Authors: Harry Bernstein
We did get a letter from Uncle Abe. And it was an excited, jubilant letter. He wrote telling us how well he was doing. He had three suits of clothing hanging in his closet and … in the excitement his words got twisted a little and it came out: ‘I have a beautiful home and a wife with electric lights and a bathtub …’
It was good for a laugh, but what about the tickets we’d asked him for? Nor did any of the others mention them. And as for my grandmother, the one letter she wrote in several years had a caustic touch. ‘What do you think I am,’ she asked, ‘the Bank of England? Or do you think I took the crown jewels with me when I left England? …’
With all this you’d think my mother would get discouraged and give up writing letters. But that did not happen, and I don’t know how many letters I wrote between the time I started, which would have been when I was about nine or ten, until I was twelve. And then, one morning, while we were all seated round the table at breakfast, there was a loud knocking at the front door.
‘Go and see who it is,’ my mother said, addressing no one in particular. She was too busy herself serving the breakfast and trying to feed the baby, who was propped
in an improvised high chair made from an ordinary chair plus a wooden box and a strap.
For a while none of us seemed to have heard her. It was probably a Jewish holiday of some sort for we were all home and my father was still upstairs sleeping. We were not only busy eating, but also reading, with our books and magazines propped up in front of us against the sugar bowl or the milk jug or even the loaf of bread or whatever support we could find. This was a regular practice of ours at mealtimes. But the lack of response to my mother’s request could have been due to something else. Despite the absorption in our reading it could have been the thought that the knock might be from a customer and that would have been a good reason to ignore it. We hated customers, along with the shop, still not realising that it represented our very lifeblood.
And then my eyes lifted from the
that I was reading, and my mother’s eyes caught mine and she said, ‘You go, Harry.’
I got up reluctantly and went to the front door.
IT WAS NOT
a customer. It was the postman. He was standing outside with his bag slung over a shoulder and a grin on his face when he saw me. He was holding out a long, thick envelope. ‘All for you, lad,’ he said. ‘Sorry it isn’t America. Maybe next time.’
I took it from him and closed the door, wondering what could be in it. Yes, I was sorry it was not from America. A big thick envelope like that could very well have had tickets inside and my heart had given a bit of a thump when I first saw it in his hand. But the postmark on this one was Manchester and the return address gave the name of a travel agency there. It was addressed to the Bernsteins, no first name, simply the Bernsteins, and I was tempted to open it right then and there. However, I hurried in to give it to my mother.
Looking up from thrusting a spoonful of porridge into the baby’s mouth, she too gave a start when she first saw it, probably thinking the same thing I had. But when I told her it was from Manchester the light that had sprung up in her face died out and she said, ‘It’s probably an advertisement. Put it down and I’ll look at it later.’
‘Maybe it’s something important,’ I said. ‘Don’t you want to open it now?’
‘No, later,’ she said and went back to feeding the baby.
But my curiosity was too great for me to be put off. ‘Can I open it?’ I asked.
Impatiently she said, ‘All right, open it if you want.’
I did. I opened the envelope, saw what was inside and the next moment I was yelling, ‘It’s the tickets!’
At the table the three of them looked up from their books. My mother stared at me with the spoon motionless in her hand. I’m not sure that she believed me. I don’t think the others did either. But I was taking them out of the envelope. They were pink. Each had a name on it. There was one for each of us. There was the name of the boat we were to travel on: the SS
. There was the date: 22 June 1922. The departure: Liverpool. The destination: Quebec, Canada.
I kept taking them out of the envelope and all the time I was yelling, and soon the others left the table and rushed over to see the tickets and to grab them out of my hand, and they too started yelling, and my mother stood transfixed, not believing what she was hearing and seeing, she too taking one of the tickets from me and staring at it, unable to speak.
How does one feel when a dream comes true? When the bubble you grasp in your hand does not burst but remains there intact, as beautiful and rose-coloured as it was floating in the air? What does one say? My mother said nothing at first, nothing at all, and for a moment I thought she was going to burst into tears, so deep was the emotion I saw surging through her.
There were other things in that envelope that we
have to look at. There was a long letter from the travel agency giving us a mountain of instructions for packing, passports, photographs that would be necessary, vaccinations, but all of this could wait for later when we had sobered up from that first moment’s intoxication. The house was a bedlam with our shouts and yells of joy, and the baby crying from fright.
Then suddenly there was a voice saying roughly, ‘What the bloody ’ell’s going on here?’
It was my father. He had come downstairs and into the kitchen without our noticing, and at once there was silence, save for the crying of the baby. Nobody dared move or say anything, all of us aware that we had broken the rule of maintaining absolute quiet in the house so long as he slept upstairs. His face was dark with anger and he was obviously in the kind of mood that such noisy awakenings could bring on.
My mother had picked up the baby and was rocking him back and forth in an attempt to quiet him. ‘We forgot you were sleeping,’ she said. ‘But we couldn’t help it. The tickets have come.’
If she had expected that this joyous news could have a softening effect, she was mistaken. ‘Tickets?’ he said, with no lessening of the anger. ‘What tickets you talking about?’
‘To go to America.’
‘Who the bloody ’ell wants to go to America?’
He had said this before. He had made it perfectly clear that he had no intention of going to America. He had never shared that dream and there was obviously no sentimental attachment on his part to the relatives in America, his father and mother, his brothers and sisters.
this was little wonder. They had abandoned him once in Poland. They had done the same thing here in England. Of that he was sure and it rankled deep inside him. Things he had said before had indicated that. There were things he said now.
There was unmistakable bitterness in his tone: ‘What the bloody ’ell would I want to go to America for? To see that rotten bunch there? Do they want to see me? Like bloody ’ell they do. They can all rot in ’ell for all I care. You can go if you want. You can take your bloody little bastards and go. Do what they did. Run off. Go!’
‘You mustn’t talk that way,’ my mother said in a low voice. ‘I’m sure they all want to see you. The past is past. You must try to forget the past. This is our big chance. If they’re as bad as you think they are they wouldn’t have sent us the tickets. It means they want to see you.’
‘Like bloody ’ell it does,’ he shouted back at her. ‘I’ll bet you one thing. I’ll bet you there’s no ticket there for me. I’ll bet you anything.’
‘Yes, there is,’ she said, louder now and more certain of herself. ‘I saw it. Here, see for yourself.’
She took the tickets from me and handed them to him. But instead of looking at them he threw them on to the floor, scattering them all over and cursing: ‘You can stick your tickets up your arse. That’s what I think of ’em. And you can go to ’ell, you and your little bastards, for all I care.’
My mother had given a cry of horror as he threw them down and I myself rushed to retrieve them, but as I bent down my father launched out with a foot and gave me a hard kick in the behind that sent me sprawling on the
then he stomped out of the room and went back upstairs.
My mother helped me to my feet and the others, who had remained silent and shocked by all this, joined in picking up the pink steamship tickets. Then I, with a sore behind and hatred in my heart, went outside and I must have walked for miles trying to drive it all away, but thinking all the while that some day I was going to kill my father.
One good thing came out of this: the thought that since my father was not going with us we would be free of him for ever, and all the fear and hatred for him that had hung over us ever since I could remember would no longer be there. It gave me a feeling of immense happiness and, because I knew that scene this morning had thrown a shadow over my mother’s joy, I talked with her about it later in the evening.
She had decided that the first thing she must do was write a letter of thanks for the tickets, so I was sitting in my usual position at the table in the kitchen opposite her with the writing pad and the ink bottle in front of me, and the pen in my hand, when I brought it up before she had begun. ‘You must tell them he’s not coming,’ I reminded her. We always referred to him as ‘he’ or ‘him’, never as ‘Father’ or ‘Dad’ or any of the familiar terms that children use for fathers.
My mother, deeply buried in thought about what she was going to say, looked up at me and stared for a moment. ‘Why do you say he’s not coming?’ she asked finally.
I was a bit surprised. ‘He made it plain enough this morning,’ I said and rubbed my behind a bit ruefully. It was still painful.
She saw me and understood. ‘He’s your father,’ she said.
‘Does that give him the right to kick me in the arse?’ I asked.
‘He can’t help it, I suppose,’ she said. ‘He’s been treated roughly himself from the time he was a little boy, younger than you are now. It’s the only way he knows.’
‘I don’t care,’ I said. ‘He’s got no right to kick me like that. And I’m glad he’s not coming with us to America.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ she said.
I looked at her, surprised and with a faint disappointment settling inside me. ‘He said he wouldn’t go.’
‘He says a lot of things that he doesn’t mean.’
The disappointment deepened. ‘Then he’s coming?’
‘We’ll have to see.’
That was all she wanted to say about it, so we turned back to the letter and I dipped my pen in the ink bottle once more. ‘Dear —’ she began and halted.
‘Who are we writing to?’ I asked.
She was puzzled. ‘Who did the tickets come from?’
‘The envelope had the name of a travel agency in Manchester,’ I reminded her.
‘I know that. But didn’t they tell us where the money came from? Look in the envelope. There was a letter from the travel agency. Maybe it’s in there.’
I looked. I took out the tickets, the letter, all the other literature the agency had sent us with information about the trip we were going to make. There wasn’t a single word as to who had sent the money.
We began to conjecture. Not Grandma – she was not the Bank of England, nor did she have the crown jewels when she left England. With this caustic statement still
in our minds she was eliminated from the start. And if not Grandma then certainly not Grandpa, for he would have less to do with anything than anybody. So who, then? Uncle Abe, who had three suits of clothing hanging in the closet and a beautiful wife with electric lights and a bathtub? But he with his boasting would surely have let us know that he was paying for the tickets? What about Uncle Morris, who was such a nice man and wrote such pleasant letters when he did reply, and his wife Leah, who wrote too, sometimes, in his place and gave us such a cheerful picture of their life in America – though never saying a word about the tickets? Or Aunt Sophie, who was nice too and had recently married a barber named Sam, who was supposed to be quite well off? Hadn’t she once said that she’d love to see us all? And Uncle Barney, the comedian of the family, who wrote such funny letters, once suggesting that we all take swimming lessons and maybe swim across the Atlantic Ocean to America?
There was name after name that came to us. Uncle Joe, Uncle Harry, Aunt this, Aunt that, until we’d eliminated virtually every one of the ten members of the family including their spouses without coming up with one that we knew for sure was our benefactor.
It was a complete mystery, and the letter had to be put off until we found out, so I put away my pad of paper and ink bottle and pen in the drawer of the dresser, and my mother went back to her clothes washing in the scullery.
THERE WERE NO
secrets on our street. People had been living there a long time and everybody knew everything there was to know about everybody else. It was, after all, just a small, cobbled street with only two long rows of houses facing one another, all the houses linked together under a common slate roof, with short, stubby chimneys sticking up at the top of each roof in a straight line.
The street looked like any other street in the poor section of a Lancashire mill town, with the rows of brick houses all the same, but there was a difference about ours because it had two distinct sides, one occupied by Christians, the other Jews. An invisible wall the imaginary barrier that separated the two sides and kept us apart.
And yet, despite that, the cultural differences, ancient enmities, the two sides got along quite well, and when news got out that we had received tickets to go to America there were almost as many Christians as Jews who came over to shake our hands and clap us on the back, to congratulate us and tell us how lucky we were.
There was a great deal of excitement throughout the entire street. After all, how often was it that any family left the street? On the Christian side, especially, there were families whose houses had been passed on from generation to generation. The Jews had come later, after being driven out of Poland and Russia and a few other European countries, and they had found refuge here on this little street, which they would not think of ever leaving.