Liane Wimhurst


Liane Wimhurst is a foreign correspondent-turned London TV journalist and writer. She began her career in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Ramallah was her reporting base for several years. She grew up in Sussex surrounded by her large Goan and small British family. Her love of the surreal and the absurd creeps into her fiction. Shes currently working on a collection of short stories and researching her first novel.
Contact: lianewimhurst [at] yahoo [dot]

Searching for Isaac


We sat on the edge of the bed and wept, milk poured from my eyes. I tried to force it back in, not wanting to waste a drop. It was three months since the birth of my son and he remained feral and furled. In his waking hours he screamed like a kettle. We were alone. His father was in Sierra Leone, saving lives. We’d met there – a heady romance amid a shattered state. Chaos was our universe, but I could gain no mastery over this new world. My vision was dilated, limitless. I could see the things others couldn’t. But darkness lurked on its periphery, darkness that wanted to be invited in.

Only once did we attempt a mother and baby activity. Days had blurred into nights as we hid indoors. But at dawn, as I lay in the dusty twilight of my room, anything was possible. In these moments my baby was Schrodinger’s Cat. Before I peered into his cradle he was in a superposition of states. He was both dead and alive. Until he cried I could suspend myself in a world of infinite possibilities. He was invincible. And so was I.

The baby massage class was in a children’s centre in the secretive and impenetrable world of Stamford Hill. I had spent many days walking up and down that hill, pushing the black carriage of the pram. I marvelled at the people there, clinging to their strict black-suited conformity, speaking a centuries-old language and marching purposefully past crumbling Victorian buildings. 

I liked to place myself on the edge of close-knit communities, an observer of the customs and habits that glued small societies together. In Sierra Leone to be an outsider had been a kind of privilege. I was welcomed for my otherness. My heavily-pregnant return to London had construed an anonymity upon me that was both liberating and frightening. Once I was signed out of hospital, I was on my own.

Several centimetres of air separated the Hackney mums from the floor of the class. Their skin was glowing, their hair lustrous, and they were levitating. I’d seen them on the streets, spilling from the pavements, overrunning the parks and clustering in the aisles of organic food shops. Some unknown force had propelled them to get out of bed, apply make-up and well-fitted clothes, arrange to meet and hold forth for hours on the subjects of baby sleep patterns and attachment. I enjoyed talking as much as anyone, my specialist subjects were – African despots, the blight of backstreet abortions and how to strip shower in under ten seconds. I watched the other mothers glide towards me, their lips moving with a seamless fluidity. I squeezed between them and then they merged into one homogenous mass.

The instructor spoke through a disembodied mouth hovering in front of her.

“Feel the energy all around you. Put your arms out and draw it into you. Let the good vibes enter you.”

Listening to the burr of her dull monotone I dropped off, but the bob of my head woke me. This happened over and over again so I must have looked like a buoy in troubled waters.

The disembodied mouth addressed me, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Stella. This is Joshua.”

“Ok, put him down on the mat.”

 “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

 “Come now, just relax and everything else will fall into place. If you’re relaxed, he’ll relax, babies are a reflection of their mothers.”

Joshua’s face was squashed into my chest. His tiny fists held clumps of my vest. He was wrapped around me like a koala. I peeled him away gently. But the moment a millimetre of air separated his skin from mine, he wailed. The ring of levitating women gave each other pitying sideways glances and gulped back coconut water. They didn’t realise this was just Joshua’s practice; he’s going to be a rock star. This heart-wrenching, raw, emotional noise is what everyone will be listening to. The purple face and the back arching are all part of his stage presence.

A woman in a burkha swung open the door and the other women simultaneously dropped to the floor. The niqab across the bridge of her nose rose and fell with her breath. She placed her son on the mat in front of her and it was instantly clear he was dying. His once-olive skin was drained, phlegm clustered to the sides of his mouth and his breath rattled in his throat. He didn’t cry. Instead he endured his pain with Arabic stoicism.

“What a divine creature,” said the mouth. “Stella will you share your massage oil?” The instructor pointed to the bottle between us.


The woman smiled at me through fishnet eyes. She removed elbow-length satin gloves, picked up the bottle and smeared oil over her hands as globules of phlegm flew through the air. I spattered a tiny bit of oil onto my hands and massaged Joshua anywhere that might not go in his mouth. Germs crab-scrambled their way across his skin. I was coating him in a viral death sentence.

“I have to go,” I said.

“Are you sure? Don’t worry about the crying. This is an embarrassment-free, judgment free zone.”

Possibly the most judgmental thing she could say. I walked out. Outside the room, the children’s centre was empty and silent. I sat on the floor of the large disabled toilet with Joshua in my arms wearing just his nappy. I filled the sink with warm, soapy water and scrubbed every millimetre of his body, prizing open his fists and running suds along his fingers. He stopped crying and stared mockingly at me. I looked in the mirror at my half-transparent reflection next to Joshua’s blinding clarity. The wrinkled maternity leggings I’d had on in bed the night before bagged at my ankles, my bright, green Sierra Leone football shirt was discordantly energetic and my cheeks glistened with tears.

When we were alone Joshua spoke to me. In these moments white hair gathered in Socratic clouds at his temples.

“Mother, I think I might be a solipsist,” he said. “I can observe the feelings of others, but I don’t experience them as I would my own and I only see others in relation to me. Is this what it means to be a solipsist?”

Not quite, darling,” I said.

I bundled him in blankets and lay him in the black carriage of the pram. It morphed into a hearse as he fell asleep. I pushed him out into the glaring light of the spring morning. Every seven steps I leant into the opening of the carriage to check for movement - a flicker of the eye or rise of the belly.

It had begun to hail, tiny, frozen balls smacked me in the face. Jewish families squeezed under rickety umbrellas. They clutched carrier bags emblazoned with golden, Hebrew writing. Hail melted into a wet slurry in the gutter of their top hats.

As I walked down Stamford Hill, a man walked next to me, in step with me on the wide pavement. His top hat was doing little to protect his bulbous body from the hail. Corkscrew sideburns danced with the bounce of his steps. His weathered, black suit swamped his shoulders and clung to his paunch, and his shirt hung out like he was a schoolboy rebel.

He raised his hands to the heavens and said, “It’s snowing.”

“No, it’s hailing,” I said.

He looked at me. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” His ankles were shackled to infinite chains that scraped along the ground behind him.

“My baby won’t stop crying.”

“What are you talking about? He’s sleeping. He’s a little sleeping angel.”

“Yes, but whenever he’s awake he’s crying.”

“So, be grateful. God gave you a crying baby. At least He gave you a baby. Look at me.” His accent was Yiddish. “I don’t have a wife, I don’t have any children.”

He looked around 45 and I wondered if it was too late.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 28,” he said, as if it was too late.

A white-bearded man in a silken dressing-gown-like coat and huge disc of a fur hat stared at us, gently shaking his head as if the man was being lured by a temptress.

“Can’t you marry someone from your community? How does it work? Do the elders arrange it for you?”

“Yes, they try, but I’m fed up of my community. Look at them staring at me because I’m talking to you.” He sped up and I noticed the dust clouds gathered on his coattails.  Women with shiny hair in a matching shade of reddish-brown pushed Victorian baby carriages past us. Their children wore identical, beige coats, thick tights and white hairbands. “I don’t think I want to marry here, I want to get away.”

“Why don’t you make Aliyah and move to Israel? You could meet someone there.”

“Aliyah? Yisrael?” His accent was even more Yiddish when he said this. “How do you know this term, it’s evil?

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause offence, I thought it just meant to take Israeli citizenship.”

“No, how do you know this term, it’s Eebrew?” He looked quizzically at me. “Listen, Jews were meant to roam, disconnected to any place. This is our destiny. Not Aliyah. Not Israel.”

I looked down at our feet and we were walking in perfect time, I’d always been out of step with everyone, but somehow we shared a common rhythm.

“Yes, you’re right. What’s your name?”


“I’m Stella and this is Joshua.”

“Joshua? But that’s a Jewish name.”

“Yes, well my husband’s Jewish.”

“And he married you? How can this be?” He stared at the fast-moving clouds shaped like pairs of biblical animals.

Up ahead of us there was a group of teenage boys who were dressed like Isaac but looked postmodern, ironic, like a Haredi folk band. They were shouting in London accents.

“Don’t fuck with the Jews,” they chimed. They had encircled a boy in jeans and black boots. They dragged him into a mobile phone shop that had a smashed window.

I turned to Isaac. “What’s that in the distance?”

“Forget about the distance. Look at what is right in front of you.” He leant in towards the opening of the pram. “You have a healthy baby, so be grateful.”

I looked at him again and he looked older still, millennia old. His booming voice rose up from the earth.

“Are you worried about anti-semitism in Europe?” I said. “Because of the attacks on Jews in Copenhagen and in Paris.”

“Listen. Muslims, Christians, they think they know everything. They know nothing. They think the world is two thousand years old. Pah! I’ve studied history, the world is five thousand years old.” He raised imploring hands. “Don’t worry about your baby, ok? So he cries, so what? God gave you a healthy baby. Each day you are chipping away at the mountain. Before you know it you’ll have a little boy who doesn’t cry and then you’ll have bigger problems. This time is to prepare you for what’s to come.”

“What is to come though? That’s my worry.” Shaven-headed boys yelped and shouted in Hebrew as they streamed down the stony front steps of Victorian houses that had been converted into yeshivas. “How do I know if the world will be safe for Joshua?”

You can’t know, this is the great mystery of life. But every mother worries, you think your mother wasn’t worrying and her mother before her? Worrying doesn’t change anything.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“Look at me. I’m Jewish, I’m burdened with being Jewish. You’re free, so why worry?” He gave me a look that said freedom was wasted on the gentiles. “Don’t worry about your baby, ok?” He stopped. “Look, I have to leave you now, I’m going to that kosher butcher over there.” 

The conversation was cut short, snatched away. I needed Isaac’s wisdom to guide me and yet he was disappearing from view. Sparks flew up from his chains as he walked off. With his head down, he joined the other black-suited men at the meat counter.

As traffic noises buzzed around the pram and I noticed builders unearthing road on the corner, I entered the eldritch world of Abney Cemetery to prolong Joshua’s sleep. I walked to Isaac’s rhythm on the soft earth. I could smell the soil that clung to worms fed to chicks in their nests. I said Isaac’s words to myself over and over as a kind of mantra: ‘Why worry, when did worrying help anybody?’ I wandered the maze-like corridors of the graveyard. All paths in the cemetery led to the same ruined church in its centre.

My phone rang and it was my mother.

“Are you holding the baby? Don’t answer the phone if you’re holding the baby, you might drop him.”

“It’s alright, he’s in the pram.”

Well, I won’t be long, I don’t want to bother you, I’m sure you’re busy.”

“Not really, I’m just walking in a cemetery.”

“Well, be careful, you never know who might be around. You have to be responsible, you’re a mother now. You can’t go getting yourself into all kinds of risky situations like you used to.” I imagined Joshua lying on the tarpaulin of a field tent and being sprayed with disinfectant. “Think of the baby. How is he anyway? Still keeping you up all night?”

“It’s hard to drop off when you know he might scream at any moment.”

“He’s a baby. Babies cry. It’ll pass.”

I sighed. “How’re things at home? How’s the village?”

“Well, the church is running trips to Palestine now, handing out leaflets and the like. All the old biddies want to get involved, they never miss an opportunity to convert some poor lost soul.” I could see a tribe of bulky housewives, mumbling Hail Marys on rosaries as they marched the dust paths of the Holy Land, trying to recruit. “They won’t be happy until the whole world is exactly the same as us. As if we’re not all lost souls ourselves.”

“How’s Dad?

“Your father still won’t get up from his armchair. He doesn’t know who I am. We would come and visit but it’s a bit difficult. You understand don’t you?”


“And you’re doing fine anyway, aren’t you? That’s my Stella, you always took everything in your stride.” We hung up.

I rounded a bend and a fox leapt through the air from behind a headless statue of an angel. Fox pups hanging at her teats.  She stopped mid-air and stared at me, her eyes aflame. She howled in pain and disappeared into a bush.

I gasped. Isaac’s words had begun to fade from my mind. As I rocked Joshua over tree roots, I called his father. I imagined his satellite phone ringing inside his hazmat suit, his breath misting up his mask as he made a split second decision on whether to turn away from a patient who was bleeding from the ears or answer to the mother of his child. I heard the phone connect but he didn’t say anything so I spoke.

“My love, how are the patients?” He didn’t speak so I continued. “I hope you’re doing ok. I just wanted to hear your voice really.” I stared at the half head of a broken gargoyle. “This is obviously a magical time and we’re so blessed. So blessed. But it’s hard doing it alone. Though, of course, your patients need you.” I could hear a strange din on the line, like the sound of several infants trying to cry louder than each other. “I can’t wait for you to meet Joshua. The only time he’s not crying is when you appear on the screen and pull silly faces. I just know you’re going to be wonderful with him when you get a chance...” The line went dead.

I caught sight of my reflection in a puddle, my face had begun to slide from my skull and melt into the lost space beneath my chin. Rows of black, angular graffiti adorned the crumbling church. The sun was beginning to set. The forest was coming alive with the breath mist and luminous eyes of nocturnal creatures. Behind each bend was a group of lascivious men drinking from golden cans, fierce dogs straining against their leads. When I found a walker in an anorak, my voice came out breathy and anxious, “Do you know the way out?” I said. The heavy-set woman took a sip from a thermos before speaking. “You’re already out,” she said and pointed to the roadside.

As I walked the leaden road home an ever-expanding group of strangers followed me. They were neutrally dressed, with urgent expressions on their faces. They pawed at my shoulder and tried to hand me gig tickets, ecstasy tablets, flyers for beach raves in Thailand, threatened communities and several books of blank pages with my name on the cover. I swatted them away, but they were persistent.

I hit a bump in the pavement and Joshua was jolted awake. Instantly he cried. The noise blocked out the sound of the strangers. I cuddled him to my chest, rocking him softly and whispered into his ear, “That’s it Joshua, you let it out.” The strangers had retreated, they were far away from me now and I could barely see them.


Every day for weeks afterwards I thought about Isaac. We were connected, outsiders who shared a common ground. Each day I walked up and down Stamford Hill searching for Isaac. I stared hard into the faces of the Haredim. Sometimes all of them were Isaac and sometimes none of them were. Isaac had been protruding from the communal stone. Now the community was monolithic.

Joshua began screaming before sunrise. We walked the dark, deserted streets, Joshua barely visible in the black carriage of his pram. The skies ripped apart to reveal a ruby sun. Stamford Hill families began to wake up, emerge onto the street and rush up and down the hill. They all had somewhere they urgently had to be. I weaved my way through them, staring at them, searching them, wondering if any of them knew the whereabouts of Isaac. I stood outside the kosher butcher where I had last seen him and waited there for hours. As I stood still, members of the community walked purposefully past me. Women pushed contented babies on the huge wheels of old-fashioned prams. Eventually I worked up the courage to go in.

“Excuse me,” I said to the butcher. “I hope you don’t mind me coming in here, but I’m looking for Isaac.”

He didn’t look up from a pile of bloodless meat. “Which Isaac? We have many Isaacs.”

“He was in a few weeks ago, on a Friday, buying meat.”

“Every Isaac buys his Shabbat meat from me.”

“He’s 28, unmarried.”

His eyes fixed me suspiciously.

“Perhaps you mean Isaac the head of the Shomrim police force, Isaac who prevents unwanted intrusions from outsiders?”

“No, no, no, I’m sorry, it’s not what you think. It’s just he gave me some very good advice about motherhood.”

“You want advice? Maybe you mean Isaac the rabbi?”

“Maybe, where can I find him?”

He stabbed his machete into a block of wood and looked at me as if I was simple. “At the synagogue,” he said.

“Ok,” I said and backed slowly out of the shop as his blade glinted in the light. I gently lowered the pram over the step to prevent it from jolting Joshua awake.

We passed Jamaican and Turkish cafes, curry houses selling acid-yellow slop decorated with burnt leaves, and betting shops. We turned off into residential streets where moss-covered houses smelled of gas explosions waiting to happen.

The synagogue emerged from the earth, incongruous in a street of repetitive houses. Inside, chandeliers cast a dim light on a vague hall. I felt sleepy, the muscles in my face drooped and my eyelid began to twitch. Stained glass windows depicted dreamlike idylls. A narrow and looming man walked towards me.

You can’t just come in here,” he said.

“I’m looking for Isaac.”

“Well, I doubt he’ll see you.” 

The rabbi emerged from an office in the corner of the building, only his large, festive beard visible in the murky light. Instantly I could see he was the wrong Isaac. I felt weary and hoped he would offer me somewhere to lie down for a few hours and gather my thoughts.

“Would you like to join me in my office?” he said.

Pushing the pram, I lost my footing and tripped on the highly polished floor. Joshua woke and began crying. I picked him up and jumped from foot to foot as I spoke.

“I’m sorry to bother you, I’m not sure I’m in the right place, I’m looking for a man named Isaac but it’s not you.”

“Why are you looking for him?”

“Erm, well. I’m not sure I can remember.” I bounced Joshua in my arms as I looked at the rabbi. He had arching, exalted eyebrows and rimless spectacles that magnified knowing eyes. I felt in that moment that there was nothing he couldn’t know, that his knowledge was limitless.

“Does that strike you as odd?”

“Well, yes it does, sort of.” I shouted above the crying. “But there was a really pressing reason, I just can’t remember what it was.”

Streaks of multi-coloured light from a stained glass window shone search beams onto the walls.

“Listen, members of the community have seen you walking amongst us, searching us, looking for someone. Some were worried and wanted to contact the Shomrim. As I’m sure you can appreciate, we are a community that can become alarmed by excessive interest from outsiders.”

“Yes, I understand. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“Well, I told them not to worry. I knew you were looking for Isaac.”

I stopped bouncing and gasped. “Do you know where I can find him?”

“Yes, but it’s not where you think. You see, all of us are Isaac and none of us are. But that’s not what matters. He doesn’t hold the solution to your problems, you need to look to yourself.”

Joshua’s face was purple and crinkled, he’d thrown back his head. “What do you mean?”

“What about when your baby smiles, does that help?”

“I’m not sure, I haven’t noticed. He cries. That’s what he does.”

“They say it takes a village to raise a baby.”

“Yes, I think it does.”

“You need to be the village. You must be the elders, the doctors, the teachers and the counsellors. You are the village and you mustn’t resist it. Stop searching for Isaac, he doesn’t hold the answers to your problems, you do. You cannot be saved by a Jewish man you met once in the street.”

“But his centuries of accumulated wisdom? His booming voice?”

“You’re doing fine. You don’t need the parables of the Haredim to help you. You just need to find your own rhythm.”

The earth felt firmer underfoot. I stopped hopping from side to side and sat down in a large, leather-lined armchair that was reclined to an almost horizontal position. A streak of sunlight caressed Joshua’s cheek and I loosened my grip around him. Joshua and I were reflected in a high window, we had a crystalline clarity; we were beaming. When Joshua caught sight of us he stopped crying. He smiled a gummy, rapturous smile.