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Underground fugue, p.10

Underground Fugue, page 10


Underground Fugue

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  She meanders north, vaguely in the direction of the Tube. The afternoon is warm and breezy. She takes off her jacket, slings it over her shoulder, picks up her pace. She feels irritated with herself. Why had she imagined Phil would help? Down a side street, she glimpses the BT Tower, studded with rings of satellite dishes, like the minaret of a futuristic mosque. Who is she fooling? Better just to walk away.

  Gray stone facades line both sides of Gower Street. Red double-decker busses squeal. Cyclists weave among the cars. A small sign posted next to a door says ANATOMY. She imagines skeletons hanging on demonstration hooks, cadavers stiff on gurneys underneath white sheets. Or bodies half-dissected, slit from groin to sternum, flayed. There would be white walls and sinks and worktables, scalpels and microscopes, X-ray machines. Like a conservation lab, she thinks. There were many ways to peel back the skin.

  She has nearly reached the Euston Road when she sees him. He is standing on the median strip, waiting to cross the street, facing her but looking the other way. He’s wearing saggy jeans, a black T-shirt, earphone wires hanging at his neck.

  It’s him. Amir.

  Her heart spasms in her chest. Seven million people in this city and it’s him. How could it be? What were the odds? How easily might she have arrived a minute earlier or later, have chosen a different route! Again she feels the electric shock of that that first, late, jetlagged night. Only this time, he doesn’t look her way.

  The light turns red. The signal bleeps. He crosses, turns toward the hospital, carries on. She waits a beat and then moves forward too.

  She couldn’t have said what made her do it. She might have been thinking that they must be going in the same direction, heading home. She might have been imagining she’d catch up and touch him on the arm and he would turn and smile, revealing that little gap between his teeth. She might have been thinking of Javad and that kiss she doesn’t know what to do with, that’s been pricking at her since the other evening like a splinter just beneath the skin.

  Or maybe it’s a sign.

  She follows him past the sweeping green-glass entrance of the University College Hospital, past the row of ambulances parked in front. Two medics step out in front of her, wheeling a trolley, and she loses sight of him. She swerves around them, picks up her pace. His head bobs back into sight.

  She follows him across the street and into the Warren Street Underground Station, fumbling for her wallet, feeding her card into the turnstile, pushing through. Escalators rumble deep into the tunnels. She steps onto the first escalator, pausing a few feet above him and standing to the right, holding the rail. This is one of the deep Underground stations. The rail lines here run ten stories below the level of the street.

  She follows him off the first set of escalators and onto the next. The tiled walls gleam greenish yellow in the dirty fluorescent light. The heat of the day has collected in the tunnels and the air smells of stale urine, moldy, dank. At the bottom, he turns left toward the platform and she follows. She glances up. The sign says: NORTHBOUND VICTORIA LINE.

  She waits on the narrow platform behind a group of noisy French schoolchildren clustered around their guide. She squints at the map posted on the wall. The Victoria line stops at King’s Cross, Highbury & Islington, Finsbury Park, Seven Sisters, Tottenham Hale. Not Finchley Road. Though you can change at King’s Cross for the Jubilee line, she thinks.

  Farther along the platform, Amir is fiddling with his iPod, his head pulsing to the silent beat. Bright orange panels in the pattern of a maze back the benches built into the tunnel walls. Mazes like the minotaur’s labyrinth. Theseus following Ariadne’s string. Another sign? Suspended above the tracks, a CCTV camera points its hooded eye.

  Soon the rails begin to click and ring. With a dank, hot breath of wind, the train roars in. Amir steps into a carriage and she boards the same car at the other end. Amir takes a seat with his back to her. She sits near the door. The doors slide shut. The train jerks forward with a hydraulic hiss.

  This is a Victoria line train to Walthamstow Central, a recorded female voice intones, plummy as a newsreader’s. Long gone the Cockney drawl. The train jolts into the tunnel. Her ears pop. It is dim inside the car and hot.

  As a toddler, Noah had loved to stand up on the subway seat and watch the world blur past. She would hang on to the waistband of his diaper as the carriage rocked and swayed. As the train entered the tunnel, his little voice would rise above the engine’s roar: Mummy, Mummy, look. She’d turn to look, but the only thing that she could see was the reflection of their faces doubled in the scratched and dirty glass.

  At King’s Cross, Amir doesn’t stand up. He is not heading home, then. Her stomach twists. If he sees her, what would she say? She has no excuses now.

  A tall man wearing the long white tunic and crocheted skullcap of a Muslim cleric takes a seat across the aisle from her. He has an untrimmed beard and dark Semitic features, like a Hasidic Jew. Isaac and Ishmael, she thinks. He sets a large, rectangular black case, like a doctor’s bag, between his feet. He keeps his eyes downcast, twisting a kara bracelet around his wrist. The other passengers flick quick glances toward him and away: suspicion’s covert flare.

  With a long screeching sound, the train accelerates, and her heartbeat accelerates too. Everyone was paranoid these days, of course, and for all her liberal politics, she was just as paranoid as the rest. It was one thing to express outrage over racial profiling and quite another to sit across a subway carriage from a Muslim cleric carrying a suspicious-looking case. What could be in there? Medical supplies? Religious documents? Legal briefs?

  The cleric twists his bracelet around his wrist. I’m watching you, she thinks. But if he made a suspicious move, what would she do? Would she have the guts to pull the emergency cord, to scream?

  This is a Victoria line train to Walthamstow Central, the female voice on the recording says. The next station is Finsbury Park. Doors will open on the left-hand side. Change for the Piccadilly line and National Rail Services.

  The train begins to slow with a descending squeal. Amir stands and moves to the door. The cleric bends forward and picks up his case.

  The doors open and Esther steps off the train. Finsbury Park. What was Amir doing here?

  She follows the crowd of passengers off the narrow platform, scanning for Amir. But he has vanished. Beyond the platform, tunnels stretch in both directions. She chooses the one signposted SEVEN SISTERS ROAD.

  Outside the station, she turns in place. Elevated train tracks stretch above the street. Along the rusty stanchions, someone has spray-painted TOX 03. She is a long way from the tony streets of Bloomsbury and Hampstead. There is a Halal House, a Muslim bookshop. A woman wearing a burka is walking toward her, tugging an enormous suitcase on wheels. There’s no sign of Amir.

  Finsbury Park.

  What was she doing here? She must be losing her mind.

  A black taxi is idling at the curb. She runs toward it. The driver lowers the window.

  “Home,” she says. “Just take me home, please.”


  Time has a different rhythm now. Days and nights bleed together as she drifts in and out of sleep. Her daughter appears and disappears, brings food, clears it away again. The rim of brightness at the borders of the curtains sharpens and then fades. Time dilates and contracts.

  In the stillness of the afternoons, or late at night, the sound of the piano rises through the floorboards, the joists and crossbeams ringing with the vibration of the old Blüthner’s strings. The notes like fractals, a filigree of counterpoint.

  Rilke’s great tree of sound.

  O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!

  Music for the beginning and the end of time.

  She does not believe in, does not imagine, angels. But she feels the cogwheels turning, great steel-black gears like those that drove the engines of the winding machines that raised the ore and lowered workers into the deep Ostrava mines.

  The voices in the fug
ue call and answer, circle and repeat. Ripples expand outward in concentric rings.


  In her dreams, or memory, music is playing, slow and lugubrious: a dirge. They are gathered around the radio, Lonia and her father and Hugo, listening to a broadcast of Má Vlast, the windows of the flat thrown open to the dirty summer breeze. They lean in toward the radio, toward the miracle of it, the Czech Philharmonic playing Smetana’s defiant lament for their betrayed and vanquished nation, crushed beneath the German fist. They can’t believe that the Germans have permitted the broadcast to go on the air.

  Her father wipes the corners of his eyes. “There is hope.”

  “Are you mad?” Hugo snorts. “No.”

  It has been decided. They are to leave. Their father is worried that Hugo, with his secret meetings and leftist leanings, could be drafted or arrested or worse. Their father’s letter-writing campaign to find a sponsor overseas has failed, but in Kraków there are cousins on her mother’s side with whom they can stay until the situation settles down or an emigration opportunity opens up. Since the Poles annexed the area around Tešin in March, the border is right there, on the east side of Ostrava, and Kraków is less than two hundred kilometers beyond that. Lonia is to go with Hugo. Best for both of them to be safe.

  It will only be for a little while, her father promises, at most a couple of weeks. The Russians and the French will surely stop Hitler if he tries to grab Poland too. Even Hugo agrees that the Bolsheviks, unlike that pansy Chamberlain, should at least have the guts to try.

  Meanwhile, swastikas are flying from the windows along every street. Jewish businesses are being confiscated by the state. Whispered rumors flap their wings: Jews beaten by the Brownshirts, Jews sent to forced labor camps in the Sudetenland, Jews rounded up and shot. Nearly every night, they hear the fire engines clanging. All six synagogues in Ostrava have been torched.


  Hugo approaches as she’s washing up from dinner. Lonia pulls a gold-rimmed plate out of the sudsy water and rubs it with the rag. It is her mother’s wedding china, Moser’s best from Prague. Goodbye, plate, she thinks. She is saying goodbye to everything, each goodbye a little benediction, one item at a time. Goodbye, sink. Goodbye glass. Goodbye, old life, goodbye.

  “Are you ready?” Hugo says.

  She rinses the plate under the tap and hands it to him, nodding toward the tea towel hanging on its little hook.

  “You dry,” she says.

  She is not ready. How could she be ready? She does not want to leave. How will her father and grandmother manage without them? She remembers, when she was a very little girl, shutting her eyes and imagining that the whole world had disappeared. She feels that way now, as if none of this will continue to exist when she’s not here.

  “I was wondering, Hugo—”


  “Perhaps Frau Becker could come up to help with the cooking and cleaning a few days a week?”

  His eyes narrow. She knows that look.

  “You can’t say a word to anyone.”

  “I’m just—”

  “He’s a grown man, Lonia. He’ll manage fine.”

  She pulls the last dinner plate from the soapy water and rubs the gold rim with her thumb. It is embossed with a delicate pattern of flowering vines. It reminds her of her grandfather’s prize roses, her grandmother’s beans and peas. She wonders who is tending to the garden now. Goodbye, roses. Goodbye, peas.

  She reaches into the murky water and pulls the plug. The dishwater is suctioned down the drain, leaving a scum of soap suds and food dregs. She takes a breath.



  “Never mind.”


  “Hugo—if we get caught, what will—”

  “We won’t get caught. Everything is arranged.”

  In the Graphic Atlas, Poland is yellow; Palestine is pink. Hugo’s plan, Lonia knows, is to make his way south to Trieste or Split and on to Palestine by sea. Lonia could come back to this shithole if she wants, Hugo says, but not him.

  Goodbye map, she thinks.

  She has never been anywhere but here. When she is someplace else, who will she be?


  The “taxi” arrives to pick them up at half past five in the morning. The black Škoda idles at the curb as they rush to say goodbye. Her father presses a little leather pouch into her hand—her mother’s diamond ring. He pulls her close and grips her tight. Her heart twists. His cheek is rough against her face. He says, God bless.

  The driver’s arm is sticking out the rolled-down window, a cigarette between his fingers burning down to ash. It is raining lightly; the sky is low and gray. Hugo climbs in the front and she slides in the back. The car lurches away.

  At the main gates of the colliery, the watchman nods to the driver and waves them in. Everything has been arranged. Money has changed hands.

  It is one of the smaller drift mines near Tešin. Half of the mine property is now on the Polish side. Three months ago, they could have simply walked across what is now the border along the forest trail. Train tracks stretch pas the colliery into the forest through an infantry of old-growth lodge pole pines. Their trunks stand as straight as sentries in the mist.

  The colliery is strangely peaceful in the early Sunday morning stillness, the machines silenced, as if enchanted, frozen in time. The scaffold of the winding tower and the old steam plant chimney rise like the steeples of some infernal church. Loaded hoppers wait alongside the rails, heaped with lump coal, cube coal, nut and rice coal, bits of broken stone. Three men are standing in the shadow of the tipple. Two of them are young and look like brothers, redheads, doughy-skinned and stocky, strong. The third man, the guide, is older, smaller, wiry, stooped. He has a miner’s dirt-seamed hands and a sled dog’s eyes, the pale blue of ice. Slavic eyes, Lonia’s father would have said. They nod, shake hands. It is a matter of money, not generosity, she understands.

  The four of them follow the guide around great heaps of slag and shale to the entrance of the mine. Train tracks disappear into the black mouth of the adit. A mantrip sits at the opening, ready for the next shift, its little flatbed engine and green wagons like a child’s toy, out of scale, a joke. They skirt the train and follow the guide into the mine.

  It is so dark inside the tunnel that she cannot tell at first whether her eyes are open or shut. She never knew there could be such complete darkness—that darkness could have substance, texture, mass. She reaches for Hugo’s belt and shuffles her feet along the uneven ground between the tracks, blind. Her body feels weightless, immaterial, as if it has dissolved into atoms, spinning in outer space.

  She has never really considered before what lay beneath the ground, here in Ostrava, this land of mines. Even the visible evidence—the steel headgear towers, the squat brick plant buildings crisscrossed by chutes, the smokestacks exhaling crooked plumes of smoke, the industrial geometry laced with tiny lights at night—has never signified anything other than the familiar contours of the city’s skyline. But now she is deep inside it, swallowed up like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Over their heads sit tons of rock and dirt, roots and decomposing plants and bones, which, over the millennia, will be transformed into hard seams of anthracite—black gold. The tunnel air is choked with dust. It has a fiery smell. She can taste it, feel the grit of it between her teeth. She pulls her shirt up over her mouth and nose, trying not to cough. It is difficult to breathe.

  Once they are safely clear of the entrance, the guide switches on his miner’s lamp, and the redhead brothers pull out electric torches. She and Hugo have no light. She keeps her grip on Hugo’s belt, running the fingers of her other hand along the tunnel wall. Rough rock, then a timber post, then rock again. There are many ways to die inside a coal mine, she knows: cave-ins, rockfalls, explosions, floods. The darkness squeezes her lungs tight. She stumbles and nearly falls. Ahead, the guide’s lamp and the brothers’ torches flicker like distant stars.

hey walk on and on, deeper into the mine. They pass indecipherable pieces of machinery, bundles of dirt-clogged tools hanging on wire loops, heavy canvas curtains, wooden doors. In just a few hours it would all be back in motion: the conveyor belt rumbling, compressors bellowing, a racket of coal tubs jolting along the tracks, the coal cutter grinding at the face. Hundreds of hunched men with blackened faces and dirt-seamed hands. Her mouth is dry. She licks her lips and then regrets it, her tongue now acrid with dust.

  Finally, they pause and the guide sets down his lamp. They have come to a junction where the adit splits. That way to the face, the guide says, gesturing to the left. The other way to a second, disused exit, now on the Polish side. Not far now. In the clouded light, she can make out a low-roofed trench, the muddy ground, walls timbered with wooden beams. One of the red-haired brothers pulls out a flask and passes it around, and she takes a sip and chokes, the schnapps trailing a hot flame through her chest.

  “You work here long?” Hugo asks the guide.

  The man frowns, nods.

  “Since the age of sixteen,” he says. “My brothers and my father and his father and his brothers too.”

  “It’s a tough life,” one of the redheads says.

  The guide gives a short laugh, like a bark. “It’s a living, that’s all I can say.”

  It is only another kilometer or so to the opening of the adit, but it is the longest distance she has ever traveled. Space has contracted into blackness. Time has wound down to a stop. Somewhere, in another universe, her father is still standing in a doorway, raising his hand, his face wet with tears, his glasses glinting in the early light.

  Finally, the darkness thins and the tunnel opens out into a wider, higher space. They pause at a niche cut into the rock—a shrine to Saint Barbara, the miners’ patron saint. Offerings of miners’ tokens and coins lie in the coal dust at a plaster icon’s feet. The guide bows his head and mumbles a prayer, crosses himself. The saint looks out at them with her placid, indifferent gaze. Lonia whispers a silent thank you. So what if Jews did not believe in saints?

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