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
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
13 The Cave of Montesinos
16 The Perfect Square
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being
Becalming Unscientific Postscript
“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.”
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:
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.
‘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...