The voice of a friend

ONE morning in London (this was years ago) an incident was reported on the BBC News. The previous evening, in an area marked at the time by an alarming increase in racial disturbances, a crippled Asian had been set upon by a gang of youths rowdily emerging from a local pub. A passing-by young man had come to his rescue. And had himself -- before the police could arrive -- been so severely beaten up that his condition in a hospital was reported to be ``critical.'' Within the same hour I had a telephone call: from someone who, among intimates, was apt to ring early before her own exceptionally full days began.

``You heard, didn't you? I found the hospital where he is, and have just been speaking with the doctor in charge. He's a clerk, a junior bank clerk, and physically slight, so must have known he'd nothing to depend on that way . . . I'm having flowers sent, and a note they can read to him when he comes around. You write one too, it can be taken with mine.'' Then, characteristically, ``He mustn't even for a moment be allowed to think of dying! That's what we can tell him. `You are needed here, dear boy! All of us need you -- ' ''

That evening there was a follow-up item on the News. The young man had regained consciousness. Cautious hope was expressed.

My friend had a name both famous and loved. It can still, and instantly, evoke warm affection in all manner of companies, even though almost five years have passed since so many of us came together to bid her farewell at ``A Service of Thanksgiving'' in Westminster Abbey.

On that wintry afternoon -- among those formally escorted to seats in the Quire Stalls -- there were numerous faces familiar to the British public at large. Later one was to learn that out beyond the screen every pew was packed by members of that public, well before the chamber-orchestra Prelude had drawn to a close with Bach's ``Sheep may safely graze.'' Toward the end of the Service came what so often (this being England) has sounded out on ceremonial occasions. The words of John Bunyan. From ``Pilgrim's Progress'': After this it was noised abroad, that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons. . . . When he understood it, he called for his Friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Fathers. When the Day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the River side, into which, as he went, he said, Death, where is thy Sting? And as he went down deeper, he said, Grave, where is thy Victory? So he passed over, and all the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

A company of friends, that afternoon. Variously making its way by limousine and taxi, Underground and bus, to take part like this in a glorious welling-up of what she herself had always so delighted in. The music, the poetry . . . and now by implication the tributes to a faith held to through a long career, so blithely spanning such a diversity of accomplishments and continuing in full fettle until she left.

A motley company, as assuredly she'd have wished.

Perhaps including a former junior clerk in a bank, remembering a letter that once came to him out of the blue. And even -- why not? -- a certain old street-cleaner, tidied up to pay his respects.

I was walking home with her that day, when suddenly as we turned off the King's Road, a character bundled up in an assortment of woolies stopped short with his whiskery broom suspended. The next instant, his free arm had shot forward.

Accusingly pointing a forefinger, he said, ``Proper caught out you were last night!''

Quick as a flash, she demanded, ``Did you know the answer?''

``Never 'eard of 'im,'' he said. (Bartok it had been.)

``But you're on the telly! You're supposed to!''

Sounding severe as a nanny, he was grinning delightedly. Both of them were.

``What's your name?'' she asked.

``Alf,'' he said.

``Well look here, Alf, you'd better keep an eye on me! Mustn't overdo the clowning, must I?'' Then, as if it mattered, ``How'd you like my new dress?''

Planted there in the gutter, he appeared to ponder this. ``Pinkie, weren't it?''

``Perhaps -- just perhaps -- a bit too girlish?'' She waited attentively, while he took his time.

Then as if the two of them were cozily on their own, under quite other circumstances -- ``You'll do,'' he told her.

The program they'd been referring to -- although highly rated among television series, both for its lightly worn learning in music matters and the wit and affectionate interplay among the distinguished panelists -- I must say I'd never thought of as natural fare for an old chap sweeping a Chelsea street. But then, of course, it had had on it since first launched someone who -- as we were now about to move on -- could cavalierly toss back over a half-turned shoulder, ``And you, Alf! You'll do too!''

A reciprocating salute! And delivered with full style.

Several springs ago I was back in Jerusalem. And someone first known there as a very young man at once came to the Hospice where I was again staying.

While we were having tea in the high-walled courtyard, with the oleander and bougainvillea blazingly in bloom, David -- headman of the household staff -- came out to announce a long-distance call. A rather lengthy one, it proved. And when I reemerged, it was to find Khalil hunched over a transistor radio.

My arrival had coincided with the invasion of Lebanon. And among all the friends being seen again -- Israeli and Arab, on both sides of the city -- a striking number seemed to hang on the BBC World Service for the only news reports they were prepared to credit. But this wasn't a usual hour for news. Instead, and startlingly, a voice was speaking. Then a laugh rang out: buoyant, unmistakable. Still another replay, from her familiar repertoire.

Khalil had looked up quickly. ``It's her! Your friend!''

Momentarily I was nonplussed. How on earth --

Then everything snapped together. Starting with that first arrival, years before, in a Jerusalem where one had expected to stay three weeks but had, instead, been pitched headlong into the full aftermath of the Six Day War. Which meant witnessing both the soaring euphoria of the victors (who might have been led by Joshua himself) and the shock and humiliation of the utterly defeated.

On the losing side were numbers of university students. At the time returned home for the start of their summer holidays, they were to find themselves -- almost overnight, it seemed -- not only in territories henceforth to remain ``occupied'' but drastically cut off from their studies in Cairo and Beirut and Amman. And this in a society where higher education was the sesame-key to any opening up of their lives.

Khalil was among them: though set apart, when first met, by a reticence so extreme that only by scrupulously honoring it was one gradually to be accepted. Then when we were alone, suddenly he could say things like, ``To die of a broken heart, this I now understand.''

``Ah, but surely not for you! You can't mean that.''

``Why do you speak angrily?''

``It's not anger, Khalil. It's this feeling I have -- that you're going to be greatly needed, in whatever lies ahead.''

``But you don't understand! What am I to belong to? When I can't even feel what I'm supposed to feel -- ''

Not the rampant despair, but the terrible bitterness, the hatred, I took him to mean.

And he said then, as if speaking nakedly from some literal limbo, ``I know now I can never kill. Do you see what this means? How can anything be loved without hating what will destroy it?''

That deadliest of equations. Millennia-old.

But even then, I suppose, one must have trusted his own capacity to wrestle with the angel. And later on, at a rendezvous arranged with great discretion -- between four young Arabs one was prepared to vouch for and a group of young Israelis equally known and trusted -- it was Khalil's voice that suddenly at a crucial moment made itself heard through the clash of other voices. ``Listen to us! Just listen! As Arab, as Jew -- are we still -- still -- to go on failing as our fathers have failed before us?''

The voice had trembled. He was the youngest one present.

It was very late, after midnight, when we drove up from the coastal kibbutz through the now-dense silence of the Judean hills, toward a city that can still evoke that long-ago cry ``O Jerusalem, Jerusalem -- '' Overhead in a vast and velvety sky were the same stars once looked up to from desert and mount and shepherded field.

``Khalil -- ''

``Yes?''

We'd spoken softly, sharing the back of the borrowed Land Rover.

``Can you hear them? The stars.''

His head turned, tilted upward.

``Isn't it a kind of singing, that's now begun?''

For him, I meant.

Now these years later, in a courtyard again blooming with its oleander and bougainvillea, he was completing for me an episode I'd not known about in full.

``The telephone numbers, you'll remember them?''

After a moment I remembered. When eventually one had had to return to London, two telephone numbers had been left behind. At either of them, my current whereabouts would always be known -- this in case any of the students actually managed to get to England at a period when so many ardently longed to do so.

By something of a miracle, Khalil himself had turned up, and at once from the airport had telephoned as instructed. Only to learn that the previous week I had left for Poland.

``It was a terrible disappointment! I'd depended on you being there!'' (No point in saying, ``Why on earth didn't you get in touch before you came?'' -- his own society, alas, being one hardly noted for humdrum practicalities.) ``It must have shown, the disappointment, because she -- the voice -- said `What a pity!' She wanted to know who I was and where I'd come from and how we'd met. She asked many questions, then told me to ring again at another hour.''

When he did so, she'd typically -- and bossily -- taken charge. Someone known to her had once held an official post in what was then called Palestine, under the British Mandate. Now he had a grandson of Khalil's age who had himself proposed sharing his student room in Bloomsbury while a further arrangement was being sorted out. The following morning a pair of theater tickets arrived in the mail, with a personal note instructing the two young men to pre-sent themselves in her dressing-room after the performance.

``There were other people already there, all talking and laughing. . . . She was like a tall queen, I thought, in a long dress very beautiful, and we just stood there by the door, too shy to go inside. Until suddenly she came over to us, and said, `Hullo, you two! I'm so pleased you could come.' ''

But it was something she said when they were about to leave that evidently had taken special root. ``You see, Khalil, if we've the faith to step out into this world as a friend, then friendship can come to meet us in all sorts of ways.''

Spoken to a young man born into so heartbreakingly difficult a place -- and years before he was to prove himself in a mediator role that may never be blazed across a world's press, but all the time, like a candle, can be emitting who knows how quenchless a light?

In the courtyard he said, ``I never saw her again. But I still remember her as someone -- '' here he paused for a moment -- ``who wouldn't ever want another person to feel shut out.''

Doris Peel

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