Friday, 22 February 2013

Wish You Were Here by Nigel Jarrett

For almost eighteen months I lived next door to a Jewish widow named Helsa, but she died and not long afterwards I had to move again. I'm always on the move - and me a Gentile!  Helsa once asked me, 'Are you sure you're not Jewish?  You may be a bit Jewish. You should look into it.'  In my job, I get moved around a lot.

But I never did look into it. One morning, Helsa phoned me to say she was unwell. I heard the receiver fall out of her hand and something that sounded like a roll of thunder. When I got round there, she was lying on the floor dead.  The radio was crooning in the background. Through the large front-room window I could see her friend Marion, standing in the road and looking towards me. Marion, who lived diagonally opposite, was even more eccentric than Helsa. She refused to have a phone in the house, so she couldn’t have known what had happened. She told me later that she’d had some kind of premonition. She and Helsa were very close, so close that their friendship was interrupted by frequent though harmless spats. She used to joke that Helsa and I were having an affair, though both of them were old enough to be my elderly mother. When I went out to tell her the awful news, she began wailing and ran back into her house, leaving me with the immediate post-mortem essentials.

A few months after Helsa’s death and when I was living elsewhere, a letter arrived for me from her brother. His name was Julius.  I never knew she had a brother. She never talked about it. Had I known her for longer she might have. She'd told me a lot about her husband, Sam.  The letter came with a cheque for £200 made out to me. My name was mis-spelled on the cheque but I was able to bank it. The letter was brief.  It said, 'Helsa wanted you to have this.  Sorry it's late.'  Considering I didn’t know the guy, his note seemed curt, as if he had sent it against his will.  I wondered if, more seriously than Marion, he thought I'd had some kind of unseemly relationship with Helsa. He, too, must have known that she was about forty years my senior. Then again, perhaps he was a man of few words. Maybe Helsa told him I'd been of some help to her while I lived next door. Well, I had been: little things, like putting out her sacks of garden waste for collection and bleeding air-locked radiators - things Marion, reportedly cack-handed and forgetful, would have been useless at. When I phoned to ask how he knew my address, he said the solicitor had found it for him. I was just curious, that’s all.

Helsa had had a tough life.  Her son had died aged forty-three in odd circumstances.  There was doubt about her story that he'd contracted chicken-pox. It does happen, and adults can die from complications. But there were rumours that he'd really committed suicide by taking an overdose. I’d never had that story from Marion.  She and Helsa could be snobbish. To people like them, suicide is an act of weakness and irresponsibility, the victim careless of its affects on loved ones left behind. Then there was Sam, who'd apparently been some sort of  big noise on the railways. At sixty he was diagnosed with dementia and retired early. He once wrestled Helsa to the ground, thinking she was a burglar. She'd often had to remove her wedding-ring because he believed she was a strange married woman making adulterous overtures. (Her ring secreted, of course, he then saw her as an unmarried woman and began flirting.)   Once, he'd sneaked out of bed in the early hours, jumped in the car - he was forbidden to drive - and ended up crashing into a tree. All this was related by Helsa light-heartedly. I suppose there was a comic element to it. I don’t know why, but I had the impression that Marion and Sam had enjoyed a more than neighbourly relationship before things went haywire. Marion called the shared affliction of Sam and Helsa ‘a tragedy’.

I learned from Helsa that many Jews didn't like talking about Jewishness. They were tired of people bringing up the Holocaust. They disliked being regarded as outsiders, oddities. When she lived in London, she couldn’t stand the way the Hassidic Jews had created a separate community for themselves. She would talk about the past but it could have been anyone's, Jew or non-Jew. 'Ah,' she would say, inverting the sentence in a self-mocking way, 'if you were a Baptist, mentioning it every whip stitch you wouldn’t tolerate.'  I agreed. After that, my curiosity never got the better of me.  We drank coffee, ate lots of  Custard Creams and talked about films. She was obsessed with Hollywood and its glamorous stars.  She would ring me to remind her, say, of who played the MC in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  (Gig Young.)  'Darling, you are a genius,' she'd add, and put the phone down. It saved wandering across to Marion, who by then had noticed that Helsa and I got on famously.  Helsa and I exchanged DVDs of movies old and new. I had two of hers when she died. When I offered to return them, her relatives wouldn't hear of it. I met them at the funeral. There weren't many  there. Helsa was cremated, her brother and a few others reading from various non-religious texts. One was an extract from a story by Bernard Malamud. A cousin's niece read a poem she'd written. Some kind of crematorium retainer, an all-purpose solemn character, performed the committal.  Helsa was never going to heaven. Throughout the ‘service’, Marion sat next to me, blowing her nose loudly. She was a divorcée, her husband having left her many years before.

Six months after I received the cheque, a picture postcard arrived. It was addressed to me but the message section was blank. On the front was a view of the fossil beach at Lyme Regis. I'd never been to Dorset. I phoned a few friends who sometimes send me cards when they are on holiday. None admitted responsibility for this one. (I say 'admitted' because there are one or two comedians among them, though no practical jokers.)  I was intrigued, bothered even. The address included my postcode, something most friends omit if they ever write. It couldn't have been official, not with that picture. Then I thought about Helsa's brother, the last person to write to me out of the blue. I didn't recognise the handwriting, which was half-capitalised and half joined together. I kept the card in case some explanation occurred to me or turned up. But it never did. I couldn’t think even of how to broach the subject with Helsa’s brother.

In any case, eight weeks later I received another. The writing was identical but still without a message.  There was a small Biro mark at the beginning, as though the sender had wanted to pen something but had then stopped themselves. The picture this time was of Ullswater, in the Lake District. I'd once driven past it. On the winding road from Penrith it's there all the time on your left, until you start climbing the Honister Pass below Helvellyn. Like the Lyme Regis picture, this one seemed old and poorly hand-coloured. It must be some sort of joke, I told myself. I kept both postcards. Then, after a year, I was transferred to Suffolk. When I moved into my new place, there was a third postcard waiting for me. Same writing, same empty space, same old, Edwardian-style view - this time of Arlington Court, a Regency mansion in Devon. In front of the building I could just make out two long-haired girls in knickerbocker dresses and calf-hugging black boots. I have to admit that I began to feel unnerved. If this was a stunt it was no longer funny. What was the sender trying to do? Each of the postcards was stamped, each had been posted at various times no more than two days before receipt. But whereas the first two were sent from close to the places indicated in the pictures, the Cornish one was posted the previous day in Cambridge, not fifty miles away from my new home.

I decided to tell some close friends. They were just as baffled. They asked if I thought anyone disliked me enough to want to frighten me.  In my line of work I meet lots of people and have to make some unpopular decisions, but there were no enemies in my wake that I knew of. Of course, there's no accounting for depth of reaction. The world is full of unstable individuals who take offence that's never intended. I invited the friends to dinner. The postcards were brought out and passed around. Implausible theories were offered. One of my guests swirled the wine in his glass and said finally, 'Watch your back!' Everyone laughed. I managed a thin smile.

I wrote to Helsa's brother's solicitor to find out how they'd discovered my new address, the first one after Helsa's death. Naturally, having done that, I’d also given them my Suffolk one. The reply was to the affect that, given a name, anyone these days could discover a phone number and  where people lived, as long as they weren't concealing their true identity or weren't physically in hiding - that's to say, were not attempting for some reason to cover their tracks. For the next few months, I admit I was apprehensive every time the postman called.  But two years passed without further cards, and I decided that the joker had grown tired of his (or her) antics.

By this time, too,  I’d begun taking stock, thinking of changing my job and settling down.  Of all the places I’d lived in, the semi-rural one next door to Helsa’s had been my favourite. I’d also gained the impression that at work I was becoming dispensable. My advice wasn’t being sought as often as previously. I’d even received a minor reprimand. (It was nonsensical, a case of mistaken identity and too severe a reproach from me of the people I considered to be the cause of what had happened.) My reports begun to be queried, not so much for their accuracy as their conclusions. I stood my ground. My record spoke for me, and it was difficult for my superiors to take drastic action. For a start, I knew too much, though that’s all I’m able to say. Anyway, in the middle of this turmoil, for want of a better word, Helsa’s brother, Julius, wrote to me again. The letter was longer this time. It seemed that he’d got to know more about me.

It was now almost three years since Helsa’s death. Her personal belongings had been  put into some kind of family storage once the saleable things had been disposed of. Was that a Jewish thing? I asked myself.  Julius didn’t know how to put this, but a trunk of Helsa’s mementoes had been opened and it appeared that several albums of postcards, collected on trips in Britain and abroad by train (Sam’s job came with free rail travel), had been decimated. ‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’ Julius wrote. ‘Well, it’s a bit like that. Did she ever show them to you? There must have been hundreds of pictures.’  He described the postcards as having been carefully removed, implying something underhand. Why else would he have written to me?  Were the postcards valuable, more than a materially worthless heirloom? I wrote back saying I knew nothing about them, didn’t know they existed. But I wrote with a fluttering heart, giving him my phone number. I didn’t mention my phantom cards, which in any case I thought long pre-dated anything Sam and Elsa might have collected on their travels. Two days later I received a fourth.

The latest picture was mysterious in essence as well as provenance: similar handwriting, similar empty space (now pleading, I imagined, for something to be written on it); same genuine postmark - though  Chester this time; but with a picture of almost unbearable desolation. It was of Land’s End, but before it became a busy tourist attraction. The photographer must have stationed himself on the rocks in front of the lighthouse and waited for one of the place’s memorable sunsets. Helios obliged. But, like the others, it was a turn-of-century sepia print, lightly-coloured, the card slightly rubbed at the edges - and again the wavy, spectral start of a written message, abandoned before it had got under way.

I began carrying the cards around with me in my leather satchel. They were there when I visited the estate agent to look into the possibility of finding accommodation near my old place next door to Helsa. Just before that I had begun to suspect Marion. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of her before. She had access to Helsa’s place, she was a bit strange and she might have been jealous. I asked the estate agent about my old neighbours. Marion had ‘passed away’, he said. Oh, I said. When? He had to check, but it turned out that Marion died suddenly just after I’d received the first two postcards.  So unless she’d had an accomplice to continue any malevolent handiwork, it couldn’t have been her. Helsa’s house is still for sale, the estate agent then said, taking me by surprise. They hadn’t been able to sell it because the roof needed  repairs and, anyway, the market was static: there were plenty of potential buyers but they couldn’t sell their homes either. I wasn’t interested but I drove round there anyway. There was no-one about. Kids’ toys littered the front of Marion’s old house. Helsa’s garden was overgrown.  From outside, I peered into the sitting-room where we used to chat; it was  bare except for an incongruous chaise-longue. In some other districts the place might have become a squat. I somehow felt that no-one would buy the place and that it would eventually fall down.

Julius phoned me not long after to say that the missing postcards had turned up in a Polypocket. Well, all except five. He was specific about that. He assumed Helsa had been planning to re-arrange the album and had mislaid some of its contents. I couldn’t imagine why.  She rarely left things unfinished; she wanted closure; she was desperate to remember the name of that Indian-looking film star (Jack Palance). Anyway, it all went quiet. I’m married now with a young daughter. Almost ten years have passed since that Land’s End card arrived. I’ve lost interest, though I keep it with the others. Having said that, I acknowledge how the mind plays tricks. The other day, while I was travelling back from London by train, I caught sight of a woman who was the spit image of Helsa. The train was crowded and there were people standing between carriages. I looked up and there she was, looking at me. Or perhaps she was looking at me because I was staring at her. The woman was younger than Helsa but it was Helsa’s face. She went into the loo but - this is stupid - I never saw her come out. Maybe she did so when I was gazing through the window for a few seconds, thinking about her. Without mentioning the circumstances, I told my wife about the incident. She chuckled and said it was metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul from one body to another. Good god, I said, as you do when startled by some weird coincidence. Then I chuckled too.

When I was a boy I lived with my parents in the West Midlands.  Every summer we would holiday at the seaside - either in Wales or the West Country. Sitting in the back of the car once, on our way to St Ives, my father commented on how long the journey to Cornwall always took and how we seemed to be travelling farther and farther away from our anchorage in Walsall.  My mother thought that was what was exciting about it (she called it ‘the long road to Lyonesse’ She taught English). But I’m sure my devoted father, though he was always fun on the beach, was conscious of something deeper happening, something being lost, albeit temporarily. Having made that journey on my own many years later, I began to think the reason for my father’s barely expressed anxiety was the way the land narrowed as we chased the setting sun through the vales and across the moors, the way the surroundings grew undeniably elemental.

 The other evening, my wife and I were having a clean-out. ‘Do you still want these?’ she asked, holding up the postcards. I took them from her without answering and she didn’t seem to want an answer. She knew about the mystery of their provenance (as my future partner, she’d been at that dinner party where they’d caused such grisly amusement). I put them somewhere else.  

I never tire of looking at those postcards. Not long ago I realised that as well as the young ladies outside the mansion in Devon there are also small human figures in the first two: a minuscule fossil-hunter at Lyme Regis and a barely-decipherable sailor on a yacht at Ullswater. Even under a magnifying glass the forager, the yachtsman and the girls yield nothing of their personalities; in fact they are composed of dots, just like the surroundings that overwhelm them. At Land’s End, of course, the elements triumph; there is no-one to be found.

These days, after all the mystery, the postman striding up the path still looms large. He is the messenger, blind to the significance of what he slips through the letter-box, though he and his colleagues too must have looked puzzlingly at the back of the cards at various times and seen, for just a couple of seconds, that something about them was not quite right.  As a memento mori, of course, I’ll always recall Julius saying that five of the missing postcards had not turned up. Five.

About the Author: NIGEL JARRETT is a freelance journalist and music critic and winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. In October 2011, Parthian published his début story collection, Funderland, to widespread acclaim. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, is soon to be published. This is the link to his website.

His short stories, poetry and journalism have appeared widely in newspapers and the literary press and in anthologies published by London Magazine Editions, the Welsh Arts Council and Parthian. Several of his poems are catalogued in the South Bank Centre’s national poetry archive. He is also the co-editor of The Day’s Portion, a collection of journalism by Arthur Machen.

He has worked in newspapers as a reporter, a freelance sports writer for the national Press, a sub-editor, news editor, arts critic and books reviewer and is involved with The Welsh Short Story Network. Since 1987 he has been music critic of the South Wales Argus.

Image: (c) tomylees