Rachel looks at the blank page in front of her, unwilling to plunge into her latest dream and write about it for her therapist, Dina. She rubs her hands on her thighs. The fabric of her jeans is uncompromising. Get it over and done with, Rachel, she tells herself. Words shouted by the swimming teacher who made her dive from the top-most board into the school pool.
She sees herself as a child, forcing herself to walk the length of the board to the edge. Standing so high up, so alone, trying not to look down. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes and arcs into the dive, plummeting through the smack of the water to the bottom of the pool. Kicking away the moment of panic, she rises in a cloud of bubbles and surfaces. After swimming a few strokes she looks up at the diving board. I did it, she thinks.
Rachel picks up her pen and sighs. Can she conquer her terrors again? A sidling movement along the edge of the patio makes her look up. A cat, one of the many strays fed by the upstairs neighbour, is about to pass near her chair. It sees her, blinks and quickly turns back down the steps to slink along the fence where it finds a hole in the chicken wire and slips through. It throws one last glance back at her before disappearing into the bushes. See, I can always get away, it seems to say. Not like me, Rachel thinks. I’m still trying to escape my nightmares.
It’s a cloudless, early spring day in Haifa, warm enough to sit outside. A blackbird trills songs of courtship high up in the pine tree and sounds ecstatic when answered by its mate. The acacia spills swathes of golden balls over the fence. Not long ago the beauty of it all would have lit her day, but that was before the suicide bombing of a nearby restaurant, in which her friend Elizabeth and her family were killed.
Michael, Rachel’s husband, comes out with two mugs of coffee and the newspaper, a pen in his mouth. He sits down opposite her and turns to the page with the crosswords and Sudoku. He moves his chair into the table until he’s comfortable. The scraping on the tiles irritates her and she loses concentration. He looks across at her.
‘How’s it going?’ he asks.
‘I’m trying to get started. It’s hard.’
‘But if it helps...’
Michael had been the one to urge her to go to a therapist.
‘Rache, you can’t go on like this. We don’t sleep at night. You won’t go on buses, you won’t go to malls and restaurants. You don’t see friends. What kind of life is that?’
For the two of us, she knew he wanted to add. No sex, either, but she didn’t miss it. She’d sat around staring at the walls, barely responding when Michael spoke. But the despair in his voice had got through to her.
In the first session with Dina, she cried most of the time and clutched the arms of the chair as she described her nightly terrors.
‘Where do these dreams take place?’ Dina asked.
‘Always in some kind of war situation. Sometimes I’m trying to dodge missiles ... sometimes I’m in a burning bus.’
Rachel rocked her body back and forth and took a few deep breaths. ‘Sometimes I’m in a restaurant that’s just been blown up,’ she said, when she could speak again.
‘And what happens to you?’ Dina asked.
‘I’m trapped and on fire...’ Rachel covered her face. ‘Or...’
‘Or?’ Dina prompted.
‘Or ... ‘Rachel whispered, ‘my body’s being ripped apart by nail bombs.’ She couldn’t talk about Elizabeth.
She leaves each session feeling washed out. But she’s come to trust Dina. She still has the nightmares, but now there are fewer days of waking up screaming and thrashing. Sometimes she’ll catch herself while she’s talking to Michael or smiling at a joke, and think, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’
It’s hard to concentrate on the chore Dina set her. She observes Michael as he sits opposite her, absorbed in the daily newspaper. The predictability of his routine reassures, amuses and irritates her all at once. First he reads the headlines, then a related article of interest, and last, he does the puzzles. If she sees him doing the Sudoku, she knows he will have already scanned the headlines while making coffee in the kitchen. Out on the patio, he reads in depth, sometimes forgetting to pick up the mug he brought out with him. Finally, he’ll do the crossword, like a child leaving its favourite sweet till last. She hopes he won’t ask for help—one of his strategies to reawaken her interest in the world. She can almost hear Dina advising him on the phone, ‘Get her involved in something—it’ll help her come out of herself.’
She thinks about last night’s dream. As usual it was about war, but she woke up without feeling overly disturbed. She begins to write.
I’m in a large city with nineteenth century European-style buildings, inhabited mainly by Chinese with a sprinkling of Westerners—it could be pre-World War II Shanghai. There’s a threat of imminent invasion which everyone is trying to ignore.
‘It’ll soon be 20 years since the Gulf War – can you believe it?’ Michael says.
‘Why did you bring that up?’ she asks. ‘Are you reading about it?’
‘No. I’ve been asked to write something about Israel and the Gulf War.’
She stops writing, knowing he’s trying to entice her into conversation. She sighs and hopes he didn’t hear. Wars: the milestones in their forty-five years of married life in Israel. The first, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was when Boas, their son, gave his first baby smile in the air-raid shelter of their apartment building. She recalls being woken by the siren, snatching Boas from his cot and, still in her nightgown, dashing outside and down the steps to join the other neighbours. The latest milestone was the suicide bombing that killed Elizabeth and her family.
Breathe. Do something else. She takes a few gulps of her coffee. It tastes good, the aroma lingering after each swallow. Surreal to appreciate coffee on a beautiful day and to think about war.
‘It’s a huge topic—how are you going to tackle it?’ she asks, hoping he’s not going to be long-winded. Now that she’s started writing, she doesn’t want to lose the thread of her dream.
‘I’m not sure yet. It’s for an academic journal.’
‘I thought it might be,’ she says and goes back to her writing.
One day, the rumours become reality. Alarmist headlines and photos of enemy fighter planes cover the front pages of newspapers. I feel the excitement, bordering on panic, sweeping through the crowds on my way back from work to my rooming house, and by the time I reach my little room at the top of the stairs, I can hear the booms and thuds in the distance. From my window, I look out over the city at the throngs of people streaming towards the railway station.
It’s too difficult to capture that sense of panic on paper, and she leaves it, her mind drawn back to the Gulf War that began in January 1991.
Rachel and her family sat through a cold, wet winter, waiting for the war to be over. New neighbours had moved in a few days before the first attack. They were one of the thousands of families from the former Soviet Union fresh off the plane, with no suspicion that their new homeland was about to be attacked by scud missiles sent over from Iraq. Nor had they heard of Saddam Hussein.
‘Our new neighbours in the Gulf War—remember them?’ Rachel asks. ‘How they arrived in the country the week before everything started.’
Michael is immersed in the Sudoku, so she has to repeat the question.
‘I haven’t thought about them in years,’ he says, more to the paper than to her.
‘Nor had I till you mentioned your article. I wonder what became of them after they moved.’
‘I’m sure they’re doing very nicely wherever they are. They had excellent survival skills.’ Michael finally looks at her and shifts in his chair.
‘What do you mean?’ Rachel asks, surprised at the edge in his voice.
‘They were going to abscond with our things when they moved out. Don’t you remember when we went up to say goodbye?’ he asks. ‘You were the one that noticed the heaters poking out of their boxes. I thought we’d made it clear we were only lending them those things.’
‘I still believe they thought we’d given them away.’
‘And the quilts,’ he reminds her. ‘If they’d been honest, they would have asked if we wanted our things back.’ His eyes are flinty.
‘We were happy to help, remember. We had so much compared to them.’
‘That time we invited them for coffee,’ he continues, ‘you could see the dollar signs practically popping out of their eyes. They looked as though they were casing the joint.’
‘I’m sure you’re wrong. We helped them, didn’t we?’ Rachel asks, her voice rising. ‘Why would they want to steal from us?’ But as soon as she says this she realises Michael is probably right.
‘Rache, you’re so ...’
The unspoken word ‘naive’ hangs in the air. Six months ago Michael would have used it without thinking twice. Now she would welcome the insult. She loathes it when he sometimes slips back into treating her like an invalid or a small child. She doesn’t need that any more. With a shrug, she picks up her pen.
I have to leave, find somewhere safe. What to take? Not clothes or books. Jewellery. I take out my old brown plastic handbag given to me by the elderly ladies on the kibbutz, and cram my jewellery, still in its original boxes, inside it. Money too, I need money. I go to a drawer and take out 5 notes of 100 Israeli lire.
She and Michael supplied their new neighbours with food and clothing as well as the heaters and quilts. They prepared their neighbours’ security room against chemical attacks and showed them how to put on the gas masks. Each day she went upstairs to see how they were.
She’s aware of some kind of correlation with her dream. Not sure where it will lead, she continues writing.
A woman enters my room—the rooming house owner, I think. I call her Madam, but she can’t be that kind of Madam because I’m not that kind of girl. Madam seems different today. She’s always shown obsequiousness to me, her Western lodger. Now the slanted raisin eyes are hard and her movements confident. Almost controlling.
‘You are leaving, I suppose. Where will you go?’ She eyes the clothes I have hanging in the cupboard.
‘I’m going to Palestine,’ I say, but the word comes out as ‘Palestina’, the way my German-speaking parents used to say it.
‘Come,’ she calls to someone waiting outside the door.
One of the servants enters and casts hungry eyes at the clothes.
‘You are leaving these?’ the Madam asks. It’s more a command than a question. We both watch the other woman fingering the dresses. She gives a cry of delight as she pulls out a gold dress with handmade lace and smocking across the bodice.
‘Yes,’ I say, and look away. I can’t bear the greed I see in Madam’s eyes.
In her dream Rachel is single. But in the Gulf War she was married and the mother of two teenagers old enough to help prepare the family’s security room. It was the bathroom, chosen because it offered more protection by having only one window. It was too small to fit four camping stools on the floor so Sharon sat on blankets in the bath holding the cat. Rachel took photos of them all wearing the black gasmasks and pretending to be aliens, but the novelty was quickly been replaced by teenage whining. The straps yanked at their hair and the masks covering their faces had a rubbery smell and were hot and hard to breathe through.
‘Remember Boas making Pitzi’s gas mask for the security room?’ Rachel asks.
Michael looks up, surprised. ‘I thought you were writing down your dream.’
‘I was still back in the Gulf War.’
‘That mask was ingenious,’ Michael says. ‘The way he cut off the top of a Coke bottle and stuck elastic to the sides so it would stay on.’
‘Except she wouldn’t let him put it on her head. She clawed at him till he had to let go ... Remember how the siren freaked her out, and you’d yell at the kids because they wouldn’t go into the bathroom till they caught her?’
‘And then she’d go berserk again when the “All Clear” sounded. Stupid cat.’ Michael turns a page and straightens the paper.
Rachel sees he’s finished the Sudoku and is about to start the crossword.
‘We weren’t always very smart ourselves,’ she says, needing to come to long-dead Pitzi’s defence.
‘Like ... my going swimming every day and putting the gasmask on a chair at the side of the pool. Just as well I didn’t need it. I could never have made it in time if there’d been an attack.’
She sees the shock on Michael’s face. ‘You knew,’ she says. “You’ve just forgotten.’
Rachel stands up abruptly and takes the mugs into the kitchen. Had she really been so foolhardy? No, she remembers now. She only went back to swimming after they were told there was no danger of chemical attacks.
‘More coffee?’ she calls to Michael.
She doesn’t hear his reply, but decides to make him a cup anyway. While she waits for the water to boil, her thoughts go back to the evenings of waiting for the scud attacks that began after dusk and continued for hours into the night. No one travelled on the roads after dark if they could help it. Rachel remembers the tension coiling upwards through her belly as she stood at the kitchen stove stirring soup or frying eggs for the children’s supper. All the while she prayed that she’d hear Michael’s car in the driveway before the first scud landed. ‘Wait till he’s home, you bastard,’ she addressed Saddam. ‘And then get it over with.’
The scuds usually fell in the industrial zone on the Bay, but sometimes they reached residential areas on the mountain. Afterwards there would be quiet—except for the night a Patriot missile intercepted a scud somewhere above the house.
She pours the water over the coffee grounds, and as if in a film, she sees the family huddled together in the security room, arms around each other, shaking with the explosion that rocked the house. She was sure they were going to die. When nothing happened, she broke the circle and looked at her husband and children. Ears still ringing, she hugged them. ‘We’re OK,’ she said.
The coffee made, Rachel takes the mugs out to the patio. The blackbird is no longer singing. Instead, there are deafening twitters of alarm from the lower branches of the ficus trees along the fence. Cats in the area, she thinks. Those birds are wired to know their enemies.
Michael takes his coffee and she looks at his crossword as she sits, surprised how little he’s done.
‘Are you stuck?’ she asks.
‘No, I stopped. I was thinking about something that happened after the Gulf War.’
‘Remember we got the contract to refurbish all the gasmasks as soon as the war was over?’
She nods, and takes a sip of her coffee.
‘And how everyone had to return the masks to the collection points? With the masks inside the boxes?’
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘Well ... some people put their valuables inside the boxes for safe-keeping ... in case they needed to leave in a hurry if their house was hit.’
‘Why didn’t we didn’t think of something smart like that?’ she wonders aloud. Then Michael’s meaning registers. She brings her hand to her mouth. ‘You mean they forgot to take them out when they returned the masks?’
‘I only found out when we started getting frantic phone calls ...and by then it was too late.’
Rachel puts down her mug. The birds have moved to the higher branches, their twitters now so loud that it’s hard to hear what Michael is saying.
‘It was such bedlam, Rache—we had to meet a deadline and take whoever we could get to operate the lines. We didn’t have time to run personnel checks.’ He sighs and puts his face in his hands.
‘So the workers were stealing,’ Rachel says. ‘Didn’t anyone know what was going on? Surely someone would have reported it.’
‘No one handed anything in, no one saw anything. Naturally, they closed ranks ... I never found out who was doing it.’ He sighs again and looks at her.
‘Those poor people,’ Rachel says. ‘To go through a war ... and then to be robbed ...’ She stops, aware that she’s shouting. It’s a long time since she’s been so angry, especially over something that happened so long ago. And suddenly she recalls that same anger in her dream. Excited now, she says to Michael, ‘Wait a minute, I have to write something down while it’s still fresh.’
I’m fighting my way through the station, along with hundreds of others. There’s a tug at my arm and something rips free. My bag. It’s been snatched. My money, the little boxes with my jewellery—all gone. I have nothing.
Panic sweeps through me, then fury. I step onto the escalator, pushed upwards by the mass of people behind me. Then I see a familiar brown strap poking out from under a young man’s arm slightly ahead of me. Without thinking, I hurl myself at him as we get off at the top. He’s so startled he lets go of my bag and is caught, held by people who have come to my assistance. One is a young woman.
‘You thief,’ I scream at the young man. ‘How could you?’ But I don’t need to ask—I know. He was sure no one would notice in the chaos. Everyone was panicking—wanting only to get away, to survive.
Rachel puts down her pen. Survive. The word resonates, and she remembers the recent session with Dina when she could finally talk about the suicide bombing that killed her friend. She had to stop many times as she forced herself to relive the events of that day.
‘Elizabeth ...we worked together. It was her birthday and she was in the restaurant with her family, sitting near the window. I was walking past and saw them, so I stopped for a moment. When she looked up, I mouthed ‘Happy birthday’. She smiled back and waved. I walked on ... And then it happened.’
Rachel swallowed hard, the explosion bursting inside her head. Again she saw herself turning around, the flames and bits of metal shooting into the air and thick smoke burning the back of her throat. She’d stayed where she was, gasping and trembling. Ambulances and fire engines screamed past, drowning out the screams of the wounded. Or was it she, Rachel, screaming as she remembered?
She looked down as she felt a touch on her arm and heard Dina say, ‘Rachel, those deaths were terrible.’
‘Yes.’ Rachel raised her head.
‘But you survived.’
Now, a few weeks later, she ponders over Dina’s remark. What would have happened if the suicide bomber had detonated his belt a few moments earlier? Or if she’d gone inside to talk to her friend? But those things didn’t happen. She’s still alive. There’s a connection with the dream— she’s sure of it. She feels the tingle of a breakthrough.
Something about the young woman in her dream tugs at Rachel’s memory. Something self-evident while she was dreaming, and immediately forgotten. She concentrates.
The girl has porcelain skin and huge, penetrating eyes. Elizabeth? But much younger and more glamorous than when I knew her as a colleague.
Rachel’s chair screeches as she bolts down the steps into the garden.
‘Hey, where are you going?’ Michael calls after her.
She doesn’t answer. She bends down, picks up the hand trowel and gardening gloves she left out on the rockery a few days back and starts loosening the soil around the nearest shrubs. The ground is hard, and she almost falls backwards with the effort of pulling the weeds out with their roots intact. The activity helps her focus, gives her space from the bursts of feeling surfacing like sparks lighting up the darkness. After a while she stops, pushes the trowel into the ground, picks up the pile of weeds and tosses them on the compost heap behind the acacia. She lingers at the tree to inhale its buttery scent. Then she pulls off her gloves and throws them into the cupboard on her way back to the patio.
‘You ok now?’ Michael asks.
‘I needed that—now I can go on. There’s something I can’t put my finger on yet. I know it’s important.’
The booms sound much nearer now. People run wildly in all directions as they look for the nearest train to take them out of the city and in their panic, some fall and are trampled on. I don’t understand how I know this because I’m still with the young man and his captors, and we’re separated from everyone else as though in a bubble. I look inside my bag. The jewellery boxes are still there but the money’s gone.
‘You stole my money,’ I say, and look in vain for a policeman.
Elizabeth searches his pockets and finds the notes. She gives them to me and says, ‘Get away while you’ve got the chance. We’ll deal with him. Go!’
Then everything fades except for Elizabeth’s glowing eyes looming ever larger until she too, disappears.
Rachel stops and draws a shaky breath. Something huge is shifting in her mind. Elizabeth. Elizabeth wanted her to escape ... Elizabeth has let her go!
The insight is too new to deal with right now. Easier to think about the women who were stealing at Michael’s gas-mask plant.
‘I wish they’d been caught,’ she says to Michael.
‘What?’ Michael is counting the letters of the last word in the crossword and Rachel watches him write the word in small letters at the side so he can go back to it later.
‘I said I wish they’d been caught.’
‘Those line-workers. What they did was despicable. And I can’t stand the fact that they got away with it.’
Michael looks at her. ‘I love it when you get mad.’ He growls and pretends to be filled with lust.
It’s an old joke between them and she laughs. ‘It’s good to laugh again,’ she says as he neatly inserts the letters of the last word. How many times has she watched him finish his crossword, the same hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth as he folds up the paper? Too many to count. And it will be the same again tomorrow, regardless of his plans for the rest of the day.
The blackbird has resumed its song. Rachel can just make out the black speck on the uppermost branch of the pine. Her glance sweeps back across the acacia, vivid against the blue sky. She adds a final sentence at the bottom of her page and draws a swimming pool with a stick figure rising out of the water near the foot of a very high diving board.
Slipping the page inside her folder, she smiles.