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A fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults set in the late 18 th century, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, and inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose.

The novel will draw upon ‘The Blue Rose,’ a fairy tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose.

Extract from Dancing on Knives

The Sanchez family had always lived by the sea. Augusto boasted the blood of Andalusian pirates flowed in their veins. Sara’s earliest memories were of sea-sparkle, sea-slither. She liked to lie at the very edge of the water, translucent waves running cold, delicate fingers all over her body. She liked to float on her stomach, her face below the water, watching her shadow darken the world below, like a cyclone moving in. She liked to twist and writhe through the water, legs pressed together, pretending she was a mermaid like La Sirenita in the story her grandmother used to tell, who lived in the depths of the clear blue sea, deeper than a hundred church steeples all stacked one on top of another. 

Augusto had first come to the south coast in search of the sea. He had heard its beaches were clean and empty, and its ancient landscape crying out to be painted. He had only meant to come for a few weeks, to visit his sister Juanita who had just given birth to a little girl she had named Gabriela. ‘But then I met your mother,’ he would say with a shrug. ‘Somehow I found myself hitched.’

Sara guessed that Augusto had never wanted to be married. Perhaps they were happy at first, though. She could imagine Augusto spending his days painting, swimming, strumming his guitar, and playing with his new baby boy, Pablo. She could imagine Bridget trying to make them a home, trying to make her family like him.

By the time Sara was born, however, Augusto was restless. He had failed to sell many paintings, and had conceived an abiding dislike for his in-laws, whom he described as provincial beige as their couch. He was ready to try his luck in the big city. 

All the important art dealers were based there, Sara knew, along with the galleries that could launch a painter’s career, the journalists and curators who could nurture it, and the art prizes that could make a painter a household name. Augusto had begun to build a reputation as an art student in Melbourne, having paintings hung in several exhibitions and winning a minor prize or two, but four years and two children had made all the difference. Students Augusto had once sneered at were now better known than he was. He had to find himself a studio, showing his work to galleries, attending openings, getting involved with artist-run spaces, making contacts, submitting to the Archibald and the Wynne, selling paintings. 

Augusto had sworn that he would never return to Melbourne, so he set his heart on Sydney. Despite Bridget’s reluctance to leave her nearest and dearest and her anxiety about how they were to manage financially, the whole family moved to Sydney before Sara had turned one. 

The next few years were spent in cheap rental accommodation, first in Coogee, then Maroubra. Then Augusto declared his hatred for the eastern suburbs and they moved across the Bridge to Wollstonecraft, where they lasted only six weeks before Augusto decided he was unable to paint because he was severed from his spiritual connection to the sea. By this time Bridget was heavily pregnant with the twins and losing her early infatuation with the idea of being married to an artist. After long, bitter arguments they agreed to find a flat by the sea in Manly, close to the hospital, shops, and a good primary school for Pablo, who would be starting in kindergarten only a few months before the twins were due to be born.

Sara could remember bright snatches of that time. She remembered how 
enormous her mother had been. Fingers swollen up like sausages, face round and red as Edam cheese, feet so fat she could not stuff them into shoes. She remembered how her mother had to go to hospital long before the babies were born. She remembered how frightened she had been. Augusto had frowned. ‘Things are happening for me at last,’ he said. ‘I’m painting better than I ever have.’
‘But, Gus, I need you,’ Bridget said, tears rolling over her cheeks. ‘Who’ll look after the kids?’ ‘I’ll ring my mother,’ Augusto said.

Consuelo caught the train from Melbourne to Sydney, sleeping bolt upright in her chair, wrapped in her old Spanish shawl. She changed trains at Central Station and caught the ferry across to Manly where Augusto and the children met her at the wharf.

‘Shouldn’t you meet her at Central?’ Bridget had asked, sitting up against a pile of pillows, looking rather less round and red in the face after two days in the air-conditioned comfort of the hospital. ‘After all, she is getting rather old now.’ ‘My mother escaped the Spanish Civil War, alone, on foot, pregnant and with a toddler in tow,’ Augusto said. ‘She had to climb the Pyrenees in winter. I think she can manage to find Manly on her own. Spanish women are bred tough, you know. Not like you soft Aussies.’ He laughed as he spoke, but Bridget had pressed her lips together and looked away. Consuelo Sanchez was indeed a redoubtable woman.

Her mother, Sofia, had been a Catalan aristocrat, Augusto told his children many times. She had been educated in France and Switzerland, dressed by Parisian couturiers, taught to dance by an Italian count. On holiday on the Costa del Sol she had fallen in love with an Andalusian gypsy playing guitar in a backstreet restaurant with a troupe of flamenco singers and dancers. 

Enrique Sanchez had been a charming, handsome, dissolute man with a deep voice full of pathos and an ancestry filled with pirates, horse-thieves, mercenaries and courtesans. His father, Mauricio, had been raised in a cave with a dirt floor, a tin chimney, a black pig and six chickens, and had made his money whenever he could, wherever he could, though principally with the vibrato of his voice, the snap and strum of his fingers, the click of his heels. 

His mother, Madelina, had grown up in the servant quarters of Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, the daughter of the palace chef. Her family had been in the employ of the royal family since the time of mad Isabel II, who had scandalised the arrogant aristocracy of Madrid with her string of lovers, her extravagance and her violent temper. Eventually she had had to abdicate the throne and flee Spain, but Madelina’s family had simply waited until her son, Alfonso XII, won back the throne and then began cooking for him. 

By the time Madelina was born, Alfonso XII was dead and his son, born posthumously, was the king. According to family mythology, the child-king and the daughter of the cook grew up together, playing hide-and-seek in the gardens and floating paper boats on the palace fountains. Sara had always thought privately that this was probably an imaginative embellishment. For by the time Sofia the Catalan aristocrat fell in love with the handsome guitar player Enrique, his mother Madelina was running a restaurant in Cádiz and no-one seemed to know how she had got from being the playmate of the king in Zarzuela Palace to being married to a flamenco dancer who had grown up in a cave. 

Embellishments and exaggerations aside, Sara had always adored listening to the stories of Augusto’s ancestry, for they were filled with romance, adventure, music, dancing and danger. She loved hearing how Sofia had fallen in love with Enrique at first sight and had run away from home to marry him, giving up all her wealth and consequence, all her jewels and Parisian dresses, to work in her mother-in-law’s restaurant. By all accounts they had been happy as larks, raising seven laughing children who all inherited their father’s deep, rich voice and their mother’s high-boned aristocratic features and blue-green eyes. Eyes that Pablo, Sara and Teresa had all in turn inherited from their father.

Sara’s grandmother, Consuelo, had been the seventh child of a seventh child, which according to folklore endowed her with the gift of being able to see the future. She had grown up in that restaurant in Cádiz, stealing almonds and figs from the table as her grandmother made tocino de cielo, the rich caramel custard which rather oddly translates as ‘bacon of the heavens’, helping her mother chop onion and capsicum to make gazpacho, and being allowed to break the eggs for the huevos a la flamenco, an old gypsy dish that was one of the restaurant’s specialties. 

She learnt the recipes her grandmother’s grandmother had cooked for mad Isabel II, made with partridge, duck, quince, pomegranates, the testicles of toros slain in the corridas, and other rare ingredients. She learnt to make the rich, fiery soups and tortillas of the gypsies, the olla gitana which was their primary sustenance and made with whatever meat, vegetables and fruit that were to hand. From her mother, she learnt the traditional dishes of Catalonia, the sofrito, picada, alioli, samfaina and romesco that Catalan chefs have perfected over centuries. 

From her father’s family Consuelo also learnt to dance flamenco and to tell fortunes. According to family myth, she foretold the coming of General Francisco Franco, who launched his revolution against Madelina’s old playmate, Alfonso XIII, in 1936. 
The streets will run with blood, she said. And they did. 

Forewarned by Consuelo, the family managed to flee Cádiz which was the first city to fall to Franco. With trunks and furniture piled high in farm trucks and one elegant open car with wide running boards and headlamps like surprised eyes, they left Cádiz three days before the coup d’état. There was Consuelo’s grandmother, Madelina, Enrique and Sofia, plus five of Enrique and Sofia’s seven children, Félicité, Juan Joseph, Giuseppino, Evangelique and Consuelo, who was then just twenty-two. With them went Consuelo’s husband of three weeks, her cousin Placido Sebastian Dominic Augusto Sanchez, and though she did not yet know it, a tiny embryo coiled deep within Consuelo’s womb. 

They went to Barcelona, to Sofia’s family, who rather reluctantly helped them all find homes and work, much of it on their own estates. Madelina opened up another restaurant where Enrique and the boys played their guitars, and the girls danced and sang and cooked, just as they had always done. 

There was little money to be made from singing and dancing in those days, though. For the next three years the most terrible, bitter, bloody civil war imaginable was waged. Half a million Spaniards died, including Enrique, Sofia, Félicité, Juan Joseph, Giuseppino, Evangelique, and Placido Sebastian Dominic Augusto Sanchez. 

Not all were murdered. Sofia died of a combination of starvation and dysentery, Evangelique died from a fever contracted after giving birth to a little stillborn girl, Florenza, who was buried with her, and Placido died in Barcelona’s final desperate attempt to keep out Franco. The city fell in January 1939. By the time Franco’s soldiers were marching down the Ramblas, Consuelo, her grandmother, and her three-year-old daughter, Juanita, were among the thousands of refugees fleeing through the Pyrenees into France. It was winter and the mountain paths were deep with snow, the towering peaks wreathed in mist. Many of the refugees were barefoot and scantily clothed. Consuelo herself was six months pregnant. She had only what she could carry on her back – some bread, a bag of garbanzos, her shawl, her iron stew-pot, a knife, her beloved recipe book and her tarot cards, wrapped together in a length of silk cut from her wedding dress. 

The three women – the grandmother, the young pregnant mother and the child – went through the Pass of Roncesvalles, the same pass that Charlemagne had fled through more than a thousand years earlier with the Saracens snarling at his heels. It was there that the legendary warrior Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, raised his magical horn Oliphant and called desperately for help as the rearguard he led was ambushed by the Basques. 

‘He blew his horn so hard blood gushed from his nostrils. Three times he blew, and the sound of his horn was so deafening the trees shook as if in a gale and the birds of the air fell dead about him,’ Consuelo would say. ‘But it was too late. By the time Charlemagne came charging to his rescue, the Infante Roland was dead, his sword Durandel stained to the hilt with blood, and dead too were all his men.

‘I also stained my blade with blood, coming through the Pass of Roncesvalles. That means the Valley of Thorns, you know, and indeed it was a cruel, cold, thorny way. My only consolation is that it was not Spanish blood I drew, but French, and we all would have died if I had not killed him. The Dutch say, when something is easy, that it takes as much effort as casting a Frenchman into hell. Well, I won’t say it was an easy thing to do, killing that bastardo, but he sure as hell went to hell, that I know.’

She was unable to save Madelina, who died the night before they crossed the border into France, as if she could not bear to leave Spanish soil. Augusto was born that same night, a posthumous child, like his deposed king. If Consuelo had been able to walk just a few more steps, he would have been born in France but even then his will was strong, Augusto said, and he demanded he be born in the country of his forefathers. 

Consuelo laughed at this interjection and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Quizás, no quizás. All I know is that I didn’t have the heart to walk anymore that night. Though certainly you had a will to live, mis hijo. You were about the size of a fish and as blue. I never thought you’d live. Juanita had to cut the cord, although she was not much older than little Sara here, and we scrubbed you all over with snow, and wrapped you up in my shawl and then we went on. I prayed for you every step I took. Maybe it was because we were walking the old pilgrims’ way, but God heard my prayers and spared you. I think he knew I could not bear to lose anyone else.

‘I was sick, though, and hot, so hot I wanted to tear off all my clothes and lie down in the snow. I kept seeing strange things – angels and ghosts, people I knew were dead. My poor Juanita was so frightened. She ran to find help. An old shepherd took me in. Apparently I punched him in the eye. I don’t remember doing it. When I woke three days had gone by. He’d kept Augusto alive by feeding him ewe’s milk. It was from that old shepherd that I got my recipe for patatas a la riojana. It was all we ate when we were there. I would not eat it at first, it was so red, like blood, and it made me weep it was so hot. All the food in Navarre is red – it’s all the roasted bell peppers and chilli they use. It’s because so many of the adventurers who explored the New World were from Navarre, did you know that? Even though they are so far from the sea. So many good things they found in the New World – chillis, bell peppers, potatoes, chocolate – all brought back by those Navarre sailors.’ 

That was how Consuelo told her stories, the past and the present, myth and memory, all muddled up so no story was ever told in quite the same way. In the months after she came to live with Pablo and Sara she told them many, many stories. If either of the children woke at night it was Consuelo who came and soothed them with her deep, sad voice, which never failed to rock them back into sleep. ‘Far out at sea the water is as blue as the bluest cornflower and as clear as the clearest crystal, but it is very deep, so deep that if a hundred steeples were piled on top of each other they would not break the surface of the water. It is down there that La Sirenita lived …’

It was Consuelo who made them churros for breakfast, brazo de gitano for afternoon tea and zarzuela de mariscos for dinner. She packed up cold tortilla for Pablo to take to school for lunch, though he begged for vegemite sandwiches like the other children, and went to pick him up after kindy, dressed as always in black from head to toe and looking as much a demented widow as Queen Victoria ever did. 

Their grandmother was a very small woman, with coarse, dark, greasy hair streaked with grey that she always wore in a low bun, and sea-green eyes that were extraordinarily vivid against her swarthy skin. She peppered her speech with Spanish words and phrases that meant nothing to the children, so they were never quite sure what she was saying to them. 

Her stories were filled with terror and cruelty that mesmerised the children and gave them nightmares. She told them how El Cid was murdered on his wedding day by a Saracen spy and how his wife of only a few hours tied his corpse to his horse and whipped it so it galloped towards the enemy who shot arrow after arrow into it, then fled at last in terror, thinking El Cid a demon that could not be killed. Her fairy stories were filled with gruesome details not always found in the children’s picture books – red-hot shoes the evil stepmother must dance in till she dies, the cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue, the queen asking the huntsman to bring her a bottle of Snow White’s blood stoppered with her big toe. Consuelo was drawn to the more tragic songs and tales, perhaps because she could no longer believe in happy ever after.