Offered the opportunity to expand her knowledge and advance her career by a fly-on-the-wall observation of the Neolithic culture of Wessex. Can Julia resist—even though she’s aware of Fliss’s penchant for trampling her plans and wishes?
I made my first pod-trip two weeks later. Dave used those two weeks to instruct me in the art of breathing.
“I know how to breathe,” I objected, and tried again to put distance between us. That wasn’t easy. It would have been better to sit outside on the aft deck. Considering our past, these regular meetings in the Lady’s tight interior perhaps wasn’t wise. But again it was raining. And where else was there for us to meet away from the Priory. Not at his place: an apartment built as a ‘granny annex’ attached to his parents’ much-converted 1950s bungalow. His father would jump to conclusions. At least in my cheapo conversion of the old barge I had constructed only one bed, single. Designed on the hammock-cum-deck-chair principle, it didn’t exactly invite a night of humping. So I sat on that while he sat opposite on a settee of similar construction. And no, they would not slide together to make a double. He had already asked.
“I’m not talking of everyday breathing,” he said.
“I know. You’re talking of controlled breathing like pranayam-yoga, similar to that taught in stress management workshops—like I’ve been doing for absolute years. ‘In’ for a count, ‘hold’ for a count, ‘out’ for a count, ‘hold’ for a count, ‘in’ for a count . . . In keeping the mind focused, it isolates the person from fears and anxieties.”
“Simplified, yea; largely,” he conceded. “Fliss did say something vaguely similar. Not that we’re aware of being sealed into the ‘pod. Not after the first few minutes.”
“Minutes!?” This thing of being sealed onto the time-pod still was bothering me. If it weren’t for the thought of Durrington Walls, I would not have agreed to it.
“Okay, seconds,” he, again, conceded. “And you’re not aware of it after the first few seconds. Actually, it might not even be that long. If you start the breathing straight away—soon as you’re in—and not wait for the lid to close—”
“Dave, you’re not helping with your choice of words.” Though what other words could he use. The lid closed; it didn’t hover a few inches above.
I nodded. He sincerely did sound sorry.
“And, anyway, you don’t see properly what’s happening, not with that black-out mask on your eyes.”
I looked at him.
“Honestly, you’ll be smooth. Just breathe, relax, then, wham-slither-whoosh, next you know it, you’re there.”
“There?” It must have been tiresome, contending with this resident echo. Yet he patiently answered with whatever the relevant explanation.
“There is the exact same place as occupied at present by Priory House. Only it’ll be two thousand, five hundred years earlier, give or take. Once I get some carbon dates—”
“How? You’re all so insistent you don’t leave the ‘pod, that it’s just a matter of attuning to the ancient memories. How then to return with samples?”
“I don’t, we don’t—wouldn’t that be slick. Na, I’ve said of my study: Zip-zap back in the ‘pod, splash through the fennies which now is the Vale, locate some juicy mire where pollen’s collecting (and layering down in the airless water—great for preserving), then heigh-ho, back to the twenty-first century, expedition with students, permission from farmer to take core-samples, send off to lab, await the results.”
“Neat,” I said, seeing him in a different light.
“Yea, theory. Practice, it’s a bitch to find a suitable mire. It has to be in the right stage of formation. Too old, and the dates could be mesolithic. Too young and, deary-down me, it might never be other than this year’s pool. So to speak.”
I could see his problem. Basically, he had to find a puddle, preferably a big one, that then was forming into a mire, so the pollen caught and preserved would only date from that year. But how was he to know that the puddle-cum-mire would be there to stay. It could as easily drain away. A geological survey of the Vale was essential, to know exactly where to find the clay sub-soils (which would prohibit speedy drainage). Fortunately for him there had been such a survey, and the results were published.
“So what are the dates so far?”
He smiled (his smiles easily stretched as wide as a grin). “You’re jumping way ahead. I said that’s the plan. But I’m still new to this pod-tripping lark. And finding and mapping the mires . . . not easy. Julie-poo’s, I tell you, our Prissy-Flissy doesn’t know a dicky of how it is at Destination. Tapping the dreams of fauna and flora? Nuts. That’s not how it feels, nothing like. For my first few trips the weather was cold, wet and windy—and didn’t I know it! You try plunging through fenland in conditions like that, looking for a puddle that might conceivably make into a mire that might, just might, endure long enough to neatly preserve the pollen. I still haven’t stayed at Destination for more than two hours.”
“Yet you come back dry shod?”
He didn’t answer. “Look, Julie, I’ve icy-chills just talking of it. What’s the chance of a coffee.”
“What’s the chance of you using my given name?”
“What?” He looked blank, like he didn’t understand. “But I didn’t ‘poo’-you.”
“No, but my name isn’t Julie. It’s Julia. Remember? Julia Cannings.”
“Could have been Eastman,” he said, suddenly sullen.
I ignored him. I filled the kettle. “Instant okay?” He nodded. “So we’ve no definite dates yet?” I returned to the subject of his core-samples.
“Next semester. But Mrs ‘Green Wellie’ lady at the Priory has a date from the water—and don’t ask me how, too technical for my simple noggins.”
“And Kenneth has his dubious long barrow study,” I remarked. “Not that he’ll find many in the immediate vicinity. How long did you say he stays out?”
“Three days, his longest,” he obliged “—he went looking for Fussell’s Lodge.”
“Did he find it?” I couldn’t see as it was possible. Fussell’s Lodge was one of the earliest long barrows, and it was way downriver, beyond Salisbury, into Hampshire. Besides being one hell of a hike through terrain without roads, it’s entirely the wrong direction for the hydrology. Moreover, its securely dated to 3630-3620 BCE, a thousand years before our study. But at the thought of it questions erupted. Would it be an acknowledged part of the landscape? Would the local farmers know what it was? What did the round-barrow builders make of their ancestors’ monuments? What myths did they attach to them? What rites did they perform at them? “By the way, has anyone yet seen a native?” I wasn’t sure what to call them (p.c. and all that.)
“Indies,” Dave obliged, though with a sour look. “Her Ladyship’s word, meaning ‘indigenes’. And no, in answer, we haven’t.”
Okay, so until the Riverside Project at Durrington Walls, scarcely a Neolithic hut had been found in the Wessex area. Yet, as the archaeologists said, they must have lived somewhere, probably in the river valleys where the archaeologists seldom had occasion to dig. But with all that tramping, all the way to Salisbury and then some, Kenneth must have seen someone. But—I up-slapped my head—silly me, the pod-tripper went nowhere. Why couldn’t I get that into my skull. Everything was merely a memory. Yet that didn’t explain why Kenneth in particular hadn’t yet sighted a native. Surely human memories are stronger than those of the plants? Hadn’t Fliss begun her explanation of this water-and-rock recording medium by saying of ghosts being traumatic memories? But, on reflection, that shouldn’t carry—else there’d be no flora and fauna recording. Lawks, if I pondered this too long I’d go insane. Best to leave that to Fliss. Her department.
“So, did Kenneth find Fussell’s Lodge?”
“Kenny? No chance. But he’s cracked it with Marlborough Downs—along the southern hills.”
“Yea, well it makes more sense; the water drains from there to the Vale. How much has he covered?”
“You’re asking . . . our Kenney-boy isn’t a sticker. He’s talking now of taking the east bank of the Avon.”
I’d already got the feeling our Kenneth was way outside his comfort-zone—not so much with the ‘trips as with what he was doing once there—though I had yet to meet him. That was scheduled for the coming weekend, my first on watch-duty with Fliss.
“I don’t understand why he’s taken that study at all,” I said. “He’d have done better to take the henges—no shortage of them in the area. Or even the first of the round barrows. Or what about the settlements; that would be an astounding study in view of the discoveries at Durrington. But long barrows. Why long barrows? Anyway, it keeps him away from Durrington Walls. How long do you reckon it’ll take to get there? I can’t see me doing it in a couple of hours. I’ll need at least two days Destination-Time.”
“She won’t give it to you, you’re a novice,” Dave said. “You’ll have to work up to it.”
I asked for three days. Okay, so ‘demanded’ might cover it better. How the years do change us; I couldn’t believe I’d been that assertive with Fliss. The look on her face! I thought she was going to fall out of her chair. She was in for a shock if she thought I was still the easy-to-mould little Jules. Yet she still refused me.
“Not on your primo, Jules-darling—for your own protection. Who knows what little afflictions might befall you.”
I laughed. “But hold a mo. According to you, it’s just like a dream. What can happen in a dream? And no matter how long I’m at Destination, I’ll still be in the ‘pod, here, just fifteen minutes. It’ll be like a very long dream.”
Only, as I was soon to discover, it wasn’t like any dream I’d ever had, not even the ‘lucids’. Dave had tried to prepare me, saying of his cold and wet feet. Truly, it did feel like I was really there.
It was Saturday morning. That was the usual time for the pod-trips: weekend mornings when no one was working. Kenneth was back from wherever he’d been. Dave and I weren’t told—it was none of our business—yet we’d both guessed at the same excursion. Denied his conjugals by his wife’s disability, he kept a mistress some hidden place. Though if he did, I have to say he was discreet. I noticed no tension twixt him and Fliss, and if he had been dallying, and Fliss suspected . . . whoa, I imagined explosions.
It was Kenneth and me to the ‘pods this Saturday morning. Dave was on watch-duty with Fliss. I’d already done my stint the previous week, for Kenneth and Dave. In fact, I’d covered it two days in a row. As reward, I was allowed a double trip come this weekend. Thereafter the doubles would rotate on rota, every third weekend.
I shall always remember the look on Dave’s face as he exploded out of his ‘pod that previous week. He had found a rare orchid. After the ‘wow-wow-wow’ of exclamation, and his five words given in explanation, he scarcely spoke, head down, scribbling away at lightning speed, and marking the find-spots on his map. Everything was done long-hand, pencil and paper—computers weren’t allowed in the ‘pod-room, and reports were to be immediately made before the memories faded. I asked, could I use Dictaphone. To my surprise I was allowed it.
“Why these two haven’t . . .” Fliss gave one of her airy waves. “Natch, while sharing your finds you’re also recording. But, Julia-darling, we still need the hardcopy. You’ll find a computer in the office for that.”
I was delighted to get the concession from her, though also puzzled. Why was a Dictaphone allowed in the pod-room but a computer wasn’t? I assumed to it was something to do with delicate machinery.
Kenneth made his report. So laconic he was nigh horizontal despite he’d found what he claimed was a long barrow, hitherto unknown. “Recent dig. Fresh as daisies.”
“A new long barrow?” I said. “Are you sure? Only it’s generally agreed they all were closed long before that, before two thousand, five hundred. Are you sure it’s a burial barrow and not something else?”
“And that, Jules-darling,” Fliss cut-in with a smarmy drawl, “is why our recording-technology is of paramount importance to your archaeologists. It will blow the face off everything known. Rearrange the dates. More revolutionary than the radiocarbon-14 and bristlecone discoveries.”
My, my, Fliss was excited. But that didn’t change my opinion of Kenneth’s new barrow. Though, in fairness, until the dates came back from Dave’s core-samples, we couldn’t be absolutely certain of the Destination-Date. Fliss had explained of her water-date but . . . no, I wasn’t so sure.
Kenneth planted his red-headed pin in the map. I looked over his shoulder. So, he was working east of the river, as Dave had said. The north side of Upavon Hill, overlooking the Vale.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“Hush and patience, darling,” Fliss annoyingly cooed. “And observe. This will be expected of you, too.” Though apparently not of Dave who was allowed to go straight to the written record.
Kenneth paced while he gave his report. Maybe that was his trigger to memory, though unworkable under normal examination conditions. “Length, fifty foot approx. Mound steep sided, height six foot. All topsoil. Subsoil, chalk, broken to rubble, stacked to each end, clear of the quarry-ditch by some—I’d say—twelve foot.”
I frowned. I could imagine the chalk had been set aside for later use, to cover the mound. But only one quarry-ditch? A burial barrow would have had one either side of the mound. I queried it. Perhaps he just hadn’t said.
“Nix. I walked around it. Only the one.”
“Remains of a mortuary house?” I asked. Though it might be already fired and buried beneath the mound.
He shook his head. The frown gathering on his thin face made him look cross.
“Are you doubting Kenneth’s report?” Fliss asked. There was no doubting her tone. She was cross.
Dave looked round from his writing, a look of warning aimed at me. What? He thought I ought to back off? Perhaps it wasn’t good politics to question the project leaders but I didn’t believe he’d found a barrow.
“Deposits in ditch,” Kenneth resumed. “Northeast terminal, bone collection.”
“Which bones?” I asked. “Were they human?”
His sharp inhale sounded angry. “Long bones. Thigh. Parts of pelvis. Signs of charring. And unless you had apes in these parts, they are human. Food offerings,” he continued. “In a cauldron-shaped pot.” His hands outlined its dimensions.
I wanted to ask of its fabric, its colour, whether burnished, whether patterned, but he was now getting snappy. Taking it from his mimicking hands, the pot was neither Beaker nor Grooved Ware. Just as well, since Beaker and Grooved Ware in a long barrow would 100% anachronistic. But then, I couldn’t believe what he’d found was a barrow.
“Report finito, right,” he said, but then repeated of the barrow’s recent construction. I noticed he still hadn’t said of the pot’s location. Left terminus, central or some other place? I supposed he would draw a plan of it and then I’d see it. I felt disinclined to ask.
“It might be better at this point to call it an earthwork,” I said. “Rather than barrow.”
Fliss queried that with a high-rise eyebrow, her lips tightly pursed.
I listed the features that defined a long barrow though I omitted a mortuary house—not all long barrows had one. In fact, some long barrows didn’t have a burial, not even animal. The only features I could give as consistently diagnostic were the two quarry ditches, and its length.
“There’s also the fact of its age,” I said. “It’s a thousand years out of kilter. So, unless there’s an error in the Destination-Date . . .”
That was the wrong thing to say.