This wonderfully charming memoir, written when the author was 93, vibrantly brings to life an all-but-forgotten time and place. It is a moving tale of working-class life, and of the boundaries that can be overcome by love.
“There are places that I have never forgotten. A little cobbled street in a smoky mill town in the North of England has haunted me for the greater part of my life. It was inevitable that I should write about it and the people who lived on both sides of its ‘Invisible Wall.’ ”
The narrow street where Harry Bernstein grew up, in a small English mill town, was seemingly unremarkable. It was identical to countless other streets in countless other working-class neighborhoods of the early 1900s, except for the “invisible wall” that ran down its center, dividing Jewish families on one side from Christian families on the other. Only a few feet of cobblestones separated Jews from Gentiles, but socially, it they were miles apart.
On the eve of World War I, Harry’s family struggles to make ends meet. His father earns little money at the Jewish tailoring shop and brings home even less, preferring to spend his wages drinking and gambling. Harry’s mother, devoted to her children and fiercely resilient, survives on her dreams: new shoes that might secure Harry’s admission to a fancy school; that her daughter might marry the local rabbi; that the entire family might one day be whisked off to the paradise of America.
Then Harry’s older sister, Lily, does the unthinkable: She falls in love with Arthur, a Christian boy from across the street.
When Harry unwittingly discovers their secret affair, he must choose between the morals he’s been taught all his life, his loyalty to his selfless mother, and what he knows to be true in his own heart.
It was one of those rare summer evenings when it did not rain, and the smoke cleared from the atmosphere, leaving the sky a deep blue color, and the air soft and fresh and balmy. It was the kind of evening when people brought their stiff-backed wooden kitchen chairs out to the front to sit and smoke, and perhaps listen to the Forshaws’ gramophone. They were the only people on our street who had one, and they left their door open so that everyone could hear. In the meantime, the sun would sink, a huge red ball, behind the square brick tower of the India Mill. After it disappeared, there would be fiery streaks in the sky, and these would fade gradually as the sky became very pale, and twilight would fall gently, and you would see the glow of pipes or cigarettes along both sides of the street.
We had finished our tea, and my two sisters had quickly disappeared before my mother could get them to clear the table and wash up. My two brothers were about to do the same. Having gulped down the last of their tea, and still chewing on their bread and butter, they were halfway out the door to join their friends in the street when my mother stopped them.
“Take ’arry with you,” she said.
They stared at her in astonishment, not believing what they had heard. Well, I too was surprised.
But my surprise was a pleasant one. Until now I had been the baby of the family, too young to go out and play with them, though I’d always wanted to and had watched them go with silent yearning. Now suddenly all this was changed. I looked up at them, my finger in my mouth, waiting, hopefully, for my fate to be decided.
“Him?” said Joe. He was the oldest of the three boys, big for his nine years, and handsome, too. He spoke as if he couldn’t believe what he had heard. “Him?” he repeated.
“He’s only a baby,” screeched Saul in his high-pitched voice. Saul was a bare year and a half older than I, but considered himself my senior by far.
“He’s not a baby anymore,” my mother said, firmly. “He’s old enough now to go out and play with you and the other boys.”
“But he’ll get in the way,” they both wailed. “He doesn’t know how to play.”
“He’ll soon learn,” my mother insisted. “I don’t want him to stay in the house on a nice night like this, and I’ve got a lot of work to do in the house, otherwise I’d take him out myself. Go on now, take him with you, and mind you keep an eye on him and don’t let him wander off by himself.”
They had no choice, and each one of them took a hand savagely, bitterly, and pulled me out with them. But once outside, and once they caught sight of the other Jewish boys from our side a little distance off, they dropped my hands and rushed toward them, forgetting all about me and ignoring my mother’s warning completely. I trotted after them, and that was about all I was able to do throughout the evening. I was not able to participate in any of the games they played. I simply hung on the fringe of the group. I was ecstatic at having that much, though, at simply being allowed to be with them. I shouted when they shouted, jumped up when they jumped, and imitated all their sounds and movements.
I forget the games they played that night, but the locale was constantly shifted from one part of the street to another. We drifted down to the bottom, then back upward. Eventually we landed at the very top, at the corner in front of the Harris’s house, where they began a noisy game of hopscotch.
This one I do recall, and also that it had grown darker. Twilight would linger for a long time yet, until almost midnight, but it had reached the stage where the sides of the street were becoming hidden in shadow, and the glow of pipes and cigarettes stood out strongly. The sky looked almost white in contrast to the earth, and the outlines of roofs and chimneys were etched sharply against it. We could barely see the chalk marks that had been scribbled on the sidewalk, but that made no difference, and the players hopped madly from square to square, shouting to one another.
In that moment of our midsummer night madness, we had failed to see two people seated outside, a little off to the right on the other side of the doorway. These were the Harrises—old Mr. Harris, who could not have been much more than forty, a squat, heavy, bearded man wearing a bowler hat beneath which was a yarmulke, squinting down at a Jewish newspaper in the fading light, and Mrs. Harris, barely forty perhaps, a little woman wearing the orthodox Jewish woman’s wig, beneath which tiny hen’s eyes peered disapprovingly across at the Christian side.
The Harrises were perhaps the most religious couple on our street. He was an important official of the little synagogue over on Chestergate Avenue that we all attended, and the yarmulke he wore beneath the bowler hat was concealed only because such things could draw laughter or jeers from the Christians, especially from the direction in which Mrs. Harris’s eyes were cast. This was the Turnbull sweets shop. Nothing was to be feared from the immobile figure of the man seated there next to the window. Mr. Turnbull had suffered a stroke some time ago, and was brought out here by his wife to sit, usually for hours, and wait until she was good and ready to bring him in. And at the moment she was in the back room drinking beer with her boarders.
The sounds of their raucous laughter and the clinking of glasses drifted out into the street. The boys Mrs. Turnbull took in were a rough lot, and a blot on the street’s reputation. They were young navvies, the ones who cleaned out the middens, or chimneys, who drank and swore, and who, when they were out on the street and in a ripe mood did not hesitate in hurling slurs about the Jews, and at the Harrises in particular if they happened to be sitting out as they were now.
Tonight, fortunately, they were indoors, but the lovely summer evening must have been marred anyway for the Harrises by our noisy presence. However, they said nothing, and tried to ignore us while the game proceeded right next to the window. As usual, I was kept out of the game, and simply added to the din by joining in the shouting and screaming now and then. But after a while I must have grown tired of this—and perhaps it was getting a bit late for me. My attention began to wander away from them, and suddenly it was caught by a movement from the window. The blind was being drawn up, and the white lace curtains were being parted, and a face showed dimly. It was smiling right at me, and a finger was beck- oning.
I didn’t need to be told who it was. It was Sarah, the youngest of the six Harris girls, and a favorite among us and everyone on the street. She was a sweet, gentle, perpetually smiling girl with lovely features, dark hair, an oval face, and a smooth, delicate complexion. She had been ill lately, and was recovering now. She spent much of her time on the red plush couch in the parlor next to the window, reading one of her little yellow-backed novels, and dipping her fingers daintily into the box of chocolates that was always at her side.
Sometimes, during the day, if we happened to be going by, she would open the window to smile and speak to us, to send some boy or girl on an errand for her perhaps, or simply to talk and to pop one of her chocolates into a lucky mouth. I had often been one of those lucky ones. I think I was one of her favorites. I know, when she was younger, perhaps even as little as a year ago, she used to come into our house to play with my sisters, and would always hug me and kiss me and call me her baby. Then she had stopped playing with my sisters, and had put her hair up. On our street this meant that you were grown up and could go to work. She had gone to work for a while in one of the tailoring shops where all the Jews worked, and then had taken ill. Here she was convalescing, and I was staring at her stupidly through the semi-darkness, wondering what all those signals meant. She was also putting a finger to her lips and shaking her head.
Then, at last, I understood. She wanted me to come in to her, but to do so quietly and secretly without anyone seeing me. That’s what it was, and I hesitated. It was much easier said than done. In the first place, her parents sat near the door. In the second place, you did not walk into the Harrises’ parlor that easily.
It was the only real parlor on our street, thanks to the Harris girls and the one boy, Sam, working and bringing in money. It was furnished in red plush, including even the carpet, a truly elegant place, but reserved for members of the family and special occasions. None of us had ever been invited into it. All we knew was what we’d glimpsed through the window and what we’d heard of it being spoken with awe.
There was something else. Sam’s bike stood in the hall, shiny and gleaming, when Sam was not using it. We’d often peeped in at it when the door was open. It was Sam’s great treasure, and he guarded it as fiercely as a lioness guarded her cub. Let one of us so much as dare creep an inch beyond the doorstep toward it, and he’d come roaring out from the back of the house, his bushy red hair standing up like a wild golliwog.
I’d seen it happen two or three times already and I was terrified of going anywhere near it. Yet I’d have to pass it if I went into the parlor. I stood hesitating for a long time, my finger in my mouth, my eyes glued on her face at the window and the beckoning, beseeching fingers, while the others hopped and screeched madly over their game of hopscotch, and the light on the street grew dimmer. Finally I decided to chance it and slipped in.
Mr. Harris was still peering down at his newspaper, closer to the print than ever, and Mrs. Harris was still burrowing with her hen’s eyes through the dusk at the shadowy figure seated across from her, so they did not see me. I saw the bike the moment I entered the hallway, silvery highlights gleaming on the handlebars, the rest scarcely visible in the darkness. I flattened myself against the wall and crept slowly toward the parlor door to avoid touching it, holding my breath as I went. Once, I halted, hearing a sound in the back of the house, a cough, the movement of feet. But after it grew silent again, I crept on.
I groped for the doorknob, found it, and turned it slowly, and went in. The room was dark, save for the patch of light from the window at the front. There was a rustling, and I saw the shadowy figure sitting upright on the couch. “Over here, luv,” she whispered.
I stumbled past bulky furniture and found my way over to her. She grasped both my arms and stared at me for a moment through the darkness. “You’ve grown so,” she said, keeping her voice down to a whisper. “You’re so big. You’re almost too big to kiss. But I will! I will!” And she did, passionately, drawing me close to her so that I caught the familiar scent of lavender that came from the sachet she always wore tucked away in her tiny bosom.
Finally, releasing me, she whispered, “Does your mother know you’re out so late, ’arry?”
“Would you like to go on an errand for me?”
She gave a glance over my shoulder first, as if to make sure no one was there, then said, “I want you to go to Gordon’s to fetch some ginger beer. Can you do that for me?”
I nodded again, and I might have felt some surprise. It was not an unusual request, and there seemed to be no need for all her whispering and secrecy. I may not have gone to Gordon’s myself before this, but I had gone often with one of my brothers or sisters. Especially when somebody in the family was sick, because it was believed that ginger beer had medicinal qualities.
She did not stop her whispering though, and in fact glanced over my shoulder once more before she resumed. “Take this empty back with you,” she said, thrusting a bottle into my hand. “But first, ’arry”—she brought her mouth so close to my ear as she went on that I could feel the warm breath coming from it—“before you go in the shop, look to make sure Freddy’s there. I don’t want you to give the bottle to anybody except Freddy. Not Florrie, not the old man. Just Freddy. Do you understand?”
“Yis,” I said, speaking this time because the urgency of her tone seemed to demand it.
“And here’s a thrippeny bit.” She put the tiny coin into my other hand. “There’ll be a penny change and you can keep it.”
My heart leaped. A whole penny! I couldn’t wait to be off, but she held on to me a moment longer, and whispered in my ear. “Be very careful, ’arry. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going, and remember what I said, don’t let anybody wait on you, except Freddy. You look through the window first to make sure he’s there, and if he isn’t you just wait until he comes along before you go in. Do you hear me now?”
Finally I was off, and I made my way out of the room much faster than I’d come in, and my excitement over the penny was so great that I bumped into Sam’s bike, and immediately a great roar came from the back of the house.
I must have flown out of the house. I know I put all caution aside as I dashed out, and the two Harrises, catching a glimpse of me as I went past them, must have been bewildered. They were probably never able to make out what had happened, or where I’d come from, or even who I was.
All they saw was the small figure of a boy dashing across the street, disappearing into the Christian darkness.