The metal detector beeped loudly. There was something just beneath the surface. Phil Lyle marked the spot with a stone and reached around for the shovel strapped to his back. Probably it was an old tin can or something but you never knew. A lot of English history had occurred here in the Cotswolds and there had been a few good finds. He didn’t expect a hoard of Roman coins – or even Anglo-Saxon ones – but a brass ring or some other ornament could fetch a few pounds.
Metal detectorists come in all shapes and sizes and breeds of men but Phil was not the type one would normally expect to be out on a Sunday morning sweeping the fields of Gloucestershire. He was a man of property with a farm and a couple of houses. He was a landlord, a successful businessman and an accountant. He really was doing quite well and had no need to search for treasure. No need, just greed.
A well-built man in his early thirties, he put the spade in easily. It was a fine summer day but there had been rain the previous night and the topsoil was slightly damp. He turned over a sod, hoisting it slightly to one side. Then he hovered the detector over the dug mud. Nothing.
He went back to the spot and dug another, more awkwardly because it was now deeper. When he checked this one the detector beeped again.
Eagerly he chopped at the dirt and spread it around in a thin layer. Something glinted in the sun. He bent down to pick it up.
A gold ring! Phil’s eyes always lit up at the sight of money, especially notes in large denominations, but there was still something special about gold. The ring was a plain gold band but quite heavy. He squinted at it in the sunlight and thought there was some tiny writing etched into it, going all the way around the outside surface. Very fine workmanship. Lovely.
Suddenly a head popped out of the ground where he had been digging.
“Oy! That’s mine!”
Phil stared. He was a pragmatic man of the world and not used to strange events but of a temperament to weigh any situation carefully, to measure if it could be turned to his advantage; and advantage meant only one thing for Phil. It meant profit.
The head protruded from the greensward in such a way that it seemed to be on top of it as if there was a disembodied cranium resting on the ground. It was of a normal size but the skin looked very pale. It was topped with a dome-like cap such as bishops sometimes wear but this one was made of metal and had a thicker band around the lower half dotted with rivets. The face below the cap had grey skin and was decorated with a pair of bushy red eyebrows and a bushy red beard, no moustache. The nose was quite prominent and the eyes, green and bright. The face bore an indignant expression.
“I said that’s mine!” the fellow repeated. His voice, Phil suddenly noticed, was deep, gravely, rumbling. If stone could speak it might sound like that.
The head swivelled from left to right and looked about then returned to glaring at Phil. “You’re a man.”
“I certainly am,” said Phil. He was sure about that.
The head frowned. “I must have tunnelled into the world of men through a hidden portal.” He looked annoyed.
Phil was confused. “The world of men? What other world is there?”
“Why the Otherworld, of course.” The bearded head looked at him as if he was stupid. “Never mind that. In any realm, that ring is mine.”
“It’s my land. Anything on it is mine,” riposted Phil, quite calmly in the circumstances. “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” he added. He had learned this ancient wisdom in the playground of the local school when very young.
“Finders keepers, losers weepers,” repeated the head. “Interesting. Do finders never weep?”
“Never,” said Phil smugly. He wiggled the ring onto his index finger for safekeeping and glared defiantly at the head.
“Are you sure?”
“I”m sure.” Phil was done with this conversation. He picked up the metal detector, turned and walked briskly away from the strange talking head. Another man might have been curious about the phenomenon but he was not so constructed.
He kept his eyes fixed on the farmhouse in the middle distance, his home. Located by the roadside on a local common, it was a large two-storied place with seven bedrooms surrounded by a number of stables and barns which he rented out for exorbitant rates. Sheds and stables were at a premium in the area.
“Wait a minute, young fellow!”
The voice came from below and to his right. Phil looked down and saw a little man, or similar, about three feet tall and of stocky build. He was clad in a green tunic, brown trousers and tough boots.
Phil recognized the face and stopped reluctantly. “What?”
“I am Grodwir, a dwarf,” growled the little fellow in that deep voice.
“I’m Phil,” said Phil. “A man.”
Grodwir grunted then said, “Do you know about dwarves.”
“Live under bridges? Eat goats?” Phil vaguely remembered some old fairy tale.
“Wrong. That’s trolls. Dwarves live underground, mine metal and ore, make things of beauty and usefulness and sometimes of magic. I made that ring. It’s mine.”
“You lost it, I found it.”
“Finders keepers, losers weepers,” mocked Grodwir in a sing-song voice. “Is that all you have to justify theft.”
Phil looked down at the little fellow. Not much chance of losing a fight, he decided. “It’ll do.”
The dwarf now stood in front of him with fists on hips in an aggressive pose. Suddenly he grinned. “Alright, take it. But you’ll regret doing so.”
“Thanks.” Phil stepped over the dwarf and carried on his way.
“What’s the time?” said Grodwir.
Phil turned. “Eh?”
“What’s the time, please?”
Automatically Phil glanced at his watch. “Eleven fifty-five.”
The dwarf nodded. “I’ll be fair,” he said. “Bring the ring back here within twenty-four hours and we’ll say no more about it.”
“I’ll say no more about it anyway. It’s mine.”
“Twenty four hours.” Grodwir looked at him sternly. “You have been warned.”
Warned, thought the accountant. Warned! You little runt. I should kick your arse over the hedge. No time. Work to do. “Thanks,” he muttered instead. “And goodbye.”
Phil stowed the metal detector in the tool shed, left his dirty Wellington boots by the back door and went into the big kitchen. He was washing his hands in the sink when his wife came out of the other room.
“Sunday lunch usual time?” he said.
“One o’clock on the dot.” Jennifer Lyle was a pretty blonde lady in her mid-thirties, slightly older than her husband. She worked for the National Farmers Union and her father owned a large farm in Kent. She wasn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty when necessary. Her looks, solid middle-class background and strong work ethic made her an ideal wife for a go-ahead young man and Phil had therefore married her. Two years later he more or less took her for granted, never a good idea with a woman.
He shook the water off his hands and grabbed a towel from the draining board. He was about to put it back when she wrapped her arms around him and looked up at him, pouting her lips for a kiss.
He grunted and pushed her gently away. “Not now.”
She looked petulant. “You still love me don’t you?”
“Yes but you’re getting a bit fat.”
“What!” Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. He could have slapped her with less effect.
“Love handles,” he explained, gripping the flesh by his own hip through the shirt to demonstrate. “Thighs getting meaty as well. Gotta go.” He turned and bent to put some old shoes on. He had to go out on the farm to meet a shed renter who had fallen behind on his payments.
As his hand clasped the back door handle he stopped.
What did I just say?
The world seemed to spin a little. His breath caught in his throat. I just told Jenny she’s fat. Oh my God!
He glanced back at her. She was still looking stunned but tears were welling up in her eyes.
Emergency exit! He slipped quickly through the door and strode out onto the farm, as it was still miscalled. There were a few actual arable and dairy farms left in the area but many, like Phil’s late father, had turned old barns into stables or workshops and rented them out. The lawyers, accountants and bankers who now populated the countryside had daughters who liked horses. The self-employed builders and car mechanics and carpet fitters needed storage space or workshops. It was all much more profitable than tilling the soil. Phil worked hard but he did it for money, not from some outdated Protestant ethic. It is said that no man can serve both God and Mammon. Phil had made his choice when he was about eleven and Mammon had one more faithful disciple.
One of the tenants, Marvin Hodge, was behind with the rent for his lock-up this month so Phil had arranged to meet him by the hay barn. A couple of fields near the house were still used for grass as hay could be sold to horse owners.
Phil rounded the corner of the main shed and saw the tenant there.
“Hi Marv.” He was cordial. Hodge was a large, broad-shouldered builder with all the hair on his head trimmed to one millimetre in the current fashion.
“Hello.” Marvin was barely polite.
“You’ve fallen behind with the rent, mate. Any problem?” Phil found it best to start these conversations gently.
“It’s gone up again. That’s the problem.”
“I had to add a bit extra for car parking,” said Phil. “Cars take up space.”
“Car parking!” the big man shouted. “Car parking!” He waved a hand to indicate the surroundings. “In this dump? Look at it! There are no toilet facilities, one outdoor tap shared by everyone, cracked concrete where there”s any and bits of rubbish hanging around all over the place. Why the Hell should we pay for car parking on top of the silly rents you charge already.”
Phil had taken a wary step back when the man started shouting but the answer to the question came to him without conscious thought. “Because you haven’t got a choice,” he said. “It’s supply and demand. There are more customers for sheds than there are sheds for rent. That means I can charge way over the odds for crappy facilities like this and I can even slap on extra fees for car parking because you saps with no property have nowhere else to go.”
Marvin Hodge gaped at him. For a couple of seconds, he was too stunned to reply.
Phil was stunned, too. Oh my God! What did I just say? He turned on his heel and walked away quickly but spoke over his shoulder. “Have the rent for me by next week or I’ll start eviction proceedings. Gotta go.” He almost ran back into the house but there was no need. Marvin didn’t chase him. Instead, he went to tell the other tenants what the landlord thought of them.
Phil had a troubled night. His wife wasn’t talking to him and he was jittery about the events of the day. What on Earth had possessed him to speak to her like that? Of course, it was true what he’d said. She had put on a few pounds and he didn’t fancy her so much physically. That had been the case for a while now but to say it! It was also true that he held the tenants in contempt and was out to screw them for as much money as possible. But to say it! What was wrong with him? It was as if his tongue had become disengaged from his mind, blurting out hard truths with no censorship. Drunks did this a lot but, while he liked a drop now and then, Phil had never been a drunk. He had too much work to do. And he was a businessman. Whoever heard of a businessman telling the truth? Commerce depended on a bit of evasion to buy low and sell high, like in the antique trade. Oooh, not much call for that sort of thing nowadays, madam. I’m feeling generous so I’ll give you a fiver. Oh yes, these things are highly sought after, sir. I couldn’t let it go for less than forty quid. Imagine an estate agent who told everyone the same thing. He wouldn’t make a bean.
Eventually, Phil fell asleep and the alarm went off ten minutes later, or so it seemed. Exhausted he clambered out of bed, showered and made coffee. Jenny was still not talking to him which at least avoided further trouble. On the drive to work, he fretted over his wayward tongue. His hands were on the steering wheel in the regulation ten to two position so the new gold ring was visible on his index finger. He smiled when it caught his eye. At least something good had happened this weekend.
He opened the door to his office and strode past the receptionist. Miss Brand was an older woman – which pleased Phil’s wife – who was both efficient and punctual, which pleased Phil.
“Good morning, sir” she said. “Did you have a nice weekend?”
“Terrible. Harassed by stupid tenants.”
Ignoring her frown he went through to his own office, sat at his desk and started on some routine paperwork. But he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened.
He had told the truth. The bare, unvarnished truth. You couldn’t go through life doing that. No one could. Phil reckoned that even Jesus might have told a white lie now and again to spare someone’s feelings. You certainly couldn’t run a business and get along with clients by blurting out every thought that came into your head. Hello, Mister Jones. Putting on a bit of weight, aren’t you? And I see by the red nose you still like a drink too many. No, it wouldn’t do.
But what had come over him?
As usual Miss Brand bought him in a cup of coffee and a biscuit at ten o’clock. He reached for the coffee a minute later and his eye caught the ring. A nice object, and definitely his, no matter what that dwarf said.
For the first time, he pondered the dwarf. Phil was a brutal pragmatist and not given much to pondering but the events of yesterday had, albeit belatedly, given him pause for thought. It was very odd that the fellow came out of the ground. And weren’t dwarves supposed to be some sort of magical creature, out of fairy tales? And if he was magical and had made the ring then…?
Phil shook his head to rid it of foolish notions. Magic. Bah! There was no such thing. It just wasn’t true.
The truth. The truth was what he had been telling yesterday. Starting from when?
Starting from the moment he’d put the ring on.
Was that true?
Nonsense. Phil picked up another pile of papers and put his nose to the grindstone with the real work of the real world.
About ninety minutes later his intercom buzzed. He pressed the button and Miss Brand’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Mr Lyle? The tax inspector is here to see you.”
“The tax inspector?”
“He has an appointment, sir. Just some routine queries about your return this year.”
Phil was suddenly sweating. What if it is the ring? What if he blurts out the whole truth about his financial affairs to the tax inspector.
Take it off!
He gripped the gold between the thumb and forefinger of his other hand and pulled.
It wouldn’t budge.
He gripped it with his whole hand and pulled harder. His knuckle cracked painfully but the ring still didn’t budge.
If it really was making him tell the truth he would tell the tax inspector everything.
He pressed the intercom. “Miss Brand, I have a migraine. Reschedule the appointment. I’m going home.”
Phil dashed down to the car park. He drove home faster than he ever had before. It took about twenty minutes. He pulled into the farm but didn’t stop to put on his Wellington boots. In his smart shoes, he ran out into the field where he’d found the ring.
“Mister dwarf! Mister dwarf.”
A head popped out of the ground. “It’s Grodwir, actually.”
“This ring.” Phil held out his hand to show his new jewellery. “Does it make you tell the truth?”
The dwarf clambered out of the ground completely and stood in front of the accountant with his fists on his hips. “No.”
Phil looked at him suspiciously. “Are you sure?”
The dwarf grinned. “Sure. I”m not wearing it, sonny. It makes you tell the truth.”
“That’s what I thought.” He wrenched it off his finger – it came off easily now – and threw it viciously to the ground. “Take it.”
Grodwir did not grab it at once but just looked at it. Then he looked up at the sun which was almost directly overhead. He smiled.
“What are you grinning about,” said Phil suspiciously.
“What’s the time by your rinky-dinky human watch?”
Phil looked. “Just past noon.”
The dwarf nodded. “It was just before noon when you put the ring on yesterday as I recall.”
“After twenty-four hours the effect is permanent.” Grodwir grinned at him. “You’re going to be a very honest man from now on, Phil.”
Phil thought about his wife; and the tenants; and the people he dealt with as an accountant; and the tax inspector!
He backed away. He stumbled, almost fell. “No. No.”
The dwarf nodded. “Yes, yes.”
Phil turned and ran.
“You can’t outrun your curse, Phil!” Grodwir shouted after him.
Then he picked up the ring. He chuckled as he slid it into place. “Oooh, what a liar you are, Grodwir,” he murmured, telling the truth now it was on his finger again.