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Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Little Caesar (4 page)

BOOK: Little Caesar
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Then it clicked into place.


‘Hello, Joanna.’

She spread her arms and wrapped me in a musty embrace.

‘Ludwig, it’s so good to see you. My lord, come in, come in. Welly, go fuck yourself !’

She slammed the door. On the other side, Wellington was still going out of his mind, scratching his nails against the wood.

‘He’s such a dear,’ she said, ‘but so jealous. The children gave him to me. That way they don’t have to worry much about their old mother, they figure. I’ll let him in when he calms down a bit.’

But on the other side of the door, Wellington was not giving the impression of a dog soon tuckered out. Joanna led me down the pine-paneled hallway to the tiny, low-ceilinged living room. It was hot inside. No windows were open.

‘Would you like some tea? Or is it already time for something more fortified? Would you . . . ?’

I saw that she was doing her best to keep moving, to keep up the cheerful tone, not to drop a single stitch for fear that otherwise she would come tumbling down, once and for all.

Before the window was an ironing board, on the TV screen the anchorwoman on Channel 4 spoke to me intently without a sound crossing her lips. I leaned down to look at the proliferation of picture frames on the sideboard. Three sons and a daughter, decked out with good saintly names, surrounded by their partners and children. I’d never had much to do with them, they were older than me; two of them had already left home by the time we moved to the hill. One photo showed Warren and Joanna with three children around them; a fourth one, still a baby, lay in Joanna’s arms. Warren had a short black beard and dark-framed spectacles – no trace yet of the tattered Viking king I had known. He only became that once he left Joanna for Catherine, and moved to number 17. Since then Joanna had flown the Union Jack, never at half-mast, never lowered. It was a minor diplomatic provocation, Joanna knew that ‘the Irishwoman’ could see the flag from her window.

The war between Joanna and Catherine knew neither surges nor truces. It simply lasted as long they both would live. I knew that Catherine, who did not have a driver’s license, never allowed herself to be driven past Joanna’s house on her way to the supermarket or Alburgh’s Catholic church, but always went via Flint Road and on to the back route. I suspected that during the years they had both lived on the hill they had seen each other at close range no more than two or three times, and that they otherwise remained phantoms in each other’s eyes. Their jealousy was in perfect balance, and had to do with the factor of time: time that both of them had not spent with Warren. Catherine grew feeble with rage whenever she spoke of the time during which Joanna was married to him.

‘Twenty-five years she stole from me,’ I once heard her say.

Every word of it was true. Warren reveled in possessing a woman who fought for every atom of his being.

Joanna in turn would not have hesitated to poison the Irishwoman for letting Warren give her the rest of his days. That was the bitter heart of their conflict: time. About the days they had not woken up beside Warren, not heard him gargling with mouthwash, not heard the door click shut when he left for the office, not seen him cut the cold roast or seen him slurp down his infamous homemade jellied fish. (My God, sometimes as many as twenty jars appeared on the table at once, each one containing something different from what the label promised, each one preserved with his own hands. ‘Eat,’ Warren said, and you ate. What you were eating you didn’t dare to ask, you chewed with bated breath and swallowed it all down. That’s what you did.)

‘Oh, Ludwig,’ I heard her say behind me, ‘it’s so sweet of you to drop by and see me. I was dying to know whether you had come, with this situation and all. Where were you when you heard?’

She put two mugs down on cork coasters. Through the smoked glass of the dining table I saw a pair of mangled slippers, newspapers Wellington had torn to bits.

‘Would you like some milk, love? I didn’t put any in it. You always did like my tea, didn’t you, Ludwig? Pour the boiling water right onto the leaves? And only first flush? You haven’t forgotten, have you?’

I was startled by the dog, that suddenly jumped up against the window outside. It drew its nails down the glass, it looked as though there were a little trampoline beneath the window. A horrible thing to see, that leaping dog trying to wrest a position of honor among the humans.

‘Aw, poor thing, I’ll just let him in.’

She left the room. The dog came storming in. Right away the animal resumed its animosity and began barking so shrilly that it hurt my eardrums.

‘Welly, stop that immediately!’

Wellington moved back a few steps and shut his mouth. Joanna put the milk on the table.

‘Good dog, that’s a good boy, good Wellington.’

I reached out and petted him gently on the head.

‘Don’t touch his ears!’ Joanna said in a fright.

I yanked my hand back.

‘He’s very touchy there,’ she said. ‘I think it’s something traumatic. You can pet him wherever you like on the rest of his body, with the grain as it were, but he’s ever so touchy about the ears, aren’t you, Welly? Does Welly want a biscuit?’

At the word
, the animal rushed forward and leapt at the biscuit in her hand. The height of its jump, the perfect timing with which it snapped shut it jaws, was a wonder of precision. The biscuit disappeared without chewing. I tried to get a conversation going, about how she was doing, about the children, whether she still played golf, but Wellington never let me get a word in edgewise.

‘He demands a great deal of attention,’ I said. ‘You must be careful that a little dog like that doesn’t cut you off from the rest of the world.’

Joanna nodded. From her eyes a river of love flowed in the little dog’s direction.

‘He must have been awfully lonely,’ she said. ‘Otherwise he wouldn’t act this way. That’s what they all say. He’s overcompensating. The Jack Russell is such a people’s pet, they forget that sometimes. But it’s all in here.’

She lifted a booklet from the top of a pile.
Think Like Your Dog
. Underneath it was a booklet from the same series,
What the Dog Thinks of Its Master
. Even more gruesome was
Your Very Best Friend: Jack Russell

‘Do you read all of that stuff ?’

Joanna nodded vigorously.

‘I think you need to know what you’re bringing into the house. Most people have no idea at all, they just act.’

‘What happened to Black and White? Dead?’

‘They’re buried back in the garden. I had to put White down. That’s right, you knew them, the dears. Have you already been, up there?’

The index finger pointing, not followed by the eyes, in the direction of number 17.

‘Have you seen him?’

‘Yesterday. No, the day before. And you?’

She shook her head.

‘I don’t count anymore, they’ve wiped my name from the books. Isn’t that right, Welly? They don’t want the missus around, do they? I raised his children, but there’s no place for me.’

The bitter lines around her lips grew deeper.

‘With all respect,’ she said, ‘
didn’t bear his children and
allowed to see him. So unfair, so cruel. They don’t want us around, do they, Welly? What they don’t know is how often he came down here, and not just for a cup of tea, oh no . . .’

‘Joanna . . .’

‘Would you like some milk? The English way, right, darling?’

I couldn’t stand to watch this life in free fall any longer. After the tea, I left. Around my heart was a hand that squeezed.

‘Can you play something from
Schindler’s List

I looked up at the middle-aged woman. She was tapping her ringed fingers rhythmically on the piano’s frame. I raised my eyes to the ceiling and pretended to be turning an internal searchlight on the archives of my memory. Then I sighed deeply and said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t seem to find anything from
Schindler’s List

She smiled as though I were a thing to be pitied. When the same woman came over later to ask whether I knew anything from
, I was able to satisfy her with ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and asked her to forgive me for not sounding like Celine Dion. She looked at me as though the scent of my irony was not pleasing to her.

Linny Wallace came back from the ladies’ room. A pair of blue jeans and a white blouse that shone like silk, with a high collar. Her lips gleamed like a polished apple. She had bound her straight blonde hair up in a knot.

It was Saturday night, things were at their zenith. Saturday night was a ledge with on one side the week past and on the other the week to come – it was precisely atop that ledge with the steep slope of duty on either side that they felt free and came with their requests. The bar of the Schooner was transformed into a honky-tonk with the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, and a cluster of men at the bar sang along with the refrain to Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’. Oh yes, I was worth every penny. Linny was being chatted up by two men at the bar, they were in high spirits. Over the course of the evening the same boy who had waited on me that afternoon brought me two more daiquiris, sublimely mixed by Mike Leland. (I know there are those who say that you’re no credit to your profession if you drink while you’re playing. What can I say?) A nervous man came over to me and asked if I could play some Erroll Garner.

‘I don’t play Erroll Garner,’ I said with a wink, ‘I play Ludwig Unger playing Erroll Garner.’

Then I played ‘Misty’ for him. He looked around triumphantly from atop his bar stool, ready to tell anyone who would listen about his proclivity for Erroll Garner, but Linny was already engaged. One of the men she was talking to fetched three pints of Guinness; maybe they were hoping to have sandwich sex with her later on in their room. English girls do the weirdest things when they’ve had a few.

After Leland had served the last round, I launched into Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’.

I’ve been around the world

Had my pick of any girl

You’d think that I’d be happy

But I’m not

I got up from the piano and slid onto the barstool next to Linny’s. Leland mixed me the final daiquiri of the day. The bar was emptying out. The man who’d asked to hear Erroll Garner said
goodnight, all
, but too quietly; I was the only one who heard.

‘You disappointed someone terribly this evening,’ Linny said. ‘A woman. I heard her tell her husband:
he’s got to be the only pianist in the world who doesn’t know anything from
Schindler’s List.’

‘A couple of weeks ago a woman stomped out of the bar because I didn’t launch into something from
The Lion King
. “Hakuna Matata”. Jesus Christ.’

We drank in silence. The lime juice snapped at my gums.

‘Piano man . . .’ she said.

I laughed quietly.

She asked, ‘Is that something you become by mistake?’

‘By mistake is pretty much it. And it’s not hard to imagine that one day, by mistake, you stop being one too.’

‘So how does a boy from Alburgh mistakenly come to play piano in a bar?’

I mulled that one over.

‘That’s a magic question,’ I said then. ‘The answer is a bridge that runs from then to now, from my very first memories to this very moment.’

I told her about the city where I was born, Alexandria. Dutch mother, Austrian father. We lived in Kafr Abdou, a district popular with expats because it lay out of the way of the roar of hundreds of thousands of cars and millions of people – that infected larynx from which rose the hellish scream of sirens and honking and cursing. One day my father, an artist, failed to return from a trip abroad. Cut and run, halfway through the first verse. His shoes still beside the door, cigarettes still on the table. Not all failed marriages dissolve in strife and pain, sometimes it goes with a single sweep of the sword. I couldn’t remember any real split-up or any major sorrow. It had flown noiselessly, an owl in the night. It took five more years for my mother to fully realize that her husband had left her with a child and a house in Alexandria, and that he would never reply to the telegrams she sent to every corner of the globe where he happened to show his face. All that time she waited for him, living as though nothing were amiss, as though at any moment she might see him standing out there in the garden, that he would come up the steps at a single bound and take her in his powerful arms. Going on as though nothing had happened was her way of protesting against the unfairness of fate. The situation called for, no, it cried out for weeping and wailing or perhaps the racking of silent sorrow. But she gave in to neither, and lived her life in a grand display of denial.


Mike Leland closed the bar. I asked him for a bottle of Rémy Martin and the keys to the lounge, so that Linny and I could carry on the evening there. A little later he turned off the spots above the bar. At the front door he lifted his duffel coat from the hook and swung his heavy body into it. His wink was slow with fatigue.

‘Behave yourself,’ he said.

A few coals were still glowing in the hearth, I blew away the ash around them. With strips of bark torn from the split logs beside the fireplace I brought the fire back to life.

‘Careful you don’t blow it out,’ Linny said.

I had blown too hard, the little flames had sunk back into the orange glow.

‘People have a hard time letting a fire be,’ she said.

‘I’ve done this before,’ I said as casually as I could.

Her voice, laced with delicate threads of mockery: ‘You’d rather I didn’t get involved?’

I nodded.

‘That’s always a touchy thing with men, isn’t it,’ she said. ‘Cognac?’

From the ashes there grew an orange blossom, shivering in the gentle flow of my breath. When the fire had acquired enough strength I fed it with a few thin logs of birch. I sat back in the easy chair beside hers.

‘Alexandria,’ she said, ‘that’s where we left off. Please continue.’

BOOK: Little Caesar
6.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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