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The Mitzvah Goldfish

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The summer festivals of a small English village are remarkably numerous. There is May Day, officially celebrated by small dancing infants with pigtails and less officially by hopeful couples on the downs before sunrise. There is the Summer Fete, with its tombola and hoop-la and tug-of-war, raising funds for the Church Tower – for it is an axiom that every church in every English village has a tower which is in need of repair. There is the summer Gala, with its tombola and hoop-la and tug-of-war and chairs borrowed from the Church Hall, raising funds for the Chapel, although no one is ever quite sure what the funds are for because chapels do not have towers. There is the Cricket Club supper and the Parish Beetle Drive, a fiercely competitive games evening. There is the Scout Jamboree when many small boys make fires and cook sausages, and the Girl Guide Camping Weekend when many small girls with pigtails cook dampers and bake potatoes and drop scones in mess tins on fires, and the Boy’s Brigade Sports Day and the Joint Services Parade and the Hiring Fair and the Market Fair and the Village Day Out and the Women’s Institute Summer Picnic. There are so many festivals that timetable conflicts have to be mediated by the Parish Council, and fights have been known to break out over the possession of the elderly tombola barrel.

The only commonalities between every event are the extensive use of volunteer labour and, no matter how well disguised, the request for funds.

In his study, Leo, sighing, reaches for his chequebook. “Well,” says the vicar doubtfully. “That’s – well, that’s – remarkably generous.” He has gone pale, looking at the cheque, and then he pushes it back across the table. Leo stiffens, waiting for the polite rejection. Oi vey! What else is he supposed to give? A pound of flesh? Is this yet another incomprehensible English tradition he will fail to negotiate?

“Mr Rabinovitch,” the Vicar says earnestly, “Please don’t think the committee wouldn’t be very grateful. But, you see, the boys would be so disappointed if we didn’t have the tug of war, and everyone is looking forward to your wife’s baking. After all, this will be the first Summer Fair for six years.”

After twenty minutes of hesitant negotiation, Leo is well aware that this will be the first Fair since the war. He is also aware that the cricket club have removed the mice from the marquees and the spiders from the tombola barrel, that the Byrnes have unearthed their trestle tables and benches, the local pub has donated three cases of pre-war sherry, that the Mother’s Union have stitched (so far) a mile and a half of bunting and that Dowager Countess has promised Mersham’s front lawn. All three acres.

“If you don’t feel up to volunteering, we will understand, but we were rather hoping...”

Leo tenses. Outside the library Hannah’s voice rises in vocal sympathy. One of the servants...always the servants. Leo thinks with longing of Proom’s calm, orderly household.

The Vicar leans forward, earnest. “’d take on the duck derby? Usually it would be Mrs Mim’s Jem, but of course, the war...”


“I look like a putz,” Leo mutters.

“You look magnificent,” says Hannah stoutly.

“Like a Prussian,” Leo adds, darkly.

Hannah falters. The cherries on the cartwheel brim of her hat droop, faintly. “Like an English gentleman!”

“That is so reassuring!” Leo snaps, and then has to add, “Knydli, beloved, it is fine, I can for this...” he hesitates, his toes curling miserably.

Beside him, Hannah’s shoulders sag. “Minna says waders are just what is needed!” she says.

In all honesty, Leo can indeed envisage Minna’s husband Lord Byrne, an Englishman of the venerable moth-holed tweed and weather-worn cap variety, breasting the waters of the river rod in hand clad in the very same chest-high rubber galoshes Leo himself is currently sporting.

“Abba,” Susie says, “There are at least twenty tents. I’m sure you could change in one of them. We could even set up a windbreak for you. No one would see.”

Leo looks down at his stout, short self. The straps of the galoshes, adjusted to the very last hole – Lord Byrne, like all the Byrnes, was equipped to see over his battlements with ease – dig into his shoulders. The rubber stretches uncomfortably around his comfortable stomach and bags at his knees, and his toes, in two pairs of knitted socks – almost every woman in the village has become proficient – are both cold and sweaty.

That morning, Hannah had sent three tins of kugelhupf and a stream trunk of paczki to the Village Institute refreshment tent. She had spent three days baking, and the whole house smelled gloriously of apple and cinnamon and sugar: Leo had caught at least two of the housemaids licking their fingers as they came through the green baize door. Susie had been throwing wooden hoops over tent-pegs for a week, muttering, “Throw gently. Flat to the base. Flat to the base...” as she practised, she and Ollie Byrne skittering hoops along the hall tiles. There have been baby-clothes knitted and jams potted and onions pickled and new dresses and new hats and Leo’s dining room chairs appeared to have mysteriously departed to the refreshment tent... “Mildew,” the Mersham footman James had scoffed, with eight art deco Parisian uprights clasped in his bulging biceps. “I ask you. We wouldn’t have it at the hall.”

Leo and Hannah had looked at each other as James exited smartly through the servant’s hall. “...woodworm...?” Hannah ventured.

“Damp,” said Susie. “Proom was beside himself. They need another sixteen chairs, and that includes all the stools from the long gallery. Although I suppose the children could stand...” There was a smudge on her nose. Her skirts were kilted up and she was wearing a disreputable pair of skiing boots Leo suspected had once belonged to the current, absent Earl, he of the Kazakh expeditions. Village fetes, it seemed, required a great deal of hammering, exclaiming, and boy scouts. Susie had three of them in tow, one of whom – Leo glared suspiciously – appeared to be a red-headed Byrne, although thankfully not the fully grown one.

“I say, Mr Rabinovitch,” said the fully grown one, popping his head around the door. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a spare aquarium, have you? Only the Smiths lost the last of their fighting gobies over the winter and they’re using theirs for orchids...?”

“No!” Leo had said, while Hannah had, with increasing desperation, tried to indicate to Susie that not only were her ankles showing, so were her knees, and there was a hole in her stocking....

Thinking of this moment, of the contentment on Susie’s face as she organised and the exquisite taste of the single paczki Hannah had allowed him with his morning coffee, Leo sighed. His family were quite clearly and inexplicably committed to the raising of funds for the tower of a church whose members had been trying to exterminate his faith for nearly two thousand years.

Resigned, Leo took up his clipboard, checked his waterproof pencil was still tucked into his waterproof satchel, and squared his shoulders. Then, with one hand, he picked up the sack of rubber ducks and strode onwards, chin high, a proud Polish Jew, a member of the village community.

It was only after the full six duck races had been run that Leo became aware all was not well.

From the muddied shores of the Mersham pond, he has been admirably placed to view the queues stretching from the refreshment tent to the rose garden. None of the scarlet-saddled donkeys have bolted, the tug-of-war has been successfully enacted without trampling the herbaceous borders, and the tombola is all but denuded of bottled sweets, bottled beer, and Fry’s chocolate bars. The church choir, swelled for the occasion by half the rugby team and three visiting choristers (the Byrnes have a houseful of small boys), has successfully negotiated a medley of folk songs and seafaring hymns. Three mislaid children have been tearfully reunited with their parents, the raffle has been drawn, the first-aiders have, crestfallen, packed up their unused bandages and their tent and departed, and the Vicar, with a sneaky flanking strike, has obtained the very last slice of sponge cake...

And behind the refreshment tent, Ollie Byrne is enacting a very small, very quiet tantrum.

“But it’s not fair!” she says. “How would you like it if you were kept in a cage?”

Ollie, at the end of a very long day, has succumbed to the visible weakness of the hated bath chair. There is a child, Leo thinks, whose heart is too big for her body. But the polio did not defeat Ollie: the fevers and argues, the enforced recuperation in the Scottish convalescence home where, Ollie has recounted with glee, there was nothing but salt and porridge to eat...and even now, Leo predicts by the resigned line of his shoulders, Ollie’s oldest brother is preparing to surrender.

“I shouldn’t like it at all,” says the oldest Byrne son.

Thomas Byrne is about as goy as a goy can get, but, grudgingly, Leo cannot fault his judgement. Somehow this son of castles and umbrellas and English reserve has discovered Susie’s great heart, her charm, her honest, practical competency, her dreams. And has, ignoring the remonstrations of both his parents and hers, proceeded to make it very plain that he worships the ground on which she walks. He has proposed, to Leo’s certain knowledge, at least five times, although Susie, dutifully, has turned him down on every occasion.

Tom Byrne makes Leo’s daughter smile.

Leo hitches up his galoshes, wades out of the pond, and waddles towards the refreshment tent.

“We could put them in the moat,” Ollie is insisting.

“There are pike in the moat,” Tom says. “Ollie, they wouldn’t last a day.”

“But we can’t leave them!” Ollie wails. “They’re trapped!”

“They’re goldfish!” Tom says. “They don’t mind!”

“How do you know?” Ollie says, mulish.

Leo clears his throat. “Ollie?” he asks. “Lord Thomas?”

“Oh, thank goodness,” says Tom. “Rabinovitch, you’re a sensible man. Please at least try and persuade my sister that kidnapping fifty goldfish is not a radical political act. We haven’t anywhere to put them!”

“But Tolstoy says...” Ollie begins.

Leo is firmly of the opinion that fish are at their happiest roasted with almonds. “Tolstoy, folstoy,” he says, having heard rather too many of Tolstoy’s opinions from Susie. “Lord Thomas-”

“Tom,” Tom mutters, not for the first time.

“Lord Thomas is quite right. The fish know only the home they have. And,” Leo adds sternly, “Stealing is wrong, Ollie Byrne. You know this.”

“But how can something with a soul belong to someone else?” Ollie says. “And I don’t like that man with the whiskers!”

Admittedly, Leo is not over fond of the man with the whiskers either. Most of the fair people, the family with the carousel and the three clowns and the balloon man and the test-your-strength strong woman, have been friendly and happy to be invited. The man with the whiskers and the target shooting range where one can win a small goldfish in a pot smirks, in a most unpleasant fashion.

“He shouted at Win,” Tom says. “Ollie’s right, y’know. Not a nice man at all.”

Tom’s head is bent as he leans over Ollie’s chair, but Leo can see the gradual firming of his jaw, the squaring of his shoulders, the resolve in his tightening hands. His own heart sinks.

“How, er...” Tom begins, and then he straightens. He is, of course, the kind of Englishman who sets his shoulders and charges into the Valley of Death, or who stands defiantly on burning decks, and clearly the rescuing of goldfish has now attained the status of the championed underdog. “How deep,” Tom Byrne says, resolved, “Is your ornamental pond, Mr Rabinovitch?”

Leo has opened his mouth to reply – the herons! The cats! The servants – he can see them now, spending the day cooing over carp! – when Ollie looks up.

“They need a home, Mr Rabinovitch.”

He’s been homeless. They’ve been refugees, he and Hannah. And Susie too, when she was a baby, when Hannah was still taking in washing and Leo was working every hour he could, when there were days he and Hannah both claimed they weren’t hungry so that the other would eat. Even when there was money – and there is plenty of money, although never enough for Leo to feel entirely secure – they were unwelcome in London. But here, in this small English village where Hannah wears clothes too tight at the arms and they eat pudding at Christmas and the village school has Hanukah candles and Susie treats the Mersham library as if it’s her, they are home.

“I’ll speak to Susie,” Leo says helplessly.


His daughter and her unwelcome suitor make a formidable team. By midnight, the ornamental pond has been carefully surveyed, denuded of its fountain, and surrounded by a paling fence against herons who apparently wade into pools. Leo, still wearing the despised galoshes, clutches an empty enamel bowl to his chest. On the bank, Ollie’s bath chair is stacked with more bowls, while Ollie herself, wrapped in blankets, sits on the bank, and beside her stand two dastardly thieves, both of them in black, gloved and masked. One of them, the taller, carries a dark lantern of the kind used by poachers, while the other is opening up a satchel.

“Do you think they’ll be all right?” Ollie asks anxiously.

“Yes,” says Tom firmly. “They’re fish. They’ll be fine.”

“No police,” Leo says, still worried. “Susie.”

“I promise, we weren’t seen,” his daughter says. She sets down a flask, four mugs, and a carefully wrapped parcel. “Hot chocolate? And there were some paczki left. Abba?”

She is a jewel among women, his daughter.

“Look!” Ollie exclaims. “You can see them!”

In the pool of light from the lantern the goldfish dart backwards and forwards, streaks of red and silver, erratic as billiard balls.

“They’re so pretty,” Ollie whispers.

Tom glances at Susie. He’s smiling, the softest of smiles, unconscious. It’s only because the lantern tilts as he moves that Leo see him smile, and then, the way Susie looks back. Leo knows that look. He thinks, wincing, he needs to speak to that rabbi again, the modernist one. He thinks, she looks so happy.

Then he puts the bowl down and reaches for the paczki.