A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (5 page)

Before the ramps were lowered, ‘the Admiral’ addressed the beasts on his Ark, and his words were relayed to those of us on other ships. He thanked us for our co-operation, he apologized for the occasional sparseness of rations, and he promised that since we had all kept our side of the bargain, he was going to get the best
quid pro quo
out of God in the forthcoming negotiations. Some of us laughed a little doubtingly at that: we remembered the keel-hauling of the ass, the loss of the hospital ship, the exterminatory policy with cross-breeds, the death of the unicorn … It was evident to us that if Noah was coming on all Mister Nice Guy, it was because he sensed what any clear-thinking animal would do the moment it placed its foot on dry land: make for the forests and the hills. He was obviously trying to soft-soap us into staying close to New Noah’s Palace, whose construction he chose to announce at the same time. Amenities here would include free water for the animals and extra feed during harsh winters. He was obviously scared that the meat diet he’d got used to on the Ark would be taken away from him as fast as its two, four or however many legs could carry it, and that the Noah family would be back on berries and nuts once again. Amazingly, some of the beasts thought Noah’s offer a fair one: after all, they argued, he can’t eat all of us, he’ll probably just cull the old and the sick. So some of them – not the cleverest ones, it has to be said – stayed around waiting for the Palace to be built and the water to flow like wine. The pigs, the cattle, the sheep, some of the stupider goats, the chickens … We warned them, or at least we tried. We used to mutter derisively, ‘Braised or boiled?’ but to no avail. As I say, they weren’t very bright, and were probably scared of going back into the wild; they’d grown dependent on their gaol, and their gaoler. What happened over the next few generations was quite predictable: they became shadows of their former selves. The
pigs and sheep you see walking around today are zombies compared to their effervescent ancestors on the Ark. They’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them. And some of them, like the turkey, have to endure the further indignity of having the stuffing put back into them – before they are braised or boiled.

And of course, what did Noah actually deliver in his famous Disembarkation Treaty with God? What did he get in return for the sacrifices and loyalty of his tribe (let alone the more considerable sacrifices of the animal kingdom)? God said – and this is Noah putting the best possible interpretation on the matter – that He promised not to send another Flood, and that as a sign of His intention He was creating for us the rainbow. The rainbow! Ha! It’s a very pretty thing, to be sure, and the first one he produced for us, an iridescent semi-circle with a paler sibling beside it, the pair of them glittering in an indigo sky, certainly made a lot of us look up from our grazing. You could see the idea behind it: as the rain gave reluctant way to the sun, this flamboyant symbol would remind us each time that the rain wasn’t going to carry on and turn into a Flood. But even so. It wasn’t much of a deal. And was it legally enforceable? Try getting a rainbow to stand up in court.

The cannier animals saw Noah’s offer of half-board for what it was; they took to the hills and the woods, relying on their own skills for water and winter feed. The reindeer, we couldn’t help noticing, were among the first to take off, speeding away from ‘the Admiral’ and all his future descendants, bearing with them their mysterious forebodings. You are right, by the way, to see the animals that fled – ungrateful traitors, according to Noah – as the nobler species. Can a pig be noble? A sheep? A chicken? If only you had seen the unicorn … That was another contentious aspect of Noah’s post-Disembarkation address to those still loitering at the edge of his stockade. He said that God, by giving us the rainbow, was in effect promising to keep the world’s supply of miracles topped up. A clear reference, if ever I heard one, to the scores of original miracles which in the course of the Voyage had been slung over the side of Noah’s ships or
had disappeared into the guts of his family. The rainbow in place of the unicorn? Why didn’t God just restore the unicorn? We animals would have been happier with that, instead of a big hint in the sky about God’s magnanimity every time it stopped raining.

Getting off the Ark, I think I told you, wasn’t much easier than getting on. There had, alas, been a certain amount of ratting by some of the chosen species, so there was no question of Noah simply flinging down the ramps and crying ‘Happy land’. Every animal had to put up with a strict body-search before being released; some were even doused in tubs of water which smelt of tar. Several female beasts complained of having to undergo internal examination by Shem. Quite a few stowaways were discovered: some of the more conspicuous beetles, a few rats who had unwisely gorged themselves during the Voyage and got too fat, even a snake or two. We got off – I don’t suppose it need be a secret any longer – in the hollowed tip of a ram’s horn. It was a big, surly, subversive animal, whose friendship we had deliberately cultivated for the last three years at sea. It had no respect for Noah, and was only too happy to help outsmart him after the Landing.

When the seven of us climbed out of that ram’s horn, we were euphoric. We had survived. We had stowed away, survived and escaped – all without entering into any fishy covenants with either God or Noah. We had done it by ourselves. We felt ennobled as a species. That might strike you as comic, but we did: we felt ennobled. That Voyage taught us a lot of things, you see, and the main thing was this: that man is a very unevolved species compared to the animals. We don’t deny, of course, your cleverness, your considerable potential. But you are, as yet, at an early stage of your development. We, for instance, are always ourselves: that is what it means to be evolved. We are what we are, and we know what that is. You don’t expect a cat suddenly to start barking, do you, or a pig to start lowing? But this is what, in a manner of speaking, those of us who made the Voyage on the Ark learned to expect from your species. One moment you bark, one moment you mew; one
moment you wish to be wild, one moment you wish to be tame. We knew where we were with Noah only in this one respect: that we never knew where we were with him.

You aren’t too good with the truth, either, your species. You keep forgetting things, or you pretend to. The loss of Varadi and his ark – does anyone speak of that? I can see there might be a positive side to this wilful averting of the eye: ignoring the bad things makes it easier for you to carry on. But ignoring the bad things makes you end up believing that bad things never happen. You are always surprised by them. It surprises you that guns kill, that money corrupts, that snow falls in winter. Such naivety can be charming; alas, it can also be perilous.

For instance, you won’t even admit the true nature of Noah, your first father – the pious patriarch, the committed conservationist. I gather that one of your early Hebrew legends asserts that Noah discovered the principle of intoxication by watching a goat get drunk on fermented grapes. What a brazen attempt to shift responsibility on to the animals; and all, sadly, part of a pattern. The Fall was the serpent’s fault, the honest raven was a slacker and a glutton, the goat turned Noah into an alkie. Listen: you can take it from me that Noah didn’t need any cloven-footed knowledge to help crack the secret of the vine.

Blame someone else, that’s always your first instinct. And if you can’t blame someone else, then start claiming the problem isn’t a problem anyway. Rewrite the rules, shift the goalposts. Some of those scholars who devote their lives to your sacred texts have even tried to prove that the Noah of the Ark wasn’t the same man as the Noah arraigned for drunkenness and indecent exposure. How could a drunkard possibly be chosen by God? Ah, well, he wasn’t, you see. Not
that
Noah. Simple case of mistaken identity. Problem disappears.

How could a drunkard possibly be chosen by God? I’ve told you – because all the other candidates were a damn sight worse. Noah was the pick of a very bad bunch. As for his drinking: to tell you the truth, it was the Voyage that tipped him over the edge. Old Noah had always enjoyed a few horns of fermented liquor in the days before Embarkation: who didn’t? But it was
the Voyage that turned him into a soak. He just couldn’t handle the responsibility. He made some bad navigational decisions, he lost four of his eight ships and about a third of the species entrusted to him – he’d have been court-martialled if there’d been anyone around to sit on the bench. And for all his bluster, he felt guilty about losing half the Ark. Guilt, immaturity, the constant struggle to hold down a job beyond your capabilities – it makes a powerful combination, one which would have had the same ruinous effect on most members of your species. You could even argue, I suppose, that God drove Noah to drink. Perhaps this is why your scholars are so jumpy, so keen to separate the first Noah from the second: the consequences are awkward. But the story of the ‘second’ Noah – the drunkenness, the indecency, the capricious punishment of a dutiful son – well, it didn’t come as a surprise to those of us who knew the ‘first’ Noah on the Ark. A depressing yet predictable case of alcoholic degeneration, I’m afraid.

As I was saying, we were euphoric when we got off the Ark. Apart from anything else, we’d eaten enough gopher-wood to last a lifetime. That’s another reason for wishing Noah had been less bigoted in his design of the fleet: it would have given some of us a change of diet. Hardly a consideration for Noah, of course, because we weren’t meant to be there. And with the hindsight of a few millennia, this exclusion seems even harsher than it did at the time. There were seven of us stowaways, but had we been admitted as a seaworthy species only two boarding-passes would have been issued; and we would have accepted that decision. Now, it’s true Noah couldn’t have predicted how long his Voyage was going to last, but considering how little we seven ate in five and a half years, it surely would have been worth the risk letting just a pair of us on board. And after all, it’s not our fault for being woodworm.

2
THE VISITORS

F
RANKLIN
H
UGHES HAD
come on board an hour earlier to extend some necessary bonhomie towards those who would make his job easier over the next twenty days. Now, he leaned on the rail and watched the passengers climb the gangway: middle-aged and elderly couples for the most part, some bearing an obvious stamp of nationality, others, more decorous, preserving for the moment a sly anonymity of origin. Franklin, his arm lightly but unarguably around the shoulder of his travelling companion, played his annual game of guessing where his audience came from. Americans were the easiest, the men in New World leisure-wear of pastel hues, the women unconcerned by throbbing paunches. The British were the next easiest, the men in Old World tweed jackets hiding short-sleeved shirts of ochre or beige, the women sturdy-kneed and keen to tramp any mountain at the sniff of a Greek temple. There were two Canadian couples whose towelling hats bore a prominent maple-leaf emblem; a rangy Swedish family with four heads of blond hair; some confusable French and Italians whom Franklin identified with a simple mutter of
baguette
or
macaroni
; and six Japanese who declined their stereotype by not displaying a single camera among them. With the exception of a few family groups and the occasional lone aesthetic-looking Englishman, they came up the gangway in obedient couples.

‘The animals came in two by two,’ Franklin commented. He was a tall, fleshy man somewhere in his forties, with pale gold hair and a reddish complexion which the envious put down to drink and the charitable to an excess of sun; his face seemed familiar in a way which made you forget to ask whether or not
you judged it good-looking. His companion, or assistant, but not, she would insist, secretary, was a slim, dark girl displaying clothes newly bought for the cruise. Franklin, ostentatiously an old hand, wore a khaki bush-shirt and a pair of rumpled jeans. While it was not quite the uniform some of the passengers expected of a distinguished guest lecturer, it accurately suggested the origin of such distinction as Franklin could command. If he’d been an American academic he might have dug out a seersucker suit; if a British academic, perhaps a creased linen jacket the colour of ice-cream. But Franklin’s fame (which was not quite as extensive as he thought it) came from television. He had started as a mouthpiece for other people’s views, a young man in a corduroy suit with an affable and unthreatening way of explaining culture. After a while he realized that if he could speak this stuff there was no reason why he shouldn’t write it as well. At first it was no more than ‘additional material by Franklin Hughes’, then a co-script credit, and finally the achievement of a full ‘written and presented by Franklin Hughes’. What his special area of knowledge was nobody could quite discern, but he roved freely in the worlds of archaeology, history and comparative culture. He specialized in the contemporary allusion which would rescue and enliven for the average viewer such dead subjects as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, or Viking treasure hoards in East Anglia, or Herod’s palaces. ‘Hannibal’s elephants were the panzer divisions of their age,’ he would declare as he passionately straddled a foreign landscape; or, ‘That’s as many foot-soldiers as could be fitted into Wembley Stadium on Cup Final Day’; or, ‘Herod wasn’t just a tyrant and a unifier of his country, he was also a patron of the arts – perhaps we should think of him as a sort of Mussolini with good taste.’

Franklin’s television fame soon brought him a second wife, and a couple of years later a second divorce. Nowadays, his contracts with Aphrodite Cultural Tours always included the provision of a cabin for his assistant; the crew of the
Santa Euphemia
noted with admiration that the assistants tended not to last from one voyage to the next. Franklin was generous
towards the stewards, and popular with those who had paid a couple of thousand pounds for their twenty days. He had the engaging habit of sometimes pursuing a favourite digression so fervently that he would have to stop and look around with a puzzled smile before reminding himself where he was meant to be. Many of the passengers commented to one another on Franklin’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject, how refreshing it was in these cynical times, and how he really made history come alive for them. If his bush-shirt was often carelessly buttoned and his denim trousers occasionally stained with lobster, this was no more than corroboration of his beguiling zeal for the job. His clothes hinted, too, at the admirable democracy of learning in the modern age: you evidently did not have to be a stuffy professor in a wing-collar to understand the principles of Greek architecture.

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