by Lawrence Dyer
I pulled hard on the rope and raised myself up to the level of the first
tufts of grass. A chubby hand appeared before my face, the wrist beneath
the white cuff thick with freckles and red-brown hairs. My foothold on
the limestone of the cave entrance wasn't firm, so with an effort I shifted
my weight and grasped the hand. Then through a combination of my own efforts
and the owner of the hand pulling, I fell sprawling onto the sheep-mown
grass of the hillside above.
As I panted for breath I saw all around me the legs of the invited
experts. The group was discussing what we had all just seen in the cave,
the excited conversation drifting away into the vastness of the Dales
landscape. Turning towards the owner of the hand who still gripped mine
I was confronted not by the high-tech terrain footwear of the rest of
the group, but by a pair of polished brown brogues beneath orange-brown
tweed trousers, carefully pressed trousers at that.
The hand yanked my arm and I rose awkwardly to my feet. Only then
did he let go.
'Thanks,' I said.
He regarded me with a supercilious indifference though the hint of
a smile was on his lips.
'It's um... quite hard to get back up out of there,' I added to fill
the gap left by his silence.
Still he didn't speak, only regarded me with what must be amongst
the most extraordinary eyes I'd ever seen. Yellow-green and penetrating,
they bulged beneath a set of wiry ginger eyebrows that were rolled together
at the ends into a little coil on either side. In my entire life --
and despite their frequency in stories -- I couldn't recall seeing many
individuals with green eyes, let alone this vivid yellow-green. And
as far as I could remember I had only seen green eyes in combination
with dark Celtic hair before. Yet here before me was this portly, red-haired
man dressed in an immaculate tweed suit that almost matched the colour
of his hair and beard... with the most surprising yellow-green eyes.
He still hadn't spoken, and finding this too uncomfortable as we stood face to face in the huddle of jabbering experts, I tried again to get a response out of him.
'The footprints, in the mud down there...' I pointed back down the pothole that led to the cave. 'Amazing to think they're three-and-a-half thousand years old. They could have been made yesterday, they look so fresh! And skeletons of two adults and a child -- it's got to be a major Bronze Age find for this country. Wish I'd been in on it from the outset.'
The superiority on his deathly-white face had, if anything, grown as I spoke, and standing there as he was in his immaculate clothes I suddenly wondered if he had even been down into the chamber below and seen what the rest of us were so excited about.
'They're nothing!' he said so suddenly that I was forced to step back before the tiny explosion of saliva that sprayed from his lips. If you'd seen what I've seen... Believe me, what's in this cave -- they're just dead things!' He turned and slid away through a gap in the crowd.
The arrogance of the man! The greatest Bronze Age find of the decade and he called it 'nothing'! What was he, an Egyptologist? Was he the excavator of the frozen royal tombs of Siberia? Or of the terracotta army in China? What could he have seen in his life to make him dismiss so easily this wonderful find in the Dales? And what had he meant by 'they're just dead things'? That was a very odd thing indeed for an archaeologist to say.
The next time I saw the ginger-haired man I was raising a glass of ale to my lips. I caught sight of him in the plate-glass mirror behind the bar where we had all gone for a drink after viewing the find in the cave. The glass froze in my hand, the watery froth of the beer lapping my lower lip, as I watched him in the mirror over the rim of my glass. He was talking to one of the archaeologists who was working on the cave site, the organiser of our visit in fact. Ginger had that same look of superiority that I had seen up on the hillside, but he didn't seem to have startled the organiser with his words in the way he had startled me, for the grey-haired, neatly-attired woman was nodding and talking amiably with him.
I took a gulp of my beer, then my attention was distracted by an acquaintance in the group of archaeologists and I was drawn into conversation. When next I looked up, Ginger was alone, close to finishing his drink and looking as if he was about to leave. I had to find out what made him so superior to the rest of us, and what he had meant by speaking so oddly of the bones in the cave.
I moved as casually but quickly as I could to the table where he was sitting. 'Mind if I sit down?'
He didn't look up, but with an assured movement indicated a chair.
I took it. 'Jim Alexander,' I introduced myself. 'I've been at York for the past six months, by way of Bristol and Strathclyde. I was at Strathclyde University for fifteen years.'
He nodded as if he wasn't particularly interested in my career to date. Knocking back what was left of his drink -- it looked like Scotch -- he placed the glass carefully on the table.
'Look,' I said, realising that he wasn't going to introduce himself. 'I couldn't help being interested in what you said out there.'
His eyes slid up from under his brows and fixed on me.
'I mean, I...'
'What you mean, Mr Alexander, is that you want to know what I meant by calling those bones 'dead things'..?' He had a slightly strange way of talking, not a foreign accent exactly, more a way of putting stresses on the wrong syllables.
Surprised by the accuracy of his observation, I nodded.
He leant towards me and lowered his voice. 'Ever heard of 'living archaeology', Mr Alexander?'
'I've heard the phrase,' I said, not knowing what to make of this.
He raised an eyebrow. 'I doubt very much you've even the barest clue what I'm talking about.'
I didn't like being belittled like this. 'All right, what are you talking about?'
He leant even closer until I could see every wiry hair of his brows standing out in front of my eyes like miniature tentacles. 'I'm talking about survival.' His voice had sunk to a whisper.
'Lost cultures that have survived into our time.'
'Well, there are many such cultures around the world, of course,' I conceded. 'Ways of life that have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, despite the western world...'
He shook his head slowly, his eyes despising my naivete. 'No, no, no. I'm speaking of cultures -- groups of people -- that have been physically removed from modern life for hundreds of years, groups that have never even heard of modern people. Here, in Britain.'
This was too much. 'That's ridiculous!'
He smirked. Reaching into his pocket, he passed me what I took at first to be a beer-mat held face-down. Instinctively I reached for it, interested to see where this madman's proclivities might lead.
He hesitated, holding the mat under his hand. 'Don't let anyone else see this.'
I looked into his eyes. They were deadly serious, penetrating to the point that I had to agree with his request. I took the mat and turned it over, holding it close to me so that only I could see it. What I saw made me gasp.
It was a photograph, a holographic one, in fact, though it wasn't this which caught my attention so powerfully. The picture showed something spectacular, if it was to be believed: by far the finest and most elaborate gold Saxon altar-piece that I had ever seen. In fact there was no such alter-piece in existence. Something so remarkable as this would be very well known in the archaeological world.
'What is this?'
'What does it look like?'
'It looks like something that's impossible.'
He closed his eyes in a silent laugh. 'It isn't, I assure you. That picture was taken not twenty miles from here. The object belongs to a group of people who have never seen a car or an aeroplane -- or even the inside of a public house.'
I gaped. 'Twenty miles... You're talking about here, in the Dales?'
He nodded and a broad smirk spread across his features.
It was a brick terraced house no different from a thousand others in this former-mill town that crowded a valley at the edge of the hills. I peered out at the house from under the sun-visor of my car, looking for some sign of the unusual, then dropped my gaze to the piece of paper Ginger had given me -- I still didn't know his name. One-six-one: the number tallied. This was the place.
He opened the door the moment I knocked, and with a wave of his hand invited me in. The front door opened straight onto a room full of cardboard boxes. There were several desks too, one with a PC humming away on it. The PC had a blue and red screen-saver that turned itself endlessly inside out. The whole place looked more like a run-down office than someone's home. He led the way up a flight of stairs with light-blue painted bannisters. On the first floor I followed him to what must once have been the master bedroom. Positioned centrally on the emulsioned Edwardian panels of the door was a small oval shape, an eye emblem of some kind. We went inside and I stopped short at what I saw there.
This room was nothing like the one downstairs. Surprisingly large, it was crowded with expensive-looking video monitors and computers -- a high-tech surveillance centre was the impression I had at once. There was another man in the room, a heavy-set individual with dull-looking eyes. He sat on a chair behind a row of monitors at the back of the room.
Ginger didn't introduce him, instead he motioned at a padded, black-leather chair before one of the monitors. 'Sit here, Mr Alexander.'
Most of the monitors in the room were switched on and for a moment, on one that was across the room, I thought I caught a glimpse of myself walking past a building somewhere. I stared hard at the monitor, but it was showing something else now.
'Mr Alexander?' There was a slight impatience in Ginger's voice as he continued to indicate the chair.
Uneasily, I sat down. There was a click, and the dead monitor before me flickered into life. From the less than sharp quality of the image that appeared I guessed I was looking at a video recording. It showed the inside of some sort of chapel, but there were no stained-glass windows or vaulted ceilings. This was a very simple, square room, set out like the basic interior of a remote kirk you might visit on an island off the coast of Ireland or Scotland. And there on the white-clothed altar was the huge gold cross of the holographic photo I still had in my pocket.
Ginger held down a button on the console and the image of the chapel broke up into fast-forward. People whizzed in and out, then settled in the carved wooden pews. Ginger let the tape play at normal speed again. A man was standing at the front, addressing the 'congregation'. Like them he wore an outfit that, exactly as Ginger whispered in my ear at that moment, looked more reminiscent of Robin Hood than anything else I could immediately identify.
I listened to what the man in the video was saying. 'German?' I asked. 'They're speaking in German?'
'Listen more carefully,' Ginger said at my side.
I did. There was a silence before the man spoke again and I had the clear impression that this was not a play being acted out. The whole thing had the disjointed, unprepared feel that you would expect if something real had been filmed.
When the man next spoke at length I began to pick up words that I could understand -- lots of words! Of course, a Brit can understand the occasional word in German, but here there were many words that I could pick up, strangely pronounced as they were, though I couldn't really follow what the speaker was talking about.
'Dutch, then,' I suggested, though I knew this certainly wasn't Dutch.
Ginger laughed deridingly. 'It's Anglo-Saxon.'
'What? But nobody in the world speaks Anglo-Saxon today.'
'These people do.'
I shook my head. This had to be an elaborate trick and these people were speaking some exotic variant of Norwegian still used in some remote fiord or whatever that I had never heard of.
'I'm not convinced,' I told him, though part of me was, for I was now recognising words from my studies of Anglo-Saxon as an undergraduate. Then I remembered what he had said before. 'These are the colony of people you were telling me about who live in the Yorkshire Dales?'
'Very near here.'
I turned to him in confusion -- his claims made no sense, yet all this expensive equipment wasn't there for some silly joke. 'But how? What is it you're saying?'
'They live underground. In one of the many undiscovered cave-systems in the limestone hills.'
'Oh, come on!' I pushed back my chair. 'You've got to be joking -- '
'There are many caves under the hills, you'll concede that?'
His whole assertion was so ridiculous that I was suddenly interested to see how far he would go with the charade. 'Yes, I'll grant you that there must be undiscovered caves -- one or two new ones are discovered every now and then by cavers.'
'And what if a group of people had got trapped inside such a cave system a thousand years ago -- in Saxon times -- and been unable to get out again? Wouldn't they have established a living there? Hmm? What you see are their descendants, still practising the same way of life.'
'This is absurd!' I stood up.
Ginger's accomplice caught my eye. He had an earnest look about him, as of one not given to tricks. That in itself should have warned me that I was being taken in, but his look seemed to knock the wind out of me somehow, and I sat down again.
'If this is a cave,' I said, gesturing at the image on the monitor, 'then where is the light coming from?'
'We're not sure about that,' Ginger said. 'It may be that phosphorescent fungi provide a light source in those caves.'
I shook my head, yet had become compelled now to go on with the argument. 'But this doesn't look like a cave. Are there other rooms?'
'Of course there are other rooms. Many, many other rooms. And of course over the centuries these people have turned their world into the one they had once known.'
'But surely in all that time they would have found a way out again?'
'Not if they had forgotten that there was an outside, not if they believed the world was their caves.'
I sighed heavily and shook my head, watching the image on the screen. The man at the front of the chapel was conducting a service now, what looked like a very early Christian church service, complete with chanting and rhythmic swaying. I had once seen something similar in Ethiopia, where the Christian church there, cut off from the West for centuries, has preserved many of the features of the early European churches.
Again I shook my head. 'It's just impossible, that's all.'
As I followed Ginger further along the narrow tunnel the floor grew steeper and I was getting more and more tired. I was finding it hard to breathe.
'Is there enough air in here?'
'Don't worry, it's safe.' He glanced back at me and one of his eyes was thrown into shadow by the little electric light on the wall beside him.
He turned and went on ahead of me with remarkable ease, his jacket pockets bulging on one side with the blindfold he had insisted I wear for the last fifteenth minutes of our walk from his landrover to the secret tunnel entrance in an unspecified hillside. On the other side of his bulky figure, his jacket bulged with a bundle of my money. A thousand pounds that I had been persuaded to part with if I was to be allowed to see the underground Saxon world with my own eyes, rather than through the medium of video-tape and hidden cameras. I still believed I was being conned, yet there was so much authenticity about what I had seen so far, that there had to be something in all this more than worth finding out about, even if it wasn't what Ginger claimed. And even if it did cost me a reluctant thousand pounds. I might not have been willing to risk the thousand at all if I hadn't had the photograph of the gold cross looked at by an expert on Saxon artifacts. She had been very interested in it indeed and had demanded to know where I had got the picture.
'It's a clever computer-generated image of an imaginary cross, extrapolated from existing crosses,' I had lied.
She had shaken her head in disbelief. 'But it looks completely authentic to me. If I knew the whereabouts of such a cross -- '
'It's amazing what computers can do nowadays, isn't it!' I had said with a grin.
As I laboured along the tunnel behind Ginger I pressed my hands even harder against the smooth limestone wall of this tube through the rock that led to the hidden world, a tunnel that Ginger claimed had been bored only recently with highly specialised, low decibel equipment.
We passed a round metal door on the right, then up ahead I could make out through Ginger's legs that the tunnel ended in some metal steps. He stopped at the bottom of the steps and turned to confront me. His whiter-than-white skin was filmed with moisture -- so he was human after all. As for myself, I was by then feeling light-headed and even a bit faint. He drew something from his pocket and I stared at it uncomprehendingly. It looked like a personal organiser, and he studied the little screen, pressing buttons. Just above the screen was a little 'eye' symbol like the one on the door upstairs in his house.
'What are you doing?'
'Making sure the room above and those adjoining it are empty...'
'We're under the chapel?'
He nodded, concentrating on the tiny screen. I leant closer and he snapped the case shut and looked up at me with a beaming smile.
'No problem,' he said. 'We wouldn't want anyone to hear us until we're settled, would we?' His manner changed, and he became more serious. 'Now, you must agree not to speak or make any noise. Do you agree?'
'This steel trap over my head is soundproofed, but once I open it... We'll step up a couple of steps, and we'll be from the chest up inside a wooden trunk inside the chapel. We'll be able to see out through a gap under the lid. Now remember, absolute silence from now on.'
Silently, he released the steel trap door, then a wooden one inside it. Standing beside him on the steps I moved up until I was head and shoulders inside an enclosed box that smelt of incense. As he had said there was a crack where the lid of the box didn't meet up properly with the front, and I pressed my eyes to it.
Suddenly here I was face to face with the place I had seen in the video. It was the same yet compared with the video it looked smaller somehow, the details stood out more sharply, the colours were rich and intense. Like a kid on vacation for the very first time, I couldn't actually believe I was there. Yet, all the while, the rational side of me was fighting this sense of awe, saying one word over and over: hoax. Hoax. HOAX.
We couldn't have been there two minutes when there was a sound from beyond the large wooden door of the chapel and someone came running in. It was a youth of about fourteen, dressed in dark woollen clothes -- again like Robin Hood, as Ginger had so unscientifically put it when we watched the video of these people. The boy was carrying a metal bowl which he quickly put down on a small table just inside my line of vision. The bowl went out of view behind him, I saw his ornate leather belt as he turned -- too close to make out what he was doing -- then there came the sound of metal objects falling onto the stone floor. And several coins rolled along the floor between his feet.
There came a shout from beyond the room, and the boy replied quickly. I couldn't make out the words -- though it was the same language as in the video -- but I could sense the exasperation, fear almost, that he tried to mask with a casual reply. He bent down, quickly picking up the coins and dropping them into the bowl. He positioned the bowl centrally on the little table and went quickly out.
The whole thing was all over in moments. And I was sure he had missed one of the coins!
We waited three quarters of an hour without seeing a sign of anybody else.
'Clearly no one is coming,' I whispered to Ginger.
He turned on me with a stern frown in the semi-darkness of the box, for I had broken his rule about making no noise.
I shrugged. 'There's no one here. Look, I'd love to get a better look at some of those artifacts...' I indicated the altar.
He continued to frown at me.
'Can't I just lift the lid of this thing we're in? I wouldn't try to get out or anything.'
He sighed heavily. 'All right!' His voice was a hiss. 'But that's all. And only this one time -- never again under any circumstances.'
'You must swear it.'
This was melodramatic, but I suppose I could see his point. 'I swear.'
I began to move but he caught my arm and held on. With his free hand he took from his pocket the odd-looking personal organiser.
'Just what is that?'
'It's just a relay device. It picks up information broadcast by our network. Wait a moment.'
With his fleshy index finger he pressed repeatedly on one of the keys, and I could see that he was tuning it in to whatever signals were being broadcast by his 'network', whatever that was. He punched more buttons.
'Okay,' he said slowly, concentrating on the little screen of the device. 'The nearest person is two hundred and twenty six feet away. You may lift the lid, but only for a minute. On no account attempt to do more.'
I nodded. Then, with his help, I lifted the lid above my head. Stepping onto the top step below the level of the wooden box, I raised myself head and shoulders above the box's carved edge as Ginger supported the lid.
My view of the cross was much better. I searched desperately for signs of flattery. To my dismay I could see none. The hammered work, the patina of the gold, everything was right.
I was suddenly determined to see if all this was as real as it looked. I had to touch the place, and allowed the arm that was away from Ginger to fall silently over the side of the trunk. My fingers touched the stone floor. It felt cold, solid.
'Amazing,' I whispered, still looking at the cross and hoping to distract Ginger's attention from what I was really doing.
Without moving my shoulder I felt around on the floor. The coin that the youth had not retrieved was around there somewhere, I was sure. If only... then I touched it. Moving my arm a little further, I picked the coin up between two fingers and drew it carefully back into the palm of my hand.
'Does this place get full at times of worship?' I asked, then under cover of Ginger's answer I smoothly slipped my hand back into the box and slid the coin into my pocket.
'Sometimes it does,' he said. He sounded slightly irritated, and for a moment I thought my secret actions had been discovered.
'That's long enough.'
Obediently I stepped back and lowered my head. Ginger closed the lid over us.
'Come on,' he whispered, 'I'll show you some other rooms.'
'We can see other rooms?'
'Of course. Not only do we have hidden cameras in other parts of this place, but other physical view-points too.'
Amazed, I followed him backwards down the steps. He closed the wooden flap above our heads and turned a crude metal locking mechanism, then raised into position the heavy steel trap door and locked that too. This time the lock was a sophisticated combination device with half a dozen numbers -- I hadn't noticed it when he opened it before.
'Why two doors?'
He regarded me with his superior eyes -- they looked more yellow than ever in the light of the electric lamp on the tunnel wall. 'The first flap forms the floor of their trunk. There's no reason in the world why they would ever try to rip it up, but if they did they'd reach what appears to be a limestone slab -- that's really part of our metal door -- and if they smashed the slab then they'd find only our metal door and they'd never get through that. So, they'd be confused by the door, but that's all. They'd put it down to a strange seam of bedrock, perhaps. Whatever the case, the integrity of their world would still remain intact.'
His breaths were white in the cool air.
'What if they move the trunk?'
'The wooden floor of the trunk fastens with an authentic iron catch -- you saw me turn it -- they'd just discover that the bottom of their trunk opens, that's all.'
I nodded. And the steel door is sound-proof?'
'I said so.'
During the next hour I followed Ginger down more tunnels. Three times we 'surfaced' into hidden places inside furniture or the walls themselves, and looked out through cracks or little holes at Saxon rooms. There was to my immense surprise even a sequence of vast caverns planted with crops! Bit by bit I was getting an impression of the huge scale of this 'Saxon' settlement, if that was what it really was. I heard and saw more people talking in their strange German-sounding language that had so much 'English' in it.
Back up on the surface at last, I stood on the open hillside while Ginger locked the rusty outer door of the cave-mouth -- designed, he said, to look like an old mine entrance. Around me the open hillside was bare, grassy, treeless. A hundred yards away a few sheep were innocently grazing. To think that under the ground beneath them was a great complex of rooms, huge caverns, even a small lake! If all this was some kind of incredibly elaborate hoax then what was it all for? To create all of this inside the hillside would have cost billions, and it certainly couldn't be for my benefit or the benefit of those like me. The scale of it all would have left the locals well aware of what was going on and surely no cover story would have prevented the press becoming aware of it too. On the other hand, if it was already there, hidden underground, if it had been hidden for a thousand years, then no locals might even know about it...
Back in Ginger's landrover I sat in the front passenger seat and tried to catch my breath. It had all been too much to take in, too much to get my mind around. Behind me from where he sat in the back, Ginger's assistant rested his elbow on the dividing panel between us. 'You have told him about the other sites?' His voice was loud, a blast of air.
I turned quickly and stared at his broad, open face and dull eyes. 'There are other sites?'
'Of course,' Ginger said. 'Fourteen in all.'
'Fourteen!' I was agog. 'Fourteen like the one I've just seen? Colonies of people cut off since the Dark Ages?'
Ginger was nodding vigorously. He stopped to correct me. 'Not all since the Dark Ages.'
My hair moved in the blast of the voice behind me. 'There exist populations that have survived from various times.' Like Ginger, he had a way of putting the emphasis in the wrong place in a sentence, but he did it more often, and mispronounced words. He was a continental perhaps, though I couldn't tell where from exactly.
But that was the least of my concerns. Questions about what he had told me raced through my mind. 'Populations from various times? Here? In the Dales?'
Ginger chuckled, a rather unpleasant sound like water gurgling down a plug-hole. 'Two populations in Wales, seven in Scotland, five in England. And they're not all inside cave complexes. At Colchester in Essex we've a small Roman population who have survived in isolation in catacombs under the town. In London there's a built-over street alongside a river that's been completely cut off since the 1860's. The beggars and poor who lived there just got entombed along with their hovels when it was all built over. The only way out since then would be to swim underwater for a quarter of a mile, but of course nobody ever has. They know that Queen Victoria must be dead by now -- though their calculations are out and the year in their country is two years behind ours -- but they don't know who is king or queen now. They've devised their own royal family! A royal family of beggars -- think of it!'
I was, and my mind was boggling with it all. 'And the Romans under Colchester -- they must think there's still a Roman empire!'
Ginger turned to me, his face dead-pan. 'Oh no. They've been cut off far too long to be thinking about what's outside. We've watched them for a long time. They believe they are the only people in the universe. They still speak Latin and they wear Roman clothes.'
I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes. 'Ahh... You'll have to excuse me. All this... And I'm feeling so incredibly tired. I shouldn't be...'
'It's perfectly understandable,' Ginger said. 'It's a lot to take on all together.'
'You've been studying all these... these colonies?'
Ginger nodded. 'But we feel the need for more experts, such as yourself.'
'Then you're not archaeologists?' I asked, knowing full well by now that they weren't.
Ginger chuckled, that same bath-water sound. 'Us! Oh no.'
'We have much more... daring,' the man in the back boomed.
I twisted around to face him.
'We sometimes live with them.'
'What?' I turned back to Ginger for an explanation.
'He's talking about the times we've mingled with the populations -- '
'But how? Did you tell them you were from outside?'
'Not exactly. We have mingled with three of the populations, but it's only possible to do so with cultures which have not been cut off from outside for too long. They must be cultures that would still find it conceivable that people could come from outside -- that there could be visitors. Not like the Roman population under Colchester, for example, or even the Anglo-Saxons. And we have never made ourselves known to any culture in general, only ever to one individual in a population.' He sighed as if with the effort of explaining. 'And always it has taken a lot of preparation, learning to speak exactly like the people, dressing like them, convincing the chosen individual that it is possible for them to meet someone they have never seen before -- and some of the underground systems go on for miles, which can help. You see it has been important to us not to influence or affect the preserved culture in any way.'
My head was reeling with having to take in these further revelations -- the effort had become a physical pain. 'I think I should be getting back,' I said. 'I'm very tired I'm afraid.'
Ginger smiled congenially. 'Of course, Mr Alexander. But first we have to discuss the matter of your future with us and what it is going to cost you...'
I awoke from a dream in which I was excavating the Saxon chapel. Scraping away crumbs of hard soil, I had uncovered the Saxon cross, untarnished as high-purity gold always is when unearthed. And nearby, not having fared as well, were the brown bones of the youth I had seen.
My head heavy and aching, I got up and went in my pyjamas across to my writing desk. Beyond, through the large picture window of my flat I could see the neatly mown expanses of grass that formed part of the campus at York. Tired and with legs that didn't seem to want to do as I told them, I sat down at the desk and dragged a pen and notebook before me. Then I set about making some notes about what I'd seen in the 'Saxon colony' the day before, wanting to capture the details while they were still clear.
Yet I found myself strangely vague about many of those details. After the boy had come into the chapel (little more than moments after we arrived ourselves) I had stood for another forty-five minutes, legs growing more and more uncomfortable, eagerly taking in every detail of the place: studying it, in fact, mentally recording every facet, every knot mark in the wood of the altar bench, every stud in its facing.
Yet now, I wasn't even sure that there had been studs, or knot-marks, or even an altar bench at all. The only thing I was absolutely sure of was that there ought to have been an altar bench, as it was a chapel. Yet I did remember the cross, though I was vague about what the walls were like, or the construction of the door that exited to other rooms. Other parts of the Saxon colony I was even less clear about, almost as if I had only been told about them. Yet I still had the coin and the photograph of the Cross.
I pulled open the drawer of my desk and took the coin out. It was crudely made, hammered out of some fairly soft copper alloy. To call it a coin was for want of a better word -- it may have had religious rather than monetary value. For hammered into it was a depiction of the Holy Mother and Child. As far as I could tell it was authentic. I had seen enough roughly similar coins before to know it was genuine. The only real strangeness about it was the odd lettering which I could only just make out. But then after a thousand years there would have to be some aspects of this culture that would have changed.
I gripped the coin tightly in my fist, pressing it into my hand until it began to hurt, trying to dispel the feeling of unreality I had about yesterday's experiences, the feeling that I was remembering something from much longer ago than only the day before. Perhaps it was the excitement of the experience that had bleached some of the details from my mind.
After breakfast I stopped at the bank on my way to work. Checking my bank balance I found it woefully short of the 40,000 Ginger had asked for if I was to play a full part in investigating the colonies -- as I well knew it would be. Some 37,000 short, in fact, no surprise at all. But I could take out a mortgage on the rambling old house in Strathclyde that I still owned -- not having been sure if I would return there next year. I could, but did I want to?
I sat in a chair at the bank while I thought it over, playing with a black plastic pen attached to a black plastic disc by a chain. I was already late for work, but that wouldn't have to matter. On a paying-in slip on the desk I drew two columns as I weighed it all up, leaving the columns unlabelled. That I wanted desperately to accept Ginger's offer to study the colonies I had no doubts. It was the greatest opportunity I could ever have been presented with, even if it wasn't strictly speaking archaeological work, but a kind of anthropology. That it would cost 40,000 was a small price to pay for the greatest opportunity that any academic could ever hope to receive. Wouldn't you sell your house for the most wonderful chance in your life that could ever present itself? I put a tick in the left column I had drawn.
Yet I felt angry with Ginger. What he was doing -- keeping the knowledge of the colonies' existence secret, that was unethical. Selfish. Indefensible. And if I joined his little organisation I'd be just as guilty as him. I ticked the left column.
Looking at the two ticks on either side of the central line, looking at their symmetry, I didn't know what to do. Then it came to me. I would contact the British Archaeological Institute and persuade them to fund me -- it wouldn't be easy, but it wasn't impossible. Perhaps for years before Ginger's organisation was finally exposed to the public gaze, the Institute might fund my research as part of a kind of undercover operation. I'd be able to get involved in Ginger's group while maintaining my ethical position.
But how to contact the Institute? Since I had left home that morning I'd had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. It wouldn't have surprised me to know that Ginger's surveillance extended well beyond watching the colonies, but I had seen no real evidence of that. Yet rational or not, I had the strongest feeling that I was under surveillance myself. So strong was this that it stopped me making a telephone call to the Institute to arrange a meeting at which I might put my case for some initial funding. Through the plate glass doors of the bank I could see a block of public pay-phones in the street. There was no way that Ginger could bug public phones -- the idea was ludicrous. Yet the idea of using one of the phones, even to make an appointment about unspecified business, filled me with an absolute dread of discovery. This was strange, to say the least -- I wasn't normally given to paranoia. E-mail was out for similar reasons, so that left only writing a letter. I had the time needed to send it and receive a response: Ginger had instructed me to bring the first instalment of the money to his house as soon as I had it, preferably within a week.
So, using a sheet of the bank's stationary, I wrote a brief letter to the vice-president of the Institute, expressing how important it was that we met as soon as possible, whilst not revealing what I had uncovered. I put the letter into one of the bank's envelopes then left to buy some stamps. Shortly I was standing before a postbox. Yet I couldn't post the letter. Again I had been seized by a desperate sense of betrayal of Ginger and the fear of being discovered. There was no rational way in the world that Ginger's group could know that I was writing to the Institute or why, yet when I lifted the letter up towards the mouth of the postbox my hand trembled and stopped short.
This was absolutely crazy. I felt sure that passers-by were looking at me oddly as I stood frozen before the post box with the letter raised in one hand.
'Do you want me to put that in for you, love?'
I turned my head to see an old woman at my side, a wodge of her own letters in little pink envelopes grasped firmly in her hand.
Weakly, I nodded.
She fed her own letters into the gaping red mouth of the postbox, then carefully took mine from me. I gasped and my frozen hand twitched as I saw my letter eaten by that great red mouth.
And then I knew it was too late. I knew with absolute certainty that I had blown it, that I had lost the greatest opportunity of my life. I should have mortgaged my house, not worried about ethics, become part of Ginger's group.
But a tiny part of me still fought against this irrationality of my feelings. Go to Ginger's house, it said, make an excuse for being there -- take him the three thousand in your account as a first instalment. Check that everything's still all right.
And forgetting that I was supposed to be at work, that I was supposed to be chairing a meeting of the Norman Antiquities Sub-committee that very morning, I found myself some forty-five minutes later driving slowly along the street where Ginger's house was. In my pocket, three thousand pounds in fifties.
And, as if in a dream that I had had before, I found myself seeing what I half-expected to see. Ginger's house was boarded up. I drew up outside and put my head in my hands. It couldn't be, it just couldn't. The greatest opportunity of my career, of my whole life -- I couldn't have just thrown it away by posting a simple letter.
Then I was angry. Getting the little hub-cap crowbar from the boot of my car I strode up to the stained sheet of old fibre-board that had been nailed over the doorway of the house and set furiously to work trying to lever it off. It came away slowly, one nail at a time as I worked my way frantically around it, heaving and groaning as I went. Then it was loose, and with a hard thrust of my foot I splintered the door frame beside the lock and the door burst in. Pushing the sagging door out of my way I rushed inside. The downstairs room was bare. I ran up the stairs, pulling myself up on the light-blue bannister with all my strength, and in a moment I was outside the room where I had seen all the surveillance equipment. The 'eye' symbol on the door had gone. My heart racing, I pulled open the door and went in. There was little or no light coming through the boarded windows, yet I knew without seeing it that this room was empty too. I had made it happen when I posted the letter.
The wind had been knocked out of me, and I sank to my knees in the hollow, airless room.
When I got to my feet again I took my penlight key-ring from my pocket. The tiny torch cast a feeble beam, but it was enough for me to pick out the cobwebs that festooned the place. The room didn't look as if it had been used for months. I pulled my fingers through a dusty web -- it seemed real enough. But it had to be a trick of some kind.
Heavily, I went back down into the street. The next front door along was open and two girls were outside -- that house was still lived in, at least. One of the girls -- she looked about fifteen or sixteen -- was lying on the ground, her flowery summer dress dragging in the dirt. When she saw me she sat up and leant with her back to the wall beside the door.
I stared at her for a moment, then -- the rational part of me still refusing to be defeated -- I asked: 'Have you seen the man who lives here?'
'He's got red hair,' the girl said as if she were chanting the words of a song.
'Take no notice of her, she sees things what aren't there. She isn't right in t' head.'
It was the younger girl who had spoken, an immature version of the other, though dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt portraying a heavy-metal band. She couldn't have been more than six, but was looking from her sister back to me with worried eyes.
'But this man,' I said, 'she says she's seen him...?'
The young girl shook her head in disbelief, much as an adult might. 'No one lives there. Though she reckons she's seen him. I've never seen him though. I thought she was making it up.'
During the next couple of weeks I went back to Ginger's house several times. But nothing had changed there. I even knocked on the door of the sisters, but there was no answer there either. An invitation from the Institute for the meeting I wanted arrived, but what could I tell them now?
And that might have been the end of it but for something that happened to me early one morning about a month after I last saw Ginger. I was lying in bed, taking it easy after the alarm clock had gone off. I had to get up to get ready for work, but feeling loathe to leave the warmth of my bed -- as I had many times since I posted the letter -- I rested for some ten or fifteen minutes with my eyes half-closed, going over in my mind all the things I had to do that day. Trying to forget what might have been... Suddenly I was compelled to act. I shot up out of bed and rushed over to my wardrobe. Flinging the doors wide, I tore aside the row of clothes on their hangers, then finding nothing behind them, I swept out onto the floor the boxes, books and bits and pieces that occupied the base of the wardrobe.
I stood amongst the clutter I had created for minutes at a time, pondering...
For as I had lain resting in bed trying to concentrate on what had become a meaningless career, I had seen something. Through the gap between the unclosed wardrobe doors I had clearly seen a face watching me, a face with ginger brows and piercing yellow-green eyes...
First appeared in Interzone #138
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