‘Arabesque’ A flash fiction inspired by an astrolabe.

And now, as they say, time for something COMPLETELY different.

I’ve been wondering what to do since my web serial finished last week. It took over the blog for months on end (in a good way I think), but its completion has left a void. For the moment I am going to fill it with some more flash fiction inspired by a variety of the places I fly to. I might also throw other things into the mix; we’ll see.

So, this week I have been to Doha in Qatar. At first glance there does not appear to be much to become inspired by in this small state principally known for its oil, heat (43 degrees this week),  style-icon 2nd wife of the Emir,  Sheika Mozah, and its position as surprise host of the World Cup in 2022.

Heedless of the intense heat and armed with a fistful of the local currency I jumped into an air-conditioned taxi and headed for the Museum of Islamic Art. This, for those of you unfamiliar with art institutions of the Middle East, is an amazing buildng designed by the Chinese architect I.M.Pei.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

It’s worth the visit just to marvel at it from the outside.

However, walk through its doors (and this is advised at noon when even the locals run for shaded cover) and a feast of ancient arabic art awaits. Most interesting for me was an astonishing collection of arabic astrolabes.


An astrolabe

Now, I’ll be honest; I didn’t know what an astrolabe was until Wednesday. I do now, but this is not the time to be explaining it to you. (Go on, do a google search; you know you love it).

This morning, back in the temperate climes of Europe, it occured to me that an astrolabe would be the perfect subject for a quick story. And so I give you what I hope is the only #fridayflash this week to contain an astrolabe, a hot dog and a harem.


Miranda’s gaze drifted indifferently over the line of rickety tables laden with useless, dirty, unwanted junk; its effluvium caught in the back of her throat and she lifted her head in a bid to find fresh air.

Every Sunday morning they joined the flotsam of weary junk addicts in the search for what her husband called the Holy Grail of the car-booter. Didn’t he know that even the stupidest vendor could recognise a Clarice Cliffe saucer by now? Let alone a Fabergé.

She spotted him wading through the tide of bargain hunters, holding aloft two hotdogs; she hadn’t the heart to deflate his dream of finding that elusive gem, but when had he got the idea into his head that she enjoyed this?

‘Here, love, this’ll keep you going; there’s a way to go yet.’

Miranda took the hotdog and fell in behind Henry, carefully avoiding the muddy puddles which infested the field. As the sun appeared from behind a cloud, she was momentarily distracted by something glinting in a box marked ‘mixed junk’ under one of the tables. Miranda crouched down, careful to keep the onions from escaping their position on top of her frankfurter, and pulled the object out. It was bigger than she expected, about the size of her palm, round and made of, what? Brass?  The disc was attached to a long chain and consisted of a number of dials and pointers which seemed to move around in different directions. Miranda held it up to the light; she made out a series of symbols and some sort of writing around the edge; it looked like Arabic.

‘Two quid to you darlin’.’

Miranda kept her eyes on her find.

‘What is it?’

‘’orse brass I should think. Call it one-fifty.’

Miranda put her hotdog on the edge of the table and flicked one of the dials. It span for two seconds before stopping; she was just trying to make out the symbol indicated by the pointer when a stream of light appeared to burst from the centre of the disc. It wrapped itself around Miranda gently like a silk veil as the field became an indistinct mirage and the air filled with warmth and the heady aroma of incense.

Miranda gasped in wonder as her surroundings shimmered into focus. She found herself amidst a crowd of women each draped in translucent silk flecked with gold. Somewhere to her left she could hear the gentle sound of a fountain; its cool draught tickled her bare feet.

‘We welcome you, sister; new bearer of the false astrolabe.’

One of the women embraced Miranda; her dark skin was smooth and smelt of jasmine.

‘I..I..don’t understand.’

The woman smiled.

‘None do; at first.’

Miranda found herself led into a small chamber draped in silks and satins. Myriad sparkling jewels hung from every beam and glimmered at every neck. The women smiled gently, greeting Miranda with bright eyes and open hands.

‘Where is this? How did I get here?’

‘You are in the inner sanctum of the Sultan’s palace. Many have come before; we know not how, but all have worn the false astrolabe.’

‘Why am I here?’

The woman smiled but did not answer.

‘Come,’ she said, ‘you must bathe before tonight’s pleasures.’

Once again, Miranda allowed herself to be led, this time to a pool strewn with magnolia flowers. She had the sensation of being willingly complicit in a guilty pleasure and felt no further need to question her sudden change in situation.

Later, as her hair was combed, an older woman approached the chamber.

‘The Sultan requests the presence of the newest member of his harem and offers her his most generous treasure.’

Shy laughter rippled around the room from twinkling eyes behind flowing veils.

‘You will not be disappointed,’ said the woman, ‘at least, none has yet been.’ 

Afterwards, Miranda returned to the chamber and luxuriated in the memory of her time with the Sultan. Whilst not entirely without passion, her husband’s performances were irregular and of a somewhat perfunctory nature; the last few hours had shown Miranda a glimpse of both the athletic possibilities of desire and of the infinite varieties of joy which were available. She lay back and clasped the astrolabe to her chest. She felt full of a warm sensuousness which was at once entirely unfamiliar and yet quite natural.

Miranda was jolted from her reverie by a voice.

‘It is time to return.’

Miranda sighed.

‘I know.’

The woman kissed her on both cheeks and motioned to the astrolabe.

‘It brought the others back.’

Miranda peered at the dial and noticed for the first time a tiny magnolia tree engraved in the brass just where the pointer had come to rest. She looked at the woman.

‘Goodbye. And thank you.’

Miranda carefully moved the pointer back to the top of the dial and closed her eyes. She immediately sensed the change in atmosphere; the warmth appeared to drain away, taking with it the sweet aroma of jasmine and incense. She took a deep breath before opening her eyes.

‘Don’ keep me waiting all day love, do you wan’ it or not?’

Miranda’s eyes moved firstly from the astrolabe to the hotdog sitting limply on the table, then to her husband who had turned round and was waving a teapot in the air. A smile slowly forced its way across her face.

‘I’ll take it,’ she said, ‘I’ve been searching for one of these for ages.’

© flyingscribbler 2011


27 comments on “‘Arabesque’ A flash fiction inspired by an astrolabe.

  1. laradunning says:

    Wow! In college I traveled through Morroco with my best friend. This brought back alot of memories of that trip. I like how you showed Miranda’s so-so attitude with her life, transported her to place of beauty where she experienced a true lovers touch and then brought her back to the paleness of reality. Nice work!

    • Thanks Lara, always happy to trigger good memories for readers. Wasn’t sure if this would work as it is so different to my serial, but I’m pretty pleased with the outcome.

  2. FARfetched says:

    Yipe… that’s some gadget there! I hope she doesn’t return from one of those trips with a bun in the oven.

  3. sonia says:

    That’s some item! She’ll be taking a lot more trips, huh?

  4. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I really enjoyed this – I think we all dream of finding some kind of forgotten treasure (they never manage it on Bargain Hunt, do they) but she really did. Love the image of the drooping hot dog, too! Freud would have a field day…

  5. Jason Coggins says:

    I reckon you’ve hit onto a winning formula with this Flash; what with your global gallivanting and your nick-name. Despite my admittedly western aligned reservations about treating women as little more than one man’s plaything or property …. this was a tender and charming piece of flash fiction. Catch you next week.

    • Thanks Jason. I was a bit worried about the history of harems: they were not the best places to end up for a woman i’m sure. However, I think Miranda was experiencing a type of wish-fulfilment here and she certainly benefits from her little sojourn out East.

  6. Love the atmosphere you build and the conceit in this. One way to deal with an unhappy marriage!

  7. Sam Adamson says:

    Oh-ho, nicely done there, sir! I hope to goodness Miranda’s husband doesn’t go fiddling with her new purchase, though the look on his face would be priceless to behold!

  8. Steve Green says:

    That there is an awesome ‘orse brass, I wouldn’t be surprised to read of more places where Miranda ends up with it.

    • Is that a request for more Steve?

      • Steve Green says:

        I think you could take Miranda, or anyone else in possession of that there ‘orse brass just about anywhere you wished to, not necessarily nice places either, with time and space travel there are absolutely no limits.

        You could write a series about the artefact itself, and the various people who come across it, and their adventures (or misadventures).

        Good luck with it Justin, should you decide to go with the idea. 🙂

  9. TEC4 says:

    Do you know where I can find a false astrolabe? 🙂 Lovely little story and the long-term repercussions for Miranda could be quite interesting!

    • Short of breaking into the museum to steal one (not recommended) I’m not sure. All the ones I saw were ‘real’ astrolabes. Maybe Miranda found the only known example.

  10. Zaiure says:

    Cleverly written piece! I was instantly intrigued by the story and found it flow very smoothly. There was humor, enchantment, and mystery and I thorougly enjoyed it. 🙂 I’m definitely interested in learning more about this astrolabe. Will Miranda perhaps be able to visit other places as well? What doors will this open for her?

    • glad you found the story flowed well; i wrote it pretty quickly (for me, anyway) so was pleased with the result. Perhaps we will bump into Miranda again one day. Who knows?

  11. johnwiswell says:

    Mystical like your previous series and still carried by characters who expose themselves primarily in dialogue, but a fresh project altogether. Meanwhile I had to look up “car-booter.”

    • Ah…the joys of cross-cultural, transatlantic language evolution! I was aware that most readers are in the US, but felt it would be wrong to translate car-booter. I (rightly) assumed you were all an intelligent, referencing bunch. I love writing dialogue. Maybe I rely on it too much?

  12. Helen says:

    Ah every woman’s dream object! I kept wondering who she would pass the astrolabe to when she got older? Or whether it would find its way back to another antique/junk market. I think you did a splendid job of creating the change in atmosphere from the present to the other world. I liked too how she did not become the play thing of the Sultan but little did he know he would become hers!

    PS: I did google astrolabe – what interesting items they were.

    • Thanks Helen, I was hoping I had made a decent job of the change in atmosphere. Also, that’s exactly what I hoped would come across: that she wasn’t really the object in this.
      I’m now completely absorbed by astrolabes and would love to have a go with one!

  13. Mari Juniper says:

    What a great escape! I really liked this story, it was worth the wait!

  14. Hi there Justin —

    Really liked “twinkling eyes behind flowing veils” and ” the athletic possibilities of desire”. Got your trademark touches of humour in there, and did enjoy the fact that Miranda decides she better take the astrolabe for… uh… reasons of scientific curiosity (cough). lol.


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