by Steve Toase
“What is it?” said Mr French, peering down at Jim from under his hard hat.
Behind him a herd of highland cattle crowded against the wooden fence, more interested in the fresh grass of the verge than any archaeology. Jim wiped the blood from his skinned knuckles and pointed to the other side of the trench with his trowel.
“Here we’ve got a wall coming across at a right angle to the Roman road over there,” he said standing to point past French at the motorway 200 metres away.
Mr French nodded and kicked in some spoil with the toe of a new rigger boot. Jim watched the loose soil landed across the area he had just cleaned for a photograph. He felt his back tense, but kept the words inside.
“So you’ve got an old wall. Place is crawling with them,” Mr French said.
“I haven’t finished. That wall returns over there and in the corner we have a series of steps going down, possibly another two metres. And this,” Jim reached over to turn a large piece of dressed stone “Seems to suggest a temple of some kind.”
Mr French took off his hardhat and banged it against his leg, the heat of the day making his pinched glasses slide again. The cows, and their calves, scattered at the noise.
“So does this mean you’re holding the job up again?”
Well if you will go putting a new trading estate in the middle of one of the largest Roman settlements in the country, Jim thought to himself. But he managed to keep himself professional.
“I’m not sure you realise the significance of this site. A temple needs to be excavated properly, not as an add on to a watching brief.”
“I’m not sure you realise, Mr Archaeologist, that every time you delay like this you are costing us, and by us I mean the lowly tax payer of this district. The people I answer to. You don’t live round here do you?” Mr French sighed and turned on his heel, knocking more dust over the trench.
Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out the site mobile. Wiping the grit and sun cream off his fingers he dialled, listening to the answer phone kick in.
“Hi Sam. More problems on site. Looks major this time. My guess is some kind of temple. I’ll send you some photos tonight, but I’m going to have to stop the work until you can get out here. Does the planning condition give you powers to stop the work? Ring me later.”
Phone away he climbed out of the trench, leaning on the machine bucket to take some record shots.
Frank, the machine driver walked over and grabbed his flask from the cab.
“Sorry Frank we can’t dig anymore today.”
Frank laughed and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Doesn’t bother me son. We went onto day rate as soon as you found those stones.”
He reached into his pocket for a pouch of tobacco, rolling two, lighting them and passing one to Jim.
“So what are you scratting around with now?”
“Do you know Frank I’m not completely sure. gut feeling is some kind of temple.”
“You mean like sacrificing virgins? Not many round here these days.”
Jim laughed then he picked up a tray of cattle bones and passed it across to Frank, “More likely animals. First guess would have been a temple to Mithras, but they didn’t sacrifice animals as far as I can remember. Could be to a local god. Lot’s of little cults around at the time. My Romano British archaeology is ok, but in fifteen years I’ve not seen anything quite like this. I need a second opinion really.”
Frank started to speak. Jim cut in, “Unfortunately on this one it has to be from someone other than you.”
Frank nodded across to the shiny new pool car, where Mr French sat scowling into his mobile phone. “You want to watch that little prick. Wouldn’t trust him as far as I could spit.” To clear his throat, or possibly show Jim how far this was Frank spat into the spoil heap. “Not as far as I could spit.”
It was raining. He could hear it battering down on the moor, on the stones, feel it on his skin. The blindfold felt coarse, chafing against the skin where he had recently shaved. Callused hands held his arms, leaving bruises. He could smell woodsmoke, sweat; his own fear. The steps felt uneven under his feet, and twice he lost balance, the figures invisible behind him stopping a broken nose or cracked skull.
The air changed. No longer the rain stung wind, but stale and dry. Hands pushed him forward into the dust and dirt. He lay there, hands exploring the floor; the smooth stone of the walls. Then his world was filled with noise, unlike anything he had heard before. A bellowing filled his skull, driving all thoughts, leaving an empty hollow space. Then the rain came, slowly at first, building into a torrent. He lay on the ground as rivulets ran off him, and he tasted the iron of wave after wave of blood gluing sand and grit to his skin. The liquid stuck the blindfold to his face, dripped down his hair, into his open mouth, choking him. And still the deluge would not stop.
Jim woke wrapped in his bedding, sweating and breathing heavy from a panic that lingered long after the dream faded.
“What the fuck did you do Frank?”
Jim stood on the edge of the trench and looked down at the now destroyed stonework, the inscription rendered unreadable by three parallel machine gouges through the carving.
Frank looked at the ground, not meeting Jim’s eye.
“I did what I was told son. As always. I did what I was told.”
Behind them a car pulled up. Jim carried on staring at the trench as the door opened, shut and footsteps walked up behind him.
“Morning gentlemen. How are we today?”
Frank looked over at Jim, raised his hands, stared at Bob French with a look of utter contempt then walked away to the site hut.
“Have you any idea what you’ve done Mr French?” Jim carried on staring down at the wrecked site. He knew if he turned Bob French would be smiling, a sanctimonious crooked smile, and he knew restraint would go out of the window.
“Oh dear Jim. I’m sorry to see that. You know how enthusiastic some of these machine drivers can get. They do end up carried away sometimes.”
“I spoke to Frank myself at the end of play yesterday. He knew to leave this alone.”
“Not the brightest lads. That’s why they’re stuck on these machines rather than in a proper job,” a wheezing chuckle.
“A damn sight brighter than you Mr French, and a damn sight more fucking pleasant to work with. Get off my site.”
“I think you’ll find, boy, this is my site. We pay you. You work for us, not the other way round and you’d do well to remember that.”
Jim could feel his leg start to shake as his temper rose. He tapped his foot to feed away the adrenaline.
“You do know this is a contravention of your planning permission?”
Mr Frank smiled and rubbed his chin, “And the fine is what? £2000? £3000? The budget for this job is two million. I’m sure we can find it somewhere.” He looked thoughtful for a second.
“I know Mr Archaeologist. I’ll pay it with the money I’ve saved from not having to fund you to excavate some old remains.”
He started to walk away, whistling, then stopped and turned back to Jim.
“And you can tell that girl from the Ministry about the unfortunate turn of events. Such a shame, but fortuitous don’t you think?”
Jim ignored him and jumped back into the trench, lifting out tumbled stone, lying chaotic in the dirt. He ran his fingers across letters carved by minds dead for two thousand years and sat back on the tarmac, shoulders slumped, looking down at the drawing board by his side, all enthusiasm gone.
Sam followed him into the hut. He moved aside the lunchboxes and flasks, spreading out the drawings he managed to make before the walls were destroyed.
“I can’t believe anyone would have the audacity to cause that much damage in a scheduled ancient monument,” he said, sitting down at the table.
Sam flicked her now dead cigarette out into the scrub grass.
“I can. You need to be a little less naive Jim. There are characters like Mr French all over the shop.” she said, sitting down next to him.
“You’re not going to let him get away with it?”
“Of course not. Fucking hell Jim, how long have you known me? Of course I’m not. But with his money…” She shrugged, not needing to finish the sentence.
“So what will you do?” said Jim continuing to push.
“Well first of all I’ll rip him a new arsehole. People like Bob French do not like being put in their place by a 5 foot nothing female. All he’ll do is offload the pain onto one of his staff who’s fallen out of favour. Of course, he’ll say, he understands why we need to pursue a prosecution, but Mr Scapegoat has a young family. He will of course be pursuing an internal disciplinary, but can we reconsider prosecuting Mr Scapegoat as he never meant any harm, and misunderstood his instructions. Mr Scapegoat will of course follow Bob French’s guidance to the letter as jobs are hard to come by, what with the recession and ‘You’re not getting any younger’ and ‘I’d have to mention those times you came back to work after a couple of pints at lunch’.”
Jim looked out of the hut to where Frank sat in his machine, flicking nervous glances toward the trench. It didn’t take a genius to work out where that pain was going to land.
Jim pushed the drawings across the table to Sam, who flicked through them, then looked at the digital photos Jim had shot the previous day.
“For what it’s worth Jim I think you’re right. It is a temple, but not to Mithras. The inscription uses Latin conventions, but I don’t recognise the name. I’ll take these back to the office and run them by Simon River. He does most of our Roman sites for us.”
She stood up and leant against the door-frame rolling another cigarette.
“Until I get back in touch the only person who goes anywhere near that hole is you, and you need to do everything you can to record what can be salvaged from this clusterfuck.”
Jim’s day brightened watching Sam talk down to Bob French. He’d seen Sam in action before, and to watch a short, slim blond girl put a truculent developer in his place always bought a smile to his face. He stood, drinking warm water, while Bob French stormed off, the screeching tyres as he drove away giving away the fury in his tight, pinched face.
Sam walked over.
“That went well,” she said.
“So I see. Seemed to take it like a man,” Jim said, burying his mattock in the spoil heap.
“If you mean a male chauvinist, never-been-talked-to-like-that-in-his-life man, then yes.”
She jumped down next to Jim and reached in her back pocket for a trowel.
“Oi,” said Jim “I thought I wasn’t to let anyone else near this hole.”
“I don’t count. I’m like the north wind. I can go,” she paused and twirled round, “anywhere.”
Kneeling she started to clean down the stonework he had freshly exposed. “You didn’t think I was going to come out here, to a supposed temple and not have a play myself. Honestly. Anyone would think you didn’t know me. Oh and don’t tell anyone at the office.”
“Secret’s safe with me,” Jim said “You can shovel.”
For the next half hour they worked next to each other, taking it in turns to dig down the spoil in the centre of the trench, shoveling onto the rapidly growing spoil heap. Every so often Jim shot a glance over at the JCB where Frank sat biting his nails and chain smoking. For the past week Frank had been the first to spot the archaeology in the trenches, stop the machine, lift out a little more spoil. Now he hung back like a scolded toddler.
“Jim. Have you seen this?”
He turned to where Sam was working. In front of her, surrounded by a small arc of loose soil, stood a flat dressed block of limestone. On the face hundreds of carvings of bull horns. Some large, others tiny, all shallow into the stone, overlapping, blurring the lines of the ones below.
That night Jim’s dreams were filled with clay and blood, stones the size of dragon’s eggs pressing against his open eyes. He woke to rain hitting the window in the dark, his wife still sleeping in calmer dreams.
“Health and safety. Couldn’t leave it open. Someone might have had an accident. Wouldn’t want that on your conscience would you,” said Bob French, leaning against his car, the plan of works spread out on the roof.
Jim went over to the now filled in trench, walking across the type one aggregate that now left a white scar on the ground. He felt the rolled stone underfoot and could see in his mind’s eye carvings now scratched and pounded by several ton of stone, and the rolling of a mini road roller. Inside he felt a rage that went far beyond professional concerns.
“Why? Why just go ahead and do this French? Why not wait for me to get back to site? Or phone me? We could have covered the archaeology, put some sand in. Lifted the carvings.”
Bob French smiled, his eyes squinting against the sun. “I tried ringing you, obviously. Must have been in an area without a signal. I’d change phone operator if I were you. And you might not realise it, I know you university educated types don’t really live in the real world, but compensation culture being what it is I’m not going to let some unemployed no hoper take council tax payers’ money in some spurious injury claim. Nope, couldn’t be left an hour later. Much too dangerous.”
Jim tried phoning Sam, knowing that any action would now be symbolic, Bob French’s arrogance making him untouchable. The little man standing up to pointless hold ups, in the name of the general public.
Jim walked over to the site hut, opening the door and sitting opposite Bob French across the table “So where does this leave us then?” Jim said, fingers knotted till the knuckles went white.
Bob French smiled, relaxed in his victory over another hold up.
“Well obviously we press on with the next stage of the project. I hope in an atmosphere of mutual respect, as much as I’d like you to go back to your ivory tower and leave us to do some proper work.” He stood and walked to the door. “We’ll be moving into that field next. I’m going to go and start laying out the trench, ready for the new machine driver on Monday. You can come and watch and make sure you are happy with the position. Wouldn’t want to damage any of our shared heritage.”
Jim got up and looked past him to the field.
“Aren’t you going to wait until the farmer clears the field of livestock?”
Bob sighed. “City boy eh? They’re only a few head of cattle. As long as you don’t go near the young ‘uns you’ll be fine.”
“Even so I think I’ll stay this side of the fence. There’s still paperwork to do.”
“Suit yourself. No rest for the wicked.”
Half an hour passed. Jim sat in the hut, context sheets and plans spread around, a simple matrix, sketched on a sheet of paper, relating the different parts of the site to each other. Curiosity getting the better of him Jim wandered across the site. Bob French crouched in the long grass, a trundle wheel stood beside him, his back to Jim. Jim stood on the lower rail of the fence and leant across to stroke the nearest cow. She turned and calmly nuzzled into his hand.
Afterwards he couldn’t remember making the decision, or opening the knife he kept in his pocket for cutting string. The only memory that lingered afterwards was the smell of blood. The blood on his knife from where he stabbed it into the muscled flank of the cow, the blood on the thing that had once been Bob French now trampled by 200 head of panicking cattle. The blood that flowed down from the squealing bull sacrificed above him in the dark.