Our first glimpse of the Moshav was of its steel watchtower looming through clouds of dust. It framed a capped figure with a machine gun.
‘Jesus,’ Helena said, ‘that’s full on.’
‘Yeah,’ our toothless Arab driver said, grinning. ‘To keep out Arab murderers. Gaza up road there.’ He waved his arm out the window in the direction of more dust. Gaza? Helena and I looked at each other. It was 1985. We were both twenty-three and here for the sun and a free bed. In the Moshav office in Tel Aviv, a curt assistant had asked if we wanted agriculture in the North or horticulture in the Negev Desert. The desert sounded exotic.
A guard checked out the back of the van and waved us through.
‘This you,’ the driver said a few seconds later, hitting his brakes in front of a khaki-coloured bungalow. As he chucked our packs out the back of the van, a small, dark-haired woman appeared from the doorway of the house.
‘Shalom,’ she said, ‘I’m Tilly. One of you lovely people will be our volunteer. Which one of you is Lucy?’ I stepped forward and offered a sticky hand.
‘We’re so excited to have you here. It’s the busiest time for the tomatoes and Ari’s desperate. Come and meet him, he’s hiding by the shed.’ She led me over to a steel shed where a red-haired, red-faced, bear of a man was smoking and squinting into the sun. I put out my hand again. Ari looked at it and frowned.
‘Shalom, Lucy,’ he said and flicked his cigarette butt to the ground.
‘You were such a dick that day,’ I said. We were in the shed crating tomatoes for the market. Ari and I were the Moshav’s new tomato A Team. Our tomatoes earned the highest prices at the market each day and the other farmers were growing suspicious. Ari was certain someone had been in his shed checking out his fertiliser mix and occasionally in the morning we found footprints in the hothouses which only made us pick and pack harder.
‘What is such a dick?’ he asked.
‘It’s both a penis and an idiot.’
‘I am a penis and an idiot because I am not shaking your hand like you are a man? I was surprising to see you. I was thinking a Lucy would be a school girl with hair in … how you call them?” Ari pulled his hair at either side.
‘Pig tails,’ I said. “I was surprised too. I was expecting a smooth-talking, olive skinned Middle-Eastern and instead I got Baxter’s Farmhand.’
‘You not knew anything about this country? You not knew Israel have many Jews from all the world? Indian Jews, English Jews, even Australian Jews. I am Russian Jew, not this olive, Middle Eastern. What is a Baxter’s Farmhand?’
‘It’s a poem by a famous New Zealand poet about a shy, red-haired farm worker. He’s the typical New Zealand bloke.
But ah in harvest watch him
Forking stooks, effortless and strong -
Or listening like a lover to the song
Clear, without fault, of a new tractor engine.’
‘I am this bloke? Making love with my tractor?’
‘No, Ari,’ I said laughing, ‘you just look like him. New Zealand blokes don’t cry at The Sound of Music.’
‘All peoples cry at The Sound of Music,’ Ari said haughtily. ‘What else can you do? It is sad. Please will you say to me this Baxter Farmhand again?’
The Arab workers were our alarm clock. They came from Gaza and the villages around the Moshav and rumbled into the Moshav in their rusty old trucks just after six. They brewed bitter coffee over an open fire in the fields, had never sat in a dentist’s chair, and were refugees under Israeli law. Helena and I were appalled; Helena more so as she had recently finished a Masters in Sociology and was out to save the world – as long as it didn’t require too much of her time or energy. She bailed Ari up one night when they had us over for dinner.
‘Your country’s screwed,’ she said, through a mouthful of Tilly’s African chicken stew.
‘Please explain,’ Ari said quietly.
‘What I don’t get is how every second day in this country is a memorial to atrocities against the Jews, but you guys commit your own atrocities against the Arabs every day.’ Ari looked at me.
‘Crimes,’ I said trying not to notice Ari’s widening nostrils, ‘bad things.’
‘What are these atrocities?’ Ari asked Helena.
‘Paying them peanuts. Talking to them like they’re dogs. Treating them like second-class citizens and then having the gall to be afraid of them.’
Ari put his fork down, and looked at me. ‘This what you thinking too, Lucy?’
‘It’s difficult for us, Ari,’ I said. ‘We have nothing like this in our country.’
‘You have no peoples without education or training who do the physical work that makes little money?’
Helena and I looked at each other. ‘Not really,’ I said thinking of the Maori women I worked with cleaning hotel rooms when I was at university. I would go back home and get a real job, but they’d be cleaning up other people’s shit for the rest of their lives - if they were lucky.
‘No we don’t,’ Helena said, ‘and if we did we’d do something about it.’
‘It’s a complex situation,’ Tilly said, getting up to clear the table.
‘No,’ Ari said, ‘it is simple situation. Soon, I will take these New Zealanders who come to Israel to sunbath and criticise to the Holocaust Museum and then they will maybe see.’
Ari wanted more New Zealand poetry, but I could only remember fragments. I wrote to my mother and asked her to send a collection of Baxter’s poems and an anthology of New Zealand poetry. He read them over and over, but the poetry was not enough; he wanted the whole country.
‘Tell me again about your small house in how you calling it?’
‘Our bach,’ I said, ‘on Banks Peninsula.’ We were in the glasshouse on our hands and knees picking the ripe tomatoes. It was February and only ten in the morning, but the glasshouse was already a sauna.
‘Yes. Tell me that.’
‘I don’t know what else to tell you Ari and you’re falling behind,’ I said, wiping a stream of sweat from my face. My tray was already full; I had picked three to each of Ari’s tomatoes.
‘Tell me about the blue shells you dive off rocks for and then cook like steaks. Tell me about the long dropping toilet and the monster flies that are sounding like motorbikes and the wharf you go to every night but never catch one fish from.’
Ari had fallen in love with the narrative of my New Zealand childhood and I was falling for his desert, although for the first week or two Helena and I desperately wanted out. We hated the sly dust that colonised every surface in our volunteer house. We hated the freezing mornings that morphed into fiercely hot days. We hated the food; the white, watery cheeses that looked and tasted like soap, and the tomato salads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And Helena hated her farmer. He treated her like a servant, while Ari barely spoke to me at first. Tilly was friendlier, though. Like most people on the Moshav, she was South African and her standard-issue bungalow was crammed with polished furniture and lacquered vases and ornaments; shiny relics of her life before the dust and tomatoes. Like most people on the Moshav, Tilly was also miserable and desperately lonely. She’d pull me from the shed or hothouses at morning tea and entice me to stay longer with strong coffee, baked cheesecakes and Moshav gossip.
‘Did I tell you about the family that left in the middle of night last year? They took nothing - not even their photos - they were so desperate to go. The desert drives people crazy,’ Tilly said. ‘The women compete to decorate their houses more tastefully than their neighbours’ while the men sweat over their produce, pointlessly though, as all the profits go back into the collective.’
‘I thought it was about you all being Jewish together,’ I said.
‘It doesn’t take long before being Jewish no longer seems important,’ Tilly said.
‘Why do you stay?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know where else to go,’ she said, looking out her kitchen window at the empty horizon.
All around us people were wailing. Ari would occasionally turn and point at a photograph. It was Yom Hashoah, the annual day of remembrance for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and Ari had brought Helena and me to Jerusulem to visit the Holocaust Museum. For years after our visit I would be haunted by a photo of a group of naked, emaciated women about to be gassed, but Helena remained unmoved.
‘I’m not saying it wasn’t terrible,’ she said as we drove back to Tel Aviv. Ari was taking us to meet his parents – our next lesson in what it meant to be Jewish.
‘No?’ Ari said.
‘I just don’t think you should get so caught up in remembering that you forget to look at what you’re doing in your own backyard,’ Helena said.
Ari’s parents lived in a dank, one bed-roomed flat in a concrete apartment block. His mother cried when he arrived and again when he left. His father sat in a rocking chair and smiled tremulously at everyone, but did not speak.
‘What was all the crying about?’ I asked him later.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It is normal. She cry at everything and nothing.’
‘And your father?’
‘My parents come to Israel from Russia in the nineteen-fifties before I was born,’ Ari said. ‘They survive Russian Holcaust, but almost all their families are killed. My mother’s four sisters all was executed. She survive but never tell me why.’
‘Why did they come to Israel if it was all over?’ Helena asked.
‘Because it is never all over for Jews,’ Ari said. ‘After Hitler go, Stalin come and more Jews was disappeared and killed. My father had a shop that makes books – how you say it – hold together from leather and he make friends who are poets and writers, but Stalin is nervous about Yiddish writers and has many killed in secret on one night. It is famous in history. It is called the Night of the Murdered Poets.’
‘That’s terrible, Ari,’ I said. Helena was silent.
‘My mother say that night was the ending of my father.’
‘Teach me some Kiwi,’ Ari shouted. We were on the tractor, on our way to the market and towing a load of tomatoes that we’d been up picking and packing since six. It was late afternoon, but the sun was still fierce. I was standing behind Ari, holding on to the back of his seat, loving the breeze on my burning face.
‘Okay. If someone asks you to do something, you say, “no worries”,’ I said. ‘Let’s practise. Oi Ari,’ I said gruffly, ‘can I borrow ya tractor for a minute, mate?’
‘No worries,’ Ari shouted enthusiastically.
‘Oi, Ari,’ I said, ‘can I borrow ya old lady for a minute, mate?’
‘No worries,’ he shouted back. ‘What is the old lady?’
‘A wife,’ I said.
Ari laughed. As the market came into view he slowed down and turned to me. ‘What you saying in Kiwi if a person is wanting some things they cannot have?’
‘You say, “she’ll be right, mate,”’ I said.
Helena’s Moshav family disappeared in the night. She turned up for work on a Wednesday morning to find the farm dogs whining in a shed and the Arab workers sitting in their trucks, smoking.
Ari rang the Moshav office in Tel Aviv who said there was no other work for Helena on the Moshav, but that she could come to Tel Aviv and apply for work on another.
‘I don’t want to go to another Moshav,’ she said, later that night, ‘I’ve had enough.’ It took a minute or two for Helena’s words to sink in and then I couldn’t trust myself to speak.
We planned to stay another week, and then bus back to Haifa via the Dead Sea. Tilly said we couldn’t leave Israel without a float in the salt.
Ari avoided me all week.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said, cornering him in the shed where he was furiously packing boxes. ‘You’ve gone all Farmhand again and I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘You are ridiculous,’ he said without looking up, ‘going to the Dead Sea like a stupid American tourist. You are ridiculous for coming to my country and bringing your stories and poetries of New Zealand and then going away like a lightening without care of the things you leave.’
‘What things?’ I said leaning against the packing table, my legs unsteady.
‘The tomatoes,’ he said.
‘I do care, Ari,’ I said. ‘I’m not ready to leave, but I can’t abandon Helena.’
‘But you are abandon,’ he said, turning to look at me. ‘You are abandon the tomatoes and you are abandon me.’
‘The tomatoes will be fine, Ari, and you will be fine too.’
‘Yes, Lucy,’ he said heavily, ‘she will be right, mate.’
Tilly came out to the van to say goodbye.
‘I’ll miss you, Lucy,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said and looked around for Ari.
Tilly sighed and put her hands on my shoulders. ‘It’s not the first time he’s imagined himself in love with a volunteer, you know,’ she said gently.
‘Yes,’ I said, but I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. Tilly waved us off, but Ari stayed in hiding.
‘You go to see Gaza?’ The Arab driver asked us.
‘No,’ Helena said, ‘Maybe next time.’
I wanted to remind her that when we first arrived she’d talked about applying for aid work in Gaza after the Moshav. I wanted to tell her that there wouldn’t be a next time and that before she knew it she’d be back in New Zealand working as a harassed social worker and only dreaming of the desert, but Helena had closed her Israeli chapter. Her Lonely Planet was open on her knee.
‘Look,’ she said as the Moshav and watchtower were swallowed by our dust, ‘a boat goes from Haifa to Turkey. I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey.’ I pulled away from the window where I’d been watching for Ari; waiting for him to charge up behind us on his tractor, his Russian red hair a fiery flag.
‘What are the beaches like?’ I said.