Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 57 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Gustav’s counselor looked at the trembling boy standing in front of him. “I am very surprised at you…” he said quietly. “To disappear like that for a whole day? Do you have any idea how much we searched for you yesterday?”
“I had to,” Gustav whispered. “I knew you wouldn’t let me go.”
“And we do let you leave without permission?” the counselor asked logically.
Gustav was quiet. His eyes glistened, and the counselor didn’t know if he was about to let loose. That’s what it looked like, even though until then Gustav had always been a refined, obedient boy.
But Gustav remained silent; only his eyelids trembled a bit.
“Where did you go?”
“I rode…” Gustav said.
“You rode? On a bus?”
“Where did you have money from?”
“From Friday’s candy money.”
“So you needed to save up for three weeks.”
“No, I asked four boys for their money.”
The counselor’s eyes narrowed. “You just asked them? And they just agreed to give it to you?”
“I promised to do all kinds of things for them in exchange.”
“Washing dishes for them, cleaning their rooms, taking notes for them in class…”
“That is not alright at all, but let’s leave that for a moment. What did you go for? What were you looking for in Bnei Brak?”
The sheen in the boy’s eyes dimmed somewhat, and Gustav leaned on the wall. Suddenly he looked a bit pale, almost white.
“Do you feel okay?” the counselor asked, even as he suspected it was a charade.
“No.” The boy was shaking violently now. “I’m terribly cold.”
He continued claiming he was terribly cold for three days. But when his temperature was taken, there did not seem to be any logical reason for the sudden chill that had overtaken him. But on the fourth day, no one who visited the small infirmary in the orphanage thought it was a charade. The boy’s temperature had gone up at night, and he was shaking from the cold, even though he had been covered with a pile of blankets.
“Severe pneumonia,” the nurse said compassionately.
“I had it once before,” the boy whispered.
“His lungs are weak,” Dr. Wabronsky told the orphanage director, who had worriedly come down to the infirmary. Gustav did not know if they had heard him. “I’m not sure he can withstand it…”
Did that mean he would die?
The first time he had been sick, the paper had been destroyed, and the names of Edo’s uncles had been erased. What would happen now, if he himself would die?
The nurse approached with a thermometer and a cup of tea. Gustav refused to swallow even one sip. He closed his eyes weakly, allowing his thoughts to carry him back to those long-ago days in the Jewish hospital in Bratislava. Ulush Cohen had been there with him, he remembered. She had also given him tea, and she had also looked at him with very sad eyes.
He coughed, and she pulled the spoon back.
“Yosef Ludmir.” He tried to utter the words. As it was, his hacking cough cut him off every few seconds. “Tell him. Yosef Ludmir. Ludmir. From…I don’t remember the street.” He wheezed again. “In Bratislava…number ten. That is the name. Yosef Lud…Lud…Ludmir.”
The director of the orphanage, who was standing at the door and talking to Dr. Wabronsky, turned his head to them. “What did he say?” he asked the nurse.
She glanced at the boy. “A name.”
“Yosef Ludmir,” the boy murmured again, a glassy sheen covering his eyes. “We need to find…”
“Ludmir from Bratislava? Is that his real name?”
“I don’t think so,” the nurse said. “He wasn’t talking about himself. Maybe he means that he wants to find this Yosef Ludmir.”
“Elisheva? We’re in Bnei Brak. Can I come over?”
Devorah glanced at her mother, whose eyes were darting around in alarm. “Who’s on the phone?” she mouthed.
Her mother didn’t answer her. “Yes, yes,” she said hastily into the phone, and then passed a hand across her forehead. “But my husband isn’t here now.”
“Oh, of course; I’m only talking about myself. So I’ll be over in a short while, okay?”
“Why didn’t you ask her what a ‘short while’ means?” Devorah asked, as she whizzed around the house with the broom. It was actually quite clean, but not very neat. After lunch, the little ones had spread out on the floor with the latest circulars, clean sheets of paper, glue, and scissors, and had made projects whose detritus now littered the entire floor. “And why didn’t she bring her daughter Batsheva with her?”
Not that Devorah knew the daughter, but she was quite familiar with Ima’s friend’s stories about her youngest child. Blumi had wanted to know if any of Elisheva’s daughters were Batsheva’s age, because maybe they would want to be pen pals with each other. Devorah and Riki—and honestly, Batsheva, too—had not been very enamored with the idea, and it had never panned out.
“Batsheva didn’t come to Israel this time; just her parents did.” Elisheva took a deep breath and looked around. Everything looked okay, more or less. The kitchen and dining room were clean, and all she could do was hope that Blumi Hartstein would not want a tour of the other rooms.
She didn’t. Or if she did, she didn’t say anything.
“What a lovely house!” she said as she sat, ramrod-straight, on the sofa. “And the balcony…what a view you have from there! It’s wonderful. Those are the Judean and Samarian Hills over there, aren’t they? Oh, thank you, dear.” She smiled at Devorah, who was serving cold water and some slices of yeast cake.
“The visibility is very good today, so we really can see the mountains in the distance. It doesn’t happen often.” Elisheva sat down beside her. She hadn’t rested today after work, but what could she do? It was better that Blumi was here now, when the boys were still in cheder and the house was relatively quiet. She could have asked to come during suppertime or bedtime, and that really would have been difficult.
“You can put a curtain here,” Blumi suggested. “My daughters bought me new curtains for my last birthday, and I enjoy them so much. Something beautiful in green and maroon would work well in this area.” She studied the glass doors with her head tilted to the side. “And it would also match your couch.”
“That’s true,” Elisheva said, looking at the soft tones of mauve and maroon of her new couch. “You have a point.”
“I don’t know that you’d be able to find that kind of fabric in Israel. Maybe I’ll send you some from London. The type that I’m thinking of comes out to about eight hundred shekels a meter, if I’m not mistaken. I’ll check for you.”
“Thanks, but really, it’s alright.” Elisheva smiled. “I’ll let my daughters find a birthday present for me on their own. I think that if they’d want to buy me curtains, there are plenty of pretty fabrics here that they could choose from.”
“Yes, you’ve got some good stores here, as well,” Blumi agreed. “But it will be more expensive, from the prices I’ve seen.”
“You can buy ready-made curtains, too.” Elisheva suppressed a smile, wondering what Devorah and Riki were thinking, as they watched their mother sit down on a random afternoon with a plate of cake, discussing couches, curtains, fabrics, and stores… But her guest was already onto the next subject: the floors.
Very cultural conversation, to be sure.
“So the floor was already in when you got the apartment,” Blumi murmured. “That’s what you told me, right?”
“That’s right,” Elisheva affirmed.
“It’s good marble. Very high quality. Interesting.”
“When you told me that you won this apartment in a Chinese auction, I didn’t expect to see something so large, and you know I understand these kinds of things.” She gave a wry smile. “You can also see your simplicity, Elisheva, which I love so much. But this apartment is very luxurious, just so you know.”
Elisheva had half a mind to ask where Blumi was seeing this simplicity that she was referring to, but then, through the glass, curtain-less doors to the porch, she caught sight of the row of well-used bikes and riding toys. She glanced at the table, with the glue stains peeking through the holes of the lace tablecloth, and at the new chairs that they had bought. Comfortable, durable, wooden chairs, but certainly nothing close to Blumi’s London standards.
And she relaxed.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Blumi said. “But I am familiar with the U’shemartem organization. We’ve donated to them a few times, and we visited their main office. They have resources, of course, but I don’t remember that this was the standard of apartments that they usually raffled off.”
“So what is the standard?”
Blumi pondered the question for a moment, and Elisheva thought that this was the first time since she had become acquainted with this woman that Blumi didn’t answer her immediately.
“I don’t know,” she said finally. “Maybe they grew a bit in the last few years. They are the type to give a large, nice apartment, painted well, and with a voucher for furniture. But not such a beautiful kitchen, not marble floors, and not so much credit for furnishings. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“And besides, it makes the most sense for the apartment to be in Yerushalayim, no? Why Bnei Brak?”
“We also thought about all these questions,” Elisheva said slowly.
“And we were left with the questions… I don’t have an answer.”
“Who told you that you had won?”
“Someone from U’shemartem.”
“Were you in their office?”
“No, we had to go to a lawyer’s office.”
“Interesting. Which lawyer?”
“I forgot his name,” Elisheva said ruefully. “The office was on Ben-Pesachya Street. What was his name? It was a short name—that much I remember…”
“It doesn’t matter this minute. Was a representative of the organization there, too?” Blumi took out her handheld device and scanned it as she spoke.
Elisheva leaned back. No, she was not under interrogation. This was Blumi Hartstein, her new friend. So why did she feel like she was being questioned by the police?
“Yes, of course.”
“What was his name?”
“Aharon Moshe Weil. He’s the one signed on their letters and catalogs and everything. I think he’s the deputy chairman or something.”
“Interesting. And did they take photos of you?”
If Blumi would say, “Interesting” one more time, she would scream. “They took pictures with my husband, but he only agreed to that on the condition that it would be just for their records and not be publicized.”
The interrogator didn’t say anything, and her phone rang just then. “Hello?” she said, and continued in rapid-fire English.
Elisheva just sat there, trying to collect every shred of her composure, which was now completely in tatters.