Blackbird

Of all the seasons. Spring in England is the most capricious.  Not that I don’t love a bit of caprice – I do – but she can get a bit wearing sometimes.  She never tires of invention and sometimes, well, you just yearn for a little permanence, you know?

Anyway, to put you in the right mood (you may have to turn your volume up a bit) I’ve popped in an anthem from a feathered tenant.  He requested it.  He has dreams of Spotify.   I’d like to say he is a trouble-free occupant of Stalagbaybush 23, but don’t let the dulcet tones fool you.   When he’s got his kids on the ground he’s murder!  He hides them under a leaf, or the shed, or anything else he imagines will provide cover because they can’t fly, and he doesn’t seem to know how to give lessons.   Then he flies around the place screaming his head off at anything or anyone he imagines might come near:

“I’ve got my kid on the ground!   He’s scrawny and he’s got no feathers so leave him alone!”

And of course the cat at number forty-two pricks up her ears, and promises herself she’ll take a look over there after lunch,

After twenty-four hours or so of non-stop hysteria my over-diligent parent’s screeching subsides.  Of the scrawny youth there is no sign – it has left us, though whether in the glory of flight or in the throat of the cat from number forty-two I have no way of knowing.   Just occasionally I will see a semi-feathered lump perched on my fence, beak opened demandingly while his father, who now looks smaller than he, pumps him with ‘special treats’, so I guess the family has known success.

I cannot claim, any more than my Blackbird friend can, that April has been a mellow month:  seventeen frosts to start our days, where ‘usually’ (I like that word when describing English weather) we might expect seven.  Rainy days?  Few, or none.  By afternoon the garden, like my Blackbird friend, is in full song; rich in the verdant greens of emerging youth, bright with colour, loud with bees, hoverflies and an elderly wasp who doesn’t seem to have learned his place.   The sun is not fierce, but it is warm enough.  There’s a chair, and a whisky waiting because I am that lucky man whose wife is a fanatical gardener.   She can take pleasure in creating life and I can spare the odd moment to watch.  

For the Blackbird, for every creature in Spring the emergent garden, the burgeoning heath is a place of business.  For me, it is a chance to listen, a season to enjoy however exhausting are those occasional rain-pursued retreats.  The life of the early season is a testament to youth that brings back to me the garden of my childhood home, the garden I described in ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I serialized here a year or two ago.  There is no stream to burble by, where I am living now, no ‘pop’ of water-voles, few dragonflies; but the sounds, they are the same, the scents never change, and my sheer joy in the annual miracle is as fresh now, as it ever was.

Satan’s Rock

Part One. Conversations: The Wild Sea

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  The woman’s pale voice strove to be heard above a gale -whipped crash of waves. “Isn’t it perfect?” 

“I like it.”   Arthur responded.   It was all he could do to speak.  They were thieves of words, these giant flumes of white-spray that crashed repeatedly upon the rocks below, so confounding that down the years they had drawn him to this spot at the foot of the lighthouse time and again.  The years were honest, though:  they had stolen none of this magic.  

“Me too!”  The woman tucked her pretty chin into her cape.  “It’s real!” 

Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassed surprise:  “My goodness!  Whatever made me say such a thing?!” 

“What did you say, Mama?”  Asked the little boy, taking her hand anxiously.  “Did you use a bad word?” 

“Why no, Samuel, not bad, exactly:  just very odd.”  She replied, as if coming to herself, as  though returning from a far place:  her words seemed full of sadness, of a longing so profound that, despite his curiosity concerning his own part in this innovative little conversation, Arthur felt his heart quite moved.  She hastened to recover herself:  “And I fear brazen, sir.  I beg your forgiveness.” She dropped her gaze demurely. 

”A novel turn of phrase, but forgiveness is quite unnecessary,” Arthur assured her.  “May I have the honour of introducing myself, ma’am?   I am Arthur Herritt , of Mountchester. 

“Oh,Mr Herritt , you must think me very rude.  This is Samuel, my son.   And I am Francine Delisle.   Please forgive my informality – but who would introduce us in this wild place?” 

‘Should we need to be introduced’, he thought.  “Who indeed?” He cried , raising his voice once more above the sea’s renewed onslaught, “I had thought to be alone here.  I commend you for your wild choice!”

Wild it truly was.

Few ventured to Beacon Head in winter, when ocean rollers, compressed into the shallow conduit of the Channel, thundered purposefully against granite cliffs, their spray carried in on the wind like volleys of icy grapeshot.  Arthur, who loved the fury of the seas, gladly suffered whatever dangers the road offered to escape his busy life, but he had been surprised when he saw these two lonely figures standing in a space he often occupied by himself, by the rail of the lighthouse plinth, the red banded light tower at their backs, staring betimes down at the white cauldron of foam, or out towards the ocean.  The place they had chosen was the stormiest – a pulpit over the waters he adored, and his first thoughts were resentful of company but then, when he had drawn closer to the pair, seen the way the woman drew her cape about her, clung to her bonnet while her skirts flew unregarded above her delicate little ankles, it was as if a slumbering place in his soul had reawakened.   He must know her – he did know her.  Surely? 

Her presence might mean his prize of solitude was forfeit, yet he could not regret such a chance encounter.  Anyway, as fortune would have it the skies were becoming ever more leaden.  Rain would soon add to the storm’s torment. 

“Do you like the sea, Samuel?”   Arthur asked the child, raising his gruffest voice above another assault of surf. 

The boy considered this, sagely.  “I do, sir.  I would like to be a sailor, I think.” 

The woman, Francine , laughed.   “That is a severe vocation!  Samuel is full of such notions, Mr Herritt .  Why, only last week he was ready to sign up for the military.  Have a care, my darling boy.  Mr Herritt  has the bearing of an officer about him.  He might recruit you!” 

Smiling, Arthur found he could not avoid the woman’s eyes.  They were, he thought, the deepest, deepest blue.  A familiar blue. 

Francine ’s cheeks flared.  “Sir, you stare at me!” 

He demurred immediately.   “My turn to apologise, ma’am.  I must admit I may not look you in the eyes, lest I lose myself.   You remind me so remarkably of someone I have known.” 

“Well, that is kind, I think.  And flattering too, I must believe?   Tell me, do you come far?” 

“From Mountchester, ma’am.   Although not in a day.  I am passing a night at the Rifleman’s Arms in Bleansted.  And dare I venture to ask?”

“The same, Mr Herritt.   We are visiting in Bleanstead ourselves.  A very good friend has been kind enough to tolerate us for the sennight – a relief from the City, as cholera is so active there.  I confess I am surprised.  If you go about in City Society, I cannot think how we have never met”

 “Nor I.  My club is Frobisher’s, in the town.  I attend there whenever I can.  Does your husband..?”   

He stumbled into silence, seeing Francine ’s instant discomfiture.  “I apologise once again.  I am insensitive.  There is some circumstance?  Forgive me.”  Conducting a normal conversation in these conditions was difficult, the more so because Arthur’s mind was demanding answers to some difficult questions.  He glanced heavenwards.   “It will rain soon.  Have you somewhere to shelter?” 

The woman smiled; a radiant, electric smile.  “Truly we are both so wet already it would be hard to distinguish rain.” 

“Nevertheless I would not see you drowned.  May I offer my chaise?  It waits at the crossway.”

Francine ’s cape and bonnet veiled her frown.  “I do not know you, Mr. Herritt .  We are strangers!”

“Yet we have been introduced, if only one to  the other,”  Arthur protested.  “I can assure you of your safety, and if I should prove to be a scoundrel I am sure Master Samuel would defend you most ably!”

“I would, sir, never fear!”  Cried the boy, adopting his sternest falsetto;  “I give you notice, whoever affronts my mother shall have me to deal with!”

As if anxious Francine  should make the right decision, the clouds delivered their first flurry of raindrops, stirred to needles by the gale.  She relented gracefully.  “Then I thank you, Mr Herritt .  Your kindness is most warmly welcomed!” 

With some reluctance, the pair turned away from their high perch on the cliffs, and their audience with the sea’s relentless fury. A path which, though free of mud by its rocky nature, was nonetheless slick from spray and the advancing rain, led their descent for some four hundred yards while young Samuel gambolled fearlessly ahead of them.  When at last the way levelled out it had a further distance through a beechwood copse before reaching a crossing of two tracks, the wider being the way to the village of Bleanstead.  While they walked with their backs to the wind, Francine ’s skirts billowing before her, his one hand firmly on his hat, Arthur probed gently.  “I have to concede that we have never encountered one another going about in Mountchester, yet I feel strongly that we have met before.  Do we have associations elsewhere, perhaps?  Are you much travelled, Mrs Delisle?  Do you visit London, for example?”

“Indeed no.  In fact, I have very little in my history that could pass for experience of the wider world.  Scarcely any history at all.  I am truly most uninteresting.”

Francine,  as she climbed into the sanctuary of the chaise, accepting the firm support of Arthur’s hand, answered it with a clasp of her own and although her fingers were cold, he was reminded again of a familiar flame.  In the jolting enclosure of the post-chaise cabin young Samuel, securely ensconced upon a footstool, gazed up at him so intently as to rob him of conversation.  Francine , too, seemed preoccupied, watching the passing scenery so fixedly he felt almost as though she was avoiding further conversation.   Perhaps, he considered, she was feeling the chill of her mass of wet clothing: in truth she did look a little like a moth newly emerged from its pupae, but then, as he imagined, once dried and spread, what beauty might those wings reveal?

At Francine ’s request, the post-chaise drew up outside a long, low-eaved cottage, the lime-washed walls of which were a spider-web of virginia creeper tendrils that spoke of splendour in the Spring.  As Arthur’s passengers thanked him and prepared to depart, he decided upon boldness.

“The Rifleman’s Arms belies its title by providing a very good table, Mrs Delisle.  Would you do me the honour of dining with me there; perhaps on the ‘morrow?  I have a feeling there is more to be said.”

Francine  returned him a puzzled smile.  “Indeed?  Now whose is an unusual turn of phrase?”  She addressed her son,  “What shall we do about this, my darling?  Will you wait at home with your Aunt Maud while I dine with Mr Herritt ?”

The boy Samuel made a great show of considering his answer:  “I shall be intolerably bored, Mama, but if you wish it, I agree.”

“Thank you, Sam.  Then I will readily, Mr Herritt . Thank you.”

“Shall I send my carriage for you at seven?”

“You shall.”

Arthur would long agonize over the propriety of this invitation:  the woman clearly moved freely in City society and must, therefore, be respectable; this implied the presence of a husband somewhere.  But then she hinted at no compromise of her sacred vows, nor had her little boy spoken of his father at any time during their encounter.  Was she widowed then, as so many were by the conclusion of the Coalition Wars, or by the ravages of epidemic?  In the end he justified his precipitate behaviour to himself with the defence that he had merely suggested a friendly engagement in a public place.  There was nothing improper in new acquaintances cementing their friendship over dinner!

The Francine Delisle who sat against him at dinner the following evening certainly conveyed no hint of guilt at her flouting of convention.  She had modestly dressed herself in a warm frock of lilac twill that followed the wide-necked style so popular this year, exposing no more than a glimpse of pale shoulder to Arthur’s rasher instincts.  Her smiles conveyed the frankness of friendship.  She was intent upon acting with perfect propriety.  

“I had thought you were going to return to Mountchester today, Mr Herritt .  Did the weather deter you?”

“I admit the weather played its part, Mrs Delisle.”  Arthur chuckled apologetically,  “There were other factors.  I decided to indulge myself.”  

Francine , who liked a man with the ability to laugh at himself, saw through his subterfuge immediately.  She knew one of his ‘factors’ would have to be herself.  Her eyes surveyed him in mock seriousness,  “Should we be friends?  If we are to cultivate this familiarity, you might call me Francine .  Mrs Delisle is such a chore.”

“Willingly.  Therefore I must reciprocate.  I am, henceforward, Arthur.”

“You returned to the lighthouse today, then?”  she asked.  “So much rain!  I couldn’t countenance it.”

“No, nor I.  Although I spent a part of the morning walking, notwithstanding the inclement weather. I had cause.”

“Indeed, Arthur?  Is your mind troubled?”

He nodded, “Perhaps, a little.  I find I am locked in a struggle with an absent memory – but no matter; I shall take the Mail Coach to return to the city tomorrow, for I must conclude some business there, then retire to my home until the disease has run its course.  I am in no need of a fight which I cannot win.”

By degrees the pair fell into familiar conversation and the evening passed amicably enough, though without any suggestion of deeper intimacy.  Francine  proved an easy friend whose wit would sparkle once and again, and Arthur a taciturn but willing listener.   Before they parted, quite close to midnight, they exchanged cards.  

“We have summer to look forward to,” He said.  “Perhaps, when the weather is more friendly, we may run across each other again.”   And then, after the pause he needed for courage, he added:  “In happier times, might I call upon you?”

Francine’s brow took on a serious caste;  “I believe it would be better not to promise,”  she answered.

They would not meet again before Arthur’s departure for the City.  Nevertheless, as the coach and four bumped heavily past that low, lime-washed cottage in the early morning Arthur could not resist a stolen glance at its windows, wondering who was the companion he had heard spoken of as ‘Aunt Maud’ who lived within, and whether Francine was yet in the process of rising?  And he reflected that, apart from his insistent conviction that he had met her somewhere before, he had learned little more of Mrs Delisle from the time they spent together. In all of their evening she had told him nothing about herself.  In matters of the heart, as in most matters, Arthur Beaufort prided himself on his clear-sighted realism.  However gently, the intriguing Francine had rejected his offer of a deeper friendship, and so he must treat her as yet another of his many casual acquaintances who he might chance upon some day, in some other situation, and put all thoughts of her aside.  

Arthur might have been more intrigued, being a man of an inquisitive nature, if he had witnessed Francine’s return to Maud Reybath’s cottage in that late evening; if he had known that Maud Reybath, although she had a year or two on Francine, was not young Samuel Delisle’s aunt in anything but name.  He might have found the conversation between the two women interesting.

Francine discovered Maud snoring gently by a fire in her snug parlour, a book opened and inverted on her lap.  She wakened immediately to watch as  her returning guest briskly removed her gloves, hopeful for certain expected signs.

Maud had a voice that was surprisingly deep for her petite form.   “Well, my dear?”  She asked, letting her words bear weight.  

“I can’t be sure.”

“No definite negative, then,”   Maud rejoined sharply;  “Francine, we have to know soon.  The matter is one of urgency, my dear.  I fear you fail to appreciate…”

“I do, Maud, I truly do.  I understand.  It could be him.  It could be, but in some ways could not.  And so I may not answer you – not yet.”

#

The mail coach had taken all of a day and snow was falling steadily when it reached its Mountchester destination.  Arthur, thoroughly chilled, finally emerged onto the white-carpeted yard at The Royal Oak and collected his valise from the coachman.   He was still adjusting his eyes to the darkness when he descried a tall, gaunt figure in black greatcoat and top hat dismountinging from a burgundy-liveried Brougham that waited at the gates – a carriage he recognised as his own.

The figure belonged to a man well advanced in years, whose progress on the snow was perilously unsteady.  Arthur hastened to support him.  “Edkins?  You shouldn’t have come for me personally, my dear man!  This weather is…”  His words faded into silence.  The craggy features that opposed his own were creased with tears.  “Edkins, whatever ails you, dear chap?  What is the matter?”

“The master, sir.  I’m afraid he is very ill.  I resolved to find you and bring you home, sir.  At once, sir, I beg you.  At once!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Mud and Sand

“The weather was better in Porthmadoc.”   Tim said.

“Hmm?” Jen was studying a beer-mat.

“In the common parlance, Jen, a penny for them?”

“Sorry.”  Jen said.   The bar-room atmosphere made her whimsical.  “Was that your last job – Wales?”

“It was.”   Her manager launched into an exposition of tyrannical landladies who ruled a dominion of persistent rain.  His voice almost instantly faded into the choral background of muted conversation and laughter; a pub in a small northern town.  Wednesday.

‘In two days’, Jen thought, ‘I go home’.

A lone drinker at the far end of the bar, a toughened, interesting man with the broad accent of the Dales, was at least three pints ahead of the hour.  A woman’s heels clicked busily towards the toilets.

“Oh, lord, I give up!”

Jen stirred.  Tim had asked her something, had he?

“I’m sorry, Tim.   It’s the noise.  What did you say?”

“I said the trenches’ll be full of water again in the morning.”  Tim waved at the window.  “This rain.”

“If somebody hadn’t dug it so deep it was below the water-table….”  She replied.

“There’s no archaeology down there, anyway – saves time.”

“Not if it keeps filling up.”   Why had she agreed to this drink?   Jen had many ways of passing her evenings when she was away on a dig.  Going out with her married manager was not one of them.

‘Heels woman’ returned from the toilets.  As she passed the Dales man, he muttered something to her which prompted a disgusted look.  He brayed out a hideous laugh.  Heads turned.

This was so far from the dream Jen had pursued at University:  the summer digs among romantic ruins in Africa and Spain.  Only once since those idealistic days had she worked in tropical sands with a hot sun on her back.  They were a world away, hidden behind dark northern clouds filled with needling rain, four-wheel-drives which floundered like turtles in claggy mud, the smell and chug of a pump clearing water from around her frozen fingers as she worked.

And managers with a feeble hope they might sleep with her before the job was finished…

“That guy’s going to get himself chucked out.”  Tim was saying.

The Dales man had begun pestering ‘heels woman’s’ partner.   Their conversation, if it could be so called, was becoming hostile:  “Yer one o’ them bloody dev’lopers, en’t yer?  That were your car on my land ‘smornin’  weren’t it?   Yer ask p’mission ‘for yer cooms on my land!”

He was cut short by the heavy hand of the landlord.   “Time to go home, lad.”

“Aye, aye.  Go ‘ome, eh?  Long as I’ve got one.  This bastard, ‘e’s takin’ it off me, aren’t yer?”

But the drunk’s eloquence was short-lived.  His piece said, he allowed himself to be guided to the door, and out into darkness.

“That’s as much excitement as I can stand for this evening.”  Jen decided.  “I’m really tired.  I think I’ll turn in.” 

Tim walked with her to another pub near the edge of town, above which was the room which had been Jen’s home for ten merciless days.  Side-stepping his clumsy attempt at an embrace she wished him a firm “Goodnight”, thankful to close her door on the world for a few precious hours.  

Her window overlooked the street, so in drawing her curtains she couldn’t fail to see the inebriated figure of the Dales man, meandering by.  In some ways, she thought, he was a kindred spirit.   ‘Two lost souls, we are, Neither of us wants to face tomorrow’. 

With the morrow, as Tim’s aged vehicle bounced and slid along the country lane which led to Low Meadow development site, the rain returned.  Huddled beneath swathes of oilskin and wool in the back seats were ‘Bolly’, an Oxbridge graduate, Melanie (Mel), a Somerset lass with a rare sense of humour, Paul, who had outrageous acne; and of course, jammed into a corner, Jen herself.

A brightly painted sign reminded them they were guests of ‘Low Meadows Executive Homes’.  Beneath and beyond it, Low Meadow itself; devoid of any bricks and mortar miracles or even the foundations of any, but just a meadow – a large field.  Tim drove through the gate.

“There you are – told you.”   He shouted over the wind as they disembarked, gesturing towards a wide trench, half full of brown muddy water,  which cut a gash in the meadow, some twenty metres from the gate.   “We won’t be able to work this morning.  Set up the pumps and let’s get back to town.  We can do some soil samples or something.”

Pumps were stored in a site shed.  Together, the team got them working, so a steady flow of flood water coursed out into the lane.  A steady downpour of rain did its best to keep pace.

Tim said:  “Who’ll stay and keep an eye on things;  Jen?”

The price, was it, for last night’s rejection?  Jen watched the four-wheel drive’s lurching departure.  Sheltered by the shed, she boiled a kettle on the team’s battered primus.   The tea tasted of nothing much, but it was hot, at least.

There was little to do.  The pumps worked on faithfully, their very audible insistence  prompting Jen to take her tea outside.  Deluge notwithstanding she wandered around Low Meadow, surveying the damage an archaeological dig could do to a farmer’s land.

The flooded thirty metre trench was one of four. Two trenches had already been re-filled, a third awaited refilling – although that, too, was half-full of water, which no-one minded, because it had already been studied.   Filled or open, each was a livid scar on the face of a field where a silage crop awaited harvest.   Worse, the surrounding area was a morass of planting and mud, ground down by each pass of their excavator, now parked innocuously by the hedge, or Tim’s four-wheel drive.

Jen clasped her mug of tea for warmth.   Tim was right about the archaeology, she supposed.  In ten days the team had found not a shard here, yet there was that feeling, that instinctive spark kindled by her years of training.   This was good land, high enough to be defensible, and a stream ran in a valley close by.  In terms of early man this was an excellent place to set up home.

“What the hell are you doing on my land?”

The shout was authoritarian enough to make Jen jump. Absorbed in her thoughts, she had failed to hear a Land Rover draw up in the lane.   She wiped spilt tea from her sleeve as a stalwart middle-aged woman in anorak, cords and boots approached; a woman who was quite clearly furious.

“Are you responsible for this carnage?”

Jen swallowed hard.  “And you are..?”  She began to ask.

“Never mind who I am.  I have a lot more right to be here than you, that’s all you need to know.   You did this?”

“Well….”

“Can you drive that?”  The woman waved at the excavator.  “Never mind, I will.  I want it out of here.  Give me the keys.”

“The keys are not here.”  Jen managed to stammer out.  “Our driver’s got them.”   It was a lie – there was a spare set hidden in the shed, she knew.   “Look, can I explain?”

“When you and everything you brought with you is out in the lane, yes.”

“That’s not going to happen.”  Being wet through; being continually hit upon by every male crew-member who felt the need; being frustrated in a career which had turned out to be nothing like the one she had always wanted for herself; and, yes, being alone – alone in every sense of the word;  all these things sprang to Jen’s aid right now.   “We have permission.”  She articulated icily.

“You don’t have mine.”

“We don’t bloody need yours!”   Jen blazed.  “We’re employed by Park View Developments.   They’ve purchased this site for housing, and asked us to do the archaeology before they start to build.  They have to do that – that’s the law.   Unless you own Park View Developments this is not your land.”

She saw her words had hit home.  Her antagonist’s expression had altered subtly from anger to pain.  The woman turned away, staring out across the damaged field.

“It was quite clear.”  She said bitterly.  “Your people assured us they would not start to build until after harvest.  We had three weeks, they said.  Look at all this!   Have you any idea, young woman, how much we’re going to lose?”

Jen shook her head, feeling instantly sorry for the woman.  “In the strictest sense, I suppose, they were right.  We aren’t building – we’re just doing the archaeology.   But you should get compensation?”

The woman laughed.  “Compensation!”

Jen said:  “look, I only work here:  I would love to help but I can’t?  My manager will be back soon, and if you wouldn’t mind waiting, I can….”   

Her voice tailed off as the woman walked away, shoulders hunched in a manner which suggested that, had she less pride, she might be weeping.  The Land Rover drove off. 

When Jen told Tim about the woman he looked puzzled.

“Park View bought this land off a Sir somebody-or-other.  He lives in Barbados, I think.  At a guess you had a run-in with a tenant farmer.  Poor woman’s probably had the land sold over her head and the landlord told a few whoppers to smooth the deal.   It happens a lot.”

“Will she get compensated?”

“Doubtful.  She can try, of course, but I suspect her claim should really be against her landlord.  The damage isn’t too bad, anyway.  Give this stuff a week and it’ll be sitting up and looking perky again.  For her sake I’m glad we didn’t find anything – the big boys’d be all over this site like a rash; then she’d really have something to complain about!”

Jen looked at the ‘stuff’ and decided it would take more than a week to persuade it to look even remotely ‘perky’.

The angry woman was not the site’s only visitor that day.  Around half-past two a Mercedes saloon bumped and lurched its way up the lane.   A pair of unsuitabtly dressed men in shiny shoes and dark suits emerged – one was the man who had been picked on by the drunk the previous night.   They were clearly known to Tim, who moved to greet them as they stepped gingerly over unforgiving scenery.   Jen was working with Mel at the far end of the trench by this time, but she could tell that their conversation was fairly lively.   After they had gone, Tim came over.

“Park View men.   Usual pfaff.   They want us out by the weekend.  They’ll come to see us off, no doubt.”

“Why?”  Jen remembered her earlier conversation.  “They aren’t starting for three more weeks, the woman said.”

“Really?  I get the impression they’ll be in next week.  The urgency is all about finding something.  Our paymasters are extremely anxious that we don’t.  The longer we’re here….”

Jen had heard this story too often.  When she had become an archaeologist, she had never imagined she would spend so much time being paid not to find anything.

Thursday.   Just one more day….

In the pub that night Jen shared a table with Mel and Paul.  Conversations drifted by;   boy- and girl- friends, rents, places.

“I’m a wheel-less gypsy, me.”  Mel said.   “In the past two years I’ve shared four houses and three flats – with somebody different each time.   I’m starting to forget my own name.”

“You’re not attached, though?”  Paul tried to sound disinterested.

“Down boy!   No, no-one at the moment – how about you, Jen?   Anyone in your life other than Tim?”

“Tim is so not in my life!” Jen protested.  “But no, I’m single too.”

“Not that she gets grumpy or anything!”  Said Mel in an aside to Paul.

“I don’t!   Do I?”   Jen felt herself going slightly pink.

“No, no.   No girl, not much!”  Mel’s eyes widened.   She nodded over Jen’s shoulder.  “Speaking of absolute hunks – which I wasn’t, but never mind – is this a dream walking or what?   Sorry Paul, if I offend.”

Jen tried to turn; Mel stopped her.

“Don’t look!”   Then, in a hiss: “oh-my-god-he’s-coming-this-way-play-dead!”

“Excuse me.”  It was a dark, drawl of a voice, high above her shoulder.  Jen looked up – a long way up – into a pair of hazel eyes, a keen, strong face.  “I wonder if I could talk to you?”

“Er –yes.”  Jen tried to make sense of her thoughts. Mel made fainting noises across the table.  “How can I help?”

“First, can I get you all something to drink?”  The stranger was tall, well-proportioned,and confidence exuded from every pore.  “What would you like?”

“Thanks, but I don’t know you…”

“I’ll introduce myself.  I’m Peter Horsley.  I’m afraid…?”

“Jenny – Jennifer Thwaite.”  She knew she was babbling: “I’ll have an Archers, please?”

“We were just leaving,” said Mel.   “Otherwise…”

“Why?”  Paul asked peevishly.  “I haven’t finished my drink!”

The stranger smiled.  Jen melted.  “I’ll just be a moment.”  He said.

Mel watched Peter Horsley’s retreating back with a low moan escaping her lips.   “Oh Jen, you lucky cow!   Paul – hurry up!”

By the time Peter Horsley brought drinks Jen’s friends had deserted her.   “I hope I haven’t broken up your evening?”

“They had to leave – they said.”  Jen struggled to compose herself.  “So:  what can I do for you, Mr. Horsley?”

“Peter, please.   That was my mother you met this morning.”

“Ah!”  Jen paled. “How did you know it was me?”

“She described you well.  Oh, it’s alright.  I promise I’m not going to have a go at you.  In fact, I’m here to apologise.  It must have been difficult.”

He sat across the table, sipped at the pint he had brought for himself.  “Look, I ought to explain…”

“There’s no need.”

“Please?   My father has a small farm.  After he lost his herd to Foot and Mouth, mother wanted him to retire, but he saw it otherwise.  He re-stocked:  in fact, he built the herd up so he needed more land for fodder.  That’s when he rented those fields – three in all – from Sir Robertson.  He’d just put new fertilisers down, planted them out to silage, when the letter came.  It caught him at just the worst time, you see?  He’d put all his money back into the land, and if he couldn’t at least get the crop in….”

“We’ve been here for two weeks!   Why didn’t he come and see us sooner?”

“He wouldn’t.  He’s not good at communicating.  It made him – well, it made him ill.  Mum, she’s different, but she was away.  There was talk of separating.  Then last night she came home.”

“And you?”  Asked Jen.  “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but are you not ‘good at communicating’ either?”

“I don’t live here.  I came back when I realised something was wrong –  picked mother up on the way from the airport.  Doesn’t the sunburn give anything away?”

She had to admit she had been looking at nothing else.  Everything about his face, in fact: the way his lips moved when he talked, the wisp of hair that fell obstinately forward, the acute depth to those eyes.  “You work abroad?”

“Spain.”  He acknowledged.  “Andalusia, mostly.  I’m a land agent for a property company out there.  So you see, I understand how these things work.   I know that nothing can be done.”

“I’m just an archaeologist.  If I could do anything, I promise I would.”

“Yes.”   His gaze searched her deeply, personally.  She felt so, so challenged by him!  “I believe you really would.  Well, I said what I came to say:  I apologise on my mother’s behalf.”  He paused, hesitating.   “I don’t suppose you’d like to come to dinner with me, would you?  I mean, I don’t want to seem forward, and if you’ve already eaten?   Please feel free to refuse.”

Jen laughed at this sudden desertion of self-assurance.  “Thank you.”  She said.  “I’d love to.”

Thus began an evening that was magical.   There was nothing about Peter that was not entertaining, or funny, or whimsical, or sensitive, or masculine, or all of those things at once: of all of that evening, only the food was ordinary, and that passed unnoticed.   At times, Jen found herself riding on the warmth of his voice, so engaged by his words she lost all sense of what he was saying.  It seemed not to matter; in fact, those moments when he caught her just gazing vacuously into his eyes and they both broke down laughing for no real reason, were the best of all.  The hours flashed by.   When parting came, it took all of Jen’s good sense to walk away.

He did not insist, though she knew he wanted more.  “Don’t make this ‘goodbye’.”  He urged her.

His kiss burned her cheek for an hour, after just half of which he sent her a text which read:  ‘Had a wonderful evening.  Sleep well’. 

“Let’s wrap this up, people!”  Tim enthused.  “Get finished by lunchtime:  we need the afternoon to clear up.”

True to his leadership style, he uttered this final harangue to his troops through the window of his four-wheel drive as he left.  Whatever field work there was to be done, Tim would take no further part.   As to what he would be doing, back in town on his own, was anyone’s guess.

While ‘Bolly’ drove the digger through the cleared ditch, ready to take one final bite at the end, Mel and Jen waited.

Well?”  Mel frothed with curiosity.

“Well what?”

Well you can’t stop smiling, and well Tim was really annoyed because he said he was going to ‘sort out some soil samples’ with you in your room, but you weren’t in!

“We went to dinner, that’s all.  He’s nice.”

Nice!   Darling we could see nice after two minutes in the pub.  On a scale of one to ten, how nice?”

“Oh, about twelve.”   Jen started giggling and couldn’t stop.  It felt ridiculous.

The morning was warm; there was even an occasional burst of sunshine.  Only the desecration of the land around Jen disturbed her happiness as she worked, and she felt this as acutely as the heat on her back.   At the far end of the last trench, she laboured more or less alone. The others drifted off into pools of conversation.  Paul came to re-check some of his sets occasionally, that was all.

There was that familiar clink of trowel on earthenware that Jen knew intimately.  Drawing breath, she looked quickly round to see if any of the others had noticed, then began to clear the clay. She expected just a shard, but she exposed a third of a vessel which seemed to be intact.  A collared urn, lying on its side, exactly as it had lain for twenty-five centuries or more.

Jen’s heart bumped against her chest.  Without quite knowing why, she scooped loose mud back over the find, then climbed out of the trench, pacing along its edge, looking for something she knew she must have missed; something they all must have missed.   She saw it almost at once and it was a euphoric moment; one which evaporated as she understood what she must do.

The Park View ‘Company Men’ arrived at about eleven o’clock.  Second-in-command in Tim’s absence, it was Jen’s duty to liaise with them.

“No archaeology, then?”  A silver-haired executive, the seniorof the two, assumed the initiative brusquely.  “Finished today?”

“Come for a walk.”  Jen prompted him.

“Good god, why?”

“Oh, a general inspection.”  Jen replied.  “You don’t have to get in the trench, just walk along the side.  Try not to look too interested.”  Near the end of the trench where she had been working, she paused.  “To the right of the ladder: see that darker soil?   Then more, six metres further up?   See those round areas, going across the dig?   I know – they are awkward to pick out.  We didn’t see them ourselves, you know?   The trench was too deep, mostly it was full of water: it was only when I went over it again this morning…..Oh, and I’ve found a pot, too.   I must tell the others.”

The executive had turned grey.  “Alright.”  He said, at length:  “What exactly are we into?”

“An archaeologist’s dream.  My dream, too.”  Jen admitted, sadly.  “All my life…”  She bit her lip.  “Most likely the dark areas were ditches, the light part, a defensive mound.  Those circular bits are traces of post holes – not for a round house, they’re too big for that.  A stockade, the defensive wall of a settlement; late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, I should think – a big one; as big as this field.”

“Very well.   So you’re saying you’ll need further time.  How long – a week?”

“No, much more than a week.  Think of it as a village, twenty-five centuries old.   We’ve got to open up the entire plot.  It’s a significant find, you see, this far north.  The Council have been gagging for a site of historical significance like this.  At least a year, probably longer.”

 “Do you realise what you’re saying?”  The executive snapped.  “ With the housing market as it is, we could lose millions on this.  How do I know you’re qualified to make this judgement?”

“Well, I could prove where and when I graduated, I suppose, but it wouldn’t help.”   Jen broke away.   “Excuse me for a moment.”   She called across to the huddle of her team, hovering at a respectful distance.   Nobody liked ‘Company Men’.   “Bolly!   I’ve finished down there.  Fill the trench up, will you?”

The executive cocked an eyebrow at Jen, who acknowledged him with a trace of a smile.

The farmer answered the door himself,so Jen thought she must have come to the wrong address because she recognised him – he was the drunk she had seen thrown out of the pub on Wednesday night; but when the angry woman appeared in the passage behind him she knew her directions had not let her down.  Then Peter came through from the back of the house, and the look of pleasure that lit his face when he saw her was already reward enough.

They sipped coffee as Jen explained the events of the day.

“You’ll get two weeks to harvest the crop;” she told them.  “Then they move in to start building.  You’re getting compensation, too, at the rate of a thousand pounds an acre…”

“A thousand?”  the angry woman was incredulous..

“Isn’t it enough?  It’s for the whole area – three fields.  ”

“Enough?”  Peter cried.  “It’s amazing!  However did you get it?”

“Persuasion.  In return I personally supervise all soil samples we took from that trench.  I’ll be delaying some of the tests until quite late, until after you’ve harvested the fields and cashed your cheque.  If the Park View people don’t keep their word those tests will reveal post-holes and we re-open the dig.  If they do…well, samples can get contaminated, or even mislaid.   I’m hoping the money will be enough to pay for the feed you’ve lost.” 

Later, much later, as they lay on the margins of sleep, Peter wanted to know what the real price had been, and she told him the truth; that she had been to the edge of a dream and that was enough.   Yes, it would have been fulfilling to have a big excavation accredited to her, but it was time to acknowledge that lives were more important than bones.

“So what will you do now?”

“I’m not sure.  Take some space, perhaps; re-evaluate?”

“Do you think you might like your space somewhere warmer, such as… oh, I don’t know….Andalusia, for example?”

“Yes.”  She said, smiling sleepily.  “I think that might be perfect!”   

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.