While Reading my Book of War


Seated on the tram, reading on a spring day
 at noon, I’m distracted by a pink robe passing close to me. My eyes lift to a young face, pale and wet with tears. No sounds, just a face folding beneath its weight of pain. The rest of the person is young, thin, female, quite tall. She’s partially covered by a pink polyfleece robe. Beneath the robe two pale legs stretch down to feet in thongs.

The girl looks about seventeen. Her features are Chinese. I check her for external signs of physical illness and detect none. She’s just a young girl silently weeping. Happily she’s not alone; standing close to her a taller girl clasps her gently. The second girl looks about the same age. She too is Chinese. The comforter’s free hand rests against the back of the  weeper’s head. She bends the head tenderly forward and rests it on her shoulder where it stays a good time.

The two stand, lightly enfolded, bracing against the far side of the tram. They ignore free seats close to them. The tram moves on, leaving behind them the beachside where they boarded. Were the two swimming? What grief or pain or random unkindness of life brought them from the beach?

Ten minutes pass. The weeping face lifts from time to time and faces the tram, unseeing. Tears trickle. No words pass between the girls. The two have not moved from their station at the opposite side. A fair youth seated legside looks up and stares briefly, perplexed. His mouth opens, falls shut. Respectful of private suffering, he turns away. I too feel prompted to help, but diffidence holds me back. What’s more the friend seems to be comfort enough.

Watching for my own stop, I look up at intervals from my book. A few stops out from my destination I look up and find the wall opposite empty. The girls have gone, pink robe, bare legs and tears, and all.

 

Grace on a Tram

I caught the tram this morning. Truly caught it. Chased it like a mad thing, dodged traffic banked up behind it, weaved, sprinted, kept balance. Climbed aboard, collected my breath, took a seat and took in my surroundings. And pleasant surroundings they were, for seated opposite me was a colourful and pleasing sight: a young woman, slim, with wavy lime-and-blond coloured hair, who sat and ate a banana.


Her lime-blond hair matched her bright lime socks. At her hip hung a patchwork cloth bag, alive with colour. Her black patent leather ankle boots gleamed. Just above the orifice into which banana descended and disappeared steadily before my fascinated gaze, a small nose ring looped between her nostrils. The young woman was thin but not starved. She worked steadily at her banana until she came to the moment of social truth (for some, the moment of crisis), the end of the banana, the moment when the skin demands of the eater a decision.

I watched. Would she ditch with a deft flick the peel beneath her seat? Might she instead reach into her bright bag of cloth for a plastic bag? The young woman (I decided she was nineteen years of age) did neither. She simply sat, and the peel sat on her lap, dying.

The dying of a banana peel is swift in onset. The peel, once devoid of the flesh that shaped it and gave it purpose, quickly shrinks and darkens, losing all meaning. Its yellow bloom gone, it darkens, collapses and becomes an elegy for its own shabbiness.

So the three of us sat there for a while, the lady, the banana peel and the watcher. Throughout, the winter sun shone bright through the window of the tram, transfiguring all. My eyes watered for brilliance, and my bones thawed.

After a time a man entered. Tall, wide and round, the man moved slowly into our space in the back section of the tram. His shabby clothes were black, his curls were black and his skin was black. He lowered above us for a time, directing his gaze where no eyebeams might intersect. His fleshy lips moved soundlessly. His hairy right hand clutched a sheaf of papers upon which columns of figures descended in lines from the top of each page to the bottom. The pages had the grey, slightly smudged look of photocopies. I peered at the pages, curiously. The man held them as a child might clutch a Teddy Bear, a talisman held close, disregarded, but not to be surrendered readily.

The man finished looking at nothing and lowered his fleshy self onto a seat between and opposite the lime- banana woman and me. We three found ourselves at the points of an equilateral triangle. The man, oblivious, muttering like the scriptural Hannah, was not a prepossessing person. His bulk projected itself towards the woman, towards – who knows? – possibly into her space.

I guessed she might feel intimidated. I half expected her to rise and remove herself. I watched tensely. The man’s free hand rose, coming to rest close to his ear. He spoke. His speech was not directed, the speech, I surmised, of telephony. I looked up and between his splayed fingers no telephone was seen. The tram lurched, the man lurched in his seat, his clothing shifted above his large belly. His naked flesh, baby-like, helpless, pleaded his innocence.

Now the young woman moved. She leaned forward and sideward, her angular face closing on the man’s. She said something I did not catch. The man did not catch it either. The woman’s lips moved again and I was able to read them.  I saw the words, Can I help you?  The man saw, or heard, too.  After some time he spoke, now facing the young woman, his back to me. I had no clue what he said or asked. But the woman was nodding, Yes, yes, all the way to the city.  You’re on the right tram. Her face, still close, relaxed and opened widely into a smile. The girl nodded again, her smile shone upon the man. Eyes locked, the two sat for a time without moving.

At length the man sat back in his seat and relaxed, unfolding himself, pouring himself liberally into the space left around him by peak hour riders keeping a fastidious distance.

The sun lit the man’s tight black coronet of curls. Those curls crouched as a perimeter around his bald patch that I could now see gleamed in the morning light.  The tram rode on a short space, then stopped. The young woman rose and walked towards the exit. I did not want her to leave, not yet, not before I could thank her, bless her.

The tram stopped, the woman descended and I watched as her slim form weaved a colourful path through the city crowds.

I’m a Tourist Here

So many novel things here, Nearly everything here different, odd, fresh, unexpected.

Seated in the tram I can see a leaf, pea-green, curving across the right rear of the neck of a young man. Beneath the leaf’s stem a scarlet circle the size of a florin encloses a second red circle, the size of a shilling. The man’s bronze skin is tight around his skeleton. On his bony chin curling black whiskers struggle for a quorum.

People on the tram wear small ear appliances as for the deaf. The hearing aids connect by fine white wires to shallow cuboids of steel or of plastic. Some travellers’ fingers tap the flat upper surface of the flat cuboids, some speak to the appliance, some nod and sway as to music. Is this tram a conveyance for the deaf? Or for devotees of some religion which is new to me in this place where I travel as a visitor?

Few are those who read books or newspapers. Few converse with a neighbour. I hear Mandarin, Spanish, German, Japanese. English too is heard. Most of the speakers address unseen interlocutors. Strange, very strange to me, the ways of this place.

From the open front of a young woman’s blouse two breasts swell and fall as she leans forward to tap a plastic card against device attached to the tram’s interior. No-one looks, no-one remarks, no-one warns the lady of her deshabille. Many are those who tap plastic cards against the fixture. Truly and devoutly observed are the rituals of the tram ride.

The headline on the discarded newspaper reads: GEN Y SHORT ATTENTION SPAN. This message, written in lettering I recognize, refers to nothing I know. Elsewhere I read of GEN X. Another hieroglyph: is there an alphabet of GENs?

Legs, arms, faces everywhere, inked in black, sienna, greens, pinks, yellows and magenta. Skin with calligraphy, with illustrations, with In Memoriams. Human integument as art gallery.

Springtime, announced by recognisable blossoms, by my itching eyes and my sneezing, yet confuses me. One day cold, bleak, blustery with rain, the next day hot. Really hot. Exposed breasts greet the sun. The weather changes mood with a violence new to me.

People pass me in the street but few eyes meet mine. Instead the eyes regard those same flat rectangular devices that the hearing-assisted cultists watched on the tram. People pass in haste. Few smile. Haste and flat devices deprive me – deprive all of us – of communion. In this springtime, the flower of community fails.

So much new, strange, odd. Fast, brief, solipsic. The new poverty. In my own country I ride and I pass, fascinated, a tourist.

John Bracks Collins St 5pm

On the Night Train to Jerusalem

Saturday night. The late train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is sparsely filled and comfortable. Passengers sit and read and stare out at the darkness. They travel in private cocoons of quiet. The small world of the carriage snuggles into the bedtime dark. Children, slumped against parent bodies, rocked and clickclacked, fall asleep.

Tel Aviv, Lod, Ramle. The train climbs, winds, climbs again. Stations materialize in the unsuspecting dark. Doors open, passengers melt away, doors close and the dark swallows all.

A brief stop at Ramle, now the train resumes its smooth motion. A sudden hubbub. Fast footfalls tripping along the corridor, a young woman, fair, slight, twentyish, races, crying, protesting, her voice shrill. She comes to a stop before the closed carriage door. Indignantly, she demands the train go back to Ramle. She missed her stop.
Others follow her – mothers with children, one pushing a pram. All protest, all join in the demand that the train retrace its path. Remorselessly the train picks up speed.

A new arrival, a tall young woman, dark haired, wearing black, makes her voice heard. It is an impressive voice, strong, pitched a little lower than the others’, a voice that rings. Like the others, this woman is unhappy, like them indignant. The younger blonde lady is eclipsed, she and her group are anaemic in comparison; they lack her force, her intensity, her perseverance.

The collector arrives, a small man in a grey jacket, slight, inoffensive. The women batter him with their clamour, their remonstrances. He explains that it is impossible to return, unsafe.
The young woman in black assumes leadership. Decibelling her anger, she details the group’s grievances: the doors in their compartment failed to open; the women and their children were unable to disembark. It was not their fault but the railways’; they had paid for their tickets, there were small children who needed their beds, the night was cold, the train would dump them at Beth Shemesh, leaving them stranded.
The collector offers no defence. He melts away.

The train climbs towards Beth Shemesh where it will arrive in fourteen minutes. The leading lady performs through the fullness of this time. Her face is strong, passionate, her dark lipstick an exclamation mark, her muscular features mobile with the pulse and rhythm of her thundering.

She maintains her rage, augmenting it minute by minute, until it reaches a pitch where violence can be its only resolution. Roaring now, she silences her party members. Nessun dorma: all in the train attend or pretend not to attend to the woman and await a climax that must immediately follow.

The train slows. Women corral their young, hoist their luggage, prepare their escape. The train stops, the carriage door duly opens and the unwilling visitors to Beth Shemesh debouch into the dark.

Their leader makes her final address to the invisible collector, to the entire railway system. Continuing travellers brace themselves for her final explosion. With withering sarcasm she delivers her line: Thank you for kindly opening the door –
Last of all to exit, she stops in the doorway, turns back to face the interior and screams – Darling!

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 29 March, 2013.