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)
Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God
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.
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.’
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’.