The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
THE SCARLET SKULL
I pulled myself out of the grave and sat on the edge to straighten my back. It was only when I looked around that I saw that the rest of the team had left for their tea break. I was alone in the church.
Well, alone except for about 2000 people crowded around me, but they were all long dead. Looking about it struck me that this was like a scene from a horror film or some grisly mediaeval painting of the Last Judgement. All about was a chaos of open graves and broken coffins with bones everywhere, most of them disarticulated but with quite a few complete skeletons. I hadn’t looked at it like this before – in the context of an archaeological dig everything is sanitised, bodies are not frightening but interesting, indeed romantic. I sensed this myself as an historical novelist. It is not often that one meets somebody who fought in the Civil War face to face.
Archaeological digs are usually in the open air. This one was indoors because the local vicar had been given permission and the funds to dig up the nave of his big mediaeval church to build the basement parish room in which I was later to lecture. This meant exhuming about 2000 interments, that is about 300 a century for seven centuries. At first only clergy were buried inside the church but in time the town notables came to want the same privilege, particularly if they had contributed to the church, so that the building gradually developed into a mausoleum for the better-off. Their bodies were packed in layers, cutting across each other, the topmost scarcely a couple of inches below the flagstones. On most archaeological digs one can trowel away all day and find nothing; not here!
I glanced back into the grave where I had been working and a small bright red skull grinned back at me. The red skull always attracted attention. Passers by would glance down into the grave as I worked there and exclaim ‘Good Lord, whatever’s that!’. I would explain that in the 19th century the 12th century painted tiles in the nave had been replaced by the present flagstones, burying many of the original tiles among the graves. A red painted tile had fallen across this skull and had slowly stained it scarlet.
Not that I had worked this out for myself. One of the professional told me. I was an untrained volunteer, or as my daughter explained to her schoolfriends, ‘my Dad digs up dead bodies in his spare time’. The professional, a young woman who kept her beautiful lithe body superbly honed by constantly racing up ladders and jumping in and out of tombs, had joined me in the confines of the grave. All I had found was grey dust and a small eggshell-thin skull through which I had accidentally poked my trowel.
Patricia set to work, using not a trowel but an artist’s brush. Carefully she brushed at the dust and it began to turn black.
‘The coffin has disappeared’, she explained, ‘but there is always a layer of moisture at the heart of the wood which is there in the dust and if we’re careful we can bring it out.’ She carried on brushing and brilliant white shapes began to emerge against the black background. ‘It’s the same with the bone, you see, there’s usually a trace of moisture from the heart of the bone which you can bring out in the same way.’ It was like seeing a photograph being developed. An image of the skeleton appeared beneath her brush, not a vague outline but a detailed image with each vertebra of the spine quite distinct.
‘I’ll leave you to get on with it. When you’re ready I’ll get the photographer and we’ll take a picture before we brush it away and see what the one below is like.’
‘What do I do with the skull?’
‘Pop it in a plastic bag and label it. We’ve got a bone expert who wants to look at our finds.’
I worked slowly and carefully. There were no teeth in the skull but plenty of loose teeth in the dust – tooth enamel lasts indefinitely. I fitted the teeth back in the skull. It was unprofessional but I wanted her to look nice for her first and last photo-opportunity. From the body’s slender build I reckoned it was a woman, although it could have been a youth.
I looked down into the grave admiring my handiwork.
‘Do I look good, Edward’, said the skull.
‘Good God! You called me Edward.’
‘Your friends throw around Christian names so much that I could scarce not know your name.’
‘I meant … I mean…’ I had really meant to say ‘but you’re dead’, but I thought she might be sensitive about it.
‘You look very nice’, I said lamely, before remembering that in her day ‘nice’ probably meant small.
‘Thank you kindly, Sir, and thank you for the teeth. They weren’t mine but it was nice of you.’
‘Tell me about yourself’, I asked. ‘Where were you from?’ I really wanted to ask how old she was but I didn’t know if it was polite.
‘There’s a zinc plate somewhere around here with all the details. They put it on my chest in case I had visitors. My name is Elizabeth and I was born not ten miles from here in 1640.’
‘So can you remember the Civil War?’
‘Can I not! It didn’t end with Naseby you know. That ghastliness at Maidstone was three years later, when I was eight. We were in the town because our village had been burnt. Mother hid us in the cellar and they didn’t find us. And then there were the wars with the Scots and then the Irish. Father was impressed by Parliament’ – I think she meant he was conscripted into the Parliamentarian army – ‘and they sent him to Ireland to kill Catholics, although they meant nothing to us. And then as if that wasn’t enough they sent him to the West Indies to fight the Spaniards and he died there of yellow fever.
‘It was an awful time, always hungry and never safe. There were soldiers everywhere and they were seldom paid, even after the war, so they lived by robbery.’
‘I understand’, I said. ‘I’m working in England at the moment but my real job is with an international aid agency in Kurdistan. It must be like England in the 1640’s. You had a terrible life.’
‘I had a wonderful life’, she replied haughtily. ‘I was born in one of the most desperate places on earth and I died in 1724 in the richest corner of the richest kingdom in the world, richer than any kingdom had ever been, and without leaving the county. I did very well for myself. You don’t get buried inside the church for nothing.’
‘Did you marry well?’
‘Not in the sense you mean. I was comely enough but there weren’t any wealthy husbands in our corner of the country – we were all ruined. I would have gone to Virginia as an indentured servant to work in the tobacco fields, but my stepfather forbade it. Mother had married again, to a preacher. He made me learn to read and sum. He said if I could read God’s word I could find a better class of husband.
‘And did you?’
‘I did. John was a journeyman printer. I was a servant at the print shop and I helped him proofread the print.’
‘Print shops must have been busy in those days.’
‘Indeed they were, and we would have been busier still but for the shortage of paper. I knew about paper-making because I had collected rags as a child for the paper mill, so John and I borrowed the money from the owner of the print shop to buy an old corn mill by the river and we turned it into a paper mill. At first we made paper for the print shop but soon we were sending it to London. The first London newspapers were printed on our paper.
‘At the end we had over seventy servants working at the mill, mostly women and children. We had to have men to do the screening, because that’s heavy work and we never did work out how to get the water wheel to help with that, God gave the water to turn the wheel and as folks became better clad they threw out more old clothes that we could turn into paper and the more they learned to read the more books and paper they bought,’
‘Bravo!’ I said. ‘It’s people like you who put this country together again.’
‘I like to think so. And Edward, when you go back to Kurdistan, tell them what I learned. Tell them it can be done. Tell them that however bad things are, you can change them and it can be done in one lifetime.’
‘I certainly will, but I must get away or I’ll miss the tea break. Stay here and I’ll be back.’
‘I won’t be going anywhere, I promise.’
I ran to the Vestry and rushed in. The team were just finishing their tea.
‘Quickly’, I called to the team leader, ‘come with me. One of people out there is telling me her life story. Come quick!’
‘Edward, are you sure you’re all right? Perhaps you’ve been working on this too long and we should put you on something else, like cataloging.’
I clutched at her sleeve. ‘Come, come’, I said and pulled her out of the door. The others followed.
We gathered around the grave. ‘I’m back, Elizabeth, and I’ve brought the others. We all want to hear your story.’
I looked down into the shallow pit and the red skull nestled there with her new-found teeth. She smiled up at me and said not a word.