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Authors: Peter Helton

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BOOK: Worthless Remains
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SEVEN

M
ore cars and vans had arrived at Tarmford Hall. A lot more. The generous half-moon of gravel was covered with vehicles and like several people before me I had to park on the grass, far enough from the entrance to the house to make lugging my few essentials a bit of a chore. Not to mention the endless flights of stairs up to my eyrie in the loft.

It was warm in my little room and as I opened the window unfamiliar sounds drifted up from the unseen lawns below. There was clanging and hammering and shouting, more than I imagined the repair of a single digger should warrant. I simply dumped my bag and made my way downstairs.

Time Lines
was a much larger outfit than I had ever imagined. There was a constant coming and going between the car park, the excavation site and the so-called incident room above the coach house. Only when I stepped on to the verandah did it become clear what had swelled the numbers in the car park – the Romans were here.

On the terrace, as expected, the cream of
Time Lines
were tucking into their lunch. Less expected were the newcomers. To my far right, on the northwest corner of the lawns, near the stand of ancient chestnuts, camped a Roman army.

‘A legionnaires camp.' Stoneking beamed up at me. ‘Cohort Italica, re-enactors from Bristol, complete with tents, giant catapults and what-not. Dozens of them, by the looks of it.'

Emms hunted a tiny tomato round her plate with a fork. ‘We've used them before, for the cameos, they're quite authentic.'

Middleton, at the next table, grumbled at his lamb chops. ‘I hope their tents are rainproof or they'll get authentically soaked. It looks like rain.'

‘They know their stuff but they're extremely boring people to meet,' Cy informed us. ‘During the week they're plumbers and post office counter staff, yearning to be ancient Romans. They spend all their spare time talking in cod Latin and polishing their
pilums
. But they look good on camera, I give them that.'

Emms cornered her tomato and stabbed it. ‘All re-enactors are the same, they just like playing soldiers, as though that's all there was to history.'

Andrea seemed to speak to no one in particular. ‘No one seems to re-enact hard-working normal people. Trades people, farmers, domestics. It would be much better to show some of that part of Roman life.'

‘That's visually undynamic. It's not what our audience wants,' Cy began.

‘It's not what your teenage mind
imagines
the audience wants,' Middleton sniped.

‘The audiences you're thinking of have long died of old age or boredom,' Cy countered.

As they began a fresh argument I was urgently drawn away by the gravitational pull exerted by the catering van where I joined the queuing diggers. The Roman legion had brought their own food and were cooking it on a couple of small camp fires amongst their tents. Delia the caterer noticed my late arrival. ‘You've joined the lower ranks then?' She dropped a couple of thick lamb chops on to my plate. ‘A shrewd move: bigger portions for the real workers.'

‘Especially now that we're digging the whole thing by hand.' Adam was balancing a veritable mountain of chips and salad around the corner of the van. I followed his example and joined him and his mate Julie on the grass. At the other end of the lawn stood the injured yellow beast with its engine cover up and a mechanic with his head in its innards.

‘The digger is still out of action, then?' I asked.

Julie smiled broadly. ‘Long may it last.' She pointed her fork at Adam's pyre of chips. ‘Is that all you're having? Chips and salad?'

‘Nah, there's three chops under there somewhere.'

‘Do you mean you
like
digging everything by hand?' I asked.

‘Oh, absolutely. That's proper archaeology. We're only using the digger to get to what interests the TV people. Andrea, you know, the chief archaeologist, she's always argued against the digger but telly is telly; they won't stand around and wait for us to do it properly. Even now we're just hurrying through the layers as though only Roman finds mattered.'

‘If they want to film Roman, Roman is what they find,' Adam said knowingly. I could have sworn his goatee had just become goatier.

‘You don't mean they're cheating?'

Adam shrugged and stuffed enough chips in his mouth to excuse him from answering. I looked at Julie.

‘Don't look at me,' she said. She checked that no one was within earshot, then spoke quietly. ‘I'm not saying they're
faking
it. It's just that we do seem to find amazing stuff on this programme. Not like the poor chaps on Channel Four, sometimes they have no luck at all, which is only to be expected. But
Time Lines
is always very lucky. So very,
very
lucky.'

A few playful trumpet blasts came from the direction of the legionnaires' camp.

‘I hope they don't do that all day,' Julie said. ‘Archaeology is quite peaceful most of the time. I mean where the noise levels are concerned, of course. That lot just never grew up.'

‘I hope they'll all get legionnaires' disease or something,' said the cheerful Adam.

‘What exactly is legionnaires' disease?' Julie asked.

‘No idea. But if they want to play at being legionnaires then it's only fair they should get some. For authenticity if nothing else.'

When I rejoined the TV crew their argument seemed to have been concluded, or perhaps just adjourned. Guy was nowhere to be seen. Clouds were threatening rain and the air was still and humid. Emms and Cy were standing on the terrace with a Roman centurion called Brian who stood in the heat wearing a full legionnaire's outfit, shiny helmet, armour, sword and dagger. Cy was frowning at the sky. ‘I wish we could film this stuff somewhere where they have dry seasons,' he complained. ‘Or decent summers.'

‘Try Hollywood,' Emms said drily. ‘It would suit you. You could mock it all up in the studio.'

Cy ignored her. ‘Right, let's try and get some Roman shots in the can while the archaeologists are dithering.'

Brian the centurion pointed behind us. ‘At last, the Britons have arrived, late as usual.' Brian's accent was pure Somerset. Just then a group of a dozen or so noisy and lightly equipped ancient Britons swaggered hairily on to the lawn, shaking round shields and hurling insults and derision towards the orderly camp of Cohort Italica.

‘You bring your own Britons to conquer, then?' I asked Brian.

‘Oh yes,' he explained earnestly. ‘At first the members of the Cohort took turns to be Britons but in the end no one wanted to do it, it's not what we joined the Cohort for. But this hopeless rabble love it. Looks like they stopped off at the pub again, too.'

It was true that a definite whiff of cider had arrived along with the wild-haired, bearded natives. ‘And naturally you defeat them every time?'

‘Well . . . we let them win sometimes so they don't lose interest but history is on our side, as I'm sure you know.'

‘I remember it from school.' I also remembered Boudicca putting up quite a good fight for a bit.

One of the hairy Britons detached himself from the rabble and came swaggering towards us, grinning broadly. Emms, I noticed, smiled in anticipation while both Cy and Brian the centurion viewed his approach with a look of distaste. Like the rest of his gang the approaching ancient Briton was dressed in an assortment of colours, some striped, some checked, with wild hair and a beard to match. He had a sword at his belt and carried a round shield with a much-dented central boss. He brayed at Brian. ‘Ha, if it isn't Gluteus Maximus, in the flesh. Prepare to have your arse whipped, Roman dog.'

‘Hello Morgan, less of that,' said Emms with mock sternness. ‘You're late. And possibly drunk. But you look very convincing. Good of you to come.' She turned to Brian, who seemed uncomfortable in his Roman skin. ‘Let's have a wander over there and thrash out the details of what we would like you to do for us.'

With Brian the Roman on the left and Morgan the Briton on the right Emms walked up to the north end of the lawn where Paul had already set up his camera. Brian walked with ramrod dignity while Morgan did seem to sway just a little. To me, Brian and his cohort looked like people dressed up as Romans; their helmets were too shiny, their swords too bright, their tents too clean. By comparison Morgan's noisy band of warriors looked terrifyingly real. Many had painted blue stripes of woad on their faces. Their clothes looked worn and in need of a wash and their weaponry seasoned in battle.

Next to me Cy shook his head disapprovingly. ‘Bloody piss artist. No wonder he and Guy hit it off so well last time we had the re-enactors round. Guy is public school and RADA and Morgan is a council-estate motorbike nut but they found instant common ground over a bottle of Scotch. Keep an eye on Guy today; they're bound to booze all night, those two.'

‘Seriously? The fastidious Middleton and the hairy Briton?'

Cy walked off to join them. ‘I know. But they're soul mates underneath. They're both bloody barbarians.'

There seemed to be no better place to be right now than the verandah so I stayed where I was. Stoneking had the same idea. He appeared from inside, carrying two deckchairs. ‘Here, grab one of those and we'll watch the battle in comfort.' We set them up at the end of the terrace, closest to the impending action. ‘Looks like we're the only two people here who are not working.'

‘Speak for yourself. I'm busy keeping an eye on Guy Middleton.'

‘Yes, I wondered about that. What are you, his PA or something? I used to have a PA but found what I really needed was a housekeeper.'

‘No, I'm just his minder, and only while he's in Bath.'

‘And why does he need minding?'

‘You know what it's like, being famous. I just make sure everything runs smoothly for him, keep the nutters off him, see he comes to no harm.'

‘Ha! You may have your work cut out. Right now he's surrounded by heavily armed nutters.'

Stoneking had a point. Guy was doing a piece to camera with the Romans and Britons squaring up to each other behind him. ‘I'm not required to stop bullets for him. Or spears, in this case.' I briefly wondered if I still got paid if anything did happen to Middleton. Not that I was the least bit mercenary about it. One day I'd really have to read that contract. Guy had now finished his PTC and walked towards us.

‘Looks like it's about to start,' Stoneking said. ‘This should be quite a good scrap. I've seen them do something like this before. On telly, of course, a couple of series back. I hope it won't get rained off. Look at those clouds.'

Since early morning dirty rainclouds had begun to crowd the sky, becoming darker and more threatening by the hour. Down here not a breath stirred and the atmosphere was getting sweaty. ‘Presumably the real Romans didn't stop for a bit of rain. And it might lend a bit of authenticity to the re-enactment.'

Guy had heard me. ‘Quite, I agree,' he said, turning round to look at the battle ground. ‘Those bloody Romans could do with a bit of mud between their toes; they're all too squeaky clean. It's all that Roman efficiency and precision crap that attracted them to it in the first place, you know. They need to get their hands dirty if they want to be convincing. It's what I told Brian, too: you're a bunch of anal twits and need to loosen up, but he wouldn't listen. I bet they all iron their bloody underpants before they come out. But those Britons, they're as real as it gets. Half of them are hairy bikers like Morgan. And they really know how to throw a party, too. Ah, here goes. Any more armchairs around?'

Stoneking unclipped his mobile from his belt and started texting. ‘I'll get Carla to bring one out for you.'

A battlefield had been staked out and the Britons and Romans had a last discussion about the scenes with Emms and Paul, the cameraman. The bald soundman, obviously a pessimist, was already protecting his recorder with clear plastic against the possibility of rain. The discussion seemed to get quite involved, with lots of arm waving and pointing. We heard Morgan's braying laugh. Then Brian pushed Morgan. Morgan staggered briefly backwards, then charged forward, head lowered, and smacked Brian with his shield. Brian sat down heavily on his behind to a burst of laughter from the crowd of Britons who were standing in a huddle at the edge of the field of battle. I saw a plastic flagon of cider being furtively passed around. There was a brief, angry exchange as Cy helped Brian up but we were too far away to hear what was being said. Emms was making calming gestures. Eventually the commanders withdrew to their respective sides.

‘This should be good,' said Guy. ‘Those two really do hate each other; they're like cat and dog. Ah, thanks, Carla.' The housekeeper had arrived with a deckchair and set it up for him. ‘Here we go, it's started.'

Carla remained to watch. She positioned herself behind Stoneking, her hands resting lightly on the top of his deckchair. She seemed more interested in studying the rock star's hair than watching the impending battle. At the Roman end of the battlefield military commands were shouted in Latin, with a definite West Country lilt. They were answered by an incoherent bellow from the rabble of Britons. The Romans advanced towards them in a tight line, shields touching, helmeted faces peering above them, like a row of riot police at a violent demonstration. This kind of formation would have allowed the real Romans to advance despite a hail of stones, arrows and other missiles raining down on them. Only our Cohort Italica (Bristol Division) had been too busy shuffling into position and shouting commands to notice that half a dozen Britons had separated from the rabble and stolen into their rear. When the shout to draw swords –
gladium stringe!
– was followed by the command to commence the attack, the legionnaires were concentrating on their front while six Britons fell on them from behind and kicked them in the back of the knees. At the same time the rest of Morgan's rabble charged into the Roman front line. Brian's battle plan fell apart. Now it was every man for himself. Cy monitored the static camera on the side lines, Paul got in close with a handheld camera. The bald sound recordist looked uncharacteristically happy between his headphones. The noise was impressive. There was much shouting, some of it in cod Latin, most of it pure Somerset. Steel clashed brightly with steel, thumped on wooden shields, shield bosses crashed into armour. Several warriors went down. Then, without warning, the character of the fight began to change. A kick in the shins here, a few bright drops from a bloody nose there. Mock sword fights were abandoned and shields used like battering rams. Fists swung and connected. Combatants, locked in hand-to-hand struggles, fell and rolled wrestling on the ground. Brian was sitting on the grass, looking dazed under a dented helmet. All around him noses were being butted and beards pulled. In the middle of it all I spotted something unexpected. The old lady I had seen inside the house the day before had appeared on the battlefield without anyone having noticed her approach. In a black high-neck dress Olive Cunningham was walking straight through the melee, swinging her walking stick across a Roman behind here, toppling over a pair of wrestlers there. She smote a Briton from behind who wheeled around to answer the blow. Confronted with the white-haired geriatric he made the mistake of hesitating and was rewarded with a firm poke in the solar plexus. The old lady carried on straight towards us.

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