(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Noga Albalach
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Sand. There was sand in the stairwell again.
Nathan Carmi stood still and lifted his head, trying to catch sounds from the upper floor. Maybe they were renovating one of the apartments, he thought. The renovators were going up and down in the building and their shoes were leaving the sand between the floors too. That was a logical scenario. But there was no noise coming from the top floor. Everything, as usual, was quiet. And the sand too, he thought now, was not the sand of construction work. He looked down at the floor. There were crumbs of dry mud scattered over it. Someone had walked here in shoes with muddy soles. Nathan Carmi took a step forwards and one of the crumbs was crushed and disintegrated into numberless grains of rustling sand.
He closed the door to his apartment and hung the key on the hook on the wall. He took off his shoes so that the sand clinging to his soles would not spread through the house. From the shopping basket he put down on the table he took out a little bag of peanuts. He intended eating only two or three peanuts, but from the moment he began he found it hard to stop. He went on standing there for a few minutes, and a pleasant feeling filled his mouth. There was a kind of sweetness, and a pleasant kind of crunch to the peanut between his teeth, neither hard not soft. Carmi thought that now perhaps he would go to bed.
With his eyes open he lay in bed, his feet sticking out of the covers.
The phone rang. The insurance company would like him to come in for a short interview. ‘It will take an hour, no more,’ said the girl from the company conducting the survey and added politely that to compensate him for his time he would be given purchasing coupons. She explained that the insurance company was looking for a representative of his age group, and Nathan was a little embarrassed that the girl knew his age. The insurance company was located in a street named after a long dead Hebrew poet. Nathan knew the poet’s son. A visit to the street would be like a visit to an old acquaintance. I’ll go see how he’s doing, he thought.
Sleeping was no longer possible, so he got up and went in his slippers to the bathroom. The water in the lavatory bowl turned a pale yellow and gradually darkened to a nice, bright yellow. Out of habit he pressed the flush button and made the yellow water disappear, even though it was so pleasant to the eye. The tangy smell of the urine disappeared with it. Thirty centimeters separated the lavatory (both on the right and the left) from the wall. These sixty centimeters were quite enough for him. A man of reasonable size needed no more. When you sat down there was even enough room to spread out a newspaper, only Nathan Carmi never read in the toilet. To tell the truth, he had stopped reading the newspaper altogether, neither in the toilet or outside it. The news flash on the radio every hour satisfied all his needs, and in fact the headlines were enough for him. The details and the in depth analysis were of no interest to him at all, and in fact he didn’t understand them. The intervals between the news flashes on the other hand he understood very well. Then they played music.
Oh, how he loved music!
As usual, he was early. He left home an hour and a half before the appointment even though the journey took less than half an hour. He wanted to be on the safe side in case he couldn’t find the street. But he remembered the street well and also the bus lines that went there. He waited no more than five minutes at the bus stop, and twenty minutes later he had already arrived at his destination. He now had a whole hour on his hands and so he took a walk along the street and the streets next to it. It was a long time since he had been in this part of the city, which was rather neglected, although a few of the buildings had been renovated. Between the office buildings a few little houses from the past were still standing, their stubborn owners having apparently refused to sell the ground for the erection of high rises. In the end he sat down in a café and ordered carrot juice. Best to sit here, he thought. An hour was a long time. Suddenly he recognized that nice singer with the accent, sitting not far from him and talking on the telephone. For a moment he felt the need to greet the singer with a nod, but then he remembered that the singer didn’t know him; only he knew the singer. I leave the neighborhood for an hour and already I’ve seen so many people, accumulated so many experiences, he thought. I have to go out more, take a different bus every day and drink carrot juice, each time in a different part of town. The city was so big, he used to love it so much.
When he entered the offices of the survey company, he felt like someone who had emerged from the past and been thrown forward in time. The offices were modern. The brown cardigan he was wearing was over thirty years old. The young interviewer led him to a room with a computer standing on a table. When he told her that he hardly used a computer, that he knew nothing about the internet, that he had never opened his email inbox, the interviewer looked at him blankly – it sounded so impossible to her. She invited him to sit down in front of the computer, and when he went on to say in embarrassment that he didn’t even know where the letters on the keyboard were, she asked: ‘You don’t know how to work with a computer?’
Instead of sitting by himself in front of the computer and answering the survey questions, he squeezed in next to the interviewer and answered the questions she read to him aloud from the screen. ‘Occupation,’ she demanded, and when he explained to her that he had taken early retirement from the bank, she entered ‘retiree’ on the screen. ‘Have you been involved in an accident in the past?’ ‘I don’t have a car,’ he replied. ‘Have you required the services of the insurance company in the past?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Were you satisfied with the service? You must choose between “Extremely satisfied”, “Very satisfied”, ‘The service was satisfactory”, and “The service was unsatisfactory”.’ Nathan Carmi pondered the question at length. He couldn’t remember why he had turned to the insurance company, but he definitely remembered that they had sent him forms and that he had filled them in. ‘Very satisfied,’ he said.
Two hours later, with flushed cheeks, he left the little room. The young interviewer preceded him and hurried to the door before him, and when he reached the secretary’s desk she was nowhere to be seen. The earth had swallowed her, or one of the rooms.
‘I’m really sorry for the inconvenience,’ he said hesitantly to the secretary. ‘They didn’t say anything to me on the telephone about the computer,’ he added in embarrassed self-justification, and she handed him the purchasing coupons.
‘Please sign here in receipt of the coupons.’
‘Thank you very much,’ he said and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his hand.
When he emerged into the street he examined the coupons and saw a list of stores from which he had never before bought anything.
When Nathan Carmi was a child he wanted to play an instrument. His parents bought him a child-sized violin. Nathan loved his little violin: the wood from which it was made, the bow's hair cut from a horse’s tail. He loved the horse too, for the generous gift of a few hairs of its tail.
Even before the first lesson he imagined himself standing on a stage and playing passionately. He imagined too the cries of ‘bravo’ from the audience and their applause. ‘A child prodigy’ he heard them saying in his mind.
The first lesson was devoted solely to the holding of the instrument: left hand holding the violin, the angle of the chin, right hand holding the bow. Not a note was played; little Nathan was disappointed. But the sounds came soon enough, and during the coming lessons he made a lot of sawing noises. With time they’ll develop into butterflies, he thought, but after six months the teacher asked to talk to his mother.
‘The child has no talent,’ the teacher said. ‘There’s no point in investing in lessons. I could go on teaching him and taking your money, but I don’t think it’s fair, either for you or the child.’
‘The child loves music so much….’ said his mother.
‘That’s precisely why I don’t think it’s fair to go on fostering his hopes.’
Nathan Carmi never gave up his love, only resigned himself to his inability to play. He knew that as a listener he was endowed with unique qualities, or more precisely, he knew that music was endowed with unique qualities that acted on him while he was listening to it.
Recently he had discovered Dvorak’s chamber music. As in the ‘New World’ symphony, here too he was surprised that a Czech like Dvorak had written music with such an American tone. And altogether, what was this American tone, what gave birth to it? Had Dvorak created it? He wondered – he couldn’t define the characteristics of this American melody, nevertheless he sensed it clearly. He thought about it one evening as he sat and listened. It isn’t sweetness, he thought, perhaps it’s optimism, a feeling of a new beginning, of excitement, and perhaps it’s all a question of harmonies. Usually he didn’t like sentimental emotionality, he preferred restraint to outbursts of gushing emotion, but with Dvorak…
And especially his chamb…
What was that?
He picked up the remote and lowered the volume.
From the stairwell he heard a sound of knocking.
He rose from the sofa. The string quintet in G major had already been silenced. When he stood behind the closed door he heard the sound of children chattering, but when he opened it the stairwell was empty, apart from a few scattered little heaps of sand.
Only when Nathan Carmi entered the stairwell of his building, after returning from the survey company, did he realize how tired he was. It was a long time since he had walked around the city like that. Nor had he ever sat for such a long time answering questions. He was hungry. Apart from the carrot juice he hadn’t had a bite to eat, and he had sacrificed his siesta too. Now it was already late in the afternoon.
He climbed the stairs slowly, stopped on the second floor, his floor, and looked down. Little heaps of sand rested on the floor not far from the door to his apartment. Although they already seemed like a permanent part of the stairwell décor, he looked at them in astonishment. Who on earth was doing it?
Footsteps were heard from the direction of the upper floors. Nathan Carmi looked up and saw the young woman from the third floor.
‘Hello,’ she smiled at him as she descended the stairs. ‘Is everything all right?’ she asked when she saw that he was standing there, paralyzed in shock, without entering his apartment.
‘Do you know what these piles of sand are?’ he asked her and pointed to the floor. ‘It’s every day now,’ he said. ‘Once I went out to sweep it away, and the next day it was back again. As if the floor tiles are spawning sand.’
‘On our floor it isn’t happening…’ she said.
He looked at her in dismay. ‘Someone is coming here and strewing sand,’ he said.
‘But why would anyone do something like that?’
‘I really have no idea.’
They stood there in silence.
‘Okay.’ He took the key out of his pocket. ‘If you discover anything, let me know.’
‘Sure,’ said the young neighbor and turned to go downstairs.
She was all sweaty.
Her forehead, the nape of her neck, her armpits, her palms, underneath her breasts.
She stood in front of thirty-two children, and the drops traveled down her body. She was already experienced, it wasn’t the first time she was facing a class, and nevertheless there were thirty-two pairs of eyes fixed on her now and they were filling her with anxiety. They were quiet, the children, not disruptive or noisy, just sitting there and looking at her. They looked attentive; more precisely, alert. She was their new teacher and they were taking her measure, accurately and cruelly. Only nine or ten years old, and they were critical and questing for prey like a pack of jackals.
She raised her hand to her forehead and wiped the sweat with the back of her hand. I shouldn’t concentrate on the sweating, she said to herself, that way it won’t stop. But she couldn’t get rid of the thought that the sweat was the only thing the children were seeing now as they looked her over, and every drop was sparkling at them like morning dew. When she turned to the blackboard there would be a long wet strip on her back. From the front the situation was no better: her loose blouse was already sticking to her stomach.
She went to the shelf with the remote and turned the air-conditioner to eleven degrees. Maybe Nordic cold would help here, she thought, in the Middle East of her body.
She continued the lesson as usual, demanding the children’s participation. They responded hesitantly, still not feeling confident. She smiled encouragingly at each child who dared to put up his hand, greeted warmly every answer. Little by little they opened up. A little girl sitting in the first row put up her hand shyly and received permission to speak. She said she was cold. The teacher took the remote and returned the temperature to a sane level, murmuring: ‘Sorry, I…. I really overdid it a bit.’ She smiled at her, at the slender little girl. She certainly hadn’t meant to make her suffer.
In the staff room she looked at the other teachers, male and female, and at the headmistress. They were different from her, their behavior was smoother than hers, without any jumpiness. They felt at home, spoke freely, their smiles were logical. Unlike the unconcealed probing of the children, the probing in the staff room was subtle, circuitous, a mature probing of adults. The questions led to discussions about other schools, about the air-conditioning in the classrooms, about public transport and traffic jams. Conversations like these yield friendships sometimes.
Recess was nearly over, the noisy staff room would soon be empty and quiet. She had to gather her strength to stand up and go to the next lesson. It was the fourth hour, and the endless talking to the children, the standing in front of the class, the need to maintain the discipline so easily disrupted – like a particularly short record which requires resetting the needle again and again – the attempt to think from the heads of the children, not to use unfamiliar words, to be authoritative – all these exhausted her on her first day.
‘I’m Galia, pleased to meet you,’ she said to the plump teacher who sat next to her during recess sorting a pile of papers on the table in front of her.
The plump teacher stopped sorting the papers and looked up. ‘I’m Hava,’ she said.
‘I’m exhausted, and the day isn’t over yet,’ Galia said.
Hava smiled. ‘It’s like keeping fit,’ she said. ‘You get there gradually. You have to exercise your teaching muscles. There are a whole lot of them.’ She raised her arm and flexed her muscles.
‘Fifteen years by now,’ said Hava proudly.
People have a face and a body, a more or less smooth appearance, even if inside they are in pieces.
In the evening she sat in front of the computer. Connecting narrow, private arteries to the broad arteries of the world. Her activity was feeble and imperceptible, how much could she actually be adding to the great river of bytes?
She saw she had a message in her mailbox but she didn’t open it. On Facebook she discovered that five children had offered to befriend her. Nine-year-old children. They had only met her today. The children, she saw, were not smiling in their pictures, it seems they were trying to express something dark and moody: hair falling on their faces, sullen, suffering looks. They looked like advertisements for perfume.
She remembered a children’s song, ‘When you look at me from behind you don’t know who I am,’ a song she liked because of its defiance. She wasn’t sure she would want that defiant kid in her classroom, but nevertheless, defiance too was a kind of communication, only in reverse. ‘When you look at me from behind you don’t know who I am’ means to say: I want you to look at me, from the front.
She abandoned the computer. The abundance it offered was too big, too broad, boring.
She sat at the dining table and spread the textbooks out before her: arithmetic, literature, Bible. Tere were subjects she would like to teach without a textbook. Bible, for example. Without superfluous details, just to read the story with the children and let it act on them. A story was an act, and therefore stories had power. How she wished that the children would learn to enjoy the music of the Bible: ‘And they went, and came into an harlot woman’s house, named Rahab, and they lodged there.’ A harlot is a big-hearted woman, she would have liked to say to the children. Perhaps it’s not by coincidence that her name is Rahab. ‘And they lodged there,’ she would read aloud and say: ‘Listen to the music, see how lovely it is.’ But this is not what she is supposed to say in the classroom.
The next day, at recess, she stood in the staff room again and scanned it alertly. Where was Hava? Perhaps it was her day off, or perhaps she was on playground duty? She took a cup of tea and went outside. Hava was standing in the schoolyard surrounded by children and engaged in a loud, lively conversation with them. Galia approached them.
‘Should I bring you something to drink?’ she asked Hava.
‘I have something, thank you.’ On the stone wall stood a cup of coffee. ‘You look a little sad,’ said Hava, who stepped aside for a moment and detached herself from the commotion around her.
‘I’m not sad,’ Galia said and suddenly noticed a little girl standing right next to her. It seemed as if she wanted to say something to her, since she raised her head to her. Hava hurried away to the playground where two boys were hitting each other. Galia looked down at the little girl.
‘Where do you live?’ the girl asked.
‘Not far from here,’ replied Galia.
‘Here in the neighborhood?’
‘Are you new here?’
‘Yes,’ said Galia. ‘And where do you live?’
‘With my mother here in the neighborhood and with my father in Netanya.’
‘So you have two homes.’
‘Yes. They’re divorced. Do you come to school by foot?’
‘Sometimes by bicycle too.’ Galia lifted the cup to her lips.
‘Do you have a bicycle with gears?’ asked the little girl.
She drank a little of the hot tea. ‘Yes,’ she smiled.
‘They promised to buy me a bicycle with gears too.’
‘Do you like riding a bicycle?’
‘Very much. In the neighborhood I go everywhere on my bicycle. When I go to visit my friends, for example. But at my dad’s I haven’t got a bike.’
‘But he promised to buy you one.’
‘Don’t you want to go and play with the other children? Recess will be over soon.’
‘Won’t you be bored?’ asked the little girl.
Galia laughed. ‘Perhaps… but don’t worry about me, I’ll manage.’
The girl turned round and walked away. Hava sent Galia a smile from the distance.
‘Hello, my name’s Galia, and I’m your children’s new teacher. This is also my first year at this school. I taught for five years before at another school, always in grades four to six.’
These were the opening sentences she had prepared. Quite predictable. Should she add that she had a degree in literature? That she had only acquired a teaching diploma afterwards? That teaching literature was a vocation for her? And especially today, in the era of the computer, when the children hardly picked up a book and hardly succeeded in reading a single paragraph without getting tired? Should she say boring and obvious things about literature, that it was a rich world, that it contained so much feeling, that everyone could find themselves in it, learn about themselves? That you could learn about language from it too, about ways of expression? Economy as opposed to verbosity, irony, use of images, the emotional role of imagery, kitsch, and what kitsch was. We could examine the question of whether kitsch is art. Although I’m not sure, she could say, if children are capable of discerning kitsch. Kitsch usually appeals to them a lot.
She was being carried away. Clearly. There was no need for all this, most of the parents wouldn’t be interested. After a long day’s work she talks to them about kitsch? In any case they only come to see her to gain an impression of the person their children are going to meet every day now. No need to be clever. Cleverness would only put them off.
‘The school regulations, as you probably know from previous years, determines specific procedures and we act according to them. There are situations which I am sorry to say we come across routinely in the course of our work here. Firstly, an incident of violence between children. In this instance a clarification will take place. The violent party will be suspended…..’
Yes, she’ll talk about administrative, organizational, logistical matters. And this time she won’t sweat. They’ll ask various questions, and afterwards she’ll go home, to the silence.
The parents’ meeting was over. One mother accosted her and told her feverishly about what had happened to her son in his previous school. Galia listened patiently without interrupting the spate of words, even though they led nowhere, only repeated themselves over and over again. Her son was a quiet, withdrawn boy, Galia had already gotten to know him. Now she thought that perhaps the mother’s garrulousness explained it. In the meantime the parents trailed out, some called ‘Goodbye,’ others ‘Good luck,’ and some said nothing. In the end the woman stopped talking and Galia went to take her bag from the cupboard.
‘I was waiting to get you on your own,’ a low voice said.
She turned round and saw a young man sitting on one of the little chairs with his long legs stretched out in front of him.
She was exhausted. She too sat down on one of the little chairs and put her bag on her lap.
‘Are you tired?’ he asked.
‘I’ll survive,’ she said bleakly.
‘I didn’t understand why you had to talk so much about rules and frameworks and regulations.’
‘It’s obvious that those aren’t the things that interest you.’
‘I didn’t talk about them that much.’
‘You escape into the rules and frameworks, you’re avoiding the issue.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Dana’s brother. I’ve been coming to these meetings instead of my parents for a few years now.’
‘It’s important to me to be involved. My parents are happy to let me do it. At their age they don’t have the patience for all these meetings anymore.’
‘Don’t take it personally.’
‘It’s a good thing somebody’s got the strength for these meetings,’ she smiled and was about to stand up.
‘I’ve more or less taken command of Dana’s education.’
‘I think that kids are getting lost today because of soft education and lack of attention.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We don’t demand enough of them, we do everything for them. All we want is for them to have fun all the time. We raise them to pick candies from the supermarket instead of planting zucchini seeds in the ground.’
‘So what are you doing about it?’
‘I make very clear, firm rules.’
‘So you escape to rules too.’
‘No,’ he said seriously. ‘I create the rules in order to save Dana from the general flaccidity of our lives. You must be tired. The subject is too big to develop now.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Let’s go.’
They left the classroom.
‘What rules for example do you create to save her from flaccidity?’ she asked as they walked together to the gate.
‘Ah… running for example. Three times a week.’
She looked at him, rather surprised.
‘It requires discipline,’ he said.
She stopped in front of him. ‘I’m going that way.’ She pointed.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘we’ll continue another time.’
When she got home she sat on the armchair opposite the big living room window and watched her neighbor. His room was dimly lit. Only his desk enjoyed the bright light of a reading lamp. Every evening he sat there in front the computer. When he bowed his head Galia knew that he was reading a book. Once she saw a woman in his room, afterwards the woman left the room and disappeared into the darkness. He didn’t follow her, but went on sitting. Dana’s brother was right: discipline, perseverance – these were things that had to be learned. The young man in front the computer, what was he investigating, what was he studying evening after evening? Mostly she watched him from a dark room. Only her television shone sometimes with a pale blue light, but usually it was switched off. She preferred watching the studying man to the programs on the screen. He hardly moved. All he did was raise and drop his head from time to time, from the book to the screen and back again, shift slightly in his chair, rest his cheek on his hand. She watched the rhythm of the thinking, studying, reflecting man. When she went to bed, he was still sitting there.
In the evening he went out for a stroll in the neighborhood. It was twilight. Parents and children were on their way home from the playground, to supper, showers, to cozy domesticity and the ritual of putting the children to bed. While they were all thus engaged he could wander through the empty streets, go into the supermarket just before it closed and buy tomatoes and cucumbers. There were no queues at this hour, the checkout girls were already thinking of home.
Slowly he approached his building. The white supermarket plastic bag swung to and fro in his hand with his few purchases. He saw a man getting out of a car and hurrying into one of the buildings, another man riding towards him on a bicycle. When Nathan passed the man on the bicycle, he turned his head to look at him without knowing why. He stopped next to a bench and sat down. A few minutes later he got up and went on walking.
When he reached the building the entrance was dark. He opened the heavy door and pressed the light switch. The light didn’t turn on. Maybe the globe was burned out, maybe there was a power outage. But then he saw a weak light coming from the stairs leading down to the basement. When he reached the stairs the light went out. He held onto the railing with his left hand and very carefully descended the steps, surrounded by absolute darkness. Little by little his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Suddenly he heard a noise. Something was moving there! His heart pounded. He wondered if he should climb back up, but he did nothing, just stood still on one of the steps.
‘Who’s there?’ he called.
There was no answer.
He had no doubt that there was somebody down there in the dark. Then he heard another movement and made out a pale silhouette.
‘Who’s there!’ he called, this time with a hint of aggression.
‘It…’ said a weak, hesitant voice, a man’s voice.
‘What are you doing there?’ He looked at the pale silhouette standing in front of him.
‘It…’ said the stranger.
Nathan Carmi was silent. He sensed the man’s distress.
‘Hebrew no…’ said the man in a foreign accent.
‘Come,’ commanded Nathan and turned his back to the man.
He transferred the bag to his left hand and began to climb, holding the railing with his right. Behind him he heard the stranger on his heels.
Without turning around he left the building and stood in the street. The stranger stood next to him. In the light of the street lamp Nathan looked at him for the first time. The man’s hair was gray, his face sunburned, and he was wearing a pale, button-down shirt.
‘Don’t you speak Hebrew?’ he asked.
‘I little bit,’ said the man. He stood opposite him like an obedient pupil before his teacher.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I to find place to sleep,’ said the stranger unapologetically.
‘Why?’ asked Nathan.
‘Tired,’ said the stranger.
The man smiled back.
‘Hungry?’ asked Nathan.
‘No hungry,’ replied the stranger. ‘Is food. In bag,’ he explained and pointed backwards.
Nathan nodded. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked.
‘Boss no good,’ said the stranger in a low voice, ‘I go. I no want…’ And then he fell silent for a moment and outlined a square with his hands. ‘Prison,’ he said.
‘You have to go to prison?’ said Nathan in surprise.
‘No-no,’ the stranger laughed. ‘I work. There is… like… like prison. So I go.’
‘Where are you from?’ asked Nathan.
‘Bulgaria,’ the man replied.
‘And how long have you been here?’
‘Two year….’ Nathan Carmi repeated. For a while he appeared to be sunk in thought. Only now he noticed the flashlight the Bulgarian was holding in his hand.
‘Good,’ said Nathan Carmi suddenly as if he had just mobilized all his powers, in order to solve the problem. ‘Tonight you’ll sleep here. Tomorrow you’ll go back to work.’ And he began walking back to the building.
‘Oh… no!’ cried the stranger and caught up with Nathan, ‘I no go back to work. Boss no good. He take my passport.’
‘What?’ Nathan stopped and turned the handles of the shopping bag round his wrist.
‘He take my passport, I no go back to work.’
‘He must have taken your passport so you wouldn’t run away.’
‘Yes,’ said the stranger.
‘And you, because he took your passport, ran away,’ said Nathan Carmi, and added a couple of hand gestures. ‘You, you’ve got character.’ He smiled at the Bulgarian.
The Bulgarian didn’t smile back and didn’t say anything. It was his silence that clarified his dire situation to Nathan Carmi. The Bulgarian was in trouble, he was a hostage – not wanting to stay and not able to leave.
When they walked back to the building side by side, the Bulgarian lit their way with his flashlight.
Nathan Carmi sat still in his armchair but his thoughts scrambled all over the room. He was so busy thinking that he had forgotten to switch on the living room light, and he sat in the dark. The Bulgarian too sat in the dark, or more precisely, lay in the dark on the woolen blanket that Nathan gave him. Nathan looked at the television which was switched off, staring at it blankly. Then he seemed to rouse himself, stood up, and left the apartment.
He climbed the stairs to the floor above him, stood still, and pressed his ear to the door. There was no sound coming from Galia’s apartment. Maybe she’s gone out, he thought. A young woman like her, why should she sit at home? Nevertheless he knocked discreetly on the door.
‘Who is it?’ Galia’s voice responded immediately from inside the apartment.
‘Nathan,’ called Nathan. ‘The neighbor,’ he added.
The door opened and Galia stood in the doorway. Even though he was looking at her face, he knew that her feet were bare, and not only because of the silence of her steps when she came to open the door.
‘Is everything all right?’ she asked and invited him in. Now he lowered his head and saw her bare feet. When he looked up he saw that she wasn’t wearing a bra. That’s how women behaved at home, he remembered, and Galia was definitely at home – the environment which he had now entered was Galia’s to the core. If he had been required to imagine Galia’s apartment, this was exactly as he would have imagined it.
‘Something’s happened,’ he began. ‘I don’t know, I’m at my wit’s end, I really don’t know how to get my head around it. I think I have to tell someone what I’ve discovered.’
‘What’s happened?’ asked Galia in a voice which was pleasant to Nathan’s ear.
‘There’s somebody sleeping in our basement,’ he said.
They sat on the sofa in Galia’s living room and looked at each other.
‘Are you sure?’
And then he told her how he had gone down to the basement, how he had found the Bulgarian there, and what the Bulgarian had told him about his escape, about the passport, how he had kept on repeating the word prison. ‘He said prison maybe three or four times during the conversation,’ Nathan emphasized. He told her too that he had gone down a few minutes later to give him a woolen blanket so that he could lie on it and not on the cold hard floor.
‘It must be terrible to feel as if you’re in prison. They give a person food and shelter, but he’s not free. And look at me, like some boss. I give him permission to sleep here. By what right? What, isn’t a person allowed to sleep any more in our world? If he’s found a corner, let him sleep. Do you understand what I’m saying?’ Nathan was almost pleading. ‘Does the ground belong to me more than to him?’
Galia knew: Nathan Carmi didn’t expect an answer. She stood up and went to the kitchenette and switched on the electric kettle. ‘Look,’ she called, ‘the problem starts with the fact that his employer took away his passport.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe the problem starts with the fact that someone has to leave home and travel so far in order to make a living.’
Galia said nothing.
‘He didn’t immigrate to here, he didn’t come to build a life here, you understand? He’s here, and it’s as if he’s not here.’
Galia stood in front of him and nodded her head.
‘We won’t change those things,’ said Nathan quietly. ‘The system is stronger than us.’
Galia felt cold. She went to her room and came back wearing a sweatshirt. Then she went to the kitchenette and returned with two cups of tea.
‘You can add sugar,’ she said, and offered Nathan a jar of sugar and a teaspoon.
They sat and drank in silence.
‘We’re drinking hot tea, and he’s lying in the basement,’ said Nathan and smiled sadly.
‘If you like we can take him down a cup of tea.’
‘He’s probably asleep by now.’
‘Nathan, he’ll go back to his employer, and afterwards he’ll go back home to Bulgaria as well, don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It was nice of you to give him a blanket.’ She smiled at him.
In the morning, unusually for him, Nathan Carmi woke up hungry. In his pajamas and slippers he went to the kitchen to make himself a splendid breakfast. Like a five star hotel, he thought, even though he had never been in such a hotel. He made a fried egg and a salad, sliced brown bread and took from the fridge some cheese and his sister-in-law’s home-made jam. A delicacy, he thought as he stood next to the table and tasted a teaspoonful of the strawberry jam. He put water for coffee on the gas and while he waited for it to boil he went to change his clothes. He felt good in his little home, and precisely because of this he found it difficult to push away the guilt he felt at making himself such a fine breakfast in his cozy apartment while the Bulgarian didn’t even have a place to sleep. He must be gone by now, he thought. Things will work out, he hoped. He heard a light patter on the kitchen window. Before sitting down at the table he turned on the radio. The new announcer said that showers were expected in most of the country. A pleasant warmth flooded his body, not because of Beethoven’s Third Symphony which began to play on the radio.
He descended the stairs, satisfied and at ease. He had enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and now he could go down to check the basement. On the ground floor a neighbor woman was standing with a supermarket trolley and examining her mail. ‘How are you, Nathan?’ she asked when she saw him. ‘Fine, fine,’ he replied and immediately changed course and left the building. In the street he sat on a bench for a few minutes, to make sure that the woman had already left. He returned to the building and went carefully down the stairs. There was a chair standing next to the basement. On the chair was a folded woolen blanket. Apart from this there was no trace of the Bulgarian. He had gone. Continued on his way. Our building was just a little station in his long life, thought Nathan and went back upstairs to his apartment without taking the blanket.