The following is excerpted from Deborah Levy's novel. Levy has been a Booker Prize finalist for Hot Milk and Swimming Home. She trained at Dartington College of Arts before becoming a playwright. Her plays include Pax, Heresies, Clam, Call Blue Jane, Shiny Nylon, Honey Baby Middle England, Pushing the Prince into Denmark and Macbeth-False Memories.
It’s like this, Saul Adler: when I was 23 I loved the way you touched me, but when the afternoon slipped in and you slipped out of me, you were already looking for someone else. No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: I loved you every night and every day, but you were scared of my love and I was scared of my love, too. No, she said, I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love. Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.
Abbey Road, London, September 1988
I was thinking about how Jennifer Moreau had told me I was never to describe her beauty, not to her, or to anyone else. When I asked her why I was silenced in this way, she said, “Because you only have old words to describe me.” This was on my mind when I stepped on to the zebra crossing with its black-and-white stripes at which all vehicles must stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road. A car was coming towards me but it did not stop. I had to jump backwards and fell on my hip, using my hands to protect myself from the fall. The car stalled and a man rolled down the window. He was in his 60s, silver hair, dark eyes, thin lips. He asked if I was okay. When I did not answer he stepped out of his car.
“I apologize,” he said. “You walked on to the crossing and I slowed down, preparing to stop, but then you changed your mind and walked back to the kerb.” His eyelids were quivering at the corners. “And then without warning you lurched forward on to the crossing.”
I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favor. He furtively glanced at his car to check if it had been damaged. The wing mirror had shattered. His thin lips parted and he sighed sorrowfully, muttering something about how he had ordered the mirror from Milan.
Considering it was he who had nearly run me over, perhaps it was he who should take care.
I had been up all night writing a lecture on the psychology of male tyrants and I’d made a start with the way Stalin flirted with women by flicking bread at them across the dinner table. My notes, about five sheets of paper, had fallen out of my leather sling bag and, embarrassingly, so had a packet of condoms. I started to pick them up. A small, flat, rectangular object was lying in the road. I noticed the driver was looking at my knuckles as I handed him the object, which felt warm and seemed to be vibrating in my palm. It was not mine so I assumed it was his. Blood dripped through my fingers. My palms were grazed and there was a cut on the knuckle of my left hand. I sucked it while he watched me, clearly distressed.
“Do you need a lift somewhere?”
He offered to take me to a pharmacy to “clean up the wound,” as he put it. When I shook my head, he reached out his hand and touched my hair, which was strangely comforting. He asked for my name.
“Saul Adler. Look, it’s just a small graze. I have thin skin. I always bleed a lot, it’s nothing.”
He was holding his left arm in a strange way, cradling it with his right arm. I picked up the condoms and shoved them into my jacket pocket. A wind was up. The leaves that had been swept into small piles under the trees were blowing across the road. The driver told me the traffic had been diverted because there was a demonstration that day in London, and he’d wondered if Abbey Road was closed off. The detour was not signposted clearly. He did not understand why he’d become confused, because he often came this way to watch the cricket at Lord’s, nearby. While he spoke, he gazed at the rectangular object in his hand.
The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it, a man’s voice, and he was saying something angry and insulting. We both pretended not to hear his words.
Fuck off I hate you don’t come home.
“How old are you, Soorl? Can you tell me where you live?”
I think the near collision had really scared the driver.
I decided not to reveal that I was a historian and that my subject was communist Eastern Europe.
When I told him I was 28, he didn’t believe me and asked for my age again. He was so posh he pronounced my name as if a pebble had been inserted between the roof of his mouth and his lower lip. His silver hair was slicked back with a product that made it shine.
I in turn asked for his name.
“Wolfgang,” he said very quickly, as if he did not want me to remember it.
“Like Mozart,” I said, and then, rather like a child showing his father where he’d been hurt after falling off a swing, I pointed to the cut on my knuckle and kept repeating that I was okay. His concerned tone was starting to make me tearful. I wanted him to drive off and leave me alone. Perhaps the tears were to do with my father’s recent death, though my father was not as groomed or as gentle as shiny, silver-haired Wolfgang. To hasten his departure, I explained that my girlfriend was about to arrive any minute now, so he didn’t have to hang around. In fact she was going to take a photograph of me stepping on to the zebra crossing in the style of the photograph on the Beatles album.
“Which album is that, Soorl?”
“It’s called Abbey Road. Everyone knows that. Where have you been, Wolfgang?”
He laughed but he looked sad. Perhaps it was because of the insulting words that had been spoken from inside the vibrating object in his hand.
“And how old is your girlfriend?”
Actually, Abbey Road was the last album the Beatles recorded together at the EMI studios, which are just over there. ”I pointed to a large white house on the other side of the road.
“Of course, I know that,” he said sadly. “It’s nearly as famous as Buckingham Palace.” He walked back to his car, murmuring, “Take care, Soorl. You’re lucky to have such a young girlfriend. By the way, what do you do?”
His comments and questions were starting to irritate me—also the way he sighed, as if he carried the weight of the world on the shoulders of his beige cashmere coat. I decided not to reveal that I was a historian and that my subject was communist Eastern Europe.
It was a relief to hear the animal growl of his engine revving as I stepped back on the pavement.
Considering it was he who had nearly run me over, perhaps it was he who should take care. I waved to him but he did not wave back. As for my young girlfriend, I was only five years older than Jennifer, so what was he going on about? And why did he want to know her age? Or what I “do.”
“You’ve got thin skin,” she said. I asked her why she was carrying a stepladder.
Never mind. I was looking at the notes in my hand (which was still bleeding), in which I had transcribed how Stalin’s father had been an alcoholic and was abusive to his family. Stalin’s mother had enrolled her son Joseph into a Greek Orthodox priesthood school to protect him from his father’s rage after he had tried to strangle her. I could not easily read my own writing but I had underlined something about how Stalin would go on to punish people for their unconscious sins as well as their conscious sins–such as thought crimes against the party.
My left hip began to ache.
Take care, Soorl. Thanks for the advice, Wolfgang.
Back to my notes, which were now smudged with blood from my knuckle. Joseph Stalin (I had written this late at night) was always pleased to punish someone. He even bullied his own son—with such cruelty that he attempted to shoot himself. His wife also shot herself, more successfully than her son, who, unlike his mother, lived to be bullied again and again by his father. My own late father was not exactly a bully. He left that task to my brother, Matthew, who was always up for a bit of cruelty. Like Stalin, Matthew went after his own family, or made sure he made their lives so miserable they went after themselves.
I sat on the wall outside the EMI studios while I waited for Jennifer to arrive. In three days I was traveling to East Germany, the GDR, to research cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s at the Humboldt University. Although my German was reasonably fluent they had assigned me a translator. His name was Walter Müller. I was to stay for two weeks in East Berlin with his mother and sister, who had offered me a room in their tenement apartment near the university. Walter Müller was part of the reason I had nearly been run over on the zebra crossing. He had written to say that his sister, whose name was Katrin—but the family called her Luna—was a big Beatles fan. Since the 1970s, albums by both the Beatles and Bob Dylan had been allowed to be released in the GDR, unlike in the 50s and 60s, when pop music was seen by the ruling socialist party of Germany as a cultural weapon to corrupt the young. Officials were obliged to study all the lyrics before albums could be released.
Yeah yeah yeah. What could that possibly mean? What was it that was being said yes to?
It had been Jennifer’s idea to take a photograph of myself crossing the zebra on Abbey Road to give to Luna. The week before she had asked me to explain the whole concept of the GDR to her but I had become distracted. We were caramelizing peanuts in the kitchen of her flat at the time and I was burning the sugar. It was quite a complicated recipe in which we were instructed to add the peanuts to the boiling sugar syrup and then bake them in the oven. Jennifer did not understand how the people of a whole country could be locked up behind a wall and not be allowed to leave. While I was banging on about how Germany came to be ideologically and physically separated into two countries divided by a wall, communist in the East, capitalist in the West, and how the communist authorities called the Wall the “anti-fascist protection rampart,” her fingers had slipped under the waistband of my jeans. I was burning the sugar and Jennifer was not exactly taking notes. We had both lost interest in the German Democratic Republic.
I saw her walking towards me carrying a small aluminum stepladder on her arm. She was wearing the Soviet pilot’s cap I had bought her at a flea market on the Portobello Road. I kissed her and told her briefly what had happened. Jennifer was preparing for an exhibition of her photographs at art school, but had taken the afternoon off to do the “photo shoot,” as she called it. Some sort of camera was strapped to her leather belt; another hung around her neck. I did not disclose the details of the near crash, but she noticed the cut on my knuckle.
“You’ve got thin skin,” she said. I asked her why she was carrying a stepladder. She told me that was how the original photo of the Beatles on the Abbey Road zebra crossing was taken in August 1969 at 11.30 am. The photographer, Iain MacMillan, had placed the ladder at the side of the zebra while a policeman was paid to direct the traffic. MacMillan was given ten minutes to take the photo. But as I was not actually famous in any way, we couldn’t ask the police for five minutes so we had to work quickly.
“I think there’s been a diversion and Abbey Road is closed today.”
As I was speaking three cars sped by, followed by a black taxi for hire, a motorbike, two bicycles, and a lorry loaded with wooden planks.
“Yeah, Saul, it’s definitely closed,” she said, fiddling with her camera.
“I reckon you look more like Mick Ronson than any of the Beatles, even though your hair is black and Mick’s is blond.”
It was true that my hair, which was shoulder-length, had been cut by Jennifer two days ago in the style of Bowie’s lead guitarist. She was secretly proud of what she called my rockstar looks, and she loved my body more than I loved my body, which made me love her.
When the road was clear she set up the ladder in the same place that Wolfgang was supposed to have stopped his car. As she clambered up and sorted out her camera, she yelled instructions: “Put your hands in your jacket pockets! Look down! Look straight ahead! Okay, walk now! Bigger strides! Go!” There were two cars waiting but she held up her hand to keep them there as she put a new roll of film into her camera. When the cars started to hoot, she flamboyantly bowed to them from the top of the ladder.
From The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Deborah Levy.