Friday, September 23, 2011

SAECULUM (A Novel:Part 2) – Crepusculum I.

SOL OCCAXUS (Sunset) Monday, 19 September, 2011

CREPUSCULUM (Evening Twilight)
I. Friday, 23 September, 2011
VESPER (Evening Dusk)
CONCUBIUM (First Sleep – Coitus – Rest)
MATUTINUM (Dawn Goddess)
DILUCULUM (Dawn Twilight)

SOLI ORTUS (Sunrise)




The blistering, late-afternoon, September Andalusian sunlight was still oppressive enough to force many tourists, and even some of the locals, to stop their promenading on the Paseo de Los Tristes and seek out the welcome shade of the plaza umbrellas. In the midst of the bustle Michael was relieved to find an unoccupied table near the wall that separated the Rio Darro from the Paseo and before sitting down he looked around him. The parched riverbed below was a testament to the long summer and upstream bleeding by irrigation schemes and the Paseo, once an elegant avenue of elms that the Moors called al-Gharsa, was now, instead a less elegant canopy of coloured nylon fabric. From the far bank of the river the Monte de la Assabica rose majestically to the plateau where Granada’s red acropolis, the Alhambra, glowed crimson on the skyline. As he pulled out a chair and positioned it in such a way that his back would be to the mountains and he would have an unimpeded view of the turrets of Yusuf’s palace he remembered the words the Garden of the Adarves, ‘There is nothing more cruel in life than to be blind in Granada,’ and muttered them aloud while continuing to look around.
Sitting at an adjacent table to his left was a large family party, loud in their banter and laughter. The group appeared to include grandparents, parents and children and from the scattered coffee cups and empty liquor glasses they were obviously coming to the lazy but loquacious end of a prolonged midday meal. As Michael continued to watch them, he was struck by the uncannily close physical resemblance between the different generations of men and how this resemblance seemed compounded by the near-identical mouth and hand gesticulations that accompanied their manic conversation. In contrast, the women at the table were as dissimilar as the men were similar. They appeared peripheral both to the banter and to each other.
At that very moment there was the sharp metallic screech of a chair being pushed back from the table and a young woman with her back closest to where he sat suddenly stood-up. He looked at her. Agitated at first, she then quickly calmed to walk gracefully and unhurriedly towards a small child who lay crestfallen nearby. Her long legs and taut buttocks were framed by a tightly tailored white linen suit and when she bent to lift the crying child a quick flick of her red-black hair away from her shoulder revealed a finely chiselled beauty. From the edge of his field of vision he could also see that his were not the only eyes focused on the scene. He noticed that the other younger - and altogether much frumpier – woman at the family table was equally intently following the passage of the linen-clad beauty, albeit with less admiring eyes than his. The frump suddenly looked across and caught his knowing glance and just as quickly, as if somehow discovered in an act of treason, tried to hide her discomfort by reaching for a cigarette packet in front of her and turning with exaggerated attention to the stony-faced elderly matron on her right. He followed her movements and catching her eye tried giving a small wry smile, wanting to convey to her that he also understood the difficulties of trying to match up to the beautiful of this world, particularly within the suffocating boundaries of a family group.
There and then, Michael Mara had decided to dislike the linen-clad lady for no reason other than the sadness he saw in, who he surmised, was her sister-in-law’s eyes. His conspiratorial resolve was disarmed somewhat when, as the beauty returned to the table with the child perched contentedly on her hip, she stooped down effortlessly to retrieve a handkerchief that had fallen silently to the ground from his pocket. She flashed him a beautiful smile as she handed it back. Nodding foolishly he tried to avoid, unsuccessfully, a smirk from the furiously smoking frumpish woman, and stood up to pull out the linen-clad lady’s chair. Once again he was rewarded with yet another resolve-shattering smile before finally slinking back, guiltily, into his own chair. Reaching down into his knapsack he retrieved a packet of cigarettes and two guidebooks, which he placed on the table. While searching for a lighter in another pocket he could not resist drawing the prodigal handkerchief slowly past his nostrils to blot away some real but very convenient sweat droplets. “Chanel,” he whispered, scenting her perfume as he inhaled the first long drag of the newly lit cigarette. He loved this moment, as the act of smoking in a public space, at a restaurant table, was a real holiday indulgence. So far removed from the smoke-free California where he worked, he thought. Exhaling with equal relish, he carefully folded the handkerchief and packed it away, safe, deep in a knapsack pocket.
Buenos tardes, Señor,”a harsh voice interrupted.
Michael looked up and then watched as the waiter quickly wiped clean the surface of the table, dodging the guidebooks. The waiter then stood there without making any eye contact in a way that reminded him of a desert meerkat; surveying nervously with quick head movements and darting eyes the other tables of his kingdom for any potentially difficult orders or customers.
Limonada y una café con leche, por favor,” Michael ventured.
Si, Señor.” The waiter had already turned and was walking quickly away.
“Camarero!” he growled after him in a loud voice.
Reluctantly, and with slouching evasive shoulders, the waiter stopped in his tracks and glared back.
Un helado de frambuesa tambien, por favor,” Michael added.

The waiter nodded his head and scurried away to his restaurant burrow on the far side of the street returning, impressively, soon afterwards with the order. After gulping down the lemonade Mara began to spoon small lumps of the delicious ice cream onto the tip of his tongue where the raspberry taste instantly, as it always did, brought back the ripple days of childhood and mollycoddled memories. Reaching for the slightly tattered version of his two guidebooks he lifted the fraying ribbon bookmark and levered it open to find the chosen yellowed page. Near the bottom of the page was a general description of Granada and how it was situated at the base of two mountain spurs that ascended gradually from west to east. He searched for the information about the part of the city where he now sat, ‘The northernmost of these long-stretched hills is the Albaicín, from the Arabic Rabad el-bayyazin, the Quarter of the Falconers, the oldest part of Granada and once the favourite seat of the Moorish aristocr–’
His reading was interrupted by a soft voice. “Perdone, Señor. Is that chair taken?”
Startled somewhat and still thinking of falcons, Michael Mara looked up to see a tall girl, her head haloed by the sun, hovering over him with one hand on the chair opposite. She was wearing a large pair of very dark sunglasses and it was impossible to see her eyes. Michael got the impression that he was somewhat in her peripheral vision, enough perhaps to detect any reluctance on his part, as she searched for an alternative seat.
“Yes . . . Sorry, I mean no. It’s not taken,” he mumbled while standing up awkwardly and slowly so that he might gauge his own height against hers. Thankfully, he found he was a little taller and smiled when pointing to the vacant chair. “Please sit down,” he said.
She ignored his invitation as she called to the waiter, “Hola, Sancho. Café solo, por favor.”
Sancho the waiter immediately stopped taking an order from an elderly Japanese couple and they watched him scurrying across the street to the restaurant with their open-mouthed astonishment of half-delivered orders. The Japanese man recovered first and began to scan the menu card and a guidebook as if trying to determine whether this behaviour was a recognized quirkiness of this particular restaurant. His wife waited vainly for an explanation.
Gracias, Señor,” the girl said to Michael as she settled into the proffered chair and immediately raised her face towards the sun. The metal rim of the chair was sun-baked hot as she had to arch one shoulder forward and then another until the contact was comfortable. She has a nice neck, he thought, as he watched it angle upwards. As he sat down again, Sancho the waiter, nearly fell over his chair in his rush to bring the girl her coffee. He glared down at Mara before panting to a stop and placing the cup in front of her.
Muchas gracias, Sancho,” she said sweetly.
No hay de que, Isabella.”
Just my luck, Mara thought, the love struck meerkat Sancho will be hovering over them both from now on. He watched as she brought the cup to soft full lips and gingerly tested its heat. She appeared to catch his stare. Running the tip of her tongue quickly along her lightly tinted upper lip while looking directly at him she asked, “Are you English?”
Michael thought she asked this question in a peculiar, precise and officious way. It was not the accent she had used when she first came to the table and his evolving fantasy of a chance to engage with a local princess evaporated quickly. In fact the way she spoke reminded him somewhat of a painfully thin French piano teacher he had when he was ten. He smiled at the memory.
“American? Australian?” she persisted.
He was still smiling stupidly to himself as the memory of Mademoiselle Porridge – as children, they had called her that, although Fourage was her real name – floated by. “I’m sorry,” he responded, trying to excuse the hesitation. “No. I’m Irish or to be more accurate, Irish-American.”
She nodded, pursing her lips slightly, before reaching for her cup again.
“And you?” he asked.
She appeared to ignore the question as she took a long sip of her coffee and looked at him again, very directly. “You smiled earlier when I asked if you were English. Is that an Irish or . . . how did you describe yourself, an Irish-American sensitivity?” she asked.
Forgetting the expected and often amusing arguments with the minor and major uniformed bureaucracy of other countries, and the occasional early morning pool-side German, there had been very few times in Michael’s adult travels where the opening salvos of a conversation with a complete stranger in a foreign place were so obviously confrontational. For him and many other travellers, there was usually an accepted etiquette of enquiry. This would determine your nationality, your reason for travelling, and your enjoyment of the visit, your opinion of the weather and where you were off to next. The protocol was also suitably softened by a genuine apology on the tourist’s behalf for the difficulties they had with the language and a compliment to the local stranger on their command of English. This, Michael realised, was not to be one of those conversations. “No!” His reply was a little terse. The woman had been very direct and he decided to be likewise.
“Was it something else?” she persisted.
Also very perceptive, he thought. “What? Oh no! I was just thinking of a childhood. . .” He was going to tell her about the anorexic piano teacher but stopped. “No it’s . . . it’s …was nothing, just a triggered memory from my past. Made me smile. That’s all,” he said a little too defensively. “Nothing to do with national sensitivities.” This is not going very well, he thought and wondered whether he make his excuses and leave.

A permanent silence threatened the space between them but she dispelled it. “It is very hot, this afternoon. We have had a long summer,” she said matter-of-factly.
He noticed that the girl’s accent had softened again and began to take in some of her other features. Her hair was earth-brown and had an Afro quality. There was a small bead of perspiration on the skin of her neck just below the level of her right ear and it appeared to move sideways as she fanned her face with a menu card. “Yes, very. I was glad to get some shade,” he replied.
Michael relaxed, grateful that the semblance of a normal protocol was being restored. Leaving the menu card down she leaned towards him. While pushing the sunglasses upwards to rest on the crown of her head with one hand she touched with the other the battered guidebook that he’d been reading. She looked up at him and it was the first time that he’d could see her eyes. The irises had the most amazing turquoise-green opal speckled pattern and he wondered at first whether she was wearing those fashionable tinted contact lenses but could not see any evidence of this. Further below an intense blue cylinder-shaped pendant she wore attached to a simple gold chain around her neck complimented the opal flecks. He could only see the top of the pendant, where the chain passed through, as she was wearing a high necked silk blouse.
“May I?” she asked as she lifted the book.
“Of course,” he said and watched as she ensured that the red and black bookmarks were carefully in place before closing the book to look at the cover.
“Hmmm! An old Baedeker guide to Spain and Portugal! How quaint. You do not see many of these being actually used by tourists.”
He stared at her for an instant, surprised by her knowledgeable interest and how good her English really was.
“No . . . you are right, not many people use them while actually travelling. Mind you, that is a second edition, 1901. I have a first edition at home. Do you know much about Baedekers?”
She smiled, indulging him. “A little. Do you collect them?”
“Yes. I have about ten first editions, many others of course, but of later editions. Always on the look out for more.”
She nodded slightly before looking down at the book and turning the pages carefully and slowly. Without looking up she said, “I know a bookseller who might be able to help you. His name is Alonzo Aldahrze. He lives quite nearby in fact, in the street behind San Juan de los Reyes.” She continued to turn the pages slowly. “Baedekers are beautiful in their own way, are they not? Bibles of a lost age when travelling was the preserve of the idle rich and knowing what steamers and railways to take was considered essential knowledge.”
Michael laughed. “Yes and with loads of really helpful advice on why a traveller should be prepared to alter his habits somewhat but not to the extent of adopting some of the less moral habits of the natives. Poor Baedeker was obviously worried that his Northern European and English pilgrim travellers would be seduced by the charms of the South of Spain… and elsewhere.”
The corner of the girl’s mouth turned upwards slightly. “It has happened anyway . . . to our cost, I think. Concrete coastal communes and Irish pubs… sorry I do not want to hurt your sensitivities.” She laughed as she handed the book back to him.
“No offence taken. I agree with you entirely. I hate the coastal development that has been allowed.” Taking a pen and small notebook from his breast pocket he began writing. “Alonzo . . . eh . . . Allarze, you said? The name of the bookseller?”
Aldahrze.” She smiled indulgently again. “May I trouble you for a cigarette?”
“Of course. I’m sorry, I should have offered.”
“No need to apologize, I rarely smoke.”
Taking the cigarette she leant forward to cup her hands, unnecessarily, he thought, given that there was very little wind, around the flame of his lighter. The touch of her skin against his was light, cool and fleeting. “Are you from Granada? I must say that your English is excellent,” he asked.
“I am from Seville originally but my mother is from Gibraltar. I read for my master’s degree in Oxford, hence the accent.”
“In what?”
“Interesting,” he murmured.
She laughed loudly this time, a curt easy laugh. “You managed to say that without sounding bored. Yes it was and is.”
Michael blushed. “I’m sorry! I did not mean it like that, I . . .”
She touched his hand again. “You really must stop apologizing. I was only teasing you. I am a doctoral student in the University here in Granada.”
“What are you doing your thesis on?” he asked, wanting to take her hand fully in his.
“Basically I am investigating new ways of delivering drugs to specific parts of the body.”
It was his turn to smile. A slightly smug smile of satisfaction, which was badly concealed, creased his face. “Using trans-membrane proteins as the piggy-back carrier?”
She appeared to be genuinely caught off guard. “Yes! How did you know? Are you a scientist?”
He held out his hand out towards her. It was the first time he’d felt comfortable, in control. “I know your name or at least your first name. Isabella is it not? Mine is Michael Mara and I’m pleased to meet you.”
The girl accepted the handshake, her grip was firm but somewhat distracted and she continued to look at him with a puzzled expression. “How do you know about my name and my work?” she challenged.
“Oh that. Well with your name I had some help.” He pointed to the hovering Sancho; who took it as a signal to immediately approach.
She smiled knowingly as he arrived.
“Would you like another espresso, Isabella?” Michael asked with as much familiarity as he could dare, and without the scowling Sancho killing him there and then.
She nodded without looking at him. “Yes, thank you. A black coffee please.”
Otra café con leche y café solo, por favor.
Si, Señor,” the waiter snarled.
Mara watched Sancho sulking his way across to the restaurant. “I have a distinct feeling that I’ve crossed into his territory . . . his attention to you, I mean.”
“Don’t mind Sancho. He is a …pussycat. His mother is my landlady and they have sort of adopted me. Sancho considers himself to be the big brother I never had and feels he needs to protect me.”
“Or embalm you!”
“Yes, perhaps that also. He is harmless though.” She laughed lightly before looking back at him. This time it was with an inquisitor’s gaze. “You still have not answered my question Michael Mara. How did you know about my work?”
“Oh that! An educated guess really.”
“Explain. Please.”
“I’m in Granada for the pharmacology conference at the Centro de Congreso and I happened to listen in on a presentation about trans-membrane carrier proteins. It was given by Alvorro Martinez, the Professor of Pharmacology in the University here in the city. I just guessed that is what you might be working on.”
“You are right as it happens. Professor Martinez is my supervisor and most of the work he presented was mine.”
“Do I detect a tone of resentment?”
“No, not really. That is often the fate of a student’s doctoral thesis work. He is the professor and my work is only the next stage of his life-long academic commitment to developing new drug-delivery systems. We agreed that he should present, although it was a joint paper.”
Michael reached down and retrieved the conference programme from his knapsack. Flicking quickly through the pages he came to the section that detailed the session he had attended where Martinez had spoken. “Ah I see! Alvorro Martinez and Isabella Sanjil, Department of Pharmacology, University of Granada. Your surname is Sanjil?”
“Yes. And you? Were you presenting a paper at the conference?” She reached over and took the conference programme from him and began to flick through the pages.
“No. Not a research paper. I was invited to give the keynote lecture on the first day.” He leant over and pointed to his name on the programme page, a little disturbed. Normally PhD students of the host university would have been very involved in the organisation of a conference.
Isabella Sanjil appeared to anticipate these thoughts. “Forgive my rudeness and accept my apologies for not hearing your talk. I have been away for the past four months and was not really involved in the organisation of the conference. Do you know Professor Martinez well?” she asked.
Michael thought the question had a slightly concerned edge to its tone. “No. Don’t worry, Señorita Sanjil. I will not tell him about his student’s rightful but muted annoyance. The invitation to speak, in fact, was a very unexpected honour.”
“Why? Are you not also a pharmacologist?”
“No, as it happens. I am, or was at least, a molecular biologist but now, increasingly a reluctant businessman.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m a biotechnology entrepreneur developing gene products for commercial exploitation.”
“You do not sound very happy about it, Michael Mara. I thought that this was the dream of all scientists to have control and reward from their years of work. Is it not very lucrative?”
“Very . . . well, at least on paper. The industry at present is at a volatile stage. Reward comes with the ability to patent and protect your developments and neither the consumer legislation nor the ethical debate can keep pace with the rate of new gene products being developed. That is what I gave the talk about to the conference.”
“What is your company?”
Retrieving his wallet he opened it and pulled out one of his business cards. He handed it to her and she examined it carefully.
Doctor Michael Mara. Both an MD and PhD I see. Very impressive!” She looked at him with raised eyebrows as she read the card, running her fingers over the gold-embossed lettering. “President, Hoxygene Inc. San Clemente, California. May I keep this?”
“Are you in Granada for long?” she asked after a momentary pause.
“Unfortunately not. I leave tomorrow.”
Isabella continued to examine the card before looking up at him. “ How are you exploiting hoxygenes?”
He ignored the unnecessary emphasis. “Basically, as you are aware, they are site-specific short-chain DNA genes that initiate and direct cellular repair. There are about seven known, but ours, which targets cardiac muscle, is at the most advanced stage of commercial development. It will be licensed for human use by the FDA early next year.”
“Very lucrative indeed!” she smirked. She lifted one eyebrow while tilting her head slightly. “The ‘plant of immortality . . . The plant of the heartbeat’.”
Michael had heard those words before and tried hard to recall from where. Suddenly, he did remember and like a teacher’s pet began to blurt it out. “Gilga- ” Sancho had returned with the two coffees causing Isabella to look at her watch and interrupt.
“My apologies, Michael. I must go. I misjudged how much time I'had. I am sorry about the coffee. I start work in ten minutes.”
“Work! On a Saturday evening? Very dedicated,” he said smoothly.
Isabella Sanjil smiled. “No. Not the lab. I work part-time in the old Moorish Baths, down the street, as a masseuse to earn some extra money.”
“Wow…” he stuttered, completely caught for words. He tried to recover. “Now that’s an amazing coincidence Isabella. I’ve been cooped up so much in airplanes and meetings that I was thinking of having a relieving massage. What do you suggest?” he blurted, hamming the last question out like a bad afternoon-soap actor.
Isabella laughed out loud as she stood up. “Dr Michael Mara M.D., Ph.D. it was a pleasure to meet you but that was the most pathetic cameo of locker-room humour I have ever heard. Perhaps reflective of a repressed American or Irish-American if you wish hang-up of what a therapeutic massage actually offers. If you are genuinely interested, however why not call to the bathhouse and make an appointment. I am working until nine and there might be a vacant time-slot.” She hesitated for a moment as she placed his card in her bag. “I am usually booked out though.”
He also stood up and held out his hand. She shook it firmly and released it quickly. “I’m not surprised,” Michael replied weakly and almost immediately regretted.
Isabella Sanjil was already walking away, waving to Sancho as she left. She stopped for a moment and looked back over her shoulder towards him. “Mention that you are a friend of mine to the receptionist and she will try and fit you in. You were right by the way. The quote was from the epic of Gilgamesh. Adios.”
He watched her go, for a long time, hoping she might turn around again.
Si, Señor,” a voice demanded.
Michael focused. It was ‘big brother’ Sancho. “Oh . . . La cuenta, por favour,” he stuttered.
Si, Señor,” Sancho said grumpily.
Gracias,” he replied, equally grumpily.
Sancho began to walk away but then stopped and turned. “La señorita, tambien?” he asked.
“What?” Michael questioned but then realised Sancho, despite his apparent ardour, was still going to stick the cost of Isabella’s first coffee on his bill. What the hell, he thought. “Oh… si. . . Yes, yes of course! Gracias.

It was the first time that Sancho the waiter had smiled at him.

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