His Faithless Arm

Aloma Halter

My father has a tiny black pinprick dot between his left thumb and his index finger. In the webbing between the fingers. It might be thought of as a beauty spot—but he got it in a place that was far from beautiful. The barber had beckoned him over: “Your group is moving on. You won’t be given a number. But come on over here—I’ll give you something to remind you that you were once here.”
        So he held the skinny, skinny sixteen-year-old by the forearm and tattooed that black dot next to his thumb. A tender-rough moment in the flux of insanity all around.

*

After I threw out the contents of my parents’ bread bin, my mother went off to swim. Perhaps it was in protest, but she’d told me that I could clear up. I was tackling the larder before Pesach. There were some interesting finds. Desiccated coconut with a shrivelled label on the packet: ‘Best before 1992.’ I also found some canned squid, jellied eels in white wine and Russian oyster conserve. Unscrewing the jars of nuts, lentils and dried fruit, unless they were actually mealy or heaving, I stopped tossing things out if they postdated 2007. No point in leaving my parents without any food at home.
        Seeing as I’d only got to the second shelf, and that it would be unrealistic to expect any cooking to be done at this stage, my father left to pick up some food from Golders Green. I tried to ignore the annoyance in his face.  Just the fact that eating kosher was important to me was irritating to him. Even if I said nothing, my very being was a reproach. I represented a damper on the festivities in the fridge, the rashers of bacon, the Debrecen sausages. People want their children to turn out the right degree of Jewish. Not too little, but also not too much. And I’d become too much for them. It made perfect sense in the context: For years, meals had pushed everything else to the sidelines of life, so he must have become exasperated with seeing me eating cucumbers and boiled eggs off paper plates as I sat in the garden.
        Perhaps, as I somehow seem to do, I had triggered his memories of Zosia, the bossy older sister who would put him down at every opportunity. My father’s irrepressible desire must have been to get back at her at all costs. After his first day at school, Zosia had complained bitterly at the family lunch how six year-old Romac had humiliated her. Everyone had heard about the kid in the in-take class, whose smart-alec quip about head lice had quickly made the rounds of the school, when the teacher asked rhetorically if they had anything at all in their heads. “Hey Zosia, wasn’t it was your kid brother?!” She’d never live it down. Life was so unfair – other people had normal brothers and normal sisters, but she was cursed with this … this … aberration, this freak of nature….
        Seven years older, Zosia, it was decided, must have a trade before a match was found for her, and she should learn how to make ladies’ hats. Jewish women would always be covering their hair. She’d been sent to study at a trade school in Warsaw, and was staying with relatives, and every Friday night her letters would be read out to the large family. When the ghetto was liquidated she disappeared without a trace.

*

My father returned an hour later with take-away aluminium trays of food. Three identical rectangles. As he peeled off the lids, a delicious smell wafted from them, but I could not help noticing how the veins in his left hand protruded a marked grey, and the tremor that hadn’t been there a few years ago. But to notice signs of aging is not taken as solicitude in my family, but interpreted as identity sabotage.
        “You went to Solly’s? That’s wonderful. Thanks.”
        My mother had returned. She sighed when she saw the contents of the larder on the dining room table and the floor as I was wiping down the shelves. She went to hang up her towel and swimsuit on the line in the garden. We helped ourselves. From the large storage box on one side in the kitchen, I took a paper plate and a plastic fork, and went out to eat in the garden.
        Chopped liver and two vegetable dishes. One a kind of stir fry. After trying two of them, I tried the third. It was tasty. Solly’s must be striking out. Stir fry. Nice of him to go to all that trouble. It actually tasted … well, tastier. And then, something strange, curved… nestling into the vegetables. Rather shrimp-looking … doubtless one of those incredible veggie look-alikes … amazing how they do it …. A cautious bite. No! Urgggggggggggh. Yuk! He could he! I couldn’t believe it—Chinese stir fry! Was this what my father had bought and laid on the table, the day before Pesach, tricking me into tasting it? Were we in a camp—a work lager—was anyone forcing us, ravenous from hunger, to eat treif for their sadistic amusement? Wasn’t this 65 years on?
        I stared out at the lime trees at the end of the garden, where the branches had been cut back, and only pollarded stumps remained. I looked at the washing swaying innocuously in the breeze and the fence around the garden. The Torah is big on fences, and believes that having them can keep you from doing things you shouldn’t be doing. It felt as if there should have been a fence going through the garden, dividing off the family from one another. What could I say to someone to whom a prank was obviously more important than any respect he had for his daughter or the life she had chosen? If I told him, he would make light of it, blaming my deficient sense of humour. And were I to dig in my heels and point out his perfidy, there’d be his trump card: What is discomfort when weighed against the unspeakable suffering of a survivor? Nothing. There was really nothing to say.
        I went inside. He was in the dining room, adjusting the aluminium trays with his faithless arm.  Pushing them close to one another.
        “What made you do it?”
        “What d’you mean?”
        “You know …  that … that,” I pointed at one of the pale things nestling against the vegetables.
        “I went to Solly’s. I bought the first two. Then I went to the Chinese place…”
        “But you know I don’t eat that stuff…”
        “And you think that Solly’s is so kosher? They have two Polish workers there, and they certainly aren’t Jewish! What do they know? What do they care?”
        “There’s supervision … there’s the hechsher.”
        “Oh yes? It’s all a sham. They just charge more and call it kosher.”

        Nothing, there was nothing to say. Just never to send the children—never to let them be alone ‘at home.’ They would never understand the intensity of such opposing currents, nor would they be able to withstand them. They wouldn’t have been able to comprehend how love and betrayal can nestle in the same place, like the prawn curled next to the sliced veggies.
        I went upstairs to the bathroom. I washed out my mouth. Then I wiped my eyes and rinsed my cheeks. After a few minutes, I went back to the larder, this time tossing anything even a day past its date.

Aloma Halter, born in London, is a writer, poet, translator and editor. She freelanced for the Jerusalem Post and recently translated four Aharon Appelfeld novels, including Story of a Life. Books she edited have been awarded the Koret Prize and the National Jewish Book Award. Her edit of her father’s Holocaust memoir, Roman’s Journey, was acclaimed in reviews by Publishers Weekly and The Sunday Times.


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