Mid-August echoes with the somnolent buzzing of lawnmowers interspersed with sudden severe downpours, days blue with haze hanging in limp foliage and clouds of dust marking the passage of vehicles along the switchback roads. August nights are hideous with the demented sewing machine treadling of nocturnal insects interrupted by regular bursts of morse code cricket chirping -- but it's a month starting to show signs of summer's fading glory.
Sumacs along the main road are already turning red and the edges of leaves on other trees are distressed. The slanting sunlight is thinner, the shadows longer, and twilight draws its curtain on the day noticeably earlier as the nights start to creep stealthily in at the bottom of the garden. We've seen our resident groundhog hoovering up grass a couple of times this week and he's already rotund, though not quite to the football on legs stage just before he disappears into winter hibernation.
In noting these pastoral vignettes, let us add we have made hay while we may(write) and the fruit of our labours is this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener. Read on....
Most of our characters are figments of our imaginings but even they are occasionally threatened by reality.
What about Thomas, we were asked, the knight from King Arthur's court who appears in One for Sorrow in search of the Holy Grail? Does he make any sense, historically? Probably not from an academic point of view since the knights of the round table legend seems to be a medieval literary creation. On the other hand, there is no reason why Wolfram Von Eschenbach's fictional Parsifal, or a character like him, should not meet up with our fictional Lord Chamberlain John.
We decided to include a knight in our story after being surprised to discover that if King Arthur were indeed a real person -- and there may have existed a powerful warlord around whom the legend sprung up -- he was a contemporary of Emperor Justinian. Since Constantinople and its many churches were awash in relics, such as the famous Virgin's girdle hauled out to protect the walls when the city was under attack, it struck us that it would be the first place in the world a questing knight with any sense would look. I'm not sure the grail legends have the knights looking for the grail or finding it in any locations that can be reliably linked to known geography. But they did travel a lot. One of the places associated with the grail -- the island of Sarras -- has been said to be in the vicinity of Egypt, even further from Britain than Constantinople. Then too, Mary and I are still not convinced that Thomas is really a knight rather than a fortune-hunting con artist. Or, he could actually hold the Roman knight's rank of eques and be prone to exaggeration.
Then there is the self-styled seer, Ahaseurus, who also plays a role in the first novel, and returns in the fifth. Does he have a foot in reality? Again, he is based on a legend of later vintage. Ahaseurus was one of many names given to the Wandering Jew, a man who supposedly mocked Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was subsequently condemned to walk the earth until the Second Coming. In some versions of the story he is identified with Joseph of Arimathea who, in certain variations of his own story, is a guardian of the grail. Those old legends serve up a smorgasbord of tempting possibilities for authors.
And like King Arthur, the Wandering Jew was not made up out of thin air. Some conjecture that the legend arises from Jesus's words in Matthew 16:28: "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."(King James Version)
Anyway, Mary and I are agnostic on the question of whether our Ahaseurus really is a supernatural being or just a clever charlatan.
Finally, we were asked whether someone checking the history books would find that Justinian actually did have a Lord Chamberlain and he was, unfortunately, not named John the Eunuch. To which the answer is, yes. By 538, according to one scholar, Narses -- a eunuch like John -- served Justinian in the capacity of Lord Chamberlain, having held other high offices for several years.
The term Lord Chamberlain, or sometimes Grand Chamberlain, appears to be a rather loose translation by Victorian historians of the position called "praepositus sacri cubiculi" or more literally "person placed over the emperor's palace." (Somehow I can' see a books being subtitled "A Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi Mystery.") The title doesn't describe the actual duties, which apparently depended on the emperor's whim. Narses is best known to history, not for running the palace, but rather for his efforts on Justinian's behalf during the Nika riots, when the emperor was nearly overthrown, and for his command of the Byzantine armies in Italy. Although he was in his mid-seventies when given his generalship, he helped bring Rome back into the empire, albeit only temporarily.
Narses is an interesting character in his own right, but Mary and I are not fond of historical figures as detectives. We prefer to make up our own protagonists. But where does John fit in?
We reasoned that since Lord Chamberlain meant whatever Justinian wanted it to mean, he could also appoint more than one Lord Chamberlain. The Byzantine Emperor was not only an absolute dictator but even headed the church. The emperor stood at the pinnacle of society and all power flowed downward from him. Our Justinian answers to no one, aside from Mary and me who insisted he appoint a second Lord Chamberlain.
Aside from John once remarking that he prefers to stay in the background rather than being a public figure like Narses, Justinian's real Lord Chamberlain is barely noted in our books. This, however, is due to change since the eighth novel deals with the Nika riots and is more firmly rooted in specific historical events than the previous seven. Narses, unavoidably, will be a major character.
We are still in the process of figuring out in detail his relationship to John. When we do come up with an answer, we hope readers will agree that it doesn't do too much violence to historical fact.
Fortunately for us impatient youngsters, preparations were quickly made. Mum packed a shopping bag with meat-paste sandwiches, bread slices cut thick from yesterday's loaf. There would be apples, green and crisp, which she ate with a spoon. There might be biscuits hidden below her handbag, and bags of crisps with their individual blue paper twists of salt, and, lastly, a huge thermos of tea, well-sweetened and milked. Ordinary fare, to be sure, but the food of the gods after the long walk down from the Victorian railway station, taking us past rows of boarding houses with their neat little gardens and mercurial signs flashing VACANCY or NO VACANCY. We tumbled by, the smell of the sea already in our nostrils, scorning the fairground we passed on the way, with its rides and stalls and lounging ne'er-do-wells. It was the beach which called us.
And what delight it gave! There, seaweed made a slippery carpet on limpet-encrusted rocks around dark pools of water trapped along the shoreline, microcosms of the ocean. Small, dark crabs lurked boulder-like in them, the occasional rippling fronds of a sea-urchin dancing lightly in the current. Round, raspberry-like sea creatures lurked in sinister clusterings near the waterline. Were they really the bloodsucking mutant jellyfish with which we scared each other? Taking no chances, we paddled in pools scoured clean of marine life each time the tide turned.
But the adults were less squeamish about jellyfish, more coy about clothing. Men rolled up their trouser legs to the daring height of mid-calf, slung their jackets over their arms and entered the surf for a paddle. Even dad, who was rarely seen without a tie and immaculately polished shoes, got his feet wet. We children, in scratchy woolen bathing-suits, rushed in and out of the water, frolicking loudly. We had donned our waterwear by modestly contorting winter-pale bodies behind towels held up around us by tightly permed and corseted mothers and aunts. Later, these female relatives would brave the briny themselves, holding frou-frou petticoats above their knees, Kiss-Me-Quick hats perched at a jaunty angle on back-combed hair stiff with hairspray. The salty wind cutting in from the horizon to give us all goosepimples had come "all the way from Roosha", our parents commented, downing another cup of hot, sweet tea and munching on sand-gritty sandwiches.
But what cared we? There were sand-castles to be built, intricate fortifications topped by a piece of grey driftwood, waiting to be captured on black and white deckle-edged photographs for the family album. The castle's underground network of tunnels carved haphazardly in the wet sand were a constant snare for unwary beach cricket players. Caves which were under water at high tide had to be explored, as we scared each other half to death with tales of kids perishing in kicking agony, trapped by the raging tide.
Along the railed promenade, deckchair men sold tickets for renting wood and canvas loungers, which invariably took ten minutes of wrestling to get ready for use, with much muttering under the breath as renters grappled with the Escher-like pieces of furniture. We just sat on a blanket, if we could be dragged out of the water.
Meanwhile, a brass band played gamely on, melancholy and slow, over the sound of crashing waves, mewling seagulls and music from the fairgrounds, blended with hoarse shouts from sideshow men and the screams of teenagers splashing each other with sea-water. And over it all lay that distinctive seaside aroma, a tantalizing mixture of salt air, frying chips, drying seaweed and the occasional dead fish temporarily overlooked by the swooping seagulls.
If we were lucky, we might be treated to those delights available only at the coast. There might be paper cones of snail-like "whellecks", winkled out from their shells with a free pin. Or candy tuft, cloudy and white, sweet on the tongue for a few moments and then gone as quickly as summer was speeding by. There were long ropes of licorice, and hard-crusted toffee apples whose flat tops defied our teeth even as the apple juice ran down our wrists. And when we had eaten, we scavenged along the shore-line, booty popped into our sand buckets. There might be chalky coloured, ridged barnacles, or a weathered piece of bleached and knotty driftwood, or waxy yellow, brown or white shells which had survived the grind of the surf. Long strands of brown-olive seaweed were collected, pulled from piles deposited against rocks, for its wetness or dryness, so it was said, accurately, predicted the weather.
And so the afternoon rolled by, as our city-pale skins were burnt scarlet by sun and salt. We played until the setting sun's liquid gold path made a bridge from horizon to shore. Then, because it was Monday the next day and that meant work and school, it was time to pack up the towels and the thermos, the shells and the seaweed, and go home. As stars twinkled and winked over the restless sea and strings of coloured lights popped on along the promenade and in the fairground, we toiled back up the street to the railway station, our shoes uncomfortable with sand. On the return journey, half asleep, we children looked out at the backs of houses as we travelled by, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, all along the shining rails to Newcastle, nodding, dozing, dreaming.
Whatever the news may be two months hence, we'll see you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free etexts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/