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ANDREW LEE-HART

TOUCH 
FADING
MY LOST LOVE 
SUITCASE BY THE DOOR
TOGETHER AT LAST
SISKIN THE POET
THE WATERS OF BABYLON
THE WOMAN IN THE PARK
THE DAY SHE LEFT ME
THE MAESTRO IN SIX MOVEMENTS

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Touch 

Okay I don’t give blood just so that I can hold hands with an attractive nurse, but it is certainly makes the whole process that much more pleasurable. As I walked into the church hall I had a quick look round to see a likely candidate.  Any contact would be good, male or female, but a pretty nurse with pale skin would be best. There were a couple of possibilities; a red head, a little old who was attending to one donor whilst in the corner by the drinks machine there was a tall, lithe brunette whose skin was as pale as white chocolate. The rest were elderly but they would have been better than nothing. 

After the preliminaries I was led to the bed and lay down. To my delight the brunette walked over, she had a slight remote look and to my intense disappointment I realised that she was wearing gloves; plastic surgical ones.  She saw me looking at them;

“We are recommended to wear them, stops the spread of infection. Don’t want to give you any of my germs.”

My heart sank. 

The only odour that she gave off was something antiseptic; soap probably or a particularly clinical shower gel. Her hair was tied back, with not one strand running free, whilst her blue uniform was spotless and looked as if she had just ironed it and put it on. 

I pretended to myself that I could feel her cold skin through the thin sheath of rubber but I don’t think that I could, not really. None of the other nurses were wearing them so far as I could see. If only the red head had been there instead; her touch would have been slightly warm, the blood pumping just below the surface, a slight feel of her heat. Human contact between two strangers. 

Having given my pint of blood, or however much it is, I hurriedly drank my tea feeling its warmth disappear quickly down my throat, and left; I have been giving blood for years so did not feel dizzy as I hurried out. I had taken the day off work and I had several other chores to do that Friday. 

The library was only five minutes’ walk from the church hall where I had made my donation. For a long time I had refused to use the automated machines that had been installed six months or so ago. Instead of handing your finished books to a librarian you scanned them into the machine and they disappear. And when you had found some more books to borrow there was a similar procedure; no human contact necessary or wanted. 

I used to like talking to the librarians; not just the young pretty female ones, but any, of either sex. Realised that to them I was just another customer, no sooner gone than forgotten, but I enjoyed a quick chat and the feeling that just for a couple of minutes I became part of their consciousness.  

There was never much physical contact; just the accidental brushing of fingers when I handed in my books, but it was something.  I knew that once the machines had been installed the library staff would disappear, either redeployed or made redundant.  I explained this to one of the librarians, an older lady who I assumed was quite senior, but she was not impressed and told me she had plenty of other things to do and said she would show me how to use the machine if I could not manage it.  I did not want to look stupid so after that I reluctantly started to use them. The only human interaction being a quick smile to whichever librarian happened to be on the desk as I walked in through the door, but they usually ignored me. 

I do drive, but rarely as my flat is in the centre of Telford so all the places I need such as work or shops are within walking distance. At least walking I feel part of humanity, but then the town often seems so empty of pedestrians.  The large supermarket in the middle of town, where I do most of my food shopping, has a large car park which most of the shoppers seem to use.  Even inside the hangar-like building people are in a world of their own.  Of course they have these self-service tills so the only time you get to talk to someone is when you make a mistake and an alarm goes off, and then you get a sigh and often a silent correction of the problem from an irritated shop assistant. I used to go to the greengrocer and the health food shops in the town centre, but the former closed and the latter is as corporate as the supermarket. 

I had lunch in the small vegetarian café in town. I discovered it a year or two ago after a friend mentioned it. It is always seems to be full of life with the young people who work there chatting and often loud rock music playing in the foreground. They seem to have a large turnover of staff, although a slightly older lady who I think is called Vivian has been there since the beginning. 

While the staff chat constantly amongst themselves they are less friendly to the customers.  I go there at least once a week but none of them gives me any sign of recognition and I gave up any attempt at small talk some time ago. So I sit unnoticed on one of the large wooden tables eating my leek and potato soup and read Under the Greenwood Tree. 

After lunch I needed to go to the large Waterstones to buy a book for my mother’s birthday. I could probably have walked it but as there is as there is a bus that stops just outside where I live I decided to catch that instead.  I realised it was the first time in years that I had caught one. It was surprisingly crowded and I stood up between an elderly man with a brief case and a check jacket and a woman in her thirties wearing fawn coloured trousers and a white blouse. Her hair was black but I could see a few shreds of grey amongst the roots. 

At the next stop a rather large man with shopping got on and the woman pushed back into me so I could feel her buttocks in my groin. I thought she would move back into place after the man had squeezed past her, but she stayed close pressed against me.  The inevitable happened and I felt myself go hard and tried to turn away. The best that can happen, I thought, is that she will move hurriedly away with a tut of disgust, and the worst would be a scream and a slap. In fact she continued to push herself against me as she looked vacantly out of the window.  

She smelt of slightly of a superior perfume which I found exceptionally erotic. I dared to push back in return, not hard but just so she knew that I was there, and was involved. She seemed to rub her buttocks from side to side against me, but made no noise. I wondered if anybody on the bus could see what we were doing but nobody seemed to be looking in our direction. I could not believe it was happening, it was the sort of thing one fantasized about, but was more enjoyable in retrospect. 

We had long gone past my stop when eventually she got off, without a backward glance. I followed her slowly but realised there was nothing I could say. Perhaps she had not even noticed me. I watched her hurry over towards a large post office and I went to find a bus back to the book shop, my erection drooping in disappointment. 

That evening I visited my sort of girlfriend Samantha. In fact I don’t think she even regards me as a ‘sort of boyfriend’, maybe as a friend with privileges as the current, rather unpleasant phrase is. We never speak of love, and whilst I do have romantic feelings for her, I know that if I did say that I loved her that would be the end. In fact we rarely speak of emotions and what we feel towards each other and I have no idea what she thinks of me or whether there is anybody else she is truly in love with.  

She has a large house which smells of cigarettes, although I have never seen her smoke. She is tall, with a large bosom and big hips. Her hair is red but dyed, and the shade changes every so often.  She is actually rather pretty and I suspect well out of my league so I should be happy with what I have got, and realistically I realise that I will not get any more, certainly no official relationship.  

We met on a dating website, and while neither of us were swept off our feet we became friends, particularly after we discovered a mutual interest in alternative cinema. As if in respect to the original purpose of our meeting we usually round the evening off with something sexual. 

That evening we watched a French thriller based on a novel by Georges Simenon. A cynic might say that if it not had subtitles we would have turned up our noses at it; but to my mind it seemed much more subtle than the usual thriller which would have been on at the local multiplex, and Samantha who is even less easily satisfied than me also enjoyed it. 

As usual once the film was over and we had both drunk a couple of glasses of wine we did kiss a little bit, getting quite passionate, and then she stroked me through my trousers. When she first started to do this after our third ‘date’, I tried to get my penis out, but she insisted it stayed put. As well as the inevitable mess in my trousers it made the whole thing impersonal. She never wanted me to do anything in return for her, and it was as if she were doing a slightly distasteful favour for an acquaintance, not to be talked about afterwards. The thought of her hands on my bare penis therefore became something of an erotic dream. 

As usual after a quick visit to her toilet I left feeling slightly content but also disappointed.  All those bodily fluids taken out of my body, and so clinically; I just hope that they did someone some good. Maybe saved a life. 

At night I dream of somebody coming into my room, caressing me slowly, every bit of my body. It is dark and I cannot see anything of my late night visitor. They touch me with care; lightly and with seeming enjoyment.  I don’t know if they are male or female and it does not matter. They roll me over and continue their languorous touching. I usually wake up simultaneously aroused and with a feeling of bliss, of acceptance maybe. 

There is always a smell with the dream; at first I was slightly disgusted by it and simultaneously puzzled as to what it was, but realised that it was the smell of the human body; slightly sweating and with no perfume or deodorant to hide its humanity. 

I visited my mother the following day; she lives in Sandwell, which is easy to drive to from Telford.  She is in her mid-seventies and has lived on her own since my father upped and left her shortly after I was born, to God knows where. She left the large house in Birmingham a couple of years later and after moving round the West Midlands eventually settled in a small flat on the outskirts of Sandwell about ten years ago. 

A small, dark woman; she is cold and austere and probably always was even before my father left her. The few photographs that she has from her youth and the early years of her marriage show an aloof young woman, always seeming to be at a distance from whoever she is with. And yet of all the people I know she is the only one I truly love, without wanting anything in return, which is a good job really because she has very little to offer. 

We sat opposite each other drinking Darjeeling tea and I gave her, her present. Her sitting room was filled with books most of which were my father’s but which she had kept with her as she moved from house to house. This is her best room where she entertains guests. When she is on her own she sits in a cosier back room watching television and smoking. 

We talked about this and that and then sat in silence. I do not get bored easily; living on my own I have learnt to pass time and I enjoy the companionship we share. However I realised after a while that whilst I was happy enough she was clearly getting bored; her fingers were tapping and she kept looking above my head at the plain clock on the wall, clearly I was stopping her watching a favourite television programme or she was just bored.  I got the hint, and said I had to get back and prepared to leave. 

As I left the flat, she bent her face forward toward me at an angle, I was at first nonplussed then realised what she wanted so I planted a kiss on her rather withered cheek; skin against skin. 

  Touch….

 

FADING

 

Terry Dowling did not die, he only faded away. It was a gradual process, perhaps it began the moment that he was born. Eventually there was nothing left at all.

He only slowly began to notice that it was happening and even then he was never really sure what was going on, just accepted it and did not fight it.  It was at work that he first realised something strange was going on. He worked for the tax office in Nottingham, processing self-assessment forms. He had been working there since he was in his early twenties, at first moving slowly up the ladder but about twelve years he had found his niche and stayed there. There had been some changes since he had started; information technology most obviously but after mild perturbation Dowling tended just to get on with it without complaining much as he did with most things in life.

He regarded himself as something of a fixture at the tax office. Since his friend Peter Kinsella retired a year ago he was the oldest member of staff, but whereas Peter had had a certain kudos and respect, Dowling was mostly ignored and his opinion rarely sought about anything.

That Monday he turned up rather flurried; two buses had failed to stop for him even though he had clearly put his hand out, and when one had deigned to stop he had been pushed and shoved throughout the journey by some schoolboys larking about. He had jumped off the bus his suit askew and an ache in his side.

Dowling worked on the second floor of the tax office; a large grey room badly lit by faulty strip lighting and high windows along one side. His desk was at the far end, rather hidden away. He was walking towards it when he noticed a young man he had never seen before typing on his computer, looking quite at home.

“Excuse me” he mumbled “I believe that is my desk”.

The young man; smartly dressed in an olive green suit ignored him.

“Excuse me” he said again rather more loudly “That’s my desk”.

The young man looked up rather startled “Oh, sorry, Michelle told me I could use it, she said it was free.” He looked slightly puzzled and got on with his work.

Dowling was nonplussed; he walked over to Michelle who was the manager of the floor, she was a large blonde lady who tended to ignore Dowling unless she positively had to talk to him.  She was sat at her desk on the telephone, talking loudly. He could smell her perfume, a rather pleasant smell that he had not noticed before.  He stood there for a while waiting for her to finish her call.

She looked up blankly, unfocussed until she gradually made out the figure standing apologetically in front of her. She looked slightly taken aback, and put down the telephone apparently in midsentence.

“Someone appears to be sitting at my desk” Dowling explained, slightly crossly.

“Oh sorry… I thought you’d….” she came to herself. “That is Stephen, he began to today. I …. Well there is a desk over there” she pointed to a desk in the corner which had a computer staff used in an emergency, “you can use that for the time being.”

Dowling found some tax papers to input and sat down, he felt cross and uneasy.  The computer was old and slow, but Terry did not care, he was not in a hurry. After all once one batch of forms was completed there were just more to do. He got on with his job. He had been doing this work for so long he could do it with only a small part of his consciousness and so spent most of the day dreaming, only coming round for the morning tea break and lunch time.

At lunchtime, when Peter Kinsella had worked there, they would sit together in the staff canteen, with a couple of people Peter knew from the first floor. They would talk and argue about football; Kinsella being a County fan the other two following Nottingham Forest. Dowling quite enjoyed listening to these conversations and occasionally contributed.  Truth to tell he was not that interested in football; his Mormon parents had regarded sport as quite frivolous, never watched it or took any interest in it. Dowling had no objection to it himself, but could not get excited about it, and did not follow any particular team.

After Peter left Dowling had continued to join the other two for lunch, but one day he walked into the canteen and saw that they were sat with some other colleagues, and whilst they clearly saw him, they did not ask him to join them. Thereafter he sat on his own, looking out of the window and thinking about nothing in particular.

Peter had really been his only friend at the tax office, and even then it was a friendship that began and ended in the office. They never met outside work and since Peter had left there had been no contact whatsoever. Dowling had found Peter quite a comfortable person to be around; they had routines and he did not talk too much. Dowling knew a little about him apart from his allegiance to Notts County and that he had a wife and four children, he did not even know where he lived.

He went back to his desk after lunch, and carried on until five o’clock. Dowling quite enjoyed coming to work, he supposed that he was lonely but then he had never really had many friends wherever he was, even at school and at the Mormon church he had been a loner.

It is true that he was slightly annoyed that he was unregarded and ignored. He knew that colleagues who had left the office were still talked about, anecdotes shared about them. Even unpopular members of staff such as Wendy Hind who had been a bully and who had extreme religious views was often talked about with some affection even though she had left over two years ago, and had been hated by most of the staff. Yet more people knew her name than they did Dowling’s.

He had only ever been subject to one rumour over ten years ago now, when it got about that he was gay. He never knew where it came from and he suspected it had been doing the rounds for a while before he heard it, but suddenly everyone seemed to be making comments, even Peter had said something. He had been a little embarrassed at first, but son however became quite pleased with the attention and was therefore disappointed when the comments stopped after a couple of days, either because of something said or more likely a more interesting rumour being started. He had no worry about homosexuality either way; as a Mormon he had been brought up to believe that it was a sin, but in truth he could not get worked up about it and like many things in life which caused other people anguish he just did not care.

With regard to love and sex he had realised as a teenager that it was not really for him, either with a man or a woman. He had never been kissed and could not imagine that happening to him, certainly not now that he was in his fifties.

Dowling supposed that he was not a character.  He regarded himself as normal, with no extreme views and no quirky habits. He had rejected his parents’ Mormon beliefs as a teenager; not out of repulsion or intellectual angst, it was just he could not be bothered being different and did not like standing out. He did not feel particularly strongly about it as a faith and unlike other former Mormons did not have a strong antipathy towards the church, just did not care about it.

At the end of the day he left the office saying goodbye to Stephen who already seemed to have made some friends. He caught the bus home, and unusually found a seat, but then was squashed by a fat lady with shopping who ignored him despite being virtually sat on his lap.

Rather dishevelled he got off the bus and made his way home. He lived in a flat a short bus ride from work, having lived there since his mother died five years ago in a nursing home, the family home sold to pay for her care. He liked the flat, the neighbours kept themselves to themselves and as he was on the fourth floor he had a pleasant view of the city which he would sit and look at contentedly often for hours at a time.

Dowling found that he was eating less and less, and was happy with beans on toast for his tea despite having only had a sandwich for lunch. He was not somebody who particularly enjoyed food; eating to live rather than living to eat. He switched on the television and kept it on all evening. He tended to watch the news at six as his parents had done, not that he was particularly interested in anything that was going on and he had no political allegiance but he should felt he should know what was happening in the world.

After the news a programme about music in the 1960s came on, although he had never bought a record or c.d. in his life he recognised some of the songs including The Beatles singing “Nowhere Man”, he hummed along to the tune and looked out of the window at the city; unnoticed a tear came to his eye.

He always went to bed about ten thirty, and fell straight to sleep. He slept soundlessly and apparently dreamlessly. He barely moved as he slept, and he made no noise, it was as if he were dead already.

A week later Dowling found that somebody had moved into his flat. It was a Saturday and he had been out all day; walking round the grounds of Wollaton Hall and sitting on a bench watching the ducks on the lake. He had then gone to Asda and did his weekly shopping, buying even less than he had the previous week. It was his usual routine, and he enjoyed it, not that anybody ever asked.

He returned to his flat to find the front door open and three young men carrying furniture and boxes into it. They ignored him as he walked in, and to his surprise he found that all his possessions had disappeared. He stood there not sure what to do. He put his shopping down and stood at a loss with the three young men pushing passed him as if he were not there, or were of no importance.

A settee was in place in the front room so he sat on it and watched the bustle going on around him. He went into a doze he was not sure for how long, but when he came to, the flat was quieter, one of the young men was sat in an armchair watching something on television whilst also talking on his mobile phone. Eventually the young man went to bed and Dowling fell asleep on the settee.

The next day nothing had changed. The young man, whose name was Mark apparently, was still in residence and Dowling still had no idea where all his stuff had gone.  Not that he had had much; clothes, furniture, a handful of books and his television. There was a different smell about the place as well; strong deodorant and after shave pervaded every corner, obliterating any traces of Dowling.

Dowling tried to talk to Mark a couple of times but he acted as if he were totally unaware of his presence, he just sniffed suspiciously when he spoke, but that was all. Dowling at first felt annoyed with this intruder but soon he got used to his presence and at least he was company. He had a girlfriend who occasionally came round, called Christine but they usually stayed at her house, so many evenings and nights he was left on his own.

He soon found his clothes and the rest of his possessions hidden away in the basement with other odds and ends and so was able to change his clothes when he needed to and get on with his life. At first it seemed off having to go down to the basement to get changed but it soon became a habit.

He continued to go to work but felt increasingly like a spare part; ignored by everyone and struggling to do his allocation of forms, the first time he could remember this happening.  He often found that he had spent the whole day just staring into space, thinking about nothing. And yet nobody noticed his lack of productivity. He stopped going down to the staff canteen for his lunch.

One Monday morning he tried to log in on his computer but his password was not accepted, he tried several times but to no avail. He rang the IT department but his telephone did not seem to be working as there was no sound coming from the receiver.  He went over to Michelle but she pretended that he was not there.

He left the building and realised that he was not going to come back. It was a bright sunny day, and he felt sad, not for his job, which had become increasingly irrelevant to him, but as if he was leaving something more important behind.  He walked home, something he had not done for years, enjoying the heat and looking at the people he passed, many of whom pushed passed him, but he did not care. He did not really care about anything.

He spent the next few days almost entirely on the settee; either sleeping or sitting. He saw Mark but only just; he was beginning to fade like a ghost. Interestingly Mark never used the settee, avoided it, and even when Christine or another occasional guest came round they never sat on it either.

Dowling did go out one day as he felt he should buy some food even though he was not hungry. He had not eaten for three days. He tried his bank card at the supermarket’s cashpoint but found it no longer worked and for a minute he panicked wondering how he would manage, but then the fear subsided and he went back home.

The trip to the cash machine was his last venture outside; after that he never left the flat.

He did not feel sad, but then he had rarely felt sad in his life or any other strong emotion. When his father died he had not cared, not really liking the cold patriarch and his mother’s death had been a relief as she had been ill for a considerable time. He had felt no real love for either of his parents; he enjoyed his mother’s company but it was not really love and he did not think about her much now that she was dead.

A couple of days later Mark went out leaving the window open, it was September and the wind was at first warm and pleasant. Dowling enjoyed the feel of the breeze over his body; it seemed to go inside every nook and cranny of him, searching him out. It was quite a sensual feeling, the closest Dowling had come to eroticism in his entire life.

The wind became stronger and stronger, and he felt as if he were being torn apart. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, quite the contrary he had a tremendous feeling of wellbeing, ecstasy almost. Slowly he felt himself lift and drift into the Nottingham afternoon where he scattered onto the heads of the unregarding masses below.

 

 

MY LOST LOVE

My love is out there somewhere; maybe in Paris, maybe in Rome or maybe skipping from one place to another, free and happy. I cannot believe that she is lying dead in a garden her beautiful clothes rotted away, and me totally to blame…. .

We met at work; in those days I was the theology librarian at the University of Nottingham. I had been there for ten years; the job was okay, a bit dull but not difficult and I had a small team who worked hard enough and who I got on well with without being particularly close to anyone in particular. I assumed that I would be there for the rest of my career, hopefully getting the occasional promotion, but I had no wish to either leave the university or Nottingham, both of which suited me just fine.

Every summer the university employs people to help reorganise stock, they have to move books about, update records on the library catalogue and other basic tasks. It was usually students on their vacation who took the work; they got paid reasonably, it was easy and the atmosphere laid back, well certainly in my department.

That year my regular members of staff were redeployed to the economics department to help with some project that had European money behind it. So I was left to supervise our three summer assistants; Tarquin and Dave who were both studying history and seemed friendly and relatively hardworking and Rebecca.

It was her eyes you noticed first as they were so expressive and slightly larger than normal. She sucked you into her stare and you felt all this longing and suppressed passion, which seemed endless. She was older than most of our summer assistants, being in her early thirties, only slightly younger than me. She had dyed blonde hair, quite short and very stylish, whilst her skin was pale and looked flawless. She was studying nursing through the university being based at Queens Medical Centre in the city. Her southern accent also set her apart, I later discovered that she was from Brighton and had lived there most of her life, her mother still lived there, but apparently they did not get on.

The summer assistants could wear what they wanted, but whilst Tarquin and Dave invariably wore denim shorts and t-shirts it being a hot summer that year, Rebecca dressed quite smartly; with trousers and often a shirt, even a bow tie on occasion. I could see that fashion was important to her which normally puts me off people a bit because I don’t really care for such things myself, but I really liked what she wore and from the start found her extremely attractive. She had a lot of clothes I later discovered some of which she had made or adapted.

At times she would make my heart melt she was so beautiful. And from the start she would appear to be the centre of wherever she was; it was as if her beauty and vitality swallowed everybody else up. Certainly whenever I was with her I unaware of anybody else, she just outshone everybody.

In retrospect it was the right (or wrong) time to meet an attractive woman who showed an interest in me. I was going through a bad time with my wife Marie; maybe we were just bored of each other after fifteen years of marriage or she was under pressure after getting promoted to deputy head at the primary school where she had been teaching for most of our marriage. Whatever the reason, we argued more and more, it was not usually over anything special; just over little things which seemed to become important and would fester for days on end. I would lie in bed next to her our bodies not quite touching and wondering whether to talk to her but suspecting if I did it would just make things worse.

Our lovemaking became a point scoring exercise; she began to treat it as a duty whereas she had always enjoyed it when we were younger, at least as much as me. And she seemed to hold herself back, rarely reaching orgasm and then silently reproaching me with it. I soon stopped bothering initiating any kind of intimacy and that gave her more grounds for complaints.

I hope that if Marie and I had been happier that nothing would have happened with Rebecca and me, but not only did I find Rebecca attractive we also got on extremely well, so god knows….. At the time I thought it was a meeting of minds; that she was my kindred spirit, and in all honesty and I still do. I just felt so comfortable with her from the beginning; as if I had been waiting for her all of my life.

Even on her first day showing her and the other two round our little department I found Rebecca so easy to talk to, as if we had developed an intimacy without having gone through any preliminary stages of actually getting to know each other. Throughout that first day I often found myself chatting to her, and again there was this sense of being at ease with her.

At the end of their first week the three assistants decided to go out to the pub at Friday lunchtime and Rebecca invited me to go with them. Normally we would not allow drinking during a working day but so long as we were careful there seemed to be no harm and normal rules did not seem to apply during the summer vacation.

Rebecca and I sat together and shared a plate of sandwiches and drank a pint of lager each, whilst nearby Dave and Tarquin planned their evening. They were going to a concert together apparently. The pub was quiet with just a few old blokes muttering quietly to each other in another corner. Quite a contrast with term time when this particular pub was a favourite with both students and staff.

Rebecca and I had already got to know a fair amount about each other over the week but this was the first time that we had an intimate talk without interruptions. I told her more about my marriage and how unhappy it was becoming. I did not really have many close friends so it was good to chat to a sympathetic listener about how miserable I felt. Perhaps I exaggerated a bit; I remember her holding my hand at one point so I probably did lay it on a bit thick.

 Rebecca told me about her boyfriend Mike; they also seemed to be struggling, she confessed that they had not had sex for several weeks.

“We used to do it all the time” she said “when we first got together, never out of bed. But the last couple of years he just seems to have gone off me.”

I gave her a hug because it seemed natural to do so. Feeling her pressed against me, I felt a calmness I had not known before. I could smell the perfume she was wearing, something sophisticated and subtle, as if I were in a salon in Paris rather than a student pub in Nottingham.

Later that afternoon we found ourselves together in the library stacks down in the basement. It was quiet as it always was. I used to love going down there; it was a haven and I loved the smell of the old books although unfortunately we had been told to dispose of some of the less well used of our stock, for no particular reason so far as I could see. I was showing her some of the books we were getting rid of when almost by an exterior power we found ourselves in each other’s arms. We kissed long and passionately, exploring each other and she pushed herself against me and I stroked her buttocks through her trousers. It was the first time I had kissed anyone except Marie for almost twenty years.

We broke apart.

“Sorry” I muttered “shouldn’t have had a drink at lunchtime, made me a bit amorous.”

“What are you saying sorry for? It was lovely. First time that I have been kissed for ages.”

So we did it again; stood between two shelves of books, John Calvin looking down upon us disapprovingly. She was passionate; more passionate than I have ever known anybody before. Thrusting herself into me with abandon. We would have had sex there and then I think if it had not been for the prospect of discovery.

In fact next Wednesday we did make love; Mike was unemployed but did voluntary work twice a week; Wednesdays and Thursdays, at a local nursing home so we went to her house and had frantic sex on her bed. She only lived ten minutes’ drive from the library in a small rented house which had a pub on one side called The Rose and Crown.

The love making was as frenetic as I had expected it to be, the fact that we only had an hour before we had to be back at the library gave it an urgency and intensity which made it all the more exciting and addictive. Rebecca was like a tiger who has been held captive for all of her life and is suddenly given the chance of freedom; she was a bit unsure at times but also besides herself with the sense of freedom and new experiences and territories to explore.

This became our habit; every Wednesday and Thursday we would leave the library as quickly as possible and she would drive us to her house and we would make love. On occasion there were other days when we could manage it, if Mike was busy doing something for a friend or was spending the day in the library. Once we both took a Thursday afternoon off so we had more time and that was one of the loveliest afternoons of my life. I worried about her neighbours; surely they had noticed my arrival, but apparently most of them worked during the day and kept themselves to themselves; Rebecca did not even know their names. I did wonder if the regulars at The Rose and Crown noticed our surreptitious goings on.

We did not really have time to talk much during these sessions, just expressions of love. But we did talk a lot when working together. The other two students got on well so it seemed natural to let them work together whilst Rebecca and I did the same. No doubt James and Tarquin realised that something was going on, perhaps they did not care, or perhaps the thought of the fusty old librarian having a secret affair was just too incongruous and they thought that we were good friends.

 When I think of that time I think of her laughing; she had a beautiful laugh like a bell and she would almost convulse with hilarity which would set me off as well. Often she was laughing at me; I am quite clumsy and often dropped books or bumped into things. When I did this at home Marie would just sigh with exasperation but Rebecca found it infinitely amusing. I can still her laugh now as I write this.

We talked about myriad things; ourselves of course but everything else. We did really have a lot in common or perhaps she was similar to how I was before I got married. She loved Bob Dylan and other stuff from the sixties which I used to listen to, we both loved art and the same kinds of films which Marie had no interest in whasoever. She was also creative; writing short stories which sometimes got published on the internet. I read them all of course and enjoyed them; I think I would have appreciated them even if I did not know the author as they had a dark, disturbing quality that I liked and they never ended happily.

She told me about her depression; how she had suffered with it since she was a teenager but she said that it had eased of late, hinting but not quite stating that her new found happiness was to do with me.

“It is just a darkness; I as if I have been engulfed by something and just cannot be bothered to do anything. Everything is awful.”

I asked her if she had thought of suicide and apparently she had.

“But it is so difficult; I suppose if it were easy loads of people would do it. The only really effective way of doing it is by shot gun and where am I going to get one of those from?”

I did not know what to say. I had always regarded myself as quite a stable chap; never having extremes of emotions either way. This affair with Rebecca was the strangest thing that I had ever done. Rebecca seemed to live life more on the extremes than I had ever done. And it was that wildness that I partly liked about her; with her anything was possible and the future was without boundaries.

I did feel guilty of course; I had always found other women attractive but never tried to have any sexual or romantic relationship with any of them, but then this had happened. Occasionally I actually felt proud of myself; I was attractive enough to have got a lover, it was as if I was in a French nouvelle vague film. But mostly I felt awful and sorry for both Marie and Mike. I hate secrets and now the most important part of my life was just that.

Rebecca claimed not to feel bad about Mike.

“It is actually helping us” she claimed; “less pressure... I feel happier with him, less upset that he is not very loving.”

On another occasion she said “I think he knows. He just does not seem bothered. He seems happy reading his books and helping out the old people at the nursing home; I just don’t think that he is a very sexual person.”

Once, however after we had made love, we lay together and I realised that she was crying softly.

“What’s the matter” I murmured with half my eye on the clock as we had to be back at the library in twenty minutes.

“Oh nothing, it is just a bit odd that is all. Don’t worry.” She slapped my thigh, I kissed away her tears and we got up.

“Are you sure everything is okay?” I asked her as we drove hurriedly back to the university. “We can stop” I added, only half believing it “just be friends. There is no point if it is upsetting you.”

“Don’t be silly. I love it, love it with you. Why would I want it to stop? We aren’t hurting anybody?”

That was Thursday. She said goodbye to me at the end of the day; gave me a hug in the car park, as she always did, and she drove home fast and recklessly again as normal. I watched her red Nissan Micra move out of sight, and then got into my own car. So far as I am aware I have not seen her since.

She was not at work by nine the next morning. As she was always pretty punctual, especially since we had begun our affair, I was slightly worried. I got on with some paperwork in my office keeping an eye out for her whilst Dave and Tarquin shifted books about quietly, they clearly had fallen out as they were barely speaking to each other. I felt uneasy and wondered what had happened, half expecting her to turn up but feeling deep down that she would not. By ten she was still not at the library so I called her on her mobile, but it just rang and rang before going to the answer phone. I left a message and hoped that she was on her way.

At lunchtime she still had not arrived so I drove round to her house; it looked empty and sad. I wondered if I really should ring on her doorbell, but was so worried that I thought, sod it and did so. I stood waiting, feeling uncomfortable in the August heat. Eventually the door opened and a man dressed in jeans and t-shirt answered. I had never met Mike but had seen photographs of him round the house, even one in the bedroom which was rather disconcerting, so that I knew it was him. I looked at the man who I knew so much about; he was tall and quite dashing, better looking than me and fitter.

He looked at me enquiringly and to my mind nervously.

“I was just wondering if Rebecca was okay. I work at the library.”

Mike looked me up and down and did not say anything for a while.

“She is at her mother’s” he eventually got out. I was surprised that he had a Scouse accent; Rebecca had not mentioned that he was from Merseyside. I realised that I had no idea how they had met and why they had ended up in Nottingham.

I looked at him curiously. Why had she not told me that she was going to see her mother? And I felt that he was lying; he seemed upset and a little nervous. He was clearly not going to volunteer any further information, just stared at me, a challenge in his look. I drove back to the library feeling even more uneasy and concerned.

The rest of the day passed slowly; I felt as if there was something that I should be doing but was not sure what it was. I kept my mobile phone by me just in case Rebecca should ring or text me but there was nothing from her, just a message from Marie saying that she would be out when I got home, something that was happening with increasing frequency of late.

I had a solitary tea with William Byrd playing in the background, but I was hardly aware of the music. Perhaps I was being silly; after all her mother might have been ill or there was some other family emergency, these things happen but surely if that was the case she would have telephoned me or at least sent me a text. I was about to ring her again when Marie returned home looking flustered and smelling as if she had just had a shower. She said that she had been swimming with a friend.

By Monday I still had not heard from Rebecca although I had tried to ring her several times. I was therefore not particularly surprised when she did not turn up for work. I had this forlorn hope that she would appear with a smile on her face and a mad explanation about her mother being taken ill and her phone not working. But nothing. Tarquin and James, now friends again, looked at me curiously but did not ask about Rebecca.

I had a chaste lunch sitting in the university gardens picking at a salad sandwich and watching a mother with three children feeding ducks. I wondered if Marie and I had had children this would not have happened. We had discussed it when we first got together and agreed that we would like them in the future but the time never arrived and we seemed to drift and accept that it would not happen. Perhaps we should have a go; we were both thirty-seven, it was hardly too late. And then my phone made a ‘ping’ and all thoughts of children went out of my head. I knew it was Rebecca even before I checked it.

“Sorry had to leave. Forget all about me x”

I rang back immediately but the phone just went to voicemail as it had been since Friday, so I texted her;

“Where are you? Can I see you? I love you.”

There was still no reply by the time I went back to the library.

Two days later Marie left me. She was waiting for me when I returned home from work.

“I’ve met someone. It is going nowhere with us, and Pete is all you are not; kind, caring and loving.”

There was more, but that was the gist of it. She left the house almost immediately having packed a couple of cases whilst I was out at work. She said that she would collect the rest of her stuff soon when she could get something sorted. She kissed me on the cheek as she left. She already seemed alien as if she belonged to somebody else and I was just a casual acquaintance.

Of course I was shocked but realised whilst I had been engrossed with my affair with Rebecca that Marie also had been involved with someone. I could not complain of course and I suppose that I felt that I deserved it. Over the next few days I carried on with my work; barely noticing the disappearance of the rest of Marie’s possessions a couple of days later. She said that I could keep the house as Pete was apparently rich. I never found out how she had met him or for how long the romance had been going on. In fact I rarely think of her and do not know where she is, or care.

One of the first things that I did was to text Rebecca to tell her the news. I wondered if it might have an effect on her; bring her back to me. But still nothing more from her. Then the following week, again at lunchtime another text.

“Gone away, moved to Paris. I am sorry about your wife.”

So I went to live in Paris.

Not straight away of course, but when a few weeks later I saw a job advertised in the Library Association Record for a librarian in a school for the children of rich English people in Paris, called The English School in Paris. I went for it.  The interview was held in London in a musty old office amongst government buildings in Whitehall by a three members of staff from the school, the headmistress and two teachers. The interview was conducted in English which I was slightly disappointed about as my French was pretty good even then, and I was disappointed not to have chance to show it off. I must have done well enough though because I was invited down for a second interview a fortnight later and then offered the job.

I texted Rebecca “Moving to Paris. I will let you know my address.” In fact I had quite often texted her over the previous weeks, but she had not replied since telling me she was in Paris. I hoped that she was reading them and thinking about me. I resigned from my job at the university and put my house with an estate agency to put it out to rent. My colleagues knew of the break-up of my marriage so were not entirely surprised, but my closest friend there Simon, librarian in the English Lit library, did ask if I was not rushing into things. He wondered if I needed some stability in my life rather than rushing off to France. But of course he did not know about Rebecca.

I had a look at Rebecca’s house a couple of times before I left. I did not knock on the door or anything, just looked to see what I could see. I had assumed that Mike her boyfriend would have had to move out as he would not be able to afford the rent, but there was no sign of his leaving even though it had been four months now since she had left. Perhaps he had another source of income.

And then I was in Paris. The English School helped me find an apartment in the outskirts of the outskirts of the city which was most congenial and whilst it was some distance from the school it was to reach by bus. The school was better than I had expected; while some of the children were spoilt brats with an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement most were lovely and polite. The teachers were also friendly and considerate. There was none of the condescension that librarians suffer in schools and universities in the UK, perhaps because we were all strangers in a strange land.

In fact I soon loved living in Paris. I had visited several times in my life; the first being as a teenager with my parents, but living somewhere is completely different from being on holiday. I loved sauntering through the boulevards and parks of Paris, thinking that I am here in one of the loveliest cities in the world. I had not forgotten Rebecca; as soon I had acquired my apartment I had texted her with the address and got a “xxx” in return, the first time that I had heard from her since she had let me know that she was in Paris.

Whenever I was out I always kept an eye out for her; and most of my trips out I would come to a halt after seeing someone who looked just like Rebecca, but who on closer inspection turned out not to be. I often went miles out of my way following somebody who had her build and colour hair, but then it was a good way of discovering Paris, and often I was just walking aimlessly anyway. Of course it was a long shot, to say the least. My main hope was that she would call on me one evening as she had my address, or ring me. Countless times I walked to the door of my apartment thinking that I had heard a knock on the door but only to find that there was nobody there, or checked my phone when I had had it by my side all day.

My feelings changed; some days I thought that I was bound to see her, that it was only a matter of time, but other days I was pessimistic. After all if she wanted to see me she would have done so by now. Usually after I was giving up hope I would get a text from her; nothing long, just a couple of words such as “missing you” or “maybe soon”.

And yet slowly I began to make a life in Paris; socialised with my colleagues from the English school, and made a few other friends and attended concerts. Then I met Juliette who occasionally came into the school to teach art. She was a couple of years younger than me and a Parisian having lived in the city all her life. She was a blonde, like Rebecca, and with an endlessly amusing sense of humour. Slowly we became friends; going out for coffee and attending plays together. She gave me wonderful tours of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay; her particular interest being the paintings of Goya.

Eventually we ended up in bed and it felt right. It was the first time since Rebecca, and afterwards I did feel as if I had betrayed my lost love. A few months later we moved in together in her flat, and that is where I am now. I have not told Juliette about Rebecca but I still think about her, and sometimes I see somebody on the boulevard who has that look of Rebecca and I follow her, but it is never her.

A week ago somebody sent me a cutting from the Nottingham Evening Post about the gruesome discovery of a woman’s body in the garden of a house in Nottingham. It was thought to be that of Rebecca Bushell who had disappeared a couple of years ago, apparently the police were urgently wishing to speak to her former boyfriend Mike McGuinness who was thought to have returned to his native Liverpool. At the moment they were not sure if they were investigating a murder or an unreported suicide.

For a couple of days I just went round in a daze. I suspect it was suicide and that Mike covered it up and eventually buried his lover one dark night. Presumably the guilt got too much for her. Or maybe she confessed to Mike and he bumped her off. In the end whatever happened I cannot evade responsibility; if I had not had an affair with her she would still be alive, working as a nurse, saving lives.

A week later I got a text from Rebecca’s phone saying “I am still here”. And perhaps she is alive somewhere, and perhaps one day when I am having coffee in one of those small cafes in Paris that I love so much, we will see each other and she will come over and I will buy her a drink and we will talk and hold each other tight, and not let each other go.

 

THE SUITCASE BY THE DOOR

Andrew Lee-Hart

 

It was like an ancient ruin, neglected since classical times; broken stones scattered here and there but with some semblance of an order. And then you see the black paint splattered with contempt. And all too predictably there are the swastikas and the insults “yids”, “kikes” and the other usual crap which we have had to put up with on and off for years.

Not that I was there, but I saw the pictures in The Guardian; Leeds oldest Jewish graveyard had been desecrated one night; just before Yom Kippur. I thought of my granddad who is buried there, in the city that he called his home, or at least where he tried to find sanctuary and to hide from his demons; some perhaps imaginary, but as the article in The Guardian had shown, some real enough.

My grandfather entered the Polish village of Gluska at three in the afternoon, it was 1935. Being Viennese, he was fluent in German as well as Yiddish which was the language he felt most at home in, he also spoke some Hebrew of course, but not Polish, so he did not know if he would be able to make himself understood. It was bright and still, and there was snow on the ground. He could smell fires and cows and horses. He could hear trees being chopped and also chanting coming from one of the wooden houses.

Despite having been travelling round Poland for weeks Moshe still looked smart; he was a fastidious dresser and was wearing a suit from one of the better shops in Vienna. He wore a Homburg and glasses. An intellectual from a wealthy but cultured family he had a certain self-assurance of someone who regards himself as a citizen of the world. In dress and in the way that he carried himself, he was quite a contrast to the people in the village, but he was also a quiet, gentle man without any pretensions to being better than anybody else.

He got out his camera and tripod, and as usual people began to notice him. He used an “Amourette” camera; small and thus easy to carry. He did not speak but continued to set it up, deliberately taking his time to build interest. It was mostly children who gathered round him, but he could see various adults watching him from the shelter of doorways. Mostly women at this time of the day but they left him alone; they just watched.

It was a relatively large village; with a Scul (or Synagogue) and next to it a small school, but most of the inhabitants worked in the fields, or with animals and it was the timetable of farming that governed life there. The population of Gluska was all Jewish although they often had visitors from nearby towns or even from officialdom from the nearest important city, Lublin. I have tried to find it on modern maps of Poland but either it has changed its named or just disappeared along with its inhabitants.

Moshe was taking photographs of what he thought might be a lost world. He had not considered his Jewishness much in the past; it was like his left handedness, an accident of birth which was could be convenient and at times gave him an interest, but mostly of no account. But with persecution of Jews becoming more pronounced he became more interested in this aspect of himself, to his parents surprise he started going to the synagogue with his father, and sometimes would spend Shabbat with them.

His parents were not especially devout but they kept most of the dietary laws and followed the main festivals. Moshe began to read more, and as a photographer, just beginning to make a name for himself, he started to spend his spare time taking photographs of synagogues, and anything obviously Jewish in Vienna. He did not know why he did it, nor what he would do with the photographs once he had finished with them. It almost felt like a compulsion; as if he was possessed, possibly by his ancestors.

He had money, so decided to spend the summer of 1935 travelling and taking photographs of rural Jews in the East; whose culture and habits in many ways were so different from his home city. Despite the differences, he was welcomed and early on any doubts about what he was doing disappeared. He still did not know what he would do with his photographs and what purpose it would serve, but he felt very strongly that he was doing a mitzvah.

He would usually stay for a two or three days with each Jewish community in each village or town; photographing anybody who wanted to be photographed or who could be persuaded to be; painstakingly writing down everybody’s name. He also photographed buildings, animals, groups. And then he would move on. Yet each village stayed distinct in his memory so that years later he could recall each of them and their names.

He spotted her as the light was dying. I have seen photographs of her, and she is stunningly beautiful; clear skin, endless brown eyes and a film star figure. She had a faint smell of almonds; which pervaded gradually any room that she was in.  Moshe was captivated and did not notice her husband who was standing by her side. He was invited to stay with them for as long as he liked. Her husband, David was the teacher at the small school in the centre of the village and clearly a learned man who had studied in Lublin and travelled wildly. He struggled to explain why he had returned to this village, to live out the rest of his life in obscurity. Perhaps it was Tamar, his beautiful wife, but their eyes hardly ever met and Moshe did not get any sense of a close, loving relationship such as his own parents had.

Moshe got to know David well; using Yiddish and Hebrew and bits of German they got by. But it was Tamar who captivated him; he took photographs of her whenever she would let him; cooking in the large kitchen, washing clothes in the river, talking with her friends or slowly reading. He knew he should move on or perhaps return home but he stayed, in love or in lust. She seemed reserved and when she was doing a task; cooking a meal, washing clothes, lighting the candles she became immersed in it to the exclusion of everything else including the camera and my grandfather, which is why the photographs of her turned out to be so good; for her the camera was not there.

He lay in bed hidden from the young couple only by a curtain; they barely spoke just the odd word from David. He never witnessed any affection between them, nor heard the sound of lovemaking, but then perhaps they were both shy; they clearly had not been married very long. He wanted to take her with him, run away. They had barely exchanged a word, but there was humour in her eyes and understanding and when she smiled it sounded like bells; years later as well as the pictures, it was the sound of her laughter that reminded him of her. She seemed to think him comical; this young man from g-d knows where with his suit and his camera.

 No doubt the thought of fleeing with this stranger would never have crossed her mind. He went with her to the market one day, which took place in a town to the north. It was a couple of hours walk; all the women went, but Moshe walked by her side, his “Amourette” round his neck, occasionally stopping to take photographs but mostly enjoying Tamar’s company. He smiled, and they seemed to have a conversation.

“Have you ever wanted to travel?” he asked her. She just smiled; not understanding.

“Leave this village; you are beautiful. You could do anything. I could take you anywhere”.

He looked at her intently as he spoke; gazing into her endless brown eyes, willing her to make some sign.  Perhaps she did understand what he was saying, or enough of it, because she soon left his side and started walking with a couple of her friends. She seemed to avoid him thereafter although their eyes met a couple of times, and he saw hurt in them and something deeper which he could not comprehend.

That night, for the first time, he heard her making love with her husband; passionately and with abandon. He lay there listening and sweating.  The next day he said goodbye and left. She smiled at him from the doorway of her house as he turned away for one last look at her. He suspected that as soon as he had gone that the village would forget about him as they concentrated on their lives, and perhaps just staying alive.  Even Tamar would soon forget about this strange man who had shared their home. After this he had no desire to carry on his travels and with one or two diversions he returned home to Vienna.

He did not stay in Vienna for very long. Moshe was not stupid and could see that things were not getting any better for Jews and were likely to get much worse. There had always been attacks on Jews, but this was becoming more systematic and organised. His younger brother Isaac shared his fears, or just wanted an adventure and so they decided to flee together. Moshe sold up his business to a gentile and by the end of the year he and Isaac were in Paris and after a few months there, where he met another Austrian Jew, the writer Joseph Roth whom he liked, he came to England and settled in Leeds. His parents and younger sister stayed in Austria and were murdered by the Nazis.

Despite being briefly interred Moshe grew to love his adoptive land; he started a photography business in the Beeston area of Leeds, then rather more prosperous than it is now. He married a local girl from the Jewish community called Esther, who in a certain light looked like the teacher’s wife from Poland, and then swiftly my mother, uncles and aunts all came along. I was born in 1969; Moshe and Esther’s first grandchild.

We only lived round the corner from Moshe and Esther who now lived in the Alwoodley area of Leeds, above the photography shop and close to the synagogue. I used to look forward to visiting them; watching my grandfather developing his photographs in the dark room hidden at the back. He was like a scientist amidst the chemical fumes which at times made me dizzy but which I also loved.

What I liked best, however, was looking through the old photograph albums that he kept on a high shelf. When my mum was due at the library where she worked, she would drop me off at my grandfather’s shop and I would sit at his work table and go through the albums looking at the people from the 1930s until the 1970s, fascinated by their dress and stilted expressions. One day he got an old album down, which I had never seen before.

“Well Sarah, I have not shown many people this, but I want you to see it.”

I looked through grey pictures from a different world; there were cows and horses, and people dressed in what looked like rags. Then I saw her; her beauty still luminous after all these years.

“Who is that?” I asked my grandfather, and he told me.

Soon afterwards my grandma Esther died. She was in the Headrow in Leeds, buying a birthday present for my great uncle Isaac, when she felt a pain, sat down on a bench by the art gallery and never got up. She lay there for hours; a middle aged lady having a doze. Eventually Moshe went out looking for her and saw her and realised that something was wrong. He was never the same again.

I used to carry on visiting him, but even as a fifteen year old I could see how much he had changed. He withdrew into himself; a naturally friendly, not to say garrulous man he barely spoke to his customers, and less and less did his friends visit or did he go out, apart from to the synagogue. He still spoke to me; mostly about Judaism; my parents were pretty devout but I was beginning to drift. In retrospect my parents probably told him in the hope that he could make me see sense, but even my beloved grandfather could not stop me leaving, well not then. By the time I left Leeds for London and university in 1987 I hardly saw myself as Jewish; I had gentile boyfriends and ate bacon and prawns, well until I became vegetarian in my second year.

I used to visit grandfather during vacations or on the occasional weekend at home. After my first term he showed me the letters from different organisations. Hundreds from all over the world.

“The people I showed you, that I photographed when I visited Poland. I wanted to know what happened to them. Not just Tamar; all of them.”

“Have you found out?” I asked.

“Most did not make it to the concentration camps. A gang of Poles visited one Shabbat, the Poles hated us anyway, without the Nazis encouraging them further. There is a large grave. I have tried to find out if any have survived. Hopefully, one or two might have.”

He kept looking; he was an old man by now in his seventies and eventually he retired leaving the shop to my uncles David and Adam, although in truth they had been virtually running the business since the death of my grandmother. He spent hours on the phone; ringing different organisations and then that summer he travelled to Poland and visited Gluska, the village he had photographed another lifetime ago. But that was it; once he returned home he stopped searching. He was never able to find anyone who had survived

He became less interested in the world unless it was connected to Judaism or Israel. He had been an active member of the Labour party since the end of the war; delivering leaflets and briefly considered standing to be a councillor, but one year he just did not bother renewing his membership, having gradually stopped attending the meetings, and that was it. He rarely spoke about politics now, and when he did it was about Israel or occasionally America.

I graduated in 1990 and visited my grandfather soon after, to give him a copy of my graduation photograph. He was now living in a flat in Cookridge. He could still do most things for himself; but there was a warden in case he needed help and a buzzer in the bathroom which could summon assistance which I discovered after thinking it was a light switch.

The photograph albums were still with him; on bookcases surrounding the front room. And there were books of cuttings; in piles on the floor, on the dining room table and anywhere really.

“What are these I asked him?”

“Just about Jews. And our persecutors.”

There were articles about anti-Semitism; the Conservative politician Edwina Curry was in the news a lot at the time, after making comments about the safety of eggs and had drawn criticism from pretty much everyone, some of it pretty unpleasant and excessive, to be fair. My grandfather painstakingly cut out any articles attacking Jewish figures or Israel or reports of desecrations of Jewish graveyards and the like.

He spoke about an increase in anti-Jewish feeling.

“But grandfather, this Britain in the 1990s. The Nazis are in the past. Have you ever been attacked by anyone? Has your respectable little synagogue ever been attacked?”

“Actually it has; paint thrown at the windows, a Star of David on the wall. It always starts with small things…. And all these attacks on Israel.”

“Israel isn’t exactly a paragon; she is a repressive state.”

“More repressive than Syria, Libya, Iran? Don’t be naïve my love. People attack Israel as a way of attacking Jews, and if you don’t realise this what hope is there for the rest of the population?”

He paused, obviously getting emotional.

“And do you think your grandmother would have been left to die on that bench if she had been a gentile? She was just left; people walked by and did not care. You think England is cosy, with your middle class friends; but in the end you will be just a Jew to them, an alien.”

I left him soon after, and almost tripped over the case at the front door, it was not large case, with only space I guessed for a change of clothes and some toiletries.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked.

“I hope not, but it is as well to be prepared. They will come one day. There will be a knock on the door at midnight I may as well be ready.”

I looked at him, as if I did not know him. Was this paranoid old man really my grandfather?

Of course I was worried; someone who was so intelligent, with his socialist views now an apologist for Israel. He had travelled and experienced so much and been so brave, and I admired him more than anyone I knew and yet now he was scared and cowering behind his door, hardly venturing out because of the goyim. I did think about what he had said. I had not really experienced much anti-Semitism; there was the occasional comment from someone if they did not know I was Jewish, but mostly spoken in jest, and I am sure many people who are more obviously from overseas originally have suffered worse.

The warden rang our house a couple of weeks later and I answered the phone.

“We are worried about your grandfather. I haven’t seen him for a few days and his door is locked.”

I went over straightaway. There was a couple of young policemen standing by his front door, looking bored and the warden. On my say so, they broke the door down and found my grandfather lying on his bed; he smelt awfully of urine and faeces, and his eyes were starring sightlessly up at the freshly painted ceiling. He was still alive but only just.

One of the policemen rang for an ambulance and the other tried to do first aid on my grandfather.  He got shouted at with a torrent of Yiddish, my grandfather pushed the well-meaning policeman away and tried to escape; sliding out of his bed, tangled in his sheet. He lay there on the floor in his underpants looking up at us, not even recognising me. I have never seen anybody look so scared. He did not make it to the hospital, dying in the ambulance still screaming in Yiddish.

When I think of my grandfather; I see the kindly but still dapper old man showing his granddaughter photographs from a bygone age; talking with his unique Austrian/Yorkshire accent. Those are the memories that I like the best... but sometimes I remember the last time I saw my grandfather, and the way one of the paramedics kicked his suitcase out of the way as they took him to his death.

 

Together At Last

 

He sat in the corner of the lounge, as far away as possible from the noisy television and the other residents. He had been in the care home for about six months, since his son deposited him there one cold day in late October with barely a word of farewell and no subsequent visit or telephone call.

 

The old man was called Peter but he had soon acquired the nickname of “Old Misery” amongst the staff and even some of the residents, those that weren’t beyond speech. Old Misery did not seem to care; he had made no effort to make friends and whilst he would on occasion watch the various activities that took place amongst the residents of Red Rock Care Home, he never took part in any.

 

Apparently he had been a teacher, and one could tell that he was an intelligent man; or had been. He had The Guardian delivered daily and made an attempt to read it and to do the quick crossword, although he clearly struggled, and his tone was educated and correct. Some of the staff, in particular Sarah who was particularly good with the residents, did try and talk to him at first, but he was clearly not interested dismissing her attempts at friendliness with what seemed to be contempt.

“Oh he is a snob” an exasperated Sarah remarked to her friend Gaynor “I try to be friendly, but he just is not interested.”

“Oh old misery, yes he is dreadful. I don’t know what he has got to be so snobbish about. Just because he lived in a posh part of Liverpool and used to be a teacher. No wonder nobody visits him, and I cannot say that I blame them.”

Sarah nodded in agreement; she was generally a favourite amongst the residents and rather resented the fact that Old Misery had resisted her.

Peter could hear them talking about him, but affected not to. He was pretending to be asleep and longing for another day to be over with.

 

He could smell food being cooked; an odour that never wholly disappeared from the lounge day or night, along with the faint smell of faeces or urine from the many residents who were incontinent.  Quite often this mixture of smells even penetrated to his bedroom; a rather austere looking room which he was forcibly dissuaded from spending too much time in. The television droned on almost complimenting the indiscreet gossiping of Sarah and Gaynor.

    

A couple of days later a new resident arrived. She was called Ruth, and was brought in by her second husband who realised he could not cope after she had left a pan on the hob and almost burnt down their kitchen. She was friendly enough in a confused way. The staff liked and made a fuss of her. As Gaynor said

“She is such a lovely lady. So friendly. I wish everybody in this place was like her.”

Sarah laughed “yes she could do with teaching Old Misery a thing or two.”

“Yes you cannot get a bigger difference than between those two.”

 

It was therefore a surprise when Ruth began to sit next to Peter. They did not appear to talk to each other but they soon began to seek each other out at dinner time and seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

“Jesus” muttered Sarah, “who would have thought it.”

“But they don’t talk, do they. Just sit, him with his paper, and her with her knitting, it is almost as they are an old married couple. Oh well it takes all sorts. Perhaps he reminds her of somebody”.

 

_______________________________________

 

I recognised her straight away. Okay; it had been fifty years since I had seen her last, but I knew it was her.  She still had that pixie look to her face and that wanting to be loved, which in the past had rather been abused, but here at least everyone reciprocated.  And there were those beautiful eyes, open to anything. She even dressed the same; rather alternative clothing, always colourful and with plenty of necklaces and bracelets.

 

She had stood out when I met her at the beginning of the school year, September 1980. Old Mr Moss (Moss Bros as he was inevitably known to the pupils), head of the history department did the introductions.

“This is Ruth, Mrs Davis, she is joining our humble department”. He laughed cautiously and we both caught the smell of tobacco on his breath. “…and this is my second in command Peter, Peter Roth”.

We smiled at each other, and already I felt a connection. Perhaps I was in love with her even then.

 

She was beautiful, incredibly so but she could never see it, blonde, with a lithe body and those eyes. Later on when we made love and I was inside her I would make her say “I am beautiful” and perhaps for those few seconds she believed it. But it was true and even fifty years later it still is. She was thirty, just three years younger than me, and had just done her teaching qualification after a few years doing this and that, unsure what to do with her life.

 

We worked in a comprehensive school in the Everton area of Liverpool, quite a rough area and the school had one of the highest truancy rates in the country. It was perhaps not the best of jobs for Ruth; she was a gentle woman, intellectual (her degree was better than mine) and totally unselfconscious and so the pupils made mincemeat of her. Our classrooms were adjacent and a couple of times I had to go in and restore order. I would let the noise build a bit at first and see if it would dissipate which sometimes it did, but when it didn’t I would go in on the pretence of an errand; requesting a book or something and restore calm with a few well-chosen words.

 

We soon became close; sitting together in the staff room and chatting away. For some reason none of the other teachers particularly took to her which did not help her, and I suppose that I was not particularly close to any of them either although I had been at the school for five years, perhaps because most of them were considerably older. We found we had lots in common; we enjoyed the same kind of books and music and were both political; Mrs Thatcher had just come to power and so it was an interesting time politically and we were both left wing or to be more exact anti-establishment and loathed Mrs Thatcher and her Tory government.

 

My marriage had ended a year earlier after my wife, Lorraine, discovered that she could do better than a rather moody history teacher who she felt had no ambition and was wasting his potential. She met, god knows how, a business man with his fingers in many pies and decided to upgrade. We had been married for six years and I was still feeling alone and bereft of confidence. Perhaps I was flattered that a young attractive woman was clearly interested in me.

 

I soon discovered that Ruth was not happy either. She had only been married for a couple of years but had been with Jonathan for longer, “living in sin” as it was still sometimes called back then, and she had a three year old daughter Esther.

“I love Jonathan, but he is just not doing anything. He is clever and I enjoy his company but since he lost his job with the university he just sits and reads. Mind you at least I don’t have to get childcare. But he is so fed up. We just sit and watch television and row about Esther”

I got the impression that little happened romantically, although she was rather ambiguous about this but then I think we were all less open about sex in those days. Even after she and I started to make love she was never specific about the state of her sex life with Jonathan.

 

One Saturday, early in that first term we met by chance at the Walker Art Gallery in the city centre; she was sitting with a red haired little girl, who proved to be her daughter Esther, in the café. Ruth was trying to read a brochure whilst her daughter kept tugging at her sleeve. I went over and she looked up and seemed really happy to see me. She introduced me to Esther and we spent the rest of the day together, exploring Liverpool and then I drove them back home; they actually lived not far from me in a small terraced house in Aigburth, the Bohemian part of Liverpool.

 

Jonathan was at his parents all day so I did not get to meet him. But I drank Earl Grey tea in their rather dark front room, admiring the Indian prints on their walls and listening to The Clash. Ruth laughed lots, something she rarely did at school, even away from the classroom. But her laugh was so lovely, like bells, and the sound of it I have never forgotten. Even now it will suddenly come to me without warning and I feel just that bit happier.

 

We were doing a history project for the first years on life in medieval Liverpool and she suggested that she come over one evening so we could really set to work.

“Won’t Jonathan mind?”

“I don’t think he will care, probably glad of a bit of time to himself, so he can read his Greek philosophy books. Anyway it is work.”

I invited her for tea and we drank wine with the meal. Afterwards we sat together on the settee and talked history. I was intensely aware of her leg which was less than an inch away from mine and her perfume which smelt sophisticated and turned out to be a present from her mother. I felt drawn to her and I knew that she felt the same.

 

After a while, perhaps as a result of the wine, we talked about school more generally.

“I am so rubbish” she said “if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have survived.”

“You are better than you think you are.” I told her.

Suddenly she turned and we were hugging.

“I love you” she muttered in my ear, “and I hate myself.”

Suddenly we were kissing and whilst we did not end up having full sex – that would come later – we did have what she called “lesbian sex” on my bed.

“I am sorry” she said afterwards, “but I have felt something for you since we met. I knew if I got tipsy that I would tell you eventually.”

“I love you too” I told her, “I just not think somebody as beautiful as you could like me. And you are married”.

“I know” and we kissed again.

 

And that was the beginning of it, the affair of my life. It only lasted a few months, less than one school year, but it defined my whole life.  Ruth was inventive in that she always had excellent excuses to leave home in the evenings or at weekends: school projects, marking, visiting a friend, having to go to the shops. Sometimes she would just pop round for an hour, knocking on my door in the hope that I would always be in, and I always was. It was so exciting; knowing that she might come round at any time, and the fact that nobody knew.

 

It was passionate; the sweat on our bodies and the noise we both made. I had never experienced anything like it, and she said that she never had either. I loved the difference between the sedate teacher, trying to tell off her class and the naked woman thrashing about on top of me and losing herself in her orgasm. It was as if I was discovering sex for the first time.

 

Early on she told me that she would never leave Jonathan for me. He is a good man, and I love him. I really cannot hurt him, and then there is Esther, I do not want her to grow up away from her father. It was not that I disbelieved her; I just hoped that she would realise that she truly loved me and was wasting her time with someone who she felt less passionately about. But as well the intense passion there was guilt.

“I don’t want Esther to know that her mother is a prostitute.”

“You are not a prostitute, you are from that” I told her. “You just need somebody to love you, I wish that it could be different.”

“I might as well be.”

I held her tight.

 

It carried on over Christmas and into springtime and then for a few weeks we stopped seeing each other. There was the Easter Holiday which made it difficult for us anyway and even afterwards for a couple of weeks. We talked at work but she stopped coming round and we no longer went for a quick beer after work either.

“I am trying to make it work with Jonathan. I really want you as a friend, but nothing more.”

I did not want to think what “trying to make it work” might entail. But she did not look happy and neither was I.

“With you it is all to do with sex” she told me later on.

“But we cannot go out together, we cannot even sit together and spend the evening watching television. I want us to have a normal relationship, but we can’t. If we were together then it would become less important….”

 

One Friday night I had just finished painting my kitchen. I was feeling despondent and went out to have a cigarette in my small backyard. I only had recently started smoking again, something I had occasionally indulged in whilst I was a student in Sheffield. I looked at the sky and wondered where my life was going. I dearly hoped that Ruth would come to me but it seemed to be at and end and I was heartbroken.  I heard a loud knock on the door, and I knew that it was her.

“I haven’t come for sex, I just needed to see you. Have you any beer?”

I did, and we drank it. And then we did have sex, loudly and frantically on my sofa. Afterwards she cried.

“I am sorry” she said, “why do I always do that? I love him, I do.” She left, still weeping. And I stood in the doorway watching this young looking, vulnerable woman walk hurriedly out into the evening.

 

At two that morning there was a banging on my door. A tall man with red hair stood there.

“So you are the bastard who is trying to end my marriage” he shouted angrily.

I looked at him; he was handsome and even though he was furious one felt that he was the gentle intellectual type. Despite Ruth and my closeness I had never met Jonathan, and yet here he was. He went for me, so I kicked the door closed and fastened the chain, I really did not want to end up brawling on the street. He kicked on it a few times and then there was silence. I never saw either him or Ruth ever again.

 

The following Monday, Mr Moss explained that “Miss Davis” was off sick. He looked at me curiously but said nothing. She never came back, and she never contacted me, not even a letter. I immediately started to apply for jobs up and down the country, and by the beginning of the new school year I was back in Sheffield teaching at a rather privileged grammar school. I met Wendy who was the school receptionist and she swiftly became my second wife. We bought a house and we had our son Mike. If we had had a girl I think we would have called her Ruth.

 

I stayed in Sheffield for ten years and then Wendy and I also split up. In the end she was just not Ruth; she was lovely and I think she cared for me at first, and I did try to love her, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had married on the rebound from Ruth and it showed. She accused me of being aloof and “emotionally constipated” and walked out with Mike to live with her mother. Soon afterwards I discovered that Mr Moss had retired from head of history at my old school in Everton and for some reason I applied for it and got it.

 

I spent the rest of my career there; friendless and lonely; the other teachers tended to avoid me, and I started to drink. I got another house in Aigburth not far from where I had formerly lived, and I used to occasionally go round and look at Ruth’s old home and wonder where on earth she was now. There was an elderly couple living there, who began to look at me curiously as they often caught me staring at their front door. I do not know why I tortured myself; looking at her old house, working in the school where perhaps we had had our happiest times, the ones without guilt.  I didn’t miss either of my ex-wives but I did miss Ruth. I still scoured the TES for news of her, but never came across her, and I suspected that she would have left teaching.

 

Then like Mr Moss before me, I retired and my life had gone. My son was living in Leeds but he occasionally visited me, which I appreciated because I really had done little for him. He did not pretend to love me but he made sure that I was okay. And when I started losing my memory and being found looking confused on the streets of Aigburth he booked an appointment with the doctor and then eventually arranged for me to live in Red Rock Care Home.

 

I never forgot Ruth, going over those few months over and over again, and wondering desperately what had happened to her and how I could have made it end differently. Was it doomed or was there a way I could have ended up with her?

 

And then there she was, sat next to me, the same underneath the old age and senility. She had on a strong perfume, not the one that she used to wear but something fancy and probably expensive.

“Ruth, it is me, you do remember. It is Peter, Peter Roth.”

At first she did not appear to hear me; she just carried on with her knitting, mumbling to herself, or perhaps just counting. I said her name again, this time more loudly.

 

This time she turned to look at me; the first time that she had looked at me directly in the face. It was definitely her; those lovely eyes so open and innocent. And yet there was something else in them which he could not understand, could it be fear?

“You remember. The school, Everton. It is Peter, I have missed you so much.”

There was silence for a moment or two and then I could hear a strange whimpering noise coming from her, and then there was the distinct smell of urine and shit. I sat paralysed, shocked and not knowing what to say or do.

 

Gaynor and Sarah saw what was going on; they hurried over and took Ruth away to be cleaned up, glowering at Old Misery as they did so.

“Don’t you mind him” said Sarah to Ruth, “…we will find you someone nicer to sit next to. Just ignore him, he is no good to anyone.”

Ruth continued to cry and looked back at Old Misery with something like horror in her eyes, horror and disgust.

 

And yet as he sat there encased in misery and confusion he knew that for nine months someone extremely beautiful had loved him, had loved him enough to risk everything for and for that relatively short time his life was as exciting as it ever could be. It might have been fifty years ago but he had that and nobody could take it away from him.

 

Siskin the Poet

 

Siskin the poet was the darling of the revolution; sure there was The Great Leader, but he was rather austere and did not quite have the common touch. The other prominent revolutionaries such as Dodd, Hankin and Darragh, whilst worthy and brave also lacked a certain glamour. But Siskin was dashing and handsome with his black hair, and swarthy features. His poems were everywhere; before the revolution the most stirring lines had been daubed on walls or printed in underground magazines and since the new regime had taken over volumes of his poetry were in virtually everybody’s house, certainly those who were loyal to the new state.

 

Siskin had known the Great Leader since they were at the City University together; they had been thrown out at the same time for “Behaviour detrimental to the university”. Subsequently they had shared a prison cell for a couple of years during the years of terror, although thankfully neither had been executed or found at the bottom of the police station stairs with broken necks as had happened to so many of their comrades.  Instead they had been rescued by members of the movement in one of the more audacious acts of the time.

 

Throughout the next few years as the revolution began to take shape Siskin had stayed loyal to the Great Leader. He was at his side as they had gradually become a force to be reckoned with; acquiring weapons and clandestine support from countries such as Russia and China. Early portraits of the revolutionaries tended to show Siskin amongst his comrades, although he was often to the side as if he was slightly aloof. But clearly he was one of the important men (and they were all men) who had set about turning their country upside down.

 

Whilst Siskin was known for his poetry which in passionate language called for the dispossessed and restless to rebel against the corrupt king Charles and his immoral court, he was also an excellent journalist; whose articles had exposed corruption and evil throughout the land. Even when the newspapers or journals that he wrote for were supressed his articles soon appeared elsewhere; often photocopied on cheap machines and handed out to people getting on the Metro, attending football matches or walking down the main shopping streets. Siskin was part of an unstoppable wave of anger against a very old and very wicked monarchy.

 

Siskin was in the vanguard of the revolution; he fought the King’s armed guards as the Silver Palace was overthrown and burnt to the ground, and he was at the forefront when the capital’s infamous Central Prison was liberated and like the palace set ablaze. He was not a writer who just observed; he could fire a rifle and knife a member of the old guard when necessary; and for those heady few months when the people rose and tore down the old regime it often was necessary.

 

Once the revolution had taken place and the king and the rest of his family were chained up in the Central Prison awaiting trial and as it proved execution, the Great Leader came to see Siskin. The poet had found a large house in the capital and close to the river.  It had belonged to one of the former king’s courtiers, whose body was now lying at the bottom of the River, hacked to pieces by his servants.

 

The Great Leader was a short, rather portly man whose homely appearance belied his bravery and savage ruthlessness. He and Siskin clasped hands and looked each other straight in the eye.

“Well we are finally in power. There are a few reactionary forces gathering in the North West, but they have no allies; the Americans and Germans want nothing to do with them, not after you exposed their connivance in the propping up of the previous regime.”

Siskin smiled at his old friend and comrade. As always The Great Leader smelt of cheap aftershave, and was wearing an off the peg suit, which did not quite fit him.

“Once it started there was only ever going to be one result. I told you this. The king was ripe for plucking.”

“So what do you want to do now Siskin? I have got plenty of room in my cabinet for you. You are clever and dedicated to the cause. I need people like you. The revolution was the easy bit, what we need to do now is hold onto power and make sure that the revolution is not destroyed, there are plenty of people who do want to end it or compromise it, some not so very far away from here either.”

Siskin looked round, as if some of these counterrevolutionaries were hiding behind his long green curtains, but the only people in the room were the two men pondering the future.  He asked to think about it, promising that he would get back to the Great Leader the following day.

 

The two men moved into the back garden where they drank beer and listened to the birds sing and the babble of voices coming from the river. Nothing had changed much, Siskin thought to himself. He passionately believed in the revolution, felt that the monarchy was too corrupt to survive and had watched with anger as his people, the Jews were made scapegoats for the financial crisis that had hit the country. And yet, he wondered if the revolution would really change things that much. The city would not alter and neither would the important things in life such as beauty, love, music and sex; the eternal verities; they would stay the same. And perhaps the same people would rise to the top whatever the nature of the regime.

 

He did not tell The Great Leader this, was not even sure he really believed it. Perhaps he was getting old and cynical or just the inevitable reaction when all you have ever wanted has actually happened….and you wonder then what? He sighed slightly and got them both some more beer. They drank it and then The Great Leader left, presumably to carry on with the great work that he had set in motion, whilst Siskin went to bed.

 

The following morning Siskin wrote The Great Leader a note; saying that unfortunately he felt he had to decline a position in government; that he was not a politician but a writer and that was how he aimed to support the new regime. However he was always at The Great Leader’s service. He got a brief, handwritten, response, on a plain piece of paper.

“I understand.”

Siskin had enjoyed the excitement of the revolution but he was not a politician, he was a writer and it was that he wished to concentrate on. He felt that he made the right decision.

 

Nobody now knows how Siskin met the woman almost always known as A-. Both are now dead, killed before their time, as is A-‘s husband, whose name has wholly disappeared. Rumour has it that A-‘s husband, was someone with connections at court, and that A- came to see Siskin to plead for his life.  Whatever the truth of the matter is they began to be seen together; at official functions, attending concerts or just out and about in the newly liberated capital. She was an attractive woman; light brown hair, eyes like a princess and a shapely body. She rarely spoke but those who remember them say that there seemed to be an invisible cord between them so that they were always aware of where the other one was and never strayed too far from each other. It was also remarked how comfortable they were in each other’s presence; that there was always the sound of laughter from wherever they were.

 

Siskin had never married and there had never been any rumours of lovers, even at university he was said to have led a most abstemious lifestyle. Like most of the revolutionaries he was something of a puritan in contrast to the licentiousness of the old court. The new government hierarchy therefore did not know what to do with A-. They were a moralistic regime and had no intention of destroying family life and being seen to condone adultery. Yet at many highly public events Siskin and this attractive woman sat together, clearly besotted with each other, but she was also clearly married and wore her silver wedding ring unselfconsciously.

 

And then six months after The Change, Siskin’s volume of poetry came out Love Letters to A-. He had not written anything much for a while; presumably being too involved with his revolutionary activities to think about writing, his only literary activity had been to put words to the new National Anthem; “Onward people, the future is now”, not one of his most inspired efforts. Love Letters to A-  was a short work, consisting of twelve letters to A- in different poetic forms; all love poems, and many highly erotic.

 

Siskin’s volume sold well; he was such a popular figure it was impossible that it would not. But it also met with disapproval as well. The poetry made clear that A- was married and was also the lover of the poet. For many of the population the celebration of an adulterous love affair was a little hard to take, whilst for Siskin’s fellow revolutionaries it was a bit traitorous that instead of writing inspiring poems about revolution and change he was writing silly bourgeois poems about something as unimportant as love. A few brave souls even began to question Siskin’s literary merit; was he really that great a poet?

 

Siskin sat in his house one evening, just as the fuss about his volume of poems was beginning to die down. The room he was in was his writing room, it was dark with oak furniture and thick curtains, belonging to the previous owner; none of which he had bothered to replace, although he had added a desk and an upright chair for his writing. His maid ushered in a guest. The man was tall and looked haggard, and it took a few moments for Siskin to recognise him as an Amos Hart a Jewish activist with whom he had worked with previously.

 

They sat down and Amos told Siskin of his reason for visiting.

“I have just been over to the Western Provinces, travelling here and there. I had heard of more persecution of our people.”

“Really” murmured Siskin “I had no idea.”

“I am afraid that news of it has been supressed. I only heard on the grapevine. But it is true unfortunately. There are gangs of youths with staves, wearing swastikas all that nonsense. At first it was just desecration of cemeteries, although that is bad enough, but it has got worse. A rabbi was found hanging from a lamppost, in one large town. The authorities came and took his body away, and it has not been returned. He should have been buried days ago. Others Jews have been killed. One newspaper even had a supposedly serious article about Jews killing a Christian boy for his blood. Even now the blood libel is still going strong.”

 

Siskin listened to what was almost a familiar catalogue of horror; synagogues burnt to the ground, articles in the local press attacking “Jewish influence”, missing Jews, the closure of Jewish schools.

“But the revolution has got rid of all that” he said angrily. “The Great Leader himself spoke out against racism of all sorts, especially that against the Jews”

“Well it is still going on; I have seen the blood and the holy books that have had faeces wiped upon them. It is still happening, whatever the Great Leader says.”

“Well I can have a word with the Great Leader, he and I are old friends. I am sure he will see to it.”

Amos looked at him.

“I am sure he knows, and it is clear that the authorities are involved. What we need is for you to come with me now, this evening. See for yourself what I have told you, and then write an article about it. Because of your friendship with The Great Leader they might actually publish what you write. Other journalists have tried but nobody will print what they say.  Our friend Grant is on a life-support machine because of something he wrote. But you, you have power. Come with me; there is a train leaving tonight. These are your people.”

“But are they?” asked Siskin. “Surely we are all comrades now; race does not matter anymore. We are all free.”

“Maybe here in the capital, but not outside. To many people you will always be “Siskin the Jew”.”

 

Siskin was tempted. He remembered the articles he had written before the revolution. Risking his life to expose the pure evil of the previous government. Since then his life had been dull; just A- to add some excitement. And then he thought about her; she was due to pop round later that night if she could get away, and he thought of her body, and her moans when they made love.

“I am busy with government business. I really just cannot drop everything and go” he told his visitor “but I will speak to The Great Leader, we will sort this out.”

Amos tried to convince Siskin, but soon gave up, and left him to visit desperate men hiding in basements.

 

Siskin sat alone and thought about what Amos had said. But then there was another knock at the door, and soon he was in the arms of A- and nothing else mattered. She smiled down at him, as they lay in bed together; he still inside her.

“You seem serious Siskin. As if your mind was elsewhere.”

He laughed. “No, just heard about persecution of Jews out in the West, apparently there have been a few synagogues burnt down.”

She slid off him.

“Shouldn’t you go? Make a fuss; this is like the old days.”

“I will speak to The Great Leader, probably tomorrow. He is in charge.”

She looked at him, he kissed her breasts and they made love again and her natural perfume rose up to meet him, but this time there was some reserve in her eyes; as if she was giving herself less than wholeheartedly to him.

 

In fact it was the Great Leader who came to see him. Siskin was in the newly named Revolutionary Art Gallery the following evening; like other senior members of the regime he was allowed to visit after the gallery had closed, but as far as he was aware was the only one who actually took advantage of this. He enjoyed looking at paintings without there being anybody to get in his way and to recognise him.  He liked the gallery’s Caravaggio collection, particularly “David with the head of Goliath”. 

 

The gallery was light and airy, and he felt at peace. After a while he became aware that there was somebody sat beside him and without turning he knew that it was The Great Leader. He could smell his cheap aftershave, clearly power had not made his taste any more sophisticated. He was truly a man of the people, Siskin realised, or perhaps he was just without vanity.

 

“How are you old friend?” The Great Leader asked him, he sounded sad; as if he was weary and unsure of what he was doing.

Siskin smiled “Oh I am okay.” He then remembered about the Jews over in the West and told his former comrade about his recent visitor.

“Oh I know about it. It is a shame. But unfortunately we cannot get the people to change, whoever happens to be in government. And at least it isn’t us they are lynching. Still you should have gone over there. Might have done you some good, and you might have died a martyr’s death, what a way to go.”

Siskin was surprised, “but it would have been exposing your government and you. Last thing you would need.”

“But you have lost that fervour. Look at you; attending opera, having an affair with a lackey’s wife. That volume of poetry, it will be forgotten in five years’ time and now so will you. Did you really think that the revolution was over? We need writers now more than ever, to support the cause, not write decadent trifles.”

 

Neither man spoke for a bit. Siskin continued to gaze at the Caravaggio painting, realising that he was nothing and that in a few years’ people would still be coming to look at this painting, who would know nothing of him, and would probably only know of The Great Leader from dog eared history books. Eventually Siskin heard a sigh and The Great Leader got to his feet and without a backward glance left the room; a whiff of his aftershave remained a while before dissipating amongst the empty rooms.

 

They came for the poet Siskin two days later. This was in the early days of The Great Leader’s rule and before The Purging, so that the disappearance of people had not become widespread as it was to do later. Siskin was sitting on the settee with A-. They had made love earlier, and were lying together, comfortable barely speaking. Two policemen were ushered in by the maid; both looked burly and not to be messed with. They requested, or perhaps ordered Siskin to come with them. He looked at them confusedly, not even asking what they wanted him, and then went to get his coat.

 

The police headquarters was a large building with metal grilles and brown brickwork, it was close to the new presidential palace, and there were rumours of tunnels connecting the two. Even then people went out of their way to avoid it, although they were not sure why. It had an air of quiet; the screams of the tortured and the dying never made it outside of the building.

 

Siskin was hurried through a back entrance and left in a small office for three hours. There was a soft chair and a fragile looking table in a corner, the light bulb burned brightly. Siskin paced about; trying to compose poetry in his head, something he had done when imprisoned by the old regime, but nothing came. He remembered the screams when they had attacked the Silver Palace, and the bodies lying everywhere; not just soldiers but women and a children. And the blood, everywhere which he slipped on so that his clothes had ended up sodden in it.

 

A policeman came and he was then led to another office, this one contained a man behind a desk, who was clearly too senior in the police force to wear a uniform. Siskin thought he recognised him from the sacking of the palace, although which side he had been on he could not remember.

 

Siskin sat down opposite the policeman who was looking at some papers with evident approval, and humming the new national anthem under his breath, he smelt of peppermint. After a while he handed the papers to Siskin.

“Could you sign these please?”

Siskin read them; they were a confession of treason; how Siskin how striven to overthrow the state with the help of a few named others including Amos Hart. Most of the rest had obviously Jewish names and at the end of the list were A- and her husband. According to the confession they had planned to murder The Great Leader, and bomb local churches.

“This is ridiculous” muttered an anxious Siskin, “The Great Leader is a friend of mine. I don’t know what is going on, but I have to see him.”

“Could you just sign it” said the policeman.

Siskin just glared at him, the policeman shrugged, leaned over and took the papers off Siskin and signed each page carelessly. He then pressed a buzzer and a policeman in uniform came and took Siskin out.

 

Siskin thought he was going to be either taken home, or back to the office. He was scared; more scared than when he had fought the palace guards, or when he had been in prison under the old regime. Then he had thought it would end for the best; that he was on the winning side and that nothing would stop, but now he saw that he was part of the past, and that his usefulness was over.

 

After walking up and down stairs and through corridors, all brightly lit and with the smell of disinfectant, he was led to a small courtyard, overlooked by blank walls. There was a bleakness about the place and the sense of fear. He wondered if it was his imagination or was it blood and faeces that he could smell. At one side there was a post which he was led to. Meekly he allowed his arms to be tied loosely behind his back. He looked about him, trying not to urinate or vomit.

 

Four policeman with rifles came out of a door to the side and stood facing him, although avoiding his eyes. They looked emotionless, as if they were just there to do a slightly distasteful job and would be glad when it was over with. Siskin heard no order but he saw the four of them raise their guns of one accord and fire. He felt an unbearable pain and his body jerked backwards. His last thoughts were of The Great Leader and then he died.

 

Siskin’s crumpled body lay in the courtyard, disregarded until in the evening when it was taken away and burnt, and the ashes discarded. As we know now, he was the first of many to die in that courtyard; rich and poor, powerful and weak, but he was one of the most important although perhaps the one that we feel least sorry for.

 

The Waters of Babylon

 

They probably think I am a just bit nervous, the way that I never meet anybody’s gaze but am always looking round, never still, permanently on edge. And there is my silence, which is really listening; I have learned to listen, listen for that odd word or tone, that second’s hesitation which gives the game away. When you have been on the run for as long as I have, these things are second nature, and if I forget them for just one moment then that could be it.

They seem to like me at the care home; well the residents do, I don’t really care about the other staff. I am patient, quiet and do not mind listening to their stories, the stories that they tell every day to whoever will listen. I feel as if I have more in common with them who have lived hard lives and seen unspeakable things, than with the staff who are mostly young and trivial, and are interested in the holy trinity of drink, sex and television.

I have been working there for four weeks. It was easy to get in, after all the money is awful and the work is hard, but I don’t mind that. And Nottingham has some cheap places to live if you don’t mind a bedsit and noise at night, which I don’t. I lived here a few years ago, in my previous life. Odd that it is still the same; castle, canal and the square in front of the town hall, it is just me that has aged. I won’t stay here long, I never do but it is okay, and at least it is big so I am less conspicuous.

I take Sylvia Dodd out this morning to do her shopping. She likes to get out and visit the local shops to buy her daily packet of Rothmans and a bar of Dairy Milk. Sylvia always dresses well; not flash but good clothes that suit her, and she has a lovely perfume, quite classy. We slowly walk down the street; it is November and getting cold, but with that smell I love of autumn. We walk through fallen leaves and I have a sudden shot of nostalgia which I swiftly push aside. Sylvia talks about the royal wedding; she is an old fashioned socialist and hates the royal family.

“Waste of money and to think of all those people without homes. I have a good mind to write to that Tony Blair” and she sniffs contemptuously. I do not know what royal wedding she is talking about and I certainly do not vote, being on the electoral register would be suicide, I would be taken within the week.

We walk into the Co-op where Sylvia likes to go. She is quite friendly with most of the staff, who do the decent thing and talk to her. It is the older lady there today, too much make-up and rather overweight. She smiles at me and I quickly look away.

“Back again” she smiles. Genuine? I smile back briefly and pretend to read the front page of a newspaper.

“It’s Sharon isn’t it?” she asks, seeming friendly. Why is she talking to me, when Sylvia would so like to chatter?

“No, Barbara.” I never forget the name I am going under. I swap them regularly of course, but have never been caught out.

Sylvia leaves the shop with chocolate and fags in her handbag. She is talking about her daughter now, who is an electrician. I know what she will say, but listen anyway, always pays to listen even if you think you know what is coming next. We walk back the way we came, I make sure that nobody is falling me, just in case. But nobody is. Hopefully they don’t know where I am yet, think I am still in Sheffield in that awful damp flat.

We get back to the home, I help her use the toilet and get changed. She then sits in the back garden, ignoring the chill, and smokes. I should be helping the other staff with household tasks but Sylvia enjoys my company and at least she does not ask me about myself. Once she did enquire whether I had a boyfriend and I told her my usual lie about having someone in the army. In theory that stops them trying to pair me off and keeps male staff from making a pass at me.

We walk back into the building; I smell beans and sausages coming from the kitchen and this mingles with the smell of disinfectant as the residents’ rooms are cleaned. The senior, or boss as the residents call her, Marie comes out of her office with a young man in tow.

“Ah Barbara, this is Tom, he is new.” He is handsome, with designer stubble and the smell of some aftershave, too expensive for someone doing this job.  He looks at me for just that fraction too long, as if he is comparing me with a photograph he has seen recently. Perhaps it was nothing, but I have learned to follow my hunches. I start making plans.

It is six in the evening, the end of my shift. Tom enters the staffroom, just as I am getting my bag and coat to go home.  He looks full of purpose and evil intent.

“Going home?” he asks.

I look at him, briefly. He grabs his bag and coat from his locker; both too new and just wrong.

“I’ll walk with you.”

“No don’t”

“Oh come on” he steps towards me, his pumps making no sound on the cheap plastic flooring. He is close to me now and I can smell him and hear him breathe. I have a knife in my pocket and I clench the handle. The door opens and Marie walks in full of concentrated fury. I take my chance, push past her and jump the first bus I find.

I always leave my two bags packed, just in case, it is not the first time that I have had to leave in a hurry. I grab my toiletries from the bathroom and I am ready.  Within five minutes of entering my bedsit I am walking down the road; rucksack on my back and shoulder bag by my side, heading towards the railway station, shivering slightly with the cold and with despair.

 

Through the fence we occasionally see the soldiers and men in suits, looking busy and slightly furtive, as if ashamed of what they are up to. It is an American airbase which according to the internet has devious things going on. It was probably foolish going to join the protest camp, after all no doubt they are under heavy surveillance. But I like the fact that the people share my transient lifestyle. Anyway I will only stay a couple of weeks and then go, or sooner if I have to. My name is now Liz.

I share a tent with a woman called Nico, named after the singer. She is tough and carries a knife so I feel safe with her, I lost mine in Chesterfield. Like most of the people in the camp she does not pry too much, many of them are on the run from something as well, or like to pretend they are. It is a community, and I like to have people about me some of the time.

We lie there in the evening reading; I borrowed Robinson Crusoe from Jack, who joined the camp just before me, whilst Nico reads something heavy and political looking. I lie back on my sleeping bag and think of the things I have seen and felt, but it becomes too much and I turn back to Robinson on his island. Sometimes I need to dwell on the unspeakable things I have seen just to stop me getting complacent, but only for a few moments; that is enough. The tent smells of Nico’s cheap body spray and under that a faint smell of unclean bodies and sweat.

 After a while we walk out into the countryside and sniff the air. It is March and the air is full of pollen, still cold after a hard winter.

“Why are you reading Robinson Crusoe?”

“Useful tips for survival. It’s a good story.”

“He is just a capitalist; controlling the means of production and then enslaving the local population. Someone should write a Marxist critique of it.”

“Jack lent it to me.” I admitted.

“I think he is police. There are always one or two. He has tried to get me into bed, wouldn’t trust him. Just be careful, these undercovers will do anything.”

There had been rumours of policemen joining protest camps; forming relationships, having children. Not everyone believed it, but I had no reason to doubt it.

I keep Jack at a distance after Nico’s warning, although did not return Robinson Crusoe as I want to finish it. It is a good story, written as if he was in a hurry to get it all down.  I would love to live on an island, secluded and safe with only the occasional cannibal to bother me.

Jack comes into the tent a few days later, he is all nonchalance.

“Hi Liz, I was looking for Nico.”

He looks at me

“So what do you think of Robinson Crusoe?”

I calculate whether there is space to get past him. I know Nico has gone into town with some of the others. However we never leave our base unguarded so there will be people about, and I can scream.

“Okay, nearly finished it.” I edge towards Nico’s sleeping bag, which contains her knife.

“Do you fancy a drink tonight? It is about time you and I got to know each other we could go and have some fun.”

I look at him. “No thanks, my turn to wash-up”

“But surely afterwards?”

“No.” he looks at me steadily for a moment and then leaves.

Two days later we are raided. Nico and I see them coming; we are out foraging in some fields at a distance from the camp and see the vans heading towards the tents from all directions. We both run. There is no time to get our stuff, but Nico keeps her car hidden well away from the camp so we are able to jump into it and make our escape. The police probably don’t even notice us, and if they do we have too far a head start. Fortunately I had finished reading Robinson Crusoe, although I hadn’t returned it to Jack.

Nico is driving to Dover and then by ferry to France to join some anarchists in Paris. She does not suggest I go with her, and I am happy with that. I suspect that ports and airports are unsafe and heavily watched which is why I have never attempted to leave the country. She drops me off near London, and soon I am in the capital, where I find somewhere to squat. My parents lived in Highgate, are maybe still there, but I cannot think of visiting them, and anyway I cannot remember their address.

I like it in London; it feels safe with so many people, so long as I keep with the crowds. I love the noise, and the bustle, the river and the buildings that dwarf us all.  Every day I walk the streets, watching the people and pretending that I am one of them.

And I see her disappearing into Aldgate Tube station; a thin nervous woman, looking in every direction but that in which she is going. Her image is caught by the CCTV cameras that patrol this city and is then beamed straight to us. If she leaves we will find her, we always do. Wherever she goes we will know about it sooner or later. And we will get her eventually, we always get the people we are chasing; she will get tired, perhaps ill and inevitably she will get old. All we have to do is wait.

 

The Woman in the Park
(for Miriam)

She is sitting on an iron bench in the park. In the distance I can hear horses’ hooves lightly pounding and the sound of carriages trundling down the thoroughfare just behind us. It is early in the morning but London never sleeps and neither do I. I see her in the distance as I make my usual perambulation. She looks still and intense as if she was holding her breath.  By her side is a solid black pram.

There is something about her, haunting, almost as if she is a ghost. Of course it is odd to see a young woman unaccompanied at this time of the morning, just sitting; perhaps she is a nursemaid whose charge is being fractious. As I get closer to her I see that she is dressed in black, clearly in mourning. I raise my hat but do not stop, and when I am at a safe distance look back. She is looking straight at me; her eyes even from a distance are dark, and I am sure I can see tears in them, but my senses are not always to be relied upon. 

It is a cold morning, early February with frost upon the ground which crunches slightly as I trample upon it. There are a host of smells; the usual polluted effluence from the Thames and general sewage, but also that distinct smell of winter which must be caused by something but I am not sure what. I cannot remember making my way to the park, perhaps I had been there all night, just walking. Perhaps I had been there for days, but I do not feel hungry or particularly tired so who knows.  

I have this feeling of something missing; something that I have to find. Something dear to me; a jewel or perhaps a child. It is a sense of unease which is always there at the back of my mind, sometimes it is urgent at other times just a sense of edginess, but it is never absent. It is as if I am incomplete.  

Two young boys approach me; not looking at me but definitely aware of my presence. Will they accost me or try to steal my handkerchief? Perhaps they do not know themselves. They look only about eight or nine; street urchins who would earn money minding gentlemen’s horses or selling things found in the mud. I feel sad looking at them but also there is a feeling of fear.  They come close to me and I feel them studying me, weighing me up, but then all of a sudden they hurry on and do not look back.  

Sometime later I come upon the woman on the bench again. Our eyes meet and her mouth opens but no sound comes out. I stop opposite her. She smells of lavender and sorrow. She tries again to speak but again nothing emerges. She is older than I first thought, probably about thirty; a white oval face with light brown hair mostly hidden under her bonnet.

“Can I help you madam?” I ask. I wondered how long since I had spoken to someone.

She bows her head but still no sound comes from her pale lips, but her eyes are almost pleading with me. I shiver briefly and then after a moment I walk on, leaving the park at the next entrance I come across. 

I wander the streets for an hour or so and then make my way to a small building near Piccadilly which I think is my club although I cannot remember what it is called.  It feels familiar, and I think I go there a lot. There is a smartly dressed servant in the entrance hall who greets me and takes my coat and other accoutrements.  I make my way to the lounge where I sit and read a newspaper and lunch in the dining room. 

My days go on like this; walking in the park, wandering the streets, visiting my club, sometimes talking to strangers. I suppose I must sleep, I know sometimes they prepare a bed for me in the club but I am sure I go home as well, but I cannot even remember where my house is or what it looks like. I do not know how long I have been going on like this, surely not forever. 

Tonight after a chop at the club I leave and walk some of the less salubrious streets of the city; with no conscious intent. It is dark, and I hold my stick tightly, I am quite fit and strong even now, but I do not want to be beaten up or garrotted. I hear the sound of music from a public house and make up my mind to go in and join the throng but my legs keep on walking. There is still the smell of winter, but also of cheap perfume, sweat and shit.

And then I see her, standing in a square. It is the woman in the park, well I think it is; she is wearing less than before but the predominant colour is still black. Our eyes meet, they are still intent and stare at me boldly.  They are brown, lighter than the woman in the park. We stand for a moment and then she joins me, walking by my side and takes my arm, firmly. I am conscious that there is a living being my side, I can feel her gloved hand, and her fingers gripping me just above my elbow. I realise she is a separate human being with her own history and personality. She has no connection to me, just this moment in time. 

We keep walking saying nothing. She is steering me. We come to a boisterous looking pub and walk in. I look at the few people who sit and drink and stare at us. I feel as if I have been here before, and perhaps I have. We walk up the wooden stairs, the sounds of chatter and metal mugs on wooden tables resumes as we enter her room. It is warm, surprisingly so, and the bed inviting. I lie on it and remember no more. 

When I awake there is a woman dressing herself, she has dark hair, which is long.

“Elizabeth?”

She turns and it is the woman from the night. She is mostly naked and very beautiful.

“Who is Elizabeth?” she asks, her accent is cockney. I do not think we even spoke last night.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. Sorry I slept.”

“It is okay, but you do need to go. I need to help open up.”

I give her some money and walk downstairs. There is someone lying slumped on one of the tables and I wonder if I should see to him but I hear him snoring, and then what could I do? I leave. 

The next day is Sunday; she is in the park again. Is it the same woman? She looks at me as I walk by her. She is rocking the pram, gently, and I hear her murmuring. I think it is a nursery rhyme at first but as I get nearer realise it is a rather rude song from the music halls. I quicken my pace and go past her. When I walk past her again a few minutes later she has stopped chanting and is sitting quietly looking modestly in front of her. I want to sit by her and chat, but I am scared and leave the park. 

I am in Cripplegate and see a dark church.  I walk through the lychgate and into a small and neat graveyard; I am tempted to stay there, but something draws me into the church itself. Are my actions not my own? Is everything I do by compulsion? The church looks old but the minister is fiery and intense. I think it is a nonconformist church, perhaps Baptist. The minister is just wearing a suit and is informal in his address.

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

I listen for a while and then leave, and sit on a gravestone until the congregation leisurely leave the church and after them the minister more hurriedly. 

She is in the park again. My memory is getting better. I remember how I have been spending my days; going to the bank and I talked to a tramp on his way into London. And I had been to the theatre; a variety show which I had enjoyed. I had kept expecting there to be someone by my side, but there was a just a loud couple who I did not know. And I had visited a medium in a large house in Highgate who had looked at me intently and then told me she could not help me and returned my money, hurrying me out of her room. 

I pluck up courage and sit next to the woman, the other side of her from the pram. She does not flinch but bends towards me almost imperceptively.

“Do you remember me?” She nods but does not speak. “From the other day…and then later.”

She nods again. And we sit in silence, but it is a comfortable silence. I notice she is shivering so I put my cloak over her gently.

“Are you okay?” I ask her; “you look so sad”.

She moves her hands in front of her as if in entreaty or helplessness, but still does not speak.

“Have you lost someone?” I ask her.

“Yes”, her voice is refined with a trace of the north.

“I had a baby. And they took it off me.” I look inside her pram and realise that it is empty; just blankets and a pillow. She weeps quietly. I hold her hand and stroke it slowly. She does not speak again and eventually and with reluctance I leave her.

I look for her at night; every night, but for five nights I do not find her. On the second night I find another woman who looks similar and she takes me back to her room. I was expecting it to be sordid and to feel hateful afterwards but actually it was loving and I give the woman, who was called Mary, extra. We talk afterwards mostly about her, and then I gave her even more money and left. 

On the sixth night I find her.

“I have been looking for you, and you are never in the park.” Silently she leads me to her room and this time we have sex, and again I stay the same night. I watch her idly dressing; looking beautiful, her bottom surprisingly large but oh so lovely.

“Come and live with me” I say to her.

She smiles and carries on putting on her corset.

“I mean it, I have a large house and my servants are discreet”.

“But what about your wife” she asks and leaves the room.

I get dressed and go home.

I know where to go; it is a long walk but the streets and houses are familiar. Nobody greets me or acknowledges my existence, but I do recognise various faces. And then I reach my house, which is large and white. A maidservant lets me in, and says “good morning sir.” In a voice just the correct side of impertinence.

A strange woman comes down the stairs and leads me into the drawing room. I have never seen her before but she sits me down and tells me that she is my wife.  And then there are small footsteps and who are these two children who stand in front of me, call me daddy and weep?

 

  The Day She Left Me

It was a Monday morning and my bed was cold.  At first I thought Marita must be having a smoke on the balcony and that she would return in a moment, the smell of tobacco still clinging to her robe, but then I remembered she had left me. For a moment I felt bereft but then there was an undeniable feeling of relief; no more tortured arguments until the early hours of the morning, and no more tension that was almost tangible and so hateful. 

I walked into the kitchen in my boxer shorts and turned on the radio. This was one of the many bones of contentions between Marita and me; whilst I prefer Smooth F.M. she would always listen to Radio Three. No more. I do not mind the odd bit of classical music; a bit of the four seasons whilst having lunch, something with a tune, but Marita liked these long, intense symphonies, which go on forever with a hardly a hummable tune amidst all the emotional tumult; Mahler, Schumann and for light relief Bach. 

David Bowie was singing his hit from thirty years ago “Let’s Dance”, not a great record, but at least it was not his awful version of “Dancing in the Street”. The 1980s were pretty awful for music; even Bob Dylan, the closest I have to a hero, released little worth listening to during that decade. I read an article in some magazine or other that blamed the unlistenability of much of popular music from the era on the drumming of Phil Collins, god knows if it is true, but certainly even much of Dylan’s stuff from then gives me a headache. Perhaps that is why the eighties were so vulgar and brash; the awful loud music infecting every aspect of life. 

Marita had left yesterday afternoon, telling me she was going to live with her son. I could still hear her Latvian accent as she calmly told me what she was doing whilst continuing to pack her case. It was as if she didn’t care.

“It is all right. It was bound to end sooner or later.” She told me, sounding bitter, but then she often did. I watched her as she continued to pack, and once her two cases were full she dragged them out of the flat and headed off down the street, looking strong and determined and too proud to order a cab. 

It had started over something trivial; we had planned to go to Highgate Cemetery on Saturday; we were both off and it would have been a lovely day out. We were going to visit George Eliot’s grave, a writer who Marita professed to admire above all other English writers, but then she had changed her mind.

“I am tired” she said “and there will be all these Marxists hanging about, with their stupid, naïve ideas. I want to stay at home.”

It was her fault; she had stayed up all night drinking and had gone to bed long after me, and now she was hungover and cross.  She settled down on the sofa with a blanket around her and a book on her knee. 

I had gone anyway; there was no way I was staying in listening to Marita getting miserable and smoking the flat out. I had stayed out most of the day; visiting both cemeteries and then grabbing something to eat in a café. And then I just had a wander round the area; I like Highgate; the genteel poverty of it, which is just an illusion I know. If I could get a house there I would be so happy, and there would be a garden where Marita could smoke, and a spare room where she could watch her depressing documentaries about the horrors of the last hundred years. 

When I got home she would not speak to me. I made her dinner, but she just said she would eat later, and then we rowed long and hard. There was that look she gives me when she is angry; contemptuous, disappointed, and full of dislike, direct and concentrated. And it carried on when she awoke on Sunday. It was as if she had dismissed me from her life, and I thought “I don’t care, it should not have to be such hard work. It is just a relationship after all. Enjoying each other’s company, lots of sex. Not all this anger and upset.”

“You are an idiot” she told me, “you just don’t understand anything.” And she started to pack. 

And perhaps she is right; she is too complicated for me. After all I am just a Yorkshire boy trying to make ends meet in London on a librarian’s wages. She is older than me; fifty two to my forty three, but more importantly she has seen it all; living in Latvia seen the persecution by the Russians, particularly as she and her family were Jewish, which just echoed that suffered by her ancestors by the Nazis, several of whom had been shot and their bodies left in ditches. And then travelling all the way to England to make a living and send money back to her family back home. She was divorced with a daughter still in Lativia and a son who had followed her over and lives in Walthamstow. She has lived more than most, it must have been a mistake her moving in with me, someone who was ignorant and naive about so many things, someone who hadn’t lived. 

She used to cry watching programmes about the Russians, and I could not console her. How could I have a relationship with someone who had all that angst, and all that history? We had met in the university library where I worked. She was studying in the evenings a course on Modernist literature as a change from her job as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital. For some reason she decided that I was clever and started to seek me out to talk about Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot; “fine poets, but anti-semites” (sniff). She looked at me as she talked, as if weighing me up, and for some reason, she liked what she saw. 

She invariably wore black jeans and long white shirts. She is thin, with only a small bosom. Her hair is black but with a hint of red, and it is very fine, like silk when I run my fingers through it. I just love touching it, and then there is the smell of it, which maybe her shampoo but I have never smelt it anywhere else. Later on I used to love stroking her head as she lay on my chest, one of the few times that she seemed to be at peace.  

She came up to me as I sat in the university cafeteria one evening; I was drinking coffee before going home, and we talked until it closed. Every so often she would pop out for a cigarette; I at first thought she was had rolled them herself because they were thin, unlike any cigarettes I had seen before but she said they were normal for Latvia. She looked as if she belonged in a black and white film with subtitles, as she sat there talking about James Joyce and Daniil Kharms and seeming so intense with those dark, lustrous eyes . 

And yet sometimes she would laugh. Something one of us would say and her eyes would become brighter and this joy would go down to her mouth and she would smile and chuckle. I felt a real triumph if I did actually make her laugh, sometimes I spent the whole evening just  trying to get it to her happen; the dry noise she made then her shudder, and she would invariably cough and go out onto my balcony for a cigarette. 

We went to a play together; Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker”. I have a friend who worked back stage at the Unity Theatre and so we got cheap tickets. We had a drink afterwards, and talked about the play we had just seen, and then we were at my flat and in my bed. Like her laughter, she was not easily roused to passion, but when she was, it was worth it.  For a few moments she forgot herself and seemed like a child as she gave herself up to the sensations of her body, and perhaps of love. I don’t know. 

Soon she moved in with me; her luggage consisted mostly of books and clothes. We managed to fit it all into my small flat. Her c.d. collection, small but select, soon was amalgamated with mine, and suddenly it was our flat, not just mine. Well perhaps. Her smell dominated; exotic perfumes and then slowly, but insidiously the smell of her cigarettes. But I loved it all; the fact that it was not a sad middle-aged man’s flat anymore, but one belonging to a couple containing femininity and European intellectual mystique. 

I had already booked this week off from the library; I had leave to use, and Marita and I had planned to spend a couple of days away in Worthing, something that would now never happen. I was able to spend the morning cleaning; she had said she had taken everything but I found a few items; a couple of books of poetry, a half-empty packet of cigarettes and a small black sock which made me feel sad.  

When she first moved in I tried to get her to smoke on the balcony, and quite often she did, but in the evenings she often lit up in my tiny front room, claiming it was too cold out and she was too comfortable to move, and anyway she would spray in the morning, which she never did as far as I was aware. The smell had now permeated the flat and everything in it, but I opened the windows, perhaps for the first time since Marita had moved in seven months ago, and vacuumed everywhere. I washed covers, sprayed polish and hung my dark blue rug over the balcony to air it. It felt like a cleansing. 

I kept the radio on as I cleaned. I was only half listening, and even when they kept playing David Bowie records I just assumed it must be his sixtieth birthday or something, but eventually I realised that in fact he had died. I had a bit of a phase on him when I was fifteen or sixteen. I remember buying his album “The Man Who Sold the World” from Jumbo Records in Leeds and bringing it home in one of their distinctive black carrier bags with the white elephant on it and a flower in place of an eye. The album had “Black Country Rock” on it which is pretty good but I could not remember much else.  I did recognise many of the songs they played that morning and sang along in my best south London voice. 

Cannot say I was particularly sad he was dead; he was part of the furniture I suppose but I had long grown out of listening to his records; sold them to a second hand record shop in Halifax along with my other unwanted albums. Many of these people from the eighties were dead now; Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Robert Palmer; all young but they had their moments of fame. It was hardly the end of the world, and none of them were that great. 

In the end I put on Radio Three because I was finding the endless pop music rather tedious. They were playing something by Mozart with singing in it; lighter than Marita’s usual listening but it helped me get through the morning. At times I was so caught up in it that I forgot where I was and what I was doing and felt happy. I do occasionally lose myself in music; at unexpected times. I remember rowing with a previous girlfriend in her bed, there was a Joan Baez album playing in the background which neither of us was paying much attention to, being more intent on our misery. And then suddenly there was a silence between us which was filled with the folksinger singing this haunting song (I later discover it was a Orcadian folksong called “Silkie”) and suddenly our row did not matter, there was something timeless about the music, as if all we were going through had happened time and time again. We ended up making gentle love on the bed, everything forgotten. 

By lunchtime the flat smelt cleaner but every so often I would get the slight whiff of one of Marita’s cigarettes or of her perfume, and stopped what I was doing. I did wonder if she would come back. We had rowed before, often about tiny things such as food and my falling asleep whilst we watched the news, but this did seem final.

“You are too trivial” she had told me. And perhaps I am, after all my life has not really been touched by tragedy. My parents are both still alive and well in a rather lovely house just outside Halifax, my brother and I always felt loved and got on well enough. I was clever enough to get into the University of Nottingham to study English and then after working in a library in Sheffield for three years, before studying for my library diploma. All I had were a couple of failed romances, neither of which left me scarred for long, and the death of my four grandparents at different times over the last twenty years. What was that compared to what Marita and her people have gone through?

After lunch I met my friend from Alastair in a Costa on Camden high street. Alastair had not liked Marita from the first; calling her “Cigarettes and angst” or “C & A” for short. He had been my closest friend when I first moved to London, I had known him at Nottingham and we had kept in touch and so I had looked him up when I moved up here and we started going out places together and watching his football team Orient play. With the advent of Marita inevitably I had seen less of him and I think he became jealous.

“I never could understand what you were doing with someone like that? She could be your mum, or maiden aunt.”

“Well she is gone now. I will miss her.”

“You could do better than her” Alastair told me, “someone with less wrinkles.  We can go out Friday night and get you a girl.” He sipped noisily on his cappuccino, a trace of foam on his bottom lip. 

In fact Marita was not wrinkly; I had a vision of her pale body, skin so smooth, so perfect. And Alastair was so laddish. I had not really noticed before. We were both in our forties and yet he was still the same as the undergraduate I had smoked pot with in our shared house. Perhaps if he had married or had had children he would have grown up, but somehow it had never happened for him; his relationships tended to be short-lived and with women at least ten years younger than himself who soon tired of him.  

“So were you sad about Bowie?” he asked and started singing about whether there was life on Mars.

“No not really. Just a pop singer, that is all.”

“Oh that is Marita talking.” Alastair laughed and showed his discoloured teeth. “The man was a legend, will last just as long as these classical people she likes.”

I laughed and wondered if this was true. “I liked some of his stuff, but he just followed trends didn’t he? Was more interested in look than substance.”

“Oh God” said Daniel looking slightly annoyed, “don’t get elitist on me. You used to listen to all this punk stuff you can’t have changed that much.”

“That was twenty-five years ago, of course I have changed.”

I left shortly after, rather bored by the whole episode. I suddenly did not want to see him again. We had arranged to meet on Friday night, which gave me plenty of time to cancel.

I had a couple of books to pick up from Waterstone’s so made my way there through the Islington streets. I really missed Marita then; her comments about people we saw, her sarcastic observations about British customs which made me laugh. And I loved walking arm in arm with her feeling older and more sophisticated, which I always did when I was by her side. Perhaps she saw something in me that was already there, just hidden behind all the trivia of everyday culture. 

There was a pretty girl in Waterstone’s; she had a sort of overgrown Mohican haircut, and a cream coloured jumper than emphasised her large bust. There was a stud in her nose and she was friendly and talkative. The shop was quiet so we chatted for a few minutes; flirted really. I still did flirt with women even though I was with Marita, never anything serious, but I do enjoy that light hearted banter where you both find the other person attractive, but know that nothing will happen.  

And then it occurred to me that I could ask her out; go with her to the cinema, and kiss her. And she could wake up in my bed and I could caress those magnificent breasts. And then suddenly I realised that actually I did not want to. For a start she was far too young, she could have been my daughter if I had had children and I could imagine the conversations we would have; tedious and banal. I wanted something more substantial than that. More importantly she was not Marita.  I quickly paid for my books and left.

I knew where Marita’s son lived, having visited on several occasions. I caught the bus there. He too lived in a flat, with his girlfriend who was Romanian and who every time I came round was wearing a long blue dressing gown with an incongruous oriental design. I was nervous as I knocked on the door and hoped Marita would be there on her own. But if she was would she talk to me? We talked so much in the past, but I remembered the look she had given me when she left; a final look of sadness and disappointment, that brooked no response. 

Marita opened the door; she was wearing a long green blouse and black leggings. I looked at her directly and could see that, she had been crying. “Starman” by David Bowie was playing on a cheap radio. She fell into my arms and I held her tight my face in her hair, and there was that unique smell which I breathed in like oxygen. 

“I am sorry” I said to her, “please come back to me.” She leaned back and looked at me intently with those endless black eyes, and then took me back in her arms, pressing me to her with all the fervour and intensity in her soul. And I knew that for at least few seconds she had forgotten about the past, everything but me, and that was all I wanted.

 

The Maestro in Six Movements 

 

The Maestro looked at the green gardens of Harrogate and saw that they were good.

“This will be my home” he said aloud in German, “after all my troubles I have found somewhere I can lay my head.” The year was 1858, and the former anarchist and composer and now jobbing music teacher had found somewhere to live, at least for the time being.

He was not called the Maestro then, he gained that title a few years later when he began conducting the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra. Now he was “John Laws”, a name he had chosen for himself on the boat over to England ten years earlier whilst lying in his cabin and trying to take his mind off his seasickness and his nervousness. However it was as Johann Niedermeier he had been christened in the beautiful church of St. Kunibert in Cologne, a city to which he would never return.

Before moving up to the wild north, he had lived in various parts of London, teaching music and mixing with various emigrés from Germany including Karl Marx, whose house he visited on several occasions. He had even twice lent the great German philosopher money, before he stopped making a habit of that sort of thing. Johann was richer than most of his friends as he had wealthy parents who still sent money over to their errant son, but he realised that if he was to make his home in England he would have to stop lending his money but rather save and become respectable.

The Maestro walked the streets of the genteel spa town and liked what he saw. True its inhabitants were the sort of people he and his friends had fulminated against in the various taverns and inns they had congregated in when students in Germany; fey aristocrats and the pompous, ignorant bourgeoisie. But he had heard it was a cultured town, and at least those people he despised would be likely to want music lessons and be able to pay well for them.

The Maestro had never actually planted a bomb himself, but several of his friends and acquaintances had been involved with the planning and executing of a bombing campaign in Cologne. Nobody had been killed during this campaign of terror, but there had been several serious injuries and large parts of the populace became very frightened and the regional government had begun a crackdown. The Maestro had fled his city and country and followed the usual path to Paris with his violin, money and clothes in a case. He had not enjoyed France and because of his excellent English (the result of having an English grandmother), and his love of the music of Henry Purcell he soon travelled to London where his hero had also lived.

He felt happier and happier as he walked round Harrogate; a piece of music was playing round in his head. At first he thought it was something he had written himself before realising it was from a Bach violin concerto. No matter, he had plenty of time to write music as well as to perform it. Perhaps Harrogate did not have the excitement and busyness of London but that was not necessarily a bad thing; at least here he could make a mark, before moving on to something better.

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Harrogate & Knaresborough Advertiser, 1869, July 27th.

“Music Concert at the Royal Hall”

On Tuesday at the Royal Hall the Harrogate Music School gave their summer concert, something that has become an annual event attended by many of the great and good of our town.

Under the guidance of their teacher Herr Johann Laws the pupils, both young and old gave a creditable performance of the works of modern and older composers including Bach, Purcell, Gounod and Mendelssohn. As always Herr Laws’ pupils demonstrated both flair, and meticulous precision in their readings of such great works, which is surely a tribute to the high standards and musicality demanded by their teacher…..

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The Maestro was late. It was not his fault, his fiancée Annie had still been dressing when he had arrived at her house, and so he had had to spend half an hour talking with her father the Rev. Albert Workman, widowed minister of the town’s largest Methodist chapel. He rather liked and admired his prospective father-in-law and normally would have enjoyed a talk and drink with him, but now he was anxious to get Annie out of the house and to the concert.

It was not that The Maestro abhorred lateness as his countrymen were reputed to do; although manners were manners, but this was a concert by the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra conducted by his friend and musical rival Arthur Hulme, somebody he was anxious not to snub or offend.

When The Maestro had entered the town fifteen years ago almost to the day, it was Hulme who was the musical king of the town; his musical school was the most highly regarded, he conducted the town’s orchestra and any musical events were organised by him. A Londoner who had unsubstantiated links to royalty he had dominated the town for so long it had taken him a few years to realise that he had a serious rival. He had dealt with The Maestro at first by patronising him and then gradually politeness mixed with barely noticeable asperity, and now they were friends.  But The Maestro knew that his friend was sensitive with the insecurity of someone on the way out, and he did not wish to add to his unease.

He and Annie hurried over to the Pump Rooms where the concert was being held. They walked in and found their seats just as Hulme made his way onto the stage and the two men smiled at each other wryly. At least he knows I am here, thought The Maestro as he sat down next to Annie. He could smell her perfume; she always smelt of something exotic and slightly alien, and again he wondered how someone so beautiful and self-contained could have agreed to be his wife, and whilst she had never actually stated she loved him, he assumed that she must do.

They had met when her father had sent Annie to The Maestro to have lessons on the ‘cello. She was a quiet but attractive woman who had taken over housekeeping duties for her father, after the death of her mother when she was in her mid-teens. She was a good ‘cellist, who injected a great deal of passion into her playing, too much the Maestro thought, as it interfered with the rhythm and the precision of the pieces she played. It was over his exotic past, however that they connected; Annie seemed fascinated by where he had lived; and most of their courtship was spent his telling her about Germany, Paris and London, which she listened to with excitement as if to a favourite novel, of which she had many.

He soon stopped thinking about the woman beside him as the orchestra started to play. It was not a great concert; the playing was lax and far too slow for Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony which began the programme. If Beethoven was to be exciting he had to be played far faster than this, and crisper. It was not awful, just amateurish. The Maestro considered what he would have to do if he ever took over the orchestra; more rehearsals for a start and a smaller orchestra. And the repertoire, that would need changing, although the audience seemed to be enjoying it. There was some whispering at the back of course, as there always ways, but the natives of Harrogate were enjoying their culture.

He would not discuss his feelings with Annie; she was lovely but he knew that she talked and was friends with Hulme’s daughters. He did not want any criticism that could be traced back to him to reach the ears of Hulme. Unknowingly he tapped his leg as if urging the orchestra to play at a more appropriate speed or just to end the concert more quickly.

He remembered a plan to blow up a similar concert hall in Cologne. A visiting conductor, and the rich and powerful in the city would be there. Bombs planted under the seats back and front; screams, dismembered bodies and fire so that the hall would have burnt down with the majority of the town’s culture-loving elite with it. What had happened to that idea? Why hadn’t it happened? Perhaps it was just an idealistic dream that had not seriously been meant.

That night he dreamt of the Theatre in flames, Annie was in front of him, her hair on fire but she was laughing at him contemptuously, her eyes red and sparkling. She was naked and her breasts stood out dominating his vision. There was the smell of burning wood, hair and flesh and there was screaming. He woke up sweating, the smell of human flesh still present; he did not sleep for the rest of the night.

 

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On Tuesday evening The Maestro had two visitors. As so often Mrs Hardy’s piano lesson had gone on longer than it was supposed to; it was the last lesson of the day and they chatted for quite some time afterwards. She was not naturally gifted, but worked hard and practiced regularly so that she had reached a higher standard than many of his more talented but lazier pupils.

They got on well and she was beautiful with light brown or perhaps blonde hair and perfect skin. She had the buxom figure he enjoyed in a woman, and equally importantly she made him laugh. They were both married of course, and thus nothing of a romantic nature would happen between them, but he looked forward to her lessons and when he and Annie made love in, what was so far, a vain attempt to produce a child, it was often Mrs Hardy he imagined; naked and happy.

She left, giving him a smile and Annie then appeared telling him about his two guests. They were middle aged men; dark and bearded and with strong Yorkshire accents without the gentility of Harrogate.  Was it his imagination or did the smell of the mill still cling to them? They both shook his hand warmly before sitting down whilst the Maestro sat opposite them on the piano stool, still warm from Mrs Hardy’s bottom.

They were both Bradford businessmen and had come to make him an offer.

“We have been commissioned by the town council to ask you if you would consider becoming the conductor for the Bradford City Orchestra. We have a fine orchestra, you have probably heard of it and we pay well in consequence.  We know how you have transformed the orchestra here in Harrogate but an ambitious man like you wants to better himself I am sure.”

The Maestro thanked them for the offer and promised them he would think about it and get back to them.

“We would be happy to take you round our city. Have you ever visited it? It is a city to be proud of and there are some lovely areas where you and your wife could live; it is not all industry, Shipley is a lovely town and close by.”

The Maestro had indeed visited Bradford a few years ago; and the anarchist that was still within him had noticed the squalid houses and the obvious poverty close to the rich villas of the businessmen who had turned the city, for better or for worse, what it was today. He wondered if he could bring music to the people; free concerts in the parks and large halls. There was definitely a job to be done for a musician with a conscience and a love of the people.

He told Annie of the offer. He did not expect her to be keen; true her father, with his second wife, was now living in Leeds where he was minister of a large chapel but she had many friends in Harrogate and seemed to love the town. But on the contrary she was enthusiastic.

“Oh it would be wonderful. You could do so much, your talent is hidden away here. I know you are getting bored. You have lived in London, don’t you miss the bustle of a large city? I do from when I lived in Birmingham, before mama died.”

He said nothing definite, as he was still undecided. But that night she made love to him with a strength and passion he had never known from her before, as if she were giving herself to an exciting and vibrant future.

By chance he met Mrs Hardy in the Valley Gardens the following morning and they sat on a bench together and talked. It was warm and she was holding a parasol; he could smell his companion’s perfume mixing with the heady odour of flowers. All about them smartly dressed gentlefolk walked and gossiped; many using sticks to keep themselves steady. Somewhere he could hear the faint sounds of a violin being played with a wildness that appealed to him and made him think that perhaps he could move.

“That is wonderful isn’t it?” she said after he told her about the offer, “although how will we manage without our teacher?”

“I am not sure I will take it” he told her. “I am in my late forties and I am happy here, and Annie has all her friends. And would I want my children to grow up in a large city like Bradford?” He was aware of how close she was to him and for a moment he had an urge to kiss her on her cheek; to feel her cool, pale skin against his lips. No doubt she would have screamed and run, leaving his career in ruins, but it would have been worth it.

He was never really sure why he did not accept the job. Annie was desperate for him to take it, and when he told her he had refused it, she went into something akin to mourning; barely talking beyond what was necessary for weeks afterwards. The Maestro felt himself to be callous at causing someone such pain particularly as he did not understand his motives. Was it really that he would have missed Mrs Hardy too much? If so that was silly because predictably she soon became pregnant and once her family started she stopped taking lessons.  But there were her successors; intelligent, beautiful women looking for a hobby before their lives really started, and he loved them all, everyone.

______________________________________

The Maestro stood on the stage and gazed out at the audience; there were a few gaps but then perhaps there always had been; he was definitely getting sensitive. He was conscious that he was getting old and that there were a few young lions in the town who would do a far better job than he would, or thought that they could.

The one person missing was of course Annie, who would have been sat to one side in the front row. She had been there a year ago, the golden jubilee year; even a couple of months ago she was at the summer pupils’ concerts although she had started coughing by then, and had died soon afterwards, he was still not sure of what. One doctor had said “advanced consumption” another bronchitis. Whatever it was the death had been quick although painful.

He missed her dreadfully, although his feelings about her were also full of guilt; he was conscious he had not provided for her what she wanted; excitement and children. An exotic foreigner with gaunt looks he must have seemed exciting and full of boundless possibility for someone who had spent much of her life looking after her widowed father. And yet she had found herself married to a respectable music teacher who seemed happy to stay where he was and whose deepest feelings and passions he kept to himself.

In the end perhaps it was boredom that killed her. Attending the endless rounds of concerts and talking to her friends, none of whom, he gradually realised, she was that close to. She had even given up the ‘cello; just gradually stopped playing it. He wondered what had given her life meaning; she had attended the Wesleyan Methodist church regularly and prayed and read her Bible, but was she devout or was it habit? He had never asked her. In fact there was so much about her he did not know. For a moment he felt almost overwhelmed by sadness and regret.

On the verge of tears he turned and faced the orchestra; it was a smaller group than under his predecessor and he was proud that they were so well-drilled. He looked passed the strings to Marion on the oboe; he been quite cross with her in the last rehearsal; clearly she had not been practicing, probably spending time with her latest beau. It was a shame, particularly as there were no other good oboists queuing up to join his orchestra, and she had talent. You could not expect miracles; but the orchestra was infinitely more professional and he did not tolerate laxity.

He motioned to the orchestra and they started into Purcell’s Chaconne in G minor; playing it with a lightness to emphasise its origins as a dance. He still loved Purcell and also Johann Sebastian Bach, and those two composers tended to dominate his concerts. He realised that whoever took over would react against this, but hopefully his audiences would get the joy and harmony from these two great Baroque composers. At least he had brought the town that.

He had noticed that Mr Hemming was there sat near the front; he had arrived in the town from Leeds a couple of years earlier and was slowly becoming involved in the town’s musical activities. He taught privately; perhaps only to people who were worthy of his greatness thought the Maestro bitterly. However he had always been polite to The Maestro and they had had a couple of convivial evenings talking of music and of Germany where Mr Hemming had spent two years as a young man. And he had been kind when Annie died, tactful and sympathetic.

At the end of the concert Mr Hemming, tall and blonde, came up to him and shook his hand fervently and congratulated him on the concert. He was very intense the Maestro thought; he wondered if he himself had been like that once, but he thought not; perhaps if Mr Hemming stopped playing so much Wagner he might relax a bit. Even as an anarchist so long ago, the Maestro had joked and laughed; the revolution would have taken place amongst good humour and happiness and even joy, despite the inevitable bloodshed.

_______________________________

 

The Maestro sat in a café, drinking coffee and looking moodily at an iced bun on the table in front of him. A young woman walked in with dark blue flowers in her hand and seemed to be heading straight for him. Was she going to present them to him? He was touched and tried to work out who she was but she did not seem familiar.  He smiled at her, and then he realised that what were in her hands were not flowers but an umbrella which she was folding away, and she was walking towards that lady in grey sat near him. It must be raining he thought, but he paid for his tea, leaving his bun uneaten, and went for his usual stroll in the Valley Gardens.

In fact it was barely drizzling and he enjoyed the walk. He found a bench, and wiped it with his handkerchief before sitting down to watch the world go by. A man who knew him said “good afternoon doctor” and walked on. “Doctor”, another of his many titles and names; Herr Neidermeier, Herr Laws, Mr Laws, Professor, Maestro and now Doctor. He still did not know what his name was; John or Johann? Mostly the latter now, although it had been John in London, and that is what Annie had called him when feeling particularly affectionate.

And why had that girl given him flowers just now? He remembered the concerts; being handed bouquets, and his hand being shaken. The most important people in Harrogate queuing up to talk to him. He had loved that; the acceptance. Perhaps he had failed; he could have gone to Bradford or even back to London and made a name for himself but surely he had made people happy and he had taught them well.

He wept slightly, but he did not know why. He looked up at the hotels and houses that overlooked the gardens. He had created a generation that knew music, understood it.  Proper music that would last forever; music that was good and full of humanity. Perhaps that was the best he could hope for; he had wanted to create a better world, always wanted that, would bombs have done it? Would helping the poor in the inner cities?

He walked along; he remembered the death of the Queen two years ago. He had been asked to organise the music for the service of remembrance at Christ Church, and it had proven to be the last major musical work he had been involved with. Predictably he had used Purcell’s funeral sentences, written to commemorate the death of another Queen two hundred years earlier  It had worked, the sorrow, was tangible, and although he was sure that his younger self would have laughed long and bitterly, he had wept afterwards at the death of something great and glorious.

Sometimes he wondered if he had written the music he had conducted. It was so much a part of him. At times when he was at home playing the piano; Bach’s Goldberg Variations which he knew so well, he thought of them as his own, and when he went to hear Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in York five years ago he had swelled with pride as if he were responsible for such music.

As he made his way along the path towards the walled garden he hummed “Come Away Fellow Sailors” from that opera, and then he started to sing it, his voice loud and triumphant with the German accent he had never lost. Passers-by stood and stared, but he did not care, did not even notice. 

As he sang he rejoiced in the beauty of the music, of these gardens that were so glorious, the people who thronged on his every side, and the town that he called home.