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Authors: J David Simons

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BOOK: The Land Agent
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She held out her hand to take his empty cup. Instead of giving it to her, he grabbed her wrist. It was such an instinctive move, surprising himself with his own boldness. For a few moments, they both looked at where he held her.

‘Not now,’ she said, pulling her arm away. ‘I have to write.’

L
ETTER 10

Kfar Ha’Emek, Jordan Valley, Palestine

 

My dearest Charlotte

 

I am replying to your letter number six, which I received this morning. It took three months to get here. This delay between our correspondences confuses me in the details of what we already know and don’t know about each other when we write. I also fret as to whether letters may have gone missing. I try to keep copies of my previous letters but carbon paper is very difficult to get hold of. Please send me some with your next parcel.

I wish you were here beside me so we could chatter away into the night as we did in the old days back in Glasgow. I miss our flat in the West End, the gas lamps and the tree-lined streets, especially now as autumn approaches and the leaves turn yellow and gold. Here we have very few trees, except for some boring eucalyptus, which stay the same all year round. Those times in Glasgow seem so far away from me now, it is hard to believe the Celia who sits here in the deepest Galilean night writing this letter is the same Celia as the one you knew.

It doesn’t surprise me to learn you have now become a campaigner for the temperance movement. I can just imagine you handing out your
leaflets on the trams, on the trains and at football matches. All these posters for abolition plastered everywhere. Glasgow must be awash with temperance propaganda on every hoarding and lamppost. But even if you can’t get people to vote for abolition, at least you’re getting the drink trade to take notice. We always used to say what a disgrace it was that public houses were only places for manly drunkenness and petty violence rather than somewhere women like ourselves could go for entertainment and light refreshment. I remember someone telling me back in Glasgow: ‘It’s not your capitalism or your socialism you need to be worrying about in this city. If you’re looking for “isms”, it’s alcoholism you need to be concerned about.’ I cannot help but agree with that statement. Here, we have almost no alcohol – there is no money to buy any. But sometimes the Arab farmers give us bottles of their local drink. It is called ‘arak’. It tastes like liquorice out of a Glasgow sweetshop. They don’t drink it by itself but along with their food. It is very strong. One sip makes my head swim.

Jonny and I are no longer a couple. I am sure you have already guessed that outcome from my last two or three letters – if in fact you received them. I think I knew in my heart we would not end up together from the moment I arrived here. On our very first day, he took me out to a ridge and showed me what we call ‘The Centre of the World’. It is a viewing point that looks east to Persia, north to Syria, south to Jerusalem and Egypt and west to Scotland. I remember how excited Jonny was to show me this place, all the hopes and plans he had for us, but I remember thinking even then that I didn’t want to be a part of it all. Oh, I know you probably consider me cruel for leading him on, to let him bring me all this way with dreams of a life together. Yet I really did try. We shared a tent for several months. But it was clear to both of us we were not becoming closer but moving apart. We talked about it so much, trying to convince ourselves of something we weren’t really feeling underneath. I think he is happier now we are apart. These kind of couplings are not really encouraged anyway. Of course, there are those who arrived here already as man and wife. And others who paired off to share a tent together and eventually had children. There are five children here now and oh, how we adore
them. But there are some people who feel that to be paired off in a couple is against the principles of equality. That it is not fair a man and woman may enjoy conjugal rights while others may not. But who has time for such things anyway? We are always so exhausted. And even if you are sharing a tent, there are always other people there, behind a strung-up blanket, pretending they are asleep but still listening. It is better to be alone, don’t you think? To be a strong, independent woman.

I am writing this letter in the dining room. It is very late, I don’t even know what time it is. There is a young man asleep in a cot at the other end of the room. Or at least he is pretending to be asleep, for I believe he is watching me. His name is Lev. I think he likes me. He grabbed my hand a while ago when I took him over a cup of tea. I pulled it away, of course. Yet I could feel all my feminine wiles coming to the fore just because there was a new male in the camp. How fickle I am after everything I have just written above. At the same time, it is hard to believe I can still be attractive when my clothes are so dirty, my hair is stiff with dirt and I stink for lack of a good wash. If he had come on the Sabbath, at least then I make a little bit of an effort. But what does it matter? As I just wrote, perhaps it is better to be alone.

In the meantime, this Lev has come here from the organization that owns our land to help us acquire some more. More land. We cannot even take care of what we have. But it is essential we get this plot as it will give us access to the river. For there is one thing that is just as important as land here in Palestine, and that is water. Our crops are dying in the field and there are severe restrictions on the amounts we can use for bathing or the laundry.

At tonight’s meeting, I believe Lev began to realize what a nest of vipers he was sticking his hand into. This piece of land is a symbol of all our differences in this little group of ours. When we talk of land, what we are really talking about are all the tensions that lie beneath our relationships, all the things we are too frightened to say to each other face to face. Some people in our group are against acquiring the land for ideological reasons. For socialist reasons. For Zionist reasons. For practical reasons. For personal reasons. For spiteful reasons. At the meeting tonight we
ended up discussing it all over again. Discuss, discuss, discuss. That is all we do here when we are not working. That is what socialism is, Charlotte. Discussions and committees and meetings. We discuss everything. In the end, it is not the one who is right who wins, but the one who can last longest. I feel I can’t even spend a penny here without a damn discussion. If I just lift up my skirts in the fields and go there and then, perhaps there should be a discussion about that too. I know it is important to talk about things as a group. That we should all feel equal. That we should give according to our ability and take according to our needs. But sometimes I am just sick of it. Sometimes I just yearn for a dictatorship (a benevolent one, of course, run by a woman) when someone just tells me what to do without any talk, talk, talk.

Look at me, talk, talk, talking away. I am sorry, Charlotte, I must stop chattering on like this. I am so very tired. There is so much more that I could tell you but I must finish this letter so I can get this Lev to take it back to Haifa with him tomorrow. That way it should arrive with you more quickly. What price the grasping of my hand? Why, a postage stamp to Great Britain, of course.

 

All my love
   

 

Celia
   

‘N
OT NOW
.’

Lev turned over in his cot, watched a pink lizard, its skin almost translucent, slither along one of the beams, disappear into a crack. He listened to the scratch of Celia’s pen across the paper. He heard the tiredness in her sigh. He couldn’t believe he had grabbed her hand like that. The last time he had held a female hand was when he had danced the
hora
around a campfire with Sarah and the rest of the Young Guard. His palm had been so sweaty then, he feared she would slip from his grasp. With Celia, his hand was as dry as parchment as it was propelled towards her wrist by some hidden force outside himself. Until he heard those two words that had filled him with just a little hope.

‘Not now.’

He remembered visiting his grandfather in his cottage in the woods, he must have been eight or nine years old at the time. It had been springtime, and they sat outside on a rough bench in the strengthening sunshine. His
zeide
’s dog, Bazyli, lay in a flea-ridden, wheezing heap at his feet, a woodpecker drilled away at some linden tree in the forest, there were butterflies in the air, poppies sprouting all around the rough grass. His grandfather had an arm around him, his ancient beard tickling his cheek as he read to him the wisdom of the great sages.

‘Hillel is my favourite,’ his grandfather told him. ‘For his teachings are simple and true. They speak profoundly of love.’

Lev was not interested in these teachings of Hillel. He was just wondering if he could find a way back through the woods to his home without
being set upon by the Catholic farmboys. Or chased by the
dybukks
that haunted the forest in search of young boys under the age of ten. He therefore had little attention for the words of the great Hillel and the Golden Rules he was supposed to live by. As for love, he knew even at that young age he would love Sarah more than the words of any ancient Jewish sage.

‘I know you are young, Lev,’ his grandfather continued, smacking his wet lips together, a motion Lev knew signified the advent of a serious talk on the Torah. ‘But if you remember just a few words out of all that I tell you, just a few words, then your life will be the better for it. I promise you.’ Smack, smack, smack. ‘These words come from the
Ethics of the Fathers
.’

And his grandfather droned on. Lev watched the slanting light through the trees, the flick of Bazyli’s ear to a blood-sucking insect, a butterfly caught briefly in the tangle of his grandfather’s beard. But in all the dreaminess of that lazy day, he did remember a few of his
zeide
’s words. There were only five of them. And he recalled them now as he drifted into sleep. To dream of a cottage in the heart of a Polish wood where for a few moments he had dwelt in an intense happiness only possible in the innocence of childhood. ‘
Eem loh achshav… eh matai?
’ If not now… then when?

 

It was still dark when Lev woke to the first of the workers coming into the dining room for a hot drink before going out to the fields. He rose quickly, folded away his cot, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, went outside to the covered pit toilets. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been up this early. The dew, the hiss of the crickets, the low-flying bats with their leathery wings disturbing the air above his head. He entered one of the huts, held his nose against the stink of excrement mixed with disinfectant, emptied his bladder into a deep shaft. For a few moments, he considered his forefathers who might have urinated on this very same spot, stopping off with their camel train as they passed through this valley en route between Damascus and Jerusalem. The uncircumcised Abram before he had made his covenant with God, marking out his territory for future generations. He shivered, shook himself off, returned to the dining room. He made himself a cup of thick coffee,
sat quietly in a far-off corner watching the young men and women as they shuffled in, then disappeared back out into the darkness. He looked out for Celia. But she never arrived.

 


Yalla
.’ Jonny rose up off the wagon seat, whipped up the reins. ‘
Yalla
.’ Then, in English: ‘Come on, for God’s sake.’ The skinny beast wriggled in its halter, picked up pace, kicked up some more dust. Lev gripped the seat with one hand, tried to continue eating his breakfast of a half-rotten banana with the other. A bunch of the same blackening fruit slid around on the boards behind him. Perched on the seat between them, a Gladstone bag, its leather worn and sagging. He asked Jonny where he was from.

‘Glasgow,’ was the reply.

Lev thought Glasgow sounded like some town in Poland until Jonny added: ‘Glasgow, Scotland.’

Of course, Scotland. How stupid he had been. He tossed the banana peel into a field of young citrus trees. ‘The two of you,’ he said. ‘From Scotland.’

‘You’ve met Celia then?’

‘She gave me a ride from the train-stop.’

‘I hope she was pleasant to you.’

‘Pleasant enough.’

‘Good. She runs hot and cold does Celia. Especially with strangers. But she’s certainly a natural with the wagon and horses. Hard to believe she was a city girl.’

Lev tried to imagine Celia as a city girl. With a fancy hat pierced by a peacock feather, a long coat trimmed with fur, like the elegant women he once glimpsed strolling along the Nowy Świat in Warsaw. He wondered if she had worn carmine on her lips like Ewa Kaminsky. He wondered if she and Jonny were a couple.

Jonny meanwhile said nothing more about her. Instead, he went on to tell Lev how he had been a medical student back in Glasgow before interrupting his studies to go off to fight in the Great War. Lev noted that unlike his own brothers, who had fought in the same war but on the opposite
side, Jonny had managed to return alive. He had resumed his studies, graduated as a doctor yet had never practised until now.

‘I came to work on the land. That was the plan. I was going to be the great socialist farmer. But there’s so much need for medical care here. Not just in our little settlement. But among the Arab villages too. Malaria, of course. Then there is syphilis, trachoma, chronic diarrhoea. Sometimes, just sheer bloody exhaustion.’

They had reached the ridge at the Centre of the World. Jonny pulled the wagon to a halt, extracted a ready-rolled cigarette from his shirt pocket, struck up a match. ‘Sorry, it’s the only one,’ he said, spitting some loose shreds onto the boards at his feet.

‘I don’t smoke.’

‘I prefer a pipe myself. But I’m scratching the bottom of my allowance.’

‘Tobacco is rationed?’

‘We share out everything. Food, clothes, books, tobacco.’

‘Clothes as well?’

‘We throw all our clothes into the laundry, pick up what more or less fits from the clean piles. We’ve got one good suit that does for everyone when we have an official meeting to go to. Haven’t you noticed what a bunch of misfits we are?’

Lev did recall Rafi almost bursting out of his too-small workshirt during their first encounter. ‘And if I am not a smoker?’

‘Each according to his needs. No need to smoke, no need for tobacco. But I’m sure you’ve got needs others don’t have, Lev. Or you have something others need.’ Jonny stretched out a hand, grasped at Lev’s wrist. ‘Like this nice watch. It all balances out in the end.’ Jonny dragged hard on his cigarette as if to prove his point, then tipped his chin in the direction of the valley. ‘There are your Bedouin.’

‘I saw them from here yesterday.’

‘Do you speak Arabic?’

‘Not much. And you?

‘Enough to get by. Zayed’s son, Ibrahim, will probably speak with you. He knows Hebrew. A bit of English as well. Have you done business with the Bedouin before?’

‘My first time.’

‘Really? I thought you boys from PICA were well-versed in these matters.’

‘Sammy is the expert, not me.’

‘Well, I’ll take the lead, then. We’ll be invited to eat, of course. That is part of their tradition. But we must politely refuse. Which will be a relief for them as they can hardly manage to feed themselves. They will then invite us to drink with them, an offer we can accept. And remember no discussion of business inside the tent. You must go outside for that.’

‘What are they like, this Zayed and Ibrahim?’

‘Typical Bedouin. Don’t say much. Too many years wandering around the desert with only camels for company. But don’t underestimate them. There’s a shrewd intelligence lurking there behind the silences. Zayed is more traditional, of course, but Ibrahim can be quite modern in his outlook. We have a good relationship with them. We buy their vegetables. We give them medicine. They provide us with a few bottles of
arak
. Some extra hands at harvest time. Or help with draining the swamps. Even though there are some among us who don’t want to employ them.’

‘I heard all the arguments last night.’

‘The irony is if we argued less, we’d have all the time in the world to do our own farmwork.’ Jonny stared out across the valley. Lev followed his gaze. The sun had come up from behind the hills, the same range he had seen the day before as pink was now a shade of dark purple. A hawk swooped over the rift, then stopped to hover above the reeds in the marshland.

‘I thought she would love it here,’ Jonny said, tossing his cigarette into the dust. ‘I really did.’

BOOK: The Land Agent
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