The Golden Age […] stood alone, bounded by four flat roads, like an island, which in its present incarnation seemed to symbolize its apartness, a natural quarantine.
The name, inherited, could be considered tactless by some, even cruelly ironic. These children were impaired as no one would ever wish a child to be. But perhaps because of its former role, its solid and generous air, it was a cheerful place.
When at last she’d left the Isolation Ward and her parents were allowed to sit by her bed, they looked smaller to her, aged by the terror they had suffered, old, shrunken, ill-at-ease. Something had happened to her which she didn’t yet understand. As if she’d gone away and come back distant from everybody.
Sometimes even now in the Golden Age, after her mother visited, Elsa had the funny feeling that there was another mother waiting for her, blurred, gentle, beautiful as an angel, with an angel’s perfect understanding.
He felt her reverence for music and literature was theatrical, deliberate, and set them even more apart from everyone else.
Why do I refuse it? he thought, wheeling off. His parents, he knew, regarded his lost legs as one more tragedy they had to bear. I refuse to be their only light. I want to be my own reason for living.
Talent was not enough, Julia used to say, you must find the grip, the hunger, the small, determined child inside you. You must have a certain ruthlessness to win, as if by right. In the hierarchy of talent, you are a born aristocrat […]
It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him.
He’d learnt, like all children in those times, to do as he was told. To stay quiet could be a matter of life or death. But the effort of lying still in that space, alone, never left him.
Sometimes his parents forgot themselves over drinks with Hungarian friends and spoke of the country they once knew […] then they fell silent. They’d been guests, after all, in that country. As they were guests in this one.
It seemed sadder somehow. He knew [the babies] cried because they were alone. But visitors reminded you of how much you had grown apart from them. It was almost a relief when they went home.
Over and over again, Frank thought, he, Meyer and Ida had been forced to live within breathing distance of strangers, like animals in a burrow. Knowing about their underclothes, the smells and habits of their bodies. The little meannesses, the same old jokes, the sulks and temper flurries […]
After it was over, like a terrible dream, you couldn’t remember much about it. But you were not the same.
He had a suspicion that never again would he feel at home as he once had. Never again on this earth. And another suspicion: that to love a place, to imagine yourself belonging to it, was a lie, a fiction. It was a vanity. Especially for a Jew.
She was vibrant with life and yet she was solitary. Unburdened by domesticity. She was brave, even audacious. Kept her disappointments in their place. How had a woman like that come to live alone?
Margaret grieved that her daughter had to carry this burden. Elsa, each time she saw her, had become more adult. She had lost her childhood. If she didn’t see Elsa more often, didn’t pay her close attention, Margaret wouldn’t keep up with her. Her daughter would outgrow her.
Frank felt it as a relief. When his mother was at the piano she was distant from him. For once she took her eyes off him […] Somehow he knew that what she did was very good. In this role he had respect for her, and gratitude. It seemed to justify everything, their foreignness, their victimhood in the other country. It brought honor to them.
She was startled by Ida’s ease and precision. Her concentration, her accuracy, reminded Olive of the skills that were her personal exultation, of a good surgeon at work, or nurses laying out a body. Her own deftness and judgment.
Over and over, it seemed, they were reminded that they were alone, that in the end, their success or failure in overcoming polio was up to them.
She played very fast, bare-armed like a workman, with the conviction of one who must finish a job. The dress enthralled them, its blue-black shining folds, and Ida’s strong white arms, her black hair in a roll, her faintly slanted Hungarian eyes were inexpressibly exotic. They knew that wherever she came from, she must have been famous there.
Watching her play, Frank was moved. He saw her strength, her vast determination. He remembered her fury when he was in the hospital. “You are going to get strong! You are going to walk […] you want to know why? They take the weak ones first.”
He had an image suddenly of sitting with her at a table in one of the little cafes overlooking Lake Balaton […] around it, brothers, their girlfriends, guests from Budapest. The peace of couples who have been swimming and then taken a siesta together in the afternoon […] such a capacity she had for living. A purity about her, as engrossed in life as an insect going about its tasks, embedded in all that is natural.
Ida stood still. It felt like the time when the tanks rolled in, and you thought, This can’t be happening. Everything becomes provisional. She walked straight out of the house to the phone box on the corner and rang Margaret Briggs.
Her parents never said a word about her expulsion from the Golden Age. Nothing could affect their shining gaze on Elsa. But they hadn’t tried to stick up for her, they hadn’t saved her. She saw them differently. They had no power. They cared what other people thought.
The vision seemed to come to him out of the sky, unfolding like a cloud or flock of tiny birds, the outline spreading and contracting. A smallholding, a tiny farm. With ploughing, fertilizing, watering, he could pasture a goat on a block like this, grow fruit trees and vegetables, feed his family from the land. It was what his father had done.
“The Golden Age” is the sequel to his most famous poem, “The Trains,” he says. It’s the answer to it, the counter to it.