The Elusive Madonna by Sheila Rogers

It’s the start of another week of getting to know our debut authors and today’s shortlisted author is Sheila Rogers. 

What was the initial inspiration for your novel?

Avignon. Stand on the bridge at dusk or wander over the backstreet cobbles between ancient, scarred     buildings that guard a wealth of centuries-old frescos and ornamentation; stare, then close your eyes, listen – and time vanishes. The voices are still there, whispering a thousand tales across the centuries.

One desert island: one book. Which one?

Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. It’s touching, funny (sanity-saving on a desert island!), naïve yet wise, full of fantasy yet down to earth all at the same time: a great companion. And he survives…

 Which authors inspired you to start writing?

I’ve been a closet scribbler ever since Enid Blyton sparked my imagination at the age of eight or nine. But it was Laurie Lee who prompted my first serious attempts, followed by Daphne du Maurier and probably Harper Lee.

What is your current read?

Sebastian Faulks: where my heart used to beat. It’s an ostensibly rambling exploration of the fragility of human relationships, often sad, sometimes amusing, self-mocking and poignant, but it ends on a note of muted optimism. I’m loving it.

Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?

Read widely, listen to others but be true to yourself: your voice is unique. Always write from the heart. Write every day, even if it’s only fifty words that you screw up and bin the next day. Apart from that – just get on with it!


Extract from The Elusive Madonna

PART ONE

Avignon. October 1341 – May 1342

Some mysteries are made to be solved. Some turn out not to have been mysteries at all. Others are best left as they are.

The echoes of that evening would haunt Giovanni for years to come. Alone on the bridge, or so he thought, he had paused for a moment, face tilted against the breeze. He closed his eyes. It was that hallowed spell in the day when a suspended hush would fall above and beside the boisterous waters of the Rhône. The sun had been swallowed up a while since into the darkened hills beyond Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, prodded along by puffs of cloud, and an incipient mist was rising from the river to twist and tease ghostly forms among the shadows.

He loved this twilight hour, loved its peace, its calm, its air of expectation. While the river, in its eternal onrush, upheld the passage of time, humanity was pausing to draw breath and to contemplate. He could picture the monks in the holy houses of Avignon as they intoned their evening litany, their thoughts no doubt all too often sneaking away to more earthly fantasies. Elsewhere, in palace and hovel alike, with the evening meal cleared away, the beds and the paillasses would be spread out in readiness for the night. Then, as darkness took hold, the taverns, the bawdy-houses, the street beggars, the stray dogs, the pigs and the rats would begin their nocturnal revelries.

The clank of chains over by the entrance tower guarding the bridge signalled that the gate would soon be closing, a little before curfew sounded. He turned, ready to head back towards the city, which lay half-hidden amongst its putrid odours beyond the imposing rock that dominates both city and river.

But then, almost at once, he stopped short. What was that? A shout, then a scream, long and wailing. It came from somewhere behind him, from close to where the bridge met the island. Did he hear a splash too, or was that just the river swirling and slapping against the heavy stone piers of the bridge? He screwed up his eyes, peering through the mist. A figure was hurrying towards him, dark cloak billowing in the mounting breeze. He hovered, uncertain. As the figure drew close, never slowing its pace, he called out:

“Is all well? Can I be of…?”

“Go home. There is nothing.”

– and the apparition was gone, speeding away with an almost ethereal lightness as fast as it had come. The voice, sharp and imperious, spoke in Provençal with a cultured lilt. Briefly, in the mere blink of an eye, he had glimpsed a face, pale and shadow-etched within the hollow of its hood.

What startled him most, however, was that the figure was, quite unmistakably, a woman. A gentlewoman, not old but of mature years, abroad and alone at dusk? He followed after her, hastening too, stepping down from the bridge just in time to see her disappear into the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Les Fusteries.

Was that true? Was there nothing to be concerned about? The woman had indicated quite emphatically that there was not, or at least that it was none of his business, yet…that wailing scream, he had heard it, he was certain, regardless of the distortions of mist and surging water, and it had twisted a knot in his belly. Should he have turned back, gone to investigate? So what might he have found? Whatever had transpired, there would surely be no trace left now. And even if there had been…what then? He could have reported it to the guards at the gate as he left the bridge, but what was there to report? A scream, that was all. Nothing substantial, nothing so very unusual. Not to them. They would merely have shrugged and dismissed him as a trouble-monger.

With his mind still in turmoil and his conscience troubled he lay awake for much of the night, eventually collapsing into a leaden sleep in the not-so-early hours. “Go home. There is nothing.” The words broke apart his dreams, lapsing into a contorted wail like the anguished drone of bagpipes. A woman of class alone on the bridge at dusk: that was not nothing.

Yet what haunted him most was neither her words, nor the shadowy figure itself. It was her eyes. Fleetingly, as she passed, he had caught their fire-fly spark, and it was as if a streak of lightning had pierced him, rooting him to the ground. Startled, silenced, he had stood for a moment, unable to move. What had he seen there? Was it fear, a warning, a threat even? Or merely a haughty disdain?  A second or two, that was all, and she was gone. Yet it was long enough for those eyes to become seared into his memory.

 

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