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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance herein to persons, events or situations in past or present reality is coincidental.
George Fairbrother, permanent chair of the Ernscar and District Tourism Committee, mopped his brow, earnestly wishing that the long-threatened thunderstorm would actually break and clear the air. He might then have the energy to devise some sensible proposal to put before the next meeting a couple of days ahead; on past experience, no one else was likely to have anything constructive. ‘Permanent chair,’ by the way, was not actually his title, just a recognition of the unwelcome reality that no one else was fool enough to take a job he had been trying to shed for the past five years. Not that it had required much actual work in that time: Ernscar was not on any of the major tourist circuits, nor for that matter even minor ones, and he often wondered whether his contributions were worth the effort.
The hour he had mentally allotted to contemplating possible tourist baits had passed, and he realised with some shame that in fact the main object of his contemplation had been the memory of young Sophie Hodgson sunbathing the other day in rather less than was really decent on the other side of his garden wall. She would be a bait all right, but not for the sort of fish they wanted to catch. He hoped the mental image would be less distracting when he had to present at least an appearance of attention to more serious matters, and in an attempt to dismiss it he decided to take a walk in the other direction.
Thus he happened to bump into his friend Geoffrey Randall, a retired businessman who had settled in the village and owned the little castle on the Scar. It was the nearest thing to a stately home within forty miles, and for that reason alone he had been co-opted a couple of years earlier to the Tourism Committee. The castle, although externally spectacular, was too small to accommodate visiting coach parties, and in any case there was nothing of much interest inside; however, after racking his brains for a positive contribution to the committee’s work, he had now come up with the idea of inviting an Antiques Roadshow; what did George think of it?
Though privately doubting the chances, George agreed to look into the possibility. Meanwhile, Geoffrey mentioned the idea at a family dinner, asking for suggestions on how to go about it. Neither Helen, his wife, nor their son John had any, but John’s wife Anne thought that some of her contacts in the arts business might be better informed. It turned out that one of them had a friend who knew someone with a cousin in the right area of the BBC, and by this rather tortuous route the offer of a site was introduced to the producer. Disappointingly, word filtered back that the location was considered too remote; however, when the next series was already set up, one of those chosen had to be abandoned because the only tolerable approach road was to be dug up for the whole of the week concerned, so Ernscar got the session by default.
However, on the day before the event, the weather was as foul as it had been for the past week; it showed no sign of changing, and Geoffrey heartily wished he had never stuck his neck out. The wind had eased a little in the morning, enough for the emergency marquee to be set up, but then returned with renewed force and torrential rain. Far from being an attraction for tourists, the event promised to be a real deterrent. The whole thing was becoming a fiasco.
His gloom lifted a little when the rain eased off in the evening, and by Thursday morning the wind had blown the clouds away before itself dropping to a light breeze. Having rashly volunteered to help man the car park, he was greatly relieved at avoiding a soaking from above; even so, the field had been well and truly drenched and he was reminded only too vividly of being plastered with mud many years earlier while helping to push a car that was digging its rear-drive wheels axle-deep into it. Without much hope, he therefore put up a sign ‘Soft ground – please drive gently’ at the gate. At least there was no standing water. The village pub fortunately had a large car park and was ready to welcome coaches, no doubt with the extra trade to be expected from them.
In the event it was not overwhelmed, and before leaving one of the organisers told Geoffrey that the attendance had been substantially less than they would normally expect. Still, that was no surprise and infinitely better than having to cancel the show, while the material filmed was just about enough for the broadcast to be transmitted some months later. Apparently there had been one real find; he didn’t know the details, but the expert concerned had commented on an item that appeared commonplace at first sight but proved to have a remarkable history.
Geoffrey wondered if it might have been the one genuine antique that the castle possessed, a rather rough portrait supposed to represent the daughter of a fifteenth-century ‘fool’ in the then Lord Ernscar’s service, but since next to nothing was actually known about its history it would hardly fit the description. Perhaps Anne would know more about it, but John said that she had been buttonholed for some reason by a visitor from the next village and had evidently not yet escaped. Helen was getting worried about delaying dinner when Anne eventually appeared, rather gingerly carrying a confectioner’s box probably intended originally for a special birthday cake or something of the sort. She confirmed that it was indeed the surprise discovery of which Geoffrey had heard; the owner, or rather the current custodian, had been so terrified by the valuation tentatively put upon it that she begged Anne to have it stored at the castle.
‘What is it?’ Geoffrey asked, but Helen insisted that the box could wait while dinner couldn’t and they should go into the mystery afterwards. She allowed Anne only to say that the item was an artefact materially worthless but precious in content, a manuscript concerning the castle’s origins before the Norman conquest. Apart from the fact of its survival, the remarkable thing was the history in it rather than the history of it; Geoffrey’s contact had got the story slightly wrong. It was too fragile for inessential handling, but there was a modern translation. Asked for more detail, she simply said ‘Wait and see.’
After a rather perfunctory meal, fortunately not one of Helen’s specials, the box was opened. It proved to be occupied largely by swathes of bubble-wrap, but on top was a slender wad of typescript, evidently the translation. That was set aside for the time being. Anne, as the only one with experience in handling anything so delicate, was given the task of unwrapping the more significant contents, doing so with extreme care.
‘Is that all? I can’t make head or tail of it,’ was Geoffrey’s comment when it was eventually exposed.
‘What did you expect?’ said Anne. ‘Mediaeval Latin’s always difficult and late Anglo-Saxon probably worse, especially with all the abbreviations the scribes tended to use. If you want the substance, you’d better go back to the typescript.’
It described with variations the familiar story of how the monks of Lindisfarne, in fear of further Viking attacks after the sack of 793, evacuated the island with the relics of St. Cuthbert and settled for a time at Chester-le-Street. When danger threatened again, they moved with them to Ripon. One of the more imaginative monks then claimed to have had a vision of the saint asking to be settled in Durham and they prepared to move again. However, here the account diverged from the accepted version.
The relics had acquired a great reputation for miraculous cures of pilgrims, and as pilgrims brought gifts, often generous, they clearly had a substantial material value; there was a serious risk of robbery, especially since the supposed destination had become known. Moreover, Durham was uncomfortably close to the coast. It was agreed, therefore, that a casket with some passable bones and genuine relics to maintain the flow of miracles – in fact all the minor ones to be on the safe side – would be taken to Durham by most of the surviving community, while the rest (purportedly still recovering from the tribulations of their previous wanderings) would take the real remains somewhere further inland.
Where that should be was subject to some contention, but to avoid suspicion it would be wise in any case to give the main party at least a few days’ start so there was no great hurry to decide. Meanwhile Brother Gregory had yet another vision: a celestial being in a halo of light urging him to ‘Follow the sea eagle.’
‘But we’re trying to get away from those,’ he objected, thinking the reference was to a Viking.
‘No,’ said the bird itself (Gregory’s imagination was really on overdrive). ‘I am shamed by the sacrileges of my human counterparts and wish to make what amends I can for them. I shall guide you to a place of far greater safety.’
‘A likely story!’ was the natural response of the brethren, but then Brother Anselm noticed that there actually was an erne perched on a nearby tree. As they watched it took flight, headed northwards for about a quarter mile, then turned, circled a few times, and returned to the tree, gazing at them in a way that suggested ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’
‘What indeed?’ said Anselm, so they packed their few belongings, made their farewells and set off.
The bird led them through some wild places but without mishap, and every night they found hospitality of some kind, primitive and meagre though it might well be. In one place where the householder was plainly on very short rations himself, the erne presented him with a hare it had caught before getting another for the monks. The man looked terrified and crossed himself, clearly wondering what devils had come upon him, but Anselm too crossed himself very deliberately and explained that the bird had been sent to them by an angel so he should not be afraid. Whether convinced or not, the man raised no further objections, but kept a wary eye on them.
Eventually they came to a great outcrop where the bird settled on the summit, a move that Anselm took to mean they had reached their destination, a likely enough spot plainly defensible in case of need. He named the place Erne Scar in honour of their guide, which when satisfied that they were staying went about its own business.
The area had evidently been at peace for some time and the habitations clustered round the base of the Scar, with one distinctly larger and more impressive than the rest. It would obviously be politic if not essential to establish good relations with the master of the place who after some hesitation agreed that they should stay, eating with his labourers until they could support themselves: for this purpose he made over to them a portion of his own land. He was on the whole rather relieved; since the death of their much-loved priest the previous year when the church burnt down, the community had felt the lack of spiritual guidance and consolation. Moreover, convinced by the monks’ strenuous denials that the relics they brought must nevertheless have wonder-working powers, he saw great possibilities in their presence.
Although Eadwin offered them accommodation in his hall, Anselm was anxious that they should establish their own quarters as quickly as possible. There was a track of sorts up to the summit of the Scar, where a considerable area had been roughly levelled, not it seemed entirely by natural forces although it had acquired a covering of probably wind-blown soil, now colonised by grasses and other vegetation. Of course it was to be expected that such a site would be used as a refuge in troubled times, and signs of previous occupation were fairly plentiful though in no condition to be of any use. For immediate shelter the monks built first a crude hut, but then started work on a more fitting chapel for their precious casket.
On excavating to take one of the posts intended for a corner they failed to reach a firm base, even after it was driven half-way into the ground. Investigating, they found a stout but rather decayed wooden board with one plank recently broken, presumably by their efforts with the post. It turned out to be a trapdoor over the start of a rough stairway leading down to a kind of cellar, empty except for a rather fine Celtic bracelet hidden behind a broken rock and clearly overlooked when the earlier occupants left, probably in a hurry. ‘What better place to secure our own treasure?’ asked Anselm, and no one had any other suggestion.
Of course the plan of the chapel had to be modified to enclose the head of the stairway, but at that stage it was relatively little trouble, and in due course there was a church of which the villagers could be proud, especially those who had been privileged to take some part in the construction and decoration: the tale lost nothing in the telling. They were disappointed by the absence of spectacular miracles (‘We told you so,’ said Anselm when anyone complained) but harvests in the following years were remarkably good and a lot more use to most of the people.
Over the years the community modestly prospered. However, towards the end of his life, Anselm was troubled by the thought that it was founded on a substantial lie; uttered for good reasons, but a lie nevertheless. He commanded therefore that an account of the switched bodies be sent to the bishop of Durham.
‘If you’re so worried about it, why not the remains themselves?’
‘That would amount to forcing the bishop’s hand. He may not wish to risk arousing suspicions about the other body.’
Brother Aelred therefore set out with the letter. Reading it, the bishop’s secretary turned white with horror and dragged Aelred off to present it personally. His Lordship was of sterner stuff; after considering the document for a minute or two and asking Aelred for assurance on oath of its veracity, he returned it to the secretary.
‘But what am I to do about it, my lord?’
‘Egbert, do you remember how a few years ago old Whatsisname’s nephew challenged his donation of the Westgate mansion to the church, and we lost the case because there was nothing about it in the will and we couldn’t find the deed of gift?’
‘Yes. Brother Chancellor was deeply mortified at having misplaced it.’
‘Indeed he was – rightly so. Now when we have a difficult situation, it often helps to consult scripture. I have in mind Luke 10, verse 37: ‘Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.’ ‘
Brother Egbert was shocked into an impertinence. ‘But my lord, ‘Said Jesus unto him’ is not quite the same thing as ‘Said my lord bishop …’ ‘
The bishop smiled, evidently inclined to be indulgent. ‘You do well to remind me, Egbert. All the same, do it.’
Withdrawing with Aelred, Egbert muttered for a while under his breath, shaking his head in disapproval. Then, remembering a more immediate responsibility, he asked if there was any urgency in the return home. ‘None at all. I don’t think a day or two in civilisation would do any harm.’
‘Good, I’ll find you a place in the guest house. And I’d like to hear more of what you’re doing at – what’s the name of the place?’
‘A curious name!’
‘How it got it is quite a story.’
‘Tell me when I’ve finished a few jobs.’
So he did. Then he had a question of his own: ‘His Lordship seemed to take the story of the substituted body a lot more calmly than I’d have expected. I was ready for an explosion.’
‘Ah, well, it’s a bit more complicated than you know. I’ve just remembered …’
‘I’ll tell you, but for goodness’ sake keep this under your cowl. It could cause real trouble if it got out.’
‘Of course. We don’t actually have a rule of silence, but casual chatter is discouraged.’
‘Good. I suppose you’ll have to tell your abbot. Well, one of the servitors at Ripon, who came here years afterwards, had overheard something of the plot and told another looking after your community who for some reason or other was determined to thwart it. Late that night, after he was sure that the dummy had been substituted for the real body, he went out to reverse the switch, but didn’t return. First thing next morning he was found dead near the gate – apparently a seizure of some kind, no suggestion of foul play – with a funerary casket. But no one knows which one.’
‘Couldn’t they have checked what was in it?’
‘Remember, it was only servitors who were involved. They wouldn’t take responsibility for breaking the seals themselves. They could see nothing but trouble in saying anything about the escapade, so being sensible men they kept mum – just put the casket back in its place and left everything as though it hadn’t been disturbed. There was a suggestion that the dead man might have had had an assignation in the town and no one enquired any further.’
‘So it’s possible you have the real St. Cuthbert after all?’
‘Perfectly possible. I’m beginning to see the bishop’s point of view. After all, the miracles are continuing, whether they have anything to do with Cuthbert or not. Everyone’s happy; why upset them?’
‘Except our Brother Anselm.’
‘Yes, of course, we mustn’t forget him. Hmmm. I know, I’ll get the bishop to reply acknowledging his letter and granting complete absolution for a deception committed with good intent; what to do about it to be given further consideration.’
‘Do you think he’d do that?’
‘I draft his letters. And it would be in character. Of course he’s a busy man and may take a day or two to get round to sealing it, so it looks as though you can have your spell in civilisation while you wait. You may like to browse in our library – the bishop’s very proud of it – or anywhere else you fancy.’
‘I think I can bear it!’
What happened after Aelred’s return was not recorded reliably, but a later chronicler noted a popular legend – probably no more than pious sentimentality – that on the day before Anselm’s death, an aged sea eagle made its way painfully to the Scar and breathed its last on the old man’s breast. There the document ended.
‘Quite a story,’ commented Geoffrey after a pause for thought. ‘I wonder how much of it is true?’
‘There’s usually a core of fact in these old accounts,’ Anne said, ‘if you can dig it out from all the embroidery around it. How much, by now is anyone’s guess. I think we can discount the eagle’s return; even the chronicler disbelieved it. For the rest – well, I’m sure the Dean and chapter of Durham will be very interested, particularly in the differences from the accepted version. Even if they decide in the end to let sleeping dogs lie.’
‘As in the precedent.’
‘Yes. That old bishop seems to have had a good deal of sense. You can imagine some modern zealot insisting that they had to get at the truth, whatever the trouble it might cause.’
‘And many would agree with him, for one reason or another.’ John also had another thought. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any doubt that this is the same Erne Scar?’
‘Why else have a reference to a sea eagle so far from the sea? It seems a reasonable assumption.’
‘Supposing it is, then, whereabouts is the underground chamber?’
‘Probably incorporated into the later cellars. But when the monastic establishment was replaced by the original castle – there wouldn’t be room for both – the casket, whoever was in it, would presumably have been reinterred somewhere else. Possibly in the patch of land that the lord of the manor had given them.’
The next day Geoffrey e-mailed Durham cathedral with a brief account of the situation, and a week or two afterwards was asked to provide a photograph of the original account with a copy of the translation. At George Fairbrother’s suggestion, replicas of both documents were lodged in the village church. In due course there were negotiations for purchase of the original, but the Randalls were not directly involved and heard only the public announcement.
Six years later, George was still chair of the Tourism Committee. Fortunately for his blood pressure, Sophie Hodgson was now respectably married with two children and a weight problem on the other side of the village, so his thoughts on potential tourist schemes, if no more fruitful than before, were at least undisturbed by that particular distraction. Nevertheless by force of habit he still took his usual walk in the safe direction.
At the corner he bumped into his old friend Joe Hilary and stopped for a chat. While they were talking a police car raced past, and George wondered aloud what was up.
‘Oh, they’ll be off to Jeb Cartwright’s place. He’d dug up some bones when he was working on his new slurry pit, and didn’t know what to do about them so he phoned the police.’
‘Sounds reasonable. After all, they’re still supposed to be looking for that woman who went missing last year.’
‘Except that these bones were obviously ancient. He didn’t think to tell them that, silly old fool.’
‘Ancient bones, eh? I think I’ll stroll along and have a look.’
When he arrived, the two policemen were still ribbing Jeb over the mistake, and he looked thoroughly disgruntled. ‘Who the hell should I have reported it to, then?’
‘I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and do it for you. Meanwhile, you’d best not disturb the site any more.’ With that they were gone.
‘Not disturb it any more? Fat chance. I’ll just carry on digging.’
‘No, don’t do that. There’s probably some law about dealing with the remains.’
‘All very well, but there’s a job to be done, and God knows when I can get the digger again.’
‘Tell you what, I’ll nip home for some tools and clean plastic bags, then get some help to dig the stuff out carefully. Don’t do anything till I’m back. OK?’
Jeb grudgingly agreed.
Around the bones already exposed were fragments of badly-decayed timber, suggestive of a coffin, and George carefully stored a few of the sounder pieces with a view to possible carbon dating. Below the area damaged by the digger, the structure was still discernible, considerably larger than would have been expected, and George meticulously photographed every stage of the uncovering. Curiously, there had been a double burial; stranger still, the second skull bore a powerful aquiline beak.
Some days later a Professor Robson arrived with a posse of students and was appalled to find what had been done. That was understandable, but under a furious tirade about the irresponsibility of destroying the site before giving professionals the chance of a proper examination, George’s patience finally snapped.
‘Don’t give me that. The contents have been saved. If we hadn’t done what we did, you’d have nothing at all to look at, or at best a heap of smashed-up bits and pieces, thrown into the corner of a barn and mixed up with God knows what other kinds of muck. Would that suit you better?’
‘Of course not, but you might have waited …’
‘All very well for you with your grants and endowments and comfortable laboratories. Jeb Cartwright has to earn a living, and in farming it’s a tough business at the best of times – and these are anything but the best. He couldn’t afford to wait on your convenience, and you’re damned lucky he actually reported the find; he must have been sorely tempted to carry on regardless. No one else would have been any the wiser. Be thankful you have what there is.’
Robson, though taken aback by the vehemence of the response, seemed about to argue, but thought better of it, made a sort of apology and said she took the point. George, still smarting, then invited her rather stiffly to his office to see the photographs of the excavation process.
‘You actually recorded it?’
‘Of course I did. What sort of fool do you take me for? You’d obviously need to see how the items related to each other.’
They walked to the office in uncomfortable silence. There George started up his computer, found the right folder, brought up the first image and handed control over to Robson. She flicked through a few, then proceeded more carefully with the whole collection. At the end she sat back with a slight frown.
‘Something wrong?’ George asked, not very sympathetically.
‘Only embarrassment. I really owe you an abject apology for bawling you out like that. I don’t see how you could have done any better in the time you had. My only excuse … No, there isn’t any. I’m sorry.’ She took off her spectacles with the glimmer of a rueful smile. ‘Am I forgiven?’
Feminine wiles, thought George. But why not? She could be quite attractive if …
‘Of course,’ and they shook hands.
‘Thank you. After all that it’s a bit of a cheek to ask a favour, but may I take a copy of the set? You’ll get full credit in any use I make of them, of course.’
‘So I should hope! But you obviously must have them – that was the whole point of the exercise. They’re in compressed format so you should get them on to a pen drive easily enough.’
She rummaged in her bag, then looked up shamefacedly. ‘This seems awful, but I’ll have ask another favour. Can you lend me one? I must have forgotten to pick it up.’
George, mentally awarding himself another tactical credit point, produced one from his desk and plugged it in. ‘This should have enough space on it, and I don’t think there’s anything private … Oh, good job I checked.’ He deleted a few files. ‘There, that should do.’
‘Thanks very much … Yes, plenty of room. You’ll get it back as soon as I’ve transferred them to my laptop.’
‘No great hurry. I always keep a spare.’
‘Right. Now I’d better see that my students are properly settled in …’
‘What have you done with them?’
‘There wasn’t time to make the usual kind of arrangement, but I got a special deal for them at the inn. I dropped them there before coming on to you. Then I’d like to have a first look at the remains of the burial. After all your care I’m sure you’ve got them somewhere safe.’
‘Yes, Geoff Randall up at the castle has them in his cellar. In the ’60s when there was a panic about nuclear war, it was extended a lot and set up as a secondary command centre. The equipment’s long gone, of course, so you should have plenty of room there. Geoff told me he’d set up some work tables with decent lighting and power points – I imagine you’ll be putting all the information on computers …’
‘Yes, that’ll be a great help. I must say you seem to have everything very well organised.’
‘Proof of the pudding … ! But I hope it’s all right.’
‘I’m sure it will be.’
George rang the castle to make sure it was a convenient time to introduce her and they set off. On the way Robson commented that she’d never come across a double burial with a bird; hunting dogs or domestic pets, occasionally, but not an eagle. Some pagan custom, she supposed. Might start a whole new line …
‘No, it wasn’t pagan.’
‘We know who the man was: Anselm, monk of Lindisfarne, who died here somewhere about the year a thousand.’
‘What? How on earth could you know that? I shouldn’t have thought any identification possible at all, especially at this stage.’
‘Well, to be honest it’s not altogether certain, but it seems overwhelmingly probable. You see, a few years ago a document turned up describing how he came with a few companions, guided by a sea eagle, bringing what were supposed to be the remains of St. Cuthbert to be safe from Viking raiders.’
‘Just a moment – they’re in Durham, aren’t they?’
‘According to the document, they were swapped as an extra precaution, but there was some confusion and now no one knows who got the real relics. Anyway, years later, according to legend, at the end of Anselm’s life the eagle returned and they died more or less together. It doesn’t say they were buried together, but given what we’ve found it seems a reasonable supposition.’
‘On the face of it, very much so. I’ve known reputations built on less. I’d like to see that document.’
‘It’s in Durham Cathedral now, but Geoff has a copy and a translation that I’m sure he’d be glad to show you.’
‘You don’t still have St. Cuthbert or whoever he was, do you?’
‘No, even if he’d been kept when the castle was built, I imagine he’d have been thrown out at the Reformation, maybe long before. Are you particularly interested?’
‘Just a thought. But of course, you’re right. Rather a pity, though; it might have been an interesting follow-up. Carbon dating, perhaps, if the substitute was closer to Anselm’s own time.’
They found the students still busy with their packed lunches in the pub garden, by permission of the landlady who was doing quite well with the liquid accompaniments. Robson told them she was going ahead with Mr. Fairbrother up to the castle but allowed them another half hour before following – and they’d better be sober!
At the castle, Randall met them at the door and after the introductions took them to the cellar. ‘Right. Well, here we are. To give an impression of the main stages there are A3 prints from George’s photographs around the walls, and a complete set of A4s for working purposes. Let me know if you need any more. I’ve borrowed these tables from the village hall but they’ll need them back in a couple of weeks – is that going to cause difficulties?’
‘It might have done, if Mr. Fairbrother hadn’t done so much of the work for us. As it is, I don’t think so.’
‘Good. Now we weren’t sure how best to store the bones, so we’ve laid them out on bales of straw – human and avian separately, where we were certain. None of us is very hot on anatomy. Oh, I might be able to run a telephone extension down here – would you like that?’
‘A kind thought, but I don’t think either of us would fancy the risk of my students spending hours on it!’
‘Right. What are your arrangements for feeding them, by the way?’
‘I left them tucking into packed lunches in the pub garden. Mrs. Bradshaw there said she’d make sandwiches while they’re here.’
‘She’s a kindly soul. Oh – does that mean you haven’t eaten? You’re welcome to a light lunch with us, if you like.’
‘It’s very kind of you, but I’d better not.’
‘There’s no problem with quantities, and it won’t take long if that’s what you’re worried about. George is staying, aren’t you?’
‘Well, I’d better see the professor back to her charges.’
‘Why not just ring up the pub and tell them to get here in an hour or so? They can hardly miss the way.’
‘That’s a thought. Well, if I may change my mind, Mr. Randall – it does seem it would save some trouble all round …’
‘Right, that’s settled. Oh, let me introduce my wife – Helen, this is Professor Robson.’
George could almost hear the gears clicking in Helen’s mind, and mentally groaned: an unexpected opening for more attempts at match-making. She had long since run through all the socially-acceptable unattached women of their acquaintance in the district, but presented with a personable female instead of the semi-fossilised male she had probably imagined, her enthusiasm was bound to be rekindled. The trouble was not that that George had the slightest trace of misogyny – far from it – but her efforts, however well meant, could sometimes be embarrassingly transparent. In any case, he preferred to run his own life.
During the lunch, which George guessed had been in Helen’s mind even before she was given the perfect opportunity, he was relieved by her refraining from talking of personal matters, but noticed her glance flicking between the two of them with what he might have imagined to be a calculating expression. Carole too had evidently registered the situation: when her eyes happened to meet his, she actually winked. Perhaps she was used to it on her own account.
Conversation afterwards was cut short by the arrival of the students, three girls loaded with laptops and the other paraphernalia of their craft. ‘No men?’ commented George.
‘Everything’s easier with a single gender. In any case, for this job I need three but only three, and I don’t want an odd one out – asking for trouble.’
‘I wonder … George is the one who saw the remains in their original position … would it help if he stayed to guide you?’
He responded to Carole’s anxious glance at him with a smile but a barely perceptible shake of the head.
‘No, Helen, I don’t want to trouble him any more than I have already. His photographs are very clear. They’re quite enough to go on.’
In the event, he did stay a little while to point out some damage to the remains in the course of excavation that warranted extra care in the handling; probably unnecessary, but better safe than sorry. He noticed some significant glances between the students, probably used to Carole’s effect on susceptible men (and he knew few who were not), but didn’t begrudge them their amusement; it did no harm even if misplaced.
It was some days later when George happened to bump into Geoffrey and asked how the work was progressing.
‘Pretty well, I gather. Whenever we ask, Carole always says how useful your photographs have been. I’ve a feeling that it’s at least partly to wind up Helen – in a perfectly friendly way, of course.’
‘Yes, I got an impression that she could be a little bit naughty if she wanted.’
‘You’re not actually interested, are you?’
‘Wasn’t that a shade too fierce? ‘My lord doth protest too much,’ and all that?’
‘Don’t you start. No, I’m too comfortable in a single life to want to change it. I can cope with the obvious drawbacks.’
‘In that case … Helen’s talking of having a party before they go. Will you come along if only to save me from being the only male there?’
‘When’s it to be?’
‘Probably next Wednesday or Thursday.’
‘I think they’re both free. I’ll have to check, of course.’
‘Let me know if there’s any problem.’
It was already in full swing when he turned up. As it happened, Helen had invited three of the village lads (selected, she explained, on advice from Mrs. Bradshaw who had taken note of developments during the evenings) ‘so that the girls would not be stuck with the old fogeys’ and in effect the four adults made a separate party. George suspected an ulterior motive but made no comment.
He had started to ask whether anything new had turned up from examination of the skeletons when Carole’s phone rang and she excused herself to answer it. Evidently the interruption was not unwelcome and she returned smiling.
‘Sorry about that. That was my husband …’ (Geoffrey tried not very successfully to suppress a laugh and choked over the effort) ‘… with news of our daughter’s A-level results.’
‘Satisfactory, I hope?’ asked George, as much as anything to let Helen recover discreetly from her moment of confusion.
‘Very, thank you.’
‘So where does she go now?’
‘Well, her teachers have been talking about Oxbridge, but I think she feels that’d be a bit stuffy. We shall see.’
‘You wouldn’t consider your own institution?’
‘No, it’s about time she flew the nest. Even if she had student accommodation it would be too easy to come home at weekends and miss out on half the experience.’
‘Would she want to?’
‘Well, maybe not as a rule. And she isn’t actually the sort to come running home to Mum if anything went wrong, but there are bound to be some occasions and I want to make clear that it should be a last resort.’
‘Good luck to her, anyway. Now, if I may change the subject, I’ve been meaning to ask you what’s going to happen about the remains from the grave.’
‘Yes, that’s quite a serious consideration. Well, by law, Anselm’s will have to be reburied within two years of disinterment, but that should give us time for all the tests we want to make. After that … it’s such an unusual burial – unique, as far as I’m aware – that I was hoping to set up a permanent exhibition with the bird’s skeleton and casts of Anselm’s …’
‘… only when I spoke to the Dean of the Faculty he said there was nowhere to put it. It was rather a blow, as I’d got the impression that he’d favour the idea. But not everyone would, and I think there may be some politics behind it.’
‘I can imagine. But if space is really a problem … I’ve been thinking on similar lines to yours, so I had a discreet word with someone I can trust on the Tourist Board. There could be a modest grant towards setting up something of the sort here in the village. He thinks there’d be no trouble at his end about having it double as an outstation of your Department, though there’d obviously have to be some formal arrangement about sharing costs.’
‘Now that sounds seriously interesting. I’ll have to discuss it with the Dean, of course, but can you put me in touch with this fellow?’
‘Gladly. Here, I’ll put his contact details on the back of my card. That way you have both together.’
Negotiations took some time, especially since there was apparently no exact precedent for the situation, but eventually all was agreed in principle. Then there was the question of where the exhibition should be sited: the designer, unfamiliar with the village, suggested that it should be as close as possible to the original burial, until someone pointed out the obvious drawback of proximity to Jeb Cartwright’s slurry pit. Eventually Bill Bradshaw’s offer of a derelict plot next to the pub car park had such obvious merits that it was promptly accepted. It would also be convenient for anyone who might wish to visit Anselm’s new grave that was to be in the village churchyard over the way.
A more serious issue concerned the placing of skeletal items disturbed by Jeb’s initial digging. Purists argued that in the absence of direct evidence they should be positioned as then found in relation to the rest; Geoff Randall however recalled the phrase in the legend that the eagle had ‘breathed its last on the old man’s breast’ and proposed that unless the evidence ruled it out, they should follow that hint. Despite much academic muttering about ‘pandering to popular sentiment,’ so it was done; however, a notice about the uncertainty was posted beside the reconstruction as a sop to the punctilious.
Once the exhibition was set up, there would obviously have to be a formal opening if only to publicise it, and the question arose of who should perform the ceremony. The choice boiled down to the Lord Lieutenant of the county or Professor Robson herself. At a village meeting the general view was that they didn’t know the first thing about the LL except that he sounded insufferably posh, but they’d liked what they’d seen of the professor, so Carole was invited and readily accepted once a convenient date was found. She brought along her husband Howard Lawrence and their daughter Sheila, now on the Easter vacation of her second year at university.
At lunch in the castle with the Randalls, including their son and daughter-in-law, Sheila was relieved to find agreeable company in the younger couple who were of course much closer to her own age. Moreover Anne Randall’s work in the fine arts business was related to her own studies, raising the prospect of possibly useful future contacts, maybe even a placement in the long vacation. Howard was more interested in the story of Anselm’s mission and after the meal Geoffrey produced his copy of the translation.
‘How much of this is true, do you think?’ wondered Howard.
‘Very little, I’d have said, until the grave was turned up. That seems to corroborate the eagle connection. It would be far too much of a coincidence if they were unrelated, and the rest of the story in essence seems perfectly credible.’
‘What does Durham think of it?’
‘They’ve been fairly cagey so far. The original manuscript – or at least the parchment it’s written on – dates from the twelfth century, so it’s far from contemporary, but as you’ve seen it does refer to an oral tradition. It might have been no more than a folk tale, of course, and that’s the line they were taking before the grave was found; I haven’t heard a more recent reaction. But in any case, there’ve been other claims that the remains were switched at some time so it’s not a new issue.’
‘Has their ‘St. Cuthbert’ been carbon dated?’
‘Not as far as I’ve been able to find out. But then, why should they do it? At best it could only show that the remains were of someone or other in the right generation; it might just as easily show they weren’t. Why risk it?’
‘Isn’t that a rather cynical view?’ Helen objected.
‘Realistic, I’d say. Ecclesiastics are just as human as anyone else, especially where church property’s concerned. And they might quite reasonably consider they weren’t entitled to risk its reputation any further.’
‘Wouldn’t you like to know, Carole?’
‘Of course I should, but I don’t see how to establish it one way or the other with any confidence. Look at the arguments over the Turin shroud. The pilgrims seem happy enough. If in doubt, leave tolerably well alone, say I.’
‘Sounds a pretty good principle – though it’s the first time I’ve heard it from an archaeologist!’
After the ceremony and the informal mingling afterwards, Carole said that she would like to see Anselm’s new grave, so George took her across to the churchyard. No mention had been made of it, so he was surprised to find a stranger standing contemplatively beside it. George was about to address him but Carole checked him with a gesture until the man crossed himself and looked up.
‘Hello, Derek,’ she said. ‘I see you’ve found it. This is Mr. Fairbrother who was so helpful to us with the remains. George, this is Derek Arkwright, one of my students. He was concerned that all the attention had been given to the eagle and hardly any to the man.’
‘Do you really think he needs a prayer?’ George asked.
‘Don’t we all?’
‘I suppose we do. Though nowadays it seems to have gone out of fashion.’
Derek evidently objected to the term, but Carole forestalled a protest. ‘Derek’s very keen on amateur dramatics, and he was thinking of writing a play about Anselm’s mission. I’ve given him a copy of the translation; I hope that’s all right?’
‘It doesn’t affect me. And I don’t suppose the play’s likely to quote verbatim from it; otherwise there might be a question of breaching the translator’s copyright – if it hasn’t already expired. But then Durham has what we take to be the original, and for all I know they may have a finger in the pie as well.’
‘We were planning to include the text in a takeaway leaflet for visitors, but perhaps we’d better paraphrase it.’
‘It might save complications. I’d be interested to see your script, Derek, supposing you manage to write it.’
Carole was amused. ‘Thinking of staging a performance, George?’
‘I hadn’t thought of it, but it might be worth considering.’
That was something for the future, if at all. George’s immediate concern was with the public reaction to the opening. The regional television service ignored it, but the next issue of the local paper – ‘local’ only in the sense that it wasn’t national; the office was thirty-odd miles away – carried quite a reasonable spread and some of the national dailies picked up the story. A day or two later there was a call from Carole.
‘Have you seen today’s Guardian?’
‘There’s a piece by Donald Unwin panning the whole ‘Eagle Tomb’ story and claiming it’s more likely to be a modern hoax. I’ll have to answer it and I need your help.’
‘Which you’ll certainly have. Who is this fellow?’
‘He’s quite influential in early mediaeval studies. We’ve crossed swords before, and he has admirers in my department – I told you there might have been some political interference in the project. Now we need a quick response, and I’m tied up with meetings for the next few days; you were there at the start, so if I fax the article to you, can you draft a reply?’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Did you ever get a carbon date on any of the remains?’
‘No, the only samples we could take were too heavily contaminated with modern fluids.’
‘A pity. I’ll just have to see what Jeb Cartwright can tell us about the history of the place.’
In the event that wasn’t much, chiefly that the land had been in his family for at least five generations with no previous disturbance beyond normal cultivation; also that despite the evident reference in the name of the village, no sea eagle other than Anselm’s had ever been recorded anywhere near it.
Despite misgivings about the value of the exercise, George did draft a text and sent it to Carole. However, another letter in the Guardian (he felt obliged to explain to the newsagent his sudden change of reading matter) pointed out the existence of a ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ in Orkney, clearly indicating an established relationship between man and sea-eagles; could there perhaps be a hitherto unsuspected cultural connection between the areas? Despite the three hundred miles and four thousand years between the burials, this idea quickly gained some currency, and after some thought Carole contented herself with politely pointing out that Unwin’s thesis was likewise no more than unsubstantiated speculation. Whatever he thought of the comparison, probably scathing, was not published.
George heard no more about it until a little before Christmas, when he was surprised by a telephone call from Carole. ‘You remember Derek Arkwright, who was thinking of writing a play about Anselm and the sea eagle?’
‘Yes. Has he done it?’
‘Well, he had a shot at it, but it turned out a bit thin even for a single act, and he more or less gave up the idea. But then someone in our music department got hold of it and hatched the idea of turning it into an opera …’
‘An opera? That’s a bit ambitious, isn’t it?
‘Not a full-length one, of course. A mini-opera, half an hour or so, perhaps. Something a bit like Britten’s Curlew River I imagine, with all the monks.’
‘We don’t know that there were that many …’
‘No, but that’s beside the point. The thing is, they’d like to put on the premiere in your village church –’
‘Quite, but do you think it might be possible?’
‘I’ll have to consult the vicar, of course, but now I think of it he might be rather tickled by the idea. When are they thinking of doing it?’
‘In the Easter vacation if they can get it finished and rehearsed in time. They want it out of the way before the exams are upon them.’
‘I imagine it would have to be after Easter itself. Too much going on in the run-up to it.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Right. I’ll have a word and let you know. Oh – one thing. What sort of music does this fellow write?’
‘Fairly innocuous, I believe; no Bellini, by a long chalk, but more Butterworth than Boulez.’
‘Thank goodness for that!’
The vicar indeed proved to be tickled by the idea and plans went ahead. At a Christmas dinner with the Randalls, Anne too was interested and later mentioned it to some of her arty contacts, making clear of course the essentially amateur nature of the production. Even so, fairly soon George had a call from the music critic for one of the national dailies wanting information about the arrangements; there weren’t any yet, but George promised to let him know as soon as he could.
When he did so, the man explained that although it promised to be something unusual, the word didn’t seem to have got around very much and he was hoping to steal a march on his counterparts on other papers; he would therefore attend under the pseudonym Vincent Paulson. He hadn’t been able to find much about hotel accommodation in the area (surprise, surprise, thought George) so could he be a nuisance and ask for a reservation to be made on such-and-such dates on his behalf? He would be with his wife to make it look like a holiday break.
Consulted, Helen Randall exclaimed that the Paulsons couldn’t possibly be expected to lodge at the village pub, however good it might be in its way; they must of course stay at the castle, and Geoffrey knew better than to argue. In case of need, George printed a batch of notepaper with the Ernscar Castle letterhead to be placed in the guest room; the Randalls had never bothered on their own account.
The visit went off well, apart from the almost inevitable embarrassment, soon dispelled with laughter, on the one occasion when Mrs. Paulson failed to respond on being so addressed. The performance of the opera was not seriously marred by a couple of minor fluffs, the audience was appreciative, and after Paulson’s generally favourable review, several choral societies around the country enquired about permission to perform the work.
George, perforce transmogrified into business manager, consulted everyone else concerned about how to respond. The consensus was that the complications involved in charging a fee would almost certainly outweigh any returns, so copies were sent out with merely a request for discretionary donations to the church maintenance fund. Someone however raised the question of copyright, and seemed to be taking it seriously, but in the libretto it could evidently be established easily and at little if any cost by publication on the Internet; the score was probably another matter, and George would look into it, but serious piracy seemed unlikely and any protection against it would probably be ineffective anyway.
In his ‘tourism’ hat, George had earlier commissioned postcards of the castle and church, now supplemented by shots of the exhibition mock-up and Anselm’s gravestone, and these were included with the opera material. Whether or not that was the cause, there was indeed an increased trickle of visitors from outside the region, enough for Bill Bradshaw to improve the washroom facilities and make tentative enquiries about augmenting the accommodation at the inn. Then Geoffrey was astonished by a letter from someone who had heard of the castle through a letter from a friend but could find nothing about the tariff for visitors; was a brochure available?
‘That damned letterhead!’ he thought, after a moment of puzzlement, and promptly put the remaining sheets out of harm’s way in his desk. Then he replied to the effect that the castle was in fact a private residence but the Ram’s Head Inn could offer clean, comfortable though fairly basic accommodation with good home cooking; if Mr. Williams wanted something more elaborate he would fare better in one of the not-too-distant towns. By return of post Williams apologised for his error and thanked him for recommending the inn which seemed to offer all he would need.
It turned out that Williams was a minor coach operator planning a tour for the coming summer; the itinerary had been almost settled when one of the intended visits was knocked out by a serious fire, and he needed to find a replacement in a hurry. The Ernscar exhibition was well placed to serve the purpose, although it was immediately obvious that the village could never serve as a night stop, while for lunch the inn would be hard pressed to accommodate his party even if the weather permitted use of the garden; however, Bradshaw assured him that given a couple of days’ warning when the time came, he could cater for a respectable menu in the village hall, with an alternative for a limited number and if necessary the odd special diet. On that basis, with some rearrangement of the other visits, a provisional arrangement was agreed.
Williams himself had decided to accompany the first party to see how things panned out. Fortunately, with a little hurried improvisation on the part of Betty Bradshaw when a ‘special’ turned out to be more so than she had realised, her part of it worked tolerably well if needing some refinement in the logistics.
After the meal, several in the party asked if it there was time to visit the castle as it looked rather attractive, and Williams had to explain why it could not be done. ‘In any case there’s nothing of real interest there; I did ask the owner if it might be possible, and he showed me round to make the point. He’s not being awkward, it really is just a private middle-class home now. You can actually see the best of it from here. The only things at all out of the ordinary are a pretty unimpressive mediaeval portrait, kept for sentimental reasons, and the cellar where the skeletons from the double burial were sorted out.’
‘What’s special about that?’
‘Only that the photographs taken during the excavation are still there simply because there was no particular reason to take them down after the bones were reassembled.’
‘It might be interesting to see those.’
‘Sorry, there isn’t time. We have to be off in ten minutes. All right, I know it’ll stretch out to twenty, but even that’d be nowhere near enough.’
George Fairbrother had come in to see how the tour was going, and Williams mentioned the difficulty to him.
‘No problem if they have e-mail. Get me their addresses and I’ll simply send them the main picture files. It could hardly be easier.’
An unexpected consequence of this was a reply from one of the party, thanking him for his trouble and adding that she would like to pay a return visit for a more thorough study of the exhibition display than had been possible in a crowd. Unfortunately she had failed to note the address of the inn, so could he please supply it? Incongruously, attached was a photograph of herself in a costume better suited to the Mediterranean than the usual notion of a northern climate.
George remembered her as having tried to engage him in conversation before being dragged away to board the coach. ‘Aye, aye, she’s after you, me lad,’ commented Geoffrey when next they met. ‘Better not mention this to Helen or she’d be bound to invite the woman to stay at the castle and insist that you escort her.’
George very much feared that he was right on both counts. Betty Bradshaw too, serving their refills, confirmed that on the day of the visit a woman apparently in her forties had shown considerable interest when George appeared. ‘Quite a good looker, too. Well spoken, a professional type, I’d say. You might do worse.’
‘Don’t you start!’
‘Still very odd, sending a photograph along with a simple query about an address,’ Geoffrey commented. ‘More like something in a Soho telephone box. What do you say, Betty?’
‘Never been in a Soho telephone box. But she wasn’t my idea of a tart. You’re right, though, it is very strange. It might be a simple mistake, I suppose, meant to go with another message sent at the same time.’
‘Just about possible, maybe.’
‘But now I think of it, I’ve an idea she did say something about your reminding her of someone. I was busy at the time and didn’t take much notice.’
‘That would make more sense. Trying to renew an old acquaintance.’
‘But why no covering note?’
‘Who knows? People do do unaccountable things at times.’
George could remember more than enough of his own to make him squirm. Eventually, of course, he had to provide the address requested. With some misgivings (mistakings, more likely, he thought) he added that sending the photograph without explanation suggested an attempt to renew an old contact that he regretted his now erratic memory could not recall. The suggestion of senility might, he hoped, perhaps deter any further pursuit.
It didn’t. By return, Jean Gordon confessed that it was she who owed the apology; she had of course realised that by itself the attachment would have been highly improper, but was distracted by a prolonged interruption while pondering how best to put her intended explanation, and afterwards in haste despatched the message without remembering to complete it. If he was indeed the person she had in mind, they had met at a wedding some twenty years before when she had taken unreasonable offence at a surely unintended solecism and said things that since then she bitterly regretted; given this opportunity, she would now like to apologise in person.
Far over the top, George thought, but he did vaguely remember something of the incident, though not what had provoked it, and if going to such trouble would make her feel any better, why not? Helen, when a mention of the business inadvertently slipped out, ever-hopefully pointed out that there must be a great deal more to it than that, as the apology already effectively given for an event long past would be quite enough to satisfy anyone but an obsessive worrier. Despite making arrangements for the meeting, George felt compelled to agree.
So Jean herself admitted when they eventually met over dinner at the inn. There was indeed an ulterior purpose, though not one that need alarm him at all: she had an idea that she wanted to discuss, but didn’t entirely trust the security of communications in her organisation and preferred to do it face to face. Wishing to resume an old acquaintance (though genuine as far as it went, she assured him) was essentially a cover story.
‘And the photograph?’
‘Part of the smokescreen, though it might have helped to jog your memory. For that it had to be twenty years old, of course. I hope you liked it!’
‘Very enticing. But what’s the scheme that needs all this cloak and dagger stuff?’
‘It’s for a television programme about Brother Anselm’s expedition and its outcome. I’ve had such ideas nicked before, hence my caution. I see it starting with the discovery of his grave, then cutting back to the flight from Lindisfarne, the journey with the eagle, and so on, ending at the exhibition and then the credits rolling over a still shot of Anselm’s gravestone. Of course we can’t film every bit of the story in between, so we need a link man to fill in the gaps, and you’re the obvious one to do it: you were in at the discovery, you know the history inside out, you have the voice and the presence to put it over. What do you say?’
‘I dare say, but when your gast’s unflabbered, what about it?’
‘Well … I can’t see any convincing reason why not. But give me till tomorrow to think about it.’
He did take the job. Afterwards he decided he had done quite as much for the Tourism Committee as could be expected of anyone, handed in his resignation regardless of whether it was picked up or not, and went off on a Mediterranean cruise.
Peter Wilson is a retired industrial chemist living in Seascale, on the Cumbrian coast near the north-west corner of England.
A short biography and more of his writing (short stories, plays and film scripts) may be found with contact details at his web site
An ancient document presented at an "Antiques Roadshow" session purports to describe the journey of a party of monks from Lindisfarne led by Anselm, fleeing with the relics of St. Cuthbert from possible Viking attacks in the early Middle Ages, setting up a decoy casket at Ripon and, guided by a sea eagle, taking what they believe to be the genuine relics not to their supposed destination in Durham but for greater safety to a small settlement further inland in northern England. Even more improbably, according to legend the eagle returns many years later and dies at about the same time as Anselm himself. However, some time after the appearance of the document, a farmer in the now substantial village turns up what appears to be the dual burial of Anselm together with the eagle, not only arousing archaeological interest but inspiring the chairman of the hitherto ineffective local Tourism Committee with the idea of an exhibition that does attract visitors and enables him at last to escape gracefully from his reluctantly-held position.