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Authors: J David Simons

The Land Agent

BOOK: The Land Agent
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P
RAISE FOR
The Credit Draper

‘An odyssey of cultural confusion and survival. Full of hope, honour and sadness.’ M
C
K
ITTERICK
P
RIZE JUDGES

‘A rare evocation of an earlier genre: the immigrant novel, with a welcome Scottish dimension.’ C
LIVE
S
INCLAIR
,
The Jewish Chronicle

‘A subtle, beautifully written story… a truly fine debut which heralds bold new voice in fiction.’ R
ODGE
G
LASS

P
RAISE FOR
The Liberation of Celia Kahn

‘A compelling tale with characters who imprint themselves on the streets of Glasgow.’ S
CARLETT
M
C
G
WIRE
,
Tribune

‘Entertaining and compelling. Explores so many stimulating political themes.’ A
LAN
L
LOYD
,
Morning Star

‘Sensitively rendered… A quietly brilliant book.’
The Skinny

P
RAISE FOR
An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful

‘A highly accomplished and moving novel.’
Sunday Herald

‘Reminiscent of the best of Sebastian Faulks.’
Booktrust

‘In the tradition of Graham Greene or William Boyd… An accomplished and compelling novel by a storyteller at the top of his game… delicate in its detail and politically robust.’ C
HRIS
D
OLAN

‘A genuine tour-de-force, a beautifully written love story that combines political impetus, questions about art and truth, and an exotic setting … the kind of sophisticated, grown-up writing that properly intrigues, and calls to mind the best of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks.’ L
ESLEY
M
C
D
OWELL

‘The prose is exquisite and beautiful. A great read. A piece of art.’ H
ELEN
F
ITZGERALD

‘Artistic, literary and thoroughly involving … [Simons] has a wonderful subtlety that lends itself to recognition and empathy … [He] understands the craft of writing and has applied it exquisitely.’ A
LISTAIR
B
RAIDWOOD

THE
LAND
AGENT

J David Simons

For my friends

‘Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.’

M
ARK
T
WAIN

Poland, 1919

E
WA
K
AMINSKY
. ‘She is a whore.’ That was what Lev’s uncles, aunts and cousins told him to his face. Even though she was his new step-mother. She had been married once before, she had even been known to apply carmine to her lips from time to time. But surely Ewa Kaminsky was no
kurve
? At the very worst, she possessed ambition. And that was to get Lev’s father, Szmul, out of Poland, away from his job in the liquor and tobacco store that he would never own, away from the memory of two sons killed in a war and another run off to who knows where. She wanted to go to America, where lipstick came in push-up metal tubes, where people sat in movie theatres, went roller-skating, visited amusement parks and rode to the sky in elevators. Where Szmul could make something of himself, rather than drink and smoke the stock he was supposed to sell. Where she didn’t have to worry about the Soviets and the anti-Semites.

And what was Ewa’s passport to this happiness?

A Kanzler 1B.

It was the most beautiful machine Lev had ever seen. If you could call it a machine. It was more like a work of art. A symbol of German craftsmanship at its finest. Apart from two suitcases of clothes, it was the only item Ewa brought with her from her previous marriage. Black, simple, elegant. The maker’s name ‘Kanzler’ scrolled across the top in an elaborate gold script.
Two shift keys. Eleven type bars. Eight characters to a bar. It was sturdy. It was fast. It could type up to two hundred words a minute. Ewa proved it to him. She sat down in front of it, inserted a sheet of paper, wiggled her fingers like a concert pianist. One minute later, she showed him:

Dear Sir,

Following on from our conversation of the 12th inst., I would like to order 2 doz. garments in the size and colours we discussed…

He had no idea what the words meant but he pronounced them as if they were some kind of magic spell miraculously appeared on the page.

‘English,’ she said. ‘And typing. The keys to my success.’ She laughed at her own joke. ‘A secretary in America.’

‘I want to learn,’ he said, surprising himself by this sudden ambition.

‘Typing is not for a young man. If you want to use your hands, you must build bridges. Or skyscrapers.’

‘I want to type.’

She had taken off her shoes to work at the Kanzler. Now she rubbed the sole of one foot with the toes of the other as she considered his request. The noise of the friction caused him to shiver.

‘I will give you six lessons. One hour each. You can practise in between. In fact, practice is essential. You will wash your hands and clean your nails before you even look at the machine. I will check them first. And what will you do for me?’

‘Whatever you want.’

 

She did as she promised. Six lessons. First, she explained the mechanics. The unique combination of lever action and swing that created the high speed between type and roller. The friction-feed of the paper. The QWERTZ lay-out of the keys that was very close to the English QWERTY formation except for a couple of letters here and there. She made him memorize the keys, how to work his fingers over separate blocks of letters. And she did all this in a small room during the course of a hot summer,
sitting beside him in a thin, cotton dress, thigh against thigh, the warm skin of her bare forearm next to his, her soft fingers touching the backs of his hands, her breath against his cheek, her breasts against his shoulder as she adjusted the paper, the scent of lavender behind her ears and on the back of her neck. Between lessons, he scrubbed his hands into a cleanliness even closer than simply ‘next to’ godliness. He practised and practised with a nimbleness and frenzy of which even the great pianist Paderewski would have been proud.

On his seventh visit, she pulled out the test sheet from the roller, scrutinised the page.

‘One hundred and three words,’ she announced. ‘Only two mistakes. You have done well.’

‘Thank you. You have been a good teacher.’

‘Now, come here.’

He approached the desk.

‘Open your trousers.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me. Open your trousers.’

He was grateful for all the typing lessons, for his fingers, despite their trembling, managed to work open the buttons.

‘Good,’ she said in a matter-of-fact tone. He stared at the ceiling as she pulled quickly at his hardness. It was over in less than a hundred and three words. She gave him her soiled handkerchief.

‘Burn it,’ she said.

Perhaps Ewa Kaminsky was a whore, after all.

The next day, his father announced they were emigrating to America.

 

Lev loved Sarah. He had loved her for as long as he could remember. His brothers used to tell him that the first word he ever uttered was ‘Sarah’, not ‘Mama’. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. Lev loved Sarah. He would have carved that declaration on every tree in the forest if he hadn’t been too frightened to go there. For that’s where the Catholic farmboys lived with their pigs, their hens and their cows. Jews weren’t allowed to live with animals, although
he wasn’t sure if that was a prohibition by God or the State. He was always confused on those matters. Especially as his grandfather Gottleib had a dog. Bazyli, it was called. His grandfather had owned several dogs, all of which he called Bazyli even though they were different breeds. To Lev, this series of Bazylis had merged into one grotesque mongrel in his memory.

 

Lev loved Sarah. Sarah was all grown-up now. Long limbs and small breasts. She went every month with her mother to the ritual bath to do whatever women do. She was exactly six months older than he was. A fact she never let him forget. Which meant he was always following after everything she did. Into children’s school, into Hebrew classes, into the choir. He took up knitting, skipping, climbing trees and throwing stones at dogs because of her. And when Sarah decided to join the Zionist Youth, he did exactly the same. Although in his immaturity, he had no idea what the Zionist Youth was all about.

It didn’t help he had no-one else to look up to. His mother was long dead from an unspecified women’s complaint. His grandfather lived in the woods, his father was either selling or drinking liquor, or spending time with Ewa Kaminsky. His eldest brother, Amshel, whom he adored, had announced one Friday afternoon he was going down to the butcher to collect the meat and never came back. It was the first Sabbath meal Lev could ever remember without a dinner of cooked flesh. His two other brothers were always fighting. Either with Lev, or each other. Or with the Catholic farmboys in the woods. They ended up fighting for Poland in a war they thought would be good for the Jews. It wasn’t good for the Jews. And it wasn’t good for them, for they never came back.

He quite liked the Zionist Youth, or the Young Guard as they preferred to be called, although he wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be guarding. They went on long walks and built fires and talked in Hebrew and sang songs in Hebrew and danced in circles around the fire. As he grew older and followed Sarah into more senior groups within this Young Guard, they learned about the
Yishuv
or ‘settlement’ in Palestine, they collected money to help people go there, they discussed Zionism and whether it might be
better for the Jews to go and live in Uganda. It was all very abstract to him. Until Sarah said:

‘I am going to Palestine.’

He looked up from whittling a stick, something he did a lot with the Zionist Youth. ‘Why?’

‘What do you mean? “Why?” What do you think we’ve been preparing for all these years?’

Lev hadn’t thought he was preparing for anything. He had just wanted to hold hands with Sarah as they danced around the fire and went about collecting money to send other people to the
Yishuv
. It hadn’t occurred to him she might actually want to go there herself.

‘Will you come with me?’ she asked.

He was about to say ‘yes’ to the idea of the two of them walking arm in arm through a land of date palms and donkeys, eating oranges freshly picked, chatting away in Hebrew about the house he was building in the Galilee where she would milk cows and ride horses and deal with all the other animals they were allowed to own. But then she added:

‘There is a group of us going. Our very own
kvutza
. We’re going to work on the land together, eat together, live together. All for the purpose of building a Jewish commune in our very own homeland.’

‘You’re going with a
kvutza
?’

‘Nine of us. Will you come?

‘I don’t know.’

‘Of course you will. You always follow me.’

And with that remark, she did something she had never done before. She kissed him full on the lips. Her mouth was so soft, so warm, so tingly, so imbued with everything that felt good in the world. He still felt the taste of her on his lips as he walked home to Ewa Kaminsky and that final typing test.

 

Lev’s brother, Amshel, the one who ran away without picking up the meat for the Sabbath dinner, once told him that their father always looked as if he was carrying an imaginary piece of heavy furniture up a stairway.

‘Look at him, Lev.’ And here Amshel would hold up a circle of thumb and index finger in front of his young brother’s eye to help him focus better on the figure plodding up the street. ‘He looks like he’s
schlepping
a piano.’

But as Lev stood now waiting for his father to speak, he knew it wasn’t the weight of an imaginary piece of furniture that pulled the man down. But the burden of loss of a wife and two sons. Not to mention Amshel who had disappeared.

‘Lev. Ewa… your stepmother… my… we… we just want you to know we would be very happy if you decide to come with us to America.’

‘Yes,’ Ewa said, taking his father’s hand. ‘We would be very happy. One big, happy family.’

‘A new beginning for all of us,’ his father continued. ‘After all the tragedies we have suffered.’

‘The tragedies were terrible,’ Eva confirmed.

‘We realize it is a big change for you. But you are old enough to make your own decisions. How old are you?’

‘Eighteen, father.’

‘Yes, old enough to make your own way in life. You can continue to stay here and work in Mr Borkowski’s store. He says he will be happy to promote you to do the selling instead of me. Or you might choose to go to Palestine with the Young Guard – that is up to you. We will understand.’

Sarah was the opposite of his father. She appeared to float in the air as others carried the weight of her life for her.

‘It would be so good if you came with our
kvutza
to the
Yishuv
. An even number makes everything so much easier.’ He waited for her to kiss him again. But she didn’t. And Ewa Kaminsky wasn’t repeating her open-your trousers routine either.

BOOK: The Land Agent
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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