Before you came here—what did you do?” Mrs. Levinger asked during Sonya’s first month in London.
“Well, then. Think of this enterprise as a balance sheet. On balance the children are better off. Don’t you have a handkerchief, Sonya? Take mine.”
The sort of incident that triggered this exchange—the removal of a child from his cohort by medical personnel—would occur frequently, but Sonya had just witnessed it for the first time: the kindly faces of doctor and nurse; the impassivity of the other children, imperfectly concealing their panic. Many wore cardboard placards, like Broadway sandwich men. LONDON, LONDRES, LOND, ENGLAND, the boards variously said.
“There is something a little wrong with your chest,” the doctor had told the child, in German.
“We will make it well,” said the nurse, in French.
The little boy spoke only Polish and Yiddish. He spoke them one after the other as he was led away. Then he screamed them, one after the other, stiffening his legs so as not to walk. “Mama!” he called as he was lifted up, though his mother was no doubt dead. “Big sister!” he cried as he was carried off, though his big sister, a girl of eight, had fallen to the floor.
“You will get used to it,” said Mrs. Levinger to Sonya. “Oh, dear.”
Sonya was an American in town for the War. For several summers in the recent past she had led a gypsy life on the Rhode Island coast—danced on the beach, shared a one-room house with an ageing tenor who loved her to distraction. These facts were a matter of indifference to Mrs. Levinger and the rest of besieged London…or would have been a matter of indifference if Sonya had broadcast her history. But she said little about herself. When, during the previous year, friends in Providence (her home during the three seasons that weren’t summer) begged to know why she was going abroad, throwing up her jobs (she taught Hebrew at Sunday School and she kept accounts for various small enterprises)…when people posed these questions, Sonya answered, “Because of the hurricane.”
Her beach house had four slanted walls and an uncertain roof. No electricity, no running water. The hurricane of 1938 lifted the place from its cement foundation and spun off with it. Not a stick of Sonya’s belongings was ever recovered—not the woodburning stove, the chemical toilet, the teapot, the garments hanging on hooks. In the weeks that followed the storm she sat in her hillside Providence apartment and stared at the center of town, also ravaged but gradually repairing itself. But her own life would not be repaired; she was already sliding into unrelieved respectability. Somebody would sooner or later ask her to marry him—despite middle age, despite lack of beauty— somebody sometimes did. The tenor had already proposed. She feared that, no longer buoyed by her annual summer of freedom, she would weakly say yes.
So she had offered herself instead to the American Joint Distribution Committee, affectionately called the Joint. She went to New York for an interview. The interviewer, an overweight man in shirtsleeves and a rumpled vest, said, “Good that you speak Hebrew.”
“I don’t, you know,” Sonya told him. “I have enough Biblical Hebrew to teach classes Aleph and Beth.”
“If you are sent to Palestine your Hebrew will improve,” he said. And, glancing down at her dossier: “You speak French.”
“I studied French in high school, that’s what it says. Once, in Quebec, I ordered a glass of wine. And Yiddish—I haven’t used it in decades.”
Their eyes met. “The situation in Europe is desperate,” he said. “One thousand Polish-German Jews have been expelled by Germany and refused by Poland and are starving and freezing and dying of dysentery in a no-man’s land between the two countries. Many are children. Several organizations are working together to help—and working together is not, I see you studied Latin as well, our normal modus operandi. Two Jews, three opinions, I’m sure you understand.” He checked his flow with a visible effort. His mouth opened and closed several times but he managed not to speak.
“I’ll do any job,” she said in this interval. “I just don’t want you to count on languages.”
“Do you sing? We find people who sing are comfortable in our work.”
“I am moderately musical.” Very moderately. She thought of the tenor. She could still say Yes. But she did not want to become a caretaker.
The fat man’s gaze loosened at last. He looked out the window. “All agencies are working together to get these people from Zbaszyn into England. For this, for all our efforts, we need staff members who are efficient and unsentimental. Languages are of secondary importance. The Joint trusts my judgment.”
She signed a sort of contract. Then she said, “You should know, I am occasionally sentimental.”
A smile, or something like it, landed on his large face and immediately scurried off. She suspected that, like many fat men, he danced well.
Sonya took the train back to Providence. After several months she learned that she would be sent to London and there loaned to another Organization, one helping refugee children. Then came a steamer ticket. Rapidly she put the books of her clients into order, and stored her furniture, and gave herself a good-bye party in the emptied apartment. She took the train again and in New York boarded a ship bound for Southampton. The fat man showed up to say good-bye, carrying a spray of gladiolas.
“How kind,” she said, trying not to shudder at the funereal flowers.
“It is not the usual procedure,” he admitted.
By the time Sonya arrived at the London office the displaced Polish-Germans were already rescued or lost. But War had been declared. There was plenty of work to be done.
The Joint found her a bed-sitter in Camden Town. The landlady and her family lived on the ground floor; otherwise the place was home to unattached people. Each room had a gas fire and a cooker. It took Sonya a while to get used to the smells. She had to get used to footsteps, too—there was no carpet, and everyone on the upper floors traveled past Sonya’s room. There was an old lady with twittering feet. “My dear,” she said whenever she saw Sonya. A large man looked at her with yellow-eyed interest. His slow footsteps sounded like pancakes dropped from a height. An elderly man lightly marched. With his impressive bearing and his white mustache he resembled an ambassador, but he was the proprietor of the neighborhood newsstand. Two secretaries tripped out together every morning after curling their hair with tongs. The first time Sonya smelled singed hair she thought the house was on fire. And there was a lame man of about forty, their only foreigner. Sonya didn’t count herself as foreign; she was an American cousin. But the lame man—he had a German accent.
He had dark skin and bad teeth. Eyebrows sheltered glowing brown eyes—eyes that seemed to be reflecting a fire even when they were merely glancing at envelopes on the hall table. His legs were of differing lengths—that accounted for the limp. Sonya recognized his limping progress whenever he came up or down the staircase: ONE pause Two, ONE pause Two; and whenever he passed her door: ONE
Two, ONE Two, ONE Two.
The children came, wave after wave of them. Polish children, Austrian children, Hungarian children, German children. Some came like parcels bought from the governments who withheld passports from their parents. These children wore coats, and each carried a satchel. Some came in unruly bands, having lived like squirrels in the mountains or like rats by the rivers. Some came escorted by social workers who couldn’t wait to get rid of them. Few understood English. Some knew only Yiddish. Some had infectious diseases. Some seemed feeble-minded; but it turned out that they had been only temporarily enfeebled by hardship.
They slept for a night or two in a seedy hotel near the Waterloo station. Sonya and Mrs. Levinger, who directed the Agency, stayed in the hotel too, intending to sleep—they were always tired, for the bombing had begun. But the women failed to sleep, for the children—not crying; they rarely cried—wandered through the halls, or hid in closets smoking cigarettes, or went up and down the lift. The next day, or the next day but one, Sonya and Mrs. Levinger escorted them to their quarters in the countryside, and deposited them with stout farm families, these Viennese who had never seen a cow; or left them in hastily assembled orphanages staffed with elderly schoolteachers, these Berliners who had known only the tender hands of nursemaids; or stashed them in a Bishop’s Palace, these Polish children for whom Christians were the devil. The Viennese kids might have found the Palace suitable; the Hungarians would have formed a vigorous troupe within the orphanage; the little Poles, familiar with chickens, might have become comfortable on the farms. But the billets rarely matched the children. The Organization took what it could get. After the children were settled, however uneasily, Sonya and Mrs. Levinger rode the train back to London, Mrs. Levinger returning to her husband and Sonya to solitude.
For months she nodded at the dark man and he nodded at her.
They said Good Evening.
One day they left the house at the same time, and walked together to the Underground.
He lived two floors above her, he said. She already knew that from her attention to footsteps.
His room contained an upright piano left behind by a previous tenant. He managed to keep it in tune. “A piano is so rare in furnished...digs,” he said, seeming to relish the British word.
He was on his way to give piano lessons. His pupils were London children whose parents thus far refused to evacuate them. She was on her way to her office. He left the Tube first. “I hope we meet again, Miss—”
“Sofrankovitch,” she said. She didn’t tell him that the honorific was properly ‘Mrs.’ Her childless marriage had ended long ago.
After that, as if the clock previously governing their lives had been exchanged for a different timepiece, they ran into each other often. They met on the narrow winding High Street. They bought newspapers at the kiosk manned by their distinguished looking housemate. They queued at the greengrocer’s, each leaving with a few damaged apples. They found themselves together at the fishmonger’s. Both were partial to smoked fish, willing to exchange ration coupons for the luxury.
Often, at night, after he came home from work, after she came home, they sat by her gas fire.
“Providence,” he mused. “And the place of the hurricane?”
“Naghaghansett,” he rolled out, his vowels aristocratically long, his consonants irreparably guttural.
“Something like that,” she smiled into the shadows.
Eugene had never visited the United States, though as a young man he had studied piano in Paris. “Yes, I heard Boulanger.” Except for that heady time he had not left Germany until three years earlier when one of the other refugee Agencies helped him emigrate to London. Still short of forty then, his parents dead, his sister safely married in Shanghai, his ability to make a living secure—he was one of the easy repatriation cases, she supposed.
His father, he told her, had fought for the Kaiser.
She had been a young woman during that War. Yes, she knew that Germany had once been good to its Jews, its Jews faithful to their rulers.
He stretched his long, unmatched legs towards the meager blue flames. “I’m glad we met.”
One noontime—mirabile dictu, the New York fat man might have said—they ran into each other far from home, in Kensington Gardens.
“I am attending a concert,” Eugene said. “Come with me.”
“My lunch break...not much time.”
“The performers also are on lunch break. You won’t be late. You won’t be very late,” he corrected, with his usual slight pedantry.
They hurried along the streets leading towards the river, passing bomb craters, and passing shelters of brick, of cement, of corrugated iron. Their own shelter back in Camden Town was an underground bunker, a crypt, safer than these. But it trembled, sometimes, and then little children cried, and women paled, and men too. Sonya soothed whichever toddler crawled into her lap, and smiled encouragement at the child’s mother. It was hard to breathe. Suppose the thing should cave in—they would all suffocate. Being struck above ground, being blasted, being shattered into a thousand pieces like her beach house, that would be better than not breathing.... There were times she did not go into the shelter at all, but stayed sitting on the floor in her blacked-out room, arms around shins. Behind her on the windowsill bloomed a sturdy geranium, red in the daytime, purple in this almost blindness. And if the house should be hit, and if she should be found amidst its shattered moldings and heaps of glass and smoking bricks, her head at an odd angle, her burned hair as black as it had been in her youth...if she should be found in the rubble, people would think, if they thought anything at all, that she had slept through the siren. She might have taken a bit too much, the wineshop keeper would say to his wife—he no doubt guessed that his customer sometimes sacrificed food for whisky. She was working so very hard, Mrs. Levinger would remark.
Eugene led her to a church. Sonya looked up at the organ loft. A few parishioners on their own lunch breaks settled into the empty pews. One slowly lowered his forehead onto the back of the pew in front of him, then lifted it, then lowered it again.
Downstairs, in a small chapel, a dozen people waited on chairs and two performers waited on a platform. The standing young man held a viola by its neck. The young woman sat at a piano, head bowed as if awaiting execution. A note on the mimeographed program mentioned that these twenty-year-old twins had recently arrived from Czechoslovakia. The performance began. The sister played with precision. Eugene’s fingers played along with her, on his own thighs. The brother made love to his instrument. In the intervals between selections the attentive audience was entertained by faint sounds of organ practice from above. The concert lasted less than an hour. When the twins and their guests filed upstairs, Sonya looked for the parishioner who had banged his forehead against the pew-back, but he was gone.
As Eugene had promised, Sonya was not very late getting back to work. Still, Mrs. Levinger had already returned from lunch. She was on the telephone. She gave Sonya a distracted nod and hung up.
“The next batch is here,” she said. “The French ones.”
The usual set-up: at one end of a large function room volunteers stood at bridge tables; at the other end a trestle table holding loaves of bread, and biscuits, and plates of sausages, and jugs of milk.
Forty children who had been fending for themselves for six months now huddled in the middle of the room as if, were they to approach the food, they would be shot.
One girl’s hair was the color of lamplight.
Mrs. Levinger hoisted herself onto a folding chair and grasped its back for a moment while her rump threatened to topple her. Then she stood up. Once standing she did not falter or shake.
Sonya made note of various details—it was part of her job. There was a small pale fellow who looked sick, but the doctors hadn’t detained him. Hunger and fatigue, probably. Two little girls gripped each others’ hands. Many children carried smaller children.
The fair-haired girl carried an instrument case.
Mrs. Levinger welcomed them in French. They were being sent to villages in the Cotswolds, she said. Hills, she elaborated. They could keep their belongings. Siblings would not be separated. The host families would not be Jewish. But they would be sympathetic.
“I am not Jewish either,” said a dark boy.
“Ah, Pierre,” reproved a bigger boy. “It’s all right, in this place.”
The children made their slow silent way to the trestle table. Soon all were eating—all except the tall blond girl with the instrument. She seemed about to approach Mrs. Levinger. But it was a feint. She swerved towards Sonya. “Madame....”
“Oui,” said Sonya. “Voulez vous....”
“I speak English.” Her eyes were gray. She had a straight nose, a curly mouth, a small chin. “I do not wish to go into the countryside.”
“What is your name?”
“Lotte,” with a shrug, as if any name would do. “I am from Paris. I wish to stay in London.”
“Your instrument ….”
“A violin,” said Lotte. “I tried to sell it when we ran out of food in Marseilles, but no one wanted to buy it. I am skilled, Madame. I can play in an orchestra. Or in a café—gypsy music.”
“I wish,” Sonya began. “I cannot,” she tried again. “There is no arrangement in London for refugee children,” she finally said. “Only in the villages.”
“I am no child. I am seventeen.”
Sonya shook her head.
The lids dropped. “Sixteen. Truly, Madame.”
“Call me Sonya.”
“Merci. Madame Sonya, I am sixteen next month, if I had my papers I could prove it, but my papers were lost, everything was lost, even the photographs of my father, only the violin...” Lotte swallowed. “I will be sixteen in three weeks. Please believe me.”
“I do.” Mrs. Levinger was glancing at them; other children needed attention. “You must go to the Cotswolds now. I’ll try to make some better arrangement.”
Lotte said, “Empty words,” and turned away.
“No!” Was she always to be denied sentiment, must she be only efficient forever?—she who was moderately musical. “I love gypsy tunes,” she said. “Look, this is my address,” scribbling on some brown paper; “Look, I will try to find you a café, or maybe a....”
Lotte took the paper. Sonya’s last sight of her was on the train, a different train from the one Sonya was taking. Lotte was standing in the aisle, clasping the violin to her thin chest.
“I would like to give you a ring,” Eugene said.
“I may be interned.”
“It won’t happen,” fervently. But it was happening every day. Aliens suspected of being spies—Jews among them-were shut up in prisons.
Eugene said, “My other suit, my piano scores—they can fend for themselves. But my mother’s ring—I owe it respect. It eluded German customs, it eluded also my own conscience.”
She glanced at him. In the light of the gas fire his skin looked as dark as the geranium.
“I should have sold it to repay my rescuers,” he explained. “But it is only a little diamond. And it meant much to my mother.”
“Ah...your father gave it to her.”
“Her lover gave it to her. My mother was born in Lyon; in Berlin she retained her French attitude towards marriage. And then, of course, my father was so much older.”
“Older?” A dozen years separated Sonya and Eugene—she had recently turned fifty-two without mentioning it.
“Twenty years older.” Eugene fished in his pocket. Something twinkled. He put it into her palm.
Two weeks afterwards he was taken away.
By the beginning of Sonya’s second year in London she had acquired women friends and men friends and a favorite tearoom and two favorite pubs and several favorite walks. She had adopted the style of the women around her—cotton dresses, low-heeled shoes—but she spurned the brave little hats. She swept her gray hair back from her brow and pinned barrettes behind her ears. Her hair curved like annoyed feathers below the barrettes.
She knew where to get necessaries on the black market. Occasionally, for her small clients, she used that knowledge. Sometimes she used it for herself—a bottle of contraband cognac was stashed at the bottom of her armoire waiting for Eugene’s return.
She went to lectures in drafty halls. She went to briefings with people who had recently returned from Vichy and Salonika and Haifa. She went to patched-together concert operas and to stunning theatricals—once, in a theater, she heard Laurence Olivier’s voice rise above the sound of bombs.
She attended exhibitions of new watercolors. A few times, during the summer, she bathed at Brighton. “You must play!” ordered Mrs. Levinger. She received letters from friends in Rhode Island and her aunt in Chicago and the fat man in New York and the tenor and Eugene. She kept track of that first tubercular boy, visited him in his seaside sanatorium. The Yiddish of her childhood stirred during the early visits; but after a few months she discovered that new words were sticking to him like burrs. Soon they spoke only English. Together they watched the slate-colored sea. Sitting next to his little chaise, his translucent hand in hers, she told him about the hurricane that had sliced her own life in two. “A tall wave smashed onto our cove.”
“A hill of water,” he experimented.
“Yes, yes! A mountain.”
She kept in touch with the sister, too, in her berth in a cottage. A year after the boy was taken away Sonya and Mrs. Levinger presided over the reunion of the children, the girl rosy, the boy pale but free of disease. The foster mother agreed to take him too. “For she pines, she does,” said that kindly soul.
“Of course you remember Roland Rosenberg,” Mrs. Levinger said.
“Of course.” They shook hands. He was a little less fat, but it would be tactless to say so. They spoke of work in a unnecessary way—it was as if she knew by heart the papers in his shapeless briefcase, as if he could trace each line on her face back to the situation that had drawn it there. But they did talk, some, in a gloomy restaurant. His table manners were terrible. His handkerchief was a disgrace. His peculiar smile recurred now and again—upturned lips, a look of wonder. Mark Twain, he told her, was a passion with him. Some day he wanted to follow Twain’s journey around the world.
“And the composers you like?” she idly asked.
“Franz Lehar is my favorite.”
Lehar: beloved by Hitler. “Oh, dear,” said Sonya.
“Shameful, isn’t it. The Joint should fire me.”
There was no cab. When was there ever a cab? He walked her home. “I will be back some day.”
“Good.” Good? What were they doing to Eugene?
“The New York Times, please,” she said one evening, and took the paper from the distinguished gentleman. Standing at the kiosk, she looked at the front page. The War occupied most of it, though there were City scandals too. The Dakotas were suffering a drought. She folded the paper under her arm—she would read it by lamplight, at home; there were no air raids nowadays.
From his recess he rumbled: “How are you, Miss Sofrankovitch?”
She turned back. “...okay, thanks.”
“I have newspapers from Belgrade today, a rare event.”
“Ah, I don’t read Yugoslavian.”
“No? You read French, perhaps. I have—”
“Not really; and not German either,” she anticipated. “I can read elementary Hebrew, Mr.—”
“Smith.” She peered at him, and at the darkness behind him. “My own parents sold newspapers,” she confided.
“Yes, in a store. They sold cigarettes also, candies, notions. Notions; an Americanism; perhaps you are not familiar with it.”
“Haven’t a notion!” He turned his attention to the next customer. Business first, of course; but how urgently Sonya now wanted to describe to him that small round couple her parents, that pair of innocents to whom she had been born long after they had given up the idea of family. By then the store itself was their issue—a close, warm cave. In it she grew into a tall girl; graduated from high school, from Normal school; from it she married a handsome and untrustworthy boy. She kept the marriage going and the store too until both parents were safely dead.
Mr. Smith disposed of his customer. Sonya leaned across the shelf of newspapers. The interior, big enough for two if the two were disposed to be friendly, was adorned with magazines clipped to bare boards, and advertisements for beer. The place was redolent of tobacco, the fragrance of her childhood. Eugene’s bad teeth were made browner still by his cigarette habit. She inhaled. “I sold the place during the Depression,” she told Mr. Smith. He leaned against a poster: Loose Lips Lose Lives. She withdrew her upper body from the booth and again stood erect, continuing her history. “I sold the living quarters too. I rented an apartment and also bought a...house, a house on the shore, it was destroyed by the hurricane, but perhaps here you didn’t know of the hurricane.”
“Oh, we knew of it. We saw photographs. Comment donc!” he said, turning to another patron who must be familiar, a little Frenchman in a floorwalker’s frock coat and polished shoes.
Sonya turned away and walked up the High Street towards home.
Home? A wallpapered room with a gas fire. A round table and turn-up bed and desk and armchair and radio and lamp and battered armoire. A little locked jewel box in which reposed her mother’s wedding ring, the silk handkerchief from the tenor which he himself had received from a famous mezzo; Eugene’s diamond. Yes, home. Her home was wherever she was. “You have no nesting instinct,” her husband accused when he was leaving. “Lucky for us we never had a child. You would have kept it in a bureau drawer.”
No mail for her. Up the stairs, then. She boiled two eggs on the cooker and put a slice of bread on the toasting fork. She had no butter and no jam but she did have a glass and a half of wine in yesterday’s bottle, and she uncorked it gratefully. She read the paper during this repast, saving the obituaries for last, nice little novelettes, it was unlikely that she’d ever recognize anybody on that page until Rolypoly Rosenberg burst a blood vessel; no, really, he wasn’t the apoplectic type, and he was losing weight anyway.... She read of the tenor’s death.
He had collapsed while singing to a large audience of soldiers at Fort Devens. He was seventy-three. His career had spanned six decades. He had sung all the great roles, though never at the Met. His radio program was popular during the `thirties. Its signature song was “The Story of a Starry Night.” He left three daughters and eight grandchildren.
There had been only seven grandchildren when she left; otherwise she could have written the obituary herself.
That night she wept for him. Of course she had been wise not to join her destiny to his. She was not meant for the settled life—not she, not Sonya, not this human leaf that had appeared unexpectedly in an overheated notions store and gotten popped as it were into a jelly glass by the proud but bewildered storekeepers. Oh, they had loved her, Mama and Papa; and she had loved them; and she had loved her husband for a while; and some others after him; and she had loved the tenor, too. But her love was airy, not earthbound; and so she could be scooped up like a handful of chickweed by Roland Rosenberg and flung onto the stones of London, there to send out shallow creepers into this borough, that block of flats, the derelict basement over by the river. The children. Sleeplessly she counted them. Some were in the city now. There were two small boys living with a mother who had become deranged when the oldest son was shot dead at the border; those tykes took care of her. There was a family with a dimwitted daughter who herself had borne a dimwitted daughter. “That shouldn’t happen; children tend towards the mean!” Sonya objected, as if statistical epidemiology would acknowledge the error and revise the little girl’s intelligence. Mrs. Levinger ignored her outburst. There were teenaged girls from Munich working as waitresses who refused to confide in Sonya though they allowed her to buy them dinner. And....
The scratching at the door could have been a small animal. Had it been preceded by footsteps? Sonya was out of bed immediately, her left hand on the bolt, her right on the knob. Was that the smell of cigarettes? She opened the door.
Lotte stepped across the threshold. Her eyes swiveled from corner to corner. She saw the round table and laid her violin carefully under it. Then she turned, and fell into Sonya’s arms.
They feasted on bacon in the morning. Lotte had carried it from the farm. Sonya fried it along with a hoarded tomato, and toasted her last two pieces of bread. They dipped the toast into the grease.
“Now we have to talk,” Sonya said when they had wiped their fingers on her only napkin. Lottie’s fingers were more deliberate than delicate—rather like Eugene’s at the piano.
“The family,” Lotte began. “They were kind. The church organist befriended me. There was a boy at school, too: an English boy, I mean,” and Sonya knew what she meant—the local boy’s attention supplemented but didn’t supplant the calf-love of the immigrant boys already attached to her. Such an enchanting sweep of lash.
“The family,” Sonya prompted.
“I left a letter. Don’t send me back. Let me stay here with you.”
It was against the Organization’s rules. But the Organization’s rules often got ignored. South of the river five teen-aged boys from Bucharest lived in one room, supporting themselves who knew how, though pickpocketing was suspected. Sometimes Mrs. Levinger hauled them in. “It’s not good for the Jews, what you’re doing.” The boys looked at their feet.
“They endanger our enterprise,” Mrs. Levinger said later to Sonya.
“A couple of them actually work as plasterers.”
“Well, we do need plasterers,” said Mrs. Levinger, deflected.
“Rumor has it that they steal only from rich drunks.”
“Rumor! Rumor has it that Winston is planning an invasion. I’ll believe that when it happens. We’re probably going to be invaded;” and Sonya imagined Mrs. Levinger picking up the fireplace shovel and banging the heads of Germans foolish enough to enter her office.
Meanwhile the young Rumanians lifted wallets in Mayfair. And an unlicensed pair of Polish doctors kept an unlicensed clinic in Clapham Commons. Belgians who had arrived with diamonds in their hems sold those diamonds on the black market and decamped for South America, bestowing not one shilling to the Agency that had brought them to London, a different Agency, but still. “Not against the rules,” mentioned Mrs. Levinger. “Not comme il faut, however.” Sonya thought of Eugene’s mother’s little stone.
“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Lotte was saying. “I’ll get a job. I’ll pay my share. You’ll see.”
“What’s this about a French girl,” said Mrs. Levinger a few days later. “I had a letter from a family—”
“She’s with me.”
They exchanged a steady look. “We can manage a small allowance,” said Mrs. Levinger.
“If that becomes necessary,” said Sonya—in a rather cold voice, since she was almost in tears—“I will let you know.”
It did not become necessary. On Saturday Lotte asked Sonya for a few shillings; also, could Sonya borrow a screwdriver from someone in the building? Well, she’d try. Mr. Smith was at his kiosk. The twittering old lady had gone to live with her daughter. The yellow-eyed man was out. Eugene was of course not in. Sonya finally knocked on the secretaries’ door, expecting no luck. But the secretaries owned an entire tool chest; they’d built a hutch for their window. They were raising generations of rabbits. “How...sweet,” said Sonya.
“Cash,” explained one of the young women. “The nobs still love their lapin.”
Sonya came downstairs with the screwdriver to find Lotte returning from the High Street with a brass lock and two keys. Within an hour she had affixed it to the door of the armoire. Then she stowed her violin next to the cognac. She locked the closet. For a moment she sank into the chair. “Safe,” she sighed. Sonya forbore to mention the bombings; perhaps they wouldn’t start again.
Returning the screwdriver, Sonya ran into the landlady. “I have a...guest.”
“I noticed, dearie. I’ll have to charge a bit more.”
Every day Lotte went out looking for work. She came back disappointed. At night they went to concerts. It was like having Eugene back. “At Saint Aidan’s—there’s a choir singing tonight,” Lotte would say; or “A basso over at Marylebone—just got here from there.” Scattered musicians formed makeshift ensembles. “How did you hear about this?” asked Sonya as they drifted home from a trio.
“I went to a music store looking for a job...met some other string player....”
Lotte began to play on street corners. Sonya warned her to watch for policemen. At first she played in outer London. But though small bands of admirers collected (she reported matter-of-factly to Sonya), too few coins fell into the open case at her feet. She moved towards the center of town. She played in Piccadilly, in the Strand, near Whitehall. “I saw Churchill,” she exclaimed. Everyone knew that Churchill was directing the War from underground offices; but there were rumors of look-alike doubles, hundreds of them, deployed to fool the enemy and maybe the populace.
In Lotte’s new sites she collected enough money to meet the landlady’s rise in rent, to buy cheese and smoked fish and peaches, to insist that Sonya always take the greater share. “You are my patron, my benefactor, my angel.”
“I repudiate those roles. This peach is heavenly.”
“My mother, then...no, no, you are too young.”
“...hardly too young.”
Sonya was still on loan to Mrs. Levinger from the Joint; but Mrs. Levinger’s mandate had altered. Few refugees managed to get in now, but there was plenty to do for the ones already here. Families were starving. Sonya made rounds with ration books, with money, sometimes with piecework from factories—she might have been a foreman sweating workers. Lotte fiddled for coins.
One spring evening Sonya decided to cross the river before going home. No raids for a long time now, just a few planes every so often, scared off by the ack-ack guns. On the embankment she saw a clown... no, it wasn’t a clown, it was a girl. Yes, it was a clown: Lotte.
She was near a bombed-out site beginning to be rebuilt. Those plasterers—were the Rumanian boys among them? Lotte wore wide plaid trousers underneath her usual skimpy jacket. She had found a diplomat’s homburg—snatched it, maybe—and she had blacked the space between her upper teeth and darkened some of her freckles. Her pale hair foamed beneath the hat. She played the street repertoire that she practiced at home—Kreisler, Smetana, Dvorak—with exaggerated melancholy and exaggerated vivacity. “To make their eyes water,” she’d explained, “To give them a swooping finale.”
After the swooping finale she walked among the loiterers, her hat upside down in her hand. When she came to Sonya she bowed. Teasingly she shook the hat. Sonya reached into the pocket of her raincoat but Lotte moved on.
The listeners drifted away. A smiling Lotte returned to Sonya. “Let’s feast!”
“Those clothes!” Sonya smiled back.
The homburg turned out to be a trick hat, collapsible. Lotte shed the wide trousers with one twist of her nimble hips, revealing a pleated skirt, one of the two she owned. With trousers and hat in one hand and the violin in the other she led the way to a pub.
They sat in a corner booth, the two of them—three, counting the instrument. Lamplight streamed through stained glass windows into the noisy place.
“I did well today,” said Lotte handing the money to Sonya, who knew better than to refuse. “But I would prefer a steadier income.”
“You should be at school,” Sonya moaned.
“Soon I will find a place in an orchestra. Or a nightclub.”
Sonya ordered a second whisky.
Roland Rosenberg appeared the next week and stayed for forty-eight hours. Though still fat he was thinner and worn. But: “You are losing weight, Sonya Sofrankovitch” he had the nerve to say. “Take care of yourself.”
And then—Lotte’s mad dreams came true. A restaurant keeper heard her, hired her, provided crepe trousers and a sequined jacket. Café Bohemia was a hodgepodge of banquettes, murals, gilt, and salvage. Sonya dropped in one or two nights a week.
There were no more eye-watering swoops, no more glittering glissandi. She played Brahms, Liszt, Mendelssohn. She looked twice her age, Sonya thought. But then Sonya herself probably looked twice hers.
And Lotte found a trio—two old men and one old woman—who wanted a second violinist. “They play very well,” Lotte commended, “though none of them is Jewish.” The recitals were free; but the performers were paid, sometimes, by a Foundation in Canada. Lotte had to rifle the account she shared with Sonya to buy a blue dress with a collar—the sequined outfit was not considered appropriate.
She had every right to rifle the account. She was contributing more than Sonya. She bought a fold-up cot and no longer had to sleep on the floor. She bought a second geranium. She bought whisky, though she herself drank only an occasional glass of wine. And when Sonya turned fifty-three, Lotte bought a pair of train tickets; and they journeyed to Penzance for a weekend, and stayed in a hotel, and walked on the beach, holding hands like sisters.
ONE and Two. ONE and Two.
A Sunday afternoon. Lotte was out playing with the quartet.
ONE Two ONE Two.
Sonya opened her door. This time it was he.
“The war has gone on so long it seems like peace,” Sonya wrote to her aunt. “One day is like another. No new horrors, just old ones.” She wondered if the letter would get by the censors.
Eugene was busy. Perhaps, to compensate for his unfair internment, someone was pulling strings. So many people were making so many unseen efforts. Sonya and Mrs. Levinger continued the quiet tasks of their Agency, more and more of them against the rules. The yellow-eyed man upstairs spent weeks at Bletchley Park. Lotte fiddled on corners when she had a free afternoon. Mr. Smith, so adept at inviting confidential disclosures, was discovered to be a spy, and was arrested.
Eugene wrote reviews for newspapers. Sonya helped occasionally with sentence structure. New families wanted him to teach their children, practicing Czerny in formerly grand neighborhoods now sparkling with shards. He gave performances, too. He joined Lotte’s quartet from time to time; and he played trios with Lotte and the cellist; and he played duets with Lotte. When the two could, they practiced in the church where Eugene and Sonya had listened to the Czech brother and sister. “Such a good piano,” Eugene said.
Sonya brought her families to the concerts—the couple and their retarded daughter, once; the half-crazy mother and her little boys several times; the young waitresses; the pickpocket plasterers.
Of course—she told herself—all couples who played together developed affinities. Some had affinities from birth—consider those Czech twins, consider the Menuhins. Eugene and Lotte were not brother and sister, though they could be father and daughter. Twenty years lay between them. She calculated again. Twenty-four! She thought of the tenor...Eugene’s brown profile bent over the keys. His mouth grimaced, sucked. Lotte nestled her chin onto her handkerchief. The fingers of her left hand danced. There were dark patches under the arms of the blue dress. At night, on her cot, she sometimes cried out, in French.
One evening Sonya came home to an empty room smelling of cigarettes. She put the milk she carried on the sill next to the geraniums. There was a chapel a block away—an ugly little dissenters’ place. She sat in a back pew and rested her brow on the back of the pew in front of her, and lifted her head, and brought it down again on the wood, and lifted it, and brought it down.
The first of the doodlebugs struck a week after the D-Day landings. They struck again and again. They were not like the bombs of the earlier Blitz. There was no time to get to a safe place; there was no safe place. People simply flattened themselves, waiting to be hurled, impaled, shattered, blown to bits, buried alive. If they were far enough away from the site they might be spared.
“The end is near, the end is near,” the landlady told Sonya. “The end is near,” sighed the parents of the damaged daughter. “Hitler’s last gasp,” declared Mrs. Levinger. Sonya thought that the Fuehrer seemed to have a lot of wind left in his lungs, but all she said was that the demented mother and her boys must be gotten out of London. “Maybe that house in Hull;” and for half an hour they discussed the pros and cons of the children being incarcerated in a virtual bedlam, each woman supplying the other’s arguments like the friends they had become. They resolved on a more farm-like retreat, and Sonya made the arrangements.
Work continued, rebuilding continued; even concerts.
One day at half past noon Sonya was eating an apple on a bench in Hyde Park when she heard the familiar hum. She continued to chew. She saw the flying bomb, there was just one, it was only a bomb, they were all only bombs. Some, she’d been told, failed to explode. This one exploded, south of the Park. She was still chewing. Smoke rose, dark gray and thick, and the sounds she heard now were sirens, and further explosions and buildings crashing, and shrieks, and footsteps, her own among them, for she was running across the park, her apple still in her hand, towards the bomb, because the place of the bomb was the place of that church, wasn’t it? And they were rehearsing this noontime, weren’t they? She ran across the King’s Road; and now she was part of a mob, some rushing along with her, some against her. Sides of houses had vanished. Faces were black. She stumbled over a woman, stopped; but the woman was dead. She ran on. An arm poked out of a heap of stones. She stopped again, and this time helped a fireman dig at the stones and extricate a woman, still alive thank God, and a baby protected by the woman’s other arm, the baby too was alive thank God thank God. The smoke made it hard to breathe. Buildings kept falling. There was the smell of scorched flesh. Sonya reached the street of the church. The church was blasted. There was already a cordon; how fast the municipality had worked; no more than ten minutes had passed; these brave people; but she would simply have to get under the rope. Her apple was gone. She stooped. “Miss!” Somebody strong yanked her by her hips. She whirled into the arms of a red-faced man in a helmet; and saw, over his shoulder, Eugene, his brow dark, bruised in fact, and Lotte, filthy. They were holding hands. In her free hand Lotte held the instrument case. They had not been in the church, they explained when she reached them. They had lingered at home.
The barrage continued for months. Only storms kept the planes away. Sonya prayed for a hurricane. Churchill conceded that London was under attack. The flying bombs did not cease until three weeks before Victory.
But earlier still—five weeks before Victory—Lotte and Eugene left for Manchester. The director of the new civic orchestra there had heard Lotte playing with the quartet, had offered her a job. There would be pupils for Eugene.
Lotte had been sharing Eugene’s bed since the day the doodlebug struck the church. But the night before leaving she scratched on Sonya’s door. She put on the old clothes—the hat, the plaid trousers. She played “Some Day I’ll Find You” and “I’ll See You Again.”
In the morning all three walked to the Tube and rode to the station. Even next to Eugene and Lotte Sonya saw them as if from a distance—two gifted émigrés, ragged, paired. Father and daughter? Stepsiblings? Nobody’s business. As soon as they boarded the train they found a window and stared through it, their loved faces stony with love of her. She wondered how long Lotte would flourish under Eugene’s brooding protection, how soon she would turn elsewhere. She was French, wasn’t she, and Frenchwomen were faithless.... His mother’s diamond! She lifted her left hand in its disreputable glove and pointed towards the place of a ring with her right index finger.
On the other side of the window Eugene shook his head. Yours, he mouthed.
So Sonya sold the ring. It fetched less than she’d hoped—the stone was flawed. She bought a voluminous raincoat made out of parachute material. She bought new gloves and some dramatic trousers. She stashed the rest of the money.
“It’s been a long time,” said Sonya, when Mrs. Levinger had left them alone.
“Oh, I wanted to visit. When I was in Lisbon, in Amsterdam.... But each time, something sent me elsewhere.” He shifted in his ill-fitting jacket. He had lost more weight. Mrs. Levinger had hinted that he was some kind of hero.
They left the office and walked into wind and rain. Sonya’s new coat swirled this way and that; it got drenched though it was supposed to be water repellent; it dragged her backwards. Finally she lifted its skirts, so as to be more easily blown to wherever he was taking her.
A pub. They sat down. Sonya knew he would not mention the nature of the work he had done; and he didn’t—not during the first beer, not during the second. So: “Where now?” she asked, resting her worn-out hands on the worn-out table.
He told her about the Displaced Persons camps. He was going to the one at Oberammergau. “I hope you will join us. Your persistence, your intelligence, your accommodating nature....” She waved away his words with her right hand and he caught it mid-air. “I will stop this talk, though it is not flattery. I invite you to Oberammergau.”
“I speak no German.”
“But you are musical,” he reminded her. He caught her other hand, though it couldn’t be said to be in flight, was just lying there on the table. “Sonya Sofrankovitch. Will you come?”
She was silent for several minutes. His odd smile—would she ever get used to it, to him?—told her how much he wanted to hear Yes.
“Yes,” she said.