Rowing on the Lake
Freud pulled back, feeling the slight spring in the oars against the green water of the lake. ‘Spruce oars,’ he said. ‘I grew up with ash, a beautiful wood, but heavy.’ As they passed under the beech branches clutching the sky, Kafka was cut into strips of yellow and grey. Freud smiled, sighed into his beard, the warm air reflecting back onto his lower lip.
Kafka turned his head to watch as Freud dipped the blade of the oars into the water, creating vortices, spinning in different directions and flashing with light.
‘I never learned to row.’ His voice was soft, very precise.
Freud took another stroke of the oars, then another, the boat beginning to pick up a pleasing momentum, surging ahead with each stroke, coasting in between, in open water. The lake seemed darker green, as if it was bottomless. ‘I don’t analyse any more, you know. I have many students who do. I can recommend one.’
The younger man put one hand onto the water bubbling beside him, his fingers barely skipping on the surface, trailing lines and bubbles of their own. ‘I know.’ Kafka was neatly dressed, thick socks travelling between the turned up hem of his trousers and small black shoes, which were in need of a polish. He had the hungry look of many consumptives. His voice was hesitant, nothing like his writing. ‘I simply find myself…haunted, I suppose. Haunted by dreams and images.’
Freud stretched back and shipped the oars. Drops of water streamed down them onto the bench beside him, and he pulled out a handkerchief to mop up the two pools.
‘Cigar, Mr Kafka?’
Kafka leaned forward to take one.
Freud took one himself. The match flared into life in an acrid cloud of phosphorus, blown across the boat. He offered the matches to Kafka, who shook his head, preferring to hold the cigar for a moment before tucking it into his jacket pocket.
‘I shall smoke it later.’ He smiled, and Freud immediately warmed to the man. His smile enlivened his solemn, child-like face and brightened his dark eyes. He immediately seemed younger.
‘How old are you, Mr. Kafka?’
‘Franz. Please, call me Franz. I am thirty seven years old.’
Freud studied the younger man. ‘I have read your novella. “The Metamorphosis”.’
Kafka, inclined his head. This was one area on which he appeared more confident.
Freud watched smoke drifting starboard, dropping onto the surface of the lake, cut into ever-changing trapeziums and triangles by the wind over the water.
‘Of course, it is possible to interpret the beast, the verminous monster Gregor is transformed into, as the pre-eminence of the id.’ As the younger man did not speak, Freud continued to address the water. ‘His transformation is the beginning of the transformation of the family, the mother and father, the sister Grete.’
‘Indeed.’ When Freud looked at Kafka, he caught him chewing on his lower lip.
‘Was that your intention?’
Kafka looked away, thoughts chasing across his face in fleeting expressions, one hand clasped tightly in the other.
‘Perhaps. Not consciously. I suppose my thoughts were that Gregor was not the benefactor for his family that he thought he was.’
‘So, in some sense his return to support for the family was a castration of his father?’
Kafka rolled his head on his shoulder, as if the muscles there were tight. ‘I suppose so. But that was not in my thoughts when I wrote the story.’
Freud opened the wicker picnic basket between the men’s feet. ‘Do you care for a blanket? There is a cold breeze.’
‘Thank you, no.’ The man leaned forward, his clasped hands resting on his knees as Freud dropped a blanket over his own legs and reached for the flask of coffee.
‘So, tell me, what were your thoughts when you started to write?’
He poured Kafka some coffee and this time, the younger man accepted it, cupping reddened fingers around the china mug. He seemed to think, lifting his head as he looked around the lake, the distant shores barely visible in a haze to the east. ‘I suppose I was thinking of…how mundane life is.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud sipped his coffee, grimaced at the strength of it. Josefina, the maid, always stewed it.
‘I just wondered, what it would be like for something so extraordinary…so different, to happen to someone so ordinary. I had no ending planned, nor any beginning, really. I was as surprised as any reader to find Gregor had become a—monster. ’
Freud let his gaze wander over Kafka, who was staring into his coffee, frowning, as if to find answers there. Kafka looked up suddenly with his deep, dark eyes. His face was drawn from wide Slavic cheekbones to a pointed chin, his cheeks hollow.
Kafka spoke quietly, as if they could be overheard, even hundreds of metres onto the lake. ‘These words, these ideas…they intoxicate me. I write and even I cannot believe that these thoughts have come from me.’
Freud nodded, allowing a smile, that he hoped would be reassuring, to curve his beard. ‘All thoughts, all ideas and fantasies are possible, and permissible.’ He touched the fingers of one hand to the corresponding fingers of the other. ‘These forms rise from the unconscious, as symbols of deeply buried desires and needs.’
‘But what desire could be represented by becoming a creature so repulsive?’ The writer’s thin, brown fingers trembled on the cup.
Freud shrugged. ‘How repulsive? You did not describe the creature, other than to suggest it was vermin, unclean, insect-like.’
‘I hardly know myself.’ He drained the cup, handed it back to Freud. ‘I am drawn to these images that haunt my sleep.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud looked at the wrinkles on the man’s forehead, the paleness of his skin beneath the dark hair.
Kafka looked up at him, reached out a hand to grasp Freud’s jacket sleeve. ‘If I publish these stories, people speculate…people see what is in…my depths.’ He swept the other hand across the surface of the water. ‘Like this lake. If it were transformed to perfect transparency, what wrecks, what monsters would we see? Drowned sailors, smothered babies, the detritus of all the towns along the river, discharging into the lake.’
Freud patted his hand for a moment then gently detached it.
Kafka continued. ‘If these monsters live inside my soul…and I reveal them in my stories…’
Freud shook his head. ‘Inside the mind of every man and woman, my dear Kafka. Your soul I cannot comment on.’
Kafka blinked as if there were tears there. Freud looked away to allow him to compose himself.
‘Perhaps, my dear Kafka, you should consider analysis after all. I could refer you to a colleague of mine.’
‘I shall stop writing.’
Freud picked up the oars, dipping them into the water, left hand ahead of the right so they did not clash. Pulled more on the right side, to turn the boat back towards the jetty. They had drifted maybe half a mile down the lake.
‘Would you care to take an oar? A brisk row shall soon warm you up.’
He made room for the slim writer, who stooped and shuffled crabwise onto the seat. ‘That’s it, dip—pull, swing back.’ As they pulled, Freud kept an eye on the shore. ‘There ideas are not harmful. They simply represent experiences and emotions from your past.’
‘I understand…that.’ Kafka was pulling hard, out of breath after a dozen strokes. ‘I prefer to…keep them private, however.’
‘Indeed.’ Ten, fifteen more strokes and the boat was moving strongly against the slight current. ‘You could consider not publishing them all.’
Kafka lost the rhythm for a moment, and Freud allowed him to catch up. Pull, lean, pull, lean. The leather soles of the younger man’s shoes slipped a little on the boards. ‘Spruce, you say?’