The São Tomé relief attempt was never repeated. Advised by the secret agents’ reports—much closer to the truth than the stories in the press, and stripped of the hearts and flowers—the gentlemen of the Rome Commission threw up their hands. It was too late, they had waited too long. With their governments’ tacit approval, they had let the time slip by, still hoping, hoping … For what, exactly? The most astute among them would sooner have been hacked to bits than admit it. In international bodies formed to deal with Third World problems, careers don’t get built on the truth… 

On the eve of Palm Sunday, they had met behind closed doors. The fleet had been spotted off the coast of Senegal, heading north through calm and windless waters. Only two routes to choose from: up through the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay, along the coast of Portugal, Spain, and France, and perhaps through the Channel to England; or, more likely, a right-angle turn through the Straits of Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean. In either case, Western Europe. Unless … The British delegate rose from his seat. He began by giving a discreet little cough. (One of those English coughs that remove any doubt as to the gravity of what follows.)

“Gentlemen,” he began, “as we all know, our commission was formed for the express purpose of giving aid to the Ganges refugees, and welcoming them to our shores. Now then, on the question of aid, I … ahem … shan’t say too much. As for welcoming them to our shores … Well (cough, cough … stammer … ) it … it seems to me that … perhaps it wouldn’t be terribly wise, just now, to … to throw open our … how shall I put it? … our modest little flat to so large a family! Perhaps we should try to make them see that we’re simply not equipped, just now, to … ahem … to take them in, and give them room and board, as it were. Perhaps, all in all, they’d best go back where they came from, and give us more time to set things up, don’t you know … to receive them the way they deserve, the way the world expects us to do, with all our resources … Yes, a gala welcome. That’s what we’re planning. .. Of course, we haven’t had time to … ahem … to work it out just yet, since … Well, I mean, after all, we really didn’t invite them, now did we? … And … Well, gentlemen, I propose that we extend them a formal and earnest invitation, for some time in the future, to be determined in consultation with all governments concerned, ours and theirs (Having represented Great Britain on the Permanent Atomic Disarmament Commission, the Englishman knew what “some time in the future” really meant …) “Meanwhile,” he continued, “until conditions permit—and we hope with all our hearts that they will—we respectfully request that the fleet return home. Via Suez and the Indian Ocean it’s not very far. Needless to say, we’ll help in every way we can. Supplies, escort craft, hygienic and technical assistance, replacement of unfit vessels with our own. Simply a question of expediency…

The commission approved. Certain governments, the ones that felt most threatened—like Spain and France—were secretly terrified. Up to Senegal, they could still hope for an accident, a verdict dealt by fate, that a tearful public opinion would have to accept, then the solemn services “in memory of,” the airlift to ferry the survivors back home, the pledges of increased aid, the endless, breast-beating grief, and life goes on … But day after day, that water, so strangely calm. That sky, so clear, as never before in the annals of the sea! No, there wasn’t a chance. May as well stop hoping! The Ganges fleet and the flood of words would soon come together. And the meeting would cost an exorbitant price, unless …

“The main thing,” the English delegate went on, “is to convince our guests. If you don’t mind a comparison … At home, in our better public schools, when a rowdy youngster simply won’t behave, we resort to a little physical persuasion. Why, how many times, when I myself was a child, did they tweak my ears to make me toe the mark! Yes, when conditions demand it, and nothing else will do, I’m all for that kind of persuasion.”

So, they were finally getting down to business! But in what a roundabout, two-faced way! Heaven help the white race the day it refuses to voice its basic truths—even mumble them under its breath—for lack of anything better! That day was about to dawn. “Given the circumstances,” asked one of the delegates, “just how do you see us ‘tweaking their ears’?”

The Englishman wasn’t coughing now.

“We challenge their ships,” he answered. “Threaten to fire, if need be. Then put armed men aboard, and take over, like it or not…” “And what if the children won’t let us tweak their ears?” asked the delegate from France. “What if they pounce on the teacher, in a fit of rage, and try to bash his head in? Will he have to use his gun?”

“Quite likely,” the Englishman answered.

“And what if he hasn’t the heart to harm his pupils?”

There was a long silence.

“I’m not saying it will work. I’m saying we’ve got to give it a go. If we don’t do a trial run now, next week we won’t know our own strength.”

“And who’s going to do that ‘trial run,’ may I ask?”

“Well, actually, Great Britain doesn’t feel she should. I’m authorized to make the proposal, but considering the special, longstanding relations we’ve enjoyed with the governments of the Indian subcontinent …”

“Italy,” said another delegate, “has to take into account the opinion of His Holiness the Pope …”

No need to rehash all the coded wires feverishly exchanged between the Rome Commission and the governments of the West. In France, the President of the Republic made a hasty, secret decision, consulting no one but the chief of naval affairs and Undersecretary Jean Perret. (To appreciate the reasons behind this collusion, one must only refer to the meeting of ministers that took place just after the fleet had set sail from the Ganges delta …)

“We’ll give it a try,” the French delegate announced. “Of course, it goes without saying that this has to be kept in the strictest confidence. Only the heads of your governments will be informed of the results. An order has already gone out to our destroyer escort 322, Ofl patrol off the Canaries, to proceed south for a top-secret mission. She’s receiving detailed instructions at this very moment.”

“And if your trial run fails?” someone asked.

“Well then,” replied the Englishman, properly phlegmatic, “we’ll have to have another meeting. We’ve got to make some kind of decision …”

On Holy Saturday, when the Rome Commission had met for the very last time, no one worried anymore about decisions. What kind? For whom? Everything was coming apart at the seams. Save your skin! Every man for himself! …


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