Thursday, September 27, 2012

The centurion

Metal detectors have never attracted me . It strikes me as daft to walk  up and down with a magnet on the end of a stick in the vain hope of finding something valuable. You could spend a lifetime doing it and come up with nothing more exciting than an empty beer can. So I was uninspired but  rather touched when my grand children recently hit on the idea of giving me one for my birthday. To keep me out of trouble I supposed, which at least flatteringly  would imply that I was still capable of getting in to it.

Dutifully one fine day I took the device for a walk in a remote corner of Ashdown Forest near where I have lived most of my life. Doing my best to avoid other people I set out along an unfrequented path  over run on  either side by nettles and bracken. As I rounded a corner the machine began to click and bleep in a way which, if it were human, you might call hysterical. At first I did not know what to do. But remembering that I had brought a garden trowel with me, I began to scrape away at the bit of path which was causing the most excitement.

What I found was to say the least surprising. As I scraped, the top of  what I quickly identified as a Roman centurion' s helmet emerged, a galea it  is called.  Years of teaching Roman history had not gone to waste.All that was missing was the plume of feathers or horse hair that adorns this fabled headgear.

What followed was astonishing. The helmet began to move. It surged up toward me and as far as I could tell contained a head, not so much a skull but a head  for there were signs of life in the dark eyes glittering above the cheek plates. But what shook me and still shakes me as I tap these words on to the screen, was that a neck, shoulders and torso followed rising in the air in front of me, thighs, legs, booted feet and all, until the figure a Roman centurion stood before me.  The chap breathed heavily with the exertion or possibly, for  his body language was unmistakeably aggressive, with suppressed anger.

He began to speak from the moment  he emerged from his subterranean resting place. It didn't take me long to realise that he was speaking in Latin. My knowledge of Classical Latin
did not prepare me for the stream of words which came from the mouthpiece of his helmet. They sounded a bit like modern Italian  and I soon began too understand them. His rage was mingled with grief. It seemed that he had had a girlfriend, a local British girl, who had lost her life, when Boudicca romantically known as Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, had razed to the ground the town of Camulodunum, today's Colchester.

" I detest this miserable bog of a country. I detest its mean and savage inhabitants, their drunkenness and stupidity.And I want to go home. And that is precisely where I am going now...Without a further word he walked stiffly down the path, into a mist which had begun to encroach from the edge of the heath.

I followed  for a while but soon he was lost to view. When I returned the hole from which he had emerged with such vigour seemed much smaller. Foxes or badgers might find it useful I thought.  Meanwhile, what  to do? I shouldered the metal detector, pocketed the trowel and made my way back to my car. Should I tell the police? Or the local museum? They wouldn't believe me. Who would? Would you? I went home and made myself a cup of tea. Eventually I ditched the metal detector.

1 comment:

  1. The unlikeliness and strangeness of this story grows on the reader with second and third readings. At first I was perplexed by the way in which the appearence of the centurion to a Roman History teacher seems to represent some kind of selective haunting. No one else would have been qualified to recognise the authenticity of the helmet or indeed be able to unscramble the italianate Latin. Yet the use of the metal detector being brought out dutifully, by one who has received it as a present, gives the haunting an extra level of unsought-for shock. I think what is hard to accept is that the narrator does not expect anyone, not even the reader to believe him. This creates a strange dynamic rather like one of those logic questions in which a known liar says he is lying... should we believe him?
    If we conclude that the Roman History teacher is indeed telling the truth, then what are we to make of his experience? Did he hallucinate? Is he the victim of a practical joke? Neither of these fit the tone or the matter-of-fact style of the story. It is a very, very stange story. And I like it.