© Suzanne Myers
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
The cleaning lady was clanging wastepaper baskets and cursing the dust that covered everything in a film of grey. The other staff who shared the dingy quarters of the British Museum's Department of Near Eastern Antiquities had gone home. Tim alone remained to seize a few moments of privacy in which to contemplate the revolution that had taken place in his head. He waited for the cleaning lady to go before taking up his pen and writing in his spidery hand on to a scrap of museum paper:
'I am coming to believe a most dangerous thing. If it ever becomes known that I, Timothy Fiddler, am entertaining such fantastic notions my career will be over.’ He glanced behind him, then continuing, ‘Those who I once considered friends are now ‘the enemy’. There are books I long to study but I cannot do so in the open. When my colleagues have left I lock the department door before opening these forbidden texts. Of course, they are not forbidden but they are not the kind of books that I would like to be seen reading...' Here, he paused and looked up. A shaft of evening sunlight shouldered its way through the barred window, reminding him of a world outside engulfed in summer. He went on, '...If it ever becomes known that I, Dr Timothy Fiddler, have strayed from the path of accepted knowledge into ‘speculation’ I will be a laughing stock of the archaeological world in which I have, so far, managed to gain a certain respect.’
Tim ripped the paper from his blotter, scrunched it into a ball and tossed it into the otherwise empty wastepaper basket, only to almost immediately retrieve it and stuff it into his jacket pocket. He exhaled deeply. The unassuming two-inch fragment of stone tablet responsible for his transformation lay before him on the desk. He picked it up, feeling the weight of it in his palm and fingering the tightly packed gouges and cuts that to Tim were like Braille to a blind man.
The tablet had been brought into the museum a few days earlier by a woman who claimed to be a journalist, recently returned from the Gulf. Tim was immediately suspicious. People were constantly bringing artefacts into the museum for an ‘expert opinion’, often shamelessly embroidering the circumstances of their discovery to make the object seem the more intriguing. These finds were usually trinkets purchased in foreign markets or turned-up in grandma's loft, seeming the more valuable their provenance lost. Most were worthless replicas, made and marketed by charlatans. It was an age-old trade that had flourished even in the days of ancient Greece where craftsmen busily manufactured Egyptian temple statues to sell to visiting, culture-hungry Romans.
Even before Tim had seen what she had to show, this journalist managed to irritate him by sidestepping the usual formality of allowing a junior curatorial assistant to bring the artefact to him. She had insisted on being seen in person and Tim Fiddler, or Dr Fiddler as he preferred to be known to the general public, could hardly object once she was standing at his desk. He had been working on an ancient gaming board, fashioned for a game whose vanished rules he was trying to re-invent. It was certainly an amusing way of passing an otherwise dreary afternoon but even he was doubtful as to its value in terms of promoting an understanding of early Near Eastern civilization; his ‘pigeon’.
“But how did you get in?” he asked, mildly shocked by the apparent lapse in security.
“The door was open,” she answered simply. Tim knew that was impossible. The door was on a spring and locked automatically when it closed. He had locked himself out of his own department often enough to know. “Are you the one who knows about Iraq?”
“I'm Dr Fiddler,” Tim said, not sure whether he was more dismayed or affronted by her manner, “and if you mean Ancient Sumer, then I am. And you are?”
“Heather, Heather Turner, pleased to meet you,” she held out a slender hand. Tim wondered for a moment whether to kiss it or shake it. He opted to shake. “Right,” she said and, without waiting to be asked, took a seat at his desk. Tim eyed her as she ferreted in her bag. She had wild, flame red hair, green eyes and a high complexion that looked as though it had recently been exposed to an unkind sun. She wore a combination of clothes whose colours and textures were sufficiently at odds with one another to be an offence to Tim’s eye. His sensibility, that was chiefly aesthetic, was disturbed by such jangling disharmony. Bringing out of her bag an object wrapped in a khaki scarf, she said, “Here, take a look at this.”
Tim carefully opened the scarf and found inside a stone tablet. The markings on it were hieroglyphic; not Egyptian hieroglyphs but those of a far earlier written language, which pre-dated cuneiform. Tim was an expert in such ancient text and it appeared genuine.
“Where did it come from?” he asked.
“Never mind where,” she said.
“But it's important. They sell things like this around the corner.”
“I thought you would have an eye for the real thing.”
“I said ‘like this’,” he clarified.
“Mind if I smoke?” Tim did mind but he made an acquiescent gesture since he now wanted her to talk to him. She lit up. “If I tell you, it must be in the strictest confidence.”
“Of course,” he said.
“I was hiding-out near the ancient Mesopotamian city of Sippara during an Iraqi bombing raid. When the dust settled I walked with my guide through the partly excavated ruin of what he told me was a palace thought to have belonged to Nebuchadnezzar.”
“I thought his palace was at Babylon,” Tim queried.
“The best known one, yes, but Sippara was where he dammed the Euphrates to feed Babylon’s hanging gardens and this palace, according to my guide, was rather like a bathing house.”
“Like the temple at Abydos,” Tim said, airing his knowledge of Egyptian archaeology.
“That’s right and the temple at Giza,” Heather added, airing hers’. Tim was impressed. He seemed to be talking to someone who knew something of his subject, which was not usually the case in such situations.
“You know, both of those buildings are now believed to be a lot older than the 2500 years since Nebuchadnezzar’s reign,” he said, thinking hard about the implications of finding and losing such a monument in the course of his brief exchange with this woman. It was no surprise to him that the Iraqis had been excavating this temple, unknown to the rest of the archaeological world, but that they had done this and then bombed it was almost beyond belief.
“Well, that is where I found this fragment of tablet,” said Heather, “It had probably been unearthed by the explosion.”
“Quite likely,” Tim agreed, “so you took it. You know that’s...”
“I don't want to criticise your valiant efforts but the British Museum...”
“Aren't you forgetting that half the stuff in this place is looted!”
“This tablet would have been dust by now if I hadn't rescued it. Anyway, the Iraqis were looting Kuwait. At least my motives were pure.”
“Yes. I was trying to save a bit of that cultural heritage which they sure as hell don't deserve to have! Do you know they were using those ancient sites as weapon stores because they knew we wouldn’t bomb them?”
Tim Fiddler could not help sympathising with Ms Turner's viewpoint. Throughout the one hundred days of war he had been sick with fear for the safety of those precious sites that he had spent his life preparing to visit. Ur, Babylon, Sippara, Uruk - all were now closed to Western archaeologists. Tim's greatest ambition was to one day be invited to lead an expedition into Iraq and his worst fear was that he would be cheated of that longed for day by misguided missiles. He was ashamed to admit that the fate of Kuwait meant little to him compared to the fate of the ruins. The only worthwhile thing that he could imagine coming out of the war was the establishment of a new government in Iraq with which Western archaeologists, like himself, could do business.
“The question is,” she said, “Are you going to help me or not?”
“We could both get into serious trouble,” Tim responded.
“I've already risked my life or at least my freedom, bringing this back,” said Heather now grabbing his hand, “please, help me.”
“Oh lord,” he said, extricating his hand from her grasp and feeling himself compelled by a recklessness that was quite out of character. Heather had unwittingly tweaked the nerve in him that made a distinction between those in his profession labouring in the field and those safely secured behind a desk. Circumstances had given him, in his eyes, the lesser role so the least he could do was to support one courageous enough to have taken risks in pursuit of knowledge. “If you leave it with me I should have something to tell you by next week.”
“That's more like it,” she said, and just as she had shown herself in, she showed herself out.
The first thing Tim had done was to send the tablet to the laboratory for chlorine 36 dating. This was a newly developed test for materials that contained no organic matter and therefore could not be tested using the traditional means of carbon dating. The new test allowed archaeologists to estimate when rock was first exposed, that is, quarried or unearthed. The results provided the first surprise in that the tablet appeared to be thirteen thousand years old. Tim was amazed. Nobody knew how long hieroglyphs had been used as a form of writing but this was certainly the oldest example he had ever come across or, for that matter, heard about. Added to this, if the Sippara ruins from which Heather had plucked it were built by Nebuchadnezzar and were no more than two thousand five hundred years old, then even at that time the tablet must have been a treasured artefact of considerable antiquity. On the other hand, if the building it had come from was contemporary with the tablet, who had been responsible for the construction of such a monument at a time when it was thought that only nomadic herdsmen inhabited the region? Tim hoped that, when translated, the tablet itself would shed light on this mystery but he was already aware that the task of translation might be beyond him and he was one of the best.
Tim began work on the translation using a strong magnifying glass. He furtively stole time during his working day, always listening out for footsteps and often hiding the fragment to avoid detection. It was difficult work. He puzzled over signs that to him meant words that seemed to be clumsy and inept, as though the scribe himself was attempting to translate and interpret an earlier text whose words and concepts were unfamiliar. Some words had been missed out completely, suggesting the scribe did not know what to write but by the time Tim had mapped out the main phrases he already had a dim sense of the incredible intelligence contained therein. He read it over and over, checking the phrases and wanting to pinch himself to prove that he was not dreaming. He knew he would have to do a lot more work in order to grasp the fullest meaning of the message but at his point he felt as though he was stood at the pinnacle of one of history's greatest mountains from where he could survey vast tracks of lost time in which were concealed the answers to some of the world's most perplexing questions.
At eight o'clock Tim slipped the tablet under a pile of papers in his desk drawer, which he locked. He put the key, along with a few scholarly pamphlets and a lunch box, into his briefcase and he let himself out into the darkened museum galleries that housed the Assyrian collection. As he made his way through the domain of the massive, stone Gatekeepers of Nimrud, Tim sensed cold breath on the back of his neck and the short hairs that grew there bristled. It was as though these monoliths knew he was in possession of knowledge that brought them closer. Never had he felt the press of history so acutely. His heart was pounding. He quickened his pace and it was with some relief that he reached the museum's entrance hall where a couple of uniformed attendants loitered by the main doors, seeing British Library users out of the building.
“You're late, sir,” one of the attendants remarked to Tim as he passed. Tim looked up, startled by this observation. He had no idea the attendants kept an eye on staff movements. At any other time it would not have bothered him but tonight it did.
“Yes,” he said, “Good night.”
“Night, sir,” the attendant returned. Tim hurried away.
Outside the evening was humid. Tim pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. Pigeons flocked around the court yard seats, scavenging in the litter left behind by tourists. They flew up in a flurry as Tim walked briskly past, swinging his briefcase. Now he felt the attendants’ eyes on his back, watching him as he went. He imagined one remarking to the other on a new purposefulness in his demeanour, so different from the slouch that had marked his previous, rather depressed period.
The undoubted benefit of leaving work three hours later than usual, was that the Underground rush hour was over. There was no need for squeezing between sweating bodies or hanging on to a bar with one finger, briefcase between the feet. Tim had a seat all the way to Highgate station from where he had a short walk to his home across the local boundary into Muswell Hill.
Tim was no great cook but his life had been saved by the various Meal Deals available in supermarkets these days. The one person family was on the increase and he was a consumer beneficiary. He surveyed the fridge for that evening's menu. What was it to be? The pizza, garlic bread and green salad with red wine or the lemon sole with mixed vegetables, potato Dauphinoise and white wine. He decided on the fish, which he prepared in the microwave, according to the instructions, and served to himself on a neatly laid up tray. This he took to the lounge where he sat down in time for the News at Ten.
The cat joined him, slipping silently through the cat flap. It waited until Tim had put the tray aside and then insinuated itself into his lap, purring deeply. Tim caressed the sleek Siamese head that had eyes only for him. The cat, whose name was Ramses, was Tim's familiar. He understood in the guttural mewing sounds that Ramses made in the early morning or late at night, a strange android language that was as old as the pyramids themselves. He understood why the Egyptians had considered the cat to be the embodiment of a god and why they had mummified them with as much care as was accorded their own kind. Ramses seemed to Tim possessed of secret knowledge that gave him power and confidence in his world. That evening Tim felt awakened to the possibilities of expanding human comprehension by opening a new window through which enlightenment would flow. The weight of this feeling now settled heavily upon him and, with his eye lids drooping, he decided it was time for bed.
The next day Tim tracked down his best friend Jeremy and arranged to meet him for lunch. A tradition of frugality, begun at university, caused them to shun the museum cafeteria and the bistros of WC1 which, they were both agreed, catered more to the tourist than to the poor, working scholar. Instead, Jeremy and Tim were often to be found on a bench in front of the museum, eating their packed lunches and ‘talking shop’. In the winter they appeared muffled in anoraks and in the summer with their jackets off and ties loosened. The gate attendants, who became used to seeing these two together, had apparently nick-named them Little and Large since Tim was small and neat while Jeremy was often unkempt and gangling. They managed to come together in this way at least once a week unless Jeremy was away on a field trip or dig, which was not uncommon. He liked to be on the move and was never happier than when, with a rucksack on his back and spade at the ready, he was headed for a promising site.
Tim rather envied Jeremy. He could tell from his friend's post-field-trip eyes, blood-shot through lack of sleep and an excess of real ale, that there was more to these jaunts than digging and the cataloguing of new finds. There were moments when Tim wistfully wondered why he had not specialised in British or even European archaeology instead of the Near East; then he too might have had the opportunity for more 'hands-on' experience instead of having to glean most of his knowledge second-hand from reports.
“So what have you been up to?” Jeremy asked, biting into a ragged, cheese bap.
“Something rather exciting,” said Tim. Jeremy pushed his shoulder-length ginger locks back from his freckled face and looked at Tim.
“That's the first time I've heard you sound positive in months. I was beginning to worry about you, moping around, your face tripping you.”
“Me too,” Tim admitted. “I can tell you there's been nothing much to get excited about. In fact, I think I’ve been rather depressed but this ... well, this is really intriguing.”
“Tell me more,” Jeremy urged, poking a piece of lettuce that had fallen out of the side of his bap back into place.
“What seems to be a 13,000-year-old stone tablet fragment with early hieroglyphs.”
“Cripes!” Jeremy exclaimed. The significance was clearly not lost on him’ “That is not possible.”
“I know,” Tim agreed, “And yet it is. I’ve had every test done on it. I can hardly believe it myself but the tests do not lie.”
“There must be some mistake,” Jeremy said, shaking his locks, “You say hieroglyphs?”
“Yes, of the pre-cuneform type,” Tim confirmed. “I’ve never seen such an early example and yet it has features so reminiscent of the later forms that I could just about make sense of it.”
“If you couldn’t then nobody could,” said his friend.
“Thank you” he said, acknowledging this rare recognition of his undoubted expertise, “I feel like everything has been leading up to this moment and the inscription is... well...” Tim pursed his lips as he carefully selected the correct word, “mystifying.”
“I thought we archaeologists were ‘unmystifiable’,” Jeremy challenged him, throwing the remains of his tattered bap to waiting pigeons and giving Tim his undivided attention.
“See what you think,” Tim said, taking out the note pad in which he had jotted down his rough translation. He began to read “'...Concerning the seven Sons of Utu (the Most High) the Shining Ones who left this sphere in the time of experiments (or trials).”
“What!” Jeremy exclaimed, “What is that about?”
“Search me,” Tim agreed, “but it goes on ‘…keepers of the seven temples,’”
“What temples?” asked Jeremy.
“Listen,” Tim urged his friend, “’… when the Aged Ones draw close, in reckoning (or counting)’ then a word I don't recognise and a line completely erased, ‘the Shu shall be up-turned (turned around), the sky window shall be open to you - an iron plate shall bring you out of the coiled serpent…’,”
“Well...” Jeremy said, wide eyes and gesturing with his hand to urge Tim on.
“That's all. Or at least that's as much as I can read at the moment. But what are we to make of it?”
“Wow,” Jeremy said, “It poses so many questions. 13,000 years you said. It can’t be.”
“I know,” Tim agreed, “but the tests don’t lie so we must be wrong.”
“Keep your voice down,” Jeremy said. The attendants were looking at them.
“There's a kind of map drawn onto the reverse of the tablet which, if I’m interpreting it correctly, shows what could be a round earth.”
“I know, intriguing, but it looks like a round earth and what could be the sites of these seven temples linked by straight lines.”
“Hum,” Jeremy mused, looking for himself, “Or it could be a star map, an astronomical diagram.”
“Could it?” Tim said, considering this new idea. Jeremy enlarged,
“I’m not much of an astronomer but it reminds me rather of the Constellation of Argos, the Great Ship.”
“Maybe but I prefer to think of it as a terrestrial map,” Tim demurred, “Otherwise we are talking about seven temples built on planets or stars somewhere in the universe, which is a little beyond our reach.”
“It could be a mirror map,” Jeremy went on undeterred, “like the way in which the layout of the Giza complex is said to reflect Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way. And the way Tiwanaku in Bolivia seems to mirror the Southern Cross.”
“Point taken,” Tim acknowledged, impressed by Jeremy’s suggestion, “I thought the East was my speciality.”
“You mean I don’t even have common knowledge!”
“Don’t be so touchy,” Jeremy soothed him, “So which seven temples on Earth could be meant?”
“Well,” Tim picked up the discourse again, “if you think about it, most of the great temples we know can be eliminated simply because they don't date back to the 11th millennium BC.”
“None of the monuments on this planet are considered to be pre-diluvium.”
“Yes,” Tim agreed, “but none of the post diluvium civilisations appear to have had the technical ability to have built places like Stonehenge?” Jeremy frowned.
“But what about the site of the Temple of Solomon in Palestine?” Tim suggested. “That is believed to be older than our documented history and some of the pyramids of Egypt, Mexico’s step pyramids and Peru’s temples.”
“Avebury, too,” Jeremy offered, “but don't you think it’s odd, a Near Eastern writer referring in 11,000BC to an ancient British monument?”
“I do,” Tim agreed. “But maybe they were more connected in those days than we have been led to believe. Maybe they travelled overseas, even then, maybe the Phoenicians came to Britain.” Jeremy stroked his chin and turned the sides of his mouth down disapprovingly, prompting Tim to observe, “It’s strange how prepared you are to be imaginative in other’s domains but in your own you’re as rigid as an Egyptologist!”
“OK, point taken. But Avebury! That’s crazy?”
“I know but look, if this is the site of Solomon’s Temple here,” Tim said, circling one of the crosses on his sketch map, “then this snake-like form must signify the Avebury complex. Perhaps this is the coiled serpent.”
“Phew, my head is going to explode!” Jeremy said as he ran his fingers through his hair. Then looking again at the offered sketch, he said, “But to have known about Avebury the writer must have had a much better knowledge of the world than we've ever given these early people credit for.”
“That's right! Just think of it,” Tim went on, fired by his theme, “what if Avebury was at one time a power house of...”
“Steady on now,” Jeremy said, holding his hands up against such reckless talk.
Tim sensed that he had said enough. There was part of him that could sympathise with Jeremy’s shock. He knew that no archaeologist was advised to allow his imagination to over-ride scholarship but he had a feeling that there was an awful lot of bluff when it came to the real questions about our past. It seemed to Tim that many areas of learning, science and theology included, were somehow undermined by a deeply perplexing mystery that nobody dared probe. Consequently, Tim found himself trapped within an edifice of learning that threatened to fall down around his ears because a vital part of its foundation was missing. Tim had decided that this vital part, this corner stone, might well turn out to be a huge chunk of pre-history that, once known and understood, would secure the edifice with perfect reason.
“What’s this?” Jeremy asked, pointing at a mark on Tim’s sketch map.
“It indicates a temple at Sippara, where this fragment of tablet was found.”
“I’m no expert,” Jeremy responded, “but I have never heard of that one.”
“I am an expert and neither had I before this fragment was brought to me,” Tim confessed. “It apparently had been partly excavated and then bombed.”
“A stray or maybe even a deliberate Iraqi missile.”
“Why would they be destroying their own heritage?”
“Perhaps for the same reason that the entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb was defaced by Horemheb and the Great Library at Alexandria torched by the Christian Bishop Theodosius. It was done to erase knowledge and memory of the past, to tamper with and alter the truth, to take over the hearts and minds of an ignorant people and delude them. There are fanatics in that part of the world who would not be above such desecration if what they found did not promote their cause.”
“What was it they were trying to hide?”
“That is what I want to find out,” said Tim. Hearing this, Jeremy exhaled so violently that the pigeons fighting over his abandoned bap flew off in fright.
“Have you told anyone else about this?” he asked.
“No,” Tim said.
“That’s a relief.”
“I'm going to use my holiday to go to Wiltshire and consider this in relation to Stonehenge and Avebury,” said Tim, “I could do with your expertise and… well, it might even be fun.”
“Just like old times,” Jeremy said. “Remember Greece?”
“I do,” Tim smiled, picturing the two of them armed with rucksacks and rail passes, sleeping on beaches, eating country bread, yoghurt and honey, drinking rough wine and experiencing history at first hand. It was the grand tour, the big adventure before archaeology became the dry, bookish subject it had inevitably had to become for them if they were to be accepted into and respected within 'the profession'. It was Tim's belief that vision was what was needed to make a great archaeologist, not the ability to write long, unreadable scholarly papers with equally long and unreadable footnotes. When roused he would reel off the names of those great archaeologists who, with very little learning but immense passion, had made the greatest of finds; Howard Carter and Leonard Woolley were always mentioned. Tim's heroes were those who were able to open a window on the past and make it speak to the present. That was the sort of archaeologist he wanted to become but he had so far felt trapped because those who were responsible for his career seemed to be visionless academics.
“I've a friend in Wiltshire who will probably put us up,” Jeremy offered.
“That would be helpful,” Tim approved.
“It'll be cheap. I'll give him a ring tonight. When are we talking about?”
“OK, I'll let you know tomorrow.”
That afternoon Tim, alone in his department, was at his desk puzzling over the strange markings on the back of the fragment when Heather Turner arrived, again unannounced as though spirited into the department through the walls.
“I won't ask how you got in this time but anyone would think you were trained by the S.A.S.” Tim said, only half in jest.
“You insult me. I think my methods are rather better than those of the S.A.S.,” Heather retorted with flashing green eyes and an ambiguous smile. “In my world you get used to not waiting for doors to be opened.”
“I don't doubt it but why climb over the wall when you could use the door. Anyone would think you were doing something criminal.” Even as he spoke, Tim was uncomfortably reminded of the fact that there was something slightly criminal in their dealings. He wished he had kept his mouth shut.
Heather sat down and nodded towards the fragment Tim was holding.
“Well, what have you found out?”
“Quite a bit,” Tim said, switching on a desk lamp and directing its beam over the tablet. “It's at least 13,000 years old for a start, which makes it extraordinary.”
“Why?” Heather asked.
“Because we have always understood that the history of civilisation started at about 3,000 BC. We assumed that people prior to this were primitive nomadic herders who had no use for a written language, but this find contradicts that assumption.”
“So, you mean a lot of historians will have to go back to the drawing board,” Heather said.
“Effectively, yes,” Tim agreed. “I've only just begun to think about the implications but there's also what's written on it to take into account. The tablet is saying something which could turn out to be...” Tim paused to select his words carefully. He decided on understatement, “... quite controversial.”
“What?” Heather leaned forward eagerly. Tim recoiled slightly as it suddenly occurred to him that he was talking to the press and ought to be circumspect. “Can I just asked what you intend to do if I tell you?” Heather sat back, her eyes narrowing.
“What you mean is am I going to spill the beans? “ Tim bridled. He could not get used to her manner. It unnerved him.
“Yes, you could put it like that. I would rather this was kept quiet until I've had a chance to do more work on it.”
“That's fine as long as there's no funny business,” Heather said, winking. This startled Tim who stuttered,
“I…I...I don't think...”
“Oh I know, 'you wouldn't dream of it', and I want to believe you but what if you find out something you really don't like, something that's too hot to handle.” Tim was quiet. There was something about the way Heather said this that gave him the impression he was being tested. It was almost as though she knew what was on the tablet and anticipated trouble. He dashed these thoughts aside, however, deciding that he was once again being a little paranoid.
“I know what you are telling me, Miss Turner, but you have nothing to fear. You can trust me.”
“Call me, Heather,” she said. “We might become friends.”
“All right... Heather,” he said but it did not sound altogether natural. He cleared his throat and went on, “All I can tell at the moment is that there seems to be a slight connection with Avebury in Wiltshire and other monuments, which 13,000 years ago, before the great floods, would have been above sea level.”
“Really?” Heather leaned in.
“Only 1% of the deep ocean has been explored. Remains have been discovered by mineral hunters scanning the ocean floor for untapped deposits but, so far, these remains have not been investigated.”
“And so, what do we do?” Heather asked.
“I'm going to Avebury with a colleague of mine, a specialist in early British archaeology, to take a look at the site and we'll see if anything transpires.”
“I'd like to go with you,” Heather said, taking Tim quite off guard.
“But it will be a working holiday,” he said. “I don't think...”
“Don't panic,” she said. “I won't get in your hair. I'll just tag along when it's appropriate. Remember we're in this together.”
“Can you take time off work just like that?” Tim asked.
“I'm owed plenty of holiday and it's time I took it,” she said flatly. “So when are we going?”
“I should check with my colleague.”
“Tim, I don't think you've understood,” Heather said, leaning forward and putting her hand over the tablet, “I'm coming and if your friend doesn't like it then we don't need him.”
“I see,” Tim said, “It will be soon. That's all I know so far. Jeremy, that's my colleague, is arranging our accommodation.”
“Fine, let me know when and I'll get myself booked into somewhere comfortable,” she said. “If anything comes of this I want to have been there right from the start and by the way, what about the question of ownership?”
“Technically it belongs to Iraq since it was smuggled out of the country.”
“You mean it could be the Elgin marbles all over again?”
“Something like that,” he agreed. “But what was done a hundred years ago is not acceptable behaviour today.” Tim, uncomfortable at again being reminded of the rather precarious position in which he found himself with regards to the tablet, managed a smile as his visitor stood up to leave. “Remember,” he said, wagging a finger at her, “mum's the word.”
“You're cute,” she said, smiling indulgently at him and then she drew her forefinger between her breasts, first one way and the then other, saying, “Cross my heart.”
Tim had meant to get around to telling Jeremy about Heather Turner but he could never find quite the right moment. Consequently, it was not until they were sitting in the train bound for Wiltshire that he at last felt constrained to broach the subject.
“Jeremy, I'm sorry I haven't mentioned this before but there might be someone else joining us.” Understandably, Jeremy was taken aback.
“Prey who?” he asked, looking over the wire rims of his reading spectacles that he had put on so that he could peruse a copy of the train time table. Jeremy was an information junky, always reading and collecting information. He could be as absorbed by the small print on the back of a packet of cornflakes as he could in a weighty tome on Hibernia. He needed this focus, this constant through flow of words, to feel at ease with himself. Without it he became as fidgety as a flea.
“It's the person who brought the fragment into the museum,” Tim confessed, flexing a piece of plastic, which on Great Western Railways passed for a coffee spoon. “You see I mentioned our trip and when they asked to come, I ... well, I felt I couldn't say no.” Not talking of Ms Turner until then, Tim had managed to avoid dwelling on the awkwardness of having her along but now he was seized by panic. “Oh it was stupid of me. I shouldn't have said anything...”
“You were rather an ass to have agreed,” Jeremy commented dryly. “I suppose it will be all right so long as he's a decent chap, prepared to roll up his sleeves and muck in.”
“Actually...” Tim said, growing more nervous by the minute.
“What?” Jeremy asked, untwisting his legs that he seemed able to wrap around each other like pipe cleaners.
“O dear.” The plastic spoon snapped in two.
“Go on,” Jeremy insisted. “Spit it out.”
“Actually, he's a she,” Tim confessed. To call it chauvinism would have been rather too strong but there was a feeling among certain archaeologists that women were best kept out of their domain. This was probably because the women who were attracted to the profession were very often officiously blue-stockinged and consequently rather frightening to the bookish, awkward men who were as often their colleagues. Jeremy, who had never really found women an easy subject, was particularly sensitive in this department. He nodded, corkscrewed his legs back into a tighter knot than before and returned to his reading, tight-lipped. Tim could only guess at what was going through his mind.
The train pulled into Pewsey station at three in the afternoon. Here, Jeremy and Tim alighted, remembering to collect their rucksacks and bicycles from the guard's van. Both items were relics from their student days but it was not nostalgia that had prompted their bringing them so much as practicality since neither had a car and they needed some way of getting about the countryside. While Jeremy still used both bicycle and rucksack regularly on field trips, Tim had not had cause to use either since university. Their unforeseen rediscovery had afforded Tim some sentimental pleasure and the evenings of the week preceding his departure were spent tinkering with nuts and spanners, oiling moving parts and polishing chrome.
Standing outside the station, Tim and Jeremy were studying an Ordinance Survey map to locate the house in which they were to spend their week when a silver, Range Rover Sport pulled up in front of them. Heather was at the wheel. She opened and electronic side window and the quiet of the afternoon was shattered by a noise that neither Tim nor Jeremy, whose tastes were strictly classical, would have described as music.
“Hop in boys,” she shouted over the din. Jeremy, eyebrows raised, looked at Tim for confirmation that this was ‘She’. Tim nodded.
“But we have our bikes,” he said, wishing that he could somehow be rid of this troublesome woman.
“Throw them in the back,” she directed.
“Well, it'll save our legs, I suppose,” Jeremy intervened with what Tim thought was a surprising degree of alacrity.
“That is not the point,” Tim growled under his breath but he went to the back of the vehicle to assess the space which, with the back seats collapsed, was more than ample.
When both bikes and rucksacks were loaded, Tim and Jeremy shared the front seat beside Heather. Though it occurred to him, Tim did not bother to ask how Heather had known they were arriving at three. By this time he had decided that she was a woman of remarkable investigative powers. Instead, he said,
“There was really no need to do this.”
“I know,” Heather responded, tossing back her head with its bright tangle of orange hair that today reminded Tim of an angry swarm of bees. “I thought I might as well. I arrived yesterday and I'm already twiddling my thumbs. The countryside is so boring, don't you think?”
“It can be,” Jeremy agreed, gazing as though star struck at Heather's animated profile.
“Still, I'm sure now you boys are here things will liven up,” she said, elbowing Tim in the ribs. He pulled away from her, embarrassed by her comment but Jeremy chuckled as though he was warming to Heather. Turning, she blessed Jeremy with a radiant smile while Tim wriggled uncomfortably between them.
“So where to, Doc.?” Heather asked. Tim thought it contemptible to joke about a man's title and answered curtly,
“I don't know. Ask him.”
“It's called Bear Hall,” Jeremy volunteered. “Out of the station, first left and then right.”
“It belongs to a friend.”
“Better than my B&B, I'll bet.”
“Well,” Jeremy began, “I'm sure...” A sharp jab in Jeremy's ribs forestalled what Tim anticipated would be a foolishly generous offer. He knew his friend to have a heart of gold but to be somewhat lacking in common sense. The jab came too late, Heather having already guessed what he was about to say.
“Kind of you,” she murmured, neither accepting nor rejecting the half- articulated invitation.
The Range Rover drove like an armoured vehicle through the narrow Wiltshire lanes, between high hedgerows from which birds scooted in fear. Pheasants, pecking at the roadside, disappeared in a flurry of feathers and Tim dared not look behind him. Jeremy was enjoying the ride, his small eyes twinkling, and cheering each time Heather had a near miss.
“Shot!” he shouted as something bounced off the bonnet, then, “Stop, stop, it will do for supper.” Heather drew up and Jeremy jumped enthusiastically out to collect their trophy.
“I like your friend,” she confided to Tim as they watched Jeremy gathering the mangled bird. Tim averted his eyes.
“Just one more and there'll be enough for dinner,” Jeremy said, clambering back into the vehicle and carelessly landing the bird in Tim's lap.
“Get it off,” Tim yelled. Such carnage inspired only horror in him, even when Ramses was its author. Heather brushed the bird into the foot well and laughed.
“You're no country boy,” she said. “At least we've got that in common.”
For the rest of the journey Jeremy interspersed directions with an animated account of the last time he and Tim had holidayed together. Tim wished that his friend would not be quite so open with this near stranger but he was alert enough to realise that Jeremy was already a little infatuated by this Boadicea of a woman. She appeared receptive to his small talk, laughing at the right moments, giving nods and clucks of appreciation. In fact, by the time they pulled into the carriage drive of Bear Hall, Tim was feeling quite the gooseberry.