Miriam always looked worse in hotel mirrors. There was something about the lighting in these places. Maybe it was the drying effect of the unfamiliar water or the biological washing powder on the sheets and towels. Maybe it was the aging effect of a full English breakfast every morning, clogging her arteries and colon, writ large across her pores.
Whatever the cause, a pallid, dry, wrinkle-faced hag with frizzy greying hair watched Miriam brush her teeth.
It was 6am according to her elderly Nokia. The wall clock in her room wasn’t working. She wasn’t sure what year it had stopped at roughly quarter past three, but the hands showed no sign of budging now even when the clock was rattled experimentally showering dust onto the counterpane. Miriam assumed the clock had worked perfectly the last time the room was decorated in about 1971, so that narrowed it down.
She went down to breakfast, shovelling the grease down her neck while she skimmed the Guardian. None of her colleagues was there; perhaps they’d eaten and left, perhaps they were skipping breakfast. Her emptied breakfast plate had a certain archaeological interest of its own; the material remains of earlier breakfasts eaten by other guests encrusted at the edges; strata of egg yolk, baked bean residue.
By 7.30am she was on site. The site steward, an enthusiastic local, reported hearing noises in the night. This report was quickly borne out when the cave which formed the Northern apex of the grid was found to contain primitive rock art which had not been shown in the original survey. Miriam suspected pre-adolescent man. A crudely drawn phallus, the inscription “Jez is a fag”. A classic of its type.
In a year, she would not be standing in a cold muddy field in wellies at arse o’clock agreeing with a local about how awful it was, how important this site was for posterity and how the young really do have no respect. In a year, she’d be in that little hut in Thailand, where one could live quite cheaply and her university pension would do very well. She’d have a morning swim in the ocean and watch the sun come up; she would write and paint and make her own clothing. In a year, she promised herself, she’d bite the bullet and go for it. She had no responsibilities and ties now her mother was finally gone (but Christ, was a drawn-out process that dying had been). If she got the windows done as soon as she got back from this dig, put her house on the market, she could have everything wrapped up and ready to move on the minute she could claim her pension.
Don’t get me wrong, Miriam liked her job. It’s just she’d be glad when she didn’t have to do it any more. Dealing with people, that was the worst bit – live ones, that is. That bloody woman, this site steward, had brought out an hourglass on their first morning there – it had been raining then, too - and asked Miriam what she thought it was worth, like it was Antiques bloody Roadshow. “It was my grandfather’s,” she said, “and he was in the merchant navy.” Proud, but bashful with it. Miriam told the woman as politely as she could that she wasn’t really the best person to ask as it wasn’t really her era, but she personally hadn’t seen anything like it. This led to the woman asking ‘which bit’ she specialised in. Miriam told her she specialised in the tiny bit of history between about 12,000 years Before Present and the Roman invasion around 2,000 years BP. The woman had looked slightly underwhelmed. “It’s all broken bits of pot and things, then? Grubbing around in bones and that. I wouldn’t do that if you paid me, love.”
Today she managed to get rid of the irritating site steward in record time and went over to talk to Phil, her second-in-command, who was standing by the balk between two test pits and staring at the aerial photos. It started to rain.
They’d found a small cache the third day of the dig (it had been highlighted quite clearly on the geophysical survey) and this was already being analysed by luckier, lab-bound colleagues. The radio carbon dating results were surprising, because the cache had contained artefacts from such a variety of eras and places; the sheer levels of diffusion in this place were astounding. Just from that one assemblage they’d covered almost the whole prehistoric period this site had been occupied, not to mention a fossil dating from a time before humans had even been thought of.
“It’s weird, Miriam.” Phil said. “I’m just looking at these pictures again, and what we’re seeing makes no sense. Those anomalies we spotted the first week – there are more and more of them. The matrix is disturbed all over, much more than you’d expect from ploughing and river runoff and so forth, and it’s all the way down, every locus on the site.”
“It’s like this place has been dug up before and put back again.” Phil concluded, perplexed.
Miriam spent the morning dodging the site steward, but the woman managed to catch up with her at lunchtime. Miriam was slightly appeased by the hot cup of coffee (black, one sweetener) she was offered, and said to the woman by way of conversation, “I expect you’ll be glad when this is all over, won’t you? All the noise, mud, disruption?”
“Oh no,” the woman said. “I don’t mind. It’s a bit of excitement, isn’t it? Besides, there’s not nearly as much disruption as last time. They had all the camera crews too, of course, and they were working to more of a deadline – you lot have been ages. I suppose it makes it more exciting for the telly. Shame they were rained off. I think they just covered it all over again in the end. Well, I imagine that Tony Robinson doesn’t come cheap.”