthracite grey. The door is slightly ajar.
‘James, I’m he-ere,’ I trill, pushing it open.
Radames goes panting through the front room, which isn’t as dark as you might think from the location and the architecture, because directly opposite the entryway is a glass façade with a view over the town that lets in plenty of light.
Ok, so maybe I took a little longer than your average person to make my way from the Festspielhaus up Nonnwegstiege, even given the supermarket detour. But I’m not a normal person. I had to freshen up first, then there was the obligatory diva’s interlude – at least a quarter of an hour – plus the endless minutes waiting for Radames to mark his territory by the archway in front of Höllrigl’s bookshop … it all adds up.
Turning up late at Jimmy’s isn’t without its dangers, however. It doesn’t take a man like him more than fifteen minutes to pick up somebody else, to say nothing of a whole hour – a lost tourist, the postwoman, two Jehovah’s Witnesses who only wanted to talk about God and ended up being introduced to the delights of a quick threesome. In this sense James O’Shay is like a flesh-eating plant – he doesn’t have to move, because his victims come to him.
‘Jimmy? It smells delicious!’
It’s true. It smells like meat. Very reassuring. If he’s in the process of preparing my meatballs, then he can’t also be satisfying some random woman. Not even Jimmy could manage that.
Radames runs ahead of me. With his refined little nose he could have been a truffle hog. So I let him show me the way to the kitchen, past the spiral staircase that leads downstairs. To the bedrooms, I imagine. The kitchen is immediately on the right. Very small, but charming, also with a view over the Salzburg rooftops. Usually I steer clear of kitchens like the devil avoids holy water. If I want something hot to eat, I go out. But when I’ve been invited to someone’s house, I’ve got nothing against standing in the kitchen with a decent glass of wine and watching the host chopping, grating and simmering.
‘I brought wine,’ I say as I enter the room, holding up the bottle. But Jimmy isn’t in the kitchen. I stand still, listening. Yes – from downstairs I can just hear the splashing sound of a shower. Aha, I deduce, he’s finished his culinary preparations and is now preparing himself for me. Good boy!
‘Are you cooking for ten?’ I shout into the corridor, although he almost certainly can’t hear me over the rushing of the water. ‘Why are you using such a big saucepan?’ Setting down the wine and tiramisu on the kitchen table, I approach the stove.
Most likely Jimmy has put some thought into the appropriate amount of spaghetti. He knows me. He’s aware I’m no Audrey Hepburn, who – as rumoured by Sophia Loren – once declared she felt stuffed after having eaten a single salad leaf with a smidgen of cottage cheese. Radames rests his front paws against the side of the stove, panting at the enormous saucepan, his infallible nose promising that spaghetti and meatballs wait inside. His nose is never wrong.
‘Away from the stove, teddykins!’ How awful it would be if there were a sudden earthquake and the pan leapt from the stove, drenching my little doggy in its scalding hot contents! When was the last time Salzburg experienced any tectonic shifts substantial enough to send saucepans pirouetting to the floor? It doesn’t matter – the dog has to get out of the way.
Radames doesn’t listen to me, of course. Why should he? I never had much time for obedience training, what with all the travelling. So I pick him up, out of harm’s way. He squirms, nudging the saucepan lid with his flat little muzzle. Why not? I think. Surely it couldn’t do any harm to let my sweetheart have a meatball. Nobody’s counting, after all. So I lift the lid and …
… and I never lose my composure, of course – I’m a professional – even if I occasionally mislay it. So I don’t collapse, I colorature. An ‘aaah!’ of extraordinary range and agility, worthy of a dramatic coloratura soprano. It has heft. It carries.
In my arms, Radames gives a single short yelp – not for the same reason as me, but because, pressed to my heaving bosom, he gets the full force of my sound box – then slumps narcoleptically.
I wish I could have done the same. This sight is not for the faint of heart. Spaghetti, check.
And on top of that a human head.
To be more precise, it’s the head of James ‘Jimmy’ O’Shay.
I fall silent, swallowing hard, and lay my comatose darling carefully next to the wine on the kitchen table before staggering back against the wall. First things first: I’ve got to catch my breath.
Find my inner centre.
My rasping breath and the splashing shower are all that can be heard.
Suddenly I’m struck by a horrible realisation: Jimmy’s head is cooking in the saucepan. So if his decapitated body isn’t taking a shower downstairs in the bathroom, then it must be his killer, soaping away Jimmy’s blood.