Saturday 27 January 2024

Saturday Sample: Mosaic, Dancing to Lili Marlene,champagne,


Holidays. Memories for grey and rainy days when even the birds have forgotten how to sing. Well, good memories anyway, toss out the bad with the rest of the rubbish. Then there’s a different kind, neither good nor bad, but rare and disquieting, bequeathed by a holiday not even the widest leap of imagination can conjure. 

It began with the sort of heat that made blinking a challenge, let alone moving limbs. Thank God the hotel was air-conditioned. Not that it wearied Maisie. Three and a half, and finally released from the confines of aircraft and taxi, she jigged joyously to piped music in the cool foyer. Her comical dance was always the same, bobbing up and down and side to side like a marionette, then spinning in circles, one foot thumping the ground in a fair interpretation of a Red Indian war dance. 

Little actress she is, she played to the crowd – a lively party of Japanese tourists who stood chuckling at her. Nobody would have guessed she’d been up since four-thirty that morning. 

Toby nudged me. “Check out the old guy, Dad.” 

I followed his bemused gaze to a silver-haired man also watching our little star. The strangest sensation washed over me at the enchantment radiating from his lined face. Yet there was nothing to alarm, no perversion in that still, fierce gaze. He simply looked as if he’d never set eyes on anything so magical. 

But it left me wondering, what was all that about? Maisie was cute as hell dancing there in her blue polka dot sundress and raspberry crocs, but she was no Swan Lake. 

The minutiae of checking in called then, and by the time we were through, there was no sign of the elderly man. 

Unpacking in our room later, conversation turned to him and it turned out he’d had the same affect on my wife. “I suppose, you know, some might find it sinister, but it wasn’t like that, was it? He just looked so… oh, sad and elated all at once. Perhaps we’ll see him around and he might explain. Tell you something though, no-one could look that moved without deep reason. I reckon Maisie reminds him of someone. That’ll be it.” 

Jean’s intuition seldom let her down. 

We didn’t have long to wait before seeing the oldtimer again. Opting for a few hours at the children’s pool the next morning, we found some free sun beds and were soon taking turns with Maisie the human dynamo on a cascading water slide. It was as I was towelling off after handing over to Tess, our friend passed by with a smile and a nod, before lowering his stooped frame onto the wall close by. It was no surprise when his washed-out blue eyes fixed on Maisie. 

Now our granddaughter’s not what you’d call conventionally pretty, but with Mum Tess’ wide, tilted eyes and pert nose, Dad’s strong chin and fresh colouring, all topped off with silky white-blonde locks, it’s a striking combination that draws smiles and attention wherever she goes. Despite this, her watcher’s absorption was still something else. 

As if aware of my scrutiny, his unguarded gaze shifted to me. It seemed ridiculous to look away, so I gave him a small salute and wandered over to where he sat in a wedge of shade beneath a faded angelica tree. 

“Lovely child,” he stated without guile, pushing steel-rimmed spectacles up his long, narrow nose. 

Trying to place his thick accent, I nodded proudly. “My granddaughter. Part angel, part savage.” 

He smiled, deep lines spreading like sunrays at the corners of each eye. His gaze grew rapt again as the subject of our conversation came splashing back, squealing at Toby chasing her. “Come and say hello, honey,” I called. 

Bouncing over, she let the old man shake her hand, peering up into his kind open face inquisitively, but becoming atypically subdued. Perhaps even at that tender age, children can sense another’s emotion, notice tears welling in eyes. 

Her new acquaintance seemed reluctant to let go of her hand, and even more oddly, she let it lay there. It was peculiar to witness this hushed state, something normally only surrendered to in sleep. I felt tears prick behind my own eyes then. There was such trusting innocence in her gaze, it made you feel all the good in the world. To think of life eroding it broke your heart, and I think I might have sold my soul that moment to keep her that way.

 “My name’s Jacob,” the old man was saying gently. “Do you have a name too?” 

“Maisie. And that’s my Bampy Ken.” The spell was broken as Maisie giggled up at me, smiles dancing across her cheeky features once more. 

Jean called then, “Come on, you two, we’re off to explore.” 

I turned to see her gathering our paraphernalia together with her quick, economical movements. At the same time, I clearly heard Maisie say, “Writing.” It seemed a peculiar thing for her to say to the old man, but when Tess came over, sweeping us both off, it slipped from my mind. There was no hint of the shocking intensity with which it would return. 

The following evening was sticky. Dining early because of Maisie’s bedtime, we found the garden restaurant cooled by a keen, maquis-scented breeze. To the horizon, the waters of the bay burned fiery from setting sun the colour of a ripe apricot. An ancient boat chugged lazily through the gentle waves to anchor. To distant sounds of rigging clanging against yacht masts, we settled beneath bleached parasols, the feel-good factor of a holiday wellbegun wrapping around us all. 

Whilst we ordered dinner, Maisie played with her current imaginary friend. This one was her dancing friend. She’d had these harmless substitutes for some time now, whenever the real article wasn’t available. Their one-sided conversation was inventively enjoyed, amidst much spinning and dancing, or playing hide and seek. 

Jean spotted Jacob, laboriously climbing the steps from the lower level where the children’s pool still rang with shrieks and laughter. “Let’s ask him to join us. He looks so lonely.” 

We’re a friendly, easy-going bunch and no-one objected. But no, Jacob declined breathlessly, though clearly touched at our offer; he’d dined midday, so perhaps another time. 

His eyes flitted constantly to Maisie as he spoke and when, bless her, she ran over and slipped her hand into his, clearly having taken a shine to him, he visibly struggled to control his emotions. 

 “There’s a huge story there.” Tess shook her dark cropped head, hazel eyes sad at Jacob’s narrow form disappearing into the hotel. 

Over the next thankfully cooler days, we explored the old town, swam, snacked in harbourside cafes, dined sometimes in the hotel, sometimes in the nearest village or town. Sociable Maisie made friends, and when they weren’t around, there was always the one from makebelieve land. 

From the first evening, the sound of a harmonica softly playing from someone’s veranda had caught our ears. Of course it set our little dancer off, swaying to lonesome, wistful tunes, jigging to foot-tapping ones. 

The verandas were set in a gentle curve that concealed occupants from neighbours. Still, it didn’t take Maisie long to discover who the musician was. Darting to where the notes tripped from, they died away as she stopped to stare. A hand stretched out to hers and I tensed, ready to chase over. One never knew. Then Jacob’s head emerged and he smiled and waved before retreating out of sight once more. A few more tunes, then his recital ended with Lili Marlene, to gentle applause from unseen hands on other balconies. 

We became accustomed to this routine as our holiday progressed, Jacob always saving the poignant, famous tune until last. 

“What is that?” Toby asked. 

“Lili Marlene. It’s an old German war tune. Kind of remarkable, because it was loved by all sides. Transcended all the hatred.” 

Sat beside Jean on the beach just across from our hotel the next day, Maisie pointed at spidery thread veins mapping a patch of her Nan’s plump leg. Jean’s not selfconscious over such crumbling round the edges and gave a fat chuckle when Maisie logically announced, “Writing, Nana.” 

So all’s explained, I thought – that was why Maisie had said it to Jacob. Just veins. I wish I could have been right. 

Over the next few days, we bumped into the old man often, but it wasn’t until the end of our first week I really got talking to him. Breakfasting outside after managing to grab the last vacant table, we saw him appear with his slow and heavy step that always reminded me of an invalid’s. He stopped, looking around as if for an unoccupied seat. 

From the first, once Maisie had scoffed her food down, the little madam had kicked off to go to the play park close by, so in the absence of a naughty step to deflect a meltdown tantrum, we took turns to take her. Toby was on duty this time, and I waved Jacob over, indicating the empty seat. “Park yourself there, my friend.” 

His deep brow creased briefly, before smoothing out in a smile of understanding. “Ah, the colloquial, yes?” 

“Hopeless, us Brits. Yeah, please join us for breakfast.” 

Hesitantly, he did, worrying about imposing. 

Mere seconds passed before he wondered in his softly-spoken way, “Where is the child?” 

While I finished my breakfast, Jean and Tess chatted to Jacob, me observing his slow smile and the way he paused thoughtfully, head slightly inclined, before answering any question. 

When the girls excused themselves to join Maisie and Toby, it left us two men alone. You know how strangers meet and it’s as if there’s a natural conduit flowing from one to the other? That was how it was with Jacob and me. 

As if we’d fallen mentally into step with each other, he instinctively solved what had been puzzling me, as if reading my mind, “Maisie is so like my beloved daughter at that age. Here. You will see how I mean and perhaps forgive my looking since I first see her.” 

Reaching into his shirt pocket, he produced a small wallet, opening it to reveal two photos. “My wife and daughter.” 

I saw a handsome woman and a young girl. Although the girl was older than Maisie, the likeness was so uncanny it made me gasp. Jean had been spot on. 

Jacob nodded as if to say, now you understand, before continuing, “And as well in her ways. All exuberance. All promise of tomorrows. When she last came here with my wife and myself, it was her birthday. It was the best time, the last of the happy times, you understand. Promise me we shall spend my birthday always here, Papa, she said. Her name was Lilian. Lili she was always to us. That is why I play Lili Marlene. For her.” 

Some people talk endlessly and never say a word. Jacob spoke potently in so few, “I lost my wife and Lili in the war.” He sighed, a bone-weary sound, removing his spectacles and drawing a hand over his eyes as if to wipe an image away. “Since, I come here each year to remember my promise for Lili’s birthday. It is tomorrow.” 

The pause seemed unstoppable. I suppose if I’d been a woman, I might have lain a compassionate hand upon his veined one lying still on the table, but men refrain from such things. My sympathy sounded poor and hollow, “I am so sorry.” 

Jacob rallied, making an obvious effort to dispel the air of melancholy that had fallen over us like ashy-grey twilight. “And what of you? Will famous English reserve mind me asking a little?” 

His gentle civility, but with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, made me grin. “I don’t mind if you ask a lot. We come from North Wales. You might know it?” 

“I do. Very beautiful, is it not? Similar to my own Austrian mountains, I think.” 

“I’m a teacher. History,” I volunteered, hoping for some return. I wasn’t denied, though it took me to a desolate place. 

“Ah, much patience,” he chuckled. “I salute you. Myself, these old bones can no longer work, but once I possessed my own shop. It was successful. I had an eye for beauty of the unusual kind, and grand houses patronised my furnishings… ah, terrible, listen to me. You will think I am puffing out my chest.” 

 I heard his words, but they seemed to come from far off, because a wintry chill was numbing my mind. There was a gusty warm wind that day, catching at hats, snatching at napkins, and as Jacob raised an arm to smooth back his thin wisping hair, it blew one loose sleeve of his shirt up his skinny arm. 

With acute suddenness I found myself in visions of the past, moving through Jacob’s graceful emporium, past sumptuous rolls of jewel-coloured silks and brocades, only to watch the colours fade, the materials lose their sheen and grow shabby. From the street came the sound of marching jackboots. And on the window, like a wasted prayer, was a Star of David. 

Jacob lowered his arm and his forearm became concealed once more, but imprinted on my mind, as indelibly as on the old man’s sagging skin, was the blurred line of a serial number. And Maisie’s voice came back hauntingly, “Writing.” 

The thought arrived like an unwelcome visitor before I could lock it out – of Jacob’s wife and daughter, their arms marked with the same abomination. 

I’d like to have had more time to get to know the man, but on that day that had lost its lustre, time was running out. 

We took a boat trip to a neighbouring island the next day, not arriving back until early evening. Maisie had fallen into a pattern of scampering up to Jacob’s veranda as soon as he began playing his harmonica, and there she 15 would tirelessly dance until the poignant notes of Lili Marlene faded away. 

Tonight, however, the sequence was broken, for the old tune came first. Getting dressed for supper, I peered at the imp through vertical blinds on our half–open patio doors. Her dancing never failed to lift my spirits, which had been subdued since yesterday. 

There she was dancing with her pretend friend, turning round and round, both arms held out, as if holding another’s hands. My own hands fell away from the belt buckle I was fastening, and I sucked in a sharp breath, before I realised it must be a trick of light on glass, that the taller version of Maisie dancing with her was simply a mirror image projected by the sun. 

Grinning and shaking my head hopelessly at myself, I finished dressing, listening to the dying notes of Lili Marlene. Jean, smelling of aftersun, drew the blinds back and slid the doors fully open. “Will you listen to that child now. Standing up by Jacob’s veranda and singing ‘Happy Birthday’, she is. Whatever next. You don’t suppose it’s Jacob’s birthday, do you? We must ask.”

 I turned away, swallowing a sudden lump in my throat, knowing Maisie must have been singing it with Jacob for Lilian. I’d kept his story to myself. It wasn’t one for a carefree family holiday. I’d tell Jean when we got home. 

Passing Jacob’s room later as we were all going out, his door stood ajar. Knowing no-one would object, I said, “Hang on and I’ll see if he’d like to eat with us.” 

I tapped on the door and it swung inwards to reveal the wiry, olive-skinned hotel manager and two young raven-haired maids. He seemed to be supervising them and all were grim-faced. Wardrobe doors and drawers 16 hung open. A single bed lay strewn with items of clothing and a small suitcase. 

The staff all turned toward us and the manager put on his efficient face. “Ah, good evening. The Curtis family. One moment, please.” He crisply instructed the maids in their own language before joining us in the corridor. “You were acquainted with the occupant?” His past tense gravity made something leaden settle in the pit of my stomach. 

I glanced at the door number eagerly. Had we stopped at the wrong one? But, no. 

“What’s happened?” Tess asked the question stuck in my throat. 

The manager forgot his professional face and looked genuinely distressed. “The gentleman passed away some time during the night.” 

Only vaguely I heard the others gasp, because I was hearing Jacob’s harmonica playing in my head, as it had only a short while ago. 

 “Jacob?” My voice sounded thin and tinny. 

“Jacob Hendel. Yes, I regret.” 

Jean tucked her arm through mine, and I hung onto it as the world fragmented and hazily reformed. I could feel sweat filming over my shoulder blades. “But I saw, heard… only just now…” My voice trailed off. 

I tried to pull myself together with rational thoughts – Jacob’s death had to be expected. He was an old fella, after all, and hadn’t looked too perky. Game over and all that trite stuff. But my vision blurred and all I wanted was to steal away and be somewhere alone. Somewhere to gather my thoughts and send out a wish to our friend. 

From behind me, Maisie’s shrill objecting voice cut into the silence, “No, no, no.” 

I turned to see her back in Jacob’s room, resolutely clutching something to her chest. She was standing beside 17 a small wooden table. On its top lay sunglasses, suncream, and that familiar harmonica. No doubt the photograph frame she was refusing to return to the maid had also stood there before she’d grabbed it. 

Nimbly avoiding the girl, she dashed over to me, face aglow. “Look. See.” 

Shakily, I hunkered down so my eyes were level with hers, and together we gazed at the grainy photograph set in the frame. Lilian gazed back at us. 

Cradling the photo to her as she did her favourite doll, Maisie said solemnly, “My dancing friend. Gone home with Papa Jacob now.” 

In a sleepy, tree-lined square in the old part of town, a tiny church rests serenely. Tomorrow I would take a wander down there and sit in the cool silence in one of the hand-carved pews. There I would send out my wish to Jacob, God speed, my friend. God speed both of you. 

After that I would pass behind the church into the airless labyrinth of alleyways where a shabby store leans, selling all kinds of music. If I was lucky, high on a shelf, gathering dust, I might find Lili Marlene. 

Something to play on a grey and rainy day to remind us how fortunate we are. 


About the author 

Sandra’s family in Bristol, Scotland and New Zealand, provide huge inspiration for her stories, which appear in national women’s magazines. 

Otherwise, she writes of the supernatural or with a sinister twist, and about bigger issues such as child abuse. She has won several competitions, and has been included in an erotic anthology. 

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1 comment:

  1. I loved this story! It's such a grim topic, but the story itself is heartwarming.