Authors: Gavin Scott
The Age of Olympus
The Age of Exodus
The Age of Treachery
Print edition ISBN: 9781783297801
E-book edition ISBN: 9781783297818
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: April 2016
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Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.
© 2016 Gavin Scott
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
TO NICOLA, REBECCA, LAURA AND CHLOE
SUNDAY, 13 JANUARY 1946
The snow had been falling since noon, and Duncan Forrester brushed urgently at the stone bench to clear a space to sit down before the vertigo overcame him. The spinning sensation continued for a moment, but then silence began to seep in and he felt his heart slow.
The buildings around St. Mary the Virgin were mostly Baroque, and the snow was piling deep on their window ledges. The church and its adjoining houses shut the churchyard off from the bustle of the city, and Forrester felt as if he was in a tiny clearing in a dense, silent wood.
There were few cars in Oxford just after the war, and little fuel for them anyway, so what noise there was mostly came from footsteps in the street beyond, and even they were muffled. As the snow came down and the light leaked out of the afternoon sky, he closed his eyes and waited for the demons to slip away into the gloom.
He could not banish them; he’d tried that. He could only let the images rise to the surface unopposed. He felt the familiar wave of nausea but he forced himself to ride it, reminding himself this was not reality: it would fade.
He felt again the peculiar gliding sensation as the knife passed through the cartilage of the sentry’s throat; he smelt the youth’s skin as he gripped him, and then the warmth of the blood as it poured over his fingers and the body slid down to his feet, looking up at him with mildly reproachful eyes. Forrester guessed he was about seventeen. As the sentry died Forrester could see, through the archway leading to the castle courtyard, SS guards taking the prisoners into the basement.
There were many such images. He let them unreel at their own speed.
He saw Barbara again too, that last time at Waterloo Station, and the look in her eyes that made him think of Arctic winds blowing over the ice.
He did not see the man watching him from the tall, unlit window of the vicarage, but the watcher noted the set of Forrester’s shoulders and the tilt of his head, and long experience allowed him to infer the nature of the man’s thoughts with some accuracy.
For a long time, both of them were motionless, separated by no more than fifty yards of snow and lichened stone.
Suddenly, from the archway that led to the street, Forrester heard the word “
” followed by laughter, and then a brief babble of Swedish before the speakers passed on. There were students from all over Europe in Oxford now, a flood pent up by the war, released by the peace. They were not the high young voices of his own university years, but deeper, more mature. Many of the British undergraduates were ex-servicemen, their education postponed by the conflict. They too poured in, thirsty for knowledge.
Duncan Forrester had graduated before the war began, and now, just months after the German surrender, he was back at Barnard College, Junior Research Fellow in Archaeology. But though he was still in his twenties, he felt bone tired, as if he were an old man.
He held out his hand and watched the snowflakes settle on it. As the heat of his body turned them to water, the drops rolled into his palm, forming a tiny pool. By the time he realised his hand was numb with cold he was calm again.
He paused a moment, savouring the calm, and went through the ritual. He was alive; he was in one piece; the war was over; he was back in Oxford; he was free to pursue his research. Images of Barbara came and went, but all they evoked now was remembered pain – and deep behind that, remembered joy, like a distant Eden.
The man in the window watched as Forrester rose to his feet, shook the snow off him, tightened the belt of his British Warm overcoat, headed back through the archway into the street, and disappeared. Only then did the watcher switch on the light inside the room, letting it spill over the empty churchyard like liquid gold. Moments later he closed the curtains, plunging the enclosure back into the afternoon half-light.
Among the crowds in the street, Forrester felt almost normal again, just one of the many going to the shops on their way home from work. Not that there was much to buy, for this was austerity Britain, a victorious nation ruined by the struggle for victory.
CADBURY’S MILK CHOCOLATE IS THE BEST
proclaimed a poster showing the familiar purple and gold wrapper so evocative of pre-war pleasures. Then in smaller letters below: “Unfortunately we are only allowed enough milk to make extremely small quantities of our famous product, so if you are lucky enough to get some, do save it for the children.”
But Forrester, who had not seen a piece of chocolate for at least a year, knew no children to save it for. He glanced into the brightly lit interior of Woolworths, an Aladdin’s cave of gaudy trinkets before the war, now full of half-empty glass counter-trays scattered with a sparse collection of wooden pegs, darning needles and penny notebooks. Outside a grocery shop a notice announced a limited supply of dried egg powder and a queue was already forming. For most of the war people had had to rely on the hated dried eggs instead of the real thing. Cakes made with egg powder had the texture of old cement; when mixed with water and fried, the powder turned into luridly yellow leather pancakes. And then, with victory, not only did fresh eggs not reappear but even dried egg powder had vanished; unavailable until Britain could borrow more money from the Americans. So women were now lining up patiently with their string bags, shivering in the cold, desperate for a product they had despised for five years.
And this was what happened when you won.
A woman darted out of the queue – which closed up immediately behind her – and ran towards Forrester. Her name was Margaret Clark, she worked at the Bodleian Library, and in his eyes she was the most desirable woman in Oxford; a thought he tried to suppress because she was also the wife of his closest friend. And though her eyes were bright with affection, he knew the affection wasn’t for him – her gaze was fixed on someone on the far side of the road.
As a result of which, as she stepped off the kerb it was into the path of an oncoming bus.
Forrester shouted a useless warning as the bus swerved and sent up a spray of grey slush. The slush momentarily blinded him and when he had wiped it from his eyes the bus was gone and so was she. But to his astonishment no blood stained the snow; no crushed body lay in the road. The bus had missed her. He peered at the crowd across the road but she had vanished as if she had never been.
“Got something for you, Dr. Forrester,” said Harrison, materialising at his elbow, a pipe clamped between his teeth. Forrester forced himself to concentrate.
“Oh, that,” said the student, dismissively. “No, much better.” Ken Harrison was a cheerful, stocky former Signals Corps lieutenant of twenty-four, who had been trying furiously to get a faulty field radio to work when he was captured at Arnhem and taken as a POW to Germany, an experience which seemed to have left no mark at all on his sunny disposition. Forrester was tutoring him in Greek history.
“Better than one of your essays?” said Forrester.
“That wouldn’t be hard,” said Harrison equably. Both he and Forrester were well aware that Harrison’s disquisitions on the Golden Age scaled no heights of brilliance, but Harrison was as unperturbed about that as he seemed to be about all the vicissitudes life threw his way.
They passed under the worn stone archway of Barnard College, past the porter’s cubbyhole with its tabby cat and ticking clock and pigeonholes full of messages, and entered the first quadrangle. The snow lay thick on the famous lawn and the Great Hall and the Lady Tower, festooned with scaffolding where builders, under the impatient supervision of Deputy Bursar Alan Norton, were slowly – very slowly – repairing the damage done when it had been an air raid warden’s observation post during the war. Undergraduates and fellows hurried back to their rooms along the cloisters as the light dimmed and the afternoon turned to evening.
Forrester and Harrison scraped the snow off their feet and clumped up the narrow wooden stairs to Forrester’s rooms. The air struck cold as Forrester knelt down by the fireplace and fiddled with his matches; Harrison reached into the canvas army satchel he used as a book bag, pulled out something wrapped in newspaper and gave it to his tutor. Forrester read the headline as he unwrapped the paper.
ALBANIA GOES COMMUNIST. WHO’S NEXT?
Inside were three lumps of coal.
“Where did you get these?” Forrester said, and immediately added, “Actually, better not tell me,” and put the lumps on the fire. “But it’s very kind of you. Thanks.”
Coal was another item Forrester had not seen enough of since he came back from the war. But Harrison had a knack for getting his hands on these things. Perhaps that was what he had learnt in the German camps.
They both kept their coats on in the frigid air as the kindling flamed up and Harrison took out his essay and began to read. By the time the flames were sending out any heat both men were far away, on the plains of Athens with the sun glinting off the marble of the Acropolis – and Forrester had, for the moment, forgotten all about Margaret Clark.
Outside, around the college, one window after another began to glow with yellow light, like the opening doors of an Advent calendar.
* * *
The fire was dying down by the time Harrison left, and Forrester took a shovel full of ashes and banked it down to preserve the coal. The warmth in the room would last until it was time to go to the Great Hall for the evening meal. Then he took Sir Arthur Evans’ photographs from his desk drawer and began to look at them again. They were very bad photographs; or rather, infuriatingly imperfect for his purposes, showing small rectangles of clay, thickly inscribed with symbols and stick figures. Here and there he could make out a symbol that might be a horse’s head, and another which looked like a double-bladed axe, but most were indecipherable. The script was known as “Linear B” and the tablets on which it was inscribed had been baked in the heat of the fire that had destroyed the palace of Knossos in Crete a thousand years before Athens rose to glory. No-one had been able to decipher the tablets since Evans discovered them, and Forrester suspected that some of Sir Arthur’s guesses had put his fellow archaeologists on the wrong track. What if, for example, the old man had been wrong about the significance of the symbol that looked like a double-bladed axe? What if it did not in fact signify a religious ritual, but was actually a phonetic indicator? He turned to the drawings Evans had made of other inscriptions, and wondered how accurate they really were.