Facelift for a Fisherman’s Hovel

Fisherman Reuven (2)

The following is a sequel to the story “Fisherman Reuven” written by Joe Jaffe and published on Szirine in 2004. Read them separately for a literary delight, together for literary theater!

Beneath my house in the ancient Port of Jaffa, there is a great barrel-vaulted room in which Reuven the fisherman lived and worked. He was a colorful character, wise and knowledgeable, though I doubt if he could read. We were neighbors for more than twenty years, and during that time we developed a tangled love-hate relationship.

I supplied him with electricity from an outlet on my balcony. He needed it, so he said, to provide a small light for mending his nets at night. But he abused my generosity and connected up a refrigerator, heater and a cooker, thereby overloading the circuit. There were endless arguments over the electricity, and there were periods during which I took punitive action and disconnected it altogether.

In hindsight I know that this was unfair, because Reuven provided me with a regular supply of fresh fish and seafood.

Anyway, all that is in the past. Reuven is no longer with us. His death, ten years ago, was sudden. Sitting on a stool outside his door, he had been holding forth to me and a couple of other idlers. I can’t remember what it was about, except that he was working himself up, and shouting. In mid-sentence he stopped, fell forward and lay sprawled face down on the ground. An ambulance with a team of medics arrived within minutes, and the doctor pronounced him dead.

The funeral was well attended. There was a slew of Reuven’s relatives, many who bore a striking resemblance to him. It was eerie to be following the hearse in the company of a collection of Reuven look-alikes.

After a short period of mourning, Reuven’s son, Gadi took over the room below, and continued to fish in the manner of his father. Except that he did not actually live in the port. Having acquired a basic education and having progressed socially, he chose to live with his family in an apartment some distance away. But he arrived every morning at the crack of dawn, and went about the age-old daily routine, mending nets, fishing and long sessions of lounging about.

I did not get along with Gadi, and in the past we had barely exchanged a word. There was a thaw after Reuven died during which I offered condolences and reminisced, but relations quickly reverted to the cool and the distant. He did not invite me for coffee, and there were no gifts of fish. Having installed his own electricity, he was not in need of mine.

Apart from the occasional curt greeting, there was no contact between us.

* * * * * *

Reuven had always implied that the room, where he had lived and worked, belonged to him. It transpired however that Reuven and one of his many brothers owned it in equal parts. Years ago the two had fished together. When the brother had died before Reuven, his son Sam inherited his half. Now, after Reuven’s death, Gadi and Sam were the joint owners.

The cousins are different in appearance and in temperament. Gadi, lean and wiry, has always been a dedicated fisherman. Sam, on the other hand, was never really interested in fishing. He is heavily built, with a large prematurely bald head that enhances an image of obesity. Perhaps he was physically ill-equipped to hop in and out of small boats, and in general to undertake the tasks of a fisherman. But for whatever reason, when Sam’s father died, Sam left the port and opened a fish shop in Jaffa town. He made a lot of money, and was fond of showing it off, dressing ostentatiously and driving around in a large fancy automobile. Gadi criticized Sam’s showy life-style, and Sam in turn ridiculed Gadi for the primitive life he led.

About three months after Reuven had met his maker, Sam appeared unexpectedly in the port and claimed his half of the property. It was not that he had suddenly taken an interest in fishing. He wanted to turn the place into a weekend pad, where he could spend time with his pals, picnicking and sunbathing on the quay by the water’s edge.

Not surprisingly, the idea horrified Gadi and he objected violently. An argument developed between the cousins that continued in installments for weeks. I heard nothing about all this from Gadi, but one day Sam buttonholed me and poured out his heart.

‘He’s like an animal,’ he tugged at my shirtsleeve and thrust his face an inch from my ear. ‘He lives there in all that shit. Stinking shit! He says that’s how he likes it, and won’t let me clean it up a bit.’

I found myself supporting Gadi.

‘Look Sam, he’s doing the job he and Reuven always did. Why should he agree to changes? He is happy with things as they are.’

Sam turned his head to the heavens and rolled his eyes.

He dismissed my argument with a wave.

‘Let him fish, the moron. But why can’t he throw out some of the junk and clean up a little? Okay. Reuven didn’t know any better, but he..he’s been to school, hasn’t he? All I want is to make the place a bit more comfortable. I want to put in a lavatory. No! Not even that. He wants to keep on living like a pig.’

There seemed to be no way of resolving the issue. They owned that room in equal parts, and neither could outvote the other. Gadi argued that he and his father had been using it as a workplace for decades, during which time Sam had shown no interest. Sam said that Gadi should have been grateful to have had the use of a room that was only half his. They resorted to shouting matches that could be heard far and wide, and of course in my house above them.

Eventually they wore each other down, and they came to a surprising agreement. I couldn’t believe my ears when Sam came running to tell me about it. Later I laughed my head off.

They decided to divide the room down the middle. They would paint a white line to mark the boundary between the halves. Gadi would have the southern and Sam the northern half, and they would try to keep out of each other’s hair.

* * * * * *

The room contained a great mass of junk that had been accumulating over the years. In spite of all the bitter quarrelling, Sam pitched in and helped his cousin tackle the Herculean job of shifting it all to his half. But even Gadi conceded that a lot would have to be thrown away. They got rid of the old rowboat that had been disintegrating in the bowels of the room for a generation. The thing was so rotten that it could not be moved in one piece. They tore away the crumbling tarpaulin and carted out the jumbled contents. Then they broke up the hull and removed it bit by bit. I was there for part of the time, and I helped myself to a dozen beautiful hollow green glass balls which in the old days were used as floats, sewn in the nets. (Nowadays, it’s all ugly plastic.)

Sam set about cleaning up his half of the room. He leveled the floor and tiled it. He put in a kitchen and washroom, with a much-needed lavatory. Then he added a bar and a dining corner with a fine table and half a dozen upholstered chairs.

All this took several weeks, during which time Gadi got used to Sam’s presence. It helped matters that Gadi gradually threw away more and more of the useless junk around him. As a result he had space to spare, and found his half-room large enough for his needs.

Neither side felt it necessary to build an actual partition. They became accustomed to being side by side in their contrasting settings. To me, the sight of them close together, ignoring each other, was quite comical.

When all was ready, on a Saturday morning – the Sabbath day of rest – Sam entertained a couple of friends for coffee and biscuits. Avigdor is a retired fishmonger, a burly giant who looks as if he would crush anything he picked up in his mighty mitts. In fact he is a gentle soul. He handles his coffee mug as if he is taking tea in a fashionable drawing room. The second guest was a well-known character in the port – though I never knew his name – a thin wheezy chap who divides his time between drinking vodka and doing odd jobs around the boats.

Little did this trio realize that they were founding a veritable institution. Ever since, they have been meeting on Saturday mornings, rain or shine. Their numbers grew to a dozen or so, and the menu evolved steadily beyond coffee and biscuits into something that was gastronomically awe-inspiring.

Getting ready for the weekly meal became a lengthy and complex business. Sam no longer deigned to be involved with the mundane tasks. He delegated the jobs to Avigdor, who set the table, and piled it with food and drink. He also dragged out the charcoal grill, for cooking mountains of fish and meat. Sam himself put in a regal appearance later, when serious eating was well under way.

They always got started quite early, well before I was awake, and they continued to stuff themselves steadily until midday.

Occasionally Gadi made an appearance while the eating was in full swing. He did not go fishing on the Sabbath day, and he too came to the port for relaxation. He settled at a small table of his own, often with a few friends, and tucked in to a modest sandwich. There was absolutely no contact between the cousins. They ignored each other entirely. I sometimes felt sorry for Gadi, who looked pathetic sitting at the bare table, nibbling his meager fare. On the other hand it could be that he showed himself in full view of Sam’s party, as an act of defiance. Not that the guzzlers took any notice of him.

But I was full of admiration for Sam and his pals. They kept it up over the years with iron determination. They did not miss a single Saturday since these meals started. The event indeed became a veritable institution.

* * * * * *

Recently I was walking past Sam’s breakfast table while they were all eating away. He begged me to stay for a tasty morsel with a glass of arrack. He often invited me to join them, and I usually managed to decline without causing offence. But this time he was insistent, and I reckoned that a refusal would muddy our relationship.

Rather than sitting me at the table, he dragged a couple of chairs to the water’s edge. I realized later that he wanted to be out of earshot of the others. Avigdor dutifully brought us food and drink. We sat nibbling and enjoying the scene. It was clear that Sam had a purpose in extending his hospitality to me, but by time honored Middle-Eastern custom, his talk was casual and lengthy before he came to the point. Eventually Sam broached the business on hand.

‘These breakfasts are my life, y’know. Started as a lark, but I live for them nowadays.’

‘Well, Sam,’

I wanted him to know how much I admired the way he and his friends had made a success of their weekly event.

‘I must say I take my hat off to you for keeping it up like this. Your breakfasts are famous. They have become part of the Saturday scene in the port.’

This prompted Sam to tell me at length about the effort he had to make to keep his institution going. He said:

‘It’s a lot of work, y’know. Menu’s different every week. Everybody must bring what I say. Full time job to get them organized, I can tell you. Thank god for Avigdor. Runs around and keeps ’em all in line. Mind you, he has nothing else to do.’

I asked:

‘What, don’t you prepare everything on the spot? Tell me, if your guests have to bring the food along with them, why did you bother to fix up that fancy kitchen?’

He drew nearer, lowered his voice and I could feel him spitting on my cheek:

‘Well y’see, there’s a problem. I can heat up the stuff they bring but I can’t keep much here because I don’t have a refrigerator.’

‘What, no refrigerator?’ I was surprised. ‘Why?’ I asked.

It was beginning to dawn upon me what all this was all about. Could it be that history was repeating itself?

‘Well you see,’ Sam was coming to the point. ‘I don’t have electricity in there. Gadi won’t let me use his. That’s his way of taking revenge on me. Spiteful pig. The company won’t connect separate lines to the place. Two different names at one address, you see.’

I didn’t see. Surely this was a formal difficulty that could be sorted out. But I knew that I must resign myself to the inevitable. Sam followed through with his request.

‘D’ye think I could plug in up there? Don’t need much for a refrigerator.’

Jerking his head in the direction of his guzzling pals, he added:

‘They’ll all say thank you.’

How could I refuse? So I gave a slight nod, thanked Sam for the snack and made my way home. I looked over my shoulder and saw Avigdor following me up the steps to my door with a hank of cable in his hand.

‘Coming to plug this in.’ He said.

I felt I had lost control. In contrast to this request, Reuven’s of twenty years ago for electricity to “mend his nets at night”, was modest indeed. I was being asked to power a refrigerator. And whereas Reuven at least supplied me with delicious fish, I would now be receiving dishes from Sam’s table, gifts I didn’t want.

As a matter of fact, things did get out of hand. Avigdor would ring my bell with samples of what, down below on the breakfast table, were considered to be delectable dishes – Baked stuffed vegetables, steamed fish and grilled meats – all too highly spiced for my palate. I threw most of it away. Then there was the problem of returning the crockery. At first I added a token gift such as a bar of chocolate. This led to a larger and more elaborate offering the next time. So I then felt obliged to return the dishes with something more substantial. (I think I packed in a box liqueur sweets.) After further rounds of crazy escalation, both sides concluded that this nonsense had to stop. So it stopped.

* * * * *

Reuven had lived a simple life in the fisherman’s hovel beneath my house. I liked him as a neighbour, watching him as he went about his fishing, disposing of the catch, and holding forth with wily worldly wisdom.

I look back on those years with warmth and affection. There was a bond between Reuven and myself. I recall in particular sitting with him over coffee, communing but talking little. Although I am full of admiration for Sam’s breakfast circle, and although the fare is vastly more elaborate than Reuven’s simple cups of coffee, I feel that something of human value is lost and missing.

These days it is Gadi who is carrying the flag. For the time being he continues to be a fisherman. But he is fishing less. Sam, I think, is corrupting him. It won’t be long, I fear, before Gadi follows in his cousin’s footsteps and decides to convert his half of the room for leisure use. When that happens I should not be surprised if they were to join forces, rub out that white dividing line and together give the whole place a thorough facelift.

Fisherman Reuven (1)

May 2nd, 2005 by