The King of Pilchards


George Wilson had decided that he would not be known as George Wilson for the duration of his stay in the Holy land. No, for this long-anticipated chapter of his life, he woud be denoted by the grand appellation of Aharon Yosef Markowitz.

As the aeroplane circled, he took in the bright lights of the Tel Aviv beach front, before dawn. “Eh, I tell you what”, he thought to himself, “this is alright, this is. I’ll have some of that. That’ll do me, that will.”

At the airport, he was met by Miriam Greenberg, from the Chovevei Zion group. They had been in contact for several months. Pleasantries exchanged, she drove him off to his new, temporary home – a nice flat with Kibbutz Irony, in the middle of Sderot.

She introduced him to a few of the kibbutzniks, who were sitting having breakfast in the dining room.

This is Tamar, v’Fanya, v’Shuli, oo’Ariel, v’Shlomi, v’Klinkov.”

Na’im meod, na’im meod, na’im meod . . .

They were all top people – sound as a pound.

After he’d had a coffee and a bowl of cornflakes with his new chaverim, Miriam took him up to the flat. They unpacked his things, and sat down to discuss his programme of activities. Their conversation was quickly cut short, though, by the bane of all Sderotis’ existences – the rocket alarm –

tseva adom, tseva adom . . . tseva adom, tseva adom . . .

Miriam got down under the kitchen table in the corner.

Oh well, that’s bloody marvellous” groaned George, “I’ve only just fucking sat down.”

They heard a huge crash as the qassam landed in the street, a few doors down. It actually landed in old Mrs Balagayev’s garden, creating a huge crater in the middle of the lawn, and – with curious comic finesse – taking the head clean off one of her garden gnomes. It’s fair to say that she wasn’t best pleased about it. In fact, it pissed her right off.

You know” proffered Miriam, “you do actually have to move when the alarm sounds. It’s pretty useless otherwise.”

After the excitement died down, they got back down to business.

Now” explained Miriam, “this part of Sderot, where Kibbutz Irony moved two years ago, is mainly a Kafkazi neighbourhood, these days. Before that, it was an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood. Before that, it was a Moroccan neighbourhood. Before that, it was a cactus with a little dog.”

How fascinating.”

You might still run into a few ultra-Orthodoxes around here. Actually, some of them are more like ultra-ultra-Orthodox.”

How ultra, exactly?”

One of them ran off to join Hizbollah.”

Life was very stressful in Sderot – and not just because of the rocket attacks, but because of the political situation generally. It seemed that a crack team of Iranian-backed biologists were busy in Gaza, breeding a super-gorilla, fifty storeys high. When he was fully grown, they were going to get him to do a giant shit on the whole town. A lot of Western Middle East experts insisted that the threat was overhyped, though, pointing out that a lot hinged on the interpretation of the Farsi verb ‘to do a shit on’ – which could just mean ‘fart in the general direction of’, a traditional Persian gesture of disdain since pre-Islamic times.

For all that, George considered that he was settling in very nicely. Miriam suggested that he take a walk around the neighborhood on his first full day, to familiarise himself with the place. So, there he was, with his baseball cap and his sunglasses – feeling like a proper sabra.

It was a nice day – hot, but not too hot, as the locals described it (by English standards, it was fucking scorching). George enjoyed a pleasant stroll, dutifully reapplying his sun cream every twenty minutes or so. When he decided to go home to the kibbutz, though, he found that he had a problem. He was quite sure that he’d located the right neighbourhood, but he was proper lost all the same, big style, in a maze of little streets and alleys. Dusty streets, heavily populated with a bustling society of cats and dogs and little kids.

Luckily for George, a taxi happened to be coming down the road, just in front of him. He waved frantically, successfully flagging it down.

Where to?” asked the cabbie, a distinguished fellow with an elaborate moustache.

Do you know Rekhov Ben Yehuda? I could have sworn it was around here somewhere.”

I don’t know it” said the cabbie, pulling out, “but we find it. Is not a problem.”

I’m staying there with Kibbutz Irony, if that helps.”

Kibbutz Irony?” bellowed the cabbie, “those nogoodnik hippie bastards! You get out of my cab right now!”

Thus rudely disposed of, George continued on his unhappy way, starting out once more upon the circuitous meandering with which he’d been preoccupied for an hour or more.

This is ridiculous” he said to himself, “I gotta get some lateral thinking going here.”

It was a pleasant evening; lots of families were out having barbecues, some of them blasting out Arabic music and having a wee dance while they were at it. But from where George was standing, any vicarious pleasantness was fast wearing thin. He was dog-tired, and downright fed up.

Talking of dogs, a big nasty one came rushing out of a garden, and took up a confrontational position right in front of him. Growling militantly. Baring his teeth.

Show no fear, show no fear” thought George, continuing cautiously.

But he did show fear, and the dog, smelling it, went for him. George belted it, as fast as his chunky little legs could carry him. Just as the dog was bearing down upon him, a sudden, familiar sound blared out all around them:

tseva adom, tseva adom . . . tseva adom, tseva adom . . .

George dived for cover, and the dog, jumping ferociously at him, was cut down mid-flight by the qassam, which, hitting him straight in the head, killed him instantly.

Eyzeh nes!” cried a fat, observant type with a peg-leg, hobbling out of his garden, “fuck me, though, that just goes to show you. If you were a Zionist, it would have been you the rocket hit, not the dog. But HaShem in his wisdom, he separates the sacred from the secular, the righteous from the backsliding twat – ”

Wait a minute” interrupted George, “are you trying to tell me that that poor chelev” – mustering all of his throatiness – “was a Zionist? And since when was ‘zionist’ a dirty word in Israel?”

Zeh lo ‘chelev’, zeh kelev, you stupid tit” corrected the personage, “and don’t try splitting hairs with me, by the way – I’m a Talmudist for forty-five years, I’ll run circles around you, you stupid American turd.”

Eventually, George was discovered wandering the streets by Klinkov, and was taken back to the kibbutz – which, a simple left turn away that he’d somehow neglected to notice, was about two minutes from where he was standing.

George raved and gibbered in the communal dining room for about fifty minutes, and had to be treated with smelling salts and Kinneret sardines.


A few days later, George was in the kitchen getting a coffee, and having a chat with Shlomi.

So, how are you getting on in Sderot?” asked the amiable chaver, whose fearsome radical politics were offset by a keen and irrepressible sense of humour.

Good, I have to say” said George, “although I’ll tell you one thing – I’ve noticed that my farts smell different in Israel.”

Come again?”

You know, when I drop one. It’s richer, meatier, somehow.”

Well, of course it is. You’re farting for God now.”

Jocular references to God abounded in the strictly secular community. They threw that stuff around almost as much as the Orthodox cats (albeit it to rather different ends).

And how do you like the qassams?” continued Shlomi, “they got you rattled yet?”

Well, it is a bit of a new thing for me, I must say. You know, I’ve never been in such close proximity with so many people who wanted to kill me – not since secondary school, anyway.”

Shlomi was still in grad school, and had spent the last several years trying to lay his thesis to rest. Between his kibbutz and family responsibilities – and the courses he had to teach to keep things together – it didn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon.

So, what kind of stuff do you teach over at Ben Gurion?” asked George.

Oh, I do a couple of courses in Bullshit Studies. And Leftism 101.”

Really? They do all that stuff in Israeli universities too?”

Oh, hell yeah. It’s all the rage. Hey, what’s that on your arm?”

He was referring to a couple of ripe bruises that George had apparently acquired on his travels.

Oh” demurred George enigmatically, “qassam.”

What do you mean, ‘qassam’?”

Well, you remember the tseva adom yesterday? I was out working in the garden, and a piece of debris from Mr Milinkin’s wall hit my arm.”

I don’t believe that for a second. I haven’t seen you do a stroke of work since you got here.”

Meanwhile, Ariel was up to something. For years, the hyperactive youth had worked part time at the kupat cholim, saving up his shekels for God knows what. And now came the denouement.

Everyone heard the roar of the engine as proudly, regally, young Ariel – that same klutzy, simple-minded Ariel – rode triumphantly down Rekhov Ben Yehuda, on a brand new Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R. He took off his helmet and peeled off his leathers – waved at the assembling crowd of children and domestic animals. All of the neighbourhood’s men were drawn, zombie-like, out of their houses.

Nice wheels!” cried Shlomi, awestruck, running out of the dining hall with George.

Eh, I tell you what” said George, “that’s alright, that is. That’s a top bike.”

So beautiful was the shining new chariot that one of the local kelevs ran over and tried to shag it.

And is it really yours?” asked Klinkov.

One hundred percent” beamed Ariel, “I saw it at the dealership years ago, and I said to myself, ‘one day, Arik, one fine day.’ And now, finally, here it is.”

Well” said Shlomi, slapping him on the back, “fair play to you mate, that’s all I can say.”

They couldn’t stand there admiring it for long, though. While a dog pissed contentedly on one of Shuli’s chickens, the sound of the rocket alarm filled the air once more. Taking refuge behind the reinforced wall of the communal kibbutz building, all of the kibbutzniks witnessed, with drab inevitability, the bathetic spectacle of the qassam homing in magnetically on the Ninja, and smashing it to smithereens.

Oy, chaval!” wailed Tamar.

Those motherfuckers” shuddered Klinkov.

But Ariel remained calm, eerily silent. He paced around the street impassively for a whole five minutes, before coolly announcing, “I’ll get them for this” – and retiring to his parents’ house.

Through it all, the surreal sight of the Sderot blimp floated cheerfully over the palm-specked skyline.


The bedroom in my apartment is like an echo chamber” enthused George, “you should hear it when I fart, lying on the bed – it bounces right off the walls, it’s well wicked.”

That’s nice” said Fanya, leafing through a magazine, “hey, it says hear that studies have shown that men with deep voices father more children, because women find them more sexually appealing.”

Oh well, that does me a lot of good” squeaked George, “that’s just what I need to fucking hear, that is.”

Tamar and Shlomi were busy putting the finishing touches on lunch, while some of the other kibbutzniks were already milling around the dining room. There was a big salad, a nice bowl of chatsilim, plenty of hummus, olives and cheese, and challa. Top drawer. Back of the net. Get in there.

People were all keeping an eye on Ariel, but he seemed fine – just a little quieter than usual, a bit withdrawn.

After lunch, George retired to his quarters. It was a pleasant afternoon, so he decided to sit out on the balcony and peruse The Mill on the Floss. He was just getting to the bit where Tom is doing his nut over Euclid, when the tseva adom sounded. He was quite engrossed, though, so he didn’t bother moving.

The qassam whistled past his earhole and landed nose-down with a thud, right in the middle of the rekhov. He flung the book aside and jumped to his feet.

Will you fuck off with that!?!” he yelled out towards Gaza.

Bloody bastards” he hear Ariel shout from inside his garage. He was working hard on some kind of project in there, but he wouldn’t tell anyone what he was up to.


Fast forward a few weeks, and the children are busy decorating the the large and impressive sukkah that now stands proudly outside George’s flat. The cats are yowling, the construction workers down the road are drilling away, and the kelevs are making their opinions – which are varied and fulsome – known to the community at large. It is not a propitious atmosphere in which to imbibe the riches of the nineteenth-century masters.

Fanya was trying to impress upon some of the older children the human significance of Sukkoth – but strictly, only the human significance. Since he’d been living with Irony, George had started to feel a bit sorry for God. I mean, he’d barely got a look-in on Yom Kippur, for fuck’s sake. And when the big man’s not invited to the High Holy Days, let’s face it, he’s in trouble.

Such musings were cut short by the creaky sound of Ariel opening up the garage. Dumbfounded, George watched from his balcony as the youngster wheeled out on a pallet a gigantic wooden contraption that he’d evidently been obsessively building, ever since the destruction of his beautiful motorbike.

He rushed downstairs to join the other men in close scrutiny of Ariel’s invention. It was a kind of catapult – big, sturdily constructed, and clearly immensely powerful. Also on the pallet was a sealed barrel; Ariel wouldn’t say what was inside it.

Li’Aza, chaverim, li’Aza” was all that he would say, until they’d loaded up the contraption on the back of Idan the gardener’s big truck, and headed out to the edge of town, to the best vantage point for the Strip that they could find. They drove to the end of the last neighbourhood, and up to the top of a hill on Sderot’s western frontier, where the last of the winding road gave way to a dull dirt track. From atop the hill, they could see the simple fence that stood as the sole barrier between Israel and the Hamas-controlled territory. Close to the border was a small kibbutz, and the friends could also make out an Israeli patrol, pootling around.

Right” said Ariel, “you load them, and I’ll fire them.”

Shlomi unsealed the barrel, revealing, to his amazement . . . hundreds and hundreds of pilchards! George and Klinkov scooped them up by the armful, and looked on like proud uncles as Ariel’s fantastic machine lobbed them clear over the fence, all the way down to the streets of Gaza City. The IDF guys could only gaze skywards in wonder, as fish after wet, smelly fish flew gracefully over their heads. In interviews for the press, they would swear that they could clearly hear cries of “Hey!”, “Bloody hell!” and “Knock it off!”, carried over the border on the Mediterranean breeze.

From that day forward, Ariel was regaled throughout all Ha’aretz with chants of “Arik, Arik, melekh ha’piltzardim” – for he sent pilchards to Gaza.

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