For ten years Malka had not been able to mix with Jews. For ten years, even to walk along Acland Street, past the Scheherezade Restaurant, past the Benedykt Brothers Delicatessen, caused Malka anxiety.
She knew, from her childhood, most of the people who stood in small clusters on the footpath, talking. ‘Malkala, hello, what’s happened to you? Last time I saw you, you were thin, now look.’ Malka didn’t have to say much in these encounters. ‘Good morning, Malka, I heard you got divorced and now I heard you got another husband.’
This second husband, this second non-Jewish husband, Garth, loved Acland Street. He always greeted Tivele, who had Parkinson’s disease and shook dangerously as he drank his lemon tea, with a pat on the back and a handshake. He asked Abe how the hosiery business was going. He smiled like a benign parent while Adek, Edek and Isaac talked. They talked and talked. Over the top of each other. At the same time. What energy they had, this gang of elderly men, thought Malka. Everything mattered. Everything was important.
Malka went into the Scheherezade. She sat at a table near the counter. She ordered a glass of borscht and a plate of boiled potatoes. She watched Mr Krongold, who was at the back of the restaurant, eating his latkes in his parka and his peaked cap. He had already had schnitzel and boiled potatoes. Mr Krongold was a slightly-built, finely-boned man. He ate vigorously.
Malka often ate bent over the rubbish bin. She tore clumps of bread from a loaf. One piece of bread into her mouth, one piece into the bin, some more for her, and a few crusty pieces for the rubbish bin. Malka had to finish the loaf. It would have been damaging evidence. Another couple of bites, and the last piece could go into the bin.
Malka could evacuate any thoughts that disturbed her. She blinked them out of her head. Three blinks and all bothering thoughts vanished. The only problem was that most of anything else that was in Malka’s head was also blinked out.
Malka had been born to Mr and Mrs Spatt, fifteen months after Mrs Spatt was freed from Stuthof concentration camp and Mr Spatt from Bergen-Belsen. For Malka, this gift of life was a burden. She had difficulty feeling the life in her. She often breathed herself dead. Her breathing would become slow and shallow. She could sit in one spot for hours. She could be with her three children, she could be in the middle of a group of people and appear enchanted by the conversation, but she was somewhere else, and she was dead. If she was not as dead as all the dead, then she was almost as dead.
Mr Lipnowski, who often ate at the Scheherezade, came up to Malka. ‘I did see the wonderful drawing Garth did do in the newspaper. Such a beautiful drawing. You can see the suffering of the whole world in the eyes. The way he drawed those eyes. Beautiful.’
‘What about my article?’ said Malka. ‘Too short,’ said Mr Lipnowski. ‘Too short, and I didn’t learn anything from it.’
Malka was in a good mood. Her analyst had told her that unless she worked at this analysis she would have to leave. The news had shocked her. She felt more alive than she had for weeks. She smiled at Mr Lipnowski.
She remembered a conversation she had had with Mr Lipnowski last summer. Her book of poetry, about life in a concentration camp, had just come out. Mrs Frydman from the bookshop around the corner didn’t want to order any copies until she saw whether there was a demand for the book. ‘I was in Auschwitz,’ she said, ‘so, do I write poems?’ Mr Lipnowski had said to Malka, ‘I told Mrs Frydman she should be selling gutkes, not books.’ Gutkes, Malka had explained to Garth, were underpants.
Halfway through her analysis, Malka saw that this apparent harshness, this callousness, this bluntness, was an endearing directness, a brisk and efficient communication. They all spoke like that. Mr Lipnowski, Mrs Frydman, Mr and Mrs Spatt. ‘This is right. This is wrong. This is bad. This is terrible. This is no good. This is how I see things. This is this.’ They all knew.
Their children had trouble knowing whether this was this, or this was not this. Ben, Malka’s friend, whose father had fought with the partisans in Poland and now owned Sunsoaked Swimwear Industries, belonged to the Shiva Yoga Centre. Every morning, between 5 and 6, Ben danced to Indian chants. From 6 to 7 he meditated. For the rest of the day he worked on his idea for a contemporary theatre production of the Ramayana Ballet.
Ben smiled at everything.
In recent years, as he had climbed the executive rungs of the ashram, he had become more interested in his Jewishness. He now interspersed his ‘oms’ with ‘oys’.
And then there was Morris Lubofsky, Malka’s editor. Malka found it hard to believe that Morris was the offspring of Rivka Lubofsky. Malka was mesmerised by Rivka’s beauty. Rivka had fiery, dark-red hair and enormous, seductive and inviting eyes. She spoke six languages. And she laughed. She laughed with her whole body. Orphaned at thirteen by the Nazis, she spent the war hiding in the forests of Poland.
Rivka completed her Master of Laws degree in the same year that Morris dropped out of dentistry to edit the Teenybopper.
One hour after he had arrived at his parents’ place, and twenty minutes after he had finished his regular Sunday lunch with them, Morris Lubofsky, forty years old and thrice-divorced, lay on the couch in his parents’ lounge room. His stomach heaved gently and he slept.
Last Sunday at lunch Mr Lubofsky had given Morris the brochure for the new Jaguar Sovereign. ‘Delivery will be in December. Happy Birthday.’ ‘Oh. Great. Thank you,’ said Morris, and he went to the couch and slept.
Malka had observed this impossible-to-stay-awake-in-front-of-your-parents disease. She had noticed this comatose condition before. She had discussed it with Morris’s Catholic first wife, who was infuriated and bewildered by it. Malka had seen it in herself.
Malka never looked excited or enthusiastic in front of Mr or Mrs Spatt. She rarely expressed surprise, and never showed any joy, lightheartedness or happiness in their presence. She appeared to have no sense of humour. She never laughed when she was with them.
Occasionally they had caught her laughing with a friend. Malka once saw Mr Spatt look at her with great surprise when she had exploded with laughter while telling her best friend, Margaret-Ann, the story of how she had bumped into Dean Robertson. Dean Robertson, a top political journalist, was Malka’s former colleague. Malka’s son was five at the time, and going through a stage of adding l to every word. He said bookl, smokel, dogl, catl. Dean Robertson had asked Malka what she was doing now. ‘I’m just a housewifel,’ she had answered. Dean Robertson had fled with a nauseous grimace of farewell.
Malka looked at a photograph of Garth that she carried around in her wallet. He didn’t look Jewish. He looked too happy.
Even the language tapes that Malka and Garth were learning Yiddish from were not too cheerful. Each phrase was stated slowly and then repeated. The conversation on the subject of’How Are You?’ went like this:
How are you?
Fine, thank you.
I don’t feel well.
What’s wrong with him?
He has a headache.
She doesn’t feel well.
What’s the matter with her?
She has a toothache.
We are ill.
What’s wrong with you?
We have stomach aches.
I don’t feel well.
What’s wrong with you?
My feet hurt.
My parents aren’t well.
What’s wrong with them?
They have heartaches from their children.
My head hurts.
Her back hurts.
His hands hurt.
Your bones hurt.
Our feet hurt.
Their feet hurt.
By the time she was twenty, Malka knew no Jews. She worked as a rock journalist. Her three closest girlfriends were pale, tall and angular, and, she realised on reflection, all prone to constipation.
She fell in love with blond, blue-eyed men whose fathers were president of the golf club and whose mothers had been the school hockey captain. Jewish boys looked awful to Malka. They looked spoilt and soft and unmanly. They looked frightened of their mothers, frightened of their fathers. ‘Jewish boys have still got their mother’s breast-milk on their faces,’ said Margaret-Ann.
When Malka and Ronny Rosenberg were eighteen, he had driven his father’s Vauxhall into the back of another car. Malka had had several stitches in her knees and Ronny Rosenberg had broken his nose. He sat in the Royal Melbourne Hospital and wept. ‘How can I ring up my parents? The shock will kill them.’
Killing their parents was something that most Jewish children felt they had the power to do. Common fragments of conversation among the children were: ‘This is going to kill my mother.’ ‘I can’t tell my mother, it would kill her.’ ‘I couldn’t do that, my father might die.’ ‘I can’t leave my wife, it would kill my parents.’
Malka was no exception. Rather than kill her parents, Malka lied about everything. She lied about her non-Jewish boyfriend. The Spatts were perfectly happy to see Malka going steady with Angus Nankin, a ‘Scottish Jew’. Mr and Mrs Nankin played along. Mr Nankin wore a yarmulka at dinner, and on Yom Kippur they all went to synagogue together. Mrs Spatt explained to her friends that these Anglo-Jews could never speak Yiddish. The Spatts paid for Angus’s education, bought him a car, guaranteed a loan for the Nankins’ new house, and everybody was happy. The Spatts thought it was a shame when Malka and Angus broke up.
Malka lied about being a virgin, she lied about what she ate, she lied about studying at the Sorbonne. After she finished high school, Malka had begged the Spatts to send her to Paris to do a Diploma of Languages at the Sorbonne. Malka spent two days at the Sorbonne. She felt lonely, lost, and unable to be understood. She flew to London, bought an old London taxi cab and drove around Europe for a year. She drove through Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland. She put the car on a ferry in Naples and went to Israel, where she visited her cousin on a kibbutz in the Negev. A Parisian student rerouted Malka’s mail, and everybody was happy. Mr and Mrs Spatt still boasted about Malka’s gift for languages, and how she topped her year at the Sorbonne. Malka knew that people didn’t die of lies.
She did fear the Spatts’ death though, and did feel that whenever and however it happened, it would be her fault.
She sympathised with Morris Lubofsky. When people talked about what a rich man he would be one day, Morris always said ‘I hope I die before my parents.’ Malka knew exactly what he meant.
‘You will cry on my grave but it will be too late,’ Mrs Spatt said to Malka over and over again. What if she didn’t even cry then? Malka used to wonder.
Now she wondered how she could have been so cruel. So indifferent. How could she have been so unsympathetic, so uninterested in what Mrs Spatt had been through?
When Mrs Spatt had arrived in Australia, with baby Malka, she was twenty-three years old. She had lost her mother and her father, and her four brothers and three sisters. She had survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Stuthof.
Mrs Spatt measured her survival not by her physical presence in the world, but by the fact that she had not hurt anyone else in those six years of horror. Even in the ghetto she had still tried to be a good daughter. In Auschwitz she had never stolen anybody’s food.
When Malka began to think about Mrs Spatt’s life, she couldn’t understand why, after the war, Mrs Spatt had still wanted to live, or why she had wanted to have children. Malka felt that she herself would have given up. She had given up many times. She had felt that nothing was worth while. This feeling, Malka now recognised, was a sad luxury. That nothing-really-interests-me-everything-is-so-tedious syndrome. It was usually accompanied by the my-parents-have-ruined-my- life philosophy, and had as a postscript, and-they-can-pay-for-it.
Malka folded her copy of the Jewish News. She had had a slice of apple cake, even though this was the first day of her new diet. She paid for her coffee and cake, she waved goodbye to Tivele, she smiled at Mr Rosenberg and Mr Schwarz, who were sitting at the front table, and she went home.
Lily Brett is an Australian novelist, essayist and poet.