25. Missis Stook-took

By Peter Fraenkel

No, Mrs. Tuchman didn’t live at the Imp – but just around the corner, near enough for me to hear her strident voice. I could even observe some of her carryings-on from my window, chewing a pen when struggling to do my homework.

She was not popular at Akasul but the role of doyenne of the Jewish community had fallen to her. After the death of Mrs. Mandelbaum she was the oldest. Anyone would have found it difficult to follow the admirable Mrs. M – as they had called her. That lady had nursed her husband through a long terminal illness but never complained – not even once. Later fate had struck her another terrible blow: she lost her son in the battle for Tobruk. Despite this she had stayed upright and unbowed. Eventually, when she too died, they all agreed it would not be easy for anyone to live up to her example. But Mrs. Tuchman did not even try.

For many a year members of the community had visited the oldest of the ladies on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. Everybody came. These had been amiable get-togethers. Mrs. M remembered the names of their grandchildren and took an interest in their progress at school. She remembered what troubles another had had with her roof. Had she now found a reliable builder? Had he managed to cure that persistent leak? Such matters were discussed while Mrs. M. served tea and cake and biscuits – home made, of course. She pressed extra slices of cake on one who had a husband sick at home.

After her death the role of doyenne had fallen to Mrs. Tuchman. It was regarded to her credit that she attended synagogue regularly. Moreover her presence never went unnoticed: she wept so loudly.

What was she weeping about? Her two sons? Surely not. Both were successful businessmen. Both had built themselves fine new houses. They visited their mother regularly. The elder had let it be known he would build her a cottage in his garden – if only he could persuade her to retire. She, however, wailed she could never afford to stop working. People smiled knowingly. They could calculate that her bank account would be quite healthy. She spent almost nothing but had a steady income. Or did she hide her money under the mattress, like they did back in Lithuania – ever ready to flee from a pogrom?

She got up at dawn every day and baked bread which she sold from her home. She also offered eggs which her hens had laid.

Wicked old Wolpowitz said she wept during the Sabbath service because on this days ordained for rest and prayer she could not make money.

She never did rise to the role expected from the doyenne of the community. She declared early on that with the community growing year by year, surely no one could expect her to feed such a horde?

“Roubles?” she grumbled “they grow on trees?”

Her chickens kept her busy. When calling her flock she made a repetitive noise which greatly amused the neighbourhood Africans: “Stook-took… stook-took-took-took”. This got her an African nickname: “Missis Stook-took.”

From my window I could watch her when I should have been doing my homework. She had one favourite chicken and held long conversations with the bird – in Yiddish. She was trying to persuade the bird to give her more eggs. My school friends and I found this very funny. Nowadays, half a lifetime later, I ask myself: where is it ordained that Rhode Island chickens have to be addressed in American English?

The Africans of the neighbourhood laughed but African laughter can hide anger. Most of them detested ‘Missis Stook-took’. In her household employees rarely lasted more than two months. Often less. Servants who walked out sometimes stood within earshot of my window shouting they had been defrauded. The first time I heard this I did not believe it but when I heard similar accusations again and again I became uncertain.

I trusted Jackson – our own house servant. He was a God-fearing man, a Jehovah’s Witness, who had once attempted to arbitrate in one of these disputes.

Eventually he had given up with a shrug. I asked him what the fuss had been about. He said that if, on any morning, an employee arrived five minutes late she docked two hours off his wages. If, however, in the evening she kept that employee working an hour late or even two she refused any recompense. Even I was once called in to arbitrate but refused to get involved. One evening a ‘garden boy’ became so furious that he picked up his shovel and seemed ready to strike her. This time both Jackson and I rushed over the fence to intervene. That servant, too, walked out.

“Cossack!” she shouted after him “bloody Cossack!”

Had she carried with her, into the glaring sun of Africa, the fears and the poverty of that wintry, dark Baltic stetl where she had been born?

When I next saw one of her sons I broached the subject. She was making enemies, I told him. He made a helpless, despairing gesture. Perhaps later he spoke to her in private.

It was several days after this altercation that her shrieking woke me early. I felt disgruntled. I rushed out in my dressing gown. What was the problem? Her favourite chicken had disappeared – the Yiddish-speaking one. The best of her layers had been stolen, kidnapped, perhaps murdered: “The Cossack! It’s that bloody Cossack!”

It wasn’t. I had seen what had happened. I had observed it all from my window the day before. It was not the one she denounced as a bloody Cossack but another – one who had walked out on her some six weeks earlier. He, too, had complained he had been defrauding. It was he who had asked me to arbitrate but I had refused to get involved. The previous evening, around dusk, I had been surprised to see him back, sneaking into her garden. He had looked around surreptitiously and a while later I had heard a chicken protesting.

Now she called to me over the fence. Had I seen a burglar?

I lied. I said I had seen nothing.