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Underground fugue, p.8

Underground Fugue, page 8


Underground Fugue

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  All this hate—it was exhausting. Esther picks up the plates. She no longer knows what to think.

  After the ladies leave, Esther’s mother complains, as she’s always done, about their gossipy small-mindedness and hypochondria and lack of common sense.

  Esther says, “Well, they ate up all the coffee cake, at least.”


  Later, she brings their suppers upstairs on a tray. The visit has worn her mother out. Esther plumps and props the pillows behind her mother’s back and sets a bed tray across her lap. Her mother’s clavicle protrudes like a wishbone beneath her nightgown’s lace-trimmed neck. Through the fine strands of her hair, you can see the mottled pinkness of her scalp. One good gust of wind and she would blow away.

  “It’s too much,” her mother says after a few moments, setting down her fork. The food is hardly touched.

  “What is?”

  “The food. You always make too much.”

  “Would you rather have something else?” she says. “I could warm up some consommé, if you prefer.”

  “I don’t know who you imagine you’re cooking for, Esther. So much food. It’s such a waste.”

  “I like to cook.”

  “You never used to cook.”

  “What are you talking about? I cooked.”

  “I’m not hungry.”

  “Just eat a little bit. You need to eat.”

  Zofia says narcotics kill the appetite, although that doesn’t explain why Esther has lost her appetite as well. She prods her salad, forces herself to take another bite. Is it true she never cooked? The busy years of juggling—of packing Noah off to school and racing to work and back, of coping with the bustle of the city, the thousand chores of daily life—have resolved into a blur. Surely she cooked. They couldn’t have gone out to eat all the time.

  She takes up the remote and switches on the television, clicks through the channels. Football. Cricket. Condoleezza Rice. Saddam Hussein. Something about stricter controls on immigration. Something about a lost pianist, some sort of prodigy. She pauses, her arm holding the remote outstretched. Apparently suffering from amnesia, he’d turned up on a beach out on the Isle of Sheppey a few weeks back, dressed in a formal suit, soaking wet.

  Her mother clears her throat. “Esther, what are you going to do?”


  “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.”

  On TV, the pianist looks as forlorn as a lost child, peeping out above a blanket with one eye, wild and bright. The National Missing Persons Helpline has put out an appeal. An 0800 number flashes onto the screen; already hundreds of people have rung in. Esther feels a pang of pity. Where had he come from? What had happened to him? Who could he be? She squints at the screen. He looks a little bit familiar, she thinks.

  Her mother says, “I’m talking to you, Esther. It’s been three years. You must put the past behind you. It’s time.”

  Not yet three years, Esther thinks, not quite. And what were three years? Three years were nothing. She will not take the bait.

  “As your father would have said, water only runs downhill.”

  Esther picks up her mother’s untouched plate. “What does that even mean?”

  “You must put the past behind you,” her mother says again. “I won’t be around much longer. You need to move ahead.”

  “Don’t worry about me.”

  Her mother shuts her eyes. Her eyelids are purple crepe. “I can feel it going, you know.”

  “What’s that?”

  “The energy. It’s as if there were a leak.”

  “The meds do that to you, Mum.”

  “To tell the truth, darling, it’s a relief.”


  Downstairs in the kitchen, Esther scrapes their uneaten dinners into the bin. Her mother is right. She makes too much food. She cannot seem to manage smaller recipes. The refrigerator shelves are crowded with plastic containers and cling film–covered bowls and plates. The freezer is stuffed with ice cube trays of pesto and bags of cookie dough and quart-sized tubs of consommé. Just the other day she sent Zofia home with an entire batch of pierogi and a loaf of caraway bread.

  She should take some of the leftover food to the doctor and his son next door, she thinks. Didn’t he say all they ate was takeaway?

  So much food. It was all going to go to waste.

  What the hell, she thinks.

  She bends and rummages in the cupboard for a platter. There’s plenty of roasted chicken and potato salad and nearly an entire chocolate cake. She is buoyant with the idea. She heaps the platter with food, covers it in foil.

  Outside it’s nearly dark, the trees and houses flattened into silhouettes against the still-blue springtime sky, like the surreal landscape of a Magritte. Opposite, the dumpster hunches in the shadows, the digging machine finally silenced for the night. Starlings chatter in the trees. She goes down her steps and up the other side and rings the bell. She hopes it’s not too late. She has an urge to leave the plate on the doorstep and run, like a kid playing a Halloween prank.

  The boy opens the door. Amir. He’s wearing those baggy cargos and a T-shirt that reads UK Decay.

  She holds out the platter. “This is for you,” she says.

  “For me?”

  “Well, for you and your father. I had a ton left over. I just thought…” She is ridiculous, a fool. “He said you guys were always eating takeaway. It’s nothing fancy, anyway—just chicken, potato salad. Chocolate cake.”

  He grins. “Chocolate cake! That’s ace.” There’s a slight gap between his front teeth that makes him look, for a moment, like a little boy.

  And all at once her throat is tight and her eyes are overfull and there is a rushing in her ears. She thought she was past this. She was past it. She digs her fingernails into her palms. She will not blink. He is looking at her, waiting. He’s a stranger. He’s just a kid. What could he possibly understand?

  She swallows to suppress the quaver in her voice. “You can just leave the plate over there”—she gestures to her front door—“when you’re done.”

  “Right, yeah. Thanks.”

  She forces herself to turn and walk, not run, back down the steps and up the other side. She forces herself to give a little wave. But once inside, she turns and presses her forehead to the door and weeps.


  Noah died on a Thursday, three years ago, July. Thunderheads billowed in the scorched sky, the air humid and limp. They’d escaped to Connecticut from the city for the summer, that first summer after the world changed, when the leafy hills and clapboard houses and quiet village streets no longer felt quaintly dull but safe. She was already thinking about leaving the city, giving it a dry run, getting the hell out. She’d taken the entire month off work and Gil was commuting up from Manhattan on the weekends and Noah was hanging around the house, too old for camp, too young to work, sullen and uncommunicative and bored.

  They’d had four days of heavy rains and then the heat. Esther sat out on the porch and sipped her coffee and watched the fat bees hovering in the hollyhocks and thyme. From the yellow house the road stretched down the hill and wound its way four miles into town. The maples and pines cast bands of shade across the gravel drive. He had his skateboard, he had his bike. There were hiking trails at Bull’s Bridge; there was the waterfall and gorge. There was an ice cream shop and bakery in town, and at Lake Waramaug you could swim. The Ellis boys lived just down the street. All year long he was cooped up in the city. Go on, she said. Get out, go do something. Go. The gravel crunched beneath the wheels of his bike.

  She stretched out her legs and listened to the cicadas’ drone rise and fall like waves. They had not subscribed to cable; there was no Internet and hardly any TV. The only radio was in the car. She didn’t want to hear about the escalating terrorism alerts or reports of Al Qaeda’s “dirty” bombs or the rumblings of war against Saddam Hussein. Her mother wanted them to come to London, but she couldn’t bear to get on a plane. She didn’t want
to leave this house, this porch, this chair. To the west, across the hot sky above the Litchfield Hills, contrails ran like lines drawn on a child’s Etch A Sketch and slowly frayed.

  Now she knows she was looking the wrong way. She was looking at the sky and hills when she should have been looking after her boy. Behind her the screen door screeched and slammed. Did he call goodbye? The moment was only one out of an infinity of other moments. She sipped her coffee, thinking about nothing—about the load of laundry that needed to be put into the dryer, about what to make for dinner, about whether it would rain.

  She didn’t hear the phone ring. She heard only the click and then the singsong of Noah’s voice on the recording—Hiyya, you’ve reached the Feinman family. We can’t come to the phone right now—followed by the unfamiliar, official voice and then the heart-stopping words afraid and accident and son and please. She ran in and picked up the phone halfway through the sergeant’s speech, his voice reverberating through both the handset and the speaker, which continued dumbly to record both of their voices, the policeman’s deep and monotone, hers too high and gasping for breath.

  The Housatonic was running very high, they said, on account of all the rain. The rocks were slippery, the current swift. The Gaylordsville Fire Department, the Connecticut State Police, the Goshen water rescue and New Milford dive teams were fanned out, searching, below the Bull’s Bridge. She stood on the bank by the pullout with the little clutch of kayakers and bystanders and Marcie and Bill Ellis and their two boys and her teeth chattered and her knees shook so hard she almost fell. Someone draped a blanket over her shoulders and she stood and watched the river surging through the gorge. Where did all that water come from? Where did it go? She did not understand it. He knew how to swim. The afternoon was hot and still. Noah’s bike was propped against the tree. Static crackled over the squad car radio. Any minute now they would bring him shuffling up the bank, his hair slick and dripping, grinning his goofy orthodontic grin.

  “We just waded in a little way,” the older Ellis boy said, his pimply face twisted, his big hands flapping at his sides.

  His younger brother was staring at his feet. Bill Ellis stepped up and put his arm around the boy. They were encircled by a ring of uniforms and flashing lights. Below the water flowed green and flecked with foam, cool and summery, widening out beyond the rocky gorge. It did not look dangerous. It did not look deep.

  “He was right there, I swear to god,” the older Ellis boy said. “He was right there, and then he disappeared.”


  It took the rescue teams over an hour to find him, dead in twenty feet of water, fifteen feet from shore, more than half a mile downstream from where the current must have pulled him in. She was still waiting at the pullout when the call came in. She was not there to see. Later she sat in the waiting room in the New Milford hospital and waited for Gil. She pulled her mind shut like a door. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the windowless room, in the air-conditioned chill, time did not exist. She could see him so very clearly, her boy, stroking through the water, scrambling out onto the bank, resting beneath the overhanging trees.


  They buried him in Queens. Gil’s grandmother was already buried there, with plots waiting for Gil’s parents alongside. The cemetery was right along the flight path to LaGuardia and every few minutes a jet would come roaring low overhead, drowning out the drone of traffic along the Van Wyck and BQE. The rabbi was clean shaven and heavyset with a tall man’s torso but too-short legs, barely Esther’s height. He looked more like an accountant than a rabbi. He bobbed his head as he said the prayers. He said: veyitgadal veyitgadash. The same old useless words.

  Then they bent and threw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin’s lid: Gil’s parents and brothers and their families, cousins, neighbors, a few of Noah’s friends from school. Esther wanted to throw herself in with the clods of dirt, to feel them falling on her body, filling her mouth and eyes and nose, stopping the flow of air. But she couldn’t move. She just stood and watched.


  The message on the answering machine blinked away in the living room in the yellow house, the red number one on the display a forgotten beacon, until days later when they finally drove up to Connecticut to close up the house and retrieve their things. You have one new message, the robotic machine voice said, and Esther pressed the Play button once and then again and again, cutting off before the sergeant’s call and her own hysterical response; for there it was, Noah’s voice, ringing out into the hollow room, miraculously, impossibly, as if he were right there—Hiyya, you’ve reached the Feinman family—until Gil came up beside her and said, Don’t, and pulled her hand away and hit Erase.


  His PhD student is jiggling her leg up and down, like a sewing machine needle. She has nice legs, Javad can’t help but notice, and she knows it, judging by her short skirt and chartreuse tights. Lalitha is from Mumbai. She’s one of the newer ones. There’s Xiang Li from Beijing, Oscar from Manila, Nahid from Karachi, Wolff-Dieter from Cologne. Plus him. His lab is the bloody United Nations of Queen Square.

  Javad’s back aches. Too much sitting, too much poring over scans. He reaches around and digs his thumb into the bands of muscles along his spine. He looks out the window onto the filigree of treetops, the brick facades and rooftops across the square, the cloud-smeared sky. He turns back to the computer, clicks through the images on the screen. The gray cerebellar cross sections look like Rorschach inkblots or sliced hardboiled eggs. He tries to focus on the graphs.

  “Those are the latest ones, there,” Lalitha says, pointing.

  “Interpreting deactivation can be quite tricky, as you know,” he says, looking up.

  The jiggling stops. “But the data does support the inhibition hypothesis.”

  “Maybe. I’m not sure.”

  Javad always has to remind himself that these students were very young. They wanted results, answers, proof—not murk and ambiguity and fumbling in the dark. They didn’t like to make mistakes. Who did?

  His mobile phone vibrates in his pocket. On it are three unanswered messages from news reporters enquiring about that patient he examined down at Little Brook a fortnight back. Ever since the bulletin went out on the Missing Persons Helpline, the story has exploded in the news around the world. The “Piano Man,” the Mail on Sunday dubbed him—a silly moniker, as if he were the hero of a romantic film. Now he’s an “enigmatic prodigy,” a “silent genius.” Everybody wants the mystery to be solved. Everybody wants him to be saved.

  Lalitha re-crosses her chartreuse legs and starts jiggling again. “Do you think we’re on the wrong track, then?”

  “Have another look at Spence’s study comparing hysterical and feigned paralysis. Also Halligan’s work. PET may offer a better approach than fMRI, in the end.”

  He sees her flinch. He understands. Her parents back in Mumbai probably had a line of prospective husbands queued up in the wings. And here she was, wrestling with identifying a neurological basis for conversion hysteria. He thinks again of the patient down in Kent. Amnesia could be a manifestation of conversion disorder. It could also quite easily be faked. And as studies like Lalitha’s would eventually show, it probably made little difference to the brain.

  A fugue is a fugue is a fugue, he thinks nonsensically. There was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on about that bloke.

  “A new set of PET scans will take weeks,” she says.

  He tries to put on his jolly voice. “That’s how it goes, I’m afraid.”

  Lalitha looks peeved. “I’ll try.”

  “Carry on, then,” he says. “Until next week.” Some days he feels less like a research supervisor than a psychiatrist.


  He rings Caroline as he leaves the Institute. They are replacing the carpet in the corridor and the floor is littered with rubbery curls of torn-up carpet, glue guns, tool belts, putty knives. He picks his way around the mess. The subflooring looks flayed. He has put off ring
ing her all day.

  The phone bleats and bleats. Finally, she picks up. “What do you want?” she says.

  He pushes open the doors and steps onto the street. He always forgets about caller ID. “My solicitor, Charles, tells me he got a letter from you the other day.”

  Caroline says, “You owe me. Don’t pretend you don’t know that.” There is the sound of something scraping, a chair being pushed back. The bang of a door.

  “He’s nineteen years old,” he says. “In case you forgot. Child maintenance has stopped.”

  “I’m not talking about child maintenance and you know it.”

  At the entrance to Queen Square, a very old man is pushing an even older-looking woman in a wheelchair. An oxygen tank is propped next to her on the seat. The old man stops and hobbles around to tuck the blanket more closely around the old woman’s legs. It is an intimate gesture, tender and sad. That will never be them, Javad thinks.

  “Look, I’ve arranged a meeting for us with Charles,” he says, turning the corner. “We can discuss it then. Wednesday morning. Ten o’clock.”

  “Javad, leave it. There’s no point.”

  “The point,” he says, “is that if you want to reopen this stupid bloody conversation, you’d better come along next Wednesday.”

  “Let me be perfectly clear,” Caroline replies. “I’m not discussing it.”

  She sounded quite lucid today, he had to admit. Maybe she hadn’t started drinking yet. “The circumstances have changed,” he says.

  “Nothing has changed, Javad. And I’m not getting married again, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”

  Anger, hot as ever, rises in his cheeks. The situation was intolerable. She was no longer the self-styled single mother/starving artist she pretended to be. But even though she was now living with her new Swedish dotcom millionaire, or whatever the hell he was, and even though she contributed absolutely nothing, and never had done, to the expense of raising their son, and even though she’s always been completely useless as a mother—despite all that, he had to continue to pay her a ridiculous amount of money and keep on doing so until one or both of them were dead. It simply wasn’t right.

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