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Winner of the 2000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
“Recalls the best work of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf.... Carefully crafted.”–Los Angeles Times
At Schindler's Jack woke early. The sound of the sea would find its way into his sleep. The little waves of the bay, washing in and receding, dragging the shell-grit after them, would hush his body to their rhythm and carry him back to shallows where he was rolled in salt. It was his own sweat springing warm where the sun struck the glass of his sleepout, which was so much hotter than the rest of the house that he might, in sleep, have drifted twenty degrees north into the tropics where the war was: to Borneo, Malaya, Thailand. He would throw off even the top sheet then to bake in it, till it was too hot, too hot altogether, and he would get up, go down barefoot to pee in a damp place under one of the banana trees and take a bit of a walk round the garden. Until Dolfie, the youngest of the Schindlers, came out bad-tempered and sleepy-eyed to chop wood, he had the garden's long half-acre to himself.
There was a pool at Schindler's. In the old days Jack and his father had swum there each morning. Jack would cling to the edge and kick, while his father, high up on the matted board, would leap, jackknife in the air, hang a moment as if he had miraculously discovered the gift of flight, then plummet and disappear. Then, just when Jack thought he was gone altogether, there would be a splash and he would reappear, head streaming, a performance that gave Jack, after the long wait in which his own breath too was held, a shock of delighted surprise that never lost its appeal.
Schindler's was a boarding house down the 'Bay' at Scarborough. They went there every holidays.
The pool these days was empty, closed, like so much else, for the'duration'. But Jack, who this year would have been old enough to use the board, liked each morning to walk out to the end and test its spring. Toes curled, arms raised, beautifully balanced between the two blues, the cloudless blue of the early-morning sky and the painted one that was its ideal reflection, he would reach for what he remembered of his father's stance up there, grip the edge, strain skywards with his fingertips, push his ribcage out till the skin felt paper-thin, and hang there, poised.
He had got this part of it perfect. For the rest he would have to be patient and wait.
* * *
His father was missing - that was the official definition. Or, more hopefully, he was a prisoner of war. More hopefully because wars have a foreseeable end, their prisoners come home: to be missing is to have stepped into a cloud. Jack's mother, who was aware of this, never let a mealtime pass without in some way evoking him.
'I suppose,' she would say, 'your daddy will be having a bite to eat about now.'
They knew quite well he wouldn't be sitting down, as they were, to chops and boiled pudding, but it kept him, even if all he was doing was pushing a few spoonfuls of sticky rice into his mouth, alive and in the same moment with them.
When St Patrick's Day came round she would say: 'Sweet peas. They're your father's favourites. You should remember that, Jack. Maybe by the time they're ready he will be home.'
One year, struck by one of the models in a Paton and Baldwin pattern book, she knitted a cable-stitch sweater for him. Jack held the wool when it was wound, watching the yards and yards it would take pass over his hands. Twenty skeins! When all the parts were finished and had been assembled into the shape of a sweater, his mother held it up to her shoulders. 'Look, Jack.'
He was astonished by the bulkiness of it. He hadn't remembered his father's being so big. In a moment when his mother was out of the room he held its roughness to his cheek, but all he could smell was new wool.
Collapsed now between layers of tissue, it lay in a drawer of his father's lowboy acquiring an odour of naphthalene.
But as the months slipped by and they still had no news of him, no postcard or message on the radio, Jack saw that his mother's assurance had begun to fail. She still spoke as if his father were just out of the room for a bit, at a football match or having a drink down at the boat club, but she was pretending. For his sake - that is what he felt - and it worried him that she might realize that he knew. They would have to admit something then, and it was imperative, he thought, that they should not. If she no longer had faith, then he must. If his father was to survive and get home, if he was to hang on to whatever light thread was keeping him in the world, then he was the one who must keep believing. It was up to him.
* * *
'Now, Milly! You can't just sit around mooning. Stan wouldn't want that. You're young, you need a break. You need to get out and have a bit of fun.'
This was his Aunt Susan speaking, his father's sister. Jack wondered how she could do it.
'Look,' she said, holding his mother's hair up, 'like this. You've got such lovely bones.'
They looked into the mirror, his aunt lifting the thick hair in her hands like a live animal, their two bodies leaning close.
His mother regarded herself. 'Do you really think so?' she said dreamily. 'That I could get away with it?'
Jack frowned. Don't, Mum, he said silently.
The two figures in the mirror, his mother smiling now, her head turned to one side, disturbed him; there was a kind of complicity between them. When they looked at one another and leaned closer, their eyes full of daring and barely suppressed hilarity, he felt they had moved away into a place where he was not invited to follow. Other rules applied there than the ones he knew and wanted her to keep.
'Well, I don't know,' his mother was saying. But she looked pleased, and his Aunt Susan giggled. 'Maybe,' she said. 'What do you think, Jack?'
He looked away and did not answer. She must know as well as he did that his father hated anything of that sort - rouge, painted toenails, permed hair. What was wrong with her?
For the past few weeks she had been working one night a week at a canteen. Now, under his Aunt Susan's influence, she changed her hairstyle to a glossy pompadour, put on wedgies and, drawing Jack into it as well, began to teach herself the newest dances. They tried them out with old gramophone records, on the back verandah; Jack rather awkward in bare feet and very aware that he came only to her shoulder. I'm only doing it to make her happy, he told himself. He felt none of the pride and excitement of the previous year, when he had gone along each Saturday night in a white shirt and bow tie to be her beau at the Scarborough dances.
Americans began to appear at their door. Escorts, they were called. It had a military ring, more formal, less personal than partner. They brought his mother orchids in a square cellophane box and, for him, 'candy', which only Americans could get. He accepted, it was only polite, but made it clear that he had not been bought.
His mother asked him what he thought of these escorts and they laughed together over their various failings. She was more critical than Jack himself might have been and this pleased him. She also consulted him about what she should wear, and would change if he disapproved. He was not deceived by any of this, but did not let her see it.
And in fact no harm was done. New dances replaced the old ones every month or so, and in the same way the Rudis, the Dukes, the Vergils, the Kents, were around for a bit and sat tugging at their collars under the tasselled lamps while his mother, out in the kitchen, fixed her corsage and they made half-hearted attempts to interest or impress him, then one after another they got their marching orders. Within a week or two of making themselves too easily at home, putting their boots up on the coffee-table, swigging beer from the bottle, they were gone. The war took them. They moved on.
* * *
Milt, Milton J. Schuster the Third, was an Air Force navigator from Hartford, Connecticut, a lanky, fair-headed fellow, younger than the others, with an adam's apple that jumped about when he was excited and glasses of a kind Jack had never seen before, just lenses without frames. Jack took to him immediately.
He wasn't a loud-mouth like so many of the others, he did not skite. And for all that he was so young, he had done a lot, and was full of odd bits of information and facts that were new to Jack and endlessly interesting. But most of all, it was Milt who was new. He was put together with so much lazy energy, had so many skills, so much experience that he was ready, in his good-humoured way, to share.
'Jack,' his mother protested, 'give us a break, will you? That's the fifty-seventh question you've asked since tea.'
But where Milt was concerned Jack could never get to the end of his whats and whys and how comes and who said sos, or of Milt's teasing and sometimes crazy answers.
Milt was a fixer. Humming to himself a tuneless tune that you could never quite catch, comfortable in a sweat-stained singlet with the dog-tags hanging, he would, without looking up from the screwdriver he was spinning in his long fingers or the fuse-wire he was unravelling, say 'Hi, kiddo,' the same for Jack and his mother both, and just go on being absorbed. It wasn't an invitation to stay, but it wasn't a hint either (Jack was sensitive to these) that you should push off. He accepted your presence and went on being alone. Yet somehow you were not left out.
In fact the jobs Milt did were things Jack's mother could do quite well herself, but she was happy now to have Milt do them. When he made a lamp come on that had, for goodness knows how long, failed to work, he wore such a look of beaming satisfaction that he might have supplied the power for it out of his own abundant nature, out of the same energy that fired his long stride and lit his smile.
So what was his secret? That's what Jack wanted to know. That was where all his questions tended. And what was the tune he hummed? It seemed to Jack that if he could only get close enough to hear it, he would understand at last Milt's peculiar magic. Because it was magic of a sort. It put a spell on you. Only Milt didn't seem to know that he possessed it, and it was this not-knowing, Jack thought, that made it so mysterious, but also made it work.
Milt was twenty-two. In the strict code of those times it was inconceivable that a woman should be interested in a man who was younger. Jack could imagine his mother breaking some of the rules, smoking in the street for instance, or whistling, but not this one. So he had come to think of Milt as his friend.
When Christmas came they took him to Schindler's.