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James Munro

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Wrong Way Round the Church
by James Munro   

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Books by James Munro
· The Witch of Balintore
· Thirteen-Card Spread
· Selected Poems
                >> View all


Historical Fiction

A Medieval Mystery: Mariana's early years in Spain and in France.

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A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY: Mariana in Spain and France. Who – and what – is the young slave-girl that Mariana has taken on responsibility for and agreed to try to restore to her home and family?

Though the third to be written, this is actually the first episode, chronologically, in the on-going story of Marian MacElpin, better known as Mariana de la Manga (heroine of Thirteen-Card Spread and The Witch of Balintore) who started life in Spain on the shore of the Mar Menor (the Little Sea) as her grandmama's "little dancer", and her papa's "little thinker", and in it as old Pedro the fisherman's "little mermaid";  and how she came to be the woman she was, a lady who could pass as a whore. Or should that be (many thought so) a whore who could pass as a lady?

Others noted how educated she was. In Avignon, Queen Blanche of France, who never took her for a lady, says she "talks like a student of theology and comports herself like a courtesan". And St Catherine of Siena, whom she also meets in Avignon, takes her for a runaway nun. "You certainly speak like one," Catherine tells her.

Whore, nun, lady. Nobody was sure. Except, of course, her father's friend, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, but he was a gentleman of the old school. To him, she would always be a lady, the Lady Marian MacElpin, daughter of Sir Andrew MacElpin.

But all this is in the future. When the story opens in October 1375, Sir Farquhar has just arrived back in France after a lifetime spent fighting as a Christian knight in Outremer. Rather than head north at once to his native Scotland, he decides to turn south in search of his old friend Sir Andrew, last heard of in Spain. He knows, of course, that it might be too late, that Andrew might be dead, but has no idea that Andrew left behind him a daughter who was abducted from her home following her father's death, spent two years as a prostitute in a bordel in Cuenca, and is now a slave in a harem in Granada.

Later, Farquhar appoints himself Mariana's guardian (she needs no guardian, she protests!) and accompanies her when her search for the young slave-girl's family takes her to a clandestine Cathar community in the north of Spain, and from there to Avignon, then the seat of the Popes of Rome.

But Avignon is "a town without pity, charity, faith, respect, fear of God," (as Petrarch put it shortly before his death in 1374), and there Mariana suddenly finds herself, for the first (but not the last) time, on the run from the Church and the Inquisition.





It was from my grandmother, Sebah, that I learnt all I know about dancing, and most of what I know about being a woman.
To Sebah, being a woman meant being a dancer. Even sitting motionless, Sebah was dancing. And I copied her – had done so, they said, since first I sat up in my cradle and took notice. By the time I was four I could follow the drum-beat with my hips and my tummy (when there was no drum-beat, I imagined one) and my arms and hands and my whole upper body flowed with the flow of the music, the melody.
Sebah (whom I always called Ema, and will now here) taught me dances for the sad moments and for the happy moments, for dawn and for dusk, the Cooling Dance for the heat of summer and the Heating Dance for the cold days of winter. She taught me the Dance of the New Moon and the Dance of the Full Moon, the Dance of Spring and the Dance of Autumn, the Dance of Birth and of Becoming a Woman and of Being a Woman and of Becoming a Mother, the Dance of Loss, the Dance of Sickness, the Dance of Death. My grandmother knew them all. And Khadija, who never danced on her own, as Ema did, even Khadija turned out to know all the dances and joined in with us. The only time she ever smiled, I think. Perhaps the only time she was ever happy.
Most men disapprove of belly-dancing (except of course when it is done for their entertainment and pleasure, and done by slave-girls or professional dancers, not by their wives or daughters) but my grandfather, Don Joaquín had other ideas. Adoring his Sebah, he wanted me to grow up just like her. He gave me presents – gold anklets and bracelets (for I was the only one left to give such things to, and he had so many) – and told her to teach me, to 'bring out the dancer in me'. And Ema would smile. To her that meant simply to bring out the woman in me: 'When you dance,' she said, 'you become one with all women, one with all life.'
But the dances done in front of men are different. They are highly charged, highly erotic.
Such dances are never performed by the wives or daughters. In fact, the women of the family never even make an appearance in front of men who are strangers. Or of men who are not strangers unless everything but their eyes is concealed: in effect, they may look but not speak or express themselves in any way, not even by a shrug or a sigh or a gesture of the hand, let alone by dancing. Actually, they may not even look, only glance briefly, a glance that no one must catch. Apart from that they keep their eyes averted.
The erotic dances are performed by slave-girls. One trained as a dancer will be required to dance not only for her master and his brothers and uncles and cousins and sons and their friends, but for any man who may be a guest in their house.
And so it was that that afternoon I was dancing for Sidi Abdelrahman ibn Khaldoun. He was seated before me with my master Sidi Abdelkrim reclining beside him. Sidi Abdelkrim's eyes were wide and he seemed in a trance, his mouth hanging open, his hand limp and a cup of wine dangling, spilling on the carpet. He thought it was the last time he would ever see me dance. He was upset, I knew. Heart-broken even. An old man in love.
Ibn Khaldoun's eyes were even wider – they were bigger, brighter, younger eyes – and though his mouth was closed and his wine set down beside him where it could not spill, he too seemed entranced. But now was the only chance I would get.
I leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
He blinked, astonished. Then glanced at my master, to see whether he had noticed.
He hadn't. In fact I think he was sleeping.
Ibn Khaldoun grinned at me.
I smiled back.
He made signs asking me whether he should switch his cup with my master's.
I shook my head and carried on dancing, just for him.

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