Winding down towards old age, he and Jacqui found themselves holidaying much of the time, principally to Israel to see Karen, but they also took a number of city retreats, Paris, Prague and Barcelona, to any European city that friends had vetted in advance. He loved to go on holiday, to travel, and it was on the plane to Israel that I met them. He was reading Michael Crichton through reassuringly overpriced half-moons as I assumed my window seat-- this made him look almost regal, and the assumption of gravitas in his face evidently bore no correlation to the significance of the words before him. He then fell asleep on my shoulder but wasn’t so callous or slow-witted as to fail to realise the infringement; he was guileful enough to have mapped the moral territory which thankfully made him relinquish the right slice of armrest at the right time, even though his head was still partly propped up by my left shoulder. Then he woke up momentarily for his meal and a few minutes later, the consequences of overeating kicked in and chronic carbohydrate overdose propelled his bulbous head onto the fold-out table, (the empty packaging had of course already been removed) his neck slack, his disproportionately slender arms bearing the weight as best they could as if he was praying to Allah. His exaggerated tan could never belie his proclivity for consumption, the overworked heart packed out with cholesterol, the high blood pressure and inevitable early demise. He wasn’t going to outlive seventy-five.
She was simply his appendage, as if they had never considered any other permutation. When he slipped in out of consciousness, she gave him a little prod because he wasn’t really sleeping, it was, in her eyes, merely a quasi- narcoleptic episode from which he needed to be jolted. And wake up with a start he did although he was immediately loquacious. That they were holidaying a lot meant that they spent even more time together than usual. She made asinine remarks to which he could barely bring himself to respond, comments to which he just assented or barely managed a yes, or at best if he were feeling creative, singularly jocular, he would change the mood entirely, which she usually settled for. The monotony of the interaction continued in spite of the stodgy emotional backdraft. He felt comfortable and she subjugated her discomfort with a certain subservience. She was fairly pretty for a sixty-something year old woman. Straight dark-haired bob, coloured specs, unobtrusive features, but let herself down when she opened her mouth. But she looked after his food. He liked her well-cooked apple pie with the big raisins, the large slablets of sweet boiled fish with specks of curried carrots, her cream of tomato soup with the fresh chives from the greenhouse (weather permitting). How she had loved that greenhouse! At dinner during the weekday he would allow himself a decadent shandy.
Then suddenly she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the prognosis was not good, though they always remained upbeat even until the very last few weeks. After she died, Leveson’s old life slowly took shape again after the welcome distraction of the mourning period. He found himself irredeemably alone; such an existence was not palatable to anyone, least of all a gregarious man such as Robert Leveson. Over a period of some months, and after a two week holiday there, it was agreed that he would spend a more pronounced period of time in Israel with Karen, Alon and the kids. They lived in a rural settlement in the South, in a large house with a large garden only 2 miles from the Gaza Strip border. They were comfortable by Israeli standards; he was a manager for Cisco Systems, often flying to the States and Europe, she didn’t need to work but sometimes gave English lessons to young Israeli students at the house. They also had a live-in nanny which meant that she had plenty of free time to spend with ‘Putty’. They had a small, purpose-built annex at the side of the house for grandma and grandpa with its entrance just off the kitchen and its own bathroom. This gave the suite some sense of separation and would allow Putty some privacy if he wanted it. He said: ‘I’ll come as long as you can guarantee my safety’, or something along those lines. He always liked to poke fun at the security situation. In truth, he was a bit worried as there had been a few rocket launchings in southern Israel over the last few months.
Fortunately he needn’t have been, still he returned to Manchester within three months. He enjoyed time spent with Karen and the kids, but didn’t feel quite as comfortable when venturing from the house where the rules of engagement were not so clear. To make himself useful, he often went food shopping, and not wanting to drive on the wrong side of the road, used taxis despite the extra cost. He always tried to initiate conversation but the drivers refused to concede him any interest -- no it was more respect -- no added respect as an Englishman, an Englishman and a Jew and what better combination could there be? One had charged him 250 shekels to Tel Aviv, when an Israeli might have paid 190. When Leveson challenged the driver, since Alon had told him how much he should be paying, the driver simply said: ‘If you don’t like it, get out.’ Leveson froze and just stayed inside the car. There were no other taxis around, and he had just had to accept it the gratuitous charge.
His manifold charms fell on deaf ears; his nubile sarcasm failed completely. How could anyone dare hurry him up so brazenly at the supermarket till? He ventured a little Hebrew but none of the Israelis had the patience to listen and always reverted to English, unless they were Russian in which case they just grunted then stared. What irked above all was that his sense of power had been removed, that he was no longer treated in the manner to which he was accustomed back in Manchester.
Although treated as no better than the average Israeli, he still didn’t acquire the benefits of that equal treatment and wasn’t accepted as being in any way part of the whole. What status might he have requested? A sort of higher-than-but-still-part-of-it status. The questions always appeared to have a supercilious undertow: “How’s England? How’s Tony Blair? How’s Wayne Rooney’s haircut?” and underpin that his benighted Englishness made him completely foreign to the intricacies of Israeli culture, and that he could never ever begin to comprehend the daily struggles of a regular Israeli. The lower the class of person, the more superficial and uninformed the questions, yet even Alon’s parents, both educated, still employed a tone that suggested their clear conviction that his daughter was fully English and no part Israeli. Alon had told him of the importance of the army throughout Israeli society, even when applying for jobs as if this was a reasonable justification for social exclusion for new immigrants. So his children would certainly have to do the army and thereby attain the stamp of nationhood. That was all fine by him, but didn’t they realise that he was Jewish above all else, that Israel was the Jewish state, a state conceived and founded by strong people like him? How could it be that at the moment that he decides to come and stay, he is not welcomed by everyone with open arms?
Karen had a huge community of English friends, so that when he mixed socially, it was almost always with them, all with familiar opinions and backgrounds. Fitting in was easy. But this didn’t afford him the opportunity to road-test his opinions since they were not Israelis. In fact, he didn’t know any Israelis apart from the grandchildren. It slowly started to dawn on him that he really didn’t know the first thing about this country which was really quite foreign to him, from the most basic of criteria such as the language, which he was hopeless at, to the political system, the class system, the institutions and all the more arcane inner workings of society.
So he remained confined to the house for much of the time watching TV news in Hebrew which he didn’t understand and snacking on houmous and crackers. Sometimes he would watch the grandchildren play. Liora, almost ten, was the cheekiest and would just rush up to him and jump on him fondly and with enthusiasm. Barak was eight and more reserved and liked to read while Carly was just three and spent much of the time hugging Karen’s leg whilst Karen cooked or shopped or talked on the phone to one of her many English/Israeli friends. He loved them dearly, but it wasn’t enough to make him feel useful.
When he became bored, he would go out into the garden, have a wander then sit himself in one of the wooden chairs in the shade with his book and his half-moons. There were hedges and bushes of beautiful flowers in this garden, flowers whose names he didn’t know, with bright, orange and purple petals. He looked right into their colours at the surrounding trees and wondered how he could be sitting so close to a hotspot yet still such tranquillity reign. And then his thoughts would turn to Jacqui. It was so unfathomable that she was dead. Where was she really? Heaven? Had she really just been extinguished? Or was there some vestige of consciousness remaining somewhere in the universe?
He sat on the plane and pulled a paperback from his caramel leather carry-on bag, staring at the words but not assimilating any of them. He was looking forward to seeing Heathfields again, not so much in excitement but to regain refuge. He would find it hard with the spirit of Jacqui lingering in the house; the image that came to him was she sitting at the kitchen table doing the Mail crossword with the little TV on in the background. What would it feel like to walk back in, to sleep in the bed again, to use the bathroom without her diverting chat? How could he sit in that huge lounge alone? Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to rush off to another country only months after she’d died. But he’d done the best he could. He hoped that the cleaner had been and that all was in order. What was he going to do for supper? Karen had actually given him some fried fish to take back to keep him going, which he’d refused. He’d have to go shopping and make himself some eggs or something.
They landed on time at Heathrow, he spent the night at the Premier Inn and took the 12:23 next day to Manchester Piccadilly. It was a crisp mid-October’s day. The minicab pulled in to the drive early late afternoon. He’d made minor changes to the house before he’d left, but it was essentially untouched. The wedding picture still sat on the old 22” Grundig that they’d never changed – he had wanted to, but she had said ‘why – it works perfectly?’, so he’d deferred in that enjoyment of deferring on an issue that really doesn’t matter to you. It sat on a round glass-topped table with a doyly underneath. Quite uncivilized, but there were marked differences between the ordered luxury of the downstairs parlours and the top floor which was never seen by extra-familial outsiders. Her clothes were still all there the bedroom closet, the only thing he had done was to take her blue raincoat and her bags off the pegs in the hall and put them in the closet.
The sun was fading behind poplars to the right hand side of the house and it was chilly when he put his key in the front door, a chill that he hadn’t experienced for a few months. The alarm beeped and he punched the code into the console. It was slightly dusty but smelt fresh. He turned the lights on in the front hall and the ambiance brightened up. Familiarity! This wasn’t so difficult at all. In fact it was nice to be reminded of his old life, of Jacqui, looking at all the objects around him made him feel secure. He put the TV on in the kitchen and called Karen to tell her he was ok. ‘All ok, Dad?’ ‘Fine, tired, but everything’s fine. We’ll speak later.’
He wandered into all the ground floor rooms then took the post up with him to the office. He reached across for the letter-opener in the jar by the window and something unfamiliar caught his eye. It was by the greenhouse. Had there been a storm? No, it couldn’t have been, but the whole front side of the greenhouse was black and covered in char. He just couldn’t work out how it could have happened. How could there have been a fire in the greenhouse?
He went down to inspect; the glass panel of the greenhouse door was cracked, and resting on the sodden lawn was a charred wine bottle with its nose smashed off. He couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on.
He went back into the office and dialled Karen.
“What do you mean a glass bottle?”
“A wine bottle, I’ve got it in my hand.”
“I don’t know.”
“A wine bottle?”
“Yes, a wine bottle, just the top of it broken off.”
Alon was in the room with her now and Leveson could hear Karen relay his son-in-law’s words.
“Is there any damage?”
“To the bottle?”
“No Dad, to the greenhouse?”
“Yes, of course, the glass is all smashed.”
“How did that happen? Dad, it’s a Molotov cocktail. It’s what the Arab boys use over here.”
“Don’t be daft, it’s a wine bottle not a missile.”
“Any damage to the house?”
“No, of course not.”
“Hold on, I know, I bet Danny Birnbaum, did it.” ‘Who is Danny Birnbaum’, he could here Alon saying.
“What? Would he do something like that? Look, I’m going to, call the police, I’ll call you back darling.”
His mind went black in thought. Then it made sense, and he understood what Karen had meant. It was an act of pure malice. And it all made sense if it was Danny Birnbaum next door, and slightly more palatable as the threat was identified. This fourteen-year-old Birnbaum was infamous in the community, and the Levesons had had the misfortune of being neighbours. At only fourteen years of age, he had already received three community service orders and almost gone to youth prison. Leveson had caught him urinating in his front garden just before he had left to go to Israel. Then there was the tire slashing, for no apparent reason. Yet the only way Birnbaum could have got access to the back garden was from the golf course at the back. Why had he not thought of this? He trounced downstairs, out the front door and rang on next door’s bell. No answer. He rang again, three times, no answer. Perhaps they were on holiday.
Then he walked back in to Heathfields, panting, and dialled his handyman Phil Bennet.
“Phil, hi, how are you? I know it’s short notice but is there any chance you can come round and do a job for me this week?”
“Hi Mr Leveson, yes, I think so, I can come tomorrow actually. What is it?”
“Oh great, what a relief. It’s putting up the fence in my back garden, I’ve had a bit of a scare.”
“You want it back up now?”
“Afraid so, an urgent safety measure.”
And then he called Karen to let her know.