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Underground fugue, p.2

Underground Fugue, page 2


Underground Fugue

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  He is dozing on the sofa, his book splayed spine-up on his chest, when the thump of the front door startles him awake. He meant to rest his eyes for just a moment, not sleep. He groans, sits up, and runs his fingers through his hair. He picks up his mobile off the coffee table, squints at the screen.

  2:58 a.m. Bloody hell.

  The house is dark and hollow beyond the light circle of the gooseneck lamp. He listens to the soft creak of his son climbing the stairs. The cat leaps onto the coffee table, arching her back. He pulls her onto his lap and ruffles her fur. It’s cool and damp. “So where’s the lad been off to, then, cat?” he says. The cat’s chest vibrates with a purr.

  Javad puts on his glasses, stretches his arms overhead. It’s Friday night. Probably he’s been to a party. Possibly there’s a girl, although Javad rather doubts it. “Just hanging out with the blokes, Baba,” Amir always says, his eyes shifting away. He’s nineteen now, but still there’s something in him that’s not yet fully formed—a stress fracture, a hairline crack.

  Slanted rectangles of light from passing cars drift across the wall. “Magic films,” Javad and his sister Darya had called them when they were children, back in the old house on Hesabi Street in Tehran. That life, long vanished, seems no more substantial than these projections of moving light. He wonders if everyone experiences childhood that way, or if it’s just the nostalgia of an exile he’s condemned to bear.

  He heaves himself up off the sofa and climbs the stairs. His lower back aches. Water is running in the bath. The old pipes groan. A bath, at three in the morning? He pauses outside the bathroom door but doesn’t knock.

  He is glad to have Amir living here with him now, although proximity has only made him even more acutely aware of how little he knows his son. What did he expect? It was a good deal for the boy, certainly—far nicer than any grotty student digs and free to boot. At the end of all those alternating weekends—as he watched the boy climb the dodgy steps to Caroline’s flat, his dark head bowed, his kit bag slung over a skinny shoulder—Javad always felt as if he were casting him out to sea in a leaky skiff. After all these years of shuttling and negotiation, of passing him back and forth like a relay baton, it’s good to have him here.

  He had always thought that by now he’d be remarried, living a normal life, if there was such a thing, or at least a life less complicated than this. Well, he did what he had to do. He did what he could. He did his best.


  It is nearly noon when his son comes downstairs the next morning. Javad is at the kitchen table, surrounded by a pile of papers, working.

  “Baba,” Amir says, yawning, “you work too hard.”

  Javad looks up, the half-formed sentence that was revolving in his head scattering like molecules of light. His son’s dark hair is sticking up, his cheeks stubbled. He has Javad’s coloring but Caroline’s nose and her gap-toothed, soft-lipped smile. He’s wearing workman’s trousers and lug-soled boots, which make him look, as usual, as if he were a builder or a lumberjack rather than a university student. He’s a bit taller than Javad and broader across the shoulders, his boyish slenderness solidified into strength.

  “Good morning,” Javad says, glancing at his watch. “Only just.”

  Amir rolls his eyes. “It’s Saturday, Baba. In case you hadn’t noticed.” He picks up the cafetière and shakes the coffee dregs into the bin, turns on the tap.

  “You were out late last night,” Javad says.

  Over the noise of the water, Amir says, “Not that late.”

  “Three’s pretty late.”

  A shrug.

  “What did you lot get up to?”

  “Just hanging around. You know.”

  Javad does not know. At his son’s age, he was already on his own, here in England, in medical school. There had been a revolution in Iran.

  Amir glances over his shoulder. “Will you have another cup?”


  Children, he thinks, are like the vestiges of light from distant stars. By the time the rays have crossed the light-years of the galaxy to reach your retinas, the stars have long since disappeared.


  The sound of the piano comes through the wall as if through water: a muffled melody in a minor key. Javad is lying on the sitting-room floor in shava-asana, corpse pose, his knees bent and arms outstretched, palms up at his sides, with two paperbacks beneath his head, trying to relax the muscles of his back. He’s never heard the piano being played next door before. Surely it’s not the old woman, his neighbor—he’s spied her once or twice, shuffling in and out of taxis like a hunch-necked bird, although they’ve hardly exchanged a word since he moved in. There’s a ripple of arpeggios, a nimble run of notes along a chromatic scale. Whoever it is plays very well.

  He inhales and exhales as the physio instructed, directing the air in and out through his nose, trying to visualize his breath. He is supposed to imagine it flowing like a stream, in through his nostrils and down along his spine, easing the knotted bands of muscle, allowing the damaged vertebrae to float gently apart, those thirty-three bony butterflies curving from the brainstem to the buttocks—cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, coccygeal—that form the spine. He’s got a compressed disc just above the iliac crest, the consequence of too much sitting, too lanky a frame, too little exercise. Or maybe it’s just the price one must pay for carrying a body through the world for forty-some-odd years. Mostly there is just a dull ache and stiffness, but when the muscles spasm he is overwhelmed by a clenching agony, zoned out on muscle relaxants, flat on his back in bed for days. He lives in wariness of his back and its betrayals. He treats it like a fickle lover, with tender vigilance and distrust.

  Through the wall, the music continues. Voices chase each other up and down the octaves, the melody moving from treble to bass and back again. It’s Bach, he thinks. He rolls over to his side, carefully sits up. The cat steps over his legs and rubs against his hip. His stomach gurgles. It is late and Amir is out and once again he has neglected to pick up anything to eat. Amir had said he was going over to Caroline’s, he recalls. Javad pictures his ex-wife, her bleached-blond hair cropped short, a drink in hand. Always, of late, a drink. Amir standing by. The role Javad refused to play.

  Amir brought home one of her new works the other day, a collage of photographic negatives, vintage postcards, Ordnance Survey maps, and pages ripped from encyclopedias and telephone directories, the layers glued on thick, then scraped away and rubbed with what might be chalk or charcoal and shellac. “Memory maps,” she called them, according to Amir. A pretentious title, Javad thinks. But of course, the hippocampus—the seat of memory—does function as a sort of spatial map. Clever, then, perhaps.

  On the other side of the wall, the piano plays on. Louder now, the notes cascade, then consolidate into chords. If this goes on, he thinks, he’ll never be able to work or sleep. Neighbors, bloody hell. He pulls on his leather jacket, shoves his mobile and keys into his pockets, and heads out into the night.


  On Monday morning, Javad stands at the demonstration table at the front of the UCL lecture theater; the brain before him rests on an aluminum tray. It is a human brain, tinged yellow by formaldehyde, lumpy as a cauliflower and roughly the same shape and size. Three pounds of jellylike gray matter, soft enough to ooze like toothpaste out of a hole drilled in the skull. A remarkable organ, capable of contemplating its own mechanism of contemplation, like a mirror reflected in a mirror—an infinite regression. Within each nerve fiber pulse a hundred billion neurons, a hundred trillion synapses, most of it as unmapped as outer space.

  Grasping the brain beneath the frontal lobe, he holds it up before the audience, pointing out the fissures that faintly demarcate the lobes, rotating it like a fruit. He sets it down and pries apart the outer layers of the cerebral cortex to reveal the gray matter underneath. Taking a scalpel, he slices down to expose the cingulate gyrus and the corpus callosum, working his way through the lateral ventr
icle to the hippocampus and the almond-shaped amygdala buried deep inside. The amygdala: hard nut of anger, anxiety, fear.

  This is a healthy brain from a healthy body. Whomever it belonged to was relatively young and died of something that does not do much damage to the brain—a heart defect or drowning; a suicide, perhaps. He sets the brain back on the tray, peels off the latex gloves. He has long since stopped considering cadaver organs as connected to living, human bodies, thinking of it no more than he thinks of a cow when he eats a steak; although there was a time, early on, when he’d been unable to stop himself from picturing the corpse—headless and eviscerated, its bits and bobs “donated to science,” the family members grieving around a closed casket or diminished urn of ash.

  He moves back to the computer mounted in the podium. Behind him, the screen lights up. Things have changed since his student days—it’s all prosection and PowerPoint now. A PET scan image appears, a radiant inkblot of blue and yellow and red, a normal brain. The next scan, an image of a brain atrophied by Alzheimer’s, reveals a much larger dead area of cobalt blue and black, limned with gold, the temporal and parietal lobes choked with the weedy plaques and tangles of the proteins beta-amyloid and tau.

  “It wasn’t until relatively recently, you know, that we have come to understand the function of the brain,” he says. “Aristotle thought it was a sort of radiator designed to cool the heart. Descartes conceived of it as a machine filled with ‘animal spirits,’ rather like hydraulic fluid.”

  The course participants—students, consultants, trainees—regard him in silence. Javad always thinks that people will find his bits of historical trivia amusing, but they nearly never laugh. They want the facts, not the messy reality of science—the confusion and the ambiguity and the mistakes.

  “The German phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall, of course, believed that a person’s character and personality could be discerned by reading the cerebral convolutions of the brain,” he continues. He clicks to the next slide, an illustration from a mid-Victorian phrenological journal, a detailed diagram of a human skull, each part of the brain mapped and labeled with a little line drawing: a history book, a numerical equation, a cupid holding a bow and torch.

  “We now know that phrenology was mostly a load of racist bunk,” he says, “but Gall’s assumption that thoughts and emotions were located in specific regions of the brain is actually not so far off from what neuroimaging is now starting to reveal.”

  This is his research terrain. The fuzzy borderline between the psychological and the physiological, the question of how emotion may or may not manifest in the functioning of the brain. He is interested in breakdowns of memory, awareness, perception, identity: dissociative amnesia, psychogenic fugue. The neurological puzzle of the “self.”

  “With damage to the frontal lobe, for example,” he says, aiming his laser pointer’s red dot at the screen, “we see increasingly irrational behavior, the loss of ability to plan, sometimes loss of inhibition, even an increased tendency for violence, as well. Damage here, to the parietal lobe, causes disorientation, an inability to locate the body in space. Damage to the occipital lobe makes it difficult to recognize people’s faces. And damage to the temporal lobe, of course, causes problems with memory, language, speech.”

  He thinks of the first case diagnosed by Alois Alzheimer back in 1906, Auguste D. Her famous words: I have lost myself.


  The piano starts up again that evening as he is lying on the sofa, The Guardian spread out across his chest. Javad takes off his glasses, closes his eyes. The melodic voices rise and fall in rippling symmetry. The music washes over him as color: indigo, lapis, cerulean, ultramarine. Deep water blue. Moon-shadow blue. The azure halo of the earth as seen from outer space. The blue of arterial blood beneath the skin.

  His grandmother, he recalls, had that sort of translucent skin. Veins like rivers on a raised relief map snaked along the backs of her arthritic hands. At the end, they told him, she hallucinated ghostly figures. Lewy body dementia, it must have been. By then, of course, he’d long since left Tehran.

  Amir is clomping about overhead. He has been restless since the third term began, staying out late, lying in, spending the rest of his time in front of the computer, earphones in. Javad can’t keep track of what his son is studying, all that Middle Eastern history and politics, none of which interests him one whit. God only knew what one did with a degree like that. Everybody said that the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, was a prime recruiting ground for MI6, but it was difficult to imagine the lad—dreamy, scruffy, clever, but not especially hard working—as a spy. Honestly, it was hard to imagine Amir doing much of anything. Even now that he was here, living with Javad at last, he remained stubbornly opaque.

  The other day Javad had found him stretched out backward on his bed, his feet propped on the headboard, reading the Qur’an. Javad thought of the mullahs in the mosques back in Tehran—barefoot, robed, and turbaned, mumbling into their beards. He had come to England to leave all that behind.

  “You’re not going all religious on us, are you?” Javad had said.

  Amir glanced up. “I am, actually.”


  An eye roll. “Baba, I’m cramming for my exams.”

  Now Javad opens his eyes at a thumping on the stairs; he fumbles for his glasses. Amir steps into the doorway, rucksack slung over one shoulder, earphones looped around his neck. He has on jeans with white-stringed gashes at the knees. He could use a haircut, Javad thinks.

  “Off to the salt mines?” he says.


  “Don’t you want anything to eat? What time is it?”

  A shrug. “I’ll pick up something over there, I guess.”

  “Right. Let me know if you’ll be out late.”

  “Okay.” A smirk. “I’ll be out late.”

  “Don’t be a cheeky bastard.”

  “Baba, leave it.”

  And then his son is gone. Javad hears the front door bang shut. Next door, the piano abruptly stops. For a moment, the last notes linger on the air and disappear.


  There will be good days and bad days,” the nurse, Zofia, says on Monday morning. They are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, weak daylight filtering through the curtains above the sink. Esther’s mother is still upstairs, asleep. Today is not such a good day. Zofia’s moon-face is smooth, her body solid, the bones and muscles invisible beneath her doughy skin. In her calm, Polish-accented voice, she explains to Esther how to monitor her mother’s caloric intake, her blood pressure, her mental state; how to help her to the loo; how to administer her meds—Fentanyl, Ativan, morphine—when she’s in pain. You might think she was describing how to tend a garden rather than the stages of impending death. Pull weeds. Spread mulch. Hope for rain.

  “It is not necessary, of course, to worry about addiction,” Zofia says, with a small smile. Esther gets it. A little hospice-worker joke.

  An array of booklets lies between them on the table. How to Be a Supportive Caregiver. What Does Someone Dying Need? A Guide to Grief. The hospice logo is a stylized bird flying across a blue ground toward a yellow sun. Esther feels overwhelmed. She is afraid she will screw up, break down, fail. She would like to grab Zofia’s arm, like a child, and beg her to stay.

  Esther is not good with illness. Gil was always the one who held Noah over the toilet when he was throwing up, picked out splinters with a blackened needle, dabbed peroxide on his bleeding cuts. Often when Noah got sick he’d sleep in the big bed with Gil, and she would banish herself to the study’s pullout couch. She is ashamed to admit it even now, her inability to summon a calming presence. Her selfish fear. The worst moment was the time Noah tripped on the playground and broke his new front teeth—she will never forget the sight of him standing in the doorway, his lip swollen and bleeding, his forehead scraped, his beautiful new teeth now jagged stumps. She’d burst into tears and turned away. She will not forgive herself for that.<
br />
  “You will manage very well,” Zofia says.

  Above all, her mother wants to stay at home. No more hospitals, no more treatments. Even over the telephone, long distance, Esther could hear the determination in her voice. It was the least she could do, Esther thought, to give her that. Although now, as she hears her mother’s plaintive calling from upstairs, she wonders if she’s gotten in over her head.


  Upstairs, her mother is sitting up in bed. Cords of wrinkled skin drape along her neck. She says some words in Polish. Zofia smiles and reaches for a bottle of lotion and squirts a stream into her palm. Her mother shifts her legs out from beneath the duvet and Zofia lifts them onto her lap and begins to massage the lotion into her mother’s feet, which are swollen and knobby and purple veined. Between Zofia’s capable, soft hands, they look less like feet than organs pickled in an autopsy-room jar. Esther turns away.

  Outside, the sunlight brightens and then dims. Time hangs loose around them. It’s hard to believe Esther hasn’t even been here a week. She has hardly left the house except to walk over to Waitrose for groceries. So far, she hasn’t been of much use. At least she can cook. Today, perhaps, she’ll bake a cake. Maybe later she’ll play the piano. The other day, she raised the keyboard lid and played for the first time in years. Amazingly, a piece she’d memorized so long ago came back—one of the fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. From where?

  The top of her mother’s chest of drawers is lined with photographs in silver frames: Esther and Gil on their wedding day, her hair blow-dried straight and feathered in awful 1980s-style wings. Snapshots of Noah as a baby and little boy. Noah at his bar mitzvah, draped in a tallit, rocked back on his heels by the Torah in his arms, with Gil and Esther, proud parents, on either side. An old portrait of Esther’s parents, a studio shot in black and white.

  In that photograph her father is seated on a chair, her mother perched on his lap with her arm around his shoulders. Her hair is set in a dark bob, her blouse unbuttoned at the neck, revealing the strand of graduated pearls she has worn for as long as Esther can recall. Her father’s jaw has not yet slackened into the jowls Esther remembers; his hair has not yet thinned to baldness on the top, although his forehead and chin have already hardened into the angles of a much older man’s face. His lips curl beneath a protruding nose and heavy-lidded eyes. His face is as impenetrable as a carapace, and as self-contained.

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