Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Solving an Ancient Problem

The grandson arrives and heads straight to the kitchen. He takes a pear and bites great chunks from it. Then he puts it down. It is not like him to stop in mid-pear.

Minutes later he slumps onto the couch, where he lies, squirming from time to time. He rises, approaches and says:Saba, my stomach feels awful.

Is it sore, darling?

No, just awful*. It feels like a washing machine.

He clutches his belly and groans: It feels like when you’ve been sent to the Headmaster’s office and you’re waiting there, expecting something bad… My stomach is in turmoil.

 

Nice word selection, thinks I, pretty good for a 14-year old.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the toilet.

 

Not long after, he returns. I did a monster poo* – all water. What’s wrong with me, Saba?

I examine his abdomen. I say he probably has a stomach bug.

 

He races away again, returns and repeats his earlier announcement. Shortly after he runs, returns and describes his work.

Do you feel better, after you’ve been to the toilet, darling?

 

There is no answer. I look over to the couch, where he sits, slouching, head bent towards his lap.

I turn to attend to kitchen tasks, when a strangled sound disturbs me. The boy’s voice crosses the room, indistinct: Saba

I turn, seeing nothing new.

More gargling, then: Saba, I vomited.

Between the boy’s feet, atop the Persian rug, a heap of hot vegetal matter lies steaming.

I’m sorry Saba. I’m… 

More gargling, and the heap is larger.

 

 

The boy looks stricken. I give him a bowl to catch any third helping, clean him and take him to bed. I lay a towel at his lap and the bowl before him. His face creases as he searches for words as strong as his feeling: Thank you Saba. I love you Saba. 

 

The Persian rug lies there and stares at me. What do you do when your Isfahan rug has suffered such a colourful assault?

 

 I lug it to the bathroom and give it a shower. The rug lies drenched on the floor and stares at me. What do you do when your rug has been for a swim?

 

I lug it to the wall-mounted heated towel rail and manage to fold and hang it in place. 

 

I look into the shower recess. A vegan’s banquet stares back at me. I wonder what my wife will say when she enters to take her shower in the morning.

 

 

How do you remove freshly laundered gastric contents from a shower recess? I squat and stare. Everything seems so rich in texture. My fingers recoil. Kleenex tissues are not squeamish. They do not suffer aesthetic stress. I mop and aggregate. Then I stop. What is that black lump? Has the boy eaten eggplant? Black olive?

 

I look closer. The black bit assumes a familiar shape. It looks like a cockroach.

 

I call the boy’s name: Come! Come quickly. Bring your phone.

Why Saba? I’m in bed. I feel terrible.

Please come. Bring your phone.

 

He comes. He sees and he turns away. I don’t want to see that, Saba.

I take his phone and photograph the black matter. 

The boy says, That’s gross Saba. You don’t photograph vomit.

I say, Look at the black thing.

The boy looks and turns quickly away.

I say, It’s a cockroach.

This is not a time for joking, Saba.

I show him the photo.

His face falls open: No! That didn’t come out of me, Saba!

I say, That vomit isn’t mine.

The boy gulps. He looks horrified. He says, is that the bug I had inside my stomach? I had a cockerroach** inside me?

 

I say to him, Darling, next time you eat an insect, make sure it’s cooked properly.

I wouldn’t eat a cockerroach, Saba. They disgust me.

Well you did eat it darling. After all, you do eat boogers. It might have been an accident…

 

A thought occurs to me: Have you eaten any food your eldest brother prepared for you in the last twenty-four hours?

What are you talking about, Saba?

Darling, twice in the last month you’ve drunk a cup of tea he brought you. Twice he piddled into it and twice you drank it.

 

 

A worried look settles on the boy’s face. He thinks for a few moments: No, Saba, I definitely didn’t eat anything he gave me. He slept out last night and I haven’t seen him today.

 

 

And there the matter lies. The child has no knowledge of ingesting an arthropod. But he has, by accident, solved a question as old as human-cockroach cohabitation. The small black beasts have lived among us since we arrived on the planet. And we know they’d survive a nuclear war that would wipe out us human hosts. The question, how do you kill a cockroach, has been answered at last by my grandson.


______________________________________________________________________
* This is not a verbatim quote: the boy used a vulgar expression.

** The boy is an Hispanophone. Here his father’s Spanish, (cucaracha) collides with his mother’s English. Disgusting in any language. 
______________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Summer Stories, 2

Catch the Flying Undies Game

 

It all starts when six-year old Ruby decides to change from day clothes into her bathers for a beach picnic. She regards the undies she’d just removed and decides she’ll need them later. She flings them to her mum, standing nearby. “Catch!”, she shouts.

“You catch”, says Mum, flinging them back. Just then Joel runs into the room and, leaping, brings down a smart catch.

Adult applause, beaming seven-year old boy, hilarious Ruby.

 

The game is afoot. Ruby says, “It’s called ‘Catch the Flying Undies!’”

 

(Later the mother says to her father, “You have to write this story, Dad.”

I demur: “ Hard to write, darling. A game without rules or shape… And flying undies might be open to misrepresentation. Better for a mother to report to her friends on her social media. Older men should steer clear.”

“Since when did you ever play it safe, Dad?”)

 

 

Ruby runs at Joel and grabs at the undies. A tug of war, Joel, legless with laughter, tumbles backwards and yields the garment. Ruby swings her arm in a mighty arc and flings with all her midget might. She forgets to let go and the lump of fabric falls at her feet. Mum swoops, grabs, chucks and the little lump hits grandfather in the face. 

 

 

There’s a science to undie chucking, I find. Flung open, undies sail, stall and fall haphazardly. Tied tightly into a knot a pair of undies becomes a projectile that flies true. The adults learn the science and exploit it. The children never master the science. Instead they charge the person holding the garment and grab at it. Much tumbling, endless screaming, brief triumphs (pun unintended), misgrabs, misfires, children helpless with mirth, adults little better. Exultation, the sense of chance, some freak or wrinkle in Time, a moment of miracle, this once and never again ecstasy.  

 

 

 

The children whirl and leap and fall. They shriek in their delight in our unwonted adult craziness. They won’t allow the moment to end. As they whirl they lose all balance, fall drunkenly and shriek the more. The adults keep their feet but not their dignity. Whooping and jumping and flinging undies in endless keepings-off, we grownups are mad as the children are mad. They’ve admitted us to a world we had left behind and lost. We are become children again. 

Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago

Love and Treachery

In the movie, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, the grown-up Christopher confronts his father who has commercialized the son’s persona: ‘You weren’t writing a story, you were doing research.’

A.A. Milne feels the force and truth of his son’s accusation. Lifelong the son would refuse to accept any of the vast proceeds of the stories and poems that grew from a father’s love of words and a boy.

Two years ago a friend confronted me in pain and in anger: ‘When we talked I thought we were

speaking as two friends. But you were there as a writer.’ I felt the force of his pain and the truth of my treachery. In time my friend gave me the great gift of forgiveness but a feeling of shame lingers.

My mother used to read the Christopher Robin stories to me when I was very young. Oddly I don’t recall reading them to my own children, but when my first two grandchildren were aged about three I’d push them to my mother’s house, where we four would eat cakes and pastries and I’d read aloud

the poems from ‘When We Were Very Young.’ My mother and I felt strangely moved. The children seemed to enjoy the ritual; they certainly enjoyed the cakes. The lines, Do you have a rabbit/

I do like rabbits/But they didn’t have a rabbit/Not anywhere there… always lumped up my throat.

I did not need to turn and look to know Mum’s eyes were misting as I read.

I imagine those lines will always bring back to those grandchildren some primordial sensation, some thrill or echo of my ancient loves: my love of words, my mother’s love for those words, our love of the

sharing, our love for those cake-stuffed tenderlings whom I held on my knee.

Those children are bigger now. Soon they will be grown up. And they’ll watch their grandfather the word lover as he plunders life and writes his loves, and struggles with his traitor’s heart.

Intimacy

‘The oldest profession’ denotes a trade kindred to my own. In fact quite a cluster of old trades are equally ancient. Their practitioners include the massager, the beautician, the doctor, the physio, the kinesiologist, the acupuncturist. All practise the touching trades; they are the intimate touchers.

The tradie I dread the most is that one who invades my tenderest aperture, violating my mucous membranes while passing casual moral judgements and aspersions, such as, ‘you don’t floss enough.’

Last week I hurried out to visit another ancient professional. I headed for the well-beloved parlour where I visit my own well-loved toucher (of whom I wrote in an earlier post – see July 2017).  Time was short and I found the parlour chockers with men waiting on seats and clustered outside, each standing in silent confession of his private quest.

I raced up a city lane where previously I’d glimpsed another barber’s sign. There it was: I read Barber. I entered and a slim maiden turned from her counter. Smiling, she asked me what I’d like.

‘Can you make this beard almost disappear in ten minutes or less?’
‘Somehow, I doubt I can manage that sir.’ She smiled again, a kindly smile, the smile you reserve for the harmless lunatic and the feeble of mind.
Confused, I looked around. Instead of barber’s chairs I saw racks and racks of shoes. I looked again at the sign: the word, I now realised, was not
‘Barber’ but ‘Bared.’
Bared, it appears, means footwear.

I tried to explain. The shoe lady smiled again.
Blushing richly, I thanked the young lady and blundered outside and along the lane.

Moments later a second laneway led me to the barber’s shop I was seeking. I entered as a stranger, took a seat and watched luxuriant locks that a Samson might covet, sliding in and out of the kneading fists of the barber. Those were mighty paws. The shop itself was snug. The walls were covered with the likenesses of champions of Australian Football, signed by the champions themselves. Here was no mere barber’s shop, this was a gallery of greatness.

The barber, a short man of perhaps fifty years wore a body enclosed in walls of muscle. His movements were deft, swift and precise. He flashed a mirror behind his client with the biblical tresses, the man nodded and rose, the strong man separated him from some of his cash and despatched him.

‘What you want?’
I pointed at my chin.
‘Not head?’
‘No. Thanks. Just beard. No time.’
The man sat me down, grabbed my head, yanking it back to the headrest which rose from his ornate chair, a marvel of worked steel, a classic from the era of The Man from Ironbark. I looked up at my toucher. Most particularly I gazed at his face which he presented as a work of art, or at least of artifice. A close-cropped beard of palest mustard surmounted by tailored moustaches in silvery grey that curved upwards like the toe of a sultan’s slipper. Skin of olive. No breath odour.

I placed my order: ‘short please, very short, as short as you can make a beard without removing it.’ He robed me, wound self-adhesive paper into a clerical collar around my adam’s apple and seized a heavy metallic cylinder that sat in his paw like a classy handgun. I thought, ‘Berretta’. The sound of a chainsaw with a silencer approached my throat. I closed my eyes. The metal slammed against one of my softish parts and ploughed upward and outward towards my mandible. After the initial slapping impact of first contact I reckoned the pressure, although intense, might be consistent with continued respiration. The man ploughed and I respired. I kept my eyes closed.

I lay there for a few breathing minutes as the Berretta slapped, ploughed and buzzed across the regions of my face. With eyes shut I pictured the damage I should see once the assault was completed. Bruises certainly, abrasions of course, possibly burns from the hot metal, perhaps the odd bleeding point.

I realised I had surrendered to my anonymous assassin. Curiously nothing quite hurt. I lay back, flinched a lot and tried to hide my unmanly flinching. Altogether it was a strange exercise, a sort of extreme facial hot yoga.

Too soon it was over. Eight minutes had passed, fifteen dollars changed hands. I emboldened myself sufficiently to ask: ‘What’s your name?’ The barber presented me with his card, upon which I read his forename: BHOUJ. Boldly I essayed the pronunciation: ‘Booohhsh’, I said.
A shake of the head: NO! It’s BOOJJ!
Boojj: a brutish sound. Naturally.

Last night I took some grandchildren to Luna Park. Thirty dollars bought me a couple of rides. In terms of value – I mean fear per dollar per minute – Bhouj beats the scary rides paws down. I still have Bhouj’s card: I’ll be back.

One Grandchild, One Sickness

A contemporary told me of a rule she and her friends observe at the monthly meetings of their luncheon group: “Only one grandchild, only one medical diagnosis.”

 

 

The rule struck me as wise. My grandchildren proliferate, for which I give thanks and tell stories and show pictures. This is a picture of my latest, Sadie.

 

 

Last night I visited Sadie’s house. To my good fortune she happened to be crying. My son passed Sadie to me and I placed her against my left breast. My heart beat at its steady 46 beats per minute and over the next few minutes I patted Sadie’s back in gentle diminuendo. She stopped crying. She rooted and tried to suckle. My collar proved unnourishing. After a while Sadie gave up on fluid and slept. I held her there, on my breast, for some minutes: was it twenty? Was it only five? I never felt more deeply alive.

 

 

So much for the one grandchild. Now for the one medical condition. Like grandchildren these proliferate as we age. I have lots. Every condition generates a story of compelling interest to the sufferer, and to the sufferer alone. Today’s was a visit to the periodontist. Have you ever been treated by a periodontist? If not I congratulate you.

 

 

In reality the periodontist is a dentist. The difference is one of specialisation. This practitioner doesn’t implant, doesn’t fill cavities, doesn’t do root canals, doesn’t make bridges. Nor even, in the usual sense, do extractions. Instead the periodontist extracts scale, plaque and whatever you have saved for your retirement.

 

 

Because the periodontist is truly a dentist she has lying horizontally on a jet age bed that rises and bends and straightens in response to unseen signals from the practitioner. Behind your right ear the practitioner keeps a small table upon which lurk small pointed instruments of hardened steel. These she keeps out of your line of sight lest you seize one, and in a reflex of self defense, you plunge it deep into her eye.

 

 

In short, periodontic procedures are notoriously painful. I took my seat this morning on the dental bed. The bed lay down and so did I. I opened my mouth. A bright light shone upon my face. I closed my eyes. At this point I ceased speaking. The periodontist looked inside. She said some gloomy things: ‘Gingival recession… pockets… these front teeth are loose, might lose them…’ She fondled my gums for a good time: ’I’m applying local anaesthetic jelly’, she said. I tasted something distinctive and highly unpleasant. I recognised the taste, one I remembered from the day in the bath in 1951 when my older brother pissed in my mouth.

 

 

Perio, as I will call her for brevity, now poked a hissing instrument into my mouth. I salivated. As the instrument hissed it cooled itself with a constant spray of watery mist. Fluid accumulated somewhere near the hole through which I customarily breathe. Perio probed, the gadget hissed and misted, the fluid level rose and for a time I breathed under water. This went on for a longish time, a form of dental waterboarding during which Perio asked repeatedly, ‘Are you OK, Howard?’ Each time I lied: ‘Yes, fine.’

 

 

From behind my left ear the unseen dental nurse waved a wand that hissed and sucked. Frequently this sucking instrument missed its target and sucked at my lower lip, a strangely sensuous experience. My mouth being open and full of fluid prevented me from thanking my unseen sucking kisser.

 

 

The bed became erect: ‘Rinse’, said the Perio. I rinsed. The bed collapsed and I took the hint. My mouth fell open and so, briefly, did my eyes. I beheld before me at eye level a long thin syringe of glass and steel, moving towards my gums. I’ve seen that sort of syringe before in movies in which a figure such as Mengele carries out unspeakable acts. I closed my eyes. My trapezius muscles clenched. My gums swelled hugely, all sensation fled and the balance of my hour passed. I drowned repeatedly. I rinsed, I spat. The bed erected itself, Perio said, ‘That’s it.’

 

Happily, I paid for her next BMW. I was happy because nothing hurt. I’m sure she’s not a real periodontist.

 

To the Rescue 

 
About three years ago my grandson Miles became increasingly nervous about the warming of the climate. He learned of melting icecaps, rising seas, drowning isles and the fate of our planet. He decided to act. He wrote to the man who was soon to gain fame as an onion muncher:

 

Dear Mister Abbott,

 

In Grade Two we are learning about the climate and the danger to our planet. Please protect the environment or all people will suffer.

 

Yours truly,

 

Miles

 

The Prime Minister wrote back:


 

The Prime Minister did act. Speaking of yet another great black hole in the ground he declared, ‘coal is good for humanity.’ And there the matter rested. The PM went on to his encounter with the onion in Tasmania and thence to the back bench.

 

 

Last week saw the election in the United States of a new leader who knows and cares less about the climate than my grandchildren. My youngest grandson Joel, aged five, learned the ice caps are melting, the seas rising, the polar bears are under threat, and the world is in danger. He felt worried. At bedtime last night he was afraid to go to sleep. His mother asked Joel, ‘What do you think you can do to help the planet?’ Joel thought a bit and replied, ‘I should become prime minister and protect the earth.’ There followed a discussion of the process of actually becoming PM. ‘The people have to choose you. They do it by voting’, said his Mum. Joel said he would offer rewards to people who protected the environment. His Mum responded, ‘In that case, I’ll vote for you, Joelly.’

 

 

With one vote already in the bag and with his program for saving the planet under way, Joel was ready for sleep. And all of us can now rest easier.

 

Smoking the Peace in the Middle East

We stand on the Tiberias to Tel Aviv highway waiting or the early morning inter-city bus. As we anticipated the bus is crowded with soldiers and civilians returning to work after the Passover
holiday. My wife and the two grandchildren struggle into the bus, informing the driver that we have four suitcases that we’ll need to stow in the luggage compartment below. The driver activates a switch and a hatch opens. The luggage compartment is too full to fit a sandwich. I stand on the pavement with my four suitcases and a thoughtful expression. A soldier just old enough to grow a few whiskers has a backpack to stow. He leans deeply into the luggage compartment, bending his slim back, hefting, pulling, piling, jamming items of baggage together. He has created ample space for his backpack.

But he steps over his own luggage towards my array, grabs a suitcase in each hand and thrusts them into the space he has created. Again he leans, lifts and shoves. Somehow our cases are all aboard. I hoist the soldier’s backpack, find an interstice and widen it, shove the pack in and hope. The hatch closes and we two ascend, the last of the riders. I pay the modest fares for the 170 kilometre ride for four passengers. The driver apologises: regulations require him to charge the two thirteen-year olds full fare. He is sorry, what can he do? – he asks with a raised shoulder.
Inside the bus all seats are occupied. Three young soldiers lie in the aisle, one sleeps while the other two busy themselves with their screens. From the rear seat a figure in civilian red rises, beckons to me, indicates the seat he has vacated. I must sit.

Amused, grateful, mildly embarrassed, I tell him I’m alright mate.

No, he says, I must sit.

I shake my head.

‘Please sir, sit. Next stop, I descend.’

Three recumbent soldiers in the aisle rise with good grace and make way for the old man with his bulky backpack.

We emerge from the two-hour bus trip at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Passover has just come to an end and we are looking forward to eating leavened breads again. We emerge from Security and see before us a huge array of croissants, bagels, seeded rolls and pastries. I take the family’s orders and approach the squat woman behind the counter. ‘Two double espressos, one croissant, one chocolate turnover, one danish pastry, please.’ The woman maintains a studied silence. I stand for a moment, nonplussed. Has she not heard me? Is it perhaps, self-service? Is she perhaps deceased?

After a good time the woman passes me three paper bags. She manages to do this while turning her back to me. She has not spoken. Feeling like a semi-licensed thief I fill the three bags. Mrs Pastry now leans over her ranks of post-paschal breads in my direction, proffering coffee in a paper cup. A second follows. Still, no conversation. 

‘By what sum am I indebted to you?’ – I ask in my courtly, non-colloquial Hebrew.

The oracle now speaks: ‘Forty.’

     

Ellie looks up and laughs through her mouthful of chocolate yeast turnover: ‘Look Saba, Savta!’

We look towards the tee-shirt shop next to Mrs Pastry’s, where Ellie indicates a shirt in pink with the text:
DON’T WORRY

BEYONCE.
‘Ellie, would you like shirt like that?’

Ellie would like a shirt like that.
Ellie and I enter the tee-shirt emporium. Hundreds of tee-shirts of modest price and quality hang from cords suspended from the ceiling. All the shirts are suspended high, beyond human reach. Safe from theft they are also unpurchasable without human help. We look around us. Moving browsily beneath the display a handful of humans considers the merchandise. One sits, cross-legged on stool, like patience on a monument, entirely still. This person is slim, petite, elegantly presented.Her lips are the colour of venous blood. Her skin and hair are of midnight black. I approach her. She does not speak or move.

Hazarding a guess, I ask, ‘Do you work here?’

The merest of nods.

‘My granddaughter wants to buy the BEYONCE tee-shirt.’

Movement now as a slim arm emerges from behind the slight torso. Between two fingers of the hand at the end of the arm sits a cigarette.

The confessed employee inhales deeply and silently.

No verbal response. Perhaps we have visited her workplace during her sabbatical.

‘Can you help us?’

The Queen of Sheba points her cigarette over our heads. We turn and look up and backward for the shirt. We cannot sight it. 

We gather we have made our visit at a time when the spirit of enterprise is not active.

Ellie, richly amused, decides she can be happy without beyonce.

Instead, chuckling, she takes photos of the the tee-shirt in the display.  
At ‘Abulafia,’ the Palestinian bakery in the ancient port city of Yaffo, men in pious black yarmulkas queue to buy pastries from Palestinian men in tee-shirts.

In Hebrew and English the shopkeepers wear tee-shirts reading, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ Others wear shirts that read, ‘Headquarters of Israel-Palestine peace.’ As shopkeepers the peacemakers are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis in their generous disdain towards customers. My wife, an attractive grandmother, speaks a clear and correct Hebrew. The bakery boys affect not to understand her menu enquiries. One shrugs and directs Annette to his colleague. He too affects non-comprehension. He winks at his colleague and turns away from Annette, his face closed.
When a second customer approaches, Annette’s two refuseniks compete to serve her. This newcomer is forty years Annette’s junior. 
Now I try my luck. ‘A toasted pita please, with salad filing.’ The man I address does not look in my direction. Like a magician, he flicks an unseen cigarette from nowhere into his mouth. Exhaling dragon-like he grunts something indistinguishable. I look around, find myself the sole customer and ask, ‘Pardon?’

‘Harif?’

Harif is the Hebrew term for shrewdly intelligent. In fast food places it means, ‘spicy.’

‘A little, please.’

This is the second time I have spoken the P-word. ‘Please’ gives me away as surely as it betrayed Annette. Despite our better than serviceable Hebrew, we have revealed ourselves as that least assertive of all tourist species, the Anglo-Saxon.

A second smoker materialises, slides my pita into a toasting oven, smoking all over my lunch in transit.  

Moments later, seated on ‘Abulafia’s’ dusty stone steps we enjoy our smoke-toasted borekhas, pitot, and pastries. Too hot to handle, ridiculously inexpensive, memorably good. 

   

Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears.