I climbed aboard the Little No. 5 as I did every morning on my way to work. ‘Little No. 5’ is what I call the minibus-sized cab which follows the route of the No. 5 bus. It’s actually a cross between a bus and a cab. You get the best of both worlds – the familiar route and the cheapness of the bus, but they’ve got the speed of a cab and you can hail them and get off where you like.
And since there were bombs all the time, I only ever took Little No. 5s to work and back. Even if a real No. 5 arrived at my stop before a Little No. 5 I let it pass. A bus was too easy a target for a terrorist – especially the No. 5, which was almost always full and had already been bombed. I wasn’t really all that sure about doing this, but Duchi made me swear never to take the bus. And they were never going to bomb a Little No. 5. For one thing, they can only take ten people, eleven with the driver. Plus there’s only the one door, at the front, so the driver can see exactly who gets on board.
That day I got on at the usual place. The time was around nine in the morning. A pale midwinter sun was hanging in a translucent sky; wet leaves covered the boulevard.
The driver was Ziona. She was the only woman driver in the Little No. 5 fleet but she was no pushover. She was always yelling down the radio at the dispatcher in the office, complaining about some guy who’d dared to over-take her or cut her up, or wondering how the hell that Jumbo had gotten so far ahead of her. A Jumbo’s a bus, in the Little No. 5 drivers’ dialect. The dispatcher was always telling her to shut up and stop hogging the frequency. Maybe she ought to chill out? Maybe she ought to stop drilling a hole in everybody’s head, including the heads of the passengers?
And Ziona would take a drag from the cigarette she liked to hang outside her window and whisper to herself as she exhaled, ‘Oh, ffffuuuckk your fucking hole in the head!’
We were heading down Dizengoff Street when an elderly lady turned to me. Quietly she said: ‘Doesn’t that man look suspicious?’
With her eyes she indicated a dark guy at the front. We were sitting at the back. He was wearing a grey wool hat and holding a suit in a suit bag. ‘Come on, don’t exaggerate,’ I said. ‘He looks fine to me.’ But I kept looking at him. I thought about the fact that explosive belts were the latest thing – the flavour of the month. Explosive belts must be pretty flat if you can strap them round your body. Just possibly there was one in his suit bag.
‘Don’t you worry about it,’ I told the old lady. ‘It’ll be fine.’
She gave me a sour look and tried another guy who was sitting at the back with us. She whispered something in the other guy’s ear, and he looked towards her suspect and a second later shook his head and flapped his hand. Now I was certain. Just paranoid. Why is everyone so paranoid in this country? Can’t dark guys get on buses with suit bags any more?
The old lady called over to Ziona.
‘Can I get off at the next corner?’
Ziona looked in the mirror with her big eyes. ‘Of course you can, honey,’ she said. Ziona was a nice woman. She had short hair and wide shoulders. She’s dead now, of course. ‘You talking to me, Yossi?’ she jabbered into the radio. ‘Hey, who’s that? You got a driver called Morris next to you? Morris, the driver of Seventy?’ Yossi didn’t answer. Another driver was saying, ‘Hey, what is this, the cemetery? We got no passengers today? Ten minutes and nobody gets on.’ Someone else was saying, ‘At least you get to see some of these chicks’ bellies . . .’ and Yossi cut across them: ‘Will you cut this crap out! Ziona, you’re doing it again, and everyone else piles in after you with their chatter.’ Ziona swore to herself. The radio was tuned to a news show. They were talking about a bomb in Wadi Ara. The passengers were listening quietly. Then there was a song.
The old lady got off at Jabotinsky Street. She didn’t trust our judgement. On her way out she gave the dark guy a long look. He looked back at her. I didn’t think at that moment that his look meant anything. If I did have a sneaking suspicion that she might have a point, that I ought to get off too, just to be on the safe side, I blotted it out immediately. I didn’t have time for the safe side. Who has?
‘Everyone’s under pressure, eh?’ the other guy at the back said. He had a little goatee and big aviator sunglasses with mirrored lenses. His hair was the colour of honey, held back with plenty of gel, darkening into curls at the back. Cool, at least in his own eyes. Pleasant smile. Giora, I know now. Giora Guetta, from Jerusalem. I know plenty of things now.
‘This paranoia . . .’ I said. ‘People are completely crazy.’
‘He looks OK to you, right?’
I looked once more towards the dark guy. I wasn’t sure. Who could be sure? ‘Yeah, no problem with him,’ I said. Each of us looked through his window. Winter, but the sun was out. I watched the tree-lined canyon of Dizengoff slide by, the parade of designer clothing shops, an ad for the movie Monsters Inc., a small Gad Dairy truck passing. A builder got on and started shouting at Ziona.
‘Why didn’t the last two stop for me?’ The builder was the father of two girls. I read it later on Ynet.
‘Don’t get mad, honey,’ Ziona said. ‘They were probably full.’
‘Come on, people, my time is precious,’ the builder said.
‘Everybody’s time is precious, honey.’
If there’s one thing I like about the Little No. 5s, it’s their efficiency with time. I know something about this: I work in the business of time. For example, all the handling of money and change is done during the ride, not like on the bus, where everyone’s got to finish paying while it’s still standing at the stop. You give someone sitting in front of you some money and they pass it down, from passenger to passenger to the driver, and your change comes back up, from hand to hand back into your palm. Money circulating efficiently from stranger to stranger, like the bus’s blood. Or the way the drivers change money with other drivers: they arrange it over the radio, and when they pass each other they’ll stop for a couple of seconds and, one-two, it’s done. Or their skill on the road – the way they improvise, overtaking cars and Jumbos by driving on the other side of the road, stealing valuable seconds at traffic lights, avoiding traffic jams by cutting through narrow streets off their usual routes: decisive actions. It’s a pleasure to watch them.
Somebody touched my shoulder. I looked up in alarm and saw it was only the guy in the mirrored shades, with a PalmPilot in his hand. I thought to myself: what are you showing off for? I’ve got a Palm too. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. My Palm had stopped working a couple of months before. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘if something happens to me, I want you to tell my girlfriend in Jerusalem, Shuli – I want you to tell her . . .’ He was thinking, but he couldn’t seem to find the right words. I chuckled. What was he talking about, if something happened to him? Him too? The old lady, OK, she’d probably been paranoid since the Holocaust, but him?
‘If something happens,’ I said, ‘I’m hardly going to be the one left to pass on messages, am I? Don’t worry, man, nothing’s going to happen.’
‘I know nothing’s going to happen,’ he said, ‘but if it does . . . If you want, I can also send a message to someone, like, if I . . . you know.’
‘No,’ I said reflexively. Then I thought: maybe I should send a message to someone? Maybe I should get my will written? You never know. I thought that if there was anyone I would leave anything to, it would have to be Duchi. Despite everything.
And then I thought again. Damn – what the hell am I doing, on a bus, on the way to work, worrying about my will? How did I get here? On the back of the bus in front there was a picture of one of those red-jacketed guardsmen in London. It said: ‘Going abroad? Take your mobile!’ On the radio, a man who was driving behind the bus that was blown up in Wadi Ara told Rafi Reshef, ‘I’m optimistic, optimistic, optimistic, optimistic.’ We were getting to the busier part of Dizengoff Street, where the towers of the Centre loom and the city crush grows denser. A phone rang and someone answered. I got my little note-book out – since my Palm stopped working I’m back in the Middle Ages – and wrote: Check again how much rent house New Zealand. Talk w/ Duchi about it.
‘You from Jerusalem?’ I said to the guy. ‘Me too, originally.’ But I saw he was thinking about other things. His expression was serious. Later I’d think about how people sometimes have premonitions. How we found all kinds of clues and hints that Danny Lam left before he was killed, like the poem he wrote a month before, and how soldiers who die are always supposed to say goodbye in a special way in their last phone call. How people always said things in the final days; how they’d had a feeling that something was going to happen. On the other hand, everybody says these things all the time. You just pay attention to the ones who actually die. I myself had a sign that I was about to die. One time I saw these birds flying in the dark. I thought: birds flying in the dark, weird, it must be a sign . . . and yet I’m still alive. Even now. Even after the Little No. 5, after Shaar Hagai, after Emek Refa’im.
‘Stop being a fool,’ I said to Giora Guetta. ‘Don’t think about it.’
He smiled. I stood up, waved goodbye to him and got off the Little No. 5 without a word. On my way out I didn’t look at the dark guy, the suicide bomber, again. I think I didn’t look at him because I didn’t believe he was a terrorist, but maybe I didn’t look at him because I didn’t want to embarrass him.
I walked into the mall at the base of the Dizengoff Centre through Gate 3. With all the bombs and precautions, the entrance to the Centre looks like the gate to an army camp: barriers, guards and metal detectors that always, always beep. The guards never check the source of the beep so why do they run the detector over us? Just to send magnetic waves through our bones?
Every day I’m treated differently entering the mall. Sometimes they might ask me to show my wallet or phone, other times they just pass the detector over me, or let me through and only then stop me, as if I’d somehow gone through too quickly, or looked suspiciously relieved. One time, immediately after a big bomb, they started asking for ID cards and added another guard near the elevators to the offices. This checkpoint was about seven metres past the first one. Two days later they got rid of the second guard. Another day passed and the ID card wasn’t necessary. After the next big bomb you needed it again.
So even when they let me pass and then stopped and groped me seven metres after someone else had; even when I had to take my bag off my back, unzip it, take my wallet out, take the ID card out, open it in front of them and watch them not even glance at it – I might as well have stuck a picture of Arafat in there: they’d have waved me through anyway – I decided to let them get on with their job. Not because I think there’s no alter-native, but because I no longer have the strength to object. What good would it do if I complained or refused to show my ID? I see people arguing and I can understand, but it never helps them. It just slows them down. It’s like foot-ballers arguing with the referee after he gives a penalty – was there ever a player in the history of football who changed a ref’s mind?
That day, there was a blood donation unit at the gate. It’s important to donate. They say there’s not enough blood in the hospitals because of all the bombs. But I didn’t have time. I went up to the office. I didn’t hear the explosion. Everybody else did, people down at street level, people up in our office on the twenty-third floor. Bombs are something you hear. They’re loud. But I was in the elevator and didn’t hear it. Not that the boom made such an impression at first. There are booms all the time: sonic aircraft booms, building-site booms, all the accidents and bangs and crashes of a city. So everyone in the office was looking calm. I popped my head into all the rooms on the way to my own room and said hello, as I did every morning, and people smiled and said good morning, as they did every morning. In my room I said hello to Ron and Ronen, and Ron said, ‘You hear the boom?’
It took a few minutes until we realised that there had been a suicide bomb and that it had happened in the centre of Tel Aviv. We turned on the TV in the kitchen and saw the map with the little flame-thing that shows the location of the bomb, and saw it was up the road, at the south end of Dizengoff Street, near the Habima Theatre, and they were saying it was probably a bus.
Everyone in the office was watching the TV. Those who hadn’t arrived yet wouldn’t arrive for a while because the roads were blocked. According to Ynet there were ten Israelis killed and one suicide bomber. The result: 10–1. The Jews lose again, or at any rate it’s a scoreline that’s going to need quite a bit of a positive gloss.
Soon I was busy answering the phone and telling everyone I was alive. ‘No, they didn’t get me yet,’ I told the callers. After a few calls, I started answering the phone with, ‘This is Croc and I’m alive, who wants to know?’ I talked to people I hadn’t talked to for years.
‘Lucky there are bombs once in a while,’ I told them, ‘at least we get to talk.’
I started work: I had to talk to our Swiss client, Ivan, work out what he required; I made calls and wrote emails and documents, and at some point Ron said, ‘No. 5 minibus – you use that thing, don’t you?’ I lifted my eyes from the screen.
‘No. 5 minibus?’
‘I call it the Little No. 5. What about it?’
‘The bomb. It was a No. 5 minibus that was bombed. Your bus, isn’t it?’
My first thought was: fuck, how will I get to work from now on? Those fuckers hit every possible means of trans-portation. Am I going to have to take cabs now? Buy another car? Too expensive . . .
I entered Ynet again and read the update. Every passenger on the minibus killed. But still it didn’t seem like mine. Somehow it seemed it couldn’t be the right time or place. There were dozens of minibuses en route at any given time. ‘Yeah, I go on one every day,’ I was telling everyone nonchalantly. ‘Unbelievable. The bomber could have been on the same No. 5 I was on. Who knows?’
Only then did I remember the dark guy and his suit bag, and the old lady who suspected him, whom I’d told not to worry. And the other guy who asked me to send some unspecified message to his girlfriend. This is crazy, I thought, I have to get hold of this guy, and then the phone rang.
‘Croc, I’m alive,’ I answered.
‘Uh huh,’ said Jimmy. ‘Why alive?’
‘Listen, next week there’s a meeting in Brussels, it’s important, it’s with . . .’ Here he mentioned the name of a large Belgian telecoms company. His accent was terrible.
‘You coming with me?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘No. I’m telling Gili to book us flights and hotel rooms. Get ultra-prepared. Make sure you’re ready with all the presentations. And don’t forget tomorrow’s company meeting.’
Jimmy ended the conversation without waiting for an answer. He does it all the time. He explained once that he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for an answer. Jimmy’s real name, by the way, is Rafi. Rafi Rafael, or Rafraf, as he’s known in our room. When he was an officer in the air force he ran their time management unit. Now he’s the CEO of Time’s Arrow.
I called Duchi and left her a message: ‘Hi. I wasn’t killed in the suicide attack in case you’re interested. I’m in Brussels next week. Bye.’
And then they started talking about the female driver of the minibus involved in the bomb attack, and it was only then that I understood. Ziona was the only woman driver in the Little No. 5 fleet. I knew it because she was always bringing it up. She was proud of it. My heart stopped beating and my breath got stuck in my throat. And then they started up again, because that’s what the heart and lungs always do, when you’re alive.
I jogged back to the kitchen. The TV was still on though everyone was back in their rooms. Danny Ronen, the military correspondent on Channel 2, mentioned the name Ziona Levi. A nervous little chuckle escaped my mouth. I went to the bathroom and put my hands, clenched tightly into fists, on the marble. I felt a wave of pain and nausea washing over me, tried to breathe deeply, looked at the mirror, and laughed again. This laughing face: whose was it? It didn’t look familiar. Didn’t look like mine. The blood was hammering in my temples. I felt very close to passing out. I had to get out, to breathe fresh air. I threw water on my face and made it down to the street and walked towards the site of the bombing, up Dizengoff Street, past the shoemaker’s and up the hill, under the tunnel formed by the canopy of branches, and turned right past the gallery. I stopped opposite the museum and concert hall, just before the Habima Theatre, on the side where the post office is. In the time that had passed they’d reopened the road to traffic. Everything had been cleaned up and the wreckage of the minibus had been towed away. The deceased had been removed: all that belonged to them, all that had been them. There weren’t even police barriers up any more.
Miraculously – they always use that word, miraculously – not one of the passers-by or drivers near by had been injured. Only a single car parked on the side of the road was totalled (the owner was a guy named Amir who’d just popped into the post office to pay a parking fine – and it turned out he never got any insurance money or compensation: because he was parked in a no-parking zone). A bus passed, groaning and spitting black smoke like an old man hawking phlegm. I looked at the wet patches on the road where the blood had been washed away. The pale sun was gloomy and silent. The traffic was running normally. Two and a half hours since the bomb went off, and it was as if nothing had happened, or almost. Some drivers were slowing down to peer at the wet patches before driving on. On the pavement beside me kids were lighting candles and people were shouting or crying. They had their solutions. They announced their solutions. They said: kill, retaliate, blast them to bits, withdraw . . .
I turned my head away from them towards a gap between two buildings. I wasn’t looking for anything. I’ve no idea why my eyes were drawn there. Maybe it was the tree standing there, an old olive tree that looked out of place among the palms, that didn’t seem to belong in the little alley. I looked at the olive tree and moved as if compelled towards it, and that’s when I saw, a little above where the trunk fissured, cradled in the crook of one of the bigger branches, the PalmPilot of the guy who’d been sitting next to me.
Born in 1968, Assaf Gavron is the author of four novels, a collection of short stories, and a nonfiction collection of Jerusalem falafel-joint reviews. His fiction has been translated into German, Russian, Italian, French, English, and more, and has won prizes, been adapted for the stage, and optioned for movie development.