Sunday afternoons we’d all go over to Harold’s, the kids squirming against me in the back seat while Dad and Moira sat up front trying to act like it was the weekend. I hated Moira and her brat, and they hated me and my sister. My sister and I were running this clandestine relationship that consisted almost entirely in brushed glances and disguised hand signals, otherwise the brat would start screaming about favoritism, and then we’d get it. Dad didn’t trust me because I was an agent for my mother, about whom we didn’t speak. Moira was just watching for ways to claw through intact with her brat. When I think about the boil of agendas spilling over in that car, it still makes me sweat.
Over at Harold’s it was a different world. Everything was the way I thought I might like to live, except that I’d have been nervous around stuff that cost so much. Not that Harold had an attitude, not like Moira. He was just a lot richer than we were, which always made me breathless, even though Harold himself was pretty casual.
Harold’s garden put you at ease right away. It was laid out with round beds, and the paving stones had a few weeds sticking out between them, but not too many, and there was a cracked old cement birdbath in the middle of one of the beds, and rosebushes, and wire archways that had grapes and bougainvillea growing on them in the summertime. It was a much bigger garden than ours. The kids could play for hours, chasing each other around between bushes that looked like they’d been carefully manicured, but not too recently, or else rolling around on the gentle, uneven grass that always made me think of the word ‘wistful’, until they made themselves sick.
Harold would come out through the French doors when he heard our car. He usually looked as though he’d just been reading, or listening to Mozart, or thinking about getting up to stroll in the garden. Harold mostly seemed to have been just passing time, until we made his day by pulling up on the gravel outside his library.
That was another thing about Harold: he was the only person I’d ever met, outside the characters in the English children’s classics my Uncle Will sent me every birthday from Great Britain, who actually had a library in his house. To me, the Library was a cold, deathly quiet, marble building in Town where you let the slime accumulate in the back of your throat so you wouldn’t disturb anyone, and where the lavatories smelled of disinfectant. Books from the Library were public property you dared not dog-ear or spill milk on, that you had to read fast so you wouldn’t be fined, and that would very soon disappear from your life forever. But Harold’s library was like a sitting room, and his books were friends you could take over to a chair for a comfortable chat.
When we arrived, Harold’s little, crinkly gaze would light briefly on each of us with a flash of pleasure, but I wasn’t fooled. He was only happy to see me because I was part of the package that came with Dad. I knew this because Harold’s watery eyes would widen with real joy when he finally let them rest on my father. Then they would soften in a way I found embarrassing, until Dad cut the whole thing short by slapping Harold on the shoulder in an awkward, manly sort of way, and then everyone would reorient themselves toward the French doors, Dad making hearty small talk while Moira comported herself and the kids jostled and whined to be released to the garden. Harold would make little pleasure-noises, like a cat when you hit its favorite spot. I would just follow along, trying not to do anything gauche. So far, fourteen was feeling even worse than thirteen had. I was pinning my hopes on fifteen.
Too old to tumble on the grass and too young to discuss music, politics, and art, I would spend my Sunday afternoons eavesdropping at various levels of boredom, or strolling around the cement birdbath, composing poetry. But my favorite pastime at Harold’s was perusing his Things. These were scattered all over the house, and included his books, his Artworks, his records, his jade-and-pewter chess set, and especially his display cabinet, which was full of framed photographs of ancient men with long beards and yarmulkes and stout, stern women in black dresses holding squinting children on their laps.
In the middle of all the photographs was a very old menorah made out of what looked like silver. It had Hebrew letters chiseled deeply into each stalk, giving the whole thing a deliciously textured look that made me want to run my fingers up and down it. I would sit for whole afternoons, sometimes, gazing at the menorah, and at the faces and hands of the people I took to be Harold’s ancestors, trying to make out the likenesses and to guess who was related to whom, and how they all got along with each other.
Dad and Harold got along famously. Dad would often quote some remark of Harold’s to illustrate that being rich didn’t necessarily make you insensitive. This surprised me at first, because usually when Dad talked about rich people it was about how money corrupted you, which was why Socialism was the only hope for humanity. Dad could get pretty vicious about rich people. According to him, however, Harold was ‘the exception that proved the rule.’ I still don’t understand quite what that means.
Another exception Dad made for Harold had to do with his being a Jew. Dad was fond of telling me how, when he was my age, he used to fight with his bare fists in the streets of London against the Nazis. But the Jews he’d found in This Godforsaken Country, as he liked to call South Africa, were bloody racists, every one of them. This had confirmed his personal experience, that ninety-nine point nine percent of all Jews were thieving, lying gits. ‘Git’ is a word I’ve never heard from anyone except my father, but he would spit it out with such disgust that to this day, I can imagine nothing more contemptible than a git.
So Harold must really have had something special. Even the usually damning connection between a Jew and his riches had somehow skirted Harold and left him as blameless as any decent, Gentile, working-class male. Women, of course, were right down there with Jews and Capitalists. I understood that’s what Dad thought, even though I never heard him actually say so— at least not in front of me and Moira and the kids.
Maybe he and Harold talked about it when we weren’t around. I know he would sometimes drop by at Harold’s after work, because on those nights he’d come home late, always later than he’d told Moira to expect him, a little drunk and whistling the Beethoven sonata or the Haydn quartet Harold had been playing for him. He’d go on talking all through his solitary, dried-out supper about Harold’s fine appreciation of music, or the new chess gambit Harold had taught him, and once he let slip how relaxing it was to be just men together, no wives or kids around to distract them, and Moira slammed the pots around while she washed and I dried and after that she wouldn’t talk to Dad for three days, except when strictly necessary.
Another thing Moira and Dad didn’t discuss was my friend Clive. Usually, she was Dad’s right hand where I was concerned, listening when I used the phone in case I called my mother, or insisting that I get home from school by 3:30 so I wouldn’t fall in with delinquents. But even though she’d heard Dad’s ‘Clive’ lecture, about how little girls who play with little boys who play with mud get dirty, she’d turn a blind eye when I’d saunter out across the road, glance around, then disappear into the entrance between the German delicatessen and the chemist’s that led to the flats above the shops.
Clive lived with his mother, who wore a lot of jewelry and ran a Bridge Club every Wednesday afternoon in the living room of their little flat. She didn’t like me any more than Dad liked Clive. She referred to me as ‘that common girl,’ and only let Clive play with me because she knew that, in the end, she couldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted to. My father would have killed me if I’d even tried half the things Clive got away with. I would watch, wide-eyed, from a corner near the door when Clive’s mother ordered him to stay home and pour tea for the Bridge Ladies, and Clive mimicked her affected British accent and peppered her with high-pitched insults. Then we’d both flee to the asphalt-covered roof of their building to play Films.
Films was Clive’s favorite game. I preferred climbing trees, or borrowing a pair of forbidden roller skates to careen down the hill that ran right into Main Road, saving myself from certain death by running into the curb or just sitting down, two feet from the steady stream of traffic ahead.
But Clive usually got his way. We played the same film every time, Cleopatra. I was always Antony. I’d never seen the film myself, so he’d direct me in endless variations of the same scene, which consisted of Cleopatra preening at her mirror or lounging in a sunken bath of milk while Antony waited on her hand and foot. There weren’t any love scenes.
Sometimes, Clive would smuggle out one of his mother’s imitation fur stoles, and once he took her entire makeup collection right off her dressing table. When he’d finished doing his face, we discovered that he’d forgotten the cold cream, so he had to wear the makeup all afternoon. He didn’t seem to mind. But when we tried to sneak back in to wash it off, his mother caught us and chased us all over the flat, Clive screaming back at her as he ran and making faces that looked even more grotesque through the powder and rouge.
I escaped, but Clive was locked in his room for two whole days. He let down a rope from his window and I tied shopping bags full of Cadbury’s chocolate and Schweppes Orange and Batman comics to the dangling end. He told me afterwards he’d pretended to be Cleopatra in prison, being secretly attended by a faithful manservant.
One night after I’d gone to bed, I heard Dad telling Moira that one day, that boy was going to get everything he was looking for, and then he’d be sorry. I couldn’t hear Moira’s voice, which might have been because she spoke softly, but my guess is that she wasn’t answering Dad at all. She’d get very, very quiet whenever he went on about Clive, which was quite often. As I listened, Dad got more and more worked up, the way he did when Moira wouldn’t respond, until finally he shouted, ‘It’s disgusting! It’s bloody disgusting, that’s what it is!’ Then I heard glass breaking, and Moira’s voice at last.
‘For Christ’s sake, Jack!’ she snapped. ‘Relax!’ After that it was quiet again, and soon I fell asleep.
The only time I ever saw Dad truly relax was at Harold’s. Even after work, when he’d settle down with his beer and paper, Dad had this brittle look to him, as though his body just wasn’t built to get comfortable. He looked like a tin soldier, sitting there with all his angles arranged in the worn armchair and his stern arms holding the newspaper upright in front of his face.
At Harold’s, though, we’d all lie on a gorgeous green oriental carpet with our eyes closed, Harold and Dad and Moira and me, while special Relaxing tapes played on the tape recorder. I wasn’t used to being that informal with Dad and Moira, so I generally felt uncomfortable. The tapes had a man’s voice telling you to turn each toe into rain, one by one, and then your foot, and then your ankle and so on, with waterfall sounds in the background. Then when you were really Relaxed, the man’s voice would tell you to imagine you were in a forest, and there’d be birds and leaves rustling for a long time, and when the tape was over you were supposed to not feel anxious about anything.
Dad and Harold would sit around afterwards and talk in lazy voices about how good the tapes were. Moira sat with her mouth shut, trying to look Sphinx-like, and I wondered how soon I dared jump up to walk around the house and look at Harold’s Things.
Especially the Jewish Things. I knew I was Jewish, because of my mother, but I never said so to anyone in case they told on me to Dad. At Harold’s, though, I could run my fingers over the leather spines of three whole shelves of Jewish books, and read their gold titles over and over until I felt saturated, inundated, dizzy with Jewishness.
Then I’d slink quietly over to the display cabinet and think myself into one photograph after another: the Jewish child bravely fasting her way through Yom Kippur; the Jewish grandfather rapturously contemplating the Torah; the pious Jewish wife, mentally planning an immaculately kosher Sabbath meal. It seemed to me self-evident that everything these mythic figures did and thought had to do with their essential Jewishness. I never imagined them attending to mundane tasks, or relating to each other in ordinary ways. Their conversations must all have been about their glorious heritage, or about little Mordechai’s bar mitzvah, or about whether there was enough matzoh for the Seder. Everything they did was tinged with ethnic magic.
I think Harold was tickled by my intense interest in his family portraits. But he knew there was something surreptitious about it, too. Every now and then, on his way to freshen up someone’s drink, he’d graze me with that soft, absent-minded smile of his. I don’t remember Harold actually saying anything to me at these moments, but I know I believed without question that he understood my attraction to the photographs. In my mind, Harold was a distant but benevolent Jewish guardian. It was as though his casual security in his own Jewishness rubbed off on me, in the form of some secret survival strategy. We were fellow travelers on the Jewish Underground, who, for fear of terrible punishment, may never acknowledge each other but who nevertheless drew courage from the simple fact of each other’s existence.
One afternoon, I was fondling Harold’s Jewish books and daydreaming about being a brilliant child scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto (I’d just finished secretly reading The Exodus), when Dad came up behind me on the way back from the toilet and asked me, in a dangerously soft voice I recognized immediately, whether there was something especially interesting to me on those particular shelves. I froze. I was frantically casting about for a good lie when Harold looked up from his small talk with Moira, whom he always treated with impenetrable courtesy, and said, ‘Oh, is that my Van der Veldt set you’re looking at?’ He got up from his chair in that compact, catlike way he had and strolled over to us, talking easily about this wonderful Dutch bookbinder in Swellendam, and all the special ways she’d rebound his heirloom volumes.
Dad affected polite interest, but I could tell from the exaggerated smoothness of his ‘Hmmm’s and ‘Ah!’s that he knew he had me. He was just biding his time until he could corner me later, alone. Like the time he found out that I went to Jewish Classes at school instead of Scripture.
I was swallowing an acid rush of dread when Harold put his hand casually on my head and said ‘I was telling Jessica about that trip to Swellendam just last week. She seems to have quite an appreciation for fine binding.’ Then he pulled a book off the shelf and opened it to show Dad the marbled end paper.
‘That one’s my favourite,’ I murmured, gazing fervently at the swirling greens and blues, and then suddenly the thrall was broken and Dad and Harold were deep into a discussion about true craftsmanship, and how you can only find it in eccentric foreigners in small towns.
The funny thing is that Harold had never told me about his Dutch bookbinder. Harold and I never had conversations at all. I think he saw me as A Child, or maybe just A Girl; something, at any rate, that he didn’t know how to talk to. After the incident with Dad, he wouldn’t even meet the grateful looks I sent him all the rest of that Sunday.
Still, I felt much less lonely at Harold’s after that. Even though no one ever spoke to me except to tell me to call the kids: it was time to go.
When it was time to go, Harold would make disappointed noises and ask again if we wouldn’t stay and take potluck with him. Moira would decline graciously and say she had to get the kids ready for school the next day. Then Harold would follow us forlornly out to the car while Dad got hearty again. After we were all packed inside and waiting, they’d shake hands, just before Dad climbed into the driver’s seat.
They looked so incongruous together, from the back window where I was watching: Dad tall and pasty, his thin blond hair dribbling into sideburns that ended short, like a British sergeant-major going to seed; and Harold, short and wiry, with a little paunch and a shiny pate in the middle of his thick black hair. He looked as though he hadn’t quite grown up yet, but when he did, he’d be one of those old men who play chess on metal tables in the park.
Harold would fasten Dad with that same look I’d seen when we arrived, and then they’d let go their hands and Dad would swing himself into the car and clear his throat, while Moira ducked down to wave a genteel goodbye through the space between Dad’s elbows and the top of the car window. Harold just stood there all by himself as the car began crunching away, down the gravel drive. I got the feeling that Harold never went back, afterwards, to whatever it was he’d been doing before we arrived.
After that, we’d have our usual, miserable drive home: my sister and me dreading another evening trapped in the house with the rest of them, the brat working up to a tired-kid tantrum, and Dad more or less talking to himself about what a fine human being Harold was, while Moira listened in her cold, controlled way and made occasional rational remarks. What she lacked in wit, Moira made up for in disdain.
By the time we pulled into our own crumbling, concrete driveway, the brat would have tranced herself into a sustained whine. My sister would be pale with anxiety; once she even threw up on my lap as we were sliding out of the back seat. Moira would have a limp, determined air about her so you knew she was tired, but she was going to do what needed to be done just the same.
Only Dad would be in high spirits. He’d put the car in the garage and then come into the kitchen whistling elaborate versions of the Trumpet Voluntary and making weak puns, which he would repeat several times in a roguish, querying tone of voice until Moira responded.
I’d try to get to my room, but Moira usually caught me and told me to water the garden, or go to the Indian’s for bread. Dad would settle himself in his armchair with the newspaper and a mug of warm beer—the way it was meant to be drunk, as he was always writing and telling the breweries—while Moira began making dinner and the kids hung around the kitchen table until she told them to go and play in their room.
At the supper table after we’d been to Harold’s, there’d be this strange mix of moods, as though each of us was playing a scene from a book none of the others had read. My sister and I made it through by keeping an eye on all the storylines and being in the right place when our cues came up.
By now, there’d be a mean, defensive edge to Dad’s humour, because Moira wouldn’t be responding to his jokes. This would make my sister even more nervous, and the brat would whine louder, to be heard over Moira’s headache. I’d be as mannerly and helpful as I could, when I could figure out what that was supposed to look like at any given moment. Most of the time I’d wind up getting whatever it was Dad and Moira had been saving up for each other, anyway.
Then it would be bedtime. I’d lie awake late into the night, listening to my sister grinding her teeth in her sleep. Things always went straight downhill, after we came home from Harold’s.
It had been a couple of weeks since we’d last been to Harold’s when I heard the phone ringing and ringing from my treehouse in the back yard. Actually, it wasn’t really a treehouse, more of a tree-seat, with a shelter for when it rained, a shelf for my ginger beer and chocolate and a basket on a pulley so I could hoist up books.
I wouldn’t let anyone else climb up to my treehouse. Not even Clive, not even if he’d liked climbing trees. But I hadn’t seen Clive for a while, anyway. My last time at his flat, I’d been lying on his bed, reading comics. He was pouring tea for the Bridge Club Ladies, but every few minutes he’d run in and mince around the room, repeating the bridge table gossip just shrilly enough to be heard from the living room.
Then all of a sudden my father was there. I think my heart probably stopped beating altogether. It was the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, when Dad should have been securely at work. It was terrifying enough that he’d gone to this extraordinary trouble to catch me, and to realize how severely I was likely to be punished. But the real horror was that Dad in Clive’s bedroom was an impossible collision of worlds. It was like the scary movies I still can’t stand to watch, where something so inconceivable happens that everything you count on to make sense turns inside out and you think you’re going to lose your mind.
I was still trying to find my balance amid waves of nausea when Dad crossed the room in two steps, grabbed my arm and pulled me off the bed. I’d have fallen, but he had me tightly gripped. He dragged me to the bedroom door, where we ran into Clive’s mother. I think she was just as shocked as I was, though not nearly as scared.
‘Mr. Norman!’ she started, so surprised her voice cracked. I could hear a strange and sudden silence as the bridge ladies stopped shuffling their cards. But Dad, still gripping my arm, cut Clive’s mother short by staring down into her eyes. When Dad stares into your eyes, you don’t make another sound. There’s no telling what might happen next.
‘Mrs. Hamilton.’ He spoke very clearly in his softest, most chilling voice. ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to raise this pervert you call your son. But I do know that I will not allow my children anywhere near his type of filth. If I find him on my property, I’ll kill him. And Jessica won’t be back here soon, I guarantee you that.’
Then he dragged me out the front door, down the stairs, across the road and into our house. Inside, he jerked me round to face him and said, ‘Put on your pajamas and go to bed.’ I knew what that meant. In a little while, he’d come into my room, take a coat hanger from my wardrobe, and tell me to roll on my stomach. Then he’d pull down my pajama pants and bring the hanger down on my bare bottom, again and again, until I screamed and begged forgiveness. Then he’d put the hanger away and leave the room. When I got my breath back, he’d come back in and question me quietly, until he was sure I understood why I was being punished. After I gave the right answer, he’d leave me to cry myself to sleep.
But after we came back from Clive’s, I lay waiting for a very long time while, behind their bedroom door, Dad’s and Moira’s muffled voices rose and fell. I was still waiting for my hiding when Moira called me to set the table, just as though it were an ordinary evening and I was doing homework or reading on my bed. I ate in my pajamas, the kids sneaking curious glances at me while Dad and Moira kept their eyes on their plates. Dad went out after supper, and in the morning I found him fast asleep on the toilet, his trousers around his ankles and the bathroom reeking of Scotch.
So Clive had to find someone else to play Films with. And since that afternoon, I’d been spending a lot more time in my treehouse. This particular Sunday the telephone rang so long that it penetrated even my reader’s trance. After a while, it got so I had to read the same paragraph over and over, because part of my mind was counting the rings and growing increasingly anxious. Twenty-seven; twenty-eight. I don’t think I’d ever heard a phone keep ringing for that long.
I knew that both Dad and Moira were home, so I wasn’t sure if I was meant to answer it. I could pretend I hadn’t heard it, but Dad would delight in phoning a friend, telling him to phone back, and then coming out to stand at the foot of my tree. ‘If I can hear it down here,’ I could hear him saying, ‘you can hear it up there.’ Dad got a lot of satisfaction out of catching me in a lie, and when he did, I’d get the hanger for sure. On the other hand, I could also hear Dad pointing out, with sarcastic emphasis, that since he and Moira weren’t answering, it obviously wasn’t meant to be answered. Either way, I could get in trouble.
At thirty-five rings, I finally swung myself out of my seat, alternately hesitating against the trunk in the hope that the ringing would stop and hurrying so as to answer before it did. The phone was still ringing after I’d climbed all the way down and trotted through the kitchen into the living room. Forty-one. I picked up the receiver and hesitated a moment before saying ‘Hello?’
It was Harold, and to my intense embarrassment he was crying.
‘Jessica?’ he croaked. ‘Jessica? Do you know why your Dad won’t talk to me? Have I done something wrong? Please …’
I’d never heard a grown man crying before. I knew right away that answering the phone had been a mistake. Now I was stuck. I couldn’t hang up on Harold, he sounded so miserable and desperate. On the other hand, it didn’t seem wise to call my father to the phone. I stood there holding the receiver for a few minutes, listening to Harold sniffle while my mind raced. Call Moira? Have a coughing fit and have to run to the kitchen for water? Lay the receiver down on the phone table and tiptoe back outside?
At last, I picked up the phone and, holding the receiver cradled against my still-flat chest, I stalked softly to the door of Dad and Moira’s bedroom. Moira was sitting propped up against her pillow, doggedly reading a book. She knew I was standing there, but she wouldn’t look up. My father was lying on his back with his arms over his eyes, the way he lay when he had a bad headache. His mouth was screwed tightly shut. I tiptoed back to the phone table and listened for another few seconds while Harold, sounding weaker and weaker, pleaded with me. ‘Won’t anyone talk to me? What have I done wrong?’ Then I gently replaced the receiver in its cradle.
When we gathered silently for our Sunday night supper of tomato soup and toasted cheese—it was early autumn by now—nobody spoke until Dad and I had nearly finished our second helpings and the kids were playing with the last of their tinned peaches. Then Dad cleared his throat and looked at me until I tore my eyes away from my empty bowl.
‘I’ve said it before, and now I’m going to tell you again, so listen carefully,’ he said. ‘Ninety-nine point nine percent of Jews are lying, thieving gits.’ I murmured obediently and waited for him to finish.
‘Never,’ he said, while the kids stared and Moira pretended to be tackling a peach, ‘never trust a rich Jew.’ Then he pushed back his chair and rose to find his newspaper and his beer. I couldn’t quite hear what he said between his teeth as he left the kitchen. Moira didn’t say a word to me while she washed and I dried that night, but then she often didn’t.
I never heard Harold’s name mentioned again, but once when I was washing the floor in Dad and Moira’s bedroom I found a slender, leather-bound book that had fallen behind Dad’s bedside table. It had some old-fashioned poetry in it that I didn’t understand—I never was very much into anyone else’s poetry—but inscribed on the title page were the words: ‘To Jack—I sing the Body Electric. Harold.’
I hid the book in the waistband of my pants and the first chance I got, I took it out to the dumpster behind the house, tore the pages up and buried them in potato peelings and old newspapers. Then I walked to the bus shelter a block down Main Road and pressed the leather cover with its beautiful marbled end paper deep into the rubbish bin next to the stop for the bus that went farthest out of town.