TAPAS BEFORE TEMPLARS…

EXERPT 4 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena and Carlos both shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

‘Ouch!’ Elena said wincing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALEX’S HOLY-OF-HOLIES DESPAIR…

EXERPT 3 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” *

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

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

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

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

He took another swallow of whiskey and began to read:

Dear Alex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter went on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm

There was a ‘PS’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“THE CAUDILLO IS RAISING HELL…!”

EXERPT 2 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

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

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

Dear Professor Martinez,

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

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

Sincerely,

Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What is it?’

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

‘How do you know all this?’

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

Hot?’

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

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

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

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

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

Garcia hung up without answering.

ELENA’S TEL AVIV REVERIE…

A moody EXCERpt from my novel, “ark”…

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

      It was like breaking a hermetic seal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, the prime minister.’

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

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

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

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

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

ARK – 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)

ARK

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’.