Read The Invisible Wall Online
Authors: Harry Bernstein
She was wasting her time. In her best haughty British fashion, the butcher's wife was saying, “Madame, unfortunately you are behind on your account too much already, so I cannot give you any more tick. After all, we are not a charity organization.”
But now, suddenly, my mother was pulling at my hand and we were on the way out, with all the women staring. Outside, we walked swiftly. Her cheeks were flaming and she was looking straight ahead, and I'm sure she was struggling to keep back the flow of tears. We went back up the street, and we did not halt until we reached Levine's grocery shop. My mother did not hesitate before she went in. She was truly desperate that day.
Levine's shop was untidy and always smelled of herring. The smell came from the large open barrel of herring standing near the counter. Customers could help themselves and dip their hands into it and pull out a herring, or the Levines would do it for you. Boxes and sacks of things cluttered the place, leaving hardly enough room to move about. The shelves had never been dusted, and cobwebs hung from the corners. Mrs. Levine sat behind the counter, nibbling on poppy seeds that she clutched in her hand. She was a short, fat, sloppy-looking woman with frowsy hair that fell into her eyes. Her husband, pacing idly up and down behind the counter with hands clasped behind his back, was equally short and fat, and bald, with a sickly complexion.
It was, fortunately for my mother, empty of any other customers, and I could sense her relief. To spare herself any further humiliation, she got through with what she had to say quickly.
“I must tell you right away,” she said, “I'm going to need tick. I know I owe plenty already. But I can't help it. I've got to have food for my children. I'll pay you back as soon as I get some money. I promise you.”
At first, they did not say anything. They looked at one another. Then Mr. Levine muttered, “Give her.”
Mrs. Levine put down her poppy seeds and stood up, and my mother told her what she wanted. Her voice trembled as she spoke, showing the emotional state she was in, and toward the end, as the big brown shopping bag was filled up, she broke down altogether, and wept.
“How can I thank you,” she began, but she could not go on, and wept hard, while there was an uncomfortable silence from the other two and myself.
After a while, apparently feeling she had to say something, Mrs. Levine sighed. “There is much sorrow in the world.”
Mr. Levine had begun his pacing again, and then came to a halt in front of my mother, who was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Why don't you open a little business of your own?” he said. “You would always make a little.”
“What could I do?” my mother asked.
“You should go to the markets,” he said. “You go to the wholesalers and buy some dry goods. A few dozen bloomers, some drawers, stockings, camisolesâladies' things especiallyâthey always sell good. Perhaps some towels, curtains. Then you rent a stall, in our market, in the Bolton market, in Manchester, Salfordâthere's a different one each day. You go from one to the other. You'll do all right, I tell you.”
My mother listened with interest, but Mrs. Levine broke in suddenly, scoffing, contemptuous. “Meshuggener,” she said, “where is she going to get the money from to start the business? And how is she to go around to the markets? She has five children. Who'll take care of the children while she's running around to the markets? Stop dreeing her a kop.”
Mr. Levine shrugged. “All I know is, a business is the only way to make a living. You can't starve when you have a little business.”
When we left, and were walking back home, my mother hugging the big brown paper bag to herself with one hand, and holding my hand with the other, she seemed lost in thought, and hardly aware of my presence, and she was walking so fast I had to trot to keep up with her. I didn't say anything, but from time to time I looked up at her and wondered. She seemed far away. How was I to know that she was thinking of something then that would change our lives entirely in the years to come?
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THE APPROACH OF THE WEEKEND
brought on a bustle of activity on both sides of the street. The Jews were preparing for Saturday, their Shabbos, the Christians for Sunday. It actually began on Friday morning with the arrival of a little one-armed man leading a donkey and cart, and bawling through the cupped good hand, “Beah, boo, ragbone!”
Instantly, children came running out of houses carrying bundles of rags and bones. There were plenty of rags on the street, and more bones than meat. They clustered around the cart as he took their bundles deftly with the iron hook that protruded from his armless sleeve and tossed them onto the cart. Payment was made in the form of little slabs of colored sandstone used for coloring doorsteps.
We were allowed to help ourselves, and amidst much excited chattering hands fought with one another as we scrambled for the gaudiest, brightest, newest colors.
Soon afterward, the girls who were old enough, or the women, were on their hands and knees in front of each house, scrubbing the doorsteps and a small area of sidewalk around them. There were red, blues, greens, yellows, and a wild variety of all sorts of colors among them, so that by the time they were done two long rainbows ran down each side of the street. We were immensely proud. Other streets, less respectable than ours, did not bother. But we did, even in the worst of times.
On that same day, toward evening, the Jewish houses began to exude the pungent smell of hot chicken soup, and later on, if you had looked through windows on our side, you would have seen women lighting candles and waving their hands in front of them, muttering something that was a prayer, a ritual that always mystified the Christians opposite us.
Soon now, there began the calling of the fire goys. Once the sun was down and the candles had been lit, we were not allowed to touch the fires in our grates and lift a pot on or off the fire. A Christian had to be called in to do it for us, and we paid them a penny or two for it. Each family had its own fire goy. Ours for many years was Mrs. Green, and I was the one now who went out to summon her.
A number of other boys and girls were doing the same thing. We stood at the curb and called across, our voices forming a chorus.
“Oh, Mrs. Green,” I called, “will you please come over and do the fire?”
A moment later her door opened, and she ran across huddled in her black shawl. She was always in a bad temper, and her breath always smelled of beer. She poked the fire into life grudgingly, and she put the pots on with a thump, angrily. The tuppence my mother gave her never satisfied her, and she looked at the coins in her hand as if she might want to throw them away and muttered something about “rich Jews.”
“Batesky,” my mother said, after she had gone. It was the worst thing you could call a Christian. The male gender was Bates.
But my mother had more important things to think about that particular Shabbos. Tomorrow was Saturday. It was the day we went to the synagogue, a converted brick house on Chestergate right opposite the India mill. We all went, tramping down the street in our best clothes, carrying the little velvet bags that contained our prayer shawls and siddurim. On Sunday the Christians would be marching down their side of the street to their churches, to St. Peter's, the Protestant church, or St. Matthew's, the Catholic church, and they too would be wearing their best Sunday clothes. But Saturday was our day, and this particular Saturday was to be a memorable one.
My mother would have longed to go to the synagogue with us, to join the other women in the stuffy little balcony and say a prayer to her own dead mother and father. But she could not leave the house. Saturday was a big day for her, a day of anxiety. It was the day my father gave her the money for the week. Other fathers had already done that, turning their entire pay over to their wives. But my father would hang on to his until the very last moment, after his long Saturday sleep, after he got dressed up for his Saturday night, and then had his dinner, and it would only be a portion of his pay, and it would be dealt out sullenly.
How much it was going to be, my mother never knew. A lot depended on his mood and how well he'd slept, and for this reason she was shushing us constantly from the moment we rose in the morning, putting her finger to her lips, and casting anxious looks upward for sounds that might indicate that he had been awakened. In the meantime, she did not dare leave the house for fear he might get up and leave without giving her anything.
When we came home from the synagogue that day, he was still sleeping. Once again we had to tiptoe around and speak in whispers. Then she pushed us out of the house altogether, telling us to go and play with our friends.
Outside, the boys began a game of cricket on the backs behind our row of houses. I was not able to swing the bat yet, and I could never catch the ball, so I was not put on either side, but was allowed to run for the ball when it fell a great distance and bring it back to the bowler. But after an hour or two of running, I grew tired of the game. It had grown cloudy and began to sprinkle as well, although this did not stop them from playing. But I decided I'd had enough and went back into the house.
My mother was sitting by the fire when I came in, hands in her lap. Ordinarily, she'd have been sewing or doing some kind of work, but this was forbidden on the Sabbath. All she could do was sit here and wait for her husband to get up and worry over how much he was going to give her this week, and whether it would be enough to carry her through. The fire was very low, and the house was chilly, but she could not have afforded to send for Mrs. Green again.
She started when she saw me, and asked, “Why did you come in so soon? Don't you like to play with the boys?”
I told her I didn't want to play anymore. I wanted to be with her, and I don't think she minded. She was perhaps glad of a bit of company. She made me a buttyâa slice of white bread spread with butterâand I ate it sitting close to her side. It was like that other night when I'd had her all to myself. She stroked my hair, and we talked of this and that in very low voices, always mindful of my father sleeping upstairs, and somehow she began telling me of her childhood in Poland, and how she was a little girl when her parents died, one soon after the other, and how she was taken in by relatives and passed from one to the other, because none of them could really afford to keep her.
It was a sad story, but she did not cry as she told it to me. I would see her sometimes when she thought she was alone, with a handkerchief to her eyes, and I would feel terrible about it, and wished there was something I could do. I felt that way now, even though she was not crying, and I reached for her hand and held it, and she seemed to appreciate that and kissed me.
It was just then that we heard the noise upstairs. He had gotten up and was dressing. His feet were thumping about. My mother sprang up from her chair.
“'arry, go out and play,” she whispered. “Go on and join the others.”
But I didn't want to. Somehow, I wanted more than ever to be with her, even if he was there, and no amount of whispered urging on her part could make me budge. And then it was too late.
He came clumping down the stairs and into the room, his face as dark and forbidding as ever. He was dressed for his Saturday night, all right. He wore his best suit, with a stiff white collar and tie, and had had his weekly shave. He ignored the two of us and sat down at the table with his back toward us. My mother hurried to serve him his dinner, the biggest part of the scrawny little chicken she'd bought for the Shabbos, saved for him after sharing meager portions among us, none for herself.
He ate rapidly with his head bent low over his plate, with animal sounds, grunts and champing of jaws, and was soon done. He pushed back his chair with a flat familiar scraping sound, rose, and seemed almost ready to leave. My mother was frightened. She went up to him, as if to block his way.
No, he had not forgotten her. His hand dug into his trouser pocket and he brought out the money, a small roll of banknotes. He peeled one off, then after a moment's hesitation another, and then he dug his hand into his pocket again and brought out some change. He handed this to her. My mother looked at it in her hand, and said in a low voice, “Is that all you can give me?”
“What more do you want?” It came out of him in a snarl, and his face grew blacker still.
“I owe money to the butcher,” she said, “and the Levines, and I've got to buy shoes for 'arry. He'll be going to school next month, and I need to buy food for the house.” Her voice trembled.
He did not answer immediately. He rushed for his raincoat hanging on the back of the scullery door. He started to put it on, and as he was struggling to find the other sleeve, and already on his way out, he said savagely, “You and your bastards can go to hell.”
Then he left, the empty sleeve still dangling behind him. We heard his footsteps in the lobby, and the lobby door slam shut.
It was silent after that. My mother did not move. She stood there with the bit of money in her hand. Her head was bent. I heard the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. The clouds had gathered outside, and the room was very dim. From the distance I heard the sound of the cricket game still going on, the shouts of the players. All at once my mother roused herself. She raised her head and strode to the scullery. I watched her, wondering. It was as if she had reached a sudden decision about something.
She came out wearing her coat and putting on her hat, a big broad-brimmed hat with a feather in it, which she was fastening to her hair with a long hatpin. She had also brought two straw shopping bags from the scullery.
“'arry,” she said, “I'm going to the market. Do you want to come with me?”
“Yis.” I spoke with alacrity. I always enjoyed going to the market. It was colorful and lively, almost as good as going to a picture show.