Friday, 25 May 2018

Little Holocausts

by Susan Tepper

Harry is late picking me up at the train. Everyone else whisked into taxis or already collected.  I stand outside the old station house looking toward the frozen fields surrounding Cambridge.  It took some doing to pry loose from London but I got here. It feels much colder. Windy. I’m thinking Where the hell can he be, when a brown Rolls of some ancient vintage lumbers slowly in my direction.  
Leaving the car running Harry emerges, stiff-looking, pale; corpse-like. Coming toward me without actually taking me in. Typical Harry. Kissing my cheeks European-style yet still managing to maintain distance. He was always a big phony. The type to put people down when he and Jack were in Med school. With his tweeds, peaked cap and rakish scarf, he’s playing his ex-pat status to the hilt. More than a touch of British in his Hallo darling. 
 Inside the old car feels stuffy. Tight. Seems hardly able to move over 30 mph. But, Cambridge. A breathless stone place full of history; though I have to crane my neck to actually see it. He’s skirting the old city, driving its perimeters. 
As if reading my mind, he announces, “Paula, I’m giving you the full sightseeing tour.”
Of the fields and open areas?
So far he hasn’t said a word about Jack not being along. Instead rambling on about Maggie and the kids, mindless stuff. Finally he pops his first question. “How was the train?” 
They do have a Cambridge address – though not Cambridge. Not the Cambridge I have come to wander. I wave goodbye to the stone as it flattens into pure countryside. Harry ignores my hand flapping at the window. 


In their ample house they keep me occupied with this meal or that, high tea, discussions of films and books, plus a showing of every piece of jewelry Maggie has ever designed. Even the garden must be toured – though it’s winter. As if they’re afraid that once out of reach I’ll run away. I will. I’ll run like hell! I know in the first twenty minutes.
It’s a strange mix – their home. Large, sparsely furnished rooms with traditional thick moldings, a rickety antique chair placed here and there, small lamp tables, the velvet loveseat in a salmon color, threadbare Oriental rugs scattered haphazardly. Yet the kitchen has been entirely redone contemporary Milan style; a wrap of stainless steel and granite. Last time I visited, with Jack, they owned a townhouse in Maida Vale. It may have held this same furniture. In the narrow up and down of that place this furniture would have looked appropriate. Here, in the high ceilinged rooms, everything seems miniaturized. Scaled down; brought to its knees. Passing their giant Christmas tree I touch a branch as if to confirm its authenticity among the living. When I pass through the rooms my footsteps on the wood floors echo.  
Maggie is still lovely but much heavier. Her blonde signature blunt cut, flirty and swingy, has been replaced by a severe bun. A flowing black tunic top doesn’t hide her hips. “Paula you are still thin,” she said immediately upon seeing me. 
They have set me up in the guest room. It was Lauren’s before she went to college and then on her own. A few pieces of girl clothing remain in the closet. I touch them, but can’t feel Lauren in the fabric which is blank, anonymous. I remember a sweet freckled girl with a ponytail. She and Maggie didn’t get along. Around them always felt prickly, Harry jumping in to smooth things over. Lauren was Daddy’s girl. While Cody, our son, is part me and part Jack. If he were still a little boy, and we had to divide him, neither of us could live. It’s one of the few things about our marriage that I still believe. Jack believes he loves Cody more. What an insane idea! Who can decide they love better than someone else? After all, I am his mother. Every dark-haired beautiful boy on a skateboard flying past brings me back to Cody.   


In the twin-sized bed I can’t relax. I’ve gotten used to the London luxury of king bed and six down pillows, fluffy white duvet. Though perfectly adequate, this feels a bit like camping out. At night Harry shuts the heat way down. 
“It’s pure cheapness,” Maggie tells me in the morning. She rushes out of the kitchen returning with a thick wool sweater. “Here, put this on.”
“I’m fine.”
“You’re shivering.” She bundles me into the sweater hugging me tight. Dear Maggie. Sister I never had.
“Harry’s got more money than God,” she whispers. “We’ll turn it up while he’s in the shower.”
“Harry won’t let you turn up the heat?”
She’s moved to the stove unwrapping bacon, placing slices in an iron skillet. I watch as they start to sizzle. “A nice hot breakfast to help warm you,” she says.
It’s been decades since she left Germany. First to Cambridge in the States where she met Harry, now to Cambridge here. Her voice still carries that dark, throaty hush that makes me think of the Black Forest. I’m second generation Jewish on my father’s side. Jewish will always be Jewish, he used to say; and that you can’t be a little Jewish. Of Maggie’s childhood I don’t know much, other than her parents starved after the war. All of Europe starved after the war, Jack would say –  whenever I relayed her stories about them having no milk or bread. I don’t know whether he actually likes Maggie. The jewelry she creates are little holocausts –  twisted metals that turn in on themselves. Blood colors in the enamels and the stones she sets perfectly. I’m imagining Jack’s caustic remarks about the tiny oven she’s so proud of; where she bakes the enamel brooches and earrings. Maggie, my friend. Magda. I want to take her away.
             “Are you sure you want to stay here, Maggie?” Perched on a stool at the center island I study the gray granite. Icy under my hands. She looks up from cooking, her china-blue eyes clouding over. 
“Paula, they don’t like me here. The English still despise the Germans. You know I had them all over for high tea, once, the women from my book group. They never reciprocated. No one ever invited me back. I wasn’t even born during that war.”
“How terrible for you.”
She’s turning the bacon slices carefully. “I get so lonely. But Harry adores it here. Says he’s finally come home. He makes believe he’s English, takes all the classes, does the pub thing, the cocktail parties. Can you imagine? He was adopted, you know. His adoptive father was British but from generations back. So cold to Harry growing up.” I watch her draining the bacon on a paper towel.
“That smells good,” I say.     
“Yes.” She makes a short laugh. “Harry always had one woman or another. When he was hopping over to the continent for those medical conferences. Now he’s older. Tired. It’s harder these days to just hop a plane with so much increased security.”
Not really, I’m thinking. I just hop planes. Trains. Change where I live in an instant. It’s not hard at all, taking off your shoes and submitting to a pat-down – no big deal if you are intent on a fuck. 
“Maggie, those women – didn’t it bother you?”
She shrugs cracking eggs into a steel bowl.
How damned European of her. Most American women don’t play by those rules. They leave, kill, or cheat back with a vengeance. 
“We don’t have screens on these windows,” she’s saying. “It’s impossible to find screens here.”
“Hm?” I gaze toward where she’s pointing. “What about flies in the summer?”
“We don’t get them.” She’s whisking the eggs furiously. “Harry said you left Jack.”
No flies in Cambridge.
“Really?” It’s all I can think of to say.


* * * * *

"Little Holocausts" is part of a new novel in progress by Susan Tepper.

More about Susan Tepper's widely published work can be found at

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