Road Undermined by Badgers
Seamus bounced over furrows and along the rough track like an overweight baboon on a piece of - very strong - elastic.
Anywhere else, the 30-year-old on a mountain bike would have been a sorry sight. Out here only the crows, terrified rabbits and the odd sheep paid any attention. Some passengers in the rural bus caught sight of the absurd acrobatics, but from a distance he just looked like an overfed 14-year-old practising wheelies... badly.
Seamus had tried to grow up - repeatedly over the last 20 years - but never managed it because that glitch in his occasionally analysed mind prevented him from maturing into a meaningful human being. Despite that, he was happy in his zero hours employment, snatching detritus from the tracks of a recycling plant. It was gloriously repetitive, without prospects, and still left time for him to entertain the mindless pleasure centre that ruled his life. All Seamus wanted to do was play computer games in his tiny ground floor flat in rundown suburbia where the foxes delighted in tormenting the neighbourhood dogs. The angry yowling may have woken those who had get up in the morning for early shifts, but this immature adult revelled in the inglorious racket. He loved loud noise as much as junk food.
When Seamus reached the road on the other side of the field he was so consumed with what McDonalds he would treat himself to that evening he almost collided with a genuine cyclist. This meant that he didn’t notice the crack in the verge he had just bounced over. The cyclist peddled sedately past, casting a glance of contempt over her shoulder, apparently unconcerned that he had just disappeared down a hole.
Seamus tumbled down several feet and landed on the gnarled roots of a huge tree felled several years ago as a hazard to traffic. Now it was exacting its revenge. Fortunately mountain bikes are robust, which couldn’t be said for Seamus. Shaken and furious, he tried to scramble out, but loose soil cascaded on top of him. Breathless, he sat down and took stock of the situation. How was he going to get his bike out, let alone his large circumference? Without wheels it would be a very long walk home. There was no point in phoning his mother to come and collect him: she had lost patience with her son ages ago. If Seamus had been diagnosed with something she could understand it might have been a different matter, but there was no medical term for the lazy, overweight slob she had wasted half a lifetime bringing up. He was the main reason she divorced the layabout who had sired their son, took up with a lover, and moved as far away as possible from the fast food outlets which the lives of those two men had revolved around.
Seamus needed something to blame, and it wasn’t going to be his insatiable appetite for junk food. So he pulled out his smartphone and tapped out a rant on Facebook about the hole. There should have been a sign. The thing hadn’t been visible until he fell into it.
Then he played a few games while deciding what to do. Calling the police was not an option: they were more used to fielding complaints about his loud music and destruction of municipal flower beds with his mountain bike. The council’s online help section didn’t have a phone number, just a box in which to enter a message with the guarantee it would be attended to within the next four working days; no doubt dependent on whether the office cat could remember its password. As for Seamus’s friends - there weren’t many of them, and none with enough sense of direction to find him before it was dark. Jim had an obsession with levers and pulleys which might have hauled him out, but it wasn’t a very healthy one and involved rubber body suits. Resigned to the fact he would have to build up the energy and rescue himself, Seamus went back to slaying nature sprites before making the attempt. He was about to do mortal combat with the elf king when something caught his eye. It lay half-buried in the loose soil, glinting in a shaft of sunlight.
He stopped his game to pull it free. It was a torque, one like the warriors used to wear when going into battle. His passion for computer games meant he knew all about CGI warfare.
And it looked like gold.
Seamus pushed his smartphone into his pocket and scrabbled about in the loose soil for more treasure. He found a large clasp inlaid with enamel, some bracelets and a highly ornamented cup. The hoard looked as if it had been recently buried despite appearing to be Saxon. So it must have belonged to someone. Tough luck if it did. It was his now.
Seamus quickly stowed the cache of gold in his knapsack.
Now he had the incentive to scramble up the bank of loose soil, pulling his bike after him. After a quick glance about to make sure he hadn’t been seen, he furiously pedalled off to gloat over his find. This time he used the road, in too much of a hurry to notice the verge-side sign warning, "Caution, Road Undermined by Badgers".
And these were no ordinary badgers.
Once safely home, Seamus drew the curtains across the French windows of his ground floor flat so nobody could peer in from the other side of the courtyard. He took the discoveries out of the knapsack and rubbed them clean with a duster he had liberated from the recycling track. Once gleaming in their full glory, it was obvious that they were treasure trove. Seamus understood that caches like this should be declared, but believed in finders keepers, losers weepers. The owner of these had probably been dead for over a thousand years anyway and should have hidden them in a more secure place. They now belonged to Seamus and he didn’t see why they should be displayed in the glass cabinet of some museum the likes of him wouldn’t be seen dead in.
He was overwhelmed by the sense of possession and needed to be the only one able to gloat over the treasure. An online search for similar pieces revealed their true value. There were hundreds of Saxon torques, inlaid clasps and drinking bowls in museums. Few came up for auction. The gold ones that did were valued in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps it would be worth surrendering them to the authorities to take a finder’s share.
Seamus would have to think about that.
And what if they were just some cheap replicas somebody had buried as a practical joke? In the catalogue of irrelevant information he was so adept at boring other people into a torpor with, was that snippet about Piltdown man. It crossed his irrational mind that there was the chance he could go down in history as the gullible finder of a counterfeit Saxon hoard. Even if Seamus had noticed the sign warning that badgers had been the ones to undermine the road, the idea that it might have belonged to them would have made him reason that the animals were bound to be poisoned or shot by farmers as a tuberculosis risk anyway, so what rights could they have?
On the other side of the country, where badgers were being systematically exterminated, enthusiastic archaeologists were on the verge of entering the central chamber of an untouched burial mound. They had spent years campaigning for permission to excavate the round barrow, expecting to find a valuable hoard interred with a Saxon chieftain.
After meticulously examining every stone and particle of soil and taking numerous photographs as they worked, the slab that sealed the burial chamber was removed. The skeleton interred there should have been adorned with precious regalia. Instead, all that remained were the chieftain’s decaying plaid cloak, trousers and leather boots.
Apart from a few cracked pots, spindles and other organic items so fragmented they would take time to identify, there was nothing. No goblets, ceremonial cauldron, helmet, inlaid sword, shield, torque, enamelled cloak clasp, or even a necklace of semi-precious stones, despite plenty of traces to suggest they had been there.
After so many years of preparation, the archaeologists’ expectations seeped down the drain of lost causes.
This had to be the work of grave robbers.
But how had they broken in? There were no breaches in the walls and the slab that sealed the tomb had not been moved since the interment.
And then one of them spotted the hole.
This was more X Files than Tomb Raiders.
It was too small for human access, and too large for moles.
The archaeological community was alerted that a Houdini-like looter of irreplaceable relics was at large. Umpteen plans to excavate promising sites about the country were brought forward and every available amateur enthusiast recruited.
But it was too late.
Without exception, everything of value that lay beneath the ground had been looted, robbing the nation of centuries of irreplaceable history. Bronze sword blades may have remained, but their inlaid hafts had disappeared. Indentations on the corpses of long-dead nobility indicated that jewellery had been removed, forensic examination determining that much of it had been gold. And in all these places the only evidence left by the culprits was small, half-collapsed tunnels.
This time the theft of a nation’s heritage could not be blamed on metal detectors and known grave robbers. It was a scandal and the government offered a substantial reward for information leading to the apprehension of the culprits.
No one came forward.
Seamus should have guessed what was going on. But, for all the useless trivia he managed to retain, he couldn’t work out anything more complicated than how to microwave a frozen beef burger. The headlines about the archaeological thefts persisted for some time before it eventually occurred to him he might have found stolen treasure and there was just enough sense in that sluggish brain to realise that a reward wasn’t going to be handed over to someone suspected of grave robbing.
The bottom drawer of the sideboard in his living room where he kept his electronic peripherals had a lock to it. So Seamus wrapped each of his precious pieces in kitchen towels and packed them carefully beneath all the DVDs, USB cables, storage drives and other stuff that was never used but kept in case it was needed. The courtyard at the rear of the flats was enclosed and had only one gate which, on the insistence of residents, was always locked. The bolt on the French windows was just as secure as that on the front door, so the only point of entry was the cat flap a previous resident had installed for a portly Persian cat that liked to party all night.
Seamus went to bed that evening with the drawer’s key round his neck, comfortable in the knowledge that the treasure was safe.
Sleep came as he conjured up ways to capitalise on his Saxon hoard when the furore had died down. The right buyer with more money than scruples had to be out there.
At work, Seamus found it difficult to focus on sorting through all those annoying, contaminated items people, like him, insisted on putting in the wrong recycling bins. His thoughts were consumed by the gleaming treasures (he had invested in a tin of metal polish and they now shone like the rising sun) in his bottom drawer. Instead of playing Grand Theft Auto, he preferred to take these out in the evenings and gloat over them.
One night, as usual, he wrapped the goblet, torque, clasp and bracelets carefully, replaced them in the drawer, locked it and went to bed with the key round his neck.
In the early hours there was the faint sound of something chewing. It was nothing compared to the screaming of a vixen in heat or neighbourhood dogs barking, and probably only a mouse in the food bin munching on the remains of last night’s beef burger, so he went back to sleep.
The next morning, half asleep, Seamus wandered into the living room with a mug of instant coffee and sat in front of the television.
It was some while before the open drawer caught his attention.
The kitchen towels that had wrapped his treasures lay shredded on the floor amongst the scattered DVDs.
Something had gnawed the lock off the drawer and stolen Seamus’s treasure.
He was distraught and almost picked up the phone to report the burglary, and then remembered just in time that he couldn’t tell anyone else without risking prosecution for not declaring treasure trove - or grave robbing!
Seamus sat motionless with the shock until the phone rang. He was wanted at work. Zero hours meant you couldn’t refuse a shift. Reflex kicked in and he threw on some clothes, grabbed his mountain bike and, on the way there, peddled furiously to where he had found the secret hoard.
As he reached the verge which had swallowed him, the rising sun illuminated the sign, “ROAD UNDERMINED BY BADGERS”.
But the hole had now been filled in and tarmac re-laid.
And his precious treasure was probably back beneath it.