The Meeting

Elsbeth Lindner

Published by Harbour Books 23 February 2023

224 pp, hardback


Even on the finest day in England, Stoke-on-Trent is scarcely a pretty place. Famed as one of novelist Arnold Bennett’s ‘five towns’, as the birthplace of aeronautical engineer R. J. Mitchell (designer of the World War II fighter the Spitfire), but best known for its pottery industry – Wedgwood, Spode – it retains to this day its grim Victorian aspect. The railway station, effectively a wind tunnel built of rust-red brick, looks little changed since the invention of the steam engine.

Here, in December 1967, a father and daughter wait with some excitement. Excepting a brief encounter in Paris in 1950, the father has not spent time with his brother since before World War II. The daughter, aged sixteen, has grown up in a family almost devoid of relatives beyond her parents and an older sister. There are no grandparents, no uncles or aunts barring the one on the incoming train. No other blood relations exist in the country. A few outliers live in Germany and Belgium, and there’s one cousin, a concentration camp survivor, alive in Holland. But life has essentially been lived without extended family, shallowly rooted in the English Midlands. When the train from London arrives, a slight, contained figure alights, carrying a single item of luggage. He is small and slim, bald with a fringe of dark hair around the back of the skull. A small black pipe is clenched between his teeth.

This was to be my first, indeed my only meeting with my uncle, Richard Lindner.

Richard was a figure of family myth and magic. In contrast with my own family – shopkeepers who, for random, half-comprehended reasons, happened to dwell in an obscure corner of Staffordshire – he was a star, the glory-boy living in New York, a painter who mingled with the famous and the bohemian, and seemed to be rich.

Each Christmas, we would receive a large cardboard box of gifts selected by him from Bloomingdale’s. One year a stupendous wooden sledge arrived, with curved runners and a slatted seat, superior in every measure to the local, home-made competition. More usually the boxes contained clothes whose quality and stylishness we would only come to appreciate in later years. But my mother would insist we wear them immediately anyway.

One year, when I was perhaps ten, a striped shirtwaist arrived for my sister, an olive cotton shirt and tweed pencil skirt/waistcoat combination for me. Blackfriars Junior School had never seen the like. The mockery of my peers over this outfit, ridiculous on my pudgy, pre-teen body, haunts me still.

There were hats too – real fur bonnets, or rainbow-knitted Tibetan pull-ons with ear flaps and plaited tassels. And for my parents, objets from far-flung places. I remember a Mexican horse and rider, made of coloured woven straw; a huge, heavy brass brazier from India; a Fornasetti ashtray; a Central American rug woven in shades of caramel and scarlet; a circular Spanish candelabrum of contorted black metal. These parcels and their eclectic contents arrived as if from a glossy parallel universe of culture and taste.

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