Black/White

Birgit Talmon

Arm-in-arm we brave the storms of autumn, Ernest and I and I shiver from the shock and the plummeting degrees. 1928 is drawing to a close and will soon be forgotten to most; never to me.

You, my sweet little Brian, were asleep safe and sound that evening in May, when Ernest proposed to me. I just smiled elusively at his tie pin. Although I had rehearsed many times a situation such as that, suddenly I did not know whether a good or a bad thing had befallen you and me. Still ignorant of my past, Ernest looked utterly taken aback by my silence.

That spring is gone and I am cold. The bridge, you know the one you and I have stood on so many times gazing down, while you chuckled joyfully as the ships sailed by, that bridge always feels much longer in strong headwinds.

When the milk boy came down the road this morning with the rattling bottles, it suddenly struck me that from tomorrow I shall need only a quart. I pulled the chair next to your bed, where you still slept soundly. It seemed I could gain a little extra time with you that way, while waiting for the birds’ first twittering from the backyard. Finally wide awake you told me a whole long story in your own language while I was preparing us to leave, pondering over and over again on what I had started and which could not, in all probability, be stopped.

I must concentrate on the pavement for a second. The black pram rolling towards us resembles too much the one you had, love. Head bowed I continue, and my eyes are drawn to the stretched buttonholes of my coat. They seemed on the verge of bursting as you grew blond and blue-eyed within me.

As you were having your breakfast the landlord was at it, again pressing for the rent and complaining about your crying. I nearly threw the truth in his face that soon, too soon now, he would not be disturbed by you any more.

It was so lovely to see you tucking into that extra lump of butter in the porridge. As for me, I simply could not swallow a bite, just sat there watching your little face, trying to concentrate on details, like your sweet little ears, so that I shall be able to remember them. Perhaps tufts of hair will fill them, when you grow to be a man. You might even become as bald as your father, who stopped smiling when I told him you were on your way. Your father, who forgot everything about our arrangement when you began to grow and claim more space, bulging out for all to see, and I no longer could hide your coming from the others in the office.

Well knowing that gossip would run riot and that rumors would not stop at the truly “married one’s” door, he fired me, who was too proud to beg.

Oh, how you screamed and were difficult to drag away, when we ran into Felix as he rounded the corner on his way into our backyard, the tail of his breakfast dangling from the corner of his mouth. But we were late, you see, because of all the packing. Until now I could faithfully promise that you could play with him and pad his soft fur on our return home.

“See you later” we even called out to him as on every other day.

Down by the crossing, you dragged me in the direction of the day nursery as usual. I heard a voice say – “No, not today.” That voice was mine. A couple of months ago I simply just told the nurses that we were moving.

We shared my handkerchief as we walked hand in hand all the way down to the station. I wanted to turn around, run away from it all, from agreements and signatures, run someplace where nobody could separate us. But cleaning other peoples’ houses did not lead to this “someplace” during your two years and my pawned pieces of jewelry were not enough to keep body and soul together for long.

A brave little fellow you were carrying your small suitcase with your toys, while I dragged along the heavier one. I had told the lady in advance that you still have occasional accidents and that I would put extra diapers in the suitcase for the journey. Your beloved Auntie has the extra key. She will remove your bed before I come home.

It’s three o’clock. How far away are you now, my love? Are you still crying? Good that your Teddy is with you. I was not to know where you were heading. They only told me that it’s out of town. Are you sucking your thumb as always when frightened?

Somebody is pulling at my sleeve. Ah! Ernest again; should know by now that I don’t like that. He says that I am walking so fast that I don’t even notice that the bridge is up. I guess it’s because I want to get away as fast as possible from that place, you know. My nose is running; could it be the wind or am I still crying?

Instead of the handkerchief my fingertips run into the pen at the bottom of my bag; that pen, which my reluctant hand held to sign those indifferent papers. At the lawyer’s office that hand wouldn’t obey my brain, or was it the other way round? But this is for the best, isn’t it! I am sure of it – almost. This way you’ll have a father who will love you.

Today, the river ripples with cold, yet boiling angry waves as a steam ship heaves menacingly through the open leaves of the bridge. A steam ship from the other side of the world slips past me, while you, my little one, are slipping out of my life on board a steam train.

Can you reach up to the window and see the cows?

I have just hurled this, the most treacherous gold-tipped fountain pen in the world, over the railing. Let it disappear forever in the turbulent water. Ernest is silent. I have the feeling that he, in his own way, is well aware of his being allied to that pen and therefore has nothing to add. Right now I’ll just leave him to his own devices.

I draw my eyes away from the water, and whom do you think I see, if not your grandpa’s proud profile driving past in his black Ford. Well, yes, of course I know that he lives near the bridge. It’s just that I can’t think very clearly at the moment.

On our small excursions to watch the ships sail by I hoped so often that he, on his way home from work, would catch sight of us and stop. Perhaps he really did see us, but the car never took us for a ride.

You were a real little bundle of mischief at the lawyer’s office; emptying the waste bin on the carpet while ignoring the annoying ladies, who wanted to chuck you under the chin. You wouldn’t even smile, when they photographed us, you in my arms in your little new coat.

Don’t think for a moment that I did not notice how upset you were when you were handed over to the lady who is to accompany you and how you pulled hard at her bun, while I, your mother, signed paper after paper until you no longer were mine.

I understood only too well your cries after me when I finally had to leave the office. Believe me, as I listened to your protests in the hall outside, my hands hugged the camera with the last precious moments. Ernest, who had arrived too early and had been waiting on the bench, approached me with a glass of water and a hug. That was an easy task all right. Not convincingly enough he had offered to come along with us, but no thanks, I needed to be alone with this and I still do.

Ernest says that I am lost in my own thoughts, says that the bridge is almost down and that it is cold here. He gives my arm a slight pinch. I guess he is right, we have to continue. Only forward now. Soon I shall leave Ms. Axelrod to the past and become a Mrs. Smith without a past – the sort of person more easily accepted and respected.

You loved the Sundays in the park where you took your first uncertain steps on the path by the lake between Ernest and me strolling along with you as if we were your parents.

It’s getting dark, time for your supper.

We walk in silence while the wind whips around the corners of the houses. We trudge endlessly. I have a huge blister on my bad foot. Ernest proposes that we take the tram, but I need all the privacy that the fresh air on my face can provide.

Somewhat like a stranger barging in on me, Ernest calls me darling at the entrance to the house and suggests that now that we are soon to become Mr. and Mrs., there should be nothing wrong about a little foretaste.

Can’t he grasp that it’s my Brian’s bedtime and that first of all I have to lull him to sleep!

 

Something in the tone of Ernest’s voice brings me back to reality. He stares at me much too intensively. He seems really annoyed and might not even want me anymore. That must not happen. The price is paid – hopefully for a better life for me as well.  So for the first time ever we sneak up to my little attic. If I avoid switching on the light, I’ll only sense, but not see the emptiness.

Ernest embraces me and again I hear the words you each day chuckled to me, when I picked you up from the nursery. Those same words you cried after me, as I turned my back on you. As Ernest presses me down on the mattress I feel a burning sensation in that back. Yes, my love, of course you wanted to come home with me.

The wrought iron bed starts to bump under our weight. You, my little busybody has – no, had –  the habit of pulling out the small piece of cardboard and this morning I did not have the sense to push it back. The too-short leg is now pounding against the naked floorboards in time with that very same rhythm which eventually brought you into existence.

Each thrust shakes my little tin box on the bedside table and now, now it tumbles over the edge and drops onto the floor. I am sure of it, I just know it has opened and spread your lock of hair in all directions. I simply must get hold of my torch before a careless foot steps down from here. I’ll tell Ernest to stay put and make believe that I have dropped my earring, while I pick up every single hair. For all in the world that lock must stay in the box.

Will they sing lullabies for you like I do – did? Lucky that I, in the very last moment, remembered to put the songbook in the suitcase.

Ernest is sighing in my ears. They are wet with salty drops which escaped my closed eyes. Could I only love some day again – perhaps even Ernest – without salt drops in my ears.

Goodnight, my love.

In about a week’s time I shall see you again. The photographer promised to hurry up. From his darkroom you will come back to me – in black and white

© Birgit Talmon, 2013

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