At Close Quarters

Gerald Seymour


He turned sharply. He disliked to be touched. He shook the sallow hand from his sleeve. Around him the reception was warming. He was, for a moment, alone. Alone except for the man whose hand had tugged at his jacket for attention.

Seconds ago he had been disposing of a small but tiresome problem with his Australian counterpart, minutes earlier he had been deep in conversation with his French colleague. He heard around him English and French and Spanish and Arabic, and European Russian.

His glass was empty; the Australian had left in search of a waiter. His host, the host of all of them gathered in the gold and white, tapestry hung, chandelier lit salon, was stationed beside the high double doors for the entry of the General Secretary. The tides of many languages flooded his mind, and the hand rested once more on his sleeve.

The Australian was lost in the throng. Cosse -Brissac had insinuated his way close to the door, no doubt to be among the first to shake the General Secretary's hand. His private secretary was out of reach and engrossed with an angular blonde from the Finnish contingent. He lifted the hand from his sleeve and dropped it as if he were in the street and the hand were the wrapping of a sticky sweet that had attached itself to his jacket.

The man was short, dumpy at the waistline. He thought the man's suit certainly cost more than all of those in his own wardrobe. The man wore a vivid orange silk tie, knotted wide in contrast to his own slim knot that carried the faded emblem of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The man seemed scented by a cocktail of lotions, and his thick dark hair was heavily oiled.

'If I might have the privilege of a moment of Your Excellency's time…'

'I would be so grateful if you would kindly remove your hand,' he said.

'Sir Sylvester Armitage?'

'I am.'

'The Ambassador of England?'

'Of the United Kingdom,' he corrected.

For a fleeting second the Foreign Minister himself caught his gaze over the shined head of this creature, but then the Foreign Minister raised his two hands, fingers and thumbs extended, indicating another ten minutes before the General Secretary arrived, then turned his back. His sleeve was tugged.

'Please don't do that again,' he said.

'I have the honour to be, Excellency, the Political Counsellor of the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic.'

'Do you indeed?' Extraordinary that the Australian had not cornered the wine waiter by now. And he'd have a sharp word for his private secretary for leaving him exposed to the Syrian.

'It is difficult at this time for there to be effective contact between our two governments. You would agree, Excellency?'

He could clearly see an airliner in flight. He could see rows of passengers. He could see the cabin crew moving along the aisles of the huge airliner.

'It is intended to be difficult, otherwise my government would not have severed diplomatic relations with the Syrian Arab Republic.'

The political counsellor had edged closer. In a rhythm his hands clasped and unclasped. There were two heavy gold rings on his right hand fingers, one on his left.

' There were misunderstandings, Excellency.

Through a restoration of normal relations between our two governments such misunderstandings can be erased.'

He could see a young woman passenger. He could see her nervousness. It was the first time she had made a long-distance air journey. He could see the bag that had been given to her by her fiance, nestled between her legs and close to the brightly decorated shell of the aircraft.

He could see the restless movement of the digital clock face of the pocket calculator resting at the base of the bag.

'My government does not accept that there were misunderstandings,' he said.

The political counsellor's voice was a whisper.

'My government can see no benefit to either of our countries by continuance of a situation of misunderstanding. Please to listen carefully to me, Excellency. I have the full authority of our Head of State to say…'

He saw a flash of light. He saw the rupturing of the outer wall of the aircraft. He saw the distintegration of the young woman, the passenger.

'How interesting.'

The Syrian looked up, surprised, but he resumed,

'Our Head of State wishes it to be known to the government in London that privately it is accepted in Damascus that junior functionaries in a division of the military planned and attempted to execute an attack on an El Al jet while en route between London and Tel Aviv. I am further instructed to inform you, Excellency, that our Head of State sincerely regrets the actions of these junior functionaries who have now been severely punished.'

He saw the snow topping the steep peaks of the mountains of Austria. He saw the spiralling fall of the airliner down towards the nail bed of the rock crags.

'Have they really?'

He did not notice that the Australian ambassador stood a pace behind him holding two glasses of brandy.

He did not register that his private secretary was at his shoulder.

'I can tell you that these junior functionaries have been purged from the armed forces. I am instructed to tell you that my country is totally and without equivo-cation opposed to international terrorism, and we are thankful that the attack on the airliner was thwarted in London. Without reservation we condemn such attacks.

What we seek, Excellency, is the speedy restoration of diplomatic links and the ending of this most unfortunate period of misunderstanding.'

He said, 'I will of course pass on your remarks to London.'

'I am most grateful, Excellency.'

'For nothing.'

'We look forward to the quick return of your ambassador to Damascus, and ours to London.'

'My opinion, personal, is that we'll want deeds, not words.'

A frown formed on the forehead of the political counsellor. 'What deeds?'

'Off the top of my head… The expulsion from Syria of all terrorist groups, Abu Nidal and all the other abattoir gangs. An end to the financing of such groups…'

Colour lit the cheeks of the political counsellor's face.

'We are innocent of all such involvement.'

Because he was angered, because he was tired, because he wished to be among his friends, his voice rose. He sought to be rid of the creature.

'And you might just use your influence in Lebanon to win the freedom of the foreign national hostages.'

'We are innocent of hostage-taking.'

He was not aware of the turned heads, of the talk congealing around him.

'So innocent that evidence of Syrian involvement in terrorism just about keeps one of our computers turning full time. My dear sir, we have found your country's finger on the trigger, on the grenade pin, too often.'

The political counsellor said, 'I insist on our innocence.'

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