Refuge in London
All the peoplethe lodgersin my aunts boarding house had a
history I had missed out on. I had been brought to England when I was twoour
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 wasnt, 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 countriesa continentdistinct
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. Alsofor my sake, she saidshe 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 preHitler 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 dont think he sold anything during
those years. Im 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
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, Dont 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 schoolI 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 didnt 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 didnt really matter: I wasnt 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 didnt 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: Noreally? she said. But it really was she, not
perhaps as she was meant to beas, in more hopeful years, she had expected to
bebut 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 mothers 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 aunther name was
Elsa, but I called her La Plume (from my French lessonLa Plume de ma Tante).
She was nearly fifty at the time; some nights I saw her asleep on her bed in a
kitchen alcoveher 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 Kohls drawing of
I was always ready to sit for my portrait. Once I was home
from school, I had nowhere else to go. I didnt 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 Kohls 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 mein fact, I
thought they were awful: great slashing wounds of color, completely meaningless
like someone elses 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 himthis small, paunchy, middle-aged
manat 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 Martaand
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. Dont 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, Dont let him keep you sitting too long: once he
starts, he doesnt know when to stop. It took a long time for him to get back
into his concentration, and sometimes he couldnt 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 neighborhooda 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 meI 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 touchhe bent down to feel themand 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 freshhere 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 poets 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, romanticif only he had
been more so instead of the way he was, with an old homburg hat and his ugly
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 wouldnt have
thought extraordinarylight falling on an apple, or a virgins kneeand 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 dont
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 toit 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, Dont you have any homework? or make excuses
to send me on errands she didnt 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 didnt understand, or pretended not to, she said, They dont 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 tenors 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 suitorsa bookkeeper and a teacher (my father).
When she had finished this story, she said, So you see, but I didnt 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 hershe 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 uphis concentration was long goneand 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
He cursed her birthday and her party and that made her open
her eyes even wider, greener: But dont 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 enoughthe 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 didnt encourage
too much drinking; it seemed to make people melancholy or quarrelsome and
spoiled the general mood of celebration.
Martas 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 paintingsKohl never gave her anybut a lot of photographs, mostly
of herself having fun with friends, when she was much younger but also just as
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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 artists rolling over his collar. He wasnt an
artist but had been a lawyer and now worked in a solicitors 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 youll 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 drunkI 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 didnt do it well or
fast enough, she called him a donkey.
The guests overflowed to the landing and through the open
door into Kohls 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 wheres Kohl, the idiot, leaving the place open for every
donkey to come and give his opinion . . . Where is he? Why isnt he at my
party? Go and find him, she ordered Mann, as though Kohls absence were his
Mann turned to me: Do you know where he is?
How would she know? Marta said.
Of course she knows. Shes 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, isnt 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 Kohls studio and freely comment on his paintings. The lawyers
explanation of my drawing had been like a violation, not of myself but of
Kohls work and of my share in it, however passive. And it was not Youth, it
was II 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
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 mans soul. From my soul . .
. Whos 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
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
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 . . . Its 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 didnt quite know what it was about, or even
whether it was painful or extremely pleasant.
Is he therethat Mann? What a beast. When hes on the
stairs, there is a smell, like a beast in rut. Musth they call it. You
dont know what that means. I knew very well but didnt say so, for he was
wiping his mouth, as though it had been dirtied by these words or by his having
Here, you give it to her. He thrust his packet at
me. Shell get no more presents from me and no more poems and no more nothing.
All that was for a different person . . . Ill 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 heand
so far he aloneknew 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 dont 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 glintingwith daring,
hunger, even greed, or passion as greed. At that time I couldnt formulate any
of that, but I did recognize that green glint as typically Marta. And her small
cheeky nose; and her haireven 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 dont they go home instead of turning my house into God knows
It was impossible for Kohl with his torn pants to return to
his studio, which was full of people he didnt like. Take them off, La Plume
said, Ill sew them for you . . . Go on, you think I havent 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 cant wash her husbands 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, Im 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 Im 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.
Whos your Mummy! And where do you get that sport
business, as if youd been to Eton and Oxford.
Better than Eton and Oxford, Ive attended the School of Life,
he retortedthey were always on good teasing terms.
Yes, in the gutters of Cologne, Kohl put innot in a
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 shes been asking for all day. Ill take it to herIll tell her
youre 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. Manna very big man but a
cowardretreated 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, Hes not a bad sort, though
he gets on everyones nerves. They say he was a very great idealist and gave
wonderful speeches to the workers at their rallies.
Weve heard about the wonderful speechesfrom him. From no
one else, Kohl sneered. And when the police came, he ran faster than anyone.
Its 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
wouldnt get very high marks for sewing, but theyll do. He got up to step
into themjust 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 dont know if this was due to other peoples 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 smellnot of perfume,
more of a fruit, ripe and juicy, not quite fresh.
So wheres 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, its mine.
He shook his head in refusal, while secretly smiling a bit.
But when she began to tug at itGive, givehe 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
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 wasnt 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
So? he asked, valuing her opinion and awaiting her
This compliment seemed to be hovering on her lipswhen 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 thats the present hes been hiding!
Dont 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 beautiesthe 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. Its long past my
bedtime, and if you dont clear out, Im 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 hes 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 ononly dont give
away any secrets. Youre the only one who knows how old I am today.
We all know, Mann said. Its eighteen. No one heard him.
Marta still had her hand on Kohls 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 its truewhen 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 didnt want me to know about it, but when she wasnt there,
Marta spoke to me as freely as she did to La Plume. It was something very
private to do with her wombI 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 Gods sake, dont tell
Kohl. He cant 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
Id ever knitted a thing. When we asked if she had told KohlAre you crazy?
Hed have run off very fast on his fat little legs. We were bohemians, for
heavens 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: Dont be a sentimental
idiot. I wasnt going to ruin my career. I was on my waylisten, Id already
been an extra three times, the casting director at UFA was taking a tremendous
interest in me, his name was Rosenbaum and hed promised me a real part in the
next production. And then of course he was fired. She made the faceit was one
of scorn and disdainwith 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 couldnt 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 wasnt
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 landinghadnt he heard her? She laughed at that:
Kohl! I could be screaming in my death agony, hed 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 shea 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 freelythat she came out of the mirebut as
for his pulling her out: oh there were plenty of others, bigger and better, to
Then why me? Why did I have to be made the fool who married
Because you wanted it more than anyone else. You said youd
die and kill yourself without me.
And now Im 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 someones boyfriend, a tall youth with straw-colored hair and a
big Adams 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 couldnt
even tell him not to comenot 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 didnt 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
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 herit inevitably did on Sundays
with Kohlthey 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 didthey 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 anyonemaybe 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
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 shouldnt let her go with them.
But its so nice for her! Poor child, what chance does she
have to go anywhere?
He said, Shes 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 dont know anything! None of you knowswhat she was like,
how she carried on. Every day was carnival for herand 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 poorpoor! And now people were
coming to my studio. When I went into a café there were whispers Its Kohl,
the artist Kohl. So that was meat and drink for her, other peoples 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.
Its still red.
Nothing like it was! He gulped tea, gulped heat. I
painted her, I wrote poetry for her, I slept with her, I couldnt 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? Ill wait for you.
Ill 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 didnt 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 Germanyto 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 Kohls studio, and
they brought other peoplegallery owners, collectors, dealersso 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 artists 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 myselfbut La Plume
and I didnt 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 acrossonce, twice, three timesand 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 didnt 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 victorywas 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 himnot 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 Plumes 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 dont 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 hertoo heartily,
like someone who really needed itbut 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 meLook,
look, thats him! Mann! It was a shot of an international banquet, with
speeches in a language I couldnt 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 MannThe donkey, she laughed. Can you imaginehe 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 couldnt 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 drawingDid 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 herjust 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 havewho 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 Kohls 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 Kohls 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 Yorkwhere I have lived ever
sincemay 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 meaninglesseveryone knows now how to interpret those savage, searing
colors dripping off the canvasbut 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 drawingSweet, sweetwhat
is now displayed on the other wall: girls in bloom, flowers in May.
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