Someone pushes low beech branches aside. Prematurely shrivelled leaves rustle and clatter down. A gorgeous face appears. ‘Is that you, Rikki?’ Our eyes meet over foliage. ‘It is you! I thought I heard a motorbike… what are you doing on a motorbike so soon…?’
‘Staying on it. Wish I’d thought of that before.’ Geargana actually looks happy to see me. I thought she’d think of me as a thing of the past like everyone else does. ‘How’re you doin’, Annie?’
‘Really good to see you.’ How’re all your broken bits?’ She comes forward, boots crackling on dried grass.
I get off the bike and hang my helmet on the handlebars. ‘Mended, just about. Thanks to seventeen screws and a metal plate for each arm.’ I look over her shoulder to the site. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘It’s only me. Mike, my supervisor…’
I interrupt, ‘Yes, your supervisor: congratulations’ The new scars on my face ache as I grin more widely.
She reaches out and grabs my hands, ‘Thanks!’
‘Dr. Geargana PhD … sounds perfect … and you deserve it.’
‘Hey, I’m years away from that.’ She looks down and releases my hands. ‘How’s it going for you?’
‘Fail… Fail on all fronts. No degree, no job and my insurance company won’t pay up.’
She reaches up and strokes my scars, her dusty index finger hardly touching at all. ‘And these too. No way should I have all the luck. It never seems to come to you.’
‘You should see the surgical scars on my arms… I’ll never wear a T-shirt again. Look, it’s nice to know luck happens to someone I’m so fond of. I can stand back and see you blossoming but…’ I pause, ‛I’m being left behind. All you guys are moving on. It’s all a bit scary and lonely. No one came to visit me in hospital.’ She goes to speak but I cut her off, ‛It’s OK, I knew you were back in Bulgaria and busy.’ I squeeze her hand and look around again. ‘So where is everyone?’
‘I’m on my own today. The technicians have been advised not to travel.’
‘It’s not that bad. Some smoke over the A34…’
‘You came that way?’
‘Still fires smouldering along the verges, but planes are waterbombing everything either side.’
‘You did come that way! The road’s closed.’
‘Motorbikes can weave through barriers.’
‘You’re a nutter. Nice to see you though.’
‘Maybe I can help.’ I pull my titanium trowel from a pocket and wave it at her.
‘Put that thing away! No one uses them any more. Absolutely not here anyway.’ She takes my hand again. ‘Let me show you.’ She turns and leads me to the site.
‘Hey, don’t diss my lucky trowel.’
‘Sorry to say it but it hasn’t brought you much luck.’
‘The plastic handle insulated me when the blade was struck by lightning at Maiden Castle.’
She laughs. ‘That was an amazing fluke.’
‘I don’t know how I’m not dead.’
‘The lightning blew a bloody great chunk out of the side. Why did you keep it?’
‘My dad made it specially for me – and it’s a trowel with character now; a unique appearance. It also rescued me at Happisburgh.’
‘Really? You were there? That must have been incredible.’
‘Two months. Found sod all. I got cut off by the tide once. I dropped my phone in mud,’ I waved the trowel, ‘I used this to reflect sunlight and signal. I was unbelievably lucky – it was a dull day. Trowels for ever!’
‛But not for here. Have you heard what we’ve got?’ She lets me go and weaves between branches. I could watch that bum for a lifetime but only if she turned round regularly and I could see her smile too. Stop this, I tell myself. She’s out of my league now. Success versus failure. Brains versus none.
She chatters non-stop about funding, early results and new equipment. We stop at a ring of metal poles and a mess of cables.
I say, ‛Um … you don’t need an assistant do you?’
She looks at me, big sad eyes. ‛I could really do with your knowledge of pollen. You should have got a first for that alone.’
I shrug, ‛Didn’t happen.’
She bites her lip. ‛There’s no funding for anyone else. The technicians are expensive.’
I point to one of the poles. ‛And they don’t know what they’re doing. That’s a mess. This kit is a pain to use, took me ages to get all the heads to work within a thousandth.’
‛You’ve used this?’
‛Happisburgh. Grew to hate it with a passion. Look, I’m serious about work. If ever there’s a chance, tell me.’
Sunshine glows on her long brown curls, all bleached at the end by the relentless summer sun. A hoverfly dances around them like a flying jewel.
She squats down and steps into a dried up channel. ‛This is where we found the metatarsal. Probably that of a child. It dated just over half a million years. Too gracile for an adult. First results say the rest may be in there. There’s a pattern around what could be a skeleton. It’s exciting. If this is a burial then erectus had religion way back. If they did they were probably talking. Speech, a language, metaphysical and spiritual ideas: it blows everything open.’
I’m still up the bank and look down the ridge to the west. ‛Annie, there’s smoke downwind.’
‛There has been on and off but it’s getting less and the warnings have dropped to amber.’ She pulls a screen from her satchel. ‛Look, can you see?’
‛Pass it up. I stretch down, trying not to disturb a pole. The label flutters in a slight breeze. On the screen is the most amateurish attempt at a deep scan I’ve seen. It’s bad enough at 500mm, by the time it’s showing what’s between the poles at 1.5 metres, you can hardly see a thing. At two, I can only see a ghost of an image which could, with wishful thinking, be a human. ‛Annie, this is rubbish. The heads weren’t talking to each other. Hey, you’ve got a text.’ I go pass the screen back but she’s reaching up for my hand. I haul her up; stones clatter from under her feet and disappear among the rocks below.
She stands beside me, hand on my shoulder. ‛Sorry, did that hurt?’
‛Ah, yes. A bit.’ I stop wincing and open my eyes. ‛I can tune this gear and get this going for you if you want.’
She doesn’t answer, tapping her screen. ‛Oh, no. Fire headed this way. Twelve kilometres. No! We can’t abandon all this to fire. That would ruin everything.’
I follow. “Everything” means equipment. Without huge funding she may lose this chance of a PhD. ‛Annie. Let’s run it quick. Sod the equipment. I can get you a scan you can work on for years. Headline news and stuff.’
‛It takes hours…’
‛Not when I do it.’ I head for the tent. ‛Come on. Then I’ll bike you to safety’
‛Can you really do this without help?’
‛In my sleep. Any chance of a drink while I set it up?’
Scanning the controls and screens in the tent, I say, ‛Half of this stuff is the very equipment I… Oh what? They’ve not synced it properly and everything’s tuned for level ground, not a slope … don’t they know anything?’
‛Can’t it be done?’ Annie stands, holding the tent flap open. She’s biting a knuckle and wriggling. She always does that when worried. She could really use some more confidence, enough to take the initiative and break a few rules when she needs to. That was always my role when we researched together.
‛It can. I can use the software I left on the uni cloud. Ha! we have internet.’ I say in a dramatic voice, my fingers sorting plugs and cables. I don’t even need to think much.
‛We can get results coming nearly straight away. How about we start at two point five metres and work up? We’ll have the important stuff sooner. Hmm…’ I take her screen. ‛If that is a skull… Let’s do it from head down. If we have to run, we’ll have all the best data.’ I can feel my excitement rising, the old tension in my throat, the racing pulse. I’m grinning. It’s so good the be able to help Geargana out.
I’m so lost in my own thoughts, she has to tap the bottle of water against me to get my attention. ‛Oh, thanks, Annie.’ I point. ‛Hey, connect that screen. I’m going to send the data to the cloud as it comes in but we can watch it too.’
We’re brushing arms, pressed close by the equipment.
‛Here goes. Everything is tuned to a thousandth or better. We’ll even be able to ID pollen later.’ We get a blurry image, a line that improves in definition with each pass.
Geargaga gasps and clutches my arm. ‛It could be a cranium!’
‛No, that’s in the wrong place, unless… there must be more people. Stupid techs, they’ve missed some and stuck the poles in the wrong place.’
‛That was me.’
‛Tell me to shut up.’
She squeaks and jerks. ‛It is a cranium … but…’
‛Not erectus, too gracile.’ Let’s look. There’s a ring of perfect handaxes round… I’m guessing that’s a male.’
She says, ‛There’s the top of the child’s head. Er, not a child.’
‛And another ring of… Look, no one did ritual burials back then, surely. Those are spears… both people have one, carved bone … mammoth ivory perhaps? more for decoration than…’ Our jaws drop as a necklace is revealed on the male.
‛Rikki, those are dentalian shells. Did these people trade? They were only found in the Levant.’
‛I’m hazy on that but Mark Roberts reckoned the climate was pretty warm during the interglacial. Maybe they were collected locally.’ Around the woman’s neck, similar jewellery is revealed but with the addition of a heart shaped pendant in the middle, an insect trapped in the centre.
Geargana says, ‛It must be amber; there must have been trade. Jewellery, ritual burial, a lot of effort went into this. These people were deeply loved or respected. Those handaxes are worked to perfection. That’s a massive investment of time. We could be looking at people with lots of leisure. So … little environmental stress and lots of socialising to make bonds. Mild arthritis in both skeletons. They were elderly I think. Maybe the spears were walking sticks too. Oh my goodness, look.’ She points. ‛That looks like my…’ She pulls a world war two dog-tag from around her neck. ‛Whatever it is, is exactly the same shape.’
‛Wow! look. More shells on the man’s arm.’ A line of spirals and something very solid appear on both upper arms of the male.
‛Rikki … those look like screws.’
My excitement shrivels. ‛They are screws. This is a modern burial…’
‛No, not a chance. Every sample we tested from that level dates correctly.’ A gust rattles the tent.
I jerk away from the monitor, squeeze past Annie and yank the tent flap back. ‛Shit, Annie get out of there.’ I can’t breathe in the smoke. Heat, sparks and an orange glow surround us. I dive back into the tent to get air. ‛Annie, we’re cut off by fire…’ I take a deep breath and rush out again. Upwind, downwind, everything’s ablaze… Searing flame roars in tree tops. Branches burst and I’m beaten back by a blast of heat. Falling debris sets shrubs and grass alight.
I re-enter the tent and say, ‛Annie, I’ve got to get you out somehow.’
‛Rikki, we don’t get out.’
‛Seventeen screws, metal plates on bone, the dog tag my granddad gave me, even down to the writing … and look.’ She pulls me to the screen as the east side of the tent wall browns and trails of smoke twist up.
My eyes are stinging, blurry with tears. She says, ‛Rikki, that’s us buried together, hand in hand.’
‛What?’ I’m still thinking how we can survive this. She grabs my head and makes me look at the screen.
‛Rikki, concentrate. Look, that’s us. Buried all that time ago.’
‛Don’t be … not possible … time travel isn’t…’
‛Hand in hand holding your trowel: there’s the hole in it.’ The side of the tent blackens; flame peels it away. I pull her as far as I can to the cooler side. The roof catches. ‛Of course! Rikki, listen, that’s the clue. We left a clue.’
‛The trowel that miraculously saved your life … twice… Get it!’
‛Here,’ I pull it from my pocket.
‛We hold it together, quick…’
©Gary Bonn 2013