Still Here – An Extract
From the river the city seemed like a colossus. The sky was heavy with rain and the wind was sharp. Salt and tar were in our throats, our eyes were stinging. Seabirds were screaming in the sky and the ships’ horns boomed along the estuary; behind us was the emptiness of the sea. The pilot boat went out and came back in, guiding the ships through the invisible channels in the sand and silt. Lashed to them by metal cables, the tugs hauled the leviathans into port. The city bore down on the shore, the dock brought the water into land and closed in on it foursquare. Everything was immense: the warehouses, the harbour board, the shipping lines, the insurance firms, our two cathedrals, all made the skyline and beyond them our magnificent temple of Zion. The city spoke in tongues and when it didn’t speak it shouted.
Yet for all we had here, some of us felt a wrench when we looked westwards out to sea towards the Atlantic. We were yearning for something even bigger still. We had inconsolable longings in us for the city across the ocean. We were its blueprint. It was our completion. Some of us went, some of us stayed, but even separated, we were part of the same need to turn away from England. For a hundred years my family has been trying to get to America. In each generation someone tries and fails, or makes it and for one reason or other comes back again. We cannot get over the feeling that England is an interim stage. America! We still have inside us the immigrant, greenhorn fever of our grandparents for the country where the personality expands to fill the emptiness of the continent instead of shrinking into itself, shrivelling for want of air and light. We have an itch. We want to talk big, think big, make it big, be big people without jostling every day for elbow room.
One day, my brother Sam rang me to say that our mother was going to die, perhaps that night. I know of people who hear from a telephone call months later that a parent is dead, and they shrug and say, ‘I really hadn’t seen him for years.’ Apparently it is possible to pull free of the ropes that tether you to your family; but not for my brother and me. We had a history. My second home, the former agricultural labourer’s cottage in the Perigord with its garden of lilac and lavender, sunflowers and geraniums – where Sam stood with his hands in his jeans’ pockets, flinching as a neighbour’s cat came and rubbed up against his leg and said, ‘From shtetl to shtetl in two generations, Alix,’ – was off the Rebick map. It was insignificant. What could it mean? It had no meaning. It was all make-believe, like the articles knocked out to sell to French house-wives in a shop we walked past in Bordeaux called The Romantic Englishwoman. ‘I don’t suppose they named that after you.’
I drove to the airport at Bergerac and flew to Paris. It was March, a windy spring day. There is a certain numbness which overtakes you when you hear bad news that you can do nothing about and you settle into a sequence of routine actions, without pausing to think of their moral appropriateness. At Orly I bought a Cartier watch for myself in the departure lounge while I waited for my connection to Manchester. I looked at all the other things I could buy there: Gucci handbags, Bally shoes, Godiva chocolates and I badly wanted these things as I had once had to have a boy doll dressed in the kilt of a Highlander, seen behind the glass of a kiosk in a London hotel when I was a child, and my father had said, ‘What’s the matter with you? What are you going to do with that rubbish when you get home? Give me an explanation for why you want it and I’ll buy it for you.’ But I had no explanation. My eyes were bigger than my head. ‘Be serious, Alix,’ my father warned me. He meant that we should have reasons for what we did and what we desired. ‘Make your case.’ I know exactly what he would have thought of the Cartier watch, the Gucci handbags, the Bally shoes: ‘Good quality products, I’ll give them that, but you only want to buy them because they’ve got you, you’re bored. You’re climbing onto a death machine and you’re certainly not going to think about what you’re doing, so you empty your mind. And when you empty your mind in a place like this, what comes along to fill it? Shoes and handbags and chocolates.’
Across the Channel England was green below and grey above, and I was reminded of those months of low cloud, brown light, light in its old age, pressing down on my head like a roof. This was one of the reasons why I had left and bought the cottage in France. It was the dimness of the light that made me turn against the land of my birth. In my seat I ate a second in-flight snack though I wasn’t hungry and drank a second glass of free champagne though my head hurt slightly from the first, but I was travelling business class and it was there, to be taken and being rich is still a novelty to me since the company my grandfather founded and my mother continued – the manufacture of a renowned and expensive face cream, a ‘best-kept-secret’ amongst those who each month studied with diligence the pages of Vogue and Harper’s and Queen – had been bought out for six million dollars four years ago by the American cosmetics conglomerate, Rose Rosen, and my brother and I each took a fifty-fifty share. I tried to read the papers, absorb myself in peace talks and hostage-takings, events that I had come to in the middle of, having rarely seen a newspaper or listened to the radio in France (part of my programme of immersion in the Greek classics) but my mother’s face was in my mind, as I had last seen her, eight months before, entirely indifferent to my presence, calm and void. Everything, the clothes she wore, the wedding ring slack on her finger, the bones of those hands, the oval nails, the threepenny bit scar above her thumb knuckle, entirely familiar, all known, yet the substance that animated them was opaque.
‘Where is she?’ Sam wanted to know. ‘Where is she all day? Is she back in Dresden, Alix, what do you think?’ But I didn’t know and nor did the doctors.
At the barrier, dressed as always in jeans, white shirt, white leather Nikes, he was waiting, pulled me to him with a strong arm, held me, me stooping a little for his embrace. I smelled his skin, the musky male odour of Pears soap, Chanel after shave and whatever the male hormones were that had been fizzing through the body of my brother since his teens . ‘Hi, kiddo,’ he said to me.
He did not age. I aged, not him. He had the same build at fifty-two as he had when he was ten years old, never a geeky kid, not at all, not even at thirteen and fourteen when boys and girls begin to sprout like wet spring lawns. There was meat on his bones his uncles would tell him, yet packed in a small, punchy, heavy-shouldered frame. He smiled at me, that Rebick smile revealing the wolfish yellow teeth, the humour, the tenderness of all the Rebick men who cried in movies, let their tears dry on their faces, unashamed.
Anyone but us would have driven from Manchester to Liverpool in silence, each alone with the thoughts we had had of our mother and the impending death and of our loss and what it would mean to us, but all we know how to do is talk. Our mother had been very silent for a long time. A psychologist might want to make something of this, that she had finally retreated from the barrage of noise that the Rebicks made, the cacophony of words, the pointlessness of it all. But we were realists, we knew the loss of speech was part of her condition.
‘How is she?’
They had came to her room that morning. She was lying with her eyes open. Her breathing was hoarse. Nurse O’Dwyer lifted her up against the pillows. The smell of hot urine rose from the sheets.
‘Alix, it’s pitiful, just awful. She’s sitting in her chair. I come in and she’s fiddling around with her crotch. I can’t believe it, I thought . . .I really believed for a minute she’s playing with herself. My own mother sitting there in full view doing . . . and I say to the nurse, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ And she says, ‘Oh no, Mr Rebick, it’s the incontinence pad, she’s not used to it and . . .’
‘Stop!’ I cried, my foot jammed against the car’s floorwell. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. This indignity, this . . .’
‘You have to hear. Then O’Dwyer starts holding my hand, squeezing it and says, ‘Mr Rebick, don’t question God’s mercy’ and I turn round and say, ‘Why? What’s that shyster doing to her now?’ And old man Levy comes past and hears and do you know what he says to me? He says, “That’s no way to talk about the god of your forefathers who brought us out of the land of Egypt and delivered us from slavery.” ‘
I could not smile because I saw my mother as she was once, the young woman of my childhood precise in all her movements, with lustrous copper hair, whose waves coiled around the brush, elegant in Susan Small or Jaeger, who looked with shining eyes at her handsome husband, the doctor, who walked like a god through the city, St Saul, the saviour of sick children, who promised her every day of his life that one day, sooner or later, he would take her away from the dark continent, to America where happiness was written into the constitution and there was a very limited supply of history.
I know it’s true, she was a difficult woman, Lotte Rebick, my Mamma. She was undoubtedly damaged by her wartime experience, by being thrust onto a train at Dresden station at the age of fourteen, never to have a proper home again with her parents. She was angry and sad. She was sometimes demented by sorrow and regret but let me tell you, I was born into love. I hear that this is not as common an experience as one might suppose. Held in my mother’s arms wrapped in a bathtime towel, the smell of talcum powder rising warm from my skin, the pages of a picture book open before her on the table: from this tight swaddling grew the story of Jack, of the cow and the beans and the plant that rose up from it with green and curling leaves and the giant that lived in the clouds with his wife. Words. New or familiar. What is bean? Like in soup. Where is the cow? Here. Bad giant. Yes. Smack him. Yes, he has a broken head. Kiss it better? No, we don’t kiss bad giants better. The walnut radiogram played waltzes and polkas and Mamma hummed and sang. In my barred cot my rabbit guarded me. No giants came near. The nightlight hummed. Mamma told me a little lullaby and my eyes closed. She walked to the door but it did not shut. My eyes opened. Mamma standing darkened, back lit by the hall light, a velvet shape with her hands clasped together. ‘Nothing terrible will ever happen to you, baby. Your Daddy will see to that. All safe. All safe now. Shhh. Einschlafen, mein liebling.’