NYE MEMORIES

32 YEARS ON…

Dido and I met on New years Day 1989, and two years later, considering my appaling memory for cellebratory dates, we decided to get married on New Year’s Eve, to ensure I would never forget our anniversary. So far, thank goodness, it’s worked, and so today, I remember fondly, that at about noon Gibraltar time we will have been wed for 32 years (our lapis lazuli wedding no less – who knew?).

This post is really by way of a Happy New Year greetings card to all our family and friends, and any other readers of these pages.

Let’s all hope that 2023 passes and ends better than 2022 and provides us all with joyous memories to rival those displayed here!

We had a small, civil wedding at Marylebone Town Hall (in the West End of London – famous for celebrity weddings) with just my mum (in turquoise), Dido’s parents (her father taking this photo) and our dog Aura in attendance. Given our two years of being together, Dido opted for a dark blue wedding!
Following a light pub lunch with the parents, Dido and I watched a video of Cassablanca (our favourite film) over a bottle of fine champaigne before heading to a half-decent nearby french restaurant for our celebratory supper with a small group of friends and family. Being New Year’s Eve, things got pretty rioutous, and this is where we learned that Beaumes de Venise is not suitable for quenching table fires…
The gorgeous bride…
Still just about compos mentis. Little if any sleep was had that night, as we had an early morning ferry to catch from Dover to drive to our two-night honneymoon at a romantic chateau hotel in northern France. A week later, and fully recovered, we gave a reception to all our friends and family at our home in London. Golden, if slightly hazy memories…

Hamilton – the Nudical…

A real-life “Carry on Camping

Regular and long-term readers of this blog might remember a post I did a few years ago about my wife Dido’s part-time career as a model, and in particualr, her role as the National Savings girl. Her modeling work coincided with her then-main career as a classical ballerina – a subject I have also covered at some length on these pages.

However, there are a couple of interesting and amusing facts and anecdotes related to Dido’s modeling which I omitted to mention previously.

This shot was used for the National Savings calander

Firstly; the fact that she fell into modeling accidently, when spotted and then approached on a street in Barons Court (in west London – near the Royal ballet School) by an advertising agency scout. And secondly; the resulting story behind perhaps Dido’s most high-profile photographic shoots, also for National Savings, in the naturist colony of Cap D’Adge in the South of France.

In truth, the story of Dido’s time in the colony is as much farcical as amusing , stemming from the fact that her employers at Dorland (the agency then working for UK National Savings) were unaware of the fact that they had sent her to a nudist village for the shoot.

We believe this was the picture used for the “People Like Me” series of National Savings posters and ads…

Dido’s blissful ignorance of her impending sartorial dilemma was soon disabused when she entered the establishment by several welcoming scenes, none more surprising than being greeted by the photographer himself “déshabillé”.

One might have thought that the fact the photographer was none other than David Hamilton*, famous then for his soft-focus depictions of young, often naked girls, and for directing and photographing the hit film, Bilitis (erotic or softly-pornographic, depending upon one’s sensibilities) just a year or two earlier, might have raised some alarm bells, but apparently not.

As a confirmed non-naturist, Dido got around the compulsory nudity policy of the colony by convincing both Hamilton and the management that it was imperative for her to remain fully clothed at all times to avert the risk of tan lines on her skin.  

When the Dorland team turned up for the main shoot the next day, they were similarly discomforted as their model (an angry Dido having decided not to warn them), a circumstance that led to a whole load of hilarious situations during the course of their stay – tan lines not being an available excuse for the director and his crew!

This was not from the official shoot, and just a bit of fun, and interesting, among other things for it being a very rare – if not unique – example of Hamilton not using soft focus.

Sadly, I’m not at liberty to divulge more than these barest details (pun intended), but one can imagine the sort of crazy scenarios that arose. Fortunately, despite everything, the shoot was a sucess as the very pretty photos presented here confirm.

*Hamilton’s now infamous reputation was unknown to everyone at Dorland at the time of the shoot, and he behaved with total decorum and professionalism toward Dido, both when dressed and disrobed.

AND FINALLY – NEARLY…

EXERPT 7 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

One of the snatch team opened the doors of the van and they stepped out to find themselves inside a large storage shed.  

Apart from a stack of old oil drums in one corner and a small pile of cardboard boxes labelled “fragile” in the other it was completely empty. The walls and the pitched roof were formed of large sheets of dull green corrugated metal. A glazed narrow window strip ran along the top of the walls. It was filthy with grime and what were probably floodlights outside, appeared like dirty splashes of white paint against the external surface of the glass. The concrete floor was a drab greyish brown and reminded Alex of the rundown indoor basketball court at his old secondary school. 

The distinctive smell of aviation fuel hung heavy in the air and every so often the entire structure vibrated with a thunderous roar as a large airliner passed low overhead on its landing approach.

In addition to Alex, Elena and Omri, there was the driver, his companion and another two men present at the warehouse. All four were snatch team members and wore dark blue boiler suits and black balaclava hoods concealing their heads and faces. Two of them carried Galil semiautomatic machine guns slung over their shoulders.  

Alex noticed for the first time since their pick-up at the underground car park beneath the hotel that the van had the EL AL logo painted on the outside.  They stood in a group by the side of the van. Alex and Elena were holding hands, almost reflexively, something they rarely did. He shuddered once or twice, either from the chilly air in the shed or from nervous anticipation. Feeling him shiver she squeezed his hand reassuringly but unconvincingly as her own hand was equally cold and clammy.  

‘We’re back somewhere at Ben Gurion aren’t we Omri’ Alex said as a matter of fact. 

‘What was that?’ Omri replied breaking off from a conversation he was having with one of the men. ‘What did you say?’

‘We’ve come back to the airport haven’t we? We’re somewhere on the apron.’

‘I couldn’t possibly comment’ Omri replied grinning disingenuously.

‘We’ve been here over a minute and none of you have lit a cigarette. I’ve never been with a group of more than two Israelis without at least one them lighting up within thirty seconds. But you can’t smoke here can you because of the air fuel…What is this place Omri’ Alex persisted, ‘a customs shed or something?’ 

‘What does it matter?’ answered Omri.

‘I didn’t say it mattered, but it is ironic.’

‘How so?’

‘It’s as if the Ark hasn’t entered Israel at all.’

‘But this is Israel Alex. This is very much Israeli soil. And by the way, speaking of irony, according to the United Nations this is indisputably Israel while the Temple Mount is not…’

‘You know perfectly well what I mean Omri.’ 

‘Sure I know what you mean and you know I feel the same as you do. But you heard the PM.’

‘I heard him. I couldn’t believe my ears but I certainly heard him.’ 

‘I’m truly sorry Alex.’

They were quiet for a moment and then Elena asked Omri, ‘What are we waiting for exactly?’

‘The director of Mossad with the code’ he answered.

‘The code to what?’ she queried looking puzzled.

‘The key code to the access panel of the vault where the Ark is being stored. Only he and the P.M. know it.

According to these guys he’ll be here any minute.’  Then, almost the instant Omri finished speaking a siren blasted above the sliding door to the shed. Elena nearly jumped out of her skin and Alex grimaced and covered his ears with his hands. Immediately the two armed men trotted away towards the shed door.

‘My apologies!’ Omri shouted as the siren died away. Putting his arm round Elena’s shoulders he said. ‘If I’d known I’d have warned you. It’s intended to be heard over the noise of the aeroplanes. In any case, Avi’s here.’

‘Avi?’ queried Alex.

‘Oh sorry! Avi Peled, the Mossad chief. He and I go way back.’ 

One of the armed men slid the door open just wide enough to allow in a tall slim middle-aged man in a light khaki suit before immediately closing it again.  

Avi Peled approached them at a leisurely gate, barely lifting his large feet off the ground. The sideways sway of his long arms seemed slightly out of sync with his stride and gave the impression that he was walking more slowly than he actually was. 

He smiled when he saw Omri and greeted him in Hebrew. They then shook hands and half embraced. A well-rehearsed exchange of banter followed during which Alex detected the word “professor” mentioned two or three times. He guessed that Omri wanted to avoid Avi repeating the PM’s earlier faux-pas. Then, after a minute or so they turned towards Alex and Elena.

‘You must excuse us Professors Martinez’ said the Mossad chief smiling warmly and in perfect, American accented English. Then holding out his hand towards Alex, ‘but Omri and I are old friends…’

If one didn’t know, Alex thought as they shook hands, looking at the two friends, one would never have guessed that they were the same age. Perhaps running Mossad was an even more onerous job than he could have imagined but to Alex’s eyes Avi could have been a good ten years older than Omri. 

His ovular face was pale and yellow and the little hair he had left was a dull grey and combed over his bald pate in lank strands. His eyes were bloodshot and deeply shadowed and with heavy eye bags. His high forehead was furrowed with permanent worry lines and his thin lips were chapped and chewed. The matching dimples on his chin and at the tip of his broad nose seemed to accentuate his haggard and world-weary appearance. 

‘Old friends my arse!’ Omri exclaimed smacking Avi playfully on the back. ‘We had no choice! We were in the army together. From basic training onwards Avi here was forced upon me!’ and they both laughed.

‘That’s true’ continued Avi, ‘and what was worse, the bastards at officer school made Omri my commander for nearly all of our time together.’

‘Was he a hard task master?’ Alex asked Avi picking up on the jovial spirit between the two men.

‘Are you kidding? He ran our unit like he was Genghis Khan…’

‘He’s lying!’ exclaimed Omri giving his old colleague another playful thump. ‘I was the model of leniency…’

‘Sure! With the girls!’ Avi cut in. ‘With the girls Omri was the most lenient officer in the entire army!’

‘Now I know you’re telling the truth’ Alex said laughing too. ‘That’s my Omri okay!’

Omri was standing with his arms folded across his chest feigning a look of righteous indignation.

‘If we didn’t have a lady present’ Avi continued nodding at Elena, ‘I could tell you stories about Omri’s leniency towards the girls in his command that would make you blush…’

‘Don’t mind me, please!’ said Elena gesturing encouragingly with her hands. ‘Please, do go on.’

‘I think not!’ Omri said firmly wagging his finger.

‘But seriously though’ Avi said, his tone suddenly altered to earnestness, placing his hand on Omri’s shoulder, ‘this guy was the best unit commander in the army and the bravest. He saved my life twice during the battle for the Old City. Once during the assault on the Lions’ Gate he rugby tackled me away as I was about to tread on a booby trap and then later, on the Via Dolorosa he took out a sniper who had his gun trained on me…’ 

‘I can quite believe that too’ said Alex smiling at his friend who looked distinctly uncomfortable being praised so effusively. 

There was an awkward silence for a moment and then Omri eager to change the subject said to Avi; ‘Speaking of the Old City, there’s a rather important relic from the Old City just behind that wall over there which our distinguished Spanish guests are eager to see.’

‘Sure’ said Avi nodding affirmatively. ‘You people follow me.’

As he led the three of them towards the far wall of the shed Alex and Elena found themselves holding hands again. 

Then Alex felt Omri’s great paw-like leathery hand gently squeezing his neck and he turned to find him grinning at him; a tight lipped twinkly eyed grin, as if to say ‘well old pal, this is it. This really is it…’ Alex tried to smile back but could only return a wide-eyed nod.   

Then suddenly the contact of his wife’s and his friend’s hands were irritating and stifling and with an involuntary jerk he wriggled clear of both of them. They looked at him with concern but he held up his hands and between two deep breaths said; ‘I’m fine. Really I’m fine. I just…I just need to be on my own for this…until I’ve seen it…then afterwards…’

Meanwhile Avi pushed firmly with his index finger on what appeared to be a multiple light switch fixed onto the corrugated steel wall. After a couple of attempts the front; switches-and-all, sprung open to one side revealing what looked like an entry-phone keypad typical of an apartment block. The only difference Alex could detect from the regular sort was the presence of two large flat faced buttons beneath the pad; one scarlet and the other green.

 Avi turned around. ‘Not much of a holy of holies I’m afraid’ he said looking at Alex, ‘but under the circumstances I’m afraid it’s the best I can offer you. Now if you’d be so kind as to look the other way for a moment while I tap in the code…’ 

They dutifully turned their backs and Alex heard seven beeps as Avi entered the code.

‘Okay, that’s done’ Avi said. After they had turned back around he pointed towards the green button and asked Alex; ‘Would you like the honour Professor Martinez?’ 

Alex took another deep breath then nodded. ‘Yes’ he almost whispered.

As he approached the panel Avi added; ‘Stand back as you press it…’

Another deep breath and Alex nodded again and mumbled ‘bien’. Overwhelmed by his nervousness he instinctively reverted to Spanish. 

The green button was at exactly his eye level. He stood staring at it, his breathing now verging on hyperventilation. 

He felt lightheaded and as he gazed at the button he found it hard to focus. It seemed to have the form of a ball and for a moment there were two of them and then they melded back into one and parted again, first sideways, then up and down, together, apart, then together. Large beads of sweat ran down his temples and the back of his neck, soaking his shirt collar…’

‘Alex’ he heard someone saying to him, as if in the distance, then again, louder this time, ‘Alex old friend’ it was Omri, ‘are you alright?’

Suddenly there was a thunderous noise and the shed shook and Alex felt as if he had been woken from a trance. 

 As the howling of the four RB211 turbines faded into the distance he turned to Omri and said ‘I’m fine now.’ 

 He smiled at Elena. In Spanish he said; ‘Fifteen years of my life—of both our lives—and this is what it’s all come down to’ and still looking at her, searching for calm and reassurance in her astonishing eyes, he pushed the green button.

For a second nothing happened. Then there was a shushing sound of air being compressed. A corrugated panel, a foot or so above the ground, six feet wide by eight feet tall, just to the right of the key pad, advanced forwards from the wall about ten inches. Then there was a series of clunking and clicking noises and the panel slid smoothly and silently across towards the right. 

As it moved away Alex saw eight inches of gleaming metal and he realised that the corrugated surface was merely a camouflage for what was in reality a steel door to a vault. 

‘This is where we keep our most special and valuable imports and exports Professor’ he heard Avi informing him from over his shoulder. ‘It’s rarely used at all and normally for highly classified bits and pieces— important that is from a national perspective—but nothing to compare with this. I would say with extreme confidence, that this is the most sacred cargo ever placed here.’

Alex peered into the vault but it was pitch black. 

‘Here. Let me professor’ Avi said reaching around the left-hand side of the vault’s entrance, presumably reaching for the light switch. ‘Omri explained to me that you would like to go in on your own to start with.

Well professor, it’s all yours for as long as you need…’ 

There was a click followed a moment later by the distinctive whirring of fluorescent tubes firing up, and the strobe-like flash, flash, flash as the bulbs lit…

THE UNHOLY OF UNHOLIES

EXERPT 6 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

The basilica at the Valley of the Fallen is hewn from living granite forming a vast man-made cave. 

After entering, it took several seconds for the three companions’ eyes to adjust to the relative gloom of the artificially illuminated interior after the blinding glare of the white paved esplanade. 

The most striking thing upon entering was the sweet cave smell accompanied by a wave of cold air which enveloped them like a cool blanket. It reminded Omri of walking into the treasury at Petra which although much smaller offered a similar effect on the senses; especially the nasal senses. No doubt the Jordanian sandstone emitted a subtly different smell to this Spanish granite, like two distinct wines but the general effect was almost identical.

They left the porch and passed under the ornate wrought ironwork gate with its pair of Hapsburg Imperial Eagles and into the crypt. 

Despite her best efforts even Elena could not help but stare upwards at the arched vault of the ceiling and marvel at the sheer scale and ambition of the space. The roof in particular had been cleverly worked with undeniable skill to simulate a lattice of arched beams and dressed stone supporting the raw rock above.  

Beneath stretched the crypt, all eight hundred plus feet of it, including at the far end a great transept and choir containing the high altar and tombs of Franco and de Rivera set under a carved domed cupola.

But then, just a few steps after they had passed beneath the iron gate Omri stopped and gasped audibly. He had caught site of two towering black metallic sculptures, dramatically up-lit and set into two raised niches facing each other across the alter. The statues were of massive winged angels cast in a heavy deco style, their gazes averted slightly towards the floor and both gripping downward pointing broadswords.

For a second or two Omri just stood there looking from one angel to the other in obvious amazement. ‘What is it Omri?’ demanded Elena tersely, mistaking his astonishment for admiration. ‘Surely you don’t like those statues too? They’re so…they’re just so clumsy. They’re exactly the kind of clunky brutalism you’d expect from an artist commissioned by a fascist dictator.’

‘But don’t you see it?’ replied Omri looking inquiringly at Elena and then at Alex.

‘See what?’ Elena came back still sounding curt.

‘Don’t either of you see what I’m seeing—really?’ Omri was almost pleading with them. ‘I thought that you guys had been steeped in this Ark stuff long enough to see what I’m seeing.’

But they both just looked back at him and then at each other in blank bewilderment. 

‘Look!’ he almost shouted at them, his arms outstretched towards the two statues while gesturing with his head to each angel in turn, his eyes glaring and then pointing towards the alter with his camera.  ‘Of course!’ exclaimed Alex.

Of course, what?’ Elena said almost demanding to be let in on the secret.

‘Elena’ Alex said now grinning broadly, cupping her cheeks in his hands. ‘Do you remember reading about the Ark in the first book of Kings in the Bible and how it sat in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple? Do you remember what else was in there, in the Holy of Holies guarding it?’

He gave her a moment to think, grinning and nodding at Omri.

Then she too broke into an open-mouthed smile before exclaiming; ‘Oh yes! Two massive carved angels!

The Ark sat between two protective angels.’

‘Two angles ten cubits tall to be precise’ added Omri. ‘And I’d be willing to bet that these two fellows here are about five metres tall, from their feet to their wing tips—in other words, about ten cubits.’  

‘So what does this mean?’ Elena asked looking at

Omri. ‘It’s just a coincidence, isn’t it?’

‘Unless your husband is mistaken’ Omri said grinning mischievously at Alex, ‘and your government really does know about the Ark and placed these two statues here as some kind of secret acknowledgement, then yes it’s obviously a coincidence.’

‘I can assure you that it’s a coincidence’ said Alex ignoring the jibe; ‘These statues were commissioned at the same time as the basilica itself, decades before Franco knew about the Ark.’

‘Still, it’s an amazing piece of happenstance’ Omri declared, ‘although my high school RE teacher always assured me that there’s no such thing as coincidences.’

As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle the Israeli resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.

They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.

‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.

‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feat. ‘You’re right on top of it.’ 

Instinctively Omri took a quick half-step backwards. Then he bent his neck and looked down at the grey paving stone beneath his feet, his chin seemingly glued to his chest. His arms sank to his sides and he just stood there like that, stock-still, for almost a minute.

Omri dropped down onto one knee. He glanced around the transept to make sure that there was no one else within earshot before taking the camera in both hands and sliding open the little panel on its rear. He then held down the button with his left thumb and began slowly moving the camera over the stone slab. 

Almost immediately the camera started emitting a sharp crackly high-pitched whine, causing Omri to twitch momentarily as if he had received a mild electric shock. His entire frame remained rigid except for the circular motion of his arms as he scanned the floor. 

Alex and Elena stood either side of him, both of them transfixed by Omri’s sudden display of physical concentration. Although they could only see his partial profile, they could sense the intensity etched on his face.

Then Omri relaxed and he reached down towards the slab with his hand and delicately, hesitantly touched the stone with his fingertips like it was an old master canvas hanging in a great gallery. As he did so they heard him mutter something to himself in Hebrew. And then he raised his face to look at them and they saw that his eyes were glistening. 

He slowly stood up, spent another two- or three-minutes staring at the floor, breathing slowly and deeply, regaining his composure. Finally, he turned to them and said; ‘Forgive me for doubting you Alex. Forgive me for doubting a Son of Kohath.’

He then continued photographing, taking at least half a dozen shots of the paving stone and its immediate vicinity.

In all the years Alex had known Omri he had never seen him display emotion of this sort. Sure, there had been the many heated scholarly disputes, mostly with Ron and even the odd row but never anything like this.

Not even on the Arad dig when on one occasion a shard was uncovered with an inscription on it that seemed at first to contain the name of Solomon’s son King Rehoboam (but which later turned out to be merely the Holy Land’s oldest discovered laundry list). Not even then did Omri do anything more than smile broadly and congratulate the young student discoverer with a firm pat on the back

As they began their return walk back down the aisle towards the rectangle of white daylight at the entrance Alex gave Omri’s arm an affectionate squeeze. He said; ‘If you don’t mind me asking, was that some kind of prayer you made back there?’

‘Gracious no! Nothing like that!’ replied Omri returning his friend’s arm squeeze, ‘I pray about as much as you do.’

‘I never pray.’

‘Exactly.’

‘So, what were you saying? Can you tell me?’

‘Sure, I can tell you and Elena too—but no one else. Not even Carlos Garcia—at least not yet.’ He stopped and looked directly at Alex and then at Elena. ‘Do you both understand?’

‘We understand Omri’ confirmed Elena, ‘but what did you say?’

‘I spoke to the Ark.’

You spoke to the Ark? Alex repeated in disbelief.

‘You didn’t pray but you spoke to the Ark! I think I’d rather you had prayed.’

‘Do you think that the Ark understands Modern Hebrew?’ teased Elena.

‘Of course not!’ replied Omri playing along with her. ‘That’s why I used Classical Hebrew.’

‘And what did you say to the Ark in Classical Hebrew?’

‘I merely told it that I thought it was about time it came home.’

And with that Omri thrust the camera back in his bag and marched back out into the searing daylight.

THE PENANCE OF CARLOS

EXERPT 5 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” 

After Ramirez left Carlos sent everyone home. 

 Marie Carmen protested, saying that she wanted to clean the bathroom but Carlos told her that he would do it himself. She then complained that he had never so much as cleaned a cup so how on earth would he manage to clean a bathtub. 

‘I don’t expect you to understand my love’ he said to her holding her gently by her broad muscular and fleshy shoulders, ‘but this is something I have to do myself. I owe it to Miguel.’

She did not answer but simply looked back at him with her typical doleful open mouthed expression.

‘Now you be a good girl Marie Carmen and go home and get some rest. I’ll follow just as soon as I’ve finished here. I’ll clean the bath and then I’ll phone Jorge and Moisés and then I’ll walk home. Then we can start arranging the funeral and the wake.’

Carlos saw her to the door and watched her large form silhouetted against the early evening autumn sky waddle away heavily down Loli’s immaculate narrow path. 

He watched her with that same mixture of affection and pity that had characterised his attitude to her for most of their forty years together. 

Still, he thought it was better what he felt for her now than when their two families had forced them together in matrimony all those years ago, even though she had at least been slim and pretty then.

But it had never been her looks that had bothered him nor her considerable dowry. It was the fact that she was so intellectually backward and dull; an ‘idiot’ in fact, as he had complained bitterly to his father when the wedding was announced.

‘So, you’ll educate her!’ his father would respond laughing.

‘But she’s not educable Father, she’s verging on being retarded…’

‘What the hell do you care if she’s retarded? She’s about to make you rich!’

‘But I can’t discuss anything with her. She doesn’t understand anything I say…’

‘So what? Wives aren’t meant for discourse! They’re for child rearing and for cooking your meals and keeping your home. If you need to chat, do it with your colleagues and your friends. You can even find educated whores who will listen to what you have to say, just so long as you pay them.’

‘I don’t love her father, I don’t even like her.’

‘Please Carlos—be sensible about this. Be content that you’re getting an attractive and wealthy young wife. For goodness sake boy, at least she isn’t ugly! If she was ugly I might have some sympathy with you, but this? This is a dream marriage—one of Malaga’s most eligible girls wedding Malaga’s—and perhaps Spain’s—most promising young scientist’

‘But Father…’

‘And anyway Carlos, you’ll learn to like her, I guarantee it. You might even come to love her in time.’

With time Carlos’ feelings for Marie Carmen did indeed change but not quite in the way his father had predicted. He never grew to love her, or even like her but familiarity and regular and comfortable sex made him feel a tenderness towards her that evolved over the years. So much so, that even as childbirth took its toll on her body and she gradually grew into the broad shape typical of most Malagueña matrons his tenderness merely faded into a kind of protective compassion.

The only blip in his ‘virtual matrimonial idyll’ (as he described it wryly to himself) occurred several years later when his youngest brother Miguel, with barely a raised eyebrow from their father married the girl of his choice; Gloria Hernandez.

‘But you’re our first born Carlos’ their father would say whenever the subject was broached. 

‘Little Miguel is not my heir—you are. And in any case, his Loli is from a good Madrid family—no money worries there. He has done well for himself. But with you, we had to be certain. You were a loose cannon and we couldn’t take a chance.’ And then he would pause for a moment before adding with sublime insensitivity; ‘It’s funny how things work out isn’t it Carlos? You, the brainy one of the family wedded to a dimwit and Miguel, the dimwit of the family married to one of the brightest and most talented girls in Madrid. Ha!’ Then he would walk off, chortling at his own sense of irony.

But it was not so much the relative injustice of the two unions that irked Carlos as it was the painful fact that he fell in love with Loli the instant Miguel first introduced her to the family in Malaga.

The moment she walked into the large sitting room of the Garcia house, slightly ahead of Miguel, full of purpose and self-assurance he knew that she was everything that Marie Carmen was not. 

Loli was petite, with the bearing, poise and physique of a classical dancer, with pert breasts, a narrow waist, toned bottom and lean athletic legs. Her short jet black hair cut immaculately, framing a small but elegantly sculpted face oozing intelligence with every glance of her large green eyes.

The fact that later in the evening she entertained the family at the piano with the skill of a young Rubenstein and that she was charming and attentive towards Marie Carmen throughout and that she was his little brother’s girl all conspired to make Carlos thoroughly enchanted and miserable in equal measure. And while the passage of time helped him come to terms with his marriage to Marie Carmen it did nothing to temper his feelings of love and desire towards his sister in law. 

Not that there was anything he ever would have done to assuage these feelings, even if Loli had been ‘available’ which she most definitely was not. The idea of betraying Miguel and jeopardising their good relationship was abhorrent to him. 

Ultimately Carlos learned to channel his feelings for Loli into his fantasies, both when alone and when having sex with Marie Carmen. Then later, when he got tenure at the University of Madrid and they began to see Miguel and Loli practically every weekend and holiday he found an even more effective way of sublimating his desire. He embarked upon a long series of affairs; at first, mostly with secretaries, but later in the 50’s and 60’s, as more girls joined the faculty, with students, and occasionally the odd colleague. 

Somehow, through all of this Marie Carmen remained none the wiser. Either because she was not sufficiently mentally alert to understand and interpret all the many oversights and faux-pars that Carlos made; such as the scent of perfume on his clothes, lipstick on his collars, dried semen stains around his flies, on his underwear and most typically, him calling her by the name of his current fling; or that he somehow managed to part with all of his girlfriends on amicable terms so that none of them ever “made trouble” for him. So it was, that evening, alone at last in his brother’s house when he entered the bathroom Carlos had the feeling he was about to embark upon an act of penance. 

He stood for a moment looking down at the bath now drained of water. Almost the entire tub, except for two oval patches where Loli’s buttocks had been pressed against the enamel was stained with a dark maroon film. The blood spatter on the wall tiles around the soap tray where Loli had placed the razor had turned a deep umber. 

Carlos looked around for a cloth of some kind and spotted an orange moppet on a low shelf behind the sink. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, took the flat sponge and turned on the telephone shaped hand-shower above the bath taps.

As he started wiping and rinsing around the wall, diluted blood and water seeped from the sponge and ran through his fingers and down his wrist and forearm.

Instinctively, almost unconsciously Carlos put the back of his hand to his mouth and then touched the moisture with his tongue. 

Tears began to well in the geneticist’s eyes and he continued with his curiously intimate chore.  

‘It’s amazing’ he thought, ‘how easily blood washes away—just like life itself.’ 

Then he imagined Loli’s DNA diluting into the Madrid drains.

TAPAS BEFORE TEMPLARS…

EXERPT 4 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” 

La Gamba was situated in the aptly named Via Frontera, on the border of the theatre and financial districts. It was a lively informal bar with an authentic Andalucian feel, inside and out.  

Black wrought iron window grills festooned with obscenely healthy geraniums screamed scarlet against glossy viridian window frames and whitewashed walls. Just beneath the foliage on the narrow pavement along the front wall, a row of small tile-topped tables were perched precariously on the edge of the high curb. Regulars at La Gamba knew to keep their hands and elbows well tucked in when sitting at these tables to avoid constant jostling from pedestrians on one side or more serious knocks from passing motor traffic on the other. They also needed to be impervious to the acrid exhaust fumes belching out from the frequent 50cc Puch motorcycles and Vespas—the vehicles of choice for most working class “Madrineros”.

Inside, La Gamba’s walls were swathed in cheaply framed bullfighting and flamenco show posters. Ornamental pinewood beams stained dark with thick treacly varnish posed as unconvincing supports for the nicotine stained ceiling. The linoleum floor was littered with used “tapas tissues”, cigarette butts, mussel shells and prawn skins. The long bar was harshly illuminated by a double row of eerily yellow fluorescent strip lights bolted precariously to the fake beams. 

In addition to the assault on the visual senses, it was the smoke you noticed most when you entered; a sweet pungent grey-blue mist bearing strong hints of alcohol, coffee and garlic frying in olive oil. And all the time this murky soup churned around and upwards and regurgitated into spirals by a dozen sluggish ceiling fans.

But then, in defiance of this lurid environment, emerging from the monochrome mist like a glorious Technicolor oil painting there was the tapas itself:  

Tapas on an epic scale reflecting the collective culinary glory of Seville, of Granada, of Cordoba, of Cadiz, of Malaga, of Huelva and even humble Almeria. Tapas of such high quality it compelled people to brave the kitsch, the fug and the noise in vast numbers from all over the city and beyond.  

The bar was all of forty foot long, starting at the entrance and continuing two thirds of the way down the narrow room. 

Along the bar’s entire length were glass and steel chilling and warming cabinets. Within the cabinets were scores of hot and cold raw and cooked meats: Pork, rabbit, tripe, chicken, game and veal; stewed, baked, fried and grilled ‘a la plancha’ and then the fish and the sea food; starting at one end with the braised salt cod and culminating at the other end with piles of alive, gently pulsing clams and mussels, and in between; all the edible booty of the sea from gilt-head bream and baby whiting to spider crab, squid, razor clams, octopus and prawn and shrimp in heaps  and then; a row of earthenware platters resting above the cabinets, laden with steamed wild snails, deep fried baby green peppers, black pudding stewed with chick peas, tripe with potatoes in saffron sauce, four inch thick egg tortillas, mini wooden skewers of cubed pork loin marinated in paprika saffron and cumin, cured ham fried with broad beans and on and on. 

Directly above, hanging from a straining iron rod were dozens of precious Jabugo black hams. And behind the bar, on the back counter; more plates and carving boards, piled high with “Iberico” sausage, cured meats, chorizo and black puddings of all shapes and sizes. 

And finally, above the sausage, a phalanx of dark oak barrels stacked up to the ceiling: Full sized 256 litre (give or take) casks of dark sweet viscous Malagas, dry clean yellow Montillas and yeasty nutty Sherries and Manzanillas. 

And manning this visual-cum-olfactory sensory battering ram; a cohort of waiters and barmen (all men), attired in black trousers, tieless white shirts and green fronted waist coats and armed only with sticks of white chalk jammed behind their ears. No note pads here, just chalk marks scratched onto tables and bar alike. 

It was central Madrid on a Thursday night and La Gamba was heaving with a mixture of pre-theatre crowd and office workers lingering far too long on their way home from work. It occurred to Alex that perhaps it was not the ideal spot after all for what he anticipated would be a long and discreet conversation. Fortunately though Carlos Garcia had been good to his word and secured a booth at the rear beyond the bar and well away from the main crowd which tended to gravitate around the ranks of tapas like moths to a flame.

The booths were surprisingly insulated from the noisy crush beyond, but on the down-side there was a mild odour of urine and cheap soap emanating from the toilets over in the far corner. This was partially compensated for however by the fact that above, on the far wall was a row of open narrow windows which drew the worst of the smoke.

At the first instant, when Carlos saw that Alex had not come alone a look of barely disguised annoyance started to cross his high deeply furrowed brow. But then, within an instant, he took in Elena as she glided toward him ahead of Alex, smiling, eyes gleaming, hair gently swaying and a crisply tailored charcoal two piece work skirt and jacket adding to the effect, his lower lip fell. 

As she approached radiating confidence and self-assurance, right arm outstretched Carlos suddenly realised that he should stand up.  While he clumsily clambered to his feet Elena announced herself; ‘Doctor Elena Ortiz Martinez.’ 

Carlos took her hand, barely holding it, unsure whether to shake it or kiss it. He felt foolish. He had never been approached in this way by a Spanish woman and the fact that she was so attractive totally unnerved him. Fortunately though, Elena took the initiative for him, firmly grasping his limp fingers and giving a vigorous couple of shakes. ‘It’s a great thrill to meet you Professor Garcia. I simply had to come along once I realised it was you Alex was meeting. I’m a fan of yours. I even read your book. The one you wrote for human beings. That was the way you termed it if I remember correctly? Blood and History wasn’t it called?’

The History of Blood, Doctor Martinez’ Carlos gently corrected her as they all sat down.

Elena, please just call me Elena Professor. But I do remember the main theme of the book. Your incredible idea—how one day soon we will be able to map all of humanity through our genetic codes and how it will be possible to determine exactly where we came from. Our own personal genetic histories going back thousands of years.’

‘Well, that’s oversimplifying it somewhat but yes, you got the gist. And it’s just Carlos if you please…Elena. And may I ask? What is your doctorate in?’ 

‘I’m a lecturer in modern history at the university.  I guess we’re colleagues come to think of it.’

‘Only half colleagues now regretfully. I semi-retired last year and am emeritus these days. In truth I really miss the stimulation of being a full time researcher.’ Carlos felt emboldened by Elena’s spirit of forwardness and added; ‘I also miss rubbing shoulders with some of the fabulous young female lecturers emerging these days.’ 

Alex smiled. He was impressed with Carlos’ speedy powers of recovery, not to mention his obvious talents as a schmoozer.

‘I can’t claim to be either fabulous or all that young these days’ she replied, ‘although I do my best to flow with the years in most other respects.’ 

Carlos smiled back, his eyes twinkling, ‘You’re far too modest if I may be so bold Elena, and flowing certainly becomes you.’

‘Ahem!’ uttered Alex, beginning to find the exchange tedious.

Carlos turned towards Alex and said; ‘My apologies Alex, but my goodness, you really are a most fortunate man.’

‘I suppose I must be, as I’m told so often’ Alex said a touch sardonically. 

‘You are quite right. Please forgive the pathetic stirrings of an old man’ Carlos responded apologetically having noticed Alex’s tone.

Elena leaned across the table and gently squeezed Carlos’ hand. ‘Don’t apologise Carlos. He’ll get over it. It’s just that all this Transito business has made him grouchy lately.’ 

He smiled at Elena, patted her hand before returning it across the table. ‘No, but Alex is right. I have much to tell you and we don’t want to be here all night do we?’ Carlos’ face immediately took on the same serious, almost business like expression Alex remembered from their encounter at the hospital. ‘And to save us some time I took the liberty of ordering a selection of tapas before you arrived.’

‘Good idea’ said Alex relieved by the change in subject. ‘Miguel and I normally propped up the bar when we met here. The couple of times we took a table outside the service was slow.’

‘Miguel was always raving to me about this place’ Carlos continued, ‘but somehow we never met here. He was funny about doing anything with me in public. It was a shame, because I always liked his company and we got on well.’

‘Maybe he had a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to you?’ Alex suggested a little disingenuously, recalling what Loli had told him earlier that day.

‘Yes, but it was so irrational. After all, he had no problem being seen in your company, and you’re a professor too.’

‘But Carlos, you’re his brother’ Elena said. ‘That’s different from a mere work associate like Alex. I never met Miguel unfortunately but from what Alex tells me I think he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with people like Alex for the same reason that he didn’t want to be seen out with you. Whereas your eminence perhaps would have highlighted to the outside world Miguel’s self-perception of his own underachievement being seen out with Alex actually built up his self-esteem. Made him feel a sort of eminence by association, if that makes any sense?’

At that point a waiter arrived with a large steel tray expertly balanced on his shoulder laden with plates of food. 

As he deftly began placing the dishes on the table Carlos told them; ‘I actually ordered half portions, not tapas. I can’t stand a table covered in dozens of little plates, half of which one never gets to taste. In any case, I hope you find I covered all the bases food wise?’

Elena and Alex eagerly nodded their assent. Despite the fact it was not as adventurous a selection as Alex and Elena would have ordered, it was all so well prepared and they were so hungry they did not care. In fact, Carlos had chosen a virtual beginners introduction to Andalucian dishes. There were the ubiquitous large boiled prawns in their shells with sea salt, lightly battered deep fried baby squid, pickled sprat fillets in olive oil garnished with parsley and garlic, grilled goujon of garlicky rosada, a plate of thinly sliced ham and a ceramic platter of piping hot meat balls in a bread-thickened almond and saffron sauce. 

The waiter also brought a half bottle of ice cold Manzanilla and three chilled tulip shaped glasses. As he poured the palest of pale wines Carlos said; ‘I also took the liberty of ordering drink. I hope fino is to your liking?’

‘We both love it’ answered Alex, ‘but I think I’ll get a beer to start with if that’s okay. I’m dying of thirst. Anyone else fancy one?’

Elena and Carlos both shook their heads.

‘A large glass of Victoria for me and bring another half of Manzanilla with an ice bucket’ Alex said to the waiter. Then, as the waiter disappeared back into the melee beyond he continued to Elena and Carlos; ‘Might as well get set up for the evening.’ ‘Not a Malaga drinker Carlos?’ Elena asked.

‘No, I’m ashamed to say. Every year when we were boys in late August we were taken up into the Axarquia mountains near Canillas de Aceituno. Our uncle— our father’s older brother—had a finca and grew prize Moscatel grapes. He sold most of them to Scholtz Hermanos in Malaga but he also made a bit of wine for himself—and raisins too. We got roped in with all the associated chores.  And goodness were they chores, picking the grape and making the wine. I don’t know what was more mind-numbing—de-stemming the grape by hand for pressing or later on snipping the raisins. At any rate, by the end of the month we’d been up there just the smell of the Moscatel, either in liquid or dried form, made me feel so nauseated that till this day I can’t go near the stuff.’

‘It’s funny’ Elena remarked, ‘how townies like us tend to think of winemaking as such a romantic thing to do, especially the harvesting and the treading. Did you tread by foot?’ 

‘Yes. Everybody makes the wine the same way, even now. The de-stemmed berries get chucked into a kind of large outdoor trough. Then the treading is done by the men mostly, wearing flat soled rubber shoes nowadays—esparto back then—a bit like flip-flops. The must flows out of a sluice in the trough and gets collected in buckets and then chucked straight into clean empty casks.  The residual grape mush from the trough then gets pressed in a hand ratcheted basket press. The pressing can take days and our uncle would leave the filled press to weep overnight. All the tears— as the locals referred to the liquid—were then added to the cask. The Moscatel are so rich in sugar that they start fermenting well before the treading. The smell was incredible. Most people love it but I found it sickly. And even worse than the smell, were the wasps— nests of wasps in the vineyards which we always inadvertently disturbed.  And then swarms of the bastards around the treading and the pressing attracted by the sugary moisture. One year poor Miguel was stung in the eye.’

‘Ouch!’ Elena said wincing.

‘Yes, it was appalling. He couldn’t have been more than six and his distress was awful. He had to be held down writhing and screaming while our uncle’s wife pressed a poultice of earth and water onto his eye.’

‘I don’t suppose they had any antihistamines back then?’ asked Alex.

‘No! But it wouldn’t be much different now. The peasants down there are still suspicious of modern medicine. With Miguel, they physically bound him to a chair so that he wouldn’t touch his eye. It took nearly two days before he could see again from that eye and more than a week for the swelling to go down and he had sensitivity in it for the rest of his life. So no Elena—wine making in the Axarquia at least, is a dirty, sweaty and smelly—not to mention hazardous business and not the slightest bit romantic. And that’s why I never go near my native drink. Our once-famous ‘Mountain Sac’ might have been the favourite tipple of Queen Elizabeth I of England and even the magnificent Falstaff but neither of them ever had to make the accursed stuff!’

Alex continued the theme; ‘Did you know it’s probable that vines were first brought to the Axarquia by Phoenician colonists? Perhaps more than 3000 years ago? And certainly the Carthaginians and the Romans practised viticulture in that area.’

‘And what about the Moors?’ asked Elena; ‘I’ve always meant to ask you about that. They didn’t drink did they?’

‘Not officially at least’ answered Alex, ‘but they loved their raisins.’

‘Yes’ Carlos interjected, ‘and supposedly, the Moslem landlords employed primarily Jewish vine keepers.’ 

‘The Jews have always had a knack with wine, going all the way back to First Temple period when they produced most of the fine wines drunk across the ancient Middle East’ continued Alex.

‘And now two of Bordeaux’s five premier cru clarets are made by Jewish growers’ Elena chipped in, showing off her wine knowledge. ‘Not that I’ve ever had the good fortune to taste either of them.’

‘Anyway’ said Alex towards Carlos, ‘talking of things Jewish?’

‘Ah yes!’ Carlos responded to Alex’s change of topic. ‘Things Jewish, and much else besides, and which reminds me, don’t let me forget to give you this before we part tonight’ he said picking up a large heavy looking carrier bag from the empty chair to his right. ‘This is copies of all my notes from the last ten years or so about El Transito, The Sons of Kohath and everything.

My research, my theories‒‒what my sister-in-law Loli calls my Grand Hypothesis.’

The waiter then reappeared with Alex’s beer and the sherry in an ice bucket which after a reconfiguration of the plates of food he was able to deposit on the table. 

‘Perhaps we should eat before all this lovely food spoils and then I’ll tell you a story’ Carlos suggested.

‘Good food and wine followed by a ripping yarn— my idea of the perfect evening.’ Elena said.

ALEX’S HOLY-OF-HOLIES DESPAIR…

EXERPT 3 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” *

Once in his study the first thing Alex did was head for the sideboard and pour a generous glass of Dimple. He took two deep slugs then sat down at his large French walnut desk.

He stared at the parcel for a few moments and smiled wryly. Its considerable thickness brought to mind the single-page scrawl Ruiz had sent him that morning back in April.

Alex’s hands trembled slightly as he tore open the package like they had years before when he opened the letter from St Catherine’s College Cambridge bearing the news of his being accepted onto their master’s program. He had a strong sense that whatever was enclosed in Malcolm’s parcel would have at least as equal an impact upon the immediate course of his life.

At the top of a stack of files was an envelope containing a four page hand-written letter from the curator of the world’s greatest general collection of Near Eastern artefacts.

He took another swallow of whiskey and began to read:

Dear Alex

Firstly, my profound apologies for the delay in getting back to you but unfortunately I was away in Melbourne when your package arrived. I was overseeing the “Origins Tour” and the damn thing took up the best part of three months of my time so I was unable to open your parcel until the middle of July. Anyway, better late than never and all that…

I am writing to you with the full backing and cooperation of Ron and Omri. They too send their apologies and you will not be surprised to learn that they were both in the field in April on their latest projects (Ron on the eastern delta and Omri at Tel Aphek) and only returned to their respective offices in August.

In the event we thought it would save further time and avoid needless repetition if just one of us sent you a letter which combines our joint findings. The fact that we three concur on just about every aspect regarding the remarkable samples you sent us (an amazing fact in itself) makes this approach especially logical and practical.

Your instincts regarding the trapezoidal structure (your “canopy”) and the reason you thought that here was material for our particular fields of expertise belies your position as a mere medievalist! Perhaps you should think of changing tack and move up to the higher echelons of pre-Christian Near Eastern Archaeology…’

Alex chuckled as he read these words. His friend often teased him over opting for what Malcolm referred to as the ‘safe option’ of ‘modern archaeology’ where there was ‘nothing left to discover’ and where ‘one ended up as a mere cataloguer of what was already known; a kind of archaeological librarian.’ 

The letter continued with a summary of the main technical reports and test results:

‘All three of us had the timber independently radio carbon tested and dated. Omri at the lab at Bar Ilan, Ron at Nevada of course and I took mine across to Imperial. All three results placed the timber in the late 13th/early14th century. This, as you well know is consistent with the age of the Transito Synagogue but rather interestingly the timber turned out to be cedar; Cedar of Lebanon to be precise and not any old Cedar of Lebanon. The samples actually come from a tree or trees grown and felled in the Levant and most probably Lebanon itself. You will have a better appreciation than any of us of the difficulty not to mention the expense of acquiring such an exotic timber during the 14th century. It seems an astonishing length to have gone to.

However, this is far less astonishing than the lengths gone to for acquiring the masonry!

As I presume you also know the stone is limestone but what you may not have discerned is that in common with the timber it is also of Middle Eastern origin. According to our geological reports it is a highly specific form of yellow limestone known to archaeologists as “meleke”; more commonly referred to as “Jerusalem Stone”.

Omri is the world’s leading expert on meleke and had no doubt the minute he set eyes on the sample you sent him. To be absolutely certain though and to determine the age of the dressing marks and to identify from where the stone originated we all had geological analyses done. Omri had his sample tested at the Hebrew University, Ron sent his to Caltech and I had mine examined at the geology department of the Natural History Museum here in London. Again, all three test results formed a consensus. Give or take fifty years either way, from the nature and wear of the cut markings the stones must have been dressed sometime during the late 10th/early 9th centuries BC. Moreover, the stones were almost certainly quarried in the mountains of southern Judea.

Finally, we were all able to have the gold leaf samples assessed in situ respectively.

While it was impossible to determine the geographical origins of the metal, from its level of purity and consistent colour we suggest it probably originated from somewhere in equatorial Africa. However, to judge from the thickness of the leaf and having done some calculations with regard to the internal surface area of the canopy I estimate that around 600lbs of gold were used; more than twice the amount in Tutankhamen’s innermost coffin! Given this, it would not be going too far to say that pro rata your little canopy has the most expensive wall paper in the world. One can only imagine what such opulence was intended to contain???

Bearing in mind all of the above, the final piece of information I have for you should now come as no surprise at all despite the fact it appears to represent the earliest and potentially most significant inscription from the “Land of the Bible” from the time of the first Hebrew kings.

In short your inscription says something simply amazing. It’s the sort of thing that Omri and Ron have only dared to dream of ever discovering. It is no exaggeration to state that this little scrawl might be the “Rosetta Stone” of biblical archaeology.

With one or two educated guesses vis-à-vis conjunctions etc. Ron and Omri render it thus:

‘‘[By the] grace of [the] hidden one Am[u]n [this] cornerstone [for] Yahweh’s House and [his] holy Asherah [in] the king’s name [in] the name [of] the House [of] David.’’

Alex gasped audibly when he read the translation. His head span. He did not know whether to laugh or cry.

The letter went on:

“The biggest surprise of all was the dedication to the chief Egyptian God Amun rather than the typical “Amen” affirmation (which may or may not be derivative in any event); confirmed by the fact that whoever carved the inscription used the ancient Egyptian designation “hidden one” when describing him. This throws the whole “Hebrew God” debate wide open and I can tell you now there is a small minority group of “out of Egypt” scholars who are going to crack open the bubbly when they learn of this (our own Ron classes himself as a “sympathiser”). I can almost hear the “we told you so’s” already!  In that one little dedication there’s more information regarding the nature of the official Israelite state religion at the time of the early Hebrew Kings than in all the museums and in all the texts throughout the world.

 My dear fortunate Alex, for some weird and wonderful reason you now find yourself sitting on what could be, from a Judeo-Christian perspective the single most important archaeological discovery this century. What you have there in Toledo is an incredible gem of a find. A structure built and decorated exclusively from the same materials alleged to have been used in the First Temple and some of them perhaps actually retrieved from that same building. Your little trapezoid might very well be the key for corroborating the existence of David and Solomon while at the same time confirming that the early Israelites were anything but monotheists. The importance of this find for biblical archaeology and for increasing our knowledge and understanding of Israelite history and the origins of western religion is inestimable.

Finally, I presume you are by now fully cognisant of the implications of your canopy being a trapezoidal structure. That fact taken in conjunction with all our findings is to quote Ron, simply awesome!

You’ll find all the data and all the analyses in our three reports attached to this letter.

Please get back to us as soon as possible. We are desperate to come over and pay a visit to your remarkable canopy. We presume the reason you have not yet published a report on the find has to do with the “intrigue” you referred to in your letter?

In the meantime our continued discretion is assured but we are only human and we are beside ourselves with excitement over your discovery.

Gratefully (and my love and a kiss to your beautiful Elena),

Malcolm

There was a ‘PS’:

‘Omri just this minute phoned to remind me that the debir (the inner sanctum / holy of holies) in the Yahweh temple which you and he worked on in the sixties at Arad was 5ft²; identical dimensions to the internal space of your structure in Toledo. Not to get melodramatic about this old chap, but my goodness me…’

Alex placed the letter down on his desk and sat back in his chair.

All he could visualise at that moment was the JCB and its claw smashing the canopy into a pile of rubble.

He thought of the exquisite gold leaf and the Lebanese cedar wood and the three thousand year old ashlar blocks and finally he remembered the inscription.

Then as his entire body began to convulse he leant forward and put his head in his hands and sobbed. He sobbed dry painful tears like retching on an empty stomach.

‘What have they done?’ he cried out loud. ‘What have those moronic bastards done?’

* Header picture shows the holy of holies of the Israelite/Judahite temple (circa 700 BCE) at Tel Arad (southern Judea/northern Negev).

“THE CAUDILLO IS RAISING HELL…!”

EXERPT 2 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

When he arrived in his office at the institute, there on his desk barely a day after he had submitted the samples for examination, was a thin dog-eared envelope with the words “analysis results” scrawled across the front in biro. 

The slim envelope instantly set alarm bells off in Alex’s head. He knew that meaningful reports took weeks and more often months to complete and would be presented in the form of a weighty file. But when he then read the note contained within the envelope his alarm turned to dismay:

Dear Professor Martinez,

Following careful examination, we find nothing remarkable to report regarding the nature of the stone, the timber or the graffito at the Transito site. In the light of these unexceptional findings, it has been decided to resume the engineering works to the synagogue’s eastern wall in the interests of securing the building with immediate effect.

The Department thanks you and your team for all your efforts in this matter.

Sincerely,

Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities

Alex immediately telephoned his main contact at the department, the medieval projects manager Miguel Garcia. 

Garcia claimed tersely that he knew nothing about it and refused to put him through to Ruiz saying that the director was busy. He then offered Alex a piece of ‘friendly advice’ to ‘drop the whole thing.’ 

Alex reminded Garcia that he had ‘uncovered a site of potentially great importance to the cultural heritage of Spain and that ‘both as an archaeologist and a patriot he was bound to publish a full site report.’

‘Nevertheless’ Garcia told him, ‘do not under any circumstances publish a report.’

To which Alex replied; ‘You mean like the people who discovered the structure in 1964?’

For several seconds there was silence at the other end of the phone. Then Garcia asked; ‘How the hell do you know that it was discovered in 1964? How can you know that?’

‘Hombre! I’m trained to know these things’ he replied surprised at the effectiveness of his gambit. ‘It’s what the government pays me for. Now would you be so kind as to tell me what is this all about? What’s with all the fucking secrecy?’

Alex’s swearing had an incendiary effect on Garcia. ‘There’s no fucking secrecy!’ he yelled. ‘No fucking anything! Just a fucking boring, fucking meaningless little fucking structure…’

Meaningless!’ Alex cried back. ‘A structure unique in Iberian medieval architecture decorated with enough solid gold to shame the tomb of the average Pharaoh! A structure moreover in perfect condition—except for the fact ten years ago someone removed its roof and then covered it over again as if nothing had happened? If that’s meaningless then I’m a Dutchman!’

‘Alex, I’m telling you again as a friend’ Miguel said quietly, almost pleading, ‘just forget all about this. It’s all a mistake, a bloody great cock-up!’

‘A mistake? What do you mean a mistake?’

‘The excavation Alex—the excavation was a mistake. It should never have been sanctioned. Whoever ticked off on the excavation didn’t know. He didn’t know about the original works in 64. But now they’ve found the old records and it should never have been sanctioned. The Caudillo himself is raising hell here Alex. Please, please just let it go.’ 

Both the desperation in Garcia’s voice and the mention of Franco were disturbing. Alex had always enjoyed a cordial and constructive working relationship with Miguel Garcia. He’d found him to be an affable chap always willing to go that extra mile for a colleague. This exchange was totally out of character. 

‘Listen Miguel, I don’t want to make problems for you. I just want…I just need to know one thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’

‘What is it?’

‘Whoever took the roof off the canopy found something inside it, and whatever it was, they removed it in a big hurry…’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Why else would they have deserted nearly half a ton of gold panelling? They must have found something so…so hot…’

Hot?’

‘I don’t know hombre! Hot, incredible, astonishing―something so precious in some way that they ignored the gold and covered up their tracks in a rush.’  Garcia did not respond. Alex could hear him breathing heavily down the phone.

‘I won’t write anything Miguel. No report. But please just tell me what was inside the structure?’

After another few seconds Garcia eventually said in a low weary voice; ‘Nothing Alex…they found absolutely nothing.’

‘You swear to me that’s the truth Miguel? You’re telling me that the Caudillo is getting all worked up over nothing because you’re acting like they found the fucking Holy Grail or something?’  Again, silence at the other end of the phone.

Calmly now, he repeated the question; ‘Miguel. Do you swear to me that what you just told me is the truth?’ 

Garcia hung up without answering.

ELENA’S TEL AVIV REVERIE…

A moody EXCERpt from my novel, “ark”…

Elena slid open the double glazed French doors of their suite at the Dan Hotel and walked out onto the balcony terrace overlooking the Tel Aviv sea front.

      It was like breaking a hermetic seal.

      Instantly the noise of traffic and hooting of cars below on Hayarkon Street merged with the sound of the waves crashing against the breakwaters beyond the broad sand beach. A smell of seaweed tinged with traces of petrol and diesel exhaust carried on the gusting westerly wind filled her nostrils.

   She leaned against the steel railing squinting slightly against the salt particles and sand peppering her face. Through her narrowed eyes she gazed at the deep cobalt blue sea streaked with crisp flecks of silver white foam. A brooding early evening sky with tumbling clouds was diffused by sporadic beams of platinum sunlight. Far off, above the jagged black horizon she could make out charcoal coloured shafts of rain like dirty net curtains suspended from the clouds.

The oceanic quality of the Tel Aviv shoreline appealed to Elena. In stark contrast to its typically sedentary mood around the eastern and southern coasts of Spain, here the Mediterranean roared and rumbled like it meant business, like the Atlantic waters of her native Galicia. As she watched fizzing tongues of spray lash against the breakwaters the image of the Tower of Hercules, the great Alexandrine inspired lighthouse of A Coruña atop its breast shaped promontory jutting out into the waters of Cape Finisterre filled her mind’s eye. 

For the first time in years she felt a pang of nostalgia for her home town. She saw herself and Rita as small girls running on the grassy slopes beneath the lighthouse. They were screaming gleefully and giggling and there was their father on his knees, holding out his arms for them to run into. He was laughing too, and smiling a long forgotten broad smile and calling to them, ‘Rita! Elena! …’ And then, as if woken from a dream she heard Omri calling her name.

Startled, she turned round to see him at the French door beckoning, shouting above the traffic and the roar of the surf. ‘Elena!’ He called to her, ‘I’m so sorry but I have a few things to get through with you before the PM gets here.’

She looked at him uncomprehending at first and then astonished as she digested his words. ‘The PM did you say?’

‘Yes, the prime minister.’

‘Goodness!’ She said as she passed him back into the room.

‘You okay Elena?’ he asked her as he slid the door closed behind her. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘Do I?’ she replied, before stopping to look back out to the now muffled again sea.

She wiped her eyes moist with tears from the fresh wind and from her reminiscences. Then with an almost perplexed expression on her face she looked at him and said; ‘Memories are ghosts in a way I suppose.’ She chuckled wryly and gently gripped Omri’s arm then added; ‘There’s something about this odd little country of yours Omri. It’s some kind of powerful medicine. It gets me every time.’

She took a final look at the sea and noticed the distinctive silhouette of a 747 airliner emerging from the ominous looking sky on its seemingly slow motion approach to Ben Gurion Airport.

Ideal Beach Resort – LIME CHICKEN CURRY – recooked…

One morning, several years ago, I was pouring through my collection of Indian cookery books looking for something different to do with a chicken breast languishing in my fridge. As often happens on these occasions, after ten minutes or so of not finding quite what I was looking for,  I was about to revert to my trusty old Madhur Jaffrey butter chicken when a piece of paper being used as a bookmark caught my attention.  Frayed and food-stained, it turned out to contain a barely legible biro-scrawled recipe for a chicken curry. After further examination, I noted that it contained some unusual culinary bedfellows for an Indian chicken dish – things like  olive oil, ground caraway seed, lime juice, and most particularly, both bay and curry leaves. Then suddenly I remembered a swelteringly hot and sticky afternoon spent in a hotel kitchen in southern India in the autumn of 2003.

We were guests at the aptly named Ideal Beach Resort, in Mahabalipuram, on India’s Tamil coast, resting up for a few days before travelling inland to Coimbatore (where my wife Dido was to help in the establishment of a clinical education centre for children with autism).

I think it was on our first evening there, during supper, we got chatting with a very affable American couple at the next table who turned out to share our enthusiasm for the delicious local cuisine. At some point during the meal the four of us were invited by the maître d to visit the kitchen the following lunchtime to watch our food being prepared. Cathy – the lady of the American couple and a veteran of the Ideal Beach Hotel – chose the menu, including the lime chicken curry which turned out to be as delicious as it was unusual.

Cathy, Richard, Dido and yours truly enjoying our curry lunch

The rare blend of ingredients and spices was explained by the fact that our young head chef, although a Tamil, had been trained in Bengal and enjoyed fusing the two distinct culinary traditions.

Fortunately Dido had the presence of mind to record the preparation of the curry and – albeit thirteen years late – I was able to decipher the recipe and apply it to the chicken breast in my fridge.  And, it was absolutely delicious! The caraway, lime, bay and curry leaf are a group marriage made in heaven – a complex and unctuous harmony of savoury, fragrant bitter sweetness that transforms humble white chicken meat into a thing of olfactory delight.

There are two ways to sample this fabulous curry – either follow the recipe below, or better still, go and visit the Ideal Beach Hotel. I can recommend both.

(Chapatis and a hot lime pickle are excellent with this curry also, if using fresh curry leaves, add at the same time as the lime juice.)

RECIPE(serves 2):

INGREDIENTS
¼ cup:			olive or coconut oil
200gm / 8oz:		diced chicken breast

SPICE MASALA I 
5cm / 2” stick:		cinnamon 
2 – 3:			cloves
2 - 3:			cardamom pods
1:			bay leaf
1:			small brown onion – finely grated
5cm / 2” piece:		ginger – peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves:		garlic – peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp:			water
1:			large, ripe tomato chopped

SPICE MASALA II
½ tsp:			turmeric
1 tsp:			chili powder
1½ tsp:			ground coriander seed
1 tsp:			garam masala
1 tsp:			ground caraway seed
1 tsp:			whole fennel seed
1 tsp:			salt
3:			curry leaves
½ ltr / 1 pint:		water
To taste:		salt
To taste:		lime juice



METHOD:

1.	Blend the ginger, garlic and water into a paste
2.	Heat the oil in a kadai or a heavy skillet on a medium high heat
3.	Brown the diced  chicken thoroughly, then remove from kadai and                           put aside (retaining the juices)
4.	Add masala I to the kadai and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring        constantly until well browned
5.	Add onion to kadai and stir-fry until browned
6.	Add the tomato to the kadai and fry for 2 minutes until oil separates from the masala, onion and tomato paste
7.	Add the ginger and garlic puree to the kadai and stir for 1 minute
8.	Return the chicken and its juices to the kadai and stir well
9.	Add masala II and the curry leaves to the kadai and stir well, making certain the chicken is well coated
10.	Add the water, making sure to deglaze (scrape) the bottom of the kadai 
11.	Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for half hour
12.	Remove cover, add more salt (if necessary) and lime juice to taste, stir well and remove from heat
13.	Remove cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods before serving
Our chef (right) and an assistant