If Johann Kästner had to die, he could not have chosen a better place. The burghers of Saxony were proud of their Upper Elbe scenery, far superior in their view to the more famous River Rhine. The Lorelei? Rubbish! Not a patch on the Bastei. That Kästner had also arranged for his demise to take place in one of their superb old paddle steamers was icing on the cake.
Which vessel to choose? The fleet’s Methuselah, the Stadt Wehlen, built in 1879? Or the Meissen from 1885? Maybe the Kurort Rathen dating from 1896? Even the baby of the fleet, the 1929 Leipzig? There were nine possibilities.
Of course I’m being frivolous in suggesting Kästner had any say in selecting where he wanted to shuffle off this mortal coil. It was pure chance, dictated by the Saxon Steamship Company’s timetable. Any premature death is a tragedy – and Johann was only 35 – but life is a joke anyway, so one might as well treat his end with levity.
It was also pure chance that found me aboard the same vessel at the same time; an unlikely conjunction, but again, life is little more than a series of coincidences.
For my presence there I blame Maggie, my ex-wife. We had spent the past twenty-five years blaming each other for just about everything, so why stop now? When our two children left the nest, the tenuous bonds that had kept us together finally snapped. Maggie stayed in the house, allowing me to keep the silver Porsche; an inequitable division of spoils, you might think, but by this time I was prepared to agree to almost anything to get her off my back.
I could afford to be generous. If I had been unlucky in love, the gods had made up for it by allowing me some success in business. I won’t bore you with the details; but suffice it to say, I had enough stashed away to keep me in comfort until the day I received my centenary telegram from the Queen – or, more likely, an email from the King.
Freed of the burdens of family and the need to earn a crust, I did a Peter Pan; regressed to youth. Every kid in the country now has their inalienable right to a Gap year, extended by some to a Gap lifetime. At the ripe old age of fifty-five, Ed Blake – that’s me – would join the Gap club; for however long I pleased and with the help of my trusty Porsche.
The years had wrought some changes. I could now think of nothing worse than the teenage utopia of slumming it on a tropical beach, while listening to rap music and indulging in unlimited sex. My Gap would be more civilised, more cultural. The timing was perfect. It was early June and I would set out to explore the cradle of civilisation: the continent of Europe.
I became a weather fanatic, every day studying the forecasts. What was the intention of that damned jet-stream? If it looked like funnelling depressions across northern Europe, I would dodge south of the Alps, where summers are more stable. But if a dry spell was in prospect over France, Benelux, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, that’s where I would start.
So far I had been lucky; nothing worse than a thunderstorm over Bruges and some iffy weather in Koblenz. I liked to settle in one place for a few days and cover the local area before moving on. It was with this in mind that I had checked in to the Hotel Lindtner. The location? As I was destined to stay much longer than intended, under circumstances that were, to say the least, unusual, I’ll protect its anonymity and only say it lay on the River Elbe, somewhere between Dresden and the Czech border. Let’s just call it ‘Die Stadt’; The Town.