Bernie Waxman & the Whistling Kettle
Bernie Waxman is approaching his 75th birthday. He doesn’t relish the idea of the party being thrown for him, partly because he doesn’t like his family, and partly because he is being harassed by the police.
Bernie spends much of his time musing about his current predicament and his personal history – back to the origins of his family in England at the beginning of the 20th century and their lives as Jews in the East End of London.
Bernie’s elder daughter Clara is the favourite to become Leader of the Labour Party, and almost certainly Prime Minister within months. This is put in jeopardy by the news that Bernie, who has already served a prison sentence for fraud, is under suspicion for a repeat offence. His other daughter Sally is head of a children’s agency and is busy with two other things - organizing the party for Bernie, and trying to trace her mother, who left Bernie forty-five years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s never remarried. He took his revenge by defrauding divorced women. Now he’s being investigated for a fraud perpetrated on the same target group.
Everything points to Bernie.
|Title||Bernie Waxman & the Whistling Kettle|
|Genre||Mainstream Historical Fiction|
|Release||June 2, 2016|
|Tags||Literary fiction, mainstream fiction, historical fiction, family life, Jewish families, war stories.|
My grandfather invented the whistling kettle. Some say it was Sholom Borgelman, who ran a sheet metal plant in Whitechapel, but it was my grandfather, who lived at 52 Linthorpe Road, Stamford Hill. My father used to take me there on occasional Sundays. We’d sit in his cold, draughty kitchen. My grandfather always wore the same light brown dressing gown stained with blobs of past meals and covered with ash from the perpetual cigarette that bobbed up and down from his lips as he spoke.
“Now who is this?” he’d ask as we entered, lifting his chin high and drawing out the ‘who’ until it rose into the air like the whistle from the steam kettle he’d invented. He meant me. He addressed my father, but he looked at me out of the corner of his eye. My toes curled inside my socks until I felt the wool scratch the soles of my feet. A fire spread across my face. The voice squeaking inside my chest barely escaped my mouth. My father’s hand propelled me forward so that I stood with my knees touching the rough cloth of his dressing gown, my feet rubbing against the gaping flaps of his slippers in which his toenails lurked.
He’d stare at me, his eyebrows raised, the matching toothbrush bristles of his moustache quivering.
“Bernard,” I’d add, by way of greater clarity. But it was never enough.
“Bernie? Bernard? Bernie who? Bernard whoom?” The shoulders lifted almost up to his cheeks, the elbows clamped to his sides, the palms of his hands outstretched in utter incomprehension.
“I’m Bernie Waxman.”
“Which Bernie Waxman would that be?” Now his face came within inches of mine. Droplets of sweat shimmered among the stubble on his face; nicotine-stained teeth gripped the cigarette. By now my chest was heaving.
“I’m your grandson.”
“But I have so many grandsons.” The ‘so’ drifted up into another drawn-out steam whistle hovering around the room wraith-like until it insinuated itself into my shivering body. The shivering was partly the damp, chilly atmosphere of Grandpa’s kitchen, partly the agony of the interrogation into my identity.
I couldn’t think of any other grandsons. Were there others I didn’t know about? And how could there be another one called Bernie Waxman? All I knew was that this happened every time, stopping only when he rasped out a laugh that sputtered smoke and spittle into my face.
Once my grandfather had tired of tormenting me with his questions, he regaled my father and any of my uncles who were visiting with long rants that were beyond my capacity to understand, or were overshadowed by my shame at not being able to identify myself.
But I remember the rants about Sholom Borgelman.
“That momzer Borgelman,” he’d shout. “He stole my idea, and then he applied for the patent, and can you believe what he did? He fired me. Do you think I’d still be living in Stamford Hill if that momzer hadn’t stolen my idea? Every household had one. I’d be a millionaire. Like my brothers; my good-for-nothing lucky momzer brothers.”
That was usually the cue for Grandma Waxman to tear into the kitchen and screech like a demented parrot.
“Meyer, Meyer, stop swearing in front of the boy. Bernie, go upstairs, and find your Uncle Gerald. He has a new accordion. Go and play with him.”
Uncle Gerald wasn’t really an uncle. For a start, he was twelve and still wore short trousers. Also, he was my father’s half-brother, so he was half an uncle. And he was disgusting.
It was 1946. I’d hardly seen Grandpa and Grandma Waxman, or the half-an-uncle Gerald in the previous six years, which was my entire life. Now I was getting far more than I wanted. Blasts of information hurtled around the room, especially when the rest of my uncles, the real ones, crammed into the kitchen in Linthorpe Road. The brief forays into the whistling kettle held my attention; and my grandfather’s perorations, the stories, dramas and intrigues that bounced about like ping-pong balls at a country fair must have clung to me as though I wore sticky tape outside my brain.
* * * *
The scene is Meyer Waxman’s kitchen.
Nicotine-coloured paint flakes off the walls. The wooden boards skirting the floor match the dark green picture rail that crawls around the room. One print hangs from it, a lopsided view of a distant field. Other than that, a few picture hooks still dangle like small black crows perching on a branch. The ceiling is high. A flex hangs from its central rose, one light bulb suspended from it, its yellow lampshade splaying out the beam onto the lower halves of the walls. From the lampshade, a strip of sticky flypaper holds onto the corpses of flies, while live ones circle to try their luck.
Four of Meyer’s sons and one grandson (me) are present. There is a sporadic incursion by his wife, (who is not my real grandma). The sons are Sammy (my father), Archie, Larry and Charlie. Harry, the eldest, is missing. Archie is in a wheelchair, and his wife Harriet sits just behind him on a wooden chair.