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Authors: Maureen Duffy

The Orpheus Trail

BOOK: The Orpheus Trail
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The Orpheus Trail

Maureen Duffy

 

For Madge and Freddie

It’s evening, dusk already felting up the windows, before Harry
realises
his watch isn’t on his wrist where it should be. He’d been out in the greenhouse watering the tomatoes, almost drugged by the heavy scent of the plants as he brushed against the leaves, until Jean called him in for tea. After their plates of ham and salad he’d gone out again to potter in his garden shed before settling down for the evening’s telly.

‘I seem to have lost my watch,’ he says.

Jean looks up from the black handset with its rows of little buttons that should give access to unlimited choice but yield only
disappointment
as she searches for an old film, preferably black and white and prefaced by the swirling image of the Gainsborough Lady as she
graciously
inclines the feathered cartwheel of her picture hat.

‘When did you have it last?’

‘I remember looking at the time just before we came back and thinking that the evenings would soon be drawing in. I must have lost it on site.’

It was the end of the season. Soon they would all have to stop work so that the contractors could move in, cover over their summer’s dig and begin to lay the new carriageway.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I thought I’d go back and see if I can find it.’

‘You’ll never spot it in this light.’

‘I thought I’d take the metal detector.’

‘Then I’m coming too. You’re not going up there on your own. At least I can hold the torch.’ Jean knows it’s no good to argue.

They put on the boots they were wearing earlier, still clogged with Essex clay. Harry fetches the detector from the shed. Jean takes the big spotlight torch. They set off without speaking.

It’s been a frustrating summer. After the first excitement of winning a reprieve of three months that allowed a local team to investigate the possible Saxon site where the graves of women had been found
seventy years before, their combined efforts have turned up only a measly collection of pottery shards, a coin or two, a harness buckle, and part of a scabbard.

Harry leads the way, bending under the tapes marking out the site. Heavy rain had stopped work the day before and the earth is sticky, clinging to their boots as if wanting to drag them down. Already it’s too dark to see. Harry switches on the detector, Jean the torch. They begin to go over the ground, Harry sweeping his probe from side to side, prospecting.

Something shines momentarily in the torch beam. ‘What’s that over there?’ Jean says, trying to pick up the gleam again.

‘I’m getting a definite signal.’ Harry moves forward.

‘I didn’t think we were working this far over.’

‘Keep the torch on it, Jeanie. It looks like we’ve found it.’

‘Be careful. You’ll slip!’

The detector is buzzing impatiently. Harry goes forward. ‘It is my watch. I’ve got it.’

She sees him bend down stiffly, his hand outstretched. She hears a cry. Then she can’t see him anymore.

Harry is falling. He leans heavily on the detector to steady himself as he bends to pick up his watch and suddenly its metal shaft sinks through the soft mud and goes on down, bringing Harry and the ground he’s standing on with it. He remembers his old army training and bends his knees to break his fall. Then he lands soft and safe on crumbled dry soil.

He hears Jean calling him. Gulps and calls back: ‘It’s alright, darling. No bones broken.’ Then chokes on a mouthful of dusty earth. Looking up he sees the light from the torch like a little moon.

‘What happened? What shall I do?’

‘See if you can find a ladder or something to get me out.’

‘I’ll go and get help.’

‘No, don’t do that. I’ll feel such a fool.’

The little moon vanishes. Alone in the dark Harry puts out his hands, blindly feeling for a way out. He comes up against a hard surface. His foot strikes an object in the dust. He thinks he hears a metallic sound.

Light shines in the gap above his head. ‘I’ve found a ladder.’

‘Good girl. Can you lower it down?’

Jean puts down the torch and pokes the end of the ladder through the hole. It’s almost too heavy for her but she holds on. She knows if she lets go and it falls on Harry it could injure if not kill him. She feels the weight suddenly taken from her.

‘I’ve got it. Can you shine the torch down here? I want to see…’

‘Come up before anything else falls on you.’

‘I’m coming. Move the torch about a bit.’

In its light he can see he’s in a large square hole, a little room. The floor is silted deep with the sandy dust that had broken his fall but he can see objects poking up through the thick layer. Cautiously he brushes away the sand from a small circle by his feet. For a moment in the torchlight there is the gleam of gold.

 

And that’s how it all started with Harry Bates ringing me up at what felt like midnight, although the ten o’clock news was only just over, to tell me he thought he’d fallen into a chamber tomb. At first I
wondered
if it was some kind of joke. Then it crossed my mind that it was a ploy to keep the contractors at bay a little longer. But as he went on the details were too precise to be faked. How could Harry and Jean Bates have dug out a large pit overnight, and filled it with artefacts that would have to be convincing enough to be examined in the cold light of dawn? For that was what it was going to mean.

‘I think you’d better meet us on site early before anyone else gets there. Then you can see for yourself.’

‘Shouldn’t you let Harris know?’ Harris was the professional archaeologist sent down from London to oversee a team largely made up of local amateurs. There’d been some friction between them. Harris pulling rank and a little contemptuous of the local society’s efforts. I’d gone along there as often as I could to try to keep the peace. He’d made it clear, as the only other pro, that he blamed them for the season’s failure to turn up any significant finds. Not that he thought much of me either, as a mere keeper of the local museum, local
government
not national, with a small not very important collection to curate, apart from the old finds of three quarters of a century before,
dug up carelessly by the first set of road builders. Harris felt he’d wasted a whole year, with nothing to show for it that would improve his chances on the career ladder attached to a well-funded university department with plenty of foreign sites.

And the way these things go he was probably right.

‘I’d rather you saw it first,’ Harry said.

These days you can’t despise the amateurs or do without their extra man and woman power. After all what were the pioneers like Schliemann and Pitt-Rivers but wealthy amateurs in a way? There’s the famous photograph of Frau Schliemann wearing the necklace her husband had dug up at Mycenae. No one would dare to do that now with a find of such age, fragility and importance.

So there we were next morning at six o’clock with only a few early cars going by on the bypass and the site still deserted.

‘What were you doing up here so late?’ I asked them.

‘Harry lost his watch,’ Jean said. ‘And we came up to look for it.’

‘In the dark?’

‘I brought the metal detector and Jean had the big torch. It was just as I’d found my watch and was picking it up that the ground gave way.’

‘He was lucky not to break his back or at least a leg.’

‘There’s a thick layer of dust down there that softened my fall. You’ll see. We left the ladder there.’

‘Right, here goes.’ I began to lower myself down the rungs. As I reached the bottom I realised that the top of my head was only a few inches from that of the ladder but Harry was shorter than me, a little shrunk with age from the youthful height he must have had, and he hadn’t had the benefit of a ladder when he fell.

I switched on my own torch to examine the pit.

Although it was daylight now only a faint gloom pervaded the tomb, as I saw it unmistakably was, as I shone the beam of my torch from one protruding object to another. The place was clearly stuffed with more grave goods than I’d ever seen all together, apart from in the British Museum. I saw exposed rims of what must be vessels of all shapes and sizes, and other pieces still in their coats of solid dust that seemed to call out to me to touch them, to open up their mystery and bring them into the light. Buried for over a thousand years with their
owner, I felt they were asking to be looked at afresh. There were even objects hanging from the walls.

‘Well?’ The Bateses chorused together as I reached the top of the ladder and stepped down.

‘It must be the best thing since Sutton Hoo,’ I joked.

‘You do think it’s a buried chamber then?’

‘No doubt about it.’

‘And Saxon?’

‘By its position along with the other material they found in the twenties, I think it must be. But we’ll soon know. We have to call in Harris at once and apply for an extension. This’ll upset the contractors.’ I foresaw a struggle ahead to get them to suspend work for another, possibly unknown length of time while we carefully uncovered,
documented
and lifted everything we could. Already I was determined that what we found shouldn’t just be lost in a national museum. Whoever it was who had been buried there, man or woman, might indeed still be there under the dust of the centuries. He or she belonged to us, was ours and should stay here, even if we had to build a special room to accommodate the finds.

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘let’s call and wake up Harris with the good news.’

‘Isn’t it a bit early?’ Harry said looking at what must be the watch that had set it all off.

It was true. It was still only seven o’clock. Time had stood still, as it sometimes does when it isn’t racing frenetically, according to some law of perceptual relativity.

‘Harry and I usually have breakfast at a little place on the front,’ Jean said. ‘Why don’t we go there and ring him at eight? If you’d like to come with us we can park on a yellow line until nine. I could do with a hot cup of tea. The mornings are getting so chilly now.’

So I climbed into their aging Vauxhall and we trundled sedately through the deserted town, not yet invaded by the traditional east London day-trippers down for the last taste of freedom and holiday sunshine. As I got out of the car I could just make out the flash of sunlight on waves at the distant horizon, beyond the wide stretch of ribbed sand, darkened by the receding tide, with here and there stripes of blackly gleaming weed, the rubbery swathes of bladder wrack. And
I thought that it was the same sea the tribes of Saxons, Angles and Jutes had come across to make landfall first in Kent and then on into our Kingdom of the East Saxons whose shore we were standing on. I imagined the boats coming in over the water with the sun glinting on the row of round shields hung over the sides, and grounding in the shallows, the men leaping over the sides with their swords drawn in their hands.

The Bateses belonged here. Theirs was an Old English name: the children of Bata. Not so mine. Kish, an incomer whose father had fled from Hungary after the first uprising though some of my colleagues thought me more English than the natives.

I could understand Harris’s disappointment when I told him that what he had longed for all summer had happened without him.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘They could be mistaken, over enthusiastic…’

‘Quite sure. I’ve been down there myself.’ Another blow.

‘I’ll meet you there in half an hour.’

I don’t know whether he decided then that if he hadn’t had the gratification of discovery at least he would have that of final display.

‘I’ll have to get some extra people down from London. This is much too important to be left to well-meaning amateurs,’ he said, ignoring Jean and Harry Bates, as soon as he came up from inspecting the tomb.

‘I imagine we’ll all have to chip in if it’s to be done in time,’ I said. ‘Will you handle the council and the contractors or would you like me to?’

‘I’ll be much too busy rounding up a professional team at such short notice. You deal with the local bureaucracy. You’re used to them.’

This was a great relief. I thought I could put a good case to my bosses for the tourist benefit to the town of such a find and they could take on the construction company.

Winter was only a few months away. We worked under arc lamps at night and a tent by day, to protect the site against the weather, as if we were researching the scene of a crime. No body was found. Only a little tooth enamel. But over a hundred objects were brought to light. I watched as they were packed up and carried away to be examined, cleaned and conserved by experts, who I found much more
cooperative
than Harris.

‘I think we’ve got something to show you now,’ the head of the
conservation
team said a few months later. ‘Do come and have a look. I think you’ll like what we’ve been able to do with your amazing haul.’

Hilary Caistor, chief conservationist, met me in the reception area of the London Museum’s Archaeology Service. ‘We’ve laid them out for you. Not everything of course. We’ve still got months of work but what’s come up already is pretty fantastic.’ Even then I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.

Where there had been what looked to the inexpert eye lumps of Essex clay there were now recognisable objects: bowls and cups, blue glass jars, bits of gleaming gold in the shape of two tiny filigree crosses, a buckle, coins, a lidded flagon, even a couple of dice and a set of bone pieces for a game like draughts. ‘We think we’ve got an iron folding stool and a sort of harp,’ Hilary Caistor said as I studied the benches, crowded with pieces, in silence.

‘It’s not my specialist period. Can you tell me what you think it all means?’

‘Well, it’s obviously high status. I think it wouldn’t be too far fetched to say probably royal. The stool is a giveaway, a first for an Anglo Saxon grave but known from princely graves on the continent and from
representations
of kings and emperors.’

‘And the harp?’

‘Oh, essential. Think of
Beowulf
, the feasting in the great hall of Hrothgar, or Caedmon having to leave when the harp was passed round because he couldn’t sing.’

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