The Excavation Chapter One
The Excavation Chapter One
Ravens unearth modern bones at the 1st Century broch (round tower) DOM is excavating on Scotland’s western shores. Hoping to re-kindle a former relationship, short of cash, and under pressure to be off-site by Halloween, he involves FINN in their investigation. Artist Finn has become increasingly isolated while she cares for her sick husband. She is just resuming painting, and is reluctant to break her isolation. Or to meet Dom. However, she does, and soon becomes embroiled in escalating complications. This helps her see her situation and relationships more clearly, and to begin to move on.1
Dom straightened, wincing at the pain in his hip, and looked for the source of the alarm call. It echoed around the lichen-spotted granite of the tower enclosing him, and he couldn’t tell where it had begun. A raven flapped from the spoil-heap slumped against the tallest shard of wall, its claws scrabbling an avalanche of soil. It stretched its long-fingered wings, still calling, and soared overhead, till it was just a black silhouette against the pale opalescence of the morning sky.
His hair blew from where he’d tucked it inside his parka and whipped across his face. He dropped his pointing trowel, and rummaged in the pockets of his cords for something to tie it back.
He frowned at the spoil-heap. It was still the same shape, though maybe shorter. As if, somehow, the slippage hadn’t been a part of it. The raven settled on the variegated greys of the dry-stone wall beyond, quiet now, black eyes round and glinting. Watching him.
Amber was the first to move. She levered herself up from the well excavation, and strode past him, mattock in fist, ginger dreadlocks bouncing. ‘That shouldn’t be loose,’ she said, her breath puffing out to hang as a white vapour cloud in front of her, dispersing in the wind.
But he was looking at the edge of the top of the mound. ‘Amber,’ he said, ‘there’s something up there.’
She came back to stand by him, squinting up to where he was pointing. She went and got the stepladders from the site caravan.
The ground was uneven, so Dom insisted on going up himself. He couldn’t get high enough, and the angle was wrong. They pulled the steps back a little, and he tried again, twisted round teetering on the topmost rung.
And looked straight into the soil-filled eye-sockets of a human skull.
There was a blanket of dark crumby compost. Covering most of what lay underneath. Dom took a deep breath. ‘Amber,’ he said, ‘these are modern bones. Human.’
He looked again, just to be sure. It was modern. Thick strong skull, with only a faint tinge of orange from the peat. He climbed down and they retreated to the caravan.
Dom peered through the smeary window, listening to the sounds of Amber behind him making them both a hot drink. He could feel the circulation returning to his fingers, his toes.
‘Right,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder to her. ‘I have to halt the dig. No choice.’
She grimaced, her jaw tightening.
‘I have to contact the police,’ he said, ‘and the procurator fiscal.’
‘It’s hardly an uncompromised crime scene, if it’s one at all. Nothing we do now can help the poor soul. Or harm her more.’ She perched on the edge of the table, seeking eye contact with him, her cheeks ruddy with the cold. ‘I’ll be careful, stay well away from the mound. We haven’t much time.’
‘We can’t risk compromising it further.’ He shook his head, not looking at her. ‘There’s maybe a family somewhere, waiting, desperate for news.’ He gazed over the rippling orange and brown dapple of treetops, to the Atlantic far below. And closed his eyes. It was the last thing they needed.
When he opened them again, a ray of the sun was glittering a pathway of molten gold across the sea towards the shore. There was the ghost of a rainbow. Mist obscured the islands, merging with the sky. Like an Impressionist painting.
‘Finn,’ he said. ‘She’d at least help them to speed up the investigation.’
‘Fionnuala?’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re still in touch?’
‘Not so you’d notice.’ Not at all. She probably wouldn’t want to. He fancied he saw her reflected in the window, gently smiling. And beyond her, through her, the sea, the sky.
I leant back and looked at the canvas. It was different. I tried to think, remember when the last time had been. That I’d painted. It must have been before…I glanced towards the door, listening. Still quiet. Over five years. Maybe something’s changed in me too. But the feeling’s the same. The feeling I’ve somehow depicted something I hadn’t known was there.
As if I’m still alive, somewhere inside.
I picked up the thinnest brush, just a few hog’s hairs it was, and dipped it in the slick of indigo. The oils were still too wet, but I didn’t want to wait. I carefully signed my name in the bottom right-hand corner. Fionnuala O’Neill. It didn’t smudge, and sat there darkly gleaming against the silver-grey sheen of the sea.
I sat for a moment, and the forgotten familiarity of the smells of linseed oil, paint, and… the long ago …breathed themselves into me. Indigo. The same pigment as woad.
Beyond my easel, the sky’s lightening was already reflected in the water, and the fishing boats were setting out with the tide towards the islands. And I wanted the feeling to last for ever. And the rare moment of peace before Andrew woke. So, I wiped the brushes on a bit of rag, and left them soaking in the jar of white spirit. Time enough to clean them later.
I wandered into the kitchen to make some tea, then took the mug out into the back garden. The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills beyond and I shivered in the deep shadows it cast. Clouds were gathering in the west, but for now the air was still and suffused with an early-morning freshness. I looked round the garden. When had it become a wilderness? The grass was knee-high and tangled with straggling suckers of the bushes reverting to dog-rose. The white-trumpeted bind-weed was rampant, smothering. Andrew used to keep it so well. One of the few things he could almost control.
There was a crash. I jumped, and scalding tea splashed onto my foot. I staggered into the kitchen and dabbed at it with a towel. I ran to the studio. It was too late. The palette was upside down and oil paint was splattered over the floor, the walls. The painting was gone.
I ran into the hall. The front door was open. No sign of him in the road. Back inside I checked the bedroom. The duvet lay flung on the floor. The sheet was crumpled and trailing.
I looked at the clock. Ella would be coming off shift; she’d probably be back at the police station. I lifted the phone and pressed the fast dial.
I ran outside, turned towards the village … the way he’d taken the last couple of times. The wind was cold, fine droplets of rain stung my face. I went too fast, and my feet ran away with me down the slope. The hedges at the side of the road seemed to be rushing uphill. I stumbled into a puddle, and icy water splashed up my legs. They were bare. My slippers became heavy, squelching. I’m going to fall. I reached out, clutching for something, anything. Then I turned sideways, and my feet had to slow.
The headlights of a car slowly rounding the upward bend dazzled into my eyes, and I paused, raising my arm to protect them.
The car braked to a stop, and the door opened. A hand grabbed my arm. ‘Mother, for God’s sake.’
I looked up at Ella.
‘Get in the car.’
As I got in, I turned to look behind. Andrew was strapped into the central seat, the picture under his arm, oil paint streaked over his pyjamas, rubbed into the stubble of his chin.
Ella slammed the driver’s door and put the car into gear. Her face was tight, weary.
Back in the kitchen, I held my smudged and smeared painting, steadying it against the wall, beyond tears. ‘Look at it, just look at it.’ My painting. So much it took to begin again.
‘Mum.’ Ella folded her arms across her chest. ‘Mum, I picked up both of you. Both of you were running sideways like crabs down the middle of the road. In your nightclothes.’ I wrenched my gaze from the dark stain where my name had been dragged down into the sea, and looked at myself. At the paint-stained dressing gown wrapped loosely over not very much.
‘Someone might have seen you,’ Ella said.
I put my hands in my pockets, clenching them into fists.
‘Only one of you is supposed to be sick,’ said Ella.
We sat for a while in a tense silence. From the lounge, I could hear him softly singing along to the television. As if nothing had happened.
‘He kept saying “gallery.”’
I looked at her.
‘When I picked him up,’ said Ella, ‘he kept saying “gallery.” It must have registered, somehow, somewhere in there. He wants you painting again. So do I.’
I pulled my dressing gown tighter around myself, re-knotted the belt. Straightened my fingers. They were aching. ‘Something’s changed … all this time … all there’s been. But it was good. Parts of it.’
Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1
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