I pointed at the bulky wallet between his thighs. 'That?'
Schilling pushed it further under the table. 'Yes. It's a novel. It's . . . well, I don't want to influence you. It's important you have an open mind.'
A novel. So that was it: nothing threatening or sinister boring most likely, but no worse than that. 'What's it about?' 'The future. At least, it's set in the future. A future. The whole thing has a mythic quality.'
The last mythic novel I had tackled had been written by the leading literary grande dame of our little republic: an ancient Greek legend revisited from a Marxist-feminist perspective. I hoped it wasn't one of those.
'You think I'll like it?'
'I won't predict your reaction, although . . .' Schilling checked himself. 'Let's just say, you're uniquely qualified to appraise it. I mean that literally. I'm very anxious to know what you think.'
I wasn't a critic, at least not the kind whose name appears in newspapers and literary journals. My views on contemporary literature were given sparingly and always off the record. But it was hard not to be touched by Schilling's faith. He had never given up the hope that I would one day write something as heartfelt and successful as The Orphans of Neustadt; that the old creative force still dwelt within me, waiting only for the appropriate socio-intellectual conditions to burst forth.
'So who's it by, then?'
Schilling looked cagey.
'Wait a minute.' An idea had occurred to me, one which, for some reason, I found comic. 'It's you, isn't it? This is your book.'
'What's so funny about that?'
I must have laughed, which was not polite.
'Nothing,' I said. 'I'm surprised, that's all. You never said anything about . . .'
Schilling leaned closer. 'It's not my book, all right? I haven't written a book. For God's sake, what would I write about? What do I know?' Melted ice cream was running over his knuckles. He cursed, switching the cone from one hand to the other.
'I didn't mean . . .'
'It doesn't matter. Look, if you're too busy . . .'
But I wasn't too busy. I hadn't been too busy in years. We both knew that very well.
I was still feeling guilty about my hurtful outburst when we left Tutti Frutti and hurried back towards Ferdinandsplatz. By this time it was raining in earnest and soon Schilling was sneezing. His raincoat was old and leaked at the seams. After use it left him looking as though he suffered from a terrible sweating problem, with wet patches under his arms and down his back.
'I meant to tell you,' I said, as we ducked into a doorway. 'I bought this new raincoat at the Intershop. A good one, English. Then I got it home and found it didn't fit. Would you believe it? Too narrow at the shoulders. You can have it, if you like. It'd fit you much better than me.'
If Schilling wasn't convinced by my story, it wasn't for lack of effort on my part. After I had extemporised upon the difficulties involved in obtaining a refund he said, 'I could certainly do with a new one. How much would you . . . ?'
'Don't be silly,' I said. 'I'll be glad to give it a good home.' It was time to go. I held out my hand for the manuscript. Schilling began extracting it from the document wallet, then changed his mind and gave me the whole thing.
A tram pulled up at a nearby stop, passengers spewing out as if under pressure. I shook my friend's hand and jumped aboard.
Reprinted from The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington. Copyright (c) 2012 by Philip Sington. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
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