Jane's View of the World
The day of Jane's coming dawned bright. I was nervous all morning. I cleaned and tidied over and over again, each time imagining what Jane might say. She was due to arrive at noon, and I bathed with almost an hour to spare. Then there was the question of dressing. My usual business suit seemed hardly suitable. Should one dress in tweeds, as for a day in the country? That also seemed wrong. There was a deal of difference between shooting birds and the enterprise that loomed before me. I finally dressed with a silk scarf instead of a tie, as if I were going to the races.
When the time drew near, and I could hardly contain myself, I went out in front. Even though I knew that Jane would be late, I kept looking down the hill. I wanted to see her arrive.
After a couple of false alarms, a taxi crawled up the hill, obviously looking at the house numbers. I was on the opposite pavement and waved, I hope with a certain air of insouciance. There was nothing for it but to affect the manners of a gay boulevardier, something out of the novels of P. G Wodehouse. As I crossed the street, I tried to feel like a more intelligent version of Bertie Wooster (who is himself smarter than he pretends to be).
As I handed Jane out of the taxi, I was delighted to find that she was decked out in pre-war finery with furs and high-heeled shoes of some exotic leather. The taxi driver was also pleased when I paid and tipped him. He had evidently seen enough of Jane to know that her tip would have been niggardly.
My Richmond Hill flat was a good deal more presentable than the one Jane had known on Walton St. If only there had been Jeeves at the top of the stairs! Even without him, I hung up Jane's coat, produced sherry for her, and a lemon squash for myself. Whether this stab at conventionality was a mistake, I don't know. We had never been alone together very much, and we settled into a conversation which was fairly comfortable, but a little more formal than it would have been with Ralph or Brenda present.
During this phase, I didn't lose consciousness of the purpose of Jane's visit for a single moment. It was harder to tell with Jane. While I could hardly imagine that she had forgotten why she had come, she did manage to convey the impression, so often captured in Victorian paintings, of a lady making a call. The ladies in those paintings seldom, if ever, had it in mind to be impregnated by the host. It was, in fact, just when I thought she had lost sight of her purpose that Jane put down her glass of sherry and said,
"I suppose we'd better get down to it, Thomas. I thought we could stand facing each other, not looking at our lower halves. I'll take off my underpants and shoes, and lift my skirts. Then you can put your thing in, and we'll wait a month to see if it does any good."
I had to explain gently to Jane that the procedure she had in mind was unlikely to work. She replied, rather testily,
"For one thing, with the difference in our heights, I don't think I'd come in the right place relative to you."
She nodded, as if it had just been explained to her that the proposed drapes wouldn't reach down far enough, but replied,
"I did think of that, but I thought I could spread my feet and bend my knees enough to get the right position. In fact, having done that, I might need my shoes to be high enough. I've a pair of lower heels in my bag in case they're needed."
Jane had thought things out quite thoroughly. My misgivings were considerable, but I could hardly refuse to try.
As it happened, the strange mode of sexual intercourse proposed by Jane almost worked. It appeared that she and Smith had engaged in something similar, but I could see why she had never gotten pregnant. She asked casually,
"Did you do it, Thomas?"
I had to explain that, among other things, penetration was required. From her manner and bearing, it was hard to imagine that she wasn't an untutored virgin. I consequently put the question to her. She answered,
"Smith used to say we did it. He'd have minor convulsions and leave nasty sticky stuff all over my legs."
I led Jane over to the table for another spot of sherry. I was mightily tempted to have one myself, but knew where it would lead. I then explained, in some detail, a set of procedures which might reasonably be expected to result in pregnancy. When I had finished, she said,
"I suppose this isn't really my sort of thing. Perhaps babies aren't either."
I then suggested that we might abandon the experiment and go back to our normal mode of existence. Jane looked quite relieved, but added,
"I envy Brenda. She'd make such easy work of this."
"Perhaps. But she still doesn't have a child."
Jane surprised me by telling me that she didn't think Brenda really wanted one. I replied,
"But she's on the point of adopting Maria."
"Yes, but Maria's almost grown. A baby or young child would need attention every day, even with a nanny."
"Is that such a problem? Brenda isn't that busy, is she?"
"I think it's more a matter of consistency than time. Maria will be in school most days, and wouldn't think it odd if Brenda were occupied on any given evening."
As we talked on, there emerged a picture of Brenda which I would hardly have recognized. But there could be no doubt of it. I might have known Brenda longer, but Jane had shared a flat with her for years. Neither did she speak from any sort of malice. It was simply a fact that there were days, and had always been days, on which Brenda didn't speak to anyone. Sometimes she would spend the whole time in bed, or, more often, arise only to sit in the same chair from morning to evening. She wouldn't eat, and would drink only water. She might nod in reply to a direct question, or say a word or two, but no more than that.
Such days, Jane thought, occurred virtually every month, although they didn't seem to fit a menstrual cycle. There had never been more than two in a row, and it was almost impossible to predict their occurrence. I did remember a couple of appointments cancelled at the last minute, but had thought nothing of it at the time.
Brenda had warned Jane about this pattern when the latter had moved in. It had never been a source of trouble. Jane, unlike many people, didn't take umbrage. As she said,
"If I see her like that in the morning, I simply cancel her appointments and tell people she's ill."
"I see. She's enlisted me as a sort of honorary uncle for Maria. Are you booked in as an aunt, with special responsibility for days when Brenda can't get out of bed?"
My words might have sounded a little sharper than I had intended. Jane sprang to the defense of her friend.
"We all have our weaknesses, but friends can go a great way toward making up for them. I'll help with Maria, whether Brenda is having an off day or not."
I stood corrected, and made the right noises. Jane, now looking as if the preceding scene couldn't possibly have taken place, smiled pleasantly. She then, in a rather elegant way, told me that everything was perfectly all right.
"You needn't be afraid, Thomas. Brenda and I have arranged to spread the responsibility so that no one need worry overmuch.
V-E day came, and then, in the summer, the final victory over Japan. In the aftermath of the celebrations it was noticeable that Maria had drawn our group more closely together. It seemed to me, at times, that we managed to make the last stage of her childhood almost as strange as the preceding part had been. Where she had gone years, absolutely on her own without anything resembling a parent, she now had four. Where she had been among people who would happily have handed her over to be killed, she now lived among adults who went into solemn conclave if she developed a case of sniffles.
There were, indeed, some problems. It became quickly apparent that Maria stole. She did it deftly and expertly, not from us, but from virtually anyone else. All sorts of items from shops appeared in her room. Worse, she would come home from school with a man's wallet or a woman's purse.
Jane had some preliminary discussions with Maria. It wasn't nice, she said, to steal. The men and women with missing wallets and purses would be terribly uspet. Maria, in her Kensington voice, agreed entirely. It would be an awful bore, she allowed, to have one's purse disappear. She spoke convincingly, and with all the pretty little grimaces she had learned so lately. But she kept on stealing. Brenda returned everything anonymously, but we convened a meeting in my flat in Richmond.
By that time, we were sufficiently English so that our first thought was of a good boarding school. A place like Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies' College would teach Maria to conform to English notions of proper behavior in young ladies. But, then, the idea hardly had to be mentioned to be knocked down. Jane pointed out that Maria would steal the headmistress' purse. Besides, it seemed a poor show on our part to undertake a responsibility, and then, as our first act, contract it out to someone else. The problem, Ralph pointed out, was a fundamental one. As he said,
"We wondered how a young Jewish girl could survive in occupied Europe. Now we know. She must have stolen, not only money, but identity cards. These, of course, would have been reported stolen. So she must have acquired a new one every few days. If she'd been caught, even once, she wouldn't have lived. It's no wonder she's so accomplished."
It's an axiom that virtuosi must start young, and this applies to pickpockets as much as to pianists. Ralph did enough research on the subject to discover that Maria was an unusual sort of pickpocket.
Thieves of this sort normally form what are called "cannon mobs," the term having an obscure Yiddish derivation. A cannon mob consists of some three or four members. All but one of them specialize in creating public disturbances, or in otherwise distracting the potential victim. The remaining member then picks his pockets.
The pickpockets proper have certain specialties. The "left-handed breech hook" goes after the left front pocket of the trousers. The "insider" faces his victim in a crowded place, particularly a subway car or bus, and pushes a newspaper under his chin. Under cover of the paper, he empties the inside pockets of his victim's jacket. There are also "hipsters", not to mention thieves who specialize in money belts. There are yet others who can rifle a briefcase without disturbing the person carrying it.
All these specialists are professionals. They know that they'll occasionally be caught, at which time they must bribe their victims not to prefer charges. The risks are diminished very considerably if they operate in a group and prey only on victims who are already distracted.
In due course, we discovered that Maria could acquire for herself the contents of any pocket. It was also reasonably certain that she had always worked alone, and that she was one of very few pickpockets good enough to be able to dispense with distraction.
There was another unusual feature which characterized Maria the professional. Her natural victims were women. Women, on the whole, have less money than men, and few professionals bother with them. In addition, women carry money and valuables in more different places. It takes better technique, for example, to surruptitiously rummage through a purse and come out, not with some feminine device, but with a wallet or wad of folded notes. It was Ralph, again, who had the explanation.
"She must have needed identity cards more often than money, and a man's card wouldn't have been of much use to her."
When we came to these realizations, I naturally supposed that thievery must have been the secret I had sensed in Maria. It turned out that I was entirely mistaken. When we, very gradually, came to talk of these matters with her, Maria showed not the slightest shame. She was, in fact, proud of her virtuosity. As a lark, she pickpocketed both myself and Ralph, and handed us our wallets. We perhaps shouldn't have laughed, but we did. Maria had never previously given way to pure girlish delight, and it was impossible not to be pleased when she did so.
We then had both Jane and Brenda hide money on their persons, and set Maria to finding it. In the course of the day, Maria found the money and abstracted it so easily that neither Jane nor Brenda could afterwards guess when and how it had been taken. For Maria, it was enough to know someone to know where they would hide their money.
During this stage, none of us had the heart to say anything discouraging to Maria. She was so proud of herself, and, really, it was a healthy pride. Pickpocketing, for her, was almost indistinguishable from the other abilities that had enabled her to survive.
There was also that remarkable ability to adapt to the local milieu, even to the tone of voice, that had so struck me on first meeting Maria. This, too, might not be something that one really wanted to encourage, at least in that degree. But, how could one express one's admiration for Maria's remarkable escape, and then condemn her for using the only tools she could have used? It was time for another conclave.
This time, Brenda had more to say. She thought that personality was formed young, and that even Maria was too old to be changed in any radical way. It was simply a matter of adapting her to the reality in which she would live.
We all agreed that Maria had strong acquisitive tendencies closely linked, in her mind, to survival. As I put it,
"One either acquires or dies. There's nothing in between."
It was an odd maxim on which to base one's life. But, compared to the other teachings of the Third Reich, it seemed a relatively innocent one. The conclusion was drawn by Brenda.
"We must show her that there are better and more efficient modes of acquisition than pickpocketing."
Jane put it somewhat more baldly.
"You mean, we must teach her to replace petty theft, which is illegal, with grand theft, which is often legal."
I don't suppose that any of us really liked the idea, but we knew Maria by this time. Even Ralph concurred. Maria would be apprenticed to Brenda in her business enterprises.
Another oddity made itself felt that summer. Maria, whose inheritance was Polish, was much less Polish than Brenda, who had not a single Pole among her ancestors. Maria was too smooth and too adaptive. The Poles in London remained apart from everyone else. They spoke English with thick accents and preserved a rough intellectuality that must once have made Warsaw a fascinating place. Brenda fitted in perfectly. She had the same roughness, the same intolerance of any sort of nonsense or pretension. She was always ready to say "Bullshit" or "Balls."
When Maria encountered pretensions and affectations in others, she improved them, removed from them any little giveaways, and adopted them for her own. The Poles simply didn't know what to make of Maria. Brenda was shocked and scandalized at times, but, in the end, she laughed.
We were all concerned about Maria's education except, perhaps, Jane. Jane had gone to schools so good that they didn't think it necessary to teach much of anything. In order to rule the world, it isn't necessary to know anything in particular - it's important only to have the right general outlook. As far as Jane was concerned, Maria already knew everything she would ever need to know.
In a way, Jane was right. But the rest of us were too academic to let it go at that. Ralph, naturally, began to teach her mathematics. We had suspected all along that Maria was brilliant, and Ralph now confirmed it. Her father had taught her a good deal when she was hardly more than a baby, and she was now ready to make considerable advances.
When I took Maria to the Regents Park Zoo, I learned some more about her education. The afternoon began rather badly. We arrived at the elephant enclave just as one of the beasts saw fit to relieve himself. I must own that I was fascinated. It looked as if a fire hose had been aimed at the pavement. Then, feces the size of shingles clattered down to form a most conspicuous pile. All the children in the area were pointing, gesticulating, and asking their mothers and nannies a variety of questions, many of them betraying a certain envy. I looked at Maria only to discover that she had her eyes fixed on a floral arrangment nearby, on which she proceeded to discourse rapidly and nervously.
We next passed by the monkeys, almost all of whom seemed to be engaged in sexually suggestive behavior. A male baboon, his member fully extended, was leaning back casually while his mate ridded him of lice in an indecorous way. Maria was driven to point out an unusual cloud formation in the sky.
I began to steer Maria selectively around the zoo with a view to finding decent self-respecting animals who kept their private parts covered, and whose behavior was in keeping with elevated moral standards. The rhinoceros turned out to be a perfect gentleman, as was a monkey-eating eagle from Sumatra. Maria commented favorably on both, but I could see that the mere propinquity of animals made her uneasy. When I suggested tea in St. Johns Wood, she favored me with a dazzling smile.
We walked along the canal for some distance, crossed it, and entered St. Johns Wood High Street. There were some people coming out of the shops who, while hardly flamboyant, had the mark of the English upper class. Maria, looking much more at ease than she had at the zoo, remarked,
"It's pleasant here."
As Jane said, Maria had already learned all one really needed to know about England. Still, once ensconced with tea, pastries and a few condiments not generally available in early post-war Britain, I asked her a few questions about her formal education. I found her much more willing to talk about her past than usual.
"In Germany, it was suspicious to be a school-age girl out of school during school hours. One would certainly have been questioned. I therefore attended school in whatever town I found myself. My story was always the same. We had been bombed out in Hamburg or Bremen, and my family, the Schleichers or Schmidts, were staying with some people, I wasn't sure of their name, in such-and-such a street. I had always to promise to have them fill out proper forms. Sometimes I took the forms and filled them out myself, but, even so, I was seldom able to stay in the same school for more than a week or two."
No one should underestimate the benefits of changing school often. It keeps one on one's toes. Always diving into the middle of something, one has to reconstruct what has gone before in order to understand. According to Maria, the quality of German schools held up surprisingly well despite the war. Indeed, because of it, there was less tendency to segregate the sexes and ages than there might otherwise have been. The result was that Maria got a number of those strict old-line gentlemen who, in any other country, would have been university professors. They liked Maria because of her intelligence and willingness. Most probably wouldn't have cared even if they had known that she had a Jewish mother.
It was in the course of this discussion of Maria's education that I discovered that, contrary to our assumptions, she had remained in Germany during almost the entire war. She hadn't crossed Germany to France, but had travelled in circles. She let it drop that, until the imminent arrival of the Russians, she had felt particularly comfortable in Konigsberg, and in other parts of East Prussia and Pomerania, those lands that are now forever gone.
Maria's familiar vagueness came to the fore when the discussion took this turn, and, of course, I didn't press her. But her underlying reasoning was lucid. She had been safer the closer she had been to the heart of the old Prussian aristocracy. Suspicion was beneath them. It would have taken some grinning Austrian or South German understrapper to delight in the opportunity to catch Maria, torture her, and conduct her to the gas chambers. I think she understood that perfectly. It was no wonder that she now drifted naturally upward in the social scale.
The first job we gave Maria, in the late summer of 1945, was to assist Brenda in preparing claims for property in Germany. The original Jewish owners, most of them then in America, were amazingly helpful and cooperative in providing details of their properties, many by then destroyed in the war.
Still, it was a large undertaking to put these descriptions into the form of claims. Maria, apart from her fluent German, had a flair for producing documents in a style which appealed strongly to German bureaucrats. She and Brenda then took a short trip to Germany to check a few things.
According to Brenda, Maria never mentioned having previously been in any of the towns they visited, but she, Brenda, found herself always being wafted gently in the right directions. As she put it,
"All Maria needed was the list of addresses. I wasn't conscious of following her, most of the time, but, in fact, it wouldn't have mattered if I'd been blind. It's a good thing we just checked facts and didn't present any claims in person. It would have looked as if I were an idiot woman being conducted around by a fourteen year old girl."
All of this activity was, of course, strictly honest. Brenda had every legal right to the properties she claimed. However, it must have looked to Maria as if this mass of property had been acquired in an extremely advantageous series of negotiations at just the right time. As anyone who knew Maria might have guessed, she never asked Brenda any questions at all. But it was just about then that Maria gave up picking pockets and purses. Brenda had evidently made an impression.
Despite this shared activity, Maria was, in other ways, coming closer to Jane than to Brenda. While Maria and Brenda would come to be ideal business partners, it was becoming clear, even then, that Maria would go to Jane with other sorts of problems. Part of it was that social sense of Maria's. She recognized an aristocrat when she saw one. The Sandersons, despite their wealth, had never been on the very top of even the American social heap.
Generally speaking, one's social intuitions are only good in the society in which one is born. For example, an intelligent and sensitive Englishwoman in Italy may find that the man she has taken for an Italian nobleman is, in fact, a Neapolitan barber. I have made such mistakes even in England, a country that, in many ways, I know better than my own. Maria is the only person I've known who was truly international in that respect.
Brenda, to her credit, never seemed to resent this connection between Maria and Jane. Jane, still wanting a child, had in Maria someone who was still a child in some ways. Brenda, wanting something entirely different, was happy to see Jane happy. Brenda had someone who, at age fourteen, could manage money.