Fiat Lux

Les Sklaroff

A delightful little vignette which actually contains more truth than fiction.

We had to endure the usual oblique glances from Altdorfer’s aunt as we passed through the sitting-room. Each time I visited the house, she had been sitting in the same armchair, knitting the same quilt. Altdorfer says it was originally intended as a scarf, but the old gentleman for whom it was generously being created had inconveniently died at quite an early stage of its colourful growth. Thereafter the scarf increased in dimensions and complexity, prospectively becoming first a rug and then a quilt. By now it could easily be used to camouflage a tank, and is well on its way to providing cover for, say, a football field. Given time and a sufficient supply of wool, it may ultimately replace Wales as a popular measure of disaster areas.

I followed Altdorfer through to the study. If ever a room deserved the name, this was no longer it. I knew it to harbour a desk and chairs, but these could now be seen only in tantalising glimpses, like the ankles of a demure Victorian maiden. They were concealed by a seemingly random overspill from the well-stocked bookshelves which obscured the walls. Somewhere there was even a computer. Among the few items of furniture which remained relatively uncluttered was the old floral-patterned sofa, threadbare but still reasonably comfortable, and it was to this familiar relic that we gravitated.

The box-files stacked on an adjoining coffee-table allowed just enough room for a bottle of Altdorfer’s favoured Kirsch and two surprisingly clean squat glasses. He filled these, and handed one to me. "Up theirs!" we chorused ritually, before resuming the serious business of studying the startling batch of documents I had been left by Ryan Trench.

We had known Trench when he was a young classics student with an interest in Sanskrit and Monopoly. The Monopoly should have given us a clue to his secret acquisitiveness. He was a gawky, awkward youth, socially inept, but evidently a good scholar, with a conviction that one day he would make his mark on the world. To that end he cultivated an accent one might associate with an effete aristocracy, yet exhibited a kind of fawning gratitude towards those who were indulgent towards him despite his gauche behaviour.

I was working at the time for a long-established antiquarian bookseller; an old family firm, learning the intricacies of cataloguing, and it was there that Ryan Trench found a vacation job in the downstairs packing department. Below this were ‘The Vaults’ – the sub-basement storage area containing thousands of dusty volumes waiting to be sorted and priced. This led out through the tradesman’s entrance, where Ryan parked his bike, to the cobbled streets of old Edinburgh.

I had a flat nearby, and at some point Ryan began dropping in at week-ends, quite possibly uninvited, and irrespective of whether I might already have company. On one such visit he arrived just as a casual game of Monopoly was about to begin, and it would have been churlish not to invite him to join in. I forget now which assembly of my friends was present. Altdorfer, certainly, probably Marcus and Stella, maybe Anitra, or Piers. In contrast to our laid-back, convivial approach to the game, Ryan’s was compulsive, intense. To him it was not a game to be enjoyed, but an opportunity to exercise control. And when he failed to accumulate sufficient property or wealth, the fault had to lie in the inadequacy of the rules, or the design of the board. After several sessions Ryan excused himself, and spent the next few weeks constructing, in his spare time, a larger board with additional squares and their related property cards, and extra model buildings to represent a level of possession beyond hotels; historic houses, perhaps, or palaces. Much to his chagrin, by the time he brought this superior version to our attention, we had thankfully outgrown Monopoly in any form.

Not long after his graduation, Trench’s mother, his remaining parent, had died, bequeathing him their house in a leafy Edinburgh suburb. On one occasion he unexpectedly invited me round to sample his vintage Tokay. I had not been there long before he revealed his ulterior motive. "Come and see the attic," he said. There I was amazed to see, neatly cleaned and shelved, a large number of mostly vellum-bound Latin texts – antiquarian treasures – which he had secretly been liberating from their centuries of captivity in ‘The Vaults’. He seemed inordinately proud of this ‘cultural rescue’, as he called it, and quite oblivious to the possibility that he might be charged with a criminal offence. As it happened, he was soon to lose his job when the owner of the premises interrupted a further ‘rescue’ mission, by enquiring exactly what it was that Ryan was strapping to the back of his bike.

Fortunately for Trench, the disappearance of earlier volumes had not been noticed, and since he had not previously drawn attention to his rescue service, he thereby avoided prosecution. What became of all those confiscated books we never discovered, but from the sporadic cards I received over the next few years we do know that Trench eventually sold the house, moved to London, and became a professional archaeologist. None of us saw him again.

Almost a quarter of a century later I was contacted by a very respectable Scottish lady, a former fellow-student of Ryan’s, who informed me of his recent death, and explained that she was now his executrix. Despite those long years of silence, the news of his death genuinely saddened me, and I was surprised and curiously flattered to learn that he had valued our brief crossing of paths enough to leave me a few illustrated books and a collection of papers. The books were early twentieth century, and attractively decorated by an artist he knew I liked. The papers were quite another matter, and as soon as I saw their contents I realised that I needed to consult Altdorfer.

You probably know of the so-called ‘Antikythera device’; the fused clump of corroded bronze recovered by a diver from the sea bed near Crete in 1900. Seven or eight decades later, after much expert examination, and the application of x-ray tomography, it was deduced to be a precision-made astronomical calendar with over thirty differential gears, designed to demonstrate lunar and planetary cycles with a high degree of accuracy. Working models have since been reconstructed as proof of this complex example of technology from more than two millenia ago. This mechanism is generally regarded as the oldest such device known, but there is no reason to believe it was unique. In historical perspective it was predated by air-guns, alarm clocks, convex lenses, chain-drives, lathes, the magnetic compass, and of course the steam-powered toy pigeon with which Archytas of Tarentum amused himself and possibly the younger members of his family.

But even that takes us only to about 420 BC. Two or three thousand years further back we are still in familiar territory: beer and dentists, glassmaking and weighing machines, maps, contraceptives and gold mines, not necessarily in order of priority. Another ten or twenty thousand years into the past we have figurines, weaponry, evidence of needlework, painting, musical instruments. Stone lamps have been found from sixty thousand years before that, while the earliest known decorative amulets date from more than 100,000 years ago – a small fraction – a mere 5% - of the traceable existence of tool-making hominids on this planet.

Civilisations rise and fall, succumb at length to inescapable natural processes – erosion, earthquake, eruption, landslide, tsunami, flood, fire, drought, and consequential biological scourges such as starvation and disease. Perhaps one should include climate-change and asteroid impact as lurking triggers. The odd gamma-ray burst from a distant pulsar cannot be discounted. It’s also salutory to remember that the Easter Islanders ran out of trees, and that in the 21st century we have an enormously improved capacity for self-extermination.

As Altdorfer says, somewhat pompously, we exist at the interface between history and geology. Inevitably, things get buried, intentionally or otherwise, become trapped in gradual or sudden tectonic shifts, carried by water, overlaid, subducted. In the course of humanity’s short career entire cultures repeatedly blossom and vanish. Archaeologists and palaeontologists, assiduously recording their fragmentary finds, can merely scratch the surface, and the contents of museums will always be exceeded by what remains undiscovered and for the most part irretrievable.

The papers of Ryan Trench hint at a lost body of knowledge from a time when our protohistorical record is virtually blank. Frustratingly, we have not yet been able to establish the current whereabouts of the artifacts he refers to in his sketches and photographs, but his notes indicate that they were found some metres below the sea-bed off the coast of Gujarat, not far from the Mul Dwarka excavations. One of the photographs shows a partially cleaned, flat circular metal plate above a plastic scale indicating it to be about 20 centimetres in diameter. He does not identify the metal, but the cleaned area (the lower half) seems to have a brassy sheen, and is inscribed with rows of regular markings.

Another image shows the obverse of the same plate, where incised lines form what I thought at first looked like a naïve drawing of a small train meeting a large hedgehog. Each carriage has horizontal bars, and the hedgehog is curled into a protective ball. Altdorfer suggested a rather interesting interpretation.

A third photograph shows an irregular encrustation of marine organisms on what seems to be a cluster of eggs. On the back, in Ryan’s neat hand, he had written "Vitreous!". A detailed sketch of one of the ‘eggs’ notes the thickness of the shell to be 2.3mm. There are also enlarged sketches of both sides of the metal plate, with a few attempts at translation of some of the incised characters, mostly crossed out. Two words, however, have been emphatically encircled: ‘day’ and ‘enable’. Even if only approximately correct, we suspect these may help to explain the train and the hedgehog, and quite possibly the eggs.

Among those unremembered creators of metal and glass another forgotten genius had discovered a way to utilise electricity. Altdorfer believes the train represents battery cells of some kind, and that the hedgehog is a symbol either of the sun, or of a manufactured source of heat and light.

Of Ryan Trench’s papers we have properly examined only the first few in the topmost of the eleven box files. In due course this private archive will appear online, but for now we are still relishing the luxury of our sneak preview. So far, we have not encountered any improved versions of board games, but who knows what else we will find before Altdorfer’s aunt finishes her quilt?

© L J Sklaroff 2011 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 12:31 Thu 30 Jun 2011
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