The man her daughter saw at the park filled her with unease…
“Sonia’s mum is taking her and Katy to the playground,” Tansy told Linda the moment she came out from school. “Can we go too?”
“I should think we can manage that,” Linda laughed. “But not for long, mind. Just a quick go on the swings.”
The swings were usually Tansy’s favourite, but she shook her head.
“It’s where the man stands.”
“What man’s that, sweetheart?”
Linda carefully kept her voice neutral. She didn’t want to scare her daughter.
“Oh, just a man. I can beat Katy up the climbing frame, Mummy. Will you watch?”
Five-year-olds can be so frustrating.
Linda didn’t like the sound of a man hanging around the children’s playground but Tansy never went there on her own, nor did she seem frightened of him.
Linda didn’t want to plant a worry where none had existed. She compromised.
“You remember what I told you about being careful if people you don’t know start talking to you?”
“Oh, he never says anything,” Tansy assured her cheerfully. “He wears funny clothes, though.”
Linda didn’t find this as comforting as Tansy clearly thought it should.
“Tansy said something about a man by the swings,” she said to her friend Fran when they met the next morning. “One of the dads, was it?”
“I didn’t see anyone. Who does Tansy say it was?”
“‘Just a man’. That’s why I wondered if you knew him.”
“Hey, Sonia! Did any of you see some guy in the playground yesterday?” Fran asked.
Sonia shook her head.
Linda kept a sharp eye out over the following few days, but no man appeared anywhere in the vicinity.
Somehow, that was more worrying.
Could it be that he was lurking in the bushes somewhere, and would only approach when there weren’t so many watchful eyes on the children?
But the next time they went, the first thing Linda saw was a man, watching the girls as they played on the swings. He had his back turned towards her and obviously hadn’t seen her approach, until Tansy pulled her hand from hers and ran past him to join her friends.
He turned his head then and, for a fleeting instant, Linda saw a frozen, panicky look flit across his face.
“Hi, Linda. Haven’t seen you for ages. Not since… You OK?”
His greeting was rather heartier than it need have been, but that was something she was having to get used to.
People weren’t sure what to say to her. It didn’t make it any easier.
“Hello, Jon. You on playground duty today?”
He nodded. “Philly’s away.” There was an uncomfortable pause, then he said in a rush, “Listen, I’m sorry about Tony, right?”
Linda’s stomach lurched, leaving the familiar feeling that she was hollow inside. It was over a year now, but it hit home every time someone said it.
She laid her hand briefly on his arm in thanks, unable to put it into words.
“I haven’t seen Katy’s dad there before,” she said to Tansy on their way back home.
“Her mum’s gone to look after Katy’s auntie, ’cos she’s broken her leg. That’s why he’s collecting her from school, but she says he doesn’t cook scrambled eggs properly.”
“He isn’t the man you saw, is he?” Linda said casually.
“Of course not, Mummy. I know Katy’s daddy.”
“So who is he?”
Tansy’s fingers folded around hers.
“He’s a soldier. Like Daddy.”
“What regiment?” Linda’s throat constricted. “Was he in Helmand too?”
Tansy shook her head. “Not Daddy’s regiment. I don’t know which.”
“You told me you didn’t talk to him,” Linda reminded her. “So how do you know he’s a soldier?”
“I just know,” Tansy said. “He wears a helmet, so he must be, mustn’t he?”
Soldiers didn’t wear helmets unless they were in battle zones. And if they were off-duty, they wore ordinary civilian clothes. Linda puzzled about it but no amount of further questioning, however tactfully put, could drag anything more useful out of Tansy.
Linda was more eager than ever to see this man for herself. However, when they went to the playground later, they found it roped off, with much of the equipment dismantled and stacked neatly.
The children were loud in their disappointment, but Linda’s heart beat uncomfortably fast.
Was this a police investigation? Was the playground going to be dug up for some sinister reason?
Yet the tapes weren’t the blue-and-white Police Do Not Cross ones so familiar from TV dramas. Nor were the people anything like sober blue-overalled SOCOs. Scruffy was the word that came to Linda’s mind. Baggy cargo shorts, mud-streaked and bulging in odd places seemed to be the order of the day.
Spray cans were being vigorously shaken and lines marked out in orange paint.
“You said people who spray things on walls are idiots,” Tansy said indignantly. “Are they idiots?”
A man tramped past where they stood, whistling.
His jeans were torn at the knees, he wore a faded T-shirt proclaiming I Dig Digging and his fair hair was gathered into a ponytail.
Linda suddenly remembered Tansy saying the man in the playground had worn funny clothes. She thought she could see daylight, although a niggle at the back of her brain insisted that Tansy could never have supposed one of these guys to be a soldier. Even in civvies, Tony had always been smart.
“Excuse me,” she called after him. “What’s going on?”
He turned and smiled. It was an extremely attractive smile, Linda realised with a small jolt.
“We’re doing an excavation. Didn’t you see the piece in the local paper?”
He grinned at Tansy and her friends. “We’re just setting up today, but we’ll be coming to see you at school tomorrow, to explain exactly what we’re doing and what we hope to find – and how you can help.”
His gaze went to Linda with an invitation. “Because we’d welcome any extra hands once the dig gets going.”
The next day, Tansy came running out of school.
“Mummy, I’ve seen the man!”
Of course! One of the archaeologists, Linda thought with relief. He must have been assessing the playground before they started their excavations.
“Look! I told you he was a soldier!”
Eyes widening, Linda looked at the picture in Tansy’s hand.
It was a Roman soldier, his helmet plumed, a sword at his belt and a spear in his hand.
“Bill says that’s why they’re digging here. He says there was a Roman road going right through the playground. And I told him I knew there was,” Tansy said importantly, “’cos that’s where the soldier stands.”
“I’m Bill.” The archaeologist’s hair was still in a ponytail, but today his jeans and T-shirt were clean and pressed. “Tansy’s told me all about the Centurion.
“We don’t know what his real name was, but we’ve called him Marcus Quintillius Varus.
“I’ve been fascinated by ancient history since I was not much older than she is, but I’ve never seen anything like that. I’m that envious you wouldn’t believe. Perhaps I will one day, Tansy?”
He held out his hand and Tansy slapped it with her small one.
How was it possible that she could see someone who was here nearly two thousand years ago? Linda blinked back a tear as she looked at the picture. This man had lived and died as a soldier in a foreign land. Just like Tony. She hoped he had had someone to grieve for him.
“We’re going to help with the dig, aren’t we, Mum!” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course.” She smiled mistily at her daughter and the man who stood by her side.
They’d find Roman remains. That seemed sure enough if Tansy’s friend Marcus was anything to go by. She’d seen enough TV shows to know what to expect. Bits of ancient metalling, broken pots, coins – maybe even a brooch-pin.
Yet, among the echoes of the past, who knew what else they’d discover?
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