Illustration by Denis Shifrin
We rented out our house that summer, for very short lets.
I never saw the people who came at week-ends and slept in my bed and showered in my bathroom. The agent brought them in and out, and I would arrive after they had gone. I would stand in the now silent house where perhaps twenty people had been living and partying hours earlier. I walked from room to room, sniffing, imagining. The air was heavy, sometimes with smoke, sometimes with perfume, always with humanity. They usually left something behind, almost deliberately as if taunting me. A partly drunk cup of coffee eyed me from the bedside table, a lipstick kiss still on the cup. Pillows were indented where their heads had lain, stray hairs silently determined to linger. I wandered from bedroom to bedroom, looking. The fridge dispassionately held some of their secrets. I almost looked over my shoulder before I peeked at the clues. The meat-eaters – three pallid sausages like swollen fingers and two burnt burgers clinging to the plate; the vegetarians- no trace of animal flesh, just some weary wilted lettuce (organic, the bag said) and the remains of a glazed Israeli salad; the Ashkenazis (surely only they would leave a piece of grey half-eaten gefilte fish dying on a plate with a lurid smear of chrane for company) and who would have partaken of the brown lumpy mess congealed like some long-dead amorphous creature? Was it jachnun or cholent? And why did they leave it in the fridge?
I tried not to mind that there was ash on the carpet, a chocolate stain on the couch and wet towels on the floor. A smudge of cerise lipstick on the bathroom mirror. – who would afflict their lips with such a burden? A purple balloon about to breathe its last, weakly declared I LOVE YOU in gradually diminishing letters. Who left it behind and why?
Did they have fun, I always wondered? Did they fight? Did they feel the house wrapping itself around them as we did? Did they notice the light? The early sun that streams in and drenches the furniture in broad golden bands, casting dazzling shapes on the walls. Did they see the sun catching the motes of dust lazily spinning to the ground? Did they notice how the house turns pink at sunset, the walls reflecting the majestic rose of the sky? Or was it just a 24 hour jolly?
And how did they feel when they woke up in the morning, opening sleepy eyelids to an awesome sea-view? Did they lie there quietly and watch the shifting waves as we did? And almost guiltily as if they could hear my thoughts, I wondered if they had made love in our bed. And had it been good?
Once I arrived at the house in the evening, in the dark. It was a hot sultry night and I was bare-footed. I walked through the damp grass, enjoying the coolness beneath my feet. I looked around the silent garden and wondered if anyone had noticed the splendor of the double bougainvillea almost glowing in the night. Two or three of its deep pink blooms floated aimlessly on the surface of the pool, the water like black velvet glistening in the moonlight. I stood and watched the flowers as the breeze nudged them towards the edge.
And then my foot hit something hard and smooth.
I looked down but couldn’t see what it was, as whatever it was, it was half-buried in the grass. I poked at it with my toe and bent down for a closer look. The lower half of a set of dentures grinned up at me, at once hilarious and hideous. I swiftly withdrew my foot as if it had touched a scalding pot. I laughed, a little shocked, and wondered.
And one day reality struck. One of the tenants called us to say they couldn’t reach the agent. Somehow they knew that we were encamped nearby in a friend’s empty apartment so please could we come immediately as a bird had got into one of the bedrooms which was a bad omen in Russian Ashkenazi tradition. I drove over and was greeted by Olga, fiftyish, fattish, with a very short skirt and a very tight T-shirt, blonde badly streaked hair with her dark roots returning to haunt her.
“Dahlink,” she said when she saw me, “Just get rid of the bird, please”. She briefly introduced me to her skinny daughter Katya, who insisted I call her Esther Malka, and her boyfriend Arthur, who looked like he’d just stepped out of a Shas poster, and who insisted I call him Mendel Moishe.
“They’ve become religious,” said Olga with a contemptuous stage whisper.
There was no bird. There were some droppings.
That night I couldn’t sleep. For the first time I knew what the tenants looked like and could picture them sitting in my garden. Did they smell the roses? Unlikely. And after a shower, did they wrap themselves in my fluffy towels and sit on the balcony watching the golden ball slip with dogged determination into the waves? Not them.
The next day she called to tell me there was a bat in the bedroom. I walk into a full scale fight between Olga and Mendel Moishe about why sex before marriage is frowned upon in Jewish Law.
“You gotta try it first,” she insists. “Are you telling me that these religious don’t try it out first? Of course they do,” she answered herself.
“They don’t even hold hands actually,” he countered, only to be met with more derision.
Olga asks for my point of view, seemingly more concerned about that than the bat. I decide it would be more prudent not to get involved and quietly go upstairs. No bat. This time she insists that I can only see it at night and that it’s probably hiding.
I close the door behind me, leaving them hurling insults.
Two hours later the bat is back and so are we.
This time my husband is with me, armed with a long pole with a net on the end.
“I suppose I’m Robin,” I whisper to him under my breath as we head up the stairs.
Meanwhile, to my amazement, they are still at war. Olga is holding forth on how ridiculous she thinks it is that the Torah should dare to comment on sex.
“Vot I do in my bed is my business,” she spits at him.
We’re upstairs. Oh my god, there is a bat, we can hear it flapping its terrified wings in the bathroom. It seems to be in the shower.
“It’s only a baby one,” says my husband, but my maternal instinct is in no way aroused. It takes a full five minutes to coax it out with the pole, and then demented, it flies out into the bedroom where we have opened all the blinds and windows which had been mysteriously closed. Does it fly out? Oh no, it flies straight into the air-conditioning unit and flaps and flaps. Louder and louder voices from downstairs.
Several screwdriver attempts and the unit is dismantled. I hide behind the door as the frantic little creature flies out into the night.
I begin to believe these odd people have cast some sort of spell on our lovely home. Birds? Bats? In twenty years we never saw anything inside the house other than the occasional scuttling cockroach, and a friendly baby mouse skitter across the kitchen floor early one morning.
I close the Venetian blinds and tie the strings in a tight bow so that nothing can get in, and we troop downstairs trying to appear cheery. They hardly notice us as they discuss the intricacies of the laws on family purity, Olga laughing derisively at everything Mendel Moishe suggests.
“Are you trying to tell me that half the month those religious don’t do it? Then how come they have 15 children each? Are you trying to tell me…?” and that was all I heard as we slipped out the door. Bat? What bat?
For three days I hear nothing. Bliss. They leave on schedule at eleven in the morning. With trepidation I wonder what they will have left me. I put my key in the door and stand still, listening, sniffing. All quiet, kitchen clean. I open the fridge. Pristine. I wander through the downstairs rooms, all the cushions puffed up, expectant. The morning sunshine streams in relentlessly. I wonder what awaits me upstairs, after all, these had been strange people – birds, bats, constant conflict.
The beds are stripped, the towels folded, but it’s dim somehow, despite the midday hour. The blinds in the bedroom are still closed with the bow that I had tied when I came on the bat-hunt.
And then I realized that they hadn’t opened them since.
They hadn’t even noticed the sea.
Judy Hammond made aliyah twenty years ago with her family. She lives in Caesarea and has recently discovered the joy of writing.