Julia had struggled to grasp the concept: that the trip to Destination wasn’t a physical journey but a receipt of impersonal memories. And now she’s experienced it . . . ?
“I saw a man.” I don’t believe how calmly I said it. “It was a flash, a mere instant, before the ‘pod grabbed me.”
I thought Fliss would explode with excitement. She clapped like a seven year old receiving a gift. If she hadn’t been strapped to that chair, I swear, she’d have been out of it, jumping. “A sighting! Oh, chasmic! Our first indie sighting.”
“Ghost,” Kenneth corrected her in laconic form.
“He wasn’t a ghost,” I said. “He was real as you and me.”
“No, Jules-darling, Kenneth is right, it was a ghost. You forget, this is how these machines began. From investigations into ghost sightings. And now you’ve seen our very first one—oh, bully to you! I am so pleased.” So pleased she squealed like a reed-pitched mouse.
“Your chappie’s a ghost,” Dave added his worth. Though something in his tone said he didn’t quite believe his own words. “From the past, he couldn’t be other. Isn’t that right, Fliss? But seen ‘as in a dream’, and those we see in our dreams seem to be real. Agreed?”
“Really, does it matter the label? Our first sighting.” Fliss was still verbally excited and emotionally jumping. “Did I not tell you this, Kenneth? Local genes, locally sensitive. Not like you with your severe Teutonic blood and Dave with his . . . pseudo-Viking. No, our little Julia Cannings is genuinely indie.”
I wanted to remind her of my (Norman-descended) Grandma Chesney—whose younger sister married (Norman-descended) Roland de Plessey whose son fathered her. So my genes were almost as Norman as hers. But what the heck, as if it mattered; the Normans had Viking genes anyway.
“So,” she prompted, commanded, insisted, “describe—and you’ll need to switch on your Dictaphone. I want height, colour, hair – including facial. Clothes—”
“Hey! Fliss. Slow down.” I scowled at her. “I’ve only one mouth; it works only so fast. Height? Probably the same as me, though maybe more—not as tall as Kenneth and Dave. Five-eight, say. Probably. Or maybe five-nine. Or did you want that in centimetres?” Ridiculous, really: I use metric every day in my work yet still I think in feet and inches. Anyway, Fliss had allowed Kenneth to use imperial.
“Whichever.” She waved a dismissive hand. “An absolute wealth can be forgotten while you try to convert. Build?”
“Not scrawny. But neither bulked up like some kind of he-man.” I looked at Kenneth: so thin, turn him sideways he’d disappear. I looked at Dave. “More like Dave, say, medium build.”
“Complexion?” I wondered, did Fliss have a check-list in her head, and she’d been waiting till now to use it.
“Fair. West European—though not as pale as you.” I’d almost said ‘pasty’. “But, though fair-skinned, he also was tanned. Or ought I to say, he was weathered? You know, like someone who works outside all day.” Not like Dave who, when helping his father in the nursery, spent most of his time under glass. “His hair, though, was Nordic-blond—facial hair too, moustache and beard. I know I saw him for less than a moment but . . . I’d the impression his hair and ‘tache were baby-soft.”
“Alpine race,” Kenneth said in definitive tone.
“No question. We can safely tag him as ‘Beaker’.” Clearly Fliss hadn’t seen the look I’d flashed Kenneth of severe disapproval. Oblivious, she went on. “It’s the first positive we’ve had for the Late Neolithic transition to Bronze Age.”
“No, Fliss.” I couldn’t allow it. She should keep her nose out of it and keep to her physics. “We can’t ‘tag’ him anything other than ‘male’. Blond-Alpine Beaker, that assemblage went out with the ark. And ‘Beakers’ aren’t a people; it’s a style of pottery. It’s like calling my mother one of the ‘Habitat’ folk. As for Alpine as a source, here in Britain the Beaker pottery is mostly associated with the indigenous farmers, with only the occasional input from Switzerland. And there’s as much evidence of movement from the Iberian peninsula as there is from the Alps.”
“Kenneth?” Fliss appealed.
“No, I take what she says of the Beaker pots. But, hells, Missy, I was given to believe the indies were dark—colouring that is, not race. Hell, you know what I mean. Can’t discuss a darned thing with this bloody pc.”
PC aside, my back had arched at the ‘Missy’. And the hackles rose too at his assumption, be it only picked up from old books.
“That depends on which group of indigenes we mean,” I said, trying to unclench the teeth. “Genetic studies have shown at least three groups prior to the arrival of agriculture. So by Destination-Date we have at least four, maybe five different groups. If my ‘ghost’ was a farmer then he could have genes from the Fertile Crescent, and it still wouldn’t prohibit some input of blond. You’re all carrying too many assumptions by far.”
I noticed Dave, out of the Freidmans’ field of vision, was grinning.
“Rafferty’s Rules,” Kenneth said with a tone that said he’d dusted his hands and now was resuming his near-horizontal position.
“—Is ‘no rules at all’,” Dave answered my look of enquery. “But did he speak, your ghost?”
I shook my head.
“Of course he didn’t speak,” Fliss jumped in before I could give more of an answer. “He was a ghost, you ninny, his presence merely recorded in the water. He didn’t see our Jules; she was here, locked into the time-pod.”
“Actually—” I began but then thought better of it. She’d only tear me apart; at the very least, laugh at me. Yet he had raised his hand—as if to greet me. And his facial expression seemed to say that he’d seen me. But I suppose that was just the subconscious playing the director as it does in our dreams. Instead, I said, “I have still to describe his clothing.”
“Skin or wool?” Fliss returned to her prompting.
I wanted to remind her of the other fibres he could have been wearing. There’s evidence of woven fibres from 35,000 years ago in Central Europe, but not wool, and probably not linen. But what the heck, why make a fuss.
“Skin,” I said. “Could have been pig-skin, could have been deer. Either way, it looked wonderfully soft.”
“Soft-focus vision,” Kenneth remarked. “Soft hair, soft skins. Hells, Missy, he sounds like a commercial for male cosmetics.”
I ignored the sarcasm, perhaps I deserved it, though one more ‘Missy’ and I’d castrate him. But, for the records, I had to say more on the ‘skins’. “He didn’t wear, like, ‘skins’ left whole and wrapped around him—comic-strip cave-man style. He wore proper clothes, cut and sewn. If he’d walked down our High Street he’d not have drawn a blink of attention.”
“Maybe not at Glastonbury,” Fliss jibed.
“No. Truly. He wore like a tunic, like Davy Crockett might wear in some Hollywood corn. And trousers, ditto—though they could have been chaps; couldn’t see their tops, he wore a wrap-around kilt. You remember our old P.E. skirts, Fliss? Like that.”
“Jules-darling, as soon as you’ve finished describing, you must make a sketch. I suppose you do have adequate skills—didn’t you bunk off A levels to do something arty?”
I did not ‘bunk off A levels’, I merely took them at a different establishment. I could feel my nails becoming claws. “Yes, Fliss. I’m sure I am able, it being a prerequisite of my position. But, first, I must report this: The tunic and trews weren’t merely sewn, there was embroidery along all the seams.”
“Embroidery?” Kenneth raised a brow. “Suggests a seamstress with sufficient leisure.”
“I’d start by querying that ‘seamstress’,” I said. “He probably made the clothes himself. And early embroidery wasn’t intended as decorative. It wasn’t that until the elites made it fashionable. Initially embroidery was applied as a kind of charm, to protect the seams and hems against the ingress of damaging demons.”
“Or as added whammy to stop the garment from falling apart,” Fliss added and smiled.
“No, but Fliss-babes, listen to her. This lady knows her biz.”
I nodded acknowledgement to Ken, though it had been slightly sarcastically said. “Apart from what I’d previously learned, I set up an exhibition last year at the V&A, Origins of Embroidery’, so I boned up on it more.”
“V&A,” Ken echoed. “Victoria and Albert? The museum? But . . .” He turned to Fliss. “So what was that about nothing prestigious?”
“It was a short contract,” I said. “But as I said, the first embroidery was used to protect seams and hems against demon-invasion. The stitches acted as charms. Beads, shells, quills, whatever, were added as amulets. For the same reasons they were also hung around the body’s orifices—thus the origin of, e.g., nose-plugs and earrings.”
“Arse-rings?” Dave asked, an eyebrow raised.
“It was to prevent the demons getting in, not noxious smells getting out,” I said.
“And you, Jules-darling, are as incorrigible as him. But, this ghost of yours: did he wear ‘additional’ amulets?” Fliss asked.
“Too many to list, and the vision was fleeting. He had feathers, I did see. Black and white, twisted into his hair. Oh yea, and a bead necklace. Though I couldn’t say what kind of beads. Light, brownish, possibly amber but equally they could’ve been waxed wood. He also had a couple of pouches. One, quite small, hung on a long thong around his neck; the other tied to his belt. Plaited leather, before you ask—the belt.”
“Feet?” Fliss again prompted.
But by then I’d had enough and I turned sarcastic. “I expect he had them, yea.”
She tutted again. “What did he wear on them? Or was he bare footed?”
“How would I know? I’ve already said, he stood in long grass.”
She made no comment as such, but her nose rose a good inch. “Age?” she asked—or rather, snarled.
This had to be the final detail. I could think of no other she could possibly want. “Thirty or under—though not by much.”
Fliss nodded. Then pointed. “Paper, pencils, over there on the bench.”
All this time I’d perched on the edge of the granite ‘pod. I was eager to move, to stretch my legs. I duly began my sketching, still standing. Behind my back I could hear them talking.
“See?” Ken said, quiet as a murmur. “I said she’d be worth it.”
I glanced back in time to catch Fliss flick her head as if to say, ‘Shush, not while she’s listening’. She followed it very softly with, “And of course she has to be your suggestion.”
“Hey, cut it out, Fliss,” Dave snapped at her. “You wanted an expert. You’ve got one.”
“I’m hardly that,” I said. I couldn’t pretend not to hear.
“But, as you said, in your line of work . . .” Dave said.
“Enough!” Fliss snapped. “I have yet to hear Kenneth’s report.”
I was in the office, having typed my report, when Dave rattled through the door. “Kenny’s now in a stink!”
The office sported two chairs (as in one for the subordinate, or interviewee, and one, high-backed swivel, for the boss), two tall filing cabinets and a matching desk, all done in creams, and honeyed elm and arranged with sufficient space for wheelchair manoeuvring. On first entering I’d smirked: even the window was fitted with regulation office blinds, rather than the softer drapes of a domestic setting. Dave lumped down in the subordinate’s chair set to one side of me.
I double-saved my report, once to the computer, and again to my flash-drive (I wanted a copy of this) before attending to him. “Why, what’s up with him? Or don’t tell me. Because, basically, I told him he didn’t know bo-diddly about the Neolithic. But, Dave, he doesn’t—no more than I know about his machines. Each to their own.”
“Hey, quits, Julie. You’re almost as rabid as our Lady Boudicca. I’m surprised the pair of you didn’t murder each other if that’s how you were when friends.”
“When? I thought we still were,” I said.
“You know what I mean. You jump, no waiting for explanations. And no, he’s not upset about that—at least, not boiling-mad, though it’s probably not helping. No, it’s because you stole his three cheers.”
“What!?” I spluttered.
“All that buzz about your ghost sighting, his report kinda fell flat.”
I up-slapped my head. Yet even if I’d thought to hail his report as ‘Wow, isn’t that something,’ it still wouldn’t have changed that his supposed ‘long barrow’ was no such thing. And basically his report hadn’t changed much since last week.
“I’ll apologise,” I said—okay, so I growled it. “But he must understand, this was my first pod-trip. And I brought back a news-worthy report while his was just—”
“More of the same?”
“Yea, well,it was. And it worries me, Dave. Not between us—it makes no odds—but what if he goes to a university with this as part of his ‘sell’? They’d laugh at him and call him a shyster. For Fliss’s sake, I can’t have him do that.”
“So tell him.”
“I’ve already said.” And I didn’t know what else I could do.
My eyes lingered on the window, an excuse not to look at Dave. The window overlooked the lane to the Ridgeway. I watched as a family of weekend hikers trudged by.
“What if I checked it out?” I said. I didn’t turn; I didn’t want to see his reaction.
“On the far side of the Avon?” he scoffed. “You’re not talking near-future, then.”
I grunted. He caught my meaning.
“You have to work up to it; Fliss won’t allow it otherwise. One hour, two hours, eight.”
I humphed. It would have been nice had they told me all this before co-opting me. “And what about Durrington? I’ll need the full eight for that—at least that long—longer if I’m to stick around and see what’s happening. So,” I was hatching a plan even while speaking, “while I’m working up to it, I could help Ken. I reckon I can do the scarp in, what? Four hours?”
“He takes three days.”
I swung my head like a balance, considering it. “Yea, three days would be better.”
“Yea, but three days requires survival skills,” Dave said, and at first I thought he was joking. “Okay, so you’re in the ‘pod only fifteen minutes. But Destination, that’s experienced as real. You’ve been there now, you know it. Three days, that’s . . . well, it’s not exactly an Away-Day. And you’re not gonna get hungry? Not need a safe thingy, a place to sleep? Not be scared of the dark cos there’s no street-lighting? Not need a match to a light a fire? How about the privy?”
“But none of that’s really real,” I said, heels dug deep. “Just dreams. Like Fliss said.”
Dave laughed. “And you’ve never had a nightmare that feels horribly real? It’s not what’s there. Physical. It’s what’s in your head that your body believes. And if your body starts to register stress, that ‘pod will fetch you back faster than saying flibbertigibbet. It happened to Kenny. Fell into a river; thought he was drowning. Zip-zap, he was back. Seriously, no joshing. So, before you venture longer than the novice’s hour, you need a course in survival.”
“And I suppose you’re the one to teach me?” Yea, Dave who’d never ventured for more than an hour.
He smiled and shook his head. “I’ve a Dvee. ‘Bushman Skills’. I’ll fetch it for you. You can watch it tonight in your room. I take it you’re staying? Scatty catching buses back and forth when her Ladyship offers us neat accommodation. And I doubt his nibs will oblige with a lift, not and risk a scratch to his wheels.”
“I thought you . . .”
“Would be happy to ferry you? You sure you want that? And squeeze in close in my conked out babe-carrier? I would and I will. But for now I think you’d be wiser to accept our hosts’ invitation.”
I laughed, somewhat shakily. “So I can upset Fliss and Kenneth yet more?” I held up my hands in surrender. I mean, my patch-it-together canalboat versus the luxury of the Priory conversion? No contest. “And that gives me this afternoon to walk the scarp—while Fliss has her physio.”
“Oh.” Dave stuck out his lip in a parody-sulk. “And there’s me hoping you’d come with me to fetch said DVee. Pops is looking forward to renewing acquaintance—I kid you not.”
“So now you lay the guilt upon me, huh? Another time, I promise, though give him my regards. But, Dave, before we join our hosts for lunch, how did Fliss know I was working at the museum? She seems to have known even before I’d applied for the post.”
Dave looked down with a hangdog expression. “Um, yea, well, that’ll be me. I, um . . . kinda told her.”
I regarded him over-long while he squirmed, probably anticipating what next I’d say. “Okay. So now you’ve moved the question along. So how did you know?”
“Your mother, my father,” he said, head now bobbing like one of those noddy-dogs in the back of a car. “You know Pops has been daffy for you since—well, since then. So, whenever he sees your mum, he asks after you. And you know your mum: she proudly tells him.”
“Whenever he . . . When does see her?”
“When she comes our way to buy veg.”
“So you knew there was no broken marriage? And you know what I’m doing at the museum. And you know where I’m living, down on the Lady. And—” I had started to rant.
He held up his hands in surrender. “Guilty.”
Well, at least that was one thing answered. It had been creepy, Fliss knowing so much about me. “But, Dave, what is it with . . . our hosts? It’s like they conspired to enlist me, for my ‘special’ qualities.”
“Special?” Dave laughed.
“Okay, for my local genes, as if you don’t have any. Don’t tell me your family has remained pure Dane for the past thousand years. No out-breeding?”
“Yet it weren’t me who reported the first sighting. Nor said of the goats. Nor of a house.”
And that was something else puzzling me. Okay, Dave headed into the fens, so perhaps he wouldn’t see much. But Ken had rambled as far as Hampshire, way south of Salisbury. And he’d been at it much longer than Dave. I couldn’t believe in all that time he’d seen nothing. Were his eyes a dedicated-programme focused only on finding his anachronistic long barrows and nothing other? Something here didn’t gel.