All This By Chance
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From: All This By Chance, by Vincent O'Sullivan
When as a youngster David asked his father what was it like then, when they had met, what did she tell him about the train for instance, or before the train, his answers, as his grown-up son would tell him, slipped away as though he were the one being looked for, hunted down. And as the boy grew to the man who demanded more aggressively, Stephen told him how so little of the past was there, could he not see that? It was not a tide that went out and then returned. It became a sea that did not exist. But at the time he had used an image that he thought the boy with his grasping for what was gone might understand. He said you must imagine what it would be like if you took fragments chipped from a mosaic and handed them to someone, and expected him to know what it was, the picture it had been taken from.
‘Or her,’ the boy insisted. ‘Expected her.’
‘And in any case, David, you are asking me to give you what isn’t mine to give.’
The boy understood little of what was said to him, any more than did the man he became and forty years later pestered still, watching as his father’s hands no longer trusted themselves to raise a cup without carefully attending. Yet even then, he would say to the alert but frail man, ‘Love. You shy away from saying that as if it would scald you.’ And the old man would tell him simply, ‘Very likely,’ thinking how those as close as he and David might like to be, pass without comprehension.
In the beach house out on the coast, with the long constant haul of the surf coming up to them, David rose from the chair facing his father, angry as he so easily became, to stand at the big window, his forehead against the pane, fists in his jacket pocket. His father looking past the middle-aged man to the strident green of the hills and the patches of black bush. The strain that would never end between them. It saddened him, as did the silence so often in the room with them, as if a third person who could no more leave than he and his son might walk through the glass into the afternoon’s late glittering light. He did not say, because the truth of it would rile David even more, ‘You want more than any child can ever have. You cannot become your parents. Let alone the parents before them.’
He did not especially care for the successful impetuous man he had fathered. A fact of life that one accepted. He watched him at the window there a few feet in front of him, David’s resenting the room he stood in, perhaps as resentful, his father supposed, of so much that lay beyond it. They said little to each other for several minutes. Then David turned and crossed the room and leaned above the old man to press his lips to his forehead. ‘I know I should let things rest,’ he said.
His father’s hand rose to brush at David’s wrist. He hoped that at least might please him.
When the boy used to insist, ‘But you must remember something when you first arrived,’ his father had laughed and said, ‘It stank. England stank.’ It shocked the boy that he had come out and said so, and thought his father teased him. But that was it all right. How it had first struck him. The old world with its reek of ash.
Unlike the fellow passengers he had nodded to, and the handful he found he could speak to without too much shyness by the journey’s end, he had expected nothing, and so was neither surprised nor disappointed. On the long weeks sailing across there had been so much chatter in the dining room, then in the big lounge with its leather chairs where some passengers played bridge or dominoes or sat and ordered another round from the white-jacketed stewards. Those last few evenings, the talk of places with names like King’s Lynn and Saffron Walden, and jokes about the East End and snatches of songs as someone went and sat at the piano, songs about the Old Kent Road, or following the van, lines that amused or saddened those who stood round the pianist with glasses in their hands, but none of it meaning much to him beyond the strangeness, and his own sense of loneliness, even as they kindly drew him into the sense of fun. The older men offering to buy him a stout, for good luck’s sake. And that curious feeling, the apprehension he had woken with each morning since the hot green encroaching banks of the canal at Panama, and the brightly painted houses and the church where the far wall glittered with cascading gold, where they had gone ashore for six hours and his first proof that there was somewhere else. But now it was ‘the home stretch’ for most of them, or others who called it home even though they had not been there before. Each morning as he woke and lay watching the grey dipping sky through the porthole with its thick brass fitting, he thought, I am further away, further each day, rather than I am closer, closer to whatever it is we are coming to. But that word further carrying no more regret for him than did closer move him to much sense of excitement. From a place that at times he hated, to a place he knew nothing of.
Then through the stillness of the fog in these last two days when they had taken on trust the announcements over the loudspeaker that the coast was out there, the Lizard if only they might see it, and Land’s End, as it might be told to a man whose sight had failed. And into the greyness of the estuary, the fall of flattening light on water the same colour as the air. The shape of England there in cranes and the spread of wharf sheds and the first small figures of men working heavy ropes, and the flung uncoiling thud of the loops hurled out from the ship, and the call of voices from the crew to the men running and placing them across the bollards at the wharf’s edge. The ship’s slow swing across the narrowing strip of churning water. But it was not this first swift taking-in of what the other side came down to after six weeks of sailing towards it, this mesh of what seemed already descending dark, although it could not be that, not yet; nor the men’s high voices calling above the engines’ thrum that most struck him, nor the toy scale everything seemed to take on from where he stood on the deck, and London disappearing off into haze. ‘There’s no end to it,’ the quietly spoken Cornishman who had shared his cabin for those long waiting weeks had remarked that morning. Not size nor the meagre light nor the strange voices that so came home to him, the narrow streets with their identical houses almost right up to underneath the ship.
‘It stinks,’ he had said, to a stout woman with tears in her eyes who stood beside him and moved away when he spoke. He meant not even the soft odour of rot coming up to him as the ship drew in, the debris and flotsam on the scud of water beneath them. He realised his words were more a question than a definition. It was not decay nor squalor that came in on him, but something not yet defined. A soft nudging wind now carried a drift of rain across the deck. Stephen drew the collar of his gabardine coat closer against his throat. Ah, that was it, he thought. It was the heaviness of ash pungent with rain. The smell clawed the back of his throat. He feared that he might retch at the clogging press of it, so close it seemed as if a cloth drenched with it were held against his face. And the realisation surprising him, almost as if a physical shove thrust in on him what was so obvious, and yet had not occurred to him until now. He had come to a city where war still trailed in the air. That was what he smelled.
He was glad to leave the ship, and the bonhomie he had never felt at ease with. He carried his one suitcase and followed directions a steward who was also a Londoner had given him when they talked together a few nights before. These were written for him on the folded square of ship’s stationery he carried in his pocket. The streets, the buses, the Tube stations he might look out for. To walk on land again, even that felt strange. The lights from shops and the big streets tipped into a brightness that was like something on a stage rather than for real, although he had never seen a stage if it came to that, except as they sometimes came up when they were part of a story at the pictures. Yet that is what so much was like, looking out from the bus window. As everyone on the ship had said, London was like nothing else. It was the centre. It was where whatever happened was bound to be new to you. That is what Will the Cornishman had warned him of. Just let things happen, he had said, just keep a sharp eye.
He had waited with other people at a bus stop, watching for the number written on his piece of paper to arrive. He saw the lights stretch out like ribbons and jog across the river, and the first buildings that he thought he recognised from photos he had seen. From the lids of cake tins even. Or ones like them anyway, because London was like itself, over and over again. And what struck him most, the buildings that were only partly there, the snapped walls and broken angles and piled brick, and the smell of ash that must be there, although he knew that might just be in his mind. You see dead broken buildings, great burned-out chunks, you imagine ash. It came in on him that this is what winning must look like. To make it like this and make it worse for someone else until they stop, and so you’ve won.
He changed buses twice. People were helpful if you asked them, although not easy to understand. And in a hurry. You expected that. The way you expected the sky to be glowing right across, because London was the capital, even its sky. It cheered you up, Will had said, you knew a city was safe if its sky reflected like that. He looked forward to the sky as much as anything, going back after years away. London at night, he said again. Although he didn’t mind the stars, once he was down back home. Don’t get him wrong.
Stephen rubbed at the window with his sleeve. The rain began again, but lightly. It was more a veil trailing across the traffic than what you would call rain. But the wetness on things shone. The branches of trees slicked and shining with it. And the brightness of the buses slipping past. All so good to look at. The circles of mist around the street lights, softening them. Then the road the bus was on became a bridge, and a long train slid beneath, the rails running between rows of houses banked on either side.
The conductor touched his shoulder. ‘It’s a long walk back,’ he said, ‘if you don’t get off here, lad.’ It was the street he had asked for nearly half an hour back. The short jolly man’s hand in the bag he wore across his shoulder, stirring its coins as he called out stops and joked with passengers. ‘Keep your curls dry,’ he said, as Stephen stepped down with his suitcase into the sad attempt at rain. Then a quick moment of regret, which was hard to explain, as he watched the bus move off into the night, the lights from the shops smearing streaks along its sides.
He walked back twenty yards. He saw a clock that confirmed it was not quite six o’clock. It felt as though it might be ten. He knew the number of the shop he was looking for, in fact he had known it before the ship pulled out weeks ago on a blustery morning and the dome of the post office at the top of College Hill and a church spire that must have been Ponsonby Road, the last things he recognised before the city fell away, and the departed coast thinned out. There was the number now on a strip of glass above the doorway to the shop. So this was where he was meant to be, where Mr Lewis in his blue bow tie, his black Homburg hat, had promised him he would arrive at, as they talked in Shortland Street months before. Mr Lewis with his great eyebrows, like a joke someone wore to a party, his passion that his students get things not simply right but exactly right, because lives depend on that, never forget, on measurement, on precision, on following exactly what they had learned. Pharmacy is not a trade, gentlemen, it is a calling. There are people, Mr Lewis assured his evening class in the wooden annexe in Symonds Street, people who will come into the premises you hope one day to work in, who will never afford a doctor. They will trust you to listen carefully. Listen with patience and courtesy but most of all with skill. As he also would tell them while they looked back with incredulity, there is nothing to fear in examinations, it was the privilege of knowledge to be tested, that even potassium, say, to take an element at random, was a wonder in itself, as was every other word he instructed them on. He was easy to make fun of, with his accent that was like a comedian’s waiting to make them laugh, and the finicky care of his dress, the thick black-framed glasses above a nose that could have come with the exaggerated eyebrows from the Joke Emporium in Karangahape Road. Mr Lewis who had no notion of the kindly mockery when at the end of one term his class gave him a large Cuban cigar as a present, for he never went to the cinema, nor knew how his dignity, which meant much to him, teetered on the edge of ridicule. But Stephen liked him, and Mr Lewis liked him back. Without assuming more closeness than was proper between teacher and pupil they would at times talk a little after class, and the pupil sometimes helped to tidy the room where a dozen other young men, and one middle-aged woman, two evenings a week, learned the privileged mysteries of the ancient craft of pharmacy, as he so insisted they call it. ‘Chemist’ was a misnomer they were wise to avoid. At least Stephen and Miss Clifford understood. Theirs would be an ageless gift, to make the world a better place.
‘So, London?’ Mr Lewis said. ‘So soon as next month?’
Stephen told him, ‘I fight with my father every time I see him. Better to get out of it altogether.’
‘The war’s hardly over. It won’t be beer and skittles.’
‘I have to go somewhere. I don’t know anywhere else.’ Even to himself, as he said it, the curious sadness of what his life must sound like putting it like that, the thinness of it, which was not what he meant. He meant a place to learn about other things.
Mr Lewis stood silent a moment, as though surprised that he might be confided in. He tapped at his glasses. Then ‘Away is sometimes the best,’ he said. He wrote a name and address on a piece of paper, an old and good friend he said from when he was his best pupil’s own age. Before that, even. A friend to whom he would write. ‘It is always good to have a contact,’ Mr Lewis said. ‘It is an easy place to get lost.’ And Stephen knew without it needing to be explained that the man in front of him, with the kind of tie you saw no one wear except in photographs of Winston Churchill, with a face people sometimes smiled at, was the kindest person he had met. They shook hands and Mr Lewis did an unexpected thing. He put his other hand on Stephen’s arm and drew him towards him, so slightly that their shoulders barely touched, and he then turned and walked up the hill, each of them too embarrassed to have known what to say. The number he had written for him there in front of Stephen now. In gold, on glass that was black like tar. And swirly, dragony, so old-fashioned it must have been up there a hundred years.
This then was where he was meant to be. In the window in front of him there was a huge glass bottle, almost the size of a man, full of lime-coloured liquid. The stopper was as big as a head. The door Stephen opened was divided into squares of orange-tinted glass, and along one wall of the space he entered were shelves cluttered with an array of differently shaped cardboard boxes. Below them were rows of wooden drawers, with handwritten cards set in metal slots, and brass clasps to slide them in and out. The names on the cards were abbreviated Latin words. The mysteries of the craft, Mr Lewis had liked calling them, the words he insisted to his students they must become as familiar with as with their own names.
A man seated behind the counter looked up as he entered, a wire running from above the door tripping off a tinny ringing. As he moved, a dot of reflected light slid across his balding head. He stood, both hands pressing on the counter as though to help him rise. He wore a white smock and a plain dark tie, and gave the impression of formal tidiness, although within those few seconds Stephen took in how the shop could do with a thorough tidying up. Then as the man walked towards him, he saw that he was not as old as he had supposed, although his face was hatched with deep lines, as though a fine net pulled back against the skin. There was a name for that condition, Stephen thought, I should remember that. He would look it up.
‘Mr Golson?’ Stephen asked.
The man looked at him without speaking, and nodded to his suitcase, meaning him to set it down. Then after what seemed a long time, he said, ‘You must be the boy.’
‘What boy’s that?’ An edge of truculence in Stephen’s voice, which embarrassed him. But he disliked the man saying that to him.
The man surprised him then by laughing, shaking his head as if to say, We’re off to a bad start here then, aren’t we just? ‘I don’t know what I expected. What kind of native old Nat had sent me.’ And noticing his visitor seemed more disconcerted still, he rubbed the back of his neck, as if pondering where he might go from here. ‘So,’ he said. A finger tapped at the bridge of his spectacles. He was a man who fidgeted. The light continued to slip across his moist baldness at each move. ‘So this is what they look like out there, is it? If they grow up eating decent food?’ He continued to laugh, a curious almost soundless opening of his mouth, a slight tilting back of his head.
I seem to strike him as a joke, Stephen thought. He felt himself warm with confusion. The man’s accent alone was puzzling for him, the kind he had heard only in the pictures, odder even than Mr Lewis’s. Yet so obviously there was kindness in his speaking too, even the sense that he was pleased the young fellow had arrived. And now that Mr Golson raised his hand to run it along the length of his tie, Stephen saw he wore a ring with a small black stone on his little finger, a ring which in time he would see so often removed and placed on a square cloth in the small dispensary out the back, as though to work while wearing jewellery was not the thing a professional ought do. But out here, in the shop, it was always there, the ring with the black stone.
Then out of the blue Mr Golson was assuming Mr Lewis and the young man he had sent must surely have been friends. ‘And Nat?’ he was asking. ‘I don’t expect he’ll ever come back, not now?’
Stephen again embarrassed, at his having to say Nat Lewis had been his teacher, that he himself was just one among other pupils, he hardly knew him well enough to talk about anything other than what they were there for, to become pharmacists. ‘Mr Lewis never talked about himself.’
‘I suppose not,’ Mr Golson said. He was disappointed. He turned and nodded at the shelves, while his hand indicated beyond where they stood, to the counter with its slew of papers, to whatever lay there beyond the counter, behind the curtain made from dozens of long beaded strings. Two lights in round white semi-transparent globes, set above curled iron brackets, lit the entire shop. Mr Golson said, ‘Different when my assistant was here. She believed in lighting up the street until the blackouts. Now it’s only me I get by on half.’ And laughing his almost silent laugh, as though there was a joke there somewhere Stephen failed to catch, ‘You’ll get used to it all. If you’ve a mind to.’
And so it was done, as quickly as that. There was no further mention of the letter from his old friend, his fellow apothecary across there on what he imagined the world’s bright side to be, for it would become a habit, in the months ahead, even when the stream of traffic in the road outside glittered in sunlight, and people moved about in summer clothes, for David Golson to remark that his assistant must be missing it, surely, missing the grand weather he was used to over there, back home? The Pacific. The word itself was a flaring lamp.
‘It’s the end of winter there now, mind,’ Stephen had said at first, ‘it’s cold and slush just like winter anywhere,’ but his boss was not to be deceived. He knew it was a land of sun his assistant had come from, anything said to the contrary a mere modest disclaimer. At times when he looked at the young man whose shyness in the shop was less of a problem with the passing months, and was something indeed the ladies rather warmed to, it was palms and beaches and a flawless sky Mr Golson hung behind him, colourful as a stage set. Although what it had made him think of too were photographs his nephew had sent him from Haifa when he trained there for Special Ops a few years before. His nephew who did not return but Haifa, the beach and the beauty of it, must be there still. The Mediterranean and the Pacific had a lot in common, imagined from here.
On that first late afternoon then Stephen was invited to the back of the shop, to the small room with space for not much more than two chairs set to either side of a bright yellow table, with a square of plain linoleum cut to fit its top and tacked down at each corner, and three shelves above it with folded papers, reference volumes and professional journals, and paper flags for the Allies pinned above those again. Two cups hung from screws at the edge of the middle shelf, and against one wall there stood a small metal sink, and a bench to hold no more than a kettle and a few plates. One bright naked bulb descended from a flex above the table. And oddly everything out here neat and tidily arranged, so unlike the clutter of the shop. As if saying, here is where life matters, out there is where so much else steps in. But Stephen already aware that you could not go round putting your labels on what you observed, or imagined things to mean. A courteous puzzlement at so much, already establishing itself as his way with the world.
And the further embarrassment that first day in England, after Mr Golson made him tea and took biscuits from a tin, and explained the mess out front by telling him of Mrs Garnett, who had worked for him for years, and how there was no question of replacing her, although that was three years back now. Until the end of the war, that had been his excuse, everyone’s excuse for putting things off, once it’s over we’ll attend to things. ‘Now we can’t,’ he smiled, ‘can’t come at that one anymore. But I still say so. You’ll have to make what you can of it. Pick up the traces, isn’t that what they say, from where Mrs Garnett put them down?’
Stephen would find in the months ahead that of Mr Golson’s many stories Mrs Garnett was the one he most came back to. Mrs Garnett whose name was Phoebe. She was not of the faith, he explained, but that had not mattered to him then any more than it did now, with Stephen. She had worked here four days each week; her husband was afflicted, a man in a chair who seldom spoke. She learned to read scripts, to make up prescriptions, as though she were born to it. A finely gifted woman. She learned things first as a surprise for him, she said he had given her another life. And then Mrs Garnett coming back one evening after playing bridge with her sister on the other side of the High Street because her house keys she had left in the storeroom. It does not seem logical, he said, that women can be so confused about something so important as keys, but there we are. This was in ’42, when things were at their worst. Her sister had said, Stay the night why don’t you, it’s late enough, you never know. Know when they’ll start that racket flying over and the rest of it. Well I need to get the ration book too in any case, she told her sister, it’s in the purse and what if anything happened to that? So that held her up, her coming back here to the shop, and then walking home when she might have stayed at her sister’s, and the sirens starting and instead of going to the shelter she just kept on walking back, that was what Mrs Garnett was like. And that was the night three houses copped it down in Fellows Avenue. There is no particular drama in the way Mr Golson tells it. But that is the reason, he says, why the place is not as it might be if Mrs Garnett had kept coming in. Mrs Garnett kept it neater than a pin. Then one month becomes a year and he thinks as soon as all this is over, the raids stopped so surely it is only time, a matter of time, until it’s back to how things were and there’ll be so many looking for work, women with their men back, he would wait till then to replace her. ‘But you’re here now, Stephen, so we can tidy up.’
This first time he told the story he said something in another language Stephen of course did not understand and Mr Golson did not explain. He would come to understand that it was something the older man always said when one of his stories meant, So that is how it is, we can do nothing about it, it was meant to be. Phrases that in time Stephen would recognise and come to know and so much later use himself to make some of the older women laugh on the counter’s other side. Each day there would be other stories so that Stephen smiled and said to him, ‘I know as much about round here as if I lived here. Thanks to you.’ But this first day Mr Golson so strangely moved by what was he was saying so casually that he removed his spectacles and rubbed them with the handkerchief he took from his pocket. ‘You did not know Mrs Garnett,’ he said. ‘If I told you about her you would know everything.’
Everything settled so quickly, then, on that afternoon when he arrived, a young man not able to explain why he had left a place where there were beaches and shops with more food than they could sell, and more work than there were men for, left what was there in fact and what Mr Golson imagined to be there, to come to this, where for weeks that smell of ash would come at Stephen when he did not expect it, when no one else remarked on it. And the sense of shame that same early evening, after the tea they drank at the yellow table at the back of the shop and the tentative conversing until at last there was a pause and Mr Golson turned to look up at the clock with its Coronation emblem and said as they stood together, ‘You have somewhere to go now? You know how to get there?’ Stephen’s dreadful moment of awkwardness, how it must seem he assumed so much, coming directly from the wharves, as though the end of his journey was here, as though he had never considered beyond that. His first shaming at his own naïveté, a word he would not at that stage of his life have known and still less used for the sense of dumb emptiness, the feeling that his clothes were canvas against his skin. A shame sharpened by the memory flooding back to him of the man he had so hoped to forget, his father leaning forward, shouting at him, Go to bloody London then, find out what’s so grand about those doss houses he and his cobbers put up at on leave, what a bloody lie it was, all that London caper! His father shouting at him, jabbing with the poker at the opened door of the range, spit jumping onto his son’s sleeve, ‘Mix your bloody cough mixtures over there then if that’s all you want from life!’ And as the door to the range clanged shut his stepmother moving in front of them both, between his father’s anger and his own resentful silence, to place on the hob the big pot whose handles she held in her raised sacking apron. An image so sudden and searing in his mind that the sting of it seemed more real than where he now stood, the suitcase held against his side. The remarkable thing that Mr Golson seemed in some way to understand, as he looked at the confused young man in front of him.
‘These things are not impossible,’ he said. He raised his palm as if patting the air, and Stephen again put down his suitcase while the man went to the telephone at the end of the counter. He spoke quickly, quietly, and came back to stand in front of the boy with his lowered eyes, one raw hand drawing together the sides of his coat, fastening a button, unloosening it.
‘I cannot,’ Stephen began to say, but Mr Golson raised his hand for the second time. Then the old man asking him, with what even at that moment Stephen knew was said with a curious kind of humour, ‘I gather you have no strong feelings about Jews?’
Stephen smiled, as if even that was a kind of awkwardness, as he looked to the strangely creased face, the glasses with a smudge mark where a finger had adjusted them. ‘I have never known any,’ he said. He could think of nothing else to say.
‘Don’t let our friend Nat hear you saying that!’ Stephen knowing then it would be all right to grin. He said, ‘I didn’t know. It didn’t matter.’
‘Lucky Nat, then.’
Mr Golson fetched his coat from the tearoom. They walked for five minutes down a sloping street, and then along a road that levelled off. There were big trees on the edge of the pavement, tall gloomy houses behind low brick walls, the sharp angles of their roofs black against the tinted sky. They walked without speaking, as if the past hour had used up whatever might be important for their first meeting. Mr Golson hummed softly. The only other sound was the flat impact of their steps, and the bump of the suitcase brushing against Stephen’s coat. He was glad for the silence. He thought, Mr Golson mustn’t mind being with me or he’d not be making that half-singing sound.
They stopped at a high house with steps rising from inside its gate to a porch at the side. There were lights showing on one floor, and when the gate clicked and then grated as it swung back, the curtains in the next house moved slightly, as though a breeze had stirred them. Mr Golson said, as if making a joke, ‘The English look out for each other.’ And then, ‘You will be all right here until you’re sorted out.’ He touched the brim of the black hat he had taken from the peg in the storeroom before they left the shop. ‘Sam will look after you. He is my good friend.’
The door’s brass knocker was the shape of a horseshoe. The man who opened the house to them was short and balder than Mr Golson, and harder to understand. ‘Everyone is from somewhere else,’ he said. And that was almost all. He went ahead upstairs, nodded to where the bathroom was, and said only, ‘You must sleep as long as you need. I am always in the kitchen. If you are hungry you must tell me.’ And he too remarking something in another language, as he closed the bedroom door.
It was on the top level of the house, a small room with bare walls and an ornate blue cover on the single bed against the wall, rucked and looped like the curtains in a picture theatre. A table and an empty glass, and a chair pushed in against the table. The room was musty. Stephen guessed no one had slept in here for a long time. He opened the window and the cooler air was damp, but good to let in. There was the slightest misting still of rain that fell across the street lights, a drift of trailed gauze. He saw now what he had not been aware of when he walked down the street with Mr Golson. From the window he looked across to the jagged fragments of what remained of a house across the road, most of which had fallen while the hedge in front of it, taller than a man, had survived and continued to grow. There was also in the air the scent of something neither bitter nor sweet, and yet distinctive, the slight fall of rain perhaps sharpening it. He thought, I am here, at last. I am alone in a room in England for the first time. It will be all right. He left the window slightly opened on its latch. Then the man was at the door again, to say he must come down. Not a feast, he said. But there is bread. There are sausages. He puffed out his cheeks. To keep the wolf on its lead, is that what one says? On its lead. From the door. To keep the wolf.
Sam Abrams liked to talk. ‘I ask nothing,’ he said on the first morning after he had done his friend a favour and taken in the young stranger who had crossed oceans, now of all times, to live here, where he supposed half the world must like to live as well. Crazy, he thought as he watched the quiet young man at the kitchen table, crazy whichever way you look at it. And that first morning too, saying the visitor could use the room another night if he liked, which in turn became another night after that and then another, and it was a week later when Stephen asked, ‘Am I your boarder then, Sam?’, and he was looked at with surprise, as if why would he have thought anything else, was he sleeping across the road Sam asked, and only pretending to be here? You would never miss Sam’s jokes because his own laughing told you. And as Mr Golson liked to say, sometimes several times a day, ‘Things will be fine.’ Zorg zich nisht.
Mr Golson liked to explain with care, believing it the first step to accepting his own point of view. Each day they talked as they drank tea in the storeroom, until the bell sounded as a customer entered from the street, or Stephen reminded him, ‘If I’m to get on with things,’ and Mr Golson would look at the clock and tell him, ‘One day you will be a hard man to work for,’ and tap the young man’s shoulder as he walked through to the shop. Mr Golson also liked to think he was helping the boy from so far away, from his place of sun and ignorance, to understand what the true world was. ‘Your chance to start over,’ he would say. And Stephen began to pity him a little, suspecting there was a sadness which he could only guess at behind the code of what he said.
With Sam his landlord it was so much more open, more direct, this facing the business of how things were, how life turned out. In his quick tumble of words that seemed at times as though he were talking in a language that was only partly the one he shared with his young friend, Sam would tell him, ‘David Golson, God be good to him, believes we must hold on to ropes that are not there. Not now. Not anymore. But he will not believe the world is bad, as we know, you and I, Stephen, as we know it is, eh? Of course we know that.’ But saying so without rancour, as if to face the grimness of things, could be said lightly enough, for Sam so openly enjoyed what he called ‘the business of getting on’. ‘You got that,’ he told Stephen. ‘I see it just the way you walk up the street. You get on.’
‘I don’t know with what,’ Stephen said.
‘You get on,’ Sam repeated. ‘You listen to me.’
Wednesday nights, especially, Sam liked to talk. Wednesday nights he would come in late, and Stephen knew the old man was pleased if he was still there in the sitting room, pretending to study the most recent book Mr Golson told him he would be the smarter for getting on top of. Sam flushed from the entertainment, the glasses of schnapps, coming in from the club up in Finchley Road. ‘That Herz! That Viennese! He makes everyone forget, can you imagine a gift so big as that? Everyone in the room close to everything bad and he has us laughing before we know we laugh. These Viennese!’ He insisted Stephen join him with a glass before he went up to bed. ‘He is something I can tell you. Laugh!’ Holding the small blue glass with its gold rim, the liquor Stephen disliked the taste of, but it was Sam’s mood that warmed him, Sam raising his own glass as he says, ‘Because we are here together, my friend. Because we can do this,’ and leans across to tip the rim of their glasses against each other.
‘And Mrs Einhorn,’ he liked to say, ‘Ah, we drink to Mrs Einhorn.’ His repeating ‘Ah’ but drawing it out halfway to a song rather than just a sigh, their drinking to a woman who could not be put into words. ‘Impossible in English,’ Sam regretted, thinking of what surely must be said to do justice to the figure, the presence, the shaina maidel they raised their glasses to.
Sam drank only that one night of the week, at the cabaret as he called it, and Stephen having no more idea of what that might be other than a room where only Jewish people went, and heard performers, and where stricter people would keep away from, the cabaret was no place for them. You will not see hair locks there, Stephen, I tell you that. Not even our friend David. At home with books. Do I not tell him, ‘You cannot be serious every day,’ but will he listen? You work with him. When does David listen? But sorrowful then as he thinks of it, of his friend David who is never the same after the night of the bomb, when the lady who worked in the shop died. He raises both his hands, and lets them fall on his knees. ‘I know nothing about that, Stephen. I tell you nothing because I know nothing.’
The first glass would become a second but never more, as Sam talked on, slipping away from English, coming back to it, and even there Stephen losing much of what he was being told, until at times it was as though Sam spoke not to him so much as aloud to himself, finding the words to make clear to himself what needed to be told. ‘Livandowski,’ he would say, when he guessed he may have been drifting towards darker things, talking now of the music at the synagogue in Belsize Park, his palms coming together as though he were about to sing. ‘What a voice can do to you.’ And Stephen would again lose the drift of what he said, how much good it would do his friend David to come with him, It is not your English go there, Sam said. But no, David could not be cheerful without being sad, the boy must know what he meant? Sam saying how he was not the first man, David, not the last man either, not to have the wife he deserved, that there are women who leave the kindest of husbands for a man not worth that, not worth so much as that, snapping his fingers. ‘For a man with dogs out Walthamstow.’ His disgust was intense. ‘It is when the war is on and people do crazy things. David will tell you the shop goes wrong when that lady who works for him dies in the air-raid. That is not the whole story, Stephen. Not the only story.’ Then Sam stands and takes the glasses, and says as he leaves the room, ‘Not that you say a word. You know nothing, Stephen.’
‘Nothing,’ Stephen assured him.
Most Wednesdays he waited until Sam finished in the kitchen, washing the glasses, moving plates that have something to do with what they will eat tomorrow, quietly singing snatches of song in a voice that has little tune to it, and that at times may be broken into by a laugh, and as he said one evening, pausing at the door before taking to the stairs, ‘I think we must get a cat one day, eh? A cat from Vienna. I have a name for her but I keep that to myself. Until we get the cat.’ He taps the side of his nose. ‘She will never know unless we tell her.’ Sam thinking it a better joke than did his young friend, his laughter keeping on as he makes his way up to his bedroom. And so much later Stephen saying to his children, who at times will think only how often have we heard him tell us this, ‘I owe everything to them, the man whose house I boarded in, the one I worked for in the shop. Everything. Like the name you have now, David.’ And once this button was pressed, as the children said behind his back, they waited for the other sentences to follow, and might almost have mouthed with him, ‘So little I even understood. I had no idea what to say to almost everything, or why things happened as they did.’
There were fragments he still failed to understand. One week when Sam Abrams ceases to speak of Mrs Einhorn, any more than Mr Golson mentioned his own wife so much as once, who left him but that did not matter, and Mrs Garnett who died, and took his heart with her, in one of Sam’s phrases. ‘And you never got the cat,’ young Lisa will say. While thirty years on again, in the bach on the coast, and with only the boy left to tell, ‘All of us were ghosts,’ Stephen says, ‘only they were real ones and I was still waiting my turn.’
‘That’s bullshit,’ David will tell his father. ‘No one can have so little to say about back then.’
His father contradicting him. ‘I must be one of those who can.’
‘Your rambling on about old men. My mother wasn’t even there. That has still to come. Even you can’t make her a ghost that early?’ He clattered the tumbler he drank from on the low glass-topped table between them, in the bright room with the hard breaking of the surf coming up to them as it did on those afternoons when the westerly picked up. At other times the old man seldom hears it, although the younger people do. The girl who was married to a road worker further down the beach, who came in two mornings a week and cooked for him when he was alone, told him she could not imagine not having it there, that sound. It has been there all her life, she told him, except when she was in town, and hated it there at night, the other sounds, but not that, not being able to hear the sea.
He wished as always there was more he might tell his son, as he had been able to write about to Lisa, a little of it anyway, years back, when she too had begun to ask him questions. But there was nothing new to be said, no dredged incidents, no anecdotes, any more for Lisa then than David now, nothing they had not heard in pieces from him before, or from their mother, and she too had come back to half a dozen things, so much of what they had wanted her to tell them not there to tell.
Six months had passed since Stephen arrived, and then almost a year, and it was December when he sent his one card home, but never knew if it had arrived, or if his father had read it or as likely burned it unread. ‘A farm,’ he would say, when Mr Golson asked him more about his home, about where he had grown up. ‘Cows and mud and half a day by bus from anywhere. That’s enough to remember. My father who was in the other war was mad.’ And as a joke to make his boss who was now his friend smile quietly at him, and shake his head as if his way of saying, Now I know you are having me on, you are making fun of me, Stephen, he said, ‘It was less like Finchley Road than you might think.’ Then they would talk of other things that mattered more than the past. Mr Golson said it was too late now for people like himself and Sam Abrams and most of their friends ever to be free of, but you are the lucky ones. The young. The ones from so far away you don’t need to know what we mean. He began to give Stephen papers and pamphlets to read, the kind of thing he said that the English, good people that they are, are always afraid of, a world that starts again. He explained what the important words meant. Proletariat and capital and commodity exchange, and not so much the need for another world but the certainty that it would arrive. One must believe that.
‘There are rich and clever people who think as we do,’ he said, and sometimes they would read a weekly newspaper together, and a man called Mr Laski at times came into the shop, and said, ‘You must come along with David. There are so many young people at the meetings you would feel at home.’ But the thought of being with those his own age who spoke of things he found vague, even when explained, intimidated him. He found excuses until Mr Golson understood his reticence, and although they continued to speak of such things he no longer pressed him. ‘We find our own time,’ he said. ‘I was forty before I read a page of any of this.’ Yet even so Stephen came to understand more clearly the lies that history made up about itself, and the nets that were spread for working people, and at another and distant time enraged his son by saying he would have joined, almost certainly he would have gone to meetings as Mr Golson so waited for him to do, had he not met their mother, and life became so immediate and demanding, so vivid it was as though until then he had only heard of colour but never seen it. Anything other than her seemed not to matter. And his son’s anger not simply at the politics, which he detested, but that even when speaking of back then, his father did not say ‘love’ when he spoke about their mother but found a dozen others ways. ‘When we met’, he would say, or ‘when we became close’, or ‘once we had decided’, or, ‘There is so much in that saying, swept off your feet.’ His son even shouting at him, ‘You never bloody say “love” ever, you must know that!’
‘It’s not a word, David, just to be used in chatting about things.’ But ‘Sam Abrams,’ he will say, ‘I owe him everything for that. For seeing the advertisement outside the church, and forcing me to go. Otherwise I might still be there.’ Sam had told him he was too young to be a hermit, to sit and read, to not realise women withered without attention, it was his duty to attend. He saw the advertisement for the dance. He insisted the boy attend. ‘David will never tell you these things. You must listen to me. Sam knows these things.’
The young woman was taller than Stephen by several inches, pale and tall and shining, the way the dark green satin of her blouse took the light and gave it back. The parish hall they stood in, each so obviously alone, was too large for the number of young people attending. With the coloured paper decorations along the walls, the smiling older woman who played the upright piano on the low stage at the hall’s end, the kindly young cleric in his collar and grey suit, not much older than the fifty or so young people who watched him from the floor or from the benches that ran along the walls as he assured them, ‘You are all so welcome here.’ But there was the chill of space and social stiffness, as the parish determined to ‘get things back to normal’, as indeed it almost was, for only one of the young men wore a military uniform, a cadet of some sort. A year or two ago, as the woman at the piano could have told you, the crowded hall seethed like a parade ground, and the girls the prettier for it, she would tell that too, the edge always of uncertainty at that time that made the dances poignant, as now they were likely only to be dull. This was the first of its kind in months. The young vicar smiled as he spoke to them and opened his clasped hands as though he released something none of them would have expected, the quiet unruffled fun of peacetime. That is what he would like them to think. Each fortnight from now on, and numbers would surely swell when the word got round. The fun is back. After his few words he nodded to the woman at the piano who began to play the Lancers, which perhaps half of the young people knew the steps for. The one older man who had stood with the rest and listened, who must have been thirty, and held a cigarette in his hand although a notice at the entrance requested that you smoke only outside the hall, turned and left. He had seemed an adult come to the wrong event. But then the vicar himself, who had asked everyone to call him Robin, broke the ice and was the first to enter the spirit of things, by mock-bowing to a girl who in fact was his fiancée. How strange all this seems, Stephen thought, close and strange together, the sudden sense of so many girls in colourful dresses, their bright slashes of lipstick and that English way of laughing. And yet how distant too, in that way so much about living here still seemed to him, that feeling so often with him in the shop, his own smiling and nodding in the talk of ration books and rebuilding and the shame, what else was it, of kicking Mr Churchill out, after all that he had done. And yet not really being here, that feeling too almost always with him. He wondered if there was anywhere he would not feel that. He supposed now that this was what ‘parish’ meant, people who liked to be together, who sounded the same as those they talked with, so much shared between them they might take for granted. It was hard to imagine what these people were like when they were not here, within a few yards of him. It was hard to say that about anyone, really. Although he guessed that the tall girl in the green blouse, the dark pleated skirt, was no more parish than he himself. She was the only one he noticed who was dressed like that, as if she had come from an office, and not especially for this, the church’s ‘Let’s Get Back to Peacetime’ special dance. The other girls were in frocks, two of them even in sort of gowns as if they too had not quite understood.
He had found a space on one of the benches far enough from anyone else that he would not be obliged to talk. When he put his head back for a moment against the wall it crinkled against a big rosette of blue and red and white paper, and he again leaned forward. He watched across the hall, through the hopping of the dancers, as the vicar nodded to a boy in a suit, who went up to the girl in green and leaned to speak to her, and her quick firm shaking of her head. As though this was the last thing she expected, to be asked to dance, here of all places! Stephen smiled across at her, knowing how they must be in the same boat, exactly, but if she noticed him she did not acknowledge it. The light across the shininess of her blouse now on the fall of her fair hair as well, as she lowered her head and her face was obscured, and she looked down on her hands as they lay on her lap. He wondered if maybe she was afraid, her stillness that of an animal whose defence was not to move. But his attention suddenly interrupted by the young woman who broke off her dancing with the vicar and came across to him, laughing as she drew close, demanding—she used that word, demand—that he dance with her, they were all friends here. ‘No piking,’ she teased him, taking his hand, drawing him towards her.
‘I’ve never,’ his telling her, ‘I don’t know. Really.’
‘Where we all begin, then,’ she said. ‘Where else can we?’ She held him firmly and accepted his shuffle and he scarcely took in what she said as she prattled to put him at his ease, telling him her name was Lorna, ‘Robin’s Lorna’, floating her hand in front of him, the ring with its glinty stone for him to see. And stupidly he asked, ‘Are there other Lornas?’, which she thought a droll thing to say, and steering him, directing him, not noticing that he bumped her, confiding that the beat, the beat was the thing to follow, the rhythm and the beat were everything, kind and firm and welcoming as she told him how Robin so wanted to get the parish up and running at the youth level especially, youth and a little older, it was so much harder here mind than it was in Surrey. ‘But you go where you’re put,’ she said, ‘do what you can. You marry into where they send you.’
He felt a rush of relief as Lorna thanked him when the piano paused. This, it seemed, was when the dancers clapped for a moment, and found other partners, before the elderly lady with her big smiling teeth launched into a foxtrot. Lorna said, spotting another man sitting by himself, ‘Thought he could get away!’, and left Stephen as he most wanted to be, alone again, no one trying to be kind to him. He went back to the bench against the wall. He wondered how long he must stay before he might leave without it looking rude to walk out on so much kindness. He saw another older woman, so thin and a little hunched that he supposed she might be related to the pianist, who fussed about at a long table at the far corner of the hall, arranging plates, setting out tall jugs of coloured drinks. But the dancing had barely started, they would not be expected to eat and talk together so soon as that? The new fear that he must dredge for things to say, that the words would not be there for him. No, he must go before then. He must make a break for it.
There was a new buzz in the room as couples laughed together when again the dancing stopped, and Robin called out to the pianist, who showed her teeth and smiled back, and someone whooped as the notes banged out for a reel. Stephen felt a kind of panic as a girl came close to him, and he shook his head. Why was time stretching out like this—was it ten minutes or half an hour since Lorna had told him, ‘There, I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Stephen, making sure you join in.’ He could tell the dark girl disliked his saying no to her like that, his not so much as thanking her for asking. He closed his eyes and once more leaned his head against the soft crush of paper. Then the decision made for him, the rescue, he would joke with her about it, remembering the day each year from now on as exactly that, the rescue. The tall girl’s voice, clear and precise and urgent, ‘We must leave here now.’
Seconds later they stood in the porch to the hall, a darkly varnished space that smelled of wax and damp coats, and with a tiny Gothic red-paned window that the lights from a passing car smeared into a quick flare. The piano still pelted out its reel, there was the fun of changing partners and stooping beneath the raised meeting hands, but all that already part of another life they had dipped into briefly and were free from. The girl took a coat from one of the hooks and draped it across her arm, while Stephen sought out his, and the scarf Mr Golson had insisted he borrow, this time of year you only had to listen to all that hawking in the shop. Then only outside, past the wall at the end of the church grounds, they stopped to help each other with their coats, their breathing as though forced to make a run for it, their laughing before they even spoke, the camaraderie of those who get away.
‘Your scarf,’ she said, quickly taking it up from where it had fallen from his arm. Her first real words to him. And his own, a joke that he did not intend but that amused her, ‘It doesn’t belong to me. You had better wear it.’ He raised it and put it over her head because, as he was saying now, the night was so bitter and the coat she wore so thin. Then ‘Eva,’ she said, as they walked back towards the main road that glittered in patches through the naked branches of the trees on the rise leading up to it. No more than that, and she already knew his name was Stephen, she must have heard the vicar’s fiancée call him that, for she thanked him with his name when he gifted her the scarf that belonged to Mr Golson.
Tall and quiet and calm, the words first occurring to him as he walked beside her, the words others would most often say of her as well, at the beginning, at the end, although the last becoming that touch more insistent, as one life changed to another, and then another again. All this by chance, as they kept saying to each other in those first months together, and never ceased to wonder at even in the other times, the sheer chance of a church social both had felt so awkward at as to run away from. ‘An Anglican dance you were sent to by a Jew who thought you a loner, that I was urged into going to by Quakers.’ It amused Eva always to speak of it like that.
‘I don’t get the joke,’ David would say to her in his teens, already angry, already humourless, that so much seemed so deliberately concealed from him.
‘If you don’t then it’s not a joke,’ his sister telling him. ‘I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.’