A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (6 page)

‘The Welcome Buffet’s at eight,’ said Franklin. ‘Think I’d better put in a couple of hours on my spiel for tomorrow morning.’

‘Surely you’ve done that lots of times before?’ Tricia was half-hoping he would stay on deck with her as they sailed out into the Gulf of Venice.

‘Got to make it different each year. Otherwise you go stale.’ He touched her lightly on the forearm and went below. In fact, his opening address at ten the next morning would be exactly the same as for the previous five years. The only difference – the only thing designed to prevent Franklin from going stale – was the presence of Tricia instead of … of, what was that last girl’s name? But he liked to maintain the fiction of working on his lectures beforehand, and he could easily pass up the chance of seeing Venice recede yet again. It would still be there the following year, a centimetre or two nearer the waterline, its pinky complexion, like his own, flaking a little more.

On deck, Tricia gazed at the city until the campanile of San Marco became a pencil-stub. She had first met Franklin three months ago, when he’d appeared on the chat-show for which she was a junior researcher. They’d been to bed a few times, but not much so far. She had told the girls at the flat she was going away
with a schoolfriend; if things went well, she’d let on when she got back, but for the moment she was a little superstitious. Franklin Hughes! And he’d been really considerate so far, even allotting her some nominal duties so that she wouldn’t look too much like just a girlfriend. So many people in television struck her as a bit fake – charming, yet not altogether honest. Franklin was just the same offscreen as on: outgoing, jokey, eager to tell you things. You believed what he said. Television critics made fun of his clothes and the tuft of chest-hair where his shirt parted, and sometimes they sneered at what he said, but that was just envy, and she’d like to see some of those critics get up and try to perform like Franklin. Making it look easy, he had explained to her at their first lunch, was the hardest thing of all. The other secret about television, he said, was how to know when to shut up and let the pictures do the work for you – ‘You’ve got to get that fine balance between word and image.’ Privately, Franklin was hoping for the ultimate credit: ‘Written, narrated and produced by Franklin Hughes’. In his dreams he sometimes choreographed for himself a gigantic walking shot in the Forum which would take him from the Arch of Septimius Severus to the Temple of Vesta. Where to put the camera was the only problem.

The first leg of the trip, as they steamed down the Adriatic, went much as usual. There was the Welcome Buffet, with the crew sizing up the passengers and the passengers warily circling one another; Franklin’s opening lecture, in which he flattered his audience, deprecated his television fame and announced that it was a refreshing change to be addressing real people instead of a glass eye and a cameraman shouting ‘Hair in the gate, can we do it again, love?’ (the technical reference would be lost on mast of his listeners, which was intended by Franklin: they were allowed to be snobbish about TV, but not to assume it was idiots’ business); and then there was Franklin’s other opening lecture, one just as necessary to bring off, in which he explained to his assistant how the main thing they must remember was to have a good time. Sure he’d have to work – indeed, there’d be times when much as he didn’t want to he’d be forced to shut
himself away in his cabin with his notes – but mostly he felt they should treat it as three weeks’ holiday from the filthy English weather and all that backstabbing at Television Centre. Tricia nodded agreement, though as a junior researcher she had not yet witnessed, let alone endured, any backstabbing. A more worldly-wise girl would have readily understood Franklin to mean ‘Don’t expect anything more out of me than this’. Tricia, being placid and optimistic, glossed his little speech more mildly as ‘Let’s be careful of building up false expectations’ – which to do him credit was roughly what Franklin Hughes intended. He fell lightly in love several times each year, a tendency in himself which he would occasionally deplore but regularly indulge. However, he was far from heartless, and the moment he felt a girl – especially a nice girl – needing him more than he needed her a terrible flush of apprehension would break out in him. This rustling panic would usually make him suggest one of two things – either that the girl move into his flat, or that she move out of his life – neither of which he exactly wanted. So his address of welcome to Jenny or Cathy or in this case Tricia came more from prudence than cynicism, though when things subsequently went awry it was unsurprising if Jenny or Cathy or in this case Tricia remembered him as more calculating than in fact he had been.

The same prudence, murmuring insistently at him across numerous gory news reports, had made Franklin Hughes acquire an Irish passport. The world was no longer a welcoming place where the old dark-blue British job, topped up with the words ‘journalist’ and ‘BBC’, got you what you wanted. ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State,’ Franklin could quote from memory, ‘Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.’ Wishful thinking. Nowadays Franklin travelled on a green Irish passport with a gold harp on the cover, which made him feel like a Guinness rep every time he produced it. Inside, the word ‘journalist’ was also missing from Hughes’s largely honest self-description. There were countries in the world which didn’t welcome
journalists, and who thought that white-skinned ones pretending interest in archaeological sites were obviously British spies. The less compromising ‘Writer’ was also intended as a piece of self-encouragement. If Franklin described himself as a writer, then this might nudge him into becoming one. Next time round, there was a definite chance for a book-of-the-series; and beyond that he was toying with something serious but sexy – like a personal history of the world – which might roost for months in the bestseller lists.

Santa Euphemia
was an elderly but comfortable ship with a courtly Italian captain and an efficient Greek crew. These Aphrodite Tours brought a predictable clientèle, disparate in nationality but homogeneous in taste. The sort of people who preferred reading to deck quoits, and sun-bathing to the disco. They followed the guest lecturer everywhere, took most of the supplementary trips and disdained straw donkeys in the souvenir shops. They had not come for romance, though a string trio occasionally incited some old-fashioned dancing. They took their turn at the captain’s table, were inventive when it came to fancy-dress night, and dutifully read the ship’s newspaper, which printed their daily route alongside birthday messages and non-controversial events happening on the European continent.

The atmosphere seemed a little torpid to Tricia, but it was a well-organized torpor. As in the address to his assistant, Franklin had emphasized in his opening lecture that the purpose of the next three weeks was pleasure and relaxation. He hinted tactfully that people had different levels of interest in classical antiquity, and that he for one wouldn’t be keeping an attendance book and marking down absentees with a black X. Franklin engagingly admitted that there were occasions when even he could tire of yet another row of Corinthian columns standing against a cloudless sky; though he did this in a way which allowed the passengers to disbelieve him.

The tail end of the Northern winter had been left behind; and at a stately pace the
Santa Euphemia
took its contented passengers into a calm Mediterranean spring. Tweed jackets gave way
to linen ones, trouser-suits to slightly outdated sun-dresses. They passed through the Corinth Canal at night, with some of the passengers jammed against a porthole in their nightclothes, and the hardier ones on deck, occasionally letting off ineffectual bursts of flash from their cameras. From the Ionian to the Aegean: it was a little fresher and choppier in the Cyclades, but nobody minded. They went ashore at chichi Mykonos, where an elderly headmaster twisted his ankle while climbing among the ruins; at marbled Paros and volcanic Thira. The cruise was ten days old when they stopped at Rhodes. While the passengers were ashore the
Santa Euphemia
took on fuel, vegetables, meat and more wine. It also took on some visitors, although this did not become apparent until the following morning.

They were steaming towards Crete, and at eleven o’clock Franklin began his usual lecture on Knossos and Minoan Civilization. He had to be a little careful, because his audience tended to know about Knossos, and some of them would have their personal theories. Franklin liked people asking questions; he didn’t mind pieces of obscure and even correct information being added to what he had already imparted – he would offer thanks with a courtly bow and a murmur of ‘Herr Professor’, implying that as long as some of us have an overall grasp of things, it was fine for others to fill their heads with recondite detail; but what Franklin Hughes couldn’t stand were bores with pet ideas they couldn’t wait to try out on the guest lecturer. Excuse me, Mr Hughes, it looks very Egyptian to me – how do we know the Egyptians didn’t build it? Aren’t you assuming that Homer wrote when people think he (a little laugh) – or she – did? I don’t have any actual expert knowledge, yet surely it would make more sense if … There was always at least one of them, playing the puzzled yet reasonable amateur; unfooled by received opinion, he – or she – knew that historians were full of bluff, and that complicated matters were best understood using zestful intuition untainted by any actual knowledge or research. ‘I appreciate what you’re saying, Mr Hughes, but surely it would be more logical …’ What Franklin occasionally wanted to say, though never did, was that
these brisk guesses about earlier civilizations seemed to him to have their foundation as often as not in Hollywood epics starring Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster. He imagined himself hearing out one of these jokers and replying, with a skirl of irony on the adverb, Of course, you realize that the film of Ben Hur isn’t
reliable?’ But not this trip. In fact, not until he knew it was going to be his last trip. Then he could let go a little. He could be franker with his audience, less careful with the booze, more receptive to the flirting glance.

The visitors were late for Franklin Hughes’s lecture on Knossos, and he had already done the bit in which he pretended to be Sir Arthur Evans when they opened the double doors and fired a single shot into the ceiling. Franklin, still headily involved in his own performance, murmured, ‘Can I have a translation of that?’ but it was an old joke, and not enough to recapture the passengers’ attention. They had already forgotten Knossos and were watching the tall man with a moustache and glasses who was coming to take Franklin’s place at the lectern. Under normal circumstances, Franklin might have yielded him the microphone after a courteous inquiry about his credentials. But given that the man was carrying a large machine-gun and wore one of those red check head-dresses which used to be shorthand for lovable desert warriors loyal to Lawrence of Arabia but in recent years had become shorthand for baying terrorists eager to massacre the innocent, Franklin simply made a vague ‘Over to you’ gesture with his hands and sat down on his chair.

Franklin’s audience – as he still thought of them in a brief proprietorial flurry – fell silent. Everyone was avoiding an incautious movement; each breath was discreetly taken. There were three visitors, and the other two were guarding the double doors into the lecture room. The tall one with the glasses had an almost scholarly air as he tapped the microphone in the manner of lecturers everywhere: partly to see if it was working, partly to attract attention. The second half of this gesture was not strictly necessary.

‘I apologize for the inconvenience,’ he began, setting off a
nervous laugh or two. ‘But I am afraid it is necessary to interrupt your holiday for a while. I hope it will not be a long interruption. You will all stay here, sitting exactly where you are, until we tell you what to do.’

A voice, male, angry and American, asked from the middle of the auditorium, ‘Who are you and what the hell do you want?’ The Arab swayed back to the microphone he had just left, and with the contemptuous suavity of a diplomat, replied, ‘I am sorry, I am not taking questions at this juncture.’ Then, just to make sure he was not mistaken for a diplomat, he went on. ‘We are not people who believe in unnecessary violence. However, when I fired the shot into the ceiling to attract your attention, I had set this little catch here so that the gun only fires one shot at a time. If I change the catch’ – he did so while holding the weapon half-aloft like an arms instructor with an exceptionally ignorant class – ‘the gun will continue to fire until the magazine is empty. I hope that is clear.’

The Arab left the hall. People held hands; there were occasional sniffs and sobs, but mostly silence. Franklin glanced across to the far left of the auditorium at Tricia. His assistants were allowed to come to his lectures, though not to sit in direct line of sight – ‘Mustn’t start me thinking about the wrong thing.’ She didn’t appear frightened, more apprehensive about what the form was. Franklin wanted to say, ‘Look, this hasn’t happened to me before, it isn’t normal, I don’t know what to do,’ but settled instead for an indeterminate nod. After ten minutes of stiff-necked silence, an American woman in her mid-fifties stood up. Immediately one of the two visitors guarding the door shouted at her. She took no notice, just as she ignored the whispers and grabbing hand of her husband. She walked down the central aisle to the gunmen, stopped a couple of yards short and said in a clear, slow voice suppurating with panic, ‘I have to go to the goddam bathroom.’

The Arabs neither replied nor looked her in the eye. Instead, with a small gesture of their guns, they indicated as surely as such things can be that she was currently a large target and that any further advance would confirm the fact in an obvious and
final way. She turned, walked back to her seat and began to cry. Another woman on the right of the hall immediately started sobbing. Franklin looked across at Tricia again, nodded, got to his feet, deliberately didn’t look at the two guards, and went across to the lectern. ‘As I was saying …’ He gave an authoritative cough and all eyes reverted to him. ‘I was saying that the Palace of Knossos was not by any means the first human settlement on the site. What we think of as the Minoan strata reach down to about seventeen feet, but below this there are signs of human habitation down to twenty-six feet or so. There was life where the palace was built for at least ten thousand years before the first stone was laid …’

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