Having received the summons to India in February, Irene Howell arrived only shortly before the excavation was to resume in earnest. After spending a day in Lahore to shop for supplies, she hailed a rickshaw only to find it already occupied by one of her old acquaintances: none other than the shy but fashionable Peter Cox!
Peter was somewhere between average and handsome. His eyes were blue behind his spectacles and his dark blond hair was slicked back against his skull with pomade. His frame was tall and sturdy, and his face bore classically Anglo features. Though he was plainly dressed in utilitarian clothing, his neck sported a silk scarf that he appeared to have acquired locally.
As for Irene, she wore a stylish dark blue pants suit, remarkably clean in light of the fact that she had been wandering the streets shopping. Her hair was very similar in style to when Peter had last seen her; preferring to keep it short so as not to have to worry about it. She was certainly an attractive young woman, especially if one cared for dark-haired, willowy women. (She had been told that she looked like Louise Brooks, but was more annoyed rather than flattered by that, as she had the hairstyle before the actress.)
Irene's memory for faces did not fail her, nor did it seem that Peter had forgotten hers (though, with some embarrassment, he struggled for a brief moment to recall her name). After finding it he said, "Miss Howell? My word!" He scooted aside to make room for her on the seat beside him and exclaimed, "What a small world we share!"
For her part, Irene looked truly shocked to see a man she had met in Egypt sitting in the rickshaw that she had just hailed. She paused for a split-second before stepping up and taking the empty seat. She carefully arranged the parcels that she was carrying on her lap and put a protective hand on top of them. "A small world indeed, Mr. Cox," she replied with a warm smile. "Why, I cannot tell you how surprised I am to see you, but I am always happy to meet an old friend in an unexpected place. Are you here for work or for pleasure?" It did cross her mind that they might be in India for the same reason, but she did not dare suggest such a grand coincidence, lest she be wrong.
Peter reciprocated Irene's smile with one of his own, though it was somewhat more awkward than hers. "Work," he answered, "with the Archaeological Survey of India. There are two Indus sites to be excavated shortly, and Mr. Car--" He quickly corrected himself, hoping to circumvent a tender subject. "Er, it was recommended that I join the Mohenjo-daro enterprise," he said simply. Then, quickly deflecting, he asked: "And you, Madam: have you been well? And is it business or pleasure that has delivered you to this hot, dusty corner of the Empire?" Noting her various parcels, he added in jest, "If I may say, you seem to have had no difficulty securing supplies for your visit!"
Irene's eyes flickered to the door when Peter accidentally mentioned Howard Carter, but she did not look upset. Mentions of Howard always reminded her of what a fool she'd been, and that is not a bad thing to remember. It was just not something she wanted to think about all the time.
Her eyes widened when Peter mentioned the very same project that she was helping to fund and was to be working on. "I am very well, thank you for inquiring. And, please, you must address me as Irene…especially since we are to be working together," she said with a bright smile. She disliked formalities among friends and, if she liked them well enough, acquaintances as well. "I have come here to work at Mohenjo-Daro as well. It was a quick decision, so I did not have time to acquire everything that I needed before I left Egypt, hence the shopping."
She frowned ever so slightly. "I am not sure how I will be received by the director, though. I do not know him personally, and I am sure that he will be unwilling to believe at first that I do actually know what I am doing." She may not have asked outright, but she clearly wanted to know what Peter thought about the man.
"Indeed!" Peter exclaimed when he learned that she would be joining the excavation. "Very good then," he said, then added, "Irene," experimenting with addressing her on a first-name basis. Picking up on her implied question, he replied, "Ah, the Major is a jovial enough chap, and he seems rather excited about the project. Between you and I, though, he is something of an amateur, and certainly not much of a laborer. Not once have I seen him so much as even pick up a trowel or sieve, lest his fingernails acquire dirt!" Peter then backed off, and so as not to disparage his boss too severely, attempted to redeem him by adding, "But, from what I have observed, he seems capable enough in his role as overseer, and excels at maintaining discipline among the workers. Being a rather traditional fellow, it may take him some convincing to recognize that you might know your way around a dig, but I've no doubt that your experiences in Egypt will assure him of your credibility."
Irene looked suitably disappointed to hear that the Major did not care to physically take part in the excavation. Even though a director was not always supposed to dig, he was still required to step into trenches once in a while in order to check out a find, or use his brush or trowel to clean a particularly important feature. There were too many men who preferred to be haughty overseers, but at least Peter thought that his fellow was a sensible man. Since she remembered Peter as being quite sensible himself, she was happy to trust his opinion.
Peter cleared his throat of street-dust. "So, Irene... would it be too presumptuous of me to inquire as to your recent purchases? I recall your highly refined taste in attire, and I'm curious what discoveries you might have already made in the marketplace. Admittedly, I lack the savvy to find anything that might flatter the female physique among this labyrinth of vendors; perhaps you might be able to direct me to something appropriate for a lady-friend?"
"You flatter me, my dear sir," Irene replied, "but I fear that these purchases are practical in nature. Let me see…I bought a new pith helmet, two pairs of sturdy gloves and several replacement items for my first aid kit," she recounted, tapping each package in turn as she spoke.
She recalled that Peter was divorced, and thus was pleased to hear that he might have found another woman to share his life with. Irene was not much of a romantic when it came to her own life, but she found love charming when it concerned others. Never one to evade an inquiry just because it might make some persons uncomfortable, she said, "I would be happy to advise you, but I would need to know just what sort of message you wish to send. For, as you surely know, a pretty scarf and a set of fine silver jewelry convey very different messages!"
As Irene surmised, her inquiry into Peter's personal life did appear to make him a tad uncomfortable. "Ah, hm," he stammered, "perhaps it is too soon to woo her with such gifts. I would not want to give her the impression that I am attempting to purchase her affection." He then changed the subject to just about anything else, talking about the other archaeologists working at the site - Humphries and Daniel - and prattling on about the illness he suffered when he first arrived on the subcontinent and his subsequent slow recovery. "Perhaps it was the Pharaoh's curse," he chuckled, alluding to the rumors making rounds in the press regarding the various misfortunes befalling those who were present at the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.
Peter whittled away the rest of their ride with such idle banter, always steering the conversation away from discussions of more consequential matters. Irene listened politely, expressing her horror at his illness and her relief that he is once again well. She was more than happy to join in the friendly chatter until they arrived at camp. When at last the two arrived back at Ihsaan Waahaan, Peter escorted Irene to her tent and encouraged her to approach him should she require any assistance, offering to introduce her to the Major at her convenience.
Irene was pleased to see that her possessions had arrived safely ahead of her, though she did frown a little bit at the sight of the tent. She had been lucky enough to have a dig house available to her excavation team for the past couple years, and had grown used to that small but significant amount of comfort. She was able to rough it when necessary, though, so merely shrugged and smiled a little. At least she would not be bored. She thanked Peter for his delightful company on their journey and his offer and requested a short amount of time to get settled before meeting the Major, but was clearly eager to do so.
Early the next morning, Peter checked on Irene to make sure that she had settled in to her accommodations (humble as they were) and to bring her a cup of tea. "I trust you had a restful evening?" He inquired, deciding not to mention that a krait was discovered in the camp while they slept. "I'll introduce you to the Major just as soon as you are ready."
That day, Irene was wearing a long, tan skirt and a crisp, surprisingly unwrinkled white shirt. Her shoes were brown, flat and sturdy, and they did not look like anything that Peter had seen in a store window. They were specially made for Irene, and they offered comfort, support and durability in difficult conditions.
"It was a very pleasant evening, thank you for inquiring, and also for the tea," Irene replied with a chipper smile. She was most definitely a morning person and appeared as energetic as ever. "I hope that you also slept well. I for one find that I sleep better when I am so close to nature. Even the air is fresher and more invigorating here." She took a sip of her tea and smiled down at her cup, apparently pleased with it. When she looked up, she shrugged a little. "If you have no objection, why don't we seek him out now? I would not want him to think that I am hiding from him; that would not at all be appropriate, now would it? We only corresponded briefly and I want to be sure that there is a meeting of minds on certain important issues."
(text by Elizabeth and HomoDM)