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Underground fugue, p.3

Underground Fugue, page 3


Underground Fugue

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  They orbited him, Esther and her mother, like two moons around a planet. Without him, they flew apart.


  She waits until early afternoon to ring Gil at his office, punching the string of numbers into her mother’s clunky British Telecom–issue corded phone. Even now, in 2005, her mother has no computer, no Internet access. Esther and Gil have always talked on the telephone, in any case, and she feels obligated to call him now, even though everything has changed. A trial separation, they were calling it. Don’t rush into things, everybody said. But she has flown across the ocean. She has crossed the line.

  “Feinman,” Gil says. It is his work voice, rough. It is early morning in New York. She can almost smell his smooth-shaven cheeks, the starch of his laundered shirt. How well she knows him after all these years.

  “I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”

  He clears his throat. “How’s she doing?”

  “Okay. You know. More or less.”

  “Please give her my best.”

  She hears him exhale. The distance vibrates between them, the seconds ticking like a meter in a cab. Time dropping into the void. Were telephone calls still carried beneath the ocean on fiber-optic lines? Or was it all done by satellite these days? And how exactly were sound waves transformed into pulses of light? She presses the phone against her ear. There’s street noise in the background, New York morning sounds: a honking horn, the screech of brakes.

  Gil clears his throat again. “So how long are you planning to stay?”

  “I don’t know.” She feels a flush of irritation. “How should I know?”

  More silence.

  She takes a breath and says, “It’s better this way.”

  “Is it?”

  “I think so. Yes.”


  Nothing will be the same again, Gil had said. It was the autumn before Noah’s death. They were standing in front of the TV, staring at the silent plume billowing into that oblivious blue sky, as if they were watching from a much greater distance than a hundred or so blocks uptown, as if the sirens already sounding on the streets below couldn’t possibly be real. Then they walked over to Seventy-Eighth Street and picked Noah up at school. Nothing will be the same again. She hadn’t believed Gil when he said it. They were the lucky ones, she remembers thinking then.


  By late afternoon, her mother has dressed and made her way downstairs. Between them on the kitchen table is the apricot cake Esther has baked. Aprikosenkuchen, her mother’s recipe. It is too early for apricots, yet there they were in Waitrose, blush ripe, imported from Iran. Persian apricots! “Esther, Esther, Queen of Persia,” her father always sang to her at Purim, making her feel as beautiful and brave and clever as her namesake, the secret savior of the Jews. She has done a nice job with the cake. Overlapping slices of apricot spiral around the top like the petals of a flower, the fruit sunk like islands in a golden sea.

  Papers and folders are piled on the table in a stack. Her mother slides them across to Esther, one at a time. There is a plot in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, beside her father’s. Everything is arranged. Esther will only need to take the death certificate to the Registrar for Births and Deaths and ring the Burial Office to make arrangements for the funeral. No flowers, no speeches, nothing maudlin, please.

  “Have a piece of cake, Mum,” Esther says.

  Her mother continues handing over papers. Direct debit forms. Telephone numbers for the solicitor, the accountant, the bank. Her NHS card, insurance papers, library card, passport. A fat folder of medical paperwork. The hospice pamphlets, bird-and-sun logo facing up. The property deed. Her will. Esther gathers the papers into a heap and sets them on a chair. It is too soon, too much.

  “This house is the only thing left of any value, I’m afraid,” her mother says.

  “Come on,” Esther says, nudging the cake plate toward her mother. “Have a little piece. I made it just for you.”

  “I’m told the place next door sold for over a million quid!”

  Esther looks up. “Who bought it?”

  “An Arab. A doctor, I think they said he is.” Her mother shakes her head. “It’s all Arabs, these days, isn’t it?”

  “For god’s sake, Mum.”

  “Everything has changed.”

  “How old is he, this doctor? Does he have a son?”

  “What did you say?

  “A son,” she repeats, louder. “Does the doctor have a son?”

  Her mother frowns. “I’ve got no idea.”

  Esther is thinking of the boy. He reminds her of the icon at Santa Katarina in the Sinai—the two-faced Christ. One eye direct and knowing, the other lazy-muscled, inward looking, swiveling away.


  The disordered sleep of jet lag is slow to fade. Esther falls asleep easily enough but wakes up nearly every night at two or three in the morning with a headache grinding behind her temples, unable to get back to sleep. She tries drinking warm milk, performing relaxation exercises, cutting back on chocolate and caffeine, but nothing seems to work. The few hours of sleep she does get are disrupted by frenetic dreams filled with crowds pressing around her, people who all seem to want something from her that she cannot name, tugging like beggars at her sleeves. She is always traveling, always in a desperate hurry, always irrevocably late—for an appointment, an exam, a plane. The action surges and slows, as in a fever dream, although she is not sick. She wakes up sweaty and out of breath, her nightgown sticking to her skin.

  In the darkness, Esther listens for her mother the way she’d listened for Noah when he was small. The floorboards click. Sometimes, at odd hours, she thinks she hears the sound of water running, faint as the vibration of traffic through a tunnel or a gentle rain. She tiptoes down the hallway to her mother’s room and leans over the bed and listens to her breathe. The breathing changes just before you die, Zofia has said, but her mother’s shoulders rise and fall regularly beneath the duvet’s heft. In the dim glow of the hall light Esther watches the movement of her mother’s eyes as they flick back and forth beneath her lids, chasing the trajectory of a dream. How obliviously the heart pumps on; how stubbornly the lungs inflate.

  Downstairs she pauses by the piano, ghosts her fingers across the keys. She presses gently; the hammers creak as they swing up, stopping just before they sound the strings. The sheet music is piled inside the bench, where she abandoned it years ago: faded blue Henle Verlag and dull green Peters editions, the glue crumbling along the spines. Bach inventions, Chopin etudes, Beethoven sonatas, Scarlatti, Mozart, Liszt. The pages are annotated with slashes of colored pencil highlighting the arcs of phrases and the angles of crescendos, marking trouble spots with vehement lines and loops. Here and there her teacher’s notes are scribbled in the margins: passion, prayer, incantation, ghost.

  She hasn’t played in years. She’d worked hard at it in high school. She’d played dutifully, perhaps even with occasional moments of real passion, but then she went off to university and her mother was no longer there to make her practice and she never seemed to have the time or space for a piano in the city after that. Her mother took the Blüthner with her when she moved back to London from Boston, and here it has remained, mute, unplayed.

  Now, surprisingly, the pieces she once knew come back. She plays the same bits well; she makes the same mistakes. The melodies wake and sing. “You must practice until the notes are in your fingers,” her teacher always said. Now it is as if they have been there all this time, folded into the synapses of muscle memory, tucked inside her cells like the music books inside the piano bench, waiting to be released.


  In the morning, her mother is already in the kitchen, eating breakfast, when Esther comes downstairs. It’s a good day—a relief. The news is droning on the BBC. A new pope, a German, has been elected. Two Israelis have been wounded in a Palestinian sniper attack. The inflation rate is up. Her mother’s lips cinch like a drawstring purse. Triangles of toast are cooling in the r
ack. Esther reaches for a piece.

  They are two old women, wrapped in their dressing gowns, eating toast. They are mother and child. Who knew that growing up would take so long? Where was the wisdom, the sureness that was supposed to come with age? Her younger self has not been left behind, the way you’d think. It’s still there loose inside her, like unlashed cargo shifting in the hold of a ship.

  As a toddler, Noah would wrap himself around her legs each morning when she dropped him off at preschool. The more desperate and guilty she felt, the more fiercely he would cling. He’ll be just fine, the young teachers assured her, prying him away. The moment you’re out of sight, they said, he’ll be all smiles. Esther had to run off like an escaping convict as he kicked and flailed and screamed. Separation anxiety is normal at this age, the teachers said. But she was the one who’d suffered from it, far more than the boy.

  Her mother sips her tea. Her hair is as fine as milkweed, her eyes watery and faded, like liquid at the bottom of a glass. She is wearing her strand of graduated pearls, as always, tucked beneath the neckline of her nightdress. Only the tiniest ones show, white as baby teeth, against her crinkled skin.

  Pearls are living things, her mother always said. You must wear them right against the skin.

  A pearl, of course, was the mollusk’s way of protecting itself from irritants or parasites: a kind of gorgeous cyst. Their lustrous nacre a response to pain.

  All these years, her mother has lived alone. Perhaps she too is like the mollusk, her losses calcified inside her, iridescent, out of sight. There are so many things she never speaks of: her childhood, the war, her husband’s death. If she’s been lonely, she’s kept it tucked away. Her mother chews her toast, swallows, her face a crinkled shell. The silence hangs between them like a weight. Esther sighs and takes another piece of toast. If only you could tell which moment would be the last.

  The last time Esther saw her father was a wet late-summer day. She was just thirteen. She and her mother were flying to the States—going on holiday, she’d been told; he would join them in a couple of weeks. He opened the door to the taxi and hoisted up their luggage. Safe journey, he said. Esther pushed down the window and leaned her head out into the rain and waved as the taxi lurched away.

  She reaches across the table now and takes her mother’s hand. It is the sort of unthinking gesture she might once have made toward Noah or Gil. Her mother’s hand is bark on knotted knuckle, twigs of bone. Her mother gives a start, looks up, surprised, and her expression surprises Esther, too. Has she been so distant all this time?


  She runs into the doctor from next door a few days later. She’s just climbing the steps to her mother’s door, returning from a trip to Waitrose, as he steps out of his. She has a clutch of carrier bags in each hand. He’s wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses. Their eyes connect.

  He pushes his sunglasses up onto his head. Kind eyes, dark hair. A few threads of gray about the ears. She has the immediate, irrational sensation that she knows him—a prickling of recognition, as in a dream.

  “Hello,” he says. “Have you just moved in?”

  “No, I’m just here staying with my mother for a while.” She sets down the bags of groceries, reaches across to shake his hand. “She’s not well.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that.”

  He speaks with a British-tinged foreign accent that she can’t place. The sun is shining on the puddled street. It is one of those windy April days that shifts without warning from sun and sweeping nimbus clouds to rain, the air pungent with the scent of hawthorn and flowering pear, those stinky harbingers of spring.

  She shifts her weight. “So, I hear that you’re a doctor?”

  “I trained as one. Now I primarily do research.”

  “What kind of research?”

  “Neurology. Cognitive neuroscience.”

  She raises her eyebrows. “Wow.”

  His lips turn up slightly at the corners, as if he’s on the verge of smiling, but not quite. “You know what they say about neurologists, of course.”

  “What’s that?”

  “That we’re a clever lot, but completely useless. Can’t actually cure anyone of anything.”

  She smiles. “I’m sure that’s not the case.”

  “It’s quite true, I assure you.” Wrinkles like tiny parentheses mark the crease between his jawbone and his ear. Forty-something, if she had to guess. Like her.

  “So you must be the pianist?”

  “You could hear?” Heat rises to her cheeks. “I’m so embarrassed. I’m sorry about that.”

  “On the contrary, you play very well.”

  “I haven’t practiced in a hundred years.”

  He smiles. “All the more impressive, then.”

  The sunlight brightens, dims. They trade brief details of their displacement: she tells him she was born here but has lived in the States since she was a kid; he tells her he is from Iran but has lived in London for nearly thirty years. So Aryan, not Arab, though presumably a Muslim still. She feels a reflexive clench. She is as bad as her mother. Of course, everyone is paranoid these days. The wind gusts, damp with the smell of rain. She pushes her hair out of her face, reaches for her bags.

  “All we eat is takeaway, it seems,” he says, eyeing the groceries. “I should make time to cook.”


  “Amir and I. My son.”

  The boy. His son. Her stomach quirks. “I think I saw him, maybe, the other day?” she says. “How old is he?”

  “Nineteen. He’s finishing up his first year at university.”

  Again she sees the boy glancing over at her, wet and muddy at three in the morning, sneaking in. Did he know his son had been out that late? What was it about the way the boy had caught and held her gaze, as if she’d been entrusted with a secret and promised not tell?

  He takes his sunglasses off his head. “And you? Married? Kids?”

  Clouds scud across the sky, billowy as spinnakers, racing past. She shakes her head. “No.” She flings it away from her, the half truth, like a snake.


  Lonia drifts upward into brightness. Squinting, she makes her inventory: lamp, chair, dresser, pictures, vase. Her daughter. Esther is standing at her bedside, arms crossed, the corners of her mouth drawn down, her brow creased. It was difficult to get used to one’s daughter being middle aged. Her hair is still thick and dark. But you can see where the folds are starting to harden, how the skin is growing pinched. The lines of pain. A pity. She has had no luck.

  Lonia’s own face surprises her in the mirror. The skin reptilian, crumpled and webbed, barnacled with spots. She only recognizes the irises of her eyes, as if the young woman she once was were still hiding there behind that mask of age.

  “Mum, can I bring you something to eat?”

  Loss of appetite is one of the items on the list provided by that Polish girl, the nurse. What to expect when dying. Lonia feels quite hungry, she decides. A good sign.

  Esther disappears. She has always had a sort of serious dutifulness to her nature that Lonia could never quite understand. She remembers her as a child of three or four, dressed in a pea coat and sagging tights, clutching her little handbag, humorless as the Queen. Such a good girl, people always said. One always had the impression she was trying hard—rather too hard, perhaps—to do the right thing.

  Lonia sees Esther at the age of five or six, home from primary school, sitting at the table having her tea. Esther, kicking her heels against the legs of the chair. She was not going back to school, she declared.

  It is the sixties. Lonia’s dark hair is bobbed, her dress a sleeveless sheath.

  “Why not?”

  “Because I’m not.”

  Kicking the chair. Averting her gaze. Breaking her biscuit into pieces, pressing the pieces into crumbs. How did one reason with a child?

  “Of course you are.”

  “I’m not!”

  “What happened at school? Did something ups
et you?”

  “I’m just not going.”

  Naturally, something had happened. It wasn’t difficult to get her to confess. Esther began to cry, and it emerged that she had picked the eye off a classmate’s glued construction of a snake that was hanging in the hall. They’d been queued up, waiting to go outside to play, and she had reached out and picked the glittery eye right off. It is still there, in her pocket. She stuffs her hand in, pulls it out. It lies on the table, the eye, a crumpled wad of foil and a shiny button, blind.

  “Well, what did you do that for?”

  “I didn’t mean to do it.”

  “Tomorrow you will apologize properly.”

  “I can’t!”

  “Yes, you can.”

  “I can’t! If I say I did it, whoever made the snake will be cross, and if she’s cross then she’ll go and ruin the picture I made, and then I’ll ruin hers back again, and then it will go on and on like that forever. It will never end!”

  She had it all worked out, Esther did, at the age of six. The endless chain of hate.


  Time is dissolving. The shapes of the furniture and the outlines of the window and the doorframe shift. A wardrobe hunches in the corner. A tram rumbles along Nádražni Street below. In the dimness, the wallpaper’s stripes thicken into bars. Somewhere a dog barks. Lonia’s father comes at night to tell her a story. He has small round spectacles, thinning hair, blue ink stains along his middle finger from his fountain pen. He sits on the edge of the bed, the mattress tilting inward with his weight.

  Es war einmal, he begins. Once upon a time.

  Lonia’s favorite story is of the twelve princesses who escape the locked doors of their bedroom to dance throughout the night. No one could work out how the soles of their dancing shoes were worn right through every single morning. “Finally,” her father says, raising his eyebrows, “an old soldier, hired by the King, wrapped himself in an invisible cloak and followed the youngest princess through the trapdoor in the floorboards, down steep stone stairs, and to a long, dark passageway that led to a subterranean grove of trees with silver, gold, and diamond leaves. The grove stood at the edge of a vast underground lake. There, twelve princes waited by twelve rowboats at the shore. Across the lake stood the castle where they would dance all night.”

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