Who rise from here to the sky of the upper world
And re-enter the sluggish drag of the body?
What possesses the poor souls? Why this mad desire
To get back to the light?
Seamus Heaney, Aeneid, Book VI
The suitcase arrived long after its owner had left. It was handed over to me nine years ago in the car park of a London church on a miserable, gun-metal grey morning. The suitcase is chalk-coloured, weather-speckled, hooped with warped wooden struts. It smells of damp and the stale vapours of the past. It is fastened by two rusty lockable latches, but there are no keys, so it may have to be prised open. I haven’t tried. It is very heavy and I loaded it into my car with difficulty. My mother, who was with me that day, was unusually quiet as I drove her home. She simply said: ‘If you open that suitcase you’ll never close it again.’
While she enjoys certain kinds of complication (seating mourners correctly at a funeral, insulting someone with a second-class stamp, genealogy), my mother has an aversion to others (washing up, replacing a battery, packing or unpacking a suitcase), but I suspect her comment was directed at a larger possibility of difficulty than the merely practical. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to talk about it. I put it in her attic and then, some months later, my uncle agreed to take it to his house, where he put it in his attic. I didn’t want it in my attic. I still don’t. Not yet.
The suitcase belonged to my father. He died in 1997, aged 65, although he’d been finessing his final disappearing act for almost a decade, since the doctor first told him he had Alzheimer’s. After the diagnosis, he had written the word on a yellow Post-it note and stuck it in his diary, in case he forgot the name of the condition that makes you forget everything. The illness seemed to become more aggressive once he knew he had it. Time, distance, objects, people – every landmark on his mental map skewed several degrees out. ‘This is very good, I can recommend it. You cut it up and it’s sort of hard on the edges and really quite delicious. I can’t remember what it’s called.’ ‘It’s a loaf of bread.’
Every morning my father walked the dog. One day, he forgot the dog and took the lead for a walk. Whenever he realised something was awry, he would rush off to look for his diary with the yellow Post-it. This was his polar north, and as long as it could be located, he seemed to be in contact, just, with a reality that was slipping away. Sometimes he would lose the Post-it and painstakingly write out a new one. Gradually, he lost track of the way the letters were organised, and the word began to fall to pieces:
And then all the words fell to pieces. At some point, he forgot how to speak. Only his physical habits remained intact: the way he walked, the way he organised his hair so it didn’t flop on the wrong side, the way he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and tied a knot in it. He’d always done this to remind himself of something – but now, what?
When things looked really bad, his second wife brought him back from the care home, where there was care, but no home. In the last few days, he took no fluids and his lips dried and peeled like old paint. The nurse moistened them with a cotton bud dipped in water. He rattled all the time and the distance between breaths became longer. You would lean in close to his mouth, and count to ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen seconds, and still no breath. Just when you thought he must be dead, it came back again, a long, drain-emptying gurgle, and you would pull back in surprise.
I went to the local Benedictine abbey to collect the abbot who had agreed to give the Last Rites to my father, who wasn’t a Catholic but wouldn’t have minded. It was a dank, slushy evening, and I had difficulty seeing the road. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I asked him to tell me what the Seven Deadly Sins were. ‘Gee. Gosh. Let me think.’ He could only name four. I had the impression he was slightly demented himself. He stumbled a few times while reading the Last Rites and we got the giggles. He left, and my father continued rattling until the next evening and then the breathing really did stop.
We put a wild flower from the garden in his hands and folded them on his chest. His fingers were the same colour as the yellowed enamel of the stove in the kitchen, but his face started to fill out a bit, as if the blood were making one final, defiant circuit through his capillaries. For an instant, the deep worry lines on his brow vanished. He looked surprisingly well. ‘What’s it like?’ I wanted to ask him. ‘Do you feel better now?’
The undertakers zipped him into a mauve body bag and took him away. A few days later, Alexander, my older brother, went to the funeral home – all these homes, this last being the least homely – to choose a coffin. He reported that Daddy had been installed in a garage which, it had been stressed, was modified to mortuary standards. We bundled up his clothes and shoes in a couple of black binliners and took them to the charity shop. I imagined, in those mystifying days after his death, while he was still lying in the refrigerated garage and normal time had been put on ice, that we would sort through his stuff, but this never happened.
I do have a few things that belonged to him: two silver sixpences I had found in a much earlier clean-out when he and my stepmother were moving house. The coins were in the top pocket of his National Service uniform, which went in the skip, along with a little glass duck that he kept retrieving but finally relinquished when we insisted it wasn’t worth keeping. It kept bobbing to the surface, and I began to feel guilty, so I saved it. Other things have found their way to me in the years since his death: his stamp albums, some photographs, books about mountains – and, of course, the suitcase that I haven’t opened.
The suitcase is too big and unwieldy to be the one my father carried when he crossed the border out of his childhood. I don’t know at what point he acquired it. All I’ve been told is that it’s crammed with paper – letters, documents, photographs – and that my stepmother didn’t want to go through it. This, then, is my awkward inheritance, the remains of the confusions and scatterings of a life lived in dispersal.
Until recently, I didn’t think about the suitcase at all, but then it suddenly occurred to me that this has been an effortful non-thinking, that for a long time I have been concentrating on forgetting it. Strangely, I have forgotten what brought me to this realisation. I only remember the lurching sensation that accompanied it, like being heaved up by a speed bump you haven’t seen because you were fiddling with the car radio. Now, I find myself with two competing urges: wanting to know what’s in the suitcase, and wanting not to know. My hope is that if I open it, the suitcase will offer a way across a border to meet my father, who in life was unknowable to me. Then maybe I could restore something – what? – from the dislocation. But I hesitate at the threshold of this journey; it fills me with misgivings. I have come to recognise, even if I don’t easily accept, that borders are places of risk and we cross them at our peril. They are sacred, ‘set apart’, defined precisely by division, which is the reason we hold their defence to be sacrosanct. We teach ourselves the limits of our lives by beating the bounds, literally so, in the past; today, mostly symbolically and often so habitually we are not conscious of doing it. And here we stand, apart.
From my father’s extreme economy in talking about the past, I always knew there was much he wanted to forget, and yet the suitcase tells me he had not embraced the art of letting go. If I rummage around in his world, his things, I might see more than I can take in, I might meet the private turmoil that made a relationship with him so contingent, so fragile. Or I may find treasure, a gift that will substitute for whatever it was I felt the lack of, the loss of. Perhaps this is the greater risk, of finding something over nothing, of realising that what I most wanted was always there.
I remember, with a disquieting clarity which includes the weave of the carpet under my bare feet, the moment I discovered my father’s love letters to my mother. I was about ten, mooching around his post-divorce home in Wiltshire, and in a furtive mood. He was gardening and I was peeved that he had not clocked how the hours drag for a bored child. Having nothing better to do, I lowered the drop front of his Georgian desk and started to pull open the tiny drawers. Pens, pencils, elastic bands, paperclips, stamps – Thackeray’s knickknackeries, what you would expect to find in a desk. Then a bundle of letters tied with string, which I carefully untied after checking the position of the figure outside pushing the lawnmower. His back was turned, a familiar sight.
‘Darling Dodo’, followed by flumes of love in his tiny, cramped writing, running over at the end of each letter and seeking out the narrow margin upward, over the top, down the other side. That there had ever been any love or tenderness between my parents was, until this point, a carefully withheld secret. It was, to me, an unimaginable hinterland to the storms of furious shouting, slamming doors, frozen silence. There was no pleasure or comfort to be taken from the revelation. I had stolen a look at the letters, and they had robbed me of the story I had made my home in, replacing it with something entirely uncanny, unheimlich, unhomely.
As a child, I was dimly aware of a series of shatterings that had torn people from their lives. There was cousin Katya, who had once lived somewhere as a countess but was now confined to one room in grungy (it was the 1970s) South Kensington. This, my mother explained, was a bedsit, which made sense, as the bed was needed for sitting on. On the back wall, there was a rudimentary freestanding kitchen behind a curtain which ran on a sagging, U-shaped plastic track. Down the corridor, there was a bathroom shared with other bedsits and a separate chamber for the loo, with a wall-mounted cistern from which dangled a long chain with an ancient brass handle in the shape of a pine cone, though it closely resembled a turd and I was always loath to pull it. Katya had no money so she made beautiful ceramic plates and sold them. She spoke to my mother of various people she used to know in her other life, and was very dismissive of a princess, Someone-Metternich, who had escaped (from what, I did not know) with a wheelbarrow filled with her jewels.
There were more vivid encounters with severance, whose cause I slowly came to recognise as ‘the war’. Sean Crampton had lost a leg (his prosthetic replacement, which was always attached to the same brown brogue, was placed behind a curtain at night, with only the foot showing, to deter intruders); Roger Lloyd had lost an arm (I initially thought that his huge dog, Gozo, so fierce that he had to be housed in a derelict tennis court, had torn it from its socket and eaten it); Robert Crabbe had lost several toes, which I did not think too serious until he explained they were required for balance (I understood balance in the negative context of not having enough of it, hence those shameful safety wheels fastened to my bicycle).
At some point, I was given to understand that the backdrop to the war was a preceding war, the First World War (pronounced by my cut-glass maternal grandmother as the ‘Fast World War’), a very messy affair which had made Harry Clack’s lungs turn green. Harry worked in the potting sheds of my mother’s ancestral home and hacked up an eternal spew of mustard-gas phlegm. This got him out of going to the second war, which was a replay of the first, but bigger, though some people we knew, like Canon Pickering, had been in both.
These wars were as distant to me in early childhood as Battersea Fun Fair, which occupied a far greater part of my consciousness and whose attractions, much vaunted by my brother Alexander, I was never to experience. I had no idea that my father, limbs intact, had been clobbered by the same event that had separated Sean from his leg, Roger from his arm and Robert from his toes. I had no idea, as he poured sherry for the vicar after church on Sunday, that my father was anything other than a ‘from here’ person. Donald Saunders looked the same and sounded the same as the other guests who sipped Tio Pepe (medium or dry) from Lilliputian glasses and did small talk while Alexander and I handed around the shiny peanuts (bald, like the vicar) after first shovelling out fistfuls for ourselves.
True, Daddy’s mother spoke with a heavy accent, recited proverbs in several languages we couldn’t understand, and sighed for places and things that were long lost to her. She was obviously misplaced in our impeccably English life, a foreigner whose existence was shaped and organised around neuralgic points labelled Apfelstrudel and Rrree-shart Schtrauss. To humour her, we had to watch the whole of the televised Vienna Philharmonic New Year Concert (nostalgia by calendar), which was infinitely boring, while she hummed the gemütlich waltzes and lifted her tear-filled eyes to the heavens somewhere above her son’s low-beamed Wiltshire ceiling. Despite absorbing my grandmother’s foreignness as an established fact – I was vaguely conscious that she came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had spa towns and ‘concert palaces’ and didn’t exist anymore – it hadn’t occurred to me to extend this perception to my father, who sounded English and whose idea of dressing down at the weekend was to wear a cravat instead of a tie, even when mowing the lawn. I call in evidence the collar stiffeners and cufflinks, the Oxford shoes from Jermyn Street, the G.F. Trumper’s shaving soap in a wooden bowl, the City office with highly polished desk and leather blotters and wood panelling and the secretary in an anteroom who patched us through on the telephone, the beautifully trimmed Rover Coupé with crackled leather seats, the subscription to the Spectator, the pot of Gentleman’s Relish in the fridge.
What you think you know, you do not know. I was completely unaware that my father had an accent until I was at university, and a friend, after meeting him, asked me where he was from. There it was, the soft, rolling, back-of-the-throat ‘R’, escaping like a gentle breeze through the imperfect, defensive construction of Englishness – of course I’d heard it, all my life I’d heard it, but until this moment I had never heard it as a register of foreignness. The word ‘foreign’ has its roots in Latin: fores, ‘door’, and foris or foras, ‘outside’. Suddenly I saw him not so much as a stranger, for he had always been that, but as a stranger situated in the flora and fauna of his foreignness.
Of course, I had seen, next to the Gentleman’s Relish, the box of finely dusted Turkish delight, the halva, the packets of rosti; I had been with him to his birthplace in Romania and seen the places of his childhood, not once but twice; together with Alexander, I had been in the ancient forests with him, had picked wild raspberries and cracked open hazelnuts with a stone. I had helped him fill the box of Christmas gifts for our cousins stuck behind the Iron Curtain: chocolate, vitamins, medicine, Marmite, jam, tinned sardines, winter gloves and hats, stockings. But these things had featured only in the margin of my map of my father. At least, until that day when my friend asked: ‘Where’s your father from?’ More than thirty years have passed, and still I hover in the same state of postponed understanding, like the delayed response after the turning of a ship’s wheel or the pulling of a bell rope. Where was he from? Why do I need to know? Will I feel better if I do?
When I think of thinking back, I hear a record on the turntable. My father has left the room – being there was only ever a prelude to leaving – and I sit alone, a young girl, listening with mounting anxiety to the sound of a Romanian pan flute. This is the music of restless souls – urgent, melancholic skids in a minor key, an unending complaint so depressing at times that one of its greatest exponents, Rezső Seress, best known for his song ‘Gloomy Sunday’, committed suicide by jumping out of a window (on a Sunday). To this day I cannot bear to hear this music. It is made by ghosts dragging chains – and suitcases – miserable and unloved. The dead cannot speak, but they tell us something, over and over: Remember that we are dead. What are we supposed to do about that?
My father was always making lists. It was, I think, an actuarial, over-determined attempt to forfend the unexpected, part of a larger scheme to organise the world around fixed points. There were lists of the days we were scheduled to spend with him, made months in advance and photocopied for those whom it concerned – Alexander, me, our mother, our boarding schools – so they knew who would be picking us up and taking us back. There were lists of Christmas presents – to whom, how much spent, from whom, thank you letters written, thank you letters pending. And there were always lists of things before a journey.
In the early stages of his dementia, when everything that was very far away seemed to come closer, he announced as we were washing up after Sunday lunch that he was writing a memoir of his childhood. He went to his study and returned with a list, which ran to about eight bullet points covering a quarter of a sheet of ruled A4. I remember only a line about picking wild raspberries, and another about chasing a wheel as it bounded through a field of maize after falling off the car in which he was being driven by his father. I merely glanced at the page as he dangled it before me (it was awkward, my hands were in soapy water), encouraged him to keep writing, and said he must find a safe place for his notes, it would be a pity to lose them. Stupid advice, on reflection, because he probably hid the sheet of A4 in a carefully selected – and immediately forgotten – new place. Inevitably, it was lost, though I suppose it’s not impossible that, like the glass duck, it resurfaced. It may have found its way into the suitcase.
In the time I have not been looking in the suitcase, I’ve been consulting other sources: my father’s younger brother, Peter, now a robust 86; family photographs; stamp albums; public records; other people’s suitcases; books; barely legible notes despatched to me by my mother, who has a macular hole and a keen memory and styles herself ‘Research Department’ – the kind of stuff that gives us a method for organising our ignorance of the past. It’s what Hilary Mantel calls
the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey.
We can never fully retrieve the past from these relics – a blessing, surely, as the past in all its detail would overwhelm the present – but it doesn’t stop us trying.
Two births. The first is Greater Romania, conceived after complicated coitus at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, safely delivered as the fifth largest country in Europe, June 1920. The second is Donald Robin Slomnicki, in a small town near Bucharest on 3 February 1931. Father, Joseph Slomnicki, of Polish-Russian Jewish parentage, naturalised British; mother, Elena Slomnicki, née Hotz, Austrian-German-Swiss, not Jewish, naturalised British. Both are educated in war and the packing of suitcases and the sheer shiftiness of borders. Home is something that comes and goes, it is a for-now place.
And for now, Joe and Elena were doing quite well. They had their first, long-awaited child and a new villa at the edge of Câmpina, a fast-expanding town beside an oilfield forty miles north of the capital. Photographs show Elena arranging flowers in the sitting room; Joe sitting in an armchair next to the ceramic tile stove, half in shadow; Joe outside, surveying the newly planted garden. Donald is photographed wrapped in a towel after a bath, grappling with potty training, lying on his back having an important conversation with a teddy bear. Another baby appears, Peter, in 1934. The saplings in the garden have grown several feet; Joe fixes up a swing and a climbing pole.
Childhood is lived not in history but in geography, in the slow, systematic mapping of place. Every child is a pioneer, surveying with great seriousness a world in which everything is new under the sun. There is a door, there is a room; there is a window where the sun pours in and the vase of flowers is broken by its rays; there is the tile stove, cold to the touch in summer, hot in winter, which is confusing; there are stairs to be investigated, initially on all fours, and halfway down the stairs is a stair where you sit, there isn’t any other stair quite like it. There is another door, another room, a bed and the space under the bed that waits to be explored, but only by the brave. Slowly, after many disorienting journeys, the mysteries are resolved, one place leads to another and the pattern of the world at hand is revealed.
The geography lesson continues outside, in the garden, and then beyond, in the broad street on the other side of the picket fence, in a pram, then on unsteady feet, and eventually on a bicycle but only on the pavement and do not cross the road until I get there, the command delivered in German by Elena or the Austrian nanny. Romanian was for tradesmen or earthy servants who, given the chance, would whisper dark secrets in your ear.
Excursions were taken in the family car, a four-door Adler saloon, whose wheel came loose one day, forcing Donald to give chase as it romped through a field. Elena sat in the front and always felt car-sick. The boys lolled in the back, their bare legs sticking to leather seats heated by the sun. It took about an hour to reach a mountain valley near Sinaia, where chestnut trees, maples and hornbeam flourished. They would leave the car and take a track past huge oak trees with roots covered in deep moss and giant mushrooms, before climbing up through beech woods into forests of pine and larch laced with streams flecked with tiny flakes of gold. Eventually they reached the bright green meadows on top of the mountain and set out a picnic. Beyond were the spectacular grey peaks of the Carpathians.
Joe purchased a holiday cottage in the village of Poiana where, in winter, he taught Donald to ski (Peter was too small, and by the time he was big enough the mountains were beyond reach). There were no ski-lifts, so they had to walk up through the tree line where the snow was less deep, carrying their clunky wooden skis and poles. They worked on ploughing and carving, sharp Christies, controlled avoidance, until Donald was ready to be unleashed, speeding down the course at the edge of the forest, arriving at the bottom breathless, eyes watering, triumphant. Later, as the sun dipped behind the mountains, he sat by the stove with a mug of hot chocolate and listened to the baying of not so distant wolves while Joe waxed the skis for the next day.
In the foothills of these mountains were the oil refineries of Ploieşti, where Joe, a geologist, worked. He used to work around the fringes of the big fields, but this was a boom-and-bust affair and he had since taken up a position with Steaua Romana, a subsidiary of British Petroleum. Oil is always surrounded by people who want some of it, and everybody was here: French, Dutch, Italians, Austrians, Bulgarians, Turkish, British, Americans. During their lunch break, the local men would eat onions and cold mamaliga, a maize flour dish, and tell stories of their wartime adventures and how packs of wolves were seen in their village last winter. On one occasion, Donald’s best friend, Roy, watched some Texan oil drillers walking with a pistol in each hand, keeping a square jerry can rolling ahead of them by firing at the top corners.
Roy’s father, Robin Redgrave, was Joe’s closest friend. He was also Donald’s godfather. Much later, Roy was godfather to my brother Alexander. Bear with me. Roy’s wife, Valerie, was godmother to my younger brother, Hugo (technically, he is my half-brother), and Valerie and Roy’s eldest son, another Alexander, was Donald’s godson. Two families roped together in friendship and event. Alexander, who is now sixty, lives quite close to me in London, but I haven’t seen much of him since his parents’ memorial service in 2011. It was after the service that I was given the suitcase, brought by Hugo from his mother’s attic and lugged from his car to mine.
A few weeks ago, I had supper with Alexander in his flat. We sat on low, plaited leather chairs that had somehow been rescued from the family house overlooking the Doftana river, and went through some of his father’s stuff – photographs, mainly, and the Doftana visitors’ book, dated on the first page, in Robin’s hand, ‘1926-1940’. The signatures of Elena and Joe Slomnicki appear on almost every page, and there are other names I recognise.
I’ve also been looking at family photographs in albums retrieved by my uncle Peter from the attic of his Oxfordshire home. I don’t recall ever seeing the albums before, but most of the photographs (except for those that have fallen off their hinges, floating orphans) are annotated in my father’s hand. Peter and I gazed with a magnifying glass at the foxed prints while his wife, Ann, rising to the theme of historical retrieval, told me of a cache of her own family’s letters in the attic (she pointed upwards) dating back to the English Civil War. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed. Peter and Ann and Poppy the dog and the steaming teapot all slipped out of focus. It was as if these dead people in the photographs were looking at me, and not the other way around. I told Peter I wouldn’t take all of the albums, just one for now, and drove back to London. The album was immediately shoved under the sofa. If I can’t see it, maybe it can’t see me – just like the suitcase. I do not want to live with ghosts.
That night, I dreamed I was on a London Underground platform, searching for the exit sign. I followed the stream of passengers, all of whom bypassed a stationary man in a crumpled raincoat. Then, everybody had gone except for this man, who was staring at the ground. It was my father. I went up to him. ‘Daddy. Daddy?’ He didn’t lift his eyes, he didn’t see me. ‘I’m hungry,’ he whispered.
There it is again, the dislocation, the dread feeling that something is in the wrong place. It’s not the obvious – Donald Saunders, dead for decades, riding the Piccadilly Line – though that seemed real enough. It’s that, in my dreams, my father returns and I always recognise him but he never recognises me. He is not the stranger, I am.
A few days before he died, I tried to talk to him. I approached him at his bedside and said: ‘Daddy.’ Correction. What I actually said was, ‘Daddy?’ To my astonishment, he opened his eyes and answered with a question of his own: ‘Yes?’ It was the last word I heard him speak. I was hoping for a suitable ending, a death-bed scene like in the movies, where the dying and the left-behind are jointly gifted a glimpse of the secret pattern which explains why we have to live in order to die – a flare of exaltation, the light that sings eternal, that sort of thing. There was nobody else in the room and I knew there would be no other opportunity to speak to him privately (dying is surrounded by busyness), but I couldn’t find the words, so I said nothing.
Two or three days after he died, I was in the basement kitchen doing nothing in particular. It was a strange time, or non-time, and I don’t remember much about it except this: everybody else in the house had gone to bed, it was silent but for the humming of the fridge, and then I heard my father walking slowly but purposefully along the flagstones of the passage leading to the kitchen door, which was shut. I was immediately aware of his intention: he wanted to talk to me. He came closer and closer, and at the point when I knew him to be on the other side of the door, I shouted at him. ‘No! Please don’t. I can’t. Please go away.’ And he did.
Except he didn’t.
The dream of my father in the Underground-underworld has immobilised me. I have been deadlocked for months. Why is he haunting me? Why must I be at his beck and call? I was wrong about the dead, they do speak. They prowl the perimeters of our lives and, finding the weak spot, they come to us in our dreams and in our memories and tell us to feed them and carry out tasks like opening their suitcases. They make Pandoras of us all, and what good can come of that?
Either I open the suitcase, or I don’t. It’s binary: I can’t half do it, any more than Pandora could half open the box. In any case, it wasn’t a box, it was a jar. Hesiod, writing in the seventh century BC, tells us that Zeus stuffed a jar (pithos) full of every suffering known to mortals and sent it to the house of Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. Pandora, finding herself in the house of Epimetheus, and incurably nosy as all women are, took the stopper out of the jar and let fly the spirits of strife.
A pithos was a large storage jar, typically partly buried in the ground, whose function was to preserve things useful to the living, such as olive oil, wine, grain. It could also be recycled as something useful to the dead: a really big one could be repurposed as a stone coffin, and a not so big one could comfortably accommodate the bones or ashes of a dead person. And from that we get to pyxis (possibly a 16th-century mistranslation of pithos), which means ‘sepulchre’ or ‘casket’, hence Pandora’s box.
The Greeks may have perfected the art of dying, but they were no better at being dead than anybody else. Every year, during a two-day drinking festival, the souls of the dead demanded to be released from their pithoi. The living complied by opening the jars on the first day, but on the second day they anointed their doors with pitch and chewed blackthorn to keep the unruly spirits at bay. The pithoi were then sealed again and the spirits were, literally, stopped.
That’s it. Two days. I will open the suitcase and let its contents speak, but I will protect myself by eating bitter things and then I will close it again and that will be that. I pull the album out from under the sofa and start looking at the photographs again, pretending I’m not really that interested – What do I care? – and unexpectedly, timidly, the past and I seem to be agreeing friendlier terms.
In the nine years since I was given it, the suitcase has sat unopened in my uncle Peter’s attic. Who knows how long it sat in other attics before that – my father died more than twenty years ago, and had moved home many times in the decades before. The suitcase has none of the diaspora chic of Nabokov’s pigskin valise, ‘an elegant, elegantly scuffed piece of luggage’ once owned by his mother, who had acquired it for her wedding trip to Florence. She carried it with her when she fled Russia in 1917, arriving in London with its contents (including a handful of jewels) intact. Thirty years after her death, Nabokov was still travelling with it, ‘from Prague to Paris, from St Nazaire to New York and through the mirrors of more than two hundred motel rooms and rented houses, in 46 states’. For Nabokov, it was fitting – ‘logical and emblematic’ – that the ‘hardiest survivor’ of his Russian heritage was a travel bag. I can’t summon the same muscular response to my father’s suitcase. I can’t lift it because it’s too heavy, in every sense, and I can’t find any reassurance in its existence. It just makes me sad.
There are two reasons, of which I am conscious, I have not yet opened it. The first is that, since my father appeared to know next to nothing about his family, immediate or distant, I’m assuming he never had that kind of information. The second reason flows from the first: if the stuff in his suitcase isn’t about them, it’s probably about us – him, his children – and that, for me at least, threatens a reckoning.
The problem with the first reason is that it assumes too much. Maybe he did come into possession of family documents, but lacked the necessary context or opportunity to shape them into an explanation of where he came from. When I asked Peter recently if he had ever spoken to his parents about the past, he answered, ‘No, never.’ Why not? ‘Well, one of the sad consequences of what happened is that we were so rarely together again as a family. We were all trying to get on with our lives, and by necessity, we were apart. Now, of course, I have so many questions I wish I’d asked.’ If there are papers answering some of these unasked questions, perhaps my father was simply not up to doing anything with them.
The problem with the second reason – that the stuff is about us – is that I might have to realign all my feelings about and for my father. I might have to continue what was suspended that day when I found his love letters to my mother, and move out of the safe place I’ve made in my version of the story. Auden’s ‘lucrative patterns of frustration’ comes to mind: discomfort as its own reward. What if I discover that my father loved me more than I understood, or wanted to understand? That my difficulties in understanding him, and therefore loving him (how can you love someone you don’t know?), were not his fault? If so, I might have to take responsibility for something. For the moment, I think I’ll leave the suitcase where it is and concentrate on what I have found elsewhere.
There’s more family history lying around than I expected. I started at the degree zero of evidence, or so I thought, but I now have several boxes of material, too much to shove under the sofa and pretend it’s not there. Peter has rootled out several folders and more photograph albums from his study, while from my mother a steady drip-drip of information mysteriously emerges from what she calls her filing system, most of which is in unstable piles on the floor or under the kitchen table, waiting, sometimes for decades (such is the system), to be transferred to box files so weighty that the shelves they sit on have sagged and seem to wince at the burden of subjects ranging from EXHUMATION to NAZIS to VATICAN. But that’s another story.
Among some papers Peter gave me a while ago is a family tree, roughly sketched by one of his sons, Joss, in the late 1970s as part of a school history project. On the reverse, Joss’s scribbles make it clear that he was trying to trace any living relatives and get them to answer the question ‘Who Am I?’ Granny Helen, having already entered the fog belt of Alzheimer’s, wasn’t up to the task. Next to her name, Joss has noted: ‘Granny doesn’t feel like writing.’
I was always secretly furious with my father for not telling me his story (I still am, except it’s no longer a secret). I knew there was a story because a detail would sometimes leak out, but on the rare occasions he did signal something relevant he immediately shrank from my questions, as if I were a border guard demanding he empty out his pockets. If telling is an act of giving over one’s possessions, then yes, I was asking for something. But he wouldn’t tell, or couldn’t tell, so I learned not to ask. Perhaps he mistook this for indifference, and, by way of punishing him, that’s what it became. Is this why I’m writing about it all, to say sorry? Or maybe – and it’s not quite the same thing – this is my attempt to make an apology, an account that will set the record straight, even though I know this is an impossible task because so much of the record is lost.
In genealogy, you count about 25 years per generation. If you go back to the early 1800s, that’s nine generations. If you follow both male and female lines back, you will end up with a couple of hundred individuals, but if you trace not only the direct lines, but also every sibling and their offspring, you could easily end up with ten thousand entries on your family tree. Sybille Bedford found the whole thing irksome; one can hear her yawn as she makes her brisk way through it, only to ask, ‘Did one have to have a parent?’, which is not so much a question as a complaint. For better or worse – and there’s plenty of that – we have to come from someone.
When I knew her, Granny Helen always gave the impression that she came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna was her idealised centre of civilisation, a place she visited often in her memories, and I’d always assumed she grew up there. But Joss’s family tree gives her birthplace as Bucharest, 18 November 1901. Her mother, Marie Gottinger, was a German-Austrian born in Cernauti, which is a complicated place to account for because it kept migrating between the Kingdom of Romania, the Habsburg Empire, Ukraine and Russia. You say Cernauti, I say Czernowitz, you say Chernivtsi, I say Czernopol. In this chafing point between East and West, they would overpaint the city’s official buildings when one power succeeded another, but eventually they couldn’t keep up, or they ran out of paint, so all the competing colours sat next to each other. In its Habsburg heyday, it was dubbed Little Vienna, thus confessing its nervousness at being far from the centre of things.
However, Marie Gottinger seems to have spent most of her youth in the real Vienna, until she married Ernst Hotz in 1893. He was Swiss-German, born and raised in Zurich. As a young man trained in engineering he had moved into the oil business in Romania, his successes soon lubricated by the titles of Cavaler (‘Sir’) and Comandor of the Order of the Crown. Each honour came with an impressively large medal and a blue silk sash with instructions on how to wear it, all of which is long lost (perhaps he wore the regalia in his coffin). The couple built an impeccably bourgeois villa in Câmpina and had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Elena, later Granny Helen, was the youngest.
Ernst naturalised himself and his family in 1909 (up to that point they had all been Swiss passport-holders), and a year later he changed the family name to Hotti because hotz translates as ‘burglar’ in Romanian (whereas in German it is linked to the verb hetzen, ‘to run fast’, something a thief might be expected to excel at, so perhaps there is a connection). I can’t fathom why Ernst took so long to relieve the family of his accidentally pejorative surname, or why he used naturalisation to achieve this. Naturalisation is a strange legal device which starts and ends in a contradiction: the ‘natural’ law of citizenship specifies a right determined by blood (jus sanguinis) or birth (jus soli, ‘right of the soil’, as in, sprung from the earth like a potato), so any law that overrides it, one might argue, though no one does, is itself unnatural. Ernst and Marie met neither qualification, and seem to have flourished in Romania without them. Their children qualified by birth, but, by blood, they were ‘naturally’ Austrian, ‘naturally’ German and ‘naturally’ Swiss, which makes a mockery of the whole concept.
Ernst Hotti and his family were now Romanian on paper, but they spoke and wrote in German and French, brought their children up in the traditions and family-silver refinement of Mitteleuropean culture, and surrounded themselves with Hungarian cooks and starched Austrian Schwesters as a bulwark against actual Romanians, who were seen, in the main, as illiterate and piteously underdeveloped. I suppose Elena did grow up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire after all.
In 1925, she changed her nationality for the third time when she married Joe Slomnicki, who, on paper at least, was British. From his naturalisation file we learn that he was born in Lodz on 4 December 1893. His father, Bernard Slomnicki, a businessman trading oil products, and his mother, Zofia Moszkowska, were both Polish subjects, or so Joe wrote on his application, but technically they weren’t, because Poland in their time didn’t feature on the map as anything other than a fraction of the Russian Empire known as Congress Poland.
As far as I can discover, everyone with the name Slomnicki came originally from a small town of the same name, 15 miles north-east of Krakow. The Slomnickis took their name from the Hebrew for Solomon, Shlomo, ‘man of peace’, the same biblical root that gives us Shalom. They were shtetl Jews, many of whom were shoemakers, butchers, glaziers or ironmongers. A few were farmers. Bernard, Joe’s father, seems to have belonged to the minority of merchants, bankers and factory-owners who, in the mid 19th century, sought their fortunes in the industrial powerhouses of Warsaw, Vilna, Krakow and Lodz.
It was in Lodz that Bernard met Zofia Moszkowska, whose family can be traced to a 16th-century Russian tsadik, or ‘righteous one’, though I don’t know what his name was or where he was doing his righteousness. In Zofia’s time, the Moszkowskis produced Moritz, a composer much admired by Liszt, and Moritz’s brother Alexander, a well-known writer and philosopher. There is good reason to believe that these were Zofia’s nephews, in fact I’m pretty sure they were. Jews who stayed in the Jewish faith inevitably intermarried, and Polish Jewry did this to the point that it’s almost impossible to unpick the connecting threads. Zofia’s mother was a Slomnicka, which means that her husband, Bernard Slomnicki, was her cousin, but to get there I might as well be supplying directions on how to drive from Wrexham to Ulaanbaatar. It’s complicated.
I haven’t been able to establish when or why Bernard and Zofia hauled out of Lodz, although as a very rich city which sat on a very poor city, it was prone to waves of industrial unrest and, as night follows day, pogroms. This might also explain why they had their two sons baptised as Anglicans, a form of camouflage not uncommon at the time (though rarely extended to girls). Certainly, by 1910, they were living comfortably in Wiesbaden with all their children, until the outbreak of war saw them expelled from Germany as ‘Russian enemy aliens’, at which point they fled to Amsterdam. The family then separated, possibly to lengthen the odds of survival. Joe’s sisters Henja and Rosalia, with Rosalia’s two young sons, stayed in Holland; Zofia took the eldest son, Edward, to Copenhagen (why exchange neutral Holland for neutral Denmark?), while Bernard managed to take Joe and another sister, Madzja, to London where they were all registered under the Aliens Restriction Order. Joe, now 21, enrolled to study geology as a ‘refugee student’ at the Royal School of Mines (part of Imperial College), his fees paid by his father, who appears to have shored up some funds in England.
Edward arrived in London soon afterwards, leaving his mother alone in Copenhagen. None of them would see her again. In late 1916, both brothers were called up, Edward to the Army Service Corps and Joe to the Royal Engineers as a sapper. Like all recruits, they were required to hold a Bible and take the oath of allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, his heirs and successors. According to Joe’s army record, he was demobilised three years later with ‘good character’, and no medals to suggest that his intention was anything other than to stay alive.
I sent a copy of Joe’s naturalisation file to my uncle Peter, who has written to say that I now know more about his father’s early years than he does. Come to think of it, I know more than Joe himself knew, as he wasn’t privy to the complete dossier on his application. The last line in the folder reads: ‘The [Special Branch] report on the applicant and his reference is rather unfavourable, but not sufficiently as to justify a refusal.’ There had been a fine for not shading a lamp during blackout, a contested debt with a landlady in Maida Vale – small infringements, but enough, on a bad day, to stop Joe’s passage through the eye of the Home Office needle. The paperwork was stamped on 15 January 1921. He had scraped a British passport, and it would save his life.
There being no prospect of finding oil in Britain, Joe immediately took himself off to Romania, where he met Robin Redgrave, and together they roamed the oil-rich Prahova valley with their pickaxes looking for the tell-tale seams that would bring them their fortunes. Joe, who knew a thing or two about losing everything (his father’s investments in oil had ended in bankruptcy), soon exchanged the insecurity of freelancing for a permanent job at Steaua Romana, whose director was Ernst Hotti. Within a few years, he had married the boss’s daughter, Elena, and the couple were comfortably installed in their house in Câmpina.
The country Joe and Elena lived in was called Greater Romania, which had been much smaller until its borders were redrawn at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Romania being a joke in diplomatic circles – ‘So young, and already a Romanian!’ was a favourite quip – it was something of a surprise when the country doubled its size. This success owed much to Queen Marie, who turned up in Paris, uninvited, to woo the war victors. Her husband, Ferdinand, may have been the king, but it was said there was only one man in Romania and that was the queen. ‘Ah, si j’étais roi,’ was her constant complaint. For a while, she was.
Marie threw everything she had – haute couture and chutzpah, disabling charm, well-rehearsed argument – into the task of promoting Romania’s claims. ‘Romania needs a face,’ she told a reporter in Paris, ‘and I have come to show mine.’ Faced with her sophistication, quick intelligence and resolve, the frockcoats of Versailles revisited their prejudices towards her country as a Balkan outlier, mockably unreliable and backward. At the end of the peace conference, the country that had previously been squashed between the Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian Empires emerged as the fifth largest nation in Europe, a territorial gain proportionally greater than that of any other power.
The new map of Romania was beautiful and, it transpires, designed to be. Emmanuel de Martonne, the cartographer who dealt with Romania at Versailles, boasted that the country, which had previously looked ‘like a set-square’, was now ‘round and perfect’. To achieve this, four provinces had been acquired from other countries, along with their populations: the Austrians of Bukovina, the Russians of Bessarabia, the Bulgarians of southern Dobrudja, and the Hungarians of Transylvania and elsewhere (there was now more of Hungary in Romania than there was in Hungary). Once the new frontiers had been settled on the ground, eight and a half million people stepped out of their houses and found themselves in a different country. Sometimes we cross the border, sometimes the border crosses us.
Elena had not been able to attend the celebrations marking this success, as she was languishing with a collapsed lung in a Swiss sanatorium. I imagine the sanatorium (on a magic mountain, surely), the weekly X-rays, the long intervals of restive, unmagical thinking. She might well have dwelled on the terrifying events of November 1916, when she, just 15, had fled the German army as it converged on Bucharest.
According to a story that has filtered through the sieve of family memory, the roads in and around Câmpina were clogged with refugees, among them Elena and her older sister Marta, huddled over each other in a horse-drawn cart, close enough to the German advance to see it, behind them black clouds of gas pouring out of the largest petroleum tank in Europe. The sisters clutched each other and the small treasures they were carrying as barter for their lives. Whatever else might have been cashed in, Elena managed to hold on to a 22-carat, chain-link gold bracelet which I was to inherit. I’ve no idea why Elena’s parents do not figure in this story. No sign either of her brother, Henri. Did they remain in Câmpina to protect their home – if you leave during a war, the enemy will smash everything and shit in your saucepans – or did they follow the girls to the Russian border after the full disaster had unfolded? Either way, Elena’s souvenir of her first flight from home was tuberculosis.
In late 1920, after a year in the sanatorium, she returned to Romania, where she met Joe. They got married and launched themselves on the cocktail circuit of the largely expatriate community that was producing and riding the oil boom of Greater Romania. The principal stage for these gatherings was a country estate perched on a plateau overlooking the Doftana river, just outside Câmpina. This was the parental home of Elena’s childhood friend, Micheline, who was now married to Robin Redgrave. Micheline, a concert pianist, was beautiful, talented and fun. She was also well connected, part of the small elite – courtiers, bankers, diplomats, industrialists – who were fuelling Romania’s drive towards the greatness conferred by the signatories of Versailles.
The task of binding Greater Romania into a cohesive nation-state fell to the Hohenzollern monarchy, itself a recent German import. The Hohenzollerns couldn’t even speak Romanian properly, but were forgiven because they brought prestige to the country. ‘I grew up … in the belief that our glory, like that of the sun, was an unquestioned reality,’ Queen Marie, who embodied Romania’s postwar aspirations, once said. Often dressed in local costume (‘sacrificing elegance for patriotism’, in her words), she positioned herself as the mother of her people, the vast majority of whom were dirt poor, but seemed not to resent her collection of palaces and castles. She collected kings for sons-in-law, grafting two of her three daughters onto the crowns of Yugoslavia and Greece (narrowly losing out on Bulgaria for the third).
Her eldest son, Carol, was a different matter. The best his father could say for him was that he was ‘like Emmenthaler cheese – excellent but for the holes’. Carol had disgraced himself during the war by deserting his post to contract a left-handed marriage to Zizi Lambrino, with whom he had a son. He was extracted from this union by his parents and the courts, which found it illegal, and set up with Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark. They married, she tolerated him until a son was born seven months later (prompting a variety of rumours), at which point Carol swiftly commenced a long and scandalous affair with the hip-swinging redhead Magda Lupescu, a divorcée with expensive taste who was whispered to be of Jewish descent.
In refusing to renounce Lupescu, Carol forfeited his right to succession and in 1925 the adulterous couple left Romania for exile in Paris. As a result, when King Ferdinand died two years later, it was Michael, Carol’s five-year-old son by Princess Helen, who was crowned under a regency. Three years later, the boy king was unseated in a quiet coup by his father, who flew into Bucharest under cover of night (Lupescu followed later). Carol had chosen his moment carefully: his mother was out of the country – in Oberammergau, of all places, attending the Passion Play. On 8 June 1930, Carol was proclaimed king, a development rapturously received by the Romanian populace.
Elena Slomnicki, barely one month pregnant with her first child and therefore unaware of the fact (such are the dispensations of history, we get to know before she does), cannot have welcomed the coup. As a teenager, she and Micheline had been frequent visitors to the palace of Buftea, principal seat of Marie’s lover, Prince Barbu Stirbei. On one occasion, Elena had come down with a fever when she was there and been confined to bed. To alleviate the boredom, Stirbei’s long-suffering wife, Nadeje, appeared in her room one morning with a beautifully ornamented box, from which she extracted a series of dazzling jewels and spread them over the counterpane. She then left Elena to admire this little selection from the crown jewels of Queen Marie, who presumably was attending to other affairs.
Having been warmed, however modestly, by the sun of Marie’s court, Elena could hardly wish for the shadow that was now cast over it as Carol, jealous and resentful, moved to eclipse the influence of his mother and her lover. Marie, ‘mother-in-law of the Balkans’, was starved of money and left to arrange the flowers in her several palaces, while Prince Stirbei was forced into exile. Greater Romania was now the stage for a vain and feckless man, who was fixated with uniforms. He personally redesigned them every year, paying particular attention to headgear: visor hats, fore-and-afts, pom-pom kepis, berets, bearskins, plumed helmets. The kitsch of Greater Romania under Carol’s rule qualifies for what Susan Sontag called ‘failed seriousness’: one visiting journalist who was granted an interview with the king was astonished to encounter an aide-de-camp in full military rig, ‘a Hollywood ensemble of bright blue and red, golden braid and tassels, and shining, clanking sword’.
The new king embarked on a major enlargement of the royal palace in Bucharest, a gloomy two-storey building. Greater Romania demanded a fitting ceremonial centrepiece, and to that end he set about demolishing the area around the palace to create a square big enough to parade its achievements. As he fussed over plans for his neoclassical palace, oblivious to the fact that new nations tend to express themselves through a pastiche of antiquity, others foraged the millennia for a past that might legitimise the present.
Confirmation of Romanian-ness, it was alleged, lay in Trajan’s Imperial Roman province of Dacia, whose inhabitants had outlasted the Roman occupation and maintained an unbroken period of settlement in Transylvania. There was some confusion in this thesis: on the one hand, Romania’s biological patrimony came directly from local tribes that had avoided contamination by the Romans; on the other hand, or hands, true Romanians were descended from the bastards begot from Dacian women who succumbed to the dashing Roman conquerors, and/or Rome simply forgot to bring its soldiers home in 274 AD when the Emperor Aurelian withdrew from Dacia, and/or Rome didn’t want to repatriate the garrison of this hardship post in the northern wall of the empire because it had gone rogue. Either way, it was the Latinity of these Transylvanian ancestors that was important, a legacy still evident not only in the country’s name, Romania, but also in its language (Latin, smudged) and expressions such as ‘By Father Trajan’, which could well have come down from the lost legions of Dacia.
I can find no evidence that Elena and Joe Slomnicki identified with the characters around King Carol – ‘a horrible set of low adventurers’, according to his own mother – or the stage props of his reign, let alone felt any sympathy for the fast accelerating blood and soil nationalism of Greater Romania. On the contrary, everything about their lives at this point suggests they were invested in internationalism. Between them, they could speak and write in six languages, their living derived from the multinational co-operation of the oil industry, and their cultural outlook was just that, a looking out rather than in. It’s not that my grandparents shunned a sense of belonging – I don’t doubt their intention was to continue their life in Romania – but they didn’t have the expectation of a life confirmed or delimited by a single national identity.
All these zigzags in the past can be of no interest to young children, because they live in the here and now. It’s not that they don’t have memory, it’s that childhood is its own estate, free from the malady of history. So, when a turn of the dial on Joe’s new radio set in the sitting room at Câmpina conjures up a man in Berlin who screams about historical injustices and lost lands, Donald, six, and Peter, four, have no greater concern than what they are going to do that day. Perhaps it is a Sunday, in which case there is Sunday School in Ploieşti run by a former army chaplain, Harold Chalmer Bell (he is also a people smuggler, though he doesn’t know that yet). Sunday School is fun, the Redgrave children are there, and they sing a few happy hymns, listen agog to Padre Bell’s stories – he has a black beard and they believe he is a magician – and leave clutching a handful of stickers to put in their attendance books. All this is conducted in English, which Donald and Peter have started to learn with the aid of an English au pair, Miss Weldon. (On the day she arrived, Peter remembers, the boys rushed to show her the radio, turned the dial to the BBC, and shrieked: ‘Spik Inglish, Missie Weldon! Spik Inglish!’)
After Sunday school, a treat, perhaps a trip to Bucharest to visit Kisslinger’s stamp shop (open seven days a week, like much else in the capital), where Donald likes to spend his pocket money. They take the local train, which is probably late, unlike the Orient Express, which stops three times a week at Câmpina before making its final run to Bucharest. Their train trundles along next to dusty country roads, through fields of maize and sunflowers, and past clusters of oil derricks and pumpjacks that peck the ground like giant birds. On the outskirts of Bucharest there are lumberyards with freshly cut resinous logs piled high in blocks, and slums with open drains where pock-marked children in bare feet play next to the tracks with hoops and jack-stones.
The journey takes about an hour and ends in the Gara de Nord, which, like the streets beyond, is rowdy with commerce: vendors with trays hanging from their necks piled high with Turkish delight, to be chased down with cold spring water carried in wooden jugs and served from a metal cup on a chain clipped to the vendor’s waist. Fifty bani for half a Turkish delight, one leu for a whole one. Others yell ‘Braga racit!’, cool millet beer, poured into glasses from a pump on the seller’s back. On every pavement there are people selling black garlicky sausages dipped in red sauce, cups of steaming onion soup, yoghurt, sesame cakes, flowers, matches.
It’s a short walk from the station to the corner of Strada Episcopiei at the junction with Bucharest’s main boulevard, Calea Victoriei. Here stands the most elegant grand hotel in the Balkans, styled after the Meurice and the Ritz in Paris: the Athénée Palace, where members of the international press and various intriguers trade gossip for cocktails in the English Bar. Donald is already a veteran of the Athénée, having several times ridden the lift with Roy Redgrave, who was born in a room on the second floor and therefore has special privileges, including visiting the kitchens to taste the caracs, small chocolate cakes covered in hard green icing. Joe and Elena sometimes come here for an aperitif (an Amalfi, perhaps, the house combination of vermouth and tuica) and a dollop of red caviar before going to the Athenaeum for a concert – it might be George Enescu conducting one of his own compositions, or Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin – or to see a movie at one of the many cinemas that line Regina Elisabeta Boulevard.
Further down Calea Victoriei is the famous confiserie, Capsa’s, with its pastries and gateaux, crystallised fruits, rose petal jam, chocolates sold in wooden boxes with dovetail corners. There is also Dragomir’s delicatessen, selling golden trout from the mountain streams, oranges from Jaffa, sturgeon six feet long, yellow honey, red caviar from Manchuria, hams from Prague, and all the wines of Europe. Then there is the Lafayette department store with its wondrous window displays (at Christmas, there is a Santa Claus standing in fake snow, and a train that keeps moving in a circle).
Joe enters the Lafayette with Peter, while Elena proceeds with Donald to Kisslinger’s, on the other side of the boulevard. Stamps being at the centre of his object world, Donald is immediately on tiptoe, scanning the glass display cases. Elena waits patiently, her gaze drawn to the boulevard’s Belle Epoque buildings and the modernaki not-quite-skyscraper opposite. The Paris of the East. Donald calls her over to show her a stamp. It’s the man on the radio. She tells him he doesn’t need to buy it, he already has three of the same issue. (Here they are in his Kisslinger album: dark green six-pfennig stamps bearing the first portrait of Adolf Hitler to appear on a German stamp, issued 5 April 1937 to celebrate his 48th birthday. The pimp’s forelock is carefully combed to one side.) Donald chooses something else, pays for his purchase, and the shopkeeper throws down the coins one by one on a flat stone on the counter to decide, by the ring of the impact, if they are counterfeit. Elena sighs: they don’t do that in Paris.
Outside, the boulevard is heaving with passers-by, loafers, beggars, knots of peasants and vendors shouting their wares. In this huge jostling are Albanians, Turks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Tatars, Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Greeks, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Roma. Paris recedes and the East comes closer. Elena, always nostalgic for another world, steps around the rinds of sucked-out watermelons, and wishes she could unsee this one.
The Stamp Album: Hitler, Mussolini, George VI, Farouk I, Stalin, Roosevelt, Reza Shah, Ghazi, Hirohito, Ataturk, Zog, Horthy, Victor Emmanuel III, Leopold III, Haakon VII, Carol II, Peter II. Zeppelins, ships, aeroplanes, dams, bridges, mountains, eagles perching, eagles soaring, peasants threshing, workers smelting, surgeons stitching. Geniuses, madmen, heroes, villains, take your pick. History in miniature, light as air, a whisper not a shout: this is the world we have made, admire it, admire us, even as we lie waxily in state or burn next to the bunker.
The albums also describe the collector. Thousands of stamps, hundreds of hours of inspection and ordering and careful handling; interleaving them in stock books with pockets of thin glassine paper; lifting out the best with tweezers to be slotted into hinges or glued onto presentation pages; captioning each stamp or series in tiny script underlined several times with a ruler. The precision of the line, the principle – the act – of order over the collapse of rule. Every time I look at these albums, I see the child who sits, deep in concentration, his legs curled around the rungs of his favourite chair (to every chair its own geography), trying to shape the world as he wants it to be.
It’s as though what started as a hobby fast became a psychological necessity. Stamp-collecting offered Donald a way to tame geography and fix boundaries. Surrounded by adults who were not-from-here-people, most of whom had been bullied by history in some way or other, I think he absorbed, from a very early age, the anxiety of displacement. His mother, as I remember her, was a human via dolorosa: her face at rest was a study of unease, and even when smiling she seemed tethered to unhappiness. Joe died the year I was born, so I never knew him, but in photographs he, too, looks as if life has taught him to balk contentment. The air around him seems heavy. I may be wrong, but I always had the suspicion that the dark regions of my father’s mind were an inherited estate.
As adults, mired in memory, we envy the innocence of childhood, forgetting that it is innocence which leaves the child undefended against the baffling, repeated affronts of daily life, each one landing like a hammer blow: the lost toy, the foisted vegetables and you will not leave the table until you have eaten them, the bedtime story curtailed, the light turned out. Gradually, the child’s developing sensorium organises these stunning events into a map of pain whose legend supplies the key to a less turbulent passage: the lost toy is usually found, ice cream mitigates the cabbage, the bedtime story is resumed the following evening.
But there are places you don’t ever want to stray into. On his seventh birthday, Donald was given an air rifle. He took it outside, aimed it at a bird sitting on a telegraph pole, and fired. A pause, and then the songbird dead at his feet, its fall describing the plummeting soul of its assassin, who still talked of his guilt half a century later. There were other shocks, each belonging to that shapeless and shifting suspicion, impossible to define, of something being innately wrong in the world: running out of the house one lunchtime as it was being wrestled by an earthquake and returning to discover that part of the ceiling had fallen into his plate (he was keeping the best bits till last, a practice he immediately and permanently reversed); having his tonsils removed in a dentist’s chair, only half-knocked out by a glass of brandy (a botched procedure; the tonsils reappeared when he was 15); watching a scrawny bear waddling upright on a chain, a Turkish fez on its skull and a tambourine tied to one paw.
The story I’ve always told myself is that my father’s childhood ended abruptly at the exact moment the gods chose to unload their discombobulations onto his innocent head, but I’m coming to see it more as a series of small shoves that hustled him, prematurely, across the boundary that was meant to protect him from too much contact with the sins of the world.
Part Two will follow in the next issue.