tagNovels and NovellasNo Future Ch. 17

No Future Ch. 17


Faith and Charity

Tamara studied the framed picture on the wall. It showed the image of a slightly tubby middle-aged woman which had been made to resemble a mediaeval Christian saint. She even had a halo around her forehead.

"Who's this?" Tamara asked.

"It's Saint Diane," said Dahab. "She was the founder of the Reigate centre."

"Is she a saint?" wondered Tamara. "The picture doesn't look genuine."

"It's a picture that was composed on a computer," Dahab explained. "We call her Saint Diane. I'm not a Christian so I don't know if she's been made a saint, but we call her one here."

"I'm not a Christian, either," said Tamara. "I don't even know whether there are any Christians staying here. But I think there's a quite convoluted process involved in becoming a saint. I don't even know whether the Church of England has saints."

"This is the church of St Mary Magdalene," said Dahab. "It's an Anglican church so I guess the Church of England does have saints."

Although the Reigate Centre was just as packed out as the Broad Oak Refugee Camp, it was much better managed and the staff who worked there significantly more sympathetic to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Tamara was impressed by the difference a more efficient administration could make, especially since it was managed by people who'd originally arrived in England as refugees themselves.

Tamara was determined to make a positive contribution right from the start. That was partly because it was obvious that there were jobs that needed to be done that she could help do, but mostly it was because she desperately needed the distraction.

Tamara was more grief-stricken than she'd imagined possible when her mother died and her body was taken away for a proper Jewish funeral. This had to be in London as it was one of the few English cities where there was still a working synagogue. The fragile threads that had held Tamara's family together during those months of travel across Europe finally snapped the moment her mother was buried. Her two brothers took the opportunity of the London excursion to slip away from the lax supervision and surrender their fortunes to the huge sprawling city. Those family members with which Tamara was left were only distantly relatives and quite capable of managing without her. For a while she believed she owed them an obligation but when she realised that they were eligible for more food and resources if they continued to claim for her two missing brothers and dead mother, Tamara decided that she could make a better contribution to their welfare if she also absconded.

Her family shed more tears for the departure of Tamara's mother than they would for her. Perhaps they knew about her relationship with Bilal who, in any case, had been transferred to a refugee camp in the North of England where there was an urgent requirement for cheap labour to help shore up the collapsing flood defences. Tamara was now alone, wretched and grieving in South London, but at least she no longer had to share a mattress with two brothers, a distant cousin from what had once been Tel Aviv and an uncle who farted most of the night.

For the first few nights, Tamara wasn't so sure that her decision to leave was such a good one. Her only possessions were the clothes she wore, a backpack full of underwear and the all-important documentation that included a passport to a no longer functioning nation. She mingled with the countless unfortunates begging on Croydon's cratered streets. She ate soup that was doled out by makeshift soup kitchens and slept in the doorways of boarded-up shops. By chance, she heard of another refugee centre in Reigate that might be able to help her if she was willing to work there for no pay. Tamara's main concerns were food and sleep rather than money, so she walked the twenty kilometres or more across the suburban sprawl and decaying slums to Reigate.

South London had suffered badly from generations of neglect. The wealthy lived in gated communities or along well-appointed avenues guarded at both ends by private security guards. The less privileged lived in overcrowded and rotting houses. Many were refugees who'd migrated not from distant war-torn or famine-struck foreign countries but from the hinterland of the River Thames that had finally been overwhelmed by the rising tide. The traffic in South London's congested roads was a miscellaneous assortment of electric cars and buses, bicycle-driven vehicles and even make-shift carts pulled by donkeys and mules.

Reigate was beyond a ridge of hills and thus relatively safe from flooding. It wasn't so secure from London's suburban sprawl that stretched unbroken along the A23. Why, wondered Tamara, would the Reigate Centre give her shelter when it was denied by so many other places?

"We just don't like turning people away," said Mehmed when she asked why she'd been so lucky. "In any case, it would seem especially heartless to turn away a person who's just lost her mother and is sleeping on the streets. There's also the fact that you're Jewish and a woman."

"What difference does that make?"

"There's a great deal of prejudice against Jews these days," said Mehmed, "particularly in my community."

"Your community?"

"The Muslim community. It can be very vicious. Many blame Israel for all the misery that's blighted the Middle East. And many don't distinguish between the government of Israel and its citizens."

"And also for being a woman? Can't I look after myself as well as a man?"

"I don't mean to appear sexist," said Mehmed. "One of the few professions flourishing at the moment is prostitution. Women like you, especially young and pretty ones, are immediate candidates for exploitation. It mightn't be too long until you became just another one of the wretched souls on Bell Street and Reigate Road."

Tamara wasn't going to complain too much about receiving preferential treatment, but she guessed that it was because Mehmed was a father of two teenage girls that he showed such compassion.

She also wondered whether Mehmed would be so sympathetic if he knew that she'd already succumbed to the temptation of selling her body, even though it was more to get favour than a steady source of income. It was true that she'd rather never have to do so again but Tamara was aware that it was an option still available to her.

Many of the refugees in the Reigate Centre were radiation and burns victims from the Middle East War even after the two decades since it had happened. There were more Muslims than Jews, but that just reflected the proportion of victims. Inevitably, Tamara's sympathy was directed mostly towards her fellow Jews, however much she tried to be impartial.

"I'd be dead if it wasn't for this centre," said Daniella, a middle-aged woman whose skin was still blackened and sore after all the intervening years. "When the bomb dropped in Tel Aviv everything that I'd lived for, saved for and believed in came to an end. My children. My husband. My parents. If I'd been standing on the other side of the municipal offices I'd have been incinerated along with everyone else."

"It's a long way from Tel Aviv to Reigate," Tamara remarked.

"Aid agencies and governments were more helpful in those days," said Daniella. "There were fewer problems in the world, so resources went a lot further."

Tamara helped the nurses take Daniella's bandages off and put new ones on. She grimaced in sympathy with her patient when she winced from the pain on skin that was tender and still not healed.

"The radiation doesn't help," said Fatima, a nurse who also worked for no pay at the centre. "She's got melanomas speckled amongst the scars. I guess it's just a matter of time."

"What happened to most of the victims?" Tamara wondered.

"You mean the original victims of war, as opposed to the displaced like you? Most are dead of course. And most of those died within a week or so of arriving here. An ambulance would arrive at the front entrance and a hearse would leave from the back. We thought Daniella would be one of those, but she's made from stronger stuff than most."

"Do you still keep the faith, dear?" asked Daniella when her bandages were replaced and she was able to sit up on her bed.

"Well, yes," said Tamara. "I don't go to the synagogue because the nearest one is too far away, but I try to observe the Sabbath. It's difficult to be dutiful in this country."

"I'm sure it is, dear," agreed Daniella. "I think I've lost my faith."

"Lost it?"

"I don't think I believe any longer," she elaborated. "Not in a Jewish god. Not in a Christian god. And most certainly not a Muslim or Hindu god. If there was a God of the Jews then why has he forsaken us?"

"He hasn't forsaken us," said Tamara. "He has a contract with His people that will never be broken."

"Except by nuclear fission," suggested Daniella. "The Jewish people have suffered like no other. Time and again we've been banished from the Holy Land. Our people have been exiled to Egypt and to Babylon. Our temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by Roman sword and Iranian missile. Our people have been scattered throughout Europe and North Africa first because of our ancestors' admirable refusal to convert to other religions and now through the foolishness of the leaders we chose for ourselves. Indeed, through the stupidity of Likud: the party my family and I loyally supported for generations. And where is Likud now? What value is a settlement policy in a land of radioactivity and ruin? Only the truly mad would choose to settle on lands that will be scarred for a thousand years."

"Israel isn't a place," said Tamara. "It beats in the heart of every living Jew. And we are not forsaken. We must learn from the sufferings of Job..."

"I admire your faith, dear," said Daniella. "But where has it brought us? Job's sufferings were not one iota of that suffered by the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. Job never suffered from radiation poisoning and incurable cancer. In any case, most of Job's suffering was endured by his family. What are the few boils he was cursed with compared to what I have to put up with. Do you really believe the answer is to shave our head and strip ourselves of our clothes?"

Tamara was troubled by Daniella's rejection of faith, but there was no rabbi within twenty kilometres she could turn to for advice. She could refer to the internet, of course, but only during those hours of the day when the power was on. Most of the advice given by the online rabbis was either bland or hysterical. There were few Jews in the new Diaspora who didn't blame their predicament on a combination of Islamic malice and Western indifference.

She wondered whether she could talk to the vicar who was now serving the Church of St Mary Magdalene, but he split the time he spent in the parish with many other churches scattered about Surrey and took very little interest in the Reigate Centre. In fact, he was rather embarrassed about it. If it hadn't been associated with a trust in the names of Diane and Doris Dawkins, it would have been closed down when its founders died.

In any case, how could a Christian give advice on matters of the Jewish faith?

"It's the Americans fault," said Menachem, another refugee. He had lost the sight of both his eyes along with all his hair and much of his nose in the catastrophic blast over Haifa. "If their nation hadn't fallen apart they would have protected us from the Islamic infidel. They were bold with rhetoric, especially in the fundamentalist Southern States, but weren't ready to back their words with muscle."

"They were worried that there might be another Civil War in the United States," said Tamara in America's defence. "If nuclear weapons had got involved then..."

"I don't care what the quarrelsome American states do to one another," said Menachem. "They're probably better off as they are anyway. And would the world really be that much worse off if the Yankees had been wiped off the face of the Earth? But what happened to Jerusalem is unforgivable!"

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