Angenga - The Disappearance Of Time
Christ’s College, Cambridge University 2011 AD
Rick Hughes, PhD student in Anglo-Saxon philology at the University of Cambridge, spent much time reflecting on Time, only to arrive at the conclusion that Time does not exist. And if it does not exist, how can one waste it on useless conjecture? For something that does not exist, Rick felt its pressure on a daily basis – if there is such a thing as a day. In his studies there was so much for him to learn and so little he had achieved. The mystery of darkness intrigued him and especially what some historians label the Dark Ages.
They were dark because a long time ago – there it was again, Time putting its huge hoof print into his muddied desire for knowledge – lived and died people who would today be amazed at what we do not know about things that were so plain to them.
Rick sighed and heaved himself out of his padded armchair. He glimpsed himself in the mirror, drew near and inspected a rogue silver grey hair, the only one among the thick chestnut waves crowning his head. He took it between finger and thumb, steeled himself and pulled it out by the root. Voilà! A tangible sign of time passing before his eyes. We all age – and he was now twenty-six – including our ancestors before us and our descendants if we are fated to create them. He inspected the skin of his reflected face, pleased at the negative response; no wrinkles yet.
In the uncertainty of his present one thing lurked for sure: if he lingered, indulging himself with further reflections on Time, he would be late – whatever that might mean – for an encounter with his friend, Gary, Gareth Marshall, which the latter had described as pressing – whatever that might mean...
Rick hesitated in front of the neo-Gothic Pitt Building on Jesus Lane. Not for the first time he wondered why Gary, who had disappeared after graduation, had contacted him with such urgency. What could be so important as to make his carefree friend so insistent on the phone? Knowing him he wouldn’t show up on time. But it would be good to see him after a whole year had slipped by.
A besotted couple clinging to each other, she teetering on the precarious towering heels of shoes that seemed all straps, stumbled through the doors of the Hidden Rooms. Momentarily the anguished notes of a jazz sax reached Rick from the basement club and snapped him out of his reverie.
With renewed determination, he opened the door and strode down the stairs to join a lively atmosphere. He was wrong about Gary’s punctuality; he spotted him hunched over a steaming drink contained in a plain glass cup. The blond hair fell away to either side of his face as he looked up to reveal a cheerful grin when he recognised his friend.
Gary hadn’t changed; the same deep-set piercing and pale blue eyes sat under heavy eyebrows. He could do with a haircut. His blond mop of hair made him appear like an ageing student, out of place among this smarter generation or a throwback to the seventies.
“Hiya Rick, how’re you doing?”
The greeting came thickly, snuffling.
“Got a cold?”
“Yeah, all that tramping around in the windswept fenlands – the piss-pot of the world!”
“What’s that you’re drinking? The Gary I know should be wrapping himself around a pint of beer or something stronger. They have a fine selection of single malts here, you know.”
“Kochaine Cytryna – ginger in it. As I said, a stinker of a cold.”
He fumbled in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a tissue to underline his assertion. “You should try one, they’re very good.” This came out muffled before being interrupted by ferocious nose-blowing.
“No thanks, I’ll stick to beer,” Rick said, nudging past a group of lads blocking his route to the bar. The sax began to filter into his consciousness, mellow, melodic, jousting with the drums and bass: an interacting trio applying the philosophy of ‘less is more’. He found himself nodding to the beat as he waited his turn at the bustling counter where he chose a bottle of craft beer. He carried the cold glass which was dripping condensation onto his trouser leg, back to where his former course-mate sat feeling sorry for himself.
“She’s good isn’t she?” Rick offered, referring to the sax player.
“Says here she won a prize,” Gary pushed a shiny leaflet across the table.
“Ah, Josephine Davies – the Perrier Young Jazz Award – and, by the sound of it, well deserved.”
“I bought her album, Satori,” the blue eyes fixed on Rick; he knew that gaze. What was coming? “A Buddhist word, it means a moment of illumination or clarity.”
The music temporarily pushed out of his mind, Rick tilted forward and took the bait.
“Talking about clarity, why exactly did you bring me here, Gary? You look as if you should be in bed with a hot water bottle.”
“Only a bloody cold.” He took a cautious sip of his drink and Rick noticed the shaking hand as he set the cup down in its saucer. “Great choice of watering hole, old son.”
“I come here when I want to relax. Strange we didn’t find it when we were undergrads. It opened in 2009 but we spent most of our time in the Eagle, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, the good old days. We could put ’em away then, mate. Do you still play that guitar of yours? You have a great singing voice, Rick. I always thought you could have a career in music if you wanted. How are you doing or more to the point, old son, what are you doing? Still chipping away at Anglo-Saxon England?”
“It’s my second year PhD, so I’m immersing myself in poems, riddles and practically anything that was written between 500 and 900 AD. But yes, I still play and sing to while away the time. It relaxes me.”
“Just think, I could have been doing that too if I’d been a bit more serious. I mean the Anglo-Saxon stuff. I can’t sing for the life of me. I like cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women...” He conjured up what was meant to be a roguish grin that made him look like a model posing for a gargoyle sculptor. “I wanted to get out and earn some money and I was fed up with studying. I swore I wouldn’t read another book for at least a couple of years. I failed in that, of course.”
Rick wasn’t surprised, for all Gary’s bravado, he had been a serious student – one of the reasons they had formed a friendship. Gary, though not today maybe owing to his cold, was relaxed and good company in his free time. Rick studied the familiar face, high forehead, sharp, lively eyes, full lips, but not excessively so, and the inevitable designer stubble. All told, Gary was good-looking, intelligent and companionable. This time he was subdued and irritating because this encounter remained a mystery and unasked questions hung in the air between them. A guy doesn’t press for a meeting after a year of silence unless he has something on his mind. Short of blurting out a crude question, which wasn’t Rick’s style, he was no nearer to finding out what. He would try something more delicate.
“Sorry about the cold, Gary, but you got me wondering. What’s a bloke like you doing wandering around fenland fields catching the granddaddy of all colds?”
He grinned again, less gargoyle, more a blond version of the BBC presenter Neil Oliver on a battlefield.
“That’s the reason I’m here.”
“You see, I miss all this.”
He swung a finger in a horizontal arc from left to right.
“All what?” Rick put his thought into words. “Drinking in a Cambridge club?”
“The academic world. I never thought I’d say this, Rick, but I do miss it.”
Gary ended up with an upper second class honours degree and possessed an unquestioned intellect, but this revelation, given how eager he had been to ‘earn in the real world’, surprised his friend.
“In fact, that’s why I took up metal detecting.”
“You did?” Rick was unhappy at this red rag flourished in the face of his inner raging bull. Impenitent metal detectorists were site looters, the cause of many archaeological sites being ruined and artefacts spirited away un-catalogued on the black market. There were always the unscrupulous prepared to pay big money as long as their secret collections grew.
“I know what you’re thinking, but I swear everything I find is regularly reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I provide GPS coordinates, depth of find, soil conditions, landowner’s name and so on and I hand over everything. I want to show you this.”
He pulled a smartphone from a pocket and flicked through the apps with finger and thumb, bringing a photograph to fill the whole screen.
“Take a look at this pal. I discovered it! He spun the phone round on the table and Rick had no doubt about what he was seeing.
“A stylus. Is it Saxon?”
“Right. More likely Anglian if you want to split hairs, but this is no ordinary piece. A high-status object dated eighth-century, Rick, solid silver and decorated, see there.” He indicated the ornate head of the artefact. “This belonged to someone important and what’s interesting, after I handed it over to the experts, they practically begged me to go back to the site and unearth whatever I could. Rick, I found twenty more stylii from the same century. The place is an archaeological bombshell and they’re getting excited.”
“Where exactly is it?”
“A ploughed field at Little Carlton.”
“I thought you said it was in the Fens?”
“Well not really. It was fenland in the eighth century though, now it’s a barley field near Louth.”
“I know the area, Gary. Remember, I was born in Tealby. I’m Lincolnshire through and through.”
“Yeah, a yellow-belly, I know. Sorry. Look, I’ve brought something off the site for you.”
He rummaged around in a man bag and pulled out a small object wrapped in lint. Rick did not miss the furtive glance that he shot around the people standing and sitting nearby.
“The Finds Liaison Officer doesn’t know about this, does he?”
“FLO? No, he doesn’t.”
“Well then, how do you expect me to accept this gift?”
Rick looked with longing at the small cream-coloured artefact and a strange sensation of yearning to possess it swept through him. He picked it up, careful to keep the lint in place, and realised it was not quite the box he had first thought it to be. However, it had a fitted lid to the front bearing a familiar image of Christ sitting on a rainbow. No, this was...he sought for the correct term, he had seen a photograph of something similar found near Oxford...a reliquary pendant – that was it. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he picked up the artefact with it, aware that ivory is susceptible to staining by handling, hence the lint. Bringing the object closer to his face, he made out some letters in Old English carved into the material. The writing was indistinct; he would need to clean the surface. This artefact was in need of tender loving care. He wondered what the pendant had contained but resisted trying to open the fragile object. These thoughts confirmed that he would accept Gary’s gift but he would dress his acceptance in robes of correctness.
“I think it’s ivory, Gary. Very delicate, so I’ll have to take it to the archaeology laboratory and see that it gets all the conservation treatment it needs. Now then,” he stared at his friend, “this is ivory, not metal. How did you detect it? I’m assuming you found it?”
“I did. I detected another stylus and this little fellow was nestling beside it. I’m guessing it will be eighth-century like the stylus. But nobody’s seen it except us two. Let’s keep it that way, eh?”
“Why did you want to give it to me, Gary?”
He looked embarrassed and mumbled, “I don’t know why but I wanted to give it to you from the moment I found it. The thought’s been nagging away at me so I thought you’d appreciate it and know–”
“What to do with it.” Rick finished.
They sat in silence for a moment or two, Rick absorbing the interplay of jazz notes.
“This is a lovely track,” Gary cut across his thoughts, “on the album called Paradoxy.”
“Paradoxy? Rather like you bringing an unreported artefact to me?”
“Rick, look, I’m sorry,” he reached out his hand to take it back but Rick seized the pendant, keeping it carefully in the handkerchief, and dropped it into his jacket pocket.
He tried to cover his Frodo-like behaviour by bluster, “I’ll see it gets all the necessary conservation treatment, Gary. Then we’ll talk about making its presence known to the wider world. OK?”
Gary nodded but looked distracted.
“I think I should get back to my digs. I need hot milk and aspirin. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow, all being well.”
In his room, Rick settled down in an armchair and turned the pendant over in his hands. The sensation of holding a more than twelve-hundred-year-old object overwhelmed him. Who had worn this around their neck? Had it contained a saint’s bone? Was it still inside? He examined the outer edge of the container. There was a hinge but it was iron and so badly corroded that its flakiness meant any attempt to prise it open must be made under lab conditions.
Tumultuous thoughts beset him. If he took the pendant to the lab, its existence would become public knowledge and Gary’s role in its subtraction would be exposed. Rick struggled with his conscience and set against it the avid inexplicable desire to keep the pendant for himself. This yearning went against all the principles he willingly embraced, but he knew he could not part with it under any circumstances.
He walked through to the bedroom, opened the drawer of his bedside cabinet and nestled the ivory container there, safe, he hoped. There it would remain until he worked out a plan.
Gary’s voice on his cell phone was much improved on the previous evening.
“You sound a bit better.”
“Yeah, look, I thought we could have dinner, are you free tonight?”
“Have you got anywhere in mind?”
“My place. I’ll treat you to my culinary masterpiece.”
“Since when could you cook?”
“Surprising what living alone does to a fellow... necessity being–”
“Spare me, please! So where are your digs?”
Rick jotted an address on a notepad, all time wondering about Gary’s cooking skills. He sighed; if the worst came to the worst, he could slip into a restaurant on the way home or grab a sandwich at the Bread and Meat. Except it closed at 8 pm now he thought about it – another sigh.
“Cheeseburgers with a difference, old son!” Gary greeted him at the door. “That’s what’s on the menu this evening, with fine music!”
“Have you got a good sound system?”
“I never go anywhere without my Soundlink,” he pointed to a small Bose device.
“What? That can replace a hi-fi system?”
“Sure, listen up!” Gary scrolled down his smartphone and instantly the room was filled with jazz music. The sound was incredible from so small a piece of equipment.
“Brilliant! Who is it?”
“Paris Blues by Dave Whitford.”
“The sort of music to seduce a girl by. Hey, you haven’t gone–”
“Gay? No chance, dear boy, and you aren’t my type!”
“That’s a relief! They’re a great band, I must admit. Here’s a bottle of vino collapso I picked up.”
Rick hoped it was, because, despite the joke, he had paid way over his usual red wine budget. He handed the bottle of Monti Selezione Barolo 2013 to Gary.