The Museum Curator enquired whether any of us were squeamish about seeing dead body parts. We Merry Band of Questers looked at each other and replied, as one, in the negative. You could almost see our thought processes:
we were on one of our Behind The Scenes visits - we were, therefore, Up For Anything.
The Curator trotted off to retrieve a cardboard storage box from a nearby rack, returning to present it to us, lifting
the lid with a theatrical flourish and declaiming in a reverential tone: "Meet Agent 152!"
Well, if we were expecting to see a whole skeleton of an Anglo Saxon James Bond, then we would have been a tad disappointed:
inside the box, nestling cosily amid regulation conservation tissue paper, was a single humerus. That's the upper arm bone to me and you.
There was, however, a great deal more to Agent 152 than met the eye.
What did we think had caused a particular mark on the bone? we were asked. We had some good, if implausible, guesses (you can always rely on Questers to have a go at answering the most difficult of questions, even if we are wrong for much of the time) but
we were way off the mark. If you'll excuse the pun. Or even if you won't.
No, our guide was delighted to tell us, the mark proved conclusively that Agent 152 had suffered from syphilis. He could see we were
underwhelmed with this information - which was just as he intended. When was America first discovered? he asked us, like a challenging school teacher. "1492," I answered quickly, keen to impress. I restrained myself with some difficulty from actually quoting
that well-known nursery rhyme from which I had drawn my rapid response: "In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..."
Indeed! the Curator replied, triumphantly, for all the world
as if he were a relative of Good Old Chris Columbus. He was warming to his theme you could tell. Up until the discovery of Agent 152, he told us, it was commonly believed that syphilis had been brought to this country from newly-discovered America. Agent 152,
however, had existed more than a thousand years before old Christopher's epic voyage. Agent 152 - or at least his upper arm bone - had rewritten history.
This is what I love about Questers visits - we learn
so much we would never have even thought about before. I was, however, grateful to the Curator - and his grisly story - for more than enlightenment. The fact of the matter is that, as organiser of this particular visit, I had been subject to more stress than
usual. This was on account of the fact that the briskly efficient woman who greeted me and relieved me of a hefty cheque in payment for our visit, was hell-bent on changing the timing of each and every aspect of our visit.
So, while I had arranged for everyone to arrive at Fishbourne Roman Palace by 2 p.m., Ms Brisk was determined that our party should gather to watch the introductory film at 1:45. Whether they had arrived or not. Fortunately being Questers, who always
arrive early for everything, nobody missed the film though it was a bit tight. Then insteaf of tours which I had arranged in advance to start at 2:30 and 3 p.m. these would now start at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Except that when the participants of Tour 2 gathered
in plenty of time at the agreed location, we had a twenty minute wait because Tour One was running over time.
None of which really matters unless you happen to be the organiser of the trip because it appears
to everyone else that you don't really know what you are doing. Which was, despite what I thought was all my careful advance planning, perfectly true.
I thought there might be a few moans and groans from my
party but they were all won over completely by tales of Agent 152 and other Behind The Scenes secrets. So in the end everyone was agreed, sitting in the sunshine outside the Museum Café for some refreshments before we braved the rush hour traffic on
the A27, that this had been a most successful visit. I told them the story of how the new machine at Santander's town centre branch had gobbled up the cheques they had sent me - all seventeen of them - and refused to give them back. I made this into a funny
story rather than the stressful situation it had been.
Driving home with good old André Rieu belting out popular classics on the CD player, I reflected that organising Questers' visits brings its own
rewards. I'm glad I didn't obey Mr B's instruction to sit on my hands when the call went up for a volunteer to organise this trip.
The one thing that can be guaranteed about our Merry Band of Questers is that
each and every one, over the coming week, will send me a letter, a card or an email saying "thank you for organising." I suppose it's indicative of our collective Great Age - we were brought up that way. I am also in possession of an amazing story with which
to regale Mr B when I get home.
I'm pretty sure, I will tell him, that I will never rewrite history. But I know a man who did...