It was raining in Soho.
We were in a Chinese round the corner
from where they used to live –
a street of tenements long since razed
for a wing of Middlesex Hospital –
when Dad told me how it ended.
Go on, he frowned behind his glasses
as I poked at a matchstick of ginger
resting in my strange Chinese spoon.
Eat it. You’re ten. The little sliver
exploded on my tongue with a freshness
I’d never known, like a sea breeze
carrying some far-off perfume.
The end of the story, you want? he asked,
and sucked up a dribbling chain
of noodles between his chopsticks.
Who knows, boychick? They reached Russia
as the Revolution began, can you believe?
His big eyes glared at me through his lenses.
Chaos. A miracle either of them
ever got back – though only one did,
of course, and we both know which.
Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here,
and nor would you.
He chuckled and wiped his forehead.
Try this. I’d never had meat like it –
rich, hot, its sweet brown sauce steaming.
Nor had I ever known those people,
who had lived in another world,
whose London was not ours.
He came back alone, your granddad.
So what happened to his brother,
you want to know? I nodded,
my mouth full of sweet beef.
He shrugged. Uncle Nathan.
Not that I can tell you much.
For years they tried to get word.
Then they gave up. Manya remarried,
to your uncle Toby the car-painter.
His eyes narrowed as he folded in
a hank of hot, wet greens.
There were more kids. You don’t forget
but life picks you up, carries you.
The last person to see him alive
was my own dad, from the rail of a ship.
At least, that’s what they thought.
He closed his hand round the little cup
of jasmine tea, and slurped from that next,
blowing steam from the surface.
I picked up my tea too, hot and fragrant,
and thought of a dark ship pounding north,
and two men in black coats out on deck.
But his eldest son, the rabbi, he flew
to Istanbul years later, just to see.
He was good with archives, city records,
and tracked down a white-haired Jew
running a nail stall in the Borsa.
Dad picked out a stick turning in his tea
and siphoned off a steaming mouthful.
Was it him? He couldn’t be sure.
No papers, nothing. And the old guy
was half mad, sleeping at the back
of a rundown prayerhouse with a decrepit
old Hasid washed up from Yalta.
Two old shlemiels. They’d shockel,
dance and pray all night – all that.
Loudly too, the neighbourhood
was always complaining.
The waiter stacked one arm high
with our plates and bowls,
still fragrant from the meal,
and brought a saucer of orange quarters
with their bright rinds still on.
I bit into one, sweeter, juicier
than any orange at home.
The rabbi saw them one night.
There’s a storm, the heavens open
right over the house, the Bosphorus flashing,
roofs lighting up, sky crackling
like a forest fire, and there they are,
two old guys stomping about
in the downpour, yelling their heads off,
strobe-lit by the storm.
So that’s what you get. Crazies.
A couple of shlimazels out in the rain.
If he’d just caught that ship.
Still. Here we are, eh?
That’s what matters, boychick.
Your grandad made it, so we made it.
You and me. We’re here.
The door opened and a rain-chilled gust
blew in, along with the hiss of the street,
and chilled our legs under the table.
Then it closed, and once more
the warm hubbub settled around us,
and he signalled to the waiter for our bill.