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Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Little Caesar (5 page)

BOOK: Little Caesar
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Up from my memory loomed Mrs. Pastroudis, my first piano teacher. My mother had signed me up for lessons, she felt that an instrument would allow me to better express my emotions. At the end of each session, Mrs. Pastroudis noted my achievement in a hardbound ledger: finger positioning, finger exercises, scales, harmonics. She wrote
excellent!
and
outstanding!
beside all of them. Her warm, heavy hand lay on my head throughout most of the lesson. The piano was in the basement, in her living room. She talked a great deal about the past. Once her family had owned the entire building, now she possessed only the lower floor. She remembered the parties in the salon above her head, the beau monde of Alexandria. On the breath of a sigh, a name would sometimes cross her lips.

‘Constantine Cavafy even came here sometimes.’

Along with the wave of nationalizations set in motion by the young Colonel Nasser, her family had lost almost all its holdings. Revolution is redistribution. Most of the Greeks had left Alexandria, but Mrs. Pastroudis had stayed in order to write
excellent!
and
outstanding!
in my ledger.

My mother and I lived alone in our big house. The servants’ quarters were occupied by Eman, the maid. A forest of bushes and trees encircled the villa, overgrown fences separated it from the other homes. The gardener sprayed every day, the leaves were hung with sparkling droplets. No ray of sunlight ever penetrated to the lowest layers, it was damp and dark there, crawling around beneath the growth the red soil clung to your fingers. The trunks were overrun with epiphytes, fleshy, ineradicable. Before the windows were wooden shutters, a guard kept watch at the gate.

The rooms of our house were separated by thin sheets. During the day, blocks of sunlight slid across the tiles, cats lay napping on the warm stones. Beyond each curtain you were lured further into that Byzantine temple. An emerald-green, submarine glow: you could hear your own heartbeat. Voluptuous, I’d call it in retrospect, the
One Thousand and One Nights
. Perhaps my father had lost his way in my mother’s veiled world of shadows, where eunuchs and odalisques haunted the corridors. His world was that of the barracks, the rectangle.

They called me Caesarion, little Caesar. My pet name. Caesarion was the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. He and I had both been born in Alexandria. In his case, the priests had hastened to announce that he was born of the union between Cleopatra and the god Amon-Ra, in the earthly incarnation of Julius Caesar. Didn’t my mother know that Caesarion was the mocking nickname people gave to Ptolemy Caesar?
Little
Caesar?

It was my pet name for special occasions.

‘Caesarion, play what you play so well, darling . . .’

Then I would take a little bow and climb up onto the piano stool with its pile of cushions. Caesarion was the name of the theater production we performed together, with me as wunderkind and she as the mother who had hatched that golden egg. I played
Für Elise
and the
Moonlight Sonata
. A mazurka by way of encore, and that was pretty much my entire repertoire. I slid off the stool, received the cooing and the clapping and let myself be pawed at length by the ladies present. Little princes must be buffed until they gleam. This was Circus Wunderkind, a handful of rickety old pieces I had learned from Mrs. Pastroudis and my mother, who acted as though I were Wolfgang Amadeus himself. Sometimes I shirked the duty of putting myself on display and hid in that gigantic Roman villa. Eman’s slippers would hiss across the tiles as she searched for me – Lewd-week! Lewd-week! It was easy to disappear in that house, built as it was entirely of shadows and bound together by the thick veins of ivy growing outside along the sandy stucco: an exoskeleton turned to wood.

She takes me often to Le Salon Trianon, the Palace of Heavenly Pastries. I am allowed to order my own Douceur Surprise, an Om Ali aux Noisettes or the Trois Petits Cochons. She corrects me when I mispronounce the French. That is her principal contribution to my education. All those pies and pastries revolving in a lighted display case, my nose pressed to the glass I behold the orbits of those galaxies of sugar – the friendly crème caramels! The cheerful Banana Brasiliennes! The prim Tarte aux Fruits! My mother sips at little cups of coffee and smokes cigarettes. She comes here all the time. Beneath the lacquered wooden ceiling she dreams she is in Europe, but then a weird, distorted Europe. An outpost where people try to remember exactly what Europe was, and do their best to make it resemble those memories as closely as possible. At Trianon, air conditioners imitate the coolness of northern Europe, loudspeakers drip the saccharine stalactites of Mantovani. The uniformed staff act as though we were at the Hermitage in Monaco. My mother sees the tatters and spots on the vests of the waiters and the restroom attendants, but the maître d’s impeccable black suit makes up for a great deal.

‘And the handles on the toilets don’t stick either,’ I hear her say whenever she sings the praises of Trianon.

The restroom attendant hands her a tissue after she’s washed her hands, then cleans the sink with a cloth. That is my mother’s idea of heaven: a gossamer web of services rendered.

‘Draw the things you see on the walls, my prince,’ she says whenever I get bored.

I trace out the lines of the murals, copy those mysterious, tobacco-tinted women with expressions of promise on their faces: figures from
One Thousand and One Nights
, turbaned women with their breasts bared, illustrations of the dissolute Orient. The colors have disappeared beneath the sediment of sticky dust and nicotine.

We spend a few afternoons each week in that high-ceilinged salon, our backs turned on the gnawed-down world outside with its smell of rotting and the eternal desert dust crumbling down from the sky. Again I hear that name, for he once visited Trianon as well –
Cavafy has been here
. Little wonder that he had been everywhere: the city is an island, jammed in between sea and desert; freedom of movement is limited here.

The espresso machine hisses and blows clouds of steam. The loud hammering of the handles when the coffee grounds are knocked out, the machine’s red casing, fitted with sparkling silver parts, manometers and thermometers, the trumpeting of the steam pipe: the machine is the living heart of Le Salon Trianon. My mother stares out the window, a mirror from the outside so that no-one can look in. On the other side Alexandrian life shuffles by, the entire impoverished society of the masses, that anthill of nerve-racking fiddling about without cohesion. Sounds from outside penetrate faintly into the salon, the zooming of myriad carrion flies on the cadaver of the city.

One afternoon a man pauses at our table, he is pleasantly surprised to see her and bows with the grace of an Arab nobleman. He takes her hand and kisses it.

‘Miss LeSage,’ he says, ‘this is a very great honor.’

Behind his moustache, his teeth are splendid, between the two front ones is a little gap. All Trianon watches him as he disappears through the revolving doors.

‘He’s turned gray,’ my mother says.

I ask who he was, and why he called her that.

‘That was Omar Sharif, darling.’

It doesn’t occur to me to press on with my question, I am at the age when everything is both a miracle and implicitly accepted.

My father I remember only as a sound. He disappeared from my life before my active memory started; the auditory remembrance is all I have. It is a rhythmic, rasping sound that I can’t quite place. It is devoid of body or face and defies explanation. That rasping sound is all I can think of at school when they ask me who my father is.

I attend the Schutz American School, not far from tram station Raml and Trianon. There, one day, I again hear the sound that is my father. That
rasping
. The classroom door is open, the sound is coming from the hall. I freeze. The thought:
he’s looking for me, he’s come to get me
. . . The sound comes to a halt at the door: after a knock, Mr. El-Fahd, the janitor, comes in. He speaks a few words to the teacher, then leaves the room. I ask if I may go to the toilet.

‘Next time you go at recess, Ludwig.’

I follow Mr. El-Fahd down the corridor,
he found me, he was this close to me all the time!
In the central hall I realize for the first time what is causing the sound, the
whoosh whoosh whoosh
of his trouser legs brushing together as he walks. Mr. El-Fahd asks me what I’m doing out of the classroom.

‘Do you have to fetch something?’

I shake my head.

‘Are you my father?’ I ask.

He laughs.

‘No, boy, you’ve got your own father. Now get back to the class, quick.’

He disappears into his cubicle beside the entrance and doesn’t turn to look at me again. Over my head hangs a nagging cloud of sorrow; for the rest of the day I live in the conviction that Mr. El-Fahd really is my father but that he’s lied to me for a Top Secret Reason – but slowly the cold light of logic penetrates into my misty fantasies and I understand that my father is not the only man in the world with knock-knees. The trousers of men with straight legs don’t make that sound. Not like that.

I float in the vacuum left by a father who isn’t there and a mother who is absent, whose sole pedagogical premise consists of laissez-faire, laissez-passer. Behind her eyes, dreams go floating by. Sometimes she’s so quiet, that mother of mine, you’d almost think she wasn’t there. I love her the way Mr. Cavour loves Mother Mary, about whom he tells us stories in an annex of the Alexandria Community Church. He convinces us of his boundless love for the mother of Jesus, even though he’s never met her. We see a movie about the Holy Family in the desert, and when it’s over Betsy Pearlman says, ‘I’m in love with Jesus.’

I sit on my bed, my mother is applying her makeup at the dressing table. I look at her reflection, my blood roaring from the scent of her mascara. The little brush rolls along her lashes, that intense gaze, there’s nothing else in the world she looks at in that same way.’

‘Do you want a little too?’ she asks.

She highlights my cheeks with rouge and paints my lips red. ‘Ludwig, so handsome, so handsome,’ she sings quietly. He doesn’t have to come back, that father of mine. I am a painted prince, I live with the queen in a palace with a fence around it and a guard in his little house beneath the eucalyptus trees along the street, we have no need of rasping trouser legs in this house. She paints my nails with polish, blows warm air on my fingertips, she’s so close and so physical now that I lean forward and fall against her – she loses her balance and grabs hold of the dressing table. She pushes me away.

‘Now look what you’ve done, it’s all ruined,’ she says.

A few minutes later, frowning angrily, she cleans her nails with acetone one by one and applies new polish. Her jewelry tinkles softly. She has lots of jewelry. Whenever she eats or drinks or applies nail polish you can hear her bracelets tinkle. The rings on her fingers make a tapping sound like a dog’s claws on a wooden floor.

‘Flap your hands now, then it will dry faster.’

But before long she drifts back into her absent-mindedness and becomes unreachable for me again. Her veiled look, a mirror clouded with age. A barrier hangs between her and things, one you run into like a sliding glass door that’s just been cleaned until there’s no more difference between inside and out. Behind that door she sits, I leave greasy fingerprints on the glass.

*

One day they left a huge wooden crate on the pavement, big as a house, and the next day another. That evening at dinner Eman didn’t say a word: she was grieving. Only a few days later did I see my mother again.

‘We’re going back, little prince,’ she said.

And when I asked where we were going, she replied, ‘To Europe.’

She was not going to wait for my father any longer, in a city where she didn’t belong. She had sold the house and ordered the crates. There had always been a powerful magnetic attraction between my mother and the world of objects – over the course of time the house had filled up with the ten thousand things. During the weeks that followed I watched as our life disappeared into the crates, everything we had, every chair, every cushion, every Bedouin carpet. When I saw how her temple was desecrated by the mover, I didn’t know whether to feel relief or sorrow.

The walls bore the pale shadows of vanished cupboards and rugs. When the workmen suddenly appeared in my room, it was Eman who bore the message that I was to pack my little red suitcase. I was to fill it with clothes and the things I absolutely could not do without; there was no knowing when the crates would be reunited with us.

We left Alexandria early in the morning. The taxi raced across the crumbly asphalt to Cairo, what I remember is the right side of the road.

‘We have to go back!’ I shouted suddenly. ‘I forgot something!’

But all we could do was go on, the road back was sealed. She didn’t ask what I had forgotten. I asked when we would be coming back.

‘I don’t know, Ludwig. For the time being, we’re going away.’

Then I understood the meaning of parting, I cried without making a sound. Another boy would come to live in my house, he would be drawn blindly to the spot where I had buried the forgotten treasure, a plastic box containing yellowed dog’s teeth I had found beneath the bushes, and crystals I had collected from the streets. Eman claimed they were pieces of car windows, but I knew better – crystals, from the depths of the earth. The dog’s teeth were full of scratches and grooves, and covered in a dark brown patina. Teeth and crystal, that was what was left of me. We were moving quickly away from my treasure, and there was nothing I could do.

Our first stop was Holland. Waiting for us at the airport were my mother’s sister and her husband: Aunt Edith and Uncle Gerard. They took us to the north of the country, a long trip by car; my mother and I sat in the back seat, the two people in the front didn’t say a word. My mother was wearing her sunglasses and seemed used to this silence.

BOOK: Little Caesar
8.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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