Friday, February 25, 2011

Windsong – Breath of Being (Chapter 5 – Odd Shoes)


Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011


1 The Exchange Sunday January 30, 2011
2 bildende Kraft Saturday February 5, 2011
3 Gossamer Wings Friday February 11, 2011
4 Nemesis Saturday February 19, 2011
5 Odd Shoes Friday February 25, 2011
6 al-Rûh
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
9 Serendipity
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
12 Angels
13 The Cave of Montesinos


14 Idols
15 Nightingale
16 The Perfect Square
17 Haunting
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
22 Spirit-Level


23 Witness
24 Alcibiades
25 Ney
26 Birdsong
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being

Becalming Unscientific Postscript

Chapter 5

Odd Shoes

'Perhaps nothing,
Nothing, can alter the truth of me,
I am earth’s dream,
A sleeper ending his sleep
Will see when he wakes,
Real darkness beyond.'

Bejan Matur

Yeryuzunun Dusu
(Earth’s Dream)

Flanagan scrolls back to re-read the last two pages but his fingers twitch. He decides to quit and after closing the laptop stoops down to retrieve the letter from the floor and place it underneath the computer. It is 4.00 am and his eyes hurt. He has some difficulty draining the dregs of the malt. He thinks about and then decides against another cigarette before crossing to the CD storage unit. He pulls out Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán’s, Mambo Sinuendo, places the disc in the machine, selects the tenth track and waits for “Secret Love” to begin. He then switches off the lights and unsteady in the darkness he trips taking the steps before leaving the living room door ajar so that he might hear the music waft across the narrow hallway to his bedroom.

Teeth washed Flanagan lies in his bed, naked beneath the sheets of fresh cotton, probing with his tongue a large nerve-dead cavity plugged with the mint toothpaste and looking wide-eyed at the blank canvas of the ceiling. It is illuminated by a projection of moonlight flickering through the branches of the plum tree outside the bedroom window. As Cooder’s riff on the last track, “María La O”, fades, he hears his mobile phone ringing from where he had left it on the hallway table. As he drifts into sleep, he thinks back to another call.


Flanagan’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket as he climbed the small set of steps up through the Gate of the Engravers that would bring him into the courtyard of the Booksellers. Extracting the phone he checked the number on the caller-display, pressed the answer key and then held it to his ear.
‘Mac! It’s good to hear from you. How are you?’ he said breezily.
‘It was there all the time, Jaffa. Symmonds –’ Mac said excitedly.
‘What?’ he interjected before furtively looking around him to make sure there was nobody listening. The courtyard of second-hand booksellers, which had conducted its business just to the side of the Beyazit mosque since the early eighteenth century was an island of relative peace in the sea of bedlam that is the market quarter of Istanbul. There was nobody in earshot.
‘Listen to me Jaffa!’ Mac shouted. ‘It was there all the time. Symmonds must have missed it when he went through the contents. No wonder we never found it.’
‘I see,’ Flanagan said quietly as someone passed nearby.
‘See my arse! Where are you?’
‘Where am I? Istanbul. Working hard, don’t you know, trying to turn a dollar. How did you –’
‘Let me tell what has happened here. Will you?” Mac interrupted again.

Cormac McMurragh then spoke for about five minutes before hanging up. Flanagan replaced the phone in his pocket and entered the Kitabevi Kaabiz bookshop at the top of the flight of steps. Once inside, a heavily built man, with a well lived-in face, grey unruly hair and a light dusting of cigarette ash and dandruff on his shoulders stood up to greet him.
‘You are welcome, Jaffa, my friend.’
‘I got your message, Ismâil. What is it you have for me?’ Flanagan said, somewhat distracted by his conversation with Mac.
Ismâil Ibrahim, the proprietor of the bookshop, barked an order to a young assistant – who immediately darted from the shop – before fixing him with indignant and bulging eyes. ‘Have I not always been honest in my dealings with you, Jaffa? Was not the Ptolemy proof of that? Are we not partners?’ he wailed in a child-like voice, extending his arms.
‘Of course! Excuse my rudeness, Ismâil. I’ve had no official response from the Chester Beatty to my e-mail on the Ptolemy and it worries me somewhat. I have just come off a call with a friend in Dublin and he thinks the library will not bite. Some problem with one of the trustees – the old fart. I thought that they would have learnt a lesson by now and jumped at the offer but I may have to look elsewhere for another buyer,’ he replied wearily before slumping into a small chair, covered by a high quality but very worn Kashan kilim rug.
‘Do not worry, Jaffa, my friend. Allah will provide. Anyway I have come across something of even greater value which I think will remove all that fatigue from your heart,’ Ismâil consoled, slapping him on the shoulder before retaking his own seat.
‘What is it?’ Flanagan asked with more caution than was necessary.
The bookshop assistant returned at that point carrying a large, bubble-lined envelope and a small, artist’s portfolio case. The bookseller took them and after unzipping the portfolio carefully extracted seven or eight plastic transparent pockets. Each pocket, Flanagan could see, contained a sheet of loose-leaf paper, which appeared quite fragile and on which there was faded but beautiful Arabic script.
‘This my friend. These!’ The bookseller held up one of the pockets, in tender triumph and proffered it.
‘Let me look at – shit!’ Flanagan suddenly grunted. As he reached across the table to take the plastic envelope the muscles in his left hand started cramping and he was unable to grasp it. The envelope floated to the ground.
Ismâil bent down and retrieved it but kept his eyes on Flanagan, questioning.
‘It’s happening more often,’ he explained trying to rub the stiffness out of his hand.
‘Did you go to see my friend the specialist?’ the bookseller asked.
‘Tomorrow. I’ve made an appointment. Probably nothing. Vitamin lack or something! Pass me the envelope please, Ismâil.’

The cramping eased after a minute or so and Flanagan was finally able to prise open the envelope, and inspect its contents carefully. The paper he could see was of high quality linen-rag manufacture, of likely Italian origin he deduced, and appeared to be in reasonable condition, with no evidence of rust or mould. He then looked at the penmanship and frowned slightly. The language of the writing was not Arabic but Ottoman Turkish, he realised, and his ability to read this was poor.
Ismâil smiled knowingly. ‘Would you like me to read what it says, Jaffa?’ the bookseller asked as he reached for another folder to pull out a loosely bound series of typewritten pages. He fanned these in Flanagan’s direction. ‘I’ve gone to the trouble of translating it for you, putting in punctuation, capitals and inverted commas for direct speech.’
‘Please Ismâil, don’t tease.’ Flanagan grinned thinly as he handed the sheet of linen paper with its densely packed lines of calligraphy back and watched as Ismâil replaced it with the others in the portfolio case before starting to read the typescript. This ‘facility’ he knew then, was going to cost him dear.
‘It is dated 1080AH, approximately 1669 years after the birth of Christ, and is a letter composed by one Iskender Aga Sidanli to his son. It has quite an interesting story to tell,’ the bookseller said, explaining the context.
‘Ismâil if my hands wer’nt cramping I’d strangle you. Get on with it!’
‘Ha! Patience, my friend, patience. Time will reveal all. Would you like a coffee?’ Ismâil smiled indulgently, extracting future value, starting the negotiation.
‘Turkish or Nescafe?’
‘Turkish, medium sweet,’ Flanagan answered as he pulled out a box of his favourite Petit brand of small Sumatra cigars made by Nobel in Denmark. He offered one to the bookseller, who declined in favour of a more pungent Turkish cigarette.

To Heki, my beloved son,’ the bookseller began reading, ‘in the hope that someday you will read this and come to know your father. Judge me not harshly for I loved your mother and you more than life itself and willingly give that life to protect you from its harsh –

‘Sentimental! Why should this be of such interest to me?’ Flanagan asked in a distracted way as he accepted the coffee from the bookseller’s assistant.
‘Why? You ask? Because, my doubting Irish friend, Iskender Aga Sidanli was one of the greatest calligraphers of all time. You know him better as Karabatak Iskender Aga.’
Karabatak, the cormorant?’
‘Exactly. Shall I continue then?’
‘Please do!’ Flanagan exhorted, inhaling impatiently on his cigar.

It was early afternoon on one of the last ten days of the month, that the Christians name April and others Nisan, in the one thousand and seventy-fifth year since the Prophet Mohammed – Praise be upon his name – had abandoned his clansmen in Mecca. I was eighteen years old –

‘Abandoned? That’s an unusual word to use Ismâil,’ Flanagan interrupted again.
The bookseller looked up at that point slightly exacerbated. ‘Jaffa, my friend, despite your expertise, there is much of the nuance in Middle Eastern terminology you have yet to appreciate. It is better to use the word “abandon” rather than “flight” to explain the hidjra of the Prophet, because, as my expert and orthodox friends tell me, the Arabic verb hadjara means a deliberate breaking-off-of-relations-with, or emigration from one’s tribe, rather than fleeing from an enemy or danger. The predominant emotions of hadjara are loneliness and elation, not cowardice and fear; a crossroad of opportunity not impasse; a familial disruption as old as time. The Glorious Prophet was not running away but moving towards something better and to do this he needed to abandon his tribal ties.’ Ismâil drew deeply on his cigarette, satisfied with his indulgent explanation. ‘A little like your self, Jaffa.’
‘With respect, Ismâil, would it be possible to give a summary of the letter? I can read the transcripts again later.’ Flanagan grunted, stung by the bookseller’s observation.
‘Of course my friend! The letter begins with a description of the times, and the trouble that the Ottoman’s were having with Count Nicholas Serini, Serinogli, of Croatia, the trouble with the new Chmil or leader of the Cossacks, Yuri Boganzade and the internal difficulties in the city which had caused the Sultan Mehmet Han to remove himself to Edrine. It then goes onto describe the circumstances how Iskender Aga Sidanli first met his future master Abazade Effendi, a Vizier of the Divan and a personal friend of the chief minister Fazil Pasha Koprulu; how Iskender was taken to the Koprulu library to be trained in calligraphy by Abazade, who like Fazil Pasha was a student of Dervis Ali, the honoured successor to Seyh Hamdullah, the greatest calligrapher of them all.’
‘Very interesting,’ Flanagan said.
‘I think you will find the next section more so, if you might allow me read it in full.’ Ismâil pulled out the third page and searched for his starting point.

Abazade Effendi explained that I was to become his pupil because he had been informed of my skills as a linguist, calligrapher and archer. I told him I would rather join the army to fight, as I was anxious, as all young men are, my son, to prove my valour on the field of battle. He asked me at that point how long I had been in the school and I told him that I went there when I was eight year-of-age and that my family were Christian. I told him about my grandfather, your great-grandfather, my beloved son, and his people who were followers of Nestorius the Christian and who were employed as interpreters in the Divan of the Shah of Persia. I told him how my own father, your grandfather, became a valued administrator in the house of the Emir of Sidan, in the Sanziack of Saphet and how it was the Emir who sent me to the Sultan’s palace as part of a tribute payment. "And you are now content to be a Muslim instead of a Christian?" Abazade asked. I simply said yes with my eyes.

He then asked me about my facility in calligraphy and I told him that before being taken to the city that my father, your grandfather, had begun to teach me the sulus and nesih scripts as well as an old kufic type known only, in those times, to my grandfather and my father. In the palace school they wanted us to concentrate more on the divani style so the others suffered. Your great grandfather died in the conquest of Baghdad, my son, but my father, your grandfather still lives in Damascus. Allah be praised. I told him all this and then asked him why I was being brought to the Koprulu library instead of to the new palace at Odout Pasha, near Edrine. He said to me, “You, my clever and alert young friend, are to be trained here by me and under the patronage of Kopruluzade rather than the Sultan. That is where the power in the land now lies. That is both yours and my destiny.” I waited there . . .’

The bookseller suddenly stopped as he searched for the next page, which appeared not to be not in proper sequence and blamed, with his eyes, everyone in the shop except himself.
‘There is a point to all this, is there not Ismâil?’ Flanagan sighed.
‘Be alert, my friend. The next part is the most important,’ Ismâil scowled as he searched for the next page.

‘It was at that point, my son, sitting in the dusty unfinished library of Kopruluzade, that my destiny, your destiny, all our destinies changed forever. “Read the colophon,” Abazade Effendi instructed as he handed a very old and fragile calf leather-bound book, with horsehair tassels for closure, to me for inspection. I opened the cover and held the book upwards to the light from a nearby window and as I read, tried to keep the surprise from my face. The pages were made of very old parchment and were coloured with age. There was little in the way of decoration and it was written in an old script similar to the kufic type of my grandfather, which my own father had begun to teach me before I was sent to the palace school and I was able to understand it. The colophon was written in the religious script of my grandfather: the letters of the Syriac Christians. It was a very old book filled with verses from the Qur’an, but very beautiful in its simplicity.

I remember the words as if they were burnt on my forehead:

This is the kitab al-dhikr al-Rûh, the Book of the Warnings of the Messenger Spirit, in whose ear the white dove revealed the Infallible formula for happiness, the secret of which lies within these pages.’

The bookseller read the lines with feigned indifference before looking up to watch for his visitor’s reaction. There was a momentary silence before Flanagan suddenly stood up, and with a look of wild excitement on his face, shouted, ‘Jesus Christ, Ismâil. It exists! It god dam exists. I knew it.’ Flanagan then began pacing the floor of the shop before stopping in front of the bookseller’s desk. ‘Where did you get these, Ismâil? I must know!’ He leant forward and made a sudden grab for the loose pages.
The old bookseller, with surprising speed, slammed his hand down on top of them. Dandruff, dust and ash fanned in all directions. ‘Not so fast, Jaffa, my friend. Now that I suddenly have your interest you will favour me with some continued patience. Please sit down.’ Ismâil failed miserably in suppressing his obvious satisfaction as he watched Flanagan meekly withdraw his hand and retake his seat. ‘Let me finish it first. Where was I? Oh yes. Iskender goes on to relate his emotional confusion of surprise and fear when Abazade gives him the signal that he, like Iskender, is one of the Mu’shirin; a secret Sufi and semi-Christian lodge that existed within the palace school. Iskender writes his son that he suspected a trap and that he was being tested as part of the Sultan’s plan to eradicate secret lodges.’
‘What was the signal?’ Flanagan asked quietly. He had been waiting for a moment like this for many years and needed urgently to confirm the authenticity.
The bookseller searched down the page. ‘The true secret is with us. That was the password.’
‘Read the full section please, Ismâil,’ Flanagan asked, concerned that the document might be a fake. He needed to be certain, to be reassured. The words and the sense of the words were important in this assessment.
‘If you insist,’ Ismâil said with a knowing smile before returning his eyes to the page and continuing,

‘Abazade Effendi said, “I will be your pir or teacher in many things including the journey through those last two gates. From me you will finally learn the Secret but along the way you will also learn to be fully proficient in each of the six main calligraphy scripts as well as the ilm-i-abjad, the science of the letters. You will learn to prepare and cut your reeds, to size and burnish your paper, and to make your ink of soot and gold. You will watch how the tanners prepare the leather, how the binders bind, how the paper makers prepare their pages, how the illuminators pluck the neck fur of white kittens for their brushes, how ink colours are extracted from what is all around you. Finally, as an exercise to strengthen and steady your hand, you will learn to fly your arrow further than ever before or what you thought possible. You will learn to make your own bow and pick the pine for your arrows as well as from where to pluck the peacock for your flights and how to weave the silken threads of their loosening. By the discipline of these paths and the final gates of the Mu’shirin you will know the Spirit of the Truth. From intelligence and will your soul will be found. You will know everything because you will know what is superior.”

I was very overwhelmed, my beloved son, by all these events and even more so by what followed. It was at that point that Abazade Effendi said he was giving me a new name, the name that you now carry. He said he would call me Karabatakzade, the black arrow of the cormorant: the arrow that disappears and then suddenly appears again. I liked my new name as Abazade explained that it was a question of unity in spirit and action and I accepted. I was still unsure, however, why he was willing to grant me my freedom and I asked him about this.

“Ah that,” he said as he stroked his beard, a beard you could lose yourself in, and looked at me, “Because you will be the next guardian of this book.” He pointed to the leather-bound book I still held in my hands: The Book of the Messenger. “It is the only one in which the Secret is recorded. The warnings or the al-dhikr of the Messenger are hidden in the understanding of the secret letters of al-Muqatta‘at. That is its power and its glory. You will learn how to uncover the secret but that is a lesson for another day. Are you prepared to learn?” he asked of me and I agreed.

That is the story, my son, of how I came to meet the great and glorious Abazade Effendi and touched the Book of the Messenger Spirit for the first time. My destiny from that day on was determined and I want you to understand that, my son. It is . . .’

‘Go on, Ismâil,’ Flanagan implored.
‘I’m sorry. The letter ends there my friend, abruptly. The other pages are missing,’ the bookseller said apologetically as he handed the last loose page over for Flanagan to look at.
‘Shit,’ he groaned.
‘It still is a very important document and very rare given the personal nature of it. Valuable I think.’ Ismâil tried to be positive.
‘Forget the personalities Ismâil! Of more importance it tells us that the Book of the Messenger existed in the mid-seventeenth century. Don’t you realise, that is almost a 700 years after its last previous reported reference. Where did you get these? Tell me now!’ Flanagan demanded picking up the rest of the pages. This time there was no obstruction.
‘From a collection of the personal papers of Leon Arsan.’
‘Leon Arsan…I know that name,’ Flanagan replied distracted, trying to engage his brain.
‘A book dealer in this very market in the 1930’s. It seems he sent a number of the pages to an intermediary in Cairo who was then instructed to show them to a collector.’
‘Who? Which collector?
‘Why, Chester Beatty of course, at his winter house in Bait al Azrak in Egypt. Leon Arsan was a friend of Behir Nushet Bogac, Beatty’s guide in Istanbul.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Flanagan almost shouted.
‘Listen, Jaffa. I’m hungry. Why don’t we go and have something to eat?’ the bookseller pleaded.
Flanagan looked at his watch and then shook his head. ‘I’m sorry Ismâil. I’m meeting Alanna at 9.30. Tomorrow? We can meet here at say . . . 6.00.’
‘That is fine by me.’
‘Good. I'd better be going.’
‘A word in your ear, my friend.’ Ismâil stood up and directed him by the arm to the doorway of the shop, pausing to whisper out of earshot, ‘Be careful there . . . with Alanna, I mean.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She is not a friend of the military.’
‘What have you heard Ismâil?’
‘They dislike her politics and are almost certainly watching her . . . and you too. Just be careful.’
‘I will. Thanks Ismâil. See you tomorrow.’
Insha’ Allâh, Jaffa my friend. Insha’ Allâh.


Flanagan suddenly sits up in his bed, as if still living the dream. Half asleep and half awake he imagines that the shadow cast on the bedroom wall by the moonlight, the cadenza light, is Mac. The shadow mouth, in profile, moves, speaking to him:

Supine dreams
Rendered prone
A paralysis of
Being alone.

The shadow loses its substance, as if afraid, and the wind causing the rattle of the plum-tree branches against the window eases off. At that moment he is fully awake. ‘Jesus,’ he whispers, feeling his heart pound and skin moisten. He switches on the light, picks up the clock, and looks at it: 6.30. His hands are cramping again, locking around the clock. He is unable to leave it down. ‘Nothing can be done,’ the Turkish specialist had said. ‘We can do nothing,’ the Dublin specialist had said, giving him nothing. Alanna had once given him a card with poetry by a Kurdish poet written on it. The card sits on the bedside table and he re-reads the words:

Perhaps nothing,
nothing, can alter the truth of me,
I am earth’s dream,
a sleeper ending his sleep
will see when he wakes,
real darkness beyond.

He remembers all. He remembers the pain and embarrassment of coming home from school and seeing his mother drunk for the first time, with a man who was not his father – the first of many – standing behind her, equally drunk, fondling her breast with a dead smile on his face. He thinks of Rio’s mother. He then thinks of Kundera’s Franz: a twelve year-old boy walking the streets with a mother wearing odd shoes. He had never wanted to hurt her, but did, just by noticing.
‘Why are you here, Jerome?’ his mother had asked as she lay dying.
‘I need to confront my dreams,’ he had replied.

Still holding the clock Flanagan clumsily switches off the light with his free hand, closes his eyes on the darkness, sinks back on the pillow and lets a deeper level pull him in.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Windsong – Breath of Being (Chapter 4 – Nemesis)


Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011


1 The Exchange Sunday January 30, 2011
2 bildende Kraft Saturday February 5, 2011
3 Gossamer Wings Friday February 11, 2011
4 Nemesis Saturday February 19, 2011
5 Odd Shoes
6 al-Rûh
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
9 Serendipity
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
12 Angels
13 The Cave of Montesinos


14 Idols
15 Nightingale
16 The Perfect Square
17 Haunting
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
22 Spirit-Level


23 Witness
24 Alcibiades
25 Ney
26 Birdsong
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being

Becalming Unscientific Postscript

Chapter 4

“I’ve been accused of having a death wish but I think it’s life that
I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever.”

Tennessee Williams
Sweet Bird of Youth

Lighting yet another cigarette Flanagan thought of Joe Reilly’s wife dying from multiple sclerosis, and of Phyllis Andrew in her wheelchair, and of Tressa Hughes’ paraplegic ‘walking bastard’ employer, and then of himself. He was absolutely certain that he would not be a ‘good’ invalid, dreading not being able to control his own destiny. He recalled a television reviewer once referring to the omission of the ‘obvious’ in dialogue as the ‘dead hand’ that hovers unseen over all good screenwriting. Would there be anyone left, Flanagan wondered, who actually knew him, who would hold his ‘dead hand’, who would instinctively understand his obvious wishes, and who would deal a ‘real hand’ to those wishes? Exhaling he scrolled down to the next entry:

Arm-pit Diary,
January 9:

Things change Walt, and nothing changes but at least there is my work. Love’s labours lost in labour’s love, you might say. Mac and I met first thing, as usual, for coffee. Ahmed al-Akrash was there and in great humour. He wanted us to come to a party in his house next month, a celebration of his first year in business at the museum. I’ve never been to his house before but Mac says the house is austere, hermitic almost. No family. I said I’d think about it. Makes bloody good baklava though and I wonder what food served in his house would be like.

At precisely 8.16 we marched into the museum’s boardroom. Well I almost skipped, trying to contain my excitement…

Rio took a seat next to Mac at the polished, oval boardroom table that glistened warm beneath the dark, wood-panelled ceiling of the room. Near the doorway, at the far end of the table, sitting in the place normally occupied by FitzHenry the museum director, was a thin elderly man with hollow cheeks, a short-cropped military haircut and sad, sunken eyes, partly obscured by large, unkempt eyebrows. Those same eyes stared at Rio intently this made her a little uncomfortable, as she had never been formally introduced to Brigadier Crawford previously. Since arriving in Dublin she had seen him, once or twice, hovering, always at the periphery, ghost-like, at museum functions. She knew that he was the remnant survivor of a once powerful brewing and publishing dynasty, and as the Chairman of the Trustees of the Museum was entitled to sit in on the monthly meeting of the heads of department. Mac, in his inimitable way, had informed her, very shortly after arriving, that she was to be working in last remaining institution of medieval Dublin, as the Chester Beatty Library, despite a modernization of its constitution in 1997, was not owned by the people of Ireland but belonged, in law, to the Trustees.
Rio watched FitzHenry, in a country check jacket a size too small for him, enter the room and walk towards the chair to the left of Crawford. His deferential body language gave every acknowledgment of the feudal state of the museum’s affairs and he seemed uncomfortable as he hovered near the unfamiliar seat. Resting his hands on the back of the chair, he looked down the table at the gathered staff and then at Crawford, the buttoned jacket squeezing out from his face a thin smile. Like toothpaste, Rio thought.
‘Brigadier. I think you know everybody here except perhaps the young lady next to Mr. McMurragh at the far end of the table.’
‘Young! I like that,’ Rio whispered to Mac. ‘Perhaps I was wrong about Aengus.’
Mac had been somewhat distracted tinkering with his computer and didn’t catch what she’d said. He leaned towards her to ask, ‘What did you –’ but then stopped his question short as FitzHenry glared at him.
‘Brigadier Crawford!’ the Director barked, ‘Let me introduce you to Dr. Rio Dawson, our paper conservator, on secondment from the University of Colorado.’
‘Hello, m’dear.’ The old man’s eyes never wavered as he spoke. ‘I’ve heard good reports about you and the work that you’re doing. Welcome to the Library.’
Rio thought his tone was patronisingly cold and disinterested and yet the old dude was smiling warmly. Brigadier Crawford, and FitzHenry too, she had noticed, never referred to the Chester Beatty Library Museum as a mere museum. It was always the Library, no more, no less. ‘Thank you, Brigadier Crawford. I’m enjoying the experience.’
‘Can’t say the same for the rest of us,’ Mac grunted under his breath.
Joyce Holden, who was sitting to Mac’s left, began to giggle and Rio suddenly felt as she was back in grade school with Brent Anderson putting spiders in her pencil case…

…Brent Andersen, the designated taker of my virginity – most of it – in the back of his father’s pickup. I haven’t thought about him for ages. Used to bully me in high school as well until, one day, I stood up to him and asked, ‘Do you pick on me because I’m black?’ Without batting an eyelid he’d replied ‘Jesus H Christ no. I do it because yar a pain in the ass.’ That decided it for me. He was to be the chosen one, the cherry picker. He later became the designated big-hitter for a minor-league baseball team until killed by a pickup crossing a road in Salem…

Thinking of those fumbling moments so long ago Rio blushed, but was relieved to see that FitzHenry had not noticed, being far too concerned taking his seat and then spending a small amount of time sorting his papers into neat piles in front of him. He began speaking without looking up from the piles, ‘In fact Brigadier, Dr. Dawson’s work is an additional and late item,’ he growled with irritation, before continuing, ‘to the agenda for this morning’s meeting but I felt it important enough to include. Perhaps you could get us started Dr. Dawson.’ FitzHenry, finally satisfied with the order he had imposed smiled down at Rio over the rim of his reading glasses.
‘Certainly Aengus, sorry Prof. Cormac would you mind?’ Rio took the opportunity to give Mac, and the memory of Brent Anderson, a kick under the table.
‘Ouch! Of course not!’ Mac said through gritted teeth as he stood up and walked with an exaggerated limp towards a console panel mounted into the far wall.
‘Are you all right Mr. McMurragh? You’re limping,’ FitzHenry enquired.
‘No it’s nothing, Prof. Old war injury.’
It took all of Rio’s control to stop herself bursting out laughing as then Crawford asked earnestly of FitzHenry, ‘What war is he talking about, Director?’
‘I was speaking metaphorically, Brigadier. The abuses of time and early morning stiffness.’ Mac tried explaining but only managed to dig a deeper hole for himself. He glared at Rio, who blew him a kiss.
‘Oh! I see,’ Brigadier Crawford said in a somewhat disappointed tone.
‘Abuse is the right word,’ James Somerville interjected loudly.
‘Shut up, James,’ Joyce hissed back at him.
‘Might we carry on?’ FitzHenry rasped, losing patience.

Rio was yet again amazed at how, since arriving in Ireland, such surreal episodes seemed to bubble up and then just as quickly evaporate again. She then relaxed for a moment as Mac dimmed the room lights and the roof-mounted projector flickered into action. Satisfied with the focus he returned to seat at the table and pressed a key on his computer. There was a slight pause, as the programme loaded, and then a picture of the Library’s copy of Durer’s The Knight, Death, and the Demon scrolled into view. She decided to remain seated while she launched straight into her presentation. ‘Thank you Cormac, for your great help… Ladies and gentlemen, Brigadier Crawford, The Knight, Death and the Demon, sometimes referred to as Nemesis, is one of several Durer prints bought by Chester Beatty. It is representative of his genius years as an engraver and the museum is very fortunate to have a number of high quality Durer engravings, from the “Apocalypse” and “Passion” series all of which were thought to have been catalogued, remounted and reframed in recent years.’
‘What do you mean thought, Dr. Dawson?’ Crawford demanded.
‘As you are well aware Brigadier Crawford, the Chester Beatty Library collection is very extensive and the greater proportion of it still remains in storage. Part of my remit is to carry out a condition survey of those items in storage to ensure that no damage is occurring and that the storage conditions are appropriate.’
‘I’m sure the Brigadier is intimate with the responsibilities of your position, Dr. Dawson. Please get to the point.’ FitzHenry didn’t make eye contact with her as he said this but leant sideways to whisper something in Crawford’s ear. The old man smiled down at Rio.
‘For the last two days I have been unpacking a crate that has not yet been catalogued, due to untimely death of the previous Director, and yesterday morning at the very bottom of the crate came across an old Silander storage box which Professor Symmonds had just begun working on. As you know we have stopped using this type of container for storage here in the Library but this particular box had apparently been included amongst the militaria bequeathed by Chester Beatty to the Military College Museum in the Curragh . . . I hope I pronounced that right.’ Rio relieved to see that Joyce nodded continued, ‘After Prof Symmonds’ death it was returned to the Curragh and has only recently been brought back here for us to complete the cataloguing.’
‘Thank you for the itinerary! Please move on, Dr. Dawson,’ FitzHenry growled.
Mac giggled and Rio flared.
‘Please go on, Dr. Dawson,’ Crawford said quietly.
‘The Silander box contained four eighteenth century copies of Mamluk books on military training and weaponry, which are of moderate rarity and value. The box itself was in very poor condition and disintegrating and I was about to send it for disposal when, by chance really, I noticed that there was a small square of ground-wood mounting-board stuck flush against one of the broken sides of the box. The board came away easily and on turning it over I got a very pleasant surprise.’ Rio tried to keep a note of triumph from her voice while waiting for the slide to change.
‘It’s another Durer, is it not?’ Crawford asked as he looked at the screen.
‘Possibly, Brigadier,’ Rio replied quietly. ‘We cannot be entirely certain. In the small shield on the bottom left you can see a date but although there is space for it, Durer’s monogram is missing. However it is a metallic engraving dated 1518, it is on paper with the “Pitcher” watermark and it is entirely typical of Durer’s style. I … we suspect it’s probably an early or even the first proof of a new engraving and that his signature would only have been added later when Durer was satisfied with the result.’
‘What’s it subject matter?’ Crawford was leaning forward to get a better look as he spoke. ‘I don’t recognise it.’
‘That is not surprising, Brigadier as . . . and this is the exciting part, there is no other known Durer in existence with this particular composition. However, Dr. Holden is more of an expert than I am on Durer so perhaps she is better qualified to clarify the situation for you . . . us more.’
‘Go ahead, Joyce.’ FitzHenry re-imposed his control of the agenda.
‘As Rio ...Dr. Dawson has pointed out, I do think it is a first proof and that alone will make it very unique. For some reason the engraved metal plate must have been lost or destroyed shortly after this imprint was taken. The subject matter is the Holy Spirit depicted as an advocate between mankind and God. The next slide will perhaps help explain it a bit better.’ Joyce waited until the next slide detailing an enlarged area of the engraving appeared. It showed an open book in the central figure’s hand with the Greek letters “Paraklηtos” spread across the pages.
‘Is that a word, Dr. Holden?’ Crawford asked.
‘Yes. They –’ Joyce began to explain.
‘The Greek letters spell out Paraklitos, Brigadier,’ another voice interrupted loudly. ‘The Paraclete is an appellation for the Holy Spirit, which occurs only in the Gospel of St John. It means an advocate, intercessor or occasionally a comforter.’ James Somerville jumped in with the information, anxious to demonstrate his classical training.
Joyce’s face flushed. A roosting hen disturbed Rio thought and immediately glared at James, the opportunist fox. She had told all of the senior museum staff of her discovery, and decided not to let him away with his rudeness. ‘I’m sorry that Dr. Holden was not able to finish what she was saying but I know she is preparing a thorough report which will be circulated in the next day or so.’ Rio slowly took her eyes off James Somerville and half-turned to look at the projected image on the wall. ‘Unfortunately the engraving is in poor condition. Despite having been in the dark the acid from the ground-wood board has leaked through to stain the paper and there are also some mould spots.’
‘Is it repairable?’ FitzHenry asked.
‘Yes, Director. However, there is one other item of interest, if you can bear with me. This is something that only came to light late last evening and I haven’t had the chance to tell you about it before now.’ Rio watched for FitzHenry’s reaction knowing that he was not a man to have information dispersed before he’d had a chance to censor it.
FitzHenry hesitated for a moment but then, after a quick look at his watch, relented. ‘Be brief, Dr. Dawson. Please!’
‘Sure. We have on loan at present, with the hope of purchase, I might add . . .’ she said, looking directly at Crawford with pleading eyes. ‘A newly developed forensic diagnostic camera from Art Innovation in Holland. This camera is able to photograph through the full range of infrared, ultraviolet and visible wavelengths. It was Mac . . . Mr. McMurragh who spotted something in the UV images which might be a problem.’
‘What problem, Dr. Dawson?’ Brigadier Crawford had put on his glasses and was staring intently at the projection screen.
‘It will become a little more obvious with the next slide Brigadier. Thanks Cormac.’ At that point Rio pushed back her chair and standing up, walked slowly towards the screen as the image changed.

…to be truthful I was sashaying. The Halle Berry of conservation, I briefly imagined, thrusting my hips, loving the drama. Who ever said conservation was a frigid endeavour. At that moment, Walt all I felt was a frisson (Thanks Andre!)…

An area of the original photograph had been isolated out and enlarged further. There was a faint outline of writing. ‘If you would concentrate –’ she began.
‘I’m sorry, Dr. Dawson. You’re a big girl and in the way a bit. Could you move further to one side?’ Brigadier Crawford asked in a matter-of-fact way.
Mac coughed loudly, his face contorted by a stunted laugh.
Big, the old weasel called me big, the bastard,’ Rio mumbled, blushing self-consciously before moving to the side.

...In that instant Walt, I remembered that Andre, the Frenchman, used to call me ‘beeig’ as well but eventually found competing with my height in public annoying and I tired of his joking reference to our otherwise enjoyable lovemaking as ‘climbing’. He had been my first, and only, experience of a French lover, and now and then I am not altogether sure that ‘lover’ was an accurate description of what we had going. In general French men aim to please, I'd been told. When you pouted or pushed them away it spurred them on. In their minds, I’d soon realised, no meant maybe, disdain invited ardour. But in reality it was just a game, a challenge. The more exotic and unobtainable I pretended to be the more he had pursued. Andre had been a gourmet and I was the truffle – and he had tried to devour me . . .

Rio suddenly realised that the others were waiting for her to continue and she moved as deep into the shadows of the wall as she could.
‘Sure,’ she said pointing upwards with a small hand-held laser. ‘Sorry. If. . . if you would concentrate on the area just behind where the Holy Spirit or Paraclete’s left ear is, you will notice the reason for our concern.’ The red dot was behaving like a firefly and she forced her hand to steady.
‘It’s writing . . . Arabic I think. Arabic writing, obscuring the lines of engraving?’ Phyllis Andrew was first to speak.
‘Exactly, Phyllis,’ Rio said excitedly. ‘I’m not sure whether the paper is just thin at this point or whether ink has leaked through to stain the paper.’
‘Are you saying that there is Arabic writing on the back of the engraving, Dr. Dawson?’
‘I don’t think so Brigadier, because its not reversed writing. I suspect that the writing is on the layer of paper that was used between the engraving and the mounting-board. I think the ink from this is staining through onto the engraving, and suspect it might be an organic iron-containing ink, which has oxidized. As a consequence I think we will have to deal with the engraving and the backing-paper as a co-determinate procedure.’
‘What do you propose to do about it?’It was Crawford who continued to question her.
Rio couldn’t make out the older man's face in the glare of the projection but she answered with conviction, ‘I would remove the engraving from the mounting-board and then carefully try and moisten away the intervening paper. The mounting-board may have to be taken down in layers.’
‘Is there a danger in doing that Dr. Dawson?’
‘Yes Brigadier, but if we don’t act now the oxidization could get worse. In addition, if the ink used is, for example, iron-gall ink, this becomes very acidic over time. We will have to coat it with barium sulphate to raise the pH and prevent any further damage.’
Rio hesitated a little as she was reasonably sure but not entirely on this technical issue. The mould and staining, she knew, should be easy to correct and future storage conditions would hopefully prevent any further deterioration. She decided not to dwell on the details and moving back to the console, she raised the room lighting, turned off the projector and winked at Mac before retaking her seat.
‘I meant any danger to the intervening paper or co-determinate, as you so elegantly put it, Dr. Dawson. What if this co-determinate is parchment?’ The ex-army man asked – interrogated – in a slightly sarcastic tone.
Rio realised instantly that Crawford was very much aware of the hazards of separation procedures. It had been a very astute question and she flushed with the embarrassment of knowing that she had not really considered that the intervening leaf might be parchment. ‘I’m sorry, Brigadier,’ she blustered, trying to avoid the drop. ‘I did not mean to gloss over the potential of that particular possibility. If it is parchment then we will have to be very careful and would use controlled humidity only. Any contact with water and the parchment becomes irreversibly translucent and we could lose any hope of deciphering the little writing that’s present.’
‘Are you competent in forensic investigative techniques of paper and parchment analysis, Dr. Dawson . . . or should we contact the British Museum?’ Crawford persisted.
The old bastard, he wasn’t letting go, she thought. But she deserved it, she recognised also and searched for a reply. ‘Yes, Brigadier. I am! I have trained both at the FBI in Quantico, and also in Japan. I’m an accredited forensic expert in paper conservation.’
‘That’s very good.’ Crawford’s features remained passive.
‘Where might this Durer have come from?’ FitzHenry asked, trying to lighten the adversarial mood, before turning to James Somerville who was also the Library’s archivist.
‘Most of the Durer’s in the Museum were purchased in New York but I am not able to find any correspondence with regard to this one,’ Somerville replied.
‘Is that unusual or just incompetence?’ Crawford barked.
‘He’s going after everybody,’ Rio whispered to Mac.
‘Pre-senile tension,’ Mac whispered back.
James Somerville bristled. ‘No. Of course not Brigadier! Many dealers sent items on approval to Chester Beatty. There is sometimes no information of what he accepted or what he sent back.’
Mac and Joyce winked at each other, delighted by James’ defensive indignation.
‘I see,’ Crawford said quietly.
‘What should we do so?’ FitzHenry eyes were still fixed on the blank projection screen.
‘I think, Rio . . . Dr. Dawson should go ahead and remove the mounting board while documenting everything carefully. By all means get an expert opinion on the writing but it would be a disaster if there is any further deterioration,’ Joyce Holden interjected, adamant in her assessment.
Aengus FitzHenry looked around the table for objections and when there was none nodded towards Rio. ‘Very well then Rio, Dr. Dawson, you may proceed. By the way, thank you for your diligence Mr. McMurragh.’
‘Pleasure Prof,’ Mac purred.
‘How much is it? The camera?’ Joyce Holden suddenly asked, loudly.
Good girl, Rio thought.
‘About €32,000.’ Mac tried to hurry the words.
‘That’s very expensive.’ Crawford shook his head.
‘But worth it!’ Rio almost shouted.
‘Perhaps, but let’s move on to the original items on the agenda. We’ll discuss the camera another time,’ FitzHenry said as he, almost reluctantly, pulled a single piece of paper from his neatly stacked pile and handed it to Crawford. ‘I’ve had an e-mail from Jerome Flanagan in Istanbul. He writes that he has come across an unusual fragment of a thirteenth century Ptolemy’s Geography and is offering it to the Library.’
‘What’s unusual about it?’ Crawford sneered as he plucked the sheet from FitzHenry’s hand. The old man was handling the paper, Rio observed, as though it were contagious.
‘It . . . it has Books III to XII included,’ FitzHenry said with the voice of an earnest schoolboy seeking parental approval. ‘With the Agathodaimon endorsement but, of more importance, it also has very detailed marginal notes in Maghrebi script.’
We must get it, Aengus!’ Phyllis Andrew said excitedly.
‘I think so too Phyllis. I’ll contact him and ask that he brings it here.’
‘You will do no such thing, FitzHenry!’ Crawford growled as he slammed down his fist with surprising force. Everybody startled as they felt the table jump. ‘The Trustees of the Library will have nothing to do with Jerome Flanagan.’
‘But, Brigadier,’ FitzHenry pleaded.
‘Nothing, I tell you! Good day to you all,’ Crawford rasped as he suddenly stood up and then briskly left the room.

After a moment of stunned indecision Aengus FitzHenry got up and followed after him. The others remained at the table, saying nothing, fully expecting FitzHenry to return. When this didn’t happen James Somerville eventually went to the window that overlooked the Dubh Linn garden outside. The snow had stopped falling and he reported that he could see the gesticulating figures of FitzHenry and the Brigadier standing near the ornamental pond, involved in a passionate debate. He turned back to face the rest of them. ‘I think this particular meeting is over. We should go about our work.’
They all nodded sombrely. James, Rio noted with a smile, offered to push Phyllis’ wheelchair and Joyce followed them out from the room. She hesitated and sat looking at Mac until he got up to leave. ‘What gives, Mac? Who is Jerome Flanagan?’ she asked.
‘Dr. Jerome Augustine Flanagan used be the Islamic curator in the museum. A genius and brilliant Arabic scholar but . . .’ Mac’s voice dropped to a whisper.
‘But what?’
‘A bit unconventional for the staid precincts of the museum. There was a clash of egos with the Director and it ended in tears. You know how it is, the ‘hego or igo’ ultimatum. The Prof won out.’
‘With Aengus? I don’t believe it,’ Rio said.
‘No! With old, the now dead, Prof Symmonds, FitzHenry’s predecessor. Your Silander box man.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘Heart attack while driving. In Turkey of all places. Why do you ask?’
‘No. Not Symmonds. I meant to Jerome Flanagan.’
‘Oh!’ Mac sounded relieved for some reason. ‘He went freelance and has become the Indiana Jones of rare manuscripts.’
‘Why the vitriol from Crawford.’
‘The usual. Money and pride.’
‘About three years ago Jaffa –’
Jaffa?’ she enquired.
‘Jerome Flanagan’s nickname! Anyway Jaffa sourced an important Persian book of miniatures and out of a misplaced sense of loyalty first offered it to the museum, at a reasonable price. With their usual procrastinating pace, the Trustees dithered over the cost, so he sold it to the Metropolitan instead, and for a far greater sum. Crawford was doing the negotiation on behalf of the Trustees and he was blamed for throwing away the opportunity. He has never forgiven Flanagan for it.’
‘How long has he been gone from the museum?’
‘About five years. We keep in touch though. I could arrange a blind date for you if you’re interested. Jaffa’s a great man for the women; likes them tall, like you.’
‘Don’t go there, Mac! I had enough from Crawford.’
‘You’re such a big girl m’dear!
She could only laugh at his accurate mimicry of the Brigadier. ‘Bastard.’
‘Do you want me to arrange a date for you with Jaffa, Rio?’
‘Thanks but no thanks, Mac. I can sort out my own social life,’ she said hurriedly, knowing immediately she didn’t sound convincing enough.
‘Yeah . . . right. What happened to the stud I met with you last week? Séamus something-or-other, the cattle dealer. Weren’t you heading off to the mountains with him?’
‘Its none of your business, Mac…’ She was angry, angry with Mac for probing and with herself for caring. The stud, as vague a reality as Mac had implied, was already a figment of her past, yet another brief interlude left behind in a love nest of thorns –
‘A cattle prod for your thoughts.’
‘Not funny, Mac.’
‘I’m sorry, Rio. I mean it. What happened?’
‘I’ll . . . I’ll tell you about it some other time. I want to get going on the Durer. It’s so exciting.’
‘Riveting. I love watching damp spots dry, Rio. Its such a Zen thing!’ Mac said as he pretended to kick-start a motorbike.
‘Sarcastic bastard!’ She pouted before leaving the boardroom and making my way to the small laboratory I could hide from the world in.

Flanagan reread the part of the diary entry that related to himself and then paused for a moment over the last segment before closing the file:

...Then home, food and this. Two large bourbons as well! Mac phoned about an hour ago and I told him about Séamus. Though full of sympathy he seems happy at the outcome. A short time later there was a text message on my cell-phone from Séamus, saying ‘gdby’ – not even bothering to fully sign off on me. I forwarded the message to Mac.
Message back from Mac saying ‘fuk de bollix!’
Erased Séamus from my phone’s memory – and the smell of his armpits from mine. Texted Mac, ‘Never again!’ A full declaration of intent.
Bull, I’m already available. Always have been! Dyslexic vibrations on a ‘g’ string.
Must ring Jack...