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Authors: Wolf Mankowitz

A Kid for Two Farthings

BOOK: A Kid for Two Farthings
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A Kid for Two Farthings

Wolf Mankowitz

For My Grandfather and His



Title Page














The History of Bloomsbury Publishing

A Note on the Author



It was thanks to Mr Kandinsky that Joe knew a unicorn when he saw one.

He also knew that the Elephant and Castle was the In-fanta of Castile, a Spanish princess. He knew that Moses was an Egyptian priest, that the Chinese invented fire-works, that Trotsky was the best revolutionary, and that pregnant was going to have a baby. Joe was six, and thanks to Mr Kandinsky, he was educated, although he didn’t go to school, for he had to look after his mother till they came to Africa.

His father said to Joe when he was still five, ‘Look after Mother till you come,’ and Joe said he would. Then he went down to talk to Mr Kandinsky in the basement. No teacher knew what Mr Kandinsky knew, about the Elephant and Castle, that is, and the unicorn. Soon after, Joe’s father went to Africa, with two suitcases and a Madeira hat for the hot weather.

Joe lived upstairs at number III Fashion Street. There was a bedroom and a kitchen, and the kitchen had a fireplace and a gas stove, but no sink. The tap was at the top of the first flight of stairs, and Mr Kandinsky used it, too. The lavatory was in the yard at the back and smelt of Keating’s Powder. Mr Kandinsky lived in a room on the ground floor, and had a workshop in the basement. The workshop had a window below ground level, and there was an iron grille over the pavement for the light to come through. In the little area outside the window were bits of newspaper and an old hat and a sauce bottle, and Joe wondered how they got through the iron bars, because it was a top hat and the bottle was the tomato-sauce kind with a wide bottom.

‘We ought to look, Mr Kandinsky,’ Joe said one day, ‘because maybe there are some pound notes and sixpences mixed up with it all.’

‘Joe,’ replied Mr Kandinsky, ‘who has pound notes or even sixpences to lose in Fashion Street?’ So the window was never open, except in the summer it was lowered a few inches at the top, and a lot of dust came into the workshop.

Mr Kandinsky was a trousers-maker. In the workshop he had a sewing-machine, and a bench with the surface all shining from where he and Shmule pressed the trousers. In the fireplace were two big gas-rings with two big goose-irons beside them. When the cloth was soaked in a pail and spread over the trousers, and the hot goose-iron pressed on top, a great cloud of steam arose. Mr Kandinsky always said it was bad for your health and the worst thing in the tailoring, even bringing on the consumption. On the wall were three hooks with large brown-paper and cardboard patterns hanging on them. On the mantel were two boxes with flat pieces of white tailors’ chalks in them, and hundreds of cloth patterns in books, and dozens of reels of cotton.

Mr Kandinsky had two pictures. Over his bench was a big print of a lady with her head bowed sitting on top of a large grey-green ball. Her eyes were bandaged and she was holding a broken harp. Joe thought the lady was a street musician who had been in a car accident; she was crying because her harp was broken and she couldn’t live by singing any more. Mr Kandinsky looked at the picture for a while and said, ‘You know, Joe, maybe you’re right. But what about the ball she is sitting on?’

Joe thought it over while Mr Kandinsky hand-stitched a pair of fine worsted trousers, but in the end he had to give up. Then Mr Kandinsky told him:

‘This ball is the world and this lady is Hope who is always with the world. She is blindfolded because if she could see what happens she would lose hope and then where would she be? What this broken harp means, I don’t know.’

‘Maybe it’s a bit of another painting,’ Joe said. ‘Maybe it is,’ said Mr Kandinsky. ‘Who knows?’

‘Who knows?’ repeated Joe, because he liked the way Mr Kandinsky said things. ‘Who knows?’ he said again, putting his head to one side, opening his hands and trying to lift his eyebrows.

The other picture was a brown photograph of an old man with a long beard and side curls, and bushy eye-brows, and a great curved nose with curved nostrils. This was Mr Kandinsky’s father. ‘A pious man, Joe,’ Mr Kandinsky said, ‘very respected in the village, the finest coat-maker in the whole country.’

‘Not a trousers-maker?’ asked Joe.

‘Certainly not,’ said Mr Kandinsky. ‘He was a great man, and he would never lower himself to be a trousers-maker.’

‘Why aren’t you a coat-maker, Mr Kandinsky?’ asked Joe.

Mr Kandinsky, who could answer all questions, replied, ‘Because my wise father put me to trousers-making, thinking that Kandinsky and Son would be able to make complete suits. And you know what that means, Joe? It means bespoke tailoring – no more jobbing for other people. You can be an artist, not just a workman; somebody can send you sackcloth and you will make it up into a pair of trousers. But it was not to be. It was a dream, Joe. Never mind. Life is all dreams – dreams and work. That’s all it is.’

After this talk, Joe nodded at the photograph of Reb Zadek Kandinsky when he came into the workshop. The stern eyes looked past him into the future, a lost future of Kandinsky and Son, bespoke tailors. The curved nostrils turned disdainfully away from Mr Kandinsky, the Fashion Street trousers-maker, well known in the trade, but not in the same class as his father, a master-tailor, who died cross-legged on his bench, stitching the reveres of the first coat he made in London. ‘May he find his place in peace,’ Mr Kandinsky said. ‘That last coat was beautiful, I tell you, Joe, beautiful.’

‘I think your trousers are lovely, Mr Kandinsky,’ Joe said, to cheer Mr Kandinsky up.

‘Thank you, Joe,’ he answered. ‘I will make you a pair of blue serge trousers.’ And he did, a real pair of trousers with turn-ups, and a cash pocket. Everything, even proper flies.

The whole house was Mr Kandinsky’s, not his, but he paid the whole rent and Joe’s mother gave him ten shillings every week. He was an old friend and the arrangement was made before Joe’s father went away. Mr Kandinsky could spare the room. ‘I am the only Kandinsky extant – which means the last Kandinsky,’ he told Joe. Joe thought how it must make you old to be the last one extant. He looked at Mr Kandinsky. He was very old, but his face wasn’t worn out. In fact he had much more face than Joe, and Joe wasn’t extant at all, having both his mother and father as well as Mr Kandinsky. Joe kept a pet in the backyard, a day-old chick, which sometimes lived for two or three weeks. After Mr Kandinsky told him he had no people he called his pets Kandinsky in memory of that family.

At Friday night supper Mr Kandinsky and Joe’s mother talked about Africa and Joe’s father and what he was doing there and how soon Joe and his mother would go out to him.

‘You know, Rebecca,’ Mr Kandinsky said, ‘your fried fish is not just fish – it is manna from heaven.’

‘You are always paying me compliments, Mr Kandinsky,’ Joe’s mother said.

‘And why not, Rebecca?’ said Mr Kandinsky. ‘You are the prettiest girl in the whole East End.’

‘Girl,’ said Joe’s mother, and laughed, blushing so that she did indeed look quite pretty.

‘Isn’t she pretty, Joe?’ asked Mr Kandinsky.

‘I think you are very pretty and nice,’ Joe said to his mother, although she had stopped smiling, and her face looked sad and not so pretty.

‘For how long?’ she said. ‘How long is anyone pretty?’ Mr Kandinsky cleared his throat, which meant he was going to say something important. Joe looked at him, waiting.

‘You are pretty as long as someone loves you, Rebecca,’ he said, ‘and so many people love you that, believe me, you are very pretty. Look at me. I am ugly, and old, but even I am pretty when someone loves me.’

‘I love you, Mr Kandinsky,’ Joe said. ‘One morning you will look quite pretty.’ Mr Kandinsky put his hand on Joe’s head.

‘Thank you, Joe,’ he said. ‘I feel a little prettier already. To celebrate I will have one more piece of this wonderful fish which the miracle of your mother’s cooking has made as sweet as honey.’ Mr Kandinsky, Joe thought, never got tired of fried fish.

‘So what does he say in his letter this week?’ Mr Kandinsky would ask. ‘How is the Kaffir business?’

Joe’s mother read parts of the letter out aloud, with Mr Kandinsky stopping her every so often by raising his hand and asking a question. Then they would discuss the matter for a few minutes before she went on reading. Sometimes they were very long letters, full of business details, five gross of stewards’ jackets, twenty gross denim trousers, add ten per cent for carriage costs, a hundred-pound company, five pounds paid up, salesman’s commission on a hundred ex-army bell tents, and so on.

These letters were full of excitement, with little stories of Kaffirs drinking their white beer and singing, or Kaffir boys met late at night marching down the street beating a drum, and Joe’s father walking in the road, otherwise they would beat him up. The long excited letters had money in them. As Rebecca opened them, the corner of a five-pound note, and once a ten-pound note, and always a few pounds, would be seen. Unusual, exciting notes they were; not ordinary, but African money. But other letters were very short. There was no message in them for Joe or Mr Kandinsky at all, and for Rebecca just a few words. These were the bad letters, and if Joe asked too many questions after they arrived, his mother’s face would look at him as if she couldn’t see, and if he went on asking questions, it would suddenly begin to tremble and then she would cry, hugging him and making his face wet with her tears.

In the mornings Joe’s mother went to the Whitechapel Road, where she worked in a millinery shop. She trimmed hats with bunches of artificial fruit and flowers, and Mr Kandinsky said she was the best and most artistic hattrimmer in the millinery trade. Because she didn’t come home until the late afternoon, Joe ate with Mr Kandinsky and Shmule at twelve o’clock, downstairs, in the workshop. Mr Kandinsky never allowed Joe’s mother to leave something cooked for them.

‘I am an old cook myself,’ he told Joe; ‘although your mother is the best cook in the world, Joe – I am not saying anything against her cooking.’

Mr Kandinsky cooked on one of the gas-rings in the workshop. On one of them a big goose-iron was always heating, and on the other a large cooking-pot with two handles bubbled quietly all morning long. Into the pot Mr Kandinsky threw pieces of beef or a small breast of lamb, with plenty of onions and pepper and salt, and some large potatoes. Or a large marrow bone cooked with carrots, or mutton cooked with haricot beans. At quarter to twelve Joe went up the street to the baker on the corner to buy three onion-rolls. Then they all sat down with big enamel plates full of steaming stew, eating and talking. Joe liked Mr Kandinsky’s cooking very much. ‘The best cooks are men, Joe,’ said Mr Kandinsky. ‘Some men cooks get thousands of pounds from the Kings of Europe for cooking dinners no better than this.’ Mr Kandinsky talked a lot, but Shmule was often quiet. Shmule was short and broad, and very strong. He had bright red hair which curled into small flames, although after a haircut it was more like a piece of astrakhan. His skin was pale and his eyes grey, and every Saturday he spent the whole day at the gymnasium developing himself. Developing yourself was the only thing Shmule wanted to talk about, which was the reason why he said very little, because Joe was too young to develop himself much, and Mr Kandinsky was already too old. Occasionally Mr Kandinsky would bring Shmule into the conversation by saying, ‘You got a new muscle to show us?’

Shmule at once took off his jacket. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and clenched his fists and bent his elbows till large knots appeared everywhere. Sometimes he took his shirt off as well. He put his arms over his head, and enormous bands of muscle stood up on his back and chest. Joe clapped and Mr Kandinsky called Shmule ‘Maccabaeus’, which means ‘The Hammer’, and was the name in which Shmule wrestled. But once or twice Shmule tried a new muscle, and though it came up a little distance it fell down straight away. Then he blushed from his forehead to his neck, and went into a corner to practise.

Shmule was going to be a wrestling champion, which meant he had to beat Louis Dalmatian, the Stepney Thrasher, Turk Robert, Bully Bason, and the dreaded Python Macklin. He didn’t have to beat them all at once, but even one at a time was enough, especially the dreaded Python Macklin, who had broken limbs with his powerful scissors grip. Shmule showed them the scissors.

He took a chair and fought with it on the floor, twining his legs round it and pressing hard, explaining all the while, until one of the chair legs cracked and Mr Kandinsky shouted, ‘The furniture he breaks up!’

‘A chair I can mend,’ said Shmule, puffing and blowing, ‘but supposing it was my leg?’

So between Shmule and Mr Kandinsky, Joe learnt a great deal about the world. Though he was a bit young, Shmule taught him the position of defence and how to give an uppercut. But it was Mr Kandinsky who told Joe all about unicorns.

It was the afternoon that Joe’s chick Kandinsky was found dead on its back, legs in the air, a ball of cotton wool and two matchsticks. Joe was worried because he did everything the day-old chick man in Club Row told him to do, and yet the chick died. Mr Kandinsky suggested that perhaps it could happen that Joe wasn’t a natural-born chicken-raiser. Chickens just weren’t his speciality. Maybe he should try a dog or a lizard, or a couple of fish. This made Joe think why not write to his father for a big animal, because naturally small animals only have small lives and naturally they lose them more easily.

Mr Kandinsky had been studying Africa in some detail since Joe’s father went there, but the parts in the book about the gold mines and diamond mines were not as interesting as the chapter called the Fauna of Central Africa. He was, consequently, in an excellent position to advise Joe on the habits of larger animals.

They discussed the lion with some hope, because many cubs have been trained into good pets, but lions only eat meat, and where would they get enough to feed it? You couldn’t fool a lion with vegetable stew; even Mr Kandinsky’s cooking would only make it angry, and then there would be trouble. The giraffe was nice, but with such a long neck, you couldn’t get it in the house. A zebra is only a horse with stripes, and horses you can see any day in the street.

‘Maybe,’ Joe suggested, ‘maybe my father could send a unicorn.’

BOOK: A Kid for Two Farthings
9.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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