In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)1

Prologue, from a Journal

The Tramp at Piraeus

IT WAS ONLY a two-day crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria, but as soon as I saw the dingy little Greek steamer I felt I ought to have made other arrangements. Even from the quay it looked overcrowded, like a refugee ship; and when I went aboard I found there wasn’t enough room for everybody.

There was no deck to speak of. The bar, open on two sides to the January wind, was the size of a cupboard. Three made a crowd there, and behind his little counter the little Greek barman, serving bad coffee, was in a bad mood. Many of the chairs in the small smoking-room, and a good deal of the floor space, had been seized by overnight passengers from Italy, among them a party of overgrown American schoolchildren in their mid-teens, white and subdued but watchful. The only other public room was the dining-room, and that was being got ready for the first of the lunch sittings by stewards who were as tired and bad-tempered as the barman. Greek civility was something we had left on shore; it belonged perhaps to idleness, unemployment and pastoral despair.

But we on the upper part of the ship were lucky. We had cabins and bunks. The people on the lower deck didn’t. They were deck passengers; night and day they required only sleeping room. Below us now they sat or lay in the sun, sheltering from the wind, humped figures in Mediterranean black among the winches and orange-coloured bulkheads.

They were Egyptian Greeks. They were travelling to Egypt, but Egypt was no longer their home. They had been expelled; they were refugees. The invaders had left Egypt; after many humiliations Egypt was free; and these Greeks, the poor ones, who by simple skills had made themselves only just less poor than Egyptians, were the casualties of that freedom. Dingy Greek ships like ours had taken them out of Egypt. Now, briefly, they were going back, with tourists like ourselves, who were neutral, travelling only for the sights; with Lebanese businessmen; a troupe of Spanish night-club dancers; fat Egyptian students returning from Germany.

The tramp, when he appeared on the quay, looked very English; but that might only have been because we had no English people on board. From a distance he didn’t look like a tramp. The hat and the rucksack, the lovat tweed jacket, the grey flannels and the boots might have belonged to a romantic wanderer of an earlier generation; in that rucksack there might have been a book of verse, a journal, the beginnings of a novel.

He was slender, of medium height, and he moved from the knees down, with short springy steps, each foot lifted high off the ground. It was a stylish walk, as stylish as his polka-dotted saffron neck-scarf. But when he came nearer we saw that all his clothes were in ruin, that the knot on his scarf was tight and grimy; that he was a tramp. When he came to the foot of the gangway he took off his hat, and we saw that he was an old man, with a tremulous worn face and wet blue eyes.

He looked up and saw us, his audience. He raced up the gangway, not using the hand-ropes. Vanity! He showed his ticket to the surly Greek; and then, not looking about him, asking no questions, he continued to move briskly, as though he knew his way around the ship. He turned into a passageway that led nowhere. With comical abruptness he swung right round on one heel and brought his foot down hard.

‘Purser,’ he said to the deck-boards, as though he had just remembered something. ‘I’ll go and see the purser.’

And so he picked his way to his cabin and bunk.

Our sailing was delayed. While their places in the smoking-room were being watched over, some of the American schoolchildren had gone ashore to buy food; we were waiting for them to come back. As soon as they did – no giggles: the girls were plain, pale and abashed – the Greeks became especially furious and rushed. The Greek language grated like the anchor chain. Water began to separate us from the quay and we could see, not far from where we had been, the great black hulk of the liner Leonardo da Vinci, just docked.

The tramp reappeared. He was without his hat and rucksack and looked less nervous. Hands in trouser pockets already stuffed and bulging, legs apart, he stood on the narrow deck like an experienced sea-traveller exposing himself to the first sea breeze of a real cruise. He was also assessing the passengers; he was looking for company. He ignored people who stared at him; when others, responding to his own stare, turned to look at him he swivelled his head away.

In the end he went and stood beside a tall blond young man. His instinct had guided him well. The man he had chosen was a Yugoslav who, until the day before, had never been out of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav was willing to listen. He was baffled by the tramp’s accent but he smiled encouragingly; and the tramp spoke on.

‘I’ve been to Egypt six or seven times. Gone around the world about a dozen times. Australia, Canada, all those countries. Geologist, or used to be. First went to Canada in 1923. Been there about eight times now. I’ve been travelling for thirty-eight years. Youth-hostelling, that’s how I do it. Not a thing to be despised. New Zealand, have you been there? I went there in 1934. Between you and me, they’re a cut above the Australians. But
what’s nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world.’

His speech was like this, full of dates, places and numbers, with sometimes a simple opinion drawn from another life. But it was mechanical, without conviction; even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant.

The Yugoslav smiled and made interjections. The tramp neither saw nor heard. He couldn’t manage a conversation; he wasn’t looking for conversation; he didn’t even require an audience. It was as though, over the years, he had developed this way of swiftly explaining himself to himself, reducing his life to names and numbers. When the names and numbers had been recited he had no more to say. Then he just stood beside the Yugoslav. Even before we had lost sight of Piraeus and the Leonardo da Vinci the tramp had exhausted that relationship. He hadn’t wanted company; he wanted only the camouflage and protection of company. The tramp knew he was odd.

*

At lunch I sat with two Lebanese. They were both overnight passengers from Italy and were quick to explain that it was luggage, not money, that had prevented them travelling by air. They looked a good deal less unhappy with the ship than they said they were. They spoke in a mixture of French, English and Arabic and were exciting and impressing each other with talk of the money other people, mainly Lebanese, were making in this or that unlikely thing.

They were both under forty. One was pink, plump and casually dressed, with a canary pullover; his business in Beirut was, literally, money. The other Lebanese was dark, well-built, with moustached Mediterranean good looks, and wore a three-piece check suit. He made reproduction furniture in Cairo and he said that business was bad since the Europeans had left. Commerce and culture had vanished from Egypt; there was no great demand among the natives for reproduction furniture; and there was growing prejudice against Lebanese like himself. But I couldn’t believe in his gloom. While he was talking to us he was winking at one of the Spanish dancers.

At the other end of the room a fat Egyptian student with thick-lensed glasses was being raucous in German and Arabic. The German couple at his table were laughing. Now the Egyptian began to sing an Arabic song.

The man from Beirut said in his American accent, ‘You should go modern.’

‘Never,’ the furniture-maker said. ‘I will leave Egypt first. I will close my factory. It is a horror, the modern style. It is grotesque, totally grotesque. Mais le style Louis Seize, ah, voilà l’âme –’ He broke off to applaud the Egyptian and to shout his congratulations in Arabic. Wearily then, but without malice, he said under his breath, ‘Ah, these natives.’ He pushed his plate from him, sank in his chair, beat his fingers on the dirty tablecloth. He winked at the dancer and the tips of his moustache flicked upwards.

The steward came to clear away. I was eating, but my plate went as well.

‘You were dining, monsieur?’ the furniture-maker said. ‘You must be calme. We must all be calme.’

Then he raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. There was something he wanted us to look at.

It was the tramp, standing in the doorway, surveying the room. Such was the way he held himself that even now, at the first glance, his clothes seemed whole. He came to the cleared table next to ours, sat on a chair and shifted about in it until he was settled. Then he leaned right back, his arms on the rests, like the head of a household at the head of his table, like a cruise-passenger waiting to be served. He sighed and moved his jaws, testing his teeth. His jacket was in an appalling state. The pockets bulged; the flaps were fastened with safety pins.

The furniture-maker said something in Arabic and the man from Beirut laughed. The steward shooed us away and we followed the Spanish girls to the windy little bar for coffee.

Later that afternoon, looking for privacy, I climbed some steep steps to the open railed area above the cabins. The tramp was standing there alone, stained trouser-legs swollen, turn-ups shredded, exposed to the cold wind and the smuts from the smokestack. He held what looked like a little prayer-book. He was moving his lips and closing and opening his eyes, like a man praying hard. How fragile that face was, worked over by distress; how frail that neck, below the tight knot of the polka-dotted scarf. The flesh around his eyes seemed especially soft; he looked close to tears. It was strange. He looked for company but needed solitude; he looked for attention, and at the same time wanted not to be noticed.

I didn’t disturb him. I feared to be involved with him. Far below, the Greek refugees sat or lay in the sun.

*

In the smoking-room after dinner the fat young Egyptian shouted himself hoarse, doing his cabaret act. People who understood what he was saying laughed all the time. Even the furniture-maker, forgetting his gloom about the natives, shouted and clapped with the rest. The American schoolchildren lay in their own promiscuous seasick heap and looked on, like people helplessly besieged; when they spoke among themselves it was in whispers.

The non-American part of the room was predominantly Arab and German and had its own cohesion. The Egyptian was our entertainer, and there was a tall German girl we could think of as our hostess. She offered us chocolate and had a word for each of us. To me she said: ‘You are reading a very good English book. These Penguin books are very good English books.’ She might have been travelling out to join an Arab husband; I wasn’t sure.

I was sitting with my back to the door and didn’t see when the tramp came in. But suddenly he was there before me, sitting on a chair that someone had just left. The chair was not far from the German girl’s, but it stood in no intimate relationship to that chair or any other group of chairs. The tramp sat squarely on it, straight up against the back. He faced no one directly, so that in that small room he didn’t become part of the crowd but appeared instead to occupy the centre of a small stage within it.

He sat with his old man’s legs wide apart, his weighted jacket sagging over his bulging trouser-pockets. He had come with things to read, a magazine, the little book which I had thought was a prayer-book. I saw now that it was an old pocket diary with many loose leaves. He folded the magazine in four, hid it under his thigh, and began to read the pocket diary. He laughed, and looked up to see whether he was being noticed. He turned a page, read and laughed again, more loudly. He leaned towards the German girl and said to her over his shoulder, ‘I say, do you read Spanish?’

She said, carefully, ‘No.’

‘These Spanish jokes are awfully funny.’

But though he read a few more, he didn’t laugh again.

The Egyptian continued to clown; that racket went on. Soon the German girl was offering chocolate once more. ‘Bitte?’ Her voice was soft.

The tramp was unfolding his magazine. He stopped and looked at the chocolate. But there was none for him. He unfolded his magazine. Then, unexpectedly, he began to destroy it. With nervous jigging hands he tore at a page, once, twice. He turned some pages, began to tear again; turned back, tore. Even with the raucousness around the Egyptian the sound of tearing paper couldn’t be ignored. Was he tearing out pictures – sport, women, advertisements – that offended him? Was he hoarding toilet paper for Egypt?

The Egyptian fell silent and looked. The American schoolchildren looked. Now, too late after the frenzy, and in what was almost silence, the tramp made a show of reason. He opened the tattered magazine wide out, turned it around angrily, as though the right side up hadn’t been easy to find, and at last pretended to read. He moved his lips; he frowned; he tore and tore. Strips and shreds of paper littered the floor around his chair. He folded the loose remains of the magazine, stuffed it into his jacket pocket, pinned the flaps down, and went out of the room, looking like a man who had been made very angry.

*

‘I will kill him,’ the furniture-maker said at breakfast the next morning.

He was in his three-piece suit but he was unshaven and the dark rings below his eyes were like bruises. The man from Beirut, too, looked tired and crumpled. They hadn’t had a good night. The third bunk
in their cabin was occupied by an Austrian boy, a passenger from Italy, with whom they were on good terms. They had seen the rucksack and the hat on the fourth bunk; but it wasn’t until it was quite late, all three in their bunks, that they had discovered that the tramp was to be the fourth among them.

‘It was pretty bad,’ the man from Beirut said. He felt for delicate words and added, ‘The old guy’s like a child.’

‘Child! If the English pig comes in now’ – the furniture-maker raised his arm and pointed at the door – ‘I will kill him. Now.’

He was pleased with the gesture and the words; he repeated them, for the room. The Egyptian student, hoarse and hungover after the evening’s performance, said something in Arabic. It was obviously witty, but the furniture-maker didn’t smile. He beat his fingers on the table, stared at the door and breathed loudly through his nose.

No one was in a good mood. The drumming and the throbbing and bucking of the ship had played havoc with stomachs and nerves; the cold wind outside irritated as much as it refreshed; and in the dining-room the air was stale, with a smell as of hot rubber. There was no crowd, but the stewards, looking unslept and unwashed, even their hair not well combed, were as rushed as before.

The Egyptian shrieked.

The tramp had come in, benign and rested and ready for his coffee and rolls. He had no doubts about his welcome now. He came without hesitation or great speed to the table next to ours, settled himself in his chair and began to test his teeth. He was quickly served. He chewed and drank with complete relish.

The Egyptian shrieked again.

The furniture-maker said to him, ‘I will send him to your room tonight.’

The tramp didn’t see or hear. He was only eating and drinking. Below the tight knot of his scarf his Adam’s apple was very busy. He drank noisily, sighing afterwards; he chewed with rabbit-like swiftness, anxious to be free for the next mouthful; and between mouthfuls he hugged himself, rubbing his arms and elbows against his sides, in pure pleasure at food.

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