They’d wake up around eight and one of them would cook their porridge on a portable plug-in hob. This always took a long time. They’d be standing up to an hour, taking turns to stir the oats. On the wall of their little room were explosions of flaking blood, from the mosquitos that she’d swatted the night before. They had given up wiping them off. After breakfast, they’d head in their different directions to town. John would find a coffee bar and try to work. Sometimes it was an Arab coffee bar, sometimes a Jewish one. There was no principle behind this. He just wasn’t sure which ones were which. Laura could have told him. But she’d be somewhere else, finishing her research. In the afternoons, they’d come together, head to the beach. “Have you noticed the trees here?” said Laura. “Have you noticed the way that they smell?” John nodded. “Jism trees,” she said. “It’s really overpowering. You have to wonder why they chose them. The city fathers.” They had technically split up. Yet here they were in Haifa on the sand. The wind flapping their paperbacks, as they stared out to the sea.
They had been here a few weeks. Resting after their road trip. He’d been surprised by the call to come over. She had missed him out there, all alone. “Welcome to Ramallah,” she said, when he arrived. She seemed relieved that he’d come. He couldn’t see her as part of the NGO crowd. She had an antic impious streak, they wouldn’t relish like him. A general disruptive urge she had, but also good, also brave. He was impressed with her. And pleased to learn she needed him, stood in need of his protection. They slept on just a mattress that night and it felt like they were off again, resuming.
They drove past pebbly hills and banana farms, along the flag marked roads. She told him about the country, who owned what and who disputed it. She pointed out the concrete clusters on the hillsides, the militarised resorts. “Imagine living in one of those,” he said. He’d seen them in the old markets, the teenage girls in their cut-offs, guns at their hips. They made him feel uncomfortable. Far too many adolescents here, far too many guns and flags. Still, he was here for love of Laura. “You can’t go there from love,” somebody had said, back home. “The place isn’t a backdrop for your feelings.” He didn’t think much of this person. He thought they had a famished approach to life. He would go there, because of love, and maybe he would learn something as well. He bought a book by Amos Oz. He bought a book by Mahmoud Darwesh and it didn’t arrive in time. “You wouldn’t have got it through customs,” Laura said now. They were heading to the West Bank, where they’d begun.
Afy, Laura’s friend, came to the door. She was younger than John had imagined. For someone of her achievements. She’d had pieces in international shows, lectured on her work. He’d expected a harshly glamorous thirtysomething. Whereas she looked scrappy, juvenile, unfinished. Her husband, Ahmad, was on the sofa in the front room. He looked even younger. He had dreadlocks and a mild defeated air John associated with northern grandfathers. Happy with pottering, domestic. There were plastic lorries and robots on the floor but the children had gone to bed. The telly was on, showing the news. Afy and Laura rushed into communication. They seemed to delight in one another. Seizing on each other’s sentences. John could only watch. He noticed Laura mirroring, talking with her hands, like a New Yorker. Ahmad gestured for John to come with him. He took him through the kitchen and out onto an iron stairway going down the back of the building.
“Smoke?” said Ahmad. John didn’t, not really, but he felt that he probably should. It roughed his throat, it tickled. He coughed and smiled.
“Your dreads. Is that a fashion thing, or?”
“Rastafarian thing,” said Ahmad. John handed him back the spliff. A Palestinian Rasta then. There was probably sense to that.
“The homeland thing. Exile,” he said.
“Bob Marley,” said Ahmed. From back inside the flat the women laughed. They were talking, John guessed, about men, about men and their hopelessness. He understood, sympathised, felt it was unfair. He had come out all this way. He strained to make out the words. No, they were talking about art. He heard the name Matisse. He was out on a fire escape on a warm Ramallah night and in the next room the women were talking of Matisse. He felt like a war correspondent. He would buy a linen suit. He would drink whiskey in Cairo and use apposite literary quotations. His patrician style would hide a natural sympathy for the underdog.
“Want to finish it?” He supposed he did. He looked through the window, past the kitchen, to Laura and Afy in the front room. They both looked very beautiful and he felt a comradeship with Ahmed, born of this good fortune. He wanted to express it but saw there was no way. He threw down the stub-end and went back in the flat.
“I really like Matisse,” said John, but they had started talking about something else. He could see Laura glaring at him, annoyed, and he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. Afy had opened a bottle. He wasn’t sure about this. They had an early start ahead, for the journey back to Israel. Another thing he wasn’t sure about; the terminology. If he went round calling it Israel it might offend someone. Ditto the other way round. The place was full of difficulty. Laura and Afy swapped stories. John looked over to Ahmed but he had put on headphones, was nodding. John would stare at the TV instead. He would stare at it and sip his whiskey.
That night they lay in sleeping bags, the carpet smelling of the day next to their heads. Their limbs ached, they were bothered. The temperature seemed to change on them. He felt he was annoying her. In the morning he had a sore neck. The sun got at his eyes. The children were up and stomping, eating cereals. He had woken just before Laura, before the noise and the bustle began, and he had watched her sleeping face. He wasn’t as sure as he had been that they were still together. In which case every second must be given its proper heed. Clamshell eyelids and lips that sucked the air. She noticed him. “Sleep,” she said and turned her back. They went down to the car, the two of them and Afy, stepping over families of half sleeping cats, over dust damp streaked with drain-water and piss. Afy got in the back. She put up her hood and closed her eyes, docile, happy, swaddled. Laura cursed at other drivers under her breath. Drove past buildings without roofs, garages selling sports cars, men talking in doorways. The statue of the lions in the square, paws painted red, one of them apparently wearing a Rolex watch. Up through the hills, along the interrupting wall, which snaked there grey, reminding. He hadn’t expected the gaps in it. As though it were so confident a wall it could afford to take time out.
They’d normally passed the checkpoint without fuss but this time they were asked to pull over out of the way. The guard looked even younger than Afy, barely past his teens. His cheeks raw from needless shaving. He was trying to be impassive, so it looked. John had recently given a lecture himself and had seen this look on the faces of the students. A protective retreat into unreadability. He was holding a machine gun. This communicated well enough. Even after all the time they’d spent here, it impacted, like the wall did, a thump upon the consciousness.
“Need to see in the boot,” said the guard. Laura got out of the car. She stepped a little away, talking to him. John could hear her voice rising. He turned to look at Afy. To see if she was okay, to register, if he could, that he was opposed to these indignities. To neutralise them, by his presence, turn them comic. She hardly looked back at him. She was breathing fast, sitting upright. She scrabbled out of her seatbelt and left the car. John tapped the dashboard, stretched as much as he could, scratched his head and joined them on the outside.
“What’s the problem?” said Afy. “Excuse me, what is the problem?” The boot was open now. Inside it an old cool-bag they kept forgetting to empty. A bottle of water, left outside the cool-bag, the contents dully warming. Laura’s flipflops coated in sand. Afy’s shoulder bag, canvas, floral patterned.
“Need to see in those,” said the soldier. The head of his gun was raised a little, like an attentive animal. Afy grabbed the cool-bag.
“Ok, this, this is some kind of old sandwich which is actually a biological weapon. And these, these, plastic forks are for stabbing in the marketplace.” John looked at Laura but he couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She was standing very still, prepared for flinching. “This one’s my bag. This is the notebook I write my plans in for smashing the occupier government. It looks like it’s drawings and art but it’s really a sort of code?” She slammed the book shut and threw it against the ground. “This is make-up, for when I’m undercover, in disguise.” The case went on the floor. The head of the guard’s gun had risen a few inches. “This book is about Picasso.” She lobbed it. “It didn’t explode.”
“Stop throwing things,” said the guard.
“I’m filming this,” said Laura. “I’m filming.”
“These are a spare pair of shoes.” She threw them on the ground, very near to the soldier’s feet. The head of the gun rose further. “You going to shoot me? You going to say I attacked? This is all being filmed.”
“Those are my shoes,” said Laura.
“She’s an artist, she makes art,” said John. There was a moment of peace and unity, in which the guard, Laura and Afy all looked at him in scorn.
“Passports and documentation,” said the guard. “Going to have to take them.”
“I am lecturing in Haifa in two hours and you are fucking me about,” said Afy. The guard looked at John. John had nothing to offer.
“Passports and documentation,” said the guard. John looked at Laura. She was in charge of both their passports, from a tacit understanding John would lose them.
“We are British citizens,” said Laura.
“Give them to me,” said the guard. “Give them to me and get back in the car. Put away the phone.” Laura shook as she handed them over. Afy gave her passport to Laura who gave it to the guard. Without looking he went and stood back, gesturing at the car. They got back inside, hot and cursing. Afy was close to tears. Laura turned to John.
“So what, we just sit here, is that it?”
“Not much else we can do,” said John. He felt glared at, though nobody glared. The guard was off, harassing other cars. He didn’t seem in a rush to do anything with their documents.
“They shoot people,” said Laura. “It happens all the time. Probably not us, but.” She looked round at Afy. Who had sunk inside her hoody, chewing her fingers. “We have to get them back. We’re going in a week, we can’t afford this hassle.”
“Be nice to leave,” said Afy. John looked from one to the other and stepped out of the car. The guard did not turn and instantly shoot him, which was a start. There was a hut a little further up the road and John would go to it and see if there was anyone who would help. John had sometimes regretted looking so English. Now though, with his beard and his tan, he felt he didn’t look English enough. He could have passed for either side of the argument. He tried to look as neutral as he could. Palms out, mouth half-smiling. Behind him, he felt the guard move. He would shoot John in the back. If John walked fast, without running, until he got to the cabin, then he probably wouldn’t be shot. He walked in a way that made it clear there would be no running. This place, this fucking place. The other night, back in Israel, they’d been waiting at a bus stop. A few minutes from the town. Empty streets, houses behind high fences. Minutes before, platinum wives had jogged with dogs before their dinner but now there was no one around. And a car had driven up to the stop, there was no one except for Laura and him and whoever was in this car, their hands beginning to sweat, and the engine running, the glass so hard to see through, as the bus appeared and the car nudged away and left. This place, it hit the nerves.
John had reached the cabin. There was an older guard in there. Older was good, less hormones. He had a kind defeated face. Cheeks starting to sag. A dusting of stubble on each. Pouchy eyes, an invisible cigarette tilted at his lips. A friend, John thought. “Hello,” he said. “Your colleague. Your comrade. The young one. He took our documentation, our passports, and we’d like them back. Actually, we need them.”
“That young one?” said the old guard. He chuckled. “Idiot, he is.”
“You said that,” said John. “Not me.”
“Always something, always trouble,” said the old guard. John liked this man, he thought. His air of having been thwarted, the sense he gave of abiding by the rules and letting the rest alone. The young guard came into the cabin by the back. The two of them spoke in Hebrew. “Your friend,” the old guard said. “She Arab?”
John nodded, unsure what else he could do.
“She needs to shut her mouth,” said the old guard. “Trouble. Crazy to be with them. You go back and tell her shut up. Crazy bitch. Tell her she got you in trouble.” The young guard folded his arms. They were big, these arms. They were nothing like John’s had been at that age.
“I’ll tell her,” said John. “I will. I’ll tell her to shut up.” With a gentle smile the old guard passed over the documents. He winked at John. John managed not to wink back. He walked back to the car, feeling weightless, bounding, his stomach announcing itself. “Got them back,” he said. Afy reached over and patted his shoulder. Laura was looking at him, hard. As she drove, he tried explaining what had happened. He didn’t mention what the guard had said. He didn’t mention his response. But somehow the more he said nothing, the more he felt they both knew about it, knew some compromise had occurred. He wanted to yell that the man had a gun. Had a gun and their passports. He wasn’t about to lecture him on human rights.
“He wasn’t that bad, the old one,” he said. “Even within these systems you get these pockets of people being alright.”
“Do you?” said Laura. He had forgotten to pick up the book or Laura’s shoes.
After they’d dropped Afy off, they drove on to Jaffa, they ate together, not talking. Because they would soon be gone, they checked into a hotel. An old colonial building with ornate doors, maybe once an Arab home. Afterwards, she lay sleeping, and he looked at her, for memories, and then tried to read a book. There were noises from the street below, jazz music and dining groups and far back beyond them the sea. He couldn’t read and he knew he had lost her, that back in London they would separate; he’d be alone there with the weight of all his failings.