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Underground fugue, p.15

Underground Fugue, page 15


Underground Fugue

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  “I’ll never let go,” Isaac whispers. “You’ll never get away from me.”

  His words twinge along her spine. A promise or a threat? Who is this man she met just last week? He seems to come from nowhere, he has no family, and he speaks five languages without an accent, like a spy. She rubs her fingertips along the ridgeline of his knuckles, the metacarpal bones. She does not want him to let go.

  “Last year we were dancing on the banks of the Oder,” one of the Hanoar fellows is saying.

  “Next year in Jerusalem,” says Hugo.

  “B’ezrat hashem,” says one of the girls. She’s one of the religious ones, always in long sleeves and stockings, even in the heat.

  “Better make it this year,” Isaac says. “Hitler will make a grab for Poland, and it won’t be long. I wouldn’t count on making it to Jerusalem if I were you.”

  “Your parents should have named you Jeremiah,” the Hanoar fellow says. “The prophet of doom!”

  “You should listen to me, then.”

  Isaac doesn’t need to remind them that no entrance permits to Palestine have been granted in weeks. Just the other day, the Brits announced that from now on they will deduct any illegal immigration numbers from the official quota, which is already only a fraction of what it was before the White Paper came out three months back.

  Isaac is not a Zionist. He’s a makher, as her father would have said, a pragmatist, not a zealot: a fixer, a finagler, a maker of connections, a greaser of skids. Money and connections matter above all, he says.

  Lonia is sick of the talk and the waiting, the speculation. It was pointless. They are no better off here in Kraków than they were at home. Dressed in borrowed clothes, eating donated food, all they do is wait and talk, talk and wait. All they could do is hope their names show up on the visa list posted by the door. It was like Isaac’s game, only you didn’t get a choice—you went wherever you were sent. Sweden, Borneo, Shanghai, New York.

  Home was barely two hundred kilometers away, on the other side of an imaginary line. Her father was still sitting in his study, listening to the radio, his glasses reflective in the light. Nothing had changed except that she and Hugo are not there but here. She understands that if war breaks out they might send Hugo off to fight, or give him trouble because of his left-wing politics, but she’s only a girl. Why would anybody bother with her? Why couldn’t she go home? None of it made sense.

  Isaac steers her down the sloping grass toward the river’s edge, where a group of girls are launching candlelit garlands into the stream. It’s another lover’s legend—that your future husband will be the one to catch your wreath. There is a splash and a yell as a young man plunges into the water, fully clothed. Isaac puts his hand around her waist and draws her tight.

  “Tell your brother he’d better not count on getting to Palestine.”

  “Go on. You try telling him that.”

  “You must make other plans, in any case. Time is running out.”

  “He’s my brother. I’m not going anywhere without him.”

  It’s always been this way: Hugo and his big ideas, Lonia tagging along behind. They have come to this place together. They escaped together through the underworld of the mine. Now they only had each other. She would do whatever he did, go wherever he went.

  Isaac twists her arms behind her back and pulls her close. His tongue flicks against hers, urgent, quick. Her heart’s on fire. Leap, his kiss says, leap.

  All around them, everything is burning. Fireworks boom and pop, and sprays of sparks cascade across the sky. Bonfires blaze along the embankment, orange flames shooting up into the night. Candlelit wreaths bob and flicker along the river like tiny stars. Then there is a gust of wind, and a few of them go dark.


  She opens her eyes to find her husband Isaac sitting on the chair across the room, his legs crossed, smoking a cigar.

  “Put that stinking thing out,” she tells him, waving her hand. “I can’t breathe.”

  “You did what you had to do,” Isaac says. He is talking about her brother. “Don’t eat your heart out.”

  “That’s what you always say,” she says.

  “There is nothing you could have done to help.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “But I do.”

  Oh Isaac, you old fool, she thinks. How she has missed him, all these years.

  He tips his head back, breathes out smoke in a blue stream. “I did try to find him. I sent money. I even kissed the hairy ass of that stinking Svetnikov.”

  “I know. You shouldn’t have done.”

  He places a gold one-pound coin on the back of his forearm, then flips his arm forward, catching the coin in his hand. He opens his fist and holds it out for her to see. His palm is empty. The coin has disappeared.



  His mobile rings on Monday evening just as he is getting home from work. Esther is the first thing he thinks. He hopes her mother hasn’t taken a turn for the worse since the previous night, though he knows that she won’t last long in any case. It would be merciful if it were quick.

  He shoves the front door open with his hip, sets down his briefcase, fumbles in his pocket for his phone. He flips it open, squints at the screen.

  Not Esther but his ex. Shit.

  “Thank god,” says Caroline. Her voice a rush. “Let me speak to Amir.”

  The house is silent. He calls Amir’s name once, then again for good measure, and waits.

  “Try him on his mobile,” he says to Caroline. “He’s not home.”

  “I did. It went straight to answerphone. Where is he, then?”

  “I haven’t got the foggiest. I just walked in the door.” He bends to collect the post scattered across the floor.

  “Look, J, I’ve had a bit of an accident, I’m afraid. I’ve tripped and hurt my ankle.” Her voice is furred. Alcohol or shock? “Broken it, I should think.”

  “Jesus, Caroline.”

  “Bad luck, isn’t it?”

  “How much have you had to drink?”

  “Do me a favor for once, Javad. Okay? Don’t start.”

  “Look, if you’re truly hurt, you should be ringing 999, not me.”

  “They’d have to break down the bloody door. I’ll never make it down the stairs to let them in. I can’t move an inch.”

  “Where’s what’s-his-face? Your Swedish bloke?”

  “Niels. He’s Dutch, not Swedish. He’s out of town, in any case.”

  “That is a pity.”

  “Look, I really need your help. Please!”

  “And what do you need me to do?”

  “Just come round and help me sort out a taxi to A&E. You can let yourself in. Amir’s got a set of keys.”

  “I told you. He’s not here.”

  “Go and have a look in his room—I’m sure they’re there. They’re big old clunky things. He keeps them clipped to one of those climbing rings, what do you call them. Try the top of his chest of drawers or the pockets of his jeans.”

  He doubts if he’ll even be able to find the chest of drawers in that mess. This is the last thing he needs. “It really would be a whole lot easier if you’d just call the police.”

  “J, I’m in agony.” She is crying now. “Can’t you just do one thing for me?”

  After all these years, he thinks, will it never end? They’re like fellow convicts on a chain gang, shackled for life.


  He opens Amir’s door and switches on the light. Even though it has cooled off a bit, the room is still stifling from the weekend’s pent-up heat. The floor is a wreck of clothing—trainers, hoodies, socks, T-shirts, one mud-caked boot, a pair of cargo trousers. The bed floats above it like a raft, the duvet twisted with the sheets, the pillows squeezed. A pair of jeans is looped over the footboard. He picks his way across the mess and feels inside the pockets. No keys.

  The desk is covered in books and papers, the laptop, a digital camera, computer cables, a dirty plate,
a Mars bar wrapper, a half-full mug of tea covered with a curdled skin of milk, a half-unfolded map. Javad picks up one of the books: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. And another: Muslim Travelers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. He sets the books back, turns to the laptop. DANGER, KEEP OUT warns the sticker. He shouldn’t snoop, but curiosity gets the better of him. He flips up the lid.

  The screen blinks and lights. The desktop is dotted with blue folders. He clicks on one of them and a grid of photographs opens: Dim shots of what looks like old machinery, rusty pipes. Brick walls topped with curls of barbed wire, manhole covers. A nighttime cityscape shot from a great height—necklaces of tiny lights. He closes the folder and clicks on another, finds more of the same. Two boys leaning against a graffiti-covered wall. He looks closer but recognizes neither of them. What had he expected? Naked girls?

  He feels a twinge along his spine and whirls around, but it’s just the cat. It mewls and arches its back. He shuts the laptop and steps back. The keys, the keys.

  He picks up a chunky paperback from the bedside table. A swirl of blue and white Arabic calligraphy adorns the cover. The Qur’an. He pulls out a flyer tucked inside it as a bookmark. Muslims United Against Oppression, the boldface header reads. It’s a call to join a protest march against the new anti-terror legislation, held a few weeks back. Did Amir march? Why doesn’t Javad know anything?

  Amir has propped one of Caroline’s art pieces against the wall, unframed, the canvas and staples showing at the edges. It’s one of her latest “memory map” collages. He steps closer. There’s something that looks like part of a depth chart of the English Channel, a ripped postcard from a seaside holiday village, a black-and-white photograph of small boy running on a beach. His back is to the camera, arms flailing, shoulder blades sharp. Javad steps closer, squats down to see. Was it Amir?

  It was. It was Margate, he remembers; he was there. The trip was Caroline’s idea. They were separated, the divorce not official yet. Amir wanted him to come, she’d said. She’d put the child on the phone. That piping voice. That eager breath. Baba, Baba, please. He’d felt something rise up in his throat then at the sound of his son’s voice. Something like fear.

  Margate was tatty, seamy, cold, and dank. Caroline adored it, the kitsch of the Shell Grotto and the arcades, the tacky tearooms, the pubs that reeked of grease and piss. Amir kicked and wriggled, threw tantrums, slipped out of one’s hands and ran away. Caroline wandered off, her camera slung around her neck. Javad chased after Amir. He looked so little, now, in that photo, with those slender limbs and jutting elbows, racing off along the strand.

  The photograph has been ripped and scratched with a sharp object, streaked with slashes of black paint. The contour map is a mass of squiggly concentric lines—rather like cerebral gyri and sulci, he thinks. Javad can’t fathom what prompted her to do it. He cannot understand what’s become of the woman who was once his wife.

  He straightens up too quickly, feeling the strain across his lower back. The keys are on top of the chest of drawers, clipped to a carabiner, right where she said they’d be. It annoys him that she was right. He shoves them in his pocket, switches off the light.


  “A nice clean break by the looks of it,” the consultant says, clipping the X-ray to the light box. He’s a fix-you-right-up-in-no-time sort of bloke, an aging athlete by the looks of him, all sinew and grit. He palpates Caroline’s foot and she howls like an injured cat. Already her ankle is blotched red and purple and so swollen that the bones have disappeared.

  He looks up over his glasses. “What was it you said you did?”

  “Tripped,” Caroline says lightly. “Silly heels.”

  And a fifth of vodka, Javad thinks. She’s lucky she didn’t break her bloody neck.

  Javad crosses his legs and shifts on the plastic chair. They’ve been here nearly two hours already, bypassed by a shooting victim rushed in on a trolley, the waiting room filled up with a gang of brown-skinned boys in droopy jeans and chains, followed by the police. The sergeant had stopped and eyed him and Javad shook his head. Not mine, mate. Caroline kept her eyes closed, lips drawn. The last time they were in a hospital together, he thinks, was when she gave birth to Amir.

  “We’ll have to keep it splinted until the swelling goes down,” the consultant says. “Keep it elevated, stay off it. You’ll want to come back in to see the orthopedist to have it set in a few days’ time. I shouldn’t think it will require surgery or pins.”

  “Crikey, I should hope not,” Caroline says. Her bleached-blond hair is cropped short and needs to be touched up at the roots.

  “In the meantime, here’s something for the pain.” The dcoctor pecks with two fingers at a keyboard. A printer whirs. “A little pampering would be in order, I should think,” he says to Javad and winks, handing him the slip.

  Javad pockets the prescription and turns away. “Right.”


  In the taxi, Caroline rummages in her purse. “Have you got your mobile? I must have left mine at home. See if you can get hold of Amir now.”


  “How am I to manage? He’ll have to come and stay with me for a bit. Until I’m back on my feet. On both feet, that is.”

  “When does what’s-his-face get back?”

  “His name is Niels, I told you. Not for another week. He’s over in Beijing.”

  “What’s he doing in Beijing?”

  “Look, just pass me the phone.”

  The taxi lurches and he braces himself on the hanging strap. “We’re going away on holiday soon, you know, me and Amir.”

  “Oh, you are, are you? That’s a laugh. You’ve never taken him on holiday in your bloody life.”

  “Well, I am now.”

  “I guess you’ll just have to postpone the trip.”

  He feels as peeved as if he actually had booked the holiday. “What about your mother? Can’t she come to stay?”

  “My mother? Right.”

  She reaches for the phone but he holds it away, out of reach, like kids playing piggy in the middle.

  She edges forward on the seat and raps on the partition. “Driver, can you stop, please, at a chemist? There should be a Boots coming up in a couple of traffic lights.”

  “No, carry on, don’t stop,” Javad calls to the driver; then to Caroline he says, “You’re not filling that prescription.”

  “Give it to me.”

  “You can take some paracetemol if your ankle hurts. You can’t mix opioids with alcohol.”

  “Just give it to me, Javad. It’s mine.”

  “For Christ’s sake, Caroline.”

  “I’m in agony!”

  “You’ll survive.”

  She shakes her head. “You think you’re so clever. You know everything, don’t you?” A short laugh. “God. People never change.”

  And what does he know? He turns away. He knows nothing. She is right.

  Out of the window of the taxi, the North London streets blur past. The stubborn sky still light.


  He’s lying on the sitting room floor, head propped on a book, knees bent, doing the exercises for his back. The windows are open to a passing storm, fat raindrops pelting the roof and street. Thunder rumbles. The front door bangs.


  “In here.” Javad reaches for his glasses and lifts his head. Wet trainers, ripped jeans. “How is she doing?”

  “All right.” Amir sits down on the sofa. “She’s pretty hopeless on crutches, though.”

  Javad rolls to his side and sits up. He’s eye level with his son’s knees. Two bony kneecaps poke through the shredded jeans. “Mind the leather. You’re dripping wet.”

  “It’s pretty funny,” Amir says. “You should see her trying to get to the loo.”

  “She’d better take care she doesn’t break the other leg.”

  Amir is fiddling with the carabiner clipped to his keys. “Why do you always ha
ve to be that way?”

  “What way?”

  A shadow flicks across his son’s face. “She doesn’t drink that much, you know.”

  “If you say so.”

  Amir gives him a hostile look. “I say so.”

  “Fine, then.”

  The rain is sheeting off the eaves, turning the window into an opaque screen. Javad glances over at his collection of optical instruments arrayed on the bookshelves: the praxinoscope on its wooden stand, the Norrenberg polariscope, the Gilbert pocket telescope, the antique surgical loupe. He has never lost a child’s fascination with the world viewed through an optic lens, with the way a mirror, a light, and a spinning disk could make a row of static pictures jump to life. All perception produced not by the eye but by the brain. Deceptions of the senses are truths of perception, the great Purkinje said. An image of the world is not the world. Things are never what they seem.

  He says, “How long do you think you’ll stay over there?”

  “I don’t know. Why?”

  “Just wondering when you’ll be home, that’s all.”

  A shrug. “I don’t know. Until Niels gets back, I guess. I came home to get some things.” More fiddling with the carabiner. “By the way.” He looks up. “She says you owe her money. Is that true?”

  Not this again. Not dragging in the kid. Bile rises in his chest. “I don’t owe her anything.”

  The boy raises his palms. Innocent. “I’m just telling you what she said.”

  “And I’m just telling you to tell her to bugger off.”

  Amir stands up, leaving a wet smear across the sofa’s leather seat. “Jesus. Forget it.”

  He is at a disadvantage, here on the floor, his son standing over him like the victor in a fight. From this vantage point, Amir seems very far away. “I’m sick of her manipulations is all,” Javad explains.

  “And I’m sick of your manipulations. All right?”

  “That’s not fair.”

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