This book, which is based on a true story, was written with the help of a Northern Arts writing award. It was eventually published in ten languages – including a two-volume Swedish edition! – and as an audio-book. The success of the book enabled us to buy our house in Crete, where my subsequent novels have been written.
Helen Gloag is 19 when she run away from her Scottish village in 1769, seeking a better life in the Colonies. But her journey takes a horrifying turn when her ship is captured by pirates, the passengers and crew viciously slaughtered. Helen’s beauty sets her apart, however, and she is taken to Morocco to become a concubine in the harem of the Emperor, where she is transformed from a simple peasant girl into a pampered but captive mistress.
Her home is now the glittering harem in Marrakech, crammed with a thousand concubines and bursting with jewels, silks and spices. But she soon realises that, for all its luxury and beauty, there is a deadly danger lurking at the heart of this mysterious court.
‘Literary Viagra… Not just bodice-ripping but thrillingly erotic, sensuously evoked and quirkily intelligent’ Amanda Craig
‘a novel of impressive energy and boldness: a weird and sumptuous historical hybrid that gallops through romance, adventure and sheer horror’ Independent
‘a triumph… sparkling with the playful theatrics of 18th Century style’ Scotland on Sunday
‘a brave, difficult-to-write, exciting book, written with flair and accomplishment’ Barbara Trapido
The Fourth Queen (excerpt)
(When I wrote this, you couldn’t get a Brazilian at your local beauty spa. Now young women routinely depilate as if preparing themselves for sale to a Moroccan harem.)
A stinging slap across Helen’s cheek interrupted her. The two brown women grabbed her and made her stand with her arms aloft while they unhooked the purple dress and pulled it over her head.
They arrived at last outside a huge studded door in one of the clay walls that lined the shuffling streets. The pirate Chief rapped loudly and a wooden grille rattled open at eye-level. Moments later a series of bolts were drawn back and Helen found herself being tugged into a stuffy dark hallway, then shoved out again through another door into a sunny courtyard.
A mountainous Matron stood waiting for them, wiping her hands on an expanse of striped skirt. Her face shiny with sweat, she surged towards the pirate Chief, patting her baggy red lips with the kerchief she wore over her oily plait. He baked away slightly, and she veered towards Helen and the others with a hungry gleam in her eye. Waddling around them, she yanked open their blouses and mouths, and poked their bellies with an expert finger.
Two of the lasses revealed inches of bare gum and, snorting with disgust, the Matron stomped across the courtyard and disappeared behind one of several floor-length white curtains. When she emerged a few minutes later, she had a purse of coins in her hand, which she shook at the pirate Chief, jabbing accusingly at him until he clutched the purse to his chest, bowed hurriedly and left.
As soon as the door closed behind him, the curtains were flung back and a dozen plump wee lassies, about eight years old, scampered out into the sunlight. Helen looked around warily. Perhaps this was a school and they were to be teachers. Or pupils: perhaps they’re been brought here to learn that strange yelpy language. The place seemed clean enough, and a delicious meaty smell was wafting from a smoke-blackened kitchen. Saliva flooded her mouth.
The wee lasses fluttered around the newcomers, giggling and shyly toughing their clothes. their palms and the soles of their feet were a bright yellow colour and flashed like goldfinches’ wings as they moved. Three bulky brown women emerged a moment later and stood in a solid group. Helen started at their hair. How thick it was, like sheep’s wool, and short like the brown men’s on the ship. And their lips: fat and swollen. Was that what the cloaks outside were hiding?
At a word from the Matron, one of the brown women began untying the ropes around their ankles while the other two carried brimming basins of water and clods of greyish soap to a shady corner of the courtyard. Betty nudged Helen: ‘Looks like we’re going to get a wash,’ she whispered.
‘Ay,’ Helen whispered back. ‘But I don’t fancy stripping off in front of those muckle brown –‘
A stinging slap across her cheek interrupted her. The two brown women grabbed her and made her stand with her arms aloft while they unhooked the purple dress and pulled it over her head. Then they led her over to the corner of the courtyard like a muddy horse and began scrubbing her from head to toe.
Helen hung her head with the shame of it. No one had seen her naked since she was a wean. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to pretend she was six years old again, and they were her granny’s nails scratching in her armpit, her granny’s hands lathering between her legs.
But there was worse to come. When she was clean, she was taken into one of the curtained rooms where a smelly yellow sludge was seething gently over a charcoal brazier. There she was laid out on a reed mat and one brown woman held her down, while the other slapped a burning pad of the yellow sludge onto Helen’s pubic hair. She waited a few moments, while Helen writhed with shock and pain, then suddenly ripped it off again, pulling a big patch of pubic hair out by the roots.
Helen stifled a scream. What were they doing to her? But it soon became clear: they were removing every scrap of hair from her body. It was agony: apart from the sting of the hair being plucked, there was something in the yellow mixture that burnt her, over and over, until the skin in her crotch and armpits, on her arms and legs, was red-raw and smooth as satin.
The sun was low by the time all the Scots lasses had been done. They stood naked and shivering in the centre of the courtyard, avoiding one another’s eyes. How strange they all looked, Helen thought,: white backs peppered with flea bites; limbs red as scrubbed carrots.
The Matron came out to inspect them, her flabby mouth stretching into a greedy grin as she ran her hands over their smooth flanks. She seemed especially pleased with the fairer lasses: two sisters with pale eyelashes and wispy blonde hair; and Helen with her heavy amber curls.
Clean clothes were brought out: baggy striped cotton breeks and loose white blouses down to the knee, coloured sashes and embroidered waistcoats. The Matron grunted approval as they began dressing themselves. Then one of the brown women pointed at Helen and hurried off to fetch something.
It was the purple dress: newly washed and ironed, it billowed and glimmered in the woman’s arms. the Matron stroked it with pudgy fingers, peering at the tiny stitches along the seams. Then she looked at Helen again, and a look of pure greed stole over her sweaty face.