A Matter of Faith
I was having supper later than usual, that evening, on my own; my wife was upstairs, putting the children to bed. A ring on the doorbell interrupted me. I was about to go and answer it when I heard my wife’s footsteps coming downstairs. A few moments later she same into the kitchen, looking slightly annoyed. “Some people want to see you,” she said. “Old people. I don’t know who they are. I think they took me for the au pair girl, from the way they spoke to me.”
Actually, my wife has reached an age when she should be complimented when callers take her for an au pair girl, but she never is; she is affronted every time it happens. And in this particular case, as things turned out, the error made by the callers was not just a tribute to her youthful appearance.
I went to the door, leaving behind me the bowl of stewed plums I’d just begun to eat. In the hall there stood a couple not quite as old as my wife’s words had somehow led me to expect, but quite well advanced in years all the same. The woman took my eye first, with her beige suit, beige spectacle-frames studded with bits of iridescence, and a fierce, mannish beige hat with a brim, which sat well forward on her head. She was carrying a beige umbrella, neatly rolled. Her hair was gray; her expression was benign, almost patronizing. It contrasted oddly not only with her hat, but also with the anxious look on the face of the man, who stood in a humble way, his hat in front of his chest, and his head lowered slightly. He was bald, thickset, and round-featured; his suit was dark, his tie was sober, his shoes were highly polished. They were obviously man and wife, and were obviously Jewish. I had never seen either of them before.
The man cleared his throat deferentially as I approached, and asked me if I was Mr. Jacobson.
I admitted I was.
“Mr. Dan Jacobson, the writer?”
“From South Africa?”
By this time I knew from his accent that my visitors, too, were from South Africa. He then introduced himself; he was Mr.—from Cape Town, and this lady was his wife. He knew, he said, that they were taking a great liberty in calling on me in this way, but they hoped I would be good enough to forgive them. All they wanted was a few minutes of my time in which to consult me on a particular matter. If I could not see them then—and he was sure I was a very busy man—perhaps I would consider making an appointment for some other time. They wished to cause me as little inconvenience as possible; but the matter they wished to discuss with me was really rather an urgent one. That was why they were taking such an unpardonable liberty.
All this had been delivered in a curious, hushed, confidential tone, with much hesitation and great formality in the choice of words used. His wife, in the meantime, had been nodding and smiling encouragingly at both me and her husband; she was clearly under less strain, she clearly felt more confidence in her evident respectability and good will than her husband did. And even he, having arrived circuitously back where he had started from, blew out his well-shaven cheeks slightly and stood a little less humbly.
“What is it you want to speak to me about?”
He dropped his voice even lower than before: so low that I had to lean forward to hear what he was saying. A personal matter. A matter of great delicacy. A private problem.
The puzzlement which must have registered itself on my face prompted his wife to say, “A personal matter that concerns us, not you.” Her voice sounded loud and self-assured after her husband’s; and, having spoken, she nodded and smiled even more encouragingly than before. But her husband merely looked away at the wall and repeated, “A matter of great delicacy.”
“We thought we’d ask your help,” the wife said, and smiled.
“You may be able to help us,” the man echoed.
“We’re strangers in London, we really don’t know anyone here.”
“Strangers here . . .” the man again echoed discreetly. “A personal matter . . . great liberty . . . not your concern . . . patience to listen to us . . . no one else in London.”
Of course, my curiosity was roused, and so too was a feeling of sympathy for them. In spite of the woman’s self-confident expression, they were plainly embarrassed; they were in trouble; I was conscious of the gap between my age and theirs, which made the fact that they were appealing to me for help seem almost a reproach to my conscience; I was touched even by the man’s South African accent which, though he was obviously doing his best to speak “well,” betrayed him at every other vowel.
So I said, “Well, if you’ll let me finish my supper, I’ll see you right away, rather than make an appointment for later.”
“That would be very good of you,” the man answered with alacrity. And his wife looked gratified: her confidence in me, she seemed to be indicating, had not been misplaced.
I showed them into the living room and went back into the kitchen, where my wife was washing up with an injured air. This made her look more than ever like the au pair girl. Washing up after supper is my job usually; but everything had been put out because of my lateness in beginning the meal, and the subsequent intrusion of the visitors.
“Who are they?” she demanded. “Have they gone?”
“No, they’re in the sitting-room. I don’t know who they are.”
“What do they want?”
“To consult me on a personal matter.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what they said. A personal matter that concerns them, not me, they said.”
My wife went back to her washing up with even greater dissatisfaction than before, and pointedly refrained from asking me any more questions. And I ate my stewed plums.
I found my visitors seated exactly as I had left them; the man with his hat in his lap, the woman with her umbrella leaning against the arm of her chair. They had the look of people who had been silent for some time. But when the man began speaking to me again, it soon became clear that he had been reflecting on what had passed between us, and that he had decided he had demeaned himself unnecessarily, he had been too humble, in the hall. Perhaps he had found me younger in appearance than he’d anticipated; perhaps the fact that our sitting-room is badly in need of redecorating had also given him courage. Anyway, he began by telling me, at some length, everything that he felt to be creditable about himself: his profession, his standing in the community, the many eminent people in Cape Town who were his clients, the things that some of these people had said about him, the positions he held on various committees. I was given to understand, altogether, that he was a man of standing. I was not to suppose that because he knew no one in London, he was friendless or helpless in Cape Town.
His manner had changed with these words, and so, too, had his appearance. Something hard and dry in him had emerged; it showed itself particularly in his smile, which was a mere quick, unamused retraction of his lips to reveal pale gums and small teeth; a perfunctory grimace which expressed rather than concealed resentment and self-assertion. And the more confident he became, the less cheerful grew his wife. She sagged in her chair, her mouth hung open slightly, she no longer smiled.
At last he began to get down to the business that had brought him to see me, and embarrassment returned; his wife sat forward. He and his wife, he told me, had three children: a son who was a doctor in Cape Town, a daughter who was married to a doctor in Johannesburg, and another younger son here in London. The younger son had qualified as a lawyer in South Africa, and was now doing his articles with a firm of solicitors in the city; he wanted to remain in England, to settle in London. He had also always been very interested in writing and the theater and arts and things like that; that was one of the reasons why he preferred to live in London. And also because of the political situation in South Africa, of course.
His name was Barry,1 the man said. Did I know him? Had I perhaps happened to have met him? He repeated the name several times, as if in hope of evoking some recognition of it from me. But I knew no one called Barry—, and said so.
They exchanged a disappointed glance with one another. “We thought that perhaps you’d met,” the wife said. “But you never have? You haven’t heard about him from others?”
“That’s a pity,” she said, with a faint trace of reproach; for the first time, I’d let her down.
“Well,” the man took up the story, speaking in a diminished but dogged voice, “last week Barry wrote to us, out of the blue, that he’d got married. The girl he married is not—is not of our faith. Not of our persuasion.” He added, as if afraid I might have been unable to understand the words he had used: “She is not one of our people. She is not one of us.”
His wife took up the story. “He had mentioned her in a letter he wrote about four months ago, but then he didn’t write about her again, so we thought there was nothing in it. And then, suddenly, we got this letter saying that they were already married. So we came straightaway to see what we could do about it.”
A long silence followed. It was broken by the wife explaining simply, as if no more needed to be said, “That’s why we need your help.”
Her husband had been examining his hat. He looked up with another smile or grimace. “We’re not old-fashioned people,” he said. “We’re not Orthodox, or anything like that. You mustn’t misunderstand what we feel. We’ve got nothing against the girl. She seems very nice; just an English girl, very quiet, very ordinary.”
“No beauty,” his wife put in sternly.
“No,” the man agreed. “She’s no beauty. We met her the day after we came, and we’ve seen her once since. We had lunch together.”
He settled down and examined his hat once more. He drew a deep breath. “What we want to ask you,” he said, “is to persuade him that he should have this girl converted.”
The Request was out: I had suspected for some time what it was going to be, but I could still not believe in it, even after it had been made; even though they were now staring fixedly at me with an expression of cajolery, hope, and doubt. Before I could speak, he went on, “She’s agreeable. She says she’ll do it if Barry asks her. But he—he says no, he doesn’t want to ask her to do it. He says maybe later on she’ll be sorry if she does it. That he doesn’t want it for himself. He says they’re happy as they are. So what can we do with him?”
“I spoke to her,” the wife said, “after lunch, in the ladies’ room at this restaurant. And she said the same thing to me. She was willing to be converted if Barry asked her to. But he wouldn’t.”
“We’re not Orthodox,” the man repeated.
“We don’t care what sort of a conversion it is, Orthodox or Reform, it makes no difference. So long as it’s something. And what we thought is that perhaps you will be able to use your influence on Barry and—er—persuade him that it would be the right thing to do.”
“But why—what made you—?”
“Come to you? Well, Barry has always been so interested in literature and books, we thought you’d be a suitable person to speak to him. You see, we’ve read about you in the papers at home, and we didn’t know anyone else in London we could approach; so I thought it’s worth taking a chance, that perhaps you wouldn’t mind doing this for us. You’re a writer, Barry would have respect for your advice. We did think of going to a Reform rabbi, but Barry wouldn’t listen to such a person in the way he’d listen to you. He wouldn’t even meet a rabbi. But he’d be glad to meet you. I know how interested he is in all artistic things.”
In my surprise and incredulity, another question had occurred to me. So I put it to them, having nothing else to say: “Have you ever read anything I’ve written?”
The man hesitated, obviously wondering whether or not it would be safe to tell a lie. Then he decided to tell the truth. “No,” he admitted.
“And has your son ever said anything about me?”
He shook his head. “No, he never mentioned that he met you.”
“Or that he’d ever read anything of mine?”
“No,” he admitted again.
His wife felt he wasn’t acquitting himself very well; that perhaps he was offending me with all these denials. “But I’m sure he’s heard of you. We’ve heard of you, and we don’t know as much about books as Barry does. He’d have respect for you, believe me.”
Again we were all silent.
“Barry was the one person in the family who was really quite Orthodox, when he was a boy,” the woman said. “He used to go to shul, he used to say we should keep up everything, all the old traditions. But then he stopped being like that. He took up other interests. He began to say that he’d rather be a writer than anything else. That’s why I know he’d be glad to meet you. It would mean a lot to him. You could talk to him about all sorts of things, you could be his friend, you’re older than he is and you could guide him. He’d be grateful. And then, when you gave him your advice on this matter, he’d listen to you.”
The incredible simplicity and naïveté of the fantasy they had erected for me and their Barry was positively imposing; it was so irrational I didn’t know where or how I could begin breaking it down. I wondered which of them, in their hotel room, had had the idea of approaching me; I wondered what other names they had canvassed among themselves: ballet dancers, actors, painters, poets. But the list couldn’t have been too long, once they had decided they must find someone “artistic,” South African, and Jewish, who lived in London.
But I had to begin somewhere, having let them go as far as they had. I spoke slowly, for my own sake as much as theirs. “Assuming that I’d agree to help you—I’m not saying I would, but just assuming I might—how do you suggest I should meet your son? Do you think I should phone him and say that you’ve called and—”
They were both signaling violent dissension. “No, no, that would be terrible, that would be the worst thing.”
This was one of the details they had neglected. They considered it now. I reminded them that London was a very, very big city, much bigger than Cape Town. They agreed. Well, they said eventually, they had thought that in the first place I might just happen to know Barry; or that I might know some of Barry’s friends, and so be able to meet him quite naturally—once I’d heard about him, once I wanted to meet him.
Who were Barry’s friends in London? I asked.
Again they thought for a long time. Then they said that there was a Johannesburg boy he’d mentioned in some of his letters, Hymie Cohen: perhaps I knew him.
I didn’t know Hymie Cohen of Johannesburg. Did they know the names of any of the others?
No, they answered, they really didn’t know who Barry’s friends in London were. But, they said more hopefully, “You’re both South Africans, so surely you’ll meet anyway.”
And that was it. That was all. That was as far as they were prepared to consider the practicality of even that part of their scheme. For the rest, they seemed almost to feel that meeting Barry was my problem, not theirs. And they reverted, with pleasure, to telling me how I would look after Barry, how I would help him, how I would eventually persuade him to have his wife converted. They praised Barry’s intelligence and sensitivity, and suggested that I would find him a rewarding companion; they assured me that they were really broadminded and would welcome his wife “as a daughter” if she became converted; they thanked me effusively for the trouble they were sure I would take and for the success they were sure I would have. They were well-groomed, well-brushed, respectable, soft-spoken; but I began to wonder whether either of them was altogether sane. There was something almost megalomaniac in their apparent conviction that their distress was everyone’s, was the world’s, which the world had somehow to relieve. They were without shame. The quality of their self-absorption, the intensity of their demand that the injury they had suffered be attended to immediately, was such as to exclude for the moment any real awareness of others, let alone affection toward them.
And among these “others” was their son, Barry. As they talked on and on it became clear that they knew almost nothing about him, or about his wife, and weren’t interested in learning. They didn’t know who his friends were, they didn’t know the name of the firm for which he worked, they didn’t know what his wife had done before her marriage or whether she was still working now. They hadn’t bothered to ask. They had flown from Cape Town to try to nullify, so far as it could be nullified, a disgrace, a social disgrace. They were interested in nothing else. And it was curious to see that though they had been without shame in approaching me, the only reason they wanted Barry’s wife converted was because they would be ashamed, in front of their friends in Cape Town, of owning up to having a shiksa for a daughter-in-law. There was no other reason. They all but said so. This was the injury they had suffered. They spoke of the “embarrassment” they would feel; of the difficulty of her “fitting in” in Cape Town if Barry should change his plans and wish to return to South Africa; the man reminded me of what he had told me about his standing in the community.
But their problem touched me more intimately than they knew. This had irritated me almost beyond endurance with them; but it had also made me more hesitant in dealing with them than I might otherwise have been. I interrupted them and said, “My wife is not one of our people.”
The man gave me the longest, grimmest, deathliest grin he had yet favored me with. And his wife stared at me with eyes that seemed even bigger than her spectacles. It was so grotesque a moment that I was almost sorry to have to qualify it in any way. But I added: “A couple of years after we were married she did go for instruction to a Liberal rabbi, and was admitted to the congregation. My father—not my mother, who didn’t care—was very keen on her doing this, just as you’re keen that your daughter-in-law should. So far as it’s made him happier, I’m glad she did it. But it hasn’t really affected the way we live, or how we think about things; it hasn’t solved any problems for us. That’s the one thing I want to tell you. The second is that I doubt if I’ll ever meet your son. The third is, even if we should meet, I can’t imagine that under any circumstances I’d ever feel it my place to tell him what to do in a matter like this. I don’t know what should be done. Perhaps your son is right. Perhaps he’s doing what I should have done. I really do not know.”
But I was wasting my breath. They had recovered from the shock I had administered—more than recovered. What I had just said had proved that I was fully on their side, that I understood exactly what they wanted, that they had chosen better, far better, than they could ever have guessed. I had been through the same deep waters; now, safe and dry, I would rescue them. The man gave me advice on how to broach the subject with Barry, when I saw him (“Let it come up naturally, the whole subject, as if it’s by accident”); he told me they would look forward to seeing me in Cape Town one day (“Then we’ll have a chance to repay the hospitality you’ve been kind enough to give us”); he even suggested, delicately, that if I should succeed in persuading his son to have his wife converted, he would reward me suitably (“I’m sure it can’t be easy to earn a living by writing, I appreciate that”). More than ever I doubted his sanity; more than ever it seemed insane to doubt it, when he was so polite, so genteel, so utterly and devotedly a slave to the conventions of his particular society.
And more than ever I wished they would get up to go. I looked at my watch: they had been there an hour already. The conventional gesture worked immediately. He rose to his feet, and his wife followed him. I saw them to the door, and shook hands with them. They said how pleased they were to have met me, and how they looked forward to hearing from their son about me. They went away comforted, so far as I could see. And they left me profoundly depressed.
1 Barry is not the name he gave. But it will do.