A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (8 page)

Franklin was put for the night in a stateroom with the Swedish family and the three Japanese couples. They were, he deduced, the safest group among the passengers. The Swedes because their nation was famously neutral; Franklin and the Japanese presumably because in recent times Ireland and Japan had produced terrorists. How ludicrous. The six Japanese who had come on a cultural cruise in Europe hadn’t been asked whether they supported the various political killers in their own country; nor had Franklin been quizzed about the IRA. A Guinness passport awarded through some genealogical fluke suggested the possibility of sympathy with the visitors, and this was his protection. In fact, Franklin hated the IRA, just as he hated any political group which interfered, or might interfere, with the fulltime job of being Franklin Hughes. For all he knew – and in accordance with his annual policy he had not asked – Tricia was far more sympathetic to the various worldwide groups of homicidal maniacs indirectly committed to interrupting the career of Franklin Hughes. Yet she was herded in with the diabolic British.

There was little talk in the stateroom that night. The Japanese kept to themselves; the Swedish family spent the time
trying to distract their children by talking of home and Christmas and British football teams; while Franklin felt burdened by what he knew. He was scared and sickened; but isolation seemed to breed complicity with his captors. He tried thinking of his two wives and the daughter who must be – what? – fifteen now: he always had to remember the year of her birth and work it out from there. He should get down to see her more often. Perhaps he could take her with him when they filmed the next series. She could watch his famous walking shot in the Forum; she’d like that. Now where could he place the camera? Or perhaps a tracking shot. And some extras in toga and sandals – yes, he liked it …

Next morning Franklin was taken to the purser’s office. The leader of the visitors waved him to sit down. ‘I have decided to take your advice.’

‘My advice?’

‘The negotiations, I fear, are going badly. That is to say, there are no negotiations. We have explained our position but they are extremely unwilling to explain their position.’

‘They?’

‘They. So, unless things change very quickly, we shall be forced to put some pressure on them.’

‘Pressure?’ Even Franklin, who could not have made a career in television without skill in trading euphemisms, was enraged. ‘You mean killing people.’

‘That is the only pressure, sadly, which they understand.’

‘What about trying other sorts?’

‘But we have. We have tried sitting on our hands and waiting for world opinion to come to our help. We have tried being good and hoping that we would be rewarded by getting our land back. I can assure you that these systems do not work.’

‘Why not try something in between?’

‘An embargo on American goods, Mr Hughes? I do not think they would take us seriously. A lack of Chevrolets being imported to Beirut? No, regrettably there are people who only understand certain kinds of pressure. The world is only advanced …’

‘ … by killing people? A cheerful philosophy.’

‘The world is not a cheerful place. I would have thought your investigations into the ancient civilizations would have taught you that. But anyway … I have decided to take your advice. We shall explain to the passengers what is happening. How they are mixed up in history. What that history is.’

‘I’m sure they’ll appreciate that.’ Franklin felt queasy. ‘Tell them what’s going on.’

‘Exactly. You see, at four o’clock it will become necessary to … to start killing them. Naturally we hope it will not be necessary. But if it is … You are right, things must be explained to them if it is possible. Even a soldier knows why he is fighting. It is fair that the passengers be told as well.’

‘But they’re not fighting.’ The Arab’s tone, as much as what he said, riled Franklin. ‘They’re civilians. They’re on holiday. They’re not fighting.’

‘There are no civilians any more,’ replied the Arab. ‘Your governments pretend, but that is not the case. Those nuclear weapons of yours, they are only to be let off against an army? The Zionists, at least, understand this. All their people are fighting. To kill a Zionist civilian is to kill a soldier.’

‘Look, there aren’t any Zionist civilians on the ship, for Christ’s sake. They’re people like poor old Mr Talbot who’s lost his passport and has been turned into an American.’

‘All the more reason why things must be explained.’

‘I see,’ said Franklin, and he let the sneer come through. ‘So you’re going to assemble the passengers and explain to them how they’re all really Zionist soldiers and that’s why you’ve got to kill them.’

‘No, Mr Hughes, you misunderstand. I am not going to explain anything. They would not listen. No, Mr Hughes,
you
are going to explain things to them.’

‘Me?’ Franklin didn’t feel nervous. Indeed, he felt decisive. ‘Certainly not. You can do your own dirty work.’

‘But Mr Hughes, you are a public speaker. I have heard you, if only for a short time. You do it so well. You could introduce a
historical view of the matter. My second-in-command will give you all the information you require.’

‘I don’t require any information. Do your own dirty work.’

‘Mr Hughes, I really cannot negotiate in two directions at the same time. It is nine-thirty. You have half an hour to decide. At ten you will say that you do the lecture. You will then have two hours, three hours if that is required, with my second-in-command for the briefing.’ Franklin was shaking his head, but the Arab continued regardless. ‘Then you have until three o’clock to prepare the lecture. I suggest that you make it last forty-five minutes. I shall listen to you, of course, with the greatest interest and attention. And at three-forty-five, if I am satisfied with how you explain matters, we shall in return accept the Irish nationality of your recently married wife. That is all I have to say, you will send me your reply at ten o’clock.’

Back in the stateroom with the Swedes and the Japanese, Franklin remembered a TV series about psychology he’d once been asked to present. It had folded directly after the pilot, a loss nobody much regretted. One item in that show reported an experiment for measuring the point at which self-interest takes over from altruism. Put like this, it sounded almost respectable; but Franklin had been revolted by the actual test. The researchers had taken a female monkey who had recently given birth and put her in a special cage. The mother was still feeding and grooming her infant in a way presumably not too dissimilar from the maternal behaviour of the experimenters’ wives. Then they turned a switch and began heating up the metal floor of the monkey’s cage. At first she jumped around in discomfort, then squealed a lot, then took to standing on alternate legs, all the while holding her infant in her arms. The floor was made hotter, the monkey’s pain more evident. At a certain point the heat from the floor became unbearable, and she was faced with a choice, as the experimenters put it, between altruism and self-interest. She either had to suffer extreme pain and perhaps death in order to protect her offspring, or else place her infant on the floor and stand on it to keep herself from harm.
In every case, sooner or later self-interest had triumphed over altruism.

Franklin had been sickened by the experiment, and glad the TV series hadn’t got beyond the pilot, if that was what he would have had to present. Now he felt a bit like that monkey. He was being asked to choose between two equally repellent ideas: that of abandoning his girlfriend while retaining his integrity, or rescuing his girlfriend by justifying to a group of innocent people why it was right that they should be killed. And would that rescue Trish? Franklin hadn’t even been promised his own safety; perhaps the pair of them, reclassified as Irish, would merely be moved to the bottom of the killing list, but still remain on it. Who would they start with? The Americans, the British? If they started with the Americans, how long would that delay the killing of the British? Fourteen, sixteen Americans – he translated that brutally into seven or eight hours. If they started at four, and the governments stood firm, by midnight they would start killing the British. What order would they do it in? Men first? Random? Alphabetical? Trish’s surname was Maitland. Right in the middle of the alphabet. Would she see the dawn?

He imagined himself standing on Tricia’s body to protect his own burning feet and shuddered. He would have to do the lecture. That was the difference between a monkey and a human being. In the last analysis, humans were capable of altruism. This was why he was not a monkey. Of course, it was more than probable that when he gave the lecture his audience would conclude the exact opposite – that Franklin was operating out of self-interest, saving his own skin by a foul piece of subservience. But this was the thing about altruism, it was always liable to be misunderstood. And he could explain everything to them all afterwards. If there was an afterwards. If there was a them all.

When the second-in-command arrived, Franklin asked to see the leader again. He intended demanding safe-conduct for Tricia and himself in exchange for the lecture. However, the second-in-command had only come for a reply, not for renewed
conversation. Dully, Franklin nodded his head. He’d never been much good at negotiating anyway.

At two-forty-five Franklin was taken to his cabin and allowed to wash. At three o’clock he entered the lecture hall to find the most attentive audience he had ever faced. He filled a glass from the carafe of stale water that nobody had bothered to change. He sensed below him the swell of exhaustion, a rip-tide of panic. After only a day the men seemed almost bearded, the women crumpled. They had already begun not to look like themselves, or the selves that Franklin had spent ten days with. Perhaps this made them easier to kill.

Before he got his own writing credit Franklin had become expert at presenting the ideas of others as plausibly as possible. But never had he felt such apprehension at a script; never had a director imposed such conditions; never had his fee been so bizarre. When first agreeing to the task he had persuaded himself that he could surely find a way of tipping off his audience that he was acting under duress. He would think up some ploy like that of the false Minoan inscriptions; or he would make his lecture so exaggerated, pretend such enthusiasm for the cause thrust upon him, that nobody could possibly miss the irony. No, that wouldn’t work. ‘Irony,’ an ancient TV producer had once confided to him, ‘may be defined as what people miss.’ And the passengers certainly wouldn’t be on the lookout for it in their present circumstances. The briefing had made things yet harder: the second-in-command had given precise instructions, and added that any deviation from them would result not just in Miss Maitland remaining British, but in Franklin’s Irish passport no longer being recognized. They certainly knew how to negotiate, these bastards.

‘I had been hoping,’ he began, ‘that the next time I addressed you I would be taking up again the story of Knossos. Unfortunately, as you are aware, the circumstances have changed. We have visitors amongst us.’ He paused and looked down the aisle at the leader, who stood before the double doors with a guard on each side. ‘Things are different. We are in the hands of others. Our … destiny is no longer our own.’ Franklin coughed. This wasn’t
very good. Already he was straying into euphemism. The one duty, the one intellectual duty he had, was to speak as directly as he could. Franklin would freely admit he was a showman and would stand on his head in a bucket of herrings if that would raise viewing figures a few thousand; but there was a residual feeling in him – a mixture of admiration and shame – which made him hold in special regard those communicators who were deeply unlike him: the ones who spoke quietly, in their own simple words, and whose stillness gave them authority. Franklin, who knew he could never be like them, tried to acknowledge their example as he spoke.

‘I have been asked to explain things to you. To explain how you – we – find ourselves in the position we are now in. I am not an expert on the politics of the Middle East, but I shall try to make things as clear as I can. We should perhaps begin by going back to the nineteenth century, long before the establishment of the state of Israel …’ Franklin found himself back in an easy rhythm, a bowler pitching on a length. He felt his audience begin to relax. The circumstances were unusual, but they were being told a story, and they were offering themselves to the story-teller in the manner of audiences down the ages, wanting to see how things turned out, wanting to have the world explained to them. Hughes sketched in an idyllic nineteenth century, all nomads and goat-farming and traditional hospitality which allowed you to stay in someone else’s tent for three days before being asked what the purpose of your visit might be. He talked of early Zionist settlers and Western concepts of land-ownership. The Balfour Declaration. Jewish immigration from Europe. The Second World War. European guilt over the Holocaust being paid for by the Arabs. The Jews having learned from their persecution by the Nazis that the only way to survive was to be like Nazis. Their militarism, expansionism, racism. Their pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian air force at the start of the Six Day War being the exact moral equivalent of Pearl Harbor (Franklin deliberately did not look at the Japanese – or the Americans – at this moment, nor for some time thereafter). The refugee camps. The theft of land. The artificial support of
the Israeli economy by the dollar. The atrocities committed against the dispossessed. The Jewish lobby in America. The Arabs only asking from the Western powers for the same justice in the Middle East as had already been accorded to the Jews. The regrettable necessity of violence, a lesson taught the Arabs by the Jews, just as it had been taught the Jews by the Nazis.

Franklin had used up two thirds of his time. If he could feel a brooding hostility in some parts of the audience, there was also, strangely, a wider drowsiness, as if they’d heard this story before and had not believed it then either. ‘And so we come to the here and now.’ That brought them back to full attention; despite the circumstances, Franklin felt a bubble of pleasure. He was the hypnotist who snaps his fingers. ‘In the Middle East, we must understand, there are no civilians any more. The Zionists understand this, the Western governments do not. We, alas, are not civilians. The Zionists have made this happen. You – we – are being held hostage by the Black Thunder group to secure the release of three of their members. You may remember’ (though Franklin doubted it, since incidents of this kind were frequent, almost interchangeable) ‘that two years ago a civilian aircraft carrying three members of the Black Thunder group was forced down by the American air force in Sicily, that the Italian authorities in contravention of international law compounded this act of piracy by arresting the three freedom fighters, that Britain defended America’s action at the United Nations, and that the three men are now in prison in France and Germany. The Black Thunder group does not turn the other cheek, and this legitimate … hijack’ – Franklin used the word carefully, with a glance at the leader as if to demonstrate how he disdained euphemism – ‘is in response to that act of piracy. Unfortunately the Western governments do not show the same concern for their citizens as the Black Thunder group shows for its freedom fighters. Unfortunately they are so far declining to release the prisoners. Regrettably the Black Thunder group has no alternative but to carry out its intended threat which was made very clear from the beginning to the Western governments …

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