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“Having soul” my friend Alan used to call it, by which he meant those of us who were sensitive, clever and a little bit strange, as compared to the rest of the population; Tory voting, boring and lacking in imagination and heart. It’s easy when you are young to separate the good from the dull, but now that I am much older and living in another country, I’m not so sure who is who and whether I am the decent person that I thought I was when the world and everything in it seemed uncomplicated and there for the taking.
Helen, my beautiful shiksa, and I lay in each other’s arms after the most romantic of love making.
“You don’t need to say thank you…” she told me, and as I started to apologise, “…nor say sorry. I enjoy it too.”
“I know, well I hope so; I still find it so difficult to believe you are with me, just insecurity I guess, and not fitting in, or just not normal.”
“Doesn’t everyone feel like that?” she asked.
“Well you seem normal” I told her, “as if you know what to do in every situation, and will always do the sensible thing.”
“Is it a Jewish thing? Not belonging?”
“No, well maybe, there is a sense of insecurity, but that might be our history, it is more than that though, my friend Alan feels it too, or he used too, and he isn’t Jewish.”
“I don’t see it. You’re little eccentric, that’s all. Especially the amount you listen to that singer you like, Tracey Thorn. You seem okay otherwise. In fact I find you quite calming.”
Later she asked, “Am I really normal?”
“Yes, definitely. Don’t you think you are?”
“Not really. Most people think I’m odd.”
“I’m not sure. I feel that it wouldn’t take much for me to fall into madness. Perhaps that’s why I’m with you. You keep me sane.”
“Thanks” I said and we kissed.
Sometimes Helen said things and later on I would wonder if I should have pursued it, but then she moved the subject on so quickly, or we started being lustful, and it was only afterwards I started to ponder what she had said and how serious she had been. Perhaps I ignored Helen when she threatened to come off the pedestal on which I’d placed her or, deep down, I knew that anyone so beautiful who allowed me to defile her pure, gentile body, must have something wrong with her but I didn’t want her to spoil the illusion that a beautiful woman who could have anyone had chosen me.
Helen rang me one morning.
“Are you in work today?” she asked.
“No, the library is closed on Wednesdays remember, but I thought you were.”
“No, I’m not well,” and she gave a sort of laugh. “Let’s go into Liverpool.”
“But if you’re not well….”
“Oh I am okay, just need a day off.”
My mother would never let me take the day off from school unless she thought I was ill enough for the doctor to be called – which was never – and as a consequence, when I got a job and left home, I still dragged myself into work no matter how ill I might be feeling. It was thus with a feeling of wickedness that I sat with Helen on the train heading into the city, although my feeling of unease was on her behalf for ringing in sick when she was clearly fit and healthy, albeit a bit giggly and talkative.
There was a couple opposite us; she was pretty, Asian heritage with a lovely smell of vanilla coming from her, and an expensive looking winter coat draped over her shoulders, whilst her companion (colleague rather than lover I guessed) looked dull and tired. To my embarrassment Helen started talking to them.
“We are going into Liverpool. Fancied the day off.”
The young woman smiled, “Enjoy yourself.”
“Come with us if you like, you and your friend” and Helen tapped him on the knee.
“We would love to, but we have a meeting.”
They both appeared to draw back into their seats, and then of one accord they got files out of their bags and started leafing through them, refusing to meet our eyes. Helen touched my thigh lightly and then stroked it, she chatted away about inconsequential things so loudly that the whole carriage must have been able to hear.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, I’m good. I’m looking forward to that drink though.”
As we left the train I saw her wink at the young man opposite, but the prig refused to acknowledge it, so I gave Helen’s bottom a loud smack as we left, and she giggled.
“Let’s get that drink” I said.
And drink we did; Helen had a better knowledge of the pubs in Liverpool than I did, and we visited several I had no idea existed and probably wouldn’t have been able to find again. She liked the small and dark ones, hidden away in side-streets, which smelt of disinfectant and old beer, and where a couple of old men drank slowly and talked about horse racing.
At one pub “I don’t want to talk about it”by Everything but the Girl was playing.
“Oh that’s that singer you like” Helen said and started to join in: “…if I stand all alone, will the shadow hide the colour of my heart….” Her voice was loud but tuneful, and it contrasted well with Tracey Thorn’s gloomier and more restrained vocal, “…I don’t want to talk about it, the way you broke my heart….”. I looked at her as she sang, but her eyes were unfocused and I wondered who she was thinking about; an old boyfriend she had not mentioned or just life in general.
“Thank you for coming with me.” she told me after the song had finished, “I would have struggled on my own.”
And then she was up and looking for the next pub.
We found ourselves in a side street near the Pilgrim Pub, and suddenly we were snogging by some large, silver bins.
“Let’s do it here…” She whispered.
“But…” she pushed her finger in my mouth and I sucked on it slowly and then lightly bit it; it tasted of salt and cinnamon. After that I did not care about the cold, the smell of rubbish or of being caught; Helen was everything and I was overwhelmed by her.
She had a Bible by her bed.
“I didn’t know you were religious.”
“Someone gave it to me. I was in town a couple of days ago having lunch. This woman came over and started talking to me. I ended up buying her coffee. She gave me it to me.”
“Why were you having lunch in Birkenhead?”
“Oh they sent me home from work. I was just a bit tired that’s all.”
“Don’t worry about me”, she said after a few moments of silence, “sometimes I need a break.”
“How are you finding it?”
“The Bible? Interesting. I haven’t looked at since school. A lot about your lot in here.”
“Well we wrote it.”
“I thought it was God who wrote it. He’s quite critical of the Jews; Jesus is always going on about the Pharisees, they’re Jewish priests aren’t they? And Hosea. Always telling you off.”
“If it wasn’t for the Pharisees the Jews would have been subsumed by the Romans; anyway, religion is like sport, all very well until you take it too seriously.”
“You’re probably right. Mind you, I have seen you when Everton lose.”
I woke up needing to urinate; it was three in the morning and Helen was still reading The Bible, her lamp giving her a halo as if she was a Christian saint.
“Haven’t you slept?” I asked her.
“No, this is fascinating. Why don’t you ever talk about it?”
“I didn’t think it interested you, anyway it is just my childhood, something I wanted to escape from.”
I hurried to the toilet and when I got back to bed she was still reading intently, and almost immediately I fell back asleep. I woke up again at eight and she was gone. And later when I rang her at work from the library, she sounded happy and normal.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I am okay, a bit tired.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“I will have an early night tonight I think.”
“Don’t blame you” I told her, “I don’t blame you at all.”
I used to dream about Tracey Thorn, at least as much as I dreamed about Helen, although these were not erotic dreams, rather they involved me abandoning her in various places; the library where I worked, Lime Street Railway Station or in the middle of a strange city. I would wake up feeling overloaded with guilt, and eventually I would realise that I had left Tracey in a Burger King, and that she was waiting patiently for me to pick her up and take her home.
I had all of Tracey’s albums; not just the ones she recorded as one half of Everything but the Girl (for which is she is best-known) but also her obscure solo album “A Distant Shore” and the two badly produced bits of New Wave that she did with The Marine Girls, the band she was in as a teenager. Even now, many years later and in another country, I still buy anything new that she releases, and I have read her two memoirs several times over. I follow her on Twitter and Facebook, even sending her messages which she sensibly ignores, and occasionally I still dream that I have left her somewhere alone and frightened.
Whilst I have always loved her voice; melancholic and slightly offkey, it is her that I am obsessed with; so calm and sensible with politely concealed contempt for those who do not meet her high standards. Sometimes when Helen and I cavorted on the bed I would imagine Tracey looking down on us disapprovingly or when Alan and I, drunk and laddish, giggled over a rude joke, there she was glaring at me, wondering when I would grow up. I still yearn to gain her approval, and I suspect that all the achievements in my life are due to her, and my attempts to make her proud of me.
“I am going to church on Sunday, would you like to come with me?”
“Uhm not really.”
“A friend from work invited me; Claire.”
“But don’t Christians disapprove of this?” I pointed to her sprawled naked on top of the bed, her body warm from our passion of a few moments before and smelling of sex.
“I have been meaning to speak to you about that…”
Thus she became unobtainable, but then I had always felt that I was trespassing on her flawless body, and it could not last forever, that eventually I would be caught. She still let me sleep beside her and would kiss me languorously goodnight before disengaging with seeming regret and sleeping with her back to me. I had a feeling that Tracey Thorn would approve.
She talked about God more and more. I used to love her company, looked forward to spending time with her and even imagined it becoming permanent and maybe – breaking my mother’s heart – a marriage. But now our evenings consisted of her reading aloud from the Bible and talking about The Jews, before agonising as to whether we should have sex or not, and it was Hell. Was she unwell, or was this how Christians spent their time? I wondered if her colleagues had noticed anything or had she always been odd, and I had not seen it until now.
“The vicar is doing a talk about the Palestinians. Would you like to go? His brother was there, in the West Bank a few weeks ago and made a film. Quite disturbing.”
“Oh no thanks.”
“I thought you would be interested, doesn’t your sister live there?”
“Not in the West Bank no, in Tel Aviv, and I don’t care about all this obsession with Israel, and the feeling that I’m personally responsible for the actions of the Israeli government and army.”
“Aren’t they your people? Shouldn’t you feel responsible?”
“No. Perhaps if it wasn’t all that everyone goes on about I might be more concerned; but they don’t seem to show the same worry about what is happening in East Timor, or in Burma. Sheesh always bloody Israel, and always how wicked the Israelis are; what about the Palestinian suicide bombers? People blown up on buses or in restaurants? I bet your vicar doesn’t go on about that. It’s just another excuse for anti-Semites to hate Jews.”
“I don’t hate them exactly” she told me, which is when I walked out.
“She sounds as off her head as you,” Alan told me as we drank coffee together one evening in a small cafe, before we went to see Siouxsie and the Banshees in concert at The Empire in Liverpool. “Even if what she says upsets you, perhaps she needs you to be kind, not get cross and hurt, get over yourself a bit.”
“That sounds quite sensible” I admitted reluctantly, “but it’s difficult when I’m with her and she’s going on about Jews and how we control Hollywood and tell the government what to do.”
“Perhaps she has a point, there are lots of Jews in government and in film. And they did work with Hitler during the Second World War, I was reading a book about it.”
I looked at him in despair; he had become comfortable and rich, now that he was working for a law firm in the city centre, so that even on a night out he was smartly dressed; chinos, white shirt and a corduroy jacket rather than jeans and the battered army jacket he used to wear, and his hair looked as if it was cut regularly and somewhere expensive. I had even had to drag him along to this concert, despite Siouxsie and the Banshees having always been his favourite band. I remembered only a couple of years ago us spending a cold night on a bench in Nottingham railway station after seeing them play at Rock City, I doubted that would ever happen again.
“Remember when we used to divide people up, between those who had soul and those who didn’t?”
He laughed, “well people can swap sides, and anyway perhaps those with soul are those who haven’t grown up.”
Next time I came round to see Helen I noticed a sticker of the outline of a fish stuck to her front door.
“It is an ichthys” she told me when I asked her about, “an ancient symbol of Christ. My friend Claire gave me it.”
I gave her a smile, unsure of what to think, as I sat down next to her on the settee.
“You are left-handed as well,” she said, as we did The Guardian quick crossword together.
“Hadn’t you noticed before? And as well as what?”
She looked worried. “Isn’t that a sign of the devil? And witches, they are left-handed.”
“I hope so. Anyway, ‘farmer, six letters, third letter ‘o’’”
“The Talmud is full of spells isn’t it? Against non-Jews, goyim.”
“Who told you about the Talmud?” I looked at her in mock horror. “That’s our big secret, nobody is supposed to know about the Talmud. I might have to kill you now; where is that kitchen knife?”
She looked at me and I realised that she was scared, and I gave her a hug.
“Oh Helen, sweetheart, I was joking. But where are you getting this stuff?”
She cuddled close but didn’t say anything, and I could feel that she was tense, as if she did not quite trust me, and when I stroked her back she flinched.
“Do you cast spells?” she asked, her voice trembling, “is that why I fell for you? You cast a Jewish spell to capture me?”
There was no humour, no banter in her voice, she sounded serious and I did not know what to do or say, so I continued to hold and stroke her, and eventually she seemed to relax and fell asleep in my arms. At about two she went to bed leaving me to sleep on the settee, later I heard her crying, but when I went to see what the matter was, her bedroom door was locked.
Next time I called round she wouldn’t let me in; I knocked loudly on the door but there was silence and when I tried my key, the door was locked from the inside.
“Helen,” I called, but there was nothing, and I imagined her sitting on the kitchen floor trembling and so I left, giving the ichthys a baleful look as I did so. When I tried to ring her at work the next morning, I was told she was busy with a client, and got the same answer when I tried a couple more times later that week, at least she was in work I supposed, rather than hiding away at home. In the end I posted my key through her door along with a note asking her to call me, and then I walked away; after all you cannot make someone see you, especially if you seem to be frightening them.
“She’s clearly mentally ill,” Alan told me, during our last conversation together. “Why don’t you help her?”
“Call someone. She’s supposed to be your friend, and you have given up on her.”
“She gave up on me,” I told him, but only half-believing it, and I imagined Tracey Thorn shaking her head in disgust. A couple of days later I posted a letter to her with the contact number for Mental Health Services in Birkenhead, which was all that I could think of to do, but I realised that it was a bit a pathetic, despite all my spurious arguments to the contrary. What would Tracey have done, I wondered? I had no idea.
The next time that I saw Helen was a couple of years later in Liverpool City Centre; she was heading away from Primark, looking scruffier than I remembered with baggy jeans and a long, dirty-looking green t-shirt. She was still beautiful, but you had to look for it beneath the unbrushed hair and badly applied lipstick.
“Helen” I said, and she looked over at me, puzzled and distracted, and I could see her eyes searching and searching, and then she gave up, gave me a frightened look, and hurried away. Later I was looking at my reflection in a shop window; smart haircut, suit and discrete tie, and I realised that I did not recognise myself either.
I am in my fifties now; the best of my life is over with and death is often in my thoughts; after all, Israel is not the safest place to live, with murders on both sides reported every day. Mind you, nowadays it seems Jews are targets wherever they live. After everything changed in England, I decided to make aliyah andflee; at first I lived with my sister and her husband and then I got a job at the university, rented my own apartment and began to make friends, I even had a lover for awhile, until she got bored of me and left. But I am still a stranger in a strange land, and in the evenings when I play Tracey Thorn’s latest album (a series of “feminist bangers” apparently) my mind goes back a quarter of a century ago and I am in love with someone beautiful who when she needed me, I betrayed.
I called at her house before I left England. For the last time I took the train from Liverpool to Birkenhead Central station and then walked up that steep hill, so treacherous in winter, and which left me breathless at any time of the year. I walked down her street again, hoping that she would still be there, but guessing that she didn’t live there anymore. She had left her job in the town centre several years ago and could be anywhere. I had with me a letter asking her to take a chance and come with me, which I planned to post through her door if she didn’t answer.
The house looked the same, even the ichthys was still stuck to the glass on the door, a little faded now and beginning to peel at the top, and for a moment my heart felt as if it would burst. After regaining my breath and plucking up my courage I banged on the door, I thought that I heard a noise from within, but nobody came so eventually I pushed the letter through the letter box, and heard it slip onto the floor. And then just as I turned away, a man came out with my letter in his hand.
“There’s no Helen here” he told me crossly, handing it back to me, “you must have the wrong address.”
I wanted to ask him if he could keep it, just in case she returned, but he had gone back indoors without a backwards glance, and so I screwed it up and stuffed it back in my pocket.
As I stood at the closed door, I lightly stroked the ichthys as if it was as charm, and then, in a burst of anger, I ripped it from the door and squashed it under my foot, wishing it was as easy to rip out the sadness and fear in my friend’s heart, and the guilt in mine.