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Authors: J David Simons

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BOOK: The Land Agent
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E
VEN AFTER
L
EV’S MANY YEARS
in Haifa, the feverish babble of the station terminus on Faisal Street continued to thrill him. The bursts of steam, the whistles, the shouts for assistance, the cries of the porters, the tea-sellers and the trinket vendors. As did the sight of the wealthy tourists stepping off the longboats from a recently arrived ship moored out in the bay. Those whiskered men suave and confident in their top hats, their stylish wives wrapped in their minks despite the warmth. Those American and European visitors who had enough money not only to come here but also the freedom to return happily from where they came. Awaiting these first-class passengers, over on a siding away from the main tracks, uniformed guards stood by a special train with its luxury coaches, shiny dining cars and sleeping saloons soon to be covered in flies and dust. Destination: Sea of Galilee and the religious sites of Tiberias.

The train from Damascus via the Jordan Valley was only twenty-five minutes late, the engine crew marking this unusual triumph with huge, pink smiles on their coal-blackened faces as the train hissed breathless to a standstill by one of the station’s tall palms. And there was Amshel, first off, with a stampede of passengers following in his wake. He looked well, Lev thought, muscled and lean, sun-tanned, smiling, something different about him, he couldn’t quite work out what. Amshel upon him now, hands grabbing him by the shoulders, shaking him affectionately, then raising his arms out to the side, presenting himself with a grin. ‘Well?’

‘Well what?’

‘What do you think?’

‘About what?’

Amshel pointed repeatedly at his own mouth. ‘Are you blind?’

‘Your teeth,’ Lev said. ‘What happened to your teeth?’

‘God give thanks to your friend Mickey. He told me he was giving me a special set. I could see they were top quality myself. Vulcanised rubber plates with a good set of porcelains attached.’ Amshel tipped his head up and to the side, mouth opened wide so Lev could get a good look. ‘Uh, uh, uh,’ Amshel grunted, pointing to his shining dentures.

‘What are you saying?’

Amshel closed his mouth. ‘I don’t even have to take them out when I eat. They fit perfectly. Where is Mickey? I want to thank him. I want to kiss him. I am a new man.’

‘Who took out the old ones?’

‘A blacksmith in Tiberias.’

‘You went to a blacksmith?’

‘Nails out of hooves, teeth out of mouths, it’s all the same to me, that’s what the man told me. Although I drank half a bottle of
arak
before he started. I hardly noticed the pain after he’d taken out the first three or four. It was good he was strong, held me down with an arm across my throat, a knee on my chest. He did a fine job too, didn’t break one tooth. Not one tooth. Or my jaw. I still spat up enough blood to fill the Sea of Galilee though. Then these dentures Mickey gave me, a perfect fit. It was like a miracle, Lev. A miracle. It has changed my whole life.’

‘You look good, Amshel. I was worried about you after the quake.’

‘We suffered a few tremors.’

‘How about Celia?’

‘Everyone is safe. And my children’s house is still standing, not a brick or beam out of place. But further south, there were enormous cracks in the ground. A few of us went to have a look. It was as if God Himself tried to tear Trans-Jordan away from the rest of Palestine.’ Amshel waved the single page of his telegram at him. ‘You’ve heard from America?’

‘Yes.’ Then slowly, he added: ‘Papa is dead.’

‘What?’

‘Killed in an accident.’

Amshel grasped his head in his hands, closing up his elbows so as to conceal his face. Lev could hear the sniffing, the sudden gulping for breath. He hadn’t expected this, his brother’s instant dissolution into tears, especially compared to his own dry reaction to the news. But soon it was over. One last gasp. Amshel brought his arms down, wiped the back of his hand across his nose.

‘Borkowski wrote you?’

‘No. Papa’s wife. Ewa.’

‘Show me.’

Lev extracted the letter from his satchel, gave it over. Amshel peered at the typewritten address, then at the stamp printed with the map of the country of sender. ‘The United States of America,’ he mouthed, before handing back the envelope. ‘Read it to me.’

‘We should sit down and talk somewhere.’ Lev had thought about going over to the German Colony, to sit in Sammy’s garden, but now he realized he wanted to be up high, a place where there was space and a view, room to say what needed to be said. ‘We’ll go up there.’ He pointed to Mount Carmel. ‘Up by the monastery.’

‘Just tell me what’s in the letter.’

‘We can talk as we go along.’

Amshel chased after him. ‘What did she say?’

‘I’ll tell you soon enough.’

‘Will she still sponsor me?’

‘Is that all you care about?’

Amshel stopped asking questions, dropped back as Lev walked on, moving faster, kicking out at stones, concentrating on the view. This would be a good place to build a house, he thought, if there was a proper road rather than this dirt path to the monastery. There had been much talk of constructing one, with a hospital or even a university at the end of it. It would be wonderful to live up here, looking out to the sea, not only north along the bay but also south to the famous vineyards of the Anonymous Donor.

He came to a simple bench a few hundred yards short of the monastery gates. It was a good place to stop, the path twisting away from the direct
blaze of the sun, the ancient branches of an olive tree wrapping the seat in some shade. Perhaps this was where the Carmelite monks came for some solitary contemplation away from the monastery itself. He sat down, damp with sweat, waited for his heart to slow, for his breath to settle, for Amshel to arrive. Which he did, a minute or so later, to sit beside him on the bench, stretch out his legs, fold his arms and ask: ‘What happened to him?’

‘He was run over by an automobile. In New York City.’

‘Read it, Lev. Read out the letter.’

Lev did as he was told.

‘She is my stepmother,’ Amshel said when he had finished. ‘Yet she won’t help me.’

‘She doesn’t even know you. What do you expect?’

‘I don’t expect anything. I have had no luck in my life. Not one little piece of
mazel
. Nothing.’

‘It’s Papa who was unlucky.’

‘Papa wasn’t unlucky. He was just stupid enough to get hit by an automobile. Leaving me to that heartless wife of his.’

‘She was kind to me.’

‘You’re the lucky one then.’

‘What about our
zeide
’s land? You could go back, claim your inheritance.’

‘Go back to Poland? Go back to where they hate us? Grandfather’s house is probably a pig-pen by now.’ Amshel stood up. ‘I’m going back into town.’

‘What for?’

‘To thank Mickey for my teeth.’

‘Wait.’ Lev played with the pages of Ewa’s letter on his lap. ‘There is something else.’

‘More bad news?’

‘What happened between you and Sarah?’

Amshel sniffed hard. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘It was years ago.’

‘Answer me, Amshel.’

‘You know something, Lev. You were always like this. Even when you were a child. Like a little dog snapping, snapping, snapping away at my
ankles. Refusing to let go. Tell me this, Amshel. How do you do this, Amshel? What do I do now, Amshel?’

‘I want to know about you and Sarah.’

‘What difference will it make?’

‘I just want to know.’

‘She was sleeping with everyone. They all were. The situation was unusual. Conditions were primitive.’

‘Answer me.’

‘All right then. Yes. Something happened between us. Are you happy now?’

Lev got to his feet, faced his brother. ‘I want you to leave Celia alone.’

‘Has the sun boiled your brains?’

‘You heard what I said.’

‘I wouldn’t do that to you.’

‘It didn’t stop you with Sarah.’

‘I didn’t consider Sarah forbidden fruit.’

‘Swear it then.’

‘I can’t believe you don’t trust me.’

‘Swear it.’

Amshel spat into the dry earth, turned his back, started to walk down the path away from the monastery.

‘That’s just like you, Amshel. Always leaving.’

Without turning round, Amshel gave a dismissive wave, continued down the track.

Lev didn’t make any conscious decision, his actions just came from pure emotion. He ran after his brother, flew at him, grabbed him around the shoulders, forced his knees into the back of his legs, so that the two of them fell forward on to the ground. ‘Swear it!’ he shouted as he pummelled his fists into Amshel’s back. ‘Swear it.’

He had Amshel pinned down face-first but still his brother managed to twist his head around. He saw his mouth open and close in a gummy emptiness, his dentures knocked out from the fall. He kept beating on his bucking back as Amshel tried to push him off. But somehow Amshel found the strength to turn himself round, forcing Lev over and on to the
ground. And before he knew it, Amshel was on top of him, one hand against his throat, the other scraping around in the dirt for his teeth. There was blood on Amshel’s forehead, a gash across his nose, his lips white with dust. He was mouthing toothless words Lev couldn’t understand.

Amshel didn’t seem to know what to do from his position of strength. He faked a punch, then grabbed a handful of loose dirt, smeared it across Lev’s face. Lev felt the scratches across his cheeks, the loose stones being forced into his mouth. It was his turn to buck and heave but Amshel was too strong for him. Always had been.

Suddenly, where there had been blue sky and raw sunlight, there was now shadow. Lev saw a set of hands grasp Amshel’s shoulders, pulling him back. Then a voice that was not his brother’s. A gentle, soothing, coaxing tone. Amshel calming, gradually lifting his weight. Lev wriggled free, pushed himself up onto his feet. Amshel opposite, held back in the loose grip of a man dressed in simple brown robes. Lev spat out the dirt from his mouth, stared at his brother. Amshel gulped in air, wiped his wrist across his lips, was about to say something but the man intervened.

‘Walk away,’ the monk told Lev firmly. ‘Walk away.’

Lev half-walked, half-ran down the track. He had somehow hurt his knee in the fight and his left leg kept buckling under him. There was an ache in his chest that could have been a physical injury or just all the hurt that had arisen inside of him. He found it hard to breathe. But he kept going, walking off the pain, down off the hill and back through the residential streets of the German Quarter, ignoring the looks from those he passed, until he reached PICA’s offices. There at an outside tap in the back court, he flushed the dirt out of his mouth, drank away his thirst, cleaned himself up. His cheeks were grazed, the back of his shirt torn and bloodied. He would tell Madame Blum he had got into a fight with some Arab youths.

He went upstairs to the empty offices, sat by the window, looked out at the sea, stayed there for hours until the light started to go out of the day, and his anger with it. He rose from his chair, switched off the fan, passed by Sammy’s room, the unopened letters still on his desk. He thought of the shut-up cottage, the broken plant pots, the missing key on the lintel.

I
T WAS DARK BY THE TIME
Lev arrived at the cottage. He knocked on the door. No answer. He eased himself around the side of the building, stepping in sandy beds, through low bushes, tapping on the windowpanes. Still no answer. He returned to the front. On the entrance step, the small pile of earth and pot shards he had scraped together on his previous visit remained untouched. He tested the door again. He would have to break in. But he would do so through one of the side windows where the cedars stood thick and tall, concealing his entry from any neighbours. He picked up the broken base of one of the plant pots, slid back around the outside wall, the branches of the trees scraping against his already torn shirt, treading carefully until he came to a small window. Sammy’s bedroom. He tried to push it open but it was snibbed shut. He wrapped his knuckles in his handkerchief, inserted his fist into the pot base. He was lucky. It was a snug fit. He didn’t have much space to arc back his arm but he did what he could to gain some leverage before giving the pane a short sharp jab. The glass shattered easily. He waited to see if any noise came from inside. Or even if there might be a shout from a neighbour. But all he could hear was his own breathing. He twisted in his arm, released the catch but the window wouldn’t budge upwards. He had no choice but to tap the pot against the remaining window shards until the area was clear. He then wriggled himself through into the darkness.

It was the stench that hit him first. He unwrapped his handkerchief from his fist, placed it over his nose and mouth. He waited for his stomach
to settle, his eyes to adjust to the very little light that crept into the room from the outside. Sammy’s was one of the first properties in the town to have its own electricity. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. He prayed that it would, if he could only find the switch. He felt his way around the bed, then over to the doorway, where he searched blindly for the nipple of a switch. He clicked it on. He had light.

He pushed open the low door into the hallway. The fetid stink was too much. His stomach turned and he choked up the bile into his handkerchief. He ran back to the broken window, sucked in the clean air, steeled himself to try again. He crossed the bedroom floor, out into the hallway, trying not to breathe. He had three doors to choose from. He found it hard to focus on them. His face burned, his eyes stung from his sweat as he tried to concentrate. It had to be Sammy’s study. He moved towards the door, turned the knob. It was locked. He shook it again, and again. He took a few paces back into the bedroom, then ran shoulder-first at the study door. The wood around the lock snapped away easily and he was inside.

L
ETTER 14

Kfar Ha’Emek, Jordan Valley, Palestine

 

My dear Charlotte

 

As always, it was so wonderful to receive your letter and to hear all of your news. I want to thank you for visiting my parents. I am pleased to hear that while they may be frail they are still in good health. I worry about them so much.

I worry about you too. I fear you may be getting far too involved in the temperance movement. I can understand your campaigns against the demon drink but is it necessary to want to close down other venues of recreation as well? What is wrong with the ice-cream parlours? I am sure you remember those sunny days when we walked through Queens Park together for an ice-cream and some confection at that lovely Café Moderne on Pollokshaws Road. Surely that wonderful parlour cannot be considered a den of iniquity in the same breath you speak of Glasgow’s public houses? I am surprised you hold such extreme views these days against public entertainment when I remember you as a young woman so full of outward joy and mischief. Has something happened to you, Charlotte? What are you not telling me? As for me, ice-cream parlours could not be further from my daily existence. The raids by bandits from across the border are becoming more frequent up and down the valley. Although we have not experienced any direct attack ourselves, we must
remain very vigilant and our all-night guard duty continues.

Since our land deal with the Bedouin has fallen through, we can no longer draw any water from the river, even in emergencies. Our crops are dying in the fields and water for our personal use is being severely rationed. The first priority is for drinking purposes. Water for cooking is next priority. We may wash our hands prior to eating but full body showers are now restricted to once a week. As for our laundry, well there is little chance of that. My skin constantly itches from the lack of a good wash and from the dirt and sweat on my clothes.

On top of these problems, we have suffered great conflict among ourselves. We are so lacking in manpower and the extra guard duty has only added to our burden. The citrus fruit needed to be picked or it would die on the branch but we had so few people to do the work. We usually ask the Bedouin to help us in exchange for some produce and medical services but as we are not on speaking terms this was not possible. Consequently we had to hire Arab workers from the nearby village of al-Dalhamiyya. This arrangement did not sit well with the most fervent Zionists among us who demanded we should hire only Jewish workers from Tiberias to carry out Jewish labour. This was not a financially viable option as Jewish workers want higher wages than the Arabs. (The reason this is so would require another letter altogether.) This inequality was not acceptable to the socialists among us. In the end, after endless meetings, meetings and more meetings, necessity prevailed and we brought in the Arab workers. That caused a fight to break out in the fields between our Zionist and socialist members as the Arab workers watched on. I was so embarrassed and disappointed I could have raced back to Haifa and taken the first boat back to Scotland. I really don’t know why the Arabs worry about the Jews. They should just leave us alone until we end up killing each other. Then they can walk back in and take back all the land they want.

If this was not enough, we experienced an earthquake here a few days ago. The centre was in Nablus which is about fifty miles away, and many people were killed there. Here, we felt only the tremors. It is a frightening experience when all the ground around you is shaking and
there is nowhere to run. Even when it finishes and everything settles down again, the world doesn’t quite feel the same as it was before.

I stole away from the kibbutz after the quake with Amshel the Storyteller. He had heard there were huge splits in the ground further south in the valley and wanted to see them for himself. It was quite a little adventure and I felt as if we were children running away from school but it was good to get away for a while, even for just a few hours. Amshel is good company too, with all the tales he has to tell. He is also much more handsome now he has had his teeth fixed. On our little day trip, we came across these great cracks in the ground and were told that some cattle had fallen into the chasm. We could still hear one poor beast bellowing from down below but there was nothing we could do to help the farmers pull it out. In the end, someone had to shoot the animal.

As for Amshel’s brother, Lev, I have not heard from him since I returned from Haifa. Perhaps that is just as well as I worry he might have over-estimated my feelings for him. He did send Amshel a telegram asking him to go down there immediately and that is where Amshel is now. He hopes Lev has heard from their father in America. That is all Amshel ever talks about. America, America, America. It is very good for the Jews there. Amshel says there is so much empty land you can buy an acre for the price of a postage stamp.

Men. It is hard to know how to deal with them these days. I live here together with so many of them in such close proximity yet the relationships do not seem to be intimate in a man-woman kind of way. Perhaps it is because we are just so tired and busy all the time. It is almost as if we are sexless, just relating to each other as human beings where gender does not seem to matter. I know this should be a good thing, a socialist ideal. But I do miss the excitement of being as a woman to a man. It would be so good to talk to you about these things.

I must go now. It is late and I have guard duty to do.

 

All my love
   

 

Celia
   

BOOK: The Land Agent
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