Arts & Culture

Fiction: Simeon

Taking its imagery from the legend of the ten tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrians and lost to the pages of history beyond the River Sambatyon, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes follows the life-journey of a wandering narrator … Read More

By / June 3, 2008

Taking its imagery from the legend of the ten tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrians and lost to the pages of history beyond the River Sambatyon, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes follows the life-journey of a wandering narrator who encounters a series of displaced persons: the uncle whose endless travels seem romantic but are in fact a camouflage for a life of failure and malaise; the professor whose mastery of many languages can never assuage the anguish of his lost mother tongue; the girl student who may literally be invisible; the young man who spends his night hours obsessively writing and rewriting the slim volume he can never finish. With each encounter the narrator inevitably moves on, dreaming of home, unable to resist the lure of the world’s labyrinth. Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes examines the heart of human longing, and asks the question: Where do we belong? — Tamar Yellin

We were on a white ship crossing the Mediterranean; we did not know where we were; infinite wastes of water lay all around us. For weeks we had pursued a disastrous journey. We had been unhappy in Paris and Zurich, unhappy in Venice; my father had crossed Greece with his head in his hands. In Athens he ate a poisoned cuttlefish. On the third night he took us down to the port of Piraeus, and there, with his body purged and his mind empty, he looked out across the black mucilaginous sea. It was his Nebo. He knew he would never enter the promised land. The man at the shipping office was sympathetic. A vacation was no vacation if one was ill. One wanted to be home again, pure and simple. For himself, he always spent his vacations at home. Home is where the heart is, he told us proudly, placing a fist against his ample chest. His office was bare however, a tornado-struck mass of papers covered in dust. Above a shelf of ancient ledgers was pinned a faded map of the Greek shipping lanes, and in one corner a monkey hung in a cage, of which it shook the bars every so often. We were introduced to it: its name was Jacques (it was a French monkey) and it pulled my father's glasses into the cage and broke them. We booked passage with the Adriatic Line, dormitory class, which, the man told us, though cheap, was perfectly comfortable. Then, impressed by his native friendliness, my mother persuaded me to sing for him. We were due to sail at seven P.M., and when we got down to the dock around five, there was the enormous dirty-white ship with a large crowd of vehicles and people waiting to board it. We waited with them until about a quarter to seven, when a rumor arrived: the ship was now full and would sail without us. We all climbed onto the gangplank. After we had been standing there for about half an hour we saw someone we recognised. It was our shipping official, wearing a uniform jacket over his pyjamas. He looked like a man just stepping out of a dream. Our protest had dragged him from his couch of slumbers. He affected not to recognize us at first, but was quickly defeated by his better nature. He looked at us with reproach, as though personally injured by our stubborn refusal to be left behind. You should not have done this. This is not necessary, he chided my mother, whom he evidently took as ringmistress of the whole affair. Ah, but it is necessary, my mother replied. You must come down from the gangplank, he demanded. But then, my mother said, you will sail without us. For you I will make an exception, he assured her. You and your family are a special case. The truth is, he added confidentially, the whole thing is a terrible mistake. They should have put the cars for Trieste on first. Well, let them do that, then! my mother exclaimed. He spread his hands. But then there would be no room for the cars for Brindisi! We won't accept special treatment, my mother stated. And without releasing my hand, she climbed to the head of the gangplank. The official gazed after us mournfully; he had good reason to regret having heard me sing. Meanwhile the clock ticked on. The captain of the vessel appeared among us, distinguished by a cap the same color as his ship, and assured us that if we would only descend from the gangplank our cars would be safely stowed on the first-class deck. He asked, as a mark of trust, that we give up our passports to him. Many did so, moved by fatigue or by his plausible manner. But no sooner had we dispersed than the ship's engines started up. Doors were pulled shut and open deck rails closed. We all rushed onto the gangplank once again. It was now almost midnight, and the captain himself was weary of the standoff. There was nothing left for him but to keep his word, and with great bitterness to load the remaining cars on the first-class deck. This would deprive the first-class passengers of their promenade, but by now nobody cared about them. The crane was recalled. For a few vertiginous moments I saw our white Cortina swinging unforgettably against the night sky, and at 1 A.M. we finally departed. A steward directed us to our accommodation. For ten minutes we pursued him down a maze of throbbing corridors, until at last he opened one of the heavy, high-silled doors and the chugging engines burst full upon us. We had reached the very bowels of the ship. In half-light, beneath a vaulting of thickly riveted girders, various passengers were making themselves comfortable for the night. Women were undressing behind a makeshift screen. A large man in a string vest and underdrawers was sitting contemplatively on a near bunk with a child across his knee. Apart from the thump of the engines there was a murmurous quiet. Many were already fast asleep. The steward showed us to our numbered bunks. Here we discovered that not even bedding was provided. But by this time my mother was already dumb with horror. The nearest light bulb had burnt out and one of the bunks was hanging from a broken chain. When the steward gestured to the beds with an expression of complacency my mother burst out laughing. This can't be serious, she said. You surely cannot expect us to sleep down here. The steward plainly did; a look of annoyance came into his face. He may not have understood my mother's exact words, but he understood the laughter, and seemed inclined to take it as a personal affront. Dormitory, he repeated, gesturing to the beds, and in another instant he would have turned on his heel; but then my mother noticed the damaged chain. Just one moment! she managed to detain him. And how do you expect us to sleep in a broken bunk? This was a nuisance. He tried to mend it on the spot; it wouldn't mend so easily, it was well and truly severed. Meanwhile my father and I shifted from foot to foot. I was beyond exhaustion, and would happily have laid my head down anywhere. My mother, however, was not to be put off. She demanded that we be provided with alternative accommodation. She would not keep a dog in this place. It might be all right for these people (she indicated the man in the string vest) but not for us. Here my father mentioned, in a murmur, that he did not mind sleeping there himself. This disconcerted her for a moment, but she soon realized that a woman and child alone had more appeal than an entire family. She agreed, therefore, to leave him in the hold, and without undressing, or even removing his shoes, he climbed wearily into the bottom bunk and lay there motionless, with one arm laid across his face, in the attitude of a lost soul. The two of us followed our steward back into the upper regions, where he led us wordlessly to the third-class lounge and there abandoned us, on the mistaken understanding that he was gone to arrange us a cabin. My mother waited with rising irritation, clutching her overnight bag. The adventures of the evening had put her on her mettle, and she had no desire to sleep whatsoever. I, meanwhile, passed out quickly on the settee, and despite the bright lights and noise, slept like a lamb. Eventually a young steward with a headful of brown curls and the mild eyes of a doe, stumbled upon us and asked if he could be of assistance. My mother told him we had nowhere to sleep. We had been waiting half an hour to be taken to our cabin, but the steward who was looking after us had disappeared. Our young man asked her for the cabin number. Well, the truth was that we had none; but we had been informed that one could be arranged. The doe-eyed man was sorry: there was not a single cabin available, every one was full. Surely we had not come on board without accommodation? He seemed gentle and sympathetic, and my mother confessed the truth of our predicament. If all else failed, she added, we would sleep in the car. We could not be more uncomfortable there than in the so-called dormitory. The steward regretted to say that to sleep in the car was absolutely forbidden on account of safety regulations. But since our situation was so desperate he would see what he could do. He then vanished. We did not expect him to reappear, but within five minutes he returned with blankets, and seemed to indicate that, on his head be it, we would sleep right here in the lounge. It was a tender moment. My mother thanked him in several languages; she told him he was an angel of mercy. He smiled in self-deprecation and shook his head. We made ourselves cosy, he dimmed the lights and wished us a comfortable night. Ten minutes later we were both asleep, rising and falling on a rapid sea. The Apollonia – that was the name of our ship – was an elderly vessel, flayed by sun and water, patchily repaired and ready to rest her bones in some tropical breaker's yard, but our crew had not done with her yet. They, like the ship itself, were hanging on till the last click, attired in cosmetic uniforms which covered up a wealth of inefficiencies, but, like the ship's paintwork, were a tad shabby; it occurred to me that they wore the uniforms in order to trust themselves, and also, of course, in order that the passengers might trust them. That was the flimsy contract under which we traveled. Since it had already been torn up by the shenanigans of the previous night, we felt no compunction on waking next morning in the third-class lounge to find the incurious eyes of the first officer gazing at us. We could not sleep here, he said. But we already had, indeed, replied my mother as she rose like Aphrodite from her couch, we could not sleep anywhere else. At which the officer, knowing the contract was hopelessly in pieces, informed us that breakfast was ready in the dining saloon. The fact was announced by a tune played on the ship's intercom. We descended woozily. Down here there were no windows and very little air, and a few passengers were picking listlessly at a buffet of hard rolls and reconstituted juice. My mother, her hair standing on end like a weird headdress, drank a cup of very strong black coffee and with a stern gaze, dared anyone to pass judgment on her appearance. After breakfast I went up on deck, where I was dazzled by an expanse of dirty white against a backdrop of glimmering blue. Everything was cold and hard and bright. A frill of fast foam ran alongside the ship; aft, I discovered a deep swimming pool full of nothing but air. That day we passed Rhodes, and found that the gate between the third-class and the first-class decks was locked, necessitating a roundabout journey of five or ten minutes to reach our car. The captain, to whom my mother appealed, would not compromise. We third-class passengers could not be allowed direct access to the first-class deck. My mother was disgusted. In her heart she was always first class, and demanded her privileges as of right. But the captain of the Apollonia remained immovable. So my mother picked up her overnight case and led me without blenching to the first-class lounge, which was upholstered in swirls of maroon, and was by no means luxurious, though it appeared so after our view of steerage. Here a bored and child-hating barman reluctantly served us Coca-Cola in the traditional bottles. We set up camp within sight of our car, and before long I had made the acquaintance of a pretty, dark-haired girl in dungarees called Alex who was on her way to America and who knew everything, including the name of our doe-eyed crewmember, Nikos. Nikos, she insisted, would fill the swimming pool for us and had only to be persuaded. In fact, she had done a great deal of persuading already. The moment she saw him pass the window she ran out, and with American boldness caught him by the hand. O Nikos, Nikos, she panted, fill the swimming pool for us, fill the swimming pool! I hung back shyly as I watched him, with his patient, gentle look, smile down at her, explaining that the swimming pool was being painted and could not be filled this voyage. We made it our business to watch out for him. When the tune played for dinner we found him standing in the stuffy dining room, a napkin over his arm, before one of the mock-oak pillars. We tormented ourselves throughout the tedious meal by trying to catch his eye. Later we saw him at the far end of the promenade and ran towards him, but Alex had to stop halfway. I'm not supposed to run, she panted. I've got a hole in my heart. She added casually: I'll probably die before I reach eighteen. I was stabbed by a pang of envy. That night my mother and I waited for the surly barman to lower his shutters and depart, then bedded down in the first-class lounge with blankets and pillows, as if in our own private suite. It was Nikos who came to check on us, reacting with nothing more than a wry smile to our arrangements; in fact he carried an extra pillow under his arm. It was in his nature to be courteous and obliging. He sat down on the sofa's edge and talked with us for a quarter of an hour. His manner was deferential but friendly, warm but reserved; my mother, with all her curiosity, found out nothing about him. He answered her questions with a smile and a blush. The sea was his home, or rather, a succession of ships whose duties and facilities were all more or less similar. The endless back and forth of endless voyages was all he needed in the way of progress. The next morning Alex and I spent trailing up and down the promenade decks, teasing Nikos whenever he crossed our path. He seemed distracted, but never failed to flash his brilliant smile at us. We demanded Cokes and more Cokes of the sullen barman. Alex told me they would soon be discontinuing the fluted bottles and that in a few years they would be worth a fortune. I secreted one in my suitcase, feeling like a thief. In the afternoon she was ordered to take a siesta; I found my father on the second-class deck, attempting to read. The shipboard wind snatched at the pages of his book. He looked more unhappy than I had ever seen him, a man completely at odds with his situation. Where is your mother, he asked, in the melancholy tone of one who has been abandoned. The last time I had seen her she was engaged in fierce argument with the captain, but I did not tell my father so. Nor did he wait for an answer, but turned his glazed eyes out to sea with an expression of desolation. Before dinner we noticed the strange phenomenon of the sun setting in the east. We were sailing out of the red of a blushing sunset. Some of us gathered on the rear deck to watch it. It is a miracle, we said. We have boarded a magical vessel. Not since the beginning of the world has such a thing been witnessed. Down on the promenade I found my mother walking arm in arm with the fat captain. Evidently they had settled their differences, for as they parted he lavishly kissed her hand; a cynical half-smile played about her lips. As soon as I joined her she told me, with some excitement, that we were not going to Brindisi. The island we had glimpsed a little earlier, which some had claimed to be Sicily, was merely Crete, whose northern edge we had brushed and left behind. We were now circling the blue heart of the Mediterranean. The story told her in confidence went like this: a sister ship of the Apollonia had sunk in a recent storm off the coast of Spain; there were not enough lifeboats on board, and other safety features were said to be lacking. It was the second such incident in the past three years. The company was being held to account, an inquiry was underway and all the ships in the line were to be impounded. It was therefore impossible to stop at Brindisi, and doubly impossible to return to Greece. We must bide our time; the fuss would perhaps blow over, but meanwhile, the captain affirmed with tears in his eyes, he would do all in his power to give us a pleasant voyage. Would my parents do him the honour of dining tonight in his cabin? My mother graciously accepted. He's a born liar, she concluded, but I think the story is true. Go and fetch your father. I went and found him still sitting out on deck, half-frozen, in the cold floodlights, letting the wind turn the pages of his book. She dressed him in the brown jacket brought for special occasions and herself in the black evening dress she had fished from the back of the car, and together they sailed off to the captain's cabin, leaving me under the care of Nikos. He played draughts with me at one of the bar tables. His long fingers, gathering up the counters, trembled slightly; his breath smelt of something pleasant and unfamiliar. When he moved his head, the light on the lounge ceiling formed a halo behind it. You are very quiet, said Nikos. I said, I like to be quiet. Well, he agreed, I also like quiet people. But if you are too quiet no one will get to know you. That is the way I prefer it to be, I answered. He smiled. I know you better already, he said. That evening the wind grew stronger, and around ten o'clock the first flashes lit the horizon. The stewards went about shutting windows with long poles as the rain lashed down. By midnight the first-class lounge was full of people and the liqueur bottles were rattling on the bar. Thunder boomed; the sky turned violet. We're going to sink, I told Alex, and there aren't enough lifeboats on board. She stared at me in terror, clutching her sickbag. I did not see why she should be afraid of dying, since she was soon going to do so in any case. In fact I was curious to see how her heart would hold out under the strain. But there is nothing to be afraid of, said Nikos, bending over us. The storm is miles away. Listen, count the distance between the lightning and the thunder. His reassurances were broken by an almost simultaneous flash and crash, but we occupied ourselves in counting, and the distance soon grew greater as Nikos moved among us proffering drinks and comfort, the bright lights of the storm illuminating his face. That night we slept in wasted heaps on the floor of the first-class lounge, and when we awoke it was to find ourselves still circling in the midst of the Mediterranean, in brilliant sunshine, under a blue unbroken sky. That day, to our joy, they filled the swimming pool, and at the ocean's heart we struggled and swam and shrieked in the jostling water, whose high waves filled us with terror and delight. Afterwards we ran Hamelin-like after Nikos to the first-class bar and demanded Cokes for all from the evil barman, who replied that we were out of Cokes, there were no Cokes left, there were no more Cokes for any children. Nonsense, said Nikos, disappearing, and he came back shouldering a case of bottles which he opened and distributed among us. They were not chilled, but we did not care so long as we had defeated the hated barman. For the rule of children had broken out on the spellbound ship. From that time we sailed in a zone of enchantment, through blue days, through nights brilliant with stars. Round and round we sailed in our magic circle, until the days ran together, we could not say how many, nor how many still and perfect nights, in which the mesmeric tune for dinner played over and over, the captain broke open his best wine, and the after-dinner entertainments ran on far into the small hours; when music played from the white ship strung with lights over the dark and silent sea, and the captain danced with my mother, my mother danced with Nikos and Alex danced with me. Nothing was beyond the multitalented Nikos. He soothed my father's restlessness by matching him at chess; he distracted him and made him smile with number puzzles and with long, intense conversations at the ship's rail. He flattered my mother with compliments, and drew the fascination of the children with demonstrations of magic and discourses on the curved nature of space, by virtue of which, he told us, if you travelled in a straight line for eternity, you would surely end up back in the place you started. He was the master of treasure hunts and distributor of sweets, keeper of secrets and healer of arguments. We were under his aegis, a dreaming contented crew. We would have been happy to sail forever with him towards an unreachable horizon. Seated at the large table in the first-class lounge, he spread for me the map of his aspirations: the Mediterranean which he called the Blue; but also the other seas, the Black and the Red, the Arabian and the Caspian, and the oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific; the straits and bays, the gulfs and archipelagoes, all the waters he hoped one day to cross. And this is how I mostly remember him: standing at the rail on the first-class promenade, in one of the idle moments his duties allowed him, gazing out to sea with a solemn expression, though if you were to speak to him his face would be lit, as though inwardly, by a benevolent glow. He was in love with distance, with the horizon pure and simple: the expanses of sea and sky which bored others to annihilation. How often I watched him, on that voyage which seemed to go on forever, folding blankets with elegant precision, or mending a broken toy a child had dropped, his long brown hands quite certain of their movements, or bending, with just the right degree of intimacy, to hear the request of a seated passenger, nodding with unfeigned interest and concern. How often I saw him smile, and his perfect smile inevitably answered. He had the gift of getting people to talk; I could not resist him indefinitely, and, on a long dull evening of cards in the first-class lounge, he finally charmed me into parting with a few choice secrets I immediately regretted. That was his fatal flair. He knew everyone and was known by nobody; and so it must have been on countless previous ships. By the sixth day of the voyage too many hearts had been laid waste on that vessel. Wherever he went he was tagged by begging children. Even my father actively sought him out. My mother made eyes at him over the breakfast rolls. In the privacy of her cabin Alex showed me the small gold ring with which she planned to woo him. I was numb with resentment, and could not bear to speak to her thereafter. On the night we turned north into the grey finger of the Adriatic, we older children were allowed to stay up for a captain's party in the dining saloon. The glow of those lost days had left us the moment we changed direction; the passengers were full of complaints and anxiety once more. Dinner was a gaudy, drunken affair. Colored balloons had been pinned to the walls and ceiling, and the stewards stood about with hangdog expressions, knowing that this disastrous voyage would be the Apollonia's last. This time next week they would be washing dishes in some landlocked taverna. In honor of the occasion the captain opened a jeroboam of champagne – no one knew where he kept this lavish stock of vintage – and sang a sentimental folk song, out of tune, through a whistling microphone and without accompaniment. It was absurd, laughable: the ship was herself again. Nevertheless, my mother stood on her chair and proposed a toast to the Apollonia, to her captain and crew, and most particularly to Nikos, loved by all. His name rang through the ship with the pathos of hundreds of unrequited passions. Later he found me on the promenade, gazing at the stars through a blaze of tears. What is the matter? he asked, in that gentlest of voices, but I would not answer his too indulgent question. I could not tell him I wished he and the secrets I had told him were lying at the bottom of the sea. You're jealous of Alex, he said, because she is special. But she's not the only one with a hole in her heart. He looked at me then with a meaningful expression; and I did what I have ever since regretted. I turned my back and walked hastily away. We sailed on comfortlessly northwards. It was late August, the fag end of the season, and autumn was already in the air. It was too cold to swim: they placed a rope net over the swimming pool. On board the Apollonia rations were running out. There was no more juice for breakfast, and a complete and catastrophic absence of gin. We survived on black coffee and bile as far as Zadar, where we were dropped off with the captain's apologies. Some of us promised to sue the shipping line. We embraced each other like the oldest and closest of friends; and then the Apollonia hauled anchor and sailed away, perhaps forever, but she must have been eventually impounded. The last glimpse we had of her was of a white ship plunging southwards through the grey waves of the Adriatic, as we made our way up the Dalmatian coast. It may not have been her. It may have been only a vision. That was the end of our maritime adventure. We returned home, where it was quickly transformed into an anecdote, one of my mother's dinner party pieces, though my father never contributed to the telling. For myself it faded into the blur of childhood, into a vague trail of images and sensations: a dazzle of white, a restless glimmer of blue; a little dark-haired girl with a hole in her heart; a bottle, long since discarded, with a fluted design. And yet for years we continued to hear from Nikos. A postcard would come, already faded and greasy, depicting some vessel in the Tyrrhenian Line, the Star of Ionia, the Delphi or the Heraklion. He would send his greetings from the ends of the earth, for astonishingly he had not forgotten us. This although we had no way of replying, nor of proving that we had not forgotten him; for he was, I suppose, one of those exceptional people, whom to meet once is to remember always. The last we received was, I think, from the Damietta, a ferry which sank with all hands, under criminal circumstances, shortly after the close of the summer season; but I do not believe that Nikos was still on board. I think he moved further east, to the Indian Ocean, and later on worked the ships of the South China Sea, enslaving hearts in thousands of brief encounters, and meeting his end, if at all, by the blade of some desperate, envious devotee. We never heard from him again, however; and while I continued to look out for him among the anonymous crews on numerous crossings – his brown curls graying a little, his mild eyes unmistakable – I saw him only in occasional dreams, where, asleep on the soft bed of the Mediterranean, he lay with my childhood secrets locked inside him forever.

Tamar Yellin was born in the north of England. Her father was a third generation Jerusalemite and her mother the daughter of a Polish immigrant. She began writing fiction at an early age, and the creative tension between her Jewish heritage and her Yorkshire roots has informed much of her work. She received the Pusey and Ellerton Prize for Biblical Hebrew from Oxford University, and has worked as a teacher and lecturer in Judaism. Her first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, appeared from The Toby Press in 2005 and was awarded the Sami Rohr Prize, the Ribalow Prize and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize. Her collection, Kafka in Brontëland and other stories, appeared from Toby in 2006 and was awarded the Reform Judaism Prize, was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and was a finalist for the Edge Hill Prize. Her third book, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, appears from Toby Press in 2008.