Adam had, for the occasion, bought a new suit. He had wavered between dandyish black, chalk-striped and double-breasted, and a more traditional two-button jacket in deep navy wool. After some consideration he had chosen the navy. It seemed a more appropriate suit for a man who was newly engaged.
And now he was in the suit and in synagogue, considering the stained-glass windows that painted a dappled light, pale rose and paler sapphire, onto the painted faces in the women’s gallery. There were three of these windows—a red-fl amed golden candelabra for Chanukah; a rainbow in a cobalt sky with white leaded doves swooping beneath its arch; and a third pane in which acid green palm trees framed the two rounded, silvery tablets of the Decalogue, an orange and lemon sunburst above them. Beneath this one sat Rachel Gilbert between her mother and her grandmother, looking intently at the pulpit. Adam, in turn, lowered his eyes from the windows and looked intently at Rachel.
They had been together since they were sixteen—twelve years last summer. For twelve years she had been his girlfriend and now, for a week, she had been his fiancée. And it all felt different. He could never have anticipated the shift, profound and inarticulable, that had taken place when he had seen the ring over which he had agonized winking on Rachel’s slender finger. It was more than possession, more than union, more than love. It was absolute confidence. It was certainty, and a promise of certainty always.
Beside him Jasper Cohen stirred suddenly, shifting his bulk beneath the folds of his white prayer shawl. “Rachel’s cousin’s here.” He nudged Adam in the ribs with a heavy elbow and nodded toward the balcony where the Gilbert women were ranged, coiffed and contemplative, in a mahogany pew. Rachel’s mother, Jaffa Gilbert, sat closest to the rabbi, her cropped and hennaed hair hidden beneath a green hat, red-framed glasses on a red plastic chain resting on the broad velvet shelf of her bosom. Beside her sat Rachel herself, demure in high- necked charcoal silk, looking down at her hands, her face half-obscured by a sheet of tumbling, dark hair. Rachel’s grandmother Ziva Schneider was on her other side, peering at the text in her lap with a grimace of either concentration or skepticism. And then the cousin, Ellie Schneider.
“You didn’t tell me she was back from New York.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“If there’s going to be a half- naked model in shul then I care.” Jasper leaned over Adam, straining to see. “God, she’s tall. You’d need a stepladder to get up there.”
“Too tall for me. You could handle her.” Jasper flipped over a few pages of his prayer book without looking at them. “When are we going to get hold of that porn film she was in?”
“Art house,” Adam hissed. Long inured to Jasper’s indiscretion, he was nonetheless alarmed by it on this occasion. Whatever other rumors might be circulating about her, he did not want the congregation thinking his fiancée’s cousin was a porn star.
Jasper snorted, loudly. Jasper did everything loudly. He was not secure enough to believe that anyone would pay him attention unless he made himself unavoidable.
“Arse house, maybe. I’ve seen clips on YouTube, mate, it’s porn. We’ve got to order it.”
“No it’s not porn or no we shouldn’t order it? Gideon said that they censored half an hour from the final version but you can still get it uncut in the States.”
“Gideon didn’t say that, I said that. Rachel was upset about it.”
“Well, either way, Columbia kicked her out for doing it so there’s got to be something worth seeing.”
“Shh,” said Adam finally, frowning. He was not the only one, he noticed. Whispered conversation among the men in the back pews was in general permissible, encouraged even, if the content was engaging enough for the surrounding eavesdroppers. Football, in particular, was a much beloved topic. Services on the High Holidays were long; it was understood that one had to pass the time. But sustained discussion about porn during Kol Nidre—the beginning of Yom Kippur and a significant, spiritual incantation— was pushing lenience to its limit. The congregation was fasting until sunset tomorrow night; in the meantime they were meant to be atoning. Adam too had seen clips of Ellie Schneider’s acting debut on the Internet; in one she was delivering a breathy and hypnotically rhythmic monologue to the camera, wearing only a stained Columbia University T-shirt while the rest of her was exposed and exploited by a menacing costar. Synagogue was not a place in which he felt comfortable recalling it. Around them the Al Chet prayer continued. For the sin we have committed before you by improper thoughts. For the sin we have committed before you through speech. Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.
Adam rejected the memory with some effort and instead focused on the women’s gallery, hoping to catch Rachel’s attention. She looked down at him and widened her eyes. From her expression he could see that she had a great deal to say and was desperate to say it—her cousin was embarrassing her; she could not believe that Ellie was in shul at all, let alone that the girl had come to Kol Nidre exposing skin from clavicle to navel, wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers—trousers!—that clung and shimmered as if she’d been dipped in crude oil. Adam needed little more than a glance to understand Rachel’s signaling, for the subtle contractions of her lips and the arching of her dark brows were a language long mastered. He knew their vocabulary, and every expression of her lovely face. He did not see the appeal of unpredictable women. Rachel never surprised him, and he considered it a testament to their intimacy that he could predict her reactions with complete confidence. Life, he knew, provided enough of the unexpected. Adam had perspective. A steady and loyal copilot was more important than whatever passing frisson might come with more spontaneous spirits. He smiled at her.
Outside the synagogue Adam waited for Rachel and her family. For late September it was warm, tenacious leaves still green and living on the oaks that stood like looming sentries along the edge of the empty parking lot. Tonight, people were leaving slowly, taking their time to fold prayer shawls, gather coats, greet friends. The fast decreed that there would be no supper; nothing at all, in fact, until the same time tomorrow eve ning when they would all be leaving synagogue once again, but at a more urgent pace. Tonight they would have to be sated with spiritual—or at least social—sustenance. Men and women were now re united after the service and families reassembled, lingering on the steps and drifting out past Adam, calling good-byes to one another into the hazy autumn darkness.
“Hi. Here again.”
The voice was American, low and close behind his shoulder. He turned to find Ellie Schneider winding a long gray scarf around her neck, an unlit cigarette already in one hand.
Until now Adam had had a clear image of Rachel’s cousin in his mind assembled from magazines and the Internet—limbs of satin; champagne blond hair; high cheekbones; and high, pointed breasts. He knew about her other life beyond the page, of course. In reality the girl was a mess. But in photographs her pale skin was as smooth as poured cream, and the bright green eyes, Disney wide, evoked a fresh-faced innocence entirely at odds with the darkness he knew was behind them. And so the darkness was easy to ignore. She was related to his girlfriend and he had taken a proprietary interest.
For years, in his head, he had been establishing a relationship with Rachel’s younger cousin—close, vaguely paternal, faintly flirtatious, but always within the bounds of what was appropriate among old friends. She would confi de in him about her antics, and he would be fond and exasperated and offer her sage, avuncular advice. When he and Rachel married, she would treat their home like her own and would turn to them for refuge, would stay with them (visits during which she might sometimes be glimpsed in her underwear—though in Adam’s defense, this was not usually the focal point of the daydream). They would help her turn around her troubled life. In the pub with Jasper and the boys, he discussed her New York life in a confident, possessive manner. Ellie’s seedy glamour, such a contrast to her conventional cousin, nonetheless gave Rachel a certain edge. No one else had so notorious or so alluring a relative. The girls had been close in childhood and in the solitude of his own thoughts, Adam had appropriated this closeness. He was a friend and confidant. Now, he was forced to confront the reality that she was almost a perfect stranger.
The private image he’d constructed was now superimposed, ill- fitting, onto the girl who stood before him. Her eyes were the same extraordinary green, bright and clear and fixed on him with an expression of idle curiosity, but beneath the thick lashes were rings of gray and plum and lavender, as if she’d slept many nights in old makeup or perhaps simply never slept. Around her, the exposed heads of the community’s departing women were sleek and blow-dried, neat as a pin in order to stand before God’s judgment and each other’s, but Ellie’s hair was in a loose ponytail of overbleached straw blond, and looked unbrushed. Her heavy, pouting lips were chapped. Beneath the gaping collar of her jacket, her gaunt frame seemed as flat-chested as a little boy’s, and when she turned away for a moment, tugging her hair out from under her scarf, her profile revealed a deep shadow beneath a cheekbone that protruded like sharp flint. He hid his surprise and looked instead at the cigarette, hoping to convey to her that lighting it on Yom Kippur— while still in the grounds of the synagogue—would be flagrantly, extravagantly offensive. He did not want Rachel’s parents to be embarrassed further.
“Where again?” he asked. Despite his inventions, he had not expected her to remember him.
“I met you here once, a long time ago. Jaffa brought me with her to pick up Rachel from Israel Tour. I was desperate to come, I’d missed her so much. I was playing on the climbing frame when the buses got in. Just there.” She nodded toward the other end of the car park and his eyes followed hers to the smooth, empty tarmac where years ago had stood a curved rack of low monkey bars and a shallow plastic slide. “I worshiped her and I was just insanely jealous that summer. I just thought— Anyway. You and Rachel got off the coach together, you were carrying her bag. I remember, it was the first time I’d noticed a boy doing that. And then she brought you over and introduced you to Jaffa and Lawrence. So I met you.”
“You were very little then.”
She shrugged. “You all seemed happy. That’s rare enough to make an impression.”
At that moment Rachel’s parents appeared behind her and he lost the chance to reply, though Ellie’s comment had bothered him. He knew a lot of happy people here. He remembered the day that Ellie described as clearly as she did, not for the stern blond ten-year-old who’d shaken his hand with the formality of a politician but for Rachel—he had first met her on that youth group trip to Israel, and as their coach of sunburned teenagers had drawn into the car park he had asked her to be his girlfriend. And he knew it seemed anachronistic, or simply unfashionable, but from the moment she’d smiled back, bashful and willing, he’d known that they would get married. She’d had such certainty, such a placid conviction in the essential goodness of the world and what it promised her. To Adam, raised by a mother who prepared with steely determination for the worst to happen immediately if not sooner, Rachel’s unwavering, no- nonsense optimism had been an elixir. He hadn’t known that he was allowed to expect a calm, happy life until Rachel had shown him that she anticipated nothing else. Her belief was such that there seemed no doubt she would have it; whoever shared that life with her would share that calm and happiness.
He’d loved her since that glorious month of freedom in Israel. The boys had pierced their ears, kneeling on blankets for Arab jewelry traders to shoot ill- advised gold studs through their lobes; Rachel and her friends had sat cross-legged on adjacent rugs while Ethiopian girls worked slim braids into their hair, the plaits then wrapped in bright cotton so that one or two worms of green and red stuck out stiffl y from each ponytail. Their teenage rebellions that summer had been innocent and conventional and brief—the earrings had been removed at Heathrow; there had only ever been kissing and maybe, for a precocious couple, one hand in a bra. And Adam and Rachel had done neither of those things but instead had begun tentatively, in the final few days, to sit together on the bus. They were all happy then—Ellie was right. But they were happy now, too.
“Good, good, you found each other.”
Rachel’s father, Lawrence, clapped Adam amiably on the back and then, overcome by emotion at the thought of the engagement as he had been intermittently all week, gripped him by the shoulders and held him at arm’s length for a loving appraisal. He then enfolded him in a bear hug. Adam and Lawrence were the same height—six foot two— but Adam was broad-shouldered while Lawrence was thin and always slightly stooping, as if to avoid intimidating anyone with this impressively un-Jewish height. Yet still his bear hugs felt enveloping. The warmth of Lawrence’s presence alone was enveloping. Proud to be tall, particularly among Ashkenazi men who tended to halt at around five nine, Adam had nonetheless been content to stop growing where he did. It would have felt wrong to stand taller than Lawrence.
Jaffa, small and wide where her husband was tall and slim, was frowning at Ellie’s cigarette. “Ellie, you can wait for that, no? Show respect.” She had removed the green hat to expose short hair home-dyed a deep wine purple, streaked with lighter aubergine shades where it had begun to fade with washing. It was a color much favored, for reasons Adam had never fathomed, by Israeli women of a certain age.
Ziva Schneider joined them in time to hear this remonstrance. “You think,” she asked her daughter, “that God finds it more respectful if she smokes on Kol Nidre around the corner?”
Jaffa pursed her lips in irritated silence, as her mother knew full well that it was not God’s judgment that concerned her. She wanted to stand exultant in the car park as the crowds flooded from the synagogue, graciously accepting congratulations on the triumph of her daughter’s engagement to Adam. She wanted to soak up naches like a sponge. Such a large assembly would not come together again until Rosh Hashanah the following year—this Yom Kippur she wanted to fi re her news at huge clusters of rival mothers. She adored Adam, God only knew, but there had been other engagements recently, newer couples walking down the aisle; the names of girls younger than her daughter featured on the announcements pages of The Jewish Chronicle. There had been some concern that Adam would leave it “too long.” But now it had happened, and Rachel would not yet be thirty at the wedding if they planned it quickly. Today of all days, Jaffa Gilbert did not want to concern herself with her niece’s rebellion. She turned her considerable back to both Ziva and Ellie and caught Adam’s face between plump hands.
“Ah, Adam, Adam. Rachel says she’ll be just a little while, bubele, she is talking to Brooke Goodman about something. You are breaking the fast with us tomorrow, yes?”
Adam nodded, his face still between Jaffa’s palms through the first few motions. An assortment of rings—heavy silver and bright molded plastic—scratched gently against his cheeks.
“I’ll wait for Rachel, please go ahead.”
“I am going nowhere, I have a cab,” said Ziva, sitting down neatly on a low brick wall. “I am an old lady, I will not walk back and no injunction says I must. I am eighty-eight. I am infirm. Pikuach nefesh. This morning I already call Addison Lee, and Ellie will come with me.”
“Infi rm? Eze meshugas? At lo chola, Ima!”
“Sha shtil,” said Ziva, waving away Jaffa dismissively. At that moment a black Volkswagen drew up at the curb and Ziva hopped lightly to her feet, disappearing into it before Jaffa could intervene. Ellie folded herself into the front seat and the car departed. Adam watched her go with curiosity.
“Eze meshugas?” Jaffa asked again, this time to herself, pouting and drawing her face farther back into her chins. She made no further comment, but the force with which she crossed her arms over her immense, velvet-clad breasts was sufficiently expressive. The engagement cast their family into the spotlight this Yom Kippur—absolute propriety was required beneath its glare. A look of anxiety crossed Lawrence’s mild face as they departed, Jaffa muttering an outraged monologue in rapid Hebrew to her partially comprehending but entirely supportive husband. Lawrence was a straightforward man. He lived, exclusively and devotedly, for his wife and daughter. He would be happy again only when Jaffa’s equilibrium was restored.
Adam sat down on the wall that Ziva and Ellie had just vacated, nodding greetings to the many familiar faces among the congregation. Mostly, these were the occupants of the crowded outer stratum of his world, people with whom his life had intersected at an earlier stage and who now resurfaced often enough for him to know a little of their lives, though he did nothing to seek out either the information or the subjects of it. Such was the way in Jewish North West London—no one ever disappeared. Instead his contemporaries circled in its gravity, returning from college to rent houses in Hendon, or buy first flats in West Hampstead, held in orbit by the hot sun of the community. And during brief periods away—a year seconded to a law firm in Shanghai, for example, or a residency at an Edinburgh hospital—their parents were still in place and in contact, so that everyone’s coordinates remained logged. It had only been at university that he had understood just how unusual it was that he could list the whereabouts of all of his nursery school classmates. He could say if they were married or fat or employed by the civil service. He knew, for the most part, their sexual histories. Unless from a very small village, his fellow students found it incomprehensible. Even in a small village, in fact, when people leave there is little expectation of return.
But tonight, on the eve of Yom Kippur, everyone was here—Hayley Pearl, who was Jasper’s girlfriend’s sister; Dan Kirsch, who had been in Adam and Jasper’s scout pack and had twice been on tennis camp with Rachel; Ari Rosenbaum, whose brother had married a girl who’d gone out with Dan Kirsch. Adam smiled at each of them as they passed, but his eyes always returned to the steps of the synagogue, waiting to catch sight of his future wife.
She must.” “What, do it on purpose?”
“Yes, of course. You can’t go to shul with your tits hanging out and not realize.”
“Adam, that’s my cousin! And please don’t use that word.” Rachel swatted at his forearm and then immediately patted it, somewhat anxiously, as if to undo the simulated violence of her rebuke. It made her unhappy to disapprove of him. “Maybe in New York people are just less conservative at synagogue.”
“It’s New York, Pumpkin, it’s not the moon. How different can it be?”
“Well then, I don’t know. Everything about her’s diff erent from me.”
“That’s true,” Adam said. “Thank goodness.”
They were parking outside Ziva’s house in Islington; as he turned to reverse into a space, he squeezed her shoulder fondly. She was right, of course. Absolutely everything about her was different from her younger cousin. Ellie seemed restless and too worldly. Rachel liked what she knew and was content for everything to remain precisely as it was, though it would be unfair to say she was ignorant. That there were worlds and lives beyond theirs had not escaped her, but she was certain enough of her own place to be resolutely incurious about the knowledge that those worlds might offer. At sixteen, Adam had been able to see in her eyes the home she would make for him at fifty. Rachel knew who she was.
Their exteriors were equally at odds. Rachel was polished and pink with health, her dark hair sleek, her nails neat and Chanel-varnished. Ellie had looked slightly worn, he’d thought outside the synagogue, though she was only twenty-two; he’d noted the bitten nails and the angry red skin around them, had seen the shadows beneath her eyes. It had been months since Ellie had officially been expelled from the creative writing program at Columbia University—if she had sleepless nights, it wasn’t because she was studying.
An eve ning rain had begun, light and silent, insistent enough to pixelate the world through the windscreen until it blurred. Adam jumped out to open Rachel’s door, holding his jacket aloft to shield her hair from the drizzle. Since the engagement, he had found himself taking a particular pride in these small gestures of gallantry. She looked different to him now, no longer simply his girlfriend but the woman to whom he had promised his future. He felt the weight of his responsibilities toward her, long unspoken, now confirmed. A twenty-eightyear-old matriarch to future generations of Newmans.
He studied her now as she picked her way up the dark path to Ziva’s front door, his jacket covering her head and held tightly beneath her chin like a wimple. Entirely unlike Ellie’s long bones and sharp angles, Rachel was rounded and soft and had the same pneumatic breasts as her mother, cartoonishly large on her small frame and always strapped and scaffolded as high as she could cantilever them. These breasts had afforded her hours of backache and embarrassment, and aff orded Adam just as many hours of pleasure. It was true that unless she was careful to emphasize her waist she could look a little dumpy. Loose clothes gave the misleading impression that her body thrust out equally far in all directions, a barrel all the way down to her bottom. But naked, they were magnificent. They had ripened into their current proportions only in the years after he and Rachel had got together—he could never have imagined that the size-eight floral bikini he’d admired from afar in Israel could have held such potential. But by the time she eventually undressed for him they were there, the first breasts he had ever touched. Even now he could imagine no better. Ellie looked like a boy when compared to her cousin. As he rang the doorbell he wondered, briefly, what getup she’d be in this eve ning.
Ziva was alone, she informed them, but she had just made coff ee and they were to help themselves to a little something. Many decades in London had not diminished a robust Austrian accent, and a faintly foreign grammar often shaped her speech despite a vocabulary—in what was her fifth language after German, Yiddish, French and Hebrew— wider than that of most native English speakers. Austria to Mandate Palestine; Israel to London—from Ziva to Jaffa to Rachel encompassed three generations, three accents, one typical Jewish family. When Adam and Rachel had children, they would be the first born in the same country as their mother for nearly a century.
It had taken several visits before Adam had noticed that there were provisions in every room. As usual Ziva had set out a bowl of whipped cream on the coff ee tray, though Adam had never seen anyone make use of it. Cut-crystal bowls on paper doilies held sugared almonds; a long boat of dark coconut wood set permanent sail on the coff ee table and was heaped with small, dry chocolates sealed in individual sachets, of the type that came alongside airplane coffees. In a jar painted with green pears lived jellied fruits. Raisins gathered dust in a Waterford sugar bowl next to the telephone, and on the dining room sideboard, beside a tub of pistachios, were decanters filled with caustic plum and cherry brandies. Adam remembered the afternoon when Rachel had told him that her grandmother never fasted on Yom Kippur; instead it was the one day of the year when she baked, badly but doggedly, until stars pricked the sky and the fast was over. He remembered his sixteen- year-old outrage at the disrespect of it all—his sense of pious disapproval. And he remembered his shame years later when Ziva herself had explained with quiet dignity, “I have fasted enough days in my lifetime.”
They now assembled in her sitting room, Ziva and Rachel perched on an enormous reproduction Chippendale sofa, mahogany- footed and upholstered in stripes of wine and mustard; Adam sat across from them on a black leather Bauhaus daybed entirely at odds with all the rest of the furniture, whose chrome legs had worn small tracks in the Persian rug beneath it.
Ziva reached for her saucer with difficulty but as Adam sat forward to hand it to her she dismissed him with a frown, exhaling through her teeth and trying again. Her granddaughters knew by now that Ziva would accept assistance only if she had first issued an order—unsolicited offers were grave insults and met with disdain. It was nothing, just a little stiffness when she sat still too long, she insisted, and the cure was to move. Adam nonetheless found it extremely unsettling when he was not allowed to help.
“You think when I am alone I never pick up a teacup? I only sit?” Saucer in hand, she sat back in the deep sofa with satisfaction and looked from one to the other. “So. Now you will tell me how you have been.”
“It’s so lovely, Granny,” Rachel said. “Everyone’s been so lovely since we got engaged. All these people we barely know keep congratulating us, everyone seems to know already. We went to that party at Ethan and Brooke Goodman’s house the other night and there must have been about a hundred people there, and it felt like every single one of them asked us over for dinner.”
“It is a pleasure to invite a new couple. There are not so many good things in life that people want to miss them. Ach, I forgot. Will you get the Sacher torte? It’s on the table in the kitchen. And plates.”
“Oh, no thank you.” Rachel placed a protective hand over her stomach.
“Shh. Not for you, for Adam. You, I know, will probably not eat again until the wedding. But I would also like a little something.”
Rachel blushed at this, prompting Adam to realize, as he retrieved
the torte, how many slices of cake he had seen her refuse since their engagement. He was amused by the uncharacteristic development and intrigued to know the outcome; the many, many diets that she’d begun over the years had never yet resulted in her losing any weight. But he sensed that this one might be diff erent.
“And the wedding will be when?” Ziva asked.
“We were thinking of next August,” Rachel said, looking across at Adam as she said this because, she knew, he had not been thinking of next August—he wanted to get married this December. But Rachel and her mother insisted that it took many months to plan a wedding, and it was hard to care about anything as much as Jaffa Gilbert, perpetually fervent, seemed to care about everything. Even without Jaff a’s interference he would have capitulated to Rachel, he suspected, for these days he could refuse her nothing. She had never seemed so sweetly beautiful to him, and there was a new shyness in her dark eyes that stopped his heart. He looked up sometimes to see her regarding him with a mixture of strange fear and hope, and despite their many years together, there was a freshness between them that came, he felt, from the sheer immensity of the vista on which they looked out together. Compared to the long lives that lay ahead, they had barely met. He felt very young at the thought of it yet this, he knew, was the true start of adult life. He smiled back, despite her rebellion.
“I will by August be dead. Danke,” she added, accepting a plate from Adam.
“But it could be true. Why so long?”
“Hear, hear,” said Adam, gratified to have found an ally.
“Weddings take ages. We need to find a hotel, I need a dress, there’s fl owers . . .”
“So we’ll get married on a weeknight at synagogue and Ziva will throw the reception for us here, won’t you?”
“I will do no such thing, because my daughter will not allow it. You will have a whole hotel geschichte. But why not sooner?”
“The weather will be bad before then.”
“But I believe most hotels these days have roofs. A miraculous invention.”
“It’s going to be in August, Granny, and God willing you’ll be there.”
“Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.”
Rachel, who chattered to God almost as often as to her mother, was opening her mouth to protest when Ziva continued, “Anyway, Rachele, tell me about the Goodmans’ party.”
“You said,” said Rachel, still faintly petulant, “that you didn’t want to go to it because it would be ‘a production.’ ”
“Very true, I did, and it was no doubt a production. But it is a production about which, if you will oblige me, I would like very much to hear. He is a nice man, Ethan Goodman, he has in private done very considerate things. I do not know why it is that he persists in throwing for every Tom, Dick, and Harry these parties.”
“They’re for charity,” Adam off ered.
“They are for social advantage and showing off,” countered Ziva.
The Goodmans were something of an enigma. No one seemed to know how Ethan Goodman had made his money; even those who were also in finance were unable to account for it with any satisfaction. He and his wife, Brooke, had appeared from California rich and had since gotten richer after starting several private investment funds in Mayfair. Most of North West London took no interest in the mechanics of their apparently unstoppable acquisition—of greater relevance was their immediate and unreserved involvement in the synagogue community, that they had been elected to boards and councils, had opened the ballroom of their Bishop’s Avenue mansion to any organization or event that needed a large venue, and were almost professionally philanthropic. The Goodman Charitable Foundation was in the small print of every charity letterhead that Adam had ever seen. Brooke Goodman, a gym-honed blonde in her late forties whom Adam’s mother admired as much for her triceps as for her generosity, once wrote a personal check for a million pounds when the appeal video at a rather low-key fund- raising supper for Barnardo’s made her cry, and Ethan had been seen paying two hundred thousand pounds in an Alzheimer’s charity auction for a painting that he himself had donated. The Goodman ABS Fund was reported to be that rare thing—a safe, low-risk portfolio that had delivered consistently high returns. Ethan Goodman now managed the assets of a few close friends, and they had been, it was reported, greatly rewarded for their trust in him.
The doorbell rang. Adam rose to answer it.
“That is Ashish— will you give him please a pound?” Ziva called after him. Rachel’s grandmother could not cook. Instead she took two buses to Golders Green every afternoon to eat lunch at the Jewish Care survivors’ group and, on the rare occasions when Jaffa hadn’t prepared and delivered a roast chicken and a side of salmon for the week, subsisted entirely on takeaways.
Fishing out change from his pocket Adam opened the door, expecting to receive a warm plastic bag of foil-wrapped naan bread. Instead Ellie Schneider’s hand was in his extended one and she was stepping over the threshold in vertiginous, thigh-high boots that she immediately began to remove using Adam for balance. A minute black dog scampered in after her and emitted a rasping yap.
A car beeped twice and she released him, turning to wave. Over her shoulder Adam saw a very old Morris Minor pulling away from the curb, patches of rust visible on its lurid orange paintwork. The convertible roof was down, exposing the back of a head, bright Scandinavian blond, belonging to the man driving. The hand raised in farewell wore a thick gold wedding ring.
Adam watched the car disappearing around the corner and turned back to Ellie who said only, “A friend. We’ve been shopping.”
Nothing followed this. Instead she sat down at the bottom of the stairs and began to massage her toes, exhaling with pleasure. The dog,
two bulging eyes deep-set in a mop of long, silky fur, began to yelp and wheel around in circles. Its jerking hysteria reminded Adam of the whining mechanical hare at the dog races.
“Rocky, Rocky! Shh, baby. God, I shouldn’t have worn those.”
“For many reasons,” Adam agreed, looking in disapproval at the long columns of black suede on the floor that had clung to her legs until moments ago. Thigh-high, all that set them apart from the classic arsenal of a streetwalker were their heels—playful stacks of knotted, polished driftwood. But as soon as the words were out he regretted them. He was six years older than she after all, not sixty, and what she wore wasn’t his business. It wasn’t as if it were Rachel.
She looked up at him and said nothing, her eyes huge and expressionless, a clear, pale green. She was hunched over, one foot in each hand. Without the boots to distract him, he noticed that the sweater she was wearing was enormous and shapeless, faded black cashmere that hid her body, and her thumbs protruded from symmetrical holes in the woolen cuffs. Her socks were now visible and were blue and ankle-high, and printed with smiling white rabbits. He felt he’d been unkind.
“So, we’re going to be cousins,” he said, softening his voice.
“Yup. Mazel. Welcome to the family.”
“Although you’re more a part of it than I am, probably. I think my aunt has been planning this wedding for about five years.”
Adam smiled. “More like ten, I reckon.”
Ellie pulled her sweater down over her bare knees and drew her hands back into her sleeves. Rocky leapt up into the hammock of sweater across her lap. “Weren’t you worried about settling down so young?”
“No, I was just pleased to have it sorted.” And then realizing this sounded unromantic he added, “Rach is perfect.”
“Everything here’s perfect,” said Ellie, making it sound like an affl iction.
“Are you not happy to be back?”
“Just . . . culture shock. I’d forgotten what it was like here. It’s a little overwhelming. Everyone’s happy and the houses are beautiful and everyone’s friends with everyone, and you grow up sweet and pretty and contented and settle down with a sweet, pretty boy.” She looked at Adam. “Perfect.”
“Nothing can really be perfect, there’s no such thing.”
“No? Except Rachel, you just said.”
He was annoyed that she’d made him contradict himself. “Settling and settling down aren’t the same thing.”
“I said ‘settling down.’ You said ‘settling.’ ”
“Okay,” he said, stiffly. The intimation of compromise touched a nerve, as it was a fear of precisely this that had made him vacillate for so long over his proposal. Compromise was right, of course. But they had met so young, and in weaker moments he had worried that his lack of experience meant he ought not to trust his own judgment. Not until the end of university had he begun to realize that he’d grown up to be an attractive man; by then it had been too late for him to deploy this advantage to any real purpose. There was no answer; it had taken effort to set aside such nonsense until the certainty of their engagement had rendered speculation pointless.
“Okay.” She rested her chin gently on the dog’s silky head but did not look away from Adam. Antagonism hung between them. Eventually she said, “God, I’m tired.”
He relented. “Shopping will do that to you. Going with Rachel is like an extreme sport, I’m always tempted to pack a Kendal Mint Cake.”
“Sweet that you go with her.” She closed her eyes.
“Are you all right?” She looked very pale; he crouched down to face her.
She nodded. She opened her eyes and he stood up again hurriedly, feeling awkward.
“Just tired. I’m not a very accomplished sleeper.”
“Always or recently?”
She shrugged. “Not sure. Just kind of a thing of mine. I can’t remember the last time I slept a whole night, or easily. Sometimes it feels like never, but I suppose that’s not possible.”
“No. But the feeling of never must be horrible. Exhausting. Or isolating.” He stopped. He wasn’t quite sure what else to say.
“Both exhausting and isolating, in fact. Exactly.”
“So now do you not sleep at all?” he asked, curious. “What do you do all night?”
“Interesting question. What would you do?”
“I can’t imagine,” he said, and then immediately wondered why he’d said the very opposite of what he’d been thinking.
“Can’t you? How very unimaginative you must be.” Her tone had changed; he sensed that he’d disappointed her.
“Come in and see Rachel. Your grandmother has ordered Indian, it should be here soon.”
“I’ll come in a second, I need to get Rocky’s eyedrops.”
She stood up with the tiny animal tucked under her arm like a handbag. Looming above him on the stairs she no longer looked vulnerable and had become again the remote model he’d seen across the synagogue—too much exposed skin and clever, knowing eyes. Her sweater had slipped down over her shoulder, and he was acutely aware that her bare legs were at the level of his gaze, peach-soft flesh seamed lightly with long muscle. For one brief moment he felt an urge, vivid and intense, to reach out and slide a hand between her thighs.
He stepped back and turned away embarrassed, and suddenly infuriated. He had thought himself immune to what was, after all, only a cheap casing concealing an even cheaper mechanism, and was troubled to find that he was not. He did not respect her, he told himself, and that ought to render her unattractive.
But however easily he might dismiss Ellie in the abstract, it was different now that she was nearby. His body had responded to the sight of hers, and what he thought of her ceased to matter because he had ceased, in her presence, to think. He had never before experienced anything quite like it. It felt pathetic to watch her walk up the stairs. Compromising.
She turned. “Wait, Adam, I want us to talk. Will you come back soon?”
“Of course,” he said, wondering if he meant it. He could hear Ziva calling to them and he opened the door to the sitting room, longing for the reassurance of Rachel’s hand in his.
“Is it really true that Rachel’s cousin was actually in a porn film? Adam, it’s mortifying.”
Adam was driving his mother, Michelle, home from an early dinner at a sushi restaurant in Chalk Farm. “It was art house,” he corrected her. “Don’t think about it, everyone will forget it soon, I’m sure.” Michelle had met him with the news that two more boys from the Jewish Free School had been beaten up on their way home—one had a fractured cheekbone, the other was still in hospital but would make a full recovery. Over supper they had discussed other recent hate crimes and the rabbi’s wife’s prolapsed uterus, and Adam had been drawn into another lengthy analysis of why his sister, Olivia, might still be unmarried. Why, Michelle had interrogated, as if Adam might be personally responsible for his sister’s perpetual spinsterhood, had she not yet settled down? Why did she feel no urgency? Why, his mother had demanded as he looked down uncomfortably at his salmon roe, why did Olivia not feel the pressing diminution of her reproductive capacity? Adam welcomed this return to lighter topics, but he did not feel like discussing Ellie Schneider with his mother. Or anyone.
“Well, I don’t know what the difference is. It must have been obscene to get her in such trouble.”
“She is in trouble,” said Adam, changing the radio station before his mother could object to the loud U2 that had started with the engine. “She’s troubled.”
“Of course I know she’s troubled; it’s terrible what she went through and such a little girl. I’m not sure there’s any recovering from that, you know.” Michelle shook her head. “Her mother was a lovely woman. Very beautiful and very, very funny. She was famously funny. It was all so awful. But Ellie can’t be allowed to throw her life away because of it. I mean, goodness. What’s being done for her?”
“I don’t know. She’s come home, which is a good sign. There’s been this older man around for years. Rachel never knew much about him but thinks he’s married, but she’s pretty sure it’s over now. So I guess things are improving.”
“Yes, Jaffa seemed reasonably positive about this visit. I hadn’t heard about the married man. Goodness me, that really is appalling.”
“Hang on,” Adam said, feeling a sudden irritation. “She’s not married. If she’s sleeping with a married man then surely he’s the one at fault. He’s the one with a wife.”
“Oh, but Adam, I’m sure she’s terribly promiscuous that girl, and she looks predatory, don’t you think?”
“Promiscuous doesn’t mean the same thing as predatory.”
“Well, it doesn’t mean anything good.”
“Surely Ellie can sleep with whomever she likes; she doesn’t owe anything to anyone. It’s not our business.”
He did not normally expend energy contradicting his quietly formidable mother, but this had come out before he could stop himself, and with unexpected vehemence. Michelle was looking at him in surprise. Adam remained dimly aware of the hypocrisy lurking in the corner he defended—Rachel’s innocence, and that blank sexual canvas on which he alone had daubed, was a tremendous part of her appeal. Had she half of the sexual history he’d imagined for her cousin, he wouldn’t have even glanced in her direction. Still, he found himself going on. “I mean, aren’t women nowadays meant to be emancipated? If she wants to shag around—”
“Sorry. Never mind. I’m sure she doesn’t. And in any case, I’m sure Jaffa agrees with you, if that’s any consolation.”
“I’m quite sure Jaffa’s beside herself,” said Michelle firmly, flipping down the sun visor to check her neat bob of caramel hair in its mirror. Husbands were a sensitive topic for Michelle, who had been without one for twenty years but could say with pride that she had never once touched anyone else’s.
At sixty she still had the light step and ramrod posture of a dancer, a compliment she had received so often that she now took it for granted and had almost come to believe in her own childhood history at the barre, though in reality she had none. Instead she ran many miles in the gym (though never on Hampstead Heath so as not to be seen in undignified Lycra) and ate very little.
This discipline extended to all areas. Raised by Michelle, Adam could fold hospital corners into a bedsheet like an army man and had been drilled since childhood to be ten minutes early for everything. Almost always in a uniform of freshly dry-cleaned gray cashmere tracksuit and Scotchgarded new black Uggs, Michelle appeared flawlessly, resolutely self-contained. If she were not his mother Adam would have found her terrifying. As she was, he merely found her intimidating. The noisy chaos of Rachel’s family had been foreign and wondrous to him, having known only Michelle’s emotional and domestic tidiness.
They were approaching Michelle’s house on Temple Fortune Lane but she gestured for him to keep driving. “You can drop me at the corner of Hoop Lane.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, absolutely. It’s not yet seven. I’m going to pop in and visit your father.”
In the Newman house hold, the responsibility for upholding Jewish tradition had always been shouldered by Adam’s father, Jacob, who had wanted nothing more than to transmit to his children a love of Jewish culture. When he’d gone, therefore, Michelle had had no choice but to pick up the slack, furious with him for his abandonment and channeling this fury into perfect Purim costumes and elaborate succah decoration. The cancer might not have been his fault, but for years his dying had been awfully hard to forgive. Olivia had been twelve, Adam eight; there would be bat and bar mitzvahs looming and huge, aching family gaps to fill. But if she was going to do it, as with everything, she would do it properly. The children would not miss a festival.
Jacob had guided her so clearly, shown her by such proud example his stance on culture, on practice, on tradition, and she knew how he would want her to raise his children—as active citizens in a congregation, individuals with a sense of family, of community responsibility and firm, proud Jewish identities. But for all that, Michelle reflected, he had talked to her so little about God. It is not a contradiction to be a Jew and an atheist—on the God question, Judaism might well be the broadest church of them all. There are rabbis (admittedly a rather small minority) who do not believe in Him. You can detest organized religion and still consider yourself Jewish. There is a place for you in a synagogue if you don’t believe, if you do believe, if you’re not sure, or if you only believe during brief moments of turbulence on airplanes or in the final five minutes of a football match in which only divine intervention might save you. But Jacob had never really told her where he stood. What would he think of her talking to him now that he was gone, for example? What had he thought of heaven, or of an afterlife? She didn’t know and it was disorienting, for he had been her navigator in everything. At his grave now, it hurt most of all that she did not know whether Jacob, in whatever form his spirit might or might not currently take, would think her silly for perching at the side of Mr. and Mrs. Lefkowicz to tell him all about recent events on the synagogue charity committee. Or had he believed that it ended in death? That silence and eternal sleep came next, and she was merely confiding in the ether? So many questions she had not had time to ask him and this the most important one of all. And so she was left to keep a Jewish home, to visit the silent Hoop Lane Jewish Cemetery, and to wonder.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Hyperion
- ISBN-10: 1401341896
- ISBN-13: 9781401341893