The next day Dyspepsia’s school party was due to visit the Serapeum. This is a great big underground tomb with 24 separate rooms, in each of which there was a huge coffin for a mummified bull. While it was alive it had been a sacred bull, a fortune-telling one, and it lived in a nice cattle stall in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. There you could go and visit it, give the priest a scarab and he’d let you whisper a question in the bull’s ear. The Egyptians believed the questions always got answered, and the answers were always right, so lots of people visited the bull and the priest earned a lot of scarabs which made him and the temple very rich, after buying the best hay for the bull to eat.
When the bull died (as he did after 30 years, whether he wanted to or not), the priests carefully picked another bull and buried the dead one in the Serapeum, giving him an expensive funeral just as if it had been an important man. Which was only fair because the bull didn’t get much out of life except a load of hay. Even if it was the best hay.
Dyspepsia didn’t fancy going to look at a load of old bulls, so she got permission from teacher to go off on her own. She was the only pupil that teacher allowed to do that sort of thing, because teacher knew that Dyspepsia was the only pupil who was going to come back alive.
Now you may wonder why Dyspepsia was happy to give the Serapeum a miss. The fact is, she’d been looking in Google Earth at the satellite pictures of Egypt, and there, out in the Western Desert, something weird had caught her eye. Now if you went there you might see nothing but grit and stones. And none of the maps she could find said there was anything there. But it often happens that you can see things on a satellite photo that you can’t see when you’re up close. Especially big heavy buildings that have been completely buried or taken away, because such heavy weights leave a slight dent in the ground.
Dyspepsia could see very faint squares on the satellite photo. There were lots of them, and they were all lined up… and they were biiiiig!
Next morning the school party got up early to get on a coach to the Serapeum. They left Dyspepsia in bed because they knew she wasn’t coming with them. When they’d gone she got up and had a leisurely breakfast because there was no rush. Then she went to find a taxi.
When you hire a taxi in Cairo you have to haggle over the price. It’s not rude: in fact it’s rude not to haggle, because it’s the chief form of entertainment for poor people. Dyspepsia was good at it, not just because she knew how to get the man to accept less money than he asked for, but because she knew that just sometimes you have to offer him a little more to do something for you that he’d rather not.
When she told the taxi driver where she wanted to go, he said “There’s nothing there, Madam.” So she offered him twice the money he asked for. He still didn’t accept, because he was afraid that when she got there and found there was nothing there, she wouldn’t want to pay him the fare. So she told the man that she would pay half now, and half at the end of the trip, when he had brought her safely back to the hotel.
The taxi driver became all smiles, and welcomed her into his taxi as if he was welcoming her into his own home. He had dangly scarabs hanging down his windscreen, plus a little brass cup of burning incense on his dashboard. Dyspepsia didn’t like incense smoke all that much, but she was trying to be an Egyptologist, and she knew that Egyptologists have to put up with a lot of discomfort when hoping to discover something new.
The taxi driver drove very fast, weaving in and out of the traffic, but Dyspepsia knew that he did this a lot and so it was quite safe, really. Soon they left the city and drove on a long straight track out into the Western Desert. Which is flat and stony. The sun was in Dyspepsia’s eyes, and it was probably in the taxi driver’s eyes too, because he’d put on sunglasses. But there was nothing coming the other way so it didn’t matter.
In fact they met nothing else on the road all day.
At last the taxi driver stopped driving and drove his taxi gently off the tarmac onto the camel track. There was nothing around them but brown boulders and rubble, as far as the eye could see. “Here we are Madam,” he said. “Is this what you expected to find?”
As it happened, it was. Though Dyspepsia had hoped to see more. She got out of the taxi, took out her binoculars and scanned the empty horizon. She walked a little way out onto the stony ground. Then she bent down to pick up a small object like a bead and put it in her pocket.
Something made her reach into her other pocket and take out her geiger counter. Afterwards she wondered what had made her do it. Perhaps it was the funny little flashes she’d seen in her eyes as she scanned the horizon through her binoculars.
She stared at the numbers on the screen. To her horror she saw that it was reading rather high. “We mustn’t stay here any longer,” she said to herself. In a hurry she got back in the taxi and asked the driver to take her straight back to the hotel.
The taxi driver probably thought she was bonkers, but he was too polite to say. She was rich, well-mannered bonkers, not poor, rough bonkers, and that makes all the difference to whether they respect you or not.
Back at the hotel, the others hadn’t arrived home yet from the Serapeum, but it was getting time for tea. In the peace and quiet of the dining lounge, under the slowly turning punkas, Dyspepsia enjoyed a nice piece of basbousa, with a glass of mint-flavoured tea.
Had the day been wasted? She didn’t know. Out of her pocket came the object she had picked up. She got out her foldaway magnifying glass and took a good look at it.
It was old, and crusted with flaky green rust. But it was the size and shape of the button cell she had seen in the museum. There was a cross on the back to tell you which way round to put the battery in. And there were some hieroglyphs: a heavy-looking bird, and an Egyptian jam-jar, followed by a tiny upside-down cup and three dashes.
Dyspepsia looked them all up in the hieroglyphic dictionary on her smartphone. They spelled: AG13.
…to be continued.