Category Archives: Beyond the Beach

The Fortunate Dead: Chapter 1 – WIP

For those interested I thought you might like to read Chapter 1 of the forthcoming Book 6 in the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries. This is a first draft only, so might change a little in the finished book.


CHAPTER ONE

Thomas Berrington stared at a wooden pallet, its surface stained by years of misuse.

“Tell me, how exactly did you manage to lose a body?” He wiped at blood-stained hands with a damp cloth but it did little good. Only a long bath might do that.

“I did not lose it,” said Lubna, her face set. “I delivered the woman to this pallet before noon and informed the mortuary officer of her location.”

“Perhaps the family collected it, then. Did you check?” He made little attempt to hide his impatience. He had been sent for as he was trying to save an unborn child, the mother beyond any need of his skills. She had been brought in by her husband after falling from the city wall. Thomas was in a bad temper after the man had refused to accept the infant he had saved because it was a girl.

“Of course I checked. Would I send for you if it was that simple? Nobody has come to claim her.”

“You are sure she was dead?”

Lubna cast him a glance that said more than words, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere between them any more by speaking, and Thomas realised he was being too harsh on her. He had lost bodies in the past under similar circumstances. The infirmary in Malaka was both large and busy. He sometimes wondered how any body made its way to its family after it had stopped breathing. Thomas touched Lubna’s shoulder but she pulled away. Not forgiven yet, then.

He wondered if she was distracted by thoughts of the child she carried. Over six months now, beyond the time she had lost their first when they had visited Ixbilya for Thomas to attend the Queen. It had been on his mind of late, hers too, he was sure. He knew he may have been too attentive, too cosseting. Lubna was not a woman to be cosseted, even less so this last year. They had come to Malaka so she could attend the Infirmary, the place Thomas had learned his skills. That had been many years before, half a lifetime, and much had changed in the years since. Except Malaka was still where people came to learn the skills of a physician, ever since Persia fell to Mongol hordes.

It had not been easy for Lubna. As a woman she had not been made welcome, only accepted in the end because she was Thomas Berrington’s wife and everyone knew of his reputation. A reputation that brought respect but little fondness. The lack of the latter did not concern him and never had. Ability and an open mind meant more, and Lubna possessed both.

“What did she die of?” he asked.

“Does it matter?”

“I am curious.”

“In that case, I don’t know. There was nothing physically wrong that I could find. It was as if she no longer wanted to live.”

Thomas frowned. “Such a thing is possible, but rare.”

“Which is why I wanted you to see her, why I came for you. I have learned much this last year but not enough to explain what happened to this woman.”

“We’ll go to the Clerk of records,” Thomas said. “The body might have been mistaken for someone else and given to the wrong family. I have seen it happen before.”

Lubna fell into step beside him. “How often?”

“Not often, but four or five times over the years. It is surprising how many people do not wish to look at the face of a loved one once life has departed.”

The administration offices lay outside the Infirmary, requiring the crossing of a busy road and ascent of marble steps beneath the onslaught of a fierce sun. It was as they climbed the steps that a commotion broke out behind them, a man shouting at a group of musicians.

Thomas stopped and looked back.

“Leave it for someone else,” said Lubna. “You cannot heal the entire world.”

He glanced at her. She was right, the thought clear in his mind even as his body carried him back the way they had come. It was none of his business, but sometimes that made a thing more interesting rather than less. Besides, the missing body would still be missing an hour from now. Or would have been found.

As he approached the gathering Thomas heard laughter and jeering, and saw it was not only the musicians who were being accosted but a well-dressed man he recognised as Ali Durdush, grand master of the Malaka Guilds and almost certainly the richest man in the city, if not all of al-Andalus.

“What is going on?” he asked of an onlooker.

“It’s that idiot preacher, al-Antiqamun. Everyone is his enemy today. He has already torn Durdush’s cloak and now it’s the women he has it in for.”

Thomas watched as the ragged-robed man, tangled hair falling almost to his waist, berated two female dancers. Four others tried to continue their dance but the musicians were faltering. A few laid down their instruments and approached the altercation.

The rotund figure of Ali Durdush bustled away. He glanced in Thomas’s direction and offered a nod of recognition before moving on.

When Thomas looked back at the preacher he had grasped the arm of one of the women and was trying to force her to her knees. All the others had stopped dancing and gathered around. Voices were raised. And then a knife appeared, flashing sharp light from its blade, and al-Antiqamun staggered backward and fell to one knee.

Thomas pushed through the crowd. They had stopped laughing, but one or two now called threats. He reached the preacher and tried to find a wound, but before he could one of the musicians pushed him away.

“Let me finish it,” he said. “This crazy man has been following us for a week now and I will have it no more.”

Thomas watched a blade hang loose in the musician’s hand, the drip of blood from its tip. The man was short, slim, with corded muscle showing in his arms. His accent placed him from the north coast of Africa.

“Leave him be,” Thomas said, and something in his eyes gave the musician pause. Thomas turned back to the preacher and lifted sections of robe until he found the wound. A slash to the arm. Nothing serious, but it would need binding and a salve applied to prevent infection. He saw older scars and knew this was not the first attack on the man. Al-Antiqamun had no-one to blame but himself.

“I need to treat you,” Thomas said, steadying the preacher as he rose. He was tall, with a wild beard that matched his hair. His face was surprisingly intelligent, the eyes calm. Or empty.

“I need no heathen to mend me. Allah sees to his own.” He looked beyond Thomas and scowled at the musicians who were packing their instruments, about to move on.

“You must leave them in peace. They do no harm.”

“Allah forbids it. Music. Dancing. Women in clothing designed to reveal their bodies. It is against what is written.” He looked around. “And where did the fat fool get to, I’ve not finished with him yet.” His gaze returned to Thomas. “I know you.”

“Many do. And I know you, but not your true name.”

“I am al-Antiqamun.”

“I know that too, but it is not your given name, is it?”

“I am al-Antiqamun,” he said again, and Thomas knew it was all the answer he would get, perhaps all the answer the man knew. The child he had once been was long lost in his visions of heaven and hell. Or vengeance. For that was what his adopted name meant in Arabic. Vengeance.

“You are the stranger,” al-Antiqamun said, his voice as calm as his eyes now the dancers had moved away. “The butcher, they call you, do they not?” He smiled. “When Allah’s fire cleanses this land of unbelievers it will scorch the flesh from your bones, gassab.” His head turned, seeking new victims and finding Lubna waiting on the steps for Thomas. “But your wife is devout, I hear. She will live.” As if such was in his gift to offer or take away.

Thomas turned away. The man could bleed to death for all he cared. Those already dead were waiting for him.

The joy of Campo living in Spain

We are the proud owners of a house in Spain. I know, it’s tough, but someone has to stand up and say Brexit might be Brexit but some of us still believe in Europe. But this is not meant to be a political post, so no more of that nonsense. Please… no more of that nonsense.

My wife and I appeared on the UK television show A Place in the Sun in February 2017. More about that experience in another post, but it is enough to say we made an offer on the second property we saw. It was accepted, and within three weeks we flew out to take possession. Which is when our education began.

Our house sits on a hillside in a small hamlet that is unknown to Google maps. That should have been a warning, but not one we took any notice of. Not then.

Our house is also classified as “rural”. Which means it’s Campo.

What is Campo?

Look carefully – the little blue dot is our water meter!

Campo is anywhere that is not connected to the grid, likely has no paved road to it, no telephone service, and no postal service. Usually water is supplied from a well or a tank on your roof. It’s more than rural. And often times the house you think you bought is not shown on any official plan.

We were lucky.

When you try to buy anything or get anything delivered you will invariably get asked “Are you Campo? Even something as simple as your post. We take some things for granted in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, like a telephone line, the internet, water, electricity and so on. Except we are lucky. We have both water and electric. But no phone. And we have internet, but again that’s a long story.

Anyway – when we arrived our land was thigh high in weeds so I drove into our closest large town, Velez Malaga, to buy a strimmer. There was a Stihl shop. I had been told Stihl was the best petrol driven strimmer to buy. I’m not stupid. I went into the shop.

First question from the lovely lady behind the counter:

“Are you Campo?” Except it was in Spanish. But I had my phone and I had Google translate.

“Semi-campo,” I said.

She smiled indulgently.

I asked how much the strimmers were.

She extracted a thick catalogue. It contained no prices. But she went through four pages and wrote in the prices for me while I took sharp intakes of breath.

Then she smiled and crossed them all out and wrote their special prices.

Another smile. Another crossing out. By now she had taken 30% off the price if I came in on Tuesday or Thursday. Apparently if you buy equipment on those days, between certain hours, you don’t pay any VAT (IVT in Spanish). I don’t know if this is official government policy or not but it seems to apply to all agricultural and machinery shops we come across.

So, it being a Tuesday, I pointed. I’d like that one, please.

She smiled.

It will have to come from Madrid. Three weeks. Everything has to come from Madrid, and it always takes three weeks. It’s a good first estimate.

No – our weeds are thigh high, I said, I need something today.

Ah. You can have this one. It is a little more, but we have it in stock.

Yes, I said.

She then proceeded to take 20 minutes dismantling the strimmer in the showroom and re-assembling it for me. All the while there was a queue of other customers, but this being Spain they managed to amuse themselves while openly staring at the strange Englishman.

I got my strimmer.

It works very well. It’s a Stihl, see.

And then we went to find furniture in Ikea in Malaga.

We asked for it to be delivered.

Are you Campo?

It was becoming a familiar litany.

There are not many Town Halls with a view like this

Next we went to the local post office to see if we could get our mail.

Are you Campo?

Yes, we are bloody Campo!

We don’t deliver to Campo. You can have a post box, but for that you need form XY-double-de-dub from the Town Hall.

The Town Hall don’t know anything about the form, but they do ask if we are Campo.

We are so Campo that after an hour in the Town Hall offices we discover our house is not actually the house on the town plans, but that’s fine, this is Spain, they will correct that for us right there and then. It often happens, they say, houses are sold and sold again but nobody bothers to tell them about it. We will have to wait several months before it is official. Where should they send the paperwork?

But it all worked out in the end, and then as we were about to leave the very nice lady asked if we wanted to vote in the European elections. We could, because we owned a house in Spain, she said. It might not be the house shown on their plans, but we looked like nice people, so we now have authorised forms allowing us to vote in the next Euro elections.

Coming to Spain from the UK is a strange experience, one you need time to adjust to. In a few weeks I will try to explain the joys of shopping in Spain, and next time I’ll wax lyrical over the history of illegal construction.

And yes, if you’re Campo you need to be careful about that. We, it turned out, were lucky.

Why Andalusia – Part 2

So the question is: Exactly why did I start writing about Andalusia, and Moorish Spain in particular? I introduced this in part 1 of this post, but didn’t give any reasons why. Here they are.

Some years ago, probably around 2010 or 2011, I was sitting at home with my wife and two children when an idea for a book came to me. I have no idea where it came from, but I said, out of the blue: “Has anyone ever written a detective mystery set in Moorish Spain?”
They looked at me like I was crazy, and perhaps I was. But that germ of an idea stuck. I did a little research and found nothing that matched the idea I had in my head, an idea that grew and grew, until in the end it wasn’t going to be one book but ten.

Books 1-5… to be continued…

Each would be set during one year between 1482 – 1492. I’ll explain the time period in a moment. Each book features Thomas Berrington, an orphaned Englishman with a past, who has trained as a surgeon in al-Andalus and acts as physician to the Sultan of Granada. He is asked to investigate a series of murders.

Alongside Thomas is the six-foot eunuch Jorge, Watson to Thomas’s Holmes, an unlikely pairing but one that works. Jorge gets far more fan mail than Thomas ever does.

And the ten year period? Soon…

First, some people know, but many do not, that from 771AD Islamic invaders from North Africa moved swiftly throughout Spain. So swiftly, and so successfully, that within a short period of time they reached as far as Poitiers in France before being stopped, or perhaps deciding to stop.

For centuries all but small enclaves of the Iberian peninsula remained in Moorish hands. Only from the 11th Century onward did Spain begin to push the Moors back from the inland areas until at the end only a small but significant enclave remained. Al-Andalus. Protected on three sides by mountains, and on the fourth by the sea. It remained a beacon of culture in a Europe only slowly emerging from first the Dark Ages and subsequently petty wars and infighting.

Alhambra Gardens

This came to an end on January 1st 1492 when King Fernando and Queen Isabel walked through the exquisite gates of the Alhambra palace to accept the surrender of Abu Abdullah, Muhammed XIII, Sultan of Granada. It brought to an end the rule of Islam in Spain.
On January 2nd Christopher Columbus entered the palace seeking a final approval for funds to forge a new route to the Indies. He was turned away, only to stop at the gates and return. The rest, as they say, is history. In my version of history, it is Thomas Berrington who meets him at the gate and persuades Columbus to try again. That scene came with that initial idea for the series.

Without the decades’ long struggle by Spain against the Moors, which honed their fighting skills into arguably the finest soldiers in Europe, Columbus’s journeys and the conquest of the Americas would have been a very different thing.
This is the world in which I chose to set my books. Those last ten years of chaos and despair for the Moors, those ten years of growing exultation for the Spanish. A time of war, deceit and stupidity. Much like all wars.

So far I have finished five of the episodes, with five more to come.

There is a lot of history to cover.

And I have discovered that other writers have also fallen in love with this time period. It came as both a shock and revelation how others could forge such different books from the same material I was working.

I’m going to cover each of their work in more detail in future posts and ask them to guest blog along the way, but you can follow the links from their names here to find out more and read what are excellent additions to this small genre of Historical fiction. I will leave you, until the next time, with Joan Fallon, Lisa Yarde and John D. Cressler.

Next time I’m going to write about how we ended up living part-time in Spain, and some of the frustration and joy we discovered.

Why Andalusia?

[full_width]I set the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries in southern Spain in the area of Andalusia — al-Andalus to the Moors who lived there for over 700 years. After visiting Spain and the Alhambra once when I was 16 years old I did not return for over 30 years, but when I did I fell in love with it. So much so that we now own a small rural house there

This post is the first in a series under the heading Beyond the Beaches which describes my love affair with Andalusia and the real Spain, the one you will find 10 minutes inland, but also the one you can find in one or two cities which sit on the coastal strip.

If you love sand under your toes, warm clear water, restaurants, burgers, cold beer and wine, all the other distractions of the Costa del Sol then this post is not for you. Don’t get me wrong — I like all of that too. There is little that can top eating sardines fresh from the barbecue pit with roasted pepper salad and a cold-beaded glass of cerbeza while sitting a table with sand under your toes. But there are plenty of others who have written about that, and I’m hoping to show you some of the wonders that lie beyond the beach.
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Why do I want to tell you about this aspect of Spain? Primarily because it’s closer to the Spain I write about. Not very close because that Spain no longer exists, but a little remains if you know where to look.

Inland Andalusia is a patchwork of small towns, villages, and isolated houses all nestling in the space between mountains. Everywhere there are houses. They cling to hillsides and sit atop ridges. Almost all are white with small windows to keep out the fierce heat of summer. [/one_half]
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SIDEBAR


The Spanish spoken in most Latin American cultures is different to Castilian Spanish. Not enough to make someone from Spain unable to converse with someone from Mexico, but enough to cause the odd stumble. Why should this be, when most of the settlers were Spanish? The answer is that the majority of Spanish sailors who crossed the Atlantic came from Andalusia — the al-Andalus of Moorish Spain that I write about. Here, the language spoken, and the language still spoken, was a mongrel mix of Spanish, Arabic and local dialect. We have a house in Spain, in the heart of the countryside, and can barely understand our neighbours because they speak only Andaluz, a close cousin of this ancient dialect. And boy do they speak it fast!


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Most of the towns and villages are white too, with streets so precipitous there are times you think you might need crampons. Almost all of these villages will have the necessities of life. A bank, a Correos, or Post Office, a small supermarket and often several, but also a butcher, a panaderia, a ferreteria. And, of course, a bar. In fact, it would be a poor excuse for a Spanish village to possess only the one bar. And in these bars you will be able to enjoy a glass of wine or beer and, likely as not, it will come with a free tapa. And the cost? In my local village, Riogordo, little more than €1.

All of this will be explored in a whole series of posts revelling in the wonder that in Andalusia. But for now, this is just the first part of my opening.In the next post I’ll tell you why I chose this area to set my books, and how I discovered other authors who are also writing about the same time and period. In the next installment I will tell you how I came to start writing the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries.[full_width”][/full_width]