Miranda thought she saw Pappy over by the huts. Her eyes were dazzled by the harsh sunlight as she looked up from her trench, and the figure seemed to glitter in an aura of rainbow lights. She blinked as her eyes adjusted. It was only Andoni, making a call in the shade of an olive tree. Pappy had been dead for more than three years now. As always, this thought brought with it a wave of sick disappointment. Miranda pushed the feeling away from her as she stretched her compressed limbs. It was well past noon, she judged. Sweat scratched at her neck and slithered down her breastbone. She straightened her back and took a swig of cold water from her flask. She pulled a kerchief from under her wide-brimmed hat and wiped the dirt from her face. There was still time to find something worthwhile before lunch. Sighing, and thinking of Pappy, she squatted back down to her work.
This was summer: heat, dirt, digging in a hole with Pappy. He used to say she was born in a trench with a trowel in her hand. Holidays at other times of year were spent visiting ancient sites or as guests of his many friends. At Knossos she learnt to deride Arthur Evans’ fantastical restorations. At Mycenae Pappy pointed out where the golden mask had been found, taking her from the hot windy hilltop into the cool dark tomb there. There were trips to dusty old-fashioned museums and forgotten ruins. Even with nowhere to go, Pappy never left her in school for the holidays. One summer when there were no invitations they had lived for several weeks in a cave by the sea. Pappy made a great adventure of it, fishing, swimming, building fires and cooking on the beach. At Christmas if they were not invited to stay with one of his admirers, someone would lend them a home. A primitive mountain hut, an air-conditioned villa, it was all the same to him. One year they spent Christmas in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, the guests of Mrs Darling. With his sun-bleached hair and tanned skin, Pappy was terrifically handsome. No wonder women loved him.
Miranda was never jealous of his lady friends. Some sought to endear themselves to Pappy by petting and spoiling her. One of Mrs Darling’s favourite treats was tea in the Winter Garden, which she insisted Miranda take every afternoon. Others didn’t bother to hide the fact that her presence was an inconvenience to them. There was a Deirdre somebody, an English poet, whose house at Areopoli they shared one October.
‘Bugger off, squirt,’ she would say, ‘and don’t come back for at least two hours.’ Miranda spent the twilight hours wandering from the dusty streets to the quiet olive groves, or watching old men play backgammon in the square. Pappy could make himself at home anywhere, and Miranda understood that these passing friendships meant little to him.
Like Pappy, she preferred her love life uncomplicated, and found married men much less demanding. When the dig closed she would go back to her university in England and Andoni to his family in Athens. This was their third season together at Iklaina. She watched him pocket his phone and cigarette packet. He went to speak to some American students who were supposed to be excavating a Cyclopean wall. Always enthusiastic at the beginning of the season, by now they were bored and it was hard to get much work out of them. They treated the project as a kind of summer school, partying all night on the beaches and spending their mornings comparing hangovers. Andoni humoured them for the funding they brought in. He spent most of his time trying to balance keeping them happy with making them productive. Pappy would have sent them packing; he had nothing but contempt for dilettantes.
But he would have handled many things differently. Last week a boy called Josh had been caught smuggling out a potshard with some painted decoration on it. He wasn’t going to sell it, he said, he just thought his mom would like it. Andoni gathered the students and lectured them on the seriousness of taking objects off the site. He explained that he could, and perhaps should, have Josh arrested, that the Greek police treated such matters very seriously, and that a Greek jail was a very unpleasant place.
When Miranda was twelve years old Pappy was supervising a dig near the Taïgetos Mountains. A workman had been behaving suspiciously, so Pappy said. He watched the man all day, and as the sun set and the workers left, he waited near the exit. When the man looked up to say goodnight, Pappy grabbed him, pinning his arms to his sides. He shouted to Miranda to take the man’s bag, which she did after a brief struggle. Inside were some beads and medieval coins with the dirt still on them. Miranda flinched and covered her eyes as Pappy viciously punched and kicked the man. The offender was allowed to flee after his beating, but it was days before Pappy’s fury abated. Miranda was terrified. He was like some awful ancient god, raging about precious objects going onto the black market and into private collections instead of museums.
Miranda preferred the quiet rhythm of working alone. She had a hunch there might be graves in this corner of the site. In spite of her training she still relished her childhood fantasy of making some astonishing discovery. Perhaps not as spectacular as a golden mask or a royal tomb, but something that would make her name and make Pappy proud. Early in the day she had discovered a few pottery fragments and some of the doughnut shaped loom weights that littered the site. A little later she found a piece of clay tablet. This was more worthwhile. She gently brushed the dirt away to reveal, as she had hoped, the characteristic angular scratches of Linear B. She knew better than to attempt a thorough cleansing in the trench. It would have to go to the lab for a more delicate handling, but she could discern the symbols for ‘barley’ and the number ‘17’. She labelled it and placed it in the tray, then squatted back down to scratch in a likely spot. Sure enough, after a few minutes of careful excavation, she loosened the other half of the tablet. Now she could smile, as she gave it a soft dusting and checked that it matched the first fragment. Perfect. She was hot and dirty, but at least she had achieved something from her morning’s work.
She looked around for Andoni. It was not quite two, she estimated, but already students were drifting away. She spotted him in front of the huts talking to a girl. She was an ambitious student and took every opportunity to get Andoni on his own. What the hell, Miranda thought, the dig would be over soon. She went back to her work, which was, after all, what mattered. Soon she was absorbed and imagining Pappy was in just the next trench. As she scraped away at the soil her trowel loosened a lump. Taking it in her hand, she speculated that it might be another ceramic fragment or a knucklebone die. She rubbed the encrusted dirt carefully with her finger and stopped dead as she saw the glint of yellow metal.
A golden bauble sparkled with reflected light as it slowly turned in the draught. Miranda sat close to the Christmas tree in the Hotel Grande Bretagne. She crossed her ankles and tucked her feet under the chair to hide her scuffed shoes. She tried to cover her skinny knees with her hands. They always looked dirty, no matter how long she spent in the bathtub. Pappy said Mrs Darling would buy her some long trousers, but Mrs Darling thought a dress would be more suitable. Mrs Darling was not aware of the knee problem.
‘Your tea, Miss,’ the waiter smiled as he placed the silver teapot in front of her. There were three pieces of loukoumi, thickly coated in icing sugar, on a little china plate. She put a slice of lemon in her cup and poured tea onto it, mingling their fragrances. She loved the amber translucence of tea without milk. She took a bite of the pink loukoumi then a sip of tea, letting the hot liquid melt the sweet jelly in her mouth. She would save the green one till last.
‘It’s really quite scandalous.’ A shrill voice from the other side of the Christmas tree. ‘People like that shouldn’t be allowed in a decent hotel.’ Miranda licked icing sugar from her fingers.
‘I know what you mean,’ her friend responded. ‘But keep your voice down, Mary.’
‘Every afternoon,’ Mary continued in a stage whisper. ‘They’re up there right now. At her age.’
Her friend chuckled. ‘You have to admire her energy.’ Miranda picked up the yellow sweet and licked some of the sugar off.
‘I mean, I know he’s good looking if you admire that primitive style, but really, he’s no better than a gigolo.’
‘Worse. He acts so superior, like he’s doing her a favour.’ Miranda wondered who they were talking about.
‘And she’s not the only one. He goes from one to another, dragging that child behind him.’
‘Cap in hand.’
‘Oh, yes, always needing money.’
Miranda squirmed in her seat. Only the pistachio loukoumi left. A sip of hot tea swirled around her mouth to freshen her taste buds. Nibble by nibble, she could make it last for ages.
‘He calls himself an archaeologist. No credentials whatsoever. Banned from every official site, I heard.’
‘Of course, she worships him, won’t hear a word against him.’
‘And he’s nothing but a charlatan.’
The loukoumi didn’t taste right. Miranda felt acrid juices flowing into the back of her mouth. Knocking over the tea things, she ran through the foyer and into the rainy square. She spat out the sweet, then folded her legs under her. The rain mingled with her tears as she squatted on the wet pavement.
‘You haven’t forgotten we’re going to the beach for lunch, have you?’ At the sound of Andoni’s voice some reflex made Miranda close her hand around the object. As they talked she slowly slipped the hand into her pocket.
‘No, I just feel like doing another ten minutes,’ she said. ‘I’ve found a tablet. From a grain merchant I think.’
‘Hmm, pity it’s broken, but not bad otherwise,’ he turned it over. ‘Look, don’t be long, I’m hungry. I’m going for a shower.’
‘OK, I’ll catch you up.’
She watched him walk away then squatted down for a closer look at her find. She carefully brushed off as much dirt as she dared, then used the last of her water to clean it. She could hardly breathe as she turned it over in her hand. What she held was an astonishingly beautiful, intact, gold seal ring. The seal itself was superbly crafted with a tiny but delicate depiction of an archer mounted on a chariot aiming at a fleeing deer. Tears blurred her vision. It was the most beautiful object she’d ever held in her hand. She imagined the impression it would make in hot wax. Perhaps at last she really was on the brink of discovering a royal tomb or a lost treasury. Wait till she told Pappy, she thought, he would be really proud of her this time. She carefully wrapped the ring in her bandana and placed it in the tray with her other finds. Then it hit her. Pappy would never know. All her joy evaporated in an instant. Miranda took the ring from the tray. She lifted her head and scanned the site. Everyone had disappeared. She put the ring in her pocket.