Simon Smith's Autobiography
This evening I was sitting in a Polish restaurant with a friend. I told him I wanted to start this book with a brief history of my antecedents. He said I should start with my birth, start with an impact.
* * *
Esther Berzin, my paternal grandmother, is weeping in her mother's arms. Her tears are those of a child fearing loss. Her mother holds her tighter, to feel her life against her, to understand that all is not lost.
Esther is one of three sisters. A year beforehand in 1888 she had been one of sixteen. “Russian Flu” spread as rapidly through the Berzin family, killing 13 of Esther's sisters, as it would throughout Europe . Over 1 million people would eventually die as a result of it.
* * *
1914 – 1917 Corners of foreign fields
John Frederick Smith, my maternal grandfather, takes a bullet in the neck and falls in to the mud of the battlefield. A tall bearded German soldier walks towards him, crouches down and helps him to sip some water from his own water canister, which he leaves behind for my grandfather. The soldier takes John's name tag so he can hand it in to the Red Cross later. The name tag, however, was found on the body of the soldier so Private John Smith was reported to be “missing, presumed dead” for some time after this incident.
On another battlefield, a much vaguer near death occurs, this time to Samuel Rachailovich, my paternal grandfather. The details are unknown but the resultant trauma, shell shock, will reverberate through history to this moment for me.
* * *
The appearance of family
My maternal family history appears as a series of glimpses at first. The earliest family myth is a story of an aristocratic young lady eloping with a stable boy. There's no evidence of this. There is some evidence to suggest that the family name Philips was changed to Ellis, but we don't know why. True or not by the time our family has got to the early to mid 1800's the memorable figure is a dominant East End Matriarch. The next view is more photographic and it's a black and white one of two families living in Fulham London, the Ellis' and the Smith's. Both families have over 8 children each.
Even now upon my mother's wall is a picture of her father as a young man in a soldier's uniform and another in which her mother sits serenely in a large wooden chair. The importance of public image has had just as much impact upon me as the bombs that shook Samuel Rachailovich from his notion of security.
A couple of years ago I was at a spiritualist demonstration. The demonstrator came up to me and said “I see an old lady”. In my mind I thought, well it's likely I have a dead grandmother so I'm not impressed. If you want to impress me, I think to myself, tell me her name. As if he'd heard my thought he said “her name is Ethel and she wants to say sorry”.
My mind jumps back to a moment when my grandmother was lying on her deathbed, and beckoned me out towards her. She put her hand on my face. I felt embarrassed, I was only about 11 years old, and some of my cousins were looking on. Years later I came to realise that she was trying to tell me she was sorry. She was sorry for letting the public image of her family become more important than a member of her family, namely me. When I was eleven I had no idea that she had anything to be sorry about, I didn't even think my past, or my family's past had any bearing on my present or future.
I want you to imagine that you're in a small crowd of people and someone somewhere behind you says “I'd like you to meet Simon”. You turn around and see a man about 5 foot 4 inches tall, short cropped hair, slightly Mediterranean looking and dressed in black.
I am smiling at you. You put your hand out to greet me. I pull my right arm forward. My arm stops just beyond the elbow joint and there's a finger that forks in to two fingers protruding from just above the elbow.
* * *
3 p.m. 18 th March 1965 , Epsom, Surrey , England .
Silence falls across the theatre. Two women look up from a child. One of them passes him to his mother. She looks at him, and says “Poor thing”.
Summer 1964 London
“Angela is late, she's always late.” These words echo through Angela's mind as the coach pulls out of London and sets off on its journey through Europe to Croatia . To me time keeping is a symbol of maleness and those who have problems with organising time are wrestling with the world of boundaries, the world of the father. Somewhere in Angela's past she had made a decision, one that so many children who feel harangued make, to withdraw in to her own protective world, to step out of time. Now at 24 she looks in her make up mirror and carefully adjusts her hair and finishes putting on her lipstick.
“Is every body happy?” The tour guide, shouts to his audience. “Yes” they shout back in unison, and indeed for that circus moment everyone was.
* * *
Angela had been born of an unplanned pregnancy. Her parents had already had three other children. One had died before she was conceived. Perhaps it was this child's death and her mother's own sense of mortality that had brought about the “accident” that gave Angela life. But the residue of not being planned for meant that her eldest brother bullied her, her sister became a surrogate mother to her while her own mother was caring but not particularly affectionate towards her.
Angela had been the pretty child and her father had a soft spot for her, or at least until she started to become an attractive young woman. As Angela sought love from outside of her family her father became more and more controlling and disapproving, but when Angela walked in to the outside world the message was that she was beautiful. That she was wanted.
* * *
As Angela looked over the top of her make up mirror she could see the tour guide looking at her through the driver's mirror. Instead of looking away politely he stared at her.. Angela felt a bit drunk for a moment, closed her mirror and looked out of the window.
* * *
The tour guide's ability to see in to a woman's heart, to see an opportunity for seduction, doesn't mean that he could see anything more than the opportunity itself. In other words it looked like he was seeing in to her heart, but really he could barely see or understand anything there at all. Perhaps this is what fathers instinctively try telling their growing daughters about, that what might seem like understanding and love is merely a device for a seducer to use.
When the tour guide stroked Angela with his eyes he could feel her need to be seduced. She knew he was watching her, she could see his image wavering in the glass of the coach window. She arched her back a little as she stretched for a moment.
* * *
The Tour Guide
Every week during the summer the tour guide would take a new party of travellers around parts of Europe and every journey would reveal to him adventures of seduction. Just as a stage hypnotist will seek out from a crowd of onlookers the one in five of us who are more susceptible to being hypnotised, the tour guide could tell within moments of talking to, and sometimes even without talking, who would be more likely to be taken in, and take him inside. Just as he didn't really see deeply in to their hearts they never took in who he truly was either. It was a thrilling “act of love”, a playing out of the connection we all yearn.
On one journey the tour guide took a party of 45 women and seduced 24 of them. He said that no sooner had one left his room that there'd be a knock on the door. Like something from a “Carry on” movie, the tour guide, who actually knew Sid James in real life would adjust his dressing gown, light up another half cocked cigarette and beckon the next, slightly distressed woman in to whom he could offer some comfort.
Telling me this story, years later, its meaning was insignificant beyond making me laugh to the Tour Guide. I couldn't help but feel impressed and sad all at once.
* * *
When the tour guide's dark eyes penetrated Angela they saw her gasping at the moment when he would enter her, held down and naked. And she could feel this. Perhaps when a lonely woman feels this way she says back to her parents, “I know he doesn't love me, but I want him inside me because you never got inside my mind and heart and saw me for who I really am.”
* * *
I tell Mary, a friend of mine, about this in a Café as we sip on our Chai-Lattes. She says many lonely women want sex so they can feel loved. But for me I feel they know they are not being loved, and outside of the simulation, excitement and stimulation, somewhere behind this “act of love” is also an act of desperate sadness and anger, an “act of hate”. A cry of frustration for the lack of understanding and acceptance that was not forthcoming.
* * *
I was at the Tour guide's apartment the other evening. He told me his microwave was making sparks. I thought it might just need cleaning but when he showed me the bright flame that shot across the inside when we started trying to cook I told him he'd need to buy a new one and that if he wanted I'd order him one over the Internet.
* * *
End of chapter 1