we sometimes visited Dr. Stein. He lived with his wife in
a frigid bungalow on the edge of the city. There was a door
with a small chime; there was a hallway smelling of disinfectant.
We were shown into a hushed lounge like a funeral parlour.
Mrs. Stein would bring us cold tea in dusty china cups embellished
with the months of the year. She always took February. She
perched on the edge of her chair, a dark dried woman with
hair as short as a man's, and complained about the weather
or the water supply or the lack of buses. We never left early;
we always stayed late. We sat over endless drinks as night
fell and the single bar of the electric heater burned uselessly
against the glacial air, and Mrs. Stein drew the curtains
over the barren outlook one could hardly call a view. So I
abandoned myself to those void Sunday afternoons of childhood
which give us our first taste of futility and make us long
was a psychiatrist, an opinionated man; but, having retired,
he was no longer paid for his opinions. For hours he held
forth on strikes, the state of education, the meaninglessness
of Henry Moore. He resembled a petty Freud without genius,
a man chiselled in the granite of his disappointments. He
was strangely generous. He gave us his Rubinstein records
because he hated them, and disposed of his tickets to Pinter
like so many football cards. Occasionally he forgot himself
and let slip an observation of such humanity that the room
in which we sat seemed blessed.
his harangues I would seek distraction in the text-books which
filled, lugubriously, the shelves beneath hideous pictures
and steel ornaments resembling instruments of torture: On
Dreams and Dreaming and Models of Madness; Genes and Destiny,
The Lost Childhood and Aberrant Sexual Behaviour. I imagined
Dr. Stein creeping down in his pyjamas to consult the books
at midnight, poring over them in the small hours with a glass
of milk. They seemed totems of the strange mental world he
must inhabit; though my ideas were shattered when I slipped
one volume from its place and found it, in this immaculate
household, furred with dust. Nevertheless, I thought, their
mystical contents must long since have been absorbed into
the involuted mind of Dr. Stein, which I imagined as a kind
of labyrinth hung with cobwebbed tapestries, strewn with the
lumber of dead and elaborate theories: the faded wisdom of
a lifetime's reading I could not hope to emulate.
to borrow books and he acquiesced, in the careless shrugging
way of one who has finished with them. All books, it seemed,
were now beneath his notice. He knew everything; they could
tell him nothing.
is an invention of the devil," said Dr. Stein. "Sex
is the opium of the people."
protested with a nervous, smiling irony. Afterwards, in the
car, she would make statements. "He's a bitter man,"
she would say, "but he has his reasons." Or: "He
sees too clearly. He's the victim of his own brilliance."
I was always tricked into visiting Dr. Stein. We would drop
in after walking in the park; we would buy bagels and make
a detour past his house. Not that, so far as Dr. Stein was
concerned, I existed much. Apart from the exchange of books
(which, despite his contempt, he insisted be returned in good
condition) we never spoke. He never knew that I had failed
to make it past the second chapter of Models of Madness, or
that Genes and Destiny had defeated me. He never guessed,
perhaps, the mixture of awe and hatred with which I regarded
I certain why my mother took me there, unless it was to witness
the impact of a suffering too deep to mention, which we had
guiltily escaped, and the poison of which she felt it necessary
to drink by proxy over and over again. There were no fresh
flowers in the house, but a bouquet of grey teazles stood
on the mantel near where his wife picked at her meagre tapestry,
as though they alone could survive the toxic air.
convinced she went there for this reason also: in order to
conduct a particular argument she had no hope of winning.
Each visit was another round in the relentless boxing match
between herself and Dr. Stein. Tempers grew heated; voices
were raised. Dr. Stein used language my mother should not
have wanted me to hear. And while his wife sat wordlessly
unstitching a mistake in her needlepoint, the smallest of
grimaces distorted her bloodless mouth.
is to blame!" Dr. Stein insisted; and repeated: "Every
- body - is - to - blame."
long, in fact, did we go on visiting Dr. Stein? And how many
times was I made to sit, unconsciously absorbing fallout from
his vast hatred? It cannot have been so often, it cannot have
been so long. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether there was
really only one visit, so interminable in its yawning boredom
that memory cannot keep it whole.
this is so, if there really was only one visit, it must have
lasted hours, hours in which we never ate, in which we barely
moved, except perhaps to pass a photograph, inspect a painting
hung above the fire: a painting, now that I recall it, of
many archways one inside another. And now it comes back to
me that Mrs. Stein did once get up and open a pair of double
doors, which led into a music room, a room with a step, on
which there stood a Bechstein grand piano. And I remember
how she ran a loving hand across it, though there was no question
of her playing: in fact I am certain that she could not play.
must have been fierce music lovers, but which music precisely
did they love? Was it Beethoven, Bartok, Brahms? I cannot
match any suitable composer to those distant afternoons, though
I do believe that once, when my mother was choosing a record,
the doctor moved aggressively in his chair and growled: "No
I knew so very little about them. One didn't listen in those
days and one did not ask. I can describe them merely: his
square black glasses and the permanent pipe depending from
a silver beard; the large cheap wristwatch and the sculptor's
hands. She had perhaps been a dancer in her younger days,
her brittle body still producing its trained formal movements;
and I could see him, in our absence, tucking into meat and
two veg. while she nibbled at a piece of toast, as though
absorbing by natural right all nourishment their marriage
had to offer.
I had asked questions, if I had known the bare outlines of
their history, would that explain the secret of their strange
alliance, this marriage without apparent sentiment or affection,
which had, one might have said, a stone at its heart? There
was a total desolation in the gesture she ran over the piano,
the same gesture with which I saw her - with which I still
see her - close the curtains on the lifeless view.
knew nothing. I can hardly disentangle dreams and memory,
for I did quite often dream of Dr. Stein. Like Freud's Wolf
Boy I opened my window to find a dozen doctors hanging, great
moons in the wintry night; nor can I be certain where the
dreams ended and the afternoons began. Did he lecture me once
with venomous contempt, reducing me to tears by his tirade?
Did his great hands turn the pages of my secret diary, laughing
as they went? The images are so vivid I wonder, sometimes,
if a part of me is not still trapped in that eternal visit
and whether, in dreams too deep to remember, I endure its
airless tedium every night.
was nothing in the eyes of Dr. Stein. I was worse than nothing:
I was just a child. And being a child I knew instinctively
how much he hated children. Yet my presence there cannot have
been an accident. They needed, after all, an audience for
their argument. Looking back now, I cannot help the notion
that I was the whole motive for their meetings, that I was,
in fact, a kind of experiment on which he and my mother were
secretly at work.
is an invention of the devil," said Dr. Stein. "Democracy
is the opium of the people."
said: "You could learn a very great deal, you know, from
never had the courage to ask. I put back Dreams and Dreaming
and my hand hovered over Aberrant Sexual Behaviour. But I
picked up The Myth of Sisyphus instead. Pencilled inside the
front cover were the words: "Unreadable and not worth
like to borrow this," I said.
You can keep that one," said Dr. Stein.
Mrs. Stein rise to draw the curtains (how fragile she was!
it was amazing she didn't crumple like an autumn leaf) and
linger a moment, as though waiting for someone to appear.
to Dr. Stein, God did not exist. His atheism, my mother held,
though justified, was the source of much of his unhappiness.
But Dr. Stein denied the existence of happiness.)
Stein drew the curtain with a gesture of despair.
I always remember our farewell. We are standing in the bright
hallway; the door is open on the frozen dark. My mother and
Dr. Stein have had their quarrel again: she wants to leave
in dudgeon, but he won't let her. The quarrel continues. The
hall is filling with icy air, and Mrs. Stein cringes like
a bit of blackened twisted root. I shiver, clutching my book.
Will we never leave? My mother is pulling away. And then Dr.
Stein takes hold of my mother's hand.
must never part quarrelling from anyone you care about,"
he says. "You don't know if you'll get the opportunity
to make it up."
the room in which we stand seems blessed. And I know that
in that moment my mother forgave him, hugged him, left the
house with tears running down her face; and that she drove
home purged, satisfied, having got what she came for, having
got what she always came for.
a bitter man," she stated, wiping her eyes, "but
he has his reasons." And a little after: "He sees
too clearly. He's the victim of his own brilliance."
I would sit in silence, mystified; and I would uncoil the
great rope of boredom and resentment slowly from my head,
and vow never to be tricked into visiting him again.
never did visit again; although I do recall the time my mother
asked me to wait outside while she went in to see him where
he sat, sceptically awaiting death. It was a bright summer's
afternoon, and when she emerged in half an hour or so her
eyes were red-rimmed; I believe I saw him standing for a moment
at the picture window.
is a very long time ago, and if I were to go back now I doubt
if I could even find the right bungalow. The trees will be
taller, the bushes more mature; the lookout will not be quite
so bleak, and I would not in any case discover Dr. and Mrs.
Stein, who must both be dead, who must both assuredly be dead;
in fact I would not be surprised if most of the people who
knew them are now dead. They survive, perhaps, in a few snapshots
with nothing written on the back, apart from which even their
appearance must have been forgotten. Even my own memories
are hazy, partial, more emblematic than actual; they are not
flattering to Dr. Stein. But they are more resonant perhaps
than those of most people, who did not encounter him when
they were children, who escaped his company unscathed, and
who do not bear forever the marks of a malign influence.
This story first appeared in 'Metropolitan.' ©
Tamar Yellin, 2004