Julia has returned from Destination with Arskraken’s story told on tape, and a report that includes details of Alsaldhelm Tumun, a structure not only unknown to archaeologists but also, in its situation, unlikely in our own Neolithic. This,when taken together with other anachronisms, strongly suggests that the ‘pods’ Destination exists in a different universe. But is it proof as Ken believes?
Episode 34 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Maggie (‘Everyone’s PA’ at the museum) caught me as I returned from lunch. I had asked her that morning to arrange an appointment with the linguist Siobhán McCormack, who conveniently happened to be Maggie’s sister-in-law. I had seen her résumé—Maggie called it to screen. Though as yet only skimmed, I’d noticed the six months as research assistant on a project in Guatemala and her present position at Bristol University. I expected her to be busy, and for me to wait till some far distant date.
“Siobhán says she’ll see you tomorrow. A late lunch—if you’re free.”
I was flabbered. “I’m free.”
“I’ll let her know. Three pm, at the Rookery, if that’s okay?” Maggie asked.
“Yea. Sure.” I tried not to look bewildered yet . . .
“I’ll tell her. She said to say she’s looking forward to it.”
I watched as Maggie hurried along, my brow in pain from where I was frowning. For the rest of the day I puzzled upon it. How could she be so immediately free? And here in town? I was expecting a trip into Bristol. Not the easiest to make with the ill-timed connections; it would probably have taken two days—though I was thinking of enlisting Dave as chauffeur and to hell with the footprint.
That evening was spent in preparation: Extra tapes; a version recorded to DVD; copies of copies of transcripts; a final rehearsal of the story I’d tell her, trying to keep it believable. Next morning, having hardly slept, and then the anxiety, I was strung out and jumpy. I scoffed down a muesli bar midday just to keep the rumbles at bay till this late lunch meeting at the Rookery.
I’m not sure why the Rookery is so named. Because it’s two floors up, above a glittering gift-shop on the market place? Or has it something to do with the owner’s name? Perhaps it’s because of the prices—a few pence change from £10 for a light salad with humus and oatcakes. Ridiculous. And that without coffee. But as yet it was only the coffee I’d ordered, waiting for Siobhán McCormack to put in an appearance. When she did, several questions were answered.
Why had she been immediately available? Because she wasn’t currently working; because currently she was in a late stage of pregnancy (her bump preceded her).
And why had she been looking forward to meeting me?
“Vonny?!” I couldn’t believe it. I jumped to my feet, arms out to hug her, grinning with laughter barely contained. Why hadn’t I twigged it. Siobhán McCormack—née Cavanaugh. Shevaun—Vonny—my old school-friend. “Why didn’t Maggie say?”
“I told her not to, I wanted to surprise you. And I prefer the name Siobhán these days.”
I laughed. “Yea, sure. But, gosh, I wouldn’t have . . . And when’s the baby due? Is it the first?”
It was her third. But we’d ordered lunch by then, and we both had coffees untouched before us.
“I’d had such dreams,” she said. “And I end up churning out babies, and splitting myself between teaching Spanish at the local comprehensive and part-time lecturing at Bristol. But look at you, you’ve done all right for someone who just did General Art and Design at the Polytech.”
I coughed—nearly choked. First Fliss, now Vonny—I mean Shevaun, Siobhán. I was tending strongly towards pissed off at this assumption that all I’d done was GAD at the local poly.
“I didn’t exactly just do that,” I said. “From there I went to Goldsmiths. Then after a year—in which I discovered how tough it can be to break into museum display, I took a part-time MA at Queen Mary’s—which just happened to include a six month placement at the British Museum. That got me the experience I needed, thereafter . . . though I admit it’s been a long grind. But, hey, just this last year I finally paid off the last of the student’s loans.” I laughed. “I celebrated big time.”
“Yet you’re back here?”
“But where else to be? I mean, Mecca of the archaeological world—well, short of going to Ireland.”
“I’m pleased for you,” she said. “You’ve realised your dreams. I wish I could have. You’ve heard of the Nostratic Hypothesis?”
I wobbled my head, undecided, not knowing how to reply. For Maggie had mentioned her sister-in-law’s obsession in passing. It was that which decided me upon Siobhán McCormack. I had rehearsed my story around it. But I didn’t want to reveal all that.
“I know there’s a theory,” I said, “—okay, hypothesis—that the Eurasian and Afro-Asiatic languages evolved from one super-language group. Hypothesis, because it’s not proven, and academia is divided upon it.”
“Yea, tell me. But it has been proven, just not to academia’s full satisfaction. So I went to Kent—Canterbury—for my degree. And I heard of this Nostratic Hypothesis. And I thought, yea, I mean, it’s intuitive, it’s logical, it has to be. But, as you say, the Lords of Academia still refuse it—–insufficient evidence. Though at least it’s now accepted that Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic and Pre-Kartvelian evolved from one stem. That’s a start; it’s like a core to be built upon.”
“As with a flint core found on a floor of flint chippings,” I provided the imagery. “Painstaking work, but it’s possible to re-fit the chippings to the core.”
“Precisely, and thereby you establish the sequence of working.” She built upon my given imagery. “I wanted to be the one who established that sequence. I wanted to prove it. That’s why I went to America after I got the Masters. I thought I stood a better chance there. At least there they’re more willing to look at it, unlike here in the UK. Anyway, I saw the research assistant’s job and jumped at it—though it didn’t even touch upon the Nostratic issue. I thought the experience . . . and I’m fluent in Spanish. Turns out, it was a private funded project, a study of Itza—an endangered language spoken around San José in North Guatemala. The guy published, but I wasn’t mentioned. No credit given.”
“But it was experience,” I said. She must have been gutted at the time. I could see by her face.
“The pay had been shit; my pockets were hurting. I hadn’t much choice then but to return home. Another year to recoup and I did the PhD at Manchester. Wow,” she said with arch-sarcasm. “The Presence of the Scandinavian language in the English Northern Dialects. As if we don’t already know it.
“And then I got married. And then I got pregnant. And that’s where the dream ends. But seeing you has brightened my day. But why?—I mean, why did you ask to see me? Evidently my linguistic skills—please do not ask me to translate a love letter from your Spanish boyfriend. I see you’re not married. No ring.”
“Haven’t had time,” I said. “And yes, it is a translation request—of sorts, though not Spanish. Have you heard of Alisime?”
“Is this a language? Where is it spoken?”
“I’m not allowed to say. Endangered language, protected people. Let’s just say it could fit into the Nostratic group.”
“Russia,” she said at once. Then, “Siberia—or Caucasus? There are other regions but . . . So what do you want of me? Not that I’ll say I can do it.”
I fished around in my bag, the kind the kids hitch onto their backs. I walked to work, sometimes cycled; besides, I refused to use a briefcase, so uncool. I laid the materials on the table in front of her.
“A sound recording of a local story told in Alisime,” I said. “On tape and DVD. And a transcript of translation of same.”
“So you already have the translation?”
“I want to learn the lingo,” I said.
She looked at me quizzical. “I sense an ulterior motive.”
I smiled. “You’d not believe it, Siobhán. These people live in a Neolithic society—not just the culture, but the society. And it’s not simply pre-Industrial, it’s the real thing. And I have the chance to go back. I want to study them. I want to ask questions without a translator getting between us.”
Siobhán frowned. She looked askance at me. “Linguistics isn’t your thing. How did you manage the invite to meet them?”
“A friend,” I said, which wasn’t entirely a lie. “He’s doing a study. And, knowing my interest in the Neolithic, he invited me along. Just a short visit, though it’s no breeze to reach. So, will you do it for me? Please, Siobhán. Just a lexicon and a basic grammar will do. I can take it from there. Would you be able to do that?”
She looked at what I’d given her. “Well, I’ve certainly time on my hands. The mother-in-law is remarrying—eighth time—and Miles has taken the children to see her.”
“And left you behind? This close to due-date?”
She looked down at her bump. “Airlines,” she said. “For which I am grateful. She and me don’t get on.”
My turn to look puzzled. Maggie had said nothing of her mother marrying. She’d not even taken a holiday to attend.
“Audrey isn’t Maggie’s mother,” Siobhán explained. “She was already on her fifth husband before Miles ever left school. He and Maggie share a father. Malcolm McCormack.”
“So no work, no children, no husband . . .”
“As I said, time on my hands. And this will definitely stimulate the grey matter. Is there a deadline?”
This was the awkward part. Obviously I wanted it done as soon as possible. Besides, with a third child about to be born, another month and I doubt she’d have time. I nodded. “End of the summer. Is it pos? Before the term begins.”
She blew out a breath. “That’s, um . . . but, yea, you’re right. After that, who knows. But, listen, I can’t promise anything. Though it sure as hell should be interesting. Better than preparing for another term’s teaching of Spanish.”
“And fees?” I said. I hadn’t much money to offer, but I’d get a loan if need be. After all, I was used to living in debt.
She shrugged. “I don’t know what the going rate is for something like this. Is there a going rate? And I hate talking money. Look,” she wrote the amount on the transcript’s top page, and swung it round so I could see it.
I nodded. “Agreed. Before or after?”
That threw her into a quandary. “Oh, make it after. I can’t charge you for something I may not be able to do. And it’ll come in handy to kit out the new nursery.”
Thursday afternoon, just as I was about to leave work, my mobile, hidden away in my bag, tringed. It continued to tring with increasing urgency while I fumbled around and finally found it. It was Siobhán. My heart sank, certain she’d tell me she couldn’t make head nor tail of the tape.
“Hi” she said. “Are you okay? Only Maggie tells me you’ve been off work, unwell. An intestinal infection?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said. “It only lasted Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.” Though I’d felt pretty wretched at the time. Vomiting until there was nothing left. Then retching some more on an empty stomach, beyond even the bile. Thereafter my stomach felt like a hammer had hit it—several times in fast succession.
“It wasn’t something you ate at the Rookery?” She was full of concern. I wondered, had she shares in the place.
I assured her not. “It was more likely contaminated water.”
“Of course. Maggie said you live on a houseboat.”
“Canalboat,” I said. I’d flushed the system through three times; it cost me the earth. “Though it could have been something I’d eaten over the weekend. The fridge has been on the blink since I moved in.” Though I was thinking it more likely to be something ‘neolithic’ I’d eaten. Like that venison, on a stomach unused to it.
“You ought to get your refrigerator fixed,” she said.
“Funny you should say that. A friend called last night, he fixed it for me. I’m looking forward to eating perishable foods.”
“It was about ‘perishable foods’ I phoned,” she said. “I should have thought on Tuesday but with everything else . . .”
“Yea,” I agreed. “Not exactly food on the menu.”
She grunted agreement. “Look, I’m on my own here. How do you fancy coming to dinner?”
I wanted to say ‘Wow, yea, thanks,’ but managed to play it cool. “I’d love to. Thanks.” What me turn down a free meal? Especially after how much Tuesday’s lunch had cost me. Trying not to come across like a shark about to bite off her arm, I asked her when.
I silently swore. “Sorry, I can’t. It’s otherwise spoken for.”
“Okay. So I wasn’t going to ask you so soon—didn’t want you to think I’m desperate for company—but . . . tonight?”
“I’m going to say yes, then ask you where. I’ve legs, a bicycle or public transport. The latter tends to stop around 10 o’clock.”
“You’re on the canal? I don’t know which end of the locks, but can you make it to Seend? Otherwise, no problem, I’ll come and pick you up.”
I laughed. “Couldn’t be more convenient. It’s just a short walk. What time?”
“Seven too early?”
“No, seven’s fine. I’ll pick up plonk—”
“No,” she said. “Alcohol-free zone. The baby.”
Shit! I’d forgotten. But it wasn’t a problem. It was probably better than me getting wobbly. I had to walk home. Didn’t want me falling, drunken, into the water.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
“Just one thing,” she said, then asked me, a trifle hesitantly, “Maggie says you’re vegetarian. Are you also vegan?”
“No. I’m not even vegetarian. It’s just years of eating the veggie-diet, it’s stuck. It’s cheaper.”
“Oh.” That seemed to cheer her. “So fish is okay?”
“Fish would be great.”
She’d given me her address. It was easily found. Just as well: no sat-nav on shoes. I arrived close to time. Not bad considering I’d walked. It had been another gloriously sunny June day. Now the evening held the promise of holding its heat. The air was heavily scented, though mostly with grasses. It wasn’t a patch on the Neolithic. People these days don’t know what they’re missing.
With no wine to bring, I couldn’t arrive empty-handed. So I’d stopped off at a 7-till-late shop while still in town and bought a bottle of sparkling raspberry and elderflower. Siobhán accepted it graciously.
I said, “What happens if you go into labour before Miles returns?” Selfish thought. If she started tonight I might get roped in.
“Miles was only the impregnator,” she said, “he’s not my birth-partner. My sister is elected for that. And don’t worry, it’s not going to come early. Head’s not yet engaged.”
I smiled—though my head wasn’t engaged either. That had zoomed over it.
She held off saying more. While she put the finishing touches to the main course we indulged in the usual British chit-chat i.e. the weather. Then, when we sat down to eat, she hit me with it.
“I, um, didn’t invite you just for the company—though it is great to have you here. It’s, um, that tape. I’ve played it, replayed it. I’ve listened—intently.”
I wanted to ask her what she thought of it, but I’d a feeling she was about to tell me. I could feel myself holding my breath. Better than releasing it: I’d then breathe heavy.
She saw the panic etched on my face and smiled. “Don’t worry, I should be able to fill the brief. Though I’ve only just started, I’ve made a big inroad. But . . . where did you say these Alisime live?”
“I didn’t. I said they’re protected.”
“But you did say that they’re in the general Nostratic region?”
“Yea.” I nodded, somewhat worried. She looked worried. And she was clearly groping for how to phrase whatever it was on her mind.
She said, “If I had been given this tape, with no hint or clue to its provenance, and asked to date and place it . . .”
She paused, and for a moment chewed on her lower lip – as if she was afraid to say it. So I prompted, “Go on.”
“I would have put it possibly older than Proto-Indo-European—you know what dates I’m talking of?”
“Pre the wheel,” I said. “Pre-four thousand BCE.”
“Let’s say before three thousand, five hundred. And I’d say the speakers possibly lived closer to Western Europe than to the North Pontic Steppes—the proposed Proto-Indo-European homeland.”
I was dumbfounded, that she could extract so much information from just one tape. One story. Arskraken’s tale of—what had he called it? Murdan’s Kerdolan Trap.
But she hadn’t yet finished. “I expect then I’d be asked why—I mean why I had given this date and place.”
Well, that saved me asking.
“And I would answer, one: That there are echoes here suggestive of contact with Pre-Proto Basque. I’m not sure that’s the right name but for now, between we two, it will do. And two: I think I have found what I am almost a hundred percent certain are Pre-Proto-Indo-European roots. And that before I look at the grammar.”
I wanted to whistle. Instead I swallowed, and reached for my glass of sparkling raspberry and elderflower. Chilled, it was deliciously refreshing. Yet it did nothing to lubricate a dry mouth.
“These people,” she said, “your Alisime, ought to be located somewhere this side of Eastern Europe. But that’s just not possible. Especially given the story’s content.”
“You mean the newsreels might have been out in force with all that slaughter?” I tried to joke.
“It would hardly go unnoticed. And even if it happened, you know, three hundred years ago—which is possible: in a primitive culture, such as this, storytellers neither respect nor acknowledge chronology. He repeats a story heard from his grandfather, who heard it told by his grandfather, and at each telling the teller puts himself at the centre, as if it were indeed he taking part.”
Yet I knew that Arskraken had taken part in the Kerdolan killings. I knew, because Dannyn had also been there.
“But,” Siobhán went on, “even three hundred years ago it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Thus, these people cannot exist in Western Europe. They can’t exist in Europe, anywhere. However, the Basque language has been tentatively linked to the Northeast Caucasian Chechen, which is itself part of the Northeast Caucasian languages.”
“As per Kartvelian?” I asked.
“No. Kartvelian is South Caucasian. For such a small area, there are three major language groups. But we have the same problem there as farther west. Though there has been fighting over recent years, we’re not talking about a Neolithic backwater. These folk are full in the swing of things.”
“You’re fishing,” I said. “You want me to say where they’re located.”
“No. They’re protected, I respect that. I’m just trying to figure it myself. There’s a German linguist, Theo Vennemann. Though it’s not exactly his claim-to-fame, he proposed the ‘Vasconic substratum hypothesis’.”
Blink. Double blink. Did this mean anything to me? No. Apart from I could translate the Vasconic to Basque.
“He suggested—I’m not sure we can say more than that—that the Basque language is the sole survivor of a substrate that once existed in Europe.”
“Like the ‘Old Europe’ of Marija Gimbutas?” I asked. “The Mother Goddess and all that. Peace and egalitarianism destroyed by the descending hordes of kurgan-building Indo-Europeans.” It was an hypothesis long since destroyed.
“Something like that,” Siobhán agreed. “According to Vennemann, it also left it’s mark on the Western branch of Indo-European.”
I nodded. And waited. I knew what she was going to say.
“If pushed—though I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on it—I would say what we have here, on your tape, is that very same substrate. Though that is impossible.”
I smiled. I nodded. Of course it was impossible If Ken, Dave and I were right in our weekend huddle, then Alisime wasn’t even a language of this world. Though, as with Hegrea’s Isle and the Old Isle of the Dead, an analogous form might well have existed here as well.
“This is very exciting,” she said. “Your friend is the luckiest linguist in the world. Does he know what he has here? But of course, why else the secrecy.”
Why else indeed. I smiled, enigmatically.
“I feel privileged to be invited to work on this for you. I only wish I could make something of it.”
I offered another smile. “Just get me up to speed with the lingo, so I can more effectively study their culture, and I’ll see what I can do for you when it’s about to go public.”
“Would your friend mind if I used your tape for my own study? Oh, don’t panic. I wouldn’t dream of publishing. Not without his approval. But to have studied it. To be ready . . .”
I couldn’t see how that could hurt. Though my ‘friend’ in this case was the Priory Project, and going public would mean unleashing news of a parallel universe. Indeed, her work could even be used to support it. I tried not to grin.