The Name Says It All
By Simon Barget
‘Shenkin, Berkowitsch, Shenkin Berkowitsch, all I see are these bloody names.’
‘What is it?’ he gestured. I was eyeballing the latest draft of the story.
‘Shopping list. What do you think it is?’
My remorse was sudden and immediate. ‘I’m sorry Bob, I’m just in a bit of a funk.’
‘No progress then?’ So good-natured was old Bob.
‘The last thing I want,’ I emphasised, ‘is to have to write about people called Shenkin and Berkowitsch. It narrows down the options.’
‘Right’ he said, but then promptly added:
‘But who says you have to?’
‘It’s how it works. They’re bestowed upon you. You think of names.’ I gave him a moment.
‘See, not that easy.’
And now I’ve got them I can’t just winkle out on them. I’m stuck with them for about 3 months, on average. I’ll have to find something I can work with.’
I was on the bench by the pond on the Heath. It was late autumn. I tended to go there alone, so I was surprised I was with another person, let alone Bob Pachounis.
Granted, an unusual name.
I ploughed on with my arse-over-tit exegesis.
‘Who can Shenkin be but Lenny Shenkin of Lenny’s (Gown and Garment Alterations) on 3rd Avenue? And who is Sal Berkowitsch if not owner/impresario of Sal’s double choc-chip cookies, registered premises Hoboken, 13612 NJ.
It limits your options. I don’t want to limit my options. I want to address the human condition, not get bogged down in the exigencies of erstwhile New York Jews. I never get something I can work with’, I complained.
I was homing in on one of my tantrums.
And in a thought linked tenuously to my last remark, at least in my mind, I said: ‘Bob, I’ll give you countless examples of the name making the man. I used to know several people called Reader. Not all that well though.’
I was only half serious though.
I thought, maybe, just maybe, I’ll pull something out of the bag with this Shenkin and Berkowitsch. Sure, there’d be the shmaltzy exchange in Yankels; the booth by the fire exit. Berkowitsch leans forwards and motions to something just out of eyeshot. ‘Don’t look now Lenny but....’ that kind of thing. Something develops. They used to serve cholent. A time before psychotherapy’s vice-like grip had taken hold. Not even anything would need to be said.
Which would cut significantly down on my work, incidentally.
‘Did you always want to be a writer? Never want to fall in love? Start a family for instance.’
This was the usual form of the dig.
‘And what’s wrong with all three?’
‘Well it might not start out with Shenkin and Borowitz.’
‘Berkowitsch, I corrected with lethargy.
Anyway they say you make your own reality’. The joke was on him because this was exactly what I was doing here.
In actuality though, I was hardly listening. I was still in my own mind, thinking:- well you know, Shenkin and Berkowitsch, fine, the booth, a collaboration of some sort, a business deal gone wrong, big families, hurt feelings, maybe a second cousin’s wedding. But I live in Hampstead, England. Don’t give me these outré names way out of my orbit. I can’t pretend to know them. I’m a writer to get under the skin of things because inside I’m sad and fully perceive the tragedy of existence.
Let it be known.
But the truth of it was that I’m lazy. Don’t want it enough. Not a two-hour-a-day man to set your clock by it. I’m a dabbler. The best I do is scrawl down a few fragments and digress.
I wander off.
Now I have to say that autumn is a beautiful season. Undervalued. Honest to god this is not a digression. I am agog with autumn and I want to write poems about it. No, it’s much more earnest than that. I must resist the urge to get trivial. Nature, connection to the earth. Merge with the sky. Runic inscriptions on Camargue cave walls. The air trenchant, a rejuvenation against a sense of falling, of death. The kaleidoscope of russets, ochres, chestnuts, auburns, maroons. Mulch, and the sinews of the partly-flattened sycamore leaves. Other leaves curling up stiff, like skeletal fingers or lightly charred crisps. Summer is fine but leaves you indifferent to the prospect of returning home. And home is one of the few things that makes a life bearable.
I hardly noticed he was even there. No small man either. Shaggy. Not my agent, nothing like that. Just someone I happened to meet when he was walking Luna. Don’t let the name fool you. Even shaggier than he is. A real mutt, hybrid, unidentifiable by breed. My first thought: must be homeless. The conversation came down to me self-obsessing and him offering scant reaction to my misgivings. Apparently he used to be in the music business but hardly even name drops.
‘Bob, what do you want to do now? You could come back to mine. It’s kind of chilly. We could have a cup of tea. I’ll put the heating on.’
He smiled. A big broad genuine smile that could never belie his true feeling.
‘But what about the story?’
‘The story’ I muttered. ‘The story is fine, I’ll come back to it. They never go away. It’s people that matter. Friendship. Late autumn days.
For a brief second I worried he’d come over to embrace me.
Well you’ll never guess what happened.
Yes we walked back under a wide clear open evening sky, the sharp hewn air fading out to space. Yes, you could see Orion’s belt. Luna was perky, not that she’d have known I’d have nothing in the way of bespoke dog food. Pachounis tarried at the block’s front door, ostensibly doing his laces, of shoes he’d have to take off any moment anyway. Inside it was icy. I am not one of these people to leave my heating on even when I pop out for a paper.
But it came on quickly and strongly, Pachounis almost burning his hand on the rad in the hall. I had warned him but he had defied me. So I led him into the lounge where I carried on tinkering with the story while he sat on the sofa trying to be attentive to any possible need on Luna’s part for calls of nature. That’s all pretty standard. It was dark by five.
Then he dropped it. The clanger. Just one night. Tonight. Clapped his hands together and mock-shivered. Might have used that odious term ‘buddy. Assured me he had a place in South London. Or was it Acton. In any case, one of those areas you let other people live in and leave them to get on with it. Claimed he’d have had to change buses at Elephant & Castle etc. had a few things to do in Hackney the following morning, how was I to know any better?
And since I’ve always had two bedrooms, and since I like to accommodate, I stuck on some fresh bedding and thought nothing of it. Sheesh, I had towels I’d never even used. I like the company, I’m so damn lonely it’s untrue. I could only hope for fastidiousness in his hygiene. The vagrant beard was no great omen. I knew he wouldn’t have brought a toothbrush with him.
Of course the story about South London turned out to be a red herring. He’d actually been living on a couch in Crouch End until a heated argument about the guy’s fish tank had prompted Pachounis to take it upon himself to conduct a cleaning operation while the generous homeowner was out food shopping. All three cichlids dead next morning. My blunder: conceding the second night. Although he’d gone -- bed neatly made -- by the time I woke up, he manifested himself a few hours later at the threshold with an enormous 1980’s Carlton hold-all, having taken the second set of keys. I heard the crash as he spewed the contents over the room thereby marking territory. I could hardly open the door without jamming it against one of his many material objects. As much as I tried to convey a sort of inscrutable disdain, my heart leapt – I would have someone to make dinner for again.
This was 3 months in. I’m a good judge of character I continued to tell myself. I told him the dog had to go, but he knew I was bluffing. It became a point of principle that I couldn’t let him take advantage of me. Mustn’t show softness. He can’t stay forever.
So I was forced to call Golders Green police.
‘A civil matter unfortunately sir, no power to evict. We don’t deal with squatters.’
‘He’s not a squatter, he’s a friend who refuses to go.’
‘We suggest you let him stay then.’
Suddenly recalling my extensive legal knowledge I quickly added:
‘It’s trespass.’ But I wasn’t quick enough because they’d already put the phone down.
So then I sued in the County Court at my own expense. All while we were one happy family. Unsuccessfully. Amazingly because of the dog. Was this a joke? Not at all. She too had to be housed and so Pachounis could not be treated a sole tenant. Actually he was a licencee. She (Luna) would have to be joined in the application. The Court of Appeal overturned the judgment at first instance citing a 1644 case that my lawyer was proud he’d never heard of. We’d won, he boasted. But then they appealed to the Supreme Court claiming a point of law of significant public importance. The stress from the whole ordeal took my mind well away from the invidiousness of Shenkin and Berkowitsch. On happening to catch the names one morning at the top of one of the drafts lying about my desk, I barely even flinched.
Standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice the other day after one of the many hearings, Pachounis sidled up to me. I could tell he had a confession.
‘Look Simon, I saw you for what you are,’ he said.
‘Oh and what’s that? ‘It just so happened I felt like feeding the intrigue.
‘My surname? What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘It’s on your buzzer, I saw it that day. “Puschova”’
‘You idiot. Do you even read the pleadings, the Particulars of Claim, the Witness Statements, the Ex Parte Interlocutory Application for Interim Relief? My name’s plastered all over them. And do I look Russian to you?’
‘Russian?’ he looked awfully baffled.
‘My downstairs neighbours. They’re from Perm, not far from Ulyanov.’
Suddenly Luna started to bark as if far from happy with the unravelling.
‘Look, I’ll be back about 6’ he said.
‘Well you’ve got the keys. I thought I might make bream again.’
‘Just take it easy with the lemongrass then.’
At which point I walked off towards Covent Garden to buy the fish.