WORDYSOD : Michael Lawrence                                    www.wordysod.com

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LIFELINES


Sometimes, when working on a novel, the writer lets the plot find its own way to a conclusion and only later, when it's all done and dusted, realises that in the writing he somehow managed to forget that novels are meant to be read by others than him. So it was with this, in its original form. Set in eight very different time periods and settings, it was clearly too fragmented to engage any but the most dedicated reader. Or editor, come to that.


So I put the manuscript away and turned to other projects. Many other projects. And years rushed by, as they have a tendency to do while your mind's elsewhere, until I dug those old pages out of the Discarded Writings Box and flipped through them. I found that I still liked the story in essence, and after such a time was sufficiently detached from it to take it apart, removing all but three of its points in time and four of its characters, leaving a much-reduced but more accessible version of it, which I called The Cloak. The only problem with this was that I now had several ostracised characters sitting around twiddling their fictional thumbs, and I do hate to discard material that I've spent a long time working on, so I set about tying together four of these characters' flailing storylines in a plot of their own, using a similar time transferral device to that employed in The Cloak. I called the result Warp and Weft.      


This left just one unused section, which, with a little fiddling, stood up as a story in its own right (Nude with Mandolin and Grapes), though I incorporated a link to one of the Warp and Weft characters in order to retain a semblance of its link to the original novel. I now had a book with a novella and two short stories, a book which, as such, was still unpublishable, its three individual parts being too short for today's fiction market. But I didn't want to return the revised text to the Discarded Writings Box, so I had a few paperback copies printed, with my own cover design, to jostle for shelf space alongside my other Personal Project books.

Here's an outline of the three separated plotlines of the book that I now call Lifelines.


THE CLOAK

October 1967. Two Israeli teenagers on a sightseeing trip to the newly-appropriated Golan Heights are mourning their soldier brother, killed four months earlier in the Six-Day-War. Lately these two have been having odd dreams – same dreams, same nights – of other lives, in another country, another century. Then there's the 10th century Varangian trader on a ship called Bright Hawk, approaching the Black Sea. What has he to do with such dreams?


WARP AND WEFT

An Antarctic explorer, a 17th century highwayman, a German U-boat officer, a Welsh schoolteacher. What can these four possibly have in common? Nothing. Nothing at all. Other than their lives.


NUDE WITH MANDOLIN AND GRAPES

To Catherine, a young American woman in 1907, the idea of living with a great artist in his Montmartre studio sounded so romantic. But there's nothing romantic about grinding poverty, hunger and cold, or your artist turning out not to be great. More than a century on, a stolen painting comes up for auction, with a fortune attached, several lifetimes too late for Catherine - and her unknown artist.

The Cloak's opening scenes, set on Syria's Golan Heights and in the newly-abandoned town of Quneitra,

are based on personal observations made towards the end of 1967, shortly after the Six-Day-War.


THE CLOAK


The old work truck growled and lurched its way up the rocky road to the Golan Heights. Its passengers, crammed together in the back, coughed and cursed amid the waves of dust kicked up by the spinning wheels. Leah Golden and Canadian Joe sat up front, in the cab, in relative luxury. Joe was driving. Joe was the worst driver since Ben-Hur's blind granny. To make matters worse he had a new toy, a hand mike, through which he insisted on commenting on anything that looked remotely like a relic of the short-lived war.

Maya and Dan didn't listen to much of this. Every now and then their eyes met, and when they met each knew that the other's mind was back there, in last night's dream. The dreams had started immediately after the worst time of their lives: planes ripping out of perfect blue skies, mortar fire, deafening explosions, shrieks, black smoke climbing, their brother brought home in a curiously flat body bag, the devastating funeral, the wailing, the howling, the anguish. When, one day towards the end of the first week, they realised they'd been having similar dreams, they thought little of it. Such dreams after such a loss? Hardly surprising. But then the others started, small ones at first, sneaking in like shrouded waifs seeking shelter. The first few had been of childhood. A childhood that neither of them recognised, growing up on an unfamiliar shore with different friends. Rik was in some of these, with long hair, bit of a beard, always cheerful. Separate dreams, these, kept to themselves, until a chance remark, and:

'But that's exactly what I…'

After that they conferred each morning, checked details, found them to be identical. Sometimes many nights would go by – weeks of nights – with no reportable dreams at all, but then a more vivid one would occur, and these, they found, were ones they shared. In some of the more recent ones they stood or sat on the deck of a primitive vessel cruising a broad river between banks of forest watched by horsebacked men with spears, or sat in a high-ceilinged room with rowdy bearded men at long tables served by young women. Rik appeared in these, but as a fairly peripheral figure, on the edge of things. In the past week, Maya and Dan had walked side by side through a strange town with odd buildings and streets full of strangers who barely looked at them, but last night, another change: they'd been in a wood, a winter wood in which bodies lay all about. Rik was a strong presence in this one, again long-haired and skimpily bearded, but speaking a tongue they could not unders –

Groans. Fresh curses. Joe had driven too fast over a shell crater. Amid the protests in the back of the truck the remnants of last night's dream dissolved into a shared memory of the Rik they'd known, doubled over with tears of helpless laughter at some silly joke. Their brother, their big brother, who'd died up here, so close to the place they were heading to, as sightseers.

It was four months since the handful of days that had broken so many families. Four achingly long months. But at last people had begun to laugh again, just a little, share a joke once in a while. The dead had become framed photographs on the mantelpiece or piano, smiled at sadly in passing. Maya had made a determined effort to accept Rik's death. Adjust to it anyway.      But not Dan. Dan's anger wouldn't leave him. But it was a cold simmering anger these days. A kind of progress, Maya thought, if not a very healthy kind. She understood, though. One day in June, Rik had gone out and not come back, and that was it. A blankness. She could almost see into Dan's mind. He more than half expected, any minute, any time, their brother to come swinging through the door in his uniform and whirl him round the room, Dan shrieking his head off, the way he used to at such times.

The truck was no longer climbing. Was bumping over more or less flat ground now. Maya stared bleakly over the tailgate at the featureless, basalt-strewn plateau. It was like the end of the world out there. Your heart sank just to look at it. She didn't want to be here. Would have stayed home today if not for Dan. But he'd insisted on going, and Mum had asked her to accompany him, keep an eye on him.      Hardly her idea of a nice day out, going to the place Rik's tank had been hit: the precise reason Dan wanted to go. She wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake sense into him.

'Seeing where he died won't bring him back!' she wanted to scream. 'He's gone! Get used to it!'

But she didn't shake him, didn't scream at him. She left him alone, sticking close to him but not so close as to annoy him. Mostly he sat sunk into himself in the back of the truck, snapping a retort when spoken to. Even Shimon Vilnay, quick to punch shoulders and bend fingers back, even thicko Vilnay had the sense to keep his distance from Dan today.

When Canadian Joe suddenly put the brake through the floor everyone tumbled onto everyone else, yelling. Joe's amplified voice nearly deafened them.

'OK, people – out! Out!'

Before anyone could make a move he was out of the cab and back there, unhooking the tailgate, bawling them down, poised to clip the ears of malingerers. If in return they swore at him Joe let it go. Joe was a bit of a joke with his funny accent and his roar, his pot belly, horn-rimmed glasses on the end of his doughy nose; yet the kids liked him. You could say anything to Joe.

They stood raggedly around the back end of the truck, squinting in the harsh sunlight. When someone said that there was nothing to see, Joe raised his eyes to heaven, hands to shoulder height, palms up.

'This is history you're standing in! History! What's the matter with you guys?'

They looked about them, kicking dust, muttering. Some history.      In early June, with Israeli aircraft and infantry coming at them simultaneously from land and sky, the Syrian soldiers, outnumbered and outclassed, had dropped everything and fled. In the weeks following that briefest of conflicts the dead of both sides had been removed, along with anything of practical use or interest. The odd gun-emplacement and disarmed tank was left, plus a scattering of pots and pans, bits and pieces of army clothing (combat fatigues, woollen hats, belts, gloves) – and shoes, scores and scores of shoes, sticking up out of the dust like alien plants struggling for life on the surface of the moon.

Some of the kids' eyes focused.

'Jeez! Over there!'

'Wow!'

'Race ya!'

And they were off, yelling at the top of their voices, the boys especially, swarming over the burned-out tank, jumping on banks of sandbags, tumbling into bunkers. Some of them started flinging shoes about. One whizzed past Joe's ear and he told them to pack it in. They ignored him.

Zev Gordon ran back, holding a green hand grenade at arm's length.

'Joe, are these safe?'

'You're holding one and wondering if it's safe?' Joe said wearily. 'Yes, it's safe. Everything's been checked out. Just as well or you might not still be in one piece. Me either.'

'Can we keep them?'

'If you really feel you must.'

There were even more dead shells than there were shoes, and soon, pockets and bags bulged with them, and grenades, and anything else portable they came across, trophies all.

Only Maya and Dan didn't join the rush for mementos.

They stood apart from the others, numbed by the sheer hopelessness of the place. There wasn't a bush or tree or blade of grass in all that parched landscape. Everything was so still, so screamingly silent, as though under some malignant centuries-old spell.      If everyone had suddenly stopped moving and shut their traps it would have felt like Judgement Day.

'Seen pleasanter places, haven't you?'

Leah Golden, standing some distance away, alone.

They didn't need to reply, or want to. They hadn't spoken of it much to Leah, or she to them, but she shared their loss. She and Rik had grown up together, always been close. Lately they'd been talking about getting married. Married, they would have been entitled to a place of their own on the kibbutz. Young as they were, only just out of their teens, they'd both wanted that. It had seemed to fit somehow.

In a while Joe began calling everyone back to the truck. There were arguments, of course, which had Joe shaking his head. 'I don't get it. You complain when you get here, complain when you gotta go. Is there anything you people don't complain about?'

Dan climbed back on board with the others, but Maya lingered at the tailgate, hating this place yet seduced by it. A wasteland of bunkers, dud grenades, abandoned tanks – and all those shoes, those sad empty shoes.

Rik died for this?

She shook her head; got back on the truck.

The destination of the day was Quneitra on the old Roman road to Damascus.

Until four months ago Quneitra had been an important junction for several thoroughfares, bustling, noisy, crowded. Today, the silence of the Golan Heights was nothing compared to that of the town. Its streets and shops and houses were empty, abandoned in haste, doors left open, beds left unmade, food still on tables, mouldy now, much of it.

There were still a few cars and vans on the streets, but they hadn't moved since the evacuation. Schools hadn't been attended since June, or cinemas visited, there were no staff and patients in the hospitals, gardens were withered, unwatered, baked by the relentless, merciless sun.

The truck bumped into a cypress grove and jerked to a halt. The tailgate was kicked free. The kids jumped down and stretched. The Zimmerman brothers started to wrestle. Joe said 'Break it up, morons,' and ordered them to get the big lunch box out and hand the food packs round.

The packs, prepared by last night's kitchen shift, contained no surprises: canned sweetcorn, cheese, apples, bars of halva, fruit juice. The kids plonked themselves on the grass, packs spread open before them.

Someone said: 'I feel like a tourist.'

Someone else said: 'You are a tourist.'

It was true enough. Until this year, Quneitra had been just another dot on the map in territory none of them ever expected to visit, let alone have free run of. But here they were, sprawling about as if they owned the place. Some wag said they did, now.

Lunch over, they divided into two parties, one going with Joe, the other with Leah Golden. They hadn't come all this way just to have lunch. The trip was to be an Educational Experience.

Maya and Dan were in Joe's group. So was Sarah Malkosh. Malkosh might not have been the most irritating person on the planet but she was certainly up there as a contender. She never stopped singing. Singing or humming. Even in class you heard her humming under her breath. It was like a sickness, some said – especially when you sang as off-key as her. She was singing now, in spooky deserted Quneitra. Wherever they went there was her loony little voice in the background, like a joke record that never ends.

Sarah was in her element when they wandered into a theatre. Modern theatre, good seats, balconies, orchestra pit. She stood centre stage crooning out of tune until Joe told her to for Pete's sake cut it out. After that she just moved aside and did it a bit quieter. When Joe went outside Josh Levin took a turn on stage, not to sing, but to urinate into the front seats – a high golden arc that brought whoops from the boys and disgust from most of the girls.

After the theatre, Joe let his group wander where they liked, with a warning that vandals and looters would be shot. He said it so seriously that no one could be quite sure he didn't mean it.

The town was like a vast museum. Very little had been touched since the people fled, and the airless summer had disturbed nothing. Even the litter hadn't moved for months. The houses were mostly single- or two-storeyed, all of them painted white. A number, struck by shells, had folded in upon themselves. Of the others, many front doors stood open. There was speculation that the army had gone from house to house kicking them in, sniper-hunting. Either that or the fleeing residents hadn't considered the closing of doors too important in the circumstances.

Maya joined Dan when he drifted off on his own, and for once he didn't seem to mind her tagging along. They crossed the threshold of one of the open-doored houses. Maya felt bad about not knocking first while being fully aware that it would be ridiculous to bother.

After the brilliant sunshine the interior was a single block of cool shadow. But it reeked of neglect. Or something. They remained just inside the door until their eyes had adjusted to the gloom, gradually taking in shards of broken crockery on the tiled floor, rugs rucked up as though kicked aside in haste, a small table under the window containing cups, plates, cutlery, the shrivelled remains of a four month old meal. On closer inspection they saw mould in the cups, and something moving in the stone-dry bread. A wooden chair lay on its back as if whoever had been sitting on it had sent it flying when he jumped to his feet and made a dash for the door.

They wandered into a bedroom. An unmade double bed, clothes still hanging in the closet, small framed photos on a carved wooden chest, of ordinary smiling people. A family.

'How they must have hated us,' Maya murmured.

A low snuffling sound, nearby. They froze. It came from under the bed. And came again. Their imaginations ran riot. They wished their legs could be persuaded to do the same.

When a ragged brown snout inched out, followed by a ragged brown head, they almost fainted with relief. Maya dropped to her haunches, held out her hand.

'Here, dog.'

'Careful,' Dan warned. 'It might be dangerous.'

'Doesn't look dangerous to me. Good doggy. Come to Maya. S'all right, I won't hurt you.'

The animal slithered another few inches forward, on its belly, eying her outstretched fingers.

'Dan, got any food on you?'

'Bit of halva is all.'

'Try him with a piece.'

'You're kidding.'

'No. Come on.'

Dan unwrapped the half bar of halva he'd stuffed in his pocket at the end of lunch. He snapped off a corner, which he tossed on the floor. The dog flicked its head sideways; gulped it down in one. Dan was about to put the rest of the bar back in his pocket when Maya snatched it off him – 'Give it here!' – and broke off a more generous piece, which she offered on the palm of her hand. The mongrel shuffled further out. The more it showed of itself the more scrawny and bedraggled it appeared. It stretched forth its snout to accept the offering, more slowly this time, as if taking care not to nip its benefactress's fingers.

'Poor thing's starving,' Maya said.

'So will I be now,' Dan said. 'I was saving that.'

'We can't leave him here.'

'What do you mean?'

'Well, look at him.'

'I am. He's probably just a scavenger, mooching from house to house sniffing out scraps.'

'He might have lived here.'

'If he did, it's not our problem.'

'He could die here if we leave him.'

'Again, not our problem.'

Dan sauntered to the door. As he went they heard Joe's distant bellow, calling everyone back to the truck.

Maya, on hands and knees, inched closer to the dog, which responded by retreating until it was almost entirely under the bed again, on a coarse red blanket it had been lying on before. She gripped a corner of the blanket and tugged at it, which seemed to alarm the dog, for it tried to shuffle further back, and would have if one of its forelegs hadn't caught in the folds. Maya continued to pull the blanket and the dog came too, riding it, but rolling off when it was clear of the bed.

'Maybe he'll follow that,' Dan said from the door.

'Follow what?'

'His comfort blanket.'

'I thought you didn't want him.'

A shrug. 'Just saying.'

Maya backed slowly out of the bedroom, trailing the blanket on the floor, flapping it gently. Dust rose from it. The dog didn't move. Dan stepped forward and snatched the blanket from her, held it up, ruffled it vigorously.

'Look, stupid,' he said to the dog, 'I don't care if you come with us or not, but make up your mind, we can't hang around here all day.'

'Oh, that'll win him over,' Maya said.

But the dog edged forward and a flicker of triumph crossed Dan's face.

'Rik'll love him,' he said, a second before it came back that there was no Rik. Not any more.

Maya saw his shoulders slump.

'Yeah, Rik and mangy old dogs,' she said, trying to sound light. 'Have his way and he'd have brought home half the strays in Galilee.'

'Yeah,' Dan said.

'Come on, let's see if this one'll follow us.'

Holding a corner of the blanket apiece, walking backwards, they squeezed side by side through the door, into the main room, and from there out into the gaping sunlight, to stand squinting along the street. Joe was at the corner, pot-bellied in his baggy blue dungarees and Welcome to Eilat sun hat, stomping about impatiently while his group ambled towards him from various points. The Zimmerman brothers were taking pot-shots through open doorways with imaginary rifles and machine guns.

'God, they're embarrassing,' Maya said.

'Tiny minds,' Dan agreed sagely.

They did not rush to join the others, but just before disappearing round the corner with his shambling group, Joe bawled down the street at them:

'You two coming or are you moving here?'

Maya glanced over her shoulder. The dog had left the house. It was following. Slowly, warily, but following.

'I think he's adopted us,' she said.

'Don't kid yourself,' Dan said. 'He just wants his lousy blanket back.'

Still gripping a corner each of the blanket, they ambled in silence along the street of dead houses. Soon they would be bumping away from this depressing place and the parched crust of the Golan with its gun-emplacements, tanks, grenades, all those shoes; returning to green Galilee, well away from the glowering shadows, the bitter echoes of war, able at last – perhaps – to consign Rik to memory.

Alone in the street, there was no one but the dog to witness the agony that struck them, folded them over clutching their chests as though stabbed, to fall onto the blanket they'd been holding between them. The blanket that shivered, and billowed, enfolded them, and, when it opened out moments later, was quite empty.

A pause now in the quiet afternoon, before the dog slithered forward on its belly and sniffed the blanket, lying abandoned in the roadway.

Canadian Joe called out, some way off. Received no answer.



FROM THE QUEINETRA OF 1967 WE GO TO 4TH CENTURY HADRIAN'S WALL.

BUT THAT'S ANOTHER CHAPTER.