written by John Bart
- Sample from the book
In the 1960’s, the Portobello Antique Market in London, England, exploded into the thriving, exciting area it is now. Oscar, the hero of this novel, is involved in this expansion, first as a boy, then as a young man. He learns about people, about sexuality, about caring for those around him…a hermaphrodite, a blind girl, an elderly refugee. He is an unwitting observer of the important events in London at that time…the Profumo affair, Rachmanism, gang warfare and police corruption. His involvement with all these help him mature and learn what is important to him. This is an entertaining read.
Chapter 1. Original sins
Oscar Beans did not think anything of speaking three languages at once, of having two mothers, or being afflicted (or blest, depending on the moment) with one-and-a-half fathers, one of whom was thought to be a woman. From when he was first able to comprehend life he had been addressed in a polyglot of Czech, German and English so that there was no distinction in his mind between them. Interchangeability was built into his brain from the get-go, and, as he was fond of telling interviewers, it stood him in good stead in later life.
“Hearing three names for the same thing in one exchange around the dinner table causes you to look for alternates everywhere else in life, automatically, without a second thought. And, if you look, you find it where others don’t. It’s one secret of my success.”
“And what are the others. Are there that many?” asked the interviewer, turning her head to show the camera her better profile. But she got no reply. Instead she was favoured with one of Oscar’s hard stares and, as he paid her wages, the matter rested.
Of course, Beans was not the name Oscar’s father had been born with, but when he was let out of the concentration camp and interviewed for British immigration, the functionary asking the question spoke only English. That was why the army had placed him there. Ignorance is bliss and simplifies.
“Name?” he asked of the emaciated, almost cadaverous figure who was smoking a cigarette and eating a large hunk of bread at the same time.
The bread caused a muffling of the words “Bruno Benes” and the figure’s halitosis caused the questioner to lean back and doubt what had been said. He had never heard the name Benes, did not know that it was the moniker of Free Czechoslovakia’s most famous politician and could not have cared less. He had the job of giving a temporary passport to these walking dead, and there were a lot of them. Time was a wasting.
“Bruno Beans” he said, loudly, with a smirk over his shoulder to his crew who were waiting to hear what he came up with this time. Oscar’s father shrugged his shoulders. He would have answered to any name to escape the environs of the camp and if this idiot wanted to call him Bruno Beans, so be it. At the time he spoke no English, only Czech, his mother tongue, and German, which all inhabitants of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were required to learn at school. He had no idea what the word “beans” meant. He knew only that the document being signed and stamped in front of him would get him to England and a long way from the Russians whom he was sure would shortly overrun Europe, replacing (and taking their cue from) the hated Nazis.
Everyone had heard the stories of Russian soldiers drinking the embalming fluid in the Anatomy departments of Berlin’s medical schools to get drunk. It was a measure of their ignorance. But as there were no stories of these fighters dying after imbibing the liquid that kept foetal embryos, the brains of famous people, and cystic kidneys from rotting, it was also a measure of their toughness and what was to come if you fell into their hands. At the very least you might be forced to drink the fluid if you were a man, and want to drink it if you were a woman rather than stay awake during the next few hours.
Russian army recruits cared only for fellow countrymen. It meant little to them that you had been found, half-starved and crazy, in a concentration camp. These were nothing new to the Soviets because almost everyone had a relative or a friend who had been sent to one, back home in Mother Russia. Some of the disappeared had even returned, older, wiser, thinner and a lot more cautious, with stories they only whispered when walking in the open for fear of being overheard. Being a foreign camp inhabitant was not a cause for sympathy for a soldier who had survived Nazi love taps and lived in Stalin’s world. If anything it was a cause for suspicion.
“Wife?” asked the English functionary. Seeing the blank look that greeted the word he fell back on sign language and pointed at the wedding ring on the fourth finger of his left hand as he repeated the word.
Bruno, though ignorant of English, was ready for the question. He swung around and pulled a tall woman, better fed than most, to his side. She, in turn, held onto a small round person, probably female, whose girth was almost the same as her height and who had a bright, fixed smile on her face.
Bruno put his hand over the tall woman’s and stroked his own fourth finger, showing that he too could sign.
“What’s your name, missus?” asked the functionary, giving her a close look.
The tall woman, who had been looked over closely many times since war broke out and knew what that look had meant in other circumstances, smiled and said, “Anna.”
“Well, Mrs. Anna Beans, who’s that?” the man asked, nodding at the fat person.
“Sister.” Anna said the word carefully since she had only just learnt it.
“And what’s your name?” the functionary asked, raising his eyebrows at the human rubber ball.
Anna, who had anticipated the question, jumped in with: “Hanka Hladikova.” Then she tapped her head…the universal sign for the deranged.
“What’s she smiling at? She’s not stopped doing it. What’s to smile at around here?”
But as there was no reply, and as he had a quota to meet by day’s end the functionary filled out three temporary passports. One for Bruno Beans, another for his wife Anna Beans and one, almost reluctantly, for her grinning, demented sister, Hanna Dicker.
Bruno and Anna had never been married. In fact, they had only just met. Bruno had been searching for a woman who would agree to be his wife because it was common knowledge that married couples got preferential treatment when it came to resettlement in England.
Anna had said, “Yes!” as soon as he had explained the benefits of marriage to a D.P. straight out of the camps. The initials, much bandied about by the press of the day, stood for “Displaced Person” a label that did not do justice to its wearer. Truth to tell, Nazi concentration camps did more than displace their inhabitants, they removed them from the past for the rest of their lives. For many the dark underbelly of the world was revealed when a number was tattooed on their arm, their hair shorn and their loved ones dragged screaming away. After that, if they survived, they would have been more appropriately labelled “R.P.”… a “Replaced Person” because they were not the same as they had been, and never would be.
For reasons not explained to others Hanka clung tightly to Anna as they stood in line behind Bruno. Not related in any way they had been thrown together by a mutual need to escape experiences too bitter to relate, which had left a perpetual smile on Hanka’s face and made an opportunist of the first order out of Anna. But there was nobody to call them on it and as no-one was left who cared, sisters they became as they entered their new life in England.
This little lying group, annealed to one another by fear and opportunity, stayed together when it got to London. And then Oscar was born, which was a good thing, because at that time it was easier to get a council flat if you were a refugee family with a new baby.
As is often the case, to the outside world they appeared to be an unbreakable unit that had survived a war, which was a good indication that a competent and productive future was very likely…and don’t get in their way!
As they grew accustomed to their new life, Oscar slept with Hanna, whom they called by her real name, Hanka, in one of the three rooms of their toilet-in-kitchen council flat off Notting Hill Gate. The porcelain lavatory, with its wooden seat, had been plonked in a tiny enclosed box-room within the cooking area, itself carved out of the general space as an afterthought.
In retrospect Oscar, who had a prodigious memory, said that using the toilet was like sitting in the smallest one of those nesting Russian dolls, trousers around ankles, while the smell of cabbage wafted up your nose and a pot lid clattered. Sometimes, he acknowledged, odours would go the other way, adding unusual, subtle elements to the food.
“Did you have a proper bathroom?”
“No. I remember being washed in the kitchen sink and seeing the others splash soapy water onto the floor when they used it. If we needed to be clean all over we went to the Porchester Public Baths, a good half hour’s walk away. We went more often in summer than winter for that reason. I enjoyed the outing when I was very young because I liked diving in and counting the number of blue tiles on the floor of the swimming pool. You had to shower first before you could use it and that’s how the need to be clean forced me to learn to swim. It didn’t cost much and, anyway, I got in for free.”
Things are bit different for you now, thought the interviewer as she cast a look around the large mansion in which they sat, but she had learnt her lesson and kept her peace. One more smart comment at his expense and she knew she would be out on her ear. Oscar did not take prisoners.
Bruno and Anna occupied the other room on a pull-out couch. When Anna returned from the Liverpool Road Maternity Hospital with Oscar in arms she anticipated that it was only a matter of time before Bruno made himself “known” to her in the Biblical sense. So, determined and unafraid, she went to the barber’s shop on the corner. In post war Britain, who knows why, condoms were sold where men got their hair cut. It was a vaguely biblical association only Samson, Delilah or a vengeful Catholic priesthood would have understood. Having to explain what you wanted to a barber, who would inevitably feign deafness for the edification of the customers-in-waiting, would be a source of embarrassment for many men who would rather withdraw in another sense of the word and so help to keep up the birthrate. Anna, however, had survived worse than the stares and smirks of men sitting cross-legged while smoking roll-your-owns and reading the pink Racing Form. She flung open the door, walked in, and said, in a loud voice, “I want Johnnies!”
Conscious of the principal drawback of her immigrant status she had been practicing delivery of this important phrase until it sounded okay to her, so that, despite her accent, there would be no mistake as to what she wanted.
The barber nearest her, who had a bowl over a young boy’s head and was cutting wet hair that stuck out from underneath it and, as usual, had been enjoying the lad’s discomfiture, stopped work and actually blushed. The door clanged shut behind Anna and a frozen silence fell on the shop.
Interpreting the pause to mean that she had used the wrong term for the contraceptives, or not been clear enough despite her careful preparation, Anna said, loudly, “I want French letters! I want Durex!”
“Okay! Okay Missus!” the barber said, scurrying over to open a drawer.
The boy, whose hair he had been pillaging, pulled off the bowel, turned around and watched as Anna paid for her prize. His expression was that of a monk encountering a unicorn he had heard about in sermons and seen depicted in the border of an ancient manuscript. A woman who bought Johnnies! And built! It was too wonderful to believe!
After Anna left one of the men said, “She’s a good looking bint and no mistake. If she were mine she’d need more than the measly half-dozen you sold her, Charlie.”
“Fuck off,” Charlie replied.
“Wish I could and I know with whom,” his customer said, quick as a flash, which caused everyone to grin, including the bowled lad who had grown up considerably in the last ten minutes.