Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rihla (Journey 22): Ronda, Spain: Paradors and Paradoxes; Exhumation and Consolation

Daybreak over Ronda


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about Ronda, Andalucía, Spain.

Around the time that Ibn Jazayy was recording Battuta’s travels in Fez, where the ruling Marinid dynasty had withdrawn for good from mainland Spain after a decisive defeat by Alphoso XI of Castile at the mouth of the river Salado in 1340, Ronda had become part of the Nasrid Amirate of Granada and was described by a near contemporary of Ibn Jazayy, Abu al-Fida (d.1331) in his Geography, as an ‘elegant and lofty city in which the clouds serve as a turban.’ It was to remain so until the 22 May 1485 when Ronda surrendered to the army of Ferdinand and Isabel, seven years before the fall of Granada and the eradication of the final part of Moorish Spain that had been in existence since Tariq and Musa ibn Nasyr had brought their Berber armies across the Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) Straits in 711 CE.

I usually take my annual holidays in March and travel but this year was different and had made no plans. My father has been seriously ill since the middle of February but with his indomitable will, his condition stabilised enough to encourage me to take a few days break and thus the decision for my wife and I to board a flight to Malaga, hire a car and head for Ronda.

For many reasons!

Driving northwards on Route 346 through the Sierra Palmitera, and the Serrania de Ronda, the overwhelming sensation on that serpentine road from the coast was of a sense of a pilgrimage being made rather than a journey of exploration. In August of 2010 I’d bought a book of short-stories for my father by Ernest Hemingway called Men Without Women (see blog entry for August 9, 2010), to replace a copy he had lost many years previously. The first short story in the 1928 book is entitled ‘Undefeated’ and recounts the exploits of an aged, once-great bullfighter ‘Manuel Garcia’ discharging himself from hospital to fight one more fight, to achieve one more victory at whatever cost.

And I had willed him on…Manuel and my father. I needed to see the bullring.


Bullring in Ronda
(Bullsh***er in the middle)

Hemingway’s love affair with Ronda had begun in 1923. The city of Pablo García Baena’s ‘sleepless lime’ is the home of modern bullfighting where the bull is primarily fought on foot with the estoque and muleta, rather than on horseback, a development introduced by Francisco Romero in 1754 and fully elaborated on in later years by his grandson Pedro Romero Martinez.

In Death in the Afternoon, published in1932 Hemingway wrote,

‘There is one town that would be better than Aranjuez to see your first bullfight in if you are only going to see one and that is Ronda.’

In the 1950s Hemmingway spent a great deal of time in the company of and at the estate of the other famous Rondian bullfighting dynasty the Ordónez family.

Being mid-March the town was quiet when we arrived and I drove with ease to the Plaza de Espana and into the entrance of the Parador de Ronda Hotel. I booked in for two nights at very reasonable rates and was shown to a rooftop balcony room that directly overlooked the Puente Nuevo bridge and the El Tajo gorge. It continued to rain, and rain, and the heavy ‘turbaned’ sky appeared to meet the rising mist from the torrent cascading over the waterfall at the base of the bridge.

A confluence of tears, I thought!

Lightening strikes lit up Mt. Hidalgo (the Romans called the town Arunda – ‘surrounded by mountains’) in the distance and the rolling thunder coming from the direction of the Puerto de Viento (Gate of the Wind) to the east merged with the Rio Guadalvin’s roar from below.

Like crying almost! Ronda is both beautiful and ugly and a microcosm of the paradox that Spain is…and has been.

As I stood on the balcony, soaking wet, and watched the streetlights come on and illuminate the bridge I felt a great deal of sadness. The Parador de Ronda is the former town hall or ayuntamiento of the Mercadillo ‘New Town’ part of Ronda. Ronda was a Republican town at the start of the Spanish Civil War; a city of disenfranchised peasants, an illiterate peasantry that was created by the abandonment of Moorish agriculture in favour of sheep rearing by the land-grabbing ‘hidalgos’ of Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquistra army in 1492.

In the first month of the war in July 1936, 512 or so perceived Nationalist sympathizers, the new hidalgos of church and state, were rounded up in Ronda, jailed in the former town hall that I now looked down from, given a summary trial and marched ( called paseos) through lines of baiting and spitting onlookers – a preamble similar to the tercio de varas and tercio de bandilleras of the bullring nearby – the short distance to the Puerto Nueva bridge to be thrown over into the gorge below, the tercio de muerte. When the Nationalist forces subsequently took Ronda approximately 1100 to 1600 Republicans were executed in revenge and buried in a mass grave in the San Lorenzo cemetery to the north of the town.


Puente Nuevo Bridge in Ronda

I thought of the fatalities in the current civil-war ‘peasant’ or disenfranchised revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya and then of the extraordinary estimated figure of 250,000 deaths from execution, starvation and suicide in prison attributed to Franco’s Nationalists and the 50, 000 (including about 20% of Spain’s priests and nuns) attributed to the Republican side during and following the Spanish Civil war.

From 1937 the last word on death sentences handed down by regional ‘trial’ was with Franco, not as a head-of-state but as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It was reported that “The Caudillo” used to read through sheaves the sentences of death often when taking his coffee after a meal. He would write an ‘E’ after those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence. For those whom he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garrote y prensa’, a particularly savage and medieval form of execution and that the execution by garroting was to be announced in the press. He would tell his brother-in-law Ramon Serrano Surer that the decision-making was just ‘routine stuff.’

Spain has a history of their generals determining atrocity to be ‘routine stuff’ with Pizzaro’s ’management’ of the Inca of Peru and Cortes of the Aztec in Mexico but the person before Franco most associated with a governmental passion to kill was Tomas de Torquemada, one of five inquisitors appointed by Pope Sixtus IV on the 11 February 1482, three years before the fall of Ronda, but like Franco, Torquemada managed to become the Grand Inquisitor in a short space of time with the right to appoint all other inquisitors. For Republicans, or Incas, or Aztec read Jewish conversos, humanists, Lutherans, illuminati, and witches. This is the paradox of death that even now Spain, and Ronda is only getting to grips with.

These thoughts and more stayed with me as I took a walk around the old walls of Ronda. Starting with a descent and worthwhile visit to the Arab baths beside the oldest of the three bridges (Roman) that cross the gorge I continued round the outside until at one point came back through a gap in the walls into the old city near the Church of the Holy Ghost. Leaving again through the Almocabar ( al-maqabir or cemetery gate) gate seemed appropriate as the final part of the walk took me around the remainder of the walls to a view of the gorge and the Puente Nuevo Bridge from its base. Here the 512 Nationalists were rendered by their descent and must have been buried somewhere downstream. To the north of the city the exhumation of the San Lorenzo Republican graves has just begun.

On a lighter note the last visit I made in Ronda was to the Lara Museum. In the basement is a permanent exhibition dedicated to witchcraft. One of the exhibits present is a wooden chair with a small pulley wheel at the front. At the rear is a padded seat and through the centre of seat arises and falls on turning the wheel a 9inch dildo. The machine is called a maquina cosoladora or consolation machine and thanks to Irish missionary ( excuse the pun!) 6th century penitential handbooks, its association with sexual gratification of a women could only mean witchcraft, and the attention of the Inquisition.


Consolation in Ronda



I thought of my father again and Hemingway’s Men Without Women.
Here in the Lara Museum, Ronda was another story concerning Women Without Men.

Consolation indeed!

Hemingway and Ronda:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/20/AR2009032001650.html?sid=ST2009032602132

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Windsong – Breath of Being (Chapter 8 – The Three-Cornered Light)




CHAPTER DATE

Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011

Mistral

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
Friday March 4, 2011
7 A Love Supreme
Thursday March 10, 2011
8 The Three Cornered Light
Thursday March 24, 2011
9 Serendipity
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
12 Angels
13 The Cave of Montesinos

Meltimi

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

Sirocco

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 8

The Three-Cornered Light

“Now, you cannot ask a man to meet a ghost,
because ghosts are not to be counted on.”

Oliver St. John Gogarty
Sackville Street


Flanagan changes the disc on the CD player. Coltrane is discarded – leaving before the applause, he imagines – and he puts on Joe Cocker instead. He plays it loud but still hears Felicity Fellows leave through her creaking door. Good grace to pretend she that is actually going somewhere, he thinks, wondering if there might be a chance after all with her. He then silently curses Jack Dawson for his earlier intrusion and drinks three single malts quickly to fuel his annoyance. By the third of these his stomach burns and he makes himself a supper of yoghurt and anti-acids and waits for the pain to go.
The computer is still on, and in the distance he sees its pulsing light. With a lit cigarette and a fourth whiskey in hand he goes towards it. Jack will question me – interrogate me – and I need to be ready, he thinks, reaching the table.

Rio’s diary boots:

Arm-pit Diary,
January 15:

Walt, I’m writing this in Belfast’s Jury’s Inn. It’s quite outside. Deadly quiet – an Irish expression, as if true quietness is a condition only of the dead. Came up to my room after dinner and not bothering to go down again. Undressed, I sit in bed, laptop on my lap. It’s warm like a hot water bottle. Read recently about somebody’s penis being scorched by a computer. ‘A lap-dancing injury and will probably get condensation for it,’ Mac quipped.

Back to me. Met the famous – infamous – Jerome Augustine Flanagan yesterday, at a pub on Stephen Street. The Hairy Lemon . . . What a name! I sat in the panelled snug by the window waiting for him. Across the road is a bigger bar called Break for the Border, and I was just thinking of doing the same when he finally arrived, almost an hour late, introduced himself with the briefest of apologies, ‘Sorry. I’d a doctor’s appointment,’ he explained. ‘Took longer than expected.’ Nothing trivial I hope, I wanted to say in half-jest, annoyed by the waiting around, but decided against it. He asked me to move to the far, less visible, end of the pub.

I obliged . . . too easily. And Flanagan knew it. He smiled at me before heading for the counter. I watched as he waited and paid for our coffees. He, I noted then with a slight feeling of disappointment, was not very tall but, on the credit side, had a welterweight boxer’s build and to compliment this a slight shuffling gait, like a fighter’s movement in the ring. I guess he is about 45 or so, however, with only the slightest hint of grey flecking in his abundant sandy hair, it is hard to be sure. He was wearing a cream, well-creased, linen suit with a blue, linen shirt underneath. And sneakers! Ugh! Paul McCartney stuff!

Some men Walt, Jack and Grandpa Dawson included, might age but they don’t get old – unless they have to identify dead daughters or acknowledge their mistakes. ‘It’s in their eyes,’ Nan Greta once declared in words of cautious admiration. ‘Men age first in their eyes and some never lose the sparkle; never get old.’ Even at a distance I could see that Flanagan had dangerous eyes. They were scanning the perimeter of the room as he walked, momentarily locking onto someone or something that caught his interest. I watched as his focus turned to a blonde woman sitting at a nearby table and who had been, quite obviously, making the same appraisal of him as I was...


As Flanagan neared the table Rio Dawson moved sideways to make room for him on the double seat. He deliberately ignored the invitation and instead, leaving the coffee cups down, half-turned away from her to ask the blonde woman if he could take one of the unoccupied chairs at her table.
‘Sure, as long as you bring it back to me though,’ the woman purred.
‘Bitch,’ Rio hissed while sipping the froth of her coffee.
Flanagan smiled as he pulled over the chair and sat down with his back to the window and the street. ‘What did you say?’ His voice was soft and teasing.
‘Oh . . . rich. The coffee is rich, just the way I like it,’ she blurted.
‘I thought you might. The coffee is excellent here,’ he agreed looking around the room. ‘Atmosphere is everything. Don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ she said, as if annoyed with herself for caring either way.

It was already mid-afternoon and most of the city was already back at work. Apart from the blonde woman, who persisted in lazily fluttering her availability in Flanagan’s direction at every possible opportunity, they had the pub to themselves. Rio reached down and retrieved her artist’s portfolio case and rested it on her lap, inviting Flanagan to move their coffee cups to one end before she opened it and carefully placed it on the table. Inside, protected by transparent plastic envelopes, were the pictures that Mac had taken of the parchment earlier that morning, and which he had subsequently developed. Rio had worked continuously on the document over the weekend and as she had predicted, the best results were obtained after a tannin soak in a weak solution of oak gall. Three of Mac’s photographs managed to detail a beautiful and finely defined script. More than pleased with the end results, she couldn’t hide a smile of satisfaction as she rotated the portfolio to orientate the photographs in Flanagan’s direction. She was less pleased as he ignored the photographs and continued to stare at her. He kept staring in silence until frustration – annoyance – got the better of her. Enough of this, I’m not that desperate, she thought, deciding not to indulge him in the game. ‘What do you think?’ she demanded, nodding towards the portfolio.
‘First tell me about you, Dr. Dawson.’ Flanagan continued to stare. Not blinking.
‘Rio. My name is Rio.’
‘Tell me about you, Rio.’
‘Why? What has it got to do with the photographs?’ she demanded, losing the staring game.
‘Nothing. I just like what I see in your eyes and I would like to know more. It’s not a condition to my being here. Just a bonus.’ Flanagan’s mouth creased into a slight smile as he finally broke off his stare and looked down at the portfolio. He slowly began to draw out one of the photographs from its plastic envelope. ‘I’m more than happy to look at these for you and give you any help I can.’
‘You’re serious aren’t you?’ she asked.
‘About wanting to more about you? Yes!’ he said without looking up.
‘I could lie.’
‘You might skirt certain issues but you won’t lie.’
‘How do you know? My eyes?’ she mocked.
‘They are beautiful . . . but no, Mac told me!’ Flanagan laughed with a gentle teasing laugh.
‘The traitor!’ she rasped before launching into what Jack Dawson called her well-rehearsed “talking to strangers” resume, when she could be anybody she wanted to be, and often was. She decided to accentuate her academic self rather than personal.

‘I think you skimmed over pages five, ten, eleven and 27,’ Flanagan mumbled as she finished, his eyes drifting away.
‘What do you mean?’ She reddened at being so quickly found out.
‘Despite all the information you have just given me, I now know even less about you. It’s like camouflage. The colouring has hidden the detail.’ His eyes locked onto hers’ again, and he waited.
‘For example?’ she snapped back.
‘Well, let me see. I know what you liked about hiking in the jungles of Borneo but have no idea about what you liked about the person you went with.’
‘That’s personal,’ she said defensively.
‘Damn right it is. . . and a much better basis for interaction, if you don’t mind me saying,’ he said in a distracted away as he began to carefully inspect the photograph he had chosen.
‘You have a lousy chat-up technique, Flanagan,’ she said suddenly.
He looks up. ‘Is that what I’m here for?’
‘No!’
‘Good. Because I’m terrible at it.’
Rio looked at him for a long time, a mixture of irritation and apprehension welling up inside. ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a pushover,’ she finally said, instantly regretting she had said it at all.
‘I wouldn’t dare.’ He smiled briefly before returning to his examination of the photograph.
‘I’m ex-FBI, you know?’
‘I know. Mac told me.’
‘Good, because if I reveal any of my real self to you, my real secrets, then you know I’ll have to kill you,’ she said trying to lighten the atmosphere.
‘Some things are worth dying for, Rio,’ he replied.
In an eerily sincere way, she thought. ‘Tres gallant, mon cher.’ She blushed.
‘Mon plaisir, mademoiselle.’
‘What about you, Dr. Flanagan?’
‘Jerome, please or Jaffa, if you’d prefer. My close friends call me that.’
‘What’s your story, Jerome? Mac only gave me the briefest of hints about your somewhat mysterious life,’ she said sarcastically.
He hesitated for a moment before once again, this time slowly, raising his eyes towards her. ‘I’m single, reasonably solvent and available –’
‘That’s a cheap shot. Whatever Mac might have said, I’m not that desperate,’ she flared, leaning forward to snatch the photograph from his grasp. But why was he being so aggressive, she wondered. ‘What’s with the heavy come on? Are you always so forward . . . so tactless?’ she asked.
‘You’re right, Rio. I’m sorry. At this moment in time I feel in such a hurry about things and don’t want to create misunderstandings or play games,’ he replied with sincerity in his voice.
‘Why? Do you not like games?’ she asked.
Flanagan hesitated again, as he looked away over her shoulder towards the window. ‘Games are all I know, Rio. It is reality that I don’t deal with very well.’ He pulled the photograph away from her reach. ‘For your information, Mac said very little about you. He seems quite protective, almost as if warning me not to mess with you. What I meant to say is that I would like to tell you my story. I cannot think of anyone else in my present that I could say that to. It’s a lonely admission.’
‘It’s also a very quick appraisal of my willingness.’
‘I tend to do that, I’m afraid.’
‘I see,’ she mumbled, somewhat appeased.

Jerome Augustus Flanagan, I soon realised Walt, was an enigma – no more than me I suppose – and I was finding making a judgement about him difficult. The blonde woman had finally surrendered the floor but as she left, raised an eyebrow. I couldn’t help returning a slightly smug smile.


Flanagan didn’t, or didn’t appear to, notice the woman leaving. ‘This is a very interesting letter, Rio. Is it still permitted to call you by your first name, now that were enemies,’ he asked, in a very considered fashion.
‘Adversary is sometimes more interesting, Jerome. There is less bullshit.’
‘And often more enjoyable with the cessation of hostilities,' he agreed. 'We should get on well with each other Rio, as we seem to be equally curious about one another.’
‘That’s a nice way of putting it,’ she observed with a smile.
‘Its an old Bedouin saying, probably originating from the observation of how a new camel would fit in with an established desert caravan and where to place him in that caravan.’
His returned warm smile disarmed her further and she held out her hand for him to take. It was a firm handshake and he let it continue for just the right length of time. ‘Do you like the desert, Jerome?’ she asked.
‘Yes. I think Rosita Forbes once put it the best.’
‘Rosita Forbes?’
‘An adventurous traveller and writer of the 1920s.’
‘I know who she is?’
Flanagan looked at her intently as if suddenly impressed. ‘Do you? How? I mean not many people do,’ he questioned.
‘Typical man,’ she replied. ‘Putting indulgent, or even masturbatory, layers between you and the outside world, layers waiting to be peeled back so that you are finally impressed. Are you?’
‘Have you read much of her work?’ he probed.
‘A little.’
‘How did . . .’
‘I’ll put you out of your misery, Jerome. Jack has his summer-house near where Rosita Forbes lived at Unicorn Cay in Eleuthera. He has books of hers in his library.’
‘Jack? Eleuthera?’
‘Did I not mention him in my resume?’ Rio couldn’t remember what version of her life she had given.
‘No. You did’nt,’ he said emphatically.
‘Jack Dawson is my uncle, and my guardian angel. I often go to stay there… on Eleuthera. In the ’30s it was the hang-out of a group of very independent women writers.’
‘Yes. I remember now. Interesting,’ he said, nodding his head.
‘What was it you were about to say about her?’ she asked.
‘Forbes once wrote that when you were two or three days into the desert all smells and perfumes of your previous existence disappear and all you can smell is the aroma of the sand, unadulterated by flower or wind.’
‘And the occasional camel!’
‘Perhaps,’ he said, frowning at her flippancy.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I did not mean to break the spell.’
‘I think I’d be waiting a long time for a spell of mine to work on you Rio Dawson. I get carried away sometimes. In truth the smell of the desert is the aroma of solitude. I go there to get away.’
‘From what?’
‘Myself mainly! Do you ever get that lonely that you have to seek out a greater desolation.’
She hesitated. ‘Sometimes, but for me it’s the high-mountains and powder-snow of the mornings.’
‘Mornings are important in solitude,’ he said.
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘It’s the light, the peculiar light of a new day. The Bedouin call it the three-cornered light, referring as it does to the light of the sunrise coming through the slit in their tents. It’s a cold light, equally as cold as that on high mountains; illuminating but not yet warming; a light for your soul not your body. Somehow it gives a definition to the solitude.’
Rio sat and watched him for a moment, uneasy and easy at the same time. ‘It’s a very romantic description,’ she laughed.
‘I used to know a poem about it. Not all that romantic.’
‘Recite it for me. Please,’ she encouraged.
‘No. Not now!’ And his eyes drifted off again, somewhere else.
‘In that case Jerome, if you could come out of your tent, or wherever you’ve suddenly disappeared to, perhaps you might get on with explaining about the letter. Are you able to read the Arabic?’ she demanded.
Flanagan smiled, a thin smile, and returned to the business in hand. ‘It’s not Arabic as it happens, Rio, but Persian and in a very fine nasta’liq script at that. The writer is, was a calligrapher of some considerable merit,’ he remarked, looking closely at the page. He continued to inspect it for some time.
‘Well?’ she asked, impatiently.
‘After Mac’s call I was so looking forward to seeing this.’ Jerome waved the photograph in the air. ‘Now that I have, I’m both relieved and disappointed in a way.’
‘Why?’
‘Oh! It’s just when Mac told me that you had found a document possibly written by one Karabatakzade Aga, I was half expecting the document to be something else.’ Flanagan paused for a second to gather his thoughts.
‘What do you mean, something else?’ she asked, a little puzzled.
‘Oh, sorry . . . what I meant to say, Rio, is that I expected the document to be written in Ottoman Turkish. In a way I’m relieved it’s in Farsi or Classic Persian, as my Turkish is not that good, yet also am a little bit disappointed because it is a personal letter.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I was hoping it might be a court or state document, given the quality of the script. Do you want me to translate it for you?’
‘Oh yes. Please do,’ she said excitedly.
‘It begins, “To my dearest father...”.’ Flanagan kept his voice low as his finger scanned the words from right to left:

‘ “I am so sorry that I have not written to you for such a long time because so much has happened and I need to explain the events that have overtaken me. A year or so ago I fell in love with a beautiful woman called Roxanna. My love for her has been both my salvation and the cause of my destruction. In her I have become the Perfect Man, and together we have produced a son, Kasim, who has the stars and the moon on his head, and your eyes.

In the midst of all this happiness sadness has now descended. When I first met Roxanna, she was dancing for my entertainment, in the house of her mistress the Sultana Sporcha, the brothel-owning former wife of Sultan Mehmed Han’s late father Ibrahaim Han. Despite the devil-woman’s threats Roxanna refused to be a harlot and a more virtuous person you would never encounter. I was made aware, when we first met, that her grace and beauty had been denied to the Royal harem by the Sultana Sporcha, who had refused Sultan Mehmed Han’s demand on the grounds that Roxanna was a virgin and a freewoman. Yet, the same devil-woman dismissed my own offer of marriage saying that Roxanna was in fact a slave of her house and therefore not free to marry. Both lies were used to ensure that Roxanna would remain in her house of entertainment to lighten the gold-bearing pockets of her guests.

In the end my heart would not stand us being apart and so Roxanna and I eloped. We managed to remain hidden but recently, in the midst of the joy of winning the archery competition on the Ok Meydani, I relaxed my guard and was followed to our secret place by spies in the employ of the devil-woman. Because of her lies to the Sultan about Roxanna she feared being caught in the web of her own deceit and having finally discovered our whereabouts reported me to the Sultan saying that I deserve death for my defilement of His rightful property.

So it is to be, my dearest father. In the presence of Fazil Pasha, my patron since the death of Abazade Effendi, I have received the order for my death and for Roxanna and Kasim to be taken into the imperial harem in Odout Pasha. I don’t welcome this death but it is to be. Fazil Pasha has allowed me the time and freedom to write this letter and to settle my affairs. My faithful friend Abdul, will deliver this letter and also a letter for my son that I wish you to guard. Give it to him when he is old enough to understand.

I have given Abdul freedom from his bondage but take him into your heart and house and he will explain more than I can write here in the short time left to –” ’

At that point Flanagan abruptly stopped reading and looked at Rio with a slightly puzzled look on his face.
‘Is it finished?’ she asked. ‘Why did you stop?’
‘I was just wondering. Phyllis would probably have been able to read this. Her Persian is quite good. Why didn’t you ask her?’ he asked.
‘Firstly I did not know it was Persian but on the off chance she might have been able to help I’ve left a copy for her to read, but she is away until tomorrow. Anyway, as you already pointed out, I did want to meet you, intrigued as I was by what Mac had told me and . . .’ she paused.
‘And what?’ he asked.
‘. . . the rumours about you that still linger in the dark passages of the museum.’
‘I see. Are you always so conniving?’
‘Sometimes.’ She blushed.
‘Are you intrigued?’
‘Too early to say, I’d say. Curious is strong enough for now.’
‘I’ll take what I can get,’ he said, flatly.
'Is the letter finished, Jerome?’ she asked.
Flanagan seemed very hesitant about continuing. ‘Not quite,’ he eventually answered before returning to his reading. ‘But the next five or six lines are in a very old, a different script that I cannot decipher. It changes back again towards the end:

‘ “I have taken care to hide it in the meadow of my sweetest victory and there you will find its flowering. Count out the hidden numbers of our messenger spirit, and pace those numbers starting in a line from the Puta-Tobra idol to the. . .” ’

He looked up. ‘It stops at that point, but there would have been a second page.’ Flanagan said sounding annoyed.
‘How lovely. How sad?’ Rio ignored his annoyance and thought of the doomed lovers. ‘When was it written?’ she enquired.
‘1080 years after the Hejira, 1669 in our calendar.’
‘Do you think it is by Karabatakzade Aga?’
‘Almost certainly! Karabatakzade Iskender Aga Sidanli, to give him his full title, was a student of Abazade Effendi and his family were originally scribes to the Persian Shah, hence the unusual letter in Persian. It would have been his father’s first language and the natural medium of any communication between them.’
‘What do you think he is referring to when he said he hid something in the "meadow of his sweetest victory"?’ Rio took out her small notebook and began to write some notes.
Suddenly Flanagan leant across and held her hand. He said nothing for a moment but when he did, his voice was sharp and direct. ‘Where’s the mus’ir, Rio?’
‘The what?’ She was puzzled by his stridency. ‘What in God’s sake are you talking about?’ she said pulling her hand from his grip.
He held up the photograph he had been examining and turned it to face her, pointing to the bottom left hand corner. ‘You know very well what I’m talking about Rio. The mus’ir, the pointer or catchword, or if you prefer, the rakib or watchman, is missing. This is an unfinished letter by master calligrapher and by force of habit there would probably have been a mus’ir in the bottom left hand corner to be repeated as the first word on the next page. The photograph is unclear but there looks like a defect in that area.’ He tapped at the surface before angrily questioning her, ‘Did you remove it?’
‘Eh!’ She felt her face going red.
‘Did you Rio?’ His tone was less strident but reminded her of how her grandfather would confront her whenever he suspected her of sneaking tadpoles or wounded animals into the house.
‘Yes,’ she replied quietly.
‘For your ink and paper analysis I suspect.’ He probed and she nodded. ‘Is there a photograph of the original with the mus’ir in place?’ he demanded pulling the portfolio closer to him.
Rio watched as he pulled the other photographs from their envelopes and started examining them carefully. ‘No,’ she said truthfully. ‘The corner where the catchword was written had been bent back on itself like a dog-ear. The piece of parchment came away almost spontaneously as I straightened it out so that is the piece I sent for analysis. I had done this before Mac did the pre-tannin soak photographs. It was the most distinct sample of the original ink, probably preserved from fading by the fold back.’
‘Did you copy the word?’
‘Of course!’
‘Where is it? In your office.’
‘Why all the questions?’ she asked.
There was a sudden edginess to his voice, as if he was afraid of something. ‘Where is it, Rio?’
‘In my apartment, stuffed into a book I’m reading at the moment.’
‘And the original parchment?’
‘In the small safe at the lab. I’m planning to remount and frame the parchment on Saturday.’
‘Why not tomorrow?’
‘I’m leaving on the early train for a conference in Belfast. I’m there until late on Friday.’
‘That’ll be ok, I suppose. You’ll need to make the mus’ir copy more secure though. You must hide its whereabouts.’ Flanagan leant back in the chair and pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket. He proffered the packet to her. ‘Syrian. They’re quite mild.’
‘No thanks,’ she declined.
He got up from the table and walked a little unsteadily to the front door and out onto the street. She watched through the window as Flanagan smoked. At one point he pulled out his mobile phone, looked as if he wanted to make a call but then decided against it. Perhaps checking his texts, Rio thought as he rejoined her. ‘Why all the questions about the parchment, Jerome? You sound worried about something.’
‘I am, Rio. I was wrong about the value of this document. You don’t realise what you have here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If I’m right, the parchment, and what it implies, could be dynamite.’ He held up one of the photographs and waved it in front of her. ‘It also places you in very great danger. Who else has seen these?’
‘Mac of course! No one else. There is the copy I left for Phyllis of course. What danger Jerome?’
‘Are you seeing anybody at the moment?’ he asked.
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ she asked, annoyed.
‘Are you?’
‘Yes . . .’ She protested defensively before continuing in a softer tone, ‘Well no, not any more as it happens.’
‘Right. I want you to ring Mac and get him to come to your apartment tonight. Does he know where it is?’
‘Yes, of course he does!’
Flanagan’s mouth curled into a half-smile.
‘For your information Jerome, Mac is just a good friend. But why all this urgent concern? What danger are you talking about?’
‘Good. Tell him to bring all the negatives and any other prints he has.’ Flanagan ignored her question to look at his watch before continuing, ‘Listen its nearly 4.30pm. Ring him now and I will see you later. There is something I need to do first.’
She watched as he got up. ‘You don’t know where I live, Jerome?’
‘That’s not a problem. Leave here at precisely 5.00 and head for your apartment. I’ll be following you.’
‘What’s all this precaution for Jerome? Tell me now or I won’t be going anywhere!’ she demanded to his disappearing back.
‘Please trust me, Rio,’ he turned and mouthed from the doorway.

Before I had a chance to press him any further Walt, Jerome Flanagan was gone and with him, I realised, went one of the photographs. I picked up my cell-phone and started to dial. It was a few minutes before I got through to Mac and another ten before I had convinced him to meet me at the apartment. At exactly 5.00pm, as instructed, I left the Hairy Lemon and pausing at the door looked up and down the street for a moment. There was no sign of Jerome Flanagan. I shook my head and pulling my coat in against the biting wind began the twenty-minute walk that it would take me to reach home on Bride Street. Stopping when I reached the road junction close to the old Iveagh Baths, I looked around once more. There was still no sign of Flanagan but some of the early vagrant arrivals waiting to be admitted to the night hostel, on the opposite side of the street, eyed me suspiciously. I walked up Bride Street with an increasing sense of unease that only evaporated when I saw Mac waiting at the front door of the apartment...


‘Took your bleeding time Rio!’ Cormac McMurragh moaned.
‘I’m sorry about all this, Mac. It wasn’t my idea.’ Rio brushed past him and inserted the door key. Once inside the small hallway she disabled her alarm system and they started removing our coats.
‘Your FBI training might attract you to the shadow world that Jaffa inhabits, Rio but it does nothing for me. Where is Omar Sharif anyway?’ Mac asked, his back to the unclosed door.
‘Right here, you big gobshite!’ a voice from behind them announced.
They both turned to see him standing in the doorway. He was looking back towards the street. ‘All clear,’ he murmured before stepping in and closing the door behind him.
‘Phew! What a relief. I can now sleep easy in my bed knowing that the world is your safe mitts, Jaffa.’ Mac said, winking at Rio. ‘Will I put on some coffee?’
‘Sure, Mac. You know where everything is. Jerome and I will go on into the lounge.’ Flanagan stood somewhat awkwardly in the hallway and she wondered if he was jealous of Mac’s apparent familiarity with her house. ‘This way, Jerome. Make yourself at home.’
‘He will. Have no fear on that score, girl,’ Mac grunted before disappearing through the narrow doorway that led off the hallway into the kitchen.
‘I’ll bring this if I may.’ Flanagan said as he picked up the portfolio case from where she had left it down.
She looked back. ‘Sure. Thanks.’

Once in the room Flanagan looked around. It was L-shaped in lay-out. Along the longer axis – an old stable house in its tenement days but now incorporated into the refurbished building – the ceiling has been allowed to ascend to the pitch of the roof. Rio had fully intended the room to be minimalist: a white-walled, pine-floored, modern anonymous-future type of room. But then the floorboards had started creaking – crying out at night. With each episode she had rushed to place or hang-up something of her past, as if trying to dampen the cries. There was an old fly-fishing rod over the fireplace, some large montage photographs of Colorado and even a Navaho woven rug. There was a spiral staircase that led up to a balcony walkway, which overlooked the room. ‘Nice apartment,’ he observed. ‘What have you got up there?’ he asked pointing towards the balcony.
‘A master bedroom with an en-suite shower and toilet, a second bathroom, and a smaller guest bedroom,’ she answered moving towards the glass-topped dining table. ‘I’m sorry, Jerome, I should have asked you. Would you prefer a drink instead of coffee?’
‘Thank God,’ he said, relief in his voice. ‘For a while I thought this was going to be a dry, Puritan household. You never know with some Americans.’
‘Whiskey or bourbon? Ice, water, soda?’ She smiled, ignoring the jibe.
‘Whiskey. Unadulterated please.’
‘Sure. I’ll join you,’ she said kneeling down to open a small drinks cabinet that was situated beside a connecting door to the kitchen. She could sense his eyes watching her as her short dress concertinaed. ‘Mac. Bring in some ice as well,’ she shouted towards the kitchen. Standing up she held the bottle and tumblers in one hand as her other straightened her skirt.
‘It had a certain appeal the way it was?’ Flanagan smirked.
‘Is that also a puritan observation,’ she asked, pouring the drinks.

The door swung open and Mac came in with a tray of coffee mugs, a cafétière and napkins. Where did he find those, she wondered. He looked at her and then at the already poured glasses of whiskey. ‘All of this effort wasted, it seems,’ he whined as he placed the tray on the small table in the centre of the room. ‘Shall we get on with it?’ he demanded, sitting down with not such anonymous frustration. Rio joined him on the leather-covered settee and Flanagan took the remaining single armchair, pulling it closer to the table. He placed the portfolio at one end, accepted the whiskey glass from Rio and turned to Mac. ‘Have you got the prints and negatives with you, Mac?’ he asked while sipping the whiskey.
‘Sure. But why all this cloak-and-dagger stuff Jaffa?’
Flanagan left down his glass and unzipped the portfolio. He then retrieved the photograph from his pocket that he had taken with him from the meeting earlier and held it up for a moment, waving it, threatening with it. ‘Because of this . . . These photographs and the parchment you took them from are likely to place you both in great danger.’
‘What the fuck –’ Mac spluttered some of his heavily sweetened coffee across the table.
A bit exaggerated, Rio thought, using a napkin to mop up the drops of spray. ‘What do you mean, Jerome? What is so dangerous about an old parchment letter?’ She leant forward to take the photograph from him. Their fingers touched for an instant and he offered no resistance.
‘After I left you in the pub, I faxed this photograph to a friend of mine who could decipher the lines written in the very old script. He informed me it was an old Kufic script and the lines mention the Book of the Warnings of the Messenger Spirit, the kitab al-dhikr al-Rûh.’
‘What are you on about?’ Mac asked in a bored tone.
‘Read those lines to us Jerome.’ Rio handed him back the photograph. ‘So Mac and I know exactly what’s happening. I sort of filled him in on the rest of it over the phone.’
‘Very well,’ Jerome agreed as he looked at the photograph:

‘ “There is one other important task that I need you to undertake, my beloved father. The true Secret is with us, the muserin, my father and I must discharge my duty. The kitab al-dhikr al-Rûh, the Book of the Warnings of the Messenger Spirit, trusted into my care by Abazade Effendi, must now become your responsibility.” ’

‘What is the Book of the Messenger Spirit, Jerome?’ Rio asked as she sipped the whiskey and settled back in the chair. Mac was fidgeting beside her.
‘It’s the Holy Grail,’ he responded quietly.
‘It’s the. . .’ Mac began, but then seemed to change his mind. ‘What do you mean, Jaffa?’
Flanagan looked at both of them for a considerable time before answering. He suddenly seemed nervous and Rio was worried that he might stop. Wanting him to continue she gave him a smile of encouragement. ‘As you are aware the revelations of Mohammed were initially dispersed in early Islam by the kurrã’ or “reciters” At the death of the Prophet in June 632ce, there was not in existence a definitive book or written collection of the revelations in the form of the al-Kur’ãn or Qur’an as we know it now. The gathering and compilation of the oral renditions resulted in about four or five slightly different written versions all of which were then suppressed by the third caliph, Uthman around about 650ce, when he commissioned an official edition. For example one of these early versions for example, attributed to one of Mohammed’s secretaries Ubaiy b. Ka’b, contained two extra suras or chapters.’
‘Explain it to Rio . . . to us about the Messenger book, Jaffa.’ Mac leant forward, looking at his watch. He blushed slightly.
‘You must understand that for many devout Muslims the Qur’an is the word of God in revealed form and therefore unaltered in textual perfection since the revelations. However within the editorial compilation of the first official version some ayat or revelations were abrogated, or substituted if you like, at the intervention of Allah for something “better or similar”, a possibility allowed for within the Qur’an. In most cases both the abrogated version and the substituted verses are retained, however there is strong evidence, particularly from al-Titmithi in his Kitab al-Tafsir, one of the six major works of authentic Islamic tradition, that some verses were omitted altogether. Rumours have persisted from earliest times that a collection of traditions known as the kitãb al-dhikr al-Rûh, written down by one Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, a kurrã known as the Fifth Muslim, who as Al-Tabari reported was sworn to secrecy by Mohammed, might contain the key to understanding the mysterious letters, the al-fawatih or al-Muqatta’at, seen at the beginning of 29 of the suras. For many scholars the letters are nothing more than prompts used to help the early reciters or kurrã and then retained in the written version. But for others, scholars and mystics alike, these letters are considered to be a pathway to the hidden treasures of eternal Truth placed within the Qur’an by God–’
‘Mufti Flanagan and the Curry-Pots. Has a certain ring to it, don’t you think, for a tribute band,’ Mac interjected.
Flanagan ignored him and continued, ‘The Arabic word for the Messenger Spirit, al-Rûh, has its origins in the word for wind or breath, as does “spirit” in Latin and Greek language development. In the Qur’an however it was used primarily to define an intermediary or advocate spirit. More importantly the Rûh al-Amin, the Spirit faithful to the trust, and the Rûh al-Qudus, the Spirit of Holiness are used as epithets within the Qur’an to point out the freedom from error or blemish in the Qur’an by the former and the Divine protection afforded against all tampering by the latter. Abu Dharr himself was reported to have clashed with Uthman over his intended compilation of the Qur’an and later, shortly after Uthman’s death, there were whispers from Kufa that the kitãb al-dhikr al-Rûh had been placed in the keeping of Ali’s secretary by Jirayr b. Abdullah al-Dayali, the man who had buried Abu Dharr. Despite his master being deposed from the Caliphate in 658ce Al-Dayali was said to still have in his possession at the time of Ali’s assassination in Kufa in January 661ce.’
‘If it did exist, what happened to it?’ Rio asked.
‘It was supposed to have been seen in Baghdad in 885ce but then disappeared.’
‘What’s so dangerous about it?’ Mac was genuinely intrigued.
‘Some say that the supposed “missing” ayat from the official version, those seized upon by the Shi‘at ‘Ali party and since then by Shi‘a in general as an official Sunni attempt to obliterate the importance of Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, were to be found in it. Others have concentrated on ayat mentioning the very Christian idea of a Holy Spirit, or what St John called the Paraklitos, and how these Christian beliefs needed to be quickly expunged from an official version that extolled and encouraged the virtues of an emerging militant, and to a large extent, anti-Christian Islam.’
‘The Paraklitos?’ she questioned before she could stop herself.
‘Did you not tell him about the engraving, Rio?’ Mac slurped his coffee as he asked, his eyes probing.
‘Tell me what?’ Jerome grunted. ‘I have to say, I’m not all that keen on too many more surprises.’
‘The parchment was found hidden behind what we think is a new Durer etching.’ Rio stood up and walked to the dining table and found a photograph of the engraving. ‘The etching is engraved with the same name that you just mentioned, the Paraklitos.’ She handed the photograph it to Flanagan.
‘Very interesting,’ he dismissed – in a tone, which suggested he was not all that surprised.
‘Why,’ she asked as she sat down again being careful to hold the hem of her skirt so that it would not ride up.
Flanagan smiled as he answered her, ‘As I explained earlier there appeared to have been a definite inclusion of an intermediary spirit or advocate in earlier versions of the Qur’an, a direct incorporation of the Christian understanding of the Paraclete. This appears to have been acceptable to the early Islamic community but after 750ce or so, orthodox Islamic scholars began to teach rigidly against any concept of an intermediary between man and God and so the notion of a paraklitos had to be expunged. By way of explanation for this development the notion of paraklitos was changed, with a few linguistic assumptions to Periklitos meaning “praiseworthy”. From this slight-of-hand Islamic scholars were able to assert that the promised Paraclete mentioned in John’s Gospel was actually a transcription error and that it should have been the periklitos. This they then further asserted actually referred to the Prophet Mohammed, his name being derived from the Arabic Ahmed meaning praiseworthy. Since that time there has been enormous sensitivity about the authenticity of any early writings which might contradict this view.’
‘I still do not understand about the danger it’s meant to put us in,’ Mac persisted.
‘For over 1,000 years the Book has been rumoured to still be in existence but this . . . this letter, is the first evidence that I have ever seen to possibly confirm the fact. It is the Holy Grail, if you will forgive the contradiction, of Islamic collectors like myself but if found and its contents verified then it could possibly open up huge chasms in Islam. The fundamentalists would never want it to see the light of day.’
‘Then why bother?’ Rio asked.
‘The challenge,’ Flanagan replied in a serious tone.
‘Indy Flanagan and the Book of the Messenger! I can see the movie already. Brad Pitt perhaps?’ Mac spluttered again.
Rio could not help smiling but this resulted in Flanagan glaring at both of them.‘I wish I could be so flippant you two,’ he said sarcastically. ‘This is dangerous ground, Rio. Deadly dangerous!’
‘What are you implying?’ she asked, disturbed by his intensity.
‘There are well supported rumours that “sleepers” have been put in place around the world by one or other of the ultra-orthodox Islamic sects to keep a watch for the Book’s reappearance and to do everything to recover it if it does surface. They will want to find it first and destroy both the evidence and any person known to have seen that evidence.’
‘ “Sleepers” waiting for a book that probably no longer exists! You’re mad, Jaffa. I mean it.’ Mac laughed out loud.
‘Think back to 11 September and the Twin Trade Towers, Mac. Those al-Qa’ida pilots were “sleepers” and for a less obvious ideology than the fear of something totally undermining the foundations of their faith. All faiths have their “sleepers” to protect the orthodoxy of those faiths,’ Flanagan stressed.


At that point Walt, I stood up again to refill Jerome’s whiskey glass. I have to say that the mystery surrounding the parchment and the link to Flanagan’s book was exciting. More than that however was the danger element that he had introduced. He also had great difficulty in keeping his eyes off my legs. I was hungry and suggested ordering in a Chinese meal for us all. Mac declined as he had to be home when his ex-wife Marie dropped off their children Paul and Pip. He was not meant to have them that evening but she had some sort of emergency in her schedule...

‘Before you go, Mac, did you bring the negatives and all the other prints?’ Flanagan asked.
‘Sure but –’
‘I want you to give them to me,’ he demanded.
‘No way!’ Cormac McMurragh was adamant. ‘Tell him to piss off, Rio.’
‘Listen!’ Flanagan threw an arm around Mac’s shoulder and led him towards the living-room door. ‘My car is nearby and I’ll give you a lift home. I’ll explain on the way why this is so important.’
‘I’ll call you in the morning, Rio.’ Mac hesitated, inviting her to come towards him, to say goodbye. She appeared distracted as she began clearing the empty cups and glasses.
‘Give the kids a hug for me,’ she called after him, catching his eye and blowing him a kiss.
‘Right,’ Mac said, upset, before finally leaving.

For some reason Walt, I had not wanted to kiss Mac goodbye, not with Flanagan watching as intently as he was. I could hear them arguing in the hallway at first, but then relaxing to whisper to each other. I followed them out. They were almost half-way down the small front entrance pathway when Jerome turned and walked back to where I stood in the doorway. He smiled as he whispered to me out of Mac’s hearing. ‘Order the Chinese and it should get here about the time I get back. I’ll pick up some wine as well. Would that suit?’ All I could mutter was, ‘Oh! Yeah. Sure.’ I then pushed past him and reached Mac as he sat into the car. He looked up at me. There was hurt in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Mac, ’ I said and kissed him on the lips. ‘Be careful with him,’ Mac then said. ‘No fear,’ I replied, closing the car door on his now smiling face. Like a child, I thought. ‘Red or white,’ Jerome asked as I went past him back into the house. ‘Both . . . either,’ I replied, the invitation and the danger accepted.

I’ll finish this tomorrow, Walt. Need some sleep...

Flanagan scrolls back to the beginning and rereads this entry. He smiles at Rio’s description of him catching the other woman’s eye in the Hairy Lemon. And of his eyes! Dangerous she called them, and he knew this to be true . . . at least in the past. In the past he could make eye contact with any woman he desired – hunt with his eyes as he hunted manuscripts – giving nothing away until closing in. And the quarry would respond, seeking out his eyes with hers. He would wait for the moment of release, that brief moment of eternity when the pupils would dilate and the hunter and the quarry were as one, with a unity of purpose, reaching an immediate understanding, pursuing the inevitable.

That seldom happened any more, hard as he tried. The blonde woman in Hairy Lemon had dead eyes, permanently dilated, seeking not release but obliteration. Whereas in the living, their eyes would find him, pity him – dismiss him.

It was as if his eyes told them he is already dead . . .