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Underground fugue, p.6

Underground Fugue, page 6


Underground Fugue

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  “I was thinking that we might go away somewhere for a few days’ holiday when term’s out. Someplace warmer than it is here.”

  Amir raises his eyebrows. “A holiday? Are you feeling all right, Baba?”

  “I rather fancy Greece.”

  “I thought you hated sitting on the beach.”

  “I hear Santorini is very beautiful.”

  “And we would do what there?”

  “Gosh, I dunno. Sleep, read, drink ouzo, eat tzatziki, dandle our feet in the Aegean. That sort of thing.”

  Amir rolls his eyes. “Oh, go on. Fifty quid you wouldn’t even take off your shoes.”

  Javad spoons some of the beef dish onto his plate. The sauce is rather gloppy. He should have ordered something vegetarian instead. “Come on. You can’t turn down an offer of a holiday.”

  “Who’s turning anything down?”

  “We don’t have to go to Greece.”

  “Greece sounds great.”

  “No, really. We can go anywhere you like. Cornwall. The Lake District. The south of France.”

  “Whatever you like. I don’t care.”

  Javad had once assumed that being a parent would be easier when his son was grown. Now he misses the days when he and Amir did things together, easily, happy in each other’s company. For years they’d belonged to a regular set of fathers and sons who played football together on Sunday mornings in the park. The turf was muddy and uneven, with splintery benches along the touchlines littered with kit bags and water bottles and discarded tops. The boys raced up and down the field, decked out in full kit—Barcelona or Manchester United shirts, shin pads, wristbands, fancy boots—the fathers in tracksuit bottoms and rugby shirts leftover from their university days, huffing along behind. Even then Javad’s back had not been forgiving of the sporadic punishment, and he’d spend most of the game trying to avoid crashing into other winded fathers or tripping over the small boys swerving around his legs. They didn’t know most of the other families—Amir’s school was in Caroline’s neighborhood—but Javad looked forward to the feeling of belonging, of being more than just an every-other-weekend dad.

  They’d talked to each other back then; at least that’s the way Javad remembers it. Walking home from the park in the dimming afternoon, muddy and sore, their weekend together sputtering to an end—as if spurred by the prospect of their impending separation, Amir would start asking questions. Where did water go when it went down the drain? How was it that male snails could lay eggs but roosters couldn’t? What did the word surveillance mean? He hardly listened to Javad’s earnest explanations, rushing onward to the next question as if all he needed was the simple confirmation that an answer did exist.

  Javad had become a scientist precisely because of those kinds of childhood questions. As a boy, he’d collected fossils, minerals, butterflies, and bugs. He’d set up a little lab in the cupboard beneath the kitchen stairs, where, to his sisters’ horror and his mother’s chagrin, he mixed together household chemicals, dismantled small appliances, cut up dead mice and frogs. These were the questions that still fascinated him, even now. What made the eye see, the muscles move, the nerves react? How did memories form? How did consciousness arise?

  Amir eats fast, as if he can’t wait to get away. Through the wall comes the faint sound of the piano. The American, Esther. A good-looking woman. That heart-shaped face, that corona of dark hair. There is something about her that reminds him of his sister Darya, the one who stayed in Tehran, the one he hasn’t seen in years. A hint of sadness, perhaps, about the eyes.

  Amir sets down his fork. “I should probably check with Mum, though. I think she might have mentioned something about going away with her and Niels to some posh place in Spain.”

  Javad laughs. “Planned? Her?”

  “I’m just saying.”

  “And really, Spain?”

  Through the wall, he can hear her playing scales. They ripple up and down the octaves. Major, then minor. A half step up. Major, then minor again. Of course there would be a complication with Caroline. There was always a complication with Caroline. If only she would marry this bloke and get the hell out of Javad’s life once and for all. Everything would be easier then.

  “I just thought it might be nice,” Javad says, “to do something together, the two of us, for once.” He sounds more petulant than he means to be.

  Amir bends down and picks up his laptop off the floor. “I live here now, Baba, remember? We see each other every day.”

  “Do we?”

  Amir relents. “We’ll go somewhere, Baba. Anywhere you like. It will be good to get away.”


  Coat on, she is standing outside the front door, on her third cigarette of the morning, waiting for the nurse, Zofia, to arrive. The sky is heavy, wind scratched, more like March than May. She is at her limit, coiled tight. She cannot stay in the house a minute longer. What had made her think that she could handle this?

  A door slams next door, startling her. It’s him, the boy, Amir. He hops down the steps without seeming to notice her and disappears around the far side of the house.

  Her stomach kinks. She hasn’t seen him since that first April night, a month ago already. Christ.

  In a moment he reappears, hauling a rumbling green recycling bin behind him to the street. He’s barefoot, wearing cargos and a commando jumper a few sizes too big.

  She nods to him as he comes back up the steps. “Is it collection day?”

  If he recognizes her, he gives no sign. She can see his resemblance to his father now, up close, although his eyes are even longer-lashed and darker, more intense.

  He pauses and gives her a closer look. “Thursday, yep.”

  She holds her cigarette to the side so the smoke will blow the other way. “I can’t seem to keep track of time these days. Thanks.”

  “Would you like me to pull your bin out for you?”

  “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

  “It’s not a problem.”

  Heat rises in her cheeks. “Well, okay, thanks,” she says. She feels foolish. The bin is probably two-thirds empty, anyway.

  He bounces back down the steps. The concrete must be cold on his bare feet. He is a bit taller than his father and broader across the shoulders—less wiry, more solidly built. And yet there are still traces of the child in that face that seems too smooth for the dark scruff of bristles along his jaw and chin. This is how boys turn into men, she thinks: like crustaceans, the shell hardening over a vulnerable core. With girls it works the other way around—for all their delicate appearances, they are tougher from the start. How often she had studied the lines of Noah’s rounded forehead, the structure of his nose, the soft cheeks and knobby limbs and wondered what he’d look like when he was a man, staring until he looked up and said “What?” and pulled a sour face.

  She must be staring at Amir now as well, because as he jogs back up the steps, he shoots her a funny look.

  “Thanks so much,” she says.

  “No worries.” The door bangs shut behind him as he goes in.

  Her hands are trembling as she lights another cigarette.


  Zofia’s broad moon-face is as placid as it always seems to be. She comes ambling up the street from the bus stop without any trace of urgency, as if she has nothing else in the world to do, nowhere else to be. She always takes time to chat with Esther’s mother, trading anecdotes or jokes in Polish, listening to her mother’s complaints and stories with a patience Esther never feels. Zofia helps her mother into the bath, massages her swollen feet, trims her yellowed nails. Esther has read about the Polish migrants struggling to survive in England—scavenging scraps from dumpsters, drinking hand sanitizer, eating rats. Right here, outside the Finchley Road Underground Station, the migrants lay curled in cardboard cartons, filthy duvets pulled over their heads. What did Zofia think as she passed them on her way here? Compared to such suffering, what was one old woman’s death?
  “Everything is okay?” Zofia says as she comes up the steps.

  Esther’s gut clenches as anxiety floods back in. “No. Not really. She was up half the night, moaning in pain.”

  “The pain it is very bad?”

  “She’d probably give it a two. But I’d say more like eight.”

  “Did you give her something?”

  “Just Tramadol. One tab at three this morning.”

  “And nothing else since then?”

  Esther shakes her head. She is already in motion, backing away. “I just need to go out for a little while. I won’t be long.”

  Zofia waves her hand as if in benediction. “Everything will be all right.”


  She is off, walking fast, away, away. She walks without choosing a direction, without caring where she might end up. The wind needles her skin, as if all her nerve endings are exposed. She wants to give up, go home. She has come here to help, but she’s not being helpful. She isn’t up to it—the worry, the tedium, the pain. What had she imagined? She had thought she could handle anything, had imagined herself calm and reassuring at her mother’s bedside, a few last intimate conversations, and then…Well. She hadn’t wanted to think about that.

  The heels of her boots strike a rhythm on the concrete. Away, away. Along Adelaide Road, brick walls overhung with leafy bushes front Victorian mansion blocks and Georgian terraces and squinty-windowed modern high-rises. There is a photograph of her standing with her father on a North London street much like this, years back. He stands tall above her in his overcoat and hat. She has on lace-trimmed ankle socks and patent leather shoes, a terribly serious expression on her face. He looks a little bored. They are holding hands.

  In her memory, all that remains of her father are disconnected fragments. Black-rimmed glasses and wingtip shoes. Driving gloves made of unlined calfskin, the knuckles cut out, like the paper snowflakes she made at school. The rosewood scent of his cologne. The ridges along his fingernails, nicotine stained, trimmed straight across. Tufts of hair along the edges of his ears. The stale, smoky whiff of breath when he bent to give her a kiss. His raised voice on the telephone behind closed doors, speaking in a language she couldn’t understand.

  He was a collector, her father. He acquired the kinds of objects you could hide inside your pocket: stamps, rare coins, Swiss watches, signet rings. Also big, ambitious things: commercial developments, apartment blocks, luxury hotels. Sometimes he would snap his fingers and pluck a five pence coin from behind her ear. When she pried apart his fist to claim it, it was never there. There was something quick and shifting about him, like disappearing ink.

  The blocks beat past in her peripheral vision—dark windows and whitewashed steps, black and white like piano keys. She passes the Chalk Farm Underground Station, picks up her pace. Away, away.

  There is an old sadness when she thinks about her father, a strain across her ribs, long since buried deep. That last day, so long ago, she’d stuck her head out of the taxi window and waved. She had no idea it was the end. She was just thirteen. She didn’t know about his troubles with the law, that by then there was already a warrant out for his arrest. She didn’t know about the frozen bank accounts or the prison sentence that lay ahead. She didn’t know—no one did—about the time bomb ticking inside his chest.

  She wishes she could have understood him better. He’d escaped the Nazis, survived the war, built a major property company—created a new, successful life. Why then had he cheated on his taxes, embezzled from his own employees’ pension fund? If only she could have known him as an adult, and not just as a child. She might have been able to forgive him his betrayal then.

  She crosses the canal. Here in Camden the streets are a cacophony of tattoo and body-piercing parlors, noodle shops, discount shoe stores. Half-price sales. Cash for gold. Electronics shops flaunting gigantic flat-screen TVs, pirated DVDs. She skirts the racks of knockoff handbags, fake designer sunglasses, cheap printed shirts. It is a tattiness particular to London, Esther thinks, although what made it different from, say, Canal Street in New York, she couldn’t have said. A woman wearing a burka stands outside a Ladbroke’s, jabbering into a mobile phone. Swirls of graffiti cover storefront grates. She passes a 99p Store. A pawnbroker’s. A massage parlor. A glass-sided BT phone box, long since obsolete.

  She should turn around—she has been walking for nearly an hour, and Zofia will have already gone—but she keeps on walking. Timpani are beating in her ears. She can’t go back. Her mother would be better off without her, anyway. In a hospital she would get the nursing care she needs. Esther was no nurse. She was in way over her head. She keeps walking, pulled on by the wind. Away, away.


  And then, beyond the honking traffic along the Euston Road, a quiet patch of green: St. Pancras parish church. She crosses the road and peers into the leafy churchyard through the iron fence. Four decrepit caryatids are holding up the vestry roof with their stony heads. The caryatids have grim, mannish faces and grimy chitons parted to reveal one round, bare breast. She has always preferred her plaintive Byzantine Madonnas to these tough-girl Greeks.

  She turns the corner to the front entrance. A row of Ionic columns flanks tall red doors. LUNCHTIME RECITAL, ENTRY FREE! reads a sandwich board set out at the top of the steps. The performer is a pianist, playing The Art of Fugue, by Bach.

  Esther steps into the cool dimness of the church. She loves churches, their hush and soar. Angels and apostles cast mottled shadows through stained glass. In the apse, a concert grand piano waits like an offering before the altar, its lid raised like a raven’s wing. A smattering of people have settled along the wooden pews: solitary women, old men, here or there a younger person—a graduate student, perhaps, on break from the British Library or University College London, down the street.

  Her heels reverberate on the worn flagstones as she makes her way around the perimeter of the sanctuary. She peeks into a dim vestibule at the entrance to the choir loft stairs. A wooden plaque is mounted on the wall, engraved in gold with twelve long columns of names. It’s a memorial for the men of the 19th Battalion, St. Pancras Regiment lost in the Great War. She counts to fifty and stops, less than halfway down the first column, still in the a’s. Adamson, Alford, Applethwaite, Ashe. What did that add up to—a thousand names? Or more? And that was just this regiment. An entire generation of men was lost in that horrific war, the war to end all wars. No, not men—boys. Millions of boys, dead in the bloody mud of Passchendaele, Ypres, the Somme. These days, she thinks, boys are still dying, blown up by IEDs and suicide bombers in Baghdad, Fallujah, Basra, Kandahar. Boys like her Noah, boys like Amir.

  She slides into a pew and opens the program. The Art of Fugue, the notes explain, was Bach’s last, unfinished masterpiece, a virtuoso study of the possibilities of contrapuntal form. The piece is a compilation of fourteen contrapuncti, or counterpoints—four simple fugues, three counter-fugues, four double or triple fugues, two mirror fugues and their inversions, and a quadruple fugue—plus four canons, each a different variation on a single theme. Fugues had fallen out of popular favor by the 1780s and were by then considered fusty and archaic, yet still Bach wanted to push the possibilities of the form’s constraints and variations as far as they could go. Genius Bach.

  The fugue, she reads, is both metaphor and form. Its variations make connections between seemingly unlike things and reveal the ways in which the new is recreated out of the material of the old. It shows us how the present is always in conversation with—in counterpoint with—the past. To Bach, the fugue was both puzzle and enigma, both a reflection of the sublime order as well as the ineffability of the divine. It embodied the flight of the soul toward God.

  The pianist, a young Asian woman in a red dress, enters and settles herself on the bench. The opening notes are somber, spare. First the right hand plays alone, then the left joins in. A third voice enters; a fourth begins. The voices intensify, the counterpoint grows more complex. The melody grows s
yncopated, then inverts; it speeds up, slows down again. Voices chase each other up and down the D minor scale. They call and answer, pull away, close in.

  Esther shuts her eyes and stretches out her legs. The wild surge that dragged her here has ebbed, leaving behind a foggy fatigue. Her legs and ankles ache. She gives herself over to the music, unable to follow its complexity. The voices rise and turn, repeat. They fracture, multiply, and split, a kaleidoscope of sound. They gather and release in a cascade of scales.

  If her father hadn’t died, she thinks. If her parents hadn’t escaped. If her parents had never met. If not for all the ifs, she’d have a different story. She’d be a German-speaking central European like her parents and their parents before them, like Johann Sebastian Bach and his twenty children, living in a red-roofed Moravian city or a Prussian town, her life fitted like a nesting bowl inside theirs.

  She is neither an immigrant nor a refugee, but she feels like an exile nonetheless. A latter-day wandering Jew. She envies her friends who have genealogies inked into family Bibles, with multi-branching family trees. She doesn’t even know her great-grandparents’ names, or which forgotten countries they were born in. Moldavia, Galicia, Carpathian Ruthenia? Which of those vanished corners of the Pale?

  Gil and his parents and grandparents were New Yorkers through and through. It didn’t matter that one of his great-grandfathers had emigrated from Odessa, a grandmother from Berlin. It never would have occurred to Gil not to consider himself American. America had given his family everything they knew. She had loved his parents’ chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and interminable seders filled with animated disagreement, their elegant Fifth Avenue apartment and weather-beaten Fire Island cottage, the feeling of security that came from their pedigreed professionalism and wealth. She remembers the first weekend he invited her out to Fire Island to meet his parents. They went down to the beach after everyone else had gone to bed. She lay on the cool sand of the dunes with her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder, looking up at stars she was sure she’d never seen before, and felt the love rush in.

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