By Zvi Jagendorf
Dear Odd Bull,
It is extremely unfair and no one here will help me so I am complaining to you. After all you are the Chief of the United Nations here and it is your job to look after oppressed minorities of which I am one and so is Maman although she won’t admit this to anyone this side of Beirut. I am being persecuted by everybody but especially by Mr. Bibas of the accounts department at the radio who will not pay me my wages on time but makes me grovel to him in his office and laughs at me while I try to explain my case. I know he is looking at my breasts under my too tight blouse but I have no money for new clothes and Maman is tired of altering garments for me. She says she grew up in a household with three sewing girls working for them in the old days and a Greek gardener who kept the hushchash orange and the lemon trees in perfect order. So she refuses to turn into a servant of her own daughter even though she makes fancy dresses for the rich ladies who shop at Fashion Vienna in Zion Square.
Dear Sir Odd Bull or Colonel or General Odd Bull, you see we need help for many reasons but especially because we go to sing hymns at the Still Small Voice in the Desert Chapel and our neighbours suspect us for this and think we are spies for Jesus and King Hussein. How could we be spies if we go so openly and mostly for the singing? Believe me, we get no money from Mr. Wells, just Scottish oatcakes and packages of English breakfast tea and sometimes booklets from the Bible Society in Stirling, Scotland. The hymns are sweet too and make me think of green fields by streams bubbling over smooth grey pebbles to the sound of trumpets like they have in England from pictures of when I was young and we lived there. When I sing
Blow ye the trumpet blow
The gladly solemn sound
in the little room overlooking the deep valley I raise my voice without fear. There are only six or seven of us but Mr. Wells presses hard on the piano keys and chants: “heart and soul, give it heart and soul,” to encourage us. But as soon as we are out of there and climbing up the winding path to the Hebron road I am a trembling woman again afraid of each twist in every olive tree trunk and all the voices in the wind. The Ethiopian monk lies in wait for me some evenings where the Government Printer’s building ends before the railway yards begin. He says he wants to accompany us home and guard us against mischievous children and wild dogs but he smells of hot oil and sweat and his black robes are full of bats’ wings.
I am FELICITY COMFORTI. Yes that’s right you haven’t misheard. FELICITY COMFORTI is my present name and I am leaving this letter unfinished for the fortieth time because I do not know how to reach the heart of Odd Bull and his United Nations Truth Supervisors. If I sound lunatic in this letter, know I am not. I am as sane as most people in this crippled half of a Jerusalem which has been split in two like a dry pomegranate. But I need United Nations help so that I can leave and go where I am not mocked and slighted and where I can be lost in a crowd of happy people going about their business and following their pleasures. I sometimes dream of going away with one of those young Supervisors whom I see driving fast up Bethlehem Road in their white Jeeps marked UNTSO. I even know where they are going, to their headquarters in the old British Government House on the Hill of Evil Counsel after a day of inspecting the armistice. But they look very young, those Supervisors, some are even black so I do not think they would have enough experience to understand my troubles. Even if they wanted to help, what could a simple Truth Supervisor do without the approval of his superiors? And where could they take me? Cairo? Famagusta? That would set the bells ringing at the United Nations, and Felicity would be to blame for an international crisis. No, it has to be done diplomatically, through the proper channels.
But I must first touch the heart of Odd Bull with my letter and there is so much to tell him. So I keep adding on and on. But even when I finish it and it is perfect, how on earth can I post it? To Damascus? To Beirut? It might as well be to the moon. The post from here only goes one way in the direction of Cyprus and then across the sea. The other way is as closed as the road to Bethlehem when it gets to the soldiers and their barriers of canisters, concrete blocks and rusty wire just before the tomb of Mother Rachel away round the bend and behind a clump of trees. If only she could help me with my problem but she can’t because the Arab Legion has declared her a Military Zone and no message can get through, though the Truth Supervisors can.
Would one of those pink Norwegian boys take an envelope for me? It would be nothing for him, only a slip of paper enclosed with my plea. But they might search him at the gate to Mother Rachel and how would he explain my message:
HELP ME FELICITY COMFORTI TO LEAVE THIS PLACE IN THE NAME OF JESUS AND ELIJAH PLEASE MOTHER RACHEL.
He would get into trouble certainly for taking sides in the armistice and might even be sent back to the land of ice and snow in disgrace and never get to supervise anyone or anything again.
No messages can cross those lines, even when we shout from our rooftop at the Still Small Voice Chapel. Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice is what we cry when Mr. Wells has filled us with enthusiasm and hope but it makes no difference to the Valley of Hinnom below our windows. It stays yellow and deep and empty as if it knows it is a bad place full of hostile thoughts and old explosives and will be a no man’s land till doomsday. We have few neighbours there, a whistle away from Zion Gate, mostly abandoned houses from the war and rubble and graves. Mr. Wells told us that children were sacrificed in that valley before Jesus came and when the Children of Israel went whoring after strange gods, but Jesus and the prophets put a stop to all that. Imagine little children, killed on the stones right there beneath our windows! If Jesus came back now he would certainly abolish no man’s land and turn it into green pastures by still waters. Then they would get rid of all the barbed wire and the mines for ever. And I could leave for a green land like Wales and Maman could go back to London and be happy.
You should know I wasn’t always Felicity Comforti. I changed my name when my face began to look like someone else in the mirror and my body started betraying me and the boys in Ethiopia Street were calling me bad things and trying to lift my skirt with sticks. Sharmuta they called me, Masreeha, Mageela and even worse words which make me blush when I hear them in my head which I do when Mr. Bibas teases me leaning on his desk, crumbs from his sandwich on his moustache and the sweat drops glistening on his forehead.
What made it worse were the pills that Dr. Wertheimer gave me. They began to make my ankles thicken and my hips to wear cushions and put blood in my eyes and knotted my hair. But they took away my nightmares and gave me some sleep so I didn’t give them up.
And why did I have nightmares, you may well ask. I didn’t have them before that fright in the Karaite graveyard where I had gone with Raif my sweetheart from Bacchus Bar. He was an Arab boy from Galilee, so thin and delicate, and he lived with some cousins out of the town so we had nowhere to meet. He said his mother was Jewish once and ran away from her family but I didn’t care about all that. He was a good singer and I loved to listen to his voice sliding and curling with Abd el Wahab’s songs. He put Radio Cairo on in the Bacchus Bar when it was empty before he opened and we would listen. At first it sounded like cats in the night to me but soon I began to hear it really and it was like a maze of music in a perfumed garden, all about longing and waiting and hoping and giving up hope and dying for love.
YA YA YA HABIBI HAADI LAYLATOU
HOUBBI AAH YA HABIBI HAADI LAYLATOU
Raif taught me how to smoke and he made cigarettes himself which tasted so different and when they got up your nose made you sore behind the eyes but then you got calm and relaxed and warm inside even when it was chilly all around.
That graveyard is a secret place. Nobody goes there and the graves are very old and wobbly but the ground is softer because there are hardly any stones. Maybe people picked them up and put them on the graves when they came to visit their dead years and years ago. Raif would sit with me there for hours at the end of the day and we would kiss and pet and hear nothing in the dark but donkeys and radios and a bell clanging from the convent by the wall.
Nobody knew that I was Raif’s sweetheart and that we were planning to escape to a place where we could be together all the time and no one would think it was strange. Perhaps New Zealand.
Nobody in the family knew. They didn’t even know I was going to Bacchus Bar with all the United Nations people. Father and Maman thought I was attending evening classes in the YMCA to improve my typing skills and ability to take dictation so that I wouldn’t have to stay in the shabby Peltransport Agency typing out duplicate shipping forms for Mr. Abbadi.
The YMCA lobby was where they sat and talked about going to America; George Syrkis and Nabeel Nimmer and Raif, all Arab boys. But they also tried to get work from tourists following in the foosteps of Jesus taking them to the room where he had his last supper and to caves where hermits used to live and St. John in the Wilderness which has a well and answers you when you shout into it. I saw Raif with them and liked him because he looked different, not polished and brushed and gold chains round his neck but quieter and a bit shy and pale. When I waited in the lobby for my class to start we looked at each other and then looked away as if it was an accident, nothing. But when he came over to me and said “Are you a tourist?” I laughed right at him and he laughed too and said he would wait till my class was over and we went to Bacchus where the Norwegians were singing and stamping and banging on the tables and I drank a beer.
Dear Odd Bull,
Can you understand how my happiness was taken away from me? How can I show you what a graceful girl I was. If you could only see one photograph you would most certainly call up the Supervisors right away and all the United Nations officers to rescue me and bring me back to what I was and take me far away from here. I have the photograph to show you but I am afraid to part with it as all the others have disappeared or were thrown away by Maman in her tantrums. How would I know what I used to be if I lost that photo? You would keep it in Famagusta but I would be stuck here in my ugliness with no one even remembering me as what I used to be except Maman and she wouldn’t tell.
Honestly, I get tired of typing these letters to Odd Bull and then stopping and not sending them because I have so much to say and I don’t want to risk him throwing it into the waste paper basket or showing it to one of the secretaries to giggle over. Even my lovely photo they would giggle over, I know.
When that photo was taken I wasn’t Felicity I was Mazal Florence Arditi and my father liked to call me Fleur. My picture is with Maman, Father and my sister Dolly. We are standing on either side of our parents wearing white dresses. In my hair there were big ribbons like white birds. But I am not a girl any more. I am a young woman staring at you from a gilded cage wishing for freedom. Behind us there is a curtain embroidered with flowers so big they could frighten you and Dolly was crying I remember because a string of beads Maman gave her had broken and spilled all over the floor. If you look carefully you can see a drop of a tear on her cheek which the man from Photo Orient didn’t manage to brush out. But she was sent to school in Paris and she’s happy now and married in Brazil. They took that picture to send to our aunts in France so they would see that leaving Bayswater for the Middle East hadn’t turned us into natives or communists or anything outlandish.
Nobody wanted to come except Father. Maman even tried to sabotage his passport briefcase by accidentally pouring an entire bottle of ink into it. She couldn’t see why we should leave Bayswater, the little nook we had made for ourselves, now that the war was over and Father back from the navy. He had a job with the BBC in French for the Middle East and was getting started on his anthology of Esperanto love songs so why go anywhere, especially to Palestine, or whatever they called it now, where there was trouble all the time and Maman had no cousins or friends to sip Campari with and play canasta. All her childhoood friends from Beirut were in Paris or London or Brazil, putting things together again after the war, so why should she go backwards into that furnace of dry thorns just because Mosco Arditi had become majnun fou and thought he could win the new country over to Esperanto as a laboratory for world peace.
“They are fugitives, they are pauvres misérables, desperate and running away from misfortune. They have nowhere else to go so that’s where the boat sets them down. Why you, why us? I have heard you can’t get a lamb chop for a pot of gold and we can’t live on oranges and egg powder. It’ll be like the blitz with mosquitoes. No Mosco, no, no, no. Absolument non.”
No one asked me, and Dolly was even younger. I was taken out of St George’s Marylebone School in the middle of rehearsals for the Easter pageant in which I was a Roman soldier called Longinus and my task was guarding Jesus. As quick as lightning I was put on a pile of bags and cases marked ARDITI MARSEILLES HAIFA JERUSALEM FRAGILE.
In the boat Dolly and I slept on a bunk with Maman and Father slept below. But he wasn’t there much as he spent hours talking to strange people on deck. He told us he was trying to interest them in Esperanto and by the way picking up bits of the many languages they spoke.
“It is the Tower of Babel up there,” he said. “Misunderstanding leads to quarreling and quarreling leads to fights. They’ll never come to anything if they don’t learn a universal language.” Maman didn’t care about those things but she was frightened he would catch a disease from those miserable people. They had germs all over them and germs jump!
One man, very thin and small and grey all over, his eyes too, used to come into the cabin with father and sit on his bunk when Maman was up on deck sunbathing. They talked in whispers but I tried very hard to overhear. I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying but I heard the word LOBKA LOBKA a lot from the grey man. I don’t think that was Esperanto. Father spoke to him in languages I couldn’t understand and the man kept saying LOBKA LOBKA. Sometimes in a low voice but sometimes almost shouting as if he was selling something in the market. LOBKA LOBKA. And sometimes he took off his shoes which were more like boots and sang to them, holding them in front of him, one in each hand like two mirrors. It sounded like “ayloo bayloo omran”.
He had a low and wavy voice and it made those strange words like something you’d sing in a dark cave to stop the black hole from swallowing you. But I was frightened of his grey face and his grey eyes. So when he pressed me hard to his chest and smelled my hair once in the corridor between the cabins I thought I would die. He crouched down and held on to me with his breath blowing on my forehead like a snorting bear. I pushed him away as hard as I could and ran off. Then I told Maman and he never came back to the cabin. The Ethiopian monk who follows us home from the Still Small Voice Chapel is like him even though he is tall and black. He’s waiting for a chance to push his sooty face close to mine and breathe his spell into my blood.
But when Raif brought his lips right up to mine and I felt his heart thumping and his hand on my naked skin my happiness filled the world. What did I care about the DANGER BORDER sign right over the graveyard wall? Why should we think about the whistles and the crackling radios of the border guard jeeps on the road above us? Why should we think of anything? Who knew about us? Nobody. Who could say a word against us? No one. “Raif,” I said, “Raif” and his forehead was wet against mine, hot in the cool night. “Raif my darling.”
Then the crack came. Crack Crack Crack. Then quiet for a minute. Then Ping Ping Ping Ping. And cracking and pinging all around, along the valley into the desert. Whine Whine of a machine lamenting. High up and down whine keeping going. Rattle.
We buried our faces in the earth between the graves. Raif took his hand off me and covered his head. My lips were kissing the grit and the crumbs of earth but my eyes were boring beneath into the holes where the dead were. Rows of holes with their dead. Tunnels of holes boring into each other and down into the valley and bones without eyes looking at me. Above us the searchlight made the graveyard bright, then dark, then bright even more, then dark again and I saw it when the light was there. I saw it. And then it went dark. Then light and I saw it again. And then there were soldiers and border guards in the graveyard, scrambling over the headstones, shouting to each other and cursing and a big beam of light landed on us and they took us both to a police van and locked us in.
That was when father found out about Raif and Bacchus Bar and he had to talk to me seriously. The day after he brought me home he didn’t go to work. I heard him in his room, banging on books to get the dust out and then quiet as he listened to his record of Esperanto hymns. Maman was not home so I knew he had to speak to me alone. I was crying because of what the police had done to Raif, slapping him hard and putting handcuffs on him and calling him bad names and I saw in my dream that night the thing I had seen in the graveyard, only worse because in my dream there was just me and it and nothing else and in my dream it seemed as if it was trying to speak to me. But I couldn’t hear.
Father sat me down on the couch in his room where he lies down to read his books when his back hurts. He put his head in his hands and sat at his desk as if he was thinking up a new scheme of converting the whole land to the Universal Language of Peace. When he looked at me I felt sorry I had made trouble for him, made him go to the police, made him look a fool when he said he didn’t know Raif and thought his daughter was doing advanced typing classes at the YMCA. But I was also bleeding in my heart. I was wounded from not being allowed to listen to my own soul whispering to me to break away from being a daughter and a sister, wrapped up in family, closed off in a flat which smelled of paraffin heaters all winter and mosquito spray in the summer with pictures of Lidia Zamenhof and Gandhi on the wall over our dining table. My soul was telling me to be a woman and I was afraid to listen and to speak out.
He started rolling a cigarette. He always did this when he was nervous or fighting off an anger. It made him look like a jeweler handling a golden chain, all concentration and silence. But when he finished rolling he didn’t light it, he had to speak. There was nothing else for it.
I didn’t cast my eyes down; I just looked straight at his round face and his tight curly hair going right up off his forehead. He could have been a really handsome man if he had been a bit taller. I looked him in the eyes. What did I have to be ashamed of? That those monkeys in blue uniforms took me away? That they cursed me and called me a cheap whore and a bitch and an Arab’s mattress? Raif was better than any of them. They should be happy to lick the ground he walked on. Father didn’t know him. He didn’t know people LIKE THAT. Only people like Gerda and Tokatly from the Esperanto League and the crazy editors and typists at the Voice of Israel to the Dispersion Radio where he worked all night, sometimes, on shifts.
“I should send you away from here. I should send you to Aunt Mathilde in Paris. She would know how to teach you manners and make you see reason. Did you know what you were doing there right on top of no man’s land and with an Arab, a bartender. He might have cut your throat.”
That made me really angry that he could say that about Raif without thinking, without knowing anything about him. I was so angry I could have scratched his face. Instead I picked up one of his Esperanto records and threw it at the wall. Father went paler than cotton wool and turned to pick it up. It was still in the cover so it didn’t smash into little pieces but I was ashamed and felt like a jealous little girl who broke her sister’s doll.
He sat down and put his head in his hands. He couldn’t keep his anger boiling and he almost never shouted at me, only at Maman when she accused him of ruining her life by coming to “this godforsaken dead end”. Then he banged all the doors in the house and when he had got as far away from her as he could, like in a bathroom, he yelled out strange words like maldiligenta and trodorlotita in Esperanto so nobody understood, but I knew they were bad words for Maman.
So I began to tell him about what I saw in the night when the searchlight hit the broken gravestones and the pinging and the shooting were all around. But it looked like he didn’t want to hear. He just sat with his head in his hands, staring at the floor tiles as if there was a pool of blood between his shoes and he was to blame.
Dear Odd Bull,
In continuation of my earlier letters which I know I haven’t sent but which will all reach you when I am satisfied that they are perfect and that I have said all I have to say for you to understand why you must come to my aid immediately, I know that you have all the poor Arab refugees to worry about, living in miserable camps and their old houses here filled up with strangers eating off the dishes they left behind. But my father is also a missing person and no one is worried about him except me and Maman who complains all day and night about how he left her to fend for herself just because he had to volunteer for Esperanto work somewhere in Africa and he doesn’t write and they only send us little bits of money from the Universal League. So Maman had to find sewing work to put breadon the table while he could be somewhere in a hut without water teaching Esperanto to tribesmen. If you have a list of missing persons in the United Nations office you should really put down his name: Mosco Arditi, smallish and curly haired with brown eyes and long fingers who speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Hebrew and above all Esperanto and if anybody finds him in Africa they should let him know immediately that Felicity or rather Fleur his daughter needs to speak to him and promises not to make him angry or sad because perhaps he can help cure her and bring her back to the lovely girl she was.
Father worked long nights at the Radio because he had to broadcast at strange hours on the short waves for the Voice of Zion to the Dispersion. Then he came home in the morning looking pale and red-eyed and Maman would make remarks about his night life. It seemed exciting to me then and romantic because I listened in bed to the radio on the short waves and through the crackling and the twittering sputters I could hear far away voices in languages I couldn’t understand and national anthems played at the beginning and end of every hour. They made me think of soldiers standing on guard in squares in front of palaces and people looking on behind rope barriers.
Secretly Father wanted to find a way to set up an Esperanto radio station and send out a message of universal peace and Esperanto hymns and songs to the whole world. But nobody took it seriously except for the small group of believers like him. Sometimes they met in our house and, though Maman thought they were mad, she baked tarte tatin for them so that they would know what really cultured people take with their tea. Apart from Gerda and Tokatly and a pale English poet called Julius who lived right on the edge of no man’s land there was Mr. Wells of the Chapel who had studied Esperanto at his divinity college in Durham and wanted to be fluent in the Esperanto Bible and Père Daniel of Terra Sancta College. They argued a lot about whether Vox Esperanto Radio should allow broadcasts trying to persuade people to join a religion. Father thought that was not a universal idea and their arguments got quite loud and languages fell into each other, English and French, Hebrew and Esperanto all jumbling into a jangling babble so that I had to put cotton wool in my ears to shut it out.
It was Julius who first showed me the Karaite graveyard because he lived right near it in a shack which looked like somebody had begun to build it one day and then forgotten about it or died or run away. It started with a few rows of stone then came some wooden boards and doors and patches of concrete up to the roof of iron sheets and canvas from army tents held down by old ice boxes and a heavy gate from the deserted Greek monastery nearby. The shack was right on the border line and the back door was really no man’s land. But the one big room where he worked and ate and slept was all on our side and it had two arched windows which looked straight over the Holy Dome. You could see it peeping from behind the Old City walls like Humpty Dumpty.
Julius was Father’s best friend even though he was not a member of the Esperanto League and only came to meetings out of curiosity and companionship. He worked as a proof reader at the Jerusalem Post so that he could pay the rent but his real work was writing on a big typewriter which looked like a birdcage and jangled and throbbed when he hit the keys. Although he was shy he liked to have me visit and sit in his big room while he slapped at his typewriter, talking and singing to himself hunched over the table with a beret on his head which he hardly ever took off.
“Interrogate my toys, Talitha,” he said to me. That was the name he gave me because it was innocent and young and sounded like water trickling over pebbles. “My toys will give you their ideas if you look at them so.” He put a hand over one eye and with the other one he stared at me, without blinking, for so long that I felt I was being sucked into his head.
It seems funny for a grown man to have toys but Julius had plans for his toys to realize their potential and to lay open their secrets. Most of his dolls and wind up motor bikes and train engines, his little carousels and swings and tin people like doctors and nurses or ship captains and sailors and pilots in tin airplanes were in biscuit boxes under his bed but others lay around the room peeping out from under books or sitting next to dirty dishes .They were waiting to get their orders from Julius.
Sometimes when Father went home after one of his long walks with Julius he would send me to keep him company while he worked so I could make sure he ate and drank something in the evening apart from the arak he kept under his chair. So I sat and listened to the music from the Jordanian soldier’s radio on a roof just over the border and tapped the legs of Julius’s favourite marionettes-Cap’n Bill and Jeremiah, making them swing in loops from the hook in the ceiling or I looked through the eye holes of his pink and orange Chinese mask which was an angry god and I saw the piles of books and papers shiver when I frowned at them. But I was most curious about his toy of two tin boxers with blond hair who punched each other if you pressed up and down on a lever behind their shorts. Press down and they were like windmills hurling fists. Stop and they dropped hands obediently to their sides and stood stiff as frozen corpses waiting to come to life and start again.
“That’s Tit and Tat,” said Julius when he first took this toy out of his big biscuit tin. He said it was a stubborn toy with no surprises and only gave him rotten ideas like newspaper headlines so he wouldn’t put it in one of his plots.
That’s what the toys were for, all those tin bicycle riders, matchstick acrobats, sailors in tin boats, boxes with clinking music, fire engines with moving ladders. They were all actors in plots Julius wrote down for them and when they were wound up and moved around on his table to clinking music while he did their voices, sometimes soprano and thin, sometimes a deep bass like a heavy bell, he was like God making up the world as he went along and enjoying his labours.
Father and Maman and a few of the others came when he had finished one of his TOYPLAYS and was ready to put on a special show and they all stood around the table to watch the toys have their adventures and accidents and successes and failures. Some thought it was childish but Father said it turned the world upside down and was therefore a heartfelt cry for revolution and for a new beginning for mankind. I remember that because I had never heard him say anything like it before.
I loved Julius like a daughter and I was the only person he let unlace and take off his heavy boots when he was sick or too exhausted to take them off himself. These boots reminded him of when he was a farmer in Surrey and in Galilee in a kibbutz when he was younger and could bend down and lift things and dig trenches without pain. He called them “my downstairs neighbours” and was always afraid of losing them, though he hardly took them off except at the doctor’s and when he went to sleep.
Dear Odd Bull,
So that you should not accuse me of writing only about myself and my case I want to remind you about Julius and how he nearly got into trouble with the Truth Supervisors and all because of his back door being on the ceasefire line. You can’t imagine how sensitive Julius is and it hurts him to think he caused so much trouble for two armies and the United Nations just because he put in electric light so that he could work at his typewriter in the evenings and at night. The paraffin lamps made him sick and stuffed up the room but he didn’t know that putting in the electric light made such a terrible change on the ceasefire line that it would be like war breaking out all over again and the United Nations and the Mixed Armistice Commission would have to come to his room and inspect his back door and the lights in his kitchen and toilet as well. You must remember they agreed to let him do it, only he had to promise not to make the light bulbs stronger than 60 watt or put any new ones in without informing the United Nations in advance. But Julius has lost his copy of the agreement and would like you to send him a replacement in case any Supervisor comes by to check the lights and the back door if they haven’t upset the STATUS QUO.
When I send my complete letter to Odd Bull it won’t be only about myself but about my friends as well so that they too can get help with the troubles that pursue us all because of the evil that was done here so long ago.
Julius wanted to show me the Karaite burial ground which hung like a shelf on the slope right over no man’s land. He said it was a secret place for confessions and visions and he took me down the steep slippery path past the Cave of the Abyssinian Hermit and through the thick clumps of thorns then he asked me to sit by him on one of the crumbling terrace walls and listen while he read. He took an exercise book out of his shopping bag and read like a cooing pigeon, stopping to clear his throat and breathing quite hard in between the pages.
It was hot and hazy and the sun was right in my eyes so I couldn’t see Julius all that clearly. His big round face was a blue blur in front of me and the sound of his voice throbbed like a soft drum in my ears, so at the beginning I couldn’t make out his words. It was more like music and I might have fallen asleep but then I began to listen as he told the story of a dead child who returned to Hinnom the Valley of the Children Offered to Moloch. The child had no name but was guided back from the dead by a puppet called Beulah. They walked in the Valley calling out the names of dead children and looking for graves. But no one answered and there were no graves. Only barbed wire and pits left by exploded shells and signs saying DANGER in three languages. The child asked Beulah where his father was and Beulah took him to the mouth of a cave where bones of humans were arranged in stone boxes buried under goat turds, tins of army rations and mounds of spent machine gun bullets. Beulah and the child cleared away some of the debris and found one of the boxes. Beulah said,
“Open it. This is your father.” The child opened the box and a large tin toy popped out, a soldier in a helmet and grey uniform holding a long knife.
“Press the lever,” said Beulah. The child pressed the lever and the tin soldier lifted a grey hand with the knife and struck again and again and again. The child cried but didn’t stop pressing the lever.
Julius stopped and said,
“I smell smoke.” Below us in no man’s land a fire of thorns was blowing putrid, purple grey smoke which the wind turned in our direction and we began to choke and hurried to climb back up to the shack.
Julius didn’t talk but as I walked behind him I could see, from the way his head swayed and turned on his neck, that he was having an inside conversation, even perhaps an argument as his head suddenly moved sharply right and then left and his hands beat the sides of his trousers quite hard. Yet he didn’t read any more when we got back and said I should go home and give his regards to Father and Maman.
That afternoon I was quite scared to walk home. The path from the shack down to Hebron Road was empty and the big, scrawny pine trees looked unhappy, creaking in the wind as if they were complaining of thirst. There was no shade. Every stone and window and iron fence was cooking in the hot light which seemed to be making a buzzing sound like an electric shaver and when I heard the brakes of a car squealing somewhere nearby I was led by my ears to the Valley of the Sacrificed Children who were crying there over to the right and down the goat path. How I wished that we were living somewhere normal like Bayswater where there was a big green park and trees that looked contented because of the rain and there were no bad memories that I knew about and no danger for children except for drunks in the street, and no border.
I didn’t tell Father or Maman about what Julius had read to me. I took it as a secret beween us and I didn’t even know whether they had heard about Hinnom, the Valley of the Sacrificed Children. Maman had no patience for the Bible which she called Le Livre du Grandpère Noé and Father knew all the stories but he was mostly interested in looking for Hebrew words which sounded like Esperanto so that people he met here would be less suspicious of a plot against the language of the Jews.
Julius and Father were like brothers even though they looked completely different. One was small and quite delicate and the other was big and clumsy with hands and feet that seemed to go in all directions at once and a head that was never straight on his neck but was always lolling to one side or another like a heavy grapefruit. Julius also got drunk quite often and then wanted to quarrel with everybody and everything even dustbins and refrigerators. When he came to eat with us Maman would find the cheapest plastic plates to put on the table in case he had an ‘argument’ with the cups and spoons. Father could usually calm him down but when he got mad talking about the “hypocrites and liars” who are running us all to hell and the “arse-licking poets” who live off the shits in power and write outrageous, lying crap, he stamped on the floor with his big boots and waved his arms up in the air so that nothing could stop him till he tired himself out and went to lie on the sofa and Maman put newspaper under his boots so they wouldn’t get it dirty. Father loved him all the more because of his tantrums and said they were divine rage and it was a pity more of us didn’t have it so that things would change and people’s anger would be heard.
He was trying to persuade Julius to write words for a play about Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar which Father wanted to put on as a procession in between St. Andrew’s Church and Mount Zion and the Resting Place of King David with the actors performing on carts or platforms.
Father’s idea was to have the play performed in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Esperanto all together and he wanted me to be Hagar wandering in the desert with her child desperate for water and I would say:
MI NE POVAS RIGARDI LA MORTON DE LA INFANO
and then in English:
LET ME NOT SEE THE DEATH OF THE CHILD
And in Hebrew:
AL ER’EH B’MOT HAYELED
Then the angel would come and save them and sing God’s promise to Ishmael in Arabic. And the angel would turn to the people and sing out the covenant between God and Abraham.
Father would get very excited sitting at the table when he described the procession winding down the hill, stopping for scenes to be acted accompanied by music of flutes and drums, with colourful costumes and the singing of angels and the audience following them all the way across the valley from St. Andrew’s to Mount Zion. The United Nations would make sure we stayed on our side of the ceasefire line and inform the Arab Legion and King Hussein that it was only a play about Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael and couldn’t be thought an infringement of the Status Quo but as a stage in the journey towards peace.
Father thought that he could interest all the diplomats and tourists to come to Jerusalem to see it and even hoped to call on the Universal Esperanto League to give him its blessing and send delegates to see how all the languages cooperated to teach international understanding. When he talked about it Father’s hair seemed to be on fire with excitement and his voice got more and more high- pitched. But Julius was gloomy and brought up all the things that could go wrong, like the police not giving us a license for a procession which wasn’t on one of the official religious holidays or the rabbis suspecting a plot by missionaries to convert the Jews. But these were not his real reasons. I knew he was on fire against stories of sons being killed by their fathers for God, because of what he read to me that afternoon in the Karaite graveyard and sometimes in his room when I was sitting and watching him type he would shout out “Hold the child. Hold the child” or “Keep back. Back off, you bastard” and take off his beret and throw it at the bookshelf. It was frightening to see his scowl then and how his big moon face twisted in fury against what they were doing to the child. I couldn’t ask him who this child was and I told no one what I thought.
So when I lay there with Raif that night and the bullets started whizzing over us and the noise of alarm sirens and machine guns and I put my head down into the earth next to the gravestones, that’s when I saw it. That’s when the blinding beam of the searchlight swooped over the thorns and the stone walls and the barbed wire and fell on the thing all white and red like bandaged and blood stained. Blood was spattered on the white, staining it like there was a wound inside. It could have been an animal, a bird or a child and it just hovered there as if it was looking at me, though I saw no eyes just blood where they might have been. And then I didn’t see it anymore and the soldiers found us and took Raif away and my heart started pounding for him.
I tried to tell this to Father but he wouldn’t listen, pretending he was too angry about Raif and my “deception” and “betrayal of trust.” That was all nonsense. He didn‘t want to listen and he and Maman joined forces against me telling me I was being driven mad by a girl chaser from the YMCA who just wanted my passport, and the longer Raif was locked up in Galilee by his family the better so it would keep him out of mischief here.
So I went to see Julius in his shack on a day when he was sick and didn’t go to work. He was sitting up in bed in his clothes but his boots were off and his bottle of arak was almost empty on the floor.
His face was flushed and he seemed hot so I put my hand on his forehead and told him I had brought some soup. His brow was clammy and his nose looked like a rocket getting ready to shoot off but he was busy writing in a large brown notebook labeled EXPENSES AND BALANCE, covering pages with a pencil and whispering to himself.
I warmed the soup and gave it to him so he stopped writing and slurped it down apologizing for the noise. Then he turned round and his head fell onto the pillow like a ripe melon. Soon he was snoring and the brown notebook was open right next to his nose. I took it and saw pages covered with spiral figures like jack in the boxes but they had no heads or faces, just wheels with sparks flying off them and they hovered around moons and suns and clouds with hands stretching out from them. Between the drawings he had written words, some jumbled together and unreadable and some in big square capitals like death announcements and I remember them all:
ARE SIEZ’D FOR VICTIMS OF SACRIFICE
BUT JERUSALEM CANNOT BE FOUND;
I am rowing and rowing
The sea is this darkness
Will a child ever get back?
Darkness of father and mother.
HID BY THE DAUGHTERS OF BEULAH, GENTLY SNATCHED AWAY AND HID IN BEULAH
I don’t know how long I sat there with the notebook trying to puzzle out the words and the drawings. I read them again and again until they echoed in my head. It was stuffy in the room and I must have fallen asleep because I heard Julius calling me like in a dream.
He loved those words of Jesus and used them all the time even in the middle of a walk along the old railway line. He would point a stick at a suspicious cat or a thrown away chair and sing them out but make a suggestion of it, not an order:
“Get up Talitha, won’t you?”
So I woke up and I still had his notebook on my lap. He looked at me and his thick eyebrows wobbled more than usually. He was waiting for me to say something. I didn’t have to tell him about Raif because he knew but I needed to tell him about the thing in the Karaite graveyard so I said:
“Who did they sacrifice? Couldn’t the mothers stop it?”
Julius took the notebook and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. He whistled under his breath as he turned the pages and made grimaces privately to himself.
“It needs tightening up,” he said.
I was bursting with what I had seen in the graveyard. I almost shouted at him,
“I saw the blood in the night. In the graveyard, in the shooting. I saw it through white rags in the searchlights. What happened to Beulah?”
Julius levered himself out of the bed and groped for his boots. Quickly he pulled on a sweater and found his beret under the bed. He took me by the hand and kicked the bent rusty door open. It was cold and the trees and broken walls were lit up by white moonlight. You could hear nothing, not from our side of the border and not from theirs. Julius was breathing quite heavily but he walked fast pulling me along and saying nothing. We scrambled down the goat path and the crumbling steps into the graveyard. He stopped to get his breath back and sat down on one of the graves. I was cold and huddled against him. He hadn’t said a word since we left the shack, not even to himself which was unusual. He took my hands in his. His were hot.
“Where?” he said. “Show me where.” I pointed at the wall where I had seen the thing.
“Promise?” he said. “Don’t let them take the child when they come. Even for an hour. Even for a minute.” He looked at me and didn’t seem to want an answer. I didn’t say a word.
“They’ll tell you that you have to. They say it’s the law. It will save us. They are liars.”
His eyes bored into me. Then he let go of my hands and cupped his like a loudspeaker round his mouth. He started yelling into the valley,
“STOP FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP YOU BASTARDS.”
He didn’t have much of a voice that night and there wasn’t an echo from the other side; just the white moonlight soaking up the sounds. But if Julius got violent and started kicking the graves and quarreling with the bushes it might get some soldier edgy and you only needed one crack of a bullet and a big trouble would start all over again all along the ceasefire line. So I wiped his forehead with the sleeve of my coat and took his arm like a nurse taking a patient for a walk. He seemed bent over and old as we climbed up the path and he didn’t speak till he said go home and tell no one.
Dear Odd Bull,
What are the United Nations good for if you can’t put a stop to it?
It has made me miserable and ugly and a laughing stock and it has put Julius into the Talbieh Mental Hospital for observation because of his anger and despair and not taking showers. Father has run away to Africa because of it. And would a good young man like Raif still be locked up in his parents’ house in Galilee without a pass for traveling if he had not been caught up in it? As commander- in- chief you should know there is an evil wind blowing here and it drives people into bad thoughts. It makes trouble for everyone but especially here near the ceasefire line and no man’s land. What are the United Nations good for if you cannot clear up Hinnom, the Valley of the Sacrificed Children. You have the white jeeps and bulldozers and you have all those big Norwegians and Africans. So bring them all down from Government House and let them work at that Valley until it is cleaned out of all the bad things that hide there in the caves and in the ruins and under the ground. If Julius saw that the Valley was all clean and neat and planted with cypress trees and fragrant herbs and the old stone terraces built again he might get back some hope and come to live in his shack again and write plays for toys. And even if the barbed wire stayed and the DANGER BORDER signs in three languages were still there we could watch the Truth Supervisors watering the plants and weeding in between the trees and stop remembering the children but count the days till the first rain and wait for the green to come back and the smell of buds and flowers to hang over the valley like a promise that really happened.
Father took Julius’s illness very badly. He was called by the police after Julius had been stopped by strangers in Hebron Road for throwing stones at cars and shouting words they didn’t understand but which turned out to be: “Kiss Moloch’s Arse You Bastards.” He tried to persuade him to take his pills regularly and he even slept over in the shack a few times to help him get through the night. But, when Julius decided to put himself in the mental hospital, Father looked as if he had become an orphan. He went to visit him but when he came back he shut himself up in the bedroom and wouldn’t talk to anybody. Maman said he saw people there who reminded him of the boat from Marseilles and the miserable shadows of men and women who walked around the deck hour after hour without lifting their eyes. But I think he was horrified to see his friend give up being Julius and become just a patient waiting with wet eyes for a meal of yoghurt and a boiled egg and looking for approval from the young doctors.
To stop thieves and squatters Father put in a stronger door at Julius’s shack and got some iron bars fixed for the windows. I went there with him to clean up the mess and get rid of some of the ants and cockroaches and when I finished I sat down with him by Julius’s rickety table and then he told me his secret. He moved some imaginary crumbs on the table, swung forwards and backwards on his chair and announced he was going to Kenya or somewhere near there for a while to take charge of an Esperanto school, the first in Africa. He tried to sound as if it was the most normal thing to do. Nothing drastic, just a temporary change of course. But I didn’t believe him. He said he couldn’t get any of his projects started here because people were suspicious of a universal language and had enough trouble speaking their own. So Africa would be a much better place for testing the one language for all idea.
“Yes,” I said, “but how will Maman get on?”
“O, they’ll take care of that at the Universal Esperanto League. They’ll send her most of my allowance. And what will I need out there? Just the basics.”
While he was talking I looked over his shoulder at Julius’s angry Chinese god who hung by a nail on the wall. The black and red frown lines between his empty eyes were telling me to pull Father out of his indifference towards us and make him understand that he wasn’t married to Esperanto but to Maman and his daughter was me, Fleur, not some schoolgirl in Kenya. He was desperate to make it look good and natural that he was leaving us but it wasn’t. It was selfish and cowardly to leave Maman with her summer headaches and me with my troubles now coming in dreams every night and Raif forced to stay in his village and report to the police every day.
Why wouldn’t he stay and fight for his ideals here and for his pageant of Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, Ishmael and the angel? If he thought it would pave the way to peace why not keep up the struggle? Why wouldn’t he show his pride in me and make sure I was in the pageant in a white robe so he could hear me speak out MI NE POVAS RIGARDI LA MORTON DE LA INFANO in all three languages? Why was he acting like a coward here when in the war his officers commended his coolness and resourcefulness and lively optimism. I knew it was because of the evil and the spilt blood in the Valley right there beneath the Karaite graveyard. I knew he was afraid even to think of it though Julius must have let him know the bloody secret. He was afraid because the sacrificed children made his talk of a universal language of peace seem useless. Father couldn’t stand blood and he was leaving me to be consumed by it while he was going to forget and teach the language of hope in Africa.
“Have you told Maman?”
“Of course. It will be hard at first but if the project succeeds you can both come out and join me.”
“And Julius? How will he do without you?”
“You’ll visit him and other friends too. He’ll be out soon because of the pills and no arak.”
I kept quiet. Instead of my voice the loudspeakers in the Old City mosques started yelling out the call to prayer and the angry Chinese god fell off his nail in the draught. I picked him up and saw the cracks all along his frown lines and down his yellow cheeks. Soon he would stop being angry and join the broken dolls and toys, old medicine bottles, alarm clocks and hollow torches in a pram Julius kept near the shower.
All I said to Father was,
“When you come back you won’t recognize me. I’ll be different and worse.”
I said that because of my dreams and because I caught my face in the cracked mirror by Julius’s shower where I saw a speckled moon face under dry stringy hair. I saw what looked like a kitchen mop that was me with red eyes and narrow grey lips and ears that jutted out.
When we left and locked the door Father said,
“We’ll all be back here soon enough to enjoy Julius’s new toy play and I’ll add comic songs in Esperanto.”
I didn’t believe him.
Dear Odd Bull,
Please, please don’t go back to Norway. Don’t leave us here trapped in our troubles. There is no one to help us. Only you and your Observers and all the Supervisors have the power to cross all the borders and drive right through no man’s land to stop all the unhappiness that spreads here like a plague. Why has Raif stopped writing? Only you can find out. The police here send me away and call me majnun which means mad. Perhaps he has been forced to marry a cousin. I send him letters but they get stopped by his father. I want him to know I remember him. Even though I have changed I still love him. Although you are a proper soldier, you would have tears in your eyes if you looked at me now and remembered what I was like only a short time ago. Where is my silky black hair? I used to have pretty legs now they are like stiff water pipes. And my body, I am ashamed to look in the mirror. The woman there is not Fleur or Talitha. She is a witch called Felicity Comforti who has invaded my body and pinched my spirit. When I am typing at work and the others make fun of me I get Felicity to shout back at them and curse them. I curse them in words I never heard myself speak. I would blush to write them to you. But I cannot live like this and only you can make a great change happen by collecting all the people with troubles in your white Supervisor Jeeps and, making a big convoy led by yourself in an open car with a United Nations flag, drive across all the borders and through all the barbed wire and the gates and the fortified check posts until we are free and not stop till we are as far away as you can take us, to a frozen country of icebergs and glaciers where no evil spirit can live and no blood of children will ever stain the white all around.
For a while, after Father left, Maman just did nothing. She sat in the room with the radio on all day and didn’t cook or eat proper meals. She did crosswords, switched on the fan near her on the table and searched for Radio Monte Carlo hoping for chansons of Tino Rossi and Charles Trenet, which she knew by heart. I went to work typing at the Radio as Father had used his connection to get me a job at the Voice of Israel to the Dispersion . The news editors were kind to me at first but I noticed they were whispering about me and when they asked me what I heard from Father they were making fun of my misery because they knew we got no letters; somebody at the post office was stopping them out of hostility to us. But when I went to the main branch in Jaffa Road and complained they just laughed at me and said: “Tell him to put stamps on the letters or they’ll never get here.”
We did get a letter every month from the Esperanto League in Geneva with some money and once a note to say that Monsieur Arditi was doing the most important work but it was in a remote place and he might not be able to communicate as regularly as he wished.
Father communicated with me in dreams. Sometimes he wore the mask of the angry Chinese god and pointed at the desert and said to me: Hagar go with the child. Leave this house for ever. In these dreams I couldn’t open my mouth to speak to him but I knew I wanted to say that I was not Hagar I was Fleur and he should stand up for me not throw me out into the desert and Fleur had no child. When I woke up the sheets were wet with my sweat and my hair was pasted flat on my scalp. I quarreled with Maman about my stringy hair and my itching skin and puffy face. She said it was nothing just a stomach upset and nerves and I should keep taking the pills Dr. Wertheimer gave me. I forced her to look in the mirror with me but she wouldn’t look me straight in the eyes. She stared over my shoulder at the green dressing gown Father had left behind. She would look anywhere just not into my eyes and see my change and my unhappiness.
At work Mr. Bibas, the editors and the other typists were teasing me. They put my erasers and correction fluid where I couldn’t find them and then accused me of making mistakes and if I got angry they laughed and whispered about me in the canteen. The Ethiopian monk who I passed sometimes near his church on the way home also whispered about me to the other monks. He smiled at me when he passed me but it wasn’t a friendly smile, it was mockery and dirty thoughts and I walked faster because I was afraid he would throw his big black robe over my head and press me to his body.
Julius stopped coming to our house after he was let out of the hospital. He was very wary with Maman because she watched him so closely in case he started breaking things. But he went back to the shack and had to go for observation at the Hospital every month. I went to see him because I wanted him to look at me and take notice of what had happened and how miserable I was. But even he didn’t look me in the eye like he used to. Instead he kept searching for his pills and his pill cutter and asking me what time it was so he shouldn’t miss his next dose of medicine. He talked in a different way and called me “Young lady” and he was so polite all the time that it was unnatural. It was like he was walking on eggs and would be put back in hospital if he broke one. He had stretched a large piece of sacking over the arched window that looked on to the Old City wall and when I asked him why he said: “that way madness lies.” So I was afraid to talk to him about Beulah and the valley of the children even though I thought he could help me and explain things like no one else could.
On his table one of his toys lay propped up on a book. It was a tin carousel with a key. I wound it up and the tiny horses and cars and aeroplanes and buses whirled round and round to a dancing tune. Julius looked at me as if he was trying to remember who I was or what was playing the tune. Then he put his hand on the toy and stopped the carousel and the music. I sat there for some time while he seemed to be busy arranging his books and his papers.
“We haven’t heard from Father,” I said.
He looked up at me. It was the old, penetrating look under the thick black eyebrows.
“You don’t look too well, young lady. You should get help.”
I wanted to say YOU, you are the only one who can help me and bring me back to Fleur. YOU can banish Felicity Comforti and her ugly face. You can bring back Father, only you.
“Maybe he would answer if you wrote to him,” I said. “You could post it to the Esperanto League and ask them to send it on. If you told him you would work on his pageant and write words for Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and the Angel and he could translate them into Esperanto that would give him some hope. And if I learned the part of Hagar and the songs in three languages I would stop being miserable and our pageant would cross the valley near no mans land and if it was followed by a lot of people and diplomats that would give us strength against the evil spirits and the bad memories buried there.”
Julius had a tiny bottle on his desk near his typewriter. He poured a drop into a glass and offered it to me.
“They let me have an inch a week. Here, have a drop.”
The arak burned my throat but I went over to his typewriter and touched the keys. They had dust on them, but there was a sheet of paper in the machine. I couldn’t make out very well what was typed because the ribbon was worn out. It said,
MATRONITA AND ADAM KADMON
WILL JOIN TOGETHER
TO REPAIR THE WORLD
IN THE VALLEY OF THE CROSS
ABOVE THE BURIED SYNAGOGUES
WILL BE FOLLOWED BY
BRING WARM CLOTHING
I could have laughed but I felt Julius’s eyes boring through the back of my neck and he gets insulted so easily even if somebody giggled at one of his toy monologues spoken by a headless acrobat.
“Who’s getting married?” I said.
Julius pulled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter and frowned at it. A tiny bubble of spit was stuck at the corner of his mouth. “Will you come? Only close friends are expected.”
“Is it a play?”
He looked harder at the page squinting even though he wasn’t short-sighted. “It’s a beginning again.”
He rolled the page back into the typewriter. “I have to work on it but she takes my mind off the job?”
He led me into his shower which had a little window high up in the wall. “Stand on this. ” He pushed chair at me. “What do you see? ” he said.
“Roofs and water tanks, torn baskets, jerry cans, barbed wire.”
“What else?” He was standing right next to my chair with his face turned up and breathing through his nose.
“I don’t see anything, just a kind of a wall at the corner of a roof over there with a Jordanian flag.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. Stay there and watch it. Soon you’ll see.”
I stood there for what seemed like ages. My feet hurt and my neck was strained from stretching up at the window with my eyes staring at the wall close enough that you could touch it with a long pole but over the borderline.
Nothing happened but after a while I heard music, Arabic music, tinny and hollow from a radio.
Julius touched my leg.
Something moved behind the wall on the roof. A hand, a head, then a whole girl in a green dress came onto the roof. She had a green bandanna in her hand and she was barefoot.
“Is she there,” said Julius, “the green girl. Is she there? Tell me what she’s doing.”
“Waving her arms, skipping, dancing. She’s dancing.”
“Is she looking this way?”
“No, I think her eyes are closed.”
“She looks at me sometimes,” said Julius, “she waves. Then she sings words with the music but I can’t make them out.”
“What is she doing in a soldiers’ lookout?” I said.
“Maybe she lived there before the war. Maybe she was born there. She was born in that house right on the ceasefire line and she keeps coming back to the roof like a pigeon.”
“So who does she dance for?”
“For the Jordanian, for me, for nobody. For me, because when the music starts nothing can stop me rushing to the window to watch her.”
The green girl was still bobbing up and down on the roof and Julius pushed my legs so he could get up on the chair and look. His hands tapped to the music on the rotten wood of the window frame and his head nodded with the rhythm. Then the music stopped and the announcer took over, reading in a monotonous voice, something like the news.
When Julius climbed down, his face was paler than ever and his eyes were bloodshot.
He went over to his work table and sat down in front of the typewriter. He just sat and sat there and didn’t move or turn to look at me so I went out silently not to break the spell.
Maman was beginning to change. She started making dresses for Fashion Vienna and stayed away from home during the day doing fittings and finishing touches for customers. We even went to the cinema together and had ice cream afterwards. But though I enjoyed the outings, I knew she was pitying me and was ashamed to be seen with me. She dressed in colourful skirts and blouses and wore necklaces of beads which clicked and clacked as she walked along. She knew the tunes of the musicals we saw and could even whistle them when we cleaned the house together on Fridays. When I told her I had visited Julius she just said “O is he less mad than he used to be.” And when I said something about Father she clamped up or said something like “Look what he’s done to us with his foolish universal language of merde.” She never used bad words so that was a shock and she blushed.
Sometimes when we worked together or went out for ice cream I could feel myself coming back to Fleur. I could feel the weight of Felicity Comforti slipping off my shoulders and dropping away into the gutter but she was always waiting for me either in the bathroom in the mirror or when somebody in the cinema was whispering about me to his girlfriend. At the end of the evening Felicity Comforti came back to claim me and blacken my fingernails and distort my glasses so I saw things double and twisted and had bad dreams.
It was Mr. Wells who brought Maman the most happiness. He was a neighbour of Julius near the ceasefire line and used to come with him to the Esperanto group because he said he wanted to find new ways of spreading the word of happiness and the good news. Maman thought that most of the Esperanto group were boring or mad but Mr. Wells was different. He brought her the Scottish Oatcakes which she loved and he sang beautifully. One evening the group stopped early and he just stood there, a tall thin man with curly red hair, and sang the most beautiful Scottish ballads about despairing love and unfortunate journeys. Maman said the ballads made loneliness and sorrow beautiful and she could imagine what true stories lay behind them.
Some time after Father went to Africa Mr. Wells came to visit and asked Maman if she needed any help. He also invited us to an evening of Scottish and Irish ballads at Still Small Voice Chapel. Maman accepted immediately and laughed at me afterwards when I said Mr. Wells was probably a good missionary, he was so charming and talented.“
So what,” she said. “What religion are we in danger of losing and anyway Scottish ballads aren’t Christian they are pagan and romantic.”
The first time we went to the chapel after Father had gone, Maman dressed in her best flowery skirt and a white blouse with chains of beads round her neck. When I walked next to her I could see people staring at us thinking what an odd pair we were: a beautiful woman in colourful clothes and a pale tramp with stringy hair and thick legs creeping along by her side.
I was frightened at first to go because the chapel was on the hillside right above the Valley with all its secrets and the shadows. But I forgot all that once the singing began. There were just a few people in the room, some Armenians and other Christians who lived nearby and some visitors from the Scottish Hospice as well as beggars who came for the tea and the food. The chapel was just a large room with a dais and a piano and posters on the walls of flocks of sheep on mountainsides and shepherds watching over them. Above the dais there was a kind of yellow banner stretched out and it said,
SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND
Where could I seek Raif? How could I find him in his Galilee village with the bus only stopping there once a day and the women all working in the fields and the men staring at any strange woman and not speaking a word. How could I find Raif? How could I tell anyone there about his singing for me? Abd el Wahab…. Abd el Wahab? They would laugh at me. They wouldn’t show me where he lives. They would look at my face and my hair and call me majnun and the little boys would throw stones.
NEVER SEEK NOR EVER FIND
was what echoed in my heart. You are in prison. You are chained up like a mad dog. They give you food and water but no one can give you the one thing you want.
Then Mr. Wells stood up on the dais, welcomed everybody and began to sing “The Demon Lover.”
O where have you been my long lost love
He just sang by himself with no piano and his hands were clasped together held out as if he was asking for pardon. His voice was strong and high and filled the room with waves of sorrow and temptation and sighing of wind blowing over icy seas. The room was completely still except for some of the beggars at the back slurping tea.
O what have you to take me to
If with you I should go
The Demon Lover tempted the wife with tears in his eyes to leave her little babes and flee with him far away in his ship with the masts of beaten gold. But he was a devil and was taking her to hell.
Maman next to me was listening so hard that she bit her lips and clenched her fists with concentration. Not even “J’attendrai” by Tino Rossi had such an effect on her. She was bewitched by that Demon Lover and his tempting words which Mr. Wells sang, first so sweetly but at the end loud with danger and menace.
At the end of the evening we stayed till everyone had left. Mr. Wells called us dear old friends and took Maman by both hands. She said she had never been so thrilled by a voice in her whole life and promised we would come to hear the singing of the little group of regulars on Sundays.
“Singing together spreads the good news,” said Mr Wells as he showed us out onto the dark path. “Singing brings light.”
When I looked round I saw him framed in light at the doorway of the chapel. He could have been an angel guarding against the dark of the valley below and he could have been a demon.
Dear Odd Bull,
I apologise if this is too personal to ask but are you a Christian? If you are you’ll probably recognize a hymn which is Mr. Wells’s favourite:
MORTALS JOIN THE HAPPY CHORUS WHICH THE MORNING STARS BEGAN
FATHER LOVE IS REIGNING O’ER US BROTHER LOVE BINDS MAN TO MAN
Maman is practising it with Mr. Wells and the glee club at the Still Small Voice Chapel and it is the reason for this letter.
She goes to practice almost every evening and comes back quite late and so happy and dizzy that she sings quite loudly on the stairs and in the shower before going to bed.
When the neighbours accuse her of selling out to the missionaries and making a noise at night she laughs at them and tells them she went to school at St. Joseph’s in Beirut with all the Christian girls and they should mind their own business and put wax plugs in their ears.
One morning I opened the front door and found horrible words smeared on it in a disgusting brown dribble like dog turds:
In our letter box there was a rotten egg, yellow and sticky with an evil smell. It’s no use going to the police because they know me there and tease me about Felicity which name is not on my Identity Card. They make me sit there for hours on a bench with drunks and madmen hoping I’ll get angry and put on a show with Felicity cursing everybody and everything. When they get tired of that they make me fill in some forms and send me away.
Now this is my request and plea.
Things would be so different with our neighbours and the police if you or just one of your Supervisors came to inspect our street and parked the big white UN jeep right outside our door. You wouldn’t have to do anything as there is no actual border here or no man’s land for you to look at. You would just ring our bell, come in wearing your helmets and your uniforms and have tea and tarte tatin with us then wait while our neighbours rang the police to ask if there had been an incident in Ethiopia Street and why the United Nations was inspecting their house.
Soon a police car would come and you and they could have a conference on the stairs so both the police and our neighbours and everybody in that street would know that we are not two helpless women who can be mocked and persecuted and called evil names but we are protected by international supervisors who are afraid of nobody.
The months go by and all my started letters to Odd Bull are stuffed in drawers and inside exercise books and in the pockets of coats and jackets which I only wear when it gets cold. I have so many things to say to him and I can’t put them in order to make a great letter he would have to read like one from Tito or the Pope. I am afraid he won’t look at it but will give it to one of his secretaries who will giggle over it for a bit then go to lunch and put me at the bottom of a pile of MISCELLANEOUS.
So who is there on this earth who will take notice of my plight? Maman works during the day and is busy at choir practice in the Chapel almost every evening and sometimes at night too. They are practising hard for a concert in Limassol and she will go with Mr. Wells who has made her choir mistress. At home she sings and hums all the time and when we go to the chapel together she sits at the front right by the piano and Mr. Wells looks approvingly at her as her voice rings out through the windows and he bangs harder and harder on the keys.
I try to sing out too but my voice fails because it is sometimes Fleur who is singing about Raif and parting and sometimes Hagar mourning her dying child and then it is Felicity who can’t sing at all and croaks out words that mean nothing. So even when I sing I am not really part of the group. I am also hearing a sound of my own which buzzes and sometimes whines and makes me lose the sound of the others. I try very hard to sing the words BLOW YE THE TRUMPET BLOW and imagine victorious angels and a new world with no dark places and no sacrificed children. I try to imagine a trumpet blowing and Father coming back in a United Nations jeep driven by Odd Bull himself. The trumpet blows and he gets out of the jeep in front of all the neighbours in Ethiopia Street and embraces me and kisses me. Father is burnt by the African sun and is wearing beads given him by grateful tribesmen for teaching them Esperanto. Father smells of rich earth and leather and perfumed flowers. He hears the horns of the jeeps saluting his return but he is looking only at me and he presses me to him and says: