Read A Woman in Jerusalem Online

Authors: A.B. Yehoshua

A Woman in Jerusalem

 

“There are human riches here. The manager moves from a man who has given up on love to one who opens himself to it. And there are strange and powerful scenes – of the morgue, of the coffin, of the Soviet base where the manager passes through the purging of body and soul.” 

Carole Angier,
The
Independent

 

“Mr Yehoshua’s
A
Woman
in
Jerusalem
is a sad, warm, funny book about Israel and being Jewish, and one that has deep lessons to impart – for other people as well as his own.”

The
Economist

 

“This novel has about it the force and deceptive simplicity of a masterpiece…”

Claire Messud,
The
New
York
Times

 

“…a small masterpiece, a compact, strange work of Chekhovian grace, grief, wit and compassion.”

The
Washington
Post

 

“Wonderfully dark humor gradually emerges from the ironies that occur… This is one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read this year.”

Mary Whipple, Amazon.com

A WOMAN IN JERUSALEM

A Passion in Three Parts

A.B. YEHOSHUA

Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin

In memory of our friend Dafna, killed by the bomb on Mount Scopus, in the summer of 2002

 
1

Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance. The minute the extraordinary request of the old woman, who stood in her monk’s robe by the dying fire, was translated and explained to him, he felt a sudden lifting of his spirits, and Jerusalem, the shabby, suffering city he had left just a week ago, was once more bathed in a glow of importance, as it had been in his childhood.

And yet the origins of his unusual mission lay in a simple clerical error brought to the company’s attention by the editor of a local Jerusalem weekly, an error that could have been dealt with by any reasonable excuse and brief apology. However, fearing that such an apology – which might indeed have laid the matter to rest – would be deemed inadequate, the stubborn eighty-seven-year-old owner of the company had demanded a more tangible expression of regret from himself and his staff, a clearly defined gesture such as the one that had resulted in this journey to a distant land.

What had upset the old man so? Where had the almost religious impulse that drove him come from? Could it have been inspired by the grim times that the country, and above all Jerusalem, were going through, which he had weathered unharmed; so that his financial success, as other businesses foundered, called for vigilance in warding off the public criticism that now, ironically, was about to be aired in
newsprint
of which he himself was the supplier? Not that the reporter, a political radical and eternal doctoral candidate with the restraint of a bull in this intimate china shop of a city – whose scathing feature article would break the story – was aware of all this when he wrote the piece, otherwise he would have toned it down. Yet it was the paper’s editor and publisher, loath to ruin a colleague’s weekend with an
unpleasant
surprise that might spoil their business relations, who had decided, after taking a look at the story and its
accompanying
photograph of the torn, bloodstained pay slip found in the murdered woman’s shopping bag, to let the old man respond in the same issue.

Nor was it really such a shocking exposé. Nevertheless, at a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets, troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places. And so at the end of that particular working day, when the human resources manager, having promised his ex-wife that he would leave the office on time to be with their only daughter, had tried to evade the owner’s summons, the old man’s
long-serving
office manager had refused to let him. Sensing her boss’s agitation, she’d hastened to advise the resource manager to put his family duties aside.

On the whole, relations between the two men were good. They had been so ever since the resource manager, then in the sales division, had unearthed several Third World markets for the company’s new line of paper and stationery products. And so, when his manager’s marriage was on the rocks, in part because of his frequent travels, the old man had reluctantly agreed to appoint him temporary head of the human resources division, a job that would allow him to sleep at home every night and try to repair the damage. Yet the hostility engendered by his absence was only distilled into a more concentrated poison by his presence, and the chasm between them – at first psychological, then intellectual, and finally sexual – continued to grow of its own accord. Now that he was divorced, all that kept him from returning to his old job, which he had liked, was his determination to stay close to his daughter.

As soon as he’d appeared in the doorway of the owner’s spacious office, where the elegantly muted light never changed with the time of day or year, the article due to appear in the local weekly was dramatically hurled at him.

“An employee of
ours
?”
The resource manager found that hard to credit. “Impossible. I would have known about it. There must be some mistake.”

The owner did not answer. He simply held out the galleys, which the resource manager read quickly while still standing.
The odious article was entitled “The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread.” Its subject was a woman in her forties found critically wounded after a bombing in the Jerusalem market the week before. Her only identifying mark had been a pay slip issued by the company. For two days she had fought for her life in the hospital without any of her employers or fellow workers taking the slightest interest in her. Even after her death, she had lain in the hospital morgue abandoned and unidentified, her fate unmourned and her burial unprovided for. (There followed a brief description of the company and its large, well-known bakery, founded at the beginning of the twentieth century by the owner’s grandfather and recently augmented by the new line of paper products.) Two photographs accompanied the text. One, taken years ago, was an old studio portrait of the owner; the other was of the human resources manager. It was dark and blurry,
evidently
snapped recently, without his knowledge. The caption noted that he owed his position to his divorce.

“The little weasel!” the resource manager muttered. “What a nasty smear …”

But the old man wanted action, not complaints. It wasn’t the tone of the article that bothered him – yellow journalism was the fashion nowadays – but its substance. Since the editor had been kind enough to allow them to respond immediately, which might defuse charges that would only gain ground if uncontested for a week, they had better find out who the woman was and why no one knew anything about her. In fact – why not? – they should contact the weasel himself to see what he knew. It was anyone’s guess what he meant to reveal next.

In a word, the human resources manager would have to drop everything and concentrate on this. Surely he
understood
that his responsibility was to deal not just with vacations, sick leaves, and retirements, but with death as well. If the article were to be published without a satisfactory response from them, its accusations of inhumanity and callous greed might arouse public protests that would affect their sales. After
all, theirs wasn’t just any bakery: the proud name of its founder was affixed to every loaf that left the premises. Why give their competitors an unfair edge?

“An unfair edge?” The human resources manager snorted. “Who cares about such things? And especially in times like these …”

“I care.” The owner replied irritably. “And especially in times like these.”

The resource manager bowed his head, folded the article, and stuck it matter-of-factly in his pocket, anxious to escape before the old man blamed him not only for keeping flawed records but for the bomb attack too. “Don’t worry,” he said with a reassuring smile. “I’ll make this woman my business first thing tomorrow morning.”

The tall, heavyset, expensively dressed, old man sat up, very pale, in his chair. His great pompadour of ancient hair swelled in the muted light like the plumes of a royal pheasant. His hand gripped his employee’s shoulder with the full force of his threatened reputation. “Not tomorrow morning,” he said slowly and with painstaking clarity. “Tonight. This evening. Now. No time to waste. I want all this cleared up before dawn. In the morning we’ll send the paper our response.”

“This evening? Now?” The resource manager was startled. He was sorry, but it was too late for that. He was in a hurry. His wife – his ex-wife, that is – was out of town and he had promised to look after their daughter and drive her to her dance class; what with all the bus bombings, they didn’t want her taking public transport. “What’s the hurry?” he asked. “The damn paper comes out on Fridays. It’s only Tuesday. There’s plenty of time.”

But the owner was too worried about his humanity to relent. No, there was no time at all. The paper, distributed free with the weekend editions of the national tabloids, went to press on Wednesday night. If their response wasn’t in by then, it would have to wait another week; meanwhile they would be open to all kinds of accusations. If the resource manager didn’t wish to take care of this – and thoroughly – let
him say so. There was no problem finding someone else – perhaps to run the human resources division, too …

“Just a minute. I didn’t mean to …” The casually delivered ultimatum stung and bewildered him. “What am I supposed to do with my daughter? Who’ll take care of her? You’ve met her mother,” he added bitterly. “She’ll murder me …”

“That’s who’ll take care of her,” the owner interrupted, pointing to his office manager, who turned red at the thought of being entrusted with the chore.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean? She’ll drive your daughter and look after her like her own child. And now let’s roll up our sleeves and prove that we’re as human as the weasel … that we care. For God’s sake, my good man, is there any choice? No, there isn’t.”

2

“Yes, sweetheart. Yes, dear, I understand. I know you don’t need to be driven. But please, do it for your mother’s sake. And for mine. It’s best to let this woman take you to your dance class and bring you back. There isn’t any choice. There simply isn’t …”

His cajoling tone over the telephone, meant to placate a disappointed daughter who wanted a father not a driver, sounded rather like his boss’s.

“You’re right,” he confessed a minute later, this time fending off his ex-wife, who, informed by his daughter of his change of plans, had called to accuse him of dereliction of duty. “I admit it. I did promise. But something awful has happened. Try to be human. An employee of ours was killed in a bombing and I have to take care of the details. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you? There isn’t any choice …”

This lack of choice first announced by the owner would echo within him like a comforting mantra – and not just on that first long, meandering night, by the end of which he was conjuring the dead. No, in the strange days following – on the
funeral expedition that same weekend to the steppes of a far country, in the hardest moments of indecision, the worst junctures of crisis and uncertainty – he would rally his companions with the same phrase. It was like a banner in battle, the beacon from a lighthouse, flickering in the dark to give them courage and direction. There was no choice. They had to see it through to the end, even if this meant retracing their steps to the beginning.

With that simple phrase he rounded up and cowed his secretary, who had left work early without permission. It was useless for her to argue over the telephone that she had already sent the nanny home and had no one to look after her baby. The owner’s determination to be human had inspired him too. “There’s no choice. You can bring the baby here and I’ll look after it. We have to trace that woman with the pay slip as quickly as possible. You’re the only one who can do it.”

And
to
top
it
all,
a
fierce,
blustery
rain
descended
at
that
exact
moment,
an
early
portent
of
the
bountiful
winter
that
befell
us
that
year.
It
was
a
winter
on
which
we
pinned
a
desperate
hope:
that
more
than
all
our
policemen
and
security
guards,
it
might
cool
the
suicidal
zeal
of
our
enemies.
The
dry
countryside
turned
green
and
the
earth
was
covered
with
grasses
and
flowers
whose
scent
we
had
forgotten.
Not
a
word
of
protest
was
uttered
against
the
torrents
of
fresh
water
that
flooded
our
pavements
and
tied
up
traffic
on
our
roads,
for
we
knew
that
not
all
would
be
lost.
Enough
would
find
its
way
to
hidden
aquifers
to
comfort
us
when
the
hot,
dry
summer
returned.

When his secretary, bundled up and dripping wet, arrived with the first brushstrokes of evening, the human resources manager thought at first that she had left the baby at home. Then she folded her umbrella, took off her yellow poncho, and slipped out of her big fur coat, he saw that strapped to her was a carrier in which, curiously scrutinizing him, sat a lusty, red-cheeked infant with a giant dummy in its mouth. “What kind of a way is that to pack a baby?” he asked in surprise. “It could have choked in there.” His secretary, her brusque tone unlike her customary nine-to-five one, retorted “Trust me,” and set the baby down on the rug with a fresh dummy. The
little creature glanced around as if looking for a suitable
destination,
spat out its new mouthpiece, turned on its stomach, and began to crawl with surprising speed, the dummy clutched in its hand. “
He’s
all yours,” said the secretary still in an irritated yet intimate tone. “You said you’d look after him.”

She took the article and read it slowly. Then, examining from different angles the blurred photograph of the pay slip found in the dead woman’s possession, she asked the manager who, bemused, was watching the crawling baby, “Just when did all this happen?” Informed of the date of the bombing, she hazarded a guess that the woman had left her job at least a month earlier. Stub or no stub, she had ceased to be their employee. The whole nasty article was fraudulent.

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