Not many things calmed or relaxed Robert Childan, but the main occupation which untensed his shoulders and unjangled his nerves was tidying his shop, tidying his apartment, and then sitting with a cup of tea, surveying the pleasing lines and surfaces of his world set to rights.
Edward McCarthy and Frank Frink had no place in this strictly ordered domain.
And yet, there they unavoidably were, taking up far too much space, dominating this retreat where previously objects had held rule. He remembered the excitement of first acquiring the premises, and how he had spent each day working without stopping, bending the dark, filthy rooms to his will and instilling them with his own vision. He knew the exact position of each item in his shop, and after customers left he either had to rush to select another suitable article to fill the gap left by the purchase which had just been made, or he had to rearrange the object which had been considered and examined but ultimately hadn't been bought. Robert could instantly tell if something was out of place, if even only by a millimetre. He was quite aware of the impression his shop made on potential customers, how they reacted to its austere character. Even if these people were somewhat skeptical of his wares and did not buy anything they gave these pieces the respect they were due, and Robert knew this feeling was imparted to them from his own attitude and presence, perfectly aligned with his rooms.
And yet, here he was forced to share this space with two yobs who had no respect at all for his profession, his objects, or for himself. It needled him, and reminded him too much of how his schoolmates found his liking for cleanliness and neatness to be prim and fussy, and more than enough reason to keep him outside of their games and gangs. If they had asked he wouldn't have joined in anyway, he'd argue to himself as an eight year old, their antics would only be too messy. A few decades later he knew enough to understand this had been self-defence on his part, although a pinch of the sentiment was nonetheless still there. Sometimes he had consciously doubled down on this image, adopting an exaggerated form of it in a spiteful rebuttal to their mockery, an attempt to be defiant and proclaim "You will not change me"; though by over-performing his own self were they not already altering him? This had not occurred to his young mind at the time, only in retrospect. However, there had certainly been periods, and continued to be throughout his teenage years and adulthood, to the present day- where this aspect of him did seem to take over in response to something, something vague, and which he could not control. Robert could still remember a kindly teacher one time suggesting he could hand up his finished work without having to copy it out again, repeatedly, it didn't matter if there was a smudge or two. There had been hours deep at night where he had found himself redusting cases and shelves that did not need this treatment, yet these actions seemed to soothe him when alarms were droning and threat hung in the air day after day, and the streets were unnaturally empty. He would remember his mother performing tasks not dissimilar to him, except that she did indeed have a household to run, and people dependent on her. She had fiercely worked to create an atmosphere resembling that of any average family home, pre-war, pre-crisis, pre-regime. He knew that he took after his mother in this aspect, and many others. Well, he'd no choice really, as there had been no other parental figure to take as his example. In recent times when even reorganising his shop and apartment didn't help he had taken to smoking marijuana; alcohol did not hold such a great appeal for him. Although there were now two presences in his flat who would drive him to such desperate measures if he wasn't careful.
Before, Robert had been able to close his shop door, close his apartment door, and retreat from the all-too-ugly world outside. Now even this was no longer allowed to him, with his unwished for house guests. However, no house guests would have ever taken the liberty to behave in such a manner as they did. If it had only been Edward he would have managed, just about. Edward was unintentionally messy, a young man who had never lived in his own place or shared a living space with a girlfriend. It wasn't important to him but he could grasp that it might be for another person. The slight problem was that what Edward understood as messy was far removed from Robert's definition. The younger man was so good-natured about it though it was infuriating. "Oh, sorry Bob, I keep forgetting you don't like that", he would respond to witnessing Robert jamming a coaster under his coffee mug and wiping away the brown ring from the surface for the umpteenth time. He would glare and that would also go right past Edward, his repeated trespasses against Robert's apartment forgotten already. He was neat where it was important to him- his work tools were spotless and carefully ordered in a manner Robert himself could admire.
Mister Frank Frink, however, was a completely different case. It was as if Frank simply did not perceive those around him if he didn't wish to, and was highly selective in whom he bestowed his limited supply of decentness upon. He would crash in through the shop and apartment, leaving a trail of chaos behind him, to add to the trail of chaos he had brought into their lives, and namely to Robert's life, before promptly up and leaving to attend to some other business which would only ever spell trouble for him and all those who had the misfortune to be associated with him.
This particular evening, even just looking at the area Frank had claimed for himself (without prior consultation with Robert) was enough to make him fume. Taking over this space hadn't even been enough for the man; his papers, materials, tools, pens, everything was strewn over the large work desk, and continued to pour over onto surrounding surfaces. Robert could not conceive how it was possible to create such wonderful art as Frank was capable of under these conditions. There was no discernible system to the riot of sheer stuff on the work top. How Frank could lay his hands on anything or remember where a sketch was placed remained a mystery to Robert. Unfinished designs on scraps of torn paper littered the floor, reference books for their forgeries were piled haphazardly on a nearby armchair. Robert couldn't look at this any longer, he just could not take it. He grabbed at each bit of paper on the ground and flung them onto the desk, noting to himself that it made no difference to its current appearance. He hefted the books off the armchair, desperate to attempt to retain something at least for himself, to try and contain Mister Frink's mess for fear it would spread out and infect them all, take over the apartment. He knew on some level it was irrational to fear being edged out of his own home, and yet, with the way the world was going perhaps he was justified in being frightened of his place in it becoming ever smaller and ever more precarious. He was furthermore fully aware that his actions would have absolutely no effect whatsoever; it was a meaningless gesture and attempt to impose his will on the situation and have things return to the way they had never really ever been. At least before his life had been predictable, there were no highs but also no desperate lows. He could no longer clearly recall how his life had been before, it all seemed as one unending day, little to distinguish it. Robert highly doubted he would reach a point in his life where he would be able to return to such a time- if he survived, of course.
As he moved the books, getting at least some small satisfaction from the resounding 'thud' they made as he shunted them on top of Frank's work desk (wait, HIS work desk, it didn't belong to Mister Frink), a small volume fell to the floor. Robert stooped to pick it up and glimpsed the contents of its pages. He began to examine it more closely. It was leather-bound, old, its cover soft and worn to the touch, its spine creased countless times. The pages were gilt-edged, dulled through age. It was the size of Robert's hand and instinctively he held the book cradled between his palms. The lettering was foreign, not simply a different language but a script he could not make head nor tail of. The strokes were fatly inked, full of short vertical marks accompanied by slanting lines, facing to the left or right. Robert couldn't even ascertain if he was holding the book the right way up, let alone hazard a guess at the system for reading it; up or down, from left to right or right to left?
He felt strange holding this book, not only at the thought as to what it could contain but also because he had a suspicion he had unintentionally stumbled onto something extremely private and not intended for his eyes at all. He considered how to replace the book without alerting Frank to the fact that he had picked it up. For though this work area spoke of utter chaos Robert knew somehow that Frank would be more attuned to the whereabouts of this particular text.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Before Robert could react Frank had already yanked the book out of his hands, and now they stood facing one another; Robert could admit freely that he was apprehensive, if not downright frightened, he knew what Frank could do and how unpredictable he could also be. Christ, where had he come out of? He hadn't even heard him enter the apartment.
"You're just going to rummage through my personal belongings and then not even say anything?"
Robert cast around for something to say, distracted by the nervous tension radiating from every inch of Frank's body. "I...It...It's beautiful. I apologise. I was moving your books, it fell on the floor, and I picked it up, and it's beautiful, I couldn't help looking at it."
Clearly Frank had not been prepared for this answer, and he remained silent, but the expression on his face was slowly altering. Robert could not help but think how Frank's eyes had never matched his demeanour, his frame; his voice and gestures, his actions were so jagged and rough, often violent. He was a man on the edge, anyone could see that, and Robert found himself wondering if perhaps he had met Frank at the wrong time in his life? For his eyes did not reflect this attitude, they appeared rather distant, as if they were gazing inward and were disappointed at what they found there, or were turned back to some other happier time, a time he could not return to, a time before he had to adopt this harsh way of being. Yet, understanding that there was some deep conflict at work within Frank Frink did not endear the man to him- he was still an asshole to him most of the time, and Robert blamed him for everything. He wouldn't be able to continue to blame him for the turn his life had taken if he began to sympathise with him too much. There must have been something kind and likable in Frank previously to have inspired the loyal affections of Edward, and he did wonder what that Frank had been like to be around. Perhaps he would have been an easier house guest.
Those eyes were now trained on him. "You think it's beautiful?"
"Since you sound so surprised by that, I am going to go out on a limb here, and assume this book could get us into great trouble if it were discovered here by the authorities?"
"Great. Great. I don't know why I'm even surprised." Robert sighed.
"But you just said that you thought it was beautiful?"
"Yes, I do but I do not wish to lose my life over it."
Frank turned his gaze to the book in his hands. "Many already have."
Robert's mind worked furiously, processing this. "It's something religious. A religious book. It's a Jewish text?"
"Do you have a problem with Semites, Robert?"
He was flustered. "No, I...I don't even know any really."
"You're looking at one, as defined by law."
"Mr. Frink, let me assure you that it is purely you yourself that I do not particularly like, I do not ascribe it to your Jewishness."
He could see Frank's nostrils flaring in a slight wry huff of amusement. They remained facing one another, but Frank had now taken a step back and Robert hoped this indicated that the other man's temper had cooled somewhat.
"I didn't have you pegged as someone harbouring religious sentiments." Robert ventured.
"I don't. I never did."
"Well, why this then?" He gestured at the book.
Frank subjected him to his gaze again, as if he was checking that Robert was posing this question honestly, out of real interest. "I knew one side of my family was Jewish, making me partly Jewish, but it didn't mean very much to me, it was only something I hoped I could keep hidden. But then the Regime told me that they define me as a Semite, and then...they came for me. Attacked me and my family. If they attack me as a Jew, then I have to defend myself as a Jew. Whether I willingly identify with that label or not."
Silence fell between them again. Robert cleared his throat, taken aback by Frank's candid answer. "May I ask what the book is?"
Frank opened it, ran his finger down a page, and closed it again, still holding it, not putting it down. "It's a copy of the Kaddish, which is the prayer recited in memory of the dead. A neighbour who knew my family gave it to me."
Robert knew of the terrible fate Frank's sister and her two children had suffered, but they had never directly addressed it. "I am deeply sorry for your loss, Mister Frink."
For the second time that evening, Frank looked taken aback by Robert's response. Expressing sympathy was the most basic social requirement, and Robert found himself wondering, did Frank not believe he was capable of even that, simply because they didn't get on that well? That was an uncomfortable thought.
"Could you read some of it, out loud?" I've never heard Hebrew spoken before."
Frank's nervous tension seemed to set in again, and he shook his head forcefully. "No. No, no."
"Oh, I...perhaps that's not respectful in the religion, or...?"
"No, it's just, I can't. I mean, I can't read the language properly yet. I'm learning. Most of it still doesn't make sense to me." The words rushed out of his mouth and Robert was not altogether certain that this was the complete truth. "Anyway," Frank continued. "Why are you so interested? Why do you think it's beautiful? You're not Jewish."
Robert realised Frank was not going to put the book down in his presence because he wished to hide it once again. This thought saddened him somehow. "No, I'm not Jewish, and I'm not religious in any way. However, I am a man of culture and taste," Frank huffed again, this time though the noise was closer to a snort. "And," Robert continued on undeterred, "And the religious tradition cannot be underestimated for its importance to culture, and its development." As an artist himself, he hoped Frank would understand what it was he was attempting to articulate. "Without religion, we cannot conceive of culture: patrons paid great sums of money to artists to create paintings for the glory of their Gods, architects were contracted to design grand houses of worship, the first printed book was a bible. Even when works of art set out to question God or to conceive of a culture where these grand narratives no longer exist, this was art prompted by the phenomenon of religion, in reaction against it. Your Kaddish comes from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. There is beauty in such artifacts, not just as evidence of our ancestors, but because of its humanity, its meaning, its attempt to come to terms with being human and on this earth, and what that means, and to believe the human experience is worthy of capturing in the written word or in images. That book you hold, like the items in my shop- well, the unforged ones, anyway-possesses more value than any of the woeful trash the Reich churns out. Hitler," Robert bit out, "was an oik, who had no taste, and no understanding of culture. His paintings are pale, lifeless renditions. And Berlin under his grand re-imagining, assisted by that creep Speer, is a vulgar monstrosity. The Reich's art is always fated to fail because it tries to create in a vacuum, it likes to pretend it is above or outside of what came before, and mostly they seek simply to obliterate all that came before, and will wilfully refuse to entertain the thought something could possibly come after it." Robert beckoned to Frank, pulled a large art book from a hidden space in his parlour. He laid it open before Frank. "Look at these- these artworks are considered 'degenerate' by the Reich."
Frank tucked his book into his inside jacket pocket and poured over the pages, and Robert could not help experiencing a sense of being complicit with the man in harbouring illegal art and texts.
"One thing the Japanese do understand is tradition, acknowledging where you came from, and the beauty of ancient items, the beauty of age. They are allowed to keep that whilst also mining our own, by comparision, brief history." Robert eyed his rooms wearily. He closed the book and returned it to its hiding place- he was suddenly tired, having been too sharply reminded of the world he continually sought to keep at bay.
"I agree with all of that, Robert." Frank had his head tilted slightly to the side, examining Robert, as if he was considering him in a new light. "However, there is another great driving force behind culture, and art."
"Longing." With that, Frank sat down at the desk, cleared the books from it once more which had just been placed there by Robert, and pulled an unfinished design towards himself before setting to work.