Creeping F-ing Jesus.
The old man pulls a crumpled hanky from the side pocket of his jacket, and blows his nose. He peers at his notes and then at us with watery grey eyes and then turns towards Burnett as if asking where he is. The Assistant Head smiles wider than a mouth should, pours a glass of water from the carafe on the table beside him and hurries up the stairs. He bends the microphone away and tries turning it off, only to amplify the ‘Fuck’ that he utters when he fails.
Laughter frees us talk among ourselves. Has pulled us back from another world in which we begin to scratch at our legs and arms.
The old man has to be helped from the lectern, he seems smaller and broken. He snorts and dabs at his eyes. Burnett whispers to him in the gloom and then climbs the stairs to make an announcement. He scans our faces, waits for us to quieten before announcing, ‘Mr Barteski cannot, unfortunately, carry on. He has asked me to continue speaking on his behalf from his notes.’
He looks down at the old man, who coughs and wheezes into his hanky, nods agreement. He pulls off an armband so worn it seems to be part of his coat. Part of a Star of David is barely visible. But he kisses it drawing our attention to it.
Burnett shuffles and smooths the notes in front of him, and clears his throat. He teaches French and German and is used to speaking to us, and telling us what to do. But before he can begin the old man holds onto the steps to help him climb. The arm band between his fingers held out like a flag.
We hear what he says through the microphone. He tells Burnett, ‘You must wear the armband, if you want to become one of the accursed, like me’.
Burnett shakes his head, his expression perplexed, but friendly. He glances at those sitting in the front rows and cups his hand over the microphone. We cannot hear what he says, but he keeps smiling even as he stands aside to be replaced by the old man. He slides the armband on, tugs at his ear and stares out at us again.
It was only later, when we could articulate it, that we realised we felt a sense of relief. Baldy Burnett reading from notes would have been as counterfeit as a ten-bob note made in the art department. The man that slurred his words has drunk with history and we willed him to continue speaking.
‘Let me tell you about bravery,’ said the old man. ‘Yes, I know what you think, the bravery of a man with a gun storming some redoubt flush with machine guns. Or saving a pretty girl from a burning building.’ His laughter becomes a cough. He holds a crumpled hanky to his mouth, waving his arm. ‘For it is hard to believe that I was young too—and I also had these dreams.’
We laugh with him at the impossibility of his dream and of his being young.
‘But let me tell you about hatred. You do not hate the men with guns as much as you hate the man beside you that has a morsel of meat or perhaps a bit of turnip to chew on from the bottom of the pot. Part of us is always watching, always ready, because death stands beside us, and leans in. And to find something hard in your dish is like finding the truth of God’s name spelled out in a parchment and letters of the Torah. The man that has more than us in his dish becomes to us an abomination.’
‘Yet, such a man was my friend Eitan, because he was my friend, but that was only later. Because when I first met him, I hated him—he had a grizzle of meat in his dish.’
The old man let our laughter roll over him, and he smiled back at us. And cocked his head and seemed to listen to what Eitan was telling him, before he spoke. ‘You know what Eitan did?’
He waited with us, and no longer seems so old. ‘He took the bit of meat out of his dish and put it in mine!’
He steps back into another time and shook his head, staring at us, but not with us, rubbing his arm and armband. ‘He gave me life, but more than that, he made me human.’
Shrugging, he held his hands out. ‘You probably think that’s it finished. You all get bored with stories of the camps, and how it was all in the past. And the truth is, nobody wanted to hear them. And we that were there didn’t want to tell them. But now it’s time again as the hatred of difference once more grows a new crop of bully boys and murderers.’
‘Eitan came here to Glasgow. You would never know him, or have seen him. He worked very long hours as a tailor and had many problems with the language—as I do, but worse—and, as you say, kept himself to himself. He never married. Released from the burden of his second language unless you really listened to him you’d never had known—he brought the camps with him. He refused to eat, unless he could share what he ate.’
‘At first it was easy. Rationing had just finished. Everyone in Scotland was hungry for a second helping. And there was always an apprentice tailor or a workmate looking for something extra.’
‘But then,’ he held up his hands, with mechanisation it was all machines and working for yourself.’
‘Eitan became familiar with the backlanes and the city streets that led down the Clyde. The types of places other men avoided where men huddled around fires, drinking. They laughed at his accent and his foreign ways. Some tried to steal off him. But he kept going back. He became a familiar figure.’ He sighed. ‘They called him Creeping Fucking Jesus.’
‘He had a room in a tenement, like the rest of us, but he gave it up to go and live among them. In a modal. They were the cheapest housing and a big part of the city. For a few bob a week you could get a bed, and a partitioned space. Sometimes with its own door and wire up to the high ceiling. He had an old Singer’s treadle machine and fixed the men’s clothes, but like many things it went missing. He continued on with needle and thread, the way he’d been taught so long ago.’
‘He gave away everything he had and slept in his coat with the tools of his trade sewed into his pocket.’
Mr Barteski stopped to blow his nose and spit into his hanky. ‘This was a time when I was very busy and getting married, and I wasn’t what you’d call a good friend. I hadn’t seen him for over a year—when I got word in was in hospital, the Royal.’
‘When I went to see him, he was away from the other patients. He had a room of his own away from overflowing bedpans and the stink of disinfectant. You might think that would be a good thing. But I recognised it from the camps for what it was—the dying room.’
He was propped up in bed, and for such an emaciated body, the ground seemed a long way down. I stroked his hand and his eyelids fluttered open.
‘How are you?’ I asked in our childhood tongue.
‘First they burn me outside with radiotherapy. Then they burn me inside with chemotherapy. And sometimes they let me lie here before deciding which form of torture works best.’
A grey-haired auxiliary had a cigarette in her mouth, and bustled in wheeling a mobile urn. She seemed surprised to see me there. ‘You want tea?’
‘I’ll take a cup,’ I told her. ‘Two sugars.’
Fag ash drifted onto the floor as she poured it, and she stubbed her cigarette out in the unused ashtray beside Eitan’s bed. The communal and oversized teaspoon dinged the cup as she put two sugars in from the bowl and handed it to me. ‘I guess you’re sweet enough – you want a Custer Cream.’
I screwed up my face and shook my head.
The trolley wheels banged off the bed as she turned to go.
‘Hi, what about Eitan?’
‘The patient that’s in bed,’ my voice went up a notch, because I was angry.
‘Oh, him, he’s a funny bugger. I bring him meals and teas and whatnot and he doesnae touch them—I end up just taking them away.’
‘How long’s this been going on?’
‘Dunno, I mean, I only work part-time.’ She pulled the trolley backwards out of the room. ‘You’ll really need to ask the matron, because it’s nothing to dae with me.’
‘Pour another cup of tea,’ I told her, clenching my jaw shut. ‘Put four sugars in it. And leave a couple of those biscuits.’
I waited until she sloped away, and broke the biscuits up and let them soak into the tea. I sat on the edge of his bed and propped his head up and held the mush to his cracked lips. But he refused to eat.
‘You first,’ he muttered.
I swilled lukewarm tea around my mouth and the sweetness of the mush made me gag, but I kept it down. Only then would he eat.
‘Not too much,’ I had to remind him. We both had friends in the camps that had died because they tried to eat a meal after liberation. Our bodies had cried out for protein, but a rich diet broke us.
‘When he settled a little I let him know I was going to see who was in charge. The matron was younger than I thought decent, her uniform sharp and crisp and her frilly hairband distinguished her from the other nurses crowding around the nursing station. One of the younger nurses smirked as I approached them. Fag smoke rising from the inner circle creating a haze I stepped into.
At first I kept my voice low and told the matron a little of our story, but she’d one of those smiles on her face I recognised from prison guards. I can’t remember exactly what I’d said after that but it wasn’t pretty, but was near the truth. Nursing staff had failed to notice he was slowly starving to death—and what was worse, she didn’t seem to care.’
‘How dare you,’ she replied. ‘What exactly is your relationship with Etian?’ She licked her lips as she gave me time to consider. ‘Is he, for example, a brother, or cousin?’
I shook my head and tried to explain, but she held a hand up, silencing me.
‘Well, the simple fact is, we have been feeding him, and you’ve no real relationship to him.’ She stared at me without blinking. ‘Although to be fair, we’re sometimes run off our feet and can’t find the time to always check. And he may have missed the odd meal.’
I glanced at the circle of nurses, one or two looked away, recognising the lies she was telling.
‘Well, I’ll be back first thing in the morning. For every meal I’ll be back. And I’ll bring my own food.’
‘If you read the notice on the way out,’ she said. ‘It’ll tell you when visiting hours are. And if you appear on my ward at any other time and attempt to hinder our work—then let me tell you, I’ll be forced to call the police.’
‘Fuck you, Madame Nazi,’ I stepped in close enough to taste her perfume. ‘I’ll be here first thing in the morning for breakfast at 7am. Try stopping me.’
I strode away, unsure what I’d tell Eitan, but when I got to his bed he was already sleeping.