THE rabbi knew he couldn't hope to begin on his sermon until he'd read the letter. He had been sitting at his desk in front of a blank sheet of paper for over an hour and still couldn't come up with a first sentence. Lately he had been unable to concentrate on a task he had carried out every Friday evening for the last thirty years. They must have realised by now that he was no longer up to it. He took the letter out of the envelope and slowly unfolded the pages. Then he pushed his half-‐moon spectacles up the bridge of his nose and started to read.
My dear Father,
"Jew boy! Jew boy! Jew boy!" were the first words I ever heard her say as I ran past her on the first lap of the race. She was standing behind the railing at the beginning of the home straight, hands cupped around her lips to be sure I couldn't miss the chant. She must have come from another school because I didn't recognise her, but it only took a fleeting glance to see that it was Greg Reynolds who was standing by her side.
After years of having to tolerate his snide comments and bullying at school all I wanted to retaliate with was, "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, " but you had always taught me to rise above such provocation.
I tried to put them both out of my mind as I moved into the second lap. I had dreamed for years of winning the mile in the West Mount High School Championships, and I was determined not to let them do anything to stop me.
As I came into the back straight a second time I took a more careful look at her. She was standing amid a cluster of friends who were wearing the scarves of Marianapolis Convent. She must have been about sixteen, and as slim as a willow.
I wonder if you would have chastised me had l only shouted, "No breasts, no breasts, no breasts," in the hope it might at least provoke the boy standing next to her into a fight. Then I would have been able to tell you truthfully that he had thrown the first punch but the moment you had learned that it was Greg Reynolds you would have realised how little provocation I needed.
As I reached the back straight I once again prepared myself for the chants. Chanting at track meetings had become fashionable in the late 1950s when "Zat-‐o-‐pek, Zat-‐o-‐pek, Zat-‐o-‐pek" had been roared in adulation across running stadiums around the world for the great Czech champion. Not for me was there to be the shout of "Ros-‐en-‐thal, Ros-‐en-‐thal, Ros-‐en-‐thal" as I came into earshot.
'Jew boy! Jew boy! Jew boy!" she said, sounding like a gramophone record that had got stuck. Her friend Greg, who would nowadays be described as a preppie, began laughing. I knew he had put her up to it, and how I would have loved to have removed that smug grin from his face. I reached the half-‐mile mark in two minutes seventeen seconds, comfortably inside the pace necessary to break the school record, and I felt that was the best way to put the taunting girl and that fascist Reynolds in their place. I couldn't help thinking at the time how unfair it all was. I was a real Canadian, born and bred in this county, while she was just an immigrant. After all, you, Father, had escaped from Hamburg in 1937 and started with nothing. Her parents did not land on these shores until 1949, by which time you were a respected figure in the community.
I gritted my teeth and tried to concentrate. Zatopek had written in his autobiography that no runner can afford to lose his concentration during a race. When I reached the penultimate bend the inevitable chanting began again, but this time it only made me speed up and even more determined to break that record. Once I was back in the safety of the home straight I could hear some of my friends roaring, "Come on, Benjamin, you can do it," and the timekeeper called out, "Three twenty-‐three, three twenty-‐four, three twenty-‐five" as I passed the bell to begin the last lap.
I knew that the record -‐four thirty-‐two-‐ was now well within my grasp and all those dark nights of winter training suddenly seemed worthwhile. As I reached the back straight I took the lead, and even felt that I could face the girl again. I summoned up my strength for one last effort. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed I was already yards in front of any of my rivals, so it was only me against the clock. Then I heard the chanting, but this time it was even louder than before, 'Jew boy! Jew boy! Jew boy!" It was louder because the two of them were now working in unison, and just as I came round the bend Reynolds raised his arm in a flagrant Nazi salute.
If I had only carried on for another twenty yards I would hare reached the safety of the home straight and the cheers of my friends, the cup and the record. But they had made me so angry that I could no longer control myself I shot off the track and ran across the grass over the long-‐jump pit and straight towards them. At last my crazy decision stopped their chanting because Reynolds lowered his arm and just stood there staring pathetically at me from behind the small railing that surrounded the outer perimeter of the track. I leaped right over it and landed in front of my adversary. With all the energy I had saved for the final straight I took an almighty swing at him. My fist landed an inch below his left eye and he buckled and fell to the ground by her side. Quickly she knelt down and, staring up, gave me a look of such hatred that no words could have matched it. Once I was sure Greg wasn't going to get up, I walked slowly back on to the track as the last of the runners were coming round the final bend.
"Last again, Jew boy, " I heard her shout as I jogged down the home straight, so far behind the others that they didn't even bother to record my time.
How often since have you quoted me those words: "Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe"? Of course you were right, but I was only seventeen then, and even after I had learned the truth about Christina's father I still couldn't understand how anyone who had come from a defeated Germany, a Germany condemned by the rest of the world for its treatment of the Jews, could still behave in such a manner. And in those days I really believed her family were Nazis, but I remember you patiently explaining to me that her father had been an admiral in the German navy, and had won an Iron Cross for sinking Allied ships. Do you remember me asking how could you tolerate such a man, let alone allow him to settle down in our county?
You went on to assure me that Admiral von Braumer, who came from an old Roman Catholic family and probably despised the Nazis as much as we did, had acquitted himself honourably as an of officer and a gentleman throughout his life as a German sailor. But I still couldn't accept your attitude, or didn't want to. It didn't help, Father, that you always saw the other man's point of view, and even though Mother had died prematurely because of those bastards you could still find it in you to forgive.
If you had been born a Christian, you would have been a saint.
The rabbi put the letter down and rubbed his tired eyes before he turned over another page written in that fine script that he had taught his only son so many years before. Benjamin had always learned quickly, everything from the Hebrew scriptures to a complicated algebraic equation. The old man had even begun to hope the boy might become a rabbi.
Do you remember my asking you that evening why people couldn't understand that the world had changed? Didn't the girl realise that she was no better than we were? I shall never forget your reply. She is, you said, far better than us, if the only way you can prove your superiority is to punch her friend in the face.
I returned to my room angered by your weakness. It was to be many years before I understood your strength. When I wasn't pounding ‘round that track I rarely had time for anything other than working or a scholarship to McGill, so it came as a surprise that her path crossed mine again so soon.
It must have been about a week later that I saw her at the local swimming pool. She was standing at the deep end, just under the diving board, when I came in. Her long fair hair was dancing on her shoulders, her bright eyes eagerly taking in everything going on around her. Greg was by her side. I was pleased to notice a deep purple patch remained under his left eye for all to see. I also remember chuckling to myself because she really did have the flattest chest I had doer seen on a sixteen-‐year-‐old girl, though I have to confess she had fantastic legs. Perhaps she's a freak, I thought. I turned to go in to the changing room -‐ a split second before I hit the water. When I came up for breath there was no sign of who had pushed me in, just a group of grinning but innocent faces. I didn't need a law degree to work out who it must have been, but as you constantly reminded me, Father, without evidence there is no proof . . . I wouldn't have minded that much about being pushed into the pool if I hadn't been wearing my best suit -‐ in truth, my only suit with long trousers, the one I wore on days I was going to the synagogue.
I climbed out of the water but didn't waste any time looking round for him. I knew Greg would be a long way off by then. I walked home through the back streets, avoiding taking the bus in case someone saw me and told you what a state I was in. As soon as I got home I crept past your study and on upstairs to my room, changing before you had the chance to discover what had taken place.
Old Isaac Cohen gave me a disapproving look when I turned up at the synagogue an hour later wearing a blazer and jeans. I took the suit to the cleaners the next morning. It cost me three weeks' pocket money to be sure that you were never aware of what had happened at the swimming pool that day.
The rabbi picked up the picture of his seventeen year-‐old son in that synagogue suit. He well remembered Benjamin turning up to his service in a blazer and jeans and Isaac Cohen's outspoken reprimand. The rabbi was thankful that Mr. Atkins, the swimming instructor, had phoned to warn him of what had taken place that afternoon so at least he didn't add to Mr. Cohen's harsh words. He continued gazing at the photograph for a long time before he returned to the letter.
The next occasion l saw Christina -‐ by now I had found out her name -‐ was at the end-‐of-‐term dance held in the school gymnasium. I thought I looked pretty cool in my neatly pressed suit until I saw Greg standing by her side in a smart new dinner jacket. I remember wondering at the time if I would ever be able to afford a dinner jacket. Greg had been offered a place at McGill and was announcing the fact to anyone who cared to listen, which made me all the more determined to win a scholarship there the following year. I stared at Christina. She was wearing a long red dress that completely covered those beautiful legs. A thin gold belt emphasized her tiny waist and the only jewellery she wore was a simple gold necklace. I knew if I waited a moment longer I wouldn't have the courage to go through with it. I clenched my fists, walked over to where they were sitting, and as you had always taught me, Father, bowed slightly before I asked, "May I have the pleasure of this dance?"
She stared into my eyes. I swear if she had told me to go out and kill a thousand men before I dared ask her again I would have done it. She didn't even speak, but Greg leaned over her shoulder and said, "Why don't you go and find yourself a nice Jewish girl?" I thought I saw her scowl at his remark, but I only blushed like someone who's been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I didn't dance with anyone that night. I walked straight out of the gymnasium and ran home.
I was convinced then that I hated her.
That last week of term I broke the school record for the mile. You were there to watch me but, thank heavens, she wasn't. That was the holiday we drove over to Ottawa for our summer vacation with Aunt Rebecca. I was told by a school friend that Christina had spent hers in Vancouver with a German family. At least Greg had not gone with her, the friend assured me. You went on reminding me of the importance of a good education, but you didn't need to, because every time I saw Greg it made me more determined to win that scholarship.
I worked even harder in the summer of '65 when you explained that, for a Canadian, a place at McGill was like going to Harvard or Oxford and would clear a path for the rest of my days.
For the first time in my life running took second place.
Although I didn't see much of Christina that term she was often in my mind. A classmate told me that she and Greg were no longer seeing each other, but could give me no reason for this sudden change of heart. At the time I had a so-‐called girlfriend who always sat on the other side of the synagogue -‐ Naomi Goldblatz, you remember her -‐ but it was she who dated me.
As my exams drew nearer, I was grateful that you always found time to go over my essays and tests after I had finished them. What you couldn't know was that I inevitably returned to my own room to do them a third time. Often I would fall asleep at my desk. When I woke I would turn over the page and read on. Even you, Father, who have not an ounce of vanity in you, found it hard to disguise from your congregation the pride you took in my eight straight "A’s" and the award of a top scholarship to McGill. I wondered if Christina was aware of it. She mast have been. My name was painted up on the Honours Board in fresh gold leaf the following week, so someone would have told her.
* * *
It must have been three months later I was in my first term at McGill that I saw her next. Do you remember taking me to St Joan at the Centaur Theatre? There she was, seated a few rows in front of us with her parents and a sophomore called Bob Richards. The admiral and his wife looked strait-‐laced and very stern but not unsympathetic. In the interval I watched her laughing and joking with them: she had obviously enjoyed herself. I hardly saw St Joan, and although I couldn't take my eyes off Christina she never once noticed me. I just wanted to be on the stage playing the Dauphin so she would have to look up at me.
When the curtain came down she and Bob Richards left her parents and headed for the exit. I followed the two of them out of the foyer and into the car park, and watched them get into a Thunderbird. A Thunderbird! I remember thinking I might one day be able to afford a dinner jacket, but never a Thunderbird. From that moment she was in my thoughts whenever I trained, whenever I worked and even when I slept. I found out everything I could about Bob Richards and discovered that he was liked by all who knew him.
For the first time in my life I hated being a Jew.
When I next saw Christina I dreaded what might happen. It was the start of the mile against the University of Vancouver and as a freshman I had been lucky to be selected for McGill. When I came out on to the track to warm up I saw her sitting in the third row of the stand alongside Richards. They were holding hands.
I was last off when the starter's gun fired but as we went into the back straight moved up into fifth position. It was the largest crowd I had ever run in front of, and when I reached the home straight I waited for the chant 'Jew boy! Jew boy! Jew boy!" but nothing happened. I wondered if she had failed to notice that I was in the race. But she had noticed because as I came round the bend I could hear her voice clearly.
"Come on, Benjamin, you've got to win!" she shouted.
I wanted to look back to make sure it was Christina who had called those words; it would be another quarter of a mile before I could pass her again. By the time I did so I had moved up into third place, and I could hear her clearly: "Come on, Benjamin, you can do it!"
I immediately took the lead because all I wanted to do was get back to her. I charged on without thought of who was behind me, and by the time I passed her the third time I was several yards ahead of the rest.
"You're going to win!" she shouted as I ran on to reach the bell in three minutes eight seconds, eleven seconds faster than I had ever done before. I remember thinking that they ought to put something in those training manuals about love being worth two to three seconds a lap. I watched her all the way down the back straight and when I came into the final bend for the last time the crowd rose to their feet. I turned to search for her.
She was jumping up and down shouting, "Look out! Look out!" which I didn't understand until I was overtaken on the inside by the Vancouver Number One string who the coach had warned me was renowned for his strong finish. I staggered over the line a few yards behind him in second place but went on running until I was safely inside the changing room. I sat alone by my locker. Four minutes seventeen, someone told me: six seconds faster than I had ever run before. It didn't help. I stood in the shower for a long time, tying to work out what could possibly have changed her attitude.
When I walked back on to the track only the ground staff were still around. I took one last look at the finishing line before I strolled over to the Forsyth Library. I felt unable to face the usual team get-‐together, so I decided to settle down to write an essay on the rights of married women.
The library was almost empty that Saturday morning and I was well into my third page when I heard a voice say, "I hope I'm not interrupting you but you didn't come to Joe's.”
I looked up to see Christina standing on the other side of the table.
Father, I didn't know what to say. I just stared up at the beautiful creature in her fashionable blue mini-‐skirt and tight-‐fitting sweater that emphasised the most perfect breasts, and said nothing.
"I was the one who shouted 'Jew boy' when you were still at High School. I've felt ashamed about it ever since. I wanted to apologise to you on the night of the prom dance but couldn't summon up the courage with Greg standing there."
I nodded my understanding -‐ I couldn't think of any words that seemed appropriate.
"I never spoke to him again," she said. "But I don't suppose you even remember Greg." I just smiled.
"Care for coffee?" l asked, trying to sound as if I wouldn't mind if she replied, "I'm very sorry, I must get back to Bob."
"I'd like that very much," she said.
I took her to the library coffee shop, which was about all I could afford at the time. She never bothered to explain what had happened to Bob Richards, and I never asked.
Christina seemed to know so much about me that I felt embarrassed. She asked me to forgive her for what she had shouted on the track that day two years before. She made no excuses, placed the blame on no one else, just asked to be forgiven. Christina told me she was hoping to join me at McGill in September, to major in German. "Bit of a cheek," she admitted, "as it is my native tongue."
We spent the rest of that summer in each other's company. We saw St Joan again, and even queued for a film called Dr No that was all the craze at the time. We worked together, we studied together, we played together, but we slept alone.
I said little about Christina to you at the time, but I'd bet you knew already how much I loved her; I could never hide anything from you. And after all your teaching of forgiveness and understanding you could hardly disapprove.
The rabbi paused. His heart ached because he knew so much of what was still to come although he could not have foretold what would happen in the end. He had never thought he would live to regret his Orthodox upbringing but when Mrs Goldblatz first told him about Christina he had been unable to mask his disapproval. It will pass, given time, he told her. So much for wisdom.
Whenever I went to Christina's home I was always treated with courtesy but her family were unable to hide their disapproval. They uttered words they didn't believe in an attempt to show that they were not anti-‐Semitic, and whenever I brought up the subject with Christina she told me I was overreacting. We both knew I wasn't. They quite simply thought I was unworthy of their daughter. They were right, but it had nothing to do with my being Jewish.
I shall never forget the first time we made love. It was the day that Christina learned she had won a place at McGill.
We had gone to my room at three o'clock to change for a game of tennis. I took her in my arms for what I thought would be a brief moment and we didn't part until the next morning. Nothing had been planned. But how could it have been, when it was the first time for both of us?
I told her I would marry her -‐ don't all men the first time? -‐ only I meant it.
Then a few weeks later she missed her period. I begged her not to panic, and we both waited for another month because she was fearful of going to see any doctor in Montreal. If l had told you everything then, Father, perhaps my life would have taken a different course. But I didn't, and have only myself to blame.
I began to plan for a marriage that neither Christina's family nor you could possibly have found acceptable, but we didn't care. Love knows no parents, and certainly no religion. When she missed her second period I agreed Christina should tell her mother. I asked her if she would like me to be with her at the time, but she simply shook her head, and explained that she felt she had to face them on her own.
"I'll wait here until you return," I promised.
She smiled. "I'll be back even before you've had the time to change your mind about marrying me."
I sat in my room at McGill all that afternoon reading and pacing -‐ mostly pacing -‐ but she never came back, and I didn't go in search of her until it was dark. I crept round to her home, all the while trying to convince myself there must be some simple explanation as to why she hadn't returned. When I reached her road I could see a light on in her bedroom but nowhere else in the house so I thought she must be alone. I marched through the gate and up to the front porch, knocked on the door and waited. Her father answered the door.
"What do you want?" he asked, his eyes never leaving me for a moment. "I love your daughter," I told him, "and I want to marry her. "
"She will never marry a Jew," he said simply and closed the door. I remember that he didn't slam it; he just closed it, which made it somehow far worse.
l stood outside in the road staring up at her room for over an hour until the light went out. Then I walked home. I recall there was a light drizzle that night and few people were on the streets. I tried to work out what I should do next, although the situation seemed hopeless to me. I went to bed that night hoping for a miracle. I had forgotten that miracles are for Christians, not Jews.
By the next morning I had worked out a plan. I phoned Christina's home at eight and nearly put the phone down when I heard the voice at the other end.
"Mrs von Braumer," she said.
"Is Christina there?" I asked in a whisper.
"No, she's not," came back the controlled impersonal reply.
"When are you expecting her back?" I asked.
"Not for some time," she said, and then the phone went dead.
"Not for some time" turned out to be over a year. I wrote, telephoned, asked friends from school and university but could never find out where they had taken her.
Then one day, unannounced, she returned to Montreal accompanied by a husband and my child. I learned the bitter details from that font of all knowledge, Naomi Goldblatz, who had already seen all three of them. I received a short note from Christina about a week later begging me not to make any attempt to contact her.
I had just begun my last year at McGill and like some eighteenth-‐century gentleman I honoured her wish to the letter and turned all my energies to the final exams. She still continued to preoccupy my thoughts and I considered myself lucky at the end of the year to be offered a place at Harvard Law School. I left Montreal for Boston on September 12th, 1968.
You must have wondered why I never came home once during those three years. I knew of your disapproval. Thanks to Mrs Goldblatz everyone was aware who the father of Christina's child was and I felt an enforced absence might make life a little easier for you.
The rabbi paused as he remembered Mrs Goldblatz letting him know what she had considered was "only her duty". "You're an interfering old busybody," he had told her. By the following Saturday she had moved to another synagogue and let everyone in the town know why. He was more angry with himself than with Benjamin. He should have visited Harvard to let his son know that his love for him had not changed. So much for his powers of forgiveness. He took up the letter once again.
Throughout those years at law school I had plenty of friends of both sexes, but Christina was rarely out of my mind for more than a few hours at a time. I wrote over forty letters to her while I was in Boston, but didn't post one of them. I even phoned, but it was never her voice that answered. If it had been, I'm not even sure I would have said anything. I just wanted to hear her.
Were you ever curious about the women in my life? I had affairs with a bright girl from Radcliffe who was reading law, history or science, and ones with a shop assistant who never read anything. Can you imagine, in the very act of making love, always thinking of another woman? I seemed to be doing my work on autopilot, and soon my passion for running became reduced to an hour's jogging a day.
Long before the end of my last year, leading law firms in New York, Chicago and Toronto were turning up to interview us. The Harvard tom-‐toms can be relied on to beat across the world, but even I was surprised by a visit from the senior partner of Graham Douglas & Wilkins of Toronto. It's not a firm known for its Jewish partners, but l liked the idea of their letterhead one day reading "Graham Douglas Wilkins & Rosenthal". Even her father would surely have been impressed by that.
At least if I lived and worked in Toronto, I convinced myself, it would be far enough away for me to forget her, and perhaps with luck find someone I could feel that way about. Graham Douglas & Wilkins found me a spacious apartment overlooking the park and started me off at a handsome salary. In return I worked all the hours God -‐ whoever's God -‐ made. If I thought they had pushed me at McGill or Harvard, Father, it turned out to be no more than a dry run for the real world. I didn't complain. The work was exciting, and the rewards beyond my expectation. Only now that I could afford a Thunderbird l didn't want one.
New girlfriends came, and went as soon as they talked of marriage. The Jewish ones usually raised the subject within a week, the Gentiles, I found, waited a little longer. I even began living with one of them, Rebecca Hertz, but that too ended -‐ on a Thursday.
I was driving to the office that morning -‐ it must have been a little after eight, which was late for me -‐ when I saw Christina on the other side of the busy highway, a barrier separating us. She was standing at a bus stop holding the hand of a little boy, who must have been about five -‐ my son.
The heavy morning traffic allowed me a little longer to stare in disbelief. I found that I wanted to look at them both at once. She wore a long lightweight coat that showed she had not lost her figure. Her face was serene and only reminded me why she was rarely out of my thoughts. Her son -‐ our son -‐ was wrapped up in an oversized duffle coat and his head was covered by a baseball hat that informed me that he supported the Toronto Dolphins. Sadly, it really stopped me seeing what he looked like. You can't be in Toronto, I remember thinking, you're meant to be in Montreal. I watched them both in my side-‐mirror as they climbed on to a bus. That particular Thursday I must have been an appalling counsellor to every client who sought my advice.
For the next week I passed by that bus stop every morning within minutes of the time I had seen them standing there but never saw them again. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole scene. Then I spotted Christina again when I was returning across the city, having visited a client. She was on her own and I braked hard as I watched her entering a shop on Bloor Street. This time I double-‐parked the car and walked quickly across the road -‐ feeling like a sleazy private detective who spends his life peeping through keyholes.
What I saw took me by surprise -‐ not to find her in a beautiful dress shop, but to discover it was where she worked. The moment I saw that she was serving a customer I hurried back to my car. Once I had reached my office I asked my secretary if she knew of a shop called "Willing's". My secretary laughed.
"You must pronounce it the German way, the W becomes a V," she explained, "thus 'Villing's'. If you were married you would know that it's the most expensive dress shop in town," she added.
"Do you know anything else about the place?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Not a lot," she said. "Only that it is owned by a wealthy German lady called Mrs Klaus Willing whom they often write about in the women's magazines. "
I didn't need to ask my secretary any more questions and I won't trouble you, Father, with my detective work. But, armed with those snippets of information, it didn't take me long to discover where Christina lived, that her husband was an overseas director with BMW, and that they only had the one child.
The old rabbi breathed deeply as he glanced up at the clock on his desk, more out of habit than any desire to know the time. He paused for a moment before returning to the letter. He had been so proud of his lawyer son then; why hadn't he made the first step towards a reconciliation? How he would have liked to have seen his grandson.
My ultimate decision did not require an acute legal mind, just a little common sense -‐ although a lawyer who advises himself undoubtedly has a fool for a client. Contact, I decided, had to be direct and a letter was the only method I felt Christina would find acceptable.
I wrote a simple message that Monday morning, then rewrote it several times before I telephoned "Fleet Deliveries" and asked them to hand it to her in person at the shop. When the young man left with the letter I wanted to follow him, just to be certain he had given it to the right person. I can still repeat it word for word.
You must know I live and work in Toronto. Can we meet? I will wait for you in the lounge of the Royal York Hotel every evening between six and seven this week. If you don't come be assured I will never trouble you again.
I arrived that evening nearly thirty minutes early. I remember taking a seat in a large impersonal lounge just off the main hall and ordering coffee. "Will anyone be joining you, sir?" the waiter asked.
"I can't be sure," I told him. No one did join me, but I still hung around until seven forty.
By Thursday the waiter had stopped asking if anyone would be joining me as I sat alone and allowed yet another cup of coffer to grow cold. Every few minutes I checked my watch. Each time a woman with blonde hair entered the lounge my heart leaped but it was never the woman I hoped for.
It was just before seven on Friday that I finally saw Christina standing in the doorway. She wore a smart blue suit buttoned up almost to the neck and a while blouse that made her look as if she were on her way to a business conference. Her long fair hair was pulled back behind her ears to give an impression of severity, but however hard she tried she could not be other than beautiful. I stood and raised my arm. She walked quickly over and took the seat beside me. We didn't kiss or shake hands and for some time didn't even speak.
"Thank you for coming," I said.
"I shouldn't have, it was foolish. "
Some time passed before either of us spoke again. "Can I pour you a coffee?" l asked.
"Yes, thank you." "Black?"
"You haven't changed."
How banal it all would have sounded to anyone eavesdropping. She sipped her coffee.
I should have taken her in my arms right then but I had no way of knowing that that was what she wanted. For several minutes we talked of inconsequential matters, always avoiding each other's eyes, until I suddenly said, "Do you realise that I still love you?"
Tears filled her eyes as she replied, "Of course l do. And l still feel the same about you now as I did the day we parted. And don't forget I have to see you every day, through Nicholas."
She leaned forward and spoke almost in a whisper. She told me about the meeting with her parents that had taken place more than five years before as if we had not been parted in between. Her father had shown no anger when he learned she was pregnant but the family still left for Vancouver the following morning. There they had stayed with the Willings, a family also from Munich, who were old friends of the von Braumers. Their son, Klaus, had always been besotted with Christina and didn't care about her being pregnant, or even the fact she felt nothing for him. He was confident that, given time, it would all work out for the best.
It didn't, because it couldn't. Christina had always known it would never work, however hard Claus tried. They even left Montreal in an attempt to make a go of it. Klaus bought her the shop in Toronto and every luxury that money could afford, but it made no difference. Their marriage was an obvious sham. Yet they could not bring themselves to distress their families further with a divorce so they had led separate lives from the beginning.
As soon as Christina finished her story I touched her cheek and she took my hand and kissed it. From that moment on we saw each other every spare moment that could be stolen, day or night. It was the happiest year of my life, and I was unable to hide from anyone how I felt.
Our affair -‐ for that's how the gossips were describing it -‐ inevitably became public. However discreet we tried to be, Toronto, I quickly discovered, is a very small place, full of people who took pleasure in informing those whom we also loved that we had been seen together regularly, even leaving my home in the early hours.
Then quite suddenly we were left with no choice in the matter: Christina told me she was pregnant again. Only this time it held no fears for either of us.
Once she had told Klaus the settlement went through as quickly as the best divorce lawyer at Graham Douglas & Wilkins could negotiate. We were married only a few days after the final papers were signed. We both regretted that Christina's parents felt unable to attend the wedding but I couldn't understand why you didn't come.
The rabbi still could not believe his own intolerance and short-sightedness. The demands on an Orthodox Jew should be waived if it meant losing one's only child. He had searched the Talmud in vain for any passage that would allow him to break his lifelong vows. In vain.
The only sad part of the divorce settlement was that Klaus was given custody of our child. He also demanded, in exchange for a quick divorce, that I not be allowed to see Nicholas before his twenty‐first birthday, and that he should not be told that I was his real father. At the time it seemed a hard price to pay, even for such happiness. We both knew that we had been left with no choice but to accept his terms.
I used to wonder how each day could be so much better than the last. If I was apart from Christina for more than a few hours I always missed her. If the firm sent me out of town on business for a night I would phone her two, three, perhaps four times, and if it was for more than a night then she came with me. I remember you once describing your love for my mother and wondering at the time if I could ever hope to achieve such happiness.
We began to make plans for the birth of our child William, if it was a boy ‐ her choice; Deborah, if it was a girl ‐ mine. I painted the spare room pink, assuming I had already won. Christina had to stop me buying too many baby clothes, but I warned her that it didn't matter as we were going to have a dozen more children. Jews, I reminded her, believed in dynasties.
She attended her exercise classes regularly, dieted carefully, rested sensibly. I told her she was doing far more than was required of a mother, even of my daughter. I asked if I could be present when our child was born and her gynaecologist seemed reluctant at first, but then agreed. By the time the ninth month came the hospital must have thought from the amount of fuss I was making they were preparing for the birth of a royal prince.
I drove Christina into Women’s College Hospital on the way to work last Tuesday. Although I went on to the office I found it impossible to concentrate. The hospital rang in the afternoon to say they thought the child would be born early that evening: obviously Deborah did not wish to disrupt the working hours of Graham Douglas & Wilkins. However, I still arrived at the hospital far too early. I sat on the end of Christina's bed until her contractions started coming every minute and then to my surprise they asked me to leave. They needed to rupture her membranes, a nurse explained. I asked her to remind the midwife that I wanted to be present to witness the birth.
I went out into the corridor and began pacing up and down, the way expectant fathers do in B-‐movies. Christina's gynaecologist arrived about half an hour later and gave me a huge smile. I noticed a cigar in his top pocket, obviously reserved for expectant fathers.
"It's about to happen," was all he said.
A second doctor whom I had never seen before arrived a few minutes later and went quickly into her room. He only gave me a nod. I felt like a man in the dock waiting to hear the jury's verdict. It must have been at least another fifteen minutes before I saw the unit being rushed down the corridor by a team of three young interns. They didn't even give me so much as a second glance as they disappeared into Christina's room.
I heard the screams that suddenly gave way to the plaintive cry of a new-‐born child. I thanked my God and hers. When the doctor came out of her room I remember noticing that the cigar had disappeared.
"It's a girl," he said quietly. I was overjoyed.
"No need to repaint the bedroom immediately," flashed through my mind. "Can I see Christina now?" I asked.
He took me by the arm and led me across the corridor and into his office. "Would you like to sit down?" he asked. "I'm afraid I have some sad news."
"Is she all right?"
"I am sorry, so very sorry, to tell you that your wife is dead."
At first I didn't believe him, I refused to believe him. Why? Why? I wanted to scream. "We did warn her," he added.
"Warn her? Warn her of what?"
"That her blood pressure might not stand up to it a second time."
Christina had never told me what the doctor went on to explain -‐ that the birth of our first child had been complicated, and that the doctors had advised her against becoming pregnant again.
"Why hadn't she told me?" l demanded.
Then I realized why. She had risked everything for me -‐ foolish, selfish, thoughtless me -‐ and l had ended up killing the one person I loved. They allowed me to hold Deborah in my arms for just a moment before they put her into an incubator and told me it would be another twenty‐four hours before she came off the danger list.
You will never know how much it meant to me, Father, that you came to the hospital so quickly. Christina’s parents arrived later that morning. They were magnificent. He begged for my forgiveness ‐ begged for my forgiveness. It could never have happened, he kept repeating, if he hadn't been so stupid and prejudiced.
His wife took my hand and asked if she might be allowed to see Deborah from time to time. Of course I agreed. They left just before midnight. I sat, walked, slept in that corridor for the next twenty-‐four hours until they told me that my daughter was off the danger list. She would have to remain in the hospital for a few more days, they explained, but she was now managing to suck milk from a bottle. Christina's father kindly took over the funeral arrangements.
You must have wondered why I didn't appear and I owe you an explanation. I thought I would just drop into the hospital on my way to the funeral so that I could spend a few moments with Deborah. I had already transferred my love. The doctor couldn’t get the words out. It took a brave man to tell me that her heart had stopped beating a few minutes before my arrival. Even the senior surgeon was in tears. When I left the hospital the corridors were empty.
I want you to know, Father, that I love you with all my heart, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my life without Christina or Deborah. I only ask to be buried beside my wife and daughter and to be remembered as their husband and father. That way unthinking people might learn from our love. And when you finish this letter, remember only that I had such total happiness when I was with her that death holds no fears for me.
Your son, Benjamin.
The old rabbi placed the letter down on the table in front of him. He had read it every day for the last ten years.