The House of Memories
by Andrew Lee-Hart
First Part The Museum
The locals call it the Madwomans House, whilst Rebecca, my sister called it Noddfa, which is Welsh for refuge, but now it is known as the House of Memories, and it is a museum where my sisters most intimate memories are on display for everyone to see.
I was surprised the house was open, the country being in the middle of an invasion, and the dead being cleared off the streets every night, but there it was, in the Prestwich area of North Manchester where my older sister had lived the last few years of her life. During her lifetime I had only visited occasionally; once a year at most, I was still in London and had my own life, whilst my parents disapproved of my sister; unmarried, dissolute and ignoring her heritage, so it was all rather difficult, and perhaps I was envious of her, my sister who had had so many adventures whilst I had stayed at home teaching children in the East End. But she, like the rest of my family, is dead, and I am on the run, and I miss her.
There is a little shop where the vestibule used to be, and in it sits a woman on duty who looks to be about sixty, the same age as me. She gives me a sheet of paper about the house and as I am probably the first visitor today or even this week, she talks to me but without looking at my face.
It is a beautiful house with frescoes in every room; she was painting her whole history on the walls of this house. She regarded it as her great work of art. The woman talked as if she had known Rebecca personally, she lived all on her own until she died of pneumonia, but she left this legacy, which we have preserved. I nod, as if it is all new to me, the woman looks grey and underfed, and she has the inevitable uniform as anyone with even the slightest status has to these days.
The house smells of potpourri and the womans perfume, whereas I remember the smell of paint and cooking. I glance round at the shop; a few postcards and even a small book about the house and my sister, written by an art historian from Manchester University (now temporarily closed).
She was Jewish I am afraid, but we dont talk about that of course, and if you see pictures of her she doesnt look it. Well not to speak of. And the woman coughs in a genteel manner, as if there is something nasty in her throat.
I glare at her, although that was rather foolish as there is a good chance she will report me, which is the last thing I need, and so without another word I walk in to re-visit the house where my sister found refuge and, for a little while, love.
Second Part Rebecca
My sister lay in the bath and sang the words of a madman, a song by that English composer Tobias Bennet whose dark, phantastical songs were becoming popular once again in 1920 three hundred years or so after they were written.
Thine heart is gone/ The raven with blood on it claws/ Has left me undone.
She sang loudly and with passion, her voice rising out of the window and into the Manchester streets beyond. She was forty-three but looked ten years younger. An adventurous lifestyle and an inquisitive mind had kept her young in body and spirit.
On the wall above the bath was one of her frescoes; the island of Capri that she had visited many years ago; there was the clear blue sea and the cliffs rising up covered in verdant life. She had remembered it without effort and painted it onto the walls from memory, in fact it had been the first room that she had decorated when she bought the house and decided what she would do with it.
This house is my canvas she would tell the odd friend who visited her, and she said the same to me on my first visit. And truly it was magnificent; there were so many rooms and it must have seemed a hopeless task but when she died there at little over ten years later every room was covered in colour and brightness, her masterpiece was complete, even as the world started to crumble around us, and our people became fearful once again.
She had moved to Manchester on a whim, or that is what she told us in the letter she wrote to her family back in London. The last thing we had heard was that she was in France firstly working in an army hospital and then in Paris immersed in the art world, and then a letter from Manchester explaining that she had bought a house and we were welcome to visit. And it was there that she stayed, the longest she had remained in one place since childhood.
She seemed happy, she did not know many people in the area, but she was always self-contained and self-sufficient, and she had her art which seemed to be more important than the lovers and friends that we heard about for a short time, then disappeared completely. And where had she got her money from? She claimed that she had earned it from selling her painting and generous patrons. It made me cross that I had to earn my living whilst she had money falling into her lap.
Rebecca walked down the stair in her robe, her mind full of the fresco she had completed a few weeks previously in the hall upstairs, a Jewish theme; her parents sitting around the table for Sabbath, with Rebecca and I sat with them listening to my father. Rebecca had left her religion behind her as soon as she left home, but it was clearly still part of her, and there was affection and love in the picture depicting her childhood.
As she reached the bottom of the stair there was a loud rap at the door, and there on the door step stood a young woman, tidily dressed and with a determined look in her eye.
Hello Rebecca, she said I am Esther and she strode past my sister into the house, my mother wrote to you I believe, she continued whilst Rebecca shrugged in helplessness and followed her. She had no idea who Esther was and she could not remember any letter, but then she was scatty and forgetful.
There was a letter, eventually Rebecca found it in a book about Degas, and she opened it, from a someone related to our mother by marriage, asking if Esther could stay for the time being whilst she found digs.
I have a job at Crumpsall Hospital, and need somewhere to stay.
But this is a work of art, not a boarding house.
Esther laughed, dont worry I have heard all about you, I am sure that I will manage.
It is not you that I was worried about muttered Rebecca crossly.
They wandered around the house together, a mixture of a gallery and a holy place. And in the room that was to be Esthers, on the wall, was a picture of a naked woman, asprawl on the bed. Esther laughed again.
No, a lover.
Esther smiled, she looks very beautiful.
She was, well most of the time.
Esther loved to watch my sister paint; Rebecca was now working on something in the music room, so called because there was an upright piano in the middle and sheet music on chairs and on the floor. The fresco showed dancing figures like a savage rite. Lots of browns and reds.
What is it? Some kind of play?
It was a ballet, The Rite of Spring, by a Russian composer called Stravinsky. I saw it in Paris, there was a lot of booing and I have not heard of it since, but it seemed most strange; something primitive and discordant about it. I still remember some of the melodies from it. I want to capture it, before I forget it. When I paint it I still hear the music and the rhythms in my head.
On another wall was a man wearing a black hat and some kind of surplice and round him danced devilish figures.
That is Tobias Bennet, an old composer from the time of James the First; he wrote some very strange music. Apparently James said that he knew his music was not from this world, but whether it was from Heaven or Hell he could not tell.
Later Rebecca sat down at the piano and played some songs by Bennet; singing softly, the keys playing a compelling but sinister tune that pulled Esther onwards.
Please stop she said eventually, you play very well, but it is too strange for me. I prefer something a bit happier.
Esther found Rebecca peculiarly attractive, she was older than her, but was so knowledgeable about the most esoteric of subjects. In repose she looked pretty and attractive, a typical woman of the leisured classes, but when painting or playing the piano, her strokes vigorous and strong, she seemed so much more than that, a powerful force of nature, with an overwhelming sexuality, and her smell of lavender and sweat which Esther longed to bury herself in.
Esther walked into Noddfa in tears, she inevitably found Rebecca painting in the music room, it was almost complete now, the Rite of Spring covering three walls whilst Tobias Bennet looked on, unseeing and possessed.
You are naked Esther exclaimed, for a moment forgetting her sadness.
I often paint naked, or I did. And you are upset.
Esther shrugged, it is just the poverty of the city. A woman, only in her twenties already got five babies, and now she is dying, her husband has no job and looks helpless, and oh Rebecca, the children. What a pitiful waste.
Rebecca held her, and Esther put her head on her shoulder, and then slowly the two women drew apart and looked at each other and they kissed.
Later in Rebeccas bed, a seascape above them, they lay in each others arms.
How distantly related are we?
Oh I am glad said Rebecca, very glad indeed.
Third Part - Esther
Rebecca painted whilst Esther nursed, attended meetings, visited the poor and wrote impassioned leaflets to Members of Parliament and rich business men, although she rarely got a response. Sometimes in the evenings the two women went to concerts together or Rebecca would play for her; Bach, Purcell or Bennet, and if feeling kind, something lighter, and more to Esthers taste.
They lay in bed one evening, the sky outside dark, and the smell of paint so much a part of the house they neither of them noticed it.
What do you talk about in your meetings? Rebecca asked.
Poverty and unemployment; how to improve things. You must see it when you leave this house.
Yes, but isnt it always like that? Everywhere you go, every city, every country? Once everyone got the vote we thought the country would change, but it hasnt. Perhaps this is how the world is, no matter what changes happen in politics.
Esther sighed, I have seen some horrible sights here in Manchester, every day, in the hospital and walking there and back, it breaks my heart. You and I have money and education, we are safe, but there is nothing for these people. And I think they will blame us eventually?
Yes, us the Jews? When the poor rise up, as they surely will, they will blame the Jews for their misery, or they will be told to, the oldest hatred always raises its ugly head. I have heard speeches, read some of the newspapers. The hatred will burst into life.
Rebecca sighed, I know things are hard for many people, but I cannot think that it will change. And as for Jew hatred, I have seen none of that. This is civilised country; tolerant. I am glad you care, but there will be no pogroms here.
Glad to hear it muttered Esther sarcastically and climbed out of the bed to sleep in her room, overseen by Rebeccas previous lover.
Rebecca and Esther walked through the streets of Manchester arm in arm; Rebecca put a heavily scented handkerchief to her nose as the smell of filth and rotting food engulfed her. She could feel Esther at her side; strong and determined.
Get me back home she was thinking, I cannot bear this. But Esther bore her on as if immune to the squalor around them, wading through the filth at their feet and even stopping to talk to the many people who tramped the streets or who stood listlessly in their doorways. Rebecca could not understand their accents and although she had sympathy for the people Esther talked to, her main emotion was that of fear and fatigue.
All day long they walked through the poorest parts of the city until exhausted they returned home by tram.
Can you see why I go to these meetings, and try to change things? Esther asked.
But what do you want? A socialist state like Russia, with people being rounded up and shot?
Oh dont be ridiculous Rebecca, it is nothing like that. At least the poor have a say and dont die of starvation or cold. Can you really be happy with the way the world is?
Rebecca held her in her arms, perhaps I am old, but things dont change like that. It is art that survives nothing else.
You are quite naive Rebecca. Bohemian, but naive.
Rebecca sat at the piano playing song after song by Tobias Bennet; songs of anguish and heartbreak, someone singing to a lover who had deserted him, or a god. In the past my sister would have fled; if a romance stopped being happy she would leave, but she wanted Esther more than she wanted anyone else, and she wanted someone to share her house with. Esther had not come home from work, presumably she had gone straight to a meeting or was visiting one of the poor. And then she heard the door open, and Esther take off her cloak, there was a moments hesitation, and then footsteps going upstairs. My sister carried on playing until her fingers were sore and there was no music left inside of her.
For days my sister lay in bed, barely eating or washing, her piano and her paints untouched. Esther had disappeared, there was a note, but she had not even bothered to read it as she knew what it would say. They had argued more and more, and it became clear to my sister that Esther wanted to go and change the world and knew that Rebecca would not go with her, and so she had packed her few belongings and departed in the middle of the night, whilst Rebecca lay awake listening to every sound of her departing lover.
She never discovered where Esther went; perhaps to the slums of Manchester or another English city, or over to the workers paradise in Russia, for the rest of her life she was not to see her again or get any missive from her. She could have looked for her; enquired at the hospital or one of her friends, but my sister was dignified and did not want to play the role of pathetic lover; she was stronger than that, and she knew that eventually she would recover.
I remember Esther; I visited the house twice when she lived there, although I did not realise at the time that she was my sisters lover, such a thing would not have occurred to me. She was a short, strong woman, but striking with brown hair with glimpses of red, which glowed when she left it down. I dreamed about her on and off after first meeting her, and was thus disappointed when I returned to the house in 1922 to discover that she was gone, and my sister had no idea where she was or seemed to care.
Rebecca survived her lovers rejection; one day, the sun seemed brighter than previously and so she got up and walked into the dining room and started to paint; four portraits of Esther; one on each wall. One as a nurse, another walking through the streets of Manchester with Rebecca daintily walking beside her, one of her asleep on a couch and the final one as she must have appeared the first time she came to the house; young and sweet, but also strong and brave, looking directly at the viewer.
Part Four - Ending
Esther stared down at me from all four walls as I stood in the dining room; the colours had faded a little, but the fresco was still strong and dramatic, and I wondered if Esther had been the only person that my sister had ever loved. I could not stay here for long; I was on my way to Liverpool where apparently you can still escape the country if you know who to ask, but I had not been able to resist coming to see my sisters house one last time. I was glad that Rebecca, my beautiful sister, had escaped this persecution and our country overrun by hatred and stupidity, a country where even an old man is forced to flee for his life, so it is best that Rebecca is buried safe under ground
The woman was still there as I finished my tour of the house.
What do you think? she asked
I liked the pictures of Esther I told her, you have not changed that much, not really.
Esther looked at me steadily, I didnt recognise you. It looks like we are the only ones left.
It was only when I saw the pictures, then I realised. Couldnt keep away?
I have been here for a few months, I had nowhere else to go and I feel that I am protecting her legacy.
I nodded, you can come with me, we can try to escape. They will come for you eventually too.
She thought about it, at least for a moment, but I knew she would say no, although I hope desperately that she wouldnt.
I have to look after all this. She gestured at the rooms behind her, I know they will knock it down eventually; too decadent, and those Jewish frescoes ., but at least for the time being I can be here and stand guard over the house. And it is a way of being close to her.
I kissed her on the cheek, and quickly walked out of the house and away down the road, trying to look as if I belonged there and had nothing to hide, but I was inwardly tensed for the tap on the shoulder or the blow to my head, however for the moment the thugs in uniform who walked the streets ignored me, just another scared man in a city invaded by the forces of darkness, which all the art and music in the world could not dispel.
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