Authors: Julian Barnes
It seemed normal to be lecturing again. It also felt as if some feathered cloak of leadership had been thrown over him. He decided to acknowledge this, glancingly at first. Did the guards understand English? Perhaps. Had they ever been to Knossos? Unlikely. So Franklin, while describing the council chamber at the palace, invented a large clay tablet which, he claimed, had probably hung over the gypsum throne. It read – he looked towards the Arabs at this point – ‘We are living in difficult times’. As he continued describing the site, he unearthed more tablets, many of which, as he now fearlessly began to point out, had a universal message. ‘We must above all not do anything rash’, one said. Another: ‘Empty threats are as useless as empty scabbards’. Another: ‘The tiger always waits before it springs’ (Hughes wondered briefly if Minoan Civilization knew about tigers). He was not sure how many of his audience had latched on to what he was doing, but there came an occasional assenting growl. In a curious way, he was also enjoying himself. He ended his tour of the palace with one of the least typically Minoan of his many inscriptions: ‘There is a great power where the sun sets which will not permit certain things’. Then he shuffled his notes together and sat down to warmer applause than usual. He looked across at Tricia and winked. She had tears in her eyes. He glanced towards the two Arabs and thought, that’s shown you, now you can see what we’re made of, there’s some stiff upper lip for you. He rather wished he’d made up some Minoan aphorism
about people who wore red tea-towels on their heads, but recognized he wouldn’t have had the nerve. He’d keep that one for later, after they were all safe.
They waited for half an hour in a silence that smelt of urine before the leader of the visitors returned. He had a brief word with the guards and walked up the aisle to the lectern. ‘I understand that you have been lectured on the palace of Knossos,’ he began, and Franklin felt sweat burst into the palms of his hands. ‘That is good. It is important for you to understand other civilizations. How they are great, and how’ – he paused meaningfully – ‘they fall. I hope very much that you will enjoy your trip to Knossos.’
He was leaving the microphone when the same American voice, this time more conciliatory in tone, as if heedful of the Minoan tablets, said, ‘Excuse me, would you be able to tell us roughly who you are and roughly what you want?’
The Arab smiled. ‘I am not sure that would be a good idea at this stage.’ He gave a nod to indicate he had finished, then paused, as if a civil question at least deserved a civil answer. ‘Let me put it this way. If things go according to plan, you will soon be able to continue your explorations of the Minoan Civilization. We shall disappear just as we came, and we shall seem to you simply to have been a dream. Then you can forget us. You will remember only that we were a small delay. So there is no need for you to know who we are or where we come from or what we want.’
He was about to leave the low podium when Franklin, rather to his own surprise, said, ‘Excuse me.’ The Arab turned. ‘No more questions.’ Hughes went on, ‘This is not a question. I just think … I’m sure you’ve got other things on your mind … if we’re going to have to stay here you ought to let us go to the lavatory.’ The leader of the visitors frowned. ‘The bathroom,’ Franklin explained; then again, ‘the toilet.’
‘Of course. You will be able to go to the toilet when we move you.’
‘When will that be?’ Franklin felt himself a little carried away by his self-appointed role. For his part the Arab noted some
unacceptable lack of compliance. He replied brusquely, ‘When we decide.’
He left. Ten minutes later an Arab they had not seen before came in and whispered to Hughes. He stood up. ‘They are going to move us from here to the dining-room. We are to be moved in twos. Occupants of the same cabin are to identify themselves as such. We will be taken to our cabins, where we will be allowed to go to the lavatory. We are also to collect our passports, but nothing else.’ The Arab whispered again. ‘And we are not allowed to lock the lavatory door.’ Without being asked, Franklin went on, ‘I think these visitors to the ship are quite serious. I don’t think we should do anything which might upset them.’
Only one guard was available to move the passengers, and the process took several hours. As Franklin and Tricia were being taken to C deck, he remarked to her, in the casual tone of one commenting on the weather, ‘Take the ring off your right hand and put it on your wedding finger. Turn the stone round so that you can’t see it. Don’t do it now, do it when you’re having a pee.’
When they reached the dining-room their passports were examined by a fifth Arab. Tricia was sent to the far end, where the British had been put in one corner and the Americans in another. In the middle of the room were the French, the Italians, two Spaniards and the Canadians. Nearest the door were the Japanese, the Swedes and Franklin, the solitary Irishman. One of the last couples to be brought in were the Zimmermanns, a pair of stout, well-dressed Americans. Hughes had at first placed the husband in the garment business, some master cutter who had set up on his own; but a conversation on Paros had revealed him to be a recently retired professor of philosophy from the Midwest. As the couple passed Franklin’s table on their way to the American quarter, Zimmermann muttered lightly, ‘Separating the clean from the unclean.’
When they were all present, Franklin was taken off to the purser’s office, where the leader was installed. He found himself
wondering if the slightly bulbous nose and the moustache were by any chance attached to the glasses; perhaps they all came off together.
‘Ah, Mr Hughes. You seem to be their spokesman. At any event, now your position is official. You will explain to them the following. We are doing our best to make them comfortable, but they must realize that there are certain difficulties. They will be allowed to talk to one another for five minutes at each hour. At the same time those who wish to go to the toilet will be allowed to do so. One person at a time. I can see that they are all sensible people and would not like them to decide not to be sensible. There is one man who says he cannot find his passport. He says he is called Talbot.’
‘Mr Talbot, yes.’ A vague, elderly Englishman who tended to ask questions about religion in the Ancient World. A mild fellow with no theories of his own, thank God.
‘He is to sit with the Americans.’
‘But he’s British. He comes from Kidderminster.’
‘If he remembers where his passport is and he is British he can sit with the British.’
‘You can tell he’s British. I can vouch for him being British.’ The Arab looked unimpressed. ‘He doesn’t talk like an American, does he?’
‘I have not talked to him. Still, talking is not proof, is it? You, I think, talk like a British but your passport says you are not a British.’ Franklin nodded slowly. ‘So we will wait for the passport.’
‘Why are you separating us like this?’
‘We think you will like to sit with one another.’ The Arab made a sign for him to go.
‘There’s one other thing. My wife. Can she sit with me?’
‘Your wife?’ The man looked at a list of passengers in front of him. ‘You have no wife.’
‘Yes I do. She’s travelling as Tricia Maitland. It’s her maiden name. We were married three weeks ago.’ Franklin paused, then added in a confessional tone, ‘My third wife, actually.’
But the Arab seemed unimpressed by Franklin’s harem. ‘You
were married three weeks ago? And yet it seems you do not share the same cabin. Are things going so badly?’
‘No, I have a separate cabin for my work, you see. The lecturing. It’s a luxury, having another cabin, a privilege.’
‘She is your wife?’ The tone gave nothing away.
‘Yes she is,’ he replied, mildly indignant.
‘But she has a British passport.’
‘She’s Irish. You become Irish if you marry an Irishman. It’s Irish law.’
‘Mr Hughes, she has a British passport.’ He shrugged as if the dilemma were insoluble, then found a solution. ‘But if you wish to sit with your wife, then you may go and sit with her at the British table.’
Franklin smiled awkwardly. ‘If I’m the passengers’ spokesman, how do I get to see you to pass on the passengers’ demands?’
‘The passengers’ demands? No, you have not understood. The passengers do not have demands. You do not see me unless I want to see you.’
After Franklin had relayed the new orders, he sat at his table by himself and thought about the position. The good part was that so far they had been treated with reasonable civility; no-one had yet been beaten up or shot, and their captors didn’t seem to be the hysterical butchers they might have expected. On the other hand, the bad part lay quite close to the good part: being unhysterical, the visitors might also prove reliable, efficient, hard to divert from their purpose. And what was their purpose? Why had they hijacked the
? Who were they negotiating with? And who was steering the sodding ship, which as far as Franklin could tell was going round in large, slow circles?
From time to time, he would nod encouragingly to the Japanese at the next table. Passengers at the far end of the dining-room, he couldn’t help noting, would occasionally look up in his direction, as if checking that he was still there. He’d become the liaison man, perhaps even the leader. That Knossos lecture, in the circumstances, had been little short of brilliant; a
lot more ballsy than he’d imagined possible. It was the sitting alone like this that got him down; it made him brood. His initial burst of emotion – something close to exhilaration – was seeping away; in its place came lethargy and apprehension. Perhaps he should go and sit with Tricia and the Brits. But then they might take his citizenship away from him. This dividing-up of the passengers: did it mean what he feared it might mean?
Late that afternoon they heard a plane fly over, quite low. There was a muted cheer from the American section of the dining-room; then the plane went away. At six o’clock one of the Greek stewards appeared with a large tray of sandwiches; Franklin noted the effect of fear on hunger. At seven, as he went for a pee, an American voice whispered, ‘Keep up the good work.’ Back at his table, he tried to look soberly confident. The trouble was, the more he reflected, the less cheerful he felt. In recent years Western governments had been noisy about terrorism, about standing tall and facing down the threat; but the threat never seemed to understand that it was being faced down, and continued much as before. Those in the middle got killed; governments and terrorists survived.
At nine Franklin was summoned again to the purser’s office. The passengers were to be moved for the night: the Americans back to the lecture hall, the British to the disco, and so on. These separate encampments would then be locked. It was necessary: the visitors had to get their sleep as well. Passports were to be held ready for inspection at all times.
‘What about Mr Talbot?’
‘He has become an honorary American. Until he finds his passport.’
‘What about my wife?’
‘Miss Maitland. What about her?’
‘Can she join me?’
‘Ah. Your British wife.’
‘She’s Irish. You marry an Irishman you become Irish. It’s the law.’
‘The law, Mr Hughes. People are always telling
what is the law. I am often puzzled by what they consider is lawful and what
is unlawful.’ He looked away to a map of the Mediterranean on the wall behind Franklin. ‘Is it lawful to drop bombs on refugee camps, for instance? I have often tried to discover the law which says this is permissible. But it is a long argument, and sometimes I think argument is pointless, just as the law is pointless.’ He gave a dismissive shrug. ‘As for the matter of Miss Maitland, let us hope that her nationality does not become, how shall I put it, relevant.’
Franklin tried to damp down a shudder. There were times when euphemism could be much more frightening than direct threat. ‘Are you able to tell me when it might become … relevant?’
‘They are stupid, you see. They are stupid because they think we are stupid. They lie in the most obvious way. They say they do not have the authority to act. They say arrangements cannot be made quickly. Of course they can. There is such a thing as the telephone. If they think they have learned something from previous incidents of this kind, they are stupid not to realize that we have too. We know about their tactics, the lying and the delays, all this establishing of some kind of relationship with the freedom fighters. We know all that. And we know about the limits of the body for taking action. So we are obliged by your governments to do what we say we will do. If they started negotiating at once, there would be no problem. But they only start when it is too late. It is on their heads.’
‘No,’ said Franklin. ‘It’s on our heads.’
‘You, Mr Hughes, I think, do not have to worry so soon.’
‘How soon is soon?’
‘Indeed, I think you may not have to worry at all.’
‘How soon is soon?’
The leader paused, then made a regretful gesture. ‘Tomorrow some time. The timetable, you see, is fixed. We have told them from the beginning.’
Part of Franklin Hughes could not believe he was having this conversation. Another part wanted to say he had always supported the cause of his captors – whatever that cause might be – and incidentally the Gaelic on his passport meant that he was a
member of the IRA, and for Christ’s sake could he please go to his cabin and lie down and forget all about it. Instead, he repeated, ‘Timetable?’ The Arab nodded. Without thinking, Franklin said, ‘One an hour?’ Immediately, he wished he hadn’t asked. For all he knew he was giving the fellow ideas.
The Arab shook his head. ‘Two. A pair every hour. Unless you raise the stakes they do not take you seriously.’
‘Christ. Just coming on board and killing people just like that. Just like that?’
‘You think it would be better if we explained to them why we were killing them?’ The tone was sarcastic.
‘Well, yes, actually.’
‘Do you think they would be sympathetic?’ Now there was more mockery than sarcasm. Franklin was silent. He wondered when the killing was due to start. ‘Goodnight, Mr Hughes,’ said the leader of the visitors.