Five-minute memoir: The wrong boyfriend

Stuck in a dirty hostel in Jerusalem with an ill man, Tamar Cohen realised the error of her ways

One summer many years ago, I found myself stranded in Jerusalem with the Wrong Boyfriend.

This was regrettable.

I was 19 years old and had decided to spend a couple of months after my first year at Manchester University working on a kibbutz in Israel. Which is where I met a group of shaven-headed Germans on the first leg of their round-the-world tour.

Which was also regrettable.

In the mid-1980s, shaved heads were synonymous with dodgy skinhead ideology, and Germans – particularly tall, blue-eyed, aloof, Aryan-looking Germans – were still viewed with mistrust by many Israelis.

One of the group was different. Ralph had brown hair, brown eyes and an immense energy for life. “I am Ralph Heppenheimer!” he shouted at the moon. “And nothing can bore me!” We became close quickly, bonding over our love of the slab-like chocolate sold in the kibbutz tuck shop and our hatred of the 5am starts. Ralph spoke fluent English, in direct contrast to his friend Martin, who had little in the way of conversation. However, Martin looked like a Greek god and I was young and shallow. Reader, I have to tell you, I chose the Wrong Boyfriend.

I realised my mistake fairly quickly when Ralph withdrew and Martin failed to laugh at my jokes, but nevertheless, when they announced they were absconding from the kibbutz to travel down to Eilat via Jerusalem, I decided to join them.

In Jerusalem, we wound up in a squalid hostel in the Muslim quarter run by a couple of grumpy hippies. We slept on thin mattresses on the floor in a unisex dorm, and almost as soon as we arrived, The Wrong Boyfriend got staggeringly, hideously ill. Raging fever, sweats, hallucinations. The others stared at their non-refundable bus tickets to Eilat dated the following day and blew air out slowly from their cheeks. It would be stupid for us all to miss out, they said.

So they took their bus, arranging to meet back in the bus station in Tel Aviv in 10 days’ time. Waving goodbye to Ralph felt like a bereavement. I was left behind in that cockroach-infested hostel in Jerusalem with The Wrong Boyfriend.

The hippies were none too pleased at having a sweat-soaked, shaven-headed German languishing in the dorm all day, and keeping other guests awake at night raving in another language. One night, when his temperature was so high he looked in danger of self-combusting, they insisted I took him to the public hospital a few streets away.

A few streets is a long way when it’s 1am and you’re wearing the clothes you chose to pick lemons in in a progressive kibbutz, not stagger through the religiously-conservative Muslim quarter with a shaven-headed German draped around your shoulders.

When we arrived at the hospital, a woman shouted at me, her outraged face inches from mine. “It’s forbidden for you to touch him because you’re not married,” a weary orderly translated, gesturing to my naked left hand.

So I propped The Wrong Boyfriend up against the tiled walls and retreated to a smaller, women-only waiting room, hoping he wouldn’t topple over in my absence.

The doctor we saw a few hours later had the air of someone who had seen it all. He told us The Wrong Boyfriend wouldn’t die, though it might take some time for the antibiotics to take effect.

For the next few days, Martin sweated out the remainder of his sickness. One afternoon, desperate to be free of the hostel, I ventured out in my inappropriate clothes, braving disapproving looks and the odd salivary missile, and caught a random bus. The bus wound its way up into the hills outside of the city, and it wasn’t long before I rang the bell to get off.

I didn’t know it at the time but I’d arrived at the top of the Mount of Olives, a site steeped in Biblical history. All I knew was that the views were spectacular and the landscape deserted. For that whole afternoon I sat under an olive tree and gazed out on the scenery, and something in me shifted, the worry of the last few days crumbling into the dust around my filthy feet.

Martin and I said goodbye a couple of days later, he re-joining his friends in Tel Aviv and me going, cap in hand, back to the kibbutz. I had a letter from him when I got back to Manchester, written in stilted, text-book English. He’d given up on the round-the-world trip and gone home, enrolling in college and growing his hair.

Ralph, meanwhile, was travelling on, still shouting at the moon.

Tamar Cohen’s third novel, ‘Someone Else’s Wedding’, is published by Doubleday