Monday, November 15, 2004

The Allegrezza Ficcione, Part 20

He was woken by Akhmat bringing him breakfast – coffee, yoghourt, orange juice & toast. Somehow the simplicity of the meal seemed reassuring, an indicator that despite the ultimate end he had committed himself to last night the journey would be straightforward & rewarding. &, after all, four years was a time long enough for a great deal to happen in.

He went & had what seemed like a short shower; but by the time he returned his breakfast tray had gone, & his bag was open & the dirty clothes removed from it. He was almost dressed when there was a knock on the door. He opened it to find Iskander standing there.

"The master has asked that I take you for a drive & show you the farm this morning, let you get your bearings, get some fresh air. You won't need a jacket, but I would suggest putting some shoes on. There'll be a bit of walking involved. I'll pick you up at the front door in five minutes."

Iskander was at the wheel of another Landrover when Allegrezza came outside. Again right hand drive, but this one had a canvas-covered back & was painted in camouflage colours. They started off, continuing on the driveway that Anil had brought him in by. It didn't circle the house, only went round to the back & then several paths branched off from there.

They passed the buildings Allegrezza had seen previously. There was a garage that would hold at least six cars or several trucks plus a large attached workshop which was open & appeared extremely well-equipped. Beside it was a high-roofed barn – "A fruit-packing shed". But behind them, & hidden from the road, were a number of other large buildings. One was obviously a cool store, but the others could have been anything, & Iskander did not say what they were. They were all air-conditioned, the cooling towers not on the roof where they would have been visible from a distance but beside them.

The generator noise was much louder here, & Iskander drove in its direction. Allegrezza was astounded when they came to it. It was the size of a small power station, with three attendant fuel tanks. There was a second, smaller building nearby. A back-up generator, explained Iskander, sufficient to keep most of the place going should there be a breakdown, or for those times maintenance was carried on the main one.

Then they headed out towards the more open side of the grounds. Yes, it was a Moore – "Before my time," said Iskander as he parked on a square sealed area marked with lines that could have been either a tennis court without the net posts or a helicopter pad – Iskander shrugged in answer to Allegrezza's question.

They walked through fenced fields with goats of obviously different varieties – "meat" as they passed through one; "wool" as they went by another; sheep – "both"; & a larger field with Mongolian ponies in it. "The master breeds them."

Further back Allegrezza could see what at first seemed to be shrubs but which, he realised after a few minutes, were actually the tops of trees growing somewhere below the level of the surrounding land. "There's a dry river bed over there which we've turned into part of the orchard. We're growing avocadoes in it. I've run rails along each side so we can cover it with netting. Keeps the trees hidden from the birds. It's a trick I learnt in Afghanistan, fighting the Russians. A little more sophisticated, but it serves the same purpose. & it's time we were getting back."

They walked back to the Landrover. Iskander returned to the house by way of the main orchard, along a track that ran between mangoes on one side & figs & oranges on the other. "We are blessed with water here. There are aquifers that we draw on, & they in turn are fed by rivers that this far up are not yet polluted. Plus we recycle much of what we use & that helps keep these trees irrigated. & the waste makes good fertiliser. Nothing is wasted, nothing is thrown away. It is a necessary condition for survival."

The house felt empty when they got back, but within five minutes everybody was gathered in the courtyard for lunch. Afterwards Tamur took Allegrezza inside & down a corridor that ran around the courtyard side of the downstairs floor. He opened the door of a room about halfway down. There were several computers & fax machines on desks around the room, & on the wall were six tv monitors, all on, one with the CNN crawl-line underneath, another with the BBC logo on it, a stock-market report, Iran State TV, a Russian-language channel &, incongruously, a Disney cartoon channel.

Tamur laughed when he saw Allegrezza's double-take at the latter. "We all have our eccentricities. Did you enjoy your trip around the farm? We've been self-supporting here for nearly seven hundred years. Some things are new – the avocadoes & mangoes, the angora goats, a few invisible things – but this has been a commercial venture for all that time. We've had to make accomodations with various parties at various times, but we've survived."

"Seven hundred years?"

"Yes. Actually longer. This was a way-station for Hassan, near the Silk Road but away from it, with certain natural features that have been improved over the years. Then it became a refuge & a repository, & then just a repository with the need to pay for itself."

"A repository for what?"

"Hassan's records initially. But at the time of the Crusades it was felt that all the manuscripts & books that fuelled the great Islamic rebirth of knowledge, especially those that had been taken out from Alexandria by those opposed to Omar's zealotry, should be kept somewhere safe. & this was the perfect spot. There were caves beneath, with dry air flowing through them, unknown to all but a few. There was sufficient water, again the extent of which was widely unknown, which meant that food could be grown. In moderation, but sufficient to trade in. It was out of the way, but still accessible by coming overland & avoiding the main towns. It was part of the domain of a Khan whose family had followed the teachings of The Book for several generations. It has remained intact ever since, not through warlike methods but mainly through diplomacy. Besides, it was never thought that there was much here of value. Custodianship has devolved generally through descent, but there have been times when the Council has stepped in. I've spent the last forty years modernising it. Have had to enter into some partnerships that I have been uneasy about, & some that others have been uncomfortable with, but we've thrived rather than just survived. Now everbody protects us, because we're an asset to all of them. Come, let me show you the Library."

There was a door beside the room they had just left, which, judging by its position relative to the size of the room where they had been, opened into something that could be little more than a cupboard. Tamur unlocked it. In front of them was a steel wall but which, about a minute after Tamur had pressed his hand against a point two thirds of the way up it, slid open to reveal a lift.

"How far down do we go?" asked Allegrezza.

"About sixty metres."

The lift opened out into a glassed-in vestibule, about three metres square. There was a door directly opposite, with an alpha-numeric keypad. Tamur walked across to it, waited for the lift doors to close, then entered in a ten-key code & pulled the door open. He waved Allegrezza through, then followed.

The air was cool, dry. The sound of the air-conditioners maintaining the atmosphere was faint but they seemed extremely efficient. The area was large; the corridor – aisle? – that faced them ran for what must have been a hundred metres. Off to each side of them a fifty-metre stretch. They were dimly lit, but Umberto could see other corridors running off them, creating blocks of four rooms each.

Directly in front of them, the two rooms on each side of the central corridor had been turned into one larger room. These were brightly lit. In one of them Anil was entering data into a computer. In the other the two Lees were working on either side of a long bench. White screens descended from the ceiling. On the screen Allegrezza could see there was a projected image of what looked like a commercial invoice in Classical Greek which the Lee with her back to him – Joo-eun? – was copying onto a sheet of papyrus using a stylus. Dae was engaged in a similar task.

Tamur ignored them, appeared not to hear Allegrezza's enquiry about what they were doing. He beckoned Allegrezza & they walked down the corridor in front of them. "It is an inefficient use of space, but it is a most effective way of maintaining the integrity of the collection. A controlled temperature, & almost no humidity. It was a cave originally, but it has now been strengthened by steel & concrete. Designed to resist the earthquakes that happen here with some regularity, though they are nowhere near as severe as those in other parts of the country."

He opened a door & a light came on. There was a compactus down each side of each room. He wound the first handle & when there was a sufficiently large opening reached in, took out a plastic envelope & handed it to Allegrezza. Inside was a single sheet of parchment, about A5 size, on which, slightly faded but still elegantly scribed, was a poem inside an ornate decorative border. Allegrezza translated the Arabic as he looked at it, over-whelmed. It was titled The Mother of Wine, & had the signature Abu Abd Allah Rudaki at the bottom.

"We have been fortunate in that most of those who have presided over this collection have felt compelled to increase it. There are books & manuscripts from the West, from the East, from Russia, from India. There are poems from schools of poetry that have been forgotten, There are treatises on mathematics & medicine & science & philosphy. There are plays from the Greeks that surpass those that are known. There is erotica from writers whose other work would suggest that they had no interest in sex. & there are two more caves. I am sure there will be much to interest you."

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