All Stories, General Fiction

Volunteer by David Patten

So is it true, the girl with electric blue hair began in mock contemplation, that toilets flush the other way in New Zealand?  She set a half empty bottle of Carlsberg on the bar and looked at Connor, her face all anticipation.  Connor was absorbed in pulling the perfect pint of Guinness.  Not the first time he’d been asked this.  The brew settled, he removed the excess foam with the deft swipe of a plastic spatula and placed the beer on a coaster in front of the girl’s aloof boyfriend.  He could smell the leather of their jackets.  Toilets, sinks, showers, Connor answered, nodding for emphasis.  He knew it was a myth.  Satisfied, the girl slapped her boyfriend lightly on the arm as if she’d just won a bet.

Connor arrived in post punk London several months earlier, the impending gift of Diana’s first prince elbowed off the front pages by Thatcher’s armada en route to take back some islands nobody knew existed.  Within a couple of weeks he was hired by the busy pub in Kensington, cash in hand to avoid any complications.

This thing Connor was doing some labeled a gap year, others a year off, while the more serious crowd went with the term backpacking.  He liked this latter; it gave off an aura of independence, of a maverick.  What do you do, Conner?  I’m a backpacker.

At twenty-four Connor was tall and broad shouldered, a regular on the rugby field.  His blond hair and blue eyes drew comparisons to Paul Newman.  He had been on his second job since college, as a personal trainer in Wellington but couldn’t quiet the restlessness.  In a secondhand bookstore one rainy weekend he stumbled upon How to work your way around the world, a guide for would-be backpackers, jammed with insider tips, advice, addresses, phone numbers on over sixty countries.  Four months later as he boarded a plane for Singapore the worn paperback was at the top of his new backpack.

The pub was mostly empty now, the remaining patrons nursing their last orders.  Connor was stacking coasters, wiping surfaces.  Electric blue and her boyfriend had been joined by someone who’d made an effort with his appearance to prompt people to say hey, did you know you look like Billy Idol?  Electric blue was telling him that Connor was one of those backpackers and that in New Zealand the water swirls the other way.  Yea? said Billy lighting up a cigarette, my sister just got back from Israel, something called a kibbutz?  Some kind of farm or something.  He took a long drag, the smoke pouring back out of his nose.  Sounds like hippy shit to me, he concluded with a Billy Idol sneer.  Kibbutz.  Conner made a mental note to consult his book.

There was a whole section on Israel, with a page devoted specifically to kibbutz.  A brief history of the mostly agricultural collective movement started by Russian Jews, with almost three hundred settlements now throughout Israel.  The kibbutz welcomed international volunteers.  There was even an office in North London where you could sign up.  Connor called and made an appointment.         

The strong winds kept stealing away the BBC correspondent’s voice.  Wherever he was it was the dead of night, the sky behind him occasionally the background for the trajectories of tracer bullets.  Connor was half listening, half watching as he organized the contents of his backpack.  He assumed that the reporter, a Julian something, was in The Falklands.  The wind continued to plunder Julian’s story, leaving fragments: Bekaar Valley, Lebanon, PLO, conflict, Golan Heights.  This last caught Connor’s attention and he looked up just as the picture cut back to the London studio.  That was Julian Fernsby reporting from The Golan Heights in Northern Israel, the anchor confirmed.  Connor was pretty sure that was where the kibbutz he’d signed up for was located.

Connor couldn’t decide whether he should’ve done more research on the region, or if the backdrop of perennial conflict added spice to the trip.  Too late now.  The VW van he was riding in had seen better days.  The engine was noisy, the suspension likely shot.  The driver, Ataret, had met Connor and four other volunteers at the airport.  He was a barrel-chested thirty something with curly black hair and beard, dark eyes behind John Lennon glasses.  Surly in nature, he berated other drivers in Hebrew as they navigated Tel Aviv’s late afternoon traffic on palm-lined streets, whitecaps of the Mediterranean glimpsed between buildings.

Two hours later they were among the rolling green hills of the Golan.  Craig, a bookish young man from Yorkshire, remarked that it resembled The Lake District.  Connor added that it wasn’t dissimilar to parts of New Zealand.  The land unfolded all around them, lush and arable.  Hardly a war zone Connor thought out loud.  Craig filled in the blanks.  Turned out Israel had annexed the land from Syria as spoils of the 1967 war and had held onto it ever since, despite the objections of the international community.  Like Israel gives a shit what they think, chimed in Lucy, a Canadian who’d been au pairing in London.  She had a point.  Craig continued that the Israelis had gone into Southern Lebanon to clear out factions of the PLO and Hezbollah, so the Golan was the land route for hardware and troops.  On cue, Ataret slowed the van to let a small convoy of Army trucks pass.

Connor was grateful for the off day to get acclimated.  After breakfast the newbies had been given a tour by one of the established volunteers, Rowan.  Tall, thin and sinewy, Rowan was a lad from Dublin, a four month veteran.  Disinterested and rarely making eye contact, he stopped the tour in front of the heavy corrugated doors to the air raid shelter.  Whenever you hear the siren, run here, he said.  It’s usually a false alarm but you never know. Questions?  His look suggested they’d better not be obvious ones.  Lucy raised her hand which drew a smirk from Rowan.  So the kibbutz gets bombed?  From her anxious tone she may as well have added I didn’t sign up for that.  Rowan looked at his wristwatch, distracted.  Rockets, he said.  Sometimes the bad guys take a pop with a rocket or two.  There were no more questions.

There’s nothing stealthy about a column of moving tanks.  Connor and Craig stood at the back window of their shared apartment with 3 AM yawns and stretches, the deep earth-pounding rumble having jolted them out of sleep.  They could make out bulk and silhouettes as the armor moved northward to Lebanon.  Connor wondered if Julian Fernsby was still in the area filing dispatches.

Less than four hours later they were with the twenty-five other volunteers waiting in the chilly autumn air to board the bus that would take them to the orchards.  As they filed on to the unheated vehicles Connor noticed two of the Israelis toting slick, black Uzis.

The apple orchards, vast and abundant, spread to the wire fence that marked the Syrian border.  Hell of a spot to harvest some fruit, but soon they were toiling as the warm sun took command of a cloudless sky.  Every so often Connor scoured the land beyond the wire fence trying to detect movement.

Lucy and Craig were making their pitch.  Two weeks in and it just wasn’t working out.  There had been three trips to the air raid shelter, each one thankfully a false alarm.  But still.  The whole area is just unstable, said Lucy zipping up her jacket in the cool evening air.  Yeah, too much of a pioneer vibe here.  Craig’s fifty cents.  Connor was hearing them out as they strolled the grassy courtyards between the low apartment buildings.  And the kibbutz office in Tel Aviv will just find another one for us?  He was looking at Craig, seeking confirmation.  Yep, we just need to get the bus down there.  Although he rarely smoked, Connor took the cigarette Craig offered and weighed his options.

It takes a moment for the brain to properly process that it’s hearing gunfire.  But the repeated sharp cracks and urgent shouts in Hebrew confirmed there was a situation.  Connor and Craig were waiting by the main entrance for their ride to the bus stop.  Lucy was finishing up in the apartment.  An Israeli, middle-aged with graying hair ran into view.  He knelt and fired off his Uzi in the direction he’d come.  The settlement came alive with the sounds of combat, Israelis responding to unseen assailants.  Craig took off running through the main gate.  Momentarily rooted, Connor followed.

Some fifty yards up ahead Craig hurdled a low fence topped with barbed wire.  No time for prudence.  Connor followed suit, the wire slashing at his ankles.  The gunfire behind them was intensifying.  Then an angry flash and a loud, abrupt bang.  Clumps of earth falling around Connor.  Craig’s heaped body, unmoving.  A landmine.  A voice.  Connor turned toward it.  The Israeli with the gray hair was standing the other side of the fence, weapon held across his body.  Come back, he said, but slow.  Go slow.  Shaking, Connor locked him with his eyes and took the first step.

David Patten   


5 thoughts on “Volunteer by David Patten”

  1. Hi David,
    I think there is a point to the abrupt ending, especially with the guy with the gun trying to save him. This is something to ponder.
    The writing is very good, the thoughts on the backpackers and travelling was well done and the characters, even though there wasn’t much time spent with them, were superbly drawn.
    I really did enjoy this and hope that you have more for us soon.


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