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The haunting novel from Paul Bailey, whose work has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize.At the age of seventy, Andrew Peters looks back across the years to remember life with his doting Uncle Rudolf, who rescued him from fascist Romania as a child. Vivid, often hilarious, stories of Rudolf’s brilliant but blighted singing career are intertwined with the slow unfolding of secrets that have shadowed Andrew’s otherwise happy life. Told in matchless prose, this deeply moving novel captures a vanished epoch with exquisite tact and restraint.
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By Paul Bailey
ST. MARTIN'S PRESSCopyright © 2002 Paul Bailey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI woke up yesterday morning with the old words on my tongue. There they were again, for the third time this year. In those first moments of consciousness, I could hear myself talking of blood and snow and storks on chimney tops in the language I put behind me. The disconnected phrases made no sense at all, but I understood their meaning.
- Shut up, I said aloud, in English. Go back where you belong.
Where do they belong? In my earliest childhood, I suppose, when I had a mother and a father. I spoke them as a little boy, whose name was Andrei, in the country I left at the age of seven. I babbled them, rather, the way children babble. Yes, I have a memory of babbling about the snow as it fell and then settled, turning - I imagined - the whole world white.
- There is no snow in India and Africa, my father corrected me. Except high up on the mountains. The Indians and Africans who live on the ground never see it.
I was sorry for the Indians and Africans who lived on the ground, because I loved to watch the snowflakes falling from heaven, making that beautiful carpet.
The young dentist who examined me this afternoon commented on the remarkable condition of my teeth. He was surprised that a man of seventy should have a mouth so free from decay. My gums had receded, of course, which was only natural, and there was a small amount of plaque, but otherwise, dentally speaking, I was in splendid shape. He showed me my healthy molars on a closed circuit television screen as proof.
- You have taken good care of yourself, Mr Peters.
I did not tell him, or his wife, the hygienist who disposed of the plaque, that I had to thank Uncle Rudolf for my strong teeth. The story would have struck them as absurd. It is true, even so.
- Andrew, said my uncle (Andrei had become Andrew on the platform at Victoria Station, on the evening of the twenty-third of February 1937, minutes after my arrival.) Andrew, he said to me over breakfast the next day, that is burnt toast you are staring at. Cover it with jam by all means, or spread some butter on it, but eat it, if you please. I want to hear you crunching on it.
- Yes, Uncle, I responded dutifully, although I was mystified. My father had advised me to obey Uncle Rudolf's every command.
I crunched on the blackened toast.
- Bravo, Andrew. Keep crunching.
I wondered if, perhaps, he was mad. I was only seven years old, but I knew something about madness already. There was a man who often stood outside the courthouse where my father worked as the chief clerk shouting that there was no justice but God's. Human justice was a mirage, a phantom, he proclaimed. This man, who had a beard that went down to his knees - 'To conceal eternal shame' - was regarded as a harmless lunatic. He had nothing dangerous in his nature, my father reassured me. I was to pity him. I was to pity all those like him.
Would I have to pity Uncle Rudolf? He was smiling at me as I kept on crunching, and his smile was not that of a madman, I decided. No, he was not one of the unhappy souls my father had alerted me to.
- I was introduced to burnt toast, Andrew, by a Negro with a gleaming smile in a funny place called Hollywood. I expressed admiration for the dazzling whiteness of his teeth, and he told me his secret was burnt toast. He had been eating it all his life, like his parents before him.
Where was this funny place? I asked my uncle.
- You must be the one boy on the planet not to know where Hollywood is. It is in America, Andrew. In California, to be exact. It is the home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. It is where motion pictures are made. I was there a couple of years ago, playing - and singing - the part of Barinkay in The Gypsy Baron. The movie was never completed. I was paid my wages and I came home to Europe, a sadder and a richer man. You are looking bewildered and your tea is getting cold.
I was aware that Uncle Rudolf was a famous singer - the whole town knew of his fame - but this talk of Hollywood was beyond my understanding.
- Have you never seen a motion picture, Andrew?
- No, I confessed. Mama says I must be protected from the cinema until I am older.
- Does she? She is strict in her faith, if I remember.
- Yes, Uncle.
- I will take you to the pictures today, if you eat up your toast and drink your tea. You deserve a treat after your long journey.
I crunched with a purpose and drained my cup.
- Where is she, Uncle? Can you tell me?
- No, to be honest. I wish I could. Your mother is safe somewhere, that much I can tell you.
Safe. Somewhere. On Uncle Rudolf's lips, the words were comforting. The old words, of course.
Am I attempting to stave off the prospect of my second childhood? Why else, I ask myself, should I now be writing about my life with Rudolf Peterson, who was born Rudi Petrescu? Walking the five miles back from the dentist's today, at my usual brisk pace, in light rain, I realized that I had said goodbye to his receptionist in Romanian. La revedere: these were my last words to my father, spoken with a sob as the train drew out of the Gare du Nord in Paris, on the morning of the twenty-third of February, 1937. I went on waving to him until he and I were out of each other's sight. Although I was sad to be parted from him, I was also happily innocent of his impending plan to disappear.
- Your uncle will take care of you, Andrei. For the time being - weeks, maybe months. No longer, dear one, I promise. This will be a holiday for you. Rudi is an amusing man. He will make you laugh. He has stories at his fingertips.
My father entrusted me to the care of a guard, with whom he communicated in French and a few, telling signs. The man nodded his understanding of the task ahead of him, muttering Oui, Monsieur and Je comprends and, finally, Merci beaucoup, Monsieur when he accepted the francs my father offered him. He was to deliver me, petit Andrei - Andrei, Andrei, my father repeated - into the hands of Maestro Rudolf Peterson, who would be waiting for his nephew on the station platform in London. Then my father produced from the inside pocket of his best overcoat a photograph of my uncle dressed, I think, as a pirate, with a bandanna on his head, large rings in his ears and a cutlass in his belt. My father entreated the guard to study the maestro's face, and nothing else. The man did so, and smiled. The maestro, my father insisted, would be wearing ordinary clothes. Not très ordinaire, but ordinaire. No earrings; no sword. The man nodded vigorously, still smiling.
- La revedere, Tata, I managed to say, although I was choking with fear and anticipation. I did not want this holiday. I wanted to be with my mother and father, from whom I had never been separated. Yet I also wanted to meet my famous Uncle Rudolf - to listen to the stories he had at his fingertips; to have him sing for me.
I have Jewish blood in my veins, but I can't ascertain how much. Does it constitute a third, a quarter, a half of me? A sixteenth, perhaps, or less? Will it ever be possible to quantify a person's blood - to say, with conviction, that those drops are Norse, those Gallic, those Latin, those Tatar? Mine has yet to be quantified, but what is certain is that some of it is Jewish.
My mother's father was a Jew. He was known in the town, even after his death - which happened before I was born - as the Debt Collector. My maternal grandmother enraged and upset her parents when she declared her love for him. She was stubborn, and had her way, against all their modest hopes and wishes for her. She stated, quite calmly, that she would end her life if she could not marry him. And he, in turn, angered his own family by saying that no other girl but Doina would ever make him happy.
They were married in a nearby city, to escape the gossip in the town. It was said that he renounced his faith, but he had no faith to renounce. He was a freethinker, an atheist, and might have been a professor or a scholar if his father had not died suddenly. He became a reluctant middleman instead, collecting money from the peasants who lived and toiled on the Hasdeu estate. It was necessary for him to earn a living, and - like a fool, he said afterwards - he allowed himself to continue the family tradition. The eldest son - and he was an only child - was expected to be the next intermediary, doing the landowner's nasty work for him. And that is what my grandfather did, with much sorrow and anguish, my mother told me.
He was already dead when, in 1935, the saviour of the Romanian people, the Pied Piper who would lead them to a Balkan paradise, stood on the steps of the courthouse and exhorted his disciples to free themselves from the Jewish yoke. My mother and father were among the crowd who listened to Corneliu Zelea Codreanu as he recounted how he had stood before an icon of the Archangel Michael in the chapel of the prison at Vacaresti and received immediate and lasting inspiration. The tall, dark Codreanu had the blazing eyes, the trumpet-like voice of a prophet, my father revealed to me later. His kind of prophet was best left in the wilderness, talking to stones and trees and passing birds, but alas Codreanu was not in the wilderness, my father complained. He was here, there and everywhere, in the very heart of the country.
Thinking of the Pied Piper and what he represented, I am driven to set down a scene from childhood - my only childhood, I hope. It is a Thursday morning in early September. The year is 1936. I am with my mother at the market in the town square. The weather has turned chilly. She has a scarf on her head and a shawl about her shoulders, and I am sweltering inside the lamb's wool jacket she has forced me to wear. She is bartering with the stallholder who sells cabbages, as is the custom. She wants the firmest, greenest cabbage he has, at a price she can afford. Cabbage soup is her husband's favourite dish, she tells the stallholder, who remarks that without cabbage soup he would have no business. My mother brings out her purse; she haggles a little more; the stallholder observes, as he observes to all the women on every market day, that she will make a pauper of him, and then her lip is trembling, and her hands are shaking, and I am suddenly afraid for her. She has just heard a woman behind her say:
- That's the Debt Collector's daughter, damn her, striking a hard bargain.
My mother gives the stallholder the coins and rushes off. I pick up the purse she has dropped, and take the cabbage she has bought, and look at the woman who caused my mother to shake and tremble and run away. She is fat and red-faced and she is gloating - yes, that is the word I can use of her now, but did not know then - she is gloating with pride at the harm she has done. I stare at her. Do I want her to call me the Debt Collector's grandson? I wait. I want her to give me a reason to spit at her. Her gaze shifts to the stallholder, and I hear her telling him his cabbages are too costly, in almost the same words my mother had spoken a minute earlier.
My mother was devoutly Orthodox. My father would joke that there weren't enough saints' days in the year to satisfy her. On the day of the cabbage she came home and prayed to the icon of the Virgin and Child for what seemed hours. I heard her implore the Holy Mother to forgive the woman who had insulted her and her dear father's memory, and to cleanse the minds and hearts of all those in the town who thought the same.
Our dinner that evening was, naturally, cabbage soup, into which my mother stirred a generous dollop of soured cream, to please my father. I kept my promise and did not mention the woman in the market. We ate contentedly. Many years later, I saw a picture in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, by one of the minor Dutch masters, that might have captured the three of us - a happy trinity - at table. There was the tureen; there were the bowls, and there were the father, the mother and the greedy little boy, whose own empty bowl would soon, he hoped, be filled again. They were bathed in a light that reflected their beatific state, while the room behind them was in darkness. A warm darkness, I thought, into which you could steal with safety.
- What is so special about Mr De Witt's picture, Andrew? There are hundreds like it here.
- It appeals to me, Uncle. It speaks to me, as you say. I find it rather moving.
- If you find that moving, you will be overwhelmed by the Rembrandts, should we ever get to them, you young slowcoach. I can confidently predict that your emotional floodgates will open and burst. Leave those humble folk to their soup, Andrew. Come along.
I could not tell him that the picture had sent me drifting back to the peaceful evening of the cabbage soup and the terrible day of the cabbage which preceded it. That's the Debt Collector's daughter, damn her, striking a hard bargain - the woman's voice was in my head as I walked beside Uncle Rudolf, who was impatient to show me real masterpieces. Those persons for ever unknown made off with the Debt Collector's daughter, not my devout and innocent mother.
I squeezed my protector's arm, very gently, when we came to a stop in front of The Night Watch, in unsaid gratitude for his protection.
The sky was black when we set off on our long journey. The snow was so hard that it didn't crackle under our feet. My father lifted me on to Mircea the woodman's cart and then jumped up and lay beside me. He covered us, quickly, with a rough blanket.
- Lie still, Andrei, he whispered. Lie very still.
- I want to sneeze. There's dust in my nose.
- And in mine.
- Are we hiding from people, Tata?
- Bogies. Lots of them. We must be silent, Andrei dear.
I was proud of myself for not having sneezed when my father lowered me to the ground. I looked about me for bogies, but there were none to be seen. Mircea's old horse neighed loudly, and I told him to be quiet, whereupon he opened his huge mouth, which was yellow inside, and yawned. I noticed in amazement that the woodman was crying.
- Wickedness, said Mircea. Wickedness. Wicked ness.
- My good friend. You are my good friend.
- Wickedness. Mircea wiped away the tears from his cheeks with the back of his gloved hand. Wickedness.
- Say goodbye and thank you to Mircea, Andrei.
But before I could speak, the grizzled woodman (it occurs to me now that Mircea's face was definitely grizzled) was pressing me to him with such force that I found it hard to breathe. He bent down and kissed me and I felt his grey stubble pricking my skin.
- The train will soon be here, said my father. He took some notes from his pocket, but Mircea refused them with an offended snort. Do not wait with us, my friend. Return to your bed.
Excerpted from Uncle Rudolf by Paul Bailey Copyright © 2002 by Paul Bailey. Excerpted by permission.
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