“ACTUALLY, JULIA,” said Lewis after the first sip of his third cappuccino, “your glorious Seville preserves an astounding range of Roman archaeological treasures. Surely you’ve visited the ruins of Itálica, the birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian, built under the generalship of Scipio?”
The waitress looked down at Lewis in quiet shame. “No. I never been.”
Lewis put down his cup. “Well, to be fair my journeys to Seville have only taken place in my novels. In The Wrath of Scipio Africanus, for example, I staged a very interesting scene with Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisco — their discussion on the placement of elephants in relation to the central phalanx — in Ilipa.”
“I know this place, Ilipa!” she said with a beaming smile. “It’s in the Alcázar!”
Lewis smiled patiently. Julia was twenty-two or twenty-three, a pretty girl although getting fat, with chocolate brown hair tied in a high ponytail. Her feisty Mediterranean femininity rebelled, Lewis thought, against the boxy unisex uniform the waitstaff were forced to wear in Le Jardin d’Eden d’Édimbourg– a crisp white shirt buttoned at the neck, black waistcoat, black slacks, glossy black shoes.
“Actually the Alcázar dates from the Moorish occupation of Iberia,” Lewis continued. “Certainly my interests extend to medieval Spain, and I once read a lot on that subject in preparation for a novel of the Reconquista, although I never ultimately fictionalised that period of history. As the years pass I realise how much Ancient Rome still offers the novelist. But perhaps Andalucía will be one of my next travel destinations.”
“You must fly with BudgetAir to Malaga,” Julia said. “They have Monday deals. And I can recommend a very good place for pastries in my city. I see you like pastries very much. If I may be honest, Dr. Lewis, these things are much better in my country. This is not a country that eats real food.”
He agreed with Julia’s opinion. Scottish food was even worse than the Polish food to which he’d become grudgingly accustomed living all those years in Krakow. It was no improvement to move from greasy zapiekanka and tooth-decaying ptasie mleczko to chips and Yorkie Bars. Nor did he pine for the Chiko Rolls and Jaffas of his long ago Australian youth. He hungered for the food of a warmer Europe, for Greek grilled octopus, Valencian paella de marisco and Tuscan panzanella salad; for zabaglione from the Piedmont, Turkish baklava, and the varied sweets of the French pâtissier. For that reason it was fortunately he’d discovered Le Jardin d’Eden shortly after his arrival in Edinburgh. Its menu had become the foundation of his daily diet. Once he’d dispatched a breakfast of croque madame (with an additional fried egg) or a savoury crêpe, he accompanied his four hour’s work at the table with a succession of croissants washed down with hot black coffee.
This ideal daily workspace occupied the interior courtyard of the Rob Roy Hotel on St. Andrews Square. Jasmine, gardenias, and ground coffee beans perfumed the air. If the sun did not always stream through the pebbled glass ceiling onto the marble floors — in Scotland the sun rarely streamed — the burnished brass chandeliers cast a bright and even light. While a scrotum-shrinking wind off the Firth of Forth screamed down George Street, scattering rubbish and making balloons of peoples’ jackets, Le Jardin d’Eden remained a zone of temperate stillness. Best of all, few people came in for the breakfast session. Lewis barely noticed the other diners, most of them guests at the hotel, typically white-haired Americans with their own packets of artificial sweetener. His regular table was the most discrete available. It was located between potted geraniums and opposite a large reproduction of the famous Gérard portrait of Madame Récamier, muse to Chateaubriand. She sat sideways on a cushioned chair wrapped loosely in a Kashmiri shawl. The light of a bright yet cloudy day fell evenly into the marble-floored loggia and illuminated her flawless skin, the high-pinned brown curls, the plausible trace of a nipple behind the sheer bodice, a lace sleeve hanging off her left shoulder. With that aura of confidence, elegance, and education Madame Récamier had become, then, muse to his latest novel, Maranatha: Above the Eagles, the third of his newest trilogy. At his table Lewis could spread out the necessary historical maps, the reference books, and the loose leaves of deluxe hotel stationary upon which he wrote the novel by hand. His small wheeled suitcase, which transported his most essential Latin Loeb Classical Library titles, fit snuggly beneath the table in easy reach. The location was also convenient because his wife Ludmilla worked a six hour shift in another part of the hotel. Lewis timed his writing so their respective labours ended when the clocktower at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church struck noon.
Julia was saying: “The Scottish don’t eat the simple good food like olive oil, wine, cheeses…”
“And what do you cook at home?” Lewis asked. ” Jamón iberico? Salmorejo? Tortillitas de camarones?”
“Hmm, very nice Andalusian style! But no, I am terrible!” she said with a laugh. “I eat frozen pizza at home!”
“That is terrible, Julia, and bad for your figure.”
“Aye, but it is cheap from the supermarket,” she said. “I am sure your wife is a very good chef.”
“My wife?” Lewis said. “To be honest I’m not fond of Polish food, so we usually prepare our own–“
“Anyway, she is a very nice lady, and your son is very cute, too!” she said. “Bring him to breakfast again and I will make a special ice cream!”
“Oh, Jerzy is not my son,” Lewis clarified. “He’s actually the son of my wife’s niece, but he has been living with us — you know these extended Polish families. His mother is away, studying in Dublin. She was impregnated at a very young age, you see, younger even than you are, Julia, and the father is never…. It’s true, the boy basically looks to me as a kind of father figure. He often comes to me for guidance and education.”
“This is good, Dr. Lewis. A young boy needs a father. Too many soft boys today.”
“Right,” said Lewis. “By the way, I think I’ll have another cappuccino and a croissant.”
“With butter or strawberry jam?”
“Bring both and then I’ll choose.”
She nodded and crossed the restaurant to the kitchen. On the way she relayed the coffee order to her shift manager, a tanned New Zealander with a shark tooth puncturing each of his ear lobes. He set to work at the coffee machine.
“My manager is a fucking bastard,” Julia said upon her return. She put down his croissant, butter, jam. “But I make better money in Scotland than in Spain. When I win the lottery I will go home.”
“That’s a rather long shot, Julia,” Lewis said. “I daresay you will be staying in Scotland for the foreseeable future!”
“No, this week I feel lucky.”
“Well, I’ll leave a little tip on the table today so you can try your luck with the lottery this weekend. I’m feeling lucky, too.”
“That is kind. Are writers paid more money in Scotland? This is why you came here?”
“A writer is that happy soul free to work anywhere,” Lewis told her, scratching his beard. “I’m merely visiting for the summer for family reasons. But I’ve always had an affection for Scotland. I came here to take my PhD in Britannic historiography. That was a wonderful four years of my life. Back in the early 1990s. Probably before you were born!”
“Yes, it was,” she said. “Many years before.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘many’,” Lewis said. “A few, certainly.”
The shift manager brought over the latest of Lewis’s cappuccinos and rudely set it down atop a facsimile town plan of ancient Regensburg. He sent Julia to take another table’s order.
“Anything else, mate?” said the manager.
“I was actually in the middle of asking Julia about the lunch options,” Lewis said. “She was very informative. But now I’ve changed my mind.”
The manager left and Lewis returned to Maranatha. Absorbed in chapter LXVI, an account of early viticultural bartering on the Upper Rhine between emissaries of the Alemanni and opportunist soldiers of the border limitanei, Lewis did not notice the church clock pass noon. When he raised his eyes from the page he did not see his benevolent Madame Récamier but instead, blocking the sightline, the altogether different face of his wife. She’d set loose her grey-streaked hair to fall across her shoulders. She wore a dark blue blouse and tight jeans. Still a fit and good-looking woman at fifty-one, she maintained an elegant continental chic. You would never guess she had been scrubbing toilets since dawn, Lewis thought, until you heard the long sigh of exhaustion that passed from her lips.
“Coffee, sweetie?” he said.
“No, I need cigarette,” she said. “Pack up your stuff.”
Lewis reluctantly capped his pen and waved to Julia to bring the bill. To his irritation the manager brought it over himself. Ludka glanced at the bill, rejected it, and sent the manager back to the till to apply her 25% hotel staff discount. Lewis paid by contactless credit card and, when the manager had departed, left a couple of pound coins on the table for Julia. Ludka reclaimed one of the coins and pocketed it herself. Lewis frowned but otherwise ignored this miserliness, and noted he would have to find a copy of the three-volume Loeb Library edition of Seneca’s Moral Essays to introduce this Andalusian girl to Andalucía’s greatest philosopher. A task for the afternoon.
He slipped on his grandfatherly jacket and carpet slippers, sturdy enough for short walks in the city, and followed Ludka across the intersection into St. Andrew’s Square. Clustered school children on summer holiday were throwing stones at each other near the fountain. The sky was overcast and the wind was fierce. Ludka made no allowance for the cumbersome suitcase of books Lewis wheeled behind him.
“What’s the rush?” Lewis said.
She stopped beside a rubbish bin to light a cigarette.
“Tough shift?” Lewis said. “Ah. Well, at least you have this weekend to look forward to. A change of scenery, the sun shining, and the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim. I envy you, actually.”
“You do not need to envy me because I will not go to Berlin this weekend.”
“What? How come?”
“Marta in housekeeping must have hernia surgery. For this reason I have my leave cancelled. Nobody else can work.”
“That doesn’t sound fair,” said Lewis.
Ludka shrugged. “I am accustomed.”
“Well, it’s a pity,” said Lewis. “I suppose Jerzy will have to wait to see his father another time.”
“No, you must take the boy yourself, Lewis. His father is in Berlin only this weekend then flies back to the oil rig! There will be no other chance for Jerzy.”
“Me? Fly to Berlin? Impossible.”
“Jerzy’s dream cannot be shattered like this. If you only knew what it means to him! I think we can transfer BudgetAir ticket to your name for a fee. And you can have ticket for La clemenza di Tito. You will like it, it is about Ancient Rome.”
“I maintain rather sharp criticisms of its libretto’s liberties with Suetonius. Not Mozart’s fault, of course. In any case, this is a very delicate time for my novel, darling.”
She puffed on her cigarette. “You will not make a problem for me with this, Lewis.”
“I’m not making a problem–“
“Because I have already many problems. I have so many problems my head aches. Because of our problems we are here and not at home in the Poland enjoying actual summer.”
“Coming to Edinburgh was never my idea,” he reminded her. “I would have been perfectly happy to remain in Krakow.”
“We will not save twenty-five thousand zlotys working in Krakow!”
“Oh, you really must forget about those twenty-five thousand zlotys!” he said. “A ridiculously inflated amount, and my accountant friend insists we need not pay a grosz. This is a Polish government scam.”
“Tax debt, Lewis. You lose your property, go to prison, your family name forever shamed.”
“With due respect to your parents, I don’t think the Podolaks were ever much more than drunks and horse thieves, darling.”
“You always speak this of my family. But your family is the same. Australian thieves. And drunk as well.”
“I won’t argue with that.”
“Why not?” she chuckled miserably. “You argue everything else!”
“Actually, I do not argue about everything, you are again chronically misrepresenting–“
She had shoved a letter into his hand. His Polish was weak but sufficient to get the gist. Unbeknownst to him, Ludka had sought legal advice from what appeared to be (he judged from the luxuriousness of the letterhead) a top Krakow law firm.
“The verdict is absolutely clear,” she said. “We must pay. And by the end of the month. Twenty-seven days.”
“How much did this legal consultation cost?”
“I use credit card,” she said. “Your accountant friend’s calculations for exemptions in last five years were catastrophically wrong and now I scrub shit for British minimum wage. But that is not enough. We need to pay this bill before end of month. In pounds sterling it is five thousand.”
“Perhaps we should simply never return to Poland.”
“Idiot man! The authorities will seize my flat and we lose everything.”
Ludka smiled a particularly sour smile and sucked smoke deeply from the cigarette. Lewis thought of their tiny, draughty flat in the Kazimierz neighbourhood of Krakow filled with his books, his manuscript archive, his entire life!
“Can we talk to your brother for a loan?”
“Jan is bankrupt. Television is an unforgiving industry.”
“We are poor family, Lewis!”
“And where is Jerzy’s mother during this crisis?” Lewis said, returning to a slightly less contentious conflict. “Partying in Dublin when she should be taking care of her kid! Not expecting us to gallivant across Europe to facilitate visitation with that neglectful Turkish bastard.”
“Ola cannot go to Berlin this weekend, she must study for her exam on Monday. Her education is important so she escapes this stupid cycle. And anyway, you know she cannot even tolerate hearing Demir’s name spoken. She has anxiety attacks and flashback to naked woman she found hiding in closet. Of course Ola must allow visitation but it is better she is not involved in details.”
“Everybody has an excuse!” he said.
“Jerzy respects you, Lewis. You must take him. You cannot destroy his dream.” Ludka flicked her cigarette butt onto the pavement. “I must go home now to make lunch for Jerzy even though I am very tired. He has been alone all morning again because you will not look after.”
“Well, Le Jardin d’Eden has a pretty strict policy on kids,” Lewis said. “And I really think he’s happier at home. He can read!”
“This is not home. This is Scotland and rented studio flat.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Home is Krakow. I hope Jerzy will have a home after the end of the month. Maybe not.”
Ludka walked on across the square. Lewis decided not to chase her, nor to ask her to lug his suitcase back to the tiny flat they rented in Canonmills. She did not wait for the green pedestrian light to cross the street, and in consequence an airport tram had to brake with a screech and ring of its bells.
“I have some errands to run in town, darling!” Lewis called across the square. “I’ll see you later tonight.”
LEWIS caught a bus on Princes Street bound for the Old Town. He took a window seat and rested his suitcased library on his lap. At the next stop the bus filled with passengers. He was soon wedged tight against the glass by a six foot-three Scot in a red jacket, evidently a chips-and-Yorkie-Bar eater, who hummed along tunelessly to whatever nonsense was feeding through his earphones. In this claustrophobic confinement, Lewis closed his eyes and considered how he might raise this absurd Polish tax penalty. Five thousand pounds. What were his assets at the age of fifty-three? Of course he owned the copyrights of his eighteen magisterial novels of the ancient world, although it would be positively Faustian to auction them off to the highest bidder. In any case, none had yet proved financially lucrative. But on the matter of royalties he suspected criminal accounting by the various independent outfits who’d published them; some of his earliest publishers, claiming to be from such distant cities as Adelaide, Lowestoft, and Boise (Idaho), had disappeared without a trace.
Other assets? About a thousand books filled the shelves in Krakow. Was there something of saleable value? Perhaps a few rare 18th and 19th century histories, but he was not a pedantic collector of rare books. He was a reader. A good book should become part of one’s consciousness, should be argued with, memorized, almost absorbed into the bloodstream. He therefore stamped his ex-libris on a corner of the title page, scrawled extensive notes in the margins, rendered the copies both irreplaceable to his research and worthless to anybody else.
Meanwhile the joint bank account was in perpetual overdraft and the credit card was running close to its maximum. The previous year they’d earned an extra couple of thousand euros, proceeds of a lecture series on translation Ludka gave to an college in Vienna, but that had been invested in a project (a very promising idea to sell accurate recreations of Roman armour on the internet) which had failed, it was explained, because of some sort of computer glitch. Lewis owned no property. It would not be a good idea to lose Ludka’s Krakow flat.
Anyway, he’d think of something.
He squeezed out of the seat and disembarked near the Museum of Scotland. He walked to Boam’s Antiquarian Books in a gloomy side street off Cowgate. The antiquarian proprietor, straggly-haired and greasy-spectacled, as usual gave no greeting. Lewis went into the shadowy rear annex to the shelves of secondhand Loebs. He was a tad irked to find an inflated price of £50 for a rubber-banded trio of Seneca’s Moral Essays. But no matter. Andalusian Julia should know the glorious heritage of her land. With the books under his arm, he wandered to the history shelves looking for titles on Spain. He thought again of how, during his doctoral studies here in Edinburgh some twenty-five years earlier, he’d read up on medieval Andalucía with an eye to an epic novel of the Reconquista that would have been called The Vanished Gardens of Córdoba. Was it to be the middle volume of a trilogy also encompassing the stories of El Cid and Alfonso the Wise? Lewis could not quite remember, although he recalled happy hours studying the Primera Crónica General in the edition of Ramón Pidal, The Chronicles of Saint King Ferdinand III, the Muqaddimah, and the poetry of Ibn Sahl. And he’d bought an antiquarian copy of something called Nobleza del Andaluzia for a pittance in a Dumfries charity shop. The condition was rather astonishingly fine after something like four centuries. Somebody had once told him the book was probably worth a bit of money, and yet he’d never bothered to investigate its value.
Nobleza del Andaluzia. Lewis squinted into the recesses of long undisturbed memory and saw a blurry image of marbled red leather and gilded spine (surely a rebinding of a more recent century). He saw piles of books in his student dorm. And of course Professor Ballantyne, his PhD supervisor here at the university, had borrowed the book to read. And Lewis had never got around to collecting… Yes. Lewis was now struck by a clear memory of entrusting the volume to Ballantyne in his cluttered office. An unusually warm day, he recalled, the students barbequing and boozing on the grass outside. It must have been around the end of the 1992 or 1993 academic year. And knowing Ballantyne, eccentric Professor of Classics who’d since become a bestselling hack, the book was probably still sitting there in his office.
“Mr. Boam, I have a query about a rare book,” said Lewis. “By the name of Nobleza del Andaluzia. I can’t recall the exact edition, but it was certainly late 16th century or early 17th.”
Mr. Boam turned to his computer and searched for the item.
“Well,” said Boam. “There was only ever one edition, so that narrows it down, doesn’t it? Published by Fernando Diaz, Seville, 1588. Three hundred and forty-eight pages.”
“That’s the one.”
“There is a lone copy for sale online. Condition: poor, front and rear hinges cracked, front endpaper stained, pages foxed and torn throughout. Price: £4,993.91.”
Lewis paid for the Loeb Senecas with the contactless credit card and came out of Boam’s to find the street bathed in golden sunshine. He must go directly to Professor Ballantyne’s office, reclaim his rightful property, then sell it immediately. At the very least the Polish tax debt would be cleared, and due to the book’s impeccable condition — at least as it had survived circa 1992 — he should expect a nice surplus of change. Of course he had not been in touch with the professor since graduation, not since the incident at the party with Ballantyne’s daughter, Alison. She had been seventeen. Perfectly legal in the United Kingdom. And yet Ballantyne — liberal historian, cosmopolitan bon vivant, contributor to the TLS and LRB — had acted like an Andalusian father avenging his daughter’s honour. Lewis had another blurry vision of the broken wine bottle, the shouts, something out of a Lorca play. But come on — that was twenty-five years ago. And, even if there was lingering resentment on Ballantyne’s part, the book was unquestionably Lewis’s rightful property. He waved over a black cab and directed the driver to the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology….
This is an extract from the novella Lewis Lux, available for a limited time as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords.
Copyright © 2020 Matthew Asprey Gear. All rights reserved