A friend of mine called Tony Bradley, told me an interesting story about an experience he had a few years ago. In Tony’s words:
Bert Baverstock tossed the skull up into the air and caught it two-handed, then he kissed it on its shiny brown forehead before putting it down on the desk.
“Well thank gawd we found this thing when them wretched archaeologists were looking the other way,” he said, laughing. “If they’d seen this Herbert’s skull they’d have been able to stop us building the north section for goodness knows how long, just like they’ve held up our work on the southern site. I ask you! Six months of arsing about, picking little bits of pottery and old iron out of a hole and pissing about with it, while all we can do is watch them while we’re losing money!”
“But it is interesting,” I argued. “After all, it’s incredible to think that this was once the site of a Roman Manor.”
“I don’t care if it was the site of Julius Caesar’s personal shithouse! While those clowns are playing about with their artefacts, we’ve got customers who are waiting to move in to the flats we haven’t even built yet!”
Of course Bert was right, and to some extent I agreed with him. On the other hand I’ve always loved history, and, though I would never admit it to Bert, the idea of finding items underground that have been used and handled by people thousands of years ago just blows me away. Ever since I saw a film about the tomb of Tutenkamun on telly when I was a child I always had this secret ambition to be an archaeologist. But of course real life intervened. When I left school I joined Baverstock Construction, even though I had pretty good GCSEs and could have stayed on. Since then I’ve worked my way up from being labourer to senior manager.
And, unknown to Bert, I had made a few friends amongst ‘the enemy’. A few weeks ago, when I’d inquired about what was going on, they’d all been really nice to me, gathering around and showing me all their finds and explaining their plans in detail. They were a really matey crowd, and since then I’d often passed the time of day with them, chatting whenever I passed. One of them, Alison, a thin dark haired girl who always seemed to wear the same huge red pullover that reached her knees, had spent a couple of long lunch hours chatting with me in the local pub. We’d got on so well that I’d even admitted to her my secret childhood ambition to be an archaeologist.
Later that morning, Bert happened to be in a foul mood when Henry Fortescue, the senior archaeologist in the team, called into the office. He was six-foot-four, as thin as a rake, with long grey hair that had a habit of constantly falling across his large owlish spectacles.
“Look, I know that according to the law, we have to leave the site on Friday,” Henry began, in his irritatingly posh cut-glass accent. “But the fact is we’re certain there are still a wealth of artefacts still underground there that we won’t have time to reach. Please, Mr Baverstock, I know you resent us being here, and I understand how inconvenient it is.” Henry frowned, a lock of his hair falling across his face. “But please, I’m begging you, couldn’t you let us have a couple more weeks?”
“Beg all you like you idle ponce,” jeered Bert. “It won’t get you nowhere.”
“Please?” he begged. “Just a few more days then—”
“—Don’t you understand English? I want you off this site the second that order from the local authority expires.”
“You ignorant bastards!” Henry roared, turning to include me in his tirade. “All you numbskulled builders ever think about is making a quick buck. Don’t you care about posterity? About leaving something for future generations?”
“I’m leaving a good few quid to my future generations, mate. What are you leaving your kids? One of them broken old pots to piss in?” shouted Bert.
“All we need is a few more days,” Henry yelled, turning as he was about to charge out of the door. “And you bastards are going to bury valuable items for evermore! And you don’t care a damn! You stupid ignorant bloody philistines!”
The door slammed.
Bert was fuming. “Who does that jumped-up prick think he is, looking down his nose at us? He might have got a posh accent and degrees coming out of his arsehole, but most archaeologists earn a bloody pittance. Remember this Tony: unlike that glorified streak of piss, you’re earning good money and you’ve got a decent future in front of you!”
I was upset, doubly so because the humiliation of being called ‘an ignorant philistine’ had infuriated me. And later that day, when I was approaching a group of the ‘diggers’, I overheard some of them laughing, and the phrase ‘chav builders’ until he caught my eye. He quickly looked away.
Of course Bert was right, as I reflected later. I’d got a good job, a decent future with Baverstock Construction, and when I married Bert’s daughter Tracy I was on the fast track to the big time. But I sometimes wondered if everything was happening too fast. Did I want to work in the building game all my life? Did I really want to marry Tracy? Truth to tell, Tracy and I never really talked much, and hadn’t got that much in common. If I’d talked to Tracy about the Roman Empire she’d have thought it was a new TV series on Channel 4.
Yes, it really did hurt to think that Henry thought I was an ignorant chav, and I realised that Alison and the others had an ulterior motive for being nice to me: they obviously thought I could influence Bert to prolong their stay. I realised that all the time I’d thought they were being genuinely friendly, they were actually laughing at me, stringing me along. I thought back to my talks with Alison, when she’d suggested that this might have been an important burial site.
An important burial site?
I thought of the skull that Bert had found in the trench in the northern section.
Over the next few days, I stopped talking to the snotty-nosed archaeologists, pointedly ignoring their shouts of ‘Morning’ when I passed by.
On the Friday evening I was held up in the site office alone, already late for going to the family party that Tracy had organised to celebrate our engagement. I’d seen the archaeologists leaving the site for the last time, and thought ‘good riddance’.
There was a knock on the door, and Henry entered.
“Hello, Tony” he said. “Everyone’s gone, and I’m the last to leave. I just wanted to call in and apologise to you. We’re having a few drinks at the local pub, and Alison and the others are hoping you’ll join us. So am I.”
“Why would you want to mix with an ignorant philistine like me?”
“Come on mate, I didn’t mean it.” He looked genuinely shocked. “Is that why you’ve given us all the cold shoulder recently?”
“No one likes being laughed at.”
“Laughed at?” Henry looked genuinely aghast. “Tony, good lord, why on earth do you think that? No one has ever laughed at you! The other day in here, I was out of order. I lost my temper and said the first stupid insults I thought of. But I didn’t mean it and I shouldn’t have said it. I was just so heartbroken to think of not being able to explore this valuable site properly, the terrible waste.”
“Forget it, it doesn’t matter.”
“Well I think it matters very much,” Henry contradicted, shaking his head and putting his hand on my shoulder. “Look, believe me Tony, I’m deeply ashamed to have insulted you. Especially as I now realise I was totally wrong. Alison and the others have been telling me that you were interested in our work, and she even said that you once considered becoming an archaeologist yourself.”
“It was a long time ago,” I replied.
“But you’ve still got your life in front of you. Which is why,” he went on, “I took the liberty of getting you some prospectuses of several universities that do courses on archaeology, and I phoned one of my old professors and asked about their policy on mature students. He told me they’re pretty flexible. Thing is, you see, I was in your position a few years ago. I was about your age when I threw up a good salary at a merchant bank and became a mature student. And I haven’t regretted it once. Life’s about more than money.”
He passed across a weighty envelope.
“Of course I can see you’ve already got a good career here. I just thought that it’s always worth knowing your options. And I also wanted to let you know that soon we’ll be organising another ‘dig’ not far from here, so you’d be very welcome to join us if you’d like to be a volunteer, if you have any spare time. You really fitted in with the team, we all liked you. Frankly the others were a bit miffed when you stopped chatting to us in the mornings, and now I realise it’s all my fault, and I’m so very sorry.”
I accepted his outstretched hand to shake, and I suddenly realised that since he was never going to see me again, he’d had no need to contact his old college, or to invite me to drink with them.
And that’s when I remembered how exciting it had been to hang around the site with Alison and the others. The thrill when she’d shown me the latest pot they’d found, the ancient piece of broken sword. And the worst of it was there’d been no one to tell about my experience. No one who would understand the way I could see the past come alive in front of my eyes.
“Come on Tony, join us in the pub, won’t you? Actually the party’s going to be a bit of a bummer, we’re so sad to be leaving, but we’d like to buy you a few drinks for all your kindness over the past weeks.”
“Thanks Henry. Thing is, I’m supposed to be going to a party.”
“And I’m delaying you, sorry again.” He stepped towards the door, smiling. “Well, maybe another time then, there’s my contact number in the envelope. Call me anytime. And please think about joining us on the dig.”
He’d almost closed the door when I called him back.
“We found something on the northern section of the site recently,” I told him, taking the skull from the bottom drawer of Bert’s desk. “Do you think it might indicate that this could prove that his might have been the burial site that Alison was talking about?”
“My goodness, yes, I do believe it could!” Henry’s excitement was infectious as he rushed across to inspect the bone. “In fact, if this was found here, then the local authority will undoubtedly agree to extend our permission to stay on site – for quite a long while I should think. Sorry Tony. That’s not good news for your boss, I’d say.”
“But good news for us.”
Us? Why had I said us?
I thought of what Bert’s reaction would be when he found out what I’d done. I thought of my engagement party that I was already late for.
I realised right then, that life is all about choices.
“Look Tony, please, you’ve got to come to the pub with me and Alison and the others to talk about this, just for five minutes! I reckon when I tell them you’ve found this you’re going to be the hero of the hour. What do you say?”