What follows was first published in 2016. I reprise it here specifically for those who enjoyed the reading, for UK Crime Book Club, of some chapters of Reconquista, in their series of lockdown books for younger readers, and for anyone else who may enjoy reading about the inception of that book.
Once upon a time there was a boy. His name was Luke and he was twelve years old. Luke had fair hair and grey eyes and he was slim and clever. He was very good at maths.
So good at maths that he used to go to Cambridge University at weekends where he would speak the language of numbers with a young professor. At home he would write long and complicated formulae and equations, with lots of numbers and squiggles which his family didn’t understand.
One Spring Luke and his family were to go on a journey to visit his god-mother, who lived in a far-away place where the sun was hot and shone for most of the year round. Her home was just outside an ancient town, which had walls with battlements and towers and a castle in one corner, on the highest point.
Luke’s god-mother puzzled over how to organise things so that Luke would enjoy his visit. She could speak different languages, but she wasn’t fluent in number. But what she could do was create worlds. She was a writer and she wrote books and stories. So she went out into the town, to particular places which she loved, so as to seek inspiration to write a story for Luke.
The town was old and beautiful, with narrow cobbled streets and ornate balconies at the windows of the houses. It had fountains and perfumed jacaranda trees in tranquil, shady squares and the wider roads were lined with orange trees.
First the god-mother went to Plateros, a square in the old town, which was once part of the Jewish quarter, where all the silversmiths lived. There she saw the Church of San Dionysio, the patron saint of the town, which, before it was a church, had been a mosque. From the square she looked down to the cathedral, which had a separate tall bell tower, standing all on its own, which looked suspiciously like a minaret. And she understood that her story had to include all these different cultures and religions, the Christian, like the church, the Jewish, like the square and the Muslim, like the mosque and minaret. She would give voices to people from all three.
Then she went to the Alcazar, the castle or citadel, with battlements and towers over a thousand years old and she climbed the tallest tower. The wind blew on her face and it smelled of the sea, for the sea, though she couldn’t see it, was close by, just beyond a range of hills. And she realised that the sea would play a big part in her story.
As she stood on the tower she looked down at the surrounding countryside below she remembered the history of the town and she imagined…..
The town is under attack. Outside the walls an army tries to force its way in. Men with long pikes, wearing metal helms and leather breast plates mass at the foot of scaling ladders. Knights on horseback ride back and forth, encouraging their men. And in the wind the flags and banners blow, the rearing claret lion of Leon and the golden castle towers of Castile.
Inside the defenders hurl rocks down on to the way attackers, pushing the scaling ladders away from the walls. But it’s no good, because the besieging army is too strong and has too many weapons, giant mangonels and trebuchets which throw huge rocks into the town and burning smoke bombs filled with oil.
The townspeople are desperate. What can they do? The ruling council can’t decide. Should they surrender? What will happen to them and their town if they do? The army outside is a Christian army from the north, led by King Alfonso. But the people in the town are a mixture, some Christian, some Jewish and some Moors, people who originally came from North Africa, before they crossed the narrow sea to Al Andalus.
But in reality the townsfolk have no choice. They must surrender to the King.
So King Alfonso and his knights and soldiers come into the town. He and his courtiers and knights stay in the Alcazar or castle, but ordinary soldiers are billeted on the townspeople, who are forced to take them into their homes and feed and look after them. In a house in Plateros Square three pike-men are foisted on a Jewish family. Simon, the silversmith, has no choice but to take them in. His son, Nathan, finds them interesting.
Now, a word about Nathan. He is one of the heroes of the god-mother’s story. He is fourteen years old, with fair hair and grey eyes, small for his age, but quick and clever. He is always bickering with his older cousin Rebecca, who lives with Nathan and his father. She is fifteen and is another of the heroes of the story, and, really, she and Nathan love each other like brothers and sisters do, but that didn’t stop them fighting.
Often the peacemaker was their friend Atta, a Muslim. He and his father move in with the family when their own house is destroyed during the long siege. Atta is the same age as Nathan, but he is tall and skinny whereas Nathan is slight and not so tall. Atta has floppy black hair and dark eyes and he wants to become a doctor like his father.
One addition to the household in Plateros is more welcome than the soldiers. This is Thomas, a kind young English doctor, at the court of the King. He brings food for the family, from the King’s stores. And they need the food, because there isn’t much left in the city after the siege. Everyone is hungry.
But life isn’t safe in the ancient town. There is a curfew, no one is allowed on the streets after sundown or they are taken to the dungeons of the castle. There are riots in the marketplace and brutal crack-downs.
So many townsfolk decide to leave, to quit their homes and, carrying what belongings they can, travel in search of a safer, better life. Many of those who leave are Moors or Muslims and many Jewish people too, because they fear that they will not be liked by the Christians. So long columns of people, heavily laden wagons and donkeys stretch along the roads leading out of the city.
Atta and his father decide to join them, to become refugees. They’re afraid because Atta’s uncle is a powerful man at the court of the Emir of Granada, an enemy of King Alfonso, so they fear they will be treated as traitors, even though they’ve done nothing wrong.
So Atta and his father abandon their home and all their things, taking only what they can carry. Nathan is very sad to see his friend leaving and is unhappy to be left behind. Yet at least he is with his family. But only two days later things get even worse for Nathan and his father, because one of the family had a secret plan.
So, the god-mother’s heroes are scattered far and wide. How could she bring them all back together and end the story? She didn’t know. And Luke was arriving in three weeks time. She had to find the end of the story before then.
She went out again into the town to look for inspiration. She visited Plateros, but couldn’t find an answer. She went to the castle, but couldn’t find an answer there either. Then she went up into the tower and looked again at the countryside. Nothing, no inspiration.
Then she saw the sunlight glinting on something far off. The god-mother screwed up her eyes to see. It was something reflecting in a town on a hill-top many kilometres away southward, a window or a mirror maybe. She’d been to that town recently and had stood on a high tower in its castle, just like the one she was standing on now. And she had seen the ocean and the coastline, the Bay of Cadiz, the beach stretching away southwards, down to a large cape which pushed out into the Atlantic.
This was Cape Trafalgar, where there had been a famous navy battle and Admiral Lord Nelson had defeated the Napoleonic fleet. Cape Trafalgar, Tarif al Ghar as it used to be, the Cape of Caves.
That was it, the god-mother realised. There would be a climactic battle between the Armada of the King and the pirate ships belonging to the evil warlord Don Raul. Rebecca, Nathan, Atta and other characters would take part.
The god-mother went home to finish her tale and send it to Luke. He liked his story and when, many years later, his story became a book, he remembered the heroes and their adventures, even though he was fully grown. The book is ‘Reconquista’ and it was long listed for the Children’s Novel Award 2016.
Thank you for visiting the land of Al Andalus with me. This is a true story, some of which actually happened.
2 thoughts on “The Godmother’s Tale”
Interesting as I find all of Julie’s writing. BUT an observation if I may, not really about the article per se but about our bias tendencies…
In this case about Nathan being fourteen years old, with fair hair and grey eyes, small for his age, BUT quick and clever – interesting
I certainly take the point you’re making, Barbara, there are always unconscious biases. In this case, the BUT is there because Nathan the character specifically dislikes the fact that he’s not as tall as his friends. Teenagers often dislike or are particularly sensitive about their physical appearance, so I wanted to make this character representative of that. On several occasions in the book Nathan either bewails, or sometimes is glad of, his small stature.