Resorts and Devices
|The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present this new short story by Ronald Frame - read more about him and the inspiration behind this story.|
In 1959 Rabbi Chafetz was nearing the end of his life. It couldn’t be long now, everyone agreed. His great-niece, Rebecca Cosgrove (Rebekah Silberstein as was), felt responsible for him.
She was settled very nicely in Edinburgh, with her banker husband. (No children, but you can’t have everything.) She was more at ease with Lionel’s gentile colleagues and their wives than she was with the yehudi jewellers and store-owners her parents had known in Glasgow, as respectably suburban as themselves and with lives ruled by business precepts. (Deferring to customers, haggling with salesmen, fitting family life around shop hours and stock-taking.) She had taught herself to prefer the stiff manners and fixed expressions and lockjaw politesse of the Edinburgh New Town set.
Rebecca had promised her mother, when she was on her deathbed, that she would be there to care for her mother’s poor, pure-minded, unworldly uncle once he came to this pass himself.
Now that it had happened, Rebecca felt awkward. Her Great-uncle Jacob belonged to that claustrophobic Glasgow world she had escaped from. If she were to take him in, how was she to explain to her Edinburgh friends the presence of a white-haired rabbi, stooped like a half-shut knife? She was so careful to be seen to fit in, that she had become non-practising, just like Lionel. (None of that having to wait for three stars in the Sabbath-night sky milarkey before she could light up a cigarette or switch on the radiogram.)
Fretting one afternoon at home, between a light lunch at the Perigord and dinner in Royal Circus, she suddenly saw the light, so to speak. (Coincidentally the weather did improve at that instant: the clouds cleared, and a bright spring sky - like the proverbial sailor’s blue trousers - appeared.)
Of course! She wouldn’t bring him to Edinburgh at all, she would take him north.
Equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh, eighty miles away, in the rolling hills of Perthshire - inconvenient, yes, but in Carnbeg Spa many matters can be kept secret behind high hedges.
She discussed things with Lionel, and he took a short lease on a holiday cottage with a big garden.
The doctor in Glasgow had given his patient six months at best, and that was back before Christmas. It had been a hard winter, and the likelihood was that the learned and enlightened gentlemen - ‘long may he live,’ Rebecca would intone hollowly - wouldn’t see midsummer.
Rebecca kept the cottage’s better bedroom for Lionel and herself. The Rabbi’s didn’t look out over the town, as theirs did, but across the lawn and flower beds, to a screen of conifers behind a holly hedge.
‘Lots of greenery, see,’ she told her great-uncle in her hectoring way, ‘all the different shades of green in God’s paint box.’
The old man narrowed his eyes at her before, finally, he smiled: a funny wee private, pensive smile.
The wooded countryside of Carnbeg had always reminded Rabbi Chafetz of his childhood so long ago.
Every summer his family used to leave Warsaw for western Bohemia, some spot within easy reach of Marienbad or Carlsbad, spa towns which his mother loved and his father loathed. (Reading Sholom Aleichem on the lifestyle had put one off, and entranced the other.)
Even when he was in his prime, very actively engaged with his synagogue in Glasgow, his flock tended to stay away from Carnbeg, finding the resort too nationalistic: the preponderance of Church of Scotland ministers, who got discounts in the big hotels, the Sunday services held at the main bandstand in the park, the white-on-blue St Andrew’s crosses fluttering from flagpoles. (They preferred a taste of the continent - say, Bournemouth on the South English coast, or the European mainland itself, fleshpot destinations like Paris-Plage or Nice, where you could at least find a place of worship if so inclined on a vacation.)
Every couple of years or so Rabbi Chafetz would come up to Carnbeg, staying in a guest house where he would be less conspicuous and his money went further. He might take tea in the old Kursaal at the Hydro, or on the terrace of the Sgian Palace, or walk along the glass-roofed arcade on High Street, and instead of noticing the bemused sideways glances at him or the occasional snigger he would be following his own train of thought, remembering further and further back …
At one point Rebecca returned from Carnbeg to Edinburgh. Already she was having to plan for the late summer, when she and Lionel would be entertaining their Festival visitors.
But her great-uncle’s condition deteriorated, or that was how it appeared to the nurse she’d left in the cottage with him. A telephone call summoned her back.
Cue, much huffing and puffing in the Edinburgh townhouse.
Eighty miles was no joke on that chicane of red-macadamed back roads.
Why could no one else look after him, Rebecca wondered, if Rabbi Chafetz had been so popular? He’d had nearly eighty years to equip himself with friends and disciples who might have been caring for him instead of her.
But she would feel a little guilty whenever she remembered what her mother told her, that Uncle Jacob alone had understood why she wanted to marry David Silberstein when the rest of the world - including her parents - disapproved. He had seen the worth of the man, never mind that no one else did.
Meanwhile the summer was hurrying by, even though time dragged in the Carnbeg cottage. While Rebecca was thinking about the toney At Homes she had planned over the Festival period, her great-uncle murmured to himself long stretches of the Talmud he had learned by heart long ago. When she forced herself to sit with him, his talk was rambling: about waiting to see paradise. Once he caught a glimpse of cool Siloam, so he whispered to her over the top of the coverlet, then he would be ready to leave this earth behind him.
Late one night, with her bedroom door locked, Rebecca drew a preparatory silhouette of paradise: a castellated gatehouse, framed by domes and towers and waving palm trees. And the jet of a fountain, as an afterthought.
Next morning she slipped away from the cottage, into town, carrying her finished sketch with her.
Ten days later, paradise was ready and in place.
Rebecca waited for the old man to wake before she and the nurse raised him on his pillows, so that he could try to see - through rheumy, bloodshot eyes - the view from the window.
He blinked at what was there.
In the sunny distance, a welcoming gatehouse with its gates thrown back - shiny gold cupolas and rooftops of silver and copper - a spouting, sparkling fountain - and clumps of palms, verdantly green. The vision shimmered among the sober conifer shades of the garden, like a mirage.
The Rabbi’s face creased to a smile. He lay back smiling. He died with that same serene smile on his face.
Afterwards there was so much to do, and Rebecca was grateful for the practicalities, in order to keep her troubled mind focussed.
In the bedside cabinet she came across a book of psalms, which during the last days Great-uncle Jacob must have had the nurse read to him from the English translation alongside. The book mark, a sheet of folded paper, fell out.
‘Oh my God!’
It was her finished pen-and-ink outline for the garden. She must have dropped it or put it down, running to answer another ring of the bell from his room, and failed to notice she didn’t have it. On the back she had written INSTRUCTIONS TO GLADSTONE & SONS, JOINERS.
She stood, rooted to the spot, recalling that seraphic, knowing and forgiving smile, that last smile of his long life on the old boy’s face. The memory of it wouldn’t fade.
She closed her eyelids tight, willing the past to be past and the future to begin, right now.
Rebecca, Mrs Lionel Cosgrove, was walking up Hanover Street on its hill. She was bound for lunch at the Pompadour, when suddenly her feet in their Rayne pumps took her off course, through an open gateway into the shade of Queen Street Gardens. A shaft of brilliant sunlight fell through the dusty layers of a horse chestnut tree, landing on the velvet vows of her shoes. She looked up again. An angel was supporting itself on the lowest branch. The creature spoke - in a voice that could have been lightly male or deeply female - in a polite West End of Edinburgh accent.
‘I’ve come to watch over you.’
All she could think of to say was ‘Just like in the Gershwin song?’
‘‘The devil has all the best tunes’? Oh, I think not.’
That was the crazy way her uncle, Rabbi Chafetz, used to talk, which drove her mother half-way up the trellis wallpaper at home, but which she lovingly forgave him for nevertheless.
It was her great-uncle’s way to speak to her about sheydim - sprites and demons and ghosts - as if they were perfectly real. ‘Don’t tease the poor girl, Jacob,’ her mother would tell him, and he would shake his head at her. ‘You haven’t forgotten to tell her about the dybbuks and angels, Esther, have you?’
The angel in white would be waiting for her now and then, at unexpected locations.
On the tight turn of a staircase in James Thin the Stationers. In a walk-down basement-‘area’ beneath pavement level. In a tenement-close mouth up on the Royal Mile. In the seat directly behind hers at an Usher Hall concert.
Whenever life might have been about to revert, to being cushioned and easeful and unthinking, the spirit would - very politely - ambush her again.
Rebecca couldn’t tell anyone. Nudging her in the back to get past, they couldn’t see what was causing her to stand stock still. She started using different routes about Edinburgh, but that didn’t help: it was as if the canny angel could read her mind.
Angel? He/she/it arrived in a blaze of light certainly, seeming to be lit from inside. Her torturer, more like. Her bad conscience.
She couldn’t get a full night’s sleep, she tossed and turned. She found herself halting in mid-sentence with her New Town friends, forgetting what it was she meant to say next. Into her head at odd moments came faces and voices of the past, from long ago: people who served in the Jewish-owned department stores her mother patronised, the queer girl her mother rescued and renamed ‘Leah’ and who became their willing maid for seven years until the scatter-brained Levin lad married her, some of the tailors and watch-menders and cobblers in dingy workshops in Glasgow back streets who knew their trade but toiled their lives away in obscurity.
Why was she thinking of them now, in the comfort of her New Town residence? She was a different person these days, wasn’t she? Filling the slack time not accounted for in her social diary, waiting for Lionel to come home from the bank or a get-together at one of his watering-holes, she walked to and fro, from room to room. The antique furniture had never seemed to belong to them in particular; the oil paintings were of places she hadn’t been to; the books were largely unread. The good Rabbi Chafetz had never been here, and would have thought he’d walked into one of the leather-bound volumes and on to its pages, something very fictional indeed.
He hadn’t visited, hadn’t been allowed to, and yet here he was in her mind’s eye: standing looking round him at his grand surroundings - with a genial, gentle, wise smile on his face.
‘No, no, no!’
I’m at the end of my frayed tether, she screamed inside her head, this is me going mad.
To some she was, for buying that big old villa in Carnbeg and then not moving there herself, or letting it out for the good income she could have got, but - wait for this! - paying for impoverished or down-on-their-luck Jews from the cities to come and have a holiday.
Perhaps the problem, she decided, was for some people to believe that the Chosen People weren’t all blessed. There were enough who weren’t to keep the rooms occupied all year round, a fortnight or even just a week at a time.
After Lionel dropped dead of a heart attack, at a lunch table with colleagues in the Café Royal, she spent more and more time in Carnbeg. As her mother used to do at home with queer Leah when she was new to the job, she rolled up her sleeves or got down on to her knees to show how it should be done.
She slept better now. It might have been because of the resort’s pine-scented Highlands air perhaps. One or two of her old goi friends from Edinburgh came to see her, but the rest dropped away, and she had less and less incentive to return.
It wasn’t paradise - unless paradise came with windows that rattled in a wind and water pipes that shuddered whenever a hot bath was run - but the happy faces and the straightened spines told her that she had achieved something. Her ‘guests’ were always sorry to leave, casting regretful looks over their shoulders from the departing bus.
She would still puzzle about the angel, who had never ventured beyond central Edinburgh. ‘My revered and learned uncle,’ she used to hear her mother say, ‘has always had a knack of getting what he wants by subtle wiles - peace be unto him - by turning the other cheek.’
A lightning bolt should have struck Rebecca Cosgrove for her misdemeanours: for her craven selfishness, and her cruel, chipboard-and- paint deception on an old man. She knew it was the punishment she deserved. Instead the Rabbi had petitioned on her behalf with the radiant shekhinah, and lo and behold …
His portrait in fresh oils hung in the hall of the Carnbeg retreat, and it was the first thing new arrivals set eyes on.
She had specified to the artist, who’d had to work from photographs, that the gentleman - ‘may his light shine forever’ - shouldn’t be smiling, please. But she saw that, although the features were composed (as arranged, and paid for), the smile was there nevertheless. The lips were set against it, but a smile was waiting to break through, perhaps when the house was in darkness and asleep: seraphic, knowing, absolving.
||Ronald Frame (‘Scotland’s finest contemporary writer’ - Alexander McCall Smith) was born in 1953 in Glasgow, and educated there and at Oxford University. |
13 books of his fiction have been published. He was joint-winner of the first Betty Trask Prize for his novel Winter Journey, and in 2000 received the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award for The Lantern Bearers (also honoured by the American Library Association, and being developed as a feature film).
Ronald has written many plays and short stories for BBC radio. One of his TV dramas, located in Glasgow but called Paris, won the Samuel Beckett Prize and the TV Industries’ Panel’s ‘Most Promising Writer’ Award. He has also just completed a new novel.
The fictional Highlands town of Carnbeg first appeared in his popular radio serial, The Hydro. Ronald has written several dozen stories set there (eleven have appeared so far in the US) and says for him, it's the work he enjoys most.