As anyone who has lived in a tenement can tell you, there is nothing that’s more distressing, or more alarming, than the sound of someone frantically knocking on your front door first thing in the morning; it’s always a dire forewarning of danger or tragedy.
My father was a man of routine, on a working day he was always up first. It was mid-November and still dark outside when he switched on the hall light and left the door that led to the kitchen open to allow him to have breakfast and to get organised quietly for the day ahead. Breakfast was always the same, home baked soda bread and tea. He was employed by a large local house builder, John Lawrence Ltd where he was employed as a works manager Basically, he organised the labour groups on the building sites; it was a good job and it was a job he enjoyed. He had just switched off the hall light and was about to complete his morning routine of pulling on his working boots in the small toilet on the way out when there was a couple of loud bangs on the front door.
He was so taken aback that he moved quickly to open the door. On the common landing, lit by a gas mantle, stood the next-door neighbour Mrs Rosenburg, wearing an old outdoor coat over her nightwear.
‘Come see my troubles. Come see my troubles,’ she said, wringing her hands.
She turned and walked back into her flat, indicating my father to follow her in. He stepped out to the common landing, still in his stocking feet, when he suddenly hesitated. The tenement building formed one side of an octangular public space known as Gorbals Cross. It was occupied mainly by Irish Catholics and Polish or Russian Jews; roughly two thirds Irish and one third Jewish. They rubbed along fine and were neighbourly enough but they never socialised. It was almost unheard of for a gentile to enter a Jewish house and he reckoned some domestic disaster must have occurred to warrant this breech of protocol; Mrs Rosenburg was a widow for as long as he could remember. A burst water pipe was his first thought.
My father turned right from the hall into the Roseburg kitchen/parlour, a dim electric lamp was on. Mrs Rosenburg was standing at the window where the morning sky was now beginning to lighten. She was staring at a small armchair to the side of the large cast iron cooking range in the kitchen. He walked to the middle of the room and followed her gaze. Her son, Maurice, was sitting in the armchair, his head tilted back, his throat cut almost from ear to ear.
My father was stunned and ill prepared for the horror of the scene. He quickly noticed the open razor lying on Maurice’s chest; it glinted in the light. There was blood everywhere, on the chair, on the floor, some had even splattered on the wall behind Maurice. He was wearing a smart dark suit; his white shirt now almost entirely dark crimson. My father’s mind had gone numb; he heard Mrs. Rosenburg’s soft voice in the distance.
‘Rabbi Cohan. Get Rabbi.’
Leaving the ghastly scene, he almost staggered to his own door. Rabbi Cohan was well known, and was highly respected; he was often seen popping in and out of the Jewish homes around the neighbourhood. My father was coming to his senses, his best bet, he reckoned, was to try the Synagogue in Oxford Street. He felt almost relieved to have something to do as he rushed into the small toilet to hurriedly pulled on his work boots in the dark and tied them up quickly. He closed over the front door and left it on the latch before clattering down the two flights of stairs to street level. A right turn brought him into the Cross, another right turn brought him into Gorbals Street, or Main Street as some still called it. Crossing the road, he quickly found himself before the Synagogue; it had taken him five minutes from his door. As he walked around to the main entrance it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea if the Rabbi stayed in the synagogue or if he lived somewhere else. It was by pure chance that Rabbi Cohan was standing on the pavement talking to a local man who worked in the upholstery factory at the top end of Oxford Street. My father approached and gave a rushed account of what had happened. Rabbi Cohan, as my father put it, ‘had good English’ and immediately realized the gravity of the situation. He gave a quick farewell to his companion and hurriedly led the way back to the Roseburg household; my father’s boots had come loose, he could hardly keep up.
The Rabbi had already been in the Rosenberg’s house and had assessed the situation. He was standing on the door step awaiting my father. He thanked him for his help and called him a good neighbour. He put his hand on his shoulder, God, he said, would bless him. However, to save further anguish he should return to his own home and be with his own family. He, as Rabbi, would handle things. He would contact the authorities and arrange everything for Mrs Rosenburg. My father crossed over to his own house, he could see the door to the kitchen was still half opened and the room was now in natural light. As he sat at the table, he felt strangely exhausted and his brain seemed have gone blank. He was aware his loose boots were making him uncomfortable. There was noise from the back bedroom as my mother and my sister got themselves dressed. He started to pull off his work boots, left one first, then the right. The light grey work sock on his right foot looked oddly dark. Curious, he put his hand down to feel the sock and pulled it back immediately. He looked down; his hand was covered in blood. He walked down the hall to the small toilet, opened the door, put his head down and was violently sick.
I was born a few years after these events. When I was young, I was always aware that some tragedy had taken place, but people seemed reluctant to talk about it and it gradually slipped from my memory. It was only one summer night, some forty years later and a few years after he retired, that my father, prompted by a news story about a local boy who committed suicide, told me of the events of that morning. Maurice, he said, was only twenty years old at the time, a good-looking young man, always neatly dressed. Well-mannered and friendly, although a bit of a loner. It’s hard to imagine what would drive a young man to such a drastic act, I had said. He couldn’t be sure, answered my dad, but he suspected some drink was involved. And you can never tell what’s going through a man’s head when he’s taken a drink, he added, it was a hellish experience for everyone involved. He paused for a moment. ‘I remember that day well. I never went to work that day,’ he said quietly, ‘it was the only time in my life that I took a day off work.’