‘When I was a bachelor,’ my father says from his armchair, ‘you know what I used to do in hot weather?’
We are in my parents’ flat. My father is sipping a glass of whisky while I lie on the sofa leafing through a copy of the Jewish Times I have found in the entrance hall. Lisa and my mother are in the bedroom, playing with Jacob on the bed.
‘I drove along Chapman’s Peak,’ my father goes on, gently swilling his glass. ‘Then I made a braai by the side of the road and sat on my deckchair.’ From the open window comes the tumult of Friday-night traffic. People are making tracks all over the city.
‘The best part was being alone,’ my father adds. ‘I laid out my chops and sausages on the braai, and drank some wine, and at the end of the day I packed it all into my boot and went home. Hell, those were the days.’ He finishes his drink.
I have inherited my father’s temperament. My social skills are inauthentic and short-winded: sometimes I burst into parties chattering, joking, laughing, but soon I am sitting alone, drained and morose, eating the mini quiches from an abandoned platter.
My mother, a more social soul than her husband and youngest son, shouts to us from the bedroom, ‘Come and listen to Jacob!’ We go. My son is lying on the bed, producing his rainforest call, a high, sharp sound that brings to mind a forest canopy and parrots.
Overcome with love, my mother presses Jacob’s stomach, and he unfurls a long peal of goblin laughter. She looks at my father and me, her face lit with pleasure. ‘Come on, Darl,’ she says to my father. ‘Tell him a poem.’
‘Okay,’ my dad says.
Once upon a time
When the birds ate lime
And the monkeys chewed tobacco,
The devil ran past
With a chisel up his arse …
‘Not that one,’ says my mother.
‘But he likes it. Look, he’s laughing.’
My mother turns back to Jacob to savour his glee. My father and I edge out of the bedroom. Jacob is enchanting, but we want some peace.
‘I’ve always been a loner,’ says my dad as we return to our places.
‘Me too. Remember when I was a child, and I wanted to live in a mountain hut in Switzerland?’
‘I just wanted to stay in a single room with a nice paraffin heater,’ says my father, looking wistful.
Back in the bedroom Jacob is wowing his fans: there are claps and laughter from Lisa and my mother. ‘He loves his jokes,’ I hear my mother say. Jacob is her comedian, her rock star, her Dalai Lama in diapers. She holds him with the tenderness of a pilgrim fondling a sacred relic. Sometimes, unwilling to dissect his radiance, she says simply that he is perfect.
‘Come on, everyone,’ says my mother, striding from the bedroom towards the dinner table with Jacob cradled on her shoulder. Lisa trails behind them. The three of them look like a parent, a baby and a slovenly adolescent. My mother is a born leader, and Lisa and I find ourselves fitting naturally into her scheme. ‘Isn’t it great to have the kids here?’ she asks my father. All of us – Lisa, Jacob and I – fall into this umbrella category. It is soothing to be counted as one of the children.
‘Jacob and I will do the candles,’ my mother says. She and the pygmy marmoset turn their backs to the company, and she makes a blessing over the lit candles to welcome the Sabbath. Jacob tries to get at the flame, but his hands are held tight. For once he is not angry to be thwarted, but instead stares at the light.
My son is entranced, held by the candles in this moment. Friday night at my parents’ is his favourite event, and it’s good to see him happy. But I can’t help feeling that I’m being rebuked: this ritual is meant as a remedy to the godless household in which Jacob is being raised.
I sit Jacob on my lap and Lisa breaks off a piece of challah for him to play with. He grips the bread tightly in both hands. When he is old enough to eat it, Lisa and I will flake off morsels of bread to make a pile of scraps in front of him. (As he eats, Jacob’s face will become solemn; only his hands, cycling rapidly between heap and mouth, will reveal his opinion of this soft sweet thing, too delicious to regard lightly.) But for now, this chunk of challah is a plaything. It falls onto the carpet, grey and doughy with the impressions of his fingers.
‘Jacob just loves Friday nights here,’ my mother says. Suspiciously I watch her, but she seems not to be speaking to anyone in particular. Her smile is directed towards everyone, to a whole table of people she loves.
How, then, did I become this wary figure with arms folded and senses alert, vigilant for implied criticism, all the while passing salt and platters of food with cruel efficiency? Why am I the ice cube of the Sabbath table?
It was not always so. Friday evenings were glorious for me too as a child. The experience is so deeply lodged in my mind that its components are fused together. (Even now I confuse the smell of fire with that of challah, and when someone lights a match, I think of bread.) As the youngest chorister in the synagogue, I soared with an unbroken voice above the adolescent mooing of my mottled peers. Though I didn’t understand the words, I sang with a conviction that stirred the congregation, and that I felt too.
Yet my commitment was wearing away. After the first year of twice-weekly attendance at Hebrew school, where everything was new – the festivals, the biblical stories – I began the second year and found, to my puzzlement, that it was the same. All the festivals were identical, and I’d heard the stories. There was more detail, but it felt like we were going over familiar ground. As the years went by, attending Hebrew school felt like working in a fish factory. The head, the tail, where to cut, how to pack – it was always alike, and even if now and then a strange fish came down the conveyor belt, my curiosity had long since departed.
The principal of the Hebrew school, a refugee from General Franco’s Spain whose accent was a challenging synthesis of Spanish and Yiddish, and whose name (confusingly) was Mr Franco, said one day to my mother, ‘Tell me, Mrs Fried – Gregory doesn’t like Hebrew school?’
‘No, Mr Franco,’ said my mother, whom he had caught in the synagogue parking lot. ‘Gregory loves Hebrew school.’
‘Then why he doesn’t come?’
My mother was stumped and speechless. Of course, since one should tell a teacher the truth, especially a religious teacher, the appropriate reply would have been: ‘He doesn’t come, Mr Franco, because he can’t find it in his heart to listen one more time to the festive story of Purim, or to learn the Hebrew word for “goat”. His eldest brother is an atheist and you can’t compete with his brother, Mr Franco, for cool. And finally, whenever Gregory loses his place in the synagogue service, the beadle grabs my son’s prayer book, loudly licks his thumb, and flips through the pages with a wet digit.’
I associate religious education with outrageous stories and flabbergasting boredom. Yet my son too is now being led along the first steps of the path. ‘It’s the social contract,’ says Lisa. ‘Mutual obligations. Your parents do so much for Jacob; they love him so. And he’s their grandson.’
My wife’s parents are at it too. The next week, as we play a CD of children’s songs, Lisa’s mother pleads with us to buy Jacob a collection of klezmer music from Eastern Europe. ‘Just look at him,’ she says. (People often urge us to look at Jacob, as if a good stare at his chubby cheeks will provide the answers.) Lisa’s mother is standing over Jacob, clapping rhythmically. He sits, propped up against a pillow in his inflatable plastic boat as he watches her, an unblinking audience.
‘Heritage, Lisa,’ says her mother.
‘Why don’t you get him some klezmer music then, Mum?
‘I’m so busy.’ Lisa’s mother is suddenly all efficiency; her back straightens and she must go.
‘And if you’re interested in Jacob’s Jewish education,’ Lisa goes on, ‘then why didn’t you arrange any for me?’
‘You were a girl,’ says her mother, walking to the entrance hall to pick up her bag. ‘You played at my feet for all the years I taught at Hebrew school. And anyway, you didn’t need something like that, growing up in our house. My mother tongue is Hebrew.’ Her hand, as she walks, gestures outwards to indicate the pulses of language and culture that she transmits.
I have scooped up Jacob to say goodbye to Bathsheba, and from my shoulder he is absorbing this new scene, trying to extract its significance. He sees that the occasion is balanced between humour and tension, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
‘We’re not religious at all,’ I say to Lisa’s mother as she turns to leave.
‘Don’t goad her,’ Lisa tells me.
‘Why should Jacob be educated in superstition?’ A centimetre from my ear, my son begins to cry. The situation has become clear to him.
‘You have a bad attitude towards Judaism,’ says Lisa’s mother.
Lisa, attuned to the limitless potential for escalation in this clash between two proud and stubborn loved ones, ushers her mother out of the door. I stand in the entrance hall, fuming and ashamed. Jacob is crying all the while, and when I try to put him on the couch to get away from his screeching in my ear, he clings to me as if I am dropping him from a great height. My attempt to put him down has failed, and now I must make up for it by holding him tighter. I must hug him very close while he yells as loudly as he can.
My wife returns from the garden, where she has been patching things up with her mother before waving her off. ‘Honestly,’ she says. ‘Don’t you know when to be quiet? You’re not going to change her mind. Anyway, she came here to take care of Jacob. She adores him.’
‘She never gave you a Jewish education. You said it yourself.’
Lisa sighs. ‘I did tell her that, but I was sort of joking, and she knew it. Then you got involved, and you were so aggressive. Can’t you stand back and just accept things?’
‘I hate unreasonable behaviour.’
‘Oh, come on.’ Lisa goes off to the kitchen, where she opens a cupboard and removes, with much banging, a muffin tray.
‘What kind of muffins are you going to make?’ I ask. She does not reply. Her baking has nothing to do with me. Jacob’s cries have now subsided into helpless sobs, his ribcage juddering. My son still won’t allow me to put him down. I must keep carrying him around, holding him as I listen to the sobs I have caused him. It is like some biblical atonement.
‘Let’s see what Baba is up to,’ I say. The sight of Jacob’s Chinese plastic doll – naked, pink, as stern as a Beijing factory manager – has often calmed him before. When he sees Baba, though, he pauses for a moment and then wails. If even Baba can’t help, he seems to be thinking, what is to become of me?
I go over to Jacob’s shelf of second-tier stuffed toys – Doggy, Teddy, Chicken – and sit down with them all in my lap. Jacob is now seated in a congregation of fluffy animals. With his stout tummy and round face he looks somewhat like them, except that he is weeping. Yet he soon calms down enough to give Doggy a tentative hug. I’m not sure what has pacified him. Has he been surprised into silence by the crowd, or is he comforted by it?
For six months I have done a lot of fruitless puzzling. Why did he start screaming? How can I stop him? Why did he stop? But now I have a wonderful opportunity to forget about these puzzles for a week, because Lisa and I are leaving for a trip to Paris. We have taken money from our house bond – not sensible, but irresistible.
We drop Jacob off at my parents’ flat on the way to the airport. ‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ I say to my mother and father repeatedly as I drag Jacob’s suitcase into his temporary bedroom, equipped with a mini cot.
‘The poor little sweetheart,’ says Lisa in the plane. ‘They’ll treat him so well, though. Do you miss him?’
‘Well, I’m sure I’ll miss him soon. Not yet, though.’ I’ve forgotten how quiet a plane can be. I relax into my chair, looking down at the clouds through the window.
‘It’s amazing,’ I say to Lisa after a while, ‘how bad I often am at dealing with Jacob.’
‘Really?’ she says with a toneless neutrality, playing it safe.
‘Like a robot. I’ll make a decision – say, time for a bath – and then carry it out regardless. He’ll be in the bath, yelling and writhing, while I’m just spreading that liquid soap over his arms and legs.’
‘Sometimes you do have a robotic quality.’
‘I’m a sort of mechanical husband.’
‘Well, you’d better get your parts oiled up for Paris,’ says Lisa, putting her hand in mine.
One of the best things about Paris is that old connections between cause and effect, unreliable in recent months, sturdily reassert themselves. If we decide to eat a chocolate flan, we go to a pastry shop and do it. When we want to see the Latin Quarter, we simply walk over. No one becomes suddenly enraged or unexpectedly falls asleep. We carry out our plans with uncanny ease.
Lisa and I stand in the crowd on the great plain in front of Notre Dame. ‘Look at those teenagers,’ says Lisa. ‘What a good-looking group. Spanish kids on a school trip, maybe? It’s funny to watch them, the boys trying to impress the girls, and the girls flirting and then pulling away.’
I am peering at the facade of the cathedral, trying to discern the figures. I feel the chill of the March wind through my coat. ‘Let’s go in,’ I say.
We enter, and shuffle around the cathedral, moving with the slow crowd.
‘It’s terribly depressing,’ Lisa says. But I am entranced: the stained-glass windows give light to the innards of this stone monster, and I have a sense of a weightless soul floating within an ancient body. The crowd has disappeared for me, and I am left with this strange vision.
‘I’m actually a spiritual sort of person,’ I remark to Lisa afterwards, sitting indoors in a café. She is drinking a giant mug of hot chocolate.
‘Remember a few winters ago,’ I say, ‘when I was lying on our leather couch, looking out at the bare branches of the oak tree under a white sky, and I suddenly felt that the world was good, that it was somehow unified, everything was one, and the universe seemed to be dropping me a wink?’
Lisa puts down the mug to eat her complimentary croissant. ‘So if you like that kind of thing,’ she says, ‘what’s wrong with a Jewish education for Jacob?’
A bowl of French onion soup arrives for me. Croutons and gooey cheese are moored in the brown soup, and the steam is fogging up my glasses. Jacob would enjoy this scene. I wouldn’t mind him sitting on my lap now.
‘Nothing,’ I say, ‘if it involves spiritual experiences and transcendent moments and so on. Who wouldn’t wish that for their child?’
Lisa focuses for a while on her croissant. It’s still cold outside, and French pastry is so warming and delicious. Then she says, ‘It’s not religion that bothers you at all. It’s people. You don’t like the idea of classes and synagogue visits and festivals; all sorts of communal activities. You’re happy for Jacob to be religious as long as he does it alone, like you.’
Surprisingly on a day like this, the café isn’t yet full. Apart from us, there is just one other couple. The owner keeps moving between us, anxious to keep his customers content. I ask for a croissant from his basket.
‘Now you’ll tell me,’ I say, pointing my pastry at her like a boomerang, ‘that I shouldn’t take Jacob as a small copy of myself.’
Lisa smirks. We are halfway through our holiday, four days until we go home, and when we arrive at my parents’ flat, Jacob will not want to leave my mother’s arms. I’ll have to disentangle him and transport his dense, wriggling form into the car, the holiday mood of sensuality and serenity gone in an instant – but at this moment I am sorry he isn’t here. I wonder whether a croissant will stay fresh if we take it home, and if he’s old enough for a bite.
From: The Book of Jacob