Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
‘Give it to me.’ Vivienne held out her hand.
She took a paper bag stained with brown evil-smelling splotches and disappeared. Kate was mortified: dirt and best friends were somehow incompatible, but Vivienne seemed unconcerned, she returned, hands empty and smiling.
‘God I’d hate to be a boarder. I feel so sorry for you, can’t even throw away a rotten apple. And I suppose you have to eat all your meals?’ Kate nodded. ‘Even spinach and brussel sprouts?’ Kate nodded again. ‘Do they ever give you junket?’ Another nod. Vivienne dropped to the floor beside the bed and wrapped Kate’s legs in her arms. ‘I kneel before ye, oh brave and wonderful lady. That ye have survived junket places ye – or should that be thee? – above the heavens.’
Kate began to laugh. ‘Get up, you silly thing.’
Vivienne joined Kate on the bed. ‘To more worthy pursuits then. Where’s the sonnet you told me about, the one that proves Shakespeare wrote to a man.’
Kate read, ‘ “A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,/ Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion.” QED,’ she said when she was finished.
‘Personally I prefer girls,’ Vivienne said. ‘Although I suppose Mr W.H. was very pretty, for a man, that is.’
Kate nodded, she thought so.
‘May I have a look?’ Vivienne took the bundle of poems from Kate and read one or two. Then she sat for some minutes neither reading nor talking. At last she spoke.
‘Have you seen
yet?’ She spoke slowly as was her way when planning something. Kate shook her head, she did not
even know what
was. ‘It’s a film, a musical,’ Vivienne explained, ‘and in it there’s a beautiful Hawaiian girl with long black hair who falls in love with an American lieutenant who is very handsome and they kiss under water. It’s a long kiss too, and
wet.’ Vivienne laughed.
‘How do they breathe?’
‘That’s what I was going to ask you.’
Kate applied herself to the problem. ‘Did you see bubbles from their noses?’
‘I’ll confess, Kate, I thought the kissing so marvellous that I didn’t notice things like bubbles.’
‘All right then, what did you notice?’
‘Only that they seemed to be enjoying themselves.’
‘Well obviously if that was the case they weren’t suffocating.’
Later, when Kate had finished in the shower and stood drying herself, Vivienne turned to her and said,
‘How about it, Kate, do you want to try? Do you want to kiss under water?’
Kate nodded, wondering if this was in the service of science or merely a new delight of friendship.
‘What about your grandparents?’ she asked.
‘They won’t bother us. This is not the boarding-school, private baths are the norm here.’ She laughed at Kate’s worried look. ‘Believe me, Kate, no one will disturb us.’
The shower was over the bath, which was fortunate, Vivienne said, because they could keep the shower running throughout the experiment and no one would be any the wiser. She put the plug in the bath and turned on all taps. When the water was a few inches deep, Vivienne surveyed the bath and the bodies. ‘The legs will be the main problem,’ she said, and hopped into the bath swivelling her legs to one end. ‘Now, you get in too, your legs towards the plug so our heads meet in the centre.’
Kate burst out laughing. ‘You’d need a body like a banana to do it that way. Why don’t we try on all fours?’
‘Because that way my head is about six inches above the water.’
‘So it is, mine too.’ Kate thought for a moment. ‘Won’t your grandparents be suspicious if our hair is wet?’
‘Suspicious of what?’
‘Anything. I mean are you allowed to have wet hair any night of the week?’
‘What an extraordinary question. I’ve no idea, I’ve never thought about it.’
Life, Kate decided, was an easy matter for some people.
‘But we still haven’t solved our problem,’ Vivienne said. She twisted and turned, the head went down and up, but if her head was under water there was no space for Kate’s head; as for lips meeting, they were feet away from that. Vivienne sat back in the bath, her thick dark hair dripping over her shoulders, her dark skin almost silver in the fluorescent light. There was a suntan mark where her bathers began, and small breasts which Kate tried not to notice. She giggled.
‘Come on Kate, this is no laughing matter. There has to be a way.’
Kate removed her eyes from all the bare skin and considered the problem. ‘I’ve got it!’ she said suddenly. ‘The heads have to be under water, but there’s no reason why the bodies do.’
‘It looks better, and it’s certainly more romantic.’
‘I thought we were doing this for science.’
‘It’s clear you haven’t seen the film.’
‘Come on, Vivienne, out of the bath. And do you think we could turn off the shower? There’s water everywhere.’
With the shower off, the two girls knelt at the edge of the bath, tipped their bare buttocks in the air and leaned over the side.
‘You’re sure no one will come in?’ Kate asked.
‘Well, do you think we should put some towels on the floor?’
‘Too late for that.’
‘Are you ready then? Deep breath. Go!’
And in went the heads and almost as quickly out again. The girls spluttered and snorted and tried to blow the water from their noses, laughing so much they inhaled even more.
‘I think we’ll need to improve on this method,’ Vivienne said, still laughing.
‘We’ll just have to hold our noses.’
They didn’t in
‘I bet they stuffed their nostrils with something.’
‘No!’ said Vivienne. ‘It was all too beautiful for that.’
‘Maybe so, but they didn’t have to do it in a bath. We’re doing this under difficult conditions, we have to improvise.’
Vivienne still muttering about how ridiculous this would have looked in the film, joined with Kate in putting hand to nose, and with bare bodies hooked over the edge of the bath, the two girls rubbed knuckles under water.
‘You’ll have to turn your head one way and I’ll turn mine the other so the hands are out of the way,’ Kate said.
So over the side they went again, bottoms in the air, legs waving, faces under and then a touch of lips and a bit of pressure through a curtain of hair.
‘But with so much else to think about – holding your nose, the edge of the bath cutting you in two, the cold air, and all that hair – it was a bit hard to know how it felt,’ Vivienne said when it was over.
‘I don’t know about that.’ Kate was sitting back on her haunches, a sweet smile on her wet face. ‘I felt it and it was rather nice. Want to try again?’
But at that moment Mrs Rosten called the girls to hurry: dinner was nearly ready. The girls dried their hair as best they could, powdered themselves and dressed in nighties and dressing gowns. The towels were drenched so they used their facewashers to mop the floor. Kate’s hand was on the door knob when Vivienne leaned towards her and kissed her on the cheek.
‘I think the dry ones might be better,’ she said, ‘either that or we need a lot more practice under water.’ The two girls smiled and with arms about each other walked into the kitchen.
‘Did you actually wash or just let it soak off?’ Lottie Rosten left the stove and came towards them. ‘Let’s have a good look at you both.’ She put an arm around each girl and started rubbing them. ‘You’re both freezing! And look at your hair! Were you diving or washing?’ She gave them both a squeeze. ‘I’ll turn on the radiator and you can warm up while I finish dinner.’
The girls sat on stools in front of the radiator, chatting with Mrs
Rosten as she prepared the meal. They nominated themselves as chief tasters, in which capacity they tried everything and felt even hungrier. ‘Dinner won’t be long,’ she said. ‘If you’re warm enough, perhaps you’d set the table for me.’
They collected cutlery, napkins and plates and laid the table, taking special care with the Rostens’ settings. Kate had known them for less than three hours and already adored them, as for Vivienne, she thought there were no better nor kinder nor more loving people in the entire world than her grandparents.
Martin Rosten was a teacher and scholar, a man of great dignity, charm and intelligence. Born in 1895, he radiated an old-fashioned air with his three-piece suits worn with watch and chain no matter what the temperature or the occasion, shoes always shined, and his thick grey hair and clipped beard perfectly groomed. He looked like Freud, Vivienne would decide later, even down to the hornrimmed glasses, but as a child it was enough that he was her perfect Papa.
Until his retirement earlier in the year, he had taken Vivienne with him to the university during her school holidays, had walked with her around the gardens naming the plants and telling her the myths and legends that were associated with them. She knew her way around the university library before she was ten, knew how to occupy herself there while Martin did his work. And from the time she was a little girl, long before she came to live with the Rostens, she would tiptoe into his study, too quiet to disturb him, and when he realised she was there or when he had finished what he was doing, she was never sure which, he would put her on his knee and talk to her about his work. It made no difference that she was a child and he a great scholar, he spoke to Vivienne in ways she could understand, relating vast tracts of history full of battles and intrigues and love and loss, and always he would ask her what she thought, always he encouraged her to have opinions and express them.
He was essentially a very moral person, as Vivienne herself would become, and a gentle man. Never had Vivienne heard him raise his voice, and certainly not to Lottie, whom he adored. If he disagreed with something, if he thought someone had behaved
badly, he would resort to reason, and if that failed, then, he said, there was nothing else to be done. He was a remarkable man who inspired respect and love, so that years after they’d left the university former students would visit, discussing their work with him, introducing their partners and their children, even naming sons after him. He was like that, counsel and mentor to so many, including his granddaughter and her young friends.
As for Lottie Rosten, her very appearance invited love. She was short, even shorter than Martin, and fat, with a huge bosom which was invariably clothed in a mass of brilliant flowers. She could not resist a floral print, the more gaudy the better. That she loved flowers – pansies, roses, exotic strelitzias, hyacinths, delicate wisteria, freesias – was advertised on this bosom of hers. And the bosom grew larger with the flowers, fairly bloomed with them, while the stature was further shortened. For a shape like Mrs Rosten’s, Kate’s mother would have advised simple, unaffected clothes made in a material that was ‘right and proper for a woman her age’ like a small check, or a stripe ‘going downwards, not round her girth and making it worse’.
Lottie Rosten knew she was fat but she did not dwell on it. Not that she was selfless like so many women of her generation, her life was too full for that, but neither was she self-consumed like the generations that would follow. She was warm and energetic and full of common sense and curiosity. She knew how to listen and she knew how to talk. Such conversation! ‘If it’s worth spending time with people, then you should make an effort with conversation,’ she used to say. Conversation was like preparing a meal. ‘You don’t cook for just anyone, you don’t eat with just anyone, and you should take the same care with conversation.’
And yet it seemed she could talk with everybody: children, youth, adults, all were drawn to her. She had an uncanny knack of perceiving the essence in people, of bypassing the stylish exteriors that people use to protect themselves. So, in later years when Kate was a young woman telling Mrs Rosten about some impudent fellow who had dared suggest the type of man who would make her happy, Lottie Rosten’s comment was succinct – ‘Is there one?’ – and the smile on her old face suggested
she knew everything about Kate’s unconventional life – most particularly those aspects Kate had been at pains to conceal.
When Lottie Rosten finally died at the age of eighty-two, Temple Beth Israel was full. Everyone talked of the special relationship they’d had with her. Kate had thought she was the only one, but after talking with the eighteen-year-old who used to pop in at six for a chat and a cream sherry with Nana Rosten, and the ninety-year-old Paddie who tended Mrs Rosten’s strelitzias and roses and planted the borders of freesias and pansies, who, for nearly fifty years had taken a cup of tea with her and a couple of Nice biscuits, after talking to people like these, Kate’s memories grew as did the woman herself.
A special woman she was; a pianist too, although marriage to Martin had put limits to that. He was an old-fashioned man, he said, and while he admired and appreciated his wife’s great talent, he wanted a companion – at home in Australia, not on the concert platforms of the world. This would not stop them from attending concerts, he said, nor even Lottie’s performing occasionally, but a full-time career as a concert pianist was not in Martin’s idea of marriage. Fortunately it worked both ways: after his second book was published, Martin was invited to take up a position at a French university, but this was not part of Lottie’s idea of marriage. Her family was in Australia, Judith, their only child, had already started school and besides, recent developments in Germany suggested that Jews should keep well away from Europe. And so they stayed in Australia. Judith grew up and became a sculptor, Martin wrote many more books than he would have had he gone to Europe, and Lottie took pupils and gave occasional concerts.
Her hands were not the hands of a pianist. They were like the rest of her body, although not nearly as fat, more squat and strong. And yet they took on series of octaves and four-note chords, stretching and jumping as if much larger. Nana Rosten always said one had to try, that life would be a tedious ride if one only ever performed to expectation. From the beginning, she had been told that with hands so small she should restrict herself to Mozart and Bach, and although she adored both that was not the point: she was the one who sat at the piano hour after hour, day after day,
it should be her decision whom she would play. Years later with a repertoire consisting mainly of Mozart and Bach she was able to say it had been her choice, and although Rachmaninov and Chopin were a little too flamboyant for her taste she kept up with a couple of each ‘just to make a point.’