THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 3

I PRESENT HERE THE THIRD IN  A SERIES OF SIX EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL

(Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

23

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 mostly 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.

 24

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 raciones 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.

25

In the event, it took them barely twenty minutes to polish off all their food. Alex and Elena, always voracious eaters, ate even faster than usual in their eagerness to hear Carlos’ story. As for Carlos, although not the trencherman that his late brother was he nevertheless ate with the gusto typical of a Malagueño.

Alex never ceased to marvel at the way eating bonded all Spanish of all backgrounds and of all cultures. ‘If you ever wanted to achieve successful peace talks between ETA and government officials’ he would occasionally say to Elena when reading the morning paper or watching the evening news, ‘just get them around a table in a good restaurant and ply them with food and wine.’ He guessed it was another mostly unacknowledged cultural reminder from their Moorish past, when food and hospitality were synonymous and often played a role in diplomacy. There was something about eating with total strangers which seemed to break down the barriers of traditional Spanish reserve. The act of sharing tapas in particular, whereby one took food from the same plate as one’s fellow diners seemed somehow intimate and socially levelling.

Tradition had it that the origins of tapas lay in the fact that people used to place little bits of bread on their wine glasses to prevent flies landing in their drink. Hence the word “tapas”, derived from “tapón”, meaning top or lid. Supposedly, over the years it gradually became the custom to adorn the bits of bread with morsels of food such as ham or cheese. Eventually the morsels became more and more elaborate until the humble fly stopper evolved into modern tapas. Alex though had never been convinced of this theory. Rather, he saw in tapas yet another link back to southern Spain’s long years under the Moors and to the tradition of the Arab mezze.

As an accomplished historian he knew the danger of basing historical theories on the apparent similarity of words and sounds. While no one could dispute the tremendous value of the disciplines of etymology and philology as tools for the study of history, used in non-contextual isolation they could lead to incredible conclusions. They were also in some ways the most intellectually accessible of the various historical study tools and were thus extremely popular with many enthusiastic amateur “scholars” or worse still, self-proclaimed so-called “interdisciplinary scholars” whose works populated the history bookshelves in ever growing quantities.

Alex knew though that it wasn’t merely these often dubiously intentioned “inter-disciplinarians” who were guilty of allowing their preconceptions and ideologies to cloud their historical judgement. More and more he was having to contend with a small but ever growing band of revisionist historians who at best misrepresented historical context and at worst ignored it altogether to make history “fit” their own modern prejudices. While this had always been the practice of historians writing under the patronage of the Church or totalitarian regimes the fact that groups of mostly young, mostly left-leaning historians were now emerging in pockets all over Western Europe—and especially in Italy and West Germany—engaged in a virtual campaign of wilful “historical vandalism”, was worrying to the likes of Alex and Elena.

Although the situation was not yet quite so bad in Spain, Elena knew that once Franco was gone the Spanish academic environment would prove a particularly fertile breeding ground for historical revisionism. She would always explain to her new students that ‘history is not a plaything to be bent and adjusted to suit one’s own whims. Approaching history with fixed preconceptions is a recipe for learning nothing. Rather, treat history like science. Presume nothing. Be surprised. Be disappointed. Make discoveries, or discover nothing. Always strive for the truth but if you can’t get to the truth, never be dishonest. Just accept it and move on. Never replace an undiscovered truth with a presupposition. Good historians, like good scientists are sparing with their certainties and generous with their ideas. Bad historians are generous with their certainties and their certainties taint all their ideas…’

Fortunately for Elena and Alex it seemed from what little Carlos had told them while they ate that he shared their scholastic doctrine. He explained how he had approached the subject of Samuel Halevi and the Transito in the same way he would a subject of scientific research, ‘…with a mixture of scepticism and an open mind’ he then added; ‘In fact I can tell you now that after ten years of spending practically every moment of my free time researching Samuel, the Ark and all the related material I am thousand per cent more confident about my genetic mapping code hypothesis than I am about how the Ark of the Covenant ended up in Toledo. I’m sorry to have to admit it but if you were coming here tonight thinking I was about to share with you a great revelation about the Ark, you will be sorely disappointed.’

‘I can tell you Carlos, that we had no such expectations’ said Alex. ‘We left home tonight expecting to hear wisdom from one of the great academics of our time, not a load of esoteric bullshit.’

‘Good, because what I am about to tell you, despite Loli’s hyperbole is merely an attempt at a reconstruction of the events that could plausibly explain how the Ark ended up here. In the end that’s the only absolute I had to work with—the fact that the Ark is herenow. It’s similar in a way to a scientific problem—like the discovery of DNA for example. If you think about it, DNA is like the Ark. We believed it was there for years, but had no proof. It was only when Rosalind Franklin obtained her amazing x-ray images that we were able to glimpse beneath the canopy so to speak for the first time. And what we are doing now, in all the years since is trying to explain the how and the why. And I have tried to come up with an answer to explain how and why the Ark, which we now know is an actual object, ended up in the hands of the one man in the 14th century world best placed to appreciate it and care for it.’

There was a sudden change in Carlos’ speaking style. An abrupt switch from relaxed conversational speech to a formal lecturing tone, as if his professorial self was separate from regular, social Carlos.

This was a phenomenon which Elena had first noticed in her late paternal uncle whose personality transformed the instant he put on his white dentist’s jacket. One moment he was an easy-going jovial boisterous larger-than-life character; the next he was a serious almost sombre medical professional and whose considerable bulk altered from merely fat, to imposing. She also observed (what she termed) the “shift” in Alex. The couple of times she had sat in on one of his lectures or brought him in coffee when he was with a student at home she barely recognised him.

The degree of “shift” in Carlos was exactly what she would have expected from one of the greatest living academics in Spain. The tone of his voice and the delivery of his speech altered markedly and he ceased totally from abbreviating his words. Even his normal gentle Malagueño pronunciation subtly modified into a refined Castellano and he seemed to physically grow larger in his seat. Elena guessed that his students must have held him in awe, and when she caught a glance of Alex’s raised eyebrow she knew that he was equally impressed.

‘Tonight I will restrict myself to as brief an outline as possible of my reconstruction of the Ark’s journey to Toledo. It would take me all night to give you the unabridged version which is anyway written down here in full for you to read at your leisure.’ Carlos patted his bag of notes on the chair next to him.

‘As I said, what you must constantly bear in mind is that this is just a theory. It might be completely wrong and there are other plausible possibilities. However, having started out on this investigation with a completely open mind and with a completely blank page I am as convinced as I dare permit myself to be that the story I am about to tell you describes more or less the way the Ark arrived in Toledo in the fourteenth century.’

Carlos took a long sip of fino from his glass before continuing.

‘What do you two know about the tradition of the Ark and Ethiopia?’

Elena and Alex looked at each other and shrugged. Alex said; ‘To be perfectly honest until last April most of what little I knew about the Ark was from Bible studies back at primary school.’

‘But you are an archaeologist’ stated Carlos almost as an accusation.

‘That’s true. But in the first place I’m a medievalist and secondly, even among biblical archaeologists the subject of the Ark verges on taboo—at least officially. Similar to the way the subject of the Holy Grail is treated in my own field. I’m certain that even biblical positivists like my friend Ron Smith in the States wouldn’t go near the subject of the Ark in a serious way—at least not openly—for fear of losing face with his peers.’

‘I can take it therefore that you have not told him about any of this?’ Carlos asked sounding mildly anxious.

‘Yes and no. I did consult with him and two other old friends of mine who are also Near Eastern specialists back in April.’

‘I see. And what did they have to say?’

‘Frankly, they were amazed. Like poor Vella, they too thought I’d stumbled on something more important than Tutankhamen’s tomb. They wanted to come here and see it for themselves.’

‘Oh. So what did you tell them?’ asked Carlos, his tone of concern rising slightly.

‘Well obviously I deterred them and explained how important it was for them to keep schtum.’

‘Did you tell them about the Ark?’ Carlos was now leaning across the table staring intently at Alex.

‘No not yet. But you must understand that these three guys are the world’s leading experts on this stuff and they realised as soon as they had analysed the samples and the field notes I sent them that the canopy had been constructed to house something of exceptional importance.’

‘But would they suspect that it was the Ark of the Covenant? Carlos demanded.

‘They wouldn’t state it overtly but they will be thinking it privately, I’m sure.’ Alex instinctively leaned back into his seat away from Carlos.

‘But you are confident they will be discreet for fear of making themselves look stupid among their peers.’

‘Yes!’ Alex said irritated by the interrogation; ‘That, and the much more important fact that they promised me their absolute discretion. Look Carlos, I trust these guys with my life!’ He slapped the table with his open hand to emphasise the point.

‘That’s exactly what you may be doing by having consulted with them about the structure. Don’t get annoyed with me Alex. I am only thinking of our safety.’ Carlos slowly leaned back into his own chair.

‘I know that, but you…we…have nothing to worry about from that quarter. Now, you were saying about Ethiopia…’

Carlos took a deep breath and poured himself another glass of wine, ‘Yes, Ethiopia…’

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THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 2

I PRESENT HERE THE SECOND IN SERIES OF SIX EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

14

Miguel and Loli Garcia had a traditional Castilian style villa in the comfortable middle class Aravaca suburb on the western side of Madrid.

Driving into Aravaca filled Alex with bitter-sweet nostalgia. It was where he had spent the first eighteen years of his life.

An only child, Alex was a rare species in post-war Spanish suburbia. This combined with a mostly absent and philandering father and a mother who suffered from what would eventually be diagnosed as clinical depression resulted in him developing a high degree of self-resourcefulness from a young age.

His favourite strategy for coping with the dullness and melancholy of his home life was through his innate interest in history.

As his interest developed into a passion, his bedroom transformed over the years into a library of history books, each one a portal through which he could escape Aravaca into exotic past worlds filled with colour and adventure.

In common with most Spanish kids, history began for Alex with the legendary hero El Cid, but unlike his peers, Alex was far more interested in discovering the actual history behind the legend than in the legend itself. The Cid was merely a stepping stone for him into the world of medieval Europe. And after devouring medieval Europe he travelled further back and further east to the stories of Rome, then Greece and ultimately, via Persia, Babylon and Egypt, the origins of civilization itself upon the marshlands of ancient Sumer and the central Asian Steppe.

By the time Alex was fourteen, driven on by an ambition to read the Cambridge Ancient History, he already had a prodigious grasp of English. And by the time he was half way through the tenth volume he had decided that he would get his master’s degree and his PhD in the same town where the book was published. So determined was he in this aspiration that he spurned earlier offers from both Princeton and then Oxford on the off chance that a place would materialise at Cambridge.

When it finally did, six agonising weeks after he had turned down Oxford he was so overjoyed he even managed to cheer up his mother sufficiently to convince her to go out with him for a celebratory supper in town.

His time at Cambridge followed by spells in Seville and London merely confirmed how suffocating and dreary growing up in Aravaca had been and accentuated what he termed the “cosy certainty” of it all.

Yet, Alex understood that it was this same “cosy certainty” which explained why so many of his colleagues either moved or returned to the suburbs to raise families, ‘like herds of animals migrating to their breeding grounds’.

He supposed now, as he parked his Alpha Spider in front of their house that this was why the Garcia’s had moved here. He knew they had two grown up children and that Miguel considered central Madrid to be ‘unsuitable for bringing up a healthy family’ being so ‘polluted and stiflingly hot in summer’.

Alex and Elena being childless however, lacked the “migratory instinct” that seemed to accompany the condition. Often Elena would suggest, only half in jest that they ‘must be perverse in some way—deficient in these normal human instincts.’ Alex would then point out that they had ‘plenty of other human instincts and much more time to indulge them!’

‘In other words’ Elena would then challenge, ‘you’re saying we’re selfish.’

To which Alex would respond; ‘That’s a pious attitude—the concept that not having kids is in some way selfish and sinful and that we have a duty to procreate. If you ask me, it’s the instinct to have children which is selfish. The belief that by spreading one’s seed one is doing society a service.’

‘Yes, but it’s also locked into our DNA—to continue the species. Which brings me back to my first point—that you and I, selfish or not, are maybe lacking something…’

‘Or, are just more highly evolved?’ he would quip. ‘Like oppositional thumbs and cognitive thought? Maybe this lack of a need to procreate is the next level—the next rung on the evolutionary ladder?’

‘If so, it will be the final rung on that ladder—an evolutionary dead-end. Not so much an evolvement as a culmination. I wonder what Darwin would have thought about the concept of evolution leading to culmination?’

‘Whatever he’d have thought I don’t think we need worry yet—not if all the priests and mullahs in the world have anything to do with it. There’ll be no baby shortage in our lifetime…’

Alex smiled wryly to himself at the recollection of this perennial conversation as he opened the black wrought iron gate to the Garcia’s front garden.

15

The straight pathway from the road to the front door was lined with alternate boxed oleanders and laurel glistening under the heavy autumnal dew. The terracotta tiled path bisected an immaculately maintained formal Spanish Mudéjar style garden of topiary, cypresses and citrus. Standard rose grew from circles of soil edged in Roman brick, set within a sandy gravel surface. It was a modest homage to the grand gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Generalife in Granada and betrayed the Andalucian taste of its owners.

Alex found the garden seductive and he stopped so that he might fully appreciate it. Even allowing for the overcast September light this was never intended to be a riot of colour. The garden was primarily tonal in concept; all subtle shades of greens and blues with the roses; only pink or white, providing dynamic points of contrast. It was immaculate, reflective in mood, almost melancholic and it reminded Alex of Loli Garcia.

Then, right on cue he heard someone say, ‘So you like my garden Alex.’ She must have seen him drive up from inside the house.

He turned towards her and there, standing at the front door was Loli looking even smaller, paler and thinner than he remembered her.

‘I love it Loli. My compliments to the gardener.’

‘Gratefully received’ and she made a little bow. ‘The back is even nicer. There are fountains and pools and shady places to sit. It’s my sanctum.’

He was alarmed at her decline since they had met at the hospital eight days before. Miguel was fifty-eight when he died and he guessed that Loli was around the same age but as he approached her he noticed that her naturally white skin had become transparent and dry. It had a parchment-like quality of someone twenty or thirty years her senior and her eyes had the same moist filminess as Miguel’s on his death bed. All this and her painfully thin limbs and tied back hair gave the impression of someone shrinking into themselves.

Given her physical deterioration Loli’s outward calm was disconcerting to Alex. He almost needed her to demonstrate her grief overtly, just to break the spell. There was something unnatural about Loli and he was frightened for her.

As they kissed on each cheek and entered the house he thought she smelt odd; a vaguely sweet smell that reminded him of something from his past, like the odour of vellum in old books or ancient parchments.  It was the peculiar odour of someone who was malnourished; someone living on a diet of caffeine.

The interior of the house was typical, simple Castellano but of the finest materials with perfectly plastered white walls, dark oak doors, heavy brown wooden furniture and a floor of handmade terracotta tiles.

Loli led Alex into the main living room and invited him sit down on an austere high backed couch. She remained standing.

‘Can I offer you a coffee Alex?’ she asked.

‘Yes please Loli, I’d love one—black, no sugar.’

While she went and made the coffee Alex stood up again and explored the room. The walls were festooned with large dark clumsily painted oils, mostly copies of equally clumsily painted seventeenth and eighteenth century original Spanish minor “masters”, all contained within broad gilded frames with velvet slips.

The subject matter of the images comprised all the usual suspects for this type of Spanish art: A kitsch representation of an enraptured red-headed Madonna holding a smug looking naked child suffering from what appeared to be a severe case of hydrocephalus; several turgid attempts at Arcadian landscapes, with all the depth and life of a series of worn and dirty billiard cloths; a pair of grotesque portraits, apparently painted by someone influenced by Goya while high on an eighteenth century version of speed and finally; above the hearth, an overly large and unintentionally fauvist still life dominated by a gargantuan lobster painted in lurid ultramarine seemingly locked in mortal combat with a floating string of indigo coloured onions. ‘Gosh!’ Alex thought to himself. ‘If Kenneth Clark could see these he’d say—here you are! You see what I mean! Hopeless! Bloody Hopeless!’  Yet, in a strange way they perfectly suited this particular environment and the overall effect was somehow pleasing and satisfying.

He strolled over to a full sized grand piano in the far corner of the room sitting under a tall window with a full view of the street. Although Alex could not play an instrument he was passionately interested in all things musical. He noted that the piano was a Bluthner; the same make as his late mother’s old baby grand. On the lid of the piano there stood dozens of framed photographs. Among all the usual pictures of weddings and communions were many with images of men who looked similar to Miguel; probably his father and brothers and others of Carlos from when he was younger. In the photos they all shared that same Picasso like face and head and it occurred to Alex that like Picasso, the Garcia clan came from Malaga. ‘Must be a Malagueño gene’ he thought.

He was impressed to see the music for Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy”, a piece well beyond his mother’s ability open above the keyboard. He supposed Loli had been sat here playing the Wanderer as he drove up.

He was about to press down on the piano keys when Loli returned with the coffee.

‘It’s no Steinway I’m afraid’ she said placing a tray onto a low glass table with ornate wrought iron legs, ‘but it has a pleasant tone—perfectly adequate for me and this room.’

‘You play Schubert Loli?’ Alex said sitting down again on the couch.

‘I play just about everything Alex. In a former life I had ambitions of being a concert pianist but that was a long time ago. Miguel never stood in my way, you understand. In fact, he was a highly progressive man for these parts. It wasn’t his fault. It was just that we had children and that put an end to my professional aspirations. But I’ve never stopped playing and I taught both our boys to play too. Jorge, our eldest, is really quite good. He performs contemporary jazz with his band at college.’

‘But why the Wanderer Loli?’ Alex asked a little too obviously more interested in her than in her offspring. ‘I love it, but I always find it a touch bleak—dark even.’

‘Well, at least it’s not Death and the Maiden’ she said smiling slightly giving him another fleeting impression of her past beauty. ‘At this moment’ she went on, ‘The Wanderer, to quote a phrase I think I once read in some American novel, touches my condition. I find it more helpful than I would say… a jolly piece of Mozart. Sometimes it’s best to confront one’s sorrow head on—to grab it by the horns, so to speak.’

They sat in silence for a few seconds. Alex felt useless in these situations and he had no idea what to say to Loli about Miguel that would not sound like a platitude. In the end, he just admitted honestly, ‘I’m at a complete loss at what to say to you Loli—about Miguel I mean.’

‘I don’t want or expect you to say anything Alex. I’ve had a house full of relatives and friends saying things to me about Miguel all week. I’ve been saturated in sympathy to the point where I can’t take another drop.’

‘You know Loli, Miguel and I had a good and amicable working relationship but we weren’t friends as such?’

‘Of course I know that. So what?’

‘It’s just that all this… me sitting here now with you…and before at the hospital. It all seems a bit odd. What I mean is… I feel false.’

‘Well, I can’t do much about that I’m afraid, but really all that matters now is that you need an important piece of information. Miguel had that piece of information. Miguel wanted you to have that piece of information. And now you’re sitting here patiently and politely waiting for me to carry out Miguel’s wish… his dying wish, no less…which was that I give you that piece of information.’

‘It’s no hardship sitting here with you Loli’ Alex said a little defensively but sincerely.  The more he got to know this small, intense, fading woman, the more he enjoyed her company.

‘That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t being facetious. I was simply defining the situation as it is. Our sensibilities and social etiquette are of no consequence compared to the bigger picture.’

She picked up her coffee and sat down on a high carver chair opposite him. ‘Look Alex, you’re worried about what I think of you feigning concern for Miguel. Well, never mind you—if you’ll pardon me—what about my Miguel?’ She took a long sip of the thick tarry coffee.

‘What do you mean Loli? What did Miguel do?’ Alex asked.

What did Miguel do?’ she repeated rhetorically. ‘I’ll tell you what Miguel did—or what he did not do to be more precise. He did not pass from this world thinking of me or thinking of us and our nearly forty years of life together. No. My Miguel, as ever solely concerned with the bigger picture died thinking about the same thing that brought you to his bedside that morning. You could even say that you were the only person Miguel actually required at his deathbed. Me and the entire family might as well not have been there so far as Miguel was concerned.’

‘I think you’re exaggerating Loli’ Alex said, genuinely dubious and amazed by her frankness.

Loli stood up and went over to large mahogany sideboard with a blue and white tiled top, opened a draw and pulled out a large thick white envelope. She then returned to her chair and placed the envelope down by the coffee pot. ‘In other words Alex’ she continued, ignoring him, ‘your motivation and your sincerity or lack thereof is of no consequence. In the event you did the right thing by default. All that really mattered to Miguel as he took his final breath was that you should receive this.’

16

She then leant forward and pushed the envelope across the table towards Alex.

‘Knowing that you would read this meant Miguel could die with a modicum of peace’ she added.

‘Why didn’t he just give it me? Before his heart attack I mean?’

‘At first he was simply scared. He only summoned up the courage to actually write this stuff for you about the Transito excavation when Franco relapsed in July. He then intended to give it to you after Franco was dead but when the old bastard recovered and took over again from the young prince it had a terrible effect on him. Miguel was already a shadow of his former self well before Franco’s recovery but once our blessed Caudillo did his Lazarus act it pushed Miguel over the edge. Then last week, the night before his collapse, he nearly phoned you at least half a dozen times. He got himself into a terrible state and eventually decided against it because he didn’t trust the phone. Since all that business with you last April his boss, the chief secretary, made him the scapegoat for the whole mess to protect himself from the wrath of Franco. He was convinced that his mail was being intercepted and that all his phone conversations were being listened to. He thought that they were desperate to get something on him. Miguel said he was at least fortunate that it wasn’t the early days of the regime. They weren’t inconvenienced by things like impropriety back in the ’40s and ’50s. They could have just made him disappear—no questions asked. Nevertheless, the constant worry and the coldness of most of his senior colleagues at the department had a devastating effect on him. You were familiar enough with Miguel to know what a fun loving man he was and so easy going. He just wasn’t cut out for dealing with the hostility and suspicion from people he’d only ever regarded as friends and colleagues. And in the end they destroyed him, just as surely as if they’d stood him up against a wall and shot him. Fortunately though, they failed to destroy what he knew because he wrote it all down, for you Alex.’

‘But what on earth has this business got to do with Franco?’ asked Alex. ‘And since when did Franco take such a keen interest in medieval Judaica? I always thought the guy despised everything to do with the Jews…’

‘He does despise the Jews—albeit more discretely these days since his drive towards modernisation. And you’re correct, that he has absolutely no interest at all in things medieval Jewish. But as you will learn when you read Miguel’s letter, what they discovered in 1964 at the Transito was far from medieval. It was much older and something moreover in which Franco took a most keen interest indeed.’

‘I see’ said Alex.

‘Anyway’ she continued, ‘our beloved leader’s recovery presented Miguel with a big problem. It wasn’t so much fear for himself anymore. He’d got beyond that. It was more a fear for me and Carlos with our knowledge of the Transito discovery and Franco’s little secret. He always felt that when Franco dies things will relax here. He had great faith in the young prince and thought it would be safe, at least after a while to let you in on the secret…safe for you that is Alex. But lying on that hospital bed dying, he changed his mind. He couldn’t face death knowing that he had deceived you and not put things right. So here we are and that’s why your motives are immaterial.’

‘Gracious!’ Alex exclaimed quietly, feeling a little overwhelmed. ‘You know Loli, since that phone call back in April with Miguel I’ve felt almost as I’ve entered a kind of dream state from which I can’t wake up.’

‘Miguel’s letter will wake you up I promise.’

Alex started to open the envelope.

‘No Alex!’ Loli said firmly. ‘Not here, not now. Take it home. It’s yours to keep. I want no more part of it.’

‘Of course, I understand’ he said placing the package on his lap.

‘I hope you never have to understand Alex. My Miguel is dead because of this business. My sweet gentle man has been taken from me and I can’t bear it.  I actually, emotionally and physically can’t bear it.’ This was her first verbal expression of her grief.

They sat in silence while she dabbed her eyes with the woollen sleeve concealing her bony forearm. Then she leant forward and looked intently at Alex.

‘Listen to me carefully Alex. What you are about to read will thrill you as an archaeologist and as a scholar and it will appal you as a Spaniard and a human being. Because of that your natural instinct will be to enquire and to seek and to act. But trust Miguel. Trust me. And wait. Whatever you do wait until the wicked old bastard is dead. Then wait some more. Wait until you are as certain as you can be that you have nothing to fear from people in high places. Wait however long it takes. Wait.’

‘But what if the prince turns out to be another tyrant or a puppet of the generals?’

‘The prince is a good man—pragmatic for sure—but fundamentally decent. He will bring us freedom, I know it. It might take him some time but he will succeed. And in any case Alex you have no choice. When you read Miguel’s letter you’ll see that even if you wanted to there’s nothing to be done until Franco is dead and buried.’

Loli took a deep sigh and stood up to signal that she wished Alex’s visit come to an end.

As they reached the front door she turned to him and gently held his arm. ‘After you’ve read Miguel’s letter go and see his brother Carlos tonight.’

‘He spoke to me at the hospital. He wanted to tell me about the Sons of Kahoth, or something?’

Ko-hath, not Ka-hoth. But don’t worry, he’ll tell you all about it. Meet him tonight if you can, after you’ve read the stuff in there’ she said tapping the envelope with her finger. ‘He’s expecting you at La Gamba at nine. He’ll have a quiet table at the back.’

Loli opened the door and as Alex passed her he stopped on the step and looked at her.

‘Can I ask you one more thing Loli?’

‘Of course Alex.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell me what Miguel’s has written here?’

‘I told you, I’m sick of the whole subject.’

‘But all the same…you’ve told me so much about the background to it. I’d have thought it would have been liberating for you in a way just to get it all out.’

She smiled and again he could perceive the attractive woman she must have once been. ‘Perhaps you’re right but I wanted Miguel to tell you himself in his own words. After everything that’s happened to him he deserves that, even in death…no…especially in death.’

Alex got back into his car and opened the window. The sun had emerged during his time with Loli and it was roasting inside the small cabin of the Spider.

As he was about to turn the key in the ignition he caught a familiar sound on the gentle September breeze coming from the Garcia’s house. It was the sublimely mournful opening bars of the Wanderer adagio.

Alex suddenly felt overwhelmed with melancholy and sadness. ‘She plays like an angel’ he thought to himself as he headed back to the city, ‘like an angel’.

THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 1

I PRESENT HERE THE FIRST IN SERIES OF TEN EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

“ … Creator of all things above and below … Thou art the One, Creator of all that is, the One; the only One …”                    

 Egyptian hymn to Amun-Re   

“…Blessed be He, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth…He is our God; There is no other.” 

‘Alenu’, ancient Hebrew prayer

BEGINNING

‘Coño! This had better be good José―damn good!’

‘Don’t worry Alex! This is beyond good.’

‘Beyond good?’

‘Beyond my powers of description at any rate―but what the hell took you so long getting here?’

‘All flights out of Almeria were cancelled because of the storms―I had to get the bus up here―that’s what the hell took me so long! Anyway, I’m here now, so why don’t you just show me what all this fuss is about and  then I’ll let you know if  it was worth my while spending the last twelve hours aggravating my haemorrhoids on a wooden seat on a clapped out coach with no suspension on the worst damn roads in Europe!’

‘Just wait till you see it. You won’t believe your eyes.’

The tall, youthful, blond haired José Sanchez grabbed the slightly older, shorter, dark haired Alex Martinez by the arm and guided him energetically down an alley way into a small stone courtyard.

‘Here it is Alex’ José said pointing eagerly towards a large rectangular hole next to which was a neat mound of rubble and dirt. ‘Look at that and then tell me I was wrong to call you. The moment we uncovered it I knew this was work for you…’ José stopped talking for a moment when he saw Alex’s face, then said ‘I told you didn’t I?’

At first Alex could not speak. His mouth fixed open in amazement, his hands on his hips, his head shaking in sheer disbelief at what he was looking at. Then, after a minute or so he took off his spectacles and cleaned them with his shirt. Still shaking his head, squinting into the pit he said, almost lost for words, ‘Oh coño! A wonderful thing…a simply wonderful thing…’

1

It was late April 1974 when José had been commissioned by the department of antiquities to do the exploratory dig along the outside of the eastern wall of the 14th century Transito Synagogue in Toledo.

His original task had been to check the state of the foundations of the building but soon after his men began digging, the walls of what appeared to be a subterranean chamber were uncovered. By the following evening they had exposed the entire chamber.

It was in the form of a skewed rectangle, about eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide and ran lengthways roughly parallel with the rear of the synagogue. It was just over seven feet deep with a floor of exquisitely hand painted glazed turquoise-green tiles.

However, it was not the chamber itself that prompted José to approach The National Heritage Institute in Madrid and demand they summon Spain’s leading medievalist and archaeologist, Professor Alex Martinez as a matter of urgency. It was the additional discovery of a small structure standing within the sunken chamber.

It measured just over eight feet square at its base and stood a little more than five feet in height. It was in the form of a steep sided trapezoid; a flat roofed pyramid and constructed of large sand coloured limestone blocks.

With no floor of its own the structure sat on the tiles of the host chamber as a solid canopy. The narrow seam between the base of the structure and the tiled floor was sealed with mortar.

Now, as Alex Martinez peered into the chamber for the first time, and as José had correctly predicted, he found it hard to believe what was before him.

It was not merely the beauty of the structure sitting on the sumptuous tiled floor; it was the fact it existed at all, there, in that place, from that time.

To his certain knowledge, outside of cemeteries trapezoid constructions were unheard of anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Roman era. To discover one like this in near perfect condition, apparently dating to the Middle Ages was, in both archaeological and historical terms, a revelation. But in addition to its uniqueness, there were several intriguing features of the structure itself.

It had no doorway or normal access point of any kind.

Yet, at some time since its completion in the thirteen hundreds someone had gained access to its interior by removing the roof.

The now exposed interior space was just over five foot square at floor level.                              The surface of its inner walls was elaborately panelled in hardwood overlaid in an opulently thick layer of pure gold leaf.

The wall blocks were eighteen inch thick ashlar, apparently cut with stone flints rather than iron or steel chisels.

And most intriguing of all was a faint blue inscription on the right-hand cornerstone on the east facing outside wall.

Although Alex could not decipher it he remembered enough from his time as a student volunteer on digs in Israel to recognise the language of the writing. It was with a fair degree of astonishment he observed that the words were written in a script dating back to many centuries before Christ. The inscription on the cornerstone was in early Hebrew.

The instant he saw the inscription Alex knew that he required additional specialist expertise both to determine its date and meaning and also to help him unravel the other mysteries of the canopy’s construction.

To that end, the next day after he had first assembled his own team of archaeology students from the local university to begin the task of further investigating the site, he sent a photograph of the inscription together with samples of the stone and the timber and gold panelling up to the Department of Antiquities in Madrid for analysis.

However, there were two more aspects related to the state of the site itself and the condition of the canopy which were not merely intriguing to Alex but which he also found vaguely troubling.

Alex was familiar with the reports of all the restorations and excavations done at the synagogue since the time it had been used by Napoleon’s troops as a barracks during the Peninsula War and none of them mentioned the sunken chamber or the canopy. Yet, from the loose condition of the dirt fill and the fact it consisted mostly of aggregate typically used in modern road making Alex determined that the site had been covered over during the 1964 works, just ten years earlier.

As he observed and supervised the students going about their various tasks in and around the canopy he pondered why such a remarkable discovery was never publicised and why had it then been covered over again? ‘Could it be’ he wondered, ‘something to do with the other element of the puzzle? The fact that the removal of the roof also dated to the 1964 works…’

2

‘I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that out’ Alex told a colleague over tapas later that evening in Madrid bar.

‘How can you be so sure?’ queried the colleague.

‘Because of this non-medieval artefact I found on the floor inside.’ From his briefcase Alex produced a twelve inch flat headed drill bit with a broken tip. ‘Whoever removed the roof used this’ he stated placing the bit on the bar. ‘So far as I know they didn’t have pneumatic drills in the fourteenth century.’

His colleague looked suitably intrigued.

‘And that’s not all’ added Alex. ‘We also found ropes and a crowbar.’

‘Quite a tool kit!’

‘All the tools required in fact for lifting off the loosened roof and preventing it from crashing down onto whatever was inside the canopy. Most of the roof is still intact on the floor of the host chamber.’

‘But wouldn’t it have been simpler to cut through the side walls?’

‘No. Whoever did this tested the thickness of the stones first. There are probe holes drilled into both the walls and the roof and the roof stones are only a quarter of the thickness of the wall blocks. It made perfect sense to go through the roof—far less work and much less risk to whatever was inside.’

‘Have you told the people at the department about this?’

‘I haven’t had time yet.  I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.’

But the next morning something happened that caused Alex to reconsider this line of action.

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 with regard to 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?’

‘I’m trained to know these things Miguel’ 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 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 Miguel! 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.

A DREAM IN CATALONIA

THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY”ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY

PART II

Carmel College Synagogue

At this stage, I should state that I was never your average atheist, either in texture or flavour.

If I tell you that I’ve often found the likes of Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins to be a little too agnostic and lacking in conviction for my liking you get an idea of my feelings about all things ‘divine’, ‘spiritual’ and / or supernatural. In fact, my anti-theism—for that’s what it truly amounts to—came upon me in a sort of revelation and in a synagogue of all places, back in 1975, when I was fifteen years old.

You see, it’s not that I had always been of this mind set.

After eight days of life I’d had the obligatory encounter—for Jewish males—with the small but extremely sharp knife  followed by the typical  albeit fairly gentle in my case, conditioning of the traditional North London Jewish upbringing.

There was the Jewish education, both at school and at home from my observant grandfather—my ‘Zaida’; the weekly Saturday visits to synagogue (the orthodox type with the ladies sitting upstairs); the Friday night dinners; the candles and; the very many holy-days and holidays.

In fact, for the first ten years or so of my life, seduced as I was by the numerous attractions for a child of my religion, both holiday-wise and culinary-wise, I veered somewhat towards being a rather pious little boy. It probably also had a lot to do with the fact that my “most favourite person in the whole world”  was indisputably my gentle, kind and incredibly dignified Zaida and that my greatest fear in those days, was doing anything to upset or disappoint him.

Thus it was, during those long tedious hours on Saturday mornings, sitting next to him in synagogue, I never gave him an inkling of how abjectly bored I was for fear of hurting his feelings.

My mildly burgeoning piety notwithstanding, in retrospect I guess, this was my first taste of what ‘duty’ meant. I suppose now, that this innate sense of duty to my grandfather had a lot to do with the fact my father had abandoned us (my mother, my one—older—brother and I) when I was six months old and that it was to my Zaida that I both looked and found that male authority I naturally craved.

However, in 1970 when I was ten years old my mother took my brother and me to live in Israel. And, although this adventure turned out to be abortive with us returning to London barely six months later, the experience delineated the end of the first and the beginning of the second chapter of my life. Paradoxically, this dalliance with life in the ‘Holy Land’ was the catalyst which began my drift away from ‘belief’.

For starters, my mum was irreligious herself and while she had been happy to ‘keep a kosher home’, with all that that entailed, during the years of our extended family existence, she lapsed almost the moment we arrived at our new home in Israel.

Suddenly, there was no more synagogue, no more Friday night dinners, no more observance of any kind. Even on Yom Kippur, we spent the day on the beach with a large picnic.

Mum felt free from the ‘clutter of observance’ for the first time in many years and her sense of freedom must have been infectious, because it transmitted itself to her two sons.

Hitherto, neither of us had ever thought to question the structure of our lives as Jewish boys. After all, it was all we knew and seemed as natural as breathing or eating.

And all of a sudden, spending Saturday mornings body-surfing on a Mediterranean beach instead of being in a stuffy synagogue surrounded by old men (they all seemed old to me at that time) chanting prayers, was very powerful medicine. And like our mum, we instinctively felt as if we had been liberated from what had been before.

But then, still only in my eleventh year, as suddenly as I had left, I found myself back in North London. And once again on Saturday mornings, I was sitting by the side of my still-adored Zaida―only now, far more dutifully than I ever could have imagined just six months previously.

But the seeds of my atheism were planted and from then on the germination was steady and relentless and it was only around five years later that I found myself on my own in another synagogue—the one belonging to my school where I was then boarding in deepest Oxfordshire.

Unfortunately, I can’t recall exactly the reason why I had decided to go and sit alone in the synagogue, except that it was one of those exquisite and magisterial settings with which my old school was bounteously blessed, both geographically and architecturally (see photo above). It must have seemed a natural place to go for a troubled soul.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the building itself was one of the most remarkable and beautiful modern constructions in England.

It was designed by an inspired local architect called Thomas Hancock and you feel that when he was given the brief for the project he was also given more or less free reign, for what I presume was his one and only Jewish house of worship.

Unkindly nicknamed ‘the ski slope’ by most of the boys, it was a soaring structure of primarily glass and honey coloured timber with a grey metallic roof. At its western end it was only about twelve feet high, with the ceiling arcing upwards until it reached somewhere near sixty feet at the eastern end—hence the ‘ski slope’ analogy.

The roof was a marvel, supported by half a dozen exposed, curved, mighty wooden beams, which at that time were the longest of their kind anywhere in Europe.

Outside and within the eastern wall was formed of bare sand coloured breeze blocks. Set in its centre, an ark (the cupboard that housed the scrolls of the Law—the Torah) marked out by a pair of enormous cedar wood doors constructed of overlapping panels and flanked at its corners, from floor to ceiling by a pair of narrow jazzy, Chagall inspired stained glass windows.

The north and south walls of the synagogue were entirely of glass set in delicate wooden frames, which, especially on the south side, allowed for a broad view of the Mongewell Brook that ran through the school grounds until it spilt, via a willow fringed lake, into the River Thames.

The interior space was so conceived by Hancock, that the worshipper experienced a strong sense of exposure to, and oneness with, the landscape that the synagogue inhabited.

The afternoon in question (it was an afternoon, in case I forgot to mention) was a glorious early summer’s day.

Tall oaks, beech and cascading willows rubbed shoulders with the glazed sides of the synagogue, resplendent in their crisp, young foliage. The brook sparkled like a thousand sapphires through the glass. Assorted waterfowl frolicked, floated and bobbed about on its surface silhouetted against the silvery sheen.

I’d taken a seat on one of the long padded benches, about half way towards the ark, when almost immediately I experienced a most curious sensation.

I remember that I was looking out the south window to my left, at the above mentioned sensual, watery, pastoral idyll beyond when, in a matter of seconds it was as if a great and terrible burden had been lifted from my shoulders.

This sensation of release caused my neck to reflex so that I found myself looking straight up at the highest part of the ceiling where the great timber roof-beams slotted neatly into their steel cradles in the lofty cool shadows.

And at that moment I was overcome with a feeling of the purest joy. I recall that I couldn’t stop smiling. I guess that I was feeling something similar to when you are told you have been cured of a terrible illness.

But, in my case, immersed within a symbiosis of man-made and natural beauty in perfect harmony, I’d come to understand with total certainty, that there was no God.

Carmel College Synagogue - stained glass windows

So that was how atheism came upon me and why I knew that the voice that spoke to me that night in Bossòst was the creation of my own overactive mind.

Nevertheless, despite my non-belief, I had a profound interest in the ancient history of my people. So much so, that had it not been for the fact that my aptitude for drawing and painting led me towards a less academically arduous career in the arts I would have definitely ‘done something’ along the lines of archaeology.

But despite this, by the time of my dream-like event in northern Spain I was steeped in the kind of vast general knowledge of a subject that is the special preserve of the amateur enthusiast.

So, I of course knew that according to various biblical texts the ‘Sons of Kohath’ were a high caste clan of the priestly tribe of Levi, supposedly designated by Moses to take care of—amongst other things—the Holy Ark.

Being a Levite myself I had always found this a thrilling concept.

Back in the ancient day though, being a Levite wasn’t merely a paternally handed down title like it is now with a few synagogue related duties and privileges. Back in the ancient day being a Levite really meant something and it didn’t get any more meaningful than for those of the House of Kohath.

So it was hardly surprising to me, just mere moments after the initial shock of the dream had worn off, that my vanity should have decided that I was of such an esteemed caste.

By the same token, I was equally steeped in the subject of the Ark itself; not you will gather because I believed it to be a ‘transmitter to God’, as the evil Belloq described it so eloquently in Raiders of the Lost Ark but because I agreed with Indiana Jones’ original summation at the beginning of the movie; that if the Ark had really existed and was still around somewhere today, it would be of inestimable archaeological and cultural/historic interest and value.

However, when it came to the history of the Jews of Spain and their synagogues I was far less clued-in. I had no knowledge at all about any architectural heritage they may have left behind, in Toledo―or anywhere else upon the Iberian Peninsula.

I had some sketchy ideas about the great cultural flowering of Iberian Jewry during the middle ages and, I also knew that the whole thing came to a terrible end under the Inquisition of Torquemada during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. But, the shameful truth was, most of what I knew about the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ came from Monty Python rather than from the pages of text books.

That was why, when Dido asked me for the second time that night in very underwhelmed tones, if the word of God had meant anything to me, I replied, somewhat defensively; ‘Well, some of it means something to me.’

Carmel College Synagogue - eastern wall with ark

‘Some of it’? There’s hardly anything of it!’ she responded mystified.

‘There’s enough to mean something.’

‘You also said it was dreadful. What’s the dreadful part?’

‘Having God speak to you is pretty dreadful I would say…in the dark… in a strange place. When you’re asleep you don’t realise it’s only your own subconscious. And then there’s the Ark, the Ark of the Covenant…’

‘Okay. All very thrilling you say, but so what? Are you telling me that your subconscious mind might truly be onto something? That somehow, somewhere, you picked up the answers to the greatest archaeological mystery in the world without realising it?’

‘I’m not saying anything. I haven’t said anything.’

‘But you’re thinking it, aren’t you? You’re toying with the idea.’

‘Well of course I’m thinking about it. I’ve never encountered anything like this in my life before. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.’

‘Okay then. What do you intend to do about it? Are you going to follow it up?’

‘It’s a question of joining up the dots.’

‘Dots! My dear sweet Adam, there are no dots…’

‘Yes, there are dots. Two bloody-great-big-dots―the Ark and a synagogue in Toledo!’

‘Okay! Two dots! But then how hard can it be to join two measly dots?’

‘Very hard, when the two dots in question are separated by more than two and a half millennia by over two thousand miles. Very, very hard!’

 *

And as things turned out I wasn’t wrong about that strange night in Bossòst.

It took me more than twenty years to join the two dots and come up with a plausible story of the Ark of the Covenant and a synagogue in Toledo.

Two decades of marriage to Dido and nearly as long living in Spain provided me with the confidence and the intellectual mechanics for completing this modern tale:

A tale set in a land of sublime contradictions and insane history;

A tale concerning a venerable building that represents and reflects all of that in a sublime structural form and;

A tale about a legendary artefact with an uncomfortable, not to mention highly inconvenient message.

My novel, The Sons of Kohath is is that story…

A DREAM IN CATALONIA

THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY “ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY

PART I

It was one of those moments during sleep where “God” speaks to you, in a voice like that bloke in De Milles’s movie of The Ten Commandments. Except in my case, without the American drawl―I suppose because I’m English? God had a decidedly English accent.

It must have been around 1990.

My fiancé Dido and I were en-route from southern Spain back to London and we were spending the night on the Spanish side of the border with France in a one-street mountain town called Bossòst.

Bossòst was a typical Pyrenean set up. Picturesque in a rugged grey sort of way, all slate and stone and wooden shutters built either side of a fast flowing, silver flecked stream. And of course it was raining an icy, relentless mountain rain.

We’d eaten a typically good Catalan dinner; I distinctly remember we had roast wild rabbit with prunes washed down with a moderate amount of the local red, just enough to make us pleasantly dozy, not drunk. We certainly went to bed replete and content and I must have been sleeping for several hours when I had the dream-like event.

As a rule, I’m not great at recalling dreams or dream-like events of any description, even powerful dreams, even waking dreams.

But this was different. There was no forgetting this.

After all, one doesn’t hear from God every day, or every night for that matter. At least not these days―except perhaps if one is an Evangelical Christian. Especially an Evangelical Christian from the American Midwest (they seem to be on regular speed-dial terms with God). But, I’m not an Evangelical anything.

In fact, I am now and was then a non-practising Jew and an atheist to boot. And God hasn’t spoken to any Jews since God-knows-when, and He’s certainly not spoken to lapsed Jewish atheists like me.

So, imagine my surprise―even in sleep―when God announced himself to yours truly in the aforementioned mellifluent tones.

No fanfare, mind you. No heavenly choirs. No winged chariots. Just the blackness of sleep. And that voice, in my right ear.

And He didn’t hang around for long.

It wasn’t some tedious, rambling, revelatory rant. No sublime psalmist prose either. Rather, just a couple of very brief statements.

The first no doubt to grab my attention―which I can tell you now, it did, big time.

And the second―to give me the ‘gen’.

I say the gen but in reality we’re not talking major details here, which would have been so much more helpful in the long run. No, this gen was to information what IKEA assembly instructions are to…well, assembly instructions.

But, for all its minimalism it was still impressive enough to have me wake bolt upright, eyes glazed in terror, cold sweat pouring down my back—the whole cliché.

*

It will hardly surprise any psychologists reading this that the event coincided with a particularly tumultuous time in my life, both personally and professionally.

Dido and I had become engaged to be married just days before setting out on our drive through France and Spain.

We were also involved in planning an epic journey to Chile early the following year (Dido had won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and the trip was planned for just after our wedding).

In addition to this I was in the midst of the busiest and most lucrative period I’d yet enjoyed since graduating from art school some seven years previously, having just a few months earlier made the momentous decision to shift my artistic direction, from the ostensibly noble but hard-up path of fine art towards a ‘shallower’ but more financially secure future as a commercial illustrator.

By the time of the dream I’d been working as an illustrator for only six months but had already won myself the services of a top agent, who in turn was getting me almost more work than I could comfortably handle, some of which paid extremely handsomely.

So it was that by mid-1990, although I was feeling pretty good about life, I was also going through a period of radical change.

Change, however potentially life enriching and fulfilling can still be emotionally unsettling. And, unsettled emotions, in my case at least, generally lead to disturbed sleep—only this time the disturbance was particularly violent, waking the wife-to-be into the bargain.

Now I don’t know how many other people might have noticed this but as a rule blond people take their sleep far more seriously than do dark-haired people.

In fact, I would say, through personal experience, from sharing dormitories at boarding school with blond-haired schoolmates and then later in life, occasionally sharing my bed with the odd fair-haired lady, that the amount a blond person cherishes their sleep is in direct correlation to the degree of their blondness. It must be that growing blond hair utilises more energy than dark hair or something like that, but whatever, Dido was a very blond person, and her annoyance at having her sleep disturbed was almost more dreadful than the dream itself had been.

Sympathy and concern were in distinctly short supply.

‘What in God’s name is your problem?’ she growled contemptuously from beneath her luxuriant flaxen locks on the pillow next to me.

‘Funny you should ask.’ I muttered nervously in reply.

‘Funny? What’s so fucking funny?’ Dido normally only swore when driving. She really was very angry.

I took a deep breath and braced myself before continuing.

‘It’s just funny that you should have mentioned God. That’s all. You see…that’s what woke me up.’

Still growling but incredulous now, she queried; ‘Did you just say God is what woke you up!? Is that what you just said!?’

‘Yes. I mean…in a sense. You see, I just dreamt that God spoke to me.’

At this point I was relieved it was too dark to see Dido’s face. It was awkward enough trying to tell her about the dream while merely hearing the derision in her voice without having to witness it in her eyes too.

‘I warned you not to have that cheap Spanish brandy just before going to bed. It’s enough to give anyone nightmares.’

‘It wasn’t a nightmare and anyhow, I didn’t have any brandy. That was last night.’

‘It’s even stronger than I thought then!’ She said, only half joking.

‘It wasn’t a nightmare but it was very…very…it was dreadful. Yes, actually dread-full.’

She sighed; ‘Then lets cuddle up and go back to sleep. Nothing like a nice cuddle to make the dread go away and you can tell mummy all about it in the morning…’

‘It was a very short dream. Actually, you couldn’t really describe it as a dream. Not in the usual sense. There was nothing visual…just a ‘voice’ in my ear…a very fleeting voice.’

Dido sighed again, rolled away from me and pulled the duvet up so that it covered most of her head. Realising that this was intended to signal the end of proceedings I sank back down under the duvet and snuggled up against her warm naked back.

Our bodily contact must have mellowed Dido’s mood.

I heard her say; ‘Go on then Joseph. Pharaoh’s all ears. What didst the Lord have to sayeth for himself.’

‘Actually, you’re technically incorrect. It was the baker and the butler who told their dreams to Joseph and then Joseph interp…’

‘Oh Adam! For goodness sake. Just get on with it.’

‘I can’t.’ I replied. ‘It’s too silly.’ Now that she actually wanted to hear what God had said, I was truly embarrassed.

Silly and dreadful? Or just dreadfully silly?’ she then paused before adding; ‘Sorry, I wasn’t making fun, it just came out.’

‘I know. It’s bonkers.’

‘Bonkers or not, I’m waiting! You’ve got me all agog now. Or should I say all a-God?’

‘It’s daft, and anyway, it won’t mean anything to you.’

‘But it meant something to you?’

‘When your subconscious tries to tell you things it generally has some kind of resonance.’

‘So it wasn’t really God?’ She said sarcastically.

‘Of course it wasn’t really God!’

‘Well, thank goodness for that. I was getting a bit worried there.’

‘Worried about what? That God was taking time out from the cares of the Universe to whisper sweet nothings into your fiancé’s ear?’

‘No. Worried that my fiancé had suddenly reverted into a believer.’ She then rolled over to face me and I could sense her large grey-blue eyes staring at me through the murk as she said; ‘I’m asking you for the last time, before I go back to sleep, what did Go…what did your subconscious say to you?’

I took a moment to remember exactly what I had heard then I replied; ‘The voice said to me―You, Son of Kohath―My Holy Ark―The synagogue in Toledo.’

CREATESPACE’S “FAUX-PAR” – OR IS IT “FOE-PAR” ?!

A brief cautionary post for those thinking of using the CreateSpace self-publishing platform…

As previous visitors to this blog will know I am in the process of self-publishing my new (and first) novel  (THE SONS OF KOHATH -Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God https://adamhalevi777.com/) using CreateSpace. I’ve already discussed all the advantages of this service in an earlier post – and there are many advantages – but I just want to take a moment here to share with you some of the amusing grammatical mutations that occurred during the file conversion process of my manuscript.

The problem seems to be that CreateSpace’s text-conversion software can’t read some foreign expressions and phrases. Examples include:

Firstly, “au contraire” which emerges as “oh! Contraire!“;

Secondly,  “per se” which at first attempt emerged as “per say” and then, following another attempt, and to my utter bafflement, then mutated further into “per setrembe” (???);

And finally (and appropriately in a way) there was “faux-pas” which transformed into “faux-par” and then into “foe-par“- leaving me feeling well below…par!

As I said; all most amusing, at first. But the numerous attempts to download and re-upload the corrected file became increasingly infuriating. More puzzling still, was the fact that this was not a problem when uploading the text to Kindle. Different, multilingual software I presume?

The lesson here is, that it might be wise to think twice before putting too many of those pesky, highfalutin’ foreign expressions into one’s text if planning on using CreateSpace…

WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…

“I loved it! This is a great story with a wonderful concept and excellent background.” Readers’ Favorite 

BookCover5x8_BW_420

As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri 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 feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’

 

The Ark Mosaic Continue reading “WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…”