Moments In Time
Copyright © C. Osborne Rapley 2015
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Chapter 1 Italy
The Gondola suddenly rose then dropped, and Dr. Justin Edwards’s stomach lurched as he gripped the arms of the seat and shuddered. He didn’t particularly like flying, although it was not the actual flying that was the biggest problem. It was everything around it; getting to the airport, check in queues, security queues. Whatever queue he would stand in it always seemed to be the slowest.
Then there were the interminable delays, caused by late arrival, no air traffic slot, or some technical hitch. The excuses were endless.
He looked at the other passengers around him chatting, and all of them seemed calm and collected, some even gave the impression of enjoying the experience. He did at least have Italy to look forward to; he loved the climate, the countryside and the people. He released his grip on the arms of the seat and settled back, thinking of the excavation he was going to be part of.
His calming thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a chime from the PA system and the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign illuminating. Justin had never bothered to take his seatbelt off so he watched as his fellow passengers fumbled for theirs.
There was another set of chimes and the captain’s voice filled the cabin. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are experiencing some turbulence at the moment, which will continue as we fly over the Alps. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. Once we have passed over the mountains into Italian airspace the turbulence should subside.” Just to punctuate his speech the Gondola shook again.
Justin watched the pretty blonde hostess walk down the cabin. She smiled at him as she passed. He smiled back then turned to look out of the window. The snow-capped peaks of the Alps were passing far below them. Bored, Justin closed his eyes and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.
The person next to him had their headphones on and even above the noise of the engines Justin could hear an annoying buzz like a flying insect. He looked up at the in-flight entertainment screen. They did not normally activate them for short haul flights but the current diplomatic crisis was worsening, so the captain had switched it on.
Justin shook his head and sighed. The two super powers, China and Russia, were saber rattling again. All that kept them apart in the western hemisphere were the small and insignificant states of Europe. Ever since the Middle Ages, when the Germans had halted the Mongolian advance on their boarders, there had been an uneasy truce between Europe and the Russian Empire.
The Chinese held sway over the Pacific Rim and the Americas. They had taken it from the Spanish nearly two hundred years ago. The Chinese were now pressurizing their small neighbor across the Atlantic, Britain, to allow them to establish military bases. They wanted some control over the buffer of Europe and a base to strike back from if the Russians got out of line.
Britain had so far refused but the Chinese were powerful enough to force the issue.
Justin closed his eyes. There was always going to be some crisis somewhere. Sod ‘em, he thought, there is nothing I can do about it so why worry! He let his senses drift.
He woke with a start as the Airship docked at Naples airport; as his seatbelt had been fastened the Gondola crew had not disturbed him during the docking preparations.
The tedium of disembarkation, baggage reclaim and passport control, went by in a blur. It was not until he was on the shuttle bus to Naples central station that Justin felt at ease. He had learnt Italian during his frequent visits to Rome, and unusually for a foreigner he was fluent. He was also fluent in Latin, which was even more unusual.
Justin had been fascinated by Roman history as a child. He grew up within walking distance of the Roman Palace of Fishborne in Southern Britain and had visited all the major archaeological sites with his father. Becoming a specialist in Roman archaeology just seemed to be a natural progression.
He smiled to himself as he watched the hustle and bustle of the city, cars, horses and bikes jumbled up into a hooting honking whistling mess, the philosophy of the cycle and horse riders being that if you cannot move on the roads, ride on the sidewalk.
The bus eventually arrived at Piazza Garibaldi. Disembarking, Justin made his way to the Station. He purchased his ticket at the ticket office and boarded the commuter train to Pompeii Scavi. As the train rattled along he listened to the conversations going on around him, getting used to the language again.
The train eventually arrived at his destination and he alighted, dragging his case behind him. He made for the outskirts of the town, where his rented apartment was located. The key had been forwarded to him by the agent so he was able to walk straight there without having to visit the renting agent.
The afternoon was warm and pleasant so Justin enjoyed the walk, even with his baggage. The flat was along a small cobbled street and sat above a general provisions store. Opposite was a small restaurant and bar with the tables spilling over the pavement. There was a group of old men sitting at one of the tables chatting quietly, their drinks in front of them.
Justin located the steps at the side of the shop, walked up and tried the key in the door. He sighed with relief. It was always in the back of his mind that the agent might have sent him the wrong key. He pushed open the door, and after the bright sunshine the interior was cool and dark.
He wrinkled his nose as there was a smell of stale cigarette smoke.
Oh well, can’t be helped I suppose, he thought to himself. After all I am in Italy.
He walked to the bedroom, and as promised the agent had ensured there was clean bedding. Justin dropped his bag and threw himself on the bed. He looked around the room, finding that it was clean and presentable.
He smiled to himself; at least I don’t have to share now I’m qualified.
While he was an undergraduate and post graduate on field trips he had to share with other students. Even a tent in a muddy field was not uncommon.
He checked the rest of the flat. It was clean and tidy, if a little frayed around the edges. He had started to unpack when there was a loud knock on the door, which made him jump. He opened the door to find a large elderly woman standing there. She smiled and introduced herself as his landlady.
Her speech was fast, and heavily accented for the region. Justin was thankful he had become accustomed to the sound of the language on the trip over from the airport, otherwise he would have had difficulty understanding what she said.
Apparently she owned the flat and the shop below which was run by her son. Justin could get his provisions from them at a good price. She would also clean the flat twice a week but he was to keep it reasonably tidy himself. She did not approve of messy tenants.
She finished her speech, wished him a pleasant stay then turned on her heals and disappeared down the stairs.
Justin closed the door and murmured to himself. “Wow, a formidable woman!”
He looked out of the front window. The small café opposite looked clean and inviting, with a number of obviously local clientele. Justin decided to get his dinner there later that evening. With dinner sorted in his mind he went back to the bedroom and finished unpacking. The last thing at the bottom of his case was a framed picture of his girlfriend Sarah.
He picked it up, stared at it, then sighed. Ex girlfriend. He thought back to the last few days before he had been due to leave. She had not wanted him to go, she wanted him to stay and take up a teaching post in Southampton University.
Justin shook his head slowly, remembering the last argument. He was a field Archaeologist for God’s sake! Not a boring lecturer stuck in a University. The same argument had been simmering under the surface for months. It came to a head that afternoon.
“If you leave now it’s over,” she had shouted.
Justin knew in his heart he could not do what she wanted. He had turned and quietly walked away. The photo had been in his case before that fateful day as he had started to pack early.
With a final sigh he dropped the picture in the waste bin.
Chapter 2 Excavations
The next day Justin rose early. His meeting with Prof. Alfredo Gallo was not until 11.00, but he wanted to look round the new site before things became too busy. He left his flat, shutting the door behind him then clattering down the steps to the street below.
The town was still and quiet, the air cool. He crossed several streets then came to the fence surrounding the ruins of Pompeii. He skirted the boundary and turned towards the villas. Beyond the existing villas was where the new season’s excavations were scheduled to take place.
High shuttering surrounded the area; Justin flashed his pass at the bored guard lounging idly by the gate. He was waved through with a cursory nod. The site had been cleared of mud and turf already. To the left stood a large marquee, the sides of which were moving gently with the morning breeze. Behind the ‘finds’ marquee were the tents and small caravans for the excavation students.
The area was deserted as the students would not be arriving for several more days. Justin wandered around the previous year’s excavation, where a large villa was being revealed.
There was a sunny area in front of a partly excavated wall facing the ruined city. Justin sat and leaned back against the brickwork. Even though it was still early he felt the warmth of the wall through his thin shirt. He sighed, looking across the villa towards Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. He let his mind drift, trying to picture the scene as it would have been two thousand years before.
Justin was woken from his reverie by his name being called. He looked back towards the marquee. A small balding man was waving to him from the open front that had been pulled back since he had last looked, revealing trestle tables lined up with stacked trays set to one side.
Justin stood, waved and walked down the slope towards the older man, who waited for him. Justin took his outstretched hand. “Professor Gallo.”
The old man smiled and slapped Justin on the shoulder. “Alfredo, Justin, just Alfredo. How are you, young man?”
“I’m fine, Prof… Alfredo, thanks, really looking forward to getting started.”
“Well come and sit down, Justin, I have some exciting news for you.” The Professor indicated a group of chairs set to one side of the marquee.
“Preliminary investigations have found a cellar under the west wing of the villa. There appears to be some more bodies down there. I want you to lead the team excavating that area.”
Justin smiled. “Great, how many will be on my team?”
“There will be five, I have their details here.” The professor rummaged in a briefcase leaning against his chair. He continued, “You were one of my best students, young man. As well as archaeological qualifications your Italian and Latin are excellent. I have high hopes for you.” He nodded. “Yes, high hopes.” He handed Justin the papers.
“Now let me show you where you will be working.” He rose and strode out of the marquee, and Justin hurried to follow, stuffing the papers he had just been handed into his back pocket.
The professor led him around the side of the villa. “There is not much left standing above ground. It appears that the masonry may have been robbed out in antiquity,” the professor explained.
In the middle of the straight wall was a depression, and as they drew closer Justin noticed partly buried steps leading down to a low arch set into the wall below what would have been the original ground level.
Justin walked down the steps and peered into the gloom. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness after the bright noon sunlight. He saw a large vaulted, brick built chamber, obviously a storage area, as there were amphora stacked up against the far wall.
What caught Justin’s eye however, were the human remains partly buried in dust and ash laying about the floor. He noticed there were also several leaning against the left wall, huddled together as they had died.
Justin stepped back and walked up the steps to where the professor was waiting for him.
“Well, Justin, what do you think?”
“An interesting discovery, Professor. So nearly every house and building excavated so far had people sheltering in it?”
“Yes, I don’t know if you know or not but the estimates for the death toll has just been increased to over twenty thousand people who perished here and in Herculaneum. We have recently found a large number that had tried to find shelter in the basilica.” He shook his head. “They had the time to leave and they did not take it. Very, very sad.” He paused a moment, obviously thinking of the thousands of people sheltering in their homes and public buildings oblivious as to what was soon to engulf them. He continued, “Right then back to the villa. We discovered the cellar steps at the end of last season. It appears that a door kept out most of the ash to start with but when the pyroclastic flow hit, the door burnt away. The initial ash pile however prevented the chamber being filled during the subsequent ash falls. It has been sealed and untouched since then.”
The professor smiled and rubbed his hands together. “Right, my boy, time for coffee.”
They walked to a small café across the road from the excavations. It was clean and serviceable, the tables were covered in bright linen cloths. Alfredo chose a small table inside, just off the street.
They sat down with a scraping of chairs. Justin lent back and stretched his arms above his head.
An attractive little waitress walked over to them. “Hello Professor, how are you today?”
“I’m fine thank you, Anna, how are you?”
“I am well. The start of a new season, Professor?”
“Yes, my dear.”
“The usual for you?”
“Ah, yes please.”
The young woman scribbled on her note pad and turned to Justin with a bright smile. “What can I get you, sir?”
“Um, an espresso, please.”
The waitress’s smile deepened. “I love your accent! Are you British?”
Justin felt his face flush and he smiled. “Yes.”
“We very rarely see anyone from Britain, especially one who can speak Italian.” Justin nodded and the waitress continued, “I’m sorry, what would you like to eat?”
She scribbled on her note pad again, and with a parting smile at Justin she walked back to the counter.
The professor lent forward. “Well my boy, what do you think of this political crisis?”
Justin sat upright, the question was unexpected. “I… I haven’t been taking much notice I’m afraid. Britain has always been an insignificant backwater on the edge of Europe and I have tried not to think about it. There is not much we can do anyway. The Superpowers can walk over us any time they want.”
The professor nodded. “Yes, you are right of course. Let’s hope it passes without incident and does not result in war.”
Justin felt his stomach knot. He was not particularly patriotic, after all there was nothing much to be patriotic over, but it was his home. The thought of it being a pawn in the quarrels of the superpowers was not something he wished to dwell on.
He changed the subject. “Who else will be leading teams, Professor?”
Chapter 3 The Dead
Justin’s team consisted of two Americans, a petite Italian postgraduate and a fellow British anthropologist from Birmingham University. The Americans as usual only spoke Chinese. Justin’s Chinese was not good, but at least he knew enough to get by.
The initial survey had found fourteen bodies, five together against the wall and one on its own against the opposite wall. The remainder were scattered around on the floor near the door.
The theory was that the five were high class due to the jewelry and money scattered around them. There was one old man, a middle aged woman and a relatively younger woman clutching two children, one about six or seven and the other in its early teens. The group near the door were various ages with no or few possessions, and they were assumed to be slaves or retainers of the five against the wall.
The mystery was the body on its own. Justin felt oddly morose when he was near it. He could not shake the feeling. He had worked on human remains before without any problem. He had no problem with the others in the cellar; it was just this one, sitting apart from the rest.
The skeleton was the remains of a woman in her early to mid twenties. To die sitting apart like that was sad.
They had slowly cleared the front of the room and it was time to start close examination and removal of the lone skeleton. The work was due to start the following morning. Justin had wanted to avoid it as long as possible but the time had now come.
He woke from an uneasy sleep, and he had woken a couple of times during the night. He had dreamed of falling rocks, screaming, people around him running for shelter. He could not get away from it. Then there was searing heat; he could not breathe, his lungs burned and his skin blackened. Each time he had woken sweating and shaken.
Justin shuddered; he had the strangest feeling the dreams were related in some way to the lone body in the cellar. He rose, shaved and had a long shower, letting the warm water run down his back, hoping it would wash away the feelings the dreams had left him with.
The walk to the site in the bright morning sunshine failed to raise his spirits. He greeted his colleagues with a cursory, “Good morning.”
He picked up some empty finds trays and made his way towards the cellar. The two Chinese Americans were already there working on one of the slaves bodies. They greeted him with a nod and returned to their work. He knelt by the skeleton on its own and started to carefully clear away the layer of ash around its feet. He would slowly make his way up the body, looking for any signs of jewelry, possessions or adornment.
His careful search was quickly rewarded. Lying in the dust was a small jade pendant inset with a stylized dragon. He carefully cleaned around it and lifted it for close inspection. It looked like it could possibly be Chinese.
There was a character scratched on the rear of the jade. He held it up to the light so that he could make out the character. Justin let out an involuntary gasp; it was not Latin! One of the Americans looked up.
Just at that moment the British anthropologist stepped into the cellar. “What have you found, Justin?”
“What looks like a jade pendant with an inscription.”
“That’s not unusual.”
“No, but an inscription in what appears to be Chinese is! Here, look for yourself.” Justin passed him the pendant. The others working in the cellar gathered round to look.
“It does look like Chinese, doesn’t it,” one of the others said.
“I wonder what it says?” the Italian undergraduate asked.
Justin passed the pendant to one of the Americans. “Can you identify the inscription?”
The man turned it over in his hand. “It appears to be a name, but it is poorly formed.”
“Can you hazard a guess?” Justin’s chest constricted, he held his breath. Why was it so important?
The American frowned. “I think it is Feiyan, or something like that.”
Justin shivered; this dig was affecting him far more than it should.
“You alright, mate?” the British anthropologist asked.
“Yes, I just felt a sudden chill that’s all.”
“Yeah, it gives you the creeps thinking how all these people died, don’t it?”
“Yes it does.” Justin turned to the Italian undergrad and handed her the pendant.
“Can you take it to the finds tent for closer examination and cataloguing please?”
She nodded. “Yes, OK”. She turned and left the cellar.
As Justin knelt back down he noticed something laying near the hipbone. It looked like a dislocated part of a finger. The woman’s hands were folded on her lap and were fully articulated so it should not have been there. Justin photographed and noted the position, as he had done with the pendant, then reached forward and picked the small piece of bone up. He turned it round carefully in his fingers. It was a small bone or ivory carving. It had an intricate design carved on one side, the side that had been laying face down.
Justin gently brushed off the remaining ash. The little carving was in remarkable condition. He tilted it slightly towards the light; there were two raised rings of dots either side of a small oblong shape, which framed an obviously female face.
Justin frowned; he had a vague feeling he had seen the design somewhere before. The little carving was attached to a thin gold chain, which had broken. The thin chain lay over his fingers. It had probably been worn around her neck and had fallen off as she died.
Justin removed his hard hat to wipe his brow. He looked back. This skeleton certainly needed further investigation. He shuddered involuntarily, memories of his dreams the previous night flashed through his mind as he looked at the small carving closely.
The tiny face in the center seemed to grow in size, and it smiled. Justin felt his heart almost jump out of his chest. He blinked and nearly dropped the object.
Just at that moment one of the Americans working behind him stood up, lost his footing and fell backwards - knocking Justin’s head hard against the brick wall.