Life's Simple Pleasures

Entry by: macdonald

16th December 2016
In the summer before A-level year I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of a voluntary job on an archaeology dig in Greece. It would help me decide between archaeology and medicine at Uni. Six weeks at Homer’s Polimilon in the Northern Pelopennese, dreaming of being the next Howard Carter. Perhaps I’d uncover a scrap of jewellery, a bit of a boar’s tusk helmet or the rusted blade of a Mycenaean sword.
In the event until the day we found the amphora it had been back-breaking work, spitting out dust as I dug into baked dirt, finding nothing except stones dislodged from the perimeter wall of an ancient Necropolis already cleared a few yards away. But I quickly settled into a simple life under canvas, rising at dawn, four hours digging, an early lunch, then a siesta spent dozing in the shade of the gnarled olives or a huge wild fig tree, its branches teeming with strident cicadas, as the blazing sun beat down on the rock and masonry strewn across the hillside.
I finished ‘Thucycides’ and the ‘Day of the Jackal’ in that first week, before the two German girls arrived, at which point I lost interest in reading. I fell instantly in love with Angelika, a long-limbed, blue-eyed blonde who sang ‘American Pie’ in a German accent as she dug. Brigitte had hair cut to stubble and did a hundred press-ups every morning. She had a snake tattoo on her back and wore doc martens.
Our supervisor, Julian, was a lanky post-grad. who had been educated at England’s most famous public school. In those far off pre-Thatcherite days he thought this was a handicap. How times have changed.
That first night, over dinner, we discussed philosophy. Julian explained why depictions of Christ in the East show him robed in royal purple, sitting on a throne, brandishing a Greek bible, while in Western Europe we see him semi-naked and suffering, displaying only his wounds. I forget his reasoning now, but by the third carafe of Retsina we began arguing over whether Schliemann at Troy or Evans at Knossos had made the bigger contribution. This debate split on nationalist grounds. Then the singing began. Angelika did her Don Mclean and Brigitte sang ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin. I followed up with ‘Maggie May’ . Julian didn’t know any pop songs so I ‘treated’ them to a drunken rendition of Tam O’ Shanter.
‘Was zur Hölle?’ Brigitte cried out late next morning, German for
‘What the hell?’
On her second day of digging she had uncovered an amphora. This had a disc of lime plaster and gypsum plugging its wide mouth. Greek letters scratched on its surface indicated a date of seven hundred BC. The time of Homer. Before the Parthenon was built, before Thermopylae.
As I had four days more experience than Brigitte, Julian asked me to forego my siesta. It took three hours under a baking sun to dig it out. Julian levered off the stopper and I caught a sweet aroma as he said:
‘It’s full of honey’ and stuck his index finger in.
‘Still tastes good,’ he said, licking his lips. Angelika’s perfect nose wrinkled and Brigitte swore in German again.
‘Won’t Doctor Mitchell mind,’ I said. Our project leader had gone to Athens that morning for the weekend. He was due to return on Monday.
‘We found a similar jar near Tiryns last summer,’ said Julian. ‘He ate some of the honey himself.’’
I stuck my finger in. The honey was dark and syrupy and had a strong citrus taste.
‘The bees probably got the nectar from the same orange blossom that still grows here,’ said Julian.
Next morning I scooped out another large spoonful and let it ooze onto my breakfast yoghurt. Julian had more himself but Angelika and Brigitte stuck to cornflakes and made choking noises in their throats.
‘Ambrosia, the Food of the Gods,’ I said.
‘Actually,’ said Brigitte, ‘Sappho, she tells us ambrosia was a drink. Homer, he was wrong, ja.’
‘I thought nectar was the drink,’ said Julian, but Brigitte was having none of it. For her Sappho was the supreme authority on such matters.
But I didn’t care whether it was a food or a drink as I gobbled up another bowlful of thick yoghurt and ancient honey. As the sun rose over the gulf of Corinth, I made my mind up that it was Archaeology for me and this breakfast for the rest of my life.
Dr Mitchell arrived back on Monday. I’d had another large helping of honey for breakfast. Our boss was a bit pompous and fond of phatic utterances which were easy to mimic. ‘When all is said and done’, ‘To my way of thinking’ were typical preambles. Julian reported our progress over the weekend and he inspected the three foot Amphora. When Julian mentioned my gobbling the honey he asked:
‘I can’t help but wonder if you enjoyed the taste.’
‘It’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘You didn’t mind, did you? Julian said it was okay.’
‘No, it’s fine. As everybody knows, honey lasts forever. The Greeks, the Egyptians and the Chinese all used it as a preservative.’ He watched me as I digested this information.
‘So you think there might be something preserved at the bottom of the amphora?’ I said.
‘In point of fact, I’m certain,’ he said. ‘And we’ll empty it this afternoon and see.’
After lunch a large basin was found and placed on a trestle table. Julian lifted the amphora and tipped out a couple of pints of honey. When the flow had reduced to a trickle he set it upright on the table and peered inside.
‘My Lord!’ he said and Brigitte, Angelika and I stood transfixed as he and Dr. Mitchell gently eased a small wrapped package, still smeared in dark honey, onto the trestle table.
Each of us took time to recognise the object before us. Brigitte was first to react, swearing again in German. Julian just stood very still and stared, his mouth hanging open. I felt like a sparrow must feel after flying into a window. Dr Mitchell’s left eyebrow may have flickered a little, but then he gave a sigh of satisfaction. When Angelika sat on the ground at my feet and began to weep, an odd pricking sensation began at the back of my neck and spread up onto my head. Perhaps my hair was standing on end.
‘It’s an infant,’ said Dr Mitchell. Probably a still-born, but we’ll take it to Athens for X-rays.’
Brigitte pulled Angelika to her feet and they went off for a walk. The following morning Brigitte said:
‘We will go now, ja.’ I was devastated and it was only when Julian told me they were spending the next two weeks in Lesbos that the penny dropped.
So, I decided on Medicine and have never again had yoghurt and honey for breakfast. Retsina too, has always been disappointing since that summer. It tastes different outside Greece and even years later in an Athen’s restaurant it was pretty nasty. That was the day I saw the baby again. Even behind glass in Athen's museum, his perfect features are still clear under the thin linen cloth in which his parents had wrapped him.
My memory has always been good and I can still recite Tam O’ Shanter by heart, a feat often appreciated at the Scottish bard’s birthday celebration every twenty-fifth January. As Tam’s enjoyment of a night with his drinking pals in an alehouse in Ayr reaches a peak, Burns chucks in a bit of foreshadowing
But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow fall on the river,
A moment white - then melts forever.
It was only after that summer that I understood how true that is.
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