I write novels as well – surprise!
The first completed and submitted novel is “RINGS of CHALK”, set in the Republic of Georgia. I had the privilege of working in the Caucasus several years after the fall of the Soviet Union during a time of chaos, war and refugees and was invited into the high mountains on the Russian border. Like most writers, interpretations of personal experiences and characters have been transposed into the writing.
I’ve completed the final editing stage and submitted to quite a few agents but who for the majority, think it’s well written, atmospheric, but feel that the Caucasus setting would make it difficult to sell. Oh dear, but I’ll keep on trying.
N.B. My second novel reached the finals of WriteNow PenguinHouse competition and is close to being finished. So I’ve started a third novel to keep the flow going…smiles
If I find an agent, the title, “Rings of Chalk” may change. But for the moment, it is a reference to Gurdjieff’s description of the Yezidi chalk circle superstition that he saw first-hand in the Caucasus, described in his book, “Meetings With Remarkable Men”. I’ll leave you to discover the details and meaning. For now, a brief synopsis, two excerpts and the photos of my travels in 1998 to whet your appetite:
They were seated together drinking tea. Aromatic black tea from Western Georgia, no milk, too much sugar. Lali watched as the murdered priest’s neighbour laid out a small chunk of cheese, homemade pickles, raw greens and lavashi, the sweet-tasting flat-bread that was a Georgian dietary staple. The elderly woman put a pot of brown Svaneti herb salt to accompany the dry tang of the sheep’s cheese and was now holding out a succession of meagrely-filled plates to Lali.
“Please, kalbatono, you must eat something.”
Lali was hungry. Maka’s Turkish coffee of earlier wasn’t sufficient to keep her going. So when the woman had invited her in, Lali secretly welcomed the occasion to sit, rest her leg and continue the investigation. Jarji hung like a coat hanger in the door frame, his angular shoulders spanning the chipped wood and head touching the lintel. He cradled the casket in one arm and held a cup of tea in the other. She had told him to wait outside, but hadn’t heeded her order, as usual.
The neighbour was moving the plates on the table. They rattled as her hands shook.
“Let me help, you,” said Lali, as she reached across and took a plate out of the woman’s hand.
They remained silent for a moment as the visibly shocked woman fumbled with paper napkins, her trembling fingers attempting to fold and put them into a garish plastic holder lying amidst the clutter of plates.
“I have no wine to offer.”
“I don’t usually drink when working, kalbotono Tamar, so wine is not amiss.”
Tamar. The woman was named after the mediaeval Queen Tamar. She had been sanctified as the one person in Georgia’s history to bring long lasting peace and prosperity to an expanded empire that included most of Armenia and northern part of Turkey. She had married four times in order to seal alliances and was affectionately called mepe Tamar – King Tamar, a masculine iron hand in a feminine velvet glove. It was a golden age of literature and arts under her reign. Tamar had also been Lali’s grandmother’s name.
Today was an incessant succession of reminders from the past. A Svan, Jarji Avaliani, had been thrust into her life and too close for comfort; then this fragile neighbour, a refugee from Abkhazia and witness to a bloody crime. The woman named Tamar, whose fingers were presently clasped together but continued to tremble on the dark blue material of her cheap dress, like waves fluttering on the Black Sea. They reminded Lali of home…again. When will today end and what else will be in store for me?
“So, what else have you seen, kalbotono Tamar? Have you ever seen a woman who is a stranger to the building? People have to walk past your apartment to get to the other end.”
“I keep the curtains closed most of the time,” Tamar murmured.
Lali glanced at the heavy drapes pulled across the window that looked out over the walkway and saw they were already partially drawn. It wasn’t yet mid-morning and the kitchen was in darkness. She felt her own heart tightening at Tamar’s admission of vulnerability. Trauma then interminable depression. Yet another invisible casualty of a war long gone. Most had never got over the horrors, whether physically or mentally and Tamar was one of them, living in poverty and isolation. Women had been cast aside like broken hulls thrown onto isolated shores to rot slowly, forgotten by all. Lali took a sip of the sweet tea, but the taste hung sharp as vinegar at the sight of Tamar’s obvious distress. Lali didn’t want to finish her life as a broken shard of wood on a black shore. When would she herself be able to say that she was free from the past? Tamar’s eyes reflected Lali’s own deep vulnerability and it resurrected her suppressed fears.
“Do you take tablets to sleep, kalbatono Tamar?” Lali already knew the answer, but asked gently to smooth away the rough edges of the woman’s shame.
“Yes,” Tamar whispered, glancing towards where Jarji had stood in the doorway. But he had silently disappeared outside, the tea cup and saucer placed on an old sideboard. The neighbour was now free to speak of things a man should never be aware of and Lali appreciated Jarji’s gesture of discretion. She herself knew the shame of admitting to weakness.
“I have two rooms, but I prefer to sleep here. I sleep a lot…during the day as well.”
Tamar gestured to a makeshift bed on the sofa facing the entrance door. It was obvious to Lali that old fears kept Tamar prepared for violent intrusions in the middle of the night.
“Maybe you have heard sounds of a woman’s shoes or high heels on the walkway?” Lali coaxed.
Tamar’s hands had settled like bony birds in her lap and now lay still. Lali looked down at them and noticed the edge of a deep scar protruding from one of the sleeves. Like a scaly snake, it twisted and bent a path on the weathered skin to above the wrist, a writhing testimony to hidden suffering.
“I sometimes heard things, but thought maybe they were in my dreams. I never saw anything, ever. But in the middle of the night, a few times, I thought I heard a woman’s voice and yes, you are right, shoes, the sounds of high heels.” Tamar’s voice was hesitant as she tried to recall drug-hazed memories.
“Could I ask you about the safe-room in the kitchen? Do you know anything about that?”
“The one behind the tapestry?”
“Yes. Were you ever asked to clean inside, by chance?” Gently does it, no good frightening her more than necessary. Who knows what she may have seen?
“Oh no, never. It was already there when I came here over fifteen years ago. I believe he had it installed in Soviet times, but I never questioned why and never even saw it open. Oh no, the Professor wouldn’t have allowed that and anyway, it was his business, not for me to ask or pry…”
“That’s fine, kalbatono Tamar. Don’t worry yourself about that. I was just wondering, but I can see you are telling the truth.” Lali clasped the distraught woman’s hand then gently loosened her grip. The hand was light, as fragile as a sparrow’s leg, bones drained of substance by years of hardship and hunger. Tamar was shaking, but Lali’s gesture appeared to calm her slightly as she whispered, eyes flickering constantly at the doorway empty of Jarji’s presence.
“I didn’t ask questions, kalbatono. I couldn’t, you understand?”
They had driven east out of Tbilisi into the rich vineyards of the Kakheti plains and arrived at the once industrialised town of Gardabani, only to be confronted with the annual raggedy-wool assembly for the journey towards higher mountain pastures. The beasts skittered aimlessly here and there, leap-frogging over each other, a jostling mass of lengthy wool matted with dung and dirt from an enclosed winter. Transhumance, a time for hungry animals to gather from all corners of the Eastern plains, skivvied and hurried by wild-looking riders cloaked in nabadi, traditional felt capes. The drovers wore shaggy sheepskin hats that covered most of the face, leaving only nose, mouth and chin visible between the long, curled strands of white or black fur. Kalashnikov rifles seized and bartered from unsecured Soviet armouries jangled across their chests. Not men to have as enemies, Lali thought, and as an afterthought, like Jarji Avaliani. Like most mountain Georgians, they defended home, families and livestock in wild areas where banditry and cross-border incursions were all too common to this day. Caucasus shepherd dogs the size of the largest animals themselves darted agile, responding to whistles and shouted commands as they nipped stragglers’ heels and kept the herds moving with aggressive insistence.
Jarji lurched forward through the musky, pungent air filled with animal odour and vehicle exhaust fumes. They were almost at a standstill. He again pressed the horn and grasped another few feet of tarmac from the skittering mass, all the time muttering what Lali now understood to be guttural Svan obscenities. Throughout the last hour or so of travelling together, Lali had become accustomed to his regular outbursts and considered whether she would finish by having Svan as her second language by the end of the investigation.
She gazed at the writhing herds outside the window, felt the bumps and scrapes of panicked bodies and twisted horns against the metalwork as she looked at the horsemen slung with guns and knives, all-powerful and threatening herders. She watched the panicked animals disperse erratically in every direction…like people, she thought, wondering whether in reality, we are all sheep, devoid of any focused individual intent, but leaping towards the destination chosen by powerful men and their snapping dogs. Turmoil was not something she liked. But it seemed that troubles were on the horizon and a wave of panic washed over her. Reminders of her past had come too close for comfort and the incident with the icon had added to the palpable tension within the confines of the SUV. Lali was regretting her decision to visit the monastery that same day.
“The roads are clearer, now the rain has come. We will arrive at the monastery in less than an hour. If we can get past these animals.” Jarji muttered a few more Svan expletives. The vehicle once more came to a standstill and he muttered in a low grumble, “You are silent, Inspector. Would you like to stop for some food once clear of Gardabani?”
“I’d rather get to Davit Gareja as soon as possible. The monks will be conducting evening prayers later and I need to interview as many as possible before then.”
“As you wish.”
The sound of driving rain and bleating animals filled the renewed silence between them. Jarji’s face was imprinted with grimness. An immense gulf lay between them, leaving Lali worried about the Svan’s possible reactions if they discovered a second icon-fiddling priest at the monastery. Passions invoked by religion no longer moved her personally, but Lali recognised the right of other’s indignation.
“I hope we don’t have a second priest’s murder by the end of the day, Avaliani?” Lali’s attempt at lightening the sombre atmosphere in the SUV was rejected outright.
“A priest of that kind deserves to die, Inspector Kokava.”
She turned to the streaming window and decided sheep and goats were safer entertainment.