Even in business class, with an empty seat beside her, Becca couldn’t sleep. She turned on the overhead light and read the conference materials, Tort Law in Transition, 1982-1992: A Transatlantic Perspective.
She hadn’t wanted to go to London. She knew she should be chuffed, as Liam would put it, being asked to stand in for a senior partner and speak about American class actions. It was March 1992; the partner’s typed notes rambled on about patients suing the manufacturer of faulty heart valves; female coal miners alleging harassment; Vietnam vets suing Dow Chemical for diseases from Agent Orange. Becca had little experience with class actions; she suspected she was asked because she spent her first six months assigned to the firm’s London office. A coveted gig, that one, too, even if in reality it was a glorified document review. It changed her life forever. While living there, she met Liam, at the London Apprentice Pub in Isleworth.
“Didn’t I hear you have an English husband?” the partner asked when he showed up in her office Friday afternoon. “He can go too, if you like. You’d only have to pay his airfare.”
Becca said her husband couldn’t miss work. The partner stared at the only picture on her wall — a Hogarth reproduction: a bewigged barrister on a throne, scrawny clerks scrivening below, scales of justice lurking in a corner. The partner was looking for a wedding picture or at least a photo of Becca and Liam engaged in some sport, standard décor for recently-married lawyers. But there was no photo of Liam, or of Becca either, only an empty space on the wall above her desk, where a picture-hook remained.
The partner didn’t know that Becca’s English husband had left her. None of the lawyers and staff with whom she worked knew. Nor did her mother, who had moved to Florida and barely knew Liam. Nor her best friend from law school, who lived in Chicago and worked crazy hours, like Becca.
Later than she should have, Becca realized Liam wasn’t coming back. After Liam had been gone two weeks, it was her birthday. She thought she’d hear from him. When Becca’s mother called from Florida, she was all excited about the play her drama club was doing, Moor Born, about the Brontes. She was playing Anne, the least famous, least creative sister; nonetheless, the competition had been fierce. “By the way,” she asked, “what did Liam get you for your birthday?”
“It’s a surprise,” Becca said. “For tonight.” Her mother asked her to report back. Becca knew she wouldn’t ask again unless Becca brought it up.
Nine months later, the opportunity to tell someone — anyone — was gone.
Liam left in June, at the end of his second year teaching science at Manhattan Prep in Yorkville. He said he needed time to himself after the intense push of proctoring, grading, and graduation. He’d gone off this way before, beginning when they lived in Isleworth. He always returned the next day, or the day after.
This time, days became weeks; weeks became months. She wondered if he had returned to London. His passport was missing. But if so, where would she begin to look for him? With his cousin Saul? The two didn’t get along. Becca and Saul were more simpatico than Liam and Saul had ever been. Their six months in London now seemed a dream, fleeting and unreal. Liam had introduced her to only one friend, a struggling actor named Trevor Thorn, who was heading to Australia to appear in an independent film. There were Aunt Lillian and Aunt Rachel, both around 80, older sisters of Liam’s father, who died of a heart attack at 65. Liam referred to his spinster aunts and his cousin Saul as “the Jewish side of the family”; stuck in the Old World, he said, even though born in Leeds. The aunts had lived together for decades in a small flat in North London. When Liam learned that Becca was Jewish, he said, “I have some people I’d like you to meet.” Soon afterwards, he took her to visit the aunts. It was as if his Jewish lineage, for once in his life, enhanced his standing.
Several times after that first visit she went to see the aunts on her own. During her time in London, they were exceptionally kind to her. Aunt Lillian, with her erect posture and stark white cap of hair, her take-charge voice, grasped Becca’s hands to welcome her to their flat. Aunt Rachel was softer, rounder, her gaze transparent and direct. She listened intently to Becca, nodding encouragement, as if she knew what Becca was going to say before she said it.
Then, on a Saturday when Liam was gone, Becca ran a fever. She tried to reach the London office manager, but couldn’t. Her heart and head pounded; the room spun. She phoned the aunts. Eventually a knock. Aunt Lillian directed the driver to a North London clinic, near the aunts’ flat. A nurse wheeled Becca into a room so white she had to close her eyes. Someone undressed her and put her in a hospital gown, hooked her up to an IV, although Becca had no memory of any of this.
Becca woke in the North London hospital and there they were: Lillian in a chair, Rachel fussing with a tray. The smell wasn’t the normal hospital smell. “The sweetness of the soup,” Aunt Rachel had explained one Friday evening, “is from parsnips. On Fridays the grocer saves some for me.” Rachel settled on the side of the bed and brought a spoon to Becca’s lips. “Warm,” she said. “Not scalding.” Becca didn’t know how long she’d been in hospital, how long the aunts had been there. She wondered where Liam was.
That time, he came home the next day.
One of the aunts had died in January. Liam’s cousin Saul had written to her about it. She and Saul corresponded a few times a year since she left England, even after she married Liam. They’d spoken on the phone, too, usually when she was in the office, working late. Sometimes they discussed their legal work (Saul was a solicitor, specializing in wills and estates) or items in the news. But the main subject was Saul’s involvement with the Jewish East End Society, which promoted the work of Isaac Rosenberg, a World War I poet. Becca majored in English in college and concentrated on early 20th century English poetry. Yet she had never heard of Isaac Rosenberg until that first afternoon in the aunts’ flat, when Saul showed up late, his voice breaking with excitement about the new installation devoted to World War I poets, including Rosenberg, in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. “This is rather childish,” Saul said that day, “but I got interested in Isaac Rosenberg because of his last name, same as ours.” He included the aunts and his cousin Liam in the sweep of his hand. “Turns out we’re not related.”
“My last name isn’t Rosenberg,” Liam interjected. His father had shortened it soon after Liam was born, erasing all evidence of his Jewishness. “From my research,” Liam joked, “Rose is a good Scottish-Irish name, dating back to 1273 and Thomas, son of Rose, of Cambridgeshire.”
The day before the flight to London, Becca called Saul from her office in Manhattan. She dialed his work number, expecting an answering machine. She would leave a message that she was coming for a conference. That was all. She didn’t know if Saul would want to see her, or what she would say if he did.
To her surprise, he answered. “Funny you should call. I was over on Finchley Road and came here to clear up some things. We were speaking about you. My aunt’s taking it hard. Her little sister’s death. I told her I had let you know. She was wondering.”
“I’m so sorry. I should have written.”
Saul said he would pick her up from the airport. She protested that she could take a taxi and get reimbursed. Rush hour traffic was horrendous, he said; he could navigate the arteries of London better than most.
She gave him her flight number.
“I’ll be there,” he said, and for a moment her heart lifted.
On Sunday, she went to the office of the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in memory of Aunt Rachel. “It’s not simply planting memorial trees anymore. We have other options,” the woman said, hair in a bun, tendrils escaping, glasses on a chain around her neck. On the wall were samples of different certificates and before-and-after photographs of bare deserts transformed into woodlands; the blueprint for a water reclamation project. “Here’s one that might interest you. The certificate recites a line from Isaiah, I will make of the wilderness a pool of water. The donation will support a JNF-sponsored water project.”
Becca explained that the donation was in memory of an elderly Jewish woman who lived in London, and that the certificate would go to the woman’s sister. The JNF lady considered that information. “Of course, there are always the trees. The British love to plant trees in the Negev, whatever the occasion.”
At Becca’s office, the mailroom clerk told her she was in luck; normally the pouch didn’t go out Sunday nights, but there was a bond offering on Tuesday and some notarized documents were going by courier to the firm’s London office for Monday morning delivery. They would deliver her envelope to Finchley Road on Monday morning, too. She wrote a condolence note on the firm stationery, which she inserted in the envelope with the certificate. Dear Aunt Lillian: I was so sorry to learn from Saul of Aunt Rachel’s passing. I know how close the two of you were. I will never forget the kindness both of you showed Liam and me when we came to your flat. On the holidays, you made me feel like a member of the family. I’ve made a donation to the Jewish National Fund in Aunt Rachel’s memory — the certificate is enclosed. Love, Becca
She brought her envelope to the mailroom and put it in the London pouch, with instructions to deliver it Monday morning. She wanted her condolence note and the JNF certificate to arrive before she did, to make up for not acknowledging Aunt Rachel’s death earlier.
On the plane, she read the conference materials, which covered new developments in England and America; insurance; cases against public authorities; and mass torts. For the last day, they highlighted a provocative panel on Tort Law as a System of Personal Responsibility, which posed several questions. Shouldn’t a rational person protect against mishaps or injury when planning a future action? Isn’t the failure to do so responsible for any misery that ensues?
She thought then of Liam, the source of her misery. She had done nothing to protect herself.
The evening meal service began. Becca said, no, nothing for her, but the cabin was cold and the flight attendant urged her to have the soup, chicken broth with noodles. A surprisingly tasty soup, it made Becca think of the soup Aunt Rachel brought her all those years ago, when Becca was stricken with pneumonia and too weak to eat. Aunt Rachel spoon-fed Becca, her grey head bent over the task; Aunt Lillian urging her not to spill.
Becca took Saul’s letter from her briefcase. Reliable Saul, who would be there to meet her. She felt warmed by that as much as by the soup. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that Aunt Lillian has died. No one expected it and as you can imagine, Aunt Rachel is beside herself with grief.”
She read it again.
Surely that wasn’t right. Surely Saul was mistaken.
By her third reading she knew she had made the donation and had JNF print the certificate in memory of the wrong aunt. Aunt Lillian had died, not Aunt Rachel. The packet being hand-delivered by the firm’s London office was addressed to Lillian but Aunt Rachel would be the one to receive it at the Finchley Road flat. She would open it eagerly, longingly, wondering what it could be.
The first time she met the aunts, she and Liam were invited to Finchley Road for tea. She expected Earl Grey and biscuits; instead, there was sherry, followed by pistachio-encrusted plaice, crisp roast potatoes, fresh peas, and strawberries with condensed milk. Aunt Lillian led the conversation, questioning Becca about her work, her family, how she and Liam met. Becca described her walk from Richmond to Isleworth. She was tired, hungry, and thirsty, and there it was, overlooking the river, The London Apprentice, with swans from central casting. And Liam.
Eventually, the only sound in the aunts’ flat was spoons scraping plates. Becca said she would do the washing up; both aunts protested mildly, but a fleeting look passed between them. Liam, who lounged at the table, his long legs extended, his chair tipped back precariously, made no move to get up. She assumed his aunts wished to speak to him alone.
In the kitchen, over the sound of water running in the sink, Becca heard raised voices: Lillian’s: “sleeping with others” and “Sarita and Ned” and “he’s your son.” Liam’s “I told her.”
What had he told her? Was the her in question Becca?
Liam had told her he had a son from a prior marriage. His ex-wife didn’t permit him to see the boy much. When the boy was older, presumably that would change. “For now,” Liam said, “there’s not much I can do.”
The first time Liam disappeared from Isleworth for two nights, after his return Becca asked him whether he had seen Ned. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he said. She didn’t ask him again.
On New Year’s Eve, 1987, Becca was alone in the Isleworth flat when the aunts called. “Where’s Leo?” Lillian asked. “Isn’t he with you?”
“You mean Liam.”
“Well, he calls himself that now. But he was born Leo, and he’ll always be Leo to me. Where is he?”
Becca said New Year’s Eve was a rare time when Liam’s ex-wife allowed him to spend the evening with Ned, who was 15. He’d stay overnight in Sussex.
“Is that what he told you?” Aunt Lillian asked.
She must have dozed, because she woke suddenly when the lights in the cabin came on. Damp croissants, English butter, and tea were served. The conference materials were still in the seat pocket, open to the page about the theory of personal responsibility in tort law. Often the victim is in the best position to consider the potential harm that might befall her.
At Heathrow, as promised, Saul was waiting. He greeted her with a bear hug, with his warm brown eyes, with obvious pleasure. His beard was trimmer than she remembered; his curly hair neat and trim, too.
Surely the envelope addressed to Aunt Lillian had arrived, and Aunt Rachel had opened it. But plainly she hadn’t spoken to Saul yet. Saul was chatty and light-hearted in the car; Becca, anxious and wary.
She hadn’t wept on the flight but felt like weeping now. She hadn’t been hugged like that in a while. The damp mist of the London air held her in check, like the cold water she splashed on her face in the plane’s lavatory.
“Are you nervous?” Saul asked. She looked at him blankly. “About your speech? It’s an honor, isn’t it? To represent your firm. But probably nerve-racking too.”
Saul was right. She should be worrying about her talk, rehearsing it, anticipating the questions. Instead she was consumed with being back in England, without Liam; consumed with her mistake.
According to the conference materials, she couldn’t register at the hotel until 3 p.m.
Saul was delighted. “There’s a Rosenberg exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. We can go before you get busy.”
He had taken the day off to be with Becca. “Yesterday I told Aunt Rachel you were coming. She insists we come for tea this afternoon. It’s the most cheerful she’s been since Aunt Lillian died. You know Aunt Rachel. She’ll serve us something.”
At the museum, Becca tried not to think of Aunt Rachel’s inevitable distress. Rosenberg was a painter as well as a poet. In the trenches, he turned exclusively to poetry. He wrote from the view of the lowly infantryman about the lice that tormented them, the shrieking near-dead, the rats that traversed the no-man’s land between Englishman and German. The men shipping out:
Grotesque and queerly huddled
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
Becca read and reread his earliest war poem, written before he enlisted:
Three lives hath one life
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone
Left is the hard and cold.
Honey was love; gold was work. That much she knew. Iron was war, hard and cold. Becca stood before a photograph of Isaac in an ill-fitting suit, the jacket buttoned tight across his chest; his younger brother Elkon in army uniform, his arm flung around Isaac’s shoulders. Both Isaac’s brothers fought in the war too. Their mother’s calmest moments came when her boys were in army hospitals. But the hospitalizations didn’t last long enough – or at least not long enough to save Isaac.
“I love that photo,” Saul said. “The suit Isaac is wearing was the family suit. He and his two brothers shared it. But look how he and Elkon are smiling.” The photo was taken in September 1917. Isaac’s last leave.
Becca imagined how Isaac’s mother felt when she learned her eldest son had been blown to bits on French soil. His remains were never identified. He and the other members of his company who went out that morning were buried in a cemetery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the authorities unable to separate the remains of one soldier from another.
All disappearances are not equal, Becca thought. How poorly she had dealt with Liam’s disappearance. How cavalier she had been about an aunt’s death – as Liam himself would have been. Had she simply thought, absently, one of them died, as if which one it was didn’t bear noting? She couldn’t remember.
By what pale light or moon-pale shore
Drifts my soul in lonely flight?
Rosenberg was 23 when he wrote that; not quite 28 when he died.
“Look at this.” Saul drew her to an oil painting, “Head of a Woman ‘Grey and Red,’” from 1912. “Quick — who does she remind you of?” Becca didn’t know. “Isn’t she like a younger version of Rachel? The soft mouth, the clear blue-grey eyes, paying attention, always paying attention, and the hair pulled back the same way.”
“She’s pretty,” Becca said.
“Aunt Rachel is too, isn’t she?”
Becca had never thought so. She hadn’t thought Rachel wasn’t pretty either. But then, she had never really looked.
Saul deftly navigated the side streets on the way to Aunt Rachel’s, turning to avoid the traffic jam near Hyde Park. That’s when she saw him, or thought she saw him. Liam. A tall man with flowing blonde hair, shoulders hunched, a grey tweed overcoat, walking fast. She used to tease Liam about that coat. “All you need is a pipe,” she’d said. “And a Deerstalker.”
“The hat, never. The pipe, who knows?”
The tweed coat was gone from the closet in New York. When Liam left he knew it wasn’t for a summer weekend. He knew. She followed the figure as long as she could. He had Liam’s limber gait and long strides. But traffic was stopped, with only occasional lurches forward and she lost him. Her stomach lurched too, with hunger, with loss, with the debacle to come.
Saul hadn’t noticed the man she thought might be Liam. “The other night when you called,” he said, “I thought it was to resume our midnight talks. We hadn’t had one for a while. It wasn’t midnight in New York of course. But I figured that was the reason.”
Becca was half-listening, wondering whether the man she saw was Liam. For a moment, she had no idea what Saul was talking about. Had she actually engaged in midnight conversations with Saul?
Of course. One night three years ago, long after she and Liam were married and living in New York, she was in the office at 11:30 on a Saturday night, working on an emergency motion. Liam was off somewhere. Part of her wanted him to return and find her gone, wanted him to wonder where’s Becca? The phone rang. She let it ring, but picked it up before it went into voicemail. Suppose the partner was looking for her draft? “This is Becca.”
First, silence; then, Saul’s voice. “I didn’t expect to find you. Just woke up. Can you hear the birds?” He paused, then continued, not quite coherent. “Our last conversation, the war poets. A new book. Going to leave a message.” His voice husky, the barely awake morning voice of a man before he turns to you, filled with desire. It was 5 a.m. in London. “I know attorneys work late in New York. But midnight on Saturday?”
And so their midnight conversations began. They continued sporadically after that, always when she worked late. Sometimes she initiated them; sometimes Saul did. Often they made her feel unsteady. A discussion of Isaac Rosenberg’s portrayal of Adam and Eve — a painting, not a poem — disturbed her dreams. Then there were lines from an unfinished verse play that Saul particularly liked: Aghast and naked, I am flung in the abyss of days. After Liam’s disappearance, abyss of days seemed a familiar, even comforting, way to think of her existence.
Once she and Liam had skipped up the steps of the red-brick Victorian. The building had white pillars and an old-world air even though it had been converted to flats. Liam had kissed her on the landing. Now four years later she climbed the same steps, trailing behind Saul. The flat was in the back on the first floor; a slim dark mezuzah of burnished metal to the right of the door. Saul rapped lightly.
“It’s open,” Aunt Rachel called. She sat on the dark green velvet sofa. Three places were set around an oval dining table, the soup bowls in a quaint country pattern, rose and white. The apartment smelled of chicken soup.
Aunt Rachel wore a long-sleeved dress — a soft blue-grey color — with pearl buttons. Her eyes were the same color, the color of the girl’s eyes in Rosenberg’s painting.
Becca spotted her envelope on the end table near the sofa. She saw the JNF certificate and her condolence note on the floor beside it. She saw the certificate’s artistic depiction of a tree, its sheltering branches, designed to provide comfort after a death.
Only Aunt Rachel hadn’t died. Her sister Lillian had. Becca expected Rachel to be angry or bereft or weepy. She expected her to tell her devoted nephew Saul about the carelessness or cruelty Becca had perpetrated. Saul wouldn’t find Becca’s mistake funny.
In fact, it was the kind of thing Liam might have done. A failure to pay attention, a feckless act bordering on malice.
“Becca!” Aunt Rachel said. “Welcome! How was your flight?” She stood up, grasped Becca’s hands. Becca replied that it hadn’t been bad. Her first time in business class, paid for by her firm.
“Aunt Rachel!” Saul said. “Don’t I get a kiss?”
“Certainly. But first I want to look at Becca. How are you? And how’s Liam?”
“Working as we speak. We both work a lot. Sometimes we barely see each other.” Her voice sounded plaintive, self-pitying, not what she intended. The lie was not what she intended either. She thought she could dodge questions about Liam. But instead she had lied.
“How does he like New York? Do you miss your little flat in Isleworth?”
Saul intervened. “You lived opposite The London Apprentice, didn’t you? If you have a free afternoon, the three of us could drive there for lunch. It’s a lovely spot.”
Becca wasn’t sure she’d be able to leave the conference at lunchtime. “It is a nice pub, isn’t it?” she said, glad to change the subject. The day she met Liam she’d been so pleased to find it, a beautiful location on the Thames, mentioned in her guidebook. She was tired and a bit lonely. A shadow, the late afternoon sun in her eyes. She looked up from her bread and cheese, her shandy. He asked if she came often to The London Apprentice. She said it was her first time. Did she know about the secret tunnel used by smugglers? “What did they smuggle?” she asked, meeting his eyes.
“Booty. Isn’t that what they call it? Mostly booze, I think. To avoid customs duties. After William Pitt abolished the duties in the 1780s, the smugglers lost ground. Proof that laws create crimes, not the other way around.” He was casually erudite as well as handsome.
Later, after they moved in together, she told Liam he didn’t need to tell her where he was going. The worst thing would be forcing someone to lie. For whatever reason. Even if what you were lying about didn’t mean a thing.
“Speaking of lunch at the pub, let me go warm up the soup. With parsnips. Becca’s favorite.” Aunt Rachel stood up with effort, more unsteady on her feet than Becca remembered. Becca saw how Aunt Lillian’s death had affected Rachel, reminding her perhaps of her own fragility, her mortality, her need to take care.
With Becca’s note and the JNF certificate to make things worse.
“You sit down and I’ll warm up the soup,” said Becca.
“But you must be exhausted from the flight. You shouldn’t have to do anything. You just arrived.”
Saul explained that they went directly from the airport to the Isaac Rosenberg exhibit, how Becca couldn’t check in at her hotel until 3 p.m.
“All the more reason Becca must be exhausted.”
“Ladies, I’ll take care of the soup.”
“A very low flame,” Rachel said.
Saul left them alone together. Instead of sitting back on the sofa, Rachel, without looking at Becca, gathered up Becca’s note and the JNF certificate. She brushed off some invisible dust and placed the items face down on some oversized books lying horizontally on a bookshelf.
She sat at the head of the dining table, summoned Becca to sit beside her.
Now was the time to apologize. But how to begin?
Rachel looked at Becca with the direct glance of the woman in Rosenberg’s painting. “Tell me really. How are things with Liam?”
It was as if she knew. Saul emerged from the kitchen carrying a covered soup tureen and a ladle.
“Saul, dear, there’s bread and a knife on the counter.”
Becca breathed in the sweet smell of the soup. She wanted to be quiet now, to sit and eat, but couldn’t. “Liam left me. Perhaps you knew?” Becca spoke rapidly, hoping to finish before Saul returned, but there he was with the bread, looking at her fondly.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Nine months ago. It was mid-June, end of term. He said he needed a break. But he didn’t come back, didn’t call. A week later,” she struggled, “a week later, a letter arrived from the school, confirming that Liam had declined to accept the contract for another year. It said that if he ever changed his mind and returned to New York, they would welcome him.”
There was no retreat, no graceful way out. Were they angry she had lied? That she didn’t let them know earlier? “You’re the first people I’ve told. Not even my mother, or my friends.”
“How could you stand it?” Saul asked softly. “Alone?”
She quoted Rosenberg’s lines to him, the ones he loved. “It was an abyss of days. I got through by working. I thought of telling you, Saul. I wondered if he had returned to England. Perhaps he missed his son, or didn’t like New York. Or me.”
“That couldn’t happen,” Saul said. He looked away, picked up an apple from a bowl in the center of the table.
“I remember how after the two of you met, when you were living in Isleworth, Liam disappeared sometimes,” said Aunt Rachel. “Aunt Lillian and I worried about it.”
“I know you did. The two of you would ask, how’s our wayward nephew Liam? And Becca, how are you doing? You tried to warn me.”
“We didn’t know what to think. We thought he loved you, as much as he could love anyone. But maybe it wasn’t enough.”
“I realize something,” Becca said to Aunt Rachel and to Saul. Saul of the midnight phone calls, Saul who was managing to eat an apple quietly — not an easy task. “I thought love was one thing, and now it seems to be something else. What I thought it was, was the absence of lies. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
All three of them were silent after that. Saul looked for a place to throw out his apple core. “Here,” said Becca. She took the core and went into the kitchen, tossed it in the compost, wiped her eyes on a dishtowel. When she came back, no one said a word.
“Thank you for waiting,” she said.
They sipped the soup and ate the bread. “This is as delicious as I remember, Aunt Rachel. And it’s reviving me, too. Like it did when you brought it to the hospital.”
“You remember that?” Aunt Rachel looked pleased. She took another sip of soup and put down her spoon. “You both practice law. How long does someone have to be missing before you can dissolve a marriage, or declare them dead?”
Saul nearly choked on his soup.
Becca murmured that she didn’t know.
Someone would have to look it up.
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