A story written for TCW Defending Freedom
3 – Curiously pointed teeth
BARKWRIGHT and Borys carried a ladder to the beach as well as a powerful torch. ‘I’m just curious,’ Barkwright said. He crouched at the hole and shone the torch down it. ‘Blimey,’ he said. The chamber below was revealed in the yellow glare. It was about 20ft across, its walls built up with huge stones like a sort of gigantic cairn. On the stones were faded markings of a kind that Barkwright, no expert but not ignorant either, did not recognise. In the middle of the chamber the dark pile seemed to consist of rags. He and Borys lowered the ladder, but it was too short. Another hour was invested in finding rope and recruiting three members of the kitchen staff to hold it while Barkwright climbed down. He was no coward. ‘This is all a bit Hollywood,’ he said to Borys with a smile. Before he disappeared Borys, who looked nervous, said: ‘Be careful.’
As soon as he was into the darkness, with just the dim light from the opening above him, Barkwright smelled the damp mustiness of the chamber. It must have been flooded many times before now, he thought. His main concern was hanging on to the rope, and here he admitted to himself he was being reckless. Had he read in a newspaper of a man half his age being injured or killed in the enterprise he was now undertaking, he would have concluded that it was obvious stupidity. Now, his hands burning on the rope as he inched down, he felt a tinge of apprehension. ‘Keep an eye on the tide,’ he called up.
At last he reached the bottom of the rope in near-total darkness. He removed the torch from his pocket and switched it on. The beam cut through the gloom: the faded patterns on the stone walls were crude, eerie drawings: skulls, dragon-like creatures, strange words in a language Barkwright did not recognise. ‘Fascinating!’ he said. This was nothing connected to Victorian seaside architecture, was most likely a burial chamber, but at which period had people been buried in this way on beaches? And were there any remains?
He briefly wondered when a human being had last stood in the chamber. Then he turned to look at the dark pile in the centre. Now he was closer he could see that it was not rags but a kind of silt, no doubt accumulated down the centuries. It was odd that it had collected in the centre, he thought, but that was most likely to do with periodic flooding. In the torchlight it glinted, as if precious stones were pulverised within it. He stepped towards the pile and poked about in the cinder-like material with his foot. His shoe struck something. It seemed to be a piece of bone. He leant down and pushed away more of the silt.
The mysterious object was indeed made of bone: it was a skull.
Even for an arch-rationalist like Barkwright, this discovery was sobering. He picked up the skull and examined it closely. It was rather curious, he thought: it was a bit small to be an adult’s and yet too oddly shaped to be a child’s. If anything it seemed more like a monkey’s, but the teeth looked human though curiously pointed. His old friend Dennis Palgrave at Cambridge would be interested in this, if not the British Museum, he thought. It might even be a news item for the Times. There were many bone fragments in the pile, all of them blackened. Perhaps they had been burned.
‘Sir,’ called Borys from above. ‘Perhaps you hurry – tide is coming in.’
Barkwright held the skull at arm’s length and looked at the gaping eye sockets. ‘I knew him, Horatio,’ he murmured. With that he tucked the skull under his arm. There was no question of his ascending the rope and keeping hold of the skull, so he wound the rope around his torso and called to Borys and the others to pull him up.
He felt tremendously revived for seeing daylight and smelling the sea. Borys and the team were wide-eyed at the skull. Between them they hauled the hatch shut and went back to the hotel. Barkwright stowed the skull in a Tesco carrier bag in his room. He felt little in the way of demurral about having removed it: the study of history requires artefacts, he thought. He felt depleted by the morning’s exertions, got on the bed and settled down for a nap. He imagined the skull in a case in the British Museum. He would be able to say on the way to lunch somewhere with a girlfriend, ‘Shall we pop in and see the skull I found?’ As he drifted into sleep he resolved he would ring Palgrave in the morning. No doubt before long the chamber would be under full excavation.
To be continued.