Ninoshvili’s letter has made me curiously uneasy. It’s ridiculous, but I felt something like a presentiment of disaster at the mere sight of the dingy grey envelope when I came home today after teaching five tedious lessons and found it lying on the hall table. I stared at the stamp, with its colourful picture of King David the Builder swinging his sword against the Mussulmen. I deciphered the postmark as Tbilisi, removed an imaginary speck of dust from my coat sleeve, and began to feel afraid.
Ninoshvili writes to say he is very happy to tell me that, after persistent efforts, he can travel to my country at last. The Cultural Ministry of the Republic of Georgia has officially commissioned him to visit the Federal Republic of Germany, where he is to get in touch with publishing houses interested in bringing out Georgian literature in German translation. Unfortunately, he adds, Matassi can’t come with him, but he looks forward to picking up our friendship again, seven years after we first met.
The letter has taken a good four weeks to get here from Tbilisi, and since Ninoshvili says that “all being well” he will be “making my final preparations in about a month’s time”, he could turn up on my doorstep at any moment.
I actually rose immediately from the desk where, with a stifled groan, I had just sat down, lifted the net curtain and looked out. The street lay deserted in the midday sun. No taxi in sight.
Or perhaps he’s coming from the bus stop on foot to save money, bringing only a small, well-worn case with him? Perhaps he’s already walked past the house, sizing it up. Perhaps he’s on his way now, stepping quietly, coming through the garden, looking around with those inscrutable dark eyes.
Oh, that’s enough of such absurdities! I have no real reason to be afraid of this visitor. He’ll mean a certain amount of inconvenience for me, of course, I can see that in advance. The postscript to his letter, in which he hopes that I can help him “to find inexpensive accommodation”, is clear enough. He probably thinks it will be only natural for me to ask him to stay here. Every other toast we drank in Tbilisi was to the hospitality of the Georgian people, and now, seven years later, I have to suffer the consequences of that admirable quality.
But what’s our spare room for, after all? It can’t be permanently reserved for Julia’s old school friend, Erika, who likes her pleasures and uses it as a base for her excursions to the West every six months, leaving it impregnated with her aggressive perfume. Or for Ralf’s friends, a couple of whom have already slept off their hangovers in the bed under the sloping roof, after having too many beers to ride their mopeds home. They probably didn’t even remove their trainers. David Ninoshvili will appreciate being asked to stay in our spare room. Let him have it.
I’m only trying to fool myself. It remains to be seen whether this visitor from Georgia is really as harmless as he seems.
Matassi. That evening in the bar of the Hotel Iveria. The next afternoon, when Ninoshvili invited me to his apartment. And last but not least, the middle of the following day, when Matassi knocked at the door of my hotel room, bringing me the article she’d photocopied for me in the library.
Matassi wore pale blouses and skirts in plain colours, and once I saw her in a bright summer dress with a white collar. No tall circular cap, no laced bodice, no strings of beads dangling from her temples. No long, plaited braids lying on her breast; she wore her black hair cut short. Yet she had the same exotic charm as the women in Georgian national costume smiling at visitors from the posters at the Tbilisi branch of the state-run Inturist travel agency. Round cheeks, dark thick eyebrows and lashes, shadows around her eyes. Full lips.
On the evening when Ninoshvili brought her to the hotel bar with him and introduced her as his wife, Dautzenbacher and the bearded Slavonic lecturer from Heidelberg – I forget his name – immediately sat up and took notice. Dr Bender, the only woman in our party, went to her room in a fit of pique on finding herself increasingly left out of the conversation. She pleaded a headache, but didn’t bother to make it sound plausible. I had stayed in the background, and found myself rewarded by the intriguing impression that Matassi was casting me glances of much greater interest than those she gave the other two, who went on tirelessly posturing. I even received a dazzling smile now and then.
Next day, Ninoshvili didn’t tell me that she’d be expecting both of us at his apartment. Instead he asked casually, after our group had all lunched together, whether I would like to visit a Georgian home, and I instantly decided to skip the afternoon’s study programme. I followed our interpreter through the winding streets of the Old Town, immersing myself in a flood of strange smells and sounds. I thought, with growing alarm, that if I were to lose sight of my guide I’d never find my way back through this teeming labyrinth.
When Ninoshvili, with an inviting gesture, opened a small gate in a high wall, I found myself in a quiet courtyard surrounded on three sides by balconies. I saw wooden balustrades, elaborately carved and painted sky blue. Washing lines crossed the courtyard up to the second floor. On the wall of the house there was a large stone tank with a tap above it. Two children, sitting in the shade on the trodden mud of the courtyard floor, inspected me with dark eyes.
The round table in Ninoshvili’s living room was laid with three cups and three plates, and the aroma of fresh coffee hung in the air. As I looked around me, Matassi appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. She was wearing the summer dress with the white collar. She smiled at me and said, in English, “Good afternoon, Mr Kestner. How are you?”
Ninoshvili said he would just go out to the confectioner’s for something to nibble with our coffee, and when I protested that I couldn’t possibly eat anything else after our lavish lunch, he waved the objection away with both hands, smiling, and went off. Matassi brought the coffee. I asked her if she didn’t have to go to work. No, she said, not today. And how, I asked, had she known that I’d be coming? She hadn’t known, she replied, but she had hoped I would. Hoped I would? Why? A silent glance and a smile were her only response to that.
Perhaps it was the wine and vodka freely dispensed by our hosts at lunch, when toast after toast was drunk, and anyone who didn’t empty his glass every time was offending the sacrosanct table manners of the Georgians. But be that as it may, as soon as Ninoshvili had set off for the confectioner’s I embarked on a determined flirtation with his wife, threw my ideas of a guest’s proper conduct overboard, and began to feel I was hovering under the blue sky, in the summer wind wafting in through the balcony door.
When Matassi showed me a little book written by Ninoshvili, and leaned over my shoulder to translate the Georgian print of its title for me, moving her pale brown forefinger along the line, I turned my face to her. The tip of my nose touched her cheek, and I breathed in a perfume that I had never smelled before. The Orient and myrrh sprang to mind and remained lodged in my memory, although to this day I don’t know what myrrh really smells like. I kissed Matassi’s cheek. She did not draw back. I took her in my arms and kissed her on the mouth. She returned the kiss before, smiling, she freed herself.
I felt no scruples about deceiving my host. If I did feel a little sorry for anything afterwards, it was only that when Ma-tassi showed me first the kitchen and then the small, shady bedroom, I didn’t pull her straight down on the bed, which was covered with a woven spread and provided with plump pillows. I was afraid that Ninoshvili, swinging a bag of pastries, might surprise us in a situation that couldn’t be satisfactorily explained in a hurry, my trousers around my feet, her summer dress pushed up to her armpits. At that point I imagined him dropping the bag and reaching for a knife, washing away the shame with blood, Matassi’s blood, but also, and fatally, mine.
As I thought later, with annoyance, I need not have feared the Georgian’s revenge, or at least not that he would catch us in the act. Ninoshvili didn’t come back for a full hour. He said he had been held up.