I didn’t sleep that night. My wife clung to me in our bed and whispered to me not to go. She was pregnant. Her belly pushing against me, her smooth pear-shaped body nestled against my back, well, we made love, and I changed my mind.
Radio angled on top of the cupboard provided a background din in our warm kitchen as she grilled toast and boiled eggs. I sat in striped pyjamas and slippers, legs tucked under the table with my soft-boiled eggs, with buttered soldiers and sprinkling of salt, a pot of strong tea, under a tea cosy on the cooker. But I choked on the soldiers, and held my hand over my mouth as I gagged.
I rose and took a gulp of tea and went and dressed in my shirt and tie. Got my trench coat and hat, for the wind was battering the windows with rain. I stuck a few bits of toast in my side pocket and headed towards the train station to join the other morning commuters. It took around thirty minutes to get to High Street. I smelt onions and sausages as I climbed the stairs, up and out onto the entrance to the street, as a vendor cooked breakfasts to a group of younger men standing at the window with tea in polystyrene cups to keep their fingers warm, joking with each other.
I walked with my head down up the wide pavement. Most of the old tenement buildings black with soot. They’d housed thousands, including many Jews, who came off the ships with a bit of paper and an address. Enquired of passer-by’s in Slavonic Yiddish where they were in New York. Shop fronts on the ground floors blocked off, grey and derelict. We had been fearful of presenting our papers to authority figures, content to keep our heads down and work harder than anybody else. The Necropolis was a reminder of where we all ended up. But the Gothic architecture of the Royal, sent out a different kind of message of civic pride, but not for the likes of us, who could use the back and side entrances that undulated and rolled away from the façade at the front. I knew if I was to be arrested I had food in my pocket. I’d take a gulp of water from the toilet before I visited his room and that would see me through the day.
The hospital was warm as mid-summer. I kept on my hat, but folded my coat over my arm. I didn’t trust the lifts, or like being in encloses spaces. Younger, fitter, bodies passed me, going and down stairs showed they perhaps had the same thoughts. I took off my hat, and brushed away the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand before pushing through the heavy double doors of the Acute Ward.
The overhead lights strung out high in a row, old-fashioned with bulb and canopy, put a lid on the morning chaos. The beeping of modern machines echoing up and down the corridors. Staff rushed past, some carrying clipboards, and other bedpans. A cleaner sloshed and wrung a mop. She briefly stares at me and turned to wiggle her large bum as she splashed water and disinfectant and created a dark mirror of the floor. A patient sat up straight in bed, a cigarette dangling from his lip as he read the Daily Record sports pages. His eyes snapped to the doorway I appeared from and I feel them following me as I wind my way towards the nursing station and the dying room where Etian had a bed.
‘Can I help you, dear—are you from the Dementia ward?’
It wasn’t as I feared the Matron, but a younger nurse with curly red hair and freckles. If she hadn’t been wearing a uniform that seemed too big for her body, I’d have taken her to be a school girl.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I kept walking. ‘I’m just going to visit my friend Etian—to make sure he’s alright.’
Her eyes softened but she kept in step and kept talking. ‘We’ve been warned about you.’
‘That’s good,’ I took off my specs and cleaned the lenses with my navy-blue tie before going into the dying room. ‘Because I’ve been warned about you too. So we’re even.’
‘That’s funny.’ Her shoulders sagged as she laughed through her nose.
I closed the door and sat down beside Etian’s bed. He was grey as a Glasgow morning, but his eyes brightened. ‘You came,’ he croaked.
‘I said I would.’ I felt for his hand and squeezed it. ‘I don’t know if you’ve had breakfast yet, but I’ve not got a lot of time before the police come to fling me out and arrest me.’
A jug of water was on the cabinet beside his bed with plastic cups. He watched me measure out two cups of lukewarm water and taking a sip. I held the other cup to his lips and he took a drink, choking as it went down.
‘It’s good,’ he said.
‘Hardly.’ I pulled the toast out of my pocket. ‘It’s all I could get—sorry—you remember that hill outside the blocks, not much of a hill, not one you’d notice, but it was too much for my legs and lungs. And I spat blood. How many men would have killed for this piece of bread?’
I broke it up into bird-sized portions and swallowed a thumbnail chunk, before dropping crumbs into his mouth and listened to his satisfied chewing as if it were a full meal.
‘The cart creaked as we pushed it, dampened by the long silences of the bodies we carried. We could almost taste liberation. The Americans were on the way. But we had to get by the guards. So you put me on the cart. How well I fitted with the dead. They counted us going in, but not as we came out. That was your masterstroke.’
I chewed on another piece of toast, broke off a crust, and put part of it in his mouth and a bit in his hand and squeezed his fingers over the grains. Our bodies remember. I watched the door.
‘When the police come, I will go with them.’ I held my hands out in appeal, ‘but I will come back. And if I’m held, my wife will come. And if she cannot come, the Rabbi will come. And if he cannot come, a friend of the Rabbi will come. We will never desert you.’
‘You’re a good friend,’ he said in the old tongue, which made it seem sweeter. ‘But perhaps you should leave. I’m doing just fine here. All they ask me to do is lie about.’ He smiled, ‘I’ve always been good at that. And you have a wife, with no doubt a boy child to care for. There’s nothing here for you. And what we should not forget my friend—my good friend—is it’s best to let the dead bury the dead. You should go now, while you still have time.’
‘I could, but you know what they say, if they arrest you, here they feed you three full meals a day, so you grow fat. And they don’t ask you to work. All they ask you to do is sleep, and not make a fuss until they let you out. What can be so bad about that?’
The door opened and an auxiliary backed into the room with a tray. ‘I’ve got your breakfast here.’
I arched my back and raised my head. ‘What have you got? Is that fresh orange?’
‘Aye, and egg and bacon,’ her fingers grazed over the strips of ham, before informing us they were a bit cold, which made me flinch. But she didn’t notice. ‘And a roll in butter and cornflakes and there’s some milk there.’ She nodded to the trolley outside the door, ‘If you want it?’
‘Bring it all in,’ I said.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘Are you his brother?’
‘You could say that.’
‘Aye, I thought so, cause you look the spit of each other.’