Promises by Ian Reid

FictionIssue TwelveIssue Twelve Fiction

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Ian Reid

 

PROMISES

 

He was no longer sure of his whereabouts.

He felt not only out of place, but also dislodged from the present. It was as if history could trip you up here, make you lose your footing in time. Watching his step on the shiny cobblestones of this uneven alley, he hadn’t taken note of turns or signs. Uneasy now, he glanced around. Was this the Souq? Not a place to linger, but he felt irresolute. Retrace his steps or keep moving forward?

‘Good morning, sir! You like these beautiful fabrics?’

Peter couldn’t ignore the young man’s overture. ‘Very nice.’

‘I promise you, top quality cashmere! Which are you liking best?’

‘They all look good.’

‘Yes, very good-looking. Which are you liking best?’

Shrugging, Peter began to edge away.

‘Sir, even more excellent cashmere inside here. You are married man?’

A reluctant nod.

‘She has travelled to Jerusalem with you, your wife?’

‘Yes,’ Peter lied impulsively, trying to invent an excuse to evade this inquisition, ‘but not feeling well today. Sick at the hotel. I must return to her.’ No obligation to divulge that his wife was home on the other side of the world.

‘For her, then, around the shoulders, what do you call it?’

‘Shawl.’

‘Yes, shawl. Best fabric, pashmina, best colours, look, please! This one for example.’ He unfolded an exceptionally elegant piece of cloth, fine-textured, subtly blending pale blue and mauve.

Peter shook his head.

‘No?’ The merchant performed utter astonishment. ‘Then you prefer which one? I give you special price, sir, I promise you.’

‘I’m not really intending…’ He wiped sweat from his forehead.

‘A moment please, sir —just look, these two shawl. Excellent, you agree?’

‘Certainly pretty. But…’

‘Usual price 300 American dollar each. I give you both together for that price. Yes! You give me 300 dollar, I give you these two shawl, make your wife happy, I promise you.’

‘No, thank you.’

‘No? Then you tell me what one of these is worth. A fair price, sir, in your very honest opinion.’

Head down, Peter started to back away.

‘I think you are not American, sir?’

‘Australian.’

‘Australian! Travelling a long way. Then I make you a friendly price. Any shawl from this row, 125 dollar.’

‘Can’t afford that.’

‘Not afford 125 dollar for such fine cashmere? For your sick wife?’ Lifting the elegant blue and mauve pashmina, he held it towards Peter. ‘Tell me then, sir, what can you afford for this beautiful shawl?’

‘Well, it isn’t just cost. She may not like it. Very particular about what she wears.’

‘Particular?’ The young man’s eyebrows mimed incomprehension, but beneath them his irises shone like cunning buttons.

‘I’ll ask her about colours,’ lied Peter, ‘and come back here later.’

‘But I make you a special price just for now, not for later. Because you are Australian. This precious shawl, I can give it now for 100 dollar. Yes sir, only 100. I promise you.’ The young man snatched a plastic bag from a shelf and put the shawl into it.

‘100 dollars?’ This was a bargain and surely his wife would be pleased. ‘OK then.’ He produced his Visa card. The young man took it, handed the plastic bag to Peter, and walked quickly out of the shop.

‘This way,’ he said, beckoning, hurrying along the alley.

‘Where are we going?’ Peter tried to keep alarm out of his voice.

‘Friend with card machine. Not very far.’

They entered a dimly lit room lined with shelves of glassware and pewter. In a far corner sat a huge dark man adorned with gold bangles and rings. The young fabric merchant handed him Peter’s card and there was a muttered discussion.

‘There will be just 15% commission for him,’ the young man explained. ‘So, 115 dollar. Total.’

‘You said 100,’ bleated Peter.

‘Yes, special price for the lovely shawl. But extra to pay this kind man for using card machine.’

‘Oh, all right,’ said Peter with a weary sigh.

The dark man peered at Peter’s card, as if doubting its authenticity, and then with an air of reluctance went through the slow business of processing the purchase. Peter began to sweat, recalling his travel agent’s cautionary words about skimming devices, but couldn’t observe anything irregular.

When at last his card was returned, he left the shop abruptly and hurried down the sloping tunnel, his mood surly. After ten minutes he emerged into a less crowded space and stood nonplussed. Probably somewhere at the Souq’s outer edge—but which direction would take him back to where he’d feel less a stranger?

In the shade of a building, he noticed a woman consulting a guidebook. Western clothing, stylish. She looked pleasant and there was a good chance she could speak English.

‘Excuse me.’

She glanced up—warily, he thought.

‘I’m a bit disoriented. Perhaps you can direct me towards the Jaffa Gate?’

‘Australian?’

He nodded. ‘And you’re from?’

‘Deepest England. Birmingham.’ She flicked through to the back of her guidebook. ‘One of these maps will help. Had enough of old Jerusalem already? It’s not even midday.’

‘I didn’t come properly prepared. No map, no hat, no shekels, no bottle of water. Silly me. I’m so accustomed to relying on my credit card that it didn’t occur to me I couldn’t use it for a snack or drink. Haven’t seen a cash machine.’

She was probably in her 40s, Peter guessed, but still a good-looker.

‘Well, here’s where we are now,’ She pointed to the corner of a page. Her arm brushed lightly against his. ‘And that’s the Jaffa Gate right up there. So, the best route would be…’ She traced it with a neatly manicured fingertip.

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Hope I can remember that.’

‘I’m heading in the same direction,’ she said. ‘We can walk together and check the map again if necessary.’

They strolled companionably. He felt his spirits lift.

‘Hungry?’ she asked. ‘I know a Jewish café in the Cardo, if you’d like a bite. They take credit cards.’

‘Great idea.’ After a pause, he added, ‘My name’s Peter Sampson.’

‘How biblical!’ she laughed. ‘Delighted to meet you. Mary Cavendish.’

It was cool inside the café. ‘I’m partial to the fish,’ she said. ‘They bring a generous salad with it.’

Peter ordered the same, and they shared a bottle of sparkling water. Over their meal he told her about the consultancy work that had brought him to Israel for a few days, and she explained she’d arrived for a holiday earlier in the week, coming into the Old City each day. He’d entered it for the first time that morning, he said, through the Jaffa Gate, so the obvious place to start getting acquainted with Jerusalem’s chequered past had been the ancient Citadel near the entrance; the Tower of David.

‘Astonishing, that Citadel, isn’t it?’ he exclaimed. ‘So many layers of history uncovered by demolition and excavation. The fragments of Herod’s palace, Maccabean remnants, and traces of all those occupants over the centuries, not just Hebrews but Crusaders, Muslims, Ottomans and the rest… Sorry—I’m gabbling.’

‘No. Go on.’

‘Well, I just think it’s amazing to glimpse all those phases of civilisation by standing on a rampart and looking out across the site. I mean, in one sense it’s a sad ruin. But despite the broken arches and strewn slabs there’s continuity, isn’t there? Makes you feel what’s survived so long has a good chance of lasting forever.’

‘Yes,’ Mary nodded, ‘a tumbledown hybrid sort of place, yet somehow solid as well. A condensed version of Jerusalem in general. Such a fertile mix of cultures emerging in such a harsh, unpromising place.’

Their conversational rapport exhilarated Peter. He ruminated on what she’d said about the environment: so unpromising, yes, that was the irony of it. Hot, dry, stony—daunting, no doubt, to the ancient people who first made their home here, and to so many others since. Boulders jutting out of the ground like huge old bones. Vegetation struggling for a foothold, apart from scattered olive trees. But tribe after tribe persisted in trying to build something that would last. Empire upon empire, all leaving their mark. Even the people whose temples collapsed into rubble—they’d each contributed their colourful fragments to the mosaic of present-day Jerusalem.

‘There’s something very basic, don’t you think,’ said Peter, ‘about the fact that every structure is made from this distinctive kind of limestone? The gleaming hardness on all sides and underfoot—it makes the city unlike any other place I’ve seen. Holds it together.’

She nodded, smiling. He smiled back with his head tilted in a way that he’d once been told was charming.

He expected she’d use some polite formula to part company with him after the meal, but something elusive in her manner hinted at possibilities that might have a promissory implication. He tingled with illicit desire.

She showed no sign of wanting to go her own way. As they walked, she asked whether he’d seen a television miniseries called The Promise. He shook his head.

‘No? I thought it might have screened in Australia. Set mainly around Jerusalem, parts of it during the postwar phase of the British Mandate here. Controversial. Most of the Jewish characters weren’t portrayed sympathetically but the Palestinians were.’

‘What’s the “promise” in its title?’

‘I suppose it refers mainly to the British government’s commitment—during the First World War, before the Mandate period—to help establish a home for Jews in Palestine. Their promised land, echoing the ancient covenant.’

‘Why did you mention it?’

‘Because I’m at the King David Hotel, where Jewish terrorists killed many British soldiers and administrators in 1946. An episode in the film. Being there does make one acutely aware of Jerusalem’s history—modern as well as ancient.’

‘The place where I’m staying has a colourful past, too,’ he told her. ‘Mishkenot Sha’aninim. Quite near here. Part guesthouse, part convention centre, used for literary events, things like that. A Victorian English philanthropist built it as a hospice, the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the old walls. A fine old building, handsomely restored.’

‘I’d love to see it,’ she said.

He tried to sound casual. ‘OK, let me take you. Ten-minute walk.’

In his stony guesthouse room, after preliminary fidgets and a copious swig from the little bottle of Sabra that she produced from her handbag, he drew her down onto the bed and put a hand on her breast. She looked at him quizzically.

‘Is it just quick gratification you’re after? Or will you promise to phone me tomorrow? To see me again?’

He swallowed his misgivings, suppressed a flickering thought about home, and hoped he looked sincere. ‘Yes, I promise you.’

So, then they went at it with gusto.

When he woke, it was dark. She had gone—with his laptop, and the pashmina shawl. Bloody hell! His wallet, too! His head ached, and he remembered with suspicion the Sabra he’d gulped down. Phoning the King David Hotel, he found that nobody called Mary Cavendish was staying there.

Cursing, he smote the impassive white stone of the bedroom wall, kicked the side of the bed. She had played him for a gullible idiot. He went to the basin and splashed cold water on the flushed face, that stared back at him dopily from the mirror. Then he lay on the bed with hands clasped behind his sore head. After some while, indignation began to fade, and he gave a wry, mirthless laugh.

Promises! Failing to keep vows made at home, he’d tried to foist a specious intimacy on a stranger. Her exploitation of him had simply been shrewder.

Jabbed by self-disgust, Peter saw his folly as inseparable from the naive way he’d romanticised this bloody Jerusalem. Bedrock of civilisation? It now struck him as something shabbier, paved with dubious bargains, sly betrayals, broken promises. Yet was this really its history, or just a reflection of his own downward-sloping passage?

He was no longer sure of his whereabouts.