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Underground fugue, p.9

Underground Fugue, page 9


Underground Fugue

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  “Look,” he says, “I’m not debating this over the telephone. We’ll discuss it with Charles like two civilized human beings.”

  “What is it that you don’t understand, Javad? I am not discussing it.”

  He crosses the road to Russell Square, walking fast, not looking, nearly bumping into a fellow with blond dreadlocks and a T-shirt that reads Butcher Blair. Probably one of the SOAS kids. Javad wonders if Amir is at the library, studying for his exams. It’s just over there, at the far corner of the square. He wishes he could talk to Caroline the way a normal couple would talk about their son. But what would he say? I don’t know him anymore at all. The thought jabs like a finger at his chest.

  “I’ve got to go,” Caroline says. “Just send the bloody check.”

  “Write it down—Wednesday at ten,” he says and flips his phone shut.

  He knows she won’t turn up, knows that even if he took the matter to the courts, it’s unlikely that he’d win. But he cannot leave it be.

  Let go, his physio always said when he went in to see her with his lumbar spine in knots. She had wonderful hands, his physio, strong as a man’s. It was a strange and powerful thing, a stranger’s touch. Touch healed. Infants failed to thrive, even died, if they weren’t held. He misses it. The laying on of hands.


  It has been twenty-three years since that Sunday morning he arrived home after an all-night shift at the hospital and found her, an utter stranger, sleeping in his bed. Curled on her side, his sheets wrapped around her, like caterpillar in a cocoon. A head of bleached-blond hair. White shoulders moving softly with each breath. He’d blinked, then tiptoed out and shut the door.

  His flatmate, Kurosh, was leaning against the kitchen counter, bleary eyed and disheveled, making toast. The place was littered with dirty plates and empty cans filled with cigarette ends. It stank of smoke and beer. Kurosh was stumbling his way through his final year of medical school. He came from one of the wealthiest families in Tehran. Now his parents lived in a three-room flat in Paris, refugees.

  “And who, might I ask, is the girl?”

  Kurosh shrugged. Eamon had brought her, he thought. Or it might have been those blokes from the John Radcliffe who’d popped down to London for the night.


  The toast popped up. “Maybe she missed her train.”

  When Javad went back into the bedroom, the girl stretched like a cat and blinked.

  “You do realize you are in my bed,” he said.

  She smiled and yawned. There was a slight gap between her two front teeth.

  “It’s a very nice bed.”

  He’d never met anyone like Caroline before. She could fit everything she owned in the boot of an antique Morris Minor and seemed to have no interest in remaining in one place. With her hippie mother, she’d lived on a canal boat along the Jericho Canal in Oxford; in a caravan in Wales; on an island in the Firth of Clyde. She had a degree in painting from The Slade. She was Javad’s photographic negative: all blond hair and milky skin against his swarthy lank. When she looked at him, he felt filled with light.

  Love flooded the caudate brainstem with dopamine, like cocaine.

  Naked, she took the headphones of her Walkman and pressed them to his ears. The music flowed into his eardrums like a wave. Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” that sexy 1980s kitsch.

  He sent a letter to his mother from their weekend honeymoon in Cornwall, which was all the time he could get off from work. He enclosed a snapshot of the two of them, taken with the camera on self-timer, his arm crooked around her neck, hood up, posing on a rain-soaked cliff.

  By the time Amir was born, three years later, things had already changed. The baby lay between them, his black head latched to Caroline’s blue-veined breast: a bond, a wedge. Pushed to the far edge of the mattress, Javad lay sleepless in the dark. He stretched out his arm but couldn’t reach.

  Who are you? she’d shouted, not long before he left. She wore the baby strapped in a carrier to her chest, and when he flapped his arms and she waved hers they looked like the four-armed goddess of destruction, Kali.

  She said, I don’t know you anymore at all.

  At the sound of traffic, Javad looks up. To his right rise the Ionic columns and tall red doors of St. Pancras parish church. Ahead, late afternoon gridlock chokes the Euston Road. For a moment, he feels dizzy. The city pulses all around him. A helicopter is vibrating overhead; trains rumble underground; cars and people stream past like synapses across basal ganglia, like a time-lapse photograph of lights. It was a mystery how two people ever came together. Life flung you out like an elemental particle, colliding and dividing, spinning into space.


  At home, Javad stands at the kitchen counter, considering the platter. It has been sitting there since the week before. Amir had said he would return it, but of course he has not done so yet. He runs his fingertip along the embossed gilt rim. It belonged to the American, or rather, to her mother. He will take it back.

  Esther opens the door after the third ring, a dishtowel in her hands. She is even prettier than he remembered, although the delicate skin beneath her eyes looks slightly bruised, as if she hasn’t slept.

  “I hope I’m not disturbing you,” he says.

  “No, of course not. Not at all.”

  “I just wanted to bring this back,” he says, handing her the platter. “And to thank you. It was very kind of you to think of us. The food was delicious.”

  “No problem. It was my pleasure.”

  “That cake! I had to arm wrestle Amir for a piece.”

  She smiles. “Honestly, you could eat here every day of the week and we’d still have food left over. I don’t know what my problem is. I keep forgetting that my mother hardly eats.”

  “How is she doing?”

  Her face tightens. “Hanging in there. Thanks for asking.”

  “Will you be staying on for a while longer, then?”

  “Oh, I’m here for the duration, I’m afraid.”

  Her eyes meet his. She pushes her hair back out of her face. “Would you like to come in for a moment and have a drink?”

  He has the unexpected sensation of compression in his chest. “That would be lovely,” he says. The air between them is charged with energy, like light.

  Her side of the house is the exact mirror image of his, with the sitting room and kitchen off to the right instead of to the left of the stairs. It feels familiar yet strange, like a place encountered in a dream. He follows her into the kitchen, where she pulls out two glasses and a bottle of white wine and sets a wedge of cheese and a handful of crackers on a plate.

  “You’ll have a glass of wine, right?” She hesitates. “Or don’t you drink?”

  “Oh, no, wine would be very nice indeed.”

  She hands him the plate and picks up the bottle and the glasses in one hand. “Shall we go outside? It’s not too chilly out tonight.”

  They step out back into the garden. The evening light is soft. He sits on the bench and she pulls up a chair.

  She pulls out the cork and pours the wine. “Cheers,” she says, handing him a glass. “To neighbors.”

  “To neighbors.”

  She gestures to the backs of their conjoined houses. “Have you ever read that children’s book where these kids crawl through the attics of a block of London terrace houses and meet a magician? I’ve always wondered if our attics connect.”

  He follows her gaze. “I should have thought that would be against fire regulations.”

  A look of disappointment crosses her face. “You’re probably right,” she says.

  She crosses her legs, leans back in the chair. She is wearing a white blouse, faded jeans. Her body has the contours of early middle age, softness over an armature of bone. She turns her wine glass in her hands. She has long fingers, unvarnished nails—a pianist’s hands, he thinks. No ring.

  The conversation turns to work. She asks him about his research, nodding as he natters on about th
e new study on memory retrieval and inhibition that they’re getting ready to launch. Then she tells him about her job at the museum, her voice growing animated as she describes the painstaking work of conservation, the challenges of scraping away or dissolving centuries-old paint and varnish, infilling rotten wood, repairing tears and cracks in ancient artifacts. It pleases him to learn that conservators used optical imaging technology, just like neuroscientists. Only where he saw cerebellar neurons lighting up in bursts of neon color, she saw hidden Madonnas and forgotten saints.

  He leans forward and cuts a slice of cheese. “Byzantine art? Lots of golden icons, as I seem to recollect.”

  She takes a sip of wine. “I’m a chemist by training, not an art historian. But I’ve always been fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. It was the crossroads of Greek and Roman and early Christian and Slavic and Islamic cultures—a true East meets West. And as for icons, beyond the various technical challenges, I’ve just always loved their purity, I guess. The icon maker is typically anonymous, almost beside the point. I like the way the artwork—the object, not the artist—is the most important thing.”

  “My ex-wife is a painter. I rather think she’d disagree.”

  Her eyebrows arch. “When you make a piece of art, you cast it off like a bottle thrown into the sea. What you think about it, what you intended for it, is pretty much irrelevant in the end.”

  “As with children.”

  She gives him an odd glance. “Yes, I guess that’s right.”

  “Like mine, at any rate. He’s an utter mystery to me.”

  She lifts her arms and twists her hair up off her neck. He is conscious of the pale skin of her neck and the loose curve of her breasts beneath the thin fabric of her shirt.

  “Is he out of school now for the summer?”

  “Soon. He’s just got to sit his first-year exams.”

  “What’s he studying again?”

  He sighs. “Middle Eastern Studies. Islamic History.”

  “You don’t sound too enthused.”

  “I’m a scientist. I’ve got no clue what one does with such a degree. And I don’t think he does, either.”

  “But that’s what kids that age are supposed to do, right? Find themselves? Explore their identity?”

  He pushes up his glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose. “His mother’s English. He’s lived in London his whole life. He’s never been anywhere near the Middle East.”

  “Maybe that’s the point.”

  Is it? He leans forward. “I’ll tell you something. The last time I came back into the country, last March, I got held up at immigration control at Gatwick for nearly two hours. No explanation, nothing. Two hours. They took me into an interrogation room. ‘Where are you from? Are you Muslim? Are you observant? Why do you live here?’ I’ve lived here for twenty-five bloody years. You don’t really get it until you’ve felt them glaring at you as if you had a bomb stuffed down your trousers.” He exhales hard, takes a drink of wine. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to rant.”

  “That’s all right.” She has pulled one of her feet up on the edge of the chair and is resting her chin on her knee. “And what about you?”

  “What about me?”

  “Are you? Observant?”

  “Oh, yes, quite. A devout atheist.”

  She smiles and lifts her glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

  “Cheers,” he says. He is thinking of Amir with his feet up on the headboard, reading the Qur’an. Maybe he was just exploring his identity. Maybe she was right.

  Afterward at the door, as he is leaving, he leans in and kisses her. He doesn’t think, just does it. First on the cheek, then, gently, on the lips. His hand on the back of her neck. Her body, yielding, against his. So long since he has felt this.


  So you’re not going back to the States?” Across the table, Phil’s bushy eyebrows arch over the green rims of his eyeglasses.

  “I’m just kind of feeling things out right now,” Esther says. “You know.”

  She has called Phil, her former colleague at the Cloisters, on an impulse. She has been in London for six weeks already, and her mother is still alive, the flame of life still burning like the miracle oil in the menorah restored by the Maccabees. Her mother’s words—it’s time—have been ringing in her ears since the other night. Maybe she is right.

  Like everything else in London these days, even rumpled Phil has acquired a sheen of postmillennial prosperity. He’s wearing little rectangular glasses with green titanium rims. His bald head shines as if it has been waxed. Once they would have gone to the pub for a ploughman’s and a pint. Now he’s taken her to one of those trendy Japanese noodle shops that have cropped up all over London, with long tables covered in butcher paper, waiters juggling fragrant bowls of curry and ramen and soba noodle soup. She lifts her spoon and slurps.

  “We might have some freelance work for you down the road a bit,” he says. “Though private practice would likely be your best bet.”

  “Cleaning old ladies’ worthless heirlooms?”

  “Everyone’s outsourcing these days. Including us. Budgets are tight.”

  “I understand.”

  “I’ll put some feelers out. You never know.”

  “I’d appreciate it.”

  She hates groveling, elbowing her way back into the game. Maybe she should just be done with it, the whole museum scene, the rivalries and infighting between curators and conservators, the day-to-day tedium of the lab. It was different in the days when she first knew Phil, back in the early 1980s, when she was still in graduate school and he was a postdoc just arrived in the States. They’d worked together one summer, side by side in the new East Seventy-Eighth Street lab, eyes squeezed up to the Zeiss magnifier or hunched over the work table, scalpels and swabs in hand. They drank street-vendor coffee in blue Greek-lettered paper cups and smoked, stubbing out their butts in the coffee dregs. One of Phil’s tapes was always playing on a boom box—Lene Lovich or Philip Glass or The Police, music that, even now, brings back the smells of acetone and ethanol, hot wax and paint.

  The project was a badly damaged late Byzantine panel painting of a Madonna and child—an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Glykophilousa, Mother of God of Loving Kindness, the “sweet-kissing” mother and child. When it first arrived in the lab, the panel was nearly completely black, the original image overpainted and covered in a coat of filthy oil, the plank warped and spongy with insect holes and rot. You could just barely make out the faint curve of the lips, an eye, and the thin hint of a nose, all no more than traces of shadow against the blackened ground. The child wasn’t visible at all.

  The tiresome, nerve-wracking, painstaking work of cleaning and repair had taken weeks. Details emerged in slow motion, lines and textures and shades of color growing gradually distinct: the edge of an outstretched finger, a fold of drapery, the crease of an eyelid, the gold points of a star. Esther had imagined the long-forgotten craftsman (a pious old Cypriot: wiry, weather beaten, missing teeth) whose hands had first appraised this white mahogany plank, whose eyes had gauged the proportions, who had channeled divinity into these lines and shapes. It was as if her own hands—retracing the contours he’d drawn, retouching the tempera he’d mixed—were reaching back in time and meeting his.

  By the end of that summer, they’d uncovered the figures of the Virgin and her child. The Virgin’s wine-red cloak was bordered in gold filigree and stamped with stars, her halo burnished gold against an ochre ground. She gazed out in unblinking sadness, her head tilted toward the stiffly mannish child in her arms, her cheek pressed to his forehead, his little hand reaching up to touch her chin. Knowledge of the Passion already written in her pain.

  Phil, a biochemist, was interested in polarized light microscopy, infrared reflectography and the microchemical investigation of the cinnabar and lead white pigments in the ancient paint. His was a labor of fact-finding, of generating hypotheses and assembling proof. He was interested in the revelations of science, not the di
vine. Christ was not her god, either, but the work filled her with a kind of reverence all the same. It was miraculous. The survival of the material thing through such a vast expanse of time. What remained.

  “Do you ever miss New York?” she asks Phil now.

  He slurps his noodles and looks up. “Can’t say that I do, not really. The bagels, perhaps—H&H, was it? But then, I’m not really a nostalgic person.”

  “I didn’t ask if you were nostalgic.”

  “Are you?” His rectangular glasses glint.

  “Nostalgic? No.”

  But she is lying and they both know it, although it’s not the city that she is nostalgic for so much as the person she was back then, back there in the lab with Phil, at twenty-three. Wandering on her lunch break through the echoing galleries of the Frick or the Met; waiting on the sweltering subway platform for the screech of the graffiti-tattooed train; walking home along the edge of Central Park as the rush-hour traffic crept past, honking, with doormen stepping out from beneath the awnings and blowing their whistles and waving their white-gloved hands at cabs, while the shadows of the apartment buildings stretched long across the pavement in the early evening light. She misses that vibration she felt every time she came back to the city from out of town and saw that net of lights stretched out across Manhattan and New Jersey and the Bronx and Queens, the midtown skyscrapers rising like jeweled stalagmites out of the darkness, heroic, grand.

  It was what the Buddhists called māyā, she understands. Not-that. An illusion. None of it was real.

  Philip signals for the bill—two fingers lifted, eyebrows raised. Like the hand gesture of blessing in an icon, she thinks. He’s been doodling on the tablecloth. Little triangles like hazard signs. The world is full of symbols she no longer understands.

  They kiss goodbye outside the restaurant. Phil smells of the lab, a faint chemical tinge of ethanol and glue. He crosses the street to the museum, then turns and waves.

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