Sara Dowse’s As the Lonely Fly (For Pity Sake Publishing) is an epic story of persecution, migration and dispersal during tumultuous events in the 20th Century. Three Russian-Jewish women take three very different paths after the fall of the tsar: Clara, the revolutionary, becomes Chava in Palestine where she joins the legendary G’dud Ha’Avodah, the socialist Labour Battalion. Her younger sister Manya heads for America, changing her name to Marion in a bid to fulfil her dream of being an actor. Their niece, Zipporah, a committed Zionist, hides from the Soviet secret police until she convinces Clara to help her get to Palestine. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1.
She hadn’t expected to find anyone else at the cemetery. She saw him standing near another grave not far from her and she took it as an intrusion, an invasion of her privacy. Even as she felt this she knew it to be unreasonable but there it was, all the same.
Jetlagged as she was she had come straight from the airport, catching the bus and leaving her bags at the reception desk and walking on wobbly landlegs to Leslie’s grave. The sun was a smear of pink to the west and there was a nip in the air and she wasn’t dressed for autumn. She still wore the lightweight linen suit that had seen her through the hottest days in Israel.
The old man, however, had the weather well in mind. He had a woollen scarf wrapped around his neck, and a heavy grey winter coat several sizes too big for him dragged from his narrow shoulders. And he wore a fedora. She hadn’t seen a hat like that since George Raft stopped getting leads in pictures. Waving plumes of snow-white hair stuck out from under the brim, and he stood there, arms akimbo, the coat bunched up below his elbows, gazing at the pink-lit Palisades on the Jersey side of the river. But for a glance, he hadn’t even acknowledged her presence. Still, she felt inhibited by his being there. She wanted to talk to Leslie. She hadn’t realised just how much she wanted to until she was on the plane flying that long flight home.
She took a few steps towards the grave, stooped to pull out weeds, and when she looked up the old man was gone.
Years before, when she was still in love with him, she had surprised him in their apartment with a man. The two of them, in their bed. She couldn’t have been more shocked if she had seen him murdering someone or stealing money or slipping an emerald necklace off some dowager’s crepy neck. Yes, he’d been drinking again and heavily, but this … this was out of her ken. She’d been working again but sporadically – commercials and daytime soaps, that sort of thing – and had come home in the middle of the day, tired and dispirited, imagining taking a drink herself, if drinking did what people said it did. But she walked into the bedroom instead.
That night he apologised, and explained it to her. ‘It only comes over me now and then.’ It was the booze, he said. ‘The booze will kill you,’ she said, and it had.
But she never forgot that strange afternoon, the way the orange light had glowed from the west, leaking through the drawn drapes, dancing on the walls as she dropped her coat on the bed, before she saw them and they became conscious of her, and how quickly they had flung themselves apart. How she wanted to run but couldn’t, and the shock and the hurt were unimaginable, but seconds later, it must have been seconds, she had walked out of the room and out of the apartment and crossed the avenue and sat for hours on a bench in the park.
He didn’t even know the guy’s name. (Small, greasy brown hair, smooth skin, low rectangular forehead.) Nor did she know if there were any others. She had opened a door and just as quickly slammed it. They were buddies before they were lovers and no matter what happened that is what counted. Even now, with him lying years cold in the grave, she had so much to tell him. There was no seat, and she couldn’t afford to ruin her skirt so she squatted next to the pale granite headstone and shed a few quiet tears for them both. There were flowers on some of the graves, hanging on till the weekend – asters, daisies, hothouse gladioli and roses – and the faintly putrescent scent of them tangled with the smell of the river and the sycamore leaves trodden into the grass. Crickets had started up singing. They called it the summer of flowers, and she’d missed it. And she had never once, in all those years, brought flowers to Leslie’s grave.
What she brought were words. Lines. Lines from the plays, from the blue books she kept of scenes from them: Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, Sheridan, and in the later ones, Shaw and Chekhov and O’Neill. Miller, Odets. If she felt he had missed something special, like the president’s assassination or the riots down in Alabama or Arthur Penn’s movies, she talked to him about them, there on the windy hill, and her voice would carry as it always did, so she wouldn’t do it with anyone else around. And she paused now and then, as if she were waiting for his thoughts on these things – how the theatre was being overshadowed by television and the movies, and radio had nothing much but music on it now, with incomprehensible lyrics. What would he say to The Twilight Zone’s folding, or Penn’s raw expressionism? And part of it, she wouldn’t kid herself here, was that she wanted to crawl right inside him, crossing that boundary, forcing herself to understand. The door had slammed shut but that didn’t stop the whiff of it, that part of him, from seeping through the cracks. It was what inspired her, wasn’t it, following the whiff of a character?
A chill passed through her. Was that all he was, a character? As if there remained some shard of ice inside her. Cold? Some had said so. But she never could talk to them, dead or alive. Had never even tried. Maybe because they really scarcely knew her, and poor, suave, mysterious Leslie did.
In gratitude then. A performance. She might start with that kibbutz, its pompous secretary. ‘Would you believe, a secretary?’ And the sexy guy who served them – ‘Uzi, like the machine gun…’
There were ripples on the river, ruffling the cliff’s reflection, the sky all mauve now, tinging on violet, streaks of lemon yellow. The ground beneath the trees spongy in parts with mulching leaves; the wind chased the dry ones about. In the far distance, the bridge and the city.
But most of all, the estimable Zipporah. ‘Forbidding’ – with the untouched grey and no-nonsense stride. But over the month she had warmed to her. ‘I’m not sure you’d like her, though. You’d find her very opinionated and she didn’t have anything good to say about the British. You’d expect that, of course, from someone who had happily risked her life smuggling in refugees.’
So how would she play it? ‘A couple of middle-aged broads schlepping across the country, from Dan to Beersheba, as the good book would have it. A tremendous achievement – you have to hand it to them.’ Israel, that brave new country, feisty. But how would she convey her feelings? The warmth of history enveloping her, warm as Leslie’s all too perfidious arms. She had heard it once said that a good actress was able to convey a range of emotions, a great one only one. That would put her in the first camp, indubitably. The problem of ambiguity.
‘Yes, and Clara was everywhere. Clara, with her wit and her seriousness and impossible hair. Who chopped it all off and refashioned herself. Clara. Chava. There she was, on the side of the road from Haifa to Tiberias, in the shade of the olive trees at Ramat Rahel. On those bare rocky hills, I saw her. Even without Zipporah nudging me I would have felt her. And heard what she’d been trying to say to me. But that’s just the point, my darling one. That is the point, exactly.’
The novel will be launched on 24 June at Gleebooks in Sydney. Click here for details.