Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chapter 14


Thomas and Marguerite insisted on picking me up the following Friday evening for shabbas at the Cohen’s family home in Dover Heights. Robert had always described it as Vaucluse but Thomas picked up on the misnomer when he put the address into his father’s satellite navigation. Thomas tooted the horn a number of times and I ran out to the street gleefully, unsure as to what the night would hold but happy to be the chaperone as the MacDonald’s bridged cultures.

When I slid across the back seat, Thomas leaned to the side pocket, returning with a yamaka dotted with a techni-colour of fairy lights. A 9 volt battery had unfastened itself underneath the skull cap and he fidgeted with it until the lights came on, grinning as he passed it back.

“You are incorrigible” said Marguerite looking at Thomas who now motored the saloon out from the kerb, casting an eye in the rear vision as he did.

“Theo, you don’t mind wearing that do you?” he asked.

“You have to be kidding Tommy, this is not a joke tonight” I said and he looked into the rear view mirror and snuffed, raising his eye brows at me.

“I thought you wouldn’t mind giving those Cohen’s a run for their money” he said.

“I told you, they are friends, first and foremost” I said.

“Well then they will know that it’s all fun and games” he said, dismissing me and putting his cheeky face up to Marguerite.

“What say you sis, a bit of fun?” he said but his face scoured and he scarified her leg with his nails.

“Thomas, you really don’t know when to quit. You are quite the social terrorist” she said, her voice increasing in its severity but quavering.

“You’re accusing me of being a terrorist?” he said and snuffed again, turning to me in the rear, not watching the road, smiling again, alarming both Marguerite and I.

“I just hope they don’t pull all that Jewish Superiority stuff on me, they always crap on about how important their religion is” said Thomas.

“It is, Thomas. They eat together like civilised human beings every Friday night and they break bread and pray. You and I quite often are snorting coke by that hour. I think it’s wonderful. Point taken though, it can go too far” I said in agreement.

“You are both twits” said Marguerite, opening her window and letting the air wop through the window, “you both need to grow up”.

We sped along Old South Head Road and into Dover Heights, parking the car outside the newly built concrete structure, its square lines rising precipitously into the black flannel sky. Heavy steel gates secured the compound and a large security camera was mounted against the far wall, which followed us as we made our way up the sidewalk.

“My God, the security camera moves” said Thomas.

“Yes, he’s such a goose. Robert’s in the security room moving it – I’m all in!” I said throwing pretend chips into the centre of the table.

“Sometimes when you two talk I don’t know what you are saying” said Marguerite.

She pressed the door chime, a irksome melody rang out and could be faintly heard echoing across the house.

We entered the front door where a short rotund silver-haired man of fifty-five stood embracing his wife, his children neatly lined in size from left to right, Robert the last of the children to be displayed. His eager expression threw Thomas off and cooled Marguerite who now became less excited.

“Welcome welcome” said Sam Cohen, his voice bellowing deep, constructive yet scrutinising hazel eyes and thick bushy brows looking at Marguerite, “or ‘Shabbat Shalom’ as we say”, averting his eyes now to Thomas who walked casually in, almost swinging his gait. Thomas looked the lobby over in a glance.

“Tell me something, who moves the camera?” said Thomas but no-one ventured to answer his question.

“This is my wife Rebecca” said Sam undeterred. “Ralph on the left, Jessica next, then Eliza, and of course you all know Robert”.

“Welcome welcome” said Robert.

Rebecca was a strikingly beautiful Sephardic Jewess, her almond eyes and rich black hair which now greyed, catching the attention of Thomas who stared intently at her for a few moments.

“I see where you get your good looks from Robert” said Thomas and followed the family as we walked through the hallways, Sam walking two paces in front of the rest. Both Marguerite and Thomas were itching to touch things and feel their way around but were practically enclosed by the family who flanked them on either side. I watched them marvel at photo frames of the family unit, pointing at one dolphin photo frame they must have found particularly amusing. In another instance, Marguerite laid a finger lightly atop a chest of drawers, home to a bowl of keys, checking her finger for dust. Thomas looked to the walls, amazed at the limewash technique used to flower and cloud the walls, stiffening as he did. They both hunted for the obscure detail which would send them wild with laughter but for now they remained composed and interested in their subject matters. Eliza was asking Marguerite questions about being a model and Marguerite modestly answered them, totally confounded that Robert must have marketed her as such as he sold her to his own family. Thomas put his hands in his pockets as we entered into the dining room, surveying the inflated flat screen television and obtuse surround sound speakers mounted to all four corners of the room. But, according to their silent communication which I could now intercept, the most remarkable of all details could be found in the faux timber panelling that adorned the walls. Marguerite tapped it twice to alert Thomas who then examined it on the opposite wall.

“We have no rules about where people sit but I like to keep myself up to date with the kids of today so one of you young ones needs to be within ear’s reach” he said.

Ralph began handing out yamakas, passing them from from a fisted mound, an assortment of different yamakas from differing events and festivals.

Thomas turned toward me and hissed that it was time.

“I’m not doing it” I said.

“What?” he asked under his breath.

“Time and a place” I said, peering down into my cashmere jacket pocket where the yamaka had made contact with the battery and was flashing in its darkened cavern.

We seated ourselves on the green velvet high-back chairs, Sam standing by the hulla, one hand holding his prayer book, his other arm wrapped around his wife; who’s radiant smile was caged tonight. Sam now prayed over his aged crimson covered prayer book, spotted with oil and fraying at its edges. When he finished his prayer, which was now familiar to myself but which had Marguerite and Thomas respectfully dumbfounded, he stood over the table, and began dispensing chunks of bread which were thrown down the table, twirling the air to be caught by each recipient. Now Thomas and Marguerite, who sat opposite each other; Robert seating himself next to her whilst placing Thomas next to me. I edged over the table to look down at Ralph who was sharply at Thomas and Eliza who gazed at Marguerite as though she’d descended from another planet. This evening Marguerite had set herself apart; elegantly dressed, her lofty cheek bones almost masculine in their definition, her hair combed into a beehive.

“So is this your first time?” asked Sam, addressing both MacDonald’s.

“Yes, I believe it’s mine” answered Thomas, “but I can’t speak for Marguerite” he said passing the conversation across the table.

“I had some Jewish friends, people of the Jewish faith I should say, in London. But I don’t think we ever did the prayers or the bread” she said, Robert placing egg dip onto her plate, the sweet smell of the brioche bread permeating the air.

“It’s all standard fare isn’t it?” said Thomas, “I can remember in the old days I used to eat this sort of stuff down at the Swiss Deli”.

Sam Cohen produced a bottle of red wine and passed it to Robert who now corked it and began to pour wine amongst the adults. When he finished I picked up the bottle, finished my glass and poured another. Thomas was now progressively becoming agitated as he noticed Robert within Marguerite’s personal space and he shifted, turning to me to try and ignore it. He raised his eyebrows at me, pushing his forehead forward, his whole mass of hair moved like a toupee.

The conversation drifted through gentle topics, Sam bent on introducing different parts of the dinner and the history of the traditions behind them. Further, he paid particular effort towards Thomas who seethed quietly, his eyes constantly casting themselves towards the awkward lovers, Robert attentively doting on his prize. After some time, Sam brought the conversation back onto himself.

“Ralph, Eliza, stop that” he said, the adolescent children playfully making shapes out of bread. He was about to continue but paused as Thomas spoke.

“Do you mind not doing that?” said Thomas, who now looked directly upon Robert.

“Do what?” he said, the table stopping instantaneously, frozen at this sudden change in conversation.

“You know what I am talking about Cohen. Just stop grovelling after my sister” he said, throwing off his niceties and gaining impetus in delivery. “Can’t you just talk to her”.

“Thomas!” said Marguerite alarmed and shaking her head in dismay.

“What, it’s perfectly alright? I wouldn’t do this to you. It’s embarrassing, and you sit there lapping it up” said Thomas.

“Thomas” said Sam, but here he coughed, repeating himself for measure, “Thomas, I think there is a misunderstanding but Robert wi...” but was cut short.

“I came here to respect your culture, would you kindly respect mine”, Thomas’ words now gritty, his napkin now held in his right hand.

“Calm down old sport” said Robert, completely unsure of his course, “the night’s still young, we can roll in the hay afterwards”.

Thomas crawled gently back into his former self, Marguerite’s hands, though not visible, were surely wringing, and she lifter her chin and edged her face towards his, sizing her brother’s intentions. After they’d exchanged a prolonged glance they released their lock on each other and the night continued with a renewed smoothness though each participant bar myself made a concerted effort not to speak to Thomas directly.

A main course of chicken schnitzel with mashed potato and garden salad was served by a Filipino maid who had not showed her face all evening. There was a soft and timid way about her, Rebecca physically guiding her with light touches of her shoulder as to where to set dishes down.

“Tina is new” she said to Marguerite, “she’s still not sure about how things get done” she said.

“Ours is not as pretty nor as deft” said Marguerite in return, “she’s like a bull in the China shop at times”.

“My white socks came out pink last week” said Thomas abruptly.

“Lucky you like pink” I said laughing, but the others did not join in, quivering on the spot, looking to Thomas for his reaction. Thomas noted this by slightly raising his head and squeezing his lips together.

I ate as much as I could to avoid conversing. Realising my course of action, Sam turned to me.

“Theo, will the people return a liberal government?” he said.

“I hope not – we’re selling off the countries telecommunications for a song to raise revenue for God knows what” I said.

“Wrong, but let’s not go there” chimed in Thomas.

“What’s your opinion, Thomas?” asked Sam.

“We’ve finally got a government who is leading economic reform in the right direction. Say what you will about John Howard but he’s a good leader” said Thomas assertively.

Marguerite sat frozen in her seat, she made polite gestures but she marked Tom, who at times showed potential of raising himself into a state of seething anger but remained stirring in his eddy, waiting for something, perhaps a sign from his hosts, of what course to take.

“I think that the Liberals have done an excellent job of guiding the economy, but perhaps the economy should be made up of more than just numbers and decimal places” said Sam Cohen sagaciously, daubing his forehead with a crisp white handkerchief and behind his voice the slightest hint of European Jewry could still be detected, as though the Polish forefathers which had died for his freedom could still be heard in the annals of his vocal chords.

“My problem, Mr. Cohen, and I hope I don’t come across as too much of a prat, is that until people understand that profiteering is not an evil pursuit but that it is people who become corrupt in profiteering, then we will constantly have people like yourself saying that we shouldn’t just make the economy up of numbers when in fact, there is nothing wrong with the numbers, it’s the human beings which cause the problems” said Thomas in a disguised contemptuousness.

“And how should wealth be divided Thomas?” said Sam.

“By whoever has the most of it” said Thomas undeterred.

“Salary caps on directors of companies?” asked Sam.


“Would you like to breed out the weak”

“If they can’t keep up with progress”

“If you brought a child into the world with Cerebral Palsy?” asked Sam with greater enthusiasm, nearing the finishing line.

“I haven’t had children, I cannot answer that yet”

“I think you are a very presumptuous man”

“I think your son is very presumptuous”

“I think he’s stupid, not presumptuous” said Sam and turned toward Robert who’s face was stuck, unable to move as he looked down the table to see his father tete a tete with Thomas. Marguerite’s face now flushed crimson, now pale lily white, now green. She gritted her teeth as though she were weakening.

“Do you want some water?” I said to Marguerite but she did not respond.

“Marguerite, I think Mr. Cohen has completely misunderstood me” said Thomas and here he turned to Sam Cohen, and beamed a full teeth smile.

The children remained still and Rebecca was patiently waiting to diffuse the conversation by offering dessert with tea and coffee. Her opportunity came as Thomas did his best to diffuse Sam who was by now channelling all his efforts into Thomas. Thomas turned the conversation onto friendlier terms and with a stroke of genius managed to find enough common knowledge on music with Sam to have him consider the previous skirmish as sport.

“Fourth time around or Norwegian Wood?” asked Thomas.

“Dylan is a master” said Sam, “I don’t really know if you could make a comparison like that”.

“I think the same” said Thomas, “the Beatles are imposters. It wasn’t until they caught up with Dylan or that Dylan caught up to them and gave them an earful that they pulled their fingers out of their arses.”

“We have children present” said Rebecca.

“My apologies” said Thomas, shooting Ralph a cheeky smile and having it returned.

The table adjourned to the lounge room where Rebecca served an apple flan with some filtered Illy coffee. Robert sat with Marguerite on the far sofa, both of their knees stiffly together, remaining quiet and subdued.

I watched them eating their cake in small aristocratic portions, Robert humbly following Marguerite’s lead, to the dismay of Thomas who pretended that they did not exist as Robert dug his silver fork into the paisley plate and cantilevered small portions to his lips, crumbles remaining on his lower lip.

Surprisingly now, as though the early evening had been wiped from the memories of all that had gathered, Thomas made a surprisingly good and genuine effort to engage his host and hostess.

“This is a lovely cake, Rebecca. Theo’s stepmother makes an amazing apple and walnut cake. Have you ever had it?” he asked Rebecca.

“We’ve never even met Theo’s parents” said Sam, “though I hear his Dad plays golf with Bruce Levin but I never seem to get an invite”.

“Would you want to play with him?” I asked Sam but I held my eyes on Marguerite, her eyes darting from person to person.

“No, I am kidding, I always play with my same crowd. I have for twenty years” he said.

“Does your father play golf?” asked Sam to Thomas.

“We have memberships to the Australian and the Royal Sydney but to answer your question – we hate golf. Besides, we don’t like the anti-semitical types that linger around the Royal Sydney club house” said Thomas but did not win over Sam as he had intended. Instead a silence fell over the family, as though they had finally gauged Thomas in this final statement.

We all seemed to place our coffee cups down onto the table at the same time to a common clank of porcelain. Rebecca lifted her glazed chin which was lightly bronzed and finished with foundation which cracked near some aging skin of her lower cheek. She turned to Marguerite.

“I feel as though we didn’t even have a chance to talk” she said.

“Oh, well, it was Thomas’ night tonight. I think he preferred to make the family impression” she said.

“Robert tells me you are off to the snow in a few weeks time” said Rebecca.

“Yes, Theo’s booked us all into a chalet” said Marguerite.

“Are we still going?” I asked.

“Theo, don’t be so stupid, of course we are going. Robert’s never seen snow before. We can’t miss this” said Thomas.

“I’d like to go to the snow” said Ralph but his father dismissed him.

“There is something strange about you Jews” said Thomas pricking the ears of every person in the room, “you don’t really like to go far from the city. It seems the world over you congregate in cities. Not many of you seem to be the farming types. What is the reason for this?” he asked, turning to Sam.

Sam thought for a while, not saying a word. He looked for answers in his wife’s concerned countenance.

“I think, firstly, that we like to be referred to as Jewish people, just as a matter of preference, but to answer your question.... I think we have always been driven my markets and markets occur where there are people congregating”.

“My father is reading ‘A History of Jews’ as we speak. He says it’s fascinating. I intend to read it afterwards.”

“I am told it’s not a bad history for a gentile to have written though I haven’t read it” replied Sam.

“Well, Marguerite, we should be making tracks” said Thomas, then turning to me, with eyes asunder he said, “And Theo, could you please drive, I drank too much”.

We were escorted to the door by the Cohen family who trailed behind us as we made our way for the door.

“You should come over and play FA Cup with Robert and I” said Ralph which embarrassed Robert in front of Marguerite.

“He loves his video games doesn’t he” I said to Ralph.

Sam Cohen held the door open and a fresh evening air rushed through into the foyer, it was dry and windy outside. Marguerite wrapped herself in her shawl and kissed Robert on both cheeks, both certain not to embrace each other. When the door closed behind us I waited ten paces before I spoke.

“Thomas, if you jeopardised my friendship with the Cohen’s tonight I will rip off your throat and shit down your neck. They are good people. What the hell were you doing back there?”

“Go to hell Theo. I am not interested in your fucking wide net of social friends” he said, “I am more annoyed that my sister is cavorting with a Jew who thinks it’s appropriate to rape her with his eyes over dinner”. He threw the keys across the car at me, I caught them and opened the door.

“You are a criminal, Thomas” said Marguerite, “He has done nothing wrong to you. All he wants is for you to accept him”.

“We all want things we can’t have Marguerite, and if I did accept him what then? Are we all donning yamakas each Friday night?” he said.

“Are you drunk?” asked Marguerite.

“I would like to be but I felt so fucking oppressed in there that I didn’t want to drink their wine. And I thought they might charge me for it at the end”.

“Thomas, I never thought you could be such a fuckwit” I said.

“Again Theo, go to hell. Stay out of this, it’s in-house”.

We drove towards Christensen Park and made our way back towards Bellevue Hill via New South Head Road, descending the S Bends past Kambala School whilst Thomas and Marguerite argued without words. They would just stare at each other, turn to their sides, huff, re-position themselves, pull slack on their seat belts and open and close their windows.

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