Perfect Family Tales And Other Trivia

The art of the short-story writer is that of the cartoonist. It is the magical craft of creating entire worlds with a few simple strokes of a pen. Tales told by an idiot? Maybe! But my tales are also a mix of reality and fantasy; truth and lies; some based on my own family; others, not. Readers must guess which characters are real; who are inventions - and who are an amalgam of both. Please draw the boundaries for yourself.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

‘Sugar Cones and Salt Men’

“Dance ti' thy daddy, ti' thy mammy sing;
Thou shall hev a fishy on a little dishy,
Thou shall hev a salmon when the boat comes in.”


In those years, time ran so fast, it was like reliving the Creation:

 ‘And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day’.

Grimsby Fishing Docks 1890That’s how it was; over and done.  First the boat chugged in, spluttered to an asthmatic    halt and spat me out like phlegm onto Grimsby Docks.

There, I  – Azriel Selig ben Judah Arye Saltzberg the Lithuanian – was left to flounder, a skinny Yiddish-speaking fish, ready to be chopped,  fried, then swallowed whole by the rapacious currents of the merciless North Sea.

Yet I lived. Somehow. But it was always dark. Forever wet. Nightfall. Rainfall. A vicious, sodden, black, ever-tightening  circle. Back and forth. Round and round.

No sooner did a craven sun crawl timidly from behind a massive cloud, than it scuttled back inside, giving way to inundations hard and heavy enough to drown me.

But named as one whom God would help, I fast learnt that heaven aids those who shift for themselves.

“To think”, I told the family later, “I’d sailed from home to find the Goldener Medina – the ‘golden state’ of America - land of the free.

“But I’d been duped; snapped on a fisherman’s hook; reeled in on a three-ply yarn;  caught by a brazen liar who snatched my money and stole my trust”.

Huh! I shrugged it off. It was sink or swim. So I stayed here on this short stretch of blustered north-eastern coast; remained true to God but accepted British ways, suffering the tides to swirl their murky waters about me.

Still, the  bewildering ache of semi-bereavement lingered. I became sluggish; a stick-in-the-sea-mud, seemingly with nothing to do and no place to live. At last, for want of decent kosher food and a warm bed, I  turned inland to work as a glazier, with the world now reflected through the plaintive screech of wheeling seagulls and the mournful wail of foghorns.

“Finally”, I said, “the new became old; the foreign, familiar and together with the freezing damp, the whole  wrapped a peculiar coarse blanket of consolation around me”.  

The unceasing clash of metal on metal - the stench of fish - the unyielding ugliness - they all helped to form a backdrop to the  drudgery of a life  enlivened only by my trips to recite daily and Sabbath prayers at the synagogue where I was elected secretary.

At intervals, the days would lengthen; become brighter. But all too soon, the cycle of brooding twilights would  start to turn.

Then my walks were sad, my footsteps slow. I’d wander back to   the quayside where I’d first run aground to gaze at the battered trawlers bobbing on the spume, pleading silently for the return of something  I had never quite owned.

In my last years, my family said the untimely passing of my dear Esther Rivka had turned me funny; that I should have re-married. But I didn’t want to start with another woman. It would have meant too much change.

Then they announced as I grew older that I needed personal care. By then, I felt too weak to argue. 

So first I lived with my eldest son, Harry and then his youngest brother, Sammy. But their wives didn’t want me under their feet and both got rid of me. They complained that I’d become an old man with unpleasant habits; that it wasn’t fair; that it was one thing performing a family duty, but I was an inconvenience and my presence, an embarrassing imposition. Could I be placed in a hospital?

Instead, I struggled to get back to my own house; the one I’d rented all my married life and that had somehow remained vacant. Sometimes, I received polite invitations for Sabbath and holiday meals but still, I felt abandoned and looked for new friends.

SugarloafSo I bought a sugarloaf from the grocer, found the miniature hammer Esther had used to smash the sheets of kosher salt we used at Passover and broke the sugar into tidy lumps.

This is how and why Police Constable Colin Jennings found me  wandering  between Duke Street and Grafton Street handing out the sugar lumps to children who were playing  hopscotch outside their homes.

Hopscotch SilhouetteI didn’t mean to frighten them and on the day it happened, I’d popped the hammer inside my overcoat pocket at the last minute as I’d left my own house, just in case I’d needed it.   But one little mite ran indoors to tell her mammy about me. After that, everything became blurred; I felt dazed and never quite worked out where I was taken.

I didn’t like it there and was glad that soon after, I shut my eyes for the last time in the ‘real’ world and didn’t wake up again.

In one way I never did much after leaving my birthplace of Kruky in Lithuania. But I did father six children and so helped the continuation of the Jewish people. As a religious man, I like that idea and also how newer generations visit me now and then and read the inscription on my tombstone. This will always be a comfort.


Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the April 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 25 March 2015)

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