"What do you think about Alfred the Great?"
The question was so unexpected that I found I had no response to it other than a rather flaccid: "...er...." I had, after all, only come in for a pint of milk; I hadn't expected to be grilled on long dead English monarchs.
Now the question was out there, I wasn't exactly sure what I did think about Alfred the Great. Had I actually given him any thought at any point in the last 20 or so years? Did he have a nice beard.....? Didn't he live in Wessex where he may (or may not) have once burnt a cake.....?
"Have you heard they've found him?"
This new line of questioning was even more disconcerting as, to be honest, I didn't even know he'd been lost.
I was keenly aware that the shop keeper was now waiting for a response. This was Alfred the Great (Saxon King) we were talking about, was it, and not, say, "Alfred-the-Great", a cat whose status had moved from 'missing' to 'found' after an urgent and heartfelt poster appeal, or, perhaps, someone's husband / father / relative who had disappeared after a night on the town only to be found, alive and well, without their trousers in a bottle bank?
The shopkeeper, apparently unsatisfied with my response so far, left his strongly defended position (behind a solid wall of chocolate and sugary drink), to emerge by the papers. Picking up a copy of the Daily Mail, he began to flick his way through muttering "where are you?" and "here somewhere".
I shot a swift glance to my left. Four quick steps to the door and freedom; I wondered if I could make it (I could, after all, get milk from another, less threatening shop, on my way to work).
"Here we go".
Now triumphantly holding a battered section of the paper aloft, he began thrusting it in my general direction.
"Alfred the Great!"
"Have we now found Alfred the Great?" ran the headline. "Archaeologists exhume unmarked grave in what could be one of the most significant finds ever"
I sighed inwardly....most significant find since what exactly?
"It could be the year for discovering notorious monarchs" the Mail went on. "Just weeks after remains found under a car park were confirmed as Richard III, archaeologists now believe they may just have stumbled on Alfred the Great".
Interesting choice of words. How exactly does one 'stumble on' an English King?
"Amid great secrecy", the paper continued, adding a touch of the X-Files to the account "a team exhumed an unmarked grave...after a delicate 10-hour operation, human skeletal remains were unearthed in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s in the Hyde area of Winchester, and taken for storage at an undisclosed location."
So far, so mysterious.
"No-one from Winchester university would comment on the latest developments" the paper confided, as if it were annoyed that a legion of reporters hammering at the university gates had met with a defiant and stony silence "as the exhumation was carried out behind metal screens in total secrecy". Just in case anyone was worried as to the legality of what appeared to be a blatant example of grave robbing, the paper helpfully added that "Permission to dig at the churchyard was granted by the Diocese of Winchester for security reasons following recent publicity about King Alfred - to prevent people attempting to dig him up"
So, according to the Mail, Alfred had been dug up in order to prevent anyone from digging him up....good. I wasn't entirely convinced by the logic of all this but then it was early morning and I felt as if I were only now emerging from a state of deep hibernation
I flashed the shopkeeper what I hoped was my most interested-looking smile and carefully folded the paper back up.
"Do you have any bread?"