Ann George welcomes her brother to Jerusalem
Our mother used to recount with some detail how, when she and her two small sons were staying in a Hertfordshire village during the war, she used to take them to the cinema in the nearest town for a treat every week. Bearing with her the family’s total weekly sweet ration, she, Bill and Poor Fred would settle into their seats and watch whatever was on offer; that is, she and Bill (aged about 4) would watch the films and the newsreel, while Fred, who could have been only about 2 years old, settled down to eat the whole family sweet ration slowly and with concentration. When he had finished, they had to go, whether the entertainment had been enjoyable or not: Poor Fred wailed so lustily that they would rush out of the cinema.
Throughout his life Fred never lost his interest in food except when he was ill. He needed food, preferably meat, at set times and lots of it. This was on the whole, during our travels together, not an issue, but when he came out to visit me, staying in the Courtyard with Auntie Mary and Uncle Joseph, it became a bit of a problem.
I was working during the week he was able to come, and the Old City was not the place to find a variety of restaurants. Most pilgrims travel in groups and have set meals organized in hotels or pilgrim hostels booked through their tour operators. There were few eating places in the Christian or Armenian quarters, and these were little more than tea-houses. There was only one “proper” restaurant, and that was round the corner from the Courtyard and called the Armenian Tavern; it served lots of grilled meat, and a more unusual dish, named Armenian pizza, which had a topping of spiced minced beef.
Auntie invited us to a lovely meal of Bethlehem roast lamb for Sunday lunch and I cooked the evening meal on Monday and Tuesday, but for breakfast and lunch Fred had to fend for himself, but that didn’t seem to worry him; he seemed very contented. By Wednesday I had had enough of cooking after a long day’s work, especially as a meal for Fred had to contain meat, which I had to pre-order through Auntie or I would never have heard the end of it as I didn’t know the market as she did. For a change and to get myself out of a tight corner I suggested we go out to the Armenian Tavern for dinner. Fred was amenable to that, so we went round the corner and walked into a welcome that was both touching and totally unexpected by me: the whole staff of the restaurant appeared, shaking our hands, hugging Fred and conducting us to “your table, your honour”. Fred treated this welcome with great nonchalance, as though it were customary. Then I discovered that he had been eating both breakfast and lunch there for the last 3 days! Breakfast, lunch and NOW dinner: no wonder he was the restaurant’s favourite person.
After Fred left and for the remainder of my time in Jerusalem, about 2 years, I couldn’t walk down David Street or Christian Quarter Road without being hailed by the shopkeepers, wanting to know how my brother was, illustrating the person they meant by stroking their chins to allude to my brother’s smart beard. It seems he had caused a commotion in the entire area as, armed with an ancient Baedeker guide to Jerusalem which had completely lost its binding (“the new edition isn’t detailed enough”) he would dive without warning, shedding various pages, into the backs of their shops in order to identify a stray bit of wall belonging at some ancient date to the Church of the Resurrection. The shopkeepers would then lasso him, brew Armenian coffee and settle down for a chat with the “English Priest”.
The last night before Fred had to leave we returned to the Armenian Tavern for dinner. The same boisterous welcome awaited us, but to our surprise the restaurant was the fullest I had ever seen, and with the most remarkable clientele. There must have been an international celebration of folk music and dance in Jerusalem, and the English contingent had decided to spend their last evening in the Armenian Tavern (perhaps it was the word “tavern” that attracted them?). So Fred and I shared our last evening together with a ring of morris-men, kitted out in their whites, bells a-jingling and a glass of beer at everyone’s place. Inevitably the accordion started up pretty soon and there they all were dancing away in the centre of the Armenian Tavern in the Old City of Jerusalem, waving their handkerchiefs in one dance or clicking sticks together in another: it was a unique evening!
I went to the airport the next day with Fred in order to say good-bye. We had no idea when we would see each other again as Fred was taking on his latest responsibility, that of Vicar of Jamestown in St Helena, almost immediately. It was a long, complicated and very expensive journey. Fred was due to travel out to the island on the RMS St Helena all the way from Bristol; the journey took 21 days and went through some parts of the ocean not frequented by regular shipping. In fact I did not see him again until 5 years later, by which time I had left Jerusalem and was back working in London.
Ann George worships at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge