Under The Shadow Of Vesuvius
“Under the Shadow of Vesuvius”
by Mimi Thompson
All rights are reserved and no part may be adapted, copied, transmitted or characters used without the express written permission of the copyright owner. This ebook may not be re-sold
or given away to other people. This work is fiction.
Any resemblance to persons living or deceased is purely coincidental.
Bridget Jones Diary and Sophie’s World meet Ben Hur – on the beach. A gender-bending, genre-bending romp through the Bay of Naples in the first century BC. Join Phoebe, Julia and Claudia in their search for true love amid the mad world of the Roman aristocracy. Parties and sex, of course, but also Epicurean philosophers, fascist politicians, international businessmen, billionaire philanthropists, celebrity sportsmen and the Naples mafia. And, of course, Catullus’ most famous girlfriend. Expect excitement and mayhem, tears and laughter. And always the unexpected twist: in Baiae, nothing is ever as it seems. And nobody is who they claim to be.
Worse still, these statistics will give even the most sober observer cause for concern that Rome wasn’t what it used to be:
68.5 % of the population of Rome was born outside Italy.
95% of secondary schools offer Latin as a second language.
35% of shops in the forum are owned and staffed by Greeks.
75% of housewives do not know how to stuff a dormouse and would rather go out for a moussaka than cook for their husbands.
55% of Roman plebeians are currently out of work and in receipt of the bread dole.
62% of school leavers refuse to follow their fathers' occupations, with a resulting catastrophic drop in the number of offal butchers.
90% of aristocratic marriages now end in divorce and the birth rate among Patricians currently stands at 1.1. If the trend continues, the Senatorial class will be extinct in 20 years.
89% of 15-25 year-olds think that sex before marriage is “ok” and that there is “nothing wrong” with homosexuality.
Younger sons are now 45% less likely than their fathers to make a career in the armed forces or the colonial service.
47% of senior officers are foreign nationals.
Last year, 2, 000 copies of the Iliad were sold.
The de agricultura of Cato has been remaindered.
75% of middle class men now wear the toga praetexta.
35% of senators are “new men”, who have bought their way into the Capitol.
62% of knightly seats at the theatre are now occupied by wealthy plebeians.
25% of all immigrants are missionaries and intellectuals.
68% of young people admitted to having attended a cult service
There is a Temple of Isis in the Forum and a Garden of Epicurus in the outskirts of every major town in Italy.
Attendance at temple of Juppiter Capitolinus has dropped by 83%. 99% of the congregation is over 70 and female.
There has been a drastic drop of 79% in Vestal Virgin vocations.
90% of new houses are built without a Larium.
67% of young families have dispensed entirely with daily prayers.
The Pontifex Maximus has lost his seat in the Senate.
“Order! Order! Silence in court! Silence in court!”
The judge was banging his gavel and shouting ineffectually as the court erupted into laughter, jeering and cat-calls.
The council for the defense was reaching the crescendo of his assassination of the character of Clodia Metelli, the Medea of the Palatine, the ox-eyed Roman Athena. The most famous, most notorious woman in Rome. The antics of hard-drinking, hard-living Clodia, putative inspiration of Catullus’ most erotic poems, had gripped the ennuyés of Rome for months on end. Marcus Tullius Cicero, that most dazzling orator, had provided a series of scintillating, and openly titillating, vignettes of her life both in Rome and on the Bay of Naples. Nothing was left to the imagination in his devastating expose of the moral decrepitude of the star witness. The court heard the most outrageous descriptions of Clodia’s week-long fancy dress drinking parties, filled with insatiable, omnivorous sex.
Today, the case was reaching its climax. All morning, the court had heard details of this thrilling society story: the beatings, the poisoning, the robbery, the bribery and corruption. But what really interested them, and Cicero himself, were the doings of Clodia herself. With a breath-taking forensic sleight of hand, the defense team had somehow made the case to hinge upon the sexual appetites of one woman. And for some reason the court had to know every sordid detail. Cicero made sure they did, right down to sex with her own brother.
“If any woman, not being married, has opened her house to the passions of everybody, and has openly established herself in the way of life of a harlot, and has been accustomed to frequent the banquets of men with whom she has no relationship; if she does so in the city in country houses and in that most frequented place, Baiae, if in short she behaves in such a manner, not only by her gait, but by her style of dress, and by the people who are seen attending her, and not only by the eager glances of her eyes and the freedom of her conversation, but also by embracing men, by kissing them at water parties and sailing parties and banquets so as not only to seem a harlot, but a very wanton and lascivious harlot, I ask you if a young man should happen to have been with her, is he to be called an adulterer or a lover? Does he seem to have been attacking chastity or merely to have aimed at satisfying his desires?”
In the witness-box, Clodia’s beautiful, famous eyes flashed with fury. In the dock, Caelius smirked smugly. The case was won and he was already planning the celebration.
I first came to B (Baiae Bay) in the summer of 43, when the place was at its craziest best. Never had the sea been bluer, the sands whiter, the sun hotter. Never had the little sea-side resort devoted itself so doggedly to pleasure. Ever since the very public humiliation of Clodia, its most famous party girl, B had become the only place to be. The results of this cause célèbre were varied. Clodia, of course, retired in disgrace from public life. She never again appeared in the gossip pages of the newspapers of Rome. She even disappeared from Catullus' poetry. B's fame, by contrast, experienced a meteoric rise. Move over Sybaris. B Bay was now the world centre of hedonism, the town where anything – and everything- goes. It is hardly surprising that three super-rich teenaged girls were desperate to go there. At the earliest opportunity. B was quite obviously the party capital of Europe.
You might wonder what on earth our parents were thinking in letting us loose in such a place. I guess they were pleased to see us go. My mother was much more interested in pursuing her tawdry little affairs than in chaperoning me to the tedious soirées deemed appropriate for a girl of my age and class. My father was too busy counting his money even to remember that he had a daughter of marriageable age. And so it was that, at the sixth hour on a brilliant July morning, Claudia, Julia and I were flying down the Appian Way, cushioned and veiled, and ready for anything B might have to offer.
We were, in many ways, an ill-suited trio. My sister, Julia, was a sex-crazed, over-excitable 15 year old. She had been recently expelled from Dame Hera’s Academy for Young Ladies for undisclosed misdemenours. My best friend, Claudia Vesta, was a facially-challenged loner, with pretensions of spirituality. Her idea of a day out was a tour of the temples of Bay of Naples. I was a 19 year-old romantic in search of true love. Preferable in the form of the delectable Marcus Junius, the most beautiful boy in Rome. B had a very specific lure for each one of us.
In the decades since its discovery by the fast set, the sleepy village of B had become by far the most popular holiday destination on the Italian peninsular. It was now attracting more tourists than the Lakes, the Riviera and Tuscany combined. But such popularity came at a cost. The little cove beloved of Clodia and her friends had all but disappeared. High rise flats and luxury hotels crowded the sea-front. The toy-town stone harbour was dwarfed by mega yachts and party barges. The crying of the gulls, that had once inspired Catullus, was drowned out by the raucous, drunken cries of the 24/7, A-lister party town.
Of course, all this was positively encouraged by the municipal authorities, those grasping local councilors who milked their home town for all it was worth. The marketing experts at the tourist office had ensured that B was the only place to be. For every conceivable kind of tourist, from hedonists to philosophers, from sun-worshippers to autograph hunters. The town had even produced a glossy brochure for the discerning (ie mega-rich) visitor, detailing the manifold attractions of the Diamond of the Amalfi Coast.
As soon as our carriage had pulled away and the journey had properly begun, I opened the brochure and began to read aloud from the introduction.
Situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty on the north of the Bay of Naples, B is the perfect holiday destination, combining a range of outdoor activities with the gastronomic delights of Campania.
“Range of outdoor activities = swimming naked in the Med with a shoal of tanned naval cadets. That will be an improvement on ladies’ day at the baths, with all those mustachioed middle-aged lesbians. And being rowed across the Lucrine Lake by some six-pack Adonis to a deserted, reed-trimmed islet.” Julia began as she meant to go on.
“Swimming, schwimming. Are you training for the Olympics or something? I intend this holiday to be total rest and relaxation. I refuse to do anything more strenuous than lying on a sun-lounger. Listen to this:
Famed for its enervating breezes, the Bay of Naples is particularly attractive to tourists who want to get away from it all. Known for decades as the relaxing coast, this little corner of Italy will guarantee to re-charge the batteries of even the most stressed executive.
“Lie in till one, breakfast in bed, a pool side cocktail….”
“Nothing new there, then.” Claudia was pathologically unable to relax. And she always spoke at break-neck speed, as if life were simply too short to say all there was to say. “But you have both missed the real importance of B. Don’t you even care that it’s right next to Cumae and the Wood of the Golden Bough? Listen to this.
Situated on an important ley-line that runs from Delphi to the Fortunate Isles, B has been the scene of important chthonic encounters since the days of Odysseus. Even today, tourists can enjoy guided tours of the very tunnel that Aeneas took as he journeyed to the Underworld in the company of the Cumaean Sibyl.
“Bollocks. Who gives a shit about all that? If you wanted that kind of holiday, you’ve sure chosen the wrong companions, prune-face.”
“Phoebe and I care only about sun, sea and sex. And not necessarily in that order. Isn’t that right, sis?”
Before I could reply or leap to poor Claudia’s defense, Julia had snatched the guide book back from Claudia and flicked through until she found something more to her liking.
“How about this?”
Just north of B is the Roman naval base at Misenum, where visitors can inspect the fleets of triremes and even visit the famous Naval Academy.
“Inspecting the sailors might be more interesting than inspecting their boats.”
“And there’s one sailor in particular, who deserves our very careful scrutiny.”
‘Don’t tell me. Marcus fucking Junius. What the hell is he doing playing sailors all of a sudden? Playing drunken lay-abouts is more his scene.”
My sister had heard enough about my sordid love life to be thoroughly sick of Marcus and any mention of his name.
“His father’s sent him to the Academy for a year. To help him man-up.”
“That should be an uphill battle. But seriously, Phoeb, you follow that creep everywhere. I bet he’s the main reason you wanted to come to B in the first place. Why don’t you just admit defeat and move on? There’re plenty more sailors in the navy.”
‘Many are the thyrsus bearers. Few are the mystics,” said Claudia, inexplicably. And typically.
“And I think that he’d better watch out.”
Julia really had it in for Marcus. I sighed.
“He’s on one of those boring career paths, military training, foreign office posting, seat in the Senate. Next thing we know he’ll be married to a mildewed little wife and have two point four children. A cat and a gold fish.”
“All the more reason to catch him while we can. While he’s still the best mover on the dance-floor.”
I spoke flippantly, but the proximity of Marcus Junius was indeed the main reason for my wanting to go to B. For three long years, I had endured the agony of unrequited love for the blonde cherub. I decided that it was time to stop playing games and have it out once and for all. I was pinning all my (vain) hopes on a chance encounter with Marcus on the Bay of Naples. Who knows where a holiday romance might lead?
Claudia snatched the book back again. Sailor-boys – boys tout court – were not her strong suit.
B is also close to the famous Garden of Epicurus, a new-age centre of meditation and philosophical enquiry. Detox mini-breaks and silent retreats are popular with those struggling with the pressures of modern Metropolitan life.
“Could we pack you off there a few days, Claudia? Maybe you’ll bump into the lovely Marius Mega Bore. It sounds just his kind of place.”
“How on earth do you remember him, Julia?”
“Oh, come on, Phoeb. How could I forget your childhood sweet-heart? You two were joined at the hip until a few years ago. Until he saw the light and became such a five star weirdo. And you callously transferred your affections to the blonde bombshell.”
“Cut the crap, Jules, you know nothing about my affections. But, actually, I know for a fact that the trust-funded weirdo is in B. His grandmother has built him the most fabulous villa on the whole corniche. So that he can find himself and write the next best thing to the Iliad.”
“He can find himself as much as he likes as long as he doesn’t try to find me. He’s about the most boring prick around. What a waste of all that money. He’s as rich as Croesus, but looks and smells like bloody Diogenes.”
“Well, he might look and smell like Diogenes, but at least he doesn’t masturbate in public.”
“Yet….” said Julia, darkly.
“Well, he’s one eligible bachelor we shan’t be bumping into. What the hell is his mother thinking, letting him be such a creepy freak?”
With a sigh, I turned back to the guide-book.
Neither will gourmets will be disappointed. B is home to a number of authentic sea-front tavernae, as well as the only branch of Flavio’s outside Rome. Lying in the very shadow of Mount Vesuvius, B is guaranteed a constant supply of the very best wines. The famous Lacrimae Jovis is bottled just two miles away. Vineyard tours and wine tasting arranged on request.
“An intimate dinner on a bougainvillea-filled terrace, sunset over the bay, the busy harbour, the brush of a hand, the whisper of a poem….”
“Don’t get too romantic, Phoebe. It’s almost pass the bucket time. You can forget dinner-dates.This town is party central numero uno. The whole place is heaving with noovo bankers gagging to spend their money on nice people like us.”
“And they always pay the most beautiful men in the town to be there.”
“And the slaves are chosen solely on the basis of sexual expertise…..”
Feeling rather out of her depth, Claudia tried an inept conversational volte-face.
“So what have you both packed?” She asked brightly.
Claudia was utterly uninterested in clothes or make-up, but anything was better than talking about sexual expertise.
“I packed that new purple dress, high-heeled sandals, Granny’s pearls…..”
Julia inevitably interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah, Phoebe, we all know the story. Exotic, fabulously expensive pearls, fetched by some lithe diver from the azure depths of the Indian Ocean. But are they going to bring you any more luck with Marcus in B than back in Rome? It can take more than the insides of an oyster, you know”.
“I’ll do my best, little sister. Watch this space. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Marcus won’t recognize the new me.”
After a while, the motion of the carriage and the monotony of the journey sapped our enthusiasm. One by one we stopped talking about holiday plans and fell silent. Julia even fell asleep, slumped between me and Claudia, snoring softly. This seemed to please Claudia no end.
“Thank goodness. At last we can have a proper adult conversation.”
This perked me up immediately. Claudia’s usual conversation was the least ‘adult’ that I had ever encountered. But if I was hoping for an X-rated analysis of our likely chances with Marcus and/or smelly Marius, I was to be sorely disappointed. Claudia immediately launched into a long description of a bonkers book that she had recently read. It was all about the Wood of the Golden Bough.
“And it’s just a few miles north of B! Imagine that! This incredibly important place, just near where we’re staying! It was originally sacred to Diana. And, according to a mysterious custom, her priests had to be murdered by their successors. In this very wood! What do you think about that?” Claudia was gabbling at high speed, her eyes shining excitedly.
I sighed and said nothing. What on earth could I say to such a baffling and bizarre story? Claudia didn’t seem to mind, but started on her own elaborate exegesis, which lasted about an hour and required very little input from me. This suited me just fine. I allowed my thoughts to wander and finally to settle on poor Marius and to wonder what on earth had happened to him in the past three years.
Marius and I had grown up together. Our parents had neighbouring estates on the Quirinial, one of the smartest addresses in Rome. We had been born on the same day and, for most of our lives, we had lived like twins, doing everything together. But, when we were about thirteen or fourteen, just when things should have been progressing nicely to the next stage, the gaps started to occur. Marius developed an embarrassing cerebral and literary streak. He started to read books and to attend philosophy lectures in the forum. He stopped drinking and going to clubs. Chariots without Marius was like Cupid without his arrow. Pointless.
And he started to hang out with a very odd, grungy crowd. He stopped cutting his hair and beard and soon stopped even washing. He was starting to smell so bad and to act so strangely that his ultra-conventional parents could no longer bear the embarrassment and packed him off to Bay of Naples.
But underneath the obligatory beard, long, matted hair (à la Greque) and dirty philosopher’s pallium, Marius was still gorgeous, quite easily the most good-looking man of his generation. In a family so famous for its beauty that it had earned the agnomen Pulcher, the boy was easily pulcherrimus. But if the gods had blessed him with beauty, they had also cursed him with intelligence, sensitivity and a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Such traits were decidedly unwelcome in Roman aristocratic circles. While it might be possible for peasant boys from the north to write poetry and for Greeks to philosophize, a scion of the one of the oldest families in Rome should be concentrating on killing barbarians and raping slave girls.
A daring, wild maverick like Catullus might be able to break the mould, to be a poet as well as a patrician, but such overt rebellion was not in Marius’ character. Nor could he ever hope to penetrate this tight little clique of hipster poets. It was very much a closed shop of the beautiful, the posh, the witty and the charming. Moreover, the clever poems they produced, the short, technically brilliant pieces, were to Marius’ mind cold and barren. They were merely games to divert the bored and idle rich. He yearned for the bigger picture, for philosophical poems to explain the mysteries of life, the universe and everything.
Julia was right. He was very likely to be hanging out in the Epicurean Garden. For someone who left school without learning to read, the child could be remarkably perceptive. She had hit the nail on the head and identified the whole problem. Marius lived in an entirely different world from me. His mind worked in a totally different way. Sad though I was to admit it, we no longer had anything in common.
The journey from Rome to B was 150 Roman miles. The road was new and sound, but the wheels of the carriage were bare metal and unseasoned passengers felt every bump and every pebble. Every so often, a patch of mud would unaccountably delay the horses. Claudia, Julia and I were becoming uncomfortable. The sights from the window were, for the most part, undiverting. The long line of tombs just outside the capital provoked a melancholy mood, not suited to the first day of the holidays. A century of soldiers momentarily perked us up, but they were soon far behind. For the most part, our fellow travellers on the Appian Way were poor farmers with lumbering wagons, pulled by oxen and piled with hay. There were also many desperately poor folk, making their journeys on foot, pulling huge loads behind them. This was very much a hard-working, depressing scene. Along the whole road, there seemed to be no other holiday-makers. But this was not surprising. The season was well advanced and the idle rich had been ensconced in B for many months. Who in their right minds would stay in Rome in May and June?
It was with very great surprise, therefore, that we were suddenly aware of a cloud of dust billowing around the carriage and of the sound of a team of horses whipped to a frenzy. Something very sporty was just about to pass us. All three of us craned out of the window and tried to make out the shape that was emerging from the black dust. Our clothes were filthy and our eyes were full of grit, but we had our reward. Hurtling pell-mell towards us was the most luxurious petorritum that we had ever seen. But it was the driver that riveted us to our seats. Our mouths hung open and our tongues hung out. Was Phaeton himself more skilful? Was Hercules more divine? Was Paris more beautiful? Swooning with such thoughts, it took us some time to register that the horses had miraculously been reigned-in and slowed to the sedate walking pace of our own humble conveyance. Who could perform such a feat? Who could slow horses from 60 to naught in three seconds? And why? Such idle questions were immediately brushed aside. For one glorious, divine moment, the petorritum drew up right along side. The driver looked straight inside the carriage, at us, and smiled. But within a second, he and his horses had vanished again, in the same cloud of black dust.
Julia screamed and fell back in a faint. After a few seconds she cried out hysterically.
“Didn’t you see? Didn’t you see who that was? This is the best moment of my entire life. The worst moment. The best and the worst. Probably the end of my life. I should just die, right here, right now. I could die happy. He looked at me, Phoebe. He looked at me. He was even smiling at me.”
“What are you talking about, Julia? Who looked at you? Who smiled at you? Who?” Claudia was having to shout above Julia’s continuing and increasingly incoherent soliloquy.
“Who was he? Who was he?” cried Julia, crazed with disbelief. “How can you possibly not recognize the most famous man in Rome? Where’ve you both been? Have you been living in Britain or something? That was Ajax! Ajax, Ajax, Ajax, Ajax.”
She began repeating the name over and over, hugging a cushion and swaying in quite an unhinged manner. Julia might be my little sister, but she could be pretty strange at times.
Of course I’d heard of Ajax. It was impossible not to know the name. Aulus Julius Axilla (aka Ajax) was the most famous charioteer in Rome. Even I felt privileged to have seen him as such close quarters. Claudia sniffed dismissively. She dismissed everyone who wasn’t the Pontifex Maximus.
“Decidedly from the wrong side of the tracks, it’s a mystery to me how he’s achieved such a massive aristocratic following. I suppose you’re one of those stupid girls who fill the Circus Maximus everyday.”
“It’s not only stupid girls, Claudia. The bored housewife has callously rejected the galadiator. The arenas are deserted. There’s a new kid on the block. A new darling to be feted. Every matrona in Rome now worships at the shrine of Aulus Julius Axilla.”
“Including our mother.”
“Shut up, Julia.” If there was one thing guaranteed to ruin the start of the holiday it was mention of our mother and her gross private life. Thankfully, even Julia realised this and returned to the safer subject of the boy racer.
“I bet that neither of you’s even seen him race. You are so missing out. The style, the skill, the breath-taking risks.”
Chariot racing was an insanely dangerous sport. Deaths were common and added to the thrill of the game. Deliberate crashes and collisions were a legitimate means of eliminating opponents and were eagerly anticipated by the spectators. A charioteer trampled by his own horses and mangled under his own chariot was a common, even welcome sight.
“Ajax dices with death himself.” Julia continued in a breathless whisper. “And he always wins. He is never even hurt. He is invincible! Invulnerable! Ajax! Ajax! Victor Omnium Ludorum! They’re now saying that he made a pact with Hecate, that he wears a charm given to him by a Scythian shaman. That when he was a baby his mother dipped him in the river Styx …”
“That he is Phaeton himself returned to earth? Grow up, Julia, and take a look at who this god really is.” I sighed. Claudia could be a bit of a kill-joy. “The toast of the town is a boy from the slums, brought up by a single working mother, in a grotty, rat-infested insula.”
“You must admit it, Claudia, the fact that Cicero was his landlord adds a certain frisson to the misery memoir.” This juicy piece of gossip was all over the papers last week and even the greatest orator of them all was momentarily lost for words.
Everything about Ajax cast a spell of irresistible sexual allure. Of course he was beautiful, with his athlete’s physique, his black curly hair, petulant expression and voluptuous mouth. An artist looking for a model of Bacchus need look no further than Aulus Julius Axilla. But his attraction was far deeper and more complicated than mere physical appearance. His dare-devil contempt for death, his sob-story origins, his little-boy-lost in the corridors of power encouraged many a Roman mother to scoop him up and nurture him at her ample breast.
“Well I still can’t understand any of it.” Said Claudia. “Everyday! All those queues of screaming girls lining the roads outside the Circus, dropping like flies in the sun. They’d do much better staying indoors and growing up.”
“Growing up is a very over-rated activity, Claudia. But you’re right about one thing. The roads outside the Circus are a menance to public saftey.” Julia put on her most You and Yours-investigative-journalism voice. “On one particularly hot afternoon, a girl from Milan actually threw herself under the wheels of Ajax’ chariot. Since then, special cordons have been erected and the girls have been carefully supervised by the municipal aediles. But this has done nothing to stop the screaming, the fainting and the hysteria.”
“And the money-making by the boys on the forum. Did you know that Phillip is now specialising in Ajax memorabilia?” I mentioned a wide-boy entrepeneur of our mutual acquaintance. Sometimes, when Macus was out of town, I let him take me out. “He saw a gap in the market, which he plugged subito presto. Did you know, Julia, that you can now be the proud owner of a wooden Ajax doll and a tunic emblazoned with his face?” In response, my sister merely stuck out her tongue. “A few more denarii will get you a ghost-written memoir. You didn’t think he could actually write, did you?”
Before Julia could spring to her hero’s defense, Claudia was off again.
“And all the grafitti! Some of it is so obscene that I am ashamed to have seen it. Somewhere, you have taken a very wrong turning, Julia. I suppose it isn’t your fault. Your mother is hardly the ideal influence.”
This was too much. Sometimes I felt close to hating Claudia and her holier-than-thou attitudes. I wished that we hadn’t asked to come on this holiday and it took a great deal of effort not to tell her so. But one look at her ugly, earnest face made me change my mind. Instead, I opted for the path of least resistance. More discussion of flipping Ajax.
“It sometimes seems as if the whole of Rome depends on this one man and his meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Only the bookmakers are out of pocket. Such a dead cert is decidedly bad for business.”
“Who cares about any of that crap? Ajax is heading for B. And so am I. And that, my dear sister, is all that matters.”
Julia sat back, smiling like a seraph. You can imagine how the rest of the journey was passed.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this particular summer holiday was the accommodation. My mother had arranged for the three of us to stay with my notorious and – until very recently – estranged aunt, Metella. I must admit to being very excited and intrigued at the prospect of seeing Aunt Metta again. I hadn’t seen her since I was ten years old, when she was finally forced to leave Rome for good and set up permanent residence in the more permissive climes of the Bay of Naples. Her last, flamboyant affair with a famously (infamously) beautiful prostitute had proved the last straw even for my family. As you know, my family was hardly likely to win the Cato Medal for Upholding Traditional Family Values (the CMUTFV), but it was proud as hell. My aunt’s mistake was a congenital and fatal lack of discretion. She thrived on outrageous public display. At the same time as her affair with the stagily named Lupilla (‘little she wolf’), she was enjoying liaisons with a gladiator, with specially purchased twin slaves from Batavia, with a Jewish diplomat from Alexandria and possibly (as rumoured by that arch gossip, Cicero) even her own sister. Of course, I could not have understood, or even known, all the details at that age, but I certainly knew and loved Aunt Metta. And I remembered her vividly. Her perfume, her hair, her earrings, her smile, her great big bear-hugs. I guess the basic problem was that she had simply too much love to give, to prostitutes, to gladiators, and even to gawky adolescent nieces.
Until two weeks ago, my Mother had not contacted her sister since she left Rome. It was nine long years since my aunt and I had met. Of course, by now, we all knew all the details and were agog to meet the self-confessed Queen of B (Queen Bee), High Priestess of Hedonism.
When the carriage finally drew up outside the Villa Metella, it was late afternoon. The low, mellow rays of the setting sun cast a warm amber glow over the beautiful house. Of course it was a beautiful house, built entirely of shining white marble, perched high above the sparkling bay. Of course the slaves who opened the door were beautiful, a girl and a boy, one white and one black. Of course they were plump, well-clothed and happy-looking. The worship of pleasure clearly extended even to the staff in this charmed establishment. Of course, the fountain in the atrium was surrounded by the most exquisite mosaics that we had ever seen. Of course, the sumptuous tablinum, in which my aunt lay, having her toe-nails painted, was perfectly proportioned. And of course, Aunt Metta was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen. She was Dido, Cleopatra, Jocasta, a wonderful and heady distillation of all the most beautiful women in the world. Women who become more and more beautiful as they grow older. Her incredible red hair lay in rich, lavish piles on top of her head. Her eyes shone beautifully, underneath a glimmering and daring make up. Her generous mouth was one huge smile of happiness, of sensuality and of welcome. Her voluptuous body was wreathed in swathes of diaphanous silk, hinting at forbidden fruit.
I bowed low.
“Domina Metella Horatia Fulmo, from all my family to all your family, sincerest greetings.”
I felt ridiculous. I hadn’t behaved or spoken like this since my coming-out ball in front of Mrs. Consul.
Aunt Metta could only laugh. A low, long, guttural laugh of genuine amusement.
“My poor darling”, she drawled, “you have been cooped up in Rome for far too long. No one, no one, speaks in such an absurd manner in B. A simply Salve and a long embrace is de rigueur here”.
She suited her action to her words, giving Julia an embrace that was perhaps too long even for B.
Our trunks were taken upstairs and unpacked. We washed in warm, lavender-scented water and were soon enfolded by the decadent, informal coziness of the Villa Metella. We kicked off our shoes and curled up on the sofa to tell our news. The drowsy, intimate atmosphere, the total lack of judgement or prurience, encouraged confidences. Julia told Aunt Metta all about being expelled from school and about the incredible meeting with Ajax on the Appian Way. Claudia told a long, boring story about an audience with the Pontifex Maximus. Salon gossip was never her strong suit. As nothing remotely interesting ever happened to her, this was not very surprising. I confessed to a three year torture of unrequited love for Marcus Junius.
“Every week he dangles a different blonde in front of me, but they never get anywhere and he never stops flirting with me. He’s always inviting me to his private box at the Arena, to the Members’ Room at Chariots, to his birthday party, to picnics in the Alban Hills and boat trips on the Tiber. He always gives me just a little bit of hope, just a little flash of flesh or of the orthodontically-straightened teeth.”
“The dumb blondes with the long legs are a pathetic ploy to make her jealous. It’s obvious that they’re just for show. They all look the same and dress the same and talk the same. I bet he goes to an escort agency.”
Julia may be only fifteen, but she liked to present herself as a world expert on matters of the heart.
“I don’t think he’d pay money for a woman he doesn’t even touch. And there’re plenty of airheads who’d hang out with Marcus for nothing. It’d look good of their c.v. He’s cute and rich and posh, what more do they want?” I said.
“Could he possibly be gay, darling? It all fits into place. Lack of commitment, lack of PDA, excessive personal grooming, female friends……”
My aunt trailed off, for fear of giving offense. Julia had no such scruples.
“Of course he is, Aunt Metta. I’ve been trying to tell her this for years. He’s as bent as the last turn of Circus Maximus. As you say, it all fits! The mincing gait, the squeamish aversion to the blood. Do you know, Marcus never goes to the Games?”
“Fuck off, Julia. You know nothing about anything, least of all Men.”
By now I was spoiling for a fight. Julia had touched on a very sore subject. But, in the nick of time, I remembered that we were guests in my aunt’s house. The last thing she wanted in her living was a couple of squabbling teenagers. With an effort, I reigned in the anger and tried to speak normally.
“Anyway, I found out that Marcus’ bring-back-hanging, bring-back-national-service, throw-queers-to-the-lions father decided that his son needed toughening up. The lazy afternoons in Chariots had to stop. Within a week, Marcus found himself bundled off to the Misenum Naval Academy. No more loafing about the baths, having his pecs waxed by sultry beauties.”
“I’m afraid that his father is rather behind the times. The Academy is no longer the boot camp it once was. The days of Pompey’s boy commandos are long gone. No more cold showers and twenty-mile runs before breakfast. These days, the cadets are a marauding bunch of pampered teens terrorising the locals. They are mostly younger sons too stupid to pass the civil service entrance exam.”
“Marcus should fit right in,” said Julia, smirking. She was a fine one to talk about stupidity.
“I suppose there must be some messing about in boats, but the emphasis is very much on having a good at time at the state’s expense. Sandhurst meets Club Med.”
My aunt looked suddenly wistful and I sensed that she might have had some personal experience of the young academicians. But she moved quickly on.
“Misenum is really a very dangerous town. Where else do you find a port, a barracks, a finishing school and an endless supply of bored holiday-makers all within a mile of each other? It is hardly surprising that it has the highest rate of venereal disease in the whole country.”
This was a horrible idea. Marcus without a nose. Marcus unable to provide me with beautiful blonde babies. But I mustn’t let my aunt deflect me from my mission. I mustn’t let the golden opportunity (and the golden boy) pass me by.
“Even so. It’s not everyday that Marcus and I are on holiday in the same place at the same time. This is his last chance. He’s been playing games for far too long. I want some answers and I’m going to get them.”
I sounded much more belligerent than I felt. The others were suitably impressed by the new alpha female persona.
Aunt Metella was starved of any news of our parents, particularly her estranged sister, our estranged mother. There was not much news to report, for the simple reason that we almost never saw her. She had abrogated all domestic responsibility ten years ago. The household (of 100 plus slaves) was run by a super-efficient woman from Helvetia. And Julia and I were still in the nominal care of a scary, hairy nanny who gave us warm milk for supper and expected us to be in bed by eight. Our mother had no idea what we did or where we went. Except on those appalling occasions when we found ourselves at the same club or bar.
“Mother has the freaky ability to look thirty years younger than she is and to attract the most beautiful boys on the dance floor. I even saw her dancing with Marcus once. It’s about the only time I’ve seen him remotely turned-on.”
Aunt Metella smiled a hazy, indulgent, far-away smile.
“The twins were always beautiful. Dazzlingly beautiful. The youngest and the most beautiful. How we all adored them. Worshipped them.”
A hush fell upon our little party. An angel passed. We all knew the tragedy that eventually befell my mother and her brother. But it was never mentioned. Anything sad or serious was strictly verboten.
The moment passed.
“And how is your charming father?”
“Dad seems to be going through a bit of a rough patch. He’s still as rich as Croesus, of course, but there seem to be fewer flute girls to spend his millions on. In the good old days, we’d be stepping over them in the atrium and fishing them out of the pluvium. He could have started his own symphony orchestra.”
“So what happened?”
“The preachies have got a majority in the Senate. The right wingers, the Puritans, the Family Values Party. Dad has got to watch his step or he’ll lose his seat. Just when he’s about to be posted to Syracuse.”
“I see. Syracuse. The richest, ripest plum in the whole Empire. Even the most grubby minor official returns from there at least ten times richer. I can understand the attraction, but you’re right. He’ll have to be careful. Things are tightening up.”
“And we must now treat Johnny foreigner as a valued ally rather than a benighted colonial, ready and willing to be exploited by his superiors.” Claudia suddenly rejoined the conversation.
The conviction of Gaius Verres, the last incumbent of the Syracuse post, for corruption, was another of Cicero’s moral-high-ground, holier-than-thou triumphs. It was also a worrying tale of caution. But I was bored with talking about my father and his endlessly inventive venality.
“Aunt Metta, you have literally no idea what it means to me to be sitting here, in your house, talking to you. When you first left Rome, I cried myself to sleep for a year. I begged and begged to be allowed to visit you. Every day, I’d ask the same question and get the same answer. Dad was bored, Mum was furious and Nanny was scandalized.”
“In the end, instead of seeing you, she’d talk about you. Endlessly.” Julia grinned at the memory. “Every night, Phoebe would tell me the latest installment of Aunt Metella. When she’d used up all the real stories – the trips, the presents, the games and the laughter – she’d make up stories of what you were doing now in your new life in B Bay. How you were the dazzling society hostess, the toast of the town, Queen Bee of the fastest, louchest set. Pampered darling of every visiting princeling and pepper baron. The new Clodia, the new Cynthia, muse and lover of the very newest of new poets.”
“And I was right! You’re just as beautiful as I imagined. You look exactly the same as you did ten years ago. Your house, your garden, even your slaves are all exactly as we imagined …..”
“But what about the lovers?”
“Julia!” I was shocked.
“All in good time, my dears. Ten years of news cannot be told in an afternoon.”
She glanced at Julia, whose tongue was all but hanging out in anticipation. Like every other girl in her class, she devoured erotic pulp but was starved of news of the real deal.
“Pas devant les enfants.”
My aunt then yawned and stretched herself languidly on the cushioned couch. Sensuality oozed from every pore. As unmistakably as civet from a vixen. Like Hera with the belt of Aphrodite, the woman lying in front of us was irresistible. To men, to women and surely even to gods. I sighed at the hopelessness of it all. You either had it or you hadn’t. If I had one tenth of Aunt Metta’s appeal, maybe I’d stand a chance with the beautiful, seemingly unattainable Marcus Junius.
“But now” – my aunt glanced at the elaborate water clock – “we must prepare for The Party. We have just four hours to transform ourselves. Fancy dress is optional. Looking beautiful is not.”
We all tried not to look at Claudia.
Julia announced that she was going to the public baths to see what news there was of Ajax’ arrival in the Bay. Claudia wanted to make a start on her holiday reading. She unrolled a typically ludicrous and inappropriate book. The symbolism of initiate death: engulfment by a sea monster did not look much like holiday reading to me. I normally go for Death on the Tiber or Murder on the Appian Way. I ground my teeth in frustration. Just when I needed to agonize over the likelihood of Marcus putting in an appearance at the party, Claudia goes all cerebral. I sometimes wish that a sea-monster would engulf her. She can be a pretty useless best-friend. Aunt Metella was also otherwise engaged. The last we saw of her, she was being led off for a session (of what?) with an over-muscled Nubian of doubtful gender. As I really couldn’t bring myself to accompany Julia on her quest, I decided to mooch about the house and gardens, obsessing about Marcus, until it was time to dress.
In the end, Julia returned much sooner than expected. She normally spent at least three hours, pampering and preening herself for a Night Out. Only half an hour had past and here she was, staggering into the room, with a scarf wrapped tightly over her whole face.
“Phoebe, Phoebe! Is it all right in here? Is it safe to breathe?” She coughed theatrically and rolled her eyes.
What on earth had happened? She’d only gone to the Baths. Had she somehow contracted galloping pneumonia? She couldn’t hear what I said, but I managed to convey that the air at the Villa Metella was pure. Slowly, warily, she unwound her scarf. And sniffed gingerly.
“Phoebe. Never. Ever. Set foot in that stinking shit-hole. The whole place stinks of rotten eggs. Every room and every pool, from the tepidarium to the calidarium. The same disgusting, sickening smell of shit. And it’s chocker-block with twisted, wrinkly old farts. Grumpy old bastards, with disgusting swollen joints. They’re all surrounded by fawning nurses, lowering them into the water and rubbing them with stuff. Some of the senile imbeciles were even drinking the water. I bet some legacy hunter put them up to it. They’re bound to have kicked the bucket before they leave.
“There was one old-boy, with long greasy hair and an enormous stomach, playing some kind of ball game with pretty-boy slaves. Everyone clapped and cheered when he dropped the balls. And there was a hairy old git-ess, screaming as the barber removed the hair from her chin. Gross, gross. It was all just gross. And old and ugly. And smelling of drains.”
My sister, it seems, had stumbled into one of B’s famous medicinal baths. The town had originally attracted visitors on account of its sulphurous springs. The same springs that had inspired the legends of Lake Avernus and Aeneas’ descent to the underworld. Various quacks had trumpeted the medicinal benefits of such water. With predictable results. Every wealthy invalid on the Italian peninsular flocked there, hoping for a miracle cure. They were invariable disappointed, but the town had thrived on their gullibility. These days, most of the tourists were simply seeking pleasure, but pockets of the old school still existed. Behind elaborate marble facades.
“Phoebe, this was so not what I had expected. I had expected tantalising glimpses of the Body Beautiful at every turn. I had expected wafts of exotic perfumes and symphony orchestras. I mean, for fuck’s sake, this is B, after all. I didn’t come all this way to visit a geriatric convalescent home. Let’s hope tonight’s party makes up for it.”
“ I'm sure it will. And you've only got yourself to blame, waltzing off like that. If only you’d only bothered to read the guide book. But I forget, you can’t read. Aunt Metta's private bath would have been much nicer. Anyway -” I sighed - “I suppose I've got to ask. What's the news of golden boy?”
My sister’s countenance was immediately transformed from snotty brat into adoring groupie.
“I got some help reading the notices and can definitely report that Ajax is right here in B. As we speak! We’re breathing the same air! And! He is due to stay for the whole month of July! Where do you think he’s staying? What if he’s at the party tonight? What if we’re, like, in the same room? OMG.”
“Shut up Julia and go and re-arrange your hormones somewhere else. And get dressed. You’ll want to look your best.”
“Your first night in B must be a night to remember.”
With these hopeful words ringing in our ears, we finally set off. After Julia had changed five times and finally opted for charioteer fancy-dress.
Even the journey was spectacular. Aunt Metta had arranged a fleet of litters to carry us short journey. We were lifted aloft on the shoulders of eight enormous Bithynians, specially bought for the purpose (and, if I know anything at all about my aunt, for another less public purpose as well). We were cushioned on rose-stuffed pillows and handed pomanders to ward off the smells of downtown B. A fit young Moor ran in front of each litter to clear the crowds. To make way for US. In Rome, of course, tightly-closed curtains shielded those inside the litter from the prying gaze of the profanum vulgus. The people of B dispensed with such niceties. The sides of the litters were fully open to the night air. The three of us hung precariously out of the windows, greedy for our first glimpses of Sin City. And the men of B looked right back at us. The wolf whistles, the innuendoes and the frankly revolting propositions delighted us as we wound our way through the murkier quarters of the Old Town.
I had forgotten that B was a working town as well as a party town, and was amazed to see a busy high street still bustling with life and trade. All of which depended on the varied and lavish parties taking place that night. Whole carcasses of cows, sheep, horses and pigs, even peacocks and swans, were taken from the butchers and loaded onto waiting wagons. A fishmonger struggled under the weight of a man-sized turbot. Towering masterpieces of the pâtissier’s art were carried gingerly by specialist slaves. Sequined gowns and dazzling white togas were collected from the fullers. Everywhere were kegs, flagons and bottles, enough alcohol to fell an army.
In one dark street, we saw an exhausted horseman dismounting outside an exclusive delicatessen. A discrete sign revealed that this was the Emporium Omnium, by appointment to Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Herod, King of the Jews. I couldn’t read the rest of the long list of illustrious patrons, but it looked pretty damn impressive. The horseman’s offering was a fine alabaster jar, containing a single, exotic delicacy. Saffron, perhaps, or pepper or even khat. Some priceless luxury transported over enormous distances by relays of swift horses. The proprietor, a tall, dark and handsome man stood, arms-akimbo, waiting. Julia called out a cheeky greeting and the grocer answered in kind. We hadn’t even got to the party and she’d already scored. One-nil to my precocious little sister.
Everywhere was a sight, a sound or a smell to attract our attention. It was almost a disappointment when we finally arrived at the Villa Gremio.
The traditional Roman values of the late Republic emphasized the strict and rigid class system pertaining throughout the Empire. In Rome, Alexandria or Caesarea – and in every town or village in between – there were four distinct estates: slaves, plebeians, knights and patricians. While it might be possible for a particularly rich knight to buy his way into the Senatorial classes, such a man was permanently condemned as a novus homo, a nouveau, a parvenu, an arriviste. This was the unhappy lot of Cicero and it was quite likely class resentment that led him to his vicious attacks on Clodia and all she represented. Litigious sour grapes.
But there was one group that enjoyed quite incredible social mobility. The freedmen. Marcus Metaballus Gremio, our host for tonight, was typical of this class of man. A Syrian by race, but born into slavery, he grew up in the surprisingly liberal household of a prominent senator on the Capitoline Hill. By dint of a life-time of toadying and good behaviour, he was free by the age of 40 and a full Roman citizen a year later. Like so many before him, Gremio had gravitated to the financial centre of Puteoli, strategically situated on the burgeoning Bay of Naples. Exceptional business acumen, coupled with an ability to work a 48 shift, brought unprecedented success. By the age of 50, Gremio was by far the richest man in the Bay, if not the whole of the Roman Empire. Everyone, from Ponifex Maximus to failed estate agents, owed him money. Immense wealth naturally brought immense power, but it did not invite friendship or social acceptance. The super-rich freedmen of the Empire might be useful, both to the economy as a whole and even more so to individual, impoverished aristocrats, but they were shunned and avoided. Social pariahs, scabrous lepers and certainly not ‘people like us.’
Naturally, this was not the way of the world in B. The Bay was the original plutocracy. Here, money didn’t talk, it shouted, loud and clear, above the roar of parties. Parties were expensive and who better to pay the bill than some stinking rich noovo? It was therefore to the house of Marcus Metaballus Gremio, to the most dazzling party of the season, that Aunt Metta took us on that fatal first night.
Our beautiful bearers carried us right to the front door. No one walks in B. Especially not in these shoes. Over the great, open gates a glittering display of a hundred candles spelt out the promising slogan:
OMNIBUS SINE LEGIBUS (“anything goes’…..)
As if by magic, a swarm of tiny slaves appeared. They ushered us gently to plump, cushioned couches, where they unlaced our sandals, kissed our feet and washed them lovingly in musk-scented water. They gently rubbed our heels with pumice and cut, shaped and coloured our nails. They then massaged our hands with a rich silky unguent and garlanded us with roses. They handed us exquisite amuses-bouches, roast peacock brains and dormice stuffed with saffron, which we ate greedily. They then presented us with small glass cups filled with an exotic, surely narcotic, bright blue liquid.
As I drank, the room shimmered and swayed, faces rapidly appeared and disappeared, music grew louder and louder and the overwhelming smell of incense (literally) entranced me. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a great surging wave of euphoria. Quasimodo genita! New born! Pure, innocent, and full of love. Love, love, love! I loved all the shining, beautiful, loveable people I saw around me.
“My fellow guests, my fellow men, I love you all!”
I hugged them, I kissed them, and I told them I loved them. I loved the poor little slaves, I loved Julia, Claudia and beautiful Aunt Metella, with her piles of gorgeous red hair. I loved the sad, awkward couple who had just arrived and seemed strangely puzzled by my sudden, loving embraces. I loved the whole of mankind. I was caught up in a universal, all encompassing benevolence. My paltry, everyday self, silly Phoebe Scintilla Dorco, expanded and dilated to embrace the whole world, the whole universe with love. But most of all, I loved Marius, hugged Marius and kissed him. Again and again. Because, yes! Somehow, Marius himself was here in this happy, narcotic dream of love. But not the Marius we all knew and hated. A new and beautiful and clean Marius. A Marius looking like the young Apollo, wreathed in myrtle. And nothing else….
Some time later – minutes? hours? days? – I was startled awake by the sound of trumpets and by a raucous cheering and clapping. I gingerly opened my eyes and saw the whole palace suddenly ablaze with light. All around me, my fellow guests were standing up, mad with applause. Some on chairs, some on tables, some on the shoulders of other guests. In the middle of this happy throng stood a small, thin, bald, swarthy man, most outrageously overdressed in coloured silks and brocades and hung with the most absurd amount of gold and jewels and precious stones. Who on earth was this ugly, wizened, monkey man, this squashed and wrinkled pug-dog? Abruptly, the fanfare stopped and a tall, gorgeously-appareled herald stepped forward:
“Ladies and Gentlemen of B Bay. Pray silence for your host, the one and only Marcus Metaballus Gremio, the master of the revels, the magus of all delight, the arbiter elegentiae.”
Uproar once more, then sudden silence, as Gremio himself stepped on to a small, glittering dais and squeaked in his embarrassing accent a few well chosen words:
“Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, I was born a slave. Both my parents and all my brothers and sisters, all 12 of us, were slaves. My grandparents and great-grandparents were slaves. As you know, my life until the age of 40 was one of constant work, constant service and constant devotion to my late master, the much revered, much lamented Tribune of the People and Master of the Horse, three times Consul, Servius Aemilius Pinto, God rest his soul. It was hard work that earned me my freedom. I am not ashamed of this. I am not ashamed of my life as a slave. I am not ashamed of hard work. I am not ashamed to tell you that I used to work from dawn to dusk in the little counting room in my master’s house. I am not ashamed to tell you how my fingers grew calloused and worn, how arthritis and rheumatism ruined my right hand.”
At this point, he took off a lace glove and held up a gnarled and twisted hand. Obligatory gasps of sorrow and commiseration were heard.
“I am not ashamed to tell you how my father and mother were both slaves ….”
He was beginning to repeat himself. I listened, appalled. How could this ghastly little man – (All right. I admit it. I was turning into my mother) – expect us to stand and listen to the minute details of his sordid, boring, common life, for more than an hour? After a while, I was so desperate that I decided to count the number of times he used the word ‘I’. I had reached two hundred when the penny dropped. This was a very sophisticated sort of punishment, a revenge on his sycophantic guests. He knew just how much they would hate a speech of this sort and this was precisely why he delivered it. Every time.
Eventually, after what seemed like hours, our host stopped talking. There was another burst of applause and another trumpet fanfare. And, then…….
The party was indeed an elaborate show, a meticulously crafted entertainment, where nothing was left to chance. The food, the drink, the guests, everything was an elaborate fantasy. Most of the guests were in fancy-dress. One couple was impersonating Lesbia and Catullus. He was reciting pornographic poetry and drinking wine from her famous, high-heeled sandal. She was playing with a sparrow and looking bored. Another couple appeared to have come as Oedipus and his mother. They had just re-enacted his father’s murder as we came into the room (the poor slave was still bleeding on the mosaic floor). In another room, a camp young man was simultaneously making-up four models, using only the text of Ovid’s Cosmetica. We stopped for a while to watch the Reduced Homeric Company performing the complete Iliad and the Odyssey in five minutes, but the wooden horse was causing a temporary hitch and the audience was starting to heckle.
As we drifted through a mesmerizing hall of mirrors, we saw Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (with strutting peacocks on golden leads), Dido and Aeneas, Anthony and Cleopatra, Helen and Paris, Orpheus and Eurydice, Socrates and Alcibiades, Alexander and the Persian boy, Sappho and her class of teenaged girls. All the famous lovers of fact and fiction, entwined and embroiled in elaborate reproductions of their passion.
Next door to the Hall of Mirrors, with its twisted, contorted figures, was a cacophonous animal circus. In a specially erected big-top were snake charmers, dancing bears, talking jays, trapeze-swinging fleas and mind-reading dogs. In one corner, a row of freshly decapitated chicks awaited resurrection by a dodgy-looking Holy Man. Claudia, of course, stayed to watch the miracle. Was there no end to her credulity? As we left, she was eagerly handing over the enormous spectator fee. I was much more interested in a little terrier dressed up to play the role of Pyramus in a short pantomime. Right on cue, he swallowed a phial of ‘poison’ and fell down ‘dead’. While the audience clapped appreciatively, the little dog woke up and trotted off back-stage. This was much better than anything I’d ever seen in Rome.
All the performers were popular, but the undoubted star of the show was a grotesquely ithyphallic donkey. He was attracting an awful lot of prurient attention. The revolting spectacle gave a whole new meaning to expression ‘petting zoo’. Julia was enthralled and joined the queue of salivating perverts. But it was too much for me and even, surprisingly, for Aunt Metta. Besides, after a few circuits of this chamber of horrors, we were beginning to feel hungry.
Following the line of pot-bellied gourmands, through a phalanx of uniformed chefs, we entered the cavernous triclinium. Just as we arrived, a diminutive bugler was announcing the start of something special. We had clearly timed our arrival well. Amid cheers and clapping, an enormous butcher entered the room, brandishing and sharpening his array of specialist knives. With a theatrical slice of a silver sword, he cut open an enormous pie. Immediately, twenty song-birds flew out and sat singing on the rafters. Alas, their new-found freedom was short-lived. A troupe of energetic young slaves ran up, trailing long nets. They caught the birds one by one and threw them onto a waiting bonfire.
A tiny bird let out a piercing scream at the first scald. While the other guests were drooling at the prospect of larks tongue in aspic, my aunt sighed and looked away. There were tears in her eyes.
“Why does entertainment so often involve the pain and suffering of something else? But this isn’t entertainment. It’s deliberate cruelty. And look how they lap it up.”
I looked at the expectant, sadistic faces of our fellow guests. How right she was.
“If these poor birds were released into the garden, where they rightly belong, you can imagine the riot that would ensue.”
Aunt Metta and Marcus were the only two people I knew who never went to the Arena. The only people I knew who had the sensitivity to be revolted by maiming and torture and death. In her presence, I felt a stab of self-disgust. To me, gladiators and animal hunts were simply a way a whiling away a Thursday afternoon. And I was quite looking forward to the barbecue.
“There’s nothing for us here. I’m beginning to regret that we came. Your first night in B will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Come on.”
With a growling, ravenous stomach I dragged myself out of the tantalising dining-room after my self-righteous aunt. At least she couldn’t object to wine drinking. I snatched two glasses and downed them without a second thought. Feeling much improved, I followed Aunt Metta through the hazy, mazy rooms of the enormous party. We passed all manner of obscenities and perversions before stopping in a crowded, noisy room. Where we found the most obscene and perverted act of all.
In the centre of the room a temporary stage had been erected, complete with spot lights, curtain and proscenium. The audience was a motley crew of half dressed, fully drunk revellers, jeering and leering. But it was the identity of the actors and the subject of the play that was the most astounding. And it was the sumptuously dressed protagonist that particularly gripped our shocked attention. Underneath the heavy maquillage and heavy, yellow veil, it was just possible to recognize the Patrician features of Terpilius Terpio. I was speechless. My mouth dropped open in utter, utter amazement. Terpio was the leader of an increasingly influential Cato-esque clique in the Senate, that campaigned for a return to Family Values. The so-called Family Values Party was really a proto-Nazi group of xenophobic reactionaries, whose leader liked to kiss babies and pose on stage with his down-trodden wife. Terpio delivered endless speeches, awarded medals and was generally a pain in the arse for anyone who liked to enjoy herself. Two months ago, he actually tried to pass a law banning kissing in public, ‘on moral as well as hygienic grounds.’
But Terpio was more than a kill-joy. He was a skilful demagogue, using all his considerable rhetorical skills to damn the patricians and flatter the plebs. I hated him and all that he stood for. I was convinced that Aunt Metella’s expulsion from society was caused, to a very large extent, by Terpio’s rabble-rousing maiden speech in the Senate. A curb on the sexual perversions of the aristocracy was bound to be popular with the proles. And Terpio’s masterpiece of fascist vitriol was greeted with rapturous applause. Vote Terpio! graffiti appeared all over the city. Even my father quickly realized which way the wind was blowing. He curtailed his visits to the brothels of the Sabura and kept a much tighter watch on the guest-list to his weekly wife-swapping parties. Association with Aunt Metella could no longer be tolerated. Had she been willing to act with more discretion, with more hypocrisy, she could perhaps have stayed in Rome. But this was not her way. She was not ashamed of how she behaved and saw no reason to pretend that she was.
And now here was Terpio himself celebrating (and about to consummate) a very public marriage with a pretty, over-rouged Greek (Greek!) boy of about 11. If there was anything that Terpio professed to hate more than sexually voracious patricians, it was Greeks. Greeks were effeminate, artistic and homosexual. They were the rot that would eventually scupper the ship of the Roman Republic. Yet it was all right, apparently, to ‘marry’ them. On stage. At a party in B.
The impresario of this particular divertissement had worked very hard to produce a meticulous parody of the traditional roman wedding. Terpio himself was dressed in a bridal gown and a yellow veil. A chorus of eunuchs sang all the usual songs, while a parade of young slave-girls processed around the stage, carrying scented torches and throwing rose petals into the audience. In the very centre of the stage was the letto matrimoniale.
I was totally outraged. In my innocence, I expected a public denunciation of such foul hypocrisy on very public display. Everybody, surely, must have identified the protagonist. This was one of the most famous faces in politics. Yet there was no reference to Terpio’s work-a day life, no ribald jeering or quoting from his speeches. I couldn’t understand why not.
“Why doesn’t anyone say anything?” I cried out, with all the moral indignation of youth. ”Why is he is allowed to do this? The lives he’s ruined, the families he’s torn apart, the friendships he’s soured with his hate-filled speeches.”
I was almost crying with anger, but Aunt Metta was calmness itself.
“Because this is B, my dear. Life here is a carnival. The normal rules simply don’t apply. Don’t you remember the sign above the door? Omnibus sine Legibus. It’s the only rule we follow.”
She hooked her arm through mine and smiled serenely down at my furious, contorted face. She stroked my hair and said,
“Come on, Phoebe, you need a change of scene.”
We pushed our way through the throng of revellers. It was, by now, long past the middle of the night. In fact, I’m sure that somewhere over Mount Vesuvius the sun was already rising. But here, in the unnatural, twilit party-land, night was day and day was night. It suddenly seemed to me as if the whole world was turned on its head. Terpio could marry a Greek boy, Domina Metella could socialize with a Syrian freedman, eunuchs could please matronly Romans, and grown men could dress as pre-pubescent girls. Nothing was what it seemed, all was acting, playing, charades and pantomime. Homo ludens at his brashest and most unpleasant.
We saw men dressed as Juno and men dressed as Aphrodite. We saw the sons of noble families dressed, and treated, like filthy slaves. We saw a troupe of debutantes marching behind a fierce female ‘Leonidas’, impersonating Spartans. We saw a hot old man dressed as the she-wolf of Rome, complete with a suckling Romulus and Remus. But what we saw next was the most bizarre sight of all. A sight that stopped us in our tracks and rooted us to the spot. We saw a tall, clean-shaven man, with his hair cut short and brushed forward in the ultra conservative style favoured by Julius Caesar. He was dressed in a spotless white toga with a neat purple stripe, indicating his elevated status. He was the only person so far encountered who was not wrecked by drink and other stimulants. He stood out like a virgin in the Roman forum. He alone was not wearing a garland; he alone was not slurring his speech and staggering about. When he spoke, it was with the charming, mellifluous cadences of old-school Latin. We were transfixed.
“Domina Metella,” he purred, bowing, “the greatest beauty of the party, the greatest joy of my life” etc etc….
My aunt called a sudden halt to this polished oration.
“Gaius, Gaius, what the hell has happened to you?”
She growled in the utmost perplexity. And then lurched or rather fell forward and kissed him messily on the lips. Had the embrace not momentarily steadied her, Aunt Metta would doubtless have crashed to the ground, like so many of the other guests. When Gaius finally managed to extricate himself, he answered my aunt’s indignant question.
“You ask, my dear, what has happened to me. I can only answer ‘What is me ?’ or rather, ‘Who am I?’ The people you see all around you are desperate to break down the bounds of society. And good luck to them. It's a job that needs doing. But what they don't realize is how the bonds of the self create a far more efficient prison. Last week, you all saw me punitively sodomized by a Gallic pugilist. The week before, I appeared as a Persian potentate, with a harem of beautiful, biddable girls. Before that, if you can remember – but who in B remembers anything? – I was Cynthia, darling party-girl of yester-year. Tonight, I am simply Marcus Gaius Gemillius. The point is, my dear Domina Metella”- Gaius kissed my aunt's hand and looked deep into her kohl-lined eyes - “the point is that we can all be whoever we want to be. The fantasy of the other need not be reserved for parties like this. We can and must destroy the tyranny of the self, of an established, predictable, moral character.”
Gaius stopped talking and turned his Patrician gaze from my aunt to me, her somewhat disheveled niece. He looked down his long, oh-so-Roman nose, but more with pity than contempt. I knew very well what he meant and it made me wild as hell. So what? Maybe he’s right. Maybe I don’t have to be spoilt-rich-bitch-waiting-to-get-laid for, like, ever. But, right now, my established moral character suited me just fine. I went off to find the others. With great poise and nonchalance.
I pushed my way wearily through the broiling, stinking crowd. The air was now fetid with the stale smell of garlic, oil, perfume, incense and sweat. The stench seemed to hang like an almost physical pall over everyone and everything. I was hot, dirty and horribly thirsty. I suddenly needed – desperately – to find the others. The image of these two girls shone out like a beacon of sanity in a mad, mad world. I was way out of my depth at this party. As I stumbled and staggered from room to room, everything seemed somehow lop-sided and out of focus, a fuzzy and shimmering mirage. But when I finally found the others, they were far from beacons of sanity. I had stumbled upon a very messy situation.
Claudia was clasping Julia tightly to her breast and was repeatedly stroking her long, sweaty hair. Julia herself was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Julia, Julia, what the hell’s happened?” I had never seen anyone so upset. I took both her hands in mine.
Julia lifted a red, blotchy, tear-stained face and looked straight at me.
“He’s there. He’s there. He’s right here at this party and I’m not allowed to meet him.” The last bit of this little speech trailed off into a high-pitched wail of disappointment.
It was inevitable, I suppose. The most famous man in Italy was sure to be on the guest list. Gremio’s world-weary, thrill-seeking, guests would demand it.
I lifted my gaze from the sad little huddle of Claudia and Julia and saw a closed door. This was a shock, a slap in the face. Nothing was off-limits or private at this party. Even Gremio’s bedroom was in full and constant use. Outside the closed door stood two enormous slaves, dressed almost as gladiators, with short swords, heavy clubs and studded sandals. They seemed to have been given a list of names. As I watched, men and women would confidently stride up to the guards and give their names. A quick consultation resulted in either admittance or expulsion. Triumph or defeat. There was no redress, no appeal. Neither flirting nor bribes (and I saw plenty of both) had any effect.
This seemed a pretty hopeless situation, but I couldn’t bear to see my little sister so upset. There must be something that I could do. I wracked my brains and then, Bingo! I had a plan worthy of Odysseus himself. Julia must become the Trojan Horse.
Every so often, elaborate dishes of food and drink were taken inside the inner sanctum. Small silver carriages, specially designed for the purpose, were pushed along laden with delicacies. It was simple. Julia must be on one of those silver carriages. Julia must become, for a few moments of her young life, a piece of food.
Miraculously, the plan worked. Julia was wheeled in disguised as an enormous turbot, covered with finely sliced cucumbers. I suppose that it might be quite tricky for her to wriggle out of this disguise and present herself as a sparkling and desirable young groupie, but that was her problem. I’d done my bit. I congratulated myself on a masterly plan and sat back to wait for her to re-emerge.
It was quite a relief to sit down and chill-out. After a while, Claudia and I started chatting to the guards, who (despite appearances to the contrary) were really sweet and friendly. It turned out that they were originally from Germania, but now lived permanently in B! We were very jealous and lapped up their tales of Body Guards to the Rich and Famous.
After about two hours, Julia emerged. We covered her head with a stole and hustled her away immediately. We didn’t want our nice new friends to realize the con and be cross. We didn’t stop until we had reached a far corner of the elaborate garden. By now the sun was high in the sky and the day was hot. We settled down on a porphyry bench, beside the obligatory fountain and beneath the obligatory beech tree.
“Tell us everything, Julia, right from the start.” I commanded.
“Well, it was all very odd. When I first arrived in the room, it seemed pitch black and I could hardly see anything at all. I was beginning to worry that I had been wheeled into the wrong room. But the chef’s whispered instructions soon revealed that I was indeed in the same room as Ajax. I was literally shaking with excitement and anticipation.
“The kitchen slaves didn’t seem to mind about the scam at all and actually helped me to pick off the slices of cucumber.”
I sighed. My sister could charm the Sirens.
“I was looking quite presentable when I finally took my place in the audience. Congregation might be a better word. I was sitting next to a nice woman from Forum Iuli and we were soon happily exchanging facts and figures. For example, did you know that Ajax can’t bear strawberries? Did you know that his favourite colour used to be yellow, but now he prefers green?”
Julia looked at us expectantly. As if were meant somehow to be interested in this bollocks. Hurt by our silence and lack of enthusiasm, she continued.
“But, to be absolutely honest, the whole thing was the teeniest bit of a disappointment. Meeting him in the flesh, I mean.”
“What?” I cried in fury. “After all our effort! How dare you, you runted ingrate!”
“Of course, he looked amazing.” Julia hastened to add. “He had been dressed up as sort of Pharaoh. His hair had been dyed jet black and was cut with a heavy, straight fringe. But it was a bit disappointing that he wasn’t wearing his usual chariot gear. Those short leather tunics that we all love so much. Instead, he was decked out in a long, white, pleated tunic. He was sitting upright on a divan of African furs, lynx, leopard, lion.
“In fact the whole room had an Egyptian theme. There were tiny pyramids everywhere, miniature sphinxes, and all that weird picture-writing that you see in Alexandria. He was surrounded by beefy, bald-headed men, who fanned him constantly with peacock feathers. Of course, they were really body-guards. Anyone who attempted to approach the throne of grace discovered this. In no uncertain terms.
“He was constantly being tempted by tasty morsels of food and with iced sherbets. We were given nothing. Zilch. Not even a pearl of wisdom from the great man’s lips. The whole time that I was there, he said nothing at all. I was expecting an interview, with questions from fans, compered by an adoring manager. I had even written my own list of questions.”
“What were you going to ask?” I had a sinking feeling.
Julia cleared her throat and began speaking as if from a pre-prepared script.
“If you could be any sort of animal what would you be? What is your favourite horse? What did you have for breakfast? Where do you buy your sandals? That sort of thing.” Even Julia could sense that this pretty inane.
“Anyway. Moving on. After an hour, things seemed a bit boring. And a bit cold. The rest of the house may be stinking hot, but this little room was colder than a witch’s tit.”
“Don’t speak like that, Julia. It doesn’t become you and it embarrasses me.” My mother’s parental guidance being pretty much non-existent, such onerous duties usually fell to me.
“Ok, ok, don’t get your toga in a twist. I soon realized that the whole thing was a scandal. The groupies were meant to sit in silence in this ice box, gazing at Ajax pretending to be Ramasees II. I’d much rather have seen Ajax as Ajax. He looks a bloody lot sexier in the Circus Maximus than in that silly little room.
“I was just about to leave, because this silent tableau was beginning to get on my nerves. I suppose that Ajax’ agent had realized from past experience the folly of letting him actually say anything, but this was beyond a joke. I’d hate to think how much people had paid for this nonsense. The world outside the Holy of Holies was beginning to exert its lure. The dear little donkey was far preferable to this dumb blonde.
“But then something truly terrible happened”.
Julia sat up and looked at her audience with triumph. But also somehow with despair. I’m afraid that she’d have to do better than that to impress us. Claudia was already asleep and I was feeling pretty jaded and bored by this rambling story.
“What?” I said, crossly, not bothering to open my eyes or pronounce my “t’s”.
“A cymbal crashed and in walked Cleopatra. Of course, I don’t mean the real Cleopatra. Durrr. But a woman who looked exactly like her. And who also looked exactly like our Mother. Because that’s exactly who she was.”
Julia sat back, crossed her arms, and waited for my reaction.
Oh. My. Fuck. Julia had certainly got my attention now. Our Mother? Here in B? Here at the same time as us, without thinking of telling us? Our Mother dressing up as Cleo-bloody-patra and posing next to Ajax? Our Mother. And Ajax.
A torrent of emotion almost threw me off the bench. But I had scarcely time to digest this astounding and horribly upsetting news before we were distracted by the sound of a loud and nasty row.
We had assumed that we were in a secret and secluded part of the garden. I assume that the woman screeching at the top of her voice had felt the same. Their argument was not the kind to be rehearsed in public. Especially not at a party. Or maybe she really didn’t care.
“Every night, and everyday, I ask myself the same question. Why did I marry you? What was I thinking? What was my family thinking? Oh, you were rich all right, but you were ignorant and ugly and embarrassing. And you still are. Don’t you care how much people despise you? How much they use you and abuse you and laugh at you? Even your own children are ashamed, ashamed, of the way you speak and of what you say. Your only topic of conversation is money. Money and that bloody old fart who manumitted you. And, of course, your darling little sister. That beautiful little rose-bud, who right now is probably servicing some stinking centurion in the brothels of Pompeii. Who cares? Who bloody cares about any this boring crap?
“You throw these shitty parties every week, but have no inkling of how to enjoy yourself. You haven’t the faintest idea of what fun is. You don’t even drink. You think that you can hoodwink the playboys and playgirls, but it’s all over, honey, it’s all over. You’re over. You’re not even particularly rich any more. The real money’s in property.”
I had to remove Julia as quickly as possible from this poisonous environment. She was now shaking with shock and deathly pale. She was beyond crying. She suddenly seemed terribly young and vulnerable, far too young to be admitted to such a madhouse. My mother and even forever-young, forever-fun Aunt Metella seemed criminally irresponsible. Julia was only three years younger than me, but I scooped her up like a mother and covered her once again with the stained stole and lifted her unsteadily to her feet. I looked back at the stone bench. Claudia was deeply asleep, open-mouthed and snoring. I shook her roughly:
“Wake up, Claudia! Get up! We’ve got to go. At once!”
I realized too late that I was shouting.
“Who’s that? Who’s there? Who’s hiding and spying? Who’s eavesdropping on private conversations? How dare you abuse our hospitality like this?”
I heard the crunch of feet hurrying angrily across the gravel path and knew that we had to make a very snappy exit. With a last glance at the sleeping, happily oblivious Claudia, I half led, half lifted, my sister to the relative sanity of the front court-yard.
Here at last was a simple, normal, work-a-day world. Here were healthy, hard working men, with wives and families. Because most of the guests wouldn’t dream of leaving until at least late afternoon, the atmosphere in the courtyard was leisured. For the most part, the drivers were lolling against their vehicles and chatting with their neighbours. A few unfortunates, with exacting or cruel owners, were busy polishing hubs and wheels and beating carpets. Inevitably, such slaves were owned by the nouveaux riches, those with the least confidence and the most to prove. We pushed our way through the melée of carriages, deaf to any cat-calls and wolf-whistles. There was only one thing on my mind. To remove Julia as quickly as possible and as far as possible from this den of iniquity.
We finally found our litters. Naturally, all sixteen bearers were there. Ready and waiting to take us back whenever we chose. Since they had been hand-picked and carefully trained by my aunt, every slave was kind and gentle and discrete. They behaved more like big brothers than paid lackeys. They were especially good to Julia. They lifted her gently inside and, as she was still shivering, wrapped her in a fur rug. She was apparently asleep, but I worried about her continual whimpering and little, almost feral cries of pain. But there was nothing more that I could do for the moment. I closed the curtains of her litter and watched as the big slaves trotted briskly away to the Villa Metella. I was soon following her, more angry than I have ever felt in my whole life.
The journey past in a flash. In no time at all I was walking behind the litter, as the eight slaves carried Julia right to her bed and laid her gently on its downy softness. I knew that sleep would be impossible for me that night and so I sat on a chair, guarding Julia and waiting for my aunt’s return. I had a long wait and a great deal to think about.
At first it seemed incredible that Julia had retained her equilibrium for so long. How had she managed to spin such an elaborate tale before reaching its horrible dénouement? I then realized that Julia was simply her mother’s daughter. She understood pretence, play-acting and theatricality. She understood the nature of suspense and the power of surprise. Maybe she was a lot more mature than she seemed. Shit, how I worried for her and what she’d make of her life.
I then realized how she had left out what must have been the most excruciating part of the whole vile episode. What had happened when Julia had recognized our Mother? It was easy to imagine. Julia crying out hysterically, our Mother coolly impervious, the body-guards steely efficient. Julia would have found a hand clamped over her mouth and two men frog-marching her to the nearest exit. Inside the gilded fanum play would resume, the embarrassing little scene quite forgotten.
It would have been exactly the same as that disastrous night last December when we discovered our Mother as one of the ‘virgins’ chosen to be scourged by naked men celebrating the Lupercal. Or when we found her pretending to be a prostitute, re-enacting the rape of Lucretia and (hideous, hideous memory) the loves of Europa and the bull. Wigs, make-up and elaborate costumes preserved her anonymity from all but her closest family. Discretion was the better part of amor.
Distracted by such unwholesome memories, I almost missed my Aunt’s return. In typically considerate fashion, she made very little noise. She didn’t slam the door, she didn’t call for her slaves nor did she invite friends back for a raucous after-party. She simply floated upstairs in a mist of tulle and expensive perfume. I’m afraid that I could not match such sang-froid. I threw myself into her room and into her arms and explained the whole sorry tale.
She assured me that she hadn’t known of my Mother’s arrival in B, nor of her liaison with Ajax. I believed her. After all, the sisters were pretty much estranged. But I was not so convinced by her excuses of my Mother’s megalomania and constant parental neglect.
“Phoebe, my poor darling, there are always reasons for everything. Your Mother’s behaviour is no exception. She was scarred for life, ruined, by her hateful childhood. I suppose we all were, but she suffered the most, being the youngest.
“You know that your grandmother died giving birth to your mother. You know that we were then left to the mercy of our crazy father, a doctrinaire Stoic of the very old school. Cold swims every morning, even for the girls, a Spartan, entirely insufficient diet, regular beatings and a total lack of any emotional support. Any expression of love and affection totally forbidden.”
I felt pretty incensed by this misery memoir. It seemed a pathetic excuse for my own fucked up childhood.
“Oh, poor dear Mummy. How she must have suffered. I must remember to give her a big hug next time we meet. Let me tell you, Aunt Metta, that she isn’t very hot on emotional support and expressions of love either. She might have had a crap childhood, but is that any reason to inflict the same on us? She might have had a bastard for a Father, but is that our fault? And don’t you dare start on all that Uncle Titus stuff. Of course it was horrible him dying like that, but it’s still no excuse. There’s no possible excuse for the way she behaves. For the way she treats us. What’s Julia done to be treated as she was tonight?”
“Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe.” My aunt shook her head in sad despair. “Your mother is simply unable to express ordinary human emotion, or even to feel it. She is a cripple. A stunted and unfinished person. With me, it’s the other way around. I feel far too much, have far too much love to give. I reacted against our father by becoming an arch anti-Stoic, an emotional fireball. Your Mother had the opposite reaction. But the cause is the same. Even her play acting, her theatricality and her fancy-dress is a defense mechanism, a facade to hide behind, an excuse not to express any genuine feeling. To understand, Phoebe, is the first step on the road to forgiveness.”
“Bollocks!” I shouted, incensed. “That is just fucking bollocks. Why do you have to be so bloody nice all the time? Why can’t you just agree that our Mother is a bitch and a cow? I hate her and I hope that I never see her again. Ever, ever, ever. I hope that she dies this very night in that freezing room with Ajax in front of everyone.”
I ran out of the room and hurled myself on my bed. Crying uncontrollably.
I suppose that I must have slept around the clock. It was late morning on the following day when I came downstairs, red eyed, blotchy and with a thumping head ache. Julia seemed her usual inane self, bounced back to normal with incredible (worrying?) resilience. Aunt Metta was draped luxuriantly on a chaise longue, reading out loud from the Odyssey. She had chosen the story of the Lotus Eaters, my favourite episode. In many ways, this was a metaphor for life in B, the luxurious idling, the denial of plans and purpose, the refusal to admit any negative or worrying thoughts.
“Darling Phoebe.” My aunt rasped. “You are back in the Land of the Living. But you look peaky. Far too pale. Not at all like a young girl on holiday at the sea-side”.
She looked at me closely and sighed.
“Come and sit next to your old aunt. You’ve been through the ringer, my dear. I am desperately sorry for this bad start to your holiday with me.”
She clapped her hands twice and an angelic-looking slave appeared, hovering in the door-way.
“Mia, darling, would you be so kind as to fetch a light luncheon for my young niece? She has had something of a trauma and needs something fortifying as well as delicious. Thank you so much.”
Really, Aunt Metella spoke to her slaves in a most embarrassing manner.
“Where’s Claudia?” I had suddenly noticed her absence. I supposed that she was still in bed. She probably left the party much later than Julia and me.
“Oh, yes. Claud-i-a. Claud-i-a.”
Aunt Metta repeated the name slowly and sensuously, rolling the words around in her mouth, as if to savour their complex taste.
“Where. Is Claudia? Where indeed? That, my dear, is the question on everyone’s lips.”
“Oh, get real, Aunt Metta!” Julia shouted, rudely. “It’s all too boringly obvious where Claudia is.”
At this point my sister yawned theatrically and cast her eyes to heaven.
“She’s obviously pulled. Unlikely though it is. Some devastatingly sexy, revoltingly rich, Persian oligarch has picked her up and immediately whisked her off to his palace on the shores of the Caspian Sea. On his white stallion.”
Boring facts like time and distance could never dampen Julia’s romantic urges.
“Where she is now? As we speak, she is lying on a bed of fragrant rose wood, covered with the furs of a hundred snow leopards. Her new husband has smothered her beautiful naked body with pomegranate seeds, which he picks off, one-by-one, with his small sharp teeth. He has drizzled wild honey all over her feet and toes, which he licks off. Lovingly. He has tied her arms with silken cords to the rose-wood bed….”
At that moment, thank Jupiter and all the heavenly host, Julia was forced to stop. For the heroine of this euro-trash pulp had suddenly appeared in propria persona. Looking, it must be said, decidedly unlike her name-sake in Julia’s impromptu romance. Was this really Claudia? She was transformed.
“Claudia?” I asked, tentatively.
“I admit that I was formerly known as Claudia. I am now Sophia.”
With this enigmatic introduction, Claudia/Sophia sat down dramatically in the centre of the room, allowing us full view of her frankly outlandish appearance. The first thing I noticed was that she was bare-foot. Her beautiful high-heeled sandals had clearly been discarded. A tattoo of complicated, floral design had been applied all over her feet and ankles. Her sumptuous (albeit unflattering) party dress had been replaced by a saffron robe of utilitarian design. She was devoid of make up and devoid of jewelry. Her hair, previously coiffed at great expense into a fashionable bee-hive, hung down freely and luxuriantly.
“Claudia! What on earth’s happened to you?”
Only Julia would dare to speak so bluntly. But, as Aunt Metella would have said, this really was the question on everyone’s lips. What on earth had happened to Claudia?
“I have seen the light. I have seen the light and been transformed. Reborn, remade. I am a new creation. And it all happened at Gremio’s party!” She laughed deliriously.
“What, Claudia? What? What happened at Gremio’s party?” I cried.
“If you really want to know and if you’re sure you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin. But I’ll begin at the beginning.”
We were all agog.
“I woke up at some unknown hour yesterday morning to find myself lying on a porphyry bench in an obscure corner of Gremio’s garden. The sun was so hot that I assumed it had woken me up. I couldn’t think why I was here nor why you two had seemingly abandoned me.”
At least I had the grace to look embarrassed at this point.
“All I knew was that I was hungry and thirsty and that the party was still in full swing. Following the noise, I extricated myself from the mazy garden and made my way woozily back inside. The first room was as dim as a cavern. After the glare of the sun, I was momentarily blinded, but after a few moments I was beginning to discern some writhing, coiling bodies. After the fresh wholesome air of the garden, the stench of hot, fevered flesh was almost unbearable. When a lumbering, indeterminate figure began looming towards me out of the gloom, I decided that it was time to make my escape.”
“Escape? Oh, Claudia! Why are always such a prude and a bore? You’ve got a problem, you know. This lumbering figure could have been your ticket to paradise!”
Hope springs eternal with Julia. Even Aunt Metella implied that Claudia might have missed an opportunity. An Experience. Only I understood my friend’s limitations.
“Look, do you want to hear this story or not?”
Claudia/Sophia was becoming irritated by this constant emphasis on the carnal. With cajoling and apologies, we persuaded her to continue.
“As I walked through what remained of the party, everything seemed freaky, zany, bizarre. A theatre of the absurd. A monkey dressed as a slave pouring out drinks, a bearded lady lifting weights, an hermaphrodite entwined with a dwarf, a lactating statue, a dancing cow. I wandered as if in a dream – or more like a nightmare – through the endless maze.
“One room, which a candle inscription proclaimed to be The Cave of the Nymphs, was reserved for overtly carnal delights. Julia was right – “
“I’m always right.”
“ – Gremio had paid the most beautiful men in the town to come to his party. In the weeks and months leading up to tonight, scouts must have been sent all over town to spot a likely butcher, a hunky fisherman, a lithe pearl-diver. These boys were paid to impersonate Hercules, Jupiter and Paris, with various local girls playing the female roles. Audience participation was, of course, the expected dénouement to each mime. I arrived on the scene, so to speak, just as the story of Andromeda was reaching its climax. A beautiful bare blonde was chained to a rock, waiting for Perseus to rescue her. So far, so mainstream. But the clever twist to this version of the story was the identity of Perseus himself. Or should I say ‘herself’? For Perseus was a great strapping woman. And no other than Aurelia Spexis from class 4G! Can you believe it? I always thought she was a bit butch, and the ensuing, enthusiastic, love-making with Andromeda proved that we were right all along.
“I then noticed a low, golden cage in which a beautiful, fair-haired African lay chained up. A lion’s pelt covered the upper part of her body, leaving the taut buttocks artistically exposed. A notice pinned to the cage read: ‘Do not feed. It bites when provoked.’ A long queue of men and women waited to be admitted to the cage. I suppose to be mauled by the lioness. A silly man in a tall hat and a whip attempted to keep order.
“But this was all too much. I never wanted to come to this stupid party in the first place. I guessed what it would be like. It was now three in the afternoon. You two had dumped me and I was in the middle of some freaky, seedy sex-show. I had no idea what would happen next and no idea how to get home.
“I tried to leave, but the crowds of people watching the main stage hemmed me in. It was apparently being prepared for the final show of the night, an elaborate re-enactment of the Rape of the Sabine Women. Well, Livy might be able to turn this sorry story into one of the glories of early Roman history, but I’m sure it must have been a pretty brutal and sordid business.”
“Shit, Claudia. Don’t you have any sense of adventure? What could be dreamier that being carried off in a fire-man’s lift by some swaggering brute?”
Claudia/Sophia looked at my sister with ill disguised contempt.
“I suppose your youth is your excuse. Let’s hope that time will improve you. In the meantime shut-up. Children are to be seen and not heard. I am about to reach the climax of my story.”
“And probably the only climax you’re ever going to have.”
Claudia/Sophia slowly and deliberately turned her back on the recalcitrant child, but otherwise continued as if nothing had been said.
“I am about the reach the climax of my story. The climax of my life. The supreme moment, the pinnacle, the epiphany of spiritual fulfillment.
“I was still drifting through this hideous, so-called party. There was no one I knew, no one I recognized. I was still in search of a drink and something to eat that actually looked like food. But it was in the corner of an obscure room, right at the back of the house, that I found the strangest act of all. The act that turned my world up-side-down. That transformed me and my entire life.
“A small man of wild, rather frightening, appearance sat in silence on the floor, crossed legged and straight backed. His clothes, his colour and his lisping speech were at once both sinister and mesmerizing. His long tunic was pure white, his turban a startling, peacock blue. At his side, an eager acolyte was explaining the ‘act’ and eagerly collecting gold pieces from a queue of bored party-goers.
“As soon as the money had been safely collected and even more safely stowed away, the tempo and the mood slowed right down. One by one, the candles were extinguished, strong, almost acrid incense filled the room and, from somewhere far away, a flute player wove a plaintiff, Eastern tune. In a low, melodic and beguiling voice, the acolyte began to weave the tale of his master’s extraordinary spiritual prowess.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are extremely privileged to be present here tonight. Blessed. Chosen. Few are chosen. Fate has picked you out as witnesses to the most supreme of holy mysteries. God himself has led you here. The man you see before you is no ordinary man. He comes to you tonight from a land far away. A land far beyond the rising sun. A land beyond the Nile, beyond the Tigris and the Euphrates, beyond even the Indus and the Ganges. Beyond any land known even to the Great Alexander himself. You might say that my master is a priest of Apollo. And so he is, but Apollo is known to him by a much older, more holy and more worthy name. Hundreds of years before he arrived in Greece, Apollo was the thrice greatest God of the Land at the Edge of the World.’
At this stage, the acolyte could detect some restive movement, even some whispered asides, in the supposedly spell-bound congregation. He changed tack somewhat and decided to describe some of the fantastic feats of the silent, motionless guru.
‘Ladies and gentlemen”, he began again in the same breathless whisper, “the man you see before you is no ordinary man. He is the most holy of all holy men. This is a man who can summon the dead back from hell, who can summon the gods themselves down from heaven, who can wrestle the whirlwind and calm the storm. The very waves of the sea and stars of the sky obey his voice. He can ride on the arrow of Apollo to the far frozen North and to the sun-scorched south. He has witnessed many wonders, many prodigies, many portents. He seen men with dogs’ heads, men the size of mice and men with their eyes in their chests. He can release his soul at will to traverse heaven and hell and to inhabit any animal of his choosing. The man you see before you has been an eagle, a dolphin, a bear, a lynx. He has neither eaten nor spoken for fifty years. His life is a life of prayer, of goodness and of universal brotherly love.
‘He stands before you tonight as a missionary, an evangelist, a mere pawn in the greatest game of all. The game of life and death. Of eternal life and eternal death. His glorious mission is the conversion of the world to peace and love. The salvation of the world.
‘Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you are being offered a unique opportunity. A once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to be Friends, Guardians and Patrons of this great enterprise. We implore you, we beg you, we entreat and pray that you will not let this moment pass. The time is now! Tomorrow will be too late! The tide is high! Launch your ship on the sea of eternal happiness! Who will join us?’
“The room erupted into animated conversation. I threw up my hand at once and was invited on to the stage. It was all rather embarrassing and I wasn’t sure what I was expected to do next, so I just smiled and gave a few awkward waves to no one in particular. I was soon joined by a fat man with bad breath. His friends were all clapping like mad, while he shook my hand and smiled a comradely smile. Next up was an extraordinary-looking man, as tall and thin as a witch’s broomstick. He spoke at great length about his sinful life and how he didn’t deserve salvation. Rather too many details if you ask me, but the philosophers seemed pleased enough when he vowed to stop molesting goats and to become a missionary instead.
“For the next hour, all sorts of people came up and pledged themselves to the cause. Quite a few looked a bit, well, Greek, but they seemed nice enough once you got to know them. How superior we felt, we happy few, we band of brothers! Many are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics! Many are called, but few are chosen! How we pitied those who turned their backs on salvation, who left the room and returned to the party. Like lost souls in the halls of hell, they are doomed to wander for ever and ever and never find their rest. Amen.”
“What are you on about, Claudia? They probably just wanted a drink and a shag. I hope you’re going to reach your climax soon. I’m getting the teensiest bit bored with all this God-bollocks.”
Claudia/Sophia looked as if she’d been shot. Her mouth fell open and she sat stock-still for a long moment. We were beginning to get a bit worried, when she suddenly stood up, walked across the room and embraced Julia.
“Don’t worry, Julia, I’ll help you. We’ll all help you. Darling Julia, you are so young and have had such a difficult childhood. But it is never too late to start again. Today can be the start of the rest of your life.”
This was pretty sickening stuff, made all the worse by the saccharine delivery. I’m afraid to say that my sister stuck up two fingers and flounced out of the room in search of a more sexed-up conversation in the kitchen. For one awful moment, I thought that Claudia/Sophia was about to cry, but she soon regained her equilibrium and the thread of her story as if nothing had happened.
“The little room was soon cleared of all rogues and infidels. About fifty people were left, a happy throng united by a common cause and a common purpose. Soon we were all sitting on the floor (The floor! What larks!), crossed-legged and straight-backed. It wasn’t easy at first, but Malchus was very patient.”
“Who is Malchus, my dear? Your story is becoming muddled.” The patience of even the saintly Aunt Metella was wearing thin.
‘Malchus is the acolyte, the disciple, the mouth and eyes of the guru. They travel everywhere together. They walked here together all the way from India. Walked! From India! Just think!”
“We’re thinking.” I said, woodenly, but maybe not about the same things as Claudia/Sophia.
“Anyway, as soon as we were all sitting down comfortably and quietly, Malchus gave us a brilliant lecture. It was called On the Folly of Possessions. He explained how we in the West had got it all wrong and must learn from the wise men of the East. How we were so hung up with owning things that we had forgotten how to live. He then told a funny story about Alexander the Great meeting some naked (naked!) philosophers, who told him: “Want nothing and everything is yours”. How cool is that? It’s a sort of motto for Malchus and the guru and the whole movement.”
She seemed really excited by all this and was talking with breathless speed. But I had a rather more mundane question that needed to be asked.
“My name is Sophia.”
“Ok, ok, Sophia. Where’s your tiara?”
“ I neither know nor care. The very fact that you ask such questions proves to me that you are at a very low level of spiritual development. You are still trapped in the prison of a bourgeois mentality. It is my duty, as your friend, to warn you. Re-incarnation is just around the corner. Don't you care that you might come back as a, as a -”
she seemed to be groping for something sufficiently nasty
The conversation was taking a very odd turn. I hadn’t the faintest what she was on about. I didn’t really care. And I must say that I didn’t really take to Sophia. She was snobby and patronizing. I much preferred the old Claudia. She was far less sanctimonious and far less superior about all this “God-bollocks.”
“Enough!” Aunt Metella really had had enough. Her voice was almost irritated. “We have all heard enough.”
You can say that again.
“For this afternoon’s entertainment, I propose a short ride in the country and a picnic by the river.”
Claudia/Sophia smiled her smuggest smile.
“I should, of course, love to join you all in your wholesome jaunt, but I have a prior engagement. Malchus has agreed, as a very special favour, to come to the house and continue my instruction in a less formal environment. I, you, this entire house, will be honoured by his presence.”
She sat back in the chair and waited for our reaction.
Was I a cynical old sceptic, or was there something fishy going on? Something far fishier than a simple stolen tiara. But I couldn’t bear to crush her excitement. God knows, Claudia has little excitement in her life. So I smiled brightly and said,
“Cool. Well done. See you later.”
It sounded woefully inadequate even to me.
We set off in the full blaze of a perfect summer’s day. We let down the roof of the carriage and wandered aimlessly through the lush Campanian countryside. The corn was high and the trees hung heavy with ripening fruit. The hives were busy with bees and dripping with honey. On the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, the terraces were thick with vines. Every other space was thickly strewn with ancient olives. The deep blue sky was full of swallows and skylarks. We ambled along with neither purpose nor destination, letting the plodding dray decide our course.
Finally, about midday, we stopped at a slow-flowing, silent river, deep and clear. It was very hot and very quiet. Julia and Aunt Metella stretched themselves languidly on the lush grass. Silvery willows, beech and alder spread a deep, wide shade. Somewhere far away a shepherd piped. The pastoral idyll. The Georgics brought to life.
They slept on, while I dipped my feet in the cool water. At once, a shoal of tiny fish swarmed around and nibbled at the rough skin. I waded deeper and deeper until I was waist deep in the silky current. Fronds of bright green weed tugged gently at my bare legs. This was surely a holy place, a place full of gods, of nyads and dryads and the hoary old river god himself. Surely each blade of grass and each quivering leaf had its own guardian spirit. All along, as far as the eye could see, the river was lined with poplars. Poplars, Phaeton’s grieving sisters transformed into trees, weeping for him still. Suddenly, the spell was broken. The idyll ruined. The very name ‘Phaeton’ sounded like a death knell in my ears. Phaeton the mythical charioteer. Phaeton the patron saint of charioteers. And one charioteer in particular. The word association came thick and fast, like a desperate, infernal litany.
I was soon obsessing again and panicked. I glanced at Julia, lolling back on the grassy bank, chewing a blade of grass. Oh, how I envied her nonchalance. Was she impervious to lasting hurt?
With a supreme effort of will, I put my Mother and her lover out of my mind and returned to the bank. The late afternoon was fading into a luxurious indolence. A heavy, almost oppressive silence seemed to envelop the little party. The wind had stopped blowing and no birds sang. The shepherd had put away his pipe and even the sheep bells were stilled.
Julia propped herself up on an elbow and said,
“Tell us a story, Aunt Metta.”
“What sort of story?”
“A story of your wild and misspent youth”.
My Aunt was a marvellous, captivating story-teller. Her tales of love and loss, of high fashion and high jinks were legendary. She closed her eyes for a long time and finally said:
“All right. I’ll tell you a story of my misspent youth. But be careful what you wish for. You may not like this story. You, Phoebe, must pay particular attention.
“Once upon a time there was a family of five children. Rufus was the oldest, followed by Gaius and Metella. The youngest in the family were twins, Marina and Titus.”
“No!” I shouted and jumped up, almost raising my fists.
“Yes, Phoebe. You are finally going to listen to the facts. You have run away from the truth for far too long. You are too old for such games now. Sit back down and be quiet. Act your age for once. And you shall hear what your poor Mother experienced. I’ll repeat those words – what your poor Mother experienced.
“Until I was five, life was normal, happy and carefree. The joyful figure of our Mother dominated our existence and gilds my memories of this Golden Age, this Eden, from which we would be so cruelly expelled.
“No, Julia, I’m afraid that this particular story doesn’t have a happy ending.
“But for now, happiness reigned supreme. Our mother was our champion, our captain, the master of the revels, the endlessly inventive playmate, our best friend. Our days passed in a shining blur of fun, games and unconditional love. We did what normal children did, but it was somehow bigger, better and more fun. Everyone was jealous of us and our Mother. We went to town to watch the changing of the guard and ended up trying on their helmets and sitting on their horses. We went to play in the great parks by the Tiber and ended up having tea with Julius Caesar and a private tour of the Capitol.
“We went on day trips to the sea-side, where we played in the sand like normal, happy children.
“Yes, even to B, at the tender age of three, with a very strict nanny. Unfortunately.”
One of the strangest things about B today was the total absence of anyone under the age of 15. The socialites of the Bay took every precaution not to be encumbered by any unwanted off-spring. The rules were apparently not as strict in those far-off, halcyon days.
“We had summer holidays in a grand villa on Lake Como. One year, your favourite poet sailed over from a neighbouring villa for dinner.”
“Catullus!” I cried in amazement. “You’ve actually met Catullus! Why’ve you never told us this before?”
“I don’t remember much about the visit, except his endless supply of ridiculous limericks. And the way he flirted outrageously with our Mother.”
My aunt laughed nostalgically.
“We visited our grandparents and were taken by them to the pantomime and the circus. We had presents on the Saturnalia and special cakes on Gaius’ and Rufus’ birthdays. We learned to read and to write and to sing. We were all strong, healthy, intelligent and happy. Happy as the day is long.”
At this point, the story-teller paused for a long time and watched the swallows skimming over the water.
“What happened next, Aunt Metta?” said Julia.
“Our Father, as you might have noticed, played a very small role in all this. He was an intensely shy man, seemingly unable to relate even to his wife and children. With his own parents, he could just about manage a stilted, awkward conversation about the weather. He lived the life of the mind and spent his life reading and writing. So when our Mother died – “
“No!” We had always known that our grandmother had died giving birth to the twins, but the shock of hearing these bare, black words hit us like a freight train. But Aunt Metta continued as if no one had spoken.
“So when our Mother died, he had had little experience of childcare. And I’m afraid that it showed. Within a week of our mother’s death, we had been catapulted into a living hell. Our family was rich, exceedingly rich, old money from land and estates at home and abroad. We had class, taste, education and connections to the highest echelons of Roman society. We ought to have been living the charmed life of la jeunesse d”orée. Instead we lived as peasants, as slaves.
“Imprisoned on a farm on the far side of the Tiber, we had no contact with the outside world, and no understanding of the lives of other children. To us, the desperate cold, the hours of hard labour, the malnutrition, the utter, utter lack of joy or laughter became normal.
“Our father was a Stoic, a follower of Zeno and Chrysippus. A more cruel and inhuman philosophy has yet to be devised. Its sole purpose is to stamp out and destroy everything that makes life worth living, everything that makes us human. Free will, emotion, relationships. For my father, it provided the perfect excuse. The bullying, abuse and neglect could always be explained in terms of the doctrines of the Stoa. Pain and suffering were nothing at all. The only evil was our reaction to them.
“None of us ever left the estate. My father spent all day reading and writing about Stoicism. At meal times, he would instruct us in the finer points of this hateful creed. I particularly remember the day when he informed us that Jupiter rules the world with a meticulous and entirely benevolent providence. That we were living in the best of all possible worlds. That every single event in the entire cosmos had been planned and arranged by God for all eternity. It was therefore our solemn duty and our joy to be grateful for everything. The death of a spouse most certainly included.
“Your mother and I were forced to work at the loom from dawn to dusk. We, whose family was the oldest and richest in Rome. Our hands were worn and calloused and our backs began to curve. Naturally, the years of practice made us competent and even skilful. Although we were never allowed to embellish or to beautify, we produced acres of finely spun wool. All, of course, for no purpose and to no end, other than to keep us occupied in the traditional fashion.
“Naturally, our brothers were taught at home. Going to school was out of the question. The schools in Rome were hotbeds of revolution, of luxury and, worse of all, of Hellenism. Our father did not seem to see any contradiction between his hatred of the effeminate Greeks and his worship of Stoicism. His twisted and hypocritical mind could accommodate any number of contradictions.
“While we slaved over the loom, the boys toiled in the fields of the family farm. Inspired by the exemplum of Cincinnatus, our father elevated manual labour, particularly agricultural labour, to the greatest patriotic occupation. The family coffers could have bought up every market in Rome, but we were fed on the measly vegetables grown by our decidedly unskilled brothers in the stony, unproductive fields. While their contemporaries were perfecting the rhetorical arts and pretending to learn philosophy in the Athenian Academy, our brothers slaved like peasants. .
“Like peasants most of the time, but occasionally like boy soldiers. Our father laid equal emphasis on the martial arts in the education of Men. Mock battles were staged, bloody tournaments that always ended badly. We watched in horror as Rufus, Gaius and Titus grappled with swords and spears twice their own size. We listened in horror as our father urged them to hurt each other. What madness was this?
“Naturally, the boys were also expected to learn the classic texts of Stoicism, which they would then declaim in front of the rest of us. Our father was ready with his cane to correct any slip or mistake. Of course there were many. It was impossible to satisfy our father.
“Over the years, willy-nilly, I became intimately acquainted with the whole of Stoicism, its physics, logic and ethics (a laughable misnomer). But one theory in particular haunted my dreams and blighted my childhood. The so-called theory of eternal return. The Stoics believed that every thousand years or so the universe was destroyed in a great cosmic conflagration. But this wasn’t the end. It was only the conclusion of a cycle. Soon, the new cycle would start. Only it wasn’t new at all. It was exactly the same as the previous cycle. Every that happens has happened before. And will happen again and again and again. For ever.
“With the benefit of hindsight, maturity and experience, it’s easy to dismiss this preposterous theory and to dance on the grave of whoever first proposed it. But in the early days of my youth and childhood, I was gripped by a dread that chilled me to my very core. I would lie awake at night, on my hard wooden bed, wracked by this terrible idea. Not only was my suffering fated and unavoidable, it was doomed to be repeated for eternity. There was no escape even in death.
We all suffered terribly at the hands of our brutal, insane Father, but for some reason Titus was singled out for particular cruelty. We never knew what so incensed our father and a made him hate Titus with such vehemence. Was it his beauty, was it his academic brilliance, was it his sweet nature or his startling resemblance to his dead Mother? Whatever the reason, it was Titus, the baby of the family, the child who most needed our nurture and our protection, who bore the brunt of our father’s vicious attacks.
On one hideous occasion, our father had beaten Titus so badly that he actually broke his arm. We were all obliged to watch this grotesque spectacle. When the poor, doomed boy dared to let slip the ghost of a whimper, that monster, our father, hauled him to his feet by his broken arm and shouted inches from his face: “What’s the matter, boy? I’m hurting your arm, not you!”
This was a typical remark, a typical ploy of the tyrant to cloak his cruelties in the maxims of Stoicism.
“We were all beaten regularly, even your Mother and I. But to my mind the emotional neglect was worse by far than any amount of physical abuse. And far more damaging. Emotion of any sort, positive or negative, was anathema to the benighted followers of Zeno. Happiness, sadness, fear, excitement, worry. We grew up in the shadow of this monstrous idea. Any hint of emotion was punished severissime.
“I was only 5 when our mother died, but I still remember how strictly our Father forbad any and every sign of grief. His children were not only forbidden to cry, but even to mention our Mother at all. You might have thought that we would turn for succour to some kindly, maternal slave, but the whole household was under the same iron interdict. The grieving husband himself spent a year writing a book about his experiences. On Consolation was a compilation of Stoic bons mots intended to illustrate the destructive folly of all emotion, especially grief. I gather that it is very popular amongst that inhuman fraternity.
“Our father reserved his particular contempt for love, in all its guises. Love was a sign of weakness, of immaturity and dependence. The Stoic should pride himself on a lordly self-sufficiency. He needed no one but himself. In our father’s case, this was of course untrue. He needed the five of us to vent his aggression and cruelty. But love was utterly alien to his nature. You might have expected his children to have inherited this defective gene, but by some quirk of nature we were all our Mother’s children. We loved each other with a love as intense as it was doomed. With a love fuelled and buttressed by the misfortunes of our daily lives. But although we all loved each other with a fierce loyalty, a magical, almost mystical bond was forged between your mother and Titus.
“With an enviable closeness enjoyed only by twins, our youngest siblings escaped into a secret, private world. They communicated by signs and by touch and by the merest movement of their eyes. They supported, cosseted and shielded each other from the onslaughts of our tyrannical father. Separated during the hours of daylight, they contrived to spend every other second in each others’ company. They even slept in the same bed. I shudder to think what horror would have ensued if our father ever discovered this.
“While it might have been possible to feel jealous and excluded, we didn’t. It never occurred to us to feel anything but love for these children of the storm. When I was seventeen and the twins were twelve, our father began to notice, and to resent, this relationship. They must be separated. At once. He decided, in typical fashion, to marry his youngest daughter to the most unsuitable man he could find. Your Father. From one cruel tyrant to another.”
“That’s not true! What do you know about our Father? You hardly ever even speak to him!” cried Julia in fury.
“In the early days of your mother’s marriage, Julia, I was a frequent visitor to your parent’s house. At that stage, your Mother and I were still incredibly close. She told me everything. Or nearly everything. There was only person who knew everything. And that was your Uncle Titus. But I knew a very great deal. I knew all about the petty cruelties and infidelities. I knew all about the neglect and the contempt. I knew all about the control and the manipulation. And the terrible violent rages. The rape. These were terrifying, wilderness years for your Mother. She sank into an endless, numbing depression. The only person who could ever make her smile was her youngest brother, her twin, her soul-mate. Her Castor.
“Then one morning in early Spring….”
Aunt Metella could say no more. Nor did she need to. We both knew how this particular story ended. The catastrophe that reverberated down the decades and destroyed the lives of five innocent children, the child-bride most certainly included. How Titus had finally killed his father with one of his own swords, ripping open his stomach and wrenching out the stinking, steaming tripe. How he had immediately admitted his guilt and how he had rotted three years in a rat-infested jail, denied all visitors, awaiting sentence. How, finally sentenced to crucifixion, he had hung for three agonizing days in the torturing sun. A common criminal, exposed – naked – to the mocking taunts (and blows) of the vulgar multitude. How he had screamed for water as the vultures ripped out his eyes and the feral dogs snapped at his bloodied feet.
I also knew how this sordid tragedy, this new – and deliberate – Oedipal murder, had destroyed the entire family and ripped it apart forever. How the siblings who were once so close could hardly even speak to each other. How Uncle Rufus had converted to Judaism and severed all ties with his gentile siblings. He had apparently settled in Alexandria, but no-one knew for sure. How Uncle Gaius had joined the army and been killed on the shores of the distant Danube. How Aunt Metella had become, in her own euphemistic expression, a fireball of emotion. How our Mother had become a monster.
To see my Aunt cry was a crime against nature, a sin against the Holy Ghost. It was to hear that the sun had exploded, that Jupiter had abdicated, that Gremio had lost his money. That Julia had grown up. But she had. It was incredible, but true. She wasn’t fidgeting and dancing about. She wasn’t shouting about sex. She wasn’t the centre of attention. The centre of all our attention and all our love was our aunt. In typical fashion, she had made our mother the heroine of this sorry tale, but we knew that she had suffered equally and would continue to suffer throughout her life.
In sombre mood and in silence we packed up the remains of our lunch. Already the ants and the flies had ruined and ravaged the delicate collation. We clambered back into the wagon as the first spots of rain fell. Over Vesuvius, the back clouds hung.
As soon as we arrived at the Villa Metella, it was obvious that something was very wrong. No slaves rushed out with joyful greetings, no doors swung open in happy expectation. Even the garden gates were locked and bolted. In heavy rain, the driver got out and pushed back the rusty bolts. The garden itself was a mess of broken pots, torn up flowers and headless statuary. What on earth had happened here? We had been away for less than three hours and were looking on a scene of utter devastation.
We drove up the path, dumb with shock. We then realized that the front door was securely locked from the inside. Once again, the driver got out. Using all his strength he burst open the strong oak doors and revealed the terrible scene.
The house was totally empty. The floors were scrubbed boards. The rugs were gone and the mosaics were deliberately smashed. The whitewashed walls were devoid of all decoration. Gone were the paintings, gone were the lamps, gone were the elaborate Persian hangings. The house was as empty as the day it was built. Except for one thing. In the middle of the scuffed floor-boards, tied together in a messy bundle and securely gagged, were Claudia and the household slaves. Their eyes bulged with mute emotion as they implored us to set them free.
The story was simple and should have been foreseen. At the appointed hour, Malchus and the guru arrived. The star looked just the same, a wiry little man in a loin cloth. Claudia, in her new guise as Sophia, dispensed with the usual welcome. She offered neither food nor drink, but simply sat, crossed-legged and silent, before the feet of the guru. For more than an hour. A fly buzzed angrily around the room, but other than that the silence was absolute.
“So it was a terrific surprise when the bandits suddenly burst in on the peaceful scene. I was just beginning to get the hang of this meditation malarkey. I had finally managed to stop thinking about what we might be having for dinner and was happily drifting off to the other realm. Then out of nowhere – unless out of hell itself – the bandits bore down on us, shouting at the tops of their voices and brandishing all manner of clubs and cudgels. My first thought, of course, was to protect the poor guru. All gurus have taken a solemn vow of non-violence. Did you know that? I didn’t until my Enlightenment last night. The poor man would be beaten to a pulp and die in the extremes of agony before he would lift a finger against another living thing. This applies as much to plants and insects as to bandits.”
“A geranium is hardly likely to beat him to a pulp.” Julia had gone from crazily romantic to boringly prosaic in the course of a day.
Claudia gabbled on insanely, apparently refusing to accept what was starring her in the face. Malchus and the guru were the leaders of an international criminal gang of furniture thieves, preying on the spiritual yearnings of the rich and thick.
“Give me to drink mandragora”.
My Aunt was suddenly Cleopatra. She had a persona for every occasion.
“I have had enough of today.”
She made a makeshift bed of various stoles and veils and fell asleep on the hard floor. After about half an hour, there was a disturbance.
“Excuse me, but there’s a visitor. He says it’s urgent.”
The Egyptian maid, Shilto, was bending over my drowsy Aunt and whispering rapidly.
“Please show him in.” My aunt spoke huskily.
A small man came briskly in. He seemed vaguely familiar. Where on earth had I seen him before? He was very pally with Aunt Metella. He rushed straight up and held her in a tight embrace, while she wept uncontrollably on his shoulder.
“Metella, my dear. My dear, dear Metella.” He stroked her back and smoothed her hair. He rocked her back and forth like a child. He spoke on and on, soothingly, mellifluously.
Gremio? But a new and entirely different Gremio. A kind, decent and caring man. Could this possibly be the same boring, over-dressed git who threw the party on Thursday night? I then remembered the terrible scene in the garden, the shouting and the cruel, cruel words. I felt a huge surge of sympathy for this strange, tortured man.
When Gremio had finally succeeded in calming my Aunt and had released her, I looked at them both with astonishment. They were obviously old, old friends, totally at ease with each other.
“My dears, I fear that you have been misled. By me. And, to a lesser extent, by Gremio.”
“Your aunt is a saint, an angel, a goddess. Or, to be more prosaic, the only human being in the whole of this stinking, rotten town. In this ridiculous theatre of pretence and make-believe, she is the only real person. And she has more love to give than Cupid himself. But I am sure you know all this already.”
Aunt Metta tried to cover her embarrassment by suggesting that we repair to Flavio’s, for the best vongole on the Bay of Naples.
Flavio’s was a topsy-turvy establishment that could exist only in a plutocracy. And B of course is the plutocracy par excellence. Flavio’s made its money by turning people away. The waiting list for a table was rumoured to be twelve weeks. Naturally, Flavio was canny enough to keep two tables permanently free for passing dignitaries. For the deposed King of Parthia. For Ajax. For Domina Metella and her house party. I hadn’t realized that my Aunt was quite such an a-lister. There are few pleasures quite like jumping the queue. Like entry to the Consuls’ Enclosure at Circus Maximus, table two at Flavio’s had very strict protocol. I sashayed past the other diners in the full blaze of reflected glory (or what I naively interpreted as reflected glory).
We were all seated at the best table, not too near the band, sipping a Falernian 72 (luckily the bandits were unable to empty my Aunt’s bullion vault in Puteoli), when I became aware of the shocked looks and muttered asides. Gremio at Flavio’s? Gremio in the company of Domina Metella Horatia Dorco? Gremio dining with the Senator’s children? Gremio being served by Flavio himself?
One stick-thin woman, with the tallest hair and longest nails that I have ever seen, said in a bitchy stage-whisper:
“It’s a midlife crisis. Her hormones are all over the place. It’s pathetic really.”
She then narrowed her eyes and bored them into Gremio, her mascara flashing menacingly.
“Unless, of course, he’s a great shag.” She and her companion proceeded to discuss this possibility, from every possible angle.
At the next table sat a fat, pompous man, ex-public school, ex-navy, ex-colonial service, very nearly ex-life, with his simpering, dowdy wife. I vaguely recognized the man as a crony of Terpio, ie a poisonous denizen of the higher echelons of the Family Values Party. His remarks certainly smacked of the campaign trail.
“It’s all the fault of that shower Macronius and his bloody speech on the classless society. It might help him to curry favour with the plebs, but where will it all end? Bring back national service. It’s the only solution.”
As I came back from the toilet I over-heard the following explanation of the whole sorry situation:
“Syrian, isn’t he? Says it all, doesn’t it? All these dirty Arabs are the same. Bloody good at making money, but no bloody good at keeping their circumcised pricks in their trousers. Lock up your daughters or they’ll be joining Metella in the Harem.”
This revolting grease ball actually dared to come over to our table. Introducing himself as Spurius Antonius Crassus, chivalrous saviour of damsels in distress, he begged us to join his party. To save any further embarrassment. Aunt Metta was marvellous. Giving him her most dazzling smile, she said.
“Darling Spurius. Thank you so much, but my friend and I really must continue our discussion of the compulsory castration of patricians.”
This was a reference to a controversial new proposal from the FVP to sterilize anyone deemed “unfit”, ie Syrians and intellectuals (ie my aunt and her friend). As Crassus slunk away back to his cringing wife, he must have heard my aunt saying,
“It’s imperative to preserve the purity of the stock. I’m afraid that the average patrician is simply too stupid to be allowed to reproduce.”
Somehow we got through this ordeal. We pretended not to hear the ever-louder asides and not to notice Gremio’s ever-redder face. Unbelievably, Claudia was still rabbitting on about her great Awakening. Something was seriously wrong here, but that was a problem for another day. Since most of what she said was bananas, it provided a welcome diversion and light relief. For instance.
“One day, the guru was strolling through the forum at Antioch, when he suddenly fell down a huge hole. Naturally, everyone thought he was dead and there was a terrific lot of mourning. Then, guess what? In seven days’ time, he was found alive and well and living in Cumae! Cumae! Cumae is just down the road from here. I’m planning on paying a visit absolutely asap.”
“Well, if the guru pops up there again, perhaps you can ask him what he’s done with Aunt Metta’s furniture.”
“Julia, your soul is a desert without an oasis.”
Claudia’s manic conversation was certainly a lot more diverting than the food. When the long awaited, much vaunted vongele finally arrived, I looked at it in stunned disbelief. In the middle of an enormous plate was a tiny pile of clams, arranged in a sort of pyramid. A ghastly looking red stuff had been poured over it. As Flavio helpfully explained, this was the chef’s newest creation, specially developed for our party, Vongole Vesuvio.
Gremio sighed. “The more you pay, the less you get. The more artistically it is arranged, the more boring it tastes.”
Dispiritedly, we picked up our forks and finished the meal in two mouthfuls. For this was indeed the whole meal. There was no talk of pudding for the stick-thin food-faddists that made up Flavio’s female clientele. While salad took on an almost holy significance, gluten and honey were the work of the devil.
The final shock for our fellow diners was when Aunt Metta settled the enormous bill. The habitués of B may like to present themselves as daring mavericks, as an exciting demi-monde kicking against the traces of bourgeois conventionality. But in reality they are very easily scandalized. And a woman paying for a meal was far more shocking than a slave thrown to the lampreys.
We filed out of the restaurant through a phalanx of horrified suburban respectability. The coup de gras was Julia’s pyrotechnic vomiting on the designer toga of Spurius Antonius Crassus. My aunt was of course mortified that she had ever suggested a meal at Flavio’s.
“That whole hideous evening was entirely my fault. What on earth was I thinking? My dears, you must forgive me. My mind is shot to pieces. I am simply not thinking. What a ghastly, ghastly evening for one and all. And we’re all ravenous still.”
“ Now that is a problem that it is easily solved. A cold collation at the Villa Gremio. Where, incidentally, you are all invited to stay during the current- ahem - upheavals at the Villa Metella.”
“But, darling. That is the sweetest offer, but we can’t just camp out uninvited in your wife’s dining room.”
His kind old face suddenly collapsed.
“Didn’t I say? Aurelia left this morning. The girls have decided to go with her. To her father’s place, I gather. On Capri. Not too far. The removal men have already erased all trace of their presence.”
To the vomiting throng of desperate party-goers, chez Gremio was simply the venue du jour, the necessary backdrop to gastronomic and sexual excess. They could just as easily have been in a cow-shed. No one paid any attention to the architecture or the décor. Although, actually, I do have a vague memory of a posturing aesthete wittering on about the golden ratio. No one noticed him until he missed his footing (while inspecting a particularly interesting cornice) and fell into the tepidarium. There was immediate uproar as he ruined the eagerly-awaited sea-lion synchronized swimming.
But that night neither Claudia, Julia nor I noticed the perfect beauty of the Villa Gremio. It was as if we were seeing it for the first time. It was, properly speaking, a palazzo. But a palace of very traditional design. Its beauty lay in its perfect proportions. The architects had clearly worked hard to measure and to build according to the exacting geometrical rules of the Parthenon. The result was a feeling of great peace and calm. As if you were stepping into a temple.
The grandeur and delight of the building was almost entirely due to its architecture. The meticulously aligned porticoes, the perfectly spaced colonnades, the exactly square rooms. There was very little decoration, very little flourish or flounce. There were no statues and no mosaics. In many ways, this was a severe building, hardly the perfect choice for a party-venue. But I felt at once at home, sheltered and protected by its strong marble walls and by its simple, timeless design.
I suppose that I had expected the lingering smell of the morning-after, the smell of sweat, stale perfume and sex. But, incredibly, there was no such seedy hangover. The house was filled with sweet smelling sea-breezes, with the wholesome scents of jasmine and thyme. Everything was swept clean, scrubbed and polished. All at once, the house struck me as innocent, pure and, somehow, good. Like its owner?
Although I was ravenous, I had certain trepidations about accepting Gremio’s hospitality. On the night of the party, the food was quite literally disgusting. Everything was smothered in such outlandish sauces that it was impossible to taste or even identify the original food. Everything was geared for shock, certainly not for taste. I ate nothing at all and still have nightmares of groaning platters loaded with the chef’s artistic creations.
Tonight, however, Gremio served a simple ragout of beans and lentils. The wine was local, new and properly diluted. There was no question of the women reclining. Gremio, the real Gremio, espoused an old-fashion, old-world decorum. The latest fads of the fast set meant nothing to him. We sat decorously on wicker chairs and ate in silence.
With an exaggerated yawn and a stage wink at the ravishing butler, who was obviously an old friend, Aunt Metta announced that she was withdrawing. Claudia declared that she needed solitude to meditate on the folly of the West, presumably meaning us. Julia started writing a series of inane postcards to her equally inane friends, which she insisted on reading out to us. Her favourite penfriend was little Tullia Cicero, the outrageous daughter of the great orator. The girls had been at shool together and shared a prurient interest in all matters sexual and lavatorial. Gremio and I did not wait to listen to more than the first sentence (‘As I said in my last letter, the donkey really seemed to be enjoying all the attention. And so were we!’), but retreated to the sanctuary of the garden.
And so, over a shared plate of dates and honey cake and under the protection of the kindly, conspiratorial stars, I heard the sad story of Gremio’s life.
“You have been in B long enough to realize that nothing is as it seems, appearances are deceptive, as distorting as the mirrors at the end of the pier. Black and white, night and day, fact and fiction, good and bad, everything is muddled and confused. I repeat: nothing is as it seems.”
“A silent, bi-locating guru is really an international furniture thief. A plump and succulent turbot, covered in cucumber, is really a fifteen year-old girl.”
Gremio was silent for a long moment and I regretted my flippancy.
“How did I appear to you when you first saw me? Please be honest. It’s important.”
I hated to hurt him, but took the plunge.
“You seemed pompous, arrogant, common, ugly, tasteless and boring. And rich, of course. Stinking rich. Much later, when I accidentally over-heard an argument in the garden, I felt very confused. But I’m afraid that by then I had a much bigger problem on my hands.”
“And now, tonight?”
“You seem one of the kindest, sweetest men in the world. People mock you for not being a gentleman, but you seem to me one of the gentlest people that I have ever met.”
“Thank you, my dear. I fear that you are over-generous. But I hope that you can now see the mask and the pretence. The Gremio you saw that night was a creation. Largely the creation of my wife. For some reason it has always been her aim for people to despise me.
“We both married late in life. Ours was a clichéd marriage de convenience. We were both to help each other out of a tight corner. She would teach me how to speak and how to hold a knife and fork. I would save her from what she and her family saw as the ignominy of spinsterhood. Aurelia was never, alas, the belle of the ball and as she approached thirty, she found it harder and harder to attract men. This sorry situation was confounded by a sudden and abject poverty. Her father, the consul-elect for that year, had lost all his money in an ill-advised property investment in the South of Spain. A dowry was out of the question. Marriage to a super-rich freedman seemed the perfect solution.
“It could have worked. It has worked for thousands of other couples throughout the Empire. I was willing to put in the necessary effort to make it work. But two additional factors guaranteed the foundering of this particular ship. Aurelia’s bitter and twisted resentment of her forced, arranged marriage. And my homosexuality.”
“The love that dare not speak its name. For the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Nabateans, as much as for the Syrians, my own people, love between men is rightly celebrated. The Romans, for some reason known only to them, have virtually criminalised this particular expression of affection. They associate it with effeminacy and, worse of all, with Hellenism. You have seen for yourself the disastrous affects of such censure. Men such as Terpio are forced into monstrous and perverted liaisons. Natural, genuine affection is twisted into a vile charade.
“It had long been my hope and dream to provide a refuge where love between men could properly flourish, decently and naturally. To be a young gay Roman, particularly of the Senatorial class, is an almost intolerable burden. I wanted to make the Villa Gremio a safe haven for such poor boys. An environment where they could be free to express themselves, without fear of censure. Chez Gremio would become an institution, a beacon of hope, a lighthouse. You can imagine my wife’s reaction when I dared to suggest the project.”
“Outraged incredulity? Disgust? Horror? Righteous anger?”
“I’m afraid so. Aurelia has been totally brainwashed and can only say and think what her father has previously said and thought. As you probably know, Senator Salvatore is the deputy leader of the Family Values Party. And unlike poor Terpio…”
I was horrified.
“Poor Terpio? He is the scum of the earth. He’s the accumulated shit of the cloacus maximus.”
“Phoebe, Phoebe. You are young and I am old. To understand all is to forgive all. Terpio is confused and sick to the very bottom of his soul. He deserves, and needs, our pity. And not our censure.”
I was about to give a suitable retort to this nicey-nicey nonsense, but Gremio raised a silencing hand and raised his voice perceptibly. I got the message and shut up.
“Unlike poor Terpio, my father-in-law really believes all the poison that he peddles. He really believes that homosexuality is a threat to very fabric of society, a battering-ram against the proud edifice of Family Life and Family Values. An affront against Juppiter Capitolinus himself, an assault on all that makes Rome great.”
“Bravo! A rousing speech, my learned friend.”
“Aurelia has been drip fed this rubbish since she was a baby. It is quite simply impossible for her to think otherwise. The refuge project was definitively scuppered. And it was then that the parties began. I can only suppose as revenge.”
“But I don’t understand. Why did you go along with it all? Why did you abandon the refuge?”
“My wife is an incredibly powerful as well as an incredibly vindictive woman. She has friends in the very highest places. Within days, she could have ruined me. My life would have ended in a forgotten prison on the Pomptine Marshes. This would mean little to me, but I owed it to someone else, someone far dearer to me than life itself, to stay alive and to try to stay rich.”
“That is another story, my dear. Maybe I’ll tell you one day. Maybe even tonight if there’s time.”
He looked up at the night sky. The moon had already set and the stars were moving rapidly to the western horizon.
He continued in a monotone.
“Every week for twenty years I have endured her revolting parties. They are carefully created compilations of everything that I most despise. The food, the drink, the music, the shows, the ubiquitous public fornication. The gratuitous waste. Do you know that more wine is spilt on the floor on one night than most millionaires have in their entire cellars? And most of the food is so horrible that no one will eat it. Every morning-after, whole tables of food are swept into the bin.
“Nothing is private and nothing is sacred. Everything about these parties (a ridiculous misnomer) disgusts and appalls me. Which is of course her deliberate intention. But most of all it is the guests, the men and women who invade my house every Thursday, who fill me with the most disgust. With one very notable exception.”
“Your aunt. She manages to approach the festivities with just the right amount of post-Ciceronian irony.” He laughed for the first time that night.
“She doesn’t take herself too seriously. After the Clodia case, life in B has become something of a self-parody. Everyone can imagine themselves as characters from Cicero’s speeches. The wise and the witty – exemplified by your marvellous aunt – enjoy the charade. But most people simply wallow in the squalor.”
“Pigs at the trough, sows in the mud.”
“I’m afraid so. I am well aware how much my wife’s aristocratic friends despise me. They despise the way I speak, the way I dress and the way I earned my money. They despise my money tout court. But the reverse is also true and my contempt for them knows no bounds. I feel periodic twinges of guilt about this. I try to force myself to love my fellow-man, however he chooses to enjoy himself. But at these parties, enjoyment so often involves deliberate cruelty and abasement, to oneself and others.”
“What fortunes you must spend on something you hate.”
“My dear girl, I could throw a thousand parties every night of the week and not even notice the cost. You have no idea of the extent of my fortune.
“But how crass that sounds. What Aurelia would call a typically tasteless remark of the self-made man. But I need you to understand the facts. The time of pretence and subterfuge is over. With you, my dear, I somehow feel the need for complete honesty and the security to express it.”
I was humbled by this. Gremio and I had met only two days ago, yet here he was speaking to me like an honoured, cherished friend.
“I should, of course, be using my wealth to build hospitals, to eradicate child poverty, to foster inter-religious understanding, but I am afraid that I have used it all, my entire fortune, on an entirely selfish venture.”
“Finding my sister.”
Gremio broke the suspense by calling for more wine and for a brazier to be lit.
“It was twenty years ago this very night that my master (God rest his soul) died. As you know, his will contained the clause that I was to be immediately manumitted. He added a codicil that I was to be paid a substantial pension for the first three years of my freedom. This was unusually far-sighted and kind. While many men free their slaves in their wills – what, after all, is the use of a slave to a dead man? – few concern themselves with what happens next. Life for a newly-freed slave can be terrifying. Suddenly homeless, jobless and penniless. At least slaves are guaranteed a roof over their heads, decent meals and regular health checks. A hungry or sick slave cannot work. And so I blessed my master twice-over for his generosity.
“My sister was not so lucky. There was no clause concerning her freedom. She was simply another chattel, to be sold with the rest of the estate. From the start, I suspected foul play, a falsification of the will by my late master’s main beneficiary, a wily young lawyer on the make. But what could I do? What could I possibly say that would make any difference? Who would believe me? A newly minted freedman is as impotent as a slave.
“The estate was quickly wound up and everything was sold. The young lawyer was now rich enough to sell his practice and retire to a farm in the hills behind Rome. My late master’s once-beautiful, thriving villa was now an empty shell, left to crumble. The slaves were all sold. But not at any public auction. Shady, secret deals with nameless, faceless, middle-men were the order of the day. There was no record whatsoever of my sister’s new master or her new home.
“For three years, I scoured the city, seeking news of her. In those days, my sister was stunning Syrian beauty of fifteen. Once seen, she was never forgotten. Her piles of glossy raven hair were easy to describe, but I could find no trace of her. Every day of every week for three long years I would pound the streets and knock on every door. I would pester the slave-dealers until they threatened to have me arrested. With a terrible sinking heart and the utmost revulsion I even interrogated the madams of the city’s many brothels.
“Soon, of course, I had used up all my allowance and was obliged to find work. The banks at Puteoli seemed the most prudent option. It was, after all, an industry dominated by freedmen. Moreover, as a slave, I had worked in the counting room and had acquired a thorough understanding of the various shenanigans of the financial world. I vowed to work every hour that God sent and to use every penny of my earnings in the furtherance of my search.
“The gods blessed me. I was Midas reborn. Everything I touched turned to gold. Every investment yielded a hundred fold return. I was soon rich beyond my wildest dreams. I could now retire and concentrate on my life’s great project.
“For ten years, my agents have trawled the entire Roman Empire with the finest of nets. From London to Alexandria, from Marseille to Antioch, they have left no stone unturned. Their mission is to visit every villa, every palazzo, every town-house, every obscure farm in the entire known world. Detailed dispatches arrive by every post of possible sightings and possible leads.
“But what never arrives is Astea herself. In time, the money will be gone and the search will, perforce, be over. My sister, who will now be a pathetic, middle-aged slave, will be lost forever.”
Gremio lent over to stir the brazier. The night was suddenly cold and the wind from the sea fanned the flames. The stars shone brightly in the cold, clear sky. I suddenly wondered about the stars. What were they? Who were they? Did they feel and suffer, too? Was the whole universe one big mess of suffering, a vale of tears? Was Claudia perhaps the sanest of us all, in her longing to escape to another, better place? I fought back the tears. If anyone should be crying it was the brave old man sitting opposite me.
“In the universal bleakness of my situation, the crumbling of my marriage, the loss of my sister, the closure of the refuge, there has been one glimmer of light, one chink of kindness shining out in the darkness.”
“Your Aunt is blessed – or should I say ‘cursed’? – with a unique sensibility and perception. Almost a clairvoyance. In a party of a thousand people, she can single out the one person who is lonely or homesick or out of place. In a household of a hundred slaves, she knows who is a poet and who is a princess. In a busy holiday resort on the Bay of Naples she can home in on an ugly old freedman and realize that there might, just might, be more to him than meets the eye. Without your Aunt, my dear, I quite simply could not exist. I could not get out of bed in the morning, I could not put one foot in front of the other. Twice a week, for the past two years, we have met for dinner. It is not too much to say that these dinners have saved my life.”
We sat together in silence as the dawn broke over the soughing sea.
“But how late it is. And how long I have kept you with my old man’s ramblings. I fear that we all grow selfish as we grow older. I have asked you nothing about your own life, my dear. Another time, I hope.
“But for the moment we both need our sleep. I have arranged for you to have Thecla’s old room. I hope you’ll be comfortable and sleep well. It overlooks the Bay. Please excuse her collection of dolls. The relics of a happier time. They were the only thing she left behind. Without commercial value, one assumes.”
He clapped his hands. Although it was almost the first hour of the morning, an alert and smiling slave came at once and stood by his side.
“Clemens will show you the way.”
We all slept until at least midday. Except Gremio, of course. He had been up, working, since cock-crow. Our host was so thoroughly decent and clean-living that even Aunt Metta felt periodic twinges of guilt and shame. It was obvious, however, that the old man expected us to enjoy ourselves. His Puritanism was the opposite of evangelical. We could do whatever we liked, provided it didn’t hurt anyone else (or, indeed, ourselves) and provided we left him alone to work. As we sat chatting over the remains of a substantial breakfast, Claudia, Julia and I mulled over the various possible activities to fill in the rest of the day. A guided tour of the Pompeii stables (with Ajax-sighting potential) was roundly vetoed, as was meditation on the folly of the West. In the end, we decided to do the most obvious thing in a sea-side resort, particularly B. To go the beach.
Unfortunately, swimming and beach etiquette were not on the curriculum at Domina Hera’s finishing school on the Via Sacra. Come to think of it, nothing was on the curriculum except the all important: How To Get Your Husband. Certainly not what to do with him once you’d got him. It is incredible to think how much our fathers spent on our education and how little we actually learned. In many ways, ignorance of the crawl was the least of our worries. While most of us enjoyed whiling away adolescent afternoons lolling in the tempidarium and calidarium, gossiping, discretely fondling and plaiting each others’ hair, swimming as such was off limits. The pools were not large enough and our arms and legs were deemed too delicate for exertion of any sort. Our brothers, by contrast, had all the fun. Quelle surprise. They were taught to swim well and strongly from an early age. Brought up on the heroic tale of Horatius Cocles swimming the Tiber and saving Rome from the barbarians, swimming was an important part of the para-military training of the Roman aristocracy. That great educator, Cato the censor, enshrined cold bathing in his influential list of manly pursuits. In more recent years, Julius Caesar’s exploits in the seas and rivers of the Empire had become the stuff of legend. Who did not know of his marathon crossing of the harbour at Alexandria, in full armour and carrying all his weapons?
But swimming could also be a leisure activity. On any warm summer’s day, the rivers and aqueducts of Rome would be full of young men swimming. Naked. And the young women of Rome knew all the best vantage points to watch the dazzling display.
“Aunt Metta, darling, is it really true that you were invited to Clodia’s rented place on the banks of the Tiber?”
“Di immortales, Julia! Who could forget those halcyon days? Only Clodia would have had the nerve to rent such a place, for the sole purpose of watching the swimming.”
“Surely not absolutely the sole purpose? Weren’t the swimming sports only the warm up act? According to the all the best gossip, the après nage was by far the better sport…..”
“Well that’s all in the public domain now, after that poisonous novus homo told the high court – and therefore the whole of Rome – all that went on at these private – private – swimming parties.”
“Cicero is what Granny would call a cad. A jumped up lawyer with a massive chip on his shoulder. Probably coupled with being dumped by Clodia just before the trial”.
“Serve him right, self righteous prig. Oh, Phoebe, Phoebe! Why did all that fun have to come to an end? Why do the prudes always win? Just as we were coming of age, just when life was really going to start… Slam! Down come the shutters, with ‘thou shalt not’ written all over them.” Julia was almost crying with rage and indignation.
“Well, I’m not giving up just yet. Rome might have been taken over by the FVP, but there’s always B. And right now, that’s were the party is. And right now, that’s where we are. And Marcus Junius, with all his naval buddies.”
“festinemus ad litus!” We cried in unison. Or as the Hispani might have put it, vamoos a la playa.
And that, dear reader, is what we did. Wearing enormous hats and daringly diaphanous dresses, the three of us set off. Julia looked like the epitome of the sea-side vamp, the sexy water-nymph tempting poor boys to their death. Clodia reborn. I couldn’t compete, although I had really tried to look my best. I had a kind of sick sixth-sense that we might meet Marcus playing in the sand. Claudia, as always, looked bonkers. She was lagging behind, muttering about the guru and water purification rites.
“Did you know that water is a symbol for purification in almost every language and culture and religion? For many philosophers, the flight of the soul is compared to swimming away from the broken hull of the body into the ocean of eternity.”
I ground my teeth, but just managed to stop myself from telling her to shut up. We all enjoy ourselves in different ways.
The beach at B was a picture postcard of seaside perfection. Although in almost every way the town was contrived and artificial and bling, it was set in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (to quote the official tourist guide). The small, curved bay was filled with fine, white sand. The cliffs at either side provided welcome shelter from sun and wind and created a picturesque natural harbour. The colourful fishing fleet pottered about all day, constantly trawling for the varied tastes of the town’s fastidious epicures. A line of specially planted tamarisk gave welcome shade and the long promenade was dotted with bars, restaurants and casinos. Small, perfectly formed gardens, with fountains and curved beds of exotic blooms, provided the perfect back-drop for the town’s many liaisons dangereuse.
Encouraged and advised by Aunt Metta, an aficionada of all such matters, Claudia, Julia and I set up camp on the marble benches of the popular Taverna Napolitana. The terrace was full of geraniums and a heavy awning protected the drinkers from the afternoon sun. At once, and without a word from us, a jug of the finest Falernian appeared, a dish of minute salty fish, plump dates and small, round honey-cakes.
Marcus Junius also appeared. At once. Had he somehow been waiting and watching? My heart lurched and leapt into my throat where it throbbed painfully. I could feel myself blushing uncontrollably. Almost subconsciously, my hands fiddled with my hair and dress and mouth. I panicked that a piece of anchovy might be unattractively lodged in between my front teeth. Should I stand up and kiss Marcus? Or should I affect nonchalance and cool disinterest? Why hadn’t we discussed the plan of action? I hated myself for being such an obvious parody of the nervous lover, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t speak and could hardly even look at the boy. The object of all my dreams, of all my most sordid and graphic fantasies, was finally sitting next to me in a bistro on the beach. Of course, I couldn’t speak. I’d have to leave the café society chit-chat to Julia.
“Well, well, well, the triumvirate has finally arrived in B Bay.”
He sat down without being invited, as did a tall, cross-looking blonde, whom I hadn’t noticed at first. She was obviously the latest. She was certainly giving us the evil eye and giving Marcus pretty unambiguous warning signs, while constantly stroking any bit of exposed flesh.
Julia took a long draught of wine and plunged right in:
“So, Marcus, how’s the water?”
His short white-blonde hair was stiff with salt, which glinted in the midday sun, and his short tunic was still wet in patches about his shoulders. His bare arms and bare legs were tanned and powerful. He looked perfect. Hylas amongst the nymphs. I had never seen him look more devastatingly attractive than this afternoon. It took all my effort not to throw myself at him, kill the blonde bimbo, tear off his clothes and publicly consummate my hitherto hidden passion. The effort to appear casual, especially in front of such a critical audience, was to say the least a strain. As I dragged myself back to hum-drum so-called reality, Marcus was talking to Julia about swimming.
“Find out for yourself, babe.”
“A slight problem, Marcus. In case you’d forgotten, nice girls don’t actually know how to swim.”
“Pas de probleme.” He brushed the objection aside with a cavalier sweep of the hand. I was beginning to think that there was something slightly camp about Marcus and I remembered Gremio’s gay refuge for love-lorn sea cadets.
“Who do you think taught the lovely Cynthia to swim?”
The three of us exclaimed in unison. Was Marcus really claiming to have known Cynthia, daring darling of the B set, second in infamy only to Clodia herself? Julia quoted dreamily from her favourite poem and then snapped at Marcus,
“You really expect us to believe that you, Marcus Junius, are the anonymous hero of the B poem? You must have been about twelve when it was written.”
“Maybe I was only twelve, darling, but I was the irresistible Toy Boy of the Bay. Small, but perfectly formed. And, believe me, everybody wanted to play with this particular toy.”
This all seemed pretty far fetched, but we were nevertheless intrigued.
“So who was she, then, this mysterious Cynthia?” said Julia, voicing the one question on all our lips. “Spill the beans, Marcy. All these pseudonyms, Lesbia, Cynthia, Delia, Corinna. How can a girl keep up? All the rumour, gossip, innuendo. Some people in Rome are even saying that Clodia and Cynthia are one and the same girl.”
“Girls, girls”, said Marcus, shocked. “Could you really expect a gentleman to reveal such delicate information? The days of chivalry are not yet over. And I, moreover, am bound by the strict ethical code of the Navy of the Roman Republic.”
In other words, the whole story was a school-boy fantasy. How disappointing.
“However”, he continued, tossing a small olive in between his small, sharp teeth, “that does not prevent me from sharing all the other details of this delectable affaire de coeur.”
At this stage, the cross-looking blonde, whose name we never learned, left. Which left three sex-starved teenaged girls, a pretty sailor with spiky fair hair and a bottle of undiluted Falernian. We settled down for the afternoon.
Of course the afternoon ended with Marcus leading the three of us unsteadily across the dazzling white sand to the sea. Although the poets might have it otherwise, none of us was actually naked. Shame, shame! Marcus kept on his tunic and we wore our dresses, made progressively more transparent by prolonged immersion. A swimming lesson for three woozy adolescents with a drunk, incompetent instructor was a recipe for disaster. But somehow, miraculously, we managed. For more than an hour Marcus’ hands caressed my back, thighs and arse, deliriously and deliciously. But I finally decided to try it alone. I slipped smoothly away and floated, weightlessly, marvellously, all by myself. Into an entirely new and utterly incredible experience.
I closed my eyes and felt the full force of the Mediterranean sun on my upturned face. I heard the rush of the mighty sea pounding in my ears. As the waves broke over me, the salt tasted strong and fresh and new. The raucous cries of the crowded beach were suddenly silenced. I was cosseted, cocooned and caressed by the gentle waves. I had returned to the womb, or maybe to some even earlier state, some time when men were fish. I floated in a world of my own above the sand, the rocks, the fish and the deep sea itself. Here was unfenced existence, facing the sun, connected to all the primeval forces of life itself. I was weightless, bodiless, timeless, moving to the rhythm of the universe.
I was abruptly jolted from this delicious reverie by the splash of many oars and by the drunken cries of a party barge. Barges like this had come to symbolise the degenerate decadence of B. They were the despair of the strict moralists back home in Rome. These hoary old kill-joys spilled much ink in meticulous, surely secretly envious, descriptions of these floating brothels. Of course they were never intended as modes of transport, but rather as the conveyance of an almost sickening sensory overload and for the very public display of obscene private wealth. And this barge was no exception.
The huge purple sails had obviously been steeped for days in strong perfume. Whenever and wherever the wind blew, the air was thick with a heady, musky aphrodisiac. Such perfume could hang, like a fog, over the sea-front at B for days on end. The prow and the stern were caked in thick gold and an enormous figure-head of a triumphant satyr, similarly golden, glinted grotesquely in the evening sun. Everything about this boat, like everything in the whole of B, was excessive, zany and topsy-turvy. Even the name, spelled out in glittering ivory, was written upside-down. The oarsmen were certainly not the usual calloused brutes, captured in war and destined to live only three years. No, this barge was propelled by two rows of fine-featured Indians, draped in golden togas. The beat to which they rowed was a lazy, languorous beat. Played on silver flutes.
This much I had seen before a pair of strong, brown arms lifted me straight out of the water and onto the varnished deck. Ditto, Marcus, Julia and Claudia. We stood, bemused and dazed and blinking in the sun, with little pools of sea gathering around our feet. As if by magic, slaves appeared with towels, large, luxurious sheets of the finest Greek wool. They then handed us little glasses of exquisite lachrimae Jovis.
By now, you can imagine how the evening progressed, or rather regressed into a regatta of conspicuous consumption and even more conspicuous sexual congress. A cornucopia of excess and deviance. You can imagine the music (loud and psychedelic), the dancing (drunken and orgiastic) and the nudity (ubiquitous). The food was bizarre to the point of sickening. The host was clearly a Pepper Baron, eager to show off his vast wealth and sophistication. Pepper was showered with a liberal hand over everything, from plums to wine. Party-going Romans were crazed for this newly-discovered spice. It was shipped from India at vast risk and vast expense. Which naturally ensured its vast popularity, regardless of whether one actually liked the taste. Another gastronomic fad very much in evidence at this party was the coupling of totally inappropriate foods. Dormice were soaked in honey, scallops were wrapped in marzipan, cherries were stuffed with anchovies, milk was mixed with pigs’ blood and horses’ turds were sprinkled with gold. Like the sycophantic courtiers who could not admit that the Emperor was naked, the party-goers of B could not admit that all this tasted like shit (sometimes because it actually was).
In many ways, the boat party was a floating Gremio’s. We saw the same guests and held the same conversations. The revolting Terpio was once more centre stage. He was again in drag, but this time impersonating a castrato-priest of Cybele, with a long, lank, blonde wig and make-up running with sweat. He was wearing a hideous gauzy dress that was completely transparent, revealing flabby hairy pudenda and drooping, oiled buttocks. He was reciting Catullus’ long poem on the subject. By the time he had reached the finale, the priest’s ecstatic self-castration, most guests were calling for life to imitate art.
The barge hove-to and was beginning its lazy fourth crossing of the Bay of Naples as the party was just getting started. I noticed that someone had dressed Julia up as a sailor and that she was getting on very well with the Pepper Baron. She was sitting on his lap and smiling sweetly as he patted her pert bottom and popped peppered morsels into her tiny mouth. Claudia had inevitably found the statutory odd-balls. She was still wearing the long white towel, apparently pretending that it was a priest’s habit. She was ensconced in the corner of the captain’s cabin, talking excitedly with a woman dressed only in a loin cloth and a rose garland. I’m afraid to say that by now I was wearing nothing at all. I decided that it was time to find Marcus again.
I pushed through the heaving (in both senses of the word) throng. Although the ship was packed with his perky fellow cadets – bare-chested, bulging biceps, caps cheekily askew – there was no sign of Marcus at all. I had a little dance and a little more to drink and then swayed uncertainly onto the deck, where I finally found poor Marcus. He was hanging over the side of the barge, relieving his stomach of the delicious buffet. The sea below was a writhing mass of hungry fish.
The poor lamb was such an odd colour that it made me feel pretty queasy myself. I found a pile of sacking and sat him down. I wrapped myself in a piece of old sail-cloth and waited. The stars were shining bright and the lights of B were twinkling on the shore. The barge was rocking gently and the waves were plashing musically. We were all alone. This was surely the perfect romantic moment. I was just lifting my lips expectantly, when the great smears of vomit caught my eye. Just in time I remembered that Marcus had not washed his face. From the left side of his lower lip, a little half-digested, peppered prawn still clung.
Putting aside all thoughts of the long awaited clinch, I wondered how on earth we would pass the time until dawn. The barge would certainly not be returning to the harbour before then. The thought of going back to the party filled me with horror. In any case, poor Marcus would have been hard put even to stand up. I suddenly had a brain wave.
“Tell me a story, Marcus, a thrilling tale of derring-do on the high seas.”
“Starring a beautiful and brave naval officer called Marcus Junius?”
“Aye, aye, Cap”n.”
“How about the time when our whole ship was swallowed by a giant sea-monster and we had to light a fire inside its belly and burn our way out? Or what about the time when we were kidnapped by bloodthirsty buccaneers and were forced to walk the plank until we found their buried treasure? Or I could tell you about the time I married a mermaid in a stunning beach ceremony on Santorini.”
“Get lost, Marcus, and get real. Tell me something that actually happened to you.”
I lay back against a pile of rope and looked at Marcus. He really was much too pretty for a boy. And he looked so young and innocent that it was hard to imagine anything at all happening to him.”
“OK. You want real, you’ll get real. You asked for it, baby. Don’t blame me. And remember, an honourable Roman never shoots the messenger.
“Life at the Misenum Naval Academy was pretty laid-back. We were all there because our parents had paid for us to be there, to fill up the awkward years between adolescence and marriage. No one had the slightest interest in the navy as a career. The very concept of a career was alien. We all had our villas in the country and very substantial allowances to tide us over until we inherited the real dough.”
“And got married to a mildewed little wife and lived happily after with 2.4 children and a holiday home on the Bay of Naples.”
“Until the inevitable divorce and the grippling alimony.”
“Will you let me get on with the story now?
I smiled encouragingly.
“There was some attempt to teach rudimentary navigation, rope-splicing and the control of galley-slaves, but this was mere lip-service. We spent most of our days messing about in boats, drinking in the sea-front bars, soaking up the rays and picking up the girls. Life was one long holiday, until that fateful day last August.”
“Oh, Marcus! You are the master of suspense.”
“It all started pleasantly enough. One morning the C.O. breezed into the refectory and asked for six volunteers to make up a party for a beach barb-e-q in a nearby cove. Apparently some important dignitaries were down from Rome and the party was lacking in male escorts.
“Always come here when they’re in a fix. Know they can rely on us not to sprinkle the salt, eh. Good to do this sort of thing from time to time. Show ‘em we’re human beings and not just killing machines, what.”
“Anyone less like a killing machine than you, Marcus, would be very hard to imagine.”
Marcus bristled. I had obviously touched a nerve.
“I’ll have you know, Phoebe Scintilla, that I have been trained to cosh a drowning man on the head with a mere stroke of an oar.”
He did his best to look aggressive, but I’m afraid that it wasn’t very convincing.
“But anyway. It was much more fun to go out to lunch than to try to understand the concept of dead reckoning.”
“I reckon so.”
“Please. Don’t. And stop interrupting. The six of us fixed up our leave of absence and set out in high spirits for the appointed rendez-vous. The little cove was very much en fete. A jolly striped awning had been erected and long tables were covered with a delicious buffet. Over a carefully managed fire, fresh fish and hunks of venison were sizzling, mouth-wateringly. On another table, bottles of drink and rows of glasses were liberally laid out. But no one was eating or drinking anything. Six smartly-dressed women were standing about, alone, and somehow waiting. The air of expectancy was palpable and vaguely menacing.
Still, fortune favours the brave, I thought and strode up confidently. I was soon paired off with a dame tres formidable, called Mrs Testifracta. In the course of pre-lunch conversazzione, it emerged that she was a fearfully successful business woman, with a chain of beauty parlours all over Rome and the North East. A meaner spirit than I might have said that she had helped herself rather too liberally to her own products. Her skin and her hair were the same orange colour and her mascara had turned her eye-lashes into rows of bristling spears. She actually looked quite scary and I was jolly glad that we were meeting on a beach in broad daylight rather than any venue plus intime.
“By some bizarre co-incidence she knew my Mother and both my aunts. They hardly seemed the most natural bed-fellows, but were apparently on the same charity committee. They met every Thursday in each other’s houses to discuss the thorny problem of the personal hygiene of hairdressing slaves. Mrs Testifracta was apparently in the process of developing a new product that would solve the whole problem in one fell swoop.
“She seemed pretty interested in me – naturlich, you might say – and wanted to hear everything about life at the Misenum Naval Academy. This was pretty tame stuff, but she kept patting my arm encouragingly and admiring my aftershave. It was all very flattering, but after a while, I began to feel a bit trapped and a bit bored by the exclusive company of Mrs Testefracta. And her constant displays of affection – the pats were soon replaced by strokes on the arse and even pecks on the cheek – did not seem quite comme il faut at a beach barb-e-q.
“I looked around for any chance of rescue, but the others seemed caught in very similar scenarios. Or even worse. An Amazon of a woman was looming over poor Milo as he lay prone and helpless, face-down on the sand. She was apparently massaging his back, but the hold seemed more Sumo wrestler than sexy masseuse. Titus had been forced to strip to his waist and was attempting to give a swimming lesson to an enormously fat, oddly unbuoyant, matrona. The main object of the lesson appeared to be a constant caressing of her ample buttocks.
But poor Demetrios was in the worst position of all. He might be a Greek, but even he didn’t deserve such ill-treatment. He was pushed back into a deck-chair by a stick-thin, yellow-haired witch, who then kneeled down in front of him – “
“Stop, Marcus. Stop right there.”
“ – and started to paint his toe nails.”
Marcus, the master of the anti-climax.
“Lucius and Roscus seemed to have got involved in a very frightening follie a quatre. Two women of a certain age and uncertain proclivities had tied their hands behind their backs and were frog-marching them into the woods surrounding the little bay.
“At this point in the proceedings, a funny looking man bustled up. Until that moment, the only guests at the barb-e-q had been my fellow-cadets and The Women. The new arrival seemed very flustered and upset about something. He was out of breath and sweating copiously. He kept looking from one couple to another and consulting some sort of list.
“For one joyful moment, it seemed that help might actually be at hand and that I might finally escape from the talon-like clutches of Mrs Testifracta. He walked up to us, just as Mrs T was simultaneously attempting to kiss me on the mouth and pluck hairs off my chest. But instead of hauling the woman off and exposing her as a child molester, the bastard took no notice of the gravity of the situation at all, but addressed himself solely to my deranged companion. He spoke in a cloying, cringing and breathless voice.
“So sorry, Domina, so sorry to interrupt. I have been unavoidably delayed. I apologize for the intrusion, but is everything, is everything proceeding satisfactorily? If I may take the liberty of leaving some scrolls for you to fill in later, with any comments or suggestions…..” He tailed off under the contemptuous gaze of Mrs T.
“Everything’s going just swell, Max, so piss off and pester someone else.”
“Which he apparently did. As far as I could make out ‘Max’ went round all the other couples, presumably asking the same questions. At first, he had some trouble finding Lucius and Roscus, but eventually located them by the smell of burning wax.
“The stranger then suggested in a loud voice that we might all like to take a break for some refreshment. This was more like it. We sat down, in the same pairings, at the long table under the striped awning. Over a long and leisurely meal, and several Campari sodas, Mrs Testifracta (“Please call me Smeralda”) began to grow on me. I let her feed me peeled prawns and tell me a bit more about her life. She works incredibly hard – this is her first holiday in ten years – and has never enjoyed the advantages of home and family life. She apologized for rushing things – (“you were just so beautiful that I got carried away”) – and promised to take things more slowly next time.
“You know, Phoeb, it’s incredible how you get used to things. And even start to enjoy them. The best table at Flavio’s, the private box at the amphitheatre and the races, the best suites in the best hotels, all the little perks and presents. Purple pyjamas, silk togas, slave-girls. Only last week, she gave me this amazing ring.”
I looked at Marcus’ manicured, outstretched hand and saw an enormous and vulgar signet-ring. In recent years, competitive jewelry had become fashionable amongst Roman males of a certain class, but this piece of bling went far too far. It was an enormous emerald shaped like frog, with twinkling garnet eyes. I couldn’t imagine where one would buy something so tasteless. Still, tasteless is as tasteless does, Mrs T. But Marcus was clearly smitten.
“Smeralda is incredibly generous as well as incredibly rich. And even the sex is good. In fact, it’s fucking amazing.”
“Excuse the pun.” I don’t why I said that. I wasn’t feeling the remotest bit waggish. Au very contraire, as Marcus himself might have said.
“Of course, the C.O. is hand-in-glove with the tour operator. He’s like a character in a comic opera, The Pimping Princeps. Naturally he makes a tidy sum out of it, but he also ensures that everything is above board and that nothing too untoward happens to his boys.
Marcus stopped talking and lay back on the deck, his head resting on a rusty anchor. He smiled widely and gazed up at the stars. His lucky stars that had blessed him so thoroughly and unexpectedly.
But there was something I needed to know. Something that I had needed to know for quite a few years. I spoke in a squeaky, quavering voice.
“But, Marcus. What about you and me?”
Marcus sat up suddenly, rather too suddenly perhaps, because he started swaying disconcertingly.
“Shit, Phoebe, I know. I know. I know you’re crazy about me. Why wouldn’t you be? I’ve known for years, but it’s no good. It just won’t work. I’m sure you’re really pretty and really sexy and all. One day someone will fall madly in love with you. But it can never be me. I’m so sorry, but it’s best you know. You’re just too, too….”
“Fraid so. I guess it all began with Cynthia and then Mrs Testifracta. Your luscious Aunt was just about the icing on the cake. I had died and gone to heaven.”
I was now hitting him hard and repeatedly, raining down angry blows on his silly girly face.
“Fuck off, Marcus. Just fuck off and die. Don’t you ever talk about Aunt Metella like that, you pathetic pervert. And don’t ever, ever come anywhere near me again. And you can stay away from Julia, too.”
I fell down the stairs into the main saloon, just as the hangover was starting to kick in. Anyone sane would have found some water and a couch. I found Marcus’ cabin-crew chums. Rubbing oil on their chests and biceps, I lined them up in a row. To the delight of a hundred screaming females, they then performed the most provocative strip tease that anyone had ever seen. And, believe me, these women had seen a lot.
I’m ashamed to say that the last thing that I remember is joining them in a very ill-advised reprise, with an inevitable and natural conclusion. The sheer numbers involved and the encouragement of the cheering audience ensured an unforgettable experience. For many a long year, I’ve wished that I could forget. But at least I was no longer the spoilt-rich-bitch-waiting-to-get-laid. So up yours, Marcus. And everyone else.
The following morning, although it was actually early afternoon before we were sufficiently awake to hold a coherent conversation, Aunt Metta announced that I must fulfill a particularly tiresome social obligation. A visit to uber-geek, creepy weirdo, Marius Quintus Decimus. While Domina Metella might appear to be entirely free of the bonds of social convention, she was never unkind and would not permit any of us to be anything other than polite and courteous. Especially to the under-dog. She had seen how Marius had excluded himself from society, how he had no friends and how even his family shunned him. Even his grandmother’s seemingly generous gift of the Villa Dulcissima was a ploy to get him out of Rome. Aunt Metta had somehow heard reports of Marius’ wretched lifestyle. Now that he was living entirely alone, he had descended into a wildly eccentric, erratic lifestyle. He never washed and rarely ate. It was decided that a visit from a young air-head might, just might, jolt him out of his depression and bring him back to reality. As Marius and I had been acquainted since nursery days, the onerous duty fell to me.
I was still reeling from the catastrophic revelations of the night before and crippled by a horrifying hang-over that turned the world into a simulacrum of hell. I was not feeling the remotest bit social and would far rather have stuck pins into my buttocks than visit the creepy boy-philosopher, but my aunt was steely in her determination to do the right thing. As I was still in some technical sense her guest, it was impossible to refuse.
And so, while everyone else was getting ready for another lazy day at the beach (Julia at her most skittish ‘ ’ and even Claudia looking forward to another spiritual immersion), I found my simplest dress, put up my hair, spurned the make-up box and set off on the short ride to Marius’ current residence. The corniche at B sweeps the coast at a precarious height and at the most precarious angles. Every moment, I expected the carriage to be overturned and dashed on the rocks below. Such a road was surely demanded by the jaded thrill-seekers of the bay, but I was sickened by the experience and longed for the journey to be over.
Although I was travelling from one sumptuous villa to another, I knew that Marius’ place would be in a league of its own. His grandmother had spared no expense to create by far the most luxurious villa on the Bay of Naples. And there was stiff competition. The architects had followed all the latest fashions. Teams of designers and craftsmen had then worked tirelessly for more than a year to create a jeweled masterpiece. Money no object. Luxury was wasted on Marius, of course, but I knew that I should prepare myself for aesthetic dynamite.
Even from a distance, it looked marvelously exotic. Almost half the villa jutted out over the sea, where a fabulous bathing complex had been installed. I could just discern a myriad fountains playing in the morning sun. Every so often an especially big wave would break over the low wall and refresh the pool.
The garden surrounding the villa was filled with statuary, bought at vast expense from the sacked and looted cities of Greece. Here were groves alive with marble, marble so life-like that it seemed to move and play in the scented shades. Here was Hercules killing the Nemean lion, here was the young Apollo playing the lyre, here was a naked Aphrodite preparing for her bath. Further out, guarding the orchard, was the obligatory Priapus, hands up and jeering, fending off all intruders with his grotesque phallus. Fountains, sun dials, marble benches, tiny temples, a box-wood maze, peacocks, song-birds and baby deer created a pleasure-garden sans pareil. I was dumfounded, transported by the sights, sounds and, of course, the smell of this amazing garden. For the designers had been careful to plant only the most scented of flowers and shrubs. I could not hope to name these plants for you, but their perfume was heady, oriental and intoxicating.
The entire grounds were much larger than the formal gardens. They stretched as far as the eye could see. Marius’ grandmother must have bought four or five normal-sized plots and joined them together to create the illusion of the countryside in the city. There were fields, lakes and woods. There was even a small river meandering through the grounds, hedged with luxuriant reeds and sedges. Everything was skillfully landscaped to create the illusion of an entirely natural scene. Ars est artem celare. I even spotted small groups of attractive slaves, whose sole purpose was apparently to imitate shepherds and shepherdesses. They reclined on the ground under a shady beech, stroking sheep and each other. I suppose that other, less fortunate slaves had drawn the shorter straws and were to play the roles of real shepherds in this fabricated pastorale. But what use a weirdo boy-recluse could have with a herd of sheep and goats was anybody’s guess. I assume it was all part of the package signed for by Grandmama.
I was shocked by Marius when he opened the door. He seemed to have degenerated badly in the year since I had last seen him. He had become a bent old man, shuffling and stick thin. He stared at the ground and mumbled a formal greeting to Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco. At least I presume that’s what he said. I replied suitably. A long minute past until I dared to add,
“Well? Can I come in?”
He still said nothing, but stood aside to let me in. Ordinarily I’d have wanted to look all around me at the glittering, mosaic-filled atrium, but things were getting awkward. Marius had lifted his gaze from the floor and was now peering intently at every bit of my body. After a minute or so of this rather pervy scrutiny he said slowly and ponderously: “You’re beautiful, Phoebe. You look amazing.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say to this. I decided to incline my head graciously and reply in text-book Latin the formal response to a compliment
“benigne dicis, mi Mari”.
This was clearly the wrong response. Within a second he had lifted his head and was shouting inches from my face.
“What the fuck do you want, Phoebe? Why are you here? Who sent you? Why don’t you all just fuck off and leave me alone? I don’t want your sympathy, your lady-bountiful social calls. I just want to be left alone. Why can’t you all just leave me alone?”
By the end of the tirade, he was crying. Aunt Metta was right. Her acute sensitivity had recognized what we had all missed. Marius was having, or had had, a severe nervous break down. What was his family thinking? Were they really such unfeeling bastards as to dump him completely by himself in an empty house on a deserted headland?
The loneliness of the situation suddenly made me uneasy. What if something really bad happened? I thought briefly, nostalgically, of a busy sea front bar, of Julia ordering another bottle of the 73, eyeing the boys and dishing the dirt. It was a world away, a lifetime away. Right now, I was trapped with a madman, surrounded more by gold and ivory than the whole of the Acropolis.
I decided to try the gentle, conciliatory approach.
“No one sent me, Marius. And I don’t want anything. I came because I wanted to see you. We used to be good friends, you and I, before you became so, so …..”
I was groping for the right word.
I concluded, lamely, and swallowed nervously, as he mulled over this last word.
“And before you became such a slapper.”
He retorted rudely. But at least he was laughing. And this was not the laugh of a maniac, but the laugh of a boy who had made a joke. Poor though the joke might have been, it marked a fresh start to my visit. The spell was broken. My whole body relaxed, I took a deep breath and embraced my poor, troubled friend. I held him in a bear hug of such intensity that even Aunt Metta would have been impressed.
Could a simple hug work such magic? Had this poor boy simply been starved of human contact, of human warmth? When I finally released Marius and stood back to look at him, he was totally transformed. The haunted, hunted look had disappeared. He was standing straight and tall and smiling down at me. The scary maniac had been replaced by a good-looking young Patrician. Unfortunately, the smell and the dirt and the crazy hair were not so easily dislodged. But we could work on that.
It was only then that I allowed myself to look properly at the amazing entrance hall and saw the full extent of the luxury surrounding me. The central pluvium was a deep pool of red and white marble, with a dainty central fountain. A marine theme dominated the mosaics that covered the floor: Neptune blowing a conch, Arion on the dolphin, river gods chasing nymphs, and everywhere the most marvelous, most lifelike, depictions of every sort of fish. The mosaic was so fantastic that I could hardly bring myself to walk on it. Even the walls were covered with mosaics, each tiny tessera lovingly and meticulously fitted by the most skilful artists. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I moved to sit on one of the marble benches that ran around the wall, but Marius caught me by the hand.
“Come on, Phoebe, I’ve made us some lunch.”
It was a big shock, and a big disappointment, when Marius finally took me into the triclinium. Naturally, I was expecting three couches, spread with exquisitely embroidered silk throws and plump feather pillows. I was expecting a glittering display of gold and silver plates, and goblets made of clear Egyptian glass. I was expecting a low table of polished cedar wood and carpets from the plains of Persia. I was expecting finely chased oil lamps filled with all the perfumes of Arabia. I was expecting to wash my fingers in bowls of warm, scented water and to dry them on crisp damask.
Marius had somehow contrived to transform the designer’s dream of ultimate luxury into a bare hovel. The floor was simple stone (how long had it taken to chip away all the mosaics?), there were two upright chairs, with a rough-hewn table in between. On the table sat two or three earthenware dishes. In the dishes were radishes, lettuce and lentil stew. There was water to drink.
Marius indicated one of the hard chairs.
It didn’t take long to finish the meal. Nor did it provide much material for conversation. The average meal in B could be discussed for hours, days, on end. The silence was becoming a bit embarrassing, so I started describing some of the crazy concoctions on display at Gremio’s.
“In the middle of one table was a headless sow, arranged with all her litter, still apparently suckling. Somewhere else, a fried squid had been dressed up as Consul Caepio. There was even a pile of horse shit, covered in gold leaf.”
I had just started describing the four and twenty black-birds baked in a pie, when Marius interrupted.
“You can stop, Phoebe. I’ve seen it all. And worse. I’ve been dragged to party after party. Granny seemed to think that I must have introductions and entrees and invitations. To launch me into B society. How little she understands me. How little anyone understands me.”
Here we go again.
“The whole experience was hideous. Everyone is trying so hard to be happy. All the effort, all the expense, all the parties. It’s so exhausting and does it actually make any one happy?
“How many genuinely happy people do you know, Phoebe? Look at that poor fool Rufus Felix. Rufus Infelix would be a more appropriate name. Every week he declares himself bored with Rome and rushes as fast as he can to B. After a few days, he’s bored by the sea and must return to Rome as quickly as possible. This crazy cycle is repeated throughout the year. Doesn’t he realize that he can’t be happy anywhere, that it’s himself he’s running from?
caelum non animum mutant.
“It’s from a poem, a bloody brilliant poem that I read recently. These people might change their locations, but their souls and minds remain the same. They don’t seem to realize that this desperate fear of place is actually a fear of themselves. Poor old Rufus Felix can hire the fastest horses he likes, can travel in the plushest carriages money can buy, but he can never escape Rufus Felix. The boredom and the nausea will always be there, wherever he is.”
“I saw him being pretty nauseous last week after a heavy session at Gremio’s.”
“Phoebe, Phoebe. This isn’t a joke. These people are sick in their souls, to the very depths of their being. And it isn’t only the rich. You can be sick in a coracle as easily as in a mega yacht. For years, Phoebe, I’ve been witnessing the same horrible desperation, the same frantic striving to achieve happiness. Happiness, happiness, happiness, the Shangri-La, the goal of goals, but nobody even knows what it means, least of all here is in B.”
He stopped, breathless, and stared out to sea for a good few minutes. He then looked me straight in the eye and continued in a triumphant voice,
“But I think that I have finally found the solution.”
“Sex?” I ventured. “Suicide?”
I spoke flippantly, but only last week the Bay had been momentarily jolted out of its complacency by the unexpected suicide of two of its most gilded children. They left a note at once simple and cryptic: semper eadem (things are always the same).
“I mean the philosophy of Epicurus.”
“Marius the Epicurean!”
I was laughing so much that I could hardly speak.
“Don’t do this to me! Marius, you are just about the least hedonistic, least pleasure-oriented boy that I have ever met. Have I missed some wild transformation in your character? Are you suddenly joining the B set? Are you going to join us tonight on Sex Barge II?”
“This was just the sort of reaction I was expecting, Phoebe. And I’m afraid it’s typical of ignorant, ill-read Romans who think only of the next party invitation.”
Naturally, I was pretty incensed by his hoity-toity, condescending attitude, but he wouldn’t let me speak.
“I’m sorry, Phoeb, but this is really important. It isn’t a joke. The philosophy of Epicurus has nothing whatsoever to do with pleasure in the vulgar sense of the word.”
“What is it to do with then, clever clogs?”
“If you’ll come with me tomorrow to the Garden of Epicurus, all will be revealed.”
“All will be revealed.”
Now, I love surprises more than anything, but only nice surprises. And I wasn’t totally convinced that these Epicureans sounded v nice in my sense of the word. So I hedged my bets and changed the subject.
As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel entirely at ease with Marius. More relaxed than I had felt for years. He was so different from everybody else, so absolutely uninterested in fashion, food and parties. There was no need to pretend, to act, to put on the usual show. I felt as if an unseen and gentle hand were massaging my taut, tense muscles. He even stopped talking about Epicurus. We were soon reminiscing about our childhoods and adolescence. We were soon laughing. I had known Marius my whole life, but I felt as if I were getting to know him all over again. And I was enjoying the experience.
I even told him about the whole hideous business with Marcus.
“I feel such a fool, Marius. All those years wasted on such a jerk.”
I was disappointed by his reaction. It was less than sympathetic, to say the least. I was also disappointed that he seemed to revert to didactic-bore-mode.
“What do you expect, Phoebe? Love always ends in disaster. All the myths are full of the same warning. Don’t Be So Stupid As To Fall in Love. Look what happened to Dido. One moment she’s a powerful warrior queen, the next moment she is sniveling wreck, killing herself on her own funeral pyre. All because some bloke’s dumped her. Look at Paris and Helen. Their fuck-fest destroyed a whole city. Why do you think the Greeks portray the God of love shooting his victims with arrows?”
“I’ve no idea, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me, Professor Brainstorm.”
“Because love is a festering wound that sucks the life out of you and eventually kills you. It’s a sickness, a fire, a madness. All the metaphors are the same. You can read all about it in your beloved Catullus. It’s all there. He went through hell with that bitch, Clodia. Who wants any of that shit? Epicurus got it right. Steer well clear of the poisoned chalice and you might have some chance of happiness.”
The tirade went on and on. Marius had countless examples from mythology and even real life about of disastrous love affairs. He told me some pretty weird things about some of our mutual friends. Didn’t I know that Phyllis had swallowed burning coals when her step-father refused to play ball? That Phyllis’ mother, somehow convinced that her husband was the villain of the piece, killed herself in the same way?
Could this really be true? I’m sure that I saw Phyllis only last week looking pretty perky in that new bar in the Forum. And her step-father has such terrible breath that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go anywhere near him. But Marius had another exemplum to prove his point.
Why did I think that Publius had deliberately got himself killed in the Circus Maximus? Because his wife had suddenly fallen in love with his two sisters, who were in fact so repelled by her advances that they stabbed her with a conch-shell.
“It’s pretty simple, Phoeb. Stay away from all the romantic bullshit. Don’t be fooled.”
I began to worry that he was losing it again. The tales of caution were all so wildly far-fetched. He started quoting great chunks of a misery-guts poet on the folly of romantic entanglement. His voice was rising to an almost hysterical pitch. He was shouting and then all at once he was crying again. Finally, he was telling me all about his disastrous relationship with some cow from Marseille called Lepidina. It all sounded depressingly familiar. The years of yearning, the exquisite pain of unrequited love, the cruel rejection. In the end, we were both crying. As Homer would have said, the whole house was filled with the sound of our weeping. Marcus and Lepidina had a lot to answer for.
Seeing my friend’s crushed, defeated face, I took a momentous decision.
“Ok. You win. I’ll go with you tomorrow to meet these beardy, new-age weirdos. On one condition.”
His face fell even further.
“That you go to the baths, go the barber and that you get some new clothes from one of those designer shops in the Via Vesuvia.”
“That’s three conditions’, he said. But at least he was smiling again. And he had the most beautiful smile that I had ever seen.
The next morning, for the first time in years, I woke up without a hang-over, without a head ache and without feeling sick. I also woke up before midday, an unheard-of feat. For once, breakfast did not appall me. I was healthy and hungry and intrigued by all that Marius had told me. And equally intrigued by Marius himself.
Each morning in the Villa Gremio, diligent and skilful slaves laid out a sumptuous breakfast buffet. After four hours, it was thrown away and replaced by lunch. None of us had any idea of all this as we slept off the excesses of the previous night. It was with something of a jump, therefore, that the lolling slaves greeted me as I entered the triclinium for breakfast. I smiled serenely and drifted to a sunny spot by the open window, as if this had been my constant habit. The hum of bees, the smell of lavender, the warmth of the sun and the sound of the sea struck with all the full force of the first morning of creation. The first day of the rest of my life.
The breakfast was, to my surprise, natural, simple and delicious. This was not what I had come to expect in B Bay. Here, as you will have already noticed, every meal was a bizarre concoction of mismatched ingredients. Twisted and shaped into an elaborate and wholly unappetizing work of art. Everything had to be shipped in, at great effort and expense, from the most outlandish places. Anything local was condemned as parochial. The Mediterranean was full of fish, but the gourmets of the Bay demanded sturgeon, packed in ice and transported by the fastest horses from the banks of the Danube. I had not yet reached such gastronomic sophistication. My tastes were embarrassingly simple and I was pleased to see that breakfast buffet consisted entirely of food from the estate of the Villa. Pomegranates, dates and figs, boiled eggs, fine-milled brown bread and honey. The milk was obviously fresh, and still warm.
After about half an hour, the youngest slave returned, followed by Marius. Poor Shilto could hardly find the words to introduce him. I’m not surprised. On this fine July morning, Marius would have reduced anyone to a gibbering wreck. Demosthenes himself would have been lost for words. As am I. Is it possible to describe a god incarnate? Is this how Apollo looked on his triumphant return to Delos?
ante alios pulcherrimus omnes
He was indeed more beautiful than anyone else. So astounding was Marius’ transformation that I began suspect an element of foul play. Was yesterday’s meeting an elaborate charade? Was the persona of misunderstood, angry young man/anguished seeker after truth/spurned lover a skilful ploy to entice me into feelings of pity, of friendship and (ultimately) of love? Could someone change so entirely over night? Was I a dupe? If so, I was entirely willing to play along and took my seat in the carriage beside my own personal sex-god.
Since etiquette would somehow have frowned upon an immediate consummation of my new found passion – (You can see that I was not quite a daughter of B. Yet.) – I started a rather desultory conversation.
“So, Marius, how did you hear about this Magic Garden? It’s hardly the talk of the town.”
“Wrong again, Phoebe. It absolutely is the talk of the town, if you only knew where to listen. In every forum, in every town on the Bay of Naples, in Misenum, in Tarentum, in Naples, in Puteoli, in Herculaneum, in Pompeii, even in poor benighted B, you can hear the Epicurean message preached. The followers of Epicurus are all fervent evangelists. They want to tell everyone how good life can really be. They really want to make people happy.”
I sensed a lecture coming on.
“The first missionaries met a frosty reception. A Greek pleasure cult was decidedly unwelcome in the harsh days of the early Republic. Days when men were men, intent on Empire building and raping the women from neighbouring tribes. The veterans of the Punic Wars had no interest in anything except killing foreigners, which (naturally) included Greek philosophers. But fast-forward a hundred years and Roman society had aged and mellowed. Its youthful certainties and uncompromising idealism had seeped quietly away. A more laissez faire, live-and-let-live, attitude prevailed.”
“You mean nobody gives a shit about anything anymore?”
“You’re very cynical, Phoebe. And no, I don’t mean that. I mean that the Romans were becoming more open to outside influence. Particularly from Greece. They may have beaten the shit out of the Greeks themselves and razed their famous cities to the ground, but the Romans realized that they could nevertheless learn something from the Greeks.”
“Tell that to the FVP.”
“A few brave Epicureans took advantage of this new climate and decided the test the waters once more. Their mission was incredibly successful. By now, there are Epicurean communes throughout the Italian peninsular.”
Marius was so enthusiastic that you’d think he was personally responsible for this evangelistic success.
“Even on the Bay of Naples?”
“Absolutely. In fact, the most famous and most thriving Garden is right here on our doorstep. Poets, thinkers, artists and aristocrats have all fled to its warm and welcoming embrace. Many Romans have even set up permanent residence. Some people that you probably used to know back home in Rome now live here, year in and year out. Men and women are equally welcome, married couples and even children.”
Meditating toddlers sounded a bit freaky to me.
“That’s the most appealing aspects of Epicureanism. Anyone, regardless of sex, gender, race or class, can follow the philosophy of Epicurus. Even slaves.”
“This is its unique appeal. There was a serious gap in the philosophical market. Plato and Aristotle both hated women and their philosophy’s really open only to wealthy aristocrats.”
“And fascist reactionaries. Let’s hope Epicureanism is an improvement on Stoicism.”
Marius was surprised by this sudden display of erudition.
“What do you know about Stoicism?”
“More than you might think.”
But now was not the time to launch into the misery memoir. I was too happy and too excited. In any case, Marius was on a roll.
“Epicureanism speaks to everyone.”
He stretched his arms wide and smiled hugely.
“It bids them welcome and teaches them how to be happy. And who wouldn’t want to learn that particular lesson?”
By now we had arrived at our destination and I was beginning to feel a bit nervous. Would there be some sort of entrance exam? Would I be expected to discuss philosophy over cocktails in the big-wig’s private quarters? I sincerely hoped not, because I hadn’t taken in a word that Marius had said. I was too busy obsessing about his sultry lower lip and how I’d love to bite it till it bled.
The first thing we saw on entering the Garden was an enormous statue of Epicurus. It was three times life size and dominated the Garden with the air of a benevolent, all seeing, dictator. During our short stay, I noticed how most of the residents had rings and necklaces engraved with this same image. Even the crockery, the plates and the cups, had representations of the great man.
We saw a beautiful African, sitting all alone, cross-leggged, under a poplar tree. Her eyes were shut, but her face was suffused with joy. We saw a young aristocratic boy deep in conversation with an older man, who seemed to be asking a list of set questions. We saw a matronly woman pacing up and down, murmuring to herself, apparently memorizing something.
Everywhere, small groups of men and women were reclining under plane trees, spread out on the soft grass, talking. Talking and talking, non stop. The whole garden was a-buzz with animated conversation and excited gesticulation. These people were clearly enthralled by the philosophy of Epicurus. I saw none of the numbing ennui the marked out the idle rich of B Bay.
But as I looked at the clean, spruce, well-tended garden and its relaxed, healthy denizens, an important question suddenly occurred to me:
“But who pays for all this, Marius? You tell me that no one does any work, but look at them.”
I swept my hand across the high-toned, well-groomed groups.
“They’re hardly your average unemployed loafers. They all look pretty well fed and well dressed. Does everybody here have a private income? Is a trust fund from daddy or a slave-trade-funded inheritance the entrance qualification?”
“Don’t be facetious, Phoebe. You’ve missed the whole point, as always. And the whole point is that this is a way of life open to anyone and everyone. Our master, Epicurus, excluded no one. Look!”
He pointed to the beautiful African under the poplar.
“Leontion used to be a prostitute, specialising in animal fantasy role-playing.”
I was shocked that Marius knew about such deviance and I looked at the black woman with even more interest. Marius smiled.
“ She can now spend her days meditating on the mysteries of the cosmos. Over there -”
He was now pointing at a statuesque, middle aged couple strolling arm in arm through the lush meadows,
“- are Caecilius and Caecilia, brother and sister. Scions of one the oldest families on the Capitol, descended from Romulus himself.” He spoke in an exaggerated, mock-posh accent. “But all that snob nonsense means nothing to them now. They have seen the light”.
Marius once more smiled his seraphic smile. I was thrown off balance by all this super reverence for a dead Greek philosopher. Was he for real?
“Over there,” he continued, warming to his subject and speaking almost breathlessly, “is a flute player from the strip clubs of Pompeii. Over there is the leading exponent of contemporary musical theory. Over there is a small holder from the slopes of Vesuvius, here with all his family. Near him, you can probably see a group of newly-weds, a clear-sighted team of seekers after wisdom who have thrown off the shackles of suburbia. Need I go on? Surely even you can now appreciate how wide is the embrace of Father Epicurus.”
“Ok, ok, but I still don’t get how this whole hippy garden thing is actually funded.”
“You can be quite vulgar, Phoebe. Was your grandfather perhaps in trade? But if you must know, I’ll tell you. Converts to the philosophy of Epicurus are filled with a missionary zeal. They are a-flame to tell others the good news, to spread the word, to spread happiness. Every so often, a rich man or woman will convert. They will happily divert all their wealth into the common cause. All their capital and interest and rents and revenue will now work for the common good. Private property is a thing of the past. This beautiful garden is entirely funded by the munificence of Titus Lucius Formica.”
I started. Titus Lucius Formica was well known as the richest banker of Puteoli. Compared with his enormous fortune, the wealth of Gremio was peanuts. But what I didn’t know about was this radical conversion. Marius suddenly clutched me excitedly on the arm and barked a short, loud laugh.
“Well, well, well. Looks like this is your lucky day, Phoeb. Here comes the old boy now. You can quiz him yourself and learn all the finer points of Epicurean economics.”
The man walking towards us was indeed old, but he didn’t look particularly rich, nor did he look by any stretch of the imagination like a freedman banker. Neither did he look like a philanthropist. I was well used to philanthropists from back home in Rome. From time to time, the super rich of the Aventine would experience momentary pricks of conscience, or more likely of boredom, and arrange elaborate dinner parties to fund the building of a school, or organize mock auctions to raise money for wounded sailors. Inevitably, such events cost a lot more money than they raised and the largesse of the host contributed hugely to social standing.
But this man was entirely uninterested in social standing, in building schools or helping wounded sailors. As I soon discovered, he had only one interest in life. The philosophy of Epicurus. And, boy, did he know a lot about it. After about three hours of monologuing from him, so did I.
“The first thing to appreciate, my dear, and to celebrate, is the basic fact of existence itself. The basic fact, that you, Phoebe, exist as a unique individual should be the cause of endless rejoicing. Do you recall what Achilles says to Odysseus when he is summoned from the Underworld?
I’d rather be the poorest slave of a landless serf than King of the Dead.
The message of Heraclitus is the same:
Dead is viler than dung.
“ The ancients understood the immense value of life. This is an insight that we in the mid-first century have rather forgotten. The purpose of life is life. We are here to live. Everything else is of secondary, additional importance. All this frantic hurry to do things, to achieve something, to have a Useful Life, is leading society down a very dark alley indeed. Our Master Epicurus -”
At the mention of this name, the old man respectfully inclined his head
“ – has sought to eradicate this unfortunate development. He has come to give us back our life, to let us simply ‘be’.
“It is a sad fact that the current Roman fashion allows only men to celebrate their birthdays. This is a sorry example of the misogyny that still reigns in the outside world. Enlightened inhabitants of the Garden” – at this point, the old man spread wide his arms in a quasi embrace – “have moved far beyond such barbarism. Here, men and women are entirely equal. And we all celebrate our birthdays. We all celebrate the great gift of life itself.”
He smiled beatifically and encouragingly. I guess that I was expected to make some profound response to all this talk about birthdays, but I couldn’t think of anything suitably deep. So I just nodded and smiled back. Encouragingly. It seemed to do the trick. Within a moment, he was off again.
“I hope that you realize, my dear, that this is the only life that there is. As there was no life before this life, so there is no life after it. This pin-prick of time, this tiny dot in the ocean of eternity, is all that we have. And it is therefore our duty, our solemn duty, as followers of our Master Epicurus” (again, a small bow) “to enjoy it as much as possible.
“You have probably heard Epicureanism described as hedonism. And so it is, but what could be more natural and more sensible than that? We Epicureans seek to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. I do not, of course, mean pleasure in the vulgar sense of the word. The kind of pleasure that one finds in the parties of B, the pleasures of eating, drinking and sex. All to excess. These are bastardized versions of real pleasure. Real pleasure is simply the absence of pain.
“The location of our Garden was very carefully chosen. As you see, we are perched on a headland, on a cliff, high above the sparkling waters of B Bay. From this vantage point we can survey, god-like, all the vicissitudes of life below. Right now, you can probably see one of B’s famous party barges just pulling out of the harbour. You can just about hear the pulsing, fevered sound of the music and the drunken cries of the revellers.”
He looked quizzically at me and I blushed. Just how much had Marius told the old geezer about my personal experiences of B’s famous barges? I said nothing, but nodded and waited for him to continue. He did, of course. In fact, I began to wonder if he’d ever stop.
“You may look with envy on such things. Many do. And many more spend their lives and their fortunes pursuing such empty pleasures as these. But to the blessed denizens of the Garden, such scenes are at best pitiable, at worst contemptible. Pleasures such as these are fleeting, transient, impermanent. But worse than this, they are merely the prelude to pain. To sickness, to obesity, to hangovers, to perversion, to love-sickness and heartbreak.”
The old boy probably had a point here. Most of the party-goers of B were ravaged after their first season. Bloated, bleary, jaded and sick. Sick in their minds as much as their bodies. Aunt Metella had somehow managed to escape all this, but I shuddered when I remembered the flabby, scarred faces of her fellow revellers. Was it only me who saw, underneath the make-up and the bravado, the numbing world-weary tristitia? The aching depression, the endless dissatisfaction that Marius had described so eloquently. In our various ways, we are all searching for happiness, in the Garden of Epicurus, in the discovery of a long-lost sister, or on a barge party in the Bay of Naples. Most of us find only sadness. On the surface, Terpio was a fucking weirdo with an enormous, wobbling belly, but even he knew tragedy. He was trapped by a society that wouldn’t let him be who he was. That forced him into the twisted pantomime. How he could have benefited from Gremio’s refuge. I began to listen more attentively.
“Genuine and lasting pleasures, the goal of genuine hedonists, are entirely different. Right now, my dear you are see the waters of the Bay in all their summer calm. Blue, sparkling and beautiful. You are here on a perfect July day. We live in the Garden throughout the year and see the sea in all is manifold states. Imagine a winter’s night. A wild, stormy night in late November. Some poor, profit-obsessed captain has put out to sea. Against all nautical sense. Everybody knows that the setting of Orion spells disaster for shipping. Suddenly, inevitably, we see the ship tempest-tossed, struggling and finally lost. What, you ask, is our reaction to such a scene?”
In fact I wasn’t asking this, but wondering if we were ever to be offered any lunch. But whether or not I had asked the question seemed irrelevant. He answered it.
“Our reaction, my dear, is one of sanguine imperturbability. We can do nothing to help. We do not waste our emotions on an unnecessary and pointless grief.”
This seemed pretty harsh and I was poised to say as much, but the torrent of words continued.
“There is more.”
Of course there was.
“There is a far, far more important moral to this particular story. Ships in such distress have become a metaphor, an advertisement, for the Epicurean way of life. From the security of our enlightenment, from the safety of the walls of our little Garden, we see the rest of mankind as ships in a storm-crossed sea. They struggle and labour and strive. And worry. Constantly. The spend their whole lives juggling the demands of public life, of business, of families, of love affairs. The followers of the great Epicurus” (a bow) “have withdrawn from all this mad hullabaloo. We live a life apart, a life sheltered from all this madness. A life of calmness, of relaxation and tranquillity. A life of happiness.”
“The sea’s disturbances cannot disturb his spirit, who covets only what is needful, nor the fierce squalls that pounce when Arcturus wanes.” Agreed Marius, smugly. The show-off was obviously quoting something important.
“Well done, my son! You have clearly been doing your homework.” The old man smiled fondly. He sat sat back and crossed his arms. And smiled again.
“We Epicureans live a life of happiness. A life devoted to pleasure. We leave duties and responsibilities to those poor deluded fools in the big cities. We choose rather to enjoy our life, in freedom from fear, worry and pain.
“For us, pleasure is the summum bonum. The highest good. The supreme goal. And what greater pleasure is there than the pleasure of friendship? Even Aristotle recognized this when he proposed that a friend is another self. And do you remember the conclusion to his great work On the Soul?”
Really, this was becoming rather tiresome. But at least the old boy seemed to require little input from me. Which was lucky, because of course I couldn’t remember how the bloody book ended. How can you remember what you’ve never read? The cruder poems of Catullus were about as far as my reading went. I was so busy trying to remember the one about Clodia’s swimming parties that I missed the next great pearl of wisdom.
“This is a beautiful image, which our Master Epicurus seized upon and developed as the sine qua non of Garden life. You see all around you groups of friends. Friends, real friends, with a common philosophy and a common way of life. These men and women are not lovers – heaven forbid!” – he actually shuddered at this blasphemous thought – “nor are they cronies hooked-up for the next party. They are Friends. And friendship traverses all those mean little barriers set up by society. Men and women, girls and boys, adults and children, freemen and slaves, Romans, Greeks and barbarians, even animals can, and should be, friends.”
At that moment, thank Jupiter and all his little bastards, a cheerful boy ran up and asked us if we would like some lunch. Surely a host who tells you that pleasure is the greatest good should be counted on to provide a pretty good lunch. Or so I presumed. The setting, at least, was perfect. We lay stretched out on the grass, under a large beech tree, beside a merrily babbling brook. The lunch, I’m sorry to say, was far from perfect. Laid out on the grass was bread and water. And, because this was a special occasion, some cooked cheese.
But there was one very good development. Silence. A blissful, golden silence. Having spoken, somewhat incongruously, at great length on the virtues of communal silence, our bearded friend finally stopped talking. He smiled his most beatific smiles as he passed around the bread and cheese and water, but said nothing at all for over an hour.
But while he and the others were presumably meditating on friendship with a mouse, my little mind was totally obsessed with Marius. Marius the Epicurean.
We might have been in the Garden of Epicurus, the chill-out guru par excellence, but I could not have been less chilled, less tranquil and less happy. Maybe the old boy had got it right and sex was simply bad for the digestion. How was I going to manage this crazy situation? Was I going to have to play along with this New Age fad? Could I dare to hope that it was all just a passing phase and that Marius would morph again, this time into someone normal as well as someone beautiful? All in all, it seemed best to play along and to play it cool. And so I reclined on the grass and gazed out to sea in perfect imitation of a commune postulant. I ate in moderation and remembered to smile the superior smile of the Epicurean adept.
So there we were, the picture of Epicurean tranquillity, strolling arm in arm through the garden in the mellow evening sun. Every so often, we would stop to smell a flower, to chat with a mellowed hippy and to look, with newly-enlightened superiority, at the barges still plying their trade far below. Every so often, Marius would gently touch my arm and quote an appropriate maxim of the Master. Things were going pretty swimmingly and I was beginning to enjoy the vibe of this happy commune, when something truly terrible happened.
“Juno, Jupiter and Mercury. What the fuck is she doing here?”
Marius immediately looked round and I was not happy with the look on his face. Far too sexed-up for the Garden of Epicurus. Standing before us was super model, super bitch, super rich, rear of the year etc etc Melissa Constantine. The last time that I’d had the misfortune to bump into Melissa was in the Baths in the Via Sacra back in Rome. She had made some typically bitchy comments about my figure and then sashayed off with her cronies (specially picked for their below-average looks). That was a month ago. How had she morphed from uber-cow to tranquil philosopher in four weeks? I smelt a very big and very dead rat. I narrowed my eyes and began the Epicurean catechism. I quickly and skilfully exposed her as a rotten fraud. She didn’t even know when her birthday was. So what was she doing here?
The pair of us stood like statues on the headland, fists clenched at our sides, unmoving and unspeaking in the remorseless sun. Outwardly rigid, but inwardly seething with confusing and conflicting emotion.
Finally, the newly optimistic, laughing Marius said:
“So how about the three of us repair to the Villa Dulcissima to get to know each other better? For a further discussion of the Epicurean doctrine of love?”
I shouted at him to fuck off just as Melissa was saying “Fab idea, Marius. Where’ve you left your wheels?”
It was only as they strolled off, hand in hand, through the beautiful garden, that I realized my mistake. I realized that I had never seen a more shiningly beautiful couple and I longed to be part of their charmed circle. Two further considerations led me to follow them out of the garden into the sunset. The first was Aunt Metta’s worship of the omnipotent goddess, Experience. The second was the memory of Melissa at the Baths in the Via Sacra.
The next morning, as we lounged by the sea-water pool, lazily sipping an Erupting Vesuvius (for the non-cognoscenti, I ought to explain that this was a crazily popular cocktail, an insane mix of potent alcohols topped by mini fireworks), I said in my most probing-journalist-voice:
“So what’s the real story? What on earth were you, of all people, doing in the Garden of Epicurus?”
Melissa sighed and put down her drink on an ingenious little floating platform that swam around the eddying pool.
“I had just emerged from a very public, very messy split with Ajax.”
I might have guessed. That man was dogging me like a bad fairy.
“Everyone was jealous of my very public liaison with Rome’s most famous, most beautiful – and richest – wunderkind. The boy wonder, the star of the Circus, the darling of every woman in Rome. We were a dazzling, golden couple, Paris and Helen, Dido and Aeneas, Diana and Apollo. The epitome of style, good looks and sophistication.”
As if to emphasize the point, Melissa tossed her mane of shiny blonde hair and stretched out her immaculate, endless legs. She bestowed on Marius her most saccharine smile.
“We were followed everywhere. By reporters, by groupies, by love-sick spinsters, by fainting teenagers, by fat balding poofs and by desperate housewives. Ajax quickly achieved the status of arbiter elegentiae. Whatever he wore, whatever he ate, whatever he drank, wherever he went – immediately received the imprimatur. But at what cost? You have absolutely no idea of the mad life he leads. The constant pampering and preening makes my mother look like a slattern.”
Melissa’s mother was the leader of an ultra chic posse of power-dressing matronae, who spend their mornings at the manicurists and their afternoons on charity committees.
“A team of beauticians accompany him everywhere, applying mascara and face cream, spraying his body with ersatz perspiration, primping his hair and depilating his face, chest, legs and scrotum.”
“Melissa! Spare us the vulgar details.”
“He visits the baths three times a day. Naturally, they are completely cleared of the profanum vulgus. Nothing must destroy the mystique. Specialist doctors and physiotherapists are paid fantastic sums to manage every second of these visits. How many minutes in the calidarium, how much sweat-time in the sauna, how many lengths of frigidarium, how many thumps from the masseuse, how many minutes to play quoits with the team. How many seconds to spend ‘relaxing’.
“Every morning, his dresser enters the bedroom and suggests three possible outfits. He must never be seen in the same clothes, but must advertise a different designer everyday. The advisors spend two hours deciding the day’s ‘look’. Will he be the sweaty sportsman, the young man-about-town, the clean-cut supporter of family values? In fact, Terpio’s Family Values Party paid a very great deal in sponsorship for his endorsement of traditional Romanitas. With his rugged good looks and fresh-faced athleticism, he was soon the poster-boy of this whole movement. He would pose on platforms and hustings, usually with a couple of wholesome-looking children, while Terpio and his minions would harangue the fun loving population of Rome.
“When this persona had ceased to be lucrative, he metamorphosed (not that he would be able even to pronounce the word) into something entirely different. Presumably just as lucrative. People would buy anything and do anything as long as it was endorsed by Ajax. The hucksters of the forum were quick to exploit this useful fact. They paid him millions to pretend to be what he was not.
“When I first got to know Ajax (laughable mis-statement), his whole life was an embarrassing, clichéd caricature of a rich, decadent Roman. Do you know that he actually wanted me to drape myself over the chaise-longue while he fed me peeled grapes?”
“It doesn’t sound a bad way to spend a wet afternoon.”
“In front of assembled hacks looking for the latest Ajax story? He was even given a cutesy lion-cub and told to walk it on a golden lead around the forum. He threw wild (and widely reported) orgies, where he and his guests fed each other a very particular brand of dates. But I soon realized that Ajax had absolutely no character of his own. He was a great big blank, a glossy, pampered zero who waited, patiently as a child, to be told what to do, what to wear and what to say. Every second of his life was staged-managed by an unbearably bossy and interfering agent-come-publicist, called Tia Maria. I suppose you shouldn’t mock the afflicted, but she had absolutely no breasts or arse. And certainly no sense of humour.
“It was soon clear that I had to tow the party line as well. No more girls’ nights out, no more high-heeled sandals, no more visits to the gladiators’ cells, no more falling out of carriages at four in morning clutching a cucumber. And absolutely no overnighters before a big race.
“After six months, I had had enough. Ajax was as beautiful as Apollo and it was fun to be the gf of the most famous boy in Rome, but the life had serious limitations. Not the least of which was Ajax’ poor performance in the letto matrimoniale. I don’t want to go into details, but I don’t think you need to worry too much about your Mother’s reputation.”
Another flash of the brilliant smile.
But, fuck, that was a shot way below the belt. Melissa had not lost her touch. She was still the Queen Bitch. And there was I was beginning to think that she was actually quite nice. And how on earth did she know about all that? Did the whole of Rome know except Julia and me? Did Dad know? While I was obsessing about all this, Melissa was powering on with her self-obsessed story.
“But it was much, much harder to extricate myself than I had imagined. Poor Ajax, dear boy, is as incapable of feeling as he is of speaking or thinking. And he didn’t give a monkey’s who shared his bed. All he did in it was sleep. And snore. But his agents and publicists seemed to think that I was a Good Thing. Apparently, a glamorous, classy blonde did wonders for brand Ajax. A messy split would ruin the illusion and kick start the rumour wagon.
“And so Tia Maria and her team got down to work to win me back. To woo me on Ajax’ behalf. I was showered with presents. With roses, almonds and sweet-meats, with necklaces, bracelets and perfumes, with song-birds and lap-dogs, with Greek hairdressers and Saxon slaves.”
“It’s a hard life, Melissa.”
“They even commissioned Catullus to write a nasty little poem about how my dumping Ajax had brought him to the verge of suicide. What they never allowed, of course, was any direct contact with Ajax himself. But every morning a new present was delivered. As the weeks went by, these became more exotic and more expensive. But I was not to be bought. Even I have my pride.”
“Since when, Melissa dear?”
“You may sneer, Phoebe, but my family was living on the Aventine while yours was toiling in the fields of Gaul. My father, in particular, was very upset by the situation.”
This was beyond a joke. I was very careful not to catch Marius’ eye. Melissa’s father was notorious as the most venal Senator in the Capitol, entirely in the pay of the local mafia gangs.
“Anyway, one morning, as I was mooching miserably through the forum, totally veiled and incognita, I noticed a little group of people gathered around a funny looking man. They seemed to be listening to some kind of sermon. This is the sort of thing I usually avoid like the wrong shade of lipstick. They’ll all over the place these days, these preachers and philosophers, looking for gullible jerks to convert. Spoiling an afternoon’s shopping with their mad shouting. Only last week, right outside that new jewelers on the Via Recta, I heard some nutter trying to convince passers-by that parsnips have souls. I mean, come on. On the other side of the street a boring-looking Greek was telling people that evil doesn’t exist. Some poor cow whose baby had just been killed told him where to stick that particular piece of bollocks.
“Where’ve all these people come from all of sudden? What do they want? Have you noticed that they’re all foreigners? Dad thinks that it’s a deliberate campaign to undermine the traditional religions of Rome. Or an Egyptian-Persian-Parthian plot to destroy the Republic.”
Had Melissa joined the FVP?
“But I digress.”
So what’s new?
“Anyway, the man in the forum on that particular day looked a bit of a freak. He was wearing open sandals which showed some very yellow, very gnarled toes.”
“I’m sure you were able to recommend the perfect nail parlour.”
“He had a long beard (yuck) and long hair (double yuck). But he seemed incredibly happy. He smiled all the time. As I was feeling pretty much the opposite all the time, I was intrigued.
“To cut a long story short, he was a missionary from the Garden of Epicurus right here on the Bay of Naples. I immediately took the plunge and signed up for a two week retreat. Two weeks’ detox and meditation in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. And surely the last place that Tia Maria and her henchwomen were ever likely to find me. Leaving a message with my Gallic maid to tell all callers that Madame est partie pour Madagascar, I upped-sticks and left. Bye, bye dirty, grimy, smelly old Rome. Hullo, sun-lounger of the Amalfi coast. “
“You don’t seem to have learnt very much about the Master’s doctrines.” I said.
Melissa rolled her eyes to heaven.
“My dear, you have no idea what I have suffered before you and the lovely Marius rescued me. Everyone has to get up at sunrise. We gather around the statue of Epicurus and bow respectfully, while the team-leader reads out a load of gobbledy-gook for about an hour. Newbies are then paired with so-called experts for intense coaching until lunch time. I drew the short straw and had to spend every morning with an intense, pimply boy from Antium. He tried to force me to memorize a long list of utter nonsense. Every evening he catechized me on what I remembered. He got quite cross when I forgot that death means nothing to us. It actually means quite a lot to me. The creepy voyeur also wanted to know exactly what I had done and said and even thought throughout the whole day. Everything was monitored, recorded and controlled. We were living in a police state.
“After three weeks, we were allowed out on day-release. The big-wigs divided us into small groups and sent us out to the towns and villages to spread the good news. Only it wasn’t such zowy news after all. Who really wants to hear that the gods don’t care, that life is ultimately pointless, that oblivion awaits us after death and the fact that we exist at all is the result of the merest random chance?”
I had the briefest vision of my beautiful, good-for-nothing parents and wondered what they would make of this last idea.
“Even the much trumpeted Happiness, Epicureanism’s biggest selling point, is a con. These people aren’t happy. At least not in any sense that I recognize. They’re brain-washed and doped into a zombie-like acceptance of everything. A prozac fug of ‘whatever’.
“But none of this would matter a sparrow’s fart if it wasn’t for the biggest draw-back of all.”
“Quelle misère, darling.”
“You can say that again. Most of the Gardeners take a vow of celibacy the moment they take up permanent residence. And as so many of the hippies are young and sexy, this has been a frustrating month to say the least. I was actually put in a little domus next to Quintus Decimus Salvo. You remember him, Phoeb?
“How could I forget? The biggest mouth and the biggest cock this side of the Alps. I suppose the last time we all met was his birthday two years ago, falling out of Stella’s, covered in honey and rose petals.”
“And nothing else, as far as I recall.”
Marius joined in the happy reminiscence. This delirious evening was of course prior to his sudden and freaky ‘conversion’. Melissa was doing her best to convert him back to normal.
“Well, he’s certainly changed since then. And not for the better. Rather than hanging out in seedy tavernae, he now spends his days reciting the Five Precious Truths of our Master, Epicurus.”
“Holy-moly, it looks like he needs rescuing, too. What do you say, Marius? Shall we storm the Garden at dawn and carry him off on our white mares?”
“The problem is, Phoebe, that he actually quite likes it. I did not. Far from being a morale-boosting, detox retreat, it was a month of constant carnal longing and sexual frustration. I mooned about in the grip of the most God-awful hormonal overdrive, with absolutely no glimmer of relief.”
At the memory of this black period of her life, Melissa frowned and ground her teeth and gripped her hands into a tight little fist. But in a second she relaxed and grinned widely.
“So I hope you’ll both forgive me for last night. I fear I was a bit over-excited and, well, vocal. You see, it had been a very long time.”
“We forgive you.” We both said.
There was silence for a long moment as we both enjoyed flash-backs of the vocal and over-excited Melissa. Honey by name, honey by nature. I was drowning in honey, stingless.
But she was soon off again.
“And I bet that anty-pants Titus Lucius Formica (what a ridiculous name) makes a bloody fortune out of all this. Charitable status, tax deductible. Those bureaucrats in the treasury haven’t a bloody clue what’s going on here. But I’m going to make pretty sure that they soon will.”
“And your splendid father is just the man to ask Questions in the Senate about financial corruption and exploitation.”
“Whatever. I was just about to storm the inner sanctum and demand my money back when you two angels of mercy appeared. The envoys of Venus. The saviours of poor Melissa.”
Marius suddenly started dancing and laughing and singing. Singing a crazy, happy song about the great gift of life itself.
When you’re dead you’re done, so let the good times roll.
And very soon the party started all over again. After all, as our Master Epicurus so very often said, you only live once.
I returned to Villa Gremio in the mellow early afternoon. Last night, one of Marius’ hundred slaves had been dispatched to inform my aunt that the young domina had been unavoidably delayed and was obliged to spend the night at the Villa Dulcissima. No one was fooled. It was under a very prurient scrutiny that I slipped into a sun lounger on the flower-filled terrace. I was immediately handed a cooling drink and a plate of dates. Equally immediately, the interrogation began.
“What time d’you call this, big sis?”
“What was the creepy freak like in the flesh?”
“How was the poor boy? Were you able to help him at all?”
As they bombarded me with questions, I realized that it had been three days since I had seen any of them. And, boy, what a lot had happened in those three days. I could safely inform them that I had left Marius much improved and happier. I could give them plenty of details about Marius himself (now looking like a brainier version of Ajax), his house (like a centre spread in Villa et Domus) and garden (more acres than Rome itself). I could amuse them with descriptions of the more outlandish tenets of Epicurean philosophy. They were suitably outraged by the embargo on romantic relations and totally mystified by the emphasis on random chance.
“So why don’t “ asked Julia, quite perceptively for a girl thrown out of Dame Hera’s Academy without learning to read.
We chatted about such matters for a good while, but I decided to leave Melissa out of the equation. While Aunt Metta might have been sympathetic, the others would not have understood. But, more importantly, I had no wish to hurt Claudia, who might feel that she was being usurped in the best friend stakes. I then remembered how cruelly Melissa had always treated Claudia. How she mocked her spiritual pretensions as the clichéd escape of the sexually unattractive (“Chief Vestal Virgin, Leader of the God Squad”). I frowned at this unwelcome memory. Claudia was worth a thousand Melissas. Somewhere, I had taken a very wrong turning.
“But enough about me! What’s been going on here? What have you all been up to?” First prize in Social Conversation (level II) had not been awarded in vain.
Gremio had apparently spent the past three days shut up in his study with one of his agents. There had been an exciting report from a flour mill near Jerusalem. He would not emerge even for meals and Aunt Metta was obliged to send tempting collations on trays.
Aunt Metta herself seemed to have spent the whole time asleep, in preparation for the next social marathon (due to begin tomorrow night). She was certainly unaware that Julia had spent the whole time with the Pepper Baron. But would she have cared even if she had been aware?
The date, arranged on the barge, had thrilled Julia with excited anticipation. The reality, as is so often the case, turned out rather differently.
“ As well as owning that terrific party barge, the P.B. (aka Quintus Mercator) owns a fleet of mega-yachts. They are all moored in the Old Harbour at B and are all named after Jupiter's girlfriends. We were due to go out in Leda. The swan theme was cleverly suggested – or should I say 'shouted’?- throughout. The P.B. is not very up on subtlety. The cushions were swan down and the canapés were various bits of peppered swan-meat. Some clever cook had carved a swan out of a piece of ice and had filled its wings with swan eggs. Even the figure-head was part swan, part bosomy girl.
“Of course the P.B. didn’t do any of the actual sailing, although he did wear a rather flashy sailor’s cap. No, all the work was done by a team of very fit-looking French sailors. They were incredibly tanned and toned and were all wearing a sort of uniform of striped tunic and red scarf. I had the disloyal inkling that they might be better company than a middle-aged business man with a swan obsession.
“We bobbed about a bit in the Bay, not going anywhere in particular. My companion seemed to expect me to sit on his lap again for a reprise of the party bottom-patting, but in the light of day this all seemed a bit seedy and pervy. So I was very relieved when he ordered the sailors to change course and head for Capri. As you know, this is a place I’ve always wanted to see. The raves on Capri make B look like a children’s tea party. The view from the harbour of the pulsing clubs and body-strewn beach would make even Claudia long for a Flaming Vesuvius. Did you know that the cocktail was actually invented on Capri? For the queen of some funny tribe in South-East Britannia, on holiday on the Bay of Naples.
“But I was to be disappointed all over again. I was hurried past the thumping sea-front bars, past the super-chic restaurants on the harbour pontoons, past the designer sandal shops and even the private beaches. I had never seen so many beautiful, bronzed bodies. My tongue was, like, drooling. But I was chivvied along until we came to a miserable looking door in a side street. It was so narrow that the sun couldn’t penetrate. Rubbish and dust were blowing in the wind. The P.B. almost pushed me down the stairs and we came to a dingy, dirty, underground club. Hardly the eye-wateringly expensive den of friskiness that he had led me to expect. If I’d known that the date was to culminate in a seedy back street, I’d have joined Claudia on her pilgrimage to Cumae.”
“You were not, as recall, invited” said Claudia, in high-priestess mode.
“Whatever. The P.B. seemed to be very well known here. The proprietor, a hirsute hunk of indeterminate nationality, hugged him warmly and led him to a table of rather sinister looking men. They all greeted each other in the same way. Although I was totally ignored, it was somehow implied that I should sit down at a table with some over-glossy, v high-maintenance women. Presumably the WAGS. I gave a brave and cheery Salve, but they didn’t even look up. As they were all about forty years older than me and didn’t seem to know any Latin, it looked as if it would be a long afternoon.
“I tried to while away the hours with a desultory game of dice. But, as we all know, playing with yourself isn’t much fun.”
“Julia. Stop it.”
“It was only then that I noticed a scruffy little stage in the corner of the bar, where some dancing was going on. This looked a bit more fun, so I sauntered over. It was actually a lot more fun. In the space of half an hour I had learned all the basics of strip tease, pole dancing, twerking and lap dancing. I learned how to stick out my arse and jiggle my breasts. I learned how to whip off my chiton in time to the music and to tantalize the punters with whisps of diaphanous fabric.”
“What a big word for a little girl. And what a very useful social skill. Shame it wasn’t on offer at Dame Hera’s.”
“You’re just jealous, Claudia. Unlike you, I am not ashamed to celebrate my body. The girls were really sweet and complimentary. They said that I was a really quick learner. We even tried some belly dancing, but that was a bit beyond me. They said that if I ever needed a job, Mr Magnus would sign me up on the spot. I’m not so sure about that. The only disappointment about the afternoon was that no one at either table took the slightest bit of notice of what we were doing. It looked pretty hot stuff to me, but as far as the P.B. and his cronies were concerned we could have been those dancing sows you see on the sea-front at Pompeii.
“We were just enjoying a group hug, when there was a terrific commotion at the bottom of the stairs. We all looked up in surprise. Who do you think had just walked into the bar?”
For the second time in four days Julia looked around expectantly and triumphantly, preparing her audience for some monumental bombshell. I had a terrible feeling of deja-vu, and a terrible sinking feeling. Who would this new-comer turn out to be? Our mother, leading the strip-team in a disco rendition of the Dance of the Seven Veils? Our father, crawling on his knees, declaring undying love for the Pepper Baron?
“It was Ajax! Ajax! Ajax! Can you believe it! Ajax right here in this crumby clip joint! Why wasn’t he partying with the bodies beautiful at the Seahorse? Why wasn’t he posing on the prom with a couple of super-models? Why wasn’t he swimming powerfully and masterfully through the waves, his golden hair floating through the azure sea? It was all a bit of a mystery, made even more mysterious by his two companions.”
Julia paused and once again looked at us expectantly. But I was in no mood for guessing games. How Julia could block out the hideous events of Wednesday night and still be interested in this creep was the biggest mystery of all. Finally realizing that none of was going to say anything, Julia took the plunge herself and answered her own question.
“His two companions were none other than Melissa Constantine – you remember her, Phoeb? Bitch of the year five years running – and her sleaze-ball father, the Minister for Extra-marital Affairs and Financial Corruption.”
This was very upsetting news, to say the very least. Melissa had left us early on Tuesday evening, ostensibly to return to her hotel. Now, it seems, this was just a cover story. Had Melissa had a sudden and unexpected rapprochement with the dim and impotent charioteer? Had they renewed their vows in a hippy ceremony in the Magic Garden, holding hands as the sun set over the Bay of Naples? Or was yesterday’s whole conversation a pack of lies? Of course none of this explained why she and Ajax were in that dive in the first place or what her toad of a father had to do with it all. Or how any of them was connected with the Pepper Baron. Nothing made any sense. I was all at sea, out of my depth, not waving but drowning. I was so busy with all these metaphors that I almost missed Aunt Metella’s bombshell which was far, far worse and much more explosive.
“Julia, you are an angel of mercy. I so nearly forgot and you have reminded me. A rather tiresome acquaintance of mine, Smeralda Testifracta, has hired a box for tomorrow’s races at the Pompeii Circus and has invited us to join her. She has a young nephew in tow. Apparently he’s studying at the Naval Academy in Misenum and having a rather thin time of it. Smeralda is hoping that a day at the races, in attractive young company, may perk him up a bit. She is, I fear, rather ordinaire, but such is her largesse that we can forgive any amount of dropped h’s.”
At that precise moment, my aunt happened to glance in my direction.
“Phoebe, darling, you’re looking a bit peeky all of a sudden. Are you all right?
I just about managed to mutter that I was going to be sick, before I rushed out of the room. What hideous, hideous, hideous holiday this was.
It wasn’t until much later that the girls came up to bed and I could reveal the true identity of Mrs T. and her ‘nephew’. We all agreed that I must escape this ordeal by pretending to be unwell. Julia and Claudia promised to report that the woman was fat and vulgar, with embarrassingly over-dyed hair and too many rings, and that Marcus had gone worryingly down-hill in the past three days and was now looking haggard, used and abused.
“You don’t seem very interested in hearing what’s happened to me in the past few days.”
Claudia was obviously desperate to tell me some really big news. I had a depressing premonition of another story of spiritual enlightenment, but I could hardly ignore her.
“Darling, I’m so sorry. I’m really not feeling well. How was Cumae? Did you see the Sibyl in her basket? Did you find any trace of the guru?”
“Oh Phoebe, you are so last year.” Julia raised her eyes theatrically to heaven. “The guru obsession is over. He has been replaced, eclipsed and cruelly tossed aside. Claudia has finally Fallen In Love. She has finally Found a Man.”
“I have. And he’s perfect.” Claudia was smiling so hugely that she looked almost pretty. For a moment.
But this really was marvellous news and most unexpected. Poor Claudia had had such rotten luck in the boy-friend department that I was beginning to think that Melissa’s spiteful prophecy would turn out to be true. That she really would end up as the Chief Vestal Virgin, shut up in a cold and gloomy temple, with nothing to do all day except stop a flame going out. But now, apparently, some likely lad had seen past all the crazy God-talk, had ignored the dried-prune-face and had whisked her off her feet.
“Claudia, Claudia, dear little Claudina, best friend in all the world. I am so pleased for you.” I said. And I was. I hugged her and told her to sit down on the bed and tell me everything about him.
“What’s his name? Where does he come from? What does he do? What does he look like? Is he blonde or dark?”
“You will soon be able to see for yourself. Your lovely aunt has agreed to invite him to dinner on Friday night. She’s going to cook sows’ nipples in his honour! But in the meantime, I can tell you that he is called Titus Lucius Formica and that he is the founder and funder of the Epicurean Garden, right here on the Bay of Naples! Maybe you’ve already met him, Phoeb! Wouldn’t that be an incredible co-incidence!”
Or maybe a piece of cruel and random chance.
Claudia waltzed off to bed in a dream of first-love. Julia told me a bit more about her disastrous date and then she, too, went to bed. I was finally left alone to ponder the extraordinary revelations of the afternoon. One thing was certain. As soon as the others were safely out of the way, en route for Pompeii, I would take myself straight over to the Villa Dulcissima. I had to tell Marius about Melissa’s bare-faced duplicity and about Claudia’s terrible misalliance. He would surely know what to do.
I eventually fell sleep under the gauzy and critical gaze of Thecla’s doll collection.
The day dawned, as they say, bright and sunny. It was perfect weather for a day at the races, with high wispy clouds and a brisk sea-breeze. I was half tempted to change my mind and join the others, but then I remembered how much I hated Marcus and his disgusting oedipal liaison. So I lay back on the downy pillow and listened the sound of the others getting ready. Which took a very long time. Everyone wanted to look her best for the mega-rich Mrs Testifracta and her foxy nephew. Aunt Metta, of course, hit the perfect middle-note of cool sophistication, sporty/chic, smart/casual, Ladies’ Day at Pompeii. The hostess would of course be wildly over-dressed, over-jeweled and over-perfumed. Less-is-more, Mrs T, especially in the mascara department.
Claudia, inevitably, had made a very unfortunate choice of entirely mismatched styles. She looked like a transvestite auditioning for the role of Mephistopheles. My little sister, by contrast, had transformed herself into the perfection of Roman girlhood. She paraded herself confidently in front of my sick-bed.
She looked impossibly innocent and pretty, a rose-bud, a moonbeam, a freshly-caught pearl. I feared that she would be scooped up by the first man who saw her. Let’s just hope it wouldn’t be Marcus.
Just as the carriage rolled up outside the front door, Aunt Metta breezed into the room to see the invalid.
“Darling girl, I hate leaving you like this. I’ve half a mind to cancel the whole thing and stay and look after you. You can never be too careful with eczema. One moment you’re scratching a spot and the next you’ve lost a leg.”
Aunt Metta was over-dramatic in every aspect of her exhausting life. Much though I hated to deceive her, I assured my aunt that all I needed was a day in bed and I’d soon be back to my old, fun-loving self. Reluctantly, she agreed and ushered the others down the stairs to the waiting carriage. I waited until I could no longer hear the horses’ hooves and then leapt out of bed. In a second I was washed and dressed and on my way to Marius’ pretentious bachelor pad.
The slave who answered the door was our old partner in crime. He smiled at me conspiratorially and enquired if I was looking for the young dominus. Since Marius was the only resident in this echoing mausoleum, this seemed a rather redundant question. But I answered politely and très formally. I was not going to allow this pip-squeak to get too familiar. I bet that Marius was a push-over and that his household was a permanent Saturnalia.
“Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco requests the pleasure of the company of Dominus Marius Memmius Minimus Pulcher.
“Then I shall take you to him.”
Why did I suddenly feel like a harem slave being led to the marriage bed of a powerful and wickedly perverted potentate? More worryingly, why was I enjoying the fantasy?
Apparently, Marius was not in the library, nor in the triclinium, nor in the atrium, nor in the study, nor in the bedroom (shame, shame!), nor in any one of the hundred other marble rooms that made up the Villa Dulcissima. He was not in the house at all. The slave led me straight out through the huge, lead-studded doors and back into the glaring, midday sun.
We walked for what seemed like miles through the formal gardens, out into the pseudo woods and pastures, past the lolling ersatz shepherds, past their groomed and primped flocks and past a huge and pointless artificial lake, before we arrived at our somewhat disappointing destination. The smirking slave left me outside a little flinty cottage on the edge of a steep cliff. I presumed it was all part of the set, the shepherd’s hovel, the honest farmer’s lowly croft. Feeling a teeny bit disappointed with the hum-drum setting, I pushed open the door. What (and whom) I saw inside made me cry out in wonder and amazement.
The building could not have been more different from a shepherd’s hovel. It was in fact the most incredible grotto, entirely lined with blue, purple and even yellow amethyst. The floor was not a mosaic – trop ordinaire – but an amalgam of exotic, polished shells set flush to the ground. The strange light of the cave, the strong smell of the sea and the constant cry of the gulls transformed Marius into a magically alluring creature of the deep. An irresistible boy siren, a merman, a changeling of the nymphs. He was no longer the cruel satrap, toying with his youngest wife, but a slippery, salty – and very sexy – water sprite.
I finally pulled myself away and assumed a serious expression.
“Marius. Something really awful’s happened. Lots of really awful things have all happened all at once. Melissa’s a total bitch. All that stuff about Ajax was a lie. She never dumped him. Julia saw them yesterday, with their tongues right down each other’s throats. How could she, Marius? How could she? After all we’ve done for her!” I was pretty close to tears, but I had to tell him the rest of the hideous debacle. “And somehow her sleaze-ball father is involved with Ajax, too. There’s obviously some racket going on. They’re all chummed-up with some Mafia types in Capri. Julia saw it all, yesterday, when she was on her disastrous date with the Pepper Baron in the strip-club. And now the others are all at the races in Pompeii with that fat old cow, Mrs. Testifracta. What sort of name is that anyway? Even as we speak, they’re drinking her wine and eating her food and chatting-up that arse-hole Marcus Junius. They’re all traitors, Marius. Marius, Marius, you’re my only friend. My best friend…..”
“What are you talking about, Phoeb? Slow down. I don’t understand any of it. Who is the Pepper Baron? What strip club? And why the hell are the others at a party with the wicked Mrs T?”
I told him everything, as slowly and coherently as I could. He listened, appalled. When I finally stopped talking, we hugged each other in a pathetic embrace of mutual support and lovelorn solidarity. And frantic, frenzied, animal-attraction.
It was while we were smooching in the grotto, bitching about the mendacious Melissa, the blonde gigolo and the high-heeled sugar-mummy, that Marius had his brain-wave, his coup de foudre, his wizard, thrilling and entirely fool-proof master-plan. He propped himself up on his elbow and fixed me with his most glittering stare.
“Baby, baby, baby! Why don’t we go to the races, too? But not as Marius and Phoebe. Oh no, that’s far too obvious. Mauro, a wretched docker from the slums of Naples, has finally scraped together enough money to treat his haggard wife to a Day Out. He knows how much she adores Ajax. No one will guess who we really are! We can seamlessly infiltrate the enemy camp and uncover all their dastardly tricks.”
All Sloanes love fancy dress. And I am no exception. Before you could say ‘Julius Caesar’, Marius and I (me and Mauro) were milling about the main concourse of the Circus Pompeiianus. The big race of the afternoon was not due to start for another hour, but I was annoyed that we had missed the warm up, novelty show. The sponsor of the afternoon’s jolly had somehow managed to find six female charioteers. They had raced round the track just like the real thing. Only two were killed, which everyone agreed was pretty good going. As we arrived, the mess of broken chariots and mangled bodies was being cleared away and the sand-track smoothed over for the main event of the day.
We were soon mingling seamlessly with the profanum vulgus, ordering sausages and beer from a little kiosk and placing bets. Actually, the whole betting scene was a bit of a non-starter (excuse the pun). Ajax was so much the favourite that the odds were miniscule. I decided to liven things up a bit by putting a few sestercii on the rank outsider, a novice from Corinth, called Ben Demetrios. Marius tried to slip into character by trying out a few words of the local patois. But since his only experience of this was graffiti, I’m afraid that he wasn’t very convincing. He kept repeating ‘Mauro woz ere’ and ‘Phoebe sucks for four quid.’
While the hoi poloi were milling around below, the private boxes were full of the great and the good. There were only six of these miniature palais de luxe and they changed hands for phenomenal sums. The first had been rented by some local politicians, boring old parts who used to be used-chariot salesmen and now ruled the borough with a rod of iron and plenty of backhanders. By the look on their faces, they were still worrying about the sewage franchise. The whole set-up smacked of corporate entertainment, from the size of the politicians’ stomachs to the pretentious, pseudo-elegance of the ‘luncheon’ itself (reclining couches – at a racecourse?? – finger bowls and liveried servants). Some brash-looking business men, in shiny, obviously hired togas, were doing their best to convince the Council that they knew all there was to know about the disposal of shit in a modern urban setting. Whatever Vespasian might say, money very often did smell. And this first box reeked of the stuff.
The next box was an entirely different. It was festooned with garlands and streamers and was already rocking with some pretty hard partying. Fresh supplies of food, drink and exotic dancers were constantly being delivered from waiting wagons. This was the private box of the patron of the games and his (many) personal guests. Senator Caecilius Simius was a millionaire ‘importer’ of fine art. He had been Verres’ right-hand-man in Sicily, before Cicero put a definitive end to that particular scam. That he managed to remain afloat, while Verres sank without trace, is testimony to the power and influence of art-loving Romans. These days, Caecilius was much more discrete, but still managed to avoid all tax and to hide the looted treasures of the East in a vast warehouse in Ostia.
The Senator had used a tiny portion of his vast personal fortune to fund this afternoon’s extravaganza. He had, quite literally, bought the most famous athletes in the world. Olympus on the Med. The fee charged by Ajax alone would have bankrupted most men. The aim, of course, was to bribe the plebs with bread and circuses and ensure his re-election. A recent sleaze scandal, involving a flute-player and a pineapple, had caused a temporary hiccup in Caecilius’ smooth rise to the Consulship. He was obliged to make up ground and curry favour pretty smartish.
In a gesture of unprecedented good-will and generosity, the patron of the games had hired the next box for the winners of the morning’s sports. Huge athletes, crowned with ivy and laurel, teetered about in the throes of drunken celebration. The winners of the boxing, the discus and the javelin were sprawled on lavish couches playing with their (female) prizes. The victrix of this morning’s chariot race, a scary Gallic matrona of enormous proportions, was joining in the fun with great gusto.
But it was the next two boxes that gripped our attention. In the front row of Box IV, Melissa, her father and the Pepper Baron were easily visible. They were accompanied by some shady looking foreigners, presumably the business cronies that Julia had met on Capri. Behind them, apparently guarding the door, stood a row of heavies with shaved heads and nailed sandals. The Pepper Baron, as befitted his elevated status, had a personal minder, a Briton of enormous stature and very menacing mien. He stood behind the P.B.‘s chair and scrutinised the crowds milling about below. Everyone seemed very serious and somehow on edge, as if waiting for something momentous to happen.
Everyone, that is, except Melissa. She seemed even more over-excited than usual and kept flitting about between one man and another, flashing her brightest smile and flicking her Rapunzel hair. She was playing her role du jour to perfection. The glossy, pampered, soignée girlfriend of the day’s most famous athlete. Tia Maria’s publicity circus had presumably worked for days on her ‘look’. From the pearl-encrusted, bee-hive hair to the tiny golden slippers, she breathed an aura of exquisite good taste. A jostling crowd had gathered below, hoping for a glimpse. From time to time, she leant over the balcony and waved. This magnanimous gesture was greeted with rapturous applause. It was soon obvious that Melissa was just as famous and popular as Ajax himself.
Marius and I looked on in pained silence, bewildered by the show unfolding before us. We took each other’s hand in mute solidarity. We were both the dupes of this beautiful, callous girl. We were both the pawns in her elaborate and endless game of self aggrandisement. Bonjour, tristesse.
This was a painful realization for both of us, but it did not explain the basic mystery that we had come to solve. What connected the occupants of Box IV? What was the sinister link between such very queer bed-fellows? What did a successful spice merchant want with a home-wrecking, perma-tanned It-girl? What could a soon-to-be-impeached Senator gain from the Neapolitan mafia? Money and sex were the obvious answers, but the precise nature of the scam so far eluded us. Reluctantly, we turned our attention elsewhere.
The last box was the largest, the most luxurious and presumably the most expensive. It also had by far the best position. It jutted out over the course right at the sharpest, most dangerous turn, the scene of the most spectacular collisions. Naturally, it was the box taken by Mrs. Ball-breaker (the time for euphemism was way past). The boy wonder wasn’t lying. His protectress was clearly insanely rich. And much to my annoyance she didn’t seem your average gigolo user. Naturellement, I was hoping for a desperate old hag who paid for sex with blue-eyed sailors a third of her age. But the hostess of Box V was, quite frankly, beautiful. A dark version of Aunt Metella, with perfect skin, figure, clothes and posture. And her sexual allure was palpable, pulsing across the arena. Marius began to fidget and look embarrassed. Equally obviously, Marcus’ new friend was the perfect hostess, the life and soul, the mistress of the bon mot and the witty anecdote. Even from where we were standing, twenty feet below, it was obvious that my treacherous friends and family were hanging onto her every word. Claudia and Julia were clearly mesmerized, gazing up at Mrs. T. in admiration, even adoration. Aunt Metella had apparently decided that class scruples were the pathetic evidence of bourgeois insecurity. It apparently no longer mattered that her hostess was a vulgar parvenue with a string of beauty parlours. Her largesse was lapped up. As was her ‘nephew’. My aunt was so obviously enamoured by Marcus that I began to suspect that they were indeed already acquainted (in an intimate, Biblical, sense). That Marcus’ revolting revelations on the barge were no empty boast.
I turned away sadly. Despite the jostling, holiday crowds, I suddenly felt unbearably alone, abandoned and betrayed by everyone I had ever loved. By Melissa, Marcus, Aunt Metella, Julia and Claudia. Even the curly haired cherub who held my hand was fickle, unstable and decidedly unreliable. After all, who was it who invited the serpent into the garden? Why wasn’t I enough? And was the meeting with Melissa really such an accident? Was that the real reason for asking me to the Epicurean hang-out? I then remembered Marius’ crazy outbursts when I first arrived at the Villa Dulcissima and shuddered….
I was abruptly shaken out of this spiraling depression by Marius grabbing me by the arm.
“Look, isn’t that your sister?”
I looked where Marius was pointing and saw Julia making her way, unsteadily, but purposefully, across the wide sandy track, across the central reservation, past the stewards’ enclosure, to the Paddock. The place was already thronged with hysterical, screaming fans, waiting for the first tantalising glimpse of the afternoon’s Main Attraction.
Before any big race, it was customary for the competitors to parade themselves and their horses in front of the crowd. Ostensibly, this was to allow serious gamblers the chance to compare horses, riders and chariots. But this afternoon in the Pompeii Circus no one gave a shit about axel width, spiked wheels or chariot weight. There was no point in comparing horses or horsemen. The race was a foregone conclusion.
Those gathered around the paddock, threatening to break down the flimsy whicker fence, were not sportsmen but crazed obsessives who followed Ajax wherever he went. They followed him to every race across the Italian peninsular, to every photo-shoot, to every dinner date and every gym trip. They spent fortunes on their obsession. Tia Maria and her team knew exactly how to whip up the maximum of frenzied adulation.
Today, Ajax was dressed as Phoebus Apollo, the sun god himself in all his splendour, ready to drive his flaming chariot across the heavens. His flowing hair was dyed blonde and capped with a filigree crown of spun gold. His chariot had been gilded and even his horses were caparisoned in gold, jingling with the gold medals of their many triumphs. In deference to his swooning fans, his chest was bare, plucked, tanned, oiled and gleaming. He wore a short leather kilt, molded tightly around his thighs and buttocks. Standing proud in his magnificent chariot, golden and glinting in the bright afternoon sun, I had to admit that Ajax was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen.
He rode three laps of the Circus amid fantastic, deafening applause. He then climbed onto a small podium, where he was handed a posy of wild flowers and crowned with laurel. As if he had already won the race, which to all intents and purposes he had. Ben Demetrios and the others merely provided some local colour and amusement. Suddenly the applause erupted even more loudly as the charioteer was joined on the stage by a super-model dressed as Diana, sister/lover of Apollo. With sinking heart and sickening sense of inevitability, I saw that it was Melissa.
I suppose I should be thanking God that, this time at least, he was not sharing the stage with my mother.
The next few hours passed in a flash. A speeded-up, dream-sequence of incredible, nightmarish events. My mother making a last-minute appearance on the podium, dressed as Leto, beguiling mother (lover?) of the golden twins. To rapturous applause. Then the incredible race itself, the ensuing riot, the thunder-storm. And, just visible through the maelstrom, the abduction of the two people I love the most. Julia bundled away by the Pepper Baron. A second rape of Persephone to God knows what hell. And Marcus, a poor innocent Hippolytus in the clutches of a monstrous new Phaedra (aka Mrs Testi-fucking-fracta).
At first, Marius and I were rooted to the spot in disbelief at the drama unfolding around us. We then realized that we should try to make our escape before things turned really nasty. We moved as fast as we could, with our hair plastered to our faces and our clothes wringing wet and clinging. So quickly had the rain fallen and on such very arid ground, that it seemed as if we were wading through a fast flowing river. The thunder clapped again and a great fork of lightning lit up the raging, storm-tossed sea. Marius took my hand and hurried me along, through the teeming rain and stampeding crowds.
It was slow going, but at least the riot was showing signs of wearing itself out. The torrential rain had dampened the fervour of even the most ardent and disappointed fan. The fires had gone out and smoldered wetly. The fighting was now sporadic and isolated. But the devastation was ubiquitous. The grandstand was completely destroyed, its planks torn apart and used as weapons. The boxes had been stormed by marauding gangs and the looting had begun in earnest. An organized and systematic removal of food, drink and even furniture. The stables had been burnt to the ground and the horses set loose. Spooked and rider-less they ran amok through the crowds, spreading havoc and panic. As far as the eye could see, the ground was strewn with bodies. Drunk, wounded, senseless, some even dead.
It suddenly seemed as if we were fleeing from some violent catastrophe, the sack of city, an earthquake, a tidal wave. But all this terrible violence was the result of a banal and surely common-place occurrence. Didn’t the favourite often lose? Maybe some wretched labourer had lost his dinner-money, but was that any reason to start killing people and destroying whole buildings? But then I remembered that this wasn’t any old favourite. It was Ajax. Fucking Ajax. The darling of every patriotic Roman, the poster-boy of the F.V.P., the pin-up of every teenage girl, the heart-throb of every ageing homosexual, the afternoon delight of every bored house-wife, the golden goose of every merchant on the forum, the prop and stay of Rome itself. Without Ajax, what was left? He was everyone’s fantasy and few could bear what had happened. Violence and destruction was the only possible response.
Somehow, amid the madness and mayhem, we came upon Claudia and Aunt Metella. They were supporting each other, staggering and stumbling through the seething throng. The blind leading the blind. And they were entirely alone. No escorts, no porters, no minders. I could only assume that the slaves had taken advantage of the situation and run off. Two lonely, obviously wealthy women were incredibly vulnerable. Any moment they were liable to lose their jewelry, their bags and even their clothes to the thieving mob. They fell upon us with a palpable sense of relief.
It was agreed that we should return as quickly as possible to the safety of the Villa Gremio. Thank goodness, Aunt Metta had brought the carriage and not a litter. As we were picking our way through the muddy, debris filled car-park, a group of bedraggled slaves suddenly surrounded as, crying out and pawing my aunt. Claudia and I started back in fear and Marius drew his short sword. But Aunt Metella laughed her gravelly laugh and embraced each one like a long lost brother. It turned out that these ragamuffins were her personal and devoted staff. Somehow they had got separated from their beloved mistress and despaired for her safety. They had spent the last hour roaming the race course for any sign or indication of her whereabouts. The joyful reconciliation was celebrated with tears and laughter in equal measure.
Once again, I marvelled at my Aunt’s infinite and indiscriminate ability to love and be loved. Love with a capital L. The Metella Touch. From Syrian freedmen to boy sailors, from teenaged nieces to Batavian slaves, from prostitutes to dead brothers and nouveaux-riches business women. Marius and Claudia have known my aunt for only a few weeks, yet they both love her. And are loved in return. Who was it who first sent me to the Villa Dulcissima, to a lonely and confused young man? Of all the people in the Bay, only she realized how odd it was for a boy of 20 to be living all alone in that vast palace. And it is only Aunt Metta who has the patience to listen properly to Claudia boring on about the celestial hierarchies. It is only Aunt Metta who sees that Claudia’s real beauty is her exceptional soul and values her for it. Julia is a selfish and spoiled brat, but she worships our aunt. When she is with Julia, Aunt Metella adjusts her speech and even her thoughts to those of an excitable fifteen year-old. The two of them talk for hours about clothes, boys and racing stars.
As Gremio explained to me, that night in the garden, Aunt Metta is blessed, or cursed, with a uniquely perceptive sensitivity. An incredible ability to imagine herself in another’s shoes. Whatever others are feeling, she feels it, too. She has sympathy and empathy with everyone and everything. She is the only person I know who can feel the pain of a severely topiaried cypress. And who else would see a pearl and mourn the dead oyster?
This all-inclusive expansion of the self was not the result of dry philosophical reasoning, but was the inevitable expression of an innate magnanimity. A literal greatness of soul. Could this dubious gift really be explained as simply the rebellion against a cold and austere childhood? Was it not more likely a unique grace, a gift of the gods themselves?
Whatever the reason and whatever the cause, the mood within the chariot as we raced home along the treacherous corniche was warm, comforting and inclusive. Men and women, slaves and free, we all huddled together and discussed the bizarre happenings of the day. And bizarre they certainly were, as was the whole holiday so far. Far from being a relaxing sun-bathe on the chill-out coast, our little sojourn had been wrecked by one disaster after another. I smiled ruefully at the lashing rain and dreamt of going back home for a well deserved break.
Julia Euphoria Dorco to Tullia Cicero greetings.
This has been the worst day of my entire life. In the life of every Jaxette throughout the country and throughout the world. It’s like the worst possible bereavement. Imagine your mum and dad and brothers and sisters all killed at once. That would be almost as bad. All around me people were tearing their hair, beating their breasts, wailing and gnashing their teeth. Fainting. Wandering around. Aimless, bewildered, out of their minds with grief. Desperately sad and furiously angry at the same time. Total despair, total disbelief. There was a riot in the Circus. Of course there was. Fans streaming onto the track, ripping up the stands, pelting the officials, shitting on the winner’s podium, lynching Ben fucking Demetrios. He deserved all he got. I mean, how dare he? How dare that greasy dago beat Ajax?
A group of frenzied fans from his local suburb stormed the stables, but he had already left. Bundled out of the back door, hidden under a pile of manure. One woman I know, from Forum Appii, threw herself under the wheels of the Greek as he rode his pathetic lap of honour. She was squashed and mangled and unrecognizable. A sacrifice, an offering, a tribute to the glory that was Ajax.
Ajax, Ajax, Ajax. Never again will that glorious name be sounded. It’s all over, Tule. It all ended in some backwater on the Bay of Naples. Tomorrow we wake up in a new world. A black and bitter world. A world in which Ajax, Champion Charioteer, loses.
Melissa Constantine to Flavius Publius Carus greetings.
Did you remember, bird-brain? Did you remember to place the bet? Please don’t say you forgot. I told you often enough. The 3.10 at Pompeii, Ben Demetrios, 100-1. Because, GET THIS, my beautiful, soon-to be-rich-beyond-your-wildest-dreams boyfriend, it worked. It fucking worked! My genius father and the boy-racer make the dream team. The plan was so deliciously simple that even Ajax couldn’t fuck it up. I mean, how hard is it to lose a race? Anyway, we’re going for the really big win now. It’s already worked in Pompeii, Naples and Forum Appii. And Ajax has at last agreed to the Circus bloody Maximus. So you see, bird-brain, you needn’t have got your knickers in such a twist. It was all worth it in the end. There was no need for your hissy fits of jealousy and wounded man-pride.
Metella to Clodia Metelli greetings
I heard the news only yesterday and my first thought was for you at this frightening and bewildering time. You must be strong, my darling. Be strong in the face of your crippling bereavement and even stronger in the face of the inevitable backlash. There are, I fear, some very hard times ahead. One someone famous dies – and who was more famous than our darling Catullus? – the whole media circus jumps in with both hobnailed feet. The gossip starts all over again, the scandal mongers rake over every detail of the dead man’s life. And of course that will mean you, you with a capital Y. Clodia the scarlet woman, Clodia the destroyer of poets, Clodia the cradle-snatcher and home-wrecker. It’s all so boringly predictable. These people have nothing new or interesting to say. You must simply ignore them.
And you must not sink into a depression. Nor, even more emphatically, must you seek solace in the arms of Cicero, Caelius or any other of your soi-disant boyfriends. (Incidentally, do you only ever date men whose names begin with ‘C’?). Anyway, any rapprochement with any of these men could only spell disaster and heart ache. As you very well know. I have another solution, another, far softer balm for your grieving heart.
You may be interested to know that I have recently renewed acquaintance with Smeralda Testifracta. You will surely remember her from the old days. She was a stalwart of the Panther Club, very nearly its proprietress at one stage. It would have been one of her many successful ventures. Anyway, turning 50 seems to have concentrated her mind. She has taken a back seat from her various business interests and thrown herself into charity work.
Would you believe that our old friend is now much involved in a youth outreach scheme, right here on the Bay of Naples? Her particular remit is the Misenum Naval Academy. She explained everything to me yesterday, in her private box at the Pompeii Circus.
So my advice to you, carissima, is to summon your driver, the dreamy Phaeton, and get yourself to B toute suite. Believe me, a new dalliance, a holiday romance, will prove the best cure.
After what seemed like a lifetime in Hyperborea, I was finally beginning to feel warm again. We were all safely ensconced at the Villa Gremio once more, reclining on the softest sofas and covered with furry rugs. Shilto had lit a roaring fire and, although it was only the eighth hour, a glittering display of lamps and candles. The other slaves were busy handing out mulled wine and hot snacks. Aunt Metella was warning Claudia not to catch a cold on the eve of her big date, Marius was dozing and I was brooding on my many troubles.
It was all very peaceful, when there was suddenly a terrific banging at the door, as if a whole crowd of refugees were seeking sanctuary. The next moment, the peace was cataclysmically shattered as Melissa, Mrs Testifracta and Marcus burst histrionically into the room. As this so approximated my worst possible nightmare, at first all I could do was laugh. What on earth were they doing here? The three people I hated – feared, loved – the most.
They were all talking at once, about a disaster at the Metropolitum, how the wind had ripped off the roof and water was pouring into the penthouse suites, how silk dresses had been ruined and jewels looted. How a spectacular fork of lightning had caused a fire and how all the slaves had fled. How they had been left homeless and penniless. Bereft of everything other than the clothes they stood up in. How they had walked for an hour in the teeming rain and were throwing themselves on the mercy of my sainted Aunt.
“Metella, darling” – just how many gitanes had this woman smoked in the last hour? – “ I know that you already have a houseful, but there was simply no where else to go. No other port in the storm.”
With these words, Mrs T threw herself dramatically onto the best chaise-longue and accepted two glasses of steaming mead. With a cursory ‘Look the other way, boys’, she peeled off her wet clothes and snuggled down stark-naked under the best leopard rug. How did this jumped-up cow come to have such a sense of entitlement, such an over-inflated sense of self-worth? How dare she waltz in here and take the best seat and expect everyone to dance in attendance and cater to her every whim? I winced as Marius leapt to attention as soon as she entered the room, transformed from dreamy boy-philosopher to cringing acolyte. Any why was she here at all? If she could afford to take a penthouse suite for her and her toy-boy for the whole summer season, she could easily have decamped to any of the other IV * hotels on the corniche. Why did she have to come here and ruin our evening?
Despite my Aunt’s superlative social skills, the soirée got off to a decidedly sticky start. Marcus and Marius had of course been at school together – the plushest, poshest boarding school this side of the Euphrates. But they hadn’t spoken since they left, for the simple reason that they loathed each other. They had absolutely nothing in common, other, of course, than extreme wealth, class and beauty.
Mrs Testifracta would not deign even to look at such an obviously perennial wall-flower as Claudia. She wouldn’t speak to me either. I must say that this perked me up a bit. Marcus had obviously divulged enough for her to feel jealous of me. I did my best to look as femme fatale as poss. I crossed my legs, adjusted my cleavage and reminded myself that I was at least thirty years younger than the pickled herring lying opposite me.
The only one talking normally was Melissa. She was far too crass and insensitive to feel any embarrassment. During one of the many awkward silences, we could all hear her saying to Claudia -
“Well, have you managed it yet? Surely even you can’t fail to lose your virginity in a place like B. But if you’re still having trouble” – the friendly advice was offered in a husky stage-whisper – “I know just the place for you. It’s clean, discrete and not wildly expensive. I’m sure that Marcus could give you the necessary introductions.”
She laughed her Tinker-bell laugh and tossed her salon-perfect hair. But this was all so appalling that even Aunt Metta was momentarily wrong-footed. No one could think of anything to say or how to avoid staring at Marcus and Mrs T. I was seething with anger and humiliation. How did Melissa always know the very nastiest gossip? I still hadn’t worked out how she knew about Mum and Ajax. And now it appeared that she also knew all about Marcus being a gigolo. What kind of network did she have? The bitch was utterly impossible. As well as utterly beautiful. Fuck it. She was beginning to have her usual effect on me. I glanced at Marius. He seemed to feeling the same.
Oh, why does everything always go wrong? Just when life seems perfetto, a bad fairy comes along and messes it all up. Why couldn’t the clock turn back twenty-four hours? Before Julia’s catastrophic revelations and before their very public confirmation at the Pompeii Circus. Before Melissa had been unmasked as a duplicitous gangster moll.
Those precious hours in Marius’ pleasure-garden were absolutely the happiest of my life so far. I was even able to forget about Marcus for a blissful moment or two. I’m sure that this micro-orgy was not what the indulgent grandmother had in mind when she oversaw the elaborate and wildly expensive landscaping, but for us it was the perfect back-drop. It was all so wonderful. The punishing midday sun, the glittering fountains, the impromptu party, the cocktails, the crazy dancing, the crazy-horse dancing. Dance me to the end of love. It was a scene that I had replayed in my head a million times. Et in arcadia ego. But now I was in the closer approximation to hell.
Just as the torture looked set in for the night, help came from an unexpected quarter. Marcus might by now have only very tenuous links with the Naval Academy, but he still enjoyed the usual student privileges. From an oddly-shaped alabaster jar, he produced a narrow phial of blue liquid. This he mixed with some high proof alcohol and handed around in little glasses. Naturally, we were all a bit wary and quizzed the boy-wonder.
“What is it, Marcus?”
“Where d”you get it?”
“What’s it for?”
“How many calories per glass?”
“Hold your horses! One question at a time. Please. So. Question number 1. What is it? It’s a delicious narcotic, made from nutmeg, poppies and the flower of the blue lotus.”
“Yum, yum. Just what I’ve always wanted. What’s wrong with a glass of good old Alban?”
Marcus slowly shook his head in bewildered disbelief.
“You are so crushingly pedestrian, Claudia. You are about to be offered one of the most exotic concoctions in the world and you want something from the hills behind Rome. You’ve got a lot of living to do, baby. A lot of catching-up. The ingredients of this little beauty are from the four corners of the known world. Or should I say the ‘unknown world’? From the jungles of India, the plains of Parthia and the banks of the Nile.
“The final distillation was purchased, rather banally, on Monday night, from the owner of the party barge. Julia’s latest inamorato, the Pepper Baron. Surely you didn’t think that he had amassed such a fortune from pepper?”
“Where else?” said Aunt Metta. She went off on a little excursus that happily filled up another awkward pause.
“Dear Quintus is the bedrock of B life. You can buy anything, and anyone, from the Emporium Omnium. Providing, of course, that the price is right. Our friend might like to pose as Play Boy Number 1, party-host to the rich and famous, but he remains what he always was. A grocer on the make. A shop-keeper with delusions of grandeur. I only hope that Julia’s little dalliance doesn’t go too far. I shudder to think how I would explain things to her parents. Gremio has tried to warn her.
“Not that Quintus isn’t useful, nor – in his peculiar way – immensely powerful. That chic little deli on the High Street is the tip of an enormous business empire stretching to the banks of the Ganges. Only last week, Gremio’s wife – Gremio’s ex-wife – ordered from Quintus a dozen peacocks and a hundred-weight of frankincense and myrrh. And how do you think your grandmother got hold of all that amethyst, Marius? How do you think Publius found the giraffes and rhinos for last week’s spectacular?
“And who is the dealer who sources slaves for the particularly discerning mistress, with very definite specifications?”
My aunt smiled indulgently and held out her arms to Shilto, who at least had the grace to blush.
“But I interrupted you, my dear. How rude. I only meant to say that your source is hardly surprising. If Quintus can sell Barbary apes to the King of Judea, he can sell dope to school-boys.”
“But what’s it for, Marcus?” I said, again. “What’s the point?”
Hallucinogens were not yet on the curriculum at Dame Hera’s. That would come a decade or so later. Much to Augustus’ dismay. Marcus was irritated by the question.
“Why is everyone these days so obsessed with utility and purpose? It’s all so boringly bourgeois. It isn’t for anything. And that’s the whole point. It’s to let the good times roll. To kick back with the girls. To chill. To lounge. And you needn’t worry your beautiful head, Missy darling. There are virtually no calories. Your baby-gazelle thighs are in no danger.”
With this smarmy compliment ringing in our ears, we tipped back the glasses and drained their dubious contents. And opened our eyes to a whole new world. A shiny, happy, beautiful world. The lost, childhood world of total happiness and total confidence. A fuzzy, soft and slightly lop-sided world. A world of indulgence, kindness and forgiveness. I smiled at everyone. I had reached the Happy Isles. The Land of the Lotus Eaters.
Nothing mattered anymore. Who cared about Mrs T (‘please call me Smeralda’)? God bless her! Who could feel any jealousy of this kind, lovely, beautiful woman? We must all share our love and share our kisses. Care and share.
Let Marcus kiss Melissa, let him strip her slowly and lovingly, let him kiss her perfect, hardened nipples and mount her publicly. I am so happy to watch this. I am so happy for my beautiful friends to express their love so perfectly and freely. I am so happy and horny, horny and happy.
I tell Marius how much I love him. We tell Smeralda how much we love her and admire her. How in awe we are of her immense business empire. How touched we are that she deigns to socialize with us. We fall to our knees and crawl towards the chaise-longue. Her throne of glory. We are not worthy. We unlace her sandals -
Beautiful are thy feet in sandals, oh daughter of the king.
- and lick her bare and beautiful feet. She ruffles our tousled, child-like hair. We are her beautiful, happy slaves, totally enthrall to her demands, her masterly control, her effortless superiority. I cry out in unknown pleasure as she and Marius repeatedly spank my pouted arse. Marius looms above me, uncertainly, awaiting her word. She who must be obeyed. Sated at last, and exhausted, we clamber onto the capacious couch and snuggle into her wide, maternal embrace. The children of the storm, sheltered at last. We nuzzle contentedly.
From my drowsy, misty, fuck-befuddled eyes, I can just about see Shilto and Aunt Metta joining Marcus and Melissa in a bare and brazen dance of love. A furious, frenzied bacchanal of unrestrained emotion. Then they, too, join us. We kiss each other. We love each other. All barriers disappear, all the nasty little constraints of society and respectability. Master, slave, man, woman, Greek, Roman, young, old. Nothing matters anymore. All is love and peace and freedom. I smile. They smile. We all smile. And kiss and stroke and bite and lick.
But a sudden thought wrenches my attention from Marcus’ rose-bud mouth. (Yes! Marcus is actually kissing me. Marcus. Is. Kissing. Me.
MARCUS IS KISSING ME.
Where Is Claudia? Where is she? Why isn’t she here? Why is she always fated to miss out? With difficulty, and great sadness, I extricated myself. I covered myself with a sheet and padded off to look for her.
Marcus’ magic brew must be wearing off, because I began to feel worried. I felt a sickening sense of responsibility for Claudia and a great sadness at her perpetual exclusion. She was absurdly out of place in B. It was so not her kind of town. She had never wanted to come here. She had wanted us to go on a detox yoga retreat to the Spanish Islands, with lectures on Pato and Pythagoras. This was out of the question, of course. But we could have come to some sort of compromise. A city-break, a mini-cruise. In the end, of course, we came here. Because I wanted to. I suddenly saw myself as she must see me. A bossy, over-bearing cow.
I looked for Claudia in every room of the huge house, starting with the library. I finally found her sitting down in a corner of the terrace. In the pouring rain. Her face was lifted expectantly to the angry sky. She was far from left-out or excluded. She was suffused with joy, ecstatic, seraphic, transported far beyond a garden in southern Italy. Wherever she was, her trip was literally out of this world.
She was riding on the arrow of Apollo, she was conversing, wordlessly, with the emanations and the archons, with all the angels and demons. With God Himself. She had entered a new and heavenly dimension, the timeless reality, the ein sof. The pathetic bonds of her everyday self had expanded to embrace the whole of reality, the whole of infinity, the whole of eternity. I had heard Claudia talk about all this so often that I knew all the jargon. I knew that this was It. The unio mystica. The ultimate experience. Many are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics. Was Claudia one of the happy few? A new Moses, a female Pythagoras?
For the first time in our friendship, I was jealous of Claudia. How often had I mocked her spiritual pretensions? Yet here she was – literally? – in seventh heaven. What had Marcus’ fix done for me? It had made me enjoy watching Marcus fuck Melissa. It had made me loll, oiled and naked, with my aunt, her slave, and three other people. I felt dirty and humiliated. Claudia’s quest was for spiritual ecstasy and world peace. My quest was for boys, clothes and parties. The difference was risible. I was no better than Julia. I was a shallow adolescent who couldn’t see past the next orgasm. I saw my soi-disant soul for what it really was. A shriveled pea.
I crept away, chastened, to rejoin the others. But when I reached the triclinium, I stopped on the threshold, astounded. The scene had changed beyond all recognition. The cozy, matey post-coital huddle had dispersed. Melissa was nowhere to be seen (hurrah), Marcus was sprawled across the couch, snoring. Marius was standing awkwardly in front of the book case. The door to the garden had been propped open and a stiff sea breeze was filling the room. The tart’s boudoir was an ordinary room once more.
Gremio was there, looking more formal and sober than ever. He was sitting on an upright chair, talking earnestly to Aunt Metta and Mrs T. As I crept past in a spiraling downer, I caught the end of their conversation. It did not improve my mood.
“Yes. She had rented the neighbouring suite. Ajax was there from time to time. Quite a sweet boy, really. But terribly dim. Your sister and I got to know each other quite well over the past few weeks. She’s very sorry, you know, Metta. Sorry for the years of hurt, the years of silence. Sorry for the hateful things she said on the day you left. She isn’t really such an ogre. In many ways, she’s still a child. In the grip of an overbearing and controlling husband.”
My aunt was silent.
“She’s been hoping for years for a reconciliation. Almost since the day you left. Why do you think she foisted her two delinquent daughters and their nut-case friend on you? She could easily have afforded the best hotel on the Bay for their first holiday. But no, she chose you. It was intended as the first tentative approach, the first olive-branch. But somehow she can’t take the next step.”
“But I don’t understand! Where is she now? Why didn’t she come here with the rest of you?” My aunt was crying out in genuine concern. “Don’t tell me that she’s outside in this terrible weather!”
Her reaction was typical and really annoying. Why did she have to be such a bloody saint all the time? Maybe her upbringing had screwed her up a lot more than she let on. Aunt Metta certainly seemed incapable of feeling a whole range of normal human emotions, like hurt, anger and resentment.
“Gremio! We must rouse the slaves! At once! And form a search party. Who knows what might happen in such dangerous weather?”
Aunt Metta had leapt to her feet and was actually clapping her hands for the slaves. Mrs Testifracta caught her by the hand and led her firmly back to her seat.
“Calm down. Calm down. It’s all right. Perfectly all right. There’s no need to worry. Your sister is safely ensconced at the Princeps. Her luggage was sent on toute suite. She’ll be very happy there. The room-service’s first class. There’s a sauna, a roof-top infinity pool and private access to a private beach. And the chef trained at Flavio’s.”
Gremio grunted. “Looks like she’ll need feeding up when we finally meet.”
I was incandescent with fury. My mother the prodigal sister? My mother the abused wife? My mother the poor little baa-lamb lost in the storm? Pah! How did she manage to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? How did she manage to deceive everyone so totally? How come it was only me who could penetrate the layers of disguise and see who she really was? Even Julia was too young to realize the full extent of her poisonous manipulation.
I couldn’t stand it any more. I ran out of the room. The others called out in dismay. I ignored them. But I could not ignore Marius, who had followed me up the stairs and was now holding me in an iron embrace, as I wept uncontrollably. Wept for myself. Wept for Marcus. Wept for my mother.
sunt lacrimae rerum.
Poor Marius, this was not how he had hoped the evening would pan out. The beautiful coral necklace in its carved box lay unnoticed on the bedside table until the following morning. When it was too late. Much, much too late. As it always is.
It was a rather subdued and gloomy party that sat down to brunch the following morning. I was nursing a crushing hang-over and an even more crushing sense of shame and embarrassment. On top of this, I was a seething mass of confusing emotions about my mother. I hadn’t slept the whole night and I’m sure it showed. Marcus looked as near to ugly as was possible for such a cheery cherub. He was puffy and blotchy and sallow skinned. At least Mrs T seemed to have left, for which I thanked my lucky stars. I’m not sure that I could ever look her in the eye again.
“Smeralda was obliged to leave, prima luce, for a vital meeting of the Esquiline Trade Council.”
“So she says’, said Marcus with a smirk, “but some of us know the real reason.”
Within a few seconds, the rest of the party knew the real reason, too. Mrs T had her monthly appointment with the gastrologist. To have a fresh tape-worm fitted.
“How else could she hope to retain her girlish waist-line?”.
Oh, how I loved Marcus. With remarks like this, I could forgive him anything. He was the most malicious, most delicious, gossip in B. In many ways, he was wasted as a man. I felt better already. But Claudia was all self-righteous indignation.
“Yuck. I have never heard anything more disgusting and cruel. She’d better take care or she’ll come back as a tape-worm and serve her right.”
“Calmez-vous, Claudia.” Said Marcus. “Smeralda’s tape-worm would have been the most pampered pet on the planet. Think about it! Gourmet dinners every night. How many other invertebrates can have enjoyed pate de fois gras four nights a week?
“I s’ppose she had to eat a particularly tasty breakfast to entice the newby down her throat.” Said Marius.
“Or maybe it was enticed up the other way.” Marcus said, somehow managing to keep a straight, fashionable-doctor face.
Even Aunt Metella was laughing at this mega gross idea, but Gremio was not amused. Au very contraire. He slapped his palm hard on the table.
“Will you all kindly remember that you are guests at my house? This is my dining table. Not the boarding house of the lower sixth. You behave like a gaggle of teenagers. All of you.”
He actually glowered at my aunt and stomped out of the room.
We were gob-smacked. This was not the Gremio we knew and loved. It was as if Father Christmas had punched an elf. But Aunt Metella, as always, explained and excused.
“He has had a disappointment, my dears. Some bad news from Jerusalem. Please don’t judge him too harshly. And remember that his life has not been easy. Laughter doesn’t come as easily to freedmen as to the jeunesse d”oree of the Esquiline.”
Chastened, we were all silent for a moment. Then Marcus produced a little scroll with a quirky, cartoony cover.
“This, darlings, is how I plan to prepare for tonight’s important dinner. I figured that small talk with a professional philosopher might prove a teeny bit trixy, so I thought I’d gem up on some interesting philosophical facts.”
The book was called “Amaze and Amuse your Friends: one hundred bizarre philosophical theories.” Marcus opened the book at random pages and read out-loud whatever he found. We all admitted that the theories were pretty bizarre.
“Did you know that Empedocles could remember 200 of his past lives, including the one he spent as a bush?”
“Did you know that Pythagoras lived in constant fear of accidentally eating a bean?”
“Did you know that Aristophanes thought that men were originally spherical, with four arms and four legs?”
“But this is the most wacky theory of them all. I read it last night and took very careful note. It will be my conversational piece de resistance. The tantalising bon mot to enthrall our distinguished guest -”
I glanced anxiously at Claudia, who was blushing furiously. Maybe Marcus should hook up with Melissa. They both have a cruel streak as wide as Caesar’s praetexta.
“- Did you know that Epicurus placed an embargo on all sexual acivity? While it might sometimes be necessary for the purposes of procreation, it has absolutely no recreational value whatsoever and should and must be avoided by all true philosophers.” By now, Marcus was laughing so much that he could hardly speak. “Looks as if you and the beardy-weido have some exciting times ahead, Phoebe. But look on the bright side, at least he won't care about your perpetual virginity. Congratulations, darling, you've actually managed to find someone as freaky and frigid as you are.”
Claudia ran out of the room, making an alarming choking, sobbing, howling sound. Aunt Metta and I were so shocked by this that we couldn’t speak. I was just about to let my fists do the talking, when I heard Marius giving some well-chosen home truths to his cruel class-mate.
“Marcus. You utter, utter bastard. What the hell’s wrong with you? Do you get off on torturing other people? I always hated you at school. You always knew exactly what to say to cause the maximum hurt. You always homed in on some messed-up misfit and made his life hell. Do you know that Zarathustra actually killed himself that summer? We all thought that he’d gone to join his parents in the ashram. I only heard the real story last month. You and your posse hounded him to death, Marcus.
“You were a cruel and evil child. And you’re just the same as a so-called adult. So why don’t you piss off back to that pathetic finishing school of yours? Or find some another senile old cow to lap?”
Marius was literally shaking with righteous anger. The Avenging Angel.
“Calm down, dear. Don’t you know that Epicureans aren’t allowed to get all worked up? Go with the flow, baby. Chill-out.”
But Marius was very far from chilled. He was reaching boiling point. And Marcus was just about to turn up the heat.
“And don’t think I don’t know what’s really bugging you. You’re just pissed off because Phoebe’s madly in love with me and won’t even spit at you. However rich your Granny is. You might be beautiful, Marius. So are a lot of other people. But women want a lot more than that. You’ve got a lot to learn, Mr Nice Guy.”
With that shot well below the bows (maybe some of the naval training had actually gone in), Marcus waltzed off, whistling a sea-shanty. Marius and I sat staring at each other, in pained silence, for a good five minutes. We both knew that Marcus spoke the truth.
“Well, I suppose I’d better see how Claudia is.” I said, hitting on the perfect excuse to escape.
Claudia was, as I had expected, in floods of tears and wracked with anxiety about tonight’s dinner. It was the devil’s own job to try to calm her down. She was particularly worried about conversation. How such a mis-matched placement could be anything but a disaster.
“It will be a synch, Claudia. Marius is really clever and clued-up. He knows all about Epicurus. You’ll see. He and Titus will get on like a house on fire.”
I still hadn’t let on that both Marius and I knew Claudia’s beau. And had been bored to tears by him. Phoebe was absolutely right to be worried about tonight.
“And Aunt Metta is the absolute queen of dinner party conversation. She can talk to anyone about anything. Just last week, I over-heard her discussing the mating habits of sea-urchins with some freak from Cumae. She won’t be defeated tonight. She won’t let there be any sticky pauses. Chatting up a mega-rich philosopher/philanthropist will be child’s play for her.
“And you needn’t worry about Marcus, either. He’s gone, probably for good. And good riddance to him. Julia – if she deigns to turn up – will charm Titus, as she charms every sentient male in B.”
This was the wrong tack. Claudia panicked all over again. Hysteria mounted.
“What if he prefers her to me? What if she takes him away? What if he suddenly realises that my face looks like a dried fig? And what about Melissa? I know that your Aunt’s asked her, too. And she knows Titus really well. She’s actually lived with him for months.”
How did Claudia know this? The bitch herself must have told her some time last night. I had to admit that this wasn’t v good news.
“And they’ve probably slept together!”
Claudia was seriously losing her grip on reality. A less likely pairing than Melissa and Titus would be impossible to imagine. But I could hardly say this. I was totally stumped, totally helpless in the face of her abject misery. Just when it looked as if something good might be about to happen for her, it all fell spectacularly apart. I decided that a total change of subject might be just the thing.
“What happened last night, Claudia? Last night, when you were alone on the terrace. In the pouring rain. I’d never seen anyone look so incredibly happy.”
“Don’t bother, Phoebe. I know you’re not interested and you couldn’t begin to understand. There’s only one person who might just get it, but that’s all spoilt now. What on earth was I thinking asking Titus to dinner here?”
She turned away, sadly. And I turned to my own, not inconsiderable, problems.
I looked out of the window at the muddy, leaf-strewn garden. The carnival was most decidedly over. In a couple of days, we’d be returning to Rome. Mission unaccomplished. Marcus was further away from me than ever. He had laid his cards pretty unambiguously on the table. Unless I could age 30 years over-night, I didn’t stand a chance. And did I want him any more, anyway? This holiday had revealed some rather unsavoury sides to the dream-boy. More Captain Hook than Peter Pan.
We these and similar positive thoughts the hours dragged by. The long Good Friday. There is nothing much to report, as nothing much happened. At about midday, Aunt Metella announced her intention to visit my mother at the Princeps. I couldn’t think of a reply that sufficiently expressed my utter contempt for this plan, so I said nothing.
At about 2 o’clock, Melissa swanned into the room. Looking as immaculate as ever. There was something weirdly and eternally perfect about this girl. Did she never have a hang-over or a bad-hair day? Did she never experience post-coital tristitia? Within the space of two minutes
1. She had demanded to know where Marcus was.
2. She had offered to give Claudia a make-over (‘There’s a lot of really good stuff out there. You don’t have to have a face like that.’)
3. She had expressed her disgust at the plan to build a synagogue in Cumae. (This was a typical volte-face. Only last week, Melissa was so obsessed with a super-rich Israeli casino-owner that she was on the point of conversion).
4. She had swished off to the Baths. (Ha! Let’s hope she has as much fun as Julia and really enjoys her immersion in the Costa Geriatrica).
“Oh, Phoebe, we must have built up some pretty bad karma to deserve this level of punishment. To be spending our holiday with Melissa Constantine. How on earth did this happen? Julia’s bad enough, but Melissa takes torture to whole new levels.”
“Don’t worry about her. Tell me some more about Titus. He sounds divine.” I spoke briskly and, to be honest, I was anxious not to dwell on Melissa’s sudden interest in Marcus. Claudia’s skewed views on Anty-Pants would be a welcome distraction.
“Do you know, Phoebe? I really think that I might have found The One. I can seriously imagine spending the rest of my life with Titus. It sounds silly, I’m sure, but I’ve never even been interested in anyone else. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I used to think that I was some sort of frigid freak, the eternal spinster, the ugly best-friend, always the bridesmaid-never-the-bride. But that afternoon in Cumae, everything changed. In an instant. In a coup de foudre. I was In Love.”
“But how did you meet? What was the Head Gardener doing in Cumae? It doesn’t sound his sort of place at all. I thought all Epicureans were atheists.”
“Not exactly, but that’s a complicated subject. Anyway, I was wandering around with all the other tourists. For such a holy place, it seemed pretty commercialised. There were tour groups everywhere. Day trippers from Naples. Pic-nicing families with screaming toddlers. Everywhere were restaurants, bars and shops to cater for the tourists. There were very few pilgrims. Very few seekers after truth.”
“Except you. Any talk of the guru?”
Sensing a sore subject, I tried a new conversational gambit.
“Did you see the Sibyl? Did you go down the tunnels?”
This was just the sort of thing Claudia relished. Normally.
“Well. Thereby hangs a tale. The tale. The way to the Sibyl's cave was signposted all over the town. Of course it was. I suppose it's the main attraction. And the biggest source of revenue (Titus explained all that side of things). Where else can you see a woman who is a thousand years old moaning that she wants to die? Of course I wanted to go. This was a very important moment of my life. But as I was crossing the forum -”
Claudia paused dramatically. For the first time, I realized that Julia and Claudia had a lot in common. They both love long, complicated stories about themselves. And they are both desperate to grab audience attention with histrionic pauses and narrative cliff-hangers. The sad difference was that Julia’s stories were a lot more attention grabbing.
After the pregnant, tension filled pause, Claudia continued.
“As I was crossing the forum, I heard a voice louder than all the rest denouncing the mercenary hypocrisy and the manifold charlatan deceits of Cumae.”
I sighed. It could only be Titus. Who else would be such a kill-joy? Who else goes round spoiling day-trips with boring things like facts? I mean. Everybody knows that the tunnels don’t really lead to the Underworld. Everybody knows that Aeneas and Odysseus didn’t even exist, so how could they have visited Cumae? Everybody knows that the Sibyl is simply a squeaky voiced castrato earning a few bob. But why does Titus have to ruin all the fun by spelling it out? We all need a bit of make-believe. Especially someone like Claudia. But, oddly, she didn’t seem to mind this bucketful of cold-water. Far from it. She was beaming at the memory.
“It was Titus! He had travelled all the way from the Garden – on foot – to preach the Good News of Epicurus. He was standing in the corner of the forum, explaining everything. He is the most amazing speaker, Phoebe. As I arrived, he was explaining the true nature of death.”
“Sounds just the thing for pic-nicing families on a day out.”
Claudia ignored the irreverent aside and continued in ardent-convert mode.
“It seems that we are all made of tiny little building blocks, called ‘atoms’. When we die, these atoms disintegrate and go on to make something else.”
“What? We just disintegrate?”
“Yes, exactly! I may well stop being Claudia, but my atoms never die. They go on and on for ever and ever. They might re-group to become a tomato or a diamond or even someone like Melissa. In a few million years, the atoms might join up and make Claudia once again! How exciting is that!”
I’m not sure that I was particularly excited at the prospect of becoming a tomato. On the whole, I think that I preferred the traditional view of life-after-death. The Elysian Fields, the ambrosia and the nectar, muscled heroes practising discuss in the nude, Orpheus playing the lyre, the lamb lying down with the lion…..
As if reading my mind, Claudia ploughed on.
“The traditional views of heaven are simply fairy stories to comfort children. The traditional views of hell are wicked inventions used to terrify the people and cow them into submission. Once we realize the true nature of death and realise that it means absolutely nothing, we can begin to live our lives. Life before death is what really matters. This is the only life there is, so we’d better make the most of it.”
“Seize the day?” I ventured, recalling a remark of Marius’. This was the first positive thing I’d heard her say.
“Exactly! You only live once. YOLO! And thank God for that. Who wants to live forever? Surely even you’d get bored by an eternity of lolling about in the Elysian Fields.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. At the moment, it seemed a better option than an eternity of listening to Claudia. But I kept this uncharitable thought to myself.
“Titus says that the only good thing about Cumae is the Sibyl’s famous cry – ‘I want to die!’ If you look carefully, you’ll find the same message throughout literature. Calypso wants to die, Turnus’ sister curses her immortality, Achilles’ immortal horses are condemned to an eternity of witnessing suffering. There’s also the Jewish story about a God who suffers much more than us mortals, precisely because he suffers for ever, without respite or escape in death.’
Claudia was getting really excited by all this, but I was pretty bemused.
“You’re a funny girl, Claudia. Who else prepares for a hot date by discussing literary death-wishes?”
I was also a bit upset and worried by Claudia’s sudden abandoning of all she held most dear. Life-after-death, the flight of the soul, re-incarnation, the Quest, communion with the divine, mystical union, séances, bi-location, etc, etc. This had been the bed-rock of Claudia’s belief-system since forever. Surely she couldn’t give it all up just because some dreary bore told her it was nonsense? I was beginning to hate Titus Lucius Formica. He seemed to have a very sinister hold over my fucked-up friend.
“Perfect happiness can be achieved in an instant. In the twinkling of an eye. We don’t need heaven. Happiness doesn’t get better the longer the lasts.”
“Exactly. A circle is a circle whether it’s big or small.”
Marius had entered the room without our noticing and had contributed this opaque gem to the general conversation.
I listened, baffled, for a few more minutes as Marius expanded eloquently on the theme of a-temporality. As these two seemed pretty much on the same wave-length as far as pretentious bollocks was concerned, I left them to it and went upstairs. I threw myself on the unmade bed and tried to distract myself with the latest issue of Salve!
Unfortunately, the main feature was dedicated to Melissa Constantine, gorgeous socialite, face of Tia Maria Cosmetica and ex-girlfriend of adored racing legend, Aulus Julius Axilla. There was a long, soulful interview, in which Melissa expressed her great sadness at the split and cited ‘irreconcilable differences’ as the cause. She assured readers that she and Ajax were still very good friends and had recently met up for a drink on Capri.
I flicked through another article about B’s Most Eligible Batchelor, who invites us inside his luxurious home on the Bay of Naples. He was probably quite a catch, but I wasn’t really concentrating. Of course I wasn’t. I was concentrating on Marcus. Comme d”hab.
Thankfully, it was soon time to dress and gather in the drawing room to await the arrival of the great TLF. In deference to the philosophical credentials of the guest of honour, we all dressed soberly. No tiaras tonight. For Melissa, of course, it was pathologically impossible to dress down. She was plastered all over with the usual bling and her stola was blatantly obscene. Claudia, as flat as the plains of Moab, shot jealous little glances at her glorious décolletage.
We sat around chatting in a desultory, bored way, drinking steadily. I listened to Melissa’s cruel descriptions of the cripples at the baths and, without pausing for breath, the evils of mass Jewish immigration to Campania. I tried not to listen to Aunt Metella’s descriptions of tea with my mother. Nor did I listen to Marius and Claudia’s analysis of the square-root of 18. Oh, how I yearned for Julia and (fool that I was) for Marcus. Their pre-dinner conversazzione was much more my level.
I suppose that we had been together too long and were bored with each other’s company. We were all looking forward to an injection of new blood, even in the unlikely guise of a millionaire ex-banker turned Epicurean evangelist. The guest of honour was an hour late. The reflection, I can only assume, of an absurdly inflated sense of self worth. But when Shilto finally ushered him in, wearing the inevitable grubby pallium, the atmosphere did not improve. It fell into a deep depression.
Titus was incapable of small-talk and incapable of listening to anyone or of letting anyone else speak more than two words. A less congenial dinner-guest would be hard to imagine. He was exactly as he was in the Garden, without the silent interlude. He totally ignored Claudia, who might have been a paid groupie rather than his new girl-friend. I cringed for her, humiliated like this in front of all of us.
Even my Aunt’s famous social skills foundered on the rocks of Titus’ impervious autism. Her valiant attempts at changing the subject were instantly and expertly quashed.
“I hear that you and Claudia met in Cumae. Such a pretty town, I always think.”
“Cumae, Naples, Pompeii, Rome herself. All towns are the same. They are all dirty, desperate and unhappy places. It is imperative to escape the city and live the withdrawn life. This is one of the very basic tenets of Epicurean philosophy…….”
And so on. And on. And on.
After an hour or so, Aunt Metta tried again.
“I understand that you used to be in business in Puteoli. I wonder if you ever crossed swords with my very good friend and host, Marcus Metaballus Gremio?”
“The past does not exist. Neither does the future. What I ‘used to be’ is of no concern or interest. It is this constant hankering for the past and constant worry for the future that destroys us. As our master Epicurus always said, it is while we are waiting to live that life passes us by…….
During a lull in the lecture – even philosophers have to breathe – my aunt managed to get out another sentence.
“May I serve you to the tonight’s chef d’oeuvre? Sows nipples, as I’m sure you are aware, are a rarity even in B. The recipe itself is a closely-guarded secret, originating in a tiny island east of India. The Emporium Omnium, of course, can supply all the necessary ingredients. But it takes a very skilled chef to prepare the actual dish.”
“I pass. I pass.”
The philosopher declined the delicacy with a dismissive wave of a suspiciously soft and pudgy hand. He then decided to be more explicit and a bloody lot ruder
“I am thrilled with pleasure when I live on bread on water. I spit on extravagant food.”
We were stunned.
“Over the years, the Epicureans have been unfairly maligned as Epicures.” Titus paused for a reaction, but only Claudia bothered to laugh. “The truth is very different. As our master teaches………”
The old git bored on for literally half an hour about the dietary requirements of Epicureans, while we all tucked into the delicious nipples.
Melissa escaped first. She announced that she had a hot date waiting for her at the Seahorse, Capri’s most louche sea-front bar. With a whisper of sisterly advice to Claudia, she was gone, in a waft of fragrance so strong that it nearly set the room on fire. Aunt Metella left next. She was carrying a tray of tempting delicacies for Gremio, who was shut up in his study with his faithful steward, Borrios.
“He must not forget to eat. How would this help his poor sister? He is becoming as thin as a rake.”
Then Marius and I tactfully excused ourselves. Claudia and Titus needed some time alone to try to salvage the disastrous evening.
“Marius is going to read to me some exciting excerpts from Epicurus’ final letter to Herodotus. There are some interesting insights into the nature of pain.”
For one terrible moment, it looked as if Titus was going to join us. But the look of horror that passed Claudia’s face must somehow have brought him to his senses. In the nick-of-time, he remembered the fond-lover persona. He smiled, took Claudia by the hand, and suggested a moon-lit stroll in the extensive grounds.
“Not, of course, that the garden of the Villa Gremio is a patch on the wonders of Epicurean landscaping.”
We watched them stroll off, hand-in-hand. Over the lush, silent lawn came snippets of Titus’ latest lecture on philosophical horticulture. Poor Claudia. Quelle mess.
In the end, Marius did not read the last will and testimony of our Master, Epicurus. Instead, he told me how much he loved me. How obsessed he had been with me for the past five years. How he had embarked on the terrible liaison with Lepidina as a vain attempt to make me jealous. How the pains of unrequited love had precipitated his nervous break-down. How his family had been so ashamed of his behaviour that had bundled him off to the Bay of Naples. How utterly euphoric he had been when he heard that Julia and I were coming on holiday to B. How he had confided the whole sorry tale to my Aunt. How desperately nervous he had been that first visit. Etc, etc, etc. On and on.
We spoke about Melissa and about Marcus (of course). We talked about how hurt we had both been. We talked about the possibility of Us. We talked and talked for hours, but without any closure or resolution. I could forgive the Melissa interlude. We were both drunk and high and horny. But Marcus Junius was an insuperable obstacle. I couldn’t give him up. We both knew that. However beautiful Marius was. However good in bed. However good, full stop. He couldn’t replace the irreplaceable Marcus.
We were still talking when Gremio burst into the room, carrying the hysterical, bleeding Claudia.
Claudia Vesta to Domina Lucretia Magna greetings
I’m having a horrible time. I wish you were here. You were so right. I should never have come. I go out to all the parties, but spend most of the time hiding in the toilet, crying. I have never felt so ugly or boring in my whole life. And I now realize that’s why the others hang out with me. To make them look even more beautiful, fashionable and witty than they already are. Phoebe’s really sweet, but I can tell that even she’s embarrassed and bored by me. She never seems to want to have a proper conversation about real stuff.
The whole holiday has been vile, but last night was the most hideous night of the whole two weeks. Of the whole of my life.
I finally thought that I’d managed to find Someone. A boyfriend. Someone witty, rich, sophisticated and beautiful. At least that’s how he seemed to me when we first got talking at Cumae. He told me that he used to be a merchant banker, but had had an incredible conversion experience. That he was now touring the towns around Naples, preaching the Good News of Epicurus. Well, you can imagine how all that impressed yours truly. He’d sussed me out pdq and knew just what buttons to press.
Of course, it’s easy to say all this with the benefit of hindsight, but at time he swept me off my feet. I was in seventh heaven, (tenth heaven, one hundreth heaven), cloud nine, walking on air, riding the magic carpet. All the romantic cliches finally made sense and applied to me. Ugly, boring old Claudia, the romantic reject, was finally in love.
That first day, we talked and talked and talked for the whole afternoon and evening and well into the night. We talked about everything under the sun. He was a spell-binding, magical talker. I’m not surprised that he gains so many converts for the Garden. He is a gift to the Mission. Or, as I now know, a golden-tongued manipulator. Titus Chrysostom.
The moon had set and the forum was deserted before he finally stopped talking. He insisted on driving me home to Gremio’s and embarrassed me by kissing me chastely on the cheek. I was on fire with love. I couldn’t possibly sleep and talked of nothing else for the next three days. Finally, in desperation, Aunt Metta agreed to his coming to dinner.
And that’s when it all fell apart. I feel such a fool. So ridiculously naive, so laughably innocent. The dinner itself was bad enough. An endless ordeal which I endured with a rictus grin and burning face. Under the searing scrutiny of the others, under the glaring light of their jewels and their witty repartie, Titus appeared for the first time to be what he was, a boring old fart. He had zero conversation. He could only talk about Epicurus, which he did throughout the dinner. Ad nauseam. And I mean that literally, Mum. Julia twice excused herself to visit the vomitarium.
And in the course of this nightmare, it emerged that Phoebe had already met Lucius. And rejected him. As had Melissa.
After three hours, the first humiliation was over. The dinner was cleared away and the others tactfuly left the lovers alone. We strolled about, hand-in-hand, through the moon-lit, jasmine-scented garden of love. Things were rapidly improving and we seemed back on our old footing. We were chatting easily about nature of the soul and the infinity of nature – you know how much I love all that stuff – when the conversation took a very odd and unwelcome turn. Titus suddenly started quizzing me all about Dad’s business and the current state of the silk market. How much was our house on the Capitol worth and how many other properties did we own. He seemed to want to know all about your personal finaces as well. Whether you had inherited all Senator Bisci’s money, whether your rogue brother had been disinherited, whether you might be looking for an investiment opportunity.
Well, as you know, there’s nothing that bores or irritates me more than talk about money. I was just saying as much, rather huffily perhaps, when he suddenly pulled back my hair painfully and twisted my head to the side. He bit me painfully on the mouth and all at once I found myself sprawling on the hard, stoney ground. As I looked up in mute horror, Titus had thrown off his toga and was unbuckling his tunic. I tried to scream but I couldn’t. Bile was rising thickly in my throat and my head throbbed from where I’d fallen. My mouth was full of dirt and of the sickly-sweet taste of blood. I think that I must have momentarily passed-out.
The next thing I knew, Gremio was rushing top-speed from the Summer House. Neither of us had known that he was there, but thank God he was. He was screaming like a banshee and swearing like a trooper. My short-lived boyfriend ran off, naked, into the night. Never to be seen again.
Gremio carried me gently inside and laid me on the sofa. Without uttering a single word, he expressed more kindness and more gentleness than I had encountered on this whole rotten holiday. He summoned Aunt Metella and I was obliged to relive the whole horrifying ordeal. As Melissa so kindly explained the next day, Titus was obviously an “uglophile”. One of those perverts who get off on deflowering women whom no normal man would touch with a barge-pole. Gremio later divulged that he had known Titus for many years as a business associate, but had always refused to deal with him. He had a poisonous reputation amongst the bankers of Puteoli. Had he known that such a man had been invited to dinner, he would have had him arrested. But, as luck with have it, Gremio was shut up the whole of that day and night in the Summer House, still checking and re-checking the reports from Jerusalem.
I’d have given up everthing for this man, Mum. My family, my faith. Everything. I’d have gone anywhere and done anything, as long as I could have been with him. I’d have become an atheist and a communist and gone to live in that crazy commune. Being with him was all that mattered.
I’ve lived more in these past four days than in the rest of my life. It was so intense and so real. It made everything before seem like a dress rehearsal. This at last was Real Life. Only it wasn’t. It was all a fake, like everything else in B. It meant nothing at all. The future now stretches out like an endless arid plain. A big fat nothing.
I’m once more shut up in my room, crying (sorry for the smudges). Outside is the sound of laughter as the others get ready for yet another party. I wouldn’t join them if you paid me a thousand sestercii. I’ll stay here, counting the days, the hours, until I can come back home to you and Dad.
Marcus Metaballus Gremio to Astea greetings
Please find enclosed a detailed itinerary of your journey from Jerusalem to B Bay. Of course, you will be closely accompanied and closely guarded the whole way by Borrios, but I thought that you might nevertheless be interested in the route. The route of your glorious homecoming.
The journey from Jerusalem to Jaffa should be uneventful. The roads are new and well-surfaced. The Romans always ensure that any customs checks are swift and unobtrusive. I worry that the voyage to Alexandria may tire you. But be assured that I picked the ship very carefully. The captain is a personal friend of mine and will take very good care of his most precious cargo. I have hired a private suite for you and your maids and have arranged for dinner to be served there. Please do not venture on deck or into any of the public rooms.
At Alexandria, Borrios will conduct you to the Lighthouse Hotel, where you will again find a suite booked for you and your staff. I have stayed there myself, many times, on business trips. It is much recommended by the Ptolemies. I hope that you will find some time, my dear, to be a tourist. Alexandria is one of the great cities of the world. And you have had so little chance simply to enjoy yourself.
From Alexandria, you will cross once more the widest stretch of mare nostrum. After a week at sea, Jove volente, you will dock in the beautiful Old Harbour at B. I shall be there, my dearest, dearest sister, to embrace you and to take you to your new and permanent home. As quickly as possible.
Marius Pulcher to Dominia Augusta Pulchra Fulminata greetings.
Thank you very much for the lovely villa that you gave me for my birthday. It’s just what I wanted.
Marcus Junius to Senator Marcus Senior greetings.
I suppose that the news will have reached you by now. The admiral has decided to give me the old heave-ho. ‘dishonourable dismissal’ might be more the mot juste. Behaviour unbecoming an officer, a disgrace to the Navy of the Roman Republic, Pompey would be turning in his grave, etc etc. The CO was also thrown out, the bursar, three captains and six other cadets. It’s the biggest cull of naval personnel in the history of the Misenum Academy.
So there we all were, beautiful, tanned and very able seamen, suplus to requirements. Kicking our heels in an out-of-season holiday resort. Que faire? There was some talk of a gap-year, a spot of travelling, see the world, live a bit. Lucius even suggested that we give the army a whirl, but we soon scotched that idea. Freezing our balls off in some stinking forest in Germania. Getting the clap in Parthia. In the end, we decided to stay on in the Bay of Naples. And I have the sneaking suspicion that this will prove to be the best decision of my entire life. We pooled our considerable resources and opened Ganymede’s. Agence d’Amour for the Discerning Matrona. Weekly theme nights, swimming lessons and beach barb-e-qs, at no extra cost.
Senator Terpilius Terpis Terpio to Mater sua carissima greetings.
I so enjoyed our holiday together in B. What a blessing it is that we enjoy the same things. Breakfast in bed, a quiet morning, a visit from the chiropodist, a lunch-time stroll to look at the sea and watch the crowds, a pony-ride into the country-side, tea at a country-house, an early night. A spot of shopping. I simply love the dress that we chose together in Capri. It will go so well with the little bag we bought last year in Paris. I hope that your feet are better and that you are remembering to apply the cream every morning.
I know how very wary you are of anything new and how you worry constanty about my recent association with the Family Values Party, but it’s really no different from the old Roman Independence Party (RIP). Both parties champion the rights of hard-working families and fight to protect the Roman way of life. The Rome of Cato and Aeneas, of Numa and Scipio, of Brutus and Cincinnatus. When men were men and Romans were Romans.
I hate to worry you, my dear, but I append a memorandum of worrying satistics recently compiled by Central Office. It will provide the basis of our new election manifesto. I hope that it will convince you – and millions of other patriotic voters – of the need to Do Something. To act before it is too late. To destroy the corrosive cancer of Hellenism, before Rome becomes a Greek colony. Before the Syrian Orontes has diluted the Tiber beyond all recognition. Before the noble Quirites are lost forever in a mongrel and bastard mix.
FLOREAT ROMANITAS IN AETERNUM
68.5 % of the population of Rome was born outside Italy.
95% of secondary schools offer Latin as a Second Language.
35% of shops in the forum are owned and staffed by Greeks.
75% of housewives do not know how to stuff a dormouse and would rather go out for a moussaka than cook for their husbands.
55% of Roman plebeians are currently out of work and in receipt of the bread dole.
62% of school leavers refuse to follow their fathers' occupations, with a resulting catastrophic drop in the number of offal butchers.
90% of aristocratic marriages now end in divorce and the birth rate among Patricians currently stands at 1.1. If the trend continues, the Senatorial class will be extinct in twenty years.
89% of 15-25 year-olds think that sex before marriage is 'ok' and that there is 'nothing wrong' with homosexuality.
Younger sons are now 45% less likely than their fathers to make a career in the armed forces or the colonial service.
47% of senior officers are foreign nationals.
Last year, in Rome alone, 2, 000 copies of the Iliad were sold. The de agricultura of Cato has been remaindered.
75% of middle class men now wear the toga praetexta.
35% of senators are 'new men', who have bought their seats in the Capitol.
62% of knightly seats at the theatre are now occupied by wealthy plebeians.
25% of all immigrants are missionaries and intellectuals.
68% of young people questioned admitted to having attended a cult service in either the Temple of Isis or the Garden of Epicurus.
Attendance at temple of Juppiter Capitolinus has dropped by 83%. 99% of the congregation is now over 70 and female.
There has been a drastic drop of 79% in Vestal Virgin vocations.
90% of new houses are built without a Larium and 67% of young families have dispensed entirely with daily prayers.
The Pontifex Maximus has lost his seat in the Senate.
Another night, another party. B’s solution to every problem. Throw a drink at it. Claudia might have been virtually raped by a master con-man, but what the heck. There was a party to attend. Life must go on. Semper Sursum. Drunkenness and debauchery and the endless round of charades. The eternal pretence that life was ok, that the cracks could be plastered over and covered up by a fashionable new dress.
I had begged Claudia to let me stay. I had begged her to come with us. She refused to come out of her room or to let me go in. In the end, the private view of the Emporium Omnium’s autumn collection seemed at least a distraction. And – who knows? – may be a spot of retail therapy might lift my spirits.
Our host for tonight’s extravaganza was once again the Pepper Baron, but this time the venue was his fabulous villa. Part villa, part warehouse, part shop. Built high on a hill above the Bay, it was over-flowing with breath-taking curiosities and marvels from the the four corners of the globe.
As soon as we bowled up outside, I realized that I had seen this very des-res before. Only yesterday, in fact. Salve!‘s Most Eligible Batchelor was none other than Quintus Mercator. Really, this was most intriguing. Why on earth had I not connected the two before? Maybe Julia was really on to something. I crossed the threshold full of expectation. I was not disappointed.
Inside was a truly bewildering display, a kammerkunst of exquisite objets d”arts. The villa was not in any sense a home – a place to eat and sleep – but a showcase of the P.B.‘s most exotic wares – from Bavarian body-guards to tiger-eye septum-rings. An advertisement of all that could be bought by his wealthy and world-weary customers. There was a distinct air of corporate entertainment. This was not partying for the sake of partying, but as an elaborate and shrewd marketing exercise.
I soon realised that Quintus Mercator was not only a business genius, but a shrewd observer of human nature. He must have spent his entire working life studying the desperate denizens of B. He understood them better than they understood themselves. And he exploited what he knew. Mercilessly. In particular, he understood the desperate need of the nouveau to buy his way into elite society. To prove that he had ‘made it’ by the most conspicuous displays of his ill-gotten wealth. Amongst the retired bankers of Puteoli there was a vicious rivalry, which suited the P.B. just perfectly.
At first, the conversation was entirely devoted to this palace-sized cabin of curiosities. Knots of excited guests were gathered around each object. The room was buzzing. Even I was forced to throw off the blase, bored teenager pose and wander around, open-mouthed and speechless. Every surface was piled with treasures.
Raw-silk throws, dyed scarlet and blue, Indian linen, Egyptian cotton, miniature ivory statues, glass aquariums, monkeys on diamond-studded leads, Yemeni incense, Indian peacocks, bronze statues looted from the sacked temples of Corinth, Greek vases painted with the most explicit and tortured scenes of sexual congress, bowls of black pearls and black diamonds, trained lampreys, talking birds, Bactrian hunting hounds, carved boxes of Lebanese cedar, chairs of ebony and citron-wood, rugs of tiger and lion pelt, all the perfumes of Arabia.
Everything in the enormous villa was for sale. Probably including the host himself. Quintus had employed a discrete team of sloaney girls to advise – to persuade – his tasteless, nervous clients. The majority of the guests/clients were fat, ugly women, who had grown up in the tenements of Ostia and couldn’t tell Opimian from Falernian or silk from cotton. Small ante rooms were used for the actual transactions, but each purchase was loudly congratulated, pour encourager les autres.
Precariously displayed on the polished edge of a rose-wood table, was a miniature rock-crystal bottle with a gold stopper. Inside was a tiny strand of perfume. Attar of roses. I had never so much as seen this fabulous luxury before. My mother would – literally – kill to own this. I was just unscrewing the lid for a discrete sniff, when a Melissa look-alike shot out of nowhere and grabbed the bottle from me.
“Don’t touch the merchandise.” She hissed, venomously. “And don’t think of asking the price. If you have to ask, you couldn’t afford it.”
With that parting, sadly true remark, the sales-girl turned her attention to the chorus-girl wife of Senator Dives. She was on to a winner there. Dives by name and dives by nature.
There was also love for sale, of every conceivable sort. The Emporium Omnium catered for all tastes, however perverted and difficult to satisfy. The camera amoris (blacked-out windows, sumptuous, velvet-strewn couches, erotic, narcotic scents) show-cased the latest in erotic paraphernalia and personnel. From hermaphrodites to flogging benches, from ivory dildoes to two-way mirrors, from explicit statues to the poems of Phyllis. Illegal, illustrated sex manuals had been smuggled in from Greece to titillate a clientele who had already exhausted the Karma Sutra. Specialists tarts filled every corner of the villa, explicitly plying their age-old trade and ready to tempt and lure the most jaded punter with promises of an utterly new experience. As I watched, Senator Dives himself was being led away by a pair of naked Nubian twins. Naked, that is, except for a pair of coiling snakes.
Although the nouveaux of B formed the bulk of his clientele, the P.B. was also by appointment to the oldest money in Europe and to half the crown heads of Asia. Were else could the Sultan of Arabia Felix find his choicest harem queens? Were else could Julius Caesar find hair cream made from Indian hemp seed? Of course, such exalted personages did not deign to deal directly with a tradesman. Tonight, the villa was swamped with their agents, oily hommes d”affaires creaming off a fat commission.
Sola pecunia regnat might be the motto of this particular soirée. The whole place stank of money. Every room was heaving with the HNWIs. Aunt Metta was right. Our parents would certainly not take kindly to Julia’s current liaison. Despite the gushing reports in society mags, the P.B. was really just a shop-keeper with very dodgy customers. And there was the added nastiness of the Ajax affair, whatever that might turn out to be. Once again, responsibility for my wayward sister came crashing down on me like a ton of bricks. I must try to find her.
I pushed my way through the crowds of eager shoppers in search of Julia. Who proved very difficult to find. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t in fact seen her for three days, since our momentous Day at the Races. I assumed that she was still with her then escort, but she could really be anywhere by now. With someone even more unsuitable. She was just as likely to have shacked up with one of the body-guards. Or to be sailing around the Greek Islands with the Breton yacht crew. Or to have re-joined her stripping chums on Capri. I felt the first prickings of panic. After all, the kid was only fifteen.
It took two hours, two hours of mounting hysteria, to find her. And when I finally did, the little scene of domestic bliss was so utterly incongruous and unexpected that I nearly laughed out loud. Julia and her inamorato were seated at a little stone table in the corner of a shady terrace. All around them bloomed myrtle and wild honey-suckle. Opposite the two (chastely demure) lovers sat a tiny, wrinkled old woman dressed entirely in black. She was clearly Quintus’ mother, a Spanish matriarch whom her son seemed to adore and respect in equal measure.
For the first time, I could see (albeit reluctantly) what my sister saw in the tycoon. He had a courtly, old-world charm. He cocked his head attentively whenever one of the women spoke. He stood up if they rose to smell the flowers. He spoke in an unexpectedly mellifluous voice, with a slight – and attractive – accent. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned and his eyes were the eyes of El Cid. Just looking at him, I could feel the heat of the Spanish sun and hear the clash of the castanets. He was exotic and exciting. (As well as fantastically, wildly, incredibly rich).
As I stood skulking in the shadows, The P.B. was speaking quietly, yet earnestly, to the little duena, who was nodding and smiling.
“We plan to have a quiet ceremony here in B. Julia’s got her heart set on the Temple of Venus.”
Right on cue, the Quintus grimaced playfully and patted his wife’s outstretched hand. Goodness. This was fast work. They had met less than a week ago and here they were, smug-engaged personified. But of course this could all change, just as quickly. Julia had been engaged twice before. Once to the acne-ridden boy next door, who after two days ran off with a romantic novelist twice his age. And once, horribile dictu, to a gladiator. My parents were very relieved when he was dispatched the next day by a particularly skilled retarius.
“We so hope that Costa Brava and the boys will be able to make the journey. We totally understand that leave of absence will be difficult for Madridus. Someone has to keep the rotten Parthians at bay! I sometimes think that the safety of the whole Roman Empire depends on my little brother!”
Appreciative laughter all round.
“But maybe the others could combine it with a holiday on the Bay of the Naples. We’ll of course put them up for as long as they want to stay. Show them the sights.”
I glanced at Julia, who was smiling indulgently and somehow distantly. As if she could suddenly see her whole future mapped out. And, behold, it was good. Very good. She was not saying much, but playing with a tame sparrow that hopped about her lap and ate little tit-bits from her fingers.
I decided not to intrude on this touching family scene, but tip-toed back to the Temple of Mamon, in search of more excitement. As I slouched off, I tried to analyse my emotions. They were conflicting to say the least. I was jealous, angry, left-out, superior, worried, incredulous, bored. Pretty much the whole gamut of emotions was racing through me. I nearly collided with a passing waitress and downed three Opimians straight off. Feeling slightly more my old self, I went in search of someone I knew.
I soon saw Marius. Unfortunately, he had teamed up with a goofy pair of egg-heads and seemed engrossed in a painstaking analysis of Pythagoras’ theorem. They had even drawn some triangles on the floor. This was the old Marius, the boring-old-fart Marius, the Marius I had no wish to know. I tried an abrupt about-turn, but he kindly called me over and gallantly included me in their party chit-chat.
“Phoeb, darling, please meet Julius and Adolfus. They’ve just returned from a three month internship at the Stoa Poikile. What they don’t know about Greek philosophy simply isn’t worth knowing. If knowledge itself isn’t simply a self-refuting relativism!”
Cue: dry intellectual tittering.
“We were just considering the folly of material possessions” – he waved his hand contemptuously at the other guests – “and the importance of ‘enough’. Want nothing, and everything is yours. The advice of Apollo himself. Nothing in excess!”
Bollocks. This was a bit rich from the richest boy on the Bay of the Naples. And if his father carried on drinking, soon to be the richest boy in the whole Roman Empire. And what was he doing at a party in B if he hated excess? Why wasn’t he eating lentils and lettuce, as he had the nerve to serve me? And why was he living in Granny’s palazzo rather than a garret in the Sabura? I was pretty pissed off by all the posturing and play-acting. Carnival and fancy dress was all very well, but there didn’t seem much fun in this particular persona. I much preferred the grotto sylph or even the Pompeii barrow-boy.
The pseudo-asceticism was taken up with gusto by Adolfus, who spoke with guttural Germanic certainty.
“Jahwohl. The needs of the happy life are few indeed. Vat does a man actually require? Brot und Wasser, and a rag to cover him ven he’s cold.”
Saying this, he popped a peppered morsel into his dainty mouth and smoothed his finely laundered, Egyptian-cotton toga. He stretched his corpulent form on an eider-stuffed pouff and continued the lecture.
“Vat is life for most people? Vat do all the Volk actually want? Gott in Himmel! They are puppies squabbling over a bone, a pond of silly fish chasing a crumb. They are scared, scampering mice, exhausting themselves in endless Acquisition. Oh, die liebe Gott! What they really deserve is our pity.”
The humourless Adolfus allowed himself the ghost of a superior smile and looked to Marius for endorsement of this wretched creed.
“Vanitas vanitarum. What, after all, is man? A squirt of sperm one day. A handful of ashes the next.”
I was pondering this supremely depressing thought when the third party of this impromptu misery-marathon piped-up. These guys might have spent three months at God-school in Athens, but what they really needed was a crash course in social skills. Small-talk was not high on their list of accomplishments. Nor – and I guess this was my biggest gripe – was flirting. They might have been addressing a smelly old guru rather than one of the best dressed girls in Italy. Even Marius seemed utterly (hurtfully) uninterested in the 34-28-34 beauty parading provocatively before him. How changed from the panting, masterful sex-god of Thursday night. How changed from the love-lorn desperado of this morning. I was feeling pretty browned off by the sterile, scholastic atmosphere and only caught the final pearl of wisdom of smarty-pants-number-3.
“To be filled full, to be satisfied, wanting nothing and nobody. Supremely independent. Tranquil and temperate. To cease upon the instant.”
What? Suicide was absolutely the weirdest conversational gambit that I had ever heard.
“What’s your take on all this, Phoebe?”
I stared incredulously at Marius. How could he do this to me? He professed to care about me and yet expected me to spend one of my last nights in B discussing the pleasures of poverty and imminent death.
“What do I think? What do I think about all this? I’ll tell you what I think.” I blustered as I wracked my brains for something to tell them. “I think that the most important thing is total abstinence from all beans’.
This was a piece of nonsense that I had picked up somewhere. It seemed apt-ish, but I did not wait around for the analysis. Instead, I grabbed three more glasses of wine from a passing waiter (and his cutissimus arse). And went off in search of Marcus, Melissa or Aunt Metella. Any one of whom would be far better company than young Socrates and his two humorless stooges. Or so, dear reader, I thought.
Entering a quiet side-room, I heard a familiar voice booming out with practised sincerity.
“Next on the agenda is a proposal to limit the amount of jewelry worn in public and to criminalise the use of chariots by married women. You will see these amendments marked as XXIVA/B on the second page on the manifesto.”
Terpio lent over and stubbed a stubby finger at a scroll of parchment held by Melissa.
Melissa and Terpio? Terpio and Melissa? These were the queerest of queer bedfellows. Since when was a middle-aged transvestite interested in pouting sex kittens? Since when was party girl numero uno cosying up to the puritans? Reality was seeming to slip rapidly from my grasp.
Melissa laughed her ubiquitous, Tinker-bell laugh. Whether she was torturing Claudia, seducing Marius (and me) or plotting political mayhem, the laugh was the same. I shuddered. There was something inhuman about Melissa.
“Perfect. A brain wave, amore mio. You are a political genius. My ideal partner in crime. There’s nothing the plebs like more than a curb on fun. They’re all too busy cleaning sewers and making sausages to have any fun themselves. This is a dead-cert vote winner. Vote Terpio! Terpio for Consul!”
Melissa was shouting in a ridiculous mockney accent and Terpio allowed himself a small, self-satisfied smile. But he soon continued in party-political-broadcast mode.
“Cosy soirées care of the Emporium Omnium will soon be a thing of the past. As we speak, a law is being sketched out to limit the number of guests allowed in private houses and the amount of alcohol permitted. One bottle per party per night is the current proposal. And no more wearing of silk by men.”
Terpio raised his voice as a couple of rouged old queens teetered past, clad head-to-foot in scarlet silk. As these two were Terpio’s normal off-duty cronies, the hypocrisy was as blatant as an erection in the Temple of Vesta. I was just about to tell these two slippery customers exactly what of thought of them and their arse-hole proposals, when Aunt Metta sailed majestically past and scooped me up.
She saw my puckered face and understood at once. She shook her head and sighed.
“Phoebe, Phoebe. When will you ever learn? I thought I had already explained things to you that very first night at Gremio’s. This isn’t Rome. It isn’t Brindisii, or Antium or even Forum Appii. This is B. They do things differently here. One night Terpio is a cabaret-star in fish-net stockings. The next night he is the puritanical supporter of Family Values. Who knows which is the real Terpio? Maybe he doesn’t even know himself. Who cares? What does it matter?”
“I care!” I shouted. “I care because it’s all lies! Lies and hypocrisy. And it hurts a bloody lot of people.”
“I’m afraid that you’re no better, my dear. Look at the mixed messages you dish out to poor Marius. You spend two days at his pleasure palace, doing goodness knows what. The next day, you’ve transferred your affections back to Marcus and you’ll hardly even look at Marius. I am not blind. Neither am I unfeeling. You have got to stop torturing that poor boy.”
This was rich. How many poor boys had she tortured in her time, with her fickle and eclectic tastes?
“You have got some hard thinking to do and some big decisions to make. You are not a child any more, Phoebe, so stop behaving like one.”
Cripes, living with Gremio seemed to have sobered up Aunt Metta a bit too much for my liking. I grimaced at the onslaught of home-truths, but my aunt was soon back to her old self.
“Oh, darling girl, who on earth am I to offer relationship advice? I hardly have a good track record. Think no more about it. Right now, we need some diversion and, if I’m not mistaken, the slave auction should be just about to start. You never know. We might pick up something interesting.” She winked wickedly and hooked her arm through mine.
Of course, I’d been to slave auctions before. Countless times. They were part and parcel of daily life. Twice a week, a huge sale went on in the Roman forum. Ditto, throughout the whole Roman Empire. I’d often been sent by my parents to buy a new gardener or sous-chef. But I knew that tonight’s auction would be in a league of its own. In recent years, slaves had become the biggest luxury item of all, with prices to match.
By the time we arrived, a huge crowd had gathered in the garden. On the centre of the stage stood a worried-looking, very fat African. Stark naked. The auctioneer was just beginning the hard-sell. He started off with basic physical facts.
“Lot 1. Greek male. Castrated at puberty. Aged 45. Good teeth. Good general health.”
The slave was ordered to turn round, to open his mouth and run on the spot for a few minutes. A doctor was on hand to offer a clean bill of health. Quintus’ customers were a canny lot and could not be sold a pup. They would not spend a million on a specialist slave unless he could be guaranteed a long and healthy life. Medical fees were expensive.
With the basics satisfied, the auctioneer went on to describe the very particular, and very expensive, skills of this unlikely-looking slave. Namely, a meticulous knowledge of every loop-hole in the taxation systems of both the Eastern and Western empires. This news was greeted with gasps of excitement and a flurry of raised hands. The bidding had begun and went on and on, higher and higher, until none but the most super of the super-rich could afford to compete. The ‘boy’ was eventually sold to an unknown Persian oligarch.
Ten other slaves were sold that night. All were highly unusual, even unique. A seven foot bodyguard from beyond the Atlas mountains. A Libyan nymphette from the harem of Satrap of Antioch. An idiot-boy, who could recite the whole corpus of Greek and Latin literature. Cleopatra’s personal hairdresser and ass-milker (the recent suicide of the Queen of Egypt had brought some very luxurious slaves onto the specialist market). A soothsayer from India, looking suspiciously like Claudia’s erstwhile ‘friend’. A retired gladiator, turned fencing coach (twenty-years-not-out in the Roman arena must certainly have honed his skills). A lion trainer (surely this season’s must-have for any palais de luxe). A pearl diver from Ethiopia (why?) and a young woman with red hair (I had never seen anyone look so outlandish).
But there was nothing for us. In any case, the prices were rocketed sky-high by the aggressively competitive bidding. It was all good-entertainment, but somehow unsavoury. It was hard to connect the touching family vignette of Julia and the P.B. with this very raw commercial exercise. Aunt Metella was right. There was something very distasteful about earning so much money so quickly.
The slaves were unshackled and handed over to their new owners. The show was over and the crowds dispersed. Aunt Metta and I drifted back into the house, where she was immediately picked out, and picked up, by Caecilius Simius and his entourage. I suppose that it was inevitable that he would be here. The riot at Pompeii had nearly bankrupted him. The municipal aediles had held him personal liable for the damage. He had presumably come here tonight in search of some exotic masterpiece to flog on at a huge profit. There was certainly art of every sort for sale, and no questions asked. Provenance was a dirty word in the murky world of international art. As I saw Caecilius and Co examine an exquisite bronze Aphrodite, I couldn’t help but see a lonely, marble shrine, shining on a head-land in the bright Greek sun, forever bereft of its beautiful guardian.
Looking around at the desperate, grsping crowds, I was suddenly struck by a paralysing and vertiginous ennui. I had been bored before, of course. Bored to tears by Dame Hera’s interminable weaving lessons. Bored by Claudia’s synopsis of the dialogues of Plato. Bored by a boring afternoon in the arena. But this was different. This was the terrifying revelation of the utter pointlessness of everything and everyone. I was sick to the pit of my stomach, to the very core of my being. Life had no point and no purpose. The very ground beneath my feet seemed to sway and gape.
I was terrified. I looked at my feet and couldn’t decide where they should go. Finally, the only conceivable plan of action was to try to find Marcus. Scum of the earth though he was, he might, just might, have a narcotic solution. A happy pill. A temporary distraction from the eternal human dilemma.
Somehow, I managed to put one foot in front of the other and drag myself around the party. Nothing seemed to have changed. The same people were doing the same things (semper eadem). Marius was still reclining with his kill-joy cronies. They were now discussing the brother-hood of man and the class-less society. Julia was still posing for a FVP campaign poster and/or impersonating Lesbia and her famous sparrow. Melissa was still closeted with Terpio, considering ‘unnatural vice.’ Caecilius Simius was still fingering the art and the girls. The noovo house-wives were still spending their husbands’ money. Their husbands themselves were still in the ominously creaking camera amoris.
But where was Marcus? I suppose it was possible that he had decided in the end not to come. That he had gone to join the gastrically-enhanced Mrs T. in Rome. Or that he was bumming around the bars of Misenum with his naval chums. Yet somehow I was sure he was here somewhere. I could almost smell him. And, knowing Marcus, he could surely not bear to miss the opportunity to parade himself in front of me and Marius and show how supremely unaffected he was by this morning’s diatribe.
There were one or two places left to look. At the end of the enormous trinclinium was a room shut off by a thick curtain of glass beads. From within, came the sound of laughter and the chink of expensive glass. A very Marcus sound. I pushed aside the ‘door’ and saw a sight that would be repeated in my nightmares for years to come.
My mother and aunt were lying side by side, stark-naked, giggling and holding hands. They were toasting a third party, just hidden from my line of vision:
“Health, wealth and happiness to Cupid and his devastating weapon.”
“What magic have you wrought with your phallic wand?”
I slowly turned my head, with a sickening sense of dread. Marcus. Of course. Marcus, smirking his eternal smirk and adjusting his jewel-studded belt.
“Take it easy, honey-child. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.”
He stifled my scream with a peppered plum and swaggered off.
The next thing I knew, I was lying in one of Marius’s ninety-nine guest bedrooms. The sunlight falling over the bed was warm and gentle – early morning or late afternoon. Claudia was bathing my brow with myrrh. Marius was reading aloud a fairy-story about a girl who had fallen for Cupid. Julia was carrying a bowl of soup, crying. Gremio was sitting stiffly on a hard chair. Being Gremio.
Marius gently laid down the book and smiled his gentlest smile.
Soon everyone was smiling and clapping and talking at once.
“You’re a total freak, Phoeb! You’ve been asleep for, like, five days. And you’ve missed all the news, you dozy cow. Like Quintus and me getting engaged. We haven’t worked out all the details yet, but I want you to be the matron of honour. Rose tulle…”
“Phoebe, Phoebe. You must tell us everything. Everything that your soul has seen and heard. Everywhere that it’s been for the last five days. I can write it all down. I can’t believe it. The new Aristeas in our midst. Blessed are you among women.”
“Phoebe, darling. Darling Phoebe. I can’t believe you’re ok. You’ve been sleeping for five whole days and I have been lying awake for five whole days. Worrying about you and what the hell had happened. Praying desperately for you to wake up. We tried everything to rouse you: pins, smelling salts, cymbals. We read every medical book and summoned every quack on the Bay. We even got Mrs T’s personal physician down from Rome. And went to that bastard Marcus for a wonder pill.”
“Your aunt and mother are beside themselves with grief and anger. They cannot bear the suffering that they have unwittingly caused. They have sensibly distanced themselves for the time-being………”
It was all too much. I was soon crying and shouting at them all to go away and leave me alone. The transcript of the trance journey could fucking well wait and so could my mother and aunt. They obediently trooped out of the room, sneaking furtive glances at the mad woman, the freak, the hysteric.
I threw myself back on the pillow and stared miserably at the ceiling. I could remember it all so well. The betrayal, the humiliation. The laughter and the pungent, oh-so-obvious, smell. How could they? How could they? I played the scene over and over again in my fevered mind.
As far as my mother was concerned, it made some sort of sick sense. After all, gross sexual indiscretion was what Julia and I had come to expect from her. But I was puzzled and very hurt by Aunt Metta’s involvement. I felt such a fool and such a dupe. Especially when I remembered how much I had confided in her, how much I had trusted her. Right from that first afternoon, I had told her everything. She knew how utterly obsessed I was with Marcus. And all the time ….. But, wait! Was this the meaning of her cryptic agony-aunt remarks at Quintus’ party? To steer me away from golden-balls and back to Marius? I then remembered what Marcus had said on the barge and how the two of them had interacted in Mrs Testifracta’s box. The sexual chemistry had been palpable from a hundred yards away.
What an idiot I had been. What a blind, deluded fool. Marcus and my aunt had clearly known each other – in a very Biblical sense – way before I turned up in B. I was tempted to think that she was on Max’s books, except that she would never need to pay for sex. Not even with boys forty years younger than herself. But I was still stunned by the duplicity of it all. Aunt Metella had spoken so often of the laissez-faire morality of B, of a total absence of any rules of engagement and of the delusion of an integral and coherent self. I assumed that she was simply excusing people like Terpio. But it now seemed that she was excusing herself, preparing me for the inevitable revelation. She was a sham and a charlatan. The much vaunted sympathy and empathy did not extend to nieces. Did he extend to elderly queer freedmen? Was Gremio riding for a fall, too?
Too many questions and too much sadness.
An hour or so later, there was a quiet knock at the door and Marius appeared, holding a tray.
“The others have gone. Is it ok if I come in? You won’t bite my head off?”
I smiled sheepishly and shook my head.
“I’m sorry. That was very bad.”
I looked at the tray and realised that I was ravenously hungry. Soul food was all very well, but my whole body was crying out for protein. Luckily for me, Marius had surmised as much and the tray was laden with eggs from every conceivable bird, a glass of milk, a round, smelly cheese and a pile of sausages. I ate it all in a few minutes.
Satisfied – full to bursting point – I lay back on the pillow and felt almost ok. Not sufficiently ok to talk, but I was happy to hear the next installment of Cupid and Psyche. In this chapter, the heroine foolishly tries to discover the identity of her lover.
Over the next few days, Marius read me the whole story and explained the various levels of meaning. For the simple-minded, it was a sexy romp through the Roman world. Fine by me. For the initiated, it was a complex metaphor for the quest for God. Marius could talk for hours about such things. He didn’t require any input from me and it was all oddly soothing. I soon realized that Marius had one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. I could listen to him for hours. Despite the didactic nature of much of the discourse, his voice was not the scholar’s monotone. Nor was it the politician’s blustering harangue, nor the play-boy’s affected drawl. It was a real voice, deep and rich and beguiling.
As my convalescence slowly proceeded, I used to spend hours staring moodily into Marius’ elaborate aquarium. An aquarium, preferably filled with strange and monstrous fish, was the sine qua non for any fashionable ménage. The interior designers employed by Marius’ grandmother had complied with this trend. Marius’ piscina occupied the whole of one side of his enormous terrace. Bearded moray, specially bred and trained, glided majestically through the miraculously bubbling water. Some were decorated with gold rings and, apparently, answered to their names. Carefully caged, blind lampreys mouthed in impotent rage and curled their eel-like bodies through the stony depths. Previously fattened on the flesh of recalcitrant slaves, they thoroughly resented their new master’s dedication to the ideals of benevolentia.
But Marius was not uninterested in his fish. On the contrary, he knew all about them. And soon I did, too. My companion had read the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus, and had been astounded by Anaximander’s theory that men were somehow descended from fish. He devoured the various collections of bizarre natural phenomena, which he repeated to me. Did I know that the tuna fish know the precise date of the equinox and always form shoals that are mathematically perfect quadrilaterals? Did I know that whales are guided through the oceans by tiny little fish who act as their eyes and ears? That, in gratitude for their help, the whales let the little fish sleep in their mouths? Of course I didn’t know any of this and I wondered how Marius did. He must have read an enormous amount in his short, sad life. What a waste. I thought of all the parties he’d missed.
But for Marius the really interesting thing about fish was how they seemed to fulfil and encapsulate the Epicurean ideal. In this tranquil, sequestered spot, he could ponder at ease the folly of ambition and political striving. As the fish glided silently by, he would lecture me at length on the importance of otium liberale, the freedom and leisure to think.
“Consider fish. They neither worry nor strive nor take heed for the morrow.” This seemed an oddly formal way of speaking. Should I be recognizing a quotation? “They have no memory of the past and no plans for the future. They live entirely in the present. They have achieved the Epicurean ideal.”
“Well, then,” I replied, lamely, “let’s hope we’re both re-incarnated as fish in some plutocrat’s pleasure park.”
When I was strong enough to venture further a-field, Marius would give me tours of the whole garden and grounds. He was fantastically knowledgeable. He knew all about the different birds and animals. He knew all about the different exotic plants. I soon knew the names of all the plants I had admired on my first visit to the Villa Dulcissima. I could soon recognize the pomegranate trees, the camphire and spikenard, the calamus, cinnamon and saffron, the myrrh and aloes. Marius knew exactly where the plants came from, their varied medicinal uses and even the legends attached to them. He told me about the poor girl turned into a laurel tree and about the beautiful Asian bride compared to a garden of aloes and about the Queen of Sheba bringing a hundred weight of frankincense to the King of Israel. He knew all about the weather, the seasons and the tides. He knew all about the stones and the rocks and the cliffs. He knew all about everything. One day, as were gazing down at the beautiful, sparkling Bay (a romantic invitation if ever there was one), Marius launched into a very technical lecture on Why the Sea is Always the Same Size.
Marius’ garden was also full of priceless works of art. From the fantastic grotto (erstwhile scene of the hottest sex for, like, ever, but did Marius even remember?) to miniature temples and exquisite statues. The statues were especially beguiling. And one statue in particular. It was the statue of a beautiful, stocky young man. He was standing up-right and looking straight ahead. His right foot was slightly in front of the left, as if he were stepping forward into the otherworld, into eternity. The statue had once guarded a grave somewhere in Greece. Probably, as my learned friend explained, on one of the Greek Islands. I could so easily picture the scene. The anemone-filled hillside, the harsh Southern sun and the bright, indifferent sea. The slow procession of grieving relatives, the garlanded bull and the incense-bearing priests. I thought of the desperate parents, lamenting their dead son and paying for this beautiful memorial, only for it to be wrenched away by trawling prospectors. To be sold to Caecilius Simius and eventually to Marius’ grandmother. To be transported across the wine-dark sea to its current, incongruous home. The garden of a boy billionaire on the Bay of Naples.
It was the face of the statue that captivated and entranced and challenged me. The mouth was smiling and the eyes were smiling. Why should a recently dead young man be smiling such a serene smile? What secret did he know? What joy was he mutely communicating down the centuries? What were the gently curved lips and laughing eyes saying to me? I returned to statue many times. Most often alone. I would sit before it, on the lush, flower-strewn grass, and try to read the mind of the dead Greek boy. How did he die? How did he live? There was such a powerful sense of the numinous, that I became convinced that the statue had a genuine cultic purpose. It certainly inspired in me a sense of the divine and a desire to transcend the quotidian. If only Claudia were here. She would understand these strange, unwonted feelings. I felt stirred in totally new ways. Challenged to change my life. To begin anew, to start afresh. But how?
The statue’s eyes seemed to bore into me. To know me better than I knew myself. And to smile with an ironic, superior knowledge. There was no place to hide. No place for dissemblance and pretence. No place for B’s famous and endless game of charades. This was rather a game of consequences. A game of truth or dare. Or both. Or was the marble youth wanting to play a game of random chance, of the roll of the dice? If so, he was bound to win. For what had I always thrown? Snake eyes. The dogs.
Marius often spoke to me about the Epicurean insistence on random chance. The very fact that we – or anything – exists at all, is the result of a totally unpredictable swerve of atoms. The old, old, question – why is there something rather than nothing? – can never be answered. There is no ‘why’. There is no reason and no explanation. No purpose and no point. No pattern and no plan. We are all drifting – forever – through an eternal, infinite universe, like so many snowflakes. Our master, Epicurus, somehow thought that this was a comforting, invigorating and liberating thought. To be free from the constraints of providence and divine control would also free us in every other way. According to Aunt Metta, the Stoics believed exactly the opposite. Everything was controlled by a rod of iron. Every minute happening in the cosmos was pre-determined and unavoidable. There was no such thing as chance and no such thing as freedom. The cosmos was a network of strict causality, stretching back ad infinitum.
Was there no middle ground between these two extremes? Was there any space for human freedom and for individual responsibility? Was Terpio simply pre-determined to be a revolting hypocrite? Should we pity him rather than blame him? Was it a piece of cruel random chance that made me fall in love with Marcus? Was it the will of God that my mother should be a middle-aged sex-addict with the same taste in men as her daughters? Was there any reason why the most beautiful boy on the Bay of Naples didn’t excite me sexually?
Of course I discussed these things with Marius. What’s the point of living in the same house as Socrates if you don’t make use of his intellect from time to time? But there seemed no solution to the human dilemma. No explanation. More particularly, there seemed no explanation to my continuing indifference to Marius’ famous’ pulchritudo. Was I suffering from a freakily premature menopausal frigidity?
Inevitably, within a few weeks, I moved into the master bedroom. Marius treated me like a fragile piece of glass, with an infinite tendresse. My behaviour at the Emporium Omnium and its aftermath had had a profound effect on our relationship. Marius was constantly on guard and constantly solicitous. I felt like a nut-case in an expensive sanatorium. Which I suppose, in a way, I was. Every second thrust, Marius was asking me if I was all right. The wild, passionate, animalistic love-making in the grotto seemed a very distant memory. Ditto, the multiply-orgasmic scenes with Mrs T and Marcus. I had reached such a dry patch, literally and metaphorically, that I was even yearning for Melissa. I told you that I had become a nut-case.
Though I hated to admit it, even to myself, my sex-life was becoming boring. Marius’ phallic wand had lost its magic. I was no longer enthralled by, or to, him. This was all part of the numbing taedium vitae that hung like a pall all over the sterile palais de luxe. One day, in desperation, Marius decided to visit Quintus Mercator for a pound of blue lotus. By now, we were both clutching at straws and desperate to re-create past joy.
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles
Catullus remained the poet par excellence of nostalgic longing.
The shopping jaunt took two hours and two thousand sestercii. I was just wondering how a student like Marcus could afford such luxury on a regular basis, when I remembered the generosity of Mme Candy-floss.
As soon as were sitting comfortably, and beginning to unwind, I asked for news of my sister. Since I had thrown her out of my bedroom on the day of my great awakening, I had neither seen nor heard of Julia. Claudia sent me regular letters from home – (mostly about her new obsession with astrology) – but Julia had been worryingly silent. Marius quickly up-dated me.
My sister was now living with her future mother-in-law in the P.B.‘s country estate in the hills behind Naples. The wedding had been postponed, thank God, until I was fully recovered. But it was all such a mess. I couldn’t let my little sister marry a drug-dealer, however posh his client list. And Marius and I had begun to suss out the scam at the Pompeii Circus. And the mafia was closing in. While Quintus and Marius were sealing their seedy deal, a horse’s head was being left on the pavement outside the shop.
If only we had normal parents, this blossoming and entirely unsuitable romance could be nipped quickly in the bud. Our father would invite Quintus to his club and quietly pay him off. Our mother would provide sanctuary for her broken-hearted daughter and conjure up a much more suitable fiancé, the son of one of her bridge-playing cronies. But this was Cloud-cuckoo-land. Our parents didn’t give a shit about Julia and whom she married. As long as he was rich. And our mother didn’t play bridge. She was much too busy shagging Ajax. And Marcus.
After a while, the lotus started to have its chill-out-lounge effect. Marius and I forgot about Julia and her crazy betrothal. We were feeling sufficiently relaxed to have another go at re-creating the past. Bad idea. Things are never as good the second time around. This time, the wonder-drug seemed simply to relax us. It certainly relaxed Marius’ cock, which flopped about in poses of extreme enervation.
I was beginning to wonder how much longer I could bear to rattle around in this cliff-top museum, with only Marius for company. Already I seemed to have lived here for half my life. Had the boy philosopher cast a sinister shutting-spell that would keep me locked up for a hundred years? Would I remain a prisoner in his castle until the daring hero – Marcus, Marcus, Marcus – breaks through and rescues the princess? I had reached this particular stage of pathetic fantasies, when a letter came that changed everything.
My mother had returned to Rome and attempted suicide. Or so she would have us believe. Anyone less likely to want out would be hard to imagine. Her zest for life knew no bounds. But in a typical display of histrionics, she had got hold of an asp and (apparently) ‘done a Cleopatra’. Ever since the much publicised demise of the Queen of Egypt, this had become the most fashionable way of ending it all, especially amongst aristocratic women. (The men still preferred to fall on their swords when they were discovered in flagrante with a slave-boy or when their pepper-fleet foundered in the Indian Ocean). In fact, Quintus Mercator had been doing a steady and very lucrative trade in asps for months. And it was he who had sold the original snake – in a flurry of media attention – to a cousin of Herod the Great. The public seem to have a macabre fascination with such things. Only last week, I saw that the Emporium Omnium was advertising two of the daggers that had killed Julius Caesar.
But, of course, I had to return home at once. Which is just what my mother intended. Within a few hours, Marius had sold the Villa Dulcissima, and all its contents, to Caecilius Simius, had fetched Julia and Aunt Metella and had hired the fastest raeda on the Bay of Naples. We were soon racing along the Apian Way once more. Since I had not spoken to my aunt seeing catching her virtually in bed with my (virtual) boyfriend, the journey was rather sticky, but we somehow managed. And, after a day’s travelling, we arrived ‘home’.
We were immediately ushered into the death-bed room. The atmosphere was hushed and reverent. The lamps were turned low and the curtains closed. There was a cloying, pungent smell of incense and lilies. Presumably to hide the stench of rotting, poisoned flesh. In the middle of the room was an elaborately carved olive-wood bed, draped with a rich profusion of silk, cotton and fur rugs. Cosseted in the middle of this splendour, propped-up on three goose-down pillows, was my mother. She was wearing her most diaphanous, most revealing negligee. It certainly revealed the beginnings of a hideous pusy wound on her left breast. But was I the only one to notice the recently washed, recently dyed hair, the perfectly made-up face (huge, kohl-lined eyes) and the manicured hands drooping theatrically off the side of the bed?
The room was surprisingly full of people. The hum of (wildly inappropriate) conversation filled the air. By the open window, my father was talking earnestly to three over-priced and beautifully dressed society doctors.
“How long is this all going to take? I’m a very busy man, you know. I’ve got to be in Syracuse by the end of the week. At the very latest. Anything you could do to speed things up? Any magic pills to speed her precious little soul on its eternal journey?”
This was so totally shocking that even I was hurt on my mother’s behalf. I glanced anxiously at the bed, but she showed no signs of having heard. No signs of any deviation from the dying Cleopatra routine.
On the other side of the room, the lawyers had gathered. They were carrying four heavy scrolls, presumably my mother’s will. As my mother was incredibly wealthy (she and Aunt Metta had inherited all the grim old Stoic’s extensive estates), this was a very important document. Glued to the lawyers were the inevitable legacy hunters. With a shock, I recognized Salvius Memnor, serial gambler and one-time boyfriend of the star attraction. Next to him was my father’s brother, a bankrupt impresario and senatorial candidate.
The last group on set were some young flute girls, presumably friends of my father (a typically crass touch). They were traditionally dressed, or rather undressed, with bare breasts which they were beating rhythmically. The combination of the gloomy and the erotic clearly appealed to my father’s twisted sensibilities. Between hitting themselves, the girls were playing the familiar funeral dirge. I felt that this was jumping the gun a bit, but my mother was certainly playing along.
“Phoebe.” She gasped. “Dearest first born. Come. Receive my soul with a final kiss.”
This macabre custom was still practised by aristocratic Romans. Personally, I think it’s disgusting and unhygienic and smacking of mumbo-jumbo. But, with the whole room turned to look at me, I could hardly refuse. I walked slowly across the room and bent over my mother’s white (whitened?) face and put my mouth to her mouth.
I whispered the traditional formula, but all I seemed to receive was a smack of last night’s garlic sausage. I stumbled backwards, suffocated, and almost missed my mother’s look of… of what? It was hard to believe, but it really seemed a look of hatred. A private look, reserved for me, her dearest first born.
Julia and Aunt Metta then threw themselves on the bed, sobbing hysterically.
“Darling Marina, Marina darling, darling sister. Whatever possessed you to do this? What was so terrible about your life that death seemed preferable? Why could you not have turned to me for help? I am your sister. Your sister. Your sister through thick and thin. We have endured so much together, we have been through hell together……..”
My aunt spoke on and on and on. An unstoppable torrent of emotion. A desperate outpouring of grief. She seemed the only one of the dramatis personae who was genuinely upset. My father was simply pissed off by the disruption. My sister was acting, as always, the drama queen of the Quirinial. The doctors and lawyers were mentally preparing their invoices. The legacy-hunters were already drooling with anticipation. Even my mother seemed to be enjoying the attention.
In a lull in my aunt’s keening lament, Marius suggested a short excursus on the nature of the soul and a public reading of Socrates’ death-bed soliloquy.
“I happen to have the text with me. It’s in Greek, of course. Does anyone need a translation, or shall I make a start?”
I stared at Marius. Of all the inappropriate remarks in the room that afternoon, his surely took the biscuit. I snatched the book away and threw it in the fire.
The touching death-bed scene dragged on, without any sign of the death itself. After about three hours, even my mother seemed bored with the whole thing. She stopped moaning and closed her eyes. In a trice, my father ran over and tried to place the traditional pennies on her eyes and tongue. My mother’s eyes snapped open and glared at him.
“Not so fast, hubby dear. I am not quite dead yet. But I am exhausted. And I want to be alone.” From Cleoptra to Zsa Zsa Gabor.
We filed out, relieved to be released. With a shock, I realized that I had been away from Rome, from home, for nearly two months. I suddenly felt drained and exhausted by all the crazy experiences of this so-called holiday. I went straight to the bedroom which had been mine since childhood. I smiled nostalgically at the neat row of wooden dolls and the painted frieze of carnival animals. I felt a yearning kinship with the fiery, prickly child who used to sleep here, dreaming of adulthood. But how rarely do dreams and reality co-incide. My ten year-old self could not have imagined the mess I had made of my life, with Marcus, Marius and especially with her hero, Aunt Metta. I finally fell asleep, dreaming of the many broken dreams.
The next morning, after an awkward breakfast with my father, I dutifully went to visit the invalid. I knocked on the door of the boudoir, but was sent brusquely away by the indomitable Mrs Helvetia.
“Your mother has made a quite remarkable recovery. Deo gratias! But she is still precariously, dangerously weak. Far too weak to receive visitors. I suggest you run along and unpack and amuse yourself for the rest of the day. Dinner will be at the usual time.”
I was seething. This is what happens when you abrogate domestic responsibility. The slaves get above themselves, puffed up with delusions of grandeur. How dare she speak to me like that? I was there on the day that she was bought. At a knock-down price. Ha! No one else wanted an ageing Alpine factotum.
With these and similar charitable thoughts running through my head, I did as bossy-boots advised. I unpacked and amused myself for the rest of the day. In fact, I pretty much amused myself for the rest of the week. My mother never left her room and rarely granted an audience. My father was out of the house from dawn to dusk, up to no good, and Julia had returned to the Bay of Naples. I mooched about the house and considered strolling round the garden, but the weather had turned nasty. I occasionally saw Claudia for a spot of shopping or a visit to the baths. Once or twice I met up with Marius, but any spark of love had long since become a damp squib.
On the Wednesday, I had the spectacular misfortune to run into Mrs Testifracta, who had opened a new nail bar on the Forum. It was so full of gladiator wives that I didn’t notice her at first.
“Phoebe. Darling. How wonderful to see you again.” She spoke in a fog-horn voice to attract the attention of the WAGS. ”Marcus and I were only talking about you last night. You really must come round for dinner.”
She caught my shoulders in a vice-like grip, nearly ripping my dress with her talons, and kissed me airily and showily on both cheeks. I could only imagine that ‘friendship’ with the daughter of a famous senator was somehow good for business. I declined her kind offer of real nail extensions and beat a hasty retreat.
On the Sunday, my mother announced, via Mrs H, that she was fully recovered and would like to treat me to a mother-and-daughter spa package. Quite frankly, the very idea made me want to vomit. Such bonding sessions were absolutely not how we did things round here. What had come over my mother? Had the snake-bite left her with an entirely new character? Was she actually going to start liking me and wanting us to hang out together? I shuddered.
But after a few minutes, I pulled myself together and told myself sternly to get over it. It wasn't everyday that one was offered such 5* pampering. And we'd hopefully spend most of the time slavered in half the Pomptine Marsh, which should preclude any attempt at happy-families chit-chat.
The spa was a recently opened, ultra exclusive extension to the baths on the Via Sacra. It had all the latest in freaky, faddy therapies, ranging from ice-crystal massage to tape-worm insertion (if only I could have told Mrs T). My mother had put us down for bottom spanking (‘does wonders for the circulation’), tantric depilation and a hot wax massage. She had briefly considered chipmunk cheek-implants, but had thankfully decided that her face was still perky enough without outside help.
I wasn’t really looking forward to the treatments, which sounded more like torture than pampering, but the day started off quite well, as we sported wantonly in the long, marble pools. As well as the hum-drum frigidarium, tepidarium and calidarium, there was a series of specialist, themed pools. One pool imitated the sea, with salt water and gentle waves, another pool was alive with tiny, invigorating bubbles and another was filled entirely with asses’ milk. We avoided a pool that advertised itself as “B in Rome” and was full of crippled geriatrics and the stench of bad eggs. We ended the morning in a pool that was really an enormous aquarium, filled with beautifully coloured fish, who nibbled away at our dry skin (and even, a strangely sensual experience, our nipples).
This really was one of the most luxurious experiences of my life so far. I was almost (almost) grateful to my mother for introducing me. In this rarified atmosphere, it wasn’t only the clients who were dripping with jewels and precious metal. Every pool was encrusted with pearls and every mosaic was edged in gold leaf. The ultra soignee attendants wafted about in bright white uniforms, looking more like models than slaves.
As I was drifting through the fish pond, admiring the mosaics, I suddenly remembered a funny story that Marcus once told me about a trip to the Baths of the Gracchi in the Sabura. How some swine (his word) has stolen his clothes, while he was preening himself (his word) in the calidarium. The thought of the most beautiful boy in Rome hot-footing it home, dressed only in a towel, accompained by a crowd of well-wishers, momentarlily put me off my stroke. The salivating report in next month’s Salve! made Marcus more popular than ever. But it was only as my nipples were being nibbled by baby crabs that it occured to me to wonder what such a cherub was doing in a dive like the Baths of the Gracchi. It was a notorious magnet for low life of every sort. Marcus’ mother could easily have afforded the best man-spa in Rome for her pampered baby. Equally easily, he could have availed himself of the hi-tech bathing complex that his father had recently installed in their own garden. So what was the dear boy doing in such a den of iniquity?
Not wishing to pursue this thoroughly unwholesome subject, I turned my attention to my mother. My mood was not improved. Naturally, we bathed in the nude and it was galling to see how incredibly beautiful she was. She bathed like a nymph, as ravishing as Calypso herself waiting to ensnare the unwary Odysseus. And, stepping out of the sea-themed pool, she could have been the model forVenus Rising from the Waves. As soon as she reached the top of the steps, a slave/model was at her side, wrapping my mother’s sumptuous body in a heavy woolen towel, lacing up her golden sandals and generally dancing in attendance.
My mother glanced down at me, still splashing about and trying to have fun. This had to be stopped. She called out imperiously.
“Get out, child. We haven’t got all day.”
It wasn’t until we were relaxing on sun-loungers, enjoying the ‘complementary herbal teas and fresh fruit’, that my mother came to what I suppose was the point of the whole painful exercise.
“Darling Phoebe. Dearest first born.” She spoke in a totally new, wistful voice and took my hand in hers. She patted it fondly. “Do you know that I was exactly your age when I had you? The happiest day of life. At last, your father and I were a proper, happy family.”
I let out a small involuntary cry of shock and disbelief. How could she tell such an enormous and outrageous lie? How could she possibly expect me to believe her? How often had she told me that I was the result of a vicious rape? That she couldn’t bear to look at me. That every glimpse of me reminded her of her pain and humiliation. She continued, in sickening, honeyed tones.
“You were the most beautiful baby in the world. Smiling, angelic, bouncing and bonny.”
I stared at my mother, open-mouthed. I had the worryingly familiar sensation of reality slipping from my grasp. Had there been some narcotic in the water, some mind-altering substance that allowed my mother to paint such a wholly fanciful picture of the first months of my life? How often had she told me that I screamed so much that she actually had to move out of the house into the penthouse suite at the Dominion for the whole first year of my life? This conversation was so full of lies that I was beginning to think that my mother was part of a rehearsed play reading.
“The time is coming, my dear, when you should soon be a mother yourself. You deserve to experience the joy and fulfillment that only mother-hood can bring.”
I flew off the lounger as if I had been electrocuted. Kicking the foot-masseuse in the face and spitting pomegranate seeds all over the neighbouring Queen of Palmyra. How the fuck did she know that???? I had only made the discovery myself a week ago. Nobody else knew. Of course they didn't. I'm not a bloody idiot. Nobody else would ever know, if I had my way.
I suppose that it was inevitable. Safe-sex was another thing missing from Dame Hera’s laughable curriculum. We spent hours learning how to balance books on our heads, but putting condoms on cucumbers was strictly off-limits. Julia and I picked the odd bit of folk-lore from midnight conversations in the dorm, but pomegranate seeds didn’t quite cut the mustard. As I soon found out. And Julia probably would, too, sooner rather than later. I wonder how the Spanish matriarch would react to that particular piece of news.
But at least Julia could be pretty sure of the identity of the father. I, on the other hand, had a worryingly big pool of possible candidates. Marius (obvious and most likely), Marcus (after our glorious, lotus-inspired one-night-stand – I ache when I think how beautiful his babies would be), but also (worryingly and embarrassingly) the entire student body of the Misenum Academy (after the full-monty sesh on the P.B.‘s pleasure barge).
But surely, surely, there was no way of my mother knowing this juiciest of juicy gossip? So what was the meaning of this insidious and sinister conversation? How could it be possible for her to know? Did I scream it out in my sleep? Had she read my diary? I tried everything to deflect her from the truth.
“I hate all babies and children and families. I can’t bear the FVP sponsored expectation that every girl should grow up and get married and have little babies. Personally, I think that Epicurus got it right. Sod sex and families and kick back in a pleasure-garden on the Bay of Naples. Or become a lesbian. I wonder what Aurelia Spexis is up to these days?”
I gabbled on and on about my Sapphic proclivities in a desperate attempt to put my mother off the scent. I was so convincing that she was soon asking about specialist treatments and retreats to cure ‘deviance’. By now, of course, every colonically-irrigated cougar in the place was staring open-mouthed at me and my mother. The situation was getting out of hand. Discretion, I decided, is always the better part of valour. I left at once, without a shred of dignity intact. Let my mother be spanked all alone. I hope it fucking hurts.
Relations with my mother returned to their old, comfortable footing. That is to say, we never spoke to each other and avoided each other’s company as far as humanly possible. This was not easy when we were living in the same house and, crazy though it sounds, drinking in the same clubs. There was a particularly hideous encounter at Chariots, when I saw her playing strip-poker with Marius’ cute kid brother and a burningly embarrassing occasion when she asked me to join her on stage at Cupids while she pretended to marry a donkey. But nothing prepared me for what the Fates had in store. Weaving their mischief and stirring their cauldron, they were leading me inexorably to the most terrible day of my life.
It was a cold, wet Autumn day and I was home alone. My mother had joined her bitchy cronies at the local beauty salon for the usual facials, massage and manicures. She also had an appointment with the cosmetic surgeon to see if anything could be done about the huge scar on her left breast. Asps leave one hell of a legacy for such little animals. My father was also out. He had arranged a clandestine meeting at his club with arch-criminal and colonial exploiter, Gaius Verres. Since his notorious defeat by Cicero, Verres had sensibly gone into deep hiding, but my father – of course – had the necessary under-world contacts to dig him out. Dad was due to leave for his new posting next week and was keen to get the insider low-down on what – if any – removable art treasures still remained in Sicily. Julia was still at the P.B.‘s Neapolitan hide-out. Her fiancé had now joined her and left the ‘shop’ in the care of a scarily efficient manageress with a business degree. Marius was having tea with his ridiculously rich grandmother and Claudia was on a silent retreat in Provence. To re-align her chakras.
I was feeling at something of a loose-end and longing, as always, that Marcus would suddenly appear, as if by magic, in a puff of smoke. My very own genie, riding the magic carpet of love. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since our catastrophic encounter at the Emporium Omnium Summer Party. It was anybody’s guess where he was now, or with whom. All I knew for certain was that he had been thrown out of the Naval Academy. His father had told my father, who had told me. Had he been publicly unmasked as a society gigolo? Had Max had a tiff with the C.O.?
The cruel absence of Marcus must have done something strange to my head. I did something that I hadn’t dreamt of doing since leaving school. I opened a book. Cripes. Is this what happens when one is deprived of orgasm for a prolonged period? Was I turning into Claudia? Would I soon be viewing the Cote d”Azur as a hippy meditation centre rather than the home of the bronzed body-beautiful, the pool-side cocktail and unlimited, uninhibited sexual frolics?
If only I had been shocked out of this wholly unprecedented activity. If only I had gone to the baths instead, or the arena or the fab new boutique on Forum. Or even joined my mother for her mini-consultation. Anything rather than read that book.
At first glance, it seemed pretty innocuous. It was small note-book with a marbled cover and a heavy clasp. It was lying on a table in the lounge, next to a vase of chrysanthemums. Beside it, were a small stylus and a pot of ink. Curiosity killed Pandora and poor Psyche. It would soon prove to me my undoing, too. I opened the book and started to read. It was obviously a diary of some sort. The sort that should have been locked far away from innocent eyes.
Dies Veneris, Ides of July XLIII.
By this time tomorrow, I shall finally have escaped the grieving Clodia and her Catullus obsession. If he was really such a five star fuck, why was she constantly straying into the arms of other men? Life goes on, baby. As the old boy himself put it
Please stop being idiotic
And recognize that what you see has died is dead.
At last. In bed. Alone. Quite a novel experience, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. Exhausting journey from the Quirinial. View of the sea and private beach (complementary swimming lessons with cadets from the neighbouring Academy at Misenum). I have high hopes for this little holiday. Let’s see how ruinous B really is to female reputations….
a.m. Sauna and sensual massage in the hotel’s high-tech private spa. So bloody sensual that it’s verging on the orgasmic.
p.m. To the Corinthian Baths in central B with Ajax. It is incredible to think that these are the only pools in the whole of Italy that allow mixed bathing. Dodging the inevitable crowd of Mary Wodehouse types, decrying the declining morality of the Roman aristocracy, we took the plunge……..
The silver-toed boy was bathing,
Letting the water splash
Upon the golden apples of his pecs
Skin silky smooth as milk
The round cheeks of his bottom
Gently rolled and tossed together
As he turned and moved.
But the boy’s becoming expensive. And his lack of conversation and education is beginning rather to grate. Thought Virgil was a comic-book character.
Note to self: book massage for tomorrow morning.
Party chez Gremio. Ghastly noovo Syrian. Somehow married to Aurelia Informata, who is as ugly and boring as ever. Embarrassing scene with J. When will my children start behaving like adults and stop following me around?
Back with Ajax to the Metropolitum. His brain may be under-developed, poor boy, but other (arguably more important) organs….
[At this point the narrator lapsed into Greek. Until very recently, Greek had been the lingua franca of the upper classes. I couldn’t read it well, but you didn’t have to be bloody Heraclitus to work out what was being described.]
Note to self: buy pomegranates.
Muffled in an enormous scarf, Ajax mananaged for once to escape his scary minder/agent to spend a whole glorious day in the penthouse.
I satisfy my longing with armfuls of luscious you.
Satisfied but never sated. Every experience sharpens the appetite for more. Ajax iterum (iterumque), nothing can stale your infinite variety.
Ladies Day at Pompeii. Ajax sharing the podium with pouting sex-kitten super- model, Melissa Constantine. As planned, boy-racer flunks big race. Celebration with Senator Constantine and other members of the cartel. Ruined by rioting plebs. Re-locate to the Princeps.
Note to self: invite Melissa to supper at the penthouse asap.
A girl kissed me in the
Early evening with wet lips
Her kiss was nectar,
Her mouth divine.
Embarrassing visit from drama-queen sister. Floods of tears and apologies. Lavish kisses and promises of eternal love and support. Offers of bed and board at the Syrian’s. Over my dead body. One still has some standards.
Ajax has mysteriousy disappeared. Distracted self with flattering flunky. And why not? We all know about men in uniforms.
What delights did my private fantasies not devise!
What techniques did I not fashion and plan!
Emporium Omnium Summer Party. Intro, via Metta, to an impossibly attractive young gigolo, nomine Marcus Junius, provocatively dressed-up as a Gautier sailor-boy. I’m afraid that we were all very drunk and matters got rather out of hand.
The shameless boy says that I should go, but all the while covers me with kisses.
Embarrassing scene with Phoebe. How was I supposed to know she was sweet on the sweetie?
Visit from interfering, do-gooding Syrian about cataleptic daughter. Long may she sleep and stop ruining my sex life.
Marcus Junius is a true professional.
Oh eyes that drive me mad,
Oh skilful moves
Oh exquisite tongue
Oh inspiring moans.
p.m. Ajax made a delirious re-appearance in the Penthouse. It seems that the poor lamb had been so frightened by Wenesday’s riot that he was hiding, dressed as a woman, in a Pompeii brothel. He seems to have picked up some interesting new tecniques from is co-workers. The afternoon passed, to say the least, orgasmically.
All night long I enjoyed a wanton girl, whose naughtiness no man can exhaust. Tired by a thousand different modes, I asked for the boy routine; before I begged or started to beg, she gave it in full.
Marcus v Ajax. Comparisons are odious, but such fun, n’est-ce-pas?
a.m. Letter from hubby. Promotion to consulship. Leaving for Sicily in two weeks.
p.m. Marcus may be as beautiful as Apollo and as sexually gifted as Paris himself, but he’s still a tart.
I want a boy, who walks around in a mantle. I want one who has already obliged my slave. I want one who sells all he is and who can cope with three at once.
Ajax has mysteriously vanished again. Just when I need him most. At least Marcus comes when he’s called. In both senses of the word.
How great, how fine his flank! What a youthful thigh!
Why longer on each detail? I saw nothing not to be praised
And pressed his naked body to mine all the way.
Who doesn’t know the rest? Exhausted, we both fell asleep.
May many a noon turn out that way for me.
Boring dinner at Flavio’s with consul and staff. What don’t these belching old farts stay in Rome and stop ruining my holiday?
Outrageous letter from a seedy shop-keeper called Quintus Mercator, daring to suggest marriage with darling Julia. Doesn’t he realize that we are one of the oldest families in Rome?
Sick as a dog all morning. Forced to cancel yacht trip with Marcus and his cheery matelots.
Where is Ajax? Surely the face of chariot racing can’t stay hidden for much longer?
Seem to have put on a worrying lot of weight. Must cut down on the cocktails. Must exercise more. With Ajax and Marcus. Or preferably with both together. I’m sure they’d get on like a house on fire.
When two had come to Phyllis of a morning to fornicate and each was hoping to take her naked first, Phyllis promised to give both at once, and kept her word: one lifted her feet, the other her tunic.
Note to self: re-read Troilism for the over fifties.
Ajax is still mysteriuosly incommunicado. And Marcus has gone to Rome with an oddly-named business-woman. One cannot, I suppose, expect loyalty from his sort, but I can – and do – miss the intimacy.
B is crowded, but with no one of any interest or consequence. The remaining tourists are desperate social climbers, taking advantage of the out of-season rates.
Interesting visit from a little man called Max Maccabaeus. There may yet be light at the end of the tunnel.
p.m. reprise of flunky-fuck. Do these devastating door men ever do any ctual doorkeeping?
He slid under my neck his ivory arms
More radiant than Sithonian snow
And thrust in grappling kisses with his greedy tongue,
And placed his naughty thigh beneath my thigh.
The party has definitely moved back to Rome. I too must bid farewell to the flesh-pots of B. The next item on the social calendar, Caecilius Simius’ private view, is only two days away.
Note to self: order carriage for tomorrow morning.
Home at last. Hubby out with the boys. Latin translation: out with a gaggle of gagging, pubescent girls. Thank God. At least he won’t be expecting sex from me at four in the morning.
Inspect house and gardens. Mrs Helvetia as efficient as ever. Sick twice before breakfast.
Note to self: buy peppered figs and honeyed eels.
Still fucking pregnant. How dare that greasy-dago quack charge so much for fuck all? If I pay 30, 000 sestercii I expect the baby to be gone. Vamoos. Exit infans.
Fat, sick and in terrible pain from so-called procedure. And still pregnant. And alone. No new of Ajax. No news of Marcus. Hubby full of excitement and plans for fleecing Sicily all over again. Shouldn’t think there’s anything left. At least he hasn’t noticed anything different about me.
Note to self: ask Mrs H for some discrete dress alterations.
In bed all day. Throwing up. Reading Antony and Cleopatra.
Note to self: buy asp.
Suicide note written. Asp discretely killed by Mrs H. Make-up skillfully applied to left breast.
Phoebe, Julia, Metta and Marius Pulcher arrive pell-mell from B. So far, so far good. Touching death-bed scene. Hubby irritated by poss disruptions to the Sicilian job.
Miraculous recovery. Family reaction not quite as euphoric as one might have wished. Phoebe showing no maternal yearnings.
Mother-daughter bonding-trip to the baths. Earnest discussions of the joys of motherhood. And adoption. Beginning to blossom. Breasts swelling beautifully. Horny as hell. Where the fuck is Ajax? Is he still skulking in that seaside whorehouse? Is Marcus still in Rome? Are his charges higher in the capital?
I hate and I love. Why do I do this, you may well ask.
I don’t know, but I feel it happen and it’s torture.
Phoebe is oblivious to hints. Is she unnatural?
Note to self: buy for Phoebe The Joy of Motherhood.
Where the fuck is Ajax?
Note to self: visit Circus Maximus asap.
Spa day with the girls. They are all so beautiful, sporting about naked and gleaming.
Philaenis is more cruel than a husband. She penetrates eleven girls a day and absolutely devours their middles.
Note to self: buy vibrator or new toy-boy. Or become a lesbian, far simpler all round.
I slammed the note-book shut and threw it away as if it were made of burning coals or deadly poison. It was a mystery how I had managed to plough through this filfth right through to the end. The intimate sex diary of one’s mother is hardly the most cheerful reading on a wet afternoon. I was disgusted and revolted by her detailed descriptions of the most intimate of acts with the most hideously unsuitable people. She must have trawled through my father’s collection of erotic poetry to find the most graphically apt quotations for her multifarious, omnivorous appetites. Or had she picked up a porno compendium from the P.B.‘s camera amoris? The catastrophic revelations of those few short pages confirmed all my worse fears. My mother was a raging nymphomaniac, ready for sex with any sentient being. She cleary hated me and everyone else except herself.
And now my mother wanted me to me to foster Ajax’ little bastard. How could she even contemplate such a plan? How could she ever think that I would say ‘yes’? Had she absolute zero understanding of how other people thought and felt? The answer to this, as I had learned from bitter experience, was yes, yes and yes again. My mother was simply incapable of empathy.
It was some hours before the very worst – and by far the most likely – scenario appeared in my fevered, hallucinating mind. Marcus. Marcus. Marcus. Marcus had inseminated my mother – my mother! – with his stinking slimy sperm. The deformed monstrosity swelling inside her was Marcus’ filthy bastard. I could see the head-lines:
Society sperm-doner helps radiant mother and daughter to the joys of motherhood.
By now, I was banging my head repeatedly against the wall and wailing like a wild animal. My insides were a fiery furnace of fury and vomit. My hands were tight fists alternately beating the wall or my own poor breasts. Soon, of course, some slaves arrived to see what was happening. I shouted at them to go away and hit out wildly and randomly. A shy, new slave, bought only yesterday as a hair-dresser, was knocked right down. Her nose was bleeding copiously. And I couldn’t have cared less. Some gigantic Germans tried to restrain me, but fury have given me strength and I easily broke free. I ran off and barricaded myself in my bedroom, shuddering uncontrollably.
I had to act quickly. My mother would be back soon. If I saw her in this state I’d probably kill her. I had to escape, quam celerrime. But where? I knew that I couldn’t stomach Marius’ nicey-nicey calmness. Gremio would have been the perfect refuge, but Aunt Metta was out of the question. In the end, I had decided that Julia and Quintus were the only possible option. The mafia might this very moment be knocking down the doors and eviscerating the inhabitants, but their country cottage was surely a far safer haven than the poisonous atmosphere of my so-called home.
Without even leaving a note, I summoned the lightest carriage and the fastest horses and rushed as quickly as possible out of Rome and back down the Apian Way. I was beginning to be intimately acquainted with this particular stretch of the Roman road network.
It was way past midnight when I finally arrived at my destination. The hide-out of the P.B. was certainly well hidden. Nestling in the foot-hills of Mount Vesuvius, it was miles from any other human habitation. Surrounded by a dense forest and protected by a high flint wall, it was exceedingly difficult to locate, especially on a wild and moonless night. When we finally found the estate, we still had to navigate the long and winding avenue of poplars that led to the house itself. Everything was designed to confuse and conceal. When we eventually reached the end of the twisting drive, we found a heavy, lead-studded oak door, barred securely for the night. A dint of repeated banging and shouting finally roused the household.
Quintus appeared, gaunt and unshaven, carrying a flickering oil lamp and a heavy cudgel. A ferocious guard-dog on a short lead tugged and snarled ominously. Julia cowered in the background, swathed in a thick rug and clutching at Quintus’ clothes.
“Who is? What do they want?” She whispered, with terror in her voice.
When Quintus saw that the midnight visitors were in fact a teenaged girl and her elderly driver, the sense of relief was immediate and obvious. They were soon laughing and inviting us both inside. But I’m afraid that I was in no laughing mood. Like the heroine of an over-acted melodrama, the pregnant waif lost in a wild and stormy night, I stood on the door step, wild-haired and suing for admittance. I burst into tears and threw myself into Julia’s bewildered arms.
Family roles were strangely reversed. Julia was a tower of strength, a solid harbour of decency, maturity and Patrician respectability. I was the frightened, flaky, hysterical teen. After a few minutes of uncontrolled sobbing, I allowed Julia to lead me upstairs and pop me into bed, where I slept for an unbroken fourteen hours. Emotion has always exhausted me.
The following afternoon, in the hazy autumn sun, in the little garden blooming with late roses and eglantine, I told my sorry tale of woe. I told my sister all about the pregnancy, the paternity doubts, the diary and all about our revolting, repulsive mother. Julia had very little to say. What could she say? It was all so boringly predictable. In the end, she did all that she could, which was to offer me sanctuary for as long as I needed or wanted it.
It took a few more days for Julia to tell me her story. Although we had been together in Rome to watch my mother imitate a dying Egyptian queen, there had been no chance to talk or to exchange news. Julia knew nothing about the unravelling of my relationship with Marius and I knew nothing really about her shot-gun engangement to the Pepper Baron. After a rather Spartan breakfast, as dawn was creeping over Vesuvius (what had happened to the luxurious lie-ins till midday and the gentle slaves bringing silver trays of tempting breakfast delicacies?), I felt the moment had come.
“So what happened to you in Pompeii? I was so worried. The last thing I saw was you being bundled off by the P.B. through the pouring rain and rioting plebs.”
Julia sat back contentedly. Long stories about herself were still very much her tasse de the.
“I was wandering about miserably, wondering how I could possibly find the rest of you and how I could get home. I was still really upset about Ajax, when I ran slap-bang into Quintus. Well, I nearly didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a long dirty cloak covering his party clothes and a baggy snood covering most of his face. His eyes were wild and crazy. He gripped me hard by the shoulders, as if trying to steady himself. His eyes bored into me, but he didn’t seem to have the faintest idea who I was. This was all a bit hurtful and a bit embarrassing, considering what we’d been through together. Especially on Capri.”
“Perhaps he didn’t recognize you with your clothes on?” I suggested. Julia ignored me and ploughed on regardless.
“But after a while the penny dropped and he enfolded me like a long-lost daughter. He then hustled me straight out of the Circus and bundled me into a waiting carriage, with the curtains tight shut. To be honest, he seemed a bit high-handed about it. He didn’t even ask if I had other plans.”
“Like sacrificing yourself outside Ajax’ abandoned dressing room? Or killing Ben Demetrios?” As I heard what I was saying, I winced at the sarcy tone. Why was I always so nasty to my little sister? I did some rapid back-pedalling. “ I’m sorry. Carry on. This is really exciting stuff.”
“As the lightening flashed, the horses were lashed mercilessly. We sped, at terrifying speed, along the whole length of the cornice. Under a fitful moon and the scudding clouds of the thunder, amid the roar of the wild, tempestuous sea, as the rain crashed loudly on the roof, Quintus kissed me. A wild and passionate kiss of a wild and passionate man.”
My sister, the mistress of the clinch. She should be writing romantic novels for sexually frustrated teens. She could dispense entirely with the market research.
“I was naturally a bit apprehensive about how the evening would pan out, but Quintus was much nicer and more normal than on our previous, rather ropey date. There were no visits to strip-clubs, no suppers with the Mafia and no sinister minders. Just him and me, the night and the music. He took me to a tiny taverna in a village behind B. We spoke about our families. His seems a lot nicer than ours. His mother in particular.”
“That’s not v hard.”
“He’s got a brother who’s a soldier and two little nephews, aged five and seven. We hope that they might all come over and stay with us next summer.”
“Steady on, Jules. Isn’t this too crashingly boring? Next thing we know, Quintus will be mowing the lawn and cleaning the chariot on Sunday mornings. What’s happened to you all of a sudden? You’re far too young for all this. At your age you should be passing out in the Seahorse with sub-Ajax look-a-likes.”
“Shut up. You’re just jealous.”
She was probably right. I touched my stomach warily.
“And shut up about fucking Ajax. It’s still a very sore subject.”
We glared at each other for a long beat. But Julia couldn’t help herself. The show must go on.
“At some point we must have returned chez lui.”
“No intimate details. Please.”
Julia made a dismissive, holier-than-thou moue. She really had changed. I wasn’t quite whether it was for the better. The old, hyper, Saturday-night-fever Julia was just a bit more fun than the good little house-wife.
“And at some point I must have fallen asleep. The next morning I woke up in an enormous feather-bed in a stream of brilliant sunshine, surrounded by freshly picked roses still wet with dew. Standing at the foot of the bed was Quintus himself, holding the breakfast tray.”
“So when did a pardonable fuck-fest with a middle-aged millionaire become an engagement? When exactly did you transform yourself from drooling sex-obsessed nymphomaniac to the dutiful little wifey sucking up to her mother-in-law? I saw you that night at the villa, you know. I saw you and the little sparrow. The whole domestic scenario. Love’s young dream. Even for you, that was pretty damn quick.”
“Once you have found true love, nothing must stand in its way.”
“Oh yeah, I guess that explains all your previous engagements, too. You don’t have the faintest idea of the meaning of love. True or false.”
I realized that I was becoming way too bitchy. My hormones were all over the place. With an effort, I forced myself to apologize and to let Julia tell me about her wedding plans. At least my swelling state would excuse me from being the Matron of Honour.
Surprisingly, the wedding was not, in the end, to take place in the Temple of Venus at B. There was not to be a five-hundred strong guest-list. There was not to be catering care of Flavio’s and the Emporium Omnium. There were not to be specialist symphonici brought in at fabulous expense to dazzle the guests with exotic sophisticaton. There was not to be a wedding lists at Herods. Nor a honeymoon in the Balearics. Nor was there to a Salve! exclusive. There wasn’t even going to a hen-night at Chariots. They would marry in a little local temple in the foot-hills of Vesuvius. There would be no guests, other than the necessary witnesses, i.e. me and the Contessa.
I smelt a distinct whiff of something fishy. All was not rosy in the domestic affairs of the Pepper Baron. Nor, a very fortiori, in his business affairs.
It was then that Julia told me the very sorry tale of Quintus Mercator. Far from being a millionaire, he was a broken and bankrupt man, fighting for his life, as the thugs of Naples inched ever closer. First checking that her fiancé was still busy planting turnips, Julia told me all about it.
A few years ago, the Emporium Omnium had found itself in financial difficulty. A merchant fleet had apparently foundered somewhere off the coast of southern India. All the ships and their priceless cargo (peacocks, gold, ivory, silk and pepper) were lost. Nothing was ever recovered. Not so much as a plank was washed up on the golden beaches of Kerala. There was, naturally, some suspicion of treachery and double dealing. An unscrupulous captain could easily have diverted the fleet to another port and sold the cargo himself. Quintus sent his most trusted agents to make enquiries. None of whom ever returned.
He got the message and forgot all about pepper for the time being and the whole of the sub-continent. He decided to turn his attenton to the wild shores of South-west Britannia and try the tin trade. This notoriously secret and perilous trade brought untold wealth to a handful of merchants, who controlled the import with a rod of iron. These merchants were mostly Phoenicians, settled now in very comfortable circumstances on the Bay of Naples. Quintus realized the risks he was taking in attempting to break the cartel, but he needed to make some big and fast money. Inevitably, his ships were once more wrecked. This time, in the wild and unknown waters of the Bay of Biscay. The enormous salary he had paid the crew sank without trace to the bottom of the ocean.
Quintus was now in very serious trouble. The deli itself was still popular with the house-wives of B, but its revenue was peanuts. The success of the Emporium Omnium depended upon the over-seas trade in unique luxuries. In desperation, Quintus sought help from the money-lenders of Naples. And so began a terrifying downward spiral that ended here. In a ramshackle and (hopefully) safe-house in the rocky foot-hills of a volcano.
Unable to pay his debts and the absurdly high interest, the P.B. was entirely at the mercy (ridiculous misnomer) of the money-lenders. He was forced to take a lead part in various vicious scams, ranging from prostitution rings to drug smuggling –
“What do you mean? He was forced to sell dope to school boys and run gentlemen’s clubs on Capri?”
“He was a business-man, Phoeb. Of course he didn’t want to get involved in all that shit. But his connections to money, power and beauty (Melissa, her father, Caecilius Simius) made him invaluable to the low-life of the Bay. He could facilitate all the necessary introductions. His office became that crappy little bar on Capri. He was leading a double life and the strain was starting to show.
“The scandal at the Pompeii Circus and the terrifying riot was the last straw. Quintus tried desperately to extricate himself, but the grip tightened every day. The screw turned and the chains weighed ever heavier. Everyday, his controllers were suggesting more outrageous, more hideous crimes.”
“Like what?” I whispered, appalled. Julia’s story was like an episode from the Castrati, but I was getting seriously worried about her current social circle.
“Like a heist on the Puteoli bank vaults. Like kidnapping Thecla Metaballi.”
“Gremio’s daughter. Conveniently out of her father’s sight and living on Capri. Other plans were match fixing in the Coliseum, vote rigging on the Capitol, cat burglaries in B…..”
“Were Quintus’ new friends acquainted with the guru, by any chance?”
“Of course. All the crime on the Bay of Naples is controlled by the Mafia. Poor Quintus was so desperately in debt to these people that there seemed no way out. It seemed that he had no choice but to do whatever they told him.”
“But I don’t understand. He hardly seemed strapped for cash when he threw the Emporium Omnium Summer Party.”
“That was all paid for by the firm. It was all a front. That night you saw us taking tea with the Contessa, it was all up. The villa was full of Mafiosi, masquerading as shoppers. Do you remember the oligarch who bought the tax-accountant slave?”
“Well he was really the don, the godfather. Mr Big Himself. Or Dominus Magnus as the Capri strippers described him. What a hoot to dress up as Syrian tycoon and mingle with the hoi polloi.”
“To scare us. And it worked. Quintus was terrified. He had no idea what would happen next. But that was all part of the game. Would they disembowel him in front of his mother or would they simply buy a bronze Venus and go home? But somehow, somehow, we got through the party unscathed. His mother knew nothing of course. And is still unaware of the full extent of the danger.”
Despite the warmth of the autumn sun, my sister suddenly shuddered and pulled her shawl tighter.
“A few weeks after the party, a gang burst into the delicatessen, smashing up the counter and beating Quintus unconscious. He lay there for four hours before Gremio – of all people- happened upon him. He'd been sent by Aunt Metta for a pound of nard and had found the proprietor bleeding copiously all over the Carian marble floor. Enough was finally enough. That very night, Quintus made the decision to leave B for good and join us in the cottage. Where we've all been living ever since. Fending for ourselves.”
Quintus had sold all his slaves. The faithful old retainers, who had been the treasured bedrock of his familia for decades, were now working in mines, brothels and war-ships. It broke his heart, but there was no alternative. The sale of the last slave, a grizzled old African, had reduced both parties to tears.
Quintus, Julia and the old Contessa were now the entire house-hold. They all worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk simply to survive. They were not living, but simply existing. The Epicureans might claim that life itself is all that matters. They should visit this desperate little menage. Quintus and Julia had attempted to bake bread, to keep chickens, to rear pigs and grow vegetables. They even tried to catch fish in the dashing mountain streams. But, being novices at anything even vaguely practical – (Julia couldn’t even make a bed. Quintus couldn’t light a fire and his mother couldn’t dress herself) – they were reduced to foraging for wild strawberries and mushrooms.
I stayed on with Quintus and Julia for the full nine months of my pregnancy. Once the ghastly early weeks were over, I felt stronger and more healthy than ever before. I grew muscles in my arms and legs and tanned easily. I lost the spots and pimples and angst that had characterised my life in Rome. The fresh air and hard work seemed to suit me.
The only awkwardness was the frequency and volume of Julia and Quintus’ sexual activity. The walls of the cottage were woefully thin. The Contessa and I took to learning the local peasant songs in a vain attempt to drown out the repeated crescendo of orgasmic delight.
Such sounds were, of course, a constant reminder of my own parlous amorous state. I had hours to think as I toiled in the fields or swam in the lakes and rivers. At times, a loneliness gripped me that seemed doomed to last a life-time. What was to become of me and my fatherless child? I had wild day-dreams of a tearful rapprochement with Marcus, a wedding on the beach at B and a wine-soaked, love-drenched honeymoon on the Greek Islands. At more sombre moments, I imagined settling down with Marius in the Quirinial, in an extension to his parents palazzo.
When my time finally came, an agonizing labour of twelve desperate hours brought forth a tiny pink scrap. My daughter. Looking at her pinched and angry little face, I felt such an immediate and visceral love that it was literally mind-numbing. Over the next few days, I started to wonder if my mother had ever felt anything remotely like this for me. Maybe just once? For one tiny moment when I first came howling, hairless, into the world? Or did she always remember the vicious rape that produced me and turn away in disgust?
A month after the birth of Hebe, Julia and Quintus married in a little stone temple on the edge of the estate. The day was a typical autumnal mix of a cold sea breeze and a bright blue sky. The priest was a doddery old man, prone to repeat himself and to call Quintus by the wrong name. He also bungled the sacrifice and drenched the guests, such as there were, with spurting blood as he cut the ox’s jugular. The whole day was somehow melancholy, without the choir, without the procession and without even a wedding breakfast. The bride and groom were both worryingly sombre. The sword of Damocles hung over their every waking moment. Was the priest a Mafia plant? Was he suddenly going to turn the knife on the little wedding party? Was the tabellarius really delivering a scorpion rather than an excruciatingly badly rhymed epithalamion from Claudia?
The next morning, with a significant look in my direction, the Contessa announced that it was time to return to Spain and leave the newly-weds in peace.
“Costa Brava and the children will wonder what on earth’s happened to me. And I simply must give them the happy news of your nuptials. They will be so sad to have missed your big day and eager for all the details. But I quite understand the pressures of business and the time it takes to organize a proper wedding. They will send you a present, of course. Remind me where you placed the list?”
I listened, amazed. Had she really not grasped the gravity of her son’s situation? Was she completely dense and oblivious to the world around her? Surely she didn’t think that international business men normally lived in hovels and grew their own turnips. Either she was lacking a few marbles or she was a B afficionada, papering over the cracks and playing the game for as long as humanly possible.
Reluctantly, I accepted the brutal fact that it was time for me to leave, too. To start a new life for Hebe and me. I packed quickly and was away before anyone else was awake. The raeda trundled along just as the sun was rising behind Mount Vesuvius.
B out of season was a dreary, melancholy place. The party had moved back to Rome. To the vernisages and first nights and book launches that filled the autumn days and kept the idlers busy until the Saturnalia. Left to its own devices, the little town on the Bay of Naples seemed to heave a sigh of relief, to kick off its shoes and lie back by the fire. There would be little for it to do until the following May. In the town centre, most of the shops had their shutters drawn. The Emporium Omnium was actually boarded up. The tavernae and the restaurants, even Flavio’s, struggled to find customers. The permanent residents of B, Aunt Metta and Gremio and their fellow ex-pats, tended to eat at home in the winter.
A cruel wind was blowing and there was rain in the offing as Hebe and I struggled along the deserted sea-front to the Dolphin for our rendez-vous with Gremio. I pushed open the heavy wooden door and startled the scowling, somnolent staff. They were clearly not expecting customers on a late afternoon in late October, and had settled down by the fire for a game of dice. The barman grudgingly rose to his feet and laid a table for two. He then shuffled off into a back room to prepare the plat du jour and some warm milk for Hebe.
We had not been there long, when the door swung open once more. The blast of salt wind smarted my eyes and blew at the lanterns so that their light danced wildly about and cast fantastic shadows over the low-beamed room. Gremio. I wept as we embraced. Underneath the heavy coat and fur muffler I could feel his protruding bones. As always, he had been working too hard and not eating enough.
“Sit down. Right here, next to the fire. And promise that you’ll eat. You’re as thin as a rake.”
Meek as a child, my old friend sat down and ate. We ate in silence. A total silence, punctuated only by the howl of the wind and the rhythmic roll of the dice. Hebe slept on. When he had finished, Gremio wiped his mouth fastidiously and sat back in his chair with a contented sigh. He studied me minutely.
“You look well”. He said, finally. “Motherhood suits you.”
I smiled, graciously, but wondered if this was remotely true. My stomach was still enormous and my poor bleeding breasts were bandaged with cabbage leaves. My eyes were red and blotchy with lack of sleep. But any compliment, however outrageous, does wonders for the self-esteem.
At first, we simply exchanged news. We hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year.
I heard all about Astea (‘Inshallah, she should now have arrived at Alexandria.’) and Aunt Metta (‘she has moved permanently into the Villa Gremio and sold her place to a new-age meditation centre. Apparently, the total lack of furniture and décor is perfect for their needs’) and even Clodia (‘she has come to stay with us while she recovers from the shock of losing dear Catullus.’). This was amazing news. I assumed that she had died years ago. How on earth had they managed to keep this out of the papers? They hadn’t. Gremio handed me a dirty cutting from Salve!
After an absence of nearly 20 years, B’s favourite party-girl is back in town. This time for good! The Medea of the Palatine is once more the gracing our little town with her dynamic, magnetic presence. She has set up her head-quarters in the rarified atmosphere of the Villa Gremio, a graceful palazzo on the Naples corniche. Catullus may be in his grave, and mourned throughout the Empire, but the show goes on for this tireless patron of the arts. The Villa Gremio has recently become the venue for a weekly salon show-casing the latest in poetical innovation. The permissive atmosphere and generous artistic license has ensured a freedom expression undreamt of in the capital. Only last week, Publius Ovidius Naso, a rising star from the Apennines, performed a daring set of erotic elegies. To rapturous applause. Poets, you have been warned. Clodia is back in town.
“You can imagine the media circus. Journalists camped outside for weeks on end. Climbing in and out of back windows to escape them. The salon mobbed with hacks disguised as poets. Heaven knows how the news got out.”
“I expect Clodia told them.”
Gremio barked a short, humourless laugh. “Your aunt’s analysis, exactly. That woman has always loved the limelight. Any publicity is good publicity. I think that she even enjoyed Cicero’s public assignation of her moral character.”
“What moral character?” I wondered.
I then told Gremio all the usual baby stuff, which is not remotely interesting to anyone except – possibly – the mother (‘she’s now sleeping through the night and has cut her first tooth.’). Naturellement, I omitted the thorny issue of paternity. I told him all about Julia and Quintus’ wedding (‘At the end of the service, we were all drenched in blood.’) and about the incredible stroke of luck in finding the diamonds (‘What they were doing buried in a turnip field is anybody’s guess.’) and about my little house in Pompeii (‘Not far from the recently re-opened Circus. Ajax has yet to put in an appearance.’).
A silence fell. We both realised that we had simply been exchanging pleasantries and skirting around the real issues. The real elephant in the room was my Aunt’s behaviour at the Emporium Omnium Summer Party. Despite a volley of letters begging me to allow her to visit, I had not seen my aunt since then (except, briefly, at my mother’s deathbed drama). It was still too soon even to talk about the hideous situation. Gremio, with his usual tact, realized as much, but nonetheless managed to at least to allude to his histrionic flat-mate.
“You have been as much scarred by your upbringing as your aunt and mother. I’m afraid that history has a depressing tendency to repeat itself. Especially where families are concerned. Your mother was deprived of love and she did the same to you and Julia. It is your absolute duty to say ‘enough is enough’. To smother your little bundle of joy with all the love in the world. To hug her and kiss her at every opportunity. And to remember to tell her that you love her. Everyday at least.”
The old man smiled down at Hebe, who was still fast asleep in her pram. What a wonderful father he would have made. I vowed there and then that he should be a permanent fixture in my daughter’s life. A surrogate grandfather. Her real grandfather, my ridiculous father, had not even bothered to acknowledge her birth. He was too busy fleecing the Sicilians.
“As you may have noticed, your aunt and mother struggle to form lasting romantic attachments. This, too, stems from childhood neglect. We learn to love by observing our parents. A child born to a loveless marriage misses out on the most important lesson of all.”
“The lesson of love.”
“Exactly. And if I may speak candidly, my dear, I fear that you too are struggling with commitment.”
This was getting way too personal. And the old man was touching a very raw nerve. My little sister was married to the man of her dreams and I was fast becoming the spinster aunt. Plus baby.
“That’s just not true. You obviously don’t know me as well as you think. I’d marry Marcus tomorrow. Today! Right here is this little pub.”
“I’m afraid not. Your obsession with Marcus is a classic distraction ploy. But you can’t hide your head in the sand forever. You know as well as I do that the boy is queer.”
I started to speak, but Gremio silenced me with a frown and a distinctly raised voice.
“Listen to me! For once in your life, listen. I could tell that Marcus was gay from the first moment I met him. And so, I’m sure, could you. Julia certainly could. He has been helping me with the first tentative plans for the Lighthouse. We have had a good many talks, he and I, over the past few months. What upsets him the most is you. The way that has deceived and confused and misled you.”
“Misled me? Misled me? That’s the understatement of the century. He’s been flirting with me steadily for the past six years. Making me jealous with a string of dumb blondes. He then he decides that he’s God’s gift to older women, the most sought after gigolo on the Bay of Naples. So, yeah. You can certainly say that he’s misled me. But why? What was the bloody point of it all? Why couldn’t he just tell me that he liked boys? You’ve got it all wrong, grandpa. So very wrong.”
“But how would you have reacted if he’d come clean, come out’ as they say in Misenum? The fantasy was maintained because you wanted it to be. So long as you could fixate on the unattainable Marcus, you needn’t worry about marriage and commitment.”
“That’s a lie! Just because you’re a bloody pervert it doesn’t mean that everybody else is. You’re just a dirty old man, fantasising about getting your grubby hands down his pants.”
I was so angry that I was shouting. I was literally shaking with fury. Hebe woke up and started screaming. The bar staff listened, open-mouthed. They seemed poised to intervene if I started to beat the old dear to a pulp. The way I was feeling, this was not beyond the realms of possibility.
Gremio himself steadfastly refused to be offended. He simply repeated the short brutal sentence.
“I’m afraid that he most certainly is gay.”
“So how do you explain Melissa? And Cynthia, whoever she is. And what about Mrs fucking Testifracta? And what about Aunt Metta and my mother?”
By this time, I could hardly speak. Great wracking sobs shook my whole body. Gremio sighed and looked utterly wretched.
“You are so young. I sometimes forget how young you are and then you say something like this. As you go through life, Phoebe, you will realize that things are rarely black and white. And things are very rarely exactly as they seem to be. But this is Marcus’ very private life and I refuse to discuss it further. You must ask him yourself.”
I was silent for a long time.
“You have grown up witnessing first-hand the miseries of an unhappy marriage. This has put you off all relationships. Even those which could heal and transform you.”
“How can you not see what’s starring you in the face?”
“Marius, of course.”
“Oh, don’t make me laugh. He’s the last person I’d ever want to marry. Been there, done that, as they say. You may remember that we were actually living together for the whole of August. He’s been weighed in the balance, old boy, and found seriously wanting. He’s a fucking fruit cake. His idea of conversation is the migration patterns of conger eels. Or the possibility of suicide for an Epicurean. After two days in his company, I thought my head was going to explode. He’s a much more suitable soul-mate for Claudia. They could while away the long winter evenings talking bollocks.”
I tactfully restrained myself from describing our tragic attempts at love making in the cliff-top eyrie. This was the real reason why I knew I could never hitch myself permanently to the boy philosopher.
“Your aunt is convinced that he’s the boy for you.”
“What the hell’s it got to do with her? And what does she know about anything?”
“She knows a lot about kindness and gentleness. And love. And she sees it all in Marius. By the bucket-load. You have no idea how desperate he was when you were in your coma. He didn’t sleep for the whole five days, but kept a constant vigil by your bedside. He spent fortunes on every quack and charlatan in Campania. He tried anything, however preposterous, if there were the slightest chance it would help you. We watched him fade away before our very eyes. Eaten up with anxiety and premature grief. He was convinced that you’d never wake up. We were all upset. Of course we were. But his was the desperation of a devoted lover.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. Nor did I like the strange confusion of emotions brewing up inside.
“But this is all your decision. Of course. We should change the subject before you become really angry.”
He broke the tension by ordering another round of poppy-seed buns. And then it was time to talk about Gremio again. Anything rather than my tortured so-called love-life.
“So the refuge project’s really getting off the ground?”
“It is. Deo gratias. With the help of such tireless volunteers as Marcus, Metta and Clodia. And Terpio, of course….”
I spat out the name and the anger was starting to rise once more. I guess that I had inherited my father’s temper and hated myself – and him – for the genetic malfunction.
“Terpio, that hypocritical, perverted freak who pretends to be the new Cato and ruins the lives of any poor fucker who doesn’t want to live according to the fascist agenda of the FVP. Why would you want anything to do with him? He’s poisonous. He ruins lives. Don’t you know what he did to Aunt Metta? Don’t you care?”
Gremio matched my fury with a meekness and gentleness peculiar to him.
“Terpio, that misjudged, misunderstood, confused man.”
“Here we go again. I’ve heard it all before. Poor Terpio. There, there. Get out the violins.”
Gremio refused to be defeated. “You really must learn not to leap to conclusions, Phoebe. Not to judge by appearances and first impressions. You are always so sure that you have the moral high ground. But it would do you good to step back and actually think for once. You might pretend to be an enlightened liberal, but you are actually one of the most prejudiced and bigotted people I know.”
I was suddenly exhausted. Far too tired to argue any more with Gremio. In any case, Terpio was the least of my worries. I let him carry on.
“Terpio is now living down here permanently. His political career is in tatters and he is devoting the rest of his life – and his very considerable fortune – to charitable endeavours. Which includes, I’m happy to say, my little project.”
We chatted some more about the refuge and how it could be advertised. Discretion was, of course, the key. The FVP spies were everwhere, as their thugs. After a few more hours, Gremio drove us back home. Back home and back to the future. Whatever that might turn out to be.
Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco to Lieutenant Marius Pulcher greetings.
You didn’t have to join the foreign legion just because we had a row. Isn’t that just the teeniest bit of a cliché? But you always were a drama queen. I haven’t forgotten your crazy outburst when I first visited the Villa Dulcissima. It’s always the grand gesture with you, isn’t it?
I know I said some pretty hurtful things and I apologize. I know I said that I’d rather have sex with Claudia than you. I know I said that I rather take an Epicurean vow of celebacy and live forever and ever (amen) with Titus Lucius Formica than marry you. I think that at one point, in the heat of the moment, I even said a sexless ménage a trois with Marcus and Mrs T was preferable to living even the same city as you. I can now see that all this was very hurtful and unkind, but there was no need for you to take it to heart so. There was no need for you to run away from home and join the army.
I really don’t know what came over you. How you became so political all of a sudden. One moment, you’ve never even heard of Julius Caesar. The next moment, you’re worshipping his assassin as a second Che Guevara. Brutus the hero, Brutus the defender of democracy, Brutus the freedom fighter extraodinaire, the revolutionary, the liberator, the darling of students the world over. You were soon spouting the same nonsense as everybody else.
To be honest, I think that I preferred the old you. The lounging Epicurean, who knew everything there was to know about dead Greeks, but nothing at all about politics and economics. The whole of that summer in B, I don’t think I ever saw you open a newspaper nor – as I can, unfortunately, testify – go to the baths. You were as ignorant of current affairs as Julia. And that’s saying something. If only you’d stayed safely locked up in Granny’s cliff-top palazzo, none of this would have happened. As soon as you returned to Rome, you changed. I blame it on all those pub crawls. Even you couldn’t ignore the revolution in the air.
Anyway, enough of this. You joined up and that’s that. But be careful, Marius. There are people out there who want to kill you. I may not want to marry you, but I don’t particuarly want you to be dead, either. Please remember to use your sheild and to wear those socks I knitted you. The desert nights can be very cold.
Lieutenant Marius Pulcher to Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco greetings.
Darling Phoebe. Phoebe darling. I have been away for only two months and already it seems like two years, two lifetimes, since I saw your beautiful face. I lie awake at night remembering the taste of your lips, the urgency of your tongue, as you bade me a passionate farewell. I remember with burning, yearning nostalgia your desperate embrace as you strove to keep me from my destiny. I can still recall my brave, resolute words: honour, piety, manliness and the fight for freedom. As I walk masterfully down the road to the waiting troop ship, I see you fall in a swoon onto a rose-trimmed marble bench.
Ok, ok. I know that you didn’t actually bother to say goodbye, that it was quite impossible to cancel your monthly colonic massage, that the appointments were like gold dust, etc etc. But who cares about boring things like facts? Fantasy is much better. And this touching little vignette (I call it The Soldier’s Farewell) has comforted many a long night in the storm tossed-hammock.
Another favourite fantasy is that a terrible storm arises and crushes our ship like a piece of stale cake. All souls are lost, including the brave young soldier, Marius Pulcher. Recognizing a fellow romantic, the Nereids gently waft his body across the now calm seas to the golden sands of B. Where, miraculously, his girl-friend finds him, still draped with sea-weed and encrusted with barnacles. This scene is called Hero mourning the dead Leander. It is only then, darling, that you realize your terrible mistake. It is only then, when it is much too late, that you realize how much you love me. How much you have always loved me. Gripped by remorse and shattered by grief, you throw all your failing strength into providing a funeral worthy of Patroclus himself. A hero’s funeral. You would do that for me, wouldn’t you Phoeb? A proper Roman funeral, with a masked procession at dusk and bare-breasted flute girls?
Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco to Lieutenant Marius Pulcher greetings.
Don’t be so lugubrious and melodramatic. In case you’d forgotten, you’re meant to be a soldier and not a romantic novelist. I am enclosing a copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars to help ease you into your new persona. I’ve underlined the relevant passages, eg in any siege situation, make sure you murder all the women, children and dogs. This should be a synch for someone with your battle-hardened and manly character. And don’t get your knickers in a twist about the funeral plan. You might have guessed that your grandmother has already paid for a tomb worthy of Mausolus himself. Just in case.
I’d like to write more but we’re all in a tizzy getting ready for Julia and Quintus’ house-warming party. Isn’t that great news? They have finally been able to bid a fond farewell to the dingy safe-house and stage a triumphant return to the P.B.‘s billionaire bachelor pad. At last, Julia can start living in the manner to which she was (once) accustomed. Less turnip picking and more wall-to-wall sex in gold-clad, diamond-encrusted boudoirs. Anyway, tonight’s party is the absolute highlight of the season. And I have found the perfect outfit. I gather that Quintus’ exotic family are coming over from Spain especially for the party. Which bodes well. As does the posse of Salve! reporters already camped outside the house. I wonder if Marcus will be there.
I am sending this letter care-of the Epicurean Garden in Athens. I figure that you’re bound to pitch up there sooner or later.
Lieutenant Marius Pulcher to Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco greetings
Fuck, Phoebe, you can be really cruel and heartless when you put your mind to it. You really know how to plunge in the knife. To rub it in. To ram it home that a chap’s made the biggest mistake of his life. I suppose it’s good news that your naughty little sister is out of danger. And I suppose that a party was the obvious way to celebrate this joyous fact. But let me ask you just one thing. In the midst of all the A-lister partying did you spare any thought for me? While the greasy oligarchs were spoon-feeding you paté de fois gras, did you stop to wonder what I was doing? No? Well quelle surprise. I’ll tell you what I was doing, shall I? I was throwing my guts up over the rusty rail of a stinking troop ship. You didn’t like the fantasy content of my last letter. Let’s see if reality is any more to your liking.
The moment I crossed the gang plank, I knew I was in hell. The total lack of any silence or privacy, the constant swearing and innuendo, the total absence of even the most basic education. None of the other men on board had the slightest interest in understanding why they were fighting, for whom or against whom. They were far worse than slaves or mercenaries. They were killing machines, blindly obeying the most inane orders. But the worst part of it all was the unbelievable stench. The all-pervading stench of VD, picked up from harbour knocking-shops the length and breadth of the Empire. I soon learned that the men (I use the term advisedly) with whom I shared my hammock, my pathetic rations and even more pathetic dreams, were the veterans of decades of colonial wars, from Gaul to Persia, from Egypt to Batavia. It was sobering moment, Phoeb, to realize that the glorious Roman Empire owed its entire existence to creatures like this.
But, after two weeks at sea, we landed in the Piraeus and were given two weeks leave in Athens. There, thank God, amid the plane trees, the cicadas and the marble statues, I at last found some vaguely congenial company. In the unlikely form of the trust-funded, year-abroad philosophy students, who thronged the tavernas of the Old Town. Night after night, as the retsina flowed and the girls danced, we argued until dawn about politics and economics, philosophy, philanthropy and the new world order. The brave new world of freedom and democracy. Periclean Athens reborn.
And, bizarrely, I quite often ran into people we both used to know back home in Rome. Remember Publius Stultus? You might well wonder what the hell he was doing studying philosophy in Athens He’s so stupid he used to think that Aristotle was a root vegetable. And that Hannibal was a serial killer. He’s hardly the most obvious candidate for an MSc in PPE, but I guess his parents were glad to see the back of him for a year or so. But I can’t say that the lectures and seminars had made much of an impression on him. He still spent most of his days with his trousers round his ankles and his head down the loo.
And even Chariton was there! He’s that old Greek slave my father manumitted on his last birthday. I can honestly say that I owe my life to the old boy. It was from him that I first heard the glorious name of Epicurus. It was from him that I first felt the intimations of infinity, the first prickings of holy dread. Without him, I’d have been just another Tim nice but dim. Another day, as I was strolling through the Lyceum, I ran into Marcus’ kid brother, his cocky cousin and half our class mates from the upper-sixth. It seems that, after we left, there was something of a regime change. The school was no longer a conveyor belt for low ranking colonial officials. The boys were actually required to do some reading. (Let’s hope their fathers don’t find out or they’ll demand their money back.) The awesome de rerum natura has finally made it on to syllabus. Just too late for me.
On one memorable night, I even ran into Marcus Cicero, who was just as gobby as his famous father, but with a greater capacity for hard liquor and a far shakier grasp of philosophy.
And it was these students, the ex-pats, that formed the bulk of Pompey’s new model army. There were the squaddies, of course, my erstwhile ship-mates, but most of the new recruits were connected in some way with the various philosophical schools that dotted the Athenian agora. Epicureans, Platonists, Aristotelians, Cynics and Sceptics. All with their own peculiar arguments and excuses to join up. Of course, the Sceptics didn’t have any arguments at all and resolutely refused to accept that there was such a person as Mark Antony or such a thing as a sword. But the vast majority of the new soldiers were Stoics, following their hero, freedom fighter extraordinaire and chief assassin of Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus.
A better educated army has never existed. But you can imagine the impression we made on the sergeant major as we attempted to march in time and stab hay-stuffed dummies with javelins. We were as malco-ordinated as a troop of performing pigs. I can honestly say that I learnt nothing in those two weeks of training, except a whole raft of new obscenities. But in the end, whether or not we knew how to play the reveille or kill an imperialist at twenty paces, the C.O. had no choice but to send us into battle. Everyday, the dispatches became more and more alarming. Hideous reports of the enormous size of the enemy army. Pompey needed all the man-power he could get, even in the guise of dreamy idealists who couldn’t even pitch their own tents.
Anyway, that’s enough for tonight. Over and out. Wilko! It’s raining in Nigeria. It’s funny how quickly one starts to talk like a soldier. But, to be honest, Phoebe, I secretly wish that I could go back to being a philosopher. It’s a lot more interesting and a lot less dangerous. And a lot less people shouting orders. In fact, tomorrow, a group of us have got per to leave the camp for a couple of hours and go and see an enormous inscription set up by some Turkish billionnaire philanthropist, detailing the life-saving tenets of Epicureanism. Imagine that, baby! A fifty-foot wall in the middle of nowhere telling random travellers how to happy.
Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco to Lieutenant Marius Pulcher greetings.
Well, you seem to be having a gay old time in the Plaka. But just make sure you stay away from the girls. You don’t want to end up like the syphylitic veterans do you? And of course I remember that creepy Greek kitchen-slave masquerading as a philosopher. I blame him for everything. For filling your head with a load of nonsense. For stealing you from your childhood, from Chariots, and from me. If you want my advice, stay well clear of the creep.
Although you seem to be leading a very full social life – and I must say that Marcus Cicero seems a very unsuitable friend – I’ve been thinking that you might be starved of news of home. So here are some of the most interesting things that have happened since you left. In view of your new persona as clued-up young Turk, I’ll start with news from the Senate.
The Capitol, of course, is still split into Imperialist and Democratic factions. Everyday, there’s a new two-hour speech either praising or condemning the murder of Julius Caesar. Why can’t people just move on? I mean, he’s been dead for more than a year. There’s almost no time for any other business. Although your father did make a stir last week by proposing that Greek should be a compulsory subject from the age of five. You can imagine how that was received by the FVP. Speaking of whom, everyone’s favourite fascists have been trying to pass a law that would force anyone with a Greek first name – ie moi- to change it to Julia or Julius. Is it my fault that my parents were daringly exotic and fashionably cosmopolitan?
Closer to home, your doting grandmama has bought the entire Circus Bellissimus in Forum Appii, together with all its horses, grooms and stable boys, for your little brother to practise his latest hobby. She also rents a crowd every Thursday afternoon to cheer his suuccess as he romps home. At least this will keep him out of my mother’s clutches. You heard about that terrible strip-poker incident, didn’t you?
I am not going to give you any details about last week’s party, as it seems a touchy subject (for some reason). I’ll tactfully gloss over the bare-chested negro waiters, the glistening piles of fresh caviar, the glass-bowls full of fresh apricots, the grass-hoppers fried in cinnamon, the champagne fountains and the going-home presents (monogrammed silk nightwear). But I thought that even you would like to know that Julia and the Pepper Baron have just had their fifth baby, recklessly called Phoebe. The other big news is Julia is surfing the wave of immense literary success. This, you might say, is fast work for someone with the reading age of six months. But the market is fickle and unpredictable and she found her own niche market. Her first book, The Galdiator and the Vestal Virgin, was written in two weeks and went straight to the top of the best-seller list. Fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel, with the provisional and tantalising title, Harem Knights. Julia is now more popular than Ajax with the bored teenagers of Italy.
You’ll be pleased to know, Mr Goody-two-shoes, that I have had a thawing of relations with Aunt Metta. In fact, after a few glasses of a particularly cheeky lacrimae Jovis, I accepted her invitation to share a short holiday with her in Catullus’ old villa on Lake Como. Apparently, the poet left it to Clodia in his will and she’s turned it into a sort of shrine to his memory. Everything is just as he left it, his pens, his books, even his little sailing boat. Every morning, the slaves spray the rooms with his favourite after-shave and cook his favourite food. Clodia herself will be staying in B. She has recently taken up with an avant-garde teenage poet, who writes with his penis. She shocks the bourgeois of B by taking him out to Flavio’s every night and feeding him roast peacock-tongues with a specially designed silver fork.
What else can I tell you? Hebe is doing very well. At least I think she is. I very rarely see her. In a moment of madness (exhaustion), I bought Mrs Helvetia’s daughter as a nanny. She is just as scary as her formidable mother and only lets me see my daughter for ten minutes before supper. My father and Caecilius Simius have both been arrested. It’s all rather hush-hush, but has something to do with some stolen silver cups and the local big-wig (ie Mafia don). When will he ever learn? I don’t have any news about my mother or Marcus. Nor do I want any. I hate them both.
Btw. Have you ever heard of something called ‘rice’? It’s a new food stuff and currently all the rage in B. It doesn’t taste of anything, but cost a year’s wages, which is all that matters. Naturally, the P.B. has cornered the market and rice can only be bought at the Emprium Omnium. Julia told me that it comes all the way from India (where Quintus has re-established trade contact) and costs more per pound than saffron and pepper combined.
Now it’s your turn. What are the news and views of our own correspondent in Macedonia? Have you killed anyone yet?
Lieutenant Marius Pulcher to Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco greetings.
Thank you for your newsy letter. Just the thing for a lonely boy-soldier in the corner of a foreign field. You’ve got a way with words, Phoeb. Julia isn’t the only one. It must run in the family. Didn’t your grandfather write a philosophy text-book? On Consolation? You should try and publish something. My summer of love, Under the shadow of Vesuvius. Something like that.
Before I report my own exciting news, I’ll briefly answer your questions.
1. No. I do not want to get v.d. And I am not acquainted with any Athenian ladies of the night. I wish I could say the same about Marcus Cicero. His nose aleady seems a bit wobbly.
2. The Senators are still discussing the murder of Julius Caesar as it is the only remotely interesting thing that has ever happened. The normal agenda on the Capitol is the taxation of the Mauretanians and/or the Sicilian grain supply.
3. I am sorry to prick your childhood fantasy, but your parents were not exotic and cosmopolitan. You were given the name ‘Phoebe’ by the fat Spartan midwife, as your parents couldn’t be bothered.
4. Yes. I heard all about your mother and my brother from you. Every last detail. How kind of you to remind me.
5. Your father will never learn. He is congentially rapacious. Why else do you think he married the weirdo daughter of the richest man in the Empire?
6. I have never heard of ‘rice’, but it’s nice to know that it’s business as usual in B Bay.
7. I have not killed anyone yet. But, nonetheless, a lot has been happening.
We finally left the training camp last week, left the groves of Academe and the hard drinking philosophes of the Athenian agora. We marched through Attica and out into Northern Greece, past Thebes, Delphi and Thermopylae, through deserts, through forests, through mountains and through rivers. We walked by forced marches, day and night, carrying all our kit. And finally arrived, only last night, in the mosquito-infested plains of Macedonia.
Somehow, with a lot of help from the squaddies, we managed to pitch our tents and light a fire. And out there, in the freezing desert, under the enormous stars and over a plate of burnt blood sausage, I had an extraordinary – serendipitous – encounter. The officer in the next door tent was a rather funny boy from Apuleia. Naturally, we fell into conversation. He wasn’t really our sort – his father was actually a freedman, who collected rents for the local landlords – but he was as sharp as a legionary’s sword. His father had given the best education in the world. From Orbilius’ rhetorical school in Rome to the Athenian Academy. Of course, he’d had to put up with a lot of comments about his accent and his father’s job, but he was remarkably thick skinned. It’s a good job he never ran into Marcus Junius. And would you believe it, Phoebe, he was also an Epicurean!
My new friend described himself as a sleek Epicurean pig, whose only pleasure was eating and drinking. Well, there wasn’t much pleasure in black pudding and sour wine. I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia for the well stocked cellar of the Villa Dulcissima, now in the greasy palms of Caecilius Simius & Co. But this was a surreal situation. There was something very bizarre, Phoeb, about two Roman boys discussing la dolce vita, sitting on the stony ground and wrapped in ragged cloaks, on the night before a major battle. A battle in which we were very likely to be killed. But it was true. While the others were cheering Brutus’ rousing speech and working themselves up into a frenzy of blood lust, Horace and I – (I know! I know that’s a bloody weird name for a Roman boy. It sounds more like a northern Briton with a flat cap and racing pigeons, but I told you that he wasn’t exactly run of the mill.) Anyway, as I was saying, while the others were sharpening their swords and sacrificing to Mars, Horace and I were wondering what the hell we were doing here. As you might have put it, it was so not our kind of place.
Philosophers are not meant to be soldiers. Particularly not Epicureans. That’s what Chariton had been telling me for weeks. But I refused to listen. My whole generation had been duped by the rhetoric. Cicero and Butus, even (to a lesser extent) Cassius, were brilliantly persuasive speakers. We really believed their endless speeches about freedom and democracy. We were swept along by a wave of revolutionary fervour. We all wanted to be part of something big. Something much bigger than ourselves. But if we’d stopped for a moment to think – after all, this is what we’d been trained to do – we’d have realized that it was all a pack of lies. As we both did that night in the desert. Which was rather late in the day, to say the least.
Domina Phoebe Scintilla Dorco to Lieutenant Marius Pulcher greetings.
Promise me, Marius, that you’ll wear the enclosed amulet. It’s very old and full of magic. Gremio’s sister brought it back with her from Alexandria. If you look really carefully, you’ll just be able see the tiny figure of Isis nursing the infant Horus. She’ll look after you, darling, wherever you go. She’s a very powerful and ancient goddess. And soldiers are her special concern. Your last letter scared me, Marius. Come home soon. We all miss you.
”Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the ….. Ladies and gentlemen….”
Gremio was having to shout above the excited party hubbub.
“Welcome to the First Birthday Party of the B. Lighthouse!”
The whole room erupted into cheers, clapping, shouting and table-top dancing.
“There are so many people to thank. So many people, without whom we wouldn’t be here tonight. Without whom the Refuge would not be here. Without whom countless young men would still be living lives of fear and deceit. And it is to these young men that we owe the biggest debt of thanks.”
He beamed beatifically at the mass of manhood gathered round the stage.
“You young men are the trail-blazers, the pioneers, the brave band of brothers, who dared to stick out your tongue to received wisdom. Who dared to live your own lives. Who dared to be yourselves. Over the years, I have been privileged to know each ‘refugee’ personally. And it has been an incredible experience. The first toast of this evening is to you. To the B Boys!”
“The B Boys!” repeated everyone enthusiastically, draining the first of many glasses of wine.
“Thanks are also due to the wonderful Domina Metella and her partner in crime, the beautiful, the famous, the one and only, Clodia Metelli.”
Once more, the room erupted into uproar in the presence of such an A-list celebrity. Clodia said nothing, but she didn’t have to. Her eyes said it all.
”How glad we are, my dear, to welcome you back to B, the scene of your greatest triumphs.”
“Her embraces, her kisses, her boating, her parties!” Cried an anonymous voice, quoting Cicero’s famous summing-up.
“What these two women don’t know about men is simply not worth knowing. And they have worked tirelessly, from dawn to dusk, for five long years, to ensure that the needs of these vulnerable young men are instantly met.”
Cheering and wolf-whistles.
“Thanks, too, to my beautiful, long-estranged, beloved sister, Astea.”
All eyes turned to a heavily veiled woman, who bowed her head graciously. Gremio actually left the stage and embraced his sister. There were tears in his eyes and in his voice as he continued his speech.
“As you know, the Lighthouse counselling service has been – literally – a life-line to countless confused young men. You are perhaps unaware that it was entirely the brain-child of my sister. It was she who understood the great importance of simply talking. It was she who lent her ears when no one else would listen.”
A tall, pimply man stood up. Blushing and stammering in the unaccustomed lime-light, he only just managed to speak.
“Astea saved my life. She’s bloody brilliant. After only two sessions, she had talked me out of suicide and given me the strength to tell my parents that I was gay.”
The first sombre note of the evening caused a momentary hush. Despite the bling and the fizz, this was a very serious and important undertaking. But Gremio soon re-captured the celebratory mood.
“On a brighter note, thanks to Quintus Mercator and the Emporium Omnium for such lavish catering. Tonight and every Friday night. Where else could one be guaranteed to find a hundred weight of saffron-stuffed dormice?
“And thanks to our old friend, Terpio, for arranging such outrageous and popular cabaret nights. Who could forget the slave auctions and the drag-queen beauty contests?”
Gremio was starting to waffle, to thank the cleaners and the flower-arrangers. Suddenly a fat young man banged loudly on a table and shouted out:
“Shut up! This is a load of crap and you know it! There’s only one person who deserves to be thanked and that’s the man standing up there on the dias. Three cheers for Marcus Metaballus Gremio!”
I had never heard such wild and extravagant applause. It went on and on, a tidal wave of enormous gratitude to this funny little man. The self-made billionaire who gave all his wealth to the service of others. I looked up at the man of the moment, standing blinking and embarrassed in the unwelcome attention.
After about five minutes, the noise gradually subsided and the party began. The room seemed to be full of Marcus clones. Upper-class blonde boys with perfect skin and oiled biceps. For the most part they were dressed in designer street-wear, a few were wearing leather chaps and a few were in drag. Some were in full-on, Liberace bling. They were mostly young, posh and beautiful. The crème de la crème of the gay scene.
I was just completing my first circuit of the party and my third glass of Lacrimae Jovis, when I became aware of a young woman waving excitedly at me and beckoning to me to come over. Claudia? If it really was Claudia, she was looking more radiantly happy than I had ever seen her. Gone was the haunted, excluded look. Gone was the look of perpetual seeking. She had surely – finally – found what she was looking for. She looked even happier than on that momentous evening on the rain-soaked terrace. Claudia, my facially-challenged best friend, was looking almost beautiful. Her arm was draped sensuously over an Amazon of a woman, who looked vaguely familiar. I pushed my way over to their table and kissed my old friend luxuriously on both cheeks.
“Claudia! Dear little Claudina. Best friend in the whole world. It’s been far too long.”
And it had. I had rather lost contact with Claudia over the past couple of years, especially since the birth of Hebe. She had become more and more involved in various cults and philosophical fringe groups. She had been initiated into the mysteries of Isis and into the Eleusinian Mysteries. She had joined a Synagogue for a while and even lived for a bit in the Epicurean Garden in the hills behind Rome. She was always searching and always knocking, but the door never seemed to open. The last thing I knew she was making a name for herself as the authoress of a series of Self-Help books. In fact, she had become something of a minor celeb in her own, fringe circle. But it seemed that something other than Epicurean bons mots had transformed her.
”Phoebe!” She grinned widely. “Do you remember Aurelia Spexis? She was the year above us at Dame Hera’s.”
“Of course! Hi.”
I kissed Aurelia, too, but felt suddenly awkward, gauche, out of my depth. I didn’t know what to say or where to look. Claudia laughed mischievously.
“Oh, Phoebe. Don’t be such a prude. Surely you’re not embarrassed?”
I blushed furiously.
“I do believe you are! What’s so embarrassing about two girls getting it together?
”I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I guess I’m not as cosmopolitan and unshockable as I like to suppose.”
I took both their hands in mine and said, brightly,
“So. Where did you meet?”
I suppose that I had been expecting a typical Claudia-esque venue. A lecture on the ineffable name of G-d. Or a week-long starvation course.
They both smirked, dirtily.
“We met at that new S and M club on the Forum. Venus in Furs. Do you know it? It’s incredible how liberating bondage can be.”
I tried very hard not to think about this distressing image. Not to think about Aurelia ‘liberating’ poor Claudia.
After a few more glasses of vino, I had enough courage to face Terpio. Despite Gremio’s re-assurances, I still regarded this particular man with fear and trembling. I still recalled his revolting sexual antics coupled with his revolting politics. It was a toxic cocktail that made me very sick. Could a leopard really change his spots so totally and utterly? Could Terpio really have seen the light and become a supporter of gay marriage and free love?
When I finally sat down at his table, he certainly seemed a new man. His face, though discretely made-up, was open and honest. He was sitting next to an over-dressed, bird-like woman, whom he introduced as his mother
“Mama and I are now living permanently in Misenum. I bought a little cottage over-looking the Academy. It’s much handier for the Lighthouse and for Yusef’s work.”
“Yusef?” It was a new name to me.
Terpio blushed and allowed his mother to fill me in.
“Yusef is my son’s partner. He currently works as a belly-dancer at the Alhambra. But we hope that he can soon retire and join us on the campaign trail.”
“But I don’t understand. How do you square all this” – I waved my hand across the sea of gyrating homosexuals – “with your political life? Doesn’t central office get a bit sniffy about it all?”
“My dear, you are behind the times. I lasted only one more year at the FVP. Before my inevitable unmasking as a power-crazed hypocrite and fantasist. Were it not for my long suffering mother and for Gremio’s refuge, I should have sunk without trace. I should have ended my days as a diseased and rouged old queen living in a cardboard box on Misenum sea-front.”
Gremio, it seems, was right. He had seen the man behind the mask, behind the make-up. And I, as always, was wrong. How often the certainties of youth crumble.
“And who do you think is the new party leader?”
“I assume it’s Gremio’s father-in-law. He was always jockeying for more power.”
“Wrong. He was ousted during the last round of purges. Something to do with a Jewish cousin-in-law. Guess again.”
“I give up. I’m pleased to say that I don’t know anyone sufficiently hateful to do that job.”
“Oh, but you do. You know her very well.”
Terpio was clearly enjoying the game.
“Her? Her? Who on earth do you mean?”
Of course. The penny dropped. With her spiteful energy, endlessly inventive cruelty and Italian supremacist politics, she was perfect for the job. And her blonde beauty and Amazonian physique would make Melissa the perfect advertisement for Roman racial superiority.
“At first the party faithful were understandably non-plussed about a woman leaving the kitchen and the bedroom, but they soon realized that Melissa was as hard as nails. She was just as likely as any man to tax the plebs within an inch of their lives and to send their sons to certain death in pointless foreign wars.”
I said nothing. This was a very painful and very personal subject.
“She beefed up her relationship with her sleazy father (who seemed to bounce back from his involvement with the Pompeii scandal). Following in Daddy’s Footsteps was her slogan. The public lapped it up.”
How had I missed all this? I had assumed that Melissa was still spending her days swanning around the baths and nail-bars of Rome, terrorizing the less beautiful. But while I was busy being a single mother – (I shudder to think how the new Melissa would react to this proof of degeneracy) – my nemesis was climbing the greasy pole of political success.
“As party leader, she has already introduced a devastating poll tax and tax breaks for families with more than four children. She has drastically limited both immigration and emigration and restricted the rights of freedmen to citizenship.”
“I hate to think how long my son and I were associated with such a poisonous organisation. How tirelessly we campaigned and fund-raised.”
“They still hold their party conference in B. And we still attend without fail. Only this time, we’re demonstrating outside, with placards and hooters. I cannot believe how far we have come over the past few years. Mama has even opened the house to Syrian refugees.”
I smiled as I imagined Terpio’s cottage full of dark-skinned young men, with doe eyes and protruding buttocks. With that unworthy, bitchy thought, I bad them good-bye and good luck and re-joined the party.
Somewhere in the scrum of bleach-haired bodies-beautiful I bumped into Marcus. Marcus, Marcus, mon amour. He was arm in arm with an olive skinned, mascara-ed young man, whom he introduced as Shlomo. We air-kissed perfunctorily, but he seemed anxious to explain something to me.
“Jews have just as much trouble being gay as you Romans. The Lighthouse has been a god-send – literally – to countless young men of the Naples Diaspora.”
He spoke in a low, guttural, urgent voice.
“Our prophets lay all the emphasis on the family, on procreation, on patriarchal domination. As soon as we’re bar-mitzvah, our mothers start lining up suitable wives. Normally, our second cousins, with child-bearing hips and a halva obsession. Without Gremio and the refuge he provided, I’d be living in Jerusalem with ten children and a very unhappy wife. As it is…..” Shlomo paused dramatically and fixed Marcus with his desert-sheik, smouldering stare. “I met the man of my dreams.”
He and Marcus snogged noisily, while I tactfully busied myself with a cocktail olive.
“Is the escort agency still up and running?”
“Sure is. In fact, it’s going from strength to strength. Funnily enough, queers make the perfect pimps. We know exactly what’s sexy and what isn’t. We know exactly which little minx will sell like hot cakes and which muscle-mary will lie on the shelf.”
“So were does the terrifying Mrs Testifracta fit into all this?”
“Yes, your sugar mummy, your first real woman.”
Marcus snorted with amusement and sprayed peppered peacock all over me.
“Smeralda is utterly and totally uninterested in sex. Of any sort. With men, women or even herself. There’s a reason why she never married and never had a boyfriend or a girl-friend for the first 50 years of her life. Why do you think she spent all her time running a business empire rather than being, quote-unquote, ‘normal’?”
“Well, maybe that’s true, but it still doesn’t explain why she hooked up with you.”
“It was all a front, a façade. She realized that a good-looking bloke on her arm was good for the brand. The image. And I was happy to play along. It required very little effort on my part. Just the odd dinner at Flavio’s, holidays in luxury hotels, the private box at the Circus Maximus, mega yachts, party-barges and fabulously expensive signet rings.”
He was so smug about the whole thing that I’m afraid I gave him a not-so-playful slap on the face. He was undeterred.
“The gigolo game gave me the perfect cover. These so-called unsuspecting older women are secretly glad to have a boy that goes off half-cock. Most of them wouldn’t have the energy to cope with a real gigolo. You know, don’t you, that nothing at all had happened that night at the Emporium Omnium summer Party? All three of us were really drunk and proposing outrageous toasts. I’m afraid that you burst in at just the wrong moment and jumped to all the wrong conclusions.”
“So it wasn’t you who inseminated my mother? “
“Fuck off, Phoebe. Of course it wasn’t. Don’t be disgusting. Urghh.”
Marcus gave an exaggerated impersonation of retching.
”And it wasn’t Ajax either. His limp pick is notorious. Unfortunately.”
“So I gather. Melissa motor-mouth saw to the universal dissemination of that particular piece of gossip.”
“But do you know, Phoebe, that your mother was never actually pregnant? She must have missed a couple of periods and leapt to the wrong conclusion. Like mother like daughter. She’s as much a drama-queen as you and Julia. It was probably the start of the menopause or a virus or just a crazy fantasy. Whatever the reason, the baby never came and she’s back on the scene with a vengeance. She’s always hanging outside the gladiators’ stalls or dancing the night away at Chariots or being whipped by likely lads dressed as wolves. Your mum is the original scenster.”
All this was, to say the very least, sobering news. The sex diary, it now seems, was a pack of lies. A middle-aged fantasy. Poetical wish-fulfilment. I realized that I had leapt to some very wrong and damaging conclusions. I was just beginning a feel a typical moment of agonizing self-hate, when I realized that Marcus was speaking again.
“Oh Phoebe, why did you and I take such a ridiculously long time to realize what was staring us in the face? And Claudia.”
We looked over just as Aurelia Spexis was licking a stray anchovy from Claudia’s laughing mouth.
“We wasted the best years of our lives in denial. But here’s someone who knew exactly what she wanted from the age of 15. And got it.”
I looked over and saw Mr and Mrs Mercator and their five children picking their majestic way through the crowd.
Probably the best thing about the Lighthouse was its inclusivity. Everyone was welcome. Men, women, gay, straight, young, old. I had no qualms about bringing Hebe and Julia wouldn’t go anywhere without her beautiful brood. More incredibly, there were no slaves in the whole place. The ‘refugees’ took turns to cook and clean and serve. Tonight, the ‘waiters’ were a group of cadets from the Academy. They were dressed in number one uniform and were creating quite a stir among the guests. As Shlomo explained, the Lighthouse was run like a kibbutz, a Jewish commune that sounded like an Epicurean Garden, without the boring philosophy.
I hugged and kissed my laughing nieces and nephews. I adored them all. But they had far too much energy to stay in one place for more than a minute. They soon hauled Hebe off to the dance floor. Julia marched straight up to Marcus and kissed him messily on the lips.
“So you’ve finally come out? I saw through you years ago, darling. I kept telling Phoebe, but, as they say, love is blind.”
Quintus and Marcus shook hands, the latter looking comically puzzled.
“I still don’t quite understand, Sir, how you managed to bounce back so spectacularly. Last thing I heard, you were living in a hovel under the shadow of Vesuvius, in fear for your life. And here you are, the wealthiest tycoon on the Bay of the Naples once more.”
“With the most beautiful wife in the whole of Italy.” Quintus, the original lounge lizard.
“I heard all about Julia finding the diamonds, but how did that solve your other problems?”
“Well, once Titus Lucius Formica had been arrested, the organized crime scene just fell apart. It seems that he was the criminal mastermind, the brains behind the whole mafia operation. Without him, nothing got done. They couldn’t even cut off horses’ heads without his say-so.”
“Anty-pants was a criminal master-mind? I thought he was just a boring old git, obsessed with Epicurus.”
Marcus was bemused. And so was I.
“He certainly treated Claudia pretty criminally.” I said.
“Melissa and Claudia were the only people to see through the philosopher act. Titus Formica was in fact a sleazy con-man up to his eye-balls in drug-smuggling, kidnapping and child prostitution. The Garden was an elaborate front both to raise funds and to launder his ill-gotten gains.
“After the inevitable prosecution by Mr Goody-two-shoes, Cicero, Formica was sentenced to life imprisonment. Of course, the Garden closed. It is now an over-grown piece of prime real estate.”
“Just ripe for redevelopment as an exclusive, gated community for retired bankers and their trophy wives.”
“Talking of which, I understand that you’re quite the businessman, Marcus. I’m impressed. I hear that Ganymede’s is going from strength to strength.”
Quintus accepted a truffled oyster from a passing waiter/sea-cadet and patted Marcus avuncularly on the back.
“Well done. Really. It’s a notoriously hard industry to break into. And I hear that you are in line for a prestigious prize. Most successful start-up, most promising entrepreneur. Something like that.”
Although he tried to look modest, Marcus was clearly proud of his achievement and delighted with the P.B.‘s praise. Praise from Caesar is praise indeed.
“We actually had quite a shaky start. Went through one rough patch after another. The others were all for throwing in the towel and trying something else, when I had the brain-wave of employing Mrs T as a non-executive financial advisor. It was through her that we gained all the useful contacts.”
“Intros to all the desperate housewives of the Palatine?” I asked.
“Not only them, darling, but also Max Maccabaeus, with his all important little black book. He was looking to retire anyway and was happy to pass his clients on to us.”
“I’m amazed how you manage to slip under the radar of the FVP spies. They’re the most powerful bloc in the Senate these days, with jurisdiction to close down all the sex clubs, brothels and escort agencies on the Italian mainland.”
“I suppose we’ve been lucky. So far. And long may it continue. But if things get too hot, we’ll be off. Dalmatia’s just starting to attract the right kind of holiday crowd. And I’ve already made preliminary enquiries about the price of property.”
Julia was bored with talking shop. She laid her hand gently on my shoulder and finally asked the inevitable, unanswerable, question.
“What news of Marius?”
Julia had been away for a couple of months, with Quintus and the children. They had been touring the wild Baltic coasts, looking for new openings in the burgeoning amber market. The fashionistas of the capital were currently going mad for this hard-to-source resin. Enter the Emporium Omnium, specialists in obtaining the unattainable. So, although my sister knew the bare facts of Marius’ sudden conversion to political idealism and his doomed attempt to preserve the Republic from tyranny by joining Pompey’s army of boy philosophers, she was unaware of the gravity of his current situation.
My eyes filled with tears and I turned away, ashamed. It was a few moments before I could trust myself to reply. To speak without breaking down in public. At a birthday party.
“There’s no news, really. The last letter I received was some time ago. His legion was heading for a little place called Philippi. Apparently Octavian was already camped out there, on the plain. With his enormous army, ready to annihilate all opposition. Ready to annihilate Marius.”
Julia refused to be disheartened. She would see the bright side in Armageddon.
“He’ll be back, darling. Of course he will. He’ll sweep you into his strong soldier’s arms, propose immediate marriage and a honey-moon in Athens. And you’ll both live happily ever after. You two are made for each other. Childhood sweethearts, boy next-door, star-crossed lovers, etc etc. It’s all so obvious that it’s almost a novel.
Under The Shadow Of Vesuvius
Bridget Jones Diary and Sophie’s World meet Ben Hur – on the beach.
A gender-bending, genre-bending romp through the Bay of Naples in the first century BC. It covers a year or so in the lives of three Roman teenagers, Phoebe - the narrator - her younger sister, Julia, and their odd-ball friend, Claudia Vesta. Join them on their search for true love amid the mad, mad world of the Roman aristocracy. Parties and sex, of course, but also Epicurean philosophers, fascist politicians, international business-men, billionaire philanthropists, celebrity sportsmen and the Naples Mafia. And, of course, Catullus' most famous girlfriend. Expect excitement and mayhem, tears and laughter. And always expect the unexpected twist: in Baiae, nothing is ever at it seems. And nobody is who they claim to be.
In the crucial year of 43 BC, the three girls embark on their first holiday alone in the notorious town of Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. Famous as the party capital of Europe, it was a magnet for the rich and famous. It is also the home of Domina Metella, Phoebe's disgraced aunt, and hostess to the three girls during their stay in sin-city.
During the course of this 86, 000 word novel, we ride an emotional roller-coaster as our heroines fall in and out of love, with a variety of different men (and women).
For the past three years or so, Phoebe has enjoyed the agony of unrequited love for the blonde cherub, Marcus Junius. She has learnt on the grape vine that his bring-back-hanging- father has recently sent him to man up at the Misenum Naval Academy. As luck (fate?) would have it, Misenum is just up the coast from Baiae. Despite her sister’s insistence that the boy is gay and her Aunt’s hints that she knows him a worryingly Biblical sense, Phoebe is pinning all her hopes on a holiday romance.
Dis aliter visum. After some minor successes (including a sensuous swimming lesson in the sparkling Med) and a series of crushingly embarrassing episodes - and even a pregnancy - Phoebe has to accept that the boy really is gay and that the love of his life is a certain Shlomo, soulful denizen of the Naples Diaspora. To make matters even worse, it is soon revealed that Marcus has a very lucrative side-line as a gigolo to the bored matronas of the Capitol. By the end of the novel, Marcus has admitted to affairs (of a sort) with Aunt Metella, with Phoebe’s own mother and with the terrifying business woman, Mrs Testifracta. So successful is this business that the boy is up for a prestigious award, most promising start-up or most successful young entrepreneur.
- Author: Mimi Thompson
- Published: 2016-11-05 11:20:20
- Words: 86460