Under the Spanish Stars, page 1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alli Sinclair is Australian-born but considers herself a citizen of the world. She spent her early adult years travelling the globe, intent on becoming an Indiana Jones in heels. She scaled mountains in Nepal, Argentina, and Peru, rafted the Ganges, rode a camel in the Sahara, and swam with sharks and eagle rays in Belize.
Argentina and Peru became her home for a while and it was there her love of dance bloomed. When she wasn’t working as a mountain guide or tour leader, Alli could be found dancing the tango, salsa, merengue and samba.
All of these adventures made for fun storytelling and this is when she discovered her love of writing. Alli’s stories combine her passion for exotic destinations, the quirks of human nature, and the belief that everyone has an adventure waiting to unfold. She is a sucker for family sagas, romances and mysteries.
Alli now lives in Australia with her partner and two children. New travel adventures are never far from her mind and Alli has every intention of her and the family achieving every one of them (a lottery win would help).
As well as writing fiction, Alli blogs about storytelling, culture and travel at www.allisinclair.com
ALSO BY ALLI SINCLAIR
For Nan—the most natural storyteller I’ve known.
Thank you for encouraging me to embrace the art of words
and for being an inspiration in my life.
About the Author
Also by Alli Sinclair
Charlotte Kavanagh gripped the calico bag that safely concealed her grandmother’s painting as she hurried across the grounds of Granada’s Escuela de Bellas Artes, the School of Arts. Her heart raced faster than her feet while she skilfully dodged the students dressed in an array of styles—bohemian, casual chic, business or sporty—as they lazed on the green expanse, soaking up the sun while idly thumbing through textbooks or sharing a joke with classmates. Charlotte’s low heels clacked along the smooth path and she longed for a moment to fully enjoy the glory of the intense blue sky, blooming gardenias and the sun warming her pale skin, although it was impossible to slow down when urgency shrouded this visit to Spain.
Taking the steps two at a time, Charlotte hastened through the art deco doors and down the long passageway. Sunlight attempted to penetrate further than the small windows but failed miserably, leaving the building in gloomy darkness. Squinting, Charlotte edged along the hallway, trying to make out the names and numbers on the doors.
‘Bingo!’ She drew to a halt and filled her lungs with oxygen, exhaling slowly before rapping on the door.
‘Damn.’ Knocking harder, she adjusted the shoulder strap of her handbag. This last-minute trip to Spain had caused many complications, especially with work, but how could she say no to her beloved grandmother’s request?
Rapping on the door again, she drew her lips into a tight line, about to resign herself to camping outside Professor Fonseca’s door. Charlotte wiped the sweat from her brow, then reached into the handbag, grabbed a water bottle and took a long drink. The cool liquid brought her temperature down and the frazzled feeling waned slightly.
High heels marching across floorboards echoed down the hallway. The owner of the stunning blue shoes was a petite woman in a stylish business suit, her hair in an immaculately tailored bob, her large brown eyes framed by perfect eyeliner and mascara. The woman stopped in front of the door and Charlotte straightened as she smoothed down her faithful jeans.
‘Excuse me, are you Professor Fonseca?’
‘Sí.’ She shoved the key in the lock and it clicked open. The woman turned and narrowed her eyes as she looked over her black-rimmed glasses. ‘Admissions deal with foreign students. I cannot help with your application to my department.’
‘Oh, that’s not what I’m here for.’ Charlotte opened the calico bag and moved to pull out the painting.
‘Do not bother.’ The professor made no effort to hold in a long sigh and muttered, ‘¡Por Dios! Estoy cansada de esto.’
Charlotte chose not to tell the professor she’d understood her comment about being tired of ‘this’. Whatever ‘this’ was. ‘I’m sorry if you have lots of people turn up without an appointment but I have extenuating circumstances—’
‘I wish I had a euro for everyone who says this.’ The professor held the door ajar, as if readying to barricade herself in the office against this loony Australian woman. ‘I have a lecture in half an hour and I am busy for the rest of the week. You return next Wednesday. Eleven o’clock.’
‘Please,’ Charlotte resisted the urge to grab the professor’s arm. ‘My abuela’s had a major heart attack—she’s in her nineties and is very unwell. Her heart could give out at any minute so she’s sent me here to find out who this artist is. The painting holds a lot of significance for my abuela. It’s not signed and all she knows is it was an artist from Granada.’ For good measure, she added, ‘I’ve been told you were the expert in this field.’
Charlotte’s attempt at buttering up appeared to have no effect as the professor crossed her arms.
‘You use abuela, the Spanish word for grandmother. Do you speak my native language?’
‘I understand it much better than I can speak, but I get by.’ Good old high-school Spanish classes had been Charlotte’s only avenue to learn. Her grandmother had refused to teach her offspring, even though she insisted on being called Abuela. Yet another contradiction her grandmother clung to without explanation.
The professor’s arms remained folded and in an authoritative voice said, ‘El español es muchísimo mejor pero lamentablemente todos creen que el inglés es el idioma número uno. No tiene ninguna poesía. Duelen los oídos.’
The rapid fire of words zapped around Charlotte’s head as she grappled to gain full meaning. What she picked up was that English wasn’t poetic and it hurt the professor’s ears.
‘I’m sorry,’ Charlotte said. ‘I didn’t get all of that.’
The professor shrugged. ‘Classroom Spanish is not the same as real life, no? So we speak English, you and me.’
‘Thank you, I appreciate this.’ She held back a sigh of relief. When Charlotte had sent out the call to her network of colleagues in the insurance business, she’d expected to be given the name of a second-hand dealer in the backstreets of Granada, so it came as a pleasant surprise to be put in touch with the city’s leading expert in obscure Spanish classical artists. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been warned about the woman’s prickly nature. Making a last-ditch effort, Charlotte said, ‘My great-grandfather gave Abuela the painting and promised to tell her the story behind it when she was twenty-one. Unfortunately, he passed away before he had the chanc
‘Why has she waited until now to find out?’ The professor took her hand off the key in the lock.
‘My grandmother was born in Granada, but moved to England in her twenties. I’m not sure when, exactly.’ Because Abuela always ensured the details of her life in Spain remained murky yet she freely spoke about her life in England. Recently, though, her grandmother had revealed tiny snippets about Spain and, for the first time in Charlotte’s twenty-seven years, she’d heard her grandmother speak about her country of birth with a hint of affection. ‘Later she moved to Australia with my grandpa. Abuela’s only legacy from Spain is this painting. Her illness has spurred her on to tie up the loose strings in her life, and this is one of them.’ Charlotte hoped Abuela wouldn’t be upset with her divulging the next piece of information. ‘She suspects this has something to do with her family heritage.’
‘It is nice, this wishing to connect with her original country, but I would say the painting is not signed because it was bought in a market and the artist was a nobody.’
‘I know this is asking a lot, but I’ve come a long way and if you could just take a moment to look. Please.’ Charlotte didn’t want to resort to begging but she didn’t have much choice.
Professor Fonseca gave a half shrug. ‘Come back next Wednesday.’
‘Please.’ Charlotte took a step forward and fumbled in the calico bag, her fingers numb as she withdrew the painting and turned it so the professor could see.
‘Next Wednesday.’ The professor’s gruff voice echoed down the hall, her eyes refusing to look at the artwork.
‘But—’ Charlotte’s handbag slid off her shoulder and as she pushed it back on, her grip on the painting loosened and the artwork made a dive for the floor. Catching it just in time, Charlotte righted herself and found the professor staring at the canvas.
‘May I?’ The professor held out her hands, fingers twitching.
Charlotte dutifully handed over the painting. Sweat pooled in her lower back and she wasn’t sure if it was from the muggy air or a sign of nerves. The sounds of doors swinging open and hitting walls reverberated as a crowd of students poured into the hallway, laughing and talking. The noise circled them and the professor cast her gaze up and down the hallway while clutching the painting. ‘Come.’
‘Gracias.’ Charlotte followed the thin woman into the room adorned with dark wood panelling. The air felt ten degrees cooler and had a musty tinge, as if the windows hadn’t been opened in decades. A large desk covered in yellowing files and photographs of spectacular landscapes filled half the room, while a small reading chair and sofa in matching burnt-orange fabric took up the rest of the space.
Professor Fonseca sat behind her desk and turned on the reading light as she studied the painting from various angles. She squinted, widened her eyes, brought it close then moved it away. Clasping her hands in front, Charlotte stood awkwardly, unsure whether to stand, or sit on the expensive-looking reading chair.
Placing the glasses on the top of her head, the professor said quietly, ‘Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez.’
‘Pardon?’ Charlotte shuffled closer.
‘Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez,’ Professor Fonseca said louder. ‘This painting is at least one hundred years old. Look at this.’ She pointed at the thick strokes of orange, red and yellow flames. ‘See the way the paint curves up instead of laying flat on the canvas? This is her signature style. It truly is unique.’ Placing a finger near the bottom corner on the left-hand side, she said, ‘This small rip, what is the story?’
‘I don’t know. The painting has been buried in a trunk under a pile of blankets for decades. My grandmother asked me to retrieve it only a few days ago.’
‘It has not been on show?’ Professor Fonseca’s eyes widened. ‘A painting of this historical value should never be hidden.’
‘For Abuela, it’s the emotional value that’s important.’ A lump formed in Charlotte’s throat as she recalled the last time she’d been with her grandmother. The buzz of the hospital had faded into the distance as they’d held hands in silence, their love for each other warming the cold, sterile room.
Tapping her fingers on her thighs, Charlotte asked, ‘Any idea why it wasn’t signed?’
‘This Syeria, she never put her signature on the paintings because she believed her art was the collaboration between her heart and soul and nature. A team effort, you might say. Many people think they have an original Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez, but it is only a fake. But this,’ the professor smiled with appreciation, ‘this is the real thing. I would bet my career on it.’
‘Do you have any idea who the dancer is?’
‘No, I do not, but I will say this is linked to La Leyenda del Fuego, the “Legend of the Fire”. You know it?’
‘I’m afraid I’m not well versed on my Spanish legends.’ Yet another aspect of Spain Abuela could have passed on, but chose not to.
‘It is a shame you do not know much about your heritage, but you could be forgiven in this case. The legend is more of the obscure type, known in the region of Granada and commonly heard in gitano, gypsy, circles. See this?’ The professor pointed to the woman dancer clad in a deep red dress, her ample cleavage only slightly exposed. With a simple red rose tucked behind her ear, her thick dark hair flowed down her back and her skirt caught the breeze. Her large, brown eyes looked towards the stars twinkling in the inky sky and her arms reached upward, as if giving thanks. The woman’s long legs stretched out as she leapt over the campfire, her red shoes matching the dress.
‘It’s technically beautiful. The hues are … they’re amazing.’ Charlotte’s eyes welled up, once again overcome by the magnificence.
‘You have a good eye.’
‘Thank you.’ Keen to avoid any topic that involved art appreciation, Charlotte cleared her throat. ‘Is there additional information you can give me, or steer me towards, to find out more about this artist?’
‘There are some important things you must know first.’ The professor glanced at the old-fashioned clock then drew her brows together. ‘I will need to be fast. I cannot keep my students waiting.’
‘I’m sorry for turning up here without an appointment.’
‘It is okay. It is not every day I witness the splendour of a talented artist from an era that is no more. Tell me, what is your name?’
‘Ah, you are Irish, yes?’ The professor gestured towards Charlotte’s natural red hair, blue eyes and pale skin.
‘No Irish in my family, I’m afraid. However, I do get my looks from my grandmother.’ Charlotte couldn’t remember how many times people had been surprised at Abuela’s flaming red hair and Spanish heritage.
‘Really?’ The professor looked at the clock again and pushed back the chair. ‘You walk with me, yes?’
Professor Fonseca gave the artwork one last, longing look before handing it over. Charlotte put it gently in the calico bag and tied a knot while the professor grabbed a folder, laptop and pen. The door locked behind them as they took off down the dark hallway, Charlotte straining to keep up with the professor’s short legs, but long strides.
‘This Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez specialised in painting gitano legends from her clan. La Leyenda del Fuego, the fire legend, was her favourite and she painted many works with this theme.’ She tucked the pen behind her ear. ‘Have you ever had a piece of music or painting that has spoken to your soul?’
‘Yes,’ Charlotte said, casting her mind back to the countless hours she’d spent in a little-known gallery in South Yarra in her hometown of Melbourne. The gallery was her favourite place to discover unknown artists whose work left her reeling with an array of emotions that cut through to the core. These days, though, she preferred to stay away from galleries because they brought back the pain of her one and only exhibition.
‘Do you know of duende?’ Professor Fonseca asked, click-clacking down the stone steps. They crossed the busy courtyard, t
‘Every artist wants to achieve this, right?’ Dreams that had long gone clawed to the surface, but Charlotte shoved them back down into the murky depths of memories best forgotten.
‘Yes, it is true, but the duende I speak of, the one that is depicted in Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez’s artwork, is more complicated than you and I could ever comprehend. In La Leyenda del Fuego, the flamenco dancer is so overwhelmed by the feelings within, he or she is pulled towards the fuego, the flames, that signify the fire in their soul. When the dancer leaps, it is a symbolic leap of faith—by doing so they open up their heart to experience duende in its purest form.’
Entering another building, they started up a flight of stairs.
‘Does the fire duende happen to many dancers?’
‘No,’ said the professor, ‘the person must be a member of the Giménez clan, but even then there are no guarantees. It is like being the chosen one and it is beyond everyone’s control. Like other forms of duende, La Leyenda del Fuego cannot be forced. It must be organic—a connection of pure love with spirit, heart, and flamenco.’
Charlotte hesitated, then asked the question brewing in her mind. ‘As an academic, do you think the legend could be true?’
They stopped outside the lecture theatre and the professor’s lips formed a slow smile. ‘It does not matter what I think. I know the Giménez clan believe this, so who am I to argue? I have not heard of La Leyenda del Fuego happening for decades, but I am not privy to what goes on inside a gitano clan.’
Charlotte nodded. She’d never been one to foist her beliefs on others, either, unlike her father.
‘I cannot offer any more information on the painting belonging to your abuela. As with any clan of the gitano culture, it is closed to outsiders. They do not wish to speak of the past and do not keep written records, so there is no historical information.’
‘So how do people know about Syeria Mesa Flores Giménez?’ Charlotte asked.
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