Published in Ambit magazine, Winter 2003
Johann jumped on board at the run, jacket collar turned up, his hand icy numb where it grasped the metal rail. The iron wheels shrieked on the wet rails; overhead, sparks flashed and fizzed on the cables as the tram teetered down Oxford Road towards the centre of town.
At first he thought he was going to be ordered off when the conductor turned his head sharply and stared, the shiny peak of his cap shadowing his eyes. In Vienna you leapt onto moving trams all the time, but here it was different. The orderly, phlegmatic English loved their queues. And maybe the conductor could tell he was foreign (another black mark) just by the look of him.
Instead - unexpectedly - the conductor, swaying hand over hand towards the platform, grinned at him. 'It never rains but it pours.'
Johann paid for his ticket, puzzling as he did so over this remark. Although his English was excellent (educated at home with a private tutor up to the age of fourteen), he sometimes had a problem with the local accent - the blunt vowel sounds - and particularly when people spoke in dialect. Then it seemed not English at all, but another language entirely. He'd asked a student in the Department of Engineering, a fellow from Luton, about this, and been told that the Lancashire dialect was quite impenetrable to outsiders, even other English people.
But it wasn't just the accent or even the dialect. It had more to do with semantics. Johann often didn't comprehend what people meant, even when he understood what they said. 'It never rains but it pours,' for example. The first part (it never rains) was obviously false, because here in Manchester it rained most of the time. So if it rained, which it did, evidently, it also poured, according to the conductor; but that's what rain did - poured from the skies. Why begin with a blatant contradiction and then qualify it with the stupefyingly obvious? Had he missed something? Was the conductor being ironic? Was he saying the quality of Manchester rain was different from, say, London rain or Vienna rain? Other types of rain fell, while Manchester's poured?
Mystified, Johann found a seat. The tram was crowded and pungent with the smell of damp clothing. Condensation masked the windows. Gaslights from the rows of shops flared through it like writhing spirits. The rain still fell incessantly, or poured from the dark sky. But for the downpour he would have walked into town, which he much preferred to the smelly, packed tram, though less, it must be said, than getting soaked to the skin and risking pneumonia.
He had been here almost two years now, studying aeronautics at the university and working on a design for a reaction jet propeller, which would be a revolutionary development, if it worked. Johann wasn't sure it would. But if it did, it would be a marked advance on the Wright brothers' method of mechanical propulsion. Their first flight of an hour's duration had been all over the papers the year he arrived in Manchester. And just last year, Bleriot had made a tremendous impact with the first flight from Calais to Dover. These were tentative, faltering steps in a great enterprise, you didn't have to be a genius to see that, or even a humble student of mechanical engineering.
The wheels squealed on a curve; the tram juddered violently, throwing the
passengers from side to side in perfect unison as if connected by metal rods.
As they rocked together Johann felt the pressure of the person sitting beside
him. She was young and handsome, wearing a coat with a fur collar and a bonnet
trimmed with artificial primroses. He examined her profile from the corner
of his eye: dark eyes, thick-lashed, smooth pale skin, almost translucent,
lips lightly rouged. There was a dewdrop on the tip of her nose.
Johann watched, fascinated, waiting for it to fall. It didn't, just hung quivering with the movement of the tram. Did she have a young man, this attractive young woman, that she was on her way to meet? Back home, young women didn't travel alone on public vehicles. At least the respectable ones didn't. England was perhaps ahead of its time in the loosening of social conventions and codes of behaviour - if that's where things were heading in the future. Or maybe it was just in this bustling city where such things were changing so fast. Here, Johann realised, was another contradiction: in some things the English were so staid and disciplined and, well, ordinary (their passion for queuing, for example) and yet seemed eager to embrace change, new fads and fancies, new types of entertainment, the speeding world of scientific discovery ...
She hadn't noticed him. There was no reason why she should, but even so Johann resented it. This was his experience with other girls he met; admittedly not all that many. At the university there were very few female students, and the clerical and domestic females were of the lower classes, though some of them were quite pretty. Even so, they ignored him also. He had had no female companionship since he arrived here. Was his appearance to blame? Being tall and gangly and gaunt of face, with a bony forehead and austere cheekbones, might well be the reason none of them (the handful he encountered) found him appealing.
There was that, plus the fact he had no small talk. Johann had observed closely other male students bantering with young women, who responded gaily, sometimes smiling, even laughing, and he had tried to listen in to the magical, mysterious words that produced this effect. But he learned nothing because nothing was said. There was no discernible meaning to it. The talk was empty, without form or content, utterly devoid of logic.Yet still the young women smiled, sometimes laughed, found such inconsequential chatter absorbing and even amusing.
It was baffling. Like a place of secrets behind a locked door to which he had no key. Johann knew himself incapable of saying anything without there being a meaning of some sort attached to it. Embedded in it. That's what language was supposed to be - a form of communication. How to speak and say nothing? Impossible. Just as nonsensical, he reasoned, as trying to imagine something without being able to express it in words- it couldn't be done. Language and meaning were the same. If you couldn't articulate it, it didn't exist.
The dewdrop fell.
The young woman must have felt it because she rummaged inside the puckered mouth of her drawstring bag and dabbed her nose with a lace-edged handkerchief. She wasn't the least embarrassed by his scrutiny, probably because she was unaware of it. She seemed abstracted in her thoughts, her eyes focused inwardly. There definitely was a young man, Johann decided. She was previewing their evening together, and where they might go. To the Tivoli Music Hall perhaps, or to see Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians, in between the circus acts, at the Hippodrome. The latest rage, he had read in the Evening Chronicle, was the Kinemacolor Palace which had just opened on Oxford Street, showing coloured films.
Her young man would sit beside her at one of these, just as he was sitting now. Their shoulders would be touching, just as now he could feel the pressure against his, so in every respect their postures would be identical, and yet not more different. The girl's hand would be clasped in the young man's. Their heads would lean close together. He would say something to make her smile - one of those damned trivial phrases without sense or meaning that made Johann physically nauseous with incomprehension and despair. But not him. Not him.
Life was so unfair!
The tram stopped at the Whitworth Art Gallery to let some people off, but
more got on, and Johann gave up his seat to a short fat woman with a red face,
who plonked herself down without thanking him. The young woman with dark curls
didn't notice his departure.
For just a moment, glimpsing the art gallery through a hole someone had rubbed in the condensation, Johann was seized by an impulse to jump off. But the aisle was packed solid, his usual vacillation was no help, and already, with a grinding shudder that rattled the windows, the tram was on the move again.
He'd never been inside the art gallery, and had no special reason, or desire, to see inside now. It was an instinctive response born of desperation to seek a void of calm and peace; and also not to have to face the thronging anarchic bustle of the city centre, which he was dreading.
So why was he going? Why put himself to the torture of its cheery crowds packing the pavements, the hot burst of light and noise from narrow pub doors, the young brazen mill girls gathered around plate jugglers and pickled egg vendors in Piccadilly? Of course it was just that mayhem that drew him from his miserable solitude in the single room with its iron bedstead and hissing gas-mantle, his disorderly piles of books and blueprints spilling from every surface. It also repelled him with its brash, meaningless frivolity, made him feel lonelier and more isolated even while in the midst of it.
As the art gallery slid from view through the misty porthole, Johann felt obscurely relieved. Rocking gently to and fro, hanging onto the leather strap, he ferreted in his mind for the reason. It was simple enough. He didn't like pictures, watercolours in particular. They reminded him of his art class at the Realschule in Steyr, and of that cocky little braggart with the glazed staring eyes and bum-fluff moustache who regarded himself as an artist of outstanding talent. In truth he was pretty average, mediocre even, and like all average, mediocre people didn't have the brains to know it. Johann saw through his bluster and conceit, never bothered to hide his contempt, with the result that he became the target of a vindictive campaign of bullying and abuse that had made his life a misery.
It was the first time Johann had experienced anti-Semitism at a personal level - for that's what the attacks focused on. Egged on by the pipsqueak, who naturally saw himself as their leader, the class would taunt Johann about his physical appearance (shifty deep-set eyes, too close together) and lanky, beanpole height (long streak of cold piss). They reduced his name to the mocking 'Vitty', which before long, through constant repetition, became a synonym for anything that was feeble, inferior, second-rate. And even though Johann came top in all grades, excepting history, the irrefutable illogicality of their puerile mockery never occurred to them.
This racial persecution had another aspect to it, a very curious one, that Johann found out only later.
The class ringleader's real name, someone told him a year or two later, was actually Schicklgruber, whose father, Alois, had been the illegitimate son of a Jew from Graz named Frankenberger. When he discovered this, Johann was stunned - to have been picked on for his racial background by someone who was himself Jewish! Perhaps the bullying braggart pipsqueak was ashamed of his birthright, and so desperately scared it might come out that he used Johann's presence in the class to divert attention from himself.
Whatever. It didn't matter now. Except the two years of torture he had endured at the hands of that malicious sadist - the sheer bloody misery of being a despised outcast - had left him with an aversion to works of art, and watercolours in particular, that was as absurd as it was potent.
The fat woman who had taken his seat was arguing with somebody behind her. Johann presumed it was the man she had got on with, possibly her husband: a dour-looking fellow tightly parcelled in a blue serge suit with a woollen muffler knotted under his chin and a cloth cap pulled low to his eyebrows. While she ranted on at him, uncaring that everyone on the tram could hear, he sat stolidly, arms folded, thin-lipped, the expression in his eyes hidden by the peak of his cap.
Johann listened (he had little choice in the matter), but was unable to understand more than one word in five, so thick was her dialect. What he did manage to decipher left him none the wiser. The word 'brass' kept coming up, as did 'skint' and 'spondulicks', and then came 'two farthings to rub together', which was the clue. It had to do with money, or more likely the lack of it, or perhaps the squandering of it. Through all this tirade the husband never moved a muscle, never uttered a word. He remained a hunched ball of stoic rectitude, his thoughts sealed under his cap.
The tram stopped again, outside the university. The main arched entrance, directly on the street, led to a courtyard, and somewhere beyond that lay the Department of Engineering where Johann spent most of his days. Soon after his arrival the Victoria University had been a ferment of excitement. The Nobel prize had been awarded to Ernest Rutherford, professor of physics, for his work on uranium radiation. Although outside his own field, Johann had read up on the work, and was quietly jubilant that he grasped its principles. The visual concept of atomic theory was startling - that the atom resembled a miniature solar system, with a dense nucleus and electrons whizzing round it like planets.
It so fired Johann's imagination - unable for days to eat or sleep like someone in the throes of love - that he had been tempted to make the switch from aeronautical research to physics. He'd always found the practical side of engineering tiresome: the workbench routine of nuts and bolts, greasy overalls, the tedious hours spent shaving millimetres from lumps of metal. It was conceptual theory that excited him. His frustration was compounded when he learnt that Professor Rutherford's right-hand man was a young Danish fellow called Niels Bohr, regarded as brilliant in his own right, who was, to Johann's vexation, a mere three or four years his senior.
But it was not to be. Johann hadn't even applied for a transfer, knowing it was futile. Enrolled as a common-or-garden engineer, not a physicist, the academic barrier was watertight and unbreachable.
As the tram pulled away he found himself sinking deeper into a profound depression that weighed upon him as palpably as this grim city and the rain that fell constantly (poured, according to the conductor) from its dismal skies.
Decked out in electric lighting, the Kinemacolor Palace threw a vivid wash of colour onto the steamy windows, painting the faces within with garish greens, reds and blues. Most of the passengers would be alighting at the next stop, Oxford Street, while the rest carried on to Piccadilly.
He might as well get off here too, Johann decided. It made no difference. He wasn't going anywhere in particular.
The fat woman was on her feet, even more red in the face as she squeezed herself into the aisle in front of him. Being shorter than Johann's bony shoulder, he looked down on the top of her head. The husband was no taller. She prodded him in his narrow back, keeping up the flow of her peevish badgering for the benefit of the entire tram, and Johann felt quite sorry for the little man.
Then the little man turned his head and muttered over his shoulder in a voice
so terse that Johann would have missed it if he hadn't been standing practically
on top of them:
'Pipe down, woman. As usual tha's spouting claptrap. If there's nowt else in thi skull but a draught blowing through, best keep thi gob shut.'
That was all he said, yet to Johann's surprise it worked the miracle - and something even more surprising. For not only did Johann understand perfectly every word, and in strong dialect at that, but everything the little man said made profound sense to him: for how could the wife express in language a thought that wasn't there to begin with? A paradoxical absurdity if ever he'd heard one.
He followed the pair of them along the aisle to the platform, the woman stumping behind her husband in glowering silence, not a further word to say.
Hiding a grin as he saw them off, the conductor rolled his eyes at Johann and wiped invisible sweat from his brow. 'Syrup is sweet, mate, but silence is golden.'
Johann stood on the pavement, lower lip thrust out, face creased in a frown, watching the man and his wife until they were lost in the sweeping rain and the milling crowds. There it was again. A moment ago he'd been almost happy: the world had fallen into place, formed a kind of beautiful symmetry. He'd been so grateful and elated, positively cheered up, at understanding what the little man was on about, and now here he was floundering in confusion again at another damned nonsensical phrase. Syrup is sweet (well yes, of course, obviously!) but what had that to do with silence? Which, according to the conductor, was golden.
Johann turned about and looked the other way up Oxford Street, to the bedraggled
queues outside the bright facade of the Hippodrome, to the posters announcing
the appearance of the World Famous Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians - For
One Week Only! Star of the show, according to the review in the Chronicle,
was a young fellow called Charles Chaplin, who brought the house down with
his dumb-show antics and inspired tomfoolery.
Just what was needed, Johann decided, perfectly and precisely, to raise his spirits on this dismal evening; and mind made up, he set off in that direction.
© Trevor Hoyle 2008
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
- Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein
The following year he did abandon aeronautical engineering research in Manchester and went to study mathematical logic under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge.