|First extract. From Padua's Riffs, in chapter 1.|
|Hotels were Quaques way of outrunning fear. In Berlin we lodged at a succession of addresses, temporary guests of establishments that had seen better days, sleeping in beds once frequented by actresses trading their movie gossip for discretion. Signed photographs, locked rooms, imposing proprietresses whod ensure breakfast was laid before retiring. Quaque settled up in advance, week by week, the money palmed and inserted into a fold of our hostesss ample mauve peignoir that would waft a perfume I couldnt always place, no questions asked. It was better that way. He called them safe hotels.
Once, drunk, he took three strips of differently coloured tape and knotted them so that the three vincula formed were unlinked but attached. Cut one and all three separated. Russia. USA. USER, he said.
The scissors. I need to be careful.
We went to Berlin disguised as schnorrers, Quaque in a ringlet wig, me a beehive hairdo.
It was diamond dust time, him and me. Kati filed for divorce the day he left. Under USER rules it was valid from the moment the Post Office franked the application letter, on the principle that a decree absolute would never emerge from the bureaucracy. We had a non-Orthodox ceremony in a cut-price temple off Karl Marx Allee. Cobwebby witnesses, Quaque coughing, me high on the unlikelihood of it all. Million sent us a charcoal drawing of hands entwined, our one wedding gift.
In our different ways we took to Berlin. Quaque talked about going into training analysis, never did. The place was stiff with shrinks, none of them turning over less than a hundred thousand thalers per annum. If you could afford it, the done thing was to have two or three, then invite them to your dinner parties and watch them fight, Abraham versus Isaac, with Ruth dishing up the dirt on both along with canapés and lox. Primal stuff.
I missed trees. Our Berlin didnt have any, apart from the limes I loved. So we drove out into the Prussian hinterland for the weekend, further than we intended, into the Newly Occupied Territories past Königsberg where the pretence of defence grew thin. Shantytowns, Polish and Lithuanian kids begging, military police everywhere. Murdering bastards, Quaque screamed through the window at one checkpoint, until I hauled him back in and sweet-talked the goons in broken Yiddish. He didnt often lose it, but when he lost it he lost it bad.
Shall we go then one suitably nondescript Friday in December when no-ones expecting us to make a break for it to an hotel in another country, some Switzerland ringed by languages and inaccessible passes, where well adopt a child and begin all over again? Would you have liked that, Nick? I always wanted him to make me pregnant. An end to phantoms.
Freeze dealing in Israel was a mandatory life sentence, possession a misdemeanour. Quaque always had some, I didnt ask how. The idea was to age slowly, but not so slowly the age police would be onto us. People tended to get reported by zealous jealous neighbours if they looked too young too long. Israel was the only place I knew where cosmetic surgeons got paid to provide face drops. Youd see women in saunas with 70-year-old heads on 20-year-old bodies, and vice versa. Everyone looked someone elses age.
There were too many dishonesties for me not to get into the swing of lying. Into the rare silences, while towns slept with their African twins, and the landing lights of the airport were turned off, Id creep like an orphan, tuned to the suppressed symphony of night noises. Proximate snuffling, a cadence of a child snoring lightly through the wall, six legs scratching. I could hear gnats walk. It was quaintly called the Berlin Runway Hotel, and wed be woken by US flights taking off at dawn.
I tried not to worry about the danger. He once said the intelligence game was like blindfold simultaneous chess where the rules were never made explicit and could change any time. It was impossible not to suspect that the flight to Israel was part of some greater gameplan under no-one in particulars control. I imagined too he courted Isis the sister and wife of Osiris, a name too sacred to be invoked without forethought, as if incest and its terrible consequences were buried deep within the family of nations.
Why not stop? I almost pleaded.
Same reason as a plane doesnt stop in midair.
Shaped conglomerates huddled in bone-bare tenements crisscrossed by curfew liaisons, one of them mine. I should have known better. I should have been past caring. Kids and old men shadowed me, blowing on tin whistles, mumbling, transparent spectres in the afternoon. It wasnt hot, only humid. In doorways police dictated shopping lists into talkie-walkies. I kept going, tight-lipped, scared.
Elsewhere in the city Quaques serial deceptions were building into a formidable endgame. Without a word, when the bleeper went, he extracted himself, trailing cigarette smoke. Wed said 4 oclock. The silo beside the canal dock. A weed-choked remnant of water power. The kind of place where spooks ambush your better intentions and intelligence suggests you get the hell out.
Trains rumbled overhead, stingingly liveried in yellow-and-black stripes. Mimicking pogrom garb recalled from my Russian childhood. Why are they wearing those funny clothes, Kati? Id wondered bewildered. Now the jackboot was on the other foot. A chubby pretty child was watching her lollipop massacred by ants as it melted into chromatic slush. Jittery retrievals indicating pleasure. They communicate, they say, through pheromone messages.
He was late. I was edgy. It was beginning to rain. A dog hurled itself at a lorry, which barked back. Eerie, how explanations for delay accrue, like ambulances racing to the site of an accident about to happen. Then I saw him, hard by the Western Wall, walking fast. With both hands he lifted me, coaxing desire into my worried embrace. Stealthily I relaxed, dressed in my green dress. Above us windows flew up past reflections of cranes. Sites active, rubble discomforted.
Must you do this?
Youll see me off?
Szczecin, the next day. Border territory, military mindless. Ectoplasm of the state, paranormal uniforms paraded through deserted streets. He showed his passport, with its array of photos shot annually, another freeze-control measure. Worn pages spattered with arbitrary controls. From South Prussia to Silesia, Dresden to Bohemia. Berlin East, Berlin Further East. Provinces under the protectorate of the yellow star, Israels golden shiner.
Attitudes, Nick, are all they ask for. So long as you kept your hair short or wore high heels you could be born before the Balfour Declaration and look eighteen for years. Youll be careful?
Trust me. I couldnt. Overcoated office workers edged past, impressed by our devotion. Ergonauts, comfort-bound. If I dont come back, I want you to have
Stop it. Youll come back, you always do, remember?
On the quayside girls gathered, anxious surveillance machines, pressed into service one after the next, against their mothers implored negations. I stood with them waving from quay to deck.
Back in Berlin. A smoky breeze rattling the leaves of the linden. I watched TV. On the news, Prime Minister Clock announced, Id give anything to avoid this necessity, but unfortunately the interests of our nation override sentiment. Pinstripe suit, carroty tie, paunchy. Not a man I could ever have loved.
It meant war. It usually does. Fogged interludes of peace between crystal-quick rectitudes of destruction. The security of the corridor, the leader assured all-channel viewers. Early footage of shelled and rocketed apartment blocks, weeping women, shoeless kids, burned-out cars. Quaque was in there somewhere, picking his way through the rubble of lives. He never talked about these missions when he came back. If he came back. This time he did. A little thinner, a little more haunted. Somehow happier.