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Underground fugue, p.12

Underground Fugue, page 12


Underground Fugue

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  She finally locates the fan, a table unit with rust-flecked blades inside a wire cage, over in a corner, covered with a yellowed pillowcase. She picks it up, gathers the frayed cord into a loop. The basement will have to be cleaned out. The whole house will have to be cleaned out, packed up, sorted, sold. It was overwhelming. She will keep only the piano, she decides. The piano and her mother’s pearls. That was it. No more fetishizing material things.


  She trudges back upstairs, carrying the fan. Her mother has dozed off, her mouth agape. Esther sets the fan on the seat of a chair and plugs it in. It oscillates slowly, with a rusty creak. It won’t cool things off much, but at least it makes the hot air circulate.

  On TV, the cooking show has ended and the news is on. They are talking about the Piano Man again. Good lord. Have they still not been able to identify him? She hears the words: not the French busker…back to square one…shrouded in mystery again. The calls and emails to the Missing Persons Helpline have continued to pour in. How could a person stay lost like that, she wonders, hidden in plain sight? What was he trying to flee? She clicks off the TV.

  From the photograph over on the dresser, her father shoots her a forbidding look. Fagin the Jew. Not the leader of a ring of child pickpockets, but equally a thief. What had made him do it? Arrogance? Or greed?

  “He was a survivor,” her mother always said, tapping her temple with a fingertip. “You have got to understand the mentality. He knew how to find ways of doing things that others said could not be done.”

  Esther knows the story—knows, at least, that somehow, just before the Germans invaded Poland and the war began, he managed to get hold of all the required papers—passports, tickets, exit permits, entrance visas—and sail with her mother to safety across the sea.

  But clearly he’d found ways of doing other things, as well. The trouble was not only his financial dealings, but also his alleged connections to the Eastern bloc. There were rumors that he’d been a bit too friendly with a Soviet diplomat in London, that he’d been in contact with KGB officers in Kraków and in Prague, that he’d funneled money to Moscow through accounts in Swiss and Israeli banks. Some suspected he was a double agent, working for the Mossad.

  Esther’s mother said simply that he’d been seeking information on members of their families who were lost during the war. That the money sent to Moscow was intended to help Soviet Jews who wanted to escape. It was the height of the Cold War, after all. Of course the authorities would be suspicious of a Russian-speaking Eastern European Jew.

  She stood by him no matter what, her mother.

  “He saved my life,” she said.

  In the Jewish cemetery at Willesden, Esther’s father’s headstone is engraved in gold. At the bottom of the headstone is a Hebrew acronym: tav, nun, tzadee, bet, hey. “May his soul be bound up in the bond of life,” the saying went. She has always wondered why Jews pray for bondage after death and not release. Half of the headstone is still blank. She glances over at her mother. Her chest rises and falls with the even, shallow breath of sleep. It would not be much longer now.


  Esther grabs her cigarettes and lighter and steps outside into the garden. The heat presses like a weight. The air is muffled, depleted. Even the birds have been silenced by the heat. In the distance there is the low rumble of what she hopes is thunder. If only it would rain.

  The grass is overgrown and snarled with weeds. Her mother would not be pleased. Heavy purple blossoms drip from the wisteria that twines along the wall. It needs to be pruned. Above her rise the secret backs of houses, a patchwork of windows and mismatched brick. How many others have lived here before her? It seems impossible that after her mother is gone, after she is gone, all this will still be here.

  She taps a cigarette out of the pack and flicks the lighter, breathes in. It isn’t fair, she thinks, that bricks and buildings, even weeds, should all persist, but not one boy. Her boy. Her son. A noose cinches around her throat, the old familiar grip of grief.

  For a fleeting moment, in the awful, breathless grip of yearning, she feels that he’s not dead but simply somewhere else. At any given instant, after all, there are only two conditions: here and not-here. Fort-da, she thinks, remembering her Freud. Here, gone. If someone is not-here, what difference does it make, really, whether they are alive or dead? The only difference is the way you think about the loss, the permanence of the thing. The past—history, time slipping from one moment to the next—is not-here in the same way as well. It is gone but can be called back, re-called, at any time—in story, in language, as an imaginative act. So you could say, in some way, that her son is still alive, only not-here. It is a conditional tense existence: the past unreal.

  The thought floods her with relief. It doesn’t matter that she can’t go into his room and touch his model planes or stare up at the stick-on stars on the ceiling. He is close—closer than she has felt him to be in years. She was not losing him. He was near.

  She glances up at the back windows of the house. She squints but can’t see in. It is hard to believe that Noah would have been nearly nineteen now, nearly the same age as Amir. She was always adding and subtracting, running the numbers, to hold that empty place. What would he be doing on this hot May morning? He wouldn’t be here in London with her, surely, waiting for his grandmother to pass away. She would have insisted he stay home, hang out, have fun. Maybe he would have a summer job. Maybe he’d be out on Fire Island or hanging out with friends. Maybe there would be a girl. She has often tried to conjure for him a girlfriend, someone spunky and clever and sweet. She pictures him lanky, in baggy jeans and a loose T-shirt, dark eyed, intense.

  She has not seen Amir since that afternoon she followed him onto the Tube. She can hardly remember why she went after him the way she did—she must have been half-mad. She thinks of the white-robed, bearded cleric seated across from her that day on the Tube, how he’d kept his eyes downcast, twisting that metal band around his wrist, as everybody, herself included, shot him suspicious looks. He was probably a perfectly nice fellow, she thinks, feeling a flush of shame.

  She grinds her cigarette under her heel and tosses the butt into the dead leaves. She hasn’t heard from Javad, either, since the night they kissed. She feels a hollow pang of disappointment mixed with guilt. She has not kissed another man since she married Gil. But everything had now begun to shift.


  That week only Ruth comes round for tea. Myrna is off at some posh Algarve resort with Claudia and her kids, and Vivian is “taking the cure” at a Slovak spa. (“Trying to slim down, more like,” her mother said.) The heat, thank god, has ebbed. Esther helps her mother downstairs to the sofa, and Ruth settles in beside her, nibbling on a slice of lemon tart.

  Ruth does nearly all the talking. She goes on about the awful weather, about her grandchildren and their various engagements and new babies and impressive jobs and university degrees. Then she starts in on the latest incident—the British university boycott of Israeli academics—that has made her husband, Gerry, apoplectic with outrage.

  “The British universities are the worst,” says Ruth. “Hotbeds of anti-Semitism, the lot. They’re breeding grounds for Islamic radicals, Gerry says.”

  “Protesting the Israeli occupation isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic, is it?” Esther says.

  Ruth regards her as if she is repeating an elementary lesson to a child. “Anti-Semitism is like a virus, Gerry says. It may mutate and take new forms, but it will never go away.”

  Esther reaches for the teapot. “Would you like a bit more tea?” She should know better than to argue politics with Ruth.

  “That would be lovely, please,” Ruth says, holding out her cup. “Gerry’s got cousins over in Tel Aviv, you know. During the Gulf War, one of Saddam’s Scud missiles landed on the street right outside their flat. Gerry’s cousins were down in the basement shelter, gas masks on, frightened out of their wits.” She slurps her tea. “They survived the camps for this! One per
son was killed and eighty-four injured. Right on a residential street.”

  Esther has never been to Israel. If truth be told, it is not a place she has ever felt much desire to see. When she thinks of Israel, she pictures bulldozers and checkpoints, Israeli soldiers firing on little skinny boys throwing stones. She thinks, too, of burnt-out cafés and busses blown up by suicide bombers, flag-draped Hamas fighters jubilantly shooting AK-47s in the streets. Hatred bred only more hate.

  Esther’s mother rouses herself. “My brother Hugo believed that Israel—Palestine, as it was then, under the British Mandate—was the only possible homeland for the Jews.”

  Ruth shakes her head. “It’s not an easy life over there, I can tell you that.”

  A husk of questions catches in Esther’s throat. But her mother’s eyes are focused somewhere far away. Her mother almost never spoke about her brother. Esther knows only that he died in Europe, in the war. Esther picks up the plates and carries them into the kitchen. They have never been close, she supposes, in the way of other mothers and daughters. There was always a certain distance to her mother, a margin of reserve. It was a European quality, perhaps, or maybe she was simply of a different generation, a different world. She was not given to displays of physical affection; they rarely hugged or touched. She was certainly nothing like the American mothers of Esther’s high school friends in Boston, with their frosted hair and wood-paneled station wagons and weekly doubles matches at the country club, the mothers who bought their daughters bell-bottom jeans and Vaccaro turtlenecks from Settebello in Harvard Square, who encouraged them to go on dates and knew which boys were bad news and which were not. With Esther’s mother, there were no tell-all snuggles over unrequited crushes or broken hearts. Esther would never have dreamed of telling her mother about the high school dances that ended up in guilty make-out sessions beneath the bleachers; the nights spent fumbling with hooks and zippers on basement couches or the slippery backseats of someone’s father’s car; or in later years, the wrenching breakups and stupid pregnancy scares, the reckless college flings.

  Only for that first year or so after they left England, in that first drafty rented house in Newton, could you have called them close. For months, Esther woke in panic, her heart thudding, dread wrenching at her chest. Her mother’s bedroom was at the far end of a long, dark hall. Shadows fingered the walls. The dim light above the stairs gleamed like a wolf. Nearly paralyzed with fear, she’d force herself to sprint the shadowed gauntlet to her mother’s room and crawl into her bed. The sheets were chilly in her father’s vacant spot. She’d wriggle toward the softness of her mother’s body and wait for her mother to reach across and pull her in.

  Eventually she got used to it, of course, like you get used to anything. The two of them at the dinner table in the too-big house filled with someone else’s things. The enormous supermarkets and cars. The hard r’s and flat vowels. The kids at school who looked at her funny and said, “Where are you from?”

  What could she do? She lost her accent. She slept in her own bed. She pulled away.


  She bumps into Javad the following afternoon, out on the street. She has just made a quick trip to Waitrose, and he looks like he’s been to the gym. He’s wearing athletic shorts and a red soccer jersey that reads Vodafone across the chest. They embrace and then just stand there awkwardly, the kiss hanging in the air between them, sharp and glittery as a trinket or a shard of glass.

  “I hope I didn’t offend you, the other evening,” he says. “With my, er—impulsiveness.”

  She feels a goofy smile spread across her face. “Offended? Oh, I’m not offended.”

  “That’s good. I wanted to ring you, but I didn’t have your number. I don’t even know your surname, in point of fact, so I couldn’t look it up. I’ve been meaning to stop by.”

  She feels a wash of relief. “You could have just rapped on the wall,” she says. “You know—Morse code.”

  He laughs. “I’ll give that a go next time.”

  She likes his laugh. It twinges deep inside her, a vestige of desire, like sensation in a phantom limb.

  She looks at his shirt. “So do you play soccer?”

  “Football, do you mean?”

  “Sorry, football. Right.”

  “Nah, I’ve got a bad back. I’m just another over-the-hill Man U fan like all the rest.”

  The sky is white. It smells like rain. She shifts her weight.

  He pushes up his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I was wondering. Would you like to get together one of these evenings, perhaps, for dinner or a drink?”

  Yes, she would. Very much indeed.


  He takes her out the following week to a Persian place on West End Lane, where he orders for them both in Farsi: Mirza Ghasemi and Ghormez Sabzi, fragrant with fenugreek and limes. They go out again, a few days later, for beer and burgers in the garden of a local pub. Talk flows easily. He tells her about neurology, neuroimaging studies, and something that sounds like ephemeri and the prefrontal cortex. She nods as if she understands. What a thing, to glimpse the workings of the brain! She tells him about leaving London for Boston; he tells her about coming to London from Tehran. They talk about their fathers, both of whom died, too young, in jail. Their lives are mirror images, Esther thinks. The thought gives her a thrill.

  Still she hasn’t mentioned Noah. She knows she should tell him—she must. She will. Only there are no words for what she has to say. Music is better. Words just get in the way.

  Above all, she doesn’t want his pity. She doesn’t want to hear him say the thoughtless things that people always say. I can’t imagine anything worse than losing a kid. God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. I know how you feel. She knows that once she tells him everything will change.

  She stops into the Vodafone shop on the Finchley Road and buys an inexpensive cell phone. His is the only number she programs in. They take to talking at night, after her mother has gone to sleep. She presses the handset to her ear. It is warm, as if it were a living thing. His voice resonates inside the secret chamber of her eardrum, gentle and deep.

  May has given way to June. The world is wide awake. The birds are up and chattering in the gray dawn at five in the morning; there’s still a wash of daylight in the western sky past ten at night. It is strawberries-and-cream weather, sunbathing in the park weather, Pimm’s weather, croquet weather, cruising through the locks weather, the season of fancy hats and college balls, opera at Glyndebourne, cricket test matches, and Royal Ascot and Wimbledon and Henley after that. She does not want to be anywhere but here. It is June in London and the roses are in full bloom and the trees and grass are lush and green. She sits outside on the front steps, smoking, her blood pulsing through her heart, the sun warm against her skin, and for the first time in three years, or maybe in forever, she feels alive.


  At the Institute, things are quiet. Only Xiang Li is always puttering about, his hair looking as if he just woke up. Javad squints at his computer screen, scrolling through the latest fMRI scans. Red and yellow blotches mark the images like a radar map of an approaching storm. They show the neural activity in a patient with retrograde amnesia. There are clear signs of activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the hippocampus, as one would expect. Something is inhibiting memories from being retrieved—but what? Did the activation of the DLPFC cause the amnesia, or did the amnesia, caused by something else, simply activate the DLPFC? The human mind is notoriously bad at distinguishing correlation from causation. Every action spins a web of consequences that are impossible to predict.

  He finds Xiang Li in the staff room, assembling his usual peculiar midmorning snack of dried shredded pork and soy butter on a slab of white bread. The coffee in the pot is cold. It has probably been sitting there all week. Javad opens the fridge. No milk.

  “You go on holiday soon?” Li says, his mouth full.

  Javad shrugs. “I’m not
sure yet.” He pours out the dregs and dumps the grounds into the bin, rinses out the pot, starts afresh. Since the end of term, Amir has been coming and going at all hours. Days pass where they hardly see each other at all, Amir rising long after Javad has left for work, slipping home after he’s gone to bed. The only signs of his son are the dirty dishes left on the kitchen table, the grimy ring around the bathtub, the clods of mud along the stairs.

  “How about you?” he asks Li. “Will you be taking some time off?”

  Li makes a face. “Nah. Too much work.”

  The coffee maker burbles and hisses. Rumor has it that Li naps beneath his desk. It looks rather as if he spends nights there as well.

  “Did you finish recruiting the volunteers?”

  “We have nine as of now. Nine right-handed men.”

  “Well done.”

  Li shakes more dried pork onto his bread. “We need at least five or six more, I think.”

  “Yes. There are always a few who get claustrophobic in the tube and refuse to carry on.”

  Javad picks up a coffee cup and frowns at the brown stains. It would be an important study—an investigation into the neural differences between lying and telling the truth. Deception was poorly understood from a neurobiological point of view, and the timing was excellent, funding-wise. There was a great deal of interest in brain imaging these days. Even the anti-terrorism folks over at MI5 were nattering on about how MRI scanning would soon make the lie detector test obsolete.

  If only it were that simple. Just the other day, Little Brook had rung up about their mute amnesiac to follow up on the possibility of doing a scan. Still they had no clue as to who he was. First had come reports that he was a Czech drummer from an 1980s tribute band. Then the British tabloids dug up a possible link to an amnesiac last seen in Canada; Italian TV networks detected a resemblance to a man filmed at an instrument fair in Rimini, testing out a baby grand. People likened him to the tormented pianist, David Helfgott, in the film Shine. But now even the tabloids seemed to be getting tired of the story after so many weeks of speculation and no breaks. It was as if he’d disappeared all over again. Probably that was what he’d wanted from the start.

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