Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 58 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.
“Hello? Is this U’shemartem? This is Mrs. Hartstein from London calling again. May I speak to Rabbi Weil? He’s busy again? Honestly, young lady, I’m beginning to think you are being evasive.”
Elisheva, who was holding Nati in her right hand, and keeping an eye on Bentzy as he looked for his father among the people dancing on the street, did not understand how Blumi could possibly conduct a conversation with the thundering drums of the band in the background.
Indeed, she really did not seem to be able to.
“I’ll call again tomorrow. And please let him know that I expect him not to be busy, and to be able to answer my phone call. Perhaps my husband will call instead of me. Have a good day.” She stuck the phone into her designer pocketbook and turned to Elisheva. “If my husband calls, you can be sure that Weil will answer him. Do you see how they’re being evasive when I call?”
“Yes,” Elisheva said. “They are being a bit evasive, for sure.”
“A bit? This is not a bit. I’m not used to having to call four times and still not being answered. I called them four times—can you believe it? The first time was when I was in your house last week. The second time was on Friday, the third was on Sunday, and now is the fourth time. Something here is very strange.”
“Yes,” Elisheva agreed. “It is a bit strange.”
Where was Devorah? Perhaps she could see if Meir and Itzik were next to Eliyahu. From where she was standing, she could not see into the circles of dancers, and she couldn’t ask her new friend to move along a bit, just like she couldn’t ask her to stop investigating this matter of the U’shemartem raffle.
Interestingly enough, as soon as Blumi began digging into the issue, Elisheva realized how much she did not want to discover that these events had been orchestrated by people. Talking about how it was interesting and strange and perhaps someone had done it all on purpose—yes. But to discover that these musings were actually anchored in reality? To realize that someone had decided to take them on as his life project and support them in any way possible, some of them more delusional than others?
Only now did she realize how much she didn’t want it.
But she knew the way of the world: money talks, and things were quite out of her control right now.
“Where is Saba?”
It was after the dancing, during the seudah that was being held in the apartment right near the shul, and Elisheva was uneasy. Her father had been a bit weak since the morning, perhaps due to all of the excitement. He’d been fine on the trip to Yerushalayim, baruch Hashem, and he had even participated a bit in the dancing. But she was worried about him.
“He’s sitting next to Abba,” four-year-old Bentzy reported, when he peeked into the doorway of the room where the women were sitting. “And Abba’s asking if Nati is with you.”
“Yes, he’s right here,” Elisheva said. Nati was sleeping on her lap, and she was making every effort not to wake him. So on one side she had Blumi, telling her about her recent trip to France, and on her other side, Esti was trying to convince her to taste a salad, whose ingredients she could not identify. Across from her at the table were her new acquaintances, the women of the small Halabi community. Elisheva was doing her best to handle all of her current roles with aplomb.
“I really admire you,” Blumi said suddenly, after a surprising moment of silence.
“I admire you. Bli ayin hara, you are raising such a beautiful family, and handling things that I would think are just unmanageable.”
Elisheva smiled at her dinner roll. “What do you mean ‘unmanageable’?” she asked.
“Your financial situation, for example.” Blumi was speaking calmly, as if there was nothing offensive about what she was saying. Which was why Elisheva tried to take her words the way they were said, without offense.
“Really?” she asked. “It looks unmanageable to you?”
“A little bit. When you describe what you use to put together a meal…I feel so bad. On the one hand, of course.” Then she hastily added, “Because on the other hand—and that’s the stronger side, clearly—it just makes me admire you more.”
“Yes. Like I said when I started this conversation, in case you didn’t notice.”
“Yes, I noticed.” Elisheva smiled again.
“And you look very much like your father, you know? Maybe that’s where you got this ability to cope in difficult situations.” She suddenly grew serious. “Not that I know such situations myself. Someone else came up with the phrase, ‘money solves everything,’ but I’m ready to sign on it with a few hands, if only I had them.”
“Of course.” Elisheva chuckled. Blumi was fascinating. She was quite sharp, but at the same time, she sometimes came across as woefully unaware. She was refined, but suffered from a moderate to serious case of tactlessness. She had a mild egoistic streak, but at the same time she was very friendly, and even more generous.
“When your father walks, he looks very elderly, but his face gives a younger impression,” Blumi continued.
Elisheva sighed. “He had a stroke less than three years ago, you know. After it happened, I really wanted him to come live with us, but he refused.”
“As soon as we won the apartment, I brought up the subject again, but he keeps putting us off. Lately he’s agreed to hear a bit more about it. We’ll see; maybe over the summer he’ll really come.”
“Will you have to do anything on the medical front to be able to take care of him?”
“No, he’s considered healthy, baruch Hashem. We’ll have to take him for some physical therapy and make sure he takes his medications, but nothing much more than that. We will need to do some renovations to the house, though.”
“Yes. The quiet is very important to him. I want to make his room into a totally separate unit. It’s a bit removed from the whole apartment as it is. So we’ll put another door at the beginning of the hallway, and add a little kitchenette and anything else he needs.”
“Now he lives in an old-age home?”
“That’s right. And he has a little kitchenette in his room. Not that he cooks anything, but he can make himself tea or coffee, or cut up a fruit… We want him to be as comfortable as possible in our house, as well.”
“Details about the Ludmir family?”
“Yes, there are things that I already know, but if there is any additional information, I’d be happy to receive it.” Joe Ludmir paused. “But that’s not the main thing.”
“Nu?” After many months of working together, Leonid of O.S.U. Information Services Ltd. was quite familiar with his cautious client.
“I need information about children who were in the Lucius Jan Catholic Children’s Home during the war years. I don’t know an exact entry date, but they left in November of 1948. They were called there…” He paused again. “Edo and Gustav. I’d like to know if there is any additional information about them.”
“They were brothers?”
“They came together to the Children’s Home?”
“Do you have any more details about them? Age, prior residence, names…”
Ludmir was quiet, and then he coughed, like he always did when he was deliberating over something. “Look,” he said finally. “I do have something, but it’s not very major, and it’s not one hundred percent verified anyway. I prefer, for my own reasons, that you start a new, clean search.”
“So I should look for any details about them, irrespective of when and what?”
“Yes, you can say that. Actually, you don’t have to delve into what happened to them after the war. I’m up to date about them both on that matter. But other things are very important to me.”
“Look, I visited Bratislava a few months ago, and I discovered that the Catholic orphanage building has been demolished. I was in the old municipal archive, but I found that this work is really not for me. I didn’t even know where to start. Besides, I had to suddenly cut the trip short to return home.”
“I see. Alright, I’ll take care of it.” Leonid’s courteous, easygoing nature was one of his most prominent traits. “And if I have any questions?”
“Call or send me a fax. Oh, and Leonid?”
“Yes, Mr. Ludmir?”
“Please send me every detail that you find, right away. Directly to me. Not to one of my secretaries or the office of the factory. Only to my personal number at the office, or to my home.”
Joe went out for his evening walk. He chose the park at the end of the street as his destination, and he walked in that direction very slowly. Daniel Ludmir and his wife were expecting him to travel with them to America in another month, to attend their son Arik’s wedding. But Joe wasn’t sure he would go, despite his excellent health. First of all, a flight to America was not like a domestic flight in Australia; it was a much bigger exertion. And besides…it would only intensify his heartache. And with that, his backache.
“Psychological pains,” Dr. Benson called them. They would only get worse—that was as clear to him as the clearly marked paths in this park, which he used to meander along during those long-ago evening walks with Martha, of blessed memory.
If Martha would be alive, what would she say? That there’s nothing like family? Probably. That you don’t treat cousins lightly, especially if you have no one closer?
She had a gaggle of siblings and nieces and nephews, with their spouses and children. But she always encouraged Joe to keep in close touch with his relatives, too—his Uncle Gershon and Aunt Batya, and their children, Gavriel, Miriam, Elisha, and Reuven. He was closest to Elisha, Daniel’s father. He could attribute many of his business successes to Elisha and also to Gavriel; the rule of not doing business with family did not really seem to apply to them.
Joe wasn’t sure that he would be pleased with the whole atmosphere at this wedding, anyway. Daniel was Orthodox, sure, but his son Arik did not exactly adhere to everything his parents did. Not that Daniel had built a home that was exactly like his parents’, either; he had not. But the sharp differences of the new generation were much starker than the ongoing, subtle changes of decades past. His mind flashed back to his aunt and uncle’s home in Magdiel….
The brush alongside the pretty path in the Sydney park did not at all remind him of the huge field that spanned the area behind the one-story house of Uncle Gershon and Aunt Batya. Then why was he suddenly smelling the wildflowers that grew like ivy up the sides of the house, toward the orange-shingled roof?