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Who by Fire
by Andrew Lee-Hart


For Jacob



I looked at the pornographic picture in front of me and shuddered. What kind of mind could have produced such a tumescent, disturbing painting? Who would have thought that a still life could be so lustful and passionate?

Miriam looked at me, and smiled. In front of us was her startlingly grotesque painting; the apples and pears were overripe so you could almost see the juices seeping through the skin, whilst the bananas were unashamedly phallic. Everything dripped with fecundity and passion. She certainly had talent, but she intruded herself onto everything that she created, rather than keeping herself at a distance. She was only a housewife after all, attending my basic art course, for something to do in the evenings whilst she waited for her children to come along, which assuredly they would.

I coughed, feeling myself going red. “It is good” I told her, “you paint very well and have a great feel for colour. But you need to keep somethings hidden; your paintings are indecent, almost obscene. Sometimes I don’t know where to look”.

Her appearance hid her passionate personality; she always looked demure, smartly dressed in a dark blouse with her long brown hair held back with pins. She had dressed thus from the first day she turned up at my art class one Monday afternoon at Leeds Art School and the subsequent Mondays and Thursdays that she attended.

There was something about her I found unsettling; a cynic would say it was because she had far more talent than I could dream of, and perhaps that was the case.  But then my paintings sell and I get invited to exhibit my work, and I doubted hers would. She was just so emotional; every time I stood close to her, examining what she was painting (still lifes mostly, and occasionally people, although fully-dressed of course), I could feel that passion, as if she poured out everything in her heart onto the canvas.

We bumped into each other one afternoon at the Leeds city art gallery. I was exhausted having walked along The Headrow; carriages and horses splashing me in the Autumn rain. It was only two o’clock but I could feel the dark coming on. I only had come in to get some shelter from the rain and dry off, but whilst I was there I had a look around. It was sometime since I had been in there, although I spent much of my rather alienated childhood in the gallery.

She was sat on one of the benches, looking at some Dutch master or other.

“Don’t you think this is a great work, Mr Smythe,” she called over. I wanted to avoid her, finding her so overwhelming, but I could not be that rude. And she interested me. Well more than that. I had often found myself thinking of her, and it was perhaps fate seeing her there. I smiled and sat down beside her, and we talked of art.

“I have never seen your paintings” she said, “I know you paint. Are there any here, in this gallery?”

I explained that this gallery regarded me as too modern, but in some of the smaller galleries there was some of my work. We talked some more, and then she left as her husband was due home from work; he taught Classics at the university.

“I come here a lot” she told me before she departed; “early afternoons. I look at the art and copy pictures. I know I am not very good but I want to improve, and that is the way apparently.”

And then she was gone, with a faint smell of perfume still hanging where she had sat close to me.

And so we became friends. I saw her in the art class, but there we had to be formal, whereas outside the class we could talk more freely. Any afternoon that I was free I would come into the gallery and invariably there would be Miriam. We would sit together as she sketched the paintings she liked and we would chat about art, Leeds and her home life. And afterwards we had a cup of tea in a tiny café hidden away behind the gallery.

I did worry about our being recognised, after all it is not done for a married woman to be seen munching on scones with an artist, however she did not seem bothered. But then she never gave the appearance of being unduly bothered about what people thought of her, unlike me, who worries about it all the time.

I discovered she was in her early twenties, only slightly younger than me, and as we came from the same part of Leeds, it was a wonder that we had not come across each other before. She was Jewish; her mother and father had come over from Odessa to escape the pogroms in the late 1870s, and she was born shortly after they arrived in Leeds becoming part of the city’s Jewish community. But there had been a rift after she married a gentile.

“I met my husband at a concert; nobody approved of us, I was marrying out so my family were extremely angry, whilst his family do not like me, presumably because I am a Jewish although I go to their church and act the part of a good Christian wife.”

“Do you want more than that?” I asked her. She shrugged, and started talking about Rembrandt van Rijn. I could sense discontent in her. But perhaps it came out more in her paintings than in her appearance and in what she said. Was it her husband? Was she missing her family and her community? I felt that she must miss her people and her traditions. Certainly, when I was close to her I could sense her longing so strongly that it almost overwhelmed me.

The last Thursday that she attended the art class she was remote and seemed tense. Her painting was nothing like the still life she was supposed to be painting; there was no skull or guttering candle on the table in front of her, and everything in her picture looked sinister with a sense of foreboding. I looked at her working; her concentration was palpable. She said no word, and then as soon as the class had finished she was gone; she had not spoken to me once.

That evening I had just gone to bed, my thoughts of her as they so often were. And then there was a loud rapping on my door, and I froze, for a moment scared, wondering who had come to drag me away, but then I remembered where I was and put on a robe and went down to see who was at my door. Miriam stood there in the dark, a reticule over her shoulder, a Gladstone bag by her feet. It was cold and raining. As soon as I opened the door she pushed her way passed me and into my house.

“What are you doing here?”

“I am leaving. Off to France to become an artist.”

“Are you mad, woman?” I asked her.

But no, she was not mad; she wanted to get away from her husband, the Leeds Bourgeois society. She was frustrated and bored.

“I thought I would say goodbye” she said, “there is a train due in a couple of hours, to London, and thence to Dover. You can come with me if you like” she laughed as she gazed into my eyes. I said nothing, just stood there, and then she was gone, soundlessly and without complaint.



For a while I often thought of Miriam; imagined her living in a garret in Paris; chatting in restaurants on the left bank and sitting in the Louvre.  I wondered if she would become a famous painter. Or perhaps she had given up and gone home, back to her academic husband. Most of all I wondered if I should have gone with her.  But after ten years she had started to drift to the back of my mind; new lovers and friends had come into my life, and someone I had known only for a short while inevitably became less important.

I had soon stopped teaching art; most of my students’ paintings were execrable, and those who had talent soon learn to despise me and then quit. And none of them had the talent of Miriam. My paintings did okay, and I was featured in a couple of exhibitions in Leeds, but I could not rely upon them for money. After some indecision, I turned to book illustrating to make my living.

I was recommended to the publisher Chatto and Windus and they used me as one of their illustrators. It was not a great job, but the money was okay and at least it was art. And through them I started to illustrate some French works that they had commissioned, mostly editions of medieval French poetry which were very popular at the time. There was a new edition of poetry coming out and I went to Paris to meet the editor, Jean Boucher and to discuss how I would illustrate it.

We sat in a small room, part of the offices of Hachette publishers, in a rather obscure part of Paris. Boucher, was an older man who knew exactly what he wanted from his illustrator. I made notes as he spoke and gazed out of the window at the fog bound city below. I felt rather Bohemian being here and briefly imagined staying here to live. Could I survive? I had few ties in England and perhaps I would be inspired to get on with my painting.

“Oh” said Jean after we had finished talking about the volume of poetry, “a friend of yours works here, Madame Ullman. When I mentioned you were coming she asked me to send you to her. She does religious work.” 

I had no idea who he meant, but walked into a large office at the end of yet another corridor, to see two men and a woman sat round a table with paper scattered about them.

“Welcome to the Roman Catholic press of France” said one of the men as I walked in, then the woman looked up and it was Miriam.

“Roman Catholic press? I thought you were Jewish.”

“I can be who I like; anyway it isn’t my only job. I only go in twice a week and illustrate various magazines and propaganda sheets they put out. Mostly I do my own painting.”

We were sat drinking wine in a homely café nearby. She had hardly changed in the last ten years; still smartly dressed, her skin still flawless and those eyes, ready to submerge you without warning.

“Don’t they know you are Jewish?” I asked curiously.

“Oh no. Well they don’t ask. I wear this crucifix, so it probably doesn’t occur to them.”

“Have you been back to England?”

“I visit my mother on occasion. She is a bit disapproving, but at least she does not talk to my husband so I do not need to worry about that.”

She took me back to the office where she worked, it smelt of polish and French tobacco. I looked through some of her illustrations. Garish I thought; lots of blood dripping from martyred saints, eyeless sockets and austere men and women being roasted alive. All rather macabre. She looked at me with an amused smile as I gazed at her work.

“What do you think?”

“Not what I expected, but you always could draw. Too much emotion though. You need to be distant. I have always told you that. You are too involved with what you paint.”

We arranged to meet that evening at a rather fancy restaurant near the Notre Dame. She walked in looking beautiful in a red dress and her hair up and pinned. We chatted between courses and she told me of her life.

“I lived with someone for a while, an American but then he went off. He was a writer, mentioned me in one his novels. I think he was married, but it did not matter. I am on my own now and have a small apartment.”

I loved being with her, and was in wonder that we were sitting together after all this time; eating a meal together and chatting like old friends.

She took me back to her apartment and we sat together on the sofa, drinking wine; her perfume was more sophisticated now, and her make-up subtler than when she was a Leeds housewife. The front room where we sat was austere with a few books on shelves and a large painting above a fireplace. The smell of paint was everywhere.

Miriam then led me through a door and into her studio where paintings hung in various states of completion. Some still lifes, I was glad to see, but also nudes. There was one in front of me; large, almost life size. The model looked at me directly with blue eyes; her skin pale, and her breasts surprisingly large.

“Do you like it?”

“Oh it’s you.” It was Miriam, beautiful and sexual. I was overwhelmed with it and with her; I wanted to look at it, but could not bear to do so.

We went back into her sitting room.

“Take the pins out of my hair” she commanded and I sat down next to her on the sofa. Ever so softly I touched her hair as my fingers gently searched. I came across a metal pin and slowly pulled it out with my right hand, holding her head steady with my left. I was very conscious of her body next to mine, and I gazed down at her pale neck, with a slight greyness close to her ear.

There must have been thirty or forty pins, and cautiously I drew each one out, not wishing to hurt her or to spoil the moment, I then put each pin on a small table beside me. I was careful and she never once winced although I must have caught her hair once or twice. There was a faint scent of lemon coming from her hair; maybe her shampoo or some kind of pomade or scent. I felt as intimate with her as I had ever felt with anybody. I loved feeling her head, slowly touching it as if I was her mother or her lover.

“I have finished” I told her, and she ran her fingers through her hair and found a pin I had missed and our fingers touched as I helped her to pull it out and put it with the others. I felt close to her but also self-conscious.

“I had better go?” I told her, “it is getting late”.

“Yes” she said getting up, “I am expecting a guest.”   


The following morning I was on the train to Dieppe.



The third time I did not see her; well not in the flesh.  Her body, however was all over the walls of the very modern Galerie Bugada in Paris. In many of the paintings she was naked and unprotected; twisted on a cross, with a crown of thorns upon her head. In one a German soldier stuck a rifle with a bayonet on it into her side, in another a couple sat weeping below her feet. 

Other paintings showed her being beaten by men with sticks, as she crouched down trying to protect herself, and one showed her carrying her cross whilst bystanders jeered at her and threw things.  The largest painting; the focus of the exhibition, was another crucifixion; a stream of blood pouring down her legs, the sky a dark blue above her. On either side was another woman on the cross, both nude. I realised that they were also Miriam.  Hung around Miriam’s neck was the star of David.

Crowds of middle-aged men looked at Miriam in her nakedness; some peered close pretending to be examining the brush strokes, whilst others leered and laughed. I heard the words “disgraceful” and “pornography” from a couple of young men, which surprised me. I was not sure what I thought. I found it very unsettling, and felt protective towards her. 

There was no catalogue, and I wished there was, as I wanted to know what had happened to Miriam. I asked Monsieur Vachoux, the owner of the gallery, if he knew if Miriam lived in Paris, but apparently she did not. She had been into the gallery when the display was being put up and at the opening, but he had not seen her since.

“No doubt she will be here when the exhibition ends, in a month’s time. I believe it is going to Berlin where she lives. Her lover is a German writer I understand, nobody famous.”

I spoke to my friend Adele about the exhibition. Whenever I came to Paris to get away from my wife and children I would meet up with Adele and spend my time, when not meeting book publishers, naked in her bed. She had been to the exhibition two days earlier and did not like it.

“So how do you know her?” she asked me. It was towards the end of my stay, and I was beginning to remember why I would never leave my wife for her.

“I taught her, believe it or not. Feels like another lifetime.”,

“All very Jewish” Adele said, biting into some kind of pastry, with a slightly disdainful look. Suddenly her perfume smelt too heady and her lips looked too red. I could not think of a sharp rejoinder, so finished my coffee with a gulp and walked off, leaving Adele to follow me if she could.

I thought about the paintings a lot when I was back in Leeds. And I had a longing to see Miriam, to be with her and to talk to her. It was as if she possessed something that I needed, only she had a key to my secret self.


The Present

Her second husband was the German writer Franz Kurzweg, not read much nowadays or perhaps during any days. He was revolutionary and liked experimentation. Underneath it all there was probably a good writer trying to get out, but he never quite managed it, certainly not judging by the few books by him that I have found, but then my German is poor, so what do I know, and I cannot imagine anybody wanting to translate them into English.

I was a teacher by the 1930s in a grammar school in Leeds; teaching art and occasionally French when the French department needed a hand. My opportunities for going abroad were fewer, and I did not particularly want to travel as that part of my life was over. I was late middle-aged and respectable and if my married life was not brilliant, it could have been worse.

I enquired about Miriam from anyone I thought could know anything about her. I heard about a couple of exhibitions she held in Berlin and Cologne in the early 1930s. And then a friend told me that her paintings had been denounced as “degenerate” and “foreign” (code for Jewish) by a man whose name I cannot bear to speak or to write. And then I started to fear for her safety and hoped that she had got out. But she didn’t escape, she was one of the six million.

After the war ended I watched the documentaries and saw the pictures showing what the Russians found when they liberated Auschwitz and other death camps. Each skeletal figure could have been Miriam, or the bodies piled up like trash, ready to be disposed of. Presumably she was gassed or starved, or made to dig her own grave and then shot in the back of her head, all because of who she was. All because of who we both were.

When I left my parents’ house as a young man I had realised that nobody need know who I was; nobody need know that I was Jewish, who my parents were, anything about my past. I deliberately lost touch with friends from my youth and immersed myself in Leeds and the art world. I wanted to be free of my heritage. 

I changed my name from Goldberg to Smythe and with a bohemian beard and relatively light coloured hair nobody ever guessed my origins, I managed to develop a posh Yorkshire accent and completely hid my Polish tones. On the few occasions that I bumped into someone I knew from my childhood I avoided them and was never recognised. I felt guilty about my parents, but they seemed immersed in the past; still speaking Yiddish and following their silly superstitions as if they were still in Poland rather than in a modern city in England; I wanted away from all that, and to an extent I was successful.

I was ashamed of having been born a small village in Poland and a member of an old-fashioned religion; of having been a poor immigrant, coming to Leeds in rags. After I left home I became respectable and a churchgoer, and later I married a gentile wife who gave me gentile children. All very well and at least I was safe, but it was not me, I had ripped out an important part of who I was.

I am not sure if Miriam guessed. When we spoke it was as if she knew, but she never asked me directly. It certainly did not occur to my wife, despite my being circumcised, and by the time I had met her my parents were dead so I did not have to lie about them.

One Friday night, the time was right, and I told my wife who I really was, and the following morning, and for the first time since I was a teenager I attended the synagogue. I wept as the ancient tongue was spoken, so familiar and yet mysterious. Some of the ceremonies might seem silly, and I certainly could not believe in a kind God, who loved his people, not now and not ever. But I was Jewish and these were my kin; I had rejected them for long enough.



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