The Siren's Song

Fredric Raphael

1942. 'One cannot always like the unfortunate.' The second secretary from the British Embassy, Gareth Whitebrook, whom Iakobos has been deputed to see, makes this remark as if it established something in common between them. Neutral tone, neutral ground; nothing personal; on we go then, you and I. They are on a quayside on the Bosphorus; two men allotted the same short straw. Iakobos frowns, as if the English language, not the messenger who speaks it, were what puzzled him. 'Nothing more H.M.G. can do.' Having done what? Official sentence is passed; full stop. I. nods in disagreement.
Kurds in peakless white caps hurry away with bulging cargoes, like sacked secrets, on tilted trolleys. Others tote loads on their backs, with alleviating straps over their foreheads. Servitude is a Kurdish monopoly here. Every nation has its burdensome burden-carriers. Mutatis mutandis, don't you agree? Young Whitebrook's problem is the unfortunates above them on the Broda; these—they would be, frankly—Jews; pilgrims who can move neither forward nor back, at least until pushed. So, what's to do?
For Captain Rubik, an Albanian Epirot, they are a cargo of stinking fish; not his first. He has asked Iakobos to deal with the authorities because he is clever, and handsome, and because Rubik is sure that he will fail (and a captain must avoid failing himself). Gareth Whitebrook implies that some higher power is dictating to the otherwise sympathetic British (their record on kindness to animals is, after all, second to none). A consideration not of London's making forbids them granting the Jews visas to Palestine. 'Unfortunately.' Iakobos explains what Whitebrook knows: Ankara will not allow the Jews to set foot on land unless they have the means to leave Turkey. Without transit visas to Palestine, they are stymied.
'You'll simply have to sail somewhere else,' the Englishman says. 'Unfortunately. Isn't whence-you-came a possibility?'

I. is Greek, from Thessaloniki. He has commercial English (and some Ladino); his father was chief clerk to a ship's chandler, for some time, in Liverpool; I. worked more recently for a Jew chandler in Thessaloniki, hence the Ladino and an almost furtive concern for the passengers. I. amuses Whitebrook with the pupil's frown that corrugates his forehead at the simplicity of the message which comes to him in the King's English. I.'s dark eyes, curly black hair (not oiled, is it?), pouty lips are not what an Englishman always likes, but the two of them have in common this burdensome company leaning along the rails of the Broda; more heavy shadows than men. Glance at the pleading, accusing, hooded, unblinking, damnably hopeful faces! Isn't the hope what irritates one most?
'We've got engine trouble. Bad. Worn pistons. No power.'
'Ah well, this is a port. They must have people for that.' Work for other people has to be good news; almost an exit line. Get out of jail free. We're never far from childhood.
'And we're heavily overloaded. In England, you would not allow us to sail.'
'Not in England though, are we? Hence...' An English pause.
'And in very bad repair. Rust. Rotten plates.'
'No less out of my province, unfortunately.' Meaning: must you? Allowing: 'Look here, I must be getting back. Black-tie nonsense tonight. Unfortunately.'
'Black tie?' The young man is corrugated again.
One can still be nice: 'Dinner-jacket affair. Embassy do. Wish I could have been more helpful.' And, thank God, that's about it. Is that the time already? A dozen things to do!

Of his uniform, Captain Rubik wears only the anchored cap; from the neck down, as if he had already begun to abandon ship, the canvas trousers and the cotton vest (which ventilates sour armpits) rehearse survivor's anonymity. The kit of sauve qui peut. Without looking at I., Rubik tilts a bottle of raki towards two squat, clouded glasses and asks to hear what he knows already: whether I. achieved anything. I. tells him 'Tipote'; nothing. Rubik says, 'The British are not human; they cannot be bought. If the Turks make us sail when they make us sail—what then?'
His first mate is young; I. has been hired to be young, and guileless, but he needs no beard to know that the ship's certificate of seaworthiness has been bought. Rubik's is the voice that says nothing and at the same time tells him what he does not want to hear: once at sea again, the Jews and any officers or crew who stay to help them are doomed. When the ship goes, it will go—pouf!—like that. The facts shout; therefore, nothing needs to be said. Iakobos knows that his duty, and the Captain's, is to the passengers; that is why, in the circumstances, both men hate the Jews. Between the impossible and the immoral, man chooses freely. Rubik means to survive; and will. Iakobos can; and...? This is a cargo ship; one does not die for one's cargo. 'If we are forced to sail, we are forced to think of ourselves,' the Captain says, as if such a thought were unusual with him.
'Why not tell the Turks that the ship is unseaworthy?'
'Never force people to hear things they know already.'
'We could sink her here. It wouldn't take much.'
Rubik looks at Iakobos as if his presence were now uninvited. 'Sabotage? I am the Captain. Think of the future. My owners tell me to sail, I sail.' Servility doubles as authority; callousness is dignity. Another glass? Sweet to refuse, when refusal carries no sanction.
The ship will sail and the ship will sink and the Captain instructs I.: Be ready with the lifeboat, the only seaworthy lifeboat, when the moment comes. Be glad that orders are orders: others must not get into it. Rubik is saving himself by saving I., and I. by saving himself. Discipline before morals. Unfortunately? Gareth Whitebrook's adverb has taken root in I.'s mind. Unfortunately, the ship is both unseaworthy and insured; and because she is not fit to sail, she will sail. Insurance is immortal; it cannot sink, has no location; it has pure being. It precedes (and defines) all acts of God.

The cargo is several hundred and some filthy stinking Jews who shit and piss and vomit and want food and water, water. In charge of them are four Zionists from the organisation which has chartered the ship; three dangerous men, and a woman (Irina), not underfed, not passive. They show their contempt for Rubik, and for the crew and—with different eyes—for the refugees they have to escort to Eretz Israel, tant bien que mal (Irina is Russo-French). Their suspicion angers and alarms the Captain. It also warrants premeditation; to survive, with honour, he cannot have witnesses to his survival. The Jews are dead or he is. He is Captain enough not to share his thoughts with I.; I. is cursed with his kindness.
I. is twenty-two years old, a sailor since he was fifteen. He is ambitious and without connections; there are no easy ladders for him. He will do what Rubik asks, and plans. As time passes, the inevitable fattens like a rat in the rancid, trickling innards of the Broda. There is strength, of a kind, in swallowing filth, in living in it, in learning to tolerate, digest, ignore it: degrading exaltation. It makes I. a man, or will, if all goes badly.
Rubik's confidence in I. flatters and disgusts the young man; the disgust lies in feeling flattered. Rubik's favours are reeking kisses which I. does not refuse; his whispered schemes are the siren's song which promises I. hateful salvation. Unfortunately.

Gareth Whitebrook has a double-ended black tie, and it is a bastard to tie; his chin is high and his eyes are painfully lowered in order to see the knot. We all have our problems. Unfortunately.

The Broda cannot stay and she cannot go. The Turks fear what it is their convenient right to fear: typhus, cholera, dysentery. Providential bacillic trinity. The British have made their decision and hold to it as if it were not theirs; that is what British decisions are like (sorry about that). The owners insist that the ship must sail; to prove it, they can send no money for repairs. The Turks stand on the quay and look at the rust and do not see the problem. The Jews look down at the Turks, as if from below them.
A wide, flat tug sidles in; its cable cheeses the brothy water, tautens, sings. Mehmet II is sent to tow the powerless Broda into the Bosphorus, under the Anatolian breasts and pricking minarets of the mosques, past the little cathedral, low to the water; its cross is all there is to be seen of the city's Christian past. Two Lascars have jumped ship. I. remains, buoyed by the sombre levity that says, 'I am not only here; I am also ahead of myself; I see myself surviving.'
The Lebanese engineer has managed to make some mechanical noise come from below decks. A parody of power screws the Broda's slow wake into sour green soup. The Zionists come to Rubik's cabin and say that if the ship reenters the mouth of the Danube, they will kill him. In case he has any doubts. Their threats make cowardice wisdom.
When the ship is torpedoed, or hits wreckage, it splits soggily, soundlessly, like a paper bag full of water. A dud torpedo would explain it. The night is not rough; the indifferent sea shrugs and the Broda collapses. Soft coffin, it is swallowed in a single gulp. Already in the lifeboat, the Captain and the first mate are proved right; the Captain has saved Iakobos's life, and may be forgiven. The Jews are drowned. This is the Black Sea, not the Red. That is Ararat, where the stars are not.

* * *

1946. Piraeus. Iakobos has been in Egypt for almost four years. He is a medalled lieutenant in the Greek navy, a freshly risen sun in his glaring whites. He is a subsidised conqueror; part of what he has conquered—trust the British!—is his Greekness. He brings concocted freedom to his country. There are kinds of gratitude which enslave the grateful and embitter the benefactor. I. wishes he were less popular; it would make his compatriots less foreign to him. The unheroic hands that slap and caress him—'Mprabo, mprabo!'—also pick the pockets of his soul.
'Iakobos!' It is Rubik. Iakobos, laundered and creased like an Englishman, frowns at his old (younger!) Captain with the fearful relief of a man recognised for what he is. Rubik too is disguised by valiant achievement; he has been the master of two tankers: the Persian Gulf to Suez, Suez to Sicily, Napoli, Genova, that has been his beat, with how many thousand tons of oil? He lost one ship in the Med, but saved his crew. Hero greets hero; liar, liar. Rubik is on his way to see old Tachmindji, the bastard. Coming? Iakobos declines, and goes along.
The long, file-filled upstairs offices are not changed. Look! The same old upright telephones, black daffodils. Here it is before the war; out there it is after. The dark ditch can be straddled at will. Tachmindji—has he suffered some kind of a stroke?—might have been happy never to see the two survivors again, but he is happier to welcome two hands which can haul him safely into the future. Iakobos has a good name with the British, Rubik has connections in the Gulf. Therefore: 'Kalos irthate!' Welcoming Tachmindji has tears in his cold old eyes—where's that big silk handkerchief?—as nervous urgency rolls back the slatted top of his rosewood desk. He rocks the cork from a special bottle he kept for today, or tomorrow. On the narrow ledge above the desk is a silver-framed photograph. The old man (fifty-eight!) passes it to Iakobos: 'You remember Irine?' Peace with the face of a beautiful girl.
She is amused to be docile. She has a face like an Egyptian; the want of smile is a kind of humour. She is amused, and does not laugh; yielding, she does not give in. There is, Iakobos knows, and wishes he loved, something in her which he can never know and which can never love him. There is comfort in their incompleteness; it prompts desire which is manly, but cannot relax to affection. When they are married, and they soon are, Iakobos is armed by the submissiveness in both of them: Irine gives herself to a stranger; the stranger gives himself to her father. Their facsimile of passion is more passionate, more reckless (in secret), than passion itself. It almost makes them like each other; it almost generates love. They are Greeks; they understand what it is to be what they can never be. The past is no good to them. They dignify each other with the rigour of their falseness; if they could speak frankly, if they dared to love truly, they would teach each other contempt for their cowardices. Fraud rings truer than truth.
Irine's father becomes Minister of Marine for long enough to give certain favours; it is more important, he tells Iakobos, to distribute favours when you are powerful than to collect them. It is not only more blessed to give than to receive; in the long run, it is also more profitable, pethimoo. There is no better use for bread than to cast it on the waters. Jesus was a Jew, my boy; we are all alike, Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, but very few of us are lucky. You need not believe in God, but never make the mistake of not thanking Him.
The Minister has a black labrador called Dick and another called Rover. He takes them, and Irine and Iakobos, to the island where he was born. It is a white bone wedged in the mouth of the sea. Solon spoke contemptuously of its poverty two-and-a-half millennia ago. The people call the Minister 'master'; they are still poor.