First Part 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Thine heart is gone/ The raven
with blood on it claws/ Has left me undone.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
laughed, dont worry I have heard all about you, I am sure that I
It is not you that I was worried
about muttered Rebecca crossly.
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.
smiled, she looks very beautiful.
She was, well most of the
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
in Rebeccas bed, a seascape above them, they lay in each others
How distantly related are
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Part Four - Ending
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
woman was still there as I finished my tour of the house.
What do you think? she
I liked the pictures of
Esther I told her, you have not changed that much, not
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
nodded, you can come with me, we can try to escape. They will come
for you eventually too.
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.
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.