Ann George views a sign and a portent from the rooftop
Jerusalem was getting hotter and hotter as May moved into June. The sun blazed down on the white stone and heated up the flat rooftops of the ancient houses of the Old City. The roof was a welcome extension of the house, taking the place of a garden in less built-up areas. There were plant pots filled with herbs and flowers, carefully watered morning and night. Washing dried as soon as it was pegged out; I had often filled a clothes-line on Auntie’s roof and then immediately had to start gathering in the clothes, now hot, dry and crackling, from the other end of the line. After the sun had set many Jerusalemites used their roofs in the evening as their living-rooms, sometimes even sleeping outside under the dark-blue, starry night sky.
As I walked through the Russian Compound down to the Town Hall on my way home one evening in early June I was eager to get to the Jaffa Road where there was a stream of water gently tumbling over steps leading down to the entrance to the Jaffa Gate. This little artificial conceit was, in fact, a blessing, because the air temperature fell a degree or two, and so made this part of the walk a little more refreshing. That evening I really needed the water’s help as the air seemed muggy and close, the sky gloomy and overcast, and everything was very still, with even the bird-song silenced.
I turned into the alleyway leading to my courtyard with relief, but my mood changed quickly to concern as I saw Auntie sitting at the white plastic table clutching a large mug and looking ghastly. Whatever had happened?
I sat down opposite her and noticed that she was drinking instant coffee. Never before had I seen her drink such a thing. She had it in her house purely for the sake of some of her relatives, when they came over from Antigua or the USA. Auntie drank proper coffee: Armenian, Syrian, Greek, Lebanese (but never Turkish) coffee, all exactly the same but dependent for its name on the historical sympathies of her guests. Something had to be very wrong for her to need a hot drink so quickly.
‘Good evening, Auntie,’ I said. ‘You look worried; is anything the matter?’
She looked at me strangely, then said, ‘You have not seen?’ There was a pause, then she spoke urgently, ‘Go to the roof, and you will see’.
I put down my bag, went inside the house and climbed up the stone staircase that led to the roof. I came out to an extraordinary sight: a huge shadow was passing over the sun. I stood and watched as it completed its journey and the setting sun was whole again. Suddenly it was as if the world woke up: birds twittered, and the sky resumed its deep evening colour. The reason why Auntie was so upset forced itself into my mind like a heavy blow: she believed she was seeing the end of the world.
Auntie had shared a lot of her childhood memories with me, and so I knew that she had had little formal education, but she was naturally highly intelligent, resourceful, practical and God-fearing. An eclipse, however, was presumably beyond her experience. I needed to explain what had happened, and started to turn over in my mind various French phrases as I tackled the stone staircase back down to the courtyard.
Auntie was still sitting at the table, still clutching the mug and still seriously upset; I sat down opposite her. ‘What an amazing sight,’ I said, ‘It’s called an eclipse and it was beautiful to see it so clearly up there on the roof.’
Auntie was shocked at my reaction. ‘You not frightened?’ I started to explain as best I could about how this phenomenon comes about, but Auntie’s brain began moving very quickly. I had hardly started when she said, ‘I see something like when child, but with moon!’ I agreed that it could happen with the moon, also.
Auntie immediately cheered up. ‘I make good coffee,’ she said, ’and you tell me more.’
‘Coffee afterwards’, I said, ‘I have a nice bottle of Yarden in the fridge; it won’t go to waste if we open it, as the end of the world is not coming – not just yet.’