Winchester: around 9pm October 24th 1997
Because everyone knew something was afoot, for Jane the conversation over dinner was like the supporting act at a concert; pleasant enough, but not something in which one could lose oneself – except…there was also the conjecture about the missing guest, which did add a little to their anticipation; ‘they’ being her and her mother, Candice. Pete kept his opinion to himself. Whether he had one was a mystery, but not something on which Jane wasted time conjecturing. Her father, of course, chose to play his cards close to his chest, enjoying their frustration and taking apparent pleasure in the power of knowledge. His thick, but tidy white beard and the reflection of the candlelight in his glasses provided a degree of mask-like cover, but she knew his features so well, despite the months they spent apart, and could tell that, for some reason, he was rather pleased with himself. However, even he could not hide his concern for the whereabouts of the missing guest.
At last the doorbell rang and Candice left the table. Her voice was counterpointed by a deeper one, which was nevertheless pitched higher than usual due to the latecomer’s embarrassment.
And then in he came; the man whom Jane knew, at once, she should have waited for and married. Beneath mousy, bed-head hair, which spoke of someone who eschewed mirrors, or at least was not prone to her latest insecurities, the face was familiar; somewhat windswept like hers, and also a little hot and flustered, which she was sure also matched hers at that moment – she glanced to her left and saw this hadn’t gone unnoticed by at least one pair of eyes at the table; maybe others too.
“Hello everybody, I am so sorry.” He extended his hand towards her father. “Professor Sutch, please accept my apologies.”
“That’s always been your problem, James,” said the Professor. “Need a man to be in the wrong place at the right time…never an issue. But turning up punctually for something prosaic like a meal – forget it.” The late arrival opened his mouth to protest, but the Professor was smiling and pre-empted the response. “Everyone, this is James – well, Jim…” he looked at the guest who nodded his preference for the less formal approach, “…Bolton.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Jane. “I’ve seen your work. Yes, of course! Very impressive.” Both of them blushed a little deeper. She realised they must have looked like two ascetics who had discovered a shared, subsumed passion for silk.
“Jim, this is my daughter Jane.”
Jim shook her hand. “And I’ve seen your work. Incredible. I just frame a snapshot of the present; you give it context.”
“Nonsense,” protested Jane. “What you do opens up the here-and-now to the world. I like to feel I open up the past, but when it comes down to it…”
“Indeed,” interrupted her father. Jane saw her own embarrassment reflected in Jim’s features. “This is Jane’s husband, Pete.” The Professor may have had little time for his son-in-law, but manners were manners.
Jim shook hands. “Hi, nice to meet you.”
There was a short silence. Then Candice gestured, first to the empty seat for Jim to take his place, then to the dishes. “Just tuck in.”
Pete reached into his pocket and produced a packet of cigarettes, but after Jane returned his just-short-of-a-dagger glance from earlier, he put them away again. “So,” he said, looking at everybody in turn, “is anybody going to tell me what the late Mr Bolton does?”
“I’d have thought the previous comments would have made it obvious,” said the Professor with ill-concealed impatience.
“Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention. Painting or something, wasn’t it?”
“Well, Peter” said Sutch, putting his elbows on the table and folding his hands under his chin with the air of a man who knew revenge was best served cold, “perhaps we can let the man himself do the honours.”
Jim’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth. “What…uh, oh, yes, I’m a photographer.” The fork continued its journey.
“He’s a photographer,” said Sutch with a wry grin. “Yes – weddings, christenings, not to mention Pulitzer Prizes, the odd lucky snap in National Geographic, or Time magazine or equivalent.”
“I see,” said Pete looking at Jane, “that explains a lot.”
She frowned and returned his gaze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why you’ve seen his work.” Pete gestured with upturned palms and faux innocence in his eyes, to which his wolfish smile hadn’t quite tuned in. He had her there. “I guess for every archaeologist digging up a small wall there’s a photographer snapping it.”
Jane felt herself getting hot; part embarrassment at her over-reaction, and part anger. “You don’t win Pulitzer Prizes just for photographing small walls, even supposing that’s what archaeology is all about. And you don’t win them as a Brit unless you’re bloody good.” She directed an apologetic glance at her father. “And you do for capturing the horrors of genocide in Rwanda.” She paused. “For example.”
“Oh, okay.” As a needling response to his wife’s apparent defensiveness the understated reply was effective. Pete turned to Jim. “Do you do any sport or leisure photography; power-boating, or stock car racing? For example.”
Jim shook his head, warming to his theme with winning naivety, seeming unaware of the moment’s undercurrent. “No, there are guys who do a fantastic job of that sort of thing.” He turned to Candice and gestured towards the plate. “This really is excellent.” Now he returned to Pete. “For me, capturing the wilder spirit of nature or man is more important than any sporting or other staged drama – I use ‘drama’ in the loosest sense of course; that is, the sense in which it’s overused by commentators and journalists.”
Jane smiled to herself; so the young man wasn’t as gauche as he seemed and was more than capable of a put-down or two.
Jim continued. “Apart from anything else, you can’t stage the things I go for. They’re unique. You miss them, you might never get another chance.” His green eyes grew distant and clouded for a moment. “Sometimes you wish you’d never had the chance, when you capture the lost and wounded eyes of a Tutsi woman who’s been left for dead and lain there helpless as the militiamen murder and mutilate her family with their pangas, or another who’s been raped and infected with HIV by a Hutu soldier.” He put down his knife and fork and took a sip of wine, while his hair flopped forward, drawing a curtain across his emotions.
There was the faint, but audible buzz of a mobile phone on ‘discreet’. Jane shook her head.
Pete removed the mobile from his jacket pocket, glanced at it and frowned. “I’m just going to pop outside for a cigarette,” he said, before the ensuing pause could become a meaningful silence.
“Don’t forget to come in again before coffee,” said Sutch.
Don’t bother to come back – Jane read the unspoken thought in her father’s eyes and echoed the sentiments, but she knew he’d held back for her sake in front of the visitor. Then she stifled a grin of self-congratulation – the mention of coffee meant her father’s timetable was running with the precision of the German railway network. Now she looked at Jim and allowed a full-blown smile to break out. He winked at her, which was the last thing Pete saw as he left the room.
When he returned, still frowning, the cafetiere was on the table and the conversation in a flow that didn’t break as he took his place.
“Amazing,” said the Professor, “I didn’t realise you did underwater photography.”
“Oh yes,” said Jim, “it’s just that my calling has been in other directions so far. But the El Jacinto Pat caves, well, they were a special challenge, and you know me and challenges, Professor.”
“Indeed, indeed. And please call me Edward.”
Pete’s frown deepened.
Now Sutch took a breath, as if he was about to say something, but Jim interjected.
“Look, enough about me. What do you do then, Pete, apart from the powerboating, stock car racing and…” he grinned, “…I assume they are two of your pursuits.”
So he had the savoir faire to bring Pete in from the cold, noted Jane, who felt like she was held in a vice, let alone developing a crush.
“I have my own business.”
“I import fine ceramics, mainly from Europe – Spain and Portugal in particular – and sell them in the UK and the States.”
“Excellent. It’s obviously doing well if you can afford to powerboat. Nice little bit of cash that must eat up.”
Jane glanced at her father’s face and read his thoughts again. It was cash that should be securing a future for her, instead of the inversion that saw Jane as the successful breadwinner while her husband indulged his whims for extreme sports and, more recently, the gambling tables of the world, in particular those on the Formula 1 circuit such as Estoril and Monaco, where it had proved oh-so-convenient of late that purchasing trips had coincided with the Grand Prix weekend.
“I make a living,” said Pete with a grin that needled Jane in its smugness; “enough to keep me in debt.” The joke went unacknowledged. “A powerboat doesn’t have to be all that expensive; Ten thousand a year keeps you in the game.”
“All that high adrenaline stuff,” said Jim, “that wouldn’t be for me.”
“Yes, well of course, diving into the claustrophobia of the El Jacinto Pat caves, spying on machete-wielding Hutu militiamen, they’re like church outings really.”
Jim’s mouth turned down, accompanied by a nod. “Touché,” he said in acknowledgement.
For Jane this was a unique moment. Her arrogant, emotionally-indolent other-half was not in the habit of caring less where she was or what she was doing, but she could see something in his eyes. Was it a spark of green to match those of his perceived rival? Jim couldn’t have needled Pete more if he’d turned up in an Aston Martin wearing a tuxedo. But her usual instinct for self-deprecation kicked in. Who was she to assume jealousy or rivalry anyway? Even if Jim were competing for her attention in some way – she felt a blush rising at the thought – wasn’t Pete’s reaction just like a dog’s over a bone? Still, it was flattering if it were so.
Again she wondered what was wrong with her tonight. First there had been the assessment of her body and looks, now she had developed an instantaneous need for a man a few years younger than her. More than once since Jim’s arrival she had caught her mind wandering; imagining things that had caused her to tingle in places which felt as if they were last visited long before some of the tombs she’d unearthed.
Jim’s voice broke her reverie as he continued: “It’s a fair point you make, but then again, that’s why I prefer something a bit more sedate in my free time.” Now he turned to Jane. “And as for you, Jane, I doubt free time is something you know too well. One of the world’s most respected archaeologists, a director at the British Museum and, perhaps the greatest accolade, a member of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt.”
Jane felt her now permanent blush deepening. “How do you…?”
“I might give the impression of not knowing my ars…” Jim stopped, looking shamefaced in the direction of his hosts. “…my apologies; I may look disorganised, but I make a point of never going anywhere without having done my research.”
The ringing tap of knife on wine glass interrupted words and thoughts. Jane cringed at this use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as if her father needed to cut through the chatter of a hundred guests. Despite being in his own home, in the bosom of his family, Jane thought he looked nervous as the guests fell silent.
“Well, as some of you have doubtless worked out…”
“Some of the multitude,” interrupted Pete, a sarcastic smile playing on his lips.
Sutch’s eyes had lost none of their expressiveness with age and they narrowed, but he ignored his son-in-law. “I have a bit of an announcement to make.” He looked towards Candice, whose serene features registered unusual concern. “Don’t worry, my darling, it’s nothing to do with my health…or the existence of a love child.” Two of the guests laughed. “But, like that wonderful old character Bilbo Baggins at his eleventy-first birthday party, I am announcing that I’m about to go on a journey.”
Candice and Jane sat up in awkward anticipation.
“Darling,” said Candice, you’re approaching eighty and…”
“…am therefore too old to learn any new tricks, and too obstinate to listen.”
Candice knew that well enough and backed down without further ado. “But through all the years I have kept one secret.” The men remained impassive, but the women fidgeted. “To cut to the chase; dearest Jane, you remember when I told you that you would be invited to dinner if your work with my amphora led anywhere? Well, it has.” Now Jane sat forward, concern giving way to curiosity. “What none of you knew was – the amphora was sent to me forty years after I first set eyes on it.” The Professor ploughed on to avoid interruption. “During that time, as the result of a discussion I had with the original owner, I have been seeking a previously unheard-of civilisation.” Now he paused, for effect and in anticipation of a response.
“What?” Jim’s incredulous smile didn’t quite stray across into disbelief for the moment.
“Yes, not only a land that time forgot, but one it never knew about, if we take the admittedly arrogant view that recorded history is time as we know it. Your efforts, Jane, took me part of the way, and my own research the rest of it. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but this has been an occasional obsession of mine for four decades.” Here he looked in apology at Candice, who remained inscrutable. “And now, given that I am eighty, there literally isn’t any time to lose. I leave tomorrow.”
There was a reaction from three of the four listeners:
The Professor raised his hands. “It’s not simply impatience, it’s also practicality. Firstly, Jim, as you can tell by the very fact you’re here, the Royal Geographical Society is partly funding this and will hope for a swift return on its investment. Secondly, in the part of the world I’m heading to it’s now summer. I don’t want preparations dragging on into the more inclement weather. Thirdly,” he looked around and then grinned like a gleeful child, “I just can’t wait.”
“Dad,” said Jane, “Mum has a point. You’re eighty and I know you’re in great shape for your age, but you can’t head off to wherever it is – and hopefully you’re going to tell us – on your own.”
“Yes I am going to tell you…once we’re on the way. You see, I’m not going on my own, unless you make me. I want you there; and you, Jim. I haven’t said anything before because I don’t want news leaking out. I’m a selfish and proud enough old man to want to find this place myself.”
Jim sat forward emphatically. “Well you know I’m game, even if I weren’t being paid. Your reputation as a scientist and a man goes before you, Professor.”
Sutch grinned. “Unfortunately I’m an oceanographer, not an explorer.”
“Well what’s the ocean if not the greatest unexplored area on earth…” Jim grinned and looked to the ceiling “…or does that just prove your point?”
“QED.” They laughed and it eased some of the tension, though it didn’t disperse. Jane saw the look her parents exchanged – the blue of her mother’s eyes was no longer that of a clear sky but of its reflection in a glacier – and the way her father now turned to her for sanctuary. “And you, my girl? This could be the find of finds, though I’m promising nothing.”
“Daddy, if you think you have some evidence you know I’m with you. But even if you don’t,” here she looked at her mother, “I think my presence is required. I’ll just have to nip home and pack some things.” Now her gaze turned to Pete, who said nothing; his body language evinced an overstated lack of interest.
“There’s no need. The bulk of this mini-expedition is already prepared and waiting for us at our departure port. There’s ample travel clothing here to kit everyone out – I’ve been around the world so many times that I’ve built up quite a collection of spares – as poor Candice knows.” There was silence from the other end of the table, so he continued. “Your beloved field notebooks and journals are still here from when you stayed over to examine the amphora.” When there was no further response, Sutch couldn’t help but clap his hands together. “Excellent, so that’s settled then.”
“Um, just a minute.” It was Pete. As Jane suspected, he’d been taking it all in. She looked across and saw that her father had feared this moment. “If you think I’m allowing my wife to head off at the last minute to heaven-knows-where you’re mistaken.”
Jane gave him a sharp look. “Pete, I am going. Don’t worry about me; you don’t usually.”
“Darling.” Pete spread his hands as if offended by the accusation.
“How many times have I been away for weeks or months on digs and assignments? I’m absent more than I’m home, and for all I know so are you.”
Pete put his hand on her cheek. She knew her discomfort must have been obvious to him – her indecision about how to react to his touch; knew that same look had been in her eyes some weeks before when, after a few drinks she’d allowed him to make love to her for the first time in months and halfway through had started to regret the decision. It had taken all her willpower not to ask him to stop. Now she felt as if they were doing it again, only this time in front of Jim and her parents. Though she fought hard to suppress the shudder, she knew Pete felt it through his fingertips. He smiled at her and only she saw what was in his expression. He seemed to gain strength from her unease and looked past her towards the Professor while continuing to address her. “Yes, well that’s not really the point. I don’t know where you’re going, neither do you and, let’s face it, none of you know what you’re going to find there, by the sound of it.”
“Don’t worry,” said the Professor, “I foresaw this and you have every right to be concerned. In…well, let’s just call it base camp, there’s enough clothing and kit for you to join us.” The Professor looked at Jane. She knew from his reaction that there was a mixture of gratitude and disappointment in her eyes.
The same could not be said of her mother. Her face was a parchment, the tale it told still waiting to be translated. She carried an expression that seemed as old as the sea to Jane, who knew she would say nothing now; her father would have to answer in due course and his next words made that inevitable, as they were not designed to put anyone’s mind at rest. Though they were addressed to everyone, Jane believed the discouraging tone was for Pete’s benefit.
“It’s only fair to warn you all what we’ll be up against; dense forest, which, if my estimates are correct, has grown without human interference for at least three hundred years; rough seas, a hostile coastline and, at the end of it all, the possibility that we may find nothing.”
“Excellent!” said Pete, as if fully aware of the reason behind the speech and just as determined to defy his father-in-law. “I’ve been looking for a new extreme sport. Besides, you might need a pilot.” There was a short, pregnant silence. Everyone ignored the obvious one-upmanship, though there was no denying the potential usefulness of that qualification.
“A spare pilot,” corrected Sutch. “Dirk Munter’s waiting for us at base camp. Okay, that’s settled then.” He continued, with a singular failure to sound impressed or to hide his vexation. “And remember, if you’re in, you’re in. Stuck. You won’t be able to borrow some transport and get out of there. This preliminary trip is a secret – a hell of a secret – and that’s how I intend it to stay, which is why – with apologies to my wife – I’ve told no-one where we’re going yet.
“Well then, Jim, I’m sorry you’ve been hauled all the way down here just to have to repeat the trip. I guess you’ll be wanting to go and pack equipment.”
“No, Professor, I usually have everything I need in the boot of my car. You never know when opportunity beckons.”
“Just like a boy scout,” said Pete.
Jim ignored him. “Camera gear and spare threads are all there, and it sounds like you’ve taken care of the rest.”
“In that case,” said Sutch, “there are spare rooms available and we’ll be starting early.”
Jane spread her hands. “So that’s it?” was her laconic response.
“For the moment, my girl, for the moment. Just trust me.” Jane issued herself a silent rebuke. She had been a bit slow there. Trust, or rather lack of it, was an issue for certain, when there was an entrepreneur around with an eye for a fast buck and a few hours to cash the chips with the press. “And now, I’m sure the three of you all have things to do to prepare. We’ll leave at four a.m.”
A ‘hmm’ from Pete was the only sound uttered. For the others early starts were nothing out of the ordinary. While her husband was no stranger to four a.m., Jane knew it was only at the top end of a few hours’ sleep thanks to his new-found love of a night at the casino.
Now she managed to pop her head over the parapet of her own little castle of selfishness. Not everyone wanted to be away from their married partner. While for Jane there was the prospect of taking an active part in this adventure, her mother, who had still said nothing, would once more be left alone. That took a different strength; a type Jane didn’t possess. It was time to give her parents some space. She rose from her seat. “C’mon guys,” she said, “let’s get ourselves straight.”
When the room had emptied, Edward Sutch felt the searchlights roaming across his face and looked at his wife, returning her frank gaze. “Candice, I…I should have told you.”
“Edward darling, you know that this is not an accusatory stare. If that’s the only secret you’ve kept from me in fifty years of marriage, which I believe to be the case, then I am blessed.” She rose and came around the table to stand in front of him. “No, this is something you haven’t seen before; this is my scared face.”
He touched her cheek with tenderness “Why, Candice? I’ve been away before.”
“But you’ve always been in your element – literally; the sea. And I’ve always known where you would be.” She took his hand from her cheek and held it. “I don’t mind you having kept this as a secret, my darling. What I don’t understand is why.”
“Candice, it was always my intention to tell you on this night, though I never knew when this night would be. But I couldn’t afford for this to slip out, even accidentally, and have others beat me to the fulfilment of my dream.” He saw the look in her eyes and raised a hand in acknowledgement. “Yes I know that’s selfish, but that’s often the nature of dreams. I mean, if I’d met you when you were hitched to another man, my dream would have been to have you to myself.” She squeezed his hand. “But the main reason was, if you’d known, you might just have taken me for a fool; an ageing one; and there’s nothing worse than an old fool. Even a mad fool has an excuse.”
She put her arms around him. “Never.” They enjoyed the familiar warmth of each other’s embrace for the last time, in silence. Then she leaned back from him and said: “Okay, tell me all about it.”
“What are you looking at?” asked Jane as she slipped under the duvet.
Pete was standing at the window, hands in pockets, staring out into the night. “Just checking whether there’s a phone box for Jim to change in tomorrow.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, I’m not taken in by his Clark Kent act. He’s such a bloody boy scout. And I think I know what he’d be prepared for as well.”
“What do you mean?” She saw Pete looking at her reflection in the darkened window; knew her blush wouldn’t show, but busied herself with some night cream to hide her awkwardness, which intensified when, instead of answering, he started to undress.
Jane found these moments difficult, the more so since their sexual relationship had juddered to an apathetic halt. Her mind raced back to the drunken fumble of a few weeks before. There was a slight difference tonight, however; an added edge to the problem – namely she was aroused and even wondering, incredible though it was, whether, with the lights off, he could be Jim for a while. As Pete peeled the shirt from his broad back she noted his physique, honed by years of freeform climbing, water-skiing, martial arts and any other extreme sport one cared to mention. Would it feel so bad in the darkness? He was attractive, his slightly-too-long hair and permanent stubble giving him a piratical edge, though blonde looks were not her preference, which made her choice of husband all the more puzzling. What it was, to be twenty-eight and still feeling gratitude for the attention of the opposite sex, failing to notice that you’d developed at last into someone desirable to them.
He was naked now, the way he always slept, and she saw enough in the window’s reflection to cause her hips to stir. Before he turned around she switched off the light and there was a simultaneous flick of another switch in her mind. She heard the man cross the room and felt his weight settle next to hers. But what was happening? He was saying something.
“I guess we’d better get some sleep before our early start.”
It had been a surprising evening for Pete. First there’d been the jealousy he’d felt at the obvious attraction between Jane and Jim. Okay, he was realistic and could explain away his response as possessiveness. Then the phone call. Next, there was his decision to accompany the expedition, but again that could be put down to a combination of jealousy, the need to rain on his father-in-law’s parade – be the party pooper – and an undeniable sense of intrigue. The biggest surprise of all, however, was the movement behind him now as he turned on his side to sleep; the finger placed on his lips to silence him as he made to speak, before it traced its way down his body; and the mouth that whispered a filthy promise in his ear before moving to join the hand.
For a hedonistic hour, husband and wife were lost in their own very personal dark thoughts, though each would have been surprised by the similarity of those imaginings.