Do not call me a travelling salesman. I am not. I am a superior representative of the best Sheffield cutlery and flatware manufacturing company. We produce the finest sterling silver, most extensive range of kitchenware that is hallmarked and patented and without rival throughout the British Empire. We can count our customers in the most prestigious houses in the country, including the royal households. We are allowed to produce Queen Victoria’s warrant and proudly display the royal crest on our royal range. I am not a travelling salesman.
My work is my life. I know each element of the manufacturing process; from the rolling, annealing, cutting and forming. I confidently believe myself to be one of the most knowledgeable representatives of this first class business. I travel all over the country in my quest to further my company, and I am handsomely paid for my duties.
I know and I have more investments and money put away
Than you can imagine in your every little day.
Mine that will see me into a retirement of good care
All mine and mine and with none shall I share.
The infernal coach rattled and swayed on the very poor roads on the way to the West Country, it was dark and dreary and we still had a few miles to go until the next stop where we would spend the night in yet another coaching inn, but hopefully the last before I would reach my Cornish destination. I looked out of the window at the country passing by; it was not my favourite time of the year, as the days grew shorter and the trees became lifeless and bare. And it was indamnably cold. I felt myself become more and more irritated as the journey progressed.
My companions on the coach were commoners and not for polite talk. I had little interest in their menial daily lives and could not help myself to offer but gruff replies to their attempts at conversation. I make a point of not hear them prattling on: “They say he comes every night sir. But not many see him or hear him. Ghostly thing it is, black horses. There are those who claim to have seen a headless driver and pale, ghostly faces looking out blankly.”
I dearly just wanted to be at my destination, I had four clients to show my samples to and I could not help but be concerned that I was carrying a handy fortune in silver with me and really did not want idle tittle-tattle that could lead to some errant attempt at thievery or assault.
What is the point? Pah!
The world is full of fools like you.
You’re not even fit to polish my shoe!
Anger often takes hold of me and I regard it as an attribute and not a negative character aspect. In this life there is a lot to be said for protecting yourself against the lower classes, those who would wish to challenge, intrude or assault. My anger is my defence and it is my right to defend myself, I am my own man. I admit that there is a gratuitous pleasure inflicting violence, it is the pleasure derived from being superior.
The coach and four pulled to a lurching stop at an Inn overlooking a wide darkly dismal beach. It looked a godforsaken place, windswept and barren.
I would have beaten the boy mercilessly for what he said.
But she asked me to hold my hand.
Anger boiling inside me, took hold of me, incensed.
A thrashing deserved and yet I’d be damned.
I quickly made my way into the inn, keen to be eating a dinner and resting until the next days journey West.
“The name is Armitage and I wish for a room. Nothing too expensive, a cot and a meal and a draught of ale is all I desire.”
The inn was nothing special, there was a fire barely warming the snug room adjacent to the reception area. The young lady made a note in her book, scowled at me and called for a young lad to carry my small case up the stairs.
“I can carry this case, I have no need of assistance.” I barked, tired and annoyed. I enquired after food and beverage and made my way up the creaking stairs. There was a musty and dusty smell about the place that was typical of such lower-standard establishments.
I carry a weapon. I have guile and am aware all the time
Furtively noticing all, the drunken fools and the swine
Who challenges me, goads me, tempts me, yea to retaliate
Would surely lead me to maim or to kill and my safety facilitate.
I long to be back in my comfortable house in Yorkshire, where my business is my business and I am
respected and feared in equal measure. It is a satisfaction, to be master of a household. I employ servants:
a cook, housekeeper, maids and gardeners and there is an efficiency to the house, a simple natural order.
That is how I like it.
I am not an ideal master. But I pay what I consider is a fair remuneration for a fair days toil; I spend no time considering the needs of my staff. I am above that. I abhor laziness and weakness in people, especially people that are in my employ, I have a strong constitution, have never been ill and I will not stand for slouching and whingeing, if a person is not up to the job, there are plenty of replacements to be found.
I have no family.
None to chasten me,
To beg me for pecuniary more.
My wealth is mine and it is hidden
Where none can see
Until it pleases me.
The cheese, ham and bread were quite acceptable. I sat contemplating my visit to the three country houses over the next two days and hoped that my fare would be better in the hostelry at St Austell. I had visited it before and had enjoyed the company of a pleasing buxom young lady that had been procured for me; she would, of course, just be another servant and I would pay her cheaply, accordingly. As a man of means and manly desires away from my home, prying eyes and wagging judging tongues, it was a welcome diversion of pleasure. I am not a man devoid of pleasure, not that.
Would I cheat?
Well, it depends of what you call cheating.
There is a curd, a cream that rises to the surface
Of every transaction I make.
And I skim off that scum, that little extra
For myself. Nobody suspects it.
My company surely expects it.
And it is mine.
Back in my room a while later I laid out my things methodically for another early start the following morning. The window looked out on the beach, it was nearly dark and menacing clouds boiled around the sky; I could not tell the difference between sea, horizon and beach. But as I looked out there were two fellows, two suspicious looking, wrapped up in heavy coats, men looking at me. Directly. Just standing there staring. Unnerved, I closed the curtains with a sweep of my arms and stood aside, busying myself with documents and letters relating to my following days business. But soon, I could not help myself, but to part the curtains a fraction and to look out again. They were still there, unmoved and still looking up at my window. Strange, very strange
A pistol is a thrilling piece of machinery. Perfectly created by Elisha Collier, an artist in precision. I sat polishing and cleaning and checking; idly imagining the power of the destruction it delivered, the recoil, the blast and the immediate catastrophic result it had on the victim and assailant. I had used it several times in the past few years and was very able to use it again. Secured within my great coat it made me feel indestructible and there was a delicious thrill at the prospect of challenge. I also always carried a sharpened, perfectly honed dagger that was undoubtedly discreet and deadly. I had only used it the once and it was so easy. Smooth and bloody.
My wealth is mine and it is hidden
Where none can see
Until it pleases me.
Silver coins. The only way to save for your future.
I have a bullion hoard that nobody knows about, at home safely secure
Hidden and coveted and loved and beautifully pure.
I count and I weigh, assess and value more and more.
“Perchance to dream, aye, there’s the rub” I hate the lack of control that I have over my mind during the nights sleep. I consider myself to be the epitome of calmness, control and concentration; nothing disturbs me. But I am disturbed at sleep, often.
He was standing over me and I was frozen, frozen in fear, frozen with an inability to move. I am often terrified at night, it is as if my mind separates itself from me. I do not get perturbed, I am superior, above all this weakness. But at sleep, I whimper and cry like a baby.
Strong cold hands about my throat, I struggle to break free, but he was too much, too muscular and determined to end me. Pain. I could not breath, choking. Fear, fear like I have never known nor imagined. And his hands were so cold, numbingly cold.
Why do these nightmares come to me? I am not doing wrong.
I live my life in constant threat, these little bonuses are mine all along.
It is expected of me, the company knows that I am the best
They trust me to secure the best of all deals at their behest.
I was awoken. The room was dark and there was a foreboding permeating around, pale light shone through the window, shafts of dusty light touching the dark carpet. The moon was high. I shook with fear, trying to light the candle on my bed side but failing. Nightmare sounds of howls and distant screams. Getting up from my bed, my night clothes wet with sweat, I walked slowly, carefully to the window and held back the heavy curtains a little, I looked out on the road.
There was a black coach and six horses. Black horses, black horses pawing at the ground, sweating, anxious to be away and gone.
Words came back to me, words that seemed to hang in the air
Of foreboding, of malice, I shivered, beware
“Only those that see and hear the highwayman coach
Need to fear the highwayman’s touch.”
I am here. I am me.
I don on my walking breeches and tuck in my night shirt, almost unaware of what I am doing. But I can feel the fear dissipating and anger, loathing, raising to the fore. It is my defence. I grab at my cane, tuck my pistol into the reinforced pocket of my greatcoat and sweep it around my shoulders. They will regret challenging me, standing there, calling me, mocking me with their loose looks.
I march out of the room and down the stairs to the entrance to the inn. He is there, with his friend, standing timidly close behind. I walk briskly, my confidence and assuredness coming back to me in buckets. I am affronted, challenged by his jeering look up to the window at me in my privacy. I can feel my pistol bouncing at my side. I am excited, it is all a game, a game I always win.
Her pretty mouth was contorted in surprise and pain
I was furious, boiling in a quick rage again.
Blood leaking forth and spreading
Over white crinoline and lace
The beautiful scarlet lipsticked face
Becalmed as she collapsed.
She is nothing to me.
As am I.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“I want for nothing. It is too late to want.” He says with a calmness that surprises me.
“Out of my way, you fool, or I shall whip you with my stick!” I say brandishing my cane defiantly.
“You cannot harm me sir, neither with your cane, your pistol nor your harsh words. Nor can you be harmed. It is too late.”
“You’re talking gibberish fellow.”
“We are bound to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“The highwayman has arrived now ere the moon rises. And you are now here to journey. We shall be fellow travellers Mr Armitage, and it will be a long journey.”
How does he know my name? A placidness flows through me, an acceptance, and I cannot resist it. Faces, faces looking up at my window come back to me, faces etched with fear and resignation, assessing me, their future travelling companion.
“We shall get to know each other on the journey, but who yet will be judged?”
My shoulders slump and my spirit sags, understanding suddenly.
“Where are we going?”
“Hell sir. And it will be a long, long arduous journey.”
‘I’m not sure what I have found here, but it’s very unusual,’ I said, talking on the land-line to the dig director in New York. As usual, the Irkutsk office was chilly and I was pacing up and down both in an attempt to get warm and with building excitement. We called it our office but it was really nothing more than a rented desk with Wi-Fi and communications, a photocopier and tea and coffee facilities. This was Siberia; people used to be sent out here by the KGB as a punishment. We did not expect modern, plush centrally heated offices.
This was to be our third year uncovering and documenting a family group of woolly mammoths that had been discovered by chance by a forester after a particularly heavy storm had caused a landslide and had left a point of a tusk poking out of the sodden ground. The excavation site was out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by more nowhere, and trees, lots of trees: spruce, larch, pine, silver birch; but we were not interested in our current natural environment, we were archaeologists.
We had just re-opened the dig after the winter recess when temperatures at the site rarely rose above -20. It would have been impossible to continue working during the cold months so we had packed everything away carefully; prepared, covered and protected and concealed the site – it was in little danger over winter – after all it had been there for tens of thousands of years, so we left it to all intents and purposes as we had found it. Hidden. We left nothing of value over the winter recess, let’s face it, all we really left was a pile of old bones – the tusks may have been of value to grave-digging Japanese entrepreneurs who would grind mammoth tusks to dust and sell the dust as an aphrodisiac or as a cure for cancer. Ridiculous! But the site was secret and so far from anywhere that it was safe to leave.
There were usually two of us working on the dig, myself, Connor Stephens, 31 year old Smithsonian graduate with thirteen years archaeological hands on experience and Tom Martin who came over for a few weeks during the season to help. He was older than me and more experienced but less qualified. We did not talk much, no late night drinking sessions, no field girls to play around with. We enjoyed the tranquillity and the work. It engrossed us. Occasionally a student or two would join us; they would have to source their own funding, but serious work experience on an anthropological dig was hard to come by – and we welcomed the help and the company if it came free – and they could get here. Our local contact and Russian archaeological representative was a consultant from Irkutsk called Mahrat and he tended just to turn up when he was in the area. It was through him that we had the visas and permits to be working in Siberia, without him none of the work could have started or continued. It was Mahrat who had first recommended the site for excavation after some interesting bones had been uncovered back in 2009.
The ground had thawed rapidly after we had put the tents and canvas up and the heaters on. We’d cleared away the top-soil and that had been laid back down in October and we had made a good start to the season.
‘No, the mastodon bones are as we left them. The family group is exactly as we left it and undisturbed. But I have made significant progress on the bull, the separate specimen. The main frame is wonderfully presented but there’s something else there, something more elaborate, more complex remains within the bull. It’s a mystery and I am after a second opinion.’
‘Connor, you mean you need more money,’ George replied.
‘George, I am not one of those field workers that is always phoning you up and begging for more resources. You know how cheaply we run this dig – I sleep in my motor-home for months on end and this office probably only costs you a few hundred roubles a month,’ Connor complained.
‘So you don’t want any more money?’
‘I’ll e-mail you some shots so you can see where we are and what we have found. I have lifted out all the spoil, put up the grid and taken some really neat overhead pictures, but I’m confused. I just need to invite a guy, Patrick Tiler, I met a couple of years ago in Maine...’
‘And he wants expenses. I knew you wanted money, that’s all you people ever call me for... George I need more machinery, George, we want to extend the dig time...’ I deliberately remained calm and did not rise to his taunts. George could be bombastic but I knew that I had his attention.
‘He’ll be interested, and won’t need a consulting fee, I only need to pay for his flight and car hire.’ We had backing from Yale and The Smithsonian but the funding was always finite and always an issue. George was our director and had to answer to the committee made up of sponsors.
‘What have you found?’
‘I don’t know, but I need a second opinion. It is groundbreaking stuff, George. You know I wouldn’t be asking if I was in doubt.’
‘OK, tell him to invoice us. But no first class and no Merc.’ George put the phone down on me without a goodbye. I punched the air.
The dig needed more funding. What anthropomorphic archaeological dig did not? But we were at the boring edge of archaeology; a group of mammoths caught in a sudden arctic storm and buried in snow only to be discovered 25000 years later did not have the same romantic attraction as dinosaurs…big dinosaurs like those that had been found in Patagonia.
25000 years ago the part of Siberia we had been working in had been very different. It had been a prairie, a vast grass plain that in the summer was verdant and lush. Mammoths roamed freely and in small herds, moving with the seasons and travelling up to a thousand miles annually. They were family groups of 10/12m a dominant bull and a small group of cows and adolescents. They had few predators, the calves were occasionally taken by a tiger or wolf pack but even the adolescents had little to fear. The male mammoth had tusks that could be three meters and more and were flamboyantly and magnificently curled up, the mammoths were all covered in a thick matted fur that protected them from the ferocious winters that could descend so quickly in this part of the world. They must have been majestic beasts to see, often half as big again as the biggest elephants we have in Africa or India – it was conjectured that the bull’s trumpet could be heard from over a mile away.
There was what looked like a tail. About six feet long and it looked prehensile. The main body was some four-feet long with strong legs, the head was almost bird-like, with a strange pointed structure. I had immediately thought of an ostrich like animal, or a kangaroo with the bones broken, contorted and twisted and compressed and that the timeline would be totally thousands of years different. Just a coincidence that glacial movement or subsidence had slid them together. But, the whole thing appeared to be in a scrunched up foetal position, all wrapped up. It only added to the confusion. A kangaroo in the Russian steppes? A kangaroo from 25000 years ago? It’s descendants only to be found in Australasia? Had I found a new species? That was ridiculous. You do not find only one specimen and there was no precedent. Perhaps there was something I was missing, perhaps it was just a large female and not a male and I was just looking at a malformed pregnancy, perhaps there had been ongoing tree root disturbance and movement. But it by far was the most interesting and exciting discovery I had come across in my thirteen years. Each day was a joy, each moment of uncovering, brushing, revealing was totally involving. I knew from the very first moment that I had something special and I savoured it.
Patrick arrived a week later. It had rained constantly for days and I had not really had much opportunity to scrape and reveal anything further. Even with the canvas up it was impossible to work; the forest ground was saturated, the rain ran in rivulets, I spent more time bailing out the pit and trying to keep the bones as dry as I could. It was constantly dusk, miserable and wet. My enthusiasm was dampened too: it was good to see a dry and friendly face.
‘You didn’t tell me about the road,’ Patrick said.
‘Ah. There isn’t one.’
‘Nor the mobile phone coverage. My Sat Nav had no idea where I was.’
‘No. I know. Hope the map helped,’ I said.
‘The hand drawn map...’
‘And you saw the signs off the Irkutsk road onto the Bratsk track...’
‘Yep. And I took them down as I came past. You’re being secretive, Connor. That’s unlike you.’
There was a moment of hand shaking and back-slapping and I put the kettle on. I was desperate for Patrick to arrive so that I could share mine and Tom’s discovery. We were beginning to imagine all sorts of Darwinian answers.
‘I don’t know.’ Patrick said, looking down in the pit from the side.
‘Neither do we. Should we expand the site, we could open up several more pits?’ The rain had passed and we had spent a couple of days drying out the dig and shoring up the sides to make it safe from collapse.
‘I think it might come to that. But you’ll have to do it by hand. They’d never pay for a digger to come all the way out here.
The pit was six meters by four and contained a mass of bones, a convoluted confusing mass of bones that had turned to rock. We had found eight distinct specimens that had presumably huddled and perished together in the frozen mud – it was nearly impossible to distinguish one specimen from another, cow to calf, adolescent to calf. We had lifted out and separated a mother and a calf, catalogued and labelled and crated it up ready for transport but there was still so much more work to do. And we had to sort out an answer to our riddle. What was it?
We sent samples of the bones off for Carbon 14 dating. Urgent.
Tom, Patrick and I had make the journey to the Irkutsk office to phone up the lab in Maine for the dating results of the bone sample we had carefully scratched from both the bull and the unborn malformed infant. We had moved neither specimen but had managed to clear away some of the overlaying adolescent bones that had obscured the bull. It had been a painstaking work, photographing every stage as we went. We had also extended the pit a foot to the left to see if there was anything else we had not discovered.
‘You playing games with me Connor?’
‘These samples you sent me. 25k old mammoth. Fine. C14 puts it at the right period. But there’s too much of an anomaly in the unborn infant samples. The reading is not right. You probably have contaminated it. It goes way off piste – like 80,000 years. It’s not right, the carbon residue is not balanced. We’ve had the calcium levels checked and they are wrong too – you sure you’ve taken a bone sample and not just a scraping from the bottom of your boot?’ he asked sarcastically.
‘Absolutely certain. And we labelled and sent the samples in an airtight pack – they cannot, 100 per cent be contaminated.’
‘Sorry, buddy. If you’re not playing games someone is... The sample you sent me is not prehistoric bone.’
I felt light headed. My heart was beating wildly. Why me? Why had this fateful thing landed in my lap? And was I about to make a fool of myself by declaring that the Loch Ness Monster had been found or that fairies were for real or yeti were actually abominable?
We closed up the dig early. And were absolutely thorough in the dismantling. We protected, covered, layered and put the spoil back in shovel by shovel. We removed all signs of the excavation, literally covered our own tracks. George had increased our funding to allow two assistants to join us a month previously. They had to pay for their own flights and transport but were offered a bursary. We also had a cameraman who documented what we were doing. We removed the bull and unborn infant and rented a bare warehouse in Irkutsk, ready to reassemble the jigsaw pieces and display the remains as they had been seen in situ. It took ages to organise and we had Russian advisors and military crawling all around. Mahrat came over daily. But we kept our findings to ourselves. This was going to be our moment.
We had thought long and hard about how to present our findings.
George had come over, along with two representatives from the funding committee plus a Smithsonian guy. There were two elderly Russian specialists a uniformed Russian man who looked like he could be KGB but was really friendly and jovial and a few other invited anthropologists and palaeontologists. A few trusted members of the press. And a camera crew. This was news. Old news maybe, boring mammoth news perhaps, not even exciting tyrannosaurus or velociraptor news…
You could not call it a press conference. More an open meeting for open minded, like-minded invited enthusiasts. There were few amenities offered in the warehouse, a few tubular chairs, tea and coffee and fixed floodlighting showing a reconstructed dig. There were a mass of bones, protruding rocks in shapes and lines. It was not easy to make out without a trained eye.
I stood in front of all and with a stick pointed to the pit and started to explain:
‘Gentlemen. This is our dig. We have relocated here because the actual dig is in the middle of a forest, in the middle of nowhere North of here. The Russian authorities would not allow us to move any more of the specimens. They are all to stay in Siberia but we will be allowed to continue our work under the supervision and guidance of the Russian archaeological authorities. We are indebted to them for their help and support. This is their find, their property.’ I looked about me and knew that I had them, they were hanging on my every word.
‘25000 years ago this family of mammoths got caught in a mother of a winter storm. Six feet of snow can fall in a day out here. And they all perished together. The peat and the sediment preserve the bones. Nothing has been altered. This is exactly, precisely as we found it. We have comprehensive data and video footage. But, we need help. We need the best, the world experts.’
I pointed with a stick: ‘This specimen here is the bull, the largest mammoth and the principal. You can see the frame of something underneath, and within the main set of bones.’ I pointed and explained the curvature of spine...explained that it looked like a baby within the main body... or as if an animal had pushed out the guts and organs and had climbed inside the dying body to escape the -40C cold... ‘And here’s the point guys...’ I hesitated and waited, swallowing, my voice wavering with nerves. ‘It’s unlike anything I have ever seen. It fails all the tests. I think it is off world. An alien. ‘
There was a silence. You could have heard a pin drop.