I used to share a room with an Irish guy called Frank. He had been a yoga instructor in a former life and after work we would lay side by side on the cold floor tiles and meditate. He had a curly mop of red hair and a soporific voice; more often than not I’d fall asleep listening to him talking only to wake and find him standing over me smiling. He said it was a compliment, the fact that I fell asleep on that hard floor and I think that it made him feel as if he’d not lost his touch.
He was new age and vegetarian. I can’t pretend that I was wholly devoted to his clean living ethos but I was kind of dragged along with it and anyway it broke up the monotony of those long drawn out summer days. Back then I lived and worked in Israel, down in the the Jezreel Valley. It was tough and dry down there and the sun bore down relentlessly, shrivelling up everything in its path. Everything that is except the long green lines of banana trees that swung neatly across the valley floor.
Frank had a sister who had died and he liked to talk about her sometimes as we were weeding or laying on our backs watching the clouds flit across a clear blue sky. I never knew how she’d died and I never asked him, I figured he’d have told me if he wanted to. I learned a lot about his sister during that time, I knew the music she liked, how she wore her hair and even who she hung out with in the small nameless town where they were born. I’d never been to Ireland but I felt like I had by the end of that summer.
We had a small kitchen with a flat roof that we’d cover with bunches of grapes so we’d have our own supply of fresh sultanas. I’d make grape jam once every few weeks and we pretty much lived off that and bananas the whole time we were there.
In the evenings Frank would write his journal and I would read one of the novels I’d borrowed from the small library on the Moshav. I’d pretty much read all the books in English that they had. Frank wrote every evening with a sharp pencil under the dim light of the kerosene lamp. I wasn’t sure at first if it was a diary or a novel and he never let on. I pretended not to care but one time when he left it open on the table and went into town I’m ashamed to say that I read it. I still feel guilty about that.
I was living in Israel up near the Lebanese border. It was high in the hills and the altitude meant that the climate there was pleasant; much less humid than down in the valley bottom. It was a small hamlet and not much happened there. During the day I pruned the grapevines and checked the irrigation pipes that meandered down through the long isles of plants. It was kinda dull work but I used to sing and daydream, stopping every now and then to drink from a polystyrene flask. The water was ice cold and I can remember how it would trace its way painfully down to my stomach. At lunchtime I would try and find some shade to sit in and then I’d crack a large watermelon on a rock, scooping out sticky handfuls of the sweet flesh. It was beautiful.
It was a long tedious week but on Friday evenings I would catch an Egged bus down into Nahariyya. It was the highlight of my week. There was pizza and falafel there and it was only the daily thought of this that made my life in the fields bearable.
On one occasion the bus turned up empty. The doors slid apart and I boarded, nodding politely to the driver. I sat a few seats behind him and he pulled away slowly watching me in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a comfortable ride because the narrow road dropped steeply at times and swung sharply to the left and then the right. It swooped like some fairground ride but I held on tight and all the while the driver chewed sunflower seeds, spitting their shells carelessly over the floor of the bus.
He was an old guy and I didn’t recognise him but he seemed a pretty good driver. I knew the route into town well, I’d been catching the bus for months now so when he made a wrong turn I was immediately on edge. Should I say something? Maybe he was taking a shortcut. I’m a pretty easy going guy so I just sat back and looked out of the window. Soon the metalled road turned to dirt and the ride became more bumpy. He caught my eye in the mirror and smiled then pulled the bus over onto the verge and stopped.
The doors slid open and he beckoned to me. It wasn’t until I had stepped off and followed him around the side of the bus that I saw it. It was the largest lemon tree I had ever seen and some of its branches hung pendulously over a wooden fence. The lemons were as large as grapefruit and a couple were almost within reach. The driver placed one foot up onto an old breeze block, stretched and plucked one down then he handed it to me before reaching up again and taking one for himself.
And that was it. We didn’t speak; I sat for the rest of the journey with that fat fruit in my hands. I had never smelled a lemon like it, I never have since.