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Underground fugue, p.23

Underground Fugue, page 23


Underground Fugue

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  He wants to say, How could you do this to me? Anger licks his heart. His heart so swollen he can scarcely breathe.

  “Camden,” Javad tells the taxi driver as they climb in. The boy insists on stopping at Caroline’s place first.

  Around the corner, the Edgware Road Station is still cordoned off, the pavement still heaped with cellophane-wrapped bouquets.

  Along the way, his son tells him the story. The urban exploration, the unfortunate coincidences, the mistakes.

  “We weren’t doing anything wrong, honestly, Baba,” he says. “There’s loads of people out there doing it. Biggs is writing his anthropology thesis on it. We’re very careful. We’re not destructive. It’s really very safe.”

  Javad braces himself with the strap, each jounce of the taxi sending a stab of pain through his pelvis and down his legs. “So the only charge is trespassing?”

  “Probably. I think that’s what he said.”

  “I’ll ring Charles first thing.”

  The taxi crawls along the Marylebone Road through the rush-hour traffic. Just ahead Euston Road, King’s Cross. He hasn’t been back to work since the bombings. The taxi turns north along the edge of Regent’s Park.

  The boy talks too fast, animated with exhaustion and relief. He has no idea. Javad looks out the taxi window at the green blur of the park. Had he, too, been this oblivious to his parents’ pain?


  Caroline can’t stop weeping. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she is piling food onto the counter: containers of hummus and tzatziki, pots of yoghurt, packets of cold cuts, wedges of cheese, a bowl of cherries, another bowl of grapes. Niels has his phone pressed to his ear, trying to get through to some connection at Grey’s Inn. Amir sits on a barstool on the other side of the counter, digging in.

  Javad has the disconnected feeling that he’s high above them, looking down onto Niels’s kitchen with its quartz counters and expensive stainless steel appliances and barstools with leather seats. His son. The mother of his son. It seems as if months, not days, have passed since he was last here in this kitchen.

  “I can’t believe it,” Caroline is saying to Amir, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you truly are all right.”

  Amir makes a face. Caroline looks so small next to Amir. Without heels—she’s got a trainer on one foot and the cast on the other—she has to stand on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. From a certain angle, they look so much alike. It’s the smile, Javad thinks.

  His back is killing him. He pulls the blister packet of pills out of his pocket, pops one out, and swallows it with a handful of water from the sink. He straightens, digging his fists into his spine.

  “His secretary says he’ll ring when he gets out of court,” says Niels, setting down the phone. “Are you okay?”

  “Threw out my wonky back.”

  “Ach, that’s the worst.”

  Amir has taken out his camera. Caroline hobbles around to look. “These are the ones from Farsley,” Amir says, holding it up so she can see the screen.

  “It’s magistrate’s court, you know,” Javad tells Niels. “A solicitor is all we’ll need.”

  “It’s not only the charges that you have to worry about,” Niels says, “but the data—the fingerprints, the interviewing tapes, the phone records, the DNA. It’s a privacy matter. You cannot trust the police.”

  “I still haven’t gotten my own things back. The stuff they took when they searched my place.”

  “That’s exactly what I mean.”

  Caroline and Amir are hunched over the camera, his dark head beside her blond. “That one’s Pimlico,” Amir says. “And that’s Cane Hill.”

  “These are gorgeous, my god,” Caroline says. “Beautiful dereliction!”

  Was it? Javad wonders. Was that the lure of squalor and blight? It was dangerous to romanticize destruction, he thinks. It wasn’t beauty. It wasn’t art.

  “These shots are phenomenal,” Caroline calls over. “You two, come have a look.”

  He walks around and wedges himself in beside his son. Caroline is resting her head against Amir’s other shoulder, her eyes shiny. She loves him, Javad thinks. How long had it been since they had been together, the three of them, like this? He thinks of Margate. The summer sky, the foamy wave line at his feet, Amir running along the beach, his scapulae like a fledgling’s wings. That might have been the last time they did anything together as a family. He feels a wash of sadness. But here they are. Here and now—that was the important thing. The three of them, bound together, as they would always be.

  It is getting late. Better not to violate the curfew on his first night out. They were all exhausted. They’d best be getting back.

  “Already?” says Caroline. “Oh no, not yet.”

  Niels puts his arm around her shoulder. Niels is the first of Caroline’s long line of boyfriends that he actually might not dislike, Javad thinks. A bit stiff, they were, the Dutch, but Niels seemed all right.

  Would he ever find someone? He hasn’t spoken to Esther since Saturday afternoon. He knows her mother has passed away; he saw the funeral director’s van. He left a message on her mobile, but she hasn’t rung him back. He has been caught up in his troubles too. Was she angry? He feels bad. How difficult it was to know another person. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to imagine it, these past few weeks. How quickly hope unfurled! Better to have kept it locked away like those old, abandoned places in Amir’s photographs. Derelict, his heart.

  “I’ll see you soon, Mum,” Amir says, bending to kiss her on the cheek.

  Niels says, “I should think we’ll all sleep well tonight.”


  It is late on Wednesday afternoon before Javad finally goes next door and rings the bell. He’s been wrapped up all day in phone calls with the solicitor. There will be hearings, filings, meetings, motions—all the endless details of a legal mess.

  Esther comes to the door. She is wearing a summer shift and sandals, her hair pulled back. “Oh!” she says.

  He hands her the bouquet of lilies he has brought, feeling awkward. He is not sure of the Jewish custom. White for funerals, the girl at the flower stand had said.

  “Thank you,” she says. “You didn’t need to do that. Come in.”

  He follows her into the sitting room. She gestures for him to sit down on the sofa. There is a green-tiled gas fire, just like his. There is the piano. It has been a long time, he realizes, since he has heard her play. A clock rests on the mantel above the fireplace. Through the glass case, he can see the golden clockwork moving—the tiny gears, the beating pendulum, the spinning heart.

  “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he says. He feels a coolness radiating from her that he’s not sure how to place.

  She perches on the arm of an upholstered chair. “It was a long time coming.”

  “I feel really terrible. I would have liked to pay my respects.”

  “It’s fine. You had a lot going on. It was just me and a few of her old friends, anyway. She didn’t want any kind of to-do. Nothing religious, no ceremony.”

  “I know, but—I’m sorry.”

  The patio doors are open onto the garden, the afternoon sun illuminating the angles of her pale face with its gentle glow. She is so beautiful, he thinks, with a feeling almost like surprise.

  “So Amir is home again?” she says. “I was so worried. I’m so relieved.”

  “Yes—they released him yesterday.”

  “And he’s okay?”

  “He’s fine, thank God. He spent a couple of nights in a nasty holding cell at Paddington Green, but he’s none the worse for wear, I shouldn’t think.”

  He outlines for her the events as he now knows them: The urban exploration, Finsbury Park, King’s Cross, the trip to Yorkshire, the arrest, the release. The unfortunate coincidences, the horrible timing. But the police sorted it out. He was impressed, actually, that they got it right. They’d brought a minor charge of trespassing; there would be
a fine. The lad had learned his lesson, or so one hoped. End of story. And that’s all it is now, he thinks—a story. Once upon a time, and then, and then, happily ever after, the end.

  Her expression is pained. She crosses her arms around her waist. “I’m really sorry,” she says.

  “There’s no need to apologize.”

  She shakes her head. A hard, swift shake. “Yes, there is.”

  “Whatever for? It’s not your fault.”

  She looks away. “You don’t know. You have no idea. I was suspicious—I misunderstood. I mean, if I hadn’t—”

  He waits, but she doesn’t complete the sentence. She looks so miserable. What is she talking about? He has a sinking feeling. She is right there and yet he cannot reach her.

  “We were all very frightened,” he says and pauses. “It’s been a rough time for both of us, hasn’t it? But it’s over now, at least.”

  “Is it?”

  She stands up and walks over to the patio doors, turning her back to him. Beyond her, in the garden, the weeping mulberry’s long branches are trembling in the wind. He’d like to go to her, to touch and hold her, but somehow, he understands that he cannot. They have fallen out of orbit, spun apart.

  When she turns back, her eyes are wet. “I’m putting the house on the market, Javad. I can’t stay. I’m sorry.”

  He thinks of the first time he saw her, that April afternoon, out on the front steps. She took his breath away. It was a cliché, he knows, but there is no other way he can think of to describe it—the compression in his lungs, the breath stifled in his chest. The quick, hopeful, ridiculous thought had crossed his mind then that maybe she was Persian, too. That heart-shaped face, that corona of dark hair.

  “What’s the hurry?” he says. His heart is knotted tight. “Why don’t you give it some time?” Give us some time is what he means. You can’t keep running away forever is what he wants to say.

  She shakes her head. “I don’t know.” She sweeps her arm across the room. “All this—it’s just too much. I can’t.”

  “You’ve been through a lot,” he says carefully. “But I think you should give it a chance.”

  Her eyes are dark and flat. “I really like you, Javad,” she says at last. “I really, truly do. But—I don’t know. Maybe it’s just bad timing. Or maybe we’re just too different. I’d like to think that wasn’t true, but I’m afraid it is.”

  On the mantel, the gold clock sounds the hour—five tinkling chimes. They have missed their moment. The words they should have said, all the things they should have done, have slipped away. He stands and says, “I’m sorry, Esther, I really am.”

  She says, “I’m sorry too.”

  At the door, she stops and turns to him. “I’m just curious. What was Amir doing in Finsbury Park, anyway?”

  “It seems he’s got a girl.”

  “A girl!” Her eyebrows rise. “And you were so sure he didn’t!”

  He almost smiles. “I was, it’s true.”

  She opens the door for him. “I’m just really glad that he’s all right.”

  The wind is pushing gray-white thunderheads across the sky. Leaves are fluttering on the trees. The light shifts and dims. He steps closer and pulls her to him and kisses her softly on the lips. “I’ll be here, Esther,” he says. “If you change your mind. Just know that I’ll be here.”


  The movers have come and gone. A crew of stocky Romanians with the barrel chests and massive shoulders of Olympic weight lifters arrived and swathed the furniture in quilted padding and hauled it all away: the sofa, the walnut bedroom set, the dining table, the glass-fronted vitrine, assorted chairs. It will all be sold, auctioned off to antiques dealers and other collectors of such things. She likes the idea of her mother’s belongings taking on new lives in other peoples’ homes. All that remains now is the piano, which she will store. The specialist movers will be coming for it soon.

  Her suitcases are packed and waiting. The keys are in the lockbox for the estate agent. In a little while, she’ll take a taxi to St. Pancras and then the Eurostar to Paris and from there the TGV to southern France. She has never taken the train beneath the Channel before. It is strange to think that Paris is the same distance from London as Buffalo is from New York City. In just a couple of hours, she’ll be eating dinner in a French café.

  It is the end of August. She is going to stay with old friends who have a country house near Nîmes. She imagines long walks along quiet streets lined with shuttered houses, hillside vineyards, ancient ruins, open-air marchés. Her host and her husband have no children. They’ll eat dinner outside on the flagstone terrace. They’ll keep her glass filled with the local wine. She will fly back to New York from there. She doesn’t want to think about what will happen after that.

  Stripped of objects, the house seems larger, dingier, strange. The Last Resort. Soon it would belong to someone else. Already she feels ectoplasmic, as if she already is already a ghost. The FOR SALE sign has been posted out in front. Once this house is gone, there will be nothing left.

  She moves from room to room, checking the empty cupboards, running her fingers along shelves, peeking behind doors. Way at the back of a kitchen cabinet, she finds a dusty platter with a chipped rim. In the sitting room, she retrieves a few abandoned paperbacks that have slipped behind a shelf. The cleaners can throw them out.

  She thinks of Javad and Amir, just there, a few yards away on the other side of their shared wall. She thinks of the boy’s dark eyes, the slight gap between his teeth. She thinks of Javad’s body, vulnerable in sleep, his sweet and tender kiss. They had their moment, she thinks. They had that, at least.

  Through the windows, bare of curtains, the light shifts. It is just a place. Four walls, a roof, a space.

  Downstairs in the sitting room, she wanders over to the piano and runs her fingertips along the keys. She hasn’t played in weeks. She is thinking of that Beethoven sonata, Les Adieux. She must have the sheet music here somewhere.

  She lifts the lid to the piano bench and rummages through the music books. They smell of mildew and must. Bits of yellowed paper and glue crumble off the spines. She pulls out the thick blue Henle Verlag volume of Beethoven sonatas. She flips through it, clean pages of notation alternating with the scribbled pages of the pieces she once played. A piece of folded paper slips out, a child’s drawing. Her lungs squeeze tight.

  It is a picture of a jet plane, the red and blue waves of the British Airways logo traced across the tail, engines shaded in pencil beneath the wings. The landing gear has been retracted; the plane’s in flight. In the middle of the row of oval windows are three tiny smiling faces. Arrows point to names, written in block letters at the top of the page. Mommy. Daddy. Noah. The one in the middle with the mess of black scribbled hair must be her. To the side, in smaller, careful letters, he has written I love you inside a crayoned heart.

  Oh, Noah, she thinks.

  She touches the paper to her lips. Her hands are trembling. She can see him at seven or eight, his dark head down on one arm stretched out across the kitchen table, a pencil gripped in his little hand. She thinks of his room, back in New York, dim and dusty now, the model fighter jets and bombers grounded, the glow-in-the-dark stars dimmed.

  Fly away, the drawing says. Let go.


  There is a knock at the door. She tucks the picture back into the book and puts it in the bench and goes to let the piano movers in.

  There are three of them, armed with ramps and trolleys and padded cloths and heavy-duty ratchet straps.

  “Moving back to the States, then, eh?” the foreman says.


  “Nice instruments, the Blüthners,” he says. “Don’t see too many of them these days.”

  “It was my mother’s,” she says, and stands back and lets them work.

  One man removes the music stand as the other crawls underneath the keyboard to unscrew the pedals. They wrap padded cloths around the lid and case. Then they
wheel a trolley underneath the center of the piano, unscrew the front left leg, then tilt the piano over onto the trolley so that it is resting on its side. Thick straps are looped on and tightened. The piano weighs close to one thousand pounds. Strapped and swaddled, it is the size of a small car or giant coffin.

  The men lay rubber mats over the thresholds and set a wooden ramp over the front steps. Two men position themselves on the down-ramp end of the piano; the foreman takes the top. They grunt and strain as they ease the trolley down the ramp. Esther stands in the doorway and holds her breath. She cannot watch. As they hit the bottom, she hears a sound, the reverberation of the sounding board, a low, deep, groaning bong. And then the piano is safely on the pavement, and they are pushing it up the van, securing it inside. The other men hand up the swaddled bench and legs. The job is done.

  “Yikes,” she says, coming down the steps.

  “Oh, that was nothing. You should see the ones where we have to use a crane,” the foreman says.

  She signs the paperwork, and they climb into the van and pull away.

  She stands out on the pavement, watching them go. She turns back and looks up at the twin blue doors, the twin front steps, the matching windows, the shared line of the roof. All the windows are mirror dark—Javad’s, her own.

  The summer air is still. Sounds of the city drift upward: a barking dog, the rev of a shifting engine, the brake-squeal of a bus, a helicopter’s growling hum. In the sky, the crisscrossed contrails of a vanished plane are dissipating, two tight lines at one end, spreading into cirrus at the other, milky brushstrokes against the blue.


  His father is in the kitchen, elbow deep, as usual, in work. Piles of scans and printouts are spread out across the table, along with a mug half-full of coffee, long since gone cold, a half-eaten piece of toast. Miranda pads in behind him. She is barefoot, her painted toenails red against the white tiled floor. She’s wearing one of his old black T-shirts that drapes below the hemline of her shorts so that it looks as if she isn’t wearing anything under it at all. He is happy she is here, officially his girlfriend now. Her presence shifts the balance between him and his father. A counterweight. His father likes her, he can tell. His father is glad to have her here, at least, if that means that he’ll stay home. She calls him “Dr. Asghari” even though he tells her not to. She smiles at him with her kohl-rimmed eyes.

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