“Poison.” It’s one of the kibbutzniks that speaks, a large woman probably in her forties. “We poison the wildlife every now and again you know, to keep things under control.” She must have just finished her night shift because she is wearing work overalls: a pair of beige, stained dungarees. I gather by the smell that she works in the cowsheds
“It’s the pigeons mainly,” she says; “they’re a real pest, shit all over the dairy buildings, eat the cattle feed. Unfortunately some of the cats get it too but they’re only strays.”
I am incensed. “I don’t think that’s quite the point.”
We all turn toward the cat which is now making a rasping choking sound as it tries to clear its blocked airways. Its tongue, cherry red, flashes desperately against the white spittle that fills its tiny mouth. I feel physically sick at the sight of its writhing body turning over the dead leaves. The others mutter in agreement, unhappy with her casual attitude.
I continue, “And the pigeons, Jesus, look at the pigeons,” all gathering in the same corner, huddled between the road and the yellow shower block. I can’t work out why at first and then I figure that it’s probably the wind gathering them, trapping them helplessly in a whirling eddy of feathers. Below us more pigeons have appeared on the corrugated roofs of the volunteer huts while others circle and fall from the sky as if the air is too thin to support their weight. Unhappy with her audience she waddles off towards the block of members’ housing. We watch her fat rolling backside and her uneven heavy gait. Eddie mutters, “Bitch,” under his breath and Tom says, “bloody Israelis,” just loud enough to make her turn her head before disappearing from view.
That was kind of how it was on the kibbutz. When I mentioned the incident to Motti the next day in the banana fields he looked a little perplexed and motioned me to climb up onto the warm trailer. He pointed up over the top of the tattered banana leaves at the kibbutz. “Look Jonny, you see the kibbutz?” I nod courteously, shielding my eyes with my palm from the glare of the sun.
“When my parents arrived you know there were no buildings there? Just this bare hill and a row of white tents. Of course there was no running water, no power, no nothing. Well look now, eh? Isn’t she beautiful? It’s our home and we made it by working on the land. I don’t know, maybe it’s hard for you to understand, but we have to place things into some kind of order, and animals, well they come low down. You know the history Jonny, think about the history.”
I jump down from the trailer and think about the history.
Work in the bananas is hard graft and by mid-morning I am already exhausted. The sun is high in the clear sky and the dappled shade under the trees is disappearing fast. To make things worse my bare arms are covered in the thin sticky residue of the banana trees and I am stood shin deep in a carpet of dead leaves. I am working with Egal, a grey haired kibbutz elder. He doesn’t say much but we have an efficient working partnership. His faded T-shirt is pulled tight around his middle and on his bony hip hangs the blackened leather scabbard, home to his banana knife. It’s a beauty: twelve inches long and a butcher’s delight.
I follow him to a particularly tall tree and watch while he lifts the heavy knife slowly above his head. He brings it swiftly down making a single deft slash in the moist trunk. The knife is stuck fast and he has to pull heavily with both hands on the wooden handle to release it. As it drags free, it emits a wet squeak like the sound of a finger down a wet bathroom mirror. Then the tree slips forward obediently, dutifully, dipping the hard green bananas to a height that can be reached by an expert arm. I grab the fat purple bud that hangs pendulously beneath the bunch with one sticky hand and, leaning forward, push it gently away until the fruit is slanted high above my right shoulder. Then I stand beneath with my knees bent in anticipation until another powerful blow slices through the woody stem and releases the weighty bunch down onto me. The trick is to dip with the falling fruit, to absorb the weight and only then to stand. I now have to find the trailer but it’s often hard because the trees can be disorientating and the dusty track is the same colour as the dried fallen leaves. So I stand still momentarily and listen for the voices of other labourers.
When I arrive Tom is sitting on the tailgate of the dented trailer, right on the very edge so his legs don’t touch the heated metal. I gasp as I dump my load heavily onto the trailer. Tom looks up, he is chewing gum whilst opening the lid on the polystyrene flask of cold water. He hands it to me and I raise it to my chapped lips. The water traces an icy path to my stomach and I realise then that I never really knew what water was, not until I worked the bananas.
From around the corner Motti appears driving the John Deere. He is pulling another open trailer and in it are the rest of the volunteers grimacing and huddled like weary cattle. They lift and thump with every pothole and cling tightly to the side of the vehicle. I can see Eddie and he raises a pale hand lazily in recognition.
“Typical,” says Tom in a resigned drawl jumping to his feet. “Been working like a dog all morning and Motti sees me sitting on my arse, now I’ll be for it.” But Motti says nothing. He has stopped and is waiting patiently for us to jump up. Egal has appeared red-faced and spectacled at the edge of the track and we all amble silently toward the ticking tractor.
From here the road sweeps neatly along the edge of the wide fields and on past the Roman springs where the water is not only deep but clean and still. It is a favourite swimming spot after a hard hot day’s work. Along the edge of the wide pools amongst the avocado trees Roman buildings are gradually disintegrating, giving up their history to the hungry water. In any other country they would be in museums but here it seems you can prop up your garden shed with a Roman column. We move on, wheels grinding over the bleached stone track until we see the square limestone hut. Within minutes we are drinking sweet black coffee flavoured with cardamom and fighting over the tasteless kibbutz biscuits. Sitting outside in the shade of the hut we light our cigarettes and rest our bare elbows on the grubby floor of the trailer, copper-coloured legs splayed out behind us.
The view from here is magnificent. To the west through the hazy shimmer of rising heat we can make out the Mediterranean Sea and the terracotta roofs of the houses in the coastal town of Nahariya. It sparkles like a tiara with a hundred glinting solar panels. To the east through the fug the Golan Heights rise proudly like bony knuckles, lifting gently away from the fertile plains. Behind us, high above the tops of the stately avocado trees, is the kibbutz. It stands splendid and palatial amongst the heavily scented pine trees. The gentle slopes that form the ramparts of the community are, however, barren. Weed-less and rocky, they descend monotonously to the main road.
Eddie is smoking and sitting on the trailer swinging his large feet in a rhythmic motion. “Does it ever snow?” He speaks quietly looking up at me through his cherubic curls. I glance upwards. “What, you mean here on the kibbutz?”
“I mean in Israel, does it snow in the winter? That would be nice that would, picking bananas in the snow, not having these damn peeling shoulders” He plucks a flake of skin from one of his broad freckled shoulders and lets it fall gently like a spent leaf onto the dirt. He shifts position, leans back, and raises his legs so that his heavy boots rest in his cupped hands.
“Only up in the mountains,” I say, “I think you can ski up there. Motti told me he fought up there in the war, up in the Golan Heights. It’s always cold when you’re high up.”
“Right,” he sounds enthused, “the wind I guess.” But I look confused so he adds thoughtfully, “That’s what makes it cold?”
“I guess,” but now I’m off imagining snow falling quietly in Jerusalem capping the golden Dome of the Rock. Muting the honking traffic and settling gently, silently on the ancient twisted branches of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.
“It reminds me of home,” says Eddie, looking doleful, “makes me think of London in the winter. We used to have a laugh, when it snowed I mean.” He jumps down from the trailer and stands with his legs slightly apart in the dust. His face has suddenly become animated. “You know I remember once,” he pauses as a small bird flits past us and into the warm shade of the avocado trees, “I think I’d just finished a short stretch inside. Anyhow we’d had a few beers when we saw this Asian guy waltzing down the high street. He was walking slowly, carefully picking at a big soggy bag of chips. I could see the steam rising off them and smell the salt and vinegar in the cold air. And it was cold that night. We were spent up from drinking so we followed him quietly, stealthily. And all that I can remember is that I really wanted that warm bag in my freezing fingers. It was still snowing hard, you could see it when he passed under the street lights, big fat wet flakes.” He holds his plump hand six inches from the floor of the trailer to illustrate its depth.
“The guy wore his woolly hat pulled down over his ears, probably off home after a hard day’s work. Well, we crouched down low behind some oak trees, sniggering, and made snowballs, tight ones. We squeezed them hard as stones then crept up carefully behind him. We let him have it. The first one smacked him squarely on the head; he didn’t know what hit him. He yelled out like a school girl, tried to run but we got him from every angle, the back, the side, the front, took his glasses clean off. His chips were splashed out in the snow, and he started screaming, you bastards, you bloody bastards, come back. I give you bloody hiding, bastards!” (He gets the intonation just right.)
“We could hear him minutes later still yelling looking for his specs in the snow whilst we were laughing, screaming, running through the park. Be great if it snowed here, bloody great.”
I want to react. I want to make disapproving noises, to tut or draw my breath sharply over my teeth, but the longer I wait the more it seems unlikely. It’s partly because the picture in my head is so damn clear, so beautifully intact, and partly that I enjoyed its clarity, how he took me effortlessly to the exact spot where the warm chips have sunk making dark holes in the fresh snow. And there’s this guy, his ears still stinging, ringing, on his knees still looking helplessly for his glasses. I want to ponder on it, to turn the picture over in my head and examine how I feel. The silence is uncomfortable and I know we can all feel it but I can’t help myself. I start to laugh, crouching down low, my palms on my bare dirty knees. Quietly at first but then I can’t contain it. It’s Tom, his laugh is infectious, a kind of high pitched hen-like cackle. And then we are all taken with the moment, and dancing with delight skipping over the dirt track. Eddie grabs a ripe banana from the trailer and lobs it to me; I catch it two handed. The exchange is part of the contract and Eddie, awash with confidence, bounces back, “We never did get any chips.”
I spend the rest of the morning walking the pipes with Tom. The irrigation pipes meander along the narrow aisles of banana trees. They provide each tree at its wide base with an allotted dose of water and nutrients. We are checking for leaks and every now and then one of us stops abruptly, kneels on the dried banana leaves and studies a faulty joint in the line. Sometimes the droppers are simply blocked with dirt and it’s an easy job to clear the eye with a needle, but other times the pipe needs cutting and reconnecting. While one of us busies ourselves dealing with the problem, the other leans lazily against a tree or patiently takes a drink of water from the flask. We walk for miles accompanied only by our soft voices and the soporific rustle of dead leaves. Sometimes we don’t talk for hours and then neither of us wants to break the delicate silence. Other times we while a morning or afternoon away lobbing rotten bananas at each other or singing Simon and Garfunkel tunes.
Last week, where the pipe had split and left a wide puddle in the dirt, we came across a family of tortoises drinking gently at its ragged edge. Laying down quietly on our fronts, hands under our chins we watched them dip and raise their horny heads for an age. Tom eventually looked up at me. “Nature,” he said grinning. “Bloody marvellous,” and then we were up and off again.
I like Tom. Something about him makes me feel safe. It might be the neatness of his physical frame. He has the lithe, taut body of a rock climber and his skin is a deep chestnut tan. Sometimes, when we go jogging together in the early evening I watch the sweat running down the muscular ridges of his naked back. His posture is athletic, self assured. The way he comfortably plants his grey trainers in the loose dirt of the mud track, the natural rhythm of his pace, his breathing, all these things breed a kind of unspoken respect in me. There is a stillness about him too that holds your attention when he talks. And when he listens his blue eyes shine and behind them you can almost sense his thoughts. But above all these things, it is his smile that beguiles you. It is the natural easy smile of a child and it has the same innocent and honest quality.
I had arrived at kibbutz Briac on a warm September evening; I was tired. The taxi, a yellow Mercedes, dropped me off at the bottom of the hill and I could feel the heat rising from the pitted tarmac. The smell of the tar was reassuring. It reminded me of the summer I had just left behind a thousand miles away. I was eighteen and still a schoolboy fresh from the playing fields, plucked suddenly from the safety of a High School education. If I closed my eyes tightly I could even see my graffiti, bright and yellow, carved like a valley deep into the sloping wooden desk. I walked slowly, lost in my thoughts up the narrow winding road toward the checkpoint. Its red and white striped barrier was slung down low, forbiddingly, across the brow of the hill. My mind was buzzing with fatigue, for the journey had been exhausting and my backpack felt double the burden it had in the morning.
I remember the young man on duty because he was wearing creased army fatigues and smoking a large cheroot. He looked like a captain in some banana republic. Leaning back on his plastic stool, he jumped when he saw me and struck an official-looking pose as if he were being filmed for some documentary. Demanding to see my paperwork, he looked awkward and embarrassed when it was obvious that I had none. Clearly agitated, he picked up the black telephone at his side and pressed it to a greasy ear. He dialled three numbers in rapid succession and spoke briefly in Hebrew, the result of which was that he looked cross but nonetheless allowed me to pass. Then, pointing with a slender finger to a group of low buildings in the distance he sniffed, put his hands in his pockets and mumbled something which I failed to understand.
A few minutes later I was stood perfectly still, staring through a narrow gap between two tall pine trees. There was a fire spitting orange and yellow beads up into the evening sky. It was piled high with freshly cut logs and it gave off an incense of pine resin which hung heavily in the cool air about me. Around the fire there was a group of about six or seven shadowy figures, some sitting cross-legged others kneeling. They were talking and laughing, gently rocking back and forth as if they occupied a small boat which was bobbing on a sea of grass. Their chatter mingled with the crackle of the fire and disappeared with the plume of twisting smoke into the night. Darkness had fallen and above me the first stars were appearing. They looked like chinks of light in a theatre curtain, full of promise. On one of the walls of the yellow huts nearby I noticed that someone had scratched “God shave the Queen” into the thin plaster and I smiled and walked slowly over to meet them.
Standing like a castle on top of a rocky hill, the kibbutz was only a stone’s throw away from the Lebanese border. Ironically, stones were never thrown, but periodically a shell would whistle angrily across the shapeless mountains only to thump innocuously into the soft brown mud. The craters large as busses filled slowly with tepid water, only to sprout months later with new life. Reeds as thick as broom handles and rangy wind-bent grasses all skirted the static water. In these little ‘manmade’ pockets of wildlife coots nested on tiny floating islands and dragonflies hovered reflecting metallic greens and blues in the opaque water. Once or twice at dusk I even spotted terrapins bobbing gently like dark green apples under the gloomy surface.
The earth was a rich golden brown and the valley was blanketed green and yellow by banana plantations and lines of dull green avocado trees. There were fresh water springs which bubbled clear and blue and that ran like veins lazily curling across the patchwork of fields. Here and there the streams met and pooled, swirling in deep dark blots like eyes studying the tumbled-down remains of ancient sandstone buildings.
In the early mornings the sun rose sluggishly from behind the snow-capped Golan Heights, and in the evening it fell swiftly into the listless Mediterranean Sea. It was a fertile landscape in every sense of the word, not least because of the succulent fruit it provided, but also because it held securely in its generous palm this community rich in culture and diverse in origin, the wandering Jews, the Diaspora. The people who tilled and planted the earth did so because they were driven, because the land bound them as walls bind a prisoner. It was their sweat and their breath that gave life to the valley and their history which bound them to each other. It was a good place to be.
The single dusty track that swung gently up the incline from the main road met, at its summit, the high steel fence. The fence ran for a gleaming mile surrounding and ensnaring the community, its posts driven firmly into the stony ground and its rim topped angrily with razor wire. The fence both protected but simultaneously managed to create a feeling of siege among its occupants. There were pine trees, gangling and ungainly, leaning lazily into the slope. Their cones spread out like litter at the base of their rutted trunks and amongst them the members’ housing was scattered like popcorn. There was grass too, wide watered lawns criss-crossed by rough concrete paths and dotted with freshly turned rose beds.
The paths all seem to converge like wheel spokes toward the dining room, which was at meal times as cavernous and busy as a train station. It was the hub of kibbutz life, where the workers grumbled over their morning coffee before taking the wagons and trailers down into the dew-covered valley. Where the dark-haired school kids copied out homework and ate their soft-boiled eggs, eggs that had been inside a chicken only the evening before, and that now dripped orange streaks down clean white T-shirts.
Kettles gleamed along one side, simmering and agitated, whilst fresh vegetables were set out in wide steel trays ready for the next meal. Deep, welcoming tubs of Schnitzel and couscous, fish and boiled new potatoes, artichoke hearts in olive oil and vats of buttermilk were all tended to fastidiously by women dressed neatly in dark blue dungarees. From the dining room one could sit and watch the ocean through the narrow windows which ran along one side. A thin strip of bright blue light against the grey-blue horizon. Often when I think back to my life here this is where I am at three in the morning. Alone in the dining room. Alone in the marbled darkness and leaning back on a hard wooden chair. I’m drinking sweet black tea and although it is night I can still make out the ocean because the moon is out and full and the water is fat and still.
I am in the dining room now, its lunchtime and I have just come in from the fields. Motti the banana boss has driven us up in the trailer, the bone-shaker all the way from the far side of the Jezreel valley. The room is a beehive, awash with noise. The banter of relieved hungry workers, the chink of cheap cutlery on cheap china. The chuckle of cool water being poured from glass jugs into white handle-less cups.
You can tell who works in the bananas by the stains on their clothes. The sticky sap that runs from the wounds in the fleshy trunks leaves deep brown welts on cloth. No amount of washing can remove it and anyway it is our mark, our badge, the banana logo. Tom and Eddie are already seated spooning down chicken and potato hungrily. Steffi is over at the urns making tea, tall and shapely. Her shorts are far too small and I can’t help but gaze at the back of her pale dimpled thighs.
“I know what you’re doing,” Tom says with a wry smile.
Eddie looks up guiltily from his plate. “What?” A mop of curly blonde hair flops down over his blue eyes. There is a morsel of food lodged in the corner of his mouth.
“Not you, you fool, Jonny. He’s ogling Steffi again.” He looks me in the eye almost apologetically. “You know you’ve not a hope. She’s a tease. I’ve heard she scours the laundry room for clothes two sizes too small just to tantalise us all with those long legs.” He smirks and glances over again as if to reaffirm his observation.
“Well she can tantalise all she likes as far as I’m concerned,” I mutter and sit myself down opposite them. “Sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive, isn’t that what they say?”
“Don’t know what you all see in her myself,” says Eddie, “I mean she’s pretty and all but too precious for my liking.” Tom and I exchange careful glances as she makes her way toward the table. He moves over to let her in. Smiling guiltily, Tom asks how her morning has been.
“Oh not too bad you know. Those damn chickens are a nightmare. I’m mean literally, I dreamt about them last night. I was choking on feathers.”
“Don’t tell me, when you woke up you’d eaten your pillow.” Eddie, amused with his own wit, bangs his fist on the table.
“No,” says Steffi looking confused. “I woke up crying, I think it’s my asthma.” Her eyes look moist, red rimmed. “Sometimes I just want to go home.” She curls her hair delicately behind one ear. It’s a habit that she has and one that Tom and I agree is a rather ‘knowing’ one. It is nevertheless an attractive, somewhat delicate movement and it makes me feel protective of her.
“Never mind eh, it’s Shabbat,” I say soothingly, “nothing that a few cold beers won’t fix.”
“I suppose,” she smiles at me and takes a sip of her tea. I feel something like butterflies inside; it’s not that I want her or anything but something about her makes me feel, well, tender. Maybe it’s because of the night she slept in the spare bed in our room. I woke early with the birds as the cold morning air was pouring down through my open window. When I glanced across the room her thin duvet had fallen onto the tiled floor. Tom was still sleeping but I lay there for an hour caressing her naked goose-bumped curves with my eyes. Do I feel guilty? I suppose I do but although she doesn’t know it I think we bonded then. I smile to myself at the thought of it and stir my tea.
Steffi is talking to me but I’m no longer listening “Jonny?” she says gently…
“Sorry, I was just thinking about… about those damn pigeons.” I was always a good liar. She nods approvingly as she tears a piece of bread in two and dips a piece into her chicken soup.
“What about Carl’s dog, Blackie? He’d go crazy if it were poisoned.” I say, warming to the theme.
“He’d probably shoot someone,” she says, looking nervous. “Didn’t he do that before?”
“I think he took a pot shot at some guy who cut him up at the lights once. Blew a couple of his tyres out. Well that’s what I heard from Motti anyway.”
Eddie, oblivious to the conversation, lights up a Noblesse, the cheapest of the Israeli cigarettes. We are allowed seven free packs a week as part of our allowance. He stands the soft green pack on its end and stares at it, elbows resting firmly on the plastic table. From a distance you would be forgiven for thinking that he had varicose veins, but close up as I am now you can see that his arms are covered in tattoos. The outline of the Pink Panther is sketched poorly on the inside of his thick white forearm. He has spent time in Maidstone prison and the letters HMP grace three of the red knuckles on each hand. At one time, he borrowed a friend’s tattooing needle and most of his body now resembles my old school rough book, covered in a mixture of adolescent doodles and obscure graffiti. The cigarettes smell cheap and he smokes every last millimetre, taking the last drag deep into his lungs then stubbing it out into a mound of leftover mashed potato on Tom’s plate.
Tom shoves the plate away across to the other side of the table and throws Eddie a withering look.
“You’d finished, hadn’t you?” says Eddie defensively. “You’re like a bloody old woman sometimes. Here, look, I’ll take it away myself.”
He stacks his tray hurriedly, untidily, and heads off for the slops bin. We all watch the flakes of mud from his suede boots trace his path across the polished floor.
“Me too, I guess,” I say under my breath. “See you all back at the ghetto.”
It’s December now and although it’s not cold, there is a chill in the air as I walk across the kibbutz towards the ghetto. Past the cowsheds and the tumbling stinking piles of rotting pomelos. Past the steaming laundry and the kolbo, the supermarket where we spend our hard earned vouchers on crates of Gold Star beer and cheap shampoo. There are rooks perched like sentries way up in the pine trees. A bird’s eye view would certainly afford you a wonderful vision of the whole kibbutz. High above you would clearly see the metal fence that traps this community in a fat bubble on the landscape. The kibbutz is alive. It’s a self-sufficient organism, swimming with vivid colours and movement. Right now as I’m walking I’m aware that hundreds of others are still busy at their work. Busy in the fruit fields and the glass factory, in the humid kitchens and the sprawling filthy cowsheds. There are kids playing basketball on the red clay court, their faces streaked with dirt and sweat; and there by the primary school is the swimming pool, green and stagnant during the cool winter months.
There is no secondary school. The teenagers have to travel out of the kibbutz for that. It is there they learn about the world outside the fence and where they develop their unsavoury taste for another life. A life in which they can own their own house and wash their car quietly on a Saturday morning. The young yearn to escape from the confines of the kibbutz and dream constantly of leaving the unhealthy dark shadows of their forefathers. But the old, well you can see it in their yellow eyes that they are afraid. Afraid that they will be forgotten, but even more fearful that their history will forgotten with them.
I have reached the volunteer housing known amongst its inhabitants as the ghetto. It is scattered haphazardly across an acre of poor soil and pushed up aggressively against the tough wire meshed fence. And although the view across the valley is a fine one the ghetto feels like it is isolated from the rest of the kibbutz. Which I suppose it is and is meant to be. We are the outsiders, the untouchables, cheap labour that can be called upon in times of desperation and disposed of during the lean months. We are a transient population, the European Bedouin, and like them we appear and disappear bouncing from kibbutz to kibbutz and from job to monotonous job.
The huts in the ghetto, with their grey corrugated asbestos roofs, lie in a broad rectangle around an enclosed ramshackle plot. Clumps of dry grasses and untamed straggling bushes have invaded most of the space. There is, however, a small circle in the middle which has been lovingly cleared, and in which a fire still smoulders. A gentle reminder of the previous night when Tom, fuelled with alcohol, launched into the fire a bucket of blue paraffin. We were all rocked backwards by the flame burst and had, after a shocked pause, laughed hysterically. Only the week before he had disappeared for an hour and returned triumphantly, dragging a telegraph pole behind him. The damn thing burned for four straight days.
Outside each hut is a concrete veranda invariably strewn with muddy work boots and empty beer bottles. From one porch hangs a whole five-foot bunch of ripe bananas, and from another washing is strung out to dry along a sagging piece of orange twine. Inside, the rooms are basic. A cold tiled floor, a hand basin against one bare wall, and against another a cheap plywood wardrobe.
We live by easy rules in the ghetto. Under the corrugated gutter-less roofing and between the damp plaster walls we whisper and shout, dream of Marmite and of home. In winter we curse the draughts but nurse the yellow flame that warms our hands with the same delight, the same intensity. And when the walls of our room grow green with mould we stare at the glowing bars drying our damp socks, our faces chiselled in the shifting flickering shadows like Van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’. I always loved that painting.
Now I feel like an old hand in my kibbutz-issue ankle boots and torn blue work top. Making my way into the bare room I kick off my boots, fling my dirty shirt into the corner and lay myself prostrate on the low creaking bed. There is nothing like the deep sleep of a siesta.
In the late afternoon I wander down to the Refet, the cowsheds, plastic jug in hand and pour myself a few pints of cool creamy milk from the huge stainless steel cauldron. Uri, the dairy boss, raises an arm when he sees me and ambles over. He is wearing his trademark yellow Wellingtons. We chat about this and that over the pulsating drone of the milking machines. He has a son my age at university in Jerusalem, a daughter in high school. He worries about them both; there has been a spate of bombings recently on busses and in shopping malls. He often talks of leaving the country for Europe but as he always says, palms raised toward the heavens, “This is my homeland, where else would I go?
Then, behind him I notice the pigeons, scattered over the roofs and the muddy grassless fields. They are eating the cattle feed, an unappetising mixture of pomelo rind and chicken shit. Out in one of the fields is the woman in the beige dungarees. She looks even heavier than I remember. She is cajoling the cattle, coaxing them aggressively into the aluminium corral with a large wooden stick. Glancing up at me as she enters the shed, her face remains expressionless, cold. Connecting up the cows to the machine, her movements seem graceless. I’ve seen Uri do it a hundred times and with the polished ease of a gymnast, but there is something awkward about her and I start to wonder then if the poisoning was her idea.
Now Christmas had crept up on us slowly and tapped our shoulders gently. The volunteer huts are festooned in gaudy decoration and on Christmas Eve we drive the minibus into Jerusalem. We all sing White Christmas at the top of our voices and Tom leans out of the small window shouting felicitations gleefully at passers by. The city is beautiful, glistening with the headlights of the evening traffic. It is as vibrant and as warming as a rum punch.
On we drive, along the narrow roads and through the golden sandstone gorges of the old city. The huge wooden gates to the city are open wide and people flow through them like melted butter, running softly, easily down the busy streets. Outside the city the street lights begin to disappear and the land falls away steeply on one side of the road. Yellow buildings give way to green coniferous forest and the air outside drops in temperature. It is dark in the bus and we talk excitedly about Christmas and home and family.
Bethlehem, when we arrive, is alive and thronging with hundreds of people and Manger Square is bedecked with cheap wooden tables and chairs. There are lights strung up overhead in brilliant gleaming rows whilst the church of the nativity looks graciously over the whole festive scene. We are all swept along willingly with the tide of religious fervour. Although none of us is a practising Christian it feels churlish to deny anything tonight, so we become believers for the evening and drink cheap red wine and sing carols with the mass of happy revellers. Later we even queue for an hour to get our passports stamped with Joyeux Noel and the crest of a black eagle. Then we dance late into the night holding hands with friends and strangers alike. I’m dancing with Steffi, whilst Tom dances with the new Danish girl Hanni. She arrived last week and is still fresh and pink from home. He winks at me. Eddie sits alone smoking black tobacco and drinking warm beer. Although Steffi and I don’t talk I can feel our hands silently exchanging heat in the cool night. Later on as we walk down the hill she says “It’s been a great evening, hasn’t it?” She has eyes like a calf, large and curious and they kind of draw you in helplessly. I nod silently just as Tom starts to sing drunkenly in front of us at the top of his voice. I laugh and say to Steffi that it has indeed been a wonderful night. We stop, facing each other, and I touch her on the cheek with the back of my cold fingers. There is something between us but I don’t think either of us really knows what it is. Her breath smells of cigarettes and wine.
We all drink hot sweet tea in an Arab café halfway down the hill, the owner insisting that Tom and I play backgammon with him. We teach him the backgammon chant that we yell as we throw the dice back in the ghetto, “Big doubles!” When he has mastered the chant and has soundly beaten both of us, he rips up the bill laughing loudly through his thick black moustache. As we walk out into the dawn the morning breeze is just beginning to kick up the yellow dust. It flicks it over the shop fronts and parked cars like icing sugar. At the bottom of the long hill, where the main road runs by like some dark river, there is a small park. It is surrounded by a high fence and fronted with a wide arched gate. It is locked; Tom rattles it angrily then starts to climb. The rest of the group, oblivious, walk on to meet up with the bus.
I quickly follow Tom and in seconds we are both stood knee high in the thorny rose bushes, laughing. Wading to the centre of the garden, we find a patch of dry grass and sit down. I can hear the faint chatter of the group still walking slowly away towards the rising sun, crimson on the horizon. Its light is seeping between the branches of the eucalyptus trees and I can smell the perfumed leaves on the cool air. Hanging pendulously above us is a beautiful rose, its flowers dark red and just tantalisingly half open. Tom says that we should take one each for the girls and before I can reply he has leapt ferociously on the plant. I join him, twisting the wiry stems till the tight buds are released and our fingers are raw and stained green. We clamber gecko-like back over the thick iron railings and catch up with the group. I pass my rose to Steffi and Tom hands his to Hanni, chuckling as we realise that they are crawling with green fly. They take the flowers gratefully, gracefully, like athletes at a medal ceremony. Steffi smiles at me and climbs quietly, wearily onto the bus.
It’s Christmas day and without lifting my head from the pillow I can see the weak shaft of light that has cut its way through the crack in my door and into my room. In it are a million flecks of dust sparkling like bubbles in champagne, rising in the thermals and bursting in the hushed darkness. I am still half asleep, aware of my breathing although separate from its hissing rise and fall. Across the room I can see my work clothes heaped and blue on the back of the wooden chair. I won’t need them today. Eyes closed and lead-heavy, feet exposed at the end of the short bunk, I curl into a ball cupping my hands between my warm legs. It makes me feel safe.
Tom wakes later and we wish each other a happy Christmas. Sitting up in bed we look like an old married couple as we eat dried apricots wrapped around warm blocks of milk chocolate.
We spend the day in Jerusalem. First visiting the Garden of Gethsemane then walking the Stations of the Cross ending up in the beautiful church of the Holy Sepulchre. Tom has a fit of giggles when the silence and solemnity of the place gets too much for him. We have to leave the church quickly for fear of being accosted by one of the priests.
It is a beautiful day outside. The skies are clear and blue and it’s a day which I never forget.
During the next few weeks there is a perceptible change of atmosphere on the kibbutz. Down in the bananas, Motti has taken to drinking his morning coffee alone and the friendly banter amongst the crew has subsided a little. There is talk in the papers of a Palestinian uprising and the road blocks and recent police presence around Nahariya all seem to confirm the stories. Last week I watched a small group of elderly women clearing out one of the air-raid shelters. They had laid out the dusty gas masks on the grass in small bundles and were struggling into the shelter with large plastic packs of bottled water.
There is a rumour going round that there are no gas masks for volunteers but when I ask Motti if this is true, he laughs so loud that even Egal grins softly. It is the first time I have seen Motti smile since last week when I complained about the freezing dew on the banana leaves. “Jonny my friend, I never promised you a rose garden, eh?” Then he had slapped me on the back and turned back toward the tractor, cigarette in hand.
Then it happens; later that month, after a frugal supper of vegetables and cottage cheese, I go to bed early only to be woken hours later. It is black, moonless. So dark in fact, that I’m unable to see my hand in front of my face. I’m aware however that something has woken me, aware that there is someone else in the room. I can feel a presence, a band of heat that one would expect from the bar of an electric fire. Then without warning there is a silent explosion of light, as intense and as blinding as a flash bulb. The mesh mosquito netting at the window scatters the white light across the walls of the room; it’s chequered like graph paper. As my eyes adjust I can make out a figure. Steffi is standing in the centre of the room. She is barefoot, frozen on the cold tiles. All the while I’m expecting the light to suddenly vanish so I find myself studying the room, memorising the location of all objects in readiness to be plunged back into vulnerable blindness. It doesn’t happen. Instead the light begins to shift slowly and the shadows start to move around the room. I’m still waking, disorientated, confused, and then there is a cold hand on my shoulder and an earnest voice, “Jonny, wake up, there’s fighting down in the valley.”
Almost immediately I hear a soft “phut phut phut” from across the valley. The sound of a moped misfiring. I know what it is immediately: gunfire. Outside in the ghetto others are appearing from their doorways; Tom has moved gingerly out onto the road to get a better view. More gunfire now; it’s rapid, getting louder as I clamber shakily onto the wooden pallets stacked up against my hut. From the roof I can see clearly into the valley below. The scene is incredible. High in the night sky is a star so brilliant that it has lit up the countryside as far as the eye can see. The light is hanging, perhaps falling slowly: a flare? It is so beautifully white that it has drained the landscape of any colour. The view is monochromatic, a moonscape, and the light is so powerful that it has penetrated into every crevice, every hollow in the countryside. There is shouting but it’s too far away to be intelligible. Leaning over the edge of the thin roof I reach down and pull up Steffi who is still struggling vainly on the pallets. We sit down now and watch the scene together. The action is some miles away and we are in no immediate danger, but it nonetheless feels exciting. It reminds me of a black and white photograph I once saw in a school history book about the American Civil War. It showed a family perched on a grassy hillside picnicking, whilst below in the valley a bloody battle raged between the forces of the North and South. At the time something about it profoundly shocked me. And there is no doubt that there is something shocking, but at the same time slightly titillating about this scene, the uncomfortable mixture of danger and security.
The “star” is lower in the sky now and its light, although bright, is waning just slightly, but the voices seem to be louder, more intense. I wonder if she is thinking the same thing. This “star”, radiant, alluring in the night sky over towards Bethlehem. It feels as if there is two thousand years of history spread out there in front of us.
Then, because it feels like a film and for no other reason, I lean forward and kiss the nape of her neck. It is perfumed and warm. For a split second I feel like a child again, driven by the same impulse that makes one reach out for the electric fence on a country ramble, just to see. She responds by rolling back gently into my arms and for a minute we sit in silence as the flare dips softly into the trees on the far side of the valley and then there is darkness.
The incident makes all the morning papers. A Palestinian attack on an Israeli home in Nahariya. They came in from the Lebanon by boat and have left a family devastated, a boy motherless, a husband alone with his grief. By the evening there is the inevitable retaliation. The Israeli army have bulldozed a row of whitewashed homes down one dusty street in Gaza. Helicopter gun ships have taken out the car of a Hamas leader. Tit for tat, an eye for an eye… God knows who they killed; God knows if they cared, it’s just a mess. There is no right and wrong anymore it seems, just an exponential anger.
Strangely, however, what stays in my mind even more clearly about that winter is my visit weeks later to Steffi’s old room. She has since departed, returned to Denmark and the nursing career she always talked of. Behind her bed and above her thin pillow, pinned to the wall, is the rose I gave her that night in Bethlehem. It is dried and dark, like some Chinese herbal remedy, and something about it makes me feel empty.
It’s raining. I can hear it rattling on the roof like tin tacks. Outside on the veranda I lace my work boots and kick the stanchion, loosening the dried mud from their treads. There is a low cold mist and the rainwater is beginning to run down the walls of the hut, collecting in puddles and running rivulets over the dusty earth. I’m leaving in a week so I’m trying to savour these moments. I breathe in deeply and the air smells of vegetation.
Eddie left last month, disappeared one night taking with him the wallets of several volunteers, a camera, and Tom’s twelve-string guitar. I don’t think anyone was surprised and something about it even amuses me. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again? But Tom is staying on, he’s found a nice Jewish girl and it all looks hunky-dory. I’ll miss them both.
Sometimes in my quieter moments I find myself wishing I could stay here, wishing I belonged. I’m jealous; the Israelis have an identity, they belong and they are something and I, I kind of feel a little lost sometimes, a little aimless. But I know it’s not easy, only last week the Palestinians attacked again, blew up a night club in Tel Aviv. The kids’ phones were ringing as they cleared up the bodies. Jesus Christ, I’ve queued outside those clubs.
I climb the cold stone steps, hands deep in my coat pockets. There is a pigeon lying in the road in front of me; one of its wings is still twitching but I think it’s dead. I flick it with the toe of my muddy boot and watch it settle in the long wet grass. I can hear the hollow rattle of the diesel engine in the distance, and as I stand and wait for the wagon to take me down to the valley I think about the poison. There is so much of it in this small country I wonder how it will ever survive.