(by firelight reveal more than those merely written)
Jack is a need to know kind of guy. The type of guy who needs to know why things work and why things occur, but having found the stolen artefact from Britain’s Natural History Museum he now has to decipher these strange markings
If he is successful he may solve three seemingly unrelated deaths, but were they unrelated deaths or were they all strangely related murders?
Jack will travel relentlessly through Italy on a tour bus, find himself bemused revelation in Egypt and discover lost voices and ancient remains in outback Australia before deciding what he thinks is the truth.
The truth is, however, difficult to decipher; has he actually found the perpetrator of these supposed crimes or do messages by firelight reveal more than those merely written?
A relic is stolen from Britain’s Natural History Museum and though concerned, those in the industry find it to be an innocuous theft. It is but a brief topic of discussion amongst the professionals and students working on the ancient Roman site of Silchester in the south of England. The students are more concerned with that nights gathering for an end of season break up at a local pub in preparation for a rave tour across Europe.
One of the members of this group is Jack, an Australian working his way across Europe, who has found himself stuck in the rut of earning money tutoring students and performing other menial tasks in equally ordinary pursuits. He digs voluntarily at various Archaeological sites across Britain for his own pleasure in his spare time, but in the two years that he’s been away from home he’s seen little of Europe.
Jack is finally enticed away from this rut by his English friend Johnny who has plans for them both to join a tour group travelling across France, Italy and Egypt. The ever-unreliable Johnny mysteriously misses the tour, but his girlfriend Liz and her friend Andrea do make the trip and take Jack under their protective wing – a wing that seems to involve more and more danger as the tour rushes its way from tourist attraction to fatal attraction across Italy. As the tour gathers its murderous momentum Jack finds himself becoming increasingly involved with the mysterious and confident Andrea until three people are murdered; two before his disbelieving eyes in the night through a Venetian thunderstorm.
Separated from the tour group, seemingly alone and in deep shock, Jack finds himself heading towards the tour’s final destination, Egypt – mostly, he senses, for his own protection. Once there, he finds himself in possession of the very thing that has triggered these murders. Jack has been faced with a plethora of messages in various forms throughout his journey and now he has to decipher another - the strange markings on this misplaced artefact. He must use his various historic, archaeological and computer skills in order to decipher the markings and solve the murders, which may just save his own life. The markings lead him back home to Australia where he finds another artefact so rare in the outback that all of the misfortunes he has faced begin to make sense – just in time for him to face a confrontation with the various suspects involved.
Timeline of the first five volumes
Messages is the first of three novels that follow the lives of the characters in this story and the world of dealing in prehistoric and historic artefacts. Each story involves at least one actual artefact or a historic site that is known to historians, but that is currently missing or has never actually been found. Each novel is its own individual piece, but is also linked in minor ways to its predecessor and / or its follow-up. The sequel to Messages is Die Young & Stay Pretty, which involves Jack’s daughter Rebecca and the tomb of a missing Egyptian Prince – Khaemwese. The third in the series is Unforgettable Fire, which involves the bell of the Sapporo Maru (a sunken wreck from World War II), an actual signed Japanese flag from World War II and a Japanese ocean angel. Volumes 4 & 5 of the Gargoyle Chronicles also follow the lives of the characters that have evolved in volumes 1, 2 & 3 mentioned above. However, unlike these which begin as their predecessor ends, volumes 4 & 5 are set some years in the future and rely far less on their predecessors—these are Celtic Forest which follows the scattered bones of a Celtic burial found in the Wiltshire countryside & Sarah which involves three sets of characters across Australia, England and Greece whose stories merge unsuspectedly.
Visions Of The Night
The knife slid out easily enough as my body pulled away from the blade – just as easily as it had slid in. It surprised me how little blood there was, at least at first. Not unlike a paper cut, the one you can’t quite remember – its preciseness delaying the pain until visual contact made it all too real. It was always at that precise moment that the blood began to leak out uncontrollably as if in sympathy with the pain you now felt… and I could feel the pain, the pain of imminent death. The pain of knowing that you were about to discover the answer to the ultimate question, coupled with the pain that you would be forever unable to pass on that knowledge.
How close do you have to be to death before you believe in it and how old did you have to be before its consequences really sunk in – sunk in to the depth of a blood dipped blade? If only in life you could be as constantly sharp as such a blade!
I realized at that moment as the rain swept sporadically across that isolated scene that we as humans were no different to balloons and bubbles; we all have a certain synchronicity – one prick… and like the youngsters who covet those simple pleasures we’re all unappreciative of our own mortality whilst still so young. If we lived to survive our youthful shenanigans and those unpleasant collisions with solitary midnight trees then appreciation grows. Such is life, or so some have said… and then they hang you!
The pain was agonizing as the stomach acids seeped into the crevices they were never meant to fill and as the severed organs and arteries fought against each other in a vain attempt to recover from their piercing. We are such complicated creatures, both physically and mentally, but it’s so simple to end it all. If only we appreciated that fact as I was at this moment! We do have the memories of balloons and bubbles to enjoy though, and as my balloon burst and my world spun into an uncontrollable spiral the bubbles and froth sat momentarily atop the next symmetrical wave as it crashed down evenly and rolled up the sandy shore.
Don’t fall into the sand… if you do it will be sucked into that frothing wound as your stomach heaves against its own impending death… don’t fall! Don’t be consumed by the dizzying fantasies and monsters that creep into our dreams as children and wander aimlessly about in there into adulthood... monsters that haunt the depths of our souls and rip at and shred the innocence of our youth - forever scratching away through to the years of our ever-expanding adulthood. Adulthood, the years that deconstruct our innocence and form the unbalanced and increasingly darker remaining half of our lives… Adulthood, the state where we place our monsters well beneath our surface and replace them with walls adorned with gargoyles to protect ourselves from the images we’re so afraid of… but they’re always within and eventually they break loose and tear us apart.
From the depths of the Id arise to reality the dinosaurs of our dreams into archaeological reality! So it is true of the monsters in this story, and as the blood melded with the various stomach acids and brought a swift but painful close to another life I stare at her, and she’s one of them… So beautiful, yet so deadly! Blood dripping from the blade, glinting with lightning, gripped firmly in her shivering hand – not unlike a Raptor of old – intense with the venom of the kill… There she stood in all her wretchedness, ambivalent to the success of the strike, eyes agog at the crumpled mess she’d delivered at her own feet. Numb with the intense disbelief of the ritual she’d just performed – yet immensely satisfied with all that had transpired here, knowing that although the future before her would end tonight her future was now assured. I wanted to know the answers to so many questions… I suppose I wanted to know the answer to the ultimate question, but are any of us ever ready for that moment? I knew that I wasn’t, but I had no God to believe in that I could say had forsaken me… and that sucked!
It’s odd how the sand sucks you slowly under as the waves career onto the beach, that perfect of all beaches with the symmetrical waves endlessly and uniformly repeating their salty dump over the entire circumference of the bay…
…that same endless suck that drains the innocence of our youth, relentlessly pulling us under into the Id of our maturity…
The afternoon sun was warm on my back as I carefully scraped back the edges of my perfect hole. The perfect square hole, measured precisely, plotted to the exact centimetre and bound to be the barer of copious amounts of buried treasure… if only! I’d dreamt about this kind of activity since I was a kid, but there was no crashing through hidden doorways or falling through ancient sinkholes. It was just precise scientific examinations of ancient fields that had usually been plundered centuries before. And so I scraped, inching precariously towards an invisible set of dominoes that had already begun to fall about me although I was unaware of their existence!
I felt the bead of sweat sliding down my forehead toward the corner of my eye, but I resisted the urge to flick it off with my grimy fingers until I was distracted by an odd scrape beneath my right hand. I don’t remember ever flicking that bead of sweat and I don’t recall it ever salting up my eye… I only remember the chink of metal on metal and I half imagined the sunbeam peaking over my shoulder to flash momentarily back at me off a glint of gold. It wasn’t gold, but it was round and it did have friends! The more I scraped at the dirt and dusted with my brush, the more my heart pounded and it wasn’t long before I gathered an audience – an audience of excited junior Archaeologists and concerned but supportive professional Archaeologists.
“Am I doing this right?”
“Well if you’re not, you’re about to destroy two thousand years of history… so why don’t you pick that solitary one up and dust it off. I bet it’s got a head worthy of a Guinness – and being the first to find something substantial I do believe it’s your shout tonight, Jack!”
“Always thinking of your next beer aren’t you, Johnny! Well check out the head on this, you probably won’t see one so wondrous without the help of the bottom of a glass for years to come!”
“You might be surprised, Jack… there are cleaner ways to fondle historic fantasies…”
That was the highlight of my first season amongst the remaining footings of Roman Silchester. A short season of promise with a large cache of ancient Roman coins in reasonably mint condition for the memory banks! I can envisage myself before them all preserved and cleaned by the museum experts, but I envisage myself more often down there in that hole, its centre caked firmly under my fingernails with fingers gripped nervously around those dusty old Roman heads…
It made me wonder… does everything you do in life have an alternative outcome or perhaps even a parallel outcome?
Does every move you make, every decision you take, affect the world in an alternate dimension which you occasionally cross into? I believe that there are parallel worlds out there lurking in the shadows that we almost never see – and almost never comprehend until you’re engulfed by one of them! There always seems to be those people around us who seem to be ordinary - unsuspicious, but wind up the dead the very next day, somehow involved in an underworld slaying! The most disturbing aspect of this odd synchronicity in our lives is not the crossing into of these alternative worlds, but the failure to cross back! This leaves you grappling with the edges of a world that you don’t fully understand and obviously don’t belong to… and as the mist swept in low across the fields on this my second season in Silchester I crossed into one of them…
I love the mist as it sweeps across the low rolling hills onto the fields, fields so green, even at the height of summer – if there is such a thing here! I find myself wearing a windcheater and they’re out there in their gardens in singlets sweating and complaining about the heat. My Auntie from central Western Australia used to do that to me when I was young. We’d get a casual 35°C day and she’d be in a cardigan with her arms clutched around her in fear of catching a cold!
It’s so different here to where I come from, where even in the depths of winter greenery is not guaranteed. Where the plains above the Great Dividing Range are flat, endless, tiring and often parched with a relentless sun that beats down through a cloudless pure blue sky. The trees that line the way are rare, the rivers to cross rarer… where at night the passing of a single set of headlights seems to take forever as you forge through the levelled distance watching the flickering mechanical eyes creep ever closer over the flat expanse.
It sounds a tad clichéd I know, but so unlike the foreign vision of kangaroos down by the back shed and koalas in every second gum tree. The rest of the world often seems so naïve to the harshness of our beautiful country and the luxuries that we hold with such a tenuous grip! My day-to-day existence was of course much less surreal, much less serene than the outback visions we exalt so fervently. Boxed in suburbia with three or four million others around a bay so big that the distant edges are mostly swallowed by horizon.
Ah, Melbourne, famous for its four seasons in one day – 40°C one minute, less than 20°C minutes later… where when the north wind blows in during summer it brings with it thousands of kilometres of dust and pollen from the entire expanse of the continent – the hay fever and allergy capital of the world…. Hard to imagine why I sit here at the bottom of a boggy trench digging for relics during an English summer, isn’t it!
Ah! The ooze of bog through the fingers and under the fingernails, no wonder the Poms flock to our sun bathed shores – at least we have sand to burn the bottoms of our feet as we charge towards the shallows of cooling waters, the surf board strewn waves and the mysterious undertows.
“You’re not dreaming of sunshine again are you Jack?”
“No, only endless supplies of lanoline filled tissues – which I no longer need!”
“I often wonder why you stay if you just dream of going back – hang on just a minute, I feel an Ode coming on, could it be? Yes, an Ode to Absence –
I wither a yonder withering branch,
I ponder a yonder heat mirage trance,
Absconder the yonder dithering dance,
O heat dost giveth my heart entranced memory.
You Aussie chaps are all the same; you come here with no money, get a job, work the job for your entire visit and see nothing of the journey! What’s the point? You could do all of that at home! Jack, are you not aware that the history and the culture of the entire western world lie between here, this glorious rain swept English field and just beyond the channel - off to the edges of the sun drenched Mediterranean. There’s more culture per square inch of every acre just beyond your immediate horizon than you could possibly imagine sitting here entranced in the middle of a boggy trench dreaming of Dreamtime landscapes…. You do realise you’re coming on this year’s European rave, er… tour of history and culture beyond imagination! I’ve already paid for your ticket and arranged appropriate visa forms, which are fortunately few you lucky apolitically ravaged dog you! I intend you to see something more than these ancient Roman footings before you return home…”
“To the land of silverware…”
“Aye, but we’ve got the Web-Ellis!”
“Well it’s about bloody time you lot won something! There was a movement forming back home to sister-city this entire country with the City of Collingwood!!!”
“OK, OK, enough of your Aussie Rules stories – that’s not the game they play in Heaven.”
“No, but at least you don’t have to be dead to watch it! Or dead drunk, knowing you lot! Dead drunk and singing sad-eyed songs corralled behind barbed wire fencing!”
“Regardless of your political and cultural stand points, you are coming, you are going to have a damn good time, and tonight we’re meeting some of the gang… or should I say other investigators of fine culture and history down at the Slug and Lettuce for a little pre-European-raid tour… but for want of being too verbose, let’s just call it a ‘get-together’!”
“Let’s just call it a booze-up for the sake of a good booze-up – your shout no doubt considering you failed to turn up last night… so what was that all about anyway? Why so mysterious all of a sudden, Johnny?”
Johnny smiled and winked at me in his typically sly and wickedly playful manner… He was supposed to have begun these introductions last night, in fact he was supposed to have begun them a week or two ago, but he had been oddly distant for the first time in more than a year of constant friendship. I thought he had been spending quality time with his girlfriend Liz, but even she had failed to keep track of him recently. I thought that they might have needed time alone until I remembered that it was her who had insisted I tag along on their mystery road trips all over England. They had pretty much saturated my weekends this year – England was so compact – and so full of Liz’s female friends who all seemed to be in need of a companion!
“What are you working on now, Johnny? What are you up to… and where the hell were you last night?”
“Last night… well Jack, that’s a question, isn’t it? Last night I was… er, securing my future, so to say!”
“A future not linked to privilege and education and hard work or marriage even, if I know you well enough!”
“You do, but there is hard work involved and mounting conspiracies!”
“You’re such a cad Johnno, but never-the-less I will be there tonight as I have been all year – forever the sheep to your Bo-peep! And I will be on the tour – I think my Mum (my Dad calls her the Old Cheese) would enjoy some more exciting postcards for the fridge back home!”
“Excrement! That’s the spirit, Jack, most of the usual crew will be there, plus a couple of your mob and a few of the more interesting type of extras!”
“Extras or prospects? I suppose Liz is coming?”
“Elizabeth will most definitely and deliciously be there! Shall we say Seven O’clock, at the Slug and Lettuce in Reading?”
The Poms had such great and unusual names for their pubs, I first encountered this one in a photo from Stratford from another friends trip to England a few years back – it’s more a franchise now, but I particularly loved the name as it reminded me of a restaurant back home where this particular dish was served up to another friend of mine – not intentionally I might add!!!
With my acquiescence Johnny strolled back out across the field in his typically confident and lackadaisical manner, skirting the above-mentioned Roman footings and picking at loose shards of pottery as he went. He may have been lazy and he may have been easily distracted, but he was interested and he did take his history much more seriously than most people realized. I’d seen this side of him all over England, Scotland and Wales even though he had only professed to aspire to be the youngest man to drink at every English pub... Johnny was right, though – and he was also a bit of a lad – the type of guy both sexes seemed to gravitate towards. The type of guy whose tongue could perform an out of body experience to satisfy his lust for alcohol – and women! He was still studying at the University in Reading and he was only here digging for some extra credits with the Archaeological Lecturers during the summer between parties and those weekend or mid-week adventures!
I’d met Johnny last summer on a different part of this dig and although quite different in character we got along famously from the very first. During semester he found me amusements and students to teach, and encouraged me on weekends out into the countryside with Liz. She was also at university, but she wasn’t one of the wild girls Johnny had spent his time with when we first met, she was more – solid, with a hint of mystery! With her help our weekend trips became more filled with historic adventures than with drunken ones… she had centred Johnny and brought out a depth in him that always seemed possible in more reflective moments, but he had never seemed purposeful before her! The blend seemed to suit us all, but they were continually distressed about my sex life or lack there of. They were also distressed that I hadn’t as yet ventured off their island into the mystery of Europe, which was why Johnny was so adamant about my joining him, this year!
I had, however, thrown a spanner into the works and his plans by insisting on an Egyptian visit and I had gathered by the extra glint in his eye today that he’d managed this one as well! Egypt, though, reminded me of heat; heat – summer…
Summer, huh! Last summer was better – warmer, more profitable relic wise… and I dream of those Roman coins and of infinite possibilities, but my two years was almost up! That’s what I’d given myself and I’d worked and dug and tutored for the best part of it, so Johnny was right – if it wasn’t for him I’d have done virtually nothing but work this year. It was time to expand the vision, to get down and dirty with some other languages and cultures – I just hope I don’t sound too English by now!
“What’s young Johnny up to now, Jack? I’ve got no more credits to pass on to his lecturers if he’s short from last semester!”
“No Vic, I think he’s got that covered. I’d watch out for next semester though! I dare say he’s got a big end of summer planned, which coincidently, was the topic of discussion! I’m not sure it involved much pre-semester reading though, at least not that you’d approve of!”
“You might be surprised, an archaeologist’s life is not all dirt, digging and diagnoses. I’m not adverse to some more interesting nocturnal activities and I’m sure they were mentioned in your discussions with Johnny – another European rave tour if I’m not too mistaken – or is he spreading his wings this year?”
“Yeah, somewhat – due to me partly! I’ve suggested he includes the mysteries of the Pharaohs over the bottom of a few German beer mugs in Munich this year! It seems that this may also preclude the Reeperbahn, but Johnny is quite convinced that he can find a party and some horizontal entertainment for us all wherever we go! I suspect Liz has also made impressions on the future, if you get my drift, so the party aspect may override the multiple horizontal adventures – at least for him, or so he avows. Johnny seems to be a little more focused of late, and a little less drunk…”
“But the summer is yet young Jack and young manly loins do need to be exercised!”
“Johnny! You scared the shit out of me. I thought you were digging with the other team this afternoon?”
“Seems I’m not needed! So Jack, Professor Vic, there seems to be three to dig, dig!”
“So what are we digging today?”
“You know you two ought to get a life. You know, one that isn’t buried and wasn’t over a millennium or two a go!”
“Baiting are we Johnny? You do realise that you’re studying this stuff, or is that just a front to watch girls wrestling with fossils and treasure in mud and bog? In fact, that’s why I do it!”
“I wondered why you never got down and dirty with it Voyeur Vic leader of the Vandal Vicker Venerators!”
It had been like this with these two ever since I had met them both here last summer. Johnny the lad – incorrigible, flighty, and full of dangerous adventures. The guy most women would love to love, at least temporarily, but not a guy for the future. He was much too adventurous for any long-term relationship to succeed, unless the right woman was willing to mould his various talents successfully without smothering them! Liz, I suspected, was just about perfect in this regard.Then there was Professor Vic. I liked Vic. He wasn’t like most of the scientists around the digs – too scientific! He was more like Johnny, a lad who enjoyed the history of it all – didn’t mind his piccie in the paper occasionally either! He’d done some wonderful mid-range archaeological stuff, was great with the school kids and always had heaps of young volunteers (male and female!) Vic was the sort of new-age scientist come archaeologist who made digging up shards of pottery interesting without donning a hat and a whip. However, I always secretly expected to find one in his glove box! He was the sort of guy who could take a slice of history, add a dash of forensics, mix them up and reconstruct a Roman Villa or an iron-age dwelling – and we’d done that once! Mostly though, it was more mundane, piecemeal, and hard work with fewer rewards.
Some of the guys I’d met in the field had dug for years without any significant find, but their pieces had filled in a lot of the grey areas in their fields and those of others around them. It’s almost a six degrees of separation thing! I find a shard in an unusual place, he dates it to an unusual time, she places it in an unusual shape and we all context it to improve our knowledge of the so-called fringes of the Dark Ages – but perhaps they weren’t so dark after all!
I suppose we can’t all be a Howard Carter. Finds involving average lives in ordinary circumstances seem to be the building blocks for these guys. It’s like piecing together a multi-layered, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of the entire history map of the British Isles – wow! Did I just say all of that? Maybe Johnny was right, I did need a break. I’d spent all my time in Europe either in fields like this or in some windowless computer room! To top it off my evenings were more or less spent tutoring English kids English – go figure!!!
Johnny and Vic continued their baiting banter for a while, neither realizing as they attempted to outwit each other that I had drifted away from the conversation. I was eventually drawn back to the conversation by a diversion they had made to today’s headlines. It wasn’t often that Archaeology made the front page of the newspapers and I certainly couldn’t remember the last time two such stories had received this honour on the same day! No doubt it was a day to be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons…
“…One dead, one missing and one stolen you say Vic – that’s one way to get Archaeology back on the front page!”
“What do you mean, Johnny – who’s stolen, what’s dead, what am I missing?”
“Besides a few sandwiches short of a picnic as you might say, you’re missing the point and most of the conversation as usual, Jack. It seems that the only way for Archaeology to make the front page these days is with a bit of sensation and intrigue, but it’s not to Vic’s liking it seems!”
“Nor should it be, Johnny. It’s not every day that two young Archaeologists working out of the British Museum go missing in mysterious circumstances – with ones apartment being ransacked and blood spots found at the scene… and at the very time museum security in general is being questioned!”
“A piece was stolen from the Natural History Museum last night and although it’s not the same museum it portrays incompetence! It doesn’t help when young museum students disappear and mayhem and wild lifestyles involving sex and drugs are hinted at!”
“What, so they’re stealing artefacts to pay for their wild life style, which they’ve supposedly paid for with their lives?”
“That’s how the papers are writing it up!”
“She doesn’t seem the type…”
“You’re not saying you knew one of them, Johnny?”
“I’ve met many women, many wild women in my travels – and educated wild women are particularly interesting… and unpredictable!”
“And the other woman?”
“No idea… I don’t think I ever met her and I don’t think the two stories are linked. The missing piece was a dinosaur fossil – supposedly a single bone! Now that’s a specialized job, for specialized tastes!”
“It does seem to be a relatively insignificant piece, but it’s certainly not a trend I’d like to see repeated! It seems to be more like the work of a prankster than anything and that might well link to these two students, they’re probably hiding out fearful of what they’ve done for a dare! Besides, collectors usually like to have complete pieces – though I dare say your lecturer would know more about that, eh Johnny?”
“I dare say you’re right, Vic. I’ve heard that he’s a fossil hunter in his spare time, in with the dinosaur dealers of the world!”
“No doubt on the legitimate side of collecting considering his standing in the local community and his part-time work at the Natural History Museum, Johnny! He’d be more than distressed with this type of robbery!”
“Yes Jack, but time winds its way and many pieces flow through many hands along their considerable journeys – and who’s to say what really belongs to anybody anyway, or where they originally acquired it and how legitimate that was! We all find various ways to survive and we never really know who’s doing what behind their own closed doors, do we?”
“Well I think we should compensate by lending some credence to the pay we’re – well at least I’m receiving and try to find something of at least equal value to replace it. I dare say the boggy archaeological trenches of England still possess more than a few mysteries. Shall we dig?”
“DIG!” Johnny and I chorused!
We remained there as the afternoon wore on and the sun slipped its way beyond the numerous clouds and towards the horizon. I was consumed by the implications of what Johnny had said – what had he been up to, and how well did he know those missing women? I could see that Vic was also contemplating these issues privately, but I soon found myself drifting back to the here and now… and right now we were at Silchester, a Roman town with Iron Age links. The site hosted a dig every summer in order to unravel the mysteries of Roman Age Britain and its fall into the Dark Ages. Each year a different section or Insula of the ancient site would be selected for a more thorough investigation. For some this meant extra university credits, which were becoming harder to come by! It seemed that the days of Indiana Jones were well passed and that professionals were now the mainstay on archaeological sites, which was a bit of a shame really as we all have to start our love affair with history somewhere and where better than down amongst it in the dirt, physically re-creating a perspective of our past.
Volunteer work was even more difficult to find due to the same constraints. Community based field explorations were becoming increasingly rare, but once you fell in with the right people opportunities did tend to open up as they had for me. The stay at some of these sites, especially the more remote ones usually required sleeping in tents and paying your own expenses. It also usually required more than a few evenings at the local pubs to warm up those misty faces and fingers after a hard days dig – it really could get quite cool in an open English field during summer – and it could really get quite warm in the evenings – and they call Australia down under!
Last season had revealed many varied treasures and some really exciting artefacts like the handful of Roman Age coins I was fortunate to find. That was definitely the major highlight of the numerous different digs I’d been involved with during my stay in England, but Roman coins and other metallic artefacts seemed like a dream following this summer and its lack of genuinely exciting finds. This season had really failed to be helpful – relic wise, and now it was almost over. It now seemed that the only highlights would be the stolen relics and the missing Archaeological students! I think the more scientific of the archaeologists had been rewarded with a modicum of datum for their further study over winter, but there was nothing like a solid artefact to course excitement through an entire dig site!
Despite all of the science archaeology could still be a somewhat hit and miss affair. This much I had learnt. At any moment you could dig in the appropriate place and find amazing things, some of which only became interesting after further investigation! Conversely, you could dig around an entire plot for years and miss the best treasures by inches, only to have them found by a schoolboy and his grand father with a primitive metal detector years later.
We were just having one of those seasons, but it was almost over and tonight would be the first party of many which included our European jaunt! As I thought about the night’s imminent revelry my mind drifted back to Johnny and his missing moments – and those missing artefacts. The chill of the summer breeze whipped around my neck as I realized that even history can be tampered with in ways most could not foresee, for even history has a price and for the most part it was priceless – and isn’t that what everybody desired even if they didn’t appreciate it for anything more than its price tag!
St Augustine In Hell
Another fresh evening in an English hamlet not far from London found Johnny and I cleaning and scrubbing, but unfortunately for us not shards of pottery or gleaming pieces of silver and gold hoards. We were cleaning our hands of the English mud for the final time this summer. We were scrubbing the undersides of our fingernails of the bog that had seeped its way under there! The task was daily, but today’s seemed more rewarding as it was the last albeit one of the least successful days of grime cleaning, and because the adventure that lay before us had its tentative beginnings tonight! Tonight we would head to the nearby Slug and Lettuce to meet up with Liz and her girlfriends, some of who were apparently also Aussies out for a bit of laconic adventure!
We finished our cleaning eventually, although there seemed to be more we could have done. Fingernails are such a handy protection, but devilishly difficult to clean. I felt like a Farmer, all gnarly and grooved with dirt clinging to every divot and pore! There was also a need for a quick change of clothes and an even quicker bite to eat. No drinking on an empty stomach for these two lads – wouldn’t want the night to end too soon!
With all of this preparation Johnny and I arrived fashionably late, finding that the girls were already in party mode – the trip, it seemed, had begun early. Johnny introduced me to a few Brits and an occasional Aussie and we were soon seated by the bar in deep discussion with the bottom of our glasses. It was mostly fun and frivolous chat, which didn’t seem to include the trip we were all about to embark on – at least not the historical sites!
As the first hour elapsed the girls migrated to the dance floor again and other stragglers arrived and joined the crowd. The last person to arrive did so in my peripheral view, through the front door, which was just beyond the dancers. She moved slowly but confidently towards Liz and the others and held my attention throughout! And that was the thing – one of those pivotal life changing moments, a dip into the Id of another world – one I didn’t belong to, but one that would claw and scratch at me and draw me in. That was it, right there… that was the thing about her - the very minute I saw her face, the minute I caught her eye… That was the beginning of it all for me – or at least that’s how it seemed for a long time! Not that I knew at that moment, but it was the beginning of my descent into Augustinian Hell; alas the resurrection was so long ago!
Some people have that effect on you, and she certainly did for me. I guess she had the same effect on me that Johnny had on Liz – and thinking about it now I almost suspect that they suspected we would have such a connection before we’d even met – although one never really knows with such matters. I certainly didn’t entertain the idea for one minute that such a striking woman would have the tiniest morsel of interest in someone like me. I certainly wasn’t striking myself, I was rather bookish actually and although there lurked an odd sense of humour and great loyalty these were not necessarily the most attracting traits, especially to a young woman out on the town and fancy free in Europe!
“So Johnny,” I yelled, hoping that the music wouldn’t stop at exactly that embarrassing moment so that my meagre voice became the centre of the entire pubs attention! “Who is that striking young creature dancing out there with Liz?”
Johnny and I were doing the manly wallflower thing, sitting at the bar whilst the girls danced with each other under the lights of the small central dance floor.
“Ah! I see Miss Gradenko has arrived, late as usual! It does run in the family this tardiness! She’s my distant cousin – so distant I couldn’t even draw you a tree. In fact I have grave doubts that her branch was shuffled out with the rest of you convicts – many years ago!”
“What, she’s Australian!”
“Yes, my dear Jack, recently arrived. She’s just spent the last month holidaying and hanging out with my Elizabeth and fortunately for me they get on famously – it could be fortunate for you too Jack, if you’d like?”
Johnny was being mischievous again. He was often like this with me around women. I had a sneaking suspicion that he had made it his summer’s pursuit to find me a suitor! Judging by his odd and obviously petulant reluctance to divulge information on this occasion, he thought he might have snared an interest in me this time. Judging by his usually quick reading of me he was pretty close to the mark.
“Miss Gradenko, did you say?”
“And she’s Australian?”
“From a little town, what’s it called? Ah yes, Melbourne!”
So she was from my own little hometown of some four million people, who would have thought! I hadn’t taken my eyes off her – I think it was the first time that I had been so struck by someone without actually speaking to them and finding at least something in common with them first! Johnny, on the other hand, hadn’t taken his eyes off me! I could sense him scrutinising my every look, noticing that I had barely taken a breath… he was waiting for me to respond, but I was tight – I was becoming afraid that if he did introduce us, as he was bound to, I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say!
“Shall I introduce you then? Yes. Of course and why not, the bar could use a dose of feminine flesh. A shot of femme fatale if you please, barman!”
Johnny waved her over, grabbing her attention from Liz whom she was currently in conversation with. He was pleased with himself, his plan was obviously going well… to plan! It struck me though, that Liz might also be involved at this point as Miss Gradenko made her way towards the bar casually and in no hurry, but with a wry grin on her face! She too was aware what was cooking and she was confident enough in her own looks to be aware of the affect they had… but on arriving at the bar she lurked coyly before us with her hands behind her back, watching the game from a respectable distance.
“Jack, meet Miss Andrea Gradenko, a fellow Melbournian – in fact I’m surprised you haven’t already met!”
She extended her hand, completing Johnny’s allusion and fulfilling his amusement.
“Miss Gradenko. Andrea,” I ventured tentatively.
“No, I prefer Andréa!”
“Oh! Andréa – as in Bocelli”
“Do you sing too – or are you just blind to obvious male entrapments!”
I was hinting in Johnny’s direction and she got the gist of it, but sat down at the bar next to me anyway. Johnny made his apologies to his own amusement and left us for the other end of the bar and other revellers.
“Well, the last thing I’d want to do now after Johnny’s considerable efforts is look like a right tosser – as they’d say here! Fancy a pint then?”
“Are you trying to sound like a Pom or have you just been here too long?” She joked, sarcastically. “I’ll have half then!”
It was then that she laughed a laugh that was obviously meant to put me at ease and to also make considerable light of the whole ridiculous situation! An atypical attempt at a forced mating ritual – no doubt as others besides ourselves had desired it to be! Was this how mature adults really still met in a modern world? Were we still regressing in obviousness? I’m not sure that this was the time for pondering such inane historical social enigmas as Andrea’s attention had drifted back across the room and to the dance floor. I also realized that despite the obvious setup I had appreciated her approach to the awkwardness of it all and felt somehow that she was just a little different to most of the girls that Johnny and Liz had attempted to set me up with over the last few months!
“You know I’ve never really had that strong an accent, which doesn’t help much! It does make it particularly easy to slip into Pommyisms, especially when there’s so many bloody Poms around! The ocker is not so distinct in me as it is in my Dad. I don’t have that country edge having lived in suburbia surrounded mostly by Greeks and Italians and, well you name it really!”
“There does seem to be a corner of the world, our corner, which has been forgotten…”
“In regards to stereotypes.”
“Uh huh! You know, you don’t need to try so hard. I know what Liz and Johnny are up to, but I’m not particularly interested! I hope that’s OK…yeah? You know there is more to life than finding a bloke! Unlike others I’ve met here, I didn’t come half way across the world just for dancing and sex. If I wanted that I could have stayed at home… there are other kinds of adventures over here that I’m interested in and I’ve already found some worthy of my expectations!”
“That’s impressive, I’ve been here for nearly two years without that kind of satisfaction! How did you manage it in a month?”
“Oh I’ve been over here longer than that! I started in the Middle East, with some of the locals – very austere! And I’ve been working my way over to here ever since! Want to know a secret… how much are you willing to risk to know, Jack? Your life? I didn’t think so! Then let’s keep it simple… I’m just happy to find someone from home for a chat and a drink… drink being a slight hint if you didn’t guess!”
I had forgotten, I had invited her for one somewhere in there, but on turning around to grab the barman’s attention I found that he was already serving drinks to the both of us. I also found Johnny winking at me from a distance at the end of the bar – after all, he was much more adept at this kind of thing than I was. Not that it was to be of any use on this particular evening, but at least she felt comfortable with the company and in her own oddly mysterious way she had set the ground rules for the evening, but I wasn’t sure if that had lightened the situation or added more stress to it!
“You are a man of hidden talents aren’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever been given the correct drinks without having asked for them first!”
“I’d like to take the credit, but it seems you have a scoundrel for a relative; who intends to see you drunk and accessible by the end of the evening! Little does he know of your true intentions!”
“Oh, he knows me well enough!”
We both raised our glasses in Johnny’s direction knowingly and she laughed her laugh again, took a sip from her glass and didn’t speak again for a while. I half expected her to leave politely then as the lights flashed out on the dance floor above the supposed dance movements and sweaty inebriated bods. The bar was now in full swing, the music boomed and the smoke drifted amongst the patrons. A darts game was in motion in one far corner and it was obvious that more than our group were enjoying the evening although it was less like summer being quite cool and just a little bleak outside. This kind of evening at the pub always reminded me of a scene from An American Werewolf in London. I never liked to leave the pub on nights like this. It was stupid really, but childhood memories do seem to loom kind of darkly sometimes! Stupid movie, as if they’d have let him go out beneath the moon – everyone knows the effects la Luna has on lunatics and madmen. Fortunately, I was amongst the edges of the warmth of the crowd…
“So, do you dance Jack?”
We both laughed at that… “Do you think the ‘Nutbush’ is really rock’n’roll line dancing?”
We both sniggered at that too and the ones performing it… and surprisingly she stayed. With the pressure off and no requirement to impress beyond just being good company it did seem that it was going to be a good night after all…
“Ah, full of surprises under that shadowy exterior, I see. Liz warned me about that, the lurking social commentator who rarely joins in!”
“So they’ve prepared you for me then!”
“Only because I asked Liz who you were whilst I was on the dance floor. You see, I too notice interesting eyes across a crowded room when they meet and hold mine. I’m not sure if I’m embarrassed or flattered by your constant gaze… most guys would have come over and tried it on… and I’m used to that! But you…”
“You know I distinctly remember you saying…”
“And I did - and I’m sticking to that… I am more interested in decent companionship, rare bouts of drunkenness and interesting conversation… when I’m not seeking adventure! You’re more like an educated time out, and that’s refreshing!”
“And you know all of this of me already!”
“Not totally, but you show the signs!”
This is where she sipped her beer again and gave me a slightly wicked side-glance… she was waiting for me to take the bait! She was playing me to see if I was what she’d described or just another travelling yobbo! It made me wonder how long she had actually been travelling for. It seemed from her coolness that the answer might be years, or was it that she’d seen enough of this type along her life’s journey so far! She showed an obvious appreciation of the mechanics between men and women whilst still being able to coyly straddle the game… and lever it to her liking…
“Most of the guys here are already quite merry, Jack. I’m sure you’ve noticed it. They’re all showing signs of drunken merriment and so are the girls! We’re two of the few who haven’t – each to their own, but I like to be aware of my surroundings. Europe’s a big place with lots of hidden dangers most in this room would be totally unaware of – especially given their archaeological and more studious backgrounds. I like to help protect my friends from themselves as I look out for myself. This way I can have a good time and still relive it in the morning…”
“So you can enjoy the moment over again until you find the next moment – the next adventure!”
“Yes, Jack! That’s very cerebral of you! Do you always analyze what people say so intently – while that makes you seem interesting, don’t be too so. There is a fine line between that and boring!”The evening went on like this with the occasional uncomfortable foray into the drunkenness on the dance floor, a friendly game of darts and another drink, until I realised that I hadn’t seen Johnny for a while! I hadn’t seen him leave and Liz was still holding up the dance floor amidst the strains of Kylie. Now I was showing my protective side as Andrea had done earlier. I scanned the room and between the revellers I eventually spotted him in a darkened corner in deep conversation with what I assume was a man, the body being shielded by the high edge of the booth they had chosen. Johnny saw me and raised his glass at me yelling something quite inaudible – probably something about getting my end in! Well, that wasn’t going to happen because of the usual frailty I displayed under such pressures, regardless of the success Andrea and I had had with each other’s company, and there was the minor obstacle that that wasn’t the kind of adventure she was seeking anyway!
What was Johnny up to now? He always had something cooking, but I was certain that the European tour had been his main focus – at least until now! Conversations with shadowy figures in dimly lit booths didn’t seem to be his style at all and it bothered me that he might be getting into something beyond his measure… stop it Jack! You’re such an over protective sentimental fool! Johnny looks happy enough… doesn’t everybody? Don’t you have a beautiful companion to distract you and to make the evening more than interesting enough without creating conundrums with no basis! Enjoy yourself for once, even if you have been set up and distracted! Enjoy yourself, just like everybody else… and so I did, but the night was now getting long and tomorrow we all had to pack and make the final arrangements for our upcoming European tour. I had already noticed Liz and a couple of her friends close to being passed out and some taxis had already been arranged to cart the wreckage home. I briefly noticed Johnny as he slipped out by the rear door – probably for a bladder burster – he was closely followed by his more recent shadowy companion. I was still in Miss Gradenko’s sphere, but not for long, for she too was making motions to leave and she too had her eyes on others in the room besides her most immediate companion.
Liz’s party staggered out of the pub and I decided to escort them to a taxi or personally to home, more for my own benefit - it being a full moon and all! Andrea touched me lightly on the shoulder as I made my way to the door…
“Careful Jack, the lunatics are on the grass…”
“Got to keep the loonies on the path, eh!”1.
She leant forward and kissed me softly on the cheek wiping off the lipstick with her thumb…
“Thanks for the drink and the company. See you on the bus!”
She strolled away through the crowd, through the flashing of the pub lights, her left hand slightly behind her back, hips swaying lithely below her slender frame. She looked back briefly, slyly tossing her shortish tuft of black hair and then drifted into the night, disappearing through the crowd and drifting into my dreams….