He’s run this little business for over fifty years and, since his wife died, it’s his only reason for getting up each day. After two strokes he struggles to cope even with life’s simplest tasks. His arm aches from the heft of the battered old doctor’s bag, his only possession from the family’s wretched existence in a dingy Warsaw apartment.
He was nine when they came, his father slow to answer the midnight rap of a pistol butt, time enough for his mother to bundle him down into the manhole behind the building. A last hug and she was gone, leaving him sobbing in the black stench, clutching his father’s bag with its pathetic contents, a few mouldy crusts and a pickle, panic-wrapped in a silk headscarf.
While Herman stumbled terrified and waist-deep in excrement through the warren of tunnels, his parents were starting their final journey to the East. By some miracle, a family hiding in the sewers found him, curled up on a ledge. Together they finally emerged and in the chaos and confusion of war, somehow survived the nightmare. He has memories, vague fragments … a tall, laughing soldier scooping him up, bright lights and nurses, lorries and a ship crammed with children. Then clearer images, of Brick Lane and the Josephs who raised him and loved him.
With walking now a painful and tedious chore, the old man has come to rely on a stout, silver-handled cane, taken in part-exchange from a Texan a few years back for a brace of fine Georgian flintlocks. ‘Y’all take care of my baby,’ the tourist had called as he ducked out of the doorway, ‘She’s old and she’s special!’
Herman keeps the thick, cherry wood walking stick hanging on the back wall of the shop, amongst the breast plates, bayonets and pistols. Over the years he’s had many offers but, in spite of the woodworm, he knows he’ll never part with it.
He’s coming our way now, can you see him? Look, over there, by the door of the Italian café. Antonio glances up from wiping tables and calls to him. ‘Herman, my friend! How you going?’ The small, hunched figure nods and without turning or speaking, gives a little wave of his stick.
He pauses in front of an antique jewellers, watery blue eyes straining to focus on the rows of velvet-cushioned rings, every one he thinks, starting with joy but always ending in a broken heart or the final flutter of an eyelid.
He’s almost at the last cobbled bend when a bare arm from behind grabs him roughly around the neck. A course young voice in his ear, the reek of stale beer.
‘Drop it, Grandad!’ He’s gripped by animal fear and anger but before he can utter a word a second man, just a boy he thinks, darts round to face him and lunges for the bag. The little man instinctively raises his stick and jabs it towards the youth who backs off, reaching for something in his jacket.
A spiteful glint in the weak March sunlight and girl screams. ‘Oh my God, he’s got a knife!’
His feeble words of protest are drowned in a torrent of crude and violent shouts. It all happens so quickly that the few onlookers will struggle to recall the events that follow.
As he clings desperately to the bag, his father’s bag, the youth holding him from behind panics and explodes in frustration, driving a vicious thug’s punch into the brittle, stick-thin neck.
Herman Mandelbrot falls forward, the tip of his cane striking the chest of the belligerent yob before him. The blow shatters the centuries-old wooden shaft and as the old man’s limp body arcs downward, three feet of engraved Austrian steel skewer seventeen year old Patrick Dibben to the doorway behind.