You know how one gets these snippets of memory; and how if you keep looking at the snippet it will sometimes open up to things that you had quite forgotten; and then there is the question of how much is memory and how much the past re-imagined: I was thinking about a gold wristwatch I have that used to belong to my grandmother, and suddenly I pictured it on her arm. She wore it every day when my sister and I went on holiday to Italy with her.
We were staying in a hotel just across the road from a beach. We could see the beach from our bedroom window – a long strip of yellow and the blue sea, just like a child’s drawing. My grandmother said that the sand was nicer in Rimini, paler and not so coarse, but it was good for building sandcastles, which we did every day while my grandmother read back copies of Prediction magazine (it still exists, I just checked), underneath a large umbrella, dressed in her cream-coloured suit. She never took her clothes off no matter how hot it was. Every now and then she looked up to see what we were doing and smiled. I wondered why she never wanted to sit in the sun and get brown – getting brown was one of the reasons to go on holiday, when you went home from abroad people would admire your tan. My sister and I put our forearms together to see who was more brown. My grandmother said she was brown too and took off her gold watch to show the white mark underneath.
“Look how white it is,” she said.
“Now take your ring off,” I said. She moved it around on her finger but it didn’t slide off easily.
“I never take my ring off, so it doesn’t want to leave my finger now.”
A man with brown hair and a deep tan watched as we decorated a sand turret with shells and poured drops of wet sand over it to give a rippled effect.
“You have made a beautiful castle there,” he said. He had a German accent, but it was different from my grandmother’s, not so pronounced.
“We’ve been practising,” I said. “This is the best one so far.” He nodded.
“Yes, practice is always a way of doing things better.”
He asked me how old I was and where I came from in England. I told him that I lived in London. He knew the place where I lived because it was near Belsize Park, where he had friends – refugees from Nazi Germany.
“My grandmother was a refugee,” I said. “She lived in Belsize Park too, but now she lives in Hannover.” The man looked over to where my grandmother sat. She was looking at him and he nodded a respectful acknowledgement, bowing his head slightly. She nodded in return and went back to reading her magazine.
“I knew you were a Jewish girl as soon as I saw you,” he said. I told him that my grandfather had died in a concentration camp. He turned his head away and nodded.
At supper my grandmother asked what we had been talking about. She didn’t look pleased when I said about my looking Jewish.
The next day he was there again, still at a distance from my grandmother.
“Are you going to swim in the sea?” I asked. He said no, he preferred to swim in the evening when it was cooler. He had two books by his deckchair, but I never saw him reading them. He liked to look around. He enjoyed talking to me.
“You look just like a girl I once knew,” he said. The girl had had dark hair and eyes, like me, and a lovely smile, an expressive face. He had known her, he said, when he was in a concentration camp. He had come out of the camp alive, but the girl had grown ill and died. My grandmother and he exchanged nods again. I went to her and asked why she didn’t come and talk to him. I sometimes thought it was lonely for her, just sitting on the beach every day with her magazines. But neither she nor the man, whose first name I can’t remember, seemed to expect anything more from each other than an occasional nod. The man told me that his surname was Goldberg, and he was happy to have a beautiful name which meant gold mountain. We spent many afternoons talking together while my sister carried on making sandcastles and my grandmother read her copies of Prediction He told me he believed in reincarnation and wondered if I might have been the girl he had spoken of, in my previous life.
One day I looked up and saw her moving the gold ring around, and suddenly it came off her finger. I went over to look at the white mark, but her hand looked poor and naked without the ring. I took the ring and held it in my palm, trying to feel the weight of it.
“Be careful,” said my grandmother. Then three things happened: from the corner of my eye I saw the man get up from his deckchair and walk to the sea, a black dog ran past and brushed against my leg and I, looking up, lost my balance slightly. The hand that held the ring tilted and the ring fell into the sand.
“What have you done?” said my grandmother.
“It’s ok,” I said, getting onto my knees in the sand, “it’s just here.” But it wasn’t here or anywhere. I scrabbled in the dry sand, but the more I did that, the more lost the ring became.
I can’t be sure how the story ends because I don’t remember anything else about the ring (was it found or lost forever?), and I don’t remember ever seeing the man whose name was Goldberg again. I can’t even be sure that the business with the ring in the sand was exactly as I think I remember it. But there are things I recently discovered about my grandmother’s time during the war, when her husband was in the camp: secrets. The ring could well be a metaphor – rings so often are.
The half-remembered past reflects the lived present. I begin to imagine.