When Yossi punches me in the mouth, I think it’s as much of a surprise to him as it is to me. But then, surprise attacks are the house speciality in this part of the world. Perhaps the only surprise is that people are still surprised by them.
It is May 1991 and I am driving a large John Deere tractor along a dusty track in the Jordan Valley, at dawn. The Gulf War to end all gulf wars, except for the one which will break out a decade from now, has only recently finished. I am a refugee – not from war, but from the London rents I can no longer afford.
Behind the tractor is an open-top trailer in which a group of twelve hungover Brits and surly South Africans sit facing each other on two wooden benches. ‘We are going fishing!’ says Yossi, with a mischievous smile that lets us know the fun will be his, not ours.
I don’t have a driving licence in the UK yet, but Yossi doesn’t know this as he tosses me the keys and tells me to climb up into the cab with him. He is a young man, perhaps only a couple of years older than me, but he has already completed three years of compulsory military service and carries the air of someone with little tolerance for foolish civilians.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, that would be me. As we approach the first corner I downshift the gears, as my Dad has shown me a couple of times in the driveway back home – and stall the engine.
Yossi, who has been standing next to me, is thrown face-first into the windscreen. He spins round and punches me in the mouth. Not hard, but hard enough to bring tears to my eyes; in shame as much as in pain.
‘What the fuck!’ he says. ‘You ever fucking drive before?’
I notice a smear of blood at the edge of Yossi’s mouth. Is this a previously undetected karmic superpower of mine, I wonder? I get hit, but they bleed?
No, the blood is from his collision with the windscreen. I can see a corresponding smear on the glass, as if a fly has splattered against it. Except from the inside.
‘Course I have,’ I lie, re-starting the ignition and setting off with a lurch that brings a loud chorus of complaint from the trailer behind.
Somehow, I manage not to stall the engine for the remainder of the journey and, once we arrive at the fishponds, we jump down and gather in a circle around Yossi, to see what shitty job he has in store for us.
All the jobs we do on the kibbutz are shitty; it’s part of the deal which provides us — the ‘volunteers’ — with a free, open-ended holiday, and the kibbutzniks with slave labour. So, when Yossi throws us a stack of thigh-high rubber waders and tells us to lower ourselves into the nearest pond, none of us protests.
The first notable thing about the fishponds is that they exist at all. Water is a rare and precious commodity in the region and one of the main triggers for conflict. The bitter dispute between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights, some twenty miles to the north, originates mainly in the ownership and control of the water (the Golan provides around 15% of Israel’s entire supply).
The second notable thing is just how cold they are. The sun is still not up over the valley — it’s too hot to work later in the day — and even with the protection of our waders, the icy temperature is brutal.
Yossi instructs us to spread out along one side of the pond, which is rectangular and the size of three football pitches. He feeds a giant net out to us and tells us to walk around the edge with it. The wet rope is heavy as a ship’s cable, and it’s a considerable effort, even for twelve, to haul it through the water.
We are at the far end of the pond when we hear the first ‘splosh!’
It’s followed quickly by another; then another. By the time we are halfway back with the net, the water is boiling with thrashing fins, and the air is thick with large, muscular carp, leaping out of the pool in panic at the sudden straitening of their home.
The fish bounce off us hard, hitting us in the chest and face, and depositing a sheen of thumbnail-sized glassy scales on our faces, our hair and in our mouths. We will continue to dislodge these scales from our bodies for several days to come.
When we finally complete the circle with the net, Yossi hooks the ends up to a giant vacuum pump and gestures for us to join him at the top of a tall sorting platform. He switches the pump on, opens the sluice, and a tumult of fish spills out onto the metal belt. Our job is to separate the carp from the catfish and send the former down a chute into a large water-filled tank. The tank sits on the back of a flat-bed truck which will transport the fish, live, to market. We are told to throw the unwanted catfish to the ground below, where a pack of stray dogs has gathered to rip them to pieces.
When, finally, the last of the fish has been fed into the tank, Yossi switches off the pump and we climb down from the sorting tower.
Soaked through, slimy and exhausted, we collapse onto the dirt. Yossi comes over and squats next to me. He pulls out a pack of cheap Noblesse cigarettes.
‘You smoke?’ he says, holding them out to me.
‘Yeah,’ I lie.
I take one and he lights it for me, igniting what will become an eighteen year, 20-a-day habit.
‘So,’ he says, inhaling sharply.
‘How you like Israel?’
Tim Craig somehow survived his time on the kibbutz. These days, when not getting hopelessly lost in his camper van, he lives in London with his wife, children and dog. His very short stories have appeared in several cool publications. In 2018 he won the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction.
Judge's comment: An opening line that sets the tone and pace – and an excellent closing that ends with the same kind of serious / winking tone. Good use of humour and unexpected moments. Dialogue is placed very well, which helps capture the strangeness of this encounter. There are moments that catch the reader off-guard – very good in travel writing (What will happen next?). And, finally, this piece does an excellent job of creating subtle tension between the real and the surreal: the seriousness of the political background, and the jauntiness / absurdity of the idea of fishing here pulls the reader right through to the last scene.