AND FINALLY – NEARLY…

EXERPT 7 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

One of the snatch team opened the doors of the van and they stepped out to find themselves inside a large storage shed.  

Apart from a stack of old oil drums in one corner and a small pile of cardboard boxes labelled “fragile” in the other it was completely empty. The walls and the pitched roof were formed of large sheets of dull green corrugated metal. A glazed narrow window strip ran along the top of the walls. It was filthy with grime and what were probably floodlights outside, appeared like dirty splashes of white paint against the external surface of the glass. The concrete floor was a drab greyish brown and reminded Alex of the rundown indoor basketball court at his old secondary school. 

The distinctive smell of aviation fuel hung heavy in the air and every so often the entire structure vibrated with a thunderous roar as a large airliner passed low overhead on its landing approach.

In addition to Alex, Elena and Omri, there was the driver, his companion and another two men present at the warehouse. All four were snatch team members and wore dark blue boiler suits and black balaclava hoods concealing their heads and faces. Two of them carried Galil semiautomatic machine guns slung over their shoulders.  

Alex noticed for the first time since their pick-up at the underground car park beneath the hotel that the van had the EL AL logo painted on the outside.  They stood in a group by the side of the van. Alex and Elena were holding hands, almost reflexively, something they rarely did. He shuddered once or twice, either from the chilly air in the shed or from nervous anticipation. Feeling him shiver she squeezed his hand reassuringly but unconvincingly as her own hand was equally cold and clammy.  

‘We’re back somewhere at Ben Gurion aren’t we Omri’ Alex said as a matter of fact. 

‘What was that?’ Omri replied breaking off from a conversation he was having with one of the men. ‘What did you say?’

‘We’ve come back to the airport haven’t we? We’re somewhere on the apron.’

‘I couldn’t possibly comment’ Omri replied grinning disingenuously.

‘We’ve been here over a minute and none of you have lit a cigarette. I’ve never been with a group of more than two Israelis without at least one them lighting up within thirty seconds. But you can’t smoke here can you because of the air fuel…What is this place Omri’ Alex persisted, ‘a customs shed or something?’ 

‘What does it matter?’ answered Omri.

‘I didn’t say it mattered, but it is ironic.’

‘How so?’

‘It’s as if the Ark hasn’t entered Israel at all.’

‘But this is Israel Alex. This is very much Israeli soil. And by the way, speaking of irony, according to the United Nations this is indisputably Israel while the Temple Mount is not…’

‘You know perfectly well what I mean Omri.’ 

‘Sure I know what you mean and you know I feel the same as you do. But you heard the PM.’

‘I heard him. I couldn’t believe my ears but I certainly heard him.’ 

‘I’m truly sorry Alex.’

They were quiet for a moment and then Elena asked Omri, ‘What are we waiting for exactly?’

‘The director of Mossad with the code’ he answered.

‘The code to what?’ she queried looking puzzled.

‘The key code to the access panel of the vault where the Ark is being stored. Only he and the P.M. know it.

According to these guys he’ll be here any minute.’  Then, almost the instant Omri finished speaking a siren blasted above the sliding door to the shed. Elena nearly jumped out of her skin and Alex grimaced and covered his ears with his hands. Immediately the two armed men trotted away towards the shed door.

‘My apologies!’ Omri shouted as the siren died away. Putting his arm round Elena’s shoulders he said. ‘If I’d known I’d have warned you. It’s intended to be heard over the noise of the aeroplanes. In any case, Avi’s here.’

‘Avi?’ queried Alex.

‘Oh sorry! Avi Peled, the Mossad chief. He and I go way back.’ 

One of the armed men slid the door open just wide enough to allow in a tall slim middle-aged man in a light khaki suit before immediately closing it again.  

Avi Peled approached them at a leisurely gate, barely lifting his large feet off the ground. The sideways sway of his long arms seemed slightly out of sync with his stride and gave the impression that he was walking more slowly than he actually was. 

He smiled when he saw Omri and greeted him in Hebrew. They then shook hands and half embraced. A well-rehearsed exchange of banter followed during which Alex detected the word “professor” mentioned two or three times. He guessed that Omri wanted to avoid Avi repeating the PM’s earlier faux-pas. Then, after a minute or so they turned towards Alex and Elena.

‘You must excuse us Professors Martinez’ said the Mossad chief smiling warmly and in perfect, American accented English. Then holding out his hand towards Alex, ‘but Omri and I are old friends…’

If one didn’t know, Alex thought as they shook hands, looking at the two friends, one would never have guessed that they were the same age. Perhaps running Mossad was an even more onerous job than he could have imagined but to Alex’s eyes Avi could have been a good ten years older than Omri. 

His ovular face was pale and yellow and the little hair he had left was a dull grey and combed over his bald pate in lank strands. His eyes were bloodshot and deeply shadowed and with heavy eye bags. His high forehead was furrowed with permanent worry lines and his thin lips were chapped and chewed. The matching dimples on his chin and at the tip of his broad nose seemed to accentuate his haggard and world-weary appearance. 

‘Old friends my arse!’ Omri exclaimed smacking Avi playfully on the back. ‘We had no choice! We were in the army together. From basic training onwards Avi here was forced upon me!’ and they both laughed.

‘That’s true’ continued Avi, ‘and what was worse, the bastards at officer school made Omri my commander for nearly all of our time together.’

‘Was he a hard task master?’ Alex asked Avi picking up on the jovial spirit between the two men.

‘Are you kidding? He ran our unit like he was Genghis Khan…’

‘He’s lying!’ exclaimed Omri giving his old colleague another playful thump. ‘I was the model of leniency…’

‘Sure! With the girls!’ Avi cut in. ‘With the girls Omri was the most lenient officer in the entire army!’

‘Now I know you’re telling the truth’ Alex said laughing too. ‘That’s my Omri okay!’

Omri was standing with his arms folded across his chest feigning a look of righteous indignation.

‘If we didn’t have a lady present’ Avi continued nodding at Elena, ‘I could tell you stories about Omri’s leniency towards the girls in his command that would make you blush…’

‘Don’t mind me, please!’ said Elena gesturing encouragingly with her hands. ‘Please, do go on.’

‘I think not!’ Omri said firmly wagging his finger.

‘But seriously though’ Avi said, his tone suddenly altered to earnestness, placing his hand on Omri’s shoulder, ‘this guy was the best unit commander in the army and the bravest. He saved my life twice during the battle for the Old City. Once during the assault on the Lions’ Gate he rugby tackled me away as I was about to tread on a booby trap and then later, on the Via Dolorosa he took out a sniper who had his gun trained on me…’ 

‘I can quite believe that too’ said Alex smiling at his friend who looked distinctly uncomfortable being praised so effusively. 

There was an awkward silence for a moment and then Omri eager to change the subject said to Avi; ‘Speaking of the Old City, there’s a rather important relic from the Old City just behind that wall over there which our distinguished Spanish guests are eager to see.’

‘Sure’ said Avi nodding affirmatively. ‘You people follow me.’

As he led the three of them towards the far wall of the shed Alex and Elena found themselves holding hands again. 

Then Alex felt Omri’s great paw-like leathery hand gently squeezing his neck and he turned to find him grinning at him; a tight lipped twinkly eyed grin, as if to say ‘well old pal, this is it. This really is it…’ Alex tried to smile back but could only return a wide-eyed nod.   

Then suddenly the contact of his wife’s and his friend’s hands were irritating and stifling and with an involuntary jerk he wriggled clear of both of them. They looked at him with concern but he held up his hands and between two deep breaths said; ‘I’m fine. Really I’m fine. I just…I just need to be on my own for this…until I’ve seen it…then afterwards…’

Meanwhile Avi pushed firmly with his index finger on what appeared to be a multiple light switch fixed onto the corrugated steel wall. After a couple of attempts the front; switches-and-all, sprung open to one side revealing what looked like an entry-phone keypad typical of an apartment block. The only difference Alex could detect from the regular sort was the presence of two large flat faced buttons beneath the pad; one scarlet and the other green.

 Avi turned around. ‘Not much of a holy of holies I’m afraid’ he said looking at Alex, ‘but under the circumstances I’m afraid it’s the best I can offer you. Now if you’d be so kind as to look the other way for a moment while I tap in the code…’ 

They dutifully turned their backs and Alex heard seven beeps as Avi entered the code.

‘Okay, that’s done’ Avi said. After they had turned back around he pointed towards the green button and asked Alex; ‘Would you like the honour Professor Martinez?’ 

Alex took another deep breath then nodded. ‘Yes’ he almost whispered.

As he approached the panel Avi added; ‘Stand back as you press it…’

Another deep breath and Alex nodded again and mumbled ‘bien’. Overwhelmed by his nervousness he instinctively reverted to Spanish. 

The green button was at exactly his eye level. He stood staring at it, his breathing now verging on hyperventilation. 

He felt lightheaded and as he gazed at the button he found it hard to focus. It seemed to have the form of a ball and for a moment there were two of them and then they melded back into one and parted again, first sideways, then up and down, together, apart, then together. Large beads of sweat ran down his temples and the back of his neck, soaking his shirt collar…’

‘Alex’ he heard someone saying to him, as if in the distance, then again, louder this time, ‘Alex old friend’ it was Omri, ‘are you alright?’

Suddenly there was a thunderous noise and the shed shook and Alex felt as if he had been woken from a trance. 

 As the howling of the four RB211 turbines faded into the distance he turned to Omri and said ‘I’m fine now.’ 

 He smiled at Elena. In Spanish he said; ‘Fifteen years of my life—of both our lives—and this is what it’s all come down to’ and still looking at her, searching for calm and reassurance in her astonishing eyes, he pushed the green button.

For a second nothing happened. Then there was a shushing sound of air being compressed. A corrugated panel, a foot or so above the ground, six feet wide by eight feet tall, just to the right of the key pad, advanced forwards from the wall about ten inches. Then there was a series of clunking and clicking noises and the panel slid smoothly and silently across towards the right. 

As it moved away Alex saw eight inches of gleaming metal and he realised that the corrugated surface was merely a camouflage for what was in reality a steel door to a vault. 

‘This is where we keep our most special and valuable imports and exports Professor’ he heard Avi informing him from over his shoulder. ‘It’s rarely used at all and normally for highly classified bits and pieces— important that is from a national perspective—but nothing to compare with this. I would say with extreme confidence, that this is the most sacred cargo ever placed here.’

Alex peered into the vault but it was pitch black. 

‘Here. Let me professor’ Avi said reaching around the left-hand side of the vault’s entrance, presumably reaching for the light switch. ‘Omri explained to me that you would like to go in on your own to start with.

Well professor, it’s all yours for as long as you need…’ 

There was a click followed a moment later by the distinctive whirring of fluorescent tubes firing up, and the strobe-like flash, flash, flash as the bulbs lit…

COME FLY WITH ME?

in my dreams at least

With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.

One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.

However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.

Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…

BATHERS AT KINNERET – 1982 – oil on canvas: As mentioned before on these pages, the Sea of Galilee has proved a fertile source of inspiration for my art, over many years. This typical Shabbat scene, of three generations is hugely evocative for me. I’m particularly pleased with the way I captured the large bulk of the grandmother, deftly negotiating the stones, while carrying her grandchild with almost nonchalant aplomb.
HOTELS, SAND, SEA AND SKY (Tel Aviv) – 1992 – oil (impasto) on canvas: Tel Aviv is an addiction for me. I crave to be there when away, and yet the place drives me half-nuts when I’m there; partly through sensory overload and partly through it’s 24/7 urban intensity – like New York City, on steroids. It’s of no surprise to those familiar with Israel’s second city, that National Geographic regularly lists it in its top 10 “beach cities” of the world. This is the closest I ever got to revealing its brutal-yet-beautiful physicality in paint. One can almost feel the hot summer breeze, and taste of salt in the turbulent air – and as for the light…
OUTSIDE THE ALCAZAR (Seville) – 1985 – oil on canvas: “I fell in love with Seville” is one of those traveller’s clichés, like “I love Paris” (which I do not), or “I love Rio” (which I need to visit again to be certain). But in my case, this is the truth, partly, perhaps because I also experienced romantic love in Seville; twice. Generally, I’m not one for painting anything through rose tinted spectacles, but in the case of Seville, it’s virtually impossible not to. Perhaps that’s why I’ve sold every single painting I ever made of the place. People just love a bit of rose, and bit of ochre, and touch of sienna, and certainly a great deal of violet…
JOLANDA AT GARDA – 1983 – oil on canvas: If anywhere in the world can compete with Seville for romance, then the Italian lakes is that place. But, whereas the feel of Seville is defined by strong colours, bright light and deep shade, the Italian lakes are bathed in subtle, seasonally shifting tonalities. If Seville is all about the passion, than Lake Garda, seen here in mid-winter, is all mellow contemplation. Love takes many forms, after all.
DIDO AT COQUIMBO (Chile) – 1992 – oil on canvas: Sadly, this photo is slightly out of focus, but the painting remains the one I was most pleased with from our time in Chile. The region of Coquimbo (in common with much of the southern Atacama Desert) had just experienced its heaviest rains for over 40 years, resulting in the greatest cactus flowering most Chileans had ever witnessed. I’ve rarely felt more privileged as a traveller, before or since, and together with the Sinai Corral Reef remains the most wonderous display of nature I have ever seen.
DIDO AND LYNNE AT TONGOY1992 – oil on canvas: Back in 1991, when we were there, Tongoy was somewhere between a sleepy fishing village, and an even sleepier seaside resort. It felt a bit like entering a scene from a Steinbeck novel, and I half expected to see the skeleton of a giant marlin lying on the pearly white sands. It was off season, and we (and the fishermen too of course) had the place to ourselves. A precious and serene memory.