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
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
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;
are recommended to wear them, stops the spread of infection. Don’t
want to give you any of my germs.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“Just about Jews. And our
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
“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
“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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
“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
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 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
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
“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 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
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
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…..
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.