By Deborah Freeman
Writers need to swim in a language, like wicked sharks in the deep. Take us out of the ocean of words and we start to die.
– Rose Tremain in Rosie.
The pilot asked us not to use phones until we were out of the aircraft, but no-one took any notice. Ringtones from familiar to esoteric ring out and echo down the aisle.
“Hello Mummy I've landed.” I look round uneasily. Thirty-five years ago my parents and sisters left England to make Israel their home. At that time, it was natural for us all to call Mummy Mummy. A middle class British family thing. But now I am almost sixty. My children call me Mum at home, Ma as a joke, Mother in public. But over the years I have found it hard to stop calling my mother Mummy. I`ve worked out as follows. My sisters, Rina and Tamar, held on to Mummy because in Hebrew mothers begin as Ima and remain Ima forever. No need for a change of name.
I am squashed in the aisle, hemmed in by teenage boys on one side, a woman with a baby on the other, a loud-voiced business-man in front of us.
“Muki!” he barks to his purple phone, “Tafsik! Maspik!” Stop it. Enough.
The taxi-ride to Jerusalem is like a colour film even though it is night-time. Beside me two Russian women appear to be in love. I envy their language, it sounds so rich.
“Sh-zj stdrazniet nayo szjink masskvitchka!” One of them peels a clementina, which is what I called these fruits when I lived here. Now I call them clementines, or more often tangerines.
In a passion of soft fingers, one slips orange segments through her lover's wet lips. I hear a shy giggle. I imagine pips quivering on her tongue. We're driving through dark hills to Jerusalem.
In the seat behind me there is Madame Yvette, who hands me a business card. She is a tourist guide from Alexandria on her way to Bethlehem. Her ruby cross catches moonlight through the taxi window. Her hair is covered with sequined netting.
“I will take the Holy Mass,” she tells me, “au memoire de mon père.”
The woman beside the driver is called Avital. They talk in Hebrew about depression in America and opioids. His favourite singer is Amy Winehouse. I interrupt to tell them I live only four miles away from where she lived – and died. In London. When he bends to find the CD, the taxi swerves alarmingly. “Back to Black” starts to play, and Avital rests her head on his shoulder. I imagine she'll take him to her flat.
He hoots at a Palestinian woman carrying lemons and ropes. The Russians jettison peel like confetti. Mist covers my entry into Jerusalem and my ears ache. By a garage, a guide dog watches. I see men in black hats, shoppers, and some young soldiers.
Rina is waiting as the taxi pulls up, and makes squeaks of joy.
“Give me a hug! Let me take your case!” I visit Jerusalem frequently, so I have keys. The outer door. The lift key. Then the door key. But tonight we don`t need the door key. Mummy flings open the door and I am inside, looking round at the familiar furniture, the books, the pictures on the wall. Something happens to my eyes when I come here. They see differently. She is in her dressing-gown.
“It's all right. I am ready for bed, that's all. I wanted to stay up for you, but I thought I'd make it easier for myself. Rina, are you making a cup of tea? Come and see Daddy – he's almost asleep.”
They are old: he is ninety-four, she eighty-six. Time has gone by and only Rina talks as if nothing is wrong or could ever be. Rina lives in the best of all possible worlds, and Jerusalem is the best of all cities.
“Miriam's here,” Mummy says to Daddy, who opens his eyes, beams, murmurs, “Hello, darling. Long journey. I'll be out of here soon.”
“What does he mean?” Rina whispers.
“He's half asleep,” Mummy says quietly, “probably dreaming he's out shopping or something.”
“I've brought you a present,” I tell my mother, and she laughs.
“No need for presents!”
“It wasn't heavy. I've brought three, so you'll have choices. Or maybe give one to Tamar, one to Rina, and keep one.”
“Ah! Dye!” she exclaims happily, and takes out my gift. Or gifts. Three in one if she likes, or just three.
“Black. Dark Navy. Smoke Grey,” Rina reads the small packets.
“You are the only one of my daughters who dyes things,” Mummy remarks, “and sometimes I envy you for it! Now I have to decide whether it's my white skirt or my pink nightie.”
We chat about dyeing things. I recall a moment in my therapy – I had therapy for three years once – and my therapist saying smilingly that we play tricks on ourselves with words. Words are messages, she insisted, but we don't always decipher them. I didn't take her that seriously, but I do take seriously that as soon as I land here, in Jerusalem, my mind plays tricks on me. My parents' home here is not the home I grew up in, which was in Southern England. I was used to being one piece in a jigsaw. Then suddenly I became a different piece. The crockery signifies home, from salad servers to mugs to breadboard to cereal bowls, and the bowls will last forever – they're pyrex. But it isn't the crockery. It's me.
Next day I go to the corner store to get milk and rolls. Outside, the boundaries of the person who is me flicker, flounder like the ground I am on. My eyes close, and pinpoints of light spread, and then I'm half floating. I feel like an angel in an old film. I say to myself. It's my ears: first the flight, then Jerusalem being so high up. But I know it isn't.
Daddy is very ill, and there is a chamsin, a hot desert wind. My mother has put on the air conditioner, the on-off mode. Just when you get used to the background hum, it ceases and silence fills the air. Twenty minutes later, you are comfortable in the silence, and there is a click like a knock at a door and the hum comes back.
Rina comes in each morning to chat about her day. Her Jerusalem day. Each day there is some comment, she can't help it, Jerusalem is in her blood, as it was once supposed to be in mine, except with me it leaked out, faded, that sense of comfort and ownership. Rina was born in England but the day she set foot in Jerusalem she belonged here. I didn't leave England until I was twenty-two, armed with a philosophy degree.
Rina kisses Daddy on the forehead. His electric mattress moves gently through the day so he won't get sore. I imagine he might feel like a boat at sea, but if he is, he isn't telling us.
“Bye, darling, have a good day,” he says. He is lucid this morning. I am proud of them. Proud of Mummy, the way she looks after Daddy; of Daddy, for the way he looked after us.
At midday Tamar arrives laden with goodies. Sultana cake, fishballs, a roast chicken cradled in carrots and peppers.
“How is your beautiful lemon tree?” Mummy asks, admiring the abundance of foods.
“We can`t use it this year.” Tamar doesn`t look reproachful, because we are not a family of reproach, but the reminder is there. It is the Shemitah year.
“Now that is something I never think about at home,” I say unapologetically. “As you know.” Of course they know. But I tend to say these things. Coded provocation, I suppose, in a Jewish, family-based kind of way. In England there is no such thing as Shemitah. Shemitah is the law about letting the earth lie fallow once every seven years. A biblical instruction given to us more than two thousand years before climate change.
“It is one of those mitzvot,” Tamar reminds me sunnily, “that we are instructed to observe properly now that we are all here.” That slip of the tongue. We may be all here, at this moment in time. We're not all here in the deeper sense.
My father is weakening. This evening he is propped up, super-nourished. Mummy has brought tins of liquid food full of vitamins. He sucks from one through a bent straw. We watch him through this repast, but his glazed eyes keep glancing towards the window. I imagine he is imagining dying.
“Drink more, darling,” Mummy urges him, now holding a cup of water to his lips, but he turns his face away. "You'll be dehydrated if you don't drink," she murmurs, but then she puts the cup down. His weariness is unbearable.
Shortly after eight, he is asleep. Rina stays, Tamar is here overnight anyway, and we all sit down to watch the news. But halfway through the news he wakes up and begins calling. Mummy, Tamar, Miriam, Rina. So we switch off coverage of the old adversaries, Israelis and Palestinians, and what they've been up to today. Killings? None, unusually. An encounter. An imprisonment. A threat. An occupation, of course. Several threats. What does the news mean to him now? "God of Jerusalem," I whisper, "if you are here, bring peace."
We go to him in the night. I go, Mummy goes, the nurse who comes at ten goes; Tamar stays over. At midnight there are crashes of thunder, flashings of lightning, and the skies open. The wind has dried out the sky which cracks open like the desiccated ground. I sense strange combinations of liquids: mucus, urine, sweat, tears, blood, rain and more rain.
I sit with him for a while around three o'clock. Patterns of capillaries on his thin arm make miniature maps in the half-light. I touch his shoulder gently and whisper, “Goodnight Daddy,” then creep from the room. But in a flash he's awake, calling out to me with strangely renewed strength.
“Miriam. Go and wake Mummy up,” he orders. “Get her to drink something or she'll be dehydrated.”
“Mummy is asleep,” I whisper shakily. “She's fine.”
“No. Go to your mother, wake her, do as I say!” he orders.
“Don`t just say ‘okay’ like that. Get her to drink or she will die.”
“I think she needs to sleep. We all need to sleep.”
He lies back for a moment, then starts again. “To be honest, I am astonished! More astonished than I have ever been, at you! All I can say is: May heaven help you! You need the help of heaven.” Mummy has now woken with the shouting, and comes to him, so I leave. Whispering, they urge each other to drink. Somehow I fall asleep. At dawn I'm up first, and first back in his room. He smiles and says, “Hello, darling.”
But he's in a cell. I see it. A cell of thin skin and stiff bone. My curiosity is sharp, it's like a knife that cuts, but I seem to be indulging in self-harm with it. Otherwise, why allow these thoughts? Is he dreaming, as he lies there, eyes closed, that reserved expression on his face, of all the cells he spent a life discovering? Microscopic, life-giving, minuscule? Does he remember his first golden career, his good strong days as A Renowned British Scientist? The journals, the conferences, the commitment to exploration of life`s molecules and circulations? On and off trains to London he would go.
My mind slices through memories now, the way Daddy used to slice through slides of blood cells, fat cells, nerve cells. Frozen sections, he explained to me. We call these frozen sections. We freeze them in order to keep things exactly as they are.
I remember the final celebratory trip we made to the lab, all three of us. There was an international congress, hosted by Daddy who was retiring and saying goodbye to England, and we were invited to attend the party.
“I am proud to introduce you to my wife and to my daughters, Tamar, Miriam and Rina.” I was filled with curiosity about the alchemies of modern science. I sensed the significance of Daddy's work, and felt admiration. And here was that American grandee we had been told about. My American friend Harold… He wore a name tag: Professor H S Reinhardt.
“Professor Reinhardt,” Daddy stood beside me proudly, “is an important man. He sits on a committee that chooses who to nominate for Nobel Prizes.”
“And your father is a hero of haematology,” Professor Reinhardt retorted. “England will be sorry to lose him, but England's loss will be Israel's gain!” Everything that night was falling into place. Tamar was already in Israel, on her kibbutz. Just home on a visit, she told everyone. Rina was excited, about to leave school. I don't want an English university, she told us. I am choosing Jerusalem.
And me? I was the floater. The fuzzy smudge that floated across their fields of vision, dimming their view of Daddy's post-retirement career in a top Israeli research institute – and their ideal, of a family staying together, moving together. Going Home, they said. All of us.
Now I'm counting homecomings. I think of opening the front door early evening as he arrived home from the capital. He smiled at me warmly. “Is Mummy in?” Through the hall to the kitchen, he marched energetically. Through the door, across the red lino floor. He kissed her forehead, then turned back to sit down at the head of the kitchen table. His place in his house. The coffee grinder on the wall just above his head.
“I've brought the Evening Standard,” he said casually, putting the newspaper down for my mother to pick up. The world out there was always England, London, conferences, newspapers, trains, meetings and then homecomings.
But here in the house, in a kind of magical manifestation, hidden between curtains, behind the sofa, beyond mirrors, I could sense the mystical family mantra. Spoken out loud from time to time, in English, and regularly sung in Hebrew, in the form of Grace After Meals. "The land you have given us," we chorused in Hebrew after Shabbat dinner. The theme never left the family, nor the family the theme. It was there, whispered, chanted, sung, recited, if not in the house, then on walks by the river under the bridge, winter walks through town. The message of the theme was:
“When Daddy retires we will do it. We will all move to Jerusalem.”
Mid-morning, my mother consults a new doctor on the phone, but this time not for advice about old age or infirmity. It`s about the files again. Green files, blue files, kalamazoo files, every article, every learned journal, every experiment referenced and recorded. But old stuff now. Half the cells he discovered have new names. And anyway, now it's all computerised.
And then there's a phone call. It's Aunt Milly, who came to live here twenty years before any of us did. She will pop in tomorrow with a limp and a stick to see her dying brother. Meanwhile she makes a dire prediction. Tonight there will be more thunder. So much more of it will there be that last night's will be remembered as the calm before. And as you're here, she says, tell me what's happening in England now. For years she's said to me on every visit, “What a shame you went back; did you really not like it enough here? Were seven years more than enough for you?” But before I have time to answer, she's rung off, gone to listen to the news.
This afternoon we sat in the salon, and he was in the wheelchair. He said, “I'll try a little walk.” I helped him stand up and he took a dozen steps. His arm, as I held it, shook violently with the effort.
Now it's midnight, but I can't sleep yet. I'm remembering being woken not by thunder but by thundering. I am very young.
Listen. That rumbling, almost a deep growl, or barking. I sit up in bed, wide-eyed, waiting. That noise is the sound of Daddy in the morning running all the way down the stairs then up again. I wait, snug in bed, till he canters into our room, slows, opens our curtains. I hear footsteps, a pause, and a soft click. I still share a room with Tamar who is nine.
"The gasfire is on now, girls! It's safe to get up."
And now it's cold, freezing, winter holiday time, though we know not to expect presents from Father Christmas. But we have Chanukah, with chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver paper. Eight whole days of it. And there are so many other days. “Christians only have Christmas once a year,” he jokes as we walk down the hill to the place I love the most. He holds my hand as we cross the road carefully, then in we go, to the Central Library. This is my treat for Shabbat, of which we have fifty-two in a year, and each one is lovely.
And now I'm seeing myself again as a wide-eyed child, and I am running, my little legs carrying me up and down, through dark blue tunnels and beneath mysterious grey heights, vast mountain ranges of mysteries and wonders. Books, books, books. Words, words. English words. I love them. I am the best reader in the family. I read newspapers too, even though I`m only seven. And I am a good girl.