How strange it must feel for Julia to be back in C21st England after five idyllic days in an ancient and other world. And now there are issues that need to be faced.
Episode 51 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
Fliss couldn’t hide her delight as I feigned a headache with the beginnings of nausea. She’d allowed me five full days at Destination but, look, my system couldn’t handle it. I almost expected her to ‘nah-nah’ like a child.
“Hey, Babes, you ought to lie down a while,” Ken said, oozing with genuine concern.
“Yea, I will,” I agreed. “Once I’ve made my report.” But then, having given false details of a Durrington Walls that didn’t exist, I stood—with the professed intent of seeking my bed. But my knees seemed to weaken. I wobbled. And, oops! Not quite a full faint to the floor.
“Can you manage her, Kenneth?” Was that concern edging Fliss’s voice? I almost felt guilty. Almost.
“I-I’m all right,” I insisted, in a voice calculated to show me anything but.
“If I help you up, can you stand?” Ken asked, now fussing around me.
“I think.” I accepted his offered hand—and suddenly Dave was the other side of me. They held me between them while I allowed my body to flop and my head to hang.
“She’s not right,” Dave said.
“Indeed, then she ought to go home,” Fliss said. Like she didn’t want me dying in one of her guest rooms.
“I would rather,” I agreed, rather pathetically. “I’d rather it was my place I messed with my pukes.”
“Oh God!” Fliss squealed. “Quick, Kenneth, fetch her a bowl or . . . something. Don’t you dare allow her to vomit all over my floor.”
“Our floor,” Ken said with an emphasis too soft for her to hear.
“Kenneth, I beg of you,” Fliss said when he returned, a ‘Mrs Mopp’ bucket in hand, “you must take her home.”
“No, Kenny, you stay. I’ll take her,” Dave offered.
“Don’t be ridiculous, she cannot ride in that execrable van. No, Kenneth’s vehicle at least offers a degree of comfort.”
And so it was done. I skived off Sunday when I’d been scheduled to use Ken’s ‘pod to ‘trip back to Destination-minus-26. And what good was that? I’d be there alone, for Dannyn wasn’t expecting me. Besides, I had a lunch date with Siobhán.
“Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” Dave called after me as Ken solicitously steadied me.
I should have answered him. I didn’t. That was a mistake.
As Siobhán had suggested, I arrived early. I was keen to see the promised lexicon and grammar she’d said she had ready for me. But she’d said there was something else she wanted to discuss, and the Saturday night I’d hardly slept for wondering what.
Okay, there may have been other reasons for my insomnia—like thinking of Dannyn, and knowing too soon it would end. Ironic, the number of short-term flings I’d had, hardly long enough to call them relationships, and most times I’d happily walked away. But not this time. I’d have done anything to keep it going. But how?
Dannyn had said, that last night together at Mandatn’s Hold, that he’d never wanted to be an eblan. “That was Murdan’s doing.”
“But what would you be doing instead?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said sounding wistful, “I might like to travel to a far distant land—the land of the English of the Twenty-first Century—to find you. To be with you.”
“You know that can’t happen.”
He pulled me in closer, holding skin-tight. “I know. And it hurts. Here.” He released me enough to tap on his chest.
“Yea, I feel it too.”
Now how could I sleep after that? There had to be a way. Yet there wasn’t. But that wasn’t the only thing disturbing my sleep. When Fliss’s machines became public . . . . I hadn’t want to think of it, held at bay until now. But would scientists swarm to that world, invade it like ants? Would it be a repeat of America? I feared for the Alsime, I feared for Dannyn. I fervently prayed this C21st world accept my reports and not go wandering there. The future, the past, the personal, the cultural, all wove through my thoughts, contesting attention, all the way to Seend. Late morning, mid-June, it already was hot.
Siobhán opened the door, excitement large on her face.
“Hey! It’s dropped,” I said. I’ve never had much to do with babies, yet I couldn’t not see it. Her bump was no longer conveniently placed to double as armrest. It now looked more like a huge football in front of her belly, beneath her waist.
“The midwife says it won’t be long now. I might even deliver on time.” And despite the bump in the way, she hugged me.
“That’s great,” I said, a tad anxious lest the contractions started while I was there. “But what happens if things happen before—what’s his name?—Miles? What if he’s not back in time?”
She laughed. “The modern man, no longer content with planting, he has to watch it delivered as well. No, I told you before, my sister’s my birth-partner. I’ll be happy as hell if Miles stays away till it’s done. He has the other two with him, remember.”
“Ah,” I expressed understanding, and followed her through to the kitchen where she filled the kettle and prepared two mugs.
She belatedly thought. “You do drink this?” She held up a packet of ‘Redbush’ teabags.
“Nothing else,” I said.
“Only if you’re used to black tea I’m told these taste totally disgusting.”
“No,” I said, “I’m more than happy.”
“Great. So we’ll take these through to the study. You weren’t expecting a full Sunday roast, were you?” she asked when she saw me sniffing and scanning the kitchen for signs of our meal.
“Wouldn’t expect it,” I lied. “Not with you . . . your condition.”
“Oh good. We have lemon sole and salad.”
Yippee. Well that’s more than I’d yet managed with the ailing facilities in The Lady’s galley.
“You said on the phone you’ve completed the lexicon,” I said, taking both mugs and following her through.
The study window was deeply tree-shaded; inside was cool though dark. Siobhán flicked on a light as she passed it. I was impressed by how tidy—and noticed at once the three bound booklets that sat on her desk beside the cassette. I assumed that was the one that I’d given her. But three booklets? I’d expected only the one. Siobhán sat behind the desk, I sat facing, a sliver-thin laptop between us. It felt like a job interview—or the boss had called me in for some misdemeanour. I found myself anxiously clutching my hands. I took a deep breath. This was silly, to be so uptight.
She slid two of the booklets towards me. “Lexicon and grammar, as requested.”
I gushed my thanks. “You’re a queen.”
She laughed at my choice of word. “Not a star?”
I shook my head. “As someone once pointed out, stars are what we become when we die.”
“Ah, your, um, Neolithic tribe.”
Good guess, I thought, but no. It was someone I’d worked with. But I allowed her to think it.
“It’s been an interesting project,” she said. “But it’s caused me some sleepless nights.”
I almost said, Snap, but managed to shut my mouth on it.
“Um . . . I’m puzzled by it. I confess, if it weren’t for your name mentioned several times on the tape, I’d think your linguist-friend was trying to wind me.”
I frowned. “How so? But I didn’t even know you were you, so to speak, until we met at the Rookery.” Why should she think anyone would play a joke on her?
“Perhaps I phrased that badly. Not me personally, just playing a joke on any linguist who happened to receive the tape.”
Fine, but my frown remained.
“Let me explain,” she said.
Hmm, I thought, please do.
“That tape is like . . . there are anomalies. I told you last time what I thought of its provenance, that every thing points to, say, Central Europe, or west of. Yet that’s an impossibility. I thought, had some clever practical joker created the language based on what’s known, what’s speculated, and is passing it off as genuine? A kind of Piltdown Man of the linguistic world.”
Piltdown Man, supposedly ‘discovered’ in 1912, comprised a mix of fossilised remains purporting to be a previously unknown genus of early human. What an apt simile—except that tape wasn’t a hoax.
“But because the speaker so often mentions your name . . . well, it does make it unlikely. But, Julia, seriously, I cannot see how this Alisime tribe can be living, as you say, within what’s considered the Indo-European/Nostratic region, and yet be fixed in a Neolithic lifestyle—and I don’t doubt your assessment of that. Yet it’s impossible to place anywhere in Europe.”
“I cannot tell you,” I said. “I’ve given my word.”
“Yes, yes, I understand that.”
“But . . .” I couldn’t allow my old school-friend Vonny to have sleepless nights this close to her child being born, and that because of me. All I’d wanted was the lexicon and grammar, I hadn’t realised I’d cause her such stress. So, while I paused, I was rapidly thinking. “Listen. Tocharian, yea?”
With that one word she laughed in a gush of relief. “I hear what you’re saying. But why didn’t I think of it. Tocharian, like your Alisime, is also a western dialect, yet its manuscripts were found way across the Steppes, in the Tarim Basin. So you’re saying your—let’s call them your ‘study group’ since tribe implies something bigger—so your ‘study group’ lives, say, beyond the Urals? Perhaps somewhere around the Altai-Sayan region?”
I didn’t answer except to smile. But that seemed to satisfy.
“But they’ve migrated there, at some time in the past?”
“I believe that is part of my friend’s study brief: to ascertain when they arrived—how long they’ve been living there. Amazing, really, how they escaped the notice of Genghis Khan,” I continued to bull it. After all, I was gaining experience at this, having just fabricated a five day visit to Durrington Walls. What, and I never had time to check out Stonehenge? No, there was just so much to see at Durrington.
“Well, there are so many lost valleys—especially once you get into the Himalayas,” Siobhán agreed.
But I hated what I was doing. Okay, I’d paid her to do a job, and that job didn’t involve sussing out where the location of this ‘study group’, as she’d labelled them. And I had said she could use the material once the project went public—if Fliss allowed it. But I still didn’t like the lies.
Yet, what choice? I could hardly tell her the truth. For a start, she wouldn’t believe it. In fact, she then would accuse me and ‘my anonymous friend’ of pulling a hoax. I tried to settle my conscience with thoughts of her world fame when the Priory Project finally went public. Not only had she a head start on the competition but she also had the sole rights.
She was quiet for a while. Then she picked up the third booklet and quickly flicked through it till she came to a highlighted page (I could see from where I sat the bright yellow marks). She jotted some notes, probably regarding the Alsime’s speculated location. Then she looked up, directly at me.
“Julia. There’s still something bugging me.”
I thought, please, Siobhán, don’t do a Colombo on me. Even were the tape a hoax, I’d not broken a law. Yet I felt as guilty as if I’d wrought a murder.
“What’s that, then?” I asked and started to swallow then found my mouth was too dry.
“Languages change. Look at the Indo-European languages. Less than six thousand years ago they were merely regional dialects, mutually intelligible. Now we must sift their earliest remains to find some slight trace of their ancient relationships. Yet here we have . . . well, you could almost call it a fossil language. I can pinpoint which of these Alisime words will change—and how they’ll change—to morph into, say, Latin, which, discounting Hittite, is the earliest written record of a Western Indo-European language.”
Again I was rapidly thinking. I’m not a linguist but because of my work I’d followed the various speculations on the origin and development of the Indo-European languages, and their many debates. I’d picked up a certain amount of the technicalities, and hence I’d known of Tocharian.
“Could their migration not have halted development?” I asked—and again hated myself for the deception. For the time soon would crashing when I could tell her the truth. And then she’d know that I’d lied. I did NOT want to lie. Yet I must. “I’m thinking here of the American dialect in New England. Isn’t that supposed to be pretty close to how they were speaking in southeast England at the time of immigration? Migrants preserve the dialect of their homeland.”
Siobhán pulled a face. I thought she was going to disagree, yet she nodded. “Still, it’s an awful long while to hold a language unchanged.”
“But we don’t know when they migrated,” I said, thinking myself clever, then realising the catch. “Ah, I see. It must have been close to the migration of the Indo-European people in the opposite direction.”
And the trouble with that is that, in all likelihood, there was no Indo-European migration into Western Europe. From the North Pontic Steppes to India, to Persia, to Greece, to Anatolia, to Eastern Europe, to the Baltic Coast and North European Plains, yea, they possibly did migrate. But not across the Rhine, nor across the Alps. Their language was brought on the tongues of Bronze Age traders—or so says the latest hypothesis.
“But no,” I said. “We’re talking of just one small group. The remainder were left behind to serve as substrate to the Western Indo-European languages.”
“Yet their language as is on the tape predates that substrate’s influence,” she said.
“Hmm.” But I’d no more suggestions. I really was sorry to plonk this conundrum upon her, but I hadn’t realised she was going to take such an interest in it. No, she’d forget it, she’d drop it, just as soon as her baby was born.
“There’s one other thing,” she said. “Dannyn. That’s not your friend, I take it. I mean, that’s not a name I’ve . . . is it?”
“My guide,” I said.
She raised a brow. “I quote: That is when Eblan Dannyn changed our ways of how we treat the dead. The speaker, Arskraken, then says that Dannyn’s sole inspiration till then was to become besotted with the English woman Julia Cannings. And—I assume the voice is Dannyn’s—he says: Did everyone know? To which Arskraken says, We thought there would be no more Eblan Dannyn. We did not know she had left you. It is good to see she has returned—very late though she is.
“Do you want me to continue?” Siobhán asked, again with raised brow. “Or would you rather I spared your blushes? That’s, um, revealing of your relationship with your ‘guide’. How many times have you visited these people? Clearly more than the once. And over a long period of time. Julia, you can tell me it’s none of my business, and I agree that it’s not, but there’s much here that you’re not telling me. And it might help me to make sense of these people if you’d just trust me and tell more.”
What could I say? I so wanted to tell her the truth. But I looked away.