This is how it begins.
A woman stands on a station platform, a suitcase in her right hand, in her left a yellow handkerchief, with which she is dabbing at her face. The bluish skin around her eyes is wet, and the coal-smoke catches in her throat.
There is nobody to wave her off—she forbade them from coming, though her mother wept, as she herself is doing now—and yet still she stands on tiptoe to peer over the milling hats and fox furs. Perhaps Anton, tired of their mother’s tears, relented, lifted her down the long flights of stairs in her bath chair, dressed her hands in mittens. But there is no Anton, no Mama. The concourse is crowded with strangers.
Miriam steps onto the train, stands blinking in the dim light of the corridor. A man with a black moustache and a violin case looks from her face to the great swelling dome of her stomach.
‘Where is your husband?’ he asks.
‘In England.’ The man regards her, his head cocked, like a bird’s. Then he leans forward, takes up her suitcase in his free hand. She opens her mouth to protest, but he is already walking ahead.
‘There is a spare seat in my compartment.’
All through the long journey west, they talk. He offers her herring and pickles from a damp paper bag, and Miriam takes them, though she loathes herring, because it is almost a day since she last ate. She never says aloud that there is no husband in England, but he knows. When the train shudders to a halt on the border and the guards order all passengers to disembark, Jakob keeps her close to him as they stand shivering, snowmelt softening the loose soles of her shoes.
‘Your wife?’ the guard says to Jakob as he reaches for her papers.
Jakob nods. Six months later, on a clear, bright day in Margate, the baby sleeping in the plump, upholstered arms of the rabbi’s wife, that is what Miriam becomes.
* * *
It also begins here.
Another woman stands in a garden, among roses, rubbing the small of her back. She wears a long blue painter’s smock, her husband’s. He is painting now, indoors, while she moves her other hand to the great swelling dome of her stomach.
There was a movement, a quickening, but it has passed. A trug, half filled with cut flowers, lies on the ground by her feet. She takes a deep breath, drawing in the crisp apple smell of clipped grass—she hacked at the lawn earlier, in the cool of the morning, with the pruning shears. She must keep busy: she has a horror of staying still, of allowing the blankness to roll over her like a sheet. It is so soft, so comforting. She is afraid she will fall asleep beneath it, and the baby will fall with her.
Vivian bends to retrieve the trug. As she does so, she feels something rip and tear. She stumbles, lets out a cry. Lewis does not hear her: he plays music while he’s working. Chopin mostly, Wagner sometimes, when his colours are taking a darker turn. She is on the ground, the trug upended next to her, roses strewn across the paving, red and pink, their petals crushed and browning, exuding their sickly perfume. The pain comes again and Vivian gasps; then she remembers her neighbour, Mrs Dawes, and calls out her name.
In a moment, Mrs Dawes is grasping Vivian’s shoulders with her capable hands, lifting her to the bench by the door, in the shade. She sends the grocer’s boy, standing fish-mouthed at the front gate, scuttling off to fetch the doctor, while she runs upstairs to find Mr Taylor—such an odd little man, with his pot-belly and snub gnome’s nose: not at all how she’d thought an artist would look. But sweet with it. Charming.
Vivian knows nothing but the waves of pain, the sudden coolness of bed sheets on her skin, the elasticity of minutes and hours, stretching out beyond limit until the doctor says, ‘Your son. Here is your son.’ Then she looks down and sees him, recognises him, winking up at her with an old man’s knowing eyes.
Cambridge, October 1958
Later, Eva will think, If it hadn’t been for that rusty nail, Jim and I would never have met.
The thought will slip into her mind, fully formed, with a force that will snatch her breath. She’ll lie still, watching the light slide around the curtains, considering the precise angle of her tyre on the rutted grass; the nail itself, old and crooked; the small dog, snouting the verge, failing to heed the sound of gear and tyre. She had swerved to miss him, and her tyre had met the rusty nail. How easy—how much more probable—would it have been for none of these things to happen?
But that will be later, when her life before Jim will already seem soundless, drained of colour, as if it had hardly been a life at all. Now, at the moment of impact, there is only a faint tearing sound, and a soft exhalation of air.
‘Damn,’ Eva says. She presses down on the pedals, but her front tyre is jittering like a nervous horse. She brakes, dismounts, kneels to make her diagnosis. The little dog hovers penitently at a distance, barks as if in apology, then scuttles off after its owner—who is, by now, a good deal ahead, a departing figure in a beige trench coat.
There is the nail, lodged above a jagged rip, at least two inches long. Eva presses the lips of the tear and air emerges in a hoarse wheeze. The tyre’s already almost flat: she’ll have to walk the bicycle back to college, and she’s already late for supervision. Professor Farley will assume she hasn’t done her essay on the Four Quartets, when actually it has kept her up for two full nights—it’s in her satchel now, neatly copied, five pages long, excluding footnotes. She is rather proud of it, was looking forward to reading it aloud, watching old Farley from the corner of her eye as he leaned forward, twitching his eyebrows in the way he does when something really interests him.
‘Scheiße,’ Eva says: in a situation of this gravity, only German seems to do.
‘Are you all right there?’
She is still kneeling, the bicycle weighing heavily against her side. She examines the nail, wonders whether it would do more harm than good to take it out. She doesn’t look up.
‘Fine, thanks. It’s just a puncture.’
The passer-by, whoever he is, is silent. She assumes he has walked on, but then his shadow—the silhouette of a man, hatless, reaching into his jacket pocket—begins to shift across the grass towards her. ‘Do let me help. I have a kit here.’
She looks up now. The sun is dipping behind a row of trees—just a few weeks into Michaelmas term and already the days are shortening—and the light is behind him, darkening his face. His shadow, now attached to feet in scuffed brown brogues, appears grossly tall, though the man seems of average height. Pale brown hair, in need of a cut; a Penguin paperback in his free hand. Eva can just make out the title on the spine, Brave New World, and she remembers, quite suddenly, an afternoon—a wintry Sunday; her mother making Vanillekipferl in the kitchen, the sound of her father’s violin drifting up from the music room—when she had lost herself completely in Huxley’s strange, frightening vision of the future.
She lays the bicycle down carefully on its side, gets to her feet. ‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’ve no idea how to use one. The porter’s boy always fixes mine.’
‘I’m sure.’ His tone is light, but he’s frowning, searching the other pocket. ‘I may have spoken too soon, I’m afraid...