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Authors: Barry Unsworth

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BOOK: Pascali's Island
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At the foot of the steps a soldier with a slung rifle emerged from a sentry-box and barred our way. He said nothing, asked us no questions, simply stood silently in front of us, effectively barring all further progress. Young, not more than twenty I should think, with a flat, expressionless Anatolian face. After a moment or two of impassive scrutiny, he unslung the rifle and held it loosely before him, pointing somewhere between Mister Bowles and me.

'We have an appointment to see the Commandant,' I said to him in Turkish, taking care to stand quite still – I had not at all liked his gesture with the rifle. The garrison troops are ill-trained, Excellency, and they are unhappy, for the most part, on this western island, far from the plateaus of home. They do not like the people here, least of all foreigners. And the recent ambushes, the deaths of their comrades, have unsettled them even further. It seemed to me within the bounds of possibility for this savage to shoot us. Mister Bowles, however, obviously not thinking along the same lines as myself, took an impatient step forward. The rifle swung upwards. It was now pointing at Mister Bowles's chest.

'This is ridiculous,' Mister Bowles said. His face had flushed darkly beneath the tan. He showed no sign of fear. 'Tell the fool to let us pass,' he said.

Fortunately at this moment Izzet Effendi appeared at the top of the steps. He spoke sharply to the guard, who even then hesitated noticeably before turning back.

At the top of the steps I introduced Mister Bowles. 'They are over-zealous,' Izzet said, in his dry querulous voice, in part apology for the behaviour of the guard. He looked carefully at Mister Bowles. 'Tell him,' he said, 'these days we must be on our guard. There are many undesirable persons on the island, professional revolutionaries, agents of all kinds. They are receiving support from foreign powers, among whom, regrettably, we must include the English. Indeed the English are prominent among them. They are anarchists, dangerous people.'

'Tell him,' Mister Bowles said, when this had been explained to him, 'that there are not many anarchists in the House of Commons as yet.'

It was the first thing approaching a joke that I had heard him say. I did not translate it, however. I said simply that Mister Bowles quite understood the situation.

Izzet led us inside, through a small ante-room, into the reception room, where we sat in uncomfortable brocaded chairs. Izzet enquired about the state of things in England. Mister Bowles spoke about Asquith's government. While this went on I was able to look around the room, survey the fruits of office: gilt roccoco tables; jade boxes; a large ormolu and gold clock with a decorative frame of cherubs around a central sun; a grand piano; silk roses under a glass dome. Excellency, I wonder if you know what injustice and malpractice of every sort is represented by these expensive European imports? Every inch of alabaster and rosewood is charged with suffering. Their sounds, if they could make sounds, would be a shriek. In fact, in the pauses of conversation, I seemed to hear it, this shriek of extortion. My ears have become sensitive, now that my days are running out.

Harmony depends on a balance of forces. I must accept this, must put away my sick doubts, my longing to sabotage the scales. Pythagoras stressed it, everyone has subsequently admitted it. But while harmony may characterise the universe as a whole, as a self-regulating principle, in human affairs we must do our own regulating. A certain abuse of power is only to be expected. But not Steinways, Excellency. For Mahmoud Pasha to burden the peasants in order to acquire a grand piano his thick fingers cannot play and his malformed ears cannot appreciate, that is when harmony breaks down, in every sense of the word, that is a discord impossible not to dwell on.

These thoughts were passing through my mind, when the Pasha came in and we stood up for introductions. The Pasha took three steps towards Mister Bowles, before stopping. Quite a high mark of respect. Mister Bowles had to take five or six steps to shake his hand. I have seen him often enough before, but always on public occasions, in uniform, breast resplendent with medals. Here in his house he looked grosser, the shape of his head blunter, more elemental. Perhaps with a dim sense that this was a cultural occasion he was wearing, instead of uniform, a black Stambouli frock coat, strained tight across his thick shoulders. His small, incurious eyes surveyed us both steadily for some moments, then he said, 'Hos bolduk,' in a voice rasping and slow and I replied, as etiquette demanded, 'Hos geldenez.'

We seated ourselves again, and remained for some time in a silence broken only by the faint wheeze of the Pasha's breathing, and the shrieks of his acquisitions. The blinds were drawn against the morning sunlight, but the slats were open, so that the room was patterned with light. Mister Bowles's lowered head, his eyebrows and moustache, were gilded, my hands in my patient lap were striped with light. From my right, where the courtyard would be, I heard the graded tinkling of water, falling from different levels in the fountain. From elsewhere, in the interior of the house, came the voices of women, raised in what sounded like a plaintive altercation.

Izzet began to speak. It was a question, he said, was it not, if he and the Pasha understood matters aright, it was a question of a lease of some kind… some part of the coastal area included in the Pasha's possessions… The vagueness, of course, was deliberate. All bargaining in the Levant begins and ends on a note of aristocratic indifference.

I explained the Englishman's proposition once again. I knew, of course, that desire for profit was at the moment contending in their breasts with distrust of the foreigner. There might be other reasons for wanting to obtain free access to coastal territory – reasons which an occupying power would be quick to suspect. And there was after all something strange-in view of the time and place – almost excessive, in the very legality of Mister Bowles's proceeding.

Because of all this, and just as had happened in my interview with Izzet earlier, I found myself seeking to allay their suspicions by stressing the Englishman's simplicity and sincerity, his deep faith in the processes of law. This meant, in effect, making him out as something of a simpleton – the equivalent in commercial terms of a holy fool.

They listened, the Pasha in total, basilisk immobility, Izzet directing his thin face from time to time towards the Englishman. Both deeply dishonest men, they were naturally finding it hard to understand Mister Bowles. Nothing changed in the Pasha while I spoke – he might have been sleeping – but I thought I detected a growing, predatory intentness in Izzet: the Englishman's simple faith in legality was working its magic with him.

'Tell them,' Mister Bowles said, leaning forward earnestly, 'that I should feel myself to be trespassing on the Pasha's property if I had not paid a proper sum for the right of access.'

'He wants everything done in the proper way,' I said. 'You know the English sense of fair play. Dürüst hareket. It is known the world over.'

'Biliorium,' the Pasha said. 'Türkler gibbi. In this they resemble us Turks.' He inclined his thick body forward. The movement brought into prominence the bulk of his revolver holster under the frock coat. 'You will take coffee?' he said.

Izzet went out to order it and there was silence until he returned. Then I said, 'He is willing to pay, of course. A nominal fee.'

'Nominal?' Izzet leaned forward with a snap at the word.

'He is not seeking to buy the land, only to acquire a short lease on it. A lease of one month.'

Mister Bowles must have sensed that we had reached the stage of discussing money for he said suddenly, in his light, blurting voice, 'I was thinking in the region of two hundred liras.'

I sought to cover up my consternation. This was far more than the land was worth. Fortunately at this point the coffee was brought in, by a soldier in uniform but bareheaded, and some time passed in the usual politeness.

'Listen,' I said to Mister Bowles, when we were again settled, 'you are offering too much. Leave things to me.'

To my amazement, Mister Bowles frowned and shook his head. 'Offer them two hundred liras,' he said. 'That seems to me a fair price.'

'But is it more than the land could be sold for,' I said. After all, he had charged me with the affair, and I was unwilling to sit by and allow him to be despoiled. 'Such an offer will make them suspicious,' I said.

'I think not,' Mister Bowles said. 'Please do as I ask.'

'Very well,' I said. I felt some degree of contempt for this obstinacy. 'He offers two hundred liras for the lease,' I said to Izzet, and saw his eyes flicker.

Neither he nor Mahmoud Pasha said anything for some time, but I saw almost at once that Mister Bowles had been right: they were not suspicious, they were merely, out of long habit, pretending to consider. Two hundred liras for a short lease on a few hectares of steep and stony ground, no doubt acquired only incidentally in the first place! No, they were not suspicious. I had done my preliminary work almost too well. The Englishman, they had decided, was in earnest, was a fool, was rich. The combination had gone to their heads. Their attempts at judiciousness, at the appearance of a bargaining stance, would not have deceived a child.

It deceived Mister Bowles, however, apparently, because he said suddenly, 'I could perhaps improve on that.'

'No, no,' I said hastily. 'No, they will accept.'

I saw them glance at each other. Then Izzet turned to me and said, 'Tamam. The Vali accepts the offer.'

The Pasha leaned forward again. 'As a gesture,' he said in his rasping voice, 'of friendship -' This speech was never finished, because at this moment a servant entered, a civilian in red headcloth and entari, and spoke some words very softly, leaning close to the Pasha. Listening hard, I thought I heard the name of Gesing, the commercial agent. At once Mahmoud Pasha addressed himself to the business of rising. Finally on his feet before us, he uttered excuses, something required his attention, he would return.

He did not return, however, and the rest of our business was conducted with Izzet alone. Not that much was left to do. I told Izzet that Mister Bowles would require a form of contract.

'Is that really necessary?' he said. 'The Pasha has given his word.'

I did not dare to laugh, though I was inclined to. 'He asks if the contract is necessary,' I said to Mister Bowles. He nodded vigorously. 'Absolutely,' he said. He stood up and smiled at us both. I do not think I had seem him smile before. Not counting polite stretchings of the lips. It was a gradual smile, deepening slowly, as if backed up by afterthoughts; and as he smiled his eyes widened slightly, in a way that was unusual and very engaging. 'Making out a contract is the proper thing to do,' he said. 'It serves as mutual protection.'

'He says he must have one,' I said.

'Olur,' Izzet said, with resignation. It was clear that he did not at all like the idea of the contract, though I find it difficult to see why.

'When will it be ready?' I said.

'In some days. When can he pay the money?'

'I can pay a deposit,' Mister Bowles said. 'Say five per cent of the total. When the contract is signed, that is. The balance may take a few days longer. I shall have to effect a transfer from my bank in London through the Ottoman Bank in Constantinople and then to the bank's agent on the island.' He hesitated for a moment, then said, 'I did not expect to need so much money here.'

Was it the pause, the addition, that made me doubt him? He was not given to explaining himself. Surely, if he were writing a book, as he says, he must have anticipated some such expenditure. Perhaps, of course, he did not realise that the ruins were so extensive.

Izzet did not look very happy, either, when I translated. Still, five per cent is not bad, considering the exorbitant price of the lease. If Izzet was thinking of delaying the contract till the balance arrived, Mister Bowles's next words put an end to such hopes. 'The contract must be ready for tomorrow,' he said, 'so that I can get started. I have no intention of arranging for the transfer until the contract is signed.'

'Very well.' Izzet shrugged his thin shoulders. 'You will call for the contract at my office,' he said to me. 'Shall we say at five?'

Izzet accompanied us to the foot of the steps, past the silent soldier in his box. There we shook hands and left him.

In the fiacre, on the way home, Mister Bowles and I sat as before, side by side, but I felt a difference. What had happened in the room behind us had made us, in a way I found difficult to define, accomplices.

I think it was Gesing's name I heard, Excellency. I am almost sure of it. He must be important in some way: Mahmoud Pasha rose almost with alacrity at those few whispered words.

The curiosity about the message remains with me. As does that faint suspicion of Mister Bowles – not suspicion exactly, but a feeling of complicity, of being leagued with him in some enterprise the nature of which I have not yet fully understood. That day in Lydia 's studio I felt something of this. A kind of acknowledgement. From the very first day, the day of his arrival, I felt included in his purposes.

The Greeks do not speak to me, Excellency. They do not look at me. In their minds they have written finis to me. I trail silence with me wherever I go. I am insubstantial to myself. Only here, in this room, where the silence is of my own contriving, only here do I assume my gravity of flesh. Only when writing am I real to myself, and only then is my death completely real to me. It is here I experience my worst fear of death. I look at my hands, so cunning, feel my weight on the chair. My mind orders the words… I will insist on coherence up to the moment of my death. My only courage not to gibber.

Sometimes I dream of getting off the island, getting to Constantinople, finding out what has happened to my reports. I would dedicate it to you, Excellency. My book. There is material for several volumes. I have not yet decided on a title. When I think of this possibility, this crowning of all my life's work, my heart expands with delight. Everything, then, would have been worth it, poverty, loneliness, my narrow life. But it will not happen.

BOOK: Pascali's Island
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