Sometimes when I'm clearing the ground for a new novel I write chapters or stories to imagine myself in that world.
I wrote this story 'Homing the Carp' to give my novel The Pathfinder - set in the 4thC AD - a modern context. This was based in my recognition that the present day survival of Celtic artifacts was the clue to the high sophistication of the underrated non-literate Celtic Culture.
I decided in the end to locate the novel in its own time but this story about Geoffrey finding an artifact survives in its own right.
Geoffrey Daniels, bored with his life and the empty years rippling before him like a snake, decided to dig a hole in his back lawn. He needed to house an end-of term-gift from his pupil Pip Hawley - possibly the least boring person of his acquaintance. This Gift was happy at the moment, swimming in the claw-footed bath in the second bathroom. Geoffrey felt he was lucky it wasn't a crocodile. Young Pip had never been less than original.
When he got in from the library Geoffrey had found the water tank wrapped in stained brown paper on his doorstep . He realised it was from Pip from the style of the writing scrawled on the brown paper. Her u r Jeff enduv term presnt. It’s a CARP.
Pip went nowhere without his bike. Geoffrey thought he must have brought the gift strapped to the handlebars of his bike. Or he might even have walked alongside the bike, balancing the gift between the seat and the handlebars in the water-tank.
Checking on the internet Geoffrey discovered that carp were an expensive and very ancient species. They could live for many years and needed lots of living space. It also said that they would die in confined spaces, which meant it wouldn’t last long even though he had managed, with a struggle, to heave in into in the bath in the second bathroom.
He thought he had better get a move on.
The man at B&Q, who had helped Geoffrey before, suggested Geoffrey would need a sharp-edged spade to cut into the ground. ‘Yeh’ll have a job, though, cuttin’ through a lawn as old as that,’ he said. He wrapped the spade in brown paper and then directed Geoffrey to the Pond and Water department where he would find the pond building kits.
In the Pond and Water Feature department he talked to a knowledgeable but officious woman about the eating habits of carp. She sold him carp food, an especially large tarpaulin and a booklet on how to use it to line a hole and make a fish pond. As she taped up the tarp for carrying she told him how valuable they were, carps, ‘The Russians have them, you know, in ginormous tanks in their big houses in London. They often,’ she lowered her voice, ‘have them guarded by trained men.’
Geoffrey thought that perhaps he should consider security, so he bought heavy boots and thick gloves.
The sun was high in the sky when Geoffrey got home. He stowed the tarpaulin in his garage and then, over a cup of coffee, he checked the booklet on how to dig the hole and lay out the tarpaulin. Then he pulled on the new boots and gloves and strode out across the garden to start on his pond.
He wedged his spade in the turf, stood up straight and then surveyed his garden. His eye caught the glitter of water. The river. His house stood in the middle of a long ridge of houses whose gardens swept down to the river that wound its way through the town, before it flowed on, on, towards the coast.
He turned on his pocket radio then got down to work. First, he marked out the perimeters of the pond with the water hose. Then he worked steadily through the afternoon heat of midsummer.
At first he struggled to cut into the turf. Then he mastered that and chopped it out in chunks before making a neat pile of turf sods under the lime tree that dominated his lawn. By five o’clock he had managed to cut out the outline of the pool, strip off all the turf and dig down one foot. That done he stood up and stretched. His legs were aching and his feet were sore in the new unyielding boots.
He went into the house, made a fresh cup of tea and walked through his house, tea cup in hand.
His new boots echoed on the uncarpeted hall, up the stairs and along the landing. The spaces echoed because - except for the kitchen, sitting room and small bedroom, - the house was more or less empty.
In his early years here and in his parents’ time this house had always been a full, even over-full. Then, the bustling Eva had bounced into his life and very soon she told him that his house a revolting mausoleum, full of dead people’s things. Later he thought it ironic that her revulsion had not stopped Eva emptying his house - carpets, curtains and all - one day when he was at school having transferred its contents - except for stuff in the kitchen, sitting room and small bedroom - into a very large van.
Later, Geoffrey had wondered what Eva had done with the dead people’s things she had always so despised. Probably, he thought, she had sold the quality stuff on Ebay and the rest at car boot sales. Eva was fond of a good car boot sale. On reflection, he thought he should be pretty grateful that she had left behind the contents of the sitting room, the kitchen and the small bedroom. He could live here quite comfortably.
And now today, made or his bedroom, put down his cup, took off his boots, lay down on his narrow bed and went to sleep.
The next morning he was woken by the sun streaming through his curtain-less window. . He rolled over and peered at his bedside clock. 4 am. He realised he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Convenient, really. No need to waste time getting dressed, He walked into his slippers, padded to the bathroom and fed the carp, which flicked its tail slightly on appreciation. Then, retrieving his boots from the bedroom, he padded down to the kitchen and ate two bowls of corn flakes. He sat on the step to pull on his boots and then took a cup of tea outside into the garden.
He looked across the river and on into the far distance. The night time shadow in the dip below the horizon darkened for a moment and then brightened,as the sun popped up and forced the day into being.
Geoffrey surveyed his lawn and peered into the hole at its centre. It now looked neat and well established, the dry top soil giving way to the darker clay underneath. He put down his cup on the grass, turned on his radio and started to dig. As he dug deeper, discussion about unwanted migrants surging into Britain in their hundreds flowed over and about him. He dug right through the forensic and light-hearted interviews on the Today Programme, through Melvyn Bragg discussing the Roman God Mythras with modest, learned experts, through a short story about an eccentric woman painter, through a discussion about low libido in successful women and a serialised extract from a fawning biography of a dead comedian.
How useful, Geoffrey thought as he widened and deepened the hole, that he was expanding his knowledge as well as making this big pond for his carp. After an hour he began to throw up rough stones. Detritus from the building of the house in 1870. Geoffrey had spent the summer before Eva arrived researching the history of the house when it was still full of fine furniture.
By eleven o’clock that morning Geoffrey was waist-deep in the hole and just beginning to realise that getting out of it might be a problem. He managed to scramble out with the help of ancient coping stone, probably discarded hundreds of years before.
He went and got a ladder from the garage, propped it in the hole and climbed down again into the depths. You would, he thought, probably need a deep hole for a carp
He continued digging. Eventually the bottom of the hole became sticky and he began to throw up mud rather than soil. Water began to flood around his boots. Even so, he was so absorbed in the words from the radio that he felt a shock when his spade thumped and rasped against a solid surface. He scraped off a lump of mud and exposed a piece of metal, grey as smoke, with raised ridges around the edge. He moved backwards so that the sun tipped over his shoulder and lit on a shred of gold on one of the raised ridges.
Heat flushed through Geoffrey's body from his heels to the nape of his neck. His pale cheeks reddened and he could have sworn that his hair was standing out all around his head. He rushed to scramble up the ladder out of the hole. Then he peered back down at the thing he had uncovered.
It was rectangular, grey metal, the size of a tabloid newspaper. Man-made, for certain, he thought. Peered down at it. The marks and ridges on the outside edge caught the sun and glittered gold. Brackish water was welling around the thing, making puddles that reflected the pure blue of the summer sky.
He stood back and stretched frowning. Then he went to the garage to get the spare washing line, grateful that Eva had not snaffled that as well as the tools. He climbed back into the hole and tied the rope around the metal thing. Then he looped the rope around his shoulder, climbed out and hauled the thing out onto the lawn.
Geoffrey looked around and and then up at the windows of the attached house, but there was no sign of life. So, holding the thing awkwardly under his arm, he took it across to the table on the terrace that stood beside Eva’s sunbathing chair. (The neighbours had written to him, complained about Eva sunbathing topless. He had burned the note.)
He rubbed off some more mud and exposed more of the metal surface. Lead, he thought. Some kind of old lead tablet. Perhaps a house sign? Or a grave marker? He picked up the hose, turned on the tap and played water softly over the thing. The water diluted the mud and flushed it all away. He turned off the hose and peered at the surface.
Now he could see properly. A gleam of gold picked out an elaborate border of leaves and nuts. A column of lines and words filled the centre of the tablet. The letters, also picked out in gold, were slightly wavy, hand-cut into the lead. And they were in Latin.
His thoughts were interrupted by the shrieking of a police siren and the screaming of car brakes. And then the garden was a whirl of police uniforms which solidified into two constables. They stood there, examining Geoffrey from head to foot with chilly objectivity.
‘Yes?’ he said mildly, placing himself in front of the table and the leaden tablet. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Mr Dunhill? It’s Mr Dunhill isn’t it?’ the older policeman said. He turned to his colleague. ‘It was Mr Dunhill here that taught me Latin,’ he grinned. ‘Fat lot of use that was, of course. Latin.’
He turned back to Geoffrey. ‘Gary Summers. Remember me?’ He made to shake Geoffrey’s hand but had second thoughts when he saw the mud. ‘Still teaching Latin, Mr Dunhill?’ he said,
Geoffrey shook his head. ‘No longer. They closed down the classics department when they expanded the IT.’
‘Makes sense,’ said the policeman. ‘Dead languages. No thanks mate. Still teaching though?’
‘Well yes. I’m teaching at Warwick House.’
‘Muppets!’ Gary Summers spat out the word. ‘Backward kids isn’t it?
Geoffrey thought of the bright, resourceful Pip Hawley who had brought him the gift of the carp. Pip couldn’t read and had only a father’s care. From the beginning he had attached himself to Geoffrey. The boy turned up at his house now and then, strange gifts in his bicycle basket. ‘Children with special needs,’ sighed Geoffrey. ‘Some of the kindest, most interesting kids I’ve ever taught, if you want to know. The most original.’
‘Bit of a comedown, mebbe? For someone like you Mr Dunhill?’
Geoffrey shook his head. ‘It’s no less of a challenge, working with children for whom all language is a mystery, than it was with your cohort, Gary, whose mission was to kill any language, whatever its beauty, stone dead.’ He paused. ‘You must be here for something?’
The policemen exchanged glances and nodded up towards the next door window, where the curtains were now twitching. Gary Summers raised a hand and waved. ‘You neighbour rang us, Said you were digging this hole in your lawn, Thought it looked suspicious.’
‘It’s a fish pond.' Geoffrey shook his head. ‘A pond for a fish. A Carp.’
Gary Summers stroked his chin. ‘Doesn’t look like a fish pond.’
‘Just looks like a bloody big hole in the ground,’ grunted the other constable.
‘It isn’t finished yet.’ Geoffrey defended his hole.
‘Really Mr Dunhill. It does look - well, - a bit strange.’ Gary Summers insisted.
‘It's for a fish I have just acquired. A big one. I’ll show you.’ Geoffrey was suddenly very anxious to get the policemen away from the table and his lead tablet. He set off and they followed. He led the way through the echoing house to the second bathroom where the carp, full from his breakfast, was moving slowly in the restricted space, flicking its tale in a dangerously indolent fashion. Geoffrey’s heart lurched. He must get the carp into the pond very soon.
While the policemen peered at the fish Geoffrey sluiced his hand in the hand basin, soaped them and sluiced them again. Then he picked up a towel and rubbed them dry.
Gary Summers grunted. ‘Seems OK. Carp, is it? Rare fish those are.’ Did it cost a lot?’
‘It was an end-of-term gift.’ For the first time Geoffrey wondered where Pip had got the carp.
The policemen turned and the three of them moved back down through the sparsely furnished house. Geoffrey saw them out, shaking hands with both of them at the gate before they got in the car and roared away.
He was just turning back to the front door when a hand pulled at his jacket. ‘Hey Jeff! You been a bad lad then? Poliss around is it?’
He looked down into the bright, foxy eyes of Pip Lawler and grinned. ‘No, Pip. I was digging a hole for our fish and they thought I was digging a grave for somebody.’
Pip grinned. ‘Cool, that. Can I see the hole?’
Geoffrey led the way round the back, Pip whistled and walked round the hole. ‘I could a helped yer with this, Geoff.’
‘Well you can. Still plenty of work to do. Got to cover it with the tarpaulin and seal it before we get the fish in the hole. Then we need to get the carp into it, pronto.’ He paused. ‘So where d’you get it Pip? The carp?’
‘My dad won it in a game of cards,’ Pip shrugged. ‘Bets on anything, he does. Then he didn’t know what to do with it. One of his mates is keen on fish.’ He moved across to the muddy table and began to poke at the lead tablet.’ ‘What’s this?’ he said.
‘It’s an old thing that came out from the hole. Some kind of plaque, I think.’
‘Plaque? Queer old word, that. Plaque.’ Pip curled his lips around the word as though he were tasting it. He peered closer. ‘What’s it say? What’s them letters say?’
Geoffrey shrugged. ‘Well it’s not in English. It’s in very weird form of Latin, a language used a very long time ago. A thousand years ago.’
Pip whistled. ‘A thousand years? What’s it say? Look! The words is lined with gold. Go on Jeff. You can read anything.’
Geoffrey pulled the tablet towards him. ‘Let’s see.’ He sloshed it with more water from the hose.
‘Go on!’ Pip was very impatient. ‘Tell us!’
‘Well,’ said Geoffrey, his nose very close to the tablet. ‘It says something like Elen, Empress of Britain. Her True Story. Goddess of the Ways.’Hard to read. Perhaps two thousand years old,’ he said hesitantly.
‘But what’s the story?’ said Pip, disappointed. ‘No room on there for a story, is there?’’
‘There might be something more in the hole,’ said Geoffrey.
But when they got to the hole it was filled with ten inches of water. ‘I see! It’s a natural spring,’ said Geoffrey. ‘It’ll be good for the carp. Perhaps it’s gift for your carp from this Elen of the Ways.’
Pup rubbed his nose. ‘What’s a natural spring, like?’
That was an easier question to answer. As they sat and ate beans on toast Geoffrey told Pip all about natural springs. Then he sent the boy on his way, promising that he could help to finish the pool tomorrow and set up the carp in its new home.
'Ýeah,'said Pip thoughtfully. 'We'll be homing the carp.'
After seeing Pip off, Geoffrey retrieved the tablet from the garden table and waved cheerily up at his neighbour, who was staring down at him from her bedroom window.
He took the tablet into the kitchen and attacked it with the nail brush he kept there to scrub potatoes. He ate a lot of potatoes. As he scrubbed it clean the lead, became a more uniform grey and the gold emerged yellow and bright. He rubbed it gently with a soft cloth and uncovered much smaller letters at the bottom of the tablet. He dried it all, wrapped it in a tea-towel and took it to his desk in the sitting room so he could look at it under his reading lamp.
He was forced to use two dictionaries and then resort to the internet, but in the end he worked it out. Finally the whole text glittered up at him:
The mark for Elen, a British princess, truly married to the Emperor of the West.
A story of Britain kept safe by a soldier’s care. Quintanius Sixtus.