I’ve been rummaging around in the attic, looking for newspaper cuttings, photographs and other memorabilia in connection with a memoir I am writing (84,000 words and counting!).
Delving into the past takes a lot of time, as you probably know from your own experiences. Old letters and articles demand to be read, photograph albums soak up hours like a sponge. Occasionally, however, something triggers memories you thought were gone forever.
Having barely stirred from the house for over a year, and with foreign travel not back on the agenda, the torn and faded carbon copy of an old article took me to a place and time I recall with joy.
I thought you, too, might enjoy a brief break from our current situation, not to mention the bitter weather, as you read what I wrote almost 60 years ago.
Travel, they say, enables one to meet interesting people. It is a cliché but, as it happens, I have met interesting people. This is the story of one of them.
We met in a hole in the ground, on the fringe of the Negev Desert. It was a hole called ‘The End of the World Club’ and a wedding reception was being held in it.
The extremely pregnant cook at the hotel had finally got round to saying yes (clearly not for the first time) to the man who either tended the gardens or ran the motorboat, depending on the time of day and the state of his hangover. The hotel was called The Queen of Sheba, the place was Eilat and, then, it was as far south as you could go in Israel without crossing a border and being shot dead.
Through the gloom of the hole, which had apparently begun as a simple cellar and spiralled out of control, I saw a burly, bearded man who looked not unlike Ernest Hemingway. He was talking to the only person I knew, and both of them waved me over for a drink and some conversation.
The bearded man turned out to be called Oscar, something-or-other, and I was told that he was quite a character.
When anyone tells you that someone is quite a character it pays to be cautious, so I was wary of Oscar something-or-other. This was my mistake, for I should have saved my caution for the group of young hearties who led the late-evening conversation round to the subject of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia, leading me to admit an enthusiasm for such wide open spaces.
The details of the conversation are blurred (now there’s a surprise), but I must have said something impressive, for they turned up at the door of my hotel room just after dawn, to take me out on a border patrol.
How was I to know they were an Army lieutenant and four of his men? Nobody wears uniforms to a wedding reception in a hole in the ground. Not in Eilat, anyway.
But I must get back to Oscar. In fact, I did get back to him after that early morning trip into the Negev.
The sun had climbed almost halfway across the washed-out blue of the sky, and the surface of the Red Sea shimmered and glittered through the heat haze above the beach.
A searing hot wind was sweeping from the Sinai foothills to send dust dancing in swift circles round the stubby legs of the water pump, its nodding head dipping and rising in a slow, hypnotic tempo.
Oscar told me his story as we sat in the hotel bar, drinking cold beers that didn’t touch the sides on their way down.
His name was Oscar Friedman. Grey of hair and beard, and gruff of voice, his stubby fingers constantly rubbed up and down his faded khaki shorts, or plucked at the rough blue shirt he wore.
He first appeared in Eilat, then a jumble of fishermen’s shacks, in 1954, informing anyone who cared to listen that he was going to be a beachcomber.
Nobody knew how he arrived. He could have come by boat from Akaba, but that is most unlikely. I think he got a lift down from Beersheba, or even further north, with a friendly lorry driver.
Oscar was a beachcomber with a difference. Not only did he speak fluent Hebrew, French, German, Italian and English, but he arrived with a score of boxes, bags and suitcases containing, among other things, nearly 200 white shirts, half a dozen sets of evening clothes, and several gallons of French wine. (It must have been a large lorry.)
He explained that at one time he had been a croupier in the casinos of France and Italy and the white shirts and evening suits were his working clothes. As for the wine, beachcombing can be thirsty work.
After building a hut on the shore, Friedman spent a lot of time wandering around the nearby hills and exploring the beaches of the Gulf. He went out with local fishermen and took to scuba diving among the coral reefs.
And then he began talking about what was going to happen to this tiny town when the tourists came – in particular the big-spending Americans.
They thought him mad, of course, because people still carried guns and lived with the constant tension of the border – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan all being on the doorstep. The Jordan border was marked by a high wire-mesh fence which ran into the sea, just a couple of hundred yards along the beach from the hotel.
Oscar knew what he was talking about, for the tourists started coming to Eilat, and had been doing so for a little while when I turned up to look at this brand-new spot on the holiday map. I suspect my visit was someone’s idea of a joke, for officials of foreign Tourism Ministries are forever trying to prove that they, too, share the English love of irony.
So there was Oscar, sitting pretty. When the tourist flights arrived from Tel Aviv, it was Oscar who waited at the airstrip to greet them. It was in one of Oscar’s buses, often with Oscar sitting up front, that they drove out to the breathtaking King Solomon’s Mines, where he would explain to overawed folk from Middle America that on this very spot King Solomon met the Queen of Sheba.
He didn’t mention that the visit was probably to negotiate an arms deal, so they thought it all ‘wunnerful’, even more so when he told them about the navy King Solomon built nearby (it’s all in the Book of Kings).
Oscar the beachcomber had become Oscar the travel entrepreneur, with his tour buses and a couple of glass bottomed boats. It had all worked out as he had predicted, and life was treating him very well.
But one thing did bother him. He knew that, as time passed, his many shirts were worn out, or borrowed and never returned. He knew the evening suits fell into shreds and that all the wine was drunk.
However, one hot afternoon he returned to his hut on the beach to find he had been robbed. He told me of this and then, passing out more cold beers and shrugging his wide shoulders, posed the one question to which he does not have the answer.
Who, in Eilat, could possibly have wanted twenty empty suitcases?