“Mistress Bowson? Forgive us our impatience, but we will shortly have to talk with the outside boys who returned yesterday. Please come and visit the Abbey when you are ready, perhaps share a meal with us, learn our ways in a more conducive atmosphere. We will pray daily for your safe reunion with your husband, here of course! In the meantime, I will send you some books to study, language books, just keep them away from Brother Peran!”
Iltud seemed relieved; he was a worrier she could see, but relaxed enough to offer to show her around the town, have lunch in a small café he knew near the harbour, see the ancient Basilica, point out a few sights, pick up a few things for Martha not available in the village store. Basilica first, just next door. It was round inside, loosely hexagonal on the outside with high windows located just under the copper sheathed dome covering a raised altar under the apex. Void of seating except in the side chapels. Iltud explained that this ancient church, built at the time Christianity was legalised by Constantine the Great, was modelled on a Greco-Roman basilica in Rome, constructed for Constantine’s mother Helena. She had then donated the services of one of the architects and some money to build here, had dictated the dedication to St Joseph of Arimathea in thanks for the part Britain had played in raising her son to the Imperial crown.
Like most eastern churches the windows were small and it would have been semi-dark if not for the candelabra hanging down on long chains and projecting up from the ground like hallowed stalactites and stalagmites. Romanised mosaic flooring, wall paintings and, glory-of-glories, a golden leaved and faintly coloured dome mural, a more primitive version of those she had seen in the ancient churches of northern Italy and Rome as a visiting student. Here depicting Christ, his mother, disciples, Constantine, his wife, his mother and his father Constantius just to the side of the saviour, paying dignified obeisance.
The northern side chapel was in use, a small service underway with a handful of congregants standing before the priest and sacristan. That of the south was different, of the same construction and era, but much more recently redecorated, the brightness of its gold leaf ceiling and murals of saints on the walls showing an almost medieval Greek artistry, its Orthodox inspiration shining through. She remarked on it to Iltud who just shrugged his shoulders and said that it was less than twenty years old and inspired by something someone had brought from the outside. He had then reminded her that time was pressing on, they had to get back otherwise he would get another wifely scolding, and in the meantime he had to complete his shopping list and there was still lunch to be had in the small harbour side café.
They strolled down the main street towards the little harbour on the bay, stopping at a few shops, buying some cloth for Martha, some warm country clothes that might be suitable for a small teenage girl unused to the western sea climate, trousers, woollen pullover, under-shirts, leather belt, under clothes. She had to help him out at this point as he was blushing with embarrassment, cursing Martha for the humiliation, then explaining that they would be reimbursed to a point for expenses incurred when taking in a new arrival. She could see that in the clothes and fabric shops they visited his eyes were searching for something else, without success. Then into a cobblers; he had brought the girl’s shoes with him and using them as a template he bought rubber wellington boots, one of the greatest imports from the outside in his view, leather and sheepskin moccasin house-shoes and left an order for leather ankle boots. All went into the large canvas and leather holdalls they were both now carrying.
Finally, the street ran out on to the shore, ending in a small paved road along the low sea wall that encompassed the little harbour. A few gigs and smaller rowing boats were drawn up on the beach, one little fishing boat, its sail down, rode at anchor near the stone jetty projecting out and then round at an angle from the shore. A few old and several younger looking fisher-folk were out on the beach and seawall laying out nets, mending them, repairing lobster baskets. Iltud explained how most of the fishing boats would have been out since morning, taking advantage of the light winds and clement weather, and that they would return in the evening, just before night fell.
She followed him to the café on the corner of the main street and the harbour road, where a few customers were coming and going. He looked at her and pointed to a painted sign that simply said ‘Thea’s’, but with the western alphabet crudely Hellenised as if someone were trying to paint the name in Greek for people who didn’t know the script. Iltud smiled at her puzzled expression and bade her follow him inside.
It was as if someone had tried to turn a little fisher inn, with small windows, low wooden ceilings and stone floor, into a Mediterranean café with white table cloths on heavy wooden furniture. An oak back-counter and wall shelves holding glass containers of what looked like honey and seed cakes, biscuits and other unidentifiable things, bottles of spirits and wine, glasses, plates, cutlery, cups and saucers, jars of preserves, even some olives and oils, she noticed. It just didn’t seem to fit at all, but nothing surprised her anymore, at least not here. The walls were covered in icons of the saints, the Holy Family and Christ Pantokrator, along with other figures she didn’t recognise. Most commanding of all though was the little white haired old lady, black clad, olive skinned, smiling brightly from behind the front counter at Iltud and then turning dark, sharp eyes on her. Her thickly accented voice, shining with lively humour, ringing out across the small customer area holding a few tables and chairs, “So you finally decided to come and pay homage after all this time did you, and this is the lady I heard spoken of by my son?”
Iltud smiled. “Sally, meet Thea, Georgy’s mother, notoriously the most difficult café proprietor in the Pocket, and the best.” He bowed.
The little old lady, mid-seventies she looked to Sally, regarded him with fierce affection. “My rudest customer, not even to use my true name, Theophano, born of the Comneniae, descendent of the Emperors, reduced to serving ungrateful peasants in a foreign land.”
Sally could see she was something of a force of nature, brown eyes sparkling at them in great humour and mock disdain.
“Theophano? Wasn’t she the beautiful Byzantine princess who married the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto in the tenth century? She was one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages?”
Thea looked at Illtud in triumph. “Finally, he brings me someone of culture, history, appreciation. I was going to throw you out for your ingratitude and rudeness, but because of her, her learning, her beauty of mind, you may stay and eat.”
She clapped her hands and shouted a string of Greek to someone in the back room, clearly a kitchen. A middle-aged woman of what must be the same line, just paler of skin, emerged looking harassed and smiled at Sally and Iltud.
“My daughter, also Theophano. Off you go!”
The daughter smiled at them, wearing a look of immense forbearance as if this were an everyday occurrence, and ducked into the back. Shortly after, while they were talking, she brought out little plates of dried and oiled fish, mackerel for the most part, cold boiled eggs, bread, old apples, fried potatoes, even a few olives and batons of cold carrot in salted olive oil, with a glass of white wine, Greek she said, to remind her of her native land across the Sea.
Her son, her only other child, was up at the Town Hall she explained. Normally he lived with her and his wife and sons above the café, recounting his adventures, exaggerating his heroics in the outside she said, laughing sarcastically. Sally asked her how she, a Greek, came to be here, so far from her homeland.
She looked at Iltud, “Has she been told?”
“No, she has only just been accepted. It is not our decision, perhaps after the Easter ceremony, the Duke himself or the High Steward, perhaps the Abbot…”
“Then I shall tell her, now in my home by the bay. It is my adventure, my truth as much as theirs. What are they going to do, lock me up in the castle, confine me to the nunnery? Bah, they wouldn’t dare.”
She calmed down and looked at Sally, Iltud seemed to think it wiser to shut up, to take the line of least resistance, at least for now.
“My child, Sally, they call you? Pretty name, but I will think of something else, another for you when you are here with me, something more reflecting your culture, breeding, perhaps Arsinoe or Anna, the princess sent to be the wife of Vladimir of Kiev, to bring culture and Orthodoxy to the barbarous Rus, just as you bring culture to this place of ignorance. Yes, Anna it shall be.”
“When I say I am the descendent of emperors, I am not mad or senile like they say.” She gestured round her at her unfortunate customers, who were clearly used to it and grinning as if the floor show were just starting. “I am, from Alexios Comnenos, Emperor of New Rome, Constantinople, Byzantion. I am not born of the purple, it is true, but I have his blood in my veins, blood that can never dilute down the generations.”
Iltud was smiling indulgently, clearly fond of the old dynamo.
“You have heard how we found this place, guided by the monks from the Mountain when my people first ventured out to find the others they were told had also been granted refuge by the Almighty? It took them years of patience, but a divine wind brought them here into the bay, by chance they said. Bah!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand? Why would the Greek government be looking for this place and then keep it quiet, it doesn’t make sense?”
The little old woman’s latent fury was roused once more, this time in earnest. “Bah, not those corrupt atheist fools. I mean the true government of the Hellenes, the real Romans, those born of the purple who reign today in their refuge in the Middle Sea, the unbroken descendants of the last Emperor of Constantinople, Constantine the thirteenth of the Palaiologoi, after the barbarous Turks overwhelmed it.”
She looked at the little old lady bewildered. The latter was sipping her wine clearly delighted at the amazed expression on her face.
“You think me crazy, no? Tell her Iltud.”
He nodded, “It’s true, we were here, and they found us, just as the priest told you.”
“I thought that was just him rambling on, he didn’t say who, I thought…”
“It is true, when the Turks broke across the mountains into Anatolia, murdering, enslaving and raping after the disaster of Mantzikert, His punishment on us for our divisions and complacency, many fled to the coast from the interior. Some found a place prepared for them, as this place was, to take refuge and hide so that the true faith would not be lost entirely from our ancient homelands. There they stayed, not even venturing back when the First Crusaders helped Alexios Comnenos, my ancestor, drive back the Turks from much of Anatolia. But then more crusaders attacked the Empire a century later, exiling the Emperors, but being driven out in turn years later. By then, the damage was done, we were too weakened and the Turks, ever gaining strength, eventually conquered our whole land, enslaving us. When the final assault on Constantinople was being prepared, a monk from the Mountain went to the Emperor’s palace and told him of this place, of a prophecy that the City would fall but something would be saved if he would come away with him.
The Emperor’s advisers begged him to go, to save something from the wreckage, in secret. He was a proud man who did not wish to desert his people in need, but the Patriarch and his wife persuaded him in the end, and that last night he, a few of his family and most trusted and learned advisers, artists and scholars, with a small guard, taking some of our greatest treasures of art and literature, other wealth, escaped on two small galleys to the refuge.”
“But he was killed in the last stand on the walls… I know they never found his body… Oh! I see.”
Thea was smiling; the embers of what must once have been her great beauty glowing once again under the soft breeze of appreciation.
“My Anna, my learned Anna, at last someone for me to talk to properly, of important things… They escaped to their refuge on the south-western coast of Anatolia, much like this, joining those already there, just a few thousands, and started to rebuild. Some of the Monks of the Mountain knew, their greatest secret among many, and they read the old books, listened to travellers’ tales over the centuries, and then when the time came, after the Second Cataclysm as it is called here, when the remaining Greeks were driven from Anatolia and the Armenians were slaughtered by the million, they started to search and prepare.”
“Then they came here and returned, and came again, and brought back some ambassadors from this place. One of their attendants, a young, vital, handsome mountain of a man, called David, met me, a farmer’s daughter, now reduced to working the land ourselves. He was so… so alive, a great northern god. Well it caused a scandal, disgraced me, but I did not care, I came with him willingly, married him, had a family and then he passed away nineteen years ago, leaving me to struggle on, making income, tolerating ingrates like Iltud here, in a foreign land. But I am satisfied, I regret nothing.”
“It’s unbelievable, overturns everything… There are so many questions, almost too many. I wouldn’t know where to start, to learn so much. So much was lost when Constantinople went down, how much was saved and taken to your refuge?”
“Much, some is hidden on the Mountain with the monks, but some I do not know. I am not a priest, a scholar, an official of the court. Perhaps another time… I have work to do, an absent son to make up for, and your companion there is willing me to be quiet so he can leave. He thinks I have said too much already.”
Iltud blushed, “We need to get back home, your young son will be missing you and I will be in trouble. How much do we owe you Thea?”
She waved her hand dismissively, “Nothing, a welcome gift to my new friend Anna.”
“Thank you. One more thing Thea, your other business, Martha asked me to get something special, for the Easter welcome ceremony at the Abbey for our two new guests. I have found nothing anywhere…”
The old lady, stood up, all business again, “Follow me.”
She led them into another back room behind the kitchen, a stock room full of cloth and clothing, all clearly imported, exotic silks, linens and cottons in fantastic designs and colours. A single oil-lamp supplemented the little natural light filtering in from a small, dirty window, picking out the gold silks from the rich purples, blues, greens and crimsons. This was the Aladdin’s cave she had been hoping for. Thea turned to face her, as if weighing up her colourings and figure.
“The skills of my homeland, desired by royalty and the nobility of centuries, my real business. Iltud helps me ship it into Logres, to the finest, most exclusive shops in London I believe, distributed through agents who rob an old woman by their commissions.” She laughed, “Although I believe the prices they fetch make even some of the richest weep! Such artistry in such fabrics lives nowhere else. Now, Iltud, I think I have the answer.”
She reached over and pulled out a bolt of cloth and unrolled it, struggling with the weight of it. Purples, golds, silvers, aquamarines, with strings of pearls sewn into the weave. “Some of my finest, take it, it is yours for your two new lady guests, there will be more than enough. I also give you sewing thread; I hope only that Martha can do it justice.”
Iltud stuttered, embarrassed once more. “Thea, I just can’t afford that, I’m sorry. It’s probably much more than all the money we have.”
Thea frowned at him. “Did I ask for money? I have a new friend, something worth far more, and Georgios told me of the girl… Pigs!”
Iltud and Sally both protested, argued with her, pleaded with her, but she was not to be dissuaded. In the end, only when they had refused the gift, offended her and had to apologise, did she relent a little and say she would take one thing in only payment. What? They asked.
“One golden guinea, and you” looking straight at Sally, “to come and visit me regularly, to cheer up a lonely old woman in a strange cold land. Now go, before my generosity ruins me any further!”
© 1642again 2018