Everything You Know (Zoe Heller)

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  I dreamed last night about my own funeral. It was held at Golders Green, like Mutti's, and the chapel was filled to capacity with wailing people, none of whom I recognized. When my coffin came wobbling up out of the floor, it was open. I was on display. Owing to some strange embalming process, my corpse had been transformed into a hollow, plastic vessel, filled with green liquid that gave off a dull glow. Floating in the liquid were several large artificial flowers. The mourners were surprised by this, but not discomfited. They all seemed to be quite pleased. "What lovely insides," one woman said. But then they got in line to view me up close, and as they filed past, their expressions changed. The chapel became filled with a low murmur of protest. Finally, the same woman who had praised my insides shouted, "This isn't him. We're in the wrong place!" and everybody began to leave.

When I woke this morning, Penny had already left. She was spending the day visiting an old girlfriend of hers who has married an Englishman and now lives in the Cotswolds. I was meant to be at my mother's flat at nine to help Monika with sorting through her things, but when the wake-up call came through at seven-thirty I was so paralysed by exhaustion and misery that I simply could not get out of bed. I have a peculiar horror of post-mortem trawls--the graveyard smell of dead people's wardrobes, the medicine cabinets bulging with dusty medicine, the stagey melancholia that the participants must affect in order to disguise their boredom or greed or nosiness. I lay dozing and making sad little bleating noises to myself for several hours, and by the time I mustered enough energy to climb down from the frilly four-poster, it was one o'clock. I tried calling Puerto Vallarta again. Harry still wasn't answering.

"Hola muchachos!," the message said now. "I'm far too drunk to answer the phone at the moment..."

This was followed by a long crackly pause and the distinct crash of the phone being dropped.

I left another message asking him to call me, then I took a Valium and went down to the lobby to get a cab.

West Hampstead is one of the more impressively lugubrious areas of London, and Rosemont Terrace, where my mother lived, is ground zero of the gloom. Heavy chestnut trees line the street so thickly that, in spring and summer, the branches shut out almost all sunlight. On an autumn day like today, the pavements are a cake of rotting leaves and sluggy leaf-jam. My mother lived here for twenty years in a low-ceilinged basement flat so damp that she had to keep a dehumidifier on at all hours to stop her mattress from going green. Apart from an occasional visit from Monika and her movement-therapy students--New Age pilgrims come to worship at her shrine--my mother's only company in her old age was a series of more or less retarded live-in "helps." The last time I came to see her here, a lumpy Scandinavian girl greeted me at the door with a torrent of complaints. Mrs. Muller woke her up in the middle of the night, she said, demanding footbaths. Mrs. Muller had extreme views on diet and had gone so far as to hit her with a spatula after finding a secret stash of sliced white bread in the larder. Mrs. Muller wouldn't let her stay out past ten o'clock at night, even on her days off. If she broke anything--a glass, a soapdish--Mrs. Muller insisted on extracting the cost of the item from her meagre wages.

I remember standing in the mouldy-smelling hallway, nodding gravely as the girl tattled on. Her unloveliness depressed me. (Bad enough to be cleaning up my mother for a living, but so much worse to have frazzled hair and be wearing squidgy health-shoes that looked like Cornish pasties.) I drifted off, and as the particulars of her complaint became an indistinct background hum, the fact of her misery seemed to sing out with greater clarity. It was almost a relief after that to be ushered into the back bedroom where my mother lay. She was lavishly propped up on seven pillows, smelling faintly of urine, gaping at me in the half light, soft and wide-eyed like a great, sinister rag-doll. "Come to Mutti," she gasped slyly. The pendulous wattle connecting her chin and chest flapped as she spoke. I bent over to kiss her. "What is it, you don't shave anymore?" she said as my cheek touched hers. "Are you a pimp now, Willy?"

Monika was in the living room when I arrived, rummaging through a chest of drawers. "Hello, darling," she said. I could tell from the brightness of her tone and the slightly frantic way she was moving about that she was pissed off with me.

"Sorry I'm late," I said. "I overslept."

"Look at this," she said, ignoring the apology and holding up a pale green booklet. I went over to see it. It was my mother's old registration certificate. On the inside of its age-softened front cover was my mother's photograph: an unsmiling, rather wan thirty-five-year-old with prematurely greying hair and coffee-brown circles around her eyes. "Hmm," Monika said, looking over my shoulder. "Never very big on grooming, was she?"

When my mother first came to England in 1937, she was classified as an Alien. Then, when the war broke out, she became an Enemy Alien, which meant, among other things, that if she wanted to travel outside Totnes, even for a day, she was required to go to the local police station two weeks in advance of her intended journey and ask permission. Such requests--along with the magnanimous responses--were all recorded in this little book. I flicked through the pages of stamps and hand-written comments ("Mrs. Muller to Harwich for two days. Purpose of visit: shopping and to see friends. Permission granted"). I often accompanied my mother on her supplication visits to the Totnes police station. We would sit opposite the front desk, on the worn wooden "Visitors' Bench," waiting until some gormless member of the Devonshire Constabulary could tear himself away from his busy crime-fighting schedule and attend to us in the Interview Room. The police didn't like my mother--she was the Hun, after all--and they always kept her hanging around, sometimes for hours at a time. Had she been prepared to joke or flirt or even get angry with the constables, she might have made things easier for herself. But she was not that sort of woman. My mother despised all admissions of hurt, whether from others or herself.

Monika pointed out a note near the end of the book, dated 1942, recording my mother's alteration of status to "Refugee from Nazi Oppression." "God!" Monika said, laughing. "I remember the day she came back from London with that--she was terribly angry because she didn't want to be known as a refugee." I closed the book and set it down on the coffee table.

"Would you like to keep that?" Monika asked.


She shook her head. "Willy, you have no sense of the past."

"On the contrary. I have too much."

"Whatever you say, darling."

She had turned back to the chest of drawers now. I stood watching her as she riffled through the clutter. "What do you want me to do?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know," she muttered. "You could go through those papers over there on the recliner."

I realized with a zing of irritation that Monika didn't really want me to do anything. When she had insisted, the night before, on having my "help," she hadn't meant help in the practical sense of aid or succour. What she had really been asking for was my presence--someone to bear witness to her labour.

I went and got the pile of papers and sat down with it on the sofa. There was only rubbish here--ancient warranties for household appliances, mail-order catalogues for powdered vitamin supplements, yellowing newspaper advertisements for heating pads. As I sat, obediently sorting through the dreck, Monika chatted at me.

"Did I ever tell you what Mutti said when I got married to Lawrence?" (That was Monika's first husband--a fish-eyed hotel manager who turned out to be a wife-beater.) "I was trying on my wedding dress for her. I was all excited and happy. She looked at me and said, 'I suppose you know what to expect on your wedding night, don't you?' I was twenty-five! She thought I was a virgin! Can you imagine?"

I nodded absently. In between an old electricity bill and a recipe for lentil burgers cut out from Health Times, I had come upon a child's drawing executed in purple crayon. It was of a purple house with a purple, smoking chimney and four large, purple windows. In the upper right-hand corner of the page, just beneath a small, spiky, purple sun, the child had written, Für Mutti. Liebe, Wilhelm.

Monika was still talking. "Mutti hated sex, you know. She practically told me so, but it was obvious anyway that she was frigid, just from the way she talked in general. I think that was a lot of the reason she disliked me so much. She looked down on me because she knew I liked sex..."

I must have loved her, I thought. She must have loved me. You think you know who you were all your life, but you don't. You can't hold Paradise Lost in your head, so why should you be able to retain your entire existence to date? You forget things. You forget things. You have to. You make do with cribs. People ask you about other times in your life and you give them vague topic headings: "Oh, I was unhappy as a child... My twenties were very wild... We had a bad marriage." You have to use those précis, otherwise you would spend your life being a bore, like those people who think "How are you?" is a real question and insist on giving detailed answers. The terrible thing though, is that in the end you believe the cribs yourself. The past, in all its epic detail, gets lost. Years pass and pass until you simply don't know anymore that you were once a boy who liked his mother enough to draw her a purple picture.

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Excerpted from Everything You Know by Zoe Heller. Copyright © 1999 by Zoë Heller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.