Winchester: August 29th 1997
“Nothing; just smiling.”
“I can see that, but at what?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t have a label.”
“Well then it can’t be worth knowing about.”
“How can you say that?”
“I label every tiny fragment of bone and pottery I find on my digs. Something must be truly worthless to have no label.” Her little smile was blotted out again by a frown of concentration as she turned her attention back to the amphora. As she leaned on the table and stretched her neck forwards the Professor noticed how the lines around it were pale compared with the sun-blasted brown of the rest of its still-graceful length. He could smell the patchouli-scented moisturiser with which she attempted to stave off the effects of years spent first at Alexandria University, then in the heat and dust of, amongst many other places, Giza and the Bahira Oasis. It was one of her few concessions to femininity. Make-up was for high days and holidays. With her short hair, jeans and checked shirts she might have been the son he never had, were it not for the softness of her blue eyes – a blessing from her mother and an oasis in themselves.
“You know, my dear,” said Sutch, “for someone who’s spent so much time underground you’ve caught the sun rather a lot. You should take more care.”
She didn’t look at him as she replied: “Just like you have, father?”
He rubbed his hand with a rasp across his weather-beaten face. “I have to give you that one I suppose, although in men it’s seen as character.”
“Besides, like life in general, it’s only at the end we go underground, remember?”
“What, even in Alexandria? The whole ancient city lies beneath the modern one. People are forever falling into it. What do you need to dig for?”
She shook her head and continued scrutinising the amphora, though her little smile told him she was pretending to ignore his wind-up. “Where did you say you got this?”
“From a market stall in Mogadishu. Well, I didn’t get it from there; that was where I first saw it. The merchant has sent it to me.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Amazing really. Fort…a while back I spotted it. Now it arrives all boxed up, addressed to me at the RGS. The old merchant says he’s dying and he wants it to have a worthy home.”
Jane looked at him. “That is strange. You must have made quite an impression.”
Careful, you old fool, he chastised himself; when were you last in Mogadishu? He pointed to divert attention from himself. “What I assumed were simply designs, here, he insists are characters or runes from some ancient language. I’ve already had it carbon-dated and the data confirms it’s at least sixteen hundred years old.”
Jane’s mouth turned down as her eyebrows rose in semi-acknowledgement. “He could be right – about the characters. I’ve seen similar lettering in southern Mexico and Central America.” She didn’t see her father’s sharp little glance in her direction.
“That is interesting.” He paused, noting how his intonation sometimes matched hers, or was it vice versa. “I’d like you to do me a very big favour.” She looked at him. “Translate it. I’d be as much use as a…what do they say these days…chocolate fireguard? But we still need to work on it together – and in secret.” He tapped his nose for emphasis.
Her hand on his cheek was cool. “I’m sure you’d be of great assistance to me.” A pause. “Father?”
Sutch knew from her reaction that his excitement showed despite his best efforts. He had to let her in on part of the secret at least. “I can’t tell you much more for now, but it’s my belief that the text on this vessel contains information about tides and ocean currents, longitudinal and latitudinal readings.”
“Who told you that?”
“The old merchant.”
She put her hands on her hips, and then dropped them straight away, as if regretting that stereotypical female gesture of annoyance. “So he’s already translated it.”
“No, but what he knows about the provenance of…this piece leads him to that conclusion.”
Jane sat down on the edge of the desk with one of her bold, rather unfeminine movements. The amphora rocked in a gentle, but threatening way and the Professor reached for it in a panic. “Sorry father,” she said, seeing his distress. “I’ve spent too many years in macho company to be delicate; in too many hot, dusty places and male-dominated societies.”
Sutch puffed out his cheeks. “Yes, but I’d have thought moving around amongst the works of antiquity would have made you a tiny bit cautious. Anyway, back to the matter literally in hand,” he held up the amphora, “we need to work quickly.”
“Why the hurry? I thought this was an unexpected visitor in need of a home.”
“I have my reasons.”
She narrowed her eyes and gave a tight-lipped grin. “Hmmm, getting secretive in our old age. Okay, I’ll take it away tonight and…”
“No!” She looked taken aback and he raised a hand in apology. “Pardon my abruptness.” He dropped the raised hand and patted her on the leg. “What are your plans for the next couple of days?”
“Well, I’m due back at the Fitzwilliam Museum tomorrow, but I can get back from Cambridge to here in perhaps three hours if I leave early. Then I have to attend the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, but not for another week.”
“Tell the Fitzwilliam you’re indisposed.”
“I’m never ill.”
“Time you were then. Come and stay with us for a couple of days.”
“Father?” she protested.
“It’s important.” He pointed to the amphora. “If this is what I believe it to be, you will be telling Dr. Hawass and the Council that you’re not going to be joining them for some time.”
She, too, pointed to the amphora. “I hope this jug here is easier to decipher than you. But look, I can’t just stay away from home for two days. Pete…”
“…can look after himself.” Again he knew his face gave him away as he felt the darkness fall. He glanced up to see Jane frowning at him, her pale eyes glinting.
“That’s something he can’t do.”
“Only because you don’t let him when you’re there. What are you trying to prove? I mean, what does he do when you’re not there?” The Professor had his own answers to that question, but that would be a step too far. “He’s big and ugly enough…”
“Father, don’t be like that.”
The Professor’s eyes widened and he opened his hands; knowing the gesture looked as unconvincing as it felt. “What? It’s just a turn of phrase.”
“That’s disingenuous of you.” She stood up, walked across to the old fashioned globe in the corner of her father’s study, which she gave a spin just on the frustrated side of angry.
Sutch watched her and, as ever, felt the keen regret. But she was proud, fierce, highly intelligent and found it difficult to accept that there was an element of her life where, just perhaps, she might have made a mistake, or indeed lost control. He sighed. “My darling Jane, if you will help me with this, believe it or not, you might be unlocking for me a door that I’ve longed to open for years.
She turned and frowned. “I don’t understand. You’ve never mentioned anything before. I thought you said you’d just received this.”
Sutch was thrown for an instant, but soon gathered his wits. “Janey, how often do our paths cross, where we can sit down and have a good old chat about our lives? And besides, believe me, if I were to tell you, now, the nature of this…” he hesitated, “…obsession of mine, you would consider me an old fool, though I was quite a bit younger when it first took hold of me.”
His head dropped slightly. She came and sat on his lap, no longer the world-renowned archaeologist, just his little girl. “That’s something I could never think.” She paused. “Look, I’ll clear it with Pete and come over for a couple of days.”
He smiled and put an arm around her. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you can help me with this, and if I, as a result, can unlock my door, I’ll invite you and Pete to dinner to examine what’s behind it.”
She put her arms around his neck and leaned back the better to look at him. “Deal.” A kiss on the cheek and she stood “All of which means that I must nip home to Hampstead to collect some things, and I’ll be with you tonight.” She was nearly at the door when she turned again. “Father, please don’t be so hard on Pete. He’s not a bad man. But as the other one in my life, I guess he feels he has a lot to measure up to.”
She blew him a kiss and was gone.
“None so blind,” muttered Sutch under his breath. If he had his way he would slam his open door in that wastrel’s face. His Janey would be better off for it. But somehow he knew that chancer would still barge his way through. He smelt trouble brewing, but for the moment there was nothing he could do.
Winchester: September 21st 1997
Three weeks later, Edward Sutch leaned back in his chair and puffed out his cheeks. That promise of dinner still stood, having been an open invitation for nearly a month. But dear Candice was several steps nearer to receiving a shame-faced request to put on her apron, because thanks to that afternoon’s research three interlocking puzzle-pieces now sat on his desk.
He eyed them from left to right, laid out like an equation; the amphora, the piece of paper containing the fruits of the labours of several long evenings spent with his daughter, and the diary of Henry Black. None of them meant much on its own, but put them together and ‘x’ became less of a variable, even if it did not yet mark the spot.
So why was he delaying? Was it the final stand of a man of science; the pragmatist who didn’t believe in buried treasure? Strange for someone who had spent most of his life afloat on that great repository of sunken secrets, the ocean. Perhaps it was his fear that everything spread before him might add up to nothing, and his dream would fade. What had Tariq said; wondering was often better than knowing?
Or maybe he was just savouring this moment of fulfilment and everything that had led him here.
He picked up Jane’s work; the scent of her patchouli moisturiser was to those sheets of paper what the spices of the East had been to Tariq’s letter, so he could almost hear her voice:
“What? You’re not happy with it, are you?” He senses her bridling, but the frustration he knows must be showing on his face is not directed at her.
“No, no, no, Janey,” he protests, “on the contrary, you’ve done wonderfully to make any sense of it.”
She’s still unsure; irritated. “If it’s not good enough, perhaps you could have given me a bit more help, like you said you would.”
He pats her shoulder. “In the end, I left you alone on purpose; didn’t want to influence you, except for helping with the odd bit of technical jargon. Sometimes these things are clearer to an outsider.”
Her tone becomes milder. “Well actually, it makes no sense to me at all.”
“But it does to me,” he reassures her, “from a navigational point of view, allowing for a certain amount of superstitious clap-trap and deliberate obfuscation in the language.” He sits down next to her and points to the sheets of paper. “See here; this describes a technique that was in practice for more than a thousand years. Ancient sailors couldn’t read longitude, so most mariners of that time measured their journey from home against the stars using a knotted rope. All the distances are here.” He leans back and sighs, releasing his frustration cautiously. “Unfortunately for us it doesn’t tell us the starting point of the journey, which might have been any port in the southern hemisphere.” He assumes it was the main port of the still-mythical island kingdom. Even though he and Jane have taken an educated guess at the modern names of the stars and constellations, it has still left them with a lock they can’t pick.
Sutch had almost smashed the amphora in frustration on the night they finished their work together; he had so wanted to be able to share his secret with her as a reward, but then, some days later, in a moment of either genius or desperation, as if fate, in which of course he didn’t believe, had nudged him, he had remembered the writings – assumed to be ravings – of Captain Henry Black.
Plenty had been written about Black, not much of it agreeing with his own opinion of himself. From what Sutch could tell, he had been an adventurer, a mercenary and privateer like his great friends Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher, heroes of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He claimed to have taken part in that epic event, though there was no record of him, but given some of his acts of piracy on the high seas he may simply have wished to remain anonymous. Drake and Frobisher would have understood. Many of their deeds were given an undeserved gloss by Elizabethan historians and they had gone on to lead wealthy and esteemed lives. The same could not be said of Black, though what he did seem to have in common with them was his brilliance as a sailor, his command of the tides and the loyalty of his men.
Mad, or drunk, or both, he’d been jettisoned by Drake, who had abandoned him in Lisbon as a man might scrape shit from his shoe. Black had responded by leaving his post and plying his trade of piracy full-time. From time to time he would heave-to in some port, to replenish his supplies of drink and venereal diseases, the effects of both apparent in some of the writings in his bombastic journal; or at least that had always been the assumption of the cognoscenti. Black had considered his book enough of a contribution to posterity to have some copies made. The whereabouts of three of them were known, and Professor Sutch, a keen collector of rare maritime artefacts, was the proud, yet perhaps embarrassed owner of one, which he had pulled that evening from its hiding-place on one of the higher bookshelves in his study.
Like everyone else he had disregarded it as part fact, part fantasy, and had dismissed as the product of a fevered mind – until now – the chapter dealing with Black’s pursuit of a sleek, black trading ship that arrived laden with an undisclosed precious cargo at the port of Zanzibar. Sutch could have kicked himself from Winchester to the Barbary Coast now, for not having made the connection before between that ship and the ones he had heard described in tales during his own wanderings.
When Black described the eyes of the crew, Sutch had shivered in recognition:
“I am not easily unmanned and know not if the gesture still affords me protection after the life I have led, but I crossed myself, for young and old alike carried something ancient and, dare I say, eldritch within them that peered forth from the windows of their souls.”
More than anything else, it had been the look in Tariq’s eyes, benevolent though his features were, that had started to convince the Professor, perhaps only in his subconscious mind, of the truth of the old merchant’s story. Those eyes now took on a more sinister aspect in the dying light of a late September evening, as branches tapped bony fingers against the study window in a breeze that brought autumn’s rumour whispering by.
As a man who had seen the hold of a strange ship being filled to the gunnels with traded goods, Black had been unable to resist the urge to follow when it weighed anchor and left Zanzibar, setting out across the Indian Ocean.
Drunk or mad he may have been, but Black was an experienced mariner and he had still kept a detailed log of his ship’s course in his journal, alongside the pages of prose. It had become apparent to him, and to Sutch as he read the notes, that the course set by the other ship was designed to confuse. That the traders had spotted him pursuing them was beyond doubt.
Having re-read the piece, the Professor removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and at last made his shaky way across to his beloved collection of maps and atlases.
“Where are you? Where are you?” he mumbled to himself as he shoved documents and dusty tomes to one side. “Aha!”
He pulled down his favourite chart of the southern seas, brought it back to the desk and weighted down the corners with whatever other desktop objects were to hand.
So, if Henry Black’s journal was correct, there could be little doubt that the search would take place in the Indian and Southern Oceans. That much Sutch had always assumed, not only because of Tariq’s account, but also because all other seas were well enough charted – on the surface a least – to leave little room for hidden, island-based civilisations; no mare incognitum as such, though of course all seas deserved that title, with less than three per cent of the ocean floor explored. But south from Zanzibar still left a lot of sea to cover.
The link was the whirlpool, because it was mentioned right at the end of Jane’s translation. If he was right it marked a key reference point in the navigation records of the lost people, and a cunning one, because the great eddying mass of water was only there at certain times of the day, when particular currents converged. From that point, it was possible the islanders set varied courses to the ports at which they traded; perhaps these were etched onto other amphorae. But working backwards from the location of the whirlpool – using it as his starting point – he now believed he could find their kingdom.
“I can find your kingdom.”
He felt compelled to say the words out loud, to see whether the dream of glass shattered at the sound of them.
What had seemed, on first reading many years before, to be the fantasies of a syphilitic madman made sudden sense. Had those sailors, whether willing or commanded, sacrificed themselves rather than give up their secrets?
The thought made him break off from his chart for just a moment’s reflection. The water of life referred to by Tariq had to be a metaphor. Sutch couldn’t allow himself to believe that bedtime story. But what of the nameless threat that the fisherman and all his people had feared? Many ancient civilisations were known for the brutality of their religious practices. Perhaps the sailors that Black pursued had chosen the mercy of the sea instead of whatever awaited them at the hands of the shamans if they brought invaders in their wake. Indeed, it sounded as if one had been on board with them and he would have protected their secrets with all of their lives. In Sutch’s experience, if it was worth protecting with your life, then it was worth discovering.
And then it hit him. It – the lost land, the quest, the very idea of it – had already claimed his life, and if all that was left now was a lump of rock on the ocean bed it was worth finding, if only to claim back a part of his stolen years. To feel vindicated. To drink from his own amphora.
Sutch followed the readings from Black’s journal to the letter, or number. They zigzagged from Zanzibar across the oceans, as if the islanders’ vessel were tacking against a wind sent by the universe to defy them, and though it took Sutch almost an hour to plot the course, at last he reached the point where Black had abandoned his quest and turned back in the face of the mighty whirlpool. Now he took the instructions from Jane’s translation and, ancient though they were, plotted them on the map.
He sank down on his chair, open mouthed.
The Scorpion Archipelago!
He removed his glasses again, rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes and stared into the pool of light that shone like a search lamp in the settling gloom of his study. It illuminated the new centre of his world.
“The Scorpion Archipelago!” he whispered in awe, moved once more to speak, as if his ageing body could not contain the excitement. Or perhaps he was trying once again to turn the dream of a myth into the reality of words. He bent close to the map, talking to the ghosts; waving his glasses and gesturing to his imaginary audience:
“Unbelievable, and yet now so plausible. A thousand miles from anywhere, never mapped by land-based cartography, only by satellite.”
He had seen those images from space once; they showed a curving line of islands just to the west of the Southeast Indian Ridge; granite mountains that fell away sharply as cliffs to the north, their southern slopes covered by thick forest and surrounded by deep, dark seas. Sutch looked into the distance for a moment and thought of Santorini, where the continental shelf fell away into an abrupt abyss as a result of volcanic activity, making the island one of the prime contenders for the location of Atlantis. Its coastal waters were black and cold, like those of the archipelago. Then, looking back at the chart, which bore the scribblings of many of his findings and theories he muttered:
“The waters in the latitude of the archipelago show high levels of plankton and the nutrients needed to sustain marine life, which might have made them suitable for fishing. Yes, yes; that much, at least, is consistent with the fisherman’s tale, and if part of the land has indeed fallen away like Santorini as a result of a cataclysmic earthquake or volcanic eruption, that could explain the aftermath of destruction he witnessed.”
In the midst of his excitement, a finger of doubt gave a light tap on the old man’s shoulder, but he pushed it away. Edward Sutch’s thoughts and words had distilled to a tiny point on a map, and he sat transfixed by that group of inconsequential islands, supposed uninhabitable and unattractive by modern man – till now. He could not be sure that they had never been visited, but knew of no reports or exploratory expeditions, and though it was not his specific field, as a member of the Royal Geographical Society for fifty years he believed he would have known. Of course there was always the chance that someone had indeed explored the archipelago, only to find there was nothing worth reporting. There was no comfort in that thought and he tried to close his mind to the possibility – a unique action that went against every tenet on which he had based his life as a scientist.
That tapping finger wouldn’t go away. What if this was a wild goose chase after all? What if there had been an undiscovered race of people, but every fibre of proof of their existence had been consumed by the sea or the earth’s crust?
He looked at the amphora for reassurance. Its solid clay, maybe the last remaining evidence of an island nation, stood solid and irrefutable on the desk. As swift as the cloud of panic had been to cross the sun, it blew away again. The warmth that followed was a peculiar sensation – alien to his substantive, academic mind, but perhaps a symptom of his ageing bones; it was faith. A smile crossed his lips and he pointed to the amphora, wagging his finger: “I knew there was something about you, from the moment I found you – or you found me. I knew you were more than you seemed. And that…” here he prodded the air with that same finger, “…is why this is meant to be. Mine might be just one of countless parallel worlds, and I found my way into yours – or vice versa. Even eighty is not too old to meet your destiny in an unexpected way.”
There was another tap, this time at the study door. He did not bother answering, knowing she would come in anyway. In fifty years they never had any secrets from each other. Well, that was not strictly true, of course. For forty of those fifty years there had been the little matter of the amphora, but hadn’t the act of hiding that from Candice really been about refusing to believe in ghosts; the same ones which had comprised his audience just now?
She wore a slight frown as she looked around the room. “Are you okay?”
“Yes my darling,” he said with a little grin. “You should be used to me talking to myself by now.” He motioned for her to come nearer, knowing that a woman’s curiosity is a part of her beauty which will neither wither nor fade. She crossed the room, her hips imparting, as ever, that graceful sway to her long skirt, and he placed his welcoming arm around her waist. She knew – and he knew that she knew – that his study was his sanctuary and he never entertained outsiders there. With his free hand he gestured palm upward towards the artefacts on the desk. “I do believe I have solved something.”
She pursed her lips. “I thought I recognised that gleefulness in your eye. I hope this doesn’t mean…”
“…that I will rush off on some hair-brained quest? Oh, Candice, you know me.”
“Mmmm.” Her lips were still pursed, but ironic humour lit her eyes. Then she took his face in her hands and kissed it. “Were our Jane’s efforts of any use to you, whatever it was you had her doing?”
Candice looked at the objects spread before her. Sutch watched her crane her neck. The profile was clearly from the same gene pool, but the movement was imbued with more elegance than Jane’s when she had first seen the amphora. Candice was a throwback, a woman made for needlepoint and gentle pursuits. Not for her the ruddy complexion of a life spent outdoors in hot climes; seventy-five English summers spent beneath wide-brimmed sunhats had nurtured the bloom on her cheek, and only the whiteness of her shoulder-length hair suggested that quite so many summers had indeed passed. She had shared Sutch’s hopes and enthusiasm, but not the miles he had chosen to travel through his work, yet he loved her all the more for the absences. Seeing traces of her in his daughter some weeks before had brought thex smile to his face and did so again now.
With a knowing look she turned to him. “And what now?”
He pondered, biting his bottom lip, and then a light shone in his eyes. “I have a plane to catch and then dinner to organise.
She didn’t ask. Sometimes it was better not to.