There were always fine threads and hairs on the carpet. Miriam couldn’t understand where they were coming from. However meticulously she picked each one up, there always seemed to be more. It didn’t make sense. She didn’t have pets, and she was living alone, but every day it was the same. The grey wool carpet showed up every particle of dust, and those hairs. Max had bought her a Hoover, but she preferred to use a carpet brush and her fingers. You just couldn’t get the Hoover to pick up every one, and it was important not to miss any. When the sun shone through the lounge windows she could see hairs and dust particles floating in the light.
It felt ridiculous that she should be reduced to spending her days cleaning up, but there really was no choice. Every day the kitchen floor needed washing, and she did it because she was alone, though she really felt too old to be on her hands and knees. It was not supposed to be this way.
She was sitting in the lounge bay window, overlooking the communal waste bins and patch of scruffy lawn behind the mansion block, polishing the silver cake forks from her treasured cutlery service, the one she’d dug up and rescued from the garden in Szeroka street in ’46, before Tomasz took her with him back to Kilburn. Each piece needed a great deal of care, and the walnut cutlery cabinet, which had been wrapped in a tarpaulin for six years, was wax polished every day. Hardly a blemish on the cabinet, and the silver was as good as new, after its tarnish had been removed. She’d dusted the Chinese vases, eighteenth century blue and white, on the sideboard. The glue holding them together was yellow now, but they were still beautiful. They would of course have been hugely valuable, had they not all been chipped and cracked when they were finally shipped after the war.
‘One has to take care of one’s few possessions. I learned that in Lwow, hiding my jewelry in the chimney in that cold garret, once we’d run out of fuel to burn. To think, I had two maids, a housekeeper, a cook and a driver at one time, and accounts at all the great department stores in Vienna.’
Miriam moved the bucket and wrung out the cloth once again, as she scrubbed the clean lino for a second time.
‘Tomasz and Max are such good boys for visiting their mother, and helping with the rent, but it is still hard to be alone. But we all have our own cross to bear. Poor Anna, with her seaweed remedies and herbal teas; it hasn’t been easy for her either. She told me recently that she has to sleep alone in a child’s bed, with her nose against the wall, curled into a ball.’
Polishing the silver always brought back memories of Alexandre, in his restaurant in Vienna in the twenties. She could see the chandeliers sparkling as though it was yesterday, and almost hear the waltzes, but her memories of him were cast in shadow. She only had the one photograph of him. In it, he was standing alone, in a civilian suit with that high-waisted pants 1930s cut. He was in front of some poor stone cottages, on a dirt road, holding a guidebook.
‘What a shame I don’t have one of him in his red hussar’s jacket and epaulettes, and that manicured moustache he wore in the twenties. I loved how he looked, so dashing and strong.’
Miriam sat upright on the edge of the sofa-bed, working Silvo into the blade of a cake knife whose swirling engraved design tended to harbour tarnish. She was dressed in an aging French navy tweed skirt and cashmere cardigan, even though the flat was overly warm, and her reading glasses hung from a fine gilt chain around her neck, over the pearls she always wore.
‘How splendid I looked that first evening in the Café Austerlitz, in that beautiful blue silk dress and my diamonds, or was it that wondrous cream taffeta with the pearls? Alexandre. Where are you now? Are you in your own little heaven, a place for Nazis who refused to do as they were told? Did you meet your end in a firing squad, or perhaps you slipped away to South America, like they say so many did.’
Would it have ended differently if she’d accepted his offer to move to Vienna before the war?
‘But I had the children, a home to take care of. And besides, how would we have hidden our differences when the Nazis came to power? Our paths took two completely different directions, and there was no going back to find one another. Perhaps he did survive. He was well connected, well travelled. He could have acquired false papers and managed to escape. Imagine. He could have pretended to be a Jew!’
Whenever Miriam scrubbed the floor in her little kitchen, with a pail of water and her old housecoat on, it brought back the stink of carbolic from that attic. ‘How hard I tried to keep some semblance of order, some sort of self-respect. Oh, and those cat hairs which were impossible to get rid of. Anna, poor child. Allergic to cats, and I could do nothing, but pick them up all the time.’
When she walked past the small French restaurant on Kilburn Highroad, and the smells of cooking wafted from the door, she always thought of the Café Austerlitz, where his chefs prepared her favourite Wiener Schnitzel, and the delightful French waiters in their long white aprons carried huge silver trays of drinks and steaming food on their shoulders between the busy tables.
‘Anna and Jan brought borscht round for dinner yesterday, and some of the babcia rye bread, which I love. I wish she wouldn’t let him cook though. He’s a good man but I worry about his level of hygiene. He spends his days making pots, and then he prepares dinner. Anna brought her special seaweed concoction in a small plastic tub. The poor girl never regained her appetite after Lvov. It was hard for her, finding a husband after everything, and though I would have preferred to see her marry an educated man, someone we knew, Jan is a good man and cares for her. If her father had lived, he would have stopped their marriage. But the old ways seem to have been forgotten.
This first draft will be removed and edited in July.