What would you say to a person who asks you to scatter their ashes on the Tomb of the Christ when they die? ‘You’re mad,’ you would say? If a Catholic, ‘You’re blasphemous, raving.’ But Ma had asked me to do this very thing. I’d missed her death, and was left with remorse – a second, lingering death. The only things I have of her are a small silver vial of her ashes and her pocket book copy of Frost, which I take with me everywhere.
Yesterday, in the massing crowd of the Old City, my wallet was lifted. The back of my jeans sliced clean with a blade; where there had once been a pocket there is now only a seam with loose, dangling thread. Without a shekel, I feel vulnerable. My other pocket, thank God, still contains the book.
It’s getting dark. Amid reports of muggings by Palestinian child gangs and an old, black Ethiopian porter’s lament about a breakdown of ordinary life, I leave the King David YMCA with a single purpose, as if pushed by an invisible hand. There is a gilded mirror in the YMCA foyer, but I can’t stand to look at myself any more. My beard and hair have grown. I must look feral.
This morning a Palestinian burned the Israeli flag in a mosque. The resulting curfew means the Old City can now only be accessed in the afternoon, the first free slot in three days.
It is difficult to know what is true. Before coming to Jerusalem, I had Ma’s idealized sense of this place as an old time machine: traders in ancient souks selling relics to pilgrims; a labyrinth of conflicting faiths; Christian bells; the wail of the muezzin; stones from a jumble of ages – Roman, Byzantine, Turk. Now, the Old City is full of soldiers. The acrid smell of tear gas is in the air. In some areas, its vaporous fingers reach deep into the lungs making you retch.
I stand on the stone wall running along the city perimeter near the Jaffa Gate, one of eight gates into the Old City. Israeli soldiers, their heads shorn, gather below me, moving shiny steel-capped batons from hand to hand, looking edgy. Both Arabs and Jews pass by them: the Jews in Hasidic black tunics, bespectacled, dishevelled, carrying books and shopping; the Arabs in baggy pants, some wearing dark leather slippers, some barefoot even in the winter cold. The older Arabs look nervous, but the younger ones seem defiant in the face of the soldiers’ suspicious gaze. Three of the squaddies are adolescents with bad skin and pouting mouths. Experience produces silence, but these Israeli soldiers are noisy, garrulous babies. In the settlements they have had to turn on their own people. Images now come to me of children; empty homes, scattered toys.
We moved home often when I was a kid, which left me with a sense of displacement. But each time we moved and I moaned, Ma would point her skinny pianist’s forefinger at a book of verse by Frost: ‘Home is the place where . . .’ and then – a single parent, her feline eyebrows arched – she’d look at me, expecting me to fill in the blanks with a higher wisdom I’d yet to understand. The memory of this makes me smile. I should have told her I loved her – for saying this, for giving me the book.
To my left, the modern city: rolling hills dotted with cypress and pine trees. To the right, the Old City: staggered rooftops laden with crosses, turrets, and mosques. Dominating the skyline is the Dome of the Rock, the mosque with its roof like a giant golden light bulb. To approach the Tomb of the Christ, I will have to go back down into this labyrinth, despite my fear.
My ankles are weak, causing them to bend inwards in the cold. I move awkwardly, slowly towards the spiral descent to the Jaffa Gate. The vial in my pocket is heavy and clumsy, but I am so filled with her it makes me shine, like the Dome, brightly inside.
At the crematorium, I had pulled the white cloth over her shrunken face and closed the casket. I promised her then I would scatter her ashes at the Holy Sepulchre. Sacrilegious? Yes, but when the thick metal oven door slammed shut and the sudden roar of the burners reverberated through my bones I felt her absence like the sky over the earth.
When she died I was not there. I had no chance to say goodbye. She would have liked the view up here on this wall, in her favourite season.
She’d had a window of opportunity. Six months and I could have brought her here; her cancer healed.
‘Please take me there, Mikey,’ she’d said in that persuasive, almost childlike voice I’d come to love as she got older. If I’d had the sense I would’ve stayed quiet, but I didn’t.
It had started with her fall on the stairs. In my mind she wanted a cure only for her hip.
‘The Holy Fire.’
She nodded, smiling like a little girl.
‘Ma, stop chasing after miracles. You can’t travel.’
‘I’m not.’ The smile gone, she crossed her arms. ‘Even invalids can travel by plane, you know,’ she said, trying to sit up defiantly in her wheelchair. The wrinkled white skin of the back of her hands was peppered with moles.
I looked at her, wishing I were not alone, that I had a father and she a husband. How did she think she would manage with her chair in the Old City – or was she expecting me to carry her up all those cobbled streets on my back? Her frame seemed tiny inside her green cardigan, emaciated apart from her stomach, which stuck out as if a small football had been shoved up her top. Once, I found tablets hidden under her pillow. The white label with black print suggested a
repeat prescription, but I couldn’t be sure. I never found them again. But I found other things: a small blue trunk in the attic.
I refused to budge. ‘You shouldn’t have come down those stairs in your old slippers,’ I said. The fall on the stairs had taken away the use of her legs. ‘I told you to throw them away, you stubborn old fool.’
I regretted this as soon as it was out. Her eyes looked sad, a dark gaze. ‘Don’t talk like that, Mikey.’ She turned her head away. ‘Can’t you hear them? Can’t you hear what they’re saying?’
‘You’ll scatter them. You promise me?’ Then she looked at me as old people do. Her legs started shaking. ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’ She was about to say something else, but suddenly stopped.
I kept silent and just stared at her, at her skeletal form in the wheelchair. There was so much about her that remained unsaid, as if saying it would frighten me. She must have known for a long time then about the demon growing inside her.
I wanted to comfort her, but couldn’t. It was only a few months ago, but I was much younger then, too focused on myself. How many times do we make mistakes? Sometimes they fall into the white noise of life and disappear; often they don’t.
Slowly, I make my way down steep stone steps so worn they dip in the middle. It is cold, the biting crisp cold she liked when younger, especially when she took me out sledging on a nearby farmer’s field. I hate the cold, probably a result of my father’s blood – just about the only thing I know of him. Every morning, she’d walk along that muddy track beside the raggedy cornfield to get away from the matchbox-shaped houses on the estate we were living in then. She loved the open spaces, tracing the memory of her ancestors’ land. She had the hard graft of those Inverness men built into her bones, but in fact she seemed more like a kid getting her wellies caked in mud: always curious, always welcoming.
The Tower of David rises up in front of me like a giant stone finger. It seems complex, disjointed. Nauseous, I continue on weak legs across the opening of the Jaffa Gate and towards the interior. Armed soldiers in thick fatigues stand guard by the gate’s base. I keep my head down. I can’t help the way I walk. It’s bound to attract attention. If they body-search me and find the vial, I will have a hard time explaining. I’m not the first martyr to pack a chemical weapon. They are sure to take her from me, look inside.
As I pass the gate, I hear raised voices. A tanned, blond Israeli soldier is shouting at a young Arab man. Gesticulating arms, pointing fingers; the soldier is stony-faced. In one corner, just behind them, a man frying falafels on an open stand watches the scene unfold. The air fills with the sweet scent of cooked ceci.
And then the soldier looks at me. Fear grips my stomach. I have done nothing wrong and yet I feel the vial in my pocket radiating knowledge of the sin to come. For an instant our eyes lock and in his blue gaze I see a question arise. But, distracted by the young Arab, who starts to walk away, he turns and begins shouting after him.
I tell myself I am doing this for her. I have to press on. Through the gate, steady streams of people pass in both directions. I seize my chance and scurry across the square.
An alley to my left; dark stone walls and intricate iron grilles. The wall feels icy against my back; my breath is unsteady, gasping like a fish out on sand, reminding me of my madness in agreeing to this. I’m shivering from fear. People pass the alley, but I am in the shadows away from the nervous shifting gazes and questioning looks. A small miracle to escape – or is it? I hear her now: ‘Mikey, a young man who suffers with your legs must think of himself as a secretly chosen being.’ No. Not me. A miracle would be an irony, as life has always carried too much reality. Belief in a God, yes, but no miracles. Faith has its limits.
Sinking to the freezing Jerusalem stone, everything coming at once, I wish she was here now, and wonder if she is: a miraculous white ghost sitting beside me, seeing and knowing my pain.
Her vulnerability when it came, sudden and harsh, made me desperate for the goodwill and duty of strangers: young doctors, nurses who had no knowledge of her as a human being – of her kindness, the support she gave to those close to her. Like most people who don’t believe in miracles, I was ready to receive one. Six months after the fall, just when her hip had healed and the doctor whispered of finally discarding the wheelchair, I came home from work and found her in bed lying rigid, her mouth locked in a mocking toothy grin. She was paralysed from the neck down. But the stroke wasn’t the worst of it – in fact, it concealed the real evil from me: her ovaries were the size of balloons; a ticking bomb.
But hadn’t her tummy always been big? Just a year ago, I’d playfully approached her like Basil Brush, shouting ‘Boom boom’ and touching it gently with my head. For how many years had I been blind? I told myself we had too much trouble, sometimes moving two or three times a year: a landlord kicking us out for the piano noise; shit through the letterbox; the local skinheads throwing stones at our windows or bullying me for my rolled-in ankles and funny walk. Once, a gang of six skins followed us as we walked home through our estate in Hackney. One of them came up behind me and mimicked my walk, exaggerating it like a drunken penguin. And then he
switched, following her, puffing his cheeks like a gecko and making like he had a huge belly. I looked across at Ma, terrified, gripping her hand, but she just looked straight ahead, completely confident, smiling and reciting in her chirpy sing-song way:
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
The line is now in my head and ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ in my pocket next to my leg, the last thing she gave me at the hospice before she died.
The attention of a group of dark-skinned youths dressed in raggedy clothes and ill-fitting shoes makes me uncomfortable. Young people here scare me. They are used to more violence than I’ve seen in a lifetime; Arab and Jew, spilling each other’s blood and yet having to share not only their holiest shrines, but the folklore that goes with them. I know little of their troubles. I am here by accident. Or is it fate?
Once, I read that the stone on which God called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is the very stone on which the Dome now stands; the same stone Muslims believe carries the imprint of Mohammed’s foot as he ascended to heaven. I have often wished for a father to tell me these tales, to hear his voice teach me the truth. Arab, Jew, both of semen and ovum; it doesn’t make sense. Nothing does.
The youths watch me with amusement or maybe curiosity because of my ankles. It is easy to imagine curved Moorish knives hidden in their clothes. The hungry black gaze of one of the older boys, a gangly lad with arms too long for his coat, fixes upon me like an animal. I bury my hands in my pockets, fingering the pages of Frost for comfort, hurrying on to get out of sight. I turn a corner, straight into a group of five Israeli soldiers.
The soldiers approach me. They wear gas masks. I can only just see the eyes of the man in front through his Perspex visor. Silhouettes of nearby buildings reflect in shiny, tinted plastic. Two old men seated on mats in a corner further along the street look vaguely at us, then quickly look away, chattering on in a harsh form of Arabic.
The soldier points his baton at my stomach, prods me. I wonder whether to gently remove it, but my legs begin to buckle, so I step aside. Time passes slowly. The soldier’s breathing sounds alien through his mask and his gaze flashes from my jacket to my trousers, which bulge with the vial.
And then, they are gone, trotting off in their khakis, fat shaven heads with black straps bobbing up and down. My body goes numb.
I continue slowly towards the old men, strength returning to my legs.
‘Hello, hello,’ someone shouts from behind.
Turning, I see the dark youth from earlier. He approaches with a confident swagger that makes me watchful.
‘Where you go?’ the youth says, rolling his ‘r’s with a deep Arabic sound I’ve come to recognize. The boy’s tone is even, enquiring. I stay silent. It is just one thing after another here; a place of madness, without end.
‘Where you from?’ the boy persists, his intense black eyes unwavering. ‘You dark like me.’
I stare at him. And for a moment, I want to open my mouth and howl, scream, laugh, anything to relieve the pressure within. I should have expected this, but don’t know how to respond. Perhaps the boy is just as confused. Yes, I’m dark like a Palestinian, brown, but not one; this is surely the reason why the soldiers stopped me.
What can I say to this boy about something I’ve never discussed, not even with Ma? I don’t hate my father, but I have many questions for him.
‘Where you go?’ the youth repeats.
I am unsure about mentioning a Christian church, given the boy looks like an Arab, possibly a Palestinian Arab. If he only knew of the sin I would soon commit.
‘The Holy Sepulchre.’
‘The church? Come, I take you. You go wrong way. You go this way,’ he says, striding off. But I remain where I stand. He stops and looks back.
‘Come, I take you.’ This time his inflexion suggests a command, as if it is an insult not to follow.
I look at him, trying to measure his sincerity. I don’t have any money to give this boy.
‘Come, English, we go this way. Come, I take you. Do not worry, this place is my home, I know it.’ He is confident, engaging even. He comes up to me and takes hold of my arm, pulling me in the opposite direction to the way I’ve been going.
There are many shadows in the light. I can smell spices, fried oil, the narghiles of the Arabs sitting around smoking and playing what looks like backgammon. Thick, red meat cuts hang from iron hooks.
Now would be the time to say I have no shekels, but I don’t want to be abandoned with no idea how to get back. I don’t know how long we will be in this quarter, a few minutes, perhaps ten or fifteen. My steps quicken.
We pass through a narrow archway into another alley. It looks safer here. Small children work as tailors, pumping on old Singer sewing machines, skilled with their hands and bare feet; tourist trinkets – shiny bead necklaces, clay lamps, belts and brassware – dangle from string in doorways. And then in the midst of all this cheap trade, I hear the sound of a piano.
It’s strange to hear this music now, as if it is a sign. I take comfort from it. A child sitting on a wooden stool is weaving a basket. Ma kept her favourite music in a wooden stool. To her, music was like a dream, different to waking hours. She was a reluctant performer, but I’d often make her get out Beethoven: the Moonlight Sonata, its sombre melody a long poem creating a sense that somehow, something is about to change.
The youth is still in front of me. His shoulders begin to slouch as if he feels more comfortable here, away from the soldiers. We are coming to the end of a long alley and I can see it will soon open onto a wider square. The sonata has faded. My fingers are moving to its memory. She made me play classical and later I became a teacher like her. I stumble, almost falling into the boy. Stupid! With my clumsy gait, I have to keep my eyes on my feet on these uneven cobblestones. The youth has started to sing, something low and quiet in Arabic, but in tune; he has a good voice.
There is something about this voice, its loneliness or timbre that reminds me of her. She would sing to herself like this, often to clear her head. She heard voices. His absence did that. She got worse as she got older. She would complain that the neighbours had cameras and were watching her and that they could see into her head. Maybe she sensed what I’d done.
I found the small blue trunk hidden in the attic, covered with dust. It was one of those old-fashioned ones with brass levers and a small Champion padlock, which was easy to pick with a pair of cosmetic scissors. Inside, the musty smell of old paper, yellowing copies of The Lady that he must have given her, a few simple letters in faded blue ink and broken English telling her when to meet, where, how excited and happy he was to be with her. His handwriting had the sharp angles and loops of Arabic, except in Roman lettering. There was also a black-and-white photograph, partly torn, but you could still make out the face of a pretty young white girl, timid in a puffed chiffon blouse and a hat, and a man with long brown artistic hands, dressed in a pin-striped suit. His head was torn away. And then there was a crumpled letter from a GP: short, handwritten, difficult to read, telling her that she was to be admitted to a home to have a little ‘rest’. It was dated the year of my birth. Her madness. And now, there but for the grace of God go I.
I look up from my feet.
The youth has disappeared. Where? I look crazily around the small square like a man who’s lost his child. There are some trading stalls to one side. A group of children as young as three or four approach me, hovering around my legs. One of them touches the pocket with the vial. I push him away, harder than I intended. He falls back onto the ground, bumping his head on the stone. He’s going to cry. I freeze.
I don’t want to look up: the traders will beat me here and now. But the boy just pulls a monkey grin, revealing sharp black-stained teeth. He bounces up like a jumping bean, now pulling at my other trouser leg. He has a muddy-coloured birthmark across one side of his face. I look around for the youth, but can only see Arab traders staring back.
‘English, why you walk that way?’
I spin around. ‘Where did you go?’
‘You find church for miracle?’
He points at my legs. I follow his gaze down to my feet, not knowing what to say.
‘Transitional,’ the midwives had said, but this boy wouldn’t understand. The source of weak muscle tone that has plagued me from birth, the reason she wanted me close, a force I’d always resisted – ‘Mikey, you might look poor and weak, but, because of this, your inner world will be richer and stronger than most.’ He stares at my legs as if they are a pair of circus stilts.
‘Why you go to church?’ he repeats calmly.
The kids gather around him. They are now all staring at my legs. The youth has one or two of his front teeth missing and the question whistles through his remaining bad ones. Being tall and gangly there is unpredictability in his movement. Now I’m closer I can see his face
has more maturity than I first thought. There are little scars around his mouth and crow’s feet around the eyes. I don’t want to get too familiar with him and so pretend not to hear, but he looks at me with such a penetrating gaze that there’s little point.
‘I’m going to the Sepulchre.’ I imagine myself already there, fumbling with the vial and Ma’s ashes. The idea makes my mouth dry. What will happen if they catch me? Here, the Muslims cut off hands for theft. What will the priests do for blaspheming the Tomb of the Christ
– of God? And yet, to me, it is not an act of blasphemy, but love.
‘You are Christian?’
‘Yes,’ I say quietly. The youth falls silent. I watch him very carefully, wondering whether to tell him that I too have a father who is Muslim and whom I’ve never seen. Suddenly, the youth waves the others away, winking at the younger child with the birthmark, who appears to be holding something. The child nods and vanishes up one of the alleyways like a genie.
We continue to walk. I keep nervously glancing at the youth’s back and around at the alleyways. I look at my watch. We have to hurry if we are going to make the church in time. The sun has gone down. The evening curfew is set to start in one hour.
We pass through many streets and I settle into a routine of lifting my feet to avoid uneven stones, steep steps or small piles of rotting fruit. We’ve been walking for some time and my ankles hurt. I sense we are nearing the Sepulchre.
In her last months, I hired a private ambulance to take Ma to a Christian healer. It was expensive, but I was desperate. I’d gone to the hospice nearly every day, stealing time from work just to be with her, helping to turn her body and clean her mouth with pineapple juice and a tiny pink sponge on the end of a white tube, like a lollipop. With it sticking out of her mouth she looked like a child. She would stare out of the window, blinking at the grey, wintry sky and the skeletons of swaying trees, their arms reaching in every direction, and I would wonder what was in her mind. Sometimes, I would clean her quickly and leave with a sense of shame.
She lost the power of speech. Gradually her skin became sallow and hung from her body like folds of old paper. She ate less and less, and eventually refused even fluids. The morphine couldn’t dull the pain. In solitude, with no family, I saw it all – a unique feature of hell, to see down to the last detail.
I became paranoid, constantly switching between wonderment at the hospice staff for their daily compassion and suspicion they were injecting her quietly in the night, killing to free the bed. My solitude grew, becoming fat like a pig. You think I was mad? But then one day, when I found her left in her own excrement, I reached the end.
The paramedic helped me wheel her out to the ambulance. It took three hours to get her to the healer. I listened to Ma groan, strapped to a stretcher. She could never stand me being distant and I wanted to touch her, comfort her, but couldn’t. I sat listening to her breathe, the rain pat-patting on the roof, when suddenly both back doors flew open and the healer stood before us, like Jesus in white.
We enter the Christian Quarter, which is very different to its Muslim counterpart. I feel the anticipation in my body rise as I look upon more familiar sights: short thoroughfares decked out with neat arches and plasters, built, paradoxically, by the Ottomans.
We pass through an archway leading to a large cobbled forecourt.
‘Wait,’ I say, stopping by the archway. The youth comes up to me and stands very close, almost unaware of my own space. I smell his fuggy odour: fried oil and musk. The Christ was once here: the Via Dolorosa, the route marked out by the fourteen Stations of the Cross – his last walk. I look past the boy to what seems to be a church, but I cannot be sure.
‘Her spirit has already left her body,’ the healer told me. ‘You must let her go.’
I feel the broken skin on my lower lip. In the failing light, it has begun to get very cold.
‘Leave us,’ I said. I couldn’t let go, there was too much unresolved, too many kinks. Back at the hospice, I tried but was unable to hold her; her body almost bone. In frustration I stepped out of the room, just for a few minutes.
‘Is this . . . the Sepulchre?’ I stammer, barely able to contain the tension.
Even now, I cannot understand why I left her there alone. In the time I was out, barely ten minutes, she died. In that green room, as I stood staring at her just an hour after death, her face carried a gentle dignity, still holding a sense of the spirit once within her, her hands clasping a small Gideon bible. I couldn’t believe the energy that gave her eyes life – their soulfulness – and her skin its luminescence could vanish without residue after only sixty-three years. I wondered then where her spirit had gone.
A wave of emotion lifts me in an endless shifting sea with no sight of solid land. I look up at the ancient stones that make up the walls of the church, a giant mosaic, an anchor, and the old wooden doors, bleached by the sun and rain. Finally, I can place Ma’s ashes on the Tomb of the Christ, with the miracle of the Holy Fire, a blue indefinable light, burning from the stone on which the body of Jesus is said to have been laid. She never got to touch the light, never had a chance to be healed.
I wipe my eyes so quickly the boy doesn’t see.
‘This is Anne’s church,’ the youth says flatly, spitting.
‘What?’ I shout at him. ‘But I want the Sepulchre. You promised me the Sepulchre.’
The youth laughs.
‘Sepulchre?’ he says, his tone mocking, indicating he’s known all along. He rubs the thick glob of mucus into the cobbles with his heel, reminding me I am a stranger in his land. ‘That is too far. Look at time,’ he continues, gesturing at my watch. ‘You think the Israelis will let you pass now?’ He spits again. ‘Believe me, English, Inshallah, if God wishes, they are all the same. What does it matter what church, English?’ he says, pointing at the wooden doors.
I stare at him for a long time, enough to see him look away. I crouch down. Stupid bloody boy. Bloody idiot. But then, he doesn’t understand; how can the Arab understand? I feel tired enough to lie down on the cobblestones and fall asleep.
‘I am going into this church,’ I say weakly. ‘Thank you, but I’m going.’
I take the vial out of my pocket and clutch it.
The youth steps forward, blocking my way.
‘I help you, English,’ he says menacingly, glancing at the vial. He holds out a dirt-smeared hand. ‘You give me five shekels for showing.’ His gaze fixes on the silver tube now luminescent in the light.
From their dress, head to toe in black, a group of Armenian nuns pass. We stare at them in their silence. The boy’s head turns as he watches them disappear through the archway, the tendons of his neck taut. It suddenly occurs to me while looking upon the dark profile of this Palestinian – just a boy like countless others – that in some strange way perhaps he is right, that it really doesn’t matter. Seeking comfort, I reach into my pocket for the book, but it has gone.
Confused, I search frantically through all my other pockets. My mind works quickly and then I realize. I look past the boy’s head to the church, its stone walls dark.
My gaze flickers to the vial in my hands and then to the tall, wooden doors. For the first time since coming to this city of ghosts I feel a sense of peace. No matter what happens now, here with this boy, I know she will understand.
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.