Last Orders at the Gay Hussar*


Igor Webb

* From The Guardian 26 May 2018: “After 65 years as a hotbed of political plotting, backstabbing, deal-making and gossip, the legendary restaurant The Gay Hussar in Soho is due to close its doors for the last time in June.”

   He wasn’t exactly an effervescent man, gloomy would put it better, his humor often mordant—but he could be very funny—and you couldn’t forget Schwermer, whom you could spot a mile away anywhere because he dressed as though he’d walked off the stage of The Cherry Orchard, a man without a job or apparent source of income who lived like a king on the odd review and the promise of a novel. There was some vague connection to his father-in-law’s businesses, about which Schwermer himself never seemed very clear, and about which I didn’t really enquire. A kept man—I’d never encountered such a person. Of course no one ever said that, and then again, was it that? Because he adored her, he adored her from the very start, and he adored her as fervently, as blindly, as heedlessly when, not that many years after they’d married, she declared he was too impractical to live with, and left him. Or anyway set in motion the legal process that, after Schwermer’s endless dithering and delays, was finally concluded a great many years later. Because he adored her; and because, it has to be said, he was terrified of running out of money. But of course although they ceased living together, true, they nevertheless spoke on the phone each day, they had lunch, they talked, they went on outings, they went on holidays. He adored her, and in the following decades, when he would have to drop everything—but then, what else did he have to do?—and fetch her from Algiers or wherever she had got herself to to flee the aliens with whom she was battling, life or death, her tragic affliction, he adored her just as fervently as before. Oh, make no mistake, he was not in the least venal; no, no: he adored her, he always adored her.    Besides it was very subtle, as I said, how his ex-father-in-law’s money made its way to Schwermer, subtle, though sometimes also very cruel.    He was The Last Literary Gentleman, endearing, seductive, and exasperating in equal measure. He liked to go for a stroll on Hampstead Heath, he would say, because he couldn’t sit at his desk all day; but then, if he persuaded you to accompany him, you found he barely shuffled along, scraping his heels on the ground, bent over like a man approaching his one hundred and fiftieth birthday, stopping every three steps to look around, or to light or usually to relight his cigarette, or to point you in the direction of an especially striking woman, and who for Schwermer wasn’t a striking woman? … so, if you wanted actually to walk in the park there was absolutely no point in doing it with Schwermer. And I don’t have to tell you no one smoked like Schwermer, for whom smoking was not something banal like a habit or worse an addiction or even a pleasure, though surely it was one of his greatest pleasures, but rather a ministry, devout, a calling. Mind you, I’m not talking about Marlboro Lights. I am talking Camels and when you could still get them Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls and Gitanes and those thin, long, delicious Cigarettellos from Nat Sherman in the red box, and obscure Turkish brands, too sweet for my taste, and Sparta from Slovakia, all unfiltered, of course, black, pungent, a delight, a joy. He was as remarkable for his pleasures as for his incapacities, but of course no one talked about those, or not now that he was dead.    He was happiest at The Gay Hussar in Soho Square, where he took me soon after we first met, when I was briefly working in London all those many years ago. He made me understand that the place—and he always spoke its name with more than a touch of reverence–was a legendary eating establishment, frequented by the great and the good alike. Churchill, for example. The story he told was that Churchill never paid his bills, and once, when he was more than a year behind at The Gay Hussar, the proprietor, Victor Sassie, dared mention to the great man sitting at the head of a packed table of his guests that perhaps Mr. Churchill might like to pay his bill. Churchill immediately replied, “My dear, I didn’t realize The Gay Hussar was so hard up!” —a story Schwermer found hilarious, and which he told me each time we went there, each time with undiminished fervor and hilarity. (But when I told this story to another of my old London friends, Alice, whose father had been a Labour M.P., she said, “That’s not right, my dear. It was Labour that went there. Michael Foot and his kind. Oh, and T.S. Eliot, he liked the place too.” But of course I didn’t let on to Schwermer … )    The Gay Hussar was the spot in London where he could most readily believe he was, well, where for the time he was a contemporary, a distant acquaintance of Tolstoy and Chekhov, what did it matter that the place was Hungarian? For an hour or two the life of art became all of life, embodied, palpable, the smell and the taste. Like the Russian aristocracy he hated the thought of money, which of course obsessed him, mesmerized him, attracted him like an evil fetish, terrorized him. He wanted to live, to live! He loved the red plush everywhere at the Gay Hussar, as though the place had been decorated to ward off the bitter Slavic winter; he loved the ghoulash and the cucumber salad, the palachinky with chocolate cream for dessert, the large white napkins, the heavy old-fashioned silver, the formal staff, he loved it all and usually ordered an enormous meal, everything possible, engaging the waiter, who of course knew him and bowed slightly, “So nice to see you, Mr. Schwermer,” engaging the waiter, Leo, in intense dialogue—Should he have the borscht? Was it today’s borscht? Or what did Leo think, some fish? No, no, he didn’t feel like fish—and even though to order fish at The Gay Hussar would have amounted, in Schwermer’s eyes, to apostasy, yet, yet he couldn’t resist the possibility, in imagination, for he might just have it, should he have it? And the dumplings, would Leo let him have a little extra, please, on the side, Leo, with butter. Leo would of course oblige, there would be a bowl of dumplings on the side. Which Schwermer never touched, because he would have ordered such a vast quantity of food … Nevertheless, the next day, he would call and reminisce, weren’t those dumplings fabulous?    So here I am, just like everyone else, remembering the dead for when they made you laugh. But I want you to know I am not laughing…    Now that it seems especially urgent, I don’t know what to say about him. I don’t know that I can capture Schwermer as I once thought I could, his talk in particular, for he was all talk, a cloud of talk like a cloud of smoke from one of those delicious cigarettes of his, intoxicating, seductive, yes, a kind of drug that made both Schwermer and his listener convinced of the beauty of life, of the singular discrimination of the speaker, of the indescribable pleasure of fine things, fine tastes, fine talk . . As for Clara, at first blush there seemed nothing out of the ordinary about her at all. He never did tell me how they met, in fact he hardly ever spoke about her, a small, plain, methodical woman who one day answered the door to his flat when I was in London on a visit, in an apron, for she was cooking our dinner. “Oh, hello,” she said. “I’m Clara.” Schwermer was a man with a deep, theatrical voice, his strongest feature, he could have made his fortune from his voice, if work had ever been something in which he had shown the slightest interest or for which he had shown the slightest aptitude … Clara, in stark contrast, had an uninflected, monotonous way of talking, the way a child speaks after having been beaten by her father; she came from Bucharest, had aeons ago married an Englishman, but this was one of those marriages that ended almost as soon as it began, and then, for years, she had struggled; there was an adult daughter who worked for the Home Office, an attorney. She was not Jewish, and for that matter was not a reader or a writer or a smoker of big cigars. And she never took up residence, either, although they were together, in the end, more than twenty-five years.    “We had to take him to the hospital, well, the clinic, you know, on his insurance,” she told me. Schwermer was particularly proud of his insurance and of his Harley Street physicians, as though Harley Street were an especially opulent district of cafes and restaurants, a spot where you could sit late into the afternoon with Italo Svevo over an espresso and gossip and, best of all—well, this was Svevo!—smoke. “He didn’t want to go, of course. ‘Don’t leave me here,’ he said. He tried to hold my hand, but he is so weak. I told him it would only be for a few days. Oh, Jiri, he is so thin. He won’t eat anything. I had to leave him there, I couldn’t take care of him anymore. Well, I thought you should know.”    Clara had called me on WhatsApp, a favorite of hers, but before I had had time to consider whether I should fly to London, she called again to say he had died. The only thing he had done in a hurry his entire life, his sister Gloria said to me later, sitting shiva at her house, was to die.    As it happens, outside my hotel window, the rain is falling from a smeared, smoky gray sky—the very thing Schwermer hated about England, that cramped, pale, mouldy life, the sky gray, the sun no more than the suggestion of a pale disk in the rheumy firmament, so unlike the unbuttoned hot-house world, loud, bright, and always sensual, of the Italy he loved. He was acutely sensitive to the seasons, and not infrequently fell into a catatonic depression, a serious clinical depression, in Autumn.    His linen suits were exquisite. As were his handmade loafers, his silk socks, his Jermyn Street shirts (Turnbull and Asser), his shaving brushes (Taylor of Bond Street), his leather suitcases, his Eames chairs, his fountain pens.    The last time we went to The Gay Hussar he was uncharacteristically quiet, although he had invited me on purpose, so we could, as he put it, talk undisturbed, undisturbed, he meant, by the presence of Clara. It must now be two years ago, more or less, when I was last in London, just before the cancer was diagnosed. He had invited me, a treat to celebrate my visit, which implied he would foot the bill, something he found an unwelcome, exasperating, and all-but-impossible task of friendship, something he would only do if he absolutely could not avoid it; and, should he have to do it, something he would mangle, unable to sign his name with grace or generosity—because money obsessed and fascinated him, plagued and entranced him, he could neither earn it nor part with it.    And so Schwermer watched nervously as I finished my first glass of wine and motioned to Leo for a second. Instead of being at his most relaxed and expansive, as he usually was at The Gay Hussar, he was morose, nervous, silent.    Because it was money he wanted to talk about.    “She says she’s going to leave me, I don’t treat her right. Could you believe it? She wants me to give her a regular sum, a monthly sum, could you believe it? and she wants me to put her in my will. Well, I’m not going to do it.”    “Why aren’t you going to do it? You’ve been together for a quarter century.”    “I take her places, I buy her things. We travel. I take care of her.”    “What are you going to do with your money, anyway? You don’t have children, you don’t even have a dog. What you have is Clara, and if you asked her I’m pretty sure she’d say it is she who takes care of you. While you’re at it, put me in your will.”    “Yes, she would say that I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I can boil water. I can polish my shoes.”    “You hate to part with money, Schwermer, admit it.”    “I’ve had to be very careful, you know. I lived all those years in terrible uncertainty, I will never shake that off. You know, when you aren’t sure about money, it’s an awful thing.”    “Clara isn’t sure about money.”    “Yes, I suppose…”    When Janice left him, Janice whom he adored and whose wealthy father had bought them the penthouse opposite Hampstead Heath for a wedding present, when Janice left him, then, just like that, of a sudden he was no longer the husband of the daughter of one of the richest men in London but a man afflicted with the most expensive tastes, ensconced in a two-story penthouse, with absolutely no income. And the penthouse wasn’t, it should be said, simply a very nice place to live: it was Schwermer. When he looked around at his sunlit quarters, at the floor to ceiling bookcases, at his Eames easy chair, at the pantry and the paneled oval dining room, he felt as he felt almost nowhere else, he felt comforted and secure, as though his life were as solid as his massive oak desk and he was in actual fact a man about town with a substantial bank account and a significant stock portfolio. But now, abruptly, shamefully, the question arose: who owned the penthouse? And, while that question hung menacingly in the air, who, in the meantime, would pay for the light and the heat, not to mention the insurance and the taxes? Life as art was fine when you didn’t have to give a second thought to the mortgage and it was no trouble at all to produce an enormous bowl of pasta or a choice fillet for dinner or for lunch or whenever he liked; but now, abruptly, only the indulgence of the bank manager allowed him to wander, as he had become accustomed, onto Old Compton Street and, with relish, purchase (now on credit) a pound of fresh fettucine. There were the odd teaching jobs, the occasional reviews, but none of these produced anything approximating what, with a Yiddish accent and a smile, he referred to as “kesh.” He was at that time in a perpetual panic about money, imagining himself starving on the grimy London streets and sleeping under the park benches where he liked to sit and smoke one of his aromatic cigarettes and eye the women. Janice of course sent him groceries, visited daily, checked his pantry, and often enough her mother turned up and took Schwermer shopping—for a cravat, for a tweed jacket, for a leather book bag; and the father-in-law chipped in too, put him on the boards of this and that company, discreetly settled the taxes, made sure he would have a little … cash.    And for a time he rented out the spare room, in the first instance, to me. I was at the time at a very loose end. My marriage was on the rocks, I loved Liz, my wife, but nevertheless … I know, how banal. But it was agony, banal or not. I had taken to walking for hours aimlessly, as if some sudden stroke of lightning would show me the way. And at the end of one of these marathon walks I turned up on Schwermer’s door, in tears no less, and he took me in. I must have known, the way you intuitively know these things, that he would understand, that he would listen. And in the event he was magnanimous and kind. He offered me the upstairs room, I insisted on paying, and that was that. I stayed for maybe two months.    We spent a lot of time together. For everyone else of my acquaintance my situation was nothing to mull over, just another banal infidelity. People didn’t mind and said nothing, or people looked away and said nothing. But Schwermer, a man who could never have passed as one of the boys, someone ordinary and conventional, even as a boy, who didn’t care about, who didn’t notice appearances or proprieties–Schwermer was acutely aware of someone else’s distress. He was very kind to me. And I, in turn, got to witness firsthand the amazing effect of his daily rendezvous with Janice, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for a stroll, sometimes in the evening, when he would suddenly move twice as fast as usual, his hands shaking nervously, his face flushed, lighting one cigarette after another.As I’ve said, he adored her.    And I also got to witness, firsthand, his panic and terror when Shelly, the father-in-law, decided the penthouse had to be sold. The building had new owners, and somehow this translated into a tax break or some such thing. In any event there was a significant profit to be made, and Shelly insisted. The flat had to be sold.    But wasn’t it Schwermer’s flat? His and Janice’s? And where would he live?    These questions created a kind of sadistic circle in which Schwermer felt himself trapped and suffocated. In his mind there was only one fact that mattered: he was being evicted. He was being thrown out on the street.    “But the flat is yours, right?”    “Well, yes.”    “So how can he force you to sell it?” I asked.    “He says we have to sell it.”    “But it’s yours.”    “Well, yes.”    He adored her, and the adoration produced an income. Somehow. As if he had never thought about it. But now, the curtain had been brusquely lifted and he couldn’t turn his eyes away: there he was, in the brutally clear light of dispossession, there could be no dissembling. Shelly insisted.    In legal terms, according to what the documents said, the flat was his, his and Janice’s. It could not be sold unless they signed. Janice of course complied immediately. So now Schwermer too had to put pen to paper. But he couldn’t. Shelly, however, insisted.    Well, by the time it was over, almost a year later, Schwermer had become a kind of invalid. He was virtually immobile. Shelly insisted, but Schwermer could neither do it, nor fail to do it. He was frozen, every exit blocked. He walked unsteadily; his hands shook so much his clothes were smeared with coffee stains.    And needless to say the end was nothing short of magical, magical in the way of the very wealthy; or, if you prefer, deeply compromising, or shameful, or all of the above. Anyway, whatever else, it proved to be very simple. Janice moved out of the apartment she had bought for herself when she left him and bought herself a new one around the corner. She signed that apartment, the one she had first bought for herself, over to Schwermer, and then she gave him her half of the penthouse. Simple. One of her father’s lawyers fixed it all up. Just like that Schwermer found himself not out on the street but miraculously in possession of a handsome flat in Hampstead and, for the very first time in his life, with a handsome income from a considerable sum of cash. Well , , ,    You know, I never once heard Clara mention Janice. All the other women in Schwermer’s life, the ones who hunted him down in the days when I first knew him, who, after Janice left him, mistook him for an available man of considerable means, all the other women who came into Schwermer’s life at that time pretty quickly figured out that the only woman in his life was Janice, and after this poignant fact struck home they gathered up their things and kissed him affectionately—all his women, his many women, loved him—and departed.    But Clara took it all in, and stayed anyway. She was neither beautiful nor rich nor brilliant nor, for that matter, any longer married; and what family she had aside from her daughter—a mother and sister—lived in Bucharest in a small Soviet-era flat. She was used to taking care of things, managing, and observed right away that the man needed … well, perhaps needed her. I don’t know if she loved him. She never struck me as romantic. But maybe I am wrong about that.    Anyhow, now, a quarter century later, now, at the very last, as if she had anticipated his illness, she demanded her due. This was the news Schwermer had for me at The Gay Hussar. She demanded her due. But of course Schwermer dithered and vacillated, and nothing happened. And then, after he was diagnosed with the cancer, what was she to do? He was ill. She was not a woman with any illusions. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and he was going to die.    “No, fuck them,” he said to me on the phone, for we had begun talking on the phone every fortnight or so—he did not seem, in the end, to have enough people to talk to. “They want me to do some more tests. Fuck them, I’m not going to do it.”    He was not going to do it.    And he was not going to provide for Clara.    “Listen,” I said, repeating what I had said two years earlier at The Gay Hussar, “Listen, tell me what you’re planning to do with your money. Because who is going to get your flat, and your accounts? Your sisters?”    “You really think,” he said, “I should provide for her?”    “I do,” I said.    “Well, I’m not going to do it. She can go. I’m not going to do it. Women,” he snorted, “they know how to wheedle. They know how to wheedle, Jiri.” Then: “Why should I do it? I have paid her way for twenty-five years. I am not going to do it.”    In the end, however, he did do it. He told me on the phone, in our last conversation, grudgingly, of course, as if I were to blame for some primal injury he had suffered, he told me he had spoken to Sidney, his favorite nephew, who had made a fortune as an investment banker and handled Schwermer’s money out of family loyalty. “He’s setting something up. I hope you are happy.”    And then he died.    “You know,” Clara said, “he didn’t really suffer. He was very afraid he would suffer.”    We were having espresso and mille feuille in Louis’ Patisserie in Hampstead, a favorite of Schwermer’s. It was the first time I had seen Clara since the funeral.    “And so, Clara,” I said, “how are you?”    “Well, you know, I am sorry.”    “Yes.”    “We were together, you know, a long time.”    “At least,” I said, “at least, I mean this won’t, you know, make you feel better, but thank goodness you’ll be OK financially.”    “What do you mean?”    “Well, he did what you asked, didn’t he? The will and everything? Sidney?”    She looked at me without any expression, and said in that flat monotone of hers, “What do you mean? He didn’t do anything. He didn’t leave me anything. Sidney told you something?”    “No? What? But he when we last spoke, he said … But you stayed with him, you said you would leave him—”    “Yes, I stayed.”    “Of course.”    “I couldn’t just leave him, like that. He could never take care of himself, you know.” And she said this to me without any change in expression, without raising her voice, without sobbing.    “I have to tell you something,” she said, taking a brown envelope from her bag. She placed a letter on the table, a letter written in pen-and-ink and in that distinctive central European handwriting, and on top of it she placed a small photograph, in black-and-white.    It was a photo of a boy, from the waist up, a mini-Schwermer.    “Is this Schwermer?” I asked. “When was this taken?”    “It’s not Schwermer.”    “Really? It looks exactly like Schwermer.”    “This letter,” Clara said, “came maybe two years ago. I didn’t know. But then, recently, when he was already very ill, you know, he told me I should show it to you. He said you would remember her.”    “I would remember her?”    “Yes, he said you knew her.”

   My very dear Adam,    Hello! I hope you are very well and happy. I know you will be surprised to have a letter from me, after all these years. I have never wanted to trouble you. Please believe me. I had decided, all those years ago, when I first returned, that I would not trouble you.    But here we are, my dear Adam, I have been writing letters and tearing them up, and writing letters and burning them. Because I have had a very bad diagnosis, I hope you will understand; they tell me they cannot be sure to save me. There, you will be shocked. I will get to the point. I am not asking you for anything for myself, do not be alarmed. I am not concerned for myself, I do not need anything but—I do not know how to tell you—I have sent a photo—I am afraid, Adam, of what will happen to our son, yes, our son, if they cannot save me. Please read and be patient, and don’t judge. Please. When you last saw me, I was with child. Our child. I did not want to tell you. To make it short, my dear, I decided, of course, when I returned to Prague, I would have it taken care of. Like everyone else. Why tell you? But in the end, well, I could not do it. It was not anything noble, or please God religious. I just couldn’t. So. Now, Adam, it is many years, and my mother and father are long dead. I have no sister and I have no brother. I only have … I have called him Adam, after you. What will happen to him? Who will look after him in these horrible teenage years. He is not a practical boy. I have no one, please believe me. I have never wanted to bother you. But I do ask you now, please, my dear, come and visit us and meet him. Your son.    With many, many warmest regards and good wishes,    Vera

   Yes, Schwermer was right, I remembered her. For one thing, it was December 1999 and she was convinced the world would come to an end, promptly at midnight Greenwich Mean Time. She had dropped her life in Prague in a moment of panic or maybe rapture and headed for London without the slightest idea or for that matter the least concern about what she would do upon arrival: the world was going to end and it seemed to her essential, the thing above all other things, to stand on the time line, in Greenwich, when the exact moment came; besides, she told me, she wasn’t going to die without (a) visiting the offices of Faber & Faber (yes, visiting the offices of Faber & Faber!), and (b) drinking and screwing till transport to the next world would seem not too bad an idea. She met Schwermer one afternoon shortly after she arrived, in some café in Soho—he was smoking one of his pungent cigarettes, she said—she said it was the aroma that seduced her. He took her to Faber & Faber and someone smiled and accepted the large envelope with her manuscript. When neither the world nor the Internet crashed she spent a week in Schwermer’s upstairs room, drinking and smoking, and emerged as though she were a little girl who had eaten too much cream cake, with a sheepish look on her face and an inability to control the giggles. She was a sultry woman, a woman with riveting black eyes and very fine hands—years later Schwermer told me that she had asked him to let me know that she was sorry she had met him before she met me because it would have been so nice to have sex with me. She was that sort of woman, as though Milan Kundera had invented her.    I was in London that year only for the holidays, and when I spoke to Schwermer next, perhaps two or maybe three months later—in the new century!—he told me she had returned to Prague, just got up one morning and left. He had been very fond of her. Faber & Faber never did publish her manuscript, needless to say, but she earned a living it seemed as a translator—in fact, Schwermer kept on his desk, prominently displayed, a copy of her translation of Schwermer’s Fate, the novel I and everyone who knew him assumed he would never complete—but which he did complete, and to some acclaim, too, so that for a few weeks you could hear his voice on the radio being interviewed for some high-toned book show. Vera had written on the title page: “Please forgive me, my dear, if I have not done you justice,” and signed the page, with something of a flourish of curlicues, “Your ever faithful, Vera.”    In addition to Vera’s letter, Clara handed me one from Schwermer, too.

   My dear Jiri,    Please do me this one favor. You know the language, and    I have every faith in you. Please visit Vera in Prague. I have every faith in you. I have spoken to Sidney. If it is as she says, you will know what to do.    Yours, etc.

   Of course I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do.    But I booked the first flight I could to the Czech Republic, nevertheless. Yes, as Schwermer said, I could speak the language, though at the level of a five-year-old, which was my age when we left the country. My parents spoke to each other in the language all their lives, but insisted on speaking to me in their endearing Slavicized American … and they turned their backs on the place, never returned, tried to avoid contact with distant relatives. I was over forty when I first—against my mother’s earnest wishes—visited Prague. But that’s all another story. So, yes, I could speak the language.    As it happened, the last time I was in Prague, Havel had just become President. The city was stretching its legs after many decades of enforced good behavior. Every church seemed to be offering concerts in the evenings; little ambitious restaurants were springing up everywhere. There were debates, genuine, raucous debates, in Parliament. I stayed at the Hotel Pariz, newly private, just beyond the town center, a mix of pre-World War II central European art deco and Soviet era faux modernism. All of which suited me fine. But Prague Spring notwithstanding, if you wandered just a little out of the way of the crowds and the tourists, you immediately encountered the grim city where people actually lived, the city of the great bureaucracies, the city of Kafka overlayed with the city of Communism, a vast expanse of gray, dusty streets, everything in disrepair, huge blocks of pre-fab flats, gray to begin with and smudged by pollution, stretching along the trolley-tracks as far as the eye could see.    And it was in one of those soul-destroying pre-fab monstrosities that I found Vera and her son.    She looked startled when she opened the door and, for a moment, said nothing. But she quickly regained her composure.    “Now you have come, Jirko,” she said, with a glimmer of a wicked grin. “I am not available for those things any longer, you know.”    She had accepted what the doctors told her, she confided to me later in the evening, but it wasn’t obvious from looking at her that she was dying. She was maybe too thin, maybe a little gaunt in the face, but her eyes were no less sultry than in 1999, and even in her Soviet era house dress she looked vibrant and seductive. It crossed my mind that she had made the whole thing up.    “Adam,” she called, in English, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”    A lanky boy with an unruly shock of black hair, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, entered—no shuffled—into the room. He was smoking. I recognized the smell immediately: Gitanes! He looked at me quite directly, openly, with unalloyed curiosity, and smiled candidly as he shook my hand. His teeth were already stained with tobacco, as though he wanted urgently to catch up with his father. Because he was obviously Schwermer’s boy—she wasn’t making this up—a copy of the young Schwermer in every respect. He was a tall boy, six one or two, like his father, and already, like his father, slightly stooped, his head bent slightly toward you when you spoke to him. He had lost the high notes of childhood and spoke in a low, theatrical voice. His manner was languid, desultory. There was a beautiful silk scarf wrapped round his neck. It was clear he was deeply attached to his mother. His English wasn’t bad. He told me later that his favorite poem was “The Waste Land.”    “Adam, sweetheart, bring us a little something to eat, and to drink.”    She wanted to reminisce. “You know he loved me for a half a minute. It was quite lovely. He could be very attentive, he could look at you with those needy eyes. But of course, my dear, he was a hopeless man, wasn’t he? To think he is dead. I can’t believe it. You know, it was all very well until you had to do anything together, such as even get breakfast.” She laughed. “I am a girl born behind the Iron Curtain. We get up at four in the morning. Well, you know Schwermer—but what should I say?—you knew Schwermer, it was a miracle if he was up by eleven.” Something seized her momentarily, she froze and, as it were, gripped herself. But it passed quickly. “Then there was Janice. You know, there was always Janice.”    The boy brought a platter with sausage and cheese. And a bottle of brandy.    “To think he is dead. Here, we will drink to him, to his health, eh?”    Then: “Jirko, you will help me?” And, in a whisper, “I don’t have long.”    The boy sat directly across from us, his lower lip trembling.    She told me that since she had not heard anything from Schwermer after she sent her letter, she had given up hope he would arrive in a cloud of smoke at her front door. “But now you are here like the god at the end of the play.”    I told her Schwermer had made arrangements with Sidney, and that I’d go back to London to set things in motion.    “Take him with you, Jirko. Who knows what will happen here, you understand? Take him with you.”    “No, no, Vera, let me go back and arrange things. I can’t just … no, no.”    I promised I would be back the next day and we could talk some more. Then I would return to London to arrange things.    But when I arrived the next morning Vera was not at home, no one was at home. There was a note with my name on it taped to the front door. “Mother in hospital,” it said; there was a cell phone number at the bottom of the page, all of it scrawled in a rush. When I finally located the hospital where they had taken Vera, she was sedated and sleeping. The boy sat next to her, smoking. This was central Europe—everyone in the place was smoking. She looked terrible, as if overnight all the flesh of her face had collapsed. Her skin had that horrible gray color, she looked gaunt, her breathing had an ominous rasp to it.    The boy, sitting by his mother, seemed as frail and unsubstantial as she, no longer the cool dandified adolescent but rather, poignantly, just a child. Vera was right: how was he going to survive on his own? Who would look after him if it was truly the case that Vera had no living relatives? Outwardly, the country was no longer a police state run by the dour Communist bureaucracy, but really what had changed? The last time I had traveled to my family’s hometown, near Olomouc, a small, provincial place with nothing much to recommend it, the sort of place that you wanted to leave as soon as the law allowed you to quit school—back then, not that many years ago, you could say there was something like a free market functioning, that there was something like free speech being exercised, but the place was still being run nevertheless by the likes of my second cousin, Milan, who had been a minor Party boss under the old regime, a thug, a master of the old system of exchange, who never bought anything but traded in patronage—Leave it to me, Jiri, I know someone who can get that for you, that sort of thing. How would the boy manage in the hands of a man like Milan? Who would take care of him?    Of course I didn’t know anything at all about Vera, and less about the boy. I was not, after all, his uncle, his cousin, his mother’s lover, his distant, his very distant anything … And yet the thing was, that hospital, with its empty halls, its bad lighting, its smoke, the desolation of the place felt fatally cold, like the deadly chill you feel upon discovering everyone has fled the city and you are abandoned to the fast approaching enemy.    “What are you thinking, Jiri,” Sidney said. “Who is this woman? I never heard of this woman.”    I showed him the photo, I showed him Schwermer’s letter.    “He never spoke to me, I swear to you. I have never heard of this woman.”    “I’ve seen the boy, and there’s no question in my mind, Sidney, that he’s Schwermer’s son.”    “We don’t know that. I have never heard of this woman. She just wants his money.”    “She’s dying, Sidney.”    “Look, it is terribly sweet of you to care for this boy, Jiri, I truly appreciate that. But I can’t agree to what you’re asking. It would be an enormous undertaking. I don’t know anything about this woman, or her son, and I don’t believe Schwermer did either. There is no evidence of it. What did you say, they hadn’t seen each other since 1999? I mean, really, be serious.”    “It would be easy to do a DNA test.”    “We are not wasting time and money doing a DNA test. You have to forget this, Jiri. You are being used. We are not doing a DNA test, or anything else. Please understand, this is not going anywhere. Schwermer never mentioned this woman, I do not have a single scrap of paper about her. You are very kind to concern yourself, but I am telling you, she just wants Schwermer’s money, and I am not going to allow that. I hope you understand.”    I went to see Janice. I didn’t know if there was any way to budge Sidney, but I had the idea that if Janice had saved Schwermer once she could perform the same magic for his son.    “Oh, Jiri, how very lovely to see you. Oh do come in, come in.”    She took me into her large, bright sitting room and brought in tea and biscuits.    “I am so happy you came,” she said. “I just spoke with Adam, he will be sorry he missed you.”    “Adam?”    “Yes, he has been coming to see me. He seems very well, so content. You know, he was never a good patient,” she said, laughing.    I didn’t say, No, he’s better off dead. She never had much of a sense of humor, black or otherwise; and although I knew she had taken to speaking with the dead, I had not anticipated she would be speaking, so happily, with Schwermer.    We didn’t mention him again, but talked banalities. Soon enough I finished my tea and took my leave.    “He will be so sorry he missed you,” she said.    I was a retired senior citizen with a reliable income and no commitments. And so I returned to Prague and waited for Vera to die. I could not bring myself to say anything to the boy, and Vera was so heavily sedated she could not be said to have ever regained consciousness. The boy and I simply sat there and waited. The truth is I don’t know what got into me—it certainly would have been easier simply to have written a letter saying Sidney wasn’t having any of it. But I couldn’t shake the conclusion that Schwermer had an obligation, and, as he was dead, the obligation had passed to me. Perhaps that sounds grandiloquent, or saintly, or worse.    But anyhow I did not write a letter, I returned to the Hotel Pariz. I never saw her alive again, and I wept at her death.    Once she had died, the social services bureaucracy kicked into gear with surprising speed. She had left enough money for her burial, so that was alright. But there were no lost relatives; there was no one. Adam was to be put into care, some boys’ home somewhere, and then if he was lucky a foster family.    “Listen,” I said, “pack a suitcase and come to London as your mother wanted. Bring whatever papers you have, you know, birth certificate and all that, do you have that?—do you by any chance have a passport?”    The boy said nothing, but he went to his room nonetheless and packed. He was painfully silent, dishevelled, his eyes red and his face white, he looked as though he would never smile again. And he was oppressively glum and silent for the duration of our flight. I could not tell if he was in shock; or helplessly mourning his mother; or apprehensive about having put his life into my hands, since of course he knew even less about me than I knew about him; or just scared of flying; or simply scared for his life, as probably he should have been. He said next to nothing and looked out the window. I am sure he would have loved a cigarette.    I had called ahead, and so Clara met us at the airport.    “This is Adam, Clara,” I said. “Adam, this is Clara.”    He looked carefully at her, and smiled.    “You will know what to do” —the words rang in my head as finally I headed back home. I had always been skeptical about the life-planners, the ones who know what to do. Schwermer certainly didn’t know what to do, it was one of the glories of his life that he was incapable of settling on anything—this pair of shoes or that? Dinner at home or dinner out? His hands would shake, he would light another cigarette … But Clara, Clara knew.    We were flying above a meringue of clouds, the brilliant white-world, as far the eye could see, of the gods, or maybe of the dead. I wondered what they talked about, Janice and Schwermer, on the occasions when he shuffled in for a visit. Sweet nothings? I had overheard a great many of those when I was living in his upstairs room, the silly endearments he would shamelessly, giddily offer her, or his childish puns and cutesy stories, as though he were Winnie-the-Pooh in love. Or did they strategize about the epic battle between the massed armies of the unseen, Good and Evil, that occupied her days, that harried her from one end of the globe to the other, literally, for she could afford to escape Evil by fleeing on the spur of the moment to, say, Casablanca, or Cusco, or Florence. But then Schwermer was never any good at strategizing. Maybe they kept it simple and he just told her about how he had run into Colette that afternoon at the tobacconist’s.    I had brought with me from New York, and then taken to Prague, and now was taking back to New York with me the copy of Chekhov’s stories Schwermer had given me, long, long ago, shortly after we had first met, which happened to be just before my birthday. It was a hardback in Constance Garnett’s translation. The book is full of decades of my underlinings. Gurov and Anna are at Oreanda looking at the sea: “The leaves did not stir on the trees, the grasshoppers chirupped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress toward perfection.” That was what Schwermer loved … Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev … to live! to live! …summers in the country, the melancholy happiness and hopelessness of that endless list of Chekhov’s beautiful men, country doctors, small landowners, writers, trapped between the world they lived in and the world they wanted to live in, which never existed and would never exist.