Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Getting to know you.

The town we were working in was best viewed at night, though perhaps not one like this.

The boats rocked in the harbour, sprayed down by the rain that was slowly building up momentum. The radio had apologised for this, and reassured people that the second they heard that better weather was on the horizon that we would know about it.

We had decided to go the local pub. A maze of rooms over two stories, thick dark wood and long tables. We were divided into the groups we would largely be working in, and so I found myself facing my team directly, eight pairs of eyes looking me over. It was a far more intimate interrogation than the tent, and I was not really in the mood for it.

But still they seemed earnest enough, and were willing to be led through the usual series of conversations without resisting too much. I got their names out of them, and a little about themselves, and before too long everyone was sitting there with a drink, and conversations were flying around them the twos and threes chatting independently and amongst themselves to the rhythm of the pub chat.

However one of them had decided that I had not given enough away about myself up until that point, and so I was dragged away from my reverie by a question.

'So, what are you going to miss about home?'

She had raven hair, and a precise way of holding herself. She did not look at you, she scanned you. That is the only way to describe seeing a person's first impression of you form beneath their features. That was Dee, a constant re-evaluation.

'I can't answer that yet,' I offered, 'I haven't been away long enough.' She smiled slightly at this, and was seemingly satisfied. Her gaze shifted to the next person, and the conversation carried around. After a few minutes the weight of the conversation was lifted from her, and she leant back. After a few moments the rhythm in her head took over, her foot started to tap against the table leg and her shoulders swayed. Gently at subtly at first, and then – believing herself unobserved – she danced in earnest.

The talk then turned to two pint topics, at least for those of us that weren't dancing. The lights outside were completely extinguished now, and the subjects grew more severe. The normally poisoned chalices of religion and politics were discussed openly, as the camps had not yet divided. The process was engaging to watch, the speaker would exposit their own view, and whatever it was would draw nods and the occasional interruption from their supporters or apologists, and silent respect from their detractors.

Though when one of the students took up the conversation, and then ran with it, there was clear dissent from another. Who sat in absolute, rigid silence. Her lips were pursed so tightly that the liquid she defiantly raised to them was forced to slump back to the bottom of the glass. Defeated.

If indeed the crucifix had not given her away, the clear drop in the temperature of the room should have clued the boy in. Though I agreed philosophically with him, her silence coupled with the bluster with which the larger man fumbled over ideas borrowed, overheard and not comprehended, made me take the side of the slight figure. Her silent offence was restrained, locked within her seemingly impenetrable bun of hair. Though I could not fully hate a man so comically unaware of the offence he was causing, I made no attempt to jump to his aid.

It was not as though I was the only one to notice, the atmosphere in the room was pulled tight by the diatribe. If he posited much more, there would be a chair lodged firmly in his face. Even Dee had shot him a glance that would break a lesser man, or any man who understood to hold his tongue. He probably though that the stare had nothing to do with him.

Eventually, he lets the subject drop with a final swill of his beer, stands, and slides himself through the thin room and towards the toilet. The conversation was left brutalised in his wake, and as he pushed his way through the thin room I struggled to find a way to combat the silence.

'What a jackass,' came from the offended woman, breaking the pressure that she had been under, and causing everyone else to tense up.

I was saved by Hope. Who slid along the bench next to me, and clunked her drink down dramatically to show that it was empty.

'Hello grumpy.' She chimed, the alcohol bringing her devious side out, scanning the tension at my table. She smiled broadly at the tension already apparent in the group, and was immensely happy with it. I knew instinctively that hers would be in the bar somewhere performing team building exercises, or proposing marriage. 'How are your little minions coming along?'

'Now give us time, there is no way we can have broken him in yet.' The shot came from the blonde, tiny, mouth in the corner. She had insisted that her name was Cleo, which did not appear on any of my lists for these eight. Process of elimination meant that I knew who she was meant to be, and after a little investigation she confessed to her given name. That incident should have been my first indication that this lady was trouble, and the easy rapport that she was developing with Hope told me that I would have to watch her closely. Hope could get away with such aspersions on my character, this lady had not earned an iron tight grip on my leash.

'Delicious', she swilled the liquid around in her glass to emphasise her approval. 'I think they have got the measure of you already.'

Now, I am a reasonable man, I could have taken that slur on my character had Dee not been nodding emphatically. To her credit, she stopped at my glare, but laughed at the wall.

'Come on now,' said Hope, her arm was suddenly crooked around mine and I was hauled to the bar. 'I need to borrow you, and your wallet...'

Having bought her another drink, I was summarily borrowed to the doorway. The rain still hammering the boats in the harbour, bright sheets sweeping in the wind, cast in gold in the glow of the street lights, the odd miserable figure zipping through the view to the nearest cover. This view, pretty as it was, could mean only one thing.

'Yup, the site will be a fucking pool by now.' She said it calmly, but with a healthy respect for how serious the situation could get.

'Well, it's not as though we can do anything about it.' My pint glass had suffered in the last wave of rain, and I committed the freezing water within it to the gutter.

'The first day of a dig, and we will probably be sitting around playing cards.' She summed up the situation well, but there was one thing that she had not considered.

'Oh really? Do you think that the tents are still standing?'

Her face was perfect, dropping with the thought, her head beating the brickwork with the knowledge of what we had to do now.

'If mine isn't, I'm having yours.'

We decided to leave them drinking and take a look at the camp site. I went back for my jacket and emerged with Dee in my wake.

She had spotted me making to leave, and since the tensions in the group had not properly resolved themselves, had decided that a swift getaway would be preferable. If the tents had fallen, an extra hand would be useful. With hindsight I should have bought them all back, the tents were faring badly in the wind and there was no guarantee that any of them would last the night.

For the time being, only one had fallen, and its occupant was already busy fixing it. His voice carried across the field with the wind, and he called to us cheerfully as we hopped the fence. As we got close to the sad deflated tent, he emerged, cutting some string with his teeth.

In minutes we had arranged for a kettle to be fired up and for a few student to aid in pinning down the more unruly parts of the tent. This done, he happily strode around the outside, smacking the pegs deep into the sodden earth. Eventually the structure steadied itself, and when we gingerly backed away it was content to lurch with the wind in imitation of its neighbours. We gathered in the large mess tent to celebrate. Drinking tea around this poor unfortunate's gathered belongings. All holding steaming mugs and talking happily, and loudly about the end of this roaring wind and rain.

It was fast approaching midnight. A few students had tried to get some sleep, but had returned to the singing kettle, shivering against the warmth that the tea offered.

Hope and I were discussing the next day feverishly. Could they get up later? Do a half day? Discussing plans that could be bought into play if this rain lasted into the next morning.

Ultimately our council of war would be fruitless. Decisions would be left to those who would not arrive until too late the next morning to put their grand ideas into play. We would be left with disappointed and angry students, and no way to appease them.

The conversation made us feel better, proactive in the face of the deluge that was rapidly turning the work to mulch.

If we let it, this rain would ruin everything. We knew it, and under canvas we could hear the rain renewing its assault on the ground.

By one, the last few stragglers had succumbed, and not returned from their last attempts to get some sleep. We presumed they were alive and so retired the kettle, which simmered faithfully down to await the rush of the morning. Without the burners we were left with the roar of the wind, and the shake and shimmy of the large tent against it. It was a bitterly cold noise, for a bitterly cold night. Once outside however, the weather did not feel that bad.

Arm in arm we made for the tents that shivered miserably ahead of us.

'There is no way that this rain can hold out for much longer,' she turned an eye to the sky and surveyed it suspiciously.

Once we had said our good nights and sealed ourselves inside the small brightly coloured cocoons, the clocks were fast approaching two. It would be a relatively early night for me on this project, and the slow drumbeat of rain above my head was a poor omen.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Prologue. The Morning After.

'Why are you smiling?'

I didn't know. The question widened my stupid, idiot smirk as my mind raced to come up with a rational explanation. Without one, the snigger that I had been repressing burst forth. Was it relief? I liked the job, and I paid a lot to train to do it. I would not be relieved for this to be over. The laugh that was taking me over was too wild, too free, and too maddening for that.

Maddening because I am skirting far too close to offending the almost sincere goodbyes playing out before between young people loitering with intent around their fully packed bags. I turn, in case they see me, and meet the eyes of my accuser.

Bright piercing eyes and a sly smile. Right now she is wearing a multicoloured sweater over a white t shirt, and a skirt. The latter is a new development, a celebration of the end of camping. Normally she would not approve of my attitude wearing a faded pair of loose jeans, sharp mud stains across them – as she would drag her trowel blade to clean it off – giving her an alarming camouflaged experience.

We had met aeons ago. She used to respect me, but time had cured her of that, and now she liked me, and did not approve of my unprofessional mirth.

'Stop it.' She commanded, and I fell victim to the giggles, folding in half with a blast of laughter. The people desperately trying to load their stuff faster and get out of their awkward extended farewells, looked over to me quizzically. What little there was left of the magic of the moment was shattered.

The dig was over, and as normal there was a voice swearing at me in Irish. She swept away to talk to the departing students, the last few stragglers of the last few weeks. I was left to laugh, and wonder why I was laughing.

There are a few patches of dull yellow grass, and the odd scattered tent bag, the only apparent remains of the little community we had inhabited. We had cleaned up well after ourselves, in deference to the desires of the usual owners of the ground. We did not want to offend them by leaving the ground in a terrible state, littered with the detritus of the party the night before.


But at least this time, nobody would be naked. But that was another story. One that involved Steve, a man who had already left the site. That I thought of him then, instead of any of the cohort that I had formed an attachment to, would have puzzled me if this had been my first dig.

The group was falling apart, and in the fullness of time, no matter what I came to experience later, the individuals would not stand out in my mind as much as the whole of them. The naked man, and the trouble he caused stays with me.

But that is for later.

Two months is a long time to spend in a field. The broken camp has seen its fair share of history. It's place in the shadow of the looming dark hill has been well documented by eager students, snapping themselves, their tents, the dog that occasionally sniffed around the bin bags that were stacked at the gate, and the view. There is mist in the air now, but I am so used to the setting that my mind puts each feature in its proper place.

Right then, at the end, I had a better feel for the place than I would ever have again. I am not laughing any more. Even though I cannot see it, I can still feel the tents around me, the empty spaces housing healing grass appears wrong.

There should be bright red and bright blue tents. Tight guy ropes securing them into place, the constant sound of the flapping wind should be the soundtrack to young people sliding between the tents, reading or running or doing whatever the hell they wanted in the free time between being on the site and sleeping.

I want to feel the rumble of activity in the tent. Listen to voices, occasionally broken by rude laughter, the unmistakeable sounds of life. I should be steeling myself for the call, the one that summoned all to the pub, lest they be labelled sober for the evening and left behind.

Maybe I had spent too much time outside of the group, not attending and being labelled sober. Perhaps that is for the best. When there are so many students to organise, and an excavation to manage every day the nights cannot always be filled by drinking, and socialising and experiencing the people around you. That is something for them to do, and part of the trip that we, the supervisors were simply there to facilitate. It was a lesson that I never really seemed to take to heart. And this year...

You can never quite separate yourself from a group of people. Distance is a thing spoken of by wise ones, who either have not experienced or have forgotten the benefits that preceded the pain of whatever mistakes were made. In my head I was unwinding the last eight weeks, recreating the village of tents surrounding the large white marquee that was our hearth and home. The damage that gradually came to them healed themselves, empty tents left to fall were occupied again, and her tent reappeared.

It was the early evening, and for the moment summer had decided to give a gorgeous haze to the evening. I am outside the galley tent, a dull yellow light coming from, along with the hum that carried the power to them. Voices rumbled quietly, academic ones, and the occasional dry laugh. Lifting the flap of the tent and moving in I was faced with a little over twenty faces staring at me, not recognising me, but surveying me with polite attention.

I take my place at the end of the line. At the centre was the professor, mid spiel about the ways and means of the archaeologist. Around him, the supervisors, the girl with blinding red hair, the wistful poet, the Welshman, his lady and Hope the Irish battleaxe. I am at the end, next to hope, who regards me with icy disapproval. I am late, and I would hear about this later.

As it happens I am just in time. He gestured to me a few moments later and has me tell the assembled students about myself, to justify the authority that I have been given over them, and to explain where I am in my life.

The eyes on me then show more respect than they ever will again.

If you have ever been in that position, you will know the hesitation that first grips you as you realise that you have not really prepared anything to say. In my case, it was that the thing I had planned was woefully inappropriate to the situation, and would completely undermine my authority with these people.

In that wild hesitation, a tiny part of my brain, the part of my brain that both saves and damns me in these situations decided to chime in.

'Fuck it', it said.

'Pleased to meet you,' I grinned, ' I am the bastard tasked with getting you out of bed in the morning.'

I think they thought I was joking, they laughed. They would learn.