Bella Shaier is one of the most important writers in the new Hebrew literature, and I’m writing these words with absolute confidence, without any sense of exaggeration, even though only one book and a few stories published in literary journals are available to attest to it, for the time being. The short story “Twice” which ends her book “Children’s Mate” is perfect in its architecture, the complexity of its simplicity, the way it constructs a world and characters with only few words. It glimmers also in its elusive essence, which could be called “truth”; that is, in the sense that a person is telling you a truth through fiction, a truth that is most pressing. This truth is linked, as it often is, with pretending: the pretending of the protagonist Genya, who cleans an office building, lives with her daughter and son-in-law and can’t see very well. There isn’t as much as a speck of insincerity in this pretending; because it has an internal side and an external side, it has a duplicity of one word, “Twice”, which Genya says to the bus driver after work; once it serves as a foreign testimony to the alienation, loneliness and lack of options, and the second time it is the rebellious and independent stance of a person who had to give in but, even if she herself isn’t aware of it, hasn’t given up.
When you look at things from outside, everything seems like a sort of colorful jigsaw. A mosaic of price stickers covers the products in the supermarket: the oldest are white, the two-week-old ones are yellow, and the newest are red. The canned goods are sown with green stickers from two months ago, but the price from two months ago is prehistory.
Bus fares go up every few months. On the day of the price increase the driver gives Raisa four tickets, two for her and two for Genia. Genia puts the two tickets that Raisa gives her – one with the old price and the other with the added increase – into her coat pocket.
That’s how it goes for a week or two until they print tickets with the new price, and in response to Raisa’s laconic “Twice”, the driver hands her two tickets. But after two years in Israel, Genia knows it won’t last long, because the fares will soon go up again, and again Raisa will be handed four tickets and give her two. She’ll ask Raisa what the extra cost is because she can no longer read the numbers on the tickets. She’ll have no problem giving Raisa the money since she identifies the coins by their size.
The race of the tickets in pursuit of the prices that run away from them is also reminiscent of a game. If you look at it from the outside.
The problem with the outside of things is that Genia can barely see it. She has cataracts in both eyes. They’re not sufficiently developed, the doctor explained in Hebrew as Genia’s daughter translated, and we can only operate in another two years. In the meantime take care as you walk, the glasses will only help a little.
The glasses definitely did help only a little. Genia treads carefully. She also washes the floors and toilets carefully on all her floors, the 12th to the 14th; carefully but well, nobody complains. At the end of the day she meets Raisa (15th to 17th floors). Raisa smiles at her patronizingly. Hands on hips, her arms a pair of arches joined to her body like the handles of a samovar.
‘Pick a side,’ she says.
Genia threads an arm through one of the arches. The steps leading down to the street from the IBM building form a single steep descent, and they walk down engagée, as Raisa says.
They cross the street and wait. They’re usually picked up by Pavel’s blue car that takes them to the neighborhood. But sometimes Pavel works late and then they join the group of people waiting for the bus. By the time it arrives the group is so big that it’s sucked inside with angry pressure. The last ones squeeze inside, their shoulders stopping the front door until it closes with an effort, and as he moves off the driver continues to punch monthly tickets, sell tickets, and occasionally yelling “Who hasn’t paid yet?” at the people still swaying caged between him and the door.
It was Raisa who explained to Genia what the driver was shouting. Genia guessed it for herself, but Raisa likes explaining, so Genia put on a “Aha, now I understand” look, and carried on thinking her thoughts. She thought about how tired she was, and how tired the driver probably was too. She thought that with this press of bodies he hasn’t any idea who’s paid, and Raisa could have paid for one ticket or three. She thought he has to guess the ticket dodgers the way she guesses the steps as she gets off.
Pavel, Raisa’s son, works for an insurance company in the building adjacent to IBM, the one that looks like a white ship and whose name Genia has forgotten. Raisa told her its name a long time ago, and she remembers that it’s an easy name, but Raisa said it very slowly, syllable by syllable, as if Genia were a retard, and Genia was suddenly so insulted that she forgot the name right away. The buildings stand side by side, one like a rocket on its launch pad, the other like a ship about to set sail, as if they were ready to take her to another place, and she tries to invent a place they can take her to.
Meanwhile the bus is taking her home together with Raisa, who is separated from her by a group of shoving schoolgirls. Genia listens to the driver’s radio and tries to identify words, but all she recognizes is “Shalom”, “Lebanon”, “inflation”, “Lebanon” again, and several times “Mr. Aridor”. She arrives home.
Genia’s daughter Anna, her son-in-law, and Genia are three links in a sort of food chain in which Genia is the weakest. When Genia’s son-in-law is tetchy he shouts at Anna, then Anna gets angry and shouts at Genia. Genia doesn’t shout at anyone. When she gets home, she cleans, hangs up washing, and irons clothes. When her son-in-law gets home, Genia either disappears into her room or escapes to Raisa.
“The Blue Garden”, a children’s playground whose benches, swings and slides are painted blue, is the only thing separating Genia’s building from Raisa’s. Genia crosses the playground and presses the intercom button.
Raisa’s son Pavel, her daughter-in-law, her grandson, and Raisa herself are a chain in which Raisa is the most privileged link. Raisa never raises her voice, but the furniture in the apartment was bought to her taste, meals are cooked according to her instructions, and her daughter-in-law will have another child when Raisa tells her to.
Genia is Raisa’s protégé, so her status in this apartment is firm . Whenever she comes, Raisa’s daughter-in-law stops folding laundry, asks her which jam she’d like with her tea, and waits patiently for her reply. Throughout the evening Raisa explains things to Genia. Genia listens, her expression saying, “Yes, now I understand”, even though she doesn’t really understand how she can make Anna stop being afraid that her husband is going to leave her, or answer her son-in-law that no, not only millionaires flush the toilet after just a pee, or learn Hebrew when she can’t even read a single letter.
‘Learn like me, by hearing,’ Raisa says. But Genia can’t. Her memory was always visual, she says, and now, how can she read with these eyes?
In better times Raisa’s authoritative tone might have aroused Genia, but the good times dwell in the past. Raisa’s patronage is supportive and brimming with good intentions, and support is a rare commodity in Genia’s present life. She likes visiting Raisa.
In her previous life Genia didn’t work. Her husband managed a big department store and had no difficulty providing for his family. Her days passed tranquilly. Her daughter grew up, the maid came in twice a week, and Genia devoted herself to her favorite pastime – leafing through art books. She was particularly impressed by Magritte. When Anna got married and left home, her life became even easier. The years passed with no sign of grandchildren. That was a great disappointment, but with some small consolation: leisure and an easy life continued to be Genia’s lot. One day she received a call from her husband’s department store. He had suffered cardiac arrest and died.
Genia’s husband was Russian. Now, her son-in-law said, there was nothing binding them to this benighted country. Genia and her daughter were uncertain. Genia was no longer a young woman, and her sight had started to fail. But her son-in-law made it clear that he was going to Israel, hence it was clear that Anna would be going too. Genia was left with no choice. She joined them.
The decision to live together was perhaps a mistake. She could have lived on her own in a one-room apartment, but then her daughter and son-in-law would have been entitled to only a two-room one, and her son-in-law wanted three. Now they live together in a three-room apartment, and every time her son-in-law goes into the lavatory after her, he yells that they aren’t millionaires, and she looks at Anna’s frightened face and keeps quiet. He works at the Israel Aircraft Industries till late and comes home exhausted, but he has boundless energy for calculating expenses. Every evening he asks Genia how she got home. On the days she catches the bus he is particularly ill-tempered – there’s another expense that could have been saved but for that tightwad Pavel and his overtime.
Genia retires to her room. The TV is in the living room, but she’s not wanted there. There’s no doubt about that. The only radio in the apartment is part of a stereo deck which is also in the living room. They don’t have another radio – even a small one, Genia doesn’t need a stereo deck – because they’re not millionaires. She looks out the window.
“The Blue Garden” beckons her: ‘Come, pass through me, call up on the intercom, and Raisa will welcome you’. But Genia was there yesterday, and the day before, and at the beginning of the week. After all, you can’t just drop in on people every day.
She opens a book and looks at the gray lines which once were rows of letters. She brings a magnifying glass close to the page and now each line becomes a black spring interspersed with patches of fog between its coils. She closes the book. The art books have gone, Magritte stayed in Russia. She goes to sleep. In her dreams Genia sees a huge white egg imprisoned in a cage. Sometimes the egg turns into a big gray bird that flutters against the bars and then turns white and becomes an egg again.
In the mornings they drive to work with Pavel. Raisa sits beside him, and throughout the journey explains things to him. From her place in the backseat Genia can see his face in the rearview mirror. It has a polite expression of “Yes, now I understand”. The streets pass her by as if seen through a translucent white silk scarf. As they wait at a red light the sounds of the radio are audible from the other cars. Genia listens. Again, “Mr. Aridor”, “Lebanon”, “inflation”. All the rest of the words flow like the gray lines in the book: a muted, foreign noise that means nothing.
The cataracts that have inflicted a kind of blindness on Genia have also sentenced her to a sort of deafness. She tries to divide the strip of speech into pieces, to identify words, to guess or recall their meaning. Raisa has explained the meaning of one word or another several times, but in vain. Even when she was a girl in English lessons at school, she learned solely by reading, not hearing.
As on every other morning, every now and then Raisa looks over her shoulder and smiles encouragingly at Genia in the backseat. But this morning she has some momentous news.
‘You know, Genitchka, we’re moving.’
‘Moving? Why? Where to?’
Raisa explains. A bigger apartment, a nicer area, you must admit that Holon is better than their neighborhood.
‘It’s a great opportunity, we made a quick decision, and we’ll be moving in a month,’ Raisa reports, ‘but don’t worry, we’ll still see each other at work. And you’ll still come and visit after work as if you’re still living next door, you hear?’
Throughout the month Genia hears Raisa’s stories about packing up. A sort of numbness grips her .She was always reserved, but now her isolation at home has locked her inside herself. Raisa is her only friend, and it is doubtful that they would have become friends if they hadn’t worked together and discovered they were neighbors.
Raisa’s move hit Genia like a hammer blow. Raisa, of course, would be happy to continue having her over, but who would let Genia travel to see her? When her son-in-law heard about the move he swiftly calculated the expected increase in expenses – the lift to and from work with Pavel had gone out the window! He gave Genia a reproachful look, threw his pen onto the table, and told her how much her travel would now cost.
‘We’ll have to buy you a monthly ticket, and that will just about be enough,’ he said.
Genia imagines the scene if she spent extra money on the bus journey back from Raisa’s, and she knows that her social life is over.
Meanwhile, Raisa holds training sessions for Genia’s bus journeys on her own.
‘Only the monthly ticket, so the driver doesn’t shortchange you. And take care when you’re getting on the bus, some have got two steps and some have three!’
Are you telling me, Genia thought, I’m a champion at counting steps.
‘Nobody’s going to shortchange me, I recognize the coins by their size,’ she tells Raisa with a hint of wounded pride.
On the first day after Raisa’s move, exactly on the first of the month, Genia’s alarm clock wakes her up as usual at six. But when she opens her eyes she discovers that the lampshade above her head is flying sideways at tremendous speed. So is the picture on the wall, and the window too. All that day, and all the days that followed, everything around her is spinning mercilessly, and when Genia gets up her whole body is sucked into the vortex and hurled in the direction of the mad flight. She holds onto the wall so she doesn’t fall. The doctor gives her verdict: a virus. It will pass in due course.
It passes in due course after ten days. Her son-in-law is in a dilemma – should he still buy her a monthly bus ticket? He calculates the number of journeys she has left for the month – to work and back, times the number of working days. ‘It’s not worthwhile,’ he mutters.
In the morning, for the first time without Raisa, she is waiting for the bus. By the time it arrives there are a lot of people at the stop. She mounts the steps, pressed up against the people in front of her and pushed forward by the ones behind. The bus starts off. The driver quickly plucks monthly tickets from anonymous fingers, punches them, sells tickets, gives change.
‘Who hasn’t paid yet?’ he calls every few seconds.
As usual, Genia thinks how hard it must be for him to guess who is a fare dodger. In this crush no one will know if you’ve paid for three or haven’t paid at all.
The people move inside down the aisle. Genia and another woman mount another step, the briefcase of the man behind her sticks into her back. She has no small change. She readies a bill. A chill of fear about traveling alone assails her. The safest thing would be to do everything as Raisa would have done it.
Genia proffers the bill to the driver. Raisa always says something. A certain word. Apparently the number of stops, for maybe that determines the price. Yes, well of course, she always says “Twice”.
‘Twice,’ Genia says to the driver.
The driver hands her two tickets, shoves change into her hand, and is already punching the monthly ticket of the woman beside her and the man behind her and somebody else who is invisible by the back steps.
Genia looks at the tickets, confused. While she was ill they evidently raised the prices again. She wonders by how much. But the numbers on the tickets are blurred and unclear. Only when a seat comes free and she checks her change she is astonished to discover: either the driver has given her too little, or that the price has increased by a hundred percent. She sits there hesitantly. She should go to the driver and ask him. Sure! How exactly? In which language? She looks around to see if there is anyone from Russia who might translate for her, she identifies Russians by their features. There’s a man with a rounded hard hat, he must be Russian.
But a heavy sense of shame overcomes her. She has probably made some basic mistake. Reality faces her as mysterious as a masked figure. Perhaps the cost of living index has jumped by tens of percent and everybody except her knows about it. Maybe she mistakenly identifies the coins. It would be so embarrassing. The man who must be Russian looks at her from beneath the brim of his hat as she gets off the bus.
She washes the floors on floors 12 to 14 with great care. The traces of the dizziness are still with her, threatening to throw her body down to the gleaming marble.
Raisa is not there. She called Genia two days ago and told her that her new neighbor had offered her a job: taking care of her elderly mother.
‘It’s worth my while, Genitchka,’ Raisa explained eagerly, ‘it’s right on the doorstep, I don’t have to travel anywhere, and I’m here when my grandson gets home from school. So I took it. I’ve already said goodbye to everybody at work. But we’ll carry on seeing each other, you’ll come after work with Pavlik. On your way back you’ll get the bus to La Guardia, it’s nothing, the bus stop’s right here. And from there it’s easy, all the buses go past your house.’
It’s easy, but everything’s counted with us, it’s two buses instead of one. We’re not millionaires, her son-in-law’s voice declaimed to Genia.
During their coffee break in the kitchenette, Genia examines the faces of the other cleaners. Not one of them speaks Russian, not one of them can tell her if bus fares have gone up.
‘Raisa yok!’ one of them says to Genia, and bursts into laughter that could either be friendly or gloating.
“Yok” probably means “gone” in Hebrew, Genia thinks as she waits for the bus on her way home. Her wages go directly into the joint account she holds with her daughter and her son-in-law. In her purse is the money allocated to her by her son-in-law for grocery shopping and bus fares till the end of the month. She takes out another bill.
‘Twice,’ she says to the driver, encircled by a tight ring of passengers, hoping that the morning’s episode was a one-time event.
But he hands her two tickets and change that shows a one hundred percent increase.
‘Have bus fares gone up?’ she asks her daughter.
‘What do I know? Bread’s gone up, so bus fares probably have as well,’ she replies.
Her daughter works at the neighborhood branch of a bank so she hardly ever travels by bus. On the few evenings she and her husband do go out they go in their car.
‘What do I know?’ Anna sadly repeats her question.
My Anyetchka, Genia thinks, what has become of you? You were as happy as a bird when you were a little girl.
She doesn’t dare ask her son-in-law about the prices.
The days without Raisa are lonelier than ever. Nobody speaks to Genia at work. Only the laughing cleaner says ‘Raisa yok!’ every time, and bursts into laughter.
They don’t talk a lot at home either. Her son-in-law and daughter hardly speak to one another, never mind to Genia. She finishes the housework and goes into her room, tired, numb, no longer surprised by the fare increases, gazing yearningly at “The Blue Garden”.
In her dreams a man is biting a bird with beautiful plumage, its blood dripping onto his white collar.
Every time Genia leaves work and waits for the bus, the IBM building floats above her reddish-brown, densely pierced with square windows, like a huge honeycomb taken out of its context. Now the adjacent building looks like an unraveling roll of white paper. When you look closely its shape resembles the head of a giant man.
Every time the bus draws up, Genia deliberates over getting on or waiting for Pavel. Pavel can take her to the longed-for place where she will be asked which jam she’d like with her tea, and throughout the evening Raisa will explain things to her, and Genia will listen to her with a “Yes, now I understand” expression. Genia will tell her about the frightened look in her daughter’s eyes when, on particularly cold days, her son-law catches her washing dishes in hot water. Raisa will tell her to be careful as she walks down the stairs. Genia…
But here her son-in-law’s precise calculations and the dwindling monthly allotment surface in her mind. She imagines the ructions that will erupt if it transpires that she has made unnecessary journeys.
She gets on the bus.
‘Twice,’ she says to the driver, and goes home.
*From “Children’s Mate” by Bella Shaier, 2011, Hakibbutz-Hameuchad Ltd.
*Translation copyright ©2015 by Bella Shaier and Hakibbutz-Hameuchad Ltd.