Despite that she’s curious of the time-pods and their ghostly recordings, the notion of ancient flora and fauna doesn’t do it for Julia. Yet there is one aspect of this project that’s guaranteed to snag her interest.
The garden was heavily planted. Though as Dave explained the present plants were only a temporary measure. “Agreed, they’ve made an armful of growth considering it was only last spring I planted it.”
“Er, yea, me, me being the Freidmans’ gardener. That’s how I got netted. Look, there’s a seat, up there. We’ll take our leisure, and I’ll explain it all then.”
“Dave,” I asked. “are you studying the English classics? ‘We’ll take our leisure’?” And that wasn’t his first allusion. I half-expected, any moment, he’d quote Shakespeare at me. This was no more the Dave I remembered than his earlier wind-ups.
He laughed and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Caught.” But he didn’t explain.
We walked the length of the path, crazy-paved, its edges softened with a carpet of thyme (I only knew what it was from the familiar scent as my cloppetting feet accidentally bruised it). Off-path, the carpet rose into low bushes, with isolated architectural plants, before culminating in head-high shrubs and small-trees that formed the hedge. Early May, the garden a splash of colour, and with the sun full on it the scent was divine. Butterflies flitted and, as a pleasant backdrop, insects chirred in the rougher grasses of the scarp alongside us.
I’d best explain of that scarp. It’s not really a scarp, not by the definition learnt in geography when I was at school. It’s merely the northern culmination of the Plain (ha-ha, misnomer, it’s far from flat); it’s the highest point—a gentle slope one side, a sharp climb the other, deeply fluted by gulleys and dry valleys.
“Sit,” Dave said when we reached the terminus: a weeping birch, its silver bark peeling to reveal a red core. Beneath it was a seat, garden-centre rustic, and a paved area, circular and wide enough to take a large wrought-iron table, painted white. It hadn’t the elegance I expected of Fliss. Perhaps Kenneth-darling had bought it. Or Dave. Dave sighed—or rather he huffed. “I’ve been taxed with introducing you to the um—or rather to our—time-pod thingy. Caboodle. A.K.A. the Priory Project.”
“Yea? Well before you do, just hold. You can tell me, first, why I’ve this itchy feeling that you and Fliss are trying to recruit me.”
And if Fliss hadn’t subtly changed (beyond the physical) then I’d expect her to stop only at slaughter to get what she wanted. She would trample over my feelings, my wants and my plans, as she’s always done.
“Well?” I prompted.
“I thought . . . it was the way Fliss said it. I assumed you’d already asked to be in.”
Already? And how did that misconception fit with what had happened so far?
One: I had phoned Fliss midweek, at my mother’s prompting.
Two: She had invited me to today’s reunion luncheon.
Three: At some time before my arrival—and before I’d given her even the sketchiest update on my career—she had invited Dave to the luncheon too.
Four: At no time since his arrival had he and she been alone together. Nor out of my hearing.
So when had I the chance to ask to be in on it? And when had she implied it to Dave?
I’d been set up. But how? She must have been turning the wheels before she ever knew that I might have an interest. And I had to admit, I did have an interest—though that depended upon the retrieved memories; I wasn’t interested in flora and fauna. But 4500 years ago. That covered the active phase of Stonehenge, and Durrington Walls. If there was a way to watch their building . . .
So much more was now known about both these monuments, thanks to the recent Operation Stonehenge, and the Riverside Project (which had culminated in the amazing discoveries of 2009). It was Durrington Walls that attracted me most—obsessional, you might say, like a flame to the moth. Between 2500 and 2460 BCE, while the main phase of Stonehenge was constructed, Durrington Walls had been the largest settlement anywhere in northwest Europe, covering in excess of 17 hectares. For those forty years it housed up to 4000 people on a seasonal basis. Its ‘Southern Circle’ with its concentric rings of timber posts and an internal horseshoe setting probably served as a wooden prototype for Stonehenge itself. There was a second circle of post-settings to the north of it. And as if that weren’t enough, it was intricately linked to the Orkney settlements, not only through the Grooved Ware pottery, which anyway was common throughout Eastern and Midland Britain, but there was also a house at Durrington Walls that was almost the exact replica of House 7 at Skara Brae. Incredible.
Interested in their Priory Project? If it could get me any place near to Durrington Walls during that period, I’d beg like a dog. Yet I’m sure I’d allowed no hint of interest to show while with Fliss. So how come Dave’s misconception?
“Exactly what is the project?” I asked.
He looked taken aback. He frowned. “But I thought . . . nah, Fliss has explained the basics. Hasn’t she?”
“She explained the history, yea. But the theory, and the technical gubbins, soared over my head.” Okay, so I’d understood some of it, but I didn’t want him to know that. I wanted to hear it from him.
“Well,” he said in an almost-huff, “the aim of the project is to prove Mattesson’s theory, that water and rock, together, act as a recording medium that carries the memories across the millennia. That proven, the Freidmans intend to donate their time-pods to, and I quote, ‘a deserving university’. The idea is that archaeologists will use the time-pods to locate previously unknown sites – or to explore a site without need of an intrusive dig – or, I suppose, to confirm that a site is worth the cost of a physical exploration. Right up your street, hey?”
From start to finish, that was a quote taken from Fliss. As to the last little comment, I ignored that. It saved me committing myself.
“They’ll donate the machines?”
He squirmed. Yet he answered pleasant enough. “As far as I’ve grasped it, Ken goes with the pods—as part of the deal (he’s a whizz with all that technical stuff). And, oh, mega-surprise. Fliss gets her name all sparkled in lights—okay, Academia version of. But you know Fliss, the total cockalorum.”
What he meant was that, for Fliss, rep came higher than dosh—easy to say when you’re already padded. But I slowly nodded as I turned it all over, looking for threads to pluck out the kernel—which was, that Fliss would still get her doctorate, while Kenneth-darling would secure the readies.
“Clever,” I said. “If the machines work.”
“The bee’s knees. But not ‘machines’, time-pods.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. It was all so preposterous, so highly unlikely. “So they’re time-travel machines, yea; that’s what you’re saying?”
He shook his head. “At least, not in the Wellsian sense. Theory: the body goes nowhere. Slip into the ‘pod, the lid closes over, before you know it it’s two thousand five hundred BC.”
“BCE,” I said when I should have picked up on his Theory. “BC is now considered bad PC. And you really are back there—two thousand five hundred, I mean? But how do you know? How can you prove it?”
“Dipstick, Julie. You’re getting it wrong. I said, the body goes nowhere. It’s your head, it fills with memories gleaned from back there, from two thousand five hundred Before Common Era. And when you get back you remember it like . . . well, like you’ve just lived it.”
“You’ve just ‘lived’ the flora, fauna and weather? Wow!” I ladled the sarcasm.
“Hey, don’t pick on me, I’m not the tech-jock. I only know how it feels.”
“And it feels real?”
“Streuth-truth, Julie, you’d not belief. I tell you, the place teems with birds—totally teems. And the flowers! We don’t see them these days, we’ve destroyed everything. I’ve seen species there that have been extinct here since—I don’t know, probably before the Roman occupation. And another thing, those hills –“ he gestured back at the scarp “– they’re steeper back then. Steeper, higher, with the valleys deeper and wider. Our hills have been rain-eroded—imagine it, Julia, four thousand years of erosion. Okay, I’m not talking Fertile-Crescent-erosion, but I’m telling you, if it weren’t for the sheep-graze there’d be nothing left here but bare chalk. It’s only the grasses hold it together. Nah, I tell you, it’s as close as you’ll get to virgin Britain—even though Man has been farming there already for, what, two thousand years? Agreed, they’ve made changes, with an armful of deforestation—”
“Hey, chill.” I laughed at his enthusiasm, how he was carried away. “You asked me what I do at the museum? Well, I design displays of this very same thing—amongst other things.”
“Then why the toe-tripping? The added knowledge—think of it, Julie, like a total career-beano. You could write papers—a doctorate. Wouldn’t you like to be Doctor Cannings?”
I wasn’t so excitable as Dave. And my past dealings with Fliss were sufficient to induce a more cautious tread. As yet I could simply walk away. She was hardly fixed to come after me. I couldn’t see her and her wheelchair negotiating the stony track down to my mooring, nor yet Kenneth in his 4×4 (I was guessing that’s what he had). What, and risk the scratches and mud in the ruts?
“How did you get involved, if you’re only her gardener?” I asked.
“Yea, I did all this but . . . “ Dave huffed (I wouldn’t call it a sigh). “Okay, so I’ll tell you the story. Up to last year they had just the one ‘pod. Kenny pod-tripped, Fliss manned the controls—”
“What’s he do, by the way?” I interrupted. “I mean, when he gets there, two thousand five hundred BCE.”
“Actually, they’re saying it’s closer to two thousand, four hundred. Me, I don’t see as a hundred makes that much difference.”
“Oh but it does. Two thousand five hundred, two hundred four, that’s edging into the transition, from Late Neolithic to Early Bronze. Okay, so the changes aren’t exactly abrupt, but they are quite massive. A change in the burial practice, a change in pottery types and uses, a change in farming practices, a change in beliefs, solar to chthonic, a change in tool technology – even without the metals that were slowly encroaching. A hundred years? No, it makes a big difference.”
Dave hmfhed. “Guess it’ll be my project that pins it, then.”
“Yours?” Oops, done it again: tactless Julia with her ever-ready mouth.
“I’m doing a doctorate, actually. Attached to Exeter. ‘Loss of indigenous wetland plants in Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Lowland Wessex.’ Okay?”
I believe for a moment my mouth hung open. Then I stuttered several ‘buts’. And I had thought him only a gardener?
“It’s simps, Julie. Dad wanted someone to take on the business when—well he won’t live forever—And by the way, he sends his regards. So he packed me off, first to Horticultural College, then to Bristol for a Masters in Business. Then this last year, when this—but I already had the intention. It all coalesced, neat as Ma’s jigsaw.”
“Wow,” I said. And, “I’m sorry.” And slammed my mouth shut on a further faux pas. “So Kenneth, what’s his . . . ?” I didn’t know what to call it.
“Study?” Dave said. “He’s mapping the long barrows.”
“You mean, as in burial barrows?” I said, astounded.
“Yea. Sure. Why?”
“They were no longer active, two thousand five hundred BCE—not long barrows. They’d been closed a good thousand years—or at least most had. Okay, some held on for another five hundred years, but certainly none were active in his study period.”
“And?” He was on the defensive now, for Kenneth. I guessed they were close buddies, probably forming a mutual wall against Fliss. “He’s mapping them, as potentials for further exploration. You know, when they roll it out to the universities?”
“But how does he know it’s a barrow? A thousand or more years old, its profile will be softened by wind and rain erosion, not to mention an overgrowth of brambles and . . . stuff. And I thought him a tech. How’s he qualified to study any of this?”
I didn’t wait for his answer. The penny dropped. And that, Jules-darling, is where you come in. I could almost hear her saying it.
“Now I know how a trout feels. Bait taken, hooked and reeled in. Go on, you were telling me how you got involved.”
“You don’t have to sound so narked, Julie.”
“And you don’t have to call me Julie when you know full well my name is Julia.” While it was pleasant to sit in the shade of the birch, and pleasant to talk with Dave after all these years, it was not so pleasant to know I’d been gulled. And there was a stack of questions I wanted answered of how that had come about. “So come on, Dave, how did you get involved?”
He continued with the story he’d started, Kenneth pod-tripping, Fliss at the controls.
“I’d been gardening here for maybe a couple of weeks when Kenny asks if I’d co-monitor with Fliss. In return I’d get the trip of my life. Long story short, it soon turned so Kenny and I took it alternate. Then, when I got the funding from Exeter, they thought it time I had my own ‘pod. Only these last few ‘trips, Fliss has been—I don’t know, panicky. She’s fretting. Confined to that ‘chair, if something happens . . . zero!”
“Something? What sort of something?” If this was his idea of a pitch, he needed lessons. The thought of being shut into one of those machines didn’t exactly delight me. Now he’d acknowledged the danger too.
“Chill. It’s nothing, not really,” he said. “The ‘pods are set on fifteen minute release—that’s the longest we’re in the ‘pod. But that doesn’t hamper Destination—there’s no correlation. Kenny, he stays out for days—three, so far—though me, I only stay for a matter of hours. But I was saying: Fliss got tetchy, afraid she’d be useless in the unlikely. She needs someone with her.”
“Oh great. It’s not the chance of a lifetime, no trip to Durrington Walls. It’s just a chance to hold Fliss’s hand.” God, had I been taken. I was glad I hadn’t said yes.
But Dave was wagging his head again like a man in despair. Moreover, it was despair over me. “Julie-poo’s, you so-haven’t changed. Jump straight to conclusion, no waiting; sod finding the truth. Listen. The idea is we three pod-trip on rota. Two out, one sitting with Fliss. Fair, or fair?”
“I don’t know, Dave. I need to think about this. I need more information. And I’d rather that came from you, than from her.”
“So, you free tomorrow? Bags we go for Sunday lunch.”
And in that he hadn’t changed. Taking my compliance for granted.