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Vol. 7, No. 4

Refuge in London
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Refuge in London

All the people—the lodgers—in my aunt’s boarding house had a history I had missed out on. I had been brought to England when I was two—“our little Englander,” they called me. I knew no other place, and I felt that this made me, in comparison with them, rather blank. Of course I liked speaking English as naturally as the girls at my school, and in other ways too being much the same. But I wasn’t, ever, quite like them, having grown up in this house of European émigrés, all of them so different from the parents of my schoolfellows and carrying a past, a country or countries—a continent—distinct from the one in which they now found themselves.
           They were not always the same lodgers. There was a quick turnover, for some of them prospered and moved, others had to make different arrangements when they could no longer come up with the rent. My aunt, with whom I lived in the basement, was a kind landlady, but beyond a certain point she could not afford to be generous. Also—for my sake, she said—she had to be more strictly moral than it was maybe in her nature to be. The circumstances of émigrés are not so much bound by conventional morality as by the emotional refuge they manage to find with each other. There is always some looseness in these arrangements, odd marital and extramarital situations: for instance, Dr. Levicus, who had started off in one of the rooms with his wife to whom he had been married for thirty years, replaced her with a young lady of twenty, also a refugee but nowhere near his level of refinement. My aunt was prepared to wink at such behavior; she knew how difficult life could be. But she did give notice to Miss Wundt who, having taken her room as a single lady, had different men coming out of it in the mornings and could often be heard screaming insults after them as they made their shamefaced way down the stairs.
           But the Kohls were tolerated year after year, though they were not at all regular with the rent, or in their morals. They were not expected to be; they were artists. Kohl was a painter, and in pre–Hitler Germany he had been famous. His wife Marta said she had been an actress, also a dancer, though not famous in either capacity. They rented the two top rooms but lived in them more or less separately. One room was his, his studio; she also referred to hers as a studio, though she didn’t do anything artistic in there. She was much younger than he was and very attractive, a tiny redhead. It was unlikely that, if he had not been famous, she would ever have married someone so much older and so undistinguished in appearance. He was short and plump, also bald except for a fringe of hair at the back; he had an unattractive mustache that she called his toilet brush. He didn’t seem to care that lovers came to visit her in her room; when that happened, he shut the door of his and went on painting. He painted all the time, though I don’t think he sold anything during those years. I’m not sure what they lived on, probably on an allowance from some relief organization. For a time she had a job in the German section of the BBC, but she soon lost it. There were too many others far more competent and also more reliable than she, who found it impossible ever to be on time for anything.
           Mann was another of our lodgers. His first name was Gustav, but no one ever called him anything except Mann. I disliked him. He was loud and boastful and took up more time in the second-floor bathroom we all had to share than anyone except Marta. Another reason I disliked him was that he was one of the men who spent time with Marta in her room, making Kohl shut the door of his. I had no such negative feelings about her other male visitors, but was as indifferent to them as Kohl seemed to be. He too was not indifferent to Mann. Whenever they met on the stairs, he said something insulting to him, which Mann received with good humor. “Okay, okay, my friend, take it easy,” he said and even soothingly tapped his shoulder. Then Kohl cried, “Don’t touch me!” and jerked away from him. Once he stumbled and rolled down several steps, and Mann laughed. Mann also used to laugh whenever he passed me. I was sixteen at the time and not attractive, and he made me feel even less so by pretending that I was. “Charming,” he said, fingering the navy school tunic I wore and hated. It was my last two years at school—I felt I was too old for it, I wanted to get out, longing for what I thought of as a real world.
           Those particular years are probably difficult for most girls, and it didn’t help that they happened to be the postwar ones in England, with drab food, drab climate, and clothes not only rationed but made of a thick standard material called “utility.” But that didn’t really matter: I wasn’t so much responsive to what was going on outside as to what was going on inside me. My surroundings were only a chrysalis for me to burst out of and become something else. Only what? I didn’t feel that I could ever be butterfly material, and whenever Mann looked at me and said his tongue-in-cheek “Charming,” it was obvious that this was also his opinion.
           It was different with Kohl. I often sat for him while he drew me. Unable to afford a model, he had already drawn most of the people in the house, including my aunt. She had looked at her portrait with round eyes and her hand before her mouth in only partly amused distress: “No—really?” she said. But it really was she, not perhaps as she was meant to be—as, in more hopeful years, she had expected to be—but how she had become, after the war, after survival, after hard domestic work she was not born to, and the habitual shortage of money that was also unexpected. It was my aunt who had brought me to England, more or less tearing me out of my mother’s arms, promising her that she would soon be reunited with me. This never happened: after the age of two, I never again saw my mother, nor my father, nor any other relative. Only my aunt—her name was Elsa, but I called her La Plume (from my French lesson—“La Plume de ma Tante”). She was nearly fifty at the time; some nights I saw her asleep on her bed in a kitchen alcove—her heavy red swollen face, her graying hair bedraggled on a pillow, her mouth open and emitting the groans she must have suppressed during the day. It was this person whom she did not recognize in Kohl’s drawing of her.
           I was always ready to sit for my portrait. Once I was home from school, I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t share many of the interests of my classmates, nor was I involved in their intense relationships, which were mostly with each other. When I was invited to their homes, I found them smaller than mine, more cramped in every way. They lived in semi-detached or row houses, with rectangular stretches of gardens at the backs where their fathers dug and grew vegetables on their days off from their jobs as postmen or bus conductors. Only one family lived in each house whereas ours swarmed with people, each one carrying a distinct history, usually the load of a ruined past. The unruly lives of our lodgers were reflected in the state of our back garden. It was wildly overgrown, for no one knew how to mow the grass, even if we had had anything to mow it with; buried within its rough tangle lay the pieces of a broken statue, which had been there ever since we moved in. Ours was one of the few tall old houses left that had not been pulled down in the reconstruction of the neighborhood in the thirties, or bombed during the war. Its pinnacle was Kohl’s studio on the top floor, and when I sat for him, I felt myself to be detached from and floating above the tiled roofs of the little English villas among which our boarding house had come to anchor.
           Kohl worked through the night, painting huge canvases in oil that one saw only in glimpses, for he either covered them with cloth or turned them to face the walls. These paintings were not interesting to me—in fact, I thought they were awful: great slashing wounds of color, completely meaningless like someone else’s nightmare or the deepest depths of a subconscious mind. But when he drew me, it was always in the day. He perched close to me, knee to knee, holding a pad on his lap and drawing on it in pencil or charcoal. While he was working, Kohl was always happy, almost ecstatic. He and his hand were effortlessly united in one fluid action over the paper onto which he was transferring me. He smiled, he hummed, he whispered a little to himself, blissfully, and when his eyes darted toward me, that blissful smile remained. “Ah, sweet,” he breathed, now at his drawing, now at me. I too felt blissful; no one had ever looked at me or murmured over me in such a way; and although I had of course no sentiment for him—this small, paunchy, middle-aged man—at such moments I did feel a bond with him, not so much as between two persons but as something coming alive between us. There was always movement in the house, noise: doors, voices, footsteps, so many people were living in it. But we there at the top felt entirely alone and bound to each other in his art.
           The one person who ever disturbed us was his wife Marta—and she was not only a disturbance but a disruption into our silence, or an eruption into it. Although they were living separately in their separate rooms, she entered his as of right, its rightful mistress. Without a glance at me, she went straight to look over his shoulder at the drawing: she stood there, taking it in. I felt the instrument in his hand stumble in its effortless motion. There was a change of mood in everything except Marta, who kept standing behind him, looking, judging. She had one little hand on her hip, which was slightly thrust forward in a challenging way. Her glinting green eyes darted from the drawing to me and took me in, not as the subject of his drawing but as an object of her appraisal. After quite a long pause, she returned to the drawing and extended her finger to point out something. “Don’t touch,” he hissed, but that only made her bring her finger closer to show him what she judged to be wrong. He pushed her hand aside roughly, which made her laugh. “You never could stand criticism,” she said and walked away from him, sauntering around the room; if she found something tasty left on a plate, she ate it. He pretended to go on working, but I could feel his attention was more on her, and so was mine. She took her time before leaving, and even when she was half out of the door, she turned again and told me, “Don’t let him keep you sitting too long: once he starts, he doesn’t know when to stop.” It took a long time for him to get back into his concentration, and sometimes he couldn’t manage it at all and we had to stop for the day.
           Once, when this happened, he asked me to go for a walk with him. I had noticed that he always took an afternoon walk and usually to the same place. This was a little park we had in the neighborhood—a very artificial little park, with small trees and a small wooden bridge built over a small stream rippling over some white stones. The place seemed dull to me—I was reading the Romantic poets for my Higher Secondary, and my taste was for wild landscapes and numinous presences. Now I saw that this park, which I despised, represented something very delightful to him. It was a spring day that first time I accompanied him, and I had never seen anyone so relish the smell of the first violets and their touch—he bent down to feel them—and the sound of starlings that had joyfully survived the winter. He made me take his arm, a gallant gesture that embarrassed me, and we paraded up and down the winding paths and under the trees that were not big enough to hide the sky. He said he loved everything that was young and fresh—here he pressed my arm a bit, tucked under his; when a blossom floated down and landed in my hair, he picked it out and said, “Ah, sweet,” the way he did when he was drawing. We sat together on a bench, romantically placed beside the rippling stream, and he recited poetry to me: far from being anything young and fresh, it was something quite decadent, about a poet’s black mistress or a rotting corpse. He explained that this had been a favorite poet of his in his younger days, when he had lived in Paris and sat in the same cafés as Braque and Derain.
           After that first walk, he often asked me to go with him, but I usually refused. It embarrassed me to be seen arm in arm with him, a man who would be older than my father or my uncle, if I had had either one. He never tried to change my mind, but when I saw him walking by himself, he looked sad and lonely, so I went with him more often than I wanted to. It was a strange and entirely new sensation for me to see another person happy in my company when I myself had no such feeling at all. He was undoubtedly happy in that pathetic little park, listening to birds and smelling flowers, walking up and down with me, a sixteen-year-old, on his arm. But when we sat on the bench by the stream and he recited Baudelaire in French, I became wistful. I realized that the situation was, or should have been, romantic—if only he had been more so instead of the way he was, with an old homburg hat and his ugly mustache.
           He began to invite me on other outings, such as his Sunday afternoon visits to galleries and museums. I went with him a few times but did not enjoy it, starting from the long tube ride where we sat side by side and I wanted people to think we were not together. Looking back now, all these years later, I see that it should have been regarded as a great privilege for me to see great paintings with an artist such as Kohl, who had once been famous (and would become so again). He kept me close beside him, standing in front of the paintings he had come to view, usually only two or three. He made no attempt to explain anything to me, only pointed at certain details that I wouldn’t have thought extraordinary—light falling on an apple, or a virgin’s knee—and saying, “Ah, ah, ah,” with the same ecstasy as when he was working. Afterward he treated me to a cup of coffee. There were, at the time, only certain standard eating places in London that he could afford: dingy rooms with unfriendly elderly waitresses, especially depressing if it was raining outside, as it often was, and we had to remain uncomfortable in our wet coats and shoes. But he seemed to enjoy these occasions, even the bad coffee, and continued to sit there after the waitress had slapped down the bill in front of him. At last I had to tell him that my aunt would be worried if I came home too late. Then he regretfully got up; and it was only at that last moment, when he was picking up the bill, that his hand brushed against mine very delicately, very shyly, and he smiled at me in the same way, delicate and shy.
           The only times I really liked to be with him were in his studio when he was drawing me. All I saw out of his window was a patch of sky with some chimneys rearing up into it. When it got dark and he turned on the light, even that view disappeared. Then there was only the room itself, which had an iron bed, often unmade, and a wooden table full of drawings, and the pictures that he painted at night, showing the backs of the canvases, piled one against another on every available space of wall. The floor was bare and had paint splashed all over it. He had a one-burner gas ring, on which I don’t think he ever cooked; all I saw him eat was a herring or a fried egg sandwich bought at a corner shop. He seemed to be always at work, deeply immersed in it and immersing me with him. This was what I responded to—it was the first time I was in the presence of an artist practicing his art, and later, when I began to be a writer, I often thought of it, and it inspired me.
           Our occupation with each other was entirely innocent, but it went on too long and perhaps too often, so that others began to take notice. My aunt, La Plume, would call up, “Don’t you have any homework?” or make excuses to send me on errands she didn’t need. When I came down, she would look at me in a shrewd way. Once she said, “You know, artists are not like the rest of us.” When I didn’t understand, or pretended not to, she said, “They don’t have the same morals.” To illustrate, she had some anecdote about herself and my mother, who had both been crazy about the opera and hung about the stage door in the hope of meeting the artists. Here she began to smile and forgot about artists in general to tell me about a particular tenor. He had taken a liking to my mother, who looked more forward than she was, with her shingled hair and very short skirt showing a lot of silk stocking. He had invited the two girls to his flat. “His wife was there, and another woman we thought may have been another wife for him, you know, a mistress.” Her smile became a laugh, more pleasure than outrage, as she remembered the atmosphere, which was so different from their own home that they had an unspoken pact never to tell about their visits to the tenor’s flat. In the end, they stopped going; there were too many unexplained relationships and too many quarrels, and what had seemed exciting to them at first was now unsettling. Shortly afterward both of them became engaged to their respective suitors—a bookkeeper and a teacher (my father). When she had finished this story, she said, “So you see,” but I didn’t see anything, especially not what it might have to do with me, who anyway had no suitor to fall back on.
           Marta began to come in frequently and to stay longer than she used to. She perched on a stool just behind him, so that he could not see but could certainly feel her. And hear her—she talked all the time, criticizing his drawing, the state of his cheerless room, the cold that he seemed never to notice, except that in the worst weather he wore gloves with the fingers cut off. In the end he gave up—his concentration was long gone—and he threw his pencil aside and said, “But what do you want?”
           She stretched her green eyes wide open at him: “Want? What could I possibly want from you, my poor Kohl?”
           But once she answered, “I want to invite you to my birthday party.”
           He cursed her birthday and her party and that made her open her eyes even wider, greener: “But don’t you remember? You used to love my birthday! Each year a new poem for me . . . He wrote poetry,” she told me. “Real poetry, with flowers, birds, and a moon in it. And I was all three: flowers, birds, and moon. Now he pretends to have forgotten.”
            
Birthdays were always made a fuss over, even for those lodgers whom no one liked much. I suppose that, in celebrating a day of birth as something special, everyone was trying to take the place of a lost family for everyone else. Usually these parties were held in our basement kitchen, which was the only room large enough—the rest of the house was cut up into individual small units for renting out. My aunt was known as a good sort and was the only one everyone could get on with; she was always willing for people to come down to her kitchen and tell her their troubles as though she had none of her own. For birthday parties she covered the grease stains and knife cuts on our big table with a cloth and made the bed she slept on look as much as possible like a sofa for guests to sit on. She arranged sausage slices on bread and baked a cake with margarine and eggs someone had got on the black market. Those who wanted liquor brought their own bottles, though she didn’t encourage too much drinking; it seemed to make people melancholy or quarrelsome and spoiled the general mood of celebration.
           Marta’s party was held not in our kitchen but in her room at the top of the house. Since this was too small to accommodate many people, she had persuaded Kohl to open his studio across the landing for additional space. Although the two rooms were identical in size, their appearances were very different. While his was strictly a workplace, with nothing homelike in it, hers was all home, all coziness. There were colorful rugs, curtains, heaps of cushions, lampshades with tassels, and most of the year she kept her gas fire going day and night, careless of the shillings that it swallowed. There were no drawings or paintings—Kohl never gave her any—but a lot of photographs, mostly of herself having fun with friends, when she was much younger but also just as pretty.
           On that afternoon, her birthday, she was very excited. She rushed to meet each new arrival and, snatching her present, began at once to unwrap it, shrieking. Apart from my aunt and myself, the guests were all men. She hadn’t invited any of our female lodgers, such as Miss Wundt (who was anyway under notice to move out), and these must have been skulking down in their rooms with the party stamping on top of them. Not all the men lived in our house. Some I didn’t know, though I might have seen them on the stairs on their visits to Marta, often carrying flowers. There was one very refined person, with long hair like an artist’s rolling over his collar. He wasn’t an artist but had been a lawyer and now worked in a solicitor’s office, not having a license to practice in England. Another, introduced as a Russian nobleman, bowed from the waist in a stately way but was soon very drunk, so that his bows became as stiff as those of a mechanical figure. The reason he could become so drunk was that there was a great deal of liquor brought by the more affluent guests who were not our lodgers: for instance, there was one man who, although also a refugee, had done very well in the wholesale garment business.
           Trying to keep up with the rest of the party, I too drank more than I should have. When my aunt saw me refilling my glass, she shook her head and her finger at me. I pretended not to see this warning, but Mann drew attention to it: “Let the little one learn how the big people live!” he shouted. And to me he said, “You like it? Good, ah? Better than school! Just grow up and you’ll see how we eat and drink and do our etceteras!”
           “Tcha, keep your big mouth shut,” La Plume told him, and he bent down to hug her, which she pretended not to like. He was obviously enjoying himself, making the most of the unaccustomed supply of liquor by drinking a lot of it. But he was not in the least drunk—I suppose his big size allowed him to absorb it more easily than others. Of course he was loud as usual, with a lot of bad jokes, but that was his style. He appeared to dominate the party as though he were its host; and Marta treated him like one, sending him here and there to fill vases and open bottles. If he didn’t do it well or fast enough, she called him a donkey.
           The guests overflowed to the landing and through the open door into Kohl’s studio. Some of them were looking at his paintings, making quite free with them. They even turned around those facing the wall, the big canvases he painted at night and never showed anyone. The lawyer with the long hair waved his delicate white fingers at them and interpreted their psychological significance. But where was Kohl? No one seemed to have noticed that he was missing. I became aware of his absence only when I saw the lawyer draw attention to a drawing of myself: “Here we see delight not in a particular person but in Youth with a capital Y.”
           It was Marta who shouted, “What rubbish are you spouting there? . . . And where’s Kohl, the idiot, leaving the place open for every donkey to come and give his opinion . . . Where is he? Why isn’t he at my party? Go and find him,” she ordered Mann, as though Kohl’s absence were his fault.
           Mann turned to me: “Do you know where he is?”
           “How would she know?” Marta said.
           “Of course she knows. She’s Youth with a capital Y. She inspires him.”
           If I had been just a little bit younger, I would have kicked his shins; anyway, I almost did. But Marta laughed: “Sneaking away from my party, isn’t that just like him. Go and find him if you know where he is,” she now ordered me. “Oh yes, and tell him where the hell is my present?”
           I was glad to leave the party. It was irritating to see people go into Kohl’s studio and freely comment on his paintings. The lawyer’s explanation of my drawing had been like a violation, not of myself but of Kohl’s work and of my share in it, however passive. And it was not Youth, it was I—I myself!—whom no one had ever cared to observe as Kohl did . . . I ran down the stairs furiously and then down the street and around the corner to the little park.
           He was sitting on the bench beside the stream. He was holding a flat packet wrapped in some paper with designs on it that he must have drawn himself: an elephant holding a sprig of lilac, a hippo in a bathtub. When I asked him if it was for Marta, he nodded gloomily. I said, “She was asking for her present.” He got angry, his face and ears swelled red, so I said quickly, “It was a joke.”
           “No. No joke. This is her character: to take and take, if she could she would suck the marrow from a man’s soul. From my soul . . . Who’s there with her? All of them? That one with the long hair and lisping like a woman? He thinks he knows about art but all he knows is how to lick her feet.”
           It was a lovely summer night, as light as if it were still dusk. How wonderful it was to have these long days after our gloomy winter: to sit outdoors, to enjoy a breeze even though it was still a little cool. It sent a slight shiver over the stream and flickered the remnant of light reflected in the water. During the day two swans glided there, placed by the municipality, but now they must have been asleep and instead there were two stars on the surface of the sky, still pale, though later they would come into their own and become shining jewels, diamonds. There was fragrance from a lilac bush. I would have liked to have a lover sitting beside me instead of Kohl, so angry from thinking of Marta.
           I said, “Is it true you used to write a poem for her on her birthday?”
           “She remembers, ha?” His anger seemed to fade, maybe he was smiling a bit under that ugly mustache brush. “Yes, I wrote poems, not one, not only on her birthday, but a flood. A flood of poems . . . It’s the only way, you see, to relieve the pressure. On the heart; the pressure on the heart.”
           I recognized what he said, having felt that pressure, though in an unspecified form. So far I didn’t quite know what it was about, or even whether it was painful or extremely pleasant.
           “Is he there—that Mann? What a beast. When he’s on the stairs, there is a smell, like a beast in rut. Musth they call it. You don’t know what that means.” I knew very well but didn’t say so, for he was wiping his mouth, as though it had been dirtied by these words or by his having spoken them.
           “Here, you give it to her.” He thrust his packet at me. “She’ll get no more presents from me and no more poems and no more nothing. All that was for a different person . . . I’ll show you.”
           He snatched the packet back, his hands trembled in undoing the knot; but he handled it carefully to avoid tearing the paper, which he—and so far he alone—knew to be valuable. Then he folded it back, revealing the contents. It was a drawing of Marta. He looked from it to me, almost teasing: “You don’t even recognize her.” He held it out to me, not letting me touch it.
           The lampposts in the park were designed to resemble toadstools, and the light they shed was not strong enough to overcome what was still left of the day. So it was by a mixture of electric and early evening light that I first saw this drawing of Marta. It was dated 1931, that is, she must have been fifteen years younger when he painted it. Still, I certainly would have recognized her.
           “Look at her,” he said, though holding it up for himself rather than for me. “Look at her eyes: not the same person at all.”
           But they were the same eyes. It was a pencil drawing, but you could tell their color was green. Green, and glinting—with daring, hunger, even greed, or passion as greed. At that time I couldn’t formulate any of that, but I did recognize that green glint as typically Marta. And her small cheeky nose; and her hair—even in the drawing one could tell it was red. He had drawn a few loose strands of it flitting against her cheek, the way he always did mine. Just the edges of her small, pointed teeth were showing and a tip of tongue between them: roguish, eager, challenging, the way she still was. But her cheeks were more rounded than they were now, and also her mouth had a less knowing expression, as if at that time it hadn’t yet tasted as much as it had in the intervening years.
           He covered the drawing again, taking care of it and of its wrapping. He was sunk in thoughts that did not seem to include me; and when he had finished tying the string, he failed to give the packet back to me but kept holding it in his lap. I reminded him that we had to leave, since they would soon be locking up the park for the night.
           When we got to the gate, it had been locked. It was not difficult for me to find a foothold and to vault over, avoiding the row of spikes on top. He remained hesitating on the other side, clutching his drawing. I showed him where the foothold was and asked him to pass the drawing to me through the bars. He didn’t want to do either but had no choice. With me helping him, he managed to get over, but at the last moment the back of his pants got caught on one of the spikes. The first thing he did when we were reunited was to relieve me of the drawing; the second was to stretch backward to see the rip in his pants. I lied that it was hardly visible; anyway, it was dark by now, and if we met people on the road, they would hardly bother about his torn seat. Nevertheless, he made me walk behind to shield him; every time we passed a lamppost he looked back at me anxiously: “Does it show?”
           Near our house, we could see that the party was still in progress. Lights and voices streamed out into the street, and the shadows of people were moving against the windows. But inside we found that my aunt had left the party and was banging about in the basement kitchen, grumbling to herself: “Why don’t they go home instead of turning my house into God knows what.”
           It was impossible for Kohl with his torn pants to return to his studio, which was full of people he didn’t like. “Take them off,” La Plume said, “I’ll sew them for you . . . Go on, you think I haven’t seen anything like what you hide in there?” But when he stepped out of them, she shook her head: “What does she do all day that she can’t wash her husband’s underpants?”
           I fetched a blanket that he could wrap around his legs, which were very white, unsunned. They trembled slightly, not used to being naked, and ashamed of it. Looking back now, I’m glad I got the blanket and do not have to remember that great artist the way he was at that moment, trouserless in our kitchen.
           When footsteps sounded on the basement stairs, he sat down quickly with his legs under the table where La Plume was sewing his pants. It was Mann who entered, to borrow more glasses for the party. “Cups will do,” he said and began to collect the few we had from our shelves. “And I’m not even asking for saucers.”
           “Thank you very much,” La Plume said, “so in the morning we can drink our coffee from the saucer like cats and dogs.”
           “Be a sport, Mummy,” he said.
           “Who’s your Mummy! And where do you get that ‘sport’ business, as if you’d been to Eton and Oxford.”
           “Better than Eton and Oxford, I’ve attended the School of Life,” he retorted—they were always on good teasing terms.
           “Yes, in the gutters of Cologne,” Kohl put in—not in a teasing way.
           It was only then that Mann became aware of him: “So there you are. Everyone is asking for you: Where is the husband, the famous artist?” Next moment his attention shifted to the packet lying on the table: “Ah, her present that she’s been asking for all day. I’ll take it to her—I’ll tell her you’re busy down here, flirting with two ladies.”
           Kohl had instantly placed his hand on the packet, and wild-eyed, cornered, he glared up at Mann. Mann—a very big man but a coward—retreated quickly with our cups held against his chest.
           “Take care you bring them back washed, you lazy devil!” La Plume shouted after him. But when he had gone, she said, “He’s not a bad sort, though he gets on everyone’s nerves. They say he was a very great idealist and gave wonderful speeches to the workers at their rallies.”
           “We’ve heard about the wonderful speeches—from him. From no one else,” Kohl sneered. “And when the police came, he ran faster than anyone. It’s only here he plays the big hero.”
           “Ah well,” sighed La Plume, “everyone lives as best they can.” This was her motto. “Here,” she said, handing him his trousers. “I wouldn’t get very high marks for sewing, but they’ll do.” He got up to step into them—just in time, for while he was still buttoning them, Marta was heard calling from the stairs.
           I had noticed that, whenever Marta came into a room, the air shifted somewhat. I don’t know if this was due to other people’s reactions to her, or to something emanating from her, of which she herself was unaware. I might mention here that she had a peculiar, very sweet smell—not of perfume, more of a fruit, ripe and juicy, not quite fresh.
           “So where’s my present? Mann says you have my present!” Her eager eyes were already fixed on it, but Kohl held on to it. “Give,” she wheedled, “it’s mine.”
           He shook his head in refusal, while secretly smiling a bit. But when she began to tug at it—“Give, give”—he shouted, “Be careful!” and let go, so that she captured it.
           She untied it, the tip of her tongue slightly protruding. The paper came off and the drawing was revealed. She held it between her two hands and looked at it: looked at herself looking out of it. He watched her; the expression on his face became anxious, like one waiting for a verdict.
           At last she said, “Not bad.”
           “Not bad!” he echoed indignantly.
           “I mean me, not you.” Her eyes darted to him with the same expression as in the drawing. She held it at another angle for careful study: “Yes,” was her verdict, “no wonder you fell madly in love with me.”
           “I with you! Who was it who chased me all over town, from café to café, from studio to studio, like a madwoman, and everyone laughing at us both?”
           “Me running after him?” She turned to La Plume: “Me in love with him? Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in all your life?”
           “No, not with me. With my fame.”
           He spoke with dignity and pride, and then she too became proud. She said, “Oh yes, he was famous all right, and I wasn’t the only one to run after him. Naturally: a famous artist.” She returned to the drawing, to his gift to her, and now she appeared to be studying not herself, as before, but his work.
           “So?” he asked, valuing her opinion and awaiting her compliment.
           This compliment seemed to be hovering on her lips—when Mann came storming into our kitchen, followed by some other guests. As with one gesture, Kohl and Marta seized the wrapping paper to conceal the drawing, but Mann had already seen it: “So that’s the present he’s been hiding!”
           “Don’t touch!” Marta ordered, but she held it out, not only for him but high enough for others to see. They crowded forward; there were admiring cries, and Mann whistled. It was a gratifying moment for both Kohl and Marta. La Plume glowed too, and so did I; we were really proud to have an artist in our house.
           The lawyer spoiled it. He peered at the drawing through his rimless glasses; he thrust out his white fingers to point out beauties—the same way he had done with my portrait. He may even have said something similar about Youth with a capital Y, but Marta cut him short: “You really are a donkey,” and at once she wrapped up the drawing.
           “You know what, children?” said La Plume. “It’s long past my bedtime, and if you don’t clear out, I’m going to miss my beauty sleep.”
           Everyone clamored for Kohl to join them. Marta too said: “Come and drink champagne with us. He brought it, so he’s good for something.” She pointed briefly at the lawyer, who stopped looking crestfallen, but she had already returned to Kohl. She laid her hand on his shoulder in a familiar gesture we had never witnessed between them: “Come on—only don’t give away any secrets. You’re the only one who knows how old I am today.”
           “We all know,” Mann said. “It’s eighteen.” No one heard him. Marta still had her hand on Kohl’s shoulder; she said, “You used to like to drink. Often a bit too much, both of us . . .”
           “Maybe,” he said; he shook her hand off. “But next morning I was up at five, working, and you lay in bed till noon, sleeping it off.”
           “I never had a hangover.”
           “No it’s true—when you got up, you were fresh and fit and ready to start making my life a misery again.”
           Marta may never have had a hangover, but there were days when she suffered a mysterious ailment about which she and La Plume whispered together. My aunt didn’t want me to know about it, but when she wasn’t there, Marta spoke to me as freely as she did to La Plume. It was something very private to do with her womb—I really would have preferred not to know, these were matters I wanted to keep buried in the depths of the unconscious where I could at least pretend they had nothing to do with me. Marta went into unwelcome detail, though she always warned me, “For God’s sake, don’t tell Kohl. He can’t stand women being ill.”
           She did however confide in Mann and the lawyer and probably everyone else too. She even told all of us that her trouble was due to an abortion brought about by herself when she was married to Kohl. “I was nineteen years old, what did I know? With a knitting needle, can you believe it? As if I’d ever knitted a thing.” When we asked if she had told Kohl—“Are you crazy? He’d have run off very fast on his fat little legs. We were bohemians, for heaven’s sake, not parents.”
           Although she spoke this last sentence proudly, Mann stroked her hair with his big hand and said, “My poor little one.”
           She jerked her head away from him: “Don’t be a sentimental idiot. I wasn’t going to ruin my career. I was on my way—listen, I’d already been an extra three times, the casting director at UFA was taking a tremendous interest in me, his name was Rosenbaum and he’d promised me a real part in the next production. And then of course he was fired.” She made the face—it was one of scorn and disdain—with which she looked back on that part of their past.
           She was not the only one deprived of her future. The lawyer had had his own practice in Dresden; Mann, who was a trained engineer, had been a union leader and a delegate at an international labor conference. In England they were earning their livings in humbler ways, but Marta was never able to get anything going. She said it was because her English was not good enough, but Kohl said it was because she was a lazy lump who couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings. It was true that she usually slept late and had her first cup of coffee at noon.
           It may have been her waiflike quality that made one want to serve her, but there was also something imperious in her personality that blurred the line between wishes and commands. During the day, I was often the only person available, and as soon as she heard me come home from school, she called down for me. She said she was too sick to get out of bed, she was starving, and though she had called and called, no one had answered. She wasn’t sulky, just pathetic, so that I was apologetic to have been at school and my aunt on a shopping trip a tube ride away where prices were cheaper. But there had been Kohl just across the landing—hadn’t he heard her? She laughed at that: “Kohl! I could be screaming in my death agony, he’d stuff up his ears and not hear a thing.” But again she was not reproachful, only amused.
           He too was often waiting for me to come home from school: either he needed to finish a drawing of me or had an idea for a new one. Of course he never summoned me the way she did; he requested, suggested, timidly ready to withdraw. It was only when he saw that she had preempted me and was sending me about her business that his manner changed. Once he came into her room while I was washing her stockings in the basin and she was warming her hands before the gas fire. His face swelled red the way it did in anger: “What is she—a queen to be served and waited on? . . . You should have seen where she came from, before I pulled her out of the mire!”
           She admitted it freely—that she came out of the mire—but as for his pulling her out: oh there were plenty of others, bigger and better, to do that.
           “Then why me? Why did I have to be made the fool who married her?”
           “Because you wanted it more than anyone else. You said you’d die and kill yourself without me.”
           “And now I’m dying with you!”
           It began to happen that on the days when I was sitting with him in his room, she would call for me from hers. Then he kicked his door shut with his foot; but I could still hear her voice calling, weak and plaintive, and it made me restless. I wanted to help her; and also, I have to admit, I wanted to be with her more than with him. I was bored with the long hours of sitting for him. And I was embarrassed by him, too young for his shy approaches, too unused to such respectful gallantry. I began to find excuses not to accompany him on his Sunday excursions, though I felt sorry when I saw him leave alone. Perhaps Marta felt sorry too: I heard her offer to go with him, and then his brusque, indignant refusal.
           One day Kohl was waiting for me outside my school. He was standing beside someone’s boyfriend, a tall youth with straw-colored hair and a big Adam’s apple, this paunchy little old man who tucked his arm into mine and walked away with me. Next day I told everyone he was my uncle, and whenever he stood there again, it was announced to me that my uncle was waiting. I couldn’t even tell him not to come—not for fear of hurting his feelings (though there was that too) but for not wanting anything significant to be read into his presence there. What could be significant? He was old, old! I wept into my pillow at night, ashamed and frustrated at some lack that it was ridiculous to think someone like him could fill.
           On a Sunday when I had just told Kohl that I had too much homework to go with him, Marta called after me on the stairs to accompany her. I didn’t dare accept there and then, with Kohl listening, but she knew how eager I was, and maybe he knew too: when we set out, I glanced up guiltily and there he was, standing at a window on the landing. It seemed she was as aware of him as I was: she put her arm around my shoulders and talked in the loud and lively way people do when they want to show others that they are having a good time.
           After that first Sunday, I waited for her to invite me again, and sometimes she did. Outings with her were very different from those with Kohl. We were never alone, as I was with him, but there were Mann and the lawyer, and later others joined us, and they had conversations about art shows and films, and a lot to say about people they knew and seemed not to like. Although it hardly ever rained when I was with her—it inevitably did on Sundays with Kohl—they spent little time enjoying birds and sunshine. They gathered in cafés for afternoon coffee and cake, never in the sort of depressing eating holes that Kohl frequented but in large, lavish places; these were probably imitations of the luxury cafés they had once known. Their favorite was one called The Old Vienna, which was not too expensive but was smothered in atmosphere. There were chandeliers, carpets, red velvet banquettes, and richly looped creamy lace under the curtains that were also of red velvet. Here many languages were spoken by both clientele and waiters, and there were continental newspapers on poles for anyone who cared to read them. But few did—they were there to talk and laugh and pretend they were where and how they used to be. Some of the women were chic, with little hats and a lot of lipstick and costume jewelry. Yet Marta, not chic but bohemian with her red hair and long trailing skirt, drew more attention than anyone—maybe because she was enjoying herself so recklessly, surrounded by a group of friends, all male and all eager to supply and then light the cigarettes from which she flicked ash in all directions.
           I was always excited after these excursions with Marta and her friends, and my aunt enjoyed hearing my descriptions of the café and its clientele, nodding in recognition of something she had once known. But Kohl frowned and told her, “You shouldn’t let her go with them.”
           “But it’s so nice for her! Poor child, what chance does she have to go anywhere?”
           He said, “She’s too young.”
           “Too young to go to a café?”
           “Too young to go with people like that.”
           “Oh, people like that,” La Plume repeated dismissively in her everyone-has-to-live intonation.
           As so often with this mild little man, he became a red fighting cock: “You don’t know anything! None of you knows—what she was like, how she carried on. Every day was carnival for her—and how old was she? Sixteen, seventeen, and I, who was forty, I, Kohl, became her clown. She made me her carnival clown.”
           “Yes, yes, sit down.”
           La Plume pressed him into a chair. She made tea for him, and he drank it with his hands wrapped gratefully around the cup. It calmed him, changed the mood of his thoughts though not their subject. “What could I do? For years and years I had been alone, and poor—poor! And now people were coming to my studio. When I went into a café there were whispers ‘It’s Kohl, the artist Kohl.’ So that was meat and drink for her, other people’s whispers . . . But she was always laughing at me, making a fool of me. Even her cap made a fool of me! This little striped monkey cap she wore riding on top of her hair . . . Her hair was red.”
           “It’s still red.”
           “Nothing like it was!” He gulped tea, gulped heat. “I painted her, I wrote poetry for her, I slept with her, I couldn’t get enough of her. I tell you, she was a flame to set people on fire.” He broke off, pleaded with me, “Come and sit for me. Come tomorrow? After school? I’ll wait for you. I’ll have everything ready.”
           That time I was glad to go. There was a stillness, a purity in his empty studio that I have never experienced in any other place; nor at any other time have I felt as serene as in the presence of this artist, drawing something out of me that I didn’t know was there. But then Marta came in and stood behind him to comment on his drawing of me. Once he took off one of his slippers, which he always wore in the studio to save his feet, and he threw it in her direction. It hit the door, which she had already shut behind her. But as always with her intrusion, our peace was shattered.
            
All this was in my last two years at school: 1946, 1947. After that, things began to change, and some of our lodgers left us to resume their former lives or to begin new ones elsewhere. Mann, for instance, went back to Germany—to East Germany, where he was welcomed by the remnants of his party and returned to an active life of rallies and international conferences. The lawyer started a new practice of his own, taking up cases of reparation for his fellow refugees, which made him rich and took him all over Europe. Their rooms remained empty; there were no more émigrés of the kind my aunt was used to, and she did not care for the other applicants who spoke in languages none of us understood. Anyway, the landlord was keen to convert the house into flats and offered her a sum of money to quit. I was by this time living in Cambridge, having won a scholarship to the university, and stayed with her only during my vacations. She took a little flat over some shops in North West London and led a more restful, retired life, made possible by the monthly payments of refugee reparation the lawyer arranged for her.
           He also offered to arrange such payments for Marta, but she was too disorganized to locate her birth certificate or any other of the required papers. She also seemed indifferent about it, as though other things mattered more to her. Before leaving, Mann had asked her to go with him, but first she laughed at him and then she said he was getting on her nerves and pushed him out. A few postcards arrived from him, upbeat in tone and with idyllic views of a cathedral and a river, which my aunt found in the wastepaper basket and put up in her kitchen.
           The lawyer married a widow who had been at school with him and had survived the war in Holland. He moved into her flat in Amsterdam but was often in London on business. He began to bring people to Kohl’s studio, and they brought other people—gallery owners, collectors, dealers—so it was often a busy scene. The visitors walked around the drawings on the walls, and Kohl turned over the large canvases for them to see; since he had only two chairs, Marta carried some in from her room, and then she stood leaning against the doorpost, smoking and watching. No one took any notice of her. They commented among themselves or turned respectfully to Kohl, who as usual had very little to say; but if Marta tried to explain something for him, he became irritated and told her to go away.
           We all attended the opening of his first show at a gallery on Jermyn Street. It was packed with fashionable people, ladies with long English legs in the shiny nylons that had begun to arrive from America; the air was rich with an aroma of perfume and face powder, and of the cigars some of the men had been smoking before being asked to put them out. Marta wore an ankle-length, low-cut dress of emerald green silk; it matched her eyes but had a stain in front that the dry cleaner had not been able to get out. She wandered around in a rather forlorn way, and no one seemed to know that she was the artist’s wife. Many pictures were sold, discreet little dots appearing beside them. After this show, another was held in Paris, and after a while Kohl decided to move to Zurich. The pictures still left in the house were packed up under his supervision, and again Marta stood leaning in the open door to watch, and again if she tried to say anything, he became irritated.
           When he was all packed up, he came into the kitchen with a present for me. As he walked down the stairs, Marta, who seemed to be aware of his every movement, leaned over the banister and gave a street-boy whistle to attract his attention. When he looked up, she called him vile names in several languages, so that by the time he reached us, his face and ears were suffused in red. Her voice penetrated right into the kitchen, where he, always shy of anything scatological, pretended that neither he nor we could hear it. Courtly and courteous, he presented me with one of the drawings of myself—but La Plume and I didn’t even have time to thank him before Marta came whirling in. Instinctively, though not aware at that time of its value, I held my drawing close for protection.
           She too was carrying a drawing; it was the one he had given her on her birthday. She held it under his nose: “Here, you ridiculous animal!” She tore it across—once, twice, three times—and threw the pieces on the floor. With a terrible cry, he crouched down to gather them up, while she tried to prevent him by stamping her high-heeled shoes on his fingers. He didn’t seem to notice when he got up that there was blood on his hands. La Plume, clasping her cheeks between her hands, showed it to him, but he was concerned only that it should not stain the pieces of drawing that he was clutching in the same way I did mine. Marta was laughing now, as at a victory—was it over the blood? Or the torn drawing? My aunt said, “Children, children,” in her usual way of trying to soothe tempers, but I did not feel that those two were children, or that there was anything childlike about their quarrel.
           It was only when Marta had left us that he let go of the pieces of the drawing and laid them down on the table. “Let me see your hand,” La Plume said, but he impatiently wiped the blood off on his sleeve and concentrated on holding the drawing together. Although torn, it was still complete with nothing missing; he smiled down at it, first in relief, then in pure joy, and invited us to admire it with him—not Marta looking out of it with her insolent eyes but the work itself: his, his art.
           He left the next day and I never met him again. I did see the drawing again: in spite of its damaged condition some collector had bought it, and it was often reproduced in books of twentieth-century art and also appeared in a book devoted to his work. Whatever we heard of Kohl himself was mostly through the lawyer, whom my aunt had engaged to recover some family property (she never got it). We learned that Kohl had rented a large studio in Zurich, in which he both lived and worked. He allowed his dealer to bring visitors, but hardly spoke to or seemed to notice them. He never attended any of his exhibitions, nor did he give interviews to the art magazines that published articles about his work. He was always working, his only recreation an evening walk in a nearby park. He had a maidservant to cook and clean for him, a village girl fifteen or sixteen years old whom he often drew. The lawyer thought he also slept with her. Otherwise there was only his work; during his few remaining years, he grudged every moment away from it. When he died, in 1955, his obituaries gave his age as sixty-four.
           Marta stayed in the house till my aunt left, and after that she took a room elsewhere. She moved often, not always voluntarily. Once or twice she landed on La Plume’s doorstep, having had to vacate her room in a hurry. She never said why, but my aunt guessed that it may have been for the same reason that she herself had had to give notice to Miss Wundt.
           We don’t know what she lived on. Her clothes looked thin and worn; there were buttons missing from her little jacket, and its fox-fur trimming was mangy. But she was always in a good mood and talked in her usual lively way. She heartily ate the food my aunt prepared for her—too heartily, like someone who really needed it—but she never tried to borrow money from us. Once she asked me to take her to the cinema, not for the feature film, only to see a newsreel she had been told about. When it came on, she nudged me—“Look, look, that’s him! Mann!” It was a shot of an international banquet, with speeches in a language I couldn’t identify under giant portraits of leaders also unidentifiable. It may have been Mann, but many of the other delegates could have been he, big and tall and cheering loudly as they raised and then drained their glasses in toasts to the speakers at the head table. She was convinced it was Mann—“The donkey,” she laughed. “Can you imagine—he wanted to marry me. What a lucky escape,” she congratulated herself. I had to leave, but since the ticket was paid for, she stayed on to see the feature film and to wait for the newsreel to come around again.
           When Kohl died, it was reported in the newspapers that he had left the pictures remaining in his possession to a museum in New York and the rest of his estate to his maidservant. The lawyer told Marta that, if she could produce her marriage certificate, she would have a strong case for challenging the will. But she had no marriage certificate any more than she had a birth certificate, nor could she remember where the marriage had been registered, or when, and in fact it seemed she couldn’t remember if there had been any legal procedure at all. Whenever she spoke of Kohl, it was in the same way she did of Mann: congratulating herself on a lucky escape. She loved recalling the occasion when she had torn up his drawing—“Did you see his face?” she said, amused and pleased with herself. It turned out that this drawing was the only piece of work he had ever given her—just as the drawing he had given me was the only one of the many I sat for. I asked her, what about the poems that he had written to her? She tossed her hair, which was still red but now too red, a flag waved in defiance: “Who can remember every little scrap they once had? . . . Anyway, they were all a lot of rubbish. Other men have written much better poems to me.” She admitted not having kept those either; she had had to move so often, everything had just disappeared.
           And then she herself disappeared, and no one knew what had happened to her. We went to ask at the last address we had for her, but the mention of her name caused the landlady to shut the door against us. Years, decades have passed, and in all this time there has been no trace of Marta. I have stopped even speculating about her, though when my aunt was still alive we often did so, and there were conclusions that we did not like to mention to each other. Marta may have been run over or collapsed in the street and been taken to a hospital and died there, with no one knowing who she was, whom to contact. She may have—who knows?—drowned herself in the Thames on some dark night, maybe tossing the red flag of her hair, congratulating herself on having fooled everyone by never learning to swim.
           I no longer live in London. Some years ago, I had some money trouble that finally led me to reluctantly sell Kohl’s drawing. The sum I got for it was astonishing; it not only relieved me of my difficulties but gave me a sort of private income for a few years. I felt free to go where I liked, and since I had no one else close to me after La Plume, I was free in every way. I decided to go to New York. I had heard that there was a museum with one whole room dedicated to Kohl’s work, and I went there the day after my arrival. Then I could not keep away.
           All his drawings were on one wall, while the paintings took up the rest of the room. The drawings were mostly of Marta, some of me, and a few of other girls my age, one of them probably his maidservant. Although there was absolutely no resemblance between any of us, what we had in common was a particular and very evanescent stage of youth; and it must have been this that elicited his little gasps of joy, his murmurs of “Sweet,” and these marvelous portraits. But when I saw myself on the wall of the museum, I had the same feeling I had had while I was sitting for him: that I was not just a type or prototype for him, that it was not just any girl, some other girl, to whom he was responding but me, myself. I was the person at whom he had looked so deeply and with such delight, and in a way that no one ever had or, in fact, ever did again.
           My decision to move to New York—where I have lived ever since—may have come partly and at first from a desire to remain close to the museum displaying his work. But although I can never get enough of studying the drawings, I can rarely bring myself to look at the paintings. They are no longer meaningless—everyone knows now how to interpret those savage, searing colors dripping off the canvas—but I still try to avoid them, even turning my back on them, unable to face what he faced, at night and in secret, through all the years we knew him. And I still wonder that, while he was possessed by these visions of our destruction, he was at the same time drawing—“Sweet, sweet”—what is now displayed on the other wall: girls in bloom, flowers in May.

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